1. Burying the Past
2. The Heart of the Storm
3. A City of Gold
4. Going Home
5. Childhood’s End
6. Cold Marble
7. The Greatest City in the World
9. The Ghost of a Marriage
11. Figs in Winter
12. Among the Barbarians
15. The Hairdressers on the Top Floor
16. Bad News
18. A Dream from the Gods
19. The Return
20. A Pot of Poison
21. Emperor’s End
22. Springs of Sulis
Burying the Past
On a clear day, you can see to the end of the Empire from here.
It has taken us all morning to ride from our farm up to the top of the cliffs that look out over the harsh northern sea. I’m glad of the two little Silurian ponies we bought last year. Without them, it would be an even longer journey. Even so, I’m tired by the time we get to the cliffs. The wind whips my pony’s rough mane against my skin. It draws stinging tears to my eyes.
Ahead of me on the other pony, you don’t seem to notice the wind. Perhaps you’re too young to feel pain. Yet you’re sprouting up so fast! I’m used to the speed of growing apple trees and wheat, but the speed a human grows at – that’s a surprise to me. Every year takes you further out of danger; not that we’d ever say that aloud and tempt the gods. The little burial ground near our farm holds too many babies who never breathed and too many little ones their parents had only just dared to name. Nothing is more dangerous out here, near the end of the Empire, than being a child.
At the edge of the cliff, I rein in my pony and look out to sea. The sea is hardly ever blue here. Sometimes it glints as brightly as the silver box I have strapped to my saddle. But not today. Today the sea is dark as thunderclouds.
The silver box, too, will turn dark without my careful hands to polish it every day. It was a gift from an empress – the most powerful woman in the world. Even so, I have outlived her and all her heirs. The box already looks as if it comes from a vanished world.
Your shouts mingle with seagulls’ cries as you canter back and forth, pretending to be a chariot-warrior. You urge your pony down the steep slope, halt it, turn it back again. You have no fear. You don’t know what there is to be afraid of. I itch to tell you to be careful, but I hold my tongue. You need to be fearless. It is a hard life in Britain. No place for cowards.
“Hail Caesar!” you yell, and wave your spear above your head. I smile; you see nothing strange in moving from playing at British charioteers to saluting the Roman Emperor. That’s your life: one minute you’re a Roman centurion, primus pilus even, the very best soldier of all, and the next you’re Vercingetorix leading the rebels against the Empire. Your blue eyes come from your Brigante grandmother, but your warm smile is just like your Libyan grandfather’s. I wonder who your children, my grandchildren, will look like. I wonder where they will play, and if I will live to see them. At least I will do my best to leave them something to remember me by: this silver box of memories.
“We should go down to the ruins now,” I tell you. Obedient, you follow me as I ride down the slope. The fallen stone walls have been here so long that the grass has grown over them. We wouldn’t know they were here, if years ago I hadn’t cut a slice of turf and found that the things I thought were rocks were actually the remains of walls.
The path down is steep. I dismount and lead the pony after me. Once we are in the hollow, no one can see us. We are hidden from the sea. I think, perhaps, if we had been seafaring folk, things might be different. But we are not. We are farmers. We can’t sail away when things get hard.
The turf has already been cleared. Arcturus did that a few days ago, last time he came to look. He said the ruins were not built by the Brigantes, his mother’s tribe. He said they were much older than that. He said to keep them a secret, because they could come in useful one day.
One day. We have been thinking of that day, planning for it, since before you were born. But, on the night of the last full moon, I was sure. Now is the time to bury our treasures – in case we have to leave home, fast.
I lift the box down from the pony’s back. It is wrapped in an old cloth, to shield it from prying eyes. The things inside are my treasures, not your father’s. I know them off by heart.
A prayer for a child’s safety, written on papyrus grown at the other side of the Empire.
A gold ring inscribed with two Greek letters: chi and rho.
A scrap of blue silk stained by seawater.
A bracelet of black jet from British shores.
A small golden pot with a lid made to look like a coiled snake: red glass eyes and shining scales, a diamond on its head.
They have all come so far with me. I refuse to lose them now. Instead, I’ll bury them here. Maybe one day we’ll feel safe enough to dig them up again, and I can tell the stories properly, around the fire as stories should be told.
I unwrap the silver box for a last look at it. On the lid, there are snakes curling around a staff. It is the staff of Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. My family have always worshipped him. On the sides, Hercules and Dionysus: gods of the distant east. Dionysus rides a panther. I saw one