Villulam enim prope habuit, ubi ego capturam dedi. Annorum eram tunc fere sedecim … adulescens, immo paene puer imberbis … et Hiberione in captivitate adductus sum.
My father had a small estate nearby, where I was taken captive. I was then barely sixteen years old … a youth, almost indeed a beardless boy … and was taken into slavery in Ireland.
St Patrick, Confession
If that was the springtime of our love, the next few months were its high summer. Rain or shine, the world smiled on us. Lucius was now a fully-fledged member of our family, and his parents allowed him to move in with us. But he went home regularly, and reported that his father had turned over a new leaf and was no longer maltreating his slaves. It was at his home, too, in July, that Lucius celebrated his sixteenth birthday and his coming of age. Tad and Bran and I were invited to witness him take off the boy’s toga praetexta with a purple border which he had donned for the occasion and replace it with the man’s plain undyed toga virilis.
“Rather ridiculous, wasn’t it?” was his private comment that night. “But at least I’m no longer impubes.” He grinned widely. “I’ve suddenly grown hair. Look!”
He stripped and displayed it with pretended pride. Indeed the blue chain was part-covered now; and there and then I crossed his threshold once more.
Whatever Maponus’ priest had said about independence, however, Lucius remained legally under Pulcher’s sole and potentially dictatorial authority. But in practice he was free to do as he liked. Together we behaved, no doubt, as did most boys of our age. Sometimes we discussed profound matters with the utmost gravity, and inexpertly put the world to rights. Sometimes we larked as carefree as eleven-year-olds. Sometimes we disported ourselves in the river or, with the wolfhounds, in the wild; in both cases, to my sorrow, without Bran. He would not hunt with us, pleading his discomfort at killing. Nor would he swim with us; he did not say why, and it was left to me to train Lucius into a passable Cornovian eel.
But the three of us also spent much time helping Tad, and especially on the farm. Summer was a busy season with new calves and lambs, with milking and cheese-making, with shearing and haymaking, and the harvest. One day at the beginning of September, just after I too had turned sixteen and just after the harvest was in, Lucius and I were milking in the further fields. Lucius, still a relative novice in the ways of farm animals, was finishing his last cow when his eye was caught by the bull in the next field. He watched in astonished admiration as its pintle expanded to massive size.
“Oh gods!” he said reverently. “Bitucus, eat your heart out!”
The bull ponderously mounted a cow and began to pump. The cow mooed with pleasure. Lucius adjusted himself.
“Docco, my love. He’s putting ideas into my head, or into somewhere. How about it?”
I had no more objection than the cow. We carried the milk-pails to the nearby barn; the same barn, as it happened, where Lucius had lost his virginity.
“Must have a pee first,” he said.
“No. Hold it.”
I had remembered the fun on the night I acquired my Vergil. How appropriate to repeat it now. Then, I could not take advantage of Bran; not only had I been too young, but with him it had been unthinkable. Now, I had every reason to take advantage of Lucius. In the loft, on the new-stacked hay, he stripped and I positioned him on hands and knees, legs apart. I found an old pail and placed it under him. I gripped his cock, which was half-hard, and told him to shoot. As he did, I pulled and squeezed it just like Bran’s so long ago, just like the cow’s teat a few minutes before. He was killing himself with laughter and by the time he was empty his cock was as stiff as the bull’s, if not so large.
“Stay put,” I ordered.
I stripped myself, applied oil from the little flask we always had with us nowadays, and for once mounted him, like the bull, from behind.
“Moo!” he said as I pumped. “Mooooo!”
When he was well served, he served me, and I mooed my pleasure in turn. But for this I lay on my back. That was how he now preferred me, watching my face or filling my mouth with his tongue.
Satisfied, without a care in the world, we dressed and carried our pails through fields which smiled on our love. At the central dairy we stood the milk to settle alongside the churn. Bran was there, working on the cheese press, and he too smiled on us.
Suddenly there was a clatter of hooves in the yard. Curious, because all the farm-hands were busy threshing, I went out.
And I gaped.
Half a dozen men were riding in, bearded, roughly dressed, brandishing swords. Pagenses raiding from the mountains? No, the wrong side of Sabrina. Irish, then — I had seen their likes four years before, baying outside the walls. Idiotically I ran forward, shouting at the top of my voice. They swerved towards me. Anger turned to fear, and I tried to retreat. Lucius and Bran emerged from the dairy, Ulcagnus and a dozen hands from the threshing floor. Too late. Powerful arms plucked me off my feet and slung me like a sack, face down, over a horse’s withers. The whole band, wheeling round, galloped out of the yard, the opposition stronger than they had bargained for. By twisting my head I could see back. Some of the hands were running towards us brandishing flails, some pitchforks. Ulcagnus was disappearing into the stable for a horse. Lucius was rushing forward. Bran was poised on the balls of his feet. My captor bellowed in a language I did not know, and I felt a sword blade across my throat. Fear turned to terror.
The last I heard was Bran yelling “Don’t follow! Or they’ll cut his throat!” The last I saw was Bran wrestling Lucius to the ground.
We galloped for a while. When we stopped there was no sound of pursuit, and my terror slowly gave way to despair. My captor dismounted, sat me in front of the saddle and hobbled my ankles together under the horse’s belly. He was a big man, only in his twenties by the look of him but wearing all the aura of authority. With his great beard and mane of auburn hair he was not unlike the Gorgon on the temple at Aquae Sulis. He remounted behind me and held me with one arm. We rode further and met up with another band. They had spare horses, to one of which I was transferred, my feet still hobbled, my hands tied behind my back, the reins firmly held by a scarred warrior. We moved north up the arrow-straight Deva road, our numbers swelled by further bands, some with captives such as me, some herding calves, some leading horses, some laden with sacks, some even driving carts of wheat. Since their last big raid they had learned the lesson, it seemed, of striking just after the harvest when grain was plentiful and cattle more transportable.
Slow though our progress was, Lucius and Bran and Tad and home lay ever further behind. By now I was in unknown territory, in more senses than one. My eyes were everywhere, searching forlornly for hope of rescue. But nowhere was there any sign of the military, or of anyone who might help. The countryside seemed placid, but it was deserted. Here and there smoke rose from a burning farmhouse. There were some animals in the fields, but the only human beings were a few seen scuttling into the shelter of woods. The group ignored them all. Then fields gave way to heath and scrub interspersed with bleak peat mosses. We bypassed the small town of Rutunium. Night fell, and all hope of escape evaporated when our band speeded up, pressing ahead of the others. There was no possibility of sleep; it needed my full attention to stay upright in the saddle. We bypassed Mediolanum too, and when dawn broke we had left the main road and were beyond Deva, looking down at a shallow estuary as wide almost as the Sabrina near Abonae.
And there, alongside a creek, we came to a wood. Under its cover I was released from my horse, fed with cheese and coarse barley-bread and water, and allowed to relieve myself, all under close watch. A few other captives were already there, peasants in the depths of despair. They would make no attempt at escape. Nor, at the moment, could I. I was utterly exhausted, and my knife, the prick-handled knife from Maponus, had been confiscated with a great guffaw by my scarred warrior. All that was in my mind was sleep, and I slept, a sleep disturbed by the arrival, in dribs and drabs, of the rest of the convoy.
Then I was hauled to my feet. Six ships, which had presumably been lurking offshore, were nosing into the creek. The wood sprang into activity directed by my auburn-maned captor, and orders were flung around of which I understood not a word. We prisoners were made, by dint of much pointing and waving of swords, to carry sacks of grain into the ships, which were about the size of our Sabrina barge. Calves were coaxed on board, and I had to admit that these men knew how to handle animals. The horses, which it would have been folly to ship, were left behind for, I guessed, subsequent use. They were doubtless stolen anyway.
At dusk we set sail. As we left the shores of Britain my spirits sank yet lower. The moon was bright and we ran westwards, paralleling the ever more mountainous coast. I soon lost interest even in that, for the sea sickness struck again, and I added my contribution to the calf shit and urine slopping in the bilges. It was my lowest point, a nightmare which lasted for two days and ended only when we moored at a crude quay at the mouth of a river, backed by a few wooden sheds and round huts.
Men were there to drive the cattle away. The prisoners were made to unload the sacks of wheat and indeterminate loot into carts, and the ships, once emptied, sailed off for further pickings from the wealth of Britain. Under guard, we drove the carts inland, the convoy dwindling as groups were detached in this direction or that. My route led up into quite high mountains until I reached, perhaps twenty miles from the sea, what proved to be my destination, an unimpressive cluster of huts on a valley floor.
I was a slave.
I do not wish to dwell on my three years of slavery. Nor will I describe my feelings, which can be left to the imagination. Why did I not run away? The answer was the same for me as for Tappo’s Irishmen at Onna — there was nowhere to run to. And my life could have been infinitely worse, such as labouring in the mines under sadistic Roman supervisors. At the same time it could — though I do not want to strike a note of self-pity — have been a great deal better. It could have been like Bran’s.
The difference, I reflected, was that he had been born into a role which was, I think and hope, an esteemed one, and he remained a slave by choice. I had been plunged in the blink of an eye from freedom into bondage, sundered from friends and from everything familiar, and I knew a loneliness of which I had never dreamt. I did in time make friends of a sort among my companions. But in all those three years I spoke not a word of British, except to myself. At first I spoke not a word of anything, for all my fellow-slaves were Irish; but from sheer necessity I learnt the language. Not well, because my only teacher was my ear, but well enough to get by; it was a language not wholly different from ours. And as time passed I built up a picture of the society in which I was trapped.
My captor and master was lord of a clan of the Uí Garrchon and an under-king to the king of Laigin. His name was Maqqos-colini, which means ‘the son of holly.’ He lived in his hill-fort several miles away and I rarely even saw him. All my dealings were with Collos his local foreman; not a bad man, who never maltreated us. I had been landed, I gathered, at the harbour of Inberdea, and my job was to herd livestock on the mountains above the Oboca river. I started at the humblest end of the scale in charge of lowly sheep and goats, at first high on the hills, then moving them down as winter descended. It was not wholly unsatisfying. And if I spoke no British, I did in time find myself borrowing from the Eclogues and addressing my charges in Latin. Ite domum saturae, venit Hesperus, ite capellae, I would say to them. Go home, my nanny-goats. You’re well-fed. The evening star is rising. Go home. And they went. For me, however, going home, going to my proper home, was an impossibility.
I had hoped, in times past, one day to gaze westwards from the British shore across the Irish Ocean, beyond which lay the land of Bran. Everything was now the wrong way round. It was from my eyrie high in the land of Bran that I gazed; and far to the east, whenever it was clear, rose mountains from the sea, silhouetted black by the rising sun, stained red when it set. Bitter longing seized my heart, for they were the mountains of Britain. If I remembered my geography aright, they were the mountains of Venedotia. Beyond them lived our rough relatives the Pagenses. Beyond the Pagenses were the Cornovii, and home, and Bran, and Lucius. That was the hardest cut of all, that I could almost see Lucius.
All the way here my mind had been on him. With every step the thread which held us together had stretched and thinned, become a fibre, a hair, a cobweb filament, but had not broken. Throughout those three years I lived off my last physical experience of him, the feel of him inside me at both ends. Above all I lived off my memories of his sparkle, his fun, his warmth, his love. None of those was to be found in our flea-ridden huts by the Oboca. The dozen slaves who were my companions were all herders or dairymaids. They coupled indiscriminately, it seemed, and babies were born, additions to our master’s wealth. I coupled with nobody, and was thought strange for it. But they were good and kindly souls, if simple, and spent the dark evenings singing their sad songs to each other.
Were they barbarians? That is a matter of opinion. To the Romans, a barbarian is, at root, one who says bar-bar-bar, a foreigner who babbles in gibberish. That is arrogance, because nobody’s language is worse than any other’s, and by that token even a Briton is, to a true Roman, a barbarian. The word is also used of one lacking, or not appreciating, the refinements of Roman civilisation. Another value-judgment. True, Ireland was a land of perennial inter-tribal squabbling, a land without towns, without coinage, without roads or mills or water piped to the home. The trappings of life which at Viroconium we took for granted simply did not exist. While the rich might adorn their persons with gold and silver, their wealth was measured by the number of their cattle. But was that much different from the Cornovii? For three years I did not have a proper bath, for three years I did not lie at table but sat on a stool. But was I the worse for that? There was doubtless not a copy of Vergil in the whole island. But did it matter? The Irish had their own equivalents, and their gods were not unlike ours.
From sheep and goats I graduated to cattle. With them, there was less work in the high hills, and more work gathering them into their folds for the night. I tended their ailments and gained some respect from the foreman for my successes. And I came to gain much more. On the valley floor barley and oats were grown. Wheat was a rarity, reserved for the lord. At harvest time everyone who could be spared from other tasks was put to reaping. This was a back-breaking business, protracted and hideously inefficient. The scythe was unknown here, and the only implement a little sickle to cut the heads off, a handful at a time, just below the ear. The straw was left to be trampled by cattle.
By my second harvest I knew Collos the foreman well enough to venture a suggestion. Why not try a scythe which would reap close to the ground in a fraction of the time? The straw after threshing, I pointed out, was invaluable for bedding. I waxed enthusiastic. Hay was not grown here, and in the autumn many of the cattle were slaughtered and their meat preserved, simply for want of winter fodder. Why not grow hay? It would keep many more animals alive through the winter, to fatten in subsequent years.
Collos had never heard of the scythe. He did not even know a word for it. But he was interested and imaginative. Use the services of the smith and carpenter, he told me. Make one, and show him. Irish blacksmiths were skilled, as skilled as ours, and the carpenters competent, and under my guidance they made a prototype. For the precise shape and proportions I had only memory to draw on, and it took much experiment and alteration to perfect. But within a week I had a workable scythe with the long blade I knew. The harvest was still in progress and in a single day, at the cost of fearful blisters, I reaped a field of barley which Collos reckoned would have taken seven with a sickle. He had me train an Irishman to wield this wondrous blade, as he called it, and then he had me make more. By the time they were ready the harvest was in, but I trained more men by practising on reeds on wet ground. Word had reached Maqqos-colini, who came to watch; but he said nothing.
Nor had Collos heard of hay. But he consulted me on which fields to set aside for it, and next June we mowed them by scythe. Fired with enthusiasm, he built winter sheds for cattle, complete with haylofts.
As my third summer in Ireland advanced, it was no secret that more and bigger raids on Britain were about to be launched, and soon plunder began to arrive. Around the time of my birthday — I had long since lost track of exact dates — the grain harvest was well under way when Maqqos-colini himself rode up from the harbour, asking for me. I was astonished. Why me?
We talked in the middle of a field. What I looked — and smelt — like I can only guess. I had not set eyes on a mirror since leaving home. I was aware that I had grown up. Three years ago I had still been a boy. Now I was a man, or almost. That was certainly true of my mind. I thought I had grown in height as well. My hair was long and ill-kempt, I now had a beard of a sort — short and fluffy, to judge by the feel of it, and patchy — and my legs were quite furry. I was even more deeply sunburned. And, as I leant on my scythe, naked to the waist, I was running with sweat.
Maqqos-colini surveyed the orderly swaths extending across the half-cut field.
“Collos tells me,” he said, “that your blades work well, and that next year I will have more cattle than I do now. I am grateful. Are you an expert farmer, then?”
“Not expert. But I have worked on our farm at home. With us, blades and hay are standard practice.”
“And is it a large farm?”
You should know, I thought bitterly. You’ve seen it.
“There are larger than ours,” was all I said, “in our parts. We have only about four hundred head of cattle.”
That, by Irish standards, was substantial.
“So … And is it worked by slaves?”
“No. Only by free labour. Hired.”
“Have you no slaves, then?”
“Not on the farm. But three domestic slaves.”
“And are they all yours?”
“Two are my father’s. One is mine.” I laughed shortly. “An Irishman, as it happens.”
He half-smiled back. “Tit for tat, then. What is his name?”
“Bran, son of Tigernac.”
“And is he a good worker?”
“Worker? I do not look at him in that way. He is a friend, the best of friends. I owe him … more than I could ever repay.”
“Why then have you not repaid him with his freedom?”
“Because he has not wanted it.”
Maqqos-colini looked at me consideringly. “I do not like the notion of Irish in slavery to Britons. No more, I suppose, than you like the notion of Britons in slavery to the Irish. If I asked you to free him, would you?”
What lay behind that? Altruistic concern for a fellow-countryman?
“Certainly, provided he wanted to be freed. But I could not do it from here.”
“No. But if I freed you and sent you home …”
It took time to sink in.
“Go home, Briton. I impose no conditions, except that you ask your slave if he wants his freedom; and if he does, that you give it him. Will you?”
It needed no debate. “I will. I promise.”
“My ships sail tomorrow. Be at Inberdea at sunrise. Collos will lend you a horse.”
With a nod, he was off. In a daze, I reaped no more. I washed in the river, packed my few belongings in a fold of cloth, and rode to Inberdea.
As we sailed away I looked back at the mountains of my captivity and worked out where my home had been. But the voyage soon became as wretched as the last, and the bilges still stank. Finally we arrived back at the same creek, where Maqqos-Colini gave me a pack of food and three unexpected items.
He took from his finger a gold ring which incorporated a flat surface engraved with a distinctive spiral design.
“Keep this,” he said, “in memory of your stay with us. And if you are ever stopped by Irishmen, show it to them and tell them my name.”
He gave me a horse.
“He is, you might say, not mine to give, so do not thank me for him.”
And he handed me a small package wrapped in linen, tied with twine, and sealed with wax.
“Give this to your slave when you see him, as a gift from a fellow-countryman.”
Nunc suscipe, terra, fovendum,
Gremioque hunc concipe molli.
Hominis tibi membra sequestro,
Generosa et fragmina credo …
Nos tecta fovebimus ossa
Violis et fronde frequenti
Titulumque et frigida saxa
Liquido spargemus odore.
Take him, earth, for cherishing,
To your gentle breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring you,
Noble even in its ruin …
But for us, heap earth about him,
Earth with leaves and violets strewn,
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
Balm upon the icy stone.
Prudentius, Burial of the dead
There were more Irish around than when I came this way three years before. Four times they stopped me, but Maqqos-colini’s ring saw me through. Twice I was shot at by Britons. At Mediolanum whose gates were shut, and at Rutunium which had no walls at all, the guards were taking no chances. Unkempt, in simple homespun clothes, I doubtless looked more Irish than British. Both times I had to work my way around the town. Farmsteads were burning again, and from time to time there were corpses by the roadside, left where they had been cut down, gnawed by foxes or picked by crows, awaiting someone to give them burial. I rode on. I had a more urgent need. My mind was full of Lucius, and I was rehearsing our reunion.
The market gardens by the bridge over the Trena had been trampled. Another mile, and Viroconium was in sight. So too was a troop on horseback, a ragged brigade sporting a motley collection of weapons. It challenged me, and I had to think twice to reply in British. And one of its members I knew, my old friend and bed-fellow Amminus, who at first did not recognise me.
“Gods!” he cried when he did. “Is it Docco? So you’re alive after all!”
But he was oddly restrained, almost embarrassed, in his welcome. Alarmed, I asked how the town was faring. It had been attacked, he said, and it had withstood, but there had been mayhem in the countryside. He turned the conversation quickly to where the nearest Irish might be. Reassured but puzzled, I rode on. Even here there was no traffic. At the cemetery outside the north gate were whole rows of new graves, some dug but not yet occupied, and many more that were freshly filled. Casualties, then, but evidently from the country, not the town.
I saw him from some distance away. At first he was down on one knee, head bent, placing flowers on a tomb, unidentifiable. Then as I drew nearer he stood up, and his figure was unmistakable. Dismounting, I hitched my horse to a grave marker and approached. He was absorbed, and did not notice until I was close, when he started and his hand whipped to the sword on his belt. But unlike Amminus he recognised me at once. Wordless, hearts too full even to smile, we stood taking each other in. He looked dreadful: exhausted, face drawn, dark rings under weary blue eyes, unshaven, left arm bandaged. Then the spell broke, and we embraced.
But words still came hard. Where to begin?
“Your arm?” I asked, unthinkingly in Irish.
“An arrow. It’s nothing,” he replied in Irish, equally unthinkingly. Then he realised, with a short bark of a laugh. “Oh, of course!”
He seemed relieved to see me, but not particularly surprised, almost as if I was expected. And like Amminus he seemed reticent. Then he visibly pulled himself together and switched to British.
“Docco, this is a sorry welcome. But you’ve got to know the worst.” His hand was on my arm.
Worst? I looked cautiously at the grave. It bore no marker yet. But Tad was in his forties, no longer young.
“Not Tad?” I asked tentatively.
“No, your Tad’s all right. No, this is worse, in a way. Docco … Lucius is dying.”
I gaped, the breath knocked out of me.
“Dying?” I whispered. “Wounded?”
“No. Disease. Tisis.”
My heart sank, if possible, further. Tisis killed more of us than anything else, some quicker, some slower. There was no cure for tisis.
“I must go to him. Is he at Pulcher’s?”
“No, with us. But don’t go yet, Docco. An hour won’t make any difference. There are things you must know first. More things that will hurt you. I’m sorry, Docco … Let’s sit down.”
Numbed, I obeyed. We sat on the muddied grass, Bran’s hand now on my knee.
“Let me try to tell this in order. When you … left us, Pulcher assumed you were dead. And once you’d been gone two years, he was completely convinced you were dead. That was when he revealed what Maponus had told him in the temple. That your love affair was blessed, but that it would be short-lived, and that he was to tell nobody until it was obviously over. It had been short-lived, he argued, and now it obviously was over. Therefore Lucius was free to marry and procreate in the normal way. In the proper Roman way. In fact he insisted on him marrying. Don’t blame Lucius, Docco. Don’t blame him at all. He had no choice. He resisted, he protested, and so did we, to our utmost. But he was under his father’s authority, and you know what Pulcher was like.”
Livid, I tried to get up. “I’m going to …”
“No, Docco.” His hand was firm on my knee, holding me down. “It’s too late. Pulcher is dead. I’ll come to that. All right? Well, he found Lucius a bride, the daughter of a friend of his in Corinium. Sulpicia, she was called, a nice enough girl, very Roman, very docile. Lucius didn’t love her. He still loved you. Only you. He’s told me so often enough. And the only battle he did win — that all of us won — was that he and Sulpicia should live with us, not with the Pulchers. So that’s what happened, a year ago. And before too long Sulpicia was pregnant.”
I did not know what to think. My lover, my lover, married. Bedding a wife. Getting a child. But it wasn’t his fault. He had to …
“Then everything started to happen at once. Lucius fell ill. He’d already been showing signs of … malaise, I suppose you’d call it. He’d lost all his energy and sparkle. Six weeks ago he caught a cold, and suddenly he went downhill. A deep cough, pain in his side, loss of appetite, fever. The doctor diagnosed tisis, and the worst form of it, galloping consumption. He told us he couldn’t live. And Lucius knew it too.”
I stared, my mouth open. “Bran … was he … is he … frightened of dying?”
“Well, he’ll be glad to go. He’s had enough.”
Bran’s eyes strayed across to the marker, not far away, that stood over the grave of old Pacatus and Titianus.
“Tempus erat quo prima quies mortalibus aegris
Incipit et dono divum gratissima serpit.
It was the time for exhausted mortals when rest descends and, by the gods’ gift, creeps welcomely over them.
Remember? But yes, he’s frightened too. Who wouldn’t be? Not knowing what lies beyond, if anything. But he still hopes that you’ll come back. He’s said that if you were there to … to hold his hand as he went, he’d have fewer fears. That’s one reason why I’m so glad you’ve come in time.”
Again I made to move, but still he held me down.
“There’s more to tell, Docco. Three weeks ago Sulpicia’s time fell due. She wasn’t strong, and she died in childbirth. But her baby survived. A boy. A lovely boy. We got a wet-nurse in for him, and he’s doing fine. He’s strong where his mother was weak. Lucius was shocked about Sulpicia, of course, but delighted about the baby. And Pulcher was delighted too, to have a male heir after all. Anyway, we buried Sulpicia here.”
Bran patted the grave beside him.
“Lucius wanted to give his son a British name, but he daren’t antagonise Pulcher too much. He chewed it over with us, and because Pulcher was mad on hunting — and Lucius too, come to that — we suggested Maglocunus, ‘Prince-hound.’ So that’s what he called him. Maglocunus. As British a name as you can get, but Pulcher wasn’t too miffed.
“Then a week later, two weeks ago, the Irish appeared out of the blue, hordes of them, and attacked the town. They gave us a hard time. There can’t have been much more than two thousand of us, defending two miles of wall. Thank the gods — and Pulcher — for the new palisade. Without it, they’d have got in. And ever since then we’ve been up to our necks in clearing up. Trying to get back to normal. Looking after the country people who’ve lost everything. Finding their dead. Burying them.”
Bran waved his hand at the nearer graves.
“And the very morning of the attack, before it started, Pulcher had taken the rest of his family out to see his new hunting lodge. It had just been finished, and he was terribly proud if it. They never came back. It was a week before anyone ventured that way and found their bodies. Pulcher, his wife, his three daughters, three slaves. Stripped of their jewellery, even their clothes. They’re buried here too.”
He patted the grave once more.
“There’s only one bright note — our farm’s untouched. Well, maybe there’s another one. Because he still hoped you’d come back, Lucius appointed us Maglocunus’ guardians. Us. You and me. But the fact remains, Docco, that Lucius is dying. The end can’t be far off. There’s someone with him all the time. Your Tad, at the moment.
“So there you are. I’m sorry, Docco. But you had to know.”
Yes, I had to know. But I was numb.
“Let’s get back to Lucius.”
I retrieved my horse and mounted. Bran walked alongside. As we passed in through the north gate I could not fail, even in my fuddled state, to notice the arrows and spears still sticking into the timber of the palisade. At our house the sound of hooves brought Tigernac and Roveta out at a run, and they fell on my neck. It also brought out Tad, looking old and very tired. In each other’s arms we sobbed our hearts out. Then he took me in.
I barely recognised Lucius. He was pale as a corpse, appallingly emaciated, coughing up green phlegm shot with blood. His swollen red-rimmed eyes opened, resting first on Tad.
“Tad,” he mouthed.
“He’s been calling me that,” Tad whispered, “Ever since Pulcher died.”
The weary eyes swung to Bran.
The eyes moved to me, and widened.
“Brother!” he muttered. Tears trickled down, and he actually smiled.
I went to him. I lay down beside him and slid my arm under him. He was nothing but skin and bone, and sweating profusely. But a skeletal arm crept over me, and I kissed the hollow cheek. I transmitted love as hard as I could, and I felt a response, feeble but real. I have no idea how long we stayed there, wordless but together again at last.
The next thing I was aware of was Tad gripping my shoulder.
“He’s gone, Docco, he’s gone. But he died happy. In your arms.”
How that night passed I have no recollection, and I do not wish to recall.
Next day Bran dragged me unwilling to the bath. The gods know I must have needed it. From that morning I remember only three things.
One was that Bran cut my hair short and meticulously combed what was left, picking out the lice.
That was necessary.
I remember raising a worry that was niggling insistent at my mind.
“Bran, you say Maponus told Pulcher that our love would be short-lived. So Maponus saw the future. Things are predestined, after all.”
That grieved me deeply; maybe because Lucius and I had agreed that they were not.
“No, Docco. They aren’t. Lucius told me, after he fell ill, how you’d talked about predestination when you were on the boat. And he’d wondered exactly the same as you. But he’d come to realise that when we went to Maponus he must already have had the seed of the disease in him. Maponus recognised that, and knew that there was no recovery. His death wasn’t fore-ordained far in advance, any more than it was fore-ordained that our cows should die of ragwort poisoning. It was a matter of chance that he picked up the tisis. But from the moment he did, he was doomed, just as our cows were doomed from the moment they ate the ragwort. Once you’re at that stage, there’s nothing that men or gods can do to change things.”
Bran laughed, shortly.
“You know, Docco, Lucius kept quoting Vergil to the end. Desine fata deum flecti sperare precando, he said once. Stop hoping to change the will of the gods by praying. Not just because praying does no good. But because there’s no will of the gods to change.”
That was a relief.
The third thing I remember was meeting Maglocunus. He was tiny, naturally, with scant dark hair. Bran put him in my arms and looked over my shoulder. The baby seemed to focus on our faces, the faces of his proxy parents, and he smiled. Maybe it was only a burp, but he seemed to smile. He was now a member of the senatorial order of the eternal city, yet he bore the most British of names. Good reason to smile.
But that did not really sink in.
There were not many mourners at the funeral. The townspeople and the rural folk had buried all too many of their relatives and friends, and they were preoccupied with trying to return to normal. The Irish, moreover, were still on the warpath, still roaming the countryside in search of plunder. The town was full of refugees, a permanent watch was mounted on the walls, and at the cemetery Amminus’ small band of militia offered some protection against surprise attack.
Tad and Bran were there, of course, and Tigernac and Roveta. So was Ulcagnus, and Lucius’ old tutor Papias, and a few surviving slaves, Drostan among them, from the Pulcher household. Of the Pulchers themselves not a single one was left, except for little Maglocunus who was far too young to attend. The wasted body of Lucius, the tangible remains of my love, we laid to rest, not alongside his father and mother and sisters, not alongside his wife, but alongside Mamma.
“That’s what he requested,” Tad had told me, “after the other Pulchers died. He wanted to be with our family, not his own. In a British grave, not a Roman one.”
That renewed my tears, but it was good. One day I myself would lie alongside my Lucius. May it be soon. Quicquam mihi dulce meorum te sine, frater, erit? Shall my life, brother, know any joy without you?
We shovelled the earth back over him. We went through the time-honoured formalities. We poured offerings of wine and oil and perfume, and sprinkled the obligatory herbs. I had cut my fledgling beard and shaved — or rather Bran had done it for me, for I had never wielded a razor in my life — and the meagre result I burned over the tomb, together with my shorn hair and no doubt some Irish lice as well. It was the sole product of my years away from Lucius. It was all of me that I had to give him, except a broken heart.
Then we went home without him.
Mirabar enim ceteros mortales vivere, quia ille, quem quasi non moriturum dilexeram, mortuus est; et me magis, quia ille alter eram, vivere illo mortuo mirabar. Bene quidam dixit de amico suo: dimidium animae suae. Nam ego sensi animam meam et animam illius unam fuisse animam in duobus corporibus, et ideo mihi horrori erat vita, quia nolebam dimidius vivere.
I was amazed that others, though mortal, were alive, because the man whom I had loved as if he were immortal had died. I was yet more amazed that I, who was his other self, could live while he was dead. Well did someone describe his friend as half of his soul, for I felt that my soul and his soul were one soul in two bodies. In this way life became repugnant to me, because I did not wish to live when halved.
St Augustine, Confession
Now that we had seen him towards the otherworld, if such a place existed, there was time to think. My thoughts hurt. Hitherto I had been merely numb. Now I felt all the pain of despair, of single-minded and selfish despair at my own loss. I thought of nothing but my own emptiness, of nobody but myself. I should have been with Tad and Bran, supporting them. They wanted to be with me, supporting me, but I shook them off. My heart was darkened, and whatever I set eyes on was death. Viroconium seemed a prison, the family home a strange unhappiness. Whatever I had shared with Lucius throughout that carefree summer of three years ago became, without him, a torment. My eyes sought him everywhere, but did not find him. I hated every place that did not have him, for it could not now tell me ‘he’ll be here soon,’ as it had done when he was alive. I gave up sleeping in our bedroom, I gave up eating at the family table. I spent much of the time in tears. To myself I became a great riddle. To Tad and Bran, for all their sympathy, I became a frustration.
Tad found me, after two days of this morose and boorish behaviour, sitting head in hands in the evening sun in the courtyard of our house. It was after dinner, which I had skipped. He went away and came back with Bran, and in Bran’s arms was Maglocunus, fast asleep, borrowed from the nurse. Bran sat beside me, smiling down at the baby.
“We’re his parents now, Docco.
Incipe, parve puer: cui non risere parentes
Nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili est.
Come on, little boy. If your parents don’t have a smile for you, then neither will a god think you worth inviting to dinner, nor a goddess to bed.”
He looked across at me.
“There is a future, Docco. You and Lucius swore love until you died, didn’t you? And so it was, until one of you did die. You can love his soul beyond the grave, and so you will. But you can see no love on this side of it. That’s the trouble, isn’t it? Call me wise after the event, but I’m glad after all that Lucius did marry. We would have lost him anyway. But he has left us this.” He looked down again at the bundle in his arms. “And Maglocunus is Lucius reborn. We owe him love. We owe him a future. He is the future.”
I tried to envisage a future. I tried hard, but I failed.
“Talking of owing, Docco,” said Tad, very serious, almost stern, “there are other debts. Not just to Maglocunus. I can’t tell you how much we owe to Bran. All the time you’ve been away, he’s been a pillar of strength to me. He’s been a second son. He’s helped on the farm, he’s helped with the mines, he’s helped with my … loss of you. He’s kept my hopes alive. On top of that, he’s been a buttress to Lucius in all his tribulations, and the gods know they were far worse than mine. Since he fell ill he’s nursed him day and night, as if he’d been his own brother. And ever since Maglocunus was born he’s been his effective father. I don’t know where any of us would have been without Bran.”
Oh, Tad! Oh, Bran!
It had the desired effect. It hauled me up from the pits into the real world. It made me recognise, as I should have done long before, a new level of respect and friendship between the two of them — Bran had indeed, in a sense, stepped into my shoes. It made me recognise that, for all the contribution I was making to the household, I might as well be still in Ireland. My churlishness was exposed in all its mean egotism, my own miseries were submerged. I was ashamed, and had to make amends.
“Oh Bran.” My eyes were full of tears. “I’m sorry. I’ve been too full of my own grief. Thank you, Bran, for being a son to Tad. A brother to Lucius. A father to Maglocunus. A damn good friend to me. You’re everything to all of us. You’re part of the family …”
Amemory crept back from the distant past.
“Bran, what are you?”
He smiled through his own tears.
“Your slave, master.”
He too recalled it, from all those years ago when I was a naïve and unthinking child, as unthinking as I was now. But …
That jolted me, brutally and all too tardily, into remembering that I owed Bran more than thanks. I took a deep breath.
“Bran … Until a few days ago I was a slave too. I haven’t told you how I got away. My master was talking to me, and I told him that I had an Irish slave back here. And he offered to let me go, provided I promised to free you when I got home. Or rather to offer you your freedom. And I gave him my promise … Bran … Oh, Tad, would you take Maglocunus, please?”
He was transferred, carefully, and I knelt in front of Bran and took his hands in mine. Reassurance flowed from their grip, their warmth, their strength.
“Bran … Years ago you said you wouldn’t accept freedom as a reward for good service. Will you accept it now? I know I made that promise for selfish reasons … to win my own freedom. But …”
“Docco, there’s more to it than that. Let me tell you this, because I doubt Bran will tell you of his own accord. Not only do you owe Bran his freedom, you owe him your freedom.”
“Go on, Bran, spell it out.”
“Well …” Bran hesitated. “Well, all right. Let’s start with when you were captured at the farm … The man who grabbed you yelled that if we tried to follow, he’d cut your throat. Lucius didn’t understand Irish, of course, and I had to use force to stop him following. We had to let you go. But the man who grabbed you was very distinctive — that mane of auburn hair, remember? That stuck in my mind, all too well.
“Then a few weeks ago the Irish attacked Viroconium, as you know. In the end they gave it up as a bad job and moved off. But one group hung back to cover their retreat, and its leader was that same man. He stood out a mile. Well, it seemed a golden opportunity. I told your Tad what I was going to do. I didn’t want him or anyone else to think I was betraying the town. I borrowed his horse. He authorised the gate wardens to let me through, and I galloped out after the Irish and caught up with them. I wasn’t armed. I just held up my hands shouting siochain, which means ‘peace’. Oh, of course you know that now.
“Well, a group of them surrounded me, a savage-looking lot, and I asked them to take me to their leader, the man with the auburn mane. They were suspicious and put arrows to their strings, and made me dismount. But they took me to him, with a sword pricking me in the ribs. As we went I asked them his name, and they told me it was Maqqos-colini.
“And so we met, and we talked. ‘What is an Irishman doing,’ he asked, ‘coming out of the town in Roman dress and on a good horse? Are you a slave?’
“‘Yes, I am.’
“‘But your speech is strange. Can you prove you are Irish, not a Roman setting a trap?’
“‘If my speech is strange,’ I said, ‘it’s because I learnt it here, from my father and grandfather. I have never been in Ireland. But my name is Bran son of Tigernac son of Broc son of Maile son of Lochru son of Erc son of Trenu, of the Uí Garrchon.’
The pedigree rolled proudly off Bran’s tongue.
“He was astonished. ‘We too are of the Uí Garrchon,’ he said, and he looked a question at an oldish man beside him, who must have been a keeper of the tribal memory.
“‘It is true,’ this man said. ‘Our memory tells of Lochru son of Erc son of Trenu, who was captured by the Uí Failgi and sold no doubt as a slave. Maqqos-colini, this young man is your distant kinsman.’
“And Maqqos-colini took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Then welcome, kinsman. Are you running away to rejoin us, after so long a time?’
“‘No,’ I said, ‘Viroconium is where I belong, after so long a time. But I do have a question to ask you. Are you the man who three years ago captured a boy at a farm near here?’
“He was wary. ‘Possibly,’ he said. ‘I have captured many. How old is he? How does he look? What is his name?’
“‘He was then just sixteen. Nineteen now. With dark curly hair. Named Docco.’
“I saw recognition in his eyes. ‘I recall him,’ he said.
“‘And is he still in your keeping? And in good health?’
“‘As far as I know. But I have never spoken with him. I do not concern myself with my slaves. I leave that to my foremen. Why do you ask?’
“‘Because he is my master, and my very good friend.’
“‘Your master? Your very good friend? I do not mistreat my slaves as Romans do theirs, but none of them would call me their friend. How can you be friends with your master?’
“‘Because he is not a Roman. He is a Briton, and nobody is more kind and honourable than he. My lord, my kinsman, I have a favour to ask. That you release him. Will you take a ransom for him?’
“He looked at me long and hard. ‘If it is adequate,’ he said.
“Well, I gave him, um, something valuable, and he nodded slowly.
“‘I will release him,’ he said, ‘and send him back to you.’
“‘Thank you,’ I said. “‘But please do not tell him that I have spoken to you. And I have another favour to ask.’ I knew I was chancing my luck with this. ‘That you leave his farm intact for him to return to.’
“‘Where does it lie?”
“I pointed in the direction, and described how it lay.
“‘I remember it,’ he said. ‘Very well, I will spare it. Expect him within fifteen days. Would that I had friends like his. Go with the gods, my kinsman.’
“He told his guards to see me safe back towards the town, and that was that. I was sure he would honour his promise. It was just a matter of waiting for you, and hoping you’d be here before Lucius died.”
He had risked, for my freedom, his very life.
Luckily he had an honourable man to deal with. That thought jogged my mind again. Anguish for Lucius and for myself had overlaid the memory of what had happened during my return home. I went to my room to rummage in my meagre pack of belongings and came back with the sealed package, which I handed to Bran. Maqqos-colini was indeed an honourable man. Inside was the great crossbow brooch, the gift from Lucius inscribed AMICITIA, friendship. Bran wept to have it back.
He had sacrificed, for my freedom, the most valuable thing he had ever possessed, except for his indomitable soul. Had he not disproved his own remark of all those years ago, that a slave cannot give freely?
I took his hands back in mine.
“Bran …” It was hard to speak for tears. “Bran, will you accept your freedom now?”
“Yes, Docco.” His voice was also breaking. “Yes, I will.”
We hugged. My heart was full to bursting.
“Tomorrow, then,” I managed to say. It was merely a matter of registering his manumission with a clerk in the Town Hall. “And at last we’ll be equals, in every way.”
It suddenly hit me. No longer were we parallel lines, incapable of meeting. I looked at Bran with new eyes, and he saw it. The look that came back from his own eyes was an old, old look.
Tad slipped discreetly away, the baby still asleep in his arms.
Si iungar amore,
Hoc tantum tibi me iactare audebo iugalem.
Dulcis amicitia aeterno mihi foedere tecum
Et paribus semper redamandi legibus aequat …
Nunquam animo divisus agam: prius ipsa recedet
Corpore vita meo, quam vester pectore vultus.
If I am bonded in love, this is the only reason I dare boast of being your bond-fellow. My compact with you is endless, and the law of reciprocal love eternally balanced. In this, dear friendship does make me your equal … Never shall I live separate from you in soul. Sooner will life itself depart from my frame than your face from my heart.
Paulinus of Nola, in Ausonius, Epistles
In a flash of revelation the past was laid bare. Belatedly I understood, or began to understand.
“Bran … I haven’t loved you before … not in that sense … because I didn’t dare … because I couldn’t impose myself on you … because you were a slave, because we weren’t equals … And I’ve only just realised that you loved me …”
I was fumbling my way into unexplored territory.
“But you did, didn’t you? And you couldn’t do anything about it because you were a slave and slaves can’t ask … And you suffered … when I went wild … when I fell for Lucius … when I was taken captive … you suffered for me. You’ve loved me for a long time, haven’t you?”
“Yes, Docco, I have. You’ve attracted me for years. It was only friendship at first, of course. But when I bloomed, it turned into love, proper love. All right, I quenched my lust elsewhere. Who doesn’t? But it was you I loved.”
“Oh, Bran. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, Docco. Never be sorry. Never, ever, regret that you loved Lucius. It was good, it was right, for both of you. I couldn’t complain. Why should you take an interest in me? That sort of interest? How could you take an interest? You were too honourable.”
Honourable? Me, honourable?
“There were times,” I admitted slowly, “before Lucius, when I lusted for you. There were times when I felt I could love you, if I were allowed to. You see, I admired you when I was young. I looked up to you. I depended on you. And I still do, all of those. In a way I wanted to love you. You say I attracted you, as if I was a magnet. But if I was a magnet, you were silver, and magnets can’t attract silver. It just isn’t possible … I thought of it rather the same way, that we were parallel lines, and parallel lines can’t cross. It just isn’t possible … So I pushed the thought away. It’s you who’s been honourable, Bran, supporting me when I’ve been up to things that hurt you so. I couldn’t have had a better friend. Not just a dutiful slave, but a friend. And if you hadn’t been a slave, none of this would have arisen. We’d have been lovers years ago. Damn slavery!”
“If I hadn’t been your slave, Docco, the chances are we’d never even have met.”
“But you were my slave,” I said. “And you aren’t any longer. We’re both of us magnets, now. We’re two lines that do cross, now. We’re free to love, now …”
Yes, I thought, we’re free. But are we ready? Both of us carry deep hurts. Can they be healed so soon? Or is it precisely this that will heal them? Heal Bran’s hurt, yes. His hurt has been unrequited love. Ever since he bloomed he’s been yearning for me. Ever since he bearded Maqqos-Colini he’s been hoping for a scene like this. Yes, Bran’s ready for healing.
But am I? Am I? My hurt is three years’ worth of gaping loneliness which Lucius was going to refill. But instead he’s died, and that has gouged a bigger emptiness out of my soul. Now’s the chance of filling both voids. I’ve loved Bran for years. A suppressed love, an unrecognised love — I understand that now. But … can it turn at the snap of a finger into an active love? Not yet, a niggling voice whispered at me. Not yet. It’s just not fair on Lucius …
Bran, aware of my struggle, was watching in silent sympathy. Cravenly, I prevaricated.
“And I do love you!” I assured him. “But before we … I mean, oughtn’t we to wait …?”
“For a respectfully decent time? Because Lucius is barely cold? But Docco, Lucius wouldn’t mind. Yes, I know, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I know he wouldn’t mind. He was my friend too. He might have stolen my love, though he never knew it. But he was my friend, and I was his friend. Look, there are plenty of things you haven’t heard yet.
“When Lucius married, Pulcher formally freed him from his paternal authority. He was his own man at last, as independent as you are. And as a wedding present Pulcher gave him a lot of money. At that point Lucius made his will. I don’t know what it said. But then Sulpicia died. And then the rest of his family died … It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, breaking that news to him. But he was sole heir to the whole of Pulcher’s estate, which is vast. He knew he was near the end, and he insisted we call in a lawyer to draw up a new will. It cost him a big effort even to put his signature to it. And what does it say? It gives guardianship of Maglocunus to you and me, jointly; but if you should really be dead, to me alone. And it gives his whole estate in equal shares to you and me and Maglocunus; but if you should be dead, in equal shares to Maglocunus and me.”
The possibility of bequeathed wealth had never crossed my mind.
“Well,” Bran continued, scratching his armpit; perhaps I had bequeathed him an Irish flea or two. “One point is that we’re now rich, all of us, which is going to take a lot of sorting out and a lot of getting used to. But the immediate point is that Lucius, once we’d tamed him, saw me as a friend to be trusted, not as a potential bedfellow. He saw me as your very good friend too. He saw us as a pair.” Bran looked down at the brooch. “He gave us these at the same time, didn’t he? He didn’t draw distinctions. He wasn’t jealous. And he showed it in his will. He told me why he was treating me equally with you.
“‘Bran,’ he said, ‘Docco and I were made for each other. And I’m sure he’ll come back, because you’re made for each other too. When I’m gone, he’s yours. He’ll make it possible. He’ll free you. You’re the only one now who can make him happy.’”
Oh, Lucius! Oh, Bran!
I hugged him again, incautiously jarring the wound in his arm. He winced.
“Sorry,” I said, brought rudely back to earth. “Does it still trouble you?”
“How did it happen?”
“As these things do. I was on the east wall, where the aqueduct comes in. I noticed that the aqueduct was half dry, as if the Irish had blocked it off. And they were putting up a barrage of arrows, as if to make us keep our heads down. So I smelt a rat, and risked leaning over the parapet to look down immediately outside. I used this arm to pull myself up, and it got an arrow in it.”
“Gods! You might have got the arrow in your head! Were you wearing a helmet?”
“Helmet!” He snorted. “I doubt there were five helmets in the whole town. But it was a good thing I did look. There were lots of them milling round the culvert that takes the aqueduct under the rampart. So I nipped down the back and waited for them to come through. I …” His face went fraught. “Docco, I killed four of them, one after the other, until they cottoned on.”
He was almost sobbing. “Docco, I hate killing.”
Dear Bran, gentle Bran.
“Come inside, Bran. It’s getting chilly. You mustn’t let that wound get cold.”
I led him in. As we passed the household shrine I paused to thank our gods. Tad was in the sitting room, working on his accounts and clicking his abacus, so we went to my room. To our room. The ghost of Lucius was no longer there.
“Did the doctor cut the arrow out?”
“Not then. There wasn’t time. The Irish started to retreat, and I spotted Maqqos-colini. The arrow had to wait.”
“So you went to beard him with a bloody great arrow sticking out of your arm?”
He laughed at last. “Not sticking out. The shaft had broken off at the head.”
In pain, sick at heart from his killings, preoccupied with all the demands of the siege, worrying over Lucius dying a hundred paces away, having risked his life to save the town, he risked his life again to save me. But …
A question struck me, and I wrestled with it. When I turned back to Bran, he was looking out of the window, a small smile on his vital face. I followed his eyes. On a teasel in the garden a goldfinch was nibbling at the seeds, its feathers a glory of yellow and white and black and red. There was beauty both in the room and outside it.
“Bran,” I said after a moment, remembering my question. “You didn’t know I was still alive, did you? You were just guessing, weren’t you, like Lucius? Just hoping?”
“No,” he said, facing me again. “No, I knew.”
“The god had told me.”
Recollection came back of Bran’s strange mood at Fanum Maponi, and I felt the first stirrings of comprehension.
Bran looked at me uncertainly. “Docco, Lucius told me what Maponus said to him. But I don’t know if he said the same to you. Don’t tell me if you don’t want to.”
“No harm, now. He said that our love was good and right. That’s all.”
“Ah! It was the same, then. And I think he said the same to your Tad. But he said more than that to me. And in two instalments. When your Tad and I first dropped in, on our way down to Aquae Sulis, the message was that true love would be rewarded. Well, that buoyed me up no end, even if I didn’t understand it. My love was true, or I thought it was. So I thought he meant that Lucius’ love for you was not true and would not be rewarded. But at that point, of course, Maponus hadn’t met either of you.
“Then when we were all in the temple together, when he first met you and … read you, Maponus gave me another message, clearer-cut, more disturbing. It was the same as he gave to Pulcher, but fuller.
“Docco’s and Lucius’ love is blessed, he said, but it will be short-lived. Let it take its course and do not interfere, and breathe not a word of this to anyone until it is over. Then your love for Docco will be fulfilled.
“Well, that perplexed me too, but in a different way. It meant that fairly soon Lucius was going to die, or else that you were going to break up. Either way it would cause you grief. I couldn’t wish death on Lucius — he might be my rival, if you like, but he was my friend. And I couldn’t wish grief on you. But still I longed for you. And Maponus understood my perplexity. His face, Docco, his face … the compassion in it. Do you remember? Compassion for poor fumbling mortals …”
I nodded. I remembered it very well.
“I talked about it with the priest. He’d heard my message too, of course, and he confirmed what I thought. He was sympathetic, but he wouldn’t say what was going to happen, or when. He couldn’t say, because he didn’t know. He merely repeated that I mustn’t interfere. That I must be patient.
“And against the day when my love for you would be free to take its course, he … he … well, look!”
He lifted his tunic, lowered his drawers, and lay on the bed, on his back with his legs raised.
“Look!” he said again.
There, beside his anus, half-hidden under the hair, was a chain tattooed in blue. Our chain. My chain. A chain that matched my own. A visible mark of our bond. A sign of the god’s blessing on Bran and Docco’s love. It swept all my doubts away.
“He said,” Bran continued, sitting up again, “that only my bond-fellow should cross that threshold. And since then nobody has crossed it, because it’s yours.”
I thought back to what the priest had told us. ‘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.’
All of that had happened. The spark of Bran’s love had been kindled before we ever went to the temple, just as the spark of Lucius’ illness had already been kindled. Maponus had seen both. He could do nothing about the tisis, and had seen its inevitable outcome. Bran’s love — and how exclusive and self-obliterating that was! — could in due course be rewarded. So he had fanned its spark into consuming fire.
“I was on tenterhooks all that summer,” Bran went on, “for fear of Lucius dying. I didn’t go hunting with you. Not just because of my experience the first time, but I thought that Lucius might be killed by a boar or something, and I couldn’t bear to be there if he was. I didn’t go swimming with you because I thought he might be drowned … And then Maqqos-colini took you. Even as I struggled to stop Lucius from following, I wondered if I should let him go. Was I interfering? Should I let him go to his death? But the chances were that you would be killed, not him. And so I let you go.”
Bran heaved a great sigh.
“I’d looked at my chain once before, in your mother’s mirror, when we got home from Fanum Maponi. But now I kept looking at it, again and again. It seemed my only guarantee that you would come back, though I couldn’t tell when. And it took three years, three dreadful years, before it became clear what was going to happen. Lucius fell ill. And when he lost control of his bowels and I was cleaning him up I saw the same chain on him, and presumed there was one on you as well. He was dying, and my chance was coming. So when the Irish attacked us and I spotted Maqqos-colini, it seemed a golden opportunity to try to get you back.”
“Bran. I said we were equals now. But we’re not. You’re head and shoulders above me.”
“No, my dear. We are equals. And especially in love. We’re bond-fellows, and equal. You have got a chain on your arse, haven’t you?”
I showed it to him, as he had shown me his.
“It’s yours, Bran.”
I sat up again. He was looking into my eyes, smiling gently, waiting for me to follow up the invitation. We both reached out, and with a perceptible tingle our fingers touched. I closed my hand over his and drew him to me. We had never kissed passionately before but, once our lips met, my emptinesses began to be filled. The strong right arm that matched that strong heroic face gripped my shoulder and pulled me closer. My fingers went up into the back of his fair hair, and we began to writhe. His left hand slid down my back and closed around my buttock. Tight to each other, we ground together, and I felt his erection greeting mine as it had done, in this very bed, all those years ago.
But I was no longer the innocent child I had been then, nor he the inaccessible slave. Our surrender was now total. I tore off my clothes, and he did the same. I lay back once more to offer him my chain-guarded threshold, and he crossed it. Later, I too crossed his. Both times we wept.
Igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo
The strength in their seed is the strength of fire, and its origin is of heaven.
I was usually woken by the sun, but not the next morning. Nor was Bran. We were woken by a knock on the door and by Tigernac poking his head in. He seemed relieved to find Bran, but surprised to see us so intimately close, and to see the two sets of clothes on the floor. But this time, as he went quietly out, he smiled.
Ipse adulescentulus in Gallia viderim Atticotos, gentem Britanicam, humanis vesci carnibus et cum per silvas porcorum greges et armentorum pecudumque reperiant, pastorum nates et feminarum et papillas solere abscindere, et has solas ciborum delicias arbitrari.
I myself, as a youth in Gaul, saw the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh. When they find herds of pigs and oxen and cattle in the woods, it is the buttocks of the herdsmen and their wives, and their breasts too, which they habitually cut off, and these alone they regard as culinary delicacies.
St Jerome, Against Jovinian
Gone were the carefree days of my boyhood, and the next two years were a messy time. It would have been hard enough to settle back into a settled situation. Settling into an unsettled one proved very difficult indeed. Three things made it possible. One was of course Bran himself, who gave me a new purpose in life. Another was the rock of solidity provided by Tad, who cajoled me back into some sort of routine. The third was Maglocunus, whose demands took all of us out of our day-to-day cares. He burbled, and came to talk. He crawled, and came to walk. He was a delight. And, once he was weaned, Roveta became his surrogate mother. She and Tigernac were freed along with Bran. Any other course was unthinkable. They recognised it, and stayed on as paid servants, desiring nothing more than what they had done before.
I caught up with the story of events which I had missed. The raids which swept me away had been more intense and prolonged than any before. With unprecedented coordination, they had been mounted not only by the Picts and Irish but also by the Saxons and Attacotti. The Saxons had landed first and all the troops in the west were dispatched east to meet them. So when, a few days later, the Irish descended and the Attacotti swarmed in from their reserve in Demetia, they met no military opposition at all. Viroconium was not caught wholly unawares. Once Maqqos-colini’s band was out of sight of our farm, Bran and Lucius had ridden hell for leather to the town and raised the alarm, so that by the time the Irish appeared the walls were manned and no attempt was made to attack them. But the intruders had again wreaked havoc across the countryside before being finally swept away by troops from Gaul. The government’s only long-term response was to appoint a Count of the Coasts, charged with preventing sea-borne attack. But since the wealth of Britain was concentrated elsewhere, the western coasts got short shrift.
“It was a complete shambles,” said Bran, “from beginning to end. “I remember Lucius saying when it was over, ‘Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Maybe one day it will cheer us to remember even this.’ How right he was. Because exactly the same thing has now happened again, and worse.”
It took time to build up a picture of the latest attacks, for news percolated through in dribs and drabs. But it became clear that lessons had not been learned. Once again the western troops had charged east, leaving us naked. Some of the secret service had turned traitor, supplying information to our enemies in return for a promise of booty. Fullofaudes the Duke of Britain — commander of all the static garrisons and one of the growing number of Germans at the top of the military hierarchy — had been ambushed in the north. The Count of the Coasts had been killed in the east. The army had disintegrated. Troops deserted en masse and went looting on their own account. A few towns, the less well defended, had fallen. But Viroconium had not.
“Pulcher’s palisade,” Tad explained, “may be puny compared with the stone walls they’ve got elsewhere. But it stood the test. And this time we were prepared. Three years ago there were virtually no arms in the town. Why should there be? Civilians aren’t allowed to carry arms, except on dangerous journeys. All we could do was rustle up a ragbag of hunting equipment, and mercifully that was enough to frighten the Irish off. So once that mess was over we took the law into our own hands. The council got the local smiths to knock up swords and arrows and spears, and we built up a stockpile. Quite an arsenal, in fact. And that’s what saw us through the other week, that and the palisade, even though the attack was so fierce. If we hadn’t protected ourselves, nobody else would have done.”
On this occasion, as we gradually learned, the Emperor Valentinian had been in Gaul when he got news of the invasion of Britain. He did not act fast or decisively. First he sent the commander of his guard to find out what was happening. On hearing his report he sent another commander who promptly asked for more troops. Only then did Valentinian send a top-notch general, Count Theodosius, a Spaniard with a proven track record, along with four crack units. Theodosius landed in the south-east and found it swarming with Saxon bands laden with loot. He rounded up as many as he could, made his way to London which was under siege, and liberated it. With that as his base he worked his way across the country, sweeping the intruders before him. But it was months before he reached Viroconium and it became safe enough for townsfolk to venture deep into the country, to bury mouldering bodies and assess the damage to property.
Tad and I finally made it out to Onna, to find the mines intact but their production severely cut back. Serried ranks of miners armed with pickaxes, Tappo told us, had kept the Irish at bay, but all the slaves and some of the convicts had absconded. There was much to be done. New labourers had to be recruited. Fuel had run out because the charcoal burners had not dared to work in their distant coppices. Bone ash for the silver furnaces had run out because there had been no bones to calcine. Even now the Viroconium slaughterhouses had few bones to supply because few cattle were being brought in for killing. It took much time and much hard work to restore production, but once things had finally settled down it rose higher than it had been before. The reason was the simple and unsurprising fact that free labourers worked better than slaves.
But all this work fell on my shoulders, for Tad never went out to the mines again. During my absence he had turned into an old man, and travel was increasingly irksome to him. The best division of responsibilities, we decided, was for him to look after our own farm which was close at hand, for Bran to look after the Pulcher estate, and for me to look after the mines.
Count Theodosius came in person to inspect our defences and, in the forum, to utter a pep-talk which conveniently glossed over the army’s deficiencies and ignored our own success in self-defence. The walls of many other towns, we had heard, were being strengthened with bastions to carry catapults. No chance of that for us, he said. Our palisade was not only too long but incapable of being adapted. But henceforth, he told us impressively, we would have our own permanent garrison, billeted in private houses, both to serve as a mobile field unit for patrolling the area and to defend the town in case of further attack.
When it finally materialised, we could only laugh; it was either laughter or tears. Our garrison proved to be no more than a platoon of twenty uncouth soldiers imported from Germany, under a German officer. They belonged to a tribe called the Bucinobantes which had been brought over lock stock and barrel and distributed among the civitates. Armed with little but the new-fangled martiobarbuli, the short lead-weighted javelins for throwing under-arm, they would be of little help in another crisis.
On the broader front, Theodosius had to restore the regular army. Many of the deserters, when rounded up, pleaded innocence: they had not deserted, they claimed, but had been on leave. An unlikely story, but because the records had gone up in smoke there was no disproving it, and if Theodosius wanted an army in Britain he could only pardon and re-enrol them. He disbanded the secret service, as should have been done years before. Along the north-east coast he built a string of signal stations to give early warning of Saxon attack. On our side of the country he strengthened the coastal forts at Tamium, Canovium and Segontium and installed a few — too few — watch towers overlooking the sea. Inland in the mountains he regarrisoned Levobrinta, because the Pagenses had again taken advantage of our weakness and raided the lowlands.
It was indeed the weakness of Britain as a whole, according to general opinion as shaped in the taverns and dining rooms of the town, which was the root cause of all the trouble. Our military weakness invited pillagers. The Saxons in their coastal marshes, rumour told, were threatened by rising sea levels and finding it increasingly hard to make a living off their fields. What easier than to raid the richer Britain and Gaul for grain and cattle? The Picts and Irish were growing in numbers and in power. What easier than to use both to rob their ill-defended neighbours? These peoples’ homelands lay outside Roman control, and nothing could be done except try to prevent them arriving.
But the Attacotti lived in Britain, in our very own province of Britannia Prima. Because they were Irish by origin, Bran and I, who were seen as the local experts on all things Irish, were much questioned about them. Their name, we explained, was a British form of the Irish Aithechthuatha, meaning ‘vassal people.’ Weary of subjection to their overlords, they had been only too happy, thirty years ago, to accept Constans’ offer of land in Demetia to settle in. In return for the land they undertook, as what were called federates, to keep their cousins out of the Severn Sea. Nobody knew much about them, and ignorance demonised them.
“Don’t Irish women have lots of husbands? And choose which to go to bed with?”
“No,” replied Bran quite sharply. “That’s a lie.”
“I’ve heard the Attacotti are cannibals. Eat women’s breasts and men’s buttocks.”
“Another old wives’ tale.”
But the fact remained that, as Tad had once put it, thief had been set to catch thief. The Attacotti in Demetia had been exploited and over-taxed by the government. Their in-built urge to plunder still ran, unsatisfied, in their blood. Twice now they had thrown over the traces and, in league with their cousins from Ireland, had gone raiding into the wealthy core of Britannia Prima. To expel the lot would be impracticable and impolitic. Rather they had to be weakened and sweetened. Grandiose if meaningless titles were bestowed on their leaders. The promise of high pay and excitement enticed their restless young men to enrol in the Roman army, and several cohorts thus raised were sent off to Gaul where they could let off steam by fighting Germans. Those who stayed were allowed to expand eastwards along the mellow plains on the northern shore of the Sabrina Sea.
One traveller told us that at Nemetobala, nearly opposite Abonae, a new temple to an Irish god was even now being built, with government support. That was not as astonishing as might seem. The government might be supposedly Christian, but our new governor, Flavius Sanctus, was another pagan, and the attitude of the man on the spot counted for more than all the attitudes of Rome or Mediolanum or Treveri. The temple, we were told, was presided over by a deity named Nodens. I had never heard of him.
“Ah,” said Bran. “That’ll be Núadu Argat-lam, Núadu of the silver hand. He’s a healing god.”
It was not until two years had passed since the invasion that Theodosius completed his task and returned to Gaul. The restoration of Britain had taken a long time. Meanwhile Bran and I — especially Bran — were involved in another complicated and lengthy exercise, the winding up of Pulcher’s estate. As Bran had pointed out, we were now rich. There was much gold and silver in coin and in plate. Some we kept as a float. The rest, because there was no bank in Viroconium and we mistrusted the security of our house, we buried on our farm in a place known only to ourselves and Tad and Ulcagnus. But most of the assets were in land. This we decided to keep, managing it through bailiffs or leased out to tenants, just as Pulcher had done. In the ruined state of the countryside it would be a while before it produced much income, but for the same reason the price of land was at rock bottom. It was not worth selling, and we likewise despaired of finding a buyer for the town house.
The Pulcher slaves we freed. To most we gave a gratuity, ample enough to start them off in their own businesses. Pulcher’s secretary Volusius, the only man left who understood the complexities of the estate, we retained in our employ to do what he had done before and to handle the tax demands on our inheritance. The biggest difficulty was Drostan, who wanted to return to Pictland. Until Theodosius should settle the northern frontier, that was impossible, but in the end a solution appeared. Winding up the estate had raised several technical queries which could only be resolved by the provincial court, and Bran and I went down to Corinium to sit through the tedious legal wranglings.
The journey was wretched, for the weather was foul and it was dispiriting to see the ravaged countryside around the capital — ruined farmhouses and uncultivated fields were everywhere — although it was slowly returning to life. But in other respects the trip was well worth while. Not only was the estate duly wound up, but we managed to get an audience with the governor. It was a brief one, for his was a busy life. Sanctus proved to be an old man, in his seventies even, but shrewd and eminently helpful over Drostan’s repatriation. He promised to liaise with the military to escort him beyond the frontier. He was also, when he heard that Bran was Irish and I had been in Ireland, very interested in us.
“I would like to talk more about this,” he said, “and pick your brains for what you know about Laigin. Not now, I’m afraid — I haven’t the time. But when you’re next coming down this way, let me know in advance, and I’ll arrange a meeting. Use the public post, of course. And for messages about your slave.”
He scribbled an authorisation. In fact I already used the public post — the network of government couriers who stayed at state hotels — but only to write to the Count of the Mines on official business. To try to use it for private purposes was a serious offence. The outcome was that a month later we saw Drostan off from Viroconium with a fair supply of gold and with expressions of good will on both sides. Whether he took part in the next Pictish raid into Britain we will never know.
We had combined our journey south with a call on the Count to hand over the first batch of silver since the disruptions, and with a visit to Abonae to despatch the first shipment of lead. The place had been ransacked, warehouses burned and goods stolen wholesale. It was a good thing the bank I used for Procurator’s business was at Corinium, not here. But the port was back at work.
We also combined our journey with a visit to Fanum Maponi. There, the precinct had survived intact. Indeed it was rather smarter than before, because the troubles had brought people flocking to temples and churches alike and much money rattling into their coffers. Maponus still smiled at us, in glad assent now rather than in compassion. No need for new approval, no need for new chains, only for a renewed blessing on our love. And in a way it needed renewal. We were so busy and so tired that most nights we could do no more than collapse inert into bed.
Those two years also saw a wholly unexpected change at Viroconium which, though we could not foresee it, was to shape the long-term future of the town. It started with a trickle of refugees from the east. As the months went by, although it never turned into a flood, it became a significant influx. Like the Pulchers before them, these were people who had suffered at the hands of the Saxons and who saw the Irish as a less intolerable pest. They were of all sorts. A few were poor, some were middling, but most of them, those best equipped to pull their roots up bodily, were by our standards rich. None were grandees quite in the Pulcher style, but property suddenly came into demand and the many vacant farms and town houses were snapped up at unhoped-for prices; including, to our huge relief, Pulcher’s house.
Altogether a very substantial amount of new money arrived in the town, and with this money came physical changes. With the help of the Christians among the incomers, the bishop got the big new church which for years he had hoped for. Alongside it lay a baptistery, and many a local, myself included, gaped uncomprehendingly as people in long white gowns were ducked, head and all, in its pool, like so many sheep being washed in the river. The Town Hall was renovated throughout, and the statues of the Roman gods were quietly removed without objection from anyone. But the figure of Cernunnos remained; his removal would have provoked a riot. The southern wing of the baths, which was subsiding because of poor foundations, was pulled down and replaced with a new wing to the west. The rooms in the new wing, however, were smaller and would cost less to heat. Frugality died hard in Viroconium.
The incomers tended to be Roman in outlook and therefore conservative, which significantly changed the political make-up of the town. In many cases they fell within our property qualification band and automatically became councillors; to their chagrin, for they had not foreseen this. They came from opulent civitates where they had not qualified; indeed, if they had been councillors, they would not have been allowed to move away. But now, in a poorer civitas, there was no escaping council membership and civic duties. Existing councillors, for the most part, welcomed the intake because it spread the overall load more thinly.
The council also acquired two new native members. I was one, being now among the richest men in the town. It was unusual at my age, and highly unusual for father and son to sit together, since sons normally inherited the wealth and the seat only at their father’s death. But again it was inescapable.
The other new member was appointed in a much more interesting way. I had told Bran that he was now my equal. In my eyes and his, he was. But in the eyes of the law he was not. Wealthy freeborn citizens were one thing. But freedmen, however wealthy, were lower in status and could not be forced on to the council.
“But I want to be a councillor,” he complained. “Especially now that you’re going to be one. Why shouldn’t I do my bit for the civitas now that I’ve got the money?”
Why not indeed? We took the question to the current chairmen, who scratched their heads and declared themselves stumped. It was unheard of for anyone to volunteer to serve. They forwarded the question to Sanctus the governor, whose reply was straightforward. While his legal experts could find no precedent, common sense dictated that anyone with the right financial qualifications who offered his services should be welcomed with open arms; especially a man of the calibre of Bran, who had impressed him deeply.
The next council meeting considered the whole matter, which the troubles had thrown into disarray, of the membership and its duties. I was duly enrolled, along with the reluctant incomers, and we took our seats. The chairman for the day read the governor’s letter, and Bran’s enrolment was approved, to a storm of applause and with only one dissentient. That was a Christian, acting at the instigation of Bishop Viventius who still had his knife into every member of our household. But he was laughed out of the room.
Then duties were allocated. Most went to their existing holders. I was afraid that I would be saddled with an additional one, but everybody knew that Tad was unwell — he was sitting, grey and weary, in front of their eyes. In practice I was already Procurator of Mines and in due course would officially become so. They were merciful and gave me no extra burden. A new duty was created, to organise the watch on the walls which hitherto had been done informally. There were several vacancies to be filled. A tax collector and a cattle market manager were appointed from among the grumbling newcomers. Then a replacement was needed for Belator, the previous superintendent of the water supply, who had been killed by the Irish at his villa. When the chairman asked for a volunteer, Bran stood up and offered himself. The chairman beamed. How very appropriate, he said, in view of the new member’s noble work after the siege. The bishop’s supporter having left in dudgeon, Bran was unanimously approved.
As we walked home, I asked him what his noble work had been. He had not told me, and it was Tad who told me now.
“The first thing he did, when he got back from bearding Maqqos-colini, was to organise a gang with shovels. He took them out to the aqueduct take-off and they removed the blockage the Irish had made. Otherwise we’d have had no water that night. Nobody else had thought of it. And they tell me he plied his shovel as lustily as anyone, despite the arrow in his arm.”
Once again, Oh, Bran!
So Bran took charge of the water distribution network and the sewers. From the reservoir inside the walls a system of pressure mains, in a hotchpotch of clay, wood and lead pipes, supplied the baths, the public fountains, and individual private and industrial users who were charged water rates. But with the water flowing continuously at all the outlets, in addition to the many leaks, it was a hugely wasteful system. Many houses had no access to water, other than from public fountains or private wells, simply because demand far exceeded supply. All too often the water did not even reach the further houses on the existing mains. Our own house being close to the reservoir, we were lucky. But while I was in Ireland Bran had had a tap made, modelled on the one he had seen in Corinium, and had installed it on our branch pipe so that water flowed only when it was needed.
This was Bran’s new weapon, and it brought him widespread popularity. Now he had taps mass-produced by the bronzesmiths and gave them to anyone who was willing to forgo constant flow for lower charges. He hired a labour force and had it trained by the only plumber in Viroconium to fit the taps and replace leaking pipes. Reduced consumption meant that the supply was much more reliable and many more households were connected. Because vastly less water ran to waste, Bran had been worried about the effect on the drains. But this proved minimal, for the overflow from the public baths and fountains still kept the sewers nicely flushed.
Old sewage, however, was almost his undoing.
Scafae tamen maioribus liburnis exploratoriae sociantur, quae vicenos prope remiges in singulis partibus habeant, quas Britanni pictas uocant. Per has et superventus fieri et commeatus adversariorum navium aliquando intercipi adsolet et speculandi studio adventus earum vel consilium deprehendi. Ne tamen exploratiae naves candore prodantur, colore veneto, qui marinis est fluctibus similis, vela tinguntur et funes, cera etiam, qua ungere solent naves, inficitur. Nautaeque vel milites venetam vestem induunt, ut non solum per noctem sed etiam per diem facilius lateant explorantes.
To the larger warships are attached scouting skiffs with about twenty oarsmen each side, which the Britons call Picts. They are used for raids, and sometimes for intercepting enemy convoys, and for surveillance to detect their approach and intentions. So that the patrol ships are not betrayed by their light colour, the sails and rigging are painted sea-blue like the waves, and the wax used to coat the hulls is dyed. The sailors and marines also wear blue clothes when scouting, the better to remain unseen by night and day.
Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science
In May Bran fell ill. First he became unusually weary. That was hardly surprising because he had been driving himself to his limits. So too, for that matter, had I. But then he fell prey to headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, a high temperature, and a red rash. Enteric fever, the doctor diagnosed. Bran could even guess where he had picked it up, an ancient and particularly noisome cesspit which his gang of water-workers had broken into while extending the southern pipeline. Enteric fever was not uncommon in the town, and the prognosis was much better than for the galloping tisis which was invariably fatal. At first we were not unduly concerned, and followed the recommended treatment of careful nursing and a liquid diet. But Bran did not improve. He became grossly debilitated, as wasted almost as Lucius had been, and I was worried silly.
The doctors of Viroconium, while adequate for handling modest ailments and treating common injuries, had their limitations. The town did have a temple with a healing role, and the models and plaques of eyes on its walls bore witness to the many eye infections which had been cured there. But Bran’s eyes were almost the only part of his anatomy that was not affected. We needed a different god with a different specialism.
“Sulis, do you think?” I asked Tad. “I’ve got to go to Abonae next week for the lead.”
“No. Bran could never ride that far. And Sulis doesn’t deal with fevers. She’s excellent for joints and muscles and skin, but not for internal things like this. And if Bran drank that repulsive water he’d be vomiting worse than he is now.”
I was still pondering as I went down to the wharf to see to the loading of the lead. As luck would have it, the boat to be loaded was the Fortuna, and Bitucus and Lurio, noticing my preoccupation, asked what was up. I explained.
“Nodens,” they said at once, “at Nemetobala. That new temple above the Sabrina. Everyone’s talking about him down there, and everyone swears by him. And he specialises in fevers. Tell you what. You bring Bran to the boat tomorrow and we’ll take you to Nemetobala as snug as a babe in a cradle. There’s a creek just below it, and we hear a chap there’s got a litter for carrying patients up to the temple. How about it?”
I put it to Bran who, smiling wanly, agreed. “And Nodens,” he added, “is Irish.”
I put it to Tad who said, “Go for it.”
I suggested we take him too. I was worried. He was more and more breathless these days and complained of pains in his chest. But he argued that we could hardly all be away at the same time.
“If it works with Bran,” he allowed, “maybe I’ll come down next time.”
I fitted out the Fortuna with planks over the pigs of lead, and then a mattress, and then a pile of blankets, all under the awning in the bows. Bran could only keep down liquids, and I brought as much fresh milk as I thought might last, if kept cool in the bilges. At least the weather was not hot. And so we set off. This time I saw little of the scenery, and Bran even less. Day and night I was with him under the awning where he tossed and dozed while I fretted.
“Don’t worry, Docco,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a smoother journey, and I don’t intend to die on you. Just get me to Nemetobala and Nodens will sort me out. I’ll look at the scenery on the way back.” And he smiled bravely.
Bitucus and Lurio were magnificent. The first night they set a snare and caught a rabbit which, when boiled, gave a broth that I spoon-fed to Bran. They forwent the fleshpots of Vertis and Glevum so that we saved a day. By luck we coincided with neap tides and there was no significant wave. Early one morning, with Bran still no better but at least no worse, they put us ashore at the creek below Nemetobala, where I hired the litter for Bran and a horse for myself. We slowly covered the two miles of steep ascent. And so we came to Nodens.
His precinct was more compact than Maponus’. A large temple with the unusual layout of nave and aisles, a courtyarded hostel, a range of small rooms used as a sanatorium, and a bath suite all jostled for space on a hilltop with spectacular views. We were met by a priest who led us to the temple, where we laid Bran on a bed in a curtained alcove. The priest put a hand on his forehead and chest, felt his pulse, and smelt his breath.
“Enteric fever,” he said matter-of-factly. “But he is strong at heart. I think he will do well.”
He went away and came back with a cup of black liquid which he held to Bran’s lips. Bran sipped, belched, and drank greedily. Some herbal concoction, I guessed, including, from the smell, poppy. The priest confirmed it.
“It will induce the holy sleep. It will palliate the fever which is in him. And he will dream, which may palliate the fitful fever of his life.”
He whistled, and a dog came padding up, a large Irish wolfhound, which licked Bran’s face and lay down beside the bed, its head on his lap.
I looked my surprise.
“Dogs have healing powers too.”
Bran was already dropping off, and the priest showed me round the temple. It was more ornate than Maponus’, with murals on the walls and mosaics on the floor. The pavement at the inner end of the nave was of intertwined dolphins below two lines of writing. ‘Tothe god Mars Nodens,’ it said, ‘Titus Flavius Senilis, officer in command of the naval supply depot, had this mosaic laid out of the offerings, with the help of Victorinus the interpreter.’
“Interpreter?” I asked.
“From Irish. On the governor’s staff. This temple is not just British. It belongs to the Attacotti too.”
Near the mosaic was a curse written on lead, not rolled up as at Aquae Sulis but nailed to the wall for all to see. ‘To the god Nodens,’ it read. ‘Silvianus has lost his ring and given half its value to Nodens. Among those who are called Senicianus do not allow health until he returns it to the temple of Nodens.’
A shiver went down my spine.
“My father is called Senicianus. He is not well. Can that be why?”
“Only if he is guilty. Where does he live?”
“And has he ever been in these parts?”
“No nearer than Abonae.”
“That ring was stolen on this side of Sabrina. Therefore your father is innocent. Therefore he is not afflicted by the god. Nodens is not naïve.”
That was a relief.
“What are your father’s symptoms?”
I described the breathlessness and pains. The priest looked grave.
“That does not bode well. It sounds like his heart. Bring him here by all means, but I can promise nothing. There are some diseases which not even Nodens can cure.”
My worry increased. I should have brought Tad as well. We looked at Bran, who was now deep in sleep, and the priest felt his forehead again.
“It will be a while before he is fit to ride. You came by boat, I believe?”
“Yes, and we’re going back by boat, to Viroconium.”
“Good. In that case, leave him with us for four nights. Or stay here yourself, if you wish. It would not go amiss” — he looked at me clinically — “if you spent a night sleeping the holy sleep. Even young bodies can be overtaxed.”
He had a point. I was worn out not only physically but mentally, and before Bran fell ill I had sometimes, to my shame, caught myself snapping at him. I did not want to leave him alone. But I did have business to do. I hardened my heart, kissed him on the lips, and rode down the estuary and crossed it on the ferry which landed me near Abonae. There I dealt with the shipment of the lead and arranged with Bitucus to pick us up below the temple on the afternoon tide in four days’ time. After a night in a hotel I rode north to Corinium to deliver my batch of silver, pick up cash from the bank, and hobnob with the Count of the Mines.
I had written in advance to the governor to tell him I was coming, but had heard nothing back. The Count explained why. Sanctus was on a month-long tour of Demetia talking to the Attacotti, but had left word that if I turned up I was to be asked to go west and meet him on his return journey. I would probably find him at Tamium. That suited my plans, and next morning I left early and rode hard by way of Glevum to Nemetobala, where I looked in on Bran. He was already out of bed and sitting in the sunlit garden with a cup of milk and a bird’s-eye view across the Sabrina, still weak but feeling and looking very much better. The dog was beside him. I promised to return the next day. If I failed to find the governor, too bad. Bran was more important.
After an hour I was off again, paralleling the Sabrina as it grew from river to estuary to sea. I crossed the great Vogius by ferry and spent the night in the state hotel at Venta Silurum, for which the Count had given me a voucher. Although the capital of the civitas of the Silures, Venta was a small town, newly-walled and neat. It had survived the troubles, but here too the countryside had suffered. Another start at the crack of dawn, and I passed the great ramparts of Isca, once the proud headquarters of a legion but now a scruffy shanty town, home only to down-and-out civilians who had lost the economic basis of their life.
Further on, an upright stone standing by the roadside made me rein briefly in. Along one angle of it were carved notches of which I could not make head or tail, but its Latin inscription read MAGLOCVNI FILI CLVTORI, the grave of Maglocunus son of Clutorius. A strange coincidence, for Maglocunus was not a common name. Just beyond the stone lay a small settlement of round huts which brought back vivid memories. Irish, surely. As I trotted through, I flung an Irish Good morning! to a woman at the door of a hut and, astonished, she replied in Irish. Why, I wondered, a Latin tombstone with British names outside an Irish village? But I had no time to ask.
By the third hour I was in sight of the massive bastions of Tamium, very much a working fort, and as I approached the north gate a regular procession came out: Sanctus himself, an entourage of officials and servants, a long string of pack animals, and a military escort. I had timed it, by chance, to perfection. Pretending to a confidence I did not have, I waited by the roadside; and to my surprise, for we had met only once and briefly, Sanctus recognised me and waved me to him.
“Well met, Docco.” He shook my hand. “And thank you for coming so far out of your way. Is Bran not with you?”
I explained, and said that I hoped to be back with him that night.
“My sympathies. And I understand your concern. Enteric fever is no trifle. Is he, if I may ask, your, ah, partner?” I nodded. “I rather thought so. Then it is all the kinder of you to give me your time. But he could be in no better hands than Nodens’. And I would be grateful for your company as far as Venta, where I’m staying tonight.”
As we rode side by side, his aides having withdrawn to give us privacy, he asked many questions, and penetrating ones, about Viroconium, its economy, its defences, its local politics and its morale. He asked about the lead and copper mines. He asked about my time in slavery and about Maqqos-colini and conditions in Ireland.
At one point, as my eyes roamed casually across the empty blue-green Sabrina Sea, I saw a sudden flash as if from a reflection and did a double-take. Sanctus noticed, and laughed.
“Look at it hard. What do you see?”
I looked hard, and gasped. “It’s a boat!”
“That’s right. A painted boat. We call them Picts. A rather feeble pun. There are twelve of them based at Tamium, for scouting. Our eyes in the Sabrina Sea, where the Attacotti are our ears, or we hope they are.”
“I wish we had those in the Deva Sea.”
“So do I. I’ve been pushing hard for it. Why shouldn’t Viroconium enjoy the same long-range defences as Corinium? But my powers are only civil ones, and so far I haven’t managed to persuade the godheads in the military.”
“Do they have a down on Viroconium?” I asked daringly. “Tantaene animis caelestibus irae? Why such rancour in those heavenly minds?”
Sanctus laughed hugely. “So you’re a devotee of Vergil too? I might have guessed it. Proof, if it’s needed, that Corinium isn’t the only civilised town in the province! And is Bran another devotee?”
“Oh yes. We grew up on Vergil together.”
“Ah. Well, as we were saying, the heavenly minds of the military are fixed on the perennial questions of cost and manpower. It isn’t rancour. They put their troops and money where they see the best returns. In Britannia Prima, Corinium and the south have a larger population and a greater wealth than Viroconium and the north. End of argument, as they see it. But, without wishing the Irish on you, I wouldn’t mind this sort of thing up your way, as a sort of buffer between you and them.”
‘This sort of thing’ was the Irish village through which we were now passing. “There are plenty of settlements like this all the way from here to Octapitarum, and inland too. Essentially Irish, but the Attacotti intermarry with the locals, so they’re partly British. With a foot in both camps.”
“Oh, I see. Hence the British names on that gravestone.”
I pointed to it.
He stopped to read it, and the whole convoy stopped behind us. “That’s right. And it’s in Ogam as well.”
“The Irish script. Those notches.”
I was astonished. “I’d no idea the Irish had writing. How does it work?”
“I haven’t a clue. Let’s ask Victorinus. He knows far more than I do about things Irish. He’s my interpreter.”
“The man whose name is on the mosaic at Nemetobala?”
“That’s him. And the Senilis whose name is also on it maintains the painted boats at Tamium.”
He beckoned to an official in his entourage and asked him to explain about the alphabet. It had been invented quite recently, Victorinus told me, by some Attacotti who had learnt Latin at a British school in Moridunum. They wanted to imitate our tomb markers, but reckoned Roman letters were too complicated. Hence the notches, easily cut on the angle of a plank or a stone. They came in groups of one to five, each group representing a letter. Straight across the angle, they were vowels — one stroke for A, two for O, and so forth. Notches diagonally across, or only on one side or other of the angle, gave fifteen consonants. The script was called Ogam after Ogma, the Irish god of eloquence, but it was far too cumbrous for writing anything like literature. Yet it was handy for this limited purpose. Victorinus put his head on one side to read the inscription.
“MAGLICUNAS MAQI CLUTARI,” he said.
I was delighted. “Exactly the same as the Latin, but in Irish.”
“That’s right. And the Attacotti sent the idea across to their relatives in southern Ireland. They’ve stayed in close touch with them. And I’ve heard that it’s already in use on gravestones there. Without the Latin, of course.”
“There’s nothing like that in Laigin.”
“Well, Laigin’s halfway up Ireland, and no doubt it hasn’t spread that far yet. Does that mean you’ve been there? And speak Irish?”
Victorinus was eager for a professional chat. Sanctus surrendered me for a while, but when a milestone told us we were two miles from Venta he reclaimed me.
“A final word, Docco, before our ways part. You’ve told me a great deal for which I’m immensely grateful. Let me tell you a little in return. Already we rely heavily on barbarians to fill our armies, Germans especially, as you very well know. Equally we rely on federates to keep our frontiers, and we’ll come to rely more. True, they’re not popular. People grudgingly agree there’s no alternative, but have as little to do with them as possible and fleece them wickedly. Federates are all very well if they’re treated properly. But the Attacotti haven’t been — hence the recent troubles. I hope they are now. For some years they’ve been intermarrying with Britons, and in time they’ll be assimilated and become part of the landscape. And if there’s to be real trust at the official level, it’s all-important to get to know their leaders personally. That’s what I’ve been doing these past few weeks. It’s hard work, mind you. Labor omnia vicit improbus et duris urgens in rebus egestas. Never-flinching labour is the answer, and the stress of need in a life of struggles. But you know all about that too, you and Bran.
“I hope that we’re past the worst, here in the south. Our weakness now is in the north, up your way. If you two with your Irish connections can devise some equivalent relationship there, may I ask you to pursue it as hard as you can? Without some such defence all round, Britain will go under.”
I nodded. I had for a while been coming to the same view.
“You know, Docco, I sometimes think the empire is like a piece of furniture. Elaborate. Beautifully made. Eminently useful. But it’s held together with glue and it’s standing in the open air. So long as the weather stays dry, no problem. But now it’s starting to rain. The empire can survive a few showers, but once it gets too wet the glue will dissolve and the whole thing will fall apart.”
It was an extraordinary admission, and he knew it. He looked at me sideways.
“There aren’t many I’d say that to. It smacks of treason. You may pass it on to Bran, but no further. “
That demanded a formal reply. “Yes sir. Of course.” I knew that ‘Your Perfection’ was the proper way to address a governor, but with Sanctus it sounded like an insult. ‘Sir’ seemed more respectful.
“But why are you telling this to me? I’m just a youngster, a nobody, from the middle of nowhere.”
“A youngster, yes, but the youngsters of today are the leaders of tomorrow. From the middle of nowhere, no, because Viroconium is important. After all, you don’t have a Guardian of the civitas, do you?”
“There you are. A Guardian is an imperial agent accountable to the governor. He’s appointed to keep an eye on local administration and finances. The Cornovii are the only civitas in Britain not to have one, because they don’t need one, or haven’t so far. I’m sure your councillors don’t like their duties — who does? — but they carry them out quietly and considerately and efficiently, compared with other civitates where they evade or abuse them wholesale and have to be chivvied and supervised. Viroconium’s a shining example of Britons running their own affairs. And if — or when — there’s no Roman future, there will still be a British future.
“And that, Docco, is where you and Bran come in. You’re far from nobodies. When the Roman furniture falls apart, the fate of this island will rest in the hands of such as you. To some extent it does already. We keep our eyes open for promising leaders of the community. I belong to the past, myself. My tour of duty finishes in a few months. They move us on ridiculously fast these days — a couple of years is far too short to get to know a province. But people like you and Bran are permanencies. You are the future. I’ll make sure my successor knows about you. Don’t hesitate to consult him. And Civilis the Deputy Prefect knows about you, and he’ll tell his successor.”
I could find no answer to that. The west gate of Venta was in front of us, with a clutch of councillors waiting to greet Sanctus. He reined in and dismounted, and I followed suit.
“Docco, I have something with me which I brought to while away the evening hours. It’s served its purpose now, and I’ve had it dug out of the baggage. I hope you’ll accept it as a token of esteem to yourself and Bran.”
He snapped his fingers to an attendant, who handed him a large bundle wrapped in cloth, and Sanctus passed it on to me.
“Don’t bother with it now. No time to waste if you’re to reach Nemetobala by nightfall.”
As I stowed it in my saddlebag, which it only just fitted, he remounted.
“Goodbye, Docco, and thank you.” He leant down to shake my hand once more. “We probably won’t meet again. But good luck to you, and my best wishes to Bran.”
Followed by his entourage, Sanctus rode into Venta, leaving me staring after him. If all the servants of the empire were like him, we would have fewer problems.
Est ignota procul nostraeque impervia menti,
Vix adeunda deis, annorum squalida mater,
Immensis spelunca aevi, quae tempora vasto
Suppeditat revocatque sinu. Complectitur antrum,
Omnia qui placido consumit numine, serpens
Perpetuumque viret squamis, caudamque reductam
Ore vorat tacito relegens exordia lapsu.
Vestibuli custos vultu longaeva decoro
Ante fores Natura sedet, cunctisque volantes
Dependent membris animae.
Far away, all unknown, beyond the range of mortal minds and scarce to be approached by the gods, is a cavern of immense age, hoary mother of the years, her vast bosom at once the cradle and the tomb of time. A serpent surrounds this cave, his slow majesty engulfing all things. The glint of his green scales never ceases and he swallows his upturned tail, silently writhing as he explores his own beginning. Before the entrance sits Nature, guardian of the threshold, ancient yet ever lovely, and flitting spirits hang from every limb.
Claudian, On Stilicho's Consulship
The Vogius ferry delayed me and my horse was tiring badly. By the time I reached Nemetobala it was virtually dark. The precinct gate was shut, but the same priest answered my knock. He took one look at me by the light of his lantern and ordered me straight to bed. Having been in the saddle since before sunrise I was, like my horse, all in.
“Bran is mending well, and you need not worry about him. I’ll tell him you’ve arrived safely. And I will stable your horse. But first let me give you the holy sleep.”
He installed me in the same bed in the temple and told me to wait. It was pitch dark in here and totally silent; except that, as my ears acclimatised, I became aware of a rushing whisper, faint and distant, as of wavelets on the shore. Strange, I thought. The Sabrina is miles away. But the priest’s return with his lantern and a cup temporarily dispelled the dark and the sound. The concoction was sweet and at the same time bitter, and no sooner had I downed it than I felt myself sliding headlong into a realm of louder whisperings.
At some point I dreamed. It was vivid at the time but, as so often, the waking memory was vague. All that remained was the powerful sense of an unfathomable immensity in the world of the spirit, of a venerable kindliness in the world of nature, of a profound eroticism in the world of the body.
I woke late, my weariness gone. Bran’s dog — no, perhaps a different dog — was beside me. The temple was full of light and the priest was standing over me.
“Did you dream?”
I told him what little I could. “What does it mean?” I asked.
He pondered. “Your yearning, I think, for continuity and stability and love. The love of all that is good in gods and men. Every love that should steer your life. Every love that should be fostered.” He smiled. “Which reminds me that Bran wants you. He looked in at the crack of dawn to make sure I was telling the truth when I told him you were safe. You’ll find him in the sanatorium.”
Bran was sitting at a table, with his own dog’s head on his lap and a large and thick book open in front of him. We inspected each other. He was clearly very much better, less pale, less pinched, less lethargic, and we hugged and kissed as if we had not met for months. Our minds indeed, so preoccupied had we been, had not properly met for months.
Satisfied, we grinned.
“Raring to go?” I asked.
“Not sure about raring. This is a place of peace, which I’ve needed. But ready.”
“Bitucus is picking us up this afternoon, so we’d better be ready. You’ve found something to pass the time, then? What is this?” I leafed through the book. “Gods above! It’s an illustrated Vergil!”
It was written in large capital letters, with every few pages a painting in bright colours. Tityrus playing his pipe under a tree and Meliboeus holding a goat, from the first Eclogue … A herdsman surrounded by horses, cows and a dog, from the third Georgic … Dido and Aeneas sheltering from the rain in the cave, from Aeneid Book IV, while outside a Trojan used his shield as an umbrella …
“Where on earth did you find this?”
“In your saddlebag. Where on earth did you find it?”
“Good grief, is it that? I hadn’t opened it. It was given to me … no, given to both of us. BySanctus.”
“Sanctus? Does he think that highly of us?”
“Yes,” I said, sobering. “He does. And he sends you his good wishes. He … But that can wait. We’ll have plenty of time to catch up on the boat.” Reluctantly I tore my eyes away from the book. “Two essential things first. One is food. Is that your breakfast?”
There was a tray with a half-empty plate of bread and cheese, a bowl of dried fruit, and a jug of milk.
“Yes. I’ve had all I want. Help yourself.”
“You’re on to solids, then?” I asked, my mouth already full.
“Yes. In moderation.” He smiled at me. “And I can guess the other thing you need. Abath.”
“That’s right. Can’t remember when I last had one.”
“I could do with one too. Let’s scrape each other.”
“You’re up to that?”
“I think so. I need to get my muscles working again.”
So we scraped each other, gently, in love and friendship. Although he was still as thin as a rake, tone was already returning to his body. That done, we went to the temple shop, not unlike the one at Fanum Maponi, where we bought little gifts for the family. And there we found a bronze figure of a dog, a young Irish wolfhound, lying down, front paws extended, looking back over its shoulder, the typical swirls of hair on its haunches. It was beautiful, it was right, and with it we paid our debt to Nodens.
In the early afternoon we said our farewells and made our way down to the creek. Bran might not be capable of long distances, but a couple of miles in the saddle would not hurt him. Riding pillion, I held him with one arm as Maqqos-colini had held me all those years before, but with, I hope, greater tenderness. I returned the horse and paid for its hire, and we sat hand in hand watching the Sabrina lap against the timbers of the little jetty. I told Bran of my dream, and he told me of his. Its memory too was vague, but its drift had been fighting: fighting his illness, fighting intolerance and narrow-mindedness, fighting arrogance and corruption, fighting our enemies.
“It worried me, rather. I’m no warrior, and never will be.” He smiled ruefully. “Flumina amem silvasque inglorius. Give me the brooks and the woodlands, and let the glory go. But the priest pointed out that one doesn’t fight only with the sword and spear. One can oppose in a peaceful way. And he told me I’d already won the first fight, against the fever. That was a good omen, he said, for the rest.”
It was. And I would not, I reflected, like to be on the other side when Bran was in fighting mood.
A distant speck had been growing slowly into the Fortuna as she bowled upriver before the south-westerly breeze. She moored neatly at the jetty. On board was a return cargo of fish sauce in amphorae, and over it Bitucus and Lurio had installed the planks and mattress of our bed.
“Told you so,” they said, looking critically at Bran. “Nodens never fails. We’ll soon have you bow-hauling us single-handed, and it’s damned hard work, we can tell you.”
In fact wind and wave together whisked us up to Glevum in a single tide, and thereafter the wind saw us to beyond Vertis. For the time being there was little work to do other than trimming the sail. Bran and I sat together, watching the scenery as it slid peacefully by, and talking gently. He was still far from strong and, the river being cold, he did not take a daily dip as I did, but the boatmen pampered him with food, and mentally he was fully back to normal. The second evening, Lurio was lighting a fire, having trapped another rabbit and gathered wild garlic and chervil for the pot. I was sitting cross-legged, crushing the herbs in a little mortar held in my lap, when Bran suddenly laughed, a great rumble of belly-laughter such as I had not heard from him for months.
“What’s so funny?”
“You,” he said.
“Et laeva vestem saetosa sub inguina fulcit:
Dextera pistillo primum fragrantia mollit
His left hand tucks his garment under his hairy groin, his right with the pestle gives a first softening to the reeking garlic.”
I looked down. Yes, highly apt. After my dip I had put on my tunic but not bothered with my drawers. I laughed too, from relief as well as amusement. It was too long since we had joked like this.
“Where’s that from?”
“Vergil. Or so they say. Sanctus’ book hasn’t only got the standard works. It’s got the minor poems too. The ones Donatus ascribes to him but we’d never seen. That’s almost the only bit I’ve memorised so far. It’s from the Moretum, about an old peasant making his meal.”
“Old peasant, am I? Then you’re an even older peasant. And your groin’s hairier than mine. You haven’t got your drawers on either.”
We also had time to talk properly. I relayed everything I had seen and heard while Bran was in the hands of Nodens. He was intrigued by the Ogam, and by the painted boats, and especially by Sanctus’ desire for an Irish presence on the Deva Sea.
“It would make sense, I agree,” he said thoughtfully, “so long as the Irish aren’t messed about with as the Attacotti have been. So long as there’s trust on both sides. But what we can do about it is beyond me. It calls for high-level diplomats, surely, from Corinium or London or even Treveri, not for a pair of young nobodies from the middle of nowhere.”
“That’s exactly what I said. And Sanctus’ answer was that while we may be young, we aren’t nobodies. He said” — and I reported this with some awe — “that the fate of Britain will rest in the hands of people like us. He called us the promising leaders of the community. The leaders of tomorrow.”
“Leaders?” Bran was incredulous.
He sat gazing at the dark peaks of Mailobrunnia off to our left, but probably without seeing them. It was a long time before his eyes swung back to me.
“Is that what we are, then, Docco my love?” he asked softly, no longer incredulous. “Orwhat we’re going to be? Not yet, maybe — after all, we’re only twenty-one and twenty-four. But if that’s how Sanctus sees us, is that what we ought to be aiming for? Not just doing our little best with the mines and the water supply, but our big best, trying to steer the Cornovii in the right direction?”
It was a daunting prospect, but yet an enticing challenge.
“It’d take time,” I said broodingly. “It’d mean widening our approach. More of the big picture, less of the smaller. That’s the trouble, isn’t it, as things stand? Sanctus was full of praise for the Cornovii for getting on with things, without the need for a government-appointed Guardian to chivvy us along. But nobody — not even the council — bothers with anything beyond our current little crises. Nobody takes responsibilities on of their own free will. Nobody has any vision for the future. Nobody’s steering us. I mean, who are the leaders of Viroconium now? Who can speak for the town and the civitas?”
“You’re right. Nobody, really. The nearest thing’s the chairmen of the council for the time being. But they only serve for one year, and they’re always looking forward to the end of it. Otherwise the best we’ve got are the respected elder statesmen like your Tad. And he’s … well, he’s not going to last for ever.”
It did not seem likely, I reflected mournfully, that he would last for long at all.
“Bran, if that’s what we’re going to do, we can’t do it on top of our current work-load. Mines. Water. Keeping an eye on Volusius and the Pulcher estate. Keeping an eye on Tad and the farm. Trying to be parents to Maglocunus. We don’t give Tad or Maglocunus the time they deserve. We don’t even give each other the time we deserve. What about employing someone else to handle the day-to-day stuff? The time-consuming things like accounts? We can easily afford it.”
We agreed, there and then, to delegate, and spent the rest of the day discussing the details. That night, as we lay together after too long an absence, our love-making was close and gentle. It marked, it seemed, the turning over of a new leaf. We woke, however, to an acrid shock. One of the amphorae underneath our bed had sprung a leak, and fish sauce is not the most soothing of smells. It took me all morning and countless bucketfuls of water, laboriously emptied into the bilges and then pumped out, before the bows were habitable again.
From then on, too, it was largely a matter of bow-hauling. At first the boatmen pulled while I steered, but Bran’s physical improvement was impressive and soon he felt strong enough to take the steering oar, while I helped pull. It was hard work indeed, but work that required little thought. When we finally reached the gorge only a dozen miles short of Viroconium, we stopped to engage a couple of extra men to haul us up the rapids. There we bumped into a friend who ran the stone-coal pits, and he offered, being on horseback and heading back to the town, to give advance warning to Tad that we were well and almost home.
At last, in the evening, we arrived. The Sabrina reflected the deep shadows of the bankside trees and the blood-red of the sunset sky above them. On the wharf, empty by now of bathers, was Maglocunus, capering and shrieking with excitement. Tad was there to look after him, and Tigernac was there to look after Tad, who was more breathless than ever. There were hugs all round. Our little gifts were handed over. Bran and I took Maglocunus on board and sat him in the stern. He was solemnly pretending to steer when Tigernac called out urgently.
Tad was slumped on a bollard, face grimacing and grey, hand clutched to his heart. I leapt ashore, and by the time we had eased him to the ground he was unconscious. I felt for his pulse as I had seen the doctor do. It was wildly irregular. And then, under my fingers, it stopped and did not re-start. On my knees I looked up at Tigernac, aghast. He read my face, and silently we bowed our heads. From the barge came a whimper, which turned into a wail of desolation as Maglocunus’ young soul was brushed by the passage of death.
Grief wears many faces. My own grief for Tad, I found after the immediate shock had worn off, was different from my grief for Mamma and my grief for Lucius. My love for Tad had been different. I was older now and maybe wiser. Above all I had foreseen his end. My mind was dominated by gratitude for a good, good man and his good, good life. Beyond that lay relief that his end had been quick and reasonably painless. He had indeed chafed at his growing immobility, but it could have been much worse. Beyond that again lay a sense of guilt that I was not grieving more; but it was not a strong sense.
Maglocunus’ grief was wild but, with his infant resilience, relatively short-lived. The hardest hit were Bran, Roveta and Tigernac; Tigernac most of all, who had known Tad longer than any of us and had grown up with him as I had grown up with Bran.
That night, once we had carried Tad home and laid him on his bed, the four of us went in sad togetherness to the kitchen. We took the tearful Maglocunus with us, for he needed company as he went to sleep. And except when entertaining guests we never ate in the dining room again, but fed communally in the kitchen, sitting on stools rather than reclining on couches. Togetherness seemed right. At the snap of a finger the family had taken on a new structure.
If Mamma’s funeral had been well attended, Tad’s was more so. It held fewer terrors than I feared, and this time I could better appreciate the kindness of friends and neighbours. We made our farewells with the usual rites, not because I believed they did any good but because they were expected.
As people dispersed, I aired my thoughts to Bran. “What I’m most glad about is that Tad was spared the worst indignities of age.
Optima quaeque dies miseris mortalibus aevi
Prima fugit; subeunt morbi tristisque senectus
Et labor, et durae rapit inclementia mortis.
The best days of life are the first to slip away from us poor mortals; then illness and pain and dreary old age sneak up, and pitiless death rudely snatches away.
At least his illness and pain and old age didn’t last long. And his unhappiness was lightened by Maglocunus.”
Maglocunus, who had been very quiet throughout, was between us, holding our hands. On hearing his name he looked up.
“Docco, is he unhappy now?”
Trust a bright child to ask difficult questions.
“No. I think that if anything he’s happy.”
“But where’s he gone? Apart from there?” He nodded at the grave.
Good grief. Not yet three, he already distinguished between soul and body. But this was not a debate to be conducted from on high, and Bran and I squatted down beside him.
“I don’t know, Maglocunus. Honestly I don’t know. Some people say there’s an otherworld where we go when we die. A good place, where everybody’s happy. But nobody has ever come back to tell us, so we can’t be sure. Maybe there’s nothing. But that wouldn’t be bad. It would be like sleeping without dreams.”
Maglocunus nodded, satisfied. “Then he isn’t unhappy. Good.”
He bent down and carefully placed on the grave a single poppy, shapeless and bruised from the clutch of his paw.
“He’ll like that, won’t he?”
“Yes. He’ll like that.”
“If he can see it.”
Hand in hand again we walked home, slowly, without Tad.