Aria had just stoppered the secret vial
when she heard the blast of a cornu.
She stood motionless a few seconds,
heart beating with the memory
of such a trumpet bugle from long ago.
Her father had taken her on his shoulder
down the lane from their villa to the stone road
to watch a cohort march past towards the fort at Aballava.
Five hundred men in a cohort, her father had told her.
The soldiers clomped past in an unending line,
their helmets and spear tips shining in the sun,
the red of their tunics glimpsed through gaps in their armor,
sandaled feet dusty from their long trek.
Aria stashed the vial in her pouch
and took the cup of raspberry leaf tea,
pausing halfway to the stairs.
She could hear a tumult from beyond the villa walls.
Why would a troop come to Fabinius' dwelling?
The ones who came searching for the Horned Huntsman a few days earlier
had not announced themselves by trumpet.
She scurried up the steps to Rhian's room
where the ornatrix was working on her mistress' hair.
"I don't know," Aria answered when the lady asked about the bugle.
"It sounds like they're at the entryway.
Shall I go listen?" Aria patted her pouch when the ornatrix couldn't see,
and nodded, letting Rhian know she was ready
if Donatus the meddler put in an appearance.
"Yes, do. Fabinius said nothing to me
of any business with the legion,
and he usually boasts about such things."
Aria hurried down the stairs,
around the courtyard and into the corridor leading to the atrium.
Men's voices garbled from the reception room.
She eased as close as she dared. Keeping to the shadows,
she peered around the corner, and her eyes went wide.
Holding audience with Fabinius
was a tall figure in full military regalia.
Fabinius ordered a chair brought for the centurion,
and a stool for his second in command.
The centurion handed Fabinius a scroll.
"From the hand of His Excellency Clodius Albinus.
In short, the governor requires
all your seaworthy ships ready to sail
from the wharves at Londinium by the Ides of June.
I am to make inspection and
carry back the tally along with your pledge of loyalty."
The officer took his seat.
Fabinius broke the seal, unrolled the scroll and scanned the message.
"Ah," he said. "Yes. I am loyal, of course.
All the citizens of Britannia stand behind
his bid for the purple."
"He requires your pledge in writing."
Fabinius chewed on his lip,
then moved to his desk and snapped his fingers at the clerk,
who provided quill and ink and a sheet of papyrus.
"No, no, find one of highest quality," the master snapped.
"This is the future emperor I write to, idiot."
While the clerk rummaged through a chest,
Fabinius took up a drafting tablet
and jabbed characters with his stylus in the wax,
composing his response.
The centurion sat like a stone monument,
motionless, gaze fixed on his host.
The accompanying officer held a similar pose,
but Aria could see his glance taking in the frescoes on the walls.
She pulled back out of sight.
Where were Donatus and his Greek physician?
The obstetrix should be with them as well.
Ushered outside, most likely,
preempted by this messenger from the governor.
Or would they take this opportunity
to attend to the patient upstairs?
She hurried back to Rhian's room,
glad to find only the ornatrix in attendance,
still pinning up her mistress' hair.
Aria relayed what she'd heard.
"All our merchant vessels?" Rhian asked.
"For the whole shipping season?
We'll make no profit the entire year!
Though they say everyone must sacrifice
to bring about the good of the Empire.
And Albinus will reward us handsomely,
I suppose, once he gains the throne."
She grimaced, leaned back
and, scrunching her eyes, waved the ornatrix away.
"I don't care if I look fit to attend the theatre, woman.
Let me be."
Aria stepped close and took her hand.
"What is it?"
"An early contraction.
Not to worry. I had one in the night, and nothing since.
That's how it goes late in pregnancy, my dear.
Go back and listen.
I'll send Potitia if I need you."
Aria's stomach churned as she made her way back to her listening post.
A contraction. She had no experience with childbirth.
For this, she could not stand in for her mother.
She must get word to Eleri, but how?
She stood against the corridor wall,
finding it hard to concentrate on the men's discussion
about draft and supplies and cargo capacity and prevailing winds.
The clerk's quill scratched over the papyrus.
Fabinius read aloud his pledge of support to Clodius Albinus,
and the pen scritched again as he signed his name.
Aria smelled beeswax, a candle ready to drip,
ready to seal the document.
The men talked briefly about the rumors
of insurrection by the Brigantes and Caledonians and Picts,
but the centurion scoffed.
"Even if they had weapons, which they don't,
they wouldn't dare rise up and risk the retribution
the legions deal out to such treachery."
"Three days of surprise raids," the secondary officer put in,
"and we found no evidence of the forging of arms.
You can rest easy.
Pax Romana will reign even in our absence."
BRIGAND'S BLADE is a time-slip novel featuring two stories
both set in Cumbria but interwoven across a span of centuries.
Two Roman soldiers dumped Gallus onto the floor
before the centurion's desk.
"Sine licentia absens," said the taller of the two. Without leave, absent.
"Twenty lashes then the pit," Quintus said,
voice as flat as his beer, and turned back to his stack of wax tablets
and the never-ending paperwork.
Never-ending waxwork, strictly speaking.
"I wasn't absent without leave!" Gallus protested.
"I was lost!"
Quintus raised one bristling brow and impaled the young man with a glance.
"How convenient," he drawled.
"The legion marches to confront the savage,
howling Carpi just east of the mountains,
and you manage to lose yourself."
One soldier yanked Gallus to his feet and a step away.
Quintus waved a hand. "Let him speak. I could use a short diversion.
Two sentences, worm. If you make it good
I might find the tenderness of heart
to cut the sentence to ten lashes."
Gallus gulped. The centurion was not known for a tender heart.
"A fortnight ago my sergeant sent a hunting party into the Hercynian Forest,
and I got separated while taking a piss.
Wandered through the trackless heights,
fleeing from monstrous elk and bull and aurochs and, and--"
He gulped again. "--and bos cervi figura."
The centurion's lip curled. "Ox in the shape of a stag?
Thirty lashes, if you think me such a fool."
"Not a fable at all, sir! Unicornuus!"
Gallus cried as the two soldiers hauled him toward the door.
"If you don't believe me, look in my bedroll.
I brought a horn as proof!"
He shrugged the roll from his back,
a difficult feat when both elbows are gripped by armed men.
One of the guards kicked the blankets apart,
and out fell a reindeer antler.
Quintus narrowed his eyes, then crooked a finger.
The other guard snatched up the antler
and brought it to his superior.
Quintus turned the bony thing end over end.
"High in the Carpathians," Gallus said.
"Troops of the creatures, galloping along in file as if racing to battle.
Even the cows among them bore horns!
Branched like tree limbs, as you can see."
"Unicorn?" the centurion asked, voice ripe with scorn.
"The first I saw had only one horn.
That put the fear in me, I tell you. Perhaps others had two.
I didn't want a closer look!" He shuddered.
Quintus scowled at the disheveled young man.
"You're not familiar with woods or wild, are you, worm?"
Gallus shook his head in jerks.
"Just a farm boy, sir."
"Well yes, at night, under the towering trees
as dense as any labyrinth and the wind screaming like tortured souls.
I'm so glad to be back to civilization, sir,
whatever punishment that entails!"
Quintus caught a guard's eye.
"Five lashes and three days mucking stables."
Five. Only five. Gallus blew out a breath of relief--
a brief respite before renewed terror.
Quintus glared again. "Then, worm, you will lead me back to the Hercynian Forest
where we will pursue the fabulous unicorn. Begone."
Keelin ran back to the hazel thicket where Maccus still crouched.
She wriggled through the saplings, settled at his side.
"Don't take such risks," Maccus said.
"If you're caught, there's nothing I can do to save you."
"I wasn't caught then, was I?" Keelin said with a toss of her hair.
She tucked her drab hunting skirts out of the way and smoothed a patch of dirt between them.
"Too many letters to remember them all,
but Granny says the top part is all bragging anyway.
The last ones are what count."
She sketched in the dirt, "M-P-XVI."
Maccus snorted. "I don't read those Roman scratches.
Means nothing to me."
"Granny showed me another milestone once.
She said the humpback 'M' stands for 'miles.'
I don't remember what the 'P' means, but the 'XVI' tells how many miles to Coria.
We just have to add them together."
"Numbers and adding I can do," Maccus said.
"X plus V plus I sums up to--"
"Hush!" Keelin hissed.
She pointed west along the stone road.
The tramp of feet sounded.
Soon there appeared a gold-trimmed, beribboned, red silk standard
lurching up and down with the stride of the carrier who now came into sight.
A Roman soldier. One of many.
Keelin and Maccus drew lots to see who would make first report.
Maccus got the short stick. "Now you get to do the adding," he told her.
"Don't lose count!"
"Who, me? I've kept track of the flocks since my seventh summer.
Hurry now. I'll be right on your heels if you dawdle."
Maccus crept away from their vantage point,
keeping low and silent in the wildwoods,
carrying word to the leaders of the rebellion.
Keelin counted beneath her breath. "Yan, tyan, tethera, methera, bimp."
Each time she reached giggot, a score,
she dropped a pebble to her lap and started over the count.
A commander and other officers rode past, mounted on stallions.
More foot soldiers followed.
Several wagons came along in the rear.
Keelin's eyes widened as the pile of pebbles grew.
Soon she had more than a score cradled in her lap.
That many soldiers, they must have emptied Vindolanda fort!
When the last Roman had vanished into the east and the dust had settled,
she poured the pebbles into her belt pouch,
rose, and set off to carry her report.
In lands far to the south, power-hungry men strove for an emperor's throne.
And now the governor of Britannia, Clodius Albinus, meant to join the fray--
backed by all the legions stationed here in the Empire's far north.
He thought it safe to leave the land of the Brits under a skeleton crew.
He thought he had these barbarians cowed, subdued,
thoroughly bound to the yoke of Rome.
How wrong he was. Here in the shadow of Hadrian's Wall,
the fire of freedom still burned hot in British hearts.
COUNTING MILES, COUNTING SHEEP
Sixteen Roman miles west of Corbridge (Coria) and a mile south of Hadrian's Wall,
one last milestone still stands not far from the Vindolanda fortress.
Its inscription has been worn off after centuries of cattle
rubbing their itchy hides on the convenient stone pillar.
Did this milestone stand in AD 196?
That's when Governor Clodius Albinus,
seeking emperor's laurels, left the land undefended --
a foolish move, for the Brigante tribe took that opportunity to rise in rebellion.
Other still-legible milestones unearthed in the area
date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
M-P-XVI stands for Milia Passuum 10+5+1,
a format of inscription common to other Roman milestones
and likely enough to have once adorned the last stone standing.
In my historical tale, "MILIA XVI,"
Keelin used the shepherds' tally common in Borrowdale,
deep in the heart of the mountains of the Lake District --
a rugged district that for many ages harbored
the fierce and independent Brigante tribe.