THE FORGOTTEN LEGION (Chapter 1)
NORTHERN ITALY, 70 BC
The raven hopped onto the dead lamb's head and stared at Tarquinius. He was still more than fifty paces away. It croaked scornfully and pecked at the staring eyeball with its powerful beak. The lamb was no more than three days old, its meager flesh already devoured by mountain wolves.
Tarquinius stooped, picked up a small rock, and fitted it to his sling. A slight figure with blond hair, he wore a loose thigh-length tunic, belted at the waist. Sturdy sandals clad his feet.
"Spare the bird. He did not kill the lamb." Olenus Aesar adjusted his worn leather hat, flattening the blunt peak. "Corvus is only taking what remains."
"I don't like it eating the eyes." Preparing to release, Tarquinius swung the hide strap in a slow circle.
The old man fell silent, shielding his eyes from the sun. He spent a long time gazing at the broad wingtips of buzzards hanging on the warm thermals and the clouds farther above.
Tarquinius watched intently, holding back the stone. Since the soothsayer had picked him as a student years before, the young Etruscan had learned to pay attention to everything he said and did.
Olenus shrugged bony shoulders under his rough woollen cloak. "Not a good day to kill a sacred bird."
"Why not?" With a sigh, he let the sling drop to his side. "What is it now?"
"Go right ahead, boy." Olenus smiled, infuriating Tarquinius. "Do what you want." He waved expansively at the raven. "Your path is your own."
"I am not a boy." Tarquinius scowled and let the rock fall. "I'm twenty-five!"
He scowled briefly, then let out a piercing whistle and gestured with one arm. A black and white dog lying close by sprinted off in a wide arc up the steep hillside, eyes fixed on a group of sheep and goats nibbling short grass far above. They spotted him immediately and began moving farther up.
The raven finished its meal and flapped off.
Tarquinius gazed after it balefully. "Why shouldn't I have killed that damn bird?"
"We are standing above what was the temple of Tinia. The most powerful of our gods..." Olenus paused for effect.
Looking down, Tarquinius noticed a red clay tile protruding from the soil.
"And the number of buzzards above is twelve."
Tarquinius's eyes searched the sky, counting. "Why do you always speak in riddles?"
Olenus tapped his lituus, a small crooked staff, on the broken tile. "Not the first time today, is it?"
"I know twelve is our people's sacred number, but..." Tarquinius watched the dog, which had begun herding the flock toward them as he wished. "What has that got to do with the raven?"
"That lamb was the twelfth this morning."
Tarquinius did a quick calculation. "But I didn't tell you about the one in the gully earlier," he said with amazement.
"And Corvus wanted to feed right where sacrifices used to take place," the haruspex added enigmatically. "Best leave him in peace, eh?"
Tarquinius frowned, frustrated that he had not noticed the buzzards first and made the link with the location. He had been too busy thinking about killing wolves.
It was time to hunt some down. Rufus Caelius, his evil-tempered master, tolerated these excursions only because he could question Tarquinius afterward about Olenus and the state of his flocks. The noble would be displeased to hear about further losses, and Tarquinius was already dreading his return to the latifundium, Caelius's huge estate at the foot of the mountain.
"How did you know about the lamb in the gully?"
"What have I spent all these years teaching you? Observe everything!" Olenus turned around, seeing what was no longer there. "This was the center of the mighty city of Falerii. Tarchun, the founder of Etruria, marked out its sacred borders with a bronze plow, over a mile from here. Four hundred years ago, where we are standing would have been thronged with Etruscan people going about their daily business."
Tarquinius tried to imagine the scene as the haruspex had described it so many times--the magnificent buildings and temples dedicated to the Vestal Virgins, the wide streets paved with lava blocks. He pictured the cheering crowds at boxing contests, racing, and gladiator fights. Nobles presenting wreaths to victorious contestants, presiding over banquets in great feasting halls.
His eyes cleared. All that remained of Falerii, one of the jewels of Etruria, was a few fallen pillars and innumerable pieces of broken tile. The depth of its decline was brought home to him all over again. Long association with the haruspex meant that his people's history was ever painful. "They took our whole way of life, didn't they?" Tarquinius spat angrily. "Roman civilization has completely copied the Etruscan."
"Right down to the trumpets announcing the start of ceremonies and battle maneuvers," Olenus added wryly. "They stole it all. After destroying us."
"Sons of whores! What gives them the right?"
"It was preordained in the heavens, Tarquinius. You know all this." Olenus stared at the young man before taking in the view that fell away to the east and south. A lake at the bottom of the mountain glistened, reflecting the sun's rays with blinding intensity. "Here we are in the heartland of ancient Etruria." Olenus smiled. "Lake Vadimon at our feet, the foundations of the sacred city below."
"We are almost the last purebred Etruscans on earth," said Tarquinius bitterly. Defeated and then assimilated by the Romans, few families had continued to marry only others of their kind. His had. And generation after generation, the ancient secrets and rituals had been handed from one haruspex to another. Olenus was one of a long line stretching back to the heyday of Etruscan power.
"It was our destiny to be conquered," Olenus replied. "Remember that when the foundation stone of the temple was laid many centuries ago..."
"A bleeding head was found in the soil."
"My predecessor, Calenus Olenus Aesar, stated it foretold that the people would rule all of Italy."
"And he was wrong. Look at us now!" cried Tarquinius. "Little better than slaves." There were almost no Etruscans left with any political power or influence. Instead they were poor farmers or, like Tarquinius and his family, workers on large estates.
"Calenus was the best haruspex in our history. He could read the liver like no other!" Olenus waved his gnarled hands excitedly. "That man knew what the Etruscans could not--or would not--understand at the time. Our cities never unified, and so when Rome grew powerful enough, they were defeated one by one. Although it took over a hundred and fifty years, Calenus's prediction proved correct."
"He meant those who crushed us."
"Bastard Romans." Tarquinius flung a stone after the raven, now long gone.
Little did he know the haruspex secretly admired his speed and power. The rock flew fast enough to kill any man it struck.
"A hard thing to accept, even for me," sighed Olenus.
"Especially the way they lord it over us." The young Etruscan swigged from a leather water bag and passed it to his mentor. "Where is the cave from here?"
"Not far." The haruspex drank deeply. "Today is not the day, however."
"You've dragged me all the way up here for nothing? I thought you were going to show me the liver and sword!"
"I was," replied Olenus mildly. The old man turned and began to walk downhill, humming as he used the lituus to steady himself. "But the omens are not good today. It would be best if you return to the latifundium."
It had been eight years since he first heard of the gladius of Tarquin, the last Etruscan king of Rome and the bronze liver, one of only a few such templates for soothsayers to learn their art. Tarquinius was chafing to see the ancient metal artifact. It had been the subject of so many lessons, but he knew better than to argue with Olenus, and a few more days would make little difference. He hitched his pack higher, checking that all the sheep and goats had come down.
"I need a trip up here with my bow anyway. Spend a few days killing wolves." Tarquinius affected a nonchalant tone. "You can't let the bastards think that they can get away with it."
Olenus grunted in reply.
Tarquinius rolled his eyes with frustration. He wouldn't get to see the liver until the haruspex was good and ready. Whistling the dog to heel, he followed Olenus down the narrow track.
Tarquinius left the haruspex sleeping in the little hut halfway down the mountain, the dog curled up by his feet, wood crackling gently in the fireplace. Even though it was a balmy summer night, Olenus's bones had felt the chill.
The young man picked his way along well-used paths through the sprawling fields, olive groves, and vineyards that surrounded Caelius's enormous villa. When he finally reached it, the thick limestone walls were still warm from the sun.
The slaves' miserable shacks and the simple farm buildings housing indentured workers were situated to the rear of the main complex. He reached these quarters without seeing a soul. Most people rose at dawn and went to bed by sunset, making escape and return in darkness relatively easy.
Tarquinius paused at the entrance to the small courtyard and peered into the gloom, seeing nothing.
A voice broke the silence.
"Where have you been all day?"
"Who's there?" Tarquinius hissed.
"Lucky the foreman's asleep. You'd get a beating otherwise!"
He relaxed. "Olenus was teaching me about our ancestors, Father. That's far more important than digging in the fields."
"Why bother?" A short, fat man wove into view, clutching an amphora. "We Etruscans are finished. The butcher Sulla made sure of that."
Tarquinius sighed. This was an old argument. Sensing their chance to regain some autonomy, many of the remaining Etruscan families and clans had joined Marius's forces in the civil war nearly two decades previously. It had been a calculated gamble that had gone spectacularly wrong. Thousands of their people had died. "Marius lost. So did we," he whispered. "It doesn't mean that the ancient ways need to be forgotten."
"It was the last opportunity for us to rise up and reclaim ancient glory!"
"You're drunk. Again."
"At least I did a full day's work," his father replied. "You just follow that eccentric fool, listening to ramblings and lies."
Tarquinius lowered his voice. "They're not lies! Olenus teaches me secret rituals and knowledge. Someone has to remember. Before it is all forgotten."
"Do what you will. The Republic cannot be stopped now." Sergius noisily slurped some wine. "Nothing can stop its damned legions."
"Go back to bed."
His father stared at the shrine in the far corner of the courtyard. It was where he spent his sober moments. All its oil lamps had gone out. "Even our gods have abandoned us," he muttered.
Tarquinius pushed the unresisting figure toward the family's small, damp cell. Wine had reduced the once proud warrior to a lonely, morose drunkard. Just a few years previously his father had been secretly teaching him to use weapons. Tarquinius was now equally proficient with a gladius or an Etruscan battleaxe.
With a groan, Sergius collapsed onto the straw mattress he shared with Fulvia, Tarquinius's mother. Instantly he began to snore. The young man lay down on the other side of the room and listened to the loud noise. Tarquinius was worried about his father: At the rate Sergius was drinking, he would not live for more than a few years.
It was a long time before Tarquinius slept, and then he dreamed vividly.
He was watching Olenus sacrifice a lamb in an unfamiliar cave, cutting its belly open to read the entrails. Looking around the dark space, he could see no sign of the bronze liver or sword that Olenus had spoken about so many times.
The old man's face changed as he scanned the animal's organs. Tarquinius called out, but could not get Olenus's attention. His mentor seemed totally unaware of him and instead was fearfully watching the mouth of the cave.
It was impossible to see what was scaring Olenus so much. The haruspex had placed the dark red liver on a slab of basalt and was studying it intently. Every so often he would pause and gaze outside, his fear apparently lessening each time. After what seemed an age, Olenus nodded happily and sat back against the wall, waiting.
Despite his mentor's apparent contentment, Tarquinius now felt a strong sense of impending dread, which intensified until it was unbearable.
He ran to the entrance.
Peering down a steep mountain slope, he saw Caelius ascending with ten legionaries, each face fixed and grim. All the men held drawn swords. In front of them ran a pack of large hunting dogs.
"Run, Olenus! Run!" Tarquinius cried.
At last the soothsayer turned with a look of recognition. "Run?" He cackled. "I'd break my neck out there."
"Soldiers are coming to kill you! Caelius is guiding them."
Olenus's eyes held no trace of fear.
"You must flee. Now!"
"It is my time, Tarquinius. I am going to join our ancestors. You are the last haruspex."
"Me?" Tarquinius was shocked. Through all the years of teaching, it had never occurred to him that he was being groomed to succeed the old man.
Olenus nodded gravely.
"The liver and sword?"
"You have them both already."
"No! I don't!" Tarquinius gesticulated frantically.
Again Olenus seemed not to hear. He stood up and began walking toward the figures at the mouth of the cave.
Tarquinius felt somebody grab his arm. The cave receded slowly from view as he swam into consciousness. He was desperate to know what had happened to Olenus, but could see no more. The young Etruscan woke with a start. His mother was standing over the bed, looking concerned.
"It was nothing," he muttered, his heart racing. "Go back to sleep, Mother. You need to rest."
"Your shouts woke me," she answered reproachfully. "Father would have woken, too, if he wasn't drunk."
Tarquinius's stomach clenched. Olenus had always said never to mention anything he taught. "What was I saying?"
"Hard to make out. Something about Olenus and a bronze liver. The last of those was lost years ago." Fulvia frowned. "Has the old rascal laid hands on one?"
"He's not said a thing," Tarquinius replied smoothly. "Go back to bed. You have to be up at dawn."
He helped Fulvia across the room, wincing at her stooped back and at how much effort it took for her to climb into the low cot. Long years of hard labor had crippled his mother's body.
"My strong, clever Arun." Fulvia used the sacred term for youngest son. "You are destined for greatness. I feel it in my bones."
"Hush now." Tarquinius glanced around uneasily. Caelius did not like ancient, non-Roman terms being used. "Get some sleep."
But Fulvia was undeterred. "I've known it since I first saw your birthmark--the same one Tarchun bore. We could not have given you any other name but Tarquinius."
He rubbed self-consciously at the red triangular shape on the side of his neck. It was something he had only seen occasionally in the reflection of a pool, and the haruspex often commented on it.
"It was no surprise to me when Olenus took an interest in you. Teaching sacred rituals, pushing you to learn languages from the foreign slaves." She swelled with pride. "I kept telling your father. Once upon a time he listened. But since your brother was killed fighting Sulla, he is only interested in his next jug of wine."
Tarquinius considered the sleeping figure sadly. "He was once proud to be a warrior of the Rasenna."
"Deep down he'll always be an Etruscan," his mother whispered. "Like you."
"There are still many reasons to be proud of our race." He kissed Fulvia's brow, and she smiled, closing tired eyes.
The art of haruspicy is alive, Mother. The Etruscans will not be forgotten. But he did not say it out loud. While Sergius talked to no one, Fulvia was prone to gossiping. It was vital that Caelius did not know the truth about his trips to see Olenus.
Tarquinius clambered into his own bed. By the time he fell asleep, the sky was beginning to pale.
There was little chance to hunt wolves or visit Olenus in the days that followed. It was nearly harvest time, the estate's busiest time of year. The workload for slaves and indentured families like those of Tarquinius had increased fourfold.
Rufus Caelius had returned from Rome to supervise the important task. Most had supposed his trip had been to raise capital to bolster his ailing finances. The redhead was a typical example of the Roman noble class: good at warfare, poor at commerce. Ten years earlier, when the price of grain had begun to plummet due to a large increase in imports from Sicily and Egypt, Caelius had failed to spot the trend. While shrewder neighbours converted entire latifundia to growing more lucrative grapes and olives, the bullish ex-staff officer had persisted with wheat. In only a decade, the profitable estate had been brought to the edge of ruin.
It had not taken long for the cheap foreign crops to bankrupt thousands of small farmers throughout Italy, Tarquinius's family among them. Big landowners capitalized on the opportunity, increasing their properties' sizes at others' expense. New workers were required quickly, and the gap was filled by thousands of slaves, the human prizes of Rome's conquests.
Although they were citizens, Sergius and his family were fortunate enough to get low-paid contract work from Caelius. At least they were paid. Thanks to the slave population, others were not so lucky, and cities swelled immeasurably from the influx of starving peasants. Even more grain was thus required for the congiaria, the free distributions to the poor.
If Caelius had been to see moneylenders in the capital, it seemed he had been successful. The noble was in excellent humor organizing work parties in the courtyard each morning. Tarquinius was picked for the harvest, as he had been every summer since arriving on the estate eight years previously.
Huge areas of ripe oats and wheat had to be cut and stacked. It was a backbreaking task, lasting from dawn till dusk for a week or more. Already tanned from days on the mountainside, Tarquinius's skin was burned a deep mahogany color. To the delight of some female slaves, his long hair grew even blonder. Its length helped conceal the birthmark.
Fulvia was now too infirm for physical labor and ferried food and drink to the fields with the older women. Caelius had tried before to make the men toil all day without pause, but too many had collapsed from dehydration in the hot summer two years before. One had even died. The noble realized a short daily break was cheaper than dead laborers.
By the fourth day, the sun was beating down with a malicious intensity. Fulvia's arrival in the early afternoon with a mule-drawn cart full of water, bread, and root vegetables was most welcome. She parked it in the shade of a large tree, and everyone crowded around.
"I've got a bit of cheese here," Fulvia whispered, patting a cloth-covered package by her side.
Tarquinius winked in reply.
The whole group was stripped down to loincloths and sandals, short-handled scythes shoved into the leather belts that Caelius provided. To prevent attempts at escape, the slaves among them wore heavy iron manacles around their ankles. Like any big landowner's, Caelius workers were from all over the Mediterranean. Judaeans, Spaniards, and Greeks sweated beside Nubians and Egyptians. Conversation was limited as the famished men ate, and soon each basket of food was empty. Only a few crumbs had fallen for the sparrows pecking hopefully at their feet.
Maurus, one of the Greek slaves, chewed the last of his bread wistfully. "What I'd give for a piece of meat! Maybe we 'll get some at the Vinalia Rustica."
"Caelius is too stingy! And he's got real money worries at the moment," snorted Dexter, the vilicus, a tough ex-legionary from the south. "But I'd say Olenus eats plenty, eh?"
The others glanced curiously at Tarquinius, whose trips to see the old man were common knowledge.
"Bet that sorcerer feeds him lamb all the time!" said one.
"Is that why you go up there?" There was an envious tinge to Maurus's dark-skinned features.
"No. It's so I can't hear your whining."
There was a burst of laughter, scaring the birds into flight.
The foreman squinted at Tarquinius, a strange look in his eyes. "You do spend a lot of time on the mountain. What's the attraction?"
"He wants to escape this damn heat!" remarked Sulinus, a thickset slave.
There was a general murmur of agreement. It was fearsomely hot. The uncut wheat shimmered and swayed, baking in the sun.
Tarquinius remained silent, letting the drone of cicadas fill the air. "So?" Dexter rubbed absentmindedly at an old scar.
"So what?" Alarmed at the foreman's sudden interest, Tarquinius feigned surprise.
"Does that crazy soothsayer eat meat every day?"
"Only if he finds a dead lamb or kid." Tarquinius's mouth watered. He had eaten freshly roasted meat with Olenus countless times. "Not otherwise. The master wouldn't allow it."
"The master!" Dexter scoffed. "Caelius hasn't a bloody clue how many sheep and goats are up there. He's often said that eight lambs for every ten ewes per year is enough."
"That's a poor return," added Maurus spitefully.
"Olenus is the only one who will herd on the peak." Sulinus made the sign against evil. "Too many spirits and wild beasts around those cities of the dead."
Fear filled the men's eyes.
Streets of tombs in the graveyards near the ruins of Falerii were a powerful reminder of the area's history, and few on the latifundium dared go near them, even in daylight. The whole mountain was known for freak storms, packs of wolves, and harsh weather, a place where the Etruscan gods still lingered.
"That's why Caelius leaves him be." Tarquinius wanted to change the focus of conversation, the nightmare fresh in his mind. "This section is nearly finished." He pointed at the field. "We could have it stacked by sunset."
Dexter was surprised. Normally it took threats to get the men moving after a break. He sank another beaker of water. "Back to work, boys. Don't make me use this," he growled, tapping the whip on his belt.
The workers trudged across short stubble toward the remaining wheat, some casting resentful glances at Tarquinius. But none dared to resist the overseer's iron will. Or his whip. Dexter had been hired to keep everyone in line, and he did so with brutal force.
Fulvia waited until the others had walked some distance before she handed over the cloth bundle with a sly smile.
"My thanks, Mother." He planted a kiss on her brow.
"The gods bless you," Fulvia said proudly.
"Dexter?" The moment his mother had turned the cart, Tarquinius hurried after the burly vilicus. "Some tasty goat's cheese for you."
"Show it here!" Dexter reached out with eager hands. He tasted a piece and smiled. "My compliments to Fulvia. Where did she get this?"
"She has her ways." Everyone knew kitchen workers were able to obtain foods that others could only dream of. "I was hoping..."
"To finish early today?" Dexter guffawed. "That'd take more than a lump of cheese. Caelius would have my balls if he knew you were dodging work again."
"It's not that." Tarquinius was risking a beating by speaking out of turn, but the look he had seen on Dexter's face was worrying him. "I was hoping you might tell me if the master was planning anything. For Olenus."
Dexter's eyes narrowed.
The haruspex had long existed on the periphery of estate life, tolerated only because of his skills with animals and his isolated lifestyle. Like most Romans, Caelius strongly disapproved of anyone practicing ancient Etruscan rituals, and Dexter was no different.
Tarquinius sensed the foreman knew something.
Neither spoke for several moments.
"Get me some meat and I'll consider it," Dexter replied. "Now get back to work."
Tarquinius did as he was told. As soon as the wheat was harvested, he would offer to hunt some wolves. Knowing that predators had been decimating flocks on the lower slopes this summer, Caelius might just let him off before the olives and grapes were taken in.
And once up the mountain, he could easily kill a lamb for Dexter. It was a gamble whether the overseer would keep his side of the bargain, but he had no other way of discovering what Caelius might have planned. After years of Olenus's tutoring, Tarquinius's senses were extremely sharp. His dream had been followed by Dexter's interrogation, and he felt sure something was about to happen to the haruspex.
"Put some energy into it!" Dexter cracked his whip. "You're the one who wanted to get back to work early."
Tarquinius took hold of a bundle of wheat in his left hand, holding it steady for the scythe. In one smooth movement, he stooped and cut the ripe stalks close to the ground, placed them behind him, turned back, and grabbed another bunch. On either side, the men were performing the same rhythmic movement, moving steadily forward into the crop. It was a task Etruscans had been doing here at harvest time for hundreds of years, and the knowledge calmed Tarquinius as he worked, imagining his ancestors before the Roman invaders had come.
THE FORGOTTEN LEGION. Copyright 2008 by Ben Kane.