A sharp cry dragged Marcus out of what would have been the first restful sleep he’d had in weeks. In the pre-dawn dimness, his bleary eyes beheld a familiar form sitting upright beside him, heaving in barely-restrained sobs.
He resisted the urge to groan. Instead, he asked softly, “Was it the dream again?”
Marcus sighed through his nose. That made the third time in thrice as many days.
“Oh, Marcus!” she half-wailed, and threw her arms around his neck. He let her cry on his shoulder for several-score heartbeats, stroking her hair.
“You must think me a silly, silly girl,” she said half-muffled.
“Not at all, dear,” he said. Which was mostly true. He did, however, think being so rudely awakened for the thirteenth time to be no way to spend the first month of what he’d hoped to be a happy marriage. For either of them.
He held her for a little longer until what he really wanted to do with Cottia became thoroughly out of the question.
At length, she pulled back slightly. “I don't suppose either of us is likely to get back to sleep.”
He shook his head. “I very much doubt it.” He sighed. “Perhaps I should begin breakfast.”
“Oh, gods, no!”
“Marcus, you burn water!”
“It is not as bad as that.”
She nodded in the darkness.
“No, no,” Cottia said. “Like this.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “How you two fed yourselves during your little quest is quite beyond me. Now, pay attention.”
Marcus watched her plop another dollop of butter on a hot stoneware pan. It sizzled a little as she swirled the rapidly-melting milk-fat around on the surface with a deft turn of the wrist. She spooned a little stiff batter out of a brick-red Samian-ware bowl and half-poured it onto the melted butter where it, too, sizzled. After several long moments, she slid a thin metal utensil under a little rising bakestone slightly smaller than his palm and flipped it over. She let it cook a little longer before sliding it off onto an earthenware dish to join several other blackcurrant bakestones.
“You see?” she said. “Nothing to it.”
“You make that look so easy,” he said. “How long were you made to practice?”
“Far too long,” she glowered. A moment later, she softened. “Or perhaps not. I just...I resented being pressured, the forced expectation. Never mind that I would probably have done these things anyway.”
Marcus heard footsteps behind him.
“Ah,” said Uncle Aquila from across the room. “I wondered what the disturbance was all about.”
“Disturbance?” Cottia asked. “Is that what you think of me?”
Aquila chuckled softly. “No, no, of course not. You know how fond I am of you, yes?”
“Of course. But...disturbance?”
“I am teasing you, my dear. You're the daughter I never had, just as Marcus is the son I never had. Which gives me the prerogative to tease you. And I have many years of catching-up to do.”
Aquila chuckled, perhaps a bit too gleefully, it seemed to Marcus. His expression hardened. “You dreamed the dream again,” he said to Cottia.
She nodded and Aquila sighed through his nose. He shook his head. “Marcus, this cannot continue.”
“But what am I to about it?”
“That is the question. What does one usually do for a dreamer of dreams?”
Marcus shrugged. “Why ask me? I’ve never known one. Until now, that is.”
“I’ll tell you.” Marcus looked past Uncle Aquila to where Esca seemed to materialize out of the gloom.
“Oh, please do,” Cottia begged.
Esca half-smiled in the low firelight. “What happens in your holy book?”
Marcus and Aquila both blinked at Esca.
“In that book of books favored by the followers of the Risen Christ. In it, people see visions and dream dreams all the time.”
“Mm,” said Aquila, “so I’ve heard. But I imagine that it was not as common as that. The books of history cover, what, five, six hundred years? More? And in that time, how often has someone seen visions or dreamed dreams, as you put it? Once a generation?”
“That is less than unhelpful, Uncle.”
“Is it not obvious?” Esca asked. “We must find an interpreter.”
Marcus frowned. “Not my area of expertise.”
Aquila pinched his nose. “Let me inquire. But discretely, mind you. Britons tend to be, shall we say, a superstitious bunch. No offense,” he added to Esca.
Aquila looked toward the nearest window, the thin skin covering it beginning to grey with the dawn. “Shall I take breakfast first?”
“I’ll go,” said Esca.
Esca shook his head. “It should be me.”
“He’s right, Uncle,” said Marcus. “You and I would stand out too much.”
“Are you sure?” Aquila asked.
“I may know a man who knows a man who knows...well, it is not important. I shall return. Soon, I hope.”
Cottia held out the dish. “Blackcurrant bakestone?” She nodded to another plate. “Or black pudding?”
Esca took one of each and nodded. “I thank you.”
The sun had just passed its zenith, driving most of the lingering chill from the air. Starlings chattered in the treetops. A flock of sparrows erupted from a hawthorn. A handful of swallows veered about.
A well-worn path twined through shaggy grass, round a copse of shrubbery, and nearly ended at a marshy tract crossed by hopping from one reedy hummock to another before vanishing through a loose hedge above which rose great grey trunks.
Marcus took one look over his shoulder before following the others into the relative gloom.
The foliage quickly gave way to an understory nearly denuded of vegetation, save for a few tenacious yellow poppies. The remains of ivy vines hung from several of the great trunks.
“Whatever happened to it?” Cottia asked, pointing to it.
“Goats,” Esca said. “They eat anything.”
“Yet they left the poppies.”
A slight trough through ankle-deep leaf litter led them after a short while to a clearing a hundred paces across. A small truck garden occupied most of the space. On the far side stood a roundhouse, fleshy-leaved houseleeks clinging to seasons-old thatch. A few tendrils of smoke curled through gaps near the peak of the conical roof. Coralbells, daffodils, snowdrops, fritillaries, and bluebells, their flowers long gone, huddled around the walls. Off to one side stood a small lean-to surrounded by a wattle-and-daub fence behind which several goats gazed out.
Esca skirted the space and stopped at the door. Just inside hung a sheet of animal skin, probably goat.
Esca slapped his hand on the thatch eave, dislodging a few rosettes of the houseleek.
“Hello, the house!” he called.
A long silence followed.
“Ceridwen?” Esca said. “Ceridwen ferch Morgan?”
“Who wants to know?” a woman demanded from within.
“Esca of Caledonia. And Marcus of Roma and his wife Cottia of Valentia and uncle Aquila also of Valentia.”
“I’m a Briton!” Cottia insisted.
Moments later, the skin moved and a woman shoved her head out. She peered at them through blue eyes set in a face much younger and fairer than Marcus had expected.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“Frogs sing in the rain,” said Esca.
The blue eyes widened slightly. Ceridwen snorted and pulled the hide aside. “Very well, come in, come in.”
One by one, they filed into the darkness within. Once Marcus’ eyes adjusted, he saw it to be better-lit than he had thought. A bit of light spilled through a myriad of small gaps in the thatch. A small fire cast a ruddy glow on crossed beams the size of his own arm. On the opposite side of the space stood a small bed raised a handspan from the packed-earth floor, the latter strewn with straw, save within a few paces of a hearth made from a ring of rocks. Beside that rested a three-legged pipkin and a larger earthenware pot with a chipped rim on which rested a large wooden spoon.
“So,” she said, “you have a problem, I take it.”
Marcus exchanged a glance with Aquila.
“You have no idea,” Cottia glowered.
Ceridwen looked at her for several considering moments. Then, “I see.” She gestured toward a pair of small wooden stools. “Sit, dearie.”
Cottia settled herself on one of the stools. Ceridwen drew up the other and sat with her knees nearly touching Cottia’s. She cast the men a sidelong glance. “This could take a while," she said.
“A while?” Marcus asked.
“It will take as long as it takes.” She returned her attention to Cottia. “Tell me everything.”
Cottia took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it slowly out again. “It started three months ago, a week after my wedding.”
“And your husband?”
Cottia nodded toward Marcus. “There.”
Ceridwen gave Marcus a considering look. “Good choice, I should think. Then what?”
“The dreams began.”
“Tell me this dream.”
Cottia took another breath, and let it shudderingly out.
“I stood atop the tower at Rutupiae Light,” she said, “gazing eastward. Behind me, the sun had just set, painting the clouds in pink and orange. But no fire burned in the beacon beside me. Below me, all was dark except for dozens of torches, all carried toward a score of waiting boats. One by one, they sailed with the tide and vanished into a full moon that bore the face of an eagle.
“Then it was daytime, yet still night. A day without a night and a night without a day. The sun hung black in the sky, awash with a gauzy halo, but its center blacker than deepest night.
“In the gloom, wolves burst from the sea. Their eyes blazed with fire, their jaws dripped with poison, and their teeth were swords. They set upon the land and devoured everything they found.
“The Red Dragon of Cymru alone stood against the Sea Wolves. For a while, it beat them back. But they kept coming. Then the Dragon became a dozen much smaller dragons and one by one were struck down by the Sea Wolves until there was nothing in all the land of Briton that was not trampled under their paws.”
Ceridwen made a hmming sound and scratched at her chin with a well-maintained fingernail. She sat there, considering Cottia for many heartbeats.
“Britain will shatter,” she said. “Shatter beneath the hammer of men from beyond the sunrise.”
“But,” said Cottia, “there is no such land. Is there?”
Ceridwen’s eyes narrowed. “You have not paid attention to your studies, have you?” Cottia began to speak, but Ceridwen cut her off. “No matter. Not where this is concerned. The Sea Wolves will come and Britain will be torn asunder.”
“But what of Rome?” Marcus asked.
Ceridwen shot him a look. “What of it?” she snapped. She sighed through her nose and leaned back, steepling her fingers around which she again regarded Cottia for many moments.
At length, she said, “Go toward the sunset until you come to where they speak Cymraeg. Then continue until they speak something else. Only there will you find what you seek.”
“And my dream?”
“You wanted to know what it means, and I have told you. There is no help for you in Britain, and no help for Britain in Rome. That is all I can see and all I can tell you.”
Marcus dismounted and stretched, first one way and then another. This is not, he thought, how I thought I might spend my retirement. He chuckled.
Cottia made an inquisitive noise.
“Oh,” he said, “I was just musing on my retirement.”
She laughed. “Retirement! From what?”
“Until recently, military service.”
“You know this is only temporary.”
“Are you sure?”
“She has a point,” said Esca. “We still know not where or how far this road will take us.”
Marcus looked northwestward where the paved road ran climbed from its coastal route where it ran otherwise long-bowshot from tidal marshland. From where he stood, a grassy sward, kept close-cropped by sheep and goats, dropped quickly to riverbank where the road became a broad gravel area at the ford of the River Clwyd. A small cluster of bothies stood a dozen paces from the river’s bank and a wide, flat-bottomed barge sat grounded.
Beyond that, the river’s broad flood-plain lay in pre-dusk shadow broken only by paler pasture and farmland carved out of the otherwise perpetually soggy expanse of rushes.
Marcus craned his head up toward the palisade wall surrounding Rhyddlan. The tips of the sharpened logs shone in the day’s last rays. Moments later, that, too vanished, leaving streamers of sunlight spearing the clouds from the west.
“First,” he said, “we could use a rest.”
He helped Cottia off her pony, took his own pony’s bridle in-hand and began walking. He hoped his limp might go unnoticed.
A guard in standard Roman issue stepped out from the gate, spear pointed sky-ward.
“Good evening,” said Marcus.
“Good evening yourself,” said the guard. “Your purpose in Rhuddlan?”
“We’re travelers, headed west. We hope to find lodging for ourselves and our ponies.”
The guard made a pensive sound. “Talk to Llewelyn ap Lloyd,” he said. “You will find him beneath the sign of the Prancing Pony.”
Marcus inclined his head and slipped the man a denarius.
The interior reminded Marcus of every other Roman outpost he’d ever seen. A central avenue ran arrow-straight from the gate clear to a small pantheon at the center of town, and then on to the opposite wall. Cross streets bisected the main avenue at right angles. No trace remained of where previous shops and bothies had once stood before the Romans had first come and had the structures forcibly re-sited to suit the standard grid layout.
He instinctively made a habitual series of turns that brought the trio in short order to Rhuddlan’s stables. Half of a dozen stalls stood empty, their gates open. Across an alley, thin smoke rose from a stack above the farrier’s roof.
A man in a stained apron stepped out to greet them. “What can I do for you?”
“A night and fodder for the ponies,” Marcus said.
Several rounds of haggling later, Marcus and Cottia walked off toward the Prancing Pony, minus two denarii and Esca’s sweat-equity.
Another series of turns later brought the pair to an unremarkable establishment distinguishable from the other structures only by a sign emblazoned solely with a white horse rearing up on one hind leg.
Inside, oil lamps cast yellow light that turned the darkness into a mere gloom only marginally brighter than the failing daylight outside. Trestle tables stood in three rows, benches on both sides. A few patrons sat hunched over bowls of some sort of stew and large stoneware tankards. Along one wall, shelves held dozens of glass bottles partially-filled with variously-colored liquids. A trio of stands supported small casks. A long bar of wood separated most of the room from the space nearest the bottles. Straw littered a rough plank floor. Odors of whale oil blended with man-smell and really-bad man-smell that overall reminded Marcus of the color brown.
Marcus stepped over to the bar.
“Noswaith dda,” the man said.
“Um...good evening,” Marcus replied in Latin. Damn, he thought. Despite his familiarity with Briton, and despite the similarities between that tongue and Cymraeg, a grasp of the latter continued to elude him.
The man frowned.
Cottia said, “Noswaith dda. Dw ‘i in moyn y ystafell. Tri o bobl.”
Another negotiation ensued less than half of which Marcus barely followed, and that with considerably effort, Cottia’s inner vixen showing in all its glory. Five denarii later, Marcus set two stoneware plowls of thick stew on a table alongside a third and a loaf of coarse barley bread Cottia carried, then returned with two stoneware tankards of slightly-sweet honey mead. They sat in silence for a time.
After Cottia had taken a few bites of the bread and stew, she dragged a swallow of mead and stood up.
“Cottia?” Marcus asked. “What are you doing?”
She smiled. “You will see.”
She kissed him, took another swallow of mead, walked to the far side of the room, and took a deep breath.
“Ffeynd a difyr ydyw gweled
“Migldi magldi hey, now, now
“Drws yr efail yn agored
“Migldi magldi hey, now, now...
Marcus sat with mouth agape at the beautiful sounds coming from his wife’s mouth. He barely noticed when Esca sat down across the table.
Cottia sang several more verses before bringing the song to a close and beginning the next.
“Mae bys Meri-an wedi brufo
“A Daffydd y gwas ddim yn iach
“Mae'r baban yn y crud yn crio
“A'r gath wedi sgrapo Joni bach...
She sang another verse and then sang a much slower, mournful song about seidir ddoe, yesterday's cider.
Marcus completely forgot about his food. In fact, he forgot about everything except his bronze-headed vixen and her mellifluous voice. A powerful urge to bed her grabbed him like the jaws of a rabid wolverine. He gripped the table's edge with his free hand and bore it out. One song merged into the next.
At length, Cottia returned to the table, beaming like the sun.
“Marcus?” she said. “Whatever is the matter?”
“Er...” He cleared the gravel that had suddenly stuck in his throat and tried again. “Nothing.”
She reached up with a slender finger, wiped it across his cheek, and held up a dampened fingertip. “Oh?”
He smiled. “It’s just...that was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. Why did you not tell us you could sing so?”
“Did I not?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m sure you’ve never spoken of it.”
Esca said, “You should do that more often. If would relieve the long periods of boredom to come.”
Cottia picked up a carved wooden spoon and resumed eating. After a couple more bites, she said, “You two should finish.”
Speaking of finishing, Marcus thought.
They dug into their food with reckless abandon. Esca excused himself to fetch their belongings while Marcus and Cottia retired to a room upstairs.
The door had no lock, but a simple wooden latch. A pair of low beds sat against opposite sides of the room, each with a straw-stuffed mattress. A single small window covered with thin skin reflected the single candlelight. Marcus set the lamp on a table.
Behind him, the door closed. He turned to see Cottia leaning against it, hips cocked, and a mischievous grin on her face.
“Well, now,” she said, “now that I have you to myself, whatever shall I do with you?”
Marcus felt a smile spread across his own lips. “Something tells me you have an idea or two.”
“Only two?” she teased. She sashayed over to him, twined her arms about his neck, and pulled him toward her.
He caught her mouth with his own and pulled her body against his. At length, they pulled apart breathlessly. He wasted little time with her clothing. She met him measure for measure and drove him to one of the beds herself. At some point, they wound up on the floor, then against the wall. The second time, he proceeded much more slowly and deliberately, the experience wholly different, yet again ending lost in Cottia’s own fiery eyes.
Eventually, Esca returned and deposited several large bundles on the floor by the window. He spared a glance at the couple and smiled knowingly. Marcus slid out from under the cloak that covered them, got up and helped with the bed-rolls.
“If you want me to step out again...” Esca began.
“Oh,” said Cottia, “it’s no trouble.”
Esca grunted assent. He snuffed out the light, the darkness chasing Marcus into sleep.
The tide was out in the River Conwy estuary and several boats lay canted over in the mud, stout ropes trailing across to trees, pillars, or large rocks above the high-tide line.
Sandpipers scurried about the flats, their beaks right down in the mud. Here and there, shorebirds probed for clams and sand crabs. A few people poked about with stout rods in search of clams. High on the hill bounding the eastern side of the bay stood a fortress. Across the bay to the west huddled a small village.
They paused, the ponies nibbling on clumps of grass, carrot, and dandelions growing between tight gaps in the paver stones and swishing their tails.
“What do you think?” Marcus asked.
Esca made a pensive sound. “Too early to stop yet. Not that large of a town anyhow.”
Cottia sighed. She glanced at Marcus, an unsaid lamentation over another night on the road beneath an uncertain sky passing and among stoats, polecats, and amorous hedgehogs between them.
The road curved slightly inland to where a ferry crossed the river. Not far thereafter, a stone bridge spanned a smaller stream. Its surface writhed with the serpentine bodies of eels and the triangular fins and tails of spawning salmon. The road followed that through a cleft in the headland atop which pines stood with branches reaching inland.
Purple-flowered heather that never seemed to stop blooming peppered the bare grey rock in buns of purple and dusty green. Here and there, a seep striped the rock with a watery sheen beside which clung purple hairbells, the green rosettes of cliff-break, and ruddy-hued fleshy-leaved stonecrop. Near the rock's base, rosy snapdragons, white-and-yellow toadflax, and pink catch-fly caught the intermittent sunlight. Yellow honeysuckles twined up the verge. At the edge of a pasture, purple thistle and yellow tansy-ragwort swayed in the autumn breeze above little white daisies pressed close to the cropped grass.
“Creu gwir fel gwydor o ffwrnais awen,” said Cottia.
“Um...” Marcus said.
“In these stones horizons sing,” she said.
She shrugged. “We are a people with a song in our hearts and poetry in our souls.”
He smiled at her.
A flake of snow drifted down from the sky. Marcus pulled his woollen cloak a little closer. A moment later, Cottia began to sing in Latin.
“On a street in the night in the cold winter's light
A child stands alone and she's waiting
And the light that's out there it just hangs in the air
As if it were just hesitating
And the snow it comes down and it muffles the sound
Of dreams on their way to tomorrow
And when they appear, this night will hold them near
For where they will lead she will follow
For here in this city of lights, this evening awakens the dreams that it might
The winter it conjures the spells it will weave
The snow gently covers the ground on Solstice eve..."
Cottia continued to sing as they clopped along the otherwise deserted road. After a while, silence descended along with the snow that thankfully let up in time for a beautiful sunset.
Marcus exchanged a glance with Esca. “Go to where they speak Cymraeg, and then keep going until they speak something else, was it?”
“At this rate, we will continue until we reach Segontium.”
“But,” said Cottia, “Segontium is at the edge of the sea! How can we go until...oh, no. No, no, no. We cannot!”
“We must,” said Esca.
“But I cannot swim!” she protested.
“Swim?” said Marcus. “Surely you do not mean...”
“Of course not! But ships sink. And when they do, people drown if they cannot swim.”
“They drown,” said Esca, “even if they can.”
“Not always,” she retorted.
“She's right,” said Marcus. “We should all know how to swim.”
“But who will teach us?” Cottia asked.
“I will,” said Esca.
“Then,” said Marcus, “we should begin.”
Marcus stared at the retreating coast. Snow-clad Yr Wyddfa scraped a slate-grey sky. Between it and the sea lay an expanse of buff sand stretching from Aber Dwyryd southward past where the scarp of Harlech rose straight out of a shallow cove barely discernible from the water level. Beyond that stretched a coastal plain that yielded to hills clad in beech, oak, and ash, which gave way to the heath and the higher snow-blanketed peaks.
Cottia pulled her cloak more tightly around her, leaned against Marcus, and shivered.
“It's beautiful,” she said. “Moreso if we could have stayed.”
“Better than the downlands?” Marcus asked.
Cottia sighed. “Yes. No. Maybe. I don't know. I almost don't care. Mostly, I just want this dream out of my head. I fear it will drive me positively mad!”
“It hasn't yet.”
She snorted. “Yet, you say. Yet.”
“That's not what I meant.”
She twisted about and met his gaze with her own vixen one. “Is it not?”
“It is not,” he insisted.
“It has been months,” she retorted.
She barked a laugh. “So say you! You have not had to live with a nightmare.”
“I have had to live with you living with it.”
She scowled. “Not remotely the same thing!” she growled.
“Is it that bad?”
“I think,” said Esca, “that you two should sit down. The sea is treacherous.”
“If it were not for this accursed dream in my head, I should move to forget the whole affair.” She sighed heavily. “But needs must, I suppose.”
Esca pulled out a length of small twine to the end of which he’d tied a stout piece of curved metal sharpened to a point at one end and bent into a sharp loop at the other. Arm’s length from the hook, the twine lashed around a small bar of lead. Esca impaled a small piece of squid onto the hook and dropped it overboard, letting the twine out until he seemed satisfied.
A short time later, his arm tensed and he heaved on the line. It moved first one way, and then another as Esca hauled it in hand over hand until a fish erupted from the surface. It thrashed the water into foam briefly before sailing over the gunwale to land flipping in the bilge. With a knife he made short work of it, and tossed the leavings overboard to waiting gulls and puffins.
He repeated the process several times until a dozen silvery fish lay side by side in the boat’s bottom. He nodded to the growing pile of fish. “It won’t eat itself,” he said.
Cottia sighed heavily, but said nothing.
To Marcus, it seemed their quest had just grown far longer than it had been even in its first week.
Marcus completely lost track of the days since the seas had grown angry. The only thing he knew for sure was that the water had lost much of its chill. Surely that was his imagination. If the Mare Hibernicum had a single constant, it was the chill.
As the sky to the east lightened, he found he could stand up without immediately falling over. The waves no longer surged over the gunwales, and hadn't since the previous afternoon, much to everyone’s profound relief. Not that he could have slept, for want of warmth on the heaving sea. Nor had Esca, nor had Cottia, nor had anyone else aboard. Those who remained, anyhow.
“Land!” someone shouted.
Marcus followed the man's outstretched arm. Far ahead, just off the port bow, a long, low hump sat on the horizon.
“How far?” Marcus asked.
The skipper said, “We should arrive before day's end, I should think. Could be sooner if we still had the mast, of course.”
“Good,” said Esca, “we could use fresh water.”
“And drying out,” Marcus added.
“And warming up,” Cottia stammered.
The ship veered slightly to port. Marcus and Esca both took to the oars. He soon lost track of time. After a while, the clouds broke up and the sun broke through halfway to its zenith. It had traversed halfway past zenith before the keel ground on sand and lurched to a halt. Everyone, Cottia included, went over the side into knee-deep surf and shoved the boat further onto the sand.
When the ship would move no further, the skipper called a halt. Marcus’ bad leg buckled and his knees hit the wet, packed sand. He leaned on his hands and swallowed the pain.
“Marcus?” Cottia called. “Are you hurt?”
“No, no,” he said. “No more than usual,” he added.
“Water!” a man cried, echoed by several parched throats.
Marcus heard feet pelt away across the sand. He craned his head up to see Cottia standing erect, looking over her shoulder. She looked sharply at Marcus. “Stay here,” she said, and ran off, sodden skirts flapping behind her.
Marcus looked after her for a moment, then hung his head, wet hair dangling on either side of his face. At length, he felt a warm breeze waft over him. A short time later, footsteps returned and a pewter cup passed into his vision.
“Fresh water!” Cottia gushed. “There's fresh water!”
Marcus raised up, took the cup in both hands, and raised it to his lips. Cold, clear water trickled over his parched lips and down his throat. Some dribbled out of his mouth and ran down his neck. He drank greedily. “Is there more?”
She nodded. “Can you follow?” she asked.
“I...I think so.” He staggered to his feet, lurched sideways, and caught the boat with an outstretched hand.
Cottia slid an arm around his waist. “I have you,” she said.
He looked at her, and she gazed back at him, seeming so mature beyond her seventeen years. “Thank you,” he said.
Look at me, he thought, a Roman soldier being helped across the sand by a mere girl. Oh, the irony!
He saw Esca trotting toward him. “No, my friend, I am fine. But I thank you.”
“You don't look fine,” Esca said.
“I have Cottia to help me. I am scarcely so invalid as to need two helpers. Not for many more years.”
Esca shrugged ponderously. “If you say so.”
Marcus took stock of his surroundings. A few dozen paces away across a grey-sand beach teeming with shore birds and seals, a jagged scar slashed through the sand where water trickled over rounded boulders. The slash continued up a boulder-strewn cleft in low dunes. Beyond that rose jagged hills in the near distance swathed in greenery.
People clustered at the stream's edge. Marcus easily found a space to kneel and drink. At length, one by one, everybody sat back on their haunches or reclined on their elbows.
“Where are we?” one asked.
“No idea,” said the skipper.
“It is too warm for Hibernia,” said Cottia, “is it not?”
Marcus nodded. “Indeed. Skipper, would you hazard a guess?”
The man ran a hand through drying hair. “Definitely not Hibernia, as the lady says.”
“Not helpful,” said Esca.
The skipper looked up at the sky, then inland. “This beach faces north. Too warm for Hibernia. Or Cymru. Or Gaul. Hispania, perhaps?”
“Hmm,” said Esca. “Never been there.”
“Nor I,” said Cottia.
“Nor I,” said Marcus. “Not the northern coast, anyhow.”
“I have,” said one man. “It does not look like this. And this is too warm, especially this time of year.”
“Guess,” Marcus insisted.
The man rubbed his chin. By now, all eyes were on him. “Well,” he said pensively, “if this cannot be Hispania, and I do not believe we have been at sea quite long enough to have landed at Mauretania, then...” He paused. At length, his face lit up. “Ah! I recall a rumor of a small group of islands a fortnight's sail west of Hispania. My best guess is that we have come aground on one of those islands.”
Esca pointed inland. “We should climb that hill. If we are indeed on an island, it should be evident from there.”
“If we are not?” Marcus asked.
Esca shrugged. “Then we will know that as well.”
“I volunteer,” said Cottia.
“Cottia,” said Marcus, “no.”
“I should go,” said Esca.
“No, me,” said Marcus.
“Marcus,” said Cottia, “your leg...”
“...is fine,” Marcus insisted.
Cottia snorted. “It is no such thing!”
“She's right,” said Esca. “Beaching the ship alone nearly undid all the months of healing after our journey north of the walls. You are in no condition to climb up hills through pathless brush to face unknown dangers.”
“I agree,” said the skipper. “Aside from that,” he added, “the hour grows late. I venture to say the sun will set within the hour.”
Esca said, “We should make camp here for the night.”
Marcus looked westward where the sun hung perhaps a dozen diameters above the horizon.
Marcus sighed heavily. “Very well,” he said.
“And,” the skipper added, “we should pull the boat above the high-tide line.” He looked at Marcus. “Not you.”
Marcus sighed. “Then perhaps I should select a camp site.”
He trudged across the sand a dozen paces from the stream, Cottia at his side. More boulders and thick grasses resisted his climb over a small dune the top of a low bench. Before him lay a small sward of coarse, knee-high grasses. Wind-stunted shrubs and small trees lined the stream, merging into a wall of greenery twice the height of his own head. Above the trees rose the sharp hills he'd seen from the beach. One set of mounts rose up to the west, and a somewhat higher set to the east, all shrouded in vegetation and clouds.
The air rang with birdsong. The occasional flicker of something feathery flashed through the verge.
He paced out the camp, such as it could be, as a few of his companions hauled meager provisions over the dune. Without the manpower or the tools, there could be no question of the customary fortification he'd known from his days in the Legions. Marcus suspected those would not be needed anyway.
As the last of the light faded, three tarpaulins rose above the grass, supported by small poles cut from local shrubs, and anchored with twine from the ship.
His stomach growled.
“I as well,” Cottia said. “Oh, what are we to eat?”
“Fish,” said Esca. “And birds.”
Cottia moaned wordlessly.
“One step at a time, my dear,” Marcus said.
“And if I come with child?”
“Then we will take that a step at a time as well.”
Marcus awoke to raucous birdsong. He pulled his rolled-up tunic back under his head, brushed a stray tendril of Cottia's bronzey hair from his face and curled up against her bare body. She noised, stirred, and stilled once more.
He lay there a while longer and watched the sky lighten. At length, he slid out from beneath the double cloak and blanket he and Cottia shared, and pulled his still-damp tunic on. A couple of paces away, grass trampled and matted marked where Esca had slept the night. Marcus ducked out from beneath the tarpaulin.
He followed a set of footprints to where they vanished into the shrubbery. He grunted and went about collecting dead and dried grasses, leaves, and twigs for a fire. Some time later, small flames flickered from a lattice of twigs amid a ring of dark, melon-sized rocks in the middle of camp.
He looked up to see Cottia stepping gingerly toward him, her cloak wrapped tightly around herself. She held Marcus' own cloak out to him. He took it and wrapped it around his wife. “You need it more than I,” he said.
“Do not,” she replied. “I still have my own.”
“My dear,” he said quietly, “you look downright miserable. And you are half my own girth.”
Cottia grunted. “It may be warmer here than in Cymru or Hibernia, but still the air bears a chill.”
“We are still a stone's throw from the sea.”
“There is that.” Then, “Esca went for his walk.”
“Yes.” Marcus gestured toward the wood. “He went that way.”
“Did you consider following?”
“For a moment, yes. But you are right about my leg.” He gestured at the fire. “Besides, I will be of more use here.”
The sun had swung past zenith by the time Esca returned. All eyes turned toward him as he stalked back into camp.
“Well?” the captain demanded.
“As you thought,” Esca said, “this is an island. From here to the far side, it is perhaps a day's travel. Much less if we were to carve a path through the forest, less still if there were a road. In length, two of your Roman days' forced march.”
“Any sign of habitation?”
Esca shook his head. “I saw the smoke from your campfire. Perhaps another one high in the western end of the island, another two toward the eastern end, also high up. Captain, what have you heard about this island?”
“Only rumor of its presence. That is all.” He turned to Marcus. “Praetor?”
Marcus suppressed a grin. Praetor, eh? Over a half-dozen people, hardly. Still... “Our objective remains,” he said. “We should determine whether Esca's smoke plumes are from other people, or from other stacks from the Forge of Vulcan. If they be people, we negotiate. If not, we repair the ship. In the meantime,we should be cautious.”
Over a luncheon of mussels and local poultry, Cottia said, “Three strings walk into a tavern and ask the tavernkeeper for a mead. The tavernkeeper politely tells them that he does not serve strings at his establishment. So the strings step aside and talk amongst themselves and decide that perhaps he tavernkeeper is being rather specific. So they hop back over and ask for an ale. Annoyed, he says, 'I just told you, we do not serve strings here!' So the first string leaves. The other two decide that perhaps the tavernkeeper means only that he will not serve hard drink. So they hop back over and ask for a cider. The taverneeper shouts, 'Look, I just told you twice, we do not serve strings at this tavern, so get lost!' So the second string leaves in a huff. But the third string is determined to be served! So he steps outside, messes up both of his string ends, works himself up into a half-hitch, then returns and asks for a mead. The tavernkeeper scratches his chin thoughfully and says, 'Wait, are you not that string that was just in here?' The string says, 'No, I am afraid not.'”
“Er...the joke works in the tongue of the Angles. I thought...never mind.”
Instead, she launched into a short song in Latin.
"Sit right back and you will hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip
That started near Segontium aboard this tiny ship
The mate was a mighty sailor man, the skipper brave and sure
Three passengers set sail that day, bound for shores unsure....
Marcus gazed at the impenetrable wall of greenery just a few ship-lengths beyond the sand bar jutting out of the sea. Behind him, Esca shifted the steering oar and the ship turned to starboard, seeking a path across the sand bar. A short while later, a clearing slid into view.
On a broad sandy bench lay several small, very narrow boats. Beyond that, a small clutch of dome-shaped bothies stood back among the trees. Wisps of smoke curled up from a pair of cooking fires over which roasted something on spits. A score of people crowded about, tall and broad in stature, skin like bronze, spears and bows in their hands.
Marcus looked over his shoulder at Cottia. She stood with their infant daughter in her arms and toddler son at her side. Since they'd first fetched up on that island, the dream had changed. He recalled the day she'd fist shared the dream's new ending.
“Out of the setting sun came a great bird like a heron with the head of an eagle. Its eyes blazed with lightning and its wings beat with thunder. It rained down fire upon the Sea Wolves and turned them all to ash,” she's said.
He returned his gaze toward the shore. “They don't look much like thunderbird people to me,” he said.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” Cottia said.
“What she said,” Esca added.
“I suppose we should go say hello.”
Marcus nodded. “Yes, I suppose we should.”