he snow had begun to descend in thick icy flakes, driving into their faces, cold and clinging, obscuring the path along the river bank and adding another coating to the already whitened landscape. The low mountains that surrounded them on both sides of the river seemed to vanish under the white shroud, for they already had several weeks of snow lying on them. There was no sound of birds, wisely taking shelter, or of other animals. The heathland and trees were silent and even their footsteps made no noise, for the snow was thick and soft beneath. Only the great river, to their right, announced its presence with a constant rumble as it cut its tumultuous path through the white surroundings.
‘Is it far?’
The tall, bearded man who was leading the way did not pause in his measured stride.
‘Not far,’ he called without turning his head. It was not the first time that his companion, hurrying in his footsteps, had asked the question since they had left the little settlement. The second man was slightly built and roughly thirty years of age, wrapped in the dark brown woollen robes of a religieux. The response from his burly guide, clad in a warm badger’s fur hunting cloak, was always the same as they trudged along the river path.
It was late afternoon. Just before the scenery had been obscured by the snowfall, the religieux had been gazing anxiously at the grey snow clouds covering the sky to the east. They had been darkening ominously above the low range of mountains and told of the approach of the end of the day as well as the oncoming snow.
‘Will we be there before dark?’ he asked anxiously, trying to wipe away the flakes that hung from his eyebrows and lids. The light was now completely distorted and the cold had grown intense.
‘Before dark,’ confirmed his guide. Then the man suddenly chuckled, a deep, throaty sound, and added, ‘Do not worry, little Brother, surely your god will protect you in such a place even after nightfall.’
‘I am anxious to be able to see the place, that is all.’ The other’s reply came stiffly.
‘A strange place for one of your faith to want to see,’ the guide observed.
The religieux did not answer.
The guide shrugged philosophically. It was not his business why this foreign pilgrim had requested his services as a guide. Well, in truth it had been old Father Audovald who had engaged his services for the foreigner. Father Audovald was the aged priest at the chapel dedicated to the Blessed Martin. He was regarded as the leader of the small settlement called Bingium on the banks of the great river Renos. He had told Huneric that he knew no more than that this man had arrived early that morning. The foreigner had come downriver in one of the hardy trading barges, stepped ashore and sought the services of a guide. He had been directed to Father Audovald who, in turn, had asked Huneric to take the new arrival where he wanted to go.
Huneric had a reputation as a local hunter who knew every
centimetre of the forests and mountains along the banks of the river. He had several times surreptitiously examined the foreign religieux, trying to work out where he came from. The pilgrim had arrived from the south; that he knew. His face was suntanned in spite of it being late winter. But the man did not sound or look like someone from those southern Mediterranean climes. There were freckles on his cheeks and his hair, so far as Huneric could see, was the colour of copper. The stranger spoke fluent Latin, which was their only common language, albeit a refined and archaic form compared to the rough colloquial language that Huneric used when trading with the Gauls.
The path turned slightly inland towards the shelter of some woodland. Only a slight depression in the blanket of snow actually marked its route. Now and again, the frozen crust of a previous snowfall snapped with a fierce cracking sound under Huneric’s heavy tread. The trees gave some protection from the snowstorm and the path became easier. But it was obvious that the wood was little more than a copse and would provide only a brief respite from the driving snow beyond.
‘We’ll cross the Nava just ahead of us,’ the guide offered, shaking the snow from his cloak with a curious dog-like movement of his body. ‘It flows swiftly into the River Renos, and the currents are strong and dangerous. Thanks be, there is an old wooden bridge that spans it. We shall cross by it.’
‘Another river?’ the pilgrim asked, almost in complaint.
‘Not as big as the Renos. But an old man once told me that the Gauls, who used to live here before my people came, called it the Nava for, in their language it meant “the wild river”. This is the confluence of the Nava and the Renos,’ he added unnecessarily.
By the time they came through the patch of woodland, the snow had ceased falling, although the clouds still hung low, dark and ominous. They emerged abruptly on to the bank of a
smaller reach of water, across which stretched a long, rickety wooden bridge. The water gushed white and angry underneath the bridge. It looked turbulent as it emptied itself with crashing force into the broader river beyond, creating whirlpools and rapids that would be dangerous to cross in a boat.
The guide halted a moment.
‘As you see, the Renos begins to curve through the hills, turning sharply north there.’ Huneric pointed. ‘The Renos is a broad water highway. In ancient times the Roman legions decided to build their Via Ausonia along its banks to connect Bingium to the city of Augusta Treverorum, and there was a fortress erected here, by the confluence, to guard the way.’
‘But is it far to the necropolis?’ demanded the religieux impatiently.
Huneric looked at his companion with a thoughtful frown. Once more he found himself wondering where the man came from and why he wanted to visit an abandoned Roman necropolis.
‘The remains of the Roman graveyard are just beyond those trees on the far side of the bridge. It is not far now. Come, but when you cross the bridge, be careful. The snow will have made the wooden planking slippery.’
The warning was well taken for once or twice the religieux nearly lost his footing and only by grasping the wooden rail at the side of the bridge was he prevented from measuring his length on its wet and slushy surface. Once across, he was able to follow Huneric through ankle-deep snow with more confidence. In spite of the snow screen there were obvious signs of ancient habitation here. Remains of walls proclaimed a derelict fortress, much of whose stonework seemed to be missing, perhaps removed by locals to build new habitations elsewhere. Then he picked up signs of a long-abandoned roadway.
Huneric led the way to the edge of what seemed to be another section of forest whose dark foliage was distinctly eerie.
The religieux stared at the tall trees. They rose before them like some impregnable wall, with a surrounding girdle of brambles and nettles – nature’s own defence against intruders. Huneric seemed to know a path through this dense barrier. The religieux saw yew trees and evergreen oaks; he even recognised the green bark of young holly trees and the smooth grey trunks of the older holly, their prickly lower leaves a deterrent to grazing animals. High among the trees that had shed their leaves for winter he saw strange, round, dark clumps. At first he thought they were birds’ nests until he realised they were parasitic masses of mistletoe.
The religieux noticed that these woods were strangely silent even though the snow had ceased to fall. There was no hint of any animal moving nearby, neither wolves nor foxes. The flow of the river could no longer be heard. He grimaced and tried to credit the lack of natural sounds to the cold and the weather. Even so, he could not suppress the apprehensive shiver that tingled on his spine.
Huneric glanced back at him and gave a thin smile, seeming to recognise his anxiety.
‘A few steps more, my friend,’ he said lightly.
Indeed, a few steps more brought them into what seemed to be a large clearing whose boundaries were marked by the dense barrier of trees and shrubs and almost given a protective canopy by their massive spreading branches. The religieux saw that the clearing was filled with small mounds and decaying stone monuments and markers, many overgrown with all manner of weeds and plants.
Huneric stood aside and let the religieux gaze around him.
‘This is where the Roman legionaries, who garrisoned the fortress here, buried their dead,’ he announced almost with the pride of ownership. ‘This is the necropolis they built many centuries ago.’
The religieux breathed out softly, the cold making visible the vapour of his breath.
‘You know what it is that I seek?’
‘The graves of the archers, the first cohort,’ confirmed his guide. ‘Come, follow me.’
He walked across to an area where several stones rose from the ground. He paused before one and with his hand tore away the moss that covered the incised lettering on the ancient surface.
‘Is this the one you seek?’ he asked.
The religieux went down on his haunches before the stone and peered at the Latin inscription, reading the name softly to himself. Then he exhaled deeply and nodded.
‘It is the name I seek,’ he replied quietly. He shifted his position to examine it more closely. ‘It says that he was from Sidonia …’
Huneric had pride in his education, his ability to read the words that Father Audovada had taught him. He nodded in agreement. ‘He was a man from Sidon, which is in the country of the Phoenicians.’
miles ex-signifer Cohorte Primus Saggitariorum hic situs est
,’ the religieux read. ‘He was the former standard bearer of the First Cohort of Archers and this is his grave.’
While Huneric looked on with some bewilderment, the religieux delved into the satchel he carried and drew from it a small wooden tablet, hinged in two sections, and a thin bone stylus. He opened the tablet. The wax in the centre of each wooden section was cold and the religieux spent some time trying to soften it with the warmth of his hand. Once pliable enough, he carefully wrote down the five lines of Latin that comprised the inscription. Then he closed the writing tablet with a snap and replaced it and the stylus in the satchel. He stood for a moment looking down at the monument.
‘Thank you,’ he said in a quiet, almost resigned tone. ‘We can return to Bingium as soon as you like.’
Huneric was bewildered. ‘Is this all that you came to see?’
‘It is enough.’
‘Was this Roman one of your ancestors? You travelled a long way just to read a brief inscription.’
The religieux smiled tightly and shook his head. ‘He was not my ancestor,’ he replied.
‘Then who was he?’ pressed Huneric. ‘Why was he so important that you have made this journey from your country, wherever that is, just to look at a piece of stone under which he lies buried?’
‘Why is he so important?’ The religieux turned sad, tired eyes on the man. Huneric thought for a moment that he was about to burst into tears. His face was gaunt and white. ‘Because that man,’ he gestured towards the grave, ‘may have been the father of a lie that has changed the world.’