February 17, 2022

#BookReview: The Skystone (Camulod Chronicles #1) by Jack Whyte

Synopsis: How do you find a new way to approach a story as familiar as any in the English language? If you're Jack Whyte, you begin your retelling of the Arthurian saga by taking one giant step backward to the latter days of the Roman Empire in Britain, sometime between the first breaching of Hadrian's Wall and the legendary days of King Arthur. Publius Varrus is the last legionnaire in Britain, and The Skystone is in many ways his story. He is a common man with aristocratic friends, and successful both as a soldier and an ironsmith. As the Roman world slowly crumbles around them, and Publius becomes involved in a political and personal vendetta, he and his friends seek to establish a refuge, a valley where the old Roman virtues will be kept alive and the empire's many faults be avoided. 

A finely crafted historical novel, The Skystone pays close attention to the details of everyday life in fourth-century Britain. As the first book in Whyte's Camulod Chronicles, it makes few allusions to the usual details of the Arthurian legends until Publius comes into contact with a sword, a stone, a lake, and a Celtic tribe who name themselves Pendragon. Greg L. Johnson


Rating: 5 Stars
My Review: I love Whyte's take on what will become an epic version of King Arthur later on in the series. I've always loved Ancient Roman and British history and this novel does a fantastic job featuring both. I had previously read this series multiple times but only recently stumbled among the audiobooks.  I'm falling in love with the series all over again through this version of it. In this book, book 1, we meet the core group of characters who establish Camuloud and the foundation of a new society. We also get to see Publius Varus discover the great skystones which will eventually become the great sword Excalibur.  This is a great novel (and series) for history buffs and Authurians alike.

About the Author

Jack Whyte is a Scots-born, award-winning Canadian author whose poem, The Faceless One, was featured at the 1991 New York Film Festival. The Camulod Chronicles is his greatest work, a stunning retelling of one of our greatest legends: the making of King Arthur’s Britain. He lives in British Columbia, Canada.


TODAY IS MY SIXTY-SEVENTH BIRTHDAY, a hot day in the summer of 410 in the year of our Lord, according to the new Christian system of dating the passage of time. I am old, I know, in years. My bones are old, after sixty-seven summers. But my mind has not aged with my body.
My name is Gaius Publius Varrus, and I am probably the last man alive in Britain who can claim to have marched beneath the Eagles of the Roman army of occupation in this country. The others who marched with me are not merely dead; they are long dead. Yet I can still recall my days with the legions clearly.
I have known men who refused to admit ever having marched with the armies. Whatever their reasons, I regard their refusal as their loss. I remember my legion days frequently, with affection and gratitude, because most of my lifetime friends came to me from the legions and so, indirectly, did my wife, the mother of my children and sharer of my dreams.
There are times, too, when I think of my army days with an echo of incredulous laughter in my heart. I remember the foul-ups and the chaos and all the petty, human frailties and fallibilities that surface in army life, and my options are clear: laugh at them, or weep.
I remember, for instance, how I spent the afternoon of another summer day, more than forty years ago, back in '69. That day was my last as a Roman soldier, and I spent it leading my men, and my commanding general, up a mountain and into an ambush.
Traps are never pleasant spots to be in, God knows, but the one we sprung that day was the worst I ever encountered in all my years of soldiering. The heathens who caught us seemed to materialize out of the living rock. Savage, terrifying creatures, half-man, half-mountain goat, they took us completely by surprise in a high, rocky defile in the very center of the rugged spine of mountains that runs the length of Britain.
We had been climbing for two days, picking our way carefully and, we thought, in secrecy through valleys and passes away from the major crossing routes. We wanted to arrive unannounced on the western side. The few officers with horses, myself included, had been on foot most of that time, leading the animals. We had just entered this defile and mounted up, thankful for the reasonably level floor it offered, when we were crushed by a torrent of massive rocks from above.
The three men I had been talking to were smashed to a bloody pulp before my eyes by a boulder that fell on top of them out of nowhere. They never even saw it. I doubt if any of the men killed in that first apocalyptic minute saw death approach them I know I was stunned by the suddenness of it. Itdid not even occur to me at first that we were being attacked, for we had sighted no hostiles in more than a week and expected to find none there, so high in the mountains.
Those first plummeting boulders caused carnage among our men, who had just bunched together on the narrow, rocky floor, exhausted after a long, hard climb. The mountains, which had until then heard only panting, grunting breath and muttered curses, were suddenly echoing with the roar of falling rock and the panicked, agonized screams of maimed and dying men. And then the enemy appeared, dropping, as I have said, like mountain goats from the defile walls above us.
Britannicus, my general, had fallen back from the head of the column only moments earlier to chivvy the men behind us, and as I swung my mount around, I saw his helmet's crimson plume about thirty paces distant, swaying as he fought to control his rearing horse. The cliffs directly above him were swarming with leaping men, clad in animal skins, and I began flogging my horse, willing the frightened beast to fly me over the men packed around me to a spot where I could organize some effective resistance.
It was hopeless. There was no room to do anything. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, the entire length of the defile was a mass of snarling, angry men locked in hand-to-hand fighting. This was a fight that, whichever way it went, would be won by brawn and guts, not by tactics.
I was using my horse as a battering ram, forcing my way through the struggling mass of bodies, stabbing right and left with a spear I had snatched from a falling man, but it was like one of those dreadful dreams when nothing works properly and everything slows down except the forces threatening you.
The narrow floor of the cleft we were in was bisected for a third of its length by a ridge of rock that was sharp as a blade on top, and I reached one end of this ridge just as my horse sagged under me, fatally wounded but unable to fall immediately because of the press of bodies. I managed somehow to throw myself from its back before it did go down and found myself standing on the ridge above the struggle, unchallenged by anyone. I looked to my right and saw Britannicus, his teeth bared in a rictus of pain, less than a spear's length from me, an arrow in his thigh above the knee. It was a red-flighted arrow, very pretty, and it had pierced him cleanly, pinning him to his screaming horse, which, like mine, did not have room to fall. As I watched, a hand came up out of the press below and grasped the protruding shaft, pulling it downward. He screamed, and his horse lurched and went down on that side, crushing his pinned leg beneath it.
I have no recollection of crossing the space between us. The next thing I remember is standing on the hindquarters of his horse, directly above Britannicus, looking for a clear space to jump down into. The masses parted and I leaped, only to take a spear thrust in the chest in mid-flight so that I fell backwards on top of him. My breastplate had deflected the spear's point, but I saw its owner set to try for me again. I tried clumsily to roll to my right as he stabbed and this time felt the point of the spear lodge between the plates of my armor, beneath my shoulder. I rolled back again frantically, throwing my weight against the shaft, and managed to wrench it from the man's graspas one of my own men plunged a sword beneath his arm. He went to his knees and died there, his eyes wide and amazed. As he began to topple towards me, I was already on my feet again, ignoring the spear, which had fallen beside me, and drawing my dagger. My sword was gone. A hand grasped my left shoulder, tugging me violently around before I could find my balance. I swung blindly, finding a naked neck with my blade and falling again, hearing a voice inside my head cursing me clearly for not being able to stand up.
There was blood everywhere. I caught a glimpse of Britannicus beside me, staring, face pale as death, and then someone else fell on me, gurgling his own death into my ear. I lost all reason, panicking with the need to stand on my own feet. I reached and grasped and hauled myself up, throwing someone aside--whether friend or foe I'll never know--and managed to stand erect only to realize that I was weaponless and being pulled down yet again. I went to one knee and this time could not rise. A voice yelled "Varrus!" and a hand appeared from my left side, fingers extended to me. I clasped it and pulled myself up again, and as I did so, I clearly saw a bronze axe-head with a long, polished spike sever the helping hand cleanly from its wrist. I saw the axe-wielder turn towards me, his weapon swinging to its height, and I knew the sharpness of that blade.
The details of that instant stand out clearly. The man was big, red-bearded, grinning in rage, showing black stumps of teeth. He wore a wolf skin across his naked chest and another around his loins, held by a leather belt into which was stuck a long dagger. He saw a dead man staring at him from my eyes. A voice in my mind agreed with him, and I was preparing for my death when that same handless arm, spurting its life, pointed itself at him, jetting its bright-red blood into his eyes and blinding him for the time it took me to throw myself forward, jerk the dagger from his belt as he reeled back from my weight and sink it to the hilt beneath his unarmored ribs.
As he fell dying, however, he somehow found the strength to whirl his axe backward and down and around, and I felt the raking tear of its spike from knee to groin as it slammed jarringly up into the join of me. I dropped my head, cringing from the violence of it, to see the thick shaft, like a gross, wooden, impossible phallus, sticking from beneath my tunic. Pain exploded in me, wracking me with unimaginable fury as I fell into a whirlpool of screaming blackness, still clutching the severed hand of my saviour.
We won--how, I will never know. But that was the end of my career as a follower of the Eagles. By rights, it should have been the end of me completely. The spike had missed my testicles and had driven upwards into my left buttock, but it had damaged the hamstring behind my knee in passing and laid open my whole thigh to the bone. The medics wanted to take the leg right off, there and then, at the end of the fight, before taking me down out of the mountains, for they thought that I would never survive the journey. Thank God I recovered consciousness quickly! I squealed like an angry hawk, knowing the survival rate among amputees to be almost nil. But it would have done me no good had it not been for Caius Britannicus. He insisted that I be cauterized and sewn up to take my chances. I had saved his life more times than he could count, he swore, and if I were to die, then by all the gods in heaven, I had earned theright to die two-legged. I was his primus pilus, he declared, and a primus pilus was entitled to two legs, alive or dead.
He was absolutely correct, of course. I don't know how either of us survived the journey back down to the plains, but when we got there, Britannicus quartered me in his own tent and I was tended by Mitros, his personal physician. We lay there on our cots, side by side, and waited to heal, and as we waited, each of us had ample time to explore his own thoughts--for me, I must admit, a novel experience at that time. I believe it may have been during those days that the idea of telling this story first entered my mind, but I cannot make that claim with absolute conviction.
Where does a man find the arrogance to contemplate the telling of a tale like the one I have to tell? "Inside himself" may be the most convenient answer, but in this particular instance it is both inadequate and inaccurate. My present determination to tell this story--and it is one that has often seemed stubborn and foolish even to me, in spite of the fact that I have been writing it for many years--springs from the fact that, in Caius Britannicus, I had a lifelong friend and mentor whose prophetic vision and moral integrity still awe me. Thanks to his strength of character, his powers of perception and evaluation and his insistence upon needing me, I was permitted to survive the ending of an entire world, and then to begin a new life at an age when other men were lying down to die.
Now that I am truly old, the fear of leaving that tale untold, and thereby consigning my friend to eternal anonymity, unsung and unrecognized, strengthens me to write. Having found that strength, have struggled to find a beginning for my tale, the way a boy will search perversely for the center of an onion, blinding himself with tears as he pursues his folly. There is, I now know, no real beginning. There is only memory, which flows where the terrain takes it.
Caius Cornelius Britannicus was not a good invalid. He resented being confined to bed, but until the hole in his thigh mended there was not a thing he could do about it. Regrettably, as a direct result of that, those first few days were the worst I ever spent in his company. I was grateful to him, but he was hard to take on an empty stomach, and since I spent most of those first days puking up the medicines Mitros was feeding me, my stomach was certainly empty a good deal. I would have been happier sharing those quarters with an angry leopard. He did eventually begin to settle down, however, and to accept his enforced inactivity with more characteristic philosophy. From that point on, we talked--rather, he talked and I listened, throwing my occasional copper contribution onto his pile of silver and golden ones.
Caius Cornelius Britannicus was a true Cornelian, a direct descendant of the pure, patrician stock of the founding families of the Roman State. During those early days of confinement, practically strapped to his bed and unable to influence anyone to change anything, Britannicus talked, sometimes for hours and hours, about his life in Britain as a citizen, rather than as a soldier. I remember I found that surprising at first, primarily because I had known him until then only as the military Legate Britannicus, the taciturn, professional commander who normally kept his company and his opinions to himself. As time passed, however, I discovered that I barely knew him at all. Whateverintimacies he and I had shared as companions in arms had exposed only a few small facets of the man's character and personality to me. Now, as he talked and I listened, more and more of the man inside him began to emerge. A paternal ancestor--his great-great-great-grandfather, in fact--had won his cognomen, Britannicus, through his efforts on behalf of the Province in the time of Antoninus, more than a hundred and fifty years earlier, and his whole family had come to think of Britain as home over the intervening generations, although their primary allegiance remained always to Rome. For my part, I had been born in Britain and had grown to manhood without ever being really aware of my native land. I never thought of it as being an important place; it was simply Britain, the place where I lived. It took a few years in Africa, followed by years of enthusiasm on the part of Britannicus, to show me what Britain really meant to me.
He talked at great length and with real affection about his family and about their home, a villa close to Aquae Sulis, the famous hot water spa in the south-west. I heard the pride in his voice when he spoke of his wife, Heraclita, whom he evidently worshipped and whose imperial Claudian blood was as ancient and noble as his own. He spoke proudly, too, of his first-born son, Picus, who, like Caius and all his forebears, would join the ranks of the legions when he reached sixteen. The boy was eight now, almost nine, he told me, so there was no rush to find a place for him in the imperial ranks. For the next five years, at least, young Picus would remain at home with his younger siblings: a sister, Meleiia, who was seven years old and the favorite of her doting father, and four-year-old twin brothers, Marcus and Paulus. He talked of a sister called Luceiia and a brother-in-law called Varo, who owned an estate beside the Britannicus lands in the west and who acted as caretaker cum estate manager to the family in Caius's absence. Someday, the Legate swore, when his duties were over and the Empire no longer required his services, he would return and assume stewardship of his own lands.
On one particular morning, I awoke to the sounds of grunting and movement, to find Britannicus being hoisted into a sitting position by two soldiers whom Mitros had drafted for the duty. They made him reasonably comfortable, eventually, in spite of his cursing, which died away when the physician pointed out that this was part of the curing process. When they had all gone and left us alone again, I asked him if he was in much pain. He looked at me without responding for a few moments, then eased his leg slightly sideways with both hands and shook his head.
"No," he said, "doesn't hurt nearly as much as it used to. How about you?"
I smiled at him. "I feel no pain at all, as long as I don't try to move. Course, when I fall asleep, my body seems to want to move on its own Then there's pain. I tend to wake up suddenly, very often."
He was watching me closely, frowning slightly. "Well," he growled, "at least you're beginning to look a little better. Those purple bags have gone from beneath your eyes and your face has started to fill out again." He cleared his throat, his frown deepening, then added, "Mitros tells me you should soon be functional again."
It was my turn to frown. "Functional? What, you mean I'll be able to walk again?"
"No, of course not. We know you'll be able to do that. You might have a limp, but you'll walk perfectly well. No, I meant ... functional--physically, sexually." He seemed embarrassed.
"Oh, that," I said, as a vision flared in my mind of the discomfort an erection would cause. "God, I prefer not even to think of that at this point."
He was looking at me strangely, and I felt myself flush under his gaze.
"What is it, General? What's the matter?"
He shook his head dismissively. "Nothing, nothing at all." He paused, and then continued. "You're an abstemious kind of character, aren't you?"
"Abstemious, fastidious. You're not much of a man for the womanizing life, are you?"
"I suppose not," I said, surprised and caught off guard by this unexpected departure from our normal style of talking. I added as an afterthought, "No less normal than any other normal man, though, if no more so."
"No, I don't think so." He shook his head again, an unusual, almost musing expression on his face. "I've watched you, you know, over the past few years, and I've been pleased by your temperance. It's one of the primary elements that make up exceptional soldiers."
He saw by the expression on my face that I was uncomfortable with his line of reasoning, and added reassuringly, "Oh, you are normal enough, God knows. It's simply that there is nothing excessive about you, in the vicious sense. You do everything in moderation, it seems to me, nothing to excess. You don't drink too much, you don't whore too much, you don't fight or even argue without reason. You are a fine example to your men."
"Gods, General," I said, "you make me sound too sweet to be wholesome."
"Ha! Far from it, but I apologize nevertheless." He was quiet for several moments, and I had closed my eyes again, wondering when the orderly would arrive with hot water for my morning ablutions, when he spoke again. "Varrus, have you ever been in love?"
My whole body stiffened in the bed as I wondered what had come over him to provoke such uncustomary intimacy. Britannicus never indulged in this kind of idle curiosity about anyone or anything. "Never, sir," I replied, hearing the awkwardness in my own voice.
"Never, Varrus? You have never been in love? Not once in your entire life?"
I thought about that, keeping my eyes closed, and as several errant memories chased each other through my mind, I felt a smile pulling at my mouth in spite of my earlier discomfort.
"Well, sir," I said eventually, "I have known a few young women, girls would really be more accurate, who set my heart a-pattering and my senses reeling from time to time in various places."
"Aha!" His voice sounded pleased. "And is there anyone in particular who still has this power over you?"
My smile was easier now as I grew more at ease with our topic. "No," Ianswered. "Not today, not really. No one holds that power over me, and I could be sad about that, if I thought for long about it."
"Ah, Varrus my friend, then you are unfortunate. There is nothing greater than the love of a good woman. It can sustain a man throughout any troubles, for any length of time."
The silence grew and stretched until I broke it. "Aye ... I've heard that said before, by several people."
"It's true." Britannicus's voice grew warmer and more enthusiastic as he honored me with his confidence.
"Do you know, I can still remember the day I first met Heraclita? I was about thirteen ..." He broke off, then amended what he had said. "Well, I actually only saw her that first time, I didn't meet her. We didn't really meet for about another two years, but I had never forgotten her since that first time. You'll meet her some day, Varrus, and you'll see what I mean. She was--she still is--the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I knew, even at that age, that my life would be built around her. We lived in different cities, so it was fortunate that our families were close friends. After that first meeting, however, our parents decided we would wed when we had grown, and we both approved. We became friends, I marched off to the legions, and years later we became lovers. But I had been in love with her since that first day I saw her, playing with a pet rabbit among the frosted sedge at the edge of a frozen pond, with her breath steaming in the cold air and her pink cheeks making her blue eyes seem even brighter than they were. And now we have been married for what?" He did a mental addition against the back of his closed eyelids and answered his own question. "Fifteen years. We were wed on my twenty-third birthday. She was twenty." His voice died away for a spell, his thoughts led inward by his words.
"My only regret about being what I am," he resumed eventually, "is that I have so little time to spend with my wife. I do my soldiering alone, and she stays at home and keeps my private world in order for me. She could come with me, but camp life is no kind of existence for a soldier's wife, and the family of a senior officer can have much grief, particularly if the husband and father is strict with his command. But love, Varrus, the love of a good woman is of matchless value." He turned his face towards me and shook his head in mild perplexity. "I really find it difficult to believe what you say, that you have never been in love."
"Believe it, General," I told him, smiling as I said the words. "I'm sure if I had been, I would remember."
The images in my mind right then were distracting and, for some reason I never really resolved, were causing me to feel some kind of guilt--perhaps because I felt I was, somehow, deceiving him. I was thinking of saying so, after which the conversation might have gone anywhere, but the medical orderly came in at that moment with the hot water for our morning ablutions, and the entire process of changing dressings resulted in a change of mood, which led in turn to our losing the desire to pursue what we had been discussing. Nevertheless, throughout the entire washing, cleansing, draining and changing of my dressings, I entertained and distracted myself by recalling the girl whosepresence had been brought back into my mind by the way Britannicus spoke, the girl who had bewitched me the summer before I joined the legions, when I was only fifteen. She was my spectral love, my special inspiration. I carried the memory of her with me, the physical, magical excitement of her, wherever I went in the service of the Empire, and the remembered sight of her face, the supple slimness of her waist, the deep, flashing blueness of her eyes and the redness of her warm, sweet mouth, had nursed me to sleep many a cold night on campaign.
It was a wondrous time, that last summer of my boyhood, a time that would remain with me forever. I know now, or I strongly suspect, that my grandfather took special pains on my behalf that year, knowing I would soon be gone into manhood and soldiery. He had a friend, a wealthy customer and patron, who lived in a superb villa close to Verulamium, and this friend invited my grandfather and me to spend the summer with him. We accepted, and I went to paradise for eight long, golden weeks. The villa itself was magnificent, but it was nothing compared to the lands! The summer fields were heavy, lush with ripening greenness, and the air was filled with the scent of the grasses, mixed with the dryness of sun-hot dust, the smells of dung and flowers. My ears were teased by the buzzing of flies and insects, the song of birds and the rustling of long grasses as they brushed against my legs. I made new friends there, a Roman boy my own age called Mario whose father was an overseer on the farm, and a younger boy called Noris, the son of the Celtic thatcher who roofed all the houses and buildings for miles around. Among the three of us, we hadn't a care in the world.
And then one day, less than a week before my grandfather and I were to return to Colchester, we heard about a festival to be held at the next villa to the east. The son of the villa's owner had recently been married to a girl who lived far to the south-west. The wedding had been in the bride's home, and now the son was bringing his new wife home. Everyone was invited to the celebration. There would be musicians, players, a dancing bear, games, and food and drink for everyone.
The dancing bear was the biggest I had ever seen, but when I managed to approach close to it I was very disappointed. The poor thing was half-starved and sickly, its skin broken and ulcerous from rubbing constantly against the bars of its tiny cage, and its coat dirty, matted and awful-smelling. I felt outrage for the helpless, obviously brutalized creature, and fury at the hulking, half-witted giant who was apparently its owner. I immediately went looking for my two friends, determined to enlist their help in freeing the animal that night after everyone had gone to sleep. I had seen them just a short time before, heading towards the stall where the pie-maker was finding it hard to keep up with the demand for his goods, and I set off towards them, cutting directly across the middle of the tree-dotted meadow where the festivities had been set up. And there, in the middle of the field on that hot, dusty afternoon, I came face to face with my future dreams.
I had just swung smartly around the bole of a good-sized tree, taking the shortest route to the pie stall, when my eye was attracted by a bright blueness that I saw to be a dress, worn by a tall girl of about my own age. She had long,straight black hair, an achingly beautiful smoothness of sun-browned face and skin, high cheekbones, a bright-red mouth and wide blue eyes that seemed to leap from her countenance. I saw her, all of her, in one flashing glance and stopped dead in my tracks, as completely stunned as though I had been hit with a heavy club. She was breathtaking. I had never seen anything so beautiful, anywhere. She was with three other girls, all shorter than herself, and they were all laughing at something one of them had said. I knew the others were there--I could see them moving and hear their laughter--but I was aware of them only as shapes. The girl in blue held my eyes and my attention completely.
All four girls became aware of my attention at exactly the same moment, it seemed. They broke off their conversation abruptly and four pairs of eyes devoured every detail of my awkward, mid-step fascination, from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. Then, in that singular way that is unique to adolescent girls, they instinctively swung inward, towards a common center, giggling and chattering, convinced that somehow, by turning their backs on me and huddling together, they had disappeared.
The tall girl, however, distanced herself from her friends by simply raising her head and gazing directly at me. There was no smile on her face, no discernible expression in her eyes. She simply looked at me, and I at her, and somehow, across the ten paces that lay between us, I felt the warmth of her active, excited interest. My heartbeat sped up and my breath swelled and grew tight in my chest. I knew that I had somehow magically filled her universe as she had overwhelmed my own. Her eyes seemed to grow bigger and bigger as I gazed at her; they devoured me, filling my consciousness to the point where everything else faded away, and all I wanted to do was reach out and stroke the smoothness of her cheek. And then her friends were shouting and moving, pulling at her, urging her away. I had ceased to interest them, and, miraculously, they had been unaware of what had happened between me and their beautiful friend. She went with them--unwillingly, it was clear to me--turning her head as she walked to keep me in her sight. Bereft of all memory of what I had been doing before, my own friends and the bear completely forgotten, I moved to follow her. She smiled and turned back to her companions, confident that I would not go far away.
I followed her until the moment came--and I have no idea how it came or what led up to it--when we stood together, all others gone, the two of us alone, stranded in wonderful isolation among a throng of people who had no impact on us or our lives. I looked at her, speechless, and she at me. She smiled a perfect, pearl-toothed smile that made my chest constrict. I know we spoke, though I can recall no words, and then we walked together away from the festivities, away from the crowd, away from the eyes of all people.
She was tall. She was lovely. She was mine. Neither of us doubted that, and there was no need to talk of it. There was no strain between us, no shyness, no false awkwardness. We touched each other gently, faces, ears and hair, with the awestruck, quivering fingers of reverent discovery. I touched a questing knuckle softly to the swelling, smiling fullness of her lips, and they parted, kissing my finger chastely. I felt the pliant slimness of her waist beneath my hand and almost caught my breath in panic as her face came close, close upto mine, and our mouths kissed. She was in my arms, filling my arms, enclosing me in her own, and I was overwhelmed by the closeness and the fullness and the softness and the clean, sweet-smelling scent of her, and we devoured each other with kisses, avidly, wildly, in the innocent need and fury and wonder of first love.
She told me her name was Cassie, short for Cassiopeiia, the constellation that rose in the evening sky shortly before we realized how late it had grown. She knew my name was Publius. I never learned her full name, nor she mine. By the time we rejoined the festivities, they had turned out to look for her and a stern father took her jealously in charge and out of my sight.
I had to return home to Colchester the following day and I never saw her again. But I never forgot her, either. She told me that her father was a soldier, a Legate, and she herself an army brat, living the army life, moving from camp to camp and country to country with her father's command. Through all my travels with the legions I watched for her--and for her father--each time we visited a new town or garrison, but without a family name, I could not even begin to look systematically. And so she had faded, gradually, into my memories. I watched for her in every new town, even then, after fifteen years. And now that Britannicus had stirred up my recollections of her, I embraced them and used them to cushion me against the brute pain that even Mitros's gentle ministrations could cause my mangled flesh.
Pain was a constant presence in our sickroom, as was sleep in those first days when Mitros was dosing us with physicks, and with both of those went boredom, because when one was sleeping, the other frequently remained awake, isolated with only his own enforced idleness for company.
From time to time, the monotony of our confinement would be broken when one or the other of us would have a visitor, but the men who came to visit me were awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of my august host and companion. To me, he was my Legate, my companion-in-arms for years, and a trusted friend. To my visitors, he was "Old Eagle Face," their commanding general, and therefore their nemesis and their god. They shuffled and whispered and fidgeted and couldn't wait to get out of there.
On one of those occasions, after a very brief visit by two of my subordinate cohort centurions, I turned to Britannicus and found him asleep, flat on his back, his high-ridged nose outlined against the light. The image brought back a surge of memories.
AFRICA, 365 A.D.
You don't spend two years on active service in Africa without learning to get out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. I had been sheltered and reasonably comfortable, dozing quietly, when something startled me awake. I lay there motionless, holding my breath, my ears straining, and waited for whatever had made the noise to make it again. Then, somewhere behind me, just on the edge of my hearing range, a camel coughed, and this time the sound brought me to my knees, head down below the tops of the rocks that shaded me, as I tried to isolate the direction it had come from. A Romansoldier meets few friendly strangers in the desert; none of them ever rides a camel.
There were five men, four of them mounted on camels and wearing the long, black, stifling clothes of the nomadic barbarians who infested these desert lands. The fifth man walked between two of the riders, and something in his posture, even at that distance, told me he walked with his hands bound behind him; the fact that he was walking at all made it obvious he was a prisoner. They were about a mile from me when I first saw them shimmering through the heat haze, and they approached steadily and slowly until the walker fell to his knees, forcing the little procession to stop and wait for him to get back to his feet. Even from almost a mile away I could see that he was one of my own kind, for he wore a short, military-style tunic. I could see, too, that he was just about finished. I flattened myself to my rock, my eyes barely clearing the top of the small hill I was on, and watched the poor swine weaving and staggering as the group drew closer to my hiding place. They had him strung by the neck with two ropes, each one stretching to one of the riders who flanked him.
I had no worries about their finding me. They would pass close by to my left, heading directly to the water hole, the only water around for miles. I had been there at dawn. I had drunk my fill and replenished my water bags, and then I had looked around and chosen this boulder-strewn hill to hide on during the long day. Here, I was sheltered from the sun and from visitors by high rocks and a strategically hung cloak, and my horse was comfortable and well hidden. I had left no visible tracks for any casual or inquisitive eye to see. I was waiting for nightfall, when I would cross the five leagues of desert between me and the sea coast, and pick up a galley to take me out of Africa, home to Britain along the coasts of Iberia and Gaul.
I detest Africa. I loathe it from the bottom of my legionary's soul, and for the best of reasons, which I share with every other grunt who ever humped a military pack across its godforsaken sands: I went there as a soldier. To me, it is a country with only two faces, one of which is false. The false face is a harlot's mask, painted to disguise corruption and decay. It is the face of urban Africa, gaudy with gross and exotic luxuries. It is the face most often seen by Rome's diplomats and wealthy, traveling merchants. Away from the flesh-pots and the palaces of its major cities, however, Africa shows its other face, its real face, to Rome's soldiers. That sneering face is twisted with hatred, toxic with hostility.
The soldiers who police Africa's lethal wastelands on foot have no illusions about its vastness or its mysteries; to them, Africa is Hades, a miserable, sweltering place of unpleasant duty, unbearable temperatures and unrelieved harshness. They know it to be peopled with alien, violent creatures whose feral natures reflect their environment. Its people are nomads--grim desert tribesmen whose lives seem wholly dedicated to strife in the form of never-ending local wars and vicious blood feuds. They call themselves Berbers, and the only common cause they ever seem to make is to war against Rome's soldiers. In consequence, the soldiers of Rome, down through the centuries, have regarded them with a mixture of awe and hatred and sullen respect,treating them as the most implacably savage warriors in the world, and convinced that the word "barbarian" was coined far back in antiquity to describe the Berbers of Africa.
These were the men at whom I was peering now. I felt sorry for their prisoner, but I didn't even consider trying to help him. There were four of those whoresons, and they had two free camels to string me between. I just crouched there, half standing and half leaning, hugging my rock, watching and waiting for them to pass by.
The prisoner fell to his knees again at about the closest point of their sweep by me, less than a hundred and fifty paces from where I watched. One of his two captors was not paying attention to him and didn't see him go down, so the rope joining the two of them together became taut and jerked the prisoner flat onto his face in the rock-strewn sand. I winced, imagining the stinging pain of the gritty impact, but it must have been insignificant beside the pain that followed it, for the rider cursed and slashed a long whip across the shoulders of the prostrate man. It did not provoke as much as a flinch. The prisoner was either dead or unconscious. With a disgusted curse, the fellow who had wielded the whip brought his camel to its knees and slid to the ground, approaching the prisoner and pulling his face up out of the sand by a handful of hair. The sand-caked mask gave no sign of life, but the man was obviously still alive, because his captor dropped him back to the ground and went to his camel, where he undid the neck of a water bag and splashed some of the liquid onto an end of the cloth that wrapped his head and hung down in front of him. Then, still clutching the water bag, he went back to the unconscious man, pulled his head up again and roughly wiped the caked sand from his face, so that I saw fair, sun-bronzed skin appear.
It took some time, but the prisoner eventually regained his senses, helped by a generous quantity of water that I knew was offered only because of the plentiful supply nearby. As soon as he seemed capable of standing upright again, the barbarian hauled him to his feet and left him there, swaying, while he climbed back up onto his camel. None of his three companions had either moved or spoken. I heard the guttural "Hut! Hut! Hut!" command to the camel and then, as they began to move again, just before he took his first staggering step, the prisoner turned, his face clean, his eyes screwed almost shut, and looked, unseeing, directly towards my hiding place.
That look had the effect on me of an unexpected plunge into icy water. My skin broke out in goose-flesh and my gut stirred in sheer horror. I knew him. And I knew, suddenly, that this time and this place had been preordained, that the whim that had brought me here had had a supernatural origin. I am not a superstitious man, and I was far less so then, but I knew that this was my destiny, my fate. I've heard a lot of men say that they relived their entire lives in one flash of time when they thought they were going to die. That wasn't quite what happened to me then, but I have never had a stranger experience than I did at that moment, when smells, sounds, feelings and sights assaulted me without warning from a time four years earlier.
I had been on campaign at the time, on the eastern borders of the Empire, but for all I knew as I struggled awake that day, I could have been anywhere.I was flat on my back, completely disoriented, with no knowledge of what had happened to me. And then a surging memory of battle, of being surrounded by screaming, barbarous faces, brought a swell of panic into my throat, and I started to scramble to my feet. And that's when my mind told me I had been killed, because try as I would, I couldn't move a muscle. I couldn't even scream--couldn't bite my tongue. The panic inside me rose to choking point, but then I heard my heart thumping like a drum in my ears, assuring me I was alive. I fought down the panic and willed myself to relax.
I lay there for a while, forcing myself to breathe slowly and deeply and to consider the evidence of the senses I had working for me. I could smell, hear and feel, for a fat fly had landed on my cheek and crawled into my open mouth. I tried to spit it out. Couldn't. Terror writhed in me again like a mass of maggots. I was afraid to try to open my eyes in case they were already open and I was blind as well as paralyzed. The fly flew out of my mouth; one second I could feel it on my tongue, and the next it was gone. I tried to open my eyes slowly. They were working, at least, but the light was blinding and I felt the muscles of my eyelids rebelling against my efforts. The rest of my body was dead. I could feel absolutely nothing below my mouth.
I have no idea how long I lay there, but eventually the bright light against my eyelids seemed to dim and I felt a coolness on my face, and then a solitary raindrop hit the bridge of my nose with a force and a suddenness that snapped my eyes open. I was lying on my back, my face directly towards a sky that was heavy with banked rain clouds. I had never seen anything so beautiful. Something was very close to my face and I swiveled my eyes downward as far as I could to try to see what it was. There was a dead man's face, horribly mutilated, within inches of my own. His skull had been shattered and gray brains leaked obscenely from the hole. The flies were so thick on the mess that they swarmed. I felt vomit surge in me and fought it down in terror, knowing that if I didn't succeed I would drown myself. The nausea passed slowly and I must have fainted.
I awoke again looking up at a man who towered above me, the hem of his tunic almost touching my face. It was almost dark now, and I thanked God fervently for sending him before nightfall. I tried to moan, to move, but nothing happened, and not a sound came out of me. Screaming inside, I watched in horror as his eyes moved over everything around me without approaching my face. I felt my eyes fill with tears. I was eighteen years old, stricken, somehow, in my first battle, and doomed to die here within inches of a man who couldn't see me! Through my tears I saw him look down and then stoop, suddenly, out of my line of sight. Then came a heaving grunt and my whole view changed with a lurch, and what seemed like millions of flies sprang into the air. I saw him straighten up again on the edge of my vision, and I knew that he had somehow moved me to my right. The movement had dislodged the corpse whose face had been so close to my own.
"Tribune!" His voice was low-pitched and deep. "I've found their standard. It was at the bottom of this pile." He extended his arm, and I saw that he was holding the great silver eagle that I had been so proud to carry, perched on its staff above the SPQR symbol of the Senate and the People of Rome. Another, younger man stepped into my sight. He gripped the standard's shaft,looked up at the Eagle and then looked around him, shaking his head regretfully, his eyes coming to rest on my own. He looked just like an eagle himself, a powerful raptor with deep-set, blazing eyes of pale-yellow gold, a great, narrow, hooked beak of a nose and a mouth that was compressed into a lipless line over a strong, square chin. He was gazing directly into my eyes without seeing me, his mind focused on something other than what he was looking at. But then I saw his gaze sharpen. A furrow appeared between his brows and deepened as his attention concentrated on me. He took a step towards me and I saw his fingers, extended like talons, reach for my neck. His face, keen-eyed and predatory, came within inches of my own, and as the tip of one of his fingers touched the wetness of a tear on my cheek, I blinked. I was vividly aware of the crease marks around his eyes, which could only have been caused, I was convinced, by squinting into the sun, for even now, at the moment of my salvation, I was thinking that here was a face that could never smile or laugh.
"This man's alive! Get him out of there, quickly!"
Two more men loomed up behind him and he moved aside to let them dig me out of the great pile of corpses that I had been buried in. My relief was so great that I passed out again.
I recovered eventually from the paralysis that had gripped me--the result of a powerful blow of some kind to the base of my spine--and returned to my decimated unit, where I sought and received permission to try to trace the young officer who had saved my life. I never did find him, and his distinctive face had gradually faded into the stuff of my most hidden memories, forgotten until now.
Now those golden eyes looked my way again and reminded me of a debt unpaid. A strange kind of fatalism took hold of me then as I hid among my rocks and watched his captors drag him until they passed out of sight under the shoulder of my hill. By the time they were gone, I knew what I had to do, and I knew that my chances of success were slim at best against four of them, and practically nonexistent if they were bowmen.
As a boy growing up in my grandfather's home, I had been fascinated by a huge African bow that hung on one wall of his treasure room, so called because it contained all of the ancient and exotic armor and weapons he had collected in a lifetime dedicated to the study of such things. Grandfather Varrus was said to be the finest armorer and weapons-smith in Britain, but he was also known as an insatiable collector of antique examples of his art, and soldiers brought him curios and relics from all corners of the Empire, knowing he would be happy to pay for them.
Of his entire collection, that great bow was the apple of my eye. It was too big for me to pull, but that only added to my fascination.
Since coming to Africa as a soldier, I had acquired a similar, though much smaller version, and had amused myself by learning how to use it properly and well. All my long hours of practice now offered me my only chance to come out of this adventure alive, for I had perfected the art of rapid, accurate fire, plucking arrows from a row stuck point down in the ground and firing them faster than anyone else I had ever come across. But I had never had anyoneshooting back at me while I performed the trick. I hoped this occasion would be no different.
When I was sure they were safely out of sight and hearing, I strung my bow, took eight arrows and set out to follow them, keeping low and approaching as close as I could to the water hole without being seen. They had stopped and were setting up camp. When I could go no closer, I dug myself into the sand and covered myself with my long, sand-colored cloak. Now I had only to continue to wait for darkness to fall, as I had been doing all day. I had already given up hope of making it to the coast that night; I honestly doubted that I would be going anywhere after this encounter. To divert myself, I spent the time trying to ignore what was really on my mind by wondering about the eagle-faced prisoner and by debating with myself whether or not I had brought enough arrows. It was a pointless debate. If I needed more than two for each of my four targets, it would already be too late to use them.
Of course, I couldn't escape from what was really on my mind, so I gave up trying and let the old struggle start up again. I was a soldier, a soldier of Rome. I tried my best to be a good one. That was half of my problem, but the other half, the really troublesome part, was that I was also a Christian, and although I didn't try to be particularly good at that, I was, by childhood training and unwilling conviction, a believing one. I believed in the power and rightness of the Christian Commandments, particularly and frighteningly the one that says, unequivocally, "Thou shalt not kill." Ever. I had learned that incontrovertible truth at my grandmother's knee. She was a very devout old lady who was appalled by her husband's craft and his love of weaponry and things military, and she made it her duty to ensure that I would grow up aware of the sanctity of all life. I have never been grateful to her. Nor have I ever been free of guilt over being a soldier, a paid killer. The part of me that was shaped by my grandmother abhors killing. The part of me that loves soldiering enjoys the anticipation of violence and the fury of the fight. And, of course, I must fight. But after the fighting, after the killing, after the violence, comes retribution: self-hatred, revulsion, mental agony and physical sickness. Every time, without fail. But always afterwards, never before.
By nightfall, I was glad I had approached so close to the water hole during daylight, for these people had no intention of passing the night in slothful sleep. As soon as the moon rose, full, flooding the desert with silver light, they were astir and preparing to move out. I had been crawling towards their camp on my belly, hoping to surprise them asleep, but their sudden activity almost caught me instead. I froze where I was, within twenty paces of where the first one passed on his way towards the tethered camels. Two of the others were kicking and cuffing their prisoner, hauling him to his feet and checking the halters tied around his neck. The fourth man set out towards me and just kept coming. I had decided I was as close as I was going to be able to get, and had already lined up my eight arrows so that they stuck up from the sand like a row of palisades. He was within seconds of noticing them and me when he stopped, even closer to me than the camel-herder had been, and began to relieve himself in a loud gush of urine that died away gradually in a dwindling stream and a series of squirts.
I gathered myself, timing my move to coincide with his readjustment of his robes, and then rose to my knees and fired. My arrow took him clean in the breastbone from about fifteen paces, the force of it lifting him backwards off his feet while he was still looking down. I had my second arrow nocked almost before the first one hit and was swinging towards the camel-herder, expecting him to have heard the sound of his comrade's death.
He had heard nothing. All of his attention was concentrated on bringing the camel he had mounted to its feet. As his body swayed backwards, adjusting to the camel's ungainly lurch in rising, I released and saw my arrow bury itself to the feathers in the soft spot just below the peak of his rib cage. He, too, fell over backwards without a sound, but his going was seen. I heard a raucous laugh, which quickly gave way to a questioning shout of alarm.
The moonlight was bright, but I was a long way from the two men remaining with the prisoner. They still had not seen me, but they split apart instinctively, throwing themselves to my right and to my left. I snapped a quick shot at the one moving to my right, but it was an arrow wasted, leaving me with only five. I scooped up all of them and ran to my right, for no other reason than that the man there seemed to be the closer of the two. There was a small hillock of sand, no more than a wave on the ground, but I dropped flat behind it, straining my ears for any sound that might betray someone moving. The prisoner stood motionless where they had left him, his hands tied behind his back and twin ropes trailing from his neck to the ground. There was nowhere for him to try to run to. As far as he was aware, I was just another desert nomad. If I killed his captors, I would probably kill him, too. I estimated the distance between us at fifty paces. Nothing moved anywhere. Now what?
The camels began to mill around, off to my left, and I was almost too late in realizing what that meant. I whipped my head around to watch them and was just in time to see a black shadow rise up from the ground at their feet and move to stand motionless among them, sheltered by their huge bodies. I sighted carefully at the part of him that I could see beneath the belly of the beast that was shielding him and released my arrow, hearing a shocked scream of pain and outrage as the black shapeless shadow I had pierced went flying. Three down. One left. I knew what to do now.
"Roman," I called, pitching my voice low. "I'm directly to your left as you stand now. Start walking towards me, slowly. I'll cover you. There's still one of your hosts alive out there. If he moves towards you, or if you hear anything at all, drop flat and leave him to me." A sudden tilt of his head towards the sound of my voice was the only sign he gave to betray his surprise at hearing a friendly voice addressing him in Latin, and I found myself admiring his cool self-control when he began walking towards me as though taking an evening stroll.
I stood up and kept my head moving, scrutinizing every shadow in sight, waiting for the fourth man to make a move, but nothing happened. When Eagle Face reached me, I let go of my bowstring with my right hand, holding the strung arrow in place between the shaft of the bow and the index and middle fingers of my left.
"Turn around." I drew my sword with my right hand, still looking aroundme for any signs of movement. "Stretch out your wrists." He did as I bade him, and I began sawing at his bonds, but it was impossible to keep watch and cut the ropes at the same time.
"Blast this," I said. "How's your eyesight?"
"Perfect." His voice was calm and cool.
"Good, then use it, while I cut these ropes properly, otherwise you're likely to lose at least one hand."
I laid my bow at my feet and stuck the arrow into the ground beside the other three, then cut through his bindings quickly, guiding my blade with the edge of my left index finger. He was tightly bound. "That's going to hurt like nothing on earth, once the blood starts to flow back," I told him. "Duck your head and let's get your collars off."
I don't know what it was that alerted me, but my military instinct took over. I pushed him off balance, yelling "Down!" as an arrow sliced through the tiny space separating our bodies. Even before the word was out of my mouth, I was on my knees, grabbing my bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. Then I rolled and kept on rolling, arms extended above my head as another arrow and then a third came looking for me. I saw the black shape silhouetted against the moonlit sky just as I rolled into a slight depression that deepened as I moved into it. Then, hoping that I was safe for a few moments, I shrugged out of the cloak that was threatening to choke me, nocked the arrow carefully, pivoted my hips and came to my feet in a rolling lunge, drawing the bowstring to my chin as I did so. I was lucky again. I caught him in the act of aiming at Eagle Face, and by the time he had swung back to try a shot at me, my arrow was already traveling. It took him high in the right shoulder, and he staggered back and fell to one knee, his arrow flying off somewhere into the moonlight. I was running towards him flat out, fumbling with my dagger, when my foot came down on a piece of ground that wasn't where I had thought it was; I hit it with an impact that drove every vestige of wind from my body and sent me flying end over end. I was still trying to pull myself together when I heard Eagle Face's voice above me.
"Relax. Our friend has gone off into the desert. He won't be back. You are only badly winded and will recover. He's badly wounded and will not."
I looked up at him. He was massaging his right wrist and wiggling his fingers.
"You're right. This hurts like nothing else on earth."
I saw then that he was talking through clenched teeth, as he nodded backwards over his shoulder and continued.
"I can't hold your sword yet, otherwise I'd go over there and put that poor swine out of his misery."
Only then did I identify the horrible sound that had been assailing my ears. It was the sustained screaming that had to be coming from the man I had gut shot beneath the camel's legs. I lay there for a few more minutes, collecting my breath, and then I got to my feet and crossed to where the screaming man squirmed on the ground. I could see, without looking too closely, that I had shot him clean through the center of his pubic bone.
This was the part I dreaded. All my ghosts came to haunt me as I dispatchedhim quickly, trying vainly not to get any of his warm, unthreatening, painfully personal blood on my hands. I straightened up slowly, my eyes full of the look on his face and my hands covered in his blood. Scooping up a double handful of sand, I used it to try to clean the sticky gore away, but the blood was congealing between my fingers already and I fell to my hands and knees, retching up my guilt in painful spasms.
After a while, I was able to get up and go back to Eagle Face, who was still rubbing his wrists and watching me with a strange expression on his face.
"Who are you?" he asked me. "How did you come to be here? And why in the name of all the ancient gods would you be foolhardy enough to risk your life against such odds for a total stranger?"
I grinned at him, shakily. "Not such a total stranger as you think," I said. "My name is Varrus. Publius Varrus. A ghost from your past, returned to pay a debt."
A tiny flicker of apprehension appeared on his face as he thought for an instant that I might be telling the literal truth, and then his face broke into a great smile and he held out his hand to me. I was aware of the strength in his fingers as they gripped my forearm. His right eyebrow climbed high on his brow in an expression I was to become very familiar with.
"Well, Publius Varrus," he said. "We are well met this night, although I know I have never laid eyes on you before. You mistake me for someone else, I'm sure, but I am glad of your mistake."
"No mistake, Tribune. You have laid eyes on me before tonight. And hands."
"When? What do you mean?"
"Just what I say. It was a long time ago, and there's no reason why you should remember it. It's enough that I do."
"If it caused you to save my life, then I thank God for your memory. Tell me about it."
I glanced over my shoulder at the shadows surrounding us. "I'll be glad to, but I think this is not the place. We had better move away from here. The water attracts too many visitors."
He looked around him. "You may be right, my friend, but I would dearly love to sleep for an hour before we move. I haven't had much rest in the past few days, and none at all since our friends took me, yesterday."
"Could you stay awake for another hour? I left my horse among some rocks on a hill about half a league from here. It's safer than this place. You can sleep all you want when we get back there."
"Half a league?"
"No more than that."
"Can you ride a camel?"
I grimaced. It was as close as I could come to smiling. "Can anyone? I've been up on one. Can't say I enjoyed the experience too much."
"It's better than walking."
"Tribune, in this country, anything's better than walking!"
During the ride back to my hill of rocks my stomach settled down again,finally, and along the way I told him about where we had first met. It pleased me when he remembered the occasion and proved it by recalling that he had noticed my tears first, and the fact that I had been a beardless boy.
"Beardless is right. And that's not all I was lacking," I told him. "That was my first campaign and my first battle. If you hadn't noticed me there, it would have been my last one, too." I told him of my search for him and my failure to trace him. "Where did you go? Why couldn't I find you?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I moved on. I wasn't with your lot in the first place--just passing by on my way to join my own legion. Your skirmish was over when we happened along. My men handed you over to your own medics. But you were completely paralyzed, I thought. We didn't expect you to live."
"Nobody did, but the paralysis wore off after a while."
He shivered, and I noticed how cold the night had become. "Here," I said, "take my cloak. I have some extra gear and blankets with my horse, back there."
"Do you have any food? Real food, I mean?"
"Legion food. Dried meal and corn, nuts, raisins and dates. Some dried meat, lots of water I got earlier, and two skins of wine I was taking back with me."
"Thank the gods! You have a guest for supper."
Staying astride a camel was more easily said than done. It seemed to take years to reach the bottom of the hill where I had left my horse. We talked in quiet voices all the way back, for sound travels far on the desert at night, and I told him that I was on my way back to Britain to join the Twentieth Legion, the famed Valeria Victrix, my first posting in my homeland since joining the Eagle Standards some seven years earlier. He was interested in how I had managed to secure the transfer, and I pointed out that I had not had a major furlough in six years of frontier duty. That was all very well, he said, and I had certainly earned a long leave, but it hardly qualified me for intercontinental and inter-legion transfer. He was right, of course, and I felt no reluctance in telling him how I had managed to finagle it.
"I'm a centurion, Tribune. You know the breed. There's not much a centurion with seniority can't get, if he puts his mind to it. In my case, I was in a situation to perform a number of services for my commander. The kind of services he thought were worth rewarding."
He interrupted me, prompted, I would find out later, by the probity that was so much a part of his character. "I'm not sure I want to hear any more. It sounds to me as though the reward for you was a reward for himself, too. Safe back in Britain, you will be grateful, and unlikely to say anything that he could find embarrassing."
I caught his meaning and shook my head. "Not so, Tribune, with respect. There was nothing improper involved. My commander, the Legate Seneca, had a son who might have been a burden to him. I took the lad under my wing and saw him properly fledged. That's all there was to it."
He frowned. "Seneca? You are a friend of the Senecas?"
I shook my head, bewildered at the sudden hostility in his voice."No, Tribune, I'm just a simple centurion. The Legate asked me to keep an eye on his son and straighten him around; make a soldier out of him."
"And did you?"
"Yes," I answered. "I did. He wasn't as difficult as he'd been made out to be. I just brought out the decency in him. The Legate was grateful, and here I am on my way home to Britain."
"Humph! You must be a man of great subtlety, to bring out the decency in a Seneca." His voice was heavy with irony and dislike. I felt a surge of anger.
"Well, Tribune," I snapped, "I grieve if I've offended you." He flipped his hand at me in an unmistakable order to be silent, and we continued for a while without speaking. When he spoke next, his voice was contrite.
"Forgive me, Centurion. I have no right to berate you, and no reason. You cannot be expected to choose your commanders. There has been a long and bitter enmity between my family and the House of Seneca. Blood has been spilled for it over the years, and there is no love at all between us, from one generation to the next."
There was nothing I could say to that. It was none of my affair, and I had no wish to be inquisitive. I accepted his words and passed no comment. After a time he spoke again.
"Home to Britain!" His voice sounded nostalgic. "All that greenery after all this sand. How much do you know about the Twentieth?"
I shook my head. "Nothing, except that they're famous. They've been called the Valeria Victrix since the days of Julius Caesar, and their legionary fortress has been at Deva, in Cambria, since Agricola's campaign, about three hundred years ago. Apart from that, I only know I'm posted to the Second Millarian Cohort as replacement for its pilus prior. Apparently the man they had was killed and there's no one really qualified to replace him from the existing crew. They have an acting cohort commander in place until I get there." I grimaced to myself in the darkness. "Frankly, I'm not sure what that means, so I'm expecting the worst, in the hope that anything less than that will be bearable. The only other thing is that I've heard they're not currently stationed in Deva--the Second Cohort, I mean. They're in the northeast, at Eboracum."
"The Second of the Twentieth, eh?" Even in the dark, I could see the smile on his face as he shook his head.
"What's so funny? What are you smiling at?"
He was grinning strangely to himself. "I was just thinking about our circumstances here," he said. "You are here because of my enemy, even though indirectly, and you have saved my life. Yet your mode of address to me is decidedly lacking in military respect, and I'm not sure what I ought to do about it."
I stiffened at the censure in his voice. He was right, of course. I was only a centurion and he was a Military Tribune, and my deportment had not been militarily correct. But somehow, because of our circumstances, it had not seemed necessary to defer to him here in the middle of a desert when there were only the two of us around. Now it appeared that I had been wrong in my reading of the man. He was more of a martinet than I had thought. He must have read my mind, for he swung his camel right around close to mine, a broad smile on his face.
"Relax, Varrus. We're going to get along, you and I. This meeting was obviously fated. My name is Caius Britannicus. I, too, was on my way to Britain when I was taken. To the Second Cohort of the Twentieth Legion. I'm your new commanding officer. Haven't I got a right to wonder what I'm going to do about you?"
Copyright © 1996 by Jack Whyte

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