From her cage, Locusta avoided looking toward the space where she knew the woodcutter had been left to his pain. It was one tiny thing she could pilfer from the Romans, briefly. She could ignore their Roman display.
After an hour or more soldiers began to assemble informally in the centre of the castrum. When she finally looked in that direction she could see, above the growing crowd of uniforms, the top of the stump and the upper body and outstretched arms of the woodcutter, all bloodied. He had been attached to the length of timber and hoisted on to the top of the stump. It was the Roman punishment all Gaul was familiar with. Locusta knew from overheard conversations in forest homes that it was a spectacular but slow way of killing, worse than the traditional Morgarita methods of impalement, exposure to wolves, or the combination of both.
The woodcutter was alive in hell, a Roman hell, where show and calculation, mess and method, came together in a unique way. A person’s own weight and urgency to breathe did most of the torturing. Romans just needed to start the process with their usual efficiency and sense of theatre.
Yet if Locusta had left the two Romans to their fate, or perhaps helped them to an easier end, the big Gaul would be back in his forest now, laughing, cursing, sweating, breathing in the heady resin of freshly cut pine in the autumn air: a furious knot of life and energy. Instead…
The soldiers were not assembling to view the woodcutter’s pain. In fact they seemed to ignore him, as if he were a carcass hung in a butchery, a familiar market sight. They were facing a dais which had been assembled some distance from the place of execution.
At last two officers and a heavily robed woman came into view above the bustling onlookers. There were cheers, and a concerted rattling of metal.
One man remained standing while the other man and the woman appeared to sit. The standing officer addressed the crowd in Latin, amid applause and cheers. After quite a long address he began to speak Gallic.
“Soldiers of the Lugdunum Way, who guard the arteries of Rome’s oldest and most loyal province, distinguished guests from the great tribes of Arverni, Aedui, Allobroges and Sequani, I repeat my greetings to our illustrious visitors in the second language of the western Empire.
“General Germanicus and the Lady Agrippina have done us the great honour of staying in our midst a few days on the way back to Rome, where, as you know, a great Triumph is to be awarded the general in celebration of Rome’s extraordinary victories in Germany. Men will speak no more of the lost eagles, and the misfortunes of Quinctilius Varus and our three treacherously massacred legions in the Teutoburg Forest. Instead they will recall the name of Germanicus Julius Caesar, who has won back two of our eagles and gained far more prestige than was ever lost. The slaughtered men of the three legions have been exhumed and given proper Roman burial and ritual; the bandit prince, Arminius, who betrayed the Rome which once embraced him as a citizen and knight, has been shamed in battle; the Rhine River is secure and it is Roman!”
Wild cheers and more rattling. Locusta allowed her eyes to drift to the forgotten figure suspended on the stump. Could he hear through his pain? What might be in his mind? Was he trying to find ways to hasten death? Had the Romans attached him so craftily that his pain could last beyond the day?
The speech continued:
“I know you men are all sick of hearing your commander’s voice. I have asked General Germanicus to address you but he has declined. No, no. No hooting now! He is firm in this. He wants to meet you later in your barracks and at your meals, not as a remote figure on a dais making speeches, but as a soldier among soldiers, a Roman among Romans. And to make things a little merrier while he is here, he and the Lady Agrippina have added a few extra sestertii to each man’s pay…”
Wild cheers and laughter. The man on the crossbeam was quite out of their minds. He might well have been a crossbeam.
“…and the general has picked up some extra supplies of wine and victuals as he passed through Lugdunum. Quiet now! Hear me to the end. He only asks that you show some moderation in consuming them…I did ask for quiet!…and that you tolerate the antics of his youngest son. I know some of you have already encountered this little scallawag in his famous little boots. What, men? Will you drink the wine of the general and of the Lady Agrippina tonight? And will you indulge their Little Boots if he grows naughty?”
The cheers erupted. The dying Gaul hung, all pain.
“Later you will all keep company with our famous visitors. For now, you have your work, so get to it, men. The general has agreed to stay on a while in the assembly place to witness some serious legal proceedings which are pending. Those who are permitted by their officers may stay and look on. I have ordered all those concerned with matters of law and justice to participate. That’s all for now.”
Soon there was a much smaller crowd around the dais. And still the woodcutter hung, with no business left in all the world but to feel pain, then to be a waste.
Locusta did not give him more than a glance. Instead she fixed the visitor on the dais and his wife. How much power was concentrated there, centuries of power finding their apogee in those two serene and utterly confident figures.
Could they dream they had a rival, and so close?
The officer who had brought her food and a cloak the night before approached in the company of a fully uniformed soldier with spear.
“Come, girl, it’s time for your trial. Say nothing till questioned, and then speak carefully.”
The cage was unlocked and Locusta slid out. For a moment the officer considered her bound hands.
“Hmm, I think we can free your hands. When we do, smooth down your hair and smock. The Lady Agrippina will be present. I think she’s seen enough scruffy forest-dwellers in Germany. Watch your manners in front of her. She is the granddaughter of Augustus, her mother-in-law is the daughter of Mark Antony.”
“Mark Antony? Wasn’t he the drunkard who fought Augustus?”
The officer shook his head.
“You’ll end up nailed to a cross, I can see that. For the last time, girl, mind your Gallic sauce around Romans. When you stand straight you look the part. Romans like statuesque woman…who behave like statues. Excepting the Lady Agrippina, perhaps. Do you understand me?”
“Yes. Sorry. I had no breeding myself, just work from the moment I could stand.”
“Most people can stand at age two.”
“I suppose that is the age I began to work.”
Officer and guard shook their heads, then lead Locusta toward the centre of the castrum.
Locusta had known for some years that her appearance had a striking effect. Most had their eyes on her as she stood waiting below the dais, though their looks tended to be lecherous or angry. Germanicus and Agrippina were intrigued by the tall, straight girl with the high forehead and and an expression somehow of authority. Authority over what?
The commander had been speaking in Latin to his clerks; he now spoke out loudly in Gallic:
“We have one principal witness in this confusing matter. It is Virio, who returned to our garrison without arms, shoes or anything to cover to his bum. Quiet! You can laugh later, if you haven’t laughed enough before this. The matter has its serious side. His story will be repeated now, and the prisoner will be given an opportunity to render her own account. General Germanicus will be pleased to see that Roman law is applied appropriately at all times here in the Provinicia, since he hopes that such procedures will one day be applied universally wherever foreign peoples come under Rome’s care, whether in Germany or elsewhere. Justice is a serious matter, whether in peace or war. I remind all that a man who yesterday wilfully interfered with the process of Roman justice – and murdered to do so – has this morning suffered the most extreme consequences. I further ask that all speak slowly and clearly, so that the General’s interpreter can keep him abreast of proceedings. We are, as is our respectful custom and in view of the Provincia’s special standing, conducting our investigation in the language of the region.
“Virio, come forward!”
Rodent Face walked out of the crowd and stood facing the dais, next to Locusta. She was aware of his quick glances toward her, but she acted as if he was not there, as if there was no such creature as Virio.
“Now, Virio, your account is confusing, to say the least. You say that you and your companion, the deceased Narbo, were captured while on patrol by a number of well armed bandits?”
“You say you were able to free yourselves from the trees where you had been left bound and exposed to wolves and that you found this girl nearby, evidently stealing your garments?”
“Well, she may have been looking for what garments may have been left behind by the bandits. Obviously, if our garments were in her possession we would have…of course…retrieved them.”
“Quite. The majesty of Rome would require that much of you. Although from the rest of your story it seems you may have had trouble retrieving your garments after all.”
As the evident humour of the situation stirred even the distinguished visitors to a smile, Locusta could sense Virio’s nervous glances upon her. But she glared ahead, upright and impassive.
“So, you say that the girl is a witch and somehow scattered a powder in the face of Narbo – a very large and powerful man, I should add – and that she then jabbed him with a poison-tipped knife?”
“So in a very brief time you had determined all this?”
“Well, sir, how else does a girl, a Gaul of the forest – I mean no disrespect to local peoples, but…”
“Hmm. So you don’t really know. We don’t know why she attacked the pair of you either, do we? Do solitary young girls attack Roman soldiers in pairs? And you say that you were then forced to retreat from this girl because she had a weapon? Don’t change your story now. Just repeat what you told your officer about the event.”
“Sir, she had a sling.”
The whole crowd broke out in laughter.
“I see. A girl with a sling…So you came running back down the slopes and on to the Lugdunum Road, almost naked…because a girl had a sling!”
Even Germanicus and Agrippina were laughing a little, though their laughter was politic, calibrated to match the amusement of the commander and of the Gallic chieftains and dignitaries who were in attendance.
“Sir, it was likely a poisoned sling!”
The laughter turned to uproar.
The crowd had settled.
It was Locusta’s turn to be heard.
The lady Agrippina leaned forward and peered. Locusta noted her eager eyes and long, sharp nose. There was a mental hunger in the woman, a curiosity she had observed in many forest animals, a need to know all which might serve or threaten or compete. Her husband, by contrast, had a look of earnest concern, as if the world pained him and fascinated him at the same time, and he bore the responsibility for it all.
No-one could guess that this young girl dragged from an impoverished forest community was a woman of affairs, long seasoned in business and its self-interested ways. But Locusta, who had spent her life observing perpetually ravenous animals and humans constantly wanting to acquire more than they spent in every transaction, knew the faces of these two people.
Acquisitive faces. Two different faces of ambition.
The commander of the garrison began:
“Your name, family and residence?”
“I am Locusta. No family. I live on the edge of the Morgarita Forest.”
“Seems odd. Who raised you?”
“My employer, an old woman who has passed on. The business is mine now.”
“So your employer raised you?”
“No. There was a wet-nurse for a while, then work. My hands were small and nimble; that was why the old woman wanted a child. The seeds of the heath are tiny, and a great quantity is required.”
“But…Oh, never mind. Tell us what work you do, with the seeds and so on.”
“I am a pharmacist. I dispense to families on my side of the forest. I also do much doctoring. Sometimes I sell heath herbs to a pharmacist on the other side, the river side, and she sells me products of the river.”
“You are aware that your own Gallic authorities have banned all Druid practices, all witchery and the like.”
“I’ve been told as much. It does not concern me, since I care nothing for spells, or whatever witches or Druids do.”
“You admit to administering herbs but not to performing spells and incantations?”
“I admit to the first because it is the truth. I deny the rest because it is false. You Romans take bitter herbs imported from Italy for your health, a sound practice in my opinion. Does that make you Druids?”
“Interesting. A herbalist of the forest, a Gaul, who fears to do incantations.”
“I do not fear. I would perform spells and incantations if they worked. But they don’t.”
“So you’ve tried?”
“No. My mistress cast spells. Nothing resulted. I have fifty families or more to care for with medicines and medical treatments. I have a business to run and must do it on my own. I cannot waste time on spells. Nor can I waste time looking for Romans’ lost clothing. I was out on the heath near the gorge that day to collect seed. While I am here the seed is being lost, by the way. By the end of autumn there will be no seed to collect – and broom seed is among the most important of medicines, as your Greeks will tell you.”
“Very well. Tell us about what happened, how you encountered our two soldiers.”
“Simple. They had been tied to trees in such a way that wolves would attack their groins. I think you know of the practice. I released them.”
“Because I spend my life dealing with injuries and infirmities. My instinct is to avoid injury and all the long, uncertain labour of curing injury. Also, to give the Morgarita wolves a taste for human flesh is foolish in the extreme. That’s why we have to char our bodies before deep burials. There is reasoning behind our Morgarita funerals. Our wolves have cross-bred with other creatures, possibly Roman hounds. They are the great terror of the region, as you must know. The famed Beast of the Gabali is just one of these, possibly the largest and most savage to date. But there will be more. Do people really want to serve them fresh humans to eat?”
“Hmm. Possibly not. Moving along, why did you kill a Roman soldier?”
“Would it surprise you to hear that your soldier tried to rape me?”
“He had a reputation, in fact. But the only witness to the events says nothing of rape, or of any provocation.”
“Your witness has the face of a rat. Not the pick of the litter either.”
There were hoots and laughter.
“Here we don’t judge men by faces! But there are certainly things in his testimony which make little sense…So how did you kill this hulking Roman?”
“I let him cast me to the ground then stuck my flint in the part of his neck which is known to lose most blood in the least time. Then I drew the flint along his throat a little, as I remember.”
“And you were able to repel the other somehow?”
“Yes. The one true thing he says is that I had a sling and threatened him with it.”
“Why would a Roman soldier retreat from a girl with a sling?”
“Perhaps because I use it well. When you know how to use a sling it shows. There is a certain sound, a vibration, is there not…?”
“Hmm. Before we go any further, perhaps you can show us how you handle a sling. A non-poisonous one.”
Amid more laughter, Locusta reached into the top of her smock and drew out a cord of some sort.
“I have a sling with me. A non-poisonous one.”
More laughter, then the commander asked Locusta to display the sling. It looked like a long hair braid, thick at one end, looped at the other, with a broad cradle in the middle.
“Who made that sling…or hair-piece?”
“I made it. It won’t stretch. Goat hair, all one piece. Nobody even knows it’s a sling. Your soldiers overlooked it when they arrested me. It works well because it’s soft without stretch. It’s exactly what you want in a sling, no matter how it looks.”
“Hmm. Normally I’d reprimand my men for leaving a weapon on a detainee. In this case, I can see why they took it for a Gaul’s hair extension.”
More general laughter, in which Virio tried to join.
“Well, show us how you use a sling. There are a number of holes in Virio’s account. Let’s see if his description of your slinging is true.”
“I have no stones.”
One soldier spoke out: “I have a cheap clay bullet she can use, but she’s not getting any of my good ones.”
Another soldier: “She can have one of my good bullets, commander. A Rhodian Thunderbolt. I doubt it will go far or hit hard.”
“Very well. Give her one of your Rhodians. If it gets lost we’ll compensate you.”
The soldier stepped forward and handed Locusta an oval piece of lead, pointy at both ends. It had Greek letters and a thunderbolt etched into its sides.
“If you can’t fire one of these to effect then I’d say you can’t sling anything.”
After inspecting the bullet she fitted it to the cradle, then let the sling dangle by her side.
“What should I shoot at, commander?”
“Well, we were more interested in how much terror you could inspire in our Virio just by whirling a hair-piece. But since you have a good bullet…I’ll be impressed if you can sling as far as the castrum‘s west wall. If you can hit the west wall itself, so much the better. It’s a large target, at least.”
“I’ll do my best, though I’m used to my own stones.”
“Just don’t hurt any Romans if you miss. Not even Virio. That’s my only condition.”
To general amusement, Locusta began to whirl the sling. After a moment the jeers and laughing died down, as the vibration became audible and even a little menacing. The comments, however, continued:
“She does it well.”
“A good posture, good rhythm.”
“Check Virio’s legs for moisture!”
“Check his behind for last night’s garum!”
Locusta released the bullet, but in a completely different direction to the west wall. The crazy shot was so unexpected that no-one even saw where the bullet went.
The crowd erupted into ridicule. Even the commander and his visitors joined in.
Locusta stood inspecting the sling, showing no emotion, as the uproar grew.
Just as the general laughter and ridicule became so loud that no single voice could be heard, a soldier with spear came pushing through the crowd and up to the dais. He was yelling urgently at the commander, whose face went suddenly serious.
The mob quietened. Their eyes followed those of the commander, who had walked to the end of the dais and was looking in the direction of the dead tree where the execution had taken place.
The woodcutter’s head was hanging loose in death. Blood was dripping from the side of his skull.
In the suddenly imposed silence, eyes turned back to Locusta, who stood impassive, still inspecting her sling.
“I’m sorry, commander. A poor shot. I’m used to granite stones. They cut the air in a different way.”