The story is set around AD 420. The city of Aurelium is a fictional one, located somewhere in the southern Midlands. Some elements have been taken from what little is known of real British towns of the era, in particular Verulamium (St. Albans). My main source for the era was "Roman Britain" by Peter Salway, now twenty years old, so you will have to excuse my ignorance of more recent discoveries.
Ravenna had taken over from Milan as the seat of the Western Empire's Imperial Court a few years before. The Christian faith had been official for over half a century, but had never put down particularly deep roots, and with the departure of the Roman armies, Pagan worship was quick to re-establish itself.
Finally, a note on the names. As seasoned Romanophiles will have noticed, they don't quite conform to the standard praenomen-nomen-cognomen way of doing things (eg "Julius" should be a family name). You can interpret this in two ways: one, as a sign of the decay in standards in fifth-century Britain; or two, as a(nother) sign of my ignorance. Take your pick! =:)
Chapter ONE - The Edge of the Dark
Gaius Nepos trudged through the rain, the mud and filth of the streets pulling at his boots with every step. The short leather jerkin he wore was by now completely sodden, and he worried about what the atrocious British weather would do to his trusty short sword, almost swimming in its scabbard. He turned into the Street of Cows, barely registering the decomposing corpse of a beggar in the overflowing gutter, and, passing the rubbish heaps outside what had once been the town's public baths, set off up the street towards the forum.
The great square was almost deserted, the long grass pushing its way relentlessly through the stone slabs that had once lined the commercial centre of Aurelium. Where once had stood great temples to Jupiter, Mars and Mercury the god of Commerce, and more recently the first of the Christian churches, were now mere shadowy ruins, haunted by the spirits of those who had lived and died there and by the squatters who clung to a desperate existence on the unwanted slops of those who stubbornly remained in the dwindling city. The rich landowners had long since retreated to their country villas or had fled overseas, and civilised town life, once the proudest achievement of the occupied province, was in steady retreat. Despite the departure of the last legions some ten years earlier, even now there were men who honoured the memory of Rome, and held to the belief that the Empire would rise once again, and that Aurelium would regain its former glory.
Fantasists, thought Gaius grimly. He remembered the appeal that had been made to the Emperor Honorius for help against the barbarians who were, now more than at any time for half a century, savaging the fringes of the island, and the Saxons who, so the rumours had it, were mustering for war in far-off Germany. He remembered too the reply that had come from Ravenna: that Britannia should look to its own defences. He kicked a stone viciously against a wall, and wished - not for the first time - that he were back in the Gaul of his childhood, when the Empire had been ruled by the great Theodosius, the last of the true Emperors of both Western and Eastern Rome.
"Hullo, Gaius," came a voice from the gloom. "Having a nice day, are we?"
"Shut up, Julius. No, better than that, tell me what in Hades I'm going to tell the council."
"I thought you were supposed to be a dab hand at this sort of thing. The walls look pretty solid, after all. I don't see the problem."
"Men, Julius. Men! We've barely enough now who have the first idea about discipline and order, and things can only get worse. Some of the youngsters seem to think it's all a bit of a joke. Sometimes I feel like telling them just what it was like to grow up in Gaul - civil society, strong borders, huge armies, an Emperor who had a clue-"
"Well, that's one problem we don't have any more!" put in his companion.
"Very funny, Julius. For all Honorius' faults, I'd rather have him running the place than the rabble we've got now. I never cease to wonder that the council ever gets anything done, what with that idiot Hadrian shooting his mouth off all the time. Hadrian! What a name for a man who crumbles under any sort of pressure!"
The two men came to the far end of the forum, where the shadows lifted a little to reveal the stocky figure of Julius Urbicus, a full foot shorter than Gaius but making up for it in girth, his perpetually ruddy face a contrast to Gaius' thin, almost rat-like countenance. He had been born in Aurelium, and had resisted all pressure to leave, saying that he would rather die a Roman than live a country bumpkin. Gaius, whom he had met while seeing off the last legion at Portchester, had taken the sweating, cursing Julius for a slave at first, but had come to respect - if not always to agree with - his eye for detail, and the two had become firm friends.
"Sure you don't want me to come in with you?" asked Julius, as they stopped outside the council building.
"I'll be fine," replied Gaius, shortly, and walked - wetly - through the portico.
* * *
"Ah, there you are! We wondered if you were going to grace us with your presence - been out pacing the walls again, eh Nepos? You'd make a handy moat by yourself!"
Gaius sat down heavily. "Cut it, Hadrian. We're in trouble. Every time I turn round there are fewer men who've got what it takes to man the defences. I'm down to the raw bone now, and if it gets any worse I'm going to have to leave gaps."
"Well, I'm sure such a brilliant strategist as yourself can work out a way around that," said Hadrian smoothly. "Why not put slaves on the walls? Or women!" There was a round of rather dutiful laughter at this.
"You think it's all a big joke, don't you? You've spent your whole bloody life behind city walls, throwing your weight around like some second-rate prefect without ever facing up to the reality. The legions are gone, Hadrian, and they won't be back. Not now; not ever. Face it, Hadrian: either we get this place sorted out or we're dead men."
A thin, elderly man with shining blue eyes and wild white hair sprang up and thrust a bony finger into Gaius' face.
"You speak treason!" he squeaked excitedly. "Take him away! Feed him to the lions!"
"Oh, for Jupiter's sake, Hadrian," said Gaius wearily, "what's that fool doing in here?"
"Auspex told me he had some ideas for improving our roads and water supplies," answered Hadrian. "He was an engineer, after all."
"Forty years ago, yes. Until the governor realised just how many of his buildings fell down just as soon as he was out of the city with his money. If we'd listened to him when we were putting up the city walls, we'd be defending ourselves against the barbarian hordes with a couple of broken bricks and a mulsum-spoon."
"Treason! Treason!" screeched Auspex again.
"Enough, Auspex," said Hadrian, and lowered his overweight body onto a nearby couch. "Our friend here doubtless has some brilliant masterplan to turn the Silchester road into a sight to rival the Appian Way, eh Gaius?"
"That's Nepos to you," said Gaius curtly. "And no, I don't. But that's not my job. What is my job is getting the town's defences manned properly, and I don't have a hope of doing that if you won't take it seriously. What I want is this: thirty more men a year, properly equipped and trained, and given some decent pay too. The ones I've got now don't even get their full salt ration - no wonder no-one wants to do it."
Hadrian exploded. "Pay?" he yelled. "Pay? And where exactly am I going to get that from? You know perfectly well that there hasn't been a mint in this province for a hundred years, and no-one is going to send a load of silver across the Mare Britannicum these days - they'd be captured or sunk for sure. You're out of your mind, Nepos!"
"There's plenty under your granary," replied Gaius calmly, silently giving praise for Julius' sharp eye a month before. "Gold, too. Now, surely you aren't going to put a hoard of coins you never use ahead of the security of Aurelium itself?" He waited for the response.
"I never knew about that!" said a councillor. "You keep telling everyone that you'd do anything for this city, Hadrian. Looks like you've got your chance."
There was a rumble of agreement at this, and as one man after another agreed with Gaius' point of view, it became increasingly clear to Hadrian that he was badly outnumbered. With a notable lack of grace, he capitulated.
"Oh, all right. Take a cart from the stables and bring the coins back here in sacks. We'll see what we can work out. Auspex, go with him and see that he doesn't damage anything."
Gaius ignored the studied insult and strode out of the hall, Auspex trailing along at his heels like a bad-tempered terrier.