Actions

Work Header

Flames of Albion

Chapter Text

407 AD/1110 AUC

        The weather on this god-forsaken island is shit. Britannia is and always will be the edge of the Roman world. For good reason. Petronius sighed, drawing the curtain and his sedan, trying to ignore the rain.

         The road to Londinium was unsurprisingly empty given the unforgiving downpour. Normally Petronius would’ve waited to for clearer skies, but the summons had demanded an immediate response. All four propraetors must be in attendance.

         There was a new emperor. Well a usurper. The Twentieth Legion had elected a new Roman Emperor for the Occident and marched southward from their post at Deva Victrix. Flavius Claudius Constantius, stylizing himself Constantine III, had been their third choice, but that didn’t dent his arrogance. Pride before the fall.

          Emperors were always a dime a dozen. And had been for centuries now. Since the barracks emperors of the mid third-century and Diocletian’s subsequent creation of the Tetrarchy. Two Augusti and two Caesars. More problems. Every soldier thought himself fit to reach for that title and the internecine fighting exhausted the legions.

         Petronius sighed internally. If only Theodosius was still alive. The first emperor since Constantine to govern the whole empire, and the savior of Britain from the ravages of the Great Conspiracy when barbarians from the north and across the sea pillaged and devastated the land. To think that had been forty years ago now. I was still a boy. Face unlined. Not a silver hair to be seen.

          But Theodosius was dead twenty-two years and his sons lacked the strength of character to keep the empire safe from barbarians. The Western Emperor Honorius was a long-reigning weakling in the thrall of a half Vandal general. Stilicho stripped the troops from the frontiers to defend Italia . Just last year the Rhine had frozen over and Gaul was laid waste by the unceasing hordes.

         Something irrevocably bad will happen soon. I feel it in these bones. Or maybe that’s just the weather. Petronius shook his head. He knew it wasn’t the weather. That damned woman.

         She had shown up in the middle of the night. A moonless night. Ill-omened. How she had gained entry to his chambers was beyond him. Between his defenses, magical and not, his villa outside Corinium was impenetrable to outsiders.

         What was her name? Flavia Carmina. River Song. Purveyor of impossible things. Forbidden knowledge dripping from her honeyed tongue.

        "Hello Sweetie.”

         She claimed to be from the future. The year 446 after the birth of his Lord. A date I have no hope of seeing. The onrushing future swallows me whole. 

         In her time Rome was at her limit, spent and shriveled. “Good old Romulus gets a limp dick and never quite recovers.”

         Gaul, Hispania, and Africa were to be carved up among barbarians that acknowledged the authority of the emperor at their convenience. A people called the Huns ravaged the entire world from end to end spreading terror and destruction. “The Scourge of God. The Harrower of Hell on Earth.”

         Britannia herself had long been abandoned to hordes of Picts, Hibernians, Saxons, and much, much worse. “The Nightmare Child, the Horde of Travesties, the Could’ve Been King with his Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres.”

         All that and dreadful tribes he had never heard of beyond the faintest of horrified whispers.

         The people of the earth, the Silures, eager to reclaim their ancestral lands in the west of Britain. The tribe of warriors, the Sontarae, who darted into battle like it was sport. The frosty Glacae, harbingers of the ice, the chill, and winter’s icy kiss.

         The assimilating Cyberii who would follow Rome’s example in absorbing the whole world in their silver-armored grip. They erased individual names and identity, subsuming all into a monolithic automaton.

         The perpetually weeping Lamentii whose crocodile tears disguised their bloodlust. They were so deadly that to even to so much as blink while in combat with them invited death.  

         The silent assassins, the Tacitii who eradicated their opponents so completely that no record of their appearance existed. The tellers of stories about them, whether fact or fiction, typically meant their doom. A warning and a calling card.

         And finally the worst of all, the Dalakii, eager to bring death, destruction, and devastation, exterminating all other peoples as vermin. They would bring to life Tacitus’ infamous remarks about the Romans creating a desert and calling it peace.

        The end times are upon us if what she says is true.

         He had been undecided on whether to believe the truth of all her words. But the depressing future she heralded spoke to his pessimism and the mood of the times.

         Besides she knew things. Predicting the messenger’s arrival bearing the writ of Constantine III as well as its contents. Claiming to be an emissary of that ever troublesome Idris, the last priestess of the ancient religion of the Britons and self-proclaimed Lady of the Lake.

        And worst of all she knew my true name. No mortal living beyond his apprentice knew that name and its connection to him. There’s only one reason I would divulge that name to another. Only one time I could. “Spoilers.”

        He would have thought time travel impossible. Forbidden by all natural laws. Yet the proof had been in front of his own two eyes. Or perhaps after all these years of sorcery I have finally fallen into madness.

        A familiar voice called him to attention, “Father.”

        He was still unused to his former pupil and apprentice addressing him as such. But a man of his rank and class needed an heir, biological or adopted mattered not. And as she was already his successor in the magical arts, it was only right she would share in the material spoils of a life well lived.

        He opened his curtain to see her on horseback, slowing to a trot beside his litter. She looked poised and graceful as always in a golden cloak that shielded her curling hair and brown skin from the rain.

        “Yes what is it, Petra?”

        “Completed that intelligence gathering mission you requested. There are reports of a strange blonde woman at Isca Augusta, ingratiating herself with and infuriating the legionnaires in equal measure.” So she headed west rather than stalk me to the halls of power… interesting. Not the move I’d expect from a time traveler at an alleged inflection point.

        He prompted. “Anything else?”

        Petra nodded. “No word on any political activity or trying to mobilize the legion against any of the enemies you told me about. If anything she seems to be having a gay time flirting, some gag about being Cleopatra reborn. The men are enamored, quite a few of the women too.” Charming.

        “Have Tarquina keep monitoring the situation. I’m impressed how well you taught her that scrying technique.”

        Petra let a smile slip at the praise. “Aye, she’s a quick study. I’ll be sure to pass along your praise when I return to Corinium.”

        He raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure you didn’t ride all this way for all that when you could have sent a scrying message or an old fashioned messenger.”

        “You must know what Constantine will demand of you in Londinium. How do you intend to respond?” His silence was all the answer she needed.

        She pressed him further. “We cannot spare the Second Legion Augusta. The Hibernian slavers raid upon our shores with ever greater frequency. He is no Caesar if he would leave Britain at its time of peril.” To have the outrage of youth. I must remember the feeling.

        “I will not be alone. Decius, Cornelius, and Palicanus will also be present. Perhaps we can impress upon his would-be majesty the gravity of the threat.”

        Even as he said those words aloud, he did not believe them. To claim the mantle of Augustus would end either dressed in imperial purple or as carrion for the crows. Constantine would take every advantage to stack the odds in his favor.

        “And perhaps I will have a chance to share my bed with Sappho or visit the lost realm of the Amazons or read a work from the Great Library of Alexandria.” Sweet dreams all. If only.

        “I will do everything within my power.” When he saw the disappointment darken her face, he quickly amended. “And beyond. Britain will not be left to be at the tender mercies of our envious neighbors.”

        A twinkle returned to her eyes. “I would expect nothing less from the great sorcerer Merlin.”

***

        Petronius felt deflated. Damn that Constantine. As predicted, he demanded all the garrisons from the four British provinces for a continental expedition to restore order in Gaul. More likely he’s seeking to earn himself glory and renown. And an early grave.

        Within the grand stone walls of the prefecture palace, the four propraetors were huddled around a fire to combat the damp and cold. What a sorry sight we must be.

        Palicanus was the oldest among them, easily in his seventies. To think he breathed the same air as the original Constantine. Age had beaten him down, wearing away at his noble features. He was gray coming out of the womb.

        Like Petronius, Palicanus saw the writing on the wall. But he didn’t have the energy or drive for action beyond (easily ignored) warnings. He is so old he will perish before the old order. Besides change is a younger man’s game. “In my day the legions were feared the whole world over. The mere name of Rome would send entire armies running, and those who dared to resist would perish.”

        “In your day greybeard, there were bloody pagan sacrifices to idols. The golden age is always a myth.” Cornelius Egnatius Novemus. Veteran from half a dozen campaigns, mostly civil wars, he had retired from the regular army and became a leather magnate. But now he was in charge of the North facing off against the Picts.

        “Tell that to those who lived under the stewardship of Augustus or the Five Good Emperors.” Palicanus, you may be old, but even you are not that ancient. 

        “You Christians mucked it all up. Stopping the sacrifices, closing the temples, dousing the sacred flame, destroying the order of the Vestal Virgins, removing Victory from her alter in the Curia. No wonder the gods have turned their backs upon us in Rome’s hour of peril.”

        Cornelius would not let affront to his sensibilities stand. “Answer me this Palicanus, under what sign did Constantine conquer at the Battle of Milvian Bridge?” Chi Ro on the shields… Christ.

        Palicanus shifted in his seat. His graven face starting to redden.

        “Now now, no need to prosecute again the religious vendettas of Constantius II, Julian the Apostate, and Theodosius and the like. Enough blood is spilled at a Christian Mass. In fact I could do with some blood right now.” Decius Aemilius Severus . He was the youngest of those present.

        The scion of a patrician family so ancient and storied that it was astonishing he had elected to be a governor in a backwater like Britannia. Our dashing hero. All easy charming smiles. And clever jokes.

        He poured himself some more wine. Offering to all, but refused. Clouding the mind would not do.

        Petronius jumped in to put an end to the matter. “Decius is right. It distracts from the matter at hand. Our response to Constantine’s ultimatum.” Submit and surrender or perish. Lovely chap.

        Cornelius sighed, hands rubbing his temples. “Well there’s nothing to debate about it. The men haven’t been properly paid in months. They’re practically frothing at the mouth at the chance to earn victory and fortune on the continent. They’ll follow Constantine with or without our leave.”

        Palicanus scoffed. “Let the rabble leave, we’ll raise new conscripts to fill in the gap until Constantine returns or Honorius sends another garrison after defeating that usurping rebel.”

        Decius took issue with that last remark. “Hush now Palicanus, we do not know what pointed ears might be listening to our words.”

        Cornelius scowled. “And besides, pay these conscripts with what coin exactly? The provincial treasuries lay empty.” He was spoiling for a fight. With a man thirty years his senior. Not much of a contest even if with words instead of fists.

        Decius intervened attempting to play peacemaker. “Surely there are loyal citizens who would remain to fulfill their duty to their emperor and country? Or at least fight to defend their homes and livelihoods?” Ever the idealist.

        “I don’t think the Sarmatians or Numidians much care for the fate of Britons. And what is patriotism and attachment to one’s native clime to the lure of gold and glory?” Cornelius’ rhetorical question hung in the air, weighing on them all. A good Roman knows the right answer, but are there any good Romans left?

        Decius turned to him now. “You’ve been quiet. Anything useful to add?”

        Petronius shifted his body, joints aching all the while. Flavia’s warnings echoing in his head, background radiation to the entire discussion. “The legions are lost to us, at least the bulk of them.”

        Decius looked on in dismay, surprised that he seemed to side with Cornelius, who enthusiastically nodded, eager to have support.

        “However, I think we can convince a few men here and there to stay. Those who have built lives here. Tied to this land and its people.” And if Flavia is right, a potential champion will be among them. Someone to shift the scales in our favor in the battles to come.  

        Cornelius snorted. “That’s all well and good but a few men, no matter how loyal, good, and brave, do not constitute an army.”

        Petronius would not be deterred. Fate waits for no man. Carpe diem.

        “Supplemented by the levies proposed by Palicanus they would. Every man of fighting age will be trained in the basics of the arts of war, ready to be summoned when the remnants of the regular army sound the alarm.”

        Decius chimed in to support. “Rome did have a citizen army back in the day during the era of the Republic.”

        Palicanus was already sold on the idea and was giving his consent with silence. Which just leaves Cornelius.

        “I suppose there’s really no choice in the matter. The alternative is anarchy and dissolution.”

        Petronius smiled to himself. “Then we have a plan. Now the real fun begins.”

***

        “Merlin, I was expecting you.” And so the dance begins.

        Petronius always found his interactions with Idris to veer from rewarding to frustrating in equal measure between and within heartbeats. She was the closest thing that acted like the pagan gods of Rome and her subject peoples, so human, so divine, so strange.

        “Idris, my dear you always do.”

        He could see the shape of her through the mist of her titular lake. Avalon of the clear water, not that you could tell with this weather. This trip was a way out of the way detour on the road back to Corinium.

       There were preparations to be made upon his return. Treasure and harvests to be collected, orders to be given. But the hassle and the delay would be worth every moment if he could get some answers from her.

       “It’s not my fault you linear, cause-effect people are so predictable. It’s all so boring. And terribly ordinary for a sorcerer of your caliber. Where’s the fun without the jumble?”

       She stepped through the mist, walking on water, approaching him on the shoreline, and stopping just short of landfall. Show-off.

       “Now where’s the fun with that? What use is unlimited knowledge when your brain can't pick out the web of cause and effect?”

        She offered no response beyond a knowing smile. Insufferable.

        “I don’t know her.”

He raised an eyebrow. “The woman you came here to ask me about. I don’t know her. At least not yet. She’s not even an idea yet. Her parents separated by a wall, a language, and a culture.”

        “I thought you said you didn’t know her.”

        Idris rolled her eyes. “Not in the way you want me to. I sensed her arrival immediately. If only because she suddenly plopped into my lake. Imagine the shock. You’d think I’d have the courtesy of warning myself, but apparently I was or will be distracted. I suppose the whole cause and effect thing you people does help with attention issues.”

        Seeing the skeptical look on his face, she clarified. “And no she didn’t stop to chat, besides asking me the time. As if I’m some on demand sundial without feelings. The nerve.”

        Petronius decided it wasn’t worth his time to follow up on that particular train of thought. “Isn’t then there the possibility that she’ll accidently prevent her own birth with all the antics she’ll get up to?” Paradoxes upon paradoxes await.

        Idris shrugged. “The universe always finds a way to patch itself together. Sometimes it’s time dragons. Sometimes it’s…”

        She trailed off deep in thought, frowning. “Actually on second thought it uses time dragons quite a lot. Overreaction much. Although if I had regular access to time dragons I probably couldn’t resist unleashing them either.”

        “Remind me never to give you access to time dragons.” Petronius smiled to himself. He simply couldn’t resist.

        His dig didn’t have the intended effect. Disappointing.

        “Before I forget I have something for you. Well not for you. But something for you to gift. Well actually not you personally. I think Petra will be the one bestowing them. Can’t remember. Things are getting foggier and foggier up here since that woman arrived.”

        As if on cue the mist around them thickened, rising higher and higher trying to swallow them. A bit theatrical.

        She plunged into the lake, leaving him to stand there waiting like an idiot. She better not forget I’m here. It wouldn’t be the first time. The difference between minutes and hours or days and years meant little to her, she had lived so long.

        He needn’t have worried. She reemerged almost immediately, dry as when she dived. I suppose binding one’s life force to the water means you and it are one and the same. She truly was the Lady of the Lake. Wonder what happens when it rains?

        As for why he was being drafted like a glorified delivery boy, he knew Idris couldn’t leave Avalon. Death would finally seize her as it should have done centuries ago before she had performed the binding ritual.

        The way she told the story the ritual had been a desperate affair of last resort to salvage the knowledge of the druids from the destruction wrought by Emperor Claudius’ legions. She had been chased across untamed moors and through primeval forests, finding no refuge in all the land under the sun and stars until reaching Avalon.

        The water called out to something within her, which responded in kind. She sacrificed her body, letting it be swallowed whole as she drowned. Her blood commingled with the water and they became one in mind, spirit, and will. A lovely tale. I wonder how much is true.

        In one hand she held what appeared to be a metal rod with one end glowing green. A guiding light in the mist. Some enchanted junkyard curiosity.

        The other cradled a softly glowing bronze box with swirling carvings. Some mechanism grinded within making a sound not unlike a double heartbeat.

        She held both out to him, and once he grasped them in his own hands he could feel their insubstantial nature. Lightweight, almost disposable. A rod and box are unusual gifts. 

        “What are these things?”

        “Ancient weapons, hidden away in Avalon for safe-keeping. In the wrong hands they could level cities, destroy empires, bring the entire world to its knees. The box goes by as many names as there are stars in the sky. My own order called it the Moment. But the one you Romans would know is that associated with its first keeper, Pandora.”

        Petronius nearly dropped his precious cargo in shock. “What kind of trick is this? A box that allegedly once contained all the evils of this world, but now only houses hope. What kind of weapon is that?”

        Idris looked on at him with sad eyes. “One to be wielded when all hope is lost. When the nights grow long and their terrors leave fevered imaginations for reality. It promises the end of all things. Its moment is now.”

        Petronius shuddered at her words. I pray that I may I never know the truth of them.  

        “The rod’s history is no less storied. But it is a kinder tool and so its history is a happier tale. One for a man who wants to heal instead of destroy. But these are warlike times and so it must have a moniker to match. The one it must bear now is Excalibur.”

        The glowing end of the rod burned a brighter green as if to announce its pleasure with its new name.

        “Merlin, return to Corinium with these gifts in tow. You will know when the time is right. Trust your instincts and intuition. They are the greatest tools a sorcerer may possess.”

        “As you wish my lady.” He awkwardly curtsied with his precious cargo in hand. He normally didn’t bother to show her that much respect, but it felt like the appropriate gesture after she had provided him with items of power that might tip the scales in the coming conflagration.

        “I’ll bid you farewell Idris.” He turned to leave, but he couldn’t resist looking back one last time. She was fading back into the mist, but the sorrow maring her pretty features spoke to something deeper than a parting between friends.

        She called after him, “Remember my words, Merlin.” There was a finality implied, as if she knew that this would be their final meeting. Impossible. I will call upon Avalon again. I always do.

        Still after stowing away her gifts into a makeshift rucksack he carried with him, Petronius reached up to his face, tracing the trail marks left by unbidden tears.

Chapter Text

        The emissary proclaimed, “The Second Legion Augusta is hereby ordered by the writ of Constantine III, Emperor of the West, to evacuate Isca Augusta and march to Londinium in anticipation of sailing to Gaul to combat the destructive incursions of the Vandals, Alans, Sueves, and Burgundians among other barbarian tribes.”

        Most of the legion cheered. Finally they had a strong leader willing to do what was necessary to secure the future by force of arms. To complete the task that none of the previous usurpers Marcus or Gratian could accomplish. They were rapidly raised up by the men, and torn down just as fast.

        On some level Artorius knew that redeploying was necessary. Gaul was aflame. But still there was an uneasy feeling settling in his stomach. Guilt. He was uncomfortable leaving Britain to the tender mercies of the Hibernians, Picts, and Saxons.

        Somehow he doubted his compatriots shared his concerns. But there were only a few graven and silent faces in the crowd. The usual suspects. Most of them Britons or those who had married Britons. But the air was filled with buzzing excitement at the prospect of action.

        The emissary was soon joined on his platform by… that woman. Flavia Carmina had been making a spectacle of herself over the past couple weeks. Acting as if she was Cleopatra reborn.

        She certainly made a passable effort to look the part, disguising her curling golden tresses under a makeshift black wig, braided in the style of the Egyptians. A golden diadem, a gift from an admiring local notable, was always perched upon her head. Her clothing was unseasonable for Britain’s long winters, revealing dresses one after the other, all plunging necklines, shortened hems, and light airy fabric. Certainly gets her the attention she craves.

         She blew a kiss to the love-struck audience before going all solemn. She let fall a comically long scroll- precisely where was she hiding that? The unfurling papyrus hit the floor, unspooling further and further with no end in sight, putting the emissary’s own to shame.

         “By decree of Cleopatra Thea Philopator…” There were some sniggers in the crowd, a couple braying heckling fools, but for the most part she possessed the rapt attention of all who beheld her. Just the way she likes it. “The Second Legion Augusta is hereby ordered to celebrate festivities in anticipation of its eminent departure. Food and drink aplenty will be supplied of course.” The crowd roared in delight.

         “There will be games as well. All the classics. Wrestling, footraces, discus throwing, javelin throwing and that old favorite chariot racing!”

         Another eruption of cheers and the chatter of excitement overtook the legion. Artorius wondered whether she had bother to get the approval of the senior staff or if she presented her games as a fait accompoli, daring them to disappoint the men. She’s clever and shrewd enough that either is possible.

         All smiles and big friendly waves, she descended from the platform, ignoring the livid glare of the upstaged emissary. I suppose she has her charms. He had to concede she was easy to like. Sheer charisma winning the day.

         Someone suddenly slung their arm around his neck.

         “She said she was bringing back the classics, do you think we’ll be competing in the nude? The Greeks had the right idea. The naked male form is something to behold.” Johannes Hortensius. Primus pilus… Centurion of the First Century and commander of the First Cohort. And a lascivious rake and shameless flirt of the first order.

         “Trying to make me jealous are we?” Junius Lavinius. Beloved of Johannes. He was always so quiet and reserved. Except around Johannes. When I first met him I had assumed he was mute.

         Johannes grinned. “Oh don’t be such a prude. It’s something we can both enjoy, love. Besides you’re all the male form I need.” Untangling from Artorius, he went for a kiss, which Junius returned. His cheeks flushed red when he became aware of the audience. Oh please as if anyone cares.

         “Not everyone feels the need to be an exhibitionist. Certainly not in this weather.” Eugenius Horatius accompanied by that foreign wife of his. Tarquina.

         Artorius had never seen a woman quite like her. Skin the color of dull bronze, her face framed by preternaturally straight black hair. She called her own land Nippon. Distant islands across another ocean beyond the almost mythical lands of the Sinae and Serica and the Aurea Chersonesus. Far off lands of silk and gold, untold riches that would invite even the envy of emperors. It is said they live underneath a different sky.

         “I don’t know, Flavia Carmina seems to bring out the exhibitionist in everyone.” Tarquina gave a pleasant smile. “The entire legion will be tripping over themselves to impress her. If that includes a little Grecian inspired nudity…” She shrugged her shoulders.

         “I think this little stunt did exactly what was intended.” All four pairs of eyes turned to look at him. “I mean if there are any malcontents about going to Gaul, they’ll get distracted by the party. No one can be mad about a little turn of the release valve before a big operation.”

         Eugenius looked doubtful. “Are there all that many with reservations though? The whole legion seems excited. Two would-be emperors were deposed for failing to launch this campaign. No doubt Constantine wanted to avoid being the third also-ran.”

         Junius piped up. “I don’t know… seems quite awful to leave the Britons completely exposed.”

         “Oi, don’t go on talking about us as if we weren’t here.” Ginerva. A strong willed woman. A latter day Boudicca. Unfortunate that the Roman military doesn’t recruit women, she’d put them all to shame. If she led a revolt against Roman rule, I’d by no means gamble against her.

         “Come on dear, no need to antagonize our friends.” Rhys Vitellius. At first glance, her husband cut a much less impressive figure. Amiable and likable but made of softer stuff, malleable copper to her steel. But as Artorius had gotten to know him over the past couple years, a surprising strength and resolve was hidden in that unassuming package. “They’re just taking the larger view of the entire empire. Britain is an island. It has some natural defenses that make it less likely to suffer from incursions.”

         Ginerva’s sharp voice had a quick retort. “Gaul had natural defenses too- you’ll never see a river as wide as the Rhenus- look how well that worked out.”

         Rhys flinched, evidently unused to his wife taking such an aggressive tone with him. She does normally save the worst of it for everyone else. Ginerva’s features softened for a moment as she said, “I’m sorry dear, didn’t mean to take out my frustration on you.”

         Eugenius wasn’t letting Ginerva off quite as easy. “There’s a big difference between a river, which no longer how wide can freeze over, and miles of open ocean.”

         Johannes said, “The ravenous and rapine always find a way. Whether it’s Hibernian slavers or Pictish raiders or Saxons from across the sea.” He flashed a winning smile. “Which is clearly why we need to celebrate tonight. Hedonism is the only appropriate response to the continually impending end of the world.” He locked lips with Junius as an exclamation to his point. I wonder how much their relationship doesn’t involve sucking face?

         He suspected he was just jealous. Alone of his compatriots he was still a bachelor. What does that make me, the seventh wheel? Well the ninth when Michaelus Septimus and Marta are around. Curious they haven’t joined us.

          It didn’t often bug him. Most of the time he was content with his solitary lifestyle. Certainly helped him make peace with the prospect of death in battle. No one left behind, worrying themselves to an early grave or beaten down by bereavement when their worst fears are confirmed by some messenger.

          Besides it’s not like he had much luck with the fairer sex. Women were confusing. They seemed to speak in a foreign tongue. Or perhaps I’m the odd one out. Alien and peculiar. Queer. 

          Johannes had suggested he try the embrace of Mars if Venus didn’t charm. Even offered to share his bed with me. Artorius had suspected that it was all in jest, but one could never be sure with Johannes.

          Nevertheless Artorius knew that he would not walk the path of Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander and Hephaestion, or Hadrian and Antinous. It held no appeal to him. I can walk alone if I must.

          Artorius bid them all farewell. Promising he’d be in attendance tonight. Perhaps he’d even compete. Now there’s a wild thought.

 

***

          Artorius had not intended to nap. There were preparations to be made for the impending departure of the legion. Materials catalogued and packed. Orders to be given. But sleep seized him in its talons and refused to let go. And so he dreamt.

           A vision of a lake came into view. Mist was thick in the air, billowing fog melding into the gray skies overhead. Everything is gray and silver. Smoke and ash.

           He was not quite walking, but almost floating in the air, his body feeling lightweight and insubstantial. It was like he imagined existence as some shade in the Underworld would be. Have I died in my slumber?

           A woman emerged from the still waters. Her figure was completely dry. That’s wrong. She stood upon the water as if she were Christ on the Sea of Galilee.

           “Ave atque vale.” Hail and farewell. A reference to the poetry of Catullus. An elegy to his dead brother. Melancholy words. Within the context of the dream they carried the weight he was without. Inauspicious words.

           The woman read the confusion that marked his face and soon matched it. “No sorry that’s wrong.” She considered for a moment, as if unsure what should be said next. She finally amended. “Well not wrong. Just premature.”

           She paced in a circle on the water, footsteps releasing small ripples that expanded ever outward. Circles within circles within circles. “I suppose I should make an effort to start at the beginning, but that’s always the saddest part. For once the start is fixed, so is the end. The arc just plays out. The Alpha and the Omega.”

           Artorius was struck dumb. He was unsure whether he was truly unable to speak or simply without speech. He experimentally opened his mouth, but his brain could not find anything adequate to say.

            Seeing her explanation left her charge even more confused- what the fuck is going on-  the woman said, “It’s like the ouroboros. The snake eating its own tail. The beginning and the end can’t be separated. They are one in unity. Not unlike that tri-fold god those Christians are so fond of worshiping. Three persons, three faces, three aspects but of one origin, will, and purpose.”  

            She pouted, evidently reluctant to continue. “Fine I will do as I must. I can no longer delay or obfuscate much as we’d both be happier if I did. And for that I am sorry.” He could read the regret and sorrow on her face. It’s as if she is about to become my executioner.

            Forcing a smile, she spread out her arms gesturing at their surroundings. “Hello dreamwalker, welcome to the clear waters of Avalon.”

***

 

            Artorius woke with a start. Heart racing, ready to burst from the confines of his chest. Sweat fell drop by drop from his brow. He had one hand trace a path through his hair to find it soaked.

            He concentrated, trying to remember the details of that odd little dream as if his life depended upon it. It certainly feels as if it does. But already they faded. It was like trying to catch lightening, only the faintest of imprints remained in his mind’s eye, but the feelings lingered. The fear and confusion.

            He must have a wild look in his eyes because when they finally settled on the two uninvited visitors in his quarters, concerned looks returned his own. Michaelus and Marta.

            The pair exchanged a loaded look, before Michaelus took a step forward and asked, “You feeling alright, mate?”

            “I could get the camp physician. Or give you a quick check up myself.” Marta had been raised in a medicinal household and picked up much of the craft from her relatives. Artorius suspected if she was not a woman she’d have gone far in the profession. Easily be the most revolutionary physician since Galen.

           “No need for all that fuss. I’m strong as ever.” He propped himself on top of the cot. Because sitting up in bed is a labor worthy of Hercules… well maybe during post-nap grogginess it is.

           Suddenly feeling self-conscious with his chest bare, Artorius moved to cover it with his blanket. Clearing his throat, he said, “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but uh why are you here?”

           Marta answered, “We all thought you were going to forget…”

           “Or sleep through or otherwise weasel out of…” Michaelus chimed in.

           “The games.” Marta finished. Lord I bet they think they’re cute for finishing each other’s sentences. “And given the praetor just showed up to preside over them with his daughter and Flavia, attendance has become a lot more important.”

           “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Artorius’ brain was buzzing with this new information. Why would the praetor forsake his comfortable villa in Corinium to head out this far west? And for seemingly spontaneous games. Something does not quite add up here.

           Michaelus nodded. “Good because Johannes has entered you into the lists. Two-horse chariot. Starts soon.”

           Before he could protest, Michaelus seized him, while Marta snatched a tunic that looked presentable. The tunic was shoved into his arms. Artorius had just enough time to pull it over his head and make a couple quick adjustments before being dragged into the eerily quiet and empty camp.

           Noticing the confused look on his face, Marta explained, “Everyone’s already at the makeshift games ground, just beyond the defensive fortifications. Come on!”

           They made their way through the ghost city passing barracks and tents and upon reaching the gates, they could hear the roar of the crowd.

           The race was about to start, the competitors all lined up, horses whinnying in impatience. He spotted Eugenius among them, but everyone else were near strangers at least a degree or two of separation away.

           An improvised platform rose above the standing throng. Upon it were the praetor- Petronius Capius - his recently adopted daughter, a smattering of officers including Constantine’s emissary, and Flavia Carmina herself, still in her Cleopatra get-up. For a moment it seemed as if their eyes met, her face lighting up at the sight of him. That can’t be right. He did a double take only to find that she had entered into conversation with Petronius and Petra.

          Arriving at the start, two fantastic if ill-paired beasts stood before him. The leftovers. Skaro and Gallifrey. He knew them by reputation. Ill-mannered and difficult to control. The stable hands had wrung out their hair in despair at training them, but no one could find it in themselves to put down the beasts. They were swift as a coursing river and powerful too with all the force of a great storm.

         Skaro was dark as a moonless night sky with cruel red eyes. He was the kind of horse who not satisfied with a proffered apple would eat the hand as well… or at least sample a couple fingers.

         Meanwhile Gallifrey was sleek and silver, shining in the unexpected light as the sun had decided to grace them all with its presence. This horse had a regal superior air, holding himself up with gentility and nobility. Or to be less generous pompous arrogance.

         The two horses were eyeing each other with… suspicion? Contempt? Loathing? Horses are rather spiteful creatures aren’t they. Artorius was reluctant to intrude on their standoff. How did anyone manage to harness them together in the first place?  

         The race would most likely end with one of the three of them dead. The only question would be whose hand. Or hoof. Times like this I wish I spoke horse.

         “You’ll knock em dead.” Michaelus gave him a light reassuring punch to his shoulder, before melting into the crowd.

         Marta muttered darkly, “Hopefully not literally.” On that cheerful note, she waved goodbye, scowling that Michaelus had abandoned her without so much as a by your leave.

         Artorius focused on his breathing, ignoring the roar of the crowd as he ascended upon the chariot. Six laps. I can do six laps.

         There were a dozen chariots in total. All decked out in an assortment colors. Blue, green, red, white. The traditional factions… not that this was an entirely traditional race. Unlike the typical circus, they were all amateurs. Increasing the odds for glory and gore in equal measure.

         He took the reins in his hands in the style of the Greeks. Typically they were wrapped around one’s waist, but he didn’t have a knife on him to cut himself free. If things went south, he’d be dragged by the panicked horses until one of them- either the horse or he- gave out.

         Flavia dropped a piece of white cloth from the platform, and they were off.

         The first lap was a barely mitigated disaster. The first bend took out two chariots, they had each attempted to cut it close, but miscalculated and crashed into each other for their troubles. Artorius was trailing at the back at the pack. Gallifrey and Skaro seemed more interested in trying to getting at each other than racing ahead.

         The second and third lap followed much the same pattern, leaving six left in the race. Some spectators attempted to intervene to calm panicked horses and humans alike. Eugenius had pulled ahead of the rest.

         As they pulled around the first bend of the fourth lap, Artorius admonished the horses. “C’mon guys, pull it together. Extra apples if you win.”

         Gallifrey whinnied dismissively at the offer, even trying to slow down the pace, while Skaro ignored him in favor of trying to take a swipe at Gallifrey. So much for that plan.

         Another lap, another disappointment. Not much time left. He wasn’t quite sure why he was so invested in winning. Apparently he was too competitive for his own good.

         Another useless admonition to the horses. I’m mad, completely utterly mad. “C’mon fellas, if you help me out, win this thing, I’ll make sure you never have to see one another ever again.”

         The horses most definitely exchanged a look. Bastards. But surprisingly they complied. Their speed doubled, then tripled, easily passing three of the remaining charioteers.

         Entering the final lap, Artorius felt like he had a chance. The charioteer immediately in front of him panicked and flubbed the first bend, careening off the course. Which just leaves Eugenius.

         Gallifrey and Skaro were in overdrive, legs pumping. Even they were beginning to feel the effects of this extra effort. The finish line is in sight. Just a little farther.

         The team conquered the final bend and were neck and neck with Eugenius’ own team. The latter noticed this out of the corner of his eye. His mouth was open in an unflattering o, thrown for a figurative loop at this turn of events.

         Gallifrey and Skaro edged out Eugenius’ unlucky team. The crowd erupted, enjoying the underdog victory. All the sweeter and that much more exciting. Are you not entertained!

         He expected he would have to pull hard to slow down the horses, but they instinctively seemed to know the race was over, slowing to a trot before stopping at a standstill. Perhaps they’re simply exhausted.

         Artorius drank in the adulation before descending from the now still chariot. He approached the platform where a beaming Flavia began to descend, holding the victor’s laurel up with exaggerated reverence.

         “Congratulations sweetie,” she greeted him with a kiss, his eyes widened in surprise at the unexpected although not unwelcome contact. Limbs flailing, his lips bended to the will of her own. Their tongues danced. She is a bold creature. 

         She broke contact a moment too soon for his liking. He exhaled a soft moan (in pleasure or displeasure he could not be sure, his head was swimming). His cheeks flushed scarlet, but he was not worried, the roar of the crowd disguised that undignified noise from any prying ears. Although the amused smile lighting up her face shown it had not escaped her notice. Lovely, brilliant, Geronimo!!

         A laurel crown, as was traditional, was now upon his head. She must have slipped it on him while he was distracted by her amorous advances. He felt on top of the world.

         Petra now approached, some kind of small metal rod in her hands. Curious. 

         “Don’t tell me you’re going to kiss me now too.” A quip betrayed by a slight tremor of his voice. He no longer knew what to expect. 

         She chuckled at the thought, dismissing it out of hand. “Perhaps in your dreams. Flavia Carmina has her own designs on you. And I for one want no part of you, giraffe boy.” 

         He almost took offense at her jab at his ungainly appearance, before conceding she was in the right... at least based on the one such creature he saw during some gladiatorial games in Londinium. It had made quite the impression with that long neck… like a living battering ram.

         “You’ll just have to make do with one final prize.”

         Petra held the rod up to him. On closer examination he could see various notches and recesses in its surface. To his surprise one end glowed a bright green- the color of fresh spring growth. 

         “Its name is Excalibur. Use this weapon kindly.”

Weapon? He did not see what sort of threat the rod could enact. No sharp edges to cut or hack. Much too small and smooth to be a projectile. It wasn’t even heavy enough to bludgeon someone. 

         She said, “You’ll know how to use it when it’s time comes. For now merely keep it safe.”

         He sniffled doubtfully. “Er- thank you for this final gift.”

         Petra smiled, her kind eyes sparkling in the fading sunlight, before turning to return to the right hand of her adopted father. 

         Flavia Carmina instantly materialized at his side, taking his free arm in tow. “I think it’s high time we get to know each other a bit better, don’t you agree?”

         Before he could stammer out a response, Petronius had elected to greet him. The praetor looked worn and gray, lines etched into his face. I’m looking at my future, should I live long enough to see it.

         “Before you would-be love birds take flight, I would like a word with our champion.” 

         The smile fell from Flavia’s face ever so slightly. Her eyes burrowed into Petronius, challenging him to back down. Nevertheless she acquiesced, parting with a swift peck on his cheek much to his own joy and chagrin. If this is what romantic feelings are like, I was much better all alone. He drank in her figure as she strode away. Or not.

         Petronius wasted no time with pleasantries. “As you well know Constantine has commanded the withdrawal of all the legions of Britannia for a campaign upon the continent.” There was a peculiar twinkle in Petronius’ eye, and if Artorius did not know better he would have termed it mischievous. “And as your praetor, I recommend you obey all orders to the best of your ability.”

         Artorius could sense a but coming. However he had no idea what the contents could be. Surely a leading Roman official wouldn’t suggest treason or the abrogation of duty. 

         “However if at dawn, should the legion not muster at full strength… well the bureaucratic machinery of the empire oft grinds to a halt, particularly in light of the exigencies of our time. Any investigations into the matter could take many years to reach an actionable result.”

         Artorius wised up to the implications of the praetor’s words. A chance to remain and continue defending our home. “I assume you want me to relay that information to interested parties.”

         The mischievous twinkle was now joined by an impish smile. “How did the allegory of Rumor in Vergil’s Aeneid go?” He searched a moment for the particular line before finding it, “Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum.”

     Rumor, no evil is more swift than her.  

         A rhythm was unleashed as the words flowed from Petronius. “Ever growing and bold, full of watchful eyes, speaking tongues, listening ears. She is a goddess to be worshipped by mortals who are slaves to her every word, whether barbed or dipped in honey.” Petronius shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands up in mock surrender. “It is simply beyond the powers of a Roman praetor to tame her.”

         Taken aback Artorius had but one response. “Understood sir.”

         “Excellent. Well then, return to the delights of the festivities and your friends, especially that newest one, Flavia.”

         Artorius’ ears burned. He nodded awkwardly, while Petronius chuckled and walked away, leaving him alone with the scraps of his dignity.

         However Flavia would have to wait.

         Johannes had herded the cats together including a surly looking Eugenius and was waving his arms wildly to get his attention. Perfect opportunity for Rumor to spread her many-eyed wings.

         Before the he had the chance to speak, he was mobbed by a parade of congratulations and a succession of bear hugs from Michaelus, Rhys, and Johannes.

        The time is now. He’d either propose the madness now or they would all be on route to Londinium and then on to Gaul, potentially never to return.

         “I’ve been thinking all day since the announcement of our withdrawal. And it’s not right for us to deprive Britain of defenders. I plan on staying.” There was a general intake of breath at these words. Don’t worry I surprise myself with this boldness. “Any of you are welcome to take a stand with me. Petronius has promised effective immunity from official prosecution.”

         Silence. Evidently no one had even considered the possibility of taking such drastic measures and disobey Constantine.

         However Ginerva was quick to warm to it. “If Rome and her legions no longer want to defend that which they have taken. I say to hell with them. Aye, I’ll stay with you Artorius. I challenge you to find a man fitter to the task than myself.”

         Rhys ignored her outburst, rubbing his hands together nervously. Trepidation drenching every word he asked, “Petronius truly promised immunity?”

         Artorius felt color rise to his face. “Well not in so many words...”

         At this uncertainty Eugenius took umbrage. “Praetors rise and fall like the emperors they serve. And the mark of treachery is branded upon your person for eternity.” He spat out the last word with rising fury. “Even if Petronius keeps to the spirit of whatever agreement you allegedly brokered with him, there is no guarantee his successor will look kindly upon us.”

         It was Junius’ turn to pour water upon the flame. “Eugenius is right. Words are like the wind. For such a risky venture, there must be more concrete assurances. Our lives and livelihoods are at stake.”

         Tarquina now entered the fray. “In such a delicate matter, assurances cannot be made flesh and blood or even paper and ink lest they crush the entire enterprise under their weight. Petronius risks his own life and career in offering asylum to would-be deserters. The stakes are equal for all participants. That is a sure guarantee against betrayal.”

         Artorius released the breath he had not realized he was holding, relieved to have another ally. I cannot do this alone.

         “Well that’s not quite right. Despite what Ginerva may think, we…” Marta gestured to Tarquina, Ginerva, and herself. “…are not soldiers. We cannot be accused of desertion.”

         “But you can aid and abet desertion and treachery. You may yet escape with your necks, but without a reputation or income to support yourself. What kind of life is that?” Is it possible for Eugenius to say anything positive?

         Tarquina looked at her husband, eyes sad. “A just one.” She declared, voice growing from the quiet to a fevered pitch. “Could you really live with yourself if you lived otherwise? Are the lives and livelihoods of all the Britons worth so little to you?”

         “Are those of the people of Gaul worth so little to you?” He shot back. “Besides how can nine people really tip the scales to save Britain from the doom and gloom everyone seems to be yammering on about?”

         Tarquina set her jaw. “You’ve told me that Rome was founded by but one.” Well two technically until the fratricide went down.

         Other voices joined in now, any semblance of order collapsing as everyone tried to get in a word in edge wise. Tarquina and Eugenius were trading verbal barbs. Ginerva squabbled with Marta as Rhys and Michaelus looked on helplessly. Junius shrank into himself.

         Artorius was about to step forward to comfort him, when Johannes stamped his foot down, evidently tired of this undignified display. “Enough. We could go on debating one way or the other till dawn. Tonight is a party. A festival. A time for celebration.”

         Johannes’ voice climbed down from a shout not that he was sure of everyone’s attention. “It’s a simple binary choice. Stay or go. Declare your intentions and let the matter be settled. I for one wish to stay.”

        Ginerva with Rhys on her heels were quick to echo his words. After a moment Junius assented to staying. He’d follow Johannes to hell and back again.

        Tarquina only had eyes for Eugenius and announced her intention to stay as a challenge. Not to be shamed or outdone by his wife, Eugenius reluctantly agreed to stay.

        Michaelus and Marta lay silent. He out of deference to her, and she out of deference to him. They exchanged a loaded glance before both voting on staying.

        All eight of them are going to stay. Artorius could not believe it.

        He had not expected Michaelus and Marta to stay. They were Nubians, recent arrivals and from such a different clime that Britain might as well be a foreign country to them. Stupid of course, it was as much their home as anyone else’s.

        He similarly glowed at Tarquina’s stiffening of Eugenius’ spine. She was from a place so far and a culture so foreign that Latin had no words for them. Yet she had taken to Rome like a duck to water, even adopting her new moniker. 

       And then there was Junius and Johannes. The only home they needed was each other. It would have been easy for them to keep their heads down and continue on to Gaul.

       As he had made his mad proposal, Artorius has always expected Ginerva and Rhys to go along. But still it was heartening to see Boudicca and her stalwart man stand up and support him in his folly.

       “So it’s decided.” All eyes were on him. He found he rather liked the feeling this go around. Perhaps Flavia’s audacity and pluck have rubbed off on me. 

       They were all in agreement. They would not abandon Britain. They would desert if need be. Constantine was a usurper, they had no obligation to obey and serve him. No more indeed than they had to the rightful emperor of the west Honorius. SPQR Senatus Populusque Romanus... the Senate and People of Rome. And the Britons are as Roman as any denizen of the Eternal City.

       “We stay and we fight.”

Chapter Text

     The moon hid her lovely features under the cover of clouds. Not even the many stars could be counted upon as guides. Always darkest before the dawn.

      Still Amelia welcomed the cover of night. It made her task that much easier.

      There had been whispers that the legions had withdrawn from Britain, leaving for the continent. The lonely outposts along Hadrian’s Wall lay empty. The time was ripe for a raids upon isolated farms and homesteads to the south.

      She had argued for the gathering of a large army, one that could sack the riches of Eboracum and potentially even distant Londinium. Following in the footsteps of that warrior queen of the south, Boudicca and her rebellion against the early days of Ròmanach rule. Driving them back into the sea with fire and the sword.

      However the doddering kings and petty chieftains had ignored her plan as the ravings of a mad woman. I would not have been dismissed as such if I were a man.

      Still the idea had become toxic, and the few warriors she had gathered to her banner could not face off against a city, even left unprotected by Roimh’s infamous legions. But there are still small fortunes to be made.

      Her band had come across a rustic village- well more a handful of thatched roofed hovels - of sufficient size to be worth pillaging without the risk of any resistance overpowering them.

      Plumbaestimatis. At least that’s what the shepherd they had captured called it before they slit his throat.

      He had stumbled upon their little caravan and she improvised on the fly. They had promised him freedom in exchange for information. It had been cruel for her to go against her word. But necessary. The shock and awe that comes with surprise can’t be surrendered that easily. That’s how simple situations escalated into bloodbaths. If a simple raid does not go well I’ll never be able to marshal my people to strike after the real prizes.

      The village was as dark as the sky above, not a single hearth alight or even a lonely light to indicate a watchman at his post. They make it so easy.

      She signaled for her party to stop, a simple low two note whistle. Normally she’d prefer hand signs but the darkness made them less than useless.

      They were a dozen warriors in total including herself, evenly divided between men and women. Friends and comrades all.

      She whispered out orders. They were to divide into two parties, three would take a goat track and begin rustling the sheep and goats in their pen.

      The remaining nine would enter through the main road- if that dirt path is deserving of such a name - and fan out, two to three to a house, taking any personal items of value and ensuring no resistance disrupted them.

      Amelia took two warriors with her to seize the animals. They would be the things of greatest value in such a backwater. Unlikely for there to be mounds of gold and silver hiding among the lead.

      The goat track was treacherous in the dark, winding with deep tree roots ready to trip them up at every turn. They managed to keep the noise of fighting through the bracken and foliage to a minimum by sacrificing speed.

      But still Amelia cursed the potential for lost surprise. A light sleeper in the village could ruin everything. Suddenly the cover of darkness seemed much more like a jinx than a blessing.

      They made it to the makeshift enclosure, framed by low unmortared stone walls and small wooden gates reinforced by stakes in the ground- more to keep the animals in than people out.

      Amelia stepped over the wall with ease- the advantages of being taller than most men . A couple sheep raised their heads in curiosity, but most of the herd lay still, sleeping away during the intrusion. I always thought of sheep as much more panicky. Odd. Very odd indeed.

      Her compatriots fanned out and began herding the sheep towards one of the gates. Bleating and moaning all the while, the sheep did eventually reach the gate and began winding their way down the track.

      Amelia approached one of the sleeping beasts. She pulled her sword from her scabbard, intending to beat it with the blunt side to spur its movement. She swung and hit home, but rather than bleat in fear, a very human-like grunt sounded. No. Can’t be.

      Suddenly, as if signaled by the grunt, the other sleeping sheep roused themselves or rather at least a dozen armed men cast off their sheep skins. They were armed and armored to the teeth, evidently prepared for their raid.

      But how could they know? What could be in Plumbaestimatis that warrants such a garrison? And what is this stratagem, the wolves in sheep’s clothing? None of it made the least bit of sense.

      Amelia thought she even saw a couple women dressed like Roman legionnaires, but couldn’t investigate further because the grunter before her began to rise. She raised her sword in defense, a two-handed blade.

      Normally the blade suited her strength and speed, its aggressive style matching her temperament. Certainly against swineherds and shepherds, she’d have nothing to fear. However against such armored opponents she found herself wishing for a shield and more protection than could be provided by the iron grieves upon her arms and thighs.

      Cries of battle began, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. Her two friends- Paidrin and Riannagoir forgive me - fell to Roman arms, black blood pooling in the grass and dirt. The spooked sheep were fleeing in all directions, adding to the chaos of the misbegotten scene.

      She tried to call out to her remaining allies in the village, warn them of the trap. But her cry was cut short by the sudden attack by her opponent, who tackled her to the ground, knocking the breath out of her.

      She let go of her sword, useless in such close quarters and focused on wrestling with her opponent. But it was hopeless, he was slightly taller than her and decidedly had the advantage in terms of weight, especially with that armor of his pressing down on her.

      Once sure he had her pinned to the ground, he whispered in her ear, “Concedate.”

      Yield. She knew enough of the language of the Ròmanaich to recognize this attempt to procure her surrender. Rather than dignify the insulting offer with a worded response, she spat in his face.

       He grimaced as he wiped her salvia with his hand- so confident he thinks he can hold me down but with one hand.

       He repeated his admonishment to surrender, while she desperately tried to wiggle free, taking advantage of his momentarily weakened grip. But it was no use his hand soon returned and locked both her arms in place. His weight began to press down on her chest, making it difficult to breath. I would rather perish than surrender. The Ròmanaich humiliate their captives at best, and at worst...

       Well she had no illusions what they would see her as. At least in death she would avoid the recriminations of those smug chieftains she left behind and the torments of these hubristic Ròmanaich.

        A third time he asked her to yield. A hint of desperation entering his beseeching voice. His eyes pleaded with her own, entreating her to spare him the awful duty of killing her not in the heat of battle but cold blood. He would take no pleasure in killing me. But his comrades showed no mercy to my friends. I would expect no more curtesy be applied to me.

       Still her vision was beginning to get fuzzy at the edges. Each breath, such as she could take them, was a rattling desperate thing. Her resolve faltered as her body began to panic. I don’t want to go.

       With great reluctance she nodded her ascent to being captured. When the weight was lifted off her chest, she let out a hoarse, “Concedo” to confirm her intentions.

       The centurion lifted her off the ground and held her arms behind her back, marching her over to edge of the enclosure where his comrades were celebrating their easy victory.

       Her captor removed his helm and she got her first proper look at his face. Although most would not call it especially handsome, but something about it captivated her. This face is kind. It does not belong to a soldier… a killer.

       He spoke too quickly and low for her to catch any of his words. But some of the fighters in sheep’s clothing peeled off from their group and headed to the village. They had less armor and their weapons were of a more makeshift kind… hoes and rakes and other farming implements. The villagers summoned to defend their home. But how did they know?

       All told five of the Ròmanaich remained- three men and two women.

       The least impressive among them was a balding man as ghastly pale as any that called Prydain home. His physique did not suggest a soldiering life, the slightly rotund shape instead implying one used to leisure and bacchanal excess. The legions must have truly left to have such a man try to play the part of warrior.

       In a study of contrasts, the man who stood next to him much more looked the soldier, towering over his compatriots, rippling muscles and all. He had brown skin of the kind that could not be acquired by bathing in the sun and close cropped facial hair that she did not associate with the Ròmanaich, who all seemed eager to be as hairless as newborns.

       Next to him was petite woman with large expressive eyes that were trained on Amelia’s every little movement, studying her with an uncomfortable intensity. Whereas she had expected that any of the men would lead this odd little party, Amelia suspected the petite woman was the real mastermind. She has bossy control freak written all over and with doe eyes like those I’m sure she’s used to wiling her way.

       The final stranger, the youngest among them, looked oddly familiar. Her features were pretty if common, her mousey hair held back in a complicated circular braid. The women’s dark eyes were trained on Amelia, alight with hatred and loathing with such fury that is only kindled by deeply personal slights and grudges.

      The shepherd. That is where I have seen such eyes before. Then they had been pleading, holding back tears. She must be his daughter. If I’m right…

       Her train of thought was interrupted by a slap to the face. Well that stings although can’t say I didn’t earn it.

       The young woman screamed at her in the Brythonic languages of the south, a dialect familiar enough she could understand the meaning of most of it… not that the tone left much room for ambiguity. “That’s for my father you bitch!”

       The Brython got in her face her voice dropping low almost to a whisper, losing none of the intensity, “All your conspirators are dead. Sadly not by my hands alone. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t have these soldiers gut you like a fish.” The last point was punctuated by a rude gesture.

        Her hand wound up for another strike but was stopped by the intervention of her captor if the kind face. The petite woman said something soothing in Latin, her voice soft and gentle. But Amelia could hear her straining to keep the situation from escalating further.

        However tempers did not cool, and a frenzied debate seized her captors. Talking over each loudly , Amelia could not hope to follow except in the broadest strokes. All that was clear was there were two camps forming, baldy and shepherd’s daughter seemed to be arguing for killing her, while the other men wanted her to live, albeit as a prisoner if she was following their train of thought correctly.

         Doe eyes put an end to it, siding with the men. And so Amelia’s hands and ankles were bound with rope and she carried off without dignity over the shoulder of one man or the other. What hellish fate awaits me?

***

       “How go your chores, Crura?” Legs. She knew it was meant as an insult, but Amelia was comfortable enough in her own skin that it just skimmed across the surface, never touching her.

       She looked up from scrubbing the leather and cloth in the washer basin to see a familiar smirk light up Aoife’s face. The shepherd’s daughter turned brutal taskmaster.

       Aoife had taken it upon herself to avenge her late father’s murder by making Amelia’s life as miserable as possible. Dragging extra mud into the living quarters,

       She did so having been explicitly warned off from seizing retribution through more bloody means. As if sounding the alarm on the impending raid on Plumbaestimatis leading to the deaths of a dozen of my closest friends wasn’t enough.

       Amelia cursed her stupidity to not thoroughly check for potential witnesses to that dark act. She had bloodied her hands dishonorably for no purpose.

       As part of her quest for vengeance, Aoife had joined up with Clara’s ragtag Ninth Legion, so called after the legion the Ròmanaich had lost to the hills and moors of Caledonia hundreds of years ago. Curious choice to pick a namesake that lost everything to the same enemy you wish to stop now.

       The Ninth was technically unsanctioned and on the run from the proper authorities. It was made from deserters of the Sixth Legion, which as the rumors indicated had withdrawn to the continent to fight some enemy breaching Ròmanach limes . The specifics held no interest for her. Let the Ròmanaich suffer the fate they have handed down to countless peoples the whole world over.

       Amelia elected to ignore Aoife. I have everything to lose from engaging and only transitory emotional satisfaction to gain. She’s just looking for an opportunity to taunt me. If I’m impassive, I’ll give her no purchase or foothold to seize upon.

       “Come now Crura, don’t go mute on me.” Aoife looked like a bored cat, disappointed that its prey wouldn’t play along with its games. “I know Rufus has been giving you Latin lessons.”

       Amelia unwillingly blushed at the mention of Rufus. He had been her constant companion these past few weeks, visiting her makeshift cell at least once a day and often dropping by as she labored.

       At first he had claimed to be checking on her health. He had some kind of medical background, but had been forced in these unsettled times to surrender the doctor’s caduceus for the warrior’s sword.

       At the start she found his attempts to play nursemaid vaguely irritating. But soon she found comfort in this oasis of humanity in the face of Aoife’s hostility, Nardolus’ and Danielus’ benevolent indifference, and Clara’s perfunctory paternalism. I’m just a problem they’ll hope will solve itself on its own accord.

        Speak of the fae and they shall come. Clara and Danielus were walking hand in hand, descending from the earthen rampart that arose from behind a stone wall that stood between three and four men tall. Hadrian’s Wall.

       Amelia could not help but notice the irony of being imprisoned in the shadow of the fortification that she had spent most of her adult life trying to sneak past. It had been the southern bound of her entire world. But no longer without watchers on the wall.

       Clara and Danielus parted their hands once they noticed they had company. As if their relationship is some unspeakable secret. Amelia had managed to figure out they were intimate during the long trek to their current encampment.  

        Amelia suspected the concealment was masterminded by Clara. As she well knew form her dealings with the chieftains, a woman in a position of power had a lot to prove. Most men and a fair number of women would actively undermine her if they were not too bust underestimating or dismissing by virtue of her gender.

        Any romantic attachment to a man would lead assumptions that he was the true architect of policy. Still a relationship that is an open secret breeds more rumors than one that stands proud in the light of day. But that’s none of my business.

        “Leave Amelia be. There is too much work to be done. Resume your duties solder.” Danielus’ voice rang out clear and commanding, projecting the confidence of the long-term veteran he was. However Amelia saw the slight signs of discomfort underneath the performative façade. He does not like playing the officer, to be the cold aristocrat choosing who lives and dies from on high. It’s no surprise he’s eager to abdicate and cede authority to Clara.

        The initial shock of seeing his dark skin- the first black man she had been exposed to- had faded over these past weeks. Although Amelia still did not quite believe he had been born and raised in a place as close as Londinium. Róimh and her empire are truly another world.

        Aoife bowed her head to her superior, casting one last murderous glance at Amelia before abruptly departing. Military discipline does not suit her spirit. She fights against her headstrong nature… not that I’d know anything about that.

        Amelia continued her work, trying to ignore the chain and manacle on one ankle, as if she was a dog that could not be trusted to roam far. Well they’re right about that much. I’d attempt to flee the instant an opportunity would present itself.

        As if hearing her thoughts as a challenge, the universe sent Rufus. He brushed past her, a slight smile on his lips, before striding on to Clara and Danielus. He inclined his head in respect and began issuing his report to Clara, “Praetor Cornelius sends his regards. As requested the latest shipments of grain and treasure will arrive in installments to be distributed at your discretion.”

        Clara nodded, “Is that all?”

        Rufus paused a moment, clearly reluctant to share the next tidbit of information. Amelia went through the motions of working, her full attention focused on what would be said next, curious of any news from beyond the confines of her suffocating prison.  

        Finally Rufus stumbled out whatever unpleasant message he had to relay. “He continues to express his desire that you fallback from the wall to a more defensible location. A fortified town like Vinovia or Verterae. Perhaps even further south, he suggested Catarocnium.”

        Clara’s face hardened into a mask, displeasure slipping through the cracks where it did not quite fit on properly. “And leave the villages like Plumbaestimatis and the countless nameless isolated holdfasts to be ravaged and razed to the ground by the Picts? No never. They are Roman citizens and deserve to be protected as such.”

        Danielus expression was pained. Clara arched an eyebrow in his direction as if to question why. Taking a breath, he said, “Cornelius is right. We don’t have the numbers to fortify the length of the wall, rendering it useless as a defensive barrier.”

        He not too subtly gestured at Amelia. “Already the Picts slip through whenever they might desire. At Plumbaestimatis we were lucky that Aoife was able to raise the alarm and alert us and the village alike. We simply cannot be everywhere.”

        Clara set in her jaw. “Recruitment is up now that word of our deeds is spreading throughout the province. Let the elites of Eboracum hold up their aquiline noses at us. Cornelius’ clandestine support means we do not lack for resources. And to cede a single inch would be a betrayal of our mandate.”

        Danielus’ eyes burrowed into Clara. I feel more like I’m watching a marital squabble instead of a policy debate. “To fail to cede an inch means risking losing it all.”

        “Enough.” Clara glanced in Amelia’s direction. She trusts me not. “We will continue this discussion at another time, in another forum. But for now my decision stands. We stay at Pons Aelius.”

        Clara and Danielus departed stomping off in opposite directions: the former flustered, the latter exasperated. Trouble in paradise.

        Rufus, who had managed to maintain a silent neutrality in the face of the escalating spat, released a sigh, rubbing his temples. Amelia’s eyes momentarily met his own, but they both quickly broke contact.

        However rather than leave her be, he elected to approach her. The air buzzed with possibility, just as it always did when they were alone together. No I refuse. If there’s a prize for rotten judgment I’ve already won that. I will not fall for a Ròmanach.

        “You know, they don’t mean anything by that.” Naivety looks good on him.

        Amelia pursed her lips for a moment, weighing her response, before opting for honesty. “Oh they meant everything by that. They want to remind me that I’m a prisoner, an outsider. Not one of their precious citizens.”

        He looked likely to try to refute her, so she cut him off before he had the chance. “Oh the disdain and the distrust is well earned. I’ve killed…” The image of the shepherd flashed in her mind’s eye, a red smile slashed across his throat. Wrong place at the wrong time.

        “And could have done much worse if they had not ridden to the rescue like the heroes out of some song or legend.” She laughed bitterly to punctuate her point. I’m the villain in my own story.

        His kind eyes met her own, filled not with pity or disgust but something she couldn’t quite identify. It unnerved her. “We all do terrible things in the name of forces greater than ourselves. For our nations. Our God. Or gods in your case.” For wealth. For power. Never underestimate how selfish people can be Rufus.

        He chuckled weakly before concluding with, “And of course, for love.”

        “Ay, people do terrible things for any number of noble causes. Doesn’t absolve the wrongs they’ve committed.” All she could see was blood weeping from that red smile, Paidrin and Riannagoir cut down in the prime of their lives, left for crow food.

        “But it doesn’t make them irredeemable monsters either.”

        Amelia became intimately aware how close Rufus was. He had kneeled down to her level with that last line. She could feel the warmth of his breath upon her face. She could see the sincerity written all over his face. He meant every word and it was too much. I need to change the subject.

        “I’ve never properly thanked you for the Latin lessons. And the kindness you’ve shown me these past few weeks. So thank you for that.” She nearly stumbled over her words. And was suddenly conscious of her accent.

        He flashed a reassuring smile, but rather than find comfort, the butterflies in her stomach increased tenfold. “You’re most welcome.”  He scratched the back of his neck with one hand. “And it’s really the least I could do…” Because you’re responsible for my imprisonment.

        Someone’s feeling guilty. She felt something constrict in her chest. She didn’t want to be pitied. Not ever. But especially not now. 

        A sudden anger seized her, and she declared, “Quite right too.” It came out colder than she intended. But Amelia found she couldn’t hide anything from him. Not even the shifts in her mood.

        His cheeks blazed scarlet. A pang of guilt flashed through, but was quickly swallowed by the knowledge that her current predicament truly was his fault. He failed to give me an honorable death in battle and chose to capture me. And for what? So that I could live a half-life in service of my enemies.

        All the suppressed emotions, all the rage and fire and fury boiled over within her. She wished Aoife and the rest were here to be witness to it. That they may know her pride was untouched by humiliation after humiliation.

        “Look Amelia,” Her prepared tirade died in her throat. It was the first time she had her name spoken aloud in far too long. Not with the familiar lilt of her people, but still there was a power to be recognized, to be seen as an individual. Not just the Pict prisoner.

        “I should be the one who is sorry. It is my fault, my own grievous fault. I thought I was sparing your life at Plumbaestimatis. But all I really managed to do is kill you slowly. Such a mercy doesn’t deserve the name.” 

        “You see I forgot the guiding principle of all physicians: ‘Do no harm’ does not mean everybody lives. But instead is meant to limit unnecessary suffering, such that no one fervently wishes to embrace death with open arms.”

        A wellspring of emotion arose within her. And she cried. Happy tears to be sure. He had said all the right things. She truly had a friend in this ordeal.

       “Kiss me you idiot.” His eyes widened in shock at her sudden proposition. Dumbfounded he let out a garbled noise that resembled a frightened goose. I suppose I have to do everything myself.

       She closed the distance between them and their lips touched. He was hesitant at first, but she pressed him on and slowly it dawned upon him she was not made of glass. She would not shatter at his every touch.

       His hands began exploring her body, fingers tracing swirling marks upon her skin. She did likewise, inching up his thigh. He let out a soft moan.

       There was a loud bang and they broke off.

        “Oh don’t stop on my account. Just wanted to pop in to check if Rufus, you’re still on for a match of latrones later, right?” Nardolus.

       Rufus nodded, more than earning his name by turning a deeper shade of red than she thought possible. So bashful for someone who clearly knows what he’s doing.

       “Oh good. I’ve been working on my strategies and think I’ll finally have a chance of beating you.” He interrupted us for that. “Well alright then, carry on.” Nardolus shuffled off, leaving as quickly as he had appeared.

       Amelia smiled to herself. She exchanged a look with Rufus and they both burst out laughing. Another first for her captivity. And hopefully a herald for what is to come.

 

Chapter Text

410 AD/1113 AUC 

       Traveling abroad was much less glamorous than Rosa had imagined. Long days that blended in a general haze of sameness, the subtle shifts in terrain passing for entertainment. If only it were possible to walk through a magic doorway or a big box and arrive instantly at your destination.

        Her mood was not improved that they had to travel the long way round, overland. The Rhenus was simply too dangerous to sail down with the barbarians out and about. So after they had taken a ship across the British Sea to Gaul, they traveled cross country on horseback at an agonizingly slow pace so as to not kill the poor creatures.

        Their mission was simple: to seek audience with the Emperor of the Occident, Honorius, and plead before him the case of the much put-upon Britons. The adventures of Constantine III in Gaul had yielded no relief from the onslaught of their enemies.

        Desperate letters from various officials to both emperors had gone unanswered. This delegation was their last gambit. Many of the officials Constantine had left behind to govern the province had been expelled by the restless provincials. This action left just a skeletal bureaucracy headed by the old guard: the makeshift tetrarchy of Cornelius, Petronius, Palicanus, and Decius holding together the island as best they could.

        Decius hoped to turn this setback into a virtue when before Honorius, begging forgiveness and mercy as the Britons had seen the error of their ways after the revolt.

        Rosa had her doubts about how successful this whole trip would be. Which only heightened her disappointment that she could not romanticize the journey because the destination would likely end only in heartbreak and disillusionment.

        Her company was not helping matters, the odd bunch that they were. If it were only her and Decius, they could have entertained each other to the furthest ends of the earth. But all quarters of Britain had to be represented in this delegation, and most of the other tetrarchs were preoccupied with the unstable conditions on the ground.

        From the North, Cornelius had sent a portly bald nobleman, Nardolus. He tried very hard to be funny and clever, but paled in comparison to Decius’ quick wit. Apparently he had once been a childhood companion of the emperor Honorius, before being exiled by scheming eunuchs seeking to monopolize the young prince’s time. Hopefully he can leverage this lost connection to make our case.

         From the West, Petronius had sent that adopted daughter of his, Petra. A sweet enough girl, bright and eager. And thankfully she seemed to get on well enough with Nardolus, so Rosa frequently pawned off the latter’s company onto her. It is merely to the benefit of us both.

         And finally from the South, an increasingly frail and sickly Palicanus had sent his granddaughter, Donna, in his stead. A childhood friend of Decius’, Donna was an eternal reminder that Decius had lived a lifetime before meeting her. The pair had all these shared stories and inside jokes and knowing looks. Rosa could not help but feel a slight pang of jealousy, foolish as it was.

         Apparently once, a long time ago, they had been engaged. The reasons for breaking off were the subject of much rumor and speculation. Some supposed Decius preferred the rude company of men to the graces of the fairer sex. Not likely. Others speculated that the sudden death of Donna’s father, Galerius, had given her mother Sylvia the freedom to make her opposition to the match known.

        There were darker tales too. Of rituals and cults. Of depravities and moral decay. Of compromised virtues and scandals that made angels shudder and cause even God above to look away in shame. Rosa had tried to black out all the unpleasant details from her mind. To forget them completely as if she had drunken water from the river Lethe.

         When Rosa had finally summoned the courage to ask Decius directly, he had laughed, not out of cruelty but at the absurdity of the gossip. Apparently they simply made better friends than lovers. And she took him at his word. Without trust I have nothing.

         She owed everything to Decius. Girls of her common background and minimal education did not just marry into the purple-blooded patrician families of the City of the Seven Hills. I’m the daughter of a long dead roof tiler and a struggling tailor.

         To help support her mother, Rosa had entered into the service of Decius’ household. She admired him from afar as he went about his business. All the while she scrubbed and swept the floors, washed clothing, and otherwise kept up the domus.

         Eventually they began to flirt. It started with small gifts. Some choice pieces of fruit. A few extra denarii slipped into her payment pouch. Sweet smelling roses left for her to find. She accepted them graciously, flattered by the attention.

         But her mother’s warnings rebounded in her head. She must not to be seduced because she would be cast away as quickly as she was raised up. Rosa had no intention of being left out with the rubbish, suckling a mewling babe, taking odd jobs or much worse to support herself. I was not about to repeat my mother’s mistakes.

          Not that she resented her upbringing. She had long made peace with the absence of her father, who had taken a gamble by participating in the chariot racing and rather than reap riches lost his life in an accident. Trampled to death by his own horses.

         And her mother did the best with the limited resources they had. Rosa never wanted for food or warmth or any of the basic necessities of living. But I knew there had to be more out there. A better life, a better way of living.

         And Decius opened the paths to this better life. She left behind her servitude for a life of plenty and ease. She traveled the length of Britannia, accompanying him from the sheer white cliffs at Portus Dubris that gave the island its other name- Albion – all the way to Hadrian’s Wall, the stout defense against the restless Picts of the North. Her horizons had expanded in ways she had not thought possible.

        And now they were expanding yet again as they passed through the foothills of the Alpes, under the shadow of giants of stone and snow. The same mountains that Hannibal had crossed with those strange creatures called elephants that she had seen once or twice at the amphitheater in Londinium.

        Decius started on a history lecture as he was want to do. “Hannibal’s bold expedition had sought to bring the fire and sword of Carthage to Rome’s throat. He won battle after battle, crushing Roman arms. But he could not defeat Rome’s spirit.”

        Rosa nodded, half listening. What did the tale of a long-defeated bogeyman mean to her compared to the majesty of these rocky sentinels that had existed before Rome’s foundation and could yet outlive it.

        “Spirit is a small comfort when the barbarians are out and about,” Nardolus muttered darkly. So much for playing at being the cheery court jester.

        They had expected Italia to be safe, particularly compared to the overexposed Gaul that Constantine had squandered so much to stabilize. But the ravages of war had even reached the jewel in empire’s crown. Smoke was a constant sight in the distance. Farmsteads or even whole towns had been set ablaze as the Goths marched onward.

         However, they soon learned that they were not likely to run into any of the barbarians. They had all marshaled before the walls of Rome laying siege to the city, hoping to starve it out and plunder its riches. Rome has not fallen for hundreds of years, it will not yield now.

         Thankfully they traveled well-stocked with provisions. Every village or homestead they stopped at was nearly stripped of every grain of food, and they could not further beggar those who had almost nothing left. Donna spared what she could from her personal supplies. Not to be undone in the virtue of charity, Rosa followed her lead.

        After weeks of travel in the oppressive summer sun, Ravenna stood before them. A stone city rising out of the muck and mire of the surrounding swamp. There was a bustle of activity, stonemasons and lumbermen busy constructing monuments in what had been declared the capital of the Western Empire several years ago. The imperial court abandoned the exposed wide plains of Mediolanum in Cisalpine Gaul for the relative safety and seclusion of the marsh and easy access to the sea.

        It always confused Rosa why the emperor would not simply reside in the Eternal City as did his predecessors did; at least until Diocletian had split the empire among his colleagues. Decius said that Mediolanum was first chosen to replace Rome because it was closer to the frontiers and the chaos of those martial times required martial emperors to be near at hand.

       And now the emperor slinks away, tail between his legs, primed to flee eastward to the welcoming arms of his young nephew, Emperor Theodosius II, should his enemies come knocking. She didn’t know why they’d bother, there was nothing of value here to take away.

       Despite its pretensions for grandeur, there was something small about Ravenna. It’s monuments and churches cheap knock-offs of the glories that Rome surely held, at least based on what Decius had described to her from his past visits. This is a provincial town, not an imperial capital.

       Nardolus had ridden up beside her, evidently unable to take a hint.

       “You didn’t here this from me,” he leaned in, nearly falling off his horse in the process- graceful as ever I see. “But they’re not even originals.”

       “Hmmm, what?” She had quite processed his words, she was simply too used to tuning him out.

       Elaborating, he said, “The monuments, their materials- the columns, fragments of friezes, et cetera- are spoila, stolen away from Rome or Mediolanum or some other unfortunate city.”

        Petra observed, “Unable to match the glories of the past, we’ve simply decided to recycle and reclaim them anew.”

       “Exactly.” Nardolus nodded. “It bodes ill for the future.”

       Rosa had to agree. The monuments of an age were messages of brick and mortar, limestone and marble, to the future. To repurpose the leavings of past eras suggested a lack of energy, of confidence. That the past must be effaced so the present could shine when it should be able to do so on its own merits.

        A unit of the Scholae Palatinae greeted them at the main gate, armored and on horseback. They were to escort the delegation to Honorius. Supposedly the elite of the elite, they looked plump and unconditioned. Their armor was gilded and prettily decorated in a decidedly impractical fashion. Carefully constructed sculptures of various animals, real and imaginary- lions, griffins, and eagles, oh my- jutted out aiming for fierce but landing on comical.

       Rosa observed the people on the street as they winded their way to the imperial palace. Quite a few looked well fed and prosperous, wearing fine linens and jewels, evidently benefiting from their association with the largess of the court. It contrasted sharply with the pillaged homesteads or the long, drawn faces of the villagers whose homes they passed on route. The endless wars do not touch them.

       “This is wrong,” Decius muttered under his breath, just loud enough that only she heard.

       She nodded. It was not right that all these people lived in comfort, able to ignore the world around them being set ablaze, centuries of order and prosperity decaying away into something darker. The empire is rotting not only at the frontiers, but in its very heart and soul. Like an overripe fruit, shining and bright, but containing only disease and maggots, liable to rot and putrefy at any moment.

        Finally, they arrived at the imperial palace. The building’s design was relatively open, large arches supported by decorated columns with a terracotta tile roof. They passed through a grand courtyard, not unlike those in the villas of the wealthy. Fountains sprouted like weeds, releasing gallons and gallons of water into the air that pooled within their basins. The floor was decorated with grand sweeping mosaics depicting biblical scenes or historical Roman victories. Hannibal and his elephants falling on bloody spears.

        At the other end of the courtyard they entered the core of the building. Their escort parted into two streams, lining the two sides of a grand hall. Beyond their line were a host of courtiers all dressed in lurid colors and outlandish styles.

        A small portly man dressed in garish gold stepped forward from the throng of lavishly dressed dignitaries. With a surprisingly large voice for his size he announced to the assembled court, “Dominus Noster, Imperator Caesar Flavius Honorius Augustus.”

        A man swallowed by billows of purple fabric appeared from behind the throne. He ascended the steps, tripping and cursing at the ill-fitting pageantry that adorned him. This undignified display elicited no reaction from the court, not even a choked down snigger or batted eyelid. This must be what absolute power looks like.

       The orderly then proclaimed, “Meus Dominus, the delegation from Britannia has arrived”

        Now settled upon his throne, Honorius signaled for the orderly to continue. He looked almost bored, drumming his fingers against the sides of his elevated seat, as if he’d rather be elsewhere than entertain their mission. A poor start.

       “Praetor of Maxima Caesariensis, Decius Aemlius Severus, accompanied by his wife, Rosa Decii.” Decius stepped forward, approaching the throne. Rosa awkwardly followed in his wake. He genuflected before Honorius, head bowed in submission. She mirrored his behavior, unsure how to proceed before the master of half the world.

       Donna and Petra were similarly presented as representatives of their respective relatives. They each went through the proper protocol as if it were second nature. Rosa felt decidedly out of place.

       “The patrician, Nardolus Quintus Machinus, representing the Praetor of Britannia Secunda, Cornelius Egnatius Novemus.”

       Honorius’ eyes lit at the sight of his old friend. He stepped off his throne, nearly tripping forward. Brushing past the rest of their still kneeling company, he went up and hugged a bemused Nardolus.

        “My old companion! What could you possibly want for? If it is within my power, I will grant your every desire at once.”

        The outburst of emotion unnerved Rosa. She had assumed the emperor would be a dignified and distant paternal figure not unlike God the Father. Or perhaps an old wise man, like a Greek philosopher. Anything would have matched her mental image better than this bumbling clumsy man-child.

        Once he had recovered from the sudden reunion, Nardolus took the initiative. “An army, old friend, we need an army.”

        Honorius’ face fell. “That is not so easy. I’m rather short on armies at the moment. Alaric’s treachery means the Goths no longer count among the foederati. I have gathered what forces are available to me here at Ravenna.”

        Forgetting herself, Rosa muttered, “And yet the Goths still besiege Rome.”

        “You have a critique, girl.” He signaled her out, dramatically pointing at her, while she still knelt. “I’m merely following the glorious example of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. Patience is a virtue as the Church is so fond of saying. Know your history and your place.”  

        Rosa was about to do something rash and chew him out for his public dismissal of her. But she couldn’t quite remember who this Quintus Fabius fellow was. The name was familiar. She was pretty sure he had been around before the emperors. Think. Think, there must be something useful Decius has said.

        Donna, however, had no qualms about jumping into the ring on her behalf. Rosa was grateful, but also slightly resentful. She could fight her own battles. Even with the ruler of half the world.  

        “The Fabian strategy,” Donna paused realizing her preach of protocol. “Meus Dominus,” she quickly amended. “Fabius did not just avoid confrontation to win against Hannibal and the Carthaginians but used that time to harry and disrupt his enemy. Hiding behind walls works for no one but the enemy.”

        There was a murmur of agreement washing over the observers in the court.  However, it was soon overpowered by a countervailing current. Blind loyalty to the emperor paid better than honest critiques.

        “Military strategy is not a matter of public debate, my misguided subjects.” Honorius’ eyes flashed dangerously. Rosa realized the depth of their mistake. They challenged the very man that they needed to court for their mission to succeed. If only I could have held my tongue.

        “Meus Dominus nor should it be.” Decius now entered the fray. He stood up without leave from the emperor, a disrespect milder than Donna’s and her own. “Our delegation merely seeks to request if Dominus Noster would consent to garrisoning of his loyal and true province Britannia to defend it from those that would seize this land and enslave its people.”

        Decius’ honeyed tongue soothed the emperor, who returned to his throne.

        “My loyal and true subjects must be defended of course.” Everyone leaned in, hoping that their reprieve was at hand. “And so they shall be.” Sweet victory. “With their own manpower and resources.” Is seized and wrecked in the jaws of bitter defeat.

        “Italy is aflame. I have problems closer to home that demand remedy. Without a strong core, the security of the frontiers means nothing. Your request for men or materials is denied until such time that order is restored and Rome relieved from the predations of the Goths.”

        A breathless perfumed eunuch entered the chamber interrupting Honorius’ attempt to dismiss them and send them back home empty handed. “Meus Dominus. Meus Dominus. Meus Dominus.” He repeated the words ad nauseum until Honorius made a motion to silence him.

        “My Keeper of Poultry, what is it?”

        “Rome has perished.” A great lamenting cry spread throughout the court. Rosa just stood there in shock, nearly doubling over as her body processed what her mind would not, could not. It’s over, it’s all over. The world is not ending, it is finished. Rome has not fallen for hundreds and hundreds of years. Not since the early days of the Republic.  

         Donna angrily paced, probably resisting the urge to curse out deities old and new and their chosen representative on this plane- a sad sack dressed in purple. Nardolus attempted to subtly swallow some vomit- gross - horrified at the thought at what heinous acts the Goths could commit in the heart of the whole world. Petra looked pained, but unperturbed as if she had expected this latest travesty to occur.

        Meanwhile Decius’ face mirrored her own, reading as What!? What!? What!? on a continuous loop. There are no words, only horror. Unceasing horror.

        “And yet it has just eaten from my hands!” Tears welled in the corners of his eyes. His Serenity sobbed bitter tears. “This past morning did it not heartily crow three times?”

        Confusion rippled through the throng of courtiers. A host of whispers arose, all asking the same question. What latest madness is this?

        “Um Meus Dominus,” The eunuch paused, unsure how to proceed without risking his life or livelihood to the whims of a mad tyrant in the same vein as Caligula or Nero. “Your favorite chicken Roma is fine, perfectly healthy.”

        Honorius stopped his undignified blubbering for a moment. “Oh fantastic.” His Grace looked like a toddler given a particularly sweet treat to shut him up. “Bring him to me at once that I may inspect with my own eyes this happy miracle.”

        A couple slaves hastily arose to do as their master wished. The eunuch delayed and obfuscated, unwilling to break the true news of the disaster until His Magnificence could be consoled by his chicken.

        Like a dog amazed at the miraculous return of its master after a working day, Honorius let out a cry of joy at the sight of his chicken. The slaves held up the poor creature to His Temperance, who snatched it and plopped it upon his lap. The chicken clucked, alert and nervous, rotating its head to and fro. The chicken better reflects the mood of the room than His Grace.

        “Meus Dominus the true meaning of my words is that the City of Rome has surrendered to Alaric and his Gothic forces. A week past the Salarian Gate was opened through treachery or want of food. The true reason is unknown. The reports from survivors are confused and contradictory.

        Three days they pillaged and ransacked the city. The Mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian were breached, the ashes of emperors past scattered and desecrated. All the valuable and precious possessions of your citizens and the Church have been taken as spoils of war. Your sister Galla Placidia is captured and languishes with thousands of her fellow citizens. Ransoms are demanded.”

         Honorius’ eyes glazed over, only growing mildly alert at the mention of his sister. “Have Stilicho arrange the payments, increase the taxes to be drawn from Hispania, Africa, Gaul, and Britain. When peace is bought from Alaric, we shall restore Rome to the glories of the Augustan Age. A city of gold and marble it shall be again.” And yet you cannot give the same treatment to this sorry town you now reside in.

         The eunuch’s discomfort was palpable- to think his job is to care for some chickens and now he must be an architect of state to an unhinged emperor. “Meus Dominus, Stilicho was execu- has been dead two years.” Not a sore point at all then. “And Gaul and Britain are under the jurisdiction of Constantine III, whom you recognized as co-emperor around that time as well.”

         “Right, right. I had forgotten.” Honorius muttered, mostly for his own benefit. “Nardolus, old friend, I bid you and the rest of the delegation from the Britons now depart. This latest crisis requires my full attention.”

          Dejected and defeated by the twin blows of the sack of Rome and their failed request to achieve aid, they left the palace heads held low. Decius received Rosa into his arms. And she cried. Tears falling freely once they were free of Ravenna and once again upon the road.

         And this is how the world ends. Not with fire and fury. Or a thunderbolt from the blue. Even if the sack of Rome feels like both. But a slow decaying rot that infests even the best of everything which festers and crumbles. So that one day you wake up and no longer recognize this world as your own. And all you have left are tears.

Chapter Text

411 AD/1114 AUC

        The assault would begin when the moon reached its zenith in the night sky. Clara did not know why they chose to attack in the heart of darkness. But that is always when monsters and worse things go bump in the night. If all those old fairy tales are to be believed.

        The parlay- her final gambit- had ended a miserable failure. Her wits had abandoned her in the face of that whirlwind of a woman. Domina Maesta. Although oddly enough she preferred to be referred to as Missy - “Short for Mistress my dear, for I am to be mistress of the whole world over.”

        Clara forced herself to return to the present moment. There were still so many preparations left to be made before the attack. Not to the defenses, those were as sturdy as they were likely to get with the limited manpower at her disposal. But there was one final chance to celebrate before the end of the world if they managed to get it all together. 

        Amelia had insisted. “I don’t care if there’s a horde of Cyberii at our doorstep, we are not delaying my wedding!”

        Clara admired the resolve and the passion. She only wished it could be redirected to deal with the impending disaster. Hadrian’s Wall is going to fall.

        Her resurrected legion had grown over the years but they still did not have the numbers to fortify the entire length of the wall as their forebearers had done. They depended on outriders to patrol the length of the wall as well as a system of outposts and lanterns to warn of an impending strike so that they might concentrate their forces at the most vulnerable point.

        The impending assault of the Silurii, Glacae, and Cyberii has been a long time coming. There had been reports of some witch uniting the enemies of Rome to the North under a single banner. Clara was skeptical of the tales of magic, but by force of personality alone, Domina Maesta earned her grudging respect.

        As the sun careened down toward the horizon, the ceremony began. The entire legion, such as it was, gathered in the shadow of the fortification. Well not all my men.

        Clara left some volunteers as watchers on the wall in case Domina Maesta decided to strike early. As extra insurance everyone but the bride and groom were fully armored, ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice should the call be raised.

        The wedding was a hodgepodge of traditions: some Roman, some Christian, and some Pictish and some purely of their own invention. Amelia knew precisely what she wanted and Rufus was more than willing to let her imagination run wild to her satisfaction.

        Amelia wore a flame-yellow veil, finely crafted and so thin as to be translucent- to symbolize ritual purity and chastity... although neither bride nor groom could pass for Vestal Virgins. Not that Danielus or I were any different when we wed all those years ago.

        Amelia’s dress was a white woolen number embellished with swan feathers, well suited to the clime. Or it would be if she had not removed the arms or opted for that plunging neckline.

        Those exposed arms were painted with hypnotic blue swirling lines- Pictish war paint. When Clara had questioned the appropriateness of these symbols of war intruding upon the nuptials, Amelia had retorted that love was a war and marriage just another battlefield. Rufus has met his match and then some.

        Rufus himself wore a toga that had been gifted for this very purpose by Nardolus, a fine linen garment lined with crimson. Underneath was a lovely tunic, belted and lined with a fiery red that matched Amelia’s hair. Aoife had crafted it out of the scraps and leavings also donated by Nardolus.

        Aoife surprised Clara. When the engagement had first been announced, she had assumed the shepherd’s daughter would intensify her petty vengeance against her father’s killer. But the passage of years had mellowed her, and while it would be incorrect to suppose the two women were friends, they no longer were foes. Good for the peace and order of the legion.

        Rather than have a priest officiate the ceremony- they were in short supply in this time of war- Clara took it upon herself as the ranking officer and head of the legion to lend the stamp of legitimacy to the affair.

        Rufus stood stiffly to her right, waiting expectantly as Amelia walked up to the makeshift altar, taking long graceful strides- well as long as the dress would allow.  

        “Friends, Romans, countrymen, we are here this day to witness the union of two people once separated by walls into one family. Their love and commitment to one and another stands here as a symbol of all that we protect in this, Rome’s darkest hour.” Slightly hijacking the wedding here, but the whole point of it is to boost morale. I need to take advantage of every opportunity.

        “Have the bride and groom prepared vows?”

        They both nodded.

        Amelia started first. “You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful they look sculpted by some divine hand. But then you actually talk to them, and they're duller than a brick.” We’ve all known that hopelessly gorgeous and empty boy or girl. Or both in my case.

       “Well there are other people, and you meet them and think, not bad. They're okay. Completely ordinary and fine. Unremarkable even.”

        Clara worked hard to maintain her composure as Rufus squirmed waiting for the inevitable but.

        Amelia savored the moment before giving her beloved a break. “But then you get to know them, and their face just sort of becomes them, like their personality is written all over it. And they just turn into something so beautiful. All that kindness and compassion radiating brighter than the sun.”

        She smiled now, the kind that takes over someone’s entire face because it’s so genuine and heartfelt. “Rufus, you are simply the most beautiful man I've ever met.”

        Rufus flushed pink, unsure what to do with that praise.

        “I promise to love and cherish you. Especially when you need some good sense knocked into you.” Amelia concluded her vows in only the way she could. She’s never one to let a sincere sentiment stand unqualified.  

        Rufus composed himself and started his own. “You all know I’m not a pious man. God or gods mean little and less to me.” Clara spotted quite a few muttered prayers and signs of the cross among those gathered. Displays of piety won’t move an atheist.

        “But if there’s one thing I have faith in, it is you, Amelia. And my love for you. I will be by your side until the very end. Forget all this talk of better or ill because my life will always be better with you.”

        Time for the final part. The exchange of binding words.

        “Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia.” Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia.

        “Ubi tu Gaia, ego Gaius.” Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius.

        Amelia and Rufus leaned in for the kiss, lips parted. But the universe had other plans.

        “Isn’t this the part where someone gets to object to this union?” Domina Maesta.

        A collective gasp rippled its way through her legion at the shocking wedding crasher. Maybe she really is a witch.

        “Because well I do,” Missy paused for a moment, strutting her stuff, completely at ease despite being hopelessly outnumbered by the heavily armored wedding guests. “I do object.”

        Amelia was alight with fury, ready to storm out and fight the intruder by herself, restrictive wedding dress be damned. But Clara saw Rufus whisper calming words into her ear.

        Clara attempted to seize control of the situation. Domina Maesta was alone and appeared unarmed. Surprise and nerve could only grant the woman so much reprieve before her legion reacquired its wits. And I have to help them.

        “We care not for your objections.” Louder, using the voice of command and control, she proclaimed. “Romans, on my command, apprehend this unwanted guest.”

        Missy held her arms open, gesturing at the rising legionnaires. “Well at any rate, you’ve gathered quite the glittering assembly, Clara.”

        Unwillingly Clara flinched at her name coming out of Missy’s mouth. There was something terrible about the easy familiarity implied.

        “Though not nearly as shiny as mine.” Missy bowed deeply from her waist. All the theatrics never get old for her.   

        On cue, silver plated armored warriors marched down the aisle and faced outward at the poised legionnaires who were unsure how to proceed in this scenario, not that they no longer faced the woman alone, but an entire army. On the wrong side of the wall.

        It was one thing for a woman to sneak past the defenses, another for an entire army to repeat the same trick.

        The Cyberii march. Their masks were expressionless with thin visors for their eyes, nostrils, and mouths. One could not quite see their lips or eyes giving them an eerie inhuman look about them. Beyond differences in height, they were truly identical.  

        Clara looked up to see if she could the telltale torches of the watchers. How did they fail to raise the alarm?

        Her question was soon answered as she heard a blood curdling thump as corpses were flung from the heights of the wall onto the terrified wedding party. The bodies were so mauled they were barely recognizable as human.

       “Ooooooooo it’s raining men! Hallelujah!” Missy did a twirl in her all black outfit. “Glad I’m prepared for any kind of weather.”

       She spun a leather parasol in her hand. Clara had a sneaking suspicion the leather wasn’t tanned from cow hides. Or any other animals for that matter.

       Another figure stepped forward to Missy’s right. A woman Clara didn’t recognize dressed in black leather and an eye patch to match. Not likely to be any friend of ours.

        Clara tried to see what had struck her men on the wall, but the tall figures flinging down the bodies were a blur against the dying light. From what she could see the shape of them was wrong, the limbs long and gangly, their heads misshapen, almost bulbous. Who the hell are these people?

        “ Oh don’t mind them, they’re not rude, just a bit shy.” Clara’s attention was redirected to the new speaker. Eye patch lady.

        Whoever she was, her presence exuded a cold confident malice that contrasted with Missy’s more frenetic and mercurial energy. She’ll not easily be diverted from her course of action. The one visible eye was alert and piercing, probing Clara for any signs of weakness.

        “Besides if you did happen to properly see them, they’d have to kill you.” She said it without malice, as if reciting a fact from rote memory. How many people have heard those very words before their deaths?

        “And I am so hoping we can resolve this situation without a complete massacre.” A thin-lipped smile lit up her lips,

        “Speak for yourself, Kovaria. What would be the fun in that? A little massacre never killed anybody... well on second thought.” She laughed at her own joke, her voice booming unnaturally in the general silence.

        Clara was inclined to just start the inevitable battle now, regaining the initiative and a small advantage of surprise instead of just waiting for the hammer to drop. But she was curious about their ultimate objective now. They bypassed the wall without any real resistance. Why didn’t they just continue southward to attack the targets of real value? And why wouldn’t this confrontation end in a bloodbath?

        “But Clara, you’ve really outdone yourself for the festivities. I’ll just assume my invitation got lost in the mail.” Missy did another twirl, cackling away.

        One brave soul made a lunge at her, sword at the ready to cut her throat or rend her in two. But with a smooth swift motion Missy impaled him on her parasol, which Clara could now see had a sharpened iron tip, glinting brutally in the fading sunlight.

        She stomped down on the body with her boots, ejecting her parasol and releasing a spurt of blood that colored her outfit and watered the grass.

        “Down boy. There will be plenty of time for all that later. But first if you would be so kind, hand over that one.” She pointed her parasol straight at Amelia. “The legs whose head is on fire.”

        Rufus immediately stepped in front of Amelia to her evident annoyance. “She’s not going anywhere. You… you witch.”

        Missy’s eyes glazed over, and she let out a mildly irritated huff. “As if I haven’t heard that one before. Centurion you really need to come up with more original material if you want it to have any bite.” She gnashed her teeth at him as an exclamation to her point before resuming her mad lackadaisical smile.   

        Kovaria intoned, “The Pictish girl is all we require. Hand her over and lay down your weapons, and you’ll all be free to return to whatever hovels you call home unmolested.”

        “Oh and do relax. If we wanted her dead, we’d simply slaughter you all now."

        Maybe four years ago, Clara would have been tempted to hand over Amelia and wash her hands of the situation. Retreat and live to fight another day on more favorable ground. Or raise the alarm. Mobilize a larger host against the invaders.

        But now Amelia simply was one of them, ancestry be damned. Her origins as a prisoner of war long forgotten. She belongs with us and deserves to be protected as such.

        “You can’t seriously be thinking of doing this, Amy.” Rufus’ expression was pained. Ill fated is the one who is wed and widowed on the same day.

        Amelia looked as if she was wearing a mask, perfectly neutral and expressionless, only her eyes betraying the turmoil within.

        She took a step forward, the edges of her dress trailing in the dirt, marking it brown with dust.

        “You can’t trust them.”

        Another step.

        “I can’t lose you.”

        Another.

        “Not now.”

        Rufus now made a move to grab onto her arm, but she rebuffed him.

        “Not like this.”

        Amelia turned on Rufus. “You think this is easy? Giving you up.” Her voice broke, the tears started. “But for both our stakes. Just this once you have to let go.”

        Missy smirked triumphantly as she saw the newlyweds descend into squabbling.

        Clara knew there was only one way to ensure Amelia did not fall on her own sword. Whatever they want with her cannot be good. It is far too much effort to acquire a single Pictish women.

        “Ninth Legion, oppugnate!” Attack.

        Her men sprang into action, clashing with the Cyberii. Clara spotted Missy leaping into the tumult, hacking away with that wicked parasol of hers. Through the clamor, Clara could see Kovaria shrug her shoulders as if this resistance meant little or less to her.

        However, this was no time to delay. They had to Amelia out of here to a safe location. Clara could see that there was a method to Missy’s careening attacks, carving a path directly in their direction.

        Danielus materialized by her side, blood- not his own thankfully -flecked on one cheek. His face was grim. They were on the same wavelength. The legion will not escape this battle intact.

        Aoife trailed in his wake, moving quickly. She was no fighter, holding a kitchen knife more to have something to grip onto than to defend herself.

        Nardolus bounded over to them, avoiding the oncoming Cyberii horde as best he could. He miraculously (and quite awkwardly) knocked out one that cut off his path, using a wooden chair.

        “Alright let’s move out. We need to raise the alarm and alert the south of the invasion.” I’m in control of the situation. This night is not yet lost.

        “Hand me that.” Aoife flinched as Amelia swiped the knife from her.

        Amelia sawed at the fabric of her dress, cutting it at the knee and slicing upward to free her long pale legs. S he really earned that (allegedly unflattering) nickname now didn’t she . Now she would be able to keep up with the rest of them as they fled on foot.

        They moved quickly, trusting the crash and din of the battle to disguise the sound of their flight. The sun had properly set by now, but the moon was full, lending enough light to work their way through the woodlands- safer than taking any formal path or road.

        Clara felt a pang of guilt at abandoning her post, leaving her legion without leadership during its first real test. But to die on this field would not slow down the invaders for a moment.

        Their pace slowed from a desperate scramble to a more sustainable walk. Predictably Nardolus was struggling to keep up. Rufus and Amelia had the easiest time given the length of their strides was so much more than her own and Aoife’s. But surprisingly Danielus was struggling to breathe, his skin ashen.

        Clara held back letting the newlyweds lead the way- Rufus knows where to go and Amelia is the most comfortable traveling in the wilds.

        Clara walked to his right, observing his increasingly stilted movements, that could just be soreness but she knew better.

        She whispered in his ear, no easy task that required nearly climbing on top of the poor fellow. “You’re hurt, aren’t you?”

         It wasn’t an accusation. Clara didn’t feel betrayed by this act of stoic stupidity. She knew exactly why Danielus would refuse to say anything. The faces we wear to be brave.

         He grunted his assent. “I guess I can never hide anything from you.”

         She could see the dark patch literally bleeding through his uniform. It could be construed as mud except when catching the moonlight, the russet red evident.

         At once she took charge. “Rufus!”

         Rufus staunched the bleeding as best he could with the supplies on hand. Nardolus volunteered to support Danielus so as to avoid further harming himself. The going went slower, but there was still hope they’d get away.

         That is until the Silurii struck, appearing so rapidly it was like they had burst out of the very ground at their feet.

         The Silurii fanned out, encircling them. Their skin was painted or perhaps even dyed green. Thin black tattoos marked their bodies with scales. Clara couldn’t help but wonder if those tattoos covered their entire bodies, inking every inch. Marking them as a unit, a tribe apart from the rest of humanity.  

          A pair of Siluriii, large hulking men, rushed them and grabbed Amelia before anyone could react. She howled and bit and clawed at them, struggling to get free. But Clara could see their grip was iron.

          “Excellent work. I underestimated you lot. Won’t make that mistake again.” Missy appeared from the shadows, apparel stained red, swinging that deadly umbrella of hers. “Tada Clara. I simply would love to stay and chat. But well, wouldn’t want our precious cargo to get lost in transit.”

          She laughed maniacally, and turned to walk away. Amelia was slumped in the arms of the burly Silurii. A trickle of blood dripping from her forehead. The brutes must have knocked her out.

          Yelling every expletive in the Latin language along with quite a few in Brythonic, Rufus charged headlong after them, but was flung back by the other Silurii. There was no chance he’d fight his way through the sheer mass of bodies.

          They spared his life, for reasons that were beyond Clara’s immediate understanding, instead beating him down to the ground, stepping on his hand until he lost his grip on the gladius.

          Three women stepped forward from the throng, two of the Silurii, who looked so similar as to be sisters if not in fact twins, and a young woman whose pale face shown as an oval in the twilight. Why is she among them? Is her constitution too fragile to bear the marks? If so why would she be allowed into battle?

          Clara sensed the members of her ragtag band of survivors tense. Silence reigned. The quiet was only interrupted Nardolus wheezed slightly with the effort it took to support Danielus, who let out a low groan as Nardolus repositioned himself.

          “Shall we slaughter the leftovers, good sister?” The look on one of the Silurii was ravenous as if she could not wait to quench her iron with blood. There was something vicious in her demeanor that Clara thought hinted at something darker. All those tales of cannibalism in the highlands of Caledonia seem less fanciful now.

          Clara felt a shiver go down her spine. In their ramshackle condition, the fight would be over quickly. But she ignored the fear and tried to keep her wits about her. Clearly the bloodthirsty one wasn’t the leader or their blood would already be wetting the ground.

          “Hush Alaya, I have other ideas.”

          The lead Silurii paced in front of their band, and Clara couldn’t help but admire her beauty. She had a regal bearing, the kind of confidence that only arose when the world has lain in the palm of one’s hand for so long that the weight of it becomes meaningless.

          “A test.” What trial could this be? “Pass and I’ll let you and your companions go free unmolested by the Silurii and our allies. At least for this night.” Telling choice of words there.

          Alaya look affronted that the offer was even on the table. “Vastra, have you gone mad? We have our orders. If they failed to hand over the girl peacefully, there would be no survivors.”

          “You would do well to remember your place, good sister.” The term of endearment became a weapon from Vastra’s mouth.

          “The Silurii do not bow before mere Silence.” Clara could tell by the way Vastra said it that the word was capitalized. Some kind of name or title. Or maybe some god for all I know.  

          Alaya fumed, ringing her hands and making rude gestures to signal her displeasure and wash her hands of the whole affair, but ultimately held her tongue.

          “And as for the test, I will question you and you may only answer in one word.”

          It must be some trick. To lower our guard so that we’ll be easier to kill, less likely to cause trouble and take some of them down with us.

          “Why?” She challenged, sounding confident- almost annoyed- so as to disguise the fear, bubbling under the surface, threatening to let loose.

          If I fail we will all die. If I pass we might still all die. All our efforts for naught.

          Vastra laughed, a much too amused twinkle in her eye given she was literally holding hostage the lives of multiple people to her whims. “I see you’re getting into the spirit of it already.”

          “But the reason is simple, I want accurate information about the state of Roman Britain. But in my experience words and words and words are just pretty lies, particularly if spoken under duress.”

          But fewer words leave more room for ambiguities. Wordplay and word games. I can use that. Breathe in. Breathe out. You are in your element.

          “Sian, if you would.”

          The pale women drew a thin blade from a scabbard at her waist. The metal glinted menacingly in the moonlight.

           She approached them, circling them. The sword was almost carelessly held one-handed, scraping at the ground.

           Clara eyed her warily, waiting for the pin to drop. She knew the dynamic between hunter and prey and was all too aware of where she and her friends stood.

          “And if you even for a moment think to betray our newfound trust...”

           Sian slowed, her dark eyes landing upon a target. Danielus. Clara knew all too well that she betrayed herself, her body refusing to remain calm with her husband put in further danger.

          “Well Sian here will cut your allies down one by one.”

          The tip rested at Danielus’ Adam’s apple, ready to burst through his all to fragile skin and end his life.

          “Do we have an understanding?”

          Clara nodded. “Yes.”

          Sian said, “Think carefully about your answers dear, a practiced liar will sniff you out.” Clara didn’t know what to make of that comment. If Vastra is a practiced liar that’s even less reason to trust that she’ll keep her end of the bargain.

        The game began.

        “How many men did you have under your command before this night?” Before the battle snuffed so many of them out. Years of painstaking labor wiped out in one cruel night’s work.

        “Millia” One thousand soldiers. A fifth the size of the legions of Augustus, but much more typical for the legions of the day.

        In truth it had been closer to two-thirds that strength. But if they think more escaped it might slow them down.

        “Were your forces the last forces on the island?”

        Clara winced at the use of the past tense. A reminder of her failures. But she knew of troops gathered in the west, the remnants of the Second Legion Augusta. And the other praetors had been supposedly gathering more men.

        “Yes.”

        Neither Sian or Vastra reacted to the lie to Clara’s immeasurable satisfaction. Sniff me out, ha! She felt like she had more control of the situation. Not enough, but I started out with none.

        “Who controls the island?”

        “Tetrarchy.”

        Vastra blinked in confusion. We Romans sure do love complicating our system of government. Why have one ruler, when you can have many?

        Sian translated, “Four rulers.”

        “Ah,” Vastra nodded. “Some multi-headed beast. It matters not, they’ll be chopped off one by one. Where is the nearest leader?”

        “Eboracum.”

        It’s not betraying much. They’d inevitably strike there next if they had any military sense. The grandest prize in the North, and besides its on the way to Londinium. They wouldn’t want to leave it untaken in their rear.  

        And Cornelius can handle himself. Hopefully.

        “And finally, do you intend to further resist our forces and stop us from reclaiming our ancestral territory?”

        Clara gestured to her friends, bloody and exhausted, but still ready to go down fighting. She fed off that energy and strength and said, “Invictus.” Unconquered.

        Vastra seemed terribly amused even as Alaya scowled.

        Alaya pounced. “And why should we let you live now?”

        “Honor.”

        Vastra smiled. “Quite right. We got what we came for. I look forward to meeting you again on a proper battlefield.”

        As quickly as they had appeared, the Silurii melted into the darkness leaving Clara and her companions shell-shocked. Danielus was nearly unconscious now, the blood loss simply too much.

        Clara was tempted to break down. Give up. Lay on the ground and just die. But she had a job to do.

        “Aoife, head to Eboracum. Warn Cornelius of the invasion.”

        The girl nodded, eyes wide, and Clara was reminded of just how young she really was. She can do this.

        “Nardolus, seek out the nearest holdfast. It should be Vinova, straight shot to the south. Get Danielus some proper medical attention. Once he’s well enough for long distance, move on and join us.”

        Nardolus looked green, but nodded.

        “And Rufus you’ll be coming with me.”

        The poor man still looked devastated from the loss of Amelia, his whole body crumbling inward, his expression vacant. But he mustered enough presence of mind to ask, “Where?”

        “Isca Augusta. Base of the last legion.”