When Brigida’s Roman husband goes missing with the Ninth Legion in Caledonia, she is forced to fulfill her oath to him and travel alone from northern Britannia to Rome to be with his family. She is attacked by brigands in Gaul and is rescued by a man named Daman. He, too, is traveling to Rome, and convinces her to travel with him. They are both outsiders within the Roman empire—Brigida is a native Briton, and Daman is Dacian. Daman is a deserter from the legion, and a wanted man. He has business in Rome—business he will not speak of.
As they travel southward, they develop a bond which soon turns into an attraction. But Daman refuses to sully Brigida’s reputation and Brigida is afraid of what will happen to Daman when he reaches Rome. He has told her that his “business” may lead to his death. They are together, yet kept apart by circumstance. Their budding relationship is challenged by legionaries who seek to kill Daman, a pack of vicious wolves, and a band of rapacious deserters.
Marcus did not come home. None of them did.
Five thousand men. The entire Ninth Legion. Gone.
There were rumors. Rumors that the tribes of Caledonia had annihilated them; devoured their lines like the ancient giant Cacus, who consumed live human flesh and displayed human heads on nails outside his cave on the Palatine Hill.
I did not believe in monsters, only in gods and men. And I knew that the Romans had displeased the gods of Britannia, had spilt the blood of the tribes upon her dark, rich soil for generations. The Selgovae, the Parisi, the Carvetii. And the Brigante.
I did not know what happened to the legion and to my husband Marcus, only the gods and the men of Caledonia knew that. All I knew was that I was alone.
I was not born Roman. I was born Brigante—native to this occupied land—and only ever partially accepted by my husband’s comrades because of his status as an officer. And now I was a Brigante alone in a Roman city—a Roman city in which captured Brigante rebels served as slaves to Roman masters. I could not go home, across the rolling green hills to my small Brigante village. Running away with a Roman soldier had sealed my fate as an outsider. No northern Brigante would open their door to me again, not my father or my mother, and not my brothers.
And so I waited, like the other wives, like their children, and like all of Eboracum, for word of the legion. But there was nothing. No wounded stragglers staggered through the north gate; no gossip whispered in from outlying villages. And it was said that Quintus Pompeius Falco—the governor of Britannia himself—refused to send troops north to solve the mystery for fear of losing more men to the wild Caledonians.
We were left to wonder, and to wait.
I spent my days alone, as I always did when Marcus was away. The season changed from the bright, cool sunshine of late autumn to the damp chill of early winter. The giant oak outside our door shed its golden leaves, and they scattered across the paving stones in the brisk wind as if being chased away by the spirits. The days grew shorter, darker, and the shadows in our villa creeped in around me as I knitted new winter leggings that Marcus would never wear and mended his linen tunics that would I return, neatly folded and untouched, into the cupboard in our bedroom. I prepared meals for one—a ladleful of fish broth, a roasted turnip, a hunk of cheese. I no longer sang at the hearth, no longer baked wheat bread to serve with honey. My world dwindled down to shadows and a cold bed and the peat ashes in the hearth.
Had I a child, perhaps things would have been different. Perhaps I would have found joy in his laughter, purpose in his cries. I would have found love, direction, stability, and hope. But Marcus and I had not been blessed. We had been burdened. I had been nearly barren. It had taken a year for a child to grow inside me, and four months for the child to slip from my womb in a rush of pain and blood the previous spring.
And so, I was alone, and my only forays outside the grayness of the villa were to Eboracum’s cobbled marketplace, where the stifling crowds of Romans in their togas and stolae and woolen cloaks were strangers to me; strangers who whispered behind my back and eyed me with suspicion. I purchased food solely from Marina, a tall Roman woman with a long black braid, warm brown eyes, and curling lashes who did not mind that I was Brigante. While other merchants scoffed at me, remarking crudely on my blazing red hair and Brigante accent, Marina saved me her best cuts of trout and plump autumn vegetables and chatted with me about the weather, her young son Vitus, and the fate of the legion. Marina was a lifeline to the gossip and rumors that swirled throughout the city—gossip and rumors that were beyond my reach.
It was from her that I learned about the denarii.
“Have you heard anything, Marina?” I asked her one crisp morning.
Her brow furrowed and she shook her head. “Nothing of the legion, Brigida. I’m sorry.”
I nodded. I hadn’t expected news, but the familiar ache returned to my chest anyway.
“But I have heard that the legion treasurer is providing money to the wives of the officers,” she said. “Fifty denarii per month, so I was told.”
Fifty denarii. About half the cost of a Roman saddle. Not a small sum.
I thanked her and smiled, slipping three turnips and a trout into my reed basket.
That afternoon, I crossed the river from the civilian side of the city and through the walls to the legion fortress to speak with the treasurer at the principa. There was a long line of Roman wives standing outside the legion offices, and I waited with them, we wives bundled in our woolen cloaks against the brisk early winter wind. The principa was a vast building; made entirely of native gray stone, and taller than any structure I had seen outside the city. The Ninth had rebuilt the building themselves not many years ago, and it was an architectural wonder, the stones fitting perfectly one against another, with arched windows and a roof finished with rich ochre clay tiles brought all the way from Rome.
As the line of wives inched its way inside, I found myself in the broad atrium of the principa. I had never been inside and marveled at the green and blue mosaic on the floor—a fleet of ships sailing across a narrow band of water. Marcus had told me of this mosaic, which showed the mighty general Julius Caesar crossing the waters from Gaul to capture Britannia a hundred and fifty years before. While I admired the fine workmanship, my stomach clenched a bit at the mosaic’s subject. Caesar had brought suffering and death to my lands. But, I supposed—not for the first time—he had also, in his own way, brought me Marcus.
When it was my turn to speak with the treasurer—a bald, bored-looking man in a brilliant red cloak—I tried to speak in my best, unaccented Latin, asking about my denarii. I had been married to Marcus for two years, learning his language, and my Latin was good. But my language skills always deteriorated when I was nervous.
The treasurer narrowed his brown eyes. "What is your name?" he said.
"That is not a Roman name."
"I am wife to Marcus Fabius Verus. Centurion of the Third Cohort of the Ninth Legion."
"From where do you get your accent?"
"I am Brigante."
"There is no denarii for you here. Only Roman wives receive payment."
My chest ached.
"My husband," I said, balling my hands into fists. "He is a centurion."
"Go," the treasurer said, waving his hand. "There is nothing for you here."
As I left the office, walking past the gauntlet of Roman wives and across Caesar’s mosaic, I heard their whispers, heard their snickering. My face grew warm, and I took a deep breath, my steps quickening until I was well away from the principa, away from the treasurer and the mocking women. It was only then that I let a single tear drop from my eye. The tear traveled down my cheek and chin and neck, and I did not bother to wipe it away. I had cried so many tears since Marcus had gone missing, this was just one more.
The wind rose, and I pulled my cloak up around my ears.
I walked slowly back across the single wooden bridge over the River Ouse to the colonia, the civilian part of the city on the southern side. Our villa was nestled near to the southwest gate, amid a neighborhood of thatched-roof villas of other officers and their families. I passed the blacksmith, hammering away at his forge, and the tanner—the stench of animal carcasses mingling with the fresh dung he used to soften the leather hanging thick in the air. I walked on, passing the local tavern, where the scent of honeyed wine mingled with the warm smell of wheat bread and the nauseatingly sharp whiff of garum—the rotting fish guts the Romans loved so much as a dripping garnish on their bread.
The closeness of the city, the smells, the clusters of buildings shoved one on top of the other, began to suffocate me. It was a feeling I'd had many times before. My chest tightened as I yearned for the fresh air and freedom of the gorse and heather covered moors where my home village lay. Eboracum reeked of human activity, its buildings grand but clustered unnecessarily close. So many people packed into such narrow, cobbled roads and squares, the gray stone walls of the buildings closing in. Thousands of people breathing the same air, using the same putrid gutters as their sewers, despoiling the river with their filth. It had been an assault on my senses when I first came to Eboracum, and every now and then, it struck me in the heart again despite two years living here—how could these Romans breathe?
My lungs longed for the freshness of the breeze off the heather, sweet and pure. My eyes ached for the sky, broad and blue, as far as the eye could see—without the obstruction of buildings and roofs. I missed the sweet, cold water from a moorland stream, sipped from my own cupped hands, fingers chilled, the water fresh from the earth itself.
I reached our villa, a simple building of gray stone and thatch, and opened the door, the emptiness of our atrium echoing the hollowness I felt in my chest, yet a relief from the closeness of the city outside. Marcus had often apologized for the size of the house, promising that one day, when he was promoted to a more prestigious cohort, we would have a grander home. I never cared about such things—being with Marcus was all that mattered to me—and now the villa seemed huge, much too big for a single person.
I closed the oak door and walked across the stone floor to the small alcove where Marcus kept his lares. Marcus had had his lararium built in the atrium to indicate his up-and-coming status as a centurion in the legion. Any fellow officer who came to call would see them—the small, smooth, carved stone likenesses of his ancestor and personal domestic gods. There were four, one for his great-uncle Marius, a well-known hero in the legions, and three for traditional gods of home and hearth. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I should perhaps have a lare made for Marcus. Not for myself, but for him. It was perhaps what he would have wanted.
We Brigantes believed in ancestor-worship, like the Romans, but we did not use little figurines like them. We believed the spirits of our beloved dead and the ancient gods dwelt among the trees and streams and in the souls of the stags and boars of the moors. We had no need for stone carvings. And I found such a public display of the gods disconcerting—Brigantes believed one’s relationship with the gods was a private thing—and I never fully understood how the spirit of a god could be contained within a tiny stone statue. It made no sense. The gods were so great, so vast, so all-encompassing. How could a small figurine contain them? Even after two years, the Roman religion was a mystery to me still.
But I would light the candle that sat amid the lares tonight. I would do it for Marcus, as he had done so every night that I had known him. Perhaps it did not matter, but perhaps it did. Perhaps he would see the candle burning and be pleased.
I shrugged off my cloak and draped it over the back of one of the chairs beside our table. There was a chill in the air, and it would have been wise to light the peat bricks that sat ready in the hearth, but I could not be bothered. Instead, I sat down in the chair and rested my elbow on the smooth oak of the table, chin in my hand.
There is nothing for you here.
The hollowness in my chest deepened. The treasurer was right. Eboracum held nothing for me but pain and isolation. I was an outsider amongst both peoples of the north—Roman and Brigante.
But Marcus had left me his silver signet ring. And he had given me instructions, were anything ever to happen to him. The conversation had taken place two years ago, when he first brought me to Eboracum, and it had made my heart ache. Even then, starting out on our new life, I could not imagine a world without him. If he were killed, he had said, I was to go to Rome, to his father's house on the Tiber. There I was to show Marcus's ring. I would be taken in by his family, Marcus had said, taken care of. We had never discussed how I would get to Rome, only that I would go. Marcus had made me swear an oath to him, promising, and I had.
I had waited two months with no word. And now, it seemed, the time had come to fulfill my oath. But I did not know the way to Rome. I knew only that it lay far to the south of Britannia—past Germania, past Gaul, on a narrow peninsula surrounded by a great, wide sea. Yet I had made a promise to my Marcus, and there was nothing left for me in Eboracum, or anywhere else in Britannia.
The room was colder now and growing dark with the setting of the sun outside. A small, gray shape scurried around in circles in front of the hearth, searching for crumbs. Some company, at least, in the gloomy emptiness of the villa. I lit the clay oil lamp on the table, and the light flickered softly amidst the shadows of the atrium.
My mind drifted to the necessities of a journey to Rome. Certainly, I could not walk that far. I would need a horse. And to buy a horse, I would need money. The treasurer would not give me the denarii owed to me, but aside from the money Marcus kept in a purse in the kitchen for daily tasks like marketing, he had even more money hidden away in a leather pouch behind our bed in the next room. Silver, I knew, and perhaps some gold, as well. He had been a saver, my Marcus.
It would have to be a Brigante horse, not a Roman one. The Brigantes and the Celtic tribes before them had been breeding horses for thousands of years, long before the Romans came, and our horses were strong and tough. And I was unlikely to find a Roman who would be willing to sell me a horse in Eboracum anyway. Roman women did not buy horses. And if I made an attempt, as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, it would be obvious that I was not even Roman. If the merchants in the marketplace refused to sell me their turnips based on my heritage, how could I expect a horse trader to conduct such an expensive exchange with me?
So I would need to visit a Brigante village.
But a southern one, far from my own in the north—someplace where no one knew me.
I left the peat bricks unlit and carried the oil lamp to Marcus's small shrine. I touched the flame from the lamp to the wick of the fat beeswax candle and placed the lit candle down gently amidst the lares. The small flame flickered in the draft from the doorway, lighting the small stone figures in dancing shadows—first gold, then black, and then gold again. I said a soft Brigante prayer for the ancestors, and then padded across the stone floor to the bedroom, pulled our bed away from the wall, and found Marcus's leather purse. It was heavier than I expected. When I emptied the purse out onto the table in the atrium, I was surprised by the small fortune he had collected. Silver denarii and gold aurei sparkled up at me in the light of the oil lamp. Surely, this was more than enough money to get me to Rome.
I blew out the oil lamp and returned to our bedroom, sliding under our soft wool blanket. I turned over on my side and pulled the blanket up to my chin, resting my head on my pillow as the sun set. I had not eaten dinner—had not had the appetite—and sleep came to me slowly. I closed my eyes and a vision of Marcus came to me—tall and black-haired and laughing in the sunshine. We had met out on the rolling hills north of the city, and that was where I envisioned him, sitting amid the yellow gorse of early summer, a gentle breeze lifting the fringes of his short hair. His green eyes were clear and bright and held the sparkle he saved for storytelling and for flirting. The sound of his laughter echoed through my head.
A tear slipped out from the corner of my eye.
“Marcus,” I whispered. “Are you there?”
There was no answer. Only the tiny sound of little paws scuffling in the dry thatch of the roof. A steady rain began to fall, the rhythmic patter as familiar to me as the lines on the backs of my hands or the texture of my own hair—the sound of home.
Did it rain in Rome? Were there rolling hills and heathered moors? Was there bright yellow gorse in summer, abuzz with busy honey bees? Marcus had spoken to me often of Rome—of Caesar’s great Forum, of the Colosseum, of the Senate. But he had mentioned nothing of the natural world—the world that surrounded the city, breathed life into its air, gave the place its spirit and its essence.
The rain grew heavier, pelting down on the thatch.
Rome would come soon enough. For now, I would sleep. And perhaps, if the gods were kind, I would dream of Marcus.
The next morning, I rose before dawn and packed a leather bag with three salted trout and a satchel of dried beans, and I packed my two wool pallas, shawls to be worn under my cloak when winter came. I also included my best cotton stola—pale green embroidered with yellow flowers at the hem—and a fine white wool palla, to change into when I arrived in Rome. I wanted to look appropriate when I presented myself at the doorstep of Marcus’s family, and I was sure my traveling clothes would be covered with dust and grime after weeks on the road. I did not want to be refused entry by a servant or slave based on a ragged appearance.
I searched Marcus’s belongings and found a flint for starting fires, his old wool leggings, and a long, sharp knife in a tooled leather sheath. Those, too, went into my leather bag. I also packed two small peat bricks, wrapping them in wool cloth, in case I needed to light a fire out on the moors.
I slipped Marcus’s silver signet ring on to a length of leather twine. I tied the twine around my neck and it hung down low, hidden beneath my palla—safe from prying eyes. Looping my extra twine through the strings of Marcus’s leather purse, I slung it across my shoulders so it, too, was hidden beneath my palla.
Finally, I went to the alcove where Marcus kept his lares. I wrapped the small stone figures in a bit of grey wool cloth and slipped them into my leather bag. Marcus came from a large family—five brothers and two sisters. His brothers were scattered across the empire, serving with the legions, but his sisters were in Rome, living with his mother and father. They would appreciate the lares. I would give them to Marcus’s father Claudius Verus when I arrived at his house on the Tiber.
I ate a breakfast of hard cheese and salted fish in the dark and empty atrium, and then I rose, slinging my leather bag over my shoulder. Looking around the gloom of the place that had been our home, I whispered a soft goodbye in Brigante, and walked to the door, pulling it open and stepping outside.
The air was cold and crisp, touched by the breath of early winter. The sun had risen, and frost clung to the grasses that lined the deserted streets as I walked alone to the southwest gate. A small bird, a chaffinch, whistled from an oak tree as I passed. The smell of hearth fires burning filled the air. The city was waking.
The red-cloaked soldiers at the southwest gate looked bored, and they barely glanced at me as I passed through, leaving Eboracum, leaving my life with Marcus, for good.
And then the road south was before me.
The road to Rome.