The Effing Book

A novel of Roman Britain and Ireland

Hail and Farewells

Galba shot Arrius a filthy look when he finally arrived for his last staff meeting. He sat nursing his habitual cup of overly spiced mulsum, a dismal expression on his tired face and a rather less habitual hangover. Last night it seemed that the entire garrison of Deva had wanted to say goodbye to Gaius Arrius, and so they had, even the legate.

“You’re late!” he hissed as his tribune sat down.

“I know.”

“Well, then, now that we’re all here…” Galba shot a pointed glance at Arrius, who prudently looked straight ahead – “let’s tie up all those loose ends, shall we?” He nodded at Priscus, the XX frumentarius. “What’s the news on those raids, Priscus?”

“Well, sir, Arrius here and I interrogated a witness, sir, you might know him? He’s a horse-trader, trades horses with the Hibernians all the time, name of Owain ap Powyll?”

Galba laughed. “The whole town knows Owain! He’d sell his mother for a profit, if she were horse-faced enough! And that’s your witness?”

Arrius felt obliged to take over from a suddenly very unhappy-looking Priscus.

“I know, I know. Never mind. Owain was on a visit five days ago with his sister and her family, her husband’s a fisherman on the coast some fifteen miles up the coastal road to Luguvallium, when they all saw three ships, definitely Hibernian in style, sailing past from the north. You know those Hibernians…they advertise who they are from twenty miles away…Anyway, they were sailing pretty close to the shore, and it wasn’t hard to see who was in it. So far as Owain and his sister could tell, everyone including the crew was drunk, except for one.” Arrius paused for effect and winked at Priscus.

Somewhat recovered, Priscus took up the thread. “Ah! Yes…well, Owain swore on his own life and even the Emperor’s for that matter, that he saw Ciarán mac Broccan.”

For a moment, Galba looked confused. “Ciarán mac Broccan? He’s a …wait, isn’t he one of those plagues we pay to leave us alone? Priscus, do you happen to have that list of Hibernian client kings?”

Priscus nodded over to Ajax, who reluctantly shuffled over with a series of wax tablets.

“Here sir…” Ajax opened the appropriate tablet and pointed the stylus at the name, and here…” he opened another tablet, “is what we’ve paid him so far.”

“Gods, man, he could buy Eboracum for that!”

“Yes, sir, and a fair chunk of Londinium, too!”

“Did Owain say anything else we might find relevant?” Galba asked after a long and highly pregnant pause.

“He did, actually…” Priscus went on, “he said that his sister had told him that this Ciarán was the very same who has been raiding all along the western coast from Isca to Deva. Not often, and not always thoroughly, but just enough to terrify the folks who live there. Ciarán and his men have taken cattle, grain and women, mostly and everyone else they’ve killed, and everything else, they’ve burned or razed to the ground.”

“Arrius, you’ve confirmed this?”

Arrius jumped. It had been a very long night. “Yes, sir. Priscus and I took a few men to see this sister of Owain’s, the day before yesterday. She certainly didn’t mince her words, and confirmed everything he had said. She also gave several highly creative suggestions as to what we should do to Ciarán, if we find him. Just to make sure, we visited several farms on the way back to Deva, and they all said the same thing, and the same name.”

“And now Ciarán has deigned to take three of our supply ships…” Galba clutched his head. “Glaucus, any word on when we can expect replacements?”

“Yes, sir, Postumianus has just sent word that there’ll be sent supplies from both Eboracum and Londinium, this time under escort, just to be safe.”

“Thank the Gods there’s at least one public official who knows how to do his job, because I evidently don’t!”

“T o be fair, sir –” Bassus, one of the junior tribunes, felt he should contribute his own two as’ worth, “you have just returned from campaign.”

“That’s no damn excuse for letting a Hibernian madman raid my territory!” Galba slammed his fist down on the table. “We have all returned from that blasted campaign, and while we were away making life miserable for the Maeatae, that pestilential Ciarán was making life miserable for us! Damn him to Hades! And just to make my headache worse, he’s outside my jurisdiction!”

“Well, not entirely…” Arrius stated the obvious. “You could always take him off the Imperial payroll.”

“Damn right I’ll take him off the payroll! I’ll take him off life altogether, if I ever get a chance!” Galba sighed and seemed to calm down a bit. He threw his now lukewarm mulsum down an unsuspecting throat and coughed when the cinnamon began to burn.

“Question is,” he went on after another pause, “what do I do with him?”

“Winter’s coming, sir, which should give you time to think of something once he comes back.” Priscus was trying to be diplomatic. Judging from Galba’s expression, he was failing miserably.

“What really upsets me, of course,” Galba glared down the full length of the table at his senior tribune, “is that right at the moment I need my broad-striped tribune and all his hare-brained ideas, he’s recalled to Rome!”

Arrius flashed a grin. “I am sorry, sir! Really! Couldn’t be helped, you know…but…”

“Yes?”

“Well, sir, think a moment. It’s always been prudent Imperial policy to pay off anyone we can’t subdue otherwise, right? Except, of course, in those cases when the greedy bastards want it all and more…like, for instance, the Maeatae this past summer…Anyway, Ciarán will not receive another as from us, I should think that’s obvious. But I have some slight experience with those Hibernians, sir. Slippery as fish and nowhere so reliable! They often have a terrible habit of using one enemy to get rid of another…and maybe that’s something we could use to our advantage?”

Everyone in the room leaned back in their chairs and braced themselves for an onslaught. Arrius was infamous for pacing the room and thinking out loud at staff meetings, and even today, his last day in Deva, was no exception. Already, he was out of his chair and on his feet, pacing the room.

“Think about it. What do we know about the state of affairs in Hibernia? Well, we know that they’re not averse to recruiting a little outside help when they need to take care of one of their own, right? There was that king, back in the days of Agricola…what was his name…never mind, can’t remember anyway. And even the present High King, as he calls himself, didn’t he gather up an army here in Britannia all those years ago, what was it, sixteen years ago, just to make sure he had enough of an army to really slaughter his enemies in style?” Arrius sat down and lifted his eyebrows to his audience. “His Hibernian enemies, mind you, and that should tell us something rather important.” He stood and began pacing again.

“So, Ciarán mac Broccan is obviously having trouble on the home front, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t bother to come at all. And another thing – if he wasn’t having trouble with his own, why would he even stoop to take our money? Priscus, do you remember anything about the terms of the agreement Lupis made with Ciarán?”

Priscus had to think a moment.

“Err, yes, it was the standard-issue cliental agreement, as I recall. He got paid to leave us alone here in Britannia, and we had a friendly face in Hibernia, if we should ever need it, more or less.”

“Aha!” Arrius pointed his finger at Priscus. “That’s it exactly! Well, has anyone stopped to think what would happen if Ciarán plays stupid convincingly enough, assures us a thousand times over that he had nothing whatsoever to do with those raids, nope, those stolen supply ships were never him, must have been one of his pesky neighbors, and then begs us for assistance when he needs to get rid of said pesky neighbors? Look around you, people – Deva, and even Britannia for that matter, is literally crawling with mercenaries these days, all thanks to the damn Caledonian campaign! Lately, there’s even been talk around the legions that given what we’ve done this past summer, there might not even be a point in continuing the campaigns, all those vexillations and auxiliaries will get sent home, and meanwhile, there will be all these idle mercenaries, twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone like Ciarán mac Broccan to spend all those bribes we’ve paid him that he can’t spend in Hibernia. ”

Galba saw it immediately, and from the looks on Glaucus’ and Tillius Rufus’ faces, so did they. “Mithras!”

“But, but…” again, reflected Arrius, it would be Bassus who would voice objections, but then, he hadn’t been junior tribune long, “it’s not like they can just up and march off to Hibernia just because Ciarán shows up and says he needs so many men! Postumianus will need to be informed, and…”

“Well, it’s something you should think about over the winter, at the very least.” Arrius glared at Bassus. How the man had become junior tribune was beyond him, he never questioned an order. Ever. Maybe that was why.

“We all know what kind of man Ciarán really is. He’s just about the nastiest piece of business across the sea, from what I’ve heard. Remember that.” Arrius sat down.

“Finished already, Gaius Arrius?” Galba was surprised. “It’s not like you not to have thought out at least four plans and three alternatives by now.”

“Not today, sir, I’m leaving for Eboracum this afternoon.”

Galba groaned. “Thanks for the reminder!”

“We’ll miss ya, tribune.” Tillius Rufus looked sad.

Arrius looked around the room. Six years was a long time to get to know these men, and during the three years of his tribunate and three summers of campaigning, he had gotten to know them well.

“If it’s any consolation, Rufus, I’ll miss you, too!”

“Well, you haven’t left us just yet, young man,” his legate reasserted his authority, “and we’re nearly done here?”

“Yes…” they all murmured the length of the table and pushed back their chairs.

“Good! We’ll meet later and discuss the Hibernian problem in more detail. Gaius Arrius, Carbo, Rufus, in your office, if you please, and Ajax…”

Ajax woke up. “Yes, sir?”

“I believe the occasion calls for some decent wine, no, not that Gaulish swill we’ve all been suffering through, some respectable Salernian, yes, and make sure it’s chilled.”

Galba pushed Arrius ahead of him through the door. “Arrius, your office, now!” he growled.

Arrius turned back toward his legate in the door and whispered, “Hangover that bad, sir?”

“You have no idea…”

 

They were soon settled in Arrius’ office with some decent Salernian in their cups, and his slaves had disappeared with the last book buckets and wax tablets for the legion archives, his tapestries and a thick Parthian rug along with the odds and ends he had accumulated in his six years in Britannia.  Arrius sighed a long, drawn-out sigh. There wasn’t much to pack, for he had few extravagant habits, and spent most of his money at Iolanthe’s house in Eboracum rather than on Briton souvenirs.

“So, then, Arrius. Looking forward to getting back to Rome?” asked Galba.

“Do you know…what I’m looking forward to the most is seeing my father again. We parted badly, and it’s been, well, six years. Gods! Six years! How did I survive Britannia for six years?”

Tillius Rufus stretched out a pair of hairy, battle-scarred legs in front of him and finally said what they all had been thinking, but were too polite to say.

“The question you should be asking yourself, tribune, is how you’ll survive the next six months in Rome. Antoninus has it in for you, and I doubt he’ll forget.”

Arrius had conveniently forgotten all about Antoninus. “And here I was looking forward to sunshine and olive groves…Damn it, Rufus, you do know how to burst my bubbles!”

Galba sipped his wine. “He’s right, you know. You shouldn’t have captured Cadaracus.”

Arrius rolled his eyes. “I know, I know, my impulsiveness will get the best – or the worst – of me one of these days. And now Severus wants me for quaestor, and it would be just my rotten fortune they all say he’s dying in Eboracum right now, so I’ll get packed off to, oh – ” he winked at Rufus, a veteran – “the Parthian border, or Judea.”

“Or killed off outright, once Severus is dead, your father’s estates confiscated, your family dishonored…” Carbo hit the nail on the head.

“Is that what you think will happen, Carbo?” Arrius’ voice went very quiet, and he was almost whispering. In Deva, even the walls sometimes had ears.

“Well…” Carbo drawled. “You saw him in Eboracum, and in Caledonia. What do you think?”

“I think you’re right, is what I think. What’s worse is what in Hades I can do about it. My father, as you know, has retired to our villa in Cumae due to ill health, and there’s really noone else but me now…both my uncles were killed in Commodus’ proscriptions, and finally, it looked as if the venerable if moth-eaten gens Arria had managed to spawn a future consul, and then I had to ruin it in Caledonia. Cacat!

“Incidentally, why did you have to get Cadaracus?” Galba asked offhandedly. He held up his hands. “No, I’m not about to give you a hard time about that, the report has been filed, Severus is happy, let him shut up his tempest of a son, I’m just curious.”

Arrius ran his fingers through his hair and emptied his cup. For a long moment, he stared blank-faced into the wall, and Galba wondered whether he should repeat his question.

“Two reasons, really. First, because I rather suspected this would be my last campaign for a while and I just thought I might as well make a splash while I could.” He reached for the flagon of wine and poured himself a measure, and then added water. “It would give me and my men something to do. Everyone else was busy winding down the campaign, getting ready to return home to the garrisons, and with Glaucus making everyone’s lives miserable, we really didn’t have that much to do.”

“Of course, we went along,” interjected Carbo, “to make sure he came back alive…”

“And didn’t mess up the whole operation…” went on Rufus.            “And second of all,” Arrius continued unperturbed, “because I knew I could get him. That Maeatan scout had a grudge the size of the Circus Maximus against Cadaracus, and I figured another opportunity as good as this one wouldn’t come around again anytime soon.”

Galba shrugged. “It happens. What was the scout’s grudge?”

For the first time since the staff meeting, Arrius gave a huge grin. “The oldest grudge of all, legate. Cadaracus stole his woman!”

“Was she worth stealing?”

The change in Arrius’ demeanor was as instantaneous as it was startling. Immediately, the face that had so often reminded Galba of those old statues of Sulla, with the same red-gold coloring, went as blank and still as a plaster wall. There was a long, ominous pause, so long that Carbo’s caligae creaked. Then, just when Galba, Carbo and Rufus were uneasily eyeing each other and wondering who should be the first to break the silence, Arrius finally answered.

“I suppose she was.”

They all let out surreptitious sighs of relief.

“Anyway…” Arrius stretched in his chair and reached for his cup, “we got him. I guess he’s dead in Eboracum by now. And my official testimony still applies, you know – someone had to do something, someone had to break the deadlock we’ve all been in these past five years, and I just thought it might as well be me. Antoninus couldn’t catch a hare in Caledonia if he tried. Far too busy greasing the palms of the legions…And speaking of greasing…now that I’ve ruined my chances of a career, what in Hades do I do?” He ran his fingers through his hair, slammed down the contents of his cup, and slumped in his chair.

“An excellent question!” replied Carbo. “So far as I can tell, you’re pretty well screwed from all angles! Even Isosceles would agree!”

Arrius had to smile. Carbo had kept him entertained with his acid remarks ever since he had become tribune.

Galba cleared his throat. “It does look pretty dire. Severus’ gout has been getting worse by the hour, and we know how that story will unfold…But if I were you, young man…” he favored Arrius with an avuncular stare – “I don’t think I’d do much of anything at all until you’ve had the opportunity to speak to your father. He may be retired from the Senate, but he managed to survive through Commodus, Didius Julianus, Clodinus and Severus’ takeover, not to mention that messy bit of business with Plautianus, and with his reputation and dignitas intact. No mean feat, if you ask me. If anyone knows, it will be your father.” He sipped his wine while he thought. “Of course, if you could get a chance to speak to Severus when you’re in Eboracum…”

“Gods, man!” exclaimed Arrius. “He’s the bloody Emperor and this mess is all to do with his son! What do you think he’d say?”

Galba shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just a legate, what do I know? Well, for one thing…I know Severus. I’ve known him since Pannonia, and that’s a long time. The man is not stupid by any stretch of the imagination, and that being the case; Severus would be the first to appreciate your predicament. He has you primed for one of the quaestores Augusti, which puts you right in sight of Antoninus’ murderous plans, and in Antoninus’ mind, you should be dead, probably, if for no other reason than for showing him up. Those Africans, man…so touchy!”

They all laughed. Galba came from Lugdunum, and had often said the same thing about himself in unguarded moments.

Arrius leaned forward in his chair, hands cupped around the base of his goblet. “And?”

“And…I don’t know…Everyone knows the Augusta keeps Severus’ pretty inaccessible these days, and if it isn’t her, then it’s that fat cat Castor…but Severus knows you well from the summer before last, and, well…I’ll send a note to Postumianus when you leave. I’ve never pulled rank for anyone, but just this once…!” Galba pointed in the air, and they all laughed again.

“Seriously, though, Arrius…” Carbo leaned forward, all earnest – “you have a few disadvantages. Antoninus loathes your freckled hide, we all know that, and we all know why. Geta isn’t much better, but he’s not entirely unreasonable. There’s that old story with Sulpicia, you know…and certainly there’ll be a few Senate gossips who will gladly dig out that old dirt again, and finally, even if you are an Arrian…” Carbo’s voice dropped, “you are also the son of a Hibernian freedwoman and former slave. You know those snobs – they’ll throw that in your face when you least expect it.”

Again, Arrius’ mobile face shut down in an instant. “I do know.” He changed the subject. “Carbo, did you get the money from Timaeus? Remember, we agreed – a thousand sesterces a year, and not one as more!”

Carbo nodded. “Yes, I did. I’ll make certain to pass it on and her as well. You never know which senatorial twit will develop a liking for redheads!”

Galba looked bemused. “Who..Brecca?”

Arrius grinned again. “Hush money, Galba. I want to make sure I never see her again! Gods, the woman won’t shut up…”

“They never do!”

“Well, any road…” Rufus finally spoke up and brought them all back to the matter at hand, “you’ll have a little time to decide what to do. And besides your meeting with Postumianus, what are you going to do in Eboracum?”

A grin spread all over his face like good olive oil, Arrius replied, “I’m meeting up with my very old friend Lucius Sabius Niger. For some strange reason, I have no idea why, Lucius Sabius is in Eboracum these days. And…” he paused for effect – “I’m taking him to Iolanthe’s.”

There was a collective sigh. “Ah!”

“Lucky man!” breathed Rufus and Carbo. The house of Iolanthe in Eboracum was famous throughout Britannia, if only you could afford it.  Arrius had often entertained them on the march with stories about the house of Iolanthe.

“Lucky man, my eye” muttered Galba. “Iolanthe’s house is the gods’ way of saying you have far too much money and not nearly enough sense!”

“Well…Lucius has always said I have far too much money, and I know he has no sense, so it’s the perfect solution. I’ll be on a ship soon enough as it is…”

“Oh, yes, I nearly forgot…” began Galba, when they were interrupted by a knock on the door.

It was Ajax, Galba’s deceptively sleepy secretary.

“Sir…Bassus and Libo are waiting in your office with Priscus.”            Galba rose to his feet. “Tell them all that I’ll be right there…Oh! Arrius…”

Arrius paused on his way out the door as Timaeus waited outside impatiently.

“Yes?”

“I’ve arranged for an escort to Eboracum. They’ll be ready around the eighth hour.” Galba frowned as he saw the mutinous expression on Arrius’ face.

“Damn it, Arrius, it is the last time you’ll be traveling with imperium, you know…might as well enjoy the perks while you can!”

Arrius clasped Galba’s arm. “I’ll miss you, legate.”

Galba clasped back. “I’ll miss you too, young man, especially once I see your replacement!” He followed Ajax down the corridor.

“Domine…” Timaeus had been waiting a long time.

“Damn it, does everyone want a piece of me now I’m leaving?”

“About your bed, domine…you did want it packed up and sent back with the rest of your baggage?”

Carbo and Rufus had tactfully disappeared. They would say their goodbyes later.

Arrius took a deep breath. “Yes, Timaeus, I want it dismantled and packed and sent back to Cumae, if you have to haul it down to Rutupiae on your back!”

He couldn’t decide what was worse – leaving Deva after six years or dealing with a clearly frantic Timaeus.

Gods, to get back on the road again…no slaves to deal with, no men to take care of, no orders to heed, nothing but the road, fields and sky and the horse between his legs…

It was high time to leave.

 

Well past the appointed eighth hour of the day, the escort Galba had arranged were waiting restlessly just outside the gates of the garrison, fresh, rested  – and restive –  horses chomping on their bits and stomping their hooves in their eagerness to be off. So was Galba, and he was not happy about it.

“Damn it, Ajax, where is he? He can’t have spent the rest of the day packing!”

“We’ve looked everywhere, sir! Everywhere!”

Galba turned toward Carbo and Rufus, who stood there looking long-faced.

“All right, you two…confess! Where is he?”

“Dunno, sir!” proclaimed Rufus. “Honest, we don’t!”

“Carbo? Do you have something to say?”

Carbo looked straight ahead. “No, sir. I have no idea whatsoever where Gaius Arrius might be.” His caligae creaked.

Galba sighed. Well, then, nothing for it than to send them all off…

“Sir! Sir! Where do you want this, sir?”

Galba turned around. It was Timaeus, nearly buried under a large, beautiful, rolled-up Parthian rug that glowed in the late-afternoon sunshine.

“Arrius’ rug? Why should I know where he wants it?”

“No, no…you misunderstand, sir…My master left this for you, and…” Timaeus dropped one end of the extravagant rug into the dust at the gates and rummaged in his tunic pockets.

“This, also.”

Galba opened the note.

“Vale, legate! I hate goodbyes! Meanwhile, take good care of my rug… Vale, Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus.”

Galba stared down Carbo. “Carbo, oil your damned caligae! And where is Arrius?”

It was Rufus, not Carbo, who muttered “He’s left with the couriers, sir.”

“The couriers! But they left at midday!”

“They did,” agreed Carbo.

“Sir…” Timaeus brought Galba back to the moment with a jolt, “where do you want your rug?”

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Morning woes

The sun was just over the horizon to the east, and Gaius Arrius started his last day in Deva by arguing with a woman, a terrible start to any day, never mind his last.

It grew worse when the beginnings of a slight headache made their first appearance at the back of his head, the result of drinking a thorough farewell with his men the night before, and finally, insult compounded into injury because Brecca, his Briton mistress, would simply not shut up.

He kept his eyes closed and tried to ignore her. He even tried to roll over on his side and bury himself deeper under his luxurious down-filled coverlet, but Brecca was relentless. She began to pummel him with her fists.

“Wake up, you worthless, lazy man! Your last day in Deva, your slaves are already moving about making breakfast noises and what do you do? You lie in bed pretending you’re dead and deaf and dumb when I just know you’re awake, I know it!”

Worthless? Here he had just about saved all Roman interests in southern Caledonia – not to mention quite a few Roman lives in the bargain, and she had the gall to call him worthless?

That was the last straw!

“All right, all right, I’m awake, I’m awake – enough already!” He opened his eyes, just visible above the coverlet he had pulled up to his nose. It needed to be aired, and badly. It reeked of wine-sweat and fornication.

“You see?” Brecca stuck out a very pink – and rather long – tongue. “I knew you were awake!”

“Not even Jupiter himself could sleep with you around, especially once you open your mouth!”

“So? Ach, you Romans…you’ve always had problems with women who had enough sense to talk back!”

Before he could stop himself, he shot back “Well, you should know. You’ve certainly had enough of us!”

A filthy look was Brecca’s only reply.

Gaius Arrius reluctantly sat up, rubbed his grainy eyes, ran his fingers through his hair and scratched his scalp. He had probably gotten fleas off her, especially given the way she was attacking him this morning. At least the fleas would have less hair to roam through, because he had finally managed to squeeze in a haircut.

“Woman, I’m awake. I’m sitting up in bed, and I know damn well it’s my last day in Deva. What more do you want from me?”

Brecca gave him a long, significant glance from underneath her bushy red-brown hair.

“You promised you would take me with you to Rome.” She pouted. It was a pretty pout, but not that pretty.

“Oh, Gods, Brecca, not again! We’ve had this discussion how many times by now? I can’t take you to Rome, and I won’t, so there!”

“But Arrius…you promised! You promised to take me to Rome and set me up in a nice insula somewhere, near the Esquiline gate maybe…”

It was all Gaius Arrius could do to keep a straight face. Brecca had always had a shaky grasp on Roman geography. If she really knew the Esquiline, she’d run screaming back to Britannia in less than two minutes.

“And what would you do, once you got it? Sit around with a slave or two and file your nails while you wait for me to visit?”

“That is what mistresses do, or so I’ve heard…”

“Well, my dear, you could be waiting a long time for that. If I get appointed as quaestor, I’ll probably be packed off to a foreign posting and another general’s staff right away, I have no idea where.” Ye Gods, but he must have been drunk, if he promised her that. Or else she had taken advantage of him right at the moment he neither knew nor cared what he agreed to, so long as she didn’t stop.

There was a light tap on the door, and Timaeus, his chamberlain,

entered with a steaming bowl of scented water for washing his face and hands.

“Domine, good morning! I trust you slept well, your last night in Deva?” Timaeus set the bowl on the large trunk that stood against one wall of his sleeping chamber. He went to a closet, opened the door, and began pulling out fresh clothes out of one of the trunks.

“Yes, I did…Oh, Timaeus, could you set out my traveling clothes, no, Gods!, not those-” Gaius Arrius waved away Timaeus’ suggestion, a rather ostentatious set of riding clothes that screamed “filthy rich Roman ripe for fleecing on the road”, and pointed instead to a rather threadbare drab tunic and some well-worn leather riding breeches, cut long for the Briton climate, along with a lightweight hooded cloak. “That should do nicely!”

“Domine, you don’t think that is rather too shabby for you?”

His master had that obstinate look on his face that would brook no argument whatsoever.

Timaeus had obviously given up on his master and his plebeian tastes in clothing long ago. He shook his head and set the pile of clothes down on the chest.

“Breakfast should be ready in your study, domine.”

“Thank you, Timaeus; I’ll be right there in just a moment. Until I am, could you please see to it that I’m not disturbed?”

Timaeus gave a disapproving sniff. He had never cared for Brecca. But he left the room and closed the door behind him.

Best to set Brecca straight once and for all, and to do it now. By this afternoon, he’d be gone, and it would be too late, and if there were one thing that gave him chills, it was the thought of Brecca showing herself in Rome, or worse, at the Villa Arria in Cumae, and not even his father would ever forgive him. He had already caused far too much social embarrassment.

“Look, Brecca…” he turned toward his mistress, now sitting up in bed, arms crossed over her luscious chest. She was not happy and not shy about showing it.

“What?” Her shoulders slumped, and her frown deepened.

“Sweetheart, do you really know just how special you are?” Gaius Arrius brushed back her long, heavy, red hair spilling over her shoulders and turned her toward him. Her face softened slightly, but she still looked at the wall, rather than at him.

“In Rome, Brecca, you would be one of hundreds of thousands of girls, all out to make a living as best they can, and all dependent on the capricious tastes of their patrons, and all the time they fear for the day when their foreign charms have faded, and they grow older. They come from all corners of the world, and all for the same purpose, and it almost never ends well.” He slid closer, one hand gliding down and around the silky skin of her back, while the other continued to brush over her hair. She was softening, he knew it. She laid her head on his shoulder.

“Those women aren’t me.” Brecca sulked into his chest hair.

Gaius Arrius laughed. “No, thank the Gods! More than one of you would be too much for the world to bear!” He pulled her closer.

“Just think for a moment, darling. You rule the roost here at Deva. Everyone knows Brecca; everyone shows the mistress of the senior tribune her proper, well-earned respect…”

“Respect that I earned in your bed…” Brecca spat back.

“So? Would you rather have earned it by washing all my dirty loincloths?” He laughed again. “Darling, I have slaves for that…”

“Well, and what am I, then? Nothing stopped you from buying some Hibernian just off the boat from Monapia, or Hibernia, if that’s what you wanted…just some biddable creature with red hair to keep your bed warm for you…”

“Really? Am I that unusual, that I like redheads better than Roman brunettes? They have all those lovely freckles I so like to count…”

Brecca suddenly pulled away and removed his arms around her shoulders.

“Might as well count your own, then!”

“Ah, no…that’s too boring!” Gaius Arrius scratched his chest. In the early morning sunshine coming through the high windows, the hairs glinted red-gold.

“Boring is what this past summer has been – sitting around waiting for you to return…if you even would…”

“I’m a very hard man to kill! I know, I know…Look, Brecca, I’m quite aware that this isn’t the best way to say goodbye – but who knows?  No matter what happens, I’ve already left instructions with Carbo about you.”

Judging from her reaction, this was a surprise for Brecca.

“You have? Arrius, really?” she squeaked.

Sometimes it still rattled him, that most everyone called him Arrius, but with so many cognomened ‘Rufus’, there hadn’t been that many other options.

“Of course I have!” he grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her down on the bed. “What…you thought I would just take off without a backwards glance and forget all about you?”

“Actually, I thought you would take me back to Rome with you.”

Gods, she was upset!

“Brecca…I can’t, so there! I won’t discuss this any more. Frankly, you’d be much better off right where you are here in Deva, so I’ve arranged for a sum of money for you through Carbo. I should think about a thousand sesterces a year should keep you quite well…”

If that didn’t put her in a better mood, there was only one thing left. With a girl like Brecca, money didn’t talk, it roared.

“But I wanted to see Rome!” she wailed.

“Damn it, Brecca, what do I know? Maybe some day you will, but it won’t be with me, so leave it at that! You’ve got a thousand sesterces a year out of me, what more do you want?”

A rhetorical question. Make a woman happy once…He drew down the coverlet.

“No…oh! See? I knew there was a spot where I forgot to count! How could I possibly have overlooked that spot these last three years?”

“No, no…Arrius – not there…” Brecca squealed.

“Yes, Brecca…there…that’s what naughty girls get for waking up their man with a harangue at a godless hour of the morning! One…two…oh, my, there’s another freckle…three…”

Let them wait. It was his last day in Deva, after all.

Stolen Loot

Dawn was a yellow streak on the horizon as a Roman cargo ship set anchor near a small cove off the eastern coast of Hibernia. Amphora after amphora of wine, along with other goods from the ship, was hoisted into the smaller rowboats under much cursing and swearing, since most of the men doing the unloading and hoisting were anything but sober.

First ashore and out of the boat was a tall, dark-haired man whose hair was just beginning to gray. He turned to the rowdy men behind him with an angry swirl of his cloak and a furious expression on his face.

“Be quiet, you drunken louts, or the entire dun shall be down on the shore!”

“Why ever should we?” grumbled a man called Conaire. Dragging those cursed containers of wine over the pebbles of the shore and up the path of the cliff was hard work.

“You do not think all this loot can be kept a secret, do you?”

“How could anything at all be kept a secret with you, Conaire?” the man replied. “Certainly, once you wake up to make yourself useful for the day, you shall be the first to inform all and sundry, down to the very birds themselves, of what we have done!” His tone was pleasant enough. The drunken Conaire didn’t even blink.

But the next thing he knew, the man had grabbed him by the edges of his cloak, frighteningly close to his tunic neck.

“Many ways there are to ensure a man’s silence. It can be bought with women, with a full belly or with wine and ale, but best of all is to silence the man himself.” Conaire was let go, but not before he had received a good rattling shake and almost fell backwards upon the amphora he had been hauling.

In a low, ominous growl, the man went on, “Should there be any need to silence you, Conaire?”

Conaire averted his eyes. “No, lord.”

“Excellent. Now haul those amphorae back up to the dun, and be quiet about it!”

Conaire had lost his tasty wine-fuelled glow, the rest of his men had suddenly become silent and there was nothing left to do but haul off their loot to the dun.

 

Situated on a cliff top, half a day’s walk from the bruidean of Coll at the Ford of the Hurdles lay the dun of the Hill, the main residence of Ciarán mac Broccan, a mor tuath king of Laighin. It had been a Roman ship he had captured that had brought him back from Britannia, and the remainder of the ship’s cargo – after what he had taken for himself and his tribe – had been sold off at Deva, where Ciarán paid a few disreputable traders very well to do just that. Winter supplies that were meant for the legion at Deva were too easily identifiable to be disposed of there, and so Ciarán had brought them on to Isca, where few would be the wiser, and fewer questions were asked. What he had wanted for himself and his people, he had kept, and the cargo – including many amphorae of excellent wine originally destined for the XX’s officers – was now being unloaded in various locations all over his dun, while Ciarán himself retreated to his hall and fell onto his King’s bench with an inward sigh of relief. If he had hoped to make a discreet return to his dun, his people had spoiled all chances of that. Ciarán had brought back wine from Britannia, and what he brought back he was usually generous to share, which was one reason he had remained king – and later, a mor tuath king ruling over three tribes beside his own – for almost thirty years now.

The big double doors of the hall were open to the new day, and sunlight flooded into the dark corners, illuminating the cold ashes on the hearth, the dead rushes on the wooden floor, and even the man who ruled the hall, the dun and the land around it. But even though the king of the Dun of the Hill had been absent from his dun for many days, it was a lavishly appointed hall. Silver cups and niello plate adorned the King’s table, along with several ewes of elegant Roman glassware, and the wall-hangings glowed with both Erinnach patterns and thick, costly Parthian rugs. The wooden pillars were elaborately carved in curving, twisting lines and stylized vines, picked out in gold leaf, and the east-facing double doors were inlaid with white bronze studs and decorations. The hall spoke volumes about its owner, his obvious wealth and his eclectic tastes. The man on the King’s Bench on the dais near one end of the hall was a different matter.

A time there had once been, when Ciarán had been widely considered one of the fairest men in Laighin, with fine, even features, gray-green eyes and the black hair that had given him his name. Still striking, but he was now beginning to show his life on his face, and his hair was turning gray.

His unquestionable skills with sword and spear had made other kings from both Laighin, Midhe and even Moma offer their daughters in marriage, but although Ciarán had married three times, he had also buried three wives. Of the three, only one had managed to give him a living child – his spineless son, Diarmait, now a hostage with his detested neighbor Láegaire the Black to the south. Damned boy had been stupid enough to be captured in a cattle raid this summer past, and so, he remained with Láegaire and from what Ciarán had heard, quite content with it.

Láegaire. Now, there was a toothache that would not die, simply because that tooth could not be extracted. Láegaire had the favor – and the ear – of king Ír of Laighin, and shared blood through his grandmother with the High King Lughaid mac Con, whom he had also supported when mac Con had fought for the High Kingship, as Ciarán had not. Láegaire mac Conchobar was his equal in rank and his peer in wealth and the prestige he held, despite all the dirty dealings Ciarán had had to do through the years to maintain his own. Far worse to Ciarán’s thinking were all those other, far more weighty ties to wealth and power that so outdid his. Láegaire was of royal Eoghan blood through his father’s line and of the line of Cruachan twice over, through his great-grandmother Scacath, and through his late wife, Aibhlin. At a Samhain Assembly at Tara four and twenty years ago, Aibhlin had created such a sensation among the kings of Erin that even Ciarán had bid for her hand, but she had chosen Láegaire, that upstart, over him, Ciarán, whose family had been in Laighin for far longer.

He was in the process of thinking far more poisonous thoughts about his neighbor when his reverie was interrupted by his rechtair, Eochaid.

“Lord…” Eochaid bowed low. “The men have finished packing away the goods you have returned with.”

“Good!” Ciarán yawned, showing that he still had all his teeth. These past few days had been hectic, and he was not getting younger. He squinted in the bright morning light. “Tell the men that they may share one of the amphorae if they like, but do make sure they only take one!”

With such a large container of wine, his men would be utterly worthless the rest of the day. No matter. It was the tail end of battle season, but no one had dared attack Ciarán or his duns for many years, and he did not think that likely to change any time soon.

“I praise the Gods and give them thanks for your safe return, Ciarán.”

Ciarán nearly jumped out of his skin. His drui, Roisin, had come up upon him as he usually did, with no noise and less warning.  It was one habit of Roisin’s that Ciarán found most annoying, and it certainly annoyed him now.

Roisin settled himself on his customary bench with a flourish of his cloak. Unlike Ciarán’s hair braided in the one long braid that signified him as a man of Laighin, Roisin’s long, gray hair flowed unbound down his back from the front of his shaved scalp, which did nothing much at all to flatter him.

“My sorrow, that I so surprised you.” Roisin did not bother to look the least bit sorry.

Ciarán waved him off. “I was merely a long way away in my thoughts.”

“True it is, Ciarán, that you have many reasons to be distracted, and much to think about.”

Immediately, Ciarán became defensive.

“What in the name of Lugh is that supposed to mean? I am a mor tuath king of Laighin, I protect four tribes within my borders, and I have returned from Britannia with more grain than we could ever grow for ourselves for my people – what reasons should I have to worry?”

Roisin laughed.

“What reasons not to worry, my King? Merely think, something you are not too wont to do, if you can possibly avoid it. You have been taking Roman coin and Roman goods for many years now, all for not attacking Roman interests in Britannia and leaving the poor people in peace – and what do you do? You attack them anyway. Your fields are full of Briton cows, your byres are bursting with Briton sheep, all carried off despite your agreements and assurances to those Romans…”

Ciarán, who moments before had been simply exhausted, was now wide awake and absolutely livid. Roisin was his drui, and as such his counselor and more than equal, and unlike his men, Roisin could neither be frightened nor intimidated into submission.

“What else would you have me do? Unlike you, Roisin, I have no magic to my hand, no spells to pronounce! I have a people to provide for, and my men-at-arms to keep occupied, or else they shall all of them head right down the Slighe Cualann and straight to Láegaire the Black, who already…” Ciarán’s voice dropped nearly a full octave and hissed between his clenched teeth – “has enough, and more than enough!”

Roisin looked amused, and did not so much as flinch at Ciarán’s blazing temper.

“Aye, right enough…that he does, that he does…and all without ever taking a single Roman coin!”

“And what of it? The Romans offered…coin, grain, supplies we cannot trade or barter for – why should I have refused them?”

Roisin shook his head. This was an old argument, an argument they had had between them for years and years, and it was, alas, an argument that would never end.

“I have never advised you in error, Ciarán, and I do not do so now. I believe as I did when first the Romans came to this shore, that you should never have taken their coin, never their advice, and above all else, you should never have turned against them. The Romans hold all power in Britannia now, and far more so now that the Cruithni are losing against them in Alba. They have made life quite difficult for many men besides you, far worthier men even, and I do think you have no idea as to what – and whom – you are truly up against.”

Roisin helped himself to a cup of ale from the Roman glass ewer on the table beside Ciarán. The ewer was one of many luxurious prestige objects in Ciarán’s hall that had been paid with Roman coin, the Roman coin that had created this trouble in the first place. He drank down his ale with a sigh, and absentmindedly rubbed the gray fuzz on his scalp.

Ciarán was not easily mollified, and certainly not now, when his drui had done all he could to irritate him even more than usual.

“So, then, drui…what are you saying? That I should renege on my oath to the Romans and send them packing like common thieves the next time they deign to visit my duns?” Any more sarcasm in his voice, and Ciarán would soon be obliged to pay Roisin a blush fine for his offensive tone.

Roisin glared back at his King. He set down his ale cup on the table with a slow, deliberate motion, and shook his head.

“Ciarán mac Broccan, I am merely saying, you are playing a very, very dangerous game indeed. From me alone of all your retinue, you will always hear the truth. You think that the Romans are fools enough to be deceived when you say aye and yes to all they propose, you think that they will never discover you are the one behind those raids, you think that they shall never find out who stole their very winter supply ships – aye, I know all that tale well enough, your men are only too willing to talk, if one knows how to ask,” Roisin held up his hand to silence Ciarán, who had begun a vehement denial – “and far worse, you think that should you need their help against your foes, you shall only have to let a word or two fall, and they shall rush to Erin to offer their help.”

“Am I not a good enough warrior on my own merit to slaughter my foes on my own?” roared Ciarán. He was so furious, a costly Roman silver drinking cup containing equally costly Chian crashed to the floor with a loud clatter and a large crimson splash.

Roisin’s composure never faltered.

“If that were the case, my King, then what need would you have of the Romans?” He took a deep breath, for what he had to say might cost any other man his life, or his head.

“And why then, Ciarán mac Broccan,” Roisin went on, “would you take such elaborate measures to cover your deeds in Britannia? Why should you be so afraid; why do you quake in your very kidneys with fear of what the Romans might do to you in retaliation?”

Ciarán was so incensed; he flew off the King’s bench and onto his feet faster than Roisin could blink. Eochaid, who had entered the hall to ask a question, hastily beat a retreat.

“I am not afraid! I am a prince of Laighin and an Erinnach mor tuath king! I have nothing, nothing to fear – from the Romans or anyone at all!” Ciarán bellowed.

“Aye so?” Roisin’s face and voice both were skeptical. “If that were the case, my King, then why should you take such measures to hide what you hold – rightly or wrongly? Even those amphorae – why, you have them broken into shards, ground into powder and plowed into your very fields to hide their origins! That Roman, from Deva…him you have watched so carefully the man cannot yet go to the trenches on his own without an escort, an Erinnach escort, mind!”

“What would you have me do, drui?” Ciarán hissed. “Should I proceed to the legion camp in Deva with the goods and there apologize for the error of my ways?” he sneered. ‘Forgive me my trespass, Galba, but it seems I took these goods by mistake…’ Ha! The Romans would never let me leave alive!” He was pacing the hall now, up and down the length of the hearth. No reasoning with a drui, and surely not this one!

“For certain that they would never pay you again!” muttered Roisin. “Although I can well see that it would solve many of their problems to have you killed…for one thing, there would be far fewer raids!”

Ciarán collapsed on his bench. He was about to reach for his silver wine cup, when he remembered he had thrown it on the floor. And where was his cup-bearer when he needed him, anyway? He sighed, a massive sigh that shook him from head to feet.

“Well enough, then. What would you have me do?” Ciarán’s voice was reasonable again, or at least much calmer. He knew that he might lie and deceive anyone at all else, but never his drui. Alas, but his troubles might be less if he could!

For the second time that morning, Roisin smiled.

“To begin, my King…quit your raids. You have amassed a great deal in all your Briton dealings, and more than that in Roman coin. You no longer need to raid, as once you did.”

“I only did so that I could provide for my peoples.”

“True it is…but then, it is through no fault of yours that your southern neighbor has much the better land for crops and kine.”

Ciarán growled “And here I had just managed to forget about him and you just the one to remind me!”

“That is as may be…but if I should advise you at all, then I should advise you…leave the Romans alone, or else watch and feel your fear grow worse by far…I think, Ciarán, that you already are quite afraid enough.”

Ciarán looked Roisin full in the face. “Have care, drui, that you remain the only one who knows that!”

“I am a King’s counsel, and know full well how to keep my own.” Roisin replied indignantly.

“More to the point”, continued Roisin after a moment’s thought, “perhaps the time has come for you to seek to strengthen your alliances here in Erin. Samhain Assembly looms ahead at Tara in another moon. Have you thought to marry again?”

Ciarán groaned. “Why…you do not think that three dead wives are enough? I have no wish to marry. All women do is become pregnant and die in childbed, and none of the children ever live.”

Roisin leaned closer. “Yes…but there is one…young she is, and apparently fairer far than even her mother, who was quite famed in her own day…who has reached the age where her father might consider marriage…think back, Ciarán, to the Lughnasa fair at Dun Aillin…”

That bit of news stopped Ciarán’s train of thought. Lughnasa fair…but only one girl had made an impression…

He groaned again when he remembered. “Ye Gods, Roisin, not Láegaire’s daughter?”

“Indeed, Láegaire’s daughter. You know, as even I do, that she caused quite a stir at Dun Aillin.”

“Láegaire would never agree.”

“Perhaps not,” conceded Roisin. “However, it surely could not hurt to ask?”

“Láegaire,” Ciarán added pointedly, “has the support of the king of Laighin, and has no need of an alliance with me…”

Roisin was relentless in pursuing a point. “But his daughter? Is she not fair? Would she not grace your duns and your people, increase your status and prestige with the other kings of Laighin? Consider, my King, the blood of Queen Medb herself flows in her veins…”

Ciarán’s eyes wandered off into the far distance as he recalled Lughnasa fair. There was a girl, nearly a woman grown by this time, who could inflame the loins of even standing stones themselves, he thought. And sacred Aenghus, such a girl she was…

“Lugh’s beard, Roisin! Between your insistent scheming, Láegaire the Black and those cursed Romans, I shall never know a moment’s peace!”

Roisin sat up straighter and arranged his cloak in orderly folds around him. He smiled his small, secretive smile as Ciarán again leapt up from his bench and began pacing the hall in agitation.

“You, Ciarán mac Broccan, are a mor tuath king of Laighin and of Erin. Peace should be the last thing on your mind…”

Ciarán located his wine cup on the floor and poured himself a measure. He added no water, but merely drank it down in one long gulp.

There was a long pause, as the wine made its way into his stomach and glowed there like a hidden jewel.

He wiped off the dregs from the corners of his mouth with his tunic sleeve.

“With Láegaire – and his daughter – to the south, with Lughaidh mac Con to the north at Tara, and with the Romans to the east, peace is a thing that I shall never know.” Before he could stop himself, he added “Particularly with you as my drui!”

Roisin glanced down at the folded hands in his lap, before he looked up again at his king.

“Then perhaps, Ciarán, it would behoove us to prepare for war. In which case, you would do well to heed your foes.” He rose to his feet and walked to the doors of the hall.

But something made him turn back toward Ciarán, as he stood at the doors. His King sat slumped on his bench, shoulders sagging, hunched over his precious silver wine cup.

“Many reasons you have to be afraid, Ciarán. Do not forget.”

With a swirl of his gray cloak, Roisin was gone.

By late afternoon, Ciarán had refilled his wine cup many times over. But not even the priceless vintage in his cup could make him forget that he had indeed, as his drui had so rightly pointed out, many reasons to be afraid.