Ampiscora, the personal slave of Dorus, heard the sound of a woman sobbing through the wind in the beech trees. He stopped and listened, trying to identify where it was coming from. He had been sent up to find Horatia by Julia Tercia and he was already impressed that a woman, even as strong as mistress Horatia was, would come up the mountain regularly.
Approaching the source of the sound, Ampiscora observed the bent form of the weeping widow and a quandary now presented itself to him. It was not his place to intrude on her grief, nor did he care to, for in his position, unable to speak to her as an equal and without agency to comfort her, interruption would only raise her anger towards him.
The Sardinian, stared a few moments from the shoulder of the ravine, looking down at Horatia. He had been with Dorus in Sicily when her husband Marcus had died, he had seen the dead man a few times and indeed had been responsible for caring for his remains on the voyage back to Italy. Unable to do anything he glanced around for a place to await her grief to pass and his eye selected a suitable rock which he sat upon and waited for the crying to subside.
It took longer than he thought for this to happen, and for some minutes Ampiscora considered what to do. Fixing on a fallen twig that looked like it would snap loudly, he picked it up and worked his way around to a position closer to the shrine. By this time Horatia had ceased audibly weeping and was now dejectedly cradling her face in her hands. Taking a firm grip Ampiscora broke the twig over his knee and then retreated over the shoulder of the ravine. He waited a breath after taking cover and then called out in a half tone, ‘Mistress!’
In a short time Ampiscora appeared in the grove, framed by an archway of trees. Apparently searching for Horatia. Seeing him, the lady composed herself and stood, identifying herself by raising her hand and calling, ‘come here.’
In a practiced mode of servility, Ampiscora approached Horatia. She looked at him and he directed his gaze to the ground, this was no house servant. He was muscled and lean from hard work, his hair and beard dark and uncared for, it was obvious that he had lived most of his life without enough food. The scar obvious scar lines on his dark skin showed he had lived a life exposed to danger and violence, he moved with some grace but the gait of a sailor, and it his manner was affected rather than natural.
‘You have been sent to find me?’ Horatia asked.
‘Who are you?’
‘Ampiscora, Mistress, in service to my master, the former son of Dorus.’
Horatia, the most Latinised of the Torquatii had to think for a moment before she remembered the archaic honorific.
‘Do you have a message?’
‘Only that Mistress Tercia does not want you to be left up here alone.’
Horatia arched an eyebrow at the intimidating slave, ‘And she sent you to protect me?’
‘I was sent, mistress, but I cannot answer if that was the reason.’
‘Dorus trained you well.’
Ampiscora said nothing, as it was not a question.
‘I have met house slaves less demure than … what did Lucius Iulus call you? A pirate?’
‘It was so.’ Ampiscora admitted reluctantly.
Horatia suddenly felt a little worried that he might have seen her crying and felt embarrassed. Their isolation making such a scene somehow more important than if they were in her grandfather’s house.
‘How long ago did you leave?’
‘I was told where to go, I came right here.’
The answer was evasive, but Horatia had asked a vague question, and despite her growing sense of shame that the slave must have seen her emotion, she could not ask for it to be confirmed without admitting it.
Without a word, Horatia walked past Ampiscora, treading heavily as she descended the gully, heading back home. ‘I remember you now, you must have known my husband.’ Horatia said as he fell in behind her.
Valeria brought her two nephews down to the cove at noon, the slave-girl who had been their wet-nurse was in attendance. Dorus found them there not long after they had arrived, following the sounds of happy children enjoying the shallows and the hot sun. Though he returned Valeria’s smile his mind was distracted.
‘I left Paulinus in Surrentum.’ He gave an unintended grin and sat beside her.
A quizzical expression crossed Valeria’s face, ‘What?’
‘Nothing.’ Dorus said, repressing a smirk, caused by the memory of Paulinus asking if he knew of what he called a ‘rose girl,’ in the manner of Sophistes, to spend the evening with, ‘He will be back late I think.’ Dorus cast a glance at the boys, ‘You will arouse Horatia’s ire, letting them come down here in the heat of the day.’
Valeria rolled her eyes, ‘Well she went off somewhere, so if she wants to criticise me again let her.’
A belligerent mood might have been simmering beneath the cool exterior of Dorus’ wife, it gave him pause.
‘How distracted you are, Lucius,’ Valeria told him, ‘Paulinus went to see you this morning? Did he try to persuade you to take a ship?’
Valeria listened intently, trying to remain impartial and interested at the same time. She could feel that he had been tempted. When he finished there was silence, but for the shouting of the children further down the beach.
‘A ship.’ She said simply, Dorus studied Valeria’s face, but did not try to read her, ‘You might be gone for years …’ she added as a statement of fact, not daring to utter her next thought; ‘You might never come back at all.’
‘I haven’t said yes, my love.’
‘What will you say?’
Dorus paused, and in that pause was the answer, but at that moment he was unable to admit to it.
‘I don’t know,’
Valeria looked down and away to the antics at the shoreline.
‘Lucius, how long has the war with Carthage gone on for?’
‘Almost one and twenty years,’ Dorus said with a shrug, shaking his head with uncertainty,
‘Maybe less, maybe more.’
‘That means that there are men being killed in Sicily, at this very moment, who were not born when it started,’
Dorus nodded, ‘A sobering thought.’ Indeed he had seen it happen first hand.
‘If it goes on like this, my two nephews might well be of military age before it is over.’
He nodded again, he didn’t think it could be possible, but then again there had never been a war as long as this one.
‘When your enemies sent you away from the navy, they left a stain not just on your honour, but on mine. You are a part of me, Lucious. Perhaps the time has come to prove them wrong,’ Valeria stared at her husband for a moment, the intensity in her eyes compelling him to believe her.
‘Make your choice Dorus, without thought for me. Go if you must, and stay if you can, it will never change how I look at you, no matter what you do.’
Luscious Iulius Dorus took Valeria in his arms and held her tightly. ‘Without thought for you, girl?’ He murmured ‘It would be easier to defeat Mars himself.’
She chuckled thickly and pressed herself against him. Their eyes glistened, heads turned away from each other. At that moment there was nothing that could have made Dorus leave her, but as the wind dropped and the backwash of the sea receded from the shore, snatches of play-fighting reached them from the excited brothers, duelling each other with pretend sticks and calling on the war god to guide them.
Dorus had much to think about that day and kept as much to himself as possible after returning from the cove. Feeling taught and emotional, Valeria left him to his decision and spent as much time with the boys as possible. She also wanted to avoid her sister’s usual criticisms on the tiredness, dirtiness or unruliness of the children at dinner, until absolutely unavoidable.
Maximus and Marcus loved their aunt with an affection that should have been reserved for their mother, but was not at that moment possible, and they especially enjoyed listing to her stories. After they finished their afternoon lessons the boys sought Valeria out and begged her to tell them a story before washing for dinner.
As the light faded outside to the chorus of cicadas in the macchia, Valeria settled the boys and regaled them with one of the stories of Odysseus.
It was as Odysseus says his name is Outis to Polyphemus, that Horatia, having just returned from the mountain with Ampiscora drew close. She paused at the corner of the house, lost in the sunset gloom amongst the colonnaded portico that overlooked the garden. Only her shadow, long and thin through the pillars and angling up against the wall betrayed her.
Outis, ‘nobody,’ that was what Odysseus told the cyclops and she pondered if she too was Outis to her own sons, sure enough she barely knew them, not as young boys, soon to be young men.
Horatia stayed in concealment, listening to the snatches of her sister’s story. Valeria had a lovely voice; so measured and warm, perfect for storytelling and very expressive. Was it just that she was better at mothering the boys or was it the practice? She would certainly have made a fine mother if she had been blessed that way, but for whatever reason, the gods had denied her a son or a daughter of her own.
As the story came to an end, and the voice of Julia Tercia reached them, calling the children to her, Horatia stepped out of hiding. The boys, running for the door halted abruptly at her appearance before them and stared up with soft alarm on their faces.
Their mother disapproved of running. Summoning up her courage, a surprisingly challenging task, Horatia placed a hand on each round head, and ruffled their hair, ‘now my little heroes,’ she addressed them, her voice cracking a little as she used her pet name for them; neglected now for many years, ‘don’t be frightened, I didn’t mean to scare you.’
Affronted by this feminine affront to their valour, Maximus spoke up, ‘We weren’t frightened, mother!’
Horatia’s hands slipped from their heads and she nodded, the last light of day dancing in her shining eyes, ‘Brave lads. No of course not.’
‘We just didn’t see you.’ Maximus explained.
‘Are you alright mother?’ Marcus asked, looking at her strangely.
‘Oh yes, boys.’ She replied, ‘I was just a little frightened, that’s all. Run along now, great grandmother wants you.’
The boys ran onwards past and Horatia watched them dart indoors and heard their echoes from the Atrium fade, then she turned and approached Valeria.
‘That man of your husband’s,’ Horatia began, after a moment of awkwardness, ‘was he truly a pirate?’
‘Ampiscora? Yes, that is what Lucius told me.’ Valeria had been expecting some manner of rebuke or criticism, the mild, awkward way that her sister spoke left her feeling unsure.
‘He came to fetch me today.’
Valeria looked askance ‘He’s a reliable man.’
‘My husband,’ She said with emphasis ‘he knew, Marcus.’ Valeria nodded, slowly acclimatising to the subject.
‘I miss him’ Valeria said, remembering how charming and brave her brother in law had been.
Horatia did not reply, she seemed serene, and grief did not seem to be at the heart of her words. Valeria remembered the words of her grandmother, if this was Horatia’s attempt to build a bridge, she would let her.
‘How were the boys today?’ Horatia asked.
‘They worked hard at their lessons, and then I took them down to play in the cove.’
Nodding, Horatia became a shade wistful, ‘I’m glad they had a good time. They remind me so much of him.’
Valeria’s soft and understanding tone drew a glance from her sister and the two women held each other’s gaze, though in the fading light neither could really see very clearly. Inside, the house lamps were being lit and began to glow through the windows. Now, Valeria spoke up.
‘I think Lucius will go back to war.’
Horatia looked startled, ‘Why?’
Valeria gave a long and mystified sigh, ‘Honour? Guilt? It could be many things, sister, but I think he will go because he wants to. He misses the service, command. It is the one thing in his life he never finished.’
‘What about a family!’ Exclaimed Horatia, her benign attitude hardening, ‘You and Lucius have not even started your family.’
It could have been meant to hurt, usually it would have been deliberately aimed to do so, but this time, Valeria sensed no harm, only genuine surprise. Perhaps even protectiveness.
‘If it is something he has to do, I must let him. In the end if he can change minds in Rome about him then it will be better for us, and whatever family we are granted.’
Horatia hesitated, battling with many things; high among which was her right to interfere, the possible affront caused by her sudden display of sisterly concern and her as yet unchecked resentment of her sister’s happiness nullifying her right to care.
‘Valeria, I know well that when a man such as Lucius makes his decision, he cannot be stopped without causing problems. But he is a good man, and he loves you, he is happy here and so are you. He doesn’t need to defeat his enemies.’
Valeria listened, unsure if she agreed with the direction Horatia’s words were leading, but accepting of their point.
For her part, Horatia, with great effort that spoke volumes to her character, checked herself from lecturing and ended with an explanation: ‘Sister, you must do what you think is best, but I was widowed by war, and it stole much more from me than my husband.’
She placed a hand on Valeria’s shoulder, ‘If you ask him, he will stay, and he will be happy. Be very sure before you play the Spartan mother in this.’
Valeria, put her hand over her sister’s and squeezed it, ‘I cannot ask him.’
Horatia stepped back, she had said all she could reasonably say and it was time to go inside, ‘Very well, but take my advice, sister. Do not tell him to go either.’
Valeria nodded, and Horatia went went inside. As she was passing through the Atrium, she saw Dorus. Household servants and slaves were preparing dinner, and there was a quiet bustle around the villa. Her brother in law was walking purposefully out from the tablinium, and as he went, Dorus saw her.
‘Ah, sister, have you seen my wife?’ he greeted her, using the familial honorific, which she returned pleasantly with, ‘Brother, you look like a man who has just made an important decision.’
Dorus was taken aback by this prescient observation, ‘I have,’ he admitted.
‘Valeria was outside, but I think she will have gone to get ready for dinner.’
He thanked her and turned to go to the private quarters of the villa, ‘Lucius, my brother,’ Horatia’s call halted Dorus and he faced her.
‘Valeria told me you are likely to return to sea … to the war. No. There is no need to answer me, only to listen.’ Dorus held his tongue obediently as she continued, ‘My sister would be the first among mothers, as she is the first among wives. If you decide to go to war, remember that she will be neither if you die without giving her a child.’