First appeared in the anthology Tales of Ruma (2018). Copyright (c) 2018 Kristin Janz.
“Vanished? How does an entire legion vanish?”
For his part, Publius Aelius Hadrianus, Emperor of Rome, felt less distressed by the Cappadocian’s assertion that the Ninth Legion had vanished than by the man’s claim that legions were mysteriously vanishing all the time. They all knew, after all, that no Roman or ally had seen or heard from the Ninth since it marched north from Eboracum five years ago.
Hadrian glanced at Aulus Platorius Nepos, from whom the exasperated question had come. Nepos had strong opinions about the disappearance of the Ninth and the string of rebellions that followed, strong opinions about how to bring stability to troubled Britannia. He had no use for the unconventional theories of a half-barbarian Cappadocian.
Hadrian had little use for them himself, but his wife had pressured him into giving the Cappadocian an audience. Doing so had seemed the least tedious way to counter her complaint that he never listened to her advice.
“You don’t believe the Ninth was destroyed by Caledonian tribesmen?” Hadrian asked. “Or that they deserted?”
The Cappadocian shook his head. He was dressed more like a Caledonian himself than like a Cappadocian or Greek, with trousers under his tunic and a plaid cloak draped around his shoulders. “You are familiar, Lord Emperor, are you not, with Plato’s Theory of Forms?” He spoke Greek well enough but with the accent of one who had learned it as a young man, and his Latin was insufficient to the demands of their conversation. Hadrian wondered how he had gotten by in northern Britannia, from where he claimed to have come most recently. He didn’t imagine many of the tribesmen knew the language of Homer.
“That nothing we see or perceive in the material world is real, merely an imperfect copy of that which exists in the real, unseen world,” Hadrian said. “I am familiar.”
“Does it not follow then, that if the material world we know is but a copy of some unseen world, there should be many copies, many worlds, each deviating from the true world in unique ways?”
“What does not follow,” Hadrian said, “is what that has to do with disappearing legions.”
“My apologies, Lord Emperor, but it has everything to do with it. What if those legions Rome has lost over the years were not destroyed by enemy armies, but instead crossed over into one or more of those other worlds?”
One of the Praetorian guards flanking Hadrian made an involuntary sound of incredulous surprise. Nepos, for once, was stunned into silence.
After a moment, Lucius Licinius Nerva muttered, “Sounds like desertion to me.” Licinius, the governor of Germania Inferior and Hadrian’s host, seemed pleased despite his dour tone to have someone other than Nepos with whom to disagree. Nepos was only passing through the province on his way to assume the governorship of Britannia, but he had governed here several years ago and had many suggestions as to how Licinius might do things differently.
“With all respect, sir governor,” the Cappadocian said, “it cannot be desertion if the men did not go willingly and were unable to return.”
Hadrian frowned. “You’re telling me the Ninth Legion was kidnapped and taken to another world?”
The Cappadocian inclined his gray head in a nod. “It seems most likely, Lord Emperor.”
Nepos seemed finally to have found words to express his disbelief. “This is impossible. I have never heard of such a thing.” As if having reached the ears of Aulus Platorius Nepos were a precondition to possibility. Not for the first time, Hadrian felt a twinge of concern over whether this old friend was as competent as he had assumed. Hadrian was investing a great deal in Nepos’s grand plans for promoting and maintaining order in northern Britannia, both financially and in terms of his own legacy as a successful leader of Rome. The wall, for instance. If the wall turned out to be an enormous waste of money instead of a boon to frontier security, it would be remembered as Hadrian’s mistake, not Nepos’s.
“It is an unusual theory,” Hadrian said. “What evidence do you have?”
The Cappadocian bowed. Despite his barbarian attire and outlandish accent, he looked the Platonic ideal of a rumpled scholar, his attention too absorbed by matters of the intellect to be spared for such trivial tasks as grooming. Hadrian’s wife Sabina did seem to have a penchant for scholars.
“When I was a young man studying philosophy in Caesarea Mazaca, I heard a strange tale. I knew, of course, of how a Roman army under the proconsul Crassus was treacherously defeated by the Parthians.” Licinius uttered an ungracious snort at the flattery implicit in the Cappadocian’s characterization of the disastrous Battle of Carrhae. “Thirty years later, when the Divine Augustus sought the return of the 10,000 prisoners taken, the Parthians claimed that there were none to return. I always assumed that they had been taken east and pressed into service as mercenaries, but an old Scythian told me that it was the Parthian king’s magicians who had lost the Roman captives. The magicians had found a way to construct doorways into other worlds, and to bring people or valuables across into ours. On occasion, though, without warning, the doorways would expand, swallowing up anyone standing nearby.”
“This is what happened to the Roman captives?” Hadrian asked. “All 10,000 of them, swallowed by a doorway into another world.” He allowed some of the irritation he felt to creep into his voice, reminded of why he resisted all Sabina’s entreaties to involve her more in affairs of state.
The Cappadocian’s eyes flickered between Hadrian, seated in the small audience chamber’s only chair, and the standing figures of Nepos and Licinius on Hadrian’s right. “This is what the Scythian told me, Lord Emperor. He heard it from his father, who heard it from his. When I traveled to Carrhae to investigate, I heard many stories about these doorways, once I knew to ask for them. And when I started to look into other disappearances, I heard similar tales. In my travels east of here, beyond the Rhenus River, I found men who told me that not all legionaries lost in the Varian War were killed or enslaved by Germans. Chasms opened in the air, and Roman soldiers ran through them willingly because they could see that the chasms led somewhere other than the battlefield where they were being slain. In Gallia Lugdunensis, where three cohorts were reported killed in an ambush during the great Julius Caesar’s campaign against the Veneti, I heard from descendants of Gallic warriors that those three cohorts had in fact disappeared, in a great burst of light, and one of the Gallic chieftains with them. I have not been able to prove that legions were lost to another world when Hannibal ambushed the Roman army at Lake Trasumennus, but Titus Livius wrote in his history that a great earthquake occurred during the battle, and that to me seems to indicate—”
Hadrian held up his right hand and the man fell silent at once, though his mouth still worked, as if he had a great deal more to say on the subject. “The Ninth Legion. Britannia. You went to Britannia, I assume, traveled among the Caledonians and heard similar stories about flashes of light and chasms in the air.”
The Cappadocian cleared his throat. “No, Lord Emperor. I did travel to northern Britannia, but none of the local folk would say anything about the fate of the Ninth Legion. They seemed afraid to speak of it. In one larger village, though, the druid went around with a man who looked more Parthian than Briton, and that man reacted when I spoke to him in Greek. He pretended not to understand, but I know he did.”
Hadrian suppressed a sigh. “If what you say is true, it sounds as if these legionaries are not being kidnapped so much as misplaced. By Parthian magicians, or druids, or perhaps the gods themselves.”
“Perhaps. But I have a theory.” Of course he did. “The Parthian magicians used to bring objects and people back through their doorways, to please the king. What if magicians in the other worlds also look for things of value in ours? My belief is that word of the strength and skill of Rome’s armies has reached the ears of magicians even in distant worlds and that they have been stealing legionaries from Rome for centuries, to fight as mercenaries in their own wars. Certainly as far back as the Punic Wars, and perhaps even during the wars with Pyrrhus.”
“If they’re looking for capable soldiers,” Licinius said, “one would think they might steal a victorious army every so often.” He gave Hadrian a look of wry amusement.
“But you see, noble senator,” the Cappadocian hurried to explain, “the reason these battles were lost may be the disappearance of so many soldiers just before or during the worst fighting.”
Licinius snorted loudly. Nepos was shaking his head, openly disgusted.
“This has been very interesting,” Hadrian said. “I thank you for sharing the results of your investigation. I will be sure to give this threat appropriate consideration as I make plans for the present and future defense of Rome’s provinces.”
The Cappadocian bowed. “I am grateful for the hearing, Lord Emperor. May I present you with a token that helped to convince me of the truth of all this? The Scythian gave it to me in exchange for a small sum, and said it had been passed down through his family from father to son. It comes from one of those other worlds.”
Hadrian consented and had one of the Praetorians approach the scholar to receive the item. It was small, fitting easily in the soldier’s closed hand. He then dismissed the man, thanking him again.
After the Cappadocian had left the room, bowing multiple times as he backed away, Licinius started chuckling. Hadrian met Licinius’s mirth with a wide grin of his own, but in truth, he felt more unsettled than amused. Of course the Cappadocian’s theory was preposterous; and yet—
Nepos was not amused, not in the least. “Why, exactly, have we wasted our time listening to this nonsense?”
“You have suffered, gentlemen,” Hadrian said, “in order that your poor leader’s prospects for domestic tranquility may be improved. I commend you for it.” He held out his left hand and the Praetorian dropped into it the object given him by the scholar. It appeared to be a silver coin, old and tarnished. On one side, a face in profile, on the other, a stone watchtower. There was writing around the edge on each side, but the surface was so worn that he couldn’t tell whether it was a script he’d seen before.
“What did he give you?” Licinius asked.
“A coin, I think.” Hadrian turned it over and over in his hand. “Not one I recognize, but I suspect there are hundreds of distant kingdoms minting coins I wouldn’t recognize. I wonder if our Cappadocian’s Scythian friend believed the tale he told, or if he needed money and spun it to convince a stranger to give him more than the coin was worth.”
He flipped the coin over again, then brought it closer to his face, frowning.
“What is it?” Licinius asked.
“Here.” He handed the coin over. “Look at the face on the one side. Tell me if you see anything unusual about it.”
Licinius looked, frowning. Then his frown deepened as Hadrian knew his own had. “It is odd,” he admitted.
“What?” Nepos demanded, then after Licinius had given him the coin, “I don’t see anything strange. It’s a man wearing a crown.”
“The ear,” Licinius said. “Look at the ear.”
“What of it?”
Licinius clucked in exasperation. “The ear has a pointed tip, Aulus. Have you ever seen a man or woman with pointed ears like that?”
“No,” Nepos retorted, returning the coin to Hadrian, “but there are many strange-looking people in distant places. Why should some of them not have pointed ears? The Cappadocian is an idiot. He was cheated by a Scythian and has apparently spent his entire life since then chasing down the man’s preposterous story. And he knows nothing of Plato if he thinks the philosopher was actually talking about multiple worlds that could be reached through magic.”
Hadrian was inclined to agree. But he couldn’t forget the Cappadocian’s bizarre theory, or explain the image on the coin. And as days and months passed, in a blur of travel and administration, he found himself longing to believe. How remarkable, to think that there might be distant lands reachable in an instant by magic! To imagine Rome’s glory carried even to worlds beyond.