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Sacrifice

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He watched, silent as always, as Titus Hilarian made his preparations that day. Through the years, he had always been drawn to the man when he paid his respect to the gods. Hilarian had never been an exceptionally pious man, more one who acceded to the conventions. So he had visited on the usual special festival days, but not over often.

For this ceremony he took special care. He would do it freshly bathed, and in his best outfit. Hilarian took his time soaking in the caldarium; these northern winters chilled an old man’s bones. Normally his rigid discipline led him to the frigidarium, even if only for a few minutes; this time, he eschewed the plunge bath and paid for a massage, although he rejected the scented oil the slave offered in favour of simple olive oil. Another slave helped him to don a fresh tunic (he had chosen the one with the red stripe bordering its hem) and his best black wool cloak. Next Hilarian visited the barber: he had always worn his hair in a military style, even though his days with the legions were long since past. His last visit was to a little shop at the south end of the market where he purchased incense.

Hilarian checked everything was secure in the barn and nearby fields once he had returned to the farm. It was late in the day and he took the end of day report from his farm manager. His holding was a prosperous enterprise – not large – but well maintained, not the rundown wreck of a farm he had bought many years earlier, just before he retired from the Eagles. He had bought it sight unseen, using an agent, knowing he would find it neglected given what he was paying. But he had developed a fondness for Valentia during the years he had been stationed here. His demotion after Midir escaped into death had not altered that; nor had subsequent duties in Germania changed his sense of connection to the land here. On days when he allowed his thoughts to wander, he toyed with fanciful notions about the wolf he had slain all those many years ago when he had come to the wall as a raw recruit – that the animal’s fighting spirit had entered into him when he slew the beast. More often Hilarian simply knew himself yearning for bygone days when he had had a future to his military career, rather than simply serving out, in ignominy, the remaining years that were required before he could honourably retire.

So, when he had had a bellyful of fighting, and it was time for him either to retire or re-enlist, Titus Hilarian bought a tatty old copy of Varro’s Rerum Rusticarum, plus this farm just outside Habitancum. A year and much hard work later, he married a local Votadini girl; and a year after that his son was born. As time passed, and he developed a bald spot and a slight stoop, he had made a good living breeding ponies that he sold to officers of the Legion posted here, plus a few cash crops of pears and plums and walnuts. That paid the taxes and the fees for his son’s schooling. Otherwise the farm was self-sufficient. In due course, young Gaius had enrolled in the Legion, following in his father’s footsteps, rising gradually to Centurion, and, a year ago, surpassing his father by being appointed Praepositus in Deva. Hilarian felt much pride in his son’s achievements.

Until yesterday, when a trader had brought a letter. His son had been stripped of rank, dishonourably and most unfairly imprisoned, and was awaiting trial. The trader, an Optio who had formerly served under Gaius, but who had been honourably discharged two years before after a hamstring injury, had been sympathetic to his former commander’s plight and recounted the tale to Gaius’ father. Hilarian’s son had been accused of treason after he had brokered a treaty with the Deceangi to the west, against the restless Ordovices, who were at point of rebellion. In so doing he had fallen foul of the chief of the Cornovii, the tribe which held the lands round Deva. Appealed to by the chieftain (his appeal undoubtedly accompanied by a chest full of amber and silver, thought Hilarian), Sylvanus Publius Varus repudiated the treaty and made his treacherous accusation. Gaius had fallen on his sword. The news was weeks old – too late to do anything now.

“My money’s on the Cornovii rising next year,” the grizzled ex-soldier had said, “which is why I’ve decided to move shop to Eboracum.”

“You’ve come a good way north of that to give me this letter,” remarked Hilarian.

“I had a commission to fulfil at Corstopitum. Besides, the Commander helped me out of more than one tight place back when he was Centurion. It was the least I owed him.”

Hilarian had given the man a bed for the night, and good stabling for his horses, and wished him well on his way south the next morning, after ensuring he had ample provisions for his journey. Then he had begun his preparations. He had written out a prayer, wording it with meticulous care, then hidden the papyrus in a drawer. He had spent the rest of the morning at his desk laboriously writing letters of manumission for his slaves. He did not own many: one man in the stable, a woman taking care of the house, and a general overseer for the farm. Once there had been a maid to take care of his wife, and, after she died in childbirth when Gaius was only five, to act as nanny. But she had never been a slave: Cianna’s old nurse who had come with her from the Votadini village when she married into Roman life. Like her mistress, she had been dead many years.

It was afternoon before Titus Hilarian went into town and lodged the manumissions with the town clerk, before visiting the town baths. The brassy bright sunshine of the day seemed slightly tarnished when he turned for home, but still he enjoyed the familiar walk back to his farm. There were faint streaks of pink in the sky as he watched his overseer walk away from the main house on a little path that lead to the man’s hut by the orchard. It had been a beautiful day and the evening looked set to be good too, with clear sky and a slight warm breeze. Hilarian took a deep breath as he committed the scene to memory; these years on his farm had been good ones.

Once inside, Hilarian pulled out a little statue from the storage chest in the entrance hall, unwrapped her, and set Nemesis on the altar in the alcove at the end of the entrance hall. He had bought her on whim, many years before, from a Greek sculptor. He preferred her winged form to her Roman counterpart. Seated in her chariot, and carrying both sword and scourge, she was a figure designed to strike fear into those who gazed on her. Only... Hilarian had lost his fear of the lady.

As he crumbled the incense in the brazier and set fire to it, using his rolled up prayer as a spill, he remembered years before how that doomed Dalriadan King had asked to be honoured when he sacrificed to vengeance. He smiled bitterly. How many times over the years had he thought of that: felt a slight twinge of guilt about that unfulfilled pledge whenever he saw a pigeon scratching at spilled grain; remembered when he dithered over which figurine to select when changing the altar god with the seasons (always passing over the silk-wrapped goddess of retribution ticked way at the bottom right corner). Now he made a sacrifice more fitting to vengeance than a mere pigeon. Hilarian took down his short-sword from its hook. He unsheathed it, held it to the light, caressed the hilt. He knelt, positioned it. Here, in one of the most northerly parts of the Roman empire, he tended not to use his full formal name, but he did not forget it: Titus Valerius Hilarian died invoking retribution for the dishonour done to his family.

Phaedrus watched. He had never intended that request made in despair to tie his shade to this world. Once he had realised he was bound to this Roman, he had never expected it to take 36 years before the sacrifice would be made. Now he stood, looking much as he had in life, visible only to the shade of Titus Hilarian as he rose from the crumpled corpse on the floor.

“Well met, Commander,” he said, “I see you remember me.”

Slowly Hilarian nodded.

Phaedrus grinned, “Shall we go hunting?”