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       The Shrine (A gripping short story in the bestselling Eagles of Rome series), p.1
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           Ben Kane
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The Shrine (A gripping short story in the bestselling Eagles of Rome series)


  Contents

  About the Book

  About the Author

  Title Page

  The Shrine

  Author’s Note

  Glossary

  Eagles at War

  Copyright

  About the Book

  A closely fought race, treachery in a back alley, a visit to the shrine of an Egyptian Goddess. A Roman centurion discovers that Fate will always hold him in her power.

  The German frontier, spring 6 BC. When Lucius Cominius Tullus, a recently promoted centurion, gambles on a foot race between rival legionaries, he has no idea that his wager will endanger his very life, and that the streets of an Empire border town can be as deadly as the bloodiest battlefield.

  About the Author

  ‘History is more than facts on a page. It’s the sounds, the smells, the people, the passion. History should make you think: “I was there”. My books are born from my obsession with Roman history. I’ve followed Spartacus’s trail across Italy. I’ve stood at Cannae and pictured Hannibal’s army meeting the massed legions of Rome. I’ve watched the sea lapping against the fortifications of Syracuse, besieged by the Romans for close to two years. Immerse yourself in these incredible stories and – like me – remind yourself why the legend of Rome endures.’ To find out more about BEN KANE, his world and his novels, visit: www.benkane.net.

  @BenKaneAuthor / Facebook.com/benkanebooks

  The Shrine

  (A prelude to Eagles at War)

  by

  Ben Kane

  Glossary

  Augustus:

  successor to Julius Caesar, and the first Roman emperor.

  aurei (sing. aureus):

  an uncommon gold coin, worth twenty-five denarii.

  Borbetomagus:

  Worms (a town, not the creatures).

  Castra Regina:

  Regensburg.

  centurion (in Latin, centurio):

  the disciplined career officers who formed the backbone of the Roman army.

  Danuvius:

  the River Danube.

  denarii (sing. denarius):

  cast from silver, these were the staple coins of the Roman empire. One denarius was worth four sestertii, or one twenty-fifth of an aureus.

  Drusus:

  Nero Claudius Drusus was a stepson of Augustus, and an excellent military leader who led major campaigns into Germany in the years 12-9 BC. He died at the young age of 29 after an accident on campaign. His monument still stands in Mainz, and reading about the soldiers’ footrace to it merely whetted my appetite to write about Tullus visiting the town.

  Fortuna:

  the goddess of luck and good fortune.

  Gallia Belgica:

  the Roman province to the west of the Rhine, which incorporated Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of France, Holland and the German Rhineland.

  Hathor:

  an Egyptian goddess of joy, feminine love and motherhood.

  Iberian:

  someone from the Iberian peninsula, modern day Spain and Portugal.

  Isis:

  an Egyptian goddess of fertility, new-born babies, and good fortune. She was held in special regard by women, but was also revered by sailors and slaves. Although distrusted by Augustus, her worship was widespread throughout the empire.

  legion –

  the largest independent unit of the Roman army. At full strength, it consisted of ten cohorts, each comprised of six centuries of eighty men, all of which were led by a centurion. The First Germanica, or ‘German’ legion, the Fifth Alaudae, or ‘Larks’ legion, and the Twenty First Rapax, or ‘Predator’ legion, were units stationed on the Rhine in the late first century BC and early first century AD.

  lituus:

  the curved bronze badge of office carried by soothsayers. Modern bishops’ croziers are no different!

  Magna Mater:

  a strange and mysterious goddess imported to Rome from Asia Minor (Turkey).

  Mars:

  the god of war.

  Mogontiacum:

  Mainz.

  optio:

  the officer who ranked just below a centurion; the second-in-command of a century.

  primus pilus:

  the senior centurion of a legion. A veteran in his forties or fifties, he was also the third-in-command of the legion.

  Rhenus:

  the River Rhine.

  sestertius (pl. sestertii):

  a brass coin that was worth a quarter of a denarius, or one hundredth of an aureus.

  tribune (in Latin, tribunus):

  one of six senior staff officers within a legion.

  Vetera:

  Xanten.

  Mogontiacum, Gallia Belgica, spring 6 BC

  It was a fine day in the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. The scudding clouds overhead held little threat of rain, and regular intervals of warm sunshine were enough proof that winter had gone for another year. Outside the town of Mogontiacum, the road was packed with hundreds of legionaries and civilians, come to watch the annual foot race that formed part of the celebrations commemorating the tragic death three years previously of Drusus, beloved general of the local legions and stepson of the Emperor Augustus.

  The contest would end at the tall, marble-faced memorial to Drusus. A cluster of high-ranking officers and civic officials watched there, from the comfort of a wooden stand that had been erected for the occasion. Lucius Cominius Tullus, a solid soldier with close cut brown hair and a long jaw, had done well to secure a spot on the road which afforded views right up to the monument. He had been passing through Mogontiacum the day before, and it had seemed a fine plan to stay for the race, which was famous far and wide.

  Tullus was happy to linger because he was in no particular rush to finish his journey to Vetera, some two hundred miles down the river Rhenus. He needed a little time to think. His recent promotion from optio to centurion had meant leaving the ‘Rapax’ Twenty-First Legion, the unit which he’d joined as a stripling youth more than ten years before. It was a massive step – a positive one, to be sure, but one that needed to sink in. His future now lay with the Eighteenth Legion, in Vetera. If he kept his nose clean, led his men well and continued to distinguish himself in battle, he stood a decent chance of becoming a senior centurion, commanding a cohort, before the end of his career. A grin split his face. It was even possible that he could ascend to the dizzying heights of primus pilus, the highest ranking centurion of the legion.

  The loud conversations of those around him brought Tullus back to the present, and the race, which would end soon. Soldiers from every legion stationed on the Rhenus and Danuvius rivers were taking part. It didn’t feel right to support men from the Eighteenth yet; until his journey ended, he hadn’t actually joined his new legion. His loyalties remained in Castra Regina, the home of the Rapax.

  It had been the most natural thing in the world, therefore, to place his bets on soldiers from the Rapax. Tullus didn’t know Fusco and Justus, the two finest athletes in his old legion, but he knew of them. The twelve-to-one odds offered by local betmakers for either man to win the race had only added to the appeal of backing them. A sense of duty had made Tullus also place twenty denarii on the best of the Eighteenth’s runners, although the long odds made it unlikely that he would ever see a return.

  Tullus let out a loud, luxurious belch, then another. The soldier in front of him turned with a truculent expression, but seeing the optio’s helmet tucked under Tullus’ arm, decided to keep his peace. In a jovial mood thanks to the wine he had consumed, Tullus affected not to h
ave noticed the legionary’s aborted challenge, concentrating instead on the road before them. Narrow, paved, winding, and lined with tombs, it led right towards the large military camp and Mogontiacum, and left to the settlement of Borbetomagus. At his back, adjacent to the river Rhenus, was the local amphitheatre, and on the other side of the road, some three hundred paces distant, was the grand monument that honoured Drusus.

  ‘The race is about five miles long, eh?’ asked Tullus of the legionary who had wheeled around.

  ‘That’s right, sir,’ came the penitent reply. ‘They start at the gates of the main camp, head south on this road to the small encampment, and back again, to Drusus’ monument. The first man to touch the inscription is the victor.’

  ‘Who won the first two races?’

  The legionary’s chest puffed out. ‘The same man, sir. Liberalis, of the Germanica. With Fortuna’s help, he’ll be victorious again this year.’

  ‘Not if Helvius has anything to do with it,’ yelled a soldier on the other side of the road. ‘A-laudae! A-laudae! A-laudae!’

  At once the pair and their companions exchanged a barrage of abuse.

  Men from the local garrison – the First Germanica and the Fifth Alaudae legions – would have a big advantage over those from units further afield, thought Tullus. They would be familiar with the course, having trained on it as often as they wished. Entrants from the Rapax, his old unit, were only permitted to arrive at Mogontiacum a few days before the contest, and Tullus doubted that entrants from the other Rhenus legions were allowed to act any different.

  ‘Here they come,’ called a voice.

  Cheering broke out among the spectators to the south, and everyone craned their necks to see. Second from the front, Tullus had a great view as the contestants sprinted around the last corner and into sight. Two men led the race, first a slight, black-haired legionary, and then a tall soldier with a ground-eating stride. They were separated by no more than five paces. Behind them came the rest, a pack of more than a dozen legionaries, elbowing and shoving at one another.

  ‘Come on, Liberalis, you can do it,’ roared the soldier who had spoken to Tullus. ‘Come on, the Germanica!’

  Plenty of men nearby echoed his cry, while those on the opposite side of the road jeered and shouted, ‘Hel-vius! Hel-vius!’ or ‘A-laudae! A-laudae!’

  Tullus felt a tinge of disappointment that either Liberalis or Helvius – both local soldiers – would take the victory. Although the figures in the main group were bunched too close to make any of them out, he wanted either Fusco or Justus, from the Rapax, to be near the front. Failing that, a legionary from the Eighteenth would do. There might yet be time for someone to catch the leaders before they reached Drusus’ monument.

  His hopes were soon dashed. While the gap between Liberalis and Helvius narrowed as the pair hammered up the slope towards Tullus’ position, the rest of the runners fell back a little. The clamour from the crowd grew deafening, as hundreds of men roared at the top of their voices and stamped their nailed sandals on the ground. When the pair drew alongside Tullus, Liberalis was still in the lead, but only just. Arms pumping, eyes fixed on the finishing area, he pelted by. Helvius was right on his heels, but there was a glazed look in his eyes. Getting so close to Liberalis had taken its toll, thought Tullus. Helvius had used the last of his energy. Knowing when to use that was a crucial skill for any athlete, and it seemed that Helvius had misjudged his moment.

  Sure enough, Liberalis’ lead began to increase. First it was three paces that he led his competitor, then six, and ten. Helvius pursued his rival up the hill with dogged courage, but it was clear that his attempt to win the race was over.

  The soldiers around Tullus scented victory. ‘GERMAN-ICA! GERMAN-ICA! GERMAN-ICA!’ they shouted, drowning out the cries of those supporting Helvius.

  The main body of runners pounded past. Tullus was pleased to spot Fusco and Justus together, and at the front. Fusco, a lithe figure, was leading, and Justus, a blocky man with thighs like small tree trunks, was tucked in right behind him. Like as not, thought Tullus, they’d been setting pace for one another since the start. They would do their legion proud, perhaps finishing in the top three.

  Loud gasps – shouts of dismay from some, and of triumph from others – filled his ears, and Tullus glanced up the slope, to Liberalis and Helvius. To his surprise, Helvius was now ahead of Liberalis, who was struggling to his feet. He began to chase after Helvius, but it was clear he would not manage to catch his adversary.

  ‘What happened?’ cried Tullus.

  ‘He looked back at Helvius, and tripped on a loose paving stone,’ came the sour answer from the legionary in front.

  ‘Stupid bastard. He had the race won,’ commented a voice behind.

  Every man in the main group of runners had realised that Liberalis’ misfortune had afforded them a last chance. The pack’s speed increased, each soldier desperate to catch the still flagging Helvius. They soon passed Liberalis, who was now limping badly.

  Because Drusus’ monument lay some distance uphill, Tullus’ view of the runners was better than if the ground had been flat. His excitement rose as several soldiers sprinted ahead of the rest, closing fast on Helvius. To his frustration, he couldn’t make out individual men. Let one of them be from the Rapax, he prayed.

  The din from the spectators at the finishing area rose to the heavens in the moments that followed. Figures darted around the monument in an effort to finish the race, and at least one fell. Two men closed in on the inscription before the rest, and the one that reached it first raised a fist in triumph. Trumpets blared to signify that the race was over, and the crowd went even wilder.

  ‘Who won? Who won?’ clamoured a hundred voices.

  ‘HEL-VIUS! HEL-VIUS! HEL-VIUS!’ shouted the legionaries on the opposite side of the road.

  ‘Whoreson,’ yelled the soldier in front of Tullus. ‘He fouled Liberalis somehow, or I’m no judge.’

  Arguments began over who had done what, which legionaries were fittest and who the winner should be, and continued until the trumpets sounded a fanfare that drowned everyone’s voices out.

  Tullus squinted as sunlight winked off gilded armour on the road in front of the monument. A senior officer was shepherding the victor forward. The trumpets’ sound died away, and an expectant hush fell.

  ‘Loyal soldiers of Rome, fine citizens of Mogontiacum,’ cried the officer, whose red sash revealed him to be a tribune. ‘We are here today to honour the shade of our beloved commander Drusus, whose loss we still grieve. He would be proud of the race that has just been run! Right to the end, it seemed that men from every legion on the Rhenus could snatch victory. However, one soldier touched Drusus’ inscription before the rest. That man is Fusco, of the Twenty-First Legion, the Rapax.’ With a flourish, he placed a wreath on Fusco’s head.

  Further up the hill, a section of the crowd began chanting, ‘RA-PAX!’

  However, the applause from the rest of the spectators was desultory – their comrades hadn’t won, and their wagers had been for nought. The next thing on their minds was more wine, or a woman, or both. This was a rest day for the local soldiery and they had to make the most of it.

  ‘Fusco did it!’ muttered Tullus, grinning at the thought of the winnings he’d collect. Six hundred denarii was a sizeable sum, enough to feed and water him like a tribune, never mind a centurion. The notion of buying a horse for the rest of his journey to Vetera was now a reality, rather than the fanciful wish it had been before.

  ‘You’re with the Rapax, sir?’ asked the legionary in front of him.

  ‘Aye.’ Tullus caught himself. ‘Well, I was, until recent days. I’ve been transferred, to the Eighteenth.’

  The significance of this move wasn’t lost on the soldier, whose eyes widened. ‘Begging your pardon for my behaviour earlier, centurion, when you, you–’ His voice failed.

  ‘When I belched in your ear!’ Tullus said with a laugh. ‘It was a trifle rude, I’ll admit.’
>
  ‘Not at all, sir,’ protested the soldier, his flush worsening.

  ‘Peace,’ ordered Tullus. ‘Tell me, is there a decent watering hole near here? The places I’ve seen are worse than the basest establishments in Castra Regina.’

  ‘You could do worse than The Sheaf of Wheat, sir.’ The soldier pointed towards Mogontiacum. ‘Make for the centre of the town. There’s a staggered crossroads not far from the gate. You want the street that leads towards the river, and the temple of Magna Mater and Isis. Look out for the pair of water troughs decorated with fauns. It’s opposite them.’ His face split into a smile as he caught the silver coin that Tullus had flipped at him. ‘Thank you, sir!’

  ‘To help drown your sorrows. May Liberalis do better next year.’ Tullus strode off in the direction of the town. Once he had collected his winnings, he would visit the shrine of the two goddesses, which was famous throughout the region. Only then would he seek out The Sheaf of Wheat.

  He had a strong feeling that it was going to be a good night.

  Tullus adjusted the arms of his wool tunic at the point where they emerged from under his mail, and picked up his helmet. He had placed it on a shelf by the door of the shop as he’d entered. He put it on and tied the chin strap: it afforded no protection when held under one arm. Behind him, the betmaker groaned from under the wreckage of his desk.

  Tullus cast him a jaundiced look. ‘Count yourself lucky that I only broke your nose, you thieving cocksucker. Did you really think you could run off without paying me what was mine?’

  The betmaker had the wit not to reply.

  In truth, thought Tullus, it had been a close run thing. If he had arrived a dozen heartbeats later, the betmaker would have finished locking his door and disappeared into the thronged streets. He knew from their earlier conversation that Tullus was only passing through Mogontiacum. A day or two of lying low, and he would have got away without paying out the six hundred denarii. The gods had been smiling on Tullus, though. The fool had had a beating to remember instead, and had surrendered the full monies due. Any sympathy Tullus might have felt for the man’s plight – the sum would beggar him, he had whined – had vanished at the sight of the glinting aurei in the strongbox that had been hidden under the floor. The gold coins weren’t that common still, yet the betmaker possessed scores of them. Nonetheless, Tullus had been careful to take only what was owed to him – twenty-four aurei.

 
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