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Some Kind of a Fresh Start

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It was as much as he’d expected, going back. When he gave himself up at the East Gate, they wasted no time in putting him under guard and hauling him off to cells to pass a restless night in expectation. Then in the morning he was brought to the Principia, to the room set aside for auxiliary business, and put before the officers of his squadron. His own Decurion was among them, of course: old Corbulo, his mean little eyes sharp and gleaming with the eagerness to see him punished. The others, who had less to do with him, looked at him with a chillier, remoter kind of disapproval. Unlike Corbulo, they bore him no personal grudge; their concern was more that his disgrace reflected ill on the rest of the squadron, and had caused them to lose face before the Legionaries.

For a horrible moment, looking back into those hard faces with their cold, flinty eyes, he feared he had misjudged the thing completely, and that he had handed himself over to death, after all. Then the moment passed, and the expected verdict came: as a deserter he had broken his oath and betrayed his comrades, a crime which normally called for the gravest penalty of all. But, as the senior Decurion said, he had not gone beyond the limits of the cantonment, and moreover had chosen to come back of his own free will, so in this case they were prepared to commute the sentence to a flogging before the rest of the squadron.

He had thought he’d made up his mind to it. It was exactly what he’d expected, after all. But when they brought him out onto the parade-ground after morning muster the next day, and he saw the grim wooden post already set up and the assembled ranks of the squadron beyond, deadly still and watchful, he felt his heart wither within him. He was suddenly, agonisingly aware that among those ranks was a score of others who had followed him down to the fort to join the cavalry draught — men who knew him as Iviacus, son of Gault, son of Cunogern the chieftain, lord of four hundred spears, and who were now about to see him lashed to a post and whipped like any common thief. That was almost the hardest thought of all, as they stripped him to the waist and strung him up, and he stared towards the distant hills, as if by sending all his thoughts to lose themselves out there in that far-away blue haze, there would be none left to dwell on what was happening here.

He never knew for sure how many lashes they gave him — he lost count somewhere after twenty. Nor, after the first blinding slash of the whip, was he aware of much pain. The shock shielded him from the worst of it while the thing was actually happening. It was only after, when they’d cut him down and had him halfway to the infirmary block, that it overtook him: a white-hot bolt that ripped right through him, then a succession of hot, sick pulses, one swelling up even before the last had faded. Between one breath and the next, everything within him seemed to break, and he was suddenly aware of a terrible thirst upon him. Then the pain swelled again, and there was a scream fighting its way up his dry throat — an awful, pitiful wounded-animal howl — but with all the strength that was left to him, he clenched his teeth, eyes watering with the effort of it, and choked it back down. One small victory amid all the shame.

He was given over into the care of Quintus the chief surgeon, a balding, perpetually vexed little man, whose long, dextrous fingers seemed strangely out of keeping with the rest of his squarish frame. He washed out his wounds with fiery barley-spirit before salving and dressing them, then gave him an infusion of willow to dull the edge of his pain — the Eagles would never waste good poppy on a mere defaulter — and with the help of an orderly, drew him to an empty cot and bade him lie down upon his stomach.

He did not know how long he lay there, sick-sullen with pain, his wounds burning beneath their bindings. He could not move, only lie there and endure, and in the short troughs between the fading of one ache and the rising of another, his only thought was that he was a fool ever to have returned.

All about him there was a wash of noise, soft in that way common to all sick-rooms. At the cot to his right, an orderly was helping one patient keep down a draught, while somewhere else, unseen, he could hear Quintus’ voice, gently scolding some other unfortunate for being thoughtless enough to let half a cartload of building stones fall on him. Elsewhere, a steady flow of talk and laughter — low but constant, like the purl of a stream hidden by an overhanging bank — indicated, along with the rattle of dice, where some of his fellow invalids were being cheered by their messmates. He doubted he would be so favoured. He had no close friends among his own troop, not even among the ones from his own clan, and he was now subject to that queer, half-superstitious dread that all flogged men are exposed to, as if shame is something that might be caught, like a cold.

So he lay there, apart from it all, while the willow draught slowly curled through its way through his blood and the pain dulled into a long, blunt-edged throb. Visitors came and went about the other cots, while Quintus and his junior surgeon made their rounds. Sometimes he heard the thin silver voice of the trumpets, calling the hour from the ramparts, and the shadows swung from one end of the room towards the other, but drifting as he was, he was hardly aware of the passing of time. It might have been days between the trumpets, for all he knew.

From where he lay, he had a good view of the doorway that opened onto the little courtyard where the patients exercised and took the air. The door stood open to admit the fresh spring air, the sky a bar of blue, feathery with cloud, above the rust-red tiles that roofed the opposite wing. A pair of mated swallows were building a nest in the eaves of the colonnade, just above the door, and from where he lay he could easily see them as they swooped industriously back and forth, beaks full of little bits of mud and grass to add to it. He felt a distant pang of envy at the sight of them, free to come and go as they pleased; but the longer he watched, his attention drawn to their swift, clean swoop beneath the eaves, the sharp flash of their wings, the ordered pattern of their coming and going, as crisp and ordered as anything done out on the parade-ground, even his pain seemed to fade into the distance. They held his attention so fully, in fact, that it was some time before he grew aware of anyone standing over him.

“Is this the man?”

“Aye, this is him, young fool that he is.”

The second voice was the surgeon’s, which was nothing much to wonder at. But the first — for a heartbeat he couldn’t quite place it, though he knew he had heard it before. The voice of a young man: cheerful, friendly…

Then, with a jolt, he remembered. Two days ago, in the Pilus Prior’s garden, stifling in that tiny space beneath the bench. The soldier who had stopped to talk to the boy — a Centurion, to judge by the hem of red woollen cloak that he had been able to glimpse past the edge of the concealing blanket. The man who had led the hunt for him, and who was now right here at his bedside.

At the realisation, Iviacus felt again the stiffening of his spine and the stilling of his breath, as if he were back in his hiding-place beneath the bench, desperate not to be found. Yet at the same time, he felt a strange pull of curiosity towards this man who had hunted him like a dog, yet whose voice was pleasant, and who had talked kindly to the boy. Curiosity struggled with dread, but curiosity won, and he turned his head upon his folded arms to look.

There was Quintus, rubbing his hands on his apron and shaking his head, as if Iviacus had chosen to go over the bath-house wall just to make more work for him. As for the other, he was a Centurion, right enough. A Centurion in full armour and harness, his vine-staff tucked under his arm as if he were fresh from drilling his men. At the sight of him, Iviacus felt an sharp inward flinching, as if this man’s appearance heralded some new, unforeseen stage of his punishment.

Yet the dark eyes now regarding him from beneath the crested helmet seemed friendly, warm and generously winged with laughter lines. There was a sort of sympathetic curiosity in his face as he looked down at Iviacus, and when their eyes met, he even smiled a little, which caused the scattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose to lift.

“So,” he said, “you’re the one who led my men and I a wild goose hunt through the cantonment the other day.” Then, turning to Quintus: “I’ll sit with him, if I may.”

Quintus shrugged. “Aesculapius forbid I should prevent the Centurion Rufinus if he chooses to spend his leisure hours playing orderly to every poor wretch on the ward. By all means, sit with him, if that’s what you want. I shall be back by and by to change his dressings. But if he should be in any pain, let him have a drink of this.”

With these words, he set a little pottery cup down on the table by Iviacus’ head, and then he was gone, bustling out of sight on some other vital errand. The young Centurion watched him go, then shook his head with a smile, removed his helmet — his hair was short, and tinted with copper — and sat down in the little camp-chair by the bed, leaning his staff against his knee as he did so.

“You mustn’t mind old Quintus,” he said in a confidential voice. “He likes to think himself the most hard-worked old horse in the Legion, but really he’s a mother hen to anyone who comes under his wing.” A pause, then: “How’s that ankle of yours?”

The question, so wholly unexpected, brought him up with a start. In truth, he had completely forgotten about his twisted ankle, and he could not keep back a short, rather harsh bark of laughter.

“Och, it’s well enough, thank you, sir. It’s just the rest of me that aches like fury.”

“Ye-es,” said the Centurion, not unkindly. “A high price for a day’s adventure. But I must say, you’re bearing it very well.”

Iviacus shrugged, and instantly wished he hadn’t as the movement sent a great white lightning-flash of pain through him. Clenching his teeth against it, he bit out, with a viciousness born of pain, “Why, were you hoping to find me suffering a bit more for that wild goose hunt I led you?”

The freckle-faced Centurion seemed not to mind this rank insubordination. “Oh no,” he said easily, “nothing like that.”

No, thought Iviacus as the pain-anger faded, he didn’t seem the type of man to take pleasure in the sight of another’s suffering. Not like old Corbulo. But it still did not explain what he was doing here.

“Then why are you here, sir?”

Now the Centurion looked rather surprised, as if he hadn’t considered the matter too closely. But the look cleared quickly enough, and with a smile he replied, “Why, maybe I just had an idea of seeing the man who outwitted us so thoroughly.”

Iviacus snorted into his folded arms. He wished he could tell him that it was not he who had outwitted them. The fancy even darted through his mind that perhaps this Centurion would not mind the truth too much. There had been liking in his voice, he remembered, and respect, while he talked with the boy.

“Or,” the Centurion went on, more cheerfully still, “maybe it was that I was curious to see what sort of man goes wilful missing, only to come wilful back within a day. The one you get often enough — I doubt there’s a man who follows the Eagles who hasn’t got the idea in his head, even once — but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the other before. What do they call you, my hero?”

“Iviacus son of Gault — of the second troop of horse.”

“And I am Gaius Rufinus, Centurion of the Third Century of the Fifth Cohort.”

Somewhere deep in the back of his mind, Iviacus knew this was strange. In his experience, officers were not over particular whether the men knew their names, so long as they remembered to call them “sir” in the right places. But there was no denying that this was an uncommon sort of conversation all over, so it seemed, in its odd way, quite natural.

“Well, sir,” he said, with a faint smile, “your name I already knew, thanks to old Quintus there, but I’m glad to know the rest of it, I’m sure.”

Centurion Gaius Rufinus flashed him a grin, very bright and white. “You’re quite a fellow, Iviacus son of Gault. I’m rather glad it wasn’t I who caught you and had to bring you back, so it would have gone worse for you. Why did you decide to come back?”

Iviacus’ brows leapt up. This got more and more peculiar by the moment. One might expect a well-disposed Centurion to take an interest in the doings and thoughts of the men under his own command. But to take such an interest in a stranger, and not even a Legionary…

But when he glanced again at the Centurion, there was something about the other’s open, amiable face that was hard to resist.

“I don’t know that there’s much to tell,” he said, almost before he knew what he was about. “I just realised that the thought of living the rest of my life waiting to feel the breath of the hunt hot on my neck again, was just a bit worse than my Decurion’s temper.”

“No more than that?” The Centurion’s brow was now furrowed by a small frown: half-disappointed, half-sceptical, as if he had been expecting — indeed, hoping — to hear something else.

“What else should there be, sir?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just thought there might have been something more.”

Iviacus snorted again. “Well, that’s it. Sorry I’m not more impressive.”

“Oh, you’re impressive enough,” said the Centurion; then his freckles were lost beneath a sudden flush of colour. This was surprising enough, but even more so was the little jolt that Iviacus’ heart gave at seeing it. He was glad when the other went on, hastily:

“That is to say, it takes a certain kind of courage to turn back and face a punishment one knows is coming. Even if that punishment isn’t death, well, I’ve seen men fight like heroes in the midst of battle, but who would be crying like babes in your position. It’s not a thing men face lightly; takes courage of a rarer kind. I must say, it’s a shame you belong to the Auxiliaries and not the Legion, or I’d wish you in my century.”

All at once, Iviacus found himself wishing the same thing. Corbulo was a brute through and through, and by all accounts infantry Centurions weren’t much better. But somehow he couldn’t quite make himself believe that the Centurion Rufinus was such a man. To be sure, there was his staff, still propped against the chair where he had left it, but Iviacus could not imagine he used it very often. Very likely all he’d have to do was flash one of those smiles and charm a whole century of men into obeying him, just for the pleasure of it…

He started, heat rising in his own face. Of all the strange things to have come out of this conversation, this was by far the strangest. He wished he could dismiss it as an odd little fancy conjured by the pain, or the willow draught, but somehow he doubted that was the case.

Irritated now, he tried to force the thought out of his head. It would serve no good purpose to dwell on such a thing. He had come back to the fort in order to make a fresh start. He could hardly do that if he spent his time being mooning after some other, better situation for himself.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know about courage. It didn’t seem that I had much choice. Besides, I couldn’t very well go home. I’d be found out there soon enough.”

“Ah,” said the Centurion, “I thought I heard the accent of these hills in your speech. You hail from nearby, then?”

“The Glen of the White Falls. Not quite two days’ march away. It’s one of the first places they’d search for me; my grandfather the chieftain is well-known to the Legion. And besides,” he added, a little surprised by the grimness in his own voice, “I doubt he would want me back there, once he learned I’d gone back on my oath and deserted. He’d count it as a disgrace upon him and all our forefathers going back ten generations. It was his idea that I should lead the draught from our clan, after all.”

At this, the Centurion’s expression gave a wry little flicker. “These old men! Roma Dea, but they will have their own way, won’t they?” Iviacus looked a question at him, and he went on, “It was something that way for me, too. My father had it worked out from when we were boys that my brother was to be Magistrate, while I was for the Eagles. I took it rather ill at first. I had my heart set on being a poet.” He laughed. “But looking back, I think he had the right of it, after all. My poetry was never quite up to the mark, after all.”

Iviacus realised he was grinning: he couldn’t help it. The Centurion Rufinus had one of those infectious laughs that was hard to resist, however low one’s own mood might be.

“Well,” he said, “at least I never thought I had any talent that way. I was happy enough to join the Auxiliaries when my grandfather suggested it.”

“Oh?” said the Centurion, with a sparking of interest. “So you wanted to come to the Eagles in the first place?”

Now Iviacus looked at him, sharply. It was the strangest thing, and he would wonder at it long afterwards, but it was as if, at the Centurion’s words, something within him began to uncurl and reveal itself, something buried so deeply that even he had forgotten about it. Now the memory came to him, as sharp and vivid as sunlight upon a shard of coloured glass: of the day he had led the young men of the clan from his grandfather’s rath, the sense of pride and purpose — aye, and even excitement — that had put such life in his step that day.

He was not Cunogern’s only grandson, nor yet even one of the elder ones, and he’d never had much of a place at home. Even being called armour-bearer to his older brother had only ever been a courtesy, for it was a long time since the men of the clan had ever had cause to take up their war-spears. They were on friendly terms with the Legion, and that friendship kept them from attack by other clans. When his grandfather had suggested he might want to head the draught, he had been happy to do it. It was a chance to see the world beyond the horse-runs of their home hills — a world which only came near when a trader came by with some amber or a roll of silk in his pack — and to become something on his own account.

Those had been his thoughts when he walked out that day. They had been lost somewhere during the last two years, lost beneath the misery of Corbulo’s tyranny and the trap of a life spent trammelled within four square ramparts, every hour scored out by the sound of trumpets. But now, at the Centurion Rufinus’ words, the old hope seemed to revive within him. Its colours were more muted, perhaps, its brightness tempered by the knowledge he had now of what life in the Eagles was really like. But it was there, even so, a new-wakened ember warm and glowing within him.

He glanced again at the Centurion’s face and saw the smile there, as if he had sensed the change in his thoughts.

“I think,” he said, “that the grandson of a chieftain has a very good chance of making something of himself with the Eagles. There are plenty of chieftains, or the kinsmen of chieftains, who become officers in the Auxiliaries. You may well end up with the command of your own troop before too long.”

Iviacus looked wryly at him. “In case you forget, sir, my record has a few strokes across it now.”

It was a poor jest, poor enough that it seemed to pass straight over the Centurion’s head, for he just gave a wave of his hand, as if to swat the objection away. “Jupiter! That’s nothing. I’ve messed with many old officers — men who are now First Cohort Centurions, even — who carry the marks of old floggings from when they were in the ranks. The men respect them for it. They always respect men who’ve gone through the same fires as them.”

Iviacus pressed his head upon his arms, turning the Centurion’s words over in his mind. And as he did, he found his thoughts returning to the boy, the Pilus Prior’s son. He had crouched there, hidden, and listened to him face the fact that he would never be a soldier like his father. But in giving up the Legion, he had found a new talent; Iviacus had seen the little clay hound in his hands, so lifelike he had half-expected it to huff and sigh like a real dog asleep. Life in the Auxiliaries hadn’t been what he had expected, but sometimes, even when fate deals you a bad hand, it also shows you the way into something else.

He turned back. “Do you think it’s possible?”

The Centurion smiled. “I don’t see why not.”

His thoughts flickered to his own Decurion: squat, evil-tempered old Corbulo, eaten up by some old bitterness that he seemed able to relieve only by making the lives of other men unbearable. He would never have thought he’d want to count himself an officer, if it meant becoming such a man. But perhaps, having suffered under the command a bad officer, he would be better placed to make himself a good one. It would be a long time in coming, if it ever did come, and would take a lot of toiling for, but perhaps the thought was not such a mad one as it first appeared.

He laughed quietly. “Well, sir, this is the second thing in two days I have to thank you for.”

The Centurion tilted his head a little. “Oh, yes? And what was the first?”

Iviacus drew a breath. “Well, it was thanks to your words the other day that I turned back. After all, you did say that you can’t spend all your life running away.”

Head resting on his arms, he fixed his gaze fully upon the Centurion Rufinus’ face, closely watching for his reaction. First a faint frown, then, all at once, his eyes went wide as the realisation came full upon him.

“I said that, did I?” he murmured.

A glance between them, swift and keen with a secret sort of understanding, and Iviacus would have replied; but just as he opened his mouth, Quintus and the orderly suddenly appeared at the Centurion’s elbow, and they started like a pair of moor-cocks from the heather as the sounds and comings and goings of the infirmary, which had somehow drawn away into the distance while they had been talking, now rushed in upon them again.

“So,” said Quintus. “There’s life in it yet?”

The Centurion, recovering first, looked up with a grin. “Oh, life enough. He’s stubborn, this one.”

“Hm!” Quintus’ long nostrils flared with all the scepticism of the physician. Turning to Iviacus himself, he asked, “Do you think you can bear another salving? You’re well due another one.”

Trying to move no more than was strictly necessary, Iviacus tilted his head up as far as he might, just far enough to meet the surgeon’s eye.

“Aye,” he replied, matching his tone dry for dry. “I think I might just bear it.”

Quintus gave a faint snort, as much as to say, we’ll see. “Bide still, then.”

So, bracing himself, Iviacus submitted first to the surgeon’s inspection, then the peeling away of his old dressings. He caught a glimpse of one out the corner of his eye, the linen gone stiff and brown. He turned away from seeing any more.

There was, however, more to endure. He stiffened beneath the burning of the barley-spirit, then the salve, hissing as their cleansing fire sank into his broken flesh. With one fist, he clutched the edge of the striped blanket that covered his cot, and through the white haze burning in his head, he was dimly aware of another hand — long fingers and rough palms, with the callouses caused by the handling of a sword — closing around his, holding it in a grip that seemed more for comfort than any real attempt to secure him.

When at last they came to change his dressings, he pressed his eyes shut and ground his teeth as he was first turned over, then grasped on both sides and lifted until he was sitting straight. Each movement filled him with fresh fire, and how he managed to stay still through it all, he never knew. But somehow he bore it, while Quintus pressed pads of clean linen over his wounds and bound them in place, bidding him raise his arms while he passed the bandages around his torso.

“There,” murmured a voice in his ear. “Good man; almost done now.”

It was only then he realised that though it was Quintus holding him at one shoulder, it was not the orderly at the other. He stood at the foot of the cot, holding the salve-pots and bandage-rolls. No, he realised belatedly, it was the Centurion Rufinus holding him on his other side — Centurion Rufinus’ arm circling his waist; Centurion Rufinus’ hand clasping his shoulder; Centurion Rufinus’ breath stirring the hair at his temples…

Then it was over, and the fire was dying, his muscles slowly softening as the pain faded into the deep, lingering throb of wounds well-cleaned and tended. His teeth ached, too, and only then did he realise how tightly he had been clenching them. But though he knew he must have been hissing like a wildcat, he was also filled with a strong conviction that he had not uttered a groan, let alone a cry.

His work done, Quintus straightened up, wiping his hands on a towel. “There,” he said, with brisk satisfaction. “You’ll do.”

“Bravely done.” With those words, Centurion Rufinus flashed him a smile, and the hand upon his shoulder squeezed him. “I’d say that whatever you may have done, you have worked it out and paid for it now. The wax is smooth again.”

Iviacus gave a laugh — in truth, something between a laugh and a gasp. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’ll be delighted to know,” put in Quintus, “that all being well, you should be back in parade-ground shape by the end of tomorrow.”

“Delighted, sir,” he said drily.

“In the meantime, you have all of tonight to lie here and feel sorry for yourself. I’ll see that word is passed on to your Decurion, lest you end up with another flogging for malingering.”

“Why, Quintus,” said Centurion Rufinus, “what a soft old hen you’re becoming!”

Quintus sniffed, but Iviacus fancied he saw the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. With a sharp twitch of his head, he summoned the orderly to his side, and they went on their way, leaving Iviacus and the Centurion Rufinus alone once more. Iviacus turned to him, wanting to say something, but even as he opened his mouth, he felt the weariness creeping in upon him, the effort of bearing the salving and bandaging taking its toll at last; and before he could even think of resisting it, he felt himself sinking. Seeing this, Centurion Rufinus eased him down, helping him turn over so he could lie flat on his stomach again without pressing upon his wounds.

“There. Rest now; you’ve earned it. I shall leave you for now.” He paused, darted a look about them, then added in a low, smiling voice, as if sharing a joke known only to the two of them, “Perhaps I’ll come back tomorrow, and you can tell me how you come to know what I said in the Pilus Prior’s garden the other day.”

Iviacus’ eyes were by now too heavy to hold open, but he could still smile. He had judged the man rightly, after all. “Aye, sir, perhaps I might just do that.”

“Until tomorrow, then.” Another touch to his shoulder, then he was gone, the rap of mailed sandals fading away along the floor.

Tomorrow was what they had agreed, and maybe it would be no more than that; but in the Centurion Rufinus’ voice, Iviacus thought he heard the promise of something beyond. He had never imagined, as he crouched under that bench, sweating hot and cold from the heat and the fear both, that he could ever find himself looking forward to such a thing, and with a man who had hunted him. It was more than he had dared imagine when he had first turned his face from the river woods and back to the fort, but here it was, and the thought was enough to warm him as sleep claimed him and carried him off at last.

A fresh start, indeed.