The year was fading into autumn, and even here on the sheltered sloping little streets that wound up the hill to the great wooden-roofed church Hagia Sophia, a little cold wind coming up from the Golden Horn made the fallen leaves dance and shuffle in the gutters. Felix made a meaningful gesture to the pot-boy, who slouched unenthusiastically out with the broom to deal with them. Soon it would be time to bring in the carpets and the embroidered chairs, to pack away the awning for the winter, but as yet there was still a pale blue sky above the last of the yellowing leaves of the trees around the shrine of St Euphemia, and customers for the little inn who wished to enjoy the last of the sunlight.
A little group of soldiers, imperial officers by their kit, had been warming themselves at the elegant iron brazier that Felix kept well stoked with charcoal to keep off the chill. They finished their hot spiced wine and went off noisily, laughing together.
Felix shuffled over to collect the empty cups. If anyone had been looking, they would have seen a man still young, dark skinned and curly haired, with a snub nose and a face that looked a little crooked because of the wide scar that had torn across the right side of his forehead and down to the corner of one eye. Despite the scar, though, there was something about the lines just starting at the corners of his eyes that suggested this was a man who smiled often, and saw much in the world to laugh at. He dragged one leg a little as he moved, and wore a worn red woollen military cloak over his tunic, against the cold.
But nobody was looking. There were scarred and limping men enough and to spare, in Constantinople that year.
There was only one customer left, an older man,with grey-grizzled hair and clever, tired-looking eyes who had been sitting with the group of young officers that had left. He sat staring meditatively across the street. Something else was there too, a great shining brooch, lying carelessly on the table as if dropped by one of the men who had left.
“Sir, is this yours?” Felix asked politely, indicating the brooch as he began to gather up the empty cups.
“What? Oh, yes.” the man said, as if startled out of very distant thought. His Latin was heavily accented with Thracian Greek. “I bet on Calliopas, and the Greens won most convincingly. Although I fear young Rufius has exaggerated the value of my winnings,” he flicked the brooch dismissively with one hand. “This thing looks to be mostly copper. Unusual pattern though.”
“I think...” said Felix, looking closely at the shining thing “May I look?” Receiving a nod of permission he scooped up the brooch and turned it over with a careful hand. “My lord, this brooch is not copper. It is red gold from Britain - see the maker’s mark, there on the back? The gold of Britain is redder than most. And the design is from Britain too, see the dragonshape within the central oval here? This must have been made for one of the princes of the Cymru, I think. There should be a cabochon of glass to fit over it, but I fear it has been lost.” He set it down again, very gently. “It is a long way from home.”
The soldier looked at him, a long look over a nose like a beak, considering. “ And from your voice, I think that you too are a long way from home” he said “Take a cup of wine with me now , and tell me now how it is that you recognise this lost golden thing.” It should seem strange, for an officer of the Imperial guard to invite an innkeeper to his table. But there was something about this quiet man that called out to Felix with an odd familiarity, and somehow the invitation did not seem strange at all just then.
The inn was quiet, and would not be busy again until the evening. Felix fetched two fresh cups of wine, and sat down gratefully among a pile of Helena’s prized crimson cushions.
“I grew up in Glevum,” Felix said, taking a slow sip of his wine. “That is - or was - I do not know if it is still there any more - a town away to the west of the province - a prosperous town in those days it was, still. My family traded in brooches, buckles, necklaces - all such precious things: so it is that I recognised your brooch so clearly. It is made from the gold that is mined- or, at least, that they used to mine - in the mountains west of my home.”
“So? Then how does a jewel-trader from the Isle of Mists come to Constantinople at the heart of the world? The trade routes are not what they were when the Empire was young,” the older man asked him curiously.
Felix smiled “Oh, I was too wild for the family business, I fear. When it came to my future - I being the younger son, with a taste for adventure - my family found the money to buy me a commission. They were so proud when I rode away to join the Eagles, my father, my two sisters, my brother. I like to remember them like that, happy and full of pride. So it was that I served as a Decurion of Horse with the last auxiliary garrisons of the Eagles in Britain.”
“Truly?” the man with the tired eyes looked surprised. “I thought that all troops were withdrawn from Britain long ago? Did they not call back the last of the Eagles across the seas, in the days when Rome was first sacked?”
“Not all of us,” Felix replied, shaking his head. “They called back the old line of battle Legions. They left us the Auxiliaries. Thirty-eight years since the Legions left it was, when I became a new-minted Decurion of Horse at Rutupaie - and all that time we Auxiliaries held back the Saxon tide. I think now that Rome had forgotten we were there at all for most of that time, but when I served there,” Felis laughed quietly, “we most certainly thought of ourselves as defending the frontier, the last of the Eagles of Britain. We were as proud of ourselves as a cock on his dunghill.
“We had the Picts coming down on us from the North, and the Saxons coming in from the East, but we held them off - more or less. Towards the end, there was a king, Vortigern he was called. I don’t suppose word of him ever reached so far. He bought off some of the Saxons, paid them to hold the Picts off to the North while we fought off their kinsfolk raiding in the South. For a while it seemed that with their help we could keep Rome alive in Britain - even if Rome had forgotten us.
“Risky, that kind of arrangement” said the older man seriously. “The Empire has always made enemies into soldiers to hold the frontiers, but it’s a dangerous thing at best, when one must pay a barbarian to hold other barbarians by the throat. It seems to me that when that happens, too often the man who pays ends up with both of them at his own throat.”
Felix shook his head in shared disapproval. “That was the way of it in Britain. At the time, it seemed to make a kind of sense. I believed in Vortigern, I believed the Saxon alliance could work... But I think now that you are right: calling in Hengist and his Saxons to our aid was calling the wolves in over the threshold without knowing it.
“Anyway, it was when I had been a Decurion two years and I thought I was beginning to know the job - Oh, but I was very young! It was then that Rome remembered us at last. We received orders on a boat from Gesoriacum - that’s on the North coast of Gaul, most of the traders used to come that way. They ordered us out of Britain, to come to the defence of Rome. It was so strange! I had lived all my life in Britain, and my family before me, since my great grandfather’s time. It was like... like being summoned to defend a living god. We knew Rome existed, but I never expected to see her myself!
“I sent my people a message to say I was going. I hope it reached them -there was no time for goodbyes. Old Titus Fulvius Callistus - that was our commander - he gave the order to prepare to sail as soon as he read the order. We left Britain just six days later. ”
The grizzled man gave a low whistle. “Just like that? All of you?”
“Well - most of us. Not all. Some were on leave and could not be recalled in time - it must have been strange for them, later, riding back to the fortress and finding it empty and silent. And there were a few who vanished on the last day and could not be found.
Felix paused, staring into his cup. His dark face was unusually troubled. “I had a friend, Aquila, he was called - a Decurion of Horse, like me. Born and bred in Britain, like me. We used to go hunting together, and I would have sworn we were as close as brothers, but - when the trumpets sounded for the last time, he could not be found, and we could not miss the tide to wait for him. I still wonder, sometimes, what happened to him...
“He never said a word to me about staying behind. I’ve often wondered, since, if he had spoken, whether I would have gone with him. But I didn’t. I kept faith with the Eagles, and sailed East out of the sunset with the rest, and let Britain go down into the dark behind me.”
Felix’s eyes were wide, and he did not see the cups or the brazier or the quiet paved Constantinople street outside any more, but that last wild red sunset, feathered with clouds like silk, and the dark mass of Rutupaie Light looming against it.
“We knew it was the end by then of course. Without the Eagles to hold the balance, there was no hope of holding the Saxons in check - not Vortigern’s tame Sea Wolves, nor their wild brethren either. They landed on the shore we sailed from the very next spring, I heard later, and before long, they were settled all along the coasts and moving West.”
Felix broke off, closing his eyes for a moment.
“I am sorry to hear it,” said the older man. “A common enough tale in these sad days, if not one often heard from such distant shores - but a bitter one none the less. And after that, you were ordered to Rome?”
“Not then - not yet. We had years in Gaul under General Aëtius before ever we saw Rome - fighting the Huns. I and my cohort were there at Maurica - you heard of Maurica? Our great victory against the Huns, when the General and old Theodoric the Visigoth broke Attila’s ranks with an army of Auxiliaries, wild Visigoths and fat Gauls, without a single legion to help us? Surely word of that must have come back even to Constantinople?”
“Yes,” the older man said gently. “Yes, we heard word of the victory at Maurica, on the Catalaunian Plains, even here in the city at the heart of the world. They were dancing here in the streets when the word came up from the Harbour of Julian that Attila was defeated at last.”
“I have not thought of Maurica in years,” Felix said, wonderingly. “What happened in Rome, later - that is what people mostly ask about now. It was a hard-won fight, was Maurica - so many dead, so many wounded beyond fighting again. I lost most of my cohort, and I thought it was all over - time to crawl back to Britain and find out what the Saxons had left of it, perhaps. But Aëtius scraped us up, those of us that were left, and organised us into new units, and somehow he persuaded us that we were still soldiers of Rome...
“He was a wonder, that Flavius Aëtius. A little wrinkled man he was, with the foulest tongue for cursing that I ever heard - but he had a way of speaking that could make you feel like you were part of a legend. I’d have followed him anywhere - we all would have. If there was one man who could have held together the Western Empire, he was the man. When I heard he was dead, I could have howled like a dog.”
The older man shook his head. “A sad thanks indeed, to die at the hands of his own Emperor. I always thought it a pity that Aëtius was the general, and Valentinian his lord. Aëtius would have made the better Emperor of the West.”
Felix nodded “The saying in Italy was that the Emperor Valentinian had cut off his left hand with his right. I knew - even I knew by then that it was all falling apart, but by then I was in Italy and it was far too late to turn back.
“And then at last we came to Rome,” said Felix, and laughed, shortly, like a man trying to make light of something that still hurt. “We fought our way all the way to Rome, expecting to die nobly under her blazing walls. And then, when we got there... They opened the gates, did you know that? The Emperor killed our general and then Maximus the traitor killed the Emperor.
“Then the citizens opened the gates to Geiseric and his Vandals, and the Pope gave a blessing, saying ‘please be our honored guests’ - as if talking to them politely would make men who swaggered into Rome with their hands on their swords, already decked out in the plunder of half of Gaul, into civilised men! And we, the last of the Eagles of Rome, we were ordered to stand by and watch. A blind child could have seen what was coming.
“They looted the churches and took what they wished from the houses. The serious fighting started when they began to carry off citizens as slaves, but it was far too late for a proper defence by then. Then they began setting fires to drive the people out.
“ I thought Maurica was a battle, but it was nothing to Rome. Shouts echoing from the walls, terrified horses slipping on the cobbles, men flinging stones from the houses at anyone that happened to be below, friend and foe alike, while the streets filled with smoke and screaming people running. I thought I knew what war was. But if Maurica was a battle - I don’t know what Rome was. Butchery. Nightmare.”
Felix’s hand went to his face, to the corner of his eye, and then traced the scar upward to the hairline “Something hit me, here, some time on the fifth day. We’d just chased off a gang of Vandals who had been trying to seize people who had taken refuge in a church as slaves, and I don’t remember anything after that. I woke up in the cellar of a house somewhere behind the Baths of Diocletian, but that was days later; I was knocked out for a good long while.
“I never found out what happened to the rest of my unit. There was still a handful of us who had come from Britain left, when last I saw them, but I could find nobody who knew what happened to them, afterwards.
“Helena told me when I woke that she had been hiding near, and had seen me fall from my horse. As soon as it was quiet, she and some of her people rushed out and pulled me from the gutter. I was very lucky.”
“You had a narrow escape there,” the older man put in “So many were seized from Rome and carried off to Africa, even the empress herself and her daughters. Good luck goes with you indeed!”
Felix smiled “You could say I carry my luck with me - my name is Felix, you see! I was lucky that Helena saved me, and doubly lucky that the Vandals didn’t come back for all of us. And then, luck was with me a third time, for instead of turfing me out onto the street as soon as I could stand, Helena asked me to stay with her. As a guard to protect the household, she said, though with a leg that a horse had kicked, and being weak and wobbly as a newborn kitten from the bump on the head besides, I am quite sure that really she was protecting me. She has the heart of a lion, does Helena. ”
“The heart of a lion - and an inn in Constantinople, perhaps?” the older man asked, smiling back at Felix.
“Yes, indeed. Her family used to be traders - like mine. We talk sometimes of sending a ship into the West, to sell spices and olives and buy gold and silver in Britain, and make our fortunes. But with the sea-routes so unreliable now and Vandal pirates roosting like a brood of magpies on Sicily - well as she says, property is safer than trade, and Constantinople is safer than Rome.”
“A sad day, when not just Britain, but even Rome herself is too dangerous for trade,” the older man said. He was looking down at the golden thing on the table, turning it with one finger, so that the embossed dragon caught the light.
“A sad day,” Felix agreed. “Perhaps, some day if the emperor can bring peace back to the West...”
“Yes,” the older man agreed. “Perhaps some day. Well, I have enjoyed your tale, Felix, and thank you for your advice on the brooch. My name is Marcellus, Leo Marcellus. It is a pleasure to meet a fellow-officer of the Eagles from the other end of the Empire, if in a somewhat unexpected way! If ever you feel the urge to come back to the Eagles - ”
Felix shook his head, half regretful, half-laughing. “I do not think this leg will ever be sound enough for the Eagles again,” he said “And all my friends who served with me are gone and forgotten.”
“Perhaps,” said Marcellus. “Perhaps. But the Eagles are not what they were once, and there are many tasks to do for a man of your experience that would not need a leg that can march the regulation twenty miles a day - and many men who would be pleased to call you comrade. If you change your mind, ask at the Scholae Palatinae for the Comes Marcellus.”
The title is inspired by Gibbon’s The history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire :
“As early as the time of Cicero and Varro it was the opinion of the Roman augurs that the twelve vultures which Romulus had seen, represented the twelve centuries assigned for the fatal period of his city. This prophecy, disregarded perhaps in the season of health and prosperity, inspired the people with gloomy apprehensions when the twelfth century, clouded with disgrace and misfortune, was almost elapsed; and even posterity must acknowledge with some surprise that the arbitrary interpretation of an accidental or fabulous circumstance has been seriously verified in the downfall of the Western empire.”
(The Roman Anno Urbis Conditae calendar started in the year we count as 753BC. Therefore, if I have this right - our 453AD begins their 12th Century)
It seems to be a bit debatable exactly how destructive the Vandals’ sack of Rome was. I’ve not stuck rigidly to Gibbon’s version, but have handwaved a bit. But it seems to be fact that they took lots of slaves and burned at least one church, and for my purposes, I wanted it to be a fairly dramatic event.
Leo Marcellus, to whom Felix tells his story, is at this date an obscure tribune, serving the Emperor Marcian. But in 457, when Marcian dies, not long after this story, he will be plucked unexpectedly from obscurity by Aspar, the commander of the army. He will become Leo I, Leo the Thracian, and in 468 he will send a great expedition to overthrow Vandal control of the Mediterranean, unsuccessfully. I am not sure if it is likely that a Comes of the imperial army would be hanging around a pub chatting to the owner, but Leo is supposed to be of fairly lowly origins. Maybe he feels at home in a pub (which is, actually, a pretty grand establishment).
The brooch with the missing glass cabuchon is of the right period for Britain at that time (I think) although I didn’t find details of any examples that are red gold with a dragon. But maybe the Saxons stole all the good gold British jewellery of that time and melted it down to make their own stuff?
The setting of The Lantern Bearers has sometimes been given as from 410AD, presumably because of the description of Roman troops leaving Britain for the last time. But the two dateable events mentioned are later:
1) appeal to Aetius in Gaul (447)
2) Second fall of Rome (455)
A date around 450 fits better with the later works in the same series, and makes sense if you assume that Felix’s Auxiliaries were a remnant force left behind after the Legions pulled out in 410.
I’m not actually sure if Helena and Felix are married, having an affair, or are simply client and patron. One day, I may find out.
Or on AO3