CHAPTER XLI (XXXXI)
She will be here well before sunset. The garden is fragrant, the fish in the new pond seem quite happy with it. The house has never been more scrubbed. There are new cushions, the furniture is polished, there is clang and bustle in the kitchen, and from there, marvelous odors In all my the household, for in this one slaves are happy with me. They like their own the new outfits. All of the house slaves are freshly bathed as well. They gleam and shine from it. A few slaves grin at my nervousness. It takes no genius to see their master awaits a woman; the flowers, candied fruits set all about, a new floral patterned carpet in the hallway all announce her. Her guest room is a pantry of sweets, preserved meats, fruit juices, wine should she be the nibbling, sipping sort. Silks are upon her windows and her couch. It is premature, but I couldn’t restrain myself. I have set out a gift on her pillow.` It is a necklace from India, delicate, the gems, diamonds and small rubies are small but perfect, all set in silver. I have avoided ostentation. One darker ruby set in the center is carved in the form of the Buddha. In selecting that I have presumed her interest in religion and philosophy. In all of this I may be an idiot.
It is a lucky thing that it is my nature that before a battle, or any other trial, I become calm, self possessed. It is nothing I will, it simply happens and always to my own good stead. Generals have commended me for it, called it “courage” I have not been impolite enough to shrug at that, but I know it is resignation. I saw it first in me when I was quite young and my father would set a slave to beat me or, if he thought the slave was not putting enough will to it, my father himself did it, at first with his own hands, then as I aged, to whipping me with a wet thong. A child tires of screaming. What remains is resignation, and stubbornness, and hatred That he used the same whip on slaves-no other Roman father did that- created a kind of kinship between the slaves and me. My personal slave ventured the forbidden opinion that to whip a child that way was “wrong” He relied on my not betraying him, for in my household that sympathy would have made him crocodile food.
I outgrew resignation, it was replaced with depression, sometimes almost suicidal. I joined my father in disgust at myself. I shared no other goals for me with him, I swore e that I would not be my too-Roman father’s Roman son. I defied him but, cowardice I suppose, I was outwardly conforming. In doing that, I suffered enough to be punishing myself. From the beginnings of me, I invented substitutes for what was. I could smell f flowers in a room where there were none. I conjured alternatives to being me, the no-me of someone else somewhere else. I was Jason sailing the Pontus, Hector defending Troy, then I became Rome’s traitor, being s a successful Hannibal. Ironic that each hero I was, had died a loser, indeed Jason, his wife Medea having butchered his children, killed himself in despair. I suppose my heroes were more me than I liked. I worked on that; once I became a king of elephants whose tusks would carry my favorite foods to a big table where I put on a party for all the other elephants. Once I was Queen Boadicea leading the Celts to fight the Romans-I was an odd queen because I remember I saw me, as her, wearing a great red beard. Once, it was after my lessons on him, I played being the aristocratic Greek Polybius defeating us Roman invaders by building a high Athenian wall made of books. My Polybius, he was much more clever than I was and did grand things on his own while in my mind, persuaded those attacking legions to stop fighting, sit down, and eat sugared fruits while they all read Aristotle. I can still recall seeing them there, reading. I was an oddity of a child. I still am but suspect only I know it, for I have been a dutiful, albeit hardly enthusiastic or genuine, Roman.
Now, over 50 years old, with Helen and those other thoughts on my mind, I have done my conforming duty, and, as I must, done it well, albeit unenthusiastically. My father vanquished the child. At this late and still dissatisfied date, can I at last guide my steps as Pythia foretold? If I were to do so, I would be all the odder for it. I am used to being the Mule and that’s all right, “ass” sits comfortably as well. choices. I don’t want this Mule of me to be any Hannibal or Jason, just being this Mule better at being what he ought, a me- consonant Mule. I don’t discount at all being a mule of the sort who serves mincemeat pies, goat cheese and wine to a bunch of elephants, those friends from my childhood, all of us around a cheery supper table.. But now, suddenly, oh my. !Were I not by now the serious fellow who must always stay that way, at this moment I’d be leaping into the air, for the great cedar door of my hallway is opening, the ushers who have been waiting by the courtyard gate are announcing guests. My chief usher, who much enjoys his job, has a booming voice. He has been briefed on the particulars
“I present Princess Helen, sacred to Apollo of Daphne, honored by the Emperor Hadrian, Helen of many legends, now our guest. She is accompanied by Auxiliary Centurion Balthus of Suebia, Under Secretary to the Master, Dominus and Quaestor, Secretary to the Governor, Dominator Publius Marcellus
I was calm, almost cold. My expression was sober. Gravitas is my only face, mask that it may be. I was now simply curious to meet this woman. As she entered, she was brightly dressed but somehow I could not focus. A woman was moving gracefully, there seemed a mist. My eyes or her magic?. My subordinate stood at near-attention d well back of her. Odd, my muscles felt so stiff, my hands almost numb, what an awful moment to be not-me. I had had such spells as a child, but never as an adult. I shook my head a bit to clear out the distances in it. As it behooves a host toward a guest whom he wishes to acknowledge his superior, I walked toward her, the brilliant blue, blonde, white and a bit rosy the lips of her, the kohl underlined blue eyes of her. Know that I have always been well coordinated, a sound body at my service. Were it not so, I would have been dead in battle the first year of campaigning. I am battle- hardened, my body fit, responsive. But the whole of that body is blushing, t my heart is out of pace, I have this urge wildly to run and put my arms around the woman. And that tingling! That’s not fit at all. (Mind you I keep fit by doing my martial exercises on Mars’ field just north of the palace. Groups of us, whether in active military or as formerly that and now in the civil service, engage in mock combat These restrained, “attenuated” exchanges deliver serious enough blows so that at the the day, a few are unconscious and occasionally more seriously wounded, for even thin, light, blunt wooden swords can club a man when, as their design is intended, they do not themselves break. Staying fit, by all means! There are heavy pack marches, cavalry games, engineer’s tests of heavier weapons- all a Roman army and its commanders must do to keep ready. The Emperor Hadrian plans no wars, which by no means assures the barbarians on our frontiers, or the insurrectionist Jews, occasional slave revolts, do not come to us. Indeed there are those pessimists who say the barbarians will one day seriously threaten Rome. ) Yes, my mind is going sideways a bit, this exercise but exercises is totally off the point, but, don’t you see, otherwise I would be leaping up in the air shouting,”I love you!” That is no “me” Mule at all. In any event, I segued to Mars field to assure you I could not possibly feel as tingly, rushing, blushing , trembling, about to throw all 50 plus years of the total control of me to the four winds.
So at least at the beginning, I was chromatic enough to be hearing eccentric notes of me, but to be as if jumping was puzzling, since I was making my ever tightening muscles absolutely prohibited a jumping Mule. I took most careful steps, as if those were the only ones I wanted. Pythia had said, let the steps go in directions they want. All right, but the speed they intended was unacceptable. Indeed what occurred was humiliating. I was not being dignified! Shame! It was myself shaming me, not as with my father and others, their simply being ashamed of me. That was common enough, but shame as the act of wrongful conduct before others about whose opinion I cared, never! Sorry, a tangent again, but I had begun to walk faster than was proper, I was in fact walking very rapidly indeed toward this absolutely gorgeous, radiant, yes the legends were right, she was Helen of Troy and anywhere the most beautiful woman in the world. I do not recollect whether I had begun to run toward her.
At the initial moment I do recall thinking it was that my sandal caught on the new carpet . No matter, my reflexes are excellent, but then came the unfolding of shock, accident, and that terrible humiliation, no, worse, it was panic, when suddenly, I was precipitously falling, The dignified always master-of-me was falling. The wild, “yes” of it had been joy, I was running
to embrace this woman whom I had never really met. As I fell, I berated the running fool doing it. Fool, you violate all Roman standards for respectable people meeting on a first and formal home visit. The fool beginning the sprint didn’t care. I did not care if this goddess, if a proper one, would curse me, scorn me, and rush away for ever. I knew she wouldn’t. Then, what I took at first to be the sandal thing, I realized was an assumption. My eyes, now what is this blinding happening? had been entirely focused on her. How was I to say what the carpet was up to in tripping me? Something wrong here, if carpet, then, a woozy syllogism, then the carpet was up to more than carpets, sandals and falls can do.
There was a great something surprising of blues, yellows, greens, reds rushing flapping into my face. There was a great noise of it as well, this storm of, yes, they were wings and feathers beating at me when someone took at axe to my forehead, the pain was sharp, my skull reverberated, and I became wet, bloody, lips salty, I was blinded. I roared soldier’s curses. I raised my hands to protect myself, and, above all, to pull that storm of bird off me, strangle him, and reverse the which of which of us was tearing the other to pieces. For the winning “which of it” to be me, it would be some luck, for his beak seemed intent on tearing my face off, and biting off whatever else of hands I threw up to fend him off. He was the eagle and my face his rabbit. By now I knew my shoulders were already bloody from his claws, which had made a fulcrum of them. It was, any soldier knows at such disabled moments, a serious threat. And any commander knows, he should have seen it coming. After all, a storm of flying colors swooshing down on your flank is not invisible, but Armineus had done it,, idiot and nincompoop commanding Centurion that I had been. I was about to be made mincemeat by a bird.
I had been concentrating so on that woman in sapphire, had seen that ginger blonde hair, those magnificent features, I was, and here no idiot Simon casting them, nor was she, I had, in being overwhelmed by the sight of her, cast a spell upon myself. Like General Varus in the Teutoberg I had conceived Armineus coming, and when he came, I was already stumbling. The carpet and sandal had managed that. And now, claws, beak, wings and hatred all having at me, I had stumbled the worse, and could not right myself. My hands were at the demon bird and my reflex was warding him off, not to protect my fall. I had been concentrating so hard on this far-sighted Helen, those pale blue eyes she bound directly on me, those eyes that were rays into mine, so, yes, for a pre-stumble, pre-harpy Armineus second, we had bound one another. And until this Teutoberg bird ambush, neither of us could disengage. In battle I have stared into eyes that were, just before my sword undid their owner, staring death into mine. Now it was my turn to feel undone, no sword in the gut, just my skull being drilled and shoulders under his knives. I got my hands on the bird, had pulled his head a bit back, but those damned claws sliced into my shoulders, the talons working like barbs on an arrow point or fish hook, but deeper, tendon-deep. A lot of my meat would be going with him, if, if I were able to wrench him off.
I could hear the shouts in the hallway, knew the slaves were at the bird, but even a loyal slave prefers his own skin parrot-proof whole, over that of his master’s. And after all, what slave likes any master that well, even us reasonably good ones? I was careening down and backward rather rapidly, but did have the brains to put my knees forward and haul back at the waist. In the meantime, it was Armineus who sensed he was going to be a squished pillow for my face if, as we were going, he was to end up on the floor on his back. This parrot preferred up to down, flight over falling, squawk to squish. He was pulling himself free of me with an horrendous screech of irritable frustration, when I hard both Balthus and the woman, yes she had the same voice as Pythia but hardly solemn at the moment, next to me, I presumed both were at the bird which was big enough for four people to grapple. Not that I could see a thing, heads bleed like rivers flow and mine no different. Later I would wipe the river off my eyes, now I had to set my crumpling course by kinesthesia.
It was her woman’s body I felt against me, putting her chest against my higher one, trying to get her hands under my armpits. She was strong, but immensely so was Armineus. Helen, at with her own face full of thrashing parrot wings, and tail feathered ass, she could hardly see. It was Balthus who was birdfull now, a handy fellow he was with demons., I could hear the swoosh, lun -emptying “pshoooh” and swearing, cursing, shocked shriek from Armineus as Balthus knife sliced the demon’s head from the rest of him. I swear I heard it give one last angry “grrrrckkkk” , and some really vile Latin words, as that cursed head cursed the bunch of us. The slaves - I had had them dress quite splendidly and I am sure none wished to ruffle or bloody that elegance- were by now near as well, but I am a heavy and muscled man. The boulder of me was still in motion, falling. It felt as slow as a beetle crawling, as inevitable as the boulder of me must be. Helen was full -catching this boulder, my protectively bent knees doing her no good as they came into her legs, pushing her backwards, against which weight I could feel her, bending her knees, easing the all of me into her arms as she captured and absorbed my weight. She would have hit the floor thuddingly, but for the slaves crouched ready, here-at-last helping, beside and behind her. The landing turned out to be a cushioned one, the great impact of me, and I am a man of some hard weight, was on Helen. It was not a quiet one, for the slaves were all a-shout and a-buzzing, and Armineus, true to character, seemed to whisper curses from his severed head.
Helen said only, “Mule, be easy, I have you”
Balthus, having avenged Rome on a feathery Teutoburg Armineus, thereby proving himself a loyal Roman German indeed, wore a grim smile on his voice, “So, hatchet-beak, thought you’d take on these legions, did you? Well, we’re going to have you ‘a la Apicius’ mixed with dried figs, raisins, coriander and sweet white wine. My new dish as your edible memory, ‘pate of parrot.’’’ I was still blood-blinded, but I sensed him coming close. ‘’Not so good, Quaestor, you are more than a mess’’
I had heard something else as well. I had eased my own fall against Helenas much as I could with my elbows, turning as we landed so only part of her was beneath me. Doing that twist, I heard the tear of my so carefully wrapped dress toga catching on something- later I learned it was Armineus’ talons . As for the tear, the ripping sound and the time it took to complete itself I realized even further what dishevelment the host confronted his visitor. Again, the panic that comes from doing things badly even, if as now was apparent, the doing was not initially mine.
We were, Helen and I, the tangle and voices told me a slave or two as well, and none of bones broken. Even so I knew a time of silence, of confusion, dizziness, darkness. That giant Armineus beak was axe and hammer. I was to groggy to guess how long I had been unconscious. I heard Balthus voice, low and worried, inspecting that mess of me, that chopped forehead and those shreds of shoulders, my bloodied eyes and face, no doubt the mess I had made on others as well. Hands were wiping my face, pressing compresses against the bloody flow. That one strong hand would be Balthus’, the other, how she had maneuvered so quickly even when pushed down on her back I wondered? was gentler, it could only be Helen. Wiped, swabbed and reassured, and could see. The worst was past, but for her once brilliant blue soft web of a dress, for it was now puddle and streaked with blood. She yet had her one left arm around me. Well, having lost control while so precipitously intending to embrace her, she instead she was embracing me, albeit hardly the hug I had originally in mind. If mind is where the intention arose. Never mind, some powers of salvation are in a woman’s arms.
I was apologizing, thanking, more than effusive. I was a torrent of worried words, some, asking, some promising all manner of repairs of damage that seemed to me immense and irreparable. I was as near to tears as I had ever been since the real ones of my childhood, I felt so terrible, ashamed, guilty, at what I had done and laying there this respite moment, was in a riveted consciousness of failure, helplessness in it. I had fallen, and not in battle. There was again that rush of shame. Then came an icy rain of the sort I knew on those winter marches through northern forests. I was cold. I began to shiver. Icy winters on the march had done that before, this was the first time I was my own winter, my winter upon me. In my own hallway, in front of the slaves, , my body, part covering this woman I want to love, and here I was turned to ice. The very cold and distance of me brought on its own second layer of fear. That began in my bowels but moved upward to and from somewhere in an observing mind not part of the experiencing one, that father’s mind disdaining the other helpless one.
I had not connected the points of it before. The truth was running through me, flooding me even though the flowing blood of me was staunched. Two sets of my eyes were clear, those that had been wiped clean of blood, the other in judgment implacable, appalled at my having allowed toga and dignity, propriety and the comfort of my guest, all torn asunder. Beyond shame to guilt, unworthiness. It was lunatic but it was remorselessly, condemningly, and true. The child in me had learned it and the man in me, that child yet there, denied its remembering until now. For this moment I had no sight for anything outside, or its sound, or smell, or wind. I was fully waking and senseless but for the overwhelming comprehension that now fallen, now shamed, now guilty, I was helpless and for that I would be exterminated. All of the work of my life had failed. I was helpless and must be punished. An insane conclusion, an awful insight.
Images. I was as that child, not allowed escape into being Jason of the Pontus, Hercules with him, the golden fleece in hand, or- those Britons, were they really body-painted blue? Racing images, the boy as bearded Celtic queen, all these lies, all escape denied, I was fallen, helpless, once again about to be destroyed. In this landscape of a child’s horror being lived again, no not again but living still on in a more than middle aged once man. The man who was a war hero, visiting many deaths, defending against his own, proving no fear in it and in mid battle that was more than so. War was my time free from fear. Not now, here on my own home’s floor, he was here somewhere, was my father, standing over me again with his slave whip lashing me. I am sure I screamed sufficiently to please him before, in a typical resolution of such moments, screaming, my silence pleased him as well, for I screamed into unconsciousness. Nothingness.
If he were still a man of energetic plans, he would summon his also sadist expert slave who was delighted to make pain someone else’s as well as his own inflicted. He was an artist better employed in our Antioch palace cellar on enemies who would beg to die. A little boy is a small animal of not much use and whose mind is full of recitations of Plato, oranges hidden under his bed, a seashell, which is a trumpet when blown into, and even then unfathomable memories. That I believe my father’s slave used his penis in me is nothing sure, nor does it matter much. That slave was prone to get excited by my pain, he would slaver, urinate sometimes, and as for my tiny rear, his attempt to use it may or may not have been so, for such child memories are vague, and sometimes seize upon images of a general savagery. The slave was himself a beaten pigmy of a man who felt power, I am sure not sex, when he treated his master’s child thus. Shall I say it with whimsy now I’m grown; say it was that slave’s democratization? If so, no wonder Rome fears the mob, adores tyranny, and makes the Senate a parlor of fools.
No matter, this is our Rome. A citizen can do anything he wishes to a slave, and may kill his child. I modify that, a law was passed, likely Trajan’s , disallowing killings of a male child, but for a man like my father, old family, strong opinions, Roman law would have been no more to him than it is to its judges, thus, by no means entirely binding
As I lie here on the floor, regressed to brutal images and being the child of them, I make a poor philosopher of law. I had been conquered. Armineus had been an instrument, but I my surrender as to my own emotions, images of their origins well before that bird. Now appeared my mother, an ugly woman, thin, sharp nosed, a screeching voice, a rich and imperial woman she, oh how my father and she hated one another to the point, I heard it from a slave, of attempted poisoning. Both were, sequentially, quite ill. My mother’s memory disappeared into the black closet of my mind Stupid child, the closet is not strong enough to chain all memories, not then, not, suddenly, now. I am, of course silently as always, close to that panic which is a totality of terror. It’s name is “crocodile” (crocodilus) His name was crocodile, the one coming at me, the one which my father kept for his amusements, that crocodile whose mouth was ever so white but for streaks of pink. whereas his saber teeth were taller than I and glistenimg. The shine of blades sharpened for death. I have seen many blades of swords in war, but the long double crown of them in the maw of this 20 foot monster, these were the only ones to terrify me. But then a child of seven is not a soldier, is he?.
When I was seven years old. I was, once again and always, angry with my father, for once again, and as always, he had hurt me savagely. Not yet having learned resignation, I hit him. A small fist pounding only punishes itself. He knocked me unconscious. I awakened in a cage he kept for slaves, one suspended over the large pool in which waited his hungry Egyptian pet, that crocodile, to whom he fed annoying slaves. He did it by lowering the cage into the water and pulling open its door with a chain, its other end held in my father’s hand. My father licked his lips with solitary satisfaction. (I must be fair to the Roman elite, my father had no friends. Anyone whom he invited over to watch the crocodile tear ad crunch a slave said the usual nice things about entertainments, but never returned. Had my father been esteemed enough politically in Nero’s eyes for the Emperor to come a calling, they would have become friends)
As a child I had been forced to watch the feedings, hear the screams and thrashing and chomping, see the crimson welling out, and smell my own retching. If I did not applaud thumbs up, father would box my ears. What horror and nausea taught me has attached itself to any impulse I have toward open anger.
I have faced others’ anger most of my life, father and his crocodiles, the back of my mother summoning a slave to beat me, Livia Drusilla chronically disapproving, patrons and sponsors whose nominations I’ve rejected, and ever so frequently when I have refused a petitioner’s bribe. In battle it is a bit different, among trained enemies one faces purpose, usually competence, strong arms, and stratagems. It is among undisciplined barbarians one sees the wilder animal fury, a set of tribal priests sometimes in the safe rear chanting them on. Sometimes the barbarian enemy puts younger adolescents in its ranks, their rite of manly passage. They are told to appear fierce, angry before our legions. All they can muster is fear.. I have never killed such a child. Instead, I disarm his This father’s hated sword, reach out and hold him, , turn him around-oh, I have a famously strong arm in battle- and if I know any of his language, tell him he has met the war god Mars himself, has done bravely in the face of the unconquerable, and now is bid go home until he grows older. So much then for faces of anger, and mine always the same since the crocodile, cold resignation.
But I was no longer a child, I was here in my own house bleeding, Balthus and slaves were putting poultices on my shoulder, holding compressed cloths hard on my forehead. I was still have lying upon, half held by Helen. Out of commotion and my child’s fear, some adult good then. Out of this commotion I was remembering what might not have been, but to which I would swear. I passed in and out of consciousness, in and out of earlier and present times. The child dropping into the crocodile pool was surprised the reptile’s breath was not the foul, sour, rubbish stink of rotten fish or flesh, but, no the faint breath of now was cool and perfumed. I looked up, one cannot see much covered with others working hands and bandages, but I saw her, this Helen, knew she was cradling me still.
I was floating now, disconnected images, ideas, visited and departed. Death at last? I saw the crocodile swim away, its ruby-studded tail flipping, diving into a pool of sky. No crocodile, then, so here, my hallway after all, felled after the axe hit and blood loss, I had watched Armineus beak split oak and his talons crush a great, green un-ripened cabbage (both tests I had made of the bird) Blow and blood emptying will loosen a man’s veins considerably. I have seen many a soldier in my condition and know how common mind wanderings are. The soldier is a at home by the fire, he is talking to Charon, one was being pinned to the cliff next to Prometheus as the eagle- another strong beaked bird- tore at his liver, which was indeed the man’s fatal wound. Gone the soldiers, gone the sounds, I was floating and in no world, what did I care about causes?
It was a state of relief. I would fight my doom no more. A henna-tattooed hand stripped away my medals, those clusters, emblems and rare silver laurels, heard it, saw it, tear off the signs of service, my high office. The hand threw them to the ground where they became daphne bushes. I reflected on the fact I would not enjoy the family mausoleum, for my family would not abide my dead company in Rome. A tombstone? Roman cemeteries here in Syria held thousands, but my testament was clear; I had no wish to have so many foreign bones as neighbors. I would be buried somewhere o, no one would fancy a man of my hard looks and already- alienation being allowed further wandering, be clear as to the fact of this, the unburied become shrieking lemurs, revenants who foul fireplaces by perching on chimneys to let go their excrement. Abroad on a night with heavy air, you will have heard the revenants moaning. It is well know that as long as the earth receives the corpse, the living are free from that particular haunting. It is important I be buried somewhere.
I don’t want a simple, nameless, shallow planting as indifferent to me as I have been to myself. I want a stone name somewhere, for a Senior Centurion Quaestor sub Governor Sempronius Scipio Gracchus Cornelius (no “Mule” please) I command extra pay for the stone carver. Such a stone will invite a century or four or more of flattery from the droppings of perching birds and wind- blown sand gimlets racing one another to pelt the stone, racing the feasting worms, vying to see how fast one more mortal and his stone name can be returned, as we are, to dust. Worthless as I am, I have my Cornelian arrogance. Perhaps I d merit a bas-relief portrait bust, curly hair, scars and all, the wry look of a failed patrician. A bust even, somewhere in Ultima Thule or the deserts of Cathay,. My burial tour allows that Publius Aelius Hadrian, Emperor, out of duty to our clan, my honest service and his life I once saved, might see to a reasonable chunk of carved Naxos marble set up near the palace on the edge of Mars Field, that for both our war memories. Or loyal Balthus might plant a stele carved in good humor showing us drinking wine together, if according to his tastes, then the serving girl naked and ready, for I know he wants me to have a better time than this world has brought me. One could do worse than a marble eternity of wine, a friend, and a willing girl. Maybe that is what they mean by “Heaven”. I accept.
I wonder whether this woman whose sunny eyes near blinded mine tonight would be moved to such an investment, this woman only twice met, once when we were with Apollo and just for a moment tonight, this, ah Helen, yes, ah yes, it was Helen holding me. I could not hold her; my mind set a wandering again. I did remark silently to myself that as inspirited Pythia she had told me I would move toward the satisfying steps that were my own. I had hoped I would find these as my harmonious direction before dying. My intuition, that silliness that overwhelms me with certainty, had told me that our steps toward each other, Helen and I, in this hallway tonight were syntonic for us both, yet I had immediately as often in life, stumbled badly. “Stumble” is indeed the defining term. Armineus vengeance tonight proved I was hardly the cozened favorite of those “sweet sisters”, the avenging Furies. Ah yes, not three but four, Armineus sculpted together. Perhaps my parents, who agreed on nothing else but my worthlessness, had particularly commissioned the Erinyes to do what had always been their chthonic duty, to carry out the curses of parents on their children. Why not modernize that, a partnership; I wonder, did the Erinyes pay my parents to be the curse upon their son?
Perhaps Helen, if of a mind for epitaphs. would have engraved just my footprints set in one direction, then moving suddenly in another and there being joined by the smaller prints of a woman. But if carved on the stone as prophecy, as history to be, it meant we had been foretold companions. Destiny is not just what has happened, it is what will, and inevitably, happen. So any lover hopes. An oracle is much wiser, hope has no part of her: she would have read from what was already ordained. I could see the stone, it’s carving, plainly, it was there straight dropped solid into my mind, chisel marks and all. They were old chiseling marks at that, this was an old stone and weathered. The trail of joined footsteps was too short for my liking; mine just disappeared whereas hers moved sideways off the edge of the stone. There was a mystery for you, where had she gone after I was gone? Where had I gone for that matter? Well, it was obvious that I was somewhere that allowed me a look at the tombstone of this husband and wife. Married then? Good! There was a great deal of inscribing on the monument. I could make out what seemed two crosiers crossed or they could be shepherds crooks, but the incising was worn, smudged by time’s erasures. Were this a genuine glimpse of me as retrospective, was I to think, were these shepherds crooks that I retired to an old age of sheep herding? How incongruously bucolic. I was annoyed not to see more clearly but with this blood not yet fully washed from my eyes, no wonder I couldn’t read it. An old man’s eyes perhaps, corresponding was that this tombstone set down for me to see was very old. Even so, there were freshly tended flowers at its base. That pleased me. Is that Heaven, to see fresh flowers placed on your grave? Why not? These smelled like daphne, and there is no finer fragrance than that.
The wherever of where I had journeyed, it was no happenstance, I had been shown this vision of the sort granted to shamans and seers, hardly a power I had, nor deserved, nor….I was fading as was the vision. And now clear. So it was that after that perhaps delirious retrospect as prospect, I meandered into sensibility again. I was here and now with Helen, Yet I retained, and do, this eerie sense of a gift momentarily given to me from another world, as if one could glimpse from here and also be in eternity. The experiencing of it, well perhaps the imagining of it by a beak-battered brain, was nothing as concrete and specified as are the paintings we are supplied showing Hades or Elysian fields, no, wherever I was anticipated being beyond the sensual realm. I had become “experiencing” , unfettered being, granted infinite reach and serenity in a buoyant state of tranquil understanding .Of what I have no idea. There was no self there to center it, it seemed infinity absent any frame, relative ground that in conceiving, defining, paradoxically limits it. Mine was delirium likely, but one that bestowed a sense of ease not bounded by its antonyms. Yes, delirium, but whatever its irrational source, it conveyed, momentarily realized, portents of serenity seeming “sacred.” This was given to and not of me, portents in the now of forever, which has me ever abiding, thus the forever in the now. In this space, Helen is next to me. I know, the ecstatic ethereal joined to flesh is incongruous, but it is not a new phenomenon. Helen being of Troy or intimately Magdalene, all seem possible. for as I am freed, time is, events are. My delirium is a loving place. I am visiting awe, otherness, and the roots of magic. I am visiting myself the visitor. I am experience, here held by Helen, solidly grounded, but the other of me, yet also Helen’s , has inklings of bold gifts.
But now, the particularities of consciousness are returning, Helen, was holding my head in her lap. Someone, or several, had turned me over, stretched me out, washed the worst of it. She was tenderness so strongly felt I became her tenderness. It is the poetry of delirium that we were not a sole unit now of two, but partaking of more, which was the benign, loving surround of us. Three interchanging the felt moment’s poetry. One as two as three, where that third a loving infinite presence possible. A throbbing, bleeding head, a real woman, a torn toga, the prosaic was extended into the ethereal. That seemed quite right. Everything seemed quite right. I will use the word “bliss” She was stroking my cheek; those sunny eyes of hers knew me as I did not. As for the nonsense of my wounds, her care was not worry, so how should I contradict her? An empirical reality was forming. I looked about. I was not dead or dying. The Erinyes had failed. Insofar as my father harbored a death wish for me, and for too long I had agreed his judgment right, I was not his to curse, nor would I do it for him. It would take more than a parrot Hercules, a curling carpet, and the spell of Thanatos bound long ago on a frightened little boy to have me take that last walk with Hermes to Pluto’s underground town tonight. Doom be hanged. Rome go hang, what it demands is not what it will get. As for what Rome needs? I will allow myself some grandiosity there.
To hell with them all. I would see Armineus roasted this very night. Triumph. Redemption. I granted a wandering consciousness, even unto some future where tombstones viewed afar are retrospect. The image of the stone stays. No one of us may disregard the Greek understanding of ourselves of our own ship’s captain. Opposing currents, storms, pirates may waylay us, but we who have set responsible courses, curse these, not ourselves If we seek some auguries before the journey, we do as our honest uncertainty guides us. Insofar as augurs seers, prophets and oracles are our lookouts with their clearer sight, so much the better. We set our sails properly. We will not embrace Scyilla, we will avoid Charybdos, we will make offerings to our guides, and not be so vain as to deny them,
I took time to look at the embellishments of Helen. I raised my head and looked about, gently and guided by her hushes. There was a ring of small diamonds on a bracelet about her right wrist, on the left one of worked silver. Her dress was wrinkled and bloody, but I knew it had been unlike any in all of Empire, lacy webbed sapphire. Looking up, I could see about her neck gold unlike any I had seen before; two close-fitting neck rings with curvilinear decorations of graceful intricacy, Celtic, that much I knew. In a museum of Apollo’s most valuable votive offerings, these items of homage marble-housed behind Apollo’s Temple in Delphi, I had been shown a neck ring like this. The priest said it from a worshipper come there from far Gaul. .On the rise of Helen’s breast she wore a pendent of gold. It was carved to show a warrior in a light war chariots of the kind for which the Celts were known. Before Gaul had been conquered, from which such chariots’ fast-riding spear-throwers had killed many auxiliary troops, and a more than a few Romans ones as well. At some time not too long ago many Celts, peacefully, well, as peaceful as migrating invaders can ever be, had migrated east of Lydia and Caria, settling south of Bythnian Pontus in Asia (Asia Minor)
Pontus, “Galatians” they had come to be called. Once I had been told that rabid Christian, Paul, had been furious at Galatians who wished to follow Jewish law, so denied faith itself as fully as redeeming and failed to understand how wrong his rival Peter was. It was in here in Antioch that an angry Paul told this miscreant Peter that Peter failed to comprehend the missionary tasks with gentiles My Paul-friendly informant said these Galatians must have been bewitched when they failed to appreciate that Christ lived within Paul. The witches bound them so as to be blind to Paul as mystical communicant, Christ within him always. The witches denied the Galatians the understanding that salvation came about through the spirit and one’s own justification by the faith in it. Jewish obedience was to laws which ordered a spiritless flesh about. These Galatians Paul had called “foolish”.
I knew nor cared anything for Paul, or Galatians, but this one of them. No spell bewitched me, it was her presence. She gently held my head , still held cloths to my forehead to clot the congealing blood. She wore no Christ amulet, for she had been Apollo’s priestess, this Helen whom I must presume to be a Celt. Paul saying, “foolish Galatians”? Call Helen “foolish” and be shown the sorry fool is oneself. I Helen would never follow in the track of the few of her people who had listened to, put up with such as Paul.
After leading a brigade in a border foray and feint on some winter frontier, the cold becomes more intense for the work is done and fatigue joins the falling winter snow to add to the effort required to plod through deepening snow. Here and there along the tired march will be traces of blood, these having dripped from a wounded comrade strong enough to march but bleeding still from what must have been relatively minor wounds. Eye lashes become icy, one but glances at these discomforts, but as commander knows one keeps constant check on the guard on rear and flank ,lest the enemy, last seen in flight, has regrouped and hurried to harrying ambush, or even reengagement. Over repetitive months and sometimes years, but not in major with campaigns, tasked only with seeing to stable lines against weaker but mobile, harrying and extremely savage tribes sworn to enmity, and alert to every aggressive opportunity, there comes a weariness in every fiber. Under such routines of war, there comes to even the hardiest loyal old dog of a legionnaire, an unshakeable numbness, the boredom of exhaustion, the depression of minds and bodies, which, nevertheless must march, fight, and be indifferent to death, including one’s own, which is always pending. These regular army frontiersman constitute roving watchdog brigades which are, strategically, the always- ready much- feared mobile fist of Empire. They operate as executors for the Empire’s policy in areas imperially concluded to be the outer edge of Empire.
Their exhausted end-state is reached the sooner if they are only rarely quartered in the sensible established palisaded and trenched frontier forts, comfortable and safe enough, ordinarily, for women to visit. Such comforts are denied those always-alert units moving constantly from one to another bivouac, the campfires of which do nothing to soften the icy ground on which one sleeps. The reliable legionnaire, along with his commanders, is acknowledged as seasoned- and will get some medals for that achievement, when he does not distinguish ice from fire, sleep from waking ,his sword from his arm, the march from bivouac, himself from the forest- for both are cold and unchanging. Battle demands he be aroused, alert, fiercely energetic, and be assured Rome’s soldier will be that, but, because he is hardened, these and battle itself will also be habit. Once the spoils are shared out, he is an indifferent victor. If he dies in battle, one presumes little change, for he has moved from one numb and indifferent state to another. He remains courageous and honorable in both, indeed, the greater enemy is in death
Imagine then the struggle of transition, numbness to life, glory when such a soldier, his some month’s tour over, enters the palisade of the strong logged regular fort, the town of it, sees the fire, feels the engulfing warmth, for a time has no duty but to become warm, eat and drink well, become alive, enter the exercises of the ordinary. The soldier, and it is the same for commanders but they are billeted far more luxuriously, for after all campaigning emperors may share these quarters, has changed outer worlds in a matter of minutes. Yet numbness is slower to heal and, if it is accompanied by nightmares and trembling, as that which has occurred earlier reemerges, healing is not easy. Oneiros, the dream god, typically brings the unwilling man up to date on all of what he been exposed to in battle, but at the time failed to experience. The Oneiros-ridden soldier has the two tasks; one of bringing his numb self to warm, and integrating what Oneiros is telling him what has really been. Such visited cases are difficult, for dormant terror is the stronger the longer it has incubated. But, ff he accomplishes these tasks as his also duty, he returns to life and, because man is so resilient, is ready soon again to march in the cold against savage enemies. If he does not accomplish his recovery, he will be no less good a soldier, or commander for it, for his training, habits and routines dominate, it is simply that his wars have destroyed his life force. Perhaps, after his two decades in his legion, when he is settled on peaceably on good farm land somewhere in outer Empire, perhaps lands he himself with his legion have taken in conquest, perhaps finding a good wife at last, enjoying soil which, at least come springtime, is not frozen for his planting--- earth and his wife await this - perhaps slowly he will be less numb, and since he is retired, located, so far away in time, Oneiros will not journey so far to visit his own other life upon him. Space is nothing to the dream god, but time diminishes his intensities.
As commander of brigades, I understood these things about my men. I had an advantage over them. I speak not of my advantages of family, status, rank and a particular and extraordinary adeptness in warfare, no, I speak of having been numb since childhood. I was numb to much of what most men cared for, including themselves. Numbness did not negate pain, whether psychic of physical; it was instead indifference, an inability to care, but for that which was custom and propriety, thus I was proper in my duties, compulsively concerned for my men, and focused on that honor, gravity, and dignity which was the mold in which I was cast. Oneiros brought me no bothersome dreams, winter’s sleet never bothered me, I was part of the cold, in harmony. Winter and I understood one another completely. How could I not be the most seasoned of her warriors? I brought my winters with me everywhere.
Now here in my own hallway, still being held by, and now myself insofar as I can holding this woman, my friend Balthus attending, the slaves –ashamed of their earlier fear for their skin and fine special costumes- were now sedulous in restoring, arranging, cleaning, They murmured nervously. I knew they cared for me as much as a well-treated slave can, given their unlucky status. I drank this quiet care in. I am within safe palisades. My fortress however has never required walls, staked trenches, archers and lance, it has been my excellent numbness, albeit the mind marches about in it quite respectably, allowing pondering of readings and events, not prohibiting wonder, hopes, moderate despair, and much puzzlement, most of it in the mirror. Oneiros has not visited me since childhood; I have stood firm, however much the mind, which is separate from my cold and numbness, questions where I stand and why so firm. But Oneiros has visited me awake, as I have just recounted of the child, and in doing that awakened me further. Now the numbness is leaving That began with tingling, sparkles of tingling when Helen entered, small darts of tingle leapt out when I almost leapt toward her. The tingle, for all of my being here still stunned and helpless, is now a raging set of jolly fires.
Such fires allow no numbness, nor cold, nor shivering. I am managing to summon a sense of insult, which I could cultivate to fury, as I consider the demon who did it, I still lay here beak pole-axed by the Furies’ pet, their own monster bird, that brass barking feathered Cerberus, that monster parrot Armineus. The god of angry birds must award Armineus a post-humus medal, a ceremony with a chirping, squawking, crowing feathered orchestra in their heaven. Harpies by his side, buzzards and vultures flanking, Armineus elected Tribune, for thanks to this bird, my talon--shredded shoulders, my skull, have shed more of my blood here in my own house tonight than any ten years of battlefields.
As Armineus practiced his demon arts, screeched hatred, I will, in contrast, learn to laugh. I would like Helen to teach me. I need not be sensible. Whimsy, what is it like? I will practice bursting with love, and not be embarrassed to say silly things. . The very idea of it, now that I know what it is, nourishes. Here I am, pole-axed, bloody and still a bit woozy, yet I float, radiate, absorb, reciprocate, am surrounded, invested by the warmth and smell of good things. I must do laughter and love. The Furies will be furious to see they have been causal to a good, a link in its chain, this plenitude. What a sweet revenge is laughter.
I heard Helen saying to me, “Awakening from your reveries, are you, philosopher? I’ve not heard an unconscious man ever mumble to himself as you do? Balthus put his ear to you and said you were being positively weighty, deeply serious thoughts, and by no means all of them sensible. You ramble about in your cloud, philosopher, but it leads you to a good place for all of that. Do you know, Quaestor, you’ve been smiling for the last minutes, all sighs and groans left behind. You kept saying you felt numb. We’ve put blankets on you, a nursing’ must when people are in shock. Balthus will be binding your head once the crusting scalp is clean. That parrot may have put a hole in your skull, but no brains are spilling out. Thank the gods it’s thick. Your family carved you out of good strong oak, I’ll say that. In any event, one of your slaves tells us she is a healer who knows the herbs and ointments. She’s washed your noggin in strong wine, soap in hot water too. Have you felt those healing hands of hers on your forehead?
I murmured I had thought them Helen’s own
“I’ve done my part alright, you know I rather like holding you. Do you remember what you were asking me?
“No, but I recall some of what I’ve been thinking”
“About freedom, laughing, and love. Will you help me practice them?”
“Just because you need the practice, do you think I do?” She stroked my cheek, made gentle jokes of me. I know I rambled on a bit in half consciousness. She occasionally interspersed comments not entirely worshipful, stifling a yawn from time to time. She did say that I was certainly the introspective type. Some proof it was not entirely disapproving, she brought my head up toward her, leaned hers down to me, and kissed me on the lips.
“Short cuts through the words make a stronger point” is what she said, “ As for that ‘practice’ you spoke of, I have probably been as insulated as you have been these years, but if I heard your meanderings rightly, your damage arose out of terror That was hardly my case. I grew up loved, spoiled, fairly rich, entirely protected. Add to that arrogant, and mischievous. I am also quite bright and a splendid archer. I am better than most men at most things, but for treachery, ambition, cruelty and ostentation. I have spent my time exercising purposes; there is also some theater of myself which I play. I have been busy at what I want, or thought I wanted at the time, some of it hardly approved by others. Generally men disapprove of me, some have rightly come to fear me. Your Balthus struck the flint of me and smarts from the smart of my spark. I could have given him much worse, but he’s not a bad fellow. He simply has things to learn.
As for love, all mine so far has been play. Wake up long enough to hear me, Quaestor! You are no plaything. At this stage of me, it is time I be ready for loving a man, after all, for many men I’m already much too old for them. I hide the wrinkles with herbal ointments, Quaestor, and from time to time when I pull the bow for maximum yardage, my joints ache. I’m fit enough, nature and the family blood have been kind, but I’ll confess when Apollo pithed the pig Apollodorus, his archer had her bowstring arm soaking in hot and then cold water all that night. You rambled on about freedom and your first love, well, at your age it’s about time. “ The timber of her voice changed to a deeper tone. She spoke more slowly. I opened my eyes to see that hers were not on m but closed and upward, as if concentrating, as if listening,
Those new steps of yours are finally finding your way. I cannot claim a sacred source when I say this, but, nevertheless, an elsewhere voice tells me your energies will reach out far ahead, and for the good. Of this I am sure, Quaestor. Life on this earth is short. Those of us with worthy dreams, rarely achieve their complete fulfillment”
I asked her, for she had spoken somberly, “You are yet given the wisdom of Pythia,”
She looked at me as gravely as a Roman priest might, “No Quaestor, believe it, Pythia spoke not her own, but the knowledge of Apollo Any Helen simply listens, and also observes. The gods will, from time to time, whisper to us. Others have told me they have heard more than whispers, but mighty and sacred calls, these perhaps from mightier gods.”
I was able to summon only a whisper, “Please, Helen, tell me what you know”
“I know little, Quaestor, but of myself. Since I have heard a good deal of you these last few minutes, you do think too much, you know, it’s your turn to listen. I will put you in closer touch with me. These last years I have had little opportunity to talk, although as you can see already, I am more for action than words. My essences are that I have always been free, lucky, wealthy enough, good blood which makes all my family headstrong. I believe freedom better aligns one with the gods, for I suspect it freedom, energy and love are the essential nature of the greatest of gods, if the One be not my delusion. I have been so free my problem is the reverse of being cages, for I have the choice of the full circumference of the horizon. There are tempting roads leading to its every point, and since I have longed to know what is beyond the horizon, I have adventured many roads indeed, Athens, Rome, Troas of course, Tyre yes, and Jerusalem, Gaul of course. I will make no commitment to you, Quaestor, other than to test whether it is time for me to interrupt the exploration dear to me, to give up Apollo y the better to care for this world in its strife and endless transitions.
Now, test yourself, Commanding Centurion, your head is anointed with medicines and well bandaged. Do not shake it lest it fly apart. There were enough fury feathers over the floor; we don’t need you scattering bits of your skull as well. Your color is better; Balthus is here to help you sit up, testing your walking if you do not feel faint. Let us, warrior, try you out slowly, first walking, then liquids, and when you feel ready, tomorrow or afterward, we shall have win, food and smiling times together. We will both practice kissing for which I will not require further readiness, only cosmetics so the princess is no hag. In the meantime I will stay here with you, help the woman wise about healing herbs tend you. Balthus says he will go to the palace now and return with a doctor, although none of us think you ill repaired.
I exercise my right as your guest, and chief nurse, to order you be quiet, no more recitations of self- discovery. I want you less worried about crocodiles long dead, and more interested in yourself alive. What say, then, Centurion, may I ask good Balthus here to move you to the recovering warrior’s dining room couch? You can see whether you can eat anything, drink more than water, and since I have the sense you heal fast, I will ask, if you are up to it, that I, at least, dine. I will toast you with what I am sure is your excellent wine. As for the parrot, the cook is making the roast of him into that pate, no more than a nibble, but proof of conquest. With your permission, I am going to have a seamstress make cherubim wings for a jacket out of all his feathers. “I apologize if I seem to be taking over, but until you are really up and about, , I will take it upon myself to be bossy. So saying, Helen hailed a slave, of whom there were five standing about at the ready,, including the healing woman, the “mayissa” who hovered with cups, pestles, dried leaves, with another slave behind her with a red hot smoldering root set smoking in a copper dish of sand. Its fumes were powerful. Helen nodded, anything that smelled that pungent must be good for something. The mayissa’s manner was authoritative. That was a woman who knew what she was about. Helen liked that..
IT IS I, Balthus, who now make this record, following S. Cornelius recollections.
First as to what the slaves were muttering amongst themselves. Few were so stupid as not to know the gods had their hands in events today, none so foolish as to not be see that the devil bird was an omen, his own augur, bad in being sent, good in being killed. The Quaestor had brought it on himself, giving the devil his name, Armineus, inviting thereby the attack on any Romans, the higher the rank the better. There was a clear lesson here; don’t invite evil by naming it out loud. The powers are always listening, sometimes they do respond. The balance of supernatural powers attending this house was clear. The master sore tempted the Furies,; the master was beloved of more powerful gods. The Quaestor had made an imperial reputation for himself in war. It was said the Emperor himself favored him. The master had made a reputation with the crowds at the Cretan bull -leaping in Daphne when he had presided. How could he not come to the attention of the powers? Happily it was the the favoring ones.
Any sensible Syrian, or slave or soldier from anywhere, heard the Armineus as harpy, Erinyes stories. Good and evil had been enacted here. Quaestor S. Cornelius was singled out by the gods, protected by the most powerful. His reputation was already legend in Syria, but with this event- all of Antioch would know it by the morrow for slaves go to the market, they talk to everyone in the market -was compelling talk. S. Cornelius was the second most powerful man in Syria, everyone knew he often functioned for Governor himself, any gossip about him was important fact. If it was a report on the intervention of the gods right here in Antioch, that was more than news; it was the very language, focus, drama and certainty of Antioch, of all the Syrian-Palestinian-Asian wide geographical littoral. It was good to work for a master favored by the gods. Legionnaires were pleased to talk about a hero under whom, by each account, they had served, By the time the story of god-fought events in the Quaestor’s house had reached the Lebanon and Troas gossiping weeks later, the multicolored Armineus was a flying dragon with the head of Gorgon. When, a fatally wounded Quaestor had cut off its head, (I got no mention, stories sharpen themselves to essentials, none necessarily true, as you see here, but down that chain of telling they demonstrate what drama is made of.) hear then that:
Writhing black serpents instead of blood spurted out of dragon’s neck. These were killed by the flaming sword of Helen ( now rehabilitated, purified, - “our” once notorious harlot- remember? In the earlier Phoenician lore, she had been the Whore of Tyre and Babylon) In the northern version, across Lydia, Troy, the Pontus, she remained a local girl; Helen of Troy whose beauty was yet so great that simply by her looking at the flying Gorgon-Medusa monster, it was transfixed, its wings stopped beating. That was the moment when S. Cornelius (now in stories sometimes the Governor of Syria) cut off its head. To keep the head from growing back, which it otherwise would, of course, Helen and the Quaestor stuffed the neck with holy amulets of Apollo, or in the Galatian Christian version, the there-remembered “Princess” Helen now Christianized, made the sign of the cross at which the entire Body of the Beast went up in sulphurous smoke. Gnostics took up this version for it demonstrated holy powers in the woman, this Helen soon to be known as Sophia-on-earth and, because immortal and the female epiphany, consort to Christ Jesus.
The Helen in the hallway was intent on getting the two of them properly dressed. She told two waiting slaves, “There, you, bring us two of the Dominus’ togas, his is torn. My dress is a mess, and unless the Quaestor is a rogue who keeps women’s wardrobes at hand, I’ll dress in a toga tonight. In the meantime show me the bath, help the Dominus to it. We need a great deal of cleansing. Here” she gestured to any and all of them, “whomever of you do the baths, bring hot water, laurel soap and massaging towels for the both of us. Be very gentle with your master He’s wobbly. We don’t want his head to fall off. I’ll have any of you who let him fall whipped. Understand? Keep him supported at all times. I’ll be watching. If the bath weakens him, he’s off to his bedroom immediately. Balthus, will you take the baths and dine with us, or are you off directly for the palace? Do you still think you should fetch the palace doctor?
Aha, she respects my opinion after all. I felt better
I’d seen enough men hurt in battle to know the Mule would be up and about sooner than he looked. A tap on the head after all, and no, no doctor was needed. The slave woman, the “mayissa” who knew the herbs was quite as good as any legion doctor, but for setting bones and sewing up battle tears, sometime even “innards.” Helen was too worried. It’s affection showing. The look on her face proved it. not the wrinkles she claimed either. The two of them would be fine, finer the sooner I was gone. A moment with the Boss and I could see he was speaking clearly, even a a bit of light in his eye. “But do stop by early in the morning” I told him of course I would.
Guards had earlier been summoned from the palace. They were gathered in the servants’/slaves’ dining area, enjoying the food being served them., A superstitious few from the Eastern border country were arguing the parrot has been a demon djinn sent by a famous Parthian magician to undermine the Quaestor who, “you all know might one day be adopted by Hadrian to become the next Emperor” (they had not kept in mind that S. Cornelius was older than Hadrian) Others: “I saw it all myself’ attested there was not one by three dragons, one each killed by the Quaestor, Helen, and Balthus. Helen, several soldiers swore, had used magic incantations to drop the blood-frothed dragon in flight. As the dragon fell, one soldier who had served on the Rhine, swore he had heard the beast curse in German. “What do you expect form Armineus of Teutoberg Forest, blessings?” Another said that there were four of them, all set to flight by the enchantress Helen casting an ancient Trojan spell on them causing the harpies- which is what they were, he said, to fly then suddenly to collapse. Hecate herself had rushed in the form of a whirlwind to retrieve the bodies of her foul-smelling servants. Since Apollo had no power over Hecate- the sky gods had demoted but could not kill the chthonic earth ones- Helen had been unable to kill Hecate as well.
Balthus whose time was being wasted by the quarreling, allowed it might al be so, as Lest he himself begin to wonder about the oddity of the attack. It compelled speculation. How, after all had Armineus gotten out of his cage, known his target? (There might well be a dark and willful, jealous godly hand in this) Balthus reminded himself that most mysteries remain unsolved. He shrugged, saw to the wine being poured for all the guard detail.
“One drink here, fellows, and another along the way back home” Balthus saw to posting two of the guards at the house courtyard door. Slaves who served as permanent guards were always in place at the street entrance
The palace was not more than twenty minutes walk away but it was unlikely Balthus would not tarry along the way, for some fine taverns stood near the intersection the temple to the nymphs, and Balthus could use a drink. He had been deeply worried, that parrot could have had the Mule’s eyes. It was a good thing that Evil was often stupid. As Balthus sat in the tavern, he sat his guard detail down at another table, he pondered that earlier casual thought, maybe Evil really was stupid. Or at least inefficient. Honey attracting more flies to the trap than vinegar, that sort of thing. Maybe, things had turned out well after all tonight, there was some good luck to hope for. Balthus sat by himself, near the window, not far from the statue of Tyche. It was said that if she had had a good day, if the tavern singers were in voice, Tyche herself had been heard join in, known even to lead the boisterous tunes. Tyche, who was a woman with a past, has lyrics to match.
Balthus, realized this had not been the worst of nights after all. He had himself loped off the head of at least a bird, obviously a danger, surely an enemy, possibly an epiphany, conceivably a demon maliciously dispatched, The Mule, with Helen caring from him, was happy. Helen was certainly an “interesting” woman who had the potential to be right for the Mule, if the Mule could remember to kick out at her when it was necessary. It would be necessary, for Helen would require reins, a bridle and a strong bit. A team must walk in tandem, or at least agree on which routes and times around the course. This princess was a real pain in the butt, that he had concluded, but Balthus allowed he was known to be a sorehead. Men, Balthus knew from some early bad experience, went for women like that; something gratifying about chasing those tempting and tough, those who even when giving in, in doing it managed the man’s surrender.
All in all then, Balthus reflected, a good loping off of heads brought back memories of some good old days with his legion when a man felt good about himself, when he could at battle’s end, line up heads, ears, and such loot as their now disinterested owners had yielded. A good day, the Mule more humiliated by a bird bringing him down rather than any permanent injury done, where, indeed, it was injury put to surprising good use, for it had brought Helen around to her loving side. and that perhaps even to her own surprise. For the Mule, a significant kiss, caresses of the sort he had never had before, and, it was apparent to Balthus, some consequential ruminations in that half-conscious state, for the Mule had said it was so when talking to Balthus as Balthus was about to leave for the palace.
All in all a good day and looking to be a good later night too. His troopers were singing at their table, always a good sign. He, Balthus was having a reasonable Syrian facsimile of European beer, his dinner was being served, and one of the bar maids was giving him the eye. Give she might well, after her come-on eye, what followed. She looked the kind who danced well horizontal on a couch. Whatever evil had sent or been that flying catapult, he Balthus had dispatched it. A sword hand that does its work well deserves a reward, his arm had seen to disassembling that flying feathered catapult, now they were lifting his oversize cup of beer. He felt feel the foam of it trickling over his weather- tough skin. It was the kind of night a good-natured goddess like Tyche would approve. Balthus set his ears to tuning, set his head to cock the better ear in place. Listen. Hear, for by the three faces of Hecate, Tyche was singing too.
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