Two dozen men,
wearing the magenta tunics of the dead emperor’s elite
cavalry, galloped into the outskirts of Capua and
dismounted along the roadside wall of an inn. It was a
pretentious place set among cypresses, a mile out from the
city, beyond the tombs but with a view of Capua’s north
brushed foam from his uniform, blown back from his
horse’s bit. All but two of the mounted soldiers were
German mercenaries, coarse-featured, too large for Roman
horses, too pink for Italian weather. Ahead of the
Germans, just behind the captain and his lieutenant, rode
two deadly-looking little Huns whose square bodies and
platter-faces seemed to have been chiseled from hardwood.
cowered against the inn-wall. Ragged children watched from
across the highway and then ran away screaming.
Taurinus, the commanding officer, had a purposeful look;
his men wore vacant grins. They kicked open the innyard
gate and clattered through. The yard was deserted except
for an adolescent boy, apparently an imbecile, sunning
himself on a dungheap and greeting imaginary travelers
with sitting bows and words of welcome.
An odor of
garlic and fish spoke of recent life in the inn. Taurinus
stepped cautiously into the vestibule and beyond it into
the dining room, where decorative lamps still burned on
the tables. The tiny flames shifted at his approach. He
held his breath, then whistled angrily. The place was as
empty as if the innkeeper and his guests had gone up in
to his lieutenant Balbus, an irritating boy with a sword
too large for him that caught between his fat legs and
hung him up in thickets.
remember the sheep-faced priest at Casilinum?"
is his doing," Taurinus said, and cursed.
remembered every grey angle of the holy man’s face, in
the roadside tavern at Casilinum, a few miles back. The
creature had overheard Taurinus and his men bragging about
the violent pleasures they would enjoy at the Mercury Inn
north of Capua. The priest had counted out his coins with
shaking hands and clattered away on his donkey, bouncing
like a puppet on a stick. Now the reason for his haste was
clear; the warning had come from him.
already midday, and Taurinus was in a cumulative rage. He
had slept hardly at all in the mansio at Teanum.
The food had been abominable; the landlord’s daughter
had had a rash. He had learned during the evening that
arrogant Capua, like Naples, had escaped the worst of the
Vandal sack, while Taurinus’s ancestral village near
Cumae had burned to the ground. On top of it all, the
Woman had slipped through his fingers, and the plain
people of the countryside could tell him nothing about
Inn with its pretentious cypresses was an emblem of the
arrogance of Capua. Its elegant garden reduced the
neighborhood to dusty insignificance. Capua! the
establishment said to Taurinus.
smile creased his cheeks. He gestured to his men.
it very well," he said, raising his eyebrows
soldiers flowed into the building like dogs chasing a rat.
There were sounds of rending, tearing, shattering. In half
an hour the inn and its grounds were littered with glass,
crockery, fragments of furniture, lengths of tapestry,
chairs in pieces, bits of bedding, and window frames. A
light pall of yellow dust hovered over the wreckage. A
solitary goat nibbled at a shredded travel-cloak.
balcony above the garden, Taurinus watched the
destruction, taking pleasure in it. It gave him a
moment’s amusement to think of fat noblewomen in flight
at his approach, diffusing expensive odors under a
crushing weight of jewels, interrupting their afternoon
toilet and hurrying plumply into the fields behind the
inn, as if in pursuit of small game. But his anger
reasserted itself as he made his way back to the road. The
Woman, after all, was the point of the search, and she had
not been found. Indeed, there was no clue that she had
actually come to Capua.
back to the innyard gate and whistled for his men.
of interest?" he asked fat Balbus, who came puffing
out of the tangle, his eyes bloodshot with the joy of
sir—unless you’re interested in plenty of money,"
the lieutenant crowed. "See what Optila and Traustila
motioned the twin Huns forward. They carried a small
copper-banded chest of cedar, far heavier than it looked,
and set it down at the feet of Taurinus. He crouched,
examined the telltale initials Q-V-J engraved on one side,
and dug in the contents with his forefinger: freshly
minted gold solidi bearing the image of Petronius Maximus.
wife is here, then," he said darkly, his jaw-muscles
working. "Go get the boy-fool."
The boy on
his dungheap heard the command and ran into the road,
throwing out his long limbs like a rag doll. Two guardsmen
overtook him, cursing the smell of his body as they
dragged him back to their commander. The boy dropped to
his knees before Taurinus, smiling the vacuous smile of
ankles are blacker than the ground, moon-child," the
captain said. "We’ve come to Capua to give you a
bath, or something worse. Do you have the gift of
boy-fool nodded, smiling and whimpering.
traced a woman’s treasure-box to this dog-house of an
inn. The woman’s name is Marcella Adriana. She’s dark,
plainly dressed, very handsome. Where her money is, she
is. The hen is never far from her eggs. You’ve seen her,
paled and his lips turned blue. "If I could tell you
where she is, you’d kill me anyway."
you don’t tell us, you’ll wish we had."
leaned forward and peered down his nose, curved between
his green eyes like the beak of an unclean bird. The boy
was ashen-pale; his enormous hands were clenched together
as if he were praying to the Virgin.
plain people here," he croaked. "We don’t have
great ladies." He gestured wildly at a cottage
nearby. "Ask Macrina. Her eyes are better than
made a gesture of impatience, despising the cretin’s
face with its inhuman mouth that had no more expression
than if it were upside down.
lying to me," he said.
Taurinus said, "there isn’t enough mercy in us for
He made a
motion to the twin Huns.
should concentrate the fool’s memory," the captain
said quietly. "Enough’s enough. Don’t strip the
the boy’s arms. The expressionless Traustila made a deft
motion with his knife above the right ear, taking off most
of it. The boy shrieked until his wind gave out. His voice
died away in an insipid moan.
know nothing, nothing, Your Greatness."
other ear, then," the captain said irritably, with a
stubborn jaw. "We’re not about to be fooled by a
was administered with surgical precision. The halfwit
shrieked and babbled. Blood ran down his neck.
tapped his front teeth with a forefinger. "Perhaps he
doesn’t know anything," he said to Balbus.
we burn the place?" Balbus asked
conspiratorially at his elbow, his fat cheeks flushed.
Taurinus was emphatic. Partial ruin would be a better
lesson to the landlord than utter destruction, and easier
to explain to the Urban Vicar. What the lesson was,
Taurinus was unsure. It seemed necessary, however, to
He made a
violent motion to his men; they mounted and galloped away.
wandered in the highway, blood seeping between the fingers
that he pressed to his head.
rose before dawn, while the sailors slept, and stood at
the deck-rail of the anchored ship, watching the pale
reflections of late stars in the sea. At sunrise, the crew
woke. Adriana joined them in their prayers before a carved
image of Christ nailed to the mast, and shared their
breakfast of boiled eggs and biscuits.
breeze came up. The ship plowed the water, its broad sail
bellying before the breeze, the captain standing by the
helmsman with important confidence, the crew enjoying
their vacation from the oars. Adriana stood at the
captain’s elbow as the craft rounded the cape beyond
Misenum into the Bay of Naples, a great blue dish freckled
took her by surprise as if she had never seen it before,
the sweep of shore that began at Misenum and ended just
short of Capri. It was a place of glorious memory: Baiae,
now half-deserted, the soul of aristocratic decadence;
Misenum, a museum of departed naval glory; Puteoli, still
commercial and loud; Naples, Greek and dangerous; Vesuvius
rising beyond the cities, its twin peaks half hidden in
mist. By general consent it was the most beautiful coast
in the world, though the public works were falling into
ruin, and signs of impoverishment showed in the palaces
along the gracious curve of the bay.
pointed to a row of mansions on the heights behind Puteoli,
rising out of a cover of bay-trees.
wonder if the pale scum got that far inland," he
rumbled, half to himself.
me, which scum?" Adriana asked, shading her eyes and
following the captain’s forefinger.
They burned half of Puteoli and stole half the navy at
Puteoli be well-guarded after the sack?" she asked
apprehensively. "I have a reason not to attract the
attention of the harbor police."
police? By Neptune, madam, I don’t think there are
her breath, seeing again the range of old sea-palaces
outside the walls of Puteoli. As a young married woman she
had visited the town and its mansions in the last of their
glory. Entering the harbor, the little coaster attracted
no attention. It scraped against the wharf and came to
rest. The captain helped Adriana to disembark with her
bundle, saluted her with a bow, and shook his head after
she had gone.
her way across the half-deserted waterfront. The traffic
was sparse and listless: an occasional bullock-cart, a
monk, a girl carrying an amphora on her head, a pair of
drunkards sleeping in the morning sun. She would have
preferred a thicker population, in which she could lose
herself easily. Stepping around piles of merchandise and
refuse, she moved quickly into the city, through the
sea-gate and up the thoroughfare that led to the forum.
A pair of
nuns on a mission were in her path. She started
involuntarily when she saw them, thinking of Blanda and
Probina, but they had friendly faces. She caught their
glance and raised a hand, signaling that she would like to
morning, Sisters. Is there a place in Puteoli where a
decent meal and lodging may be found?"
of the two women answered. "The Stag is burned. The
Diana is burned. Over there," she drew an arc with
her forefinger, "the Grey Heron is not burned. It’s
further from the harbor than the others. Go north, past
the forum. You can’t miss it. Your Courage is traveling
in these parts?"
leaned toward Adriana, her curiosity aroused by the sight
of a freedwoman with a whip and a bundle, alone on foot.
quick and lonely trip southward, Sister."
begin to wish I’d brought a slave or two. It’s a pity
one can’t expect to buy a reliable servant on the
true," the nun smiled, making conversation.
"Today’s a market day here, in case that’s of
interest. The prices shouldn’t be high; no one has any
money. Old Fuscus should even be auctioning off a few
human beings in the forum: one or two broken-down worthies
and some captive Germans are all he’s likely to have,
At the next
corner Adriana hired a donkey, for safety’s sake, to
take her to the center of town. In the sky to the
northeast, predatory birds wheeled over a concise area of
the city, marking the location of the forum. Adriana urged
the donkey-boy in that direction, idly curious to see what
might be found in the market stalls.
escaped the worst; its public buildings were charred, but
only a few neighborhoods were gone altogether. The people
went about their business silently, the women red-eyed and
haggard, the men thin-lipped and tense. The center of town
had a smoked look; the Vandals had fired the tenements,
the donkey-boy said, to make the slum-women run and
by the flow of traffic, she passed through the forum arch
into a stew of noises, colors, and evil smells. She
thanked the donkey-boy, dismissed him with a silver coin,
and picked her way across the market-place among piles of
onions and cabbages, baskets of fish, cheap statues of
gods and saints, trays of crude jewelry. The common people
of Puteoli seemed to have lost little to the Germans; it
was one of the blessings, Adriana supposed, of being poor.
of the crowd made thought impossible. The absence of
thought was soothing. She bought rosette-patterned bread,
hard cheese, and a skin of cheap wine. Taking refuge
behind a donkey loaded with melons, she ate half her
purchases and put the rest in her bundle.
went unexpectedly to her head; an aura crept over the
market. Feeling generous, she threw a copper to a
hunchback. In the brilliant sun she noticed details: the
iridescent wings of the pigeons on the basilica roof, the
silver dishes in the metalworkers’ stalls across the
market, the blond heads of several tall Germans being sold
on a flimsy block in the shade of the basilica.
at him again, with a gathering warmth of recognition. He
had a boy’s face and a warrior’s build, lean and
efficient, like a piece of steel. She could imagine him
fighting ankle-deep in blood, his axe playing round his
head like lightning, a half-dozen Berbers circling him
like brown hawks and dying one after another at the tip of
she thought, it can’t be the same person. All Germans
Adriana pushed toward the slave-auction. The Vandals,
their feet chalked, were chained neck-to-neck and
foot-to-foot: three naked soldiers, like young gods of
war, and a handsome blond girl who suited Adriana’s
conception of a camp whore, but was doubtless the wife of
a German officer.
certain, now, of the boy’s identity, and she remembered
him with a rush of gratitude. He was cast in the same lean
mold as the others, but his tattoos were few and small,
and his yellow hair was styled short in the Roman way. His
wide-set eyes were full of earnest questions, much as they
had been in the stable at Nomentum when he could hardly
focus them. His boyish solemnity touched her again,
deeply. Germans were always solemn; a pig turning
somersaults could not make them smile.
to an honest-looking freedwoman who appeared to have taken
time out from her shopping.
were those savages captured?" Adriana asked.
take it you’re not from around here," the woman
said. "They’re Vandals. Their boat went down east
of here. Most of the straw-headed bastards drowned. These
washed up on the beach. They’ll be going cheap today, a
German for a cabbage, as we say. Who has gold?"
slave-dealer, a small florid man, banged a gong to
indicate the commencement of the sale, and spoke a few
words in praise of the magistrates of the city. The German
girl was unyoked and brought forward. A tear crept down
her cheek; she tossed her head. She was tall, beautifully
proportioned, and outraged. Her lips vibrated with anger.
She reminded Adriana of the goddess Freya at the reins of
her cat-drawn chariot.
the little dealer intoned in a surprisingly big voice,
"the long line of the hips, the square shoulders, the
unblemished hide, the splendid breasts with twice the
suckling capacity of your average girl-purchase. As you
know, friends, these beauties of the forest get pregnant
merely by lifting their leather skirts and exposing
themselves to the west wind. Friends! Consider the pelvis
of this motherly creature. Why, such a Gothic she-ox will
drop twenty little bulls in a row with no more effort than
it costs you to spit on the floor. . . ."
buyer, noble as to dress, stepped up to the block and
pinched the German girl’s nipples and kneecaps,
disapprovingly. A voice among the spectators called,
"Let’s hear ’er sing." A merchant tapped his
chin with his account tablets and threw in a bid. A richly
dressed old man doubled the offer. The merchant shrugged.
The old man, flushed with the pleasure of anticipation,
led the girl away by a halter. She followed obediently,
moving in ridiculously small steps because her ankles were
fettered to her waist.
have a good life," someone murmured after her.
"Old Albinus is a miser with everyone but his
had the need, I’d have bought her myself," the
merchant said half-regretfully, "and that one,"
pointing to the young captain of Vandals, next on the
block, "and I’d breed them as Cato did."
and you’d watch them breed, wouldn’t you, Auxentius?"
The two men
raised their eyebrows and smiled.
agitated now, for no reason she could give a proper name.
Next on the block was the young officer who had befriended
her in his primitive way. It was absurd to imagine that
she could do anything to help him. He was strong as steel
but entirely beyond rescue, standing naked before the
chattering crowd, his eyes full of unanswerable questions.
were struck and he was made to run in place. With busy
hands, the little red-faced slave-dealer adjusted the
young officer’s pose. The dealer’s round hat, like the
dome of the Pantheon, reached no higher than the
German’s chin. In his incongruously large voice, he
recited the young man’s excellences.
. . . the horse-like hangings of this German yearling.
Why, if you dunk him in a tub with your females, they’ll
swell up like bladder-balls overnight. . . ."
potential," someone nodded.
a biter," his neighbor cautioned. "He would have
chewed off old Servius’s kneecap when they dragged him
up from the wharf, if someone hadn’t knocked him on the
truly an animal."
he’ll be sold as a farmhand. His prettiness will be
ruined in a year."
who’d buy such a sack of devils?"
our fancy friends over there." The speaker jerked a
thumb toward two young men whispering to each other with
tense gestures, canvassing the auction-block with
something more than commercial intensity.
One of them
stepped forward and reached up to prod the German’s
genitals, dangling helplessly under their flax-colored
nest. A scarlet flush began at the base of the young
officer’s neck and moved up to the roots of his hair. A
kick from his left leg narrowly missed the young man, who
leaped back, his wig sloping over one eye.
Magnus!" his companion gasped, steadying the pale
auctioneer’s whip cracked; the German winced. Magnus
straightened himself, with a smile of satisfaction. From
that smile, Adriana deduced the Vandal’s life to come:
buggery, tears, flowers, whippings, an early death.
A tap on
the gong opened the bidding.
solidi, gold," Magnus bid in an elegant voice.
passed from head to head. Adriana cast an eye over the
tattered crowd; a higher price seemed unlikely. With an
odd sense of desperation she fingered the leather pouch
from Aunt Laelia. She had counted up the contents on
shipboard: twenty gold solidi and some smaller pieces,
apparently excavated from Laelia’s winecellar in a
auctioneer, clearly unwilling to argue with more gold than
had been paid for the German girl, raised his mallet and
glanced inquiringly over his audience.
solidi," Adriana called out loudly, before her
discretion could overwhelm the impulse. Her heart pounded;
her blood rushed to her cheeks. By the turning of the
crowd’s collective head she understood that her tongue
had run away with her. A freedwoman? their curious
smiles seemed to say. Entrusted with such a purchase?
What can her lord be thinking of?
flushed scarlet. "Thirteen solidi."
The old men
around him shook their heads.
solidi," Adriana bid, her voice strained with
solidi," the airy voice countered, but with a tremor.
her mouth to bid again, and shut it. As the auctioneer
poised his mallet to strike the gong, she raised the bid
again with a despair that she hardly understood.
sweat broke out on Magnus’s forehead. He bit his lips.
Doubtless he could have doubled Adriana’s bid without
impoverishing himself, but at the price of disgrace. The
crowd was already murmuring about pale young men driven to
ridiculous excess by their deplorable appetites.
solidi bid for the young Goth. Good breeding stock. Good
farm-help. Sixteen solidi." The dealer clapped his
hands sharply. "Sixteen solidi bid for the German
colt," he repeated in a tone of finality.
clang of the gong announced the sale; Adriana’s knees
went weak as the sound died away.
Magnus exclaimed, and bit off two fingernails.
A low moan
went up from the two boys still on the block. One held out
his manacled hands to Adriana with entreaties in his own
tongue. The spectators pursed their lips at her and shook
their heads; the sale went on. The monotonous voice of the
auctioneer resonated in the background; his gong
introduced the next German. Adriana was too agitated to
follow the bidding. The auctioneer’s assistant, slightly
drunk and as brash as his master, tied a skimpy kerchief
around the young Vandal officer’s hips and led him from
the platform by the rope around his neck. The boy’s blue
eyes met Adriana’s; his long eyelashes fluttered in a
shock of recognition.
purchase, madam," the assistant said in an
impressively merry voice, as he weighed Adriana’s gold
in a portable scale. "You’ll never regret it.
First-rate breeding stock. Perhaps Your Perceptiveness
allowed herself to notice his qualifications? The boy has
many healthy pups in him, I’d say."
a square of parchment and a wood tablet, knelt, and wrote:
Wolf, son of no one, Vandal by nationality, twenty
years of age, in good health as required by law, unaccused
before the law, neither vagrant nor runaway, free from
Discretion will find this in order," the assistant
said, standing and offering Adriana the bill of sale.
accepted the parchment with a curt nod of the head.
his fetters," she said.
your business, madam," the assistant shrugged.
"I suggest you keep the fetters."
fetters," she said, "and I’ll see to the
see." The assistant raised his eyebrows and smirked.
"But to leave him free to run, madam?"
signaled; a freedman brought a mallet and chisel and
removed the fetters. With the rope still dangling from his
neck, the German shook out his arms and legs gratefully.
Then, without a sound, he leaped high in the air, an
explosion of sinew, and swept an imaginary sword under his
own feet as if to be sure that all his former agility
moment," Adriana said, refusing the rope-end that the
slave-dealer’s assistant extended to her.
to the boy. "Promise, if you will, not to run."
madam, before God."
God, indeed," the assistant marveled, making the sign
of the cross on his forehead.
the rope," Adriana said.
taking a risk, madam."
assistant threw up his hands. "It’s not my
problem," he grumbled, lifting the noose up over the
boy’s head, bowing, and fading away.
himself, the young officer looked down at his
near-nakedness as though it had a separate personality.
Apart from his marvelous blushing he had decent control of
his face, but unconsciously he kneaded his big fingers and
curled his long toes in embarrassment. He tugged
desperately at the scrap of cloth around his narrow hips,
for lack of much else to tug at.
most sorry," he said mournfully, in good Latin,
"that you have to see me without my clothes. My holy
mother, who reads the Psalms through every day, would not
approve of me."
laughed aloud. "Please, no regrets," she said
soothingly. "Most people look better in clothes,
it’s true. But not all people do."
looked her in the eyes, shyly. He seemed to be gazing with
pain into a lifetime of unimaginable degradation.
please don’t try to read the future," Adriana said
kindly. "Women attend the slave block for various
reasons, and not all those reasons are stupid or
has her privileges," he answered stoically.
well. I give you one of them: the privilege not to
an awkward silence. The boy’s big hands dangled at his
sides with their palms toward Adriana, as if he were
pleading for something he could not name.
did you rescue me, madam?" he asked at last with shy
I’m grateful to you for not burning my house." She
thought for a moment. "Because any woman can tell the
difference between a man and a monster, provided she
isn’t in love." She hesitated ruefully. "After
that, God help her. There’s no eyeless fish so blind in
all the caverns of the Alps."
swear loyalty to you then, madam," the boy said with
a sudden rush of earnestness. "You may kill or use me
as you please. This is the German way. May Valhalla vomit
me up and hell swallow me, may trolls pinch and scald me,
may my bones be crushed over the Doomstone, if I fail in
loyalty to you."
was delivered with great seriousness. Adriana suppressed a
word, Vandal, do we need all that to get by? The Lord
said, ‘Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.’"
have behaved foolishly?" the boy asked, reddening
Really." She laid a comforting forefinger on his arm.
"It’s only that I feel I know your sense of honor
just a little, and I would have trusted you without all
that lightning and thunder. Are you really only twenty,
inspected his face, looking for signs of deceitfulness,
finding none. He had a frank, childlike expression and a
soft baritone voice, persuasive as an echo from the Well
years and eight months, madam. Thanks to the good God, I
have lived through a great deal."
get along, you should live through a great deal
more," Adriana said. "I encourage you,
therefore, to obey whatever civilized impulses you may
find in yourself. You’ll see that I’m not difficult to
madam." His expression was earnest to the point of
call me something other than ‘madam’."
shall I call you?"
such familiarity common at Rome?"
the lord or lady requires it. I’m happy with my name;
you may use it freely. ‘Your Felicity’ and ‘My
lady’ take too much wind. Just ‘Adriana.’ Say
And yours, of course, is. . . ." She glanced at the
warranty. "Wolf. Voal-f."
like to hear you say my name," Wolf commented softly,
with a rush of color to his cheeks. He blinked his mild
Volf," she said again. "It’s a good name.
Sounds like a pup chasing butterflies."
does," he said agreeably.
you comfortable, now, Wolf?" she asked.
satisfied. I am grateful," he said, nodding.
"But I feel like a very small boy without my sword
and my axe."
find a knife, at least, and a clean tunic," she said.
"An axe would attract attention."
pleasant to be leaving the forum at last; the noise
reminded Adriana of the proconsul’s parrot-house at
Carthage. She kept an eye on Wolf at her side, picking his
way with infinite discretion among fish-vendors,
cabbage-vendors, crockery-vendors, trinket-vendors. She
was grateful to see no imperial soldiers anywhere,
although the market was kept in order by several pairs of
local head-bashers in ill-fitting helmets, middle-aged men
with the potbellied strength of tavern-keepers.
forefinger to his chest, Adriana stopped a clean young
stevedore and bought the tunic off the astonished boy’s
back. He hurried away in boots and a loincloth, counting
small silver. A weapon would not be so easily supplied.
Near the vaulted entrance to the forum, a row of keen-eyed
stall-holders grasped the public coin with hairy fingers.
Adriana hesitated over a broad display of what could
charitably be called miscellany: crockery that had been
smashed and re-smashed, hideous images of saints and gods,
pieces of the True Cross, locks, keys that did not fit
them, kitchen utensils with holes, ragged carpets, mats,
pots, lamps. The stall-holder presented himself.
Adriana said. "I’m interested in knives. Do you
have knives?" the merchant responded. "My
collection is not to be surpassed between Rome and
a half-dozen rusted blades with dirty handles. He watched
her with a look of modest detachment as she examined them.
His wife had not cultivated the look; her eyes seemed to
penetrate the folds of Adriana’s clothing and examine
the contents of her purse.
curiosity’s sake, what price have you attached to this
antique?" Adriana asked, holding up a knife.
siliquae of silver, Your Prudence."
it can’t be worth more than two."
up another knife, examined it critically, and raised her
eyebrows at the merchant, who held up four fingers.
With a toss
of the head she threw the implement down and picked up
siliquae, Your Sagacity."
she exclaimed, throwing it down.
merchant glared. She held up two fingers. The merchant
folded his arms across his chest. She turned to leave the
stall. The merchant lost patience and followed her with
both hands waving.
Can’t you spend three siliquae without making faces as
if your teeth were being pulled? Would you bargain over
the shadow of a donkey? Why spoil your brain by thinking
of every little piece that’s to be spent?"
three siliquae are insignificant," Adriana said
stiffly, "you don’t need them."
He threw up
his hands. "Take the damned knife for two siliquae.
God send you no need of it."
his wife intoned, eyeing Adriana’s silver as she counted
it out of her purse.
people must be Christians here," Wolf said
thoughtfully in his rich baritone, as they left the stall.
"The woman said ‘Oh, God’ many times and
these are Christians, I’m the Apostle Peter. Can you use
good," Wolf nodded, thumbing the blade.
she said, laying a finger on his shoulder. "Let’s
have less saintly good cheer. The knife is trash; the
people who sold it are goats, not sheep. I only ask if you
can use it until we find a better one."
grateful, madam," he said. "It has notches and
stains like my own blade at home. If I polish it, it will
wink at me like a friend."
before midday they walked beneath the stone vault of the
city’s east gate, in a crush of peasants, vendors, and
ill-smelling animals. A sentinel looked hard at Wolf’s
yellow hair, but yawned and said nothing. Adriana’s
heart leaped when she saw a pair of soldiers in uniform,
drinking in the shade of a tomb. She passed unnoticed.
The day had
been borrowed from paradise. She longed to soar and sing
like a lark in the sparkling sunshine, or to lose herself
in the sea, transparent emerald near the shore, deepening
to blue, fading into a misty pearl-color near the horizon.
The height of Pausilypus glimmered down the curve of the
bay; beyond, Vesuvius rose under a silver crown of vapor.
Fishing-boats rested like butterflies on the western
horizon. Capri shimmered in the distance like a
a picture," Adriana said. "Do you wonder how we
get anything done in Italy? Our country is made to lie
down and dream in."
along the border of the dusty highway, passing slow-moving
bullock wagons that kept the traffic from becoming
dangerous. The German flowed effortlessly beside Adriana
like a lean boarhound. She speculated how he might look at
Geiseric’s court, attending the king, his fine body
clothed in fashionable Byzantine fabrics, a decorative
battle-axe dangling from his belt, gold bands around his
neck and wrists, and tiny graceful tattoos at the base of
his throat, by which the angels in heaven would recognize
him after his death.
remained distant, saintly, otherwise expressionless. You’re
too good for your own good, Adriana thought. If
you’re not careful you’ll be snatched up into heaven
wondered about the limits of his goodness, and resolved to
women of Rome must be too small and dark for your
taste," she said. "I imagine you sigh yourself
to sleep every night, thinking about the blond girls from
the north, with their insatiable appetite for romance and
not think about them, Adriana," Wolf answered
pleasantly, with no explanation.
always admired German women for their sheer size,"
Adriana said with a little yawn, "and they’re very
handsome, too, though a bit like splendid horses in my
opinion, with their large teeth and long upper lips. But
their skins are certainly excellent. My grandfather used
to say that for a horse’s skin and a woman’s,
there’s no better place than the shores of the northern
and examined Wolf’s face. There was a little flush of
embarrassment on his cheeks, but no sign of outraged
heard it said," she continued pleasantly, "that
German women wash their hair in ale, and when they’ve
wrung out their tresses, they drink the drippings. Is
there any truth to the rumor?"
there is a German woman who does it, Adriana. I have not
seen it done."
step up the attack, she thought.
grandfather once forced himself to live in the north for a
year, for military purposes, when he was a young
man," she said, "near the sea that’s never
very salty and never very warm. He said it was like living
all year in a cold bath-house or a wet bird’s-nest.
Everything clings to everything else and to oneself.
It’s hardly any wonder that the Germans decided to move,
after centuries of growing pale in that universal fog. I
understand this is characteristic of Germans,
yes?—taking several centuries to reach a decision. It
has to do with the fear of being wrong, I believe."
may be true, Adriana," Wolf said politely, giving no
sign that he had heard more than the shape of her words.
is very green up there, I’m told," she continued,
"with no variety of ilex or olive; and in that dim,
watery atmosphere the people grow fruits and flowers that
in Italy we throw to the pigs. So it’s entirely
understandable that when your people went looking for a
new country to oppress, they pounced on one with
agreeably and said nothing.
was an impressively orderly pounce, I must say,"
Adriana went on. "I’ve heard so much about the
German love of order. My knowledgeable friends tell me
that German babies beat time with their rattles, and that
German birds refuse to leave their cages when the doors
are open. Are these things true?"
think not, Adriana. German babies do not have rattles, and
German birds do not have cages."
me . . . ," she began again, and stopped. "No.
Tell me what you will. I’m tired of asking
at him, irritated by her failure to be irritating.
an unexpected, radiant smile. "I am Your Felicity’s
slave. If you wish me to be wise, I will be wise. If you
wish me to be a fool, I will be a fool."
if I wish you to be friendly?"
will be friendly."
this the unprincipled pliability I detest in the people I
put up with at Rome? What good is it to be ‘friendly’
if the heart isn’t in it?"
cannot command friendship, Adriana. Only the pretense. I,
too, have a question."
his throat politely. "Is it true," he asked with
every appearance of innocence, "that the Romans cure
a sunstroke by putting a gutless chicken on the
patient’s head, like a wig, and that he has to wear it
until it rots and falls off? I have heard of such a
have I," Adriana smiled, "but not at Rome. Only
a very primitive person would do anything so
the same with us," Wolf said.
feel that we understand each other," she smiled,
tunnel of Pausilypus, the highway dipped down near the
sea. Fishing boats were beached in rows near the pavement;
copper-colored fishermen dried their nets on the sand and
rested in the shade of their craft.
touched his right shoulder and sighed.
understand you bit a man on the leg back there,"
Adriana said. "He must have struck you hard in
return; you seem to be favoring one wing."
you sure? Where did the blow fall?"
were two," Wolf said patiently, "one on my
shoulder and one on my head."
me see," she said, stopping in the middle of the
gravel path. "Squat down."
obediently to his haunches, with a ripple of muscle and a
She ran her
forefinger along the immense distance from the base of his
neck to the end of his right shoulder, enjoying his
embarrassment as much as she enjoyed the texture of his
a bruise near the shoulder-bone," she said. "The
skin isn’t broken. Where’s the other wound?"
hurt is inside my head. It is difficult to see," Wolf
stammered foolishly. "Here, where my hand is, above
your head," she said, putting two fingers under his
square jaw. "Up here, straight above the ear,
there’s a lump. The skin isn’t broken."
happy," he said.
up." She had tested his obedience, and was charmed by
it. "It occurs to me that you must walk with women a
great deal. Your pace suits mine exactly."
have not walked much with women, Adriana," the boy
said with intense seriousness, self-consciously checking
the movement of his big feet.
me," she smiled. "If I could tell such lies,
I’d have my fortune back in three days."
deeply, a beautiful, healthy color that brought a shine to
his cheekbones. "Among us, Adriana, women do not go
with the military, except the officers. It is our belief
that continence builds a man’s strength. At court, the
king requires chastity of his young men, though he does
not practice it himself. At home I have a maid who used to
be my nurse when I was little. She comes every night to
see that I have everything I need, and to set out my
clothes for the next day."
the only woman in your life, truly?" Adriana asked
happily. "And she’s very old?"
old," Wolf repeated. "I cannot remember that she
was ever younger."
looked at his face, all tan-and-gold seriousness, and
smiled. "Excuse me," she said.
not understand," he said.
calling you a liar."
you wish to call me a liar, Adriana, that is your
business," he said quietly.
in Africa they don’t teach you to say pretty things to
ladies," she chided. "I know several men who
could’ve improved on that speech without straining
themselves. But perhaps candor is best."
beach, two fishermen with great biceps dumped the
morning’s catch on the sand. The fish threw somersaults
and made wry faces in their death-agony.
hungry?" she asked, suddenly thinking of it.
not uncomfortable, madam."
do your people eat at midday?"
preferences are my own."
that doesn’t answer my question."
eat plain sheep-flesh, mostly, when we are in the field,
with strong ale to drink."
you be satisfied with cheese and bread and wine?"
you have the kindness to stop calling me
on an open stretch of beach near a cluster of
fishermen’s huts. A deserted arbor near the sand offered
shade and close-cropped grass.
spread my cloak here," she said, and shook it out.
She took cheese, wine, and bread from her bundle, the
remains of her breakfast. The sea glittered sleepily in
the late-morning sun.
A few paces
down the road, fishwives had assorted themselves along the
beach in view of the west gate of Naples, to sell to the
seaside traffic. They were red-faced, warlike creatures,
booming their wares in voices of thunder, frantic to get
rid of the morning’s catch before it spoiled in the heat
of the day.
opened her enormous mouth from time to time and bellowed
in a rasping tenor about rosy mullets, white soles, juicy
cuttlefish, and lobsters black as Ethiopia, though in fact
she had only a dozen lumps of flesh on a board. She raised
her voice when she saw Adriana and Wolf sitting.
wants fish? Fresh fish, fat fish! Two coppers apiece.
Fresh fish! Fresher than fresh! See them flop around, like
the devil in holy water!"
you think we can make a mouthful of this," Adriana
asked doubtfully, looking at their skimpy meal.
"I’d kill for something cooked."
will sell you a cooked fish!" the fishwife boomed, as
if she had overheard Adriana’s remark.
time to find out a little more about his character,
Adriana thought. She counted small silver into Wolf’s
see that big noise of a woman over there, like a purple
cabbage?" she said, pointing at Monica. "Take
the money and buy us something delicious. If there’s
nothing delicious, don’t buy."
the sun shine forever on your pretty straw head!"
Monica bawled at his approach, introducing a string of
hearty blessings that Adriana heard only in fragments.
and squinted respectfully at the fish toasting on
Monica’s bed of coals. He shrugged and started back
the fishmongress shouted after him. "May you have it
at both ends! May worms eat holes in your stomach! May you
turn piss-yellow with fever and swallow your tongue!"
ears went scarlet. He shrugged again, returned, and
pointed at a meager pair of mullets that had not lost all
their juices. Monica tucked his coins into a leather bag
and presented the fish, dangling by their tails. A
toothless grin wrinkled her leathery face. She bawled
blessings. "Pretty boy, the hair of Monica’s head
is your rug. May thorns and brambles flee from your path,
and may no raven croak at your funeral, or your pretty
wife’s, either. . . ."
apologetic smile returned to the shade, pinching a cooked
fish by the tail with the thumb and forefinger of each
appears that Monica has joined us in matrimony,"
Adriana said. "Sit and eat."
He ate a
fish with great restraint, teasing the flesh off the bones
with big fingers that seemed capable of exact control.
have to admit to you, ‘husband’," Adriana said,
"that I was testing you when I sent you away with the
money. Is it premature to say that you seem honest to me?
You must be one of the few people left in the world who
can’t get a lie out of their mouths or their hands into
somebody else’s purse. It’s a defect, like being born
with one leg. Incurable, too, in my experience. Do you
care for Roman wine?"
extended the wineskin.
share," Wolf said, somewhat stiffly, "my
people’s weakness for drink: strong drink, weak drink,
anything in between. Ale is good. Mead, too."
should drink wine," she said, giving him the skin.
"Ale will make you fat, like a pig fed on
silent awhile, listening to the sawing of grasshoppers on
the slopes above the road. Wolf turned to watch the beach.
Adriana followed the play of light and shadow in his
expression, the birth of questions in his mild eyes, the
suggestion of a smile on his lips. He seemed relaxed in
her company at last, free to share her brief liberty from
half-dozen fishermen emptied a catch of sardines into
their boat, cascading from the net like a shower of silver
leaves. Women and girls mended nets in the shade of
beached vessels. A curly-headed boy painted eyes on the
prow of his craft, his thick brows drawn together in
is an honest face," Wolf said. "Is that, also,
an honest face?" He pointed to a dark wisp of a girl
who watched the boat-boy from a shady spot under the
olives. Her expression was generous and dreamy.
seems honest," Adriana nodded. "It pleases me to
think there are honest faces everywhere, in the mass of
dishonest ones. Maybe they’re brother and sister. Maybe
otherwise. I think they’ll marry and raise nineteen
good-hearted children who’ll help hold the world
together until God lets it fall apart."
speak Latin well enough for you, Adriana?" Wolf asked
with a hint of pride in his voice.
well," she said, "but like all Germans, you
chew your words, and your ‘r’ sounds like the bubbling
of a pot of beans over a fire."
will try to do better," he said solemnly, and Adriana
was a little sorry.
it is very good," she said.
brightened. She was moved by his earnestness and reserve.
Most of the northern savages she had seen were crude
cousins to the bureaucrats of Rome, sharks on two legs.
were you captured, if one may inquire?" she asked.
it was stupid," Wolf gloomed, suddenly articulate.
"We were loading our ship at Portus. Aligern, our
commander, insisted that we should take some big statues
from the old Capitol. He was sure the king would like
them. Aligern, who is now a dead fool, stood the statues
upright and lashed them to the mast, instead of laying
them on the deck. There was a night storm off Cumae. The
statues fell and broke the boat. Many men were crushed,
sleeping in the hold. A few of us floated to shore on
pieces of wood. The people of Puteoli captured us on the
beach. The king will not be pleased."
least you’re alive," Adriana said. "Better
slavery on dry land than freedom at the bottom of the
that is a sorry thing too," the boy said with
disgust. "Permission was given to sell us like pigs.
I heard that it came from a high office in Rome, from a
man who is supposed to be the king’s friend, Gaius Fau—.
Ach, I can never say it properly."
Geiseric’s friend? That’s useful to know,"
Adriana murmured, tapping her lips with her forefinger.
The filthy alliance had been confirmed.
know this Fau . . . stinus?" Wolf asked, turning to
too intimately," she said with some bitterness.
"He’s the reason why I’m somewhere near Naples
today, rather than in my own house at Rome."
hesitated. "Really, I’m speaking too freely to a
virtual stranger. I think I’m beginning not to care what
happens to me."
and shook out her cloak. Facing Naples, she looked out
over the bay, a great vase of antique blue on which the
little white sails of fishing boats drifted here and
there, sometimes silvered in the sunshine, sometimes
fading like mirages into the vapor that mantled the
horizon. The hot sea-breeze was not unpleasant. It carried
a reminiscence of spring.
let’s enjoy the day," she said, adjusting her knife
at her waist and striding out on the road to Naples.