“Praise Mithra, Lord of Light. Mithra the unconquerable. Mithra the ineffable.”
As the man in the lion mask reached the end of the roughly hewn passage and turned the corner, the chants from the mithraeum faded. He pulled up the mask. His wild beard made his broad face look only slightly less ferocious than a lion’s.
The man drew a deep breath. It was easier to fill his lungs with the cool air than it had been behind the mask. An oil lamp in a wall niche dimly illuminated burial recesses in the tunnel’s walls, each sealed with a slab bearing the name of the deceased. Beyond this spot the lamps were not maintained but the catacombs snaked on interminably, a Stygian maze.
The man turned another corner, paused, and listened. There was only the utter stillness and silence of a place where time has turned to dust. Satisfied no one had followed him away from the ceremony, he walked through the trembling light of another lamp into deepening darkness.
He would not like to spend eternity down here, wrapped in a shroud, locked away in a compartment chiseled from solid rock. He tugged his beard, as if to reassure himself of his own corporeal existence.
At first he thought the voice was in his imagination. A thin, dry rasp, the shifting of bones. Then as his eyes adjusted a robed and hooded figure coalesced from the inky blackness where the tunnel intersected another. For all Felix could make out, the hood of the speaker might as well have been empty. The figure was bent, as if with age. It matched the ancient voice. Yet there was something else about the voice, something unnatural. Had, in fact, someone seen him slip away from the mithraeum and taken another route to intercept him?
“How do you know me?”
“Everyone in Rome knows about you.”
“What are you doing down here?”
There was a faint, distant rattle—a rat nosing through old, brittle grave wrappings, or perhaps a dry laugh. “I often wander Hades.”
“This isn’t Hades.”
“Are you certain of that?”
The mounted Goth soldiers spotted the mule-drawn wagon just outside Rome. Staying on back roads, John and Marius, disguised as farmers on the way to market, had hoped to get closer to Rome and then find a way to slip into the besieged city.
That was not going to happen now.
John pulled his sword from under the seat as Marius got the mules turned around. The swine they were hauling milled around or stared out over the wagon gate. One of them let out a weirdly human shriek. Blood spurted from the spear in its neck. The rest of the pigs went wild with terror.
The Goths were gaining ground fast.
Without a word, Marius thrust the reins at John and scrambled over the seat into the back of the wagon. He slipped in its filth, fell, and crashed through the panicked swine. Risking a glance behind, John saw Marius open the gate.
The pigs exploded out of the wagon onto the road, squealing, screaming, and grunting, scrabbling for footing, blundering into one another. The Goths tried to veer aside too late. The writhing landslide of enraged flesh slammed into their horses, panicking those that weren’t knocked down.
Marius, who had almost been swept into the road with the pigs, clung to the gate and began to pull himself back into the wagon. He might have succeeded except that the mules, frightened by the explosion of noise behind them, swerved suddenly. John’s hand blazed with pain as the reins were torn from his grip. The wagon, relieved of its load, accelerated with a lurch. Marius lost his hold and fell.
Clinging to the seat with one hand, his other clenched around the hilt of his sword, John prepared to leap after his friend. Then he saw Marius crumpled in the dirt, already surrounded by four Goths who had disentangled themselves from the chaos.
There would be nothing John could do.
The mules bolted off the road, across ruined vineyards, in the direction of the Appian Way, reins dragging over the ground, far out of John’s reach. He hung on as the wagon lurched and rocked wildly. Every moment he kept his grip took him further from the Goths.
More of his pursuers extricated themselves from the swine. Two horses and several pigs lay on the ground. Marius had not got to his feet. Some of the Goths had remounted and as the figures dwindled behind the wagon, John made out one gesturing in his direction.
It wouldn’t take horsemen long to catch up with the tiring mules.
The wagon had entered the fringes of a cemetery alongside the Appian Way. The mules zigzagged between tombs of marble, travertine, and brickwork, structures shaped like towers, pagan temples, or massive square tombs decorated with statuary and bas-reliefs of aristocratic families, tombs displaying the names of the deceased incised into enormous plaques, reminding John of the signs of shops along the Mese in Constantinople.
He glanced back as his pursuers drew nearer. As he prepared to leap, a corner of the wagon caught a low obelisk, bringing it down and flinging John to the ground.
He found himself staring into a lichen-bearded marble face identified as Publius Attius. He raised his head to peer over the side of the toppled obelisk. The wagon was already lost to view amidst tombs and cypress trees, but he could hear it rattling and banging. Had the Goths seen him fall? The horsemen raced straight toward him and he ducked down. The hoof beats veered away, avoiding the obelisk and continuing on past.
He stood up. It wouldn’t be long before the Goths overtook the wagon and realized John must be somewhere in the cemetery. He had managed to retain his grip on his sword, for what that was worth, outnumbered as he was. The tombs all around offered no hiding places. What he needed was a large mausoleum he could enter. Those tended to sit beside the road, the better to be admired by travelers. He glanced around. Rows of umbrella pines, shade for marching legionnaires in the old days, clearly marked the Appian Way’s location. Cautiously, he moved in that direction.
He heard angry shouts. The Goths had found the empty wagon.
Dodging around a rough-barked pine he looked up and down the road. Not far away sat a brick pyramid guarded by an army of spear-like cypresses. He ran towards it. Hooves clattered along the highway as he reached the base of the pyramid. He saw only a smooth slanting brick wall. More shouts. Had they spotted him?
He sprinted around the pyramid and came to a columned entrance, guarded by a snarling stone Cerberus, a peculiar design for a Roman tomb. Perhaps the deceased had served as an official in Egypt. The wealthy could afford their whims, even in death.
He stepped inside. There was a cry. A ragged figure rushed forward. John raised his sword but the man stumbled by and outside.
John blinked, trying to adjust his eyes to dimness. The interior was an empty brick box. Whatever it might have contained had long since been looted. A faint odor of smoke filled the hot air. A small fire burned in the middle of the floor, throwing shadows against the bare walls.
The sound of horses grew louder, then stopped. “I saw movement there. He must have gone into this monstrosity,” someone shouted.
There was no place to hide. John retreated into the darkest shadows in a back corner just before a Goth appeared in the entrance. John tightened his grasp on his weapon. It was an automatic response to danger. He had no intention of rushing armed men by himself. Having served as a mercenary, he had no illusions about the effectiveness of such a rash maneuver.
He sidled along the wall to a low archway on his right. His foot found a step. He started to descend as quietly as possible.
But not quietly enough, because there was another shout and the ring of nail-studded soles on stone.
John went down the stairway in a controlled fall. At the foot a glimmer of light showed a corridor. Rounding a corner, he entered a chamber lit by a wall torch. A massive sarcophagus sat there. Roman and Egyptian gods in bas-relief jostled for space on its sides like a crowd of foreigners in the marketplace at Constantinople. This was the tomb of a pantheist.
John dodged behind the sarcophagus. As he did he noticed a carving of his own god, Mithra, slaying the sacred bull.
He took it as a good omen, just as a spear flew overhead.
Goths poured into the chamber.
Another corridor led off from a side wall. One of the soldiers got there before John could reach it. He drove his sword into the man’s thigh. The man went down to one knee with a shrill scream. John leapt past him into a corridor, its rough-hewn stone walls lined with burial niches covered by plaques inscribed with names and dates. More than one bore Mithraic imagery.
Might he encounter a living worshiper down here? Was this catacomb still in use? Was that why the torches were lit?
Did the caretaker reach this place via the mausoleum on the Appian Way or could it be accessed from the city?
He had no time to ponder. He heard running footsteps behind him. The echoes made them sound like a charging army. John grabbed a wall torch and turned down a side corridor, then another. As he ran he knocked torches from their holders. They hissed and flared on the floor, then went out, leaving a trail of darkness in his wake. Before long the torches ceased. The upkeep of the catacombs here apparently extended only a short distance.
It was impossible to say how many different routes the subterranean maze presented. The moment the sound of pursuit began to diminish, new footsteps sounded nearby. The Goths must have split up. John increased his pace, heard shouts in front of him. He’d been cut off.
He swung his torch around. Could he pry one of the plaques off a burial niche and hide there?
The torchlight vanished into a dark, rectangular hole above him.
A ventilation shaft.
John placed the torch in an empty bracket, jumped, found a handhold, and pulled himself up. The rough, crumbling bricks lining the shaft allowed him to climb out of sight. He clung to them as the Goth search parties met directly below him. They milled around, shouting at each other. Where had their quarry gone? John held his breath. If someone thrust a torch toward the opening in the corridor ceiling, the light might reach him, but none of Goths looked upwards. The consensus was he had slipped away down a passage they had missed. After a short time they left.
John waited. When the silence remained unbroken, he finally allowed himself to shift his grip, easing his aching muscles. The shaft which allowed fresh air into the tunnels might provide a way to escape. He started to climb into its darkness. He could see no light above, but surely it could not be night yet?
Tree roots had found their way through the brickwork and John used them as an uneven ladder. But before long the roots started to crisscross the narrow shaft. John squeezed his way through the thickening obstruction until at last he could go no further. Exploring the darkness with one hand he found only a solid mass of roots and earth. At some point in the past the ventilation shaft had become blocked.
By the time he climbed back down into the corridor his lungs burned and he leaned against the wall, catching his breath. At least the Goths had not returned. So, for now at least, he had escaped them, if not the catacombs. Taking his torch, he looked up and down the corridor.
“At least I know exactly where I am,” he murmured, reading the inscription on the wall. “Right in front of the resting-place of Aurelia, sweet daughter who retired from the world, aged fifteen years and twenty-seven days.”
John had lost his position as Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, been exiled to Greece, yet nevertheless left for Rome. Now he might forfeit his life in these catacombs. But he had reached late middle age so that even if he did die here, Fate had treated him more kindly than fifteen-year-old Aurelia.
He pondered what to do next. It would be foolhardy to return the way he’d come. Even if the Goths had stopped searching for him, they might be lying in wait. There was nothing to do but plunge deeper into the labyrinth and hope he would come to an unblocked ventilation shaft or an entrance other than the one he’d used. There would surely be other entrances. During the years when their religion was outlawed, the Christians who carried out surreptitious burials and ceremonies in the catacombs, provided themselves with escape routes in case of need. Nevertheless, as he moved deeper into the tunnels, John found himself breathing hard, chest constricted with anxiety. It felt too much like plunging into a black, bottomless pool. Perhaps there was no other entrance, after all. Perhaps the tunnels descended down and down, straight into Hades.
The cool air created a musty shroud clinging to John’s face. There were no sounds except the soft grating of his own footsteps and the occasional hiss or pop of his pitch torch. No scuttling of rodents, no faint murmur of a breeze, or dripping of water. The corridors were filled with oblivion emanating from the thousands of dead all around. John felt that if he stopped, stilling the sound of his footsteps and extinguishing the torch, he might simply vanish into oblivion himself.
He wondered if Marius had survived and what the Goths would do to, and with, him if he had. What was Cornelia doing at their estate in Greece? In a few hours she would be preparing for sleep—as John would be doing, if not for his damnable sense of loyalty. But what else could he do after Marius arrived with a letter from Felix asking John to come and assist him in Rome? An old friend was in trouble. If he had stayed in Greece, neglected his duty to Felix, he would not have slept well for a long time. At first Cornelia had reminded him that as an exile he was not permitted to leave the Megara area. In the end, though, she had given up her attempt to dissuade him and urged him to go. She said she would sacrifice nightly to the Goddess for his safe return.
Carved from soft rock, the passageways rose, fell, widened into chambers, narrowed until the walls almost brushed John’s shoulders. Here and there burial niches lay open, the uneven floor below littered with bones and desiccated scraps of burial garments.
John paused to rest. His mouth felt full of dust. He had tried to keep going in the same direction, but it was impossible to know whether he had succeeded. There was nothing to take his bearings by. He guessed he was very deep in the maze.
He knelt and put his face close the floor, hoping to feel a draft that might indicate an opening to the outside, but the air was still.
Then he heard a sound. Or was it only his imagination?
No. There was a shuffling up ahead, where the passage branched.
Cautiously walking closer he saw a flicker of light disappearing around a turn in the left-hand corridor. Someone else was down here with him. Someone who knew his way, if John were fortunate.
He followed the light until, coming around a corner, he was startled to see a robed, hooded figure. He ducked out of sight. Should he accost the man and ask for directions to the outer world? Perhaps it would be better to simply follow. Unless the man was lost like John, he must be going somewhere.
John laid his torch on the floor. If he lost sight of his unwitting guide, he’d be left in total darkness, but he couldn’t risk the man spotting the light behind him and running off.
Following was not difficult. The hooded figure shuffled along slowly, his long garment dragging, leaving a snail trail in the dust. His gait and bent posture suggested advanced age. Sometimes his hand shook, making torchlight on the walls tremble. He never turned around but continued resolutely forward. When he came to intersections, he went one way or another without hesitation.
Then he turned a corner and vanished.
When John rounded the corner, the light was gone.
Groping in the dark, John found a rough wooden door. On the other side, stone stairs led up into darkness.
At the top was the tiny enclosed confines of an armarium, albeit with a close-fitting stone door turning on a central pivot.
Pushing it open, John saw dim, shimmering light. It glimmered at his feet and crawled more faintly over distant walls and ceilings and rows of tall columns. The door he had just come through was in the side of a column. As his eyes adjusted he realized he was standing on a walkway surrounded by water. A few narrow beams of sunlight entering overhead illuminated water which reflected light off the walls. He was in the middle of a cistern.
But was he inside the walls of Rome?