Iron and Scarlet

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After breaking his vow of chastity, Centurion Quentin underwent punishment

Chapter 6

Although his mind and heart were in turmoil, long training allowed Quentin to keep his face impassive as Conor, blushing up to his hairline, stepped forward. “Centurion, I–”

Quentin held up his hand for silence. “You have a right to spend your spare time as you wish.” 

He lifted his eyebrows, quirked his mouth in what he hoped was a sardonic smile. “As you were.”

He turned on his heel and strode out, walking blindly through the doorway into the room he had just left. All thoughts of a splash in the cold pool forgotten, he headed through the cold room and had almost reached the apodyterium when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Centurion? Some wine?” Vitalis held out a full goblet.

“Yes, thank you.” Quentin took the cup and drained it. “Have you another?”

“Of course. One moment.”

Just then a couple of burly soldiers brushed past Quentin on their way past him into the room beyond. “Oh, sorry, Centurion,” one of them said. “Didn’t see you standing there. Sorry.”

“Centurion, why don’t you come with me. I have a place where you can drink your wine in comfort.”

Too stricken to demur, Quentin followed Vitalis into a small, pleasant side room that contained a couch, a wooden chest, and a small table. A shelf fixed to one wall held several small boxes. A small rug, obviously of native handiwork, added a spot of color to the floor beside the couch.

“Welcome to my room, Centurion Quentin,” Vitalis said. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable on the couch and let me bring you some more wine?” 

“Thank you.”

By the time Vitalis returned, Quentin had regained a little of his composure. His heart felt like an open wound that he was going to ignore because to contemplate it would hurt too much. If he could just not think about it, if he didn’t have to think about it, perhaps the pain would go away. That Conor was being intimate with Fronto was the worst betrayal he could imagine. Remembering the tension of the dice game in which he’d won the Brigantian, he asked himself why on earth Conor had chosen to repay the man who’d saved him by dallying with his rescuer’s worst enemy. He couldn’t understand it.

“Here, Centurion.” Vitalis offered the wine, then stationed himself at a conversational distance.  “We’ve missed you while you were away. How was the journey?”

“Not very fruitful, I’m afraid, Vitalis,” Quentin said. The wine was starting to relax him. Vitalis was a good fellow. Nice-looking, too, with that headful of dark tight curls and those warm brown eyes, regarding him now with such friendliness. “What’s been happening here at the fort while I’ve been gone? Anything?”

He was amazed to hear himself sounding so normal when his world had just stood on its head. Here he sat, making conversation about the fort, when all he really wanted was to throw something at someone. Or smash something into a thousand pieces. Or beat something with a stick…but that reminded him of Fronto. Hastily, he came back to the thread of Vitalis’ remarks.

“Oh, not much, except that the Commandant’s son, young Publius, that is, jumped up on one of the donkeys when no one was looking, and galloped through a trough of whitewash. We were days scraping that off, let me tell you. And not just off the donkey–off the workmen as well!”

Vitalis went on to describe the small, everyday goings-on at the fort: the fight between two of the new recruits, which resulted in the punishment of latrine detail for both of them for a whole month; the complaints of the fort bakers that there was not enough grain to bake the enormous quantity of bread required to celebrate the Governor’s visit in two weeks’ time; the explorator’s horse that had been gored by an enormous boar while the exploratores were scouting through the countryside for signs of trouble.

“What happened to the horse, Vitalis?” Quentin felt his eyelids growing heavy. The wine was making him drowsy…he mustn’t go to sleep.

“They had to put him down. Let me get you a little more wine, Centurion.”

“No more, thank you, I’ve had enough. I think I’m starting to get a headache, actually.”

“Oh, that won’t do. Here…” 

Quentin noticed out of the corner of his eye that Vitalis had stepped behind him; then he felt the bathman’s fingertips beginning to massage his temples. “Is that better?”

“Yes, thanks.”

Quentin felt Vitalis’ hands move to the back of his neck as the bathman began to massage that area with his thumbs. Quentin grunted with satisfaction. What a good man Vitalis was. He should have been a soldier. He should have been…ah…he should…

With mild surprise he realized that Vitalis was now standing in front of him again, moving his hands downward to massage Quentin’s nipples. He wanted to remark on this but before he could open his mouth he realized that his lips were covered by Vitalis’ mouth. Vaguely, he thought that this, pleasant as it was, should not be taking place. Nor should those warm lips be moving down his chest to his groin…nor should  the lower part of his body be responding to that mouth and that expert tongue.

Befuddled by wine, heartsick because of Conor’s behavior, Quentin surrendered to the bathman’s caresses. Minutes later he felt the bliss of release, but as he sank back on the couch he was not too drunk to realize that he was in a highly compromising situation.

“Thank you, Vitalis, that was nice. You’re a good friend.”

Vitalis smiled back, but the look in his eyes acknowledged that the social distance between himself and an officer was too great for real friendship to exist between them.

“But it’s late—I’d better be going. My clothes…”

“Here they are, Centurion Quentin. Good night, and pleasant dreams.”

___________________________

In fact, Quentin did not dream at all. The next morning, waking with a foul taste in his mouth and a headache that hammered his skull like a blacksmith striking hot metal, he found Quentipor ready to attend to his needs with a towel, a basin, and a jug of water.

“Where is my armor bearer?” Quentin asked after he’d washed his face, scrubbed his teeth with salt and a corner of the towel, and rinsed his mouth.

“Gone to the stables. Shall I shave you now, sir?”

“Yes, if you’ve got some hot water ready. I’ve got to go to the principia to make my report to the Commandant.”

An hour later, leaving the headquarters building, he went in search of Eustacius Felix, who, like a good optio, was drilling Quentin’s men. Watching the men as they practiced with gladius and pilum, Quentin felt himself beginning to slip back into his normal routine and by the time the day’s work was done, it was almost as if he’d never been away.

The effects of his wine drinking the night before still lingered. He felt polluted, both by the wine and by his surrender to temptation. Why, oh why, had he so forgotten himself? He who was sworn to Mithras, the God who demanded chastity of his followers; he, Maximius Quentin, just beginning his Nymphus phase and already failing in his vows.

Well, a visit to the baths—and this time, he would have only a bath—would take care of his body. But what could he do for the state of his soul? 

It was in a surly frame of mind that he went back to his quarters, there to find Conor polishing his cuirass and greaves and Quentipor folding his cloak, which had been hung up to air all day in front of the window.

Conor looked up. Quentin stopped in his tracks and without taking his eyes from Conor’s face said, “Leave us, Quentipor.”

Without a word Quentipor left the room.

Quentin continued to stare at Conor without speaking. Conor endured it for a few minutes, then brought his fist down on the table.

“All right, Centurion, so I got drunk and had a fling with Fronto! It didn’t mean anything, I swear! I know I shouldn’t have done it. I’ll never have anything to do with him again.”

“That would be advisable,” Quentin said, and turned away.

Behind him, Conor continued. “You have my word on it. Besides, if I’m going to have a fling with anyone, I’d rather have it with you.”

Quentin turned and raised his eyebrow. “Really. And what makes you think I’d be interested in Centurion Fronto’s leavings?”

It was some small recompense for his own suffering to hear Conor gasp and to see the shock in his eyes as Quentin went out the door.

As luck would have it, he saw neither Fronto nor Vitalis at the baths that evening. Clean once more, wearing a fresh tunic and a light cloak, he was about to go to the officer’s mess for dinner when he suddenly thought of the vicus, the small village that had grown up outside the walls of Cilurnum. He wanted to be alone with his tormented thoughts, not forced to make light conversation with his fellow officers. He was not in the mood for gaming, either. All he wanted was to contemplate the events of yesterday and find a way to come to terms with them.

At this hour the village was settling down for the evening. The long light of May was just fading as Quentin walked through the  narrow main street, looking for a tavern. There was one open, but the loud voices and laughter drifting out into the evening dissuaded him from entering. The people who sold vegetables, meat, bread, and woolen goods were just packing up their stalls for the night, but he found one fast-food counter open. In the native language, he ordered beef stew and a mug of beer. Even if wine had been available, he had no stomach for it.

After finishing his meal, he walked the rest of the way down the street to where it gave way to open countryside. The last of the sunlight lay in long golden swathes across the moorland and the delicate scent of the wild white hawthorn hung in the air. It was an evening made for lovers.

O Mithras, not again! He should not be thinking such thoughts. He should not be upset because of the reckless behavior of a Brigantian hostage who happened to be his armor bearer. If he was going to be upset by anything at all, it should be that he had violated his vow of chastity for the first time in three years.

Even before his initiation into the Raven degree, Quentin had not been promiscuous. There had been a few mild crushes on fellow soldiers, but only one serious affair, and even that was brutally cut short when his lover had died in the hospital at Vetera, victim of one of the fevers that swept across the camp from time to time.

But after his initiation, Quentin had sternly repressed all sexual longings. The life he led made this easy enough to do, because for much of the year Army life was too busy to even think of such things. Sleep mattered most, and both officers and men got all too little of it. And because Quentin yearned to be worthy of the God he served, he turned his mind away from his natural urges.

Conor. Until the events of yesterday evening he had been in serious danger of becoming too attached to Conor. He had no business thinking of Conor as anything but what he was—a servant and a hostage. Really, it was ridiculous for him to even notice the barbarian’s behavior or, having noticed it, to be bothered by it. After all, he, Quentin, wasn’t planning to have any kind of relationship with Conor other than that of master and servant. The “fling” that Conor had suggested was out of the question.

Perhaps the reason he was so upset was not that Conor was having “flings,” but that the other party to this one was the man Quentin abhorred. He despised Fronto so deeply it was all he could do even to be polite to him. But he would be polite; he would never betray, by a single word or look, that he cared what Fronto did in his spare time, or with whom.

Striding along deep in thought, Quentin suddenly noticed that he had walked a long way from the vicus; turning now, he saw by that the small native roundhouses with their thatched roofs had faded from view. Overhead the sky was clear, for once, deep blue with a silver slice of moon, and the scent of the white hawthorn now blended with another fragrance.Somewhere, sweet wood was burning…applewood, perhaps, or oak.

He looked about for the source of the smoke and found it; a small earthen circle with a fire burning in the middle of it and a cauldron hanging from a metal contraption over the burning wood. A hooded, cloaked figure sat just beyond the fire circle, apparently watching the cauldron.

Quentin approached and as he came closer, the figure looked up: the hood fell back, exposing silver, white, and gray tresses that he recognized instantly.

“Good evening, Mairead. I didn’t expect to find you here. Do you live round about?”

Mairead looked at him and, as before, he repressed a shiver. There was something otherworldly about those gray eyes. “Good evening, Centurion. Yes, my home is around here.”

“I trust all is well with you. I didn’t mean to interrupt your supper, if that’s what you’re cooking in that pot.”

“It is not supper, so you’re not interrupting anything. And all is well with me, I thank you. But all is not well with you, I see.”

Quentin stiffened. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You have a heavy heart this evening. You are wounded, so you seek solitude to lick your wounds in peace and quiet, as the wild things do in the woods.”

“You are very free with your observations, Mairead. What do you think you are, a fortune teller?”

“Yes,” Mairead said. “That’s exactly what I think I am, and know myself to be. I sit here in the evenings, with my scrying-pot, and those who are troubled walk out of the village to be told their omens, or to ask my advice.”

“Well, I am not one of those. I am not interested in your advice nor in any omens.”

“As you wish, Centurion.” Her eyes slid toward his face and then away again, and she smiled.

“Good evening, then,” Quentin said and turned to go, wondering why he was reluctant to leave her company. She was of an inferior sex and an inferior race, so why did he want to stay? Something nagged at him, teased at a corner of his mind: what was it? 

“Centurion.”

He turned back. “Yes?”

“How does our Prince Conor mac Cailean at the fort of Cilurnum?”

“He does very well. Almost too well.”

“How so? How can he do ‘too well’ while he continues to be your captive?”

“Your prince has a gift for making himself at home,” Quentin said, and suddenly it came to him, the question he really wanted to ask. “Do you know Brementius the Druid?”

Mairead went very still. After a pause she said, “Everyone knows Brementius. Why?”

“I saw him a week ago, at Brocolitia. Where does he live?”

“He lives in the woods, sometimes,” Mairead said. “At other times, he lodges with people as he travels around the country.”

“Have you seen him lately?”

“No, not for several weeks. Centurion…”

“Yes, what is it?” Now that he had his answer, Quentin wanted to be off.

“I know you don’t want my advice, but I see darkness around you. Beware of one who wishes you harm.”

“Many people wish me harm, Mairead, most notably your tribesmen.”

“I mean one of your own, at Cilurnum,” she said. She spoke slowly, with an intensity that made him uncomfortable, and her eyes seemed to go through him as if he were made of air. “Beware of him who would suddenly become your friend. Do not cross the threshold when he invites you.”

“A riddle, I see. Well, I’ll be on my way. Good evening to you, Mairead.”

“And to you, Centurion.”

As he strode back up the narrow street of the vicus, his cloak flapping behind him, Quentin realized that either the walk or the conversation with Mairead had cleared his head; he knew exactly what he should do.

_______________________

It was not easy to arrange a private interview with the Pater; between Quentin’s military obligations and the Pater’s own spiritual duties, free time was difficult to come by. But at last, two days after his encounter with Mairead, Quentin found himself in the Pater’s small house outside the fort walls. When not officiating at the temple, the Pater practiced law. He had retired from military life five years before and come to Cilurnum when the congregation there grew large enough to require a Pater of its own.

The sun was setting as Quentin, off duty and wearing civilian clothes, pushed open the small gate in the wall that shielded Decimus Silenus’ house from the busy life of the village. The cool evening air held the scent of apple blossom and the Pater himself was gazing at the apple trees that grew in front of his house.

He smiled a greeting as Quentin approached and held out his hand. Quentin shook hands and glanced quickly at Silenus. He felt unworthy to be in the presence of such a man.

At fifty Decimus Silenus was still as vigorous and spare of figure as he had been in his Army days. With his graying hair and deep-set brown eyes, he had all the dignitas one would expect of a man who spent his days administering Roman justice in the vicus outside Cilurnum. Quentin regarded the Pater, who was so close to the Lord Mithras, with awe and indeed, there was something otherworldly about him. In fact, now that Quentin came to think of it, Mairead possessed the same quality, although in a different way: both the Pater and the wisewoman gave the impression that they could see into a man’s soul.

If the Pater could see into his soul at this moment then he, Quentin, was in trouble.

“You asked to see me, my son,” the Pater said. “Come, let us sit down and you can tell me what this is about.”

“Yes, Pater.” Quentin followed the Pater to a small stone bench under one of the apple trees and sat down beside him.

“Pater, I hardly know how to begin to tell you. I’m so ashamed, I can hardly sleep at night. I wish I hadn’t…”

“What is it you wish you hadn’t done?”

No use putting it off.  He had to tell him now and get it over with. “Pater, I broke my vow of chastity.”

“I see.” Silenus was silent for a time. “I think you’d better tell me the details.”

“I went to the baths. I saw someone I thought of as a friend, but he betrayed me. I was heartsick, so I allowed myself to get drunk. Then I was presented with an opportunity and I-I- went along with it instead of resisting it.”

“That happens sometimes,” the Pater said. “Was this incident the first time you broke your vow?”

“Yes, Pater, the first since I was initiated into the Raven degree three years ago.”

“And now you are in your bridegroom phase. I’m afraid there will be a penalty.”

“Pater, I expect nothing else. I know I did wrong.”

“This is what you must do. The purpose of the Nymphus phase is for the aspirant to look into his own mind and heart to find what he most desires from his spiritual life. You succumbed to the temptations of the flesh; therefore, you must undertake a difficult task or undergo a trial to show that you are still worthy to aspire to the degree of Miles.

Well, it was to be expected. He braced himself for what he knew was going to be unpleasant news. “What would you have me do, Pater?”

The Pater laid a hand on Quentin’s arm. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but firm.  “You must undergo the test of burial.”

_______________________________

Max Quentin was no more superstitious than the next man, and the hard school of the Roman Army had inured him to sights and sounds that would have made many a civilian blench. A Roman officer was expected to be brave, but not foolish; to be stern, but just; and above all, to be loyal to Rome, to his legion, to his cohort, and to the genius, or brotherhood-bond, of his unit. Hardened by his training, bred to conceal his emotions in the presence of others, Quentin gave no outward hint of the dread that consumed him at the thought of his coming trial of the burial pit.

Like most Romans, Quentin hated the hours of darkness. The night was for sleep, not for fighting—unless one was keeping watch—nor for any other activity.  And now he was required to spend unknown hours not only in the dark, but in a confined space.

He hoped he would not disgrace himself. There were whispers among some of his brother Mithraists of this one who had wept like an infant when released from the trial by burial, or that one who had gone mad and ended up being discharged from the Army. He prayed that he would have the strength to endure the trial and not be found wanting.

He was instructed to eat very lightly and to drink lightly also for half a day before the test, which would begin as soon as he went off duty the following day. Normally his duties ended at the ninth hour, so he would be entombed while daylight still ruled.

No one, not the Pater, nor Heliodromos, nor Perses, would tell him how long the trial was to last. That was part of the test—not to know, to lie there perhaps for two hours, which might seem like ten; perhaps for twelve hours, which might seem like a week.

The test was to intended to replicate the suffering of the Lord Mithras in the darkness of the cave. Those who passed the test were considered to have taken on one of the qualities of the Lord of the Wide Pastures himself, the ability to endure hardship of the soul.

Quentin made sure that he ate and drank little and visited the latrine before he arrived at the temple. The burial pit, situated outside the temple, consisted of a rectangular hole dug in the earth and lined with stone blocks; in this was laid a pallet of straw.

Pater, Heliodromos, and Perses met him at the temple entrance, wearing their ritual clothes. Several Leos and Miles, the five other men who were in the Nymphus grade with him, and all eleven Ravens were also present, wearing the masks and cloaks of their grades. At a signal from the Pater, everyone joined hands and began to chant the sacred names, Quentin joining in with the rest.

After a few moments, Quentin found Perses and Heliodromos on each side of him.

“It’s time,” Perses said in his ear.

He nodded, his heart beating fast. He showed no emotion as they detached him from the group and told him to climb down into the pit.

He did so and looked up at them.

“Lie down,” Perses instructed.

He did so, looking up at the sky filled with the mellow light of late afternoon.

“Are you ready?”

This was it! He swallowed, nodded.

“All right. Peace be on you, brother, until we meet again.”

He watched as the heavy stone lid was dragged inch by inch over him. Bit by bit, with a horrible grating noise the cover shut out the light. Now there were only six inches left…now three. Oh, Mithras, God of Light, don’t leave me, he wanted to cry out, but he pressed his lips together to keep from making a sound.

In the hours between confessing to the Pater and finding himself here in the pit, he had gone over and over the best course of action. Should he sleep? That would be the best thing to do, wouldn’t it? But in the darkness of the tomb he would have no way to know whether he had slept the normal time. It would be horrible to lie awake for hour after hour, not knowing when the stone lid would be moved again.

He could pray, of course. And would, but how long would that take? 

What if he lost control? What if he screamed and screamed and nothing happened—what if no one came?

“You’ll be able to breathe, all right,” Perses had assured him. “The purpose of the test is not to send you to the Otherworld prematurely! There are air holes. The purpose is simply to test your endurance.”

Ah, yes, to test his endurance, as the God himself had been tested.

And to punish him for his transgression? He had broken his vow of chastity, and this was his punishment. If he’d had any inkling of what that drunken encounter with Vitalis was going to lead to, he most certainly would not have succumbed to temptation. But he had, and here he was.

He found that he could breathe all right. What was horrifying was opening his eyes and seeing nothing but darkness. Better to close them, then.

How long would he lie awake? With no daylight to see and no one to talk to, he’d be bound to drop off to sleep quite soon. But what if he didn’t?

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The first warning of panic began to nibble at the edge of his mind. He didn’t like this. He wanted it to end now.

It would do no good to scream. It would do no good to beat against the stone lid with his hands or kick it with his feet: no one would hear, no one would come to lift off the lid.

It was too much, it was unbearable. He couldn’t go through with it. He had to move, he had to leave now. His heart raced and he began breathing too fast, panicked now, every instinct urging him to flee—but he could not move, other than a few inches.

Calm down, he told himself. This isn’t going to get you anywhere.

But the daylight part of him, the one that presented Gaius Maximius Quentin to the world, refused to listen. Out! I must be free! I must get out NOW! 

How many hours had passed? How many? Or was it only minutes?

He had no way of knowing.

He must retain his sanity. He could not, absolutely could not, let down his brother Mithraists, his brother officers, the emperor, his family, by breaking like a reed.

But it was so dark, and he could not move. And he was alone. 

If only the test were over now. If only, at this very minute, he could hear the welcome scrape and grate as the heavy stone lid was prised slowly away, letting blessed daylight—or even moonlight—into this pit.

They wouldn’t forget, would they? He’d never heard of anyone being forgotten in the pit. But there was always a first time, wasn’t there? What if someone attacked the fort and everyone was so busy defending Cilurnum they completely forgot about him? What if they left him here until he died?

No, surely they would not forget to let him out. 

But what if there was an earthquake? What if the stone fort collapsed on itself, killing everyone and all the stone buildings that stood so imposingly inside Cilurnum fell into ruins above his head? Did earthquakes happen in Britannia?

Surely, they would let him out. This was only a test, not an execution. But what if they didn’t let him out?

I must get out, I can’t stand it! I must be free now!

He wanted to scream but it would be a waste of breath. He should conserve his strength. Yet dread, primeval dread dropped on him and he was overcome by horror. He would die here, alone, forgotten. They were not going to get him out.

Mithras, Lord of the wide pastures, Mithras, Light of the World, help me!

And suddenly he was not alone. There was a Presence in the tomb with him. Inexplicably he began to float on a tide of relief.

Be at peace…I am with you. I will not desert you.

Is that you, Lord Mithras, Light of the Sun?

It is I. Do not struggle any longer. Breathe deeply and wait with me. I am with you and therefore you cannot fail.

So real was the Presence that he could hear the God’s voice. Behind his closed eyes the God’s face, calm and kind, filled his inner vision. The God smiled and Quentin’s fear began to dissipate. Hold my hand, he begged. Let me know that you are real.

The hand that took his was firm and strong, but cool. I am real, and I will protect you. Now sleep, and wait. It will not be long until you are free.

Thank you, Lord. I am yours forever.

Calm once more, Quentin breathed deeply and eventually dozed off. The transition to sleep was so gradual that he was not even aware that he had been sleeping until a noise jolted him awake. What was that?

A scrape, a grind overhead. Were they moving the lid?

Joy filled him. He began to tremble, but immediately fought to control himself. 

A heavy grinding noise…voices, although he couldn’t yet distinguish words.

When the lid was pulled away, they would not find him crying. They would not find him raving. They would find him worthy of the God, a true Roman soldier, afraid of nothing and no one. When they asked how he was, he would say he had never been better. Or would it be better to make a joke of it—say something like, “I’ve rarely been so bored?”

Air rushed in as the stone lid was pulled back six inches.  A face looked down on him.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, thanks,” Quentin said and was ashamed that his voice came out in a croak.

With a final grating sound, the rest of the stone was pulled away and more faces appeared, arms stretched out to him.

“Here, Quentin, give me your hand.”

He extended a hand to Perses, and felt himself being pulled up. Staggering slightly, he got to his feet, and then willing arms and shoulders were offered to help him out of the pit.

Overhead the sky was a darkish blue; by the direction of the sun’s rays he guessed it was early morning.

“Well, brother,” Heliodromos said, “what have you got to say for yourself?”

Quentin looked around the circle of friendly faces that regarded him with varying expressions—curiosity, respect, even admiration.

“I need a latrina,” he said, and everyone laughed.

And, he thought, as he leaned on the shoulder of a fellow Nymphus as they walked to the latrine, I’ll never break my vow of chastity again.

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