When he had dreamt as a boy in Etruria of becoming a soldier, Marcus Aquila had not thought that his first command would be of the last century of the rawest cohort of the Sixth Legion Victrix, much less that he would be set to draining bogs. His legs itched with dried mud and insect bites, the bog-smell of sulphur and rot clung to everything and flavored his food, and he felt as though he had not had a full night’s sleep since his transfer to Britain.
The entire project had seemed cursed from the start. The local Brigantes tribesmen did nothing so obvious as attack, no, but every morning more tools and timber were missing, and there seemed to be no game for miles around, leaving the men to eat only raisins and wheat porridge. The orders from above were to ignore these minor inconveniences, but Marcus’s superior officers did not have to contend with eighty wet, hungry, irritable soldiers whose wine ration had inexplicably vanished—whether to theft by some tribesman or theft by some enterprising soldier thinking to sell it to the tribesmen mattered little—as well as cantankerous engineers who gave orders as if they were in charge and made the rest of the soldiers bristle and snarl like curs kept in too-close quarters.
And then there were the tents, which did not bear thinking about at all. He only hoped they would finish their task before autumn rains truly set in.
“Sir! There’s a body in the peat!” someone shouted from below.
Marcus sighed and made his way down the hill, his optio Nectovelius at his heels. Bodies. The perfect end to a perfect day. Likely it was just some local who’d been knifed in a dispute and dumped in the bog, or a farmer who’d lost his way in the fog and drowned, but if it was Roman and looked to be murder, they would have to call in the city authorities to investigate. And then there would be politics. Marcus hated politics; it was why he had started as a common soldier, like his father, rather than applying for a post as an auxiliary prefect.
But the thing the engineer was pointing at, still tangled with the peat, hardly looked like a body at first, more like a twisted bundle of shiny, darkened leather. Marcus blinked; behind him Nectovelius drew in a sharp hiss of breath and murmured something in his native British. Although Marcus was slowly learning the language, his optio’s words were too hurried and shaky for him to understand.
Then he saw it: the slightly withered, drawn-up limbs; the strangely human face, for all that it was black and leathery, slightly distorted; the shock of red hair. There were faintly darker marks around one arm—some of the tribesmen had permanently inked skin—and a heavy gold torc around its neck. It was—had been—a man, or perhaps a boy, although it looked nothing like the papery corpses, dried and scoured by sand and desert wind, that he had seen sometimes when they dug new fortifications in Judaea-that-was. There was something strange and horrifying about it, as if it might open its terrible eyes and speak to them.
Marcus shivered, feeling as if a winter wind had whipped past him. He did not want to think on what it might say.
“The three-fold death,” said Nectovelius, behind him, very quietly. “He was a prince’s son, probably of the Brigantes. A sacrifice.”
Bile rose in Marcus’s throat, but he swallowed it back. The soldiers whispered that some of the tribes still sacrificed men in their secret rites, despite the laws against it, but he had dismissed those as rumor. Surely, once Rome had come, the people would have realized the barbarism of such practices.
“Hard to say how long ago he died, but there was an uprising here about five—no, six—years back,” Nectovelius said. “I expect he gave his life for victory then, much good it did his people.” Marcus could not tell from his optio’s even voice what he thought of the man’s sacrifice. Nectovelius was of the Dumnonii, in the south, but he was also a Roman citizen who had gone into the darkness of the earth and emerged with the Raven mark on his forehead, just as Marcus had.
The engineer, a Roman, had a look of revulsion on his face, the same revulsion Marcus felt. “What do you want me to do with it, sir?”
Marcus hesitated. His first thought was to burn it—would it even burn?—or to bury it deep with quicklime and forget he had ever seen it. But he did not want to risk angering the local Brigantes further, and somehow he also did not wish to belittle the man’s sacrifice, whoever he was. “Set it aside, out of the way,” he said. “Carefully! And cover it—him—with something. I will go into the settlement and ask the chief there what should be done. Nectovelius, you will need to come with me to translate.”
As it turned out, the local chief spoke Latin well enough that Marcus did not need Nectovelius’s services as a translator. The chief's lined face revealed nothing. “We will come and take the body away,” he said in his thick British accent. He did not thank Marcus, but Marcus had not expected thanks. Would the Brigantes rebury the dead man with honor, befitting the noble deeds of a chief’s son? Or would they destroy the body because the man’s sacrifice had failed to bring them victory? It should not have mattered to him; what was important was that the man from the bog would no longer cause the men to whisper and make the sign against evil, slowing their work even further.
Still, a part of him wished to know the fate of the man’s body, even if his soul had long departed. He must have been brave, to go to his death willingly, without the heat of battle to blunt the fear, and brave to sacrifice himself for his people. Perhaps it was not unlike what Publius Mus had done centuries earlier, when he dedicated himself to the gods of the underworld and rode out alone against the Gauls at Sentinum: a kind of devotio.
Back at their own camp, Nectovelius leaned over and said, “I heard the villagers talking. He was the son of the old chief, Cunoval, him that led the revolt—Esca, they called the man, although I do not know if that was his name before, or if they call him that because he was a sacrifice to the waters.”
Esca, Marcus thought. In Latin, it meant food. A dish for the gods, perhaps, but in the end it had done neither the man in the bog nor his people any favors. They would have done better to bow to Rome, and live.
Still, when he made his offering to Mithras that night, he thought of the man in the bog and prayed that his soul feasted in the halls of his own gods.