Wales AD 383 is the most remote province of Roman-occupied Britain, colonised for over 300 years. Magnus Maximus, known to the Celts as Macsen Wledig, has grown restless with his role as general of the Roman army in Britannia. His nights are broken by dreams of an impossibly beautiful Welsh maiden. He sets his sights on moving his legions out of Britannia to challenge Gratianus - the emperor of the Western Roman Empire.
Flavius Arcadius is less than enamoured by his general's plans. The army's withdrawal will leave his family, neighbours and all of Britannia unprotected and at the mercy of internecine conflict between the local tribes and the even greater threat of pagan invaders from the east. He does, however, have a vision for the future - a fortified villa surrounded by a self-sufficient community - if only he could find a way to stay behind when the legions move.
Flavius starts to plot...
Maximus is sufficiently in thrall to his fantasies to allow Flavius to set out with his two friends and fellow officers, Severus and Caradocus, to seek out, abduct and take this dream girl to him as his bride...
The three soldiers wander through the wilds of Cymru, intent only on delaying their return. To their astonishment, they come across a young woman who is the living image of Maximus's dream maiden. Flavius and Severus are determined to bring the girl, Elen, to Maximus. Caradocus, however, engineers their escape.
Elen's beauty is matched by her wit and intelligence; and her courage is demonstrated when she saves them both from capture. Before long, the two runaways are in love. But Caradocus and Elen are going to need more than their wits to survive, when they are being hunted - not just by Flavius and Severus, but by Elen's father and, for all they know, the full might of the Roman army...
|Publisher:||Pegasus Elliot MacKenzie Publishers Ltd|
|Product dimensions:||6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.89(d)|
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Late January, AD 383: A Welsh Dream
There was a loud crash right outside his bedroom. General Magnus Maximus woke with a start, reaching under his pillow. He sat bolt upright and listened, unsure whether it was a real noise or part of his dream. Nothing. The general relaxed his grip on his ever-ready dagger. Nothing but the wind. Maybe a strong gust had blown something over. It was often windy and wet on the exposed coast of the Sabrina River estuary. But ever since the bloody mayhem of his narrow defeat of the Picts and the Scots just over a year ago, he'd become overly sensitive to strange noises. Brigands were still seeking revenge — restitution in blood. Even doubling his personal guards hadn't reassured him.
He lay back and closed his eyes, but further sleep was impossible. His dream was far too arousing, and not only in his mind. Like most dreams, this one was elaborate and illogical, yet still vivid. It differed only slightly from some of his earlier ones. The mysterious maiden, living in a tribal fortress somewhere in the craggy hills of Cymru, close to the general's present headquarters, was the same absolute perfection every time. Now, however, she was in a villa by the River Sego, playing a game of latrunculi. She comes to him, puts her arms around his neck and whispers how much she desires him. She says this in Latin, which is odd because, judging from the decorations on her gossamer robe, she must be tribal, but a Christian, judging from the intricate silver cross hanging from a thin chain around her delicate neck.
The general knew she was a Celt because her skin was the colour of ivory, and the tone of her unblemished face was like the petals of the pale blush roses growing wild along the roadside. He hadn't seen many of the young local women here at Castra Legionis, the formidable fort that housed his headquarters. But some of his officers' wives and girlfriends had that same creamy complexion, so different from the dark-haired beauties he had grown up around in Hispania. Even the lady of the nearby villa, Lady Galeria, to whom he was so attracted, showed the effects of the harsh sunlight and dry air of her childhood home on the Iberian Peninsula. A region perfect for olives, oranges, and the best wine grapes in the Empire, wasn't quite so perfect for a maiden's complexion.
Here in Cymru, smooth skin, pale as marble, was compensation for the incessant mist, frequent showers, and insipid sunlight. When he'd first come to this most westerly province of Britannia, the general had grumbled about the damp, the treacherous marshes, and the chilliness of summer. But he'd quickly come to relish the climate — it harmonised so perfectly with the physical environment, at once gentle and harsh, both enveloping and inaccessible. What the locals called mountains were molehills compared to the jagged Pyrenaei of his homeland, but these green hills had their own appeal. It was a deceptively peaceful landscape that belied the fierceness of its inhabitants.
As he had come to know the local Celts better, he admired them as a rough tribal people who embraced a strong spirituality. As long as they weren't plotting sedition against Rome, were no longer engaging in human sacrifice, and the druids were keeping a low profile, he didn't mind the common folk blending their new Christianity with faith in their ancient gods. Unlike the constantly marauding Picts, the people of Cymru offered a sense of permanence in this subtle landscape. Someone had once pointed out to him ancient burial cairns and mysterious stone circles no-one would dare touch. It was claimed they were older than the founding of Rome itself — predating Romulus and Remus by a thousand years or more. As old as Troy.
Why had he thought of Troy? In his reoccurring dreams, he could well have been the audacious prince who abducted Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world. But what was different about his latest dream was that he seemed to have become the emperor of the Western Roman Empire. In this dream, he'd been greeted by men, possibly senators, in modern dress, the latest, most fashionable togas, shouting "All hail, Augustus!".
What were dreams anyway, he wondered? Could they be prophetic, foretelling the future? Or did they reveal the furtive desires and wishes of the dreamer, hiding in the mind's shadows? The thought of becoming the emperor of the Western Roman Empire had occurred to him, as he'd admitted to Lady Galeria late one evening in the villa after too much Spanish wine. In recent months, some of his troops had made no secret of their dislike of Gratianus, the current emperor, and had been brazenly muttering that General Magnus Maximus himself should consider deposing him. Maximus had a reputation for leading from the front. The men respected that. They didn't want an emperor who lounged safely in a tent playing at strategy or consorting with alien Scythians from the east. No, they wanted someone like Julius Caesar, who was the first to jump off his ship onto the shores of Britain, and after scooping up a handful of sand, declared the island conquered. Or so the story went; stories get better and better after four hundred years.
The trouble with his men was you couldn't tell just how hard-line they were trying to be, stirring up trouble for its own sake, rather than expressing a well thought out policy position. He knew they were staunch, and would follow him to Pluto's gates, the very portal to the underworld, but they had a reputation for being unruly. The troops in Britannia were widely regarded as being the most turbulent and volatile legions in the Empire. For the general, however, loyalty was more important. If turbulence and volatility made them eager fighters, that was a big plus as far as he was concerned. As for discipline, he was happy to give the impression it was lax. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The general had some outstanding, tough officers, especially the senior commanders here at the barracks of Castra Legionis. If there was even a hint of his men supporting a military coup, the general was content to let others believe the army in Britain was up for a good fight.
But why did he keep dreaming of the mysterious maiden? Was it possibly a heartening message from the Archangel Gabriel, who had brought the annunciation to Mary that she was going to bear a son, even though she was a virgin, and that He was to be called Jesus? But, be careful. Dreams might be temptations coming from evil spirits. Could his reoccurring dream be related in some way to his interest in Lady Galeria from the villa? He was drawn to her like a nail to a lodestone and he was positive she was attracted to him as well. Most women tended to admire his tall, confident stature, bronze complexion, and aquiline features. She was older than he, but strikingly pleasing to the eye. Not as perfect as the mysterious maiden in his dream, but still charming and attractive. She reminded him of his dear mother when she'd been in her prime, back in Hispania.
Was the Devil playing with his mind, exploiting his ambivalence over the women in his life? There was his wife, Belvederia, and three children, living in Augusta Treverorum. He wrote often, but he rarely got to see her, and she was complaining bitterly. As commander of the Roman army in Britain he couldn't just dash off to Gaul whenever he wanted, or more realistically, whenever she wanted, however much he enjoyed Treverorum as a place to visit. And she kept asking him what plans he had for their two daughters, who needed to be found husbands soon. Then there was the regrettable fact the Domina, Lady Galeria of the imposing villa, had thus far rejected all his advances. It was indeed unsettling. He'd never experienced rejection before. Maybe the maiden in the dream, living in the wilds of Cymru, could be available as a substitute, a consolation prize? Maybe she was a Roman masquerading as a Celt and living in one of the forts the army had built a couple of hundred years ago? But then why did she call him by a strange Celtic name he'd rarely heard before: Macsen Wledig?
Should he order some scouts to ride out to the countryside to find this woman? But on what pretext? Better still, could he ride north and check out the area himself? There was excellent hunting for swans, geese, and other waterfowl on the Sego River — a perfect excuse. Try to be more realistic; he didn't have the time. Maybe he could just casually tell some of his closest aides about the dream and see what they had to say. Possibly they'd have some intelligence; they'd surely have heard whispers if such a maiden did exist.
Intelligence! How the hell did his own sworn troops get enough information about Emperor Gratianus that they could form an opinion of how well he was doing or who his cronies were? His own formal communication services and dispatches were hopelessly erratic. What if he nudged his men just a tiny bit about their desire to see him as emperor? If they were serious and encouraged him, it would need to be a major campaign. He'd have to deploy all his troops, cross the narrow sea, and fight his way across northern Gaul. He'd need to get the Sixth Legion down from Eboracum, the major defensive fort in the north. That would weaken Hadrian's Wall and the northern defences, but the marauding Attacotti didn't seem to have much fight left in them, neither did the Picts or the Scots, who'd been shown no mercy in recent skirmishes. Some of the forts in the east set up to confront Saxon raiders might have to release their garrisons. Then there are the battle-hardened units up in our main northern fort at Segontium, who have been the most devoted of all. Maybe that was why the mysterious maiden seemed to be living near the mouth of the Sego River.
It would be possible to pull together such an army. He was an excellent organiser. What if he put out some feelers, subtly, to see what the response would be from the rank and file? There'd be no problem with wages; he'd been squirrelling gold bullion away for years and he could order any of the four worthless provincial consulari to hand over their tax revenues directly to him. The very idea of a major campaign such as this was energising. Yes, it was exactly what he needed to overcome his melancholy and frustration; Lady Galeria's rejection was unsettling. And, come to think of it, the Empire would be better off as well. But it was risky, and he didn't like risks. He was calculating and shrewd, planful. It was early in the year, the end of Mensis Ianuarius. If he decided to take on Gratianus, he needed a few months before the spring weather would be favourable.
The general was a devout man. Before staggering out of his bedchamber and calling so early for his personal servants to bring hot water, he knelt and asked the Lord Jesus Christ for guidance. After a few minutes, however, he felt convinced Christ wasn't paying much attention. Instead of receiving guidance on the justification for mounting a campaign to depose the lazy, heretical, Gratianus, he couldn't get the image of the maiden — now devoid of her gossamer robe — out of his head. He was reasonably certain, even if an archangel had been trying to tell him something important, that Christ, were He listening at all, would not be encouraging such carnal thoughts right in the middle of an earnest prayer.CHAPTER 2
March, AD 383: A Secret Meeting
Flavius Arcadius looked all around before dismounting. He was as tense as a winched and loaded catapulta. This was tribal territory, the very edge, both in time and space, of what was left of Pax Romana, and you couldn't be too careful. He slid awkwardly from the saddle. He wasn't familiar with this spirited horse, and there was usually some underling waiting attentively to hold the reins. Here, by design, he was on his own. Tethering the mare to the only available tree, he patted her neck without affection and marched towards a low wattle and straw structure.
Flavius was tall and lanky, clean-shaven, with thick, chestnut brown hair. His mother was from Hispania and it was rumoured, not in a nasty way, there was more than a drop of Moorish blood in her veins. Flavius had inherited by nature her dark, olive complexion and had acquired through nurture her aristocratic bearing. His stride was confident, but he felt the exact opposite. Approaching what was little more than a long shed with a heavy curtain for a door, he placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and eased it out of its scabbard by no more than a thumb's length. You didn't want to walk into a strange situation and find your sword was stuck. In this miserably damp climate any mishap was possible, and in such hostile territory it could be fatal.
Pulling aside the curtain he entered the smoky half-darkness. The noisy chatter of the ale house stopped abruptly. All eyes turned to him, piercing the gloom, and Flavius felt the sting of their stares as palpably as stumbling into a bed of nettles. The seated men were a rough lot — sporting droopy moustaches and dressed in work clothes with woollen cloaks, which could easily conceal weapons. He recoiled momentarily from the rank smell of the place — sweat, beer, urine, and smoke. He'd spent his adult life around soldiers; odious smells weren't new but still hard to take. Holding his breath, Flavius approached the least crowded trestle table, and as he did so the three yokels sitting there leapt to their feet. Flavius's hand went again to the pommel of his sword, but they were just clearing out of his way. He sat down at one of the now abandoned stools. A fellow in a stained apron came over, stooping obsequiously. He poured Flavius a beer in a horn mug, mumbling in halting Vulgar Latin, "No charge for you, sir, we're honoured to have you in this humble tavern."
Flavius smirked, more to himself than to the tavern keeper. Folks brewing and selling beer were supposed to pay a significant licence fee to the local magistrate, but there wasn't much enforcement this far west. Flavius looked important, even though he had dressed down for the occasion. The tavern keeper probably assumed he had some kind of administrative authority — free beer should keep this intruder happy and off his back. Sucking up to the Romans was always good policy, despite the other customers scowling their general displeasure at this favouritism.
Although he only ever drank wine at home, Flavius liked the local ale. It was strong and flavourful with a nice yeasty froth on top, so he wiped the rim of the mug with the edge of his cloak and knocked back several large gulps appreciatively. After a few minutes the local patrons shrugged, relaxed, and went back to their earlier arguments and boasts, but in muted, less raucous tones. Flavius knew if they'd met him on a lonely path at night they would have been much more belligerent. But in front of so many others — and there were always potential informers among them — few would be foolhardy enough to take on an officer in the imperial army. Their passive hostility turned to surprise, however, when, after finishing his beer, Flavius stood up, shouted in perfect Celtic to the man in the apron, "Thanks, mister, good beer," and dropped a few small coins on the table.
It was enough to ensure if there were any enquiries later, everyone in the joint would swear that yes indeed they had seen a Roman officer in uniform, but he was undoubtedly alone and had not met with anyone. He was going back to the garrison and on this surprisingly warm early spring day it was understandable he'd been hot and thirsty. No, it was definitely not a meeting. He was by himself, for sure.
Once outside, Flavius stripped off his cloak, revealing basic battle armour. Those lads in the tavern were sensible not to have tried anything, as none would've been a match for disciplined Roman swordplay, and his chainmail would have protected him. But a gang would have been quite a different story. More importantly, though, Flavius hated fighting and was relieved there'd been no trouble, despite deliberately drawing attention to himself in such an ostentatious fashion. As he left the tavern, however, he kept looking back. Good; no-one was following him.
Riding on, Flavius relaxed for the first time in days. He couldn't help but delight in the empty countryside with its gently rolling hills and small streams sometimes running right across the rough road — not one of ours, he thought smugly. In the far distance, a thin column of blue smoke focused his attention on what he could just make out to be a cluster of round, thatched huts. Safe enough; a farm. Startled hares raced through the long grass into the protection of tough bramble hedgerows, sending flocks of noisy blackbirds skyward. Swaths of bog cotton — carecta his mother called it — revealed how soggy the ground was this time of year. In summer, when the fluffy white tips appeared, Mother would send out the household servants to gather it for candle wicks, or for dressing the cuts and minor injuries of his boyhood friends. The memories comforted him. This was where he had grown up and where he felt deeply rooted: a citizen of the Eternal City, yet nurtured in a distant, ancient landscape, dotted with stone monoliths whose function no-one now understood, and whose origins were unknown. Giants were usually given the credit.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The First Village"
Copyright © 2018 Ian M. Evans.
Excerpted by permission of Vanguard Press.
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