The Effing Book

A novel of Roman Britain and Ireland

A Market Day Reunion

It was market day in Eboracum, and the city was teeming with people from all over the surrounding countryside, and from every corner of the Empire to sell their wares. The sun was shining from a cloudless September sky as Arrius made his way across the river and through the crush of people and stalls surrounding the forum.  Since Severus had moved the Imperial court, Eboracum had changed and grown, and was no longer the sleepy outpost market town it was when he had arrived six years before. Temples were being built, the praetorium had been expanded to accommodate the Imperial household, the baths had been recently renovated to new standards of luxury, and everywhere he looked, orders were being shouted on scaffolding, construction sites cluttered the already crowded streets, piles of marble tiling and carts of cement had to be sidestepped.

He had spent the night before with his colleague in the VI Augusta, Quintus Stertinius Afer, reliving the last campaign and Afer had graciously let him store his baggage until one of Iolanthe’s slaves could fetch it.

All along one side of the Forum, the market stalls were doing a brisk trade. Open amphorae of olives in every color and every grade of olive oil, dried apricots and dates from Africa, wine in both amphorae and smaller wineskins, the local ales and meads in barrels, pots and skins, large bolts of the colorful checked and striped local wool, vegetables, cabbage, rosy apples and blushing pears packed in straw-lined baskets— all were being picked over by hordes of women, babbling away in Briton and Latin, while their children were chased all over the Forum by slaves and a happy, barking gang of dogs. Beyond, the poultry sellers were pitching their feathered wares, yelling “Nice and plump and good to eat!” over the din of the fishmongers nearby weaving away the flies from yet more rush baskets stuffed with local perch, pike and salmon, and clay pots filled with seaweed and salt water containing the superb oysters and shellfish of Britannia. Close by, a large band of cats were making a nuisance of themselves in hopes of free fish, and judging by the pile of regurgitated fish bones underneath the table, the fishmongers had been happy to oblige.

At the Forum Boarium, cattle and sheep were being inspected, bought and sold, some of them wearing flower wreaths, sporting gilded horns and a very inflated price. “Prime bulls for sacrifice! No gods could refuse such favor!” shouted one enthusiastic cattle seller.

He walked past the jewelers’ row, their handiwork set against dark blue cloth, the bronze and enamel glittering in the sun, and the bakers’ stalls, fragrant with fresh-baked breads, cakes and cinnamon-scented pastries dripping with honey, nuts and defrutum. An enterprising Gaul was proclaiming the excellence of his Samian ware to a few skeptical women; “Ladies, you can use this in a baker’s oven, and it won’t even chip! Yes, I know, I know, you think five sesterces is a lot for a dinner plate, but today I’ll make you a very special offer and even throw in this handsome platter for free if you buy a set of four …”

Some local youths were fingering the edge of swords on display at the blacksmiths’ row, arguing the edge wasn’t sharp enough, while a few blacksmiths were busy repairing cooking pots and bridle bits.

He knew he was getting close to the baths when he reached the perfumers and flower stalls. Row upon row of oil flasks and strigils, pumices for smoothing the skin, small terracotta pots of the soap most Britons preferred, stibium, rouge in every shade of red, face creams in small soapstone boxes and a heady mix of perfume oils assaulted his nose. Malabathrum, his personal favorite, cassia, cinnamon and clove oil, Royal perfume and flowery Panathenaean perfume, spikenard and saffron and every permutation of flower from attar of roses to iris, violet and lavender all combined to make him nearly dizzy in the early morning sunshine. Nearby, the flower stalls exploded with color, crammed with bouquets and nosegays, garlands and wreaths “perfectly suitable for both temples and parties!” the seller shouted out to the women who clucked over the expensive prices of the perfume sellers.

On his arrival the day before, Arrius had sent a message to the mansio where Lucius was staying, to meet up by the statue of the Emperor Claudius by the public baths. He bought a meat pastry from a nearby stall and sat down on the statue’s plinth to eat it. Above stood the impassive figure of Claudius, the man he could thank for being here in the first place. He had the good looks of all the Julii, and the very worried face of none of them. Poor Claudius, thought Arrius to himself. Having spent six years here, he knew exactly just how much Claudius, the conqueror of Britannia, had had to worry about. And all of that – Arrius glanced up at Claudius, his mouth full of pastry – brought down by a dish of mushrooms!

A distinctive voice was apologizing its way through the press of people outside the baths.

“Oh my, I am sorry, lady, did I step on your toes? How could I have overlooked such delicate feet? I do apologize, really! It’s so hard to avoid, do you know, with all these good people here on market day, and…No, no, not at all!” and as the crowd and a very large Briton lady parted to let the voice through, Arrius jumped off his perch and stood up, brushing off crumbs from his tunic.

“Edepol! What a crush! Hades, is that really you, Carrot?”

Lucius Sabius Niger would never be a man to make the women swoon, but what he lacked in beauty, he more than made up for in charm and character. Like all his Sabine ancestors, he was dark and swarthy, with curly, unruly hair already showing signs of receding, and a slight, lanky build that would remain lanky until the day he died. In his fourth best tunic with the green braid trim, his hairy legs and his large feet, he could pass for anything from Lusitanian to Greek.

But to Arrius, he was the closest thing he had ever had to a brother, and the one man in the world he would trust with his life or his wife, if he had one. Then again, Lucius was a notorious flirt. Well then, his life, at least.

“Of course it’s me, old sheep! Who’d you expect?”

“I think I expected you to show up in full military kit, plumed helmet and everything, or else with woad tattoos and lime paste in your hair!  Gods, man, what do you think I expected?”

They both stepped back a moment and gave each other a long, hard look. Six years had changed them both, and it showed. To Lucius, who had grown up seeing Arrius every day of his life, he was no longer the too-tall, gangly, awkward youth he had been, that last day on the docks of Puteoli.  If anything, he was even taller now, but his body had filled out and grown broader, his face showed much more character in angles and planes it hadn’t had six years before, and rather than the half-embarrassed, shy stance he had once had, he now stood straight as a spear. Six years in Britannia, three of those as senior tribune, had turned Gaius Arrius into a man, and a very good-looking one at that. The bright red coloring of his childhood had mellowed to a slightly lighter red, just a thought darker than the terracotta crocks in the perfumers’ stalls behind him. He looked, thought Lucius, like a German, but in much better boots.

Arrius, too, noticed the changes in Lucius. All the time he had spent at sea had turned his skin deep brown, and the sun, wind and sea had etched faint lines into his skin around his eyes. In fact, thought Arrius, his eyes were what had changed most about him. Lucius had always had a sparkle in his eyes, but now that sparkle was replaced by something else – a certain cynicism that hadn’t been there six years before. Lucius now looked like a man who had seen rather more of the world than he liked, and not liking nearly so much of it as he had expected.

But what did it matter, really? Six years…

“Six years, old sheep…” said Arrius after a long pause. Then, he broke into a huge grin, Lucius let out a loud whoop that drew looks from the women at the perfumers’ stalls, and they hugged each other long and hard.

“Do you think, Carrot, we could find a caupona somewhere with halfway passable food? You wouldn’t believe the swill they serve at the mansio…not fit to feed a dog, if you ask me! How people manage to survive here, I don’t know. The weather is filthy, the food is awful, the Britons are strange and there are far too many sheep for my liking!”

“I thought all those sheep would have made you feel right at home! But Britannia does have one good thing…the women…”

“So you say…so you say…but how would I know? I went to a brothel the other night over by the Forum, and I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of the merchandise.”

“All in good time, sheep, all in good time. I’ve got a better idea than a caupona – how about a picnic down by the river? It’s market day after all, and the sun is shining. Trust me, you learn to make the most of it when it actually does shine…Come on, I know the perfect spot.”

In short order, Arrius marched Lucius through the food stalls and out the other end, loading up a wicker basket with a roasted chicken, bread, olives, radishes, and some beautiful pears, along with a very large skin of passable Gaulish wine, and then settled beneath a willow tree by the grassy riverbank overlooking the bridge and the garrison of the VI Augusta to the north and east.

It was a glorious, warm September day. Boats laden with food and supplies for the VI Augusta plied the river, orders were shouted out over at the garrison, and the cries of the market vendors were heard over the babble of Briton, Latin, Greek and all the other languages of the Empire.

For a long time, they were silent as they worked their way through the contents of the basket. Six years, thought Lucius, was a long gap in time to bridge, and he didn’t know where to start. So much had happened to both of them, so much…

Arrius broke the silence first. He took a hard pull at the wineskin, belched, wiped his mouth on his tunic sleeve, and sighed.

“So, brother – how is he?”

Lucius needed no clarification and less prompting.

“He’s getting old, Carrot. In as perfect health as can be expected, and now you’re gone, he doesn’t remain at the villa, but goes to Rome and his seat in the Senate every month or so on the mail boat to Ostia. Every so often, one of his clients will come down from Rome, or he’ll receive a visit from Dio, who usually stays a few days. But do you know, I rather think he misses you. He never says much about it, but Phoebe sometimes catches him in your old bedroom, sitting on your bed with your old toy sword in his hands, for hours at a time.”

“Sounds ominous…”

“It does, doesn’t it? But other than that, your father seems much the same as always, apart from his hair, of course, which has gone entirely silver by now. As I said, he’s getting old.”

“Well, he’ll be, let me see…fifty-five this coming November, on the Ides…No longer young, to be sure. Only slightly older than Galba, my old legate.”

“And we now have twenty six years on us, Carrot…you in Junius, me in Julius. I suppose we should be settling down with families and other headaches soon…”

“Carrying on the great names of the families of Arria and Sabia into posterity…Gods, so long as I never have to marry someone like that bitch Sulpicia…”

“She really was a piece of work though, wasn’t she? Rumor has it her husband Gentianus will make senior consul next January.”

“Really? That should keep her happily occupied, hobnobbing with the Empress and all those snobs at the Palatine…” From the acid tone in Arrius’ voice, Lucius thought he should change the subject, or at least divert his best friend’s attention. He had just the thing.

“As a matter of fact, Carrot, I have a letter from your father.” He reached underneath his tunic and pulled out a waterproofed leather letter satchel, sealed with the thick wool thread and blue wax starburst seal of Marcus Arrius. He dumped it into Arrius’ lap with a flourish.

“Here…you read it. I’m going to hunt down the latrines…”

Arrius had to laugh.

“Through the gates, past the metalworkers’ row, turn left, and there they are.”

“Five days in Eboracum, and finally I know where they are! No wonder I’ve been so constipated! And I thought it was all that horrible food!”

Still laughing, Lucius headed off toward the city gates.

Arrius focused his attention on the letter satchel. He broke the seal, cut the thread with his belt dagger, and opened it up.

There were two letters inside, rather than the one he had expected. One large roll, with an olivewood handle, and another, smaller roll. Something else, too…something that glittered.

He drew out a heavy, circular cloak brooch made of rose gold, with a swirling, curving embossed pattern along one edge enameled in red, and with a large, green cabochon stone that faded into an amethyst purple on the pin. He turned it over. Even on the back, that same whirling, swirling pattern undulated along the edge, where no one but its owner would ever see.

He had been in Britannia long enough to know where it came from. That gold, not yellow in tone like most of the gold he knew, but red – that could only have come from Hibernia. Gold objects were rare there, and gold jewelry made from Hibernian gold rarer still. The gold wasn’t much worn, so it could not have been so old, or else it had been carefully kept. What it meant, being there among his father’s letters, he didn’t know.

He dropped it into his lap, and pulled out the two letter rolls. The thin letter was a bank draft for two million sesterces, made out to Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, son of Marcus Arrius Nerva, drawn on a bank account of a bank in Gades, that also, the letter stated, had offices in Alexandria, Londinium, Rome, Puteoli, Smyrna, Lepcis Magna, Carthage, Antioch and Massilia.

Two million sesterces – enough to buy two Senate seats, a large estate almost anywhere in the Empire, a respectable summer villa in Positanum by the sea…

He was already a senator, so he had no need of that. But two million sesterces! What in the name of the Gods had prompted his father to give him such a sum?

Best to read that letter!

One thing his father had never stinted on, and that was good quality paper. It was silk-smooth high grade Augustan, the grade he had always preferred.

He smiled to himself. The first letter from his father in nearly six years, and here he was, obsessing about paper quality! He grabbed the handle, rolled it out, and began to read.

Cumae on the Ides of Julius

My dearest son, although you and I have not exchanged words or letters since you were first stationed in Britannia, at Deva or any of your postings on campaign, I feel it imperative to inform you of some business decisions I have made concerning your inheritance and my own property, decisions that should have an immediate impact on your own life, now that you are about to be discharged with all honors from your posting as senior tribune of the XX Valeria, and from Britannia as well.

You are soon to embark on a political career of your own, in no small part thanks to your contributions in the campaigns in Caledonia these three summers past. The Senate heard much about you during last summer’s campaign with the Emperor and all of it enough to make any father proud to have sired such a magnificent commander. Thanks to my friend Lucius Cassius Dio, I have been kept fully informed, and so, in spite of our mutual lack of correspondence, I know a great deal about your life in Britannia, and more, perhaps, than you know. Senecio, Postumianus, and even your former legate Galba have all been most forthcoming in keeping me informed of you.

But for all the good news I have been reading about you and your deeds, I fear that we are again bound for uncertain and uneasy times ahead. The rumors here in Campania, now that the Senate has been dismissed for the summer, say that Severus has not much longer to live, and that will leave the Senate, Rome, and even the Empire subject to the whims of his sons, and I have few illusions as to how that may turn out, nor, indeed, does anyone among the Senate in Rome, but what can we do? The Senate may try to govern as best it can in the face of supreme power, but in this case, that power will belong to the Emperor’s sons, and once their father is no longer there to control them, even I hesitate to think of what they might be capable of doing.

For that reason, and also because I wish to safeguard the inheritance of the last heir to the Arrian fortune, I made my own plans some time ago. With the help of Lucius Sabius Niger, who knows many, many contacts in Ostia, Gades, Puteoli, and even Alexandria, I have managed to transfer almost all of my holdings and investments to an Alexandrian trader by the name of Chryses Diodorus, who has become enormously wealthy in the Indian and Taprobane trades, thinking that would be the best option – if a rather risky one –  in attempting to safeguard what will some day be yours.

Diodorus did not disappoint me, and my initial investment paid off so well I even invested the interest my holdings gave, and so this past spring, Lucius Sabius left for Alexandria to transfer those funds to Balbius’ bank, to give you that initial legacy. For who knows what will happen once Severus is no more, or what proscriptions lie in store for a Senate that has been reduced, since the days of the Caesar Augustus, to merely do any given emperor’s bidding, fearing for their lives, their legacies and their families ? For this reason alone, I would advise you, as a fellow senator, but also as your father, to reconsider a political career. You are all that is left of the Arrian family, the rest of us either dying young on the frontiers of the Empire serving the Rome we were born into since the days of Camillus, or else being murdered during the proscriptions of Domitian and Commodus. Even your uncle Quintus became entangled in that nasty piece of business with Plautianus, and Severus nearly had him pay with his life. As you know, Quintus had too much pride to let that happen, and killed himself before he had Severus’ men do it for him. I believe that when our ancestor, the later consul Marcus Arrius Nerva, made the family fortune at the time of the wars with Carthage and Hannibal, he would have wished it to endure through time, which is why that I made the choice to shift our fortune to Alexandria, hidden behind a morass of holding companies and shadow investors in no way connected to me or my clients, all engineered by Diodorus and overseen by Lucius Sabius.

Along with the bank draft, I also send you a brooch that belonged to your mother. Even before she died seven years ago, she had told me that you should have it some day for your own. Now that you are in Britannia yourself, it is surely fitting that you should have a proper – if barbaric, to my taste – Briton brooch! It would make a fine gift for any young lady, if you would rather not keep it for yourself.

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to you for that broken betrothal to Sulpicia. Who could have known that such depravity lurked behind such blue eyes? Certainly, she managed to fool you and me both. I had always thought myself well above being deceived by a woman, but then again, perhaps I had been too accustomed to your mother, who never deceived me, ever.

I know all about your compulsive spending at the house of Iolanthe at Eboracum, and this merely proves my point. But do consider, at least, that the time might soon be approaching when you should be settling down and starting a family of your own.


Arrius looked up a moment, head reeling from all this information. By now, Lucius had returned from the latrines, and was sitting quietly by his side under the willow tree, watching the bustling life that flowed back and forth across the bridge into and out of the garrison and the city, and up and down the rivers.

“You knew about all of this, you…you cunnus!”

“Now, now…” Lucius held up his hands, “just because I consider myself a connoisseur of said anatomy, doesn’t mean I am one…”


“Read on, Carrot. Read on.”


I have, in these recent years since your mother died, had plenty of opportunity and leisure to reflect upon our, shall we say, differences of opinion six years ago. I suppose you and I were both grieving over the sudden loss of your mother, and we both reacted in ways that have done far more damage than good. I have now realized that perhaps I treated you too harshly. Society, it seems, might have forgiven me that I bred a child on a former Monapian slave – although you and I know that she was never a slave in my eyes – but the son who meant everything to both of us will always pay the highest price for my transgression.

In closing, my son, please remember this – that no matter where you go, my home here will always be yours, and my doors as well as my heart will always remain open. I have been lonely, these seven years since your mother’s death, and you have been sorely missed.

Live well, my son, and prosper wherever you go! I hope and pray to all the Gods that you may return to me safely, and soon.


Marcus Arrius Nerva

His father’s letter had shaken him to the core, both for the news it had contained, and his father’s admission that he had over-reacted those many years ago. Knowing the venerable Marcus Arrius Nerva as he did, this had been no easy task for him. That final heartfelt paragraph had touched him more than he had realized, and suddenly, he was grabbed by an urge to see the orchards blooming in spring, to watch the olive presses pressing sunshine-scented olive oil in December, to hear the songs of the grape-pickers during the wine harvest. With a pang, his father’s letter had brought back the home of his childhood again, and it had been long and long since he had allowed himself to think about it. He suddenly had a violent urge to get very, very drunk.

            “So you knew. Well, I suppose he only let you know what you needed to know.”

It wasn’t a question, or even just a statement. But Lucius was quite some time in replying.

“As a matter of fact, I know a great deal about the family fortune, and certainly more than you ever bothered to, Carrot. As long as your allowance arrived at regular intervals and your lifestyle was secure, you didn’t care two figs worth where the money came from, did you? You just went and bought baubles for what was her name, oh! Yes, Brecca…or that stupendous inlaid bed, yes, I know all about it! Not to mention those thousands of sesterces you spent at some Iolanthe’s house here. I know everything about the ways you’ve spent your money these past six years, brother…but I also know where it came from, which you certainly don’t!”

Arrius was taken completely off guard.

“What in Hades is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, Carrot that it’s high time you removed your head from some whore’s crotch and your mind from what happened in Caledonia, that’s what! There’s more at stake here than you know. And -” Lucius gave him a long, baleful look, “six years you’ve been here, making all sorts of trouble in Caledonia, and all sorts of trouble for Antoninus. You’ve been a senior tribune, handling all sorts of correspondence as a matter of course, and yet you never bothered to write your own father once in all that time…”

“I thought he never wanted to see me again.”

“Come on, man! You’re his only son, of course he would! True, you didn’t part as a loving parent and his only son should, I’ll grant you that, but that was all to do with Sulpicia, and your father admitted as much, at least to me.”

“He said the same in this letter.” Arrius sat slumped over the letter satchel in his lap.

“Well, there you have it, then! You’ve been forgiven for that screw-up all those years ago. Actually rewarded, even! Now, splash some of that cash around like a properly dissipated Roman senator and let’s have some fun, what do you say?”

“Wonderful idea, old sheep. But there’s a lot you don’t know…” he reached for the wineskin.

“Likewise, Carrot, likewise!” Lucius crossed his arms.

Arrius removed the wineskin from his mouth in astonishment. This was news. Lucius had been so straitlaced, working for Euphanus for so long, he had been wondering. Had his favorite sheep lost his talent for trouble?

“Whatever do you mean?”

At first, his answer was a filthy look.

“You’re repeating yourself, Gaius. Phillipus taught you better than that!”

“ ‘The measure of a man lies in his vocabulary. The larger his vocabulary, the more precise his speech will be, and the less he will be misunderstood by his fellows.’ ” they quoted in unison.

There was a long, pregnant pause. Then, they both fell back to the ground laughing at the memory.

“Ah, brother…” Arrius finally caught his breath and sat up. He took a long pull from the wineskin, before passing it on.

“I’m in deep, deep trouble. Galba was saying that I might be a candidate for one of the quaestores Augusti, which means that Severus has plans for me. But wouldn’t you know, with my spectacular talent for making a spectacle of myself, Antoninus wants me dead for capturing Cadaracus in Caledonia, and now Severus, the one man I might have counted on to protect me from his own despicable son, is dying, or so I hear…”

“Trouble!” agreed Lucius. He belched, and reached for a handful of olives. It was a while before he could answer.

“Well, I’m deep in some horse manure of my own. All those years on ships and in ports on Euphanus’ behalf let me squirrel away some emergency funds…”

“How much?” What a relief, thought Arrius. Lucius had always had a supreme talent for stirring things up.

Spitting out an olive pit, Lucius went on.

“About a million and a half sesterces that neither Euphanus nor the Treasury knew about.”

Arrius whistled. “That’s a tidy little fortune!”

“No kidding!” Another huge belch. Whoever knew they’d have olives this good in faraway Britannia?  “Well, somehow it came to the attention of Castor…”

“That Palatine snake at the Imperial court? Severus’ chamberlain?”

“If he looks like a Greek and acts like a cat…”

“The very man…”

“That’s him all right. Turns out he bribed one of my trusty Greek captains to hand over both sets of shipping logs, the official one Euphanus knew about, and the one I’d used to cover my tracks, which was just smelly enough to make him suspicious. So, he summoned me here to explain.”

Arrius sighed. “So that’s why you happened to be here in time for my formal discharge. Of course, you couldn’t explain a million and a half in missing luxury taxes…”

“Which means that Castor has me in a death grip by my nuts. I do what he’s asked me to do, and no one’s the wiser, certainly not Euodus, or even Euphanus. I pay him, and not the Treasury. Or else…”

“He ships you off for tax evasion and worse to Euodus, who’s never been known for his compassion. Ah, brother, what a mess…”

“You now know it all…”


“The smelliest kind you can imagine!” Lucius belched again, louder, to emphasize his point.

“What does he want? The money back?” Arrius was worried now. Castor was far too dangerous to toy with.

“Too simple for the likes of Castor, I think. No, he’s got a much better idea, and one that might land him far more than my measly little assets.” Lucius spat out a whole series of olive pits.

“Put me out of my misery, old sheep. I’m too drunk for subtlety.”

“Unwatered wine will have that effect!” Another olive pit followed.

“Give me that wineskin, you lush, or you’ll only have to buy a new one that much sooner.” One huge hand gripped the neck of the wine skin.

“Me? You’re the one with a bank draft for two million, you should be buying!”

“I’ve got better ideas…Tell me what happened with Castor.”

“Castor wants me to go to Hibernia, and look up this trader, who, or so they say, practically has a monopoly on the place…”


Lucius spat out another olive pit in surprise. “How do you know?”

“I know quite a bit about Hibernia, sheep. Lest we forget, I was senior tribune for a while at Deva, you know…the XX has had plenty of business with Hibernia for a very long time.”

“Oh! Well, the plan is to unload a Gaulish wine glut on the Hibernians, or at least their kings, as they call themselves, and use that to buy Hibernian merchandise at a discount, and then…”

“And then sell it all at premium prices here in Britannia, where the main market for Hibernian goods lies, and let Castor pocket the difference.” Arrius hiccupped, before adding: “Some things never change!”

“Well…” Lucius was slightly annoyed that he never had a chance to rehearse his long diatribe on the injustice of it all. “I certainly can’t tell you anything, can I? You know it all already!”

“You forget, Lucius, I have been here six years…it’s not that hard to figure out. Besides, everyone knows about Castor. He has deals scattered all over the Empire, and all of them flow straight into his very deep pockets.”

“Doesn’t help me much, since I’m the one who gets to go to Hibernia. And no one I’ve talked to had many good things to say about the place!”


Arrius sat up straighter and ran his fingers through his hair. Lucius grinned. Some things never changed. Gaius had had that same gesture when he was thinking since childhood, despite all of Phillipus’ best efforts to beat it out of him.

“Damn, old sheep, what did they put in that wine? Where was I? Ah! Hibernia! Well, what can I tell you that no one else would know? To begin with, it might look quite a bit like Britannia, so they tell me, but it’s much…wilder. There are no towns or oppida, such as you would have found here a few hundred years ago, it’s all territories and lands held by those so-called kings. More like chieftains, really, ruling – and I use that term advisedly, mind you – over a loose bunch of people, some of them relations, known as tribes. When they’re not making a nuisance on the western coast here, they’ll usually be found at each other’s throats, for reasons you cannot even begin to imagine! And before you start thinking that those ‘kings’ rule the roost on their lands, I’d like to point out that the kings themselves are ruled, more or less, by their druids.”

“I thought that Paullinus killed them all at Mona, or so said Tacitus.”

“Not at all – they simply relocated, where, I don’t know, but a good guess is Monapia. Not that the Monapians are telling. Nothing there for us, not much in the way of trade, so we leave the place alone, the Britons leave the place alone, and the Hibernians have pretty much taken over the island, although what they do there is anyone’s guess.”

“Your mother was from Monapia, she never told you anything?”

Arrius gave him a strange look.

“Well, she did call Monapia something rather odd.” He reached for a handful of olives and stuffed them in his mouth. It was a while before a series of olive pits warned Lucius that he was about to continue.


More olive pits littered the ground.

“She called it” Arrius said very carefully, “Druid Isle.”

“Interesting. What does that have to do with my going to Hibernia?”

“Absolutely nothing. But I’m warning you, Lucius, be careful of those Hibernians. They’re as slippery as live fish and twice as hard to handle.”

“I’d like to point out that I have no intentions of ‘handling’ anyone, never mind Hibernians. It’s Musa I don’t know. Well, I met him once, a long time ago in Alexandria, when he was working for Chryses Diodorus…”

“My father wrote me about him. Seems he’s everywhere. Talk about Alexandria, and someone will have something to say about Chryses Diodorus…”

“In Berenice, he’s worshipped as a god! But Musa…”

“Our frumentarius, Priscus, could tell you more about Musa. He’s about as strange as all of the Hibernians put together. For one, he’ settled quite comfortably in our old trading post on the eastern coast, and for another, he has some kind of stranglehold on those Hibernian kings, since no other traders can get a toe in that door. Why, I don’t know.”

Lucius tried and failed to keep the hope out of his voice. “Would you know how to get there?”

“Depends on how discreet you need to be. Musa’s ships ply the inner sea of the Isles all the time in the sailing season. But if you’re looking for a quiet arrival that not even Galba would know about, then your best bet would be a fishing boat. Herring season starts around the equinox, you might be able to find something then.”

Lucius shook the wineskin. Not too much left in it. He took a long pull.

“Well, it might be a good deal easier of I could persuade my best friend to come with me…I mean, he could reasonably look Hibernian, being half-Hibernian himself, he speaks the language, along with Briton, after all, and…”

“You are out of your mind, sheep. I’m supposed to report back to Rome and the Senate before January.” Arrius now looked distinctly mulish.

“I’m supposed to find a million and a half sesterces for Castor before next spring, or else poor old Tata will do much worse than kill me!”

“May I commiserate?” His mulish expression had not budged at all.

Lucius gave him a vicious shove. He was shoved right back. In no time at all, they were rolling around and around under the willow tree, shaking each other like dogs with chew bones. Somehow, Arrius ended on top of Lucius, his hands around Lucius’ neck.

“Get off me, you big brute!” protested Lucius.  “You’re bigger by at least seven inches and about 100 pounds, it’s not fair! And you have terrible breath!”

“Fair? I’ll tell you all about what’s fair – it’s perfectly fair that I kill you right this moment, sheep, just because I can!”

There was a murderous expression on his best friend’s face that Lucius had never seen before, and it made his blood run cold in an instant. He went absolutely still.

“Well,” he found himself saying, “You’ll have a lot less fun if you do, but if you must…”

It was the right thing to say. Arrius relented and rolled off. He sat up again and buried his head in his hands.

“Sorry about that.” He sounded profoundly embarrassed. “It sometimes happens when I’ve been drinking, you know, before I’m aware of it even. Started after last year’s campaign and it’s only gotten worse after this one.” He reached for the wineskin, took a sip and handed it over.

“The news in Rome was that it was, shall we say, rather bad.”

“I can’t even begin to tell you.”

“I guess not. I can only imagine what will happen if I don’t deliver the goods to Castor in the spring.”

“Jupiter! You have a one-track mind.”

“Desperation will have that effect.” Lucius hesitated. He had to ask. He didn’t know what else to do.

“Come with me to Hibernia, Carrot.”

The mule returned to Arrius’ face. “Absolutely not. Never. Ever. I have to get to Rome, I told you.”

“You know,” Lucius said slyly, “They don’t know much about Hibernia in those smart circles in Rome. Think about it, Gaius – you could be invited to free dinner parties for years if you come with me.”

“If I make quaestor Augustus, I’ll have no lack of invitations, Lucius.”

“But what about adventure? Going where few Romans have ever been, coming back alive to tell the tales, recite your deeds and regale us all with epic tales of your courage and heroism in foreign and hostile lands?”

“Forget it. I’ve said no. I can’t, and I won’t.”

“But I’d stand a much better chance if you came with me. For one thing, Musa wouldn’t be able to arrange for a nifty assassination behind my back, since you speak Hibernian…”

“Mother was from Monapia, not Hibernia, I’ve told you a thousand times.”

“So? What’s the difference?”

Arrius laughed. “Not much, really.”

“Well, for gods’ sake, Gaius, think for a moment, beyond the scope of your brilliant political career ahead, will you? Before you know it, you’ll be packed off to some auspicious marriage or other, another one of those horrendous, thin-blooded, fashionably starved Roman aristocratic ladies, someone so refined she probably pisses Falernian and shits denarii, for all I know. In no time at all, she’ll be squandering your fortune on pearls and Indian silks and breeding your heirs on the household slaves. Don’t you want one last taste of freedom before that happens? Presuming, of course, that the wretched Antoninus even lets you live long enough for that.”

One red eyebrow lifted. “My, what a bleak view you have of my future, sheep.”

Lucius stood up, brushed off the dry grass from his tunic and stretched. He was slightly unsteady on his feet. He crossed his arms across his chest and gave the man he had known since infancy a long, measuring look.

“Don’t you?”

“Well, something might happen; it might not be all that bad.”

“Exactly! Come to Hibernia with me, Carrot, that’s what will happen!”

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Never! I won’t say no again!” Again, Arrius looked stubbornly ahead into space.

“Damn right you won’t, because the next time I ask you, you’ll say yes!”

They glared at each other. Then, Arrius hiccupped, Lucius belched, and soon, they were both helpless with laughter again.

“Are we going somewhere now?” asked Lucius, once he had regained his breath.

“Yes, my friend, we are! You and I are going to the baths, to sober up and prepare ourselves for an experience you’ll find nowhere else in the Empire!”

“And then, you’re going with me to Hibernia!” retorted Lucius triumphantly.

“My, you’re persistent! No, I am not; I’m going straight down the road to Londinium, Rutupiae and from there back home to Rome.”

“What about your meeting with Postumianus?”

“That’s tomorrow morning. My stuff is at Afer’s, and one of Iolanthe’s slaves will pick it up later. We’ve plenty of time until then. Come on, sheep…there’s one wonder of Britannia you have yet to see!”

Lucius concealed a smirk. “Don’t tell me…they have tigers at the Games here!”

“No, that’s not it.” Arrius busied himself cleaning up the debris of their picnic lunch, stuffing the pilfered remains into the basket and throwing pear cores, olive pits and the chicken carcass into a patch of reeds by the river. In no time at all, there was no sign they had been there. The consummate soldier, Lucius thought to himself.

“Put me out of my misery. I’m not sober enough for riddles!”

“I…” Arrius finally stood, brushed off dirt and grass from his tunic, ran his fingers through his hair and then proceeded to do the same to Lucius with a flourish – “am taking you to the house of Iolanthe by very special appointment. She knows we’re coming, and she can’t wait to meet you. The gods know I’ve talked enough about you!”

“Is there a chance of any redheads? Preferably one or two with stupendous chests and hips that carry you all the way to Elysium?” Lucius shared Arrius’ predilection for redheads. For one thing, they were…different, and Lucius liked different. Brunettes were everywhere he went, but real redheads…

“Britannia’s finest, and in this part of the world, that means the finest in the Empire.”

“Finally, a decent brothel!” The prefect way to celebrate their reunion!

“Let’s get one thing straight, Lucius. Iolanthe is not a madam, and her house is not a brothel!”

“Horse shit, Carrot. How else can you justify spending all that cash at the place?”

“That,” announced Arrius in a pompous voice “is for me to know and you to see for yourself. You be the judge of whether or not it was worth it.”

“As long as you’re paying! I’ve heard stories about just how expensive she is.”

“I already have. You can pay at the baths.”

“Not a chance. You’ll pour a whole amphora of malabathrum over yourself if I do, and I get to pay an absolutely outrageous bill!”

“I can always share, you know. “ Arrius shifted his rucksack on his back. “Women go mad with desire when I wear it. Who knows? Even you might get lucky!”

“Only if you come with me to Hibernia!” Now, it was Lucius who looked stubborn.


“Then show up at Iolanthe’s reeking of cheap Gaulish wine, you dog! See if I care!”

Arrius was shocked. “I couldn’t. My reputation would never recover.”

Lucius sighed, a huge sigh that shook him from head to foot.

“Thanks to Castor, mine already has.”

“Oh, you…” Arrius grabbed Lucius’ shoulders and hauled him through the crowd passing through the gates.

“What was it you said a while ago? That anything can happen between now and next spring? Well, sheep, tonight you are going to the house of Iolanthe, where anything can happen between dusk and dawn, and usually does!”

Off they went through the crowd toward the baths, and beyond.

A Royal Headache

For a long time after Bestia had left, only the crackling sound of the fire and the outside sounds of late afternoon were heard in the hall. Láegaire sat deep in thought, his long legs stretched out in front of him and a dour expression on his face. Aífe had moved from her chair by Láegaire’s side to the hearth where she sat on a bench and poked absentmindedly at the embers. Lugaid was stringing his harp, and Láegaire’s son Mathgamain whittled away at a piece of yew wood, although it was anyone’s guess as to what he was making.

Aífe broke the silence.

“There will be others, Láegaire, others who will come on some trumped up excuse to make sure we have no designs on the Romans or the Britons in Britannia.”

“Aye, Aífe, there will be others…and that is my misery entirely – that there will always be Romans who come to check that my teeth are sound, my bones well-padded and my hooves are not rotting! And every single one of them will learn what manner of man is Láegaire the Black and what manner of king as well. They will learn –” Laoghaire sat up straighter and eyed his son, shedding flakes of yew all over the polished floorboards – “that I am neither a sheep to be led blindly nor a docile bull to do as the Romans command.”

“Or…” Lugaid said, “a fool to use the Romans as it suits you and then to turn on once they have fulfilled your purpose. Think of the trouble Ciarán now finds himself in.”

“Indeed.” Láegaire shrugged, Bestia and the Romans already forgotten. He had more imperative matters to attend, and his son was first among them. “I have other issues on my mind. For instance…” he went on in his most casual, off-hand voice, the voice that made Aífe and Lugaid look up sharply at their King’s change of tone, “time it is, my son, for you to find a suitable wife.”

Mathgamain groaned. “Gods, Father, not again!”

“Yes, Mathgamain, again! I shall not rest until I know you are to wed, some suitable alliance with a suitable girl who shall give you some proper children to your name and your tribe, and not the countless offspring you have been so busy making with any woman who asks!”

“Och, the sheer, unrelenting tedium of having to bed the same woman every night!”

“I was wed to your mother for one and twenty years, young man, and I can assure you I was never bored!”

“That,” stated Mathgamain flatly, “was because it was Mother, who was surely not at all like other women!”

Láegaire had to laugh. “No, she was not, and Connachta women never are. But that was your mother and I, and this is now and here are you. The Eoghan need to find some suitable alliance – nothing threatening, say, oh, a ríg tuatha from one of the other provinces, and not a Laighean lass mind, or there will be yet more trouble than is already staring me down. You have reached an age to marry, and there are other matters to consider…”

Mathgamain interrupted him. “Father…there is so much more that is far more important than finding me a suitable wife! To the north, you have Ciarán mac Broccan, worrying the Romans in Britannia and playing both sides of that fence. Who is to say he will not call in for help should he decide he wants to take what we have so long fought to hold? To the south, there is the vile Fionnbarr mac Adamnan, and you know that Fionnbarr has never forgiven you for slaying his father three summers ago! He has stayed behind his borders and he has stayed his hand, but we all know he is just waiting for an excuse, or an opportunity, to attack.”

“Indeed he is,” said Láegaire, “and you are to be commended for your part in keeping both Fionnbarr and Ciarán’s men away this summer past. But I said –” he dropped his voice again, and Mathgamain braced himself – “there are other matters to consider. The time has come, or else the time will not be long in coming, that the tribes of the Eoghan shall have to choose their Tanist, and there is no other we have, unless we go to Donn and the Mumhain Eoghan, and they know nothing of Laighin and the battles we face.”

Mathgamain was startled. His father had been king of the Laighean Eoghan for over twenty years, and Gods willing might well be for yet ten more. Why this haste to elect a Tanist? Had his father – or Aífe, more like – seen something he had not? He tried another tactic. Anything to make him forget all this nonsense talk of marriage, and tanists, and other matters that gave Mathgamain a headache!

“You are forgetting my sister, Father.”

“I am your father and the king of the Laighean Eoghan, Mathgamain mac Láegaire, and I forget nothing!” his father yelled.

“Lassarfhína has her own path to follow, and beside, she has neither the taste nor the inclination for war, and you do, as this summer past has proved. We need that skill in the times to come, and so we need you.”

“But surely, Father, if you are to make alliances that we could use come next battle season, then she should be your first consideration for marriage, I mean, she is only a woman…”

“And with statements like that, my son, you only prove she is worth ten of your ilk! I have said this before, and I say so again – her fate is neither yours nor mine to decide, so leave it at that.”

Mathgamain stood and threw his wood knife and the small block of yew on the hall table.

“Leave it? How can I leave it at that? You are about to decide my future entirely, all as neatly tied up as wool for the dye pot, that I shall become Tanist, that I shall marry, that I shall succeed you as King of the Eoghan even, lead us all victorious in war against all our foes and neighbors, and all the while my horrible sister gets to do entirely as she pleases, when she pleases, and with whomever she pleases! Where, oh mighty King of the Eoghan, is the justice of that? Oh, why should I even concern myself anymore? It has never been a secret that you prefer her over me, ever since Mother died…” Mathgamain turned his back, hunched his shoulders and began walking toward the doors, muttering under his breath as he went.

Láegaire became even more incensed.

“Mathgamain! You do not turn your back on your father or your King, and you do not leave until such time as I say you may! You will sit down this instant and you shall listen to what I have to say, or I will have Gobbán draw his sword and slay you for your lack of respect! Sit!”

Mathgamain skulked back to the bench and tried to stare Laoghaire down, mutiny all over his face.

It took several moments for Láegaire to regain his composure. Aífe had suddenly chosen to busy herself mending one of Ethni’s tunics, and Lugaid was preoccupied with adjusting his strings. Erc, meanwhile, had fled the hall, and Gobbán and Daire, his guards, were deliberately focused on the faha outside the doors. This is one of those moments, he thought to himself, where I wonder why I received my children with such joy, when they give me such headache now!

“Mathgamain, listen to me. I am not recommending marriage because I wish you to be bored, you understand. I am saying…there are other matters to consider here, and any marriage of yours will play its part. Samhain Assembly at Tara is coming again, and the kings of Erin must again decide which laws to uphold and alliances to make. Also…” Láegaire took a deep breath. There was no simple way to say this, but say it he must.

“We do not have much time. Great changes are coming to the Eoghan, and to each and every one of us, and we must all be prepared to face them, even you.” He leaned forward and looked his son in the face, so like his own.

“Perhaps I should say…you, in particular. For Aífe has seen for all of us, and my own time is ending, whereas yours is beginning.”

Aífe never stirred. Her only movement was the needle pulling through the fabric of Ethni’s tunic.

What anger Mathgamain had felt was immediately blown away by his father’s words, and now he was confused.

“Seen, Father? Seen what, exactly?” He turned to Aífe.

“What have you seen?”

His father waved it off.

“All in good time, Mathgamain, all in good time. For now, let me say that Samhain Assembly is coming, and change is coming, and the tribes of the Eoghan need to be prepared. By Beltain, at the latest, we need to celebrate a marriage for you, and we need to have you proclaimed Tanist. Already, they are muttering in their halls, those kings of Laighin, that the Eoghan might become a sweet and juicy apple, ripe for the picking come next battle season! Meanwhile, we have Ciarán on our border to the north, in a dangerous mood, and Fionnbarr to the south, bent on vengeance for his father’s death, and he bides only his own time.”

Láegaire shifted on his bench. He never should have killed the wretch, and yet he had.

“If we can prove to the Laighean kings at Samhain Assembly, that the Eoghan are still strong, that we still own the favor of both Ír and Mac Con, that we have provided for the future by electing you as my Tanist, and that we intend no slight by choosing to ally ourselves with some minor, faraway tribe, in say, Moma, Connacht or Ulaid, then perhaps they might think again before they attack.”

And should I become King, Mathgamain thought to himself, I shall have to remember these things, and to master them all…to take the full blame when anything goes wrong, from the harvest to a cattle raid, and to provide for four tribes beside my own. Gods, such a headache…

“And my sister?” he asked after a long pause. “Why should you not make some marriage for her as well, since she is old enough to marry off? If we need allies so badly to keep the other kings of Laighin in check, then should she not become another part of our plans?”

To his surprise, it was Aífe who replied. She looked up from her sewing.

“Lassarfhína was always a part, Mathgamain, and always will be. All I can say is that there is a geis upon her, and neither her fate nor her marriage is our decision to make. Leave it at that.”

Mathgamain was angry all over again.

“Always, she is left off easily, and always, I have to pay! Why can you not all just say that you prefer her to me and be done with it? Why not just choose her to rule us, since you are all so preoccupied with her virtues and my vices? You should proclaim her Tanist instead of me!”

Ever since the death of their mother three years before, Mathgamain had felt slighted and belittled by his sister and the way she commanded their father’s affections. It was nothing new, and it would never be old, so long as they could war with each other, they would. Láegaire almost laughed at his son’s outrage.

“Because she has her purpose, and you have yours. Leave it at that.”

“I have a much better idea, Father…why do I not just leave altogether?”  Mathgamain stormed out of the hall. The double doors were open, or he would have slammed them.

“What are you two staring at?” he yelled at Gobbán and Daire. They averted their eyes and studied the grass on the faha, and said nothing in reply.

“Always my wretched, cursed sister!” he muttered as he made his way down the hill.

In the hall, Láegaire grabbed his aching head and slumped on the bench.

“Why, oh why, drui, do those two hate each other so?”

Aífe laughed.

“They do not, Láegaire…they war with each other for the same reasons all Erinnach do – because they can! And to be fair…Mathgamain has a point, you know. Whether you admit it or no, you do prefer your daughter over your son.”

“Only because my son thinks of nothing but hurley, cattle raids, drinking with his friends and women, rather than what he should be thinking about – that he is to become the next king of the Eoghan!” He cursed under his breath. “At least my daughter has more sense!”

“And you, my King?” Lugaid spoke up. “Were you so very different, before you became King?”

“Alas, but no. Perhaps that is why Mathgamain and I are always at odds – we are far too much alike for my comfort!”

“And there you have it, Láegaire…as you were, so your son is, and as you are, he might, with guidance and support, hope to become. As your daughter is, he shall never be.”

“Och, Aífe…perhaps Mathgamain is right and I should have Lassarfhína proclaimed Tanist of the Eoghan…for certain that all my tribes might benefit…” Láegaire had a dreamy expression on his face. It was true that he much preferred his daughter over his son; not least because she would keep her wits about her while Mathgamain would be all too preoccupied with reaching for his sword.

Lugaid put away his freshly stringed harp in its satchel.

“Do that, my King, and war will come to the tribes of the Eoghan in Laighin as surely as night will follow day. For all that Lassarfhína has no taste for battle, and even less for war, she knows all too well how to incite to it, as events at Dun Aillin this past Lughnasa have proved.”

Láegaire groaned at the reminder. “Blame her mother. Any Connachta woman from the line of Medb is certain to be at least as much trouble as she ever was! For all her virtues, my daughter also has her faults, and mainly that she is so like to Aibhlín it sometimes pains me to look at her. Pity the man with a beautiful daughter, Lugaid, for little good and far more grief shall ever come of it!”

Aífe laughed.

“I should rather pity the poor man who shall gain her as his bride! Think a moment – her mother’s looks and demeanor, and that quite bad enough. But then add the very bullheadedness you call your own which comes to her straight and unwatered, and there you find her. She shall be no easy conquest for anyone, geis or no!”

Láegaire rolled his eyes at the thought.

“Ah, they say that there is no plain speaking to be had from a Drui…but you are right. And at the very moment she needs a mother’s guidance most, her mother, alas, has gone on.” He gave a massive sigh. Three years had it been since the death of Aibhlín, and yet, he missed her still. Even now, when he could see her in his daughter’s every move and breath.

Aífe gathered up her sewing in a basket and inclined her head toward the door. Immediately, Lugaid rose to his feet, slinging his harp satchel over his shoulder.


The King looked up from the patch of polished floorboard he had been studying.

“Yes, Aífe?”

“Rest assured, that in her Drui your daughter shall have at least what help and advice a woman – and a Drui – can provide.”

“I know.”

Aífe turned at the doors and looked back at Láegaire sitting dejected on his bench, feet up on his footstool and his chin in his hand. It would not do, to leave her King in such a black mood.

“Pity the man who gains your daughter, Láegaire! To think – the burden he shall have in living up to a King – and a man – such as you!”

Lugaid howled and Laoghaire with him, and even Gobbán and Daire tried to hold on to their spears with straight faces. Still laughing, they made their way down the hill.

The hall was quiet again, and there was only Ruacra, Láegaire’s favorite hound, whimpering in his sleep at his feet.

For a brief moment, Láegaire thought he heard a rustle from the tapestry behind him. Then, as the back door to his bedchamber suddenly slammed shut and he caught a whiff of Roman lavender oil in the draft, he knew.

Damn you, daughter, he thought.

She had been listening since the Roman arrived.

He had to laugh.