The Waters of Sul
Ethne had left the town early that morning, but not to visit her sacred hill. She had walked westwards searching for herbs that grew along the riverbank. She was so absorbed in her task that she wandered further than she intended. Hunger and weariness at last made her turn for home. Just as she did so, she noticed the columns of a villa on the slopes above her, half hidden by orchard trees. She paused, wondering who lived there. Curiosity drew her up the slope. She could hear ducks and chickens and soon found herself wading through farmyard fowl. The villa itself appeared newly built in the elegant Roman manner, with a long colonnaded verandah running the whole width of the front. Men were still working on this, kneeling on the ground apparently laying mosaic. A smaller wooden house stood a short way away and beyond that lay various farm sheds and barns. The owners were clearly working farmers � not aristocratic foreigners � probably locals who had made a profit from the influx of pilgrims and settlers in the years since the Pax Romana had civilized the valley.
She was about to turn and leave as quietly as she had come when she was startled to find she was no longer alone. A woman stood behind her, watching her closely, sizing her up carefully from the top of her tangled and untidy auburn hair, to the muddy hem of her homespun skirt. Her gaze paused at the bulging pouch hanging at her side.
Ethne flushed. "They are herbs � wild herbs," she said hastily, and then added after a long pause in which the woman�s gaze did not waver, "for healing." Did the woman think she had been stealing food from her farm?
She wished she could run away, but the stranger, haughty and stern, blocked the path.
"You know this is private property?" She spoke at last, coldly.
"I did not realize. I was at the river... and I saw..." Ethne�s voice faded away feebly.
The woman�s expression seemed to be softening.
"What is your name?" She asked at last, and her voice was a shade less harsh. The girl was well spoken. She was muddy but her skin was fine and her features refined. It was unlikely after all that she was a thief or a slave.
Julia Sabinus was a lonely woman in her late twenties. Her mother was long dead and from a very early age she had been the matron of the household of her step-father and step-brother. There were female servants and slaves of course, but they were not suitable friends and companions. The town was just too far away for easy access to companionship there.
Ethne told her her name and lineage and described where she lived. Julia knew the area � and approved of it.
"You must be tired and thirsty," she said stiffly, but not unkindly. "If you come to the house I�m sure Sallus will find you a drink. It is a long walk back to your home."
Ethne thanked her at once, and gratefully followed as Julia led the way towards the smaller, older house.
"We cannot go into the new house," she explained. "The men are still working there. We are paying for the best mosaic team in the country, but they take their time and eat and drink like twenty men."
The kitchen they entered was all terracotta paving and scrubbed wood. Bundles of herbs hung from the ceiling, scenting the air. A male slave was chopping vegetables and throwing them into a large pot. He stopped at once when they entered and bowed to his mistress.
She commanded him to bring a drink for her guest. Ethne caught a look of surprise as he took in her muddy and dishevelled appearance, but it lasted only a flash. He served cool elderflower cordial from a jug of red Samian ware as the two women sat on a bench in the garden.
Fields of green wheat stirred in the breeze covering the rolling hills. Horses grazed in a paddock to the left. Birds sang. A boat rode quietly at tether beside the river bank.
"How peaceful it is here," Ethne remarked.
"Too peaceful," Julia sighed. "I envy you the town."
Ethne smiled. "I envy you the country."
"You would soon be bored," the older woman said and Ethne sensed her restlessness, her boredom.
"You are not so far from Aquae Sulis that you cannot visit," she suggested mildly.
Julia pursed her lips. "I go in sometimes. It is better than noth-ing. But one day I intend to go to Rome. I�m tired of small places and small people."
Ethne raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"Surely people in Rome are the same size as they are here?"
"I didn�t mean in size!" Julia snapped impatiently.
"Nor did I," said Ethne quietly.
But Julia did not take her meaning. Her heart had been set on Rome since childhood when she was first told that she had been fathered by the Roman general Vespasian. It seems he had been in the district consolidating the Roman position just after the invasion. Since he had become Emperor Julia had become more determined than ever to visit Rome. She had dreams of meeting the Emperor and claiming her rights as his daughter.
"I�ve thrown more than one gold coin into the Sacred Spring. It�s just a matter of time before I go."
"Rome?" Ethne murmured � thinking about the stories she had heard. She could scarcely imagine a city of that vast size, a city yielding such power over so many lives, a city so corrupt and violent, so cruel and arrogant. "They throw people to be torn apart by wild beasts there," she said.
"Only criminals and Christians," Julia said casually.
Ethne looked at her. Her eyes were shining at the thought of Rome � the tall colonnades � the buildings that dwarfed humans � the paved streets and magnificent houses � the banquets � the jewels � the fine clothes...
She could see her in Rome � but she could see her returning embittered and disappointed. She shivered.
"It is not good to gamble too much on dreams," she said softly.
Julia looked at her impatiently, already bored with her company. She stood up, clapped her hands for Sallus the slave, and ordered him to take her guest back to town in the boat.
"But don�t be too long," she added coldly. "Don�t stop to gossip. The masters and I will be wanting our dinner shortly."
Within moments of leaving the boat Ethne met her aunt Elen, a scrawny, hard working woman with a sharp tongue and a slight limp. Her thin hair was screwed into a tight knot on top of her head and she was dressed in her best clothes though her arms were full of purchases from the market. Elen had never married and she lived alone, tolerating neither servant nor slave to enter her territory, yet she was carrying enough food for a feast.
Ethne greeted her. Her face was flushed and her eyes bright. The girl had never seen her look so young and happy.
"Why, aunt," she said, smiling and indicating the food, "what�s the big occasion?"
Elen barely paused and Ethne found herself almost running to keep pace with her.
"I can�t stop now," the woman called over her shoulder. "My brother is home at last!"
"Your brother?" Ethne said in surprise. As far as she knew Elen had only one brother and that was her own father.
"You can�t mean...?"
"Yes... Yes," Elen replied impatiently. "Your father. And his own father threw him out of his house this morning. Can you imagine that? You would have thought he would be overjoyed to see him after all this time wondering where he was and if he was all right! But no matter � I�m looking after him. I�m happy to see him."
"My father!" Ethne repeated. She was so shocked by the news she fell behind the hurrying figure of her aunt, and stood in the busy street like a rock in a stream with the crowds washing either side of her. Someone greeted her, but she ignored him. "My father!" she kept repeating to herself. She tried to remember what she had heard about him. Her grandparents hardly ever mentioned him. Friends of the family occasionally let remarks slip but stopped themselves as though they knew the subject was forbidden. She gathered he had been handsome and strong � and strong willed too! She had often dreamed of his return.
She pulled herself together and started to run after her aunt. Was he really back after all this time? What would he be like? Would he take her in his arms and try to make up for all those years he had been away? What would he think of her? She wondered if she should run home and change into her best clothes. She was mud-spattered from the river bank and her dress was covered with burrs. Her hair was tangled. She certainly did not look her best.
But she couldn�t wait. Her father! Her father was home!
She caught up and was with her aunt when she entered her small, neat, house. For a moment she could see nothing, for her eyes were dazzled as she left the light for the dim interior, and then a figure moved forward to take a basket from her aunt�s arm and the light fell on him. She saw the tall, impressive figure of a Roman centurion.
She caught her breath.
Her first thought was that her father, who had done who knows what in his voluntary exile, had returned home to hide, only to find the authorities were there looking for him. But when she saw the way Elen greeted him, she realized that he was her father. No wonder her grandfather had thrown him out!
He was looking over her aunt�s shoulder at her. The light from the open door showed her a face strong and lined, with a tendency towards sternness, and yet at this moment his expression was one of affectionate amusement.
Elen was so busy unloading her shopping and fussing to get the meal prepared that she seemed to have forgotten the girl�s presence.
The two strangers stared at each other � the man in his military uniform incongruously holding a basket of vegetables, carrot and turnip leaves spilling out over the side; the young woman clutching a pouch of herbs, her auburn hair tumbling over her shoulders, a garland of daisies she had placed there hours before now slipped and at a rakish angle, the flowers drooping and fading.
The man spoke first.
"So," he said. "We meet again."
Ethne looked puzzled. Did he expect her to recognize him after all these years? Did he expect her to fall into his arms and call him "father"? How many times as a child she had envisaged this meet-ing. Always he had gathered her up, weeping with remorse for having deserted her and her sister, swearing to make up for all the lost years. Never had he said so casually: "So � we meet again."
From his face it seemed he had integrity, honesty and courage. Yet where had those qualities been when he ran out on his two new-born infants?
"Not for sixteen years, sir," she said quietly, but with a hint of accusation. "And in those sixteen years," she thought, "while I was growing up in this valley, in this town... while I was learning to walk and talk and make friends... while I was exploring the hills and finding out about life... all that time were you learning nothing but how to kill people?"
He looked surprised.
"Did we not meet in my father�s house this very morning?"
"Ah," Ethne said, "you must have met my sister, sir � your other daughter."
He looked embarrassed.
"I�m sorry," he muttered. He stared at her closely, wonderingly. Could two human beings look so exactly alike?
"We are twins," she said lamely.
"I know. I am sorry. I didn�t think..."
Elen came bustling back.
"If you�re going to stay for the meal, you must help, girl. If you�re not, you must get out of my way."
Ethne looked at the man, her father, the stranger. She wanted to stay, and she wanted to run away.
"I must get back, aunt Elen," Ethne murmured. "Grandfather will be wondering where I am." Then politely, stiffly, awkwardly to the Roman centurion: "Will you be staying in Aquae Sulis, sir," she asked, "or are you just passing through?"
"I will be staying," he replied gravely. "We will meet again."
She bobbed her head shyly to him and started backing towards the door. At that moment the strap on the pouch at her hip broke and all the leaves and flowers she had carefully collected tumbled out on to the floor. She crouched down at once, her cheeks burning. "What will he think of me � clumsy fool � country bumpkin in muddy homespun. I should never have come to see him like this!"
But he was squatting beside her, helping her to gather up the herbs � helping her to put them back in the bag. His large brown hands brushed against hers as he did so. She trembled and tears began to blind her. She wanted to hug him. She wanted him to be proud of her.
"What on earth are you doing, girl?" Elen cried. "Clear up that mess at once. Take the broom to it. There is no time to pick up every leaf."
"There is time, sister. Don�t be so impatient."
"Impatient? That�s a laugh coming from the most impatient man in the world!"
"Not any more, Elen," he said so quietly that she could not possibly have heard. He gave Ethne a quizzical, conspiratorial look as though he was telling her something about himself that no one else knew.
Her heart skipped a beat. He had acknowledged her. They had connected. They would never again be parted.
She stood up, flushed, and watched him as he finished picking up her
spilled herbs. When he handed them back to her they looked into each other�s
eyes and he knew that one at least of his daughters had forgiven him.