“It was not Papa Leo the Great who was alerted to my arrival by the gate guards and who scuttled up to my party as we dismounted our horses just within the Vaticanus’s walls, but rather a lowly priest who listened to my offer with expression of neither voice nor visage. Following a long silence after my last word, he asked me why I really wished to travel to Gaul, and I informed him, as I placed a small pouch of silver in his hand, that I had business in Britannia to attend to.
“That man of God showed the first glint of interest in his eyes, and, to my surprise, the interest seemed to be more in the mention of ‘Britannia’ than in the contents of his hand. He looked up and down my chain mail and sword, glanced at my followers accoutered with the same, and muttered for us to wait where we stood as he scuttled off to the entrance of the timber building from whence he had emerged.
“I was given an audience with a prelate within the hour, alone and my sword and scabbard left with one of my horsemen while he and my other companions tended to our mounts in the Vaticanus stable. The episcopus was a portly man and remained seated behind a table without offering me a seat, though his garb was simple and his manner even simpler. ‘I understand you are here to offer your services as an escort for any messengers we might be sending to Gaul and Britannia,’ he informed me.
“‘That is so,’ I told him, my weaponless hands uneasy at my sides.
“‘And your business in Britannia?’ he prompted, obviously having been informed of everything except the pouch of silver hidden within the cassock of the priest who stood beside him.
“‘That which requires the cover of escorting a Papal messenger to my destination,’ I replied with a straight gaze.
“The episcopus smiled for the first time since I had laid eyes upon him. ‘An honest man is a trustworthy man,’ he observed as he raised a sealed scroll from the plain wood of the table before him. Then, instead of reaching over the table to hand it to me, he made a slight extension of his arm to place the scroll in a hand which had emerged from one of the priest’s immense sleeves. ‘If you had arrived later this day, I would have been filled with suspicion regarding your motives,’ he told me, ‘but it so happens that I met with the Pontifex this very morning, and he has an urgent message for the Episcopus of Autissiodorum which he handed to me personally.’ The episcopus before me now extended an open palm towards the standing priest, and explained, ‘Father Hilarius will deliver the message personally to my good friend Episcopus Germanus under your escort, and you will escort the both of them to Londinium on the business detailed in that scroll.’ The episcopus in Rome then concluded with, ‘Be off, the both of you: daylight is burning.’
“And so I found myself riding out of Rome that very morning, ahead of my men and beside the very unfunny Father Hilarius and his surprisingly young and pretty wife (Church rules had not yet forbidden the clergy to marry, my friend, and our journey would be a long one). Rode hard north we did, straight into the chaos which had become endemic in the Western Empire.
“Along the coast we traveled, staying between the pirate-infested sea and the bandit-ridden interior. Portus Pisanus was our first real rest stop that spring, and was quickly followed by Vada Sabatia, Massilia, and Arelate right past the Alpine territory which had been granted to the surviving Burgundians by Aetius after he had slaughtered a good number of that tribe’s membership. Then we turned northward along the Rhodanus, straight through the mostly-ruined city of Valentia to the still-Roman city of Lugdunum, and thence to our first final destination: the city of Autissiodorum.
“A sense of siege had pervaded the air once we had ridden past the Alps out of Italy, and this sense was confirmed for me by Hilarius’s appeal for mercy and passage to the Alan king Goar in that lord’s smoky hall outside Valentia; the appeal was on the grounds that the Emperor and his generals might pass that way again, and the Lord Jesus Christ was not even mentioned to that pagan king who had led his tribe over the frozen Rhenus into Gaul forty years before. Goar had insisted on taking Hilarius’s wife for ‘safekeeping’ before sending us on our way under escort, and our arrival at the doorstep of the Episcopus of Autissiodorum was, at first, no more encouraging.
“Episcopus Germanus resided in a hovel of a rectory enclosed behind a low wall along with his church, and two guards drew their swords and barred the church’s door before our Alan escorts could explain in German that they escorted us on behalf of the Emperor. When it was further explained that the priest Hilarius came with a message directly from the Papa, it was Germanus who shouted for the door to be opened and who rushed out to greet the messenger from Rome.
“Our Alan escorts turned back for Valentia once we led our horses inside the church courtyard, and the rest of us feasted well that night. The meat was venison minus the liquamen which was beginning to disappear from the tables of the Empire, and the conversation over the oak table surrounded the contents of the scroll which Hilarius had sacrificed his wife to deliver.
“‘So the Pontifex wishes me to repeat my past success in Britannia,’ Germanus began after washing down with mead his first bite of the flesh of a deer arrowed in a nearby forest, and he continued with, ‘It is interesting that he contacted me directly.’
“‘You were an inspiration to us all with your work,’ Hilarius declared, he only nibbling on and sipping from the unfamiliar repast. ‘Pelagianism only survives there because the Lord’s will determines that you remain here in Gaul.’ Hilarius looked at me directly across the table, which was rare. ‘The good episcopus defeated that heresy in a debate in front of a huge crowd at Londinium, then defeated the Picts and Saxons with a shout of “Alleluia!” from the native troops he was leading.’ Hilarius frowned at the plate set before him, and concluded with the sad observation, ‘Then that Vortigern insisted on settling those Saxons along his shore to defend it from us Romans, and now Britannia is back to where it began, and worse.’
“A profound silence pervaded the episcopus’s two-room residence, and its table set for twelve. Then Germanus prompted me with, ‘Tell us, Cartaphilus, what are your religious beliefs?’
“All eyes at the table turned to me, and mine turned aside. How I wished to tell that man of God of what I had seen in Jerusalem four centuries before, to tell anyone of what I had seen in the four centuries since, but I only said, ‘I am a Christian.’
“It was Germanus, and Germanus only, who laughed at my response. ‘I should certainly hope so,’ he observed, chuckling as he leaned back in his chair, apparently considering the beliefs of my armed followers beneath scrutiny. ‘And what do you think of the philosophy of this Briton named “Pelagius,” who thought that salvation can be achieved through the exercise of free will, versus Divine Grace?’
“I felt all eyes upon me still, even as I kept mine focused on the haunch before me. Then I looked up and to my right, at the good episcopus, and told him, ‘Pelagius was a man out of step with his times.’
“Again, it was Germanus only who laughed, and this only after a silence. ‘A man who is coy under questioning,’ he observed, and he continued with, ‘We will need just that sort of man and his followers on our journey to Britannia.’
“Shouldn’t we consult with the other episcopi before our departure?’ Hilarius observed, a tad peevishly.
“Germanus smiled still, and replied to his other dining neighbor with, ‘Yes, I said it was interesting that I was approached directly by the Pontifex, and I thought it interesting because such a flattering communication,’ Germanus held the scroll in the dim air above the table for all to see, ‘did not mention consultation with my fellow episcopi. But if the Pontifex has such faith in my skills of diplomacy, he must know that I would feel it incumbent upon myself to let my mission and intent be known.’ The bishop set the scroll down with one hand and raised his cup of mead with the other to drain its remaining contents in one draught. ‘Therefore let’s a good night’s sleep this night, gentlemen, for on the morrow it’s off to Augustobona and Treveris to gather support for our mission.’”
“Second mugfuls of mead and a sound night’s sleep later, we twelve departed the next morning for Augustobona, to meet with its episcopus named Lupus. We rode along one of the Roman roads still usable, if not well maintained, arrived while the sun still drenched the vineyard adjacent to that second episcopus’s church, and stayed the night so Germanus could make every attempt to convince his friend to join us.
“But Lupus could not be persuaded to leave his diocese, and explained to his departing guest the next morning that his morning meditation had confirmed the sense his flock would need his presence and protection in the near future. Germanus said something to the effect that he would argue with that sense if not its source, then dropped the subject by leading us off to our next destination.
“Our next destination was the city of Durocortorum after a full day of riding, and the destination after a second full day was the city of Treveris. That ancient city of Augusta Treverorum had been sacked four times in a quarter of a century by Frankish raiders from the province of Gallia Belgica who were supposedly ‘federates’ of the Empire, and the city’s remains were little more than a smattering of hovels amidst a collection of grand ruins, but the basilica which Constantine had built during his peaceful interlude a century and a half before still stood, and we made straight for that massive church and its resident episcopus.
“Severus, Episcopus of Treveris, was more open to the idea of a mission across the Oceanus Britannicus to save the Britons’ souls from heresy and perhaps their bodies from the Saxons, but he was more circumspect regarding the realities on the island of Britannia.
“‘Are you aware of what’s occurring over there?’ Severus asked his fellow episcopus over the bones of one of the chickens his servants had provided for the evening meal.
“The Episcopus of Autissiodorum pretended that I did not sit across from him at the table, though I sensed the sense of his eyes. ‘I sleep far closer to Armorica than you do, my friend,’ Germanus replied. ‘I’ve seen the refugees and heard their tales.’
“‘I’ve seen and heard myself, my friend, even this far from the coast,’ Severus replied back. Our host looked at me and Hilarius, then looked back at his friend, his eyes only glancing at his wife sitting beside him and not even acknowledging my men who sat silently further down the table, a few of them still gnawing at bones. ‘You haven’t told these gentlemen of the dire straits across the straits, have you?’
“‘They are to escort me to Britannia on orders of the Pontifex himself,’ Germanus answered without answering. ‘They go where I go.’
“‘Ah, but if you were absolutely certain of that, you would tell them what is in store, in order to ready their spirits,’ Severus observed to his counterpart. The hosting episcopus ignored the glare from the visiting one, and began with, ‘Britannia is under Saxon siege.’
“The Episcopus of Treveris then proceeded to describe in detail the innumerable misfortunes which had befallen the Britons during the previous forty years. Things had come to a head four years before our dinner there in Treveris, when the Saxons whom King Vortigern had settled along his shore rebelled and beckoned others of their tribe from across the sea. The Germanic invaders cut off trade with the Continent, and this alone spelled disaster for the natives. The villa estate economy ceased to function, the slaves fled into the woods to flee all who could enslave them, and their owners fled the countryside for the walled towns, the last refuges of civilization. But now even the towns and cities of Britannia had begun to starve, and the Pelagian doctrine of Free Will was making a comeback among the desperate islanders whose latest appeal to the Divine Grace of the Emperor had gone unanswered, at least by the Emperor.
“‘And so we must put an end to this heresy of Pelagius once and for all, before it tears the Lord’s Church apart,’ Germanus concluded at the end of his friend’s discourse.
“Severus was already leaning back in his high-backed chair, idly gnawing on a chicken bone (perhaps for effect). ‘And so you plan to offer the Britons a whisper to the Emperor’s ear, in exchange for the extermination of this heresy,’ he remarked with a subtle grin around the meat which most blatantly ignored the glare from his wife.
“‘The Lord’s work sometimes requires maneuvering,’ Germanus replied. ‘I am more than happy to petition the Emperor on behalf of the Britons, but first they must prove their worth as Christians.’
“‘But surely you must know that if the Emperor and his general Aetius had the power to do something, they already would have,’ Severus countered as he made small toying motions with the bone in his hand.
“Germanus now raised his voice at his host with, ‘The Britons have the power to stamp out this heresy and return to the True Faith.’
“‘The exercise of Free Will to renounce Free Will?’ Severus smiled softly now. ‘I sense a bit of Pelagius in you.’
“Cups clattered on the floor along with the equally wooden plates, the hosting episcopus’s wife gasped, and dogs scurried to wolf down the visiting episcopus’s half-eaten dinner. ‘Will you support this endeavor, or will you not?’ Germanus demanded with a fist clenched on the table.
“Severus now laughed openly. ‘Support it? I will join it. All you had to do was ask.”
“Our contingent doubled with the addition of Severus’s bodyguards the next morning, and our small force of men set out to avoid marauding Franks by taking the long route to Britannia, taking the way of Augustobona, Autissiodorum, and the re-named city of Paris.
“Augustobona and Autissiodorum were unchanged in the few days since I had last seen those towns, but Paris was little more than a shadow of the city of Lutetia, which I had last seen during my journey home from the Battle of Lugdunum over two centuries before. The City of the Parisii stood alone in the Sequanus, on an island whose shores were fortified by earthen mounds. Most travelers dared not ride the roads as we did, but instead floated down that river in boats, many of which we saw tied to wooden docks when we crossed a bridge onto the island for a night’s lodging.
“I found the state of that town depressing, and pressed for a dawn departure the next morning, which resulted in us making the port of Caracotinum before nightfall. Another night in another center of squalor, this one suffering acutely from the Saxon blockade across the Britannicus, and then we took passage on a ship which landed us in Portus Adurni, well to the south and west of the focus of the Saxon raiding and blockading.
“From Adurni, it was a day’s ride to Londinium, which was still the capital of Britannia even if the land no longer deserved a Roman name and even if Londinium no longer deserved to serve as its capital. Many of the inhabitants of the city and its environs had fled to Armorica back across the Britannicus, that region of Gaul which was already being called ‘Brittany’ as a consequence of its massive influx of Britons (indeed, we had passed many encarted refugees trudging south towards our port of debarkation), and those who had taken their place in the city were refugees from the countryside who had lost everything with their villas and thus could not afford to emigrate.
“The result in the too-small space between Londinium’s Tamesis-ward wall and her landward walls was a set of horrors which I had not seen in four centuries of travels. Every nook and cranny within those direly-needed defenses was filled with one beragged, unwashed, and emaciated body or another, but it was the collective look in the eyes which stood out from the taut faces that haunts me to this day: the collective look of abject fear.