October – A.D. 8
“Hear us, great Father of Light! Receive our thanks for delivering us from the dark.”
The words echoed off of the white-washed walls of the cave. All seventy men were silent upon their benches in that dark place, their heads bowed as they listened to the words. They had been eighty at one point but now ten walked in the light. Not bad, losing only ten.
Gaius Justus Vitalis spoke the words their Pater should have been speaking as their Saturn in the rites, but as he was away with the commander, it fell to the Heliodromus, the Sun Runner, to perform the ritual. The dark was lit only by two licks of flame behind him, on either side of the image of the tauroctony in which Mithras, Lord of Light, slew the great bull.
To the Heliodromus, the cave seemed smaller than usual, no doubt because of the size of the beast above him. He hoped the handlers had drugged it sufficiently. It was time.
“What time is it?” he called the question.
“It is the time of the season’s death!” the men answered solemnly.
“Where are we going?”
“What are you?”
“The Light! The Light! The Light!”
“And who are you?”
“Mithras! Mithras! Mithras!”
“Accept our offering…” he whispered as he thrust the gladius directly above his head into the soft flesh of the bull’s belly. He sliced in four directions and the blood of the beast broke forth as water from a burst dam.
His arms held wide, eyes and mouth closed, Gaius Justus Vitalis, Optio of the third century of Legio V Macedonica, let the hot blood of the sacrifice wash over his entire person, staining his pure white robes crimson. He felt the power of his god in that sacrifice, as though he absorbed both light and blood in the ritual.
So this is what it feels like… he thought.
He then fought down the urge to vomit as the stink of the bull’s punctured intestine spread. When the offal stopped falling, he stepped clear to accept a white towel from one of the Miles, his soldiers. The men began to file out of the cave, solemn, grateful to be alive as the sunlight that burned the fringes of some scattered clouds warmed their bodies.
“Vitellius,” Gaius called to one of his men. “You and two others start cutting up the offering. Our century will dine on it tonight.”
“Yes, Heliodromus,” the man answered as they were still inside the sacred speleum, the cave.
“Be sure to wrap the thigh bones in the fat and offer them to Saturn.”
Gaius left the men to it and made his way out of the cave into the fresh October air. He closed his eyes when the sun touched his face. One…two…three breaths… When he opened his eyes he took in the expanse of the Danuvius and Porata rivers where the water fowl skirted their rippled surfaces in the morning breeze. The bald, grassy plains on either side of the rivers stretched on and on, greener now that the heat of summer had subsided. In the far northern distance, he observed the clouds where they clung to the Carpathian mountains, the slopes now awash with patches of green, gold and red.
“Better hurry, lads,” he called into the cave. “The next century’s going to be using the Mithraeum soon.”
“Yes, sir,” the three men answered in unison.
Gaius wrapped his gladius in the soiled towel and began making his way up the path to the legion’s base, his bloody footprints fading as he got farther from the cave.
It was the thirty-fifth year of the reign of Augustus Caesar and the legions had been occupied the last couple of years in putting down a revolt in Pannonia and Dalmatia, from the Elbe to the Danuvius. King Maroboduus had finally been brought to heel with Tiberius leading the troops, ten legions in all, plus auxiliaries.
At the outset, when the fighting had proved grim and desperate, veteran and other legions had been called up, including the V Macedonica from the fortress at Troesmis in Moesia Inferior.
Gaius and his comrades had helped, it was said, to tip the scales in Rome’s favour, and the men of the V Macedonica had returned to base honour-laden, if not exhausted, from a difficult campaign. There were many acts of heroism and decorations were to be given out at an assembly of the legion when all were returned to base. Two cohorts had yet to return.
An hour after the rites in the Mithraeum, Gaius eased into the hot water of the caldarium to wash the rest of the blood from his hair, face and body, after having scraped most of it away with strigil and oil. In his small corner of misted mosaic and torchlight, the optio allowed his mind to drift away from the cold collection of timber and stone overlooking the Danuvius river to his family in Rome. Fulvia, only two years his junior, would be approaching her thirty-third birthday which he would, of course, miss. He made a mental note to write and send her the Dacian bracelet he had acquired while on campaign. She always did love the exotic.
At six and seven years, he knew his wife would have her hands full with Faustina and Aemilia. He felt the loneliness then, as he thought of their childish laughter. Three years was far too long to have been away. He ran his hand over his close-cropped hair and splashed more water onto his face. He wondered how Fulvia would feel about the loss of his wild brown hair. She did love to run her hands through it. The outbreak of lice on campaign had spared no man, however, and the medicus had ordered all heads shaved. ‘No use having men impaled by Germanic spears because they’re too busy scratching at lice!’ he had said. Gaius figured he had had a point as he wrote the order to shave his men on the wax tablet that hung from his cingulum.
“Thinking of home again, Gaius!” boomed a bloody great voice proceeded by a big splash. Gaius stood to attention as his centurion, Julius Lycus Vernus, rose like a titan out of the water.
“Sir! Yes, sir!” Gaius answered.
“Enough sirs for now, Gaius. We’re off duty.”
“Right. You startled me, is all.”
“Ha. Nothing startles you.” The centurion laughed and sat across from his optio.
Lycus was a monster of a man, scarred from many wars and tavern fights alike. He was brutal in battle and demanded the utmost of his men. As a career soldier, he was not one to accept mediocrity in his century and if he even caught a whiff of weakness, the crack of his vinerod would fix that. For a man as big and hard as a merchant ship, Gaius thought the bald head on Julius looked comic.
“Ahh!” The centurion rubbed his face and leaned back against the wall. “Good to be home!”
“Oh stop that mumbling, Gaius. I know you miss your lovely wife and sprats. Believe me, I understand.” Gaius doubted it since Julius always said that he would only marry after retiring and then, it would be to a girl forty years younger who would give him ten children. “But don’t delude yourself. You’re not going home soon. I wager there are more of those barbarian bastards deep in those woods, waiting to strike back. Mark me!”
“We whipped them pretty good though, sir.”
“Aye, that we did. But you never know, do you? Besides, I’m not ready to stop fighting. And I’ve got you to do all the grunt work. Ha!” He slammed a hammy fist into Gaius’ oiled arm. The optio knew what was next: the compulsory encouragement talk.
“You know, Gaius, best thing I ever did was promote you to optio. I can trust you and you fight like a disciplined demon in the thick of it.” At this point, Julius turned to the rest of the bathers. “Best fucking optio in the legions!” he bellowed, his parade ground voice echoing off the painted walls. “You’ll see your family again. We’ll be due a furlough at some point.”
“The men could use it, to be sure. And me.” Gaius never got his hopes up about that sort of thing. Too many cancelled furloughs over the years. They could both hear the wind howl beyond the high windows of the bath house. The centurion grew serious.
“How did the rites go?”
“Well,” Gaius answered, the Sun Runner to the Pater.
“Do the men walk in the Light?”
“They walk in the Light.”
“Good. I wished I could have joined you.” He paused and looked curiously at Gaius, his voice low, honest. “Did you feel it? The power?”
“I did,” Gaius bowed his head. “Mithras was with us.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?”
Without another word, Julius’s naked bulk rushed from the hot water.
“We should join the lads back at barracks now, The feast’ll be ready. You set them to it right away?”
“Yes. Vitellius was in charge.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
Gaius followed his centurion to the apodyterium to gather their things, foregoing the cold waters of the frigidarium in favour of meat and wine. His thoughts of home, of family, would have to wait. As they dressed into fresh tunics and bracae, Gaius asked about the meeting with the consular legate fresh from Achaea.
“It was good. He’s a new chap, lips puckered up to Tiberius. Son of someone close to Augustus.”
“Just to hold our end of the frontier and keep a watch over the other side of the river. Any sign of trouble and we’re to stomp it out.”
“What about decorations for the men?” Gaius knew the men needed the encouragement for the blood they’d lost.
“Oh well, that…” Julius smiled. “III Century will be the most decorated.”
“Yes. And Gaius Justus Vitalis, you are receiving three honours. Second only to myself, of course. I’ll be getting four.”
Gaius could not help but smile. “When?”
“Tomorrow, I think. The last two cohorts were spotted not half a day’s march from here.”
As they stepped out into the brightly lit street of the base, Gaius whistled his favourite tune, the one he whistled to his wife when they had first met. It always seemed to cheer him.
It was near to midnight. Gaius stood on the top of one of the towers facing the river. Their century had been handed second watch and the men, however reluctantly, had put their armour back on after an evening of roasted meat and wine. It was bad luck, but they had no choice in the matter. Julius and Gaius had managed to gather the men and march them up to the walls and main gates of the via Praetoria and via Decumana. Julius was now making the rounds, rousing any man who dared to doze, leaning on his scutum or pilum. Gaius swore he could hear the crack of the centurion’s vinerod somewhere on the other side of the fortress.
He set his five-foot hastile against the battlements and leaned on the cold stone. His breath fogged in the air before him and he pulled his crimson cloak tighter about himself. Above, a few raked clouds drifted across the night sky. The moon was a full, silver disc, its light blanketing the green grass of the plain in grey. Beneath Selene’s light, the Danuvius flowed like quicksilver, wide and deep and cold. Gaius missed the heat of home, the colour of oranges and bougainvillea, of olive groves, and gleaming white marble. Long ago days by the turquoise sea were a far cry from the deep, midnight blue of the Danuvius.
“Mithras…” he whispered, “…light our way in this dark place. Make us strong…me and my brothers…”
His prayers were broken by a distant rhythm that he recognized as the jingle of soldiers’ kit and tramping hobnails. The ominous wail of a cornu sounded in the night. Across the river, a wolf howled long, slow and sad. Gaius did not know if it howled at the moon or in answer to the cornu’s wail.
On the plain, the two returning cohorts came into view, their perimeter lit by torches carried by auxiliary cavalrymen. At the front, the two tribunes rode side by side before their men, the vexillaria swaying in the air above their heads. A long line of legionary red appeared as the jingle of their equipment became louder. Gaius watched a moment longer then turned, donning his crested helmet and grabbing his staff.
“Cohorts returning!” he called out as he descended the steps. “Open the gates!” he ordered as several of his men came forward to raise the great oak beams that barred the iron-studded doors. Gaius stood in the road as the gates creaked open, the torches whipping as the wind penetrated. He strode forward, six men at his back. “Salve!” Gaius saluted the tribunes as they approached.
“Optio,” the one acknowledged from his horse.
“Welcome home, sirs,” Gaius said officially. “The commander asked that you both report to the Praetorium before retiring for the night.”
“By Jupiter, we need to sleep,” complained the other tribune.
“As the commander wishes,” the first agreed. “Optio.”
Gaius and his men moved aside to allow the tribunes and their men to flow into the base, quietly acknowledging friends and acquaintances as they passed. When all the troops had passed beneath the gate, Gaius walked out onto the moonlit cobbles of the road and paused. Something niggled at him. It felt more vulnerable outside the walls, not quite right. He wondered if it was the full moon, for he had been outside the walls for months on the Pannonian campaign. It was as if – there!
Gaius cocked his ear, tried to hear past the sound of the wind and the rush of the river far below. The six men behind him looked puzzled. Then he heard it again, a whimpering like… a child! He wondered if the father in him took over then because he immediately called back to his men.
“Torches! There’s someone down there!” He strode forward and followed the noise until he arrived at the edge of the rocky slope where it fell away to the river.
“Sir! Here, sir.” Vitellius handed him a torch and Gaius held it out trying to see.
“There’s definitely someone down there. Do you hear it?” The men all leaned forward, then Gaius lobbed his torch to the left of the sound where it landed in a splash of sparks on the rocks at the water’s edge. Not ten feet away from it, Gaius could make out the shape of a small body clinging to a log.
“What is it, sir?” one of the men asked.
“A child. We need to get down there now! Antonius,” he turned to one of the men. “Go and get a long rope from the gatehouse. Tell them there is a child that needs rescuing down by the river. Tell them to close the gate until we return.”
“Yes, Optio!” Antonius ran off and returned a couple minutes later with a long coil of rope. They heard the gates close shortly after. Gaius had already removed his cloak and helmet and laid his hastile on the ground.
“I’m going down,” he declared, tying the rope about his waist, making sure his gladius was free. “You men hold the rope and let me down slowly. I don’t want to break my leg in a crevice.” With that, Gaius took one of the torches and slid over the edge of the rocks. All six men strained under his armoured weight but let him down slowly, allowing him to safely plant his feet. As he descended, the dark water louder in his ears, he strained to catch glimpses of the child. It looked to be a boy. He was soaked. Gaius assumed he must have crossed the river clutching the log that his little body was clinging to.
“Are you all right?” he called. “Boy!”
Only a slow whimper.
When Gaius came to the bottom he wedged the torch into the rocks and moved slowly toward the child whose face was hidden by long, sodden, black hair. There appeared to be no blood. The Roman reached out a tentative hand and brushed aside the hair.
The boy screamed and in a moment was up, shrinking back among the rocks, eyes wild, body shivering uncontrollably. Gaius held his hands out, showing he meant no harm.
“It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.” The eyes searched beyond Gaius, across the river to the dark beyond. “Whatever it is, boy, you’re safe. Shh..shh…” he soothed, holding his hand out. The boy reached out and in the flickering light of the torch, Gaius could see where the fingers were torn and bloody, like he had been scratching at something, or clinging to the log. “Do you have a name?” he asked in Latin. Nothing. “Noma sou?” again in the Thracian dialect of Greek. The eyes recognized something, but no answer issued forth.
“Was someone chasing you?” At this the boy began to whimper again and then moved toward Gaius just before fainting. Gaius caught him and swept him up.
“Optio!” Vitellius called down.
“I’ve got him! Get ready to bring us up!”
Gaius walked back to the first torch carrying the boy under one arm. With the other arm, he gave a tug and held on tight while the men brought them up slowly. When they finally reached the top, he could hear Julius’ booming voice approaching.
“What in Hades is going on here?”
Gaius knelt down, his arm aching from holding on and indicated the boy.
“Found him at the bottom of the cliff, sir. Seems to have crossed the river. He was terrified before he fainted.”
“Whatever he is, Optio, you should have waited for me. What if you’d gone into the river or broken your neck?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Gaius looked back at Julius’ angry expression beneath his centurion’s horizontal crest.
“Well, lets get back inside the base. That’s enough mucking around. The boy’s your responsibility now, Optio. Get him to the medicus and then release the men to barracks.”
“Yes, sir!” Gaius saluted, picked up the boy and began marching back to the gate. Julius stared across the river a moment longer before turning and seeing the others all safely back behind the fortress walls. Though he did not say anything, his soldier’s gut told him that the appearance of a terrified boy from the other side of the river did not bode well.
“Gods, I need a drink!” he muttered.