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The Test of Gold

Lillian Stewart Carl

The old man lowered himself carefully onto the couch. Every day the pain in his belly grew worse. By winter he'd be at rest in the tomb of his ancestors beside the Appian Way. He'd had a long life, as soldier and merchant, and if Mars, Mercury, and Mithras called him, so be it. But there was something he had to finish first.

Through the opening of the atrium he could just see Caligula's old bridge between the Palatine and the Capitoline, a hard marble angle against the glare of the summer sky. A beam of sunlight touched the door of the room. The air was warm and still. Even so he felt cool, as though the rectangular porphyry panels and columns of his home exuded a chill.

Unless it was simply the memory of chill. He leaned closer to his table, spread out the scroll, and started to read what he'd already written.


Ave. I was named C. Marcus Valerius after my father and tutored by the best Greek slaves. At the age of twenty, in the sixth year of the reign of Nero Augustus, I was made a military tribune and assigned to the staff of Catus Decianus, procurator of the province of Britannia. My mother and sisters wept to see me off to the very edge of the earth, but my father reminded me I was now beginning a brilliant career.

The road through Gaul was long. The farther north I went the colder the wind grew and the more sullen the rain. But the coarse humor of my little band of legionaries never faltered. One auxiliary from Iberia, called Ebro after his native river, jested even with me. At first I took offense. Then I realized that Ebro had many campaigns beneath his corselet, while I had none, and I learned to return gibe for gibe.

By the time we took ship across a rough gray sea and landed in Britannia I was wet through, unshaven, muddied from boot to helmet. And yet I could do no less than to press on, doing my duty, with that Roman honor which brought us not only an empire but the will to rule it.

In Londinium I presented myself to Catus Decianus. He had the small sleek head and obsidian eyes of a snake, and barely gave me time to bathe before he assigned me a task. "The king of one of the British tribes," he explained, "has lately died. He bequeathed half his property to the Emperor. As well he should, after all the trouble he caused us ten years ago. These barbarians are a stubborn lot. All we intended was to disarm them, and they had the gall to rebel."

I nodded as sagely as I could.

"The king's name was Prasutagus," Catus went on. "Of the Iceni, beyond Camulodunum. He has no male heir, so there's no question of the kingdom continuing. You're to make an accounting of the Emperor's property. I intend to deliver it to the governor when he returns from his campaign against the Druids."

Thanks to Ebro's stories I knew what he was talking about. "The Druids are the priestly class. They have great power, no Gaulish or British ruler will make a move without consulting with one."

If Catus was impressed with my knowledge, he showed no sign of it. "So it's in our best interests to stamp them out. Suetonius has them bottled up on some island in the northwest, and their women with them."

"I'd like to pay my respects to Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. And my father's. They campaigned together in Mauretania."

"Then you'd better get on with it, Tribune. Suetonius will be back before summer, his eagles draped with Druid gold. You don't want to still be mucking about in a barbarian village by then, do you?"

"No sir." I saluted. "Until I return, then, sir."

Catus was already unrolling a scroll, and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I reminded myself I needed his good will to advance my career and set out on the next stage of my journey.

Londinium was little more than a cluster of merchant's wood and wattle houses around a bridge over the Tamesis, although I could tell from the new roads being driven outward in every direction that Suetonius intended the city to be a hub of commerce. The road north cut through marshland.

When I think of Britannia I think of water—the great river, the marshes, heavy clouds like sopping fleeces, unrelenting rain. There trees grow thick and forests thicker. But just as I decided Britannia was the soggy frontier of Hades itself, the rain ended and a warm wind rolled up the clouds. For the first time I saw the British spring, so many shades of green I couldn't count them and a sky of such rich blue as to put lapis lazuli to shame.

Camulodunum, an old tribal capital, had been made into a colonia for retired legionaries. This part of the country was pacified, and all the building work had gone into a vast temple to Roma and Claudius Augustus. Just completed, it stood square and proud—and, I had to admit, pretentious—among the mounds of the native huts. The natives themselves cleared away leftover stones, casting resentful glances toward the old soldiers who lounged on the steps.

Ebro spat onto the paving stones. He could say more with a glob of spit than most men with words. But, as befitted my dignity, I didn't ask whether he was reproving the native workers or our own veterans.

At last Venta Icenorum rose before us. Black birds swooped and croaked above huge circular earthworks. Human skulls grinned from recesses in the gateposts. The guards were tall blond men sporting fierce moustaches, hair swept back like horses' manes, and massive embossed shields. They greeted me civilly enough in their strange tongue, although there was a certain amount of sword and spear rattling as they conducted me through the town. By standing as straight as I could I made myself as tall as the shortest of them.

Women and children dropped their tasks and looked at me. Even the dark eyes of the cows and horses turned my way. My escort strolled along casually, but one sharp look from Ebro and my legionaries marched in good order.

The buildings were also circular, of wood pilings with conical thatched roofs. Inside the largest was a vast hall ringed with wooden pillars. A ray of sunlight struck through a vent hole in the roof. In the dimness beyond stood several more warriors. The king's guard, I assumed, now at loose ends.

But the warriors seemed more haughty than uncertain. Turning, they deferred to a figure who stepped through a curtained doorway. A woman. I waited a moment, but no one else appeared.

She was tall as the men, a full handsbreadth taller than me. She wore a dress and a cloak woven in squares of different colors. Holding the cloak was a gold brooch cunningly wrought in swirls of gold, decorated with enamel chips. About her neck lay a gold torc, strands of braided wire with animal-headed knobs resting against her white throat. Even her hair was gold, a startling golden red, braided and ornamented with beads. Her eyes were as blue as the British sky. They fixed on my face, looking me up and down in the same manner I'd inspect a horse, although I've never been quite so amused by an animal.

Everyone was looking at me. They expected me to deal with a woman. I made a show of removing my helmet and tucking it under my arm. "Ave. I am C. Marcus Valerius. I bring greetings from the Senate and the people of Roma."

"I am Boudica, queen of the Iceni. My husband was your ally."

Ally, not client, I noted. But I'd heard that these Britons were a proud people. "I'm tribune to Catus Decianus, procurator. I've come to make an accounting of your husband's legacy."

"I've never known a Roman," she said, "who'd let anything of value slip through his fingers."

I took her statement as a jest. Unless—well, no, her Latin was impeccable, she meant what she said.

She went on, in a low vibrant voice, "He left you half his property. The other half I hold in trust for my daughter, heir to the rule of the Iceni."

I glanced at the assembled warriors. But they couldn't understand what she was saying, no wonder they didn't seem unsettled by it.

"We'll hold a feast tonight, in your honor," concluded Boudica. "My men will show you and your men to your own house."

I realized I was standing there with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. "Ah—thank you. We'd like a bath, after the long road. . . ."

She smiled so broadly crescent lines cleft her cheeks. "I'll have the servants bring you basins of water."

"Thank you," I said again, as though I were the client.

Boudica turned and went out through the curtain. Beyond it stood a brown-bearded man wearing a white robe and a collar of gold. Her head tilted toward his and she spoke. The curtain fell.

I made a neat about-face and strode back down the length of the building. My task here, I thought, wasn't going to be as simple as I'd first assumed. If Boudica's jewelry were any indication, the Iceni had more than a few trinkets worthy of Nero's coffers. And delivering such an accounting would certainly grease my path to advancement.


The old man put down the scroll. Someone was shouting in the street, and a wheeled vehicle rattled by, but the house itself was silent.

His belly hurt. He considered calling for his wife to rub his back, but no, she'd be in her garden, gathering the herbs for this afternoon's banquet. She'd prepare his porridge and soft meats with her own hands, as she usually did, but beneath her keen eye the cooks would make ready a sumptuous meal for a very special guest. Already a spicy odor hung in the air, but his appetite had deserted him long ago.

"Rufus!" the old man called in his reedy voice.

The servant materialized in the doorway.

"Let me know the moment my son arrives."

"Yes, master." The servant vanished again. A good man, Rufus. Marcus had left instructions in his will that he be freed. . . .

Not that the instructions in a will were always followed, were they? With a groan he picked up the scroll again.


Warriors and their women sat down together at the feast, ranged in a circle around a blazing fire in the center of the great hall. Servants passed meats, breads, herbs, and a Falernian wine as fine as any my father ever served at his table in Roma. I'd heard that the chief god of the Britons was Mercury, the patron of merchants. I began to see why.

Through the smoky gloom I caught again and again the gleam of gold, electrum, and gilded bronze. Everyone wore ornaments, brooches, necklaces—outside I'd seen even their splendid horses adorned with metalwork. Every ornament was designed in the living lines of plants, of horses' tails, of serpents. Our own utilitarian items seemed dull and flat.

Tonight Boudica's brooch held a cloak of green silk stitched with sinuous designs in gold thread. It rustled faintly as she motioned me to sit beside her and her daughters. They were lissome, red-headed girls of about fifteen and twelve, introduced as Brighid and Maeve. When I asked if Prasutagus had arranged marriages for them before his death the girls looked faintly shocked, but Boudica smiled.

She herself was perhaps five and thirty, past her youth but not beyond remarriage. I expected every tribal monarch across Britannia was vying for her hand. Even half the wealth of the Iceni would be a prize.

Every now and then one of the warriors hurled some boast at me, which Boudica translated, erring on the side of courtesy, I imagine. She made no move to reprove the mens' boisterousness. Her rule was probably only courtesy to their king's widow, I thought. She had no real power.

The white-robed man sat behind us. More than once I felt his eyes on the back of my neck, but every time I looked around his bearded face was bland. At last I asked Boudica who he was, thinking he was perhaps her brother and guardian.

"He is Lovernios," she replied. "My advisor."

The man himself nodded, with an amused smile identical to Boudica's. I'd never before found myself the butt of such a subtle joke. Was Lovernios a druid who'd escaped Suetonius's nets? Between my ignorance of the Iceni's customs and the delectable wine I was no doubt playing quite the fool. I made a note to pay closer attention.

The fire burned down and the faces of the Iceni grew red as Boudica's hair. But their taunts and the occasional gnawed bone were aimed more at each other than at my men, who sat to one side watching the scuffles as they'd watch a gladiatorial combat.

Boudica exchanged a look with Lovernios. He slipped out. Another man entered, raised an instrument like a lyre, and began to sing. "It's the story of a boar hunt," Boudica murmured, her breath piquant with wine and herbs. "He'll sing of bulls and horses and the deeds of our ancestors."

As a follower of Mithras, I understood the bull, and nodded.

The girls rose from their seats. "Good night, Tribune," said Brighid gravely, and little Maeve blushed and said, "Good night."

"Young ladies," I returned with a slight bow.

Boudica stood up, draping her cloak about her shoulders. "Come with me, Tribune, and I'll show you one of our temples."

"Very good, Lady." I managed to stand without stumbling. The cool night air, even with its hint of manure, tasted delicious after the close, smoky hall. I expected Boudica to bring me to a building, but no, we walked down into a dell in the side of the embankment. Above us a sentry stood outlined against the star-strewn sky, a glint of gold at his neck.

In the bottom of the dell burned a fire, illuminating a tree so large all I could see of it were a few limbs curving toward the earth and rising again. A semicircle of gold was embedded in one thick limb. Above the fire a small bronze cauldron hung from a tripod, steaming gently. Nearby a spring issued from a rock grotto and rippled away into the darkness.

With one twist of her hands Boudica removed her torc. It must have been almost pure gold to bend so easily. She held it up, so that it shone red-gold in the firelight. Then she threw it into the water. I started forward, appalled and confused in equal measure. But it was gone.

She laughed. "Gold belongs to the gods. They send it to us, we work it into shapes which honor them, and then we give it back."

"Oh." I could hear Catus's voice quizzing me—how many springs and wells contained gold offerings? Where did the gold come from?

"This is the shrine of Andrasta, my patron goddess," Boudica went on. "Victoria in your tongue."

"Minerva," I translated.

"Not necessarily." She pulled what I now saw was a golden sickle from the tree, and from a branch cut a bunch of small white berries. She sprinkled them into the cauldron. "Mistletoe, which grows on the sacred oak. Vervain, henbane with its purple flowers, the early fruit of the elder."

The odor filled my head, flowers and herbs both sweet and bitter.

"And what accounting will you give to Catus?" she asked.

I wondered if she intended to offer me a bribe. "The truth."

"Well then, Tribune Marcus, the truth is that my late husband left his property to your emperor hoping to buy respect. But respect can't be bought."

"Why not? I know freed slaves who've made themselves into successful merchants and become quite respectable."

"Wealth makes one respectable, does it? But our wealth is our freedom. And that's what we would keep." She swept the sickle through the liquid in the cauldron, throwing several drops onto my forearm. My flesh burned. Instinctively I lifted my arm to my lips. The hot liquid scalded my tongue. First a foul taste, and then a honeyed one, swelled into my mouth and nose. Boudica smiled.

The wind whispered in the branches of the tree. The water laughed. The embers of the fire made a rosy glow among the shadows. In the distance men shouted and sang. Boudica was murmuring something in her own tongue, something which tickled the edges of my mind. She unbraided her hair. It flowed thick and golden red down her back.

She, too, was a druid, a priestess, a magician. . . . I felt myself shrinking, smaller and smaller, until I squatted on the grass looking up at her. My long ears twitched. My paws were velvet soft. I was a hare, lolloping about the dell. And she was a gray hound, running after me like a swirl of smoke. I bounded across the grass and she was on me, her teeth closing on my puff of a tail.

I dived into the spring. The chill made me shiver. I was a fish, sleek and cold, looking up through the surface of the water at the distorted shapes of fire and tree. And she was an otter, her smooth body knifing through the water, so that whichever way I darted she was on me.

I launched myself upward, into the air, wings beating, beak open to draw in more breath. Into the tree I flew. The budding leaves brushed my face. And she was a hawk, gliding among the branches with swift, sure strokes, talons striking feathers from my tail.

I fell to the ground a tiny grain of wheat and lay immobile, gazing at the tree, the fire, the water, the sky. She came toward me, a black hen pecking and clawing. She grasped me in her beak. I cracked open, seed and chaff, and scattered into the night. Scattered into the morning, and the golden sun rising in Boudica's blue eyes.

Her cloak billowed into hills, valleys, mountains, groves. Mistletoe sparkled like dewdrops among the branches of mighty oaks. The turf rang to the beat of horses' hooves and then parted, revealing the white chalk beneath, making figures of gods and men which not only lay across the land but which were the land itself.

The brooch on the cloak became an embroidery of wells, streams, and rivers lacing sky to earth, land to sea, a green glass sea swelling and falling to the slow spirals of sun and moon. Roads were golden threads stitching together grove and field, hill and shore, strung with temples like fine beadwork. Hibernia in the far west was sewn to Britannia was sewn to Gaul and on into the east, Galatia, Sarmatia . . . The fine golden embroidery ripped, cut by the iron weapons of Roma, weapons sharp and greedy not for gods but for gold.

Boudica's hands gathered me up. I blinked, returned to my body. She was not sharp and hard as a hen's beak, but warm, soft, moist, a fully-fleshed woman leaning over me, her hair a gleaming curtain around us. My mouth was filled by the taste of honey.

Her draught had addled my wits. It had opened my eyes. It had not sabotaged my capabilities. I'd known only courtesans, and to be made free of a high-born woman, Briton or no, was both intimidating and stimulating. . . . She made free with me, not playing the wanton for my pleasure so much as she expected my pleasure to please her. Which it did, if I do say so myself.

I woke from the dream, from the vision, in Boudica's bed. I was knocking my fists against my forehead, trying to awaken my wits, when the door of the house opened and Boudica entered. Her hair was tidily braided. She wore a simple woven cloak. "Good morning."

"What did you do to me?" I demanded.

"I laid a geas upon you. A fate. To know the truth and to speak it."

"I would do that in any event. Truth and honor go hand in hand."

"Do they?" She picked up my tunic from the floor, shook it out, and handed it to me. "Is truth golden? Or is gold truth?"

"Gold is gold." I dressed, glancing warily over my shoulder.

"Then you'd better get on with counting that gold which is yours," she said, and shooed me out the door.

I walked back to the house she'd assigned to me, trying not to catch anyone's eye. If the warriors found out what had happened they'd slay me on the spot. They took insult easily, these men, and what greater insult could I hand them than to make free with one of their women? Even worse, with one of their priestesses? I remembered a straying vestal virgin and her lover buried alive, and shuddered.

Not one warrior paid me any attention at all, even though a couple of Boudica's serving women glanced at me and giggled. I ducked into my house and saw my pack of tablets and pens. That was it. Boudica had sacrificed her honor in order to influence my accounting. But my duty was to make an honest count . . . Wondering if yet again I was somehow playing the fool, I gathered up my supplies and set about my business.

The next five days passed from sunlight to soft rain to night and back again. It seemed as though I'd never before noticed the burgeoning of spring, the waxing of the moon, the intricate patterns of wind, water, and wood.

My men went hunting with Boudica's warriors and acquitted themselves honorably, even as Ebro muttered about undisciplined Iceni hooligans. He drilled my small command every afternoon, to the amusement of Maeve and the younger children. But drill can be learned, while courage cannot; with proper training, I noted, the Iceni would make fine auxiliaries, serving the eagles as well as Ebro and his kind.

One afternoon wagons rolled up the ramp to the gate, bearing treasure from the northwest. Suetonius was campaigning in the northwest, I remembered, and made a note in my margins.

Lovernios worked with me, translating records cut on strips of wood. I had to trust he was giving me a fair accounting, but I didn't catch him out once. They used writing only for the tallying of goods and stock, I learned. When it came to the epics of beasts, gods, and heroes, Lovernios and the bard could recite for hours without faltering.

I finished my task. The night before I left, Boudica took me back to the sylvan temple below the embankment. This was the first time we'd been alone together since I'd waked in her bed. I was both relieved and disappointed to see no fire and no cauldron beside the stream, only a charred circle in the grass. The golden sickle was gone.

But still the branches of the great tree creaked, and water droplets danced above the mossy rocks. Boudica removed a gold torc from her throat and fitted it around mine. "You like gold, don't you? Then try this for size."

The torc was heavy, pulling my collarbones down, elongating my neck. All this time I'd seen her and the warriors wearing such ornaments, and I'd never realized just how uncomfortable they were.

She grasped the knobs at the ends of the coil and pressed them together, choking me. "Gold belongs to the gods. It devotes us to the gods. They can take us at any time. The braided strands are the rope around the throat and the tree limb above. They're the sword which separates head from body. Death takes only a moment, but the next life goes on forever. Do you love me?"

Startled, I opened my mouth to utter some flattery, but my lips and tongue said, "No."

Laughing, she released the torc and teased my short, dark hair. "Good. I wouldn't want you to think our hour together was—personal. I only wanted to taste exotic meat. As you did."

Fair enough, I thought, and was surprised at myself for thinking it. "And this—geas?"

"You will know the truth and you will speak it. Whether that will be a blessing or a curse remains to be seen."

I didn't follow her meaning. I twisted the torc from my neck and held it out to her.

"No," she said. "Keep it. As a gift from Andrasta."

Still puzzled, I looked one last time around the dell, and, concealing the torc in my cloak, returned to my tablets and my pens.

The next morning I took my leave of Boudica, Brighid, and Maeve. And of Lovernios, even as I wondered what Suetonius would think of my courtesy. At the eaves of the forest I looked back at Venta Icenorum, at the dark soil of the fields awaiting the plow and the blue arch of sky. So our ancestors must have lived, wild and free, before submitting to the rule of law. . . . I remembered the skulls decorating the gate, and chilled, rode away.

When I made my report to Catus Decianus I thought briefly of minimizing not only the wealth of the Iceni, but their position at the knot of the golden thread of trade. My tongue, however, couldn't shade the truth, let alone utter a lie. I found myself telling him even of Boudica herself, of her strength and beauty and determination to hold the Iceni for her daughter.

His chin went up. His brows rose. "So tell me then, Tribune, how is this barbarian village defended?"

My heart sinking, I told him that, too.


The old man let the scroll roll shut. He shut his eyes and touched his lips with his fingertips. From the atrium came the sounds of voices, footsteps, and furniture sliding across the tile floor.

"Are you in pain?" asked his wife's voice.

"Yes, as always," he replied, looking up. "But mostly I'm tired."

"Why are you writing it down? It was so long ago." She walked to his side and began stroking his shoulders.

"It's my geas. I know the truth and I must speak it."

She sighed. "The memories are harsher for you than they are for me."

"You were guiltless. I was not." He captured her hand and held it to his face. It was scented with rosemary, thyme, and coriander, the hot herbs of a hot climate. "What will you do when I've gone to Mars and Mithras? Is there comfort in your secret new god, the crucified one?"

"He reminds me of the gods I knew as a child, who taught that death was not an end."

"As Mithras teaches, too."

They leaned together in companionable silence, as they had for almost forty years now. From the corner of his eye Marcus saw her dangling braid, its red-gold faded to gray. Which was just as well—her hair color no longer drew comment in the streets, although her height always would.

Through the atrium he could see the flat, pale sky. "Thank you, my love," he said, releasing her hand, and spread open the scroll.


The next time I saw Venta Icenorum, it was burning. The damp thatch of the roofs singed slowly, sending billows of gray smoke to mingle with a gray sky. Men lay dead beside their plows in the muddy fields. Birds both black and white wheeled overhead.

A blond warrior was pinned by a javelin to one of the gateposts. Inside the town women screamed and arms clashed. But Catus's legionaries had taken the Iceni by surprise. Why should they suspect an attack by an ally?

I urged my horse toward the Great Hall, Ebro jogging at my knee, sword drawn. But already the sounds of battle were dying. I wondered how many of the bodies we passed were of men I'd lately heard boasting. But perhaps they were the fortunate ones, to go so swiftly to their gods. . . . There were very few bodies, I noted, and wondered whether Catus had been fortunate enough to attack when most of the warriors were out hunting.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Catus himself stood atop a small platform hastily assembled from logs, the standard bearers ranged behind him. Before him Boudica was lashed to an upright pole. Two legionaries crouched nearby, clasping themselves, red-faced. She'd not gone without fighting, then.

Catus signaled. Two centurions stepped forward, ripped Boudica's dress open, and began applying their rods. The slap of leather against her back made my gorge rise. "Catus!"

He ignored me. Obviously he meant not only to bring the Iceni under Roman rule here and now, but to punish Boudica for her presumption. But she was hardly presumptuous in following her own customs. . . . High-pitched screams made me look around.

Several legionaries were dragging Brighid and Maeve away, tearing at their dresses and shouting coarse wagers at each other. Horrified, I swarmed down from my horse and came face to face with Ebro. His laconic expression didn't change, but his meaning was obvious. The legionaries were following orders. By interfering I'd only call censure upon myself.

I spun around and shot the sharpest look of which I was capable at Catus. He was inspecting Boudica's brooch, turning it back and forth to catch the light. Nothing personal, just business, Roma's virility making an example of the proud women of a proud tribe.

The girls' screams turned to sobs. Boudica never screamed. Her eyes blazing, she spat quick painful gasps—curses, no doubt—toward Catus and toward me.

Again I started forward, again I stopped. Tightening my jaw, I climbed back on my horse. She dealt honorably with me, I shouted, and swallowed every word until my gut knotted with them. What of my honor? I made my accounting, as was my duty—should I have said the Iceni were a poor people, not worth the conquest? But I couldn't lie, Boudica's geas had seen to that.

I saw her face twisted in pain and rage and the blood running down the white flesh of her back, dabbling her braids with crimson. I heard the cries of her dishonored daughters. What of Roma's honor, to treat a free-born people like disobedient slaves?

Overcome with horror and shame I fled, and supervised the squads who were already loading gold ornaments into carts and rounding up the horses and cows. That evening when we left the ruins of Venta Icenorum I didn't look back.

Within a day wild rumors filled the shops and taverns of Camulodunum—screams had been heard in the theatre, ghosts had been seen along the seashore. The Romans began glancing warily behind them. The Britons exchanged furtive smiles—except for the women married to our veterans.

I knew their dread, and told Catus, "The Iceni will respond to this insult with war."

"Let them," he returned. "A disorganized rabble will make a good drill for our soldiers."

He went trotting back to Londinium with his booty. Despite the pleas of the settlers, he left only two hundred legionaries to man the nonexistent defenses. And he left me, telling me this was my chance to further my career in the service of Nero Augustus.

In truth, I was no longer certain I wanted to serve Nero. But I thought of my family, and their ambitions for me, and steeled myself to die.

Not only the Iceni went to war, but their cousins the Trinovantes. It was noon when the warriors fell upon Camulodunum, tens of thousands of them screaming their battle cries, their maned hair flying behind them, utterly disdainful of us and of death.

My little squad fought well, but for every warrior we brought down ten others came behind. By evening only Ebro and I were left, standing back to back on the steps of the temple while the city burned around us.

Several warriors ringed us, while others sprinted up the steps. A moment later the great bronze statue of Claudius came rolling down, with a clattering crash loud enough to wake the senators back in Roma. They tore the emperor's effigy apart. They fired the temple. They dragged Roman and Briton alike into the streets and cut them to pieces. The gutters ran with blood.

They didn't advance on Ebro and me until the ceiling of the temple caved in and a gust of hot black smoke almost knocked us over. Ebro took down two, and I might have stabbed one, but their long swords overcame our short ones. We were brought in chains before Boudica.

She stood in a light wicker chariot, her face glowing, her red hair fluttering like leaping flames. A gold torc shone at her throat. Behind her stood Brighid, trembling with rage, and hollow-eyed Maeve, pale even in the light of the fires. Lovernios stood next to them, holding a staff, a golden sickle tucked into his belt. At their feet rose a gory pile of severed heads, steaming in the cool of the evening. Among them I recognized the misshapen faces of men who'd done their duty.

"Shall I add your head to my trophies, Marcus?" Boudica asked, her voice grating, her scowl like a slap across my face.

I forced myself to stand tall, wearing my chains like a torc, and met her eyes. "I am once again in your hands, Lady."

"I knew that dog Catus would come for the gold. I planned that. I never in my worst nightmares thought he would come for me and mine. What did you tell him?"

"The truth."

She stared at me. And then she laughed, humorlessly. Her daughters looked up at her, more fearful than curious. Lovernios stared down at the blood pooled at his feet.

"Here's another truth for you," Boudica went on. "We've just had word from the northwest, as Catus has no doubt had word in Londonium. Suetonius took the sacred island of Mona and destroyed the druid college there. My plan is twisted and bent back upon itself. But I shall go on to victory despite all, in Andrasta's name."

One of the warriors dragged Ebro's head back and raised his sword. "No!" I shouted. "If you crave more blood, take mine."

Boudica looked me up and down, as she had the first time we met. A ghost of her amusement moved deep in her eyes and vanished. "Very well, then. I'll show your man more mercy than you showed my daughters." She jerked her head. The warrior released Ebro, but not without pushing him into the dirt.

"Thank you," I said, and bent my head for the blow.

"Oh, don't be so noble, Marcus. You know what your life is worth." The horses stamped and neighed. Turning, Boudica flicked the reins. The chariot moved off across the battlefield that had this morning been a peaceful colonia. Her warriors saluted her and went back to plundering the town.

Yes, in that moment I knew what my life was worth. Boudica had planned all along to revolt, perhaps even before her husband's death. Lovernios and his druid colleagues had drawn Suetonius and his legions away to the northwest. And then Boudica had dangled the lure, gold and horses and power, before Catus and before me.

Of course Lovernios and most of the warriors hadn't been in Venta Icenorum the day of Catus's raid. Boudica had sacrificed her own town in order to enrage all the Britons and lead them into rebellion. That Suetonius had won his battle added fuel to the fire. That Boudica and her daughters suffered such dishonor fed the fire to a white heat.

And as for me? It was my honor that had been in peril that night in the dell, not hers. Oh I'd played the fool, all right. She'd knotted me into her plot like an iron thread drawn through the midst of her gold embroidery.

"Marcus," said Lovernios, drawing my eyes to him. "Poenus Postumus in Glevum is occupied with our cousins the Silures, and won't be able to reinforce Suetonius. But I'd like to know how many men are garrisoned at Lindum, and the disposition of Petillius Cerialis, their legate."

Boudica had intended all along to capture me once the rebellion began. Because I knew the truth, and had to speak it. And so I did, halting and stammering as the blood drained from my face and sickened in my gut.

Ebro stared at me, his long face growing longer, but said nothing.


The old man bent over the scroll, not knowing whether it was the pain in his belly which drew a chill sweat to his forehead, or the memory. Even today he couldn't smell damp straw burning without growing queasy.

"Master," said Rufus's voice. "Your son is here. He sends his respects, and has gone to the bath house."

Marcus glanced up. "Thank you."

The shaft of sunlight inched closer to his couch, dust motes spiraling in its golden glow. It was time to make an end. He picked up his pen, moistened it in the pot of ink, and continued to write.


The Britons left Camulodunum, its white temple blackened, the bodies of its citizens worried by wolves and crows. Their army spread far beyond the road, warriors, horses, wagons laden with plunder sauntering across the untilled fields not just in poor order, but in no order at all.

Not that I offered any criticism. I trudged along behind Boudica's chariot in a black melancholy which lay heavier on me than the chains they'd removed. Ebro, too, walked unencumbered, sometimes at my side, sometimes behind me, his eyes darting to and fro.

But if we'd tried to escape our captors would've made short work of us. Don't think I wasn't tempted—if I couldn't throw myself on my own sword, then that of a British warrior would do. But a stubborn spark of life kept me on my feet. And the geas kept my tongue wagging.

Boudica glanced in my direction every so often, as did Maeve, but Brighid made a point of presenting me with her back. None of them spoke to me. It was Lovernios who told me that Petillius Cerialis had come south from Lindum with a detachment of the Ninth Legion and met with a larger detachment of the Iceni. Petillius escaped the slaughter with only his cavalry, and was now walled up in Lindum licking his wounds.

I saw the conquest of Verulamium with my own eyes. The Britons were drunk on blood and booty, and spared no one. The baggage train grew longer—longer by far than Catus's. Boudica turned toward Londinium.

Lovernios came to me yet again. By this time I was as filthy outside as I felt inside. Even so, I rose to my feet and offered him a place by the tiny fire Ebro had kindled.

"No, thank you," he said. "I must ask your advice."

I smiled thinly at our mock courtesies.

"Suetonius arrived in Londinium with his cavalry last night, far ahead of his legions. They're making forced marches down Watling Street, and will arrive in good order, I daresay, but too late."

I nodded. "Londinium has no defenses. Suetonius knows he can't hold it."

"He's already taken what battle-ready men he could find and headed back to the northwest. Londinium is ours for the taking."

"For the destruction," I said.

Lovernios didn't contradict me. He waited.

If only, I thought, I could bite out my own tongue and lay it at Boudica's feet. I spoke through my teeth. "You have to strike Suetonius now, before he rejoins his legions. If you can wean your warriors from their plunder."

"I can't," Lovernios replied. "But she can." He turned away from the fire into the darkness, then looked back around. "By the way, Catus Decianus has fled to the continent."

I sat back down, indulging myself in a vision of Catus's ship sinking, his British gold plunging into the watery grasp of the British gods. Ebro spat into the fire. Around us, beyond the trees, other campfires blazed, and the sounds of men singing filtered through the night.

The next night the army ranged itself from bank to bank of the Tamesis, trapping the city between fire and water. Boudica called me to her own bonfire, and gestured silently toward a gleaming pile of arms and armor. Roman arms, and finely-wrought armor. In the midst of the pile stood a javelin, and upon it was spiked Suetonius's head. I recognized him, if not his shocked expression—he'd dined with my family more than once, and he and my father had reminisced about old times. . . .

For once my tongue was still. I said all I needed to say in a look at Boudica.

The bones of her face had grown sharper, and her blue eyes were clouded by gray like a noon sky overcome by storm clouds. Her mouth was tight, as though it'd forgotten how to smile. She was beyond sated, I think, sick on her own vengeance. But to stop the war before total victory would mean retribution. "I hold no grudge against you, Marcus," she said. "When this is over, you'll be free."

"I'll never be free of you, Lady." As I squared my shoulders and turned toward my own little fire I saw Maeve peeking from the flaps of Boudica's tent. Somehow I managed to summon a wink for her. Her eyes widened and she disappeared inside.

Ebro and I sat against the massive trunk of an oak tree, a warrior nearby, and watched the destruction of Londinium. Even at such a distance our faces burned in the heat of the fires, and the screams of the tortured came clearly to our ears. A stream to the west of the city was dammed by severed heads. The waters of the mighty Tamesis were stained with blood. The smoke rose thick and black into the sky, so that the sun looked like an open sore.

I fingered the braided gold of the torc, wrapped around my upper arm beneath my cloak. Its weight kept me off balance, but I couldn't bring myself to throw it away.

Two nights later Lovernios came to me again, told me the two legions were a day's march away, and asked me for advice.

"They're better trained and better disciplined," I told him dully. "But you outnumber them ten to one. Choose your field so as to give them little room to maneuver and you can defeat them."

We discussed tactics and the disposition of troops until he at last turned to go. "Thank you."

"Lovernios," I called. "You tell me. How many other tribes have joined your war?"

"The Atrebates have refused to rise," he answered, "as have the other tribes in the south. And Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes in the north, is still your ally."

I didn't need to drive home the point. I sat back down and prayed for an end, for any end.

Boudica met the legions on Watling Street, between the Roman fort at Manduessum and the British temple at Vernemeton, at a place where the road ran into a narrow defile. Her warriors seethed over the field, beyond counting. They were so confident of victory they brought their families, in wagons at the rear of the field.

The legions divided into three columns, flanked by cavalry and auxiliaries. From our perch on a rocky hillside Ebro spotted the cluster of standards. Beside them I recognized the compact body of Agricola, Suetonius's most able lieutenant, striding up and down delivering a speech. The legions were in good hands. They would die with honor, and with them the Roman rule of Britannia. How Boudica would then deal with her own cousins, I couldn't imagine.

She harangued her warriors, her daughters displayed at her side, no doubt pouring scorn on Roma and its men and calling for even more blood. Her voice had become hoarse and shrill, like a crow's.

At last she released a hare from her cloak, which scurried away toward the Roman line. The Britons clashed their weapons and shouted taunts. I turned away, remembering the night I'd been a hare to Boudica's hound. But that had been a long time ago, in my youth.

All day the battle raged. The Britons broke like waves against the Roman shore. But at last the sheer weight of numbers began to bottle the legions in the defile.

I was so enrapt I didn't notice Ebro slip away. We had no guards—no warrior would have missed the battle to watch two such impotent prisoners—so I hurried after him across the bloody ground, past the contorted bodies of Roman and Briton alike.

Boudica leaned forward in her chariot, her hands upraised as though casting a spell. Her hair fell in red waves down her back. Her green cloak billowed behind her. Brighid's hands were raised in imitation, her own hair flowing free. Behind them slumped Maeve, like a tired schoolgirl wanting nothing more than for the lesson to end.

Several warriors ran by, their long swords mottled with blood. And then I saw Ebro, with a long sword of his own—he'd found it on the field, no doubt. He ran at the chariot, brandishing his weapon, shouting in a deep voice I'd never before heard him use, "Death to the witch! Death to the enemy of Roma!"

He struck at Boudica and her daughters, once, twice, three times, the sword flaring in the red light of the westering sun. Maeve screamed. Brighid gasped and fell against her mother. Clutching her breast, Boudica stared with cold, empty eyes at her attacker. Blood drowned her green cloak and its golden stitches. The startled horses jerked forward. I seized their bridles and stopped them.

Five Iceni warriors fell upon Ebro, cut him down, and kept on hacking long after he was dead. Then they turned to me.

"No," said Boudica. She sank to her knees, clasping Brighid to her side. Maeve sat down with a thump behind them. "Take me away, Marcus. Now."

I led the horses and the chariot away, expecting a spear in my back at any moment. But as the rumor of Boudica's wound swept the field the Britons were maddened. Some threw themselves on the Roman swords. Some threw down their weapons and fled. As I gained the hillside and the dappled shadow of an oak tree Agricola began to drive forward, pinning the Britons between the defile and their own wagons.

Boudica, Brighid, and Maeve huddled in the bottom of the chariot, the discolored cloak spread over them. Ebro hadn't seen the cloak become Britannia. He'd never tasted the liquid from the cauldron. All he knew was that Boudica had enspelled me to betray my duty, and it was his duty to deliver me. I sent Mithras a quick prayer for Ebro. I didn't know which god to address for the women, as Andrasta seemed to have deserted them.

Brighid's cheeks were chalk-white. She was dead, I realized. Maeve cried. In her bloodstained hand Boudica held a vial made of finest Roman glass. She caught the irony in my glance and tried to smile. But her smile was only a feeble grimace.

Behind me someone moved. I spun around. It was Lovernios. "We are lost," he said.

"You can still rally your warriors," I told him.

"No. The queen's body is our own. If she isn't strong and sound, then neither are we."

I'd heard of such a superstition. Had Ebro? That was something I'd never know. I turned back to her.

"Do you hate me?" Boudica asked.

My tongue said, "No. You did your duty, as I did mine. A pity, that my ambition and your freedom couldn't be coiled into the same pattern."

"Duty makes as intricate a pattern as truth. Perhaps there's a greater truth, that in time will receive us both. I'll know, in just a few moments." With her teeth she pulled the stopper from the vial, spat it out, and drank.

I glanced up at Lovernios.

"Wolfsbane," he said. "Poison. You don't think she'd let herself be taken by your people, do you?"

Boudica offered the vial to Maeve. The child shook her head. "I don't want to know, not yet."

I realized by the strength of her voice that she hadn't been wounded. Ebro might not even have struck at her, but twice at Boudica. I leaped forward and pulled Maeve from the back of the chariot. She stiffened at my touch, but didn't fight me as I wrapped her and her stubborn spark of life in my tattered cloak.

Boudica choked, gasped, and died. Maeve's slender body shuddered with hers, and then was still. She turned to Lovernios. "Here is my first and only order as queen of the Iceni. Take them away, and sink them in some deep pool, so that they're lost forever to the sight of men."

"And you?" Lovernios asked. One tear fell from his eye and traced a path into his beard.

"I'll protect her," I said. And that was the first thing I'd said in days that was clean and fresh.

Maeve and I sat together beneath the tree as Lovernios led the chariot and the bodies of the two queens into the green and gold afternoon. Neither of us spoke. Boudica had made a magnificent gamble, worthy of a magnificent woman, and she had lost.

The legions marched over the demoralized Britons, until the bodies of men, women, children, animals lay sprawled as far as the eye could see. At last a centurion ran up the hillside, recognized my clothing and, despite the dark stubble on my face, my origins. He escorted us through the merciful shade of dusk to Agricola. Overwhelmed by detail as any commander would be after such a victory, he barely asked who I was, and paid no attention to Maeve.

I'd wondered many times that spring if I'd ever see Roma again. Returning was like waking from a dream. But it was no dream, for Maeve was with me, first as my ward, then as my wife. It was a year before she smiled again, but smile she did. As did I.

More than once over the years I've stood on the Gaulish shore and glimpsed the white cliffs of Dubris, but I've never again set foot on the island itself. In Maeve's eyes, though, I see every day the clear lapis skies of Britannia.

Ave atque vale.


The old man laid down his pen. His gut cramped and a cold sweat trickled down his face. The gods had waited long years before taking him as they had taken Boudica, with a bellyful of poison.

His family's delight at his return had become displeasure when he told them his ambition was burned to ashes. But his knowledge of Britannia and the trading of gold made him a successful merchant, so that he sacrificed to Mercury as often as to Mars and Mithras. For truth didn't run in straight lines, but made spirals, and braids, and intricate golden embroideries.

"Good evening, Father," said his son from the doorway.

Marcus looked up. "We've a few moments before the guests arrive. Sit beside me, Artorius, and let me tell you once again that while I was a disappointment to my father, you are not to me."

"How could I disappoint you, when you've taught me so much?" Artorius's even-tempered smile was his mother's, and yet his grandmother's humor, bright and sharp as a golden sickle, lurked at the corners of his mouth. At one and thirty he was in the prime of life, a tall, clean-limbed man with a glint of red in his brown hair. He'd already served as quaestor and curator in Dacia and Macedonia. Now he was going to the province of Britannia as procurator. Which, Marcus thought, seemed only fair.

Maeve walked into the room and handed Marcus the torc. "Here it is."

It was almost too heavy for him. He would've dropped it if Artorius's strong hands hadn't caught it. Marcus passed it gladly to his son. "I know now why I carried this through fire and blood. For you to throw into the Tamesis, in the name of the goddess Andrasta and of peace."

"As you wish," Artorius said, his doubt tempered with respect.

Marcus handed him the scroll, too. "And this is for you to read on your journey north. To remind you that every truth and every duty has many different braided strands. To remind you of Seneca's aphorism: Fire is the test of gold, adversity, of strong men."

"In your veins runs the blood of both Roma and Britannia," Maeve told him. "May you found a new race. May your name and the names of your descendants be long remembered, in Britannia and beyond its borders."

The gleam of the torc was reflected in Artorius's indigo blue eyes. "I'll bring honor to my name and my blood, I swear it."

Marcus smiled through his pain, content.


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