The Silver Branch (Eagle of the Ninth)

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9780786197491: The Silver Branch (Eagle of the Ninth)

In The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus Flavius Aquila ventured into the wilds of Caledonia to retrieve the lost Eagle of his father's dishonored Ninth Legion. In this new story of Roman Britain, the mutilated standard is found again by Flavius, a descendant of Marcus, and his cousin Justin, a young surgeon in the Roman army. It is found at a time when conflicting loyalties, violence, and intrigue are undermining Roman rule in Britain. Justin and Flavius are accidentally caught up in this power struggle when they discover a plot to overthrow the emperor. A series of adventures carries them across England and down again to the South, where they become secret agents of Rome. But when the time comes for open revolt, they are ready with a band of loyalists to carry the Eagle of the Ninth into the thick of battle to win new honor for the Eagle and for Rome.

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About the Author:

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) was born in Surrey, England. A voracious private reader, she left her regular studies at fourteen to attend art school. In 1950 her first children's book was published, and from then on, she devoted her time and talents to writing children's historical novels. Many of her books are set in Roman Britain, a period that particularly interested her. She received the OBE in 1975 and, in 1992, was awarded the CBE. She was still writing on the morning of her death at the age of seventy-two.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Saxon Shore

On a blustery autumn day a galley was nosing up the wide loop of a British river that widened into the harbour of Rutupiae.

The tide was low, and the mud-banks at either hand that would be covered at high tide were alive with curlew and sandpiper. And out of the waste of sandbank and sour salting, higher and nearer as the time went by, rose Rutupiae: the long, whale-backed hump of the island and the grey ramparts of the fortress, with the sheds of the dockyard massed below it.

The young man standing on the fore-deck of the galley watched the fortress drawing nearer with a sense of expectancy; his thoughts reaching alternately forward to the future that waited for him there, and back to a certain interview that he had had with Licinius, his Cohort Commander, three months ago, at the other end of the Empire. That had been the night his posting came through.

“You do not know Britain, do you?” Licinius had said.

Justin—Tiberius Lucius Justinianus, to give him his full name as it was inscribed on the record tablets of the Army Medical Corps at Rome—had shaken his head, saying with the small stutter that he could never quite master, “N-no, sir. My grandfather was born and bred there, but he settled in Nicaea when he left the Eagles.”

“And so you will be eager to see the province for yourself.”

“Yes, sir, only—I scarcely expected to be sent there with the Eagles.”

He could remember the scene so vividly. He could see Licinius watching him across the crocus flame of the lamp on his table, and the pattern that the wooden scroll-ends made on their shelves, and the fine-blown sand-wreaths in the corners of the mud-walled office; he could hear distant laughter in the camp, and, far away, the jackals crying; and Licinius’s dry voice:

“Only you did not know we were so friendly with Britain, or rather, with the man who has made himself Emperor of Britain?”

“Well, sir, it does seem strange. It is only this spring that Maximian sent the Caesar C-Constantius to drive him out of his Gaulish territory.”

“I agree. But there are possible explanations to these postings from other parts of the Empire to the British Legions. It may be that Rome seeks, as it were, to keep open the lines of communication. It may be that she does not choose that Marcus Aurelius Carausius should have at his command Legions that are completely cut away from the rest of the Empire. That way comes a fighting force that follows none but its own leader and owns no ties whatsoever with Imperial Rome.” Licinius had leaned forward and shut down the lid of the bronze ink-stand with a small deliberate click. “Quite honestly, I wish your posting had been to any other province of the Empire.”

Justin had stared at him in bewilderment. “Why so, sir?”

“Because I knew your father, and therefore take a certain interest in your welfare...How much do you in fact understand about the situation in Britain? About the Emperor Carausius, who is the same thing in all that matters?”

“Very little, I am afraid, sir.”

“Well then, listen, and maybe you will understand a little more. In the first place, you can rid your mind of any idea that Carausius is framed of the same stuff as most of the six-month sword-made Emperors we have had in the years before Diocletian and Maximian split the Purple between them. He is the son of a German father and a Hibernian mother, and that is a mixture to set the sparks flying; born and bred in one of the trading-stations that the Manopeans of the German sea set up long since in Hibernia, and only came back to his father’s people when he reached manhood. He was a Scaldis river-pilot when I knew him first. Afterward he broke into the Legions—the gods know how. He served in Gaul and Illyria, and under the Emperor Carus in the Persian War, rising all the time. He was one of Maximian’s right-hand men in suppressing the revolts in eastern Gaul, and made such a name for himself that Maximian, remembering his naval training, gave him command of the fleet based on Gesoriacum, and the task of clearing the Northern Seas of the Saxons swarming in them.”

Licinius had broken off there, seeming lost in his own thoughts, and in a little, Justin had prompted respectfully, “Was not there a t-tale that he let the Sea Wolves through on their raids and then fell on them when they were heavy with spoil on their h-homeward way?”

“Aye—and sent none of the spoil to Rome. It was that, I imagine, that roused Maximian’s ire. We shall never know the rights of that tale; but at all events Maximian ordered his execution, and Carausius got wind of it in time and made for Britain, followed by the whole Fleet. He was ever such a one as men follow gladly. By the time the official order for his execution was at Gesoriacum, Carausius had dealt with the Governor of Britain, and proclaimed himself Emperor with three British Legions and a large force from Gaul and Lower Germany to back his claim, and the sea swept by his galleys between him and the executioner. Aye, better galleys and better seamen than ever Maximian could lay his hands to. And in the end Maximian had no choice but to make peace and own him for a brother Emperor.”

“But we have not k-kept the peace,” Justin had said bluntly after a moment.

“No. And to my mind Constantius’s victories in North Gaul this spring are more shame to us than defeat could have been. No blame to the young Caesar; he is a man under authority like the rest of us, though he will sit in Maximian’s place one day...Well, the peace abides—after a fashion. But it is a situation that may burst into a blaze at any hour, and if it does, the gods help anyone caught in the flames.” The Commander had pushed back his chair and risen, turning to the window. “And yet, in an odd way, I think I envy you, Justin.”

Justin had said, “You liked him, then, sir?”

And he remembered now how Licinius had stood looking out into the moonlit night. “I—have never been sure,” he said, “but I would have followed him into the mouth of Erebos itself,” and turned back to the lamp.

That had been almost all, save that at the last Licinius had stayed him in the doorway, saying, “If you should at any time have speech with the great man himself, salute him from me, and ask him if he remembers the boar we killed below the pine woods at the third bend of the Scaldis.”

But it was scarcely likely, Justin thought, that a Junior Surgeon would have the chance to give any message to the Emperor Carausius.

He came back to the present with a jerk, to find that they had entered a world of stone-and-timber jetties, ringed round with sail-lofts and armourers’ shops and long-boat sheds, threading their way among the galleys that lay at anchor in the sheltered water. The mingled reek of pitch and salt-soaked timber and hot metal was in his nostrils; and above the beat of the galley’s oars and the liquid rush of water parting under the bows, he could hear the mingled myriad beehive hum of planes and saws and hammers on anvils that was the voice of a dockyard all the world over. And above him towered the ramparts of Rutupiae; a grey prow of ramparts raw with newness, from the midst of which sprang the beacon-crested tower of the Light.

A while later, having landed and reported to the Commandant and to the Senior Surgeon, having left his kit in the lime-washed cell in the officers’ block that had been assigned to him, and set out in search of the bathhouse and lost his way in the crowded unfriendly immensity of the huge fortress, Justin was standing close before that tower.

The thing was no match for the Pharos at Alexandria, but seen at close quarters it was vast enough to stop one’s breath, all the same. In the centre of the open space rose a plinth of solid masonry four or five times the height of a man, and long as an eighty-oar galley, from the midst of which a tower of the same grey stone-work soared heavenward, bearing on its high crest the iron beacon brazier that seemed to Justin, staring giddily up at it, almost to touch the drifting November skies. The gulls rose and fell about it on white wings, and he heard their thin, remote crying above the busy sounds of the fortress; then, with his head beginning to swim, brought his gaze down as far as the top of the plinth. Curved ramps for the fuel-carts led up to it at either end, and from them roofed colonnades ran in to the base of the tower itself; and now that he had got over the stupendous size of the thing enough to take in the details, he saw that the columns and cornices were of marble, enriched with statues and splendid carvings, but that they were broken and falling into decay, which was strange, here in the midst of a fortress so new that in places they were still at work on the walls. But there was broken marble everywhere, some of it roughly stacked as though for use at a future time, some clinging yet to the stark grey walls that it had once covered. A small piece that must have fallen from its fellows when being carried away lay almost at his feet and, stooping to pick it up, he saw that it was part of a sculptured laurel-wreath.

He was still holding the fragment of marble and gazing up at the great tower from which it had fallen, when a voice behind him said, “Pretty, isn’t it?” and he swung round to find standing at his elbow a very dusty young man in Centurion’s uniform, with his helmet under one arm; a stocky, red-haired young man with a thin, merry face and fly-away eyebrows, who seemed friendly.

“It is half ruined,” Justin said, puzzled. “What is it? I mean, I can see it is a pharos, b-but it looks as though it was meant to be something else as well.”

A shadow of bitterness crept into the young Centurion’s voice. “It was a triumphal monument as well—a triumphal monument to the might of Imperial Rome and her conquest of Britain. Now it is just a pharos, and we break up the fallen marble for rubble in the walls that we build to keep the Saxons out...There’s a moral somewhere in that, if you like morals.”

Justin glanced down at the fragment of marble laurel-wreath in his hand, then tossed it aside. It fell with a little sharp clatter, raising a puff of dust.

“Would you be looking for anyone or anything?” enquired his new acquaintance.

“I was looking for the bathhouse,” Justin told him; and then, by way of giving an account of himself, “I am the new Junior Surgeon.”

“Are you so? Well, truth to tell, I thought you might be.” The other glanced at the uniform without armour, which Justin wore. “You have reported to the Commandant?”

“And to the Senior Surgeon,” Justin said, with his rather hesitating smile. “He called me a fledgling butcher and turned me off until an hour before sick parade tomorrow.”

The young Centurion’s eyes had become dancing slits. “Vinicius must be in rather a mellow mood; he called your predecessor a ham-fisted assassin and threw a pitch-pot at his head, so I’ve heard. I wasn’t here myself then...Well, if it’s a bath you want, you had best come with me. I’m just going to shed this harness, and then I’m for the bathhouse myself. We’ll just have time for a plunge and a splash about before dinner if we’re quick.”

Retracing his steps with his new acquaintance, between the busy workshops and crowded barrack rows, it seemed to Justin that the great fortress had all at once put on a more friendly face; and he looked about him with a quickened interest. “This place seems very big and busy to me,” he said. “I spent my year as a surgeon’s Cub at Beersheba, and that is a single Cohort fort. It could g-get lost in this one.”

“They’re all monsters, these new Saxon shore fortresses,” said his companion. “They have to be; they are fort and shipyard and naval base in one. You’ll grow used to it after a while.”

“Are there many of them, then? Great new forts like this?”

“A good few, from the Metaris round to the Great Harbour; some of them altogether new, and some built over old ones, like Rutupiae. They are all part of Carausius’s defences against the Sea Wolves.”

“Carausius,” Justin said, with a touch of awe in his tone. “I suppose you will have seen Carausius often?”

“Zeus! Yes! This is his headquarters, though of course he’s all over the province too, in between whiles. Not one to let the turf smoulder under his feet, our little Emperor. You’ll see him yourself this evening, in all likelihood; he most often feeds in mess with the rest of us.”

“You mean—he’s here now?”

“Surely. And so are we. Come up and sit on the bed. I shall be but a few moments.”

And so, a short while later, Justin was sitting on the edge of the cot in a lime-washed cell exactly like his own, while his newfound acquaintance laid aside sword and helmet and set to work on the straps of his breastplate, whistling softly and very cheerfully through his teeth as he did so. Justin sat and watched him. He was a friendly soul himself, but he was always gratefully surprised at any sign of friendliness from other people, and with his gratitude, his liking went out, hesitant but warm, to the red-headed Centurion.

The other slipped the last buckle free, and broke off his whistling. “So you’re from Beersheba, are you? A long march, you have had. Ah, thanks.” (This as Justin reached and took the heavy breastplate from him.) And his next words were muffled in the folds of his leather harness-tunic as he dragged it over his head. “And where before that? What part of the Empire do you spring from?”

“Nicaea, in southern Gaul.”

“So this is your first sight of Britain?”

“Yes.” Justin laid the breastplate down on the cot beside him. “But my people are from Britain, and I have always had a mind to c-come back and see it for myself.”

The young Centurion emerged from the leather folds, and stood up in his uniform tunic of fine crimson wool, looking, with his red hair on end, suddenly much more of a boy and less of a grown man. “What part of Britain?”

“The South. Somewhere in the Down Country towards C-calleva, I believe.”

“Famous! All the best people are from the Down Country; the best people and the best sheep. I am myself.” He eyed Justin with frank interest. “What is your name?”

“Justin.—Tiberius Lucius Justinianus.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then his companion said very softly, “Justinianus.—Is it so?” And with a swift gesture pulled something off his left hand and held it out to Justin. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”

Justin took the thing and bent his head over it. It was a heavy and very battered signet-ring. The flawed emerald which formed the bezel was darkly cool, holding the surface reflection of the window as he turned it to catch the light, and the engraved device stood out clearly. “This Dolphin?” he said, with a dawning excitement. “Yes, I have, on—on the ivory lid of an old cosmetic box that belonged to my grandmother. It was the badge of her family.”

“That proves it!” said the young Centurion, taking back his ring. “Well, of all the—” He began to do strange calculations on his fingers, then abandoned the attempt. “Nay, it is beyond me. There have been more marryings than one between your house and mine, and it would take my Great Aunt Honoria to unsnarl such a tangled skein,—but we are undoubtedly cousins ...

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