JUST STORIES

[THIS IS A STICKY POST DATED EARLY 2012. IF YOU LOOK AT THE POSTS BELOW YOU'LL SEE THE BLOG IS UPDATED REGULARLY WITH NEW STORIES.]

A collection of short fiction by me, some of it published elsewhere, nothing under anyone else’s copyright, except for one or two pieces (uncertain).

This is an amateur’s shot at reviving short fiction as pure yarn. Some of the stories are a touch serious or reflective, not so plot-heavy. But much of what you get here is just bedside popcorn, so be warned. Expect some all-artificial product with heavy plotting, twists, unmaskings and the like. In some cases, a story is just a rambling account; even then, I may try to incorporate a twist, through sheer stubbornness or bad taste.

I try not to treat characters as furniture or mere plot pivots, but they are sketched, rather than painted. I’m not afraid of using the now unfashionable adverb or other descriptive flourish – but let’s move that story along!

Lit-fic and creative writing may be fine things, but there is none of that to be had here. My prose will rarely be sinewy, luminous, supple, lucid, muscular, spare or taut. I won’t use the word “arc” at all, unless the topic is geometry. Things will merely drop, fall or tumble, they will not arc. I’ve got it in for “arc”.

In most of my gloomy stories, I contrive happy or uplifting endings, even when such seem impossible. That’s just to cheer everybody up, myself included. In accounts of villainy, bad guys won’t always get their comeuppance, but if if you wait till that last paragraph…maybe!

For those who find this undertaking to be dated and lacking a worthy purpose, you are probably right. If you find some of the stories downright pulpy, you are certainly right.

As a mercy to those who prefer more substance, even in their lighter reading, my intention is to stop after fifty entries, though that is an intention, not, as they say in Australian politics, a core commitment. [Note: began publishing more stories August 2013. See? Told you it was just an intention.]

***

In the historical category, two views of the French Revolution, by two if its shapers. Meet the Great Survivors…

THE PEACE OF CAREME

THE VERY DEVIL

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A chain letter down the centuries…

HELOISE TO UNKNOWN

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Overlapping our fantasy category, a venerable Jewish doctor admits his age…

WANDERER

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A sleepy queen entertains…

THE PLAY

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An unlikely encounter in post-war Rome, over bad carbonara.

THE GOLDWYN CODE

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Romane memento!

ALTOGETHER ELSEWHERE

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The Middle East, and all that.

WATER

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Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.

LOCUSTA 1

LOCUSTA 2

LOCUSTA 3

LOCUSTA 4

LOCUSTA 5

LOCUSTA 6

LOCUSTA 7

LOCUSTA 8

LOCUSTA 9

LOCUSTA 10

LOCUSTA 11

LOCUSTA 12

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It’s never over till…

THE LONG GAME

Speaking of the game…

BLOOD, IRON AND PHRASING

Thinking of redecorating…

A ROOM TOO LARGE AND COLD

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***

In the category of crime and detection, an insurance expert has trouble unwinding on holidays, relates some favourite cases…

A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY

AN ADEQUATE MURDER

CHILD’S PLAY

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A master criminal roams the bush, visits the city. We don’t approve of him at all, however…

QUINLIVIN I

QUINLIVIN II

QUINLIVIN III

QUINLIVIN IV

QUINLIVIN V

QUINLIVIN VI

QUINLIVIN VII

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Maigret comes to Australia. Really!

MAIGRET’S LONG REACH

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Evil is not an Ikea purchase. My best opening sentence?

BITS OF BAD

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Are you insured?

PURGATORY HILL

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You will pay if you skip this one:

EVERYBODY PAYS

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A twisty track:

THE GORGE

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***

In the category of fantasy and the improbable, some ghosts…

QUO VADIS

THE MOTHER

CEMETERY LOOP

THE WEEPER

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Strange entities…

DON’T SAY YOWIES

THE OLD F-S SCALE

FOAM OF THE SEA

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Bent fairy tales…

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE I

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE II

THE LOST CITY

TARQUIN’S TRAVELS

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Guardian angels: not the glamour job you’d think.

THE SECRET OF 63

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That little opinion of yours…

QUALITY OPINION SUPPLIES

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There’s even a time travel yarn. An easy, pulpy read. You won’t know where the minutes went…

SHE SLIPPED

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God knows what this is about…

ME

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Or what this is about…

SURE SCIENCE

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***

Australian interest, bush first…

A BUSH ANSWER

DRAGON

CHASE

THE .22 CLUB

WOY WOY

TRIVIAL TALE

THE NAME OF THE BEAST

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Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…

UNIQUE

EVEN IN ARCADY

ANGELS RUSH IN

EAST SYDNEY: A MEMOIR

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Sydney in that Decade of Greed, and whatever you call the nineties…

DECADE OF GREED I

DECADE OF GREED II

MADE IN FRANCE

AUSTRALIA’S GREATEST SALESPERSON

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Sports fans!

AUSTRALIAN PIETAS

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Getting that perfect balance between no-life and no-work…

ESCAPE FROM KRYPTON

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***

Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…

THE COCK AND HEN

ANOTHER PILGRIM TALE

THE CATS OF LA ROMIEU

GLOBAL INGRATITUDE

NOT IN MY CONTRADA

DEVIL’S BRIDGE

TRUFFLES AND DEMONS

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Novella length.  Come on, they can’t all be short…

THE THIEF OF SAINT FAITH

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***

A miscellany of pulp: a bit silly, most with strong final twists, what you want…

THE WAY THESE PEOPLE THINK

THE RETURN OF THE SON OF REHASH

A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER

REMNANT

FOR THE BIG ROUND THING

THE MEDIOCRE SAMARITAN

MEETING IN FRANCE

LONG TIME LISTENER, FIRST TIME CALLER

FAUX-PAS

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***

Uh-oh. He publishes his own poetry…

WRITERS BLOCK

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***

The serial, Life of Saint Locusta, is now available as a read-through novel. It is the same text as published on this short fiction site in episodes, but arranged as ordinary chapters in chronological order. It looks like a single post with a single date on it, but if you scroll down you are likely to find new chapters from time to time.

Life of Saint Locusta: a serial.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A ROOM TOO LARGE AND COLD

1280px-Chateau_Versailles_Galerie_des_Glaces

Madame de Maintenon pushed the contraption forward into the darkened gallery. The vehicle made little squeals and squeaks, but moved easily enough. The captain of the guard came to her side.

“Madam, it may be just a little heavy…”

“No, no. I can manage, I think. Anyway, I must try. Thank you for showing me the workings. His Majesty wants us to be able to have a little exercise together, away from others’ eyes and their constant critiques of his health. We’ll summon you if you are needed. You know the taps of His Majesty’s cane, what each tap means. Just close the doors behind us and leave us be.”

“Your Majesties.”

The captain bowed low as the lady pushed the wheelchair further forward. His faint embarrassment may have been at the sight of Madame de Maintenon, all but toothless, part blind and part deaf, pushing the bulky wheelchair and its bulky occupant. Or it may have been the continued uncertainty over whether the royal couple should be addressed as Majesties when the lady, not a princess of the blood, on her own could not be addressed as Majesty. Awkward, these morganatic marriages.

The doors were closed behind them, and royal couple faced down the vast and glimmering Hall of Mirrors, lit by just a few lamps now, its cascades of chandeliers all extinguished.

As if by command, moonlight broke through cloud and sheeted the floor below the soaring windows.

The king spoke.

“We are alone now, madam?”

“Yes, Louis, alone.”

“It’s summer and I still can’t feel warm in this room.”

“It’s a very large room. And with so much glass and so many mirrors, it’s bound to be cold. Fires and braziers would mar its beauty. Those paintings on the ceiling – I really don’t know how such marvels are achieved – the paintings must be preserved for our descendants.”

“You know, I kept rejecting mythical themes for the ceiling’s centrepiece on artistic grounds, or some such piffle, till they finally decided to show my own victories and prowess as the main themes. Why allegorise me when you can just paint me? Extraordinary how one has to prod flatterers into flattery these days…But, Francoise, you need not pretend. I know this is not your favourite place. Even I am happier at Marly, with its more comfortable proportions. I know you would be happier at Saint-Cyr.”

“At Saint-Cyr, or in any convent, I could not be with you, husband. Here at Versailles I can shiver with my Louis.”

“Ah, if I could remake this room so we did not shiver!”

“But it is the most perfect room in France. Men in China and Quebec have heard of its splendours.”

“And yet I wish for more…or for less…I don’t know what. I just wish I might begin again.”

“Begin again? With this room?”

“Yes, what else? Oh, maybe with much else beside. Just to have money again, youth again.”

“Louis, both are gone from us. Youth can never come again. As for money, you know I would never utter a word in the company of others…but your taxes have been cruel. I don’t call you cruel, or say that the taxes were not required – you must decide all that with advisers and confessors – but the taxes have been cruel. I cannot drive from here to Saint-Cyr without mobs of beggars stopping my carriage. I give all I can on the way, but with a hundred vehicles I could not carry or give out enough. Not all these poor are shiftless or sots. Many have been made invalids in our wars, lost supporting family in the terrible winter of seventeen hundred and nine. But even if they are shiftless and drunken…Louis, you must not even think of more exactions, more royal buildings, more wars.”

“I don’t! In fact, my thoughts tend to reconciliation these days, to mildness…and to need over glory. With a bit of Huguenot industry, Huguenot thrift…All those good protestant craftsmen and administrators who are gone from France…So many of them educated…With some of them I might have worked to remake things.”

“Louis, the repressions and limitations, all those measures were necessary for the good of their souls as well as for the safety of the true church!”

“And it would be for the good and safety of France if they had stayed! I can see it now. Anyway, are we two not the descendants of protestants, and the very pick? My grandfather, Henry…his mother, Jeanne…what strength! And few starved where they ruled. I would let no man school me in statecraft – yet I might let those two school me. Protestants!”

“Your grandfather was a great ruler after he was Catholic, and he died in the arms of the true church. As must we.”

“Well, of course we must, of course we must…

“But let me start my little ramble. I did not seriously expect you to wheel me about. There is something I wish to try. If I grasp the rim of each wheel then thrust forward and down, I may be able to propel myself.”

“But, my love…”

“No discussion. When have I discussed any small matter more than once? To do so is to make it a great matter. Stand clear, madam. If I feel I can do this capably, I shall then do it publicly, as I once rode my horse to war at the siege of Mons, or skipped through the old swamps of Versailles when a-hunting with my father. And as I danced! Ah, how I danced! A king may wish to be immobile, but he must avoid any obligation to be so.”

“Louis, can you ever cease, for a moment, just a moment…”

“Cease to be monarch? Madam, you might ask the sun not to rise. Yet it will rise. Etiquette compels me. It is not the person of a prince but the constantly observed etiquette of a prince which makes another sun in this world. And the sun called Louis will rise daily over France till the blackness which is eating my leg has all of me. Etiquette is something I do understand, even better than Henry and Jeanne d’Albret. For etiquette, history and France will forgive me many things, even if God does not. Rightly they will forgive, because etiquette is an enormity. It is made up of a million tiny pieces, but it is an enormity. And etiquette requires that I never be seen as a slouch, not for a moment and not even in the last and most painful moments!”

The king thrust down on each wheel rim with his hands. The wheelchair lumbered forward, with its usual noises.

“There. It can be done with arm strength and a good grip. Of course, I will have to practise nightly for a while…”

“Oh, Louis…at your age…”

“At any age, madam! Now, I don’t need you to follow me. There are shawls over by that chair. Go and wait for me there, while I take my exercise.”

“But if you should tire or fall out…with my hearing and vision so bad…”

“I have taken greater risks in war and hunting, have I not? Besides, I know how to make myself heard. A little place called Europe will vouch for that. Now…I will give myself a good half hour to advance then return. The moonlight is enough for seeing a path. Perhaps if I get as far as mid-way I shall try making a turn around the high chair there…Until later, madam.”

Madame de Maintenon sighed, walked to the side of the gallery and sat.

The king began to make his way painfully along, resting after every few thrusts forward.

For a while the lady could mark his progress and hear the squeaks and squeals from the machine, as well as the king’s cough-like groans each time he thrust down on the wheel rims. Soon he was out of range of her weak hearing and vision. She selected a shawl, laid it about her shoulders and sat back to mutter her prayers in a half-doze.

As the king inched forward, his groans became satisfied grunts; he paused less, and he was even able to thrust down before the machine had stopped moving from the previous thrust. After some twenty metres he stopped for a longer rest, and to admire how the moonlight reflected on the huge mirrored arches opposite each grand window.

Almost with enthusiasm now, the king thrust down once again on the wheel rims. The sudden sound seemed to touch off an echo. Yet the other sound was no echo. To his right, in the murk between two moonlit windows, something or someone was stirring in sleep.

The king’s first urge was to stamp his cane, which was propped between his legs. Instead, he hesitated and peered harder. Below the end of a large gilt table a tiny lamp, placed on the floor, was burning down. In its glimmer, he could just make out the curled and sleeping figure of a workman surrounded by his tools, trays and buckets.

The king was about to advance on the man and prod him when he noticed something which made him jerk back in surprise. Parked further down the wall in a strip of moonlight was a wheelchair, more rustic and flimsy than his own, and with a little tray between the seat and caster wheel where one might place utensils.

He had a very rare moment of indecision. At last he advanced on the sleeper and, drawing his cane from between his legs, gave him a soft prod.

The sleeper stirred, but did not wake.

On an impulse, the king drew off his wig and cast it on to his lap. Now he gave a second, sharper prod. The man woke in brief confusion, but quickly grew alert, in the way of poor men. He was still a youth and, as he straightened his body, the king could just see that one leg was missing a foot, and the other leg was cut off at the knee.

“What?…Oh…they’ve forgotten me here. Please excuse me, sir. I…was working here and fell asleep. Somehow my fellow workmen have forgotten to fetch me away.”

“You have a lamp, young man. Are you then meant to work here at night?”

“Oh, no, sir. I am a gilder and have been doing repairs to the gilding on all these tables and guéridons. The lamp helps me to see in awkward places…But you have a wheelchair! Just like my own! Well, better than mine…”

“Can you not guide yourself along? Just as I have done?”

“That would not be permitted. If any of these glues or powders were to spill in the Hall of Mirrors there would be scandal. So I wait to be brought away each day. It seems someone forgot, and I fell asleep. I have been so tired working through the long summer days. Without legs everything is doubly tiring…as you would know, sir. Sir, are you…the night guardian here?”

“Guardian? I suppose you might call me a guardian.”

“It’s just that you have such a fine chair…and are so splendidly dressed…”

“Indeed. You might call me a guardian over guardians.”

“And…will I be in trouble, for sleeping in the Hall?”

“Hmm. I doubt it…But how does a man with no legs obtain work here?”

“With respect, Monsieur…Forgive me, but your name is not known to me…”

“Le Grand.”

“With respect, Monsieur Le Grand, I am a good gilder, as good as any. And I can compromise, work well with these cheaper products. As you know, there are economies made everywhere in France these days, even in Versailles.”

“No, I did not know that such economies were being made with the upkeep of Versailles! You have enlightened me, young man. But where are you from? Your accent…”

“I am from an old family of the Béarn, sir.”

“The Béarn? I had forbears who came from there.”

“It seems we now have two things in common, sir. But my family, though a very distinguished one, fell on bad times.”

“How so?”

“My great-grandfather – to the peril of his soul, of course – was born protestant when good King Henry of Navarre ruled over the Béarn, and so many were protestant, even the king and his mother before him. My grandfather, like others in the region, remained stubborn in that faith when the new laws came into force and all of France was made Catholic…as was proper, of course. He had much to lose, high office, lands…He forfeited all and went a beggar to Holland.”

“So your grandfather fled France and your family was left destitute? A familiar story of those times…But what became of you all?”

“Sir, my father and brother followed the wars. We are skilled people, and they both had skill as engineers. Being too young for the wars, I stayed with my mother and sister in our shack in the hills. My father perished at Blenheim, my brother at Ramillies. The Duke of Marlborough cost us dearly as a family, Monsieur Le Grand.”

The king winced in the darkness, but kept his tone level:

“I know of…that person you mention. The wars were indeed hard. I…my family had many losses through the wars.”

“We have still more in common, then, Monsieur Le Grand.”

“I…suppose we have certain things in common…as you put it. But your legs? What happened to your legs? You say you were not in the wars.”

“It was the winter of seventeen hundred and nine. Even in the Béarn, with its usually mild climate, we suffered the most terrible times. Even if one had money, and the tax officials had passed one by, there was no food to be had. All was for the wars. The thistles and fern heads we might have survived on were buried under heavy snow. Yes, heavy snow, even in the Béarn. Wolves hunted men, but then men hunted wolves, so strange and awful were the times!

“My mother died of the cold, my sister went missing when she was searching for twigs to burn. I went out in the snow to find her, but never did. By the time I had dragged myself home through a blizzard my feet were numb. Then they turned black and…ah, you will forgive me if I talk no more of that, Monsieur Le Grand. The pain of the amputations comes back to me when I dwell on it even in talk.”

“Indeed. Talk no more of it. Why talk of losses? To avoid loss is to avoid life. Talk no more of losses…”

“Monsieur Le Grand, you are a man of learning and experience. Can you tell me?…Those wars which have left us all skimping, even His Majesty, it is said…I scarcely dare ask but…”

“You wonder what those wars were for? They were for His Majesty. And subjects…we are no more fit to question Majesty than Majesty  to question God. The wars…on a political level they were for…Ah, never mind politics! Don’t you want to sleep?”

“I am tired, but for a workman to sleep through the night in the Hall, the greatest room in the world…”

“Sleep, young man. And in the morning food will be brought to you. I have…a connection with the captain of the guard. Sleep on. Our conversation is ended and it is time for you to sleep.”

“You are very kind, Monsieur Le Grand. And I am certainly tired, more from dragging my body than from working with gilt. But if I am found here without explanation…”

“I tell you I am the guardian of this place! I am the guardian beyond this place! You may sleep. And I will stay here till you do. I, your guardian, will sit by you! Now sleep, young man.”

And the young man slept, slept so readily. It seemed to take only seconds.

The king felt his eyes water as he waited by the sleeping tradesman.

It was the cold air, no doubt, which was causing his eyes to water. The room was cold, even on a summer evening. He drew a fine cloak from under his legs and cast it over the youth. Then he buttoned his coat about himself.

Still he felt his eyes blurring. It was the cold.

King Louis, blinking away the moisture, cast his eyes around and up. Cliffs of glass, cliffs of mirror, all reflecting. Nothing to warm, to enclose. So much gaping splendour. So much frigid space.

“Must start over. This room…too large…too cold…”

 

 

 

Posted in HISTORICAL | 3 Comments

LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 12

“Probus, I have spent all my life, except these last weeks, in the Morgarita Forest. Are the forests of Germany so different?”

“Indeed they are, young lady. Many Romans and Italians have seen only remnants of oak forest, stunted groves good only for firewood and boar hunting. Their great forests were long ago cut down to make towns and navies. As for the Morgarita, it is a place of winds, dry and elevated. There is terror from the wolves, but not from the forest itself…and from the darkness.

“The Teutoburg, as we quickly learned, is like a mouth to the Underworld.”

*

“Three legions, eighteen thousand men, along with many followers, turned into that darkness.

“Varus and the general staff were up ahead. Merens was riding well in front of my special treasury detachment, staying with the main supply and baggage columns. It was normal to keep the treasury a little to the rear in case of terrain problems. But the entire army had terrain problems from the moment it entered the Teutoburg.

“It seems incredible that no scouts except those of Arminius, and no engineers at all, had been sent ahead. Everything we believed about our route we believed simply on the word of Arminius. Yet within a half-mile of entering we were forced to narrow our ranks outrageously. The further we advanced, the darker it got. The road became little better than a low track between densely wooded slopes, and it even became like a murky tunnel in stretches where giant trees, decked in creepers, leaned overhead.

“I recall turning to one of my subalterns and remarking that a Roman army without formation was no longer a Roman army. He replied that Varus was certain to order retreat, unless the terrain further ahead was far better, which seemed unlikely from our ever-slowing progress.

“What we could see of sky grew leaden, then black. At last came the rain, a constant chill rain. In such circumstances a soldier feels more than discomfort. He knows that his spear and the handle of his sword will be cold and slippery; he knows that bowstrings go slack and fingers of bowmen go numb.

“Leather in constant rain blisters through slight movement; condensation or rainwater trapped under armour make a cold that burrows to the bone.

“Yet we went on, a compressed line stretching over miles. It would only take a fallen tree or bogged wagon in the wrong spot to break that line.

“The track grew worse, and because we were following the bulk of the army we were soon sliding about and pushing through quagmires. Our wagons were in danger of sinking in places. We expected an order to halt then retreat, discussed whether Varus had taken a turn out of the forest by some other road rather than reversing our march. But he had contemplated neither measure, and was simply advancing further into that dank hell. It crossed my mind that Merens, so expert in transport and terrain, must be trying to dissuade him, but Varus could be stubborn even before the advice and charm of Merens. But surely Varus, for all his patrician conceit, could see what was so plain!

“None of it made sense.

“My men started looking sideways into the dripping forest, where a waterdrop on foliage might be a watching eye. It was still not an attack they feared, just that forest, with its million eyes.

“Instead of dovecotes or little shrines which cheer a traveller, there were strange  ornaments of bone and feather, even human skulls, attached to tree trunks and dangling from branches. If these objects did not represent warnings or curses, our mood interpreted them as such.

“At last riders came from in front. I felt sure they must be a detachment to announce a change of plan, though our line was still lurching forward. As the riders drew close I saw the group was composed of Merens’ offsider, the loathsome Molossus, with some twenty of his tax extractors.

“He greeted me in his usual disrespectful way and told me that the army would proceed as planned but that the treasury was to be sent back, in view of the conditions and the danger of the cargo being bogged down or spilled. Molossus showed me the order from Merens. I was partly relieved and partly suspicious on reading it. Merens was commanding me to send my own riders ahead to replace the detachment which had just arrived. With Molossus and his riders I was to head back to the main road then proceed along it to the Rhine.

“It all made sense, except that we would be a small group without our usual mounted escort of trusted comrades. Though Molossus insisted that his men were far more experienced in dealing with German tricks, I would have been more comfortable with a larger contingent and my own riders. Much more comfortable.

“But the orders were clear and probably for the best. Why the entire army was not sent back was what baffled us. The terrain and weather had reduced it to a rabble, time and light were being lost, and the chances of making an adequate fortified camp for three legions that night were remote.

“I did what I always do. I registered objection soberly then complied, insisting that my men comply with all orders and co-operate with Molossus and his company, though we knew them to be a gang of degenerates.

“As we moved to the rear, Molossus showed our orders to the various officers who had been behind us. Most expressed surprise at the small size of our contingent but all assisted us to guide the treasury through their constricted ranks. Finally, the army was out of sight, and we were alone on the trail.

“Progress to the Rhine Way was slow, since we were travelling in the slush and ruts made by three legions. The damage to the saturated trail had been so great that there was danger of landslip. I occupied my place on the largest wagon, flanked by a sharp-eyed youth trained to do nothing but watch. My guard of some twenty specialist infantry held formation as best they could; the riders led by Molossus stayed close on the awkward terrain but had to scatter frequently so the rest of us had space.

“Soon it began to rain again, and then to pour down hard.

“We reached a turning where there was a steep slope on our left and a sharp fall to the right. It had been difficult for the army coming in; it was now perilous, with a quagmire forming in the very sharpest part of the bend. Molossus’ riders fell well behind or went far to the front.

“Suddenly, a rain of German javelins from the left, striking down several of my guard and the driver of a smaller wagon in front.

“My well-drilled men moved around all three of our wagons, though there were not enough of them for a tight formation. Molossus came riding toward me and shouted that his horses could not pursue uphill in the conditions but that his men would guard the wagons if I decided to send some of my infantry after the raiders.

“There was no choice but to take the suggestion. If we did not retaliate, our invisible attackers would have hours to pick us off as we tried to move along the damaged road, and they may well have felled trees in our path. I reasoned that they could not be numerous or they would have attacked in force. Some ten of my soldiers would likely be enough to keep them engaged if not disperse them.

“Cursing my superiors’ judgement for the entire expedition and my present ridiculous exposure to any gang of tramps, I ordered ten men up the hill, with orders to flank our contingent beyond normal javelin range.

“I never saw those men again. I am guessing that they ended their lives on sharpened stakes in carefully prepared traps.

“For everything had been a carefully prepared trap.

“When Molossus’ twenty or so men had formed in close, I ordered that my remaining guard load the two dead and four wounded on to wagons. As they did so, Molossus chose that unguarded moment for his attack. His men pounced from their horses with weapons drawn and began to hack my men to death. Molossus, and another rider with a heavily bandaged face, stayed mounted and simply watched the slaughter.

“Because of my position high on the main wagon and the impossibility of drawing a bow in the heavy conditions, none of the attackers had yet reached me. There was nothing to do but die as a legionary. Drawing my sword I hurled myself from the wagon rim at Molossus, hacking at his head as I fell to ground. I gave him the wound he bears to this day. Rising from the mud I made a vertical stab with my sword, hoping to catch him under his breastplate. And that is when he gave me this wound which I still bear. I reeled and he thrashed at me again with his longer cavalry sword.

“The rest is like a dream. I remember stumbling as I dodged the thrusts and retreated a few steps, then a few more steps. I remember looking into my opponent’s gashed face as I fell back into air.

“I had gone off the embankment right where it was most sheer. Whatever my head hit first was enough to remove my helmet. I then began to fall, roll, fall, with branches and saplings tearing away flesh as I went further down. Something stopped my fall. In the same moment the back of my head struck wood and for a while I lost consciousness.

“After a while I was aware of voices. Above me they were discussing my whereabouts, and whether I was dead. Soil and rubble fell near me as some of the gang tried to descend. I had fallen too far however, and was well out of sight, my fall having been stopped by a dense thicket where the slope made a small shelf. Finally I heard Molossus barking down to his men to give up the hunt and leave me for dead. Their haste to escape with an enormous fortune had saved me.

“My wounds were bad, but none of them fatal. The slash down my neck had not struck any veins, but was likely to get infected without treatment. When I tried to move, it was a shattered wrist which caused me the most difficulty. Yet to stay where I was in the cold rain, especially in a state of shock and exhaustion, would mean death in the course of the night. I had to get back up the slope and improvise some sort of shelter.

“Molossus would certainly have departed in silence with the wagons, so I was surprised to pick up distant cries which came and went on the wind. But perhaps I was just hearing the echos from my concussion.

“There was not a minute to waste in recuperation. I would need to devote the remaining hours of light to nothing but the climb back to the road. Any resting would be done up there, after I had made shelter.

“And the ascent did take hours, with just one hand to grab and pull on rocks, shrubs and low branches. The rest was achieved with feet to push and one elbow to hook. I thought only of reaching the next grapple point, being careful not to select anything shallow-rooted or unfixed.

“Yes, I studied my way upward, and in doing so I was a legionary, a Roman, again. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant: it is just an explanation. I am a Gaul like you, but my life has been with the legion. At our best, we organise, do things in sequence and formation, no matter how dire or confused the circumstances.

“When I had finally crawled to the top I could witness what had been done to my comrades. Every one of them had been hacked or stabbed to death. The usual stripping of bodies, however, had not taken place, for the obvious reason that the marauders had hold of a state treasury, fruit of the year’s taxation and exactions, along with much of Varus’ private fortune. They needed to move away in haste. This worked in my favour, since I would be able to gather the dead men’s cloaks for shelter.

“Then more luck: one of the wagon horses had been speared. It had been loosed from harness and left to die. I finished the poor animal with a thrust into its neck then set to work, though with much pain and little strength.

“The first thing I needed to butcher from the carcase was the liver, warm and soft. An animal’s fresh liver is easily eaten and quickly digested. I ate as much of it as I could get down then proceeded to cut out the bladder. With the still warm urine I began to bathe my cuts. There was no chance of starting a fire, so that delicate bag of horse piss was my best chance to keep away infection.

“The last thing I wanted to do in my state was to skin a horse, but I knew the green hide, if wrapped about me twice, would be far better than the cloaks for keeping me dry and warm.

“By the time the sun set I had been able to wriggle into a thicket above the road and wrap myself in the horse’s hide. Instead of my wet clothes I wore some woollen shirts which had stayed dry inside the breastplates of  my comrades. With the cloaks over the top of the horse’s hide, I was not merely dry but snug.

“After nibbling on more soft organs and drinking some water, I fell into one of those fevered sleeps which always come after a shock.

“And all through that night I seemed to hear distant cries, coming and going as the wind and rain varied in intensity or changed direction.

“I now knew that the cries were not just echos from my concussion.”

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LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 11

“We might do well to lower our profiles and our voices.”

The old soldier squatted down and leaned back on a pine trunk.

“There is a lot to tell about what happened in that forest ten years ago, and much more to guess at. How much history can a young girl want to hear? I’ll make it brief.”

“No!”

Locusta lay down on her side, but propped on one elbow.

“No, I want to hear all. Your words won’t be wasted. I forget nothing, ponder everything. That’s how I am.”

“I’ve noticed.”

*

“I suppose that even in the Morgarita Forest you’ve heard the story of the lost legions. A Gaul should find it a tragedy, if for reasons different from those of a Roman patriot. As a Gallic soldier in the armies of Rome I’ve always known that Germans will likely ravage Gaul before Rome. Should the tribes ever get tired of slaughtering one another, this province will feel what I have felt in soldiering beyond the Rhine.

“In any case, when the events took place my loyalty was to my legion, far more than to any place or people. That’s how it is when you spend your life shoulder to shoulder with comrades in a coordinated force which is truly one, whose standards survive the lives of its individuals through centuries. But these are things hard to explain.

“The annihilation of three choice legions! Unthinkable, yet it happened, and in the space of days, with barely a hint of the real danger before the event…except for the man in charge, who had more than just a hint. For such an unlikely disaster to happen, blunders, lies, arrogance, treachery, gullibility and stupidity were needed, and in abundance. I was only there at the start and in the aftermath – for reasons I’ll explain – which is why I’m alive. Few can tell you more than I, and I know only a part of the colossal folly which Emperor Augustus was still bewailing on his death bed.

“Two men were at the centre of the story.

“One was Varus, supreme commander of the three legions and governor of Germania. He was not a complete fool, having chosen the side of Augustus in the civil war, married a daughter of Agrippa – half sister of the Lady Agrippina – and made good use of his various terms of office. As governor of Syria he pacified the region and made himself rich. A couple of thousand crucifixions are said to have quietened down the Jews when they got restless after the death of King Herod.

“While we were with Varus in the west, most of our armies were busy on the other side of Rome’s empire, dealing with the great revolt of Pannonia. The present emperor was there in the east, as was Germanicus – with less success than some might think. So the three legions of the Rhine were of utmost importance to an empire whose power was drastically stretched. Varus, like Augustus then and like General Germanicus now, thought it a good idea to impose Roman power in the usual way: by force, taxes and the introduction of Roman commerce, laws, amenities and so on. Of course, Germanicus has his way of making it seem good and plausible and even nice, wants to raise the Germans up after he’s belted them harder than anyone’s been belted. I think the present emperor, Tiberius, is a bit wiser…but he’s not anybody’s darling is he? Poor old sod.

“So there we were in Germany under Varus, well beyond the Rhine, extracting taxes from tribespeople who had little idea of producing surpluses for export or tax and no idea of central government. Where Roman laws are cruel, theirs are kind; where Roman laws are kind, theirs are cruel. The Roman world is dry and well-lit and ordered; the German world is damp and without…without edges and definition, if that makes sense. A German’s voice comes from his throat, as if every utterance is also an emotion, never just a thought. Ah, but the truth is I don’t understand them…which gives me more understanding than General Germanicus, who still dreams of a Romanised Germania.

“The other main character in all this was Arminius. He was a German prince who had been taken to Rome as a child, as security for his father’s continued loyalty to Rome. Not only did he adapt, he became a successful officer, a citizen of Rome and then an eques, a knight. That’s about as high as a foreigner can go in the Roman world, unless you’re Cleopatra. From this you’ll conclude that Arminius, whom the Germans call Herman, was no ordinary fellow. Nor would you be surprised to learn that Varus brought him back to Germany as a trusted officer with local knowledge and contacts.

“The question I cannot answer is: What was in Arminius’ mind? Was he simply treacherous? I know that nothing could ever make me disloyal to my legion, whatever I thought of Rome. But Arminius was a German, not a Gaul, and he led a Roman cohort of German cavalry.

“Was he disgusted by the treatment of his countrymen at the hands of Roman masters? Roman cruelty was not worse than German cruelty, but it was foreign, incomprehensible cruelty, legalistic and measured like grain or money. Perhaps Arminius came as liberator. Perhaps.

“More likely, judging from his recent actions, he was a capable and fiercely ambitious young man who saw the chance to be king or emperor of Germany, having risen as high as he could in the Roman world. He had fought in Pannonia, knew of many eastern potentates and empires before this present Roman empire. If there had been kings and emperors in the east, if there were still eastern monarchies at least partly independent of Rome, why not a kingdom in the west, a German empire even? If that is what he thought – and still thinks – then he is a courageous and gifted madman who knows less about the German mind than do I.

“Mad or not, Arminius was daring, cunning, and he was lucky.

“With autumn deepening it was time for the legions to transfer from the middle of Germania, back to winter quarters near the Rhine. It was a matter of a straightforward and well-provisioned march through easy country. The position I occupied was special:  quartermaster in charge of all monies and valuables. My reputation for honesty was well-earned, I am also both vigilant and suspicious, an ideal treasurer.

“I rode, in carriage or on horseback, in the middle of my legion, supported by reliable men I had hand-picked over the years. We had a special formation for marching, with extra men, a couple of them were chosen youths whose vision and reactions were perfect and who had no other job than to watch constantly from the main transport vehicles; getting past my men to that treasure was one of the hardest things an enemy or marauding force could attempt.

“In camp one night, Arminius came to Varus with a story of a minor revolt occurring nearby, on the other side of some forest. He suggested that it might be worthwhile for the army to divert through the forest, called Teutoburg, and deal with the troubles, which they could do easily. When Varus asked if there were any foreseeable difficulties at all, Arminius assured him that the road through the Teutoburg was good and that weather was likely to be favourable. Because of the modest scale of the revolt, there would be little loss of time in getting to winter quarters by what was simply an alternative route.

“The rest may seem incredible, but it happened. Firstly, Arminius offered to go ahead both to scout and occupy the flanks with his German cavalry, used to such terrain. Varus agreed to this.

“On the very same night, Segestes, a German chieftain and strong Roman ally, heard of the plan and warned Varus that Arminius was himself planning a major revolt, and had already joined many of the tribes in a confederacy. The Teutoburg was a trap.

“Varus was a vain man to whom losing face, even for a second, was like losing a limb. Going back on a decision was weakness, as far as he was concerned. On top of some necessary Roman arrogance, he was conceited and a snob, and could not bear the thought of a German dependent prince like Segestes dictating policy or strategy.

“Yet on this occasion, so great were the stakes that he might well have reversed his decision.

“The stubborn character of Varus explains in part the colossal stupidity of marching a Roman army into the worst possible terrain and doing so on the word of a man openly accused of treachery. He thought he knew Arminius, he certainly knew nothing of the forest.

“Somebody else may have swayed Varus.

“Merens was a tribune who served as quartermaster-general, and as such he was my administrative superior during troop movements. He controlled all supplies, treasure, baggage, weaponry and so on. His expertise on terrain and transport was never doubted, and his influence over Varus – and just about everybody else  – was strong due to his remarkable gifts and captivating character. He was one of those men who rule wherever they go, regardless of actual rank. He had the appearance of a Greek statue, even in middle age, and his charm was such that he never left any man feeling lessened by an encounter. The spell he could lay on Varus he could lay on the meanest slave. All wanted to serve Merens, accommodate him.

“One man alone was unconvinced by Merens: a vigilant and suspicious army treasurer who had spent a lifetime recruiting probity. Me! (My Latin name is Probus, incidentally.) I was fond of my superior, responded to his wit and charm like everybody else, felt the power of what Greeks call his charisma…but for some reason I knew I would never have chosen him to join our treasury ranks and stand guard alongside me. Perhaps it was the company he kept closest about him, drinkers and bully boys who were apt for anything, men he alone could control. He often joked that he kept these men in tow because he missed his Molossian hunting dogs. On more than one occasion regimental justice was not meted out because the offender was one of Merens’ “pack”, as we called them.

“Exceptions were made for Merens, and Merens made exceptions. That did not sit well with me. The legion is order and precedence or it ceases to be the legion. No, I liked the man – loved him perhaps – but he did not sit well with me. I suspect Merens knew it, despite his constant praise and cordiality toward me and the perfect efficiency I put into serving him.

“The most loathsome bully in his entourage was a thug nicknamed Molossus, because of his resemblance to one of that breed of dog. He was a decanus, a soldier who commands the smallest unit of an army, a tent party; he had been seconded into Merens’ personal service and had a name for extracting taxes nobody else could extract. That made him useful to both Merens and Varus. Varus had despoiled Syria during his governorship, but still craved money. The difficulty of getting money out of Germans enraged him; anyone who could lessen that difficulty found favour with him. I do not know what dealings were done between Merens and Varus, but I’m sure there were plenty. What could I do? I did my job perfectly, and insisted my men do theirs perfectly.

“Why did Varus send his eventual destroyer on ahead to protect his flanks? Why did he steer three superb legions of the Emperor Augustus into the Teutoburg Forest and toward their doom? After he had been told by Rome’s closest German ally that it was a trap and that Arminius was a traitor?

“I have often thought that only one person had the position close to Varus and the mesmerising persuasiveness to move him against all sense and reason. Up till today that person’s possible motive may have occurred to me, but I have put it out of my mind, as too improbable…and too dishonouring. Besides, that person lay dead in the forest, like all the others. But who else could have persuaded a Roman supreme commander to walk the best army in the world into an obvious ambush…and into the only terrain where it could possibly be beaten?

“Merens!”

*

“Progressing toward the Teutoburg we could see columns of smoke rising beyond it. We naturally thought that rebels or bandits were ravaging a settlement somewhere. The smoke was actually from remote garrisons and watch towers which Arminius himself had captured and burnt. He had not only destroyed all means of discerning his movements and those of his German confederates, he had also made a good show for us. The smoke convinced Varus of the need to act against the fictitious minor revolt beyond the Teutoburg, while the actual revolt was enormous, and lay waiting within the forest.

“Three days after Arminius had gone ahead with his his cavalry, the entire army took a turn into a dark place from which it would never emerge.”

 

 

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LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 10

Locusta, still tender from the whipping but moving freely at last, had no trouble with the two large baskets.

From the edge of town she strode south, below a ridge which overlooked the river.

Where the shrubby ground gave way to fir forest, she slowed her pace and began to peer about. It was not long till she found a cluster of saffron caps. While picking, she was careful to nip off only what was above ground and to place the mushrooms in her loosely woven basket in such a way that they could drop and spread spores as she moved about. (Locusta did not know of spores, but knew from her forest years that when mushrooms were harvested into tight cloth or clay containers there were fewer of them in succeeding seasons.)

Heading from the forest to the river, she paused at a thicket overrun by sarsparilla vine. Tracing one vine to its base, she scraped and pulled till a fat root came loose. Then she took a second root – but no more.

She descended to the river where many willows were growing. Running practised fingers along the bark of one tree she selected an area of trunk and flaked away small quantities of bark. She then repeated the process on several other willows, taking only small amounts of bark from each.

Above her at this point, the ridge dropped away sharply, with creepers spilling over the rim. She trudged up to the foot of the cliff and placed her baskets on the steep ground, being careful not to let her harvest of mushrooms and medicines tumble out. From one of her baskets she drew a pot, its mouth stopped with cloth.

Locusta looked about to make sure there were no goat herders nearby, the only people likely to have business on such steep ground. When she was certain, she called, but not too loudly, into the hollow below an overhang:

“If you speak Gallic…here is a pot of farrum, flavoured with garum and mushrooms. I’ll leave it here, but you must be careful to leave the pot out for me tomorrow, when I will bring you another pot. I can’t steal too many pots…

“If you want to speak with me now, then do so. Otherwise…till tomorrow.”

There was no reply.

Locusta gathered up her baskets and headed back to town.

*

That evening, Actis remarked:

“You know, Locusta, we’re missing a small cooking pot.”

“I know. I took it to the forest and left it there.”

“I see. Now, I do appreciate you gathering medicines for us…but we also need our pots. I use that one for boiling willow. Did you just forget it? And why did you take it there?”

“Oh, sort of an insect trap. We often use insects as medicine and food, back in the Morgarita…”

Actis shook his head and gave her as stern a look as he dared give.

“Locusta, would you ever lie to me?”

“Lie to you?”

“Yes, lie.”

“Why…yes, to tell you the truth.”

“Riddled like a Greek!”

She gave one of her rare smiles.

*

Locusta headed out as she had done the day before, carrying the same baskets.

At first she paused on a grassy flat to gather field mushrooms which had only been buttons the day before. Then she made her way above the fir forest where a seldom used road ran south atop the ridge.

Along the road she found wild roses and blackberries, all fruiting well in the autumn warmth. She spent a good half hour filling the baskets with the berries before half-descending the slope where it was less sheer and then walking back north, staying high, to the spot where she had left the pot.

It was there. And it was completely clean and dry.

Locusta put it in her basket and placed another pot of food in its place. Her eye was drawn to a movement in the bushes at the very top of the overhang. She spoke toward that spot, instead of toward the hollow beneath.

“If I walk back through the fir forest there are places where one can talk without being seen.”

Without more words she headed back toward the town, taking the slender goat track which led toward and through the forest.

As she progressed through the trees she flicked her eyes to the side, aware of being followed. Where the canopy was darkest and the pine trunks thickest, she paused and waited. At last, a strange voice from behind one of the trunks:

“Thank you for the food. You understand I have to be careful.”

“Well, you’ve probably worked out that if I had wanted to betray your whereabouts the soldiers would be all about us by now…But it seems you are a native Gaul, by the way you speak.”

“Born near Lugdunum.”

“But served in Germany…with Germanicus?”

“With him. And others.”

A man stepped forward into her vision. He matched the circulated description: a scrawny veteran with grey hair and a wound across the base of his neck.

“How did you know where I was hiding? And who I am?”

“I’ve spent my life dodging the Morgarita wolves. I’m keen to the slightest rustle or sound. I saw the creepers move in front of your cave, then noticed the fresh mussel shells you’d thrown down the embankment. “

“And from just that…you knew? But I might simply have been a hermit, a goat herder.”

“I know a fresh camp from an old one. If a hermit had been living here there would have been many old shells and bones, a smell of fire, the creepers thinner at the entrance. No herder would need to live out here with the town and better shelter so close. I know wild places, who goes into them and why.”

“You notice so much? What else have you noticed?”

“Nothing else. But I’ve asked myself a question. They say you are a deserter from General Germanicus’ entourage. Why would a man risk such a thing when Germanicus was merely touring the empire on his way back to Rome and to parades in his honour?”

“Why, do you think?”

Locusta said nothing, as she stooped to pick a small saffron cap. At last:

“I think there are people around here who are far too eager to catch you, and perhaps silence you. You have come from Germany, and they may be from Germany long ago. If they are the people I’m thinking about, everybody fears them. So you might well fear them.”

The man stepped a little closer, lowering his voice:

“When I entered the big wine shop by the gate to the garrison I recognised him. Years had passed, but the wound alone – the wound I had made – was enough to identify him.”

“Caniculus?”

“He had a different name when I hacked his face. Unfortunately, he recognised me, almost as fast as I recognised him. At first he seemed scared, thought I was a ghost, but with the help of his bodyguard he soon had me gagged with my hands bound. Nobody in that shop raised a finger against them.”

“Yet you got away?”

“They hesitated. They’d dragged me to the lane behind the shop and beaten me. I was pretending to be unconscious as they argued over what to do next. You see, I was in the general’s entourage. They had to decide exactly what to do with me and how to do it discreetly. You don’t cross Germanicus, no matter who you are.

“When they were most distracted by their disputes I jumped to my feet and ran. I couldn’t cry out for the gag, my hands were tied…All I could do was run head first toward the blackness at the end of the lane. After that I just kept running, till I was rushing through bushes, and then I was sliding down a stony embankment. By a miracle I did no damage to myself, and ended on a marshy flat. My only chance was to go on using the darkness…

“I guessed that I would reach the river if I kept running lower, and I did reach it. Being a veteran of forest warfare, I waded the river, made plenty of tracks and disturbed lots of rocks going up the opposite embankment…then reversed back down to the water.

“By the time they had torches and extra searchers I’d already waded back in this direction – the least likely one – and found a cave. They ended up chasing about on the other side of the river all night. In the morning they hunted along the river to the north, away from town and gorge, the most likely direction for me to run.”

The man paused his account.

“Young lady, I see some bad welts about your neck and even above your heels. You’ve been flogged, regimental-style by the look of it. Vine branches?”

“Yes.”

“You…you’re a slave?”

“No, I took the whipping to avoid slavery. It’s a very long story. I’ve survived. Now it’s a matter of how you are going to survive.”

“Indeed…Another question: when the men had me on the ground and were discussing how to do away with me they mentioned their master…”

“Yes, Lollio. He’s supposed to be the most powerful landowner in these parts.”

“Have you seen this man?”

“No. But I know he is Caniculus’ employer. They arrived in the region together, bringing a great deal of money.”

“Canic…You mean the man whom I recognised and whom you call Caniculus came here with an employer, someone who appeared already to be his boss or master? Someone then, or at least now, known as Lollio? And they had treasure of some sort?”

“That’s what I’ve been told. This Lollio came here many years ago with Caniculus and a bodyguard of German thugs.”

“How long ago? Ten years?”

“Something like ten years.”

“And you say they came from Germany!”

“The bodyguard was composed of Germans, as I’ve been told. One might assume…”

“So the man you know as Caniculus…and this Lollio…”

His voice trailed off and fell he into thought. Locusta gave him time, then:

“I’m guessing that you knew somebody else, as well as Caniculus. And that he also may have changed his identity?”

The man replied almost dreamily:

“What I’m suspecting…It doesn’t seem possible…And yet…”

“Perhaps if you explain a bit more it may help.”

“Explain? Perhaps I should. But in order to explain, young lady, I must first tell you about a place called the Teutoburg Forest by some…

“But a place which Romans know simply as hell!”

 

 

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LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 9

The shop was filled with the perfume of grilling mushrooms, which Locusta was painting with a brush of fresh herbs steeped in olive oil, turning each cap with intricate care. At moments, in the light from the brazier, she looked to Actis like the playful child she had never been – and like the child he had never had.

“And what else did you find on your first walk out of town, young lady?”

“Oh, Actis, there was so much! In the little fir forest along the slope I found all these ceps and milk caps and ink caps, along with slippery jacks for drying…oh, so many mushrooms!”

“None toxic?”

“Hmm. I know where those are now, if I need them. But no…these are all fine for eating. If you have jars I’ll pickle lots more before winter. Why these townspeople just leave them to grow and die…”

“These people are mostly descendants of mobile city folk, camp followers. Or they are former workers from these vast new farms the Romans call latifundia, and glad never to look at a piece of land again. It’s not in their nature to gather wild things while they can buy food from a store. A few fish and grow vegetables, but not many. The snail gatherers and eel catchers sell their produce for a fortune in Lugdunum; nobody here would pay the prices. The soldiers of the garrison have not lived off the land in decades. Truth is, we are a typical urban lot, interested in gossip, entertainments and money. A miniature Rome. What else did you find?”

“Well, there are many lowland and open land plants which are strange to me still, but I found yarrow, knit bone, wild garlic. And burdock! Some of it had tender roots which we can have in soup tomorrow. And I brought dandelion, of course, from the river flat. Where it was part shaded the leaves are much sweeter…Now, I think these mushrooms are ready to add to our farrum, as soon as our guest arrives.”

“Lady, Master Actis…I’m here. Not late, I hope.”

They looked over to the doorway, where little Virio stood, his blushing face dipped, bundles about to slide from his overloaded arms.

“Welcome, Virio. Locusta has just finished grilling mushrooms to flavour our usual garrison mush. If they taste like they smell…But come in, come in.”

“I…brought the tools and other things you may need for making the larger mortar bowls you need. Our quartermaster gives his permission for the week’s loan. Tomorrow I will bring a fat oak knot which will be perfect for the largest bowl. If I have time I can do all the shaping. If not, I am good at hardening and finishing wood…”

Locusta was tipping the grilled mushrooms on to the steaming vat of farrum.

“We’ll talk business later. Put your things down by the door. Dinner is ready.”

“B…business, lady?”

“Of course, Actis and I will have to pay you for your trouble.”

“Never!”

The word had been snapped with more authority than they believed Virio to be capable of mustering. Locusta smiled surrender to the little soldier and gestured to his place at table.

“Well, we can pay you in dinner, for now.”

*

The meal was finished and Actis was pouring more wine when a burly man strode into the shop, like a proprietor rather than a customer. His tunic looked more refined than his person, and he was carrying a hefty, expensive walking stick which could no doubt be reversed and used as club. The face was broad, with fat, sneering lips not matching his button eyes and snub of a nose. From his right ear down to the corner of his mouth ran a deep scar.

“Ah, a cosy scene. I like to see my customers in good humour…”

Actis stood and addressed the man.

“Caniculus, if you wish some wine you are welcome. But this is no time for…”

“Time! It is time you merchants paid up. Dues are a week late. We’ve been very discreet during the visit of General Germanicus. We didn’t want him or his officials observing how we transact our local tax affairs. But the great man has gone now and the fire levy needs to be paid.”

Locusta spoke without looking up.

“I can put out my own brazier.”

Virio tried to catch her eye, shaking his head to urge her to silence.

Now the big intruder walked over to Locusta.

“You are new to our town. Perhaps you don’t know of the valuable work we do on behalf of Quinctus Lollio, patron and protector of the whole region?”

“No, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know that I am Lollio’s deputy, in charge of putting out fires and generally protecting the town from natural disasters?”

Now Locusta looked up and eyed the man.

“Even as a mere girl in the forest I heard the well-known tales of a famous Roman who became the richest man in the world by offering to put out fires which he himself had started. Crassus, that was his name, I think. Ended up drinking molten gold, or so the story went. Is your master that sort of businessman?”

The man looked briefly enraged, then broke into laughter.

“Actis, it seems what I’ve heard about this girl is true. She is as sharp as a stitching awl. But you need to warn her that a mere tickling up with vine branches is nothing compared to…”

“Caniculus, she is, as you say, new…and from the forest. Taxes, official or unofficial, and such matters are strange to her kind. You need not worry. We have our contribution for the month. I’ll fetch it.”

“That was the old charge, for a single trader. Now you have staff. Opinionated staff!”

Locusta was about to speak but Virio softly kicked her foot under the table, as a plea for silence. Whoever Caniculus and his master were, they were feared.

Actis went to the back of his shop and came back with a handful of money.

“Here, Caniculus. I think you’ll find this is sufficient.”

The man took the money, pulling a contemptuous face, then turned again to Locusta.

“Girl, you might want to enquire around the garrison and town as to who I am and who my master Lollio is. You might even get an invitation to visit my master one day. If you do, seize the occasion. And mind your manners around him.”

Locusta said nothing, stared coldly ahead.

“I’ll take your silence – for now. Perhaps Actis should have told you more about the way things work around here…By the way, you all probably know of a deserter from General Germanicus’ entourage. My master wants to help the general and our own commander any way he can. You’ve all been given a description. He’s an old rogue of a veteran from the German wars. Put the word out that generous discounts or rewards will be granted to anyone who helps apprehend the deserter. On the other hand, anyone aiding him in the slightest way – even by failing to be observant – will answer to Lollio, as well as to the commander of the garrison. Of course that won’t be necessary. We’re all patriots here, I presume, and none of us wants this disgrace upon our region. You, Virio…is that your name?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let all your comrades know that Quinctus Lollio will show his gratitude to any patriot who apprehends the deserter. The garrison can’t be sending large detachments all over the region, so we each need to the commander’s eyes and ears in this matter. And if the deserter becomes a corpse in being apprehended…don’t be too fussed about it. In fact, we – or the commander, I should say – would prefer a corpse. Sending a live prisoner on to Rome would be a needless expense, and only disturb the general’s preparations for his triumph.”

Locusta had grown more attentive to what being said. While her friends had been hoping for her continued silence, she finally looked up and addressed the man called Caniculus – but with an improbable girlish smile.

“It would be my pleasure to receive you here again, sir, if Actis allows me to continue in his employment. I should also consider it an honour to visit your master at his residence. And please accept my apologies for my earlier abruptness.”

*

As Caniculus strutted out of the shop while jangling the coins, he wore a satisfied smirk.

Actis and Virio, however, had learned enough about Locusta to know that her girlish smile and unlikely apology could be the signs of trouble to come.

“Locusta, I don’t know what’s on your mind – I never do – but these men are more powerful than you can imagine. Lollio’s influence reaches right back to Rome and further. Men who have angered him here have lost family members back in Italy. The money he extorts from us he doesn’t even need. It’s just his way of keeping us subject. Commanders and officers of the garrison come and go. Lollio stays. He is the real ruler here.”

“Th…that’s true, lady. Master Actis is right. And Caniculus is a man who takes pleasure in killing. You must…”

“Actis, where does he live, this Lollio?”

“In a massive new villa on his latifundium, along the river some miles to the north. He has much cattle and many slaves. Life is easier for the cattle than for the slaves. His favourite punishment is to whip a slave’s lower parts till he bleeds then stand him in an eel pond.”

“But…aren’t there certain laws…?”

“There are always Roman laws, but those which concern slaves are vague at best. And there are always lawyers and people with the means to get around Roman laws. Lollio does what he wants. Like all good petty potentates he is a flatterer, a patriot, and a grand public benefactor. He is also a cheat, an extortionist and a blackmailer. As to his private ways, those who enjoy hearing tales of perversion could tell you more than I. The story of the eel pond – which I have verified – is enough for me.”

Locusta froze in wide-eyed abstraction, the trance which had always disturbed her mistress of the forest. At last:

“Where did he come from?”

“Lollio? Nobody knows for sure. Nobody asks. He appeared here over ten years ago, with his offsider Caniculus leading a gang of thugs, mostly Germans. Neither Lollio nor Caniculus spoke much Gallic when they arrived. Lollio had money and muscle, acquired land and connections very quickly.”

“Germans, you say…”

Locusta thought for a moment, then:

“You are both right. And it was thoughtless of me to compromise you. Next time he comes I’ll be nice.”

“Nice? Really? You’ll be…nice? You?”

Again, the girlish smile.

“Yes. Me. Nice.”

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