“Tell me exactly what happened, Centurion Quentin.”
Decimus Silenus did not seem angry; on the contrary, his expression was as mild as ever, his tone as calm. But Quentin still burned with embarrassment, regret, and exasperation at his own folly. He sighed, lowered his eyes again, and recounted the events of yesterday. The Pater listened in silence, his hands in his lap, composed and still. The grayness of early morning gave way to the first rays of sunlight; the birds roosting in the small garden twittered a greeting to the new day, and somewhere outside the walls of the Pater’s garden a dog barked.
The silence went on so long that Quentin began to fear the worst. He had disgraced himself, his God, and the brotherhood so badly that the Pater was going to banish him forever from the temple. Or perhaps the Pater would keep him in the congregation, but punish him even more severely than last time. He might have to endure trials of hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, or worse. He…
“My son, what is this man to you? How deep are your feelings for him?”
A memory of Conor flashed into Quentin’s mind—blue eyes full of mischief, waiting to see how Quentin would react to some outrageous remark or action of his—and he could not restrain a smile as he looked into Decimus Silenus’ eyes.
“He makes my heart glad, Pater. He—I don’t know how to describe how he makes me feel! I don’t want to feel this way about him but I can’t seem to help it.”
There was a pause. Then Silenus said, “You know that in our religion, a man may marry only once. And his marriage vow can be broken only by death—he may not divorce.”
“Yes, Pater. But I have never thought of marrying. The world of women holds nothing for one of my nature. And even if I did want to marry, I wouldn’t be allowed to until I finish my military service. But you know all that.”
“Yes. However, I would like to know whether this Brigantian is someone to whom you could make a lifelong vow. You may love him, you may cohabit with him, but you may not form a similar attachment to anyone else as long as you both live.”
Hope leaped in Quentin’s heart. “It’s all right for me to love him, then? As long as I pledge myself to him for life?”
“Yes, but you will have to choose, my son. Until last night, when you and the Brigantian entered a new relationship, you were in the Nymphus phase. Since you have broken your vow of chastity, you may not resume the Nymphus phase until you have abstained from a sexual relationship for three months—at which time, provided you have completed the other requirements, you would be eligible to enter the Miles phase.”
In effect, then, the Pater was telling him that he had to choose between his religion and his lover. Quentin’s heart sank. He shut his eyes and bit his lip, appalled by the awful choice he faced. To be true to Mithras he would have to renounce the new relationship with Conor, at least temporarily. But could he abstain for three months?
Sexual relationships between men were an accepted fact of life, neither celebrated nor scorned. When a man married to fulfill family obligations, he was generally expected to end any previous sexual relationships he might have had, whether with men or women. However, that rule was not always followed.
Quentin remembered the previous night, the bliss of experiencing not only the release of orgasm but of the tenderness he and Conor had shown each other. How could he sacrifice that? Conor, so warm, so alive, so mischievous, so bent on making him smile, and even laugh. Yes, last night they had laughed in the darkness after the lamp guttered out. Last night they had fallen asleep together, Conor’s back to his chest, close as an egg with a double yolk.
How could he go back to being the Quentin he’d been before last night? The hard man, the stern man who thought himself superior to others because he was an officer in the army of Rome, the man who had no use for softer feelings.
“Pater, I don’t know if I can give him up. It’s so hard, Pater!”
“Then, my son, you may not continue in the Nymphus phase.You have taken vows of truth, honor, courage, and chastity, and you have broken your vow of chastity.”
His words struck Quentin like a hammer-blow.
Stricken, he looked away, swallowed hard. Not to have the companionship of his brothers in the religion; to be shut out of the rituals; not to feel the God in his heart and mind—how could he bear it? How would he bear it, because he could not bring himself to relinquish his new love.
Quentin was so lost in thought he hardly noticed the Pater was rising to his feet.
“And now, I think, you had best get back to your duties, my son. I know it is time to attend to mine.”
Quentin stood up also. “Yes, Pater.”
Silenus looked at him for a moment. “Before cena someone will come to collect the lamp, the veil, and the mirror you now have in your possession. If you choose to continue as Nymphus, you will send him away empty-handed.”
Unable to speak, Quentin merely nodded.
“May our Lord of the Wide Pastures watch over you, my son.”
He extended his hand and Quentin shook it in the traditional manner of the brotherhood.
Decimus Silenus held open the gate and Quentin, about to go through it, turned back to cast one last sad glance at him.
As he made his way back to the fort Max admitted to himself that until his talk with the Pater just now he hadn’t felt so alive or yes, so happy,for years. He walked slowly, thinking hard. He could not give up his lover. A world of discovery beckoned him: exploring the pleasures of intimacy with Conor, learning his innermost thoughts, sharing the ups and downs of everyday life. Perhaps when their relationship was more firmly established he and Conor could agree to abstain for three months. Then he could resume the Nymphus phase.
But how far in the future would that be? And how could he live without Mithras in the meantime? How could he forego the companionship of his brothers in the religion? Without the rituals of the temple and yes, even the tests and trials he would be required to undertake to advance from Nymphus to Miles to Leo, he would lack the feeling that he was part of something bigger than himself. True, his task in the world was defending Rome from its enemies even if it meant sacrificing his life in the process, but he wanted to believe that his life was more than the spilling of blood and the clash of iron against iron, more than sweat and mud and curses, more than merely attending to the animal needs of his body. The presence of the God in his life was as comforting as the presence of his mother when he was a child. Mithras was, in fact, essential.
But if he sent word to the Pater that he would banish Conor from his bed and return to the fold, he could not share the pleasures of intimacy with the man he loved. And who knew what might happen? Who could predict confidently when he fell asleep at night that he would wake up in the morning?
Life was uncertain at best, harsh at worst. Death could come not only in battle or by accident, but by illness, murder, or vengeful Nature. How could he not grasp happiness when it was within his reach?
Looking up, he saw by the position of the sun that it was time for him to meet with Eustacius Felix about the day’s duties. Felix would drill the centuria while Quentin attended to record-keeping.
Returning to his quarters, he was well into the records when a shadow fell across the doorway. He looked up to see Perses standing there.
“You know why I’m here,” Perses said. “What have you decided?”
Quentin looked at him and, turning away, lifted the lid of the chest by his camp stool. He reached in and brought out the lamp, the veil, and the mirror. Without a word, he placed them in Perses’ hands.
Perses nodded once, turned, and marched out.
Quentin watched him go, feeling as if half his heart had been taken away.
By the time of cena, the midday meal, Cilurnum buzzed with the rumor that the exploratores’ horses had come limping back to the stables late in the morning, covered in blood.
“What happened, Arvina?” Quentin asked over lunch in the officers’ mess. Arvina could always be relied on to have the latest news.
“The wild boar, you know, the one that’s been menacing people for the last year or so, gored both horses,” Arvina said, with evident relish. “The exploratores were trotting past the woods as usual, when all of a sudden the boar charged straight out at them and attacked.”
“Damn. Were the horses badly injured?” Quentin thought of Astra, and how much he would hate to see her hurt.
“It’s possible that the magister campi can save them,” Bellator said. “And surely the surgeon would help.”
Arvina shook his head. “Not possible, I’m afraid. Or rather, one survived and he’ll be put to stud, but the other had to be put down. There was no way to save his front legs.”
“Too bad,” Bellator said. Always sober of countenance, he now appeared sunk in gloom. “I suppose we’ll all have to watch ourselves now if we ride out of here.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Arvina said, and winked. “Let’s get Plinius Jovius to agree to a boar hunt!”
The same idea had occurred to the other officers, and when the proposition was put to him, Jovius did not hesitate. “We’ll ride out tomorrow, with officers, scouts, and beaters. We’ll make a day of it and come back with enough boar meat for another feast!”
Later, in Quentin’s quarters, Conor voiced skepticism. “I know that boar. He’s the oldest, meanest boar around. He’s lived around here for years and done more damage than any other wild animal. But if you Romans think you’re going to be able to find him without me, you’re mistaken.”
“And why is that, my friend?” Quentin did not show it, but he was always amused at Conor’s brashness.
“Because I am Brigante, and I know how the wild boar thinks,” Conor said. He was not smiling now. “You Romans will ride into the woods with horses and dogs and spears, and make a lot of noise, and he’ll run off and hide. He’s smarter than any of you—present company excepted, of course,” Conor added hastily.
Quentin smiled openly as Conor shot a glance at him, evidently wondering if he was about to get into trouble for doubting Roman intelligence. “Well, we can ask Plinius Jovius if you can ride along. You never know, he might be so pleased with you that he’ll say yes. After all, you did save his son’s life this morning.”
“Yes, the prefect owes me one.”
Although he’d privately doubted that their request would be granted, Quentin was surprised when Jovius agreed. “You’ll stand surety for his behavior outside the fort, Centurion Quentin, of course.”
“Sir. Thank you, sir.” Quentin saluted.
“We’ll ride at daybreak tomorrow.”
Outside the praetorium Conor was waiting for him, looking eager. Quentin jerked his head and Conor followed him around to the granary building. There was no one there.
“What did he say, Centurion?”
Quentin felt his face relax as he looked at Conor and told him what Jovius had said.
“What does that mean, you’ll stand ‘surety’ for me?” Conor asked.
“It means, Conor, that outside the fort I’m responsible for your good behavior. And if you escape, I’ll have to die.”
“By all the gods,” Conor said, drawing in his breath. “Surely they wouldn’t do that!”
“They can and they will if I come back to Cilurnum without you.”
“What would they do? Behead you?” Conor seemed both horrified and fascinated.
“I’m an officer. They’d tell me to go to my quarters and fall on my sword. An enlisted man in the same situation would be stoned or clubbed to death.”
“Well, I won’t try to escape,” Conor said. He sounded regretful. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Thank you, Conor mac Cailean, I appreciate that,” Quentin said. “I would rather not depart this world just now if I can avoid it.”
They exchanged glances and he was pleased to notice the warmth in Conor’s expression.
“You know what I like, Centurion? I like the way your face changes when you look at me when we’re alone. When others are around, you look like a statue, but now you’re smiling and your eyes seem so-so—” Conor paused, evidently at a loss for words. “You look like you’re laughing inside.”
Quentin lifted an eyebrow. “That’s because I never know what you’ll do or say next.” He debated whether to tell Conor what the Pater had told him this morning, but on second thought decided keep silent. There would be a better time and place to divulge such information.
The short summer night was lightening into morning when the officers, yawning, some even unshaven, gathered in front of the stables. Slaves holding torches lit the scene as stable lads led horses out into the stable yard for the riders to mount. Other slaves handed each officer a hunting net to fling over his shoulders, ready to hand if needed. Scouts equipped themselves with thick staves of ash to beat the thickets and bushes; bearers carried spears to throw at the boar when it was cornered; two of the camp butchers checked and rechecked their equipment; and the six dogs that would track the boar seethed excitedly in and out among horses and men, barking their excitement at being part of the expedition.
“All right,” Jovius called. “Are we ready?”
The officers spoke as one man. “Yes!”
“Double that,” Conor added. He was riding Alba and looked more excited than Quentin had ever seen him.
“Good. We’ll head for the high ground, where the woods are thickest. Scouts and dogs in front, bearers and riders in back. Let’s go!”
Quentin settled more comfortably into the four-horned saddle and urged Astra into a trot. Sunlight lanced through the last vaporous trails of morning mist and by the time the hunters had put a mile between themselves and the fort, full day had dawned.
The air smelled of dew on the grass, green things growing, and something else.
“Rain,” Conor said, sniffing. “The wind’s out of the west, and the rain’s coming this way.”
“Oh, not today,” Quentin protested. “Not today, when we’re trying to take that boar!” Not for the first time, he cursed this perpetually sodden travesty of a country. How could the British tribes defend it so fiercely when it was such an unpleasant place to live?
But just then Conor flashed a grin at him and Quentin remembered that this same cursed, rain-plagued Britannia had produced and nurtured the man who was now his heart’s delight, and he was thankful for that.
“It doesn’t matter, Gaius Maximius. It’ll be bad for the scent hounds, but I won’t be relying on them anyway.”
After another ten minutes, the sky darkened, lightning flashed, and the wind came screeching across the moor, bringing hard rain that pelted the head and shoulders. It felt like being beaten with twigs; Quentin bent his head against the fury of it. He couldn’t see more than a foot beyond him. Astra had already slowed to a walk and he patted her neck to reassure her. A voice roared over the wind. “Centurion! I’m here!”
Trying to move forward in such a squall was like walking through honey or thick mud. He felt that he and Astra were making no progress at all. At the first blast of rain he’d pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, but it felt sodden and water dripped down his face as he peered out, hoping to discover that the rain was passing.
After a few more minutes it did. With the swiftness that Quentin found so maddening, the clouds raced away and the sun shone again so the moor grass sparkled with raindrops.
Now that he could see, Quentin reined Astra and held up a hand to halt Conor. “It appears that we’ve lost the others. Where are we?”
“They’re probably behind us. We’ll keep riding west because there’s someone I need to find.”
“You’ll see,” Conor said. “We’re heading for some woods I know.”
He urged his horse forward, but it was slow going over the sodden turf. By the time they reached the woods the rain had begun again; Conor led the way to patch of woods that seemed not quite as wet. Probably, Quentin thought, because the tree branches overhead were growing so entwined and their foliage was so thick even the rain found it hard to get through.
Conor reined in Alba. “We’ll stop here. I have to summon my friend.”
“He’s one of the people who live here. The Little Dark People.”
Quentin stared. Had Conor lost his mind? “What are you talking about, man? What little dark people?”
Conor looked up into the trees, and made a noise like a bird call. “Bran! Bran! I would speak with you, Bran!”
Quentin sat on Astra, hands slack on her reins, eyebrow lifted, mouth quirked in a smile. Conor never ceased to amaze him. His future life with this man held the promise of constant entertainment.
“Ah. He’s coming,” Conor said, with evident satisfaction. “Bran!”
Quentin froze. He had the eerie feeling that he was being watched. The hair stood up on his neck as he turned very slowly to see the small brown face peering down at him from a tree.
“This is Centurion Quentin, my friend,” Conor said, still in his native language. “He’s very pleased to meet you.”
Not knowing what else to do, Quentin nodded and spoke in Conor’s language. “I am honored to meet you, Bran.”
“Bran,” Conor said, speaking urgently, “where is Obelix the Boar?”
Bran spoke in his own language to Conor, who nodded.
“Bran says that if we ride westward we’ll find Obelix. Bran will meet us there.”
“Good,” Quentin said, and turned to thank Bran, who had vanished back into the foliage. “Well, we’d better be on our way. Time to invoke Sylvanus, Lord of the Hunt!”
“Cocidius,” Conor said, smiling. “That’s what we call him. Come on!”
A few minutes later they were underway again, galloping over the moor under a sky that was once more dark with rain clouds. Soon the rain came slashing down again. Quentin hoped the other hunters would not have found and killed the boar already. He and Astra were following Conor on Alba when suddenly Conor veered left to go around a hill rather than over it. Quentin had to pull Astra around and in so doing slowed down. Conor, looking back, beckoned Quentin forward.
When the rain slowed to a drizzle they were able to trot and then to canter.
They heard the dogs baying as they rounded another hill and saw the woods on yet another slope, farther away. Quentin exchanged looks with Conor as they galloped forward, wondering if Conor was thinking along the same lines: that the dogs had found, and by the time they reached the hunting party it would all be over.
But it was not. Following the sound, they came upon the rest of the hunting party who were gazing in disgust at the dogs, who were happily surrounding a large hare and baying their excitement to the skies.
“That’s not what we’re after, you wretched curs!” Jovius yelled over the oaths of the officers and the mutterings of the beaters. The other officers acknowledged Quentin and Conor with waves. “Got separated by that squall, did you?” Arvina shouted, and Quentin nodded. He noticed that Fronto was looking at him and then at Conor, as if wondering if there was something more to their absence than an accident of weather.
He shook himself. He should not imagine things. There was no reason for Fronto to think that there was any change in Quentin’s relationship with Conor. He’s probably giving me that hard look just because he hates me and has from the moment we met. But there was nothing he could do about it other than appear to ignore it.
The spear-bearers dispatched the hare, which was duly put into a leather bag, and the hunters continued their journey into the woods.
“Hah!” Conor pointed to a muddy area by a small stream. “A whole crowd of wild boar passed this way…they might have holed up somewhere. Doesn’t mean that Obelix is with them, though. He’s a loner, old and mean.”
“How do you know so much about this boar?”
Conor looked surprised. “This is my country. I’ve lived here all my life and I know all the animals. Look at that!” He pointed to a tree. “See that? A boar has rubbed against that tree, you can see some hairs. They like a good scratch now and then.”
As the hunters followed the course of the stream deeper into the woods, the canopy of foliage overhead began to dim the light, making the place seem mysterious. Quentin didn’t like it. Although he was as brave as the next man he preferred to be out in the open, where he could see a long way away.
“We’ll make for that rise over there, where it’s drier,” Jovius shouted. “Come on, men, this way!”
Quentin, noticing that Conor was taking his time following the others, slowed Astra to match Conor’s pace. Conor was looking around him. “Hah!” he said again. “Look over there.”
Following the direction of his pointing finger, Quentin saw a smooth, shallow depression in the muddy stream bank. “A boar has wallowed here. Look, you can see where he rolled in the mud and left a lot of his hairs around the side. It’s not the one we want, though. The boar that did this was smaller than old Obelix.”
“Whatever you say,” Quentin said, ducking as they passed under some particularly low- hanging branches. A bird suddenly cried out so he looked up. Above him was a small brown face looking down, the black hair swinging forward. Was it Bran?
“Bran?” Quentin spoke in Conor’s language. Bran pointed to the left, in the opposite direction from the party ahead of them.
Quentin saw Conor turn to look over his shoulder as if wondering why Quentin wasn’t catching up with him. Quentin pointed up at the branches and yelled, “Bran says go the other way!”
He rode after Conor and both turned to go in the other direction, toward another thicket of woods.
“I can smell Obelix on the wind!” Conor shouted.
In the distance the rest of the hunting party turned back to follow Quentin and Conor, who kept trotting ahead of them.
The party of men rode hard toward the thicket, the hounds barking furiously as they raced alongside. The barking changed to baying but they had advanced only a few yards when, with a rush of air, an enormous black animal charged out of the gloom.
Seconds later the whole pack of dogs raced into the woods, followed by Jovius, Arvina, Bellator, Fronto, and the other officers, beaters, and spear-bearers.
“After him, he’s going for cover!” Fronto yelled.
“Give me that spear, that’s a good fellow,” Conor said to one of the bearers, panting as he relieved him of his weapon. “Centurion, grab a spear!”
Quentin paused only long enough to snatch a spear from another bearer, then galloped after the quarry. Excitement possessed him and he could think of nothing but the chase as they left the woods for open country. Astra’s hooves beat a tattoo over the turf as they raced and he could smell the sweat staining her coat. The air rang with the excited shouts of men and the barking of dogs as the party chased the boar.
Obelix would undoubtedly make for the nearest cover, even if he had to run for several miles. Out on the moor the clouds hung so low in the sky they looked near enough to touch.
Quentin’s breath came in gasps and he knew that Astra was tiring rapidly. If they didn’t find Obelix soon, he’d be forced to let Astra stop and rest. Glancing about him, he saw that he and Conor were still in front, gaining rapidly on the woods ahead. There was no clear view of the fleeing boar, as the tussocks and bushes occasionally hid him from view. By the time Quentin and Conor reached the thicket, the rest of the party following, there was no trace of Obelix.
“All right, Astra, you deserve a rest,” Quentin said, and dismounted. He led her to a young tree and tied her reins around it; Conor, having dismounted, led Alba over and tied him as well.
“No water nearby, but with the rain earlier, the grass will still be wet,” Conor said. “They can slake their thirst from that.”
And indeed, the horses had begun to graze right away. Quentin wished he could spare the time to rub the sweat off Astra, but the rest of the hunting party rode up.
“All right, beaters and dogs into the woods!” Jovius called.
The men and dogs, accompanied by two bearers carrying spears, started for the thicket. The officers, spears at the ready, fanned out along the edge of the thicket, gazing into the dimly lit woods, every muscle tensing as they heard the baying.
“They’ve got him!”
Quentin barely acknowledged Conor’s shout. Hands gripping his spear, he stared and then felt his stomach muscles contract in fear and surprise as a horrible scream rent the air and the baying grew louder.
“What was that?”
The officers began to advance toward the woods, where the sounds of crashing were heard. Then Obelix charged out of the thicket, with one of the hounds still hanging on to his neck by the jaws. A spear struck the boar in the neck but the aim was not true and it glanced off. Conor, crouching, hurled his spear at the animal’s chest, but again, it was a glancing blow that failed to find its mark. The other hounds burst out of the woods, running to circle Obelix again, to shouts of encouragement from the hunters.
Obelix shook off the dog clinging to his neck and charged through the circle of hounds. With a squeal of rage, he headed for the nearest space that was clear of humans and animals. His course would take him right past Astra and Alba, who stopped grazing and whinnied with alarm.
A word flashed into Quentin’s mind. Retiarius! Running forward, he flung out the net, which billowed over the boar’s head and front legs as the animal charged, snorting, toward him. Confused, the boar slowed down; those few seconds were all Quentin needed to heave his spear into the boar’s chest. Obelix squealed again, grunted several times, and then collapsed. Seconds later the dogs flung themselves on the carcass, only to have the beaters cuff them away. Officers, beaters, bearers, and butchers shouted as they converged on the scene.
“Well done, Centurion!”
“Good throw, Quentin!”
“You got him, good for you!”
Dazedly, Quentin accepted their congratulations. He could hardly believe it was over and that his had been the fatal blow. But there as proof was the huge dead boar with his eight-inch tusks and scarred black hide. Blood trickled from the fatal wound as one of the bearers pulled the spear away.
“Jupiter greatest and best,” Arvina said in a tone of awe. “There’s enough meat on him to feed an army!”
“And that’s just what he’s going to do,” Quentin said. “Right after I offer to Sylvanus, god of the forest.”