Circumstrepebat me undique sartago flagitiosorum amorum. Nondum amabam, et amare amabam, et secretiore indigentia oderam me minus indigentem. Quaerebam quid amarem.
A whole frying-pan full of outrageous loves crackled all around me. I was not yet in love, yet I loved the idea of being in love. I felt that, deep inside, something was missing, and despised myself for my slowness in satisfying the need. I began to look around for someone to love.
St Augustine, Confession
I followed Tad’s advice too, and sowed my wild oats early. As it happened, I got them out of my system surprisingly fast.
Amminus and I were so fired by our first encounter that we repeated it next day, and the two following days, in his house or in mine. Then he somehow persuaded Senovara to come along, and she turned out to be, by now, neither a virgin nor, after all, so prim and proper. She taught us much, and we had her at the same time, one in front and one behind. Then word of our doings got out to other youngsters, and they joined the fun. On one occasion no fewer that seven of us, three girls and four boys, were at it together in someone’s outhouse, in all manner of unlikely combinations. From that point, recalling Tad’s warning about sleeping three nights with the same girl, I gave my favours more exclusively to boys, and usually to only one boy at a time. That way, I found, was more rewarding; but it was nonetheless untrammelled lust on every side, rampant adolescent animal rutting rampant animal, with never a smidgen of love. None of us pretended otherwise. It was a game, and the most enjoyable of games. “I’m going to break down the back gate of your fortress with my battering ram,” someone might belligerently declare, and no beleaguered city ever surrendered more readily.
Tad knew what I was up to. Bran was back at home now, the cattle-buying completed, and he knew what I was up to. Given the company I was keeping, given my irregular comings and goings, and my friends’ comings and goings, and my returning home exhausted from my labours, he could hardly not have known. But he never said a word. Sometimes I was grateful, when I set my liaisons — which I knew were ephemeral — against the permanence of his presence. Sometimes I was slightly resentful because I assumed that, in his own way, he was doing much the same himself, and I wished that we could compare notes. The gulf between us remained, although ‘gulf’ is probably the wrong word. Perhaps ‘veil’ is better, something that interrupted the closeness of our friendship but did not wholly block it off.
This pattern continued for a month or so. Then, one afternoon in February, when lunch was over, I went to pay my respects to Mamma. More poorly than ever, she was spending most of her time in bed, cosseted by Roveta, and I was worried for her.
“We must get you better, Mamma. Why don’t you ask Roveta to wrap you up and take you outside for some fresh air? That brazier makes the room stuffy, and it’s quite mild out today. I’d take you myself, but Amminus’ll be here any moment. He’s picking me up when he’s let out of school.”
“Thank you, Docco. But before you go, there’s something I’d like to say to you.”
“What’s that, Mamma?”
But as she began to answer I heard Amminus’ voice in the hall, and I interrupted her.
“He’s here! I’ll drop in when I get back, Mamma, before dinner. Have a good afternoon!”
And out I ran. We went to the baths, and from there to Amminus’ bedroom. Two hours later, because Amminus wanted a threesome, we decided to see if another friend was in. We were on our way to his house when Bran suddenly appeared beside me.
“Thank goodness I’ve found you,” he panted. “Your father sent me. Your mother’s been taken ill. Please would you come home at once.”
I stared at him resentfully and stupidly.
“At once,” he repeated sharply, on edge and out of patience. At that I abandoned Amminus, and we rushed home.
“She’s had a big haemorrhage,” Bran explained as we ran. “She’s very ill. My father’s gone for the doctor.”
Mamma was lying in bed, her eyes closed, but visibly alive. Roveta was standing by, silently weeping, and Tigernac was holding her. Tad was on one side of Mamma, his arm around her. The doctor was on the other, his fingers on her pulse.
“I cannot deny,” he was declaring as we came in, “that her condition is grave, very grave. Yet nature has wonderfully curative powers.”
My heart sank. It was a medical man’s way of saying that, short of divine intervention, we might as well order the coffin.
I went to the bed, the doctor made way for me, and I put my arm around Mamma. As I did so she opened her eyes. She looked at Tad with a gentle smile. She turned to me and her lips quivered. Her eyes finally moved to Bran. And then she died. It was obvious that she had died. Her light had gone out, like a lamp extinguished. The doctor, feeling again for her pulse, nodded solemnly in confirmation, and with his thumb he pulled her eyelids down.
At first it only partially sank into my head. I was confused. I had no tears; not yet. Almost automatically I kissed Mamma, let go of her, and went to put my arm round Tad instead. He seemed equally confused, and we clung together, giving and drawing comfort in our bewilderment. The doctor quietly left, but our three slaves stayed with us. No, I thought with a great welling of warmth, not slaves, but friends, the dearest of friends, and they were grieving too. I stood up and embraced Roveta, tight and long, and she embraced me back. The same with Tigernac. The same with Bran … but with him it seemed different. His parents’ embraces had conveyed desolation and sympathy and affection. So did his. But it also conveyed strength, and something more than affection.
It was in his arms that the full force of it hit me. She would never speak to me again, nor I to her. I would never hear what she had been going to tell me that afternoon. I wished I had spent more time with her then. I wished I had spent more time with her in recent years. Never again would I hear her laughter and her teasing and her gentle advice. Never again would I feel that flood of love which comes only from a mother. For years I had been closer to Tad simply because, with Mamma so often ill, we saw each other more. He was a fountain of love as well. Of course he was. But it was a different love, fatherly not motherly. I buried my head in Bran’s shoulder, and wept.
But as he held me I felt a flood of love flowing from him too, harder to identify. The love of a friend? It must be. It could be nothing else. Wishing that that veil had not come down between us, I gratefully tried to send a friend’s love back.
Then Bran pushed me gently away. Tad was standing up, painfully like an old man, and I went to embrace him again. Weeping together, we poured out our floods of love for one another, father for son, son for father. And yet another flood was pouring from him, of heart-broken love for Mamma, who was dead.
It seemed, two days later, that half the town followed us out to the cemetery between the Deva and London roads. Mamma, with her frailty, had not been so well known, but the support for Tad was impressive. The bishop of course was absent, on the excuse that he could not partake in pagan rites. But all the councillors were present, and many of the Town Hall staff. Ulcagnus and Tappo had come in for the occasion. There were Tad’s professional acquaintances, and tradesmen galore headed by the Bronzesmiths’ Association and the Guild of Pewterers with their banners. There were neighbours, and more friends than I knew we had. Heart-warming it would have been, had our hearts been able to be warmed. As the flutes wailed, we went through the formalities of the simple rites: laid her in the grave, poured wine and scented oil over it, sprinkled herbs, and burned locks of our hair. Bran came close and whispered in my ear,
“Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Here too merit has its proper reward. There are tears for human fortune, and mortality touches the heart.”
It touched mine; and so did he.
Finally, and worst of all, we went home without her.
A priest came to purify the house of the taint of death. Was death, I wondered, a taint? Limitless grief for the survivors, to be sure; but could something natural be tainted? Well, we had burned the tainted ragwort which killed our cattle. Perhaps this rite was similar. That evening, as we picked at our meal, Tad and I were silent, and sympathy wafted from Tigernac as he waited on us. Eventually Tad spoke.
“We’re going to miss her, Docco. Miss her dreadfully. But it’s one of those things. Death is one of the facts of life, and we can’t do anything about it.” He heaved a big sigh. “And life has to go on. There’s a boatload of lead almost ready to go down the Sabrina. I’ve got to spend tomorrow catching up on the accounts, but I’ll be back for dinner. What have you got in mind?”
“For tomorrow? Thinking. I’m still muddled in my head.”
I hugged Tad again, and went to bed in the hope of catching up on sleep.
In the event, sleep again eluded me, and much of my thinking was done that night. By the time Bran came in to get me up I was beginning to see a way forward.
“Bran, I’m going to ride out to Vindolocum.”
In his surprise he revealed what was in his mind. “You’re not seeing Amminus, then?”
“No!” I was so emphatic that, though he tried to hide it, his surprise showed again.
“Oh! Well … I’ll put some food together for you. But it’s cold today, and windy. Very windy. Wrap up warm.”
“Good. It’ll help blow the cobwebs away. And Bran. Would you come with me? Please. I want to think, and probably I’ll want to talk.”
A curious expression crossed his face. “Of course. I’ll saddle up and get the food while you’re having breakfast.”
We rode off, clad in vests and extra tunics, heavy cloaks and breeches, and leather boots. There were few people about in town, and at every intersection our cloaks billowed in the wind that whistled out from the side streets. Legs up, we ploughed carefully through the ford which was almost too deep for safety, and then followed the main road to Cunetio. There we turned on to a by-road, narrow but stone-surfaced, and we galloped. For a while it cheered me up. There is little so exhilarating as galloping on a winter’s day, cheeks and forehead stinging with cold, hair anywhere, cloak sailing out behind, knees tight to save a throw if the horse should stumble, hooves pounding rhythmically beneath.
“Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum.” In time with the rhythm, I shouted the classic line at Bran, “Four-footed thunder of hooves agitates the reverberant pasture,” and he laughed back.
After a few miles we slowed to a walk. Even a vest and two tunics could not keep out the wind, and the hard road was tough for unshod hooves. Finally we dismounted to climb the steep scarp of the Vindolocum ridge. At the top was a gap in the woodland where we hobbled the horses and let them graze, while we sat down in the lee of the trees.
Laid out in front of us was our own little patch. We could not distinguish our farm, but ahead, far off, we picked out the naked concrete vaults of the town baths. From beside them the Sabrina, glinting at intervals in the pale sunshine, snaked towards us and off to our right. Behind it rose Virocodunum, brown-clad with leafless trees. The plain was more farmland than woodland, but towards its edges the uncleared forest held sway. To our left the peaks of Cordocum stood up in outlines different
from those we usually saw, and behind them, bluing into the distance, was range upon range of mountains. To the north-west we saw the hill of Onna, and beyond it the tump of Brigodunum with its hill-fort, and even further, maybe thirty miles away, we could just make out Croucodunum in the haze. The whole vista held a stark and startling beauty.
And this was our territory, the home of our hopes and fears. I had never set foot beyond it. I suddenly longed to break out, but as my father’s son, earmarked for my father’s job, I was not allowed to escape. It was here that chance had placed me; not fate, in which I did not believe, but chance. It was here that my life had so far run its course, here that it would surely continue. What had that life held? And what had it in store, apart from managing the mines and the farm, until I died? I had realised last night, as Itossed and turned, that I was lonely, that I had been lonely even before Mamma died, that I had been lonely ever since I began to bloom and Bran became more distant. Despite Tad, I was lonely. Despite my sowing of wild oats, I was lonely. Or was it because of my sowing of wild oats? That had been self-indulgence, no more than a diverting substitute for what I really needed. I saw that now.
On either side of us the ridge stretched away, straight almost as a ruler and thickly forested, for miles on end. Except in our own patch of shelter the south-westerly blast was heaving the bare branches, breaking off twigs, bending the saplings. A similar gale was shaking my soul. Bran was sitting beside me, arms round bent-up knees, enveloped in his cloak, gazing into infinity.
“Bran,” I said suddenly. “What I’ve been up to this last month or so. It’s offended you, hasn’t it?”
He turned to look at me, his blue eyes bright under his hood.
“Trahit sua quemque voluptas, ” he replied noncommittally, “Everyone is dragged on by their favourite pleasure.”
“It’s not my favourite pleasure,” I said humbly. “I thought it was. But it’s … superficial.”
I was apologetic, because superficiality and Bran did not seem to go together. Beside us, a stray gust found its way into the wood and lifted the dry carpet of last year’s beech leaves. A cloud of them was blown out, and we watched it wheeling like a flight of starlings towards the river.
“Do you remember,” I went on, “years ago, you told me that shagging is ecstasy?”
“Well, you were right. It is …” I was thinking out loud. “But it’s only part of it … It’s not complete by itself … It’s gross and brief … It’s not complete without love … Two-way love … Do you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean. But I don’t know it myself. I’m not fulfilled either.”
“I’m only beginning to realise … The day Mamma died … We all hugged each other, remember? … And love was flowing everywhere … love of all sorts … of a father, of a son, of friends … But the love that I felt was the deepest was Tad’s love for Mamma … his love for his wife … did you know that once they’d married he was wholly faithful? … his love for his other half …”
I was still groping my way through my darkness. Bran was watching intently but making no attempt to help out.
“And she loved him back, in just the same way … Well, she’s gone, and Tad’s going to be very lonely without her … But that’s the sort of love I want … I’ve only just realised that I’m lonely too … I don’t mean lonely without Mamma, though I am … I mean lonely without love of that sort … That’s what I need.”
“Yes,” said Bran at last. “I do understand. I want love of that sort too. I’m hoping for it.”
I gave him a watery smile, squeezed his shoulder, and went back to my thoughts. None of my friends was lovable, not in that sense. None of them, probably, would have any idea of what I was talking about. But Bran the thoughtful, Bran the considerate … he understood, and that was reassuring. It was reassuring too, in a way, that he needed someone as well.
I could love Bran. I sneaked a sideways look. He was gazing across the plain again, hood thrown back now, hair buffeted, his vital and heroic face profiled against the barren trees. There was beauty, not only in the distant panorama ahead but close beside me, beauty of body and soul. I could easily love Bran. But it was not on. We were not equals. I could not impose on him, or take advantage. We were two parallel lines — the image came back from learning Euclid at school — which could never possibly meet. I must look elsewhere. Good luck to him in his quest. Good luck to me in mine.
Then three nights’ shortage of sleep took their toll. I was woken by the horses whinnying, and found myself leaning against Bran’s firm body. His cloak was over both of us and his arm around me.
Hoc quod amare vocant misce aut dissolve, Cupido:
Aut neutrum flammis ure vel ure duos.
Cupid: this thing they call love — either share it out or stop it! Set both of us on fire, or neither.
One morning soon afterwards Bran and I were setting out from home. Tad was away at Abonae, meeting his boatload of lead at the end of its journey down the Sabrina, and he had asked us to put in a day or two a week on the farm, helping Ulcagnus out and freeing the hands for other jobs. After the windy trip to Vindolocum, my relationship with Bran, if not quite back on its old footing, was markedly better, and the veil between us had partially lifted. I had not seen Amminus since, and I was more at peace with myself. On leaving the house, that morning, we stopped outside the goldsmith’s — the only one in town, for demand was not great — our eye caught by the brooch he was working on. It was a large and truly beautiful thing, fully three inches long and shaped rather like a crossbow, of solid gold inlaid with curling black patterns. The price would be far beyond our contemplation, but we could admire it free of charge.
“Hey,” I said reluctantly after a while, “we must go.”
That sent us into an old routine, a game we had often played in younger and more cheerful times.
“At nos hinc alii sitientis ibimus Afros,” I recited. “Hey, we must go, to bone-dry Africa.”
“Pars Scythiam et rapidum cretae veniemus Oaxen,” Bran continued, “or Scythia, or Oaxes’ chalky flood.”
“Et penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos” — this was chanted together — “or Britain, wholly sundered from the world.”
We looked at each other and laughed happily. And behind us another voice carried on where we had left off,
“En umquam patrios longo post tempore finis,
Pauperis et tuguri congestum caespite culmen,
Post aliquot, mea regna videns, mirabor aristas?
After so long, will I ever see my home,
My wretched hovel with its turf-thatched roof,
And marvel at my realm’s few ears of corn?”
It was a boy of about my age, grinning at us, and the sound of his Latin, though I had never heard the like of it before, instantly struck me as upper-class. My own Latin, I realised for the first time in my life, had a provincial twang.
The boy was drop-dead handsome, tall, mousy-haired, fair-skinned, hazel-eyed, and more smartly dressed than ever we were. His elegance and poise shouted status and wealth of a kind which simply did not exist in homely Viroconium; or, rather, which had not existed hitherto. I put two and two together. There was a large town house towards the river which had been empty from as far back as I could remember, in the charge of a caretaker and permanently up for sale. Nobody local could afford it. But recently it had been opened up, repainted and refurbished throughout, to the delight of local tradesmen. It had obviously been sold, and the new owners could only be wealthy. Convoys of ox-waggons had been rolling in, these last few days, laden it seemed with personal possessions.
“Thank goodness,” said the boy in Latin. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to find any culture in this dump.”
“Dump?” My hackles rose.
“Yes, dump. Full of bumpkins. No decent villas in the country, only ancient town houses. No decent stone defences, only shitty wooden palisades. No theatre. No amphitheatre. No circus. Nothing to do. A dump.”
“Dump?” I repeated. “And I thought you came from a wretched hovel with a turf-thatched roof.”
He grinned again, not in the least put out. “Hardly. We had a very nice place outside Camulodunum.”
That explained it. Camulodunum was far away on the east coast. It was a stinking rich town, I had heard, the snob-capital of Britain to which high-ranking army officers and civil servants naturally gravitated, if they did not head for Corinium or Aquae Sulis.
“Why have you moved here, then?” I asked, in British to bring him down a notch.
He too switched to British, but a slightly stilted British. “Because the damned Saxons burned our villa. It was right by the sea. If we rebuilt it, they’d only burn it again. You’d think we deserve better protection. What are taxes for, if not to pay for the military?”
I was still placing him in my mind, and smelt a rat. “Do you pay taxes, then?” I asked nastily.
“Well, no. We’re in the senatorial order, you see,” he explained airily. “My great-great-grandfather was governor of Britannia Superior, a century ago.”
I had never set eyes on people of such status, apart from the present governor and Deputy Prefect on their rare visits to Viroconium. But I knew that membership of the senatorial order was hereditary, and gave total exemption from taxes and civic duties. How sad — all that wealth coming to our town, and the town would not benefit, except perhaps for some of the tradespeople. And how totally unfair.
“So why have you moved here?”
“My old man has a lot of land near Croucomailum.” He gestured vaguely and in quite the wrong direction. “It’s run by a bailiff. So we thought we’d head for a bit of peace, well away from the coasts and bloody barbarians.”
I was still uncomfortable at hearing the word ‘barbarians’, and especially ‘bloody barbarians’, and Bran knew it. I glanced at him. He was listening impassively, but his eyes gave me permission to carry on.
“Then you’ve jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Your bailiff can’t have told you that the Irish often raid here, more than the Saxons do in the east.”
That surprised him. “This far inland? But there’s a whole legion at Deva. What does that do?”
“Virtually nothing. And it’s not a legion. It’s only a handful of run-down squaddies. Four years ago the Irish got right up to the town walls here.”
He shrugged as if it were not his problem. “Oh well, I’m sure it’ll be all right. My old man understands these things. What does your old man do?”
“He’s Procurator of Mines. Supplying the money which the government’s supposed to spend on defence.”
“That’s worth knowing. What’s his name?”
“I mean, his full name.”
He blinked. “Oh. How odd. What’s yours?”
“Docco. Just Docco. Or Docco son of Senicianus, if there are other Doccos around.”
“How do you do?” he said, holding out a formal hand which I rather reluctantly shook. “I’m Lucius. Lucius Martiannius Pulcher.”
I might have guessed. The full rigmarole of three names was the sign of a Roman, a proper Roman. And Pulcher meant beautiful. That fitted, too. In the face of his assurance I was feeling rustic and uncultured. Our family were modest gentry. In Viroconium’s hierarchy we might be near the top of the tree, but we were nobodies compared to these grandees. Yet my British was better than this boy’s.
He turned to Bran, his hand out again. “And you are … ?”
Bran shook the hand. Knowing him, I could see mischief in his eyes which Lucius could not. “I’m Bran son of Tigernac.”
Lucius blinked again. “That sounds Irish.” His voice held suspicion.
“It is. I’m Irish.” Bran was giving nothing away.
“So you’re not a citizen? You’re a resident, um, foreigner?”
“No. Neither.” Bran sprang his trap. “I’m a slave. Docco’s slave.”
The boy automatically wiped his hand on his tunic. He looked from one of us to the other, for once bewildered. “An Irish slave who knows Vergil? Who jokes with his master? Are you pulling my leg?”
“Not in the least.” I was amused, but also cross. “I don’t know how you do things in Camulodunum, but it’s obviously different from here. Here we muck in together. Which reminds me, Bran. We ought to go and muck out.”
“Muck out?” Lucius was still at sea. “The stable?”
“No, the cowshed. The shit of four hundred cows. It’ll take us most of the day.”
Lucius gaped, now at a total loss. All very well for a slave, you could see him thinking, but for an educated free-born citizen who owned that many cattle …
His poise was slipping. “But I hope we’ll meet again,” he said almost desperately. “I don’t know anyone here, and I’m mad about Vergil.”
I might otherwise have put him off. But if he was mad about Vergil he was not a complete write-off, not yet. Give him a chance.
“Yes, let’s. Anyone will tell you where we live.”
When we were out of earshot I asked Bran what he thought of our new acquaintance. His answer was unembellished.
“He’s a prick.”
“He’s certainly a prick right now. An arrogant prick, and as weird as anyone from, well, Scythia or the Oaxes. But I reckon it’s the way he’s been brought up — he’s not as sure of himself as he seems. I’m wondering if he can be converted to the right way of thinking. Our way. The British way. It might be worth trying, you know. It would be good to have someone else to talk Vergil with, wouldn’t it?”
Bran snorted. “If you succeed, I’ll eat all the shit in the cowshed. No, I take that back. It’s too much of a risk. But I really can’t see you doing it.”
“Not just me. If I get Tad on board, he’ll be brilliant at explaining what makes us tick, won’t he?”
“True. Very true. Yes, that’s a better bet.” He laughed, more deeply than I had heard him laugh for months. “It’s a challenge, isn’t it? A game, if you like, but a serious game. Go for it, then. Would you like me to help?”
I would indeed. I had not dared ask, for Bran might very well have thought it unreasonable. And he might have suspected me of reverting to my old ways and planning to leap straight into bed with Lucius. In fact I had no such plans. Attractive though he was, that was not in my mind. Not then.
The conversion of Lucius — the taming of Lucius, we called it at the time — was another long story which must, in part, be abbreviated. Tad came back in much higher spirits than when he had left. While at Abonae he had heard that because of economic conditions in Spain — which was Britain’s great rival in the lead trade — the price of lead in Gaul was rocketing. His latest consignment, he very much hoped, would bring in enough to cover our previous loss; and this time it was insured.
He listened with deep interest to what we told him about the new arrivals and, like me, with disgust that the richest would get away with paying the least. Still, he said, there was a sporting chance that the father might cough up money for public works, in return for the honour of being a patron and benefactor of the town. He would have to meet him — not immediately, which would smack of boot-licking — but after a decent interval. What was our friend’s name? Right, then his father would be Something Martiannius Pulcher, to be addressed as Pulcher. Only youngsters like Lucius were called by their first name. So this Lucius was an arrogant Roman so-and-so, was he, but worth trying to redeem? Tad laughed out loud, relishing the challenge, and promised to do his best to help. And yes, I could by all means invite young Lucius in for dinner.
Young Lucius accepted with an unexpected eagerness, and his education began. He asked in advance, very properly, if there was anything he should know, to avoid giving offence. I told him of Mamma’s recent death and the financial stringency, at both of which he commiserated. He also asked if he should wear a toga, at which I spluttered. I had never set eyes on such a garment. Apart from the Pulchers’ there was probably not a single toga in the whole of Viroconium. So he arrived in a fancy tunic and a cloud of scent. Tad, who was in his best no-nonsense mode, shook his hand and said how glad he was to meet a young man so evidently brought up in, ah, traditional ways. Oh, er, yes, Lucius mumbled; they did try to follow the simple old Roman customs. At which Tad pointedly sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose.
Lucius paused politely by our little household shrine and asked who the images were. He knew the Mothers. The others were new to him and evidently, though he carefully did not say so, quaint. Did we not honour the Roman pantheon, then, especially the Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva? No, we said. They were there in the Town Hall, but nobody really bothered about them.
Ah yes, said Lucius, resolutely on his best behaviour. The Town Hall, he had seen that — it was almost as large as Camulodunum’s. He was sure Viroconium must have great civic pride to have invested in so fine a building. No, Tad replied dryly, not really. It was second-hand, having begun life as the exercise hall for the baths, and was only converted after the Irish had torched the original Town Hall in the forum. The civitas had better things these days to spend its limited funds on. Lucius would have noticed that there was no theatre here, or amphitheatre, or circus. Spectator sports weren’t our style. But we did have a fine arena for parading horses at the weekly fair, and an excellent cattle market complete with well-appointed slaughterhouses. That was what mattered to us Cornovii. Our whole economy revolved around horses and cattle.
We went in to dinner and lay down. Bran was waiting on us. The menu was deliberately simple. No larks’ tongues or stuffed dormice or whatever proper Romans ate, but Roveta’s speciality of braised beef with plenty of garlic and a rich gravy, onions, early greens, and her best poppy-seed bread. Lucius took one taste and seemed genuinely appreciative. He sipped his wine and his eyes widened.
“This is a fine vintage, sir. From Burdigala?”
“No. From half a mile down the road. And please don’t call me sir. My name’s Senicianus. Nobody calls me sir. Except Bran, when he wants to put me in my place.”
That was stretching a point, considerably. But Bran smiled and Lucius looked shocked.
We asked how his household was settling in. Very well, he said. A stream of town dignitaries had called with, he implied, suspect motives; particularly the bishop, who had been sent away with a flea in his ear. And the house was good, though they would have to extend the slave quarters which were inadequate. How many slaves did they have, then? Seventeen, he thought, counting on his fingers — no, nineteen — looking after his parents, himself, and three younger sisters.
He accepted a second helping of beef.
Ah, said Tad. We had three slaves, looking after three of us before his wife died, and few people in Viroconium had more. Most had none. Lucius replied politely that he understood. Romans lived like Romans as best they could. How far they succeeded depended on their means. No blame if their means were limited; they still tried to live like Romans.
“Lucius,” said Tad firmly. “We aren’t Romans. Not in your sense. Nor is anyone in Viroconium. We’re Britons, and we try to live like Britons. All right, we’re Roman citizens and we owe allegiance to our noble emperor … um … Jovian.” The hesitation was surely deliberate. “And we’ve adopted some Roman customs, like drinking wine rather than beer. But we’re still Britons. And one characteristic of Britons is that we try to respect our fellow men. Other Britons, Gauls, Spaniards, Germans, Greeks, whoever. Yes, Romans too. And even Irish, if they behave themselves. Bran, would you care to join us?”
This was, needless to say, pre-arranged. We had finished the main course and Bran had cleared the dishes. He was now setting out the fruit — apples from the winter store, wrinkled but sound, and dried figs and dates, the only imported part of the meal. And when he lay down with us, a cup of wine in his hand, Lucius’ jaw almost hit the table.
“Bran,” said Tad. “You’re Irish, yes, but you’re British by adoption, as it were. What does Britishness say to you?”
“Moderation,” Bran replied at once. “Tolerance. Taking people as you find them. Being true to yourself, not trying to ape other people too much. When in Rome, they say, do as the Romans do. When in Ireland, I suppose, do as the Irish do. And when in Britain do as the British do. That’s the rule I work to, as a foreigner of a sort.”
“Where,” I asked Lucius, hoping to rub the point in, “did your family come from originally?”
Point made. Not Rome, not even Italy, but Pannonia, way out by the Danube, as provincial as Britain. Lucius, like Bran, was also a foreigner of a sort.
It was the cue for Tad to expound his philosophy. I have already related much of it, and need not repeat it here. But one detail seemed to hit Lucius particularly hard. Tad asked if he had yet come of age. Not yet, was the answer, but when he turned sixteen this summer he would put on the toga virilis, the Roman symbol of manhood. He said it with pride, but Tad quickly deflated him. So he was still impubes, then? Lucius had to admit it, but with a great blush because it reflected on his manliness. The word means, literally, not yet at puberty. Physically, he had obviously arrived there. But technically, in Roman law, he had not. Legally, he was prepubertal.
Hmmm, said Tad. Docco here had officially become a man on his fourteenth birthday, nearly two years ago, and it had freed him from all parental authority. Lucius’ wistful face suggested that the parental authority under which he laboured, and would labour indefinitely, was a heavy one.
He left, full of polite thanks but very thoughtful, and we had a wry laugh together.
“I’m glad I took back that promise about the cow shit,” said Bran. “I’ve a feeling this might work after all. He takes things on board. You can see that.”
It was only a beginning, and I hoped we had not overdone it. But we needed to keep up the pressure, and Lucius had agreed readily enough to meet us again next day. We took him up Virocodunum and showed him the panorama of our territory, for he had no more idea of our local geography than I had of Camulodunum’s. From the hill-fort we could see, if not the main roads themselves, at least how they ran. The north-south route, the way the Irish came in, came through relatively flat lands from Deva and the sea, and from us continued down the lower Sabrina valley to Glevum and Corinium. The east-west route from London and Ratae also came through easy terrain before plunging into the mountains and following the upper Sabrina by way of Levobrinta into the heartland of the Pagenses.
“Ah,” said Lucius, gazing thoughtfully at the mountains. “I see. Viroconium’s a frontier town, isn’t it? And a crossroads. More strategic than I thought.”
The day after, we took him to the Town Hall where we listened to the council debating whether it could afford a paltry sum for replacing a hundred paces of the palisade which were collapsing. Afterwards Lucius stopped in front of the town shrine, an alcove off the hall with several statues of Roman gods and one of Cernunnos the guardian of heads, and raised his hands in prayer. On leaving the Town Hall we passed the great column, three times as tall as us, with a scaly shaft and, on top, a figure of a bearded horseman riding down a snake-limbed monster. Lucius asked who it was. Taranis the sky-god, we told him, overcoming the forces of evil.
“Ah, rather like Jupiter?” he asked hopefully.
We agreed, kindly, because it seemed to make him feel more at home, and suggested moving on fast because the sky was black and lowering with storm-clouds. But Lucius insisted on going back into the Town Hall, where he laid a coin in front of Jupiter.
“Why?” we asked.
“Because Jupiter’s obviously angry. And he’s all-powerful. Do you want to be hit by a bolt of lightning?”
“We don’t think any god’s all-powerful. All right, nature is. But what nature does is beyond anyone to change, gods or men. If you get hit by lightning, it’s by chance, not design.”
It thundered on the way home and we got wet, but we were not hit by lightning.
On the third day, in the morning, we took him to a session of the magistrates’ court which tried all lesser cases, and he was astonished that malefactors were sentenced not to a flogging or worse but to payment of compensation to their victims, either in money or in kind.
The afternoon he spent at his own home, because his father was sanctifying their new house. Lucius told us about it afterwards. Back at Camulodunum, Pulcher had been a civic priest: a part-time job but evidently, there, an important one, and the skills spilled over into his domestic role as head of the household. In front of the household shrine, which sounded much more elaborate than ours, he had sacrificed a sheep, a goat and a chicken. He had cut their throats, slit their bellies open, and examined their twitching entrails. Fortunately the hearts, lungs, livers and intestines had all been as they should.
Bran visibly shuddered, and put my own doubts into words.
“What happens if the entrails are wrong?”
“Oh, it all has to be done again, until they’re right.” Lucius was already becoming used to a slave as a companion.
“But what’s the point? That if the gods don’t like a human set-up they say so by giving a sheep a misshapen liver?”
“Um, well, yes, I suppose so. I’ve never really thought about it. Don’t you inspect entrails?”
“No,” I replied. “Some people here still sacrifice animals. They say that blood’s essential to life and if you, um, transfer it ritually from animal to human it’s a restoration of life-renewal. Or some such tosh. But people don’t sacrifice nearly as much as they did once, Tad says. And we never do. We give the gods small things, to show our gratitude. Even meat, if we have any spare. But why should they want us to kill specifically for them? And inspecting entrails sounds totally weird. Did that take the whole afternoon?”
“Oh no. But my father had to sanctify the whole house, and that took time, what with all the gods involved.”
“Uh? Such as?”
“Well, there’s a god for virtually everything, isn’t there? I mean, not just one god for doors, but Forculus for the doors themselves, and Limentius for the threshold, and Cardea for the hinges. And so on. All right, not major gods, but they all have to be placated. Don’t you have them?”
“No. We do have a general — Genius of the household, I suppose you’d call him. But mostly our gods deal with much wider things. The sky. The sun. The earth. Woods. Hunting. Cows. Horses. Music. Crafts. War. Not fiddly things like hinges.”
The fourth day, our next working day, we took him to the farm and gave him a broom and shovel, and he helped muck out with great good will if little skill.
“Fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestis,” he remarked ruefully, looking down at his shit-spattered tunic. “Fortunate too is the man who knows the gods of the countryside.”
There was a sharp mind there, warm, witty, self-mocking once weaned from arrogance. I felt the first wrigglings of something I had never felt before.
We returned late that day, too late for the public baths, and Lucius balked at going to his own home in such a servile state. But it happened to be the day when our own bath was fired up, and on the spur of the moment I invited him to use it with us. Quick consultation with Roveta confirmed that there was enough food for an extra mouth at dinner. Tigernac offered off his own bat, should the gentleman wish to stay overnight, to take a message to his home. I suspected that Bran had let his parents in on the plot. Lucius accepted all these invitations, and the three of us went to the bath.
I had not seen Lucius naked, for hitherto he had always bathed at home. While Bran was throwing more wood into the stokehole, Lucius and I stripped. He wore a fascinum, a phallic good-luck charm, round his neck. His body was splendid and definitely not impubes. Desire began to stir. But he was still a relative stranger, I was still not entirely at ease with him, and my own body did not respond. Nor did his. Indeed, rather to my chagrin, he cast one quick glance at my nakedness and thereafter seemed to look carefully away. Bran came back and threw off his clothes, and now Lucius did stare. With reason, for Bran’s figure was magnificent, his torso well-muscled and his legs already adorned with fair hair.
I poured oil into my hand and moved towards him.
“Is Bran bathing with us, then?” asked Lucius in astonishment. Slaves bathing with masters were evidently outside his experience.
“Of course. We do things together.”
I oiled Bran, he oiled Lucius and me, and we moved on to the hot room. I sloshed water around to raise steam and, since there was room on the slab for only two, I told them to lie on it and nipped out in search of a stool for myself. Returning, I found them side by side, Bran as usual with arms behind his head and eyes closed, Lucius feasting his eyes on Bran’s body and sporting a large erection.
“It always happens to me in the bath,” he said unapologetically.
“To us too.” Indeed Bran and I were already responding. “But we don’t do anything about it. Not here.”
I was under oath of silence regarding Bran’s demonstration to me all those years ago, and no more was said as we relaxed in the steam. When we had a good sweat up I found the strigil and approached Lucius.
“Are you going to scrape me?” he asked, astonished again.
“Why not? I always scrape Bran, and my other friends.”
“Oh … I’ve never scraped anyone. Where I’ve been, there’s always been a slave.”
“And so there is here. But our relationship is different. Haven’t you hoisted that in yet?”
“Yes. I’m beginning to.”
Taking care not to trespass, I removed a good harvest of cow shit from Lucius, and was about to start on Bran when Lucius asked if he could try his hand. I was not wholly comfortable about it.
“It’s up to Bran.”
But Bran said yes, and Lucius set to work. Sometimes his hands seemed to stray deliberately and I had to warn him to respect Bran’s body. He needed, too, a great deal of instruction in using the right curves of the strigil on the different curves of the body, and even in wiping the gunge off on the towel. Before long we were all giggling merrily, but finally and messily the job was finished. Then, as a demonstration, Bran scraped me rapidly and professionally, and we all rinsed off in the plunge bath. Bran had dug out a spare tunic and drawers of mine for Lucius to wear.
Dinner was pleasant. Tad regaled us with an amusing account of his day in the council offices, and remarked that he had bumped into old Nonius who had enquired after me. I explained to Lucius who Nonius was, and asked about his own schooling. The Pulchers employed their own tutor, it emerged, a Greek named Flavius Antigonus Papias. Lucius’ tuition had ended when they moved, though his sisters were still having lessons. Papias’ ambition to teach him Greek had been thwarted by Pulcher senior, to whom Greek ways were suspect. Why then, I asked, employ a Greek tutor? Lucius, already learning to recognise contradictions, smiled wryly. Because, he explained, possession of a Greek tutor imparted status. But since his father paid the piper, he called the tune, and his tune was Latin. Latin, in his eyes, and especially Vergil, was good enough for any Roman gentleman.
That led us naturally on to my scrolls, which Lucius begged to see, for even he did not have a copy of his own. That in turn led us on to epics, of which he knew only the Aeneid. It being Bran’s evening off, Tigernac was waiting on us, and Tad got him to join us over the fruit and recite the tale of how ConCulainn was begotten; brokenly, because he had to translate from Irish to British in his head. Then Tad recited part of the British lay of Vedicondus, much more smoothly, and had Lucius almost in tears.
I saw Lucius to his room, brought him the scrolls, and left him poring over them in delight. An hour later, seeing lamplight still creeping past the door, I looked in to ask how he was getting on. He had Book V of the Aeneid unrolled at the description of the funeral games.
“I can’t get that line out of my head,” he said, pointing. It was about the young Euryalus, Gratior et pulchro veniens in corpore virtus. Lovely in the manly strength beginning to flower in his handsome body.
“It’s a perfect description of Bran.”
My discomfort returned. Lucius seemed to see himself in the role of Nisus, who had been Euryalus’ boyfriend.
“If that’s what you’re thinking,” I said quite sharply, “Bran’s out of bounds.”
“Yes, I do understand. Docco … Ummm …” He hesitated, and changed tack.
“Docco, I want to thank you.” He became quite formal. “I’ve never enjoyed myself so much as these last few days. And you’ve given me so much to think about. Showed me so much to hoist in. And I am hoisting it in. Slowly, because it’s all so new. And I’m liking it, much more than the life at home. At Camulodunum, I mean,” he added hastily, loyally excluding his family home, though I suspected that was really included too. “They’re selfish there. Artificial and — what’s the word? — pompous. But here you’re so laid-back. Down-to-earth. Honest. Friendly. You think of other people.”
That was an astonishing accolade, and proof of an astonishing turnaround. He clearly meant it. I tried to say something, but he had not finished.
“And I want to apologise, for two things. You’ve been so hospitable to me, but I haven’t been able to return it. You make me welcome here, and you’d be welcome at my place, Docco, as my very good friend. The problem is that Bran wouldn’t. He’s my good friend too. But my parents just couldn’t understand a slave as a good friend. Or allow it. And I don’t know how to persuade them. I’m sorry about that. But I can make some amends. Would you both like to come hunting tomorrow? I’m mad on hunting, and we’ve got a pack of wolfhounds.”
I accepted warmly. It should be fun, and I felt sure that Bran would agree.
“The other thing I want to apologise for … When we first met, you must have thought me a frightful prick. And I was. I can see that. I’m sorry about that too. I hope I’m not such a prick now. Am I?”
That was the moment when I consciously realised that my liking for Lucius, abetted by a burgeoning physical desire, was ripening into love. He had a good mind as well as a good body. His arrogance was rapidly giving way to humility. He was beginning to fill my loneliness. I was already feeling an affinity with him. He had called me his very good friend. The trouble was that he showed no sign of deeper interest, not even in my body. His attention was all on Bran, which was a potential problem. But it was far too early to be defeatist. Could I deflect his attention? Perhaps I should try a little flirting.
So I grinned at him. “Yes, you were a prick. But you’re getting less and less of a prick every day.” I clapped him on the shoulders and looked him in the eye. “You’re all right, Lucius Martiannius Pulcher. You’re more than all right.”
He smiled his relief, and when he smiled he was very beautiful. A bit of Vergil came into my head, and I adapted it, changing pulcher from adjective into noun.
“And,” I said, “I’m looking forward to tomorrow when Pulcher insidiis cursuque feras agitabit … when Pulcher will be trapping and hunting wild beasts.”
Lucius laughed out loud. “Clever! Very clever!”
“And Lucius. That line of yours about Euryalus — Pulchro veniens in corpore virtus. Plenty of other people have lovely bodies, you know. Not just Bran. The way I read it, it means the manly strength beginning to flower in Pulcher’s body.”
He flushed as if I had said something offensive.
“Er, yes,” he muttered. “Good night!”
Impp Constantius et Constans AA ad populum. Cum vir nubit in feminam, femina viris projectura, quid cupiat, ubi sexus perdidit locum, ubi scelus est id quod non proficit scire, ubi Venus mutatur in alteram formam, ubi amor quaeritur nec videtur? Iubemus insurgere leges, armari iura gladio ultore, ut exquisitis poenis subdantur infames qui sunt vel qui futuri sunt rei. Dat. prid. Non. Dec. Med., pp. Romae XVII Kal. Ianuar. Constantio III et Constante II AA Conss.
The august Emperors Constantius and Constans to the people. When a man has sexual intercourse in feminine fashion, like a woman submitting to men, what can he be craving? Gender has lost its significance, the crime is one that is not profitable to know, desire is changed into another form, love is sought but not found. We order the statutes to be strengthened and the laws to be armed with the avenging sword so that, now and in the future, those guilty of this unspeakable offence shall be subjected to exquisite punishment. Issued at Mediolanum 4December and posted at Rome 16 December 342.
Next morning, no mention was made of the awkwardness, and Bran was willing to join the hunt. Lucius went home, promising to be at the north gate in a hour, and as we saddled our horses and led them slowly to the gate I told Bran of his fulsome thanks and apologies.
“That’s good,” said Bran. “Very good. He’s coming along well. I like him, much more than I ever thought I’d like a Roman. But he’s still got one Roman quirk I don’t like.”
“You mean that he’s, um, got his eye on you?” I ventured.
“That’s right. I can’t tell him where to get off, more’s the pity. But you can, and you do, for which I’m more than grateful. If he can drop his idea that any slave is there for the asking, he’ll be fine. But it won’t be easy. He’s convinced that you and I have it off with each other.”
“Is he?” I was quite shocked. “How can he think that?”
“The mere fact that we’re friends and spend so much time together. Amply confirmed by what you said in the bath yesterday. Don’t you remember?”
I thought, and it came back. ‘Our relationship is different. Haven’t you hoisted that in yet?’ And ‘We do things together.’
“Oh dear. Yes, I see. I could have phrased it better, couldn’t I? But at least he knows that you’re out of bounds. I told him so straight out last night, when he was making noises about your loveliness, and he said he understood. All right, he understood wrong. But it’ll keep his hands off you.”
“But will it keep his eyes off me?”
At that point there was the sound of hooves, and Lucius arrived with a slave and a pack of four leashed hounds. The slave, whose name we were not told, was little more than a boy, handsome in a brooding, almost lowering, way. He was heavily tattooed. On his forehead was the word Pulchri — a Roman method of marking ownership, foreign to the Britons — and on his bare arms was a mass of distinctive animal designs. He was surely a Pict. He held half a dozen spears, and a bundle of bows and quivers stuck out of his saddlebag. The hounds were huge, grey, long in the snout, and with shaggy coats of wiry hair.
“They’re from Ireland,” Lucius told us. “Generations back. Like you, Bran. We call them wolfhounds, but they’re just as good with deer and boar. We might find either on our land. That’s where I’m taking you, if I can remember the way. I’ve only been out there once, just after we arrived, with my father — he’s as mad on hunting as me. He says it’s good, much better than round Camulodunum where the country’s over-hunted and too open. But round here there are plenty of woods, and he’s thinking of building a hunting lodge on our land. Not to stay over in, just a little kitchen and dining room for lunch, and baths for afterwards. Nothing fancy.”
Bran and I decided not even to smile. We rode a couple of miles north and west to cross the Sabrina by the bridge on the main road to Levobrinta, and at Croucomailum we veered off to the left.
Huntsmen’s tales are as tedious as fishermen’s, and I will spare you the full details. We rode around for a while before the dogs put up a hare, which Lucius got with his second arrow. Having rarely shot with a bow, I was envious. A little later they put up another which they chased in a great circle. As it came back, heading for the shelter of a wood, it passed quite close to me. To my astonishment I downed it with my first shot, and a dog came lolloping back with it in his gentle jaws.
Then we broke off for our food, and in the absence of a little kitchen and dining room we ate it sitting on the ground. Lucius’ slave sat apart. Because he was not mine I could not interfere, but Bran went to talk to him. That shamed Lucius into calling them both over to join us, and he introduced the slave at last. His name was Drostan. I would have liked to ask him about the meaning of the symbols on his arms. Tattoos were the hallmark of the Picts — that was why we called them Picts, Painted People — and I had never met one before. But his British was so broken that conversation was difficult, and he seemed to hold Lucius in fear.
The food finished, Bran yawned prodigiously. “Sorry,” he said. “Don’t let me go to sleep. I didn’t get home till well after midnight.” Lucius looked at him sharply, and then at me, and seemed to be doing sums in his head.
Next we sent the hounds into the nearby wood. They chased out a deer which promptly doubled back under cover and was not seen again. Then they flushed out a boar, not a big one, but with tusks that were vicious enough. It saw us and charged, heading straight for Bran. My heart was in my mouth. But without hesitation he dropped on one knee, spear at the ready with its butt in the ground, and the boar quite simply impaled itself. How easy. Lucius leapt on it and slit its throat, complimenting Bran on his resolution, and with Drostan he expertly skinned the beast and cut it up. The joints went into our various saddlebags, the entrails went to the dogs, and I stuck the head on the broken-off branch of a tree.
“Why do you do that?” asked Lucius.
It was difficult to put into words. “We British have a thing about heads. That’s where the soul lives, so they reflect divinity, the powers of the gods. Heads are more … honourable than bodies. More powerful. They deserve respect. That boar did us no harm, but we’re going to make good use of its body. So let us honour its head.”
Lucius shrugged, and suggested that we call it a day, and a successful day at that. We rode home, but once inside Viroconium, since there was still some daylight left and I felt Lucius was in need of a little more education, I led him on a diversion to two adjacent temples. They were of our standard design, the shrine of one a tall square, of the other an octagon, both with a lean-to portico around. The first was sacred to Donnotarvus, and inside it was lined with stacked skulls of cows.
“Heads are important,” I repeated. “Donnotarvus is the bull-king, who guards the Cornovii’s cattle. What better than to honour him with than cows’ heads? Not sacrificed. From the slaughterhouse.”
We left Donnotarvus a piece of meat. The other temple was presided over by a crude cross-legged image of Cernunnos the horned god, and on its walls were human skulls. Lucius recoiled.
“Whose are they?”
“They’re so old, most of them, that nobody really knows. Those dark and shiny ones — the priests have been oiling and polishing them for centuries. It’s said that they’re from enemies of the Cornovii, before ever the Romans came. Perhaps some are Romans. But once they all contained souls. Not now, because they’re empty shells, and if you separate the head from the body you release the soul. With enemies, it’s a precaution, in case they hang around to haunt you, and they still deserve respect. With friends, it’s a good deed. And sometimes a new skull appears here, fresh and white. Like that one, and that. Nobody asks why, or who, or where from. They’re simply heads which deserve respect because once they were home to a soul.”
We left Cernunnos a chunk of meat, and went our separate ways. Bran and I rubbed down the horses and sluiced ourselves at the spout. Roveta received our offerings with delight. She hung the hare and, ditching her previous plans for the meal, cut thin steaks of boar for grilling. Bran had been very quiet all afternoon; lack of sleep, he said, from the night before. He was on duty at dinner, and Tad, on tasting the steak, congratulated him on his kill.
“A nice change from beef. But you’re asleep on your feet, lad. Get to bed. We can look after ourselves now. And thank you.”
Next morning, when he came to get me up, Bran looked dreadful, with dark rings round the eyes. He had hardly slept, he said, having been haunted by visions of the boar’s head grinning at him.
“I don’t know why. I’ve never killed anything so big. I don’t think I’m cut out for killing. In self-defence, maybe. But I needn’t have killed that boar.”
“If you hadn’t killed it, it would have killed you. Didn’t you see its tusks?”
“Yes. But if we hadn’t flushed it out it wouldn’t have attacked.”
I had no answer, and sent him back to bed with orders to sleep it off. To enforce them I got some poppy syrup from Roveta, made him drink it, and sat with him until he dropped off. Then I bent over and kissed him on the forehead.
“You’re a good man, Bran. And a gentle one.”
It must have sunk in, for a smile crossed his face.
The rest of the morning I spent communing with Vergil, who had been neglected of late. After a bite of lunch, seeing that Bran was still dead to the world, I went out to meet Lucius at the town baths, which he had not yet sampled. He turned up with Drostan in tow, but since Bran was absent I proposed that we scrape each other, and Drostan was sent home. I hoped for a private talk with Lucius and, I cannot deny it, for another look at his body. I got an extended look, but Lucius scraped me fast and perfunctorily, and the place was too crowded and noisy to encourage heart-to-hearts. I suggested we adjourn somewhere quieter.
“Fine by me,” said Lucius, “but first I need a crap.”
In the latrine we sat on adjacent holes, idly reading the graffiti scratched on the plaster of the opposite wall. Most of them were simple and uninspired statements, that so-and-so loved this or that boy or girl, or had shagged them. But one was more imaginative: ACCENSVM QVI PEDICAT VRIT MENTVLAM. Lucius pointed to it and laughed.
It meant, on the face of it, ‘If you bugger an attendant you burn your prick.’ But it contained an untranslatable pun, for accensus means not only an attendant, as at the baths, but also someone who is on fire.
“That’s almost true, you know,” said Lucius, leaning over confidentially. He had not talked about his personal life before. “Drostan really is hot. I buggered him last night.”
My disapproval must have shown.
“What’s wrong with that?” he asked defensively.
“Was he willing?”
“Willing? I don’t know. I’ve never asked him.”
“You mean this wasn’t the first time?”
“More like the hundredth. He’s the hottest I’ve ever had, boy or girl. But I bet Bran is just as hot.”
Here we go, I thought.
“I don’t know. I’ve never had him, and don’t intend to.”
“But …” Lucius gaped. “But you said …”
“I didn’t, actually. But I’ve realised now. When I said we do things together, you thought I meant we had it off together. But all I meant was that we’re often together because we’re damn good friends. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to mislead you.”
“But you said he was out of bounds. If you don’t have it off with him, how can he be out of bounds? I thought you meant he was reserved for you. Your favourite, like Alexis in the Eclogue. I could understand that, though I wouldn’t be so possessive, even over Drostan. If you wanted to bugger Drostan, I wouldn’t have any objection.”
“Maybe not. But he might. He very well might. Slaves have free will too, you know, even if they’re not allowed to exercise it. If they’re ordered to do something, they can’t say no, however much they dislike it. I’ve never ordered Bran into my bed. I’ve never even asked him. That would be exploiting him. Taking advantage of the fact that he’s a slave. After all, as long as he’s a slave, we’re not equals.”
Lucius was frowning hard. “You mean you’ve never had it off with a slave? Any slave, girl or boy?”
“Well, you’re far too sensible to be chaste. Who have you had it off with?”
“Oh, plenty of people, boys and girls.”
“Yes, but who? Prostitutes? Foreigners?”
“No. Friends. Other friends.”
Disbelief, even horror, spread across Lucius’ face.
“Friends? You mean citizens? Free-born?”
“Yes, of course. Why not? Haven’t you had it off with yours?”
“They’re the last people …”
We stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. Around us, men and boys were coming in and going out, laughing, chatting, some within earshot.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I just don’t understand. But this isn’t the place to sort it out. Let’s go somewhere more private.”
He agreed, and we sponged ourselves, washed our hands at the basin, and went out into the streets. As we walked, without a word between us, I snatched sideways glances at him. He was otherwise a decent lad, very decent, and fast being converted to our ways. He evidently thought we were decent people too, and worth learning from. And I was pretty sure I loved him, even if he did not love me. Yet here we were confronted by a major obstacle. Only calm discussion would show if it was surmountable.
It was the end of March and spring was in the air. I led Lucius to where a stream dropped steeply into the ditch outside the southern walls. It had been dammed to provide the head for a pair of watermills, one below the other, their wheels driven in turn by the same water. We sat on a broken-down cart the miller had abandoned, looking across the millpond with its water lilies and ducks to the bank crowned by the shaky wooden palisade. Compared to the baths, it was peaceful. There was only a gentle creaking and splashing from the waterwheels, and the occasional quack of a duck. But Lucius was still frowning.
“Look,” I said. “I don’t understand you, and you don’t understand me. I only have it off with citizens, you only have it off with slaves. Are we living in the same world?”
”That’s not quite right. I’ve no objection to having it off with free girls. It’s only free boys who’re taboo.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked. “Why are only boys taboo? Only free boys? Tell me why, starting from square one, and we might get somewhere.”
Lucius’ frown changed from one of disgust to one of thought. “Well, I suppose it’s basically about, well, um, our dignity.”
“Men’s, of course.”
“But what men?”
“Ah! So we’re back to Romans and Britons. Sorry, go on.”
“Well, Romans — Roman men — are manly. Like Aeneas was, if you like. Or they’re supposed to be. After all, we couldn’t have conquered the world without manliness, could we? It’s made us what we are. And when you’re having it off, manliness means taking the man’s role. Doing the shagging. Because being shagged is womanly. It’s what women are for. And women are inferior, aren’t they?”
“No!” I almost shouted it, and it put him off his stride.
“Look,” I said patiently, “I think this is where we part company. And I think I see where you’re going. But carry on. Let’s assume for the moment that women are inferior.”
“Well,” he said dubiously, struggling to pick up his thread. “The point is that any male who’s shagged is inferior too. As inferior as women are. That’s why it’s all right to bugger slaves. They’re inferior already, because they don’t have any legal rights. And freedmen and foreigners, who don’t have full rights. But if a Roman citizen has a cock shoved up his arse, or even worse into his mouth, then he’s being treated as a woman. He’s being made inferior. Robbed of his dignity. Degraded. Disgraced. There’s even a law about it. It’s a capital offence for a citizen to be buggered, voluntarily. It’s off with his head.”
That was news to me, but it did not scare me. Plenty of laws, indeed most laws, were hot air. “But it’s not enforced, is it? If it was, I’d be for the chop. And only the gods know how many others would be too. And what about rent-boys? There are several in Viroconium, and they’re never prosecuted.”
“Oh, they leave them alone because there’s a tax on their earnings, isn’t there? Which brings in a tidy revenue. But they’re inferior too. They’re far from manly.”
He had obviously been conditioned into believing all this twaddle.
“It’s hard to credit,” I said, “that every Roman toes your line.”
“Oh, they don’t. Good Romans do, who’ve been well brought up. But plenty have been infected by Greek ways. In Rome itself, I gather, there’s a regular underworld of softies. Effeminates, who like being buggered. They’re despised, but they don’t give a damn. Anyway, theory’s one thing, and what goes on behind the bedroom door is another. But if word gets out of, um, irregular goings-on, then there’s scandal. It may not go to law, but plenty of people have lost their good reputation that way.”
“Have I got this right? You’ve shagged girls and buggered slave boys, but you’ve never been buggered yourself? It’s all been one-way, hasn’t it? You’ve loved other people, but you’ve never been loved. Well, love’s the wrong word. It’s lust. But you’re horrified by the thought of anyone lusting for you. Is that right?”
“That’s right.” It was almost inaudible.
So that was why he had been so shocked the night before last when I praised his body. Now I understood.
“Are you proud of it? Proud of being so manly and such a good Roman? So, um, unwanted?”
There was no answer. And I found I could not bully him.
“It’s been drilled into you, Lucius, hasn’t it?” I asked as gently as I could. “All your life. Well, there’s another way of looking at it, which has been drilled into me all my life. That everyone has free will to choose what they do — everyone, slave or free, male or female — or rather that they ought to be able to choose. That everyone deserves equal respect. That nobody’s inferior. That masters shouldn’t expect slaves to leap into their bed. All right, there are people here who don’t follow our rule, just as you have people who don’t follow yours. But most of us do. I’ve never bedded a slave, because it’s difficult for a slave to say no. If it’s not rape, it’s verging on rape. If I thought my partner might be unwilling, I’d … well, I think I’d find it difficult to perform.
“It boils down to respect, Lucius. And respect means justice. There is justice in the world, human justice, or there can be. There should be. And there’s divine justice too. Not from your Roman gods, as far as I can see — that’s one thing that bugs me in Vergil. Your gods can be spiteful — look at Juno, for a start. They take it out on man. And man hasn’t got much free will, in Vergil. According to him, everything’s fore-ordained and there’s no point in struggling against fate. But our gods give us choice. If we humans choose to do wrong by each other, and wrong by the world of nature, they let us reap the consequences. But if we choose to do right, then our gods do right by us. They encourage us.”
I was becoming quite worked up, and quite inspired, inspired by Tad and by Bran and, yes, by Mamma.
“And that means doing right by women. To us they’re equal to men. I wish you’d met my Mamma. She used to run the farm, you know, before she fell ill, while Tad looked after the mines. If anyone had told her she was inferior, she’d have … I don’t know what — emptied a pisspot over him or something. So would Tad, or worse. Because they loved each other as equals. As equals, Lucius.
“So with us, you see, being shagged isn’t inferior to shagging, so long as there’s free will on both sides. Look at me. I’ve shagged girls and I’ve buggered boys, and I don’t see myself as superior. I’ve been buggered, mouth and arse, and I don’t see myself as inferior. And I don’t see myself as effeminate — am I effeminate? It feels just as good to be buggered, you know, as it does to bugger. Honestly it does. True, sucking somebody off doesn’t do so much for you, except that it makes you feel good to give him pleasure. But it’s about equality, Lucius. It’s about give and take. All right, some people prefer giving and some prefer taking. But don’t you sometimes wish it wasn’t all one-way with you? That there was at least the option of give and take?”
I had been addressing all this to the ducks, because I did not dare to look at him. Now I did look. He was crying, silently, head in hands, shaking. I put an arm round him, feeling ripples in the muscle behind the shoulder. I found time for surprise at noticing a detail like that.
“It’s a lot to take in, Lucius. I know it is. Don’t rush. Go home and think about it. And will you do something for me? Ask Drostan if he likes being buggered. Tell him to be honest. Swear by whatever he holds sacred that you won’t punish him for being honest. And promise that if he says he doesn’t like it, you’ll never bugger him again. Will you?”
He looked up and nodded, and I saw that he meant it. I wiped his tear-blotched face with the back of my hand.
“Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis,” I said. “Hold up, and reserve yourself for better things. Let’s get you home.”
I took him down past the watermills to the ford and thence along the cliff top where, years ago, I had first seen Senovara’s pussy. Here by the riverside rampart, unlike in the streets, there was nobody to witness his tears. Lucius’ house was close to the river, and I saw him through the postern gate to his front door. He wiped his face again, squared his shoulders, and went in.
I ambled home, dog-tired after so much intensity. Bran might be awake by now, and I needed to bring him up to date. I needed, too, to do some more thinking.
Neque finis idem, qui meo me corpore,
Et amore laxabit tuo,
Mens quippe, lapsis quae superstes artubus,
De stirpe durat caeliti.
The end which frees me from my body will not be the end that frees me from your love, for the soul which outlives the wasted limbs is heaven-begotten, and endures.
Paulinus of Nola, in Ausonius, Epistles
Bran was fully recovered next morning. It was Lucius who was the worse for wear. He turned up early at our house, bleary-eyed but full of penitence and gratitude. The first thing he wanted was to give an offering to the Mothers in our household shrine. He placed a ring in front of them, a thick gold ring, and stood for a moment in silence with hands raised. Then he asked if I would take him to Mamma’s grave. As we walked, still in silence, I wondered what to do about the ring. Usually we only gave our gods little edible offerings. I must ask Tad.
At the cemetery I led Lucius to the grave. Time was when stone tombstones had been the norm. No longer. Old ones were still standing, but nowadays only painted wooden markers were set up. Time was, I understood, when earthly goods — food, jewellery, money, even pets — had been placed in the grave to accompany the dead to the otherworld. No longer, or only rarely. What use were earthly goods there? Sometimes tubes had even been built into the grave so that fresh food and drink could be funnelled down to sustain the departed on their journey. But was there a journey? Was there an otherworld at all? Nobody knew, and nobody could know. But I remembered Mamma with pangs of love and grief, while Lucius again stood silent. Then he poured over the grave a flaskful of exotically perfumed and doubtless pricey oil. Why do even that? As a mark of respect, I supposed, a sharing of something personal.
“Thank you,” Lucius said soberly as we strolled back. “That makes me feel better. I was very rude about women yesterday. I see that now, and wanted to make amends. And you’re right, I wish I had met your Mamma. Back there I could feel her love for you, even though she’s dead. And yours for her. She must have been a remarkable lady, to have had a remarkable son like you. Just as your father’s a remarkable man.”
Good, yes. Kind and wise. The best. But remarkable? And me remarkable? What was remarkable about any of us? But he wanted to talk, and I let him talk.
“You see, Docco, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I want to tell you. Can we stay here, or somewhere where it’s quiet?”
We were just outside the walls, and I took him in through the north gate and up to the rampart walk, where we leant on the timber parapet to look over. It wobbled under the pressure, and flakes of crumbling wood fell off.
“This isn’t much good, is it?” he said, pulling at more rotten bits. “And the council can barely afford to replace a tiny section of it. I wonder …” He paused in thought. “Anyway …”
He explained that, on getting home yesterday, he had carried out his promise and asked Drostan if he liked being buggered. The answer, once Drostan had been persuaded that no punishment lay in store, was an emphatic no.
“And when I told him I wouldn’t bugger him any more, he said — at least I think he said, because it isn’t easy to understand him — that if I’d carried on he was going to kill me and then kill himself. If that’s true, Docco, then you’ve saved my life. And his. Thank you.”
Good news, on two counts, and moving news.
“And you’re not going to do anything about it?” I asked. “About his plan to kill you? Like telling your father, I mean.”
“Oh gods, no! He’d flog him. He does flog them, you know. Not personally, of course. Cratinus does it — he’s in charge of the slaves. One died, not long ago. His kidney had been ruptured …
“But I’ve hoisted in what you said, Docco. I hardly slept last night, thinking about it. About respect and justice, and women, and giving and taking. You’re quite right. Things have been drilled into my head and I’ve never thought about them. I’m not sure the Roman way encourages thinking. One just does what one’s told. But then you made me think. All the way along you’ve been making me think, you and Bran and your father. I asked you — do you remember, was it only the night before last? — if I was still a prick. And you said I was getting less and less of a prick every day. Well, I hope that’s true. And I hope I’m less of a prick than I was yesterday. But I’m probably still a bit of one, aren’t I?”
That warmed my heart. It cannot have been easy for him, but here was humility and honesty and trust. I loved him more than ever.
A squad of soldiers was marching out of the gate beside us. Marching is the wrong word: they were straggling and out of step. The officer’s cuirass was tarnished. It was already the third hour of daylight and they were only just leaving the comforts of the state hotel. Coming into town was a donkey-cart driven by a smallholder, bringing produce to market. There was plenty of room on the road for the soldiers to pass, but they fanned out and forced the cart off the metalling and on to the soft verge, where it came to rest at a crazy angle with one wheel in the ditch. The soldiers laughed and carried on.
I let Lucius make the first move. Here was a good test, and he passed it with flying colours. He leapt down the back of the rampart and ran out through the gate, with me following. He helped the farmer out of the ditch, asked if he was all right, and brushed him down. Between us we calmed the agitated donkey, heaved the cart back on the road, and rescued the turnips which had fallen out. The farmer thanked us and went on his way.
“Bastards,” said Lucius, sitting down on the edge of the ditch.
“Bastards indeed. And you aren’t.”
“A bit of a prick still. You’re totally non-prick. You’ve grown out of it.”
“Oh!” He blushed. “Thanks.”
“What does that mean?”
“That you haven’t said anything yet about being buggered.”
“Ah! But I am there too,” he said softly, not looking at me. “I’d like to try it.”
There was a pause. “That’s a very big step,” I ventured.
“I’ve taken lots of big steps since I came here. I’m not sure this is any bigger than the rest. Anyway …” There was another long pause, and I saw him square his shoulders. “I’ve now taken another step that’s bigger still.”
He was still not looking at me. “I’ve fallen in love.”
My heart sank. It could not be love for me.
“It’s new to me, Docco,” he said rapidly. “Plenty of lust, yes. But never love. You can’t love slaves, even if you bugger them. I was only allowed to love girls, free girls. But they’ve never appealed to me. Then I met you and Bran. From that very first day it was lust, for both of you. I kept on lusting for Bran, because I thought he was, um, accessible. The lust for you … well, you weren’t accessible, or I thought you weren’t. So I suppressed it. Whenever we’ve been in the bath, I could hardly bear to look at your body.”
He was almost gabbling now, and my heart was hovering in fearful uncertainty.
“But the more you took me under your wing, the more it turned into love. I knew it was love. But it wasn’t on. Not between free-born boys. I couldn’t work out what to do. Part of me wanted to drop you. Not to chase Bran instead … I lusted for him, and I like him immensely, but I don’t love him … but to get back to bedding Drostan, which was familiar and safe. At least I thought it was safe. But part of me desperately wanted to be closer to you. Against all my principles …”
He had taken out his knife and was jabbing it aimlessly into the earth.
“Well, yesterday you overturned my principles. But I don’t know what you really feel about me … You did quote that Vergil about Pulcher’s body, but that could just be lust. All I know is that I love you. Not lust. Love. I want to love you until, well, until I end up there.” He jerked a thumb towards the cemetery. “And even then I’ll go on loving you. Nunc scio quid sit amor. Now I know what love is. That’s … all I’ve got to say.”
Now he did look at me, timidly. Meanwhile my soul had been climbing from the pits to the heavens. My brain in a whirl, I put my arm round him.
“But I do love you, Lucius.”
He gasped, and I felt his arm come round me.
“It was the same with me,” I mumbled. “Lust first. Then the less of a prick you became, the more it turned into love. Trouble was, you showed no sign of loving me. And it’s new to me too. I can do the lust part. But the love part … well, I’m like you. All I know is that I want to be with you until I die … Lucius, can I kiss you?”
We kissed deeply, our tongues sliding over each other. I had been well taught, he had not. We were still sitting in the ditch, in passionate embrace, in full view of every passer-by. Not one of them turned a hair, except Bishop Viventius who frowned forebodingly and hesitated, but carried on.
“Docco, talking of pricks,” said Lucius during an interval, “shall we …?”
“Yes,” I agreed urgently. Love did not suppress desire. It elevated it. “Where? Not your place, obviously. Better not mine — Roveta will be doing the cleaning and Bran will be around.” I had an obscure feeling of guilt in that direction. “I know! The farm! The cattle are all out in the fields now.”
“But what about oil?”
“Is there any left in your flask?”
“Oh yes. Hang on.” He pulled it out of his pouch, removed the stopper and peered. “Yes, there’s enough. But … this was meant for your Mamma … would she mind?”
“If she knew, she’d laugh herself silly. Come on!”
Hand in hand, we almost ran to the hayloft of the farthest barn. Once there, Lucius wanted to plunge straight in, but I persuaded him to take it slowly. He knew nothing of foreplay. In the light of his past, how could he? Slowly I undressed him and explored each new area as it was bared. We lay down in the rustling hay, regardless of the hard stalks and dried thistles which poked us, and kissed again as erection squirmed against erection, swollen for the first time by something more worthy than lust. He had to enter me first. I was in no doubt about that, not just because he was squealing with urgency — although I was too — but because that would be territory familiar to him, except only that I was not a slave but a free man. Being entered for the first time could all too easily, in the face of his long-held principles, prove traumatic.
“You first, Lucius,” I insisted. “How would you like me?”
He put me on hands and knees, pushed in easily, and pumped rapidly, even brutally, but I was loose enough to take it. He knew nothing about giving pleasure to the recipient. In the light of his past, how could he? Before long he climaxed, moaning, and pulled straight out. For me, it had not been satisfying. But that was not the point, and in hugging him gratefully and passionately I was not pretending.
“That wasn’t so different from a slave, was it?” I asked, ambiguously.
“Better,” he said humbly, “much better. Knowing you wanted it. Feeling the love.” True, very true. “Your turn now.”
Because it was his first time, the next step demanded more love and time and care. Trying to ignore the insistent ache in my groin, I drew on the lessons of my wild-oat days. I had him lie on his back, holding up his legs, while I set about loosening him with my fingers, exploring, locating his sensitive spot and making him yelp in surprised delight. He had not even known it existed. He showed no disgust at my invading what had never been invaded before, but I thought I saw anxiety in his eyes. Yet he put on a brave face.
“Gods! I’m looking forward to this,” he said. “You’ve no idea!”
Perhaps I had. I oiled myself, knelt between his legs, and pushed very carefully. He was tight, and winced, and I paused to let him grow used to it.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It hurt a bit, but it’s better already.”
I pushed in gently to my full length, and because it was still all right I began to pump at a slow pace.
And so, in a humble barn whose ingrained stench of cow shit was overlaid by exotic oriental perfume, Lucius Martiannius Pulcher, vir clarissimus of the senatorial order of the eternal city, surrendered his virginity, and his last significant remnant of Romanity, to Docco, just Docco, the Briton.
Face-to-face is the position I like best. It allows eye contact, and kissing, and the best angle for plumbing the sensitive spot. All of those were new to him, and taught him that the reward is just as great for the passive partner as the active. He was groaning in ecstasy, and to my amazement came for a second time within half an hour, even before I did, and in doing so brought me to climax too. I collapsed on his seed-spattered chest and we kissed again. It was a while before we were capable of speech. When at last I flopped out and lowered his legs, he looked up at me with an awed smile.
“Docco … I had no idea … You were working that for my pleasure, weren’t you?”
I nodded, smiling too.
“I said,” he went on, “back there by the road, nunc scio quid sit amor, now I know what love is. I was wrong. I didn’t then. Not properly. But I do now. Thank you, brother.”
“It’s what lovers call each other. Male lovers.”
“I didn’t know that. How do you know?”
“Papias told me. My tutor.”
I liked it.
As we walked home, however, resplendent with glory, awkward questions arose. We were in love, we wanted to live together for the rest of our days, but what in practical terms could we do about it? There was no problem over meeting to copulate, but we needed much more than that. We needed to meld our souls as well as our bodies. Tad, though disappointed in his hope of grandchildren, would surely put no obstacle in our way. The problem was Pulcher senior, that Roman grandee of the old school who, should he hear, would be apoplectic. His authority over Lucius was absolute, and he would forbid him to see me. He might even send him away, out of reach of my contamination. A pretty problem.
My first move must be to consult Tad. And Lucius wanted to speak to his own father: not, emphatically not, on this subject but on some other, he would not say what. A final hug and we went our ways; not unwillingly, strangely enough, but needing to come to terms, alone, with the earth-shattering event that had just happened. As I turned in to our front door Amminus hailed me.
“I’ve seen you around with Lucius,” he said. “And just now you were holding hands and stuff. Is it what I think it is?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Quick work. Congratulations, then, Docco. I enjoyed what we did together, but I don’t begrudge you moving on. I’ll have to move on too, one day.”
He was still pretty wild, I had heard, but his heart was in the right place. Once indoors I gave my thanks, my heartfelt thanks, to the household gods. The ring was now on the head of the central Mother, which it fitted perfectly. Let her wear it as a diadem.
Tad, over lunch, was in cheerful mood. He had received payment for the last cargo of lead, more than he dared hope, and his finances were back where they had been, and better. We still needed to keep an eye on expenditure in case the same happened again, but he would re-hire the hands at the farm and we would return to daily use of the bath. And in thanking the gods, he had seen and wondered at the ring, and put it on the Mother’s head.
I was glad for him, and said so, and asked him to be glad for me. I told him where the ring had come from, and why. I told him that Lucius and I were in love. Bran was waiting on us, and I was careful to include him in my telling. He knew my need. We were parallel lines, unmeeting but close, and he would understand. And I told of our problem, not a British problem but a Roman one, and asked Tad if he could see any way forward.
As expected, he was a tower of strength. He did not even hint at disappointment that he would not be a grandfather. Young though I was for this, he said, I was my own master. He thought ever more highly of young Lucius, and he supported us all the way. He had heard of the traditional Roman hang-up about unmanly behaviour, and he saw the point about Pulcher … he would have to think about that. It so happened that he had an appointment to meet him that very afternoon. He would not of course mention our problem, but he would learn what kind of man he was, and possibly some solution might emerge. In fact, in fact … He fell to musing, and refused to say more.
Bran had been very quiet and, when Tad had gone off to beard Pulcher, I looked at him quizzically. I was on top of the world, problem or no, but where Tad’s enthusiasm had boosted me, Bran’s silence had not. I almost felt that veil descending again. He looked back and smiled. Was it a slightly wan smile? Then he quoted.
“Di tibi, si qua pios respectant numina, si quid
Usquam iustitia est et mens sibi conscia recti,
Praemia digna ferant.
If the divine powers take any note of the dutiful, if there is justice anywhere and a mind which knows what is right, may the gods bring you your deserved reward.”
Good for Bran. He did understand after all, and had said so very graciously. I thanked him, gave him a quick hug, and went to lie down on my bed to review the morning’s excitements. I thought first of Lucius. Of course I did. We were in love. But we had fallen in love, I reflected again, remarkably fast. We knew remarkably little about each other. We needed to bond our relationship with the cement of familiarity. We needed a long and uninterrupted spell of communion. But how? Where? Could Tad help? Could Bran? Iran through his bit of Vergil in my head, and was taken aback. It could almost be read, when you thought about it, in two different ways. Rewards were not necessarily good. They could be punishments … But Bran couldn’t have meant it that way, not possibly. Reassured, I dropped off.
I dimly heard Tad’s return. You could usually tell from his footstep whether he was in good mood or bad, and this was unmistakably good. I woke up properly and went out to him. He was beaming.
“Good news, Docco. Some excellent, and some potentially good. I have a plan. But I won’t tell you now. It concerns Bran as well, and young Lucius too — I asked Pulcher to send him round here for dinner. But for your ears, before he comes, yes, Pulcher is indeed a Roman of the old school. Upright. Rigid. Dutiful to the gods. His gods. But he also acknowledges the power of our gods. That’s what I’m pinning my hopes on.”
“What do you mean?”
“Aha! Wait and see!”
No more could I get from him. Eventually Lucius arrived. I felt curiously shy about him, and curiously shy with him, in these domestic surroundings. But Tad’s embrace accepted him as a member of the family.
“Lucius, you know that I’ve had a chat with your father? He astonished me. He offered, off his own bat, to fund a complete new palisade for the town. All the way round, two miles of it. And new gates. No strings attached. And we’d despaired of being able to replace even a hundred paces. And he went so far as apologising — he’d have liked to fund a wall, a proper stone wall like most other towns have, but even he couldn’t run to that. It’s still unbelievably generous! And Lucius … He said it wasn’t his own idea. He said it was yours, and you talked him into it. We’re as much in your debt as we are in his. Thank you!”
He hugged him again. Lucius’ face was bright red, and I was brimming with pride for him.
Over dinner Tad unfolded his plan. In a few weeks’ time the annual meeting of the Provincial Council was taking place at Corinium. It was largely a formality which would not occupy a day, but Pulcher, as a senator, was obliged to attend. So too was Tad, as one of this year’s elected delegates from the Cornovii. Corinium was the best part of three days away on horseback, but Pulcher intended to put in a few days beforehand relaxing at the hot springs of Aquae Sulis, which lay a day beyond Corinium. Tad intended to travel by way of Abonae, not far from Aquae Sulis, to receive the next load of lead to be barged down-river and to see it shipped to Gaul. He proposed that Lucius and I go with him, along with Bran to look after us, and combine holiday with business; I ought to know the ins and outs of warehousing and of chartering ships. He further proposed that we meet up with Pulcher for a couple of nights at Aquae Sulis — “that’ll be a real eye-opener for you” — and that we return together to Corinium. We youngsters could easily fill our time there while the meeting was in progress, and Tad wanted me to meet his banker and the Count of the Mines, against the day when I would be Procurator.
“So there you are. What do you think of that?”
“Great! But what’s it got to do with our, um, problem?”
“Ah! That’s the beauty of it! Between Aquae Sulis and Corinium there’s a temple of Maponus. I don’t know if you know,” he said to Lucius, “that Maponus is our god of hunting and music, rather like Apollo. And because your father’s so avid a huntsman, he’s interested in dropping in there. What I did not tell him is that this temple has nothing to do with hunting, or with music. There, Maponus is in his other role.”
“What’s that?” I knew of no other role for Maponus.
“He gives his blessing to young men who’re in love with each other. And not only to them, but to anyone who’s with them. Assuming that Maponus approves your love, he will tell Pulcher that there’s nothing whatever wrong with it.”
“Oh, my word!” said Lucius, again aglow. “But, um, isn’t that pinning a lot of trust on …”
“On a mere god? You need more faith in our gods, young man. I’ve never had to ask for Maponus’ help myself, but they say that he’s infallible, provided one goes to him in love. So how about it? Bran?”
“Yes, sir. Of course.” He sounded thoughtful.
“Yes! But Tad, there’s something else.” It was a golden opportunity. “Lucius and I would like some time together. Just the two of us. Could we go down on the boat? And meet up with you at Abonae? It would save,” I added craftily, “on hotel bills.”
“True. But it’s …” He cut himself short. “Yes, all right,” he said after a pause. “It wouldn’t be just you, of course. You’d be slumming it with the boatmen. They’re rough characters, but good-hearted. And it would mean forgoing decent cooking and baths, though there’s always the river. But if you’re happy with that, why not? It takes seven or eight days to Abonae at this time of year, so the boat’ll be leaving three days before we do. I’ll check with Pulcher that it’s all right by him.”
So it was agreed. Lucius, being short of sleep, did not stay long. But before he left he took Bran and me to one side. He had gifts for us. For me, a solid gold crossbow brooch inscribed AMOR, love.
“It’s the one you were ogling at in the goldsmith’s, that day we first met.”
I had never owned anything like it, not even the two great gold coins of Carausius. I hugged him, beyond words and at the same time ashamed that I had nothing to give in return. But he forestalled me.
“Don’t think of reciprocating, brother. I’ve got more money than you, a lot more. Anyway, this is by way of repayment, in love, for all you’ve done for me.”
Out of his pouch he produced another brooch, inscribed AMICITIA, friendship.
“And this is by way of repayment to you, Bran, in friendship, for all you’ve done for me. I commissioned it as the twin of Docco’s.”
The Pulchers were truly in a different league. As the front door closed behind Lucius, Bran and I looked at each other wonderingly.
“I’m so glad, Bran,” I said, “that he treated you the same as me. Because without your help I couldn’t have got where I’ve got. We are equals, you know, in every way but one.”
He smiled his inscrutable smile.
Navita caudiceo fluitans super aequora limbo
Per medium, qua sese amni confundit imago
Collis umbrarum confinia conserit amnis.
The boatman in his barge glides by midstream. Shadows and mirrored mountains merge the river with its fringe — but where, he cannot tell.
Ausonius, The Moselle
That journey was a delight verging on a dream. It took us almost out of the world of man. We did see human beings, and we exchanged greetings with the occasional fisherman and washerwoman. But our world, in essence, was the world of the river, of the otter and beaver, the heron and kingfisher, the vole and the dabchick and the rising fish. It was a world of rapids and still water, of reflections of cloud and hill and tree, of mysterious mists at dusk and dawn, of reed-fringed plains and thickly-wooded banks fresh with the green of spring. At first the Sabrina passed between familiar meadows dotted with cattle and sheep and sporadic humble farmsteads, and it meandered wonderfully. The tump of Virocodunum loomed now in front, now on our right, now on the left. Then it vanished from view as we entered the gorge, whose sides were peppered, like over-ripe fruit invaded by maggots, with little black portals from which grimy miners dragged baskets of stone-coal. But the current here was fast, and soon they too were behind. Never before had I been so far down-river, and it was an empty land.
“This is all so strange,” mused Lucius. “Round Camulodunum it’s flat. Not much woodland. And every mile a villa — a really nice one on its own estate, like ours was. There’s not much of that here, is there?”
“Not much. There can’t be more than half a dozen villas — proper ones — within a day’s walk of Viroconium. Otherwise it’s all farms like ours, owned by people in the town, or else peasant smallholdings. There isn’t nearly so much money around here as there must be at Camulodunum.”
“Maybe not. But you don’t splash your money out so … well, so ostentatiously as they do there. There, appearances have to be kept up. A lot of the villas belong to Gaulish families, you know. They got fed up with the mayhem the Germans were creating in Gaul, and bought up land in Britain to get away from it. A lot of them settled around Corinium and Aquae Sulis too, or so I’m told. Britain was safer than Gaul, in those days. It still is, I suppose, even if we got fed up with the Saxons and moved west. And we weren’t the only ones.”
“I hope you haven’t moved too far west. I suppose somewhere in the middle is safest. Furthest from Saxons and Picts and Irish.”
“Depends which of them turns out to be the worst, doesn’t it?”
Light was fading as we stopped for the night at a clearing on the left bank. Bitucus and Lurio, our boatmen, tied our mooring ropes to bushes and lit a fire to cook supper. It was strange that so ponderous a boat could be managed by only two men. It must have been fifty feet long and twelve wide, and with its heavy cargo sat quite low in the water. It was allowed to drift, wherever the Sabrina was narrow or shallow and the current strong, but where the flow was feebler the boatmen either punted with long poles or rowed, one on each side, with enormous oars which they wielded standing up. There was also a mast with a sail which they occasionally spread, but our course was essentially southward and, for the first few days, against the wind. The boat was called the Fortuna, and it amused us to be wafted along by Fortune, carried wherever she took us, wholly beyond our control.
From time to time we grounded, and it took much vigorous poling and much vigorous language to get us afloat again. We had passed a few boats making their laborious way upstream, sometimes under sail but more often bow-hauled by men on shore. The long rope stretching from their shoulders to the masthead was high enough, usually, to clear the bankside bushes. Once, when we were willy-nilly following the current on the outside of a bend and they failed to lower their towrope to let us pass over, we snagged it and almost pulled them in. They responded with language just as vigorous as our boatmen’s, and the ancestry they ascribed to us was curious and unexpected.
So as not to get in Bitucus’ and Lurio’s way we sat, for the most part, in the bows, but if they were in earshot and we wanted private talk we could always use Latin, of which they had virtually none. They preferred, when they could, to camp on shore in a crude tent by the fire, while we, on Tad’s advice, slept on board. The lead, being so heavy, did not occupy much of the barge’s depth, and there was ample room under an oiled canvas sheet stretched across the gunwales in the bows. A simple flooring of planks laid on the knobbly pigs, and a good supply of blankets, made a very adequate bed.
We had passed, that first day, two fishermen in coracles and, as they paddled alongside, haggled with them for four fat bream. These we now grilled on the fire and ate messily with the olives and sour bread we had brought, and over the meal we got to know our boatmen better. Bitucus and Lurio were an interesting pair. They were, as Tad had said, rough as raw timber but endlessly good-hearted, tickled pink at carrying such passengers as us, but full of banter and not in the least deferential. Bitucus was perhaps thirty and, we learned, married, Lurio in his late teens with a girlfriend. Both lived in Viroconium but spent much of their time away. On the two occasions when we moored at a settlement they passed the night at a brothel. The other nights they made do with each other. Indeed they had figured out our relationship from the start, and that first evening they cheerfully invited us to join them in their tent. Having our own agenda, we declined, and they were not in the least offended. If our cavortings on board made the barge rock despite its weighty cargo, we did not care. Bitucus and Lurio, to judge by the gruntings from the tent, were up to exactly the same thing.
We were woken next morning by great splashes as they leapt into the river and chased each other up and down. Everyone who grew up in Viroconium could swim like a fish. But, try as I would, I could not tempt Lucius in. So I left him on board and leapt in too. The water, still largely snow-melt from the mountains, was ball-shrivellingly cold. I surfaced gibbering, and promptly went under again as Lurio ducked me. To escape, I swam off some distance underwater, and on resurfacing I heard Lucius frantically shouting my name. But I was able to catch Lurio unawares and repay him, and for good measure Bitucus too. A little of Sabrina’s chill, however, went a long way that morning, and soon we were out, teeth chattering like castanets. Bitucus’ equipment, despite the cold, was of prodigious size and bounced ponderously as he scrubbed his shaggy body dry.
“Tenent media omnia silvae, Cocytusque sinu labens circumvenit atro,” Lucius remarked, gazing in awe, envious not only of Bitucus for owning such a weapon but of Lurio for being able to take it. “Nothing but forest in the middle, and hellish Cocytus curling and sliding around.”
Hilarious to me, but incomprehensible to the boatmen. They had left a jar of mulled beer in the embers of the fire which warmed us up. Then we pushed off for our second day.
“Why were you yelling at me?” I asked when we were back in the bows. “Did you think I’d drowned?”
He was sheepish. “Yes, I did. I can’t even swim, myself. We didn’t bathe at Camulodunum, not like that. The rivers there are muddy creeks. Not nice. So I’m not at home in water, and I thought you’d drowned, like poor Antinous in the Nile.” He might be making light of it now, but he had been genuinely scared. “Or that the nymphs had fallen in love with you and dragged you under, like Hylas.”
“Uh? Who was Hylas?”
“A beautiful boy. Hercules was his lover.”
“Oh. Well, at least I’ve heard of Hercules. And who was Antinous?”
“Another beautiful boy. The Emperor Hadrian was his lover.”
“I’ve heard of Hadrian too. There’s that great big inscription to him in the forum at home. But what was he doing loving a boy? Was he breaking your rules?”
“I don’t think so. Antinous was Bithynian and wouldn’t have had citizen’s rights, not then. For all I know he was a slave. Anyway, everyone knew about it and saw no problem. What did worry them was when Antinous died. Hadrian turned him into a god and built temples to him.”
Astonishing. “And would you build temples to me if I drowned in the Sabrina?”
“Of course I would. All over the place … Well, on second thoughts, perhaps not. That would mean everyone else worshipping you. I’m selfish. I want to worship you by myself.”
We laughed and kissed, and from the steering oar Bitucus gave us a cheer. Lucius stuck up his middle finger at him. He was coming on, this boy, and I loved him.
“But how do you know,” I asked, “about these beautiful youths who came to damp ends?”
“Oh, Papias told me about them. My tutor.”
“I wish Nonius had told us about them. But he wasn’t very forthcoming even about the lovers in Vergil. Euryalus and Nisus, Corydon and Alexis, and all the rest. Is Papias into boys? If you see what I mean.”
“Probably he was once. He is a Greek, after all.” To Lucius, that seemed to explain everything. “And he was always going on about Greek stuff when he could. But he never showed any interest in me, not of that sort, and he’s married now. I like him, but not in that way. He’s a good man. Not long ago he let slip that he’s interested in Christianity, and when he realised what he’d said he begged me not to tell my father.” He chuckled. “You can guess why.”
“Anyway, passion for boys doesn’t square with the Christian line, does it? Don’t they say the only person you can shag is your wife? And only to get babies, not for fun? And if you haven’t got a wife you can’t shag at all?”
“That’s right. But Papias isn’t a Christian. Not yet, anyway. Only interested. I asked him about it, and he said that what he got stuck on was their attitude to sin.”
“Sin?” I knew the word, but it did not mean much to me.
“Offending against the gods. Or their God. For which you’re punished. Rather like in the Aeneid, remember? Venus says to Jupiter that if the Trojans have gone against their destiny — against what he’s decided for them — luant peccata, neque illos iuveris auxilio. Let them pay for their sins, and you stop helping them.”
“Oh, right. Well, that takes us back to what I was saying, doesn’t it? When we were out by the watermills, remember? About how that side of Vergil bugs me. Fate … destiny … that we can’t escape the will of the gods … it’s almost the moral of the Aeneid, isn’t it? Sic fata deum rex sortitur volvitque vices. So does the king of the gods draw the lots of destiny and sets events in motion. It’s full of that sort of thing.”
“Fata obstant. Fate willed otherwise … Yes, you could go on till the cows come home.”
“And the point is, if the gods dictate what we should do, where’s our free will?”
“That’s just what Papias said. He said … oh, let me get this right. Yes, he said that Christians believe that when their God created the world, it was perfect. But the first man … what was his name? Amad, or something … he sinned. Disobeyed God. And so sin and death came into the world.”
“Death? But that’s crazy. It’s natural. With or without the gods. It’s bound to happen. Not only to man. To everything.”
“I know, I know. And what they say about sin is equally crazy. That all the descendants of this first man — that’s us, that’s everyone — sort of inherited sin from him. So the Christians say that everyone’s born evil. You know that God wants you to do good, but you can’t do it without God’s help. If you don’t believe in God, their God, you’re doomed to sin. And therefore to punishment. And even if you do believe in him, it’s all predestined — if you’re predestined to sin, then you sin, and can’t escape what’s coming to you. I’m sure I’ve got that right. It’s what bugs Papias.”
“And it bugs me,” I said, angry. “It’s blackmail. If everything’s predestined, you don’t have any choice. Where’s the justice in that? It isn’t fair. And if you’re predestined to do wrong, what’s the point of trying to do right? We’re taught, Britons are taught, that we’re all born good and innocent, with an equal chance. If we live well, we’ll do well. That’s much fairer.”
“Docco, my love,” said Lucius seriously, “something I’ve learned this last month or so is that the Romans aren’t very just or very fair. And the Christians don’t seem to be either. I think the Britons have a much better idea of fairness.”
That moved me hugely. I thought of Tad, and Mamma, and Bran … “And the Irish too.”
“Yes. The Irish too.”
It began to rain, and drove us under our canvas for shelter. Lucius told me about the snooty lifestyle of Camulodunum. His had been a closed world, almost as closed as mine. He had been to London and Verulamium but not, until their move, any further afield.
“Where I’d really like to go, of course,” he said, “is Rome. Not even my father’s been there. Silly, isn’t it? A senator of Rome who’s never been there.”
“And one day,” I replied, “you’ll be a senator of Rome yourself. But right now you’re my Lucius, all mine, in a scruffy little boat in the middle of nowhere, and I love you.”
“And I love you, brother.” As we kissed again, his hand crept into my drawers and cradled my manhood. And then he worshipped it.
So the voyage continued, rain and cloud and shine, in deep delight. We learned each other’s mind and body, we talked the sun down, we loved the nights away. Herons speared fish before our eyes, swallows swooped by to snap up evening gnats, beavers swam past to laugh with us. Fed by tributaries, the Sabrina grew wider — which meant more rowing in the lesser current — and river traffic heavier. The second night we stopped at Vertis, the first significant settlement we had seen, and the boatmen left us in charge while they disported themselves. Next day the land became flatter and more cultivated, although the great range of Mailobrunnia, as Bitucus called it, kept us company some miles to our right.
On the morning of the fourth day we woke to find the mooring ropes slack and the river level higher than the night before. A flood must be coming down. I said as much to Lurio, who laughed. Not a flood, he said, but the tide. Tide? Like sin, I had heard of it but no more, and Lucius, who knew all about these things from Camulodunum, had to explain. But as the tide emptied itself out again it helped us on our way, and that evening we moored at the stone-built quay of Glevum.
It was a disappointing place. The most interesting thing about it, our boatmen told us, was that last year a woman there had given birth to a dog. When we pooh-poohed the tale, they were quite offended. They had seen the dog with their own eyes, and indeed it was still there for all to see. Apart from that, they said, Corinium, which was a half-day’s journey inland, offered far more attractions. But Glevum could still boast a fair choice of brothels; which, after we had eaten in a quayside tavern, they went off to patronise. We were left again in charge.
It was just as well, for barely were we asleep than we were woken by a rocking of the boat. I peered out from under our canvas and saw three shadowy figures bending over the pigs of lead. Not Bitucus and Lurio returning early, but thieves. It was Tad’s lead, and anger made me bold. We had no real weapons, but I found our small belt knives, scraped one against the other so that they sounded like a sword being drawn, and uttered my deepest possible shout. The intruders fled, and we settled down. Much later, with the first hint of dawn in the sky, the boat rocked violently again, and I peered out once more. Not a soul was to be seen. But, when I crept cautiously to the side, the water was rushing past us, and the quayside, which had been above our gunwale, was now below. Lucius, when I reported back and restored my knife to its sheath, nearly wet himself with laughter. It was the tide coming in, he said. That was all.
Bitucus and Lurio, returning like cats from a satisfactory night on the tiles, made ready to leave at once and use the ebb — I was fast learning the jargon — to carry us down. The river was now meandering again and growing ever wider, but it was only a dozen miles before we stopped in midstream by throwing the anchors out. The boatmen took great care that they were holding firmly, lashed our canvas roof more tightly down, and told us to obey instantly when they gave orders. The tide was still ebbing gently and I asked why we were not making use of it.
“The wave. Like at Glevum, but bigger. This is a safe place to meet it.”
There we waited for hours. I took my daily dip, tasting to my amazement the salt of the sea, and dried off in the sun. But where I was brown as a berry, Lucius was always pale and careful of his skin.
“O formose puer, nimium ne crede colore,” I teased him. “Don’t bank too much on your complexion, lovely boy.”
But he insisted on using the awning’s shade, and there we sat, talking desultorily and, at the boatmen’s suggestion, eating an early and cold dinner. When the sun neared the horizon Bitucus and Lurio stood together in the stern, gazing intently ahead. They heard it first, and shouted. And then we heard it too, a distant roar as of a mighty waterfall.
“Hold on to the mast now, boys,” ordered Bitucus. “Tightly, and don’t let go till I say. Then be ready to pump.”
We obeyed, and looked downstream. A long line of foam, stretched clean across the river, was rushing up towards us. As we watched in fascinated horror the wave lost its white crown and became a menacing wall of water, tall as a man and almost vertical. I knew fear, real fear, as it hit us. The bows rose and the stern sank, and with a stomach-heaving lurch and a dismal creaking of timbers the Fortuna was over the top and plunging back down.
“Keep holding on!”
Instantly another wave hit us. It was smaller, but this time we were already bows-down and went through it. A flood of water surged on board, swilling sideways off our awning or backwards into the cargo. Then a third wave, a fourth, and a fifth, diminishing all the time, leaving us bobbing in a turbulence of wavelets.
Lucius and I looked at each other in awe. “Gods above!” he said. “We didn’t have anything like that at Camulodunum!” He laughed shakily. “Rather like shagging, wasn’t it? Or making seed. First a big one, then a lot of smaller ones, then that huge feeling of relief.”
“I wouldn’t call it orgasmic. But relief, yes.” And in our relief we kissed.
“Don’t snog! Pump!” came a bellow from the stern.
In front of the mast was the pump, an endless chain of balls coming up a pipe. Standing on the lead we heaved together on the handle, and water spewed from the pipe-top, along a gutter, and out through the side. By the time the boat was dry the sun had set and the tide had turned. Lurio raised the anchors and we drifted down for another few miles before anchoring again. It was somewhere around midnight and pitch dark, but the boatmen seemed to know exactly where we were. We were sent to bed, a rather damp bed, and told to sleep. All too early we were roused for a repeat of the same performance; and there was another at sunset, and a final one next sunrise.
Then the river widened into an estuary, too wide for such waves — half a mile, a mile, three miles, an expanse of water such as I had never seen. I knew of it well enough in theory, but having it before one’s eyes … Lucius however was unimpressed. He had stood on the eastern shore and looked out across the grey swell of the German Ocean. There was no other side to be seen, he said; but one knew that far out of sight, beyond the curve of the world, lay land, the land from which the Saxons came. Maybe one day, I thought, I would look out across the Irish Ocean, beyond which lay the land of Bran.
The whole of this seventh day was spent under sail. The wind had shifted to the north and bowled us merrily along, at which we thanked the gods and Bitucus made an offering. After a while I ceased to thank the gods, for I was in misery, and my offering to Sabrina was the contents of my stomach, over and over again, long after it was empty. The boatmen sympathised. The sea sickness, they called it, to which many a novice fell prey. They told me to lie down and close my eyes. Cold and rain made that more welcome. Lucius lay down with me and, what with lack of sleep, we dropped off in each other’s arms. A change in the barge’s motion woke us, and we looked out. We had left the choppy estuary and were in the mouth of a smaller river. The Abona at last. We anchored, and the ebbing tide deposited us gently on a mudbank.
My stomach having returned to normal, I ate avidly. Our need for sleep being reduced and the clouds having vanished, we sat together under the vault of heaven, speaking quietly to avoid disturbing Lurio and Bitucus who, under their own canvas at the stern, were sleeping the sleep of the just. Then we lapsed into wordless togetherness, tacitae per amica silentia lunae, through the friendly silence of the quiet moon. When we finally retired we made up for our abstention of the last two nights. No need to worry now about disturbing our friends. The Fortuna, like our love, was unrockable on a stable bed.
Ut cuncti ad significandum sodalitatis ac propositi nostri parilitatem pronuntiaverent unam mentem atque animam duobus inesse corporibus.
To indicate the harmony of our friendship and purpose, everyone used to say that our two bodies contained a single heart and soul.
John Cassian, Conferences
First light saw us afloat again and running up-river on the tide for the few remaining miles to the quays of Abonae. Never had I seen so exotic a place. Here was a taste of the big world beyond. Here were ships, proper ships, high and bulky, which sailed all the way to Gaul and Spain and even the Inner Sea. Here were warehouses stacked with bales of cloth, with amphorae of wine and oil and fish sauce, with jars of pickled olives and boxes of dried figs and dates, with crates of glassware from Treveri and pottery from the Durotriges, with ingots of tin from the Dumnonii and of our copper from Croucodunum, with pigs of lead from Onna and the nearer and larger mines of Vebriacum. Here were shipyards raucous with the sound of saw and hammer and redolent of wood sap and tar.
And here were Tad and Bran, awaiting us with a warm welcome. Never had I been away from both for so long; but, glad though I was to see them, I now had my own companion. Bran seemed more at peace with himself. Perhaps he had found the love he was seeking. If so, I was happy for him. And he seemed more at ease than usual with Tad, more familiar even. But never had they been so closely together for so long, and no doubt they had been discovering each other’s qualities. But it was straight down to business, and for the next few hours, in one office after another, we were initiated into the mysteries of porterage and chartering and insurance.
Finally Lucius and I sought out Bitucus and Lurio, whom we found in a tavern. We had discussed what to give them by way of a tip, and Lucius had insisted that I leave it to him. I do not know what he slipped them, but it made their eyes widen. And when we thanked them, “Our pleasure,” they said. “It’s cool to see two young colts like you who’re so obviously cut out for each other. Two halves of a whole. Come with us again. Any time.”
At last we were off for Aquae Sulis, Lucius and I on spare horses which Tad and Bran had led down. We were now in the civitas of the Dobunni. The road undulated through land which grew ever hillier, yet richer and more mellow than ours, and Lucius was right: it was dotted thickly with villas, far more than around Viroconium. As we rode Tad passed on the latest news. The Emperor Jovian had died after only a few months’ reign. His successors were two soldier brothers, Valentinian and Valens, sons of the Count Gratian who, twenty years before, had brokered the deal under which the Attacotti were settled in Demetia.
“I’m not sure what to think,” said Tad. “All credit to them, the family’s come from nowhere. Old Gratian was a rope-maker in Pannonia before he joined the army. But they’re both Christians. Valens is to have the eastern half of the empire. He’s the younger, and I’m told that he’s just a yes-man. Nothing to look at, either — pot-bellied, they say, bandy-legged, and a ferocious squint. But Valentinian’s apparently a fine figure of a man and a fine soldier. He’s taking the west, and we can only hope he’s as strong as they say. Rumour’s going round that our neighbours are plotting to attack us again.”
The sun was low behind us as we came to the crest of a hill and looked down on Aquae Sulis. It was a small place, smaller than Viroconium by far and much less spacious, for buildings were packed tight within its walls and spilled out beyond them. Indeed it was more of a resort or even a religious centre than an ordinary town, and it was teeming with visitors to the spa. Pulcher was staying with friends out of town, and we had difficulty finding accommodation. At last we struck lucky. The hotelier was sorry he had no single rooms, but could offer us a shared one with four truckle beds. He was also sorry — with a knowing look at Lucius and me — that there wasn’t a double bed. Hmmm. Were we that obvious? But we took the room.
A good meal at a restaurant made up for our restricted menu on the voyage, and Bran ate with us. Over the meal we regaled them with our tales, and especially about the waves. Tad confessed that he had not warned us in advance of their terrors in case he put us off.
“So you were frightened, eh? No bad thing. You need to know how to cope with fear, unexpected fear. And there’s good reason for fearing those waves. Ten years ago I lost a boat that way, and plenty of others have lost them too.”
Bran told us, in turn, about their journey, which had been as much an eye-opener to him as ours to us. He waxed lyrical about the novel scenery, the richness of the farmland hereabouts, the multitude of villas. Like us, he was not impressed with Glevum. But they had travelled from there by way of Corinium to hand over the silver from Onna and collect cash from the bank for paying the miners’ wages. Bran was full of the town’s glories. It was little if any bigger than Viroconium, he said, but grander. It had a theatre and an amphitheatre and a magnificent palace for the governor. What pleased him particularly was its great Taranis column, like ours but taller. It carried an inscription to the effect that it had been put up under the old religion — its very words, he said — and that the Governor had recently restored it.
“That’s right,” Tad put in. “Septimius, who got the job last year. A good man. And not a Christian, I hardly need say.”
“And you were right, Lucius,” Bran added, “about Taranis being like Jupiter. The column’s actually dedicated to Jupiter, even though it’s got Taranis on top.”
“It sounds like Camulodunum, where British gods are always twinned with Roman ones,” Lucius said teasingly. “Not like Viroconium, where you’re so behind the times that you’ve hardly heard of the Roman lot.”
Bran laughed. “Well, all right. And we saw something else where Viroconium’s behind the times. One reason we went by way of Corinium was to book beds for our return trip, and the hotel we went into had a marvellous gadget. There was running water, of course, a branch off the mains just like we’ve got. But instead of the spout flowing all the time and the water going straight down the drain, there was a bronze thing fitted to it, with a handle on top. Turn it through a quarter circle and the water stops. Turn it again and it starts. The hotelier said that at Corinium they have difficulty meeting the demand for water, and quite a lot of houses have this gadget fitted. They use less water, so they’re charged a lower water rate. I reckon we could do with something like that. Viroconium can’t meet the demand either.”
“Nice idea, but small chance,” Tad commented gloomily. “Old Belator” — that was the councillor in charge of water supply — “is a stick-in-the-mud.”
And from Corinium the two of them had passed Fanum Maponi.
“We dropped in,” said Tad, “just to have a snoop, and to book us all in at the hostel there. So we’re expected. And we told the priest why we were coming, to put him in the picture. He confirmed what I’d been told. If Maponus approves, he’ll tell you your love’s all right, and he’ll tell everyone else who’s present.”
Excitement welled up. “Did you see the god?”
“Yes. We went into the temple. How would you describe him, Bran?”
“Ummm …” Bran seemed taken aback, and was not forthcoming. “Interesting. Very interesting.” His eyes flickered towards Lucius. “It’s a lovely statue.”
We soon called it a day. In our cramped room with separate beds, Lucius and I had to be abstemious, although we had a decorous kiss before turning in. Tad looked on with approval, Bran with a curiosity I could not fathom. Was he picking up tips for his own love?
Next morning, on our way to meet Pulcher at the baths, we joined the jostling throng in the streets. All humanity seemed to be there, locals and visitors, elegant and scruffy, hale and doddery, invalids in wheeled chairs, tradesmen bawling their pricey or cheapjack wares, beggars whining piteously, quacks promising miracle cures. The buildings were nearly all of stone rather than our stuccoed half-timbering, the architecture was imposing, and fine sculpture was everywhere. Tad knew it of old. Lucius compared it not unfavourably to Camulodunum. Bran rated it higher even than Corinium. And I simply gawped like the provincial tourist I was.
We found our way to the great precinct in the centre. In front was a theatre, the first I had seen. Behind lay a courtyard with a massive altar crowned with a fire of stone-coal. And beyond the altar stood the temple of Sulis herself, goddess of healing and guardian of the hot springs. From a flight of steps rose four tall columns carrying an elaborately carved pediment. The cult statue inside was gilt bronze, life-size and helmeted. It was all utterly Roman, except that from the great roundel at the pediment’s centre there glowered a Gorgon’s head with beetling brow. It was not the usual female Gorgon but a male one, and its almond-shaped eyes and tangled mane of snaky hair and moustache and beard proclaimed the sculptor as British. The same mingling of cultures showed up in the inscription on the architrave below, dedicating the temple not just to Sulis but to Sulis Minerva.
Offerings to her were made at the sacred spring alongside. A window opened into a large vaulted chamber, most of its floor occupied by an oval pool of pale green water welling up from below and swirling with a white mist of steam. I did not see what Tad threw in. But I threw a silver coin, Bran a copper, and Lucius, I was almost sure, a gold. Others were throwing rings, or jewellery, or little rolls that looked like lead. Yes, they were lead. Nearby was a stall selling thin sheets of it, a copper coin for a blank on which to scratch your own message to Sulis, or five if the scribe wrote it for you. A young man, almost in tears, was vainly begging the scribe to give him a sheet for nothing.
“Can we help?” Lucius asked.
The young man, it appeared, was named Annianus, a baker visiting from Corinium. He had just had his pocket picked of his whole week’s wages, and he was penniless. Lucius bought him a sheet.
“Oh, thank you! But I can’t write! Would you do it for me? Please?”
Sitting on the temple steps, the five of us went into committee to compose a message, including the necessary protection against a counter-curse from the pickpocket. Lucius scratched it neatly with his brooch pin. The finished version read:
Whoever it was — pagan or Christian, man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free — who this morning stole six silver coins from Annianus’ purse, you, lady goddess, are to recover them from him. And if by some trick the offender has secretly reversed this curse, do not grant it, but let him pay with his blood.
“Hang around here,” suggested Tad, “and we’ll be finished bathing in a couple of hours. If you’re still penniless, I’m sure we can help you out.”
Annianus, gratefully rolling up the lead, threw it into the pool, and we entered the baths. They were overwhelmingly imposing. Money had been no object, with floors of intricate mosaics and walls inlaid with marble. They were capacious, busy, and very welcome. For a week I had not had a proper bath, and Lucius had hardly washed. We left our clothes in the undressing room and oiled each other. We lay in the hot room, looking up at the coffered ceiling as we got up a sweat. We scraped each other. There were cubicles where the gouty and scrofulous could sit in the healing water all day, but we progressed to what Tad described as the crowning glory. The Great Bath was in a huge hall, not as long as the Town Hall in Viroconium but almost as wide and covered by a soaring vaulted roof. Lead-lined steps all round led down into a steaming pool. Water from the sacred spring flowed in at one corner, and an acrid smell hung in the humid air. In the surrounding corridor we spotted Drostan standing with a towel and evidently awaiting his master’s orders.
Lucius hailed him and asked where his father was. Drostan pointed. A short and squat man was floating near one side, and we went round to stand above him. It was the first time I had set eyes on Pulcher. He was utterly unlike Lucius, his head round, dark hair cut unfashionably short, eyes beady, and chest and belly as shaggy as a bearskin. Bran he ignored. Tad he greeted civilly. To Lucius he nodded as if giving him his cue.
“Father, let me introduce my friend Docco.”
“Ha! So you’re the lad who’s turning my son into a native!”
What a way, I thought, to meet one’s prospective — so to speak — father-in-law. I felt, for the first time in my life, at a grave disadvantage in being stark naked. He might be stark naked too, but he was very obviously in command. Was this how slaves felt? I was tongue-tied, but Tad came to my rescue.
“Not only Docco, Pulcher. We all are. And so is the whole of Viroconium.”
“Maybe, maybe. But don’t just stand there, lad! You’re giving me a crick in the neck. Come in, come in. I’m told that all Cornovii swim like eels. Show me!”
I stepped down and the others followed. The water was chin-deep and so hot that it was only just bearable. We swam for him, Bran and I, on the surface and underwater, on our backs and fronts and sideways, forwards and backwards, all the while dodging the other bathers. I got water in my mouth and spluttered, grimacing, the taste being indescribably foul. At that, Pulcher deigned to laugh. And our demonstration had impressed him.
“Lucius is a wimp in water,” he said, and there I had to agree. “Teach him native ways like that and I’ll be grateful.”
He turned to Tad with some comment about the town palisade, dismissing Bran and me to teach Lucius how to swim. It had never crossed my mind to think about techniques, but Bran’s approach was scientific, and after an hour of coaxing and support and encouragement Lucius was beginning to grasp the idea of floating and even of propelling himself. Then we heard Pulcher yelling cantankerously for Drostan, and he came to stand above us.
“Keep going, lad!” That was addressed to me, not to Lucius or Bran. “You’re doing well!” His eyes switched to Bran. “And this is your slave, is it? How extraordinary!” And off he went with Drostan.
What was extraordinary? Not Bran’s face or figure, I was sure, not to Pulcher. His teaching skills? Or the mere fact that he was with us in the bath?
“I’m sorry,” said Lucius, mortified. “But that was high praise, from him.”
“Not your fault, Lucius. And you are doing well.”
“Except when I get water in my mouth. It’s vomit-making!”
Bran agreed. “Tastes like cow shit.”
“How do you know?”
Tad swam over to join us, and by unspoken consent we gave Pulcher plenty of time to leave the baths before getting dressed ourselves. In the temple courtyard Annianus accosted us, a great smile on his face.
“I’ve got it back!” he cried. “Sulis has brought it back! All of it. I suddenly found it in my purse. I’ve given her one of the coins in thanks.”
So there was one happy ending. We had a snack and went to the theatre, which was another first for me. The performance was not in the least what I expected. I had visualised a revival of some old tragedy — nobody seemed to write them these days — or a comedy by Terence or the like. Instead, it was what they called a pantomime, a mixture of the two. It was based on the story of Dido and Aeneas and their ill-fated love-affair. Some was in prose, some in verse cribbed or adapted from Vergil, interspersed with clowning and dancing. Most was in Latin, though the clowns jabbered in broken British. I hardly knew what to make of it. Tad was laughing his head off, Lucius, who had seen plenty of these things, was following more uneasily, and Bran was as puzzled as I. To crown it, the wind rose and the rain descended, and the top tier of the theatre was very exposed.
Comparing notes afterwards, as we dried off over a cup of wine in our restaurant, three of us complained about the British being cast as fools. Tad disagreed.
“Come on, aren’t you being too serious? It does everyone good to laugh at themselves.”
“I saw one once in Camulodunum,” Lucius offered, “where the clowns jabbered in dog-Latin. The governor banned it.”
“There you are. The Romans don’t have much sense of humour, if you’ll pardon my saying so. Though you hardly count as a Roman these days.”
“They had a sense of humour once,” I chipped in. “Look at Terence. He’s hilarious.”
“And aren’t there lots of slaves in his plays?” asked Tad. “You laugh at them, though you shouldn’t.”
“Not at them, Tad. With them. It’s they who make the jokes, at their own expense. Terence isn’t deriding them. I wouldn’t laugh if he were. Just as I wouldn’t laugh at someone deriding the Irish.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?” suggested Bran, “Doesn’t it depend on who’s poking fun at who? Britons can laugh at themselves if it’s Britons who’re poking the fun. If someone else does the poking, it turns into, well, discourtesy.”
“That’s right,” said Lucius. “That was the trouble with that pantomime. It wasn’t a British troupe. They came from Mediolanum. It said so on the billboard.”
“Did it?” said Tad, surprised. “I didn’t see that. In that case you’re right. I take back what I said. I won’t have foreigners mocking us. But it’s odd, isn’t it, that people are so touchy.” He ruminated. “I suppose it’s self-esteem. Patriotism, almost. And I’ve a feeling that in Britain patriotism’s on the rise.”
The waiter came to take our order, and when that was sorted out Tad changed the subject.
“Tomorrow’s the great day, then, boys. There are one or two places in the precinct where we’ll have to be careful, because Pulcher still thinks he’s paying his respects to a hunter god. But once we’re inside the temple it’ll work. I know it’ll work. Maponus will approve. I’ve never seen so obvious a pair of love-birds. That boat trip served its purpose, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it did. We knew before, but we had to make sure. We do share a soul, and we’re not going to Maponus under false pretences. Thanks, Tad. Thanks, Bran.”
“No problem,” said Tad. “I’m happy for you.”
Bran smiled. “I know it’ll work too. Quis fallere possit amantem?” He was quoting from Vergil and the pantomime. “Who could deceive a lover?”
Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet:
Ver novum, ver iam canorum, ver renatus orbis est;
Vere concordant amores, vere nubunt alites,
Et nemus comam resolvit de maritis imbribus.
Tomorrow let him love who never has loved, and let him who has loved love tomorrow. Spring is new, spring is song-time, spring is the world reborn. In the spring loves come together, in the spring the birds are mating, and the wood shakes free its tresses under the nuptial showers.
And so we came to Fanum Maponi. It was well into April and the weather changeable, but spring was all around. Hazel and ash and beech were breaking into fresh green, hawthorn into white and pink, and the cuckoo was announcing his arrival. Our two symmetrical groups of father, son and slave broke down naturally into three pairs riding together — two fathers in polite conversation, two sons in love, and two slaves in companionship. Theirs was an uneven companionship; but innate courtesy, I suspected, forbade Bran to leave Drostan to himself. We were in no hurry, for Tad had insisted on taking two days over a journey which, even with the visit to the temple, could have been squeezed into one. Our morning’s ride, therefore, was a gentle ten miles along the Corinium road, and by noon we were on a high point looking down at the settlement half a mile ahead.
It was no Aquae Sulis. The setting was utterly peaceful, a rural valley which the road crossed at right angles. On the far side the ground rose sharply from the stream, on the near side gently. Here was a spacious walled precinct, dotted randomly with isolated trees and half a dozen structures. The temple was prominent, a large porticoed octagon at the upstream end. Below it, in the angle between stream and road, lay a low range surrounding a square grassed court, presumably the hostel. Towards us were several scattered buildings. One was an obvious bath house, the others, according to Tad, included a restaurant and a shop. The place, he said, catered not only for worshippers but for casual passers-by. If they were tempted in for a bite of food or a bed for the night, they would spend money; and they might become worshippers and spend even more. Indeed a number of people were strolling around. Tad cantered ahead to announce our arrival, and we followed at a walk.
As we dismounted inside the precinct gate, Tad appeared with the priest, a tall man and handsome, barely forty years old by the look of him, but with silvery hair and a face of grave but kindly authority. He wore a long white gown, a simple headdress of fine chain, and great necklaces of heavier chains around his neck. Pulcher stepped forward to greet him, ordering the slaves to wait with the horses. But the priest had other ideas.
“Let them come with you,” he said. “Your horses will be attended to. And before we go in, will you introduce yourselves, please?”
First — to put Pulcher in his place? — he stopped in front of Bran who, though they had met before, gave his name. The priest scrutinised him closely and nodded, smiling gently. The same with Drostan. Then with Lucius, who gave his name simply as Lucius, and with me. I was in the presence, I felt, of wisdom immeasurably old. Finally Pulcher, who pointedly reeled off all his names and, for good measure, his senatorial status as well.
“Welcome,” said the priest, addressing us all, “to the house of Maponus. First I shall take you to the temple. Approach the god with reverence. Ask him no questions, but open your minds. He will know what is in them. And he will speak to you, to each of you individually. Act, if it calls for action, on what he says. But do not ask others what they have heard. That is a secret between the god and them. Only I will have heard every one of his words. Come with me.”
He led the way, talking politely to Pulcher about the wild beasts in the Cornovian countryside. We followed. Behind their backs, Lucius and I were holding hands for reassurance. Tad kept up the rear. Bran was by himself, preoccupied. Drostan was gazing curiously around. Pulcher too was looking around as if in search of sporting trophies or statues of huntsmen. We came to the shop, and he stopped as if to go inside. But two men were blocking the entrance, the priest was still talking to him, and he shrugged and walked on. We passed a plinth carrying a statue draped in a large sheet. I looked back to see one of the men from the doorway come and tweak the sheet away. Under it were life-size figures of two young men, naked and embracing. We reached the temple. In the portico several dedicatory altars were also covered in sheets. The priest ushered us inside. The door clanged shut behind.
Here in the tall inner shrine, lit from high windows, were yet more altars, undraped. But no one was tempted to read them. The god standing in front of us held all of our attention. He was of honey-coloured stone, slim, naked, and as large as life. His body was muscled but with a hint of that boyish lack of definition, the body of a young man of perhaps eighteen. The head confirmed it. And what a head … blatantly British, not in the least Roman. The almost wig-like mop of hair was deeply sculpted into snake-like tresses, waving in the voluptuous curves so beloved by our artists. Cheeks and chin were smoothly rounded, and the mouth wore a gentle and enigmatic smile. The eyes were almond-shaped, their pupils and irises lightly marked in. And they fixed us all with a gaze of serene compassion.
We stood in total silence, Lucius and I still hand in hand. I framed no conscious question, I received no audible answer, but I knew. Our love was good and right; and everybody present knew that it was good and right.
I looked at Lucius and he at me, and our arms went round each other. Tad was beaming. Bran was half-smiling in what seemed to be relief and puzzlement combined. Drostan wore an air of dawning delight. What the god had said to him, none of us ever heard, although we could make, before long, a shrewd guess. The priest stood by the door, inscrutable. Only Pulcher spoke. He turned benignly to the two of us, wholly unsurprised but with a strange touch of concern.
“Hrrm,” he said, clearing his throat. “I hadn’t looked at it like that before. But I’ve no problem with it now. You’re obviously cut out for each other. Congratulations to you both.”
He made as if to shake hands with Lucius, but changed it into an embrace; the first between them that Lucius, as he told me later, could remember. And Pulcher actually embraced me. He came up only to my nose, and his hair smelled of scent.
“That’s that, then,” he said briskly. “What about some lunch? I’m peckish. And if you’d care to join us, sir” — this to the priest — “I’d be glad of a chat about Maponus as a huntsman. And you two,” he added to the slaves, “feel free to join us as well.”
“As you wish,” replied the priest. “But when we have eaten I must claim a word with the young men.”
He led us out again. Lucius and I were weak with relief. Drostan looked as if he had been hit between the eyes. At the restaurant something changed hands between Pulcher and the priest, the priest had a word with an attendant, and Pulcher had his chat. And more than a chat — it was a deep conversation, during which long extracts from the lay of Maponus rolled off the priest’s tongue. But I was not really listening. Lucius and I were in silent communion. Bran was lost in his thoughts. Tad was talking desultorily to Drostan. None of us, I think, ate much. Eventually the attendant returned and whispered in the priest’s ear.
“I sent a message,” the priest told Pulcher, “to a neighbour who has a villa close by. He often hunts of an afternoon, and in reply he says that he would be delighted if you and Senicianus would care to join him. He will be here very shortly, and my colleague will introduce you.”
A ploy, I suspected, to take the adults out of the way. Tad went off dutifully with the attendant, Pulcher eagerly; and the atmosphere, for all his new-found benevolence, noticeably lightened. The priest turned to Lucius and me.
“If you would come with me, please. And Bran, would you wait until I have finished with them?”
He led us to his house and into a small room with a couch.
“Lucius and Docco,” he said gently, “you are in love. True love is true ecstasy, on a higher plane by far, more enduring by far, than mere lust. That is because it is a divine phenomenon. It is to be treated with awe, as the visitation of a powerful influence external to man. There is a design to the universe, you know. Not a design whereby events follow a predestined pattern, but a symmetry whereby the earth reflects the heavens, and man, ideally, reflects the gods. Love is not fore-ordained. You met by chance, and by chance you fell in love. But once the spark of love is kindled, provided it be an exclusive and self-obliterating love, Maponus fosters it. He fans it into the consuming fire that is his own love, to burn until it is ended by death. Unions such as yours do not have to be formalised, but you have brought yours here for his blessing. This he has given, and as a visible reminder of his blessing I have to mark a symbol on you both.”
“Mark?” I had a vision of red-hot branding irons. “How?”
“With a tattoo.”
Not much better. We looked at each other dubiously. To the Briton, tattoos were the mark of the Pict, of the barbarian, of the enemy. To the Roman, they were the mark of the slave, of the chattel, of disgrace.
“Symbols,” said the priest, seeing our doubts, “depend on how you read them. This is not a mark of enmity. You should, for your part, be no one’s enemy. You should not fight, except in self-defence. Nor is this a mark of subservience. You are no one’s property, but independent men.”
“Please, er, what is the symbol?”
“Yes. It bonds you not in slavery but in love. It is not the chain which shackles. It is the chain which connects, the bond which links lover to lover, and god to man. It is a small chain.” With finger and thumb he demonstrated a length of about an inch and a half. “Many carry it. Yours will be the same as each other’s, but they will be distinguished from all other couples’.”
“Where are you putting it?”
“On the threshold where it will be a life-long reminder that only your bond-fellow shall enter there. Yes, it will be in your most private place, least likely to be seen by others, even in the baths. It is a tender place, but I shall apply an ointment which lessens the hurt.”
An unexpected place, but acceptably out of sight. We looked at each other again and nodded.
“Good. Lucius, would you like to be the first?”
Lucius was pale-faced but determined. He lifted his tunic, dropped his drawers, and lay as directed on his back, holding up his legs.
“Ah,” said the priest. “I shall have to do a little shaving first.”
He plied a razor on the right side of Lucius’ anus and smeared on some ointment. Then he set to with a needle and blue dye, and within a surprisingly short time had created a simple six-link chain, curving to follow the edge of the pucker. Inside one link were three dots, one in the next, and four in the one after. They distinguished, presumably, our chain from everyone else’s. He anointed Lucius again, and it was my turn. I had no hair there to shave. It certainly smarted, but there was no real pain. And I too was done.
“Love,” said the priest as I put on my drawers and came down to earth, “is a delight and a reward of the soul. But the soul resides in the body, and love is also a delight and reward of the body. I need hardly remind you of that. But I suggest” — for the first time his voice held a tinge of humour — “that for a few hours, until the tenderness wears off, you do not try to, ah, pass each other’s threshold.”
“Um, thank you,” said Lucius matter-of-factly. “We, er, we’d like to make an offering to the god.”
“Certainly, but in moderation. Your father has already been very generous.”
Lucius showed three gold coins in his hand.
“One will be enough, Lucius. Leave it on the table in the shrine.”
When I fumbled in my pouch he raised his hand.
“No, Docco. That is much too much. And it is already a bond between you.”
How did he know that I was going to offer the most valuable thing I owned, the great brooch which Lucius had given me?
“Buy a small bracelet from the shop. Its unbroken circle symbolises the unbroken union. It will be entirely adequate.”
He saw us out, and invited Bran in. It seemed that Bran had indeed found the love he was seeking, and was having it blessed in absentia. We went to the shop, where I bought a bronze bracelet. Our eye was caught by other items on sale — small pottery figurines of Maponus; fascina or good-luck charms of a phallus on a chain; cameos of clasped hands; and a knife with its bone handle exquisitely carved into a phallus, not life-size, but very lifelike. It was slightly curved, and from the taut skin and the part-retracted foreskin it was obviously erect. Lucius insisted on buying it for me and having my name engraved on the handle.
From there to the temple. On its steps we met Drostan, who had found a piece of wood and was whittling it into a kneeling figure in a style reminiscent of the tattoos on his arms.
“For Maponus,” he grunted, and asked, as far as we understood, if we would wait for him before giving our offerings.
So in harmony, beyond need for talk, we strolled around the precinct. It exuded an atmosphere of peace and calm, a feeling of modesty and restraint. The statuary spoke of love, not lust. Other than the wares in the shop, not an erection was in sight. In the architecture and decoration there was nothing gaudy or extravagant as there had been at Aquae Sulis, and we did not see a single mosaic pavement. Cement floors were worn, stucco and plaster were peeling. There was a large crack in the wall of the temple. The whole of Fanum Maponi wore an air of somewhat shabby homeliness, well-used, well-loved, disdainful of a lick of paint in case it were misinterpreted as ostentation.
Downstream of the road bridge was a building which turned out to be a watermill. It too belonged to Maponus, the miller told us, and supplied the settlement and neighbouring villas. We sat idly, as sometimes we did at the mills of Viroconium, watching the great waterwheel churning hypnotically around. It was undershot, and there was hardly a splash. In unusually philosophical frame of mind, I mused. The mill was like the body. Like the heart beating and the lungs breathing, it kept going, indefinitely, without thought or effort. The wheel gave motion to the gears and stones inside. Grain was fed in at one end and emerged as meal at the other. The whole process was one which everybody took for granted. Then the miller came out, knocking off for the day, and closed the sluice. Deprived of its life-blood, the wheel ground to a halt and the rumble of the stones ceased. It would start up again in the morning. But a body, once stilled, would not.
Morbid thoughts. Why was I thinking them today of all days?
We returned to the precinct and looked in at the hostel. Our saddlebags had been brought over, and we were shown our rooms. All of them were the same, small and square, double-bedded, opening on to the central courtyard but with a window in the outside wall. Through it we could hear the placid tinkle of the stream nearby. The two of us were sharing. The others, even the slaves, had a room apiece. Tad’s hand at work, surely. We smiled at each other, anticipating what we would be doing in a few hours’ time. Hitherto we had done it, on Lucius’ part, clandestinely. Now we need pretend to nobody.
At the temple, Drostan had nearly finished whittling. Then Bran appeared from the shop. He too had a bracelet for the god, and seemed to have regained some confidence. I could not pry, but I had to say what was in my mind.
“Bran, it’s your secret, so don’t tell me. But my guess is that you’ve found love and the god has blessed it. If I’m right, then I couldn’t be happier. I want you to know that.”
To my surprise, it sent him into tears. He gave me a big long hug, the biggest and longest since the day Mamma died, and I tried to convey my love to him as I had done then.
“Thank you, Docco,” he managed to say. “Credimus? An qui amant ipsi sibi somnia fingunt? Is it true, or do lovers fashion dreams of their own?”
I still could not pry, although I could not read his mood. It was not rapture, nor yet was it disappointment, let alone despair. Was it relief? Was it merely hope? He transferred his hug to Lucius, who told me later that he did not understand either.
But we sat silently and companionably on the steps. A nearby ash tree was bursting into foliage, birds were chirping, and, it being April, showers came and went. It was the springtime of our love.
When Drostan had finished his figure we went together into the shrine and laid our offerings on the table. Then Drostan wandered off and left the three of us alone with Maponus. He smiled at us in compassion still, tempered now with a hint of friendly conspiracy. His statue was old, very old. Modern sculpture, such as there was of it, was stylised, posed, rigid, shallow. This was naturalistic, fluid, and profoundly deep. Oh for the days when men had certainty like that! The sculptor’s knowledge of Maponus had surely been intimate. Intimate? Did that mean this was the likeness of a lover, carved from life? Maybe. But into it the god had breathed inspiration. Inside that casing of human flesh, that shell of stone, lay the divine.
Soberly we inspected the dedications. Around the shrine and portico were altars and on the walls bronze plaques, all given by couples who, for the most part, had British names. They bore such phrases as IVVENVM CONIVGATOR, uniter of young men; MAPONI ADPROBATIONE, with Maponus’ approval; CATENA COMPVNCTI, bearing the chain-tattoo. It did not strike me until years later that Bran never asked what that last phrase meant.