The Hard Choice
One of the rare swift heavy rains of the Egyptian winter had swept over the city and passed away to the South, in the early morning, and the pavements and the long fronds of the palms still shone wet in the early light of the sun as Aristous left the house to visit her friend Heraclea.
Along the broad street she went, to the shrine that marked the start of the deme Bithynieus, through the city still cool and quiet in the morning light. She could hear the sounds of men working down by the river-docks, and the faint rumble from the deme Isidios where the stonemasons were already hard at work, but the streets that she walked, with little Dionysia trotting behind her were almost empty. Aristous loved the new city at this time of year, when the floods were over and the skies were blue, and the heat of the summer was forgotten.
Then, suddenly, hands, hands grabbing her arms from behind, pushing her forward - and as she fell, she saw the pomegranates in the basket that Dionysia had been carrying as a gift for Heraclea and her family, bouncing down the hill, splitting and spilling red juice into the pale dust of the road - and then a soft thick cloth came down over her eyes and she could see nothing more.
Claudius Hieronimianus stood in the atrium, terribly still. He was in full armour with his old military sword by his side. The only visible sign of his inner unquiet was that, from time to time, his hand curled around the hilt as if he longed to use it.
“Taken from within the very walls of the city!” he said, with a calm controlled ferocity that was much more frightening, Esca thought, than shouting would have been. “This is too much. I will find them, and when I have, I will have them crucified and their remains burned, and their land sown with salt.... even their memory will be forgotten.”
“Words are cheap,” Esca answered him impatiently, “Why are we waiting here? We should have been off after them as soon as the slave-girl told us what had happened.”
“Because, my fine barbarian, we cannot just run wildly into the desert. We need to know which way they are going, and we need the men to support us. If we run after them as we are, they will lose us in the hills, or if we do catch up with them, they will kill us. I will have all my resources hit them once, in a way that will make sure we will not need to hit them again.”
“Ah, Didymus! Word from the stonemasons?”
Aristous’s brother-husband looked very like her, even to the dark lines of kohl around his eyes, although he was older, and there were tired lines under his eyes too. “Yes, father. They will be at the gate shortly. And I have word from the docks also: they will have the ships you ordered ready.”
“That is well. Zoilus tells me the mounted veterans are already at the Eastern landgate. Esca, we will need you to guide the ships - Marcus, I suggest you join us. Didymus?”
“ I will go with the stonemasons and the veterans.” Didymus said, though he did not look happy about it.
“Very well.” said the Legate “Remind Zoilus that he must wait for my signal. I don’t want this turning into a bloodbath. Not till we have your sister safe.”
Didymus gave a brief salute that was almost, although not quite a military salute, and turned and left. The Legate stood, looking after him for a moment. “I hope he keeps his nerve” he said, almost to himself.
“Surely he has no great risks to run on the ride through the hills?” Marcus asked.
“ No. No, it should be no great risk. But Didymus...” The Legate looked away for a moment and seemed, for once, to be unsure what to say. “Just between us, Marcus, Didymus has perhaps too much imagination. It is too easy for him to imagine himself breaking, I think, and he is not as... strong as he could be, not as strong in heart - if you can imagine that.”
“I can imagine it” Marcus replied, quietly. “A soldier’s life - it is not the right thing for every man.”
“ No. And it comes hard to those who believe they should wish for that life, but could not follow it...” The Legate shook his head, as if to dislodge an awkward thought that he would prefer not to dwell on. “Time to go” he said. Then he turned back to Esca, who was standing a little awkwardly near the door, hand on a borrowed sword-hilt.
“And the message I sent to Zoilus stands for you also, Esca. I know Marcus will follow orders: can I rely on you to do the same?” Esca nodded, and the Legate looked hard at him for a moment before he turned to the door. Esca followed, wondering how much of Aristous’ private affairs were really secret from her father.
Back along the Nile, past tall red banks topped with reeds or grazing oxen, past a few suspiciously floating logs which might have been crocodiles, or perhaps they were only logs.
They were travelling much faster than Esca, alone in the small boat with the unconscious Marcus, had been able to move: three large trading-ships of the river, filled not only with their usual crew, but with many of the men of the docks, and Claudius Hieronimianus’s personal staff, who were mostly ex-soldiers with greying hair and a grim look about them. It was clear that although Hieronimianus might no longer hold the formal title of Legate, his authority to command the men of Antinoöpolis was considerable.
With a full crew at the oars and the current of the Nile behind them, it did not take long to arrive at the stretch of river where the Nile broadened into a vast wide sweep. From the ships, skirting the Eastern bank of the great river, the Western bank was a distant blur. Esca searched the nearer bank anxiously, looking for a tree with a certain bend to the trunk, with blue lotuses growing near it. The sun was falling, away West of the Nile, dying the river golden, and the crooked tree stood out stark and clear against the evening sky.
It took a little while for Esca to find the way up to the village, with Marcus and the Legate a step behind him all the way - and when they got there, the place was empty. Not even the two donkeys or the goats had been left behind. Only around the dovecote was there movement : the pigeons still strutted and cooed there as if all was as normal. Esca cast around looking for signs of where the people of the small place might have gone, but it was hard to tell anything clearly from the dusty well-trodden ground.
“They have fled into the hills,” the Legate said, savagely. “We were too slow. But we shall see. There is no water up there, and they cannot have carried much with them. Let them eat dust for a day or so, and they may soon be in a more amenable mood.”
“Aristous also may have to eat dust,” Esca said to Marcus, quietly.
“Yes,” said Marcus with a worried frown, “and yet, there is some hope. I do not think the robbers could have reached this place with Aristous so quickly. They may still be on their way - and the other force, the mounted men with Didymus behind them. We must hope so.”
He turned to the Legate. “Can we send scouts? One or two men to follow them cautiously, to spy out the land? Esca and I would go.”
Hieronimianus looked at him, and a smile quirked the side of his mouth. “I am sure you would, my Aquila,” he said, “but this is not your land, and it is most certainly not Esca’s either...” Esca made a movement of protest, quickly stilled. “But I can see that Esca is eager to go. Very well. Esca can go with Horion here, he has been hunting the red hills all his life. Marcus, if you can recall your signal training, you can get a smoke signal set up to guide in the riders who are coming overland with Didymus.”
It was a strange, arid place, the red hillcountry of Egypt. The green of the riverland was lost behind them and soon Esca and Horion, a small quiet man with a clever gap-toothed face were moving through a desolate landscape of rocks and sand, broken only by a bare scattering of dry bushes. Esca wondered what game could possibly be found in such a place. They moved on, making no more sound than a small dry wind among the stones.
The sun was setting behind them, making the shadows sharp and dark, as they came up the bed of a dry gully and looked out to see an impossible stronghold. The place ahead of them had thick rough walls of mudbrick and fences of the bitter thornbushes of the desert. The evening sun caught on the smoke of many cooking-fires behind the great gate. It did not look like a Roman fort. “Where is that?” he hissed to Horion, under his breath, as they crouched behind a great rock, trying to be inconspicuous.
Horion’s face showed his shock. “I do not know,” he said. “It was not here last time I came this way, five years ago. It is not supposed to be here!”
“No wonder there were no people left in the village,” Esca said grimly.
“This is a hard choice,” the Legate said to Marcus. “We have a good force here, but they are most of them no soldiers - and those that have been out with the Legions, like myself, are not young. And we have no ladders, no rams or towers or ballista to take such a stronghold...”
“You could call in the Eagles,” Marcus replied. They were sitting by the fire they had built against the sudden chill of the desert night. The red light played on the mud walls of the deserted village and above them the first stars were pricking the dark sky. The Legate had posted sentries all along the ridge, watching for attack or for spies from the unknown fortress in the hills so they were not expecting immediate attack, but still, everyone was on edge.
“I could call in the Eagles. But it could take weeks to get the men and equipment here, and more weeks to break the siege, and all the while we do not know what is happening to Aristous. She is not used to hardship, my beautiful jewel of a daughter...” We could send for help from Theodosiopolis, from Hermopolis Magna and Oxyrhynchus...” It was not the first time that this discussion had occurred. Claudius Hieronimianus was turning the problem over and over in his mind.
“Oxyrhynchus has no siege weapons either,” Zoilus, the weathered-looking man with one eye, who had led the veterans who had ridden out from Antinoöpolis, pointed out. He had a pair of dice in his hand, and as they waited he rolled them time and again, betting against himself. It reminded Marcus of other men who had rolled the dice against themselves, long ago when his leg was sound and a soldier’s life was all he wanted. Things were different now.
“Yes, and - whatever the equipment situation, I cannot wish my daughter trapped in the middle of a siege! In any case, we do not know how much water they may have in there, nor how many men... yes, I know, I know.” Claudius Hieronimianus sighed. “I can hardly believe this has happened here, under my very nose! I thought I would hear word before things got to this stage. But my best informer has gone missing. Clearly something has gone very wrong. I am to blame that my own daughter is suffering as a result.”
“What did you expect?” Esca asked. Marcus looked at his friend with a little concern at the note in his voice. “You live in a city of palaces surrounded by guards. You do not speak to them! You do not live among them! They live in,” he waved a hand at the shabby houses and the donkeyshed, “places like this. They pay the taxes, you spend them.”
“Ah, and is that how things seem to you?” Claudius Hieronimianus said to Esca, reflectively. The anger he had shown back in the city had gone, leaving only careful thought. “I am Egyptian, as well as Greek by descent you know. These are my people too... I can number both Egyptian traders and Friends of the Kings - the Ptolemy kings - among my ancestors, as well as Roman citizens. But it is true, it is long since I, or anyone from the city, rode out this way.”
“If they are your people they should be able to look you in the face and speak their grievances,” Esca said, “So my father told me.”
“Perhaps your father had the right of it.... One should speak to the living as well as remembering the dead.” The Legate looked into the fire, thoughtfully, and the light from the flames caught his sharp profile and reflected in his dark eyes. Far away in the dark desert, a jackal wailed like a lost soul.
Later, lying wrapped in blankets against the chill of the desert night, as the fire burned to red embers, Marcus gazed at the night sky, sleepless and troubled. He could tell that Esca was not asleep either: Esca’s breathing always sounded different when he slept.
It caught at him then, that perhaps Esca would not be coming home with him, Esca who was so utterly familiar, and had been by his side for so long, might choose to stay here in Egypt. That would be a true freedom, and he could not deny the choice if Esca made it, but still the idea shook him to the core. But he could not say that to Esca.
“I wonder how things are going on at home?” he said quietly, instead.
“Rain and mud: is winter in Britannia ever anything else?” Esca replied. “Strange to think they have finished the last of the harvest now and the cows will be down from the hills for the winter. Soon they will be keeping the wolf-watch on the folds, where here they are half way though the sowing and the fields are full of the new grain sprouting, and the river is full of flowers. Soon it will be time for the old year to go down into the dark. I wonder how they can tell that he is gone, here where it is always warm? It is a strange land. ”
“Do you wish to stay here, with the lady Aristous?” Marcus asked, staring straight up into the dark and then he could have cursed himself, for he had not meant to ask the question so plainly, and now it was asked it could not be unsaid.
Esca half sat up and looked at him. Marcus could not see his expression in the darkness, but the dying firelight still cast enough of a glow to let him see the shape of his friend’s face, the curve of an eyebrow, the outline of his chin.
“Stay here - in Egypt? Without you - without Cottia? She would never forgive me if you fell overboard on the way home!” And then the laughter died out of Esca’s voice, and it became serious “Unless - unless you would rather have the farm to yourself, now you have a family?”
“No!” said Marcus swiftly, and knew that he would have to tell Esca the whole of it now. He had never been any good at hiding anything from Esca. “It was only that I was afraid you would wish to stay, and that we would lose you,” he admitted.
The profile of Esca’s lips quirked to a half-smile in the darkness. “Not even if the lotus flowers all year round,” he said softly. “ I would miss the springtime and the wind on the hilltops and the green plover crying. And you, Marcus, you fool.” And Marcus knew that he had not lost Esca after all, that being free to leave, he was also free to stay.
“I hope Cottia and Flavius are well,” Marcus said with a sigh, quietly into the dark.
The morning rose glorious in the east, dyeing the dry red land with a deeper rose, a new dawn that brought no new counsel. Claudius Hieronimianus had sent a galloper to Alexandria, to Trajan’s good old Second Legion, but at fastest, it would be two weeks before they could receive help from that quarter.
“We have to attack.” Esca said. “It is how the game is played - surely even in these far lands, this is how the game goes? They take your finest mare, or the chieftain’s best bull or if they dare, the daughter of the clan, and then, swiftly and with cunning you come with your warriors, and take them back and more beside?
“That is not how the game is played in Egypt.” the Legate said. “Egypt is a Roman province, and subject to the rule of law. It is not some tribal fiefdom. We do things more subtly here.”
“And yet,” Marcus said “it may be that a surprise raid has much to be said for it, if only because they will know that is how you will think of it. They may not expect an attack?”
“It is true” said Hieronimianus, “I think they would expect me to wait for the Eagles - and in the meanwhile, perhaps offer a bribe. I expect there will be someone coming here down from the stronghold in the hills to delicately enquire after that bribe today, if we do not show signs of sending one.”
“All the more reason to strike now!” Esca said, impatiently. He turned to Didymus “Are you with me?” he asked the man, “She is your wife!” Didymus looked away and would not meet his eyes. He looked pale and sick. The Legate interrupted them before Esca could say any more. “If I gave you your wish, Esca, what would you do?”
“Marcus has worked it all out,” Esca said.
“Well, it was at least as much Esca’s idea as mine,” Marcus said. “But I have worked out a plan. He squatted to show the Legate the rough sketch-map drawn in the dust.
When Tithoïs came down the stony pathway, the sentries seized him as he passed the great lion-coloured bluff of stone. He had been expecting them, and was relieved and a little grateful that they did not beat him, but simply grabbed him and dragged him down into the little village that had been his home. Taking a message to the father of the stolen woman was not a safe or pleasant task, but since Tithoïs had been tricked by the prisoner into letting him steal the felucca, he had been given all the worst jobs.
This latest message-carrying task, Tithoïs thought was actually better than clearing up after the camels, which is what he had spent the last few days doing. For one thing, when a Roman spat in your face, it was nothing like as unpleasant as being spat at by a camel.
The sentries, pulled him in front of a stern, dark-faced man with an air of command. Tithoïs wondered, as a hand pulled him off balance, why the men were bothering to push him, when all he wanted was to speak to the man as quickly and easily as might be. The message he carried was for the leader of the Romans, and this man would quite clearly have been the leader even if he had been stark naked. His fine clothes and elegant shoes simply confirmed it.
Far out in the desert, Esca, with Horion and a small group of assorted ship-workers and retired soldiers were walking carefully, trying to stick to rocky ground, to prevent a tell-tale cloud of dust arising around them.
They had ridden several miles to the South before moving out into the desert, and were now approaching on foot from the empty East. In theory, at least, nobody should be watching in this direction. All eyes would be on the force that had come up from the Nile. And so far at least, the land was quiet. Once a long-eared jackal slunk from behind a broken pillar, decorated with carvings that seemed unimaginably ancient, and as they moved quietly through the dry red hills, larks sang in the air high above, reminding Esca of the larks of the chalk downland of Britannia.
But there were no people to be seen, as the sun rose to noon. Horion did not seem discomforted by the winter sun of Egypt, but Esca grew uncomfortably hot, and the sweat ran down his shoulders, and itched with the dust on the back of his neck.
Like Helen out of Sparta
Aristous too was dusty and itchy - although, she thought, she was lucky, really, to be suffering nothing worse. Water was short in the bandit stronghold, and there was none to spare for washing with - certainly none provided for a hostage.
She had feared terrible things during the long forced ride, queasy and uncomfortable on camel-back, unable to see or speak - but when at last she was allowed to see what was about her, when they arrived at the strange mudbrick fortress in the hills, she had the distinct impression that they did not quite know what to do with her.
She was bundled into a small room, furnished sparely with a single rug, with a small jug of water to drink and a chickpea pattie, and left to consider her situation, while two men squatted outside the doorway playing endless games of senet on a battered old board. One of the pieces had got lost and had been replaced by a dark pebble with clicked onto the board with a distinctly different note to the other wooden pieces. And there she was left to wait, and wait, and wait. Outside she could hear men and women talking, children playing, and the grunting sound of aggrieved camels not far away.
It was not until the next day that someone came to speak to her. A tall man with a hard dark face came sweeping unannounced into the small room. He stood and fingered his luxuriant black moustache, as he looked at her, unspeaking, and behind him was a small man who somehow looked as if he smiled a great deal, with a thick dark beard and a little white skull-cap. Aristous made herself smile and greet them pleasantly. She could feel her hands shaking a little as she spoke, but she was able to keep her voice steady, and that was something to be proud of anyway.
“Who are you?” the tall man said, cutting through her words. He spoke in good Greek but coloured with a soft mid-Nile accent that made him sound like a field-hand. “Who are you, that you are pursued by the whole city, with troops and ships, like Helen out of Sparta?”
Her heart lifted in hope: help was coming!
“I am the daughter of Claudius Hieronimianus, who was a legate and now is a magistrate of Antinoöpolis,” she replied, and now it was easier to speak without a wobble in her voice.. She looked hard at the man, noticing now something - surely that was a faint uncertainty in his expression? “And may I ask who you are, my most unexpected host?”
“Why should I tell you that?” he answered, and yes, there was a hint of bluster there, she was sure of it, and underneath it, that uncertainty again.
“Why, because I am pursued, as you say, like Helen out of Sparta, and it would be well for my Paris to introduce himself before the forces of Antinoöpolis are joined by those of Oxyrhynchus, and of other cities and in time by the Legions also, and before they reduce these walls to a dust that will blow away on the wind and be forgotten, and you along with them.”
“Brave words for a woman who stands alone among enemies!” the man said and this time, she was sure there was a note of respect there. “I am Ammonias, son of Anteis, of the village of Teïs - not that I suppose for a moment that you know where Teïs is, for all that our taxes pay for your fine houses down there in Antinoöpolis. You steal all from us, but if we steal back just a little, just a fraction of what is taken from us in tax on every enterprise... ” He broke off, looking away in annoyance. It was clear this was a grievance he had rehearsed many times.
Aristous pressed on “What do you do here, Ammonias of Teïs? For you must know that this one little fortress cannot stand against the power of the Eagles.”
“I had not intended it to do so.” the tall man answered her curtly. “Nobody was supposed to know that we were here - not yet, not until the time had come. But some foolish ones saw your fine clothes and could not resist carrying you off - you and all that you bring after you.” His face was tense, and in the face of his emnity she made herself nod and look encouraging.
“And now you face a small army on your doorstep, and soon a larger one will follow. I understand, O Ammonias of Teïs. You find yourself facing the storm. Will you tell me more? For so far as I can see, your only hope is if I can intercede with my father for you. If it comes to blows, you will surely be captured and all who follow you, and the penalty for rebellion is death.”
The tall man, Ammonias, looked at her, and there, yes, there was uncertainty and also, Aristous thought, there might be the beginnings of hope. But the small man still did not speak, and he looked at her shrewdly over his dark beard.
“Tell me, why is this fortress here? It is new-built, is it not?” she ask them. It was a guess, as Aristous had no idea where she was - but the place, cheaply built as it was, felt new. The mudbrick walls were sharp-edged, and the room still smelled a little of the oven that had baked them hard.
“It is a new stronghold to...” Ammonias began to tell her, but the small man with the dark beard made a little noise in his throat just then, and caught his eye, and he stopped and turned away. They left the room together, leaving Aristous to try to think how she could have phrased the question more subtly, and to wait, and think.
It must, Aristous thought, have been past noon when she heard the shouting in the distance. It was impossible to make out words, but she could hear the guards by the door shuffling as they stood and moved a little away. Then abruptly someone darted into the room, pushing the curtain aside hastily.
“Esca! How...?” Aristous’ dark eyes were wide and she cut off her own words before her voice could betray them, even before Esca raised a finger to his lips. He was looking past her to the doorway, where the curtain was still swaying a little. A naked sword was in his hand. There was a long moment, but no sound came from outside.
Esca gestured towards the small window. “Can you climb a rope?” he asked her, in a whisper. Aristous would have given almost anything to be able to say ‘Yes’ to that question, but alas, she knew she could not hope to do such a thing. She shook her head, embarrassed.
“But they will not know you could not do so?” Esca asked, indicating with a turn of a hand the people who could now be heard moving outside the little mud-walled room. Aristous shook her head again, and looked enquiring, but Esca did not speak again. He took her shoulder instead, silently, and guided her to a spot beside the door. Then he moved to the window and waited, quiet as a hunter.
Aristous looked at him, waiting by the window, patient and still. It was a great relief that help had come, but it was strange, too, that it was the man from so far away who had come to her aid. Esca himself was a jarring strange presence, a source of hope more than confidence. Back in Antinoöpolis, that strangeness had been welcome, a pleasant diversion from the dull round of everyday life, but now - not everything was unfamiliar, dangerous, and Esca’s sudden presence less comforting than she might have hoped.
Just for a moment she wished very much that her father could have come for her instead.
And then the waiting was over. A roar of voices, suddenly in the distance, the sound of angry camels grumbling to themselves, and a smell of smoke, and Esca was moving, throwing the rope through the window and an armful of clothes to follow them, even though the window was really too small to fit a person through.
“Shout!” he said to her, quiet and urgent. She looked at him in incomprehension for a moment. “Shout! Call for help!” The words made more sense the second time, and she managed a distressed cry - sounding both foolish and undignified in her own ears.
Rushing feet, a whirl of activity as someone came in through the doorway, and an answering whirl of movement from Esca. And then, somehow, Esca had her hand and they were running, away across the courtyard, down the narrow passage that led to the place where the outlaws kept their camels. The sharp dung scent of the animals filled her nose as Esca bundled her into a corner as a group of men ran past, shouting. And then they were at the camelthorn barrier, which had been pushed back, and they were running, running into the brilliant late afternoon light that seared her eyes, across open sand and rough gravel, as a great roll of white smoke blew across the desert from a fire that Aristous could not see, hiding their escape.
Esca’s hand was hard around her own, pulling her on, steadying her as she stumbled on a stone, and at last, as they ran into the shelter of a great tawny boulder, letting her stop for a moment to catch her breath. The smoke had caught in her throat, and she coughed, leaning with one hand against the coarse sun-warmed rock to steady herself. Without a word, he put his left arm around her, and she leaned into him, suddenly weak with relief.
Tithoïs had delivered the message he had been tasked to carry, a demand for payment - so much money to be left at such a place, so many camels to carry it, or you will never see the woman again. He could not escape the feeling that the expensively-dressed Roman, the magistrate of Antinoöpolis, was not really listening. This was, in some ways a relief; Tithoïs had no illusions that the message was likely to be a welcome one, and he had expected a beating before he was allowed to go back to the robber stronghold in the hills.
But instead - it was almost like a play, he thought, like it had been when the travelling players had come up the river and had stopped to give a performance in his village, standing in the main square and declaiming their words with exaggerated motions and an eye to the the audience. It was not quite real. He let his words trail off, and nobody prompted him to go on speaking. It was as if all of them were waiting, and he could see many among them openly looking now, up the trail towards the hidden stronghold. He found his own head turning that way too.
And then there was billowing white smoke rising distantly into the sky, as if someone had put wet reeds onto a fire and made a great smother, and then there were people hurrying down the path, and the important man turned away from him and set off at a great pace to greet them. Tithoïs became aware that his mouth was hanging open, and shut it with a snap. Nobody was looking at him any more: they were all rushing towards the newcomers, and surely, surely that was the woman who had been stolen in the midst of them, who was holding out her hands to greet the important man?
Tithoïs came to a decision. The pathway down to the Nile was invitingly open and nobody seemed to be guarding it any more.
He remembered, very clearly, that his cousin’s aunt near Oxyrhynchus had said, if he had a mind to it, that there would be room for him in their pottery business. And he really, really did not want to go back up the pathway to resume life as a robber. There didn’t seem to be much money in it anyway, and it most certainly was not a peaceful life. He shuffled sideways in an apologetic ‘don’t notice me’ way until he was out of sight, and when he was around the corner and heading for the Nile, he ran.
Aristous had greeted her father, and her brother-husband, and now she was sitting on a hastily-volunteered blanket in the open space in the middle of the empty village while they discussed what to do next. Her father seemed surprised that she had anything to say about this. But Aristous had been abducted, and had faced her captors without fear, and she did not feel quite the same about anything any more - even doing what her father expected of her.
“I do not think he is operating alone, Father.” she said, with a quiet determination that he should listen. “I think you should consider the wider implications of storming the place.”
Her father looked at her - at least he was still listening - and she pressed on quickly, before he could say something unhelpful or sarcastic.
“There was a little man who came to me with the man I spoke of - this Ammonias was the one who spoke, but he turned to the little man for counsel. I think the little man was a Jew, out of Palestine. He dressed that way, and there was something about him - an air of authority.”
“Hmmm. If our local bandits have made an alliance with the Jewish insurrectionists, that might explain why they have suddenly become so bold” her father said, and she realised with delight that he had taken her words seriously.
“Yes!” she said. “But I think that the alliance might not be a stable one, not yet. He - Ammonias - he told me that it was too soon, that they had not planned to let anyone know that they had built a fortress here. And he told me that they were worried about the taxes - I think that is why they have turned to the Jews for help. He believes he and his people have been over-taxed.”
“He may have a point, too,” her father answered, “The tax-collectors here to the South of Antinoöpolis are not the most honest of men.”
“I can believe it. Father, perhaps if you offered to investigate his grievances, it might not be too late? He seemed a proud man, I think perhaps if you spoke to him, and promised to look into the matter, you could win him back, away from this planned insurrection?”
“You think we could avoid bringing in the Eagles and burning the place to the ground?” her father nodded, thoughtful, and to her delight, she could see pride in his eyes - the kind of pride he had always shown to the young men who worked for him, but rarely, so rarely for her.
“Yes!” she said. “But it must be done personally. He is proud, this Ammonias, and more educated than one might think for a peasant from the villages. He spoke to me of Helen and of Troy.”
“He did?” An unexpected smile crossed her father’s face. “They have deep roots, the people of these villages. Did you know my great grandmother came from Teis?”
A last farewell?
The sun was setting over the great port-city of Alexandria, and it glowed on the West side of the great Pharos lighthouse, and made a glittering path west towards the sunset across the wide bay, studded with ships of all nations. The Legate’s house in Alexandria was set on a hillside and had a fine view out to sea. Aristous and Esca were sitting on the balustraded terrace and talking. They were alone, for Marcus had tactfully discovered an old Army friend in Alexandria who must be visited before he sailed again for Britannia, and the Legate and his son had already said their farewells, and were far away back in Antinoöpolis. It was perhaps a little inappropriate for a married lady and a citizen to sit and talk together so freely, but the terrace was private enough, and the household slaves discreet.
They spoke a little, lightly, of the view and of the wine that Aristous had ordered to be served, a fine Falernian from the Legate’s Alexandrian cellar. Marcus would take ship tomorrow, back across the sea to Britannia far away, and Esca would go with him.
“Will you remember me, in Britannia?” Aristous asked, at last, after all possible discussion of the view had been exhausted.
“ Of course” Esca said, very seriously. “When the sun rises and I see the golden path across the sea, tracing the path to the the South and the East, I shall look towards Egypt and I shall remember you... In Britannia, we always look to the West, to the warriors road into the sunset. But now I shall look East to the rising sun, and I shall think of you.”
“But you will never come back?”
“Maybe, one day I shall come back - for a little while - or maybe not. It is a very long way, from the chalk slopes of the Downlands to the wide mouth of the Nile.”
Aristous managed a smile, although it was not easy. “A long march, a long march, And twenty years in store, When I left my girl at Clusium, Beside the threshing-floor, “ she quoted. “That’s what the soldiers sing, isn’t it? I have heard them on the roads, sometimes, singing of all the girls they loved and lost.”
Esca turned and looked her full in the face with those strange blue eyes, catching the colour of the sky high overhead. “Only the one girl for me” he said, and his voice was a little hoarse suddenly. “Only the one girl, and she will be in Egypt, not in Clusium, and nowhere near a threshing floor.”
“And yet, you will not stay with me,” Aristous said, and now she could not smile at all, and it was hard, so hard, not to let tears come to her eyes.
“And you, you will not come with me?” Esca answered, and Aristous could hear the tears, ragged at the back of his voice too.
“I cannot. I cannot. My father needs me, Didymus needs me, not that he will ever admit it - but he does. My friends need me. This is my home.”
“ And my home is in the far west of the world and I cannot leave it either” Esca said, and now he was weeping, quite easily and freely, as a man weeps who is not ashamed.
Aristous took his hand in both of hers.
“When the sun sets, just as it is now, and there are clouds massing on the horizon, all blushed with rose, as they are just now - I shall look a little to the North of West - and I shall remember you, Esca,” she said.
“If there is a child,” he said “If there is a child, and it is a son, do you send him to me in Britannia, once he is grown, if he will go - if only for a little while. I am the last of the line of Cunoval, and I have no son to come after me. If I cannot come back to Egypt, will you send him to me?”
“I will,” said Aristous.
Many Years Later
The new Legate of the Sixth Legion, stationed in Eburacum in the north of Britannia, had an Egyptian look about his face, despite his grey-grizzled hair, but his eyes were a startling blue. He spoke the local language surprisingly well for a man who had built most of his career in the distant East of the Empire.
“Wherever did you learn to speak the British tongue so well?” his tribune ventured to ask one evening, at dinner at the splendid new officers’ mess at Eburacum. The foundation-stone of the temple to Serapis that the Legate had ordered to be built had just been laid, and he had invited all his officers to dinner to celebrate.
“Oh, I have relatives here,” the new Legate said, smiling a little at the compliment. “Of course, my grandfather served as the Legate here, way back when Hadrian was emperor. You did not know? Well, it was very a long while ago, of course. But I understand he was well thought of at the time. And then, my mother actually moved here after her husband died. I visited her here several times. So this posting is almost like coming home.”
“Well, my lord Claudius Hieronymianus, I am sure you will make a great success of it” said the tribune fulsomely.
The city of Antinoöpolis was founded by the Emperor Hadrian, after the somewhat-mysterious death of his lover Antinous in the Nile (possibly in some sort of sacrificial way that may have been linked to Osiris and return from the dead - Antinous was made a god by Hadrian afterwards). So in this story, Antinoöpolis is a very new city, and the people that lived there were both rich and were given special privileges, in tax respects and in others.
Brother-sister marriages did happen and were pretty common in Egypt during the second century, possibly because the connubium laws meant that actually finding someone to marry without disastrous property side-effects was quite difficult. Claudius Hieronimianus being Greek does raise questions about whether someone who is legally Greek could also be a legate, but I think there is a bit of a problem with Hieronimianus anyway, in that that he's canonically supposed to be Egyptian, which isn’t quite right either.
There are not supposed to be any senatorial-grade Roman families in Egypt at this time, so he's already a bit of an oddity as a Legate. I've gone for deciding that he’s an equestrian, and *looks* Egyptian because he is parly descended from Egyptian forebears from before the connubium legislation that prohibited marriage between Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.)
Look at this modern shot of ancient Antinoöpolis from above! Look at the circus! The river would have been closer to the city and the area much greener due to irrigation. The boat Esca stole was not really a true Felucca as it had no rudder, only a steering-oar: http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/9sn005.html but I wanted Tithois to use a specific word for the vessel, where Esca just used ‘boat’.
There really was a legate called Claudius Hieronymianus (with a Y) who had a temple built to the Egyptian god Serapis, some time after 193AD. He is, of course, far too late in date to be the Claudius Hieronimianus of Eagle of the Ninth, but I have felt for some time that the duplicated name required explanation.
Most of the names and some of the situations in this story have been taken from the Oxyrhynchus papyruses, which are basically a huge pile of original sources that Egyptians slung out over the course of about 6 centuries, that happened to end up being dumped in an area high enough above the Nile inundations that they never rotted away. More, lncluding links to versions of some of the published translations of papyruses to read online - here : Wikipedia on Oxyrhynchus (links at the end).
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 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.
I wanted Marcus to notice that giving Esca his freedom when he has no money and all his family are dead - it's not exactly a situation where Esca can easily just leave and set up on his own. I feel the book is a bit weak on that aspect.