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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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!”