© David Lawton
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EASTERN ROMAN EMPIRE
“I don’t want to be eaten!”
Her younger brother's cry rang out from the back of the open-topped wagon.
Valeria wanted to reach over the exquisite tapestries, the elegant silverware, the priceless scrolls and codex books to where Marcus sat huddled against the slave girl. But her stubborn arms continued to hug her upraised knees beneath the turquoise silk stola.
I should be the one doing that, not my handmaid, her mind cried out; it should be me dabbing his tears, soothing his soul with words of reassurance. But how, gentle Jesus, when I believe the same?
Seven miles. That's what Aunt Julia said. Just seven short miles to blessed safety ...
At the head of the wagon train an armed horseman in a chain-mail shirt was falling back along the line. Above the clatter of wheels, Valeria heard him order their driver to move faster, that as the lead vehicle he was to set the pace for the rest.
The man came level with her. His was a familiar face. Like the others who had arrived that morning he was ex-imperial cavalry; a time-served professional and now captain of her father’s personal guard in Constantinople. But the reassuring smile failed to calm her churning dread. Valeria watched him stay his horse to meet the next wagon, also loaded with hastily salvaged riches, lean towards Aunt Julia and listen to what she had to say. The silver-haired noblewoman pointed ahead – she thought at Marcus – and the captain gave a grim nod.
The rest of the wagons and carts were crammed with the haunted faces of men, women and children from the estate and protected by the captain’s thin screen of mounted guards. Behind the convoy the lane cut through a sea of golden wheat to the red roofed villa upon the hill.
Valeria gazed long and hard at this villa, the place she and Marcus were sent to escape the stifling cauldron that was Constantinople in high summer; until yesterday morning it symbolised order and security. Now, before setting out, she had witnessed Aunt Julia instruct the captain to fire its well-stocked storehouse and aisled barns; there was no time to set pyres for the slaughtered farm animals.
Nothing must be left for them!
For them ... How could it have come to this? How could the Lord God have allowed such a thing to prevail? Her Emperor had marched north to wipe them out.
It was yesterday when they heard the rumours; wild, hideous, unimaginable rumours.
She also remembered her Aunt Julia refusing to believe them. Riders had been dispatched to the port of Perinthus to obtain a true account from official sources. However, shortly after dawn, the captain and his cavalry squad arrived, having risked a night sailing aboard her father's galley and two hired merchantmen, all currently moored at the fishing village of Epeira.
They carried orders from her father for the immediate evacuation of everyone back to Constantinople by sea.
For beyond the imperial city of Hadrianopolis the impossible had indeed happened. The Emperor along with the entire Eastern Roman field army was no more. The tribal clans of the barbarian Goths had been victorious in battle. Now war bands were sweeping south into their province at terrifying speed - looting, destroying, enslaving, killing - and the shattered Empire had nothing left with which to stop them.
As she rattled along in the wagon, with their driver laying his whip to the draft-horse, Valeria continued looking back upon that fast receding picture. The smoke from the fires had already started to obscure and distort its familiarity.
Like the world she had known throughout her seventeen years, the villa on the hill was fast becoming unrecognisable.
Their wagon came to a shuddering halt.
The convoy had turned off the Via Ergentia and was following the Epeira road through a shallow ravine when the wagon driver wrenched hard on the reins. Valeria saw him looking up at something off to their right. Her eyes darted to the slope with its sparse covering of pine trees and deciduous bushes, and on up to the crest –
The breath caught in her throat. A band, like the coil of a snake, wrapped about her chest; pressing tighter, threatening to squeeze the life from her …
She stared at a baleful line of barbarian Goth horsemen.
The maid stood up and shrieked, "The Devil is upon us!"
Valeria felt a whoosh of air. She heard an agonized cry, and caught a blur of movement from the corner of her eye as something was hurled from the wagon. A spasming body lay in the cobbled lane, a crimson stain spreading out from the arrow shaft embedded in its chest. Her numbed mind struggled to accept what she saw, even though the maid was no longer in their wagon.
With blood-curdling war cries the Goths swept as one down the hillside to be met by the captain's heavily armed escort. The narrow highway became a maelstrom of sparking swords, rearing horses and spraying blood; the air filled with the clang of steel on steel, the grunts and cries of men locked in a life and death struggle, the terrified snorts and whinnying of their mounts, the tang of blood and sweat.
One by one, like lone bears set upon by a blood-crazed wolf pack, the outnumbered Romans were slowly being cut down.
Terror ripped through Valeria's veins. She gripped the flat side of the wagon with clammy hands, her manicured fingernails breaking as they dug into the roughened wood. Marcus was pressed against her; eyes closed and hands clasped tight over his ears, she could hear the little boy saying over again, "I want to go home, I want to go home..."
A sudden shift in the wagon's weight whipped her attention to the front. Their driver had jumped down, was haring off up the road. And only now did Valeria realise the way ahead remained eerily clear, untouched by the murderous carnage taking place a matter of yards away. Or so she thought, for at that moment a Goth horseman with a hunting spear gave chase and she watched the fleeing man slide to a halt as the warrior blocked his way. The wagon driver was cowering, one hand raised in submission, when the spearhead plunged into the top of his shoulder. He collapsed like a wooden marionette whose strings had been cut.
Valeria let out a scream that quickly froze in her throat: the killer of their driver had locked eyes on her.
With a kick of his heels the Goth trotted his horse over. Valeria pulled Marcus with her as she scrambled backwards over a large rolled tapestry and a coffer filled with coin until her shoulders pressed into the corner of the wagon. As he came closer a grin split his grey-flecked beard to reveal blackened, rotten teeth.
That broad smile remained fixed on his face - right up to the moment the bloody point of a Roman sword burst from his chest.
The captain wrenched his blade from the barbarian's back, kicking the dying man from his saddle. Valeria tried rising as he rode over to their wagon.
"Stay down!" he roared.
He scooped up the discarded bridle reins of their draft-horse. With a hefty thump to its hindquarters, he began leading horse and vehicle away up the road at a fast trot.
An arrow zipped through the air and thumped into the side of the wagon. The draft-horse reared up onto its hind legs as another struck the animal’s neck. The wagon jolted upwards then dragged violently. It crashed to a stop with a broken wheel wedged in the shallow drainage ditch running along the roadside.
Wheeling his horse about, the captain reached into the stricken vehicle to haul Marcus out. Valeria fought to push her brother into his arms but the youngster kept striking out at him with sandalled feet. The captain glanced over his shoulder. He turned back to her. "Forgive me," he mouthed.
Valeria saw the drawn dagger. Her eyes widened as she realised his intent.
An arrowhead buried itself between the man's shoulder blades. He toppled over into the ditch. There came the sickening crack of neckbones as his helmeted head struck the ground.
For a few numbing seconds that seemed to stretch forever, Valeria lay immobile in the bottom of the wagon, clasping her sobbing brother tight against her. His tunic felt damp and she caught the pungent smell of urine. The high-pitched cry of their dying horse was deafening.
None of this is real, Valeria’s inner voice kept screaming. Any moment now you must wake from this nightmare.
Somehow she found the courage to lift her head above the back of the wagon – and the horror from down the road filled her eyes and ears:
The screams of men, women and children being slaughtered in the carts and wagons…. horse-archers shooting into the backs of those fleeing for the trees… another Goth warrior with a long spear riding down a man as if he was on a wild boar hunt… a laughing tribesman swinging a howling child by the legs to smash its brains against a cart wheel… another tribesman standing atop Aunt Julia’s wagon and holding up some bloody object on the end of his spear…
Valeria gave a low moan. She struggled against the rising bile in her throat, fought the faintness that hovered over her.
Soon, very soon, another voice cried within her, those Goths slaughtering the living and looting the dead will turn to your isolated wagon.
Think of your brother, think of yourself!
She forced herself over the side and into the drainage ditch. From there she coaxed Marcus to follow her lead. They stepped gingerly past the spasming body of their horse and crouching low made their escape along the cutting.
Valeria avoided the urge to look back. Afraid of what she might see; wanting to put as much distance between herself and the butchery she was running from.
The dreaded cry rang out. Then the sound of pounding feet striking cobbles.
A group of tribesmen swarmed around their smashed wagon; leaving the others stripping the captain of his armour and arguing over Aunt Julia’s riches, two had jumped down to give chase.
Valeria dragged her brother out of the ditch and off up the road. Her heart pounded against her rib cage until it must surely burst through. But she was blind to everything, including the encumbrance of her long stola; nothing mattered except her father’s ships.
Marcus’ hand was wrenched from her own as the boy stumbled, tripped and fell with outstretched arms.
She skidded, turned - and froze as the barbarians caught up with them.
Beneath his rancid yellow hair the man standing before Valeria wore a jagged scar from temple to jaw line. But it was neither this old facial war injury or the stench of his body from which she recoiled. Rather it was the man's eyes: dead, emotionless and wholly chilling.
A sword reached out to toy with the emerald necklace about her throat before making its slow, agonizing journey down the front of her stola. Valeria's eyes squeezed tight shut as it gathered the hem of her dress, higher and higher, and then the flat of the blade was between her legs, gently tapping from side to side....
The words of a prayer came stumbling from her lips.
A strangled cry snapped open her eyes. The second tribesman, the one holding Marcus, sank to the ground with the shaft of an arrow jutting from a shattered collar-bone. And now she saw fear grip the features of her own tormentor as he backed away, both hands clenching his sword handle.
Two horsemen burst from the trees.
The Goth turned and fled. He had taken less than a dozen strides when a sword took the top of his head off in a slew of blood, brains and shattered bone.
The man who had swung the deadly blow pulled his horse up alongside Valeria and reached down.
“Quickly, get up!”
His companion was already seating Marcus in front of his own saddle.
“They’re onto us, sir!”
The warning came from a mounted archer riding out to join them. Down the road a Goth warrior in a looted metaled Roman cuirass was bellowing at the men in the wrecked wagon, while jabbing furiously at what had taken place while they’d been busy squabbling over their new found prize. Although at the limit of his range, the bowman steadied his horse, took careful aim, and sent an arrow slamming into the enraged warrior.
Without another word the rider alongside Valeria hauled her up onto the back of his horse. They set off at full gallop after the others.
They had perhaps gone a mile along the road, ascending a series of ridges, before Valeria’s rescuer raised a hand to signal a halt. The place where they had all stopped held a commanding view back.
He jumped to the ground then helped her down from his horse. “Otho, keep a watch back there,” he ordered the bowman. “I didn’t see any of the bastards give chase, but I can’t be sure.” Then he said brusquely to the second man, “Check over our horses; they're already near blown.”
Valeria sat with Marcus on the edge of the road. Squatting down on his haunches, the man dampened his scarf from a canteen bottle and dabbed at her swollen lip; it was split and bleeding and her jaw grazed and bruised from striking the side of the wagon in the crash.
“Here, hold this against your face. It will help the swelling.”
Valeria did so and found the dampness had a soothing effect not only on the throbbing ache; her trembling hands had stopped shaking. The man passed the canteen to Marcus who drank greedily until the water bottle was pulled firmly away. She heard her brother start complaining about his soiled tunic, and it suddenly crossed her mind how absurd it sounded.
Eventually, Valeria managed to find her voice. “Thank you,” she said, wincing slightly beneath the scarf at the discomfort of moving her jaw.
These men were not part of her armed escort. Beneath their muscled cuirasses they wore army regulation red tunics with large decorative roundels sewn into them, and the horses had the distinctive brand of the imperial cavalry burnt into their flanks. Her own rescuer was grimy, dishevelled and sported a bloody bandage around a muscular upper arm.
“My name’s Gaudentius. I’m an imperial officer of a light cavalry regiment.” His gaze inadvertently dropped to one of his sandal boots as he added, “After the bloody slaughter outside Hadrianopolis, we three might be all that’s left of it.”
Gaudentius' eyes met Valeria’s again. “And who am I addressing, Lady…?”
“I am Valeria Aetius ... of the noble House of the Caeionii.”
The cavalryman who had rescued Marcus, and was currently finishing off adjusting a loose cheek piece and bit on one of their horses, turned sharply. “You related to the Finance Minister?”
“He is my father. My brother and I were staying at the villa of our relative when…” She trailed off at the raw memory of a Goth upon Aunt Julia’s cart waving a severed head.
The man gave a harsh laugh. He shouted across to Gaudentius, “Looks as if we’ve rescued ourselves quite a catch, sir: kids of a government minister, no less. If those barbarians only knew! Why, I wager they’d send her back a finger at a time until her rich papa coughed up a big enough ransom.”
“Stow it, Sorex!” Gaudentius’ sharp retort whipped back.
“Please, we were on our way to Epeira; it is at the end of this road, on the coast. Our father has ships waiting to take us to Constantinople.” She turned to Gaudentius, her voice rising despite the pain in her jaw as a fresh wave of panic seized her. “You must take me to Epeira, I beg of you – I must get back to my father!”
Valeria failed to notice Gaudentius’ pitying look. She had not seen the inauspicious signs up ahead, but Sorex had:
“Sir, any ships for these two will have long gone.”
“They won’t abandon me!” Valeria screamed at him.
Sorex threw a look of scorn. He poked a finger into the distance. “And just where do you think that’s coming from?”
The scarf slipped from her fingers.
Now she could see it, though she did not want to: a line of smoke beginning to rise over the hill crest blocking their view of the Marmara Sea.
It came from the direction of Epeira.
“No…no…no…” The tears held back for so long flowed freely. Eventually, she became aware of someone speaking to her:
“… I’ve been running with my shame these past two days, ever since we abandoned our Emperor on the battlefield. When we came across what the Goths were doing to your people, we were set to run again – and then I saw your wagon…”
She felt her quivering hands drawn from her face and she was staring into Gaudentius’ blue-grey eyes. “Listen well, Lady Valeria. Whatever happens, I’ll not leave your side. I swear to get you and your brother to Constantinople.”
Valeria found herself clinging to his words. Then her brows creased. Had not another given a similar smile of reassurance? Someone who now lay dead in a ditch with an arrow in his back?
The cavalryman, Otho, hurried over to them.
“We’re being followed.” He pointed down to a group of Goth horsemen who had just crested the last ridge. "And over there." A similar sized band was taking a parallel route across the upland heather.
Sorex spat at the ground. “Shit, Otho! Who the hell did you stick back there: the fucking chief?”
Marcus flung his arms about his sister, tiny fingers digging into her waist. Valeria felt the boy's face tight against her thumping breast.
“Don’t let them hurt me!”
An image leapt into her mind: the captain's dagger reaching out to cut their throats …
Her despairing eyes sought out those of Gaudentius, but the cavalry officer had already turned to the road up ahead, and that ominous smoke over the summit.
He made his decision:
“We go on to Epeira. And pray those ships are still there.”
Heels were continually driven into panting lathered flanks, but as Gaudentius and the others met the coast road their dogged pursuit was gaining with each horse stride.
Epeira had indeed been put to the torch by Goths who had already moved on up the coast. The fugitive Romans rode down the street, passing houses with tinder-dry roofs turned into fiery beacons and sprawled bodies in their own blood and excrement. But once past the swirling, choking smoke they could see them, out beyond the quayside now empty of fishing boats, riding to anchor a safe distance away in the tranquil blue waters of the bay
They were still there: the galley and the merchantmen.
As soon as Valeria’s feet touched ground she began waving frantically with both arms and announcing her name at the top of her lungs. At the stern of the galley several figures started climbing into an oared cutter tethered alongside.
By now the others had joined her on the quayside, the soldiers throwing off their armour and heavy military belts. Gaudentius grasped her forearm. “Can you swim out?”
“Yes…I think so. But can you not see? They are sending - ”
They raced along the long wooden jetty. Valeria saw Sorex scoop Marcus up in his brawny arms, sprint on ahead, and without breaking stride take a flying leap off the end. She stopped when she reached the edge and scanned the waters. But the cavalryman was already striking out towards the approaching rowing boat, all the while cradling Marcus in his other arm.
Valeria felt her hand encased in a strong grip. Gaudentius stood by her side. Then she heard a thunderous commotion from behind and - fatefully - turned around.
The first of the Goths burst from the fire and smoke like avenging daemons from hell.
Further back along the jetty Otho had seen the danger. He drew his bow and shot into the chest of the lead horse. Chaos erupted on the quayside as the animal threw its rider and fell, tumbling and rolling in the path of the others.
The Roman tossed his bow in the water, turned to run - and went rigid.
His left eye-socket had exploded in a welter of blood and vitreous as the Goth arrowhead that punched its way into the back of his head burst through.
Gaudentius covered the short distance back to catch Otho as he fell to his knees. An enraged barbarian warrior ran at them with sword raised high. Gaudentius' own shot up, blocking the man's downward cut in a screech of steel. The Goth reeled, smashed nose weeping blood from a vicious headbutt, only to double over with a loud grunt as the cavalry officer's sword sliced into him; he toppled into the water still clutching the glistening coils of his intestines.
Two more warriors, spearpoints levelled, came hurtling along the jetty. Gaudentius looked over his shoulder at Valeria; there was not a flicker of fear in his features, just quiet authority.
Those words broke the spell that rooted her. She faced the sea and leapt into the water.
The shock of impact was momentary. Valeria broke surface with a huge gulp of air. She began swimming with long powerful strokes, fear and desperation providing the adrenaline. But all too soon she felt the strength being sucked from her limbs.
Dear God in Heaven – I'm helpless!
She could not swim, her body barely able to kick water. Behind loomed the end of the jetty – still impossibly close – and it was filled with the snarling faces of barbarians screaming in their alien tongue. She was alone, the focus of the Goths’ insane odium for all things Rome; trapped and helpless, just like that snared rabbit she and Marcus had come across waiting to have its neck snapped by their gamekeeper. As this wild thought flashed through her, a huge yellow-haired mountain of a man pushed his way to the front and hurled a spear high into the air. It fell just short, blinding her in a salty spray.
She was panicking; arms flailing, thrashing, fighting desperately to keep her chin above water.
Oh merciful God, please help me, do not let me die...
Her foot sought ground that was not there. The sea closed above her head. She opened her mouth to shriek out and the water rushed down her throat.
Someone grabbed her.
She resurfaced, gasping and coughing up salt water. Gaudentius was treading water alongside, desperately trying to pacify her. But Valeria lay beyond rational thought: throwing his hands off, struggling against him; fingers digging into flesh, she tried climbing on top of his shoulders.
"Don't fight me!" he cried out.
An arrow hissed past them to strike the water.
Valeria could feel the roaring in her ears building to a crescendo. She fought for one last desperate gasp, her body straining above the churning waters ...
She came out of her faint to find Sorex hauling her over a wooden rail and into the bow of the cutter. She was vaguely aware of her brother curled up against one of the thwarts as she leaned over the other side of the boat and spewed vomit and seawater.
The little cutter gave a sudden lurch. Valeria's head whipped round. But she faced no maniacal Goths with blood on their hands and murder in their eyes. Gaudentius had tumbled into the bottom of the boat after her. Only later, once safely aboard her father's galley, did Valeria learn how the crew of this cutter had rested their oars out of bow shot range while he had dragged her unconscious body through the water.
Everybody sat bolt upright. The strident voice that ripped across the bay was so loud, so clear. All eyes turned to the solitary figure who remained at the end of the jetty.
Despite the distance Valeria knew it was the giant Goth who had so nearly ended her life as she floundered in the water. What she now heard was all the more gut-wrenching because she understood every taunting word; although heavily accented, this barbarian spoke in Greek:
"Do you piss and shit in your pants as you run like frightened children? Like your little Emperor before we cut his head off! Listen well, Roman scum: you're weak, like the rest of your race; we, the Goths, are the strong. We'll kick your rotting Empire into the crap hole where it belongs, for we are now the masters of this land and you our slaves. Do you hear me, Romans? We are the masters!"
His words breathed a chill across Valeria that left her skin with raised goosebumps despite the blazing midday summer sun. She sensed those eyes boring into her, and with it the obscene memory flooded back of that sword between her legs.
The rest of the barbarians lined the quayside astride their horses, punching the air with their swords and spears as they hurled abuse at their illusive prey out in the bay. The conflagration that was Eperia added a fiery backdrop to this terrifying scene. And now, for the first time, Valeria noticed the far-off smoke trails rising along the coast in both directions: simple fishing villages, seafront mansions of the wealthy elite - all being looted and burned.
"Oh, dear God, they have turned our Empire into a funeral pyre," she sobbed. "There is no hope, no hope ..."
"Never think that!" she heard Gaudentius say behind her. "General Theodosius still commands the garrisons of our eastern frontier; he's a fine general and he'll use his troops to build a new field army. With Theodosius as Emperor we'll take back Thrace and bring the Goths to heel. Trust me in this."
And Valeria found she did. This man who had saved her life not once but twice.
When he next spoke the tone sounded reflective, almost ruminative. Valeria was unsure if the words were meant for her or himself:
"They crossed our Danube frontier as starving refugees, and we fed them hate and humiliation. We sowed the wind, now we reap the whirlwind..."
WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE
Valeria's eyes opened to darkness.
She heard her own piercing screams; felt the grip of strong hands.
Finally, mercifully, realisation tumbled into her mind.
A door opened and their bedroom was illuminated by the light of a twin-spout oil lamp. The soft glow of reality cast aside the shadows of her dream - revealing her husband beside her on the bed.
"I will deal with this,” Gaudentius told the anxious face of the chief handmaiden. “Set the lamp on the table before leaving.”
Valeria regarded him closely as his coarsened fingers stroked her sweat-dampened hair; the memory of what he told her yesterday had come back with painful clarity.
Gaudentius' features bore the age lines of a man now past fifty and the carefully trimmed beard was streaked white, yet his lithe and muscular physique would have done justice to someone half his age. Ten years had passed since the Emperor had appointed him general of cavalry throughout Italy. Valeria loved this man. She remembered how it blossomed that evening her father had Gaudentius dine at their family home in Constantinople. Her love came with an intensity that might have fueled the very sun itself, it had never once faltered in their long years of marriage.
It made it all the more difficult to accept what he now intended.
"Hush, Valeria, it's over." A momentary hesitation, then: "You were crying out Aunt Julia's name."
*The water becoming colder, blacker. She sees the outstretched arms of someone rising up from the darkness: a headless figure of a woman in a billowing white dress, and now she is being dragged by cold dead hands, sending her down to the domain of lost souls -*
- Valeria slammed the door on this spectre from her past. "I was back in the water," she simply said.
"You haven't had that nightmare in years."
"Should we be surprised at its return?"
Gaudentius pursed his lips. There was a hardened edge to what he said next. “I had no choice; Stilicho’s position at Court is weakening. There are signs Olympius is winning over the Emperor.”
Valeria thought again at how her World fell apart the moment Gaudentius had privately revealed the truth behind his coming here from the Imperial Court at Ravenna.
The early death of her beloved brother, Marcus; her own children still-born or dead within the year, all but one ... one slender, precious life the Lord Jesus had spared ...
Valeria again felt the splash of tears upon her cheeks. Without realising, she now gripped the corner of the bed sheet and twisted it tight. “Then let Stilicho use his own son.”
“His absence would be noticed at Court, especially since the marriage engagement.”
"But our boy is so young and he is no fighter - he is not you, Gaudentius!”
“Understand the terrible danger we face if Olympius was to seize power. But there’s more at stake – I’m talking about the very survival of the Empire.” He gave a smile of reassurance that never quite reached his eyes. “Trust me in what I do.”
Her head sank back on the pillow. Her oval face was pinched, the eyes above her wan cheeks dark and cavernous; Valeria felt she had aged years in a single day. She turned her back to him and said in a voice devoid of emotion, “I trust you; I always have. And, though it does little to assuage the pain, I trust you with our son.”
Gaudentius reached over to extinguish the lamp. Eventually he could hear his wife’s tell-tale rhythmic breathing. But for himself, sleep remained elusive, as it had throughout this long and sultry summer's night.
He was a deeply troubled man. And Valeria’s last words only deepened his angst - since he was prepared to betray her trust if necessary.
If only that ice bridge hadn't held, he mouthed silently.
No, he could never have refused his old friend's request. And certainly not now; not with this black crisis threatening to consume the Empire. Honour and Duty held Gaudentius fast and he could not break the chains.
Tomorrow he would tell Flavius what Stilicho had planned; this desperate gamble.
Suddenly, Valeria’s words echoed through his mind:
He is not you, Gaudentius!
No, he most certainly is not. And now, through bone-weary exhaustion, Gaudentius’ imagined his son's face emerging from the night; the boy's features were etched in terror.
Today is a good day; a day when it feels so wonderful to be alive.
This thought caressed Flavius Aetius as he gazed into the face of Atria, his cousin. A light wind blew off the sea to ruffle his tawny hair. He breathed in deep, tasting the salty tang of the sea, and something else too… the essence of life itself.
On dreamy days such as this, Flavius and the girl would imagine themselves heroic characters resurrected from the ancient texts. Atria would be Dido the Queen of Carthage, while he would be noble Aeneas, son of Venus, whom the gods spared from the fires of Troy in order to bring them together. Flavius was well versed in such stories. From an early age his mind had been filled with the likes of Virgil, Catullus, Herodotus and Livy. But his favourite pieces remained those telling the story of Rome. He would read them over again with the intense pride he felt every free-born child should feel at being a citizen of the greatest empire on Earth, even if that same empire had long been split in two, each half under its own emperor.
Rome was a place of breath-taking grandeur, a symbol of the awesome might of the Empire. Yet the city also displayed a serene kind of beauty and grace, so like the exquisite allure of the girl he now gazed down upon.
"This summer I have dedicated my dolls to Venus!" Atria had jested the day before.
And it was noticeable how his cousin had begun styling her sable hair upwards to signify her new status now that her body had crossed the threshold of womanhood. Yet those dark liquid eyes remained ready to dance to the tune of carefree youth.
That they would one day marry, Flavius Aetius regarded with the certainty of the coming dawn.
“My African Queen whose beauty shines like the sun…” he breathed.
Sensing his shadow, Atria’s eyes opened and she stretched her arms languidly. "Really, Flavius, you have exhausted me. I thought I would fall off Zaida and into the sea."
A guilty twinge caught Flavius at the memory of her struggling valiantly to keep abreast as they galloped their horses through the surf. Now his family villa lay to the south, and as the morning sun rose to its zenith it found the young cousins on a low bluff overlooking the golden sands of the Campania coast.
He began to absently trace the outline of Atria’s face with the end of a grass stalk. The girl’s dark olive skin and narrow aquiline nose sang of the African Berber ancestry of her father and the Gallo-Roman heritage of her mother. She playfully pushed the tickling blade from beneath her chin. “Do you think this summer will ever end? It feels as if it will go on forever.”
Flavius lay down beside her, relishing the touch of long grass against the back of his tunic. “All summers must end. We just don’t quite know when. But it must be soon, the apples in the orchard are ready to fall.”
Rolling onto her stomach, Atria concentrated her attentions on a tiny ladybird climbing the stem of a grass flower in front of her nose.
“I do hope Little Crito is all right.”
It took a moment to remember Little Crito as the name given last summer to an abandoned kitten she had found on her family villa in southern Gaul. He smiled at the thought: Atria was always rescuing some waif and stray from the animal kingdom. No doubt her family's principal home in Carthage would be overrun with such creatures if she had her way. “Cats are born survivors; more so than people. Besides, that little kitten of yours will be a kitten no longer.”
“Still, I do hope Serena - you remember Serena, our steward’s daughter? Well, I hope she is looking after Little Crito as I instructed."
“I'm more concerned about the welfare of Uncle Lucius,” he thought out loud, only to instantly regret it. Atria never liked upsetting news.
At the height of summer both families would traditionally move to their respective Gallic estates outside the city of Narbonne. What happened on the Empire's Rhine frontier last winter, though many hundreds of miles away, had kept them firmly in Italy this season. But their great-uncle, Lucius Aemilianus, was chief magistrate of Narbonne with a fine town house and extensive vineyards in the countryside.
For a few seconds Atria’s eyes appeared vacant, until abruptly clearing as if his last words were nothing more than the briefest distraction on the breeze. “Serena will be looking after Little Crito, I am sure of it.” Flavius felt the girl’s head instead nuzzle against his broad chest. “I wish we did not have to leave tomorrow. Our stop over from Rome has been so very brief.” She sighed, and then, after a deliberate pause, said, “If only our parents would announce our betrothal before we leave.”
“They will not do so until next year, when I am sixteen. We both know the custom.”
“Are you quite sure it is not because you secretly love the princess?” Her face had appeared above his chest along with that familiar look of mischief.
He fervently hoped his own would not redden. He and his parents had attended that magnificent party celebrating the engagement of Stilicho’s son to Galla Placidia, the Emperor’s sister. Hundreds of Rome’s finest were present for this grand social occasion on the Palatine, though the Emperor was not among them. There had been a certain awkwardness about the newly betrothed couple, though perhaps it was the raw shyness of youth. The dominating presence of Stilicho hovered over them, his pallid face contrasting sharply with shadows, grown deep of late, beneath heavy-lidded eyes. For Flavius, however, it was the picture of the beautiful princess that stayed in his mind’s eye long after returning to Campania. His mistake had been in telling Atria.
“Your beauty resides just as much within,” he said after a moments reflection.
She sat back on her knees and stuck out a tongue. "Stop wriggling like a little worm.”
"Not that it matters anyway,” he continued airily, ready to match her familiar teasing. “The way our fathers are, they will most likely decide against our marriage before too long."
Atria shot to her feet as if she had been sitting on an ants’ nest. It startled Flavius to see the glistening of tears. "You must not say such things! True they have disagreements, but they remain good friends. Our mothers want this marriage. Father has often said he would like nothing more than to see you his son-in-law; he told me so just before we left Carthage."
"I didn't mean anything by this." He made to hold her but the girl stepped away.
“We must marry, I have thought nothing else since I was old enough to remember. I don't know what I would do if I was not your wife. Why, I think I might… yes, I would hurl myself from the nearest cliff and be damned to Hades.”
He began to laugh. “And I would hold your hand as you did so.”
At this the girl pulled a face but she was soon joining in the laughter. This time she did fall into his arms, and he told her, “Dearest Atria, you are the Sun to my Earth.”
A dreamy picture came to him. Of his older self with Atria beside him, reclining on the central couch in the dinning hall of the family villa he now headed, reciting, before like-minded friends they had yet to know, a poetical passage from Ovid’s *Metamorphoses* …
Flavius had no chance.
Atria screamed when the grey wolf pounced and she was torn from his hands.
With a squeal of delight, she playfully wrestled the creature that had knocked her to the ground. "What are you doing here?" she exclaimed as the animal buried its wet nose into the side of her face.
Theron was his name, given by Atria last winter after they came across the wolf cub almost frozen to the corpse of his mother in the nearby forest. She had spent night and day nursing the poor animal back to health and when her parents flatly refused her pleas to have the baby wolf return with them to Africa it was Flavius who had agreed to keep him at the villa. But Theron remained Atria's.
The reason for the wolf’s appearance came in the form of two horsemen who rode up off the beach. One of them was Gaudentius. And suddenly Flavius’ mouth went very dry and the muscles of his neck began their familiar tightening.
Gaudentius gave a sharp whistle and a distinctive white hawk swooped down to land on the outstretched leather gloved hand of its master. The cavalry general fished a piece of rabbit meat from a satchel and the great bird snatched the offering from his fingers and greedily devoured the bright red chunk.
“The claws of my hunting bird grow blunt in my absence,” he announced sternly.
Atria, trying to avoid the frenzied licking of Theron, cheerfully said, “Flavius’ tutor allowed him from his morning studies so we could go riding.”
“I already know. The gate-keeper told me your direction and the wolfhound did the rest. But now, Atria, I wish to hunt alone with my son. Septimus Macro will escort you back to the house.”
The cavalry officer who had arrived with Gaudentius from Ravenna jumped smartly from his horse ready to help the girl mount hers.
Flavius Aetius went to his own horse and stroked its mane lovingly, taking comfort in familiarity. For more than half his life this noble white stallion he had first laid eyes upon as a gangly new-born had been his faithful friend. He had named him Pegasus: the winged horse sired by Poseidon himself. It proved an apt choice, for this beautiful creature had grown so swift many were the times he thought they might soar to the Heavens.
Atria brushed against him and despite everything Flavius could not help noticing the twinkle had returned to those beautiful eyes. “Who knows, perhaps they will announce it this very evening,” she whispered gaily into his ear.
For if that bright and eager young face had captured the serene beauty of Rome then it had caught its blind naivety in equal measure