Authors: Jules Watson
The Boar Stone is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
Published by Juality Ltd
Copyright © 2012 by Juality Ltd
All rights reserved
ISBN 978-0-9572714-4-9 (ebook)
ISBN 9780752856889 (hardback) - ISBN 9780752885926 (trade paperback) - ISBN 9780752893389 (mass market paperback)
ay the Christos be with you in love,’ the old priest wheezed, gripping the sandstone altar.
Minna snorted under her breath. It might be the Sabbath, a sacred day for the Christians, but as she stood in the chapel of the Villa Aurelius she knew there wasn’t much love coming her way today.
We have to make a decision
, her brother Broc had said.
About you, Minna
. Now his words flew dizzily around inside her head, like moths.
About you. About you. About you
She caught the gaze of Severus, overseer of the Aurelius estate. He was a plain, solid man with pepper and salt hair. His face was florid with ale and sun-creased from being in the fields with the slaves, his palms callused from the whip handle, and his brown eyes speculative as they rested on her now. Next to him stood Broc. He watched Severus watching Minna, but there was no softening in his sour expression.
She flicked her black braid off her clammy neck, squaring her shoulders. Let them look.
‘Minna!’ little Marcus whispered, pressing his face into her arm. ‘Is it over yet?’ He was only three, and his voice echoed in the austere surroundings.
Master Publius Aurelius and Mistress Flavia turned as one, frowning not at their son but at his nurse. Minna gave Marcus a smile, pressing a finger to her lips. His brother Lucius, all of ten, rolled his eyes, and she shook her head. Master Publius was too free with the leather strap on his sons, and she had just sat up all night nursing Marcus through a fever. Thankfully, he seemed better this morning.
The heat of sunseason had bled into leaf-fall, and although the chapel was cool and dark, with plaster walls and a new mosaic floor, it was tiny and everyone was crushed in together. Although the Master and Mistress were Christians, most of the native estate workers still clung to the old gods, to the Mother Goddess, and attended this ceremony only because they had to. The air was a miasma of sour sweat and the Mistress’s cloying Egyptian perfume.
The boys settled into mutinous silence as the priest continued. Minna sighed, peeling her scratchy dress away from her hot skin. The only time she could stay still like this was when Nikomedes, the Greek tutor, told the boys tales of Trojan and Roman wars, of the capricious gods and jealous goddesses. The walls of the chapel were painted with red and white diamonds and she counted them three times, until she caught the cook’s two daughters glaring at her. Ah, yes, she’d forgotten
. She could read their thoughts on their plump faces. What right did she have to stand before the Christos, with her unnatural eyes and strange ways? The girls whispered behind their fingers, and she turned her flaming face away. Severus was the only worker on the estate who didn’t think her one of the fey, the touched, the half-human. How ironic!
‘Amen,’ the priest coughed at last.
‘Amen,’ everyone murmured with relief. Minna forgot to say the word, gazing longingly out the door instead. She could just smell the tang of smoke from the burning harvest stubble, and the scent of ripe apples floated from the orchards as the slaves piled them into barrels. Mistress Flavia had told her to take the boys away from the house for the day. She could hardly wait.
At last, Master Publius, all severe brows and clipped hair, pinned his cloak and bustled out. As one of the rich villa owners on the fertile vales east of the city of Eboracum, he was a councillor and had important meetings to attend in the nearby town of Derventio.
After he had gone his sons burst outside with relief. Minna followed them, squinting in the sun that bounced off the white walls and redtiled roofs of the villa. The main house and its two wings enclosed a courtyard splashed with light. Beyond, the green hills beckoned.
But before she could call to the boys, Minna was caught by Broc’s fingers around her wrist, pulling her back. ‘I meant what I said, little sister,’ her brother muttered. ‘I’ll have no more arguments about it.’
He glanced over his shoulder as Severus left the chapel. The overseer tipped the whip handle to his forehead, and his eyes never left Minna as he loitered by the wall for Mistress Flavia.
Breathless, she wrenched herself from Broc’s grip. ‘I told you—’
‘And I told
!’ Sweat and chaff clumped Broc’s red hair. Though she was two years younger she often brushed his heavy fringe back with a maternal swipe. But not today. As the servants poured out into the courtyard, Broc dropped his voice. ‘You can’t be a nursemaid for ever, Minna.’
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘You are already eighteen!’ he hissed. Anger sharpened his freckled face. ‘We have lost too much time as it is, because I’ve indulged you. But no more.’
Their ancestors were once slaves, freed by Master Publius’s grandfather as servants. But Broc and Minna’s parents had died young – their mother from a fever, their father after a fall from a horse – both so long ago that Minna had no memory of them. They had lived with their grandmother ever since. Now there were just the three of them, safe in their little house by the stream. How could Broc say these things?
Her shoulders stiffened. ‘I am happy with you and Mamo.’
‘Mamo won’t always be here.’
‘Then there’s you.’ She held Broc’s gaze, her chin up.
Just then they became aware of people staring at them as they whispered furiously together. With a scowl, Broc dragged her around the corner of the building, where a yard opened through a gate to fields.
‘You didn’t need to do that!’ Minna cried, rubbing her wrist. But something in her brother’s face silenced her.
‘I will tell you why we’ve no more time.’ The tendons stood out in Broc’s wrists, and Minna realized he hadn’t only changed in mood lately. His shoulders had thickened: he was a boy no longer. Her belly flipped over as Broc took a deep breath, bracing himself. ‘I’ve joined the army. I’ll be leaving for the Wall in three days.’
All the blood drained from her face.
‘The Master has already let me go,’ Broc hurried on.
She watched his lips move, but could not take in his words. At last she croaked, ‘But you’re going to be manager one day and … you have us, Mamo and I, to look after …’
moulder away here until I’m old and fat!’ Minna gaped at his outburst, and he grabbed her hand. ‘Ah, sister, it’s a great honour, see? I’ve been accepted into the
, the scouts, and they only take the best riders.’ His eyes were alight with a flame that passed straight through her, as if she and it were of such different substance it couldn’t touch her.
‘And what are we supposed to do?’ she demanded, but her voice quavered. ‘You’d leave Mamo and I alone?’
‘I cannot stay just for you: you’re my sister, not my child. It’s time for some other man to have the keeping of you, under the law.’
She slowly withdrew her hand. She had been clinging to dreams of this life going on for ever: Mamo’s stories around the fire; afternoons roaming with Marcus and Lucius. And look at her! Her sandals were caked with mud, her dress streaked with grass stains. She had been running about like a fool, lost in fantasy. ‘But there’s no one, is there, brother, because of my – what do they say? – my
‘And when you have these awake-dreams, as you call them, and flail about with glazed eyes, talking nonsense, what do you expect? People hear of it. You never heed me about acting more modestly.’
She gasped, clenching her fists, but Broc rushed on. ‘As it happens, one man has at last offered to wed you and keep you – and only one. It’s got to be done.’
‘No.’ She struggled for breath. ‘
Broc folded his arms. ‘
. Severus has the best job on the estate. He is respected. And he hasn’t been put off by all this talk, so he must be a sensible man.’
. Severus breathed hard when he was near Minna, through his nose. Why, oh why, did
not find her repulsive like all the farm boys did? Then she knew, like a lamp flaring to life in her mind. Severus considered himself on the way up, salvaging chipped pottery, tarnished dishes and broken tiles from rich houses to furnish his own. It would have been amusing if it didn’t now mean this: he liked odd, exotic things no one else had. Unusual things.
‘Not this way,’ she ground out. ‘Not him. I won’t do it.’