The letter arrived at breakfast. It jolted me out of my quiet morning mood and sounded an alarm in my head as shrill as a bugle.
I don’t get many letters, and they still give me a childish thrill of excitement. Half the fun is trying to guess who they’re from before I look inside. This one gave nothing away: it was an ordinary wooden note-tablet, folded in half and tied with a cord. It was addressed to Aurelia Marcella, the Oak Tree Mansio, coast road from Eburacum, and someone had written URGENT in large black letters above my name. But then everyone does that, even though we all know it makes precious little difference to how quickly the message arrives.
I gave up the guessing game and untied the cord. I was pleased to see the note was from my cousin, and the first few lines were cheerful enough.
“Jovina Lepida to Aurelia Marcella, greetings.
I’m giving a patty at midsummer to celebrate my birthday, if indeed birthdays are truly a cause for celebration at our age. I’d love you to visit me and Marcus for a few days, to help me mark the occasion. Do say yes. It’s too long since we were together.”
So far so good. But then:
"Please help, Aurelia. There’s danger in the wind, and I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts. Say nothing. Just come.”
I read it through a second time. The alarm in my head grew as piercing as a whole cohort of buglers warning that barbarians were at the gates of Rome.
There was never any doubt that I’d accept the invitation. My cousin needed me, and that was enough. All the same, the sentence about danger was worrying. Yet how much danger could there really be at a birthday party? I poured myself a refill from the jug of watered wine and thought about it.
It was three years and more since I’d seen Cousin Jovina. I always call her “cousin”, though strictly speaking she’s not a first cousin, she’s actually…never mind, cousin will do. We’d been friends as children, then for many years not seen one another, until we rediscovered our friendship when she moved to Britannia. She’d lived at Eburacum for some time, an easy day’s travel from the Oak Tree. But her husband was in the army, so they never stayed anywhere for very long. It was at least three years since they’d been posted north to Isurium, and I hadn’t seen them since their farewell party.
If you’ve never heard of Isurium, it’s not surprising. It’s a small, undistinguished fort with a small, undistinguished village attached to it. It’s on the road to the northern frontier, but several days’ march away from it, so for years there’d been no serious soldiering to do. Marcus and his fellow-officers presumably passed the time hunting, drinking, and whoring, and now and then organising practise manoeuvres for their men. But it was dull for their wives, with nothing to do and hardly any female company to do it with.
That must be why Jovina was giving this party, and inviting me to stay a few days with her. But it didn’t account for the disturbing ending to her note.
Though the letter was worrying, at least it had created an interruption, and I was glad of that. I’d have welcomed any distraction at all, even a bill from our wine-shippers…well no, perhaps the situation wasn’t quite that desperate, but it was a close thing.
Usually I’m happy in the mornings and enjoy the first meal of the day. This one was late and leisurely, and it should have been a special treat, because my brother Lucius had come to stay. He doesn’t often visit us at the Oak Tree, so whenever he can manage a few days here, spending time together over unhurried meals is something we both relish.
But this time it was different. The food was good, the wine excellent, and I had no urgent chores to do. But Lucius had brought Vitellia, his latest lady-love. That was unusual to say the least. His romances lasted about as long as fashions in tunics, and as he’s normally based down south, I hardly ever got to meet his young women. When he’d written to say he was bringing Vitellia to stay I’d been pleased, and immensely curious.
They’d arrived yesterday, tired after several days on the road from Londinium, and happy to have reached journey’s end. The first thing they did was drink a beaker of wine. The next was take a bath and change out of their dusty travelling-clothes. By that time supper was ready, and at Lucius’ insistence, we ate in the main bar-room, not the private dining-room.
“I want Vitellia to meet everyone,” he said. Which meant, I realised, that he wanted everyone to meet Vitellia, so he could show her off. And she was lovely, with a beauty that made heads turn wherever she went. She carried herself like a goddess, and her delicate features, clear pale skin, and shining dark hair, would have made many of the more homely deities envious. She smiled a great deal, a captivating smile that made her look more beautiful than ever.
She didn’t say much, and what she did utter was harmless but unimaginative, though made pleasant by her wide-eyed, innocent charm. “How nice,” and “How interesting,” were two of her favourite comments.
Lucius did enough talking for both of them, chatting away to everyone, preening himself like a rooster on a dung-hill whenever she drew an admiring glance. He lost no time in telling us that her father was a leading man in Londinium, rich and influential, with a big town house and a country estate just the correct distance from the capital. In other words, Vitellia was a typical Londinium heiress, young and marriageable, and as beautiful as a butterfly. And probably about as intelligent.
When he announced that they were to marry, I was horrified, though of course I tried not to show it. She was the wrong girl for him, I was certain, although they seemed so happy. What would happen when the initial infatuation faded? But I fetched our best Gaulish red wine for everyone to drink their health, and I did my very best to be pleased for them, joining in the congratulations and the cheerful banter with every show of enthusiasm.
In truth I was dismayed. Lucius had never gone as far as marriage with any woman, and now here he was planning to buy a villa for himself and this child near to her father’s property, and she was saying how nice and how interesting it would be to raise a family there.
I know, I know…I’m sounding like a sour old cat. I shouldn’t take against someone just because her dull mind doesn’t match her perfect body. And it wasn’t that I disliked her, in fact if I’d met her casually I’d have said there was no harm in her. But she wasn’t right for Lucius. He needed someone with more character, more spirit.
Lucius is my twin, and we’ve always been closer than most brothers and sisters. Partly, I know, the bond between us was strong because neither of us was married yet. I’d assumed he would eventually marry, of course I had, just as I assume I will some day. In my case I’m prepared to wait, because the only man I’d consider marrying is too completely absorbed in his work to think of settling down yet. And as for Lucius, I’d hoped he would choose a bride with a lively mind and a sense of humour, qualities that he possesses himself and Vitellia seemed to lack. Yes, her beauty was stunning, and her good family connections would doubtless help his career on the provincial Governor’s staff. Many men would say those advantages were sufficient. But they weren’t, not for Lucius, not for the rest of his life.
I went to bed worrying about it. All I could do was hope that things would look better in the morning. They didn’t. Our breakfast together was doing nothing to cheer me up.
We serve a good breakfast at the Oak Tree, though I say so myself, and this morning there was freshly-baked bread, still warm, and a choice of honey or some excellent soft cow’s milk cheese, all washed down with a sweet Rhodian white wine. I’d even told the maids to lay out our best plates and beakers in the private dining-room, and to put a vase of flowers on the table.
None of it helped. The girl was still dull, with no sudden lightning flashes of wit or humour to add spice to her insipid sweetness. She and Lucius were so absorbed in one another that I might as well not have been present. Conversation consisted of the kind of trivialities that strangers exchange, interspersed with long silences, which I found uncomfortable, and they didn’t even notice. The relaxed, easy intimacy I’d shared with Lucius since we were children was gone.
I gave myself a silent talking-to. Maybe when you know her better, Aurelia, you’ll learn to appreciate her better. If Lucius has chosen this girl, she must have more about her than meets the eye. Perhaps she’s just shy, keeping quiet and making only conventionally polite remarks because she’s not at ease. Well you’re an innkeeper, and putting people at ease is part of what you do for a living.
“Would you like some more bread and honey, Vitellia?” I pushed the loaf towards her on its wooden platter. “You’ve hardly eaten anything.”
“Thank you,” she answered. “It’s very nice.”
“Let me, Kitten.” Lucius carved her a slice from the loaf and placed it on her plate, then he spooned some honey onto it and cut it into three neat pieces. It reminded me of my sister Albia feeding her small children.
“We’re lucky to have so much honey left,” I went on. “The bees did us proud last summer. Does your father keep bees on his estate?”
“Yes, he does. I find them a bit frightening, so I keep away from the hives. But the honey is very nice.” She turned to my brother with a beaming smile that would have illuminated an entire forum. “Lucius isn’t afraid of them, though, are you, dear?”
He smiled back, and they gazed into one another’s eyes.
Why are you bothering with conversation, Aurelia? I asked myself. It was plain to see the pair of them didn’t need anyone else just now. I felt left out, and the knowledge that this was childish and selfish of me made me irritable.
So it was a relief when one of the maids knocked and came in. “Sorry to disturb you, Mistress, but a messenger’s just ridden in from Eburacum and delivered this note for you. He says he picked it up at garrison headquarters there first thing this morning.”
I took the note from her. “He’s made good time if he’s ridden from Eburacum. You gave him a drink on the house, I hope?”
“I did. Like we always do for the lads that bring our mail.”
The love-birds had barely noticed Baca’s arrival, so I felt no compunction about opening my letter. After all, it did say URGENT on the outside. Having read it I just sat staring at it, as if by sheer willpower I could make it talk to me and explain the meaning of those last few lines.
“Please help. There’s danger in the wind, and I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts. Say nothing. Just come.”
The obvious explanation was too silly to take seriously. Jovina was writing from a military base, but I was certain she wasn’t writing about military danger. Isurium was safe to the point of dullness. And even if something unexpected had happened to alter that, Jovina was an army wife, and knew that men didn’t join the army expecting perfect peace all their lives.
No, this was something personal. And why was she talking about Greeks? “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.” A familiar enough sentence, a line from a poem. Which poem? I’d had to learn huge chunks of Our Great Literary Heritage by heart as a child, like any educated Roman. I cudgelled my memory.
Got it! This was from Virgil’s Aeneid, never a particular favourite of mine. At least the quote came from one of the more interesting parts: the bit where Troy is about to be captured by the Greeks through that trick with the wooden horse, despite several Trojans uttering dire warnings of doom and disaster. In fact the doom-prophets were right, and the Trojans should have been deeply suspicious of Greek gifts, but as our grandmother often pointed out, when the gods have decided the outcome of a war, cautionary advice by mere mortals is a waste of breath.
So then, who was Jovina afraid of? She could mean literally a Greek, or just a person who appeared to be friendly but wasn’t.
I realised something else about her letter. The two parts of it were in different styles of handwriting. The party invitation was neat and well-spaced, the work of a secretary probably. The call for help was in Jovina’s writing, but small and squeezed in at the bottom, as if she’d added it to the letter herself afterwards. Why? Presumably because she didn’t want anyone else to see her addendum to the innocent-seeming invitation she’d dictated. It was for my eyes only.
I felt a rush of excitement. There was only one way to find out what Jovina’s troubles were, and that was to visit her. I’d give myself a little holiday. The gods knew I could do with one after the last few months. Jovina needed me, and I needed a change of scene.
A small practical corner of my mind told me I really shouldn’t dream of going away just now. The date was impossibly close, for a start: midsummer was less than half a month away. And June is a busy time for innkeepers, the height of the travelling season when all the world and his wife takes to the roads throughout the Empire. I ought to be here to help.
“I’m going anyway.” The words were out before I could stop them.
“Going where, Sis?” My brother tore himself away from Vitellia and gave me at least some of his attention. “Who’s the note from?”
“Jovina. She’s invited me to her birthday party, and to stay a few days with her and Marcus.”
“Really? That’s good. I thought we’d lost touch with those two. I certainly haven’t seen them since they left Eburacum.”
“Nor have I. That’s why I’m keen to go. We’ve a great deal of catching up to do.”
Lucius turned to Vitellia. “I don’t suppose you know them, Vitellia. Jovina is a distant cousin of ours. We saw quite a lot of her when we were young, because she’s like us, from Italia originally, but now settled here. So is her husband. He’s Marcus Mallius Melandrus, he’s in the army and quite senior now. They were in Lindum for some years, before they came up to Eburacum. They’re a nice pair, we’re fond of them both.”
She shook her head, and the gesture didn’t disturb her glossy dark curls. She was one of those women who remain perfectly groomed at all hours of the day and night. Makes you spit.
“No, I don’t know them. I’ve never even been to Lindum.” She gave Lucius her dazzling smile. “Until I met you, dearest, I’m afraid I’d always thought anywhere north of Londinium was rather…” She hesitated.
“Uncivilised?” I suggested, and was maliciously pleased when she looked flustered.
“Oh, of course not, Aurelia.” Again she shook her head, and this time the curls jiggled, but not enough to spoil their fashionable arrangement. “It’s just that I’m a town girl, I’ve lived mostly in Londinium, and it’s – well, it’s different here.”
No, really? Well, as I often say, there’s no law against stating the obvious.
My brother only laughed. “You’re right there, Kitten.”
I assumed they’d go back to making sheep’s eyes at one another. But Lucius was still thinking about my letter. “Whereabouts are Marcus and Jovina based now, Aurelia?”
“Gods, the poor things. That’s a pretty dismal dump to be stuck in. No wonder she needs a party to cheer her up. ”
“My thoughts exactly. It’s not far away really, and the journey will do me good.”
“Journey?” I had his full attention now. “I suppose it’ll need two days, but you could take it in stages and rest in Eburacum for a day on the way. You’re still not strong after your illness. Are you sure you’re up to it?”
“Of course I am. Don’t fuss, Lucius.”
“I’m not fussing. I just want to make certain you’re not taking on too much. You’ve been ill, and you’ve got to be sensible. Which I know you find hard,” he added, with a touch of his old mischief.
I wasn’t going to be put off. “A few days with Jovina is just the holiday I need. I know it’s a busy time here, but the staff can manage. You’re not going to begrudge me a holiday, surely?”
“Of course not, as long as you’re well enough to enjoy it. What exactly does Jovina say about her party? May I see her letter?” He leaned forward and reached out to take it from my hand, but I pulled it away.
“No you may not. It’s private. Girl talk, not for your eyes.”
He shrugged. “Girl talk? Gods, then I don’t want to know.”
Vitellia was looking blank. “Where exactly is Isurium? I’ve never heard of it.”
“On the road that runs north from Eburacum to the frontier, Kitten.”
She appeared none the wiser. “And your cousin lives in the fort with her husband? That must be grim for her. Is she allowed to, or does she have to keep out of the way? I mean I didn’t think women were supposed to live inside a fort.”
I laughed. “Jovina wouldn’t be very good at keeping out of the way, and she doesn’t have to. Marcus is the deputy commander, so he has his own accommodation inside the walls, and she’s allowed to live there with him. But you’re right, it is a bit grim, cooped up inside there. She and Marcus have built their own house in the village close by, and that’s where she spends most of her time, she and her daughter. Her son’s grown up and in the army, like his father.”
“So you’ll stay with her in the village? Among all the natives?”
“There aren’t many of our own people settled there yet, are there? Romans, I mean…civilised people.”
I smiled at her. She didn’t know much, but at least she was taking an interest. “Some of the Brigantes consider themselves quite civilised, but I know what you mean, it isn’t the same. Still, most of them have realised there’s no point trying to fight Romans these days. We’re here to stay. Far north on the frontier there’s still hostility sometimes, but forts like Isurium are as safe as here. Aren’t they, Lucius?”
“Oh yes. The soldiers spend their time moaning that they’re bored with endless drills and practice marches, and want to do some fighting.”
“Then if it’s really safe,” Vitellia persisted, “why do they need a fort at all?”
A good question, in fact a very good question. I looked at her with renewed interest, but Lucius cut in before I could answer.
“Don’t worry your head about it, Kitten.” He patted her hand. “Just take it from me that Aurelia will be quite safe there.”
She gave me her full, beaming smile. “I think you’re awfully brave, travelling all that way on your own. You really don’t think it’s dangerous?”
“The only danger I can foresee is that I’ll drink too much at Jovina’s party, and a couple of strapping soldiers will have to carry me off to my bed.”
She giggled. “That could be really dangerous.”
Had she actually made a joke? We all laughed, I probably more loudly than the remark deserved.
“Well then,” Lucius smiled and raised his wine-mug, “Here’s to a pleasant trip, and an excellent party.”
The rest of the meal was easier. The love-birds started to make plans for the day, a drive round the countryside and a picnic. I wasn’t included of course, but I didn’t mind now, because I’d plans of my own to make. I’d have to get organised quickly. Jovina’s party was at midsummer, and I wanted to arrive at least a couple of days in advance. I counted the days on my fingers, and realised how short the time was. It should have appalled me, but instead it simply added to the excitement to realise I must leave home the day after tomorrow.
I’m a great believer in making lists, and I took a wax note-tablet from my pouch and started to jot down a few of the more important things I had to arrange. Which of our carriages should I take? Our vehicles were all serviceable but by no means new. Could I borrow something better for the trip from one of our friends? How many servants? Just a driver and a maid, and a couple of bodyguards. I’d need to have quite a lot of cash with me, because though I run a mansio, I’m not myself one of the favoured ones who can travel about and stay free at official accommodation.
It was only a two-day journey and the roads were good. I’d stop at Eburacum on the way, and I’d be able to stay at my sister Albia’s town house there. She kept it staffed all year, even though she and Candidus rarely had time for visits to town in the summer. It was comfortable and well-placed for shopping. Yes, I’d stay an extra day and visit the shops. I scribbled “Write to A today” on my list.
So two nights in Eburacum and one more day’s travel along the military road north would bring me to Isurium. Then Jovina’s, the party, meeting her friends, helping her solve her problem, whatever it was…I was looking forward to all of it.
I hadn’t felt so enthusiastic about anything, so alive with hope, for months. I knew for certain that I’d once and for all thrown off my illness and the black melancholy that had soured the spring. I was sure I would have a wonderful holiday. I was convinced nothing could go wrong, and if it did, I was confident I could easily deal with anything the Fates chose to put in my path.
I was mistaken on all counts.
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