Locusta had been taken into a stone shed, one half of which was barred cell. She was locked in behind the bars without explanation. She suspected there was nothing yet determined as to her fate. Saving face while holding to their laws and balancing the politics…Somewhere Romans were conferring about Locusta, and it would be complicated for them.
The cell had an earthen floor with a scant layer of well trodden straw. There was a water jug and a curious funnel shaped hole in the floor with an open clay pipe buried at its base.
Shortly before dark the officer who had been in charge of her capture came into the shed carrying the old cloak and another bowl of steaming farrum, this time with a wooden spoon protruding from its rim. For a moment he seemed about to speak, then to change his mind. He unlocked the door, placed bowl and cloak inside, then locked up again.
He was about to leave when Locusta spoke.
“Thank you. I hope you are not compromised by helping me.”
“No. This is regular treatment.”
He went to go, then paused.
“I…added some extra garum – since you like it – and some dried pimbo herb with crumbs of hard cheese. The way to eat it is to stir in part to flavour the porridge, and leave a little floating as sauce.”
“I’ll do that.”
“You know what that hole is for?”
“Is it for pissing in?”
Locusta’s bluntness took him back a moment.
“That…and the other. If you do the other we can flush it out through the pipes with a bucket of water.”
“It’s a very good arrangement.”
The Roman began to recover some confidence.
“The dung is led to a sort of underground fermenting tank. It can be used later as fertiliser, though not for root crops.”
Locusta was genuinely interested, leaning over the latrine and inspecting hard, sniffing.
“There’s no smell.”
“If you do it right, there’s only smell for a few days after the cell’s been used. We sweeten the tank and pipes with lime.”
“Is this usual?”
“Not in a prison cell. But we have much time on our hands here after such a long peace. Soldiers are given all kinds of tasks in the Provincia. That’s why a man can be flogged for a smear on his armour. Without constant occupation and strict standards a Roman soldier reverts to barbarism. The longer the peace and the closer to Rome, the worse the abandon.”
“Then what of Rome itself?”
“There are no armies in Rome, just a guard for the emperor and special detachments to keep order. To bring an army into Rome is seen as a great violation….But eat your porridge while it’s hot.”
“I will. Thank you again.”
Again the officer made to leave, again he paused.
“Have a care, lady. You may yet live. But have a care.”
After dark another visitor entered the stone shed. He was carrying a lamp, and Locusta could see in its flicker that he was the young man who had acted as interpreter for Germanicus that morning. He looked Gallic by his hair and apparel but his face was darker and finer than a Gaul’s.
“General Germanicus and the Lady Agrippina send you greetings.”
“I…return their courteous greetings. That is, if a prisoner may do as much.”
“Certainly you may.”
“And you are the general’s secretary?”
“I am his interpreter, first and foremost. I am able to assist him with the languages of Gaul and Germany, and I write suitable Greek. They call me Tyricus.”
“You are a Gaul by birth?”
“Well, in a way, lady. I was born and raised in Lausonna, far to the north of here, close to Germany. My mother was of the Helvetian tribe. My father, however, was a Phoenician.”
“Phoenician! I know so little of the wider world, but aren’t they the people who trade on the eastern seas?”
“It would seem they traded everywhere, at least till recently. My father was born Phoenician yet at the other end of the world to Phoenicia, in a trading settlement on the western side of Hibernia, an island beyond Britain. He was shipwrecked on the coast of Spain on the way to buy wool there.”
Locusta stared at the exotic young man, fascinated and perhaps even attracted.
“He was saved by the same Asturians who had previously sold him wool, but, being traders in their very marrow, they sold him off into slavery in Gaul. I was born a slave to a slave woman of the tribe of the Helvetii…but I must talk less of myself…”
“No, the wider world is of interest to me. I notice that you are somewhat darker, your features are different…”
“That’s from my father. And I’m guessing the ability with language is something I inherit from my trading forbears. But on to business…
“The general has sent me here with a proposition. It seems that there is one law you have definitely broken, in spite of extenuating circumstances…”
“Killing a huge rapist when he was on top of me? Ending the sufferings of a fellow Gaul when I had been given permission to hit anybody who was not Roman? I can be fussy over legal niceties too.”
“No, in fact, none of that. You agree that you threatened Virio with your sling. He says so, and you say so.”
“There is your offence. No evidence was adduced that you were defending yourself…”
“It stands to reason!”
“Lady, the soldier Virio did no more than approach you – or rather the body of his comrade. All may assume he was a threat to you, but the law is not concerned with assumption. You threatened an unarmed Roman soldier with a weapon, forcing him to abandon his fallen comrade, whether alive or dead. There is no way around this.”
“Is it Germanicus who wants me prosecuted? Why has he sent you here?”
“Lady, the commander and the soldiery of the garrison are concerned – rightly, I would think – that their dangerous work will be made more dangerous if any such open affront to their authority is allowed to pass. You might also want to consider that without Rome the Gallic tribes, even if they survived one another’s violence, would certainly be the victims of German invasion. You Arverni owe your continued existence to Rome.”
“I seldom get to think about these matters. I hear a little in the many homes I attend, but my life is taken up with work. I am not interested in who rules Gaul, I am interested in defending myself against Morgarita wolves and their human counterparts. Common sense comes into it here. If I had not defended myself against the rat-faced soldier I would not now be alive, so I can hardly be expected to regret my actions.”
“Indeed, the general and, more particularly, the Lady Agrippina are aware of your situation. Like most of us they were impressed by your actions today and wish to, as it were, find a way forward through this difficult business. They want to advance a solution which satisfies the garrison, the Gallic chiefs, and the requirements of law.”
“Your general and his lady seem very intent on satisfying.”
“Girl! They are offering you your life!”
“Tell me, Tyricus the interpreter, why does the general take the slow way back to Rome?”
“Wh…why? How should I know? He is a man who enjoys travel, and feels an attachment to Roman soldiery in all corners of the empire.”
“Is it the emperor who wants him to proceed in this way?”
“What a question! Why do you ask?”
“It occurs to me that General Germanicus is being kept away from the legions…as if he might be too popular with them. So he travels where peace is old and ripe, and there are no great armies to meet him. Just fat towns and lazy garrisons – and even in these places he makes himself loved.”
“You are sharp, young lady, too sharp. Perhaps you don’t want to hear what Rome’s most distinguished couple have to offer?”
“On the contrary, I am very interested in surviving and lessening all possible suffering. Please, let me hear these propositions.”
“One way out of this affair is for you to become the property of the Lady Agrippina.”
“Yes, if you will, slavery. But you would be a slave as I am a slave. You could occupy a responsible position and be well treated. Mark you, there can be no deception, and Lady Agrippina insists that there must be consent on your part, as you are to become a legal debtor then a legal slave to absolve your debt.”
“How a debtor?”
“A massive fine will be imposed on you, one which will enrich the garrison. The Lady Agrippina will pay it for you and you will then become her slave. She wishes to make it clear that she will not have this seen as any evasion of law. You will be truly her slave. She cannot and will not merely buy you out of a problem.”
Locusta went quiet, contemplated.
“And if I say no?”
“Don’t say no.”
“Why? Would I be executed?”
“No, but…please take my advice. I know the course these things take.”
“Tell me, Tyricus. Tell me the course they take.”
“You will be flogged before the entire garrison. It will be severe. The Romans do not play at these things.”
“I see. And how will they flog me?’
“Oh, why even consider…?”
“How will they flog me, Tyricus?”
“The general thinks, or hopes, he can persuade them to use vine branches. They are a common means of hurting without killing in the army. A fit centurion can make strong soldiers scream and cry, yet there is little loss of blood. But, really, the general’s first hope is that take the chance to enter the Lady Agrippina’s service. Slavery in such circumstances can offer more than freedom.”
“I see…vine branches…little loss of blood…”
“But there is no limit in the way of time or number of blows. And there is the sheer humiliation.”
“Humiliation? That’s nothing to me. But if there is only pain with little blood loss…”
When they cut Locusta down from the stump she slumped to her knees but avoided falling further. The different posture caused new waves of pain all down her back and legs. It was like being on fire.
At the start of the punishment there had been the expected hoots and leering at her nakedness.
After some ten minutes, Locusta, breathing deliberately with eyes closed, had done nothing but soak up each strike of the whistling vine branches as if her body were a heavy, inert dough. Not one sound did she emit.
The crowd had grown subdued. Then completely quiet.
The relieved commander, sensing the general mood, had called an end to the punishment.
And now Locusta was forcing herself to stand, dragging up the smock which had been torn and pulled down to her ankles. Again, a new wave of pain.
She knew where to go. In the wall of the castrum there was a guarded exit into the adjacent town. She took one step, then another, in that direction. Then she stumbled.
A powerful arm raised her from one side.
“To the town, lady?”
It was the voice of the officer who had brought her the cloak and food. Unable to speak she managed a nod and a pant of consent.
Someone else then supported her on the other side, though she could not look to see who it was. Slowly they were able to advance across the open ground while the crowd also dispersed to the fringes of the huge castrum where most of the buildings were now located.
Every movement was like a scalding all down the back of her body, though Locusta was relieved to see no blood dribbling to the ground at her feet. All she could do was to concentrate on her breathing and her assisted slow shuffle.
At last they reached the gate out of the castrum and into the town.
“This is as far as we can go during duty hours. I must leave you here, lady. If I can assist you later…”
“Thank you. You’ve done enough already. I’m alive…and free.”
“Tend your sores. Your back looked…well, not good. Come Virio, we must leave the lady to make her own way.”
At the mention of the name Locusta turned to her left, showing more emotion than during the whole course of the beating. He stood there, the small, rat-faced soldier, author of all her trouble and pain. There was a stab of revulsion at the sight of him. She was about to consign him once again to oblivion after a cold stare…then Locusta observed his expression.
Virio was red-faced and his eyes glistened. The man was close to tears.
“I…” He fell speechless.
And then it happened, as it had happened before. The whisper of those voices, then the insight, as if a curtain had been pulled back.
In spite of the fire down half her body, she saw into the man facing her. She saw the generations before, thrusting into life to make his life, a desperate urge, carrying along countless flaws and burrs in the rush to find shape. She could almost hear the rush of life within him, coursing through that intricate web, hungry for further being – a furious, clashing universe, all bundled into this small, uncertain, unhappy man.
How could Locusta perceive all this, at such a moment, as in a dream? Was she, in fact, mad?
At last Virio found his voice. The words came in a broken croak.
“Lady, I wish I could make it better. I can only say…that I regret…”
Locusta was able to lay her hand limply on his forearm. She found she could speak.
“No, I’m the one who must say sorry.”
“Oh no, lady. You are the true Roman. What you did was…”
“What I did was to make nothing of you. In that, perhaps, I was far too much of a Roman. But you are something. You are much more than anyone can fathom. The greater offense was mine. I ignored the life in you…the life…
“But now I need to find lodging in the town.”
“I have money, lady, and I know people in the town, I can…”
“No, no. I will find some work here. These last two days are the only ones in my life when I haven’t worked. It feels very odd. Money without working? I couldn’t accept it. It would be just too strange. It’s best I find some work in the town, and soon.”
“But you have been beaten so badly. Tomorrow your back will be black and so tender you won’t be able to move. Moreover the only work for any young woman here…”
“Oh, don’t worry about my virtue, Virio. I will certainly find useful work and an honest income…
“I am a pharmacist!”