Authors: Manda Scott
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #_rt_yes, #_NB_fixed, #onlib
The truth was both less and more unlikely and it waited for Valerius in the waking dreams of his nights, when fear of his mother kept sleep at bay. Then, he lay in the dormitory listening to the sleeping breath of men he did not love and it was hard not to compare the cold and isolated damp with the comfort of a crowded roundhouse and the close, uncomplicated warmth of a hound, or the unexpected joy of intimacy with Corvus, which had opened the world and made life possible again.
The paths to the past, once travelled, were not easy to avoid. Valerius had found by experience that half a night could be lost staring into darkness trying to decide if the gossip was half right and the spark with Corvus had truly been there in the six months when the young Roman officer had, indeed, been a captive of the tribes and a boy with a passing knowledge of Gaulish had become his confidant and friend. It was too long ago ever to be sure and the memories, when they came, had an otherworldly sense to them, as if they were tales of another man’s life, told so often as to gain a credence of their own. Only some things came back in full and those most often in daylight, cripplingly: the sudden knifing images of love and its aftermath; the flash of a blue cloak and the smile above it; the sheer exhilarating power of a
red Thessalian mare, racing a man on a dun colt; the flash of sun-struck bronze as a line of Trinovantian horsemen raised their shields and the Eceni, schooled by a Roman, came against them. All these could sweep through without warning, leaving Valerius ragged, irritable and looking for someone or something to shout at.
With adequate sleep and no dreams, he could manage the worst excesses of his anger, but the constant presence of his mother and the judgements she brought had eroded his equanimity. The first few months after the invasion had been chaotic and everyone had lived on short tempers and little sleep. The warmer, longer days of spring had restored most men’s humour; it was only Valerius who continued to vent his rage at whoever was within reach. The men came to like him less and fear him more, and, although this was almost certainly what had earned him the promotion, it had not restored peace to his soul.
It was Corvus, ultimately, who bore the worst and deserved it least and it had been at Valerius’ own request that his room in Corvus’ house had been given over to other use and he had been billeted instead with the other junior officers of his troop. He had believed at the time that it was a temporary necessity and that he was acting to protect both himself and a man for whom, at the very least, he still had utmost respect from his own unpredictable, unforgivable, uncontrollable and ever-increasing lapses in temper. Even now, two years later, he continued to believe he might one day go back.
He had visited only twice after the house had been built, both times in the first month after his change of billet. On each occasion, a lamp lit in the doorway had been a signal
that Corvus was alone and would welcome company. It seemed likely it did so still. It was possible that the lamp had been lit tonight for Valerius and that, if he chose to, he could enter unannounced and follow the familiar line of sheltered candles to the private apartments. He did not so choose.
Corvus’ household was always first to wake and deal with the events of the night. The snow had been shovelled away from the doorways and a broad corridor dug out into the
easing the route for the passers-by. It was a helpful gesture that also effectively removed the possibility that anyone could follow the trail of a single set of boot prints from the several that passed down the roadway to this particular entrance.
Frozen gravel crunched underfoot as Valerius walked to the door. A bronze bowl stood to one side, a small mallet above it. He struck the one softly with the other and waited as the sound embrazened the night. Everything around him was white. Even the walls of this place were washed with simple lime, leaving it pure, like the snow, clearly set apart from the tiled and painted glory of the legionary tribunes’ houses set on either side.
The gong was answered, as Valerius had known it would be, by Mazoias, the Babylonian. The head of Corvus’ household was a white-haired old man with a crooked shoulder. In his cups, Mazoias claimed kinship with princes of Babylon and the royal house of Persia. Sober, he was a slave whom Corvus had bought at a market in Iberia and subsequently freed, who chose to continue in place because a life spent in service to Corvus was better than any other he could envisage. The old man recognized Valerius. His gnarled features froze midway
through their message of welcome and the door, which had been opening, began to close.
Valerius put his foot in the jamb. “I think not. I have a message for the prefect. Tell him the snow is an arm’s length thick on the roof of the
and it will take more men than I can order to clear it. If he wishes the governor to make his first public address to his legions in safety and warmth, he will order out at least one full troop of men. Tell him also that the pipes to the main latrines are frozen. I have sent a man to find Bassianus but the prefect may wish—”
Each man has his own scent. It may lessen a little when he is warm and oiled from the baths, or running freely with other men’s blood in battle, but it never departs entirely. After a night wrapped in sheepskin against the cold, it is as strong as it will ever become, unless that night has been spent in company, in which case it is stronger. Corvus, Valerius thought, had spent this night alone, but perhaps not that part since waking. No amount of work or responsibility or prayer to the god could protect him completely from the impact of that. He drew his foot from the door jamb, fixed his gaze on the wall opposite and saluted.
Corvus said, “Thank you, Mazoias. I will speak with the officer.”
There was a brief clash of wills, the outcome of which was never in doubt. With a glance that promised eternal damnation if his master was left out of sorts, the old man withdrew.
They were alone. Neither spoke. Snow sucked at the silence, softening it. The lamp nearest the doorway was of clay with a Capricorn painted in rough glaze on the bowl. It had never burned cleanly and did not do so now. Out of
habit, and for something to do, Corvus reached up and altered the lie of the wick. A spiral of smoke rose to stain the ceiling and the light glowed more strongly after, so that more of each of them could be seen. Corvus had not been awake long; his brown hair was still damp from a hurried morning wash and not adequately combed. In truth, it was never adequately combed. The back was cut properly short but the flick of life at the front swooped in an unruly curve across his forehead and mirrored the arc of his brows. It said all one needed to know of the man and his attitude to authority. The scars and the weather-browned skin told the same tale. Only his eyes could tell more, did he choose, but they were hidden in shadow. His words fell out of the same shaded space.
“What do I call you now?” Their last argument, the most damaging, had been over Corvus’ use of the old name, now abandoned. They had never resolved it.
Valerius said, “I am Julius Valerius in the records, as you know. My men call me duplicarius, or master of horse. Both are acceptable.”
“Good. I’ll try to remember. How is he?”
“Your man-killing horse. The one of whom you are master.”
There was a thread of humour in the voice. Caught off guard, Valerius replied in kind. “He’s well. You’d be proud of him. He managed to bite me this morning. The shock nearly killed us both.”
Distantly, he was aware that his shoulder ached but the pain was not yet fully part of him. Like the brand, he yearned for it to come home, as if pain were something real
in which he could hide. Experimentally, he rolled his arm back and winced.
He had forgotten in whose company he stood. Corvus had reached a hand for his cloak and turned the neck of it back before either of them remembered that he no longer had leave—and then remembered also that he was a prefect and could do anything he chose with the cloak and person of a junior officer. Valerius swayed back at his touch and came upright again, parade-ground stiff.
Corvus hissed through his teeth and snatched his hand away. “I’m sorry.”
“No harm.” Valerius believed it. The cloak may have been turned back but the fit of his tunic covered his shoulder. He did not find until later that the spreading bruise had crept up his neck, turning the flesh blue-black from shoulder to ear and from collar bone to scapula, and that a great butterfly’s wing of it showed clearly in the light from the lamp. Longinus Sdapeze must have seen it, too, but had the sense not to comment.
Corvus stared ahead, saying nothing. Rarely were they so formal in each other’s company. It damaged them both and destroyed what they had been.
Pulling his cloak straight, Valerius said, ‘I’m sorry, I was distracted. One of the Thracian cavalrymen came with news that the pipes to the bath house are frozen. Longinus Sdapeze. He’s astute. He thinks of problems before they occur.”
Men like that were few enough. On the Rhine, Valerius and Corvus had vied with each other to find them, to single them out and train with them, to set them apart from the greater mass of unthinking brutality that was the legion and
its auxiliaries. They had not concerned themselves with the other ways by which men set themselves apart.
As if following the thought, Corvus said, “I heard you are given to the bull-slayer, that you have taken the raven.”
It was not a secret. Everybody knew the names of the initiates. The secrecy lay in the nature of the tests and the oaths required of the acolytes; in this was the god’s ultimate strength. Only with Corvus did the fact of one man’s vows mean so much more.
Stiffly, Valerius said, “I believed it would be constructive in the development of my career.”
Corvus raised one brow. “I’m sure it will be.”
They waited. A thin northern wind coursed down the
Shouted orders rode on the back of it. Enough men had woken for others to realize the danger posed by the snow. The part of Valerius that genuinely was concerned with the future of his career saw the urgency of his message diminish, and with it the credit for raising the alarm.
Corvus ran his tongue round his teeth. After a moment, he stepped back, holding the door open. “Would you come in? I have sent word to the decurions to have the fifth and sixth troops clear the roof of the main buildings of the
. The fourth will see to the
although it is furnished with hypocausts and I suspect the governor’s household will have burned the fires throughout the last several nights to banish the cold. It would not surprise me to see the tiles shine free of snow and steaming when the sun rises.”
“Rank will have its privilege,” said Valerius drily.
“Indeed. Which is why I think you should meet the governor’s son. He is inside and I have left him alone too long. We were discussing the uprising in the west. Will you join us?”
Corvus’ morning visitor waited, as was proper, in the prefect’s office. It was a spare, sparse room to be dignified with such a title. The walls were whitewashed and without adornment. The plaster was finer than in the barracks and the place lacked the clutter of the legionary lodgings, but otherwise there was little to choose between this room and the one in which Valerius had awakened before dawn. This one was bigger, that was all, and there were lamps at every available point in case the prefect should require to read something while standing in the farthest corner. In addition to those, it was favoured with the added advantage of a table and two chairs, one of them occupied by a man who stood as the door opened.
“Corvus? Who was—Ah, we have a visitor. An auxiliary. Can I guess who this is?”
“Probably, but I’ll introduce you anyway. Valerius, come in. Don’t stand in the doorway, you’ll let in the cold.”
And so he had to enter, into the presence of the smiling youth with the perfectly black hair and the eyes of a doe
who almost certainly did know exactly who Valerius was and what he had been and did not find his presence uncomfortable. Indeed, it seemed likely that this particular youth had never had reason to feel uncomfortable at any time since the day of his smooth, sedate birth into the splendour and riches of Rome.
Longinus Sdapeze, a Thracian tribesman with only a passing veneer of civilization, had remarked on the beauty of the governor’s son. The Thracian had not remarked on the sheen of good breeding the young man carried and the quiet assurance that went with exceptional wealth and the certainty of a senatorial future. He had not mentioned, either, that the lad was twenty and that the vigour of youth shone from him as if from a newly backed racehorse so that, even if one loathed him on instinct, it was impossible to look elsewhere.
In a fortress full of hardened legionaries, Valerius was not used to feeling old, or, given his own height, to feeling small. In the presence of the governor’s son, he felt both, and for that alone he would have left if propriety and his pride had allowed it. Neither did, and so he stood just inside the door and was formally introduced.
“Tribune, this is Julius Valerius, duplicarius of the third troop under my command—the officer of whom we were speaking earlier. Valerius, this is Marcus Ostorius Scapula, tribune in the Second legion. His legate has sent him here with news of the worsening situation in the west.”
of whom we were speaking earlier. The
hair prickled on Valerius’ neck. The voice of quiet irony that filled his mind in times of personal crisis noted that at least part of Longinus Sdapeze’s rumour was true; the tribune had
been sent to appeal to his father for aid. That did not make the rest of it false.
They say the legate has really sent him to keep him safe from the centurions who have been in post too long and are tiring of the other ranks.
One could wonder if the governor would consider a prefect a better match than a centurion for his son.
Mazoias had reappeared, bringing a third chair and well-watered wine. He fussed around the corners lighting more lamps, as if the room had a sudden need to be brighter. The governor’s son was happy to stand under the glare of more lights; he was used to being stared at. Crossing his arms on his chest, he said, “We were discussing the most recent Siluran uprising and the likely impact on the client tribes around the fortress. The prefect tells me you may have a useful insight into their likely response should the governor choose to have them forcibly disarmed.”