At least it would be good to see the faces of old comrades again. He'd been most at home among the men of the Eighteenth. The men serving in Judaea tended to be a sullen lot, too close-knit to welcome newcomers readily. Oh, he'd handled his men well enough. He gave a grim smile as he gripped his staff of office. His fellow centurions were another matter. They barely tolerated his presence.
He'd been transferred, right after the conquest of Germania, in the hope his example might improve morale and discipline among the surly legion relegated to the hot, dusty, and difficult new province. It hadn't worked out that way. His men learned discipline, all right, but they resented him for it. And the other centurions scorned him for the very qualities they were supposed to emulate.
In the three years he'd been with them, he hadn't made a single friend. When he was offered the chance to return to the Eighteenth, since Varus was growing edgy about the potential for trouble with the tribes in Germania, he leaped at the chance. Recently subdued tribes were habitually unsettled, but that was a problem easily dealt with. A few demonstrations of Rome's power, and they'd quiet right down.
The only difficulty was in getting from Judaea to Germania. He had to make part of the journey by sea. So here he was, stuck on this stinking hulk as it wallowed through the waves, much too slowly for his taste. If he had to put to sea, he would rather the swift galleys manned by slaves Rome used as naval vessels. Instead, he had to make do with this flimsy, sluggish merchantman.
As soon as they reached a suitable port, or the weather turned against them, he intended to leave the ship, secure a horse, and ride in comfort the rest of the way. At least he could look forward to enjoying a warm welcome at the journey's end. If Fhina still followed the Eighteenth, perhaps he'd even think about settling down. Of course, chances were someone else had already had the same idea. He scowled so fiercely the ship's master, who'd been approaching him, took a step back.
Marcus sighed. "What is it now, Master Alexios?"
"I don't particularly want to disturb you, Centurion, but I mislike the look of yonder ship."
Marcus shaded his eyes and squinted in the direction the master was pointing. He could just make out a ship riding low in the water, some distance away. Something seemed odd about it, but he couldn't say what.
"See, there's not a man in sight on her deck."
A chill ran down Marcus' spine. Augustus may have lessened the number of pirates infesting these waters, but he hadn't eliminated them, not entirely.
"Can we outrun them?"
"Not if they're what I fear they are. I was hoping you'd take charge of some of my men. We might be able to fight them off." He didn't sound hopeful, but any chance was better than none.
Marcus shook off his daydreams and began shouting orders to the frightened sailors. They had few weapons, and less idea what to do with them, but he drilled them grimly as the two ships drew closer. Still, the other ship made no move to pursue them or come alongside. Marcus spared a look over his shoulder, and saw the decks looked completely deserted. Master Alexios hailed the other ship, but there was no answer.
Before they slid past each other, he swung the helm, and drew up alongside the strange vessel. Two of his men flung out grappling hooks, and swiftly drew the two hulls together. Marcus drew his sword and stepped up and over, onto the deck of the other ship. The deck was clearly empty, so he rushed the deckhouse. Although a fire still smoked on the hearth, there was no one inside.
Marcus doused the fire with a few splashes of sea water scooped up in his helmet, then ducked below. The space here was dim, but full of cargo. No one spoke or moved, and as he searched he found no one. Finally, at the stern, he located a tiny cabin with a door barred on the outside. He tugged it free and flung the door open. It was too dark to see much, but he seized the occupant by the shoulder and led her up on deck.
She was beautiful, with grey eyes, skin like ivory, and hair the colour of a fox pelt. She was simply dressed, and wore an iron slave collar about her neck. A few simple phrases in Latin were enough to convince Marcus she knew nothing of the fate of anyone else on board. He shivered, and wondered if they'd been taken by Neptune. But then, why didn't he take the slave girl, and the rest of the cargo?
By now, Master Alexios had joined him, and the two men went over the ship more carefully. Still, there was no clue to what had just happened here. The smoking fire showed it must have happened just hours before, but now there was no sign of the sailors and the handful of passengers who'd been aboard, save their abandoned belongings.
After a short conference, Master Alexios determined the ship was sound. He sent a few of his men on board her, and, with the two ships still firmly lashed together, continued sailing. Marcus reluctantly agreed to accompany them all the way to Rome, since the testimony of a Centurion would lend some credence to the tale. A promise by Master Alexios of generous compensation helped to persuade him.
For the remainder of the journey, Marcus spent much of his time on board the strange ship, examining her inch by inch for some clue to her strange fate, or conversing with the slave girl, hoping to tease some hint of what happened out of the little Latin she knew. He suspected the abandoned ship must be an omen of some kind, but what could it mean?
In due course, they reached the harbour outside Rome, and when they told their tale, customs men and imperial officials of all sorts swarmed all over them. None of them was able to find anything more. Master Alexios was anxious to lay claim to the ship and its valuable cargo of ivory, rare woods, silk, and spices. Before the matter was settled, a new sensation swept Rome.
Marcus was sitting in a tavern near the quay, sipping wine, when a scruffy fellow came in. "Who'll buy me a drink? I've shocking news, straight from Rome!"
One fat trader slid a bronze coin across the counter, and shoved the beaker of wine he got in return at the man. "Go ahead, then."
Marcus was only half listening, but he caught the name Varus, and paid attention. "They say he's lost all three legions. They're all lying dead in the forests of Germania!"
Without thinking, Marcus stood. "I know the Eighteenth. No barbarian rabble born could stand up to them."
The fellow spread his hands. "All I know is what I heard. There's a big fuss, fellows running in and out of the Senate. I tell you, something happened, and they didn't look happy to me!"
Marcus glared at him, then stomped out. Within a few hours, he was in Rome, questioning everyone willing to stop and speak with him. Slowly, the truth of the report sank in. Arminius had played Varus for a fool, and Varus had led three fine legions into a trap. He slumped against the counter in a dingy, nameless tavern and gulped cup after cup of sour wine.
All his friends, gone. Fhina, gone. His own Legion, the Eighteenth, gone. Officers and men he knew, all gone. He remembered the abandoned ship, and shivered so hard wine slopped from his cup even though it was only half full. All the wine in Rome wasn't enough to drown the thoughts in his head, not tonight. He'd been in his share of battles, and seen friends cut to pieces before he could come to their aid.
None of that had ever shaken him as this news did. All Rome was shaken; men in the streets said Augustus himself wandered the corridors, sleepless, wailing for Varus to give him back his legions. But everyone else in Rome save Marcus had forgotten ths ship. For all he could learn, they might have sighted it on the very same day the Eagles fell in the depths of the forest, with no one left to take them up and bring them back to Rome.
With so much else on their minds, Rome forgot the strange, abandoned ship, but Marcus never did. Even in the heat of battle, while fighting to stay alive so he could return to Irena, the slave girl he'd bought from Master Alexios, freed, then married, he could never quite get it out of his head. He thought of it sailing endlessly, crewless, a messenger of doom to any who saw it.