Would Centurion Quentin’s new Army mission preclude his religious quest?
So heavily did the thought of the impending dice game weigh on Quentin’s mind that he could hardly concentrate as he drilled his centuria that afternoon. The mere thought of Conor’s fate, should Fronto win, filled him with dread. Moreover, news of the game had spread through the fort quickly, as rumors always did, and there seemed to be an undercurrent of excitement
in the soldiers, artisans, and slaves as they hurried about the day’s business.
At last, however, the day’s activities were over and he made his way to the bathhouse. His mind was in a ferment; if he should lose the game, how would he break the news to Conor? Supposing he lost the game, but offered to pay Fronto the price of a slave. Would Fronto then let the Brigantian go?
As he entered the apodyterium, or changing room, of the bathhouse, the familiar smell of steam on stone floors and walls, along with the lighter fragrances of olive oil and wine, filled his nostrils. Overlaying these was the aroma of incense burning on the small altars of the shrines. The walls of the changing room, of smooth plaster painted white, held recesses in the shape of arches, and in each arch stood a statue of a god or goddess. The native goddesses Coventina and Brigantia were represented, as was the Roman goddess Fortuna, whose stone eyes gazed unseeingly into space.
Quentin stopped in front of the statue of Fortuna, bowed his head and closed his eyes in silent prayer. Let me win today, O Goddess of good fortune, and I will sacrifice a gold aureus to you. A gold aureus, worth 75 denarii, was a substantial amount; paying it would make such a hole in his finances that he’d have to be very careful indeed if his remaining money was to last until the next pay parade at the end of July. But it would be worth it if the sacrifice meant Conor would remain free. Here in the secular world of the bathhouse, where exercise, gambling, and sex occupied visitors as much as bathing, Quentin wanted to invoke every possible form of divine assistance.
Normally, he would have undressed, handed his clothes to an attendant, and gone to the exercise area, but today the normal bath routine was the furthest thing from his mind. More nervous than he cared to admit, Quentin looked around for Vitalis, who now appeared in the doorway leading to the tepidarium, or warm room.
“Where’s Centurion Fronto?”
“Coming,” Vitalis answered. “I’ve set up a table for you in this area here. See?”
There was a low table in the middle of the room, and a stool on either side of it.
“Thank you, Vitalis.” Quentin took a deep breath. “Wish me luck, will you?”
“Assuredly, Centurion,” Vitalis said. “Ah, here is Centurion Fronto. Good afternoon. I hope you enjoyed your bath.”
“It was good.” Fronto’s manner was brisk. He clearly wanted to get down to business. Quentin noticed how full of well-being the man looked, his skin oiled, his body—what could be seen of it above the towel wrapped around his waist—lean and muscled. But although Fronto looked relaxed his black eyes were still cold.
“Yes.” Quentin sat down on one side.
“Tessarae?” Fronto spoke to Vitalis, who produced a cup with two tessarae, or dice, in it. Although they had inherited the game from the Greeks, who played with three dice, Romans preferred to play with two. The numbers on the dice were arranged so that any two opposite sides would add up to seven. Men were crowding into the room, now; everyone wanted to watch. There was some good-natured shoving as soldiers elbowed each other out of the way so they could get an unobstructed view, and subdued laughter.
“Who first?” Vitalis asked, looking from one to the other.
“I’ll take the first turn,” Fronto said. He smiled in a way that made Quentin’s heart sink. Vitalis handed him the cup, which Fronto shook; then he tossed the dice out of the cup on to the table. A gasp went up from the crowd.
“A pair of threes,” Fronto said with satisfaction.
Quentin’s hopes plummeted. How was he going to beat that? The odds were against him. But everyone was looking at him now, waiting. Vitalis scooped up the dice, put them back into the cup, and handed it to him; he closed his eyes for an instant in prayer: Light of the Sun, do not let Fronto turn Conor into a slave!
He shook the dice, tossed them out.
This time the crowd was loud in its appreciation. “A seven! Centurion Quentin threw a seven!”
“Congratulations, Centurion,” Vitalis said, lips hardly moving.
Quentin could not restrain a smile of triumph as he looked across at Fronto. But if Fronto minded losing, he was not going to show it.
“So be it, Centurion. He’s your responsibility now.”
Quentin stood up, nodding at the people who came up to slap him on the back or offer their congratulations. He smiled automatically at the friendly remarks, but scarcely heard them. He was burning to make his way back to the hospital to tell Conor the news. Deep gratitude filled his heart that Lord Mithras and the Lady Fortuna had favored him—never mind that he’d be almost broke after he paid the sacrifice. So relieved did he feel that he was still smiling as he went in search of Conor.
Five minutes later, as he swung through the doorway of Conor’s hospital room, the Brigantian put down the leather harness he was mending and stared. “Do you know, Centurion,” he said, “this is the first time I’ve ever seen you smile?”
“I won, Conor. We diced and Fortuna favored me.”
Conor let out the breath he had apparently been holding. “And I’m glad of it. I’ve heard about Fronto. They call him ‘Give me another’ around the fort because he’s broken so many vinewood staffs across the backs of his men.”
“I know.” Quentin spoke abruptly, in case Conor was going to overwhelm him with thanks. “Look, I know you need a place to sleep. Since you’re officially a prisoner of Rome, imperial policy dictates that you be locked up in a room in the principia every night.”
Conor looked glum. “Oh.”
“But if you promise not to try to escape, I have an alternative.”
Conor raised his eyebrows. “And that would be…?”
“Well, if you were a member of my household—for example, if you were my armor-bearer and general aide—you could sleep in my spare room.”
“All right. I promise not to try to escape.”
“Good,” Quentin said. “Because every soldier in this fort knows exactly who you are and is ready to sound the alarm if you so much as stick your nose through the gate.”
“Tell me,” Conor said as he picked up his bedroll and tucked it under one arm, “what exactly does an armor-bearer do?”
“You just have to keep my uniform and weapons in good order. Polish my helmet and greaves, see that my sword is kept sharp, same for the dagger; keep my mail shirt in good repair, and so on.”
“That doesn’t sound too hard.”
“Right. Are you ready to go?”
“Oh, yes, I don’t have much to pack.” Conor grinned. “I won’t be sorry to see the last of this room, although I do get on well with the orderlies here.”
“You’re getting better at our language,” Quentin said. “You must have talked to them quite a lot.” There was something ingenuous and very likable about the Brigantian. He was not surprised to hear he’d made friends with the orderlies.
“Well, I must admit, you aren’t bad at our language, either,” Conor said. “It’s amazing how quickly you’re picking it up.”
“Thanks,” Quentin said. “Actually, your language is quite a lot like the Gaulish tongue I grew up speaking with my mother, so learning it comes easily to me.”
“Is she still alive, your mother?”
“No, she died several years ago, before I joined the army.”
“May she rest in peace.” Conor sighed. “I wish I could get word to my mother that I’m all right. I’m her youngest, and she always seems to worry more about me than the others.”
“Well,” Quentin said as they left the hospital and began to walk toward the barracks, “we could get word to her, you know. Where is she?”
Conor laughed. “You’re thinking to catch me out, aren’t you, Centurion? Because where my mother is, you’ll find my father. I’ve told you before, I don’t know where they are.”
“But you could guess, if you cared to.”
Conor shrugged. “They may well have fled across the border into Caledonia. Are you going to track them there?”
“Probably not… for the present, anyway,” Quentin said. “Look, here we are.”
“These are your quarters?” Conor asked as Quentin showed him through his rooms. Junior centurions were given a general room to use for paperwork and entertaining, as well as a sleeping chamber. “You have a lot of space, I see. Roman officers live very well.”
“Rank does have its privileges,” Quentin agreed. “You’re welcome to sleep in the general room.”
Conor propped his bedroll in a corner of the room and looked around. “All
right, where are the weapons? I might as well start polishing them.”
The next day, the sixteenth, was sacred to Mithras. As it happened to fall on market day, the soldiers were free of their usual duties. Quentin especially wanted to attend services to thank the Light of the World for helping him win the dice game. Accordingly, he made his way to the Mithraeum at the appropriate hour.
After the ritual bath, he was required to help serve the sacred meal to his brother Mithraists. The Ravens, as first-degree initiates, performed this service; those of the next highest degree—the Nymphus or bridegroom—stood to one side and sang during the meal. As with the majority of congregations, most of the initiates were Ravens, with one or two Miles and a few Leos. Only three of the members were initiates of the highest degrees—the fifth, Perses or Persian; the sixth, Heliodromus, or Sun; and the seventh, the Pater.
Unlike other religions, in which a man’s worldly status carried over into his spiritual life, the religion of Mithras recognized only spiritual status. As Quentin served the meal to those reclining on the stone benches before the table, he recognized a man who was a slave in his life outside the temple. He’d seen the man working with the building detail as a surveyor.
Silently, with downcast eyes and careful movements, the Ravens cleared the table after the others finished eating. They would carry the platters to the other room, there to reverently partake of the leftovers before leaving the temple. Quentin struggled to remove his mask, a painted wooden affair that seemed to have got stuck, and finally pulled it off.
“Whew!” He uttered the exclamation softly, but the feeling of cool air on his face was a huge relief. He was just about to take off his ritual robe when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
He turned around to see the Pater, the Heliodromus, and the Perses, still in ritual clothes, looking at him. Startled, he looked from one to the other before he remembered his manners. “How may I serve you, Pater? And brothers?”
The Pater answered. “My son, we think you have the potential to be a Leo.”
“I?” He had not expected this. The majority of Mithraists remained in the Corax degree for their whole lives. No one attained the Leo degree without enduring several severe tests, designed to measure courage, endurance, and strength. Those who passed were entitled to show the world
that they had done so through a visible sign—thunderbolts tattooed on the backs of their hands.
“Yes, my son. Prepare yourself to undergo initiation into the Nymphus degree in seven days.”
“Thank you, Pater.” Quentin bowed his head respectfully.
“Perses here will let you know the requirements for initiation.”
Quentin nodded, too overcome to speak. Later, in his sleeping chamber, he sat down on a stool to think matters through. Becoming a Leo meant passing through the Nymphus and Miles, or Soldier, degrees first. Each degree had its own tests, he’d heard, although he did not yet know exactly what they were. He hoped he would be found worthy. He hoped above all that he would be able to withstand the rigors of the ordeals to which he would be subjected, for to fail them would mean disgrace of the deepest sort.
That night Perses arrived at his quarters. In ordinary clothes, Perses—outside the temple, the signifer of the legion, Justus Bonus—seemed less awe-inspiring, and Quentin relaxed. He stood respectfully before Bonus, hands behind his back, and breathed deeply.
“Brother,” Perses said after they had exchanged the ritual handshake, “I must request that you ask outsiders to leave here for at least the next half-hour.”
“Quentipor, Conor,” Quentin said, nodding at the other two. “You’re at liberty for the next hour or so. We have something to discuss.”
The others departed although Conor, looking from Bonus to Quentin, seemed reluctant to leave.
After the door shut behind them,” Perses turned back to Quentin. “These are the things you must do to prepare, brother.” His voice was well-modulated and his enunciation precise. “You must abstain from meat from now until your initiation into the Nymphus degree.”
Quentin nodded. It was not much of a hardship. Although he enjoyed eating meat when it was available, as a legionary he’d grown accustomed to the grain diet that soldiers lived on.
“You must also abstain from the bath until initiation.”
Startled, Quentin forgot himself and looked straight at Perses. Then he wished he hadn’t. He just managed to restrain himself from protesting such a condition—the baths were the only thing that made frontier duty in a cold climate bearable—but even the thought of protest faded as he looked into the other’s eyes. They were full of understanding for his human frailty and yet impatient of such fleshly concerns. Quentin began to feel very small and unworthy for protesting this first trial; compared to what was probably coming, the tribulation of being denied the bath was minor.
“And you must learn these responses by heart.”
Perses handed him a scroll. Quentin took it, feeling reassured. His memory was good; as a schoolboy he had suffered fewer beatings than his fellow students.
Perses left after they exchanged another handshake, and Quentin retreated thankfully to his bedroom. Now that it was nearing the end of April the daylight lasted longer, which would make it easier to study the responses he was to learn.
By the time he presented himself to his brothers to be initiated into the mysteries of the Nymphus degree he felt unworthy to be in the presence of the God. Seven days without bathing made him feel as dirty as the lowest kitchen slave, but presumably this minor ordeal was designed to humble him. He hoped that he didn’t smell too bad. He had been given permission to shave, as the Army tolerated no infringement of regulations, but shaving was in no way comparable to bathing.
Conor had jeered at him—in so far as an armor-bearer was allowed to take such liberties with his master. “You Romans! Always in the bathhouse, with your steam rooms and your lavender sprigs in the bath water, and your towels! You ought to try the kind of bath my people take—jumping into an ice-cold river and coming up with a fish between your teeth.”
Quentin had raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying real men jump into ice-cold rivers and only wimps take hot baths? Do you really think the Roman Army is full of wimps?”
“Well, put that way, I suppose not. Am I allowed to come to your initiation?”
“Sorry, it’s for brethen only. Are you interested in following Mithras?”
“No, thank you,” Conor said. “I’m loyal to the gods of my tribe—Bel and his son Lugh, and of course Cocidius and Brigantia. Tonight the tribes will be celebrating Beltane, and I won’t be there to jump the fire with my friends.” He heaved a sigh. “Every year we jump over the fire three times and shout out our wishes for the coming twelvemonth. And then we stay up all night in the woods.”
“Drinking and feasting?”
“That…and other things.”
Quentin noted the considering look that Conor gave him, but, his mind full of other matters, did not ask him to explain.
Now, on Sunday, the day dedicated to the worship of the God, Quentin stood in the outer room of the temple. Under the cloak he wore he was naked and barefoot. His heart was beating so hard that he felt it might jump out of his chest and despite his heavy cloak, he felt himself tremble.
Not from fear, he told himself; fear was unworthy of a Roman soldier. But he was excited and apprehensive, for he knew nothing of what was to happen to him.
A voice murmured in his ear. “Time for the blindfold and bindings, brother Raven.”
Even through the wooden door that separated the outer room from the temple itself he could hear the rhythmic chanting of his brother Mithraists. One of his attendants, who wore the mask of a Leo, covered his eyes with a blindfold. Quentin could feel the man tightening the knot as he tied the strip of woolen cloth around his head.
Then he felt someone pulling his cloak off his shoulders and heard it rustle as it fell to the floor. The flagstones beneath his feet were cool, despite the braziers of charcoal that warmed the air in the room. Then Quentin felt the touch of another’s hands, as his own hands were brought behind his back and tied with something that felt like rope. Whoever was tying his hands bound them so tightly that it hurt, but he dared not protest.
“Have no fear,” the same quiet voice said. “We will each hold you by the arm and guide your steps so that you do not stumble in the temple.”
“Thank you,” Quentin whispered.
He felt the men on each side of them slide an arm around his back, guiding him along the flagstones. Suddenly, the air felt cooler and he realized he must be in the main temple. The chanting sounded louder in his ears and he could smell the pine cone incense burning on the altars.
He felt his companions on each side stop abruptly and he stopped too. A voice in his ear said, “Drink this.”
Feeling the rim of a goblet at his lips, Quentin obediently opened his mouth and drank. The wine tasted strange, as if some herb had been infused into it. And then he staggered and sank to his knees.
Afterwards he could never remember exactly what happened. Dimly he remembered the voice of the Pater very close by, asking him the ritual questions, and his own, carefully memorized responses, uttered against the background of chanting, which grew louder and louder. The voices of the brothers—bass, baritone, and tenor—blended in a thrilling wave of sound that rose to a crescendo. Quentin’s heart and pulse raced along with it until he felt that he would explode with emotion, and at last he could not restrain a shout. “I am yours, Light of the Sun!”
Then he felt the blessed release of having his hands untied. Almost groaning with relief, he brought them forward and began to rub his chafed wrists; his blindfold was pulled off and he blinked as he opened his eyes in the dimly lit, smoky room.
“Rise now,” said one of his attendants in his ear. Stiff from kneeling on the cold flagstones of the floor, Quentin struggled to his feet and tried to stand up straight. But he swayed, for he was still dizzy from the drugged wine he had drunk.
“Welcome, brother Nymphus,” the Pater said, smiling at him. “Hold out your hands.”
Quentin held out his hands to receive the objects the Pater was handing to him: the lamp, the veil, and the mirror.
“The lamp symbolizes the Light of the World: keep it with you as you travel your appointed path. The veil symbolizes your status as an initiate, for you are not yet fully informed of the Mysteries, but on the threshold. And the mirror symbolizes your reflection, for you must look into your own heart and mind, and come to the Lord of the Wide Pastures willingly, with a clean soul. Do you accept these gifts from the Lord?”
“Yes,” Quentin whispered. “I accept, willingly and gladly.”
“Only after reflection and self-discovery will you be ready for initiation to the next degree. Until then, you are to be truthful, honorable, brave, and chaste, as befits a follower of Mithras.”
The Pater stepped back and nodded to the men in their lion masks on each side of Quentin.
“Prepare him for the ritual meal.”
Quentin was led back into the other room, where the two Leos helped him wash, then gave him a fresh tunic and sandals to wear. Back in the main temple, he was pleased to find out that it was his turn to be waited on as he reclined with the others at the table. Still slightly dizzy from the effects of the wine, he found himself unable to eat much of the roast fowl and new bread, nor could he do more than pick at the confection of dried figs, raisins, and chopped walnuts that ended the ritual meal. Those who had already been initiated into the Nymphus degree chanted throughout; and the next time a brother was initiated, Quentin realized, he would be up there with the rest of the bridegrooms, chanting in his turn.
Afterwards, as he stood with the others for the final, wonderful vision of Mithras as the wall carving was lit again, joy and awe coursed through him. The God’s love wrapped him and his brothers in a cloak of kindness and protection, yet there was nothing of indulgence about it. Quentin and his brother Mithraists had moral obligations of the highest kind to live up to and stern rules of behavior to follow.
Lord of the Wide Pastures, he thought, Light of the Sun, I am ready to do whatever you require of me. Please make me worthy to be your servant.
And how in the world, he asked himself the next day, was he going to find the necessary time to reflect on his life and examine the state of his soul? Summoned into Jovius’ presence that morning just before he was to begin drilling his centuria in their daily weapons practice, he had learned that he was to begin his new mission the following day.
“Take a horse and ride from fort to fort, gathering intelligence,” Jovius ordered. “Question the shopkeepers in the villages and the peasants in the fields. We suspect that the ringleaders of the attack have fled into Caledonia, but we must find out for sure. And while you’re at it, check to see how the planting is going this season.”
“Yes, sir. Am I permitted to take my optio with me?”
“No, I can’t spare him, I’m afraid. He’ll have to fill in for you, training your men while you’re away. You can ride along with the exploratores for as far as they go.”
The exploratores, or scouts, rode out daily from the fort to ascertain the state of affairs in the surrounding countryside. However, their mandate extended only to the area immediately surrounding each fort; as a rule, they did not venture farther than two days’ journey by horseback.
“Sir.” Quentin saluted smartly, turned on his heel, and marched out of the principia.
During the day, in the intervals of fulfilling his normal duties as an officer, he also had to arrange with his optio, Eustacius Felix, to lead his century on their weekly march of 19 miles; visit the quartermaster’s office to arrange for rations to carry with him on his mission; and negotiate with the magister campi to borrow Astra for the two weeks that he would be away.
“Where does your mission take you, Centurion?” Aquila asked as Quentin fondled Astra’s head.
She whickered gently as she nuzzled Quentin’s neck, looking for a treat. He had nothing to give her but a handful of hay he’d picked up as he came through the stable door. “That is,” Aquila added, “if it’s not a secret.”
“Around the Wall, Aquila. To Arbeia, Segedunum, Vercovicium, Brocolitia, and Vindolanda—not to mention all the milecastles in between.”
“At least the weather’s a little better now. You won’t be taking her through snow.”
“Thank the gods for that,” Quentin said. “How is Conor doing with the green horses?”
“Very well, actually. He understands them. It’s funny, I can give him the worst horses, the ones that won’t obey any of my other men, and yet he just whispers to them in that barbaric language of his and they behave like dutiful children.”
“I’ve heard that the Brigantes have a special feeling for horses,” Quentin acknowledged. “Well, I mustn’t keep you from your duties, Aquila. Is Conor around somewhere now?”
Aquila jerked his head in the direction of the gyrus. “You’ll find him out there, lunging a colt.”
By the time Quentin reached the gyrus, Conor had finished with the colt; it was being led away, its heaving flanks shining with sweat, by one of the stable lads. As Quentin hailed him, Conor turned around, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a rag that he produced from the cord that served as a belt for his tunic. “Good morning, Centurion, what brings you here?”
“I need you to get my gear ready. I’m off at first light tomorrow morning to travel around the country for two weeks.”
“Really?” Conor looked wistful. “I wish I could go with you. I haven’t been out of this place since you brought me here.”
“I’m sorry that you can’t. But I’ll be back before long. When can you start getting my equipment ready?”
Conor thought for a minute. “By the sixth hour, I should be finished here for the day. If I start on it then, will that suit you?”
“Perfectly. I’ll see you later.”
Quentin went back to Aquila to arrange for Astra’s fodder. He would carry some of her food with him for the first few days and buy more supplies on the way.That was a thought, he’d have to visit the paymaster for a travel advance at the end of the workday—there was no time to do it right now.
The fort bank was a strongroom built underneath the chapel that housed the standards. Secured by a heavy oaken door studded with nails, guarded at all times by at least one soldier, the place was as dark and cool as the Mithraeum. Emerging with Justus Bonus, who was responsible for the security of the chapel and the strongroom, into the late afternoon sunlight, Quentin shivered involuntarily. He didn’t know why, but something was making him uneasy; something that nibbled at the edge of his consciousness but refused to come into his waking mind so he could think about it properly. Impatiently, he shook off the thought. He was getting as bad as the Brigantes, always imagining some sort of superstitious nonsense.
The Brigante he knew best was not in the quarters, cleaning and polishing his master’s equipment. Coming into the general room, Quentin stared about him in dismay; by now all that should have been done and Conor should be sharpening his master’s sword and dagger. Where was the man? Any delay in getting ready tonight was going to delay him in the morning, when he’d hoped to be off before the morning mists lifted from the hills. Blast all barbarians and especially Conor, their representative in Cilurnum!
A noise in his sleeping chamber distracted him from the curses he was silently raining on Conor’s head. “Quentipor?”
Quentipor emerged from the sleeping chamber. “I was just putting fresh stuffing in your mattress, Gaius Maximius, sir.” A pimply youth of seventeen or so, with straw-colored hair that bespoke his German blood, Quentipor had elected to accompany Quentin to his new posting in Britannia, even though it meant leaving his native land and even though Quentin had offered him his freedom if he wanted to stay behind. But Quentipor evidently preferred the comforts of life as slave to a Roman officer to that of a beggar in the local vicus, the civilian settlement outside the fort walls of Vetera, or the hardscrabble existence of a farmhand in the countryside.
“Where is my armor bearer?” Quentin roared, having by now worked himself into a real temper.
“Behind you, Centurion.”
Quentin whirled around. Conor stood behind him, wearing a woman’s robes and a flammeum, the red veil worn by Roman brides; in his hands he carried a bouquet of wildflowers. His face, devoid of its usual mocking expression, wore a soulful look.
“Now that you’re a bridegroom, you need a bride, and here I am. What does my master desire?”
“Di Immortales!” Quentin shouted. “Gods above! You idiot! Take off those ridiculous garments and set about your work or I’ll—I’ll—” He was about to say, “I’ll use my staff on you,” but suddenly realized that he would be guilty of the very action he feared that Fronto would exercise on Conor.
“I take it this means our wedding is off?” Conor drawled, tossing the flowers into a corner and proceeding to take off the red veil.
Quentin glared at him. “You impudent puppy, I don’t want to hear another word out of you! Get to work!” but before he could get all the words out an unwilling grin turned up the corners of his mouth and he had to turn away, biting his lower lip to keep from laughing. He knew that Conor had seen him smile and that made matters worse. Now the rogue would think he could do whatever he liked and get away with it.
“I’m going to bed,” he said, keeping his back to Conor and Quentipor. “Quentipor, wake me at dawn. I expect to find everything ready when I wake up tomorrow.”
With that he stalked into his sleeping chamber. After he undressed, he looked out the small slit of window, high up in the wall but not too high for him to see the dying light of day. He thought of the mission he was to begin tomorrow and of his private spiritual quest. He had to begin the period of absolute chastity and reflection to enable him to pass to the miles degree. Gradually his irritation left him and peace stole into his heart.
As he lay down on his sleeping couch and pulled the rough woolen blankets over him he thought again of how ridiculous Conor had looked and smiled again. The idiot. Impudent as he was, he’d still miss that barbarian and his antics during the time he’d be away from Cilurnum.