Perhaps Marcus would not have noticed it had the day been cloudy, as most autumn days on the Downs tended to be. Perhaps he would not have noticed if he had been in a hurry, or if his mind had been occupied with thoughts of the planting of the winter barley to come, or of his household, or of the health of the plough-horse. He might have been looking in a different direction entirely; but he was looking at the last furrow, thinking only of the moment, and so he saw the sunshine caught and reflected by something on the ground, a dancing golden spark in the overturned clods of dirt.
"Hold, Kaeso." It had amused Cottia to name the plough-horse after her dull and plodding uncle; of course, she had never told him of his name-sake. Marcus walked to the glint that had been uncovered by the plough and bent to see what it might be.
"Look what I found in the north field," he said that evening. He placed it on the low table in their midst; he had taken it with him to the pump when he had washed after his labours, and carefully cleaned all the dirt from the incised pattern.
Cottia reached for it and slid it onto her finger, then bent her hand and watched as it fell to the table. "Whoever dropped it had larger fingers than mine."
Esca tilted his head toward her, and she nodded. He picked it up and turned it in his fingers. "A Roman pattern, and so a Roman ring. Not so old, then."
Marcus had been on the verge of saying that it looked like it must be very old, but checked himself; thirty or forty years was nothing to Esca, whose roots ran much deeper in the soil of Britain than his own.
"Perhaps it belonged to a Roman lady. She was crossing the Downs, and it fell off her finger, since it is so large," said Cottia. "She must have been terribly upset when she lost it. Aunt Valaria lost one of her bracelets in Aquae Sulis and you should have heard her complain!"
"I think it is sized for a man's hand," said Esca. He slipped it onto a finger, then off again. It fit him well, but Marcus knew better than to suggest he wear it.
"Very well, it was a man. Maybe he was hunting, for why else would he be off the road? The stag took him across country, across what would become our field. It was a cold day, and so his ring was loose. As he reached for an arrow, it slid off, and he was too intent on the pursuit to notice."
Marcus smiled. "A fine story."
"Perhaps it did not fall but instead was placed there in the ground," Esca said quietly, looking at Marcus.
"But why would a man put such a thing into the ground on purpose?" Cottia frowned, clearly turning the idea over in her mind. "I suppose if he'd stolen it and did not want to be caught with it… yes, that's it, and he was being chased by the guards and quickly pressed it into the soil and then marked the place with a rock, but as one of the guards passed the rock his foot accidentally kicked it aside, and when the thief came back, he could not find it, and so it lay there for years, for tens of years, until you found it with the plough!"
She looked absurdly triumphant, her face flushed and her eyes bright; then she looked from one man's face to the other, from Marcus to Esca and back again, and her eyes narrowed and her smile faded. "Is it that you know the true story of this ring?"
Esca just looked at him, so finally Marcus shook his head. "It is not the ring."
She nodded. "I said I would not ask questions."
"And I said that one day I would tell you the whole story. I suppose now it is time."
And so he told her the story of how he and Esca had recovered the Eagle, and what the Legate had said when they had brought it back. "We gave it an honourable burial, beneath my uncle's house. The name and number of the Ninth Hispana is to be forgotten, and the Eagle as well."
"Forgotten?" she mused. She picked up the ring again and closed her hand around it. "Maybe for a while. But perhaps in tens of years, or a hundred, or ten hundred, when we are all gone and the walls of Calleva have crumbled, a man will push his plough through the earth that used to lie under your uncle's house and it will turn up something shiny, and he will bend to see what it is…" She opened her hand wide to show the ring resting on her palm. "Why, it is an Eagle!"
"That is a very small Eagle," Esca observed.
"And a round one – no, Cottia sweet, we are not mocking you. It is a strange thing, though, to think that someone might find it a very long time from now."
"Perhaps his woman will tell stories about us," said Esca.