He woke in mid-morning to the sound of his name. The sun was bright in a blue sky, and Dormios' ill-tended farm was green all over. As he sat up he noticed a ragged blanket was draped over him.
He peeked over the rampart as his name was called again. "Caelus!" Gaius sounded irritable, probably hung over.
"Huh." Gaius stared at him with a mix of curiosity and confusion. "How did you wind up there? The door's barred at night."
Caelus folded the blanket and tried the ceiling door, which was also barred. He laid it down and swung himself over the rampart. In daylight the ground seemed much farther off.
"The cooks say they never saw you, but they were sodden too last night, the whole town... you knew Greeks don't put water in their wine, didn't you?"
Caelus picked his way down hand-under-hand, feeling refreshed despite sleeping sitting up.
"Well, after last night I don't think they put grapes in their wine either. It's just... wine. Like those perfect forms they keep talking about. No taste, no wetness, just drunk."
Gaius' face was haggard and he had dark shadows under his eyes. "You seem all right," he said, squinting suspiciously.
Caelus reached a safe height, jumped, landed astride an onion patch, stumbled, and caught his balance. "I didn't drink."
"Really? Then why were you..." Gaius waved at the tower.
"Hm." He rubbed his temples. "If you're that fresh, could you help the militia for me? I'll sit in the shade and... supervise."
A dozen townsmen were gathered in the agora, chattering as a group, wearing straw hats and breastplates. Some of them had sword belts buckled on, but the rest of their armaments were in a pile nearby, long Greek spears, swords and shields; Caelus noticed some rectangular Roman shields among the regular round ones.
"Must be leftovers from when Mummius camped here," Gaius mused. "Esson is their captain, very big man, he isn't here yet. I talked with him last night, he wanted us to show his men Roman swordplay."
Caelus waved at the men and tapped the pommel of his sword. The gaggle of volunteers opened up, and a broad-faced man with shaggy hair poking from a helmet stepped forward, smiling, a bundle of wooden swords in his arms. He set it down, drew one, and tossed the other to Caelus.
"I'm Anosis," he said. "You're the shy one?" He settled into a stance.
"That's what you think?" Caelus raised his own practice sword. Gaius tossed him his helmet; he caught it one-handed and put it on unfastened. Another man, Anosis' brother by his looks, stood to one side and raised a hand.
"One round, no shield, fight to the first touch. No breaking the practice swords or killing the Roman." He grinned and dropped his hand. "Begin."
Anosis was fast and limber, but his movements were wide and he thought too much. Caelus kept the Greek's blade away from him, sidestepped a big swing, and knocked the weapon out of his hands on its way down. He gently patted Anosis' breastplate with his swordpoint.
"You..." Anosis tried to speak, but couldn't find the words. Caelus smiled back.
The referee seemed slightly perturbed. "Match. Next!"
The next man had better technique but worse reflexes. Caelus dodged a thrust and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Am I..." He parried a swipe. "Fighting..." Feint left, strike right. "Everyone?"
After five matches he was winded, and wished he hadn't been as flashy earlier. A small crowd of townspeople had gathered, and one of the vendors was doing a brisk trade in fried dough.
"You should have let them hit you after the first few," shouted Gaius after the seventh, from a little booth a fruit vendor had put up for him. "Let 'em know you're strong, but don't embarrass them."
Caelus wrinkled his eyebrows. "I don't understand." Gaius snorted.
The eighth man was Anosis' brother, who introduced himself as Plautos. He gripped his wooden sword tightly, with a nasty grin. Anosis replaced him as the referee.
An enormous Greek in a stained tunic emerged from a side street. He was easily the biggest man Caelus had ever seen. "Let him rest," he shouted. "If you want to beat him, beat him, don't try to wear him down!"
"That's Esson," said Gaius. "He drank so much last night I didn't think he'd be alive."
"I didn't either," roared Esson. He picked up a long staff from the pile of weapons. "Couldn't let you sully the honor of the Achaians, not in the last thing we're still good at."
Caelus sat on the ground by a bucket of water. One of the children poured a pitcher over his head. "Thank you," he said.
"You've seen combat, boy?" Esson tapped his staff on his shoulder. "Killed a man?"
"I was a marine in Sicily when Avidia was quaestor," said Caelus. "They had me shout threats at pirates when we drew alongside. I had to board twice but I... No, I've never had to kill."
Esson nodded. "You're blessed," he said. "You swing your sword like you still love it. Men who taste blood either never pick up any kind of sword ever again, or they practice like it's heavy labor, no expression on their face, or they practice like they're hungry to kill again."
Caelus nodded. "I'm not eager, though if I must fight I won't run." He leaned on his practice sword to stand up.
"That's why I volunteered," said Esson. "I'm the only man in Astiri that's been to war. Can you believe it? Not many of us ever leave. I marched with the Romans from Megara to Thessalonica hunting rebels and bandits. I have killed men."
He put his arm around Anosis' shoulders. "And every time we reached a village too late I swore again that it would never happen to Astiri. I've trained these boys so much..." He rocked Anosis back and forth, both laughing.
"So I can't let you do this to them. Sorry in advance."
The militia's mood had lightened since Esson arrived. Caelus felt like he'd kicked a puppy. He glanced at Gaius, who had fallen asleep.
"One round, no shield, fight to submission," Anosis said quickly. Esson hefted his staff in a spear stance. Caelus had just enough time to ready his sword before Anosis' hand dropped.
Esson's staff blurred. Caelus felt it brush his helmet as he dodged, then it was back before he could take another breath, a flurry of thrusts at his head, throat, chest. One of them struck his shoulder like the kick of a horse.
Caelus bore it until the assault flagged, then sprinted in past the staff's reach. He readied a thrust at Esson's unarmored solarplexus, the heel of his hand on the practice sword's pommel, and leaned into his strike.
Esson dropped the staff, and in one smooth motion pressed Caelus' arms to his chest and picked him up by the waist. He hoisted the Roman over his head and pressed him up and down. "Hoi! Hoi! Hoi!"
Gaius stirred awake and choked laughing, joining the chorus of laughing Greeks. Caelus laughed too. He dropped his sword and grappled at Esson's neck, but the big Greek held him in front with his arms spread. "This hold is called the Gracious Dove! Known to the ancients!" He flapped Caelus' arms up and down, ignoring the kicks to his belly. "You use it when your opponent can fly."
He demonstrated a half-dozen more holds before Caelus, face bright red from embarrassment and effort, croaked a weary submission and crawled back to the water pail.
Anosis sat down by Caelus with a ladle of water. Plautos sat on the other side. Their nasty expressions were gone. "Drink, friend," said Anosis. "When Esson humbles you you're our brother." Plautos grabbed his elbow. "Anything you need, you ask us."
"Thanks," whispered Caelus. He had never been more humiliated, but he was grinning so widely he felt like his face would split, and it was impossible to stop. He looked east, over Dormios' house, and could barely see the garden tower.
A wisp of cloud passed over it, and he remembered a slight figure in a white dress, and he smiled so hard he felt his face would break.