bunn (bunn) wrote,

Splendid Things Gleam in the Dust: 1

About : When Marcus and Esca have to make a trip to Egypt, they find the ancient land hides dangers they had not expected.
Words : 16669 excluding notes, wtf brain?
Written for: eagle-rbb 2012

This is the longest thing I have written in one go, and to be honest, it could, with terrifying ease, have been much longer.  It kept growing more plot in a thoroughly alarming way.  There are so many lovely original sources for Egypt, all full of ideas!  The source that I started with was either a prayer, or a sort of spell:

"A Plea to a Local God for a Husband's Attentions.
It is Esrmpe, the [daughter] of Kllaouc, who is complaining about Hor, the [son] of Tanesneou.

“My lord Osiris, lord of Hasro! I complain to you, do justice to me and Hor, the son of Tanesneou, concerning what I have done to him and what he has done to me. Namely, he does not make love with me, I having no power, I having no protector-son. I am unable to help myself, I am childless. There is no one who could complain concerning me before you because of Hor … I complain to you … Osiris, listen to my call! Look how he has treated me! Open the way for your messengers … Osiris, lord of Abydos, Osiris … Isis … Ophois, Hathor, nurse of Anubis the Osiride, the cowherd of … do justice to me!”

Frankly, it only got odder from that point in...

Lovely images supplied by ningloreth, who also beta'd and supplied many helpful thoughts on things like mudbrick building techniques and whether one can really write a whole fiction all about the issues around dutiful and legally-correct incest without it becoming a bit ... icky, and has generally been a lot of fun to collaborate with!
Thanks also to seascribe for betaing and helping me work out how to get to the end (which at one point I feared I would never reach...)

Although this is an Eagle of the Ninth story, it also owes a lot to Gillian Bradshaw's Roman Egypt novel, Cleopatra's Heir, which I love, and is set about a hundred and sixty years earlier.  If anyone has read that, yes, it IS no coincidence that Claudius Hieronimianus says he has a Friend of the King, Egyptian traders and Roman citizens among his ancestors.  He doesn't know the whole story, of course.

Strange Deeds
It was hot - stiflingly, impossibly hot. Esca thought that he must have overslept somehow. He should get up and go down to the little willow-fringed stream that ran through the quiet downland valley to bathe his feet and cool off. If only his head didn’t hurt so much. For some reason it was hard to sit up, or even turn over. His stomach felt nauseous.

There were people in the room gabbling incomprehensibly. He wished they would go away. What little he could see of the room through his half-closed eyes stretched and wavered like a reflection. Someone put a cup to his mouth which spilled a little water : it tasted of iron but at least it was cool. Was he ill?

It was dark where Esca lay, but as his eyes began to focus he could see a blindingly bright light that made a shining mesh of in his eyelashes against the dark. His wrists hurt, in a way that was horribly familiar. He made an effort and tried to move his hands, and could not. They were tied in front of him with rough strands of rope. An old familiar feeling of panicked helplessness welled up in him, and he pushed it away, and blinked.

The small room came into focus - dark, low roofed with thick mud walls, and the Egyptian sunshine brilliant outside the open door. Of course, Egypt, that was why it was so hot. He made an effort to remember. There had been... yes, an inn, and some strange Egyptian drink that tasted sweet and bitter at once. It must have been drugged.

Thieves, probably. He and Marcus must have been attacked by thieves, their precious cargo stolen. In which case... where was Marcus? Thieves might have thought Esca was unimportant, a paid helper or a slave, but there was no mistaking Marcus - the way he spoke, the way he walked - for anything but a Roman citizen. Had they hurt him? Esca tried to wriggle upright. A wave of iron-tasting muddiness and confusion rushed over him, and he retched.

Once the vomiting was over, he felt a little better, and managed to struggle to a sitting position, leaning against the mudbrick wall behind him. The talking people who had been there earlier had gone away, but as Esca rested for a moment, gathering his strength to stand, someone ducked in though the low doorway, under the reed thatch. The light was behind him and all Esca could see of him was a dark figure against the brilliance. It spoke to him in a language that he could not understand.

“Where is my friend? What have you done to him?” Esca asked him.

The dark figure shook its head against the light, and Esca realised that he had spoken in his own tongue. He tried again in Latin, but the man just grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to his feet. He almost fell, but managed to steady himself, head whirling again, as he was pushed out into the sunlight towards a group of men standing around a few donkeys. Two of them were being laden with bags that looked very familiar, though the men were tucking sacks around them to hide the distinctive stamped leather. Far too many of them to rush, even if Esca’s stomach would stay where it was supposed to be. He realised that someone had taken his shoes, and staggered again, trying to keep his balance as the pebbly ground cut into his feet.

More incomprehensible gabble from the man who had pushed him outside. His brown face was deeply cut with wrinkles and he was wearing a cheap white sleeveless tunic.

“I don’t understand,” he said to the man, in Latin.

A tall youth who had been lounging against the wall looked over casually towards him. “Speak Latin?” he asked, in an accent that Esca could barely make out. Then he spoke again, in a language that Esca thought was probably Greek, although he was speaking too quickly for Esca to make out most of the words. He shook his head.

“I speak Latin. I am a Roman citizen. Where is my friend?”

The tall lad did not translate his words, but laughed in his face. The accent might be thick, but the raw edge of arrogant incredulity in the laugh was unmistakeable. “Roman citizen?” he said, in a parody of Esca’s British accent. “Tell me another!” He looked Esca deliberately up and down: clipped ear, blue-patterned arms, bare, dusty feet. Slave, his face said, clearer than any words.

The wrinkled man who was still holding Esca’s shoulder burst into speech again. The youth listened, face impassive, and after a while, translated - if not the whole thing, the gist of the message.

“Says you being drunk too much. Your master, he selling you cheap. He go away.. up to Antinoöpolis. Your new master.. this man now.” The tall lad gestured to the wrinkled man.

The feeling of helpless panic came roaring back, stronger than before - master - sold.... Esca let it wash over him, standing very still as he caught his breath, and as it receded he could think again. No, the panic was foolish - Marcus would never do such a thing: it was absurd to think it. In any case, Esca was no longer a boy with the whole might of the empire against him. He was a free man and a citizen and these people were robbers. He could find help, if only he could get away, and find someone in authority who would listen.

But he must tread warily. They thought he was a slave, an ignorant barbarian from the distant North who could pose no danger to them. If they believed he was a citizen, then they would know he knew about the gold, and know that if he got away there would be trouble.

Best keep quiet, play a waiting game for a little while. Then he could get away, find Marcus, who was almost certainly in desperate need of help - if he was even still alive. Best not think about that though. Marcus must still be alive. He had to be.

Esca let his shoulders drop and shrugged, trying to look stupid and submissive.

The wrinkled man asked another question.

“You speak no Greek? No Hebrew? Not even the language of the people?” the tall one asked, still with that raw edge of incredulity in his voice. Esca shook his head.

The wrinkled man started to speak again, at some length. His voice became louder, and he took both hands from Esca’s shoulder to wave them for emphasis. Esca tensed momentarily, then made himself relax. Not yet. Not yet. Too many people about and his hands were still bound.

Esca could not understand a word the wrinkled man was saying - but he was fairly sure that the general subject was barbarians from the North who spoke no civilised language. It wasn’t the first time since he and Marcus had arrived in Egypt that the subject had come up. He had the distinct impression that in Egypt, speaking neither Greek nor demotic Egyptian marked a man out as the worst kind of barbarian. But that was good. Stupid barbarians got overlooked, ignored, discounted.

He took the chance to glance around quickly, keeping his head bowed, inoffensive. He did not recognise the place: a cluster of mud brick buildings, thatched with greyish dried reeds, a tall dovecote, with a scatter of pigeons cutting the sky above it.

Through the vivid green of strange bushes and unfamiliar trees he could see the flash of shimmering light that meant a stream, a canal, or perhaps even the Nile itself - he could not tell. There was a faint mist hanging over the glossy leaves, a slight dampness to the air and although it was already warm as it always seemed to be in Egypt, the sun was not yet high: it must be morning still.

In the distance behind the houses, a bare cliff loomed against the pale sky, reddish-brown and dusty: Esca thought he must be near the edges of the waterlands, close to the desert. It was always strange to remember that water was scarce in this land. Esca had best not go that way, when he ran.

But which way should he go? He had no memory of this place, and no clear idea either of where they had been when the thieves had drugged them. The unfamiliar names were hard to remember, and the shape of the land was strange. Marcus could be anywhere. He had to find out more. There was no point rushing: this was a hunting trail, if a strange one, and he just had to wait and watch until the moment came.

But all the while, the thought itched in the back of his mind that Marcus was in trouble. It was hard to watch and do nothing as the sun climbed slowly to midday. They untied his hands with a startling lack of caution - play stupid, Esca reminded himself again, as he rubbed his wrists, kept his eyes down, chewed the heel of hard flat bread they gave him.

When he had been taken as a slave in Britain nobody had treated him so incautiously. Nobody but Marcus...

The tall youth who spoke Latin ordered Esca to follow him. Esca had been hoping he might be able to get the lad alone, and here was a small chance, but a golden one. He was not sure if the others did not understand the language, or simply preferred not to speak it, but it didn’t matter. He needed someone who could understand his questions and answer them.

They headed downhill, buckets in hand - fetching water, Esca assumed, though nobody had told him so. The path led around a clump of trees, and he shuffled along behind the youth, treading cautiously to avoid sharp stones, deliberately harmless, bowed over his buckets.

As soon as they were out of sight of the buildings, he dropped the buckets and grabbed the lad hard: one hand over his mouth and nose, the other round his body and pulled him off the path, down into the thick greenery of Egypt’s growing season.

The youth struggled: jerking desperately in surprise and protest as Esca tried to hold him down. It was not as easy for Esca to hold him pinned as it might have been a few years ago: the youth was taller than he was. There was a moment of frantic, almost-silent struggle, Esca desperately trying to keep the younger man silent, before he landed a thump to the lad’s stomach that took the fight out of him. Esca grabbed the knife from the lad’s belt, and dragged him further from the path.

All the while, Esca’s ears were straining for a shout, a sound of running feet - any sound that would tell him the others had heard, that they were coming to help their friend. He heard nothing - distant voices, with no tension in them, the bray of a donkey. He shoved the youth against a tree and held him there for a moment, meeting his brown eyes over the hand that held his mouth. The boy tried to bite him, and got another punch to the stomach with the butt of the knife that doubled him up, breathless for another vital moment. Esca shifted grip on the knife, and slipped it against the boy’s groin where he should be able to just feel the blade. That worked, the lad froze.

“Answers, or I geld you. Where is the man I was travelling with?” He loosened his hold on the face for a moment. The youth sagged forward a little breathing heavily. Esca jabbed gently with the knife, a sharp reminder.

“The felucca, on the felucca,” the youth gabbled. He was terrified now, pale and breathing hard, and all the resistance had gone out of him.

“Where?” Esca breathed, close to his ear, “Speak softly, if you wish to have children.” Still no shout, no sign of pursuit, but it could only be a little time now before he was spotted. He could hear a buzzard crying far off in the distance, and was oddly comforted. At least the buzzard was familiar: they cried like that over the heather hills, and over the downland valleys far away.

“That way” The lad jerked his head. “In... in a boat on the canal.”


“I don’t... no, really, really I don’t know.” Tears were running from the lad’s eyes now as Esca jerked the knife again, holding his prisoner with one arm across his throat. “I don’t! They gave him the drug - more than they gave you. I think they were going to give him to Sobek tonight”.

“Sobek?” Esca hissed.

“The crocodiles, the beasts of Sobek. That way nobody would know... nobody could tell. They would think he was just taken by the crocodiles.”

“Why wait?” Esca asked. It seemed hideously risky and unlikely; all his own instincts would have cried out to get the thing over with quickly, and get away into the hills.

The young man looked at him with a faint ghost of the arrogance he had shown before. “Have you seen the river? It’s far too busy in daylight. Boats, laundrywomen, people bringing down their beasts to drink. We always wait for night. So does Sobek.”

Esca pulled away the knife, grabbed the lad by the shoulder, pulled him round and pushed him back against the tree trunk, all in one swift motion. As the lad gasped in shock for breath, Esca grabbed his hands, and tied them behind him with his own belt. Then he pulled the lad upright. “Show me this boat,” he breathed into his ear.

Tithoïs had been having a pleasant day. He was keeping half an eye on the boat, doing a little fishing from a comfortable spot in the green-dappled shade next to the cool of the canal where the great blue seshen-flowers spread out into the main channel. By midday, he had five fat, shining fish strung up and ready to sell.

Suddenly, he heard a shout from the shoreline and the sound of splashing. Something was going on a little way up the canal, although he could not quite see from where he stood what was happening. Had someone fallen in? He dropped from the deck and ran along the canal-shore to investigate.

By the time he had disentangled the boy from the tree to which he had been tied with his own belt, blush-faced with embarrassment behind the grey linen that had gagged his mouth and gabbling an urgent warning about the British slave, it was far too late for Tithoïs to get back to the boat he had been ordered to guard.

Tithoïs turned back, just in time to see the little felucca, sail still rolled, moving out of the green tree-shadows of the canal, into the golden light that sparkled and danced on the surface of the wider river. The dark shape of the little boat was outlined against the bright water, as if she had been dusted with gold.

A paddle dipped, dipped, dipped as Tithoïs frantically looked along the canal-bank for a canoe, another boat - , but as luck would have it, the felucca was the only vessel in sight, and now the current was taking her gently but inevitably out of sight behind the trees that lined the riverbank. There was going to be trouble about this, Tithoïs thought, gloomily.


“Marcus! Marcus wake up!” Esca shook his friend’s shoulder again. Marcus’s face as he lay on the boards at the bottom of the boat was pale and slack and Esca could not see any sign that he was breathing, although he had no injury that Esca could see. There was a long painful moment that stretched on and on. Then Marcus’s chest moved, just a little, barely to be seen, and the life in his neck fluttered faintly under Esca’s hand. Marcus was still alive! Esca became aware he had been holding his breath, and let it out explosively.

He propped Marcus up more comfortably, half against the side of the boat and half against Esca’s own leg, in the way that he hoped might make it easier for his friend to breathe, and took up the paddle again.

The little boat was nimble, and handled well. Even with one paddle held awkwardly, he was able to guide her well clear of the banks. Here on the wide expanse of the open river, in full view of other boats large and small, it seemed to Esca unlikely they would be attacked again. All the same, Esca did not wish to risk the little boat being carried back into the shore by some current.

The banks might be busy with people - herdsmen, fishermen, washerwomen, and not a few small children - but the thieves could be anywhere along the marshy Eastern bank, and with the thickets of great tall reeds and the clustered trunks of unfamiliar trees crowding down to the water there was more than enough cover for an ambush.

The Lady of Antinoöpolis

Aristous sighed. Across the pleasantly shaded inner courtyard where she was sitting with a copy of Metiochus and Parthenope in her hand, she could see her husband bustling away through the front door, accompanied by two tall slaves. He was unlikely to return before midnight, and once again, he had forgotten to tell her that he was going out.

Aristous waved a hand to Dionysia, her personal slave. “You had better go and tell the cook that Didymus will not be here for the meal,” she said, a little drearily. Not that dinner with Didymus was a great treat, really but it was so dull to dine alone while her father was away...

“No! Dionysia!” Aristous stopped the girl as she began to trot obediently towards the kitchens. “I have changed my mind. Go instead to... “ She thought for a moment : who would be most amusing, and also likely to be available for a last minute invitation?”

“Go to - let me see - Lydia, and to Calpurnia, and Heraclea, and take them this note, and wait for an answer. And on your way, go to the kitchen and tell them I will have guests for dinner.”

She was a good girl, Aristous thought, as Dionysia bobbed cheerfully away through the shadows that fell dark against the sunlit pavement, the sunlight glancing from her dark and shining hair like a little black olive - but she was amusingly ill-named; so cheerfully domestic and utterly ordinary! It was hard to imagine anyone more remote from the frenzied worship of the god of unmixed wine. A sensible girl, and a good mother to her round, solemn-eyed daughter who was already, at the age of three, learning to fetch and carry and help the other slaves with their tasks; such a nice child.

Aristous picked up her book again, and stared at it, but her eyes did not focus on the papyrus. She had read it before anyway.

There was no getting away from it: Didymus was never going to give her a child. She had feared it for years. He had never been particularly interested in girls, even when they were both teenagers, and certainly not in Aristous, who was just the same height as he was, with the same slight build and the same glossy black hair...

“Just take a lover, my dear!” said gossipy little Lydia that evening, her finely shaped curls turning just a little to frizz at the ends and her cheeks dyed a delicate pink after sipping a glass of the rich red wine “Everyone does it. Nobody really expects you to stay faithful to your own brother, for heaven’s sake! You don’t think he sleeps alone, do you?”

“I honestly do not know” Aristous admitted. “He is never here enough for me to tell. When we were younger, he preferred blondes - preferably boys... “

“So do I!” said Calpurnia, giggling from the other end of the couch.

“But of course we had to marry, to keep the estate together. Not that it will come to anything if there is no child to inherit it. But Didymus has always been one to follow his heart and damn the consequences.” Aristous sighed.

“The connubium law is just ridiculous!” said thin, intense Heraclea. She was married to her nephew and the relationship was not a happy one. He had given her a child, it was true, but he had given her one of the contagions of Venus along with it, and the baby had been born blind.

The other women nodded sympathetically. “Of course we cannot go marrying just anyone, but really... the Egyptians of the better sort are not so very much unlike ourselves. And would it do any real harm if some of us married Romans?”

“I would be quite happy not to have married anyone,” Aristous said mournfully. “But one must think ahead. I have to get a son somehow!”

Her friends nodded solemnly. Aristous had her wealthy father and her brother-husband to protect her, and had a position among the ladies of the new city of Antinoöpolis, but her father could not live forever, and her brother Didymus was not the healthiest of men. Without a son, she could lose everything.

“I know!” Lydia said, holding her hand up for emphasis. “You should make a charm! A charm to Serapis. I know a woman that did that - an Egyptian woman, she makes these utterly divine embroidered scarves, I must show you mine - and she was with child within three months.”

“Without a lover?” Calpurnia arched a delicate eyebrow, and took another sip, her dark eyes narrowed and mischievous.

“With a lover, without a lover, what does it matter? The point is - it worked!” Lydia lifted the fine green-glass goblet emphatically, and the dark wine slopped almost to the brim.

“I’ll do it!” Aristous exclaimed. “What have I got to lose?”

Lydia saluted her with the wine glass again, a little too enthusiastically this time, and a spatter of dark drops flew from her glass and made a bright splash on the striped native rug next to her couch, red as jewels, red as blood.

Aristous wrote carefully on the clean new sheet of papyrus, dipping her pen in the dark blood of the black cock she had paid to sacrifice.

"My lord Serapis, lord of life! I complain to you, do justice to me and Didymus, the son of Hieronimianus, concerning what I have done to him and what he has done to me. Namely, he does not make love with me, I having no power, I having no protector-son. I am unable to help myself, I am childless. There is no one who could complain concerning me before you. I complain to you Serapis, listen to my call! Look how he has treated me! Open the way for your messengers … Serapis, lord of the Nile, Isis, Horus the child, Osiris-Antinous do justice to me!"

“It’s not too.. too pushy is it?” she asked Lydia, her forehead furrowing with worry.

“Not at all!” said little Lydia, with her confident smile. “ You want him to take notice don’t you?”

They left the papyrus-charm at the main altar of the Serapeion, for the god to read at his leisure, and ducked out past the elegant statue of the new god Antinous wearing a headdress of fruits to show him in his aspect as Serapis, at the entrance on the West side. Outside the temple there were fruit stalls, draped with bright hangings to keep the sun off the wares: the last apples of the season, splashed red and green and piled high in precarious heaps, fat brown-purple figs, and heavy bags of huge red pomegranates, ready to be piled in decorated baskets as gifts to the god, or carried off home for more prosaic purposes.

They walked down to the pleasure-gardens along the river arm in arm, slim, dark Aristous and little yellow-haired, pink-cheeked Lydia, with Dionysia and Lydia’s body slave walking the correct few paces behind. The gardens of Antinoöpolis were as yet a little raw and unfinished, the trees not tall enough to shade the paths, but it was a pleasant place to walk for an hour, particularly now in November when the sun was not strong enough to make the walk uncomfortably warm.

Looking out over the wide river, they could see a few boats, here and there. The Nile was not as busy as it would be in Shemu, the Harvesting Season, when heavy grain-barges taking the great grain-harvest of Egypt down to the sea would fill the main channel and provide much to watch from the gardens, but there were still fishing boats and the occasional cargo-barge, heading down the river to Alexandria with the decks piled high with carefully-wrapped trade goods.

A small felucca, the sail rather oddly rigged, caught Aristous’ eye. It was the closest of the boats - in fact, it seemed to be coming aground on the bank near the garden. As she watched, two of the slave-gardeners rushed down to the muddy edge of the bank to wave the little boat off. But the felucca nosed in to the shore regardless. The gardeners began addressing felucca-owner in some excitement.

“I wonder what all that is about?” Aristous said idly to Lydia, waving a hand at the small boat.

“They are warning him that the gardens are not a good place to unload a smelly old pile of fish, I expect!” said Lydia, laughing.

Aristous went on watching as they strolled down to the shoreline, along a long flowerbed planted with bright green chamomile, which scented the air with a delicate smell like ripe apples.

“ No,” she said as they came closer. “ I think they don’t understand each other - oh! He is asking for my father...”

Lydia had been right that the gardeners were warning the boat off. They were shouting in Greek, but now they were closer, they could hear that the boatman, a little improbably, was replying to them in oddly-accented Latin.

“No! Listen to me!” the man from the felucca said, stepping out of the boat onto the muddy foreshore, and waving the gardeners’ objections away. He was barefoot, with strange patterns tattooed upon his arms, and he looked worn and tired, with blue marks under his eyes. His voice reminded Aristous of slaves from the distant North - Northern Gaul perhaps, or even Britannia. But the way he stood, confidently with his head up was proud, not the manner of a slave at all.

“This place is Antino-polis?” he asked the gardeners urgently, pronouncing the name oddly, as if it was unfamiliar. “I need to speak to the lord Claudius Hieronimianus, he that was Legate of the Sixth Legion!”

“What is this you are saying, about Claudius Hieronimianus?” Aristous stepped forward, also speaking in Latin. The gardeners turned and gave way to her in surprise.

“The Centurion here, he was asked to help the lord Hieronimianus, to bring him some of his ...property from Dolaucothi.” Aristous raised her eyebrows at the barbaric name and he corrected himself “That is, from Britannia. But we were robbed and now he is sick. ”

Looking down, Aristous could see another man, dark haired, still lying in the boat. He was very pale and still.

“Oh, the poor man!” she said, impulsively. “And he was working for my father, you say? We must get him some help! Dionysia! Run and ask Soranus to come to my father’s house right away.”

Dionysia looked confused. “Soranus the sweet-meat-seller?”

“No, you silly chicken! Soranus the physician! Over in the Deme Ktesios, near that little perfume-shop with the fig tree outside. Go!”

And she turned to the gardeners and began giving orders to bring up a donkey-cart, as Dionysia, her eyes wide with surprise, rushed off towards the Ktesios.

The gardeners helped the barbarian to load the half-conscious Roman onto the back of the little donkey-cart, and they set off: an odd little procession along the smoothly paved streets of Antinoöpolis.

First the bemused Egyptian gardener, leading the donkey, then Aristous and Lydia dressed elegantly in fine linen, delicate veils and their visiting-the-Serapeion shoes, walking with the barbarian with his blue arms and bare muddy feet beside the donkey-cart, in which the figure of the exhausted Roman was propped, drooping as he sat. Behind all followed Lydia’s slave carrying the basket of apples that Lydia had bought from a stall earlier, and quite clearly thinking that all this novelty was a welcome change to the usual routine.

As they walked on, Aristous looked down at little Lydia, and surprised a mischievous smile playing about the corner of her mouth. She caught Aristous’ eye, and glanced sideways at the man on the donkey cart, and winked, a broad, suggestive wink like a common market-woman, Aristous thought. It looked quite out of place on her delicate face.

Well, perhaps Lydia was right. Her father would no doubt ask her to help nurse the man, and perhaps, as he recovered - such things were not unknown. He was dark of hair, with pleasant enough features, though taller than her brother. A child from that stock would not look out of place among her family, Aristous thought. The Roman was a stranger from far away, with no family here in Egypt. It might be a practical, sensible choice, discreet.

“The sick man - he is a Centurion you said? And his name?” Aristous asked as they walked, wondering why the sick man was not dressed like a soldier.

“Retired Centurion,” the barbarian answered, almost curtly, his voice strained, and he did not turn his head as he watched the dark-haired man’s slack face. “Marcus Flavius Aquila; he has a farm in the downlands near Venta in Britannia. Though I don’t suppose you know Venta... I am named Esca mac Cunoval. I am his...” And he paused, searching for a word, but did not find it “Friend,” he ended, as if it was not quite the right word.

Then his head went up, and Aristous saw that pride in him again, something undefeated out of very far away.

“I am a Roman citizen,” he said, and there was a bravery to that but an uncertainty too, as if he did not quite expect to be believed.

“Then I am pleased to meet you, Esca mac Cunoval,” Aristous said carefully, trying not to stumble as she repeated the unfamiliar names. “I am Aristous Claudia Hieronimiana, and this is my friend Lydia Diogenia, and we are both of Antinoöpolis”.

The tattooed man, Esca mac Cunoval, turned, looking her full in the face for the first time with those tired blue-grey eyes, and something in them called to her, not to Aristous the sensible wife and dutiful daughter of Antinoöpolis, but to another Aristous, an Aristous she had buried so deep she had almost forgotten she was there. She could see surprise there in his face, behind the deep reserve, and hastily pulled her own face into a polite and decorous smile.

He nodded to her, solemnly, an acknowledgment between equals. It should have seemed strange and out of place, that she had introduced herself so formally to this wild-haired barbarian, blue with ink, and yet... it did not seem strange at all.

The Dancers of Antinoöpolis

By the time they reached the great stone palace of the man who had been Legate, Esca was utterly lost. Antinoöpolis might be a smaller town than Alexandria, where he and Marcus had stayed for several days before starting up the Nile, but it was bafflingly uniform; every turn and building the same. Everywhere you looked, smooth, new marble walls, statues painted in colours so bright they hurt the eye, the sharp lines of paving and the elaborate doors of great houses, every one a palace. Neat palm trees crowned with tufts of leaves thrust against the deep blue of the sky. At least the paving was smooth and easy on his bare feet.

It was well that he had had the luck to meet this woman of the Legate’s household, to guide him and Marcus to the Legate’s home. He feared that Lugh of the Shining Spear would not hear his prayer, here so very far from home, but perhaps the Roman Lady Fortuna who visits all places at least had heard, and had come to his aid.

The creaking donkey-cart stopped, and Esca must concentrate on getting Marcus upright. He seemed to be trying to stand, though most of his weight was supported by Esca on the one side and the gardener on the other. Marcus’s eyes were closed and his face more pale and strained than Esca had seen it for many years

A heavy door, a corridor of stone casting thick blue shadows that confused Esca’s sun-dazzled eyes, and then, in the midst of a bright courtyard, the Legate himself, his dark falcon-face as sharp as ever against the snowy white of his long Egyptian tunic, turning to them with a face full of concern and alarm.

“Esca mac Cunoval and Flavius Aquila! Whatever has happened here? No, that can wait!” He made a sharp gesture with a hand. “Get this man to a bed, or his uncle will never forgive me”.
The doctor, Soranus, was a small dry man like a lizard, with a lizard’s habit of being absolutely still, then suddenly cocking his head to one side. But he seemed to know his trade. He asked a few questions, brief but to the point, and Esca tried to explain what had happened, as far as he could remember. It was surprisingly difficult, and the little doctor interrupted him.

“Sit down before you fall down, man!”

Esca sat down, rather suddenly, on the floor next to the bed where Marcus had been laid. He found he was more tired than he had realised.

To Esca’s faint surprise, the lady Aristous and her father the Legate had followed them to the room where Marcus lay. The physician Soranus reported to them in a matter of fact tone.

“I do not know what the drug is, but they have both had a dose of it. This one is recovering well enough, but I think this man,” and he waved a hand at Marcus, “he has had a blow to the head as well, and together with the drug, it has set his humours all in disarray. The journey on the river at a time when he was already suffering from an excess of phlegm has done no good at all - I fear he has not reached the crisis yet.”

Esca looked at Marcus in sudden fear. His friend’s face was very grey, but as if he felt Esca’s gaze on him, he half-opened his eyes and managed a weak half-smile before he closed them again. The weight of fear that Esca had been carrying, almost without noticing it, since he had woken with his hands bound lifted a little.


Esca waited for Marcus to recover, to properly wake up, to speak, to be awake for more than a handful of heartbeats. He waited through the long quiet empty days in the elegant white-walled room with the tall window through which the sky showed brilliant blue, watching Marcus breathe, and occasionally helping him sip a little honey-water.

The lady Aristous came often to see how their guest was recovering - and she did not find waiting and watching easy, or so it seemed to Esca. Always she was doing something - checking the bedclothes, counting the beats of life in Marcus’s wrist, chatting with the little slave girl Dionysia. If a moment of quiet came, she carried this book or that book with her, fine black writing on thin crackling papyrus to divert her from a moment’s boredom.

“Are you not tired of waiting here?” she asked him, on the second day. “You must find it very dull.”

“No, he said. She was looking at him with those great dark eyes, waiting for him to say something more, so he elaborated. “I am used to waiting - on the hunting trail, there is a great deal of waiting, and watching. You cannot rush to take deer - not if you wish to take them carefully and without a long chase. You have to wait until they are ready to be taken.”

“They hunt them here on horseback, or on camels, with dogs and cheetahs,” Aristous informed him, smiling.

“Ah, we do that too, sometimes - for the joy of it - but it is not the quickest way to kill a deer if you want to eat him, or if he has taken a taste for your bean-crop,” Esca said, and then was a little embarrassed, for what did this Egyptian lady care for the problems of deer in the bean-crop?

But Aristous seemed interested “Do they do that? Take a taste to something, I mean - like my brother Didymus, who has a great taste for honeyed figs?”

“Deer are very like people, they take a taste for things sometimes. I have known them go through a field of fine pasture and jump a fence to get into the beans - the great-deer that is. The lesser deer cannot jump so far. The great-deer will break the fences too.

“So, you find their trails and wait for them before they come too near, where the wind sits right. Then you can take one with an arrow, or if you have got the wind right and you do not wish to take another the next day, you can use dogs to run them down and hold them.”

“Now, I must admit my ignorance!” said Aristous, though she seemed quite happy about it, Esca thought. “I thought deer were just deer.”

“Perhaps there are no great-deer or lesser deer in Egypt?” Esca said. “I do not know. And those other animals you spoke of, the cheetahs - what are those?”

Aristous’s smile showed her white teeth as she thought about how to describe a cheetah. “They are like great lean spotted cats - very fast, faster than the gazehounds, though they are very lazy. People hunt gazelle with them, I believe, and hares. Apion the gymnasiarch has a pair. My father prefers the gazehounds: he says they are less dangerous and more obedient. ”

“I can believe the obedience - I’ve known a few good hounds that can take a hare, and bring it to hand afterwards quite unhurt. My friend the Centurion’s wife - her name is Cottia - she has a fine white hound that could bring you an egg from the nest without breaking it... Do you often hunt hare?”

“Oh, well...” the lady Aristous said, and she looked down as if she felt she had begun the conversation on false pretences. “I do not hunt. Women do not hunt in Egypt.” There was a silence, and she seemed to think it awkward. She was fidgeting with the edge of her shawl, all embroidered with the great blue river-flowers of the Nile.

“How are those flowers named?” Esca asked, pointing, partly because he wanted to know, but mostly because of the look on her face.

“Oh, they are just lotus-flowers. They are supposed to honour the sun because they rise from the river in the morning and vanish in the evening,” Aristous said, rising to check Marcus’s pulse with a slender hand on his wrist once more.

She seemed satisfied, for she turned back to Marcus and said: “Tell me more about Britannia. Is it true as my father says, that it is a land of mists and chill winds, and the land is always green and the sky is always grey? Do all the women have hounds by their sides and go out hunting all day?”

“Women.. the women of Britannia are of many tribes. Cottia is of the people of the Iceni, and she likes to go out hunting, now and again. And the women of my own tribe... well. I would not wish to be the one to be telling them that they could not go hunting, if they took a wish to do so!”

Esca paused to imagine telling his mother she should not go hunting, and shook his head in alarm.

“My mother used to go hunting, sometimes. But mostly it is the men who do the hunting, in my tribe, and they bring the kill back for the Women’s Side.”

He paused again, considering. “Roman women live in Britannia as Roman women do everywhere, I think. And the sky is not always grey, although Marcus tells me that most Roman soldiers say that it is. The skies are always changing, that is the thing about the skies of Britannia. ”

Aristous considered the ever-changing skies of Britannia for a moment, then another thought distracted her. “This Cottia - what did she say when this Flavius Aquila had to come to Egypt? Why did my father tell him to come to Egypt, anyway?”

“He had sold some gold mines, I think - or perhaps a share of the gold mines, that he had from when he was Legate in Britannia? The mines are in Dolaucothi, in the Western mountains, I know that much of the matter. He wanted Marcus to bring the money to Egypt for him.

“ Your father did not speak to you about it?”

“Oh, he never talks to me about business.” Aristous answered, “This Cottia must have been sad that he had to go: it is such a long way! .”

“Sad? No,” said Esca, thinking of Cottia’s furious freckled face and her narrowed golden eyes, as Marcus had showed her the Legate’s letter, asking him to travel to Egypt. “Not really sad. Cottia is not very good at being sad. She was angry. Angry, and a little afraid perhaps. Marcus wanted me to stay with her in Britannia, to help her with the farm, but she would have none of that. She said she could manage the farm perfectly well herself.”

“On her own?” Aristous looked both shocked and intrigued.

“Well, there are people there - a shepherd, a cow-herd, a woman to help with the cheesemaking. It isn’t as if she had to do all the work herself. She just tells them what to do.

Anyway, she told him he must take me along to make sure he came back.”

Esca shrugged, a little rueful. “So here I am, with no money and not even any shoes, and how we shall get home to Britannia in time for the lambing, I do not know, but perhaps Marcus will think of something when he wakes up.”

“I did not realise that you had lost your shoes.” Aristous said. “I thought perhaps you did not wear any in Britannia.”

Esca contemplated his bare feet. “Your father is right that Britannia is a land of chill winds. Most of us like to wear shoes if we can.”

“We must find you some shoes!” Aristous said, with decision. “Dionysia! Go and ask Horion if my husband’s wardrobe can spare any shoes. ”

A movement from the narrow bed by the window caught Esca’s eye. Marcus had opened his eyes and was watching them as they spoke. He was smiling a little, and Esca thought a more normal colour had come back into his face.

“Marcus! How are you feeling?”

“I have the mother and father of all headaches,” Marcus said, and his voice croaked a little “And I am sick to my stomach, but mostly I am bewildered. What happened? Where are we? How did we get here?”

“If you are asking so many questions, you must be getting better!” Esca said, and his heart was light with relief. “We were drugged, or so I think.”

“Drugged? I remember that wine had a bitterness to it, when we stopped for the night - that is the last night I remember...”

“I woke up in some tiny two-donkey hole half-way out to the desert. They told me I got drunk and you sold me and went off to Antinoöpolis on your own.” Esca looked at Marcus. “I half-believed them for a heartbeat or two.”

Marcus reached out and touched his hand for a moment, in silence.

“What then? I have a knock to the head, it seems but I can remember nothing about how I got it?”

“Oh, they had put you in boat to feed to the crocodiles later. I just stole the boat.”

“You stole the boat? Just like that?” Marcus’s dark eyebrows went up.

“It seemed the only thing to do,” Esca explained.


The shoes that Dionysia brought up to the room where Marcus had been sleeping were of patterned leather. They had been very fine, although they had a stain where the leather had got wet and the dye had run. They fit Esca well: his feet were almost exactly the same size as Didymus’s.

“A thousand thank yous!” Esca said, wriggling his toes in satisfaction. “You are very kind: these are very good shoes.” He smiled at Aristous, who took a sip of watered wine and smiled back.

“They look like shoes for dancing at a festival,” Marcus observed in a quiet voice from the bed. He closed his eyes again and was exploring the sore place behind one ear with his hand, wincing.

Aristous was taken by the idea, “I had not thought of people dancing for the festivals of the gods, in Britannia. You have festivals? It is not too wet?”

Esca almost laughed out loud. “We do not live underwater, or up to our waists in mud, you know!” he teased her gently, as he might have teased Cottia. Somehow she seemed familiar, comfortable to talk to in just that way, even though he had met her such a short while before.

She laughed back “Show me a dance of Britannia then!”

“The dances I know are for the Men’s Side to do, or for the men and the women together... I do not know any dances that are just for one man - why would one make such a thing?”

“To honour the god!” Aristous set down her glass and stood “Sometimes it is good to make a dance that is just between the god and the dancer, like this...”

And she danced on the red tiled floor, turning, feet and hands moving swiftly, eyes cast down and almost closed, in silence: the lady Aristous, dancing for the god.

“ A good dance!” Esca said, when it was over, and Aristous stood still, a little flushed and not quite looking at him. “Let me show you one of the dances that the men and the women of the Brigantes dance together.”

And he took her hand.

They were half way through the dance, arm in arm, when the sound of someone approaching the room summoned Aristous back to herself. What was she thinking, to dance so closely with a blue-painted stranger from the Isle of Mists? It was most improper. Perhaps the wine had not been watered as well as it should have been.

“Oh! “ she said, her hand flying to her mouth. “Oh... you must excuse me!” and she broke away from the dance, leaving Esca standing confused in front of Marcus’s bed, as the sound of her father’s measured footsteps reached the doorway.


“So! I hoped you would be awake by now, young Aquila - or are you still the young Aquila? Surely you must have whelped some cubs of your own by now? And how is your uncle?”

Marcus was looking rather pale again, and Esca wondered whether to intervene, to explain that it was too soon for Marcus to be answering questions just yet. But under the Legate’s dark falcon-stare he did not quite dare to do so.

Marcus visibly braced himself, pulling himself onto one elbow. “I have a son, yes. And my uncle is well, and sends his regards. Sir, I am very sorry about the gold. They must have bribed the guards we hired in Alexandria.”

“One would have thought,” said the Legate reflectively, “That the men who managed to carry - that sacred thing - out of the Northern mists with half the tribes of Caledonia howling at their heels, would be able to transport a quantity of mere gold across the very civilised province of Egypt.”

Esca felt that this was most unfair, and began to bristle indignantly, but then he noticed that Marcus, on the contrary, seemed to have relaxed, and the faintest smile was playing at the corner of his mouth.

“Egypt seems to be a much more dangerous land for such innocents as ourselves,” he replied.

“I had heard that it was rife with thieves and magicians, but I had no idea the main trade routes along the Nile were so unsafe. Our poor Caledonian tribes cannot begin to compare. They would not bother to drug our wine: they would simply have knifed us in the back and dropped us in a loch. ”

The Legate laughed, a gruff explosion. “Rife with thieves indeed!” he said. “So they bribed the guards and drugged two Roman citizens - right on the Nile, under the noses of the magistrates! Our local ruffians are becoming far too bold. Something will have to be done. Tell me all of it now, every detail.”

Marcus held up an open hand, “There’s nothing for me to tell : I was in a dream from the moment they drugged me. Esca knows more... Esca?”

So prompted, Esca gave a brief account of his awakening and escape, describing, at the Legate’s prompting, each man and place in as much detail as he could.

“Not much to go on,” said the Legate, frowning. “Still, it is a start. I will make some enquiries. This nest of robbers cannot be far away, if you were able to reach Antinoöpolis by boat the next day.”

He turned swiftly to Esca, fixing him with that dark stare. “Could you find the place again? This creek and the village nearby? There are many creeks and canals along the Nile; could you be sure of finding the right one?”

“I... think so. Yes, I think I could find it again, if I saw it very soon. There are so many reeds and trees along the banks, they must change a great deal with the seasons. But I think if I saw it again now, I could recognise the place. But will those men still be there?”

“I do not know,” said the Legate, frowning. “But I am feeling very much inclined to find out.”


The Legate’s enquiries took a few days to be put into motion. Before they heard any more about them, Marcus was well enough to be able to walk down to sit with Esca in the smaller courtyard at the back of the house, under the shade of a fig tree still laden with heavy purple figs.

It was a quiet spot, away from the kitchens and the usual business of the household - which was just as well, as Marcus could see that Esca’s mind was troubled. Marcus was not clear why, at first, but as soon as he was confident they were away from listening ears, he began to tell Marcus of a conversation he had had with the lady Aristous.

“She says a god has sent me to her, to give her a son! She wishes me to come to her at night! How can I answer that?” Esca ran his fingers distractedly through his hair and rubbed his eyes.

“You could say ‘yes’,” Marcus suggested. Esca looked up and stared at him. “She is very beautiful,” Marcus explained, diffidently, “Many men would be flattered, I am sure.”

Esca looked at him, questioning “But not you - you have Cottia waiting at home, and that is enough.”

Marcus shrugged. “It is enough for me - but in any case, she has asked you, not me. Do you not like Aristous?”

“I... I like her well. She is kind, and as you say, she is very beautiful... But how can I take a woman to my hearth? I, who have no hearth...” Esca was pacing the white pavement in frustration. Marcus half lifted a hand to interrupt, but thought better of it. Esca answered the unspoken protest. “Yes, I have a place by yours, but I cannot offer her that. A great lady of Egypt... she has never known anything but luxury.”

Marcus looked at him, thoughtful under his dark eyebrows. Esca stood in the bright sunlight, his hair thrown back, his face troubled. And it came to Marcus that after all, one could not free a man in the manner that one might free a wolf. Not when the man had lost everything and had no-one to care for and nowhere else to go. Freeing a man was a slower thing than freeing a wolf, and even if the man chose to come back to you once, it still might not be forever.

“She has a husband - and this is not Britannia,” Marcus said, carefully. “Are you sure that she is looking for a hearth to go to?” Esca let out his breath suddenly, as if he had run a long race and slumped to sit on the bench next to his friend.

“I do not know,” he said.

Aristous buried her face in her hands. She was sitting on the blue velvet couch in Lydia’s small sitting room with the wall paintings of birds and dancers.

“The divine Antinous alone knows what came over me!” she said to Lydia, painfully. “I came right out and asked him! What was I thinking? Here I am, a grown married woman, and I blushed and started gabbling as if I was thirteen years old and didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘subtlety’! What must he be thinking of me?”

“What did he say?” asked Lydia, with great interest.

“I don’t know! That’s the worst part! My father and his friend, the retired centurion, came in and we had to pretend we were admiring the view!”

She laid her hands in her lap and looked at Lydia, who was trying to look serious and sympathetic, and not succeeding very well. “Oh, stop it!” Aristous said, half laughing at herself. “I know I am being foolish - but this is all so hard! I don’t know how people who do this sort of thing all the time manage it. I have no head for intrigues of the heart.”

“You may find it comes with practice,” Lydia said with a half-smile.

“In the novels of Alexandria, it all seems to happen so simply, but it is so hard to find the right words when you have to say them yourself,” Aristous said, disconsolate.

Lydia considered the image of Esca reading a romantic novel, delicately inscribed on a papyrus scroll. “I imagine that he has not read any novels and does not know how such things should proceed!” she smiled mischievously. “Were you really not tempted at all by the handsome Roman with the oh-so-slightly crooked leg, that you must go all out to capture the blue-skinned barbarian from the fringes of the world? You and your brother have more in common than one might have thought!”

“We began talking while we were waiting for the Roman to awaken,” Aristous explained. “And he seemed so gentle, and he taught me a dance that his people do in the North. And it seems he is a citizen too, despite appearances, so he must have something about him... But what on earth shall I do now? He must think me a complete idiot!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Lydia said, considering Aristous’ delicate, dark-eyed beauty. “ I doubt that very much. He is a man, and men are simple creatures. At least he knows what you want now.. Oh! What is it Heraclides?”

A small impatient person had burst into the room, fists balled, redfaced and wailing a tale of some terrible injustice. He was clutching a small wooden elephant, and his face was sticky. Lydia looked at Aristous over his head, as he ran into her arms. “ Are you sure you wish to have a son?” she enquired with light irony. “You could just buy mine... Yes Hera, I am sure that Phibis will be able to mend his trunk, don’t cry.”

A night of stars in Antinoöpolis, in the city built by an emperor to remember his lost love, a night between the moons, chill under a deep blue velvet sky.

Little Dionysia, the lady’s personal slave, huddled in a blanket, wrapping her hands around a leather cup of hot wine, guards the white arch of the doorway lest anyone should come. But the white marble palace of the legate is quiet; the slaves are sleeping, the guests are sleeping - all save one.

Claudius Hieronimianus himself in his chamber far away sleeps among silks and linens, and if he knows, if he has spied, with those dark all-seeing eyes, the signs that might tell him what his daughter has planned, then they do not keep him from his sleep.

Who knows where his son is, Didymus, that seeker after pleasure? He is out about his own business as usual, in the quarter by the river perhaps, or maybe not in the city at all. He is not in the palace, not there to notice that his half-forgotten sister-wife is not sleeping the sleep of duty before waking to another empty day.

And in the room, the shutters left fearlessly wide so the stars may look in, the daughter of the man who had been legate of a Legion, and the son of the lord of five hundred spears are not thinking of the past, or of the future any more, but only of the now. Together they find they have another language in common, beside the Latin that is not quite the mother tongue of either: a language without words.

Tags: eagle, history, romans, writing

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