Read The Iron Hand of Mars Online

Authors: Lindsey Davis

The Iron Hand of Mars (8 page)

BOOK: The Iron Hand of Mars
10.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The frontier was uncertain enough. Europe was full of restless tribes constantly trying to migrate to other districts, sometimes in great numbers. Since Julius Caesar's time, Rome had been attempting to settle friendly groups of them in ways that created buffer zones. Our Upper and Lower German provinces formed a military corridor along the River Rhenus between the pacified lands in Gaul and the great unknown. That was the policy at any rate, until the civil war.

I studied my map thoughtfully. In the far north, alongside Belgica, around the Rhenus Estuary, lay the Batavian homeland, with the stronghold they called The Island. All along the river stood the Roman forts, guard posts, watch-towers, and signal stations which had been built to control Germany; most of them were now neatly lined through by the scribe who had brought the maps up to date for me. Furthest north was Noviomagus, where Vespasian was planning a new fort to watch over the Batavians, but which was currently just a cross on the map; next came Vetera, scene of the grim siege. Then there was Novaesium, whose pathetic legion had defected to the rebels; Bonna, which had been overrun by the XIV's Batavian cohorts amid horrible slaughter; and Colonia Agrippinensium, which the rebels had captured but spared from the flames for strategic reasons (also I think Civilis had relations living there). On the River Mosella stood Augusta Treverorum, tribal capital of the Treveri, where Petilius Cerialis had roundly defeated the rebels. Where the River Moenus joined the Rhenus, lay my initial destination: Moguntiacum, capital of Upper Germany. I could reach it on a direct highway from the great Gallic crossroads at Lugdunum.

Alternatively, I could branch off the highway at a junction town called Cavillonum, and approach Upper Germany from further south. It was a good excuse to acclimatise myself to the province. I could travel to Moguntiacum and my rendezvous with the XIV by water. This alternative route was no greater distance (I convinced myself) and I would hit the Rhenus most conveniently at Argentoratum, home station of a certain party whose sister I doted on.

*   *   *

While I was still frowning at the immense distance that lay ahead of us, the barber scuttled in looking green.

“Xanthus! Which hazard of travel has blighted your life now? Garlic, constipation, or just being fleeced?”

“I made the mistake of ordering a drink!”

“Ah! Happens to everyone.”

“It cost—”

“Don't tell me. I'm already depressed. The Gauls have a crazy standard of values. They are wine-mad, and spend like lunatics in the quest for liquor. No one who believes that a sound-bodied slave is fair exchange for one amphora of mediocre imported wine is reliable. And the vintner won't charge you less than he paid for it just because
you
were brought up to expect a flagon on the tavern table for half an as.”

“What are people supposed to do, Falco?”

“I believe seasoned travellers carry their own.”

He stared at me. I gave him the peaceful smile of a man who had probably been drinking a private supply while his companion was out being rooked.

“You want a shave, Falco?” He sounded hurt.

“No.”

“You look like a savage.”

“Then I'll merge in nicely where we have to go.”

“I heard you were a ladies' man.”

“The lady whose man I happen to be happens to be somewhere else. Get to sleep, Xanthus. I warned you that having your pretty sandals on foreign soil would involve pain and stress.”

“I hired you to protect me!” he grumbled, winding himself into the thin blanket on his narrow bed. We were in a small dormitory. Massilia believes in packing in the customers neck to neck, like pickle jars on a cargo boat.

I grinned. “That's the spirit! Adventures were what you wanted. They always involve suffering.”

Just before the lamp died of exhaustion, I let him see me testing my dagger and placing it under what passed for a pillow. I think he understood the message. I was a highly trained professional. Danger was my way of life. If so much as a mouse scratched a floorboard, knifing the barber would be my instant response. Given the amount of shaving-lotion he splashed on, I would smell him coming even in the pitch-dark. And I knew where to sink my weapon for the best effect. Whatever the Palace had told him, or not told him, he must be aware of that.

His first day in Gaul had made him too miserable to try anything that night.

There would be plenty of other chances. But whenever he decided to do the dirty work for Titus Caesar, I would be on the alert.

 

XII

We reached Lugdunum. I won't say without incident. We had fought off a gang of village urchins who thought my basket of symbolic ironwork contained something they could sell, then I hitched a lift on a wineship and nearly dropped the Hand overboard. In fact, every time we rode away from the previous night's mansio, I ran the risk of leaving Vespasian's present for the XIV behind on a shelf.

The drinking-water started to affect us at Arelate; Gallic cooking oil knocked us sideways as we were rowed past Valentia; some tricky pork laid us low for a day at Vienna; and by the time we slunk into the civic capital, the wine we had gulped down to try and forget the pork had given us splitting heads. All along the route we were playing patball with the normal autumnal quota of fleas stocking up before the winter, bedbugs, wasps, and invasive little black things whose favourite lodging was up a luckless traveller's nose. Xanthus, whose pampered skin had rarely been outside the Palace, broke out in a rash whose progress he described for me at tedious length.

So, Lugdunum. As we disembarked, I favoured Xanthus with an informative travelogue: “Lugdunum—capital of the Three Gauls. That's as in
‘Caesar divided Gaul into three parts…,'
which every schoolboy is compelled to know, though you barbers may escape such low points of education … A handsome city, established by Marcus Agrippa as a focus for communication and trade. Notice the interesting aqueduct system, which uses sealed pipes constructed as inverted syphons to cross the river valleys. It's extremely expensive, from which we can deduce that in provincial terms the people of Lugdunum are
extremely
rich! There is a temple to the imperial cult, which we shall not be visiting—”

“I'd like a chance to sightsee!”

“Stick with me, Xanthus. This city also boasts an outstation of the mighty Arretinum pottery. We'll go there for our treat. You and I will be following the grand tourist tradition of trying to take home some dinnerware—at twice the cost and three times the trouble of shelling out for it in Italy.”

“Why do it then, Falco?”

“Don't ask.”

Because my mother told me to.

*   *   *

The samian tableware factory offered a fabulous chance to make our feet hurt tramping about all morning staring at thousands of pots, not to mention the opportunity of lashing out on presents that would make our bankers wince. The Lugdunum potters were bidding to supply the whole Empire. Theirs was the big commercial success story of our time. They were cornering the market, and their compound had that atmosphere of tenacious greed which passes for business enterprise.

Kilns and stalls stretched around the town like a besieging army, dominating normal life. Wagons blocked all the exit roads, hardly able to creak forwards under towering crates of the famous red dishes packed in straw for transit all over the Empire and probably beyond. Even in the depression that had followed the violence of the civil war, this place thrived. If ever the ceramics market slumped, Lugdunum would see widespread grief.

There were acres of workshops. Each one contained a local craftsman, most of whom were freeborn, unlike at the main factory in northern Italy, which I knew was run by slaves. My mother (who always made helpful suggestions for a present I could bring her) had informed me that Arretinum was in decline, whereas its outstation here at Lugdunum was known by discerning housewives as a source of more refined goods. They were certainly expensive, but as I gazed at the tottering stacks of dishes, jugs, and comports, I acknowledged I was chasing quality. The moulds used here had crisply defined patterns or delicately sculpted classical scenes, and the finished clay was fired with great assurance to a warm, deep red gloss. I could see why these ceramics were sought after as eagerly as bronze or glass.

My mother, who had brought up seven children mainly without my father's assistance, deserved an item of decent redware, and I would have liked to buy a handsome platter to mollify Helena. I owed them both some attention. But I resented being set up. Every time I risked asking a price, I moved on again hastily.

There were no bargains. The loss-leader principle was unknown in Lugdunum. These artisans believed that if people were stupid enough to come two hundred miles upriver to inspect their fancy goods, they might as well pay the going rate. The going rate was just about as high as the potters thought they could push it, after weighing up the gemstones in your finger-rings and the nap on your travelling cloak. In my case that meant not very high—but still more than I was prepared to pay.

I burrowed around, but they all thought the public existed to be squeezed. I ended up under a trestle-table, rooting through a basket of cut-price chipped pieces.

“Those look a waste of time,” Xanthus muttered.

“I'm an auctioneer's son. I was taught that alongside the junk in the discard box sometimes nestles a treasure…”

“Oh you're full of homespun lore!” he grinned.

“I can spot a sound turnip—see?”

I had found a hidden serving dish that was relatively free from cracks and firing blemishes. The barber acknowledged graciously that persistence had paid; then we went to find someone to sell it to us.

Not so easy. The potters at Lugdunum certainly had their own ways of obstructing cheapskates. The lads shifting the sacks of wet clay pleaded ignorance of prices; the man carving a new mould was too artistic to barter; the stokers at the kiln were too hot to be bothered; and the craftsman's wife, who normally took the money, had stayed at home with a headache.

“Probably got it worrying how they can possibly spend all their profits!” I muttered to Xanthus.

The craftsman himself was temporarily unavailable. He and most of his neighbours had formed a surly crowd on the cart-track outside. When we came looking for him a dispute was in progress, and there was pushing and shoving. I made Xanthus hang back.

A small, angry group of potters, with wet clay on their aprons and forearms, had gathered round a spokesman who was giving rough answers to two men who appeared to be trying to force a debate. There were more beards and side-whiskers in evidence than you would find in a male gathering in Rome, but not much to choose between any of them otherwise. The two men arguing most heatedly wore the same Gallic tunics as the locals, with high collars of folded material at the throat for warmth, but over these they had European felt capes, with vertically slashed necks, wide sleeves, and pointed hoods thrown back. They were both shouting fiercely, with the air of men losing a struggle. The others made loud retorts from time to time, but tended to stand back contemptuously, as if they had less need to haggle because they were in control.

Things grew distinctly ugly. A tall chap with a cleft chin and vivid sneer appeared to be the local leader. He made a sudden obscene gesture at the two men. The stouter party swung a fist, but was restrained by his comrade, a younger man with reddish hair and warts.

I had been hoping the heat would simmer down so I could buy my pot. Now it looked as if any bargains today would be sealed with bloody noses. I handed Ma's present to a local, grabbed Xanthus, and made a fast exit.

“What was that about, Falco?”

“No idea. When you're travelling, never get drawn into feuds. You don't know the history, you're bound to pick the wrong side, and all that can happen is both parties will turn on you.”

“You've left your dish!”

“That's right.” It was lopsided anyway.

 

XIII

On the next leg of our journey things started to happen.

I was fast losing heart. Visiting the ceramics factory had served as a diversion, though one which produced its own anxieties since I had bought nothing and would be due for a drubbing back at home. Still, I gave no more thought to potters and their problems; I had troubles of my own. My real mission loomed. By Lugdunum we had put a third of the distance across Europe behind us, with the tiring sea trip from Ostia before that. Now we were on the final push, and the nearer we drew to the great Rhenus river, and to the ludicrous tasks Vespasian had set me, the more depressed I felt.

Not for the first time, I had become horrified by how far we had to journey in order to cross Europe, and by how long it was taking.

“More bad news, Xanthus! River travel's too slow. At this rate I'll hit winter before I finish my mission. I'm transferring to horseback, courtesy of my imperial travel pass, so you'll have to hire yourself a mule if you want to keep up.”

Don't imagine that Vespasian had kitted me out with the wherewithal to commandeer a horse from the state despatch stations because he wanted me to travel in comfort; he probably thought it more convenient for the Iron Hand.

The terrain looked decidedly foreign now. Instead of huge Italian villas with absentee landlords and hundreds of slaves, we were riding past modest tenant farms. Pigs instead of sheep. Fewer olive groves and thinner vineyards with every milestone. We were being held up at bridges by army supply convoys; it was definitely the approach to a military zone. Towns became a novelty. Everywhere was colder, wetter, and darker than when we had left home.

As a traveller Xanthus was becoming more confident, which meant that as the idiot's nursemaid I had to be even more on guard. Explaining trivial regional habits every time we stopped to change horses was maddening. In addition, it had started to rain.

BOOK: The Iron Hand of Mars
10.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries by Melville Davisson Post
Case with 4 Clowns by Bruce, Leo
Moving in Rhythm by Dev Bentham
Kallos (Kallos Series) by Jackson, Khelsey
Patience by Sydney Lane
Feral: Part One by Arisa Baumann
Having His Baby by Beverly Barton
Vampires Don't Sparkle! by Michael West