He was playing draughts with his nephew Marcus on the night of the winter solstice, a night for melancholy and reflection. Sleety rain hammered a tuneless melody against the windows. Marcus – melancholy and reflective, himself – had asked him why, when his service was finished, he had settled in Britain. It must have seemed a rough and strange country to a boy newly come from the South. But Aquila himself did not see it that way; not any longer. Not for a very long time.
"I killed my first boar in Silurian territory," he told his nephew. "I have sworn the blood brotherhood with a painted tribesman up beyond where Hadrian's Wall stands now; I've a dog buried at Luguvalium – her name was Margarita; I have loved a girl at Glevum; I have marched the Eagles from end to end of Britain in worse weather than this. Those are the things apt to strike a man's roots for him."
"I think I begin to understand," said Marcus after some time; and perhaps he did. But after the game was over, and Marcus had gone to his room, Aquila went up to his study in the watchtower and took out the dagger that lay in the drawer of his writing-desk. It was a fine dagger of native British make, and as he held it he remembered the man who had given it to him…
It had been raining steadily since they had set out that morning. The surface of the road had become churned into mud, and it splattered on the horses' hocks, and sometimes on the riders' legs, as the Tribune Junius Capito and his retinue rode north toward the frontier. Not nearly as nice as our stone road, thought Aquila.
"Perhaps when you have finished building your road, you will pave this one," said the soldier to his right, as though reading his mind.
"We are not even near finishing," said Aquila, shaking his head. "It will be a year or more until we reach Luguvalium."
"But this mud-pit will still be here when you are, eh?" He laughed. Macra, that one was called; a man in his late thirties, canny and tough like a piece of old hide. After two days, Aquila was beginning to know all of Capito's men. They were good men, for the most part, and unlike the brash Tribune they were real soldiers, who knew which end of a sword to stick into an enemy. Still, Aquila wished with all his heart that he was back in the small way-fort west of Corstopitum, working on the stone road.
As Optio his work was mostly supervision, but he enjoyed the physical labor as well: digging the ditches, moving the topsoil, laying the rocks and the sand and gravel for the surface. He had not, at first, thought he would enjoy it. When his century had been assigned to the vexillation which would build the road between Corstopitum and Luguvalium, he had thought it was a punishment. He had dared to love the camp commander's daughter, beautiful Claudia who had died there in Glevum, and when she had been buried he was sent away. It was only later that he realized it had been meant as a deliberate mercy, not as punishment; as something to occupy him and take him away from his grief.
At first it had seemed like mindless work, but there was art to it, as there was to the building of the way-forts along the route. More art, anyway, than there was in riding through the soggy hills of Valentia. And more camaraderie as well, among the fellows of his cohort, for although Capito's men were cordial they were not particularly friendly; they had come from Eboracum together, a cohesive unit, to escort the Tribune Junius Capito on his inspection tour. Their first stop had been Corstopitum, and the road to Luguvalium that was under construction.
Pronouncing himself well satisfied, the Tribune was about to depart for the fort which had just been constructed on the near shore of the Bodotria Estuary, when several of his men had fallen ill. As the best horseman among the Corstopitum men, Aquila had been detailed to join them, to help make up their numbers. "The tribes of Valentia are mostly peaceful," the Prefect had said as he had given Aquila his assignment, "but the Caledones respect neither the peace nor the borders."
And so Aquila found himself riding north on a rainy summer's day, in the train of the Tribune Junius Capito. It would not have been such a bad thing, exploring the country, except that the Tribune – a senator's son being groomed for high position – fancied himself a military man, despite his purely political background. He frequently ignored the advice of the more seasoned officers in his train, riding out ahead when they urged him to proceed cautiously, and making more noise than was prudent. It was no difficulty, though, for Aquila to stay out of the way behind the baggage-wagon.
It was hilly country they rode through, bare on the tops and forested with rowan and ash in the valleys. The track – it seemed presumption to call it a road – wound down toward a broad river, which they forded with some difficulty; if he ever did work on this road, Aquila thought as they finally continued past, he would put a bridge here. Perhaps a bit to the east, where the river had seemed narrower and the hills steeper.
He was thinking about bridge-building, and perhaps that was why he did not notice the painted men galloping out from among the trees, their shaggy ponies cutting between the horses of the Tribune's escort, until an arrow found its way into his horse's chest, sending them both crashing to the ground.
The shouts of battle rose around him. He struggled out from under his horse and joined the combat, but a man afoot was no match for the sturdy ponies which did not seem to have so much trouble with the slippery mud as the more elegant horses which the Romans favored. The whooping tribesmen darted amongst them, slashing their short, sharp knives at man and horse alike.
A rider came at Aquila and he ducked out of the way, swinging his sword at the pony's flank as he did so. There was the satisfying contact of weapon with flesh. But the blow pushed him off balance in the wet mud, and he went sprawling full-length into the ditch at the side of the road; he barely had time to lift his arm to try to break the fall, and he landed hard, jarring his shoulder.
He shifted, preparing to rise to his feet. He saw a flurry of hooves coming toward him, too quick, too close; and that was the last thing he remembered.
Senorix put his shoulder to the back of the cart and gave it a good shove as Beros guided it back onto the roadway and urged the horse to move forward. With a pop, the wheel came free from the muddy rut where it had been stuck, and they were rolling again, headed back to the dun with their load of goods.
"I will be glad to be home again," said Beros as they got underway again. He clicked his tongue at the horses, but they ignored him, continuing at their same plodding pace.
"I as well," said Senorix. The market at the village by the Red Crests' fort was usually a lively place, but it had seemed subdued on this visit. Faces that were ordinarily friendly had been closed and suspicious, and Senorix had been uneasy until they had left the gates behind them. They had heard snatches of hushed talk of Dalriads and Caledones, of raiders and burned huts, and although they were Damnonii and had come from the south, not the north – and the Dalriads and Caledones were their enemies as well – they were strangers to the Votadini who lived along the great estuary, and so they sensed they were unwelcome.
At least the rain was easing. It had decreased to a soft mizzle, and as Senorix craned his head upward to squint at the clouds he thought he saw a few patches of blue. He saw crows as well, circling ahead of them low in the sky.
"Hold," he said to Beros. The crows made him uneasy. They had not seen any travelers on the road in either direction since shortly after leaving the fort. He listened for a moment, but heard nothing other than the crows' cawing. No voices, no horses. "Ahead, now, but be watchful."
Beros directed the horses ahead accordingly. He was older than Senorix – next year his oldest son would be recognized as a man to the tribe during the Feast of the New Spears – but he was primarily a trader, not a warrior. As a merchant of the clan, he respected the strong spear arm and sharp eyes and ears of Senorix, a warrior and the second son of the clan's chieftain.
When they reached the place where the crows were circling, they could see there was no need for watchfulness. That time had passed.
The dead men lay in the road and in the muck of the side-ditch. Blood stained their sodden clothing and matted their hair. They were clearly Red Crests, the Eagle-soldiers of Rome, although their helmets and armor had been taken by whoever had killed them. Three horses lay dead as well. A wagon had been tipped on its side halfway across the road; the barrels it had held had been smashed and their contents taken, although a few lengths of rich fabric lay trampled and muddy on the road.
"We will have to move that so we can pass," observed Beros.
Senorix nodded; the forest was not dense, but they would not be able to lead their own wagon through it. "We should bury them, as well."
"We have not the time for that."
"Then at least we should move them from the road."
Beros glanced over his shoulder. "We should leave this place quickly. Those who did this…"
He did not finish the sentence. He did not need to; Senorix knew what he was thinking.
Straining together, they tilted the broken wagon back onto its wheels and then pushed it to the side so they would be able to pass. Senorix insisted they move two of the dead men also, as it did not seem right to drive their horses across bodies that had once been living, and Beros grumbled but helped him carry them to the ditch where other bodies lay.
As they laid the second man next to the first, Senorix heard a low groan. It did not come from the broken body in their arms but from one of the others that lay in the ditch. He put a hand on Beros's arm and nodded toward the source of the noise. "That one still lives, I think."
Beros raised an eyebrow and looked dubious. Senorix couldn't blame him, for the body – the man – did not look as though it had any claim to life. Mud and blood streaked his face, and one arm was flung out at an impossible angle. But even as they looked at him, his closed eyelids twitched and he groaned a second time.
"He lives," said Senorix decisively. "We will take him back with us."
It had perhaps not been a kindness to carry the injured Roman soldier back to the village in their wagon; the man let out such a wail of agony the first time they bumped over a rut that Beros muttered that they ought to just put a knife across his throat to spare him the pain. But after a short time the man subsided to silence. When Senorix looked back to check that he was indeed still breathing he saw that the man had pulled loose one of the ropes that tied the sacks of goods which shared the wagon-bed with him, and had worked it into his mouth. His face was tight and strained as he bit down on it, his eyes tightly closed. Senorix turned back to the road, and offered a quiet prayer to Lugh that the man survive until they reached the village.
He was not dead when they carried him out of the wagon and into the house-place, though his breathing was harsh and fast, with a hollow wheeze that sounded like the wind in the reeds by the side of a lake. Keri came barking at their return, but he could not spare her his welcome yet, not until he'd set down his burden.
An amused voice came from behind him as he and Beros laid the man onto Senorix's own sleeping-place. "Still rescuing strays, little brother?"
Beros laughed. "Did I not say that would be the first thing Cathlan would say to you?"
"So did you," said Senorix. "He's heavier than Keri, though." And then to Cathlan: "They were set upon on the road to the fortress. The Votadini in the town told us the Caledones are raiding."
"That is ill news," said Cathlan, his voice suddenly serious. "Father will want to know."
"I will talk with him after I find Meddu."
"She is with Boua," said Cathlan, and Senorix nodded. His brother's woman was just beginning to show that she was carrying their second child, and her mother, who was healer-woman for the clan, was often with her. "I'll send her in. You go tell Father what you have heard and seen."
Cunorix the chieftain was indeed very interested to hear about the Dalriads and Caledones, and about the broken wagon and dead men that he and Beros had come upon along the road. "We shall have to sharpen our spears," he said, nodding.
Beros took his leave, but Senorix hesitated. "There is one more thing."
"The broken Eagle you have taken in, yes."
Somehow he was not surprised his father already knew. "We could not leave him in the road."
"You could not, at any rate!" His father smiled, and Senorix felt his cheeks flame. It was true that he had always had a soft heart for hurt animals and broken creatures. His hound Keri had been left by a traveling harper when she had hurt a paw and could no longer follow him; Senorix had taken her in, and she had become his. Adginna had always been fragile, and he had taken her for his woman. But Adginna was beyond his mending now…
"The people of our clan are friends to the Eagles," continued Cunorix, and his voice was somewhat harder than it had been before. "But they do not always understand us, or our land. And if they were to come here to the dun, and find one of their warriors dead of his wounds, what do you imagine they will think?"
"He will not die."
His father looked at him, and he knew he, too, was thinking of Adginna. Senorix had sworn she would not die either, but she had, and the daughter they would have had, as well.
"He will not die," he repeated, and left his father's audience-hall to return to his own bed-place. Meddu was already there, bent over the figure. She had cleaned the mud and blood from his face and limbs, and Senorix took a moment to look at the stray he had rescued: tall for a Roman, as tall as Senorix himself, and with hair the brown-yellow of autumn grass. Heavy brows, a strong nose, and muscled arms. His legs bowed slightly at the knees, as though he were used to riding a horse. His eyes were closed and his breathing had slowed, but it still held that harsh wheeze.
"He sleeps?" Senorix finally asked, his voice low and quiet.
"Not true sleep, but the sleep that comes from injury," said Meddu. "He has been kicked in the head by a horse, I think." She parted his hair to show Senorix the blood crusted thickly at the roots. "And in the chest as well. His ribs will heal. The other…" She shrugged.
He squatted beside her. "I will help you. Tell me what I must do."
"What is it to you whether this man lives or dies?"
"It is –" He struggled to find the words. "He was set upon by our enemies, and so he is my friend." She nodded, but skepticism was plain in her face. He did not want her to think this a whim; this was a man's life, and all life was sacred. Even with enemies, one only killed out of necessity. "I have seen too many die," he said at last.
"All life passes," she said gently, "and all souls are reborn."
He swallowed. "This one will not die. We will not let him die. Tell me what I must do, and I will do it."
She looked at him for a long moment. "Fetch some water, then. We will take turns, you and I, sitting beside him. And perhaps he will live."
He awoke with a desperate thirst. His chest ached with every breath he took, and his head hurt as though he'd been drinking unwatered wine. Maybe he had been, Aquila thought; his thoughts were still muzzy with sleep, and it was an effort to remember where he was and what he'd been doing the night before. Toasting Claudia's health with Gracchus and Fullo in a tavern in Glevum…no, he abruptly remembered, they had buried her, put her sweet, lifeless body into the ground on a rainy day. Even the skies had mourned her passing, the men had said to each other.
Rain, he remembered rain. But it wasn't the rain of that day they'd buried Claudia, it was rain falling on him as he rode to the north, as he rode to his new post at Corstopitum…no, that wasn't it, either. He was riding in the rain behind a wagon. Mud speckled his legs and that of his horse. A man had been beside him…Macra, he remembered the name now, and with it he remembered everything: the ride north, the ford at the river, the painted men galloping from among the trees, knives in their hands, and his horse had been shot out from under him, and he had fallen in the road…
Suddenly he gasped, and his eyes flew open. He did not lie in the road. He was in a small, close room, on soft rugs. It was very warm. A woman sat on a low stool beside him, a length of dark blue cloth on her lap, a needle in her hand. Her bound hair was streaked with white, and she wore a simple tunic in a checkered pattern, dark and light brown.
She smiled at Aquila and said something he didn't understand. He knew only a few words in the British language, enough to buy a meal in a tavern or pass the time of day politely with a farmer. Although the way he was feeling, he wasn't sure he'd be able to understand good Latin.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand," he said. His throat was raw and dry, and he coughed a few times, which only made his chest hurt more. His hoarse voice sounded in his ears as though it belonged to someone else. He mimed drinking from a cup. "Water? Is there water?"
She put her sewing on the floor and stood, then left the room. He coughed again, and this time it was so racking and painful that he had to close his eyes. He did not open them again until he heard footsteps.
The woman entered the room again, and blessed Jupiter, she was holding a jug in her hands. He sighed with relief. But then his breath caught in his throat as he noticed the man following behind her. The man looked to be in his early twenties; perhaps he was twenty-three, which was Aquila's own age. His hair, which fell in long waves to his neck, was reddish brown, and a long mustache of the same shade framed his mouth. Then Aquila noticed the tracery of blue lines on the man's upper arm, and despite the room's warmth, a chill slipped down his spine.
"If you are going to kill me," he rasped out, "then do it now."
The man frowned and shook his head. "No, no, we are not those who did this to you," he said. His Latin was precise, lightly accented. "Here we are friends to the Eagles. I am your friend. She brings you something healing to drink." He spoke to the woman in their language, and this time Aquila recognized a few words: afraid, kind, drink.
She held the jug to his lips and he took a cautious sip. It was not water, but something herbal and slightly bitter, warm but not hot, and he drank as much as she let him. It felt good going down, soothing his throat. When she took the jug away he thanked her in his best British, and she smiled.
"It is good to see you awake," she said very slowly, as though to a child, but he didn't mind, for it helped him understand her words.
"I am happy to be awake."
"Ah, you do speak our language," said the Briton, and then he said something else that Aquila couldn't follow.
"No, only a little," said Aquila, and then the coughing took him again. The woman frowned and laid a hand on his shoulder, then bent to place her ear against his chest.
When she straightened again she said, "It hurts?"
"Very much." That was all he could manage in British; looking up at the man he added, in Latin, "I can not breathe deeply – it feels like a knife in my side. And when I cough it is as though the knife is being stabbed through me again."
"It is that your ribs are broken," said the man. "Meddu says it will hurt you for some time yet. But you shall rest here with us while they heal." He said something to the woman – Meddu, Aquila supposed – and she nodded, put the jug on the floor and then left the room.
"And here is – where?"
"Oh! You must think our manners very poor. I am Senorix, son of Cunorix, the Chieftain of the Damnonii of – you would not know our village, but it lies on the river, west of the road that you were on when you were attacked." He looked down, then back at Aquila, his expression sad and soft with concern. "I am sorry to tell you that all of your companions were killed."
Aquila closed his eyes. He had not liked the Tribune, but he would not have wished him dead. And the others – Macra, Tiro, all the rest. "I am Aquila," he said finally, "of the Second Augustan Legion, detached to the construction of the road that will cross Britain from east to west. I was sent to escort a Tribune to Castellum." He opened his eyes and looked at Senorix. "I suppose I have failed."
"You were ambushed by the Caledones. That is no fault of yours."
But he knew he should have been paying better attention. After all, that was why he and the other men were there: to protect Tribune Junius Capito. He must have been talking with another soldier, or watching the forests and hills go by; he couldn't remember, exactly.
"No fault of yours," Senorix repeated. "We had just come from the fort – the new one in the north where I think you must have been going – and the Votadini there told us the Caledones are becoming bolder. They are pushing south into our lands, and we will have to stand against them." He lowered himself to the stool by the bed and bent toward Aquila. "Do you remember the attack? How many men there were, where they came from?"
"I remember nothing," Aquila said bitterly.
Senorix shrugged. "No matter. They will come, or they will not come."
"I should return to Corstopitum."
"You are not to get out of bed yet. Meddu has told me I must not allow you to get up, and I would not have her cross with me. I would rather be shot at by a whole band of Caledones."
Aquila laughed, or tried to; it made his ribs hurt too much. His mouth was dry again, and he feared another coughing fit would come on him. That hurt even more than laughing did. "Do you think she will be cross if you give me some more to drink?"
"I think she would approve," said Senorix. He lifted the jug from the floor, and Aquila took it from him – his left shoulder protested, but he ignored it – and drank.
When he had finished, he said, "They probably think me dead, in Corstopitum."
"Then it will be a welcome surprise when you ride back to them."
"And when will that be?"
Senorix stood and took the empty jug from his hands. "When you are healed, friend, and not before."
It seemed to Aquila that he would never be healed. He lay on the bed in the too-warm room; sometimes Meddu was there with him, and sometimes Senorix, but when neither of them was there the time stretched out like an endless road. At first he tried to occupy his mind with thoughts of Claudia, but that was too depressing, so he turned his mind to the road and the forts along it which he'd been engaged in building. That made him wonder if the Caledones would come as far south as their building-line, and that made him wonder if the Caledones would come to this village, and what would happen if they did. It was a worrying thought; but he had nothing else to think about.
Meddu brought him more of the herbal water, and later broth, and still later a soft mash of root vegetables, which she fed him with a spoon. Senorix helped him stand so he could walk outside to piss. "I can walk by myself," he grumbled when Senorix insisted on supporting him, but the truth was that every movement was painful, and his head still spun when he stood, so he was glad of the help, even though he felt faintly embarrassed by it.
For lack of anything else to do he insisted that the Britons teach him their language. Meddu spoke no Latin but pointed at things in the room, or parts of his body, and told him what she called them; Senorix answered his questions and explained things in detail when they sat together of an evening. "Beros, who does the trading for our clan, speaks Latin, and my father the chief had him teach me and my brother Cathlan, who will be chief after him. It will be a useful thing to know."
"But there are not many Romans in this part of Britain," said Aquila.
"Not yet. But every year there are more. More forts, more roads, more Romans."
It was true. These people would all have to learn Latin, eventually. They would have to change their ways to fit in to this new and growing part of the Empire. But look at all they were getting in return: stone roads, aqueducts, houses that were far better than these huts of mud and straw.
Fortunately he was not confined to the room for long. Unfortunately it still hurt to do much more than walk, and slowly at that. The first few times he felt as weak as a newborn kitten, taking uncertain steps on wobbling legs. But Senorix politely matched his slow pace as they went out to the fields to watch the sheep and cattle at their grazing.
"I think that I am getting faster," Aquila said one day. It was the height of summer; the long grass waved in the breeze, and the air smelled of ripening things, fruit and grain and cattle. He wondered how the road was progressing, far to the south. Had they completed the second wayfort yet?
"You are getting faster, and Keri is getting slower," laughed Senorix. His dog was heavily pregnant, and Aquila thought that soon she would no longer be following them to the fields, but instead be seeking out a comfortable place to have her litter.
"Perhaps soon I will be fast enough to return to Corstopitum."
"Is it that you already wish to leave us?"
Senorix sounded almost offended, and Aquila put a hand on his arm. "I don't wish to leave, no. It is only that I feel as though I am shirking my duty, playing at being a herdsman when I should be building our stone road."
"You cannot lift a spear yet, let alone a stone," said Senorix, shaking his head. "You will have to play here a while longer." They had reached a ridge where they could sit and watch the livestock at their grazing, and he sat on the ground and plucked a stalk of the tall grass and began to pick at his teeth. Aquila dropped to the ground beside him and did the same, while Keri sprawled at their feet.
"Maybe I should be lifting a spear, then," Aquila mused. "I am quite out of practice now. Although I will have to borrow one from you, as some painted savage has mine now, as well as my sword."
"Do you take a care who you call a painted savage," said Senorix lightly, and Aquila flushed.
"I did not mean –"
"Na, na, I know you meant nothing by it. And we shall bring spears with us by and by, when Meddu says that you have healed enough that it will do you no harm, and practice against the trees."
They sat in silence for a time. Aquila wished he could take back his words; Senorix was painted, as were all the men of his tribe, but they were no savages. Aquila knew that from the time he'd spent with them. Their houses were wattle-and-daub, not stone, and they wore woolen tunics and braccae and scorned to eat fish, but they were still human beings.
"I do feel like I ought to be doing something useful, though," he finally said.
"You are being useful. You are keeping me company."
They both laughed, but the next day when Meddu examined him, and he asked if there was some way he could help the tribe, she also smiled and said, "You are being a friend to Senorix. That is a good thing to do."
It did not seem to him that it was any great hardship, nor that there was any reason why Senorix should need him as friend, when there were so many others in the tribe. But then a few days later Keri did not come to heel, and they went looking for her and found her in one of the byres, nested in the hay.
"Look, Senorix," Aquila said delightedly. "She has three pups already, and more are coming!"
There was no answer. He looked up; Senorix's face was as white as milk, and he was breathing shallowly through his mouth. Aquila frowned. Surely Senorix had seen a dog whelp before.
"Is it too close in here for you? Shall we go outside?"
"I…no. I would not have things go badly for her."
"She is fine – she is a good, strong hound, and her body knows what to do."
"No," said Senorix. He looked as though he were about to vomit. "I – what if – forgive me," he said hurriedly, and rushed outside.
Aquila watched Keri for a few more moments. She did not seem to be having any trouble, so he left her there, but Senorix was not outside the byre, nor was he back in the sleeping-hut, nor in the hall of the Chieftain. It seemed unlikely he'd gone to the fields leaving Aquila behind; at any rate, Aquila did not want to make the long walk on his own if he might not be there, for his sides still hurt when he walked.
Cathlan's woman – Boua, her name was – was sitting on a bench with two others, working with their needles, while their toddlers sat in the dirt and played with toys made of bark and sticks. Aquila greeted them politely and asked if they knew where Senorix might be. "Keri is having her pups," he said, "and I think he found it too close in the byre."
The women looked at each other, their faces serious. Boua's hand went to her round belly, and for a moment Aquila worried that he'd said something wrong. Maybe the British did not talk about dogs and their whelping to a woman who was big with child.
"Perhaps you will find him by the burial mounds," one woman finally offered. Her eyes went to Boua, to her big belly, and then back to Aquila. "It is that his woman…" Her words trailed off nervously.
"Na, Trexa, I know you do not wish me ill," said Boua briskly. "It will not harm my babe to say it." And then to Aquila: "His woman was always sickly. It did not go well with her, nor with the child."
Oh. This was something he had not known. He thanked the women and left them to their work.
Senorix was indeed by the burial mounds, sitting on the ground, looking at nothing. Aquila dropped to the ground beside him. They sat together for a while in silence.
"Once I loved a woman," Aquila finally said. "Her name was Claudia. It was at the turn of the seasons almost a year ago when she became ill. She never rose from her bed." He shook his head, though Senorix was not looking at him, and blinked back the tears which threatened to come to his eyes. "It was a rainy day when we buried her."
The other man made a sound that might have been a sob. Aquila did not look at him, but he moved his hand closer to where Senorix's lay on the ground, close enough that their small fingers touched along their length. There was another long silence before Senorix took in a shaky breath.
"Adginna," he whispered. His hand moved to rest upon Aquila's. It was cold and damp with the moisture from the earth. "Her name was Adginna. Her child – our child – we did not name her. She never drew breath. But she lies there with her mother."
Aquila remained silent. It seemed to him there was nothing he could say. They had both loved, and their loves had been torn from them; but how much worse, how infinitely worse it must have been, to lose a child as well. He turned his hand under Senorix's so they rested palm to palm. This was why, he suddenly understood, Meddu had said that it was a helpful thing to be Senorix's friend. He could not save his woman – he must have tried, and how awful it must have been to have failed – but he had saved Aquila, a Roman stranger. Maybe in doing so it had helped in some small way to heal his heart; Aquila hoped that it had. He pressed his hand against Senorix's, interlacing their fingers, letting the touch say all the things he could not say out loud.
Finally Senorix moved his hand away, and when he spoke, his voice was as steady as ever it was. "It is past time that we move the cattle to the lower field."
"I will come with you," said Aquila.
"All right," said Senorix, getting to his feet. Aquila stood as well. "But first, let us look in on Keri and see how many pups she has now."
The grain grew tall and golden, ready for harvest. It was no difficulty for Aquila to keep pace with Senorix now, as they herded the cattle from one field to another; sometimes they rode the clan's sturdy horses, as the up-and-down motion no longer made his chest and shoulder ache. Some days they brought spears with them and hurled them into targets made of straw and branches, cheering at the hits and laughing when they missed; some days they sat on the bare ridge above the fields of wind-rippled grain, talking about everything and about nothing.
Keri had weaned her pups and sometimes she followed them again, especially when they stayed close to the village, and the pups could run along beside. When she didn't, there was usually one of the other hounds, Bran or Sira or the fat one everyone called Mouth from his habit of begging for scraps.
It had been a fine summer, a golden summer. But it was autumn now; the long days were getting shorter, and Aquila knew he was only making excuses to stay in the village beside the river. It was time to take his leave – it was past time.
They had climbed one of the hills which overlooked the village and now sat companionably beside each other. Keri had stretched herself in the warm grass as though the short climb had exhausted her. Aquila looked down at the round British houses, at the children laughing and playing in the dirt, at the women washing clothes at the edge of the river. He would miss this place.
He opened his mouth to begin to say what he must, but Senorix spoke first. "You should have one of Keri's pups for your own. The little bitch-dog with the white socks on her hind legs, I think, for she is the one that is always most eager to play with you."
Aquila looked away; away from the village, away from his friend, his gaze traveling off into the hills to the south. Somewhere beyond those hills, legionaries were building a road of stone. "I would like that," he found himself saying; and then, "She will remind me of this place."
He felt the tears come to his eyes, and told himself it was just the wind.
"Aquila," said Senorix. His voice was low and rich with affection. He put his hand on Aquila's shoulder and squeezed gently. "If it is that you do not wish to leave, you may stay."
"I am a soldier of Rome."
"You are my brother," said Senorix; then he laughed. "Look at you! You are no Roman – you are a bearded British tribesman, in tunic and trousers and a good British cloak!"
"Your good British cloak, which you have so kindly loaned to me," said Aquila, but he had to smile as well. He ran his fingers along his chin – yes, he would have to shave before he returned to Corstopitum.
"It is yours to keep, if you would have it." He swept his hand across the horizon, indicating the village below. "It is all yours, if you would have it. The clan would welcome you. My father the chieftain would welcome you."
"I am a soldier of Rome," repeated Aquila helplessly. "I am sworn to my legion."
"Your legion believes you dead. Be reborn as a Briton, my friend." Gently he added, "It is in my heart that you might stay."
To stay in Valentia, to stay in this village; to stay with Senorix, and Keri and her pups, and the sheep and cattle and horses. He would see Boua's child born – her time was very close now – and help to bring the harvest in. He would ride the hunting trail with Senorix and Cathlan and the others, chasing after boar and red deer; perhaps the Caledones would come raiding to the village, and if they did, he would ride that hunting trail as well.
He would let his beard grow – or shave his chin but not his lip, as Senorix did. He would decorate his skin with swirling blue lines, and go about bare-chested in braccae. He would no longer speak Latin but only the British tongue, and he knew that although he might never lose his accent the clan would not mock him for it.
In his mind he saw the vision of what this future might be like, of who he might become. The temptation was strong, like the scent of a roasting haunch of meat after a long day's ride; like a warm hearth on a cold and rainy night.
And yet in his heart Aquila knew that it was not for him. He was no tribesman, but a soldier; no Briton, but a Roman. He was not born to tend livestock and build round houses of wattle and daub. It was for him to build Roman roads, and the straight stone walls of Roman fortresses.
Senorix must have seen it in his face. "If it is that you must go, then you must go."
"I am sworn to my legion, and to my Emperor."
"Strong bonds that tie you to your world."
"Old bonds," said Aquila. "And I shall honor them. But there are also bonds that tie me to this world, and they feel just as strong to me." He looked down at the village for a moment, then back at Senorix. "And some are stronger. I have a brother in Rome – he was a squalling baby when I joined the Eagles, and now I suppose he is walking around the villa, holding to Mother's skirts – I don't know him at all. But you called me brother, and my heart believes it to be so."
"Then we shall make the bond true. Blood and blood," said Senorix, drawing a dagger from beneath his cloak. He cut his hand with the blade, then gave it to Aquila, who did the same. They pressed their hands together. "You are my brother, now and forever."
"You are my brother, now and forever," said Aquila. Blood and blood. And then the thought came to him that his blood must have run out into the British soil, back when he had been felled by the Caledones at the back of Capito's train – so long ago it seemed now! He'd given the land his blood, and he had drunk from its rivers, which were the lifeblood of the land. And so he was blood-brother not just to Senorix but to all of Britain. The thought was at once disturbing and oddly satisfying. Rome was a pleasant but distant dream; Britain was here and now, the cloud-swept sky above him and the earth beneath him, and Senorix beside him, a smile on his face.
He tried to give back the dagger but Senorix shook his head. "It is for you to keep, and Keri's pup as well. They will remind you of the time you spent with us."
"I do not need anything to remind me," said Aquila, though his fingers curved possessively around the dagger. "I will remember this forever."
The Prefect gladly welcomed Aquila back from the dead, and he resumed his work on the stone road. In time the road was finished, with all its forts, and the vexillation sent back to rejoin the Second Augustan Legion at its new base of Isca Silurum. Aquila was promoted to centurion, and eventually to primus pilus, the most senior of the centurions. But that was a bittersweet promotion, for it brought with it the move from the Augusta to the Fretensis, from Britain to Egypt and Judaea. He felt as though he were torn from his roots, in a way that he had not felt when he first left Rome to join the Eagles.
He had seen Senorix only a handful of times before leaving Britain. The land was too large and his duties too many, especially after his promotion, and although the rude road he had traveled that summer was indeed eventually rebuilt in stone, it was not his legion that was sent to do it.
When he left the legions there was no question where he would go. He had been born in Rome, and posted in Judaea for some years; but his heart was still in Britain, and he followed it home.
As he had told Marcus, he had marched the Eagles from end to end of Britain. Of all the places he had been, he had liked best of all the southern part of the island, and that was where he settled, in a town called Calleva. The weather there was more pleasant than it was farther north, and the native Britons more friendly toward the Romans, with many of them taking on Roman dress and Roman names. He had been a soldier all his life, but now he was done with battle, and he did not care to live in a place where he might at any time be attacked by a band of angry tribesmen.
It had always been in his mind to travel north someday, to the village where he had spent that one golden summer. It would be a fine thing to see Senorix again. But years passed, and one thing after another kept him in Calleva: the building of his villa, the writing of his book, his appointment as Magistrate and his subsequent duties. And then the Iceni and Brigantes rose up against Roman rule, and it was no longer prudent for a retired legionary to travel to the north.
Aquila's fingers moved across the dagger's hilt, tracing the worn embossing. Perhaps Senorix had taken a new wife, had fathered children; perhaps now he sat on a bench outside his sleeping-hut, grandchildren and puppies playing at his feet. Perhaps he had grown old as Aquila had, with only his hound as company. Perhaps he had been felled by a Caledonian arrow long ago.
If he were honest with himself, Aquila had to admit he did not want to know. He preferred to imagine Senorix as the young man he had been, with russet hair and laughing eyes; for then he himself was young, his beard not yet gray, his joints not yet aching when the wind blew from the north, rattling the windowpanes and sending its icy tendrils through the gaps.
Senorix had been a friend – more than a friend – and it was through his friendship that Aquila had found his home here in Britain. Now his nephew Marcus was here, restless and unhappy; but perhaps all he needed to find contentment was a friend.
And maybe he would, thought Aquila as he replaced the dagger back into the drawer of the writing-desk. Tomorrow they would go to the Saturnalia Games. All the families of Calleva would be there, and no doubt there would be young men of Marcus' age. He'd been cooped up in the villa for far too long with only his old uncle and his old uncle's old slaves for company. Perhaps tomorrow he might meet someone he could call friend. Someone who could be a brother to him, as Senorix had been to Aquila; someone who would help Marcus strike his roots here in Britain, and make it truly his home.