In terms of the writing of this book, much of it and the following book – now book 4 The Burning Forest – were already written and the book was moving swiftly to its climax when the decision was made to convert it into two volumes. I cannot remember the details of what happened, but this was not the first time I had been asked to undertake this kind of surgery. When I submitted The Gardener – my second book – to Gollanz I was asked to cut it into two parts. I was new to publishing at that time and more or less assumed that this was what happened in publishing a book, part of the territory as it were.
With The Gardener, I did not so much cut as rewrote, and I think the story was the better for it. In the case of A Land Fit for Heroes, I now think – and in my heart always knew – it should have stayed as one volume, Volume three, the final work of a trilogy; and it would have achieved what final volumes are supposed to do: gather all the threads into one final and complete tapestry. As it is book three feels a bit lonely though it contains some of my best comic writing especially in the scenes in which The Emperor Lucius is let loose. What a madman! What energy, but as dangerous as the Devil on holiday. It was fun to write these passages, for they build the energy of the novel as also do the important scenes when we see more deeply into the ancient world of Drummer or follow Angus’ ambitious plan to undermine the Roman Empire with his own brand of terrorism.
Perhaps I should have cut more… But it is a big book, when all is said and done, with a big plot, and many characters. It deals with several world views colliding, and with issues which are as real to us as today’s news, whether in the Gulf of Mexico, the Rain Forests of Brazil or Antarctica or our own chaotic and unknowen past – and such things can not be rushed.
I always know that a book has achieved its aim when readers say, “I didn’t want it to end.” And there is no greater pleasure for a writer than to give pleasure to his readers. Here are the first three chapters. The first is the introduction for those who do not know the story. Then we meet the Romans and lastly we hear Coll’s laughter.
A LAND FIT for HEROES
Book 3 The Dragon Wakes
Chapters 1 and 2
Welcome to the Earth.
But it is not quite the Earth which you and I know, though viewed from the moon you could not tell the difference. This world belongs in one of those parallel universes which exist, infinite in quantity, yet each in its own discrete time shell, just slightly out of temporal phase with our own world and with each other.
This world, which we are now approaching, is displaced from our own by a mere twelve seconds. But that short time is sufficient to make this world wholly different from our own while yet remaining, in some ways, quite familiar. For instance, the hills and rivers and plains are largely the same, but the men and women who inhabit them are different. Their history and customs too are different, but in subtle and strange ways.
In this world the Roman legions never quit Britannia. Far from it. The Roman legions marched on and, after stamping their mark on Britannia, conquered the rest of the world. Wherever they trod they established their social systems, their laws and their military organization.
Though for a while Roma tottered before the northern tribes, it nevertheless survived to become the capital city of a vast eclectic civilization. Roma became renowned as a great seat of learning; as a cultural melting-pot and place in the sun for all races; as a home of good food, rare spices and fine red wine; as the place for hot gossip, love, philosophy and lust; as the centre of fabulous, profligate wealth and awesome world rattling power.
Which is all well and good, but this book is not much concerned with Roma, or with the rest of the world come to that, but with just one small corner in the distant north-east of the moist and wooded province of Britannia.
When military resistance in Britannia ended with the defeat of the Celtic tribes, the province prospered. The Romans built their roads throughout the length and breadth of the country and ruled in the neat cities, small towns and military camps. Gradually they created an organized society based on urban living. In the early days after the conquest, the political leader of this society, the Praefectus Comitum as he was called, was appointed from Roma. But soon this position was filled by members of the great aristocratic, military families that settled in Britannia and began to call that province home. These families controlled vast estates and enjoyed almost unlimited power. Their privilege was supported by two classes in the population: the Citizens and the Soldiers. These two classes were mainly drawn from native families who, in the early days, forsook the tribal life and accepted the pax Romana with relish. They became ‘civilized’.
As the decades stretched into centuries and the centuries ticked past, Roman rule began to seem like a law of nature. Given material comforts, security and a guaranteed place in society, the Citizens were hardly aware of the strict rules and regulations and limits under which they lived. Thus the clerks and sewer- men, the cooks, cleaners, nurses, gardeners and candlestick- makers who made civilized life possible for the Roman military aristocracy hardly ever questioned their condition. As for the Soldiers, they were not encouraged to think about anything other than a pride in service and a delight in efficiency. They controlled the roads and the city gates.
But where the city walls ended, the wild wood began. Still, in the forests and moors and swamps which surrounded the Roman towns, life continued pretty much as it had for centuries: as it had since before the coming of the Celts and the earlier generations of men who built Stonehenge, yea back even unto the time of giants. In the different regions of what the Romans called Britannia, the old, green and ever youthful spirits of tree, glade and river maintained their dignity and held sway among the people who lived close to the soil. To those who lived in the vast forests, their ancestors – almost as old as the hills themselves – could be heard whispering in the trees and among the bubbling streams.
At nightfall they murmured together in the shadows of the long barrows. Even so, golden lads and lasses made love in the meadows and on the hilltops and in the quiet places behind the barrows, and never thought about grave-dust.
To the ancient Roman families and the Citizens and Soldiers who served them, these woodlanders were primitive savages who could be tolerated because they posed no threat. Christianity sprang up in some quarters but nowhere did it become as great a political force as in our world. Indeed, where it did survive, Christianity took its place as one sect among many, each of which celebrated in its own special way the sacrifice of a man or woman who chose death in order that humankind might be saved. These various creeds rubbed shoulders with older religions of earth and sky and of the Great Mother.
And all races and creeds walked the Roman roads.
We come to the present.
A pestilence, which began by ravaging the flocks of sheep in the continental provinces, has now shown greater virulence attacking other animals and even humans. Apart from shortages in meat, wool, skins and fertilizer, the disease has caused panic and economic disruption. Strangely, the pestilence has not appeared in Britannia, but only in the provinces of Gallia, Hispania, Germania and Italia, and this has led to speculation that it is a manifestation of the gods’ displeasure.
In response, the new Emperor of the World, Lucius Prometheus Petronius, has decided to establish state sheep farms in Britannia and these will necessitate a burning of the land — at least, that is his overt intention, though in this, as in everything else, Prometheus has darker motives.
To accomplish his plan, the Emperor has appointed Marcus Augustus Ulysses, the senior member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful military families of Britannia, as his deputy. The plan is no sooner conceived than it is put into action. Nothing can withstand it . . . or so the Roman leaders believe.
But, even while the tubs of chemicals which will be used for the fires are being shipped to Britannia, movements are afoot in that country to resist the burning. Nature is beginning to rebel. Those humans who will lead the battle against the great destruction are by and large ignorant of the role they will play. But they are learning. They are Coll, Miranda and Angus. All three escaped from the Battle Dome together. Now they- have lived out the winter close to the small settlement called Stand Alone Stan. They are each, in their different ways, awaiting the next development.
Coll is the last surviving son of that same Marcus Ulysses who now serves as the Emperor’s deputy. He was once called Viti but he has abandoned that name in favour of a tree name, for Coll is the tree which we know as the hazel. A sad young man who has rebelled against his family, Coll is blighted by guilt. When he was a junior officer at the Eburacum Military Academy he raped Miranda. Now he has survived the winter, living alone in his tree-house near Stand Alone Stan. But, overcome with despair, he has filled his pockets with stones and thrown himself down into a quick-flowing river. He does not know whether he seeks an end or a beginning.
Miranda too was forced to escape to Stand Alone Stan with Coll and Angus where she has become the guardian of a hospital. Strange powers have started to reveal themselves in her — an ability to see the spirits of the dead and enter other dimensions of Nature. Miranda cannot control her evolution, she is like a leaf on a stream being swept along, but she is discovering her deeper powers and soon it will be time for her to act.
Angus the mechanic, the man hungry for knowledge, the one who works things out for himself, has studied at Roscius’ Academy near Stand Alone Stan where he has discovered History and Philosophy. His new-found knowledge has not brought him peace, however, but a seething anger. Angus, assisted by his two friends Sean and Perol, plans to start a resistance movement aimed at the overthrow of the Roman state. They are the Dragon Warriors.
We will enter this world on the Roman side at one of the most important meetings that this world has ever known.
Chapter 2 – The Emperor Lucius Prometheus Petronius Speaks.
‘I take it that you have no objection to our burning the forests of Britannia?’
The Emperor paused briefly and stared into the vast assembly chamber. The echoes of his voice faded.
No one moved save one man, the man whom the Emperor was addressing, and he squirmed in his seat. This was Tripontifex, the Praefectus Comitum of Britannia. When the Emperor next spoke his voice had an ironic mocking quality. ‘After all, you failed to help us in our greatest need, Tripontifex, and we all have to sacrifice something for the common good. Don’t we?’
That poor grey man, sitting in the audience, tried to speak. But before he could stand or utter a word, he felt a sudden numbness in his head and then the room darkened and a pain like a poker heated to redness being thrust into his side made him clench his teeth. He died, moments later, swiftly but noisily. His goblet clattered on the hard floor and the wine swilled over the marble.
‘Well that is that then,’ continued Lucius Petronius, ignoring Tripontifex’ gasps. ‘Our decision is made. In this way we learn the lesson of the gods as taught to us by our wise master Lazarus and our good and loyal friend Trismagister Neptuna. So we secure our future. I call that a good night’s work.’
With these words the Emperor of the World sealed the fate of moist, green Britannia.
And of course, he’d planned his strategy well in advance.
Tripontifex’ death was really just a lucky coincidence for had he not died then, he would have been convicted a few weeks later on some trumped.up charge of treason and executed or exiled. As it was, everyone was happy (except perhaps Tripontifex) and the body was hurried back to Britannia where, after
being kept chilled over the Winter Festival, it was given a state funeral a few weeks after the winter solstice.
The funeral took place on a grey day when rain fell fitfully from a slate sky and a chill mist covered the city of Eburacum. The catafalque, richly decorated with cloth of gold and flowers from the warmer parts of the Empire, was set up in the forum at the Imperial Palace in Eburacum.
Everyone who had any importance in managing the affairs of Britannia was present, for it was the custom that after the funeral the Imperial decision concerning the new Praefectus Comitum would be delivered. This was the way things had been done in the past and normally the Emperor, appreciating local sensibilities, consulted the leading military families and discovered a new Praefectus by consensus. However, this was not the pattern after the death of Tripontifex. Following the eulogies and the elegies, an Imperial messenger stepped forth. The state room became silent. None of the families knew what, if any, negotiations had been taking place and all were eager to hear. They assumed that Marcus Augustus Ulysses would be asked to step down from his temporary position as deputy for the Emperor, and in his place some lowly diplomat would be appointed Praefectus Comitum. The Imperial messenger cleared his throat and then announced:
‘With regard to the future governance of the beautiful province of Britannia, the Emperor Lucius Prometheus Petronius has decided to let the status quo continue. Pressing matters of state policy require that he continue to hold the position of Praefectus Comitum of Britannia himself. Needing a loyal and honourable man to serve as his representative in Britannia, he appoints Marcus Augustus Ulysses, the hero of Africa, to continue to serve as his deputy.’ Concluding this brief speech, the Imperial messenger stepped back and folded his arms.
This news was received in a shocked silence. The great military families that had ruled the province of Britannia for centuries were suddenly worried. The leaders of the families glanced round the amphitheatre, and caught one another’s eye. They had heard rumours about the meeting in Roma when the new Emperor had suggested burning parts of the great forests to create a pasture for sheep. The burning in itself did not worry them, so long as it was not their particular bits of forest that were to be burned. Far more important in their eyes was the possibility that the Emperor might be trying to undermine their traditional authority. Appointing Marcus Augustus Ulysses as the Emperor’s deputy seemed like the first step, for the old Ulysses was known to be ambitious, unprincipled and unpredictable.
Later that day, when Tripontifex’ body was secure atop the funeral pyre, Marmellius Caesar, head of the Caesar clan, cornered Marcus Ulysses as he was hurrying through one of the antechambers.
‘What is going on, Marcus?’ he asked bluntly, without any pleasantries.
‘We’re just about to burn Triponti-_’
‘Don’t play games with me. You know what I’m talking about. I thought you told us that your appointment was only a temporary measure. That you were a stopgap and nothing more. You remember — one of the old guard, called upon in an emergency to do his bit.’
Marcus shrugged his huge shoulders expressively. ‘It seems that the Emperor in his wisdom has seen fit to honour me in a more permanent—’
He was not allowed to finish. ‘Nonsense.’ Marmellius Caesar was deeply angry. ‘I warn you now, Marcus Ulysses. I warn you. There’ll be civil war if you step out of line. We’ll tear this country limb from limb if we have to. Tripontifex managed to keep the peace because he was a threat to no one. You are. You could be a threat to all of us. There’ll be no more games.’
Marcus Ulysses looked at the young man with some surprise. He had not expected to find such determination in him. ‘We can’t talk here,’ he said smoothly. ‘If I’m seen talking privately to you I’ll have Sextus Valerius Manaviensis and the rest down on me. Listen, just for the moment trust me. Let’s let old Tripontifex go out in a blaze of glory. Let’s let things settle down a bit. Then we’ll have a meeting. There’s nothing going to happen in the near future. And besides, I know about Lucius Petronius. He’s a bit of a windbag. A lot of talk but not much action.’ The old Ulysses glanced at Marmellius’ face, hoping to gauge how his words were being received, but the young man’s face had no expression. ‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘I’d have thought you would be pleased that one of your own had been chosen as deputy. Just think what it would have been like if Trismagister Neptuna had been put in charge of Britannia.’ He grinned. Trismagister Neptuna was the Praefectus Comitum of Hispania. Horror stories about him were legion. According to one rumour he possessed the power of the evil eye and on one occasion just glanced at a man and the man turned to dust. It was also said that Trismagister drank blood for breakfast and dined on human brains.
‘Then we would have killed Trismagister Neptuna the moment he set foot on this land,’ said Marmellius without a blink. ‘We would have dropped a big stone on his thick head from a great height. That would have stifled his magic and sent a warning to this Gallic upstart whom we now call Emperor.’
Marcus looked uncomfortable. He realized there was no way he could calm Marmellius’ fears quickly. ‘Just give me a bit of time,’ he said finally. ‘I’ll keep you informed. I’ll make sure nothing happens. Now please, excuse me. I’m supposed to set fire to the pyre. That is if they’ve managed to keep the wood dry. I’ll contact you in a few days.’ Marcus Ulysses hurried off.
With that Marmellius had to be content. Though of course he wasn’t.
Immediately the funeral ceremony was concluded and even before the embers were cool, Marcus Augustus Ulysses climbed aboard his flagship, the Ithaca, and set off for his estate at Farland Head in Caledonia. The conversation with Marmellius had unsettled him. He realized that he had become complacent, the result no doubt of dealing for so long with the unimaginative ‘Fripontifex who could be browbeaten and bullied easily. Marcus knew that from now on he would have to be careful in all his dealings. He had read the warning signs in Marmellius’ cool and precise manner. Here was a man prepared to take swift and decisive action if he felt his interests were threatened. Marcus guessed (correctly) that Marmellius would by now have spoken to the heads of other families and that a loose confederation would have been formed. They would be watching his every move.
That night, secure in his house at Farland Head and with a bottle of smooth whisky to hand, Marcus Ulysses sat before an open fire and pondered the options. Devious in all things, Marcus Ulysses nevertheless found himself wondering just why he was playing this particular game. Why was he siding with the boorish Emperor Lucius against his fellow rulers of Britannia? Why was he trying to play games with the likes of Gnaeus Marmellius Caesar? What did he want to gain? What deep dissatisfaction gnawed at him, disturbing his rest, making him cheat? Finding no answer to his questions, Marcus Ulysses filled his glass.
Not for the first time that day, old Ulysses’ mind wandered to Viii his son who, though nearly captured once, was still at liberty. Marcus Ulysses was convinced that one day his son would return.
‘Am I bored waiting for him to come back?’ he mused, and drank deeply.
Outside the wind blew stirring the curtains. The fire leaped and crackled and a log rolled, sending sparks up the chimney. ‘Do I want to hand Viti a better inheritance than I received? All of Britannia, for instance? Do I want to squash the rest of them, the Caesars, the Gallica, the Manaviensis?’ He paused and stared deep into the red heart of the fire. ‘Or do I just want to see things burn?’
He sighed deeply and at that moment his nurse and personal maid, a woman named Julia who had been with him since he captured her during one of his campaigns in Africa, came bustling into the room. She was a large woman and wore a bright red and blue silk caftan. On a tray she carried a bottle of pills and a glass of water. Under her arm she held a new box of cigars.
‘Go away,’ said Marcus Ulysses. ‘I’m thinking.’
‘Time for your pills,’ said Julia, as though she hadn’t heard him. Then she added, ‘And if you don’t take them this time while I’m watching, I’ll throw this box of cigars right on to the fire.’
‘You wouldn’t dare,’ said the old Ulysses, trying to sound fierce. ‘That’s the last—’
Julia’s eyes flashed in her dark face. ‘Wouldn’t I just? Then try me.’ She held the box of cigars towards the fire. ‘Now you take your pills.’
There was a moment while the two stared at one another.
‘Oh all right,’ growled the Ulysses finally. ‘Anything for a quiet life.’ He popped the pills into his mouth and crunched them and then swilled them down with whisky in a sudden act of defiance.
Julia grinned and set the box of cigars down on the table by the old man’s seat. She perched herself on a footstool in front of the fire and rested her arm on his knee. ‘It’s a wild night out there,’ she said. ‘Could be snowing before long.’
For reply the old Ulysses merely grunted. Silence fell between them.
‘Did things not go well in Eburacum today?’ Julia asked finally. ‘You’ve been moping a bit since you got back.’
‘I’ve been thinking. Trying to sort things out. There is unrest in the country.’
‘What! Over silly old Tripontifex’ funeral? Surely not?’
‘No. Over my being made the Emperor’s deputy. They don’t trust me.’
Julia said nothing. Ulysses reached for a log and tossed it on to the fire. ‘I think I’d better speak to young Prometheus,’ he said. ‘Give him an idea of how things are here. See what he wants to do. I think when I know his mind better, I’ll know my own mind better too.’ Old Ulysses put his arm round Julia’s hips and gave her a squeeze. ‘Set up the connections. He should be awake by now. It’s nine o’clock in the evening.’
Julia did as she was bid, lugging the big communications console into the warm study and tapping out the co-ordinates which would link the house at Farland Head with the Imperial residence in Roma. Ulysses had a special call-code which enabled him to bypass all the lower offices and gain access to the Emperor in person.
After a short delay, the Ulysses heard a whispery distant voice say, ‘Hello. Secretary to the Emperor speaking. Who is calling?’
Marcus Ulysses identified himself and immediately the voice at the other end warmed up. ‘Hello, Marcus. Nice to hear from you. I hope all is well. I will put you through to the Emperor directly.’ Marcus smiled a smug smile at Julia, who filled his whisky-glass with soda water.
Moments later the deep, fruity voice of Lucius Prometheus Petronius came on the line. Behind his voice there was the sound of music and squeaking laughter and water splashing. ‘Marcus you old sheep-shagger, it’s a bit late for you to be up isn’t it? I thought you porridge-eating northern types had to be into bed by seven o’clock.’
Marcus Ulysses covered the speaking-tube with his hand and whispered, ‘He’s pissed already.’ Julia, standing close, looked to the ceiling.
‘Well what can I do you for? Business? Or is this just a friendly pow—wow?’
‘A bit of both,’ said Marcus diplomatically. ‘We cremated old Tripontifex today.’
‘Good. No problems there, I trust. The old sod didn’t suddenly resurrect and jump up off his bier and start calling for justice or anything?’
‘No, nothing like that. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Britannia. We leave all that to you extravagant Latins.’
‘Not many miracles with us these days, either. It all gets a bit boring, really. So what’s the business?’
Marcus took a deep breath. He hadn’t really planned the conversation and now he suddenly found himself plunged in deep and floundering. ‘Well, during the . . . um . . festivities, I was approached by one of the young Caesars, Gnaeus Marmellius actually, and I think he was speaking on behalf of the other families. They’re worried about my being named your deputy. They’re wanting details about your plans. The talk of burning has unsettled everyone.’
‘What did you tell him?’
‘Nothing really. I fudged. I told him to wait until things settled down. I told him to trust me.’
The detonation of Lucius’ laughter almost deafened old Marcus. When he got his breath back the Emperor said, ‘Always a good ploy that. The big lie. Buys time and puts the enemy off. Most people want to believe in truth you know. It is a great weakness. Wise types, like you and I, know that the only truth is that everything is a lie and consequently we are never fooled. So. How long do you think they will keep quiet, or are they plotting already?’
‘There’ll be talk.’
‘There always is. But how dangerous is it?’
‘I think that if we told them something about the plans— ‘We’d have a riot on our hands in no time followed by a full-scale rebellion.’ There was a long pause and then, when the Emperor spoke again, his voice had undergone a subtle hatige, gaining menace. ‘You’re not going soft on me, are you, Marcus?
‘No, no,’ said Marcus Ulysses hurriedly. ‘It’s just that—’
‘Good. You see the only reason I chose you as my deputy is because you are an absolute son of a bitch, just like me. Corrupt as they come and lacking any fiddling scruples of integrity. A realist. Am I right?’
‘Er . . . well . . . yes,’ said Marcus uncertainly.
‘But with a certain glamour and charisma, let it be said. Not to mention an impulsive generosity and a boyish good humour to match your magnificent profile.’ The Emperor’s Voice was like silk being stroked with a knife. Marcus breathed more easily. ‘All of which makes you quite irresistible and quite lethal. Almost as lethal as me, the difference being that I am younger than you, cleverer than you and finally more powerful than you. Do you agree?’
‘Er . . . where is all this leading?’ Marcus tried to keep his voice steady.
‘To this. If you try to double-cross me or play one side against the other, I’ll invade you so fast that you won’t even have time to shit yourself. And I won’t just come with the regulars, I’ll let loose some of my special squad from the Andes campaign. You won’t know what hit you. I’ll plough salt into your land: I’ll roast you over a slow fire and hand you over to Trismagister to dine on for a year. I’ll rewrite the history books naming you family as traitors, yea I’ll even rewrite the Odyssey so that the name of Ulysses is not even mentioned. Do I make myself clear?’
Old Ulysses nodded and then cleared his throat. ‘I hear what you are saying,’ he said huskily.
‘But if you act with me,’ Lucius continued without missing a beat, ‘you and yours might yet enjoy a mighty province to sport in as you please, for as long as the gods grant you favour. The choice is yours.’
‘How can I trust you?’
‘You can’t. Isn’t that always the paradox of the faithless?’ The Emperor laughed. He seemed to have recovered his good humour. ‘But you have at least this on your side. I’d always rather have a dishonest man such as yourself at my beck. The virtuous are not to be trusted. They discover their scruples just when the going gets dirty.’
‘So what shall I do?’ Marcus was aware how weak this question sounded and was appalled at how easily Lucius Petronius had bested and manipulated him.
‘Do this. Tell the Caesars and the Manaviensis and the rest of them that you have spoken to me privately and that you find to your pleasure that I have a great liking and admiration for Britannia as a country respected by the gods etc., etc., etc. Tell them that nothing is decided yet as regards the sheep stations and that naturally any action will be preceded by consultation. Full consultation. Let them feel that when I declared that I would burn all the forests of Britannia that I was angry with Tripontifex, that I was speaking for the ears of the Assembly only, that they wanted to hear strong talk and that the reality will be much, much, milder. Tell them that in any case, any small loss of land would be more than compensated for by estates here in Italia or in the Western Empire. Tell them that Emperor Lucius belongs to the old school, that he is fierce as an enemy but gentle and forgiving, nay kind, say kind and loving to his friends.’ The Emperor chuckled. ‘There, as a load of horse-shit that would not disgrace the Augean stables. But hear me, Marcus. Even while you lie on our behalf, know privately that I do intend to burn the forests of Britannia from coast to coast, from top to bottom, and that I will take all estates but yours. Have I made myself clear?’
‘I think so.’ Marcus had been scribbling notes.
‘Good. Now, one last thing. I’m glad you chose to contact me. I was going to contact you in the morning. I’m planning to travel to Aegyptus in a few weeks’ time and would enjoy your company. We can have a bit of an orgy. Rejuvenate in the sunshine. I think you’ll need to get your cold, damp country out of your system. The point is, I want us to make some careful plans about Britannia and I want to make them face to face. I suggest, as a way of sweetening this visit to your suspicious countrymen, that you appoint that bright young Caesar boy, Marmalade or something. What’s his name?’
‘Yes him. Appoint him your deputy. Tell him I asked you to. Then give him something important to do. Get him to take an inventory of the wine imported into the country over the last few years. Tell him we think Tripontifex was defrauding the Empire of taxes. That ought to take his mind off things. Set it in motion tonight. He’ll be impressed by your care. Now is there anything else?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Well. Sweet dreams. Any word of your son, Victor?’
‘Not so far.’
‘Why not pardon him? Offer an amnesty to all escapees and criminals. Be benevolent, Marcus. Let the time of your deputy- ship be renowned as a brief golden age, almost an age of justice. You can afford to.’
‘I’ll think about it,’ said Marcus. ‘And I’ll see you in a few weeks.’
‘I look forward to it.’
With that their conversation ended.
Marcus sat back. He was sweating, but he felt better. Julia passed him his drink and he downed it at a swallow. ‘Well, that was a conversation and a half,’ he said finally.
Outside the wind suddenly howled and smoke backed down the chimney billowing into the room. ‘Bloody freezing weather,’ said Marcus. ‘Bloody freezing country.’ Then he reached across and pulled Julia down on to his lap and kissed her. ‘Pack the bags,’ he said. ‘In a few weeks, you and I are going for a holiday to smelly, corrupt old Aegyptus where there are date palms to lie under and hot, hot sun. Hey, we might even get a chance to see Florea. I haven’t seen her in years.’ Florea was Marcus Ulysses’ eldest daughter. She was married to a local king and lived in a palace on the Gulf of Hammamet, to the south and east of New Carthage.
‘You are looking happier.’
‘Yes. All may yet be well. And the break will do me good.’
Quickly, before he could lose his resolve, he contacted Marmellius who seemed brisk and wide awake.
‘Sorry about the clash today,’ said Marcus quietly. ‘But I thought you’d like to know that I’ve just been talking to the Emperor.’
Then, using his notes as a guide, he gave Marmellius a summary of his conversation and concluded with the words, ‘It is the Emperor’s express wish that you be appointed my deputy as from now. It is an honour, Marmellius, and you will be in charge of the country while I am away in Aegyptus.’
Marmellius took some persuading, but finally he accepted. ‘ . . .to accord with the traditions of my family,’ he said.
Marcus felt a surge of relief as he heard the younger man’s tone soften. He would journey down to Eburacum on the morrow for a swearing-in ceremony.
‘And when will you be departing for Aegyptus?’ asked Marmellius with just a hint of anticipation in his voice.
‘Not for some weeks yet. Not till after the Reformed Lupercalia and the graduation at the Battle Dome. I wouldn’t miss that. But don’t you worry. When I get back from Aegyptus, we’ll know the truth about what he wants. Then we can talk. All of us. We can talk to our heart’s content. Meanwhile, let us rule wisely, you and me, Marmellius. Let us put the past behind us for the interests of all.’
Chapter 3 Coll’s Laughter
Beyond the bushes Coll came to a high bank above the river. I-fe looked down into the dark cold water. It seemed that he, Coll or Viti or whatever human name he might choose, had withdrawn into a tiny point of light.
Quickly he began to fill his pockets with stones. He managed to lodge a large rock in his shirt. Then he stepped to the edge. ‘I love you,’ he shouted, thinking of Miranda, as he toppled fOrwards and fell with a heavy splash into the water.
The cold shocked him and despite his resolve he struck out, trying to rise, but felt himself weighed down and carried by the strong current. His arm struck a rock. His face was scrubbed. His feet touched something solid and he kicked, but too late. There was a pain in his chest and a roaring in his head like a thousand boulders tumbled together. And then he felt something wrap round him and squeeze. He was caught in the root of a tree and the deep river ran on, pulling at him. Briefly he saw fragments of his life, like pictures blown by a wild dark wind: himself as a boy playing with his sisters Florea and Thalia at Farland Head, killing the young Alexander with a single stunning blow at the Battle Dome, making love to the wild Diana in the roots of a tree, lifting the limp body of a dead piglet before the glittering eyes of its mother, facing Miranda who stared and stared and would not speak while he stuttered and stumbled his apologies. Finally. . .
Panic made him scream and he tried to breathe, and the roaring exploded in his head.
Blackness . . .
. . . and then a shaking.
Coll came to himself spluttering and wheezing, and then something which had hold of him by his cloak hoisted him up and dumped him shivering and gasping face-down on the bank. Hard hands pressed his back, forcing the water from his lungs via his nose and mouth. He gasped, gagged, gasped again, was sick, gagged and finally drew in air and coughed. He felt a stinging blow to his back and then was left to lie. Water and blood drained from his mouth and nose, but he was in control. Gradually his gulping ceased and he breathed more easily.
‘Away, Coll lad,’ said a voice he seemed to know. ‘You’ll be all right.’
Coll opened his eyes groggily and tried to focus. He looked round to see who was speaking and rolled over on to his back. He found himself looking into the broad and golden, smiling face of Gwydion. Coll blinked into Gwydion’s face with disbelief, but when he tried to speak he coughed again and belched out more water. Any doubt he might have had concerning the reality or otherwise of Gwydion was dispelled when the latter picked him up bodily and turned him upside-down over his shoulder and gave him several sharp slaps to the back. More water came out of him.
Set on his feet again he spluttered and gasped, but he was breathing, though his throat felt rough and sore.
Gwydion was laughing. ‘You’d better be more careful in future. The next time you decide to fall in a river, you’d better make certain you don’t have any friends watching.’
‘Gwydion,’ said Coll finally. ‘Oh Gwydion. Of all men am I glad to see you. I thought I was dead.’
‘No. Seriously. Oh you’ve no idea…’
‘Probably not. But if we don’t get you out of those wet things you will be a goner and no mistake. Away. Show me this shed of yours I’ve heard so much about.’
Together they trudged back up the slope towards the path that led to Stand Alone Stan. Surreptitiously Coll tried to get rid of the stones he had placed in his pockets. He was suddenly ashamed of what he had done, of what he had tried to do. Gwydion pretended not to see.
‘I suppose you’re on your way to see Miranda,’ said Coll as they entered his small tree-house. ‘She’s down in the hospital in the village. She’s become head of it or something.’
‘Er. No,’ said Gwydion. ‘I don’t think it’d be a good idea if I saw Miranda. She’s got her own life now. She doesn’t want me hanging about.’
‘She’s crazy about you. You know she is.’
‘Aye, well. Some things change. Anyway, I wasn’t on my way here to see her. I was coming to see you.’
‘Me? Why me?’
‘I was wondering what you were up to. I’ve got some schemes in hand I thought you might enjoy.’
‘A bit of thieving. A bit of wenching. A bit of fighting. A bit of boozing. No, I tell a lie. A lot of boozing and a lot of wenching. The truth is I need an accomplice.’
Coll towelled himself down. Then he found some dry clothes from his meagre supplies and pulled them on.
‘I always thought you hunted alone.’
Gwydion pondered. ‘I do as a rule. But I like to change my tactics too. What do you say, Coll?’
Coll sat down. It was all a bit sudden for him. Only an hour ago he’d been setting out with a calm contentment to end his life and now here he was alive and well, being invited to pitch his life in with an adventurer. He wondered what he felt and realized with astonishment that he felt great. He remembered everything — the blackness, the desolation, the sadness — but somehow it was as though his very attempt to kill himself had cleansed him in some strange way. ‘There’s some things I think I ought to tell you first,’ he said, suddenly very serious.
‘You don’t have to,’ said Gwydion, scratching in his beard and looking about. Coll realized that the golden man was embarrassed.
‘Yes I do. It might cause friction later.’ He paused and wished that Gwydion would look at him. ‘See, I didn’t just fall in the river, I was trying to kill myself.’ Gwydion shrugged. ‘And the reason I did that was. . . well because I couldn’t see any purpose in anything any more. And,’ he continued quickly before Gwydion could say anything, ‘I love Miranda.’
‘That makes sense.’
‘‘Course you bloody love her. Do you think 1 don’t know that? D’you think I came down in the last shower or what?’ Gwydion’s brow wrinkled and the snake tattooed there seemed to coil.
‘But that’s not all,’ continued Coll.
‘Go on. Surprise me.’
And so Coll’s story came out. He talked about Miranda in Eburacum and how he had forced her to make love and then how he had tried to apologize and how she had just stared at him until he ran away. And he mentioned the note she had sent.
‘What did the note say?’ asked Gwydion, suddenly curious. ‘I couldn’t understand it. It said, “You are not what you are, but what you will become.”
Gwydion looked at him and there was a strange and slightly dangerous look in his eye. ‘You know Coll, you’re what? five or six years younger than me, so I’ll forgive you. But what I’d like to do is belt you, really hard, because you’re so bloody daft. You’ve got eyes but you don’t see. You’ve got a brain but you don’t think. You’re healthy. You’re strong. You’re good- looking. And you are prepared to throw all that away. You want your bloody head examining.’ Gwydion stood up and came round the table. He towered over Coll but not in a menacing manner. ‘Listen to me lad. Is that note the note of an angry woman? Eh?’ Coll thought and then shook his head. ‘Right. And what do you think it means?’ Coll shrugged. ‘No idea, eh? Then I’ll tell you,’ said Gwydion, ‘even though I never had education beyond learning to read. What she’s telling you is that the past does not control you.. . that what’s done is done, for better or worse, and you can’t change it, but it is not like chains, it can’t hold you, it doesn’t define you for all time. You, the inner you, the real you, you move on, you change. That is if you’ll let yourself. But you, silly, spoilt, rich kid Viti, you seem to want to dwell on guilt and suffering. And that’s why I’d like to belt you and that’s why Miranda couldn’t say anything to you.’ Coll nodded slowly. ‘Now for the rest. “You are what you will become.” That’s simple. ‘What she means is that you have things inside you that want a chance to grow. Maybe great things, maybe little things. But things that are moving, things that want to express themselves. Maybe it might be a great big ball of laughter, and that would be a good thing. I don’t think you’ve ever laughed in your whole bloody life. Maybe it is a great goodness. Maybe a great ability to steal. You might be a great rogue like me. Or a great prat like Angus. But you are not what you are now. You are what you will become, if you give yourself the chance.’ Gwydion paused and then he looked up at the roof. ‘May all the gods of the greenwood save us, but how many men and women are there who live out their lives unhappy and frustrated, just because they hold on to the past?’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Coll. ‘Now I feel ashamed,’ and he was astonished when Gwydion lifted his hands to the sky and roared.
‘Don’t say you’re sorry all the time. Live.’
Then Gwydion did something quite extraordinary. He rolled tip his sleeves, flexed his arms and began to rip Coll’s cabin apart. ‘While Coll sat at the table in dumb amazement, Gwydion tore down the walls and smashed them. He broke the bed and the table. He wrenched out the steps cut into the oak tree and threw them down the hill. He scattered the food cupboard and tore away the electrical fittings which sparked and crackled until he pulled on them like a bell-rope and brought half the oak tree down on top of them. His last act was to tip Coll out ol his chair and then he pulled the chair to bits. ‘Now,’ he said panting, and with a hint of satisfaction in his voice, ‘you have a choice, and this is the last time I shall ask. Do you want to join me for some risky fun or shall I lead you back down to the river and hold you under? I can if that is what you want.’
Coll sat still and then, without any control on his part, he started to laugh. He couldn’t help himself. It was suddenly all so funny. He sat amid the ruins of his precious tree-house and he laughed and laughed until Gwydion joined him and the two men fell over among the rubbish and rolled over. They laughed until they could hardly breathe. And then they sat up, and when they caught one another’s eye, they laughed some more.