Bedwyr pulled the woolen pillow off his head and with a groan lifted himself onto his elbow. At his movement the huge wolfhound sleeping in the corner opened his eyes and raised his ears, but did not otherwise move.
The narrow window at which Bedwyr squinted showed him gray dawn in the city ofRome. From habit he began to drag his body from the cot. Then he remembered he had no duty today, nor would he have tomorrow. He collapsed back into bed; his hand found the pillow and threw it over his head, and drifted back to sleep. The dog closed his eyes again and snuffed a sigh.
The nightmare came: always the same, a formless blending of light and shadow, with darker figures moving in the shade, indistinct but awakening dread deep within him. Light coalesced into the shape of a giant bear and Bedwyr stood behind it watching the shadow draw nearer, unable to move, either to fight or to run. The bear limped forward to meet the onrushing shade. As the darkness engulfed it the animal blurred and faded until only its red eyes, haunted with despair, still shone. The bear cried out to him, its eyes pleading. Bedwyr shook his head in refusal. Then the shadow reached him, too, and he awoke, terrified as always, and sweating.
He must have called out in his sleep, for the wolfhound lifted his head from his paws and cocked it, puzzled. Forcing his eyes open Bedwyr lay still until his breathing slowed and the terror died. He sighed, gingerly flexing his left arm, then sat up and swung his feet onto the floor.
Last night’s wine tasted sour in his mouth. Drinking it never stopped the nightmares but it dulled the fear of sleep. He rubbed his face. During the eleven years since Camlann a longing had been growing in him, a need to have peace that had become a great thirst.
The wolfhound rose and padded over, resting his head on Bedwyr’s leg, a leg crisscrossed with scars, many of them white with age, some still puckered angry red. Scratching the dog’s ears with long fingers, he murmured, “A couple of fang-gashed old hounds, Fergus, you and I. What’s needed is to find a little farm somewhere and curl up dry and warm.” The dog woofed happily. “But first we have an errand.”
He stood and dressed, grimacing as his joints made their morning protest. With his right hand he fitted a leather cover over the stump of his left wrist. Peering into his polished steel shaving mirror, he rubbed his hand over a face tanned and wind burned the color of bronze. Eyes that turned downward at the corners merged into deep creases engraved by years of sun glare, giving him a melancholy cast of autumn. Only the lines around his mouth betrayed the quick laughter that had won for him the hearts of Arthur and the Companions in the years of light. He shrugged. He’d shave tomorrow.
Bedwyr walked stiffly out of his sleeping cell in the officers’ block into a hot, blue morning. Ignoring the praetorian kitchens where cooks boiled wheat meal porridge, he headed for the baths to soak his body into mobility. Fergus trotted beside him.
In the undressing room he stripped off his clothing, then made his way through the steamy chambers. The splashing and shouting of Roman shoulders bounced from the stone walls and the high, vaulted ceiling. Bypassing the cold plunge he eased his body directly into the caldarium and smiled as the hot water soothed his aching muscles. On the edge the hound sat down to wait, tongue lolling in the humidity.
From an adjoining pool a centurion of another company called: “And it’s just like a Brit not to know how to wash right.” Bedwyr smiled and, with a wave, sank beneath the surface.
When he came up for air the baths had become silent, save for the splash of running water. He opened his eyes. On the edge of the pool a hairy-shouldered decurion stood rigid, facing him. Near him two young recruits stood motionless, their eyes fixed in the same direction. Throughout the building, men stood to attention, some waist deep in water, others on the tiled floor, all of them naked as shorn sheep. Bedwyr threw his back his head and laughed, struck by the sight of a hundred naked men standing at attention and trying to look dignified doing it.
As his laughter subsided he heard a throat clear behind him and turned. On the edge of the pool, in full uniform and polished breastplate, stood the commander of the entire Roman army: Belisarius, General of the East, Conqueror of Carthage and Rome. He was not smiling.
It was Bedwyr’s turn to splash to attention.
The general motioned for them all to be at ease. “When you have a moment, centurion,” he said to Bedwyr, “I would like a word.” He turned and strode away.
Bedwyr quickly dressed. A guard met him at the top of the marble steps and columns lining the atrium, the dog’s toenails clicking on the tessellated floor. They came to the huge, bronze-covered doors of Belisarius’s private study, where Bedwyr ordered Fergus to stay. The giant wolfhound settled onto his haunches to inspect the guard.
Belisarius was bent over a large desk covered with maps. As Bedwyr entered he glanced up, a small man with a tightly trimmed beard, face grave and brooding. He spoke without preamble. “My sources tell me the entire Ostrogoth nation, in addition to the Burgundians, are massing here and here” –he stabbed a map with a blunt finger—“to drive us from Roman soil. Meanwhile the Emperor commands me to march north to reclaim Italia all the way to theAlps, though we are outnumbered ten to one.”
He indicated a chair on the other side of the desk, poured red wine into a silver goblet, and handed it to Bedwyr. “Your resignation notice came through yesterday, Beduerus. How long have you been contracted to me?”
“Two years today, sir.” He sat and took a sip of the watered wine.
The general nodded. “During that time we won the city ofRomeback for the Empire and broke the siege the barbarians laid against us. Such as we have been able to do, Beduerus, we have done on the backs of our cavalry federates. The day is past when the infantry legion ruled the battlefield.”
Bedwyr waited, silent. He knew the world’s most powerful general did not call him into his study to seek his opinion on matters of strategy.
The Roman commander eyed him thoughtfully. “You fight recklessly, centurion. Almost as if your life means little to you.”
Bedwyr set the goblet down on the desk. He felt the familiar surge of bitterness. What good was his survival when everything he had valued had been destroyed, erased as if it were no more than the tracks of small birds in the mud? But he smiled. “I’ve survived Saxon axes, Iberian women, and legion food, sir. I’m durable.”
“Mm. Well, whatever the reasons for fighting as you do, I’m grateful. Your charge shattered the Goth shield wall and led to the breaking of the siege. I’m offering you the rank of wing tribune if you will contract for another two years.”
Bedwyr blinked. “You honor me, General.”
Belisarius’s eyes became calculating. “As wing tribune you would receive an allotment of land when you retired.”
The Old Man reads me well, Bedwyr thought. More than the rank, the lure of a few hectares of land where he could raise horses and dogs and let the world go to Uffern attracted him. He sighed. Well, maybe the small amount he had saved out of his pay would buy him that land elsewhere. “You do tempt me, sir. But there’s a thing I must finish that will take a journey toBritain. It’s something that needs doing if ever I’m to sleep again at night.”
The general studied him a moment longer, then nodded. “Well, it’s not business of mine. I had to try.”
Bedwyr rose to leave.
“Oh, centurion. One more thing.”
He turned back warily.
“You fought with your great general, Artorius. Know you by chance one Honorius Flavian, who styles himself magistrate of Gwent?”
Ynyr of Gwent. Memories flooded through the barriers Bedwyr had so painstakingly build. “I knew such a man once, sir.”
Belisarius pawed through the maps and documents on his desk, then handed Bedwyr a scrolled parchment on which the seal had been broken. “I received this communication from him some weeks since. Read it.”
Bedwyr looked at the proffered parchment, filled with a sudden sense of foreboding. The general thrust it into his hands and he unrolled it.
rom the loyal citizens of Britannia to Belisarius, Conqueror of Carthage andRomeand Emissary of His Majesty Justinian, Emperor inConstantinople, greetings:
Most gracious and wise General, your loyal subjects suffer from the spears and swords of the barbarians. Throughout your provinces good and loyal subjects perish and lie as fodder for dogs, or are destroyed by the flames that burn their homes. In villages and country houses, in the fields and countryside, on every road, death and slaughter threaten us. Without your help we cannot long endure.
If you wish that your subjects should live, send us aid. If you desire that we should throw back at the barbarians, send us arms and horses and men.
Bedwyr dropped the letter on the desk. His voice carefully neutral, he said, “Why do you show this to me?”
Belisarius’s eyebrows lifted. “I thought perhaps you would be interested, since you played a sizable role in protecting the British form the Saxons.”
“The problems of the British are of their own making.” The words came out more harshly than Bedwyr had intended. “I have done with them.”
The general gave him a long, steady look. “As you wish. But since you’re returning there, I ask you as a personal favor to convey a message to Honorius.”
Bedwyr hesitated, then nodded reluctantly.
“The message is simply this: Britannia, I regret, must look to itself for defense against the barbarians. We can send no aid.” Belisarius picked up his goblet and carried it over to a tall window flanked by statued alcoves. Gazing out over the city, he said, “I will confess something to you. I have a dream of someday restoring the historic boundaries of the empire. Yet I know in my heart that it will never be. Those years are forever gone. Your island has passed beyond the power of the empire to aid, regardless of our desires.”
He strode businesslike to the table. “And I do not decide our policies. Explain to Honorius that the Emperor looks eastward. To him, Britannia is only a shadow on the horizon. He will spare no thought, nor direct any effort, toward your island.”
The general paused and extended his hand. “So. That is the way of it. Godspeed, then, Beduerus, and my thanks. You will always have a place in my personal guard should you choose to return.”
Almost, Bedwyr changed his mind. Perhaps he could again bury the past and finish out his life here, fighting for money. But in his heart he knew he could no longer bear the pressure of Arthur’s disobeyed order. Caliburn must be destroyed or he would have no peace. And he was sick of barbarians; sick of Goths and Vandals and Saxons; sick of what he had become fighting them. He clasped the general’s outstretched hand.
The next day Bedwyr collected his last payment from the legion paymaster and rode north from the walls ofRome, towardBritain.