It was blazing hot, as it always was here. Marcus’s armour felt heavy, and his mind was slow as he by the line of women doing their washing in the Nile.
As he looked over them, his eyes fell a little boy sitting by the river while his mother washed her laundry in the shallows a little apart from the main group. The boy couldn’t have been more than three or four at the most. He was sitting cross legged on the rocks with serious expression as he dug in the sand with bits of stick.
Just about Julius’s age, Marcus thought. His own little boy, whom he’d only seen once…he probably wouldn’t see him again until he was eight or nine at least. The boy wouldn’t even know who he was then.
The little boy in the sand caught sight of Marcus. His face took on the surprised, uncertain look that little children have when they meet a stranger. Marcus had seen the expression many times, and it always made him smile.
“Salve,” he said, waving. Then he repeated the greeting in Egyptian. The boy only stared at him with the same uncertainty.
Moved by a sudden impulse, Marcus crouched down and selected a palm branch that had fallen beside the road. Under the fascinated gaze of the little boy, he set about deftly weaving it into shape. Over and under, and through, and a knot, and finally there stood a little palm figure of a man.
He walked the little figure over to the boy, made it look around, and then bow. The boy laughed with delight and clapped his hands.
By now the boy’s young mother, coming out with her laundry in a basket, had caught sight of him. She moved toward her son with a wary eye, but did not intervene. Marcus gave her a reassuring smile, then took a stick and threaded it into the little figure’s hand.
“Semper fortis!” he said in a soft, false shout, making the figure brandish its little weapon. That was the battle cry of his legion. The boy laughed again and tried to imitate him. Marcus repeated the cry and the boy imitated him again, getting the words better this time.
Marcus laughed and nodded his approbation, then handed the little figure to him. The boy looked up at his mother for instruction, and at her nod accepted the toy.
Then he did something Marcus hadn’t expected. He stood up and walked very seriously to him and reached up to him. Marcus knelt to the ground, took off his helmet, and bent over to put himself in range of the little arms that sought to encircle his neck, and the small lips that pressed a kiss to his cheek. Gently, he enveloped the little child in his great, powerful arms and held him tenderly. It made him feel, for an instant, that he was back in Apulia, holding his own son….
The boy turned away, back to mother and babbled something in a language Marcus didn’t recognize. She answered in turn and picked him up. She thanked Marcus in halting Egyptian, then picked up her basket and hurried away.
“Well, they’re far from home.”
Marcus hadn’t noticed Lucius coming along the path.
“What do you mean?” he asked a little more sharply than he meant to try to conceal the catch in his voice as he stood up and put his helmet back on.
“I know that language and accent,” Lucius answered. “They’re from a place called Galilee, north of Judea. I was stationed there with the 85th.”
That was far from home. But not as far as he was.
The little boy waved to him from over his mother’s shoulder, and Marcus waved back, then shook himself.
“Come on,” he grunted. “Let’s get back to work.”