Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.
It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide in
Oxford New York
Auckland Bangkok Buenos Aires Cape Town Chennai Dar es Salaam Delhi Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi Kolkata Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai Nairobi São Paulo Shanghai Taipei Tokyo Toronto
Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries
Copyright © Anthony Lawton 1954
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
Database right Oxford University Press (maker)
First published 1954
First published in this eBook edition 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above
You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those reponsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Sometime about the year 117 A.D., the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eburacum where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again.
During the excavations at Silchester nearly eighteen hundred years later, there was dug up under the green fields which now cover the pavements of Calleva Atrebatum, a wingless Roman Eagle, a cast of which can be seen to this day in Reading Museum. Different people have had different ideas as to how it came to be there, but no one knows, just as no one knows what happened to the Ninth Legion after it marched into the northern mists.
It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.
FEATHERS IN THE WIND
THE LAST ROSE FALLS
TWO WORLDS MEETING
THE HEALER WITH THE KNIFE
ACROSS THE FRONTIER
THE WHISTLER IN THE DAWN
THE LOST LEGION
THE FEAST OF NEW SPEARS
VENTURE INTO THE DARK
THE WILD HUNT
THE WATERS OF LETHE
THE OLIVE-WOOD BIRD
LIST OF PLACE-NAMES
FROM the Fosseway westward to Isca Dumnoniorum the road was simply a British trackway, broadened and roughly metalled, strengthened by corduroys of logs in the softest places, but otherwise unchanged from its old estate, as it wound among the hills, thrusting farther and farther into the wilderness.
It was a busy road and saw many travellers: traders with bronze weapons and raw yellow amber in their ponies’ packs; country folk driving shaggy cattle or lean pigs from village to village; sometimes a band of tawny-haired tribesmen from farther west; strolling harpers and quack-oculists, too, or a light-stepping hunter with huge wolf-hounds at his heel; and from time to time a commissariat wagon going up and down to supply the Roman frontier post. The road saw them all, and the cohorts of the Eagles for whom all other travellers must make way.
There was a cohort of leather-clad auxiliaries on the road today, swinging along at the steady Legion’s pace that had brought them down from Isca Silurium at twenty miles a day; the new garrison coming to relieve the old one at Isca Dumnoniorum. On they went, following the road that now ran out on a causeway between sodden marsh and empty sky, now plunged into deep boar-hunted forest, or lifted over bleak uplands where nothing grew save furze and thorn-scrub. On with never a halt nor a change of rhythm, marching century by century, the sun bright on the Standard at their head, and the rolling dust-cloud kicked up over the pack-train behind.
At the head of the column marched the Pilus Prior Centurion, the cohort Commander, the pride that shone from him showing clearly that this was his first command. They were, he had long since decided, a command worthy of anyone’s pride; six hundred yellow-haired giants recruited from the tribes of Upper Gaul, with the natural fighting power of mountain cats, drilled and hammered into what he firmly believed to be the finest auxiliary cohort ever to serve with the Second Legion. They were a newly joined cohort; many of the men had not yet proved themselves in action, and the spear-shaft of their Standard had no honours on it, no gilded laurel wreath nor victor’s crown. The honours were all to win—perhaps during his command.
The Commander was a complete contrast to his men: Roman to his arrogant finger-tips, wiry and dark as they were raw-boned and fair. The olive-skinned face under the curve of his crested helmet had not a soft line in it anywhere—a harsh face it would have been, but that it was winged with laughter lines, and between his level black brows showed a small raised scar that marked him for one who had passed the Raven Degree of Mithras.
Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila had seen little of the Eagles until a year ago. His first ten years had been lived quietly with his mother on the family farm near Clusium, while his father soldiered in Judaea, in Egypt, and here in Britain. They had been going to join his father in Britain, but before the time came for them to do so, rebellion had flared up among the northern tribes, and the Ninth Hispana, his father’s Legion, had marched north to deal with it, and never came marching back.
His mother had died soon afterwards, leaving him to be brought up in Rome by a rather foolish aunt and the plump and purse-proud official who was her husband. Marcus had loathed the official, and the official had loathed Marcus. They saw everything with different eyes. Marcus came of a line of soldiers—one of those Equestrian families who, when the rest of their kind had turned from soldiering to trade and finance, had kept to the old way of life, and remained poor but held their noses high in consequence. The official came of a line of officials, and his code of life was quite other than Marcus’s. Neither of them had a shred of understanding for each other’s ideas, and they had both been thankful when Marcus was eighteen and could apply for a centurion’s commission.
Marcus, his eyes narrowed into the sun as he marched, smiled to himself a little wryly, as he remembered how almost pathetically thankful t
hat plump official had been. (Tramp, tramp, tramp, said the cohort’s feet behind him.)
He had asked to be sent to Britain, though it meant starting in an auxiliary cohort instead of a line-of-battle one, partly because his father’s elder brother had settled there when his own years of soldiering were done, but mostly because of his father. If ever anything became known of the lost Legion, it would be known first in Britain, and it might even be that here in Britain he would find out something for himself.
Marching down the Isca Dumnoniorum road in the run-honey evening light, he found himself thinking about his father. He had very vivid memories of a slight, dark man with laughter lines at the corners of his eyes, who had come home from time to time, and taught him to fish, to play ‘Flash the Fingers’, and throw a javelin. He remembered vividly that last leave of all. His father had just been appointed to command the First Cohort of the Hispana, which meant having charge of the Eagle and being something very like second-in-command of the Legion beside; and he had been like a jubilant boy about it. But his mother had been faintly anxious, almost as if she knew…
‘If it was any other Legion!’ she had said. ‘You have told me yourself that the Hispana has a bad name.’
And his father had replied: ‘But I would not have it any other Legion if I could. I held my first command in the Hispana, and a man’s first Legion is apt to hold chief place in his heart ever after, be its name good or bad; and now that I go back to it as First Cohort, we will see whether there is nothing can be done to better its name.’ He had turned to his small son, laughing. ‘Presently it will be your turn. It has fallen on evil days, but we will make a Legion of the Hispana yet, you and I.’
Looking back across the years, Marcus remembered that his father’s eyes had been very bright, like the eyes of a man going into action; and the light had caught suddenly in the great flawed emerald of the signet-ring he always wore, striking from it a spark of clear green fire. Odd how one remembered things like that: little things that somehow mattered.
(Tramp, tramp, tramp, came the sound of the cohort’s feet behind him.)
It would be pleasant, he thought, if Uncle Aquila was like his father. He had not met his uncle yet; after learning his foot-drill he had arrived in Britain in the sleety days of late autumn, and been sent straight up to Isca; but he had a rather vague invitation to spend his leave with him at Calleva, when he had any leave to spend. It would be very pleasant if Uncle Aquila was like his father.
Not of course that he and his uncle were likely to have much to do with each other. In a few years’ time he would probably be serving in quite a different part of the Empire, since a cohort centurion seldom moved up all the way in the same Legion.
All the way … from his present rank right up to his father’s rank of First Cohort; and after that? For most of the men who got so far there was nothing after that, but for the outstanding few who went farther—as Marcus intended to go farther—the ways divided there. One could become a camp commandant, as Uncle Aquila had done, or one could go on, by way of the Praetorian Guard, to try for command of a Legion. Legion Commanders were almost always men of Senator’s rank, with no experience of soldiering save a year’s service as Military Tribune in their youth; but by long custom the two Egyptian Legions were exceptions to the rule. They were commanded by professional soldiers; and an Egyptian Legion had been Marcus’s shining goal for as long as he could remember.
But one day, when he had finished with the Eagles, when he had made an honourable name and become Prefect of his Egyptian Legion, he would go home to the Etruscan hills, and perhaps even buy back the old farm, which the plump official had ruthlessly sold to defray expenses. For a moment he remembered almost painfully the sunlit courtyard flickered over with the shadow of pigeons’ wings, and the wild olive-tree in the loop of the stream, on a twisted root of which he had once found a kind of gall growing, that was shaped something like a little bird. He had cut it from the root with the new knife his father had given him, and spent much loving care, all one absorbed summer evening, trimming and carving feathers on it. He had that little bird still.
The road topped a gentle rise, and suddenly Isca Dumnoniorum lay before them, with the fortress-crowned Red Mount dark with shadows against the evening sky; and Marcus came back to the present with a jerk. The farm in the Etruscan hills could wait until he was old and tired and famous; in the present was the glory of his first command.
The British town was spread below the southern scarp of the Mount; a sprawling huddle of reed-thatched roofs, every colour from the gold of honey to the black of dried peat, according to the age of the thatch; with the squared, clean lines of the Roman forum and basilica looking oddly rootless in their midst; and the faint haze of wood-smoke lying over all.
The road led straight through the town and up to the cleared slope beyond, to the Praetorian gate of the fort; here and there, crimson or saffron-cloaked men turned to look at the cohort as it swung by, a look that was reserved rather than hostile. Dogs sat scratching in odd corners, lean pigs rooted among the garbage piles, and women with bracelets of gold or copper on very white arms sat in hut doorways, spinning or grinding corn. The blue smoke of many cooking-fires curled up into the quiet air, and the savoury smell of many evening meals mingled with the blue reek of wood-smoke and the sharper tang of horse-droppings, which Marcus had by now come to associate with all British towns. Little that was Roman was here as yet, despite the stone-built forum. One day there would be straight streets, he supposed, and temples and bath-houses and a Roman way of life. But as yet it was a place where two worlds met without mingling: a British town huddled under the dominion of the turf ramparts where once the tribe had had its stronghold and now the Roman sentries paced up and down. He looked about him under the curve of his helmet as he marched, knowing that this place would be part of his life for the next year; then looked up to the turf ramparts, and saw a Roman banner drooping in the still air, and the tall crest of a sentry burning in the sunset, and heard a trumpetcall ring out, as it seemed, from the fiery sky.
• • • • •
‘You have brought clear skies with you,’ said Centurion Quintus Hilarion, lounging in the window of the Commander’s quarters, and peering into the night. ‘But Hercle! you need not expect it to last.’
‘As bad as that?’ said Centurion Marcus Aquila, who was seated on the table.
‘Quite as bad as that! It rains always, here in the west, save when Typhon, the father of all ills, brews up a mist to come between a man and his own feet. By the time you have served your year here you will have toadstools sprouting out of your ears, the same as me, and not from the damp alone!’
‘From what beside?’ inquired Marcus with interest.
‘Oh, lack of company, for one thing. I am a sociable soul myself; I like my friends around me.’ He turned from the window, and folded up on to a low cushioned bench, hugging his knees. ‘Ah well, I am off to rub away the blue mould as soon as I have marched the troops back to Isca.’
‘Going on leave?’
The other nodded. ‘Long leave, lovely leave, among the fleshpots of Durinum.’
‘Durinum—that is your home?’ asked Marcus.
‘Yes. My father retired and settled there a few years ago. There is a surprisingly good circus, and plenty of people—pretty girls too. A pleasant enough place to get back to, out of the wilds.’ An idea seemed to strike him. ‘What shall you do when your leave falls due? I suppose, coming out from home, you have no one here to go to?’
‘I have an uncle at Calleva, though I have not yet met him,’ Marcus said, ‘and certainly there is no one at home I should want to spend my leave with.’
‘Father and mother both dead?’ inquired Hilarion with friendly interest.
‘Yes. My father went with the Ninth Legion.’
‘Pericol! You mean when they—’
‘So. That is bad!’ said Hil
arion, wagging his head. ‘A deal of ugly stories, there were—still are, for that matter; and of course, they did lose the Eagle.’
Instantly Marcus was up in arms to defend his father and his father’s Legion. ‘Since not a man of the Legion came back, it is scarcely a matter for wonder that neither did the Eagle,’ he flashed.
‘Surely not,’ agreed Hilarion amicably. ‘I was not blowing on your father’s honour, so you can keep your feathers on, my Marcus.’ He looked up at the other with a wide, friendly grin, and suddenly Marcus, who had been ready to quarrel with him the instant before, found himself grinning back.
It was several hours since Marcus had marched his cohort across the hollow-ringing bridge, answering the sentry’s challenge, ‘Fourth Gaulish Auxiliaries of the Second Legion, come to relieve this garrison.’ Dinner was over, in the officers’ mess, with the Quartermaster, the Surgeon, and the double complement of ranker centurions. Marcus had taken charge of the pay-chest keys—in a garrison as small as this there was no paymaster; and for the past hour, here in the Commander’s quarters in the Praetorium, he and Hilarion had been going through the office work of the frontier fort. Now, crested helmets and embossed breastplates laid aside, the two of them were taking their ease.