Lucius, Luc, is commander of an auxiliary cavalry unit of Legio XX, Valeria Victrix. The son of a Caledonian mercenary who joined Rome, he and his four brothers are renowned soldiers of great ability and bravery. At 25 he has served ten years, is looking at another fifteen, and has had enough of killing.
When Maia is married off to her stepbrother, she is once again abandoned when he returns to his post. Seizing her chance to escape, she joins an exclusive group of travelling priestesses on their way to Britannia. But they can only take her some of the way, and she finds herself moving through a complex web of lies and deceptions, where everyone she meets has a separate agenda ...
Also in this series by Letitia Coyne on obooko:
Gallia Belgica AD77
Lyvia made a brief, critical study of the bride. In a soft, pale blue tunica, with her hair parted and bound in knots of red muslin and her flammeum veiling her head, the girl was presentable. At least she looked clean, and her breeding was irrelevant to the niche history would set for her. She would do well enough.
Maia rubbed at imagined stains on her palms. She had eaten little over the last few days and slept even less. Now her quaking knees woke tremors that rippled through her, breaking across her skin in a prickling rash of sweat and jostling her empty stomach.
It wasn’t excitement, and it was not fear that caused her discomfort. She had no fear of a union with Cilo. She loved him dearly; as she had from the first day they’d met, and as she had while they’d grown up together. She had always loved him, and she had grieved for his company when he’d joined the army so many years ago, when he’d left her there alone. She had counted off the days and prayed for the gods to bring him home to her again. If he was feared by reputation as a soldier, she had known only his love, his protection, and his ready laugh.
But neither was it joy. As much as she loved him, it was as she had always known him. She loved him as her brother.
“Why are you just standing there, child?” Her stepmother’s words were sharp.
Slow tears formed along Maia’s lower lashes and she blinked them away. She wanted to say ‘I wish my mother was with me’, but her mother had gone, too, and she was alone. This cold contempt now passed for a mother’s love. “Has Cilo dressed?” she asked instead.
“Of course. He and the lads are still celebrating the new vintage. If you aren’t soon ready there’ll be none left for the feast.”
That was unlikely. Lyvia had planned this day too well. Even its inauspicious coincidence with the festival of Vinalia Rustica had been slated well before the shocking news was broken to the bride.
Maia slipped on her russet sandals and tried for the hundredth time to straighten the knot at her waist. She needed to wash her hands again, but there was no water nearby. Lifting her circlet of wild dianthus and amaranths, she set it carefully so it held the veil in place over the massed intricacies of her hair. “Go on out, then,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Lyvia needed no second prompt. She swept from the room leaving small breezes to giggle in her perfumed wake.
Maia felt for the tiny leather pouch hidden at her breast and drew out a small silver coin. Her mother had placed this same coin in her own shoe on the day she’d married Bassus. She had no clear recall of the custom or its meaning, she was too long away from her homeland, but it was a tie, a tiny gesture that brought her mother’s memory closer on this special day.
Lifting the hem of her long, narrow tunica, she slipped the little coin into her sandal, under her heel, and gathered herself to walk through the door into her wedding, alone.
Cilo might have dressed formally at some time that morning, but the day’s celebrations had left him more than moderately dishevelled. His hair was a wild mass of black curls that knotted over his ears and tumbled down the leather of his ornamental cuirass. He was in uniform, although technically he was no longer a soldier, and he was breathtaking.
He stood when he saw his bride enter the hall. His full lips, for which he had long ago been named Cilo, parted as he smiled tight reassurance at her, and teeth as white as new chalk shone against his sun-brown skin. But the smile did not reach his serious green eyes or touch the frown that was set above them.
Maia froze in the doorway. No part of her would move. Dread made her feel fragile, her bones brittle and her joints unreliable. Her feet seemed to have set into the hard baked clay of the tiles, then her trembling knees and her hips.
All eyes came to her as an expectant hush filled the room. Standing alone, she could see all the faces before her: hard, earth-brown men in battle dress. Lyvia and Bassus were among them, too; him with a broad smile over many proud chins, and her with the sharp efficiency of flesh that showed her meanness of spirit as clearly as volume showed the generosity of his.
The rush of blood in her ears was deafening. Her chest was tight, as if her ribs were iron bands, cold and constricting. Her cheeks burned. A whimper escaped and she forced her sticky palms down her thigh, smoothing the soft flannel of her tunica.
Tiberia stood across the room at a low table, her broad smile pleading, willing Maia to step forward and take her place for the ceremony. A servant as pronuba, another of Lyvia’s slights, but not one Maia could take too much to heart. The old domestic was kind and warm, as matronly as anyone Maia had known.
And Cilo stepped forward with his hand extended as if his touch would compensate for her inadequacies. Listing slightly to the left, he steadied himself on the edge of a table and walked to where she stood.
“You look beautiful.” He kissed the back of her fingers where the iron band of their engagement lay, dark against her pale skin, then brought his eyes up to hers, pleading. In the instant they met Maia glimpsed despair, but he bowed his head, and black curls shook away the moment of crisis as he led her toward the dais.
Given her chance at last, Tiberia seized their joined hands. Joy trembled through all the comfortable excess of her aging frame, and as carefully as her bursting joy permitted, she spoke her solemn words aloud. “Do you come willingly to your husband?” Her eyebrows leapt up her forehead and she bobbed her face at Maia in an exaggerated encouragement to speak.
Maia studied the man beside her. In Rome, or at home in Pompeii, they would make mosaics to capture his image. He was glorious, godlike, and he held himself taut, his determined profile offering her no reassurance. They had both come to this ceremony willingly, and yet there was no mistaking the desperation that moved behind his eyes.
He was her hope for happiness, and the knowledge that he came to her despondent, maybe even resentful, trampled the last bits of her courage into dust. It lay thick and bitter on her tongue, drying all her dreams of escape and freedom. Slow breaths dragged into her chest. She could not have forced herself to run if there had been another sanctuary to find.
He was her only hope, and she was tethered to him there as surely as if the ring she wore was still the iron shackle of a slave. He was her rock, her only safe place. With her hand crushed into his by Tiberia’s eager claw, she forced her throat to work, saying, “When and where you are Gaius, then and there I am Gaia.”
The matron of honour could control her delight no longer. Surging forward she deluged the couple, crushing Maia between the warmth of an old servant’s ample bosom and her husband’s hard leanness. Her ears were red hot, burning with old shames, and a persistent hum droned the sounds from around her. Somewhere deep inside, her soul sang an ancient keening song in a language she could not quite recall. Against the silent strength of her husband’s grip, she felt herself gently rocking.
The Auspex was an older man; Maia did not recall having seen his face in the days since the garrison had arrived. He wore the insignia of the Twentieth Legion and his bearing was slow and deeply serious. He cleared his throat to hurry Tiberia from her place in the middle of the ceremony and then solemnly mumbled his way through the incantations to Jupiter. He offered the grain cakes, broke them and presented them to the bride and groom to eat.
From her fingers Cilo ate the offering and she from his, but when she searched his face for empathy, or some kind of strength or courage she could borrow, she saw only wine addled emotion which could have been pain or humiliation.
He refused to meet her eyes, fixing his blurred vision on the Auspex as he brought out the Tabilae Nuptiales and placed it before them to sign. Then in his graceful hand, the script of a man destined to be senator, he crafted his name. Oppius Pompeius Bassus. Beside his words she set the stylus, trying to breath calmly enough to settle her nerves and steady her trembling fingers, and wrote: Maia Pompeia. His wife, eternally.
When he brought his face to hers again at last, his lovely eyes were brimming over. It was done, and the tension that had kept him so rigidly upright gave way suddenly. He seemed to sag briefly, then he caught himself, smiled and squeezed her hand as he drew her to himself slowly and kissed her lightly on the lips.
He smiled again, not at her but at the crowd. In an instant he remade himself and he pulled her tight against his side. One strong arm rested on her shoulder; the other thrust high in the air in defiance or salute as the crowd raised a wild cheer and rushed forward in celebration.
First witness to sign was not Lyvia or Bassus as she expected, but Gnaeus Julius Agricola, consul of Gallia Aquitania, Pontifex, Commander of Legio XX Valeria Victrix, now to be Governor of Britannia. Cilo’s commanding officer.
Lyvia’s feast was as sumptuous as the provincial markets allowed: rich meats, peacocks and other game fowl, sucking pigs, and the best of the autumn harvest. Dignitaries had come down river from Lutetia, and the families of freemen from the farms and villages along the Seine valley had joined the celebration, but soldiers far outnumbered the other guests.
Among them Cilo seemed to rise above his sadness as the hours passed. He had chosen duty. He had chosen compliance and obedience to the future set for him. A future in Rome, far from the battlefield, with Maia as his wife. This future starting now, surrounded by those he loved, carousing loudly, feasting and singing as if each bird, each goblet, each song might be his last.
But as their wedding reception progressed, Maia sat quietly alone, seeing little and caring less. Her ears and eyes turned inward to the memory of an ancient song. It resembled pipes, soft and hollow, but as she studied the melody she recognized in it a woman’s cry. It was the song of her mother’s fathomless grieving for a life lost, and her own.
Her body made no real demands upon her attention, and the irritation of the little silver coin was barely noticeable unless she stood. She drained her glass of new wine and refilled it, taking a seat again at the side of the banquet hall. On an empty stomach the fog of wine was comforting, soothing away hunger and easing stresses from her neck and shoulders. It helped her float toward the song, carried her back to another world, another life.
She could see her mother’s face on the day she’d married Bassus, speaking important truths about fate and happiness. About courage. She remembered standing between her stepbrothers, Appius and Oppius, feeling small and so exposed, but clinging tightly to hands that had promised her protection.
So much was gone, but not Cilo. Not the big brother who loved her and who’d sheltered her through losses too painful to bear. Not Cilo; surely he could never be ashamed of her. Turning her attention out, she found him in the crowd and watched him laughing. He was her only hope. What she needed now was her mother’s courage. The courage to stand beside him, no matter what, and together, somehow, they would find joy in their union.
But still the night wore on, and the time to form the Pompa, their procession to the marriage bed, came and went. Tiberia had been ordered back to the kitchens and was clearing and serving still, so she had no matron to stand with her. That which should have been a mother was conspicuously elsewhere, intent on leaving Maia to suffer her humiliation alone, while she herself accomplished a masterpiece in colonial entertainment.
Alone then, she approached her husband. “Cilo, we have to go now. Some of the guests have already had to leave.”
“It’s all right.” He pulled her against his side, under his arm, as if she belonged there with his comrades, as a miniature or mascot for the troops. “There is plenty of time, angel. Here, have some wine.”
“No, no more wine.” She took the goblet he pushed into her hand. “Your commander has gone out to the barracks, did you notice? That’s bad protocol, Cilo. If he goes, shouldn’t all these men go back to the barracks too?”
“He’s a good man. And fair. He would never stop a wedding celebration. And I’m his tribune, he trusts my judgment.”
“But we have to go, don’t you see? Even if every other part of this celebration has been a farce, this we have to do. We have to light the white torches and make the procession. You know that.”
“A farce? This has been the best celebration ever. Our dear stepmother has seen to that. Look at her over there, slithering around her guests.”
“Cilo, stop it! Not so loud, she’ll hear you.”
“Yes, she’ll hear me and call up the Furies. Oh, too late. There’s one now.”
“Cilo!” Maia warned, uselessly.
“Serpent hair and eyes of blood, looks like her to me. What do you think?”
“Stop it. You’ll make trouble for us.”
“Trouble? My angel, you can’t guess at the trouble we’ve made for ourselves, you and me. Drink. Toast our glorious future.” He wiped a finger down her cheek and the smile slid away from his lips. “You have no idea the price the fates have demanded. And that’s as it should be. Here, drink up.”
His weight was growing uncomfortable on her neck and reasoning with him was useless. She took a gulp of wine against the burning in her throat, and turning, she slipped from under his arm and trudged sadly to where a small group of guests was preparing to leave.
At last, as servants began to clear away some of the chaos, Bassus hugged her gently. “My darling, why aren’t you smiling? What a feast! Word of tonight will be heard in Rome.” He laughed, delighted. “These boys will sing songs about tonight for years to come.” He looked at her kindly, turning her face up to his with thick sausage fingers. “Are you so sad? What a wedding. What a husband! Though I’m biased. And such a bride. Look at you, my sweet girl. How could the day have been any better?”
Maia tried a smile but it twitched uncertainly under Lyvia’s predatory sneer. How many ways could she count? “Well Papa, I might have come with a dowry. Anything I could have called my own.”
“Oh!” Bassus was obviously struck. “I never thought,” he began.
Lyvia cut him off. “Nonsense, girl. Surely you bring all your mother left you.”
“Yes,” the old man agreed. “When I married your dear mother all I own became hers, and through her, yours. You take whatever you like. Anything you want.” Happy with this thought, he turned to find his son, to share his blessings as he retired.
Lyvia stayed long enough to spit, “I was thinking much smaller, more intimate. What was it your mother brought with her to the slave stalls? Apart from you.” Her small eyes narrowed, watching to see her words hit their mark.
Maia swallowed the burn. She refused to blink dry eyes and forced her bottom lip to be still. Only her nostrils flared slightly as she hissed an answer. “Courage.”
Her stepmother stood, wary, her face expressionless as she studied the girl before her. She searched every feature, every shade in Maia’s golden eyes, hunted through the fatigue and emotional wreckage of the night and probed for any hint of threat. Then she laughed. Flicking long fingers dismissively in Maia’s face, she threw her head back and laughed. She turned her back and followed her husband out into the night, laughing.
Maia rubbed determinedly at her hands, forcing one palm against the other in an attempt to grind away the filth. Tiny muscles near her eyes and in her chin ticked and tugged until her face fell into an uncertain frown.
Her mother had been a warrior; she had fought beside her father and seen him fall. She had kept her small daughter alive through the filth of the slave stalls, through miles of snow, across vast plains where she’d begged for water. To a new land, a new life. A new name.