The Waters of Sul
The statues for the temples at Aquae Sulis were almost all carved locally of local stone, but the skill to do so was imported. The studio consisted of a rambling series of shacks built on the flat beside the river to the northeast of the town, with easy access to the barges bringing the heavier material. There were two bronze casters from the island of Cyprus, and one master sculptor from Egypt, but locals did most of the hard work.
A huge slab of stone, capable of yielding a statue fifteen feet high, was to be brought by river, and on the day it was expected Decius, the centurion, joined the master sculptor on the quay to await its arrival.
The Egyptian was tall and lean, with a dark and brooding expression. He was a man of few words and many mysteries. Though he had been in the town for many years no one could say that they knew him, and no one called him anything but "the Egyptian". If he had ever given his name it had soon been forgotten or deemed unpronounceable, but his knowledge of his craft was unchallenged. Besides the millennia of stone carving skills he had inherited with his blood, he had spent some time in Rome itself at one of the best and busiest studios before he came to Britain.
Decius glanced sideways at him. What made such a man come to this cold and distant land? His culture was so alien. Everything about him suggested his dislike of being here � yet here he had stayed year after year through bitter winters and wet summers so very different from his own homeland. The statues he carved were of gods that must have meant nothing to him. When he had been told he was to supervise the carving of this huge effigy of the ugly and crippled Emperor Claudius and it was to be so beautiful and perfect that no one would question his deification � his expression had not changed. He had listened as though his own face was carved of stone.
He had visited the quarry, given his instructions, and gone on with his other work until it was ready as though he had no qualms about the magnitude of the task, or the possible local trouble it might stir up.
Decius had travelled enough to know that the Egyptian, though immensely skilled in working stone, was not outstanding as a sculptor. He had seen nothing emerge from his workyard that rivalled the images he had seen in Greece or even in Egypt itself. Indeed, he seemed to take very little part in the shaping of the images. He walked among the workmen, tapping this one on the shoulder and then that one � pointing out a flaw � suggesting a change of line.
Why was he here? Why had he chosen this work? What was he thinking at this very moment? Decius longed to talk to the man, for the Egyptian had travelled as widely as he had and must surely have a more sophisticated turn of mind than those who had never left this sleepy valley. But his stern face, his dark eyes fixed unwaveringly on the distant bend in the river, did not welcome communication. Decius could not find the words to break through his reserve, and so remained silent.
At last the barge appeared, slowly, moving with its heavy load, low in the water. Ropes held the rock firm. A man stood at the front with a long pole guiding the vessel, while a boy sat high on the rock, gazing at the passing scene dreamily. Children ran along the bank keeping pace with it, shouting and laughing. The boy on the barge ignored them, locked into his own world.
The Egyptian spoke at last, issuing orders to his men, several of whom began to prepare the landing stage with pulleys and rollers, while others cleared away every possible impediment.
"I will have to post some of my men here on guard," Decius told the Egyptian. "There may be some trouble from some of the towns-people."
The Egyptian raised an eyebrow.
"Claudius is not a God to them. Many resent him as conqueror."
"I will have no soldiers here," the Egyptian said firmly. "The statue will be safe in my workyard."
"At night when the men have gone home, anyone could break into those sheds."
The Egyptian nodded towards his own house, set back nearer the woods, but nevertheless affording a good view over the sheds and yard.
"I will guard the work."
Decius hesitated. He had already made plans and issued orders. On the other hand, soldiers always seemed to act as an irresistible challenge to the rebel Celts. It would be a matter of pride with them to outwit them. The Egyptian was just one man � but he was no ordinary man. Decius himself was afraid of him, though he could not have explained why. If he were to spread a rumour about magical protection for the statue... that, with the sinister appearance of the Egyptian, might be enough to keep his superstitious countrymen at bay.
"If I do not post guards you will be responsible for the safety of the statue. It may be too heavy a burden for one man to bear."
"I will have no soldiers here," the man repeated. "I will guard the work alone."
"What if many men come?"
"Many men will go," the Egyptian said darkly.
A grim smile passed briefly over the face of Decius, savouring the surprise of Owein and his rebels faced by such a man.
"I don�t want bloodshed," he warned.
"And what would your soldiers do � if not shed blood?"
"They have authority from the Emperor to protect his property. You have none. Besides � they would have the force to restrain or to drive off a host of angry men. What could you do alone?"
The Egyptian did not reply, but turned away to supervise the arrival of the barge.
"I want no one harmed," he called after the man�s retreating figure.
If the Egyptian heard, he gave no sign.
Decius watched the hectic scene now taking place on the quay. The men scrambling around the gigantic slab of stone seemed dwarfed by its size. Children jumping and dancing around the periphery seemed like so many sand fleas. Only the Egyptian kept his stature, standing apparently aloof, yet directing every movement. At one point the rock slab nearly slipped, threatening to crush a man. Horrified Decius rushed forward, but the Egyptian was already there. Decius did not see what he did, but suddenly the slab was steady again, sturdy wooden logs in place, ropes rein-forced.
"The man knows what he is doing," Decius thought. "I�ll leave him to it."
The centurion took one last look at the gigantic slab of stone and walked away. It was extraordinary to him how sculptors could draw out of such an object the complex and detailed image of a man. "What if there is one false blow � and the work of months is destroyed in one second?" He was thankful not to be involved in that part of the project.
In fact, he wished he was not involved in any part of it. He had met Vespasian and honoured him as a shrewd and courageous General and a straight talking man. He was probably one of the best of the Roman Emperors. But he was very far from divine. It sickened Decius that statues of murderous and insane men were put up for other men to worship. At least Nero�s name on the colossal statue of the sun god in the great square where Vespasian was building his amphitheatre had been chipped away, and all talk of him as a deity was being discouraged. By all accounts Claudius had not been so bad � but still no god. He did not blame his father and the others for resenting the statue being foisted on them in their most sacred place, but if he did nothing about it he would be betraying the vows he had taken as a soldier, and undermining the very system he believed would bring peace, prosperity and stability to the world.
When Aulus told Lucius and Julia about his old friend Kynan returning to Aquae Sulis as a Roman centurion after all these years, Julia instantly pricked up her ears and asked if he had any knowledge of the Emperor Vespasian.
"He has met him," Aulus replied.
Lucius groaned. He was tired of hearing about his half-sister�s supposed parentage and was convinced it had no substance in fact, but was a tale fabricated by the adults to give an illegitimate child comfort, and cultivated by Julia to give herself importance.
"I have to meet him," Julia insisted.
"I invited him to dine with us this evening, but there were matters he had to attend to. He is an important man you know, Julia, he cannot just drop everything for us."
"What were you thinking of to invite him here tonight?" Julia cried. "I must have time to prepare. We must give him a feast fit for a friend of the Emperor."
"Father didn�t say Decius was a friend of the Emperor. He said he�d met him � once," Lucius pointed out.
"Only once?" Julia looked appealingly at her stepfather.
Aulus, who was almost as excited as Julia, for her status as Emperor�s daughter must surely reflect on him � smiled placatingly.
"He didn�t say how many times. But even if it were only once..."
"If it were only once, he�d hardly be likely to introduce you," Lucius taunted.
Julia gave him a withering look.
"Give me time and I�ll prepare your friend a feast fit for the Emperor himself. If he has been in Rome and moved in Imperial circles he will certainly have advice to give, and friends who will know how things are done in Rome."
"You will never go to Rome, sister," Lucius said. "Why not accept it?"
"I will go!" she replied fiercely. "Aulus promised my mother on her death-bed that he would present me to my father."
Lucius laughed. Aulus looked uneasy. He had always regretted giving that foolish promise, but even more so that he had told Julia about it.
Now he hastily said that he would approach Decius Brutus the next day and invite him to dinner the following evening. Lucius declared he would make sure he was far from the house on that day as he would not be able to stomach the alternate boasting and grovelling that would go on.
"Good!" Julia snapped. "If you were the other side of the ocean it would not be far enough away for me!" This was to be a great moment in her life � and she did not want anything to spoil her chances of making a good impression. She was already thinking about what she would wear.
"The ring, of course," she decided. But she would need something very special in the way of gowns. And her hair? Yes, her hair must be in the latest Roman style.
Megan lay awake deep into the night. In the darkness, the problems that she and her people were facing seemed insur-mountable.
She heard the soft and even breathing of her sister beside her. At last she could bear it no more and shook her awake.
"Ethne," she whispered. "Ethne."
Ethne groaned and stirred, and tried to go back to sleep.
"I need you. Wake up!"
Ethne grunted � not opening her eyes.
"We have to talk � now � wake up!" Megan gave her an even more vigorous shake.
Wearily Ethne turned towards her sister. As she opened her eyes she saw that the oil lamp was still burning.
"What are we going to do?" Megan demanded.
"About what?" Ethne murmured.
"About our father! About the statue! About everything!" Megan cried in exasperation.
Ethne looked at her sister. It was clear she was very agitated. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes feverish.
"I think it wonderful that father has returned to us," she said quietly.
"He hasn�t returned to us!" Megan said furiously. "He was posted here by the Roman government. It�s probably the last place on earth he wanted to come."
"You don�t know if he didn�t ask for the posting," Ethne replied mildly.
Megan gave an exclamation of disgust.
"I can see I�m going to get no sense out of you. Go back to sleep."
But Ethne was wide awake now.
"Megan � whatever our father has done he is here now and we have a chance to get to know him, maybe to love him."
Megan blew the lamp out angrily.
"Go to sleep," she snapped. "I�ll not love a Roman!"
"He�s not a Roman," Ethne said firmly. "Neither are you a Dobunni," she added, just as firmly. She could almost feel the heat of Megan�s stare through the darkness. "You and he are father and daughter," she continued quietly, "human and human, man and woman. The words Roman and Dobunni are appendages that have nothing to do with the spirit � but only with the very temporary flesh. Why let them run your life?"
"What is this spirit? Have you ever seen it? Have you ever heard it? Felt it? Smelled it? I know who I am. I am Megan, granddaughter of Owein and Olwen, and I am of the tribe of the Dobunni. As Megan, I reject my father as he rejected me. As Dobunni, I reject the Roman as he slaughtered and enslaved my people."
"We are not slaves."
"If we are not enslaved then can we say no to the statue of the conqueror Claudius?"
Ethne was momentarily silent.
"There will be ways of saying no without bloodshed," she said at last.
"Show me one! Tell me! I don�t want to shed blood � but I will not have that statue in Aquae Sulis."
There was silence in the dark room for a while.
"I will ask the Goddess Sul," Ethne said thoughtfully. "There must be a way. There will be a way. You will see."
And then, very quietly � "Megan?"
There was no reply.
"Megan, are you crying?"
She put her arms round her sister. Ethne could feel the tears on her cheek. She knew how deep Megan�s feelings about the Romans went, and held her close.
"I�m afraid," Megan sobbed. "Something terrible is going to happen. I can feel it. We can smash the statue � but not what it represents..." She shuddered.
Ethne rocked her twin sister in her arms as she had often done since their birth. As easily as Megan�s heart leapt to anger, it leapt to fear � and Ethne had played mother to her many times.
"Sleep now, little one," she crooned. "Sul will guide us. Sul will help us. Sul will protect us."
Megan finally fell to sleep, but Ethne remained awake long into the night staring into the dark.
The rumour reached Megan that the stone had arrived for the hated statue and that it, when it was finished, would be so tall that it would dominate the temple precinct.
She set off at once for the Egyptian�s workyard to see for herself. That Claudius himself had been short and squat brought an irreverent twist to her lips.
"If they are going to make a man a God, let them at least choose someone worthy," she thought. She had heard from her grand-father that Claudius had invaded Britain just so that he could have a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome like his predecessors. He had not been here for the fighting � but allowed his generals to do all the work and then came in for a few days to claim the credit. Rome had enough land. Why bother with this bit so far from home and so difficult to administer? Megan remembered well the excitement in her grandfather�s house twelve years ago when the great Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe had risen in revolt. The tales of her vengeance against the Romans for the rape of her daughters were told around every hearth fire and at every street corner. The twins, listening with horrified attention, saw in their mind�s eye whole cities burning and hordes of screaming warriors bearing down on fleeing refugees � limbs hacked, heads rolling, eyes gouged.
Even at that age Megan had a fierce pride that Boudicca had avenged herself so powerfully � but Ethne turned her face to the wall and wept for all those maimed and slain.
"Not all Romans raped her daughters, you know," she said to her sister, "and not only Romans were killed. People like you and me. How would you like it if someone you�d never heard of and had nothing to do with � a long way away � did something terrible to someone � and then your house was burned and you and your children and everyone you knew and loved were tortured and killed?"
"They shouldn�t have come to this country..."
"Our ancestors came to this country from over the sea and conquered the local population just as the Romans have done," Ethne reminded her.
But Megan was stubborn. She did not want to listen. It did not matter to her that the Romans had never done her personally any particular harm, and indeed, in many ways, the quality of her life had been considerably improved by their occupation of her country. She carried her grandfather�s hate as though it were her own.
She arrived at a bend in the river and could see the long, low sheds of the sculptor�s workyard. She wondered if she would find her father there. Her heart beat a little faster. If she did � how would it be? She both wanted, and did not want, the encounter.
But there was no sign of him. Men were chipping at stone; children were sweeping up the chippings and dust. A blacksmith�s fire glared red as he shaped and sharpened tools. A horse tethered nearby to a rickety fence whinnied. Its well-to-do owner had probably come to see how a statue or a tombstone he had commissioned was shaping up.
Most of the sheds were open to the elements and were no more than thatched roofs held up on wooden columns. Some were more elaborate and could be fastened shut. One, the largest of all, had a door locked and barred.
"The Claudius stone must be in there," she thought, scanning the area like an army scout.
There were no Roman guards around.
She sensed someone close behind her and swung round to face the Egyptian.
"Can I help you?" he asked in a deep, strange voice with a foreign accent.
She had only seen the Egyptian from a distance before. Now she was looking into a pair of very penetrating black eyes. She had heard many stories about him � some so fanciful that they could hardly be taken seriously. One was that he could transform himself into a gigantic nighthawk and had been seen flying over the town blotting out the moonlight. No one had ever seen inside his house.
Megan looked at him now and saw a man, probably in this late thirties or early forties, handsome in a craggy, harsh sort of way, with long black hair, straight nose verging on the hawklike, lips thin and tightly closed...
"I was hoping to see the stone you have for the Claudius statue," she said and, as soon as she said it, regretted that she had. What if those piercing eyes could see into her heart and she had now alerted the man to take extra precautions? She hoped he did not know she was the granddaughter of Owein, for the old man had already said too much about the statue, too loudly and in too many places.
The Egyptian gave no hint that he had noticed anything alarming about her.
"Come," he said simply and led the way to the shed she had suspected was the one to house the stone.
He opened the door and led her in. The contrast with the bright sunlight outside made her half blind for a few moments. She stared at the great block ahead of her and was startled. Surely they had not carved it already? Lying before her was the Emperor Claudius in full imperial regalia...
She was aware the Egyptian was standing slightly to the left of her and was watching her face intently.
"How could they...?"
Then she realized she had made a mistake. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the shed she saw that there was nothing there but a solid rectangular block of stone, untouched by hammer or chisel.
She began to back out of the place, shivering.
Once outside in the sunlight she recovered and, annoyed at being tricked, spoke haughtily to the man.
"You know the people of the town don�t want this statue?" she said, staring boldly straight into those dangerous eyes.
"I know it," he said simply.
"Why, then, do you go ahead?"
He did not reply, but attended to shutting the door and drawing the bolt across. Megan noted that it was wooden and would present no obstacle to anyone determined to enter the shed.
"Do you not fear the consequences?"
He started to walk away and then paused and turned to look at her.
"We can never know the consequences of our actions," he said at last, quietly.
"I don�t agree," she cried. "If the Romans foist this on us they will know exactly what the consequences will be!"
"Of whom do you speak when you say �us�?"
Megan was just about to blurt out the names � but stopped herself in time. His eyes seemed to be drawing them out of her. She bit her lip. "What they say about him is true," she thought, "he is a magician!"
With great difficulty, she withdrew her eyes from his.
"Everyone in the town," she said haughtily.
Then she turned and walked away with as much dignity as she could. She felt him watching her, but she did not look back.
How could an outsider, an Egyptian, whose country had
also been conquered by the Romans, be so loyal to them and
so stubborn in protecting their interests! He seemed too
intelligent to be the kind of man who worked only for
payment, caring nothing for the moral implications of what
he was doing. The further she strode along the path towards
the town, the angrier she became. He knew precisely
what he was doing!