[Please note that this is a novel in serial form, so the date on the post is immaterial. If you come back from time to time you’ll find new chapters by scrolling down. The serial also appears in parts at my short fiction blog, with the latest chapters on top as single posts. This blog is just an alternative format for the serial, a straight-through read which some readers may prefer.]
Locusta was a Gaul, one of the Arverni, a tribe once famed for leading the other Gauls against Roman power. Many of the Arverni were now like Romans, part of its great Provincia, or Provence. Some continued old ways while accepting Gaul’s Roman destiny; a few were impotent rebels, conjuring the ghosts of beaten heroes like Vercingetorix while paying Roman taxes, depending on Roman roads, aqueducts and commerce, and even serving in the armies of Rome.
But in the poorest and wildest part of the Provincia, the great Morgarita Forest, where giant pines dominate rafts of purple granite, lived Arverni hostile to all external power. They blurrily remembered Julius Caesar as a raging storm across regions further west, something neither to love nor hate. The Arverni of the forest lived without history and reserved their hate for all who intruded or brought change in the present, be they Romans or Gauls. When tax gatherers or military recruiters or bandits ventured into the Morgarita they had to decide whether to go in force – in which case the populace evaporated along with their paltry belongings and stock – or to go in small numbers and risk impalement on split saplings or death in the jaws of the high country’s legendary wolves.
In that rock-strewn forest on its high, dry plateau bounded by gorges, mountains and the Trout River in the east, birth and survival were rare. When a woman had a child and died, the baby would be given away if not exposed by its father. Locusta, who knew neither father nor mother, was fortunate to be passed on by a helpless sister she also never knew.
She was not given over to another family but to a druggist of the region, the childless widow Alana. This aging woman, thought to be something of a witch, lived on the fringe of the Morgarita, a location from which she could gather the many herbs and roots of the slopes and open heath, as well as fungi, barks, and gums of the forest.
The druggist contracted a wet-nurse to give suck to the infant, paying her in drugs and in fine specimens of tourmaline rock which could be traded with Romans. Locusta was only a few years old when Alana was able to send her out to find mountain herbs and gather the tiny seeds of heath shrubs. The child’s nimbleness and sharp vision were what her adoptive parent had wanted all along.
When Locusta – fully articulate by five, pale, with devouring eyes, high forehead and black hair like a tight helmet – made a rare complaint, her indifferent guardian muttered one of a few standard replies:
“And how do you think I became a druggist of renown beyond the forest? By play? By rest?”
“There is always death to be chosen.”
Most terribly of all:
“One day you also will need to rid yourself of a husband or two.”
The girl had hurried but constant dealings with neighbours when she delivered parcels of drugs. She was also required to memorise and repeat instructions for the use of the drugs, and to deliver messages and enquiries back to her mistress. She actually relished these contacts away from the cramped hut and her peevish guardian, though dread of the notorious Morgarita wolves lessened the pleasure of rambling alone. By age ten Locusta, who had never used the language of a child, had the demeanour of an adult.
The older she got, the more she was required to do. As well as finding and gathering plant material in all weathers and doing deliveries, she was obliged to measure, grind, ferment, concoct, parch, pickle and store. Firewood and fire maintenance were other daily burdens put on her at an early age.
At last, as Locusta’s body began to take the shape of a woman’s, the now feeble Alana introduced her to practical medicine and pharmacy, describing all the commonest conditions and the timing and strategy of cures. The grave Locusta, who had seen smiles but never given them, attended to these lessons with an expression which was blank apart from the furrowing of her large forehead. Alana had sensed her pupil’s uncommon intelligence early – somehow giving herself the credit – then had begun to fear it a little.
The one thing Alana could not achieve with her pupil was to interest her in incantations and spells. Though she sometimes berated her over her irreligion and the consequent lack of a finish to her education, it was also something of a comfort to Alana that Locusta was numb to this extra source of power, confining herself to the physical side of the profession alone.
As for Locusta’s strange bouts of abstraction, when she seemed to meditate on nothing for minutes on end, Alana put them down to eccentricity. Why should an orphan who had not experienced a single day of childhood not be a little mad?
Alana, as was inevitable, fell ill. In the Morgarita Forest, dry, cold and wind-thrashed, many common diseases were rare; but failing lungs at the end of a fierce winter are a universal cause of death in the elderly. Alana was able to instruct Locusta as to what potions and foods she required for her comfort, but the end seemed inevitable before spring.
Yet when spring came, Alana lived on. When she remarked to Locusta that her science was now proven on her own body, Locusta merely stared, surveyed the face and eyes of her mistress with curiosity.
One evening, as Alana, drowsy from much wine and amantilla root, had finished quaffing her bitters sweetened with sharp honey of the heath, she began to make smacking noises with her lips.
“The bitters seem odd…the flavour…”
She turned frightened eyes on Locusta, who examined her then said almost absently:
“It will end soon. You have been kept without fits or great breathing discomfort, but I can do no more. I have just given you an excess of broom-seed purgative and nightshade, more than enough to kill, along with scutella and some of that eastern resin sold by the Romans, these last two for your greater comfort. I find if I roast the resin in barley cakes then grind them, the soak water produced is the best of sedatives. You may have vivid dreams before the toxins do their work…but it will be a good, easy passing for you…”
“But who told you of…how…” Alana’s voice was almost extinguished.
“Oh, I practise on animals, some of our patients. For some months I have practised on you, mistress. You have been comfortable…but now…”
The end had not been quite painless, but Locusta knew to lie when necessary, even to those few who should know better. Yet why should death not be painless? Alana had talked once of powders and seeds imported from the ends of the empire, pain-killers of enormous potency. Locusta resolved to find them out, even if it meant close contact with Romans and Gauls of the town.
That spring night, the night of Alana’s death, there were snow flurries about the high country. Locusta stood outside and breathed in the cold, breathed it in hard, like a purgation.
She looked up and about, with a freedom never enjoyed till this moment, observing the skies, the swaying pines, the driven snowflakes, the glint of Morgarita granite when the moon flashed through a gap in the driving clouds. One thought suddenly overpowered her: the thought that all things had reserves of power. Even the dust from the granite rubble underfoot, when touched by a practised hand, a hand guided by a knowing brain, was potent. The thought would never leave her.
Power. Sway. Potency. How she understood the Romans! Though she had barely glimpsed one of them, though she detested them, as all must – yet she understood them.
It occurred to her now that she was free to stand outside all night; free to go inside and work through the night on her recipes without secrecy; free, as mistress and pharmacist, to become something much more than mistress of a hut and pharmacist to the coarsest of the Arverni – though she knew not what.
For the first time in her life, Locusta smiled, just a little.
She did not mention the death of her mistress except to one or two incurious neighbours. For the most part, she acted as if nothing had changed in the hovel and pharmacy where the forest bordered the heath.
Locusta continued to develop her recipes and potions, employing iron concentration in every free moment. And she practised killing with a sling till she could hit an approaching wolf by hurling one of a few carefully chosen and smoothed granite stones. Hours, exertions and frustrations meant nothing to Locusta when she was in search of a new skill she deemed essential. Little showed strain but that furrowing of her high and capacious forehead.
She searched for herbs in places no one would go, up and down the most exposed slopes of the heathland. Locusta suspected that plants and trees which faced the most extreme conditions had extra reserves of force in their saps, seeds, barks and exudates. On finding something new she would decide on its potential by smelling, tasting and checking its astringency or its ability to make soapy bubbles when mashed. A newly developed lotion might be tried by applying it to the hide of an injured or infected goat; other medicines could be tested by giving them to the dying, in those cases where cause and effect become blurred and death is often desired.
One idea was prominent: the best and most effective remedies were so because they were potent enough to kill. The true pharmacist was a handler and modifier of poisons.
One afternoon Locusta had ventured near gorge and wolf country in search of bindweed berries for drying and pulverising. She trod where few had ever trod, her sling at the ready. From out of a draw leading into a gorge came a sound of strangled voices, human for certain.
Following the sound, she came in sight of two men tied upright to separate pine trunks. At their feet were fresh animal skins, still bloody. Their bodies were bare below the waist, but the throats and necks of the men were completely protected by heavy leather collars. Locusta had never seen the arrangement before, but she knew this was an execution, a local style of execution used by bandits and rebels. It was a way to kill with the maximum of terror. The protecting collars meant that the wolves attracted by the skins could not kill the men quickly, following instinct, but would tear away at their legs, stomachs and groins.
Locusta, balancing her sling, stone at the ready, made her way down slope to the men, then stood silent before them, inspecting. It was clear from their remaining clothing and their hair that they were Roman legionaries. One spoke, with an accent not far removed from the local dialect:
“Ah, thank Jupiter. Quickly girl, before the wolves come. Bandits have done this to us. I am Narbo…”
“You are Roman. Both of you are Roman. You have been caught by rebels whom you yourselves were trying to catch. They have done to you what you would have done to them. And they are my people, you are not.”
“Rebels…bandits…Whatever you call them…Can they give you roads and water and public order? Will they protect you from Germans? Of course I am with the legion. But I was born not far from here. My friend is also a Gaul, from the north. You must help!”
“Why? Because if this becomes known our general will order a punitive sweep through the whole forest.”
“Then I should leave you here, so it remains unknown. I can help you to die with little pain, before the breeze shifts and the wolves come. It’s what I do. I am a pharmacist…”
“If you are a pharmacist then you need protection. Emperor Tiberius has decreed an end to all remaining Druid practises. The Gallic nobles are in agreement. The Provincia will have no witchery or divining. You would be in serious trouble if…”
“I know nothing of Druids or witches or divining. I dispense drugs.”
“Our general will not care about such distinctions. Help us and we will help you. We will introduce you to the Greeks who are permitted to work with herbs…Help us quickly, girl, before the wind shifts.”
Locusta stared a little longer, assessing, weighing. Then she drew a flint knife from her shoulder bag and walked round the back of the tree. Narbo was pinioned chest-high and hard with heavy rope; his arms had been drawn back and up before tying, though his legs were left free so he could kick out and extend his pain.
“I will help you. Not because you offer to protect me or because I fear the legion. I will help you because…I do not know why. Perhaps because it is foolish of the rebels to give the wolves a taste for human flesh. I will help you because this is a foolish death they are giving you.”
When Locusta had cut both men free, their first action was to cast about frantically for their shoes and leggings, even as they tore off the leather collars from round their throats.
Truly, they looked ridiculous. Were Locusta given to merriment, the sight of two Romans, without belts or weapons, ripped tunics flapping on their bare groins, would have made her laugh. Perhaps she did give a quick smile, because the bulkier of the two men, the one called Narbo, raged at her:
“Don’t stand there gaping, girl. Help find our things.”
“You’ll find nothing. So poor is our region that a Roman’s clothing is a treasure to us. Your clothes are gone, along with your weapons…”
“And my cingulum! It was my grandfather’s in Africa. It…”
Locusta tried to remain grave and speak low:
“You had best be glad of your lives. What we must do is cast the fresh animal skins further down into the gully. That will give you time to get well clear of the forest and back on the road to your camp.”
“But if we wash the skins off we will at least have something for our loins…or our feet, in any case…”
“No! The wolves of the Morgarita are no ordinary wolves. Some say they have bred with giant dogs that came through with your first Caesar. The slightest wind change will have them here. We need to roll the skins around stones and cast them as far down as possible. With the dry weather the wolves will be looking along the streams for prey.”
Frustrated as well as ridiculous, the two Romans hurled the weighted skins as far down into the gully as they could.
“Good. Now follow me. I will take you to the ridge-line you can follow west to the road. If you get to the road before dark you only need to keep walking and you will arrive at your castrum tomorrow. It’s one of those Roman roads, nice and straight, is it not? The important thing is to get to it before nightfall. You may be wise to shred your tunics to wrap your feet.”
“I’ll not go naked, if it’s all the same. Though a wild tart of the forest might enjoy the spectacle. Show us the way, girl. We will keep pace.”
As the group made its way upward Locusta pretended to ignore the men while studying them. The larger one had a fleshy, sensuous, sneering face, the smaller looked sly and wore a pleading expression. A natural businesswoman, Locusta studied faces. She liked neither of these two.
At one point the men spoke to each other in Latin and grinned. Locusta pretended not to care.
To reach the right point it was necessary to leave the heath and walk the fringe of the forest. The fallen pine branches and cones amid sharp granite made for slow progress by the barefoot Romans.
At last they arrived at the ridge top, where the view was clear and the way simple.
“From here you stay on the spine of the ridge and descend west. There is even a faint goat trail. Farewell.”
But the men merely stood and glared at her, Narbo with his arms folded to exude authority, the other with an adolescent leer.
“We’ve changed our minds. We want to stay with you. Take us to your home.”
“Impossible! If the rebels guess…”
“Take us to your home. We’ll see what you’ve got there which might serve. And you yourself may prove serviceable…”
Narbo grabbed Locusta by an arm and grinned.
“You’re a strong, tall girl. Hair like crow feathers but shoulders like a German. Are you sure your daddy didn’t come through here as one of those northern raiders…”
“You need to leave now, Roman. The rebels will spare neither you nor me if they guess I have helped you. Go!”
“It seems you don’t know who has authority here. Perhaps a little quick love…”
The big Roman threw his whole weight over her and they both fell to the ground. The other Roman emitted a weak laugh as Narbo grabbed at the hem of Locusta’s smock.
Then complete stillness. It was as if the big man had fallen asleep.
Next, he rolled off Locusta and stayed on his side, inert.
Even as the smaller man crouched over his comrade in bewilderment, Locusta was on her feet and brandishing her flint knife, the point glistening red. By the time the other had located the gush of blood coming the neck of the dead man, Locusta had stepped back and, after tossing the knife to her other hand, was already whirling her sling, all her attention on the movements of the man still living. Not for the first time, Locusta had killed. How well she could kill. How well she knew the physical, the technical side of death. How did she know?
The sling hummed as she took another step away. Then she stood side on, shifting her weight from front foot to back and then to front again, in concert with the revolutions of the sling.
“The stone in my sling has been chosen well and polished. I will lodge it behind your eye if you take a step toward me. Go! Find the road to your castrum.”
“But…this man was my comrade…a respected Roman of Gaul…Our commander will want to know…”
“Make up a lie. If you are a true Roman you are a good liar. Leave your friend to the wolves or you will both be wolf meat by evening. Take your life from me a second time – and go!”
“You have no choice. Tear your comrade’s tunic to fashion wrapping for your feet. Take extra fabric, the granite will shred it quickly.”
“Leave me with my comrade’s body, and I’ll decide.”
“Stay here and the wolves will decide. They will surround you silently then tear your throat and groin before eating your liver. Try to follow me and you will get lost in the Morgarita. Advance on me now and this stone will be in your right eye socket. Argue one more time and the stone flies. Enough talk.”
As the sling whirred and whirred Locusta followed the man’s every movement with her perfect concentration. Soon the tunic of the dead Roman was converted to foot wrapping by the survivor. He used what was left as a loincloth.
“Now go immediately and without a word. I will be observing you from an outcrop. You won’t see me. Walk west and live. If you turn back it is your death.”
When the man had gone quite a distance he turned and screamed:
“Witch! Slut of a German witch!”
Then he turned back round and scampered on his way.
Outside her hovel later that afternoon, Locusta took a large bronze mirror which had been fashioned locally from an ancient breastplate and placed it on a rock. She let the low sun catch her full so that much of her body was visible in the bronze, in spite of the smearing and bobbles.
She had observed herself in this way before, especially as she became aware of her womanhood. Yet she had been quick to know the erotic as function, as power, not just sensation. Locusta could step back from her own urges and observe them the way she observed seed, sap and leaf. As surely as there were no gods, there were physical forces far more mystery-laden and potent. Ask a pharmacist of the Morgarita Forest. Ask Locusta of the Arverni.
Now Locusta touched her neck at the very place where she had stabbed the Roman. She had often felt her pulse there, but was surprised by the quick instinct which had prompted her to find the exact point on a stranger’s body – especially in the moment she was about to be raped.
She had expected to feel shock as she made her way home after the killing; but instead there was just this overwhelming curiosity about her body, starting with that point in the neck. The interest was not just anatomical: Locusta was also intrigued by what the big Roman had said of her appearance.
Still studying her reflection, she moved her hand to one shoulder then the other. They were indeed broader than those of most women. Perhaps that was what gave her the pivoting strength she had always possessed, the strength which had saved her this very day.
She continued to observe. Her face was more handsome than pretty, though it was not like a man’s face. The forehead was high, the jawline pronounced. The eyes were large, dark and well apart.
She stepped back to get a longer view. Her body was curved like a woman’s, but more taut and upright. There was that extra breadth in the shoulders, a firmness around the buttocks. Locusta had force. And it was not in her body shape alone. Her speech was clear, measured, formal, even in medical emergencies; and her speech showed the pattern of her thinking, sequential and never merely reactive.
This force, neither masculine nor feminine, where did it come from? Was it the careful diet she had always observed, adding many snails and small stream fish to the herbs, root vegetables and fungi which usually made up her evening soup. Even Alana had not been as attentive as Locusta to food. Did anybody have such a deep and immediate instinct for the physical as Locusta? Where others felt supernatural influences above or beyond the world of objects, Locusta perceived within what was solid vibrating webs far more powerful than spirits or demons. These physical webs were too intricate to unmesh – but they could be guessed at, used.
Locusta absorbed and exerted power, willingly or not, and saw only power. While others might consider rock inert, Locusta saw even a granite pebble as a bundle of energy, only tighter than what showed obvious movement or growth. No, it was not the diet which gave Locusta the force, it was the innate force which demanded the potent diet. What was the name of that force?
And why did it drive to the extremes?
The voices told her as much, told her there would be no middle way for Locusta, only a choice of extremes, every moment of a very long life. She was like the Morgarita she-wolf nurturing its famished litter, ever savage and ever protective.
Born to heal and kill, nothing else. The two extremes. She was destined to improve life and inflict death; and in that she had but one rival in all the world.
Her voices often spoke of a rival, another she-wolf. The voices called it by name…
The name of her rival was Rome.
Some days later Locusta was inside pounding and soaking willow bark for a patient with fever. By the time she was aware of the sounds of tramping feet and clinking metal it was too late. With her speed of understanding, she knew perfectly what the sounds meant. The clearing about the hovel was surrounded by soldiers.
Her first reaction was not fear but fury. How could she not have anticipated?
She stepped outside and waited, preferring to face what was coming.
A flash of red, gleam of metal amid the trees. Into the small clearing stepped one fully armed Roman, then another. She knew not to run. There would be soldiers advancing from all sides. The Romans had strict and elaborate methods for such actions, something all Gaul had come to learn.
“That’s her. The witch who pig-stuck our Narbo after she drugged him senseless!”
Locusta turned toward the sound and observed the weasel-faced Roman she had saved from the worst of deaths just days before, now smirking in triumph.
“You’re coming with us, witch.”
She spat on the ground, looked away from the man and said nothing as the detachment advanced on her.
Rome and Locusta of the Arverni. So it must be. So it always had to be.
After scrambling along clogged and granite-strewn forest trails, the detachment, with Locusta as prisoner, reached a clearing where they joined a larger group of soldiers with two other prisoners, both Gauls. One of the Gauls, a slight and ragged man, was known to Locusta from a recent medical emergency: an infected foot which she had cured by herbal compresses and strong garlic stew. She noted the man’s lower leg now appeared sound.
The other man, a hairy giant, was unknown to her. He had the kind of powerful, hurdling frame which no clothing will ever fit; his face, by contrast, was intelligent and wore a savage calm. While the smaller man only had his hands bound in front, the giant was bound behind, with rope biting hard round his upper and lower arms.
After discussion and orders in Latin, a language not yet known to Locusta, the whole group began to trudge west through clearer country and away from the Morgarita fringe. It seemed likely to Locusta they were now headed to the Roman castrum, the garrison settlement west of the forest on the main road to the great city of Lugdunum.
As they progressed, Locusta kept her breathing steady and sought for matters to busy her mind and cram the mental spaces which would otherwise be occupied by fear. She studied the Romans: faces, weapons, clothes, gait. Their easy coordination gave most interest. The only method and uniformity Locusta knew till now were her own habits of mind; now she saw the physical manifestation of these things in the way the soldiers moved with a minimum of hesitation and conferring. The Roman way. Her way, in a sense.
Yet Locusta knew this was not a time to be overwhelmed, absorbed like the rest of Gaul – the rest of the world, perhaps – into Rome’s greedy vortex. No. She would turn her thoughts back to her own sources of power. And Locusta turned her thoughts deliberately, with relentless focus, as she did all things.
She began to observe the flatter, more open country, wondering about every live thing or mineral, about what gave the soil of the level land more energy for food production but less for most pharmaceuticals.
At last, in defiance but also out of interest, she turned and spoke to the smaller of the two Gallic prisoners:
“Gela, I see your leg is sound enough. Have you kept up the hot brews of mountain garlic?”
Almost immediately Locusta felt a scalding lash above her shoulders and around her neck. Rather than wince or raise a hand toward the point of pain she stayed completely upright and kept walking. Only when she felt sure there was no second lash coming did she turn carefully, wary of eye damage as she was wary of any physical injury, to herself or anybody. There was the rodent-faced Roman she had saved, sneering in his usual manner, a short whip in his clasp.
The soldier was waiting for a reaction which did not come. Locusta faced front with an expression of indifference and walked on.
Some hours later they came to the main road which ran north to the castrum and Lugdunum beyond. Locusta knew she was barely repressing terror, yet one part of her busy mind was genuinely stimulated by curiosity about these places which once seemed so distant to a child of the Morgarita.
Waiting where the track met the road was a caged wagon guarded by two soldiers. Two horses were grazing nearby in fettles. One of the guards immediately opened the back trap of the cage.
The legs of the prisoners were soon bound, and all three were forced into the cage, which was then closed and locked.
“The witch rides while Romans walk!” Rodent Face spoke in Gallic.
“They ride like poultry. You can ride with them if you like, Virio. But whatever you elect to do, keep your whining mouth shut. At least these wild Gauls have shown some courage.”
It was clear that the officer in charge was as disdainful of Rodent Face as was Locusta.
“A joke, sir, just a joke…”
“The only joke is when a Roman comes back to his castrum shoeless with a bare bum. And you’d best hope your story about being drugged by a witch who poisoned your comrade has at least a smack of truth to it.”
“I am no witch. I am a pharmacist. I drugged no-one. I saved this man’s life then spared it after his comrade tried to…”
“Never mind. You can make your case to the commander. The rest of you men, speak Latin and don’t address the prisoners. Especially you, Virio. Just try to keep your bum covered this time.”
After some laughter, then a brief rest and drink for the soldiers, the horses were attached and the Romans formed up before and behind the wagon, as well as one to each side of it.
When the rattling of the cart was loud enough to cover his voice, little Gela hissed at Locusta:
“You? It was you who saved the Romans? Why? What did they offer you?”
“Nothing. I found them and released them. That’s all.”
“I…keep wondering. I don’t know. If they had been killed quickly it would have been different…Perhaps it was the idea of feeding a common enemy with the pain of humans. The Morgarita wolves have killed more of us than have the Romans.”
“Romans have killed Gauls by the thousand. By a thousand times a thousand. Julius Caesar alone…”
“I was speaking of the Morgarita. I hardly know a Gaul from beyond my forest. Those I have met are just like Romans to me. Even the Arverni.”
“Locusta, we are your people, even those who live out here…”
“Oh, leave it be, Gela.” The giant had spoken quietly, so as not to draw the attention of the guards, but he had resonance in his voice which matched his frame. “I’ve heard of this lady. She’s cured many. Now she may cost a few lives through her error. Leave it be. It’s over.”
“Matra…when…when will you…?”
“Further on we leave the fields and pass through a narrow rocky stretch which is dark from the trees and overhangs. We’ll do it there.”
“You are planning to escape?”
“Escape? You might call it that. I suppose that’s as good a word as any.”
“Will you…help me to escape?”
The giant snorted gently, smiled and said no more.
They came to the area described, a descent through a narrow pass which was dark by that time of day. The two soldiers on the flank went forward to assist with the horses on the tricky surface.
Locusta watched her two companions.
After a slight nod from the giant, the diminutive Gela slid down the side of the cage so that his head was between the bars and the back of the other man.
The giant shuffled forward slightly on his buttocks and the small man thrust his head in the gap.
Next, those massive hands were around his throat, and squeezing.
After some sputters and writhing, Gela was lifeless. All this while the giant was fixing Locusta, waiting for a reaction which did not come.
“You are wondering why?”
“Not curious? That may be best.”
“I know why you did it. Perhaps for the same reason I released those two Romans.”
“Not quite. Little Gela was not sure he could withstand when questioned. You see, unlike me, he really is one of the rebels.”
“You are not a rebel?”
“No. I’m a woodcutter with a bit of a reputation. I attract trouble like many big men who avoid trouble. I was arrested for being Gela’s nearest neighbour, and for that reputation.”
“Perhaps they will release you.”
“Even if I had not killed a prisoner, technically army property, they would not release me. But at least when questioned I will have nothing to tell them.”
“Is it so certain they will…question you?”
The other nodded, then added:
“Lady, while we still have time…do you wish to escape also?” As he said these words he cast his eyes down ruefully on his friend’s corpse.
“No. Thank you, but no.”
“You realise we are dead in any case?”
“No, I won’t die. Not for a long time. But by tomorrow I suppose I’ll wish I were dead. You don’t have to be discreet. I know more or less what the Romans will do to us.”
“Yet you are sure you won’t die? You killed a Roman, lady. You ask me not to be discreet. You killed a Roman. If you put your head now where Gela put his…”
“No. Thank you.”
“You expect to live…How can you…have you some god or demon with you? Are you truly a witch?”
“There are no gods, no demons and no witches.”
“You’re so sure? And so sure you will live past tomorrow?”
Locusta merely nodded.
“How do you know all this?”
“I hear voices.”
“Voices! Where do they come from, these voices? Have they mouths, tongues?”
“I deal in observations and effects, not explanations. Scholars explain, usually wrongly; a pharmacist brings things to effect with or without explanations. My old mistress taught me that, though she scarcely needed to. My voices are real sounds, though the product of a disorder of sorts.”
“But if there are no mouths to make the voices…”
“Yet there are still ears to hear them. My ears. And even if my ears don’t hear, that part of my brain which receives sound from the ear can hear. Because voices usually proceed from mouths does not mean they must always do so.”
The procession emerged from the pass onto wide road. The guards moved back to flank the cart. They looked in and were not surprised to see Gela apparently asleep on the floor of the cage. It had been a long expedition for all.
Some time later they arrived in sight of the castrum, large enough for a legion gone long ago to the Belgian frontier, now a generous garrison for a much reduced peace-time force in a world as Roman as Italy. Already it was turning into a town, with clusters of shops and rough dwellings beyond its fortifications.
“Well, girl. There it is: a great big piece of Rome. What do your voices say now?”
“Nothing, woodcutter. They only speak to me at times.”
“And what have they told you in the past?”
“That I am to seek the end of all this. That I am to bring it all down.”
“Rome, woodcutter. Rome.”
The man laughed as heartily as he might in the circumstances.
“You know, you are a fine looking girl. You are also strong, intelligent. But do you realise you are completely mad?”
“What I have is indeed a disorder. I treat it with drugs, as much as I can. But it is not madness. It is something which is related to madness, but…”
“For my last laugh on this earth, tell me how you are intending to bring down Rome.”
Locusta looked straight at the man, searching in his eyes.
“You won’t tell? Even when questioned?”
Now he broke into frank laughter.
“I won’t tell, lady. Really.”
“I am a pharmacist. That is how I will do it.”
The castrum was contained in a great rectangle. Once home to entire legions but now used as a peace-time garrison, it was unusually bare in the centre. The pattern of fires around its inside perimeter indicated where most of the occupants now had accommodation and stables. Permanent buildings from sixty years of peace had replaced tenting, and even replaced other buildings, though the castrum was still a military post, defending the road which connected the great city of Lugdunum to the south of Gaul.
As the day drew to a close, there was a steady hum of male voices punctuated by orders or laughter, and a general clatter of arms, tools and cooking utensils. The air was heavy with the aroma of boiling farrum, the imported corn loved by Romans which sometimes made its way to pots in the Morgarita.
Outside one part of the vallum, the traditional fortifications, there came glare and sound from the small town which had grown up to serve the castrum. One could even make out the voices of women and squeals of playing children.
Locusta was now alone in the cage on the back of the cart. The horses had been detached and the cart left on a clear area well in from the busy perimeter.
The massive woodcutter had been pulled from the cage then dragged to the vacant centre of the castrum. Still trussed, he was chained to what looked like the sawn-off trunk of a dead tree. The flattened top of the trunk was about ten feet off the ground, and leaned against it was a length of heavy timber.
In the growing dusk Locusta could just make out an odd discoloration all down the base of the trunk.
The chained woodcutter, just before dark, called out:
“Sleep, young lady. Consult your voices, then sleep. Strength will be needed if…”
A passing guard jabbed the man with the end of his spear and ordered him to silence. He waited for the guard to move away and cried out again:
“There’s nothing you can do for me, but you can plead a case for yourself. These Romans have funny, fussy laws. Find their law. There may be some law…”
A much heftier jab was followed by a groan, and the woodcutter fell to silence.
After dark, the officer who had led the patrol approached the cage. He had a tattered cloak over one arm and a steaming bowl cradled and concealed in its folds. Opening the back, he threw the cloak at Locusta and placed the bowl down on the floor of the cage, which he then closed again abruptly.
“The mornings can be frosty in these flat parts.”
“Thank you. Can you find a cloak for the woodcutter? Some food, perhaps? Some of mine…”
“I can do nothing for him now, not since he killed his skinny friend. Say nothing. We know he did it. A brave act…But I can now do nothing for him. Quickly, eat. I’m not sure I want to be seen giving you food. No-one’s forbidden it, but…Just sit up and eat, girl. Use fingers – it’s thick and not too hot. I need that bowl back.”
Locusta sat up, lifted the bowl and suddenly jerked backward at the smell. The Roman officer gave a faint laugh.
“That’s the garum. We mix it with some oil and pour it over our porridge. Never tasted it?”
“No. What is it?”
“Salty fish muck, I suppose. Juice from rotted down mackerel, oysters…whatever is at hand, as I’ve heard. But it gives flavour and strength. Skim it off if you don’t like it.”
“No, no…it makes sense. To ferment, to concentrate what would otherwise be wasted. A liquid of fish-meat. It makes sense. I’ll eat it.”
“Sense? You say it makes sense? You’re a strange one, girl – even for a forest Gaul.”
When she had finished gobbling she handed the bowl back to the officer through the bars.
“Thank you…But if you could find some food for the woodcutter…”
“Girl, he is a dead man. A prisoner awaiting questioning is Roman property. Imperial and Roman property, never to be tampered with, let alone eliminated. Your woodcutter has spared his friend but made his own case hopeless. There will be justice, but it will be against him and severe. And he will be questioned that much harder. He will be questioned for two…”
“He knows nothing. He told me so and I believe him…”
“That will make his questioning so much the harder, as his sturdiness will make it longer. I can change none of that though I like none of it. I like a fair fight with a few deaths to speed promotions, not this bully work in a dull peace. But I can change nothing for your friend. Even our commander is bound in this regard. However…for you, thanks to a certain visitor to our camp from Germany, there is some hope. If you show yourself well before this visitor he may be moved to influence our commander.”
“What visitor has such power?”
The officer dropped his voice as he moved nearer the cage bars.
“You may as well know that our visitor is none other than Germanicus Julius Caesar. He is a descendant of Emperor Augustus and relative of the present emperor…”
“That name…even in our forest…it is sometimes mentioned around firesides, I think…”
“No doubt. It is a name heard the world over these days. The name of the man who recaptured the Lost Eagles. Germanicus is far more than somebody’s relative. If Rome has ever produced a greater soldier his name is not in the history of any legion. All Germany has learnt that lesson. No man ever killed so well, with such unfailing success, and yet…”
“What else can a great Roman do but kill greatly?”
“Leave off your mockery, if you wish to live, girl. Germanicus is as great in forgiving and protecting as he is in slaughtering. That is what you need to know. He has been known to care for the captive wives and daughters of his enemies as if they were his own. Moreover, though he is a stickler for courtesy and proud of his breeding he sees even a mindless German brute as a potential citizen of Rome. Do you see my point? Do you see how you may live if you cut a good figure in the presence of General Germanicus?”
“Yes. But how is it that this man is not emperor?”
“Well, he will be, once the present emperor…becomes a god.”
“And that will be a good thing for Rome? To have an Emperor Germanicus, I mean?”
“No doubt. A man more capable or more suited to the position has never lived. All agree. I speak no treason, since he is the adoptive son and heir of Tiberius. What’s more, his wife, the Lady Agrippina, is the most forceful and capable of all his adjutants. Such a things has never been seen, a Roman lady who follows the legions and could command a legion if need be. But everything about General Germanicus is exceptional. He is all Rome in one man.”
Locusta paused before responding in a low but oddly firm tone.
“I appreciate your advice, captain.”
Thanks to the cloak, the food inside her, and her long practised method of breathing deep and slow, Locusta was able to sleep till dawn.
She woke to the sounds of barked orders in Latin and ringing metal, sounds coming from the direction of the tree stump where the woodcutter was chained.
Her first impulse was to turn and look. But no. She would continue to breathe deeply and observe anything but what was happening over by that stump. If necessary, she would close her eyes. The Romans did so much for purposes of display. So much of their power lay in display. In this one tiny way, she could thwart them.
There were thumping sounds, then the sing and smack of whips. It took a while till groans were heard. There were men’s voices speaking Gallic, but she could not – would not – make out what they were saying. No doubt they were interrogating their victim in his own language.
At one point the thumping noises and whip sounds stopped, but the groans became screams. Perhaps something was being silently gouged or hacked.
She thought of the woodcutter’s powerful bulk, contradicted by those alert, intelligent features. Someone was wasting all that great mass of life. Wasting.
At last there was a sound of hammering into wood, and with each hammering came a scream. Till the screams joined into a steady howl.
Then the squeal and rattle of some hoisting device. Some cheering among the men. The howl weakened to an agonised whine.
From her cage, Locusta avoided looking toward the space where she knew the woodcutter had been left to his pain. It was one tiny thing she could pilfer from the Romans, briefly. She could ignore their Roman display.
After an hour or more soldiers began to assemble informally in the centre of the castrum. When she finally looked in that direction she could see, above the growing crowd of uniforms, the top of the stump and the upper body and outstretched arms of the woodcutter, all bloodied. He had been attached to the length of timber and hoisted on to the top of the stump. It was the Roman punishment all Gaul was familiar with. Locusta knew from overheard conversations in forest homes that it was a spectacular but slow way of killing, worse than the traditional Morgarita methods of impalement, exposure to wolves, or the combination of both.
The woodcutter was alive in hell, a Roman hell, where show and calculation, mess and method, came together in a unique way. A person’s own weight and urgency to breathe did most of the torturing. Romans just needed to start the process with their usual efficiency and sense of theatre.
Yet if Locusta had left the two Romans to their fate, or perhaps helped them to an easier end, the big Gaul would be back in his forest now, laughing, cursing, sweating, breathing in the heady resin of freshly cut pine in the autumn air: a furious knot of life and energy. Instead…
The soldiers were not assembling to view the woodcutter’s pain. In fact they seemed to ignore him, as if he were a carcass hung in a butchery, a familiar market sight. They were facing a dais which had been assembled some distance from the place of execution.
At last two officers and a heavily robed woman came into view above the bustling onlookers. There were cheers, and a concerted rattling of metal.
One man remained standing while the other man and the woman appeared to sit. The standing officer addressed the crowd in Latin, amid applause and cheers. After quite a long address he began to speak Gallic.
“Soldiers of the Lugdunum Way, who guard the arteries of Rome’s oldest and most loyal province, distinguished guests from the great tribes of Arverni, Aedui, Allobroges and Sequani, I repeat my greetings to our illustrious visitors in the second language of the western Empire.
“General Germanicus and the Lady Agrippina have done us the great honour of staying in our midst a few days on the way back to Rome, where, as you know, a great Triumph is to be awarded the general in celebration of Rome’s extraordinary victories in Germany. Men will speak no more of the lost eagles, and the misfortunes of Quinctilius Varus and our three treacherously massacred legions in the Teutoburg Forest. Instead they will recall the name of Germanicus Julius Caesar, who has won back two of our eagles and gained far more prestige than was ever lost. The slaughtered men of the three legions have been exhumed and given proper Roman burial and ritual; the bandit prince, Arminius, who betrayed the Rome which once embraced him as a citizen and knight, has been shamed in battle; the Rhine River is secure and it is Roman!”
Wild cheers and more rattling. Locusta allowed her eyes to drift to the forgotten figure suspended on the stump. Could he hear through his pain? What might be in his mind? Was he trying to find ways to hasten death? Had the Romans attached him so craftily that his pain could last beyond the day?
The speech continued:
“I know you men are all sick of hearing your commander’s voice. I have asked General Germanicus to address you but he has declined. No, no. No hooting now! He is firm in this. He wants to meet you later in your barracks and at your meals, not as a remote figure on a dais making speeches, but as a soldier among soldiers, a Roman among Romans. And to make things a little merrier while he is here, he and the Lady Agrippina have added a few extra sestertii to each man’s pay…”
Wild cheers and laughter. The man on the crossbeam was quite out of their minds. He might well have been a crossbeam.
“…and the general has picked up some extra supplies of wine and victuals as he passed through Lugdunum. Quiet now! Hear me to the end. He only asks that you show some moderation in consuming them…I did ask for quiet!…and that you tolerate the antics of his youngest son. I know some of you have already encountered this little scallawag in his famous little boots. What, men? Will you drink the wine of the general and of the Lady Agrippina tonight? And will you indulge their Little Boots if he grows naughty?”
The cheers erupted. The dying Gaul hung, all pain.
“Later you will all keep company with our famous visitors. For now, you have your work, so get to it, men. The general has agreed to stay on a while in the assembly place to witness some serious legal proceedings which are pending. Those who are permitted by their officers may stay and look on. I have ordered all those concerned with matters of law and justice to participate. That’s all for now.”
Soon there was a much smaller crowd around the dais. And still the woodcutter hung, with no business left in all the world but to feel pain, then to be a waste.
Locusta did not give him more than a glance. Instead she fixed the visitor on the dais and his wife. How much power was concentrated there, centuries of power finding their apogee in those two serene and utterly confident figures.
Could they dream they had a rival, and so close?
The officer who had brought her food and a cloak the night before approached in the company of a fully uniformed soldier with spear.
“Come, girl, it’s time for your trial. Say nothing till questioned, and then speak carefully.”
The cage was unlocked and Locusta slid out. For a moment the officer considered her bound hands.
“Hmm, I think we can free your hands. When we do, smooth down your hair and smock. The Lady Agrippina will be present. I think she’s seen enough scruffy forest-dwellers in Germany. Watch your manners in front of her. She is the granddaughter of Augustus, her mother-in-law is the daughter of Mark Antony.”
“Mark Antony? Wasn’t he the drunkard who fought Augustus?”
The officer shook his head.
“You’ll end up nailed to a cross, I can see that. For the last time, girl, mind your Gallic sauce around Romans. When you stand straight you look the part. Romans like statuesque woman…who behave like statues. Excepting the Lady Agrippina, perhaps. Do you understand me?”
“Yes. Sorry. I had no breeding myself, just work from the moment I could stand.”
“Most people can stand at age two.”
“I suppose that is the age I began to work.”
Officer and guard shook their heads, then lead Locusta toward the centre of the castrum.
Locusta had known for some years that her appearance had a striking effect. Most had their eyes on her as she stood waiting below the dais, though their looks tended to be lecherous or angry. Germanicus and Agrippina were intrigued by the tall, straight girl with the high forehead and and an expression somehow of authority. Authority over what?
The commander had been speaking in Latin to his clerks; he now spoke out loudly in Gallic:
“We have one principal witness in this confusing matter. It is Virio, who returned to our garrison without arms, shoes or anything to cover to his bum. Quiet! You can laugh later, if you haven’t laughed enough before this. The matter has its serious side. His story will be repeated now, and the prisoner will be given an opportunity to render her own account. General Germanicus will be pleased to see that Roman law is applied appropriately at all times here in the Provinicia, since he hopes that such procedures will one day be applied universally wherever foreign peoples come under Rome’s care, whether in Germany or elsewhere. Justice is a serious matter, whether in peace or war. I remind all that a man who yesterday wilfully interfered with the process of Roman justice – and murdered to do so – has this morning suffered the most extreme consequences. I further ask that all speak slowly and clearly, so that the General’s interpreter can keep him abreast of proceedings. We are, as is our respectful custom and in view of the Provincia’s special standing, conducting our investigation in the language of the region.
“Virio, come forward!”
Rodent Face walked out of the crowd and stood facing the dais, next to Locusta. She was aware of his quick glances toward her, but she acted as if he was not there, as if there was no such creature as Virio.
“Now, Virio, your account is confusing, to say the least. You say that you and your companion, the deceased Narbo, were captured while on patrol by a number of well armed bandits?”
“You say you were able to free yourselves from the trees where you had been left bound and exposed to wolves and that you found this girl nearby, evidently stealing your garments?”
“Well, she may have been looking for what garments may have been left behind by the bandits. Obviously, if our garments were in her possession we would have…of course…retrieved them.”
“Quite. The majesty of Rome would require that much of you. Although from the rest of your story it seems you may have had trouble retrieving your garments after all.”
As the evident humour of the situation stirred even the distinguished visitors to a smile, Locusta could sense Virio’s nervous glances upon her. But she glared ahead, upright and impassive.
“So, you say that the girl is a witch and somehow scattered a powder in the face of Narbo – a very large and powerful man, I should add – and that she then jabbed him with a poison-tipped knife?”
“So in a very brief time you had determined all this?”
“Well, sir, how else does a girl, a Gaul of the forest – I mean no disrespect to local peoples, but…”
“Hmm. So you don’t really know. We don’t know why she attacked the pair of you either, do we? Do solitary young girls attack Roman soldiers in pairs? And you say that you were then forced to retreat from this girl because she had a weapon? Don’t change your story now. Just repeat what you told your officer about the event.”
“Sir, she had a sling.”
The whole crowd broke out in laughter.
“I see. A girl with a sling…So you came running back down the slopes and on to the Lugdunum Road, almost naked…because a girl had a sling!”
Even Germanicus and Agrippina were laughing a little, though their laughter was politic, calibrated to match the amusement of the commander and of the Gallic chieftains and dignitaries who were in attendance.
“Sir, it was likely a poisoned sling!”
The laughter turned to uproar.
The crowd had settled.
It was Locusta’s turn to be heard.
The lady Agrippina leaned forward and peered. Locusta noted her eager eyes and long, sharp nose. There was a mental hunger in the woman, a curiosity she had observed in many forest animals, a need to know all which might serve or threaten or compete. Her husband, by contrast, had a look of earnest concern, as if the world pained him and fascinated him at the same time, and he bore the responsibility for it all.
No-one could guess that this young girl dragged from an impoverished forest community was a woman of affairs, long seasoned in business and its self-interested ways. But Locusta, who had spent her life observing perpetually ravenous animals and humans constantly wanting to acquire more than they spent in every transaction, knew the faces of these two people.
Acquisitive faces. Two different faces of ambition.
The commander of the garrison began:
“Your name, family and residence?”
“I am Locusta. No family. I live on the edge of the Morgarita Forest.”
“Seems odd. Who raised you?”
“My employer, an old woman who has passed on. The business is mine now.”
“So your employer raised you?”
“No. There was a wet-nurse for a while, then work. My hands were small and nimble; that was why the old woman wanted a child. The seeds of the heath are tiny, and a great quantity is required.”
“But…Oh, never mind. Tell us what work you do, with the seeds and so on.”
“I am a pharmacist. I dispense to families on my side of the forest. I also do much doctoring. Sometimes I sell heath herbs to a pharmacist on the other side, the river side, and she sells me products of the river.”
“You are aware that your own Gallic authorities have banned all Druid practices, all witchery and the like.”
“I’ve been told as much. It does not concern me, since I care nothing for spells, or whatever witches or Druids do.”
“You admit to administering herbs but not to performing spells and incantations?”
“I admit to the first because it is the truth. I deny the rest because it is false. You Romans take bitter herbs imported from Italy for your health, a sound practice in my opinion. Does that make you Druids?”
“Interesting. A herbalist of the forest, a Gaul, who fears to do incantations.”
“I do not fear. I would perform spells and incantations if they worked. But they don’t.”
“So you’ve tried?”
“No. My mistress cast spells. Nothing resulted. I have fifty families or more to care for with medicines and medical treatments. I have a business to run and must do it on my own. I cannot waste time on spells. Nor can I waste time looking for Romans’ lost clothing. I was out on the heath near the gorge that day to collect seed. While I am here the seed is being lost, by the way. By the end of autumn there will be no seed to collect – and broom seed is among the most important of medicines, as your Greeks will tell you.”
“Very well. Tell us about what happened, how you encountered our two soldiers.”
“Simple. They had been tied to trees in such a way that wolves would attack their groins. I think you know of the practice. I released them.”
“Because I spend my life dealing with injuries and infirmities. My instinct is to avoid injury and all the long, uncertain labour of curing injury. Also, to give the Morgarita wolves a taste for human flesh is foolish in the extreme. That’s why we have to char our bodies before deep burials. There is reasoning behind our Morgarita funerals. Our wolves have cross-bred with other creatures, possibly Roman hounds. They are the great terror of the region, as you must know. The famed Beast of the Gabali is just one of these, possibly the largest and most savage to date. But there will be more. Do people really want to serve them fresh humans to eat?”
“Hmm. Possibly not. Moving along, why did you kill a Roman soldier?”
“Would it surprise you to hear that your soldier tried to rape me?”
“He had a reputation, in fact. But the only witness to the events says nothing of rape, or of any provocation.”
“Your witness has the face of a rat. Not the pick of the litter either.”
There were hoots and laughter.
“Here we don’t judge men by faces! But there are certainly things in his testimony which make little sense…So how did you kill this hulking Roman?”
“I let him cast me to the ground then stuck my flint in the part of his neck which is known to lose most blood in the least time. Then I drew the flint along his throat a little, as I remember.”
“And you were able to repel the other somehow?”
“Yes. The one true thing he says is that I had a sling and threatened him with it.”
“Why would a Roman soldier retreat from a girl with a sling?”
“Perhaps because I use it well. When you know how to use a sling it shows. There is a certain sound, a vibration, is there not…?”
“Hmm. Before we go any further, perhaps you can show us how you handle a sling. A non-poisonous one.”
Amid more laughter, Locusta reached into the top of her smock and drew out a cord of some sort.
“I have a sling with me. A non-poisonous one.”
More laughter, then the commander asked Locusta to display the sling. It looked like a long hair braid, thick at one end, looped at the other, with a broad cradle in the middle.
“Who made that sling…or hair-piece?”
“I made it. It won’t stretch. Goat hair, all one piece. Nobody even knows it’s a sling. Your soldiers overlooked it when they arrested me. It works well because it’s soft without stretch. It’s exactly what you want in a sling, no matter how it looks.”
“Hmm. Normally I’d reprimand my men for leaving a weapon on a detainee. In this case, I can see why they took it for a Gaul’s hair extension.”
More general laughter, in which Virio tried to join.
“Well, show us how you use a sling. There are a number of holes in Virio’s account. Let’s see if his description of your slinging is true.”
“I have no stones.”
One soldier spoke out: “I have a cheap clay bullet she can use, but she’s not getting any of my good ones.”
Another soldier: “She can have one of my good bullets, commander. A Rhodian Thunderbolt. I doubt it will go far or hit hard.”
“Very well. Give her one of your Rhodians. If it gets lost we’ll compensate you.”
The soldier stepped forward and handed Locusta an oval piece of lead, pointy at both ends. It had Greek letters and a thunderbolt etched into its sides.
“If you can’t fire one of these to effect then I’d say you can’t sling anything.”
After inspecting the bullet she fitted it to the cradle, then let the sling dangle by her side.
“What should I shoot at, commander?”
“Well, we were more interested in how much terror you could inspire in our Virio just by whirling a hair-piece. But since you have a good bullet…I’ll be impressed if you can sling as far as the castrum‘s west wall. If you can hit the west wall itself, so much the better. It’s a large target, at least.”
“I’ll do my best, though I’m used to my own stones.”
“Just don’t hurt any Romans if you miss. Not even Virio. That’s my only condition.”
To general amusement, Locusta began to whirl the sling. After a moment the jeers and laughing died down, as the vibration became audible and even a little menacing. The comments, however, continued:
“She does it well.”
“A good posture, good rhythm.”
“Check Virio’s legs for moisture!”
“Check his behind for last night’s garum!”
Locusta released the bullet, but in a completely different direction to the west wall. The crazy shot was so unexpected that no-one even saw where the bullet went.
The crowd erupted into ridicule. Even the commander and his visitors joined in.
Locusta stood inspecting the sling, showing no emotion, as the uproar grew.
Just as the general laughter and ridicule became so loud that no single voice could be heard, a soldier with spear came pushing through the crowd and up to the dais. He was yelling urgently at the commander, whose face went suddenly serious.
The mob quietened. Their eyes followed those of the commander, who had walked to the end of the dais and was looking in the direction of the dead tree where the execution had taken place.
The woodcutter’s head was hanging loose in death. Blood was dripping from the side of his skull.
In the suddenly imposed silence, eyes turned back to Locusta, who stood impassive, still inspecting her sling.
“I’m sorry, commander. A poor shot. I’m used to granite stones. They cut the air in a different way.”
Locusta had been taken into a stone shed, one half of which was barred cell. She was locked in behind the bars without explanation. She suspected there was nothing yet determined as to her fate. Saving face while holding to their laws and balancing the politics…Somewhere Romans were conferring about Locusta, and it would be complicated for them.
The cell had an earthen floor with a scant layer of well trodden straw. There was a water jug and a curious funnel shaped hole in the floor with an open clay pipe buried at its base.
Shortly before dark the officer who had been in charge of her capture came into the shed carrying the old cloak and another bowl of steaming farrum, this time with a wooden spoon protruding from its rim. For a moment he seemed about to speak, then to change his mind. He unlocked the door, placed bowl and cloak inside, then locked up again.
He was about to leave when Locusta spoke.
“Thank you. I hope you are not compromised by helping me.”
“No. This is regular treatment.”
He went to go, then paused.
“I…added some extra garum – since you like it – and some dried pimbo herb with crumbs of hard cheese. The way to eat it is to stir in part to flavour the porridge, and leave a little floating as sauce.”
“I’ll do that.”
“You know what that hole is for?”
“Is it for pissing in?”
Locusta’s bluntness took him back a moment.
“That…and the other. If you do the other we can flush it out through the pipes with a bucket of water.”
“It’s a very good arrangement.”
The Roman began to recover some confidence.
“The dung is led to a sort of underground fermenting tank. It can be used later as fertiliser, though not for root crops.”
Locusta was genuinely interested, leaning over the latrine and inspecting hard, sniffing.
“There’s no smell.”
“If you do it right, there’s only smell for a few days after the cell’s been used. We sweeten the tank and pipes with lime.”
“Is this usual?”
“Not in a prison cell. But we have much time on our hands here after such a long peace. Soldiers are given all kinds of tasks in the Provincia. That’s why a man can be flogged for a smear on his armour. Without constant occupation and strict standards a Roman soldier reverts to barbarism. The longer the peace and the closer to Rome, the worse the abandon.”
“Then what of Rome itself?”
“There are no armies in Rome, just a guard for the emperor and special detachments to keep order. To bring an army into Rome is seen as a great violation….But eat your porridge while it’s hot.”
“I will. Thank you again.”
Again the officer made to leave, again he paused.
“Have a care, lady. You may yet live. But have a care.”
After dark another visitor entered the stone shed. He was carrying a lamp, and Locusta could see in its flicker that he was the young man who had acted as interpreter for Germanicus that morning. He looked Gallic by his hair and apparel but his face was darker and finer than a Gaul’s.
“General Germanicus and the Lady Agrippina send you greetings.”
“I…return their courteous greetings. That is, if a prisoner may do as much.”
“Certainly you may.”
“And you are the general’s secretary?”
“I am his interpreter, first and foremost. I am able to assist him with the languages of Gaul and Germany, and I write suitable Greek. They call me Tyricus.”
“You are a Gaul by birth?”
“Well, in a way, lady. I was born and raised in Lausonna, far to the north of here, close to Germany. My mother was of the Helvetian tribe. My father, however, was a Phoenician.”
“Phoenician! I know so little of the wider world, but aren’t they the people who trade on the eastern seas?”
“It would seem they traded everywhere, at least till recently. My father was born Phoenician yet at the other end of the world to Phoenicia, in a trading settlement on the western side of Hibernia, an island beyond Britain. He was shipwrecked on the coast of Spain on the way to buy wool there.”
Locusta stared at the exotic young man, fascinated and perhaps even attracted.
“He was saved by the same Asturians who had previously sold him wool, but, being traders in their very marrow, they sold him off into slavery in Gaul. I was born a slave to a slave woman of the tribe of the Helvetii…but I must talk less of myself…”
“No, the wider world is of interest to me. I notice that you are somewhat darker, your features are different…”
“That’s from my father. And I’m guessing the ability with language is something I inherit from my trading forbears. But on to business…
“The general has sent me here with a proposition. It seems that there is one law you have definitely broken, in spite of extenuating circumstances…”
“Killing a huge rapist when he was on top of me? Ending the sufferings of a fellow Gaul when I had been given permission to hit anybody who was not Roman? I can be fussy over legal niceties too.”
“No, in fact, none of that. You agree that you threatened Virio with your sling. He says so, and you say so.”
“There is your offence. No evidence was adduced that you were defending yourself…”
“It stands to reason!”
“Lady, the soldier Virio did no more than approach you – or rather the body of his comrade. All may assume he was a threat to you, but the law is not concerned with assumption. You threatened an unarmed Roman soldier with a weapon, forcing him to abandon his fallen comrade, whether alive or dead. There is no way around this.”
“Is it Germanicus who wants me prosecuted? Why has he sent you here?”
“Lady, the commander and the soldiery of the garrison are concerned – rightly, I would think – that their dangerous work will be made more dangerous if any such open affront to their authority is allowed to pass. You might also want to consider that without Rome the Gallic tribes, even if they survived one another’s violence, would certainly be the victims of German invasion. You Arverni owe your continued existence to Rome.”
“I seldom get to think about these matters. I hear a little in the many homes I attend, but my life is taken up with work. I am not interested in who rules Gaul, I am interested in defending myself against Morgarita wolves and their human counterparts. Common sense comes into it here. If I had not defended myself against the rat-faced soldier I would not now be alive, so I can hardly be expected to regret my actions.”
“Indeed, the general and, more particularly, the Lady Agrippina are aware of your situation. Like most of us they were impressed by your actions today and wish to, as it were, find a way forward through this difficult business. They want to advance a solution which satisfies the garrison, the Gallic chiefs, and the requirements of law.”
“Your general and his lady seem very intent on satisfying.”
“Girl! They are offering you your life!”
“Tell me, Tyricus the interpreter, why does the general take the slow way back to Rome?”
“Wh…why? How should I know? He is a man who enjoys travel, and feels an attachment to Roman soldiery in all corners of the empire.”
“Is it the emperor who wants him to proceed in this way?”
“What a question! Why do you ask?”
“It occurs to me that General Germanicus is being kept away from the legions…as if he might be too popular with them. So he travels where peace is old and ripe, and there are no great armies to meet him. Just fat towns and lazy garrisons – and even in these places he makes himself loved.”
“You are sharp, young lady, too sharp. Perhaps you don’t want to hear what Rome’s most distinguished couple have to offer?”
“On the contrary, I am very interested in surviving and lessening all possible suffering. Please, let me hear these propositions.”
“One way out of this affair is for you to become the property of the Lady Agrippina.”
“Yes, if you will, slavery. But you would be a slave as I am a slave. You could occupy a responsible position and be well treated. Mark you, there can be no deception, and Lady Agrippina insists that there must be consent on your part, as you are to become a legal debtor then a legal slave to absolve your debt.”
“How a debtor?”
“A massive fine will be imposed on you, one which will enrich the garrison. The Lady Agrippina will pay it for you and you will then become her slave. She wishes to make it clear that she will not have this seen as any evasion of law. You will be truly her slave. She cannot and will not merely buy you out of a problem.”
Locusta went quiet, contemplated.
“And if I say no?”
“Don’t say no.”
“Why? Would I be executed?”
“No, but…please take my advice. I know the course these things take.”
“Tell me, Tyricus. Tell me the course they take.”
“You will be flogged before the entire garrison. It will be severe. The Romans do not play at these things.”
“I see. And how will they flog me?’
“Oh, why even consider…?”
“How will they flog me, Tyricus?”
“The general thinks, or hopes, he can persuade them to use vine branches. They are a common means of hurting without killing in the army. A fit centurion can make strong soldiers scream and cry, yet there is little loss of blood. But, really, the general’s first hope is that take the chance to enter the Lady Agrippina’s service. Slavery in such circumstances can offer more than freedom.”
“I see…vine branches…little loss of blood…”
“But there is no limit in the way of time or number of blows. And there is the sheer humiliation.”
“Humiliation? That’s nothing to me. But if there is only pain with little blood loss…”
When they cut Locusta down from the stump she slumped to her knees but avoided falling further. The different posture caused new waves of pain all down her back and legs. It was like being on fire.
At the start of the punishment there had been the expected hoots and leering at her nakedness.
After some ten minutes, Locusta, breathing deliberately with eyes closed, had done nothing but soak up each strike of the whistling vine branches as if her body were a heavy, inert dough. Not one sound did she emit.
The crowd had grown subdued. Then completely quiet.
The relieved commander, sensing the general mood, had called an end to the punishment.
And now Locusta was forcing herself to stand, dragging up the smock which had been torn and pulled down to her ankles. Again, a new wave of pain.
She knew where to go. In the wall of the castrum there was a guarded exit into the adjacent town. She took one step, then another, in that direction. Then she stumbled.
A powerful arm raised her from one side.
“To the town, lady?”
It was the voice of the officer who had brought her the cloak and food. Unable to speak she managed a nod and a pant of consent.
Someone else then supported her on the other side, though she could not look to see who it was. Slowly they were able to advance across the open ground while the crowd also dispersed to the fringes of the huge castrum where most of the buildings were now located.
Every movement was like a scalding all down the back of her body, though Locusta was relieved to see no blood dribbling to the ground at her feet. All she could do was to concentrate on her breathing and her assisted slow shuffle.
At last they reached the gate out of the castrum and into the town.
“This is as far as we can go during duty hours. I must leave you here, lady. If I can assist you later…”
“Thank you. You’ve done enough already. I’m alive…and free.”
“Tend your sores. Your back looked…well, not good. Come Virio, we must leave the lady to make her own way.”
At the mention of the name Locusta turned to her left, showing more emotion than during the whole course of the beating. He stood there, the small, rat-faced soldier, author of all her trouble and pain. There was a stab of revulsion at the sight of him. She was about to consign him once again to oblivion after a cold stare…then Locusta observed his expression.
Virio was red-faced and his eyes glistened. The man was close to tears.
“I…” He fell speechless.
And then it happened, as it had happened before. The whisper of those voices, then the insight, as if a curtain had been pulled back.
In spite of the fire down half her body, she saw into the man facing her. She saw the generations before, thrusting into life to make his life, a desperate urge, carrying along countless flaws and burrs in the rush to find shape. She could almost hear the rush of life within him, coursing through that intricate web, hungry for further being – a furious, clashing universe, all bundled into this small, uncertain, unhappy man.
How could Locusta perceive all this, at such a moment, as in a dream? Was she, in fact, mad?
At last Virio found his voice. The words came in a broken croak.
“Lady, I wish I could make it better. I can only say…that I regret…”
Locusta was able to lay her hand limply on his forearm. She found she could speak.
“No, I’m the one who must say sorry.”
“Oh no, lady. You are the true Roman. What you did was…”
“What I did was to make nothing of you. In that, perhaps, I was far too much of a Roman. But you are something. You are much more than anyone can fathom. The greater offense was mine. I ignored the life in you…the life…
“But now I need to find lodging in the town.”
“I have money, lady, and I know people in the town, I can…”
“No, no. I will find some work here. These last two days are the only ones in my life when I haven’t worked. It feels very odd. Money without working? I couldn’t accept it. It would be just too strange. It’s best I find some work in the town, and soon.”
“But you have been beaten so badly. Tomorrow your back will be black and so tender you won’t be able to move. Moreover the only work for any young woman here…”
“Oh, don’t worry about my virtue, Virio. I will certainly find useful work and an honest income…
“I am a pharmacist!”
Locusta woke to scorching and little stings down the back of her body, adding to the steady throb and causing her to cry out at last, though it was a muffled cry. She went to raise herself from her stomach.
“Stay, young woman, stay. You are merely being cared for.” A soothing older male voice, with an unfamiliar accent.
“What…where am I?”
“You are in my shop, in the town by the castrum. I hope you don’t mind if an old man sees your nakedness. There is a midwife in the town, if you prefer…”
Locusta sank gently back down, sniffed the air.
“Vinegar…with a little willow bark mash…”
“Indeed, that’s what I just applied to your skin…But how did you detect willow bark?”
“I can smell it. And it has a feeling on the skin…But why am I so drowsy?” She clicked her tongue and licked her lips. “I remember I was given a drink…Henbane? With mandrake? And some other nightshade?”
Her interlocutor seemed to pause. Then:
“Young lady, I have not spoken anything out loud. Even in your sleep you could not know…”
“Am I right?”
“In fact…yes. Give or take a few ingredients. Quite dangerous stuff, especially the moonflower on an empty stomach, if one doesn’t know the dosage.”
“Oh…yes, moonflower. And one plant can be much more toxic than an identical one growing a few feet away. I examine to see if it has seeded…”
“Hmm, are you then one of these…Druid women of the Morgarita, who deal in charms and spells?”
“No…no. Oh, absolutely no! Don’t think me one of them.”
“Sleep again, in any case. We’ll talk more later. It seems I must ask you more than you can ask me.”
“When you collapsed inside the gate you were brought here by locals whose admiration you seem to have won. A well fed soldier might be able to resist such a beating and return to duties, but an exhausted and underfed child – you seem very young for all your height – could easily die from such treatment. I though it best to sedate you.”
“Of course…but I cannot pay…”
“The locals have paid, and well.”
“No! I must work…”
“Young lady, what you must do is sleep. When you are well, I’ll give you a job shredding willow bark. No more hateful task than that. Should teach you not to make Romans angry, if a lashing with vine branches hasn’t already.”
“You are a pharmacist?”
“Mmm, I am whatever the army surgeons are not. Dentist, vendor of cosmetics, dealer in coloured Morgarita stones…and, yes, a pharmacist. Now sleep.”
A light nudge of her uninjured front shoulder awakened her.
She could smell the food before her eyes opened. A wide stool had been placed just in front of her head, where she could easily reach her dinner without having to do more than raise the front of her body. Seated on a chair behind the stool was an old man, dressed much like a Roman civilian but with darker skin and eyes. His hair and beard were white but, like his skin, showed a healthy gloss. Locusta was trained to look for the health of bodily extremities, even for the pink beneath fingernails: this man was indeed old, but in full vigor.
“Young lady, I’ve been asking about you. It seems you enjoy a good Roman porridge with garum, herbs and hard cheese, so I’ve obtained some from the caterer up the street. He does a good job, even grinding the grain fresh and boiling it up in goat stock. You’ll note he fries a little garlic and adds it at the last.”
“Thank you. If it tastes half as good as it smells…”
“I’ve added fennel to your wine, I’m sure you know why.”
“Yes, of course. A very mild sedative.”
“The less medication the better. But we won’t tell our customers that, eh? For I understand that you are yourself a pharmacist.”
“Yes. But I never over-medicate…”
“Just a joke, lady, just a joke. I’m half Jew and half Greek, so I can’t help joking and twisting ideas. Now, while I go to finish a prescription and then to fetch some wine for myself I’ll let you eat. Then we may talk some, if you feel disposed to talk.”
When the old man returned with his cup of wine Locusta had finished her bowl of farrum, not leaving even a smear in the bowl.
“A healthy appetite! I’ll have you drudging hard for your porridge within days.”
“Patience, young woman. Just sip on your wine. Perhaps we can talk? I’m curious to know how someone of your age can be so educated in drugs and other medical matters.”
“Well, I think I am eighteen or so. I began toiling for my mistress at age three, maybe before.”
“Three! What kind of mistress finds employment for a babe?”
“She wanted fine fingers for picking and emptying all the seed pods of the heath, especially the broom. As you know, great quantities are required and the seeds are so small. Also, my eyes were sharp for finding minor herbs and insects for drying. When I showed aptitude for one thing, she gave me more to do. And so it went. Work is all I have known.”
“But play, affection…all the things a child must experience. You must have been held, embraced.”
Locusta fell silent, dropping her eyes. At last:
“I have never been embraced, unless by parents I cannot remember. My life has been work, and responsibility for many families of the Morgarita. I am respected, I am sure of that, but there is something about me…something forbidding perhaps…”
“I can assure you there is nothing forbidding about you. You are aware of your degree of beauty: all women are. Certainly…there is a great gravity about you, something Roman even. Indeed, you could be a model for the mother of the Gracchi or some such…”
Locusta reared a little.
“I hate Rome!”
The old man’s reaction was unexpected. He chuckled.
“Who doesn’t hate Rome? Still, what would we do without those straight roads, now that we have grown so used to them. No. young lady, we all hate Rome. But I fear we would miss Rome if Greeks and Jews and Gauls were left to each other’s mercies. Or to the mercies of Germans. In any case, there are many fine Roman individuals, among them some of the soldiers you have already met.”
“I hate no person. I don’t hate Romans. I hate Rome.”
“Indeed, indeed. But be careful, young woman. There is a touch of Rome in you. You can believe me. I am very old and very travelled. I know Rome and its empire, I know that mix of staunchness and vision, of wild ambition and hard, solid practicality. I see that in you.”
Locusta, still a girl and ill equipped for such abstractions, did not respond, but fell into intense thought. Then:
“Sir, you said you were a Greek and a Jew. I have heard a little of Greeks, almost nothing of Jews. Excuse my curiosity, but how did you come to be here, of all places?”
“Me? In a little town attached to a castrum which no longer houses a legion? Why am I not residing in Lugdunum, so close and the greatest city of the west? The answer is pretty simple: there are any number of Alexandrian Greeks and Jews who want to kill me. They won’t bother if I remain obscure, but if I win back a little of the fame I once enjoyed they will kill me. No doubt. And this is in spite of the fact that I hold Roman citizenship.”
“But would not Roman authority protect you?”
“Nothing protects from religious zealots. You see, young lady, I am primarily a philosopher, a philosopher of a school which denies the existence of gods. Now, no Greek believes in the gods, not really, but you would be surprised how eagerly they defend those gods. You may worship other gods, you may live as if there were no gods…but you may never deny the existence of gods. However, I did just that.”
“I was raised a Jew. Now there is a people which believes – but in just one god, strictly one!”
“Just one god? That is the strangest thing I have ever heard.”
“Strange to outsiders, but we Jews are imbued with the notion of a single god from birth. It is not a strange belief to us. It is the only belief possible, and nothing must be allowed to run counter to it. A Jew will not try to persuade you to share his belief…but put a sculpture of a Roman god or of the Divine Augustus in one of their temples and you will have to kill all the Jews in the town to keep it there. Which rather defeats the purpose of imposing it in the first place.”
“One god…so strange…But why do the Jews want to kill you?”
“Well, some would be happy to see me as some sort of Greek or Roman who denies the existence of their single god. But enough of a certain extreme sect of Jews know that I am truly Jewish and that I have denied their god. I hope you don’t find me rude, young lady. It is not my wish to insult you or the many gods of Gaul. I was merely explaining…”
“Oh, no…You are right. There are no gods, no demons. Nothing like that.”
“Really? You are so sure? But what of witchery and Druid practises? A herbalist of the forest must surely…”
“Spells are nothing. Empty words. You are right. No gods. There is nothing beyond nature…but so much within nature, so much that is strange and rich. And yet…”
“And yet what, lady?”
“One god…just one god…I have never heard such a thing…”
“It does seem odd. But he’s all for the Jews. Only one, and you can’t have any…Sorry, I’m being flippant. Really, lady, I hope you keep your godlessness to yourself. Take my advice and agree with anybody’s and everybody’s religion. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist or even if men are sure you are an atheist. What you must never do is say there are no gods. It is altogether too disrespectful. You put people on the spot when you say that. In Alexandria, where I lived, there are always mobs to tear one apart for less. For atheism they’d tear you apart slowly.”
“I’m still so sleepy. So much to think about, but I can’t think now. Let me ask one last thing, may I? A sort of medical question?”
“By all means. But then sleep.”
“When one hears voices, but there are no mouths to speak the words…what would you call that condition?”
“Who knows? Results of a bump on the head…taking no alcohol after taking much alcohol…simple lunacy…”
“But if the voices are clear? If the person is capable, and functioning as a person should in all other respects?”
“Really, I cannot say. There are Greeks of various schools who would offer an answer or explanation. The followers of Pythagoras would no doubt be ready with a theory, something or other to do with music or mathematics, depending on which sect of Pythagoreans. But as a simple philosopher and healer I can tell you nothing. If the sufferer were not having fits or in a fever I would try mild sedation, immersion in cold water, brisk exercise…but I have never encountered such a thing in sane, healthy people. Drunkards, lunatics, fever patients, people subject to severe fits…but never sane people.”
“I see. Thank you.”
“Young lady, you mean that you…?”
Locusta nodded gravely.
“Voices. Clear and definite, as your voice just now. Sometimes they don’t utter words, but rather form ideas. But the ideas are as clear as spoken words. They come from without, not from distempered imagination such as through fever. It’s not easy to describe…”
“And what do these voices tell you?”
“Many things. Principally, that I must seek out a means, begin a process, which will put an end to all this.”
“To all what?”
The old man had stopped smiling and was looking at Locusta almost with alarm.
“Young lady, I think we had agreed you were to sleep. So finish your wine and sleep.”
Locusta had been able to walk to the small baths at the end of the road for her ablutions; yet she remained mostly house bound, since any sudden or irregular movement still caused shooting pain.
While not able to sit, she could stand and perform simple tasks for her host, whose name was Actis.
She was peeling and scrubbing gentian root as the old pharmacist was consulted by a soldier with severe nasal congestion. From gestures and the bits of conversation which were in Gallic she was able to gather that the soldier had long term problems with breathing and wakefulness in the night due to the congestion.
Though Locusta made no comment, Actis, from the corner of his eye, had noted her interest by the aleady familiar furrowing on her high brow. Her turned to her.
“Young lady, do you have any ideas on this man’s condition?”
“I have only made out certain words…and observed the man.”
“My experience of such things is narrow.”
“Never mind that. I know you like to be direct. Tell me directly what you think.”
“Well, have you examined his discharge and maybe even his sputum?”
“Yes, on a a previous visit. His nasal discharge is very solid and yellowish, sometimes even a grey-green, when it not not too thin and watery. What else might one observe?”
“Does it float?”
“Float? How should I know or care if the muck floats?”
“Well, I’ve noted that unhealthy sputum or mucus sometimes resembles the active leaven of bread. If you place it in water it floats and has tiny bubbles about it.”
“I see. And what do you conclude from that?”
“Sir, I seldom conclude. But I have given thought to cleansing the nasal passages with dilute sulphurous liquid or any mild substance known to slow the leavening of bread…onion juice, garlic juice. Perhaps there is a sort of leavening going inside the nose, expanding or increasing the mucus? In any case, it is something I have thought about trying. It’s just that treatment of such a stubborn condition might still take months, even years, so it would be hard to measure success till much time should elapse.”
Actis was now stroking his chin.
“Indeed, indeed…Now that you mention it I have seen nasal muck float in a spit bowl, while at other times it sinks. Hmm…”
The two were drinking wine later in the day, Actis sitting, Locusta standing.
“So, you don’t mind dealing with the various bodily discharges. It is not common in young women to observe and discuss such things.”
Locusta was genuinely surprised.
“Me? Mind? But through my whole life I have examined them. Why to smell a patient’s urine especially, or taste one’s own…”
Actis spat his wine and had a short laughing fit.
“Enough, girl! Enough! Let me drink my wine without such thoughts.”
“Enough! What have I brought into my shop? Now tell me, do you not have any understanding of classical medicine? One does not touch let alone smell and taste bodily discharges.”
“Of course not. Except urine.”
“How ‘except’? How can you know such a thing?”
“From accident. Then observation.”
“And what of ancient prescription? Even in the forest these crones who…well, I mean no insult, but…”
“Ancient prescription is nothing to me, in or out of the forest. Nothing in itself, that is. If something has no effect after much trial I discard it. I don’t care how sacred or for how long it has been used. I’m too busy, too many families to tend. In one day I may rush between twenty homes, with the Morgarita wolves stalking me as I go. How should I spend even an hour on empty spells and useless cures?”
“Girl, that’s all very well for the forest, but there have been physicians and scholars whose work has been known for centuries and discussed across empires. Greeks, Egyptians, even Romans. Men whose thoughts have soared to the stars and plumbed the ocean depths. Do you really think your judgement – or mine, for that matter – can take precedence over theirs?”
“Observation and trial take precedence over all. One must not be hasty to discard, but once observation and trial have been done, then one should discard whatever fails their test. Whatever.”
Actis was shaking his head, frustrated but strangely not displeased by this precocious adolescent who towered above him like a statue of Diana or Athena. He muttered:
“Never…Never in my life…A child dragged from the forest…Never in all my life…”
There was silence as they drank, then Actis looked up.
“And yet you believe in forces no other can experience. Your voices, for example…”
“If one person experiences something that person should give credit to the experience. If other do not go through the experience they need give it no credit.”
Locusta paused, the brow furrowing. Then:
“What of the power you and I observe which is invisible to most?”
“The power of herb and mineral. The power, saving or destructive, of poisons. We might kill a legion with a sufficiently large infusion of wolf’s bane root. Or we might stop a fever raging through the region with that same infusion. Yet we see nothing, we merely observe an effect.”
“Yes, but your voices…”
“Are intimate, I know. I alone hear them. But what if they are produced by the same force as produces the effects of wolf’s bane root? When a sickening man is made nauseous by the thought of honey but craves the bitterness of that gentian I was peeling earlier, isn’t that a voice of sorts? What speaks to him? What if everything is connected and in movement, intelligent in some way, or part of an intelligence?”
“Now you are being too original all together. There are Greeks – Plato and Democritus – who might vaguely agree with half of what you expound, but neither would agree with the same half. Just what are you trying to say? Or is my wine too strong?”
“I mean…that it is impossible to believe in gods who brawl and fool about like men…but that…on the other hand…Oh, I don’t have the words. Maybe if I had the Greek language! I don’t have the words!”
“Never mind, child. Time is on your side. Perhaps the after-effects of the beating, and all the drugs, have made your mind a little feverish. We should suspend the drugs now. For the moment, just finish your wine then lie down on your stomach again.”
“Perhaps…perhaps I should stay quiet…And yet…”
“And yet what?”
“You spoke to me about the Jews, and how they have but one god. Do they recognise the gods of others, or do they believe their one god is all there is.”
“Therein lies their problem. Some Jews believe there are demons whom others worship as gods, but all Jews believe there is but one true god anywhere.”
“And where do they think this one true god dwells?”
“Oh, they see him as dwelling in certain places and objects, but they also believe he is everywhere. He’s quite a god, the god of Israel. You think he’d get lazy or bored or lonely, without competition, without company…But why do you find the subject so interesting? Is it somehow related to your notions of movement and intelligence in rocks and so forth?”
“Oh, I don’t know…it’s just that…One god. It would explain some things…”
“Child, you have only one body, last time I counted. It is time to look after it. Rest now. I will bring you some supper later.”
“Oh, I can fetch it for us.”
“You can, but you won’t. Rest. Rest both body and brain. I have some papers to read in my room and then…”
“Oh, if I could only read I…”
A sudden bustle in the shop woke Locusta.
Turning to one side she saw a flustered Actis bowing deeply. He was speaking Latin to someone. When she turned the other way, Locusta saw the reason for the fuss.
Inside the doorway stood the Lady Agrippina with an infant in her arms and a boy of some five years by her side. Surprisingly, she seemed to have no servants with her. She was about to speak when the infant began to bawl ferociously.
As the mother soothed the infant, Locusta kept her eye on the boy, whom she had seen pinch the baby very deftly. The boy returned Locusta’s gaze, with a furtive grin. His expression was conspiratorial, even seductive.
There was conversation which Locusta could not understand. Agrippina spoke in a loud, commanding tone, almost jabbering. Like her pointy, prying nose, the great lady’s speech subtracted from her beauty.
All then looked toward Locusta as she propped herself on her wrists with the intention of rising, albeit with care. Then Actis:
“Stay as you are, Locusta. The Lady Agrippina does not stand on formalities, she merely wishes to inquire after your health.”
“Please tell the lady that I am recovering well and thank her for her concern. As I thank her for her kind offer to…enter her service.”
The response was translated, then:
“The Lady Agrippina wishes to give you an emolument in silver to help with your recovery and return home.”
“Please tell the lady her kindness is appreciated but I can take no money without working or serving in some way. As for returning home, the bandits of the forest will never permit it. I should not be surprised if my home is now in ashes…”
“Locusta, all the more reason to accept…”
“I cannot. Please tell the lady.”
After this exchange was translated, Agrippina began to make affectionate noises at the baby, calling it Agrippinilla. It seemed to Locusta that the abrupt shift was a way of saving face. Clearly, few ever refused the Lady Agrippina anything.
The lady next began to speak in her loud, snapping way to Actis about her baby’s colic. Locusta could tell this was the topic because of gestures and some references to herbs in Gallic.
While this interview proceeded, Locusta watched from the corner of her eye as the boy slid up to the side of the table on which she lay. Next he began to caress her hair and neck. Locusta permitted it. The boy then drew down the light sheet which covered her back. Rather than cause embarrassment to her host she decided to allow the impertinence. Locusta was no prude and there might well be limits to the overbearing mother’s magnanimity toward lowly Gallic subjects of Rome.
Suddenly the boy’s hand smacked down on the sorest part of her back. She cried out, the boy did a giggling retreat to his mother, who pretended not to have noticed what happened. Actis shot a quick glance of concern toward Locusta, who lowered her eyelids and nodded once to indicate that all was well.
In fact, the boy had chosen the sorest, blackest part of her back and Locusta was in severe pain again.
He fixed Locusta with his seductive grin as he huddled into his mother’s skirts. Locusta stared back with a cold curiosity, as if this boy was somehow a discovery.
Some minutes later the Lady Agrippina was about to leave the shop, only directing a curt nod at Locusta.
It was one of the few Latin words Locusta knew, the expression a slave uses to a mistress.
Agrippina stopped, not a little surprised. All turned toward Locusta.
“Actis, will you tell the Lady Agrippina that I am able to accept silver from her son? In fact, I should be very grateful to receive the emolument from his hand.”
“What? I cannot say such a thing to the lady!”
“Do so, please.”
When Actis had translated the request, Agrippina showed her anger only briefly, then made an expression of indifference by pulling down the sides of her mouth. She thrust a little purse at the boy who looked bewildered. After prompting, he walked toward Locusta, fearing some trick, some punishment. He held the purse toward her with his arm completely extended to maintain a distance. Locusta merely received the purse and said in Gallic:
“Thank you, young gentleman. I am now in your debt.”
The odd situation was ended by Agrippina turning abruptly and heading out the door, almost with a military strut. She snapped back at the boy, who was still staring at Locusta, amused and bewildered:
The shop was filled with the perfume of grilling mushrooms, which Locusta was painting with a brush of fresh herbs steeped in olive oil, turning each cap with intricate care. At moments, in the light from the brazier, she looked to Actis like the playful child she had never been – and like the child he had never had.
“And what else did you find on your first walk out of town, young lady?”
“Oh, Actis, there was so much! In the little fir forest along the slope I found all these ceps and milk caps and ink caps, along with slippery jacks for drying…oh, so many mushrooms!”
“Hmm. I know where those are now, if I need them. But no…these are all fine for eating. If you have jars I’ll pickle lots more before winter. Why these townspeople just leave them to grow and die…”
“These people are mostly descendants of mobile city folk, camp followers. Or they are former workers from these vast new farms the Romans call latifundia, and glad never to look at a piece of land again. It’s not in their nature to gather wild things while they can buy food from a store. A few fish and grow vegetables, but not many. The snail gatherers and eel catchers sell their produce for a fortune in Lugdunum; nobody here would pay the prices. The soldiers of the garrison have not lived off the land in decades. Truth is, we are a typical urban lot, interested in gossip, entertainments and money. A miniature Rome. What else did you find?”
“Well, there are many lowland and open land plants which are strange to me still, but I found yarrow, knit bone, wild garlic. And burdock! Some of it had tender roots which we can have in soup tomorrow. And I brought dandelion, of course, from the river flat. Where it was part shaded the leaves are much sweeter…Now, I think these mushrooms are ready to add to our farrum, as soon as our guest arrives.”
“Lady, Master Actis…I’m here. Not late, I hope.”
They looked over to the doorway, where little Virio stood, his blushing face dipped, bundles about to slide from his overloaded arms.
“Welcome, Virio. Locusta has just finished grilling mushrooms to flavour our usual garrison mush. If they taste like they smell…But come in, come in.”
“I…brought the tools and other things you may need for making the larger mortar bowls you need. Our quartermaster gives his permission for the week’s loan. Tomorrow I will bring a fat oak knot which will be perfect for the largest bowl. If I have time I can do all the shaping. If not, I am good at hardening and finishing wood…”
Locusta was tipping the grilled mushrooms on to the steaming vat of farrum.
“We’ll talk business later. Put your things down by the door. Dinner is ready.”
“Of course, Actis and I will have to pay you for your trouble.”
The word had been snapped with more authority than they believed Virio to be capable of mustering. Locusta smiled surrender to the little soldier and gestured to his place at table.
“Well, we can pay you in dinner, for now.”
The meal was finished and Actis was pouring more wine when a burly man strode into the shop, like a proprietor rather than a customer. His tunic looked more refined than his person, and he was carrying a hefty, expensive walking stick which could no doubt be reversed and used as club. The face was broad, with fat, sneering lips not matching his button eyes and snub of a nose. From his right ear down to the corner of his mouth ran a deep scar.
“Ah, a cosy scene. I like to see my customers in good humour…”
Actis stood and addressed the man.
“Caniculus, if you wish some wine you are welcome. But this is no time for…”
“Time! It is time you merchants paid up. Dues are a week late. We’ve been very discreet during the visit of General Germanicus. We didn’t want him or his officials observing how we transact our local tax affairs. But the great man has gone now and the fire levy needs to be paid.”
Locusta spoke without looking up.
“I can put out my own brazier.”
Virio tried to catch her eye, shaking his head to urge her to silence.
Now the big intruder walked over to Locusta.
“You are new to our town. Perhaps you don’t know of the valuable work we do on behalf of Quinctus Lollio, patron and protector of the whole region?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know that I am Lollio’s deputy, in charge of putting out fires and generally protecting the town from natural disasters?”
Now Locusta looked up and eyed the man.
“Even as a mere girl in the forest I heard the well-known tales of a famous Roman who became the richest man in the world by offering to put out fires which he himself had started. Crassus, that was his name, I think. Ended up drinking molten gold, or so the story went. Is your master that sort of businessman?”
The man looked briefly enraged, then broke into laughter.
“Actis, it seems what I’ve heard about this girl is true. She is as sharp as a stitching awl. But you need to warn her that a mere tickling up with vine branches is nothing compared to…”
“Caniculus, she is, as you say, new…and from the forest. Taxes, official or unofficial, and such matters are strange to her kind. You need not worry. We have our contribution for the month. I’ll fetch it.”
“That was the old charge, for a single trader. Now you have staff. Opinionated staff!”
Locusta was about to speak but Virio softly kicked her foot under the table, as a plea for silence. Whoever Caniculus and his master were, they were feared.
Actis went to the back of his shop and came back with a handful of money.
“Here, Caniculus. I think you’ll find this is sufficient.”
The man took the money, pulling a contemptuous face, then turned again to Locusta.
“Girl, you might want to enquire around the garrison and town as to who I am and who my master Lollio is. You might even get an invitation to visit my master one day. If you do, seize the occasion. And mind your manners around him.”
Locusta said nothing, stared coldly ahead.
“I’ll take your silence – for now. Perhaps Actis should have told you more about the way things work around here…By the way, you all probably know of a deserter from General Germanicus’ entourage. My master wants to help the general and our own commander any way he can. You’ve all been given a description. He’s an old rogue of a veteran from the German wars. Put the word out that generous discounts or rewards will be granted to anyone who helps apprehend the deserter. On the other hand, anyone aiding him in the slightest way – even by failing to be observant – will answer to Lollio, as well as to the commander of the garrison. Of course that won’t be necessary. We’re all patriots here, I presume, and none of us wants this disgrace upon our region. You, Virio…is that your name?”
“Let all your comrades know that Quinctus Lollio will show his gratitude to any patriot who apprehends the deserter. The garrison can’t be sending large detachments all over the region, so we each need to the commander’s eyes and ears in this matter. And if the deserter becomes a corpse in being apprehended…don’t be too fussed about it. In fact, we – or the commander, I should say – would prefer a corpse. Sending a live prisoner on to Rome would be a needless expense, and only disturb the general’s preparations for his triumph.”
Locusta had grown more attentive to what being said. While her friends had been hoping for her continued silence, she finally looked up and addressed the man called Caniculus – but with an improbable girlish smile.
“It would be my pleasure to receive you here again, sir, if Actis allows me to continue in his employment. I should also consider it an honour to visit your master at his residence. And please accept my apologies for my earlier abruptness.”
As Caniculus strutted out of the shop while jangling the coins, he wore a satisfied smirk.
Actis and Virio, however, had learned enough about Locusta to know that her girlish smile and unlikely apology could be the signs of trouble to come.
“Locusta, I don’t know what’s on your mind – I never do – but these men are more powerful than you can imagine. Lollio’s influence reaches right back to Rome and further. Men who have angered him here have lost family members back in Italy. The money he extorts from us he doesn’t even need. It’s just his way of keeping us subject. Commanders and officers of the garrison come and go. Lollio stays. He is the real ruler here.”
“Th…that’s true, lady. Master Actis is right. And Caniculus is a man who takes pleasure in killing. You must…”
“Actis, where does he live, this Lollio?”
“In a massive new villa on his latifundium, along the river some miles to the north. He has much cattle and many slaves. Life is easier for the cattle than for the slaves. His favourite punishment is to whip a slave’s lower parts till he bleeds then stand him in an eel pond.”
“But…aren’t there certain laws…?”
“There are always Roman laws, but those which concern slaves are vague at best. And there are always lawyers and people with the means to get around Roman laws. Lollio does what he wants. Like all good petty potentates he is a flatterer, a patriot, and a grand public benefactor. He is also a cheat, an extortionist and a blackmailer. As to his private ways, those who enjoy hearing tales of perversion could tell you more than I. The story of the eel pond – which I have verified – is enough for me.”
Locusta froze in wide-eyed abstraction, the trance which had always disturbed her mistress of the forest. At last:
“Where did he come from?”
“Lollio? Nobody knows for sure. Nobody asks. He appeared here over ten years ago, with his offsider Caniculus leading a gang of thugs, mostly Germans. Neither Lollio nor Caniculus spoke much Gallic when they arrived. Lollio had money and muscle, acquired land and connections very quickly.”
“Germans, you say…”
Locusta thought for a moment, then:
“You are both right. And it was thoughtless of me to compromise you. Next time he comes I’ll be nice.”
“Nice? Really? You’ll be…nice? You?”
Again, the girlish smile.
“Yes. Me. Nice.”
Locusta, still tender from the whipping but moving freely at last, had no trouble with the two large baskets.
From the edge of town she strode south, below a ridge which overlooked the river.
Where the shrubby ground gave way to fir forest, she slowed her pace and began to peer about. It was not long till she found a cluster of saffron caps. While picking, she was careful to nip off only what was above ground and to place the mushrooms in her loosely woven basket in such a way that they could drop and spread spores as she moved about. (Locusta did not know of spores, but knew from her forest years that when mushrooms were harvested into tight cloth or clay containers there were fewer of them in succeeding seasons.)
Heading from the forest to the river, she paused at a thicket overrun by sarsparilla vine. Tracing one vine to its base, she scraped and pulled till a fat root came loose. Then she took a second root – but no more.
She descended to the river where many willows were growing. Running practised fingers along the bark of one tree she selected an area of trunk and flaked away small quantities of bark. She then repeated the process on several other willows, taking only small amounts of bark from each.
Above her at this point, the ridge dropped away sharply, with creepers spilling over the rim. She trudged up to the foot of the cliff and placed her baskets on the steep ground, being careful not to let her harvest of mushrooms and medicines tumble out. From one of her baskets she drew a pot, its mouth stopped with cloth.
Locusta looked about to make sure there were no goat herders nearby, the only people likely to have business on such steep ground. When she was certain, she called, but not too loudly, into the hollow below an overhang:
“If you speak Gallic…here is a pot of farrum, flavoured with garum and mushrooms. I’ll leave it here, but you must be careful to leave the pot out for me tomorrow, when I will bring you another pot. I can’t steal too many pots…
“If you want to speak with me now, then do so. Otherwise…till tomorrow.”
There was no reply.
Locusta gathered up her baskets and headed back to town.
That evening, Actis remarked:
“You know, Locusta, we’re missing a small cooking pot.”
“I know. I took it to the forest and left it there.”
“I see. Now, I do appreciate you gathering medicines for us…but we also need our pots. I use that one for boiling willow. Did you just forget it? And why did you take it there?”
“Oh, sort of an insect trap. We often use insects as medicine and food, back in the Morgarita…”
Actis shook his head and gave her as stern a look as he dared give.
“Locusta, would you ever lie to me?”
“Lie to you?”
“Why…yes, to tell you the truth.”
“Riddled like a Greek!”
She gave one of her rare smiles.
Locusta headed out as she had done the day before, carrying the same baskets.
At first she paused on a grassy flat to gather field mushrooms which had only been buttons the day before. Then she made her way above the fir forest where a seldom used road ran south atop the ridge.
Along the road she found wild roses and blackberries, all fruiting well in the autumn warmth. She spent a good half hour filling the baskets with the berries before half-descending the slope where it was less sheer and then walking back north, staying high, to the spot where she had left the pot.
It was there. And it was completely clean and dry.
Locusta put it in her basket and placed another pot of food in its place. Her eye was drawn to a movement in the bushes at the very top of the overhang. She spoke toward that spot, instead of toward the hollow beneath.
“If I walk back through the fir forest there are places where one can talk without being seen.”
Without more words she headed back toward the town, taking the slender goat track which led toward and through the forest.
As she progressed through the trees she flicked her eyes to the side, aware of being followed. Where the canopy was darkest and the pine trunks thickest, she paused and waited. At last, a strange voice from behind one of the trunks:
“Thank you for the food. You understand I have to be careful.”
“Well, you’ve probably worked out that if I had wanted to betray your whereabouts the soldiers would be all about us by now…But it seems you are a native Gaul, by the way you speak.”
“Born near Lugdunum.”
“But served in Germany…with Germanicus?”
“With him. And others.”
A man stepped forward into her vision. He matched the circulated description: a scrawny veteran with grey hair and a wound across the base of his neck.
“How did you know where I was hiding? And who I am?”
“I’ve spent my life dodging the Morgarita wolves. I’m keen to the slightest rustle or sound. I saw the creepers move in front of your cave, then noticed the fresh mussel shells you’d thrown down the embankment. ”
“And from just that…you knew? But I might simply have been a hermit, a goat herder.”
“I know a fresh camp from an old one. If a hermit had been living here there would have been many old shells and bones, a smell of fire, the creepers thinner at the entrance. No herder would need to live out here with the town and better shelter so close. I know wild places, who goes into them and why.”
“You notice so much? What else have you noticed?”
“Nothing else. But I’ve asked myself a question. They say you are a deserter from General Germanicus’ entourage. Why would a man risk such a thing when Germanicus was merely touring the empire on his way back to Rome and to parades in his honour?”
“Why, do you think?”
Locusta said nothing, as she stooped to pick a small saffron cap. At last:
“I think there are people around here who are far too eager to catch you, and perhaps silence you. You have come from Germany, and they may be from Germany long ago. If they are the people I’m thinking about, everybody fears them. So you might well fear them.”
The man stepped a little closer, lowering his voice:
“When I entered the big wine shop by the gate to the garrison I recognised him. Years had passed, but the wound alone – the wound I had made – was enough to identify him.”
“He had a different name when I hacked his face. Unfortunately, he recognised me, almost as fast as I recognised him. At first he seemed scared, thought I was a ghost, but with the help of his bodyguard he soon had me gagged with my hands bound. Nobody in that shop raised a finger against them.”
“Yet you got away?”
“They hesitated. They’d dragged me to the lane behind the shop and beaten me. I was pretending to be unconscious as they argued over what to do next. You see, I was in the general’s entourage. They had to decide exactly what to do with me and how to do it discreetly. You don’t cross Germanicus, no matter who you are.
“When they were most distracted by their disputes I jumped to my feet and ran. I couldn’t cry out for the gag, my hands were tied…All I could do was run head first toward the blackness at the end of the lane. After that I just kept running, till I was rushing through bushes, and then I was sliding down a stony embankment. By a miracle I did no damage to myself, and ended on a marshy flat. My only chance was to go on using the darkness…
“I guessed that I would reach the river if I kept running lower, and I did reach it. Being a veteran of forest warfare, I waded the river, made plenty of tracks and disturbed lots of rocks going up the opposite embankment…then reversed back down to the water.
“By the time they had torches and extra searchers I’d already waded back in this direction – the least likely one – and found a cave. They ended up chasing about on the other side of the river all night. In the morning they hunted along the river to the north, away from town and gorge, the most likely direction for me to run.”
The man paused his account.
“Young lady, I see some bad welts about your neck and even above your heels. You’ve been flogged, regimental-style by the look of it. Vine branches?”
“You…you’re a slave?”
“No, I took the whipping to avoid slavery. It’s a very long story. I’ve survived. Now it’s a matter of how you are going to survive.”
“Indeed…Another question: when the men had me on the ground and were discussing how to do away with me they mentioned their master…”
“Yes, Lollio. He’s supposed to be the most powerful landowner in these parts.”
“Have you seen this man?”
“No. But I know he is Caniculus’ employer. They arrived in the region together, bringing a great deal of money.”
“Canic…You mean the man whom I recognised and whom you call Caniculus came here with an employer, someone who appeared already to be his boss or master? Someone then, or at least now, known as Lollio? And they had treasure of some sort?”
“That’s what I’ve been told. This Lollio came here many years ago with Caniculus and a bodyguard of German thugs.”
“How long ago? Ten years?”
“Something like ten years.”
“And you say they came from Germany!”
“The bodyguard was composed of Germans, as I’ve been told. One might assume…”
“So the man you know as Caniculus…and this Lollio…”
His voice trailed off and fell he into thought. Locusta gave him time, then:
“I’m guessing that you knew somebody else, as well as Caniculus. And that he also may have changed his identity?”
The man replied almost dreamily:
“What I’m suspecting…It doesn’t seem possible…And yet…”
“Perhaps if you explain a bit more it may help.”
“Explain? Perhaps I should. But in order to explain, young lady, I must first tell you about a place called the Teutoburg Forest by some…
“But a place which Romans know simply as hell!”
“We might do well to lower our profiles and our voices.”
The old soldier squatted down and leaned back on a pine trunk.
“There is a lot to tell about what happened in that forest ten years ago, and much more to guess at. How much history can a young girl want to hear? I’ll make it brief.”
Locusta lay down on her side, but propped on one elbow.
“No, I want to hear all. Your words won’t be wasted. I forget nothing, ponder everything. That’s how I am.”
“I suppose that even in the Morgarita Forest you’ve heard the story of the lost legions. A Gaul should find it a tragedy, if for reasons different from those of a Roman patriot. As a Gallic soldier in the armies of Rome I’ve always known that Germans will likely ravage Gaul before Rome. Should the tribes ever get tired of slaughtering one another, this province will feel what I have felt in soldiering beyond the Rhine.
“In any case, when the events took place my loyalty was to my legion, far more than to any place or people. That’s how it is when you spend your life shoulder to shoulder with comrades in a coordinated force which is truly one, whose standards survive the lives of its individuals through centuries. But these are things hard to explain.
“The annihilation of three choice legions! Unthinkable, yet it happened, and in the space of days, with barely a hint of the real danger before the event…except for the man in charge, who had more than just a hint. For such an unlikely disaster to happen, blunders, lies, arrogance, treachery, gullibility and stupidity were needed, and in abundance. I was only there at the start and in the aftermath – for reasons I’ll explain – which is why I’m alive. Few can tell you more than I, and I know only a part of the colossal folly which Emperor Augustus was still bewailing on his death bed.
“Two men were at the centre of the story.
“One was Varus, supreme commander of the three legions and governor of Germania. He was not a complete fool, having chosen the side of Augustus in the civil war, married a daughter of Agrippa – half sister of the Lady Agrippina – and made good use of his various terms of office. As governor of Syria he pacified the region and made himself rich. A couple of thousand crucifixions are said to have quietened down the Jews when they got restless after the death of King Herod.
“While we were with Varus in the west, most of our armies were busy on the other side of Rome’s empire, dealing with the great revolt of Pannonia. The present emperor was there in the east, as was Germanicus – with less success than some might think. So the three legions of the Rhine were of utmost importance to an empire whose power was drastically stretched. Varus, like Augustus then and like General Germanicus now, thought it a good idea to impose Roman power in the usual way: by force, taxes and the introduction of Roman commerce, laws, amenities and so on. Of course, Germanicus has his way of making it seem good and plausible and even nice, wants to raise the Germans up after he’s belted them harder than anyone’s been belted. I think the present emperor, Tiberius, is a bit wiser…but he’s not anybody’s darling is he? Poor old sod.
“So there we were in Germany under Varus, well beyond the Rhine, extracting taxes from tribespeople who had little idea of producing surpluses for export or tax and no idea of central government. Where Roman laws are cruel, theirs are kind; where Roman laws are kind, theirs are cruel. The Roman world is dry and well-lit and ordered; the German world is damp and without…without edges and definition, if that makes sense. A German’s voice comes from his throat, as if every utterance is also an emotion, never just a thought. Ah, but the truth is I don’t understand them…which gives me more understanding than General Germanicus, who still dreams of a Romanised Germania.
“The other main character in all this was Arminius. He was a German prince who had been taken to Rome as a child, as security for his father’s continued loyalty to Rome. Not only did he adapt, he became a successful officer, a citizen of Rome and then an eques, a knight. That’s about as high as a foreigner can go in the Roman world, unless you’re Cleopatra. From this you’ll conclude that Arminius, whom the Germans call Herman, was no ordinary fellow. Nor would you be surprised to learn that Varus brought him back to Germany as a trusted officer with local knowledge and contacts.
“The question I cannot answer is: What was in Arminius’ mind? Was he simply treacherous? I know that nothing could ever make me disloyal to my legion, whatever I thought of Rome. But Arminius was a German, not a Gaul, and he led a Roman cohort of German cavalry.
“Was he disgusted by the treatment of his countrymen at the hands of Roman masters? Roman cruelty was not worse than German cruelty, but it was foreign, incomprehensible cruelty, legalistic and measured like grain or money. Perhaps Arminius came as liberator. Perhaps.
“More likely, judging from his recent actions, he was a capable and fiercely ambitious young man who saw the chance to be king or emperor of Germany, having risen as high as he could in the Roman world. He had fought in Pannonia, knew of many eastern potentates and empires before this present Roman empire. If there had been kings and emperors in the east, if there were still eastern monarchies at least partly independent of Rome, why not a kingdom in the west, a German empire even? If that is what he thought – and still thinks – then he is a courageous and gifted madman who knows less about the German mind than do I.
“Mad or not, Arminius was daring, cunning, and he was lucky.
“With autumn deepening it was time for the legions to transfer from the middle of Germania, back to winter quarters near the Rhine. It was a matter of a straightforward and well-provisioned march through easy country. The position I occupied was special: quartermaster in charge of all monies and valuables. My reputation for honesty was well-earned, I am also both vigilant and suspicious, an ideal treasurer.
“I rode, in carriage or on horseback, in the middle of my legion, supported by reliable men I had hand-picked over the years. We had a special formation for marching, with extra men, a couple of them were chosen youths whose vision and reactions were perfect and who had no other job than to watch constantly from the main transport vehicles; getting past my men to that treasure was one of the hardest things an enemy or marauding force could attempt.
“In camp one night, Arminius came to Varus with a story of a minor revolt occurring nearby, on the other side of some forest. He suggested that it might be worthwhile for the army to divert through the forest, called Teutoburg, and deal with the troubles, which they could do easily. When Varus asked if there were any foreseeable difficulties at all, Arminius assured him that the road through the Teutoburg was good and that weather was likely to be favourable. Because of the modest scale of the revolt, there would be little loss of time in getting to winter quarters by what was simply an alternative route.
“The rest may seem incredible, but it happened. Firstly, Arminius offered to go ahead both to scout and occupy the flanks with his German cavalry, used to such terrain. Varus agreed to this.
“On the very same night, Segestes, a German chieftain and strong Roman ally, heard of the plan and warned Varus that Arminius was himself planning a major revolt, and had already joined many of the tribes in a confederacy. The Teutoburg was a trap.
“Varus was a vain man to whom losing face, even for a second, was like losing a limb. Going back on a decision was weakness, as far as he was concerned. On top of some necessary Roman arrogance, he was conceited and a snob, and could not bear the thought of a German dependent prince like Segestes dictating policy or strategy.
“Yet on this occasion, so great were the stakes that he might well have reversed his decision.
“The stubborn character of Varus explains in part the colossal stupidity of marching a Roman army into the worst possible terrain and doing so on the word of a man openly accused of treachery. He thought he knew Arminius, he certainly knew nothing of the forest.
“Somebody else may have swayed Varus.
“Merens was a tribune who served as quartermaster-general, and as such he was my administrative superior during troop movements. He controlled all supplies, treasure, baggage, weaponry and so on. His expertise on terrain and transport was never doubted, and his influence over Varus – and just about everybody else – was strong due to his remarkable gifts and captivating character. He was one of those men who rule wherever they go, regardless of actual rank. He had the appearance of a Greek statue, even in middle age, and his charm was such that he never left any man feeling lessened by an encounter. The spell he could lay on Varus he could lay on the meanest slave. All wanted to serve Merens, accommodate him.
“One man alone was unconvinced by Merens: a vigilant and suspicious army treasurer who had spent a lifetime recruiting probity. Me! (My Latin name is Probus, incidentally.) I was fond of my superior, responded to his wit and charm like everybody else, felt the power of what Greeks call his charisma…but for some reason I knew I would never have chosen him to join our treasury ranks and stand guard alongside me. Perhaps it was the company he kept closest about him, drinkers and bully boys who were apt for anything, men he alone could control. He often joked that he kept these men in tow because he missed his Molossian hunting dogs. On more than one occasion regimental justice was not meted out because the offender was one of Merens’ “pack”, as we called them.
“Exceptions were made for Merens, and Merens made exceptions. That did not sit well with me. The legion is order and precedence or it ceases to be the legion. No, I liked the man – loved him perhaps – but he did not sit well with me. I suspect Merens knew it, despite his constant praise and cordiality toward me and the perfect efficiency I put into serving him.
“The most loathsome bully in his entourage was a thug nicknamed Molossus, because of his resemblance to one of that breed of dog. He was a decanus, a soldier who commands the smallest unit of an army, a tent party; he had been seconded into Merens’ personal service and had a name for extracting taxes nobody else could extract. That made him useful to both Merens and Varus. Varus had despoiled Syria during his governorship, but still craved money. The difficulty of getting money out of Germans enraged him; anyone who could lessen that difficulty found favour with him. I do not know what dealings were done between Merens and Varus, but I’m sure there were plenty. What could I do? I did my job perfectly, and insisted my men do theirs perfectly.
“Why did Varus send his eventual destroyer on ahead to protect his flanks? Why did he steer three superb legions of the Emperor Augustus into the Teutoburg Forest and toward their doom? After he had been told by Rome’s closest German ally that it was a trap and that Arminius was a traitor?
“I have often thought that only one person had the position close to Varus and the mesmerising persuasiveness to move him against all sense and reason. Up till today that person’s possible motive may have occurred to me, but I have put it out of my mind, as too improbable…and too dishonouring. Besides, that person lay dead in the forest, like all the others. But who else could have persuaded a Roman supreme commander to walk the best army in the world into an obvious ambush…and into the only terrain where it could possibly be beaten?
“Progressing toward the Teutoburg we could see columns of smoke rising beyond it. We naturally thought that rebels or bandits were ravaging a settlement somewhere. The smoke was actually from remote garrisons and watch towers which Arminius himself had captured and burnt. He had not only destroyed all means of discerning his movements and those of his German confederates, he had also made a good show for us. The smoke convinced Varus of the need to act against the fictitious minor revolt beyond the Teutoburg, while the actual revolt was enormous, and lay waiting within the forest.
“Three days after Arminius had gone ahead with his his cavalry, the entire army took a turn into a dark place from which it would never emerge.”
“Probus, I have spent all my life, except these last weeks, in the Morgarita Forest. Are the forests of Germany so different?”
“Indeed they are, young lady. Many Romans and Italians have seen only remnants of oak forest, stunted groves good only for firewood and boar hunting. Their great forests were long ago cut down to make towns and navies. As for the Morgarita, it is a place of winds, dry and elevated. There is terror from the wolves, but not from the forest itself…and from the darkness.
“The Teutoburg, as we quickly learned, is like a mouth to the Underworld.”
“Three legions, eighteen thousand men, along with many followers, turned into that darkness.
“Varus and the general staff were up ahead. Merens was riding well in front of my special treasury detachment, staying with the main supply and baggage columns. It was normal to keep the treasury a little to the rear in case of terrain problems. But the entire army had terrain problems from the moment it entered the Teutoburg.
“It seems incredible that no scouts except those of Arminius, and no engineers at all, had been sent ahead. Everything we believed about our route we believed simply on the word of Arminius. Yet within a half-mile of entering we were forced to narrow our ranks outrageously. The further we advanced, the darker it got. The road became little better than a low track between densely wooded slopes, and it even became like a murky tunnel in stretches where giant trees, decked in creepers, leaned overhead.
“I recall turning to one of my subalterns and remarking that a Roman army without formation was no longer a Roman army. He replied that Varus was certain to order retreat, unless the terrain further ahead was far better, which seemed unlikely from our ever-slowing progress.
“What we could see of sky grew leaden, then black. At last came the rain, a constant chill rain. In such circumstances a soldier feels more than discomfort. He knows that his spear and the handle of his sword will be cold and slippery; he knows that bowstrings go slack and fingers of bowmen go numb.
“Leather in constant rain blisters through slight movement; condensation or rainwater trapped under armour make a cold that burrows to the bone.
“Yet we went on, a compressed line stretching over miles. It would only take a fallen tree or bogged wagon in the wrong spot to break that line.
“The track grew worse, and because we were following the bulk of the army we were soon sliding about and pushing through quagmires. Our wagons were in danger of sinking in places. We expected an order to halt then retreat, discussed whether Varus had taken a turn out of the forest by some other road rather than reversing our march. But he had contemplated neither measure, and was simply advancing further into that dank hell. It crossed my mind that Merens, so expert in transport and terrain, must be trying to dissuade him, but Varus could be stubborn even before the advice and charm of Merens. But surely Varus, for all his patrician conceit, could see what was so plain!
“None of it made sense.
“My men started looking sideways into the dripping forest, where a waterdrop on foliage might be a watching eye. It was still not an attack they feared, just that forest, with its million eyes.
“Instead of dovecotes or little shrines which cheer a traveller, there were strange ornaments of bone and feather, even human skulls, attached to tree trunks and dangling from branches. If these objects did not represent warnings or curses, our mood interpreted them as such.
“At last riders came from in front. I felt sure they must be a detachment to announce a change of plan, though our line was still lurching forward. As the riders drew close I saw the group was composed of Merens’ offsider, the loathsome Molossus, with some twenty of his tax extractors.
“He greeted me in his usual disrespectful way and told me that the army would proceed as planned but that the treasury was to be sent back, in view of the conditions and the danger of the cargo being bogged down or spilled. Molossus showed me the order from Merens. I was partly relieved and partly suspicious on reading it. Merens was commanding me to send my own riders ahead to replace the detachment which had just arrived. With Molossus and his riders I was to head back to the main road then proceed along it to the Rhine.
“It all made sense, except that we would be a small group without our usual mounted escort of trusted comrades. Though Molossus insisted that his men were far more experienced in dealing with German tricks, I would have been more comfortable with a larger contingent and my own riders. Much more comfortable.
“But the orders were clear and probably for the best. Why the entire army was not sent back was what baffled us. The terrain and weather had reduced it to a rabble, time and light were being lost, and the chances of making an adequate fortified camp for three legions that night were remote.
“I did what I always do. I registered objection soberly then complied, insisting that my men comply with all orders and co-operate with Molossus and his company, though we knew them to be a gang of degenerates.
“As we moved to the rear, Molossus showed our orders to the various officers who had been behind us. Most expressed surprise at the small size of our contingent but all assisted us to guide the treasury through their constricted ranks. Finally, the army was out of sight, and we were alone on the trail.
“Progress to the Rhine Way was slow, since we were travelling in the slush and ruts made by three legions. The damage to the saturated trail had been so great that there was danger of landslip. I occupied my place on the largest wagon, flanked by a sharp-eyed youth trained to do nothing but watch. My guard of some twenty specialist infantry held formation as best they could; the riders led by Molossus stayed close on the awkward terrain but had to scatter frequently so the rest of us had space.
“Soon it began to rain again, and then to pour down hard.
“We reached a turning where there was a steep slope on our left and a sharp fall to the right. It had been difficult for the army coming in; it was now perilous, with a quagmire forming in the very sharpest part of the bend. Molossus’ riders fell well behind or went far to the front.
“Suddenly, a rain of German javelins from the left, striking down several of my guard and the driver of a smaller wagon in front.
“My well-drilled men moved around all three of our wagons, though there were not enough of them for a tight formation. Molossus came riding toward me and shouted that his horses could not pursue uphill in the conditions but that his men would guard the wagons if I decided to send some of my infantry after the raiders.
“There was no choice but to take the suggestion. If we did not retaliate, our invisible attackers would have hours to pick us off as we tried to move along the damaged road, and they may well have felled trees in our path. I reasoned that they could not be numerous or they would have attacked in force. Some ten of my soldiers would likely be enough to keep them engaged if not disperse them.
“Cursing my superiors’ judgement for the entire expedition and my present ridiculous exposure to any gang of tramps, I ordered ten men up the hill, with orders to flank our contingent beyond normal javelin range.
“I never saw those men again. I am guessing that they ended their lives on sharpened stakes in carefully prepared traps.
“For everything had been a carefully prepared trap.
“When Molossus’ twenty or so men had formed in close, I ordered that my remaining guard load the two dead and four wounded on to wagons. As they did so, Molossus chose that unguarded moment for his attack. His men pounced from their horses with weapons drawn and began to hack my men to death. Molossus, and another rider with a heavily bandaged face, stayed mounted and simply watched the slaughter.
“Because of my position high on the main wagon and the impossibility of drawing a bow in the heavy conditions, none of the attackers had yet reached me. There was nothing to do but die as a legionary. Drawing my sword I hurled myself from the wagon rim at Molossus, hacking at his head as I fell to ground. I gave him the wound he bears to this day. Rising from the mud I made a vertical stab with my sword, hoping to catch him under his breastplate. And that is when he gave me this wound which I still bear. I reeled and he thrashed at me again with his longer cavalry sword.
“The rest is like a dream. I remember stumbling as I dodged the thrusts and retreated a few steps, then a few more steps. I remember looking into my opponent’s gashed face as I fell back into air.
“I had gone off the embankment right where it was most sheer. Whatever my head hit first was enough to remove my helmet. I then began to fall, roll, fall, with branches and saplings tearing away flesh as I went further down. Something stopped my fall. In the same moment the back of my head struck wood and for a while I lost consciousness.
“After a while I was aware of voices. Above me they were discussing my whereabouts, and whether I was dead. Soil and rubble fell near me as some of the gang tried to descend. I had fallen too far however, and was well out of sight, my fall having been stopped by a dense thicket where the slope made a small shelf. Finally I heard Molossus barking down to his men to give up the hunt and leave me for dead. Their haste to escape with an enormous fortune had saved me.
“My wounds were bad, but none of them fatal. The slash down my neck had not struck any veins, but was likely to get infected without treatment. When I tried to move, it was a shattered wrist which caused me the most difficulty. Yet to stay where I was in the cold rain, especially in a state of shock and exhaustion, would mean death in the course of the night. I had to get back up the slope and improvise some sort of shelter.
“Molossus would certainly have departed in silence with the wagons, so I was surprised to pick up distant cries which came and went on the wind. But perhaps I was just hearing the echos from my concussion.
“There was not a minute to waste in recuperation. I would need to devote the remaining hours of light to nothing but the climb back to the road. Any resting would be done up there, after I had made shelter.
“And the ascent did take hours, with just one hand to grab and pull on rocks, shrubs and low branches. The rest was achieved with feet to push and one elbow to hook. I thought only of reaching the next grapple point, being careful not to select anything shallow-rooted or unfixed.
“Yes, I studied my way upward, and in doing so I was a legionary, a Roman, again. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant: it is just an explanation. I am a Gaul like you, but my life has been with the legion. At our best, we organise, do things in sequence and formation, no matter how dire or confused the circumstances.
“When I had finally crawled to the top I could witness what had been done to my comrades. Every one of them had been hacked or stabbed to death. The usual stripping of bodies, however, had not taken place, for the obvious reason that the marauders had hold of a state treasury, fruit of the year’s taxation and exactions, along with much of Varus’ private fortune. They needed to move away in haste. This worked in my favour, since I would be able to gather the dead men’s cloaks for shelter.
“Then more luck: one of the wagon horses had been speared. It had been loosed from harness and left to die. I finished the poor animal with a thrust into its neck then set to work, though with much pain and little strength.
“The first thing I needed to butcher from the carcase was the liver, warm and soft. An animal’s fresh liver is easily eaten and quickly digested. I ate as much of it as I could get down then proceeded to cut out the bladder. With the still warm urine I began to bathe my cuts. There was no chance of starting a fire, so that delicate bag of horse piss was my best chance to keep away infection.
“The last thing I wanted to do in my state was to skin a horse, but I knew the green hide, if wrapped about me twice, would be far better than the cloaks for keeping me dry and warm.
“By the time the sun set I had been able to wriggle into a thicket above the road and wrap myself in the horse’s hide. Instead of my wet clothes I wore some woollen shirts which had stayed dry inside the breastplates of my comrades. With the cloaks over the top of the horse’s hide, I was not merely dry but snug.
“After nibbling on more soft organs and drinking some water, I fell into one of those fevered sleeps which always come after a shock.
“And all through that night I seemed to hear distant cries, coming and going as the wind and rain varied in intensity or changed direction.
“I now knew that the cries were not just echos from my concussion.”