FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 11
They reached Oescus on the afternoon of the fourth day and Valerius quickly found an inn close to the port where they could rest. The town was swarming with off-duty legionaries from the Fifth Macedonica which garrisoned the nearby fort and he prayed he didn’t bump into any of his old comrades. Shabolz set off immediately to try to organize passage on a river craft heading east the next morning. Valerius had no doubt Durio would learn of the Pannonian’s inquiries, but there was no helping that. Shabolz returned just before nightfall to report that he’d found places on a trading vessel carrying timber and wine to the port of Tomis on the coast of the Great Sea, a journey that would take twelve and a half days. He carried two large sacks of provisions that should last them the length of the trip and the news that as much wine as they could drink was included in the extortionate price the ship’s owner had negotiated.
Valerius discussed with Tabitha whether they should sell the horses. ‘There’s no knowing when we might need the silver,’ he pointed out. ‘But ...’
Tabitha shook her head. ‘If they find us before the boat sails tomorrow and we have no horses we might as well cut our own throats to save them the trouble of doing it. Better to release them at the wharf.’
Valerius nodded. It had been a long hard day in baking heat through the hill country south of the river and they were all close to exhaustion. Tabitha and the children took the room’s only bed and he and Shabolz lay on the floor in their cloaks. He eased off the leather stock and oiled his stump, leaving a little oil to drip into the intricate mechanism at the heart of the wooden fist. When he was done, he returned the oil to the leather sack and was asleep within seconds.
The sound of a gentle giggle woke him just as dawn broke. He opened an eye to discover Lucius and Olivia crouched beside him gently pulling apart the strings on the leather sack. Tabitha was nowhere in sight and he guessed she must have gone to draw water from the well. The two children were so focussed on their quest that they jumped away from the bag when he raised himself on his good arm.
‘We’re sorry father,’ Lucius blurted. ‘We were just curious. You keep it so close and whatever is in it is so heavy ...’
Olivia huddled behind her brother her dark eyes wide. There was no doubting who was the leader of this escapade. Curious? How could he not have realised? He blamed himself. Shabolz and Tabitha were both aware of the contents of the sack, how did he believe he could keep them a secret from his children in these circumstances.
He smiled. ‘There’s no need to be creeping about. All you had to do was ask. Take a look.’
Lucius picked up the bag and reached inside, reverently removing an object wrapped in softer leather than the outer sack. He laid it on the ground and knelt over it. With Olivia peering over his shoulder he peeled back the leather and they both gasped in wonder at the gleaming wonder they’d revealed. Lucius picked it up in both hands, marvelling at the weight.
‘Is it real gold, father?’
It. The length of a man’s forearm from wingtip to wingtip, its feathered chest puffed out, the raptor’s beak gaped in a scream of defiance. Half as high as it was wide, the hooked claws held a lightning bolt in their grasp.
An Imperial eagle. A legion’s heart and its soul. The symbol of its honour and its vow to the emperor. The eagle of the Fifth Alaudae..
Valerius shook his head. ‘It is coated in gold leaf, but I would guess it was originally forged from bronze.’
‘Is it ours?’
‘It belongs to its legion, but whether that legion still exists I do not know. I intend to return it to a lady whose father once commanded the Fifth Aludae. She will know what to do with it.’
‘The lady Augusta,’ Olivia squealed.
Valerius laughed at his daughter’s insight. How could she have known?
‘Yes, her father was the great general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.’ Corbulo had been like a father to Valerius when they had served together in Armenia. Valerius was at his side when he died, a victim of Nero’s insane jealousy.
‘How did you get it?’ Lucius asked.
‘King Decebalus of the Dacians took it as a trophy when he won a great victory over the legions. I took it from King Decebalus.’