To Forestall the Darkness
A Novel of Ancient Rome
by Vann Turner
© 2013 by Vann Turner
The Back Cover:
To Forestall the Darkness: A Novel of Ancient Rome is set in the twilight between ages.
Decades of war in the Sixth Century devastated Italy. The plague depopulated it. Industry, agriculture, commerce and city life stopped. Darkness loomed. The Germanic Lombards held power and the people cowered under them, defeated and despondent.
Through this desolation moves Titus Tribonius. Unlike others, he is not content merely to survive. Instead, he refuses to let slip away everything Rome had built.
With some aiding him, some opposing, and some even betraying him, he struggles to restore what has been lost. He refuses to accept that the coming age will be dark.
Amid the ruination you’ll meet characters who teem with life:
· Theodelinda, Queen of the ruling Lombards, beautiful, vain, manipulative, and plotting to murder the King;
· Bibula, the feisty and gregarious proprietress of a taberna;
· Stola, Titus’s wife, whose excessive piety has constricted her life;
· Celer, a youth of mixed Roman-Germanic stock;
· Decius, a runaway slave from Corsica;
· Ratold, the Lombard’s dark Master of Horse;
· and Titus’ aunt, who dances with the shades of the dead.
To Forestall the Darkness is a serious historical novel of Ancient Rome, like Steven Saylor’s Roman Blood, or Gary Jennings’ Raptor.
The century in which it is set, the Sixth, was the pivotal century. Things could have gone either way and there was still a chance that the accumulated culture of the Roman people—the skills, the technologies, the optimistic world-view—would continue. Titus tries to make it so.
a.d. VII Id. Oct. MCCCXLII a.u.c.
Sunday, October 9, 589 AD
“Putrid!” Titus said, sniffing the air and curling his lips in revulsion. “What’s that smell?” he asked Pertinax.
“Could be a dead dog or something,” Pertinax said.
“Foul,” Titus said, but commented no further.
As they continued to walk the boulevard leading into Verona, he saw Hadrian’s Gate, a huge monolithic structure, appearing a soft gray in the morning fog. Although the locals had called it a gate for nearly twenty generations, it lacked any massive doors to bar against an invading army; it was in fact not a gate, but a grand triumphal arch erected centuries ago when Rome was strong and the Empire prosperous. Titus noted that over those centuries dirt, smoke and bird droppings had commingled to darken its once glistening marble into an unhealthy gray.
“Our ancestors could build such a thing, and we can’t even muster the gumption to clean it,” Titus said.
“It’s a different time now,” Pertinax said.
“Remind me to address its cleaning with the Prefectus the next time we bump into him.”
Although they could have ridden their horses through the streets of Verona to the Cathedral, Titus had left them at the stables outside the gate, for their Germanic overlords had forbidden ordinary Romans to own or ride horses and Titus Tribonius was wary of flaunting his privileged status among the citizens.
The rhythmic plod of their footfalls found punctuation in the soft thud of Pertinax’s sword against his thigh. Titus glanced at his black companion—not only companion but friend, assistant and confidant—and wished he could have worn what Pertinax wore, leather breeches with woolen tunic and belt. That was the garb most common in these modern times. But he had an official function to perform later that day, the verification of a slave merchant’s charter to sell within the Kingdom. That function required him to wear the formal, old-fashioned toga that there be no mistake of his office, Gastaldus to the King.
They had not gone a dozen paces farther when they stopped—both men together—to gasp at the alarming visage before them. Titus stood breathless, mouth agape. Among the sun bleached skulls that had vilified Hadrian’s Gate since the coming of the Lombards were heads, fresh heads, dozens of heads, men, women, children, hair matted with black blood, eyes dangling from sockets on reddish cords, mouths contorted into the final rictus of scream. As Titus gazed, paralyzed, stone-like, the gate dissolved into the severed head of Medusa. Her head was huge, the size of the gate; blood steamed from her severed veins of her neck to form a foaming red torrent which flooded and roiled toward them on the road. While her eyes were opaque in death, her mouth assumed a grinning snarl, and the snakes writhed and arched and hissed her malignancy at them.
He felt Pertinax’s hand grip his arm—his dependable, no-nonsense friend—and the apparition dissolved back into the polluted gate. He did not dare ask his friend if he too had seen Evil manifested. As he gazed meekly into Pertinax’s one brown eye, he assured himself that what he had seen had arisen in primitive imaginations that had been passed down for generations until ultimately the poets had added frills. Medusa had never been real—for Existence was kindly—and fables of her arose from imaginings. What actually lay before him on the gate, however, was evil without the imaginings.
On the flagstone to the left lay an infant’s head. Titus could not tell if it had been a boy or a girl, it was so small. It had fallen from its assigned place of honor and two crows were pecking at its eyes.
In words half-choked Titus asked, “Wouldn’t you have thought Verres would have forewarned us as to what lay ahead when we left the horses with him?”
“Yes, if he had known. Would you like me to go back and question him about it?” Pertinax said..
“Yes…Well, no…We’ll do that together when we leave. But who are they, or who did they used to be when breath and soul animated them? Where did they live? What was their crime?”
“With just the heads, there’s not much to provide answers,” Pertinax said.
“We certainly know who did it, else they wouldn’t be displayed as trophies or warnings.”
“The stench is making my stomach queasy.”
“Mine, too,” Titus said. “But what am I to do about it, Pertinax? What would my father have done or my grandfather?”
“They lived in different times, Titus. The only thing you can do is report it to the King.”
“But the well-being of the Romans is entrusted to me.”
“The King has given you perimeters.”
“If I’m to report to the King, I’ll need details of what happened, the who, the when, the where. I’ll ask the Abbot if I can speak to the people after Mass. Somebody must know something, and that something will lead us to other bits of information.”
“You know now where it will lead, Titus. It leads to the Duke. You implied such yourself.”
“I should resign my office if I can accomplish nothing of benefit.”
“You wouldn’t live too long, my friend, if you did that. A person doesn’t tell the King, ‘No, I won’t do it.’ Your life, your wife’s, would be taken, and your estate would be confiscated. Your slaves would enter a harsh world they have not known. To refuse the King would bring on disaster on all the people you love,” Pertinax said, then gestured toward the infant’s head on the flagstones. “I wonder whose child it was.”
Titus studied his friend’s face a moment, one brown eye looking at him, the other hidden under the blue kerchief he always wore. “And I’m wondering what a baby could possibly have done to deserve that,” Titus said.
As they approached to pass under the arch of the gate into the city, Titus’ eyes flitted among the heads. Was this one once a farmer, that one the baker’s wife? Maybe a young mother here and there a shepherd? Although he was Gastaldus for Roman Matters, he had never felt as insignificant as he felt then. Those blind eyes accused him, watched him move, him who was responsible for shielding the native Romans from abuse by their overlords. Although the King had entrusted him with the office and responsibility, the King had given him no authority to act.
“I accept the post, my Lord, but you must give me authority to act,” Titus had said.
“To you, a Roman? Authority over us! You just report to me, and I’ll do any acting,” King Autari had said. “But let us discuss it again some months hence.”
Too often, reporting to the King proved a futile waste of parchment and couriers. The King did not act. Titus’ office was a sham. Maybe, he thought, it had been consciously designed as a sham to start with.
He was mute as they walked the half-mile to the Cathedral. If he knew what action his father would take, or his grandfather, would he have the courage to take such an action himself? Did the same blood flow in him as it had in his forbearers? Did he have the capability to measure up to their standards? And if he did find it in himself to take some action, would the Fates grant favorable outcome? He first needed to decide on some way to restore dignity to his people. Then, with that settled, he needed to summon the courage to do it.
He noted that the buildings they passed on this major boulevard in once grand Verona were old and tired and dirty. A couple of generations ago, Flavius Theodoric Rex had proclaimed this city the jewel of Italy, building a palace here. His father had told him that with pride in his voice. But in the decades from then until now there had been no construction in the city, and it was no longer a jewel, for neither the citizens nor their rulers cared.
A black and white pig crossed the boulevard before them, closely followed by two others. The buildings left and right looked battered, as if an army had pillaged and ruined. But it had not been an army; it had been time and exhaustion and loss of will that had rotted from within. That rot in the soul, like pus rising from a boil, now manifested as shutters hanging askew, railings to steps broken, roofing tiles fallen and shattered in the street. It manifested as kitchen refuse tossed into the street.
Even in the fog and morning coolness, wasps and bluebottle flies hovered over that waste as a buzzing cloud. That impression of an enlivened cloud brought to his mind a passage in the Christian Canon, a passage read in the Cathedral every Easter, the passage about the Spirit hovering over the waters. “How different the ethereal potentiality implied in that and the reality we touch,” he thought.
Titus had counted the flower pots on stoops as they walked the Via Secunda from Hadrian’s Gate. Only three houses out of the couple hundred houses had geraniums in ochre pots set out on the steps. He wondered how sick in heart a woman needed to be for her to forsake a delight in flowers.
Ahead lay the Cathedral, his destination, sitting just a little higher on its incline. The Cathedral was a squat solid edifice, with a large round window on its façade and six small rectangular windows on its flank. Built a hundred and fifty years ago, the Cathedral had been the pride of the city; but now portions of its salmon colored marble had fallen away to reveal the brick and mortar of its construction. Its circular window central over the door, having lost a third of its filigree, was now a portal for bats. The bronze doors that had once blazoned the miracles of Jesus Christ had long ago been smelted into armaments during the Gothic Wars. Timber now boarded up that expanse, with only a small wicket door leading within to salvation.
Titus noticed that there were people ahead who were congealing around the edge of the plaza instead of progressing across the square to the Cathedral. He and Pertinax took their place among them, in the rear of the conglomeration. He scanned over his people. They were a colorless people, wearing gray, dun, fulvous white and tan. Gone with the centuries and the glory of Rome were the pastel greens and blues, pinks and lavenders that had once graced city life. Gone were the courage, vision and gumption that had elevated a small village on the banks of a small river to become the ruler of the world.
Titus wondered why they were bunching together, just standing there. What was delaying them? Perhaps a procession? He knew the Queen was in the city. He pressed forward to get a better look. The crowd was unusually quiet, not even the hushed titterings of gossip to be heard. Perhaps the priests could be heard conducting rites outside today as at Easter. He stretched his neck up to peer over the heads. Neither priest nor monk celebrated rites on the salmon marble landing that stretched the breadth of the building.
“Another one, Titus!” Pertinax whispered.
“Another what?” He also whispered, lest he disturb the hush that surrounded.
“Head. A man’s head.” He pointed. “There!”
Titus craned his neck and saw yet another head that had been severed. It lay on the marble pavement with face averted from the Cathedral, staring directly at the amassed citizens of Verona. Its eyes were surprised eyes, wide open; its hair was Roman blue-black, jaw unshaven.
Above the head stood a wild woman. She was frozen in place, her hair tangled and snarled, a knife in her right hand, standing still over the head, facing the Cathedral, gloating like a boy triumphant over his first rabbit.
As the monks within the Cathedral began their chant, Titus whispered, sotto voce, “Hecate, shield us!” Then he pushed and shoved and shouted, “Out of my way! Move!”
Pertinax assisted. “Make way for Titus! Move! Way for Gastaldus! Make way for Gastaldus!”
The silent men, women, children and slaves complied complaisantly, sidling aside to let him through. Once past the thronged citizens of Verona, in the open space surrounding the woman, with commanding steps Titus strode toward her. Pertinax followed.
Slowing his pace as he approached, noting the blood on her night tunic—it was now blackening with time—he positioned himself directly before her, with his back to the Cathedral, the woman before him and people beyond in clear sight. With every muscle of his body tensed with alertness, wary of any possible lunge with the knife, he observed her. He applied his jurist’s eye for detail.
A handful of hair had been ripped from her scalp, leaving an angry red blotch above her left eye. Blood oozed from it and down her left cheek, dripping onto the thin linen night-tunic covering her bosom, her nipples erect in the morning chill, her feet bare. Although the woman’s eyes were open, he detected no sign that she was aware he stood before her.
“What is your name?” he asked in voice commanding but melodious, and of a loudness so that all in the plaza could hear. There was no response.
He asked again.
He bent down, looking close into her face, putting both hands on her shoulders, and asked as gently as if he were coaxing information from a child lost in a marketplace, “Woman, won’t you tell me your name?”
“I am Eula!” she shouted so vehemently that Titus flinched backward.
From the corner of his eye he noticed a man sprinting alongside the Cathedral and he saw that Pertinax had moved to the crowd to speak to an adolescent.
Although for a woman with so slight a frame it seemed an impossible task, he was obliged to ask about the heads on Hadrian’s Gate. “Eula, did you kill all those people?”
“I killed my rapist! Him!” she screamed. Her voice held a self-satisfaction, as if her accusation pardoned her crime.
Titus addressed the crowd, “Is there any here who brings charge against this woman?” In the enmeshing silence, his words echoed against the buildings. The only sounds were the cooings of pigeons and the faint splashes of the Athesis River against the footings of the Marmoreus bridge.
No one spoke. He needed accusation. Although he was not formally trained in the law, following his appointment as Gastaldus he had read extensively in Roman law, especially Ulpian, and his grandfather’s Institutes, and he knew that except in cases of crimes against the State—treason, conspiracy, lèse majesté, or desertion from the army—Roman law did not permit a magistrate to bring charges himself. Without someone speaking up, he would have no legal grounds to take the woman into custody.
A man was making his way through the crowd. It was Manlius who served as Titus’ lictor, who carried the fasces, that bundle of rods with ax heads protruding, the symbol of the power of the State. Titus nodded a quick nod at him, pleased that the son of the stabler was showing initiative in stepping forward to support him in the conduct of his office. Manlius—with his Roman dark good looks—had a strut to his walk as he came to stand behind Titus, between him and the Cathedral.
“I will make accusation!” It was a voice coming from behind Titus on his right. He turned his head to see who had spoken. It was Tullus Salonius, a balding man with double chin. He was astride a black stallion, coming from alongside the Cathedral. Although he held no office, Titus knew Salonius was highly favored by their overlords, the Germanic Lombards. They had granted him the sole license to raise horses for the Lombard cavalry.
“Meet me at the Tribunal forthwith,” Titus said to him.
“Sextus’ head! Her knife! It’s obvious!” Salonius said in a chiding voice.
“His son incest-ed me!” the woman shouted, pointing the knife at Salonius. Her eyes radiated hate and her lips loathing.
Titus looked between the wild woman, Eula, and the pompous Salonius.
“Get Castor!” she shouted. “Somebody find my husband! I need my husband!”
Again Titus looked between them, then he said to Eula, “You will have to come with me until we sort this out. Hand me the knife.” The tone of his voice was as pleasant as a nanny speaking to a child in tantrum, but then he violently gripped her arm and jerked it toward him. The fierceness of the motion caused the knife to fall onto the pavement with an audible clunk. Pigeons startled to wing.
“Lord Jesus, help me!” she shrieked.
Pertinax emerged from the spectators, pulled her arms back and bound them with rope.
“Shades of my ancestors, defend me!”
“You will come with me now,” Titus said, gripping her arm with his left hand. “To the Tribunal,” he called ahead to Manlius, and led her—with Manlius walking ahead and Pertinax as rear guard—past the Cathedral, toward Verona’s basilica. His destination was a room inside that basilica, past the large expanse used by the Germanic Lombards as stables. Duke Droctolf had designated a room there to be used for Roman Matters. It was at the very back, past the piles of composting manure. Titus was sure the location had been selected to be both demeaning and easily monitored.
A crowd of busybodies, mainly curious women and a few rowdy adolescents, followed them, apparently—Titus thought—to gather the details, as if they were herbs, to spice their chatter amid the drudgery of days.
From his steed next to the Cathedral wall Salonius, with his double chin and translucent skin, glowered down at them with lips curled as if a fetid stench had enveloped him.
Maybe—Titus was unsure—but maybe Manlius nodded obsequiously to him as they passed. Curious, he thought. Perhaps just the son of the stabler acknowledging his betters, or maybe something more. Manlius was strikingly handsome, and rumor was that Salonius had Greek proclivities. But that was their business, he conceded, not his and not the State’s, though the Church would certainly make it theirs.
The observant, silent watchfulness of those following gave way little by little to a whisper here, a remark, a comment there. Soon it became a garrulous rumble filled with suppositions, conspiracies, explanations, and accusations. Titus well knew how public discourse commented on every nuance of private lives. Wagging tongues spared no one, except maybe babes still at the breast.
In that din of meddlesome gossip Titus himself became a subject. He tried to pick them out.
“Maybe he does have balls…You should see his huge estate…Doesn’t challenge them...Vile, pagan rites…Doesn’t have children…Why bring children into a world that’s dying?”
He wondered again about the child at the gate.
They approached the boulevard that ran between the Cathedral and the river, Eula on his left, Manlius before, and Pertinax following. Even before they reached the turn Titus could see the Bishop’s palace, empty these last few years, ever since—according to the Lombards—he had been assumed into Heaven, or—according to the Romans—he had been murdered. Next to it, and slipping into view, was the palace Flavius Theodoric Rex had built for himself of glistening white marble, not the local salmon colored marble. The Lombards had adorned it to their taste, painting it with brightly colored tendrils of vines and flowers, with stags, wolves, bears, ibex and fantastical beasts that Titus presumed arose from their northern mythologies.
More to his taste was the white pillared temple across the river on the hill, surrounded with the deep green of fir and spruce. Although its lines were unpretentious, it seemed almost alive, sleeping peacefully in eternal tranquility and breathing forth the fresh scent of evergreen to proclaim the rightness of the world. No longer did devotees bring offerings to the goddess of that temple, Ceres, a few grains of wheat or spelt. That is all the ancient gods required, he thought, a moment of acknowledgement and a pittance in offering. How different from the onerous levies that the Church now demanded. The group reached the back portion of the Cathedral and turned right.
Before them, spanning the boulevard, blocking the way, stood twelve black horses with twelve Lombards astride. Titus saw Manlius dash for the protection of the Cathedral wall.
The Lombards were in black battle dress. Their cuirasses over chest and back were made of thick, wide overlapping leather strips; their black boots were high, ensheathing calves and fastened with crisscrossed laces. Today, against prey so slight, they did not wear helmets, but let their golden locks stream onto shoulders. Each cradled a heavy cudgel in his lap: Battle clubs were a sure sign they were not out to capture, but to kill. Titus noted each horse was a stallion. These were the Elite Troops.
The sudden sight of them elicited gasps and shrieks from the busybodies who had been following. Then shoes, boots and sandals pattered away on the flagstones, getting fainter with distance, and finally, in the distance, the shrieks modulated into piercing (though faint) wails. With barely a turn of his head, Titus glanced behind to see that the adolescent boys remained. Foolish, he thought.
He recognized the soldier in the middle, the one with the black bushy beard instead of the golden flowing beards, the one brandishing not a cudgel, but a battle mace with iron spikes protruding. His name was Ratold, the Master of Horse for Duke Droctolf.
“Ratold, this is a Roman affair, an occurrence involving only Romans. As Gastaldus for Roman Matters, I assert jurisdiction.” Titus said once, loudly and clearly.
“Tullus Salonius has brought accusation,” he continued. “I am taking her to the Tribunal where she can be questioned as we seek to ascertain the facts.”
Ratold said something in German to the mounted troops, making them laugh.
“And Master of Horse, I would appreciate a moment of your time this afternoon. I need to ask you about the fresh heads on Hadrian’s Gate.”
Again Ratold spoke to his troops in German. One of them on the far left spurred his horse, making is prance the line of them. His quips, in German, stirred general hilarity among them. All that was lost on Titus; he did not understand German.
As he waited for response from Ratold, he listened to baritone voices in liturgical ebb and flow, and above that the women’s almost inaudible ululations vanishing into the narrow streets of Verona. As another golden-haired Lombard pranced his steed before the squadron, singing some barroom-like ditty, Titus whispered aloud, but so softly—a mere susurration—that he was sure not even Eula adjacent to him could hear. “Oderint dum metuant. Let them hate, as long as they fear. We’ve learned our lessons well. At the mere sight of you women faint, fetuses abort and brave men quiver. But no more!”
“Let us pass!” he bellowed at the black line of soldiers.
“Eam necate (Kill her)!” Ratold commanded in perfect Latin. And knees and Germanic words and whips startled the horses forward.
The older boys who had accompanied the woman now scattered away at the sudden advance of the squadron.
At the barbaric battle cries and the looming onslaught of tons of horse flesh, Titus stood astonished, transfixed, his mouth open.
Pertinax lunged forward, knocking him to the pavement and covering him with this body. Hooves paused to trample around them. Horses whinnied and the stones under them reverberated. Titus felt Pertinax’s hot breath on his neck and felt his protecting weight. Then came more guttural shouts and the panicked shrieks of boys and young men, and the sounds of galloping away in sportive chase after the boys. And then silence.
Or at least the absence of noise. The type of silence that allows the hearing of what sounds there are. The percussive gallop of hooves getting fainter in the warren of streets, the splashing of the river against its bank, the monks droning, the squawk of a blue jay overhead.
At last Titus rocked his shoulders to prompt Pertinax to get off of him, rolled onto his side and sat up.
He saw Eula dead. Her feet were toward him, her head bashed away, only half of it still attached to her neck, the other half now a red and gray splatter several paces long. He breathed in deeply and held it as he looked into the face of his loyal friend, Pertinax, who faithfully had been with him in good times and bad. At length he exhaled. In such a moment there are no words sufficient. Titus nodded a Thank-you, and his Numidian friend nodded in reply.
“She was in our custody,” he said, his voice quivering with incrimination. “She was our responsibility. And now!”
“Don’t, Titus,” Pertinax said. “Don’t. You did what you could.” He leaned over and for a moment placed his forehead on Titus’.
As they separated, Titus noticed Pertinax’s blue kerchief had slipped up in the fracas to reveal the stitches that permanently closed his left eye. Pertinax readjusted the kerchief to hide it from view. His disfigurement was Titus’ fault, not intentional, but still he blamed himself for it. He remembered the two of them had been playing Legionnaires with wooden swords around the oak in front of the villa. All it took was a push of the swing to block Pertinax’s advance, and his friend would be half blind for life.
They lumbered to their feet. Titus glimpsed someone dashing into the stables; he thought it was Manlius but the motion was so fleeting he was not sure.
Arms around one another, physically supporting one another, emotionally reassuring one another, they slowly trudged back down the way they had come. As they passed Eula’s body, Titus said, “Do you think we should, uh?”
“No,” Pertinax said. “Let somebody else tend it. We can’t be seen when the Lombards return.”
They plodded ahead and veered right onto the first street that intersected the plaza.
“It’s a sham,” Titus said.
“What is?” Pertinax asked.
“Nothing. But you can’t tell them No. We need someone to come in and set things aright.”
“And who would that be?” Pertinax asked.
Titus did not answer, but said, “Why would they kill Eula? What’s their interest?”
“I don’t know,” Pertinax said. “To show they can? To diminish your standing with the people? To show there is no safety anywhere? I don’t know. Bibula won’t know either, but talk to her about it.”
They took the second left, toward the back door of the Asphodel Taberna.
Without announcing themselves they entered the open back door into the kitchen portion of the taberna. Within, to the immediate left, was the charcoal stall. Titus noticed it had recently been filled to the brim, its black, irregular shaped charred wood spilling out of the stall into the walkway. Farther in, a stout, rotund woman with long hair pulled into a pony tail stood at a counter cutting onions. In the days when Titus was yet a boy who sat on his father’s knee, she had been a young girl who helped her father in the kitchen. “Bibula,” Pertinax said, “Titus needs your wisdom.”
“Gizzards! What are you men doing here at this hour?” Bibula said.
“Do you know who the heads belonged to?” Titus asked.
“Then you don’t know?”
“I generally hear everything, sooner or later anyway. But I haven’t heard a word yet, so I suppose the people don’t know yet,” Bibula said.
Titus nodded. “There was an incident in the plaza this morning.”
“Do you mean the horses galloping through the streets a bit ago?” Bibula asked.
“No, or maybe, partially,” Titus said. He noticed how flat his voice sounded, lifeless and without resonance.
“Pertinax, my sweetness, cut up these onions for me,” Bibula said, laying her knife on the counter. “I see Titus needs a woman’s ear and smarts, and maybe a hug. You can cut them by just slicing them in various directions, but do it however you want.”
“I’ll give it a try,” Pertinax said.
She removed her woolen apron and laid it alongside the knife. “Make sure you peel them first,” she added, then turned to Titus. “Now I got no wisdom different from what other women have, but I’ll share what I’ve got.”
She took two wooden tumblers from a shelf, ladled wine into them from a barrel, and topped them with water from a earthenware pitcher. “Spring water from the spring beside Ceres’ temple,” she said with pride. Titus nodded. She handed a goblet to him and said, “Let’s go sit.” She preceded him into the public room, gloomy since the doors to the street had to remain closed until after Mass—the ecclesiastical law. Against the left wall were four small rectangular tables, with seating provided on the wall side by a long common plank, and on the other side by short, backless stools. On the right wall was a bar, but with only three tall backless stools. People generally stood as they ate or drank. Titus and Bibula sat on the stools.
“Do you know a woman named Eula?” Titus asked.
“Umm? No, I don’t think so.”
“Perhaps related to Tullus Salonius?”
“Ah…That might be the name of Castor Salonius’ wife. You know, the vintner from the wine importer right there on the plaza.”
“But you’re not sure?”
“Gizzards, Titus, I don’t know. I only saw Castor’s wife once or twice. He keeps her confined in the house. She never comes out, not even Mass. Slaves do the shopping and all the errands. Castor’s away now on a buying trip and has been for almost a month, but I’ve bumped into Sextus Salonius, Castor’s brother, three times already this week, drunk as always. What a wastrel, he is. A n’er-do-well party boy. Absolutely worthless. What’s this about Eula?”
A man’s voice came from the dark corner of the room. “Caesar ol’ boy! Out causing dissent in the Senate? Or are you through for the day?” Titus recognized the voice, although in the gloom—only slivers of light coming through the chinks in the door—he could not see Marcus Galerius ensconced at the first table.
After the trauma of the visages staring at him from Hadrian’s Gate and then Eula’s murder, Titus did not appreciate the attempt at playfulness. He snapped, “Marcus, aren’t you the Prefectus and in charge of running this city? Your streets are filthy! Are you derelict of duties?”
“Jesu Christe! So the streets are dirty! Who have we here, Pythagoras? Did you reach that conclusion by logical deduction or did you read that in one of those books of yours! It so happens that if Duke Droctolf would give me a budget to work with, I could hire freemen or lease somebody’s slaves to clean them. I brought in the pigs myself, and they eat some of the slop and garbage. But if I had a budget, I could even hire a Greek engineer to fix the aqueduct. Where the Lombards come from they don’t have cities, so they have no idea what it takes to run one. I tell them and they just shrug it off. But since you’re so buddy buddy with King Autari, maybe you’ll petition him for a grant to help us out here? Maybe? Or would that be too much effort for the grand Gastaldus?”
Titus thought a moment about offering to finance the upkeep and repairs himself from the value of a single bar of gold. But, he thought, it would be dangerous to bring his wealth under the scrutiny of the Lombards; it would be better to let them continue to think him a frugal farmer. A flaunt of wealth would also drive a wider wedge between him and the people. This he could not risk. He would therefore not volunteer any financial assistance.
“There are a lot of abandoned farmsteads…” It was another voice coming from Marcus’ table, a voice with a lilting accent, a voice Titus did not recognize. “…why don’t people move out there?”
“Who are you!” Titus demanded. “Come over here.”
“He says his name is Decius,” Marcus said.
Bibula gripped Titus’ arm in a motherly calm-down type of way. “That is Decius,” she said, “from Corsica. I brought him here last night to sleep. He was all curled up under the steps of the Temple of Hercules, and that’s dangerous.”
“I told you to come over here,” Titus said again, and this time Decius complied, emerging from the gloom to the greater light that came from the open back door. Titus, ever the jurist, observed him closely. He wore only a frayed linen tunic, once expensive, cinched at the waist with red leather Moroccan belt, also expensive. He was barefoot, not even a flap of rawhide tied to his feet. The poorest of the poor used rawhide. His age was about twenty—a decade younger than Titus— and he was smaller and slighter than most men. Although he was smaller, he was perfectly proportioned. The size, shape, and symmetry of his parts—of his head, neck, shoulders, arms, chest, waist, hips, thighs, calves, feet—were so perfectly harmonious that he seemed larger than he was. And handsome. Short, curly black hair. Greek statue handsome.
“What are you doing in Verona?” Titus demanded.
“Do you want what sounds good, or do you want the truth?” Decius asked.
“That would be different! The truth.”
“I’m looking for a place to make home.”
Titus stared at him, silent, as Pertinax, ever attentive, came from the kitchen to stand at his side. He smelled of onions.
Titus believed the young man before him, his hailing from Corsica. It had the ring of truth to it, his seeking a place to make home. He nodded, and said, “Very well. Why do you come here?”
“I’m from Corsica…”
“I know,” Titus interrupted.
“Well, a Byzantine merchant ship pressed me into service. They clobbered me, carried me on board and sailed. At Classis, the port outside Ravenna…”
“Ah, the ocean,” Titus again interrupted. “Then you have seen dolphins. Are they as graceful as they say?...But go on with your narration. How’d you get here?”
“Well, we were carrying amphorae of some expensive wine over a gang plank, and I took a big huge breath and accidentally fell into the water. I swam under the ship to the other side. When they stopped searching for me—it was on the wrong side, you see—I went up to the bank and sat under the pier ’til dark, then swam a long way up the coast, way past the buildings. Then all night I drudged in a foul smelling, muddy, disgusting swamp, with thousands of mosquitoes and biting flies, and I thought I’d never ever find dry ground again, and suddenly there was a road, not much of a road, but a road and I took it north. As morning light was coming, I saw a farmstead, all abandoned like the ones around here. I didn’t dare go into the house itself, but slept in a byre—at least that’s what we call them back in Corsica, you know, the shacks poor farmers erect out of some stray boards and broken limbs to give shelter to their cow. I pulled some cattails and ate the roots raw—bland, not very tasty, so don’t try it if you don’t have to—and found a patch of blue vervain plants, picked a bunch, and made a paste of it between flat rocks. I smeared that all over my bites, and they’re almost gone now. And then I slept—was I out! When night came, I continued north on the road until a better road veered left, and so I took that. And four or five more nights of walking, and…here I am!” He raised his arms out to the side in a gesture of triumph, as if inviting applause from an audience.
Titus silently compared the story and the evidence standing before him. He found it credible that Decius was looking for a place to relocate, and credible that he had escaped outside Ravenna and traveled to Verona by foot. His tunic, though dirty, worn, and tattered now, had been very expensive. It was of bleached linen, with gold thread embroidery. But it seemed less than credible that a young man, kidnapped from a prestigious family who could afford such garments, did not seek to return to his comfortable home, but instead sought a new place to make home. That was incongruous and did not make sense.
With arms raised in triumph, Decius’ smile widened to reveal dimples. Titus knew of no one who told the unvarnished truth consistently. Things were always shaded a bit so that they took on a favorable blush. After his years of involvement in the legal system, Titus still did not know if people were pathologically adverse to speaking the truth, or if people just had some innate need to see themselves in a favorable light, and that need—and not an attempt to deceive—colored their perceptions and their memory. He would give Decius the benefit of the doubt for the time being and receive him tentatively into his circle.
Titus smiled, chuckled, and clapped three slow claps. He knew Decius would see that as a sign of approval for his resourcefulness and for his heroic escape. He knew Pertinax and Marcus would see his clapping as a sign of tentative acceptance. Titus again criticized himself for his incessant analyzing of himself and others.
“You do know what a kindness Bibula showed you in taking you in, don’t you?” he said.
“Yes, sir. It was goose-bumpy cold,” Decius said.
“Much more than that, young man,” Titus said. “In Verona, and throughout the entire Kingdom, homelessness is a threat to the established order. If a man is unable to feed and house himself, our Lords the Lombards see that man as favorably as a horse sees horseflies. His mere presence is a danger to the property of all respectable people. To be homeless is a capitol crime here, and they will remove you from the good streets of Verona to the salt mines for the rest of your life. Just be caught sleeping in the streets one time, and you’ll be gone.”
Decius’ mouth was open, his complexion drained of color, and his breath stilled. “I had no idea I was in danger,” he muttered.
Bibula stood up, patted Titus on the arm, and said, “I’d better get the vegetable stew going. Oh, if you’ll be around, Titus, I’ve got rabbit I can throw in.”
Rabbit? Titus thought. His slaves were often served rabbit, but he had not had any rabbit since a hunting trip with his father when he was just eight or so. “I may be around, Bibula. I have business at the slave sale. I need to make sure the slaver’s charter to sell has the King’s seal on it. But I also came early for another reason. You know how tongues must always wag about something.”
“I do, indeed, Titus. Gizzards! I hear a lot.”
“Well, I really wanted to have the people see me at Mass this morning. I thought if seeing me didn’t quiet the rumors, it would at least make them question the truth of them. And I was also going to see if the Abbot would allow me to speak to the people about the heads on the gate.”
“It doesn’t take a lot to confuse, confound or befuddle them. Let me get that stew on,” she said, and turned to go.
Titus’ words stopped her. “But before you get busy back there, would you bring us fresh goat cheese, raisins, bread and a big pitcher of wine with that good spring water in it?” Titus noted the huge smile engulfing her face at the compliment about the water. Women often delighted in expressions of appreciation for what they do. It pleased him to please her with something as common as a few words. He thought the gods must also be pleased when they witness little gestures of respect or kindness.
As Bibula left, Titus called Marcus over to join them at the bar. “And Bibula, there will be four of us,” Titus called after her.
As Marcus approached the bar, dressed in leather breeches and gray woolen tunic with sleeves to the wrists, he sought to grandiose himself in the eyes of Decius by embellishing Titus’ explanation of homelessness and the salt mines. “And of course the Lombards have constant need to replenish their workforce at the mines, for those mines provide them a major source of income, with shipments going throughout the Kingdom and even to Ravenna, Rome and Byzantium.”
Titus was both amused and annoyed at Marcus’ need for constant loquacity. In effort to change the subject, he said, “By Plato, you are correct. But why aren’t you at Mass?”
“I’ve remarried, Titus,” Marcus said.
“Strange. I hadn’t heard.”
“Not a lot of people know, but the Church does. It wasn’t a formal patrician marriage, like the one I just ended with Marta—delightful package, horrible gift! It was just a plebeian coemptio.” He looked at Decius. “That’s a legal term, Decius, that actually means wife-purchase, but that term doesn’t do it justice.” He looked back at Titus. “She’s a lovely woman, Titus, and we care for each other. But the Church doesn’t want anything to do with me now, and so I don’t want anything to do with the Church.”
Bibula returned with a platter. Titus was pleased her arrival terminated what he supposed would have been a laundry basket full of complaints about the Church. Titus probably shared most of them. He knew the Church was arrogantly monolithic—no tyrant had been more so—and would not listen to the simple, passionate, plain pleas of the people it purported to serve. He silently congratulated himself on spontaneously having fashioned such a pleasant alliteration on the letter P: passionate, plain, pleas, people, purported. He supposed no one had noticed it and at the next moment was castigating himself for that unsavory whiff he detected in himself: false self-importance or -superiority. He needed to eradicate that from his soul and walk this earth equal to others, not superior to them. Roman society, though, nurtured from the mother’s milk a sense of superiority based on wealth. Their society was stratified into social orders, and the Church had adopted, unquestioningly, that stratification. He, though, was determined to walk this earth equal to each. He acknowledged to himself he had much pruning to excise from himself his own sense of self-importance. That was another alliteration, he told himself; this one on the letter S.
The platter Bibula had carried to the bar was an unadorned plank of wood. On it she had placed a red earthenware bowl of soft goat cheese, a smaller bowl of olive oil, a fist-sized mound of raisins, four apples, sliced—Titus could see where she had carved out bruised sections—and a round loaf of bread a couple of inches thick. He appreciated that she had tried to arrange the food as artistically as time, her ability and the ingredients permitted, although the bread had the appearance of being coated with gravel. He bent to look closer at it. It was the grain, so imperfectly ground, that gave it the appearance of gravel.
“I only have spelt bread left from yesterday until the baker’s slave brings today’s batch,” she said by way of apology, “and they can’t bring it over, and I can’t run down and get it until Mass gets out.”
“Then bakers are allowed to work on Sundays?” Decius asked.
“Yes, but only bakers, no one else. But how am I supposed to have hot food ready? And Sundays are my busiest food days. The Church hasn’t thought about that. I’ll get your wine,” she said, and left. Titus could see her standing tip-toe, reaching for the wooden tumblers on the shelf. She cradled three of them against her bosom with her right arm and carried a large earthenware pitcher in her left. “There you go,” she said, setting them down on the bar. “You never did tell me why you were asking about Eula. But if I don’t get the charcoal going and the stew on, there won’t be any. And so tell me later about the wailing and the horses and Eula. How’s that?”
“Sure,” Titus said.
Decius reached out to take some raisins, but Pertinax slapped his hand away.
“What! I can’t have any?” he said, a flare in his voice.
“Wait!” Pertinax said.
Titus stood, shrugged his shoulders, brought himself to full height, and slowly repositioned the back portion of his toga to cover his head. He raised both arms in the gesture of prayer. Although his lips moved, his words, so softly spoken, were inaudible to those surrounding him, for he addressed his words to the firmament, to Existence Itself, and not to the living who partook of Existence.
Decius leaned to Pertinax, stretching his face up toward his ear and whispered, “Is he a pagan?”
Pertinax yanked Decius by the arm, shoved him into the kitchen, and slung him against the pile of charcoal by the door. He glimpsed Bibula at the counter cutting something.
His black scarred face contorted in stifled rage, inches now from Decius’, and when he spoke, spittle flew into the air and onto Decius’ face. “That is the finest man you will ever meet! And you are now privy to something that must be kept secret! If you ever divulge one iota of it, I personally will wrench your head from your shoulders. Do you understand me, pretty boy?”
Decius nodded brisk, frightened nods.
Pertinax cleared his throat, smiled weakly and extended his hand to help him stand upright. He adjusted the blue kerchief covering his scalp and left eye. Then, bending close into Decius’ face, asked, “Then we’re understood?” Decius nodded. With an assumed air of composure and with an amicable arm on Decius’ shoulder, Pertinax walked him back to the public portion of the taberna, Bibula’s eyes following them as they went.
Titus was concluding his prayer. He broke a bit of bread from the loaf, took two raisins, and reverently dropped them and the bread onto the floor in offering. He rolled his shoulders, readjusted his toga, and said, “Let’s eat. Wine, everyone?” He filled the three new tumblers and his from the pitcher.
All four men took their tumblers, but it was Marcus who was the first to utter the toast. “To health and joy in our hearts.” They raised their glasses and drank. In the distance was a faint clunking sound, like that of wagon wheels on pavement, and indistinctly heard commands to the mules. “Marcus, just an idea that might have a bearing on cleaning the streets: You always see groups of older boys and adolescent men hanging around the square…”
“Why do you always call them that?” Marcus interrupted, a chuckle in his tone.
“I don’t know of any word that accurately describes them,” Titus said. “Adolescent boys misses it, for that means a boy reaching the age of becoming sexually active. That can be eleven or twelve, and the boys/men standing around are much older than that. And you can’t use the term ‘young men’ because that indicates having reached an age when work, family and service to the State become important, you know, the age when you take your rightful place as a man among men, and become part of, and see yourself as part of something larger, a vital part of the community. That doesn’t usually happen until the mid-twenties or thirties. So what words do we have to describe them?”
“You certainly analyze things, Titus. I call them riff-raff or trouble-makers.”
“Give them time, Marcus. They’ll find themselves and their niche in this world. When they do, they’ll be happy, and we’ll be happy to have them join us.”
“I suppose,” Marcus said. He broke a piece of bread, dipped it in the olive oil, and ate it. “Good oil!” he called out to Bibula.
Titus reached for a slice of apple. “Marcus, what do you know about the fresh heads on the gate?”
“Heads! I don’t know anything about heads!” Marcus said.
“They come from the next district over,” Decius said. “Isn’t that Vicetia? That’s what the mile marker said.”
Titus paused, the apple slice inches from his mouth. He felt Pertinax’s hand come to rest on his shoulder. His wife’s family hailed from Vicetia, the city itself. “What do you know about Vicetia?” he asked.
“I think there’s a war coming, that’s what,” Decius said, breaking a piece of bread and dipping it into the oil. “I think it is the Huns or the Avars because they were so cruel and…”
“Don’t give me your interpretation, Decius. Don’t give me what you suppose or what you conjecture. Just tell me what you saw without your reflection on what you saw. I don’t mean to sound harsh or grumpy, but I am a judge and as a judge I have to evaluate facts, not opinions or may-have-beens, but facts, the things that are or were. Facts. What did you see or hear outside Vicetia, Decius?”
“I think I understand, Titus. These are the facts as I remember them and in the order I remember them. It was night, of course—I only travelled at night—and I saw a lightening in the sky up ahead. Now, it’s not a fact, Titus, but I suspected it was a fire, so I went off the road and up a little hill to get a better look. That’s a fact.”
Titus chucked at his dogged pursuit of separating fact, understanding and motivation. It was cute and refreshing that he was trying to follow his instructions so carefully, but he needed Decius to get on with it. “And then? Go ahead.”
“I saw a haystack burning and people running out from their houses toward it. That’s a fact. I saw men on horses dash out among them with swords and cudgels and kill them. That’s another fact. I saw men go into the houses and drag out old people and babies and kill them with swords. Then they lined the bodies up in one straight row, cut off the heads and put them into two big leather bags. Maybe the leather part isn’t a fact—it was dark—but they were bags. Then they killed the pigs, goats and at least one mule. That’s a fact. Then they lit the houses and outbuildings on fire and left. That’s the last fact.”
Titus was relieved it was not in Vicetia itself, so at least his wife’s family was unharmed, and he looked at Decius with appreciation, not only for shedding some light on a massacre, but also for the straightforward way he had about him. This was definitely not a throw-away type of person, but someone with promise, someone worth educating, teaching and grooming. It was apparent Decius had had some education, at least from a litterarius, for he could read letters on the mile marker and make them out into a word, Vicetia.
Always the jurist, always analyzing, Titus thought. He liked that in himself and despised it. The approval came in that he could understand things and ferret out motivations; the accusation came in that his analyzing put him one step removed from actually experiencing the fecundity of life. And life was too tenuous not to press out of it every red drop.
“I thought Autari’s election to kingship had put an end to the decade of Duke against Duke vying for dominance,” Marcus said.
“Maybe his control over them isn’t as strong as we thought,” Titus said.
(the same day)
King Autari’s wife, Theodelinda—Queen of the Lombards and Queen of the entire Kingdom of Italy—perfumed the morning air as she walked the marbled hall from her chambers overlooking the Athesis River to the chambers of her host, Duke Droctolf. The perfume she wore was based on spikenard, a plant—she had learned—indigenous to fabled India; but to her its scent was reminiscent of the healthy smell of freshly turned soil after a summer storm in her native Bavaria. This particular preparation, called Daphne’s Breath, she imported from Byzantium itself; it was redolent, musky and rich, and sweetened with the scent of warm honey and jasmine. She was pleased with herself for selecting this particular fragrance that morning, for it was both stately and feminine, without any hint of the wantonness she detected in Oil of Roses. She imported that from Rome—how she longed to see Rome one day, to revel in the public baths, maybe assume a disguise and entertain men like a common whore, just as Messalina had done, cuckolding old Emperor Claudius. She was fond of wearing Oil of Roses, finding it delicious and seductive, but not suited for her task this morning. That task demanded an air of innocent and noble self-sacrifice for the good of the Kingdom.
Appropriate too, she told herself, was her selection of the tunic she wore, linen bleached stark white, belted just under the bosom, extending to her feet, the hem embroidered with multicolored flowers—violets and daisies and irises—and on the bodice and down the long sleeves were more violets, daisies and irises. It too signified the uprightness of a proper Lombard, Christian woman.
Theodelinda had asked a household slave the previous night which door was the Duke’s among the eight opening to the open air of the peristylum. Below, just over the iron rail, in the limb of a potted pear tree, a robin was singing. The leaves on the tree, protected on four sides by the two story building, were vibrantly green, evincing no autumnal coloration like the trees outside. As she approached the Duke’s door she was astonished that the customary cot of the personal bodyguard was not adjacent to the door where it belonged. That was the Lombard way, that the bodyguard should sleep outside the door. It was a source of honor for the soldier the Duke selected for the office, generally an older man past his prime, but a man of proven dedication, service and courage.
Theodelinda paused a moment at the door wondering if she should knock. But she was Queen of the realm and so nothing should be privy from her, nothing hidden from her, nothing denied her. She pushed the door open and entered.
It was a spacious room, windows on the east and north, with morning light streaming through. Silk curtains undulated in the morning breeze, already warmed by the bright sunlight. Sprawled over the bed against the northerly windows was a man, his head propped against his right fist as if he had been bantering with someone across the room. His left leg was bent and jutting into the air, chest hairy but more brown than the gold of his head or beard. He was naked, his flaccid member extending halfway across his thigh.
He scrambled to his feet, grabbed an embroidered pillow from the bed and covered himself. He knelt, bowing his head and saying, “Your majesty!”
Across the room Duke Droctolf bolted upright in the chair where he was being shaved and groomed. A backhanded gesture motioned away the young slave, who went to stand before the eastern windows, a razor still in his hand. His short sleeveless tunic, of sheer silk dyed a pale peach, did not conceal his tightly honed body, but emphasized it. And the tunic’s hem, just inches below the hip, waving slowly in the breeze, beckoned Theodelinda’s eye. Perhaps tonight she’d summon the Greek slave to her chambers to imbibe wine and comb her hair, and whatever else presented itself. But for now her purpose pressed her. She had machinations of statecraft to unfold and a man to twist to her will.
“My Duke, I would not have deigned to intrude at this early hour but I am a mere woman and am sorely troubled. I’ve tossed and wept and prayed all night. I’ve moaned in my frailty, not knowing which way to turn, or to whom to turn. Just moments ago I resolved to seek the guidance of a man who has earned the respect of our assembled armies, a man whose family name is above reproach.
“I nurture a hope in my heart, as a mother nurtures her child: a hope that your hand might becalm my turbulent heart; a hope that your wisdom can see what others do not; a hope that your courage has not dulled; and a hope that our people might retain this good land. With these hopes I come to you, my Lord.” She crossed the room, sat on the floor at his feet, and twisting her torso to look up at him, placed both hands on his right thigh.
Duke Droctolf gestured with his fingers, like the flitting of sparrow wings, to his bodyguard, who was still kneeling, still clutching a pillow to hide his nakedness. “Garb yourself, Menopert!” he snapped, then turned sweetly to Theodelinda, “My Lady, you are welcomed into my presence at any time. Has the worry you express anything to do with the many reports we’ve heard about the sacred sickness afflicting our King?”
“Goodness! Rumors spread quickly and birds have voice. But it is no mere rumor. The King worsens by the day. Only last night did the courier arrive to inform me what happened at a formal dinner to honor the ambassador of King Childebert of Austrasia. My husband asked those assembled in the hall to listen and to tell him who was screaming and why. But there was no screaming that any of the others could hear. Then he falls to the floor, his limbs writhing and twisting as if demons wrestled within him. Imagine it in your mind, my Lord. A white froth bubbling from the mouth of the King of the Lombards, and writhing and twisting on the floor, and pissing himself like some Defective. After witnessing this, the ambassador left first thing in the morning. And he left without taking proper leave.”
“It is a fragile alliance we have with King Childebert,” the Duke said. “Have you sought counsel of your father, King Garibald?”
“Indeed, I have.” She looked longingly at the strong young legs and thighs of the slave standing by the window. Maybe fifteen years old, she thought. Her mind was elsewhere.
“What does he advise?” the Duke asked. “Did he offer any course?”
She brought herself back from her delectable reveries. “He wrote that our King had been cursed and that it is imperative that the execration placed on him be lifted. He said the stability and survival of our Kingdom depends on it.” Theodelinda was pleased how effortlessly fabrication dripped from her tongue. She complimented herself on such a fertile imagination, and thought she might try her hand at composing poetry one day, and perhaps spin a tale of a beautiful young woman, as beautiful as she, in rapturous and fatal love; the young maiden with hair the color of pure sunshine, like hers, eyes trusting, complexion clear, with neck long, white and elegant, like hers, the woman a delicate flower. Perhaps the woman’s name would be Iseulte.
How beckoningly, she mused, did peach colored silk compliment the slave’s dark features and curly hair. With sunlight streaming from behind, the hairs on his legs glistened, each individually, the light blading off of them with iridescent sparkles of blue, red, yellow, silver, as if in him the radiance of young manhood manifested in some celestial halo.
“And so has there been any effort to find out who has placed the sacred sickness on him?” the Duke prompted.
“My father wrote it would have been a witch— somewhere within our Kingdom, in nefarious rite, and in consort with the infernal gods that once ruled this land. A witch among us would have been the one who cursed him. All of our efforts to uncover her identity have failed. Eight women have been examined both by priests of our Old Religion and by Christian priests of the new. Eight women have died in excruciating agony. None confessed. None accused, and so the curse remains.”
“Did your Kingly father offer any recourse if the source could not be found?”
Menopert, the Duke’s bodyguard, now fully dressed in leather battle gear, spoke up, “If the head is sick, the body will die.”
Theodelinda nodded at him, her eyes eating him from feet to strong features and shoulder length hair. “If the head is sick…Yes. That is precisely the adage he wrote, and then he instructed that, once I had read it, I must immediately burn his letter, lest he ever be accused of suggesting the regicide of a fellow King.”
She watched the Duke carefully now. Much depended on the next few moments. She saw the Duke draw a deep breath and hold it as his eyes sought Menopert’s, then hers, then Menopert’s. She watched him exhale slowly and deeply, as if a fatal decision were already present in the room but unspoken in the silence. The breeze rustled the hem of the slave’s short tunic.
“My Queen,” the Duke said, “I have asseverated a solemn…”
“May I come in?” It was a voice at the door, a voice familiar to Theodelinda, that of Ratold, the Duke’s chief military officer, his Master of Horse.
“Yes, Ratold. This is of importance. Do join us,” the Duke replied.
He entered, dark. Dark hair, dark beard, black battle dress, dark; strong and broad, dark; scintillatingly dark; threateningly dark; magnificent and enticing. Seeing the Queen on the floor, “Your Majesty!” he exclaimed as he barreled toward her, extending his hand down to her as he went. “It burns my eyes to behold you on the floor like some slave girl!” He glared into the Duke’s face and glowered, his parted lips shaped like a rectangle.
Theodelinda was pleased at Ratold’s arrival; it would make things easier. “No, my dear Ratold,” she said, shaking her head. “I sit here as a simple woman unburdening myself, seeking the brave Duke’s guidance and help.”
“You shall certainly have it, my Lady!” Ratold said, his eyes fixed resolutely on the Duke.
“Her majesty,” the Duke started to say, then cleared his throat. “Her majesty,” he began again, “has confirmed the tales we have heard of the King’s affliction with the sacred sickness.”
“There is nothing sacred about it!” Theodelinda said. “It doesn’t come from the Lord but from some vile execration designed to drive us from this land.”
“Although her father suggested it, I was just telling her that I’ve sworn an oath and am therefore…”
“I wouldn’t ask you to do it!” She snapped. “You may hide behind my skirt. I will do it. I just need you to supply me with some nefarious agent that will usher my husband from my arms and into the arms of the Mother of God.” She broke into punctuated sobs, with gasps of breath between them, and then wept in a steady murmuration of low moans, their intensity ebbing and waning, ebbing and waning.
At length Ratold said, “My lady.” He stooped to lift her to her feet, and held her close to his breast.
“Only a year ago my Autari was strong, hale and fit,” she said in Ratold’s embrace. She snuggled close to him, feeling his warmth and inhaling the earthy scent of clean leather. “The assembled armies in consort lifted him on the shield in Mediolanum. They carried him, his eyes sparkling with joy, his golden tresses carefree in the wind, and now he froths at the mouth and thrashes on the floor with the dogs! What, Lord Jesus, will become of me? A nunnery? And I have yet to suckle my first son. What for me now but a nunnery! My Duke, what is to be done?” With her head on Ratold’s breast, she looked entreatingly at the Duke, still seated in his chair.
“It must be difficult for a woman to understand how important to a man his pledged word is. On that word stands…” the Duke said.
“Very well, then,” she said, pulling from Ratold’s embrace, and separating them with hand on his chest. “Let us send an envoy to my father, asking if he has sufficient land to dole some out to the returning Lombards, maybe a few acres each and a goat. And let us send couriers out to each of the thirty-five dukes. We will advise them to gather what they can carry. We will be leaving this good land come spring.”
Theodelinda noted that the Duke glanced at the pretty young slave, then out the window at the Athesis River. He looked at the Marmoreus Bridge, then back into the room, at the capacious bed where Menopert had been lounging. She surmised he was calculating just how much he would have to abandon if they retreated back to Bavaria.
Menopert spoke, “My Lord, if your personal horse, Lightning, were to break a leg, would you not in kindness slit his throat?”
“If the head is sick, the body will die,” Ratold said.
“Thank you, Ratold. That has been recited earlier!” the Duke said. Only the chirping of sparrows outside the windows disturbed the silence in the room. “What is it you require, my Lady?”
“A potion. But it must be one that works quickly and without pain. I don’t want him to suffer, or to know from whence it comes. He has been a good husband, but he does not stand with the Church, the true Church. Jesus himself once said, ‘He who does not stand with me is against me.’” She sniffled, and smiled sadly as if to fight back more sobs. “But as Queen of this land, and as daughter of a King, I have responsibilities, and I will accept those responsibilities. I must consider the welfare of my people. It must be done. We cannot just walk away from everything we have worked so hard to obtain. Can’t you see, it’d be for the welfare of all?”
The Duke stared into Ratold’s eyes as indistinct liturgical voices rose in the Cathedral across the boulevard. Then he turned to look at the river.
Theodelinda lowered her voice to a whisper. She did not dare say blatantly, as if she were instructing a child, the commonplace knowledge she needed the Duke to consider. “From head downward flow blessings or curses.”
“Everyone knows that,” the Duke said in normal voice.
She spoke again in half-voiced, airy words. “Health or frailty, plenty or famine, victory or defeat depends on the King’s standing with the gods or with God Himself. As repulsive as a Defective’s face with eye sockets set askew, or a nose lobbed off, or jaw line akilter, so too is a King repulsive who thrashes on the floor and pisses himself. It foretells disaster.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“Things must be done,” she whispered. “Things must be set aright.”
“Everyone knows that,” he said, his voice also in a whisper.
He turned to again face Ratold and spoke in a normal voice. “Ratold, could you obtain such? But it must not come from any healer among our people. I will not have any of our people tainted. It must come from a Roman healer. Do you know of such?”
“I do not, my Lord. But I know one who would know where to find that which you seek. I will make inquiry and have the result in hand this evening.”
The Duke nodded and looked into Theodelinda’s eyes. She also nodded. “My Duke, do not think that it was willy-nilly that I brought the needs of the Kingdom to you and not to another. Do you believe God uses our dreams to reveal his will to us? I do. And I’ve had a dream that touches upon you.”
“All Christians know the Spirit speaks to us in dreams,” the Duke said. “What was this dream?”
“It was in Ticinum, and all the dukes of the realm were assembled in hall. My father, the King of Bavaria, was also there, but not in the hall, but outside the city, surrounding it with his troops. You know how mixed up dreams can be. Anyway, of one accord the dukes insisted that I retain the crown, and that they would reward the kingship to whomsoever I chose. I wandered among the dukes, looking into the faces, some haggard with the concern that comes with age, some winking at me, some nodding with assumed seriousness. Then a light shown from the heavens right through the roof, and that light shone on you, making your golden hair radiant. I went to you. I curtsied before you. Then I turned to the dukes and announced in clear voice, ‘If he will have me, I would serve Droctolf as helpmate and wife.’”
“You wish to make me King?” he said, slowly, true astonishment in his voice.
“I wish to make you my husband, and serve you as devoted wife. Kingship is incidental to that.”
“Well, that calls for celebration!” Ratold said. “Menopert, call down to the steward to provide refreshments.”
“Yes, sir,” Menopert said and crisply left the room.
“My Lord,” Theodelinda said, “it is my intent as your wife to serve you as you wish to be served, and keep silent on things that don’t fall into the womanly sphere. I will not meddle, my Lord.”
“As it should be, your Majesty,” the Duke said.
“I think at this point you could call me Thea, as my intimates do.”
“As you wish,” he said.
She noted a cautious hesitancy in his voice. That gave her pause. She looked past the handsome slave who so enticed her, and past the billowing curtains to the river. She thought of the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized and she listened to the faint rise and fall of the chant. She admitted to herself that the slave and the chant were the two uneasy cardinal points of her life, here the two of them in juxtaposition. Perhaps, she thought, she would earn spiritual merit if she could aid in overcoming heresy. Perhaps that merit would be enough to atone for her physical failings. That was not a new thought for her, but perhaps now she might actually be able achieve a suppression of heresy. If she did that, she thought, perhaps her carnal sins could be overlooked.
“Perhaps you would grant that the spiritual welfare of our people falls into the womanly sphere,” she said.
“I’ll grant that,” the Duke said.
“Then may I propose a spiritual issue for you to discuss in council? It is something my husband has refused to do.”
“You may propose it,” he said.
“I think it would behoove our nation to align with Rome.”
“That is meddling in statecraft! That is neither a womanly matter nor a spiritual matter. What? Do you want me to prohibit our people from practicing the Old Religion and mandate only Christianity throughout the realm as the Greeks have done?”
“No, my Lord, not that. I would like to see that your first decree be that our Arian priests must submit to the Bishop of Rome, or be stripped of their priesthood. The demon of Christian heresy is the same demon as the heathens worship.”
“I don’t understand this Arian versus Catholic heresy stuff. It sounds the same to me,” he said, exasperation in his tone.
“As a woman, and as a devout woman, I understand it, my Lord, and it is no a trivial matter.”
The Duke made a flitting motion, like sparrow wings, with his hand.
Theodelinda sought to explain, “You see, the Catholic faith is that the persons of the Trinity are each equal in glory, power and authority. Neither Father, Son, nor Spirit takes precedence in honor over the others. Our Lombard priests and bishops are heretics, and I will call them heretics! They assert a preeminence to the Father and subservience to the Son and Spirit. Arians make Son and Spirit mere godlings, not God himself. They effectively negate the Trinity. By clinging to this error they give up any hope of salvation. They not only condemn their souls to hell, but our toleration of the error brings God’s wrath upon our land.”
“Well,” the Duke started, cleared his throat and began again. “Can we not think of it as divisions of influence,” the Duke asked, “with the Father’s province the sky and heavens? Since the Son dwelt among us, wouldn’t his province be the middle world we live in, concerned with just dealings among people? And the Spirit’s province could be to comfort and give what joy he can to the shades of the dead. I pray He does so! Is that not reasonable, separate spheres, with each preeminent in his sphere? Seems a just division to me.”
“But, my Lord, you are dividing the Trinity into three gods, and our faith is of one God. A person may be free to think of it as he will in his own mind, to the degree of understanding the Lord has granted him. But he must not teach that which is contrary to what has been laid down.
“Also, let us not be ignorant of the political realities,” she continued. “The Church in Rome is powerful. Her influence extends to every corner of the world. The Church will eventually win the argument with our Arian priests and bishops. We would be wise to align ourselves with the winning side. It would help to solidify our rule here.” She noticed the Duke’s thumb was drumming on the seat of his armless chair, and noticed all the signs of repressed irritation, lips thin, jaw muscles protruding, veins in his forehead bulging.
“Where’s the steward with the wine?” Ratold asked.
She knew he had spoken to come to her rescue. She watched him wander across the room, he too eyeing the young Greek slave as he went. With his right hand he pinched the slave’s cheeks and made a gesture of opening the mouth for the slave to mimic. The slave complied and Ratold inspected the teeth, as if he were a mule. “Is this the slave you bought from the Syrian slaver yesterday?”
“He is. A skilled barber.”
“Hmm,” Ratold said, putting a hand on his shoulder to prompt him to turn around. He inspected his back side, and with pressure on the shoulder had him resume his previous position. “And is he also going to service the troops as well?”
“He certainly is not! You may use official funds to purchase a barber for the men if you wish.”
“I wasn’t thinking of servicing in those terms, but his more desirable traits would please the men, serve as a pastime, fight off the boredom of being in garrison.”
“He is a slave of my personal household,” the Duke said, measuring each word.
“In these modern times,” Theodelinda said, “they have women barbers who are quite skilled. My husband has one.”
“The Syrian had only one barber. Him,” the Duke said, his voice curt.
“Barber? Perhaps,” Theodelinda said, and smiled coyly at Ratold. “We are adults here. None of us are sainted yet. And all of us are fully aware that men have needs and men will satisfy those needs whenever and with whomever they can. And it is far better when both parties enjoy it. It’s not a secret. Everyone knows the way men are. Some historians have even written that the male bonding produces better, more cohesive warriors, leading to greater success on the battlefield. And we have certainly been successful in battle. Dalliance among men is common and has been for as long as there have been men, even among virile men with many children. I can’t see it has caused any problem. Our population isn’t going down, is it?”
The Duke was looking uneasy, his eyes flitting around the room, the muscles in his jaw protruding, his lips pursing, relaxing, then pursing again. It was as if he were about to burst into a rage. Perhaps she should not have spoken of manly matters for so long or displayed such intimate knowledge of manly affairs. Although it was commonly known, it was never spoken of. Perhaps she had gone too far. She looked at Ratold, who nodded as if he again understood the plea for intervention.
“I need to report an incident this morning, my Lord,” he said.
“What?” he snapped.
“It involves the family of Tullus Salonius. He’s the chubby fellow with the charter to raise horses for the cavalry.”
“Oh, yes. I think I’ve met him. And he’s the one who feeds you information about the local goings-on. What’s his first name?”
“Tullus. Tullus Salonius,” Ratold said.
“My Duke, my Lord Ratold,” Theodelinda interrupted, “you are now dealing with matters of provincial concern, and I am tired, not having slept last night.” She smiled coyly at the Duke. “Let me take my leave.”
“I shall escort you to your chambers, my Lady,” Ratold said.
She knelt before the Duke, took his hand and kissed it slowly and sweetly. Looking up into his face, she said, “My husband to be.” She squeezed his hand, whispered, “King to be,” then rose.
She rested her right forearm on Ratold’s left arm, thickly covered in black leather and held in formal fashion, horizontally, as if a shelf. She was aware of the swooshing sound her white linen tunic made in sweeping the floor as they exited the Duke’s chambers.
They went down the walkway—the pear tree below now without the robin—and did not speak. At the far end of the peristylum the Duke’s caged monkeys were squabbling, screaming and making a racket. One was throwing bits of apple at the other, who cowered against the bars. As Ratold closed the door to her chamber behind them, he said, “Let us never behave such.”
“Never!” she said, and pressed against him, hooked her left arm around his neck, right leg around his back, and her mouth sought his. Tongue entwined tongue.
“Oh, my Ratold,” she said at last, “the kingship should rightfully be yours. You have the strength, courage and ruthlessness to make our Kingdom unassailable. Unassailable from within and unassailable from without. If only you had noble blood, you would be my choice for husband and King. But the Dukes would never elevate a commoner. The fates are cruel, Ratold!”
“I understand, Thea. I know how the world is. No one can change it. You take it as you find it. I can’t picture myself as a King. That’s laughable. But I am Master of Horse here, and will be Master of the King’s Horse in Ticinum. I will ever be near you and protect you. And I will be your stud whenever you need to feel a real man inside you,” he said. He grabbed both breasts, squeezed and twisted them, until a grimace of pain hinted, appearing first as a narrowing of eyes, then the curling of nose and contortion of lips. “The Duke is waiting,” he said. “May I come back later?”
“Stay just a few more moments,” she said.
With his hands on her shoulders he forced her backwards onto the bed. Yes, yes, she thought. She liked it rough.
Ratold was still savoring the taste of her mouth as he closed the door quietly behind him. The monkeys in the cage below were now silent. On the marble floor of the peristylum, a crow, his head turning this way and that, responsive to every sound or imagined sound, was seeking a seed or some crawling morsel. Ratold was fond of crows and had adopted them as his personal emblem. To see one standing so proudly below—as if he ruled the peristylum—was surely an omen.
When Ratold entered, he saw Duke Droctolf pacing the bedroom. The Greek slave was gone. “What do you make of that, Ratold?” the Duke said. “Is she sincere, or trying to manipulate me?”
“I detected no insincerity, my Lord.”
“What was that about being subservient wife, and then lecturing me about forming a closer relationship with Rome?”
“She is a devout woman, and wishes to see the salvation of all our people. She sees heresy as an impediment to eternal salvation. Her only concern is salvation. However, there will be closer political ties if our priests taught what the Roman Church said to teach. But those closer ties are just a byproduct. My Duke, she is not an ignorant woman, locked away spinning wool all day. She grew up seeing and hearing affairs of State. She knows the political implications if our nation converted to Roman beliefs. But again, that is a byproduct, not the gist. All she wants is salvation for people’s souls.” Ratold wondered if he had covered Thea’s tracks well enough. It was good, he thought, that no scribe had taken down the words she had spoken, for a rereading of them would not have supported the obscuration he had just offered. He wondered if the Duke would be convinced.
“Very well,” the Duke said. “Then what about her diatribe about what she called manly affairs?”
“I think, my Lord,” Ratold said, squeezing the Duke’s arm in an affable way, “that she was saying she does not object to your occasional cavort with a soldier or a slave, and will have no problem that Menopert, your bodyguard, continue to sleep with you. She is professing her love in accepting you as you are. She is not asking you to change or give up anything. That, my Lord, is a priceless find. If she did object to the way men are”—he said those words in a mock woman’s voice—“I would advise you against marriage to her. With the Church’s stance on such things, it would not turn out well for you. But as it is, she has no objection, and so I see no obstacle.” For a moment he wanted to add that as a kindness to both of them—to the Duke and to the Queen—he would consent to stud himself out to her. He would be willing to sire the Duke’s children on her, just as the Duke sent Lightning to the Salonius estate for carnal dalliance and propagation. It was just a fleeting thought, one left unuttered, for he knew when and just how far he could push the Duke.
The Duke nodded. “I feel better now, Ratold, thank you. Two heads are better than one. So what was this about Tullus Salonius?” he asked and again sat in the chair.
“His first born son was murdered last night. It seems both he and your brother were involved with her carnally.”
“Was she a whore?” the Duke asked.
“No, the wife of a wine merchant. Quite a woman, too, petite but with spunk belying her size. She severed Sextus Salonius’ head and your brother is nursing his wounds.”
“Did she know one of them was my brother?”
“That’s doubtful. Rapists don’t generally give their victims their pedigree. Anyway, the Gastaldus had her in custody this morning. Salonius demanded I exact justice. Anspert demanded I silence her. And so at the bidding of your brother and Salonius I bludgeoned her to death. Sure and swift punishment for a murderess.”
The Duke looked grim. “You did that in front of the Gastaldus? Without trial of any kind?”
“Flagrant guilt demands flagrant punishment. She had tossed his head into the plaza and was standing over it as if it were some trophy. And besides, your brother Anspert was involved. If it had been only Salonius’ son, it would have been different. Titus could have had his trial. But to have Anspert’s reputation besmirched?”
“Yes. Of course. She had to be silenced before speaking. You’ve done well. What did the Gastaldus do?”
“As to be expected. Titus shouted, ‘I assert jurisdiction!’ over and over again. There the woman was, sprawled out on the ground and with just half a head on her shoulders. And there he was, shouting, ‘I assert jurisdiction! I assert jurisdiction!’”
They both laughed heartily, the Duke taking up the refrain about jurisdiction. At length a cloud came over his expression and he said, “I suppose the King will be writing me to ask for explanation. It was a Roman affair, involving only Romans—the woman and Salonius’ son.”
“If the defective King lives so long, you may get a letter.”
“But doesn’t that bother you, Ratold, our conspiring to murder our King?”
“Sometimes a man must die that the many might thrive. The head is sick, my Lord. It needs to be severed, lest the body wither.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“I am, my Lord.” He walked to a side table and filled a goblet with wine, which had been brought in his absence. He silently complimented himself on his developing skills as a courtier. From his humble birth in a woodland hut, to horse-boy for the Duke’s family, and then to being Droctolf’s sparring partner: sword, club and lance. He had come far. “It appears that our raids a couple of days ago on the Duke of Vicetia’s hamlets have had the desired effect. The tactics worked. The carts you had so requested for the confiscation are already arriving in the plaza.”
“Is the soldier who was thrown from his horse mending?” the Duke asked.
“Thank you for asking, my Lord. He is. His was the only injury. But on their side, they contributed sixty-two heads. Not a soul was left alive in any of the hamlets. Not a man, woman, child, goat or dog survived. We laid the bodies in a straight line to make it simple for them to report the number to their duke, sixty-two in all.
“We took the heads and put them into two large leather bags. I had the bags kept warm a full day by burying them in manure heaps where they would cook real good. Then last night, after they were ripe, I had them placed on Hadrian’s Gate. Our young recruits who’ve never seen battle got that job. They were puking like girls. The stench from them will surely make the Roman lice notice who rules here.”
“Perhaps we should not have killed them all. We could have sent the able-bodied to the salt mines.”
“I don’t think a report of a missing farmer would have been as effective as seeing a dead one. We needed to send a message and we did. The Duke of Vicetia understands the message. The results are arriving in the plaza, dozens of carts already.”
“You’re right, of course,” the Duke said with a swift nod of his head. “It needed strong action, and displaying the heads above the busiest gate will remind the local populace to walk softly among us. We may be few in numbers, but fear augments those numbers.”