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