'

'

Chapter 10

[Home] [Previous] [Next]

[Southern Italy, July 455]

The bishopís driver, a young monk, cracked his whip with a ferocity that seemed hardly Christian; the four-horse rheda rattled away eastward, throwing clouds of debris into the roadside moon-shadows. Adriana fell into a turbulent doze, her chin on her chest, and slept soundly during a change of horses at a roadside mansio. When she woke, the carriage was rocking along the lonely road past Picentia as if a demon were licking at its hubs. The dying city, asleep behind its silvered walls, was the last outpost of civilization on the eastbound highway.

Looking back from the carriage, Adriana could still see the bay of Salernum. Her eye traced the coastal highway southward, toward the deserted Greek city of Paestum; she pictured its ruined temples silvered under the dark arch of the sky. Taurinus was somewhere on that road, looking for her in the fever-stricken villages of the coastal plain.

Safe for the moment, she felt the gloom and loneliness of the South. Disaster seemed to wait upon the land, with its malarial seacoast and endless miles of deserted farmstead. She could see nothing yet of its barren mountains to the east, but she felt their menacing presence on the horizon.

"Are you comfortable?" she asked Wolf, folded up in his seat.

"I am not uncomfortable, Adriana."

They were moving away from the sea, over flat farmlands seamed with stony riverbeds. Not far from the town of Eburi the carriage began to climb the long inclines of a deforested mountain-flank, skirting unrepaired washes in the road.

At a high point near Eburi, Adriana tapped the boy-monk on the shoulder and made a sign. He pulled his horses to the edge of the highway, above a stupendous array of mountains, dry rivers, scrubby hillcrests.

"Iíd prefer to enter the town unnoticed," she said. "Unless, of course, youíd like to defy the bishop and take us to Rhegium in your cart."

"Body of Hercules!" the young monk swore at her jest, forgetting his religion. "Iíd rather think about death all day than go into those hills. Iíd rather offer pepper to a cat. . . ."

"Weíre grateful," she said, stepping down and motioning to Wolf to follow her.

"Go with God, madam," the monk said, handing down the bishopís gift-basket of provisions and politely declining the coin that Adriana offered.

The carriage disappeared down the westward road with an explosion of dust and a frantic clatter, the horses throwing out their legs as if they were pursued by the spirit of every horse in hell. The sound died away; the night was peaceful. Among the silvered flowers along the road Adriana recognized blue borage and field-pansies that would burst into summer color during the day.

"I trust youíre getting used to starvation," she said, appraising Wolf. His chiseled musculature seemed to be taking on a look of scarcity. "Iím not quite resigned to it myself. Letís find out what the Church has sent with us."

In the moonlight she bent over the bishopís wicker basket and excavated a large, moist cheese.

"Are you thirsty?" she asked.

"No, Adriana. I would not like to drink wine before the journeyís end. One loses oneís interest in walking."

"Weíll find a spring," she said, looking back towards Salernum for a final thirsty glimpse of the sea.

They walked briskly down the slope towards Eburi, eating cheese, watching for signs of fresh water in the parched landscape. She expected a trickle of some sort at the base of the hill. It appeared, close to the road, a creeklet bubbling through a weedy cleft in the dry fields. Tracing the rivulet a hundred paces from the highway, she found the spring that fed it. She pushed aside the protective greenery and drank deeply from her cupped hands.

Invigorated, she walked faster, tasting the cool morning. The eastern horizon was rose-grey; the plaintive bawl of an ox went up in the purple shadow of the hills. Larks hovered on the wing, singing. Wild myrtles scented the rising dawn-breeze. On a hill a mile away, the watch-towers of Eburi glowed above the town wall.

Adrianaís mood expanded. She smiled at Wolf as they walked.

"I havenít had the chance to compliment you," she said, "on how impressively you handled yourself at Naples. I believe youíd have cut all their worthless throats if I hadnít intervened."

"You were right to intervene, Adriana," Wolf said softly. "I was berserk but I could not have slain every able-bodied man in the city."

"But I believe you could have," she said. "How is it done among youóthe making of a boy-warrior? Romans had the secret once."

"Every boy is said to have drunk wolfís milk, Adriana. It isóhow do you say?óin the blood. When my friends and I were hardly old enough to ride wooden horses, we were bragging that victory was better than a womanís love, and death was best of all."

His words quickened her imagination. In the patterns of the dawn-sky she saw the crude, terrible pageantry of the Vandal march through Spain and Africa, an endless column of dust: giant wagons rolling southward like oak-wheeled beasts; flocks of stolen sheep, cargoes of stolen pigs; one-eyed, thumbless, flay-faced, battle-scarred blond warriors, armored in black metal; pregnant women in leather aprons; herds of oxen driven by naked boys; troops of shaggy horse; apple-cheeked virgins singing Arian hymns to the music of trumpets and drums.

"We all planned to be warriors, but I was pious, unlike the others. All my life I have been pious, like my mother," Wolf said, with such gloom that Adriana had to suppress a laugh.

He spoke with German earnestness of his year at an Arian monastery on the Egyptian model. His active body had rebelled against the discipline of cold marble and ritual prayer. He had felt like a tiger scraping its hide against the bars of a cage. Repeatedly, the abbot had punished him for secret acts committed with the hand.

"Ah, you were scattering your unborn children," Adriana scowled.

"Their number is limitless, madam, and that is only a Greek theory anyway," Wolf said with quiet dignity, his ears turning pinker than the dawn.

"Soóyouíre no longer a monk."

"The day after my seventeenth birthday," Wolf said patiently, "I was walking along the military wharf at Carthage, meditating on the Word of God, when the kingís highest-ranking naval officer came up and struck me on the mouth. I turned my cheek to him, as Scripture says to do."

"Yes. And then?"

"I picked him up and threw him into the harbor. Scripture does not say what to do after one has turned the cheek."

He sighed. "The man was drunk; he sank like a stone. I could not have saved him. The king was furious. I went into hiding until my half-brothers could persuade him that the fault was not mine. But my abbot convinced the king that I would be a disgrace to our holy Arian faith, so at the kingís Ďsuggestioní I enlisted under the Scarlet Banner and went off to hunt Berbers and Catholics in the hills."

His eyes were distant as he remembered the African drylands. For a German he spoke poetically: of scorched hills and white dunes, and sunsets the color of fading bruises; of fleeting cloud-mists and whirling sand, the howl of Berber dogs, the fury of Berber drums; of homesickness and woman-sickness, and the "beetle" that crawled in a manís brain and made him frantic as a colt bitten by a horsefly; of the pervasive dust and grit, collecting in the spaces between oneís teeth, drifting on the tent-floors, accumulating in mounds among the perfume-bottles of sunburned officersí wives who sighed all day for the distant joys of Carthage.

"Desolation," Wolf said, shaking his head, "sometimes makes heroes, and sometimes imbeciles."

"The difference?"

"Who knows? I myself was both, I think. I used to drive away the ghosts of desolation with wine, because I was young and foolish. In the morning I felt as if the ghosts were jumping on my grave."

He seemed both unwilling and eager to continue his confession. Adriana listened without comment, setting herself at a distance from the old pains quickened by his words.

"We quartered ourselves on the Berbers when we were on campaign," he said. "We paid them with suffering. Their best defense was the heat and stink of their huts. I used to think the smell drove up the temperature. Berbers, ach! I think they learned their vices from the Egyptians and their household habits from monkeys. We killed many of them. We did many other things I could not take part in."

Sweat beaded his forehead as he spoke, confessing Vandal atrocities in the province of Africa: Roman priests hung over a fire and burned with red-hot irons; Roman altars urinated on; horses stabled in Roman baptisteries; Roman holy vessels used as chamber pots; Roman villages and fields sent up in smoke; the Roman faithful set roving in emaciated herds through the destroyed countryside. The land had taken its own revenge on the blond heretics: some were lost in sandstorms; some died in a raving horror of thirst; one party was cornered by Berbers in a stand of pine and burned alive.

Wolf was breathing hard, but not from exertion.

"Iím glad I donít understand the need to do that sort of thing," Adriana said gently.

"I do not myself," Wolf said with quiet resolution. "The men of the Scarlet Banner are virtuous, many of them, but hunger and thirst do strange things to a man who thinks he is civilized. On the march we were angry and weary to death, the best and the worst of us. We were white with dust, our feet were sore, our beards were ragged, our hair smelled. Our stomachs were empty, like our purses and our beds. That is how it was with us. So we did terrible things. I myself tried to be Christian for the honor of God and my mother, but I am not proud of everything I did in the misery of those days."

"Itís pleasant to know that youíre pious," Adriana smiled, steering the subject away from bloodshed, "though somehow you donít really look pious."

"Everyone has faith in something," Wolf said solemnly, as if repeating a truth half-understood.

"You and I are supposed to be religious enemies, because of our different conception of Christ," she reflected, "but I donít understand the reason. Iíve never believed the parts of any religion that seem made for old women. Long ago there was a bishop in Gaul who said that God became man so we might become God. I believe that."

"I believe it," Wolf echoed resolutely.

"And the rest isóvah!"

"Yesóvah!"

The early light promised a hot, dry southern day, the sky gleaming like hot metal, the summer smell of parched weeds making the air difficult to breathe.

"This morning reminds me of Africa," Adriana said, watching the movement of peasants and animals up the slope ahead. "I remember our farm on the coast near Clupea as if Iíd left it yesterday. I think I could remember the names of our silver oxen if I thought hard. We kept them in spotless stalls with their own names printed above them, and the Five-Fingered Hand to preserve them from the Evil Eye. Lord, the animals! Itís been a long time since I thought of them. I had a friendly sheep-dog named Rufus, who sometimes pounced on the green lizards in our villa yard and swallowed them alive. I had a white donkey of my own, too, and my own goat. They were both so intelligent they seemed to speak without using words. Theyíre gone now, of course."

"I am sorry," Wolf murmured.

"It wasnít your doing," Adriana said, as they passed into the shadow of the wall of Eburi.

*

The breeze rose; a scattering of tiny clouds turned from red to silver as the dawn broadened over the world. The town was low and shabby. There was a sleepy suggestion of brutality about the place, and an abnormal wariness. Dozing with one eye open, the beggars seemed ready to run, infirmities and all, at the slightest threat of a kick. Women slunk down the streets as if expecting an attack from an unknown direction. Cats, slouching between the tiles of the roofs, kept an eye peeled for dogs that were safely on the ground. Only the shepherds seemed fearless: hard-eyed men whose hair dripped grease on garments in which their grandfathers must have sweated.

"It is a strange city," Wolf said, returning the baleful gaze of the passers-by. "Everyone seems to expect an earthquake."

"Brigands, perhaps," Adriana speculated. "Here, the brigands are the people, and the people are the brigands."

She took Wolfís arm and inserted herself into a file of carts, getting in front of a brace of mules whose driver cursed her, but whose whip was too short to reach her neck. The procession carried her to the forum, where people with little money had gathered to bump against vendors with little to sell. The smells were atrocious. The Greek-inflected noise was a blow to the ear.

"We wonít stay long in this jewel-box of civic virtue," Adriana said, reflexively touching her knife and her coin-sack. "What do we need? Bread, dried figs, wine, hard cheese, straw hats against the sun, a change of tunics for you, a cloak for you to sleep in, flint and iron, a pot to carry coals, and a small clay kettle to cook in. New sandals can wait until Nerulum or so. Meat and eggs can be bought on the road when the bishopís supply runs out."

"And if there are no meat and eggs, a bow and arrows?" Wolf suggested, blushing at his own boldness.

"If the price is right."

The haggling at the stalls took less time than Adriana had expected. She lingered the longest over a small wooden bow with a Hunnish appearance and a collection of bedraggled arrows, relics of the time of Alaric. She bought the ensemble for a silver piece. Wolf watched the transaction with trembling lips, and permitted himself a little whoop of joy when it was finished.

They bundled their provisions in their travel-cloaks, slung the bundles over their shoulders, and edged toward the south entrance of the forum, passing through the shadow of a statue of Petronius Maximus. At its base, a cluster of beggars threw dice for each otherís alms, grinding their teeth, squinting with eyes like black diamonds at the spot where the small, square pieces fell. A white-bearded beggar fired off fives; the losers cursed.

On a rash impulse Adriana slipped a copper out of her sack and tossed it into the center of the circle. The chaos was immediate. Six beggars dived for the coin. A hunchbacked beggar kicked a blind beggar in the stomach. A one-armed beggar brought a stick down on the hunchbackís hump. The blind beggar wept without tears. A fingerless beggar drummed excitedly with his stumps on the shoulders of a fever-demented beggar, who stared open-mouthed at the fracas. While the beggars struggled, an adolescent boy leaned into the fray, snatched up the coin, and ran.

"Have you had enough of Eburi?" Adriana asked, disgusted.

"Too much. I would beat them like children if this were Carthage."

Eating coarse bread, they left the forum. On a ruined wall outside, the boy who had run with Adrianaís coin sat kicking his heels in the air, at the center of an assembly of cats whose bleak expressions suggested they did not quite dare to hope for alms.

The boy inspected Adriana and Wolf, estimating their value in copper. With an athletic shift of his shoulders he dropped into the street, stood on his hands in front of Wolf, somersaulted, bowed, grinned, and patted his mouth.

"What does the troll want?" Wolf asked.

"Bread," Adriana answered, throwing the boy a chunk from her slab as if he were a pup.

The boy made an exaggerated leap to catch the bread, put it in his mouth, turned a somersault, bowed with mock gravity, and ran with the bread like a dog. In a moment he was back, standing on his head.

"What do you want now?" Wolf said in a voice of thunder.

"Oh, sir," the boy said, "I am very fond of you."

"Woden!" Wolf exclaimed, purple-cheeked. "Why does he say these things?"

"Because he knows that nobody gives alms to a beggar who tells the truth."

"Is not your mother calling you?" Wolf asked fiercely.

"I have no mother."

"Perhaps it is the voice of your father I hear?"

"I have no father."

Wolf turned scarlet.

"This is something new," Adriana spoke to the urchin, "a beggar who makes declarations of love. This man is mine. Why do you love him?"

"Because he will give me alms," the boy said winsomely.

"But why should he give you anything?"

"Because," the boy replied, spreading his hands and grinning radiantly, "because, madam, he has a beautiful wife."

"Weíll give you a small copper," Adriana said, smiling in spite of herself, "because you have the power to perform marriages."

She held out the coin; the boy snatched it and bowed.

"If," he said, holding up a forefinger, "Your Charities are passing through Eburi, I can offer you something better than compliments."

"And what might that be?" Adriana asked, amused by his rhetoric, incongruous with his crude little face.

"Myself," the boy beamed, "and that magnificent beast refreshing himself at the fountain."

He gestured expansively at a pair of long ears wagging above a nearby basin.

"Do you wonder how I recognized you as people with funds, traveling south?" the urchin said, tapping his temple wisely. "Itís because Iím keenly observant. I watched you buy everything worth buying in the forum."

His thin chest expanded. "Iím worth five times the modest wage youíll pay me. Iíll carry your bundles, because itís undignified for Your Greatnesses to be burdened with anything but a switch to make war on the flies. Iíll sing to you, because I have the voice of a Christian angel; and the donkey, he sings too, and he only costs a nummus a day additional, which is of course nothing. And if I may say so, madam, you donít speak Latin well enough to defend yourself in these hills, where youíll be among strangers. How will Your Innocence order a meal? How will she know when sheís getting half of what she pays for?"

The urchin was pleasingly ugly, with a soft fringe of mustache under a nose too small for his bold brown eyes and heavy eyebrows. His straw hat and tunic were full of holes. He had a large red sore on one of his brown legs. Two murderous-looking short knives framed his hips.

"That red sore," Adriana said, stooping down and plucking it off the boyís leg, "is a fraud. You should be whipped."

"Iím ashamed, madam," he grinned, passing a grubby hand over the place where the spurious wound had been. "But my sisters are starving because theyíre too young to beg for themselves, and I must do something to create sympathy for myself so I can provide for them."

"You have no sisters," Adriana said. "What can you do besides lie? We wonít stretch our rations to fatten a weed."

"I can fight," the urchin said. With great energy he demonstrated the use of his knives: one, two, both blades stuck in the belly of the emperorís man before the regulation short-sword could be drawn from its sheath.

"Iím also a celebrated hunter. I know all about the beasts of the field and forest. I can shoot an arrow straight as a string, and make stones fly like birds. In dancing, singing, and the knife I have no equal between Salernum and Rhegium. I can make poetry in the Latin and Greek of the hills. I captivate women by my good looks, with some humor. They like my lovemaking because I have the fire of Vesuvius in my loins but my kisses donít scratch."

"Whatís your name?"

"Lucius, son of an absent father."

"Where do you come from?"

"Everywhere," Lucius shrugged.

"What else can you do?" Adriana asked, bracing herself for more of his charmingly unrestrained immodesty.

"As Iím told. I can cut wood and build fires, make tents of skin, sniff out a trail, steal chickens and eggs both, lift purses. . . ."

"You can keep brigands at bay, too, I presume?"

"I snap my fingers at them," Lucius said, snapping his fingers. "I have powerful friends. Iíll lead you straight down through the hills, and no one will dare touch us. If some have missed the message, we can sleep unseen by day and travel by night. And since Iím a hunter, youíll always sleep with stomachs full of good meat, like foxes in lambing time."

"Can you take a beating?" Adriana inquired, raising her eyebrows.

"Iíve learned to."

"By Hercules, I believe you have," she laughed. "You see my whip here? It makes veal-steak of unbaptized flesh. Itís a terror to boys, this whip. Donít become familiar with it."

"What does he do?" Lucius asked, gesturing at Wolf with his thumb.

"He takes up where the whip leaves off. Youíll want to be careful of him. Heís like a panther when provoked. He bounds through the air and makes a boy into a mummy with one squeeze and one crunch."

Lucius turned and whistled for the donkey, who had been drinking from a public fountain. The creature came along with petulant brays and a rebellious outthrowing of heels. He was lean and loose in the ears, with a thoughtful face that seemed to suggest a dim view of the future.

"This is the glorious beast?" Adriana asked.

"Yes, glorious," Lucius echoed. "Heís beautiful and wise, and has a voice of thunder. Thereís no one else like him between Salernum and Rhegium. Heís called ĎHis Grace,í after His Grace the bishop of Vibo."

The donkey let out a frantic bray.

"You hear? He speaks wisdom. He deserves a pulpit."

The boy bowed.

"Impious trash, will you make the trip for a gold tremissis a week?" Adriana asked.

Lucius did a backward handspring, went to his knees on the cobblestones, and spread his arms in a gesture that embraced the world.

*

East of Eburi, the reign of ruin began. The air seemed cooked in the white forenoon. Everything slept but the flies, rejoicing maliciously in the heat.

Beyond the city gate, Adrianaís company trailed a half-dozen sullen peasants in single file. They were armed to the teeth, mounted sideways on tiny donkeys. His Grace followed placidly behind the last donkey, as if he were a member of the procession. The beast was worth the price of the boy, carrying the partyís bundled travel-gear.

A roofless temple to Venus, abandoned to the elements for perhaps fifty years, stood near the tombs of Eburi. Luciusís hands jutted out suddenly, palms up, as the travelers passed the vine-covered ruin. It was a salute to the god.

"You need to be brought up to date," Adriana chided him.

The boy shot an insolent glance over his shoulder. "Why, madam? They are the true gods, who give force to my slings and arrows, and to my magnificent member as well."

They were on the shadeless, endless highway, from which the heat burned back with double force. The countryside was forbidding. The dry hills were like weedy mounds of sawdust. The stunted olive-groves were coated with dust. Mustard-colored oxen had taken refuge in their shade. They lifted their dark muzzles toward the travelers, as if amazed at the sight of straw-hatted people so foolish as to be out on the road at noon.

Lucius dropped back to walk beside Adriana. He was reading her face, his expression an odd mixture of sympathy and calculation. He had a shepherdís long walk, springing from the knee, flapping the tattered ends of his tunic that hung low over his dusty calves.

"When you travel with Lucius, son of an absent father, no one will come near you," Lucius said, taking a knife from one of his boots, drawing a finger down the edge, and glancing at Adriana with brief impressiveness.

"I believe itís true," Adriana smiled, pinching her nose.

The more the boy chattered, the more she liked him. His self-advertisement was so overstated that it carried no hint of calculation. He was sixteen years old, more or less. Somewhere he had learned half the vocabulary of a gentleman. Nature had supplied him with the ethics of a squirrel. He knew all the Christian priests, secret pagans, rich widows, and prostitutes in the South. He was a student of life at first hand and, by his own modest admission, a great lover, who could not only point out the prettiest girls in every town but call them by their nicknames as well.

In sixteen years, by his own account, he had been a slave, a beggar, a horse-thief, a sheep-thief, a shepherd, a singer, and an energetic maker of love. He could snare quail or rabbits with equal ease, fish and shoot better than any outlaw in the south of Italy, imitate a foxís bark, follow an enemyís trail without leaving a trail of his own, make a fire with flint and tinder, set a course in the wilds by shadow and starlight, seduce serf-girls without annoying their fathers, make whistles from willow-twigs and soup from weeds.

"Youíll always have a place to sleep when you travel with Lucius, any night of the year," Lucius said with a grand gesture at the landscape. "Fine houses stand empty in these hills. Thereís always plenty to wear. If you canít get a rag out of somebodyís garbage, the steward of any estate will give you something to cover your nakedness. Water gushes out of every hill. If you need food, you can ask for it or run it down. How many pounds of bread are thrown to the dogs in a week at Rome? Itís the same here, if you know where to look."

"I need my luxuries, however," Adriana said, fingering her back, where a stone had burrowed into it during a roadside nap.

The boy continued to recite his own excellences. He could ride, swim, dive in deep rivers and the sea, ply the whip, climb trees, scale cliffs without a rope, bring down birds and beasts with arrow and sling. He could sleep comfortably on any rock, with or without a rug. He could live on lichens and dovesí eggs, if necessary, or even on roots and the inner bark of trees. Of course he could make endless love.

"And the soles of my feet," he said, raising each foot in turn and slapping it on the bottom, "are like iron from long walking, so I can tread on stones without feeling them, and crush a scorpion without being stung, and stamp a snakeís head flat without risk to myself."

From a roadside stableyard a serf-dog ran after the travelers, barking ominously, though there was nothing for him to defend. His Grace stretched his neck, expanded his nostrils, set his tail stiffly horizontal, and emitted blast after blast that echoed from the yellow hills.

"Be at peace, Wise One," Lucius said, laying a consoling hand on the donkeyís nose. The boy hiked up his tunic, bent over, his head between his legs, and bayed, his face upside down under his butt. The dog fled, its tail between its legs.

"His Grace is wise," Lucius said reverently. "He expresses himself in a way even simple people can understand. He also has wisdom beyond expression. A mere man can only guess at it. He looks at you with kind eyes, and nods, Ďyes, yes,í with his head, which is full of grace and truth. Sometimes he rubs you with his nose. Thatís because he regrets that people need to use words, and canít express themselves in the language of pure thought."

Adriana nodded, vaguely amused. Her eyes and thoughts strayed to Wolf. He walked at the head of the little procession, his face serene, his eyes fixed on something far away. He had taken off his tunic and knotted it around his waist; he was bare-legged and bare-chested, under the wide-brimmed straw hat Adriana had bought for him in Eburum. His little Hunnish bow had the appearance of a childís toy, slung between his wide shoulders. He seemed to prosper in the harsh sun; he lacked the pink, cancer-prone complexion of most northerners. His smooth skin had a walnut undertone, and it had been well browned under the African sky.

His walk pleased her. He moved his legs with the confidence and grace of a professional runner. He seemed to be dreaming of good things to come, or cheerfully bearing a cross that he had no intention of discussing.

*

The highway was curiously deserted. A dry breeze stirred up eddies of dust on the stones. Once the pavement had been crowded with the retinues of emperors, senators, great ladies. Now there was no grandeur, only an occasional bony horse, a string of charcoal-bearing donkeys, mummified peasant women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads.

Since the passing of the Greeks, life in the South had been lived with death looking over its shoulder. The remnants of law and order were preserved by the bishops, the great landowners with their small private armies, and the pitifully undermanned garrisons of the duke of Lucania. The common people lived like beasts in smoke and filth, with their donkeys and pigs. In their barbarous songs the character of the South seemed reduced to a dirge, of white sun and parched earth, sour wine, earthquakes, early pregnancy, early death, and never enough to eat.

"Where did you learn such words as Ďthe language of pure thoughtí?" Adriana asked Lucius, picking up the thread of the conversation.

He drew breath for a long answer.

"I was the body-slave of Artemidorus the Greek, who taught my lordís children. I let him bugger me, though the master was against it, in return for teaching me to read and write big words. Butóas you will have sensed, AdrianaóIím a man for women. They love me as I love them, because I am young and of a godlike beauty."

He smiled; the smile was complacently self-affirming.

"When Iíd learned as much from Artemidorus as I wanted to know, I refused to bend over for him. For spite he gave me to some passing robbers, who tried to force from me the details of my masterís defenses and the number of his armed slaves, so they could break into his house. But Iím a man of honor, Adriana, and I wouldnít tell them anything."

Lucius puffed out his chest like a courting bird.

"Oh, I suffered manfully at their dog-hands. They heated nails and poked my flesh with them, threatening my beauty, even threatening to prod my manhood with those glowing spikesómy manhood, which is big and fertile, like a horseís. So I played dead, like a stinking polecat, and when their wine put them to sleep, the god who gave me beauty rose up in me and gave me strength. I burned my bonds over a living coal without even scarring my wrists, and ran away through the woods without tiring, like a stag in the rutting season, when his stones are full of sap. And I didnít stop until I was safe inside the town wall of Consentia, where a rich woman offered that very day to take me into her house and care for me."

"Because of your beauty, perhaps?" Adriana suggested.

"Yes, Adriana," Lucius admitted with a modest little smirk. "I would not have accepted, because I am like the rutting stag, who must run free or die, but my lady had beautiful girls in her kitchen, and I felt, as I often do, the need to become a father."

"You have children, little man?" Adriana smiled.

Lucius held up three fingers proudly. "I had three kitchen-girls swollen up in no time at all. The cook threatened me with the loss of my man-stones, so I ran away to preserve them. The babies are handsome, all boys. Iíve seen them in the market-place at Consentia. No doubt there are other babies elsewhere that I havenít seen. Yes, Adriana, the gods who gave me beauty gave me strong sap as well."

"Who looks after your bastards?" Adriana asked.

"Venus will care for them, maybe. Or maybe the Christian God will care for them. Itís not my problem. Weíre near water."

He sniffed the air. Wolf shook his head, but in a hundred paces the three stood on a stone bridge over a clear creek flowing out of a hillside to the west.

"Jove, we all smell," Adriana said, "you included, Vandal, Iím sorry to say. I feel as if Iíve worn the same underwear for three years without a change. God has granted us a bath to prevent us from suffocating one another."

Lucius led them off the road. The spring-fed creek originated in a series of clear pools overshadowed by willows, free of weeds, though not entirely of mosquitoes. Stripping to his loincloth, Wolf slid into a pool, his teeth chattering.

"You go too, unclean child," Adriana commanded Lucius. "Your armpits smell like mutton soup."

"It is a noble smell," Lucius complained.

"Nevertheless," she said, pointing at the creek with authority.

"I donít want to scrub myself in cold water like a barbarian," Lucius said with dignity. "Besides, I donít want to watch the German with his clothes off, with yellow fur on his legs that it makes a Roman ill to see. Moreover, Iím afraid."

"Of what?"

"That the German wonít be able to resist my beauty," Lucius whispered, with a face of infinite impudence.

Adriana raised her whip. The boy scurried down the slope.

She pushed through brittle underbrush to the next pool upstream, laid aside her clothes, and slipped into the water, hugging herself against the cold. She scrubbed her armpits and groin with handfuls of soft water-weeds, rinsed her tunic and undercloth, wrung them out carefully, and laid them on a hot boulder to dry in the sun.

Male shouts drifted up the watercourse.

Are the boys at war? she wondered. The question was immediately complicated by a mildly curious impulse to watch them. Smiling to herself, feeling rather too much like Flavia, she waded through the vegetable muck on the bottom of the pool to a place where she could peek downstream without being seen.

The boys were splashing amiably. Both of them apparently had the capacity of the young for easy forgiveness. Lucius climbed out of the water and dived deep, a brown streak in the sunlight. Wolf stood poised on the bank, preparing to dive, not to be outdone by the urchin. He swung his arms back, crouched, and knifed into the water, his unfatted body flexing and shadowing in flight, a rush of beauty more impermanent than a sunrise, a hundred times as moving, a thousand times too fast.

Unmatronly, she thought of herself, with a little rush of shame. She draped her damp clothes over herself and pushed her way downstream through the bushes. The boys were dressed, sitting on the bank, when she arrived.

"The heat is enough to burn up paving-stones," Lucius commented, flailing at a cloud of insects and scratching his legs, brown as walnuts.

Adriana dug in the bishopís basket for the holy manís private mixture of olive oil and tart-smelling herbs. The three smeared themselves.

"Now the mosquitoes wonít eat us," Adriana said. "Perhaps the natives will."


[Home] [Previous] [Next]

 

'

'