Ampiscora’s impressive bulk was easy to detect moving through the watching groups of marines. The camp had taken shape through the day and now presented a regular square of tents and cooking fires. The Optio guided him to Pullo’s tent and with an emphatic gesture, to softly criticise the centurion for his over-indulgence of duty on a friendly shore, he said, ‘A messenger has arrived saying he bears the seal of Senator Gaius Torquatus the Elder.’
Pullo grunted and waved Ampiscora forward with a scarred hand. Both men were quite similar in the fact they were obviously fighters, and their eyes showed an appreciation of that low cunning for practical logic; soldier logic, that makes such men brilliant in times of war.
‘You have a message?’
Ampiscora took a fold of cheap paper from a pouch he was carrying and handed it to the centurion. Pullo observed it for a moment, his eye taking in everything he needed to know without trying to read it. ‘Go to your master, and take him back where you came from,’
‘I will your honour.’
When Ampiscora had left, Pullo called for the Tesserarius.
Claudius Vipsanius Narva was the most literate officer in the century, Pullo, an illiterate son of an equally illiterate brick-maker had learned enough letters since joining the army to be able to attain his exalted rank but he usually preferred, Narva to check his correspondence.
When he came in, Pullo peremptorily flicked the message across the chest he used as a table. ‘Read that to me would you?’
Narva was much like the others in the century, strong and compact, but his face was less severe than many, with wide, light coloured eyes and open features. ‘May I sum it up. You don’t seem particularly curious about it.’
‘By all means.’
‘The sender, with whom I presume you are already familiar, informs the commander guarding the ships on the Neapolis shore that the man in your custody is Lucius Iulus Torquatus, acting commander of a ship of war soon to arrive at this place. The bearer can identify him and with this letter carries the authority of the writer to discharge my will …’ he gave a few mumbled sounds as he skimmed Torquatus’ terse invectives, ‘he mentions the name of Quaestor Paulinus, but that is about the balance of it.’
Pullo sighed, firstly because of his long held belief that the gods were against him, and were determined to make his life as hard as possible for trying to get along in the world and because, Narva’s habit of presuming everything accurately was, although useful; annoying.
‘Trouble, centurion?’ Narva asked wryly.
‘How Long has the war being going on, Narva?’ Asked Pullo, idly sliding an unlit lamp around with his finger.
‘Most of my lifetime.’
Pullo looked up with a drawn expression, ‘It just became longer.’
Tullius grinned widely at the approach of Ampiscora, unashamed of revealing every scar and knit to an old friend.
‘So you’re still alive you tame old pirate!’
‘Still as handsome as the last time I saw you, sir.’
Tullius punched the Sardinian, ‘Almost ten years at sea, four since Drepanum, and you still call a lowlife like me, sir.’
The blow had been real enough, and Ampiscora was genuinely winded, ‘Careful, your, I’m not allowed to hit back.’
Tullius pushed him away laughing.
Dorus, though pleased to see old comrades meet again, could not muster much enthusiasm, he broke the cordial atmosphere by blurting out, ‘Don’t worry, Tullius, by the time we set sail, he’ll be a free man and you can get him to call you anything you want.’
It was meant to be congenial but sobered things in a strange way.
The gubernator stared from Dorus to Ampiscora, for some reason he sensed neither man was comfortable with this statement, which he found perplexing. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘what a thing!’
Tullius returned to Neapolis and Dorus mounted the horse that Ampiscora had ridden down to deliver his message on. It was an uncomfortable ride, not because darkness was closing in and neither man enjoyed riding, but because there was so much to say and yet no way to say it.
Relations between master and servant had been strained since Dorus announced his intention to grant Ampiscora manumission. The anticipation of him soon becoming a free man made Dorus disinclined to continue in their old ways. In any normal circumstance, if Ampiscora had enjoyed free will, they would probably never have known each other, and Dorus was failing to find a way to banish the habits and customs they had built up in past but retain some reason for association.
The conversation, as always when not directly related to some manner of business, had to be instigated by Dorus, but to his mind Ampiscora was now free by intent in all but name and he bridled at the forced formality his servant insisted on maintaining. At the same time he understood perfectly that it was impossible for Ampiscora to break habit, it was not his way, so at last he returned to the familiar patter of master and servant.
Dorus told Ampiscora about the ships, and of centurion Pullo. Dorus did not relish the prospect of having to find a way of working with such a man, even if the interaction between navarchus and centurion was not necessarily frequent as one had little to do with the the other’s business. Dorus intended to write to Paulinus on the subject however, perhaps a different marine commander could be arranged, though with all the trouble the poet-Quaestor was going to in order to get Dorus confirmed as navarchus, he doubted it would be possible.
Ampiscora, listened and responded dutifully. He knew how Dorus disliked soldiers, so he kept his opinions on what he had recognised in Pullo to himself. Freedom had been a luxury to be dreamt of on long nights when they were at sea, what it would be like and what he would do with it. Ever since his capture he had known that if he was free he would go back to Sardinia and try and find out what happened to his family and see what his village was like. Now that it was being offered, he had every intention of taking it, and Dorus had all but promised to take him as far as Sardinia, but he also knew that Dorus wanted him to stay in his service thereafter. It was tempting to do so, he had indeed become comfortable in the household, but he did not know what he would find when he returned ‘home’ either.
Neither man voiced these thoughts to the other, though each suspected the other of harbouring them and in the quiet of the approaching night, as the land grew dark above the silver and blue of the sea, the whirring of Cicadas and the brittle sound of hooves were all that were to be heard beyond the intermittent talk of ships and the business of the navy.
‘What do you think War is like?’ Asked Horatia.
When her two exhausted sons had appeared, hands red and raw from rowing, crying out that Dorus had been arrested by a centurion on the beach, the house had been a flurry of activity.
Both had been talking so fast that no one word could be clearly discerned. Once a clear explanation had been elicited, Ampiscora had been dispatched with a letter on a reliable but inexpensive horse which he could just about handle and Valeria had taken the children to bathe and dress their sore hands, it would take her mind off worrying about Dorus.
After writing his message, Gaius Varus Torquatus had been engrossed in a tablet, trying to make sense of something he had written yesterday. Horatia, listless and feeling useless and alone had drifted into the tablinium and sat with him silently as he fussed around with his correspondence.
Raising his head and turned to his granddaughter. Hunched over as he was, the aged man, with his bald head, large eyes and downturned mouth, had the appearance of an ancient tortoise, the garlanded skin of his long neck bowing out from his voluminous clothing.
It was such a curious question to the elder Torquatus’ mind, coming from a woman like Horatia, and in honesty even when he had done his own military service he had never actually been on campaign or seen the blood and entrails of two armies decorate a Alpine pasture or a Macchia covered plain.
Such an excellent man was the Torquatus Patriarch that despite his official, crusty exterior, he was incapable of dismissing Horatia’s unspoken plea for companionship even if the question touched a vital nerve and would require him to admit to the unmanly achievement of never having risked his life to take another.
‘I have no experience of warfare,’ he answered without showing either regret or relish, ‘Not in the way I expect you mean.’
Horatia looked away and toyed absently with a loose thread on a cushion, ‘I don’t know what I mean. I don’t know why I asked you.’
Torquatus arose stiffly, and leaning on his stick, which he used on days when his joints gave him trouble, crossed to lower himself with similar quivering effort to sit beside one of the pure lights that kept his life succoured.
‘You have been left alone too long little girl.’ His tone was pure affection, Horatia felt something throb inside her, as if a sweet-noted lyre string had just been plucked. She turned to him, ‘Marcus died in a war, but he was so happy to go, or it seemed that way.’ She laughed quite regretfully ‘He was so silly when he left, he didn’t even seem to care that I and the boys were sad to see him go. War, I thought then, must be such a wonderful thing that men love to partake in it even when it is uncertain that they will ever come home.’
‘It does seem wonderful to a young heart.’ Said her grandfather, ‘I certainly felt that way when I was in my prime.’
‘Does it matter, the dying? Do young men care about such things?’
‘Choice often does not come into the matter, as a general rule, remember all must serve, but yes, to some men it matters allot. I knew quite a few men of military age who did not want to fight, or who feared violent death, the not knowing what would occur after they were gone.’
‘And you did not feel that way?’
Torquatus had to reach back a long way to answer this, and so there was silence for some minutes while he chased the remnants of his youthful feelings through the warrens of his mind, then attempted to strip away the sensibilities that his age had dressed them with.
‘When it seemed like I would be posted to an active legion, likely to see combat, I recall deciding that the possibility of my death was so remote that it was not even worth considering. Instead I began to prepare myself to survive, training with sword and javelins, marching with my father’s armour and a weighted pack to make my back and limbs strong.’ He paused, enjoying the memory of warm, muscular skin and iron constitution, when it seemed like he could conquer the world.
‘Dreams of glory, odes and epic poems help.’ He smirked darkly, ‘to deceive lads like me that we can be immortalised by heroic deeds.’ A great sigh emitted from the old man and he seemed to deflate, ‘My day never came.’
‘Do you regret it? Not fighting?’
‘Yes, I do. I could have and I was ready to, so I do regret not having been able to serve the republic as a warrior. But I never did, and so I don’t know what real war is like, I can still look on it as something perhaps still gilded, whereas men like Dorus, and your husband, and many other men who became soldiers and saw action, they have no such illusions. They have felt the weight of their own mortality, as I feel it now, the knowledge that the last sunset or sunrise you saw might be your last and you use your words and time in different ways. It is a rugged thing to confront in old age, but it must be a terrifying thing indeed to confront as a young man.’
Torquatus cheeked himself, ‘a terrifying, but also I suppose enjoyable thing for a young man.’
Horatia nodded vacantly, ‘Yes, I suppose so.’
Valeria could not suppress a smile as the two boys went running out into the courtyard of the villa when Dorus and Ampiscora arrived. Joyfully waving their bandaged hands as proof of their efforts to rescue him and crying out excitedly about their determination and the long and hazardous row.
‘Well done lads,’ he told them, dismounting.
‘Mother told us we could stay awake until you came back.’ Marcus piped up.
‘Which is only proper, as I would not be back at all tonight without you two.’
‘You will have to take us everywhere you go now!’
Maximus laughed, ‘Yes, we can go to sea with you and keep you safe.’
Dorus was glad Horatia had not heard that childish bit of vanity. He swatted Maximus playfully, and turned to them both smiling widely. ‘I shall have swept the Carthaginians from the seas well before you need to come and take care of me.’
Irrepressibly, they both agreed but Marcus observed that he’d get the job done faster if he took them with him, to which Maximus heartily agreed.
Dorus tightened his smile and nodded. ‘You boys did well today, I’m grateful to you and proud of you both.’
Looking up, the expression of enjoyment on Valeria’s face banished Dorus’ meditations on Ampiscora and the difficulties with Pullo. The smile of the woman he loved simplified life once again into something readable and understandable after a day that had been both strange and familiar.
‘They tell me you were arrested for spying.’ She said mirthfully.
‘By the centurion I am to command on my own ship.’
His flat, slightly disbelieving tone, filled with exhaustion, made Valeria let out a burst of laughter. She reached out for his arm and led him inside. After many more humorous observations about Punic spies from the women of the house, who were all delighted at the absurdity of the day’s events, Dorus had a small meal and retired.
‘Tell me about Tullius.’ Valeria asked when they were alone.
‘Paulinus has been as good as his word, Tullius is well, he’s not changed very much either, he says most of the old crew is either already in Neapolis or coming this way.’
‘How excellent!’ Valeria’s pleasure impressed, Dorus, as it always did when she took an active interest in his profession. For her part, she was indeed genuinely interested, and it was not just because she knew it pleased him, but because with his old crew around him, she felt he woukd be safer.
‘When I am confirmed, I will take you and show you the ship.’ She smiled encouragingly and he added, ‘The crew will want to see you more than me anyway