Ashes Under Uricon

Chapter 8. Incomprehension (364)

By Mihangel

Impp Constantius et Constans AA ad populum. Cum vir nubit in feminam, femina viris projectura, quid cupiat, ubi sexus perdidit locum, ubi scelus est id quod non proficit scire, ubi Venus mutatur in alteram formam, ubi amor quaeritur nec videtur? Iubemus insurgere leges, armari iura gladio ultore, ut exquisitis poenis subdantur infames qui sunt vel qui futuri sunt rei. Dat. prid. Non. Dec. Med., pp. Romae XVII Kal. Ianuar. Constantio III et Constante II AA Conss.

The august Emperors Constantius and Constans to the people. When a man has sexual intercourse in feminine fashion, like a woman submitting to men, what can he be craving? Gender has lost its significance, the crime is one that is not profitable to know, desire is changed into another form, love is sought but not found. We order the statutes to be strengthened and the laws to be armed with the avenging sword so that, now and in the future, those guilty of this unspeakable offence shall be subjected to exquisite punishment. Issued at Mediolanum 4 December and posted at Rome 16 December 342.

Theodosian Code

Next morning, no mention was made of the awkwardness, and Bran was willing to join the hunt. Lucius went home, promising to be at the north gate in a hour, and as we saddled our horses and led them slowly to the gate I told Bran of his fulsome thanks and apologies.

"That's good," said Bran. "Very good. He's coming along well. I like him, much more than I ever thought I'd like a Roman. But he's still got one Roman quirk I don't like."

"You mean that he's, um, got his eye on you?" I ventured.

"That's right. I can't tell him where to get off, more's the pity. But you can, and you do, for which I'm more than grateful. If he can drop his idea that any slave is there for the asking, he'll be fine. But it won't be easy. He's convinced that you and I have it off with each other."

"Is he?" I was quite shocked. "How can he think that?"

"The mere fact that we're friends and spend so much time together. Amply confirmed by what you said in the bath yesterday. Don't you remember?"

I thought, and it came back. 'Our relationship is different. Haven't you hoisted that in yet?' And 'We do things together.'

"Oh dear. Yes, I see. I could have phrased it better, couldn't I? But at least he knows that you're out of bounds. I told him so straight out last night, when he was making noises about your loveliness, and he said he understood. All right, he understood wrong. But it'll keep him off you."

"But will it keep his eyes off me?"

At that point there was the sound of hooves, and Lucius arrived with a slave and a pack of four leashed hounds. The slave, whose name we were not told, was little more than a boy, handsome in a brooding, almost lowering, way. He was heavily tattooed. On his forehead was the word Pulchri -- a Roman method of marking ownership, foreign to the Britons -- and on his bare arms was a mass of distinctive animal designs. He was surely a Pict. He held half a dozen spears, and a bundle of bows and quivers stuck out of his saddlebag. The hounds were huge, grey, long in the snout, and with shaggy coats of wiry hair.

"They're from Ireland," Lucius told us. "Generations back. Like you, Bran. We call them wolfhounds, but they're just as good with deer and boar. We might find either on our land. That's where I'm taking you, if I can remember the way. I've only been out there once, just after we arrived, with my father -- he's as mad on hunting as me. He says it's good, much better than round Camulodunum where the country's over-hunted and too open. But round here there are plenty of woods, and he's thinking of building a hunting lodge on our land. Not to stay over in, just a little kitchen and dining room for lunch, and baths for afterwards. Nothing fancy."

Bran and I decided not even to smile. We rode a couple of miles north and west to cross the Sabrina by the bridge on the main road to Levobrinta, and at Croucomailum we veered off to the left.

Huntsmen's tales are as tedious as fishermen's, and I will spare you the full details. We rode around for a while before the dogs put up a hare, which Lucius got with his second arrow. Having rarely shot with a bow, I was envious. A little later they put up another which they chased in a great circle. As it came back, heading for the shelter of a wood, it passed quite close to me. To my astonishment I downed it with my first shot, and a dog came lolloping back with it in his gentle jaws.

Then we broke off for our food, and in the absence of a little kitchen and dining room we ate it sitting on the ground. Lucius' slave sat apart. Because he was not mine I could not interfere, but Bran went to talk to him. That shamed Lucius into calling them both over to join us, and he introduced the slave at last. His name was Drostan. I would have liked to ask him about the meaning of the symbols on his arms. Tattoos were the hallmark of the Picts -- that was why we called them Picts, Painted People -- and I had never met one before. But his British was so broken that conversation was difficult, and he seemed to hold Lucius in fear.

The food finished, Bran yawned prodigiously. "Sorry," he said. "Don't let me go to sleep. I didn't get home till well after midnight." Lucius looked at him sharply, and then at me, and seemed to be doing sums in his head.

Next we sent the hounds into the nearby wood. They chased out a deer which promptly doubled back under cover and was not seen again. Then they flushed out a boar, not a big one, but with tusks that were vicious enough. It saw us and charged, heading straight for Bran. My heart was in my mouth. But without hesitation he dropped on one knee, spear at the ready with its butt in the ground, and the boar quite simply impaled itself. How easy. Lucius leapt on it and slit its throat, complimenting Bran on his resolution, and with Drostan he expertly skinned the beast and cut it up. The joints went into our various saddlebags, the entrails went to the dogs, and I stuck the head on the broken-off branch of a tree.

"Why do you do that?" asked Lucius.

It was difficult to put into words. "We British have a thing about heads. That's where the soul lives, so they reflect divinity, the powers of the gods. Heads are more . . . honourable than bodies. More powerful. They deserve respect. That boar did us no harm, but we're going to make good use of its body. So let us honour its head."

Lucius shrugged, and suggested that we call it a day, and a successful day at that. We rode home, but once inside Viroconium, since there was still some daylight left and I felt Lucius was in need of a little more education, I led him on a diversion to two adjacent temples. They were of our standard design, the shrine of one a tall square, of the other an octagon, both with a lean-to portico around. The first was sacred to Donnotarvus, and inside it was lined with stacked skulls of cows.

"Heads are important," I repeated. "Donnotarvus is the bull-king, who guards the Cornovii's cattle. What better than to honour him with than cows' heads? Not sacrificed. From the slaughterhouse."

We left Donnotarvus a piece of meat. The other temple was presided over by a crude cross-legged image of Cernunnos the horned god, and on its walls were human skulls. Lucius recoiled.

"Whose are they?"

"They're so old, most of them, that nobody really knows. Those dark and shiny ones -- the priests have been oiling and polishing them for centuries. It's said that they're from enemies of the Cornovii, before ever the Romans came. Perhaps some are Romans. But once they all contained souls. Not now, because they're empty shells, and if you separate the head from the body you release the soul. With enemies, it's a precaution, in case they hang around to haunt you, and they still deserve respect. With friends, it's a good deed. And sometimes a new skull appears here, fresh and white. Like that one, and that. Nobody asks why, or who, or where from. They're simply heads which deserve respect because once they were home to a soul."

We left Cernunnos a chunk of meat, and went our separate ways. Bran and I rubbed down the horses and sluiced ourselves at the spout. Roveta received our offerings with delight. She hung the hare and, ditching her previous plans for the meal, cut thin steaks of boar for grilling. Bran had been very quiet all afternoon; lack of sleep, he said, from the night before. He was on duty at dinner, and Tad, on tasting the steak, congratulated him on his kill.

"A nice change from beef. But you're asleep on your feet, lad. Get to bed. We can look after ourselves now. And thank you."

Next morning, when he came to get me up, Bran looked dreadful, with dark rings round the eyes. He had hardly slept, he said, having been haunted by visions of the boar's head grinning at him.

"I don't know why. I've never killed anything so big. I don't think I'm cut out for killing. In self-defence, maybe. But I needn't have killed that boar."

"If you hadn't killed it, it would have killed you. Didn't you see its tusks?"

"Yes. But if we hadn't flushed it out it wouldn't have attacked."

I had no answer, and sent him back to bed with orders to sleep it off. To enforce them I got some poppy syrup from Roveta, made him drink it, and sat with him until he dropped off. Then I bent over and kissed him on the forehead.

"You're a good man, Bran. And a gentle one."

It must have sunk in, for a smile crossed his face.

The rest of the morning I spent communing with Vergil, who had been neglected of late. After a bite of lunch, seeing that Bran was still dead to the world, I went out to meet Lucius at the town baths, which he had not yet sampled. He turned up with Drostan in tow, but since Bran was absent I proposed that we scrape each other, and Drostan was sent home. I hoped for a private talk with Lucius and, I cannot deny it, for another look at his body. I got an extended look, but Lucius scraped me fast and perfunctorily, and the place was too crowded and noisy to encourage heart-to-hearts. I suggested we adjourn somewhere quieter.

"Fine by me," said Lucius, "but first I need a crap."

"Me too."

In the latrine we sat on adjacent holes, idly reading the graffiti scratched on the plaster of the opposite wall. Most of them were simple and uninspired statements, that so-and-so loved this or that boy or girl, or that he had shagged them. But one was more imaginative: ACCENSVM QVI PEDICAT VRIT MENTVLAM. Lucius pointed to it and laughed.

"That's clever."

It meant, on the face of it, 'If you bugger an attendant you burn your prick.' But it contained an untranslatable pun, for accensus means not only an attendant, as at the baths, but also someone who is on fire.

"That's almost true, you know," said Lucius, leaning over confidentially. He had not talked about his personal life before. "Drostan really is hot. I buggered him last night."

My disapproval must have shown.

"What's wrong with that?" he asked defensively.

"Was he willing?"

"Willing? I don't know. I've never asked him."

"You mean this wasn't the first time?"

"More like the hundredth. He's the hottest I've ever had, boy or girl. But I bet Bran is just as hot."

Here we go, I thought.

"I don't know. I've never had him, and don't intend to."

"But . . ." Lucius gaped. "But you said . . ."

"I didn't, actually. But I've realised now. When I said we do things together, you thought I meant we had it off together. But all I meant was that we're often together because we're damn good friends. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to mislead you."

"But you said he was out of bounds. If you don't have it off with him, how can he be out of bounds? I thought you meant he was reserved for you. Your favourite, like Alexis in the Eclogue. I could understand that, though I wouldn't be so possessive, even over Drostan. If you wanted to bugger Drostan, I wouldn't have any objection."

"Maybe not. But he might. He very well might. Slaves have free will too, you know, even if they're not allowed to exercise it. If they're ordered to do something, they can't say no, however much they dislike it. I've never ordered Bran into my bed. I've never even asked him. That would be exploiting him. Taking advantage of the fact that he's a slave. After all, as long as he's a slave, we're not equals."

Lucius was frowning hard. "You mean you've never had it off with a slave? Any slave, girl or boy?"

"No, never."

"Well, you're far too sensible to be chaste. Who have you had it off with?"

"Oh, plenty of people, boys and girls."

"Yes, but who? Prostitutes? Foreigners?"

"No. Friends. Other friends."

Disbelief, even horror, spread across Lucius' face.

"Friends? You mean citizens? Free-born?"

"Yes, of course. Why not? Haven't you had it off with yours?"

"They're the last people . . ."

We stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. Around us, men and boys were coming in and going out, laughing, chatting, some within earshot.

"I don't understand," I said. "I just don't understand. But this isn't the place to sort it out. Let's go somewhere more private."

He agreed, and we sponged ourselves, washed our hands at the basin, and went out into the streets. As we walked, without a word between us, I snatched sideways glances at him. He was otherwise a decent lad, very decent, and fast being converted to our ways. He evidently thought we were decent people too, and worth learning from. And I was pretty sure I loved him, even if he did not love me. Yet here we were confronted by a major obstacle. Only calm discussion would show if it was surmountable.

It was the end of March and spring was in the air. I led Lucius to where a stream dropped steeply into the ditch outside the southern walls. It had been dammed to provide the head for a pair of watermills, one below the other, their wheels driven in turn by the same water. We sat on a broken-down cart the miller had abandoned, looking across the millpond with its water lilies and ducks to the bank crowned by the shaky wooden palisade. Compared to the baths, it was peaceful. There was only a gentle creaking and splashing from the waterwheels, and the occasional quack of a duck. But Lucius was still frowning.

"Look," I said. "I don't understand you, and you don't understand me. I only have it off with citizens, you only have it off with slaves. Are we living in the same world?"

"That's not quite right. I've no objection to having it off with free girls. It's only free boys who're taboo."

"What's the difference?" I asked. "Why are only boys taboo? Only free boys? Tell me why, starting from square one, and we might get somewhere."

Lucius' frown changed from one of disgust to one of thought. "Well, I suppose it's basically about, well, um, our dignity."

"Dignity? Whose?"

"Men's, of course."

"But what men?"

"Romans."

"Ah! So we're back to Romans and Britons. Sorry, go on."

"Well, Romans -- Roman men -- are manly. Like Aeneas was, if you like. Or they're supposed to be. After all, we couldn't have conquered the world without manliness, could we? It's made us what we are. And when you're having it off, manliness means taking the man's role. Doing the shagging. Because being shagged is womanly. It's what women are for. And women are inferior, aren't they?"

"No!" I almost shouted it, and it put him off his stride.

"Look," I said patiently, "I think this is where we part company. And I think I see where you're going. But carry on. Let's assume for the moment that women are inferior."

"Well," he said dubiously, struggling to pick up his thread. "The point is that any male who's shagged is inferior too. As inferior as women are. That's why it's all right to bugger slaves. They're inferior already, because they don't have any legal rights. And freedmen and foreigners, who don't have full rights. But if a Roman citizen has a cock shoved up his arse, or even worse into his mouth, then he's being treated as a woman. He's being made inferior. Robbed of his dignity. Degraded. Disgraced. There's even a law about it. It's a capital offence for a citizen to be buggered, voluntarily. It's off with his head."

That was news to me, but it did not scare me. Plenty of laws, indeed most laws, were hot air. "But it's not enforced, is it? If it was, I'd be for the chop. And only the gods know how many others would be too. And what about rent-boys? There are several in Viroconium, and they're never prosecuted."

"Oh, they leave them alone because there's a tax on their earnings, isn't there? Which brings in a tidy revenue. But they're inferior too. They're far from manly."

He had obviously been conditioned into believing all this twaddle.

"It's hard to credit," I said, "that every Roman toes your line."

"Oh, they don't. Good Romans do, who've been well brought up. But plenty have been infected by Greek ways. In Rome itself, I gather, there's a regular underworld of softies. Effeminates, who like being buggered. They're despised, but they don't give a damn. Anyway, theory's one thing, and what goes on behind the bedroom door is another. But if word gets out of, um, irregular goings-on, then there's scandal. It may not go to law, but plenty of people have lost their good reputation that way."

"Have I got this right? You've shagged girls and buggered slave boys, but you've never been buggered yourself? It's all been one-way, hasn't it? You've loved other people, but you've never been loved. Well, love's the wrong word. It's lust. But you're horrified by the thought of anyone lusting for you. Is that right?"

"That's right." It was almost inaudible.

So that was why he had been so shocked the night before last when I praised his body. Now Iunderstood.

"Are you proud of it? Proud of being so manly and such a good Roman? So, um, unwanted?"

There was no answer. And I found I could not bully him.

"It's been drilled into you, Lucius, hasn't it?" I asked as gently as I could. "All your life. Well, there's another way of looking at it, which has been drilled into me all my life. That everyone has free will to choose what they do -- everyone, slave or free, male or female -- or rather that they ought to be able to choose. That everyone deserves equal respect. That nobody's inferior. That masters shouldn't expect slaves to leap into their bed. All right, there are people here who don't follow our rule, just as there are people who don't follow yours. But most of us do. I've never bedded a slave, because it's difficult for a slave to say no. If it's not rape, it's verging on rape. If I thought my partner might be unwilling, I'd . . . well, I think I'd find it difficult to perform.

"It boils down to respect, Lucius. And respect means justice. There is justice in the world, human justice, or there can be. There should be. And there's divine justice too. Not from your Roman gods, as far as I can see -- that's one thing that bugs me in Vergil. Your gods can be spiteful -- look at Juno, for a start. They take it out on man. And man hasn't got much free will, in Vergil. According to him, everything's fore-ordained and there's no point in struggling against fate. But our gods give us choice. If we humans choose to do wrong by each other, and wrong by the world of nature, they let us reap the consequences. But if we choose to do right, then our gods do right by us. They encourage us."

I was becoming quite worked up, and quite inspired, inspired by Tad and by Bran and, yes, by Mamma.

"And that means doing right by women. To us they're equal to men. I wish you'd met my Mamma. She used to run the farm, you know, before she fell ill, while Tad looked after the mines. If anyone had told her she was inferior, she'd have . . . I don't know what -- emptied a pisspot over him or something. So would Tad, or worse. Because they loved each other as equals. As equals, Lucius.

"So with us, you see, being shagged isn't inferior to shagging, so long as there's free will on both sides. Look at me. I've shagged girls and I've buggered boys, and I don't see myself as superior. I've been buggered, mouth and arse, and I don't see myself as inferior. And I don't see myself as effeminate -- am I effeminate? It feels just as good to be buggered, you know, as it does to bugger. Honestly it does. True, sucking somebody off doesn't do so much for you, except that it makes you feel good to give him pleasure. But it's about equality, Lucius. It's about give and take. All right, some people prefer giving and some prefer taking. But don't you sometimes wish it wasn't all one-way with you? That there was at least the option of give and take?"

I had been addressing all this to the ducks, because I did not dare to look at him. Now I did look. He was crying, silently, head in hands, shaking. I put an arm round him, feeling ripples in the muscle behind the shoulder. I found time for surprise at noticing a detail like that.

"Lucius. It's a lot to take in. I know it is. Don't rush. Go home and think about it. And will you do something for me? Ask Drostan if he likes being buggered. Tell him to be honest. Swear by whatever he holds sacred that you won't punish him for being honest. And promise that if he says he doesn't like it, you'll never bugger him again. Will you?"

He looked up and nodded, and I saw that he meant it. I wiped his tear-blotched face with the back of my hand.

"Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis," I said. "Hold up, and reserve yourself for better things. Let's get you home."

I took him down past the watermills to the ford and thence along the cliff top where, years ago, I had first seen Senovara's pussy. Here by the riverside rampart, unlike in the streets, there was nobody to witness his tears. Lucius' house was close to the river, and I saw him through the postern gate to his front door. He wiped his face again, squared his shoulders, and went in.

I ambled home, dog-tired after so much intensity. Bran might be awake by now, and I needed to bring him up to date. I needed, too, to do some more thinking.

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