And, behold, six men came from the way of the higher gate, which lieth toward the north, and every man a slaughter weapon in his hand. . . .
"The floor is cold," said Verti, walking into the villa's day room. His tunic was muddy, with bloodstains along the hem. "Have you given up the hypocaust?"
Septimus's smile was thin-lipped. He was as pale as Verti was dark, with brown eyes in contrast to Verti's green. "There's no more wood since I burned the last of the furniture." He glanced pointedly at the blood on Verti's clothes. "Your trip to Durovernum seems to have been interesting."
"Vortigern's Pelagians distract what little attention the authorities in Londinium have left, damn those mad Saxon bastards. We're on our own out here in the sticks."
"All of Britannia is on its own." Septimus stared out the tall windows, across fields of unharvested rye rippling in the moonlight. "You should take ship for Hispania or the Mediterranean."
Verti laughed. "And abandon the joys of Britannic country life? Never."
"They're out there." Septimus's voice dropped to a whisper. "Thane Caldor and his war band. I'm next."
Verti grasped his friend's shoulder. "You've already burned what the servants didn't steal on their way out. Let the Saxons blunt their swords prying mosaics from the floor."
"This place is mine. Five generations of my family are buried here. My father is buried here. I cannot leave."
A terrible din echoed outside in the moonlit rye, metal clanging on metal, sticks clattering together. Septimus and Verti stared as the angular shapes of armored men on stilts moved through the field. They staggered like drunks, accompanied by their noise.
"Saxonici," whispered Septimus. "The proud walkers beating the bounds of their camp. They come for me."
"This is only a place," Verti said. "We can leave it, like any other. Britannia is large and bountiful."
"These are your 'joys of country life,' my friend. Roads safe for no man and Saxons stalking the night with sword's point."
"And you would really die here?" Verti shook his head. "For what?"
"Rome is gone from these shores, fled to her own defense as the Empire crumbles. What else can I do?"
"Live in the new Britannia. Not get killed by Saxons. Go to Londinium, or Eboracum. There is civilized life yet on this island."
The six proud walkers lurched closer across the rye. Darkness rippled behind them, Caldor's war band on the march. Septimus watched them come bearing his death like a Nativity gift, wrapped in the finest linen. What was Rome but a dream? The Britannii were incapable of ruling, and the Saxonici knew only slaughter. If he stayed here, at least he would rest with his ancestors. "Go, Verti," Septimus whispered, turning to his friend. "Go and remember me."
In a glittering flash of green-eyed sympathy, Verti was gone; then the dayroom was filled with leaves, open to the sky, with old smoke stains on the walls. Bones scattered at Septimus's feet, brittle and dry with a broken sword in their midst, while the field of rye outside had become brambled meadow. He saw the words "Britannia Endures" scrawled in old blood upon the wall, then Septimus's father called his name.
Copyright © 2003 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. In 2003, his work is appearing in diverse markets such as Realms of Fantasy, Writers of the Future XIX, and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. For more about him and his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at email@example.com.
The Symbols at Their Doors
Stars in the Sky