“The men of my contingent (it had been some time since a superior, nominal or otherwise, had accompanied me) were solidly behind me and my effort to reverse the tide, but, unfortunately, Arvandus’s Londin contingent was equally behind him. We two men and our two armies met on an open plain, myself and no doubt my followers surprised by the size of the force arrayed against us.
“I, who had stopped my horse in the middle of the road and watched as our respective forces spread out on both sides of the path to Londin, made a quick decision and turned my horse in the direction of my most trusted lieutenant, a soldier from Londin. ‘I give you your life and honor, Columba,’ I told him.
“‘I beg your pardon, senior?’ Columba replied from atop his own horse.
“‘It is plainly obvious that the lot of us will be slaughtered if we stay put and fight,’ I informed him. ‘You and your Londin men: stand your ground and pretend to cover the rest of us as we retreat to the west. When we are beyond pursuit, switch sides and save yourselves.’ I turned to another lieutenant, this one from the lands to the west, and told him, ‘I have always wanted to sample the baths of Aquae Sulis; the rest of us will find our way there. Let’s make it so.’
“Without giving either of these lieutenants a chance to argue, I shouted for all ‘Westerners’ to follow me, and spurred my horse off the road and to the west. The sight of Columba standing on his horse on the right side of the road, a sight combined with the quick spread of my word, cleaved cleanly my army, and we western-bound soldiers trotting on hoof and foot soon left a gap between ourselves and those who remained to throw themselves upon the mercy of Arvandus. Arvandus’s right flank, thinking our standing remainder still the enemy, rushed through that gap to surround Columba and company, and the rest of us thus managed to escape all the way to Aquae Sulis and its soothing baths.”
“And so it came to be that I was ensconced in Sulis as a local warlord with the armed followers who followed me from the east. Such a position was perfect for watching from afar as the Province of Britannia and the Western Empire exhaled their death breaths.
“The City of Rome had been sacked a second time (this time by the Vandals) three years before my departure from the Continent, and this latest calamity had cut short the two-month reign of the latest Emperor (the capable and cunning Aetius, who might have prevented a second sacking, had been murdered the year previous, by a previous Emperor). The new Emperor, Avitus, was a puppet of the Visigoths, and the new Emperor after him was a puppet of Ricimer, the half-Suebi, half-Visigoth Patrician of the Western Empire. The Emperor Majorian was a surprisingly competent ruler, but competence belonged not in his time and he was cut down by Ricimer four years into his reign.
“The following four-year reign of the Emperor Libius Severus was as empty a shell as the Emperor-free eighteen months which followed, but the reign of Procopius Anthemius was a different matter, both for the Empire and for myself. When the Romans attempted to wrest North Africa back from the Vandals, the Visigothic king Euric took advantage of the distraction provided and pressed the remaining Roman frontiers in Gaul. Anthemius then took the unusual step of beseeching my archenemy Arvandus for aid, and Arvandus, confident from his constant victories over myself and the Saxons, took the even more unusual step of heeding the Emperor’s request.
“Arvandus and his twelve thousand landed at Brestum to the cheers of the local populace, and proceeded down to and up the Liger River to skirt the Visigothic kingdom and link up with the Roman army he had been told would be coming from Italy. Alas, Anthemius was no Aetius; the Emperor had fallen ill at Rome and, as the Visigoths cornered and mauled Arvandus’s outnumbered force, he busied himself with taking Imperial revenge upon the many prominent Romans he blamed for the imagined sorcery behind his sickness. And while Arvandus licked his wounds as a supposed guest and de facto hostage of the Burgundians (whose kingdom along the Rhodanus he had been forced to flee to), Ricimer besieged Rome, having lost patience with his latest puppet and having decided to replace him with another. Anthemius and Rome both fell, the former by murder, before Ricimer was cut down by fever and replaced by his nephew Gundobad.
“All of these events left Arvandus in limbo, and I took advantage of the situation from the west of Britannia much like the Saxons did from the east of the province, taking town after town. Unlike the Saxons, I brought in settlers wherever a former Roman settlement was no longer inhabited, rebuilding walls and restoring hope.
“But Londin was like no other town, being so surrounded by the Germanic invaders and so far from my base at Sulis. In the same stretch of a year, my enemy Arvandus disappeared from gossip, Odoacer the King of Italy deposed the last Western Emperor, and I oversaw the evacuation of Londin, moving the remaining inhabitants to more secure locations throughout my realm and appropriating their sons for my army.
“And so, however slow subsequent motions might have been, the stage was set for the final battle with my Saxon enemies. By the time they had gained sufficient strength and thus confidence to menace me at Aquae Sulis, over three decades had transpired since my arrival in Britannia, and I was eager to secure my legacy with a British victory before having to disappear back into obscurity as someone other than the Arturius who had washed ashore on a Britannican beach.
“As if sensing my willingness to risk a decisive battle, and no doubt desiring to split the Britons into north and south by gaining a foothold on the Sabrina Estuary, my Saxon rivals advanced west upon my kingdom the summer after Theodoric and his Ostrogoths had begun advancing into Italy at the behest of the Romaioi Emperor Zeno, against Odoacer and the barest remaining vestige of the Roman Army. The King of Italy would soon be crushed by the Eastern Goths, but I and my westerners would stand our ground above Sulis.
“The Saxons came upon a capital which was only lightly defended, but the defenses included stout walls and I had fortified and occupied a nearby hill with the balance of my army. Having met no resistance on their journey across the island, and having believed the rumors of my untimely demise I had spread among speakers of German, the Saxons unwisely charged our hill, thinking us a small detachment led by one of my wayward sons. As a result, they were pinned below the ramparts by sword and spear, and their compressed masses were showered with arrows and stones by men in our rear who had trained for the prospect of an enemy meeting us on our terms. The slaughter was substantial, and, once our enemies had withdrawn to the foot of the hill, I ordered my men to gather the more living of the enemy wounded and impale them upon the stakes we had rammed into the earth of the ramparts, showing the same measure of mercy which would have been shown us.
“Driven to fury by this treatment of their fallen comrades, and unable to accept the fact that they had been bested by natives, the Saxons stormed our hill once more. This time my archers and artillerymen did not hold their fire for a second, and the Germanic mob was further thinned before their second arrival at the ramparts, at which point whatever discipline they might have possessed disappeared. The more selfless threw themselves over the ramparts and into hand-to-hand combat with us defenders, but the rest stopped atop the earthworks to pull their moaning and dying fellows from the stakes upon which they had been impaled. These rescuers were decimated by missiles, and those who had thrown themselves in amongst us were slain almost to the last man.
“The Saxons were thus crushed at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, as the British would come to call this victory of their one half over the other. Yes, the Romans and Germans in Britain would eventually meld to become one people, but I would remain an undying man, forever separate from those around me and forever needing to hide my true nature. When word came to the island that Theodoric and his Goths had taken Ravenna, I saw that it was time to return to my Venetian lagoon and live yet another quiet life as a Roman citizen.
“But the quiet life was not to be for me. Not wanting to create any connection between Arturius and the Frankish king Merovech, who had disappeared into a flowing river while swimming one morning, I refrained from repeating myself. Instead I took my usual soak in Sulis’s Great Bath one fine spring evening (a Great Bath which I had had repaired during my reign), attended a feast in my royal villa during which I made sure my retinue and resident noblemen got roaring drunk, then retired to bed with a single slave girl.
“The singularity of my female companionship that night might have aroused suspicion in retrospect, but I knew that such a trivial detail would not be noticed until I was long gone. I had my way, for I did not know when next I would have the opportunity to make love to a woman, much less as a king, and then I made a proposal of a plan to the girl I had chosen for her cunning. Scarcely an hour later she began to scream ‘My Lord, My Lord’ over and over again, but I and no other man was in bed with her. Instead I had slipped out my window, scrambled along a rooftop with the aid of knives in the wood, and deposited myself in my villa’s stable yard.
“While Modesta continued to scream for the promised pouch of gold and letter of freedom which awaited her in a crevice in a stable wall, I departed the immense stable yard beneath a large cloak and atop a middling horse, confident in the lack of scrutiny my guards would show a departing horseman. I indeed rode through to the streets of Aquae Sulis without quarrel, and before midday this man shorn of both beard and crown was obtaining passage across the Britannicus in a fishing boat at anchor beneath my fortress of Portus Adurni. To Caracotinum, which was now ruled by my grandson Clovis, we sailed, and in that port I obtained further passage by riverboat on up the Sequanus to Paris.
“The city of Paris remained aloof on its river island, but now that island was in the heart of a growing empire, and medieval Paris was a bustling little town soon to sprout suburbs on both banks of the river. I sensed an energy in the air that kept me from sleeping that night, and by the morning crowing of the cock I knew that I would not proceed to Italy.
“Instead I set up shop as a trader. The roads to Italy were long and mountainous, but the waterways to my former kingdom in Britannia were more open than they had been in generations, and I was soon making contact with merchants from across the Britannicus. Operating under my old default name of ‘Cartaphilus,’ I pressed the Britons for furs and amber which I could trade for Gaulish wine, and I was soon capitalizing nicely upon the bag of jewels which I had carried with me from Aquae Sulis.
“Confident in the peace which King Clovis was bringing to Gaul (since my arrival in Paris he had married a Burgundian princess, defeated yet another tribe in Germania, and converted from Arianism to the Trinitarian Catholic Christian faith), I built a fine villa on the right bank of the Sequanus, complete with a wine cellar, a stable, and a small chapel I thought politic in the then-current environment. I even married the daughter of a prominent business associate to boot, though rest assured, my friend, that Clovis’s wars in the east ensured a steady supply of young pagan blondes who were not Christians protected from slavery.
“Yes, life in Paris was good, even after Clovis’s kingdom was unwisely divvied up amongst his four sons upon his death, but the thorn in my side that was my immortality beckoned me ever onward. When rumors of an extraordinary benevolence on the part of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric reached the island city, a benevolence towards his non-Gothic subjects which he was in a position to spread from Sicilia to the Alps and the Danuvius, I felt that it was finally time to resume my southward journey. I left my trading business ostensibly in the hands of a teenage son and practically in the hands of my wife, took leave of the entire household, and rode for Italy with a small armed guard, the Burgundians my only worry.
“Alas, I did not even have to worry about the Burgundians, and we arrived along the shores of the Venetian lagoon at the height of summer. Sensing that my welcome from the locals would be in inverse proportion to the power I displayed before them, I took my leave of my guards after paying them well and paid two fishermen equally well to row me across the water.
“I had not crossed that lagoon in nearly eighty years, and I once again claimed to be my own grandson (claiming in effect this time to be my own great-great grandson), but my villa overlooking the river and its beaches was in better shape than I had expected, the only damage resulting from the neglect of a near-century of non-habitation. The taboo surrounding my one permanent home was still in force, passed on to the many new arrivals from the mainland and reinforced by their strong sense of property rights; the family of hands-off groundskeepers employed for four generations by a bag of gold had had little trouble keeping away urchins and the like.
“To prove my identity as the rightful lord of my seaside villa, I recited in secret before the head of the groundskeeping family the Latin inscription I had left on a scroll with his grandfather, and, in any event, doubts as to my supposed lineage could be removed by a glance at the bust atop the mausoleum’s sarcophagus. Restoration work (including a fresh coat of bright paint) began yet again and right away, and soon I was living another quiet, pleasant life with slave girls from beyond the Mediterranean at my beck and call.
“Alas, the quiet life was always a relatively short-lived life for me. Theodoric the Great died only a few years after my return to Italy, a very young and a very old ruler both succeeded him but succeeded not in filling his boots, and the Romaioi (as the inhabitants of the former-Eastern and now-only Empire called themselves) appeared in Italy ten years after the Great’s death, to restore that Empire to its former expanse and glory. That Empire’s expansion came at the expense of the local kingdom, the general Belisarius steadily marching up the Italian boot, and I found myself, as a man unable to avoid the action, having to choose between East and West, between the Oriental and the Occidental. When word came that Rome had fallen to this Belisarius, I looked across the lagoon and realized that I felt as if I had been violated by a foreign invader. I chose the West.
“And I chose to defend my West. The Goths were naturally suspicious of any Roman who showed an interest in martial matters, for the Germans had long come to think of themselves as the armed protectors of the peaceful Romans (as did the cowardly Romans), but the situation was desperate and I arrived on the mainland with a sizable force of Venetians whom I had convinced to join me with the argument that the invading Romaioi had a fleet capable of taking our island whereas the Ostrogoths did not.
“We Venetians and far more numerous Goths attacked Rome the year after it had fallen to the Romaioi, but Belisarius had let the city’s walls stand even as he disbanded its ancient Senate, and our attack did not become a sack. In fact, the Romaioi marched northward and eventually took Mediolanum.
“It was at this point that our Goth overlords became united, solely in the opinion that Belisarius would make a fine new Western Emperor over them and the rest of us in their domain. That crafty general feigned acceptance of such a flattering offer, gained admittance to the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna (that city’s single entrance was a causeway through its surrounding marshes), seized the Ostrogothic King Witiges, and claimed the whole of the Ostrogothic kingdom for Constantinopolis.
“Myself and my men were north of Ravenna at the time, and thus found ourselves, merely at the word of a messenger, left in limbo with no orders to obey. We did the only thing left to do, which was go home and return to civilian life (the life of the fisherman for most).
“And so it was from my Venetian villa that I watched the rest of the Gothic Wars play out. The Romaioi Emperor Justinian had become suspicious of Belisarius after the Goths’ offer to the latter of the Western Emperorship, and he sent the general from Italy to Syria to fight off the Persians. The Ostrogoths responded by electing a new leader named Totila, who was a better general than Witiges (no doubt in part because Totila did not face Belisarius), and the Goths drove the Romaioi out of northern Italy and Rome.