Island of Ghosts

A Novel of Roman Britain

Gillian Bradshaw

Tor Books

I
 
 
We mutinied when we reached the ocean.
We’d been riding for fifty-one days, three companies of us with half a legion and two troops of Roman auxiliaries to guard us. We left Aquincum late in July, and rode through the heat of August: the dust and the flies were appalling. Most of the army bases where we stopped along the way didn’t have proper supplies laid up for such a large body of men, as nobody had sent messages telling them to do so; of what they did have, the Roman troops took the best for themselves, leaving us sour barley soup and coarse black bread. We weren’t used to the diet, and it made us ill. The hooves of our horses wore down on the paved Roman roads, and the beasts went lame. The Romans refused to give us leather to make horse-sandals, so we cut up the leather bindings of our wagons awnings. Then, early in September when we left the Rhine and turned west into Gaul, it began to rain, and the water ran through the loose awnings and soaked everything: bedding, food, clothes. Everything stank of wet wool, wet horses, rotting barley, and unwashed wet men, and we hated the hell of our own skis. Only our armor and weapons were safe: they had been wrapped in oilcloths at Aquincum and packed into twenty wagons of their own, which the Romans took charge of.
Then one afternoon, just before the middle of September, we were starting down from the hills when we saw it: the ocean. It had rained all that morning, but the rain had stopped about midday, and now the sky was clearing. The clouds parted and let down a watery light westward beyond us, and we looked up and saw a huge gray plain turn suddenly and impossibly blue. We had never seen the sea. We reined in our horses and stopped in the road, starting at it. The sun shimmered on the waves as far out as our eyes could see: no shadow of land darkened even the farthest limit of the horizon.
“It’s the end of the world!” whispered Arshak.
Gatalas gave a long wail of grief and dismay and covered his face. The sound rose up above the clatter and rumble of the troops behind us and before us, and when it stopped, there was complete silence. Then there was a rustling whisper—“What is it?” “The sea, we’ve reached the sea”—running back down the line. A few dozen men and horses trotted forward, leaving the road and fanning out across the hill. Then was silence again.
Marcus Flavius Facilis, the senior centurion in charge of us, came galloping us from some discussion with his subordinates. He was a stocky, bull-necked man, white-haired, with a face that went crimson when he was angry. It was beginning to go crimson now. “What’s the matter with you bastards now?” he demanded, in Latin. He always ways spoke to us in his own language, though few of the officers and even fewer of the men understood it. During the long journey he had not bothered to learn Sarmatian even enough to give us orders.
Arshak, who did understand it, pointed at the sea. Gatalas didn’t even look at him, but say with his hands over his face, rocking back and forth in his saddle.
Facilis only glanced at the sea. His eyes slid lightly away from that shining vision of blue and silver, and fixed instead on the city down the hill from us, a comfortable huddle of red life tile and gray thatch. He sat back in his saddle with a grunt of satisfaction. “Bononia!” he exclaimed, almost cheerfully. “Bononia at last! That’s where we’ll be staying tonight. And tomorrow I can say good-bye to the whole stinking lot of you. Come on, you bastards: hurry up and you’ll sleep in dry beds tonight.”
“And tomorrow?” asked Arshak, very quietly. “Where will we sleep tomorrow?”
“That depends how long it takes to embark you all,” replied Facilis. “I imagine it will take a few days to ferry all of you across.”
“They said there was an island,” said Arshak, still very quietly. “They said that we would be sent to an island called Britain, and there we would have our weapons back, and be accepted as soldiers of the Romans, and receive honorable appointments and payment for our service. That is what the emperor himself swore to us at Aquincum.”
“Yes,” agreed Facilis, “and the sooner you get down this hill—”
“There is no island,” said Arshak.
“May I persih!” said Facilis, going red again. “What the hell do you mean?”
Gatalas took his hands away from his face. “There is nothing there!” he screamed. “Nothing! Nothing but ocean!” He turned his head away from that terrible immensity.
“You pigheaded barbarians!” shouted Facilis. “You stinking idiots! Of course there’s an island. It’s across there”—he waved his hand at the sea—“about thirty miles off.”
Arshak shook his head. “No,” he said, “no. You lie to us, Roman. You lied to us all along. You, the emperor, all of you. You lie. There is no island.”
Facilis’ face was growing steadily reader. “You stupid bastard! By every god on earth or under it! Why would I march a troop of lunatic Sarmatians all the way from Aquincum to Bononia if there wasn’t anywhere to send them when we got there? I wouldn’t do it for the love of barbarian company, I can promise you that!”
“You would do it to cause our deaths,” replied Arshak, still very quietly. He never raised his voice when he was angry, never swore, and never boasted. He was a member of the royal clan, second son of the king’s own brother, and he had been taught that a nobleman answers insults only with his spear. It was lucky that the spear was stowed away in the weapons wagons, with Facilis’ men guarding it. Otherwise Facilis would have been dead several times over, and Arshak as well, executed for murdering a Roman officer.
Facilis glared at him. He wiped his hands down the sides of his tunic. “The emperor wants you alive,” he declared. “He wants you in his army. He swore to give you honorable posts, and you swore to serve him faithfully. Do you mean to break your oaths now, just because you’ve seen the sea?”
“The emperor wanted to kill our whole nation,” Arshak returned. “He lied to us.”
“If we go there,” said Gatalas, jabbing a hand fearfully toward the sea, “we will die in the water.”
“No!” Facilis insisted. He did not bother to deny that the emperor had wanted to exterminate our whole nation—everyone knew that was true—but he turned instead to his first point. “There is an island there.”
We all stared at him.
“There’s a huge island there, you stupid bastards! There’s whole Roman province, with cities and roads and three legions and the gods know how many troops of auxiliaries! The ocean’s bigger than the gods-hated Danube, you idiots: you can’t expect to see clear across it!”
Arshak glanced up the hill behind us. Behind a handful of our officers, Facilis’ legionaries waited, leaning on their javelins and watching us. Two full cohorts of them, sixteen hundred men, drawn up six abreast: their ranks stretched up the road out of sight. The rest of our men were behind them, and the wagon with the weapons were still farther away, with the baggage. Of the two troops of Roman auxiliary cavalry, one was strung out down the road before us, waiting, and the other was guarding the baggage.
Arshak looked back at Facilis and smiled. Then, saying nothing, he touched his horse and started down the hill again, and the rest of us followed him in silence. Facilis sat still on his own horse, swearing as we rode past.
“We will not go on their ships,” said Gatalas, in Sarmatian, when we were well ahead of him.
“Of course not,” replied Arshak. “It’s a trick. We’d be helpless on a ship, with our horses packed in a hold like sheep, and our weapons left onshore. They wouldn’t even need to use swords on us. A few good swimmers could take us out, sink us and the vessel, and escape themselves without the least danger.”
“Death in battle is better than drowning,” Gatalas declared, rubbing the hilt of his dagger. “But I’d prefer it if I had something more than this and a rope to fight with. Do you think we could get our weapons back?”
“Probably,” said Arshak, almost eagerly. “My men have managed to keep thirty bows, forty quivers of arrows, and sixty swords hidden in our wagons. How many do your troops have?”
“Fifty bows and twenty-seven swords,” Gatalas replied promptly. “But only thirty quivers of arrows.”
“Ariantes?”
“Fifty-nine bows, sixty quivers of arrows, and a dozen swords,” I said, reluctantly. “But they’re all well hidden, and it will take a little time to get them out. Facilis is suspicious. He’ll find some way to obstruct us. Either we won’t be allowed near our wagons, or we won’t be allowed near our men, or both.”
“Facilis won’t be in charge in Bononia,” Arshak answered confidently. “The camp will have its own commander. Bononia’s a big place; the commander will be an important man, a legate or a procurator. You must have noticed how ever tribunes don’t like taking orders from centurions, however senior. It won’t take much to ensure that we’re sent off to the wagons with our men.” Arshak smiled again, then added vehemently, “Facilis is mine.”
I sighed. I was not sure what I felt when I looked at the sea, but it was not anger or fear. Perhaps it was hope. I’d had enough of the worlds I knew, Sarmatian and Roman both, and here we’d ridden to the world’s end and were climbing down to touch something huge and mysterious beyond it. Why should I stop, here in this Roman city? Why not go on? I remembered the time long before when I had journeyed east, hoping to reach the Jade Gate of the Silk Country. I had been called back, halfway there. I regretted that still. Why stop again now, just short of the ocean?
Of course, I was tired. Some things had happened in the Roman war that had left me stunned, and when the war ended, I felt like one of the dead. I had a leg wound, too, which had meant that I’d ridden the first seven hundred miles of the journey with my leg in a splint, dazed with pain, and I’d floated through them in a kind of dream. Sometimes I woke up with a start and stared at myself in astonishment, but mostly I rode, ate, made camp, and gave orders to my men, all as though I were trailing behind myself and watching.
“What if they’re telling the truth?” I asked. “What if there is an island?”
“Why should you believe them?” returned Arshak, swiftly and angrily. “Why should we trust them?”
“I don’t trust them,” I answered wearily. “But we swore oaths to the emperor, and we aren’t yet certain that he was lying. If we fight them now, we will all die. You want to kill Facilis—but if you have to pay for the pleasure with the blood of all your men, is it worth it? Even if we managed to win our weapons, even if we gave them such a battering that they locked themselves in their forts and us out, still we couldn’t get home, not through a thousand miles of land held by our enemies. And the emperor would look at what we’d done, and note that even when Sarmatian troops surrender in a peace settlement, they can still rebel and shed Roman blood. He’d have no use for Sarmatian troops ever again. What could our people give then, to buy peace?”
Arshak scowled. “He wanted to kill us all anyway. He has betrayed us and he will betray those at home, whatever we do.”
“Better to die on land than in the water,” agreed Gatalas. “At leas on land the soul can fly free to the sun.”
“But what if there is an island? If there is an island, it would be we who first betrayed them.”
“An island in the ocean, beyond the limit of the world!” scoffed Arshak. “And what’s more, an invisible one! If Facilis told you that there was an island in the sky and that you must climb up a mountain and jump off to reach it—would you believe him, and jump?”
“I wouldn’t choose a path that would end with all my men dead without at least tossing a stone off the mountain and looking where it landed! And I am not sure that the Romans would invent a Roman province across the ocean, simply to trick us. Britain may well lie thirty miles from here.”
“I will not cross the ocean!” cried Gatalas. “I will die cleanly in this world, and so will my men!” He stretched his hand toward the sun. “On fire I swear it!”
We rode on for a moment with the oath ringing in our ears. There didn’t seem to be any point in continuing the argument.
But I couldn’t leave it. When we reached this camp, we would have to begin planning our mutiny—and the more I considered it, the les likely it seemed that the Romans had invented Britain to deceive us. I had five hundred men who depended upon me to do what was best for them. “If I went,” I said at last, reluctantly, “on my own, without you, without any of my own people—if I went to see if this island was there, and came back and reported to you that it was—what would you do then?”
Gatalas looked at me fearfully. “What if it’s not an earthly island?” he asked, in a low voice. “If it’s there, beyond the ocean, it might be…a place where the dead walk. What would you be like if you came back then?”
“You’d still know, then, from looking at me, that you should not cross. You’d be free to fight the Romans with a clear conscience.”
“I’m not sure we’d notice any difference if you came back as a ghost, Ariantes,” Arshak said, trying to lighten the air a little. I met his eyes, and he dropped his smile: the joke was too true to be funny.
“Someone should check what the truth is before we take up arms,” I said.
“And if they refuse to let you go and come back again?” Arshak demanded.
“Then, again, we’ll know that they’re lying and we need have no doubts about fighting them.”
“Very well, very well,” Arshak said quietly. “Very well. You’re right: we must toss our stone off the mountain and see where it falls. A pity: my hands ache for a spear every time I see Facilis, and I will regret it as long as I live if he goes home to Aquincum unharmed.” After a moment he added, “And you’re willing to go? Because I’m not. It would mean swallowing what I said to Facilis.”
“I am willing to go,” I said. “I’ll tell Facilis as much this evening. Can I tell him that if we know he’s acting in good faith, we will go on their ships?”
Gatalas flinched, but, after a moment, nodded. “I will not be the first to break an oath.”
“Nor will I,” said Arshak again, unhappily. “But we’ll see what we can arrange for the Romans if it happens that they’re lying.”
Arshak was quite right about at least one thing, however: the procurator of the naval base where we stopped that night did not want to take his orders from Flavius Facilis. He’d had letters about us, and when we arrived he came out to the gate to look at us. It was easy for us to guess who the figure standing on the battlement was: he was wearing the long crimson cloak and gilded armor, and when we got closer we could see he had the narrow purple stripe on his tunic, marking him as a member of the Roman equestrian order. Arshak galloped up to the gate, stopped his horse, saluted respectfully, greeted him as “Lord,” and asked him where we could put our wagons. By the time Facilis had cantered up and suggested that we be confined to barracks instead, the procurator had already granted us leave to arrange the wagons in the shipyard, and wouldn’t back down: an equestrian appointed by the emperor doesn’t change his arrangements because a centurion who struggled up through the ranks thinks he ought to. Facilis turned crimson and swore under his breath, but had to accept it. He followed us to the shipyard, where he told us that if we “tried anything,” he would see to it that our bodies were burned. He knew enough about us to be aware that this was a terrible threat—but luckily the men couldn’t understand it.
I waited in the shipyard for my men, then waited, with them, for the wagons, then saw the wagons arranged and the men and horses settled. My bodyguard—the thirty men and two officers of my personal squadron—offered to come with me to see Facilis and the procurator, and also offered, though fearfully, to join me if I was allowed on a ship: I refused both offers. They had a great sense of the respect due me as their prince-commander, and Facilis would only offend it and them—and there was no point in dragging their proud loyalty in terror across the ocean when at best it was an unnecessary voyage. It was dark when I sat off for the center of the camp.
The camp headquarters were shut and locked; the guards told me that the procurator was next door, in his house, and that Facilis was with him. I went to the house and asked to speak with them. Then servants told me to wait, and when I’d tethered my horse, they ushered me into the courtyard so as to keep my smell of horses and camp dirt out of the house. The courtyard was colonnaded and paved with flagstones; a few bushes of rosemary straggled from terracotta pots. There was lamplight in the glass windows and a smell of cooking. I sat down in the shelter of the colonnade and waited, resting my head on my knees and rubbing my stiff leg.
“If it were up to me, sir,” came Facilis’ voice from behind me, “I’d have killed them all before they ever left Aquincum.”
That made me raise my head. A shuttered window on the courtyard had been pushed open, and the procurator was standing in a cloud of lamplight, looking out at the night. Facilis must have stood behind him. I remained where I was, in the shadow of the colonnade, and listened.
“But the emperor wants them alive,” Facilis went on, “so it’s my job to make sure they get to Britain that way. Sir, he appointed me himself. I’m Pannonian by birth, and I knew the Sarmatians. He knew he could trust me to make sure of them.”
“You haven’t said anything to me that indicates there’s the slightest reason for concern,” the procurator replied irritably. “I know that the emperor put you in charge of them, Marcus Flavius, but he put me in charge of the British fleet. I can use my own judgment about how to get these barbarians across the Channel, and it seems to me that if I go clapping chains on their leaders, the men will be sure to mutiny.” (In the back of my mind I made a note that, although Facilis called him dominus, “sir,” he addressed Facilis by his first two names, informally: he spoke with the confidence of noble birth and high rank, and the centurion was forced to honor that.)
“You don’t know anything about them!” Facilis said. “You seem to think they’re like the Gauls or he Germans, nice safe conquered barbarians, who’ll more or less do as they’re told if you treat them kindly! Sarmatians are different. They’ve taken it into their heads that we’ve tricked them and mean to murder them, and they’ll try to hit us hard while we’re not looking. I’d stake my sword on it they’ve managed to hide some weapons in those wagons, for all our precautions, and they’re sitting about their fires now plotting how to kill us.”
He was perfectly correct on that.
“Really!” exclaimed the procurator in disgust, turning away from the window. “I seem to recall hearing that our invincible emperor did conquer them, by the favor of the immortal gods.”
“His ‘Thundering Victory,’” Facilis answered, in a tone of equal disgust. “Yes. I was there. But maybe you haven’t heard the details of what came before that victory. They’d been raiding us for years—they thought it was a brave and manly thing to slip across the Danube with a troop of cavalry and steal the flocks and property of Romans, killing anyone who go tin their way. They weren’t afraid of us in the least. The cities cried out to the emperor as the raids got worse and worse, and the emperor decided to settle the Sarmatians for good. For a year we fought. We caught a raiding party on the Danube in the winter, and fought a battle actually on he ice of the river—but that only meant that the next raiding parties were bigger. We negotiated and got nowhere, and at last we set off to conquer the Sarmatians, with he Danube legions, detachments from all the western legions and some of the eastern ones, more auxiliaries than I could count, and the emperor himself as commander. Twice the number of their army, at least; three, four times their number. We marched out into the plains—and found no one. You can’t besiege their cities, because they don’t have any; you can’t burn their crops to force them to give battle, because they don’t have any of the those, either. They keep herds and live in wagons.
“We had reports, though, that their king was in the northeast of the country, and his army with him, so we marched on. And when we’d gone a long way, they attacked our supply train and chopped our rear guard to pieces, cutting us off. We sent out foraging parties, looking for food and water, and sometimes the foraging parties came back, and sometimes they didn’t. I’ve been out myself, and come across a dip in the hills and found a party of thirty lads lying there, shot full of arrows, with everything stripped of them but their tunics, and their skulls looking like peeled grapes—and all the hills around empty, just grass and dust. Didn’t you see the scalps hanging from their horses’ bridles when they came in? Arshak has thirty-seven, ten on the bridle and the rest stitched onto his coat, all from Roman soldiers he’s killed with his own hands—and he’d love to add mine to his collection. Jupiter! he would!”
“Those tassels on the bridles?” said the procurator. “Those are scalps? I thought…”
“Those are scalps. It’s a custom of theirs. But that was just playing with us. One night when we were making camp, their army turned up. Good! we thought. Our turn at last! I tell you, sir, the heavy cavalry rode right over us. Twice. They used the lance on the way there, and the long swords on the way back, and all the while the light cavalry rained arrows on us. Twenty men I lost from my century that day, and the rest ran into our camp as soon as it was built, and hid. Next day we tried to retreat—and we couldn’t. We managed to reach a patch of hills, the one damned patch of hills in that whole dry plain, and there we sat like a weasel up a tree, perishing of thirst, and didn’t dare come down. And we would have died there, all of us, if the gods hadn’t favored the emperor and sent the most torrential thunderstorm. The horses slipped in the mud, and we rushed out and caught them. By Mars, it was sweet, to catch them on the ground for once! They had enough fighting pretty quickly hen, and galloped off, and a party of our auxiliary cavalry went after them and found one of their base camps, where they had some of their herds and some of the women and children: we drove off the herds and killed the bitches and their brats, and that was our Thundering Victory!
“It hurt them, all right, hurt them enough that they started begging us for peace. But they’re not conquered yet. You can’t conquer a people who don’t build cities: it’s like trying to carry water in your hands. The emperor thought of exterminating the whole horde of them. But it would have taken time to catch them all, and by then he had no time, and a rebellion in the East screaming for his attention. So when they offered to give us eight thousand troops if we went away, the emperor accepted, with the provision that all the troops had to be heavy cavalry. He wanted the troops—we’d all seen how good they were—and he knew that if we had them, they wouldn’t. Only the important men, what they call azatani, can afford armor: the commoners fight as mounted archers. To get eight thousand heavy cavalry, they had to send us practically every nobleman between the ages of sixteen and thirty—the very men who’d started the whole war with their raids across the Danube, and who’d poured out rivers of our blood. They won’t start any wars now until the next generation grows up. But there’s no province of Sarmatia yet, and while there’s a Sarmatian alive, there never will be. There’ll be more wars, in ten, fifteen years’ time, and this lot know that just as well as I do.”
“Yet they’ve been disarmed, and come quietly all the way from Aquincum.”
“I’ve already said: they’re not as thoroughly disarmed as I’d like, and I’ve heard of them killing armed opponents with just a rope and a dagger. And they won’t come quietly now. Sir, I know they’re planning to mutiny. You’ve got to step on them hard. There’ll be another four thousand of them coming through Bononia next year, and if you let this lot cause trouble, you’ll have trouble with them all.”
That made me blink. We hadn’t been told where our fellows were being sent. So, another four thousand of us were also on their way to Britain? I wondered if they included my sister’s husband. I wondered how my sister was managing, overseeing the cattle alone. The picture of her, riding out to check on the herds, with little Saios bouncing on the saddle in front of her, suddenly seemed more real than the courtyard of the procurator’s house and the voices in the room behind me.
“They’re vicious brutes,” Facilis was urging. “They don’t respect anything but force. You need to show them you’re stronger than they are. You need to break their spirit.”
“And you think I should arrest…who?” asked the procurator, resignedly.
“All the squadron captains,” Facilis said promptly. “All forty-eight of ’em. And the three company commanders, the prince-commanders of the dragons—them especially. They’re all from the great families, what they call the scepter-holders. The rest of the men are their dependants.”
The procurator winced and turned away from the window. “If that’s true, Marcus, Flavius, it seems to me that their men are almost certainly going to mutiny if we arrest them. I would expect my own clients to defend me, in such circumstances. There’ll be bloodshed.”
“But if we arrange it right, it will be Sarmatian blood, not Roman,” returned Facilis.
“Marcus Flavius, I’d rather no blood was shed, Sarmatian or Roman! It would reflect very badly on me if I couldn’t get these people across the Channel without killing half of them. The thing I’d expect to do would be…well, talk to the most reasonable of the company commanders, win his support. Set him against the other two, if need be—divide and rule, eh? Calm them down, give them a few days to realize that we’re not tricking them or planning to murder them, and then ship them across quietly.”
“A reasonable Sarmatian commander?” said Facilis. “Sir, that’s a contradiction in terms. I wouldn’t trust any of the bastards. Look at them! There’s Arshak, the king’s nephew: he’d rather kill Romans than feast on figs and sweet wine, and he hates me. Then there’s Gatalas. He was green with fear at the sight of the sea this afternoon, but by reputation he’s a lunatic of a fighter and completely unpredictable—you won’t win him over. And then there’s Ariantes, the quiet one: I trust him least of all. He’s clever, and he’s led more and worse raids into Roman lands than either of the others. Give them a few days and they’ll hatch some plan to slaughter the lot of us. Arrest them, search the wagons for weapons, and give a good flogging to anyone caught hiding arms and anyone who resists.”
I’d heard enough. If the procurator followed this advice, I’d end up with half my men dead trying to free me. Perhaps that was what Facilis wanted. I stood up. “Flavius Facilis!” I called, going to the window as though I’d only just arrived in the courtyard. “Lord Procurator! May I speak with you?”
The procurator jumped back form the window like a man who’s put his hand in a hole and found a snake there. “Who are you?” he demanded. He had not particularly noticed me when I came into the camp. Arshak had done all the talking.
Facilis answered that question for me. “Ariantes!” he exclaimed, pushing past the procurator, gripping the window frame and glaring at me. “How long have you been listening?”
I didn’t answer. “May I speak with you both?” I repeated.
“Certainly, certainly,” said the procurator, though looking at me rather doubtfully, as though I were a wild animal—which, after Facilis’ account of us, was hardly surprising. “Uhh…will you come in…um, Lord Ariantes?”
I knew, when I heard that Lord, that he would listen to me. Perhaps he didn’t like being pressured by Facilis and wanted to try his own plan; perhaps he was genuinely afraid of bloodshed; perhaps it was simply that we were both noblemen. For whatever worthy or unworthy reason, I would be heard. Facilis realized it as well, and began to go crimson. “Thank you, Lord Procurator,” I said, bowing my head. I walked round the courtyard to the door and found my way in.
The room was a dining room. It had a mosaic floor, painted walls, and the couches had feet of ivory. The light from the lamps on the gilded stand glowed on the polished table, where a glass wine bowl stood half-empty with two silver cups beside it. I held my hands at my sides, afraid to touch anything: my clothes were stiff with dirt. I’d been in such a room before only when a raiding party I’d led had sacked some rich man’s villa in Pannonia. The cups there had sometimes been gold, though.
Facilis had swollen like a bullfrog and was glaring at me. “How long were you out there listening?” he demanded again.
It would be no use talking to him. He must have been aware where the path he’d been urging would have led. I wondered if there was any one in particular of the “lads” who died in the war whose death he held against us—he was old enough to have had sons. I turned to the procurator instead. “Lord,” I said, “I have come to tell you that my people are afraid to cross the ocean.”
“You’ve come here to announce the mutiny?” snarled Facilis, rigid with indignation. “Sir—”
The procurator raised his hand for silence, then nodded to me to continue.
“When we surrendered at Aquincum,” I told him, “we swore oaths to obey the emperor. We do not wish to break them. But we cannot see any island out there, and we do not entirely trust the good faith of the Romans: we know that the emperor wished to exterminate us. We have never seen the sea before, nor have we been farther in a boat than across the Danube, and our religion holds that those who die by water must expect a wretched fate in the afterlife. Some of us are saying now that we have been betrayed, and we would do better to die on land. Some of us are desperate.”
“Lord Arinates!” exclaimed the procurator, in amazement
and distress. “Let me assure you, we haven’t the least intention of harming your troops! I am the man responsible for seeing them ferried safely over to Britain, and I would be disgraced if there were serious trouble: it’s the last thing on earth I want! And Marcus Flavius Facilis here was charged with seeing you safely to your journey’s end: he, too, would be disgraced if any harm came to you.”
“Lord Procurator,” I said, “I am sorry, but you cannot give any assurances that my people would trust. But I do not want serious trouble, either. If you would be disgraced, we would die, and die for nothing if you are acting in good faith and this island of Britain is indeed across the ocean, just out of sight. Now, I have suggested to the others that I cross the ocean myself first, if that is agreeable to you, and then return to report on the island, if it is there. They would believe me where they would not believe you, and if I can prove to them that they have not been betrayed, they agree to embark when you wish.”
“Arshak and Gatalas agreed to this?” Facilis demanded incredulously.
“They agreed,” I said. “Why would they want to die in Bononia?”
The procurator beamed. “Is that all it needs?” he asked. “Of course, Lord Ariantes, of course I accept your suggestion! I can send you across on a fast galley first thing tomorrow morning.” He looked at Facilis triumphantly. “I should have had this man arrested, eh? All Sarmatians are unreasonable, eh?”
Facilis looked bewildered. “What are you playing at, Ariantes?” he demanded.
“I am not playing at anything, Flavius Facilis.”
“Come on! I know you hate all Romans. What kind of game is this?”
“I am a servant of Rome,” I told him. “I accepted that servitude to buy my people’s freedom, and I could hardly go on living if I hated all Romans. Why should I wear out my heart? With any luck, you can go back to Pannonia in a few days, and I can go to my posting in Britain. I will not lie awake, regretting that you live. I intend to forget about you completely.”
All the journey, he’d gone red when he was angry. He had shouted and sworn and hurled insults. He’d spoken of Arshak’s hatred with relish. I hadn’t expected him even to pay attention to my declaration of indifference. But he went pale—or rather, yellow-gray, leaving the red in uneven blotches of broken veins across his cheeks—and he stared at me without saying a word. The pupils of his eyes contracted until he looked almost blind. I’d seen that look before, on the faces of men who’ve gone mad, in battle or grief. The crimson rages had been nothing: this was serious. I backed away.
“You killed my son,” said Facilis, in a choked voice. I stopped with my hand on the door. “You killed my only son and you intend to forget about me completely?”
He had his sword out. I didn’t care move.
“Centurion!” cried the procurator. “Centurion! Put that weapon away!”
Until that moment I had never understood how powerful Roman discipline could be. Facilis stood rigid for a moment longer, fixed on me with that insane passion of rage—and then he began to shake. His head snapped away, and he fumbled the sword back into its sheath. “You stinking sarmatian bastard,” he whispered. “It might have been you that did it. It might have been any of you.” He rubbed his face with one of his thick hands, and I saw that he was starting to cry, Coarse, cruel, miserable old man. I wanted, stupidly, to console him. But he was right: if his son had died in battle, it might have been me who did it. It might have been several thousand others, but it might have been me. So how could I console him?
“I am sorry, Facilis,” I said after a moment. “I also have dead to mourn.”
“You!” he exclaimed in disgust. “Sorry! Don’t make me sick! You bastards started that war.”
That was true, too, as far as it went. I turned to the procurator and said—quickly, so as to get out—“My lord, I will go tell my fellows that you are arranging for me to cross the ocean in the morning. Good health, my lord.”
And so the next morning I set out for Britain.
 
Copyright © 1998 by Gillian Bradshaw