There was a hollow stillness to the marsh before a storm, as if the sea itself held its breath, but it was not a storm that loomed over the marsh, that evening. There was no wind. The sky was a dull ochre, heavy with clouds, shot with cobalt and grey where the last sliver of the setting sun clung to the day. All the lays and runnels of the march were a dull bronze, and the lone, late swan winging south over the river was limmed in gold. Inland, the fringed reeds hanging over the drainage ditches and the stubborn, salt-stiff grasses of the sea wall could have been the painted, sepia foliage of a dining room frieze. Even the tide was slow and sullen, unbreaking, as if some great beast rose through the sea towards the shore.
Caught between evening and night, Beric shivered in his tunic. The day had been warm, the plaintive last bugle-call of summer, but night brought the cold herald of winter. There would be frost, in the morning, weighting the feathered reeds and the short grass of the pasture, the first frost of winter. He should lengthen his stride, but there would be no light in the house-place to call him home, this evening, and his feet felt leaden, his steps hesitating.
He was a free man. The sea had no power to call him back, but it seemed to Beric that for a moment that he could smell the fetid rot of the rowing benches and the sharp, sweet scent of the incense from the fleet altar on the foredeck. He flung his head back to clear the stench of it from his nose, a young man with a shock of barley blond hair, well-fed and sturdy, although he would carry the scars of the galleys on his back for the rest of his life.
Beric could smell the salt of the sea, and the tang of fresh-cut wood, and the warm oak-loam of the copse by the housesteading. A little closer to the barn, and he would have caught the sweet smell of the horses, their little herd of ex-cavalry mares and Iceni ponies. On any other evening, the scent of the smoke of the homefire would have called him home, but tonight the hearth was cold and dark, the lanterns unlit. Justinius, Beric's Commander, his Maker of Roads and Drainer of Marshes, was at the fort, and his man Servius with him, for half the legionnaires would be slipping away from the lines for the evening. Justinius had said ruefully, someone had to hold the lines for Rome. Cordaella would have left for the little huddle of native houses down by the river, for although she was not British, she had delivered enough babies to be welcome at the fires. Beric, too, had been invited, but he carried his dead alone.
It was Samhain, the last day of the harvest and the first day of winter, when the dead walked the land. The hearthstones were cold, and the windows dark.
Beric thought, 'It is a long way from the shore of Gaul, to the marshes.' The words rang through him, clear as a bell, and he shuddered. Behind him, the sea was rising. A breeze, ruffling his hair, brought him the charnel stench of rotting seaweed and old bones.
He did not look back.
At the steading, Cordaella had left him the striking-flint on the threshold, as if he had to be reminded, and there was a huddle of sweetgrass and dried moss for kindling by the hearth, while the pile of logs was a looming shadow in the half-dark of the longroom.
Justinius' wife had been of the Brigantes, and Justinius himself was one-quarter native: his housesteading had a single great room with the raised fire-place at the heart of it, so that the life of the house spun itself around the fire. There were bronze lanterns, and a brazier by Justinius' desk, so that the light of the room glowed into the rafters and spilled out into the night. Usually, there would be a pot or two on the hearth and bread on the baking stones, and Cordaella would be busy with the little hand-loom or her spindle, the clacking of the wood and the rustle of her wool familiar as the hiss and crackle of the fire and the smell of broth or stew. Servius might be whistling his way back from the barn. The house would smell of apple-wood smoke and good food, of dogs and oiled leather and lanolin and ink.
The house was dark, and smelled, sharp as a lash, of the sea.
Beric recoiled, on the threshold. He said, "Jason."
One of the dogs whined from the courtyard, the sea drowned the sun, and Beric went to his knees. "I tried," he said helplessly. "I tried."
The last of the light was shuttering itself away in the night. In the village, they would be getting ready to fire the torches. There would be food, and games, as there had been in the village of the Clan, when Beric had been a child.
On the hill, Beric could hear the sea, the dull drum-roar of it, as if the rhythm of the drum and the oars had followed him up from the marshes.
There were petals scattered on the threshold, dark as blood. Something brushed past him, a breath of wind, the ghost of a breeze. A touch to his hand that could have been the silent companionship of the rowing benches, but was clammy and cold.
Beric shuddered. He thought of the island, Jason's island, that sunlit farm with its olive trees and anemones, and it seemed to him now to be the fancy of a fevered dream. It was the sea that was real, the sting of the lash, his empty belly and his blistered hands. His wrists were heavy with the weight of his irons, and the light behind his eyes was the blue glint of steel.
And then Canog barked from the courtyard. It was a high, panicked bark, nothing he had ever heard from her before, sharp and desperate.
Barely knowing what he did, Beric scrabbled for the striking-flint and clutched it in his hand so tightly the edged stone cut into his palm.
He staggered to the hearth, as if his back was bowed again under the scourge, and as he tried to strike the first spark his hands shook as badly as they had at the end of his shift at the oar. The first spark flared and died, and the dark grew closer at its death. The second flew wide and guttered on the hearthstone. The third - the third caught, and Beric, his breath sobbing, bent to cradle the kindling in his hands and blow the tiny flame to life. Slowly, he fed that tiny scrap of life, adding dry moss and twigs, until it was a glowering ember, and then a tiny flame, and then a true fire, blue and gold in the way of a fire fed on salt and apple wood. Beric gave it log after log, building it higher, until the flames chased the dark out of every corner of the longroom -
There was a strand of seaweed on the threshold, as wet as if the sea had brought it home.