Chapter Five

“Well, here we are,” Findlemann said, and surprisingly broke into verse:

“The stately homes of England…

But make that Pannonia Superior, amigos…

How beautiful they stand
To prove the upper classes
Still have the upper hand…”

“Noel Coward,” he explained at Paula and Jeremey’s blank looks; Filipa seemed to be searching her memory. “A girl I know… knew… her mom has a thing for old musicals.”

“Really old, from 1938,” Artorius said. “Satirical then, because the people who owned the Downton Abbeys were all in hock and a lot of them were going broke. Dead serious here.”

“Truer words were never said… in Pannonia… Mark, Prof,” Jeremey said. “This is the gentlefolks’ entrance—lowly tradesmen off to the right. They weren’t sure who or what the hell I was and they’re real busy… busy ain’t the word. But Josephus is big medicine here—”

He gave the man a smile and nod and translated that into Latin that already sounded a good deal better than it had when he left Vindobona, before dropping back into English:

“—and they’re all anxious not to get on his bad side, so I got the cooperation I needed when I showed up with him, even after he went right on to Sirmium. They got even friendlier when the messenger arrived from there with orders from their boss-man. I planted the iffy stuff first, of course. Pray for rain as soon as the harvest’s finished; there’s usually a couple of inches a month this time of year, according to the books.”

“If God listened to countryfolk’s prayers about rain, He’d be real busy,” Artorius said absently.

His mind automatically fitted what he was seeing into his knowledge of archaeological digs and artist’s reconstructions and descriptions in ancient literature, but with an eerie overtone that hit him in the gut again. This wasn’t faked up for tourists, no matter how much it looked like the rebuilt Villa Borg in the Saarland or a virtual tour of that place in Wiltshire discovered in the early 20’s.

He was here. People lived in this, and worked in it, as generation followed generation. He could smell their woodsmoke, and their roses.

Ahead were formal gardens inside a stretch of low walls framing the gateway to the pars urbana, the owner’s residence. Walkways and low hedges of box and yew surrounded bright flower-banks with narcissi, oleanders, violets, crocus, lily and more. Statues painted in lurid colors stood on plinths, heavily pruned trees and bushes grew in fantastical shapes, occasionally a pergola overgrown with roses or flowering vines stretched over a bench or walkway. There was a sort of roundabout arrangement where the road circled around a fountain playing in bright tumbling streams around a bronze Neptune with eerie colored-glass eyes that seemed to follow you.

Beyond the landscaping was a two-story stretch of building to either side of a columned arch in its center. That reached higher and was flat-topped, like a scaled-down Arch of Trajan; the yellowish-white walls to either side, about the shade of thick cream, were pierced by glass windows. The small square panes were in cross-hatched wooden frames, and the roofing was low-pitched red tile. What his age had quite rightly called Roman tile—flat, with rows of large separate tapered arched sections covering the ridged joins.

Something was missing…

Chimneys. I keep running into that when I see it for real; there’s only those covered smoke-hole arrangements. Nothing but braziers in a middle Danube Valley winter. Brrr! Or hypocausts in a few places, I suppose.

The gates in the archway were swung back. Inside was a big rectangular courtyard, surrounded by two-story colonnaded blocks running backward on both sides; the columns were made of some light fine-grained limestone and fluted. There were more flower banks and close-clipped trees and brightly painted polychrome statuary in the court, with mosaic on the walkways close to the buildings and hints of murals as well; his scholarly side itched to go take a closer look.

And also a long reflecting pool with curved sections at front and back, where a bronze faun held an amphora that poured a stream of real water.

The brick-paved area around the pool ended in another block that closed the courtyard on its eastern end, with a portico-entrance in the middle of it. He knew from descriptions that another, smaller courtyard devoted to gardens and foot-traffic lay beyond that, and then behind the villa proper a large terrace and pool overlooking a sweep of ground down to the shore of the lake. A four-story square tower rose from the northernmost rear corner of the building, overlooking everything.

Josephus waved, and the other wagons headed off southward, where the pars rustica—the business part of the estate—was placed around two more courtyards that gave off the villa proper at the right rear corner, though they were single-story. Those held granaries, wine-presses, workshops for carpenters and blacksmiths and weavers and others, threshing floors, rows of cellae—small rooms that might be storage or slave quarters, one per family—and more, with stables backed onto those, and turn-out paddocks for the working stock beyond, oxen and horses and mules.

The pars urbana was stone-block construction covered in plaster and stucco. The pars rustica was, he thought, on a masonry foundation, above that partly brick but mostly rammed earth or adobe likewise plastered, and the covering was whitewash.

Artorius took a deep breath as his party went through the central arch and across the courtyard and up to the eastern side. Figures waited there; some at the top of a low flight of stairs, others at its base. The Americans and Josephus dismounted (or in Mark and Paula’s case, got down from their wagon) and walked up to the foot of the stairs.

Two women stood there, one in her fifties and one in her twenties; obviously Sextus Hirrius Trogus’ sister Julia and mother Claudia, and they both had an entourage of maidservants of various kinds behind them, among other things holding parasols.

Yup, they’ve dropped that convention about calling women by feminine forms of the family surnames, he thought. Yet another dating problem solved… sort of.

At least for Pannonia!

A few older men in good but sober calf-length tunics were probably the equivalents of a butler, bookkeeper and the like.

The landowner’s mother appeared older than her probable age because she’d lost a lot of teeth, which gave her a witch-in-a-fairytale look not helped by a basilisk glare. The younger looked no more than her actual mid-twenties, unlike the bulk of the population here-and-now.

A smooth comely face, dark-green eyes, hair a brown-russet from what little could be seen of it, and a figure just on the slim side of full. A nine-year-old girl stood beside her, like a miniature of her mother except that her hair was lighter, right down to the way she was dressed and a set of smaller jewelry, though that included a crescent-moon lunula protective amulet.

All three wore gentlewoman’s clothing. For starters, that meant tunics long enough to brush the top of the foot, with baggy sleeves. The garments were actually two wide rectangles of fabric each, sewn together at the sides from the bottom up nearly to the top; that was left open and fastened when worn with rows of carved-ivory or precious-metal rondels secured with pins, that ran from the neck-opening to the elbows. Then the garment was gathered around the waist with sash-like belts, giving a draped effect.

Both the adults had purple bands on the bottom hem of their tunics, which were green and blue respectively and of very fine, tight-woven merino-type wool. A stola went over that for the adults, mark of married, matronly respectability, like a second, sleeveless tunic supported at each shoulder with short straps. The stolae were pale pink and russet-brown silk, the fabric being a mark of aristocratic status—a century or so earlier they’d have been wool too.

The rectangular wrapped cloaks of fine colored cloth—one dark blue and the other green-striped on a yellow background—they added were outside wear, which showed a certain stiff formality since they were only technically outside. Each was draped over the left shoulder, under the right arm and around the body and back across, carried by the left arm; the garments were called pallae. They reminded him a little of Indian saris—which word meant strip of cloth—and the younger woman’s had a fringe of yellow tassels.

Both had folds of their pallas drawn over their high-piled hair like hoods or snoods, and their rather heavy formal makeup added to the mask-like look of their faces. They also wore eye-catching jewelry, boat-shaped golden earrings, rings, bracelets and necklaces, all studded with amber, lapis, and small emeralds, down to the buckles on their openwork sandals. The jewels were polished rather than cut, but there was a certain raw splendor to it.

The covered heads inclined very slightly as Josephus made the introductions. He did so with deferential politeness. The head of their family might be in hock to his eyeballs to the merchant, but he was a merchant, and a Jew.

While Sextus Hirrius Trogus was a landowner, and a descendant of landowners and of generations of Roman equites; first raised to that rank in the days of Pompey two centuries ago, when Julius Caesar was an ambitious young whippersnapper and the Ptolemies still ran Egypt. This Pannonian branch of the Trogi weren’t rich or ambitious enough for Senatorial rank, but below that were about as elevated as you got. There was a lot of personnel churn in the Senate, but less so as you went down the scale.

Josephus and Artorius and Mark and Jeremey were all in gentleman’s traveling gear, summer edition; essentially calf-length tunics bloused up to the knee through their sword-belts, tight knee-length leather riding-breeches beneath (a relatively recent innovation copied from the military), lace-up open boots and colored cloaks, with status shown by the quality of fabric and dyes. And in Josephus’ case by a discreet emerald in a ring on his left hand.

And they wore round leather hats with wide brims and a center section like a low pillbox, locally known as a petasus and originally Greek. Romans generally didn’t use hats except on journeys or when working all day in sun or rain. These looked a bit like a Cordobes hat though a little more rounded on top, the type traditionally worn in southern Spain and also by Zorro in the old shows.

Which shows you some things don’t change very fast.

Artorius inclined his own head as he removed his hat.

Domina,” he said to the older woman.

That was the vocative-case address used to a married woman of equal… or sometimes of superior… social status. Formal, tactful, and non-committal. The closest equivalent in his native dialect was ma’am, or perhaps the way ma’am had been used in Teddy Roosevelt’s day.

The male version, Domine, was roughly sir or mister.

He’d checked with Josephus, of course: his knowledge of Roman social etiquette turned out to have more holes than a lace doily. Too much of what people absorbed by growing up in a time and place didn’t get into books because it was natural as air, or if it did the books that had it didn’t survive. Or you could mistake truth for satire, and vice versa.

And Roman customs changed, just not as fast or as consciously as in his native time; a written description might be painfully out of date, or not here yet… or chic in Rome itself but horrifying in the provinces.

Domina,” again to the younger. To both:

“I am most honored by your generous hospitality and that of your son—”

A nod to the mother, followed by one to the sister.

“—and your most excellent and esteemed brother, the equites Sextus Hirrius Trogus, and I will strive to make the presence of myself and my associates as little of a burden as I may.”

The older woman’s return smile was still glacial and reluctant in a way that suggested it hurt her face, with the family’s debts looming like an invisible monster hunched on her shoulder and holding clawed hands around her throat. The younger was just as composed, but he thought perhaps less hostile, and a bit intrigued by the sheer strangeness of the strangers.

Her eyes skipped back to Paula and Filipa. Paula’s skin-color wasn’t completely unknown in the Roman Mediterranean, especially as you got closer to Egypt. But it would be a very rare sight here on the northern frontier, and even more so in the countryside. She was dressed much like the two Roman women, on Josephus’ advice, except that she didn’t wear a married woman’s stola and her jewelry was much simpler and nothing was silk, which would be putting it on.

So her outfit’s upper-middle-class respectable, as opposed to old-money aristo swank. Of course, she’s traveling without any of her male kin or even a maid, which isn’t very respectable.

Filipa’s East Asian physical type was outright exotic here, and she was wearing essentially the same clothes the males in the party, which Josephus had warned would be interpreted as…

very assertive statement of her sexual orientation, would be the low-key, polite way to put it. Or perhaps an overly emphatic way of rejecting gender binaries? Not going to fight her about it, not here and now, and she does need to ride. Not ride pillion, either. Sarukê gets away with it, because everyone knows Sarmatian women dress in pants, a barbarian garment anyway, and she is a barbarian, so she’s expected to be belch-fart-scratch-your-ass-in-public uncouth, like something in a comic play.

After the ladies retired with a few polite nothings and directions to the servants about showing them to their quarters and heating up the second bathhouse for the visiting men, Artorius caught the eye of the vilicus, among the others who’d been standing below the stairs to greet the strange and in the case of Josephus, important guests.

He was a stocky middle-aged type with a wart beside his nose and a fringe of brown beard, in a plain good tunic and high openwork cothernus boots, holding a hat like theirs in his hand and looking as if he was containing his impatience at not being out supervising things with a monumental effort of self-control. He also looked as if he hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, and probably hadn’t.

And he’d already been landed with a glib young stranger with a weird accent taking away some of his workers at a crucial point to plant the Gods-knew-what. Anything going seriously wrong right now would be un-fixable if not caught early, and probably blamed on him.

“We’ll talk tomorrow morning, early, about what I need,” he said to the bailiff. “But for now, don’t let me take you from your work. The harvest must come first. There won’t be any more calls on your hands until the grain’s all cut.”

“My thanks, m’lord Artorio’,” the man said in a rustic accent and with an air of relief, and walked off… not quite running.

Artorius groaned inwardly as hooves clattered at the gate; yet another interruption.

And I’m really looking forward to that bath, taken without as much possibly infectious and certainly inquisitive company as in town. That dual sauna thing they do is powerfully attractive to my aching butt. I wonder if we could introduce showers? And individual bottom-drain tubs?

A nondescript dark man in plain and very dusty clothes dismounted, went straight to Josephus, and handed him a diptych, two wooden tablets hinged like a book with wax on their interiors where you could write with a stylus. The merchant undid the string fastener and broke the wax seal on it, opened it and read in a low murmur, in Greek. His face changed as he did, and he strode over to the American.

“I’ve been called away. My wife writes that my son Matthias is gravely ill.”

Josephus had mentioned him several times; he was ten, the firstborn child, one of two surviving so far, and the apple of his father’s eye.

“I must go to Sirmium, and quickly.”

“May he be spared! What’s the problem?”

“A stomach complaint, she writes, that has taken a turn for the worse and settled in the bowels, with bloody stool. That’s common in children, especially in the warm season.”

And especially in summer in fly-swarming cities with no concept of the germ theory and streets paved with shit, human and otherwise; it was the downside of the dense network of towns and busy trade the Roman economy bred. Most Roman families lost at least one child, and it wasn’t uncommon to have ten or more births—women here married young—with only one or two living to adulthood.

That was something that could happen to anyone, Emperors included—Marcus Aurelius and his Empress Faustina had had more than twelve, with only four or five surviving to adulthood. Cities in particular needed a constant inflow from the countryside just to maintain their numbers.

The merchant’s voice and words were calm, but his jaw was tight-held.

“Wait,” Artorius said, and strode over to their baggage, continuing over his shoulder. “A moment only, I ask of you.”

A minute later he had the large pill-bottle in his hand. He measured out six of the 100mg ampicillin capsules, wrapped them in a cloth and handed them over to the merchant.

“Give one of these to your son to swallow as soon as you get home, delaying not an instant,” he said. “Don’t let anyone see, and do not speak of it, please.”

At Josephus’ enquiring look, he went on:

“We have only so many of these, and can never replace what we use. If it were widely known we had them and what they could do… that would be bad trouble.”

“Ah,” the merchant said, nodding. “I see.”

Smart cookie, Artorius thought, nodding back, then went on aloud:

“Then one more a day at the same time until they’re gone or he’s recovered, whichever comes first. It will probably… very probably, almost certainly… help. I can’t absolutely guarantee it, but…”

“But all else has failed. One a day, at the same time,” Josephus said, frowning in intense concentration, but his shoulders didn’t have quite the same degree of iron tension. “I will.”

“And boil water in a covered pot, a hard boil for a quarter of an hour at least; keep it tightly covered, and when it cools, add a spoonful of honey and a small pinch of salt, sea-salt, if you can, to each cup you give him. Don’t let him drink anything else while he’s sick. Have more ready at all times, keep it tightly covered, and have him drink as much of it as he can. No solid foods for the week after the pills are all gone, either, just broth of chicken; then soup, and regular food only when he’s walking, and soft foods to start with. You can tell others about that; it helps those with bowel sickness, though not as much as the medicine will.”

Josephus studied his face for a moment, put a hand on his shoulder, squeezed a little and said simply:

“My thanks, friend,” before very carefully tucking the bundle of pills into his belt-pouch.

They shook hands; then Josephus turned to his Sarmatian bodyguard:

“Sarukê, stay here and guard these people with your life. And see that the messenger is given what he needs. I’ll take Kunjamunduz.”

Who was his alternate, German bodyguard; the word meant kin-protector.

Names here in most languages weren’t just arbitrary noises. Roman names often meant something too, when you thought about it—often something like Number Six, or Baldy or Hairy or Wart-Face; they’d started as nicknames and had turned into hereditary surnames.

And a good translation for Brutus would be animalistic stupidity.

Josephus went on to his clients: “All three of you may need to go back and forth between Sirmium and here with messages. Keep two horses ready at all times.”

He and the tall blond Germani headed for their mounts, vaulted into the saddle and spurred away with the bodyguard holding a leading rein with two more in tow. The messenger stood and looked nearly as tired as his horse, until Sarukê motioned servants to come and deal with them both.

“Those pills are irreplaceable, Prof,” Jeremey said, his tone neutral… and in English.

They’d already had to use a few themselves, to halt cases of the runs before they became serious. Their immune systems had no experience with the ambient bacteria here at all. And those changed every time you moved into a new watershed anyway. What an aqueduct delivered might be safe… but might just as well have an elderly dead goat a little upstream.

They followed the head housekeeper into the odd-looking splendors of the mansion: more painted statues in niches, murals in a vivid style, realistic but without perspective, that showed how crude the ones in their digs in Vindobona were, polychrome marble floors or mosaics, sparse but ornately inlaid furniture and carefully calculated vistas of colonnade and garden.

“So’s Josephus irreplaceable, from our point of view,” Artorius said.

The middle-aged senior housekeeper went walking along proudly before them in a neat but plainer version of what the ladies had worn minus the palla-cloak, and they were trailed by the more lowly maid-of-all-work types in simple but good ankle-length tunics carrying their personal baggage, with a few footman-equivalents lugging the first tranche of the heavier items at the rear.

“Besides, we owe him.”

It all felt like a procession, minus the floats and marching band. These people were ceremonious to a fault.

“Bigtime,” Mark Findlemann said.

Then he grinned, striking a pose, hand raised and index finger pointing at the sky, or the high ceiling.

“When trouble strikes, who you gonna call? A smart Jew!”

Everyone chuckled or smiled. Artorius’ smile died as he looked over his shoulder after Josephus and thought:

Josephus brought two professional bodyguards on this trip, apparently standard operating procedure. He left one with us. Every second or third male in our little wagon train had a spear or an axe along, and some had shields and a couple kept their hunting bows on hand. I should consider what that implies. This is the frontier of the Roman world.

In West Texas for a long time after his ancestors arrived there a man buckled on his gunbelt when he went out the door as automatically as putting on his hat, and stuck a rifle in the saddle-scabbard whenever he got on a horse. It had been common sense more than bravado, between Comanches, outlaws, range-wars, rustlers and feuds with the neighbors. He’d already decided to put some serious effort into learning the sword. It might be a good idea to start developing the habit of buckling that on when he went out, when he wasn’t in a Roman city with its gates and vigiles.

Where it was considered barbaric and uncouth. Elsewhere, particularly near the border…

Not so much.


Copyright © 2023-2024 by S.M. Stirling