It seemed to me just a little bit too neat that Esca met the Tribune Placidus on a wolf hunt, then a year later, Placidus came with his Legate to stay with Uncle Aquila. And it’s also quite neat that Uncle Aquila’s old friend the Legate, who hasn’t seen him for 18 years, comes to visit with a pressing piece of news about the Eagle having been seen in the far North - a piece of news that is uniquely important to Marcus. And of course there is Placidus - such an annoying jerk, coming out with awkward truths at just the right moment to push Marcus the right way.
Then, when Marcus and Esca get back to Calleva against all the odds, there’s the Legate - who is not based in Calleva - coincidentally staying with Uncle Aquila again!
What if those aren’t all coincidences?
The germ of this idea started out as a 'Le Carré in Roman Britain' (hence the name). I'm not sure I've really carried that off, but I hope I've caught just a little of the Le Carré flavour in places anyway. Thanks to smillaraaq for beta reading and many helpful suggestions. Any stupid mistakes are probably in the bits I added on afterwards. :-D. And philmophlegm for helping me work out what the Legate was doing in Rome.
To the Tribune Servius Placidus, from Claudius Hieronimianus, Legate of the Sixth Victrix, Greeting.
DELIVER AT REGNUM
HIGHEST PRIORITY [Encyphered]
Word has come to me here in Eboracum that a son of Cunoval may be operating in the Calleva area. You have been briefed about our difficulties with our northern friends. There is a concern that this son of Cunoval, or other men of the Brigantes, may be seeking to set up alliances with western friends, or possibly with neighbours living in Calleva. You will understand the importance of this possibility, given the implications for our other business.
Proceed immediately to Calleva to investigate this matter. Should you require assistance, I enclose a letter to the praefectus castrorum of the transit camp at Calleva.
Contact the Calleva magistrates. There is no need to use official channels. Speak to Aquila and his neighbour Kaeso. Aquila is one of us, you can trust him, but he is not aware.
Investigate this matter and report to me at Eboracum. Do not take any further action at this time.The situation may be delicate: I rely on your report soonest.
The tribune Servius Placidus put the folded beech-wood slats of the letter down with a precise click on the small table in the corner of his quarters, and inspected his nails. They were pleasingly regular and glossy, of course: he always made time to have them smoothed every morning with the fine powdered pumice.
In the face of being presented with ridiculous extra demands before he had even arrived at his post, it was some comfort to have good nails.
Placidus had arrived in Dubris only that day, on the regular ferry that brought news and officials daily to the white shores of Britannia from busy Portus Itius in Gaul. He had only just had a chance to report his arrival to the praefectus castrorum and be assigned his guest quarters before the messenger had found him.
What a hunt for the wild geese this job was likely to be, he thought, with a sigh. Placidus had not yet met his new commander, the Legate of the Sixth, but he was already very much inclined to think he might be a silly old hen.
He examined the letter again, carefully, comparing it to a list on a separate sheet of thick brownish papyrus paper. ‘Friends’ were local tribes within the empire who were considered potential troublemakers: he had a list of those, and reviewed it with some distaste. The names were barbaric and unpronounceable. Some of them - ‘Dobunni’ in the name of all the gods! were simply ridiculous as well.
‘Neighbours’ were wild men from the ends of the earth - the Legate must mean Hibernia, he thought, or perhaps savages from beyond the Emperor’s new Wall in the North.
It scarcely seemed likely that there would be Hibernians in the middle of what was, after all, a Roman province. Britain seemed reasonably well-ordered from what Placidus had seen so far, if somewhat dull and muddy. If there were painted Hibernian savages rushing half-naked about Calleva with their hair all in yellow spikes, at least he should have no difficulty spotting them. Placidus ran his fingers through his own well-ordered curls with some satisfaction.
As for the other business - well, that was a very long way away. He had been briefed on strategy before he left Rome, but it was difficult to imagine that anything going on up here in this damp corner of the Empire would have any great implications for the South.
In the morning, he would have to set off post-haste to this place Calleva, but Placidus would be buggered if if he was doing that without having a bath and a proper shave first.
Placidus locked the letter and his papers carefully away in the padlocked box where he kept his personal jewellery, and called for Phoebus, his body slave.
The body slave was neatly turned out as always, Placidus noted, with the smug smile of the successful shopper. There he was, as soon as Placidus called, holding a towel and a clean linen undertunic. He was turning out to be a good buy, this new Phoebus. He gave an excellent smooth shave, and he understood how to create hairstyles that were not impractical on horseback, but still had that stylish Alexandrian look.
Yes, this new Phoebus was much better than Placidus’s old Phoebus, not to mention being more decorative than the old one too. Placidus had made the right decision to buy a new slave for his new status as a tribune. It had been worth spending that little bit extra to get a Greek, too.
Placidus had given the old Phoebus to his little brother as a farewell gift when he had been posted to Britannia. Young Secundus had been well pleased with the gift, Placidus thought, and had even given him a new name... what was it? Syros? Something like that. It might even have been the man’s original name, though Placidus could not now remember what that had been. It was so much easier to name all his body slaves Phoebus. That way you could be sure you would never have to pronounce some ridiculous barbarian label.
On the way down to the baths, Placidus even went so far as to ask Phoebus’s opinion: whether he thought Placidus would suit the new fashion for beards, that the emperor had begun? Placidus felt a little doubtful about the beard topic himself, and so Phoebus’s politely-voiced opinion, that a beard might well be a waste of a fine chin on a younger man, was well received, and earned a generous tip.
Calleva proved to be exactly as uninspiring as Placidus had expected. It was a drab little British town, still raw with construction work, with a sad little amphitheatre, rather draughty baths, and mud puddling around the primitive soil banks that did duty as city walls. It was, in short, quite phenomenally dull.
The place was full of retired soldiers rusting quietly away in the damp, and eager tribesmen wearing togas inexpertly and absolutely desperate to hear the latest from Rome.
Of course, they didn’t understand most of it: how could they? Matters of empire and the talk of the great city were so far from their lives, here at the muddy ends of the earth. Out here in the provinces, a lost sheep would be matter for discussion for a day and a night, and a stolen horse debated for nine days, or ninety-nine, very probably.
None the less, Placidus gracefully shared such items of gossip as he felt might amuse and instruct, and in return listened carefully - and, he thought, oh, so patiently! for any mention of Brigantes among the endless grumbles about footling matters of colonial administration and local politics.
To the Legate Claudius Hieronimianus, Legate of the Sixth Victrix, from Tribune Servius Placidus, Greeting.
DELIVER AT EBURACUM
My lord, I have spent some considerable effort in this place Calleva, and have been unable to trace this rebel of the Brigantes.
I have spoken to the Calleva magistrates. The area appears calm and well managed and I am satisfied that there is no rumour of any revolt.
Our friends in Calleva have benefited greatly from the justice and order and other good things that come only from the generous bosom of Rome. I am confident that any prospective rebel would not be welcomed here. I will therefore proceed to Eboracum as previously arranged.
I pray, my lord, that you enjoy good health and the best of fortune.
There was no need to mention that Placidus had decided to delay his departure by a couple of days in order to take part in a local wolf hunt. Calleva might be a dull little town, but a wolf hunt was not to be missed. Placidus enjoyed a hunt of any kind, but with a quarry so wily and dangerous as the wolf - well, life might become quite interesting for a day or so.
They killed two young wolves first, early in the hunt. The hunters found them by beating the thickets in the grey pre-dawn with spears and torches; a risky job, full of wavering flameshadows, any one of which might be a wolf. Placidus caught a glimpse of one of the animals in the dim light, and thought for a heart-racing moment he would have a chance to take the first wolf to be killed himself. Then the beast doubled back, and in the end it was a professional hunter, a lean man with scars on his arms, who claimed the kill.
They killed the big she-wolf much later, after a long chase, the great wolfhounds running silent, nose to the ground, loping easily yet at terrible speed across the grey dewy open grass of the pastures. In the distance ran the grey shaggy shadow of the wolf. The hunters ran behind the hounds, spears poised lest the wolf should turn. As they ran, the grass flamed into green in the light of the climbing sun.
Most of the farmers and the hangers-on had dropped back by the time the hunters came up with the she-wolf, leaving the professional hunters and a few others to follow the dogs. Placidus was pleased to find he could easily keep up with the more experienced men, but he held back and let them take the lead. This was not country he knew, and there was no point rushing ahead and losing the quarry.
The she-wolf was more cunning than the young wolves. After many doublings back, she went to ground in an untended coppice, laced with densely woven mats of thorny bramble and treacherous with rotten branches underfoot.
It took them the best part of the day to get her out, and in the end she went down bravely, taking one of the great wolfhounds with her, and leaving one man with a savage bite to the leg which, if Placidus was any judge, would have him limping for years to come. They sent him back to the town with two men to help him along.
It was warm by that time, mid-afternoon - unseasonably warm for so early in the spring, and killing the great she-wolf had been hot work. The hunters took their ease and passed around flasks of the thin sharp local beer. Placidus drank deeply. He was not too proud to drink beer when he was thirsty, but he did not strip to his braccae as some of the hunters had done. Some standards must be retained.
Placidus had noted that the she-wolf was in milk; there must be a litter of cubs not too far away. The sire would probably be close too, he thought, and the seasoned professional hunters agreed, which pleased him. Placidus counted himself a skilled hunter, but for him, as for the other young officers who had accompanied him that day, the hunt was entertainment, not work. It was most satisfying to have his opinion confirmed by the men who hunted for their livelihood.
The hunters divided to search for the whelps and their sire. Placidus made a group with three others; a blue-painted, russet-haired barbarian, the man with the scarred arms who had speared the first wolf, and the handler of one of the great wolfhounds. The dog soon found a scent, and they headed up a steep hill, where small trees straggled across a stony soil. The sounds of the other groups of hunters and the noisy gaggle of hunt followers faded behind them. Soon there was no sound but a little birdsong. The falling winter sun still lit the branches above them with a golden light against the delicate blue of the sky, but the hunters walked below in shadow.
The awareness that somewhere, somewhere very close by, was a he-wolf with a litter of pups to defend, grew in them. They walked with light steps, speaking only when necessary, trying to go unnoticed through the bare winter woodland.
Placidus had never felt so alive. Every step, every sound seemed louder than normal: clearer, sharper. He found his eyes flicking from side to side - was the he-wolf behind this tree? That one? Was he watching from the low grey branches where that stand of hazel-coppice bowed down almost to the ground, or crouching in the shadow of that steep earth-bank?
He could feel himself sweating, smell it. His tunic itched at the belt, and he imagined how much sharper the smell of sweat must be to a wolf’s nose. A shadow moved, and he brought his spear up to face it, but it was only a hare. The animal bounded off, long-legged and angular, and disappeared into the winter-faded grass.
It was the blue-painted barbarian who found the den, an old hut, abandoned and forgotten, the thatch half fallen. A gnarled black thorntree stooped low before the doorway, starred with the first few small white flowers of early spring. One of the door posts had rotted out and the sill lurched at a crazy angle, leaving a low triangle as an entrance. It smelled rank and earthy, and it was dark, like a mouth of earth.
The barbarian ducked under the hanging branches, and knelt, head cocked to one side, listening. He made a small noise with his lips, and listened again. The man looked utterly calm, relaxed, as if he were safe in his own home rather than crouching under a tree, waiting for the wolf to come.
Placidus looked swiftly around, searching the trees and bushes for any movement that might be a grey flank, a pair of amber eyes. Was the wolf before them, waiting in the den, or behind them, in the trees? He could feel a bead of sweat running down his back, even though the last gold was leaving the tips of the trees above, and the air was turning chill.
The scarred hunter was poised, silent, eyes searching, inconspicuous. Placidus tried to copy him, to fade into the background of scrubby trees as if he were a shadow. It didn’t work. He felt horribly and uniquely visible, the only solid thing in a world of pale trees and light shadows. He could feel the wolf watching him. For a long moment, all was still, waiting. The light was fading.
“We should go in.” His voice sounded unnaturally loud, even though he was almost whispering. The barbarian looked questioningly at the scarred man, and then both nodded. With a movement of scarred hand barely to be seen, the scarred man indicated to the man with the hound that he should wait. The hound stood, silent, eyes fixed on the low entrance. The barbarian slid fluidly into the dark mouth of the den. Unhesitating, Placidus followed, trying to move just as silently, and the scarred hunter followed him.
Inside, it was less dark than he had feared. The rotten mossy thatch had fallen away in a few places, and light came in through the low doorway too. Though dim, it was light enough to see the cubs nested together in a sort of bed dug into the earth floor. The wolf-sire was not there. Placidus sighed involuntarily with relief, and swung round to watch the door.
There was a shout from outside, and then, at last the wolf came. Not snarling, making no noise at all beyond the sudden thud of running paws, terrifyingly, exhilaratingly close, terrible and beautiful.
Afterwards, Placidus always remembered that moment most of all: not the fight, not the kill, not his own spear thrust or the other hunters’, but the moment the wolf leapt, dark against the light from the door, and its golden eyes.
Once the kill was done, Placidus was filled with exhilaration; a buoyant bubbling mixture of triumph and release, filling him with a general sense of good will. It was a shock, as he turned to congratulate the barbarian on his fine spear-thrust, to notice the man’s slit ear. He had been in Britain now long enough to know what that meant, here in this frontier province.
The man was a slave, a slave marked as untrustworthy, liable to violence or escape. Placidus was alarmed. He had assumed the man was just another free man, a peregrinus, making his living from the hunt. He had not realised, when he gave the word to move into the wolf’s den that another man’s property was at risk - and did the slave even have permission to be here?
Sullenly, the man claimed he was a body slave to a Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila.
A body slave! Placidus almost laughed out loud. It was extraordinary. The man could not have been more unlike Phoebus. But at least this Centurion Aquila would not be suing Placidus for a replacement for his body slave. The barbarian had come through the hunt unscathed, and if some very peculiar retired Centurion chose to risk his slave’s neck in a wolf’s den, it was not Placidus’s problem.
Placidus commissioned the scarred hunter to prepare the wolfskin, and send it on to him in Eboracum. It would make a fine rug, and the man would rather have the money for the work than the skin itself anyway.
The professional hunters took the skins of the cubs as their share. The slave’s eyes widened as they grabbed the cubs and began to roughly slit their throats.
“They’re worth more alive than dead - still young enough to tame!” he protested.
“You can rear a wolf cub in your house if you want to” the owner of the wolfhound returned “And when it starts killing your neighbour’s lambs - or worse, their children - I’ll buy the skin.”
The slave stepped forward and picked up the last cub, still alive, and wrapped it in his cloak, glaring at the two hunters, who shrugged and turned away. Placidus wondered for a moment what strange household he came from, where body slaves were shaggy-haired and painted blue, and went out for a day’s hunting to come home with a wolf cub under one arm.
Then he forgot the matter. It was time to set off for Eboracum, to take up his official posting.
Reporting in Eboracum, Placidus was forced to revise his first opinion of his new Legate. Claudius Hieronimianus was quite definitely not a silly hen. He was more like some swift Egyptian falcon, all dark eyes and sharp talons - and sharper questions. The man was quite uncomfortably intelligent, and Placidus began to wish he had prepared a written report.
He stumbled awkwardly through an account of his dealings in Calleva. Although Placidus had previously considered himself rather an expert speaker - his tutors had always praised his rhetoric - he found his words ran out, and came to an awkward halt under the level eyes of his new commander.
There was a difficult pause.
“Placidus, my Placidus, whatever shall we do with you?” The man still had a trace of the Egyptian in his clipped voice, Placidus noted: the harsh tones of the upper Nile, rather than the civilised lowlands.
“My dear old friend, your father the Senator feels that there is something to be made of you. I must say at the moment you do not seem very promising material. But we shall do what we can. I have never known your father to send me a colt, or a pup, or a man that did not have something to commend him. ”
“I did, of course have another man in Calleva - to watch your back - and, as it turned out, to do your job for you. Did it not occur to you to ask among the hunters whose company you so clearly enjoyed, as to their names and origins? Indeed, did you have no idea of the appearance and practices of the Brigantes, since you were seeking one of them? If you had asked Aquila in Calleva, as I recommended, he could have told you about them.”
Placidus flushed a little. He began to mumble a defense, but the words trailed off. There was a long, awkward pause. Placidus tried again. He could feel himself blushing like a young boy, but there was nothing for it but to grasp the nettle.
“My lord, I apologise. How can I make amends?”
The legate sighed, and put the stylus that he had been turning over and over in his long, lean fingers down on the desk in front of him. He gave Placidus a careful considering look over his long dark beak of a nose, and then rose and began to pace up and down. He was one of those men who did not seem to be able to sit still for long. His sandals made a dry slapping on the stone floor.
“Listen. Learn. And try not to judge too swiftly.”
“The man of the Brigantes you were looking for was the slave of Flavius Aquila. That same slave in whose company you killed, most enthusiastically, I hear, a wolf that was none the less not one of the enemies of Rome I had asked you to investigate.”
Placidus stiffened in panic : how could he have overlooked that? But the Legate, having stuck in the knife, did not seem inclined to twist it.
“Thankfully, it appears the reported threat had been overstated in this case: the man seems to have no contact with any other of his clan, and we do not think he is in Calleva by choice. This is fortunate for you. Your negligence has not, as it happens, caused any other problems. We have the man watched, but I do not anticipate any difficulties. ”
“Sir, he is only a slave,” Placidus said, daring. The Legate’s dark eyes fixed on him.
“So was Spartacus. And so was the woman we caught two months ago, carrying messages from the Iceni to a certain troublesome Brigantes chieftain, and not a few others who have caused trouble for Rome. Why do you think we had to build the Wall in the first place?”
“Placidus, until now you have been a boy, and all things have come easily to you. But now, if you are to be any use, you must grow up. And swiftly, without making any more...mistakes.”
“Yes, my Lord!” Placidus ducked his head respectfully. He was feeling thoroughly chastened.
“Do you know which Legion was stationed here, before the Victrix?”
“The Ninth.” Placidus answered quickly, trying to show the Legate he was not a complete oaf.
“Yes, the Ninth. And the Ninth marched North, iron-weaponed, armoured in bronze, five thousand legionaries strong, not to speak of the auxiliaries... and they vanished, all of them. Lost in the mist.”
The Legate walked over to the window and leaned on the sill, motioning to Placidus to join him. The shutters were open, and they could see out across the smoky rooftops of Eboracum, half red Roman tile, half turf and thatch - out across the river to the hills that marched misty blue into the West under a heavy grey sky.
The Legate spoke again quietly, almost to himself, musing, “I know, looking out from Rome, that Rome looks strong. There she stands with all the strength and subtlety of a great nation, surrounded by armies. It seems that nothing could hope to challenge her. But when you come here into the far North, if you look out into the mists... then you may begin to realise how wide the lands spread, East and South and West as well as North. Some would say the gods and spirits of this distant land are against us.”
Placidus said nothing, but his face showed his doubt clearly.
“No? You think not? Does Placidus number himself among the skeptics, then?”
“I am a practical man,” Placidus said obstinately. “I prefer to concern myself with things that I can see and touch.”
The Legate considered him with interest. He seemed surprised.
“Very well, then. In practical terms: we Romans say that we rule the world, and by saying it emphatically enough, with our armies and our strategies - why, we make it so. But the world outside our walls is wide, and our grasp even within the walls is not as strong as you have been taught.
“Britannia... we speak of her as if she were a whole. But she is not so much a province as a pack of squabbling hounds, all pulling in different directions. It sometimes seems to me, here in the North, as if there is a princeling on every hilltop, ready to take offence at the next...
“The Dobunni hate the Atrebates, the Atrebates hate the Iceni, the Iceni hate the Catuvellauni, and the Brigantes and the Silures hate everyone, and would call down the Picts out of the North and the wild men out of Hibernia onto all our heads, if they were given half a chance. And it is our task to hold them together, somehow.
“We hold Britannia in our hands, just now. But she could slip between our fingers like the hill-mist. And once we loosen our grip upon Britannia, then Judaea, and then Dacia at the least will slip as well. Make no mistake about that. And then - then the Parthians will see our weakness and begin to move against us, and all our hard-won, precarious peace and prosperity of the empire will begin to crumble. ”
He turned to Placidus, face stern. The dark eyes held him, commanding.
“Which is one of many reasons, my young Placidus, that Rome’s tribunes need to learn to see what is under their noses. And not just when they are out for a day’s hunting.”
After he had sent Placidus off to his quarters, rather quiet now and thoughtful, the Legate poured himself a cup of wine and considered his new tribune.
It was hard to tell, under the expensive clothes, the fashionable hair, and the even more fashionable air of boredom, what sort of a man there might be. There was a pout to the new tribune’s lower lip that still spoke of the boy, and under that, the Legate suspected, rather more uncertainty than Placidus was in the habit of letting anyone see.
But the obstinacy and the cynicism, the Legate thought, were promising. Rome needed her great leaders, of course. But also she needed... people who would recognise the awkward truths. People who would look at old beliefs in new ways, and carry the Empire on, richer and more powerful than ever to new heights, no doubt.
The Legate was not, himself, such a man. He was a defender at heart, one to hold the borders strong and let the children grow in peace, if he had a choice. And as he made his evening libation to the little bronze figure of Harpocrates that had travelled with him so far, all the way from the valley of the Nile, he was rather glad of it.
Placidus learned a great deal, during the one short year he spent in Britannia.
He learned - if not perhaps how to best command soldiers himself, then at least how best to organise their commanders. He learned how they could follow the right leader through swamp and snow, against flying spears, almost to Hades itself - and most certainly through situations where Placidus himself would have questioned or turned back.
He learned to drink mead with shock-haired chieftains in draughty halls while the roof leaked and the dogs fought under the table for a bone, and listen, not only to the words they said, but much more importantly, to the words they did not say.
Under the careful, sometimes sarcastic guidance of the Legate, he learned to take note of their unsmiling faces and the messages the faces carried that were clearer than words.
And in between times, he learned the joys of British girls, red haired, fair or dark, some giggling at the handsome young Tribune, some quiet, some defiant, some teasing. And all of them so much more more proud, more free-speaking, than the shuttered, proper aristocratic girls, or the compliant slaves with faces that gave nothing away that he had known at home.
These British girls would take a joke or an insult and fling it back into a man’s face, or even better, toss it like a shining toy thrown from hand to hand until the game seemed it might end in bed or with a knife in the gut, and Placidus had no idea which was coming, but could not bear to end it without finding out.
He learned to win over suspicious recalcitrant old men, glooming behind their long moustaches, with gifts and flattery, and how to charm young men with news of Roman ways and offers of Roman favour. And from time to time, when all else failed, he learned a little about how to phrase a threat so that it did not leave a scar, and rather more about how to use a threat so that it did leave a scar and would be remembered for a very long time.
The Legate had one year to teach the game to Placidus, just as his own Camp Commandant and First Cohort had taught it to him. The game that kept the empire thriving, growing, profiting. And Placidus learned.
And at last, on one moonlit night, dressed in unfamiliar clothes of the local tribes (which caused Phoebus the body slave’s eyebrows to rise almost into his hair when he saw them) Placidus was called out to a small stone shepherd’s hut, perched awkwardly on the side of a great grey-green mass of empty hillside, where the only sound for miles was a thin wind blowing and the lonely bleat of a sheep - to hear at first-hand an account from a man, who had it from another, who had seen an Eagle, a true Roman Eagle, receiving divine honours in a temple in the far North.
The land about was by no means safe for a tribune alone, even with his Alexandrian-styled hair hidden beneath the hood of a heavy British coat, so Placidus was accompanied by a laconic tribesman, blue with ink, and a squat Syrian with an eternal smile who cleaned his nails with a little knife that had an ivory handle in the shape of a naked woman. They were a silent pair, the babysitters, in their leather and stained tunics, and their presence made Placidus feel alternately very important, and then not much later, very young and very inexperienced.
Much, much later, when Placidus was an old man who had seen a great deal of Rome’s endless struggles, he wondered if it had really been so important, that tale of an Eagle. And it crossed his mind that a Legate must keep his young men busy somehow.
But at the time, it seemed of consummate importance: a weapon in the hands of the tribes, a weapon that, though Placidus might look on it sceptically, would certainly have a power in the eyes of Rome’s enemies, and in the eyes of her soldiers too.
It had to be recovered, he agreed that much with the Legate, but Placidus was also forced to agree that they could not risk sending a full expeditionary force after it. By that time Placidus had seen more than enough of the Northern hills to know that sending a force out beyond the wall could bring the Tribes down from both sides of the Wall onto all their heads, and that was a greater risk than Rome had time for, just then.
Then they were riding south again, Placidus, the Legate and his household, through woodlands flushed green with the new leaves coming in, starred with white blossom, just as they had been a year ago when Placidus had ridden North to Eboracum.
The brief northern summer had fled like a memory, the long winter that followed was over at last, and Rome with all her promise lay ahead of Placidus. And beyond Rome? Judaea perhaps, or Syria, or a profitable role in the administration of Egypt - the grand theatre of the South where the great decisions were being played out on a scale that would affect the lives of millions. But on the way, there was this one last small job to be done.
An agent to be recruited, one last step in the securing of the North that had kept them busy for this last year, so that the great events in the South would not be interrupted by the barbarians from the Isle of Mists.
“What do you want me to do, my lord?”
Claudius Hieronymianus looked at him for a moment, and that winged smile lit up his dark face. A dangerous smile, that one, Placidus had learned.
“Just be your own, inimitable self, my Placidus. This will be a dangerous mission for him. He probably won’t be coming back. The best we can hope for is that he will get the Eagle out of the hands of the tribes and into a lake where it can be safely forgotten.”
“If he has any sense of self-preservation, he may need just a little... shall we say provocation? Just to get him started. Follow my lead. ”
“Very well sir.”
The ex-Centurion, Marcus Flavius Aquila, was a Roman of the old strain, Placidus saw, as soon as the Legate introduced them; determined, uncompromising, with those arrogant dark brows frowning disapprovingly over a stern soldier’s face. No more than a year or so older than Placidus himself, but already with fierce lines etched across his forehead. Romulus probably looked just like that, Placidus decided : not the Olympian god on his pedestal, but the hero who built a city strong enough to rule the world. A soldier with no time for frivolity, but the kind of man who could set his hand to any task and make it his own.
It seemed utterly incongruous to see a man like that limping on a leg twisted visibly out of true. Perhaps Romulus had taken offence at someone so clearly made in his own image and punished him.
Placidus threw out a suggestion that the man must be a cripple from birth, travelling to Britain to visit his family, deliberately, trawling for a reaction. He got one. The dark brows drew together alarmingly, and an awkward silence fell. Placidus wondered for a moment if Aquila would simply walk out and leave him standing there by the window with his cup of wine, like a fool, like a boy. The Legate would certainly have cutting words to say about that.
And then, abruptly, there was a wolf. Shaggy as Lupa herself and approximately twice as toothy, was Placidus’ impression in the first shock. Fawning like a puppy on sternfaced Aquila, whose face in reply broke into what must surely be an unaccustomed smile. It was like seeing a smile on a face of granite, incongruous. It made him look quite different, warmer: less the wounded hero, and more the man.
If anyone could spirit an Eagle out of the hands of the wild tribes of the North through sheer determination, this was the man. But whether he would get any great distance beyond the Wall before he was caught and finished - well that was another matter.
But there was something about him all the same, something that almost made Placidus himself long to throw up his career and all his hopes, to follow him North to try … even though at the same time, Placidus knew the attempt was sure to fail. A foolish thought, not to be taken seriously for a man with a life and a career ahead of him. And yet... life would not be boring, on such a quest, with such a man. It would most certainly, not be boring.
The younger men had retired to bed, but the two old campaigners lingered in the atrium, sipping warmed wine with honey and spices, and talking of old campaigns - and new ones too. The lamp-light and the red glow from the brazier warmed the bare lime-washed walls with a rosy glow, and old Procyon the wolfhound stretched and rolled over on the tessellated floor warmed by the admirably efficient hypocaust below. Old Aquila’s house might be small, but it had the essentials right, the Legate thought, and stretched his tired legs in half-conscious emulation of the wolfhound.
“So what is this great matter that summons a Legate, no less, out of the North to report to the Senate in person at such short notice? Or perhaps I shouldn’t ask?”
The Legate smiled his long, secretive smile at his older friend. Aquila very clearly had every intention of asking, and would go on doing so in one way or another until he got an answer. The habit of intelligence-gathering was deeply ingrained, and nobody who has spent so long collecting and making sense of rumours, the Legate thought, ever really believes that he does not need to know. And after all, if old Aquila could not be trusted, then really, who in the Empire could? For a given value of trust, of course.
“Judea, again.” he admitted. “The Emperor has a mind to restore the ruins of Jerusalem and build a new city there.”
Aquila’s bushy white eyebrows shot up almost into his hairline. “That will stir up a hornet’s nest. But surely he knows that?”
“Of course. But I understand he feels he cannot leave the place in ruins indefinitely, just for the convenience of hornets. ”
“And perhaps he is thinking that it’s better to smoke out the hornets than leave them to multiply?” Aquila looked shrewdly at his old friend.
“Perhaps.” This was in fact almost exactly what the encoded message which had arrived along with the official summons from the Senate had said. That message had been sent personally by Quintus Marcius Turbo, the prefect of the Praetorian guard, or Hadrian’s Bulldog, as he was irreverently known in certain circles. Old Aquila had lost none of his cunning in his old age, the Legate thought.
“At any rate, the Senate have called me in, along with a few other men who know the country - and the hornets. The oracles have made unhelpful noises, I believe, and so contingency plans are the order of the day. ”
“So, you will be close at hand if the Emperor calls, I see. Well, I wish you joy of the hornets-nest!”
The Legate looked at him thoughtfully “Not tempted to see Rome one last time? To feel the sun on your face, get away from the endless British mud? You could come along and help me smoke out those hornets. I could use a man who knows the country and can understand strategy - well away from the lines, of course.”
Old Aquila laughed, surprised and a little shocked. “No. Emphatically no, Claudius. I’ve served my time, and more. I’m comfortable here with my dog and my slaves, and my history of Siege Warfare that probably nobody will ever read. Everything I ever knew about Judaea is ten years or more out of date anyway.”
“And yet if Rome calls?”
“Rome! Rome is a greedy bitch, it seems to me. She’s had my little brother - must she have his son too?” Aquila’s face was bitter now.
Hieronimianus met his eyes and looked down, pretending a sudden interest in his cup. “You think either of us could stop him now?”
“No. No, not at all. But did you have to tell him about the Eagle, bring back all that about his father’s death? I don’t believe for a moment that you didn’t know about my brother, by the way. ”
The legate did not answer for a long moment, swirling the dark wine in his cup thoughtfully. Finally, when Aquila’s irritation had subsided, he looked up and said mildly
“He needs a purpose, old friend. Train a man to empire and he’s lost with no empire to build.”
“Still. You’d think there would be a purpose for my nephew inside the empire, without needing to send him out into the wilds.”
The legate spoke softly “Perhaps Rome needs him more, out in the wilds. And he will have the tribesman, Esca, to help him. You know what a difference that can make. You’ve been there...”
Old Aquila, blood brother to a painted tribesman, out in the dusky blue-purple heather hills beyond the line that the Wall takes now. Old Aquila, the legend - at least, in certain select circles. The man who had spent so much of his life on forging a province from a handful of squabbling tribes that he had no wife, no son to follow him.
Old Aquila knew how the game was played. And, the Legate thought, one part of him knew how they had hooked the boy that evening, played and landed him, and set up ready for a wild journey into the distant North. A hopeless journey, most likely. But the part of old Aquila that was still loyal above all else, that part would not, as the Legate had known it would not, let him intervene. A complicated business, loyalty. Placidus would not understand that, not yet.
A cold, fading autumn day, the leaves already turning russet and falling, and the familiar mist hanging in the air on the road North from Regnum up to Calleva, and forming tiny reflecting beads all over the rough fabric of his mantle.
It was the worst of luck Hieronimianus reflected, that he had ended up having to spend most of the summer in stifling, stinking Rome. Rome was not at her best in summer. And now he was back in Britain, it seemed the sea-god Nodens had summoned every cloud in the island into heavy grey skies which were determined to rain on him and his unfortunate household slaves all the way back to Eboracum.
He had sent a messenger ahead to Calleva. Another visit to old Aquila, who must by now be starting to believe his nephew would never return, would not be a cheering way to pass an evening, but it had to be done: the old friendship demanded that he could not pass by so close without at least enquiring. And after all, there might be some news that had come to Calleva, that had not reached the Legate, far away in Rome. The background reports on the slave, Esca, had looked promising, and young Marcus Flavius Aquila was a man of character: there was still some hope that the two men might return.
There was no news. Old Aquila’s face was set. Though he rallied himself courteously to welcome his old friend, the heart seemed to have gone out of him, the Legate thought. For the first time since he had known the man, Aquila seemed truly old.
They took a cup of wine, up in Aquila’s watch-tower study, a small lamplit room with narrow windows looking out over rainy Calleva. “What news of Judaea?” Aquila asked, although it did not seem to the Legate that he was particularly interested in the answer.
Judaea had not, in the end, gone up in flames that summer, though the Legate was not at all confident of how long the province would remain at peace. The hornets had proved more circumspect than the oracles had suggested, and although there had been protests and arguments, the fuss had died down. Even the establishment of a new temple to Jupiter on the foundations of the old temple to the Jews’ strange, antisocial god had not tempted them out of their nests, though the Legate was far from confident that they had been converted to peaceful productive bees, as the Emperor hoped.
The Legate began to speak a little of the Emperor’s planned new city of Aelia Capitolina, built on the foundations of old Jerusalem - a city that Aquila had known. But it was clear his words were not holding old Aquila’s attention. The tall old man was uneasy, and seemed to be listening for something.
“I had word from an oracle too, you know” he said, rather abruptly, interrupting the Legate in the middle of a sentence.
The Legate lifted an eyebrow enquiringly.
“There’s a woman over on the Tamesis. She reads the ripples on the river and tells the future... or so they say anyway. Seemed as honest as they usually are in that line of work. Anyway, she told me the lads would be back by the time the trees were bare.” Silently the Legate cursed all oracles and their excessively precise predictions. Could the woman not have left the old man a little more time to hope? And there was still hope. There must be...
“Wish I hadn’t gone to ask that oracle, to be honest with you. Wish I’d kicked you out when you came by in spring, for that matter - old friend or no old friend.”
The Legate, responding to the raw tone of voice rather than the words, put a hand on old Aquila’s shoulder, comforting. It was never easy to find the words, no matter how often you had to do it, and after all, this was his old friend. His oldest friend, now he came to think of it. Maybe a friend who had deserved a little more loyalty, at that, it occurred to him, bitterly and far too late.
And then, suddenly, a door opening downstairs in the house, voices - familiar voices, and then a great baying,and then a scatter of footsteps below as slaves rushed through the atrium below.
Slowly the old man stood up, gathering himself. He opened the study door and looking down the steps he turned back to the Legate. The heavy lines on his face had relaxed, and a smile was playing around the corner of his mouth.
“Do you know, I think perhaps I should send a gift to that oracle?” he said in a quiet conversational voice. “A lamb or something, perhaps.” And with Claudius Hieronimianus one step behind him, he went on down the steps to greet the two men who had just come into the house, thin, hollow eyed and very much in need of a bath, but undeniably, triumphantly alive.
There’s a story lies behind Placidus’ wolf hunt, even though Placidus knew nothing about it, and nor did Esca - though I think perhaps Esca may have guessed. The story is here: http://bunn.livejournal.com/323899.html
For this story, I'm assuming that the wolf hunt where Placidus met Esca occurred in 129AD, and that the Legate was summoned to Rome (stopping in Calleva to recruit Esca and Marcus) in 130AD, when the Emperor Hadrian was touring Athens, Judaea, and Egypt. There were Jewish revolts against Roman rule in 66–70 (when Jerusalem was ruined) and again in 115–117AD (presumably around the time that Uncle Aquila was serving there) and apparently also mutterings in 130AD, though there doesn't seem to have been an actual revolt at that stage, it seemed reasonable that there might be precautions taken, just in case.
Hadrian did build a temple to Jupiter on the ruins of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and given that Hadrian seems to have been pretty capable, I can't imagine that he didn't realise that the Jews weren't going to be as accepting about their god being amalgamated with Jupiter, as, for example, the devotees of Sulis Minerva were about their god Sulis becoming an aspect of Minerva at Bath.
Bar Kokhba's revolt eventually kicked off in Judaea in 132AD, after Hadrian outlawed circumcision (see where I'm going with the deliberate provocation here?), and Hadrian did summon a Legate from Britain to help deal with it, though it wasn't Claudius Hieronimianus, because Rosemary Sutcliff made him up. :-D
Quintus Marcius Turbo, the prefect of the Praetorian guard existed, and does seem to have been a bit of a deputy for the Emperor in Rome while he was off in Greece, though so far as I know, nobody called him 'Hadrian's Bulldog'.
For this story I’ve worked with the idea of Britannia not being a very unified or fully subdued province, as suggested by Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock in ‘Unroman Britain’, where they emphasise the ongoing importance of tribal organisation during the Roman period.
Harpocrates, the god that Claudius Hieronimianus sacrifices to, is an Egyptian god of spies! They had a whole god, just for spying!
Hadrian was noted for his amazing intelligence gathering system, and the way that he knew even background gossip about people almost as soon as they knew themselves. Given this, I thought his officers could reasonably be on top of the whole issue of a deposed Brigantian chieftain's son being a rather unslavelike slave in Calleva.
(Hadrian's lover Antinous drowned in the Nile around the same time that Esca and Marcus arrived back in Calleva, but of course they don't know about that because it would take a while for the news to arrive from Egypt. I tried hard to work this into the plot, but it wouldn't go. )