Set in Rome around 1400BC. This is shorter than ‘The Queen’s Guard’ and I’ll probably post this in two or at the most three parts.
Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.
Times change, and we change with them. Indeed they do, but I am less sure I have changed sufficiently, or fast enough. For a decade I worked in the service of the Roman Senate, until I felt I could do no more. Now it was time to go home. Home. It was that place that sent me here in the first place.
We had lived in a small villa attached to six others by shared walls and a common roof, until the time and opportunity came to put down a deposit on a smallholding with a stand-alone house and a broad expanse of coastline. The house had history, which appealed to us. It had been built by a fishing family of modest means and in the next generation expanded on by industrious sons who had tilled the land and farmed it with groves of stone fruits, olives and rows of wheat. When the last living son had grown too old to till the soil, I gathered all I could and made it our home.
We had ten years to repay our debt, sealed with our family crest in hot wax and with the firm handshake of the Romans, the gripping of the other man’s forearm. My brother, Quintis, and his wife, Aelia, were a godsend to us. Quintis was a man of the land and Aelia, a competent helper. We had agreed that for ten years of help they would be rewarded with seaside land to build their own home, and a generous share in the produce we generated.
My wife, Gavia, would manage the house and financial affairs while learning the ways and means of farming the fields and the sea. For my part, having served well in the Imperial Army from a boy of fifteen to a man of twenty, where I honed my skill in writing and the nuance of language as well as war, it afforded me the opportunity to take a position as a Senate Scribe. The work was varied and interesting. It gave me real insight into the hundreds of aspects that form a healthy and productive economy, and it also produced valuable contacts I could use when once again it came time for me to go home.
The decade had also made me somewhat cynical. No one I knew had not managed to get through their service without witnessing the worst that politics brings out in those attracted to it. The scheming, the machinations, the sleight of hand. I had had enough of them, and I was pleased to be going home to my family, where I could trust without suspicion and know that I need not look behind words for another and opposite meaning.
Living in a city and, indeed, living inside a walled enclave inside a city you lose, piece by piece, the sense of reality and the vibrancy of life that the world outside offers. It’s only when you return to ‘the wilds’ as those inside the enclave call the outside world, that you realise what you gave up was perhaps not worth what you paid for life inside. I very much felt that as I rode through the city streets, which were alive with a sort of organised chaos. Sights, colours, and sounds assailed me from all around, and I was filled with nervous longing to be out of here as well as immersed within it all.
People went about their day, some smiling and others with frowns of concentration furrowing their brows, each lost in the import of the moment and their tasks at hand. Although my position had been powerless, I hoped that my contribution had somehow made their lives a little more pleasant and worthwhile. It is a strange land I inhabited, where I would scribe and transcribe words with far-reaching effect, detailing laws and amendments that might have little import now but which may well shape the future all these folk were living toward.
Wide streets and bustling bazaars gave way to narrower streets and concentrated humanity, which then gave way to narrow lanes festooned with drying clothes and the mixed scents of people living in too-close proximity. By the time I reached the city’s edge I was glad to be leaving it. The further away from true power one lives, the more that power ignores you, unless you rile it.
From the moment I exited the city gates the tempo and timbre changed. How quickly city became country, and with that the ways of life changed. At first, the properties were closely defined by boundary fences made of trees and shrubs, and the houses were quite small. By days’ end, however, the properties had grown in size and it was increasingly difficult to tell where one ended and the next began. I saw all sorts of livestock and various crops, and the people themselves seemed more robust but somewhat shorter than their city cousins.
Over the next eleven days I reacquainted myself with my country and the simple folk who inhabited it. At first I was something of an oddity with my city ways and impractical clothes, but by the fourth day I had become more of the person I was before I entered the service of the city. I traded my clothes, so richly brocaded and thick, for those of a reasonably well-to-do farmer which, I suppose, was what I was now becoming. Losing the city formality of speech and style would take longer but I made a conscious start there on the road. I first exchanged my pommelled saddle for a more practical one, and then I traded my high-stepping city horse for a more rugged but equally beautiful country one.
I came within hard riding distance of my home just as the sun began sinking, and it was all I could do to listen to my internal voice of reason and not go full flight into the night, where potholes and other unanticipated problems might see my horse in a ditch, legs broken, or me in a ditch, head broken.
That last night was filled with low-level anxiety. All the fears I had held, of not fitting back into my previous life, of being ‘too city’ in the middle of the country, and of wondering how my relationships would play out, came to rob me of meaningful sleep that night. In the blackest of the night, just before the false dawn, I rose and ate the last of the meagre rations I had acquired for the journey. How long would it be until once again I ate a dried fig or a date, I wondered? When you leave something behind there is a small place, a sort of catching of the breath of life, before you gain something ahead. Those figs and dates defined the transition.
The false dawn came, and I gathered up my belongings and mounted my horse. It was still too dark to ride at speed, which I told myself was a good thing. We paced slowly, languorously, with hours ahead of us. By mid-morning on what promised to be a clear and crisp day, horse and I would turn into the gates that signalled the end of our journey.
Hills and valleys. These were the features that defined my home and the lands surrounding it. I came over the last hill, stopping to look across to my home. Even though the day was warming, it did so slowly and there was a haze of woodsmoke suspended in the air. The crops had been slashed several weeks ago and their drying stalks stood as high as a man’s knee. The olive groves and stone fruit copses were full-spirited, and on the most distant corner I saw sheep, cattle, and horses idly grazing in the weak sunshine. The place had certainly come along since last I was here, nearly three years ago.
I entered through the ornate gates, a feature I was aware of but had not previously seen. They were erected a year or so ago, when our fortunes had risen to a point where some ostentation was both possible and required. In ten minutes I would be at my front door, one journey finished as another began.
With now only five minutes of easy riding to go, I sat high in my saddle and surveyed all around me. The frantic rustling of dried corn stalks alerted me to a fox tearing apart its unlucky prey, and I stood in my saddle to get a better view. What I saw was hardly a fox and prey, though. I witnessed the buttocks of a man, hard pumping, as he entered and withdrew himself from between the open legs of the woman under him. I immediately felt embarrassed, my city experiences not withstanding. I had caught this couple in an unguarded moment and I meant to respect their privacy.
It’s odd, the memories that stay with you. Smiling as I rode on, I suspected a few of our workers were finding a private moment, away from all others. It’s funny to me that in such a sizeable place – you’d hardly call it an estate – to find real privacy one must go to the fields. There’d be no such timid distinction in a city, where everyone lives atop everyone else and the noises of life are known and largely ignored. The man’s left sandal was worn at the ball of the foot, and the woman’s dress tassel was caught up with corn castings. I tried not to think of what else I saw, for the sake of their modesty and my pent-up desires.
Arriving at the front porch was something of an anticlimax. Apart from two disinterested and lightly snoring hounds there was not a sound to be heard nor a sight to be seen. Tethering my horse, I stepped up onto the porch and knocked on the front doors, hoping to excite some activity from within the house, but there was none. A little deflated, I unhitched the horse and we walked solemnly around the side of the house to the first of the barns, this one a stable designated for horses. They heard us, and they whinnied and nickered as we approached. It seemed my horse, a stranger to these lands, roused more interest and cheer than my arrival.
Bantia, for that is the name I’d given her, snuffed loudly as we walked into the barn, stopping at each stall and making acquaintance with each horse therein. They all seemed to like each other well enough, and so for the next fifteen minutes I concerned myself with making her at home, brushing the miles out of her coat and tending to her food and drink. I left her then, walking out into the sunshine and making my way to the rear of the house.
I knocked on the back door, an odd thing to do given that this was my own house, but if anyone was inside I wanted to rouse them up for a belated grand entrance. There was none to be had, and so I entered and made my way to the kitchen. Its door was closed but even so I smelled that strong and particular odour of milled wheat, clean and crisp and slightly malty. On entering, I saw loaves proving under clean cloth and a side of mutton hanging in a recessed corner, awaiting the sharp knife of whoever was going to cut and cook it. Pulling out a very rustic chair, I sat at an even more rustic table and pulled a cheese board to me. So there was my welcome home and my first gala meal; an empty house and a rind of hard cheese.
“The prodigal returns! Well met!” said my brother, Quintis, when finally life other than mine stirred within the house. I had eaten and bathed, and had even taken my road-weary clothing outside and into the laundry house. I had thought to once again saddle up and then ride the lands looking for signs of life, but tiredness had called me to a seat on the porch and sleep had beckoned me into the realm of dreams. “Quintis!” I called back, pushing myself out of my chair and the sleep that had dragged me down into it. “Hail, fellow!” I said excitedly as he and I hugged each other strongly.
Quintis all but dragged me into the kitchen, where he unlocked cupboard and door, knowing his way around, and placing wine and a small feast of meat and olives on the table. “We were not looking for you until the end of the day,” he said, “but speed and efficiency was ever your way.” I smiled at that. I had arrived on the day I had written I would, but it seemed that over the journey I had picked up time by late riding and early rising, and so I was expected at the going down of the sun and not at the rising of it. “I came to break the side of meat for Bruccia, the cook, for she is handy with a ladle but still less so with a heavy side,” Quintis said. As we ate I learned that preparations were underway for a feast, and all hands were gathered at Quintis’ home, where the kitchen was larger and better equipped.
We saddled two horses who were ripe for a ride, chatting and slapping each others’ backs as we dawdled across the few miles from my home to his. “Wait ten minutes and then come,” Quintis said before riding off like a man possessed. Hurry up and wait. It seemed the ways of the Senate had transposed themselves onto country life.
I rode in, and there on Quintis’ porch were twenty people, gathered together to bid me welcome. After hugs, more back-slapping, introductions to those new to me, and assurances that there were many more people coming, I sat inside a semi-circle of smiling folk and was regaled with questions and comments. Indeed, there were many more people to come. On Quintis’ advice, helpers had ridden out to neighbouring farms to tell them the party had begun. Over the next few hours the house, built upon until it was twice the size of mine, swelled to bursting.
In all of this one thing was more distracting than the other hundred things. Gavia, my wife, had hugged me and cried until I thought she would dry up and waft away on a breeze, and then she sat by me, my hand held achingly tight in hers. Even when we were eventually separated, her eyes never left me. It was good to be home, but it was great to be home and loved.
There was only one dark cloud on the horizon, and only I could see it. After the festive meal we sat in Quintis’ entertainment room, he quite drunkenly sprawled out in a deep chair, his legs straight out and his feet crossed. I noticed, and then I couldn’t stop noticing, the worn ball of his sandal. It had been him in the field, but given the girth of his wife, Aelia, and her ankles fattened as pregnancy often does to a woman, I knew in my heart that she had not been the one under him in the field.
The first days and weeks at home were an odd mixture of thankfulness and peace, and a jarring displacement and some unpleasant surprises. I greatly enjoyed the quiet that only the country can bring, and I tried unsuccessfully to recall the last time in the city when I had heard the raucous singing of birds and the buzzing of insects. One day I watched a small bug going about its business, diligently pushing aside earth to make way for what I supposed was its nest. In the loose soil of our kitchen garden the hard-working bug had its work cut out. Cave-ins were common and I watched, fascinated, as it dug itself out and, I fancied, took a deep breath before launching itself back into its excavations. I knew how it felt. Working for politicians had the same sort of futility about it, even though the sweet smell of soil was better than the latrine stench of intrigue.
I took my time to re-familiarise myself with the farm, which had grown in fecundity in my absence. There was no doubt about it, Quintis had done his work well, although it niggled at me that he had seemingly rewarded himself for it all too well. The brother I knew had been replaced by the man he’d become, and there was a selfishness in him better hidden in the boy he had been. Thinking that, I immediately felt shamed. My brother had wrought this place for me, at first with his own hands and efforts and then with the help of paid workers. There was much I owed him and, while it seemed he had taken much in payment, it was niggardly of me to feel put upon.
Gavia, my wife, had changed, too. Gone was the giddy girl who gladly fell into my arms whenever I came home, replaced by a quieter and more thoughtful version. It would take us both some time, I thought, to find our way with each other. The truth is, I was a little disappointed at her matronly behaviour. She seemed like an older woman in the body of a young one, and her tastes and enjoyments had changed over the years.
On my first night at home I sought her out and we were intimate, but not in the ways we used to be. I had planned to lick her, as I knew she liked, but she strenuously stopped me. Our lovemaking was perfunctory; she lacked passion and noted it, citing the chores of the day and overexcitement at having me home. For my part, I hid my disappointment, and I waited for her to sleep before I rose, throwing a blanket around my shoulders, and sat outside, looking out into the blackness and sensing the fields.
After a week had passed there seemed little thawing in Gavia’s mood and, disturbed and a little hurt, I busied myself in the fields and with bringing myself up to speed on the intricacies and inner workings of life on the farm. Quintis was a busy man, always out and about on some errand or duty, and I found him hard to pin down after the first few days. Aelia was often about but her pregnancy was not faring well. She was bloated and blotchy, hobbling about, and swinging widely between anxiety and anger. I sat with her several times, as a good brother-in-law might, and I tried to make her day a little brighter. It seemed to have the opposite effect. One day, in asking after her state of health she blurted out that my brother is a toad. She then burst into tears and retreated to her rooms.
“Brother,” I said when I had found him, “child bearing does not go well with Aelia.” He scowled and cleared his throat. “Nothing goes well with that one,” he growled. “It took a decade to convince her to have a child. It took nearly that long to convince her there was only one way to achieve it,” he said, smiling at that. “She bores me.” And with that, he fell silent and I had the sense to let him be. Instead, we spoke of the near future and his plans now that I was back. Years ago we had agreed on the partition of the property and I had noticed it was spectacularly well groomed, better even than the main tract of land he’d cared for in my absence.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I’ve been thinking seriously on this for several years. Aelia and I will soon have a child and, Gods willing, a few more once the spell has been broken and she knows the way of it working. You and Gavia are behind us in this matter, and so I’m thinking that a fairer division might be fifty-fifty, Aelia and I having a family to support.”
It stunned me. It’s true that Quintis had put in time and effort, but I had paid for all of it. Never once had he had to dip a hand into his pouch and produce a coin, and I had rewarded him very well with a house that was approaching grand and a land grant that was supremely generous. In a sentence, he sought to up his contribution while downing mine. “I don’t know, Brother,” I said. “This is unexpected and it will take a time for me to fathom it. Fifteen years of service to Army and Senate, hard years all of them in different ways, to earn the coin to make dreams possible for both our families. I admit I hadn’t expected you to reach above our agreement.”
A look flashed in Quintis’ eyes then. It was there and then it wasn’t. I know the look of old; it was hatred. “I will think on it deeply and answer you soon, but for now I have a question of my own: will fifty percent satisfy you? I mean, will it satisfy you for life, or is there more to this?” The look of hatred came back once more. “Is it a question or a veiled accusation?” he asked, before turning sharply and storming away. “That went well,” I said to my horse, who nodded once and then shook her head twice. We were in agreement, then.
Being home was not bringing me the enjoyment I thought it would. In the Senate, knowing who’s on your side is easy. No one is. Here, it was not so clear. I had a distant wife, an angrily ambitious brother, and a sick and bitter sister-in-law. I fell into a funk. The reality of my new life was not as I’d imagined it. “I’m setting out to walk the perimeter,” I told our cook, Bruccia, “and I’d like some food and drink to take with me.” She nodded and went about preparing them for me. I’d be gone for much of the day; the property wasn’t that big that any more time would be required. Bruccia handed me a well-folded satchel brimming with goods; too much for a day, and I said it was generous. “Some carrots and apples for your horse,” she said. I hadn’t thought I’d take a horse but now it made sense to do so. “My thanks to you, Miss Bruccia, and no doubt the thanks of a grateful horse, too,” I said, smiling. She blushed, nodded, and was away in a ruffle of apron and skirt.
“Come on, old girl,” I called to Bantia. She whinnied and came out of the dark recesses of her stall. “Think you can handle a day trip around the estate?” I laughed, and her nodding head assured me she could. It was a good idea. If a man is beset by problems a short solitude can be helpful, but its even more helpful to be accompanied by someone who won’t state the obvious and offer unwanted advice. Bantia and I would be alone, together, she free of the stable and me free of the company that was fouling my thoughts. As I rode past the back of the house Bruccia called to me. “Be sure to pass by Postumius’ lodgings,” she said before retreating into the kitchen.
Postumius was a man I had long known, but never well. Middle aged now, he had been a young man in the service of the previous owner and he had sort of come as part of the deal, although he was a free man and could take his leave as he chose. I met him long before I arrived at his lodgings, hailing him well met as I sat up in the saddle. His horse trotted both of them over and he smiled, grasping my arm in the time-honoured fashion and nearly unseating me. “I heard you were back,” he said. “And yet you didn’t come to greet me,” I replied. His lips pursed a little and he nodded but remained silent. “And what of you and yours?” I asked, inquiring after his wife. “Trebatia has been gone these two years,” he said, and he said no more on it so I let it stay where it lay. “Riding out or in?” he asked, and I told him my plans. “Be sure to call in on Julianus, over on the western perimeter,” he said as he turned his horse and, with a wave, went about his day.
I rode the eastern perimeter, noting with satisfaction the number and good health of the olive trees there. With even greater satisfaction I dismounted and strolled through an area that had been kept clear, where several sheds held large vats and stills. It was good thinking, to have them here at the source where the bruising of the fruit in transport would mostly be a thing of the past. Several long wagons attested to the careful transportation that occurred after the olives had been sorted, some going to market as they were and others being pressed for their oil. Those going as fruit were packaged in boxes lined fluffily with cotton batting, and I saw with pleasure a small branding iron that told purchasers of the property, so that they could know the provenance of the olives.
A clear space had been set up behind the sheds and rudimentary work had been done on the foundations of what would be yet another two sheds. One stood well free of the others and the grove, and in the centre of the foundations a space was marked out for a kiln. Standing inside the perimeter and turning about, it became obvious that, remarkably, this was to become a small factory turning out pottery into which the oil could be poured. I marvelled at this.
It had been the way for generations that smallholders sold vats to traders who then decanted them into jugs and sealed them. It seemed we were going to cut out one of the middle men, and a good job, too. Many of the traders were unreliable scoundrels who waited overly long into the season and then tried to scoop up the oil at a basement price before it turned rancid. Indeed, they had been known to buy rancid oil at a deep discount and, holding their breath, sell it on to unsuspecting householders. It says nothing positive about the landholder who will be party to that, but such is the way of commerce in some quarters.
My frame of mind had improved immensely. Everywhere I turned there were signs of improvement and surprising developments. I had believed Quintis to be a sturdy man but I had never thought of him as a visionary and an entrepreneur. Perhaps his claim to a half share was very well justified, but why had he kept all his innovations from me?
“Come on, Bantia, time to move on,” I called, and my horse looked up but was reluctant to move. She had found a small herd of cows and she was happily nestled within the group. Cows and horses. A strange pairing, and yet they find comfort in the presence of the other. I called again, and again, and in the end I walked the distance between us and I removed her from her new bovine playmates.
The southern perimeter was given over to wheat, with several copses of stone fruit trees running up the soft hills on the other side of this valley. As I rode, I noticed two horses tethered at the edge of the copse, and I wondered who might be out there. It was too far to see in detail which horse was which and, there being no rush to my day, I pulled left and trotted down. Seven hundred paces away, I made out the distinctive saddle that Quintis so favoured, and then my eyes were drawn to the accompanying horse, which belonged to Gavia.
Across land, as the crow flies, we were only a scant hour from home, and so I thought they might be out for a ride on a pleasant day. I trotted in to say hello, and at three hundred paces from them Quintis emerged from the copse, scratching his testicles, which were paraded in plain sight. When a few seconds later Gavia emerged laughing, her naked breasts swaying as she walked, my heart fell in my chest. She stopped to wipe something from her inner thigh, and it was no difficulty to guess what it was, when Quintis looked up and directly at me. I saw him mouth something to Gavia and her head shot up, searching left of me before finally finding me sitting there, riveted in my saddle.
We stared at each other for long seconds before Quintis broke the spell. He waved to me and, fetching his tunic, threw it over himself. Gavia had less presence of mind as she rummaged about in a panic, finding her clothes and retreating back into the copse. Throwing his leg high, Quintis mounted his horse and waved again. In reply, I held up one hand in a signal to stop. His smile faded and I looked at him for a few seconds more before turning and slowly trotting away.
All the goodness had gone out of the day. Ten small things now made frightening sense to me. The woman in the field under my brother on that first day had been my wife. Full of his semen, she didn’t want my mouth on her vagina for that would have given their secret away. Was it even a secret? Was Aelia’s mood caused by pregnancy or bitterness? Was Bruccia pointing me in the direction of the truth when she bid me earnestly to seek out Postumius, who had then bade me seek out Julianus?