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Britannia: Part III
Richard Denham, M J Trow
Aquileia, at the mouth of the Natiso
The torches of the Emperor's camp guttered in the warm wind from the south, the light like a thousand eyes watching from the far lagoons. Theodosius had forbidden festivities. The wine and the women and the song would come later. For now, there were to be solemnities, Christian services for the dead. In the dim light of his tent, the candles glowed tall and straight and he looked at the face on the painted glass he carried, smiling at the baby who smiled back at him. Little Honorius, his youngest, his favourite, his best. Difficult to believe the little one with his dimples and his curls would be an emperor one day.
But all that lay in the future, if God willed it. For tonight, Theodosius had more pressing business. He heard the barked command of the guard outside and the tent-flap flew back. Quintus Phillipus stood there, fist thumping on his mail shirt and the arm extended.
'Salve, Imperator.' The man was formal, as always and his dark eyes burned brighter than usual. Theodosius nodded in salutation and waited. 'You have something for me?' he asked.
Phillipus clapped his hands once and stood aside. A soldier marched in, his boots still stained with the blood of the men he had killed that day. In his hands he held a platter, draped with a cloth. Theodosius recognized the scarlet at once. It was a vexillum of the old II Augusta, the banner of a legion that guarded Britannia, that outpost of empire Theodosius had all but forgotten about.
The emperor nodded and Phillipus whisked the flag away. There, sitting on the platter like the centre-piece of some mad cannibal's feast, was the head of Magnus Maximus, the usurper; the man who had dared declare himself first Caesar and then Augustus. His dark hair lay matted with blood and his teeth glinted through the parted lips. Theodosius crossed the tent and stooped a little to look into the eyes. Even now, now that the heart had stopped and the brain was still, even now with the dust of death brushed across the eyeball, even now the arrogant bastard stared back at him.
'Do you think this is over, Theodosius?' the Emperor heard the dead man say, his voice burning into his soul so that his heart jumped and his pulse raced. 'Do you think this will ever be over?' Theodosius snapped upright, hoping that no one else in the tent could hear the scream inside him.
'Doesn't look so big now, does he?' Phillipus sniggered.
His emperor spun to face him. 'He looks bigger hacked to pieces than you and me with our bodies intact,' he murmured. Phillipus stood to attention. It had been a long day, a long campaign. Everyone was a little on edge. Theodosius suddenly needed air and he swept out into the night.
Ahead the lagoons shimmered under a fitful moon, the clouds lurid silver as they passed, saluting the victorious emperor, Theodosius, whom men would now call the great. Around him, the camp was settling to sleep, medici still patching and stitching, slaves still digging the pits for the dead. Theodosius saw the standards of his legions clustered on a hill, the eagles silhouettes against the imperial purple of the sky. The whinnying of horses took his gaze across to the cavalry lines where those strange, fierce little men called the Huns were lying between their horses' legs. The ponies were still saddled and bridled, as was the Hunnish custom, those peculiar iron hooks they called stirrups dangling from them. Theodosius found himself smiling. What a ridiculous idea; it would never catch on.
Then another horse caught his eye; Magnus Maximus' grey and across its bloodied shoulders, the headless corpse of its master, ripped and riddled with arrows, the arms dangling to one side, the feet to the other.
'Phillipus,' the emperor raised his voice a little, as the grey snorted and shifted the load across its back.
'Sire.' The man was at his emperor's side in an instant.
'At first light,' Theodosius said, 'We will bury Magnus Maximus according to his custom. They say he became a Christian towards the end, but we all know that's nonsense. He was a soldier. We'll use the rights of Mithras, one last time.' He closed to the grey, stroking the animal's warm muzzle and patting its cheek under the bridle's gilt fittings. 'Sic semper tyrannis,' he murmured. Then he straightened and shouted so that all men could hear.
'The head of the usurper, Magnus Maximus, will be taken to Britannia, where he began this doomed mission to unseat Gratian and to unseat me. It will be carried throughout that God-forsaken province as a reminder to all that there is but one Emperor of Rome.'
Then he lowered his voice and murmured to Phillipus, 'You will take it, Quintus. You will speak for me. Do you want the Huns as an escort?'
Phillipus was horrified, especially by the smirk on his emperor's face.
'A joke, Quintus,' Theodosius chuckled. 'I would wish all kinds of hell on the people of Britannia, but I draw the line at the Huns. And when you come back, let it be with news of how loyal Britannia is to me.' He felt the little boy's portrait still in his hand. 'And to mine.'
Chrysanthos the vicarius had spies everywhere. That was why he was vicarius and how he kept watch on the provinces at the arse-end of Theodosius' empire called Britannia. News had reached him in mid-Septembris that a ship had left Belgica flying the emperor's colours and butting into the German Sea. It had landed at Regulbium where the Baetasian cavalry watched it drop anchor and the oars slide to the upright.
The tribune of the Baetesians had sent a galloper north-west to the marshes south of the Thamesis and the word was brought to the vicarius.
'Quintus Phillipus,' Chrysanthos nodded to the man, still swathed in his travelling cloak and already finding the climate of Britannia far too cold for him.
'You are well informed, sir,' Phillipus stood to attention. 'I assume you are the vicarius Britanniarum?'
'Chrysanthos,' the man smiled and held out his hand, 'and feel free to assume what you like.'
Phillipus shook it.
'How was your crossing?'
'Appalling.' Phillipus wasn't smiling. He barely knew how. Nothing about this place appealed to him. The German Sea had been a bitch, the ship's fare revolting. He had brought a hundred men of the Heruli with him, crammed on those slippery decks, hard riders who had campaigned with Theodosius and would now have to buy new horses in Britannia. But Quintus Phillipus was not a military man, for all he wore the uniform of the Schola Palatinae, the emperor's bodyguard. That was for the look of the thing; a man with a sword at his hip tended to command more respect. He wasn't even sure about the quality of the wine Chrysanthos offered him now, but he took it anyway.
'Have you eaten?' the vicarius asked. 'I have a table prepared next door.' He glanced at the guards at Phillipus' back. 'I expect we can find some scraps for your people. The kitchens are that way.'
Phillipus didn't move. Neither did his people. 'I'll come to the point, vicarius,' he said. 'This is not exactly a social call.'
Chrysanthos sipped his wine, if only to prove to Phillipus that it was safe. 'Don't tell me I have displeased the emperor in some way.'
Phillipus did not care for the smirk of unconcern on the man's face. The trouble with Britannia was that it was too far from Rome – and further still from Constantinople, where Theodosius increasingly made his home these days. 'I have brought you a present,' the emperor's man said.
'How touching.' Chrysanthos lounged on his couch and gestured to Phillipus to do the same. Instead, the man clicked his fingers and one of the guards held up the bag.
'Hold out your hands,' Phillipus said.
Intrigued, Chrysanthos put down his cup and sat upright, hands extended, palms up in front of him. The guard reached into the leather and hauled something out. It was a human head and the guard held it up by the hair. He dropped it unceremoniously into Chrysanthos' hands.
'Behold,' Phillipus said softly, 'the head of a traitor.'
Chrysanthos felt his pulse jump and he caught his breath. 'Magnus Maximus,' he said, his voice barely a whisper. The hair had dried to black straw and the skin was brown leather. The eyes were sunk deep in their sockets and the dead man seemed scarcely to recognize his old vicarius at all.
'The same.' Phillipus took Chrysanthos' offer and sat, languidly sipping his wine. 'You aided and abetted him.'
'Did I?' the vicarius was a man used to recovering quickly from shocks; he had done it all his life. He nodded to a slave, half-hidden in the shadows and the man relieved him of his grisly burden.
'That,' Phillipus stopped him with a snapped word, 'stays with me.'
Both his guards moved forward and took the head from the slave. For a moment, the man stood his ground, jaw flexing, waiting for the word of command from the vicarius. 'Now, Clitus,' Chrysanthos smiled, 'these gentlemen are our guests. It's only right they keep their toys.' The head disappeared again into the leather bag.
'Oh, this isn't a toy,' Phillipus corrected him. 'It's a symbol of the futility of going up against the emperor. My instructions are to display it in each of your provinces. Here in Maxima Caesariensis, then Flavia Caesariensis, then ...'
'Yes, thank you,' Chrysanthos stopped him. 'I do know what they're called. Good luck with that, by the way.'
'What?' Phillipus paused in mid-sip.
The vicarius helped himself to grapes on the low table in front of him. 'Well, you see, the late Magnus Maximus was pretty popular in all my provinces. Oh, he had some local difficulty in Britannia Prima, but that all ended rather well. No, more than a few of my subjects ...'
'Your subjects?' Phillipus interrupted.
'Sorry,' Chrysanthos smiled. 'Slip of the tongue. The emperor's subjects. More than a few of them elected Maximus Caesar and joined him on his little adventure. Even the Hiberni.'
'Yes,' Phillipus said, straight-faced. 'We buried them.'
'Well,' the vicarius spread his arms, 'fortunes of war, eh?'
'And you, vicarius?' Phillipus sat upright now, looking hard at his host. 'Where did you stand in all this? Did you elect this rebel Caesar?'
Chrysanthos frowned. 'Please,' he said. 'I am the vicarius, the emperor's deputy.'
'Ah,' Phillipus was a politician. He could fence all day with this man. 'But which emperor?'
Chrysanthos was serious. 'There is only one; surely you know that, Quintus Phillipus?'
'I do,' the man answered. 'The question is, do the peasants around here know it? I'm here to remind them.'
'Are you?' Chrysanthos poured more wine for himself but none for his guest. 'You and your hundred men?'
It was then that the vicarius heard a strange sound, one few men ever heard. It was the sound of Quintus Phillipus laughing. 'I am merely the advance guard,' he said. 'There'll be thousands following.'
'Really?' Chrysanthos said, knowing full well that his spies had only reported a single ship. 'Well ...' he smiled and reached across, topping up Phillipus' cup, 'perhaps I was a little hasty. And to answer your question more fully ... no, I did not elect Maximus Caesar. He was a law unto himself; as you say, a rebel. A man, even a vicarius, can do only so much. We heard he defeated Gratian's army.'
'He did,' Phillipus acknowledged, 'before we cut him down.'
'Of course. Listen, my man here will see you to your quarters. I think you'll find the basilica comfortable, but if not, my house is your house – the governor's palace. Your men will be quartered in my own stables.'
'I'm touched,' Phillipus nodded, though clearly he wasn't.
'Tomorrow,' the vicarius said, 'we'll talk more. I think the Forum here in Londinium is the best place for the head, don't you? Every day is market day. If it's speeches you want, I'll have my praecones do the honours. Oh, you'll write it, of course.'
'Of course,' Phillipus scowled. What was going on? The vicarius had turned on a solidus and something didn't sit right with that.
'Clitus, see our guest to his quarters.' Chrysanthos stood up and extended his hand again. 'My man is at your command, Quintus Phillipus, and, in the name of the emperor, allow me to welcome you to Londinium.'
They shook hands and saluted each other and the emperor's messenger followed the slave into the shadows.
From other shadows a figure emerged, soft, sensuous, her hair a golden mane over her shoulders.
'Well?' Chrysanthos poured another cup of wine and passed it to her.
'Well, he wasn't very nice, was he?'
There was the briefest of silences and then they both burst out laughing. 'That's what I love about you, Honoria,' he said, stooping to kiss her bare shoulder, 'your innate grasp of political reality.'
'Ooh,' she tapped him playfully. 'I love it when you use big words.'
They laughed again.
'Seriously, though, Chrysanthos,' she said. 'Is he trouble? For us, I mean?'
'For us? No.' The vicarius looked into the middle distance where Phillipus and his men were walking their horses across the courtyard. 'Trouble? Well, that depends.'
'On what?' Honoria asked.
Chrysanthos turned back to her, sighing like a man with a plan forming in his mind. 'On that wayward son of yours. Have you seen Scipio recently?'CHAPTER 2
The lights burned bright in the Hen's Tooth that night and the laughter carried to the cobbled street outside. Drunks caroused along the gutters, pawing their women under dark arches, vomiting into the rivulets that ran to the banks of the Thamesis. A raw wind had risen along the river, gusting sharply as it whistled around the great wall towers that Theodosius' father had built twenty years ago. The rain was falling in torrents over the city, bouncing off the roof tiles and thudding on the leather awnings of the street market stalls. Far out to the east, it drifted lazily on the wind, driving into the blackness of the forests there and pattering onto the endless mud of the marshes. Curlews hid in the reeds with the corn-throated bitterns and the ghostly owls stayed in the warmth of their barns.
Another bird out of the weather sat on the strapped wrist of a young man in the Hen's Tooth. The hawk sat upright, its talons hooked into the leather, its head hooded with a plumed cap that covered its eyes. The young man yawned and stretched, watching the bird flap and squawk, jingling the bells on the hood.
'He's not coming, Scip.'
The young man turned at the mention of his name. 'He'll be here, Caius,' Scipio nodded, watching the door. 'He won't be able to stay away.'
'On a night like this,' the other man said, swigging his wine, 'He'd be mad to try.'
'Half Londinium's riding on this,' Scipio said, passing the hawk to a minion. 'Metellus won't get another chance.'
The older man looked at him. 'He has a chance, does he?' he asked, smiling.
'No,' Scipio said. He half turned as a half-naked girl brushed past him, trailing her fingers across his shoulders and into the dark ringlets of his hair. She was a little unsteady on her feet, what with the giddiness of the wine and the exercise they had both had earlier in the evening.
Scipio smiled up at her and slapped her buttocks. 'Not just now, lover,' he purred. 'Business.'
He heard his friend's chair scrape back. 'Well, well,' he said, 'look who just walked in.'
Scipio did. The door was still open and the wind was unsettling the candle flames of the taverna. A giant of a man stood there, with others just as big behind him.
'Salve, Metellus Scaevola,' Scipio said. He hadn't moved but the girl sidled away. She had seen this man before and many like him. They stank of sweat and ale and their hands were coarse and everywhere. She glanced furtively at Scipio. He looked so small by comparison, so ... beautiful. She didn't want to stay and see what was going to happen in the next few minutes. She didn't want to ... but she did.
'Bitch of a night,' Scipio smiled as Metellus hauled off his dripping cloak and threw it at an attendant.
'You said it,' Metellus nodded. He wasn't looking at Scipio. He was counting heads. He'd been here before, to the Hen's Tooth in the Black Knives' patch. Time was, he'd have cracked a few heads, slit the odd throat and claimed it as his own. The girls would be his and the wine. Robbery with violence. Nothing easier. But it was all about politics these days. When Scipio's papa had been the Consul of Londinium, it was easy. Leocadius Honorius had been with the Black Knives himself and as long as he got his concession, of the grain imports and the woollens and the timber taxes, he had more blind eyes than an earthworm. But now that bastard Chrysanthos ran the place, there was no Consul, just a by-the-book vicarius with that thing Metellus hated most, an honest streak.