Tribune Tiberius Matius Buccio huddled deeper into his cloak, seeking shelter from the raw wind gusting across the gently rolling hills that surrounded the fort. Ahead of him, Centurion Longinus seemed indifferent to the weather. Buccio supposed that, eventually, he too would become accustomed to the notorious climate of Britain. Two weeks had so far proved insufficient. Not for the first time, he found himself wishing he was back in the high, dusty plains of Cappadocia in the East.
The fort, with its turf ramparts and wooden palisade, also seemed a poor exchange for the fine stone fort of his last posting. Even the huddle of dwellings and wine-shops that always gathered around any fort seemed drab and mean in comparison, with their thatched roofs and wattle-and-daub walls. Still, everything had seemed to be in good order when Buccio had inspected the fort with Longinus, from the rows of cavalry pickets and barracks to the granaries and latrines and the bath-house. And, like all the men Buccio had so far met, the sentry they now passed as they made late rounds gave challenge and answer smartly enough.
“They’re good lads, the First Thracian,” Longinus had told him the night before, while they shared a drink of wine in the commander’s quarters that would soon be Buccio’s. He sounded sorry to be leaving them, though Buccio knew he was being given a promotion, back into one of the regular legions.
“And what about the natives? The Legate briefed me when I passed through Londinium, but you know how these things are.” Buccio gave a slight shrug. “Not much detail.”
Longinus nodded: although he only carried the rank of cohort centurion and no doubt had received his fair share of inadequate briefings from more senior officers, including tribunes like Buccio, he seemed a welcoming soul. “They’re friendly enough, I suppose. Didn’t get mixed up in all that bad business three years back—.”
He wrinkled his nose as he spoke. There was no need to elaborate on what the ‘bad business’ was: news had reached even the furthest corners of the empire about the revolt in Britain and how the tribes had slaughtered half the Ninth Legion, before the Fourteenth and Twentieth under Governor Suetonius had put them down. The province seemed quiet enough on the surface now, but Buccio and an additional cavalry wing had been sent to strengthen the vexillation at Corinium and make sure things stayed that way.
Buccio nodded to show he’d understood and Longinus went on, “There’s a couple of local duns less than half a day’s ride away. They haven’t caused much trouble recently—apart from the damn cattle raids. You can make your own mind up who to believe, but they’ll both swear blind they didn’t start it and they’re just rounding up what’s theirs. Anyway, I’ll take you over to both of them, introduce you to the chieftains, and let you see for yourself.”
Buccio had met the first of the chieftains that morning: a tall fellow with pale blue eyes as hard as flints who styled himself Constantius—though Longinus told Buccio he had been known by his own name of Cadan until a mere two years before, at which time he had apparently deemed it politically wise to become more Roman than the Romans.
They reached Constantius’ dun by taking the Via Praetoria that led out through the main gate towards Venonae and then, at its end, to Lindum many miles away. The day was clear but cold and the low hills to either side rose in soft greens against a pale blue sky. The little troop—Buccio, Longinus and an escort of a tent party of eight auxiliaries—turned off the road after no more than a dozen miles, leaving the smooth, paved surface that had been laid less than twenty years before and taking a well-worn track of beaten earth, strengthened here and there with corduroys of logs, that quickly led to the dun.
Buccio had been surprised to be greeted by Constantius in the forecourt of the Chieftain’s Hall, rather then beside the hearth inside, as he had been told was the custom of the tribes in Britain. Surprised too, to see that Constantius was clad in tunic and toga rather than the native dress worn by the other men gathered before the hall. Folding camp chairs were brought out for them to sit upon, and glass goblets. Constantius himself filled them with wine before raising a toast to the emperor, instead of calling on the woman of the house to bring out the Guest Cup. In fact, Buccio realised, he could see no women at all except for a wizened old slave who presented a dish of fine red Samianware filled with imported raisins and almonds.
More Roman than the Romans, indeed! Buccio thought, as they rode away an hour later. Perhaps it was the contrast with the dun itself, the usual huddle of reed-thatched huts and small garths set inside a ring of turf banks and thorn bushes, that had made the Roman welcome seem strange. Yet Buccio could not but help feeling as if he had witnessed a hunting dog performing a clever trick to please a foolish master, while it cast sly-eyed looks towards the deer-carcass it had been called off from moments before.
He recalled, too, the sullen expressions of the men who had stood around watching them while Constantius spoke his careful Latin and exchanged the necessary pleasantries with Longinus and Buccio. When the squeal of a horse from somewhere at the far side of the dun had made Buccio turn, wondering what the sound presaged, two of them had—instinctively it seemed—taken half a pace forward, arms akimbo, so that the fall of their cloaks blocked any view in that direction.
Edging his horse closer to Longinus, Buccio murmured low enough that the escort behind could not hear, “If I am not mistaken, I think Constantius would rather we did not trouble his store of wine often—nor his hunting runs.”
Longinus grunted in agreement, his lips twitching wryly. “I think you are not mistaken. Nevertheless, he also takes care not to trouble our patrols. His quarrel is not with Rome.”
Buccio cast a glance over his shoulder at where the dun had disappeared from view behind an outthrust arm of the hills. His eyes narrowed as he recalled the orders the Legate had given him in Londinium. Facing forward, he squared his shoulders and pulled himself up straighter. Silently, he promised himself that Constantius’ quarrel would most assuredly be with Rome if he troubled any man under Buccio’s protection, whether part of the garrison or not.
They were still a mile away when they caught sight of two boys minding a herd of cattle in a marshy pasture to their right. Buccio saw them bend their heads together, before one of them took off over a shoulder of the hill behind, no doubt to carry news of the approaching party. Buccio realised Constantius must also have had word of their coming the previous day, though he had noticed no signs they were being observed until they were close to the dun. While a guard upon his hunting runs was a wise precaution for any chieftain, the stealth with which Constantius maintained his watch gave Buccio pause.
The troublesome thought was forgotten for the present as they rounded the shoulder of the hill and he saw the dun before him. While it was no less carefully sited for defence than Constantius’ dun had been, it bore a more welcoming aspect. Broodmares, some with knock-kneed foals at their sides and others still with swollen bellies, grazed on the slopes below. Once they had passed within the ditch and bank, Buccio saw women sitting in doorways spinning or grinding corn, and he could hear the beat of a hammer on an anvil somewhere to the left.
A dark-haired man some years Buccio’s junior came forward to greet them as they clattered to a halt in the paved space before the largest of the roundhouses. He was clad in a plain woollen shirt and chequered trousers, with his plaid cloak flung back over one shoulder. “Come you in and be welcome.” He gestured towards the low, dark entrance to the hall as he spoke the words in clear but slightly accented Latin.
Buccio’s mare stamped restlessly and tossed her head, and the man took a step forwards and gentled her neck, murmuring something in the local tongue that seemed to soothe her. Buccio couldn’t catch the words and doubted he would have been able to make sense of them even if he had: though he had become fluent in the Cappadocian dialect in his time in the East, he had yet to pick up more than a few dozen words of the native British tongue.
The man tipped back his head, meeting Buccio’s gaze as Buccio frowned down at him. Warmth and a little amusement flared in the dark brown eyes set under flyaway brows. “I was just telling our sister here—” The mare was nudging his shoulder, snorting contentedly, as he went on stroking her neck. “—that there is no need to be afeared. We are among friends here.”
“So we are!” Longinus dropped from his horse and came to clasp the man’s arm, a broad smile on his normally dour face. “Jago! Is your father within? I bring the new Commander to meet him.”
“Sa, he is within. Come you inside.” Jago, relinquishing the bridle of Buccio’s horse to the auxiliary who had come forwards to take it as Buccio dismounted, turned and gave Buccio an appraising look for a moment, before he led them into the dim, smoky interior of the hall.
Buccio found all within much as he had expected from the amused warnings of fellow officers when, on his journey from the East, he had admitted the place of his next posting. As promised, the reek from the fire in the centre of the hall caught at his throat even as he crossed the threshold, and he swallowed down a cough. The place was also dim, though there was light enough from the leaping flames to show him an older, large-bodied man sitting on a low stool to one side of the fire. Another, younger man crouched at his side, the resemblance between them close enough that Buccio guessed they were near kin. They were bent over something in the older man’s hands—a piece of horse harness, Buccio saw, as he turned it over and it caught the light—but they looked up as Longinus and Buccio followed Jago inside.
“My father—,” Jago still spoke in Latin. “I have brought you Centurion Longinus and the new Commander who is to come after him.”
“So.” The older man laid aside the leatherwork. “Come you in beside the fire. Though the wind’s bite is not so fierce today, this damp air is none so good for old bones.” He, too, spoke Latin, though with less fluency than his son and a shape to it that suggested the little Buccio knew of the tongue of the tribes. Acknowledging the dip of the head that Longinus gave him in greeting, he turned his scrutiny to Buccio. “I am Jowan, and this is my son Ennor.” He indicated the man at his side. “My older son, Jago, you have already met.”
“And I bring you Tribune Tiberius Matius Buccio, who is to be Commander after me.” Longinus waved Buccio forward.
Before Buccio could speak, a woman came forwards from the shadows on the other side of the fire. She carried a bronze cup in her hands, which she offered first to Buccio. “Drink, and be welcome.”
Buccio saw, as she moved further into the light, that her copper braids were scarcely touched by frost, though she must be of an age with Jowan. Her eyes when she lifted them to smile at him, were the same shape and colour as Jago’s and he guessed from that, and from her bringing him the Guest Cup, that she must be Jowan’s wife.
Buccio carefully took the cup from her, recalling all he had learned of the customs of the tribes from a native-born duplicarius who had been part of the cavalry wing he had brought with him from Londinium. He was aware that Jowan and Jago and Ennor had their eyes upon him, and that this was a test of sorts. Returning the woman’s smile, he did his best to repeat one of the few native phrases he had painstakingly learned. He drank and gave the cup back in to her hands.
Her mouth twitched briefly as she turned away to carry the cup to Longinus, and he suspected he’d mangled more than one word. But before he could speak again, Jowan laughed, a pleasant, low rumble, and said something in the native tongue that Buccio thought included the word ʽtribune’ but which he could make neither head nor tails of otherwise. His confusion must have been evident on his face, because Jowan gave him a kindly smile and, speaking Latin again, said, “It seems the Tribune knows something of our customs and our speech.”
Buccio gave a slight bow. “Only enough for courtesy’s sake so far, Lord Jowan. But I hope to learn more in time.”
The woman was now carrying the cup to her husband. Taking it from her, he drank and then said, looking at Buccio over the rim, “From Rome, that is a courtesy indeed.” He softened the slight edge to the words with another smile. Buccio was sharply reminded that though Jowan and his people might be more truly welcoming than Constantius had been, and though they had traded long with Rome and learned its language, they were still a frontier people, brought under Rome’s rule only when Jowan had been the age his sons now were.
Jago had taken the Guest Cup from his father, exchanging a look with him before he too drank and passed the cup on to his brother. Then he turned and offered Buccio a smile. “If the Tribune would learn, I would gladly teach. Perhaps the Tribune is fond of hunting?”
Jowan’s wife had disappeared into the shadows but now returned with barleycakes sweetened with honey, and Jowan waved them towards the fire, to share the food and pass around the Guest Cup between them. Settling into his place, feeling his knees creak a little as he squatted, Buccio nodded. “I have hunted often among the rocks and the high plains of the East when duty spared me.”
Again there was an amused look in Jago’s eyes, and one corner of his mouth turned up in a crooked smile as he too folded himself up in his place. “We have no high plains here, but our game is good. I will take the Commander hunting when duty spares him. He has only to send word of the day and I will come to the fort with spears and ponies.”
Buccio hesitated, recognising that here was a chance to build stronger bonds with the local Tribe, yet unsure whether he should make himself so beholden to them.
“He’s a good guide,” Longinus offered, around a mouthful of barleycake. “I’ve been out with him several times myself.”
So it seemed it was already a matter of custom. Buccio returned Jago’s smile. “I shall send word.”