Sometimes love comes along in a form you didn’t expect
With the approach of the summer fighting season the men in the fort grew increasingly restless. As the dreary spring of chill, mist, and rain gave way to hours filled with sunlight, the sight of white clouds drifting across blue skies lured the soldiers out of doors even after the day’s work was done. In the warming air of the lengthening days they either visited the vicus for the few amusements it afforded, or wandered over the countryside looking to snare a rabbit, bring down a bird, or fish for salmon and trout in the river.
Early June saw the entire fort completing preparations for the visit of Governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus who—along with an entourage of at least sixty soldiers and officials—was to descend on Cilurnum on the Ides of June. For the past two months, in addition to their regular drills, route marches, and customs duties, the soldiers had spent considerable time improving the parade ground outside the fort in which the parade and cavalry exhibition would take place.
Preparations rose to fever pitch the day before the governor and his party were expected. Quentin, making his way from the drill area where he and Eustacius Felix had just been putting the men through their parade formations, hoped the governor would view the fort and its inhabitants with favor. A Roman governor held more power than anyone in the province and served at the will of the emperor; a word from Q. Lollius Urbicus and Cilurnum could enjoy the benefits of a favorable report to Rome or suffer military discipline because of an infraction of the rules.
This morning as he passed the bakehouse near the west gate the air rang with lamentations from Cursus, the head cook. “Jupiter, greatest and best! How am I expected to prepare a feast for the governor’s visit when I can’t even get enough flour? We’re almost out of garum. We have no fresh fruit in season except cherries! I’ll have to use the preserved figs and dates from Syria for the third course. Yes, tell Icarus to go to the market and find me a hundred eggs. I need those, and goose fat, and…”
Four slaves whitewashing the walls of the praetorium under the direction of an immune glanced at him as the immune called a greeting. “Good morning, Centurion Quentin, I trust that all is well with you.”
“Yes, thank you, Varus,” Quentin said. The slaves bowed their heads respectfully as he went by. In the week since his trial by burial in the Mithraeum he’d noticed everyone looking at him with new respect. Of course, the rituals in the Mithraeum were supposed to be secret, known only to the brothers of the congregation; in reality, word seeped out. An incautious conversation when two brothers thought themselves unheard by anyone else…a passer-by who overheard a stray sentence or two and was astute enough to deduce the rest… nothing in a military installation could be a real secret. Remembering how Conor had eavesdropped on Perses’ visit to his quarters and discovered the significance of the symbols of the Nymphus grade, Quentin thought it was amazing that the brotherhood could keep any secrets at all.
The thought of Conor reminded him that he hadn’t seen much of his armor-bearer lately; the Brigantian was spending almost every waking moment at the stables, preparing the horses for the governor’s visit. It was just as well. Although the face Quentin presented to the world was as impassive as ever, in his soul he still felt the sting of disappointment in Conor’s behavior. Conor’s frequent absences from home prevented Quentin from brooding about the situation as much as he might otherwise have done.
The very air seemed to pulsate with excitement when Lollius Urbicus and his retinue rode into the fort on the Ides of June, their standards flapping in the wind. Children watching from their parents’ shoulders gazed wide-eyed at the magnificence of the Roman officers on their prancing horses; the rank and file of auxiliaries surveyed the shining cuirasses and expensive cloaks of the Roman officers with envy; and the slaves, scurrying about the innumerable tasks connected with the entertainment of such grand visitors, cast surreptitious glances at these representatives of a world of privilege they would never enjoy.
Quentin, watching as Plinius Jovius welcomed Lollius Urbicus, tried to recall the little he knew about the man. A Numidian by birth, Urbicus had already served as governor of Germania Inferior and helped quell a rebellion in Judaea before taking up his post in Britannia. To be governor of either Britannia or Syria was the highest honor to which a career Army officer might aspire, and Urbicus had achieved it at the age of thirty-nine.
“Look at him, Quentin,” Pomponius Bellator remarked out of the side of his mouth as Lollius Urbicus stood in front of the headquarters building, flanked by a tall, thin man in civilian clothes, and several officers. “He seems to crackle with energy! No wonder he’s achieved so much.”
“Yes,” Quentin agreed. “Who’s the man in the toga at his left, do you know?”
“I do,” said a voice behind them. Turning, Quentin saw Trebellius Arvina, looking more excited than he’d ever seen him, gazing at the governor and his party. “That’s Quintus Tiberius Paullus, the Procurator. He’s the second most powerful man in Britannia.”
“Why? What does he do?”
“Collects the taxes,” Arvina said. “One wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Look, there’s the signal from the cornicen. It’s time to start lining up the troops for the parade.”
As the cornet continued to sound through the fort, officers and enlisted men began to take their places on the parade ground outside the walls of the fort itself. Urbicus, Paullus, and Jovius took their places in the tribunal, the reviewing stand; spectators arranged themselves on the perimeter of the parade ground so as not to impede the progress of the troops, and the day’s ceremonies began.
The infantry paraded first, showing evidence of long weeks of constant drilling. Quentin smiled with pride and satisfaction at the sight of his men looking straight ahead as they marched in unison behind the standard bearers, their armor glinting in the sunlight and the red horsehair plumes on their helmets fluttering in the ever-present wind that blew across this part of Britannia. He cast a quick glance at the reviewing stand to see how the parade was being received; Jovius was also smiling; Paullus’ expression was unreadable, and Urbicus looked politely bored.
Next came an exhibition in which selected troops demonstrated their skill with javelin, sword, and shield. The best athletes among the soldiers had been chosen to demonstrate their skills in the broad jump, rope climbing, and wrestling.
Sweat trickled from Quentin’s helmet down his neck and it was all he could do not to sigh and shift impatiently from foot to foot. He would have liked to stretch, change position, anything to relieve the monotony of standing at attention, but he reminded himself that Mithras, the Unconquered Sun, had suffered worse hardships than this mild discomfort in his earthly life.
At last it was time for the cavalrymen to demonstrate their prowess in horsemanship and their skill with the long cavalry sword, the spatha, as they feinted and charged in the complex maneuver called the Cantabrian gallop. Two opposing teams of horsemen galloped in opposing circles so that one trooper from each team would meet face to face, exchange mock blows with their swords, then gallop in opposite directions. Both men and horses performed well; glancing over at the tribunal, Quentin saw that the watching dignitaries appeared far more interested in this display than in the infantry parade. Even Urbicus was leaning forward, as if intent on the performance, and Quentin again was conscious of pride that the soldiers of Cilurnum were performing so well today. How much had Conor had to do with training the horses for this excellent performance?
A sudden stir in the audience indicated that the next part of the parade was about to begin. Turning back to look, Quentin saw that the horses still in probationary training were trotting into the hippodrome. Conor, riding a handsome white stallion, headed the procession. After circling the area once, the riders brought the horses to a standstill; at a signal from Conor, the other riders dismounted. Three of the horses stepped out of the ranks and stood still as three trainers vaulted onto their backs. The equanimity with which the horses accommodated the leaps demonstrated the extent of their training. The horses, all between two and three years old, stood as straight and still as if about to carry their riders into battle.
So far, so good. Surely it was time for the exhibition to finish? Glancing up at the sky, Quentin decided that the banquet that was to follow could not be far off; it was already two hours past midday. Even now the delicious aroma of roasting meat was beginning to drift into the parade ground.
The horses were beginning to trot around the hippodrome again, two by two this time, with Conor still riding at the head of the procession and holding the gray stallion to his right on a leading rein. As Conor approached the tribunal with the companion horse, he made a slight movement and then stood up in the saddle. In the next moment, he placed his right leg on the gray horse he was leading as the two horses trotted past the tribunal. Applause and laughter rang out as the Brigantian, bringing his right leg back to the white stallion, urged the horse to a gallop while he leaned forward, holding both arms up in the air as he extended his left leg behind him.
Quentin drew in his breath sharply. This was tempting the gods! What was the man thinking? A vision of Conor being trampled to death underneath the hooves of both the horses flashed across his mind’s eye; he could almost see the blood running down Conor’s fair skin and hear the shouts of horrified spectators.
“I had no idea your armor-bearer was so talented, Centurion,” Bellator said.
Arvina, on the other side of Quentin, laughed so hard that his face turned red. “He’s good enough for the arena at Londinium, Gaius Maximius! Too bad you can’t hire him out. You could make a fortune!”
Quentin shook himself back to reality and glanced at the tribunal, wondering if this performance of Conor’s would lead to a flogging or worse for mocking Roman military discipline.
His fear was unfounded. Lollius Urbicus, boredom forgotten, clutched his sides as he bellowed with laughter. Jovius was crimson, whether with heat or mortification Quentin could not tell, and even the saturnine Procurator was smiling.
In the hippodrome Conor, leading the horses around again, suddenly slipped off the white stallion’s back to a position in which he appeared to be clasping the horse’s neck with his arms, with his legs on each side of the neck, feet touching. Light of the World, what was the man going to do next? Had Conor gone mad?
More applause and laughter rang out as Conor, evidently having exhausted his repertoire, resumed his seat on the white stallion’s back and led the rest of the horses out of the hippodrome.
“Well, Gaius Maximius, your armor-bearer definitely livened up the show. I haven’t enjoyed a gymnastika this much for years,” Bellator said.
Trevina untied his neckerchief, drew it out of his tunic and mopped his face with it. “I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.”
Quentin fumed in silence as he endured the rest of the proceedings. The minute the dignitaries left the reviewing stand, thereby freeing the rest of the audience to leave also, he made straight for the stables. Conor didn’t know it yet, but he was about to receive the dressing-down of his life.
A short time later he ran the man to earth in the white stallion’s stall. Conor was just putting the towel away after rubbing the horse down when Quentin yanked open the half-door of the stall and entered.
Quentin saw Conor’s expression change from surprise to worry as he took in the fact that Quentin was furious.
“Conor, you idiot! What in the name of all your gods possessed you to perform those tricks? You could have been killed!”
Whatever Conor was going to reply was lost as Quentin, completely beside himself, grabbed Conor by the shoulders and stared into his eyes.
Conor stared back. “What’s it to you if I live or die?”
“Because if you died I wouldn’t want to go on living! I-I—”
Even as he retreated he noticed Conor’s shocked expression. Then, as the enormity of his own action began to sink in, he bit his lip and left the stall as quickly as he had entered it. He had to get out of there and find a quiet place in which to think.
Mithras, Light of the World! Why had he done that? Why had he betrayed his God, his military discipline, his Roman pride, by getting so close to that dratted native hostage?
Because you were so relieved that he was still alive and not injured, a voice inside his head said.
And why should he care whether a hostage, even if the hostage in question served as his armor-bearer, was alive and uninjured?
Because you care deeply for him and always have, the voice said.
Oh, no, this was not possible. He was Roman—or would be, one day—his citizenship would be granted after seventeen more years of service. But in everything that counted he was already Roman. As an officer in the greatest army the world had ever known, he was bound to uphold not only its standards but the virtues of Rome itself. To the world he must appear honorable, brave, dedicated, and stern. Not for him the softer emotions allowed to women, pretty boys, and slaves. Love was for the lower classes.
The only love he was permitted to feel was for Mithras, and to some extent, his father, far away in Etruria. He had loved his mother when she was alive and his comrade in arms who had died four years ago; but since then he had settled for the good-natured, casual fellowship of his brother officers and fellow Mithraists. He did not need anyone or anything else.
Or so he’d thought until now.
His rapid walk through the fort had brought him to the garden outside the valetudinarium, where the medicus grew the herbs he used for infusions and poultices. Standing in the small, sunny enclosure, surrounded by herbs growing in pots, he breathed in the fragrance of rosemary, balm, and lavender, and felt his heartbeat slowing down to normal. But his mind was still in a ferment.
Conor, that damned Conor! Frolicksome as a puppy and just as appealing, he had somehow managed to penetrate the thick shell that protected Quentin from feeling the messy emotions that others felt, and this was the result. He’d been heartsick with jealousy when he found Conor almost in flagrante delicto with Fronto, and today, frantic at the thought of the risk Conor had taken during the parade, he’d betrayed his feelings—yes, he was forced to admit, his true feelings—for the man.
The banquet, in the usual fashion of Roman feasts, lasted several hours. Despite his earlier lamentations, Cursus and his assistant cooks had performed in splendid fashion, serving fish, game, fowl, and pork, followed by every delicacy the Roman cooks could buy, bake, or grow. There was so much food that Quentin suspected that even the slaves would eat well this day.
He’d given Quentipor the rest of the day off, so presumably the lad was enjoying himself in his own way. Looking around at all the men eating, drinking, and talking, he suddenly wondered where Conor was. Surely he wasn’t going to miss out on the festivities?
“Good wine,” Bellator remarked as a slave refilled his goblet.
“The Procurator donated it as a gift to Plinius Jovius,” Arvina said.
“How do you know these things, Arvina?” Quentin asked as he watched Fronto, sitting near Jovius, Urbicus, and the Procurator, drink his wine without mixing water into it first. Drinking wine untempered was considered to be the mark of either a lowlife or an alcoholic. Fronto could hardly fit the latter category, given the amount of work he did, so it must be the former.
“Oh, I get around. I overheard one of the Governor’s people talking about it.”
Eustacius Felix came up to the three centurions and saluted. “Prefect Jovius is convening a meeting of all officers in the headquarters building in half an hour,” he said.
“Thank you, Felix,” Quentin said. As Felix left to convey the message to the next group of officers, Quentin looked at Bellator. “Wonder what this is about?”
Bellator shrugged. “We’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure.”
Half an hour later Lollius Urbicus addressed the officers of Cilurnum. He spoke briskly, as if he were briefing troops before a battle.
“Men, I want to tell you something of my plans. Brilliantly as you’ve entertained us, I assure you all that we didn’t come up here from Londinium just to have a good time.”
A murmur of amusement ran around the room. All eyes were fixed on Urbicus as he looked around the room and continued.
“From here I’m going with my people to Coria. Some of you may know that Coria was used as a supply base in Agricola’s time when he conducted his campaign against the Caledones. Well, I intend for Coria to fill that role again. For months we’ve heard rumors of an uprising on the part of the northern tribes—oh, nothing specific, that we could put down with a well-placed strike by a legion or two—just gossip—hearsay—marketplace talk. Our intelligence comes from all over the country. In fact, some of it came from here. Is Centurion Quentin present?”
Surprised, Quentin stepped forward, holding his helmet under one arm, and saluted. “Sir!”
Lollius acknowledged him with a nod. “You filed a report that came to our attention in Londinium concerning certain suspect activities by the Druids. Good work, Centurion.”
“Sir.” Quentin bowed his head and stepped back into the ranks of his fellow officers. He saw Bellator give him a half-glance as if to say, “Well, well, look at you!” On his right, Trevina smiled faintly as if either wistful or envious, and Fronto, on the other side of the room, shot him a look of pure hatred.
For the next few minutes Urbicus reiterated that although no one could say for certain that an uprising was imminent, there was a feeling among the higher echelons of the provincial government that the situation bore watching. “You showed today that you are well-trained and in a state of readiness,” Urbicus said. “Keep up the good work, because tomorrow…next week…next month…who knows when? You’re going to find yourselves leading your centuries in a major action.”
When Urbicus, Jovius, and Paullus left the principia the officers began to discuss the briefing in low voices as they made their way outside.
“What do you think, Gaius Maximius? Are we going to be spending the summer in Caledonia?”
“Oh, no! Surely not,” Arvina said. “I’m due for leave soon. That would ruin my plans. Where are you off to? I’m for the baths.”
“Me too,” Bellator said. “I need some exercise to work off that banquet. I feel like a stuffed pig.”
“I’d like a dip in the cold pool,” Quentin said. “Talk about pigs—I was sweating like one when we were watching the exhibition.”
That reminded him of Conor and of what had happened earlier. It was strange, he thought again, that he hadn’t seen Conor at the banquet. Perhaps the Brigantian was avoiding him because he was embarrassed? Perhaps—a chastening thought—he had been utterly repelled by Quentin’s behavior? At the thought, Quentin felt hot with mortification.
“Come on, then,” Arvina said. “I’m captain of the watch tonight. While you two are enjoying a sound sleep I’ll be walking around asking people the day’s password.”
The soothing rituals of the bath, including the massage, the steam room, the hot room, and the dip in the pool in the cold room, refreshed Quentin; after them, he felt ready for anything. Dressed again, he strolled with Arvina and Bellator to the front door of the bath house.
“All right, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Arvina said, and stepped off in the direction of the West Gate watchtower.
Bellator stretched and then grimaced. “I’m going back to my quarters to finish writing a letter to my family. If I hurry, I can send it with the governor’s courier to Londinium in the morning. What are you going to do, Gaius Maximius?”
Quentin shrugged. “I’m not sure…perhaps I’ll go to the Mithraeum after I change out of this uniform.”
Back at his quarters, there was still no sign of Conor, annoyingly enough, nor of Quentipor either. It was difficult getting out of his cuirass by himself but he managed it, then unbuckled the heavy greaves he’d been wearing all day. With a huge sigh of relief at divesting himself of the hot, heavy armor, he left it in the outer room. His armor-bearer could damned well wipe it down and polish it when he came in, whenever that might be.
In his sleeping chamber he changed into a lighter tunic and cloak and put on a pair of sandals. The prospect of spending a quiet hour in the Mithraeum beckoned him like the gift of a new toy to a child. Alone with the Light of the World he could refresh his troubled soul.
As there was no ritual today, he hadn’t brought along the lamp, the veil, and the mirror. Instead, he lowered himself to a reclining position on one of the couches in the chapel. From there he could see the wall sculpture depicting the tauroctony.
Someone had left pine incense burning on the altar, and as always, the aromatic smoke reminded him that this was a place of prayer and reflection, set apart from the worldly concerns of Cilurnum. The coolness and quiet calmed him and now that he was alone he closed his eyes, seeking the peace that had deserted him since the encounter with Conor earlier. He breathed deeply in a certain rhythm, as he had been taught to do as a newly initiated Raven, and little by little the excitements and cares of the day began to fade.
Light of the World, keep me strong in my vows. With eyes still closed he waited for the warm beneficent presence of the God to flood through him as it had that night in the burial pit. But although he waited for what seemed like a long time, no sense of warmth filled him and no deep reassuring voice spoke in his mind. Hardly knowing what he did, he clenched his fists, held his breath, and concentrated even harder, but nothing came.
At last he opened his eyes and looked toward the altar, finding himself still alone in the dimness. Despite the fact that he had not sensed the God within himself, the holiness of the place seemed to settle over him like an invisible cloak. Rising to his feet, he bowed in the direction of the altar, and left the chapel.
It was strange how spending time in the Mithraeum seemed to take him out of the world; he blinked as he stepped outside into the lingering light of the June evening.
Well, as long as the light lasted, he might as well look for Conor so that he could apologize to him. But where could he be? Bath house, stables, hospital? There was no telling. He’d have to look in all the usual places and a few that weren’t usual, very likely.
A search of the usual places revealed no trace of the Brigantian. All right, that left the latrine and the chapel of the standards, although what Conor could possibly be doing in the latter, only the gods knew. Because the strongroom beneath the chapel held all the fort funds, it was guarded day and night.
There were only two men in the latrine and neither was Conor.
Cursing himself for his unrelenting thoroughness, Quentin approached the chapel of the standards. Two sentries stood duty outside it, pila at the ready.
“Ave,” he said. “Have you by any chance seen Conor? I can’t find him anywhere.”
“No, sir,” the older sentry said. “You know he wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near this place.”
“Of course.” Quentin acknowledged the truth of this statement with a nod. “You wouldn’t let anyone in there, I know that. I just thought—”
“Well, that’s not quite true,” the younger sentry said. He was a pleasant-looking lad who appeared to want to be helpful. “We do sometimes let people in there, if they’re important enough. Like the two who are in there now.”
“Oh, really,” Quentin said, and raised an eyebrow. “And who would that be?”
“Don’t you go blabbing, me lad,” the elder sentry interposed quickly. “That’s not any of our business, it isn’t.”
“You’re right,” Quentin said. His curiosity was by now thoroughly aroused. Who was in the chapel? As a rule, only the signifer and imaginifer visited the chapel, when it was necessary to retrieve the standards for a ceremonial occasion—such as the exhibition today.
But the younger guard had hinted that the people inside were important. The signifer, Justus Bonus, and the imaginifer, who carried the image of the emperor, were certainly senior men, but they were normal habitués whose visit to the chapel would not be regarded as anything out of the ordinary. Who, then, was inside?
“Well, I suppose I’d better move on,” Quentin said. “If you do see Conor, send him home, will you? He ought to be doing his job.”
“Yes, sir.” Both sentries saluted, and reluctantly, Quentin began to walk away.
Just then he heard the noise of a door opening behind him, so he turned to see who was coming out of the chapel.
It was the Procurator and Arrius Fronto.
Quentin looked behind him just long enough to ascertain the identity of the pair, and then resumed his walk. But his mind was busy. What could the Procurator and Fronto have in common? To the best of his knowledge, the two had never met before today. There was a certain social distance between them, so they could hardly be having a chat in the manner of two men who, meeting for the first time, discover interests in common and eagerly pursue a new acquaintance. But what interests could a patrician like Paullus possibly share with Fronto, who had started life as an army grunt and worked his way up through the years to the rank of centurion?
Since he’d been at the fort, Quentin had heard talk in passing about Fronto; how he came from a family of dirt-poor farmers in the countryside outside Rome and how he’d joined up at sixteen to escape the back-breaking life of a peasant farmer in Umbria. Joining the army was the ticket to a better life, provided that one could avoid being killed in battle or falling prey to the diseases that sometimes carried off even healthy men. The army offered regular meals, regular pay, the best medical care in the Empire—apart from that available to the emperor himself—and the companionship of fellow soldiers. The army was a hard taskmaster and required a great deal from its soldiers, but on the other hand, it offered a man a chance to see the world.
Quentin had joined the army at eighteen and knew as well as anyone how easily the harsh discipline of the Roman army could warp a man’s outlook. It certainly had warped Fronto’s, as his behavior toward his men showed. Discipline affected some people like that: once they acquired power themselves, they made sure that those beneath them felt its effects.
It was a harsh world he lived in, and Quentin accepted that fact. But he saw no reason to add to its harshness. What Rome required him to do in the course of his duty, he would do, but he would not stoop to employing cruelty for its own sake.
Still engrossed by the question of what Fronto and the Procurator could have had to say to each other on so slight an acquaintance, Quentin realized with a start that he had reached his quarters. It was just as well. Despite the summer daylight that lingered in this northern clime he realized it was bedtime, and he welcomed the thought. One way and another, it had been a tiring day.
Still no Quentipor, he noticed as he entered the outer room. And no Conor, either. But the armor, neatly hung on the wall, looked clean and bright. Had Conor come in and left again?
But lamplight streamed from the inner chamber, so Conor had not left. Quentin felt his heart give an odd lurch at the sight of Conor, bare to the waist, sitting on the sleeping couch in the inner chamber.
“Conor! I’ve been looking for you all afternoon. Where have you been?”
Conor shrugged. “Here and there.”
“What are you doing in here? Where’s Quentipor?”
“Quentipor wanted to stay with some friends tonight. I think he overdid it with the beer today. As to what I’m doing here…” Conor smiled faintly. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Quentin stiffened. “Yes?”
Conor stood up, took a step toward Quentin until he was standing only half an arm’s length away. “Earlier today, Centurion, you took something from me. And now I want it back.”
Dew lay thick on the grass the next morning as Quentin, once more in uniform, left the West Gate and walked through the vicus, still and quiet in the gray light of early morning.
When he reached the house he knocked on the door, which opened to admit him, and stepped into the small courtyard.
Decimus Silenus smiled faintly. “Good morning, my son. What brings you here so early in the day?”
“Please, Pater, I must talk to you. Is there somewhere…”
Silenus indicated a bench under a grape arbor. “Please sit down.”
“Pater….” Quentin took a seat beside Decimus Silenus and found himself unable to look the priest in the eyes. He looked down, digging into his temples with his fingertips, unwilling to say what he had come to say. “Pater, I have violated my vow of chastity.”
“Yes, my son, I know.” The Pater’s voice was as calm and unhurried as always. “You have acknowledged your transgression and resumed allegiance to your vows. You are ready now to move to the next stage, to initiation in the Miles degree.”
His heart full of misery, Quentin at last lifted his head to look Decimus Silenus in the face. “No, Pater, you don’t understand. I have broken my vow twice.”