After a relaxing massage, Centurion Quentin receives the shock of his life
As he rode eastward with the exploratores, Quentin watched the rays of the rising sun cut through the gray mist that clung to the hills. His goal today was the fort of Arbeia; this lay not along the Wall itself, but on the road Agricola’s troops had built sixty years before, during the short-lived occupation of Caledonia. Although Agricola’s troops defeated them at Mons Graupius, the Caledonian tribes who resisted the invasion left a legacy of unremitting hostility toward Rome; and this legacy had convinced the Emperor Hadrian, forty years after the battle, to build a wall that would separate the civilized south of Britannia from the barbarians of the north.
“Start at Arbeia,” Jovius had told him. “That’s right on the coast. See if anything is known of the attackers in that area; then head back by way of Coria, Brocolitia, and Vercovicium.”
The route Jovius described was an ellipse, with Arbeia at one end and Vercovicium at the other. The first fort on the way to Arbeia was Onnum, which was so close to Cilurnum that Quentin felt that nothing was to be gained by stopping there; he thanked the exploratores for their company, and they wished him luck as he rode west toward Vindovala, the next fort on the Wall. As he rode the morning mists dissipated entirely and by the time he and Astra reached Vindovala at midday, the day was so warm the prospect of rest and refreshment was very welcome.
After he had seen Astra watered, fed, and rubbed down, Quentin left her to rest while he accepted the hospitality of his fellow officers. As they ate and drank he found to his disappointment that none of them knew anything about the war band that had attacked him two months ago.
On the road again, riding through country that was either rough moorland or under cultivation with only a few workers to be seen toiling in the fields, he thought about his mission. In one way it made sense that Jovius had sent him on this intelligence-gathering exercise; after all, it was Quentin and his men who had been attacked. But in another way it was odd that he hadn’t sent Fronto. Fronto had more time in service as a centurion than Quentin, and in any case, having spent more time at Cilurnum than Quentin, could be expected to know more about the movement of the tribes across the countryside.
Yes, it was odd, that. Of course, Fronto served as the fort’s quartermaster and perhaps Jovius thought he could not be spared. Still, Fronto had plenty of immunes, or clerks working with him who might have been capable of taking over his duties temporarily.
The mellow light of afternoon was falling across the fields when he saw the east gate of Arbeia in the distance. Jovius had told him of the mansio, the guest house outside the fort, and Quentin planned to stay there rather than in the fort itself. He wanted to mix with the locals in the hope of picking up the information he sought.
At the mansio, he handed over the care of Astra to a groom who ran forward to take the reins, and dismounted. As he went up the front steps, the proprietor emerged, smiling.
“Good day, Centurion. How may I serve you?”
“A room for the night, innkeeper. And…” Quentin looked around hopefully. “…a bath?”
“Certainly. If you’ll come this way.”
After a bath and a massage that relieved muscles that ached from a day in the saddle, he changed into civilian clothes, fastening a cloak over his tunic to ward off the chill of the May evening. As he entered the dining room, he smelled the burning oak logs of a small fire crackling in the fireplace built into one wall. The other walls, whitewashed plaster over stone, boasted stylized paintings of olive trees and grapevines in muted colors. The innkeeper turned to greet Quentin as he came in.
“Good evening, Centurion. Are you ready to dine now? May I offer you a drink first?”
“I have some good wine, imported from Gaul, and another vintage from Rome. Or I could offer you beer.”
“Beer, by all means.” After the day’s riding and his time in the bath, Quentin had a thirst only beer could assuage.
The beer arrived almost instantly and Quentin tasted it. It was strong, so much so his head felt pleasantly muzzy after a sip or two. “What is this?”
“It’s leann fraoich, heather ale. The Painted People who live north of the Wall make it.”
The voice came from behind him, and Quentin turned to look at the man who had just come in. The new arrival appeared to be about fifty, and by his bearing, ex-military. His dark skin spoke of birth in a climate much hotter than that of Britannia or even of Rome, and his forehead showed the brand-mark that meant he had passed the Raven degree of Mithras.
“Good evening, brother.” Quentin held out his hand and the man shook it, as Mithraists did when greeting each other.
“A pleasure to meet you, brother. My name is Barates.”
“And mine is Gaius Maximius Quentin, Centurion of the First Cohort of Dalmatians, from Cilurnum.”
“Let me buy you a drink, Centurion.”
While they enjoyed the spicy fraoich that smelled like peat and tasted of the wild heather-flowers that gave the ale its name, Barates revealed that until his retirement at age forty-five he had been one of a company of Syrian archers posted to Arbeia. “I was born in Palmyra and joined the army there,” he said. “And when I finished basic training, my cohort was sent here.”
Quentin nodded. No auxiliary soldier was permitted to serve in the land of his birth, which meant that Romanized Britons who joined the army found themselves perspiring in Judaea, Gauls shaking scorpions out of their boots in Egypt, and Syrians shivering in Britannia.
“So you retired to live in the vicus here?” he asked.
“Yes. I have an import-export business here in the village. From my native land and from Rome I import wine, olive oil, garum, and other things…dried fruit, perfume, and even silk. And to Rome and Syria I export the products of Britannia: woolen cloth, mostly, although I have been known to branch out here and there. Britannia is famous for its hunting dogs and I’ve sent a few across the sea.”
Quentin drained his mug—made of fine red Samian ware, he noted, so this guest house must be doing very well—and said, “Tell me, do you export grain?”
Instantly a shadow passed over Barates’ face and he seemed to choose his words carefully in replying. “I would if I could get it. There have been some bad harvests and grain is scarce just now.”
“So I understand. Innkeeper! The same again for my friend and me, please.”
The innkeeper filled the mugs again and Quentin, after another sip, noticed once more that the spicy herbal flavor of the fraoich died away to a dryness in the mouth that was almost like the after-taste of wine; he’d have to be careful not to drink too much of this ale, delicious though it was. Barates’ reply to his question about grain made him think the other man knew more than he was saying. To gain time, he called the innkeeper back.
“What can you give me for dinner this evening?”
“Well, sir, I have a lamb stew flavored with spices from the East and new bread, fresh from the oven. Or fried river trout, served with lettuce and fennel.”
“I can recommend both, Centurion,” Barates said, with a smile. “My wife oversees the cooking here and she’s the queen of culinary arts. She uses my mother’s recipe for the stew, and it’s delicious. As for the trout, it was caught this morning in the river that runs past the fort.”
“The trout,” Quentin decided.
Barates was right about his wife’s cooking. The trout, seasoned with herbs, fried in just enough oil to bring out the flavor and nestled on a bed of fresh greens, was mouth-wateringly good, as was the new bread served with it and the country cheese and dried figs that followed.
Quentin pushed his plate back, dipped his hands in the bowl of hot water held by the innkeeper, and dried them on the proffered towel. There were sprigs of dried lavender floating in the water, which raised his opinion of the mansio another notch.
“I really would like to meet your wife, Barates, and thank her for the best meal I’ve had since I arrived in Britannia.”
“I’ll go and get her.” Barates rose, went through the doorway, and returned in a few moments with a shy young woman whose tawny hair was bundled into a knot at the nape of her neck. Taller than her husband by half a head, and younger by a good fifteen years, she glanced up and smiled as Barates introduced them, then quickly dropped her eyes again.
“Centurion, may I present my wife, Regina? My dear, this is Centurion Gaius Maximius Quentin.”
Quentin, who had stood up when Regina came into the room, bowed. “So you are a queen in name, as well as queen of the kitchen. The meal tonight was excellent.”
“It’s kind of you to say so, sir.” Regina smiled, then glanced at her husband. “If you’ll excuse me, I must finish closing up for the night.”
Barates nodded. “I’ll see you at home, my dear. Centurion,” he said, turning to Quentin, “why don’t you come to our house for a short visit? I know you must have important matters to attend to, but I have a collection of objects from my native land that may interest you.”
“That’s very kind of you, Barates,” Quentin said. “I’d be delighted to visit your house.”
A few minutes later Barates led him through the door of a house on the main thoroughfare of the vicus, close to the mansio. The room into which Barates showed him was furnished sparely, in the fashion of the East, but Quentin noticed that the floor was covered with a carpet patterned with rich colors—gold and blue, rose and green—and that the couches on which he and his host reclined were intricately carved of fine dark wood. A slave brought wine in answer to Barates’ clap of the hands; after the man departed, Barates lifted his wine cup, tilting it slightly in Quentin’s direction.
“Welcome to my house, Centurion Quentin. We can speak freely here. My wife isn’t home yet and the nurse is putting the children to bed.”
“Ah! How many children have you?”
“Three.” Barates beamed. “They are my treasures: a boy of four and two little girls of three and two. My wife, as you can tell, is a native Briton, one of the Catuvellauni.”
“Really? That’s a tribe in the south, is it not?”
“Yes. I bought her when she was fifteen. When I retired from the army five years ago, I freed her and married her.”
Quentin smiled. He might have guessed the story: the older man falling in love with the beautiful native slave girl and after serving his requisite twenty-five years in the army, marrying her as soon as he received his retirement diploma. As a follower of Mithras, Barates could not have done other than marry his Regina: the God’s followers were sworn to chastity unless they married, and were allowed to marry only once. Such strict behavior made Mithraists oddities in the society of Rome, where divorce was frequent and as easy to obtain as a ticket to the chariot races.
But Quentin suspected that Barates’ invitation to visit him at home was not really to talk about his family, and the merchant’s next words confirmed it.
“You asked if I exported grain. I didn’t want to say it in public, but there is something strange about the grain supply.” He leaned forward. “It is said that a certain Roman official—I don’t know who, but I have my suspicions—forces the tribes to pay their yearly tribute in grain. If they have none, the tribes are given to understand that they can buy the Romans’ grain and then give it back to them.Of course, during all this, the grain never moves from the granaries. It stays put, while the official pockets the cash and the tribes starve.”
Quentin frowned. “I thought Agricola stopped that racket sixty years ago. Do you mean to say it’s still going on?”
Barates nodded. “I’m trying to find out who’s behind it. I have certain ways of getting information.”
“Do you? Then I wonder if you can help me.”
Quentin briefly described the attack in March and Jovius’ subsequent failure to find and punish the ringleaders.
Barates nodded. “I’ll make some discreet inquiries. To my mind, the attack on you and this grain scheme seem to be related. The tribes are desperate—they need money to pay the tribute, and they don’t have any. I want whoever’s behind this grain scheme exposed; this official, whoever he is, tarnishes all Romans in this part of Britannia by his dishonesty.”
“As a merchant who follows Mithras, the unconquered sun, I cannot afford to be associated with any kind of double-dealing, as you know. We are required to be absolutely truthful in business as well as in private life.”
Quentin nodded, then stood up. “Allow me to thank you for your hospitality, and please give my regards to your wife. I must be going now; I have to make an early start tomorrow.”
After taking leave of the merchant, Quentin returned to his room in the mansio. The daylight was fading at last, and as he undressed and looked out his window at the clear night sky he thought about his meeting with Barates. He also spared a second to wonder what Conor was doing at this moment. But he was too tired to wonder very much: he lay down on the sleeping-couch and almost instantly fell asleep.
From the top of the gate at Arbeia the next morning Quentin had a clear view both of the surrounding countryside and the river that wound to the sea. Could the reason for the disappearance of the marauders be that they had taken to boats, sailed down the river, and out to the open sea? They could have sailed up the coast to Caledonia and put in somewhere on the rocky coast of that wild country. His gaze traveled from left to right, taking in the grays and blues of the early morning and the mist that lay along the river. But there was little to see at first light, other than the ordinary traffic of the vicus and the fort itself; supply wagons creaked and rumbled up the road to the fort, and the civilians who lived outside the fort walls went about their daily business as they prodded their laden donkeys along, or urged on the mules that pulled carts laden with goods for sale. Quentin went downstairs, made Astra ready, and prepared to ride to his next destination.
Coria was situated right on the road built by Agricola’s troops all those years ago on their way north. From its beginnings as a turf-and-timber fort it had evolved into one built of stone, although it, like Arbeia, did not march with the Wall itself. As he rode in, Quentin noticed that work was still underway here: as far as he could see, gangs of workmen scurried back and forth with building tools or rolled blocks of dressed stone along on logs from one site to another.
Clouds of dust filled the air where men drove hammer and chisel against stone, and centurions strode about, using their vinewood staffs like whips across the backs of laggards who did not seem to be working sufficiently hard or fast.
“What’s going on here?” Quentin asked an officer who came up to greet him as he dismounted from Astra. He pressed his finger under his nostrils to stifle the sneeze that was beginning; the dust was getting to his eyes, too and he could see that the centurion who was speaking had eyes that were bloodshot from the atmosphere.
“Centurion Rufus Domitius, cohort of the Legio II Augusta,” the officer said. “And you are…?”
Quentin gave his name and rank and briefly explained his mission. Then he asked again, “What’s all the building for?”
“We’re expanding the granaries on the Governor’s orders. He’s coming this way next month, you know.”
“Yes, I know. Why has he ordered the granaries to be enlarged, though? I thought grain was scarce—at least, that’s what I’ve been hearing.”
Domitius nodded, looking wary. “That’s what they say. And once we get these built, I don’t know what we’re going to fill them with, but orders are orders.”
“Agreed,” Quentin said, and he exchanged smiles with Domitius as one officer to another, both mystified by the apparent senselessness of orders from those at the top.
“Is it permitted to ask your business, Centurion?” Domitius asked.
“Certainly.” Quentin briefly explained, then added, “Now that I’m here, would you be kind enough to show me around?”
The granaries were large buildings, stone-built, with channels dug beneath their raised floors.
“See how the channels lead to these vents in the outside walls?” Domitius, said, pointing to a section of the floor that had yet to be paved over. “The cold air from outside comes through the vents and travels down the channels, and as it circulates, the stone floor above stays cool and dry. That keeps the grain from rotting.”
Quentin looked at the channels dug neatly into the earth. “Don’t you have a problem with vermin burrowing down there?”
Domitius grinned. “We do, and we’ve solved it.”
“This way.” Domitius pursed his lips and whistled. Instantly a pack of small, short-haired dogs erupted from a nearby barrack block and ran up to him, barking in excitement as they chased each other around his ankles.
Quentin stared, then laughed. “Terriers!”
“Yes,” Domitius said, picking up one of the dogs. “And Brutus here is the terror of the rat and mouse population in these parts, aren’t you, Brutus?”
“Yip! Yip!” The little dog wriggled in Domitius’ arms and began licking his left ear.
“That’s enough, off you go.” Domitius set the dog down, beckoned to a nearby slave who was carrying water to the workmen, and indicated the dog pack. “See that these go back to their quarters.”
Amused, Quentin continued his tour, but although he and Domitius questioned several of the workmen, who, according to Domitius had been recruited from the surrounding countryside to build the granaries, none of them appeared to know anything about the attackers.
“Or if they do, they’re not admitting it,” Domitius said. “Well, it’s only to be expected.”
“Right,” Quentin said. “Well, thank you for your time. I’d best be on my way now if I want to reach Brocolitia by nightfall.”
He saluted Domitius, who returned the salute, and then went off to saddle Astra.
The long light of the May evening was coming to an end as Quentin guided Astra into the stable yard at Brocolitia. Gazing around him at the bleak situation of the small fort set in empty moorland, he felt deeply thankful he was posted to Cilurnum rather than here. Brocolitia, which meant “rocky spot,” certainly lived up to its name, he thought as he gave his name and rank to the sentries, who saluted smartly. He returned the salute and passed through the gate.
After an evening routine that was now becoming familiar—seeing that Astra was fed, watered, and settled for the night before he allowed himself the pleasure of a bath—Quentin went to the officers’ mess for a meal. But although he listened to the talk after exchanging a few pleasantries with fellow officers, he learned nothing of any importance. As he dressed the next morning, he reflected that his journey so far had been an almost complete waste of time—except that he had enjoyed meeting Barates. Perhaps Barates’ inquiries would prove fruitful.
Meanwhile, on his way out of bleak little Brocolitia, he planned to stop by the Mithraeum. Since he’d begun his journey he’d spent very little time reflecting on the state of his soul, and the date that he would be initiated to the Miles degree was only two weeks away. He should lose no time preparing for it.
In the darkness of the Mithraeum, attended at the moment only by a couple of Ravens and the Perses, he felt the peace of the God flowing into him once more. The incense burning on the altars sent up thin gray spirals of smoke that joined with the smoke of the oil lamps set into sconces along the walls. As he breathed in the pine scent of the incense, he shut his eyes and prayed. Light of the Sun, make me worthy to serve you. Let me carry out my duties with honor to you and to Rome, and to my cohort.
What did he in fact want out of life? he asked himself as he reclined on the couch along one side of the room, gazing toward the altars set up in front of the end wall, which as always, depicted Mithras slaying the bull. Did he want to hear his father say, just once, “I’m proud of you, son, you have brought honor to our house”? To win the admiration of his fellow officers for his bravery on the battlefield? To go deeper and deeper into the mysteries, until one day, perhaps, he achieved the rank of Perses or Heliodromos, or—an idea so daring he could hardly bring himself to even think it—of Pater?
Well, it was unlikely he’d ever achieve a rank as exalted as that of Pater. For that, he would have to be much more spiritual, less concerned with the world, less…less of everything he was now: young, ambitious, and filled with the desire to do, to be, to achieve a goal he could hardly even envision, let alone articulate.
At last he rose to his feet, reluctant to leave the peace and quiet of the God’s house, but mindful that time was passing and he had duties to perform.
The Mithraeum, along with several other shrines, stood outside the fort itself. As Quentin came up the steps to ground level, his peripheral vision detected a slight movement to his left. Turning, he saw something white disappearing around the corner of the shrine that housed Coventina’s well. Coventina was a local goddess, guardian of the spring that supplied water to the fort and to the Brigantes, who had worshipped her for generations. People were known to offer sacrifices to the goddess by throwing their valuables into the water, either as presents to win her favor or as thank-offerings when she bestowed it.
But the movement was furtive enough to arouse Quentin’s curiosity. Swiftly he rounded the corner where he had seen the flicker of white disappearing and found himself in the next minute face to face with a Druid, wearing a white woolen robe that flapped around his spare frame. His long gray hair flowed past his shoulders, and the ends of his straggly gray moustache touched his chin.
“What are you doing here, old man?” Quentin demanded. “And what is your name?”
The Druid’s dark, tormented eyes betrayed his innermost feelings, but he answered civilly enough. “My name is Brementius and I came here to ask the Goddess to watch over my people.”
“No need of that,” Quentin said. “Rome watches over your people.”
The Druid made no comment but continued to stare back at him.
“Where do you live, Brementius?”
“Nearby. Not far from the place you Romans call Vercovicium.”
“If I were you, I’d get myself back home before you get into trouble.”
“I am not causing any trouble, Centurion.”
Quentin regarded him thoughtfully. There was something about the Druid’s appearance here that didn’t add up. Granted, he might have wanted to invoke Coventina’s favor, and it was certainly awkward for him that the shrine happened to be right outside a Roman fort; but he could have come at night to do whatever he wanted to do. Why in daylight, when he could be seen, and could attract the notice of people like Quentin himself?
“You are not causing any trouble yet. Do as I suggest, and get yourself home.”
Druids made Quentin—and indeed, most of his fellow soldiers—uneasy. Not that he, or they, feared Druid magic; but religion was a powerful motivating force, and Druids who traveled across the country could all too easily foment rebellion. It was better for them to keep to their sacred groves of oak—nemetons, they called them—and attend to their rituals there, provided there was no human sacrifice involved. Like his fellow Romans, Quentin found the idea of sacrificing humans to the gods abhorrent, and he thoroughly agreed with the Roman policy that forbade it.
Brementius turned to pick up his walking-staff from its resting place against the wall of the shrine and walked away.
A short time later Quentin cantered past him on Astra, heading for Vercovicium, the large infantry fort perched on the whinsill. Unlike Arbeia and Coria, Vercovicium lay along the Wall itself. But here the planners who supervised the building of the Wall fifteen years ago had seen no need to carry out the usual practice of digging a vallum, a deep, wide ditch with sloping sides that would halt an advancing horde of cavalry, outside the fort. The natural terrain with its steeply sloping contours ensured that infantry would move faster than cavalry and would not go lame in the process. To ease the burden on Astra, Quentin dismounted and held her reins while they climbed the high ridge to the fort. Rough-coated sheep grazed on the steep slopes, filling the air with the sound of their bleats and the smell of their droppings. The sheep were fat, he noted: obviously the thick, dark green grass on which they fed was a rich diet.
Reaching the fort gate, Quentin identified himself to the sentries and was admitted. Two officers coming out of the headquarters building hailed him and stopped in the street.
After the preliminaries, Quentin got down to business. “I encountered a Druid on the way here. He said his name was Brementius. Do you know him?”
“Oh, yes. He roams the countryside, ranting about the evil empire of Rome. We keep an eye on him, but he’s been pretty harmless so far.”
Quentin persisted. “I saw him at Coventina’s shrine. Have you any idea what he might have been doing there?”
The younger of the two officers, who’d identified himself as Flavius Camillus, laughed. “The old coot was probably dropping a curse tablet with all our names written on it into the well, asking the Goddess to kill us all. These Druids and their childish magic!”
“The only thing wrong with that little theory,” said Aelius Varro, the older officer, “is that Druids don’t write anything down. They memorize their lore. It takes them twenty years to learn it all, so I’m told.”
“H’mm.” Quentin still wasn’t satisfied. His instincts told him that Brementius had been up to no good, but of course he had no proof of that. Shelving the matter for the time being, he asked to be shown around the fort.
Up here in the fort perched high on the whinsill, one could see the surrounding countryside for miles. Turning around to see the land in all directions, he felt the wind that howled over the ridge even on this mild spring day rush over him, filling out his cloak until it billowed behind him. The movement of air carried the scents of grass and rain as well as the faint bleats of the sheep further down the slopes. The light mist settling on his face came from the black cloud hovering over the fort. In the distance, however, the sky showed pale blue and the only clouds in it were small white puffs. How maddening it must be to live here, never knowing from one minute to the next what the weather was going to do. But all this wasn’t getting him any further; it was time to move on.
Vindolanda, his last stop on this reconnaissance, nestled into its surrounding hills like a newborn lamb against its mother. As Quentin cantered up to the gate, feeling Astra’s hot flesh beneath his legs, he gazed around him in admiration that was tinged with homesickness. Somehow, despite the obvious differences in climate and topography, Vindolanda reminded him of his father’s village in the hills of Etruria. Perhaps it was soft contours of the land, or perhaps it was the evidence of good, solid Roman civilization everywhere, even more noticeable here than in the other forts he’d visited.
Vindolanda was not a Wall fort; it had stood, built first in wood and then in stone, for some thirty years before work on the Wall began. Now it wore an air of settled, almost cozy, existence, in sharp contrast to the starkness of Vercovicium, high on the whinsill, and bleak little Brocolitia in its moorland setting. As he guided Astra past the tile factory on his way to the praetorium, Quentin noticed a small knot of workmen standing around, some gesticulating and talking, others listening with hands on hips.
He pulled Astra to a stop and addressed the foreman of the group. “What’s going on?”
“Sir.” The foreman bowed. “As you see sir, we’ve got a lot of ruined tiles on our hands.”
“Well, sir, we made the tiles and we left them to dry. In this climate—” the foreman spat into the distance—“you have to wait days for any sun to dry your tiles.”
“And while they were drying,” broke in one of the workers, “a whole forest of animals stepped on ’em and left their prints!”
“Look, sir.” The foreman pointed to a small set of paw prints on several of the tiles. “That’s the lady Selena’s pet cat. Not much you can do if the wife of the commandant doesn’t keep her pet from wandering. And these prints are deer. And these? Rabbits.”
“And we thinks this one here was made by a bear.”
Leaning down, Quentin examined the large print on the tile the foreman held up. “It’s hard to see how it could have been anything else. Well, I’m sorry for your misfortune.”
“Now we have to make a whole new set of tiles,” the foreman said. “These were meant for the bathhouse.”
“Then don’t let me keep you from your work any longer,” Quentin said. “Good day to you.”
The thought of wild animals walking across the tiles intended for the bathhouse reminded him that it had been a long time since he’d had the opportunity to go hunting, and he missed it. Quentin gave himself a mental shake. Why couldn’t he keep his mind on his work? Was it because his investigation was leading absolutely nowhere and his mind insisted on occupying itself with something, however trivial and unrelated to the business at hand?
He was becoming used to the fact that no one could give him any answers. No one had seen the marauders; no one had heard any news of them; some had heard of the hostage being kept at Cilurnum, but none of his fellow officers or even the rankers could tell him of any recent sightings in the area.
It could be, of course, that he was asking the wrong people. It was probably useless to ask his fellow Romans for news about the Brigantians; he would only find out what he needed to know from the native inhabitants. Who, of course, would cheerfully slit their own throats rather than betray their tribe to a Roman.
In the morning he thanked his fellow officers, saddled Astra, and after one last lingering look at Vindolanda, set out for home.
Home! Strange how he was coming to look on Cilurnum as home, now. But that was where his life was: his professional life, his religious life, and his social life, such as it was. And Conor. The memory of Conor wearing the veil and holding the lamp made him smile, and he urged Astra forward, suddenly more anxious than ever to reach his journey’s end.
The shadows were falling the next afternoon as Astra trotted up to the gate at Cilurnum. Responding to the guards’ greetings with a smile and a wave of his hand, Quentin went through the gate, heading for the stables. Perhaps Conor would still be there, ready to feed and water Astra and rub her down. But although Quentin searched both the stables and the adjoining gyrus, there was no sign of his armor bearer.
All right. Well, the horse had to be seen to first. Calling one of the grooms to help, Quentin removed Astra’s gear and talked to her while the groom watered her and rubbed her down. He left her eating eagerly from the bucket of barley the groom provided, and went to his quarters. The place was tidy but no one was there.
Perhaps he was playing dice somewhere or having a chat in someone else’s quarters. Conor was always all over the fort—chatting with the slave who tended the hospital herb garden, talking to Atellus, the blacksmith, or badgering the cooks in the fort kitchens for any titbits coming out of the ovens. Quentin considered. As much as he wanted to see Conor, he was also conscious that he felt hot, sweaty, and sore after his time in the saddle. He wanted a bath and a massage, and perhaps a glass of wine and some globi, the round balls of fried dough drizzled with honey, much beloved by frequenters of the baths. All right, that was it; when he was clean and fed, he’d look for Conor. It was even possible that Conor might be at the baths himself. At any rate, he’d soon find out.
“Bene lave, Centurion Quentin,” Vitalis said. “Have a good bath.”
Leaving the tepidarium, the warm room, Quentin went down the short flight of steps into the pool. As the warm water swirled around him, he could feel himself beginning to relax as the stiffness of his saddle-weary muscles began to fade away.
After his soak Vitalis himself offered to act as his masseur, and Quentin accepted with gratitude. Lying on his stomach, looking at the wall ahead, Quentin smiled as he read the messages scratched on the bricks by homesick or lovesick eighteen-year-olds posted to the northern frontier: “Drusus laments his loneliness,” and “Tullius loves Mairi.”
As Vitalis’ strong hands kneaded the last of the tension out of his muscles, Quentin surrendered to the relaxation so completely that he almost fell asleep. Only the bathman’s voice in his ear brought him back to full consciousness.
“I’ll scrape you, if you like, Centurion.”
“Thanks, Vitalis, if you would just do my back, I can take care of the rest.”
Quentin took the strigil, a curved piece of metal with a handle, and scraped the oil and sweat off himself. He handed it to Vitalis, who scraped his back, then splashed water over him to rinse off any oil that might remain after the scraping. Quentin breathed in sharply; with the pores of his skin wide open from the warm soak and the scraping, the water came as a shock.
Feeling almost boneless after the massage, he put on his sandals and went into the caldarium, where he sat down on a bench. How delightful the heat was; the hypocausts, which carried warm air from the furnace, warmed the floor under his feet as well as the walls.
Now for the cold room, to finish off. He flung the towel over one shoulder and walked into the cold room, to find that it was already occupied—by Conor and Fronto.