The Waters of Sul
Megan heard angry voices in the front room of her home and went to investigate. Her grandfather Owein was shouting furiously at a Roman centurion in full military uniform standing stiff and straight in front of him. The girl scarcely heard what the old man was saying, so astonished was she that a Roman had even been allowed into the house. She could only think that her grandfather had committed some offence and was being arrested.
She stormed into the room, eyes flashing, and demanded to know what was going on. Both men looked at her - the old man suddenly silent in mid-imprecation, the younger man with disconcerting interest.
Megan could see that the Roman was in his early middle years - his skin browned by the sun of a climate hotter than their own, his features lean and sharp.
"Leave us!" Her grandfather said tersely. "There is nothing to concern you here."
The girl looked from one to the other. There were veins standing out on her grandfather's neck. She had never seen him so angry - nor so determined to control his anger in front of her. The Roman was not angry. He was staring at her as though sizing her up. Not as a young man would look at a woman, but as a military man would look over a new recruit.
"Go girl!" snapped Owein.
"Not until I know what is going on, grandfather. Why are you here, sir?" She asked haughtily. "Why do you harass an old man?"
"I harass no one," the Roman began, but before he could continue the old man rushed at him and butted him with his head like a man using a battering ram on a door.
"Get out!" He screamed. "Get out of my house! Leave us alone you... you bastard... you traitor... you Roman excrement!"
Without thinking, Megan leapt forward and punched the centurion in the chest. He seemed amused and stepped back, choosing not to return the blow.
She picked up a pewter jug and flung it at him with all her strength, but it glanced harmlessly off his shoulder and fell clattering to the floor. He stooped and picked it up and set it back on the table. Then he slowly moved towards the door. There, before he left, he turned to look back at them, his expression enigmatic.
Megan and her grandfather were both shaking. She could see the old man's eyes were brimming with tears.
"What did he say to you? Why was he here?"
"Never speak to me of him, granddaughter. Never let him in the house!"
"He is a centurion, grandfather. If we defy him others will come. I know how you feel - but they have such power. We cannot hope to win alone. Shall I call Brendan and the others?"
Owein belonged to a group of disaffected Dobunni who often met to plan secret resistance to the Romans. As the years had gone by and the mighty Celtic warriors they had once been grew old and feeble, their determination to oust the hated conquerors never grew less, though their ability to affect change diminished. The population as a whole had grown comfortable and rich under the Roman occupation and fewer and fewer people were inclined to support them. Two years before, the Roman army had attacked a hill fort to the south of the town, and killed or driven off the entire population after an unsuccessful insurrection. Brendan, the rebels' fiery young leader, had escaped and made his way to Aquae Sulis where he had soon associated himself with the disgruntled but impotent old veterans, led, up to that time, by Owein.
"You will say nothing to Brendan and the others," Owein snapped. "This is a personal matter. If you ever see that man again you are to treat him with silence and contempt."
"Enough! That is enough, girl. Leave me alone."
Roughly he pulled away from her and turned his back on her.
After hesitating for a moment, she went to the door and stared down the narrow street. There was no sign of the centurion. It was strange the way he had looked at her, she thought. Strange the way he had let them push him around. Usually the Romans were quick to retaliate if their precious dignity was assailed. They ruled firmly, justly, uncompromisingly. The local population was never in any doubt who were the masters. Even those locals who had built villas in the Roman style knew they were only second class citizens in their own country, no matter how many wealthy and powerful Romans they entertained in their luxurious homes.
Megan and her twin sister Ethne lived with their grandfather, who had fought the Romans, and their grandmother, who was from the tribe of the Ordovices who were still at war with the Romans. The twins' mother had not lived beyond their first day, and their father had turned away at his wife's last breath and left the town.
It would be hard to find two girls who looked so alike but were so different in temperament. Megan was told she was like her father - stubborn, rebellious, fiery. Ethne was quieter - not passive and docile as her sister sometimes accused her of being - but the possessor of an inner strength and independence of mind that allowed her to keep her own counsel and go her own way without rising to every provocation.
When they were children Megan took the lead in the games they played together. If a queen was to be crowned, it was always Megan. If a slave was to be chastised, it was always Ethne.
At sixteen the two young women were tall and slim, with long hair of deep auburn burnished with gold, eyes grey-green, noses small but straight, lips full enough to look generous, but not generous enough to be voluptuous.
Aquae Sulis was not a garrison town though there were always soldiers about. When the Romans came it was already a famous religious centre founded centuries before by the great King Bladud in honour of the Goddess Sul who presided over the mysterious hot waters that sprang from deep in the earth. The conquerors had respected what they had found but expanded and Romanized it. The hot spring sacred to Sul they had enclosed, and they dedicated the temple they built beside it to their own Goddess of wisdom and healing, Minerva. To placate the locals they had identified the two Goddesses, the local and the imported, and a new composite one now ruled the spring - Sulis Minerva. They had even honoured the ancient Goddess Sul in the name of the town, Aquae Sulis - "the place of the waters of Sul".
Since ancient times, even before the time of King Bladud, an oracle had spoken for the Goddess, and the Romans did no more at first than house her more comfortably and elaborately. An efficient staff of priestesses made appointments and controlled the crowd who came from far and wide to consult her.
It was said that her fame had already reached the ears of Julius Caesar years before the successful invasion of Britain by Claudius, and one of Caesar's greatest disappointments when he withdrew from these western islands was that he had not encountered the famous Oracle of Sul, nor had a chance to compare her with the celebrated Pythoness of Delphi and Sybil of Cumae.
The present Oracle of Sul was an old woman. No one knew how old, but she had not been a young woman when the Romans had arrived more than thirty years before. Recently there had been some concern about her. Pilgrims had been turned away several times during the past winter with no explanation from the stern priestesses who served her. It was rumoured that she was ill and that the Romans were anxious to replace her with someone of their own choosing.
Another thought struck Megan. Could the centurion have been asking about Ethne with this in mind? If another Oracle was to be chosen this summer many of the locals believed it would be Ethne.
Since an early age, Ethne had pleaded with her grandfather to allow her to join the priesthood of Sulis Minerva. He had refused because, he said, the Romans had polluted the spring and corrupted the Oracle.
"There is nothing of the old religion there," he insisted. "If you want to get close to the Goddess - the real Goddess - avoid anything touched by the Romans."
He told her about a little round hill that rose clear of the forests on the southern ridge overlooking the Roman town, yet far enough away to have escaped the attentions of the Romans.
"There Sul used to be worshipped and there she still is," he said.
Ethne had made this hill her sacred place and spent much time there.
It was there one day when she was still a child she had encountered the Oracle. And it was there that they still sometimes met in secret.
Megan knew about this hill, and now, wanting to find her sister to discuss the centurion's visit, she decided to seek her there.
She made her way through the forests that clothed the long, slow hill south of the town. The Romans had discouraged the use of the sacred hills outside the city limits and tried to concentrate all holy observances within the temples they provided, but the forests were still criss-crossed with paths linking the more ancient sites.
The hawthorn was in blossom everywhere like a white mist showing between the dark trunks of the taller trees. As she looked up, the sun flickered and sparkled through light green leaves like sunlight dazzling on rippling water.
She already felt calmer.
The Roman had not seemed angry. It was her grandfather who had raised his voice. Even after the shouted insults the Roman had smiled. Such an unusual reaction suggested an unusual situation - but not a threatening one.
She heard a twig crack and swung round to see who was following her.
A young man emerged from the shadows into the sunlight carrying a bundle of logs on his shoulders.
He greeted her cheerfully, his light hazel eyes taking in her beauty appreciatively.
She paused until he came level with her, gazing at him suspiciously. He wore the short white tunic of the Romans, embroidered at the hem as though he were a nobleman, and yet he was carrying logs like a slave.
"Venus herself?" he asked lightly, smiling, standing boldly be-fore her and looking her straight in the eyes as no slave would have dared.
"Apollo?" she mocked at once, raising an eyebrow.
"Ah well," he said, "perhaps not." And then, after a pause: "Lucius Sabinus is my name, lady. At your service."
He waited expectantly for her reply.
"A Roman" she said scornfully.
"Sadly, not," he said. "But a man at your service nevertheless."
'Good day, sir,' she said coldly and turned away.
He gazed after her with admiration as she walked quickly away. What a woman! The sunlight caught her hair and turned it and his heart to flame...
But by the time Megan had reached the steep slopes of Sul's hill she had forgotten all about him. There was no sign of Ethne among the shimmering grasses and jewelled flowers of the summit. A rolling landscape of hills and valleys stretched out as far as she could see. On the northern banks of the river below her the neat and geometric pattern of the orderly Roman town lay. Elsewhere, wooden houses clustered in clearings in the forest. Further away, she could see the great fields of grain and the opulent villas of the landlord farmers who owned them. Tiny figures, bent almost double, worked in rows. "Always in rows!" Megan thought with a sneer. "Everything for the Romans has to be done in straight lines."
She was just wondering whether she should return to the town when she heard someone approaching and looked down the eastern slope towards the sound. She saw a woman carrying a child obviously too heavy for her. She toiled up the hill to a point just below where Megan was standing and put her child down. Then she fell on her knees. The child, a girl of about five, remained standing. She was very pale and thin and seemed to be having great difficulty in breathing. Megan could see her chest heaving with the effort.
"I beseech you, lady," the woman pleaded, looking into Megan's eyes, "reach out your healing power to my daughter as you did to my son."
Megan stared. Did the woman believe her to be the Goddess?
Embarrassed, she cleared her throat.
"You are mistaken, woman, I cannot heal your child. Why do you not take her to the healing waters of Sulis Minerva in the town like everybody else?"
The woman looked shocked.
"But you healed my son..."
"Not I," Megan said brusquely. "I have no power to heal." But even as she said it, and saw the hurt and betrayed expression on the woman's face, she thought of her sister Ethne.
Without another word she turned away and started down the hill. She felt two pairs of eyes staring at her back - but she did not stop.
"If Ethne wants to play Goddess," she thought bitterly, "let her. But I cannot!"
Brambles scratched her legs as she began to run, but she scarcely noticed them. Something was beginning to stir, to move, to change. Suddenly, she felt as though she was out of her depth in a deep and swiftly flowing river.