Prologue – 109 CE
DISCLAIMER: This is an unedited preview, please ignore typos and mistakes. There may be significant changes between this version and the final published version.
Lucius ambled toward his parent’s house. He didn’t known what to expect during his first trip home after leaving it to join Rome’s legions. Freshly returned from the mountains of Dacia, Rome’s newest province, the XXX Ulpia Victrix had marched to the Rhenus River to take up its permanent station at Noviomagus, deep in the lowlands of Germania Inferior. Lucius had taken a much needed and earned furlough, deciding to walk the three day trip home from the fort. As he drew closer to the Roman-style house, he sped up his pace, eager see his folks. Catching them at dinner, he asked the servant not to announce him so he could surprise his mother.
“Lu…Lucius?” his mother, Verlia, pushed away from the table and got up.
When she got close enough, Lucius pulled her into a tight hug. He didn’t remember her feeling this tiny when he hugged her goodbye before he left to join the legions six years ago.
“I’m glad to see you, mother,” Lucius said, voice thick with emotions. He’d missed her while he’d been away. Getting to see her again was all he’d thought about when he’d gotten word that the XXX Ulpia Victrix was being transfered back to the Rhenus River.
His mother pushed back, holding him by the shoulders, tears in her eyes. “You’re so big and strong.” She pulled him back in for another hug.
Gray streaked her brown hair hair and more wrinkles than he remembered creased the corners of her teary eyes and crossed her forehead. Lucius embraced his mother as tears of joy spilled from her eyes. His father, limping a bit on his way over, waited for Verlia to finish so he could get a hug of his own. At six four, his father towered over him by a good four inches. The wild red hair that had been streaked with silver when Lucius left for the legions was more white than red these days.
Lucius joined them for dinner and listened to all that had happened in the six years since he’d left to join the legions. He avoided talking about himself, simply reveling in the domesticity of his family. Not sure how he felt, even two years after the fighting had ended, he wasn’t ready to talk about what he’d seen and done in Dacia.
Feeling out of sorts, Lucius slept poorly that night, waking up groggy to a servant knocking lightly and inviting him to break his fast with his mother. Afterwards, he wandered out and through the village, his mind sifting through his feelings about being home while he paid no attention to where his feet carried him.
Freshly bloomed bluebells surrounded Lucius’s legs, the scent of their blossoms pulling Lucius from his wandering thoughts and back to the present. His feet had carried him to the old haunt of his boyhood. He stood in a sun-dappled meadow as a light spring breeze shifted the leaves and branches around, adding a shimmer to the interplay of light and shadow. The gentle rustle of leaf on leaf soothed his mind, palpably drawing out the tightness in his shoulders. Lucius inhaled deeply, holding the breath for a few seconds before releasing it slowly along with the tension that had furrowed his brow. He sat down in the center of the meadow before sprawling out on his back, his hands behind his head, legs spread out, mimicking the position he’d spent so much of his youth lying in while avoiding chores.
He watched the clouds slowly move across the sky while he tried to spot shapes in them like he’d done as a boy, but the scent of the bluebells and the gentle rustle of the leaves lulled him into a restful nap. Sometime later, the sound of footsteps and winded breath pulled him from his dreams and put him on alert. As the steps grew closer, Lucius relaxed, hearing his father, Ambeltrix Gaius, grunting out curses as he approached. His father’s head blotted out the sky above as he looked down at his son.
“Son. Your mother said this is where I’d find you.” Ambeltrix wiped a sleeve over a sweaty brow.
“She used to find me here quite a bit when I was a boy, avoiding my chores.”
“Mind if I join you?” Ambeltrix asked.
Lucius released one of his arms to gesture to a patch of dappled sunlight dancing over bluebells. “Please.”
Grunts and curses accompanied his father sitting and laying next to Lucius. “Don’t ever get old, boy. This body isn’t what it used to be.”
“You’re not that old.”
Ambeltrix laughed ruefully. “I’m over fifty-six, and a lot of those years were hard years. You’re going to have to help your old father off the ground when we’re done here.”
Lucius nodded even though he knew his father couldn’t see it as they both stared up at the clouds. The two men’s steady breathing joined the gentle symphony of birds singing and squirrels scampering about in the trees above them. It was Ambeltrix who broke the silence.
“So what brings you out here, boy?”
Lucius exhaled sharply through his nose. “I don’t know. I just needed to take a walk and get some fresh air. This is where I ended up.”
“It’s just—” Lucius tried to organize his feelings and put them into words.
“Weird to be home?” Lucius’s father interrupted. “After being away at war?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got home. I’m not even sure it’s home anymore.”
“You’ll always have a place under our roof, boy, but I know what you mean. It felt the same way the first time I came home.”
“After Mons Graupius?” Lucius asked, tipping his head to look toward his father.
Ambeltrix nodded. “I’m not sure why I came home, both my mother and father were no longer alive. I just needed to get out of Britannia for a while. I stayed with a cousin while I was here. I’d been away so long, the village of my birth felt more alien than the foreign land I’d been marching through for fifteen years. That’s when I started wandering around the countryside.”
“Is that when you met mother?” Lucius asked.
“Yes, your mother was a fiery little thing when I met her. It wasn’t long after meeting her that this place started feeling like home again, but not like my parents home or my boyhood home, but a home to come back to when I was done with the legions…” He paused for a while, enjoying the breeze blowing through the meadow. “Then I got word about you being born. I’d thought about signing up for another tour before that trip home, but after I met your mother and knew you’d be waiting here with her, the end of my tour couldn’t arrive fast enough.”
Lucius had never heard his father talk about this aspect of his life and his experience with the auxilia. They’d talked plenty about the day to day life of being in the military, his father’s and his friends’ anecdotes filling the years between his father’s return and Lucius’s departure for the legions. They’d never broached the emotional side of his father’s time serving in Rome’s war machine, although Lucius knew it had affected his father in profound ways. He thought back to the time he walked outside late at night not long after his father returned home. He’d found his father sitting against the wall of their small home and saw his father drinking and crying in the moonlight.
They lay in silence, listening to the breeze rustle through the threes and the birds sing their spring songs until Lucius eventually broke the quiet. “It’s nothing like I thought it would be…”
“It never is. Nothing can prepare you for the first time you’re staring across a patch of dirt at someone who you’re about to try to kill. At someone who’s about to try to kill you. Neither of you are sure why you’re there, just that you’re following orders from someone important. He’s trying to protect his land. I’m there to earn my pay. I know I’m protecting my home, in a roundabout way. Some other bastard is holding the line here while I’m protecting his home over there.”
“I didn’t do anything to the Dacians. They didn’t do anything to me, but I sure killed a lot of them. They killed a lot of my comrades…” Lucius paused, trying to hold his emotions in check, tears running down his cheeks. “They killed my friend Cassius. He bled out in a cave while I held his hand.”
Ambeltrix reached out and squeezed Lucius’s arm for a moment. “Do you hate them now? The Dacians?”
Lucius shook his head. “I did for a while, but then when we took Sarmizegetusa, and all the men and women we captured were gathered and marched out to the slave markets in Roma. Any hate I had for them died then. Even after when one of them killed Cassius, I couldn’t rekindle that hate. We’d decimated an entire people, removed them from their birthplace, and sent them into slavery. Did you hate the Caledonians?”
“No,” Ambeltrix replied.
The two men returned to the silence of the spring day. As the sun passed behind the clouds for a few minutes, Lucius shivered, goose flesh rising on his arms. As the sun reemerged and warmed him, he let his mind drift to a question that had been bothering him for a while.
“We were a free people once, weren’t we?” Lucius asked.
“Yeah, we were. Before Caesar came.”
“If the Romans took our independence, why do we serve them now?”
Gaius took in a deep breath and let it out as a slow sigh. “How many legions were there in Dacia?”
“How many auxilia?”
“How many vexilations from other legions?”
“So, 80,000? Maybe over 100,000 men marshaled to execute the will of Roma?” Ambeltrix paused for a moment. “All of Gaul could rise up as one, and not be able to win out against that many professional soldiers. Besides, you could never unite all of Gaul and Belgica. Our men are spread throughout the empire in the legions and in the auxilia. How many of them will split from their Roman masters? How many units could be raised from all the colonies spread throughout the empire? Traianus has given Colonia status to Vetera. It’s Colinia Ulpia Traiana now.”
Lucius nodded. “Yeah, we saw the work being done as we marched to Noviomagus.”
“You. I. We’re Roman citizens now. We’ve cast our lot in with Roma. Things are largely peaceful behind the borders. We are Romans for all intents and purposes. That, and the pay is good.”
Luicus chuckled, thinking of his share of plunder from Dacia. He sighed. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Both men returned to their silence until it was broken by a third party.
“Lucius? Ambeltrix?” Verlia called out. “Oh, where are you two boys?”
Lucius looked over at this father. “I suppose it’s time to go home. We don’t really want her angry at us.”
“Smart lad. Now, Help your old man up.”
Lucius stood and extended his arm down to his father. Grasping it, Ambeltrix used his son’s strength to pull himself off the ground.
Verlia crossed her arms and gave them a scowl, its potency robbed with the smile threatening to tug up the corners of her lips. “There you are! What am I going to do with both of you out here counting clouds?”
Lucius walked over to his mother and clasped the small woman in a tight hug. He released her and held one of her hands. Ambeltrix joined them, taking her other hand, and together, they began the trek home
“We’d have come in by supper time,” Ambeltrix said.
“Of course, the belly must be fed,” Verlia teased. “Can’t a woman miss her son and husband?” She emphasized it by squeezing Lucius’s hand and leaning her head against his arm as they walked hand in hand through the bluebell covered meadow.
“I’ve missed you too, mother.”
“You were always a good boy, Lucius. But more specifically, the reason I came looking for you is there’s a messenger here for you. A nice boy in armor.”
“What does he want?” Lucius asked, brows furrowing.
“He didn’t say, and I figured he wouldn’t answer if I asked,” Verlia replied.
Despite someone waiting for him, they didn’t increase the pace of the casual stroll through the wood back to his parents Roman-style manor house. It wasn’t his home anymore, even if he knew he’d always be welcomed under its roof. The legions were his home now. After his talk with his father, he wasn’t in a hurry to return home, but he knew that’s where he belonged at this point in his life. But for now, enjoying a walk through the woods he’d grown up in with his mother and father on a glorious spring day was all he wanted. There would be time for messengers and Rome’s legions later.
As the trio approached the house, the hive of activity changed from bees flitting about in the bluebells to servants moving about Ambeltrix and Verlia’s property. Ambeltrix and Lucius slipped off their caligae and set them by the door and put on the slippers they wore in the house.
“Where’s this messenger?” Lucius asked.
“He’s right here, Lucius. Or I guess I should say Optio Ferrata,” a man with a familiar voice said, stepping out of the shadows of the kitchen door. He looked slightly ridiculous in his full kit, helmet under his arm, contrasting with a set of spare house slippers on his feet.
“Sego!” Lucius rushed forward and clasped his friend in a robust hug. “It’s good to see you. What are you doing here?”
“I ran into Brabo when he was looking for a messenger to send out. I volunteered. Figured it would be worth it to get out of the fort and have a nice ride.”
“I didn’t know you could ride.”
Sego shrugged. “I’m Batavi, my father served with the Ala Gallorum Petriana in Brittania. I grew up on a horse.”
“Sorry, let me introduce you.” Lucius turned to his parents. “This is my friend Segomaros, signifier of the II centurio, VIII cohors of the Legio XXX Ulpia Victrix. Sego, this is my father Ambeltrix Gaius Silvanius, centurio of the I cohors Tungrorum, retired. And this is my mother Verlia.”
Sego gave Ambeltrix a salute before clasping the older man’s hand. He gave Verlia a respectful bow. Ambeltrix turned to his son.
“You didn’t tell your parents?” Sego turned to face Lucius’s parents. “Your son has done well. By the end of the war, he’d been promoted to Optio in the V centuria, I cohors. He managed to catch the eye of the Imperator who bestowed Ferrata on him and awarded him the Corona Civica.”
Lucius blushed as his father caught him up in a crushing hug. “Corona Civica? I’m so proud of you, son.”
“Thank you, father.”
“Corona Civica?” Verlia asked.
“It’s one of the highest honors bestowed on a common legionnaire. We must celebrate!” Ambeltrix stalked off to the kitchens to get the celebration moving.
“Can you stay, Sego?” Verlia asked. “We’d love to have you as a guest until you have to leave.”
“I’d be honored, ma’am. I don’t have to go back immediately.”
“Excellent. I’ll get a bed setup for you. I’ll leave you boys to talk.” She fondly touched her son’s shoulder as she left to find a servant to set up a place for Sego.
“When do you have to go back?” Lucius asked.
“I’m to take you with me. You need to be back at Novomagus in eight days. Sorry to cut your furlough short. Rumor is, this order came all the way from Roma.”
Lucius tipped his head to the side. “Really? Any other rumors going along with it?”
“Not that I can interpret. My guess, though, is that Brabo is going to need a new optio.”
Lucius eyebrows shot up before furrowing around his brow in confusion.
Sego grinned at his friend. “Word came in they’re returning the I Adiutrix back to full strength. They’ve been training new recruits up and down the Germania boder to send to the staging point in Pannonia Superior. They’ll probably need qualified men to lead them. They could be promoting you to Centurio.”
Lucius shook his head and pursed his lips. “I’m too young. I’m not even close to thirty yet.”
Sego shrugged, the plates of his shoulder armor clanking lightly with the motion. “The Imperator can do what he wants. If he says he wants you to be a centurio, they’ll find some men for you to lead.”
Lucius snorted and chuckled. “Where do you get all this?”
“I like gossip. You keep your ears open and you can hear all kinds of interesting things,” Sego replied.
“Well, master of ears, why are they refitting the I Adiutrix?”
“Old Man’s going after Parthia…”
Chapter 1 – 117 CE
The afternoon sea breeze blew in from the Internum Mare, cooling Antiochia in the stifling heat of high summer. After three years of campaigning in Armenia and Mesopotamia, Trajan had decided it was time to return to Rome, brining Lucius and his legion along with him for their brief stop in the city founded by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus.
“With Traianus leaving for Roma, we’ll lose all of our gains.” Lucius pulled a rag out of his belt pouch and wiped the sweat running down his nose. Lucius’s armor shone, the polished phelarae catching bits of sun and reflecting them like he was gemstone. He’d earned a couple more of the medals during the years serving Trajan in his Parthian War.
“Yeah. It’s unfortunate. Parthia is already gobbling up all the territory we took from them. It is what it is,” Syphax replied with a half-hearted shrug.
“As my old centurio used to say, ‘ours is not to question why, but to do and die.”
“He’s not wrong.” Syphax pulled out the summons from the emperor as they approached the gates of the palace Trajan used while in Antiochia.
A pair of Praetorians in their shiny, segmented armor and purple cloaks stood sentinel at the palace’s entryway, their shields propped against one side of their body, their pila held upright. Lucius and Syphax stopped before the Praetorians, Syphax presenting the orders allowing them entrance into the temporary imperial residence.
“Alright, you’re free to proceed.” The praetorian handed the orders back to Syphax while his comrade opened the doors for them.
They stood in the entry way as their eyes adjusted from the bright Syrian midday sun to the darker confines of the palace. Syphax untied his helmet and pulled it off. His short tightly curly hair was damp from sweat. Lucius followed suit. The cool interior of the stone building felt good on his head after being confined inside the metal helmet.
“All this sweat is going to rust my armor, then I’ll have to polish it again.” Lucius wiped his forehead and neck with the rag, then ran it over his short brown hair.
“Still not used to the heat after all this time?” Syphax teased.
“Mostly used to it, but walking around inside my own personal oven doesn’t help. Not all of us were born in the deserts of Mauretania Tingitana.” Lucius, eyes adjusting, spied a small, fussy older man making his way towards them.
Syphax, born of Berber heritage in Africa, was dark brown after the years fighting throughout Mesopotamia. Lucius, at best, managed a red tinted tan, preferring to wear a long-sleeved, light linen tunic to keep the sun of his fair skin. After only waiting for a few minutes, Lucius recognized the emperor’s personal chamberlain once he got close enough.
“Ah, if it’s not Syphax Quietus and the young Ferrata.” Felix bowed before the two legionnaires.
“Not so young anymore, Felix.” Syphax turned towards Lucius. “What are you now, thirty?”
“Thirty-one last spring,” Lucius replied.
Felix chuckled. “Still younger than either of us, eh, Syphax?”
“Yeah, that’s the truth.” Syphax reached up and ran his hand through his hair, the white hairs interspersed with his black hair catching rays of sunlight streaming in from the still open doors as his fingers pulled the hairs and released them, the curls springing back into place. Lucius’s centurion wiped his hand across the dark brown skin of his forehead. “Our world is graying, Felix. Fading. Tell me true, how is the old man doing?”
Felix took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, reaching to grasp Syphax’s forearm. “He’s…” His voice caught. “He is…still himself.”
Syphax and Felix made eye contact, an intense understanding exchanged. Lucius, looking between the two older men, turned his thoughts towards his father. Ambeltrix Gaius Silvanus had walked the earth as long as their emperor had and a few years more. His father, the image of robustness and vitality—a larger than life figure—had weathered poorly from when Lucius had left to join the legions and when he’d returned six years later. He wondered how his father fared with another eight years on his shoulders. Legionary years were hard years; Ambeltrix had served twenty-five of them.
In many ways, Lucius felt an affection for his emperor akin to that of a son to his father or a favored uncle. The emperor had recognized him and raised him up, not once, but many times, placing the burden of leadership on his young shoulders and ensuring he was guided to his full potential. Syphax, a member of the Quietus family who was beloved of the emperor and who had served him so well, had been placed above Lucius to guide him and develop him so he could better serve the emperor both men had dedicated their lives to. Syphax had become the older brother he’d never known in his own family.
He’d grieved over friends lost. There’d been many of them struck down in the prime of their lives at the hands of Rome’s enemy, among them, his closest friend of his earliest years as a young man—Cassius. He’d been fortunate enough not to have to grieve the loss of an elderly relative; his grandparents had passed before he was old enough to know or remember them.
Trajan, Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Divi Nervae filius Augustus, was dying. The man who’d called Lucius from the forests of Belgic Gaul to the mountains of Dacia and the arid deserts of Mesopotamia, the other looming figure of Lucius’s life was about to pass on from the world.
“How is he today, Felix?” Syphax asked.
“Tired and spiteful. He wants to challenge the gods who have brought him so low when he was about to do what no Roman had done before him.”
“He rages against the coming night?”
Felix nodded, shaking loose tears from his eyes. “He does. When he thinks I’m not listening, he argues with himself about his past failings. Men like him are not suited to die in bed. He should have been struck down with a gladius in his hand and armor on his chest.”
Lucius watched his centurion’s face droop.
Syphax’s eyes got distant. “Aye…”
Syphax and Felix, after their shared quiet grief, made eye contact and decided they were ready to greet their ailing emperor.
“Shall we?” Felix asked, turning away from Lucius and Syphax and walking back down the hall from whence he’d come. “He wants you to meet with his liaison to the Mithraic leaders before I take you to him.”
Although Lucius had been initiated into the secrets of Mithras when he’d been assigned as Quietus’s optio and had risen to the third rank, he hadn’t met the man who stood between the emperor and the various Pater Patrum of the empire’s Mithraic temples.
They followed Felix through a series of dark corridors sparsely lit with the occasional oil lamp, passing a few Praetorians standing watch. The corridors felt dry and dusty, as if the imperator’s people hadn’t taken the time to properly clean the large space before his temporary residence.
“Are we trying to save money on lamp oil, Felix?” Syphax asked.
Felix turned his head to address Syphax’s question. “The Imperator says they make the palace too hot, so we don’t light as many. He grows waspish, but so far, today has been a good day.”
The room Felix led them to was deep inside the ancient palace far from the place inhabited by Trajan and his staff. Since Trajan was headed back to Rome, there was no need to make the palace into a fully livable habitation since it was merely a way stop. Although this part of the palace wasn’t in use, the room had been cleaned and prepared for the small party that Felix escorted to it. At one of the room stood a man in a richly appointed toga.
“Syphax, you remember Drusus Grachus. Please sit. I’ll have refreshment sent in shortly.” Felix bowed and left the room.
“Syphax, it’s been a while since we’ve spoken.” Gracchus grasped Syphax’s hand.
“It has been. Drusus, this is my optio, Lucius Silvanius Ferrata.” Syphax waved Lucius forward.
“Ah, the promising young legionnaire Caesar spoke of.” Gracchus shook Lucius’s offered hand.
Lucius’s back stiffened with pride at hearing the positive words of his imperator.
“How are you involved in his Drusus?” Syphax asked.
“I’ve been liaising with various Mithraeum on behalf of the imperator. That’s actually where your mission is coming from. The Pater Patrum of Antiochia came to us as soon as the imperator arrived.” Gracchus walked over to a map on the table. “You’re going to Armenia.”
Lucius followed Syphax over to the table. The map roughly sketched out the region of northern Syria and into the lands surrounding the Euxinus Pontus. They had a lot of hard travel ahead of them, especially if they wanted to get that deep into the mountains and out again before the snows set in.
“If rumors hold true, that’s not going to be an easy place to move through,” Syphax said.
“I agree, it’s probably awash in Parthian agents. Suspect the loyalties of any Armenian official. Their loyalties can switch directions as easily as the breeze can. Once you cross into Armenia, the Armenian ‘king’ is supposed to be sending an auxilia of sagittariorum since you won’t be bringing any archers from the First Adiutrix with you.”
Syphax frowned and crossed his arms. “I’d almost rather not have them, who knows where there loyalties lie.”
Drusus nodded. “Yeah, Caesar has provided funds to ensure their loyalty stays with you for the duration of your mission.”
Syphax nodded begrudgingly. With the imperator that involved in the situation, they’d have little choice in taking on the Armenian archers.
“Any questions?” Drusus asked.
“Why are we going deep into the Armenian mountains as the weather is about to turn?” Syphax reached for a cup of wine Felix had set down near him.
“You’ve been called by Mithras himself to defend his temple.” Drusus’s face was dead serious.
“There’s a Mithraeum in the mountains?” Syphax’s eyebrows rose up as his eyes widened.
“It is Mithras’s own personal Mithraeum. It is being assailed by some dark force. They claim it is di manes or di inferni, or some dark…monsters. The Pater Patrum couldn’t get more detail than that from the auguries.”
“Di manes? Are you serious?” Syphax stroked his short beard. “And this isn’t some priest addled on fumes?”
“If it were only one, it might be suspect, but we’ve been in contact with several Pater Patrum of various Mithraeum who’ve had the same experience,” Drusus replied.
Nodding seriously, Drusus locked his gaze with Syphax’s. “Exactly—to the last image.”
Syphax kept silent for a few moments as he lightly nodded to himself. “Right. Lucius, what are your thoughts?”
Lucius shrugged. “If Caesar says go to Armenia and take up mountain climbing, I start marching to Armenia.”
“Your optio has a clear understanding of the situation,” Drusus said, looking Lucius over.
“That he does,” Syphax replied.
“I need to send a few messages,” Drusus said. “Felix will escort you to the imperator. I’ll join you in a bit.”
Syphax nodded. Together, Lucius and his centurion followed Felix out of the room. Lucius had wanted to get out of the sun of Syria and Mesopotamia, but into the mountains of Armenia where winter could come on early and violently wasn’t exactly the change he’d been looking for. But like he’d said, if Trajan said he needed to go to Armenia, he’d start preparing for being cold instead of hot.