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14

In my dream I was walking with Constantius along the banks of a river. I could not tell if it was the Rhenus or the Tamesis, for the sky was a dim, featureless grey. It hardly mattered, since my beloved was with me. His features were shadowed, but my body knew the strong grip of his hand. It was unexpectedly sweet, after so many years in which I had denied even my memories, to have his companionship.

"Where are you taking me?" I asked.

"To see me off on my journey—"

"Not again!" I stopped, trying to hold him, but his steady progress drew me on. "Please, do not leave me again!"

"This time," he told me, "it is only by leaving you that I can be with you once more."

"Is night falling?" I asked through my tears.

"No, my beloved, look—it is the morning!"

I blinked, for his face was growing more radiant as the sun rose above the horizon. And then he was all light, slipping through my fingers as I reached out to embrace the dawn…

Light blazed through my eyelids, and someone was banging on the door. I struggled free of the bedclothes, rubbing my eyes as the ordinary reality of my bedchamber, frescoed with scenes of the nymphs of wood and fountain, replaced the misty radiance of my dream. It could not be danger—though Vitellia was still living with me, in a new wing we had built onto the house where no one had ever honoured the gods. Since Constantius became Augustus, even the pretence of Christian persecution had ceased. But spring sunlight was flooding through the windows. Clearly I was going to get no more sleep, and it was time to start the day.

As I pulled off my sleeping shift and began to wash from the basin I could hear voices below. My hair showed a few threads of silver at the temples, but I still walked everywhere instead of taking the carriage or a chair, and my body was firm. Hrodlind appeared in the doorway, and seeing that I was up, hurried to set out a fresh shift and one of my finer tunicas, the saffron silk with embroideries of wheat sheaves around the hem.

When she saw the surprise on my face she grinned. "You have a visitor, Mistress. You will want to look your best today!"

I considered forcing the truth out of her, but apparently it was not some disaster. I held out my arms for her to pin the gown without a word, suppressing a smile at her expression. She had not expected me to give in so easily.

By the time I approached the dining room, settling a palla of light-weight, creamy wool across my shoulders against the early morning chill, I could smell the tantalizing aroma of nut custard, which Brasilia used to make as a holiday meal when Constantine was a boy. And with that, I stopped short, understanding who, beyond all hope or expectation, my visitor must be.

My heart pounded in my breast and I took a deep breath, grateful for the sense of smell which is the key to memory, and which had given me this warning. Constantine could not be bringing bad news, I thought, or the servants would not have been so cheerful. I waited a little longer, summoning up the courage to face this son whom I had not seen since he had been home for a visit when he was eighteen years old. He had written, of course, but guardedly, as if he suspected his letters were being intercepted. I no longer knew where his heart lay, and I wondered if the intervening thirteen years had changed him more than they had me.

Then I rearranged my palla and made my entrance into the dining room.

A strange officer was sitting by the window, positioned where his moulded bronze cuirass would catch the morning sun. At least he had had the courtesy to remove his helmet. I noted the fair hair, worn rather long with a hint of curl, and my view of him doubled suddenly into the image of a stranger and the recognition that this was Constantine. He had opened the window, and was looking out at the birds splashing in the bath I had set up for them in the atrium, and had not heard me come in.

For a moment longer I indulged myself with the sight of him. A long-sleeved tunic of white wool edged with crimson showed beneath the armour, and well-worn breeches of tan suede. In fact the entire outfit, though it was of the best quality, showed the effects of long use. Perhaps Constantine had not intended to show off, but had come to me in his armour because he had nothing else decent to wear. But I must, I thought then, allow him his pride.

"Uniform becomes you, my son," I said softly.

He turned swiftly and jumped to his feet, surprise changing swiftly to joy that lit his face as if the sun had risen in the room. In the next moment I was being crushed in a hard embrace, held away so that he could look into my face, and hugged again.

"I trust that cuirass is more comfortable from the inside." I smiled ruefully when he let me go, rubbing my flesh where the edges of the armour had dug in.

"One becomes accustomed," he said absently, still holding my hand. After a moment I felt myself flushing beneath that intense gaze. "Oh, my mother, do you know how often I have dreamed of this day? And you have not changed at all!"

That was not so, I thought, smiling back at him. Was the image he had of me so strong that he could not see what I looked like, or was it that most of my changes were inside?

"Sit down, and let Brasilia bring in the breakfast she has been cooking for you," I said at last. "What are you doing here, and how long can you stay?"

"One day only," he said, answering the last question as he sat down. The chair creaked beneath his weight, for he had grown as tall and big-boned as my own father, everything about him just a little larger and more solid than other men. Surely, I thought with satisfaction, watching him, he is worthy to be the Child of Prophecy!

"Father gave me special permission to land here instead of at Eburacum, and tomorrow I must be on my way north to rejoin my legion. The Picts will not wait on my pleasure."

I felt my heart pound suddenly in my breast. Constantius was in Britannia! I suppose I should have expected it. After several years of peace, the wild tribes of the north were trying once more to break the border, and in several places they had overwhelmed the troops stationed on the Wall. It was the responsibility of the ruler of the West to defend Britannia.

I shook my head, trying to deny the sudden, traitorous wish that Constantius had come with his son to Londinium.

"But how do you come to be here at all? I thought you were serving in the East with Galerius—"

Constantine's face grew dark, but clearly, he had learned to control his temper. If he had not, I told myself, no doubt he would not have lived long enough to be sitting in my dining room now.

"Oh, I was," he said grimly. "I was on that dreadful march across the plain east of Carrhae, the one that killed Crassus and ten legions two hundred years ago. Scarcely a tithe of our men made it home again from that campaign. I was surprised Galerius himself survived Diocletian's wrath when we reached Antiochia—did you know he had to walk for a mile behind Diocletian's chariot?"

I shook my head. I was glad now that I had not even known my son was involved in that disaster.

"You did not write to me about this."

Constantine lifted an eyebrow, a habit I recognized as my own.

"My dear mother, my father is an honourable man, and there has always been trust between him and Maximian. Things are quite otherwise in the eastern part of the Empire. Even when I served in Diocletian's household, one of his freedmen read our mail, and Galerius had even less reason to trust me."

I sighed, realizing that my own letters, perhaps in response to the restraint in his, had over the years become increasingly perfunctory, with the result that neither of us really knew the other at all.

Drusilla brought in the porridge and Constantine rose to embrace her. There were tears in her eye when he let her go again.

"Did you go with him on the second campaign as well?" I asked when he had eaten a little.

"By that time I was serving in his bodyguard. I have to say that Galerius learns from his mistakes. The Emperor gave him an army of Illyrian veterans and Gothic auxiliaries, and we took the northern route, through the mountains of Armenia where the people were our friends. I will also admit that the man has courage—he scouted the enemy camp by night with only two men to guard him, and led the charge when we overran them. That day, there was enough glory for everyone. Narses was put to flight, and the treaty we finally made bids fair to secure our eastern borders for at least a generation."

"Galerius must have appreciated you, to keep you in his guard." I set down my own spoon.

Constantine grinned. "Oh, I can fight. I will not tell you about my narrow escapes—they would only frighten you—but I know the gods protect me, for I came through both campaigns with scarcely a scratch. Still, I think Galerius wanted me close so he could keep an eye on me. He thinks he will outlive Father, and be supreme, and I am a threat to his plans." Abruptly his gaze grew grim. "How much news about the abdication did they release to the provinces, Mother?"

I looked at him in surprise. "Only that it had taken place, and two men I've never heard of were appointed as Caesars."

"Galerius made those choices," Constantine said through stiff lips. "I don't know what pressure he put on Diocletian to do it—perhaps he threatened civil war. Do you know, the mint at Alexandria had actually minted a coin with my name on it? I was ready to ask Maximian if he would set a date for my wedding to his daughter Fausta, who was betrothed to me when Father was made Caesar, and is finally of age. Everyone was sure the choice was going to fall on Maximian's son Maxentius and on me.

"We stood waiting on that damned hill, beneath the column of Jupiter, and Diocletian tottered to his feet and complained about how frail he was becoming and that he was seeking rest after his labours, and so my father and Galerius would become the Augustii, and to assist them he was appointing Maximus Daia and Severus as Caesars! People were whispering, wondering if I had changed my name, until Galerius shoved me aside and pulled out Daia, the son of his sister!"

"Some have said it is just because you and Maxentius are the sons of emperors that you were passed over, to avoid establishing a hereditary monarchy," I said mildly.

Constantine swallowed an oath. "I could name you a dozen men who would have been more worthy of the honour! Men I would have been proud to serve. Severus is Galerius's best friend and neither he nor Daia has ever commanded anything bigger than a detachment. Galerius does not want colleagues, but servants, and all Diocletian wants is peace and quiet so that he can continue to believe he saved the Empire!" he said furiously. "Galerius was a good servant, but by the gods, he will make a poor master. He is continuing to harass the Christians in his dominions, when clearly the persecution has failed."

I took a deep breath. "I am surprised he let you go."

Constantine began to laugh. "So was he! Father had written to him, pleading ill-health and requesting my presence. Galerius took his time about replying, and it is amazing how accident-prone I became thereafter. My patrols were ambushed, the beaters who were supposed to hold a boar we were hunting somehow failed, footpads attacked me outside a taverna. Things got so bad I bought a slave to taste my food."

I bit my lip. No use to ask why he had not written to tell me of his danger—the letter would never have arrived. But every morning since he had left me I had prayed for his safety when I made my daily offering.

"Finally, Galerius gave me his permission," Constantine continued. "This was at the end of the day, and he obviously expected me to leave the next morning. But by that time I was wondering if I would live that long. I got a friend in the clerk's office to frank the pass for the post-horses and did my best not only to out-run pursuit but warning, especially once I was travelling through country Severus holds." He grinned wolfishly, then applied himself to his food.

I sat back with a long sigh, reviewing his story as I waited for my heartbeat to slow.

"And so you came to your father," I said presently. "Was it a ruse, when he said he wanted you because he was ill?"

Constantine sat back with a frown. "Well, I don't know. He says so, but he grows short of breath easily, and he doesn't look well. That is the other reason I insisted on coming to you now. He will not allow the physicians to examine him, and I thought that perhaps you—"

I shook my head. "My darling, that right belongs to another woman. It would only bring pain to both of us if I went to your father now."

My son's frown grew deeper, and I realized that despite, or perhaps even because, he had for so long had to act the part of a loyal subordinate, he disliked not getting his own way. But a mother has certain advantages. I met his grey stare, and in the end it was he who looked away.

After that, things grew easier, and when he had finished eating, I showed him my house and introduced him to Vitellia, and then arm in arm, we made a circuit of the town. Constantine did most of the talking, and I delighted to rediscover this glorious young man whom the gods had made my son. By the time we returned to Brasilia's most lavish dinner, night was falling. And this time, Constantine waited until morning before he set out once more.

That summer I followed the military news with more interest than I had since the days when I was an army wife in Dalmatia, and the garrison in Londinium, who had been mightily impressed by Constantine, kept me supplied with news. Asclepiodotus, the prefect who had served Constantius so well in the campaign against Allectus, was once again second-in-command of his army. I remembered him as an earnest young officer when we had been stationed in Sirmium.

The man who had been my husband had always been able to inspire devotion. I, after all, had followed him from Avalon. And Constantine still idolized his father. If Galerius had made Constantine Caesar, my son would have supported him as he did his father. As it was, the Eastern Augustus had made two important enemies.

The troops Constantius brought from Germania had landed at Eburacum and joined with selected detachments from the garrisons on the Wall. As the spring turned to summer, they pressed north through the territory of the Votadini, following an ever-retreating enemy all the way past the Bodotria to the vicinity of Mons Graupius, where Tacitus had defeated their ancestors a little over two centuries before. And there, the reports told us, the Emperor had won a great victory.

This news was proclaimed from the forum and posted on the gates of the Governor's palace. The priestess of Bast, who was one of those to whom I had introduced Constantine, offered her congratulations. I thanked her, but despite the general rejoicing I found myself uneasy, and continued to the Temple of Isis to make an offering.

The goddess in the shrine was portrayed in the Roman fashion, with a crown of wheat and flowers surmounted by a crescent moon, and flowing draperies. The sounds of commerce outside seemed to fade as I cast frankincense upon the glowing coals in the brazier before the altar.

"Goddess," I whispered, "for the sake of your son Horus, the mighty warrior who is the Hawk of the Sun, watch over my child and bring him safely home." I waited for a moment, contemplating the play of lamplight on the marble features, and then cast a second handful on the coals. "And watch over the Emperor also, as you watched over Pharaoh."

Any citizen might make offerings on behalf of the Emperor, but I no longer had the right to pray for him as my husband, and even if I had, the fidelity of Isis is remembered because Osiris died. I went home, but found myself still uneasy. Still, the reports continued to be positive. I am becoming an old woman, I told myself. There is no reason to worry so…

At the end of June, I received a letter from Constantine.

"My father collapsed on the way back from Alba. He is up again now and we have reached Eburacum, but he seems often to be in pain. The physicians will say little, and I am afraid for him. Please come. He is asking for you…"

Constantine had sent an order for post-horses. Travelling by carriage and changing horses at each government mansio, it took a little over week for me to travel north to Eburacum. A fifty-five-year-old body was not meant for this kind of travel. By the time I reached the fortress, I was bruised and exhausted by the constant sway and jolt of the carriage, but though the word of the Emperor's illness had spread through the countryside and I saw many worried faces, at each stop I was told that Constantius still lived, and so hope sustained me through my journey.

I was realizing now that the sorrow of our separation had been eased a little by the knowledge that Constantius still walked the world. And yet, as I travelled, I could not keep from remembering the image of Isis sorrowing for her husband. Even the gods lost those they loved, so why should I think myself immune?

Word of my coming had run ahead of me. Constantine came out of the presidium as we rumbled through the gate, and when the carriage halted, lifted me out. For a few moments I clung to him, drawing strength.

"How is he?" I asked, when I could stand alone.

"Each day he insists on getting dressed and attempting to do a little work. But he tires very easily. I told him that you were coming, and each hour, it seems, he has asked where I think you are now." He managed a smile. "But we persuaded him to lie down a little while ago and he is sleeping."

He escorted me into the building and showed me the chamber they had set aside for me and the slave girl who would attend me. When I had washed and changed my gown I found Constantine waiting in the adjoining room where a table with wine and honey-cakes was laid.

"And how are you?" I asked, noting the dark smudges beneath his eyes. Physically, I might be the more exhausted, but he was suffering too.

"It is strange. When I go into battle I feel no fear. But this is an enemy I cannot confront, and I am afraid."

It is true, I thought sadly, even the strength of a young man who does not believe he can die is helpless against some enemies.

"I remember," he said slowly, not meeting my eyes, "from when I was a child… you can do strange things sometimes. You must help him, mother, or we are lost."

"Did you call me here as your mother, or as a priestess?"

He looked up, and for a moment I thought he was going to crouch against me with his head upon my breast as he had when he was a little child.

"I need my mother, but my father needs the priestess."

"Then it is as a priestess that I answer you. I will do what I can, Con, but you must understand that there is a natural rhythm to our lives that not even the gods can deny."

"Then they are evil gods!" muttered Constantine.

"My heart cries out against this as loudly as yours, but it may be that all I will be able to do is to help him let go."

The chair scraped loudly as he stood up and gripped my hand. "Come—" He pulled me to my feet, and scarcely waiting for me to wrap my palla around me, drew me from the room.

"He stirred a moment ago," said the physician on watch as we appeared in the doorway. "I think he will wake soon."

The Emperor lay on his bed, his upper body raised on pillows. I paused, making an effort to pull myself together. Constantine was right. The wife and mother would dissolve in tears, seeing her beloved lie so still. It was the priestess that was needed now.

I came to the bedside and stretched out my hands above Constantius's body, extending my awareness to sense the energy flow. Above the head and brow the life-force still flowed strongly, but the aura above his chest flickered weakly, and lower down, though it was steady, it was not strong. I bent close to listen to his breathing, and could hear the rasp of congestion inside.

"Does he have fever?" I did not think so, for his skin was not flushed, but abnormally pale; however, I had hoped it might be, for the lung-fever, though serious, was something I knew how to fight. The physician shook his head, and I sighed. "The heart, then?"

"I have made up an infusion of foxglove, for when it pains him," said the physician.

"That is well, but perhaps there is something we can do to strengthen him. Do you have a trustworthy man you can send for the following herbs?" As he nodded, I began to dictate my list: motherwort and hawthorn, nettle and garlic, and Constantine's grim look eased.

Then the man on the bed stirred and sighed, and I knelt beside him, chafing his cool hands between my own.

Eyes still closed, Constantius smiled." Ah, the goddess returns…'

"The Goddess was always with you, but now I am here as well." With an effort I kept my voice firm. "What have you been doing to yourself, to get in such a state? Is it not the place of the Augustus to sit in his palace and leave the fighting to younger men?"

"I have not even opened my eyes, and she is scolding me!" he said, but in truth I think he was not yet certain I was real.

"Perhaps this will take the sting away," I leaned over to kiss his lips, and as I released him, he looked up at me.

"I have missed you," he said simply, and read my answer in my eyes.

Throughout the week that followed, I dosed Constantius with my potions, but though Constantine talked loudly of his improvement, I began to suspect that he had used up the strength that remained to him in holding on until I arrived. Constantine and I took it in turns to sit with him, holding his hand as he rested, or speaking of the years we had spent apart.

One day, as I bathed him, I noticed a livid scar up the side of one thigh and asked when he had risked himself so foolishly.

"Ah, that was in Gallia, three summers ago, and I assure you I did not intend to run into such danger!"

Three years, I thought, and the scar was still red and angry. It had not healed quickly or well, a sign that his circulation was failing even then. I could have given him medicines to strengthen his heart, if I had known. But perhaps it would not have mattered. It was not Theodora who was my rival. Constantius had given his heart to the Empire before he ever offered it to me.

July was drawing on, and even in Eburacum the days were warm. We opened the windows to let in fresh air and covered the sick man with a light woollen cloth, and the chirring of the crickets blended with the rasp of his breathing.

One afternoon when I was alone with him in the room Constantius woke from a brief sleep and called my name.

"I am here, my dearest," I took his hand.

"Helena… I feel that this is one battle I am not going to win. The sun shines brightly, but he is declining, and so am I. I have done most of what I set out to do in this world, but I fear for the Empire, at the mercy of Galerius and his puppet Caesars."

"No doubt Augustus thought the same, but Rome still stands," I told him. "Her safety, in the end, depends on the gods, not you."

"I suppose you are right—when an Emperor receives divine honours, it becomes hard to tell the difference, sometimes. But the gods do not die. Tell me, my Lady, can this body heal?"

For a moment I stared at him, blinking back tears. His gaze was clear and direct, and there had always been truth between us. I could not deny it to him now.

"It has been long since I studied the arts of healing," I said finally. "But each day you spend more time in sleep. The life-force in your body sinks lower. If it continues to do so, I think you may stay with us a week, but no more."

Astonishingly, his face brightened. "That is more than I have been able to make my physicians say. A good general needs as much accurate information to plan an orderly retreat as he does when he seeks victory."

I would not have thought of it that way, and despite my tears I returned his smile.

"Constantine asked you to heal me, but now I ask you a harder thing, my beloved priestess. I have spent too much of my life in trying to stay alive on battlefields, and it is hard to let go. Now you must teach me how to die."

"I can only do this if I become wholly the priestess, and when I do so, the woman who loves you will not be here."

He nodded. "I understand. When I led Constantine in battle, it was the Emperor, not the father, who ordered him into danger. But we have a little time, my darling. Be my beloved Helena today, and we will feast on our memories."

I squeezed his hand. "I remember the first time I saw you, in a vision that came to me when I was only thirteen years old. You shone like the sun, and you do so still."

"Even now, when my hair has faded and my strength is gone?" he teased.

"A winter sun, perhaps, but you light the world for me all the same," I assured him.

"The first time I saw you, you looked like a wet kitten," he said then, and I laughed.

We spent the rest of that day in talk, replaying our every meeting in the gentle light of memory. For a time Constantine sat with us, but it was clear that this was something in which he had only a peripheral part, and he went away to rest before his watch. When I went to my bedchamber that night I wept for a long time, knowing that this had been our farewell.

In the morning, I came to Constantius robed in blue and wrapped in the invisible majesty of a priestess. When he opened his eyes he recognized the difference immediately. Others responded to the change without understanding, except for Constantine, who gazed at me with a child's panic at the loss of the familiar mother he thought he knew.

You are an adult now, I tried to tell him with my steady gaze. You must learn to see your parents as fellow travellers upon Life's road. But I suppose it was not surprising that he still saw us with a child's eye, having been separated from us when he was only thirteen years old.

"Lady, I salute you," said Constantius in a low voice. "What have you to teach me about the Mysteries?"

"All men who are born of woman must one day come to life's ending," I murmured, "and the time is coming now for you. Soul to soul, you must listen, and not allow yourself to be distracted. Your body has served you well, and become worn out in that service. You must make ready now to release it, to depart from it, to rise from the realm of the tangible, which is subject to change and decay, to that place where all is Light, and the true and eternal natures of all things are revealed…"

It had been many years since I had learned these words, and I had spoken them only once, when the other novices and I took turns to read them to an old priestess who was dying; but now need called them forth, complete and perfect.

Throughout that day I repeated the instructions, explaining how the body would become a weight too heavy to be moved, and all sensation would disappear. When that happens, the soul must be ready to will itself upward and out through the crown of the head, seeking its union with the Source of All. The cares of the world and affection for those one has loved conspire to drag the spirit back again, but it is necessary to be steadfast in determination to leave them behind.

"You will pass through a long, dark tunnel, as once you were forced from the darkness of the wornb. This is the journey of your birth in the spirit, and at the end of it you will emerge, not into the light of day, but into that radiance that is the true source of the sun…"

Constantius had fallen asleep, but I continued to speak, knowing that some part of his spirit was still listening. It seemed to me that the gods meant to give him a gentle death, and from one of these sleeps there would be no waking, and the soul would depart from the body, and at last the flesh, without a spirit to direct it, would give up as well.

By this time it was apparent to everyone that the Emperor was dying. In the city, I was told, the clamour of the market-place was hushed, and incense smoked on every altar. The people of Eburacum had always considered Constantius to be one of their own: he had saved them from the Picts, and they were grateful. In the fortress the soldiers stood guard around the Praesidium, and Crocus and his senior warriors had crowded into the corridor outside the Emperor's chamber, waiting with the uncomprehending patience of good hounds.

That night Constantius woke long enough to speak for a while with Constantine. Exhausted, I had gone to bed, but in the grey hour before the dawn a soldier came to summon me. I dashed water on my face, struggling to focus, but in truth, I was not surprised. I had given Constantius permission to depart and instruction in how to do so. There was no reason for him to linger on.

"He is drifting in and out of consciousness," whispered the physician as I came to the door. "And he labours to breathe."

"Here is Mother, come to see you," said Constantine a little desperately as I eased myself down on the low stool beside the bed. Constantius struggled for breath, choked for a moment, and then exhaled.

"Put more pillows behind him," I said, uncapping the vial of attar of rose that hung from a chain around my neck. I saw his nostrils flare, and the next breath came more easily, and then he opened his eyes, and his lips twitched in an attempt at a smile.

For a moment it was enough simply for him to breathe. Then he gathered his forces and turned his gaze towards Constantine. "Remember…" he whispered." Take care… of your mother…and your brothers… and sisters…" Gaze focused in concentration, he drew breath again. "Pray to the Highest God… to preserve the Empire…"

His eyes closed, but he was clearly still conscious, still struggling. The windows were shuttered, but I could feel a change in the air. I gestured to one of the physicians—

"Open the windows!"

As the shutters were folded back, a pale light filled the room. With each moment it grew stronger. The sun was rising; on strong men's cheeks I could see the glistening track of tears. Moment by moment, the face of Constantius was growing brighter. I leaned forwards, and clasped his hands together upon his breast.

"The world fades around you…" I whispered, "it is time to move into the Light…"

His gaze turned towards me, but I was not certain what he was looking at, for in that moment his features were transfigured by an expression of astonished joy. "Goddess…" The word hovered at the edge of sound. Then his eyes widened, unseeing, the body fought for a last breath and failed, and he lay still.

For the eight days between the death of Constantius and his cremation, Constantine had kept to his chamber, eating little and speaking to no one. For me those days passed like a nightmare, in which the memories that came to me waking were worse than my dreams. But when the eighth day came to a close I put on the white garments of mourning and went out to follow my husband's body to the pyre. Constantine was waiting, washed and shaved and wrapped in a snowy toga, and although his eyes were deep-shadowed, he had clearly recovered his self-command. I remember that night now as a series of images—torches whipping in the wind, pale in the gathering dusk, and the white marble of the new-made tomb glowing faintly in their light. Not for Constantius a burial along the road outside the town—the magistrates of Eburacum had claimed him, and if he could no longer protect them, in life, the honours paid to a tomb in the forum might persuade his hovering spirit to confer a blessing.

I have another image—Constantius's body, wrapped in purple and crowned with the wreath of gold, lying upon a pyre, stacked high with good British oak and studded with spices. I remember torchlight on the grim faces of Asclepiodotus and Crocus, who had escorted us, and the glitter of their armour. And Constantine's silence, as if he had been carved of the same marble as the tomb.

There is a sound, a wail that goes up from the populace when Constantine thrusts his torch between the logs. The soldiers who had filled an entire side of the square are murmuring, but their discipline holds, and as the smoke swirls skywards, hiding the still form of the Emperor, except for the weeping of women it becomes quiet once more. I have seen this before, in the vision at my passage into womanhood, but I saw myself wearing the purple, and that never happened, so how can this be true?

I remember the pyre beginning to fall into coals as the first stars pricked through the velvet pall of the sky, and the deep voice of Asclepiodotus, telling Constantine he must speak to the people now. Like a sleepwalker, Constantine turns, and now his eyes burn. He lifts his arms, and it becomes utterly still.

"My brothers and sisters, brothers-in-arms, and fellow-children of the Empire. My father and yours is dead, and his soul ascends to heaven. We are orphaned of our protector, and who will watch over us?"

And a wail rises from among the women, as swiftly overwhelmed by a deep cry from the throats of many men.

"Constantine! Constantine will protect us! Constantinus, Impera-tor!"

Constantine lifts his hands once more as if to quiet them, but the shouting only grows louder, and now the soldiers surge forwards,

Crocus in the forefront, one of them bearing a purple robe, and Asclepiodotus has my arm and is pulling me away.

I do not remember how we got back to the praesidium. But throughout that night it seemed to me that the heavens echoed back the cry—

"Constantine for Imperator!"
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Part III

The way to winsdom


15


In all the years I had travelled about the Empire as Constantius's wife, I had never been to Italia. I had yet to see Rome, but Maximian's new city of Mediolanum, on the north Italian plain, was said to be nearly as magnificent. Today, with the streets newly washed by the spring rains and every archway garlanded with flowers, I could well believe it, as the masters of the Empire attempted to forge yet another alliance by the marriage of Maximian's young daughter Fausta to my son Constantine.

They had been betrothed in the year Constantius became Caesar. At the time, Fausta was only an infant, and in the long years when Constantine was hostage first to Diocletian and then to Galerius, it would have surprised no one if the potential relationship had been forgotten by everyone, including Constantine, except that I was beginning to realize that Constantine never forgot anything he had claimed as his own. I hoped that self-interest would dispose him to affection, and the fact that Fausta had grown up as his intended wife would incline her to respect, though it was asking a great deal to expect much companionship in the mating of a girl of fourteen with a man of thirty-five.

Certainly the past nine months had been bewildering. Although the troops, led by Crocus, had hailed Constantine as Augustus, he had deemed it more politic to claim no more than the rank of Caesar when he informed Galerius that he had a new colleague in rule. Meanwhile, Maximian's son Maxentius had decided to follow his example, and Maximian himself had come out of retirement to help him. They were all calling themselves Augustus now.

I would have been quite content to wait at the palace, but Constantine insisted that all his family, including the half-sisters and brothers, Theodora's children whom we had brought with us from Treveri, should ride in the procession. And so I was seeing Mediolanum from the vantage of a triumphal cart, garlanded and gilded and shaded with pink silk which clashed with the purple palla I wore, though I trusted that it flattered my complexion.

From the sound of the cheers, Maximian and Constantine, riding together, had passed through the triumphal arch leading to the main square. More cheering behind me proclaimed the advent of the bride, riding in a chariot drawn by four milk-white ponies which had been fitted with wings, so that each resembled a miniature Pegasus, her face hidden by the flame-coloured silk of her veil.

I still did not know whether Crocus's acclamation had taken Constantine by surprise, or if he himself had planned it. In retrospect, it was inevitable that Constantius's oldest son should claim the imperium. If he had not done so, I suppose Galerius would have made some pre-emptive strike against him, and why should I blame my son for doing what he had been conceived and born to do?

In fact, Constantine had acted with wisdom and decision, establishing himself in his father's capital, Treveri. So far as anyone knew, to rule his father's territories was the extent of his ambition, and now everyone was courting him.

There were days when it all seemed like some dream. With Constantius I could have enjoyed all this, but I had trouble believing I belonged here, with a son I loved but hardly knew. Still, I had rented out my house in Londinium and brought all the household to Treveri, where Brasilia took charge of my kitchens and Vitellia the management of everything else as if they had been born to live in palaces. I missed my students and Katiya and my other friends in Londinium, but Constantine's enthusiasm was infectious. Constantius had done his duty, but Constantine enjoyed the exercise of power.

My head was beginning to ache from the clamour by the time we reached the palace, and I was more than ready to sit down on something that did not move. I could see Constantine eyeing the marble facings in the hall as if he were considering copying them for his new basilica. They were magnificent—pink and grey polished slabs laid in patterns on the lower walls and the floor. But though the building itself was impressive, a close examination made it clear that it had been put back into use rather hastily. The long tables so beautifully swathed in brocade were plain wood, and the fittings where tapestries should have curtained the windows were still bare.

The richly-dressed guests who sat at those tables did not seem to notice. Crocus was there, with two of his senior officers, and a rotund little man called Ossius who was the Bishop of Corduba. Though the wedding had been a traditional Roman affair, Constantine had asked the bishop to give it his blessing, which had no doubt pleased the Christians here.

Nonetheless, once the sacrifices had been made, the omens read, and the marriage contract signed, the feast to which we sat down was memorable, even if the little bride had not yet lost her puppy fat and was unbecomingly flushed—with excitement, I hoped, not with wine. Fausta had fine reddish hair, to which her maids had given rather too much curl, and grey eyes. When she grew into her looks, she might be handsome, but for now, her cheeks full of sweetmeats, she brought to mind a bright-eyed squirrel.

During one of the breaks in the entertainment when the guests were milling about, Constantine made his way to my couch.

"My darling," I gazed up at him, "you outshine your bride!" Surely no woman had ever been blessed with such a splendid son. On this day, all my sufferings seemed justified.

Constantine grinned. His cream-coloured tunic of Eastern silk was bordered and banded with gold that set off his burnished hair. "She is pretty enough when she is not laden with ornaments like a heifer at a festival. But it is true that she is still very young. Will you rule my household, Mother, until Fausta is old enough for the job?"

I pretended to think about it, but he knew I could not refuse, and he seized my hand and kissed it when I smiled.

"And there is another request I would make of you, even dearer to my heart," he paused, as if searching for words. "When I was in the East, I formed a… connection… with a woman named Minervina, and two years ago she bore me a son."

I lifted one eyebrow, understanding why he might feel unwilling to bring up the subject, when from his point of view this Minervina's story sounded so much like my own.

"And what have you done with her, now that you have a legitimate bride?" I asked tartly, and saw the betraying flush stain his skin.

"She died of a fever a year ago," he replied with some dignity. "I had no choice but to leave the boy with his uncle when I escaped Galerius, but now I have sent for him. His name is Crispus, mother. Will you take charge of him for me?"

"Pater families," I teased him gently. "You are taking all of your relatives under your wing. Did you dislike it so much that I was not able to give you sisters and brothers of your own?"

For a moment he looked confused, then he gave me the sweet smile that I remembered from the days when he was a boy. A grandchild! I was surprised at how that thought excited me.

"Never mind," I said then, "bring your little lad to me. If he smiles at me like that I am sure I will love him well."

"Avia! Avia! See—Boreas will jump for me!"

I turned, smiling, as the golden-haired boy held up the branch. The male greyhound puppy, one of a pair that Constantine had recently sent to me, leapt over it, and the female, Favonia, gambolled around them, barking.

"They are still young, my love—do not make them too excited," I warned, although in truth it was as much the nature of a puppy to live in a state of excitement as it was for a little boy.

Crispus was curious about everything, and charmed everyone. Constantine never spoke of the boy's mother, but it was clear that she had had the raising of the child long enough to give him a certainty that he was loved. Even Fausta, though she was more of an age to be his sister, played with him like a doll and swore that she would adopt him as her own.

In the three years since Crispus had come to Treveri I had become accustomed to the cry of 'Avia!', 'Grandmother!' It seemed to me sometimes during these first years of Constantine's reign that I had lived three lives, and the third was the happiest of all.

In my first, I had been a maiden of Avalon, struggling to survive Ganeda's hostility and come into my own power. The second had given me the joy of a woman's fulfilment and the pain of a woman's passions, but even during the years when we were apart, like a flower forever turning to the sun, my identity had been determined by my relationship to Constantius. But now my body had found a new equilibrium, no longer at the mercy of the moon, and I had a new existence as Empress-mother, the most unexpected identity of all.

Tiring of his play, Crispus came running up to climb into my lap, and the dogs, panting, flopped down beside us. I popped a candied fig from the painted plate on the bench beside me into the boy's mouth, and cuddled him against my breast.

For the first time in my life I had no need to practise economy, and I had servants in plenty to do the actual work of the imperial household. I was free to spend most of my time with Crispus, who had all his father's brilliance, and, as it seemed to me, even more sweetness, though that may have been the partiality of a grandmother, who can afford to love her grandchildren more openly because their success or failure does not so directly reflect upon her own.

"Tell me a story about when Pater was a little boy!" mumbled Crispus through the fig.

"Well—" I thought a moment, "when he was your age, he loved figs, just like you. At that time we lived in Naissus, and we had a neighbour who was very proud of the fig tree in his garden. Now we also had a dog called Hylas who loved fruit, and would even climb trees to get at it. So Constantine made a muzzle for Hylas, and very early one morning he dropped him over the wall into the neighbour's garden and encouraged him to climb the fig tree and knock the ripe figs down. Then he nipped into the garden with a basket and gathered them up and took them into the playhouse he had built in our garden to eat."

"Did he eat them all?" asked Crispus. "Didn't he give the doggie even one?"

"Oh yes, and smeared fig around Hylas's muzzle as well, and when the neighbour discovered his loss and came over, shaking his fist and demanding that we punish our son, Constantine pointed to the dog and swore by Apollo that Hylas had done the deed, which was, of course, true. When the man didn't believe him, he insisted on going to the fig tree and letting Hylas climb it again, and this time of course he was not muzzled, and managed to grab one of the figs he had missed before."

"What did the neighbour say?"

"Well, first he wanted us to destroy the dog, but he settled for a promise that the animal would be prevented from ever getting into his garden again. So we swore by Apollo as well, and paid the man the worth of the figs in silver, and he went home."

"I'm glad the dog was safe," said Crispus. "But didn't Pater get in trouble?"

"Oh yes, because, you see, Hylas had been trained not to climb that wall. Constantine thought he had been very clever, until we explained the difference between being truthful and being honest, and made him help our gardener dig the flowerbeds until he had worked off the price we paid."

I saw the child's eyes grow round as he contemplated the idea that his father had once been less than perfect. In recent years, Constantine had developed a distinct taste for splendour, and I thought it would do Crispus no harm to realize that his father was human too.

If I had a worry, it was the continued political turmoil as Constantine struggled with his competitors for supremacy. I had no real doubts that he would eventually triumph, for was he not the Child of Prophecy? Still, I waited eagerly for my son's letters, and finding in his mother his safest confidante, Constantine wrote to me often.

When Crispus jumped down to go and play with the dogs some more, I took out the latest letter, sent from somewhere near Massilia. After the wedding, Maximian had quarrelled with his son and for a time taken refuge with us. Galerius, having failed to rectify the situation by force, had made another treaty and installed a man called Licinius to replace Severus, whom Maxentius had executed.

And now Maximian, who in my opinion was showing signs of senility, had seized the treasury and dug himself in at Massilia, after first having written a letter to Fausta proclaiming that soon he would be the sole ruler of the West once more.

Constantine was at that point reviewing troops on the Rhenus, and Fausta, who idolized him, had promptly written to inform him of what was going on. By now, Constantine might be fighting his father-in-law. We had received no word since this letter, written from the temple of Apollo at Grannum, where Constantine had stayed three nights before.

"Grannum was on our way, and so I took the opportunity to sleep overnight in the shrine there. And the god gave me a dream. Apollo himself came to me, attended by Victory, and offered me four laurel wreaths. Perhaps you will know how to interpret this portent better than I, but I believe that each one represents a span of years during which I will reign. The Almighty Sun has always favoured our family, and so I claim His protection. If Apollo gives me victory in the coming conflict, I will inscribe "soli invicto comiti" on my next issue of coinage in His name. Pray for me, mother, that I have dreamed true, and will indeed gain the victory…"

A sound, like the distant murmur of trees in a storm, caught my attention, but there was no wind—the sound was coming from the city. The gardens attached to the palace were extensive. If I could hear noise from the street beyond our gates, where the new basilica rose above the trees, it had to be loud. I felt my gut tensing as I rose to my feet, but I folded Constantine's letter carefully and slid it into the bosom of my gown where it bloused over the waist cord.

Crispus and the dogs were still chasing each other around the garden. If it was good news, I told myself, I could wait to hear it, and I had no need to hurry sorrow if it was bad.

Yet it was not some dust-coated military messenger, but Fausta who came running out of the palace as if the furies were at her heels. The cramping in my belly tightened as I saw her face contorted and her cheeks smeared with tears.

"Mater! Mater! He killed himself, and it is my fault!"

Abruptly my own terror eased. My son believed in his destiny too strongly to take his own life whatever disaster might befall. I took the girl in my arms and held her until her sobbing eased.

"Who, Fausta? What has happened?"

"My father—" she wailed. "They caught him at Massilia and now he is dead, and it is all because I told Constantine what he wrote to me!"

"Your duty was to your husband, you know that," I murmured, patting her, "and Constantine would have found out soon in any case, and the end would have been the same." It was a very convenient suicide, I observed silently, wondering if Maximian had been given assistance in expiating his crime. Gradually, Fausta's sniffles ceased.

"Mourn for your father, Fausta, for in his day he was a great man, and he would have hated to live until he was feeble and old. Wear white for him, but do not let your eyes be red and puffy with weeping when Constantine comes home."

She nodded. Constantine liked to have everyone happy around him. I wondered sometimes if the uncertainties of his childhood had given him this desire for a perfect family, or whether he simply believed it necessary if he was properly to fulfil his role as Emperor.

When Constantine was at home, it was his custom to sit with me for an hour at the end of the evening. We would speak sometimes of the family, and sometimes of the Empire. I suppose that I was the only advisor whom he could trust absolutely, but even to me he rarely opened his mind completely. I regretted sometimes the loss of the open-hearted boy he had been before he went to Diocletian's court, but I knew that innocence would never have survived the dangers and intrigues that surrounded an emperor.

I had a small sitting room between my bedchamber and the gardens, with doors that could be opened in the heat of summer, and a hearth in the British fashion for the days of winter and autumnal chill. Now, at the end of summer, I sat by the fire with my spinning. The work was no longer the necessity it had been at Avalon, but I found it focused and calmed the mind.

"How do you make the thread so fine and even, Mother? No matter how long I watch you, when I try the wool always breaks in my clumsy hands!" Constantine sat with his long legs stretched out to the fire, his deep-set eyes half-closed as he watched the spindle turn.

"It is a good thing, then, that you were not born a girl," I answered, catching the spindle with my foot as I paid out more wool from the distaff and adjusted the tension. Then a deft twist set it spinning again.

"Oh yes," he laughed. "But the fates, who have laid out my course from the cradle, would not have erred in so fundamental a matter. I was born to be Emperor."

I raised one eyebrow. There was something a little disturbing about such certainty, but I could not dispute what I also believed to be true.

"And to father a dynasty? Crispus is growing to be a fine lad, but one son is not much of a family. Fausta is nineteen now, and ripe to be bedded. She will get into mischief if you do not give her children."

"Has she been complaining?" He laughed. "You are right, of course, but I will sire no more offspring until I can be sure of being at home often enough to supervise their upbringing. The death of Galerius has upset the balance of power. I have reason to believe that Maximin Daia has made an alliance with Maxentius. I myself have been in communication with Licinius, who also claims the East, and offered him the hand of my sister Constantia."

He gave me a quick glance, as if wondering how I would take this mention of his half-sister, but I had long ago accepted the fact that Constantius had asked Constantine to watch over the children of Theodora. Her birth might have been better than mine, but it was my son who was Emperor.

"So, the lines have been drawn…"

"Maxentius has defaced my statues. He says it is in response to my treatment of the images of his father Maximian, but Maximian died a rebel, whereas I am supposed to be Maxentius's brother-emperor. I will have to go against him, and soon, before snow closes the Alpine passes. It is as good an excuse as any."

"If the rumours that I have heard are true, the Senate will applaud you. He has made free with too many patrician wives and daughters, and imposed too many taxes. But do you have the forces to match the men he has added to the Praetorian Guard, and the troops brought over from Africa?"

"In quality—" he grinned whitely. "In quantity? No, but I am the better general. Superior numbers will not matter if they are not led well."

"May the blessing of all the gods be with you," I said, frowning.

The last of the laughter left his face. "If I knew which god could guarantee me victory I would promise him a temple—I would make his cult first in the Empire. I must fight Maxentius, and it must be done now, but you are right in thinking that the result will hang upon the favour of heaven. Pray for me, Mother—you have the ear of the gods!"

"You are always in my thoughts and in my prayers," I answered when the silence threatened to go on for too long. I loved Constantine. He was the centre of my life. But there were times when he seemed to need more than I understood how to give to him.

The next day he was gone, to gather his faithful troops from the Rhenus, I assumed, though no announcement had been made that might warn his enemy. Later I was to learn that Maxentius, anticipating some move from Constantine, had entrusted the defence of the north to Ruricius Pompeianus, staying in Rome himself in case Lieinius should finish dealing with the Persians in time to attack him. But at the time I was unable to appreciate even what news we had, for Crispus had taken some illness from the gardener's children, and though he recovered quickly, I, who had been nursing him, contracted it myself.

First came the red rash, and then the fever, that seemed to burn in my very bones. If this was a disease we had in Britannia, my upbringing on Avalon had sheltered me from it. And as often happens when an adult catches a childhood disease, I became far more ill than Crispus had been.

I lay in alternating stupor and delirium as the month of October drew to its end. In my moments of clarity I heard the names of cities: Segusio, Taurinorum, Mediolanum, and later, Verona, Brixia, Aquileia, Mutina. Afterward, I was to learn that they were the towns Constantine had taken. By refusing to allow his soldiers to plunder the first of them, he had won the swift surrender of those that followed. But I was fighting my own battle, and as the days passed, I sensed that I was losing.

Events around me passed like a troubled dream, but in that in-between state in which I hovered, neither the world of humankind or the spirit world, I sensed the tides of the seasons swinging onwards towards Samhain, when the Britons hold that the old year ends and the gestation of the new begins. There comes a moment, then, when a doorway opens between the worlds and the dead return.

A good time, I thought dimly, for my own passing. I regretted only that I had no chance to say farewell to Constantine. Yet it was not my life, but an era, that was ending, though it was to be many years before I clearly understood the signficance of that Samhain-tide.

A day came when the fever rose once more, and my spirit, freed from a weakening body, fared forth between the worlds. I seemed to see the land laid out below me, and love carried me eastwards where my son was about to come to grips with his enemy. I saw a great city beside a river which I knew must be Rome. But Maxentius's forces had crossed the Tiber upstream from the city, and were drawn up in formation, facing the smaller number of troops led by Constantine. Winter was coming early, and in the crisp air the sun seemed to shatter, sending a refraction across the horizon that rayed out in a cross of light.

Constantine's forces charged the enemy, his Gallic cavalry evading the more heavily armed Italian horse and overwhelming the lightly-armed Numidians. I could see Constantine in his golden armour, and his bodyguard, all with a Greek Chi Rho painted for luck upon their shields.

Maxentius's Praetorians died where they stood, and the remainder broke and ran. The bridge cracked beneath the sudden weight, spilling men and horses into the swift grey waters. The attackers swarmed after them, repairing the damage, and by sunset they were entering Rome.

As shadow swept across the land I also fell into darkness. The disease had run its course, but I was dreadfully weakened. I would eat and drink when they roused me, but most of the time I slept. Sometimes, half-conscious, I would hear conversation around me.

"She grows no better," came the voice of the Greek physician. "The Emperor must be told."

"We dare not distract him. If Constantine is defeated, none of our lives will be worth a denarius. Maxentius will treat us as Maximian did the wife and daughter of Galerius." That was Vitellia. She sounded as if she had been weeping. I wanted to tell her that Constantine had triumphed, but I could not make my body do my will.

"Even if we sent a message now, my lord could not come in time," said Fausta. She was Maxentius's sister, and might expect to be spared if he triumphed, unless he blamed her for the death of their father. The early emperors had not hesitated to kill their own kin. Why should I fight my way back to life in a world where such things could be?

But by the next morning a messenger had come to confirm my vision, and in the general rejoicing, little Crispus slipped into my chamber, and as he hugged me, laughing for joy at the news and weeping to see me so thin and pale, I felt a pulse of strength leap from his strong young body to mine, and knew that the gods were not going to take me this Samhain after all.

It was past the feast of Saturnalia when Constantine returned to Treveri. By that time I was recovering my strength, with only an occasional shortness of breath to remind me of my fight to breathe, but my hair, which until now had shown only a few strands of grey, had gone white in the course of my illness. I trusted that it would distract him from noting any other changes, for I had not allowed them to tell him how close to death I had come.

I chose to receive him in my sitting room, where the reflected light from my red-painted walls would give me a healthier colour. Even so, I was glad to be sitting when he came to me, for the aura of power that blazed out around him was like the blast of heat from a roaring fire.

"Hail Sol Invictus! You are surely the sun in his splendour now!"

I lifted a hand, in welcome, or perhaps to ward him away, for in that moment he was a giant, dwarfing all else in the room. Later, when I saw the statue that he had commissioned in Rome, whose head alone was the height of a tall man, I realized that the sculptor had sensed the same quality of something beyond the scale of humanity as I.

Constantine grinned, bent to kiss me, and then began to pace around the room, as if the power that filled him would not let him sit still. He did not comment on my appearance; perhaps he was still too transfixed by his visions to really focus on the outer world.

"Oh Mother, I wish you had been there, for surely the God of Light was with me on that day!" He took another turn around the room and came to my side once more.

"I have heard there were many signs and wonders. What happened, Constantine? What did you see?"

"Oh yes, now they are all saying how my victory was foretold, but at the time the prophets on both sides were predicting their sides would win. The Sibylline Books prophesied that an enemy of Rome would perish on the day of the battle, and of course Maxentius said it must be me, and the astrologers were muttering darkly about a conjunction of Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus in Capricorn. But I am the Child of Prophecy, and I knew how to make even my enemies serve me!"

I gazed at him in wonder. Constantine had always been confident, but now he spoke with the fervour of a priest in trance.

"Maxentius had become a tyrant, and Rome was bound to see me as a liberator. He was on the bridge when it collapsed, and the weight of his armour drew him down into the mud and he drowned. As for the stars, the night before the battle I dreamed that a shining figure showed me a scroll with the Greek letters that the scribes use to signify a passage that is good, and told me that was the Sign by which I should conquer. When I woke, I told the fabricators to affix the Chi and Rho to a military standard, and my guard, to draw the Sign on their shields, and then the sun rose and divided in a cross of light, and I knew I would have the victory. Sopater believes that I saw Apollo, but Bishop Ossius assures me that my vision was given by the Christos."

"And what do you believe?" I asked him then.

"The Jewish Jesus, whom we crucified, is a god for slaves," said Constantine. "But the great Father whom the Christians worship, the King and Creator of all the world, is the same as the god of the philosophers, and worthy to be patron to an emperor. I do not think it matters what name folk use for Him, so long as they recognize that One God is supreme in the heavens and on the earth, one Emperor."

"The Senate may have acclaimed you as senior Augustus," I observed gently, "but in the East, Licinius still rules, and is about to become your brother-in-law…'

"That is true," Constantine frowned. "I do not know how the god will arrange matters, but in my heart, I know that what I have said is true. It is my destiny."

"I believe you," I said softly, for in that moment, with the last of the winter sunlight bathing him in a golden glow, he did indeed seem touched by a god. And surely, after the civil disorders of the past years, a single strong hand on the reins of Empire would be welcome.

The prophecies of Avalon had foretold a child who would change the world, and with every year it became clearer that Constantine was the one foretold. My rebellion had been vindicated. I wondered why I still felt that flicker of unease even as I rejoiced in my son's victory.

The spring that followed was one of the most beautiful I could remember, as if the entire world were celebrating Constantine's victory. A goodly mixture of sun and rainfall brought out the flowers and the winter wheat produced an abundant harvest.

I was in the garden, talking with the man who took care of the roses, when Vitellia came running out of the palace, clutching a scroll, her cheeks streaked with tears.

"What is it?" I cried, but as she drew closer I could see that her eyes were shining with joy.

"He has made us safe!" she exclaimed. "Your son, blessed by God, has preserved us!"

"What are you talking about?" I took the piece of papyrus from her hand.

"This comes from Mediolanum—the Emperors have made a policy regarding religion—"

I pulled open the scroll, scanning the words that referred to the earlier edict of toleration of Galerius and adding to it:

"… to no one whomsoever should we deny liberty to follow either the religion of the Christians or any other cult which of his own free choice he has thought to be best adapted for himself, in order that the supreme Divinity, to whose service we render our free obedience, may bestow upon us in all things his wonted favour and benevolence."

The paragraphs that followed restored to Christians the property and freedoms that had been taken in the persecutions, stipulating that all cults should have an equally free and unhindered liberty of religion. No wonder Vitellia was weeping, I thought then. The shadow that had hung over her and her church was lifted, and the Christians might now emerge to stand beside the followers of the traditional religions in the blessed light of a new day.

I had not seen such recognition of a Truth that lay beyond cult or creed in all my years among the Romans, whose gods seemed to vie for the favour of their worshippers like magistrates at the elections, or the philosophers, who denounced other schools as errors, or among the Christians, who simply stated that all other religions were wrong.

This recognition of a Power in whose light all faiths might stand as equals reminded me of the teachings I had learned as a child on Avalon, and at the thought, I found my own eyes filling with grateful tears.
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16

To sit on the shore at Baiae was like being in the heart of the sun. Light reflected with blinding intensity from the white sand that bordered a bay whose waters glittered a clear azure only a shade darker than the blue of the sky. To a child of the north, this light was overwhelming, banishing every darkness not only of the body but of the soul. As I lay upon the couch on the terrace, set between the sea and the freshwater bathing pool, I could feel the heat baking out the agues that a winter in Rome had set in my bones.

It seemed to me that the anxieties of the past few years were dissipating as well. There were still those who challenged my son's authority, but he had proven himself a brilliant general, and I no longer doubted that one day he would rule supreme in the Empire.

For several years the imperial household had been settled in Rome. But the great city, which was plagued by a raw chill in the wintertime, was just as bad in the summer, when a damp, sticky heat blanketed the seven hills. Fausta, who was now in the last moon of her first pregnancy, had complained that the heat was stifling her, and so I had brought the imperial household here, to the palace the Emperor Severus had built beside the Bay of Puteoli in the gulf of Neapolis fifty years before.

Fausta lay on a couch beside me, with two slaves to fan her and a sunshade to protect her fair skin. But I had only a hat to shade my eyes. To me, the heat everywhere in Italia was equally intense, but on the coast the air had a purity that invigorated even as it overpowered, and so I spent most of my time in the sun, listening to the sigh of the glittering wavelets on the shore.

An occasional shout of laughter came to me from the bathing pool, where Crispus was playing with the sons of noble Roman families who had come along to bear him company. If I turned I could see the flash of their smooth young bodies, gilded by the sun. Crispus was fourteen now, big-boned as his father, with a voice that was, most of the time, that of a man. By the time my son turned fifteen he had already been at the court of Diocletian for two years. Every year that Crispus remained with me was a blessing, as if the years during which Constantine had been lost to me were being restored.

Of Constantine himself I saw little. The defeat of Maxentius had made him undisputed master of the West. Licinius was now his brother-in-law, but the pact the two emperors had made did not last long. Within two years they began a series of conflicts that was to continue for a decade. Still, my son now felt secure enough to take Fausta to his bed, and at the age of twenty-three she had become pregnant at last. She swore it would make no difference to her affection for Crispus, and indeed, she had adopted him as her own child as well as Constantine's. Still, I could not help but wonder if her attitude might change when she had a child of her own.

The noise from the pool crescendoed as the children began to climb out, glistening in the strong sun. Boreas and Favonia, who lay sleeping in the shade of my couch, lifted their heads to watch, feathered tails beating gently against the flagstones. Slaves hurried forwards with towels to dry the boys, while others brought out trays of fruit and little pastries and pitchers of mint-water chilled with ice brought all the way from the Alpes and stored in a deep cellar, wrapped in straw. Brasilia would have snorted at such extravagance, but she had died the year after Constantine's great victory. I missed her plain cooking, surrounded as I was by all this luxury.

Still laughing, Crispus led the others to the terrace and I sat up, smiling as the dogs fawned at his feet. As he grew, he was coming to resemble his grandfather Constantius more and more, save that where my beloved had been so fair of skin he burned at the slightest touch of the sun, Crispus had inherited his mother's complexion, and the sunshine that bleached his hair only turned his skin a deeper gold. Save for the towel slung over one shoulder, he was as naked as a Greek statue, trained muscles rippling, as beautiful as a young god. But he is only a boy—I told myself, surreptitiously flexing my fingers in a sign against ill-luck, irrationally afraid that one of those deities might hear my thought and resent it.

I have been among the Romans too long, I told myself then, for the gods of my own people were not so prone either to lust for mortals or to jealousy. Nonetheless, Crispus was approaching that age which in these southern lands was held to be the apogee of splendour. Fausta was watching him with an appreciation as great as my own, and I found myself suppressing a shiver.

"Avia, Avia! Gaius says that the lake on the other side of the hill is the place where Aeneas descended into the Underworld. Let's get up a party to go look for it. We can take a lunch, and picnic on the shore, and read passages from the Aeneid. It will be educational."

"Who will read them?" Fausta laughed. "Not Lactantius!" She tried to sit up, but the great round of her belly prevented her, and she held out a hand so that her maid could help her.

I smiled. The eminent rhetorician had in later life become an ardent Christian and had recently been sent by Constantine to become his son's tutor. The Emperor had made it clear that the Christos was now his patron deity, and those who wished to rise at his court had found it in their interest to become Christian too. So far he had not insisted on a formal commitment from his family, though we were expected to attend those parts of the services open to the uninitiated. I missed Vitellia, who had gone back to Londinium to rebuild the church there in honour of her nephew.

"Do not be so sure!" retorted Crispus. "Lactantius is a great admirer of Virgil, and says that he is one of the virtuous pagans who predicted the coming of our Lord."

"Then I suppose he will not forbid the expedition," I put in. "Very well. Let us plan to set out early tomorrow, so as to arrive before the heat of the day."

Somewhat to my surprise, Lactantius not only made no objection, but decided to come along, a scroll of the Aeneid firmly in his hand. Fausta remained at the palace, resting, but the old man and I travelled in litters, while the boys rode little surefooted donkeys from the nearby village up the winding path. A waggon full of picnic gear brought up the rear.

Even in the north of Italia I could find scenes that reminded me of home, but here I knew I was in another land, where the heated air was fragrant with the scent of artemisia and the perfume of the flowers that grew in such profusion in the rich volcanic soil. As we reached the top of the hill above Baiae I called for a halt to rest the bearers and the donkeys and turned to gaze out over the brilliant blue waters of the bay to Neapolis and the perfect cone of Vesuvius beyond. Today no smoke curled from its summit, though the slopes of Vulcan's forum, a half-day's journey away, steamed with a variety of foul smells. They called this place the 'Fields of Fire', and I could sense the earth-fires below the surface, a constant reminder that nothing was eternal, even the solid ground beneath our feet.

Then we were jolting our way down towards the round blue mirror below. The white columns of the healing baths built on the shore by the first emperors gleamed in the summer sunlight, but we halted in a shady grove in the lee of a hill, and the slaves began to lay out our meal. The boys were already running about, dashing down to test the water, daring each other to dive in.

"Are you sure this is really Lake Avernus?" asked Crispus as Lactantius and I settled ourselves in wicker chairs. "Look, birds are flying across it without harm, and though the water smells a little stagnant, it did us no harm."

"Virgil must have known it was all right," said one of the other boys. "They say that Julius Ceasar himself visited those baths."

"Well, perhaps things were different when Rome was founded," I said, smiling. "After all, it was over eight hundred years ago. And this is bright summer, remember. In the winter, with a storm coming on, this place might look much more menacing."

"But where is the 'wide-mouthed cavern' of which Virgil tells us?" asked Crispus.

"Perhaps there was once a chasm which has now closed," answered Lactantius, "for they say that this is a land of changes." He stretched out one arm in the pose of an orator. Even in this heat he wore a I long robe, and with his white beard flowing over his chest, looked the part of an ancient sage as he unrolled the scroll and began to intone:

"There was a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast and rugged, sheltered by a shadowed lake and darkened groves; such vapour poured from these black jaws to heaven's vault; no bird could fly above unharmed …"

"And when the ground begins to shake, it was an earthquake and not Hecate coming at all?" asked Crispus.

Lactantius nodded, smiling. "Such evil spirits are no more than dreams and delusions, made demonic by men's fears. When the earth shakes, it is by the will of the Lord God who made it, but it was necessary that Aeneas, who lived long before the light of the Christos came into the world, should be led to found Rome."

"Yet Virgil himself was a pagan," I observed.

"He was," answered Lactantius, "but so noble in soul that the light of God was able to reach him, as it did so many of our greatest poets, men of the highest genius. Seneca and Maro and Cicero, of our own Roman writers, and Plato and Aristotle and Thales and many another among the Greeks, all touch upon the truth at times, and only the custom of their times, which insisted that God was not One, but many, caused them to continue to honour false gods."

"If there was a chasm here, perhaps it closed when Christ was born," said young Gaius, whose father was one of the few senators who had converted wholeheartedly to the new religion.

"Indeed, it might be so," said Lactantius approvingly.

By this time, the food was ready and the boys, who were at that age when a meal was always welcome, were attacking it with their usual gusto. In addition to the hard breads and olives and cheeses, the cooks had included a crock of the seafood stew that was a specialty of Baiae, featuring various shellfish cooked with sea nettles and spices. I eyed it dubiously, but the cooks had packed it with snow from the cellars, and it seemed to be good.

"What is the temple whose dome I see shining above those trees?" I pointed towards the top of the hill behind us.

"It is the Temple of Apollo that crowns the hill of Cumae," answered one of the slaves.

"Cumae!" exclaimed Lactantius, gazing upward with interest. "But of course, it would be, for the Sibyl gave her oracle to Aeneas from her cave and then led him down to the lake to enter the Underworld."

"Is there still a seeress there?" I asked, remembering how Heron had prophesied the coming of Constantius and wondering, with a remnant of professional curiosity, how the oracle was conducted here.

"Oh no," replied Lactantius. "Have you never heard the tale? In the time of Tarquin, the last king of Rome, the seventh seeress of Cumae brought to him nine books of prophecy. When he, considering her mad, refused to pay her price she burned three of them, and then another three, and then at last the king bought the remaining three for the price she had originally asked for all of them. And after that the words of other sibyls were collected from all the cities of Italia and Graecia, expecially those of Erythraea, and the leaders of Rome have been guided by them from that day to this."

"So there is no sibyl resident at the shrine of Cumae?"

"No, Noble One," replied the slave. "Only the priestess who tends the temple of Apollo. But the cave in which the sibyl gave her oracles is there still."

"I should like to see it," I said then, "if the bearers have finished their meal." Cunoarda, the little Alban girl who had become my maid after I freed Hrodlind, went off to the water's edge where the slaves were eating, and returned with the eight strong Germans whom Constantine had given to me. Her red hair reminded me of Dierna, the little cousin I had loved so long ago.

"It should be safe enough," Lactantius said seriously. "There is no wind, and the demon Apollo will be still. And perhaps the spirit of the Sibyl who proclaimed the unity of God will speak to you. I will stay to watch over the boys."

I refrained from raising an eyebrow. After so many years, the crescent of Avalon had nearly faded from my brow, and I had no wish to explain to the old man why I did not fear the voice of the daimon of Cumae, whether it were that of a spirit or a god. Lactantius had never questioned me about my faith, but he knew that I was not a communicant of his church, and Crispus had confided to me that his tutor worried about the state of my soul.

I have never resented the prayers of anyone who wished me well, no matter what god he prayed to, and Lactantius was a kindly soul, as well as a learned one. If my grandson must be tutored by a Christian, he was fortunate to have the old man.

An hour of travel brought us to a bare cliff of golden sandstone, pierced by a shadowed tunnel that was the entrance to Cumae.

"Do not tell them who I am," I cautioned Cunoarda as she helped me to descend from the litter. "Say to the doorkeeper that I am a widow from Gallia called Julia, and will make an offering if they will show me the Sibyl's cave."

I sat down on a bench beneath an oak tree, glad that we were now high enough to catch the sea breeze, and watched the sunlight glisten on the girl's russet braid as she made her way to the gate. When she returned she was smiling.

"They have sent for the priestess of Apollo herself to guide you. I think they no longer get many visitors to the shrine."

A few moments later a middle-aged woman in a white tunica emerged from the tunnel. As she drew closer I could see that her gown was growing threadbare, but it was scrupulously clean.

"Holy One, I will offer this golden bracelet to the god in the name of my husband, who honoured Him, but my deepest interest is in the cave of the Sibyl. Can you take me there?" I had not brought a purse with me, but the heavy cuff bracelet I was wearing had enough gold in it to feed this woman for some time.

"Of course, domina. Come this way." The priestess turned towards the cool shadows of the tunnel and I followed her, Cunoarda at my heels. As we emerged into the light, she pulled the gauze veil up over her head and I did the same.

Before me was a court paved with worn sandstones, and a plinth bearing a statue of the Sibyl, arms uplifted, with wildly waving hair.

"When Aeneas came here, he called upon the oracle. The Sibyl was standing there, before the doors, when the power of the god came upon her suddenly," said the priestess. She pointed to an oddly-shaped door in the side of the hill, like an elongated triangle from which someone had cropped the point.

"She seemed taller," the priestess went on, "and her voice boomed. It is the nature of a human to resist when such power tries to take possession—they say the Sibyl rushed to and fro like a frightened mare, until the god overwhelmed her. And then, they say, His power rushed through the cave like a great wind, and all its doors were flung open, carrying her words to the waiting men."

"A hundred gates, was it not, in Virgil?" I asked.

"There are not so many as that, but there are openings all the way," said the woman, smiling. "Come, and you will see."

She lifted the bar, touched a sliver of wood to the lamp that was kept burning by the entrance, used it to light a torch, and pulled back the door. Now I could see that this was no natural cave, but a passage carved into the solid stone. To the right a series of bays had been cut through to the sloping surface of the hill. A little light filtered through their shuttered openings.

To the left a long trough ran along the side of the passage, through which water flowed. As we moved forwards the flickering torchlight glittered on the water and sent strange shadows dancing along the dusty floor. After the bright heat outside, the air here seemed damp and cool and very still.

Apollo might not be present, I thought as I followed, but I sensed power of another kind waiting within the silent stone. Was it indeed Apollo who had once spoken through the oracle here, I wondered then, or had Virgil, writing five hundred years after the last of the sibyls of Cumae had departed, simply assumed she served the god who had taken over most of the other oracles in the Mediterranean world? I reached out with senses long unused, wondering if the force that had once dwelt here retained enough coherence to respond.

Between one breath and another, I felt the familiar dip and shift of consciousness that signalled the approach of trance. Cunoarda took my elbow as I stumbled, but I shook my head and pointed towards the dark bay at the tunnel's end.

"Yes, that is where the Sibyl is said to have sat when she gave her answers," the priestess said then. "We do not know what sort of a seat she had, but we have always kept a tripod there, as they have at Delphi."

I was moving fowards on feet that scarcely felt the ground, but the three-legged stool at the end of the passage seemed to glow with its own light. The belief of centuries has made it sacred, I thought then.

"I will sit there," I said in a voice that did not sound like my own. I pulled off the bracelet from my other wrist and held it out to the priestess. For a moment she was taken aback, glancing at the tripod nervously, but this was not the temple of her god, which she would have been bound to defend from any possible sacrilege. It was clear that she could not feel the power that was beginning to make my head spin.

Shivering, I sank down upon the three-legged stool, and the veil slipped away, leaving my head bare. The position awakened memories buried in my bones; my trembling became a convulsive twitch as my body tried to adjust to the influx of power.

"Lady, are you unwell?" cried Cunoarda, reaching out to me, but the priestess prevented her, and that part of my mind that was still my own noted with relief that though the woman was no seer, she had enough training to recognize what was happening to me.

"Do not touch her," she cautioned, and then: "This is all highly irregular. She should have told me she had the Gift, so I might take precautions, but there is no help for it now."

But indeed, came a thought that was swiftly being pushed into the background, I myself had not known that the trance skills in which I had been trained long ago would awaken so swiftly here.

"So, daughter, will you let Me in?" came an inner voice, and with a long sigh, I relaxed into that bright darkness as into a mother's gentle arms.

I was distantly aware that my body had straightened, my hair coming loose from its pins. My arms extended, fingers flexing as if Someone were rediscovering the sensations of wearing flesh once more. I was only sorry that this body, which had endured for sixty-seven years, was all I had to offer her.

"Who are you?" whispered the priestess.

"I am the Sibyl…" my lips moved in answer. "I am always the Sibyl. In Erythraea I have spoken, and in Phrygia, in Samos and Libya and many other holy places in the lands of men. But it has been long, so long, since there was anyone to give Me a voice in this shrine."

"Do you speak with the voice of Apollo?" the priestess asked suspiciously.

"Go to your temple that stands upon the heights and open your doors to the wind and the sunlight and He will speak to you. But my power comes from the depths and the darkness of earth, and the perpetually upwelling waters of the sacred spring. I am the Voice of Fate. Would you seek an oracle?"

There was an uncomfortable silence, and then the Sibyl's laughter.

"Woman, you have served the gods your whole life long. Why are you so surprised that a Power should speak to you? Ah well—I read in the mind of this old woman who carries me that many things have changed. Rome still endures, but among her people there are some who have abandoned their ancient gods."

"It is the fault of the Christians!" exclaimed the priestess. "They say that there is only one god—"

I felt my consciousness shift once more, deepening and expanding as the persona that had overshadowed me was itself overwhelmed by a blaze of illumination that swept all mortal awareness away.

"Indeed, the Divine Source is a single deity of pre-eminent power, who made the heavens and sun and stars and moon, the fruitful earth and the waves of the waters of the sea. This is the One, who alone was and is from age to age."

"Are you telling me that the Christians are right?" the voice of the priestess sharpened in horror. "And their god is the only one?"

"No mortal, save in the utmost transports of ecstasy, can touch the ultimate deity. You who live in flesh see with the eyes of the world, one thing at a time, and so you see God in many guises, just as different images are reflected in the many facets of a jewel. To each facet you have given a form and a name—Apollo or Ammon, Cybele or Hera, who once gave oracles at this shrine. Jahweh of the Jews watches over only one people, and this Jesus blesses those who call on his name. They desire to touch the One, but their human limitations allow them to see only a single face, which they identify as the whole. Do you understand?"

In that moment I did comprehend what she was saying, and prayed that I would be allowed to remember these words.

"Then they are wrong!" the priestess exclaimed.

"They do well to serve the Christos, if they will truly follow his teachings, as you do well to serve the radiant Apollo. They are in error only in supposing that there is no truth but the one they see. But I will tell you this—their vision is a powerful one, and I foresee a time when the temple of your Apollo will be a tumbled ruin, his worship as forgotten as that of the goddess who was honoured here before he came.

"Lament, oh ye high gods, and mourn you dwellers on Olympus, for a time is coming when your altars will be cast down and your temples will lie beneath the Cross." Vision extended in a mosaic of scenes as I saw the Cross lifted above buildings of dignity and splendour, or blazoned upon the coats of men who nursed the sick or fell upon each other with bloody swords. Onwards rolled the vision, as the Sibyl spoke words I could no longer hear and the priestess crouched at her feet, weeping.

Eventually the images ceased, and I realized that the Sibyl had turned her gaze towards Cunoarda.

"And you, child—is there nothing that you would ask?"

Cunoarda's gaze fell, then lifted with a blaze of hope that transformed her. "How long will I stay a slave?"

"When your mistress goes free, then you will be free as well, and a distant land shall grant you both a refuge. But before that comes to pass she must endure many sorrows and make a great journey."

"Thank you," whispered the girl. Her head was bowed, but I could see that her cheeks shone with tears.

"There is more that I could say, but this body tires. It is a sorrow to me, for I tell you that it will be many centuries before another comes who will allow me to speak through her."

My head drooped, and for a moment then I was two beings in one body: the immortal Oracle, and an old woman who ached in every bone. I tired to cling to the consciousness of the Sibyl, but it was like attempting to hold back the ebbing tide. And then that vital presence that had upheld me was gone, and I collapsed into Cunoarda's arms.

By the time we returned to the palace at Baiae I was in full possession of my faculties once more, though my body, strained beyond its normal capacity by the power that had filled it, felt as limp as an emptied wineskin. As soon as I could speak I had cautioned Cunoarda to say nothing of what had happened, but to remember what had been said and write it down, for already the details were fading from my memory as a dream fades with the day. As regards the free folk of the palace she obeyed me, but I think now that she must have said something to my German litter-bearers, for from that time on they treated me with a reverence that went beyond duty, and I would hear the whisper, 'Haliruna' when I went by.

Crispus and the others were concerned for me, but they thought my collapse no more than the weakness of an old woman who had overtaxed her strength, and apologized for having dragged me on this journey on such a hot day. But I assured them that I had taken the risk willingly, though they did not know just how great that risk had been. And indeed it was so, for though my body ached, my spirit was soaring with the knowledge that the ability to touch the Otherworld that had been the delight of my youth was not lost to me after all.

We passed through the palace gates as dusk was falling, but the place was full of lights.

"What is it?" I asked, holding open the curtain of the litter. "Has the Emperor arrived? Are we having a feast that I had forgotten?"

"Oh my lady!" exclaimed the eunuch who was our steward. "Not the Emperor, but perhaps a Caesar—the Lady Fausta began her labour this afternoon! She has been calling for you, domina. I beg you—go to her."

I lay back with a sigh, wishing this had not happened now, when I was already so tired.

"I will be no use to her until I have washed and eaten. This is her first child. There will be time."

When I came to the birthing chamber I found Fausta alone, whimpering with each pain.

"Why have you sent your servants away, my child? They only want to help you."

"They fussed and fussed until I could not bear it! Oh Avia, it hurts so much! Am I going to die?"

"You are young and healthy, Fausta," I said bracingly, taking her hand. "I know this is not comfortable, but it will take a while for your womb to open enough to release the child." I had borne only the one child myself, but in later years I had often assisted at the labours of the wives of officers in Constantius's command, and added that experience to what I had learned of the birthing woman's craft at Avalon.

I glanced towards the door where the midwife was hovering and motioned her to come in.

"She is doing very well," said the woman cautiously. I wondered what Fausta had said to her before.

Fausta's fingers tightened painfully on mine as another pang came on. Her auburn hair was dark with perspiration and her face blotched with weeping above the distorted belly. It was just as well, I thought then, that her husband was not here to see her now.

"Talk to me, Avia," she said when she could speak again. "A poem or a joke or a story about Constantine when he was a little boy, anything to distract me from the pain."

"Very well—" I patted her hand. "Has he never told you the story of how he won his first laurels? It was when Probus was Emperor, and we were living in Naissus."

She shook her head. "He talks to me sometimes about what he will do in the future, but he has never spoken of his boyhood."

"Then I suppose it is for me to do, so that you may tell the tales to your children in turn." I waited as a new pang rolled through her, but I think my presence had eased her tension, and her contractions were now not so hard to bear.

"Constantine had just passed his seventh year, though he was always large for his age and looked older, and the Emperor Probus had offered a prize for the foot-races at the feast of Apollo." As I continued, I let my voice deepen, making my words rise and fall with the contractions that were squeezing Fausta's womb.

"Constantine began to practise, running each morning with Hylas, who was the dog we had then. I would have breakfast waiting when they returned, panting, from the run."

Gradually, Fausta was relaxing, riding my rhythms to find her own, even panting a little at the word.

"He won that first race easily, for among the boys of his age he was tall and strong. But the next year he moved to a higher division, and though he was as tall as many, they were stronger and more experienced. He finished respectably, but he was not the winner, and you know my son does not like to lose."

"What did he do?"

"I remember that he grew very silent, with that stubborn frown that we all have come to know. And he practised—morning and night throughout the spring. My son has always been a dreamer, but a practical one, who will make whatever effort is required to make his dreams come true. When summer came once more he was the winner again."

Fausta gave a great sigh, then grimaced, remembering that her race was still going on. "And the next year?"

"The next year we were transferred to Sirmium, and that summer the Emperor was assassinated before the races could be held."

"Tell me something else about Constantine," Fausta said quickly. "What games did he like to play?"

I frowned a little, remembering. They say that the child is father to the man. It occurred to me now that I should not blame Diocletian for what he had made of my son—the signs of his future character were there in his childhood, if one had the eyes to see.

"He liked to gather the children of the other officers and parade down the street, pretending they were holding a Triumph. I remember once he tried to train two of the stable cats to pull a cart. That was one time he failed, and had to use the dog instead. I don't think he ever quite accepted the fact that sometimes you simply cannot gain agreement."

And that, certainly, was a trait he had still. And now he was Emperor, with the power to enforce his will, unable to understand why the quarrelling Christian factions to whom he had granted his favour still clung to their enmities. The Donatists in Africa and the followers of the Egyptian Arius elsewhere, were being slandered by the orthodox with more energy than they spent on the pagans, and giving as good as they got.

"My husband is brave, and persevering and confident," said Fausta, "and his son will be just like him."

"Are you so certain it will be a boy?" I smiled, but in truth I had no right to tease her, having been so certain I was going to bear the Child of Prophecy. I heard the sound of shutters being opened, and turning, saw through the window, the first light of dawn.

As the new day strengthened, Fausta's pains began to come more swiftly, and her whimpers became screams. The midwife tried to encourage her by saying that it would not be long now, but Fausta had reached that point where labouring women call for their mothers and curse their husbands.

"Tell that woman not to lie to me!" gasped Fausta. "I am dying, I know it. Soon I will join my father and my brother among the shades, and I will tell them that Constantine sent me there!" She groaned as her belly clenched again. "But you will stay with me, won't you, Avia?

"I will stay with you, my dear," I leaned to smooth the lank hair from her brow. "And rejoice with you when your child comes into the world. Remember, the pangs you suffer are part of the work of the Great Mother—not pain, but power."

Fausta's eyes closed in exhaustion, but I continued to smooth her hair, and never had I come so close to truly loving her as I did in that hour. I could feel the mighty forces that were working through her, and reached out to the Goddess, seeking Her harmony.

In another moment Fausta's womb was contracting once more, but this time her eyes opened in surprise.

"Avia, I want to push—is something wrong?"

The midwife began to smile, and I patted Fausta's hand. "It means that it is all right," I said. "The baby is almost ready to come. We will set you on the birthing chair, and when you feel the urge to push again, bear down—"

In the next moment the power of the Mother surged through her once more. When it passed, we levered Fausta onto the narrow-seated chair, and the midwife knelt between her knees while I braced her, all my earlier exhaustion disappearing in the exhilaration of the miracle we awaited now.

"Get warm water," I snapped to the hovering maids, "and make sure the swaddling clothes are ready. It will not be long."

Grunting, Fausta writhed against my hands. Now that we were come to the test, she had given up whining and was showing the courage of the soldier stock from which she came. Once, twice, a third time she pushed, and then fell back with a sigh as the wriggling infant, red with blood and already squalling in protest, slid into the midwife's waiting hands.

I continued to hold Fausta as the other women bustled around her, cutting the cord and helping her to deliver the afterbirth while the maids washed and swaddled the child. Then the new mother was lifted into a clean bed, and I could stand, trembling with reaction, at last.

"Where is it?" called Fausta. "I want to see my child!"

"Here he is," answered the midwife. "As fine a boy as I have seen." She handed me the swaddled infant, who was still crying.

My grandson … I thought, gazing down into the contorted face. All newborns resembled their grandfathers, but I could see no trace of Constantius here. Flushed with frustration beneath a cap of dark hair, the child I held resembled his other grandfather, Maximian.

Carefully I transferred the bundled baby into his mother's arms.

"A son?" she asked, "and unblemished?"

The midwife nodded. "He is perfect in every way."

Fausta relaxed with a sigh and the baby quieted, though his features were still creased in a frown.

"My Constantinus…" she kissed the top of the baby's head and held him closer, "the Emperor's first legitimate son."

"There are some who question the validity of my relationship with the Emperor's father," I said drily. "I would advise you against speaking in those terms to Constantine, lest you appear to doubt his own legitimacy. And in any case, the Roman tradition has been that the man best qualified shall wear the purple, not necessarily even a relative, much less the most legitimate son." And surely it is Crispus, with the advantage of maturity and his native brilliance, who will be chosen when the time comes, I thought then.

Lost in contemplation of the wonder she had produced, I do not think that Fausta even heard. It was I, remembering tales I had heard of kin-fights among the Persians when a new Great King came to the throne, who felt the first chill of fear.
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17

"Domina—there is a letter from Crispus—" Cunoarda paused in the doorway to my sitting room.

"Close the door, please, and let's see it."

The brazier was doing its best to counter the dank chill of a Roman February, and I rested my feet upon the flank of Boreas, son of the first hound to whom I had given that name. But even after the renovations I had ordered when Constantine bestowed the Domus Sessorianum upon me, the place was subject to draughts. I had done my best to keep it home-like, hoping for a restoration of the relative simplicity of the suburban villa this palace had once been, but the architects were infected with the new notions of Constantinian grandeur, and only in this room, whose walls were hung with British weavings, and where striped British rugs covered the cold mosaic floor, did I feel truly warm enough to keep at bay the periodic attacks of shortened breath that plagued me in the winter.

"Mistress, what are you doing?" asked Cunoarda as she held out the cased scroll.

"Spinning…" I flushed a little as I twisted the loose wool around the distaff and set it and the spindle down, well aware that this was peculiar behaviour for an emperor's mother. "When I was a girl the spindle was scarcely ever out of my hand. I wanted to see if I still knew how."

"I used to spin too, when I was a child in Alba," said Cunoarda, her voice softening.

"Then we shall get you your own spindle, and you may sit with me by the fire," I replied. "But first, let us see what my grandson has to say."

The scroll was in Crispus's own careful writing. He was now nineteen, with the title of Caesar, and for the past two years had been residing in Treveri as Constantine's deputy, between campaigns on the German frontier. Only last summer his troops had gained a major victory against the Alamanni. I missed him, for Fausta and her children lived with their mother in Mediolanum, and I rarely saw them. After a late beginning, she had proved exceptionally fertile. A second son, Constantius, had been born the year after Constantinus, and a third, called Constans, just this year.

"Avia Nobilissima," he began. "I have tidings of great happiness. I am to be married to a most charming girl, the daughter of the senior magistrate of Treveri. Her name is Helena too! Is that not a fortunate coincidence? I call her Lena. I learned to love her this past winter, but I did not know if we would be allowed to marry. Now my father has given permission, and we will hold our feast next month, before I leave to rejoin my legion on the Rhenus. I hope that you can be with us for the celebration, but if it is not possible, I ask for your blessing.

"May the most high God keep you in health, dearest Avia. I remain, your loving Crispus."

"Bless the child indeed, and blast him for marrying in such haste. He must know that the roads and the seas alike will be too rough at this season for me to be there!" I exclaimed.

"Well, one can understand his hurry, if he is going off to war. No doubt he will settle his bride in Colonia or Argentoratum while he is with the troops," said Cunoarda, picking up the spindle, which in my excitement I had knocked off the stool.

"How can my little Crispus be getting married?" I shook my head. "It seems only yesterday that he was sitting on my knee."

"Perhaps he will make you a great-grandmother soon," Cunoarda smiled.

I sighed. I found it hard to imagine Crispus a father, but at this season, when all the agues of the marshlands around the city seemed to settle in my bones, I could well believe myself old enough for great-grandchildren. It had been a hard winter, and I had heard that there was a new plague in the poorer quarters of Rome.

"I will gift them with my palace in Treveri," I said then, "and order my bedchamber redecorated for the new bride. And I will send her my long pearl necklace. It will look better against her young skin than it does on me."

"Oh my lady, you must not say so. Don't you know that gossip holds that you have been granted an extension of youth by the gods?"

I raised one eyebrow. "Cunoarda, I would not have believed you to be a flatterer! Bring me my mirror—perhaps there has been some miracle since last I looked upon my image there!"

Flushing a little, she brought me the round of polished silver whose handle was formed in the shape of the Three Graces, their arms entwined. I turned my face into the light and held it up. The face that looked back at me was framed by silver hair, drawn back to a knot in two smooth wings held in place by a woven band. The flesh that once had clung to my strong bones so smoothly was sagging now, my eyes deep set and shadowed beneath my brows.

"What I see, my dear, is the face of a healthy woman of seventy-two. If it is not quite the image of a hag, it is because I am careful of my diet and force myself to take exercise. But just because I live in a palace is no excuse for me to ignore life's realities," I said tartly. "Now take this thing away. The hour in which I am scheduled to give audience is almost upon us. How many people are waiting in the reception room?"

"Not as many as usual, but one of them is Sylvester, the Patriarch-Bishop of The See of Rome."

"Very well, I suppose it is time to put away my spinning and become a Nobilissima Femina, even if I am an old one, once more. I will wear the tunica of forest-green silk, and over it the sea-green pallium."

"Yes, my lady, and the earrings and necklet of emerald and pearl?"

I nodded, reached for my stick, and levered myself upright, sighing as if I were already weighed down by the brocade and jewels.

Since taking possession of the Sessoriana it had been my custom to hear petitioners just before the noon meal. I was always astonished by how many people would make their way across the city to my domus, tucked into the south-eastern angle of the walls the Emperor Aurelian had built to protect the sprawling suburbs of Rome.

Today, despite the foul weather, the hall was full. Above the aromatic scent of the herbs laid on the coals in the brazier I could smell wet wool, and smiled, for it brought back memories of Britannia. Escorted by Cunoarda, my greyhounds padding by my side, I took my place in the carven chair on the dais, and surveyed the crowd.

I recognized Iulius Maximilianus, who was supervising the reconstruction of the baths on the domus grounds. It was my intention to open them to the public once they were completed, as an establishment of such size was hardly required to keep one old woman clean.

Maximilianus was no doubt here to report on the progress of the baths, which had been delayed by the winter rains and sickness among the labourers. Some of the others were my clients, and had come simply out of courtesy. But what was the Christian Patriarch of the city doing here?

Sylvester waited with surprising patience, a wiry little man with a fringe of fading reddish hair around his tonsure, clad in a plain white tunic and cloak. The only mark of rank he bore was the large cross that lay upon his breast, which was fashioned of gold. It was the young priest who had escorted him who fidgeted and muttered at the delay.

If some of the others were unhappy with the speed with which I dealt with their petitions, they did not dare to say so, and by the time an hour had passed, only Sylvester remained to be heard.

"My Lord Bishop, I am certain that only a matter of great moment could have brought you to me on such a day. Yet I am an old woman, and not accustomed to fasting. So that you may have leisure in which to set forth your business will you share my midday meal?"

I could see amusement flickering in his eyes, but he assented with a gravity equal to my own. Bishop Ossius had become one of Constantine's most trusted advisors, but I had never warmed to him. Sylvester seemed different. I found myself curious to know more of this priest who was the heir of the Apostle Petrus and Patriarch of the See of Rome.

After Cunoarda had sent the younger priest off to eat in the kitchens, Sylvester and I were escorted to the triclinium. I saw him gazing around at the marble facings of the lower walls and the paintings above and felt a certain embarassment, even though the scenes portrayed were of nymphs and shepherds from the romance of Daphnis and Chloe, and innocent enough.

"I apologize for the grandeur, and the chill," I said as I motioned him to take the couch on the other side of the brazier. In the large room the two of us seemed like a pair of peas in a large bowl. "I never eat in here when I am alone, but my household would be mortified if I told them to serve us in my little sitting room."

"We are all at the mercy of our servants," answered Sylvester. "My housekeeper bullies me mercilessly."

"If there is anything you may not eat, you must let me know," I said a little nervously, and saw him smile.

"It is not a fast day, and in any case the holy Petrus himself once said that it is not what goes into a man's mouth, but what comes out of it that defiles him."

"Very true," I agreed, but nonetheless I whispered to Cunoarda to instruct the cook to prepare something simple.

I do not know whether it was my order or respect for the Patriarch that compelled him, but in a while we were served with barley broth and a dish of lentils and cow-parsnips along with our eggs and bread and cheese. The Bishop's appetite was good, and I wondered suddenly if this was his first meal of the day.

"So," I said, when we had taken the edge off our hunger and were sipping hot spiced wine, "what is it that you want of me?"

"Are you so certain that I have come as a petitioner?"

"You are too busy a man to make this journey yourself if a mere message or a delegate would do."

"It is true," Sylvester said with a sigh. "The need is great, or I would not have come to you. You may have heard that there is sickness in the city, but perhaps you do not realize how bad it has become. This is not one of the fevers that strikes us every summer, but something new, in which the victim coughts up blood or chokes to death on his own phlegm. Some are saying it is a precursor of the Final Days, and have lain down upon their beds to wait for Our Lord to come, but I think that it is only another trial to test us."

"It sounds horrible," I said. "What can I do?"

"For the sick, not much. I have opened the Lateran Church as a hospital, and we are caring for them as we can. But so many are ill or dead that there is hardship in parts of the city. I have already emptied my own treasury. We need authorization to distribute corn from the city granaries, and to requisition other items from the merchants for the poor."

"And the consuls will not give it?"

He nodded. "I thought that perhaps the mother of the Emperor could persuade more eloquently than I."

"I can try," I said thoughtfully. "I will drape myself in cloth of gold and visit them tomorrow. And perhaps some other ideas for help will come to me after I have seen your hospital."

This was a man, I thought, who was rarely astonished by the vagaries of human nature, whether for good or for ill. But I was pleased to see that my response had surprised him.

My way to the Temple of Saturn, where I was to meet with the consuls, led through the centre of Rome, and it seemed to me that indeed the heart of the city was less crowded than I remembered. As we passed through the streets I saw doors hung with garlic and amulets or worse things in a desperate attempt to ward the spirit of sickness away. Just beyond the Flavian amphitheatre, I parted the curtains and ordered the bearers to pause at the arch Constantine had erected there, on the ancient triumphal route between the Caelian and Palatine hills. I had not been surprised to learn that it was the largest such arch in Rome.

But though its size might excite admiration, its decoration had caused considerable amusement, for only the topmost frieze actually referred to Constantine, celebrating his victory over Maxentius. The rest of the panels, reliefs and medallions had been cannibalized from monuments to earlier emperors such as Hadrian, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. The architect had justified this thievery by proclaiming Constantine the summation and fulfilment of the imperial genius, but as I inspected the monument I could not deny that the workmanship on Constantine's panels was visibly inferior to the rest.

You were in too great a hurry, my son, I observed silently. You have no need to steal other men's glory.

As Sylvester had expected, the word of the Empress-Mother was a command no magistrate of Rome dared ignore. On the way back to my palace I put on a veil to shield myself from the contagion, and ordered my bearers to make a detour so that I might view the hospital.

Constantine did not spend much time in Rome, but he had been generous in the giving of churches. Rather than seize property from the aristocracy, who were mostly pagan still, he had built most of them on imperial lands outside the old city walls. But in the year of his marriage to Fausta he had presented the imperial palace of the Lateran, where she was born, to the Patriarch of Rome. After razing the barracks of Maxentius's cavalry, he had built his first cathedral beside the palace.

I remembered the little boy who had so enjoyed making fortresses in our garden and realized that for him, one of the attractions of Christianity was the opportunity to build something new—

Something new, and grand in scale. As I entered, I could see the huge row of columns that supported the nave, and the green marble pillars that bore the lower arcades of the aisles. Light streamed in from high windows over the apse, glittering on the silver filigree roodscreen and the statues of the Resurrected Christ and Jesus as Teacher, flanked by angels, watched over the scene within.

But as my eyes adjusted I forgot the splendour. The nave itself and the aisles behind the columns on either side held row upon row of rude pallets, and on each pallet lay a human being, most of them either hawking and choking horribly or ominously still. Some had family to care for them, but for the most part it was the priests and the old women of the Christian community who moved among them, giving water to those who would drink and comforting the dying. The reek of old blood and human wastes assaulted the nostrils.

Sylvester had looked dubious when I spoke of trying to help, and I saw now that until this thing had run its course there was no help to be had, and no miracle but the fact that anyone was willing to nurse these people at all. Surely not all of them were Christians. All Sylvester needed to know was that they were human and in need. I understood then how, despite the gaps and incongruities in its theology, this new faith had become so strong.

I did not stay long. The Patriarch, who had greeted me when I arrived, did not expect it, and was already turning back to his work as I left the basilica. During the short journey back along the walls to the domus I said nothing, and I retired early, but sleep was slow to come.

Like most of the educated classes of Rome I had scorned the simple fervour of Christianity. But these folk had more compassion and more courage than I, who had been trained on Avalon. I realized then that I was ashamed. But even now I do not know whether it was shame or pride that drove me the next morning, when I borrowed a headwrap and tunic from one of the kitchen slaves, and instructing Cunoarda to tell everyone I was resting, set out to make the short walk to the basilica. I had barely rounded the corner, however, when I heard footsteps behind me and saw Cunoarda.

Her features set in a stubborn frown as I started to order her home again.

"Mistress, I must obey, but if you send me back I promise I will tell everyone where you have gone! Please—I saw your face when you returned from visiting the cathedral. I cannot let you go into that horror alone!"

I frowned at her, but I had long ago learned to accept the peculiar tyranny that servants can exercise over those who ostensibly own them, and common sense told me that it might be wise to have someone young and strong at my side.

I thought that if we could avoid Sylvester, I need not fear being recognized, for I had worn a veil when I visited before. And in the event, no one even asked who we were—they were too hard-pressed, and grateful for every pair of hands. And so I, who for ten years had been the most powerful woman in the Empire, worked as I had not since I was a girl on Avalon, carrying water and attempting to keep the patients clean. And Cunoarda laboured at my side.

It surprised me, how swiftly one could become accustomed not only to the smell but to the horror. Blood and feces were something to be cleaned, that was all. But exhaustion sharpens tempers even among the best of men, and it quickly became clear that although they might be selfless, risking their lives by nursing the sick since the authorities would no longer oblige them with martyrdom, not all the Christians were saints.

I was gently washing the chest of an old man who had just tried to cough out his lungs when I heard an exclamation from behind me. The man with the pail had apparently just been bumped by a woman whose arms were piled high with clean rags, and some of the water had slopped onto the floor.

"Will you look where you are going? For someone to slip on this and twist their ankle would be all we need!" His voice was thin with weariness, but the woman looked little better.

"Who are you to reprove me? Everyone knows that during the persecutions you burned incense to the demons the pagans call gods."

"And have I not done penance for that sin?" He gestured at the suffering around us. "Have I not risked my life every day here? If the Lord God wishes to punish me, it will be easy enough to strike me down. But you were so unimportant they never even bothered to persecute you. Beware lest you yourself be damned for the sin of pride!"

"You should be ashamed to squabble in the presence of the dying!" I said in the voice that had ruled a household for fifty years. "You, woman, give me a clean rag, and you, sir, some water to wet it in, that this poor fellow may at least spend his last moments clean!" But by then the sick man's body was arching in a final convulsive fight for breath, before he lay still. Wincing as stiffened muscles complained, I rose to my feet and gestured for the men who carried out the bodies to take him away.

The first few days had been a horror, and in self-defence I erected a psychic shield against the suffering. By day I laboured mindlessly, and each evening I would slip away and make my way home to soak the contagion away in my baths and sleep without dreams until morning. Perhaps because my thoughts were so focused on the needs of others, I had little attention to spare for my own pains.

Gradually we came to realize that not quite all of our patients were dying. Some few, if they could drink enough water, were able to keep their secretions moist enough to cough them up instead of choking. Eventually they recovered, though they were so weak that any other contagion was likely to carry them away. Grimly, we redoubled our efforts, but the priests who were working beside us were still kept busy giving last rites when we failed. Sometimes I saw Sylvester labouring with the others, wearing a stained robe and a cross of simple wood instead of gold, but I managed to stay out of his way. In truth, I doubt he would have recognized me if I had stood before him. Most people's vision is limited to what they expect to see.

It was not until the end of the second week, when the epidemic seemed at last to be faltering, that something occurred to shake my composure. A young girl had been brought in—a Syrian slave called Martha who had nursed her master and mistress until they died and then taken the illness herself, with no one left to help her. She was a Christian, and though she knew what was in store for her, I had not yet encountered anyone who faced it with such serenity.

"Our Lord suffered greater pains to redeem us," she whispered when she was able. "I offer Him this martyrdom."

I had thought myself past all emotion, but when I saw the hope that glowed in her eyes, I found awakening within me a stubborn determination.

"The water of baptism may have saved your soul," I muttered grimly, "but what's in this cup will save your body. Drink it down like a good girl—I am not going to let you die!"

I forced water into Martha until her urine ran clear once more, but I could feel her heart fluttering beneath my hand, and I knew that the battle was going against me. In order to evaluate her condition I had to let down my defences, and through the bond between nurse and patient I touched the pure fervour of her soul.

The life-force within was flickering like a guttering candle flame. They say that for the old, the past is more vivid than the present day, and in that moment it was not a Syrian slave girl I was holding in my arms, but my beloved Aelia, who had died when I was far away. I closed my eyes, and powers so long unused I had thought them forgotten roused within me.

I took a deep breath, and as I exhaled, drew up life-force from my own depths and projected it into hers. Lady! I prayed, grant life to your child! Again and again I did this, as if I were blowing the breath of life into her lungs, but it was something less tangible and more powerful that flowed from my astral body into hers.

And presently the laboured breathing began to ease. For a moment I stilled in the fear that she was leaving me. Then I opened my eyes and stared in wonder, for Martha was sleeping, each breath deep and clear.

My own heart bounding in reaction, I straightened. It was only then that I realized that we were not alone.

Cunoarda was by my side, her eyes wide, but kneeling across from me I saw Sylvester, with the young priest who had apparently summoned him when he saw he would not be required to give the last rites after all.

"Who are you?" he breathed, gripping his wooden cross. Our eyes met, and I saw the simple awe in his gaze give way to astonishment as he recognized me. "Lady, what are you doing here?"

I thought for a moment, searching for a reason he would understand. "I am doing the work of the Most High," I answered, deciding he did not need to know whether I called that Power Goddess or God.

"Christ be praised, you do indeed!" he said warmly.

"Say nothing of this!" I exclaimed. The ceremony that surrounded me as Empress-Mother was constricting enough, without adding superstitious hopes or fears.

The ardour in his gaze chilled as he, too, began to think of the political implications. "I understand, but my lady, you must not stay here! Will you promise to return home and stay there? I could not face… your son… if anything should happen to you."

"Do you not believe that God will preserve me?" I said a little bitterly, for I realized that I would miss this time of being fully used, and useful, now that it had come to an end. "Never mind. I will do as you say. But when this little one is recovered, bring her to me. If her master had heirs, I will give them her price and take her into my household."

I staggered as I got up, for I had spent more strength than I knew, and Sylvester took my arm. The lamps had been lit, and I knew that it was time to go.

"Thank you. If you will assist me to the door, Cunoarda can help me the rest of the way. You know my home is only just down the road."

"I will praise God tonight in my prayers," said Sylvester softly as we went out the door, "for He has shown me a miracle."

I sighed, suspecting that he did not mean Martha's recovery. But the old tattoo upon my brow was throbbing, and I felt that I had experienced a miracle as well, to know that after all these years I was still a priestess.

"I hear great praise of you from the Patriarch," said Constantine. It was now high summer, and the last cases of plague had died or recovered some months before, but Sylvester and I had continued to work together on behalf of the city's poor, and I trusted that this was what my son was referring to.

"But you should not have risked yourself," he went on. "If I had known, I would have forbidden it. You do not realize how important you are."

An old woman, important? I wondered. Then I realized that it was the Emperor's Mother who mattered, not the real Helena. He was not seeing me, but an icon with my name. It was natural enough for a child to think of his mother only in relation to himself, I thought then, but it was a mark of adulthood to be able to see one's parents as people, with lives of their own. These days I was even beginning to understand Ganeda, though I had still not forgiven her. I bit back a retort that might have angered him, thinking I ought to be grateful that Sylvester had said no more.

Constantine had been campaigning on the Dacian border, and in the strong morning light, he looked all of his nearly fifty years. My son had grown more massive with middle age, as if he were striving to equal the heroic dimensions of the statue that was being carved for his basilica. But his fair hair, though fading now to a shade between flax and silver, still grew thick and strong.

"The need was great," I answered him. "I had no choice but to give what help I could."

"You had a choice," he corrected. "How many of the noblewomen of this city were labouring among the sick beside you?"

I thought for a moment, and offered some names.

"They are Christians already, and only needed an example," he replied. "You do not find such self-sacrifice among the pagans. Do you see now why I favour the Christian God?"

I nodded, for among the Romans that was true, but we had tried to give what help we could to all who came to us on Avalon.

"It has been long since we have had a chance to talk together, my mother, and I have much to say to you," Constantine went on. "With each year it becomes more clear that the old ways are without virtue. It is the One True God whose will we must obey if we are to preserve the Empire, and the family of the Emperor is the model for all. That is why I permitted Crispus such an early marriage."

"You must be very proud of him," I answered, thinking of last year's victories against the Germans. In Crispus, I saw Constantine reborn, and even more glorious, without the suspicions that my son had learned from Diocletian.

"Yes. I am naming him and little Constantinus as this year's consuls."

"Licinius will not like that," I observed. "Last year you named yourself and Constantius, with no mention of Licinius or his son. And if you continue to spend most of your time in Serdica, so close to his border, Licinius will think you are planning to attack him."

Constantine shrugged. "Did you really believe that we could share the Empire forever? If the Armenian Christians appeal to me, I will help them, and if the Visigoths attack Thrace, I will repel them. Licinius will no doubt object, and there will be another war."

"I hope you can delay it for a year or two longer, until Crispus has enough experience to be a truly effective commander." I replied.

"Yes, the boy is developing well…'

It seemed to me that his answer came a trifle reluctantly, and in that moment, random memory reminded me of the ritual of the running of the stag that the little people of the marshes near Avalon performed sometimes when there was need. And it seemed to me that I could hear the whispered echo of their cry, "What of the King Stag when the Young Stag is grown?"

But this was Rome, I told myself, and Constantine was a civilized man. With a shiver, I thrust the memory back into the darkness from which it had come.

"… but he is still young," Constantine was continuing, "and subject to the lusts of the flesh, which lead men into sinful entanglements."

I suppressed a smile. "Not all so-called entanglements are unlawful, or he would never have been born. For that matter, your father and I would have been living in sin."

"No!" Constantine exclaimed. "You were my father's true wife! He told me so!"

I sighed, realizing there was no point in trying to explain that our marriage had been valid in the world of the spirit rather than in Roman law. I remembered now that Constantine had always been stubbornly attached to his own version of reality.

"The days of pagan immorality are ending! Soon Christianity will be the only faith, and the imperial family must set an example. I am building a basilica in honour of the martyrs Marcellinus and Petrus on the road adjoining your palace grounds. You will become its patroness."

"Constantine! Not even the Emperor can command another's conscience, as Diocletian and Galerius learned to their cost. Will you deny your own edict, that granted toleration to all?"

"Oh, I will not persecute the pagans—" He gestured dismissively. "When they see the glory of the Church they will beg to come in! But if God is to bless my reign, my family must serve only Him!"

"Indeed…" my voice grew softer. "And when were you baptized? I would like to have been there…"

He stilled suddenly, and I wondered if the shiver I had just felt was a flicker of fear. This was an emperor, and emperors had been known to execute close relations, even their mothers, in times past. In the next moment he smiled, and I told myself I had been insane to entertain such a notion. This was Constantine, the child whom I had borne to change the world. And indeed he was doing so, even if the manner of it was very far from anything we might have imagined on Avalon.

"Baptism is a very sacred rite," he said in a voice as soft as mine. "So sacred it can be performed but once, to wash away all sin and leave the soul cleansed and ready for Paradise. But I am Emperor, and must rule in a very imperfect and sinful world—"

And you suspect you may have some sinning yet to do … I thought wryly, but I did not voice the thought aloud.

"I live in the same world," I said instead. "Until you make that commitment yourself, you cannot require it from me. But I will take your new church under my protection, and receive instruction in the faith as a catechumen."

Inspired by Martha's fervour, Cunoarda was already doing so. I had freed both women when I took Martha into my household, for I could not treat the Alban girl as a slave when we had laboured together like fellow priestesses in the hospital.

"Then you are a Christian!" Constantine exclaimed.

"Call me what you like," I said tiredly. "The Truth does not change." I did not tell him that it was not his example that had inspired me, but the simple faith of a Syrian slave.

"Praise be to Christ, by whose Name we shall be saved!"

Constantine's deep-set eyes blazed with conviction and I found myself recoiling, trying to remember where I had seen such a look before. It was not until evening, as I was preparing for bed, that it came to me. In that mood, Constantine had been the image of Ganeda, laying down the law with self-righteous certainty.
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18

"In Christ's holy name, why can they not agree?" exclaimed Constantine. "I called this council so that the bishops might resolve their differences."

"Yes, Augustus," said Bishop Ossius, his face reddening, "but these matters are both subtle and important. A single syllable may make the difference between salvation and damnation. We must proceed carefully."

Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who had come with him to report on the deliberations, was frowning. The pagans in the room looked confused, and my old tutor Sopater, who had become a noted teacher of rhetoric and a member of Constantine's court, was suppressing a smile. The two thousand bishops who had come to the Council at Nicaea at the beginning of May were already arguing about the nature and relationship of God and His Son.

My hip-bones had begun to ache, and I tried to shift position unobtrusively on my ivory chair. The first time I had seen the Emperor's audience chamber in the palace at Nicomedia I had felt overwhelmed by its splendour. But that had been over fifty years ago. Now that I was accustomed to Constantine's ideas of the state befitting an emperor, Aurelian's throne room seemed classic and restrained. Only its human ornaments showed the taste of the Constantinian age.

Where Aurelian had allowed the vivid purple of his toga to proclaim him Emperor, and contented himself with a simple curule chair, Constantine's gilded throne was raised on a dais, and his robes, which were of cloth of gold over purple and adorned with precious stones, outshone it. And where Aurelian had presided alone, Constantine was flanked by his two empresses, for he had given both me and Fausta the title of Augusta the preceding year, when he finally defeated Licinius.

I had been placed at the Emperor's right hand, resplendent in amethysts and cloth of silver, and at his left was Fausta, glittering in emeralds and bronze. Imprisoned in the heavy robes, we sat like the images of Jupiter flanked by Juno and Minerva in the temple at Rome, though I knew better than to say so to Constantine.

"Do they not understand that the unity of the Church is essential to the unity of the Empire?" he exclaimed.

It did no good to point out that the Empire had flourished for more than two centuries while tolerating a wide variety of cults and creeds. The bishops who had come to the council were representing the people who had let themselves be slain rather than throw a pinch of incense on an altar fire. I wondered sometimes if they had become so accustomed to persecution that now that they were the Emperor's favourites they were compelled to attack each other.

Even after several years of Christian instruction, I, like Constantine, found it hard to understand the fine distinctions over which the bishops were arguing. What ought to matter was what Jesus had said, not whether he was God or Man.

"Indeed," objected Ossius, sweating, "but if the Empire is not founded upon truth, it will fall. If the Son and the Father are not one and the same, equally God, then we are no better than the polytheists."

"We are no better than fools if we deny logic!" exclaimed Eusebius, a flush animating the intellectual serenity of his features. A high forehead merged into his tonsure and he wore his beard long, like a philosopher. "If the Father begot the Son, then there must have been a time when the Son did not exist."

"But they were of the same substance!" Ossius replied, "Homoousios," he added the Greek term, "Light from Light, True God from True God!"

"Could we not say Homoiousios? Of like substance?" offered Eusebius rather desperately. I had heard that he was noted for his writings on Church history, a scholar who would care about every shade of meaning.

Constantine shook his head. "Consubstantialis— "of the same substance", has been good enough for us in Rome. Let men interpret it as they will. Then we can address ourselves to objects more within our power. All these fine words are distracting us from reality, and we become no better than the philosophers who reason about a thing without looking at it at all.

"If the bishops, who are the pastors of the people, attack each other, the people will fight as well," he went on. "You should never have raised such questions, and if they were raised, they should not have been answered! This is philosophical frivolity! With the Persians on our eastern borders and the Germans to the north, I have enough to worry about without these squabbles. I beg you—give me back peaceful nights so that I can live in the pure light of the Spirit and use my energy for the protection of the Empire!"

During this speech both bishops had gone a little pale.

"Consubstantialis?" said Eusebius weakly. "Well, perhaps we can get them to agree on that. My lord, I will bear your word to my brethren."

"No—I will come myself," answered the Emperor. "Perhaps if I plead with them in person they will understand!"

The two bishops abased themselves, foreheads touching the marble floor, and backed away from the imperial presence. Constantine smiled as if he had persuaded them, and I suppose he had, for though he might not be their master in logic, he was surely their superior in power.

At least my son did not require me to bow down before him. I shifted my weight to the other hip and addressed a prayer to the Son, whatever His relationship to the Father might be, that the imperial audience would not last too long.

No part of the palace at Nicomedia could be called home-like, but the red dining salon was small enough that our voices did not echo when a dozen people were gathered there. Fausta was reclining on a couch upholstered in crimson brocade which clashed with the purple tunica she wore. Neither colour suited her complexion, but perhaps the flush was due to wine. After giving Constantine three sons, she had borne him two daughters, Constantina, and a new baby whom they had named after me. Her figure had suffered, and palace gossip said that she no longer shared a bed with the Emperor. On the other hand, Constantine was not sleeping with anyone else, but whether this was the result of morality or because he was incapable no one dared surmise.

It occurred to me that in my old age I was becoming cynical, and I gestured to the servant to bring me some wine as well. These days I found getting up and down from a dining couch more trouble than it was worth, and had claimed a comfortably padded chair, but all of us rose as the Emperor came in.

His couch groaned a little as he stretched himself upon it, but his bulk was more muscle than fat, even now. Swiftly the servants set tables before us and began to bring in the food.

"Do you think that the bishops will be able to agree on the wording of the creed?" I asked. These days I had little appetite, and a few bites of the cuttle-fish croquettes in liquamen had been enough for me.

"It is necessary that they do so. I must make that clear," answered Constantine.

"If they know what's good for them, they'll comply!" Fausta giggled. There was an uncomfortable silence, as everyone immediately thought of Licinius and his young son, who despite Constantine's pledge to his half-sister (who was married to Licinius) to spare them, had been executed only a few weeks before.

"I meant, of course, for the sake of their souls," Fausta added, and someone suppressed a snort of laughter, for the Empress, unlike the rest of the imperial family, was still avowedly pagan. Constantine was frowning, but he continued to chew steadily on the stuffed shoulder of wild boar they had just brought in.

"Has there been any new word of the Visigoths?" asked Sopater in an attempt to change the subject. It was not terribly successful, since suspected communication with the barbarians had been one of the reasons given for executing Licinius. Constantine had defeated them in Thrace two years before, going into Licinius's territory to do so and provoking the last civil war.

"Well, if they make any trouble, you can send Crispus to deal with them!" Fausta laughed a little too loudly. "Don't they call him "Invictus", the Unconquered?"

I felt a prickle of unease. During the war against Licinius, Crispus had been put in charge of the Aegean fleet and by defeating the enemy admiral, he had enabled Constantine to take Byzantium. Only last year the Emperor had struck a medallion showing Crispus and young Constantinus together, but since then Crispus had been transferred from Treveri to frontier duty in Dacia. Old Crocus was long dead, but his tribe had continued to send young warriors to serve as Caesar's bodyguard. Perhaps that was what Fausta had been referring to, but there was something I did not quite like in her laugh.

"These bishops are too concerned with words," said Constantine, pushing his plate away. I wondered if he really had not heard, or only pretended not to. "They forget the need for faith. Words divide, but the symbols of religion inspire the soul."

"What do you mean?" asked Ossius.

"The pagans have shrines where they venerate the treasures that they believe were given by their gods. If we are to wean the people away from such delusions, we must offer them something to take their place. How can true believers walk in purity when every grove and crossroad is dedicated to a pagan god?"

"What would you have them worship instead?" asked Fausta.

"The places where our God has shown Himself to men. Why have we no basilica to honour Christ's empty tomb?"

"Does anyone even know for certain where it is?" I asked.

"That is precisely the problem!" exclaimed the Emperor. "It is in my mind to send an expedition to excavate the site. Do you know what stands on the hill of Golgotha now?" he added indignantly, "A temple to Aphrodite the Whore!"

"Abomination!" exclaimed Ossius.

But surely, I thought, it was the place of execution that had been the abomination. I wondered what irony of fate had transformed it into a temple of the Lady of Love.

"Oh indeed," muttered Fausta. "We all know that She has no power any more…"

In July the Council of Nicaea concluded with the creation of a creed to which everyone, even Arius, was willing to subscribe, respecting, if not the will of God, the wishes of their Emperor. At the beginning of the next year, Constantine, euphoric in the conviction that his leadership had brought the quarrelling Christians to a state of unity, moved his court to Rome to celebrate the twentieth year of his reign.

Our entry into the city was, if not a Triumph in the traditional sense, certainly triumphal. Every window was hung with white, and each archway garlanded with spring flowers. Slowly we made our way down the ancient route along the Via Triumphalis, between the pine-crowned Palatine and the Circus Maximus to the Caelian Hill, where we turned towards the Flavian Amphitheatre and the arch that Constantine had set up twenty years before. There the procession paused to allow a delegation of youths and maidens to present a panegyric and song.

Following the procession of senators and a group of flute players came several cohorts of crack troops from various parts of the Empire. The first of the imperial family to appear was Fausta, enthroned with her younger children on a low cart which had been fashioned into a representation of the Empire, bound with a banner proclaiming her the health and hope of the republic, the legend that had appeared on the coin that bore her image the year before. Her eldest son Constantinus, now ten years old, followed on a white pony.

Next was a float depicting the battle of the Hellespont in which the fleet led by Crispus had destroyed the much larger force belonging to Licinius. It was quite effective, I thought, with model ships poised on a silver sea. Crispus himself came after, resplendent as Apollo in full armour, mounted on a flighty Iberian mare who danced and tossed her head at each new wave of cheering.

My own cart looked rather like a shrine, with columns and a gilded pediment, for I had insisted on some kind of shade before I would consent to participate in the procession. Its legend bore the words "Securitas Republicae".

I felt less and less like the Security of the State as the morning wore on, for the jolting of the cart set every bone to aching despite the deep pillows that cushioned my throne. At least, this early in the year, the weather was still cool enough that I did not suffocate in my stiff robes, but it seemed to me that a painted statue would have done as well.

In a traditional Triumph, the floats would have been followed by the animals garlanded for sacrifice, but Constantine had replaced the pagan custom with two ranks of white-clad youths and maidens, singing hymns and waving palm branches, and the senior Christian clergy of the city, led by the Patriarch Sylvester, in their festive robes. The imperial bodyguards who escorted them carried the labarum, the gilded spear with a transverse bar which was at once a religious banner and a military standard. At its top was a jewelled wreath surrounding the Greek letters "Chi" and "Rho", which in the years since Constantine's victory at the Milvian Bridge had come to signify the beginning of Christ's name.

By now, the first part of the procession had made its careful way down the Sacred Way past the basilica Maxentius had begun and Constantine had completed and the old shrines that nestled against the base of the Palatine Hill, and was moving up and around the hill crowned by the temple to the Capitoline Jove. In order to endure the incessant jolt and sway, I found myself retreating into a tranced state in which it seemed to me that it was not I that was moving, but all the fading glories of old Rome that were passing before my eyes.

But even as we curved back to the palace on the Palatine where the feast was being prepared, I could hear a rising tide of sound behind me as the Emperor was borne onward in a chariot drawn by two snowy horses, blazing like the sun-god in cloth of gold.

"Constantinus!" they shouted, "Io Constantine, "

Twenty years … I thought dimly, it has been twenty years since Constantius died. Oh my beloved, look down from among the blessed spirits and rejoice in the triumph of our son!

Summer came early that year, bringing with it a crop of rumours as bountiful as the growing grain. I had declined to accompany Constantine's triumphal progress through the rest of the Empire, and he had left me as his deputy in Rome, with authority to draw upon the Treasury. But even in my palace I heard that people were predicting that the Emperor, having reigned for twenty years, would follow Diocletian's example and abdicate in favour of his glorious eldest son.

But others denied it, and pointed out that Crispus was being kept tethered at his father's side while the government of Gallia went to young Constantinus. A young patrician called Ceionius Rufius Albinus had been arrested for seducing a girl, and Crispus, who was his friend, was held guilty by association.

I found that hard to believe, for I knew my grandson was still in love with his wife, who had given him a son who died and then a little girl. But there were other whispers that were more disturbing. The crime of Crispus was to be too successful, too good. And I could not help remembering that on the day of the procession, the crowd had cheered as loudly for him as it did for Constantine.

And so, it was not so much with surprise as with the shock with which a man who has been ailing hears the physician's sentence that I heard that Crispus had been arrested and taken to the town of Pola, which is in Illyria at the head of the Adriatic sea.

The order for the boy's arrest had been sent from Sirmium, but Constantine could move swiftly when the mood was on him, and no one was quite sure where he was now. My immediate response was to write an impassioned letter pleading with the Emperor to reconsider and send it off with a trusted messenger.

Surely, I thought, Constantine will do no more than keep Crispus under guard for a while. But why should the boy have been arrested at all? Crispus was his own child, but I could not help remembering that his sister Constantina had begged the Emperor to spare the lives of her husband and son. He had promised their safety—and executed them all the same. My stomach knotted when I considered the possibility that my letter would not reach the Emperor, or worse still, might fail to move him.

But if I did not know where to find Constantine, I did know where they were holding Crispus, and I had the imperial Tablet of Authority which the Emperor had given me when he left Rome. My bones ached at the very thought of travel, but by the time the sun rose the next morning I was in a swift carriage with an escort of German guards clattering behind me and Cunoarda at my side, heading north from Rome.

In the heat of summer it was a terrible journey, for our shortest route was the Flaminian Way over the spine of Italia. Changing horses at each post-house, it took us a week of travel, and I was half-dead by the time we reached Ancona on the Adriatic Sea. The sight of the imperial Tablet and the few pieces of gold bought me the services of a swift liburnian galley, and after a day and a night and another day upon the ocean, the rugged coast of the Istrian peninsula came into view.

"I will demand to see my grandson, and get to the bottom of this, I told myself as the litter we had hired in the port swayed up the road. If Crispus has done something that the Emperor misconstrued … I stopped the thought. I had spent a week imagining things that might have made Constantine believe his son was betraying him. Further speculation was pointless now. Pola was a typical provincial town, with a grid of streets built around the crossroads, an amphitheatre and baths on the outskirts and temples, shops and dwellings farther in. We passed through the gate to the forum and pushed through the crowd to the basilica. As I waited for the officer who commanded my guard to find me someone in authority I realized that the people I could see through the curtains of the litter were not ordinary folk gathered for market day.

Men, most of them in the togas of provincial land-owners, stood in frowning groups as if they had been arguing. A tension that could not be attributed to the sudden appearance of a troop of legionaries hung in the air.

"I will not allow fear to overcome me, I told myself, or jump to conclusions. I have come so far, I can wait a little longer now.

In a little while my commander emerged with a sweating magistrate in tow. It is the heat, I thought, but beneath the perspiration the man's face was white with fear. I had put on the pearl diadem with which I was always portrayed on the coinage. I pulled open the curtains to let him see.

"I am Flavia Helena Augusta, and I bear the authority of the Emperor. I wish to see my grandson—I understand you have him here."

"Yes, Augusta, but—" he squeaked.

"Take me to him." I swung my legs over the edge of the litter and prepared to descend.

His face worked. "Yes, Augusta—"

Escorted by the commander and Cunoarda, I followed the magistrate into the shadows of the basilica. I remember how loudly my stick tapped on the tiles as we crossed the large central hall to the row of offices behind it. At such times, the mind fastens upon little things.

A man stood on guard before one of the rooms, but the door was open. The magistrate stood aside to let me go in.

It had been someone's office, converted into a prison by replacing the desk with a military folding bed. Crispus was lying there. Some power beyond volition moved me forwards, noting with an odd detachment how his golden complexion had already gone sallow, the cheeks beginning to hollow as the flesh changed. Seen thus, the fine bone structure of his face was even more beautiful.

He had been dead, I judged, for some hours.

Was that wind I felt in the dawning the passing of your spirit, my beloved? I wondered numbly. Could you not stay long enough to bid me farewell?

Gradually I became aware that the magistrate was speaking.

"The order came from the Emperor, from Sirmium. The young Caesar was to be tried by the magistrates, for treason. Evidence was provided. The Emperor… did not specify how we must impose the penalty, but we were afraid to let him have a weapon, for we knew his deeds in battle. He asked then for the death that was given Socrates. A Christian priest gave him the rites of the Church before he died…"

I do not know what the man saw in my face, but he stepped back, swallowing hard. I wanted to rage like a maenad, to order the men who had condemned my Crispus slain. But they were not to blame.

"What are we to do now, Augusta? There were no orders…"

"Do you have a sculptor in this town? Tell him to bring his wax to make a death-mask. Meanwhile, prepare a funeral pyre."

I would have taken the body to throw at Constantine's feet, but at this season it was not possible. Shock still numbed most of my emotions, but a few thoughts were beginning to stir. I would take the image of Crispus to confront his father, and I would have vengeance, against Constantine himself or against those who had driven him to destroy his child.

When the magistrate had gone off to do my bidding, I made them leave me alone with my dead, and allowed the burning spark of grief to flare into a raging flame at last.

Silently I raged against my own denial of power. I had cried out to God, but now I understood the great secret, which was that beyond my own strength there was nothing. How could I believe in a god who would allow Constantine to do this thing? It seemed to me then that men had invented their male God to comfort them in the dark when Mother wasn't there to hold their hands.

I had been brought up to see the divine with a different face, in Avalon. I thought of the proverb, "God could not be everywhere at once so he invented Mothers," and it seemed to me that it should be the other way around, "Mother did not have enough breasts for everyone, so man invented deities enough so that every man would have a Mother who would never leave him for another…"

Yet the Christians held that their terrible deity was the only one. Sylvester had preached the love of Christ, but I was a woman, and I knew that the only strength and the only god is that strength which is there when we are small and helpless, and it was for that support that I cried out now.

I remembered Hecuba, wailing over the death of Troy, old and stricken with age and powerless, seeing her daughters raped, imprisoned, scattered one by one to the far corners of the earth, destroyed, maddened, their children taken from them… But even Hecuba had not had to endure the sorrow of seeing a beloved grandchild slaughtered by his father, who was her own dear son. This was my punishment, I thought, for denying my gods.

By the time I caught up with Constantine in Treveri, almost two months had passed, and autumn was beginning to tint the leaves with shades of bronze and gold. The town had grown since I had last seen it. Constantine's great basilica had been completed, and so had the baths. As we passed beneath the great arch of the gate and turned down the main thoroughfare towards the palace I noticed the changes with a weary curiosity.

By now our caravan had grown to include a cart for the baggage in which Cunoarda was riding, and a second set of bearers for the litter, for I could no longer endure any other form of transportation. It was only large enough for one person, but I was not alone, for the death-mask of Crispus and the urn that held his ashes were my companions.

During the long journey we had held many conversations, Crispus and I.I knew that the bearers had told the others how they heard me murmuring behind the curtains. I could see how Cunoarda sought for signs of madness when she looked into my eyes. But they could not hear that other voice that answered, as Crispus told me of his love for his Helena and the little daughter who was left to them, of his pride in his victories, and the hopes he had cherished for a future which now would never be.

It was as well, I thought as the gates to the palace swung open, that my journey had been long enough to cool my rage. Now, my purpose was hard as quenched steel. No one was safe, if Constantine could kill his own son, and while the life of an old woman was of little value, I wanted to live long enough to see justice done.

I pretended not to hear the whispers as the servants settled me in my old apartments, or the curious glances at the bundle I cradled in my arms. All of the staff here were new. Drusilla had died long ago, and Vitellia had retired to Londinium, and most of the people who had served Crispus and his Helena had been sold off as well. Constantine and Fausta were still at the summer palace in the hills north of the town. I wondered how long it would take him to get up the nerve to come to me.

The next morning I ordered my bearers to take me to the home of young Helena's parents, where she had been living while Crispus was with the Emperor. Lena was, as my grandson had told me, beautiful, with pale skin and smooth dark hair. But that white skin was almost translucent, and when I embraced her I could feel the fine bones, as if her own grief were gnawing at her from within.

In all her life she has never known tribulation, I thought, releasing her. She does not know how to survive. Then the nursemaid brought in little Crispa, almost a year and a half old and bright as a sunbeam, and I sat down so that I could take my great-grand-daughter into my arms. What future awaited this child? I wondered as I breathed in the sweet scent of her hair.

"My Crispus was no traitor," murmured Lena as the child slid from my arms and ran to her. "He could never have done what they say of him. He loved the Emperor."

"I know it, and I swear to you that I will vindicate his memory," I answered her. Inscriptions and statues to Crispus were being defaced already as men sought to rewrite the past by damnatio memoriae. "In the meantime, you must write to me and tell me how you are getting on. Be brave and take care of yourself for the sake of your child."

Her eyes filled with tears. "I will try…"

That evening, the court arrived. I waited for some word from Constantine, but in the morning it was Bishop Ossius who came to me.

"He is waiting for you." The bishop's gaze flicked to my face and then away. "I know what you have come to say. I have tried, myself, to remonstrate with the Emperor for this… atrocity. But he does not seem to hear me. I think it preys upon his mind, but he will not face it. Come, perhaps a mother's words will reach him where mine cannot."

"If they do not," I said softly as I picked up the silk-wrapped bundle I had brought so far, "I have something here that may."

We moved along a corridor which terrified rumour had emptied. They were wise, I thought as I limped after Bishop Ossius, my black robes hissing like the whisper of Nemesis along the tiles. When the gods quarrel, mortals must take cover lest a stray thunderbolt destroy them as well.

Constantine was sitting in the little dining room, whose ochre-painted walls were frescoed with scenes from the Æneid. Light from the door to the garden lay like a barrier across the mosaic floor, but the Emperor was sitting in shadow. A flagon was on the little inlaid table, and a wine cup in his hand. I paused by the door.

"Augustus…" the Bishop said softly.

"Have you come to nag me again, Ossius?" Constantine answered tiredly without looking up. "You speak of the laws of heaven, but I am responsible for the Empire. You have no right to reproach me—"

Ossius started to object that he was responsible for the Emperor's soul, but my gesture silenced him.

"Perhaps not, but here is one who does!" Pulling the cloth away, I stepped forwards and thrust Crispus's death-mask into the light.

"My son!" Constantine recoiled, hands splayed in self-protection, and the table lurched and sent cup and flagon flying. Spilled wine spread like a tide of blood across the tiles.

Constantine's gaze moved from the mask to the wine and then, finally, to me. His face was pasty and there were dark circles under his eyes as if he had been unwell.

"I had to do it! I had no choice!" he cried. "God called me to sacrifice the son I loved, just like Abraham, but He provided no substitute, no lamb. So Crispus must have been guilty! God would not be so cruel!"

His head swung back and forth, eyes bulging, as if he could not see me at all. I wondered suddenly if he ever had seen me, or only an icon that he called "mother", with no more resemblance to the person I really was than a holy image painted on a wall.

"Did God send you a vision, or was it some mortal who persuaded you, Constantine? What did you think Crispus had done?" Did he even know who was talking to him, or was my voice echoing the accusations of his own soul?

"He wanted me to abdicate, and when I would not he was going to rebel against me—he had consulted an oracle! He meant to make Fausta his wife to legitimize his rule. Another civil war would have destroyed the Empire. Crispus consorted with sinners. He was an adulterer, and God would have cursed us all. One God, one Emperor—we must have unity, can't you understand?"

Fausta! Perhaps Constantine did not understand, but for me, a picture was beginning to come clear.

"Is that what Fausta told you?" I said in a still voice. "Has she given you hard proof of all this—or any proof at all? Did you allow Crispus to defend himself—did you ask him any questions, or were you afraid to see the judgment of God in his clear eyes?"

Constantine flinched at each question, but he was still shaking his head in denial.

"You are wrong! You hate her because she is the half-sister of Theodora, who took my father from you! But Fausta's first loyalty has always been to me—she told me when her father was plotting against me, she supported me against her own brother—"

"She betrayed her own blood for the sake of power—do you think she would hesitate to sacrifice yours?" I spat back at him. "She did this for the sake of her own sons, not for you, intending that one day they would give her the authority you have given me!"

"Your mother speaks reason, my lord," said Ossius softly. "My investigations have revealed no evidence of treachery."

"Are you a traitor too?" A vein bulged at the Emperor's temple as he turned. "I had to safeguard the succession," he said then. "Crispus was only a half-brother. There would have been war between him and Constantinus… Fausta kept on and on about it, and I could see how the people loved him…"

"Did you think she would poison you in a dish of mushrooms as Agrippina poisoned the Emperor Claudius, for the sake of her son?"

"She said that Crispus had tried to make love to her!" he cried.

"You are not Abraham—you are Theseus, and a fool!" I raged, waving the mask in his face until he cowered away. "Even if he had tried, which I do not for a moment believe, what kind of sin is a failed seduction compared to the murder of your own child?! Perhaps the Christian god can forgive you—He allowed his own son to die! No pagan deity could forgive such a crime!"

Like a great tree falling, Constantine sank to his knees. "God has abandoned me…" he whispered.

"God will forgive you." With a reproachful look at me, Bishop Ossius stepped past and set his hand on the Emperor's head. "But you must repent and make restitution."

"If it is Fausta who persuaded you to this deed then you must punish her," I echoed. "Do it, or Crispus will forever haunt you, and so will I!"

"God, have you forsaken me?" whispered Constantine. "Father, forgive me for my most grievous sin…"

"Leave us," whispered the Bishop, pointing towards the door. "I will deal with him now."

I nodded, for I was sick and shaking, and had no desire to watch as the master of the Roman world grovelled before his god.

For the rest of that day I lay in a darkened room, refusing food. Cunoarda thought I was ill, but if so, it was a sickness of the soul. I was waiting, though until I heard the shouting late that afternoon I did not know what I had been waiting for.

I was already sitting up when Cunoarda hurried into my chamber.

"Lady! The Empress Fausta is dead!"

"How did it happen?" I snapped back. "Was it an execution?" I had demanded Fausta's punishment, but I had not expected Constantine to compound one crime by committing another, scarcely less terrible.

"No one seems to know," Cunoarda replied. "She had gone to the new baths, and guards came to take her to the Emperor, but before they could arrest her they heard screaming. Someone had raised a sluice to let in the scalding water, and Fausta was caught in it, boiled to death in her bath! They are bringing the body back now. They say it is horrible to see." Her voice shook with an awful suppressed glee.

"Crispus, you are avenged!" I sank back upon the bed, wondering why the knowledge only increased my desolation.

My son had become a monster, at the mercy of his fears. But was I any better, who had urged him to an equal crime?

Of course there was an investigation, but no one ever learned how the accident had been arranged. In truth, although the Emperor meant to punish her, I am not certain that the manner of Fausta's death was ordered by Constantine. Crispus had been very popular in this city where he had governed for so long, and it is possible that some servant at the baths, hearing that the Empress was condemned, had taken advantage of the opportunity to give her a foretaste of the hell she so richly deserved.
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19

"I think you should see him," said Bishop Sylvester. "I believe the Emperor to be sincerely repentent, but he is still troubled in mind. They say he has caused a sculptor to make a golden image of his son which he has placed in a kind of oratory. He stands before it, lamenting. Perhaps you can give him ease…"

I stared at him in amazement. Surely I was the last person to offer Constantine comfort now.

"I know that you are still grieving, and perhaps you blame the Emperor for what happened, but if Christ could forgive His murderers as He hung on the Cross, can we do less?"

I might have found it easier, I thought grimly, if my son had sinned against me. I had spent the eight months since the death of Fausta in Rome, but neither in the new chapel that had been made from one of the rooms of my palace nor in the church of Marcellinus and Petrus, had I attended any service of the Christian faith. Nor had I entered any temple of the old religion. I was bereft of both Goddess and God. Indeed, since returning, I had hardly stirred beyond my own doors.

They say that the old dwell much on the past, as if reliving their lives backwards towards the beginning. Certainly I preferred to remember the days when Constantius and I had been young together, and more and more often, the dreams that filled my nights were of Avalon. I knew that my servants feared I was dying, and with good reason, for I was now in my seventy-seventh year, and life held nothing that I still desired.

I suspected, also, that while I was away the Syrian girl, Martha, had said more about the manner of her healing than I would have liked. When I did go abroad, people bowed even more deeply than my rank required, and offerings of flowers were often left at my gates.

In the same period, Constantine had relieved his feelings by directly attacking pagan religion for the first time. He had the prophets of Apollo at Didyma and Antioch killed, and destroyed the shrine of Aesclepius at Aigai. But the greater part of his wrath was directed towards what he called immorality. Increasingly strict laws against seduction, even when it was a willing elopement, were prescribed, and the temples where priestesses served Aphrodite pulled down.

I heard Sylvester clear his throat and realized that he was still waiting.

"The Emperor is in the audience chamber, Augusta. It is not good for mother and son to live in estrangement. If you do not feel well enough to rise, may he come to you here?"

I have no son, I thought bitterly, but I nodded. Constantine was still the Emperor.

Cunoarda rearranged the folds of my woollen mantle more becomingly. Spring had come to Rome, but I still felt cold. These days I spent most of my time in the small chamber with its British hangings—Constantine had never been here before. The dogs, sensing my tension, got up as he entered, and I motioned them back to their accustomed place at my feet.

"Are you not happy with your palace, Mother?" he asked, looking around him. "Surely you have somewhere to sit that is more… appropriate…"

Bishop Sylvester, whose own private chambers were even less luxurious, winced a little, but kept still.

"The room is comfortable and easy to keep warm. You must forgive an old woman her eccentricities, my lord," I replied.

"But your health is good—" He looked at me in sudden concern. "You can travel."

I frowned. "Where would you send me?" Was I about to be exiled?

Constantine straightened, his expression brightening. "To the Holy Land, mother, to Palestine!"

I blinked up at him, confused. I knew that Jesus had lived in Palestine, but after all, his own country had rejected him. These days it was one of the poorest of our provinces. Antiochia and Alexandria were the great Christian centres of the Empire.

"Our Lord once walked that sacred earth! Every stone He touched is holy. But except for Caesarea, there are only a few house-churches in the entire province. The sites of His miracles, which should be thronged with pilgrims, have no shrines!" Constantine's face flushed with excitement.

"That is unfortunate, but I do not understand—"

"I will build them! Work at the site of the Holy Sepulchre is progressing. Bishop Macarius has sent me some pieces of the True Cross already—I will give you one for your chapel here. To beautify the places where God manifested Himself will be my penance and my offering. Surely then He will forgive me my great sin!"

An offering, I thought cynically, but hardly a penance, except perhaps for those whose taxes would support this ambitious programme of construction. I nodded, still wondering why my blessing was required.

"I want to do it now, but the Visigoths are restless and the Persians will have to be dealt with soon. I cannot take the time to visit Palestine, but you could go as my representative. You would know how to find the sacred places and how to bless them," he drew breath and added ingenuously, "and show the East that the family of the Emperor is still strong!"

"That would be a difficult journey for a woman of my years," I said, trying to conceal my astonishment.

"Eusebius of Caesarea will take good care of you. Palestine is a land flowing with milk and honey, and the sun is warm Constantine's voice was cajoling, but his eyes were full of dreams.

"I will have to pray over this…" That was something to which he could not object.

"I must go now, but Bishop Sylvester is still here. He will explain." Constantine started to embrace me, his sanguine smile faltering a little as his eyes met mine, and compromised by kissing my outstretched hand.

"You are still angry," said Sylvester when the Emperor had left us, "and you have good cause. But nonetheless I ask you to make this journey."

"Why?" I rasped. "What possible interest should I have in visiting the holy places of a religion whose protector is responsible for such deeds as Constantine has done?"

"God Himself grieved as you grieve when He saw what men did to His Son, but He did not destroy humankind. When you consider how far we Christians are from perfection, is it not a proof of our religion that it has survived at all? Go to Palestine, Helena, not for the Emperor, but for yourself. In the desert, God speaks clearly. If there is any purpose to this tragedy, perhaps you will come to understand it there."

I made him some neutral answer, and presently he left me alone. I was determined to wait until Constantine had left Rome and then send him my refusal, but that night I dreamed that I stood in a sere land of golden sand and white stone, beside a silver sea. It was a place of terrible beauty, a place of power. And I knew, even as I gazed upon that bleached landscape, that I had seen it before.

It was only when I woke, perspiring, that I realized that it was not from this life that I recognized it, but from the vision that had come at my initiation into womanhood on Avalon. I understood then that there might still be something left for me to do, and that this journey to the Holy Land was my destiny.

Constantine, having got his way, spared no expense in transporting me to Caesarea, the port that the infamous Herod had built two centuries before. In the middle of August, I took ship from Ostia with Cunoarda and Martha, for they had sworn not to leave me even though I had freed them both some time before. We made a leisurely progress around the toe of Italia, past the shores of Graecia to Greta, where we took on fresh food, and then straight across to the Asian coast.

We came in with the setting sun behind us, illuminating the flat strip of tilled land, so rich in orchards and vineyards, and the rising ground beyond it with a rich, golden glow. The fortress loomed over one horn of the little harbour, with the walled town behind it, but more whitewashed buildings showed among the trees to the south, and as we drew closer I could see the smooth crescent of the amphitheatre, its tiered seats facing the sea.

Since the second Jewish rebellion had left Hierosolyma in ruins Caesarea had been the capital of Palestine. Here the Procurator had his palace, and it was here that Eusebius, the senior bishop for the province, had his church and see. I could see why the Romans liked it—in climate and atmosphere it reminded me strongly of the area around Baiae.

On the third day after my arrival, when I was sufficiently rested, my bearers carried me from the Procurator's palace to dine with Eusebius at a little house he had among the olive groves above the town. It was now the end of summer, and our couches had been arranged on a terrace where we could watch the sunset and wait for the relief the sudden drop in temperature brought at the end of the day.

"It is a beautiful country," I said, sipping some of the local wine.

"The coastal strip is fertile, if it is cared for," anwered Eusebius, "and some of the valley of the Jordan, and around Lake Tiberias in the Galilee. Inland, the country grows arid, fit for grazing, and farther south it is desert, fit only for scorpions."

Here in his own home he looked more relaxed, but he was the same thin, sallow-skinned intellectual I had met in Nicomedia. It was said that the library he had amassed here was better, especially in relation to the Church, than anything in Rome, and he was noted as an apologist and historian. I estimated his age at about ten years less than my own.

"My lady is unaccustomed to heat," said Cunoarda. "I hope that she will not be required to spend much time in the wilderness."

Eusebius cleared his throat. "Augusta, may I speak freely?" I gestured permission, lifting an eyebrow in enquiry, and he went on. "If the decision were mine, you would not be required to travel at all. To identify the places associated with our Lord can be a useful aid to faith, but to make them places of veneration and pilgrimage, as if they were in themselves holy, is to fall into the error of the pagans and the Jews. The religion of Moses was founded upon the Holy City, but even the name of Hierosolyma has been lost. Without the Temple, their religion must die. No Jews live in Aelia Capitolina now."

I lifted one eyebrow. There were Jews in every great city in the Empire. The ones I had known in Londinium seemed to be flourishing. Perhaps Hadrian had reinvented Judaea and turned it into Palestine, but the Jews seemed to have reinvented their religion as well. Still, I knew better than to say so.

"But there are Christians—" I probed gently instead. Sylvester had taken care to brief me on the rivalry between Eusebius and Bishop Macarius of Aelia Capitolina.

He shrugged. "A small community. And the locations of some of the sites associated with the incarnation of the Christos are known. Since the Emperor has ordered it, I will be happy to escort you there."

"We must all obey the Emperor," I agreed blandly.

Two days later we began our journey, following the Via Maris southwards in easy stages across the Plain of Sharon. For me there was a litter with two teams of trained bearers, while Cunoarda, Martha and Eusebius rode mules. Through the gauze curtain I could see the flash of sunlight on the helmets of my escort, sent to guard me and the chests of coin with which I, on behalf of the Emperor, would fund the building of churches in those places I deemed worthy. The rhythmic clash and tramp of the rearguard echoed from behind.

In Rome, I had been a dying woman, and when I set out upon this journey the Emperor had forced upon me I had hoped the stress of travel would release me from my pain. And indeed, it was doing so, but instead of death, I drew in life with each breath of the warm, salt-scented air. Was Palestine indeed a Holy Land, or was it only that I was at last returning to the path of my destiny?

The road passed through open woodlands where umbrella pines mingled with oak and hazelnut. Each day, the hills on our left grew taller and more rugged, clothed in grey-green scrub and the last of the golden grass. The heat of the air was relieved by the breeze from the sea. Inland, one found fields of barley, and mud houses whose gardens were planted with pomegranate and fig and vine.

At night I slept on a well-cushioned folding bed in a tent of yellow silk, with warm blankets to keep me from the damp chill as night released the moisture from the air. Martha or Cunoarda lay on a pallet before the door. In this land, which was so close to her homeland, Martha bloomed like a flower. Cunoarda's fair skin burned and peeled, but she did not complain. As I spent more time in his company, I began to realize that Bishop Eusebius was a complex man. He had survived the persecutions without losing either his reputation or his life, and managed to avoid being caught on the losing side of the Arian controversy. Now he faced a greater challenge.

Christians in the West had had almost twenty years to learn how to take advantage of Constantine's enthusiasm, but in the East, although Licinius had granted them toleration, only in the past two years had they begun to deal with the temptations of privilege. Eusebius's theology of a kingdom not of this world must have been perfectly suited to an embattled urban community surrounded by pagan iconography. From all accounts, the Romans had done their best to deprive Palestine of any spiritual significance at all. But Constantine had made it quite plain that he intended to reinvent the Holy Land, replacing the mythology of the older faiths with that of the new, just as he spoke now of founding a new Rome to replace the ancient capital with its weight of history. The notion had an epic grandeur which even in my current state of disillusion I had to admire. Whether it was truly Christian, I did not know. But Eusebius, if he wanted to survive, would have to go along with it.

Past Joppa our road turned inland, following a streambed, bearing only a trickle of water at this time of year, into the hills. The air was drier here, though the people of the country laughed when I said so. This was nothing compared to the land beyond the river Jordan, which flowed into a lake that was even more salt than the sea. Fortunately, as we climbed, we left behind us the damp heat of the coastal plain, and made better time.

As day followed golden day, we wound along the road through the hills until one morning we rounded a slope and saw, on the height across the curving valley, Aelia Capitolina, which had once been called Hierosolyma.

The walls had been built from the local stone, cream and gold with rusty stains as if all the blood that had been shed in this place had soaked into the ground. Huts clung to the slopes below them, with the remains of roads to show that once there had been more dwellings there. The tiled roofs of some of the principal Roman buildings were visible above the wall. This was the town that Hadrian had built after the last Jewish rebellion two hundred years before. Clearly it was the City of David no longer. How, I wondered, would it be changed by becoming the City of Constantine?

Then the bearers lifted my litter, I let the gauze curtains drop and we began the journey's final stage.

These days, Aelia was a military town, existing to serve the Tenth Legion which had been stationed here to guard against invasion from the east or local rebellion. Its commander lived in the fortress, and the house of the bishop, Macarius, was a modest place with no room for visitors, located outside the walls on Mount Sion. However one of the few wealthy merchants in the city had been only too happy to vacate his house for the visit of the mother of the Emperor. He himself had already set out for his other residence in Alexandria, so I need feel no guilt for having dispossessed him.

The next morning, the bishop himself arrived to escort me to the site of the Holy Sepulchre. It seemed to me that he greeted Eusebius with a hint of pious triumph, as if he already had the primacy of Palestine in his grasp. But Macarius was growing frail, while Eusebius was a veteran of Church politics. No matter what relics were found here, I did not think he would be dethroned so easily.

"It may not look as if we have made much progress," said Bishop Macarius apologetically, "but indeed the place looks very different than it did a few months ago. The abomination that was the Temple to Venus is gone, and we are making good progress in removing the rubble with which they covered the sacred ground."

Rubble indeed, I thought as I gazed around me. Several marble columns, which some thrifty architect had saved for re-use elsewhere, lay stacked at one end of the forum, which was littered with ropes and other gear. Workmen were emerging from the excavation beyond it like so many ants, bent beneath wicker baskets of earth and stone, and dumping their loads onto a steadily increasing pile. Women, their wrappings so impregnated with dust they seemed themselves to be creatures of the soil, were picking over the rubble.

"Each night waggons take the sifted earth to the valley to extend the fields," said Macarius. The larger stones are saved for building, and the little ones will be used to repair the roads when the winter rains come. And sometimes they find other things—vessels of pottery or glass, a piece of jewellery, or coins. It is the coins we seek above all."

"To help defray the cost of the work?"

Macarius shook his head. "Not entirely. We allow the workers to keep what they find, or they would try to hide things, and we might miss some relic of our Lord. So long as the coins we find are later than the time of Tiberius, we will know that we must dig deeper."

I nodded, amused, and a little surprised, to find the old man so practical.

"In the gospels," he went on, "we are told that soldiers diced for Christ's clothing at the very foot of the Cross. May we not hope that when the earth shook and the heavens were darkened they might have dropped some of their winnings there?"

At that moment one of the women held up something small, and the Bishop limped over to see.

"This talk of relics is superstition, though his idea about dating the coins shows a sound grasp of history," said Eusebius beside me. "It is the empty tomb, the Sign of the Resurrection, that should concern us here."

Together we moved closer to the excavation. "In the time of the Incarnation," he went on, "this spot was just outside the city walls. But the new wall that was built by Herod Agrippa included it, and when Hadrian refounded the city he placed the forum here, at the crossroads."

One could count on Eusebius to stick to the facts, I thought as I gazed at the gnawed earth below. A knob of rock seemed to be emerging to one side. Still, there was something rather engaging about Macarius's simple enthusiasm.

"I have heard it said that the Emperor placed the Temple of Aphrodite there on purpose, to scandalize the Christians."

Eusebius shrugged. "Perhaps, though he was not one of the great persecutors. It is the Jews who earned his wrath. I suspect that Hadrian put the temple here simply because it was convenient, and the site was covered in an attempt to level it."

I could see his point. The city was set on a plateau surrounded on three sides by canyons, and even the top had irregularities. The earlier wall had ended where a quarry had bitten deeply into the ground, but beyond it the ground rose in a hill. I could see what looked like the beginnings of a deeper ditch at the edge of the forum as well. I knew that the thought of the events that had taken place on this spot ought to move me, but I could find no meaning in the confused scene before me now.

Eusebius frowned. "Until the diggers have finished there will not be much to see here. Perhaps you should look at some of the other sites—the Galilee, or perhaps Bethlehem, which is only a half a day's journey to the south."

"To begin at the beginning?" I nodded. For some, like the Bishop, the proof of his religion was in the elegance of its theology. But I came from a place where power flowed through the earth and gathered in sacred pools. If God had become Man here in Palestine, surely the land itself would bear witness in some way to the miracle.

It was the season of the grape harvest, and in the villages, the people were picking the ripe fruit in the little vineyards that patched the hills. Patient donkeys made their way along the road before us, almost hidden by the great baskets of grapes they bore. On our journey to Aelia, I had been insulated from contact with the people, but even the commander forgot to be suspicious when confronted by laughing girls who offered him frothing cups of freshly-pressed juice along the way.

The village of Bethlehem had not changed much since the time of Jesus. A cluster of flat-roofed mud houses interspersed with stock-pens and clumps of greenery spread over the hilly ground.

"Do you see where some of the structures are built out from the slopes?" asked Eusebius. "There are caves behind them that the people use for stables and storage, because they are cool. They press out the oil of their olives there as well."

"Do you mean that Jesus was born in a cave?"

"A cave that was being used as a stable. There it is, ahead of us. This site has been known for a long time. The clay manger is still there."

He did not sound very excited, but by now I had realized that what mattered to Eusebius was not the place itself but its value as a historical proof of the Incarnation. Any lack of enthusiasm on his part was more than made up for by the villagers who swarmed around us, offering to show the sacred cave.

Somewhat to my surprise, the way was partially blocked by a grove of cedar trees.

"It is the grove of Tammuz," said the little girl who had taken my hand. "The pagans mourn him at the same time as we weep for Jesus in the spring."

I blinked at this easy acceptance, but Eusebius had warned me that some of the Christians in the country district were little better than pagan themselves. It did not seem so bad a thing to me, if it allowed them to live in amity.

The cave seemed very dark after the bright afternoon, but an oil lamp was flickering, and as my eyes adjusted I saw the clay feeding trough where the walls sloped sharply inward to the grotto's end. Inside the manger someone had laid a bunch of flowers. It was very still.

Eusebius had knelt to pray, with Martha beside him, but I stood, eyes closed and feet rooted firmly in the ground, and something that had been tensed since I had first been ordered to make this journey began to relax. Beneath the scents of old incense and lamp oil and a hint of goat there was something else, which after a moment I identified as the clean aroma of damp stone. Stone is eternal, I thought, and moved to the side so that I could lay my hand against the cool surface. Stone holds memories.

I extended my awareness into the rock, searching for impressions of the past. For a time all that came into my mind were the elemental needs of the beasts that had been kept here. Then, for a moment, I sensed a woman's pain, the profound relief of birth, and a flare of ecstasy as the child was put into her arms. Whatever Jesus was, I can believe that he was bom here, I thought then.

When I opened my eyes, Martha and the little girl were both gazing not at the manger but at me, with wonder in their eyes.

"I am thirsty," I said briskly. "Is there water here?"

"A well—among the trees," whispered the girl.

It was late afternoon by now and the light slanted golden through the grove. Strips of cloth and ribbons had been tied to the branches of one of them, that overlooked the little pool.

"Thus they do also in my own land," I laid my hand upon the rough trunk and closed my eyes, allowing awareness to follow the life of the tree down to its roots and upward once more to the leaves that drew in life from the sun.

And then, for a moment it was not a tree but a female body that I was sensing, feet rooted in the soil and arms reaching for the sky. The image transmuted and I saw a tree trunk carved into the image of the goddess. Women whirled around her, garlanded with flowers. "Asherah …" they chanted, "Asherah …"

These were the Asherim that the prophets cut down in the Courts of the Temple! I realized in amazement. They were trying to destroy the Goddess. And it is She, before Tammuz, who was honoured in this holy grove!

As the vision released me I realized that the girl was still speaking—

"Trees are for the Mother, the Virgin who gives birth to the Child of Prophecy. In Mamre, which is just down the road, there is an ancient terebinth tree where Abraham dreamed of his descendents. The family of King David is a tree, and Jesus is at the top of it… I hope they will not cut these trees down."

"When I give orders for the building of the church here I will ask the architects to save them." I replied.

No doubt Eusebius would have disapproved of the child's mixed theology, but it seemed to fit that moment, and I realized that in their own way, the rustling trees were also witnesses to the fact that once more the Mother was being worshipped here.

It was growing dark by the time we got on the road once more. The villagers had begged us to stay the night and join their celebration, but I judged that a journey with my own bed at the end of it would be less taxing than a night on a lumpy mattress with fleas. But as we started to descend the last slope I heard a squeal and one of the soldier's horses reared.

Above the centurion's curses as they got the animal calmed I heard a soft whining. "Wait," I called. "There's something out there."

"A wild beast," said the commander, loosening his javelin. "But nothing large enough to hurt us, by the sound of it." He motioned to a trooper to follow him with the torch.

"It sounds like a dog—" I watched the flickering light move along the side of the road.

"You were right, my lady!" the commander called back. "It is one of the wild dogs that roam the hills, with a broken leg. I'll put it out of its misery."

"Don't harm it!" I cried. "Let one of our men wrap it in a cloak so it can't bite and we'll take it back to the city."

"Augusta, you can't make a pet of a wild dog!" exclaimed Eusebius.

"Are you presuming to tell the Empress Mother what she cannot do?" Cunoarda asked dangerously.

I ignored them, my attention on the squirming mass of red wool from which emerged a golden, short-furred head with frantic dark eyes. Gently I spoke to the animal until at last it quieted. Only then did I give the order to resume our journey.

That night I dreamed I was once more a girl on Avalon, bending to drink from the sources of the blood spring, where the water trickled out from a cleft in the side of the hill. In the dream, it was somehow the same as the cave in Bethlehem, but now I realized how much the opening looked like the gateway to a woman's womb.

In my dream, I wept for all that I had lost, until there came a voice that whispered, "You are the child of Earth and starry Heaven. Do not forget the soil from which you have sprung…" and I was comforted.

My foundling proved to be a female dog just past puppyhood. I called her Leviyah, which is "Lioness' in the Hebrew tongue. She bit two of the troopers before the legion's horse-doctor could splint her leg, but once I had put her into a small dark room she grew calmer. Perhaps she thought it was a den. From then on I allowed no one else to bring her food or water, and gradually the dog's panic became acceptance, and acceptance grew to trust, until she was taking food from my hand.

Leviyah remained shy with others, but from then on she followed at my heels, hiding beneath my skirts when there was too much commotion, and springing forth with bared teeth if she thought me threatened. She made some of my entourage nervous, but what was the use of being an empress if I could not indulge my whims?

A few weeks later, we made another expedition, to the Mount of Olives which rose to the east of the city. With age, I had come to wake early, though I often needed a nap in the afternoon. When Eusebius suggested that I should arise in time to see the sun rise upon the city, I agreed, although when I emerged into the chill gloom of the hour just before dawn, I wondered why.

But inside my litter I was wrapped warmly, and Leviyah radiated heat against my thigh. We passed through the silent streets and down into the valley of Kidron, then started up again through the rubble-strewn slopes and past the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus had wrestled with his mortality and been betrayed.

When we reached the summit the stars were fading, and before us, the dim inchoate mass of the city was assuming shape and meaning, as if this were the morning of Creation and we were watching the first emergence of the world. Like Rome, Hierosolyma took much of its character from its sacred hills. Now I could make out Mount Moriah, on which the Jews had built their temple; and glimpse Mount Sion, just outside the wall on the southern side. More and more buildings became visible, though they still seemed lifeless against the grey sky.

And then, of a sudden, the air was filled with radiance, and my shadow stretched out before me as if reaching for the luminous city beyond the gulf of shadow that lay below. Buildings which a moment before had been lifeless mud and plaster and stone glowed suddenly in a hundred shades of gold.

"Our Lord stood here," whispered Eusebius, his voice harsh with unwonted emotion. "He taught his disciples in the cave beneath our feet, and He prophesied that not one stone of Hierosolyma should be left upon another. And Titus fulfilled His word."

And yet the city still stands before us, I thought then. I shivered, recognizing the sink and shift of consciousness that was altering my vision. I still saw Hierosolyma, but now I saw it as a series of layers, its outlines continually shifting while its essence remained the same. Words echoed through my awareness.

"The Romans were not the first to destroy this city, nor will the Jews be the last to lose it. It has fallen many times before, and will go down in blood and fire and be rebuilt in clean stone again and again, as one conqueror replaces another upon this land. The followers of Christ will make it their sacred centre, yet men of a faith yet unborn shall rule it until the children of Abraham return to claim it again.

"And again and again the blood shall flow across those stones, until not only the three faiths of Jahweh, but all the cults whose altars have been cast down shall worship here once more. For I tell you that Hierosolyma is indeed a place of power, and it is not men who have made it so, but rather they who have been touched by the force that rises up from the depths of its rock to seek union with the sky…"

Blinking, I came to myself once more. The ghostly outlines of the cities past and yet to come were fading, and the city of the here and now lay revealed with brutal clarity by the hard light of day. And yet I knew that those other Hierosolymas were still present, part of the eternal Holy City that would always be.

"Lady, are you unwell?" whispered Cunoarda. I found that I was leaning against her. Eusebius was still gazing at the view, and I realized with relief that I had not spoken aloud.

"A momentary distraction," I replied, pulling myself upright.

Eusebius gestured towards the hilltop, where an outcrop of bare stone was encircled by olive trees. "And from this point Christ ascended into heaven. Christians have worshipped here ever since that day."

I bowed my head in reverence, but I knew that when I instructed the architects to build the church here, it would not crown the summit, but rise above the cave in the earth where Jesus had revealed to his followers the deepest mysteries.

That night I dreamed I was climbing a mountain. At first I thought I was ascending the Mount of Olives with a company of Christian pilgrims, but this was a smaller hill, and as the light grew I saw that it was the Tor. Below I could see the cluster of beehive huts and the round church that had been built by Joseph of Arimathea, and I realized that this was Inis Witrin of the monks, not Avalon. And yet, as I climbed, my vision altered, and I knew that I was seeing both at once. And still my sight sharpened, until I could look beneath the surface of the Tor to the crystalline structure of caves within.

With December, winter came to the Judaean hills, with violent storms and a perpetual damp chill that bit to the bone. Storms on the Mediterranean made a return to Rome inadvisable, work on the Sepulchre had become almost impossible, and when I developed a racking cough that worsened my usual winter breathing problems, Bishop Eusebius suggested that I move down to Jericho, where it was warmer, while he stayed to watch over the excavation.

As we made our way along the Jericho road, I could see that the terrain was changing, the trees that had clothed the hills around Hierosolyma giving way to scrub, which diminished until it seemed to disappear into the stony hills. At the slow pace my aching joints required it took us three days to reach the palm-girt oasis whose mud buildings huddled below the ancient mound. The palace of Herod was in ruins, but once more, a local merchant was happy to give up his house to an empress.

Eventually I began to feel well enough to explore the surrounding countryside and give Leviyah a chance to run. Compared to the great rivers of Europe I found the Jordan a modest stream, even when swollen by the winter rains, but the greenery that edged it made it pleasant. Venturing farther, we followed the river down to the shores of the Dead Sea.

To the west, the clouds which were no doubt still drenching Hierosolyma hung above the hills, but here, the sky was an intense blue. At this season the folds of the hills sheltered some vegetation, but it seemed impossible that men should live here, until our guide pointed out a brushwood shelter or a hole in the cliffs where one of the Perfect! had come to escape the temptations of the world. We made camp below the ruins of a place called Sekakah, where a community of Jewish holy men had lived in earlier days.

In this bare land I found a curious peace. A messenger was sent to bring back the supplies we would need for a more permanent encampment, and we settled in. I bathed in the saline waters, warm as blood and so thick with minerals that I floated upon the surface like a child in its mother's womb. And I took long walks along the sun-baked shore with Leviyah frisking by my side.

It was during one of these walks, in the middle of the day when the rocks—water-worn or sculpted into fantastic mushroom-shapes—blazed white in the sun, that I encountered the old man. Like me, he had come out to greet the noon, standing with uplifted arms at the edge of the sea.

Surprisingly, Leviyah remained still until he had finished his devotions. As she danced up to him, he turned with a smile. But I held back until he gestured a welcome. Life in this arid land had fined him down to bone and whipcord, his skin too leathery for me even to guess his age, beyond the evidence of his grizzled hair and beard. Save for a bit of goatskin tied around his skinny hips he was unclad.

"I thought you might be one of those who is not permitted to speak to a woman," I said when we had turned to look out over the water again. Its lead-coloured waters shimmered in the sunlight, and I blinked, trying to pin down the sense that I had lived this moment before.

"What is male or female when we stand as spirits before God? In the desert, true opposites are obvious—light opposes darkness, heat battles the cold," he answered. "Truth is easier to see. Men come here now to live as anchorites because they can no longer hope for the martyrdom of blood to wash away their sins. But they are not the first to seek enlightenment in this wilderness. The men of Sekakah lived a life of purity in their caves, and our Lord Himself spent forty days and forty nights wrestling with illusions not so far from here."

"And are you one of those who seek wisdom?" I said, watching Leviyah hunt among the stones and sticks cast up upon the shore.

"Since before His day there has always been a small community here, passing on certain teachings that the established religions have forgotten. In times past, persecution was likely to interrupt traditions. In these days, I fear that certain aspects of the ancient wisdom will become unacceptable to a church that is learning how to live with wealth and power."

"Why do you say such things to me?" I asked, focusing on his face at last. Suddenly I was certain that I had seen him before. "I am the mother of the Emperor."

"Even in this life that is not all you are—" he reached out and touched the spot where once the crescent of Avalon had blessed my brow. How had he known? My forehead was deeply lined and my skin browned by the sun; the old tattoo was no more than a discoloration now.

"By this I recognize you as a sister in a tradition kindred to my own, an initiate of the Mysteries."

I gazed at him in astonishment. From time to time I had met priests of the Mediterranean gods who recognized that behind all their cults lay a greater truth, but I had never expected to hear a Christian speak this way.

"And there is something more. I have had a vision," he said then. "For a time the holy Joseph—he in whose tomb Christ was laid -dwelt among us, before he sailed away across the sea. In my vision, he appeared and told me that you would come. When I saw you, I was to speak these words:

" 'Follow the setting sun to your journey's beginning, and through the mists of morning you shall pass between the worlds…' "

"Does this mean something to you?"

I remembered now—twice, I had dreamed this. I nodded, weeping, though the warm air dried my tears before they could fall.
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20

We travelled up to the Holy City just before the Feast of the Resurrection. On the lower slopes, the vivid green of spring was already ripening to summer gold, but the heights around Hierosolyma were bright with new leaf and meadows jewelled with red buttercups, with little pinkish-purple orchids and hairy flax and a host of other flowers. It seemed that every migrating bird in this part of the world flew over Palestine, and the air rang with their cries.

"Rejoice! Rejoice in the spring!" they sang, "Kore returns from Hades, and the Son of God arises from the tomb!"

On the slopes around the city dense colonies of rock-rose were covered with snowy white bloom, as were the spiky sprays of desert thorn. Inside the gates, one became suddenly aware of hidden gardens when a trill of birdsong and a whiff of perfume came drifting over a wall.

Bishop Macarius's round face was as bright as the flowers, in the past two months his diggers had made great progress. They had unearthed a hard knob of stone which was clearly the site of the Crucifixion, and laid bare the hillside beyond it, into whose slopes had been dug a number of tombs. But his very success presented a new problem, for none of the openings still held bodies, so how were they to tell from which one the angel had rolled back the stone?

With my stick to steady me on one side and a strong young priest ready to catch me on the other, I crossed the ditch and made my way across the uneven ground. A philosopher would have welcomed the current situation as a way to test the hypothesis that great events can sanctify a location, for this site, though historical, had been inaccessible until now. At Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives, the devotion of two centuries had left an impression, and there, I could not be entirely certain whether the images I was perceiving came from the events that had taken place there or the focused yearnings of the pilgrims who believed in them. To Eusebius, simply identifying the location was a powerful aid to faith, but Macarius, and Constantine, wanted a place of power.

I paused, turning to my left to study the knob of stone.

"We believe this to be the place they called Golgotha, because it looked like a skull. The stone here is more fissured than the rest, and I suppose that is why it was not quarried." Macarius pointed to the uneven surface.

I laid one hand upon the stone, and after a long moment jerked it away, shuddering at the echoes of agony it retained. "Surely this was a place of execution—the very stones still cry out in pain," I whispered, though I could not say with certainty whose it had been.

There was a murmur of awe from behind me and I sighed, realizing the story would be all over the city before night fell.

"Be comforted, my lady," said the young priest when he saw how I had been shaken. "Behold the empty tomb!"

There were in fact two chambers in the side of the hill that were still in good condition, and several others that might have been tombs before the stone crumbled away. Clearly neither Eusebius nor Macarius had dared to make a choice for fear the other would object to it. I, representing the Emperor, was expected to decide.

To those with the skill to sense such things, places retain memories of great deeds that have been done there. But this tomb, unlike all others, was important because the body of Jesus had not remained within.

"We must pray to God to guide us…" I told them. "Celebrate the Divine Services for the holy days on this spot, and perhaps He will communicate His will."

Palm Sunday had already passed, and the town was full of visitors. The air throbbed with tension as the Church, triumphant in the Emperor's favour, launched into the traditional round of ceremonies, and the tide of devotion carried me along. On the eve of Good Friday I went once more to the site, hoping for inspiration.

The tombs gave me no help, but as I returned, I noticed in the ditch a sprig of green. One of the workmen dug it up for me and I took it back to my chamber, where Cunoarda, who was accustomed to my eccentricities, found a pot for me to plant it in. It sat on my windowsill, next to the little clay image of the tree goddess that had been dug up by one of the workmen.

The very air of Hierosolyma seemed to darken with the emotions of Good Friday, and the people gathered at the foot of Golgotha wailed as once they had wept for Tammuz, who also died in the spring. During all the day that followed I lay upon my bed, fasting. And in that half-aware state that can result from deprivation, many thoughts took root in my imagination and flowered there. As I wondered about the tomb chambers, memory brought to mind the other caves that I had seen. It seemed to me then that all three were earthen wombs. From the first cave in Bethlehem, Christ was born into the mortal world, the second, on the Mount of Olives, was a birth of wisdom, and from the third, by Golgotha, he was born into immortality. His followers denied the Goddess, but She was here, in the figure of Mary—Virgin, Mother and sorrowing Crone, and in the female recesses of Earth herself, who receives the dead into her embrace so that new life can arise with the spring.

And I thought then that this was what Eusebius, whose religion was of the mind, did not understand—that if there is only one Divinity to be worshipped, it must be addressed in many ways, as Man and God and Mother, as pure Spirit, and in the physical icons which bear witness to the Divine Presence having made itself manifest in the world. Even superstition could promote faith. In this, Constantine spoke for his people—his heart was still pagan enough to know that outward and visible signs were needed to lead earthly men to inward and invisible grace.

When darkness fell I passed into an uneasy sleep in which I experienced a series of dreams. In the first I thought I was awake, for I was still in my chamber, but the sunlight was shining on my potted plant and I knew it was day. However, the plant had grown, dividing into several twisty branches that sprouted both green leaves and thorns. As I watched, it began to put forth starry white flowers. I recognized it then as the thornbush that the monks of Inis Witrin said had grown from the staff that Joseph of Arimathea had stuck into the ground.

From that recognition I passed, in the way of dreams, to Golgotha, as it was in the days when Tiberius ruled. I stood with a crowd of people before the knob of stone. Three crosses had been set there, but as I watched, the central one began to sprout leaves and branches and starry white flowers. It was not dead wood but a living tree that we honoured, renewal instead of sacrifice.

And again the scene shifted. It was evening, and the city trembled beneath a lowering sky. Two men bore a rude stretcher from Golgotha, while weeping women followed behind. They were carrying the broken body of a man. As they neared the hillside in which the tombs were situated a solider motioned to them to hurry, and they manhandled the corpse into one of the dark openings and laid it upon the clay slab. A great stone was leaning against the hillside beside it, its edges still white where it had been hewn. Grunting, the two men managed to roll it across the entrance.

Then the younger man went back to the women, trying to give comfort. But the older paused for a moment, and seeing that the Roman was watching the others, drew upon the stone with his finger the sigil of an initiate of the highest Mysteries. He was better dressed than the rest of them—a man of middle age with silver in his beard. As he turned, the last light of the sun illuminated his features, and with the certainty of dream I recognized him not only as the anchorite I had met by the Dead Sea, but as the old monk I had spoken with so long ago at Inis Witrin.

In the morning, I was carried out to join in the celebration of the Resurrection in a sedan chair, for I was too exhausted to walk. The day had dawned fine and clear, and above the murmur of the crowd came the triumphant choruses of the birds. The deep singing of the priests made the fine hairs rise on the back of my neck and arms. Gold and jewels flashed in the sunlight from the robes of the priests, and the smoke of incense from the altar they had set up in front of the tombs hung in blue swirls in the still air.

There is power here, I thought as the drama of the Mass came to a conclusion. It may not be the only truth in the world, but this story they are telling is true. I could feel the life returning to my limbs, and as the bishop lifted his hands in dismissal I rose from my chair. In the morning sun the openings to the tombs showed clearly beyond the altar. By one of them lay part of a large stone.

It seemed to me now that if events had happened as the gospels described them they would have left an impression of power within the tomb, a power so great I was afraid even to try to touch it. But the mark upon the stone I might seek after, for I was an initiate of the same Mysteries.

And so I did, and did not even know that the people had grown silent, watching me, for I was staring at the dark opening beyond the stone that I had found.

Upon the rocky floor lay a scattering of white petals from the holy thorn.

I stayed in Hierosolyma throughout that spring and into the summer, conferring with the architects whom Constantine had sent to build churches above the sacred sites that I had found. From my window I could see the foundations of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with its long nave extending to the east, as was so common in Constantine's churches, so that when the doors were opened, the high altar would blaze in the light of the rising sun. The Rock of Golgotha had been trimmed to fit into the courtyard on the southern side, and the hillside behind the tomb cut away so that it could be covered by a rotunda.

I had been brought up to believe that the eternal powers cannot be contained in temples made by human hands, and sacred space should be honoured, not owned. But if this building, gilded and jewelled with mosaics from ceiling to floor, was more likely to impress pilgrims with the glory of the Church than the wonder of the Resurrection, that was the tradition of the Mediterranean world. I could foresee a time when the pagan shrines that had sanctified the landscape and scandalized the Christians would be replaced by Christian icons. I wondered if by then there would be any pagans left to be upset by the change.

One evening Eusebius arrived for dinner, beaming. The Emperor, he told me, had decided to refound the city of Drepanum as Helenopolis in my honour, and build a church to the martyr Lucian there.

"It is a victory for the Arian way of thinking," he told me over the lamb and barley. "For Lucian was not only the best student of the theologian Origen, but he himself taught Arius."

"I thought he was a priest in the church at Antiochia who published a new edition of the scriptures—"

"That is so, but he was executed in Drepanum by Maximinus. You must visit there on your way home and give it your blessing."

No doubt that would please Constantine, I thought unhappily. My son had taken to calling himself the thirteenth apostle, a status which in practice seemed to demand the adulation formerly reserved for gods. The Roman Emperors had been deified for centuries, but normally they waited for death to assume full godhead. Constantine seemed to be adopting the Eastern fashion of looking upon rulers as living avatars of a god. Obviously no one dared to remind him that the kingdom of Jesus had not been of this world.

"It is time I made plans for my departure," I said aloud. The words of the anchorite echoed in my memory, and images of Avalon haunted my dreams. But my present life of privilege was also a prison—how could I escape it? For now it would be enough to return to Rome. Perhaps from there I would be able to see my way.

By the time I left Palestine a full year had passed. I did not detour to visit Drepanum, preferring to remember it as it had been when I lived there with Constantius. Martha, her fervour undiminished, had remained to serve in the household of Bishop Macarius, but my faithful Cunoarda was still with me, and my Canaanite dog, and the little thorn tree. With us came several chests full of souvenirs, both gifts and things I had somehow ended up buying—Palestinian robes and pottery, Tyrian textiles and glass from Askalon. It was Rome that now seemed strange, a vast labyrinth of decaying splendours which included the Domus Sessorianum.

Constantine was still in the East, supervising the demolition of the old town of Byzantium so that he could create a new Rome that would bear his name. The little boy who had built fortresses in our back garden now had an entire city to play with. Even the Emperor Hadrian's building projects had stopped short of such ambition. When Constantine had finished with Constantinople, would he compel God, I wondered, to let him re-create the world?

Shortly after my return I went to the church of the saints Marcellinus and Petrus to attend services and to donate a golden vessel that had been given to me by the Procurator in Palestine. In one of the courtyards stood a sarcophagus of white marble with reliefs of horsemen. Constantine had ordered it, said the priest, but now the Emperor was planning a great mausoleum in Constantinople, and no one had said what was to be done with the thing.

I suppressed my amusement and assured him that they would no doubt find some use for it, and encouraged him to return to his report on the church's charities. I had had some thought of occupying my days by helping out here, but it was clear that Helena Augusta was far too important a figure to be allowed to dirty her hands in that way. At least I assumed that the reverence with which I was treated was due to my position. But since I returned from the Holy Land the offerings of flowers had begun to appear at my door again, and sometimes people would make me an obeisance that even the Emperor did not demand. It was disquieting, and I realized that I would either have to become a recluse, or go about the city in disguise.

Cunoarda was scandalized, but in Palestine I had grown accustomed to a simpler life. I was now nearly eighty years old, and surely, as I told her, I had earned the right to do as I pleased, or at least as much of what I pleased as my ageing body would allow. Too often the old were thrust into a corner, sent off to some country cottage where they would not get in the way of their descendents, or even put into the street, if they had no children who would, however grudgingly, provide for them. To become a gilded icon, set safely in a niche on the wall and brought out on holidays, was only a more comfortable way of being put aside.

But I had been set aside before, when Constantius left me to marry Theodora, and I had no mind to let it happen again. I might be old, but I was not powerless.

Remembering how I had nursed the sick during the plague, I told Cunoarda to go to a shop that sold used clothing and purchase garments suitable for a poor widow. She came back with two long-sleeved gowns, one of dusty brown, the other a faded blue, and both of them neatly mended, sturdy sandals, and several bleached linen veils. The priests at the Church of Marcellinus and Petrus had only seen me jewelled and scented, my features half-hidden by purple gauze. I doubted they would recognize me with white linen bound across my forehead and wearing a shapeless gown.

And so it proved. I was only one of a covey of old women who helped to distribute food to the hungry and clothes and medicines to the poor. The activity eased my frustration, but after a year in Palestine the Roman winter seemed raw and cold, and I fell ill myself in December, and for some months I went nowhere at all.

As I lay in my bedchamber, alternately shaking with cold and burning with fever, it came to me that my life was drawing to an end. This was the ultimate parable of Age, ancient, powerless, useless. I cried out for strength and God's help, and like an initiate plumbing the depths of the Mysteries, I came to rest at last in an empty shrine. And there the secret was confided to me—there is no God, and no Goddess, only the power of the Mother within, giving what little strength one has.

And then I realized that, as in childbirth I had created my own tormentor who would feed on me and destroy me, at the end of life I must endure the painful process of giving birth to the Self, for myself alone. I had to give up power over my child to become detached and uninvolved and let him build his world. Why was this such a surprise? Had I not always known that what I did was by my own will—to leave Avalon with Constantius, to accept responsibility for my child? When I did that, I became the Goddess, with the same ruthless power.

Now I had renounced my child, and the grandchild I loved had been taken from me. It was for younger women to bear and care for children now. I might lend wisdom and counsel, but it was no longer my part to meddle in the affairs of the world, unless it was to teach the young ones what I had learned.

There was nothing left to me but old age and declining strength, and in the end, death. But I was beginning to see that this might also be an opportunity. As a mother, I had had to deny myself in favour of others. Now, it was given to me to be free again, to be uniquely myself, living for myself, procreativeness giving way to creativity.

By the time I had the strength to get up and around, spring had come once more. The little thorn tree, which I had put into the earth just outside the chapel in my palace, had survived its transplanting and was now putting out strong green shoots, starred with white bloom. When I looked at it, I did not see my well-tended gardens, but mist on the water and the smooth green slope of the holy Tor.

I summoned a magistrate, and with his help and Cunoarda's I began work on my will. Every detail must be covered, from freedom for those members of my household who were still slaves to the disposition of the items I had brought back from Palestine. A man's robe, which the merchant had assured me was the very garment worn by Jesus, was to be sent to the bishop at Treveri, and a set of diadems worthy of the Wise Men to the church at Colonia. To Bishop Sylvester I left the Domus Sessorianum itself, with instructions to use its resources as needed, and to take care of the little thorn tree.

Cunoarda pulled a long face, but I found that even simply planning to give so much away left me feeling lighter. How much freer would I feel if I simply walked away? Though I assured Cunoarda I was feeling better, it was likely enough that death would soon release me. But if it did not, perhaps one day I would abandon all that held me in Rome.

Attached to the Church of Marcellinus and Petrus was a kitchen and a covered area where the poor could come for a meal. There was also a small building, lone survivor of the barracks that had formerly occupied the space, where the sick could be nursed for a while. It was a long time since I had been trained in the use of herbs and simples, but I knew more of such things than the priests did, or most of the other women, and they were happy to have my help when I could come.

I had told them that I served a family that had estates in many places, and must often travel with them, which excused me from becoming too close to the community. Still, it was good to go among ordinary people again. In the spring that followed my return from Palestine, I was spending three afternoons a week at the church, while Cunoarda told any enquirers at the palace that I was resting.

It was on one of those afternoons that the old woman from Gallia collapsed over her soup and was carried into the shelter. She had been coming in for the past several weeks. Her name was Drusa, and she had moved to the city with her son, but now he had died and left her alone. I had noticed her particularly because the other helpers thought she resembled me. Perhaps it was the Celtic bone structure we shared. She did not know her age, but I guessed her to be a few years younger than me.

Drusa died just before the Feast of Pentecost, on the day that a messenger had come to tell me that the Emperor was on his way to Rome. Ever since, my stomach had been acid with anxiety, for I knew that there must be a confrontation, but the old woman's death put my own fears into perspective, and in that moment of clarity, from the depths of my soul emerged a plan.

"Drusa is my sister in Christ," I told the priest, "and I will act the part of a kinswoman and see to her burial. A waggon will come for the body this afternoon."

Constantine made a triumphal entry into the city. I did not attend, though even from my palace I could hear the cheers. He was scheduled to attend services at the Lateran cathedral and on the following day, to address the Senate, and then, no doubt, there would be a banquet. It was not until the third day after his arrival that the messenger came to tell me that the imperial entourage was on its way.

By then the domus was worthy of sheltering the imperial presence, every surface polished and shining. Constantine should have no reason to scorn his mother's surroundings now. I received him in one of the private chambers, more intimate than the audience hall, though no less splendid, since I had added the draperies of Tyrian purple and richly-coloured carpets I had purchased in Palestine.

It suited him well, I thought as I rose to greet him. He had come from some formal reception and was still wearing the purple toga brocaded with flowers. I had decked myself out in the robes of an Empress Mother, my hair confined by the pearl diadem.

Three smaller figures, dressed in similar garments, followed him. For a moment I thought they were dwarfs, intended to make the Emperor look even larger. Then I looked again and realized that they were boys, all three of them dark-haired, with skin that did not get enough sun. They gave a supercilious glance at the room's beauties, then flopped down on two of the large cushions next to the table where I had placed a tray of the fig pastries drenched in honey that Constantine used to love.

"Mother, you look well—"

I look old, I thought as the Emperor took my hands and pressed his cheek to mine. Even if I had desired it, court robes did not permit a more affectionate salutation.

"I have brought my boys to see you—Constantinus, Constantius, Constans, salute your grandmother."

Their names might proclaim their sire, but in features these were Fausta's sons, whom I had not seen since they were very small. The oldest must now be about eleven, and the others a year and three years younger. As they reluctantly relinquished the sweetmeats and got up to make their bows I wondered what they had been told about their mother's passing.

"Do you have horses?" asked Constantinus. "I have a white pony that I rode in the procession."

I repressed the memory of the white stallion that Crispus had ridden in our triumphal entry into Rome. At least this child was trying to be polite. His brothers were already roaming about the room, tugging on the curtains and picking up the alabaster vases and delicate bronze figurines.

"I am too old to ride, but I have dogs. If you wish to go out into my gardens you may play with them." Leviyah would avoid these children with the caution of a wild thing, but my other dogs were friendly. With another pang I pushed away the memory of how Crispus had used to play with my dogs.

"Yes, why don't you boys run outside? It is a fine day!"

Clearly the boys recognized the difference between fatherly indulgence and an imperial command, and made no protest when the servant I summoned arrived to lead them away, especially when I picked up the silver tray of pastries and set it into Constantinus's hand.

"They are fine lads," said Constantine fondly, gazing after them.

They are mannerless brats, I thought, but they were his problem, not mine, and he deserved them.

"I like to keep them with me," he went on. "There are those who would use them against me, you know, young as they are."

I nodded, and seated myself on one of the carved ivory chairs, whose rounded back had been carved with scenes of Penelope and Ulysses. Its mate, which creaked as it took Constantine's weight, portrayed Dido and Aeneas.

How did I come to have a son so old? I wondered then. Since I had last seen him the flesh had begun to sag a little on the big bones, and the skin of his face was deeply scored by lines of anger and suspicion as well as power. He seemed to have bounced back from the tragedy of Crispus and Fausta, but not without scars.

"Your journey to Palestine was a great success—" Constantine poured a goblet of wine from the flagon that had been left with the pastries upon the table. "Even if they can agree on nothing else, both Eusebius and Macarius are unanimous in praise of your virtues."

He grimaced as he remembered his battle to force the bishops to consensus. I had heard that the compromises of Nicaea were already fraying. In the old days, men had served the gods as their temperaments inclined and no one would have seen any point in trying to make them all see things the same way.

"As I hoped, the image of the imperial family is beginning to shine brightly once more. Now I would like you to make a journey to the churches founded by Saint Paulus in the cities of the Greek diaspora."

"No." Though I found great beauty in the words of Jesus, I was becoming increasingly aware of a difference between the truths he taught and the church that Paulus had established in his name.

Constantine was still talking. I cleared my throat. "No—I will make no more journeys for you."

"But why? Are you ill?" The Emperor's eyes opened wide as he realized that I had denied him.

"I am well enough, for now, but I am old. I have served you and the Empire. In the time that is left to me I must care for myself—the true Self that lay so long neglected while I was paying attention to other people's needs."

"Do you wish to retire from the world? Perhaps to a community of holy women, praying for the Empire—"

I could see the beginnings of calculation in his eyes. I could not really blame him—this ability to extract political benefit from everything was, I suppose, one of the things that made him an effective emperor. But in a world that was full of stories of young people rebelling against their parents, I had never considered how hard it might be for an elder to win freedom from her children.

"I will not head your congregation of Christian Vestals, Constantine," I said tartly. "But I am going away…'

"I cannot allow that—" Constantine shook his head. "You are too useful to me here."

"Useful!" I was growing angry at last. "How useful will I be if I begin to call the death of Crispus a murder, or proclaim myself disillusioned with Christianity and go to make offerings at the Temple of Juno Regina on the Capitol?"

"You will not! I can imprison you here—" Constantine was half out of his chair, his face flushing dangerously.

"Do you think I have taken no precautions?" I snapped back at him. "I am your mother! I have distributed letters to be sent out in a week's time unless a word from me recalls them."

"You will say that word—"

"Or you will murder me, as you did Fausta? I am old, Constantine, and death holds no terrors. Neither threats nor pain will bend my will!"

"Are you still a Christian?" This was not self-interest, but a deeper and more superstitious fear.

I sighed. How could I make him understand?

"I have always wondered why a man who can see only one colour is considered disabled, and yet is praised when he will accept only one deity. I believe that Christ bore the power of God, and I honour his teachings, but I know that the Goddess in her many guises loves her children as well. Do not try to define me as Christian or Pagan, Constantine." I took a deep breath, remembering the sigil I had seen Josephus of Arimathea inscribe upon the tomb. "I am a servant of the Light. Let that be enough for you."

There was a long silence, and in the end it was Constantine's gaze that fell.

"I do not understand, Mother—what do you want?"

Even now there was a part of me that longed to take him in my arms and comfort him as I had done so many years ago, but I could not allow it to rule me.

I took a deep breath, and answered gently, "I want my freedom, Constantine…"

At last I understood the error I had made so long ago. We give birth to our children, but we do not create them. In my pride I had believed Constantine to be the justification for my existence, and claimed his sins, as well as his achievements, as my own. I could pray for him, but Constantine was an immortal spirit, and though it was through me that he had come into this world, I must neither take upon myself the fate his deeds had earned, nor blame him for my own.

"But how? What will people say?"

"You may tell them I am dead, for indeed I will be dead to you, and to this world."

"What do you mean? What are you going to do?"

"I will leave the world you know, and make my way to a place where you will never find me. In the chapel of my palace lies the body of a poor woman of this city. You may bury her in that tomb at the Church of Marcellinus and Petrus—one old woman looks much like another, and people will see what they expect to see. Tell whatever tale you like, Constantine, mourn the icon of Helena that you have created to feed your glory. But let me go!"

"You are my mother," he protested, his heavy head turning blindly. "You cannot abandon me…'

"Your mother is dead," I rose to my feet. "You are speaking to a memory."

He reached out, but I had drawn a veil of shadow about me in the way I had learned long ago on Avalon, and his grasping fingers closed on air.

"Mother!" he cried, and then: "My mother is dead, and I am alone!"

Despite my resolution, I felt my own eyes filling with tears. I turned away, shadow into shadow, and hurried from the room. But as I hobbled down the corridor I could still hear the master of the Empire, weeping for the mother he had never really known.

That night, Flavia Helena Augusta passed away.

With the help of Cunoarda and one or two other servants who knew the truth about what had happened to Crispus and Fausta and were willing to assist us, the body of Drusa was placed in my bed, and taken from thence immediately to the embalmers, as word of the death of the Emperor's mother spread through Rome.

It was very strange to assist at my own demise, though it was a necessary prerequisite to my resurrection. I was astonished by the tumult of grief that swept the city, even knowing that the people were not mourning me, but an icon of Saint Helena that was more than half the creation of Constantine's propagandists. Perhaps I had done some good in the city, but I did not recognize this worker of miracles.

The air around the palace grew heavy with perfume from the flowers that people had heaped before the doors, already hung with cypress as a sign of mourning. Indeed, it was said that there was not a flower to be had in Rome, so many had been offered here and at impromptu shrines all over the city.

In all this, Constantine was the chief mourner, exchanging his purple for funeral white, his features gaunt with anguish. No one could have doubted his sorrow, and indeed, I believe that he convinced himself that the shrouded body in the chapel truly was his mother. Even if I changed my mind there was no turning back from my decision. I had hurt Constantine too badly, and he would see me dead in truth if I tried a public resurrection.

Bishop Sylvester was to be my executor, assisted in the distribution of my goods by Cunoarda. I had provided for her generously, and we had planned that I would wait at Ostia until she could join me. But I was seized with a morbid desire to observe my own obsequies, and disguised in my peasant clothes, I took refuge in the modest rooms near the Church of Marcellinus and Petrus that I had rented as a part of my disguise.

On the eighth day after my 'death', Bishop Sylvester celebrated my funeral mass. The great Lateran cathedral was crowded, for all the notables of the city were in attendance, whether or not they were Christian. The poorer folk, myself among them, crowded around the entrance. The tall doors were open, and from within one could hear the echo of singing and catch an occasional whiff of incense. But on the whole, I was relieved not to have to listen to the eulogies.

When it was finally over, the funeral procession emerged to carry the cedarwood coffin the short distance to the sarcophagus waiting at the Church of Marcellinus and Petrus. Constantine walked before the bier, barefoot, with his sons beside him. I could see Cunoarda among the veiled women who followed it. The crowd surged after, weeping, and I was borne along with the rest.

I had never quite understood the Christian attitude towards bones. The pagan Romans had had a horror of pollution, and required that their dead be buried outside the city. The roads that led out of every Roman city were lined with tombs. The tombs of heroes and emperors were separate mausoleums, where the offerings of pilgrims sustained them on their progression towards godhood. Even in Palestine, people honoured the tombs of the patriarchs. The graves of the great rooted their people in the land.

But the Christian dead were buried in the churches, in the midst of the cities. Already, every Christian church with any pretension to grandeur had its martyrium, where the body of some saint who by being murdered had achieved instant holiness was enshrined. But the ending of the persecutions had cut off the supply of martyrs. I wondered if they would be forced to take the bodies apart to make them go further—a finger bone in one place and a foot in some other church miles away? Bishop Macarius was right. People hungered for some physical evidence that their faith existed in this world as well as in heaven. But at some point they would have to learn to do without such tangible links. I suppressed a cackle of hysterical laughter at the image of God attempting to gather up all these scattered bits in order to restore the bodies of the saints at Judgment Day.

Of course the most famous tomb of all was empty, and I had my doubts about the graves of some of the apostles, after so many years. So perhaps I should not trouble myself over the fact that the bones in this sarcophagus would not be mine. What would matter was the fact that people believed my body was there. And if their prayers lifted the poor soul whose corpse had become my substitute more swiftly towards heaven, that was surely no more than I owed her, whose death had set me free.
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21

"To be dead is not so terrible. Indeed, I am feeling livelier every day." I gave Cunoarda a reassuring smile.

We had considered passing me off as her mother, but the Empress's freedwoman was well known, and it seemed wiser to say that I was an old British servant called Eilan. It would have been amusing to watch her trying to avoid giving me an order if I had not known how much it troubled her. She was thirty now, and although she was no longer a girl, her red hair and round figure would have been handsome were it not for the anxious frown. My will had provided her with enough money to buy herself a nice little estate anywhere in the Empire and a husband to go with it if she so desired. Each day that she stayed with me I was humbled by her loyalty.

Almost two months had now passed since we took ship from Ostia in the grey dawn of an early summer day. In Massilia we had purchased a modest carriage and begun the long journey north to Britannia.

"You are truly feeling stronger?" asked Cunoarda.

I nodded. I had not realized how the stiff robes and ceremony of my old identity had weighed upon me. Without them I felt lighter in body and spirit, and the shortness of breath that had plagued me in Rome had almost disappeared. I took a deep breath of the hay-scented air, as if I could drink in the sunlight. Soon, I thought, I will become so light I will float away.

To be sure, floating would have been a more comfortable mode of transportation. The route we had chosen led up the valley of the Rhodanus from Arelate to Lugdunum, and from there, through the fields and hills of Gallia. Unfortunately, the condition of the road in any given section was dependent on the dedication of the magistrates responsible for it. A year ago I would have refused to stir without a well-upholstered litter and a team of soft-footed Nubians to carry it, but I was enduring the jolting of the carriage surprisingly well.

If I had known how much I would enjoy my freedom, I thought then, I would have made my escape years ago. But years ago, I reminded myself grimly, I had still been hoping to save the Empire through my son.

Now I began to recognize the hills around Treveri. To stop here was a risk, but I doubted that anyone would look twice at an old woman with a sun-browned face beneath her broad hat, wrapped in a mended shawl.

Even as we crossed the old bridge over the Mosella and wound through the town I could see changes. The palace that I had given to Crispus had been partially demolished, and was being rebuilt as a double cathedral. By now, the frescoes of the imperial women which had decorated his nuptial chambers probably lay in fragments under the new floor.

The woman who kept the inn where we took lodgings was a fount of gossip. From her we learned that the baths where Fausta had died were now the property of the bishop. The exercise hall was being converted into another church, and the rest of the buildings knocked down.

Nobody said so, but clearly they thought that Constantine was trying to buy enough prayers to purge the memory of his crimes. But it was Crispus's memory that was being purged. The people of Treveri had loved their young governor, and resented the fact that the statues and inscriptions that once had honored him had not been restored.

And it had been many months since I had heard from his wife, Helena.

"Remember, until we know the situation you are to let me do the talking—" Cunoarda glanced nervously back down the street. Save for a slave who was sweeping the horse-droppings from in front of his master's door it was empty. It was always possible that someone in the Emperor's service was having Cunoarda followed, but we had seen no signs of it during the long days on the road.

I pulled my veil down to hide my features. "I understand."

The house of Lena's parents was in a quiet street near the outskirts of Treveri, lined by well-kept houses, though the area where we stood had not been swept recently, and there was a chip in the plaster of the wall near the door. It seemed a long time before our knocking was answered, and the door was opened by a girl with her hair tied up in a rag as if she had been cleaning.

Cunoarda and I traded looks. We had been admitted by a doorkeeper when we were here before. But from somewhere deeper in the house I could hear the happy laughter of a child.

"Is your master or your mistress at home?"

"Caecilia Justa is lying down. She has been ill."

"Or the Lady Helena—is she here?"

The girl looked at us with sudden suspicion, and then, evidently deciding that Cunoarda had an honest face, nodded. "She is in the atrium, with the child."

As we passed through the hallway I glimpsed the altar to the ancestral lares with an oil lamp burning before it, and realized that like many in the old aristocracy, the family held to the traditional religion. Though they had clearly fallen on hard times, the household was trying to maintain decent standards. The worn flagstones that paved the atrium were clean, the flowers in the earthenware pots had been watered and pruned.

On the other side of the fountain a small girl was playing, her fair hair flashing from gold to ash as she skipped in and out of the sunlight. By now she must be almost four years old. This, I thought, was a true child of Constantius's line. What would her future be when Fausta's black-browed offspring came to power?

I wanted to scoop her into my arms, but I remained hidden behind my veil. "I am dead, I told myself, I have no right to her now.

As we entered, the woman who had been watching her turned on her bench to greet us. Crispus's wife was even thinner than she had been when I saw her before, but she was still beautiful. Her shadowed gaze fixed on Cunoarda.

"I remember you. You came here with the Empress."

Cunoarda nodded uncomfortably. "My mistress charged me to fulfil certain commissions she did not wish recorded publically in her will. I have brought you a draft for a banker here in Treveri to provide for the little girl."

Lena's eyes rilled with tears. "Blessed be her memory! I am sorry now that I did not reply to her last letter, but I was afraid. Crispus is avenged, but that woman won. Everyone knows that we are in disgrace, and we have been ostracized. My father died last autumn, and we have had to learn to scrape by."

"Then I am glad to bring you the Empress's legacy," said Cunoarda. We sat down on the other bench, and the maidservant brought a tray of preserved fruit and a pitcher of barley-water, very welcome on so warm a day. Though Lena might be thin, she no longer seemed so fragile, as if adversity had brought out a strength she had never needed before.

"I wish money was my only concern," said Lena. "With my father dead, my mother is under the authority of my uncle. He is willing to take her in, but Crispa and I are a liability which even a legacy cannot negate. I fear it will only make me more attractive to one of the farmers to whom he has offered me… I no longer care what happens to me," she added bitterly, "but what about my little girl, when her only choices are safety as a farmer's drudge or death if she tries to claim her heritage in Rome?"

I could bear it no longer. Cunoarda gasped as I leaned forwards, throwing back my veil. "She has another heritage…"

Lena's eyes grew huge, and for a moment I thought she would faint.

"But you died in Rome…"

"I died to Rome," I corrected. "By revealing myself now I place my life in your hands. Listen to me, Lena—you and Crispa are all that is left to me of my grandson, who was the beloved of my heart. I am going where even the Emperor will not follow. Do you have the courage to come with me?"

I could feel Cunoarda radiating disapproval at my side. She had never really believed we could escape together, and no doubt counted our chances even smaller burdened with this fragile woman and a child.

A flush of colour suffused Lena's cheeks and then drained away, leaving her even paler than before. "I always wondered," she whispered, "why Crispus wanted to marry me. He was so glorious and brave, and I was always afraid. But I see that the time has come to prove myself worthy. We will go with you, my lady, whether it be to the Hesperides or Hades!"

"It is to the Hesperides that we shall travel, my dear," I said softly, "to the apple isle of Avalon…'

Crispa, sensing her mother's emotion, came skipping over to stand at Lena's knee, her gaze straying from our faces to the candied figs on the table and back again.

"Crispa," I said softly. "Do you remember me?"

She frowned a little, and then for a moment I saw an ancient soul looking out of her blue eyes.

"You are my mother," she lisped. Lena and Cunoarda exchanged worried glances, but I reached out to take the small warm hand.

"Yes, perhaps I was, but in this life I am your other avia, little one," I said softly. "Would you like to take a journey with me?"

By the time we arrived at Ganuenta, there were new silver threads in Cunoarda's red hair. But if the Emperor's agents were watching us, they had orders not to interfere. When we reached the Rhenus at Mogontiacum we sold the horse and carriage and took passage on a barge carrying timber. It was a pleasant way to travel, and the drama of the gorge just north of the town moved even Cunoarda to wonder. The greatest danger was that Crispa, who clambered all over the barge with the agility of a monkey, would fall overboard.

The Rhenus carried us swiftly past the outposts Rome had built to guard the border. As we drifted by Colonia I gazed at the wall where Constantius had told me we must part, and realized that the old wound to my heart had finally healed. These days I had only to close my eyes to call up his image, and relive the times of our happiness.

Sometimes, when I sat thus, I would hear Lena whispering to her daughter to be quiet, for old people sleep often and should not be disturbed. But these days it was not sleep that claimed me, but the waking dream called memory. Crispus cuddled, warm and golden, in my arms, as real as the little daughter I saw when I opened my eyes. When I lay in my bunk on the barge, Constantius stretched out beside me, telling me what he had been doing during our years apart. Even Constantine came to me at times in the shape of the boy he had been before he became infected with that disease called Empire. And as our journey continued, I was visited more and more often by the folk of Avalon.

Very quickly I learned not to mention these ghostly encounters. At worst, my companions thought my mind was wandering, and at best it made them uncomfortable. Fortunately Lena had improved in health and strength with every mile away from Treveri, and she and Cunoarda had forged an alliance. Anyone who resisted Cunoarda's blunt competence could usually be impressed by Lena's aristocratic manner, and I found that I could leave the ordering of our journey in their hands.

Why had no one ever told me that old age held gifts as well as pains? As a child, I had wondered why the old priestesses looked so content as they dozed in the sun. They knew, I thought, smiling. And sometimes, as I hovered on the threshold between sleep and lucid dreaming, I seemed to glimpse people and scenes that I recognized from some other lifetime. Little Crispa was the only one I could talk to when these far-memories lay heavy upon me, for the very young have just come in over the threshold which the old are about to cross, and at times she remembered the life we had shared before.

Then the moment would pass, and she would be darting away, Leviyah panting at her heels, to hang over the rail and watch the green waters rush by, and I would be abandoned, though not alone.

In Ganuenta I had hoped to visit Nehalennia's shrine, but they said that a flood some years back had damaged it, and the ground was unsafe now that the river's course had changed. My first thought was to endow a new temple. After contributing to so many Christian churches, surely that was the least I could do for the goddess who had guided me for so long. But such an act might have aroused unwelcome questions, and the funds that remained to me were needed to support the two women whom I now spoke of as my daughters, and the child.

If Nehalennia was being forgotten, I alone could not restore her worship. I reminded myself that the Goddess is ever constant and ever changing. When in the slow cycle of years men realized their need for her once more, surely Nehalennia would return. But that night I wept in the darkness, grieving for something lovely and precious that had gone out of the world.

We came to Britannia in the season of harvest, when the air was scented with curing hay and the songs of the reapers rang across the fields of nodding grain. The crossing had been a rough one, and even I found the jolting of a carriage a relief after being tossed about for three days at sea.

"Britannia seems small," said Cunoarda, looking out at the gentle alternations of wood and field beyond the rounded shoulders of the downs.

"I suppose it is, considering how far we have come. No doubt Londinium will seem little, compared to Rome. But I know the scent of that hay, and the way the power flows through the land."

"This is still a very different country from my home," she said with a sigh. "I was taken in a raid by a rival clan when I was not much older than little Crispa. I have memories of slopes purple with heather, and the baaing of the sheep as they came down from the hills. But I cannot see my mother's face. I think perhaps she died when I was small."

"Then I shall be your mother, Cunoarda—"

"Oh, but that was only a part of our disguise, while we are on the road—" She flushed to the roots of her hair. "You are—"

I laid a finger to her lips. "I am only Eilan, now, and I have reason to know that the children of one's body are not always the children of one's heart." Gazing at that familiar strong-boned face, I was amazed that through all those years when I had thought myself destitute of love, I had not noticed the treasure that lay beneath my hand.

"I never imagined… I never dared…" She shook her head, sniffing and wiping her eyes on her sleeve. "Oh my lady—my mother! You gave me my freedom, but I was still empty. Now you have given me a soul!"

I opened my arms then and held her until her sobs had ceased.

In my will, I had bequeathed the house in Londinium to Cunoarda, and she had written from Treveri to tell the tenant she was coming there to live. When we arrived, the place was empty—indeed, it was practically without furnishings, and Cunoarda and Lena spent a busy day in the market-place purchasing bedding and kitchen gear.

I had looked forwards to seeing what more than twenty years had done to the city, but that morning I was having trouble with my breathing, and I thought it best to stay indoors with Crispa to bear me company.

"Avia, who are the pretty ladies?" Crispa pointed at the relief of the four matronae which I had commissioned so long ago. It was one of the few decorations that had survived my absence, perhaps because it was bolted to the wall.

I took a careful breath, then turned. "They are the Mothers."

"Look! One of them has a dog!"

Leviyah stood up, tail wagging, at the word.

"Not you, silly!" exclaimed Crispa, reaching up to pat the carven flank of the hound in the lap of the third figure in the frieze. "And one has a baby, and the other two have fruit and a loaf of bread. Are they goddesses?"

"They are the Goddess—but She has many faces, as many faces as there are mothers in the world, and when they grow old and leave their bodies to pass over to the Otherworld they continue to watch over their children…"

I had tried to keep my voice calm, but Crispa was a sensitive child, and she climbed into my lap and put her arms around my neck.

"Avia, will you always watch over me?"

As I hugged her, I felt an ache in my throat, and knew it was not caused by shortness of breath, but unshed tears.

That night my illness reached a crisis. Gasping for breath, I saw terror in the faces of Cunoarda and Lena, and could not comfort them.

"Shall I send for a priest?" asked Cunoarda anxiously.

I managed a bark of laughter. "What use? I have already been buried! You heard the funeral oration Bishop Sylvester gave!" Then I began to cough again.

At the height of my paroxysms I would have welcomed death gladly, and continued to fight only because the two women begged me not to leave them alone.

A little after midnight, the mint-scented steam with which Cunoarda filled the room began to relieve me, and I was able to drink some comfrey tea. At length I fell into a state halfway between sleep and waking, cradled against Lena's breast.

During the crisis, I had raged against my weakness, unready to go into the night. But now, I realized that in our old age, what we lose in infancy is miraculously given back. Instead of crying in the dark for the mother who abandoned us before we were able to stand alone, now, with children and kindred having come and gone, we are free. In our darker moments we feel ourselves wholly alone, weak, aged. But in the end the Mother is given back to us and we are reborn, going back to infancy, lying in trust on the breasts of our daughters…

Everything is taken from us, even God; we spend ourself to the death. And then the Goddess comes back to us. From becoming the Goddess, the mother, we have created the Goddess in our daughters, our sisters, as we turn to Her, knowing that even if we must die still not knowing anything else, we die in Her arms and on Her breast.

But I did not die. Waking to the clear light of morning in Lena's arms, I took a deep breath and rejoiced as the life-giving air filled my lungs. Nonetheless, I was desperately weak, and I could feel my heart bound in my breast. For the first time I faced the possibility that this body might fail me before I reached my goal.

I remembered times during my illnesses when death would have been a welcome release. At other moments I had called on the teachings of Avalon to counter my panicked fear. I had reason to believe that death was only a passage from one kind of existence to another, but I had still dreaded the moment of transition. Now, however, I realized that my fears were not for myself but for those I would leave behind me.

"You are awake!" Lena exclaimed as she felt me stir. "And you are better, thank the gods!"

"For now, but if I do not recover, I must tell you how to get to Avalon."

Lena's cheeks grew pink with embarrassment. "Do you mean it is a real place? I thought you were speaking as the poets do, to describe the safety we would find in Britannia."

I opened my mouth to correct her, then closed it, realizing how deeply ingrained was the prohibition against telling outsiders of the sacred isle.

"It is real, though… difficult… to attain. It lies in the land called the Summer Country. There is a vale between two lines of hills, so low that when the rivers are in flood or the winter storms back up the tides the water covers it, and any bit of higher ground becomes an island. And there is one such, crowned by a pointed tor, that is called Inis Witrin.

"When you reach it, do not go to the monks who have their little church at the base of the Tor, but stop at the village of the fisherfolk who live in the marshes, and tell them that you are Eilan's grand-daughter, and you wish to be taken to Avalon."

She looked dubious, and I sighed, for in truth, I could not even guarantee that I would be admitted after so many years. And was I justified in taking Lena there? This vital young woman, whose cheeks were glowing despite the shadows a difficult night had painted beneath her eyes, was a very different creature from the fragile and frightened girl I had helped to escape from Treveri almost two months ago.

"The holy isle is a refuge where no king or emperor can follow. But you are not required to go there. If you and Crispa take new names, I think it likely that you will be able to live in perfect safety here in Londinium."

The winged brows drew down. "Don't you want us to come with you?"

"Lena, do you not understand how I have come to love you? That is why the choice must be yours. I only know that I have to go there, or try."

I recovered slowly, and it was October before I was strong enough to attempt the journey. The carriage in which we had travelled from Dubris was fitted with a soft mattress and loaded with provisions. But before departing Londinium there was one last task.

I had seen how swiftly, with Constantine's favour, Christianity was becoming the religion of the Empire. I could foresee a time when its shrines and symbols would displace those of the old religion entirely, reinventing Britannia as a Christian land. In the time that was coming, there would be few to understand that it was possible to honour both the Goddess and the God.

It pained me to think that my carving of the Mothers might one day be mocked by folk who no longer saw it as holy. And so workmen were summoned to remove it from the wall and load it into a barrow, and in the night, when the men had gone home, Lena and Cunoarda pulled it to the stream that ran through the fields behind my dwelling, and tipped the carving in. Hidden in its depths, the Mothers would bless the city through which its waters ran.

"Tell me about when you were a little girl on Avalon…" Crispa had elected to ride for a while inside the carriage with Cunoarda and me, though I knew she would want to sit with Lena, who was driving, before long.

"I had a white dog called Eldri—"

"Like Leviyah?" Crispa pulled back the curtain to point to the dog who was trotting beside us, head up to catch all the scents of this new land.

"Smaller, with curly fur. A boy at the Lake village gave her to me, and said she was a faerie dog, and I think it was true, because she guided me once to a land even farther from this world than Avalon, and brought me safely back again."

Cunoarda's lips quirked, and I could see that she thought I was telling the child a fairy story. I found it strange that she, who had been born in Alba, found it harder to believe in Avalon than Lena, the child of a thoroughly Romanized Gallic aristocracy. But perhaps Cunoarda still needed the walls she had erected to protect her from the pain of her loss, and did not dare. I knew that she had found great comfort in Christianity, and when we were in Londinium, she had attended the rituals at the Church of Saint Pancras which I had long ago endowed.

"Did you have other girls to play with?"

"I lived in the House of Maidens," I answered, remembering the murmur of girls' voices in the darkness with a sudden overwhelming clarity. "I had a little cousin called Dierna, with hair as red as Cunoarda's. I believe that Dierna is the Lady of Avalon now."

I realized with a flutter of anxiety that I did not know. I remembered dreaming Ganeda's funeral—would I not know it if Dierna, whom I had loved, had also died?

If she was gone, there might well be no one left at Avalon who remembered me.

After we left Lindinis we turned north on the Aquae Sulis road. It was now the end of October, the season of Samhain when the spirits of the dead return. A fitting time, I thought, for my own homecoming. The landscape was growing very familiar now. It was I myself who seemed unreal, as if I had died in truth as well as seeming and was being summoned with the other ghosts who walked at this time of year.

For two days it had been raining, and a silver sheen of water lay over the lowlands, but I insisted that we press onward, for I remembered these marshes as a country with little provision for travellers. We were surprised, however, to find a small inn where the track that led towards Inis Witrin turned off from the Sulis road.

"Oh yes, we have been here for nigh on twenty years," said the round-faced woman who brought us our food. "Ever since the good Emperor granted protection to the Christians. My father built this place to serve the travellers who come on pilgrimage to the monks at the Tor."

I blinked at this, for in my day the monks of Inis Witrin had been a tiny community whose safety depended on being overlooked by the authorities. But the Christians were the authorities now, and it remained to be seen if they would use the power given them more wisely than those who had held it before.

In the morning we set out once more, bracing ourselves as the carriage lurched across the log causeways. And as the sun sank we saw the pointed cone of the Tor rising against the golden sky, haloed in light.

"It is real," breathed Lena.

I smiled, for in that moment even the isle that lies in the mortal world was touched with glory, and yet our true destination was a place more wonderful still.

I could see the smoke of the monastery's cookfires as we skirted the isle. From here we had to go on foot, for the Lake village could not be reached by a vehicle. It was almost sunset, and Cunoarda and Lena were growing nervous, but now that we were here, anticipation gave new strength to my limbs. The path, at least, looked the same—I doubt it had changed for a thousand years. Leaning on Cunoarda's arm and feigning a certainty I did not entirely feel, I started down it.

"No, honoured ones—you go back to houses of the shaven heads—" the headman of the village touched his forehead to indicate a tonsure. "No place for you here—"

The little dark people of the village whispered behind him, eyeing us nervously. On this night, the mound on which the round huts huddled was lit by torches whose red flicker seemed kindled from the setting sun. If we had come a little later, they would have thought us spirits and refused to admit us at all.

This was a difficulty I had not anticipated. I stared at the man, frowning. I should have renewed the crescent on my brow with woad, I thought then, as the elder priestesses used to do on festival days. How could I convince him to send word of my coming to Avalon?

"Do your people remember a daughter of the sun people who was brought here long ago to be trained as a priestess? A boy called Otter gave her a faerie dog. Does that boy live still?"

There was a murmur from the crowd, and a woman who looked as old as me pushed forwards. "Otter my father—he like to tell the story. A princess of the tall folk, he said." She gazed at me in wonder.

"I was that little girl, and I became a priestess on the holy isle. But that was many years ago. Will you send word to the Lady of Avalon and tell her that Eilan has returned?"

"If you are priestess, you can call mists and go—" The headman still looked dubious.

"I have been long away, and may not return without the Lady's leave," I answered him, remembering how Ganeda had cut my link to the holy isle when she banished me. "You will be well rewarded—please…"

He gave a snort of laughter. "Is not for gold we serve Avalon. I call the Lady, but this night they have ceremonies. She cannot come before morn."

In my dreams, it was Ganeda who came to me, with Cigfolla and Wren and the other priestesses and Aelia whom I had loved. I knew this must be a dream, because Ganeda was smiling, her arm around the waist of another woman with dark hair whom I recognized, without knowing how, as my own mother, Rian. They were robed in priestess blue, garlanded as if for a festival, and they held out their arms in welcome. I knew then that it was my own belief, not Ganeda's word, which had exiled me from Avalon.

Laughing, I started towards them. But as I was about to touch Aelia's hand, someone called my name. Annoyed, I reached for the dream image, but the call was repeated, in a voice I could not deny.

I opened my eyes to light that streamed through the open door of the roundhouse in which we had been sleeping, glowing in Crispa's bright hair and on Leviyah's golden hide, outlining Lena and Cunoarda as they helped me to sit up, and falling full upon the blue robe of the woman who stood before me.

I do not know why I had expected that Dierna would still be a young girl. The body of the woman who had called me had thickened with time, and her flaming hair was now the colour of sunset on snow. But I, who had known so many emperors, had not encountered anyone with such an aura of authority. Next to her, the man and the woman who attended her looked frail. Did Dierna remember how I had loved and protected her, I wondered then, or had she, like my son, been warped by the temptations of power?

"Eilan…" Her voice trembled, and suddenly I saw looking out of her eyes the little cousin I used to know.

I motioned to Cunoarda to help me up, wincing as stiffened muscles took the strain.

Dierna embraced me, one priestess to another, then her gaze grew stern. "I will use that name, but I know who you were, in that other world. You have been used to position and power, and you are heir to the elder line of Avalon. Have you come to claim rule here?"

I looked at her in amazement. Then I remembered that she had been trained by Ganeda. Had the old woman taught her to fear that I would return to challenge her one day?

"It is true that I have had power, and all the glory the world can bestow," I answered stiffly, "and for that very reason I need them no more. Now it will be enough if I may find peace, and safety for those I love."

"Come," Dierna gestured towards the open door. "Walk with me—"

We all followed her outside into a misty autumn morning that veiled the marshes as if we were already between the worlds.

"Forgive me, but it was my duty to ask," Dierna said as we started along the path around the edge of the mound that kept the village above the floods.

I was still not quite steady, and Lena took my arm.

"I have known the fulfilment of prophecy and its deceptions. Through the child I bore, the world has indeed been changed, and if I do not like the results, I have only my own pride to blame."

"Do not judge yourself too harshly," Dierna replied. "I myself tried to shape the fate of Britannia, and I tell you that though our choices may determine the manner of its working, it is the Goddess who decides our ultimate destiny."

It is not only the Christians who sometimes need absolution, I thought, blinking back tears.

For a little while we walked in silence. The morning sun was burning the fog away. Silver ripples gleamed as a heron stalked among the reeds. Beyond them I saw the green slope of the Tor, and the huts of the monks clustering around Joseph's round church.

A gesture summoned Dierna's companions. "Do you remember Haggaia?" The silver-haired Druid gave me a smile, and I recognized in his face an echo of the laughing boy who had loved to play ball with Eldri so long ago. "And this is Teleri, whom I have been training."

To be your successor, I thought, smiling at the dark-haired woman beside her. "Teleri: I know and give thanks to the Lady for bringing her safely home."

"I bring with me two who have become my daughters, and my own great-grandchild," I said then.

"And do they also wish to cross over to Avalon?"

Lena's eyes were shining. "This is like a dream that turns out to be true! If you will have us, I and my daughter will gladly go."

Dierna's gaze grew wistful as she looked at Crispa. "My own children died," she said then. "It will be good to train another child of our blood for Avalon…"

But I had turned to Cunoarda, and my heart sank as I saw on her cheeks the silver track of tears. "What is it, my dear?"

"I will miss you till my life's end, lady, but I cannot go," she whispered. "I need to learn how to use the freedom you have given me. And it is the Christ, not your Goddess, whom my heart follows, and I cannot do that on your isle."

"Then stay, with my blessing." I kissed her on the brow. It would be no use to tell her that there was a place beyond all such divisions where Truth was One. She still belonged in this world.

"That is settled, then," Dierna said briskly. The barge is waiting. We will breakfast on the holy isle."

"Not quite—" I pointed out over the waters. Tor you to accept me means much, but Ganeda cast me out. I must prove—to myself, if not to you—that I am still a priestess. Let me call the mists, and win my own way back to Avalon."

The barge rocks to the push of the poles as the boatmen move us away from the shore. lean see the silver waters part before the prow. Dierna sits beside me, trying to hide her doubts, and Cunoarda is watching from the village, hoping that I will fail and return with her to Londinium. Perhaps they are right to question, and this vow of mine is no more than a final act of pride.

But since I came to this decision I have been silently rehearsing the words of power. If I have got them wrong, everyone will pity the foolish old woman who thought she was still a priestess. But if I succeed …

It is the gift of age to remember the events of fifty years ago more clearly than what happened yesterday. Suddenly the timing and distances of this journey are clear. My heart is pounding, and when the shifting flow of energy around us peaks, it is hard to breathe. Crispa steadies me as I get to my feet, shoulder-joints protesting as I raise my arms high.

I fight for air, and then, all at once, power surges through me. Words pour from my lips, and now it is easy, so easy to bring down the mists and slip through the chill dark passage between the worlds. I can hear the others calling out in alarm, but I cannot allow them to distract me now, for the silver veils around us are thinning, wisping away in coruscations of rainbow radiance—

Light is everywhere, light all around me, light that grows beyond all the words I have for vision until I see, glowing as if lit from within, the shores of Avalon…
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