This short story spins off the novel Caerwin and the Roman Dog. Set in 47 AD Britannia as the Roman army advances across the land, the novel centers on the Briton captive Caerwin and the legion commander Marcellus. The main character for this short story is Senna, attendant to her mistress Caerwin, as she prepares for the midwinter Saturnalia celebration.
Clutching her long cape tight against the stiff wind, Senna watched Tutonius and Blasius wrestle the dressed hog onto the long spit. Two other kitchen helpers joined in lifting the heavy carcass onto the iron frame. In minutes, fat began to drip onto the glowing coal bed set deep in a trench near the outdoor ovens.
Senna hurried to keep up with him as he left the fire pit to stride across the grounds. In the kitchen, they huddled by the big ovens to warm up. Wind gusted against the shutters, sending a blast of smoke into the room.
Already the day filled her with fear and she wished for its end. She’d seen enough of military life to know that the normal traditions of Saturnalia would not be observed here. The masters would not serve the slaves and the revelry would be mostly enjoyed by the commanders, especially the visiting governor Scapula. To do otherwise would risk camp discipline. Her nerves prickled.
“What can I do to help you?” she said, gazing anxiously at Tutonius. “Between Marcellus’ demands and Caerwin’s resistance, I have little time.”
Tutonius sent her a dark glance. “I’ve never faced Saturnalia in such circumstances,” he said. “Not enough to have such little warning, but to feed the governor and his retinue—Marcellus expects the very best. Shall I be lashed if the meal falls short?”
“Demand more help,” she said. “If he cares so much to please Scapula, surely he will send however many men you require.”
“And what shall I do with legionaries who know nothing about preparing food? I’ve called in the experienced cooks from each of the cohorts, and they’ve already made a mess of the sweets. They know nothing but cooking beans and the coarsest of breads.”
“It can’t be that bad,” she said, biting her lip to keep from laughing. Tutonius’ robust size challenged the largest of spaces, but in the kitchen, he filled the walkway between his tables and larder shelves. A cluster of men worked at another table set up in the far end of the room and sent panicky glances toward Tutonius when he neared. He paced the length of the big kitchen, tossing bits of vegetables toward the scrap heap.
“But it is! Look at this mess—I said mince the figs. And this is the result.” He scooped up a handful of the small dried fruit and held it toward her. Pieces as big as grapes mingled with tiny fragments.
“Shall I mince the figs for you, then?” She stepped toward the long table and picked up a knife. “In the time you’ve complained, the task could have been done.”
“You’re such a scold. It’s no wonder you’re not married,” he said teasingly. “This is but an example. But yes, do what you can before someone calls you away. If I had sheep’s milk enough, I could make the nut tarts I planned with this abundance of honey. But the men brought only enough for the ricotta, which I must have for the libum.” He slammed a big bowl onto the table and dumped in a basket of fresh greens.
“You’ll have salad, then?” she said, scraping the last of the figs into a wide pottery jar.
“It’s a miracle,” he huffed. “Blasius found them along the river in a place that has resisted the frost that haunts this forsaken land, and more at the mouth of a cave. We’ll have mint, rue, parsley, and sliced leek along with the lettuce and rocket leaves. Enough salty cheese, pepper, and oil, and I think it will please the governor.”
“What else?” Senna said. “Use me quick—I have a long shopping list for the market and must soon venture there.”
“If you could add some things to your list for me, I would reward you,” he said. “I’ve only half the pears I need for the patina. Surely you can find more. And more eggs as well. I’ll make honeyed eggs to improve the dessert course.”
His cheeks glowed red and sweat beaded on his forehead. She felt sorry for him. Marcellus could be merciless, although she doubted he would ever truly punish his favored cook.
“Tutonius.” Senna grabbed his hand. “You’re overthinking it. Surely the governor can’t expect stuffed dormice or boiled ostrich in the wilds of Britannia. This isn’t Rome, and if anyone knows that, it’s our legate. And even if Scapula manages to surround himself in luxuries at his post at Camulodunum, he’ll be fully disabused of such expectations by the time he makes the journey here. We’re at the western boundary. We’re lucky to have wine or garum.”
“That’s surely the truth,” he said, relaxing slightly.
“Now what do you have for the appetizers?” Senna listened patiently as the older man listed off the rest of his menu—boiled tree fungi with peppered fish-fat sauce, a soufflé of small fish, fallow deer roasted with onion sauce, rue, Jericho dates, raisins, oil, and honey, roasted goose with mushroom and leek stuffing, stewed duck with lentils, lambs kidneys stuffed with walnuts and sausage, a stew of lamb, carrots, and anchovies, chicken pieces cooked in date-wine sauce and served with chickpeas, sweet wine cakes with honey, apple cake…
“By the gods, man, you weary me,” she interrupted. “How much can the governor eat?”
Tutonius braced his hands on the table and glared at her. “He’s not alone, you know. He’ll have his assistant, possibly two or three, plus the legate of the Ninth Legion and three of his tribunes and the legate of the Second with two tribunes.” He sighed. “I explained to Marcellus that we can’t seat all the Fourteenth’s tribunes as well, and he agreed to hold back all but Silverus and one other. Still that’s…” He counted his fingers.
“Too many,” she agreed, cutting off his count. “But you’re doing your best, are you not? Do you know of any man who can do more than his best?”
He bustled around the end of the table and swept her into a bear hug. “You save me from myself,” he said in a gruff voice. “Go then, shrew, and brave the market. It should be a frenzy today.”
“Yes, Caerwin tells me her tribe also celebrated the dark days,” Senna said. “They called it Yule, and burned great logs to light the long nights. They made much of certain things, such as cutting evergreen boughs and bringing branches of mistletoe into their cottages. These were my customs as well, as my mother told me.” She swallowed, trying to shut out the sudden rush of memory. Those traditions, what had been her mother’s life before slavery, belonged to another world in another time, all of it gone. “Perhaps everyone marks the season as the Romans do, with feasting and song.”
A brief glance at Tutonius told her that he too carried painful memories of his people, yet another tribe of Gaul crushed under the Roman heel. His dark eyes gazed on her with sympathy. She lifted her hand as if to deny any further emotion. “Is there anything else, then, besides eggs and pears?”
He shook his head.
Senna hurried along the Via Principia, the main road that bisected the fortress. At either end of the massive square compound stood barracks for five thousand men. In between were the official buildings—the Principia where command and control initiated, the Praetorium where the commander and his personal retinue lived, the commissary, food warehouses, workshops for carpenters, leather workers, ironsmiths, and other craftsmen, and the stables. As usual, traffic thronged the roadway, men on horseback, a full cohort returning from field exercises, messengers, and slaves on missions for their masters.
Like her. Caerwin had given her an impossible task. Restricted from venturing out of the Praetorium, Caerwin wished to provide gifts for the house slaves, which of course included Senna. Never mind that Caerwin herself was a slave serving as unwilling companion and fiery sexual partner to Legio Fourteenth’s commander Marcellus. Despite the silliness of the idea, Senna had been touched when Caerwin pressed her hand and asked her to find something for herself. That poor girl would have blossomed if allowed to step outside her confinement, but with her threats to kill Marcellus at her first chance, she could hardly expect him to allow her any freedom.
Senna glanced up at the legionaries in the guard towers as she hiked past the massive gate, her heavy cloak fluttering in the wind. Beyond the stone-paved roadway that led east and west, a sprawling permanent encampment had sprung up to house the camp followers, shelters cobbled together of stone and timber, thatch roof and mud-daubed walls. To the west, the winding silver streak of the great river Severn reflected the gray sky, and beyond, fading into the distance, blue-gray hills dotted the wide plain. A wagon clattered past, winding its way into the camp where other vendors had set up the day’s market. Legionaries, traders, merchants, craftsmen, slaves, and a surprising number of local people thronged the passage as she worked her way onward.
“Will you have some lamb today?” one woman cried, waving a skewer of roasted meat toward her.
Senna shook her head. She had just enough coin to pay for the gifts, if she bargained carefully. Another woman waved at her from the front of a small round shelter.
“I have skins,” she said, holding a beautiful white fur pelt. “Would you want rabbit? Or beaver?
“Thank you, no, I need only trinkets,” Senna replied.
Wagons and carefully banked campfires stretched far ahead, and Senna set herself to a quick stride, weaving through the crowd and pausing only when she found something of interest. Combs, game pieces, belts—she stopped at a small table with an array of fibula. Tutonius’ cloak always flew open, no doubt because he lost his fibula as quickly as he gained them. Several were made of bronze, a few of finer metals like gold, even fewer studded with colored stones. She picked up a sturdy one with a strong clasp, bronze but with a clever coil at the fastener.
“It’s a common piece,” she said dismissively. “I’ll give three and nothing more.” She set the piece back on the table.
“It’s well crafted, as you can surely tell, and of high quality bronze. You want to steal it, then?” he said, frowning. “Eight, and that’s the best of it.”
“Five is the most I have for you,” she said. “Take it before I change my mind.”
“You bring more poverty to an already starving man,” he complained, clasping his chest. She turned as if to walk away, and he rushed around his table to tug at her cloak. “But for you, to keep food in the mouths of my children, I will take your offer.”
With the clasp secured in the inner pocket of her tunic, Senna resumed her tour of the market. At one wagon, she found a lug of pears and sent the man to deliver them to Tutonius. At another, she required the vendor to break one of a basket of eggs to ensure their freshness, and sent him also on the heels of the pear orchard man.
At the far end of the lane, where the campfires were larger and children’s shouts echoed up the slope and infant cries issued from the ragged shelters, she studied an array of amulets carefully guarded by a woman with a baby at her breast. Most prominent were the popular phallus amulets. These were nothing like the fabulous creations of gold or ivory found in Rome’s markets but rather crudely shaped carvings of native wood or common bone. Still, the craftsman had some skill, enough that the creation might please the gods. Blasius, always intensely superstitious, would appreciate the protection of one.
She lingered over the table, distracted by the baby’s suckling noises and the woman’s silent appeal. No doubt the child of a legionary, the infant bore the dark eyes of his father’s nationality. Countless other women here, deprived of their homes and tribal families, serviced the sexual appetites of the soldiers. The children would grow up in the baggage train, in camps like this one near the army’s current fortress where they might on occasion see their fathers. If the woman knew which man was the father. She’d seen this too many times, heard the stories, of children born in slavery.
For herself, Senna had been at both ends of thought, whether she would have suffered less as a male slave in service to the Empire or, as it was, a woman in service to the men. If not for her quick wit and the position of her mother in a wealthy man’s household, she could have been a camp follower as well. Oddly, in her present circumstance, she found it pleasing to be in service to Caerwin, even if that woman was hardly past the days of her youth and resistant to any advice a woman twice her age might offer. She met the young mother’s gaze.
“What of this?” she asked, picking up a small round amulet. The wheel-shaped piece had been rubbed smooth so that the wood gleamed dark red. The carving showed the careful detail of a dragon’s head and tail amid interlocking swirls.
“That’s an old piece, that one, and in fine condition,” the woman said. “I found it on the ground near the river. I’d take five sestertii.”
“It’s well done,” Senna agreed. “It will make an excellent gift to my mistress. Perhaps it’s from her own people.”
“Is she of the Cornovii? I’ve heard these were their lands.”
“She is, the last of them from what I understand.”
The woman nodded. “Was a terrible slaughter, I heard. And those who didn’t die now enslaved. They say ghosts haunt their old fortress now, all those souls wandering loose.”
“She doesn’t speak of it much,” Senna said. “But she suffers, that much I know.”
“So she’s here? How can that be?” The woman lifted the infant, straightened his thick blanket, and held him at her shoulder.
“The legate Marcellus—he took her from the field of battle, made her his own. It’s a kindness, I suppose, that she wasn’t been sold to slavers as were the rest, her own mother in fact. But she doesn’t see it as a kindness.” Senna leaned forward and lowered her voice. “She wishes to kill him, yet he kindles a fire in her that she can’t deny. It’s a terrible conundrum, wouldn’t you think?”
“Oh, yes,” the woman replied, her eyes wide. “I myself have grown to love a man of the Thracian guard. They are monstrous men, tall and overpowering in temperament. I fear him almost as much as I love him.” She presented the child, a well-fed youth of perhaps three months. “His father is Teres,” she said. “If I can manage, I’ll follow him wherever he goes so that Teres the son will know his father.”
Senna gave her the coin without haggling over price. With a heavy heart, she made her way back toward the fortress, stopping to purchase a few candles, a spoon, and knucklebones for the rest of the gifts. As a last thought, she purchased a box of sandlewood incense for herself.
Her thoughts never drifted far from Caerwin. Colt wild and clever as a fox, the young woman had yet to learn how to make the best of what she’d been given. If she continued along her current path…Senna pursed her lips. Marcellus had softened but he was still a Roman commander. He would reach his limit with Caerwin’s rebellions and then what? Even her beauty could not save her if she broke his heart.
And yes, he had a heart, that she knew for a fact. She’d seen the turmoil of his emotions etched on his face the last time Caerwin acted a fool. Two days chained in the kitchen and she had not learned her place. Even when marched to the marshes at the river’s edge and forced by the flat of his sword to wallow there in mud, the girl had not found wisdom. But she, Senna, had seen his worry, his sleepless pacing as Caerwin suffered her night-long penance tied at the whipping post, her head-to-toe mud coating failing to hide her nudity from the eyes of other men. The girl walked a knife’s edge.
Such was the folly of youth. Senna sighed as she entered the Praetorium courtyard and hurried toward Caerwin’s room.
“I’ve decided. I won’t go,” Caerwin announced as Senna entered. “He says I must and forces me to a fancy appearance. Why would he insist on such finery?” she said motioning to the careful hair arrangement Senna had painstakingly crafted just hours earlier. “I’ve told him if he wishes Scapula not to molest me, he should hide me away.”
“Your appearance reflects on him as well as your people. He only wishes the governor to gain respect.”
“Why hold a bone to a dog if you don’t wish him to take it?” Caerwin turned away to resume her pacing.
“I have gifts, as you wished,” Senna said, reluctant to continue conversation about the upcoming Saturnalia feast. These same words had been spoken many times, and she tired of Caerwin’s stubbornness. She palmed the wheel amulet, wishing to save it for a later time when Caerwin might be less angry. “See?”
She spread out the items, naming the men she thought best matched to the items she’d purchased. “And this,” she said, holding the fibula, “is for Tutonius. Shall you give it to him?”
“I don’t care,” Caerwin said dismissively, pacing back and forth across the tiny room. “Make these your gifts, or tell them you bring them on my behalf, I can’t care.”
Senna sat down abruptly. Exhaustion invaded every bone and sinew, the result of days of worry about the exact problem Caerwin faced. The Roman governor’s volatile temper and his disregard for those he deemed lesser preceded him, and she feared for the worst. If Caerwin let her temper flare, the results could be disastrous, not only for Caerwin but for Marcellus as well.
“You’d do well to think on something pleasant,” Senna said. She tried to keep her growing exasperation out of her voice. “Shall we visit the household shrine and make an offering? We can ask for your deliverance from any evil.”
“Marcellus must not care for me at all,” Caerwin said. “Why would he present me to a man who might molest me?”
Senna sighed loudly, trying—and failing—to hold her tongue until she could bring her frustration under control. “You’re your own worst enemy,” she said. “Marcellus wants to protect you, has done nothing but protect you from the time he first laid eyes on you. Yet you take every possible opportunity to goad him. Do you still not understand that he has no choice but to welcome the governor?”
Caerwin stamped her foot and turned, her shocking blue eyes spitting fire. “I’m not a gift. I will not be presented as one.”
“No one said you would be presented as a gift,” Senna said. “He has only said that he will have no choice but to provide whatever gifts the governor wishes. After such a long journey, the governor may wish only to gain an early night’s rest.”
“I feel it. Foreboding lies on me like a stone,” Caerwin said, collapsing onto her bed. She folded her arms and rocked back and forth. “That snake Silverus will be there, and he conspires with Antius to bring me to shame. If for no other reason, Scapula will demand me because they will go behind Marcellus’ back and urge him.”
Senna leaned back in the chair, allowing the girl time and audience. At seventeen, Caerwin had little skill in diplomacy but perhaps venting her fears would reduce the risk of an explosion. “Do you think you’re so important to Silverus or Antius?”
“Of course I am,” Caerwin said. “There are secrets between them. Which I can’t speak of. But I know what hatred they harbor for me, as if I had stolen their most prized possession. Which I have in fact done. Even though I had no hand in it.” She shifted uncomfortably and poked the intricately curled updo with the tip of her finger to shift one of the pins. “They would take immense pleasure in seeing me harmed. Antius has said as much, and I’ve known the true nature of Silverus since the day he killed my brother and smiled over it.”
“Yet these facts do not alter the reality facing Marcellus,” Senna said. “His commanding officer will rest in this house, the commander of all Roman legions in Britannia. Even if Roman custom did not demand full hospitality, military tradition must be served. The best course…”
“Yes, yes,” Caerwin said, waving her hand. “The best course. The gods, Senna, have you not said it enough? If I could just be friendly, do as I’m told, then all will be well. Was all well when they slaughtered my people? I did nothing then. Was all well when Marcellus tied me and had his way, when he humiliated me in forcing my body to obey his manipulations?”
“The past need not dictate the future,” Senna said. “You could be imagining tortures for yourself that will never come to pass.” She stood up. “Do you want to give any of these to the household or shall I do it all?”
“Please,” Caerwin said. Tears filled her eyes. “I cannot gain the season’s sentiment. Any gift from me would be a lie. Take care of it for me, Senna, and forgive me for my abuse. I hold nothing against you, surely you know that.”
Senna hugged her. “Yes, dear girl, and surely you know that all my cautions have only to do with your welfare. Look what I’ve found for you. Surely it will serve well.” She handed the amulet to Caerwin.
“Oh, it’s the wheel of Taranis! Surely his thunder will ward off evil.” She clasped it to her chest. “How shall I wear it?”
“I’ll find a leather strand for it, if you like.”
“No, on second thought, I should not wear it until this night has passed. I feel the spirit of my people in this piece.” Caerwin studied the carving with a frown. “The symbol is a familiar one. It’s too precious to wear in the company of such men. Will you keep it for me?”
“Of course, if you wish,” Senna said.
Caerwin hugged her. “What should I do without you, dear Senna? And did you find something for yourself?”
“I did.” Senna revealed the small box of sandlewood incense. “It’s my favorite scent. Let’s go to the shrine now and make an offering to Vesta. She’ll protect you.”
The two women locked arms and with their heavy cloaks protecting them from the bitter wind, they stood in the courtyard before the marble statue.
“I see her as the river spirit,” Caerwin said, lifting the fragrant incense before the goddess. Its smoke whirled and swept upward. “A spirit of our land, not of Rome.”
“There’s no harm in that,” Senna murmured. “If the gods still live, surely they know each other.”
Tutonius spluttered and turned red when Senna handed him the fibula. She’d never seen him so taken aback. He stepped away from the large pot he’d been stirring and wrapped her in one of his big hugs.
“It’s a fine piece,” he said, turning the bronze pin over in his hand. “I’ll wear it now.”
“Let me,” Senna said, dragging the loose ends of his wrap closer around his big shoulders and lapping them before sticking the pin through the folds. “You shall stay warm now,” she said, patting the garment in place. “Even as you storm in and out of the kitchen as if the hounds of hell snap at your very heels.”
“Well, they are on my heels. The governor’s train has arrived, and I’m to bring a short repast to his chambers to refresh him from his journey. As if I had nothing else to do.”
Senna laughed. “I can bring it to him, if that would help.”
“Would you? That helps tremendously. As you can see, the fish soufflé requires constant attention. Shall I allow it to curdle while I wait on his highness?” Tutonius glanced around and lowered his voice. “I must be careful. They say he’s vicious with his slaves. I have no desire for the lash.”
“Caution is definitely in order,” Senna agreed. “I worry for our young mistress, if you know what I mean.”
“Well to be worried,” he agreed. “They’ll be heavy into the wine. Blasius says they take it with only a small dilution. That does not bode well for any of us.”
“The wine could work to your advantage, could it not?” She winked. “What man in his cups cares overmuch for the quality of his dessert?”
“Then I’m cursed to labor for naught,” he exclaimed.
Sweat beaded Tutonius’ round face as he added fresh wood to the stove. As usual, wondrous odors wafted from his pots and the ovens, and Senna’s mouth watered. She and the other slaves wouldn’t enjoy the fancy dishes prepared for the officers, but they would have a chance at any leftovers. She wished particularly for a taste of the pear patina with its smooth sweet custard.
As for Caerwin… Senna shrugged and offered a quick prayer to Vesta. The child would survive. Even a Roman commander could not escape censure for murdering the slave of another man. But short of murder—she shook her head. It did no good to brood on what might happen. She’d learned long ago that a person must accept what cannot be avoided then pick up the pieces and move on. With any luck, nothing would happen. But like Caerwin, Senna had a bad feeling.
“How do you find yourself on such a remote frontier, Tutonius? Surely a cook as excellent as yourself would gain happy employ among Rome’s wealthiest households.”
He straightened and sent her a glowing smile. “Yes, I have enjoyed such employment, to be honest. I commanded trained helpers and every convenience. The climate alone made my work so much easier, unlike this endless nightmare of rain and cold.”
“Chariot races were my ruin. The master took me along, even encouraged me to bet. Our team was often victorious, but when they were not, my meager savings disappeared. I became increasingly indebted until I was forced to sell myself in redemption.”
“That’s a terrible fate! You were a freedman?”
“I was.” He shook his head, wielding his knife against innocent onions until tears ran down his cheeks. “I can only blame myself. This place,” he said, waving the knife, “this is my punishment for foolish dreams of riches.”
“What shall I take to the governor, then?” she said brightly. She suspected the tears came from more than the pungent onions, but this was not a day to be reminded of sadness that held no remedy. “The great man needs not be kept waiting.”
“Yes, surely not,” Tutonius said, slamming the knife to the table and hurrying to the far end of the room. “They have their wine already, so it’s a matter of cheese, bread, and olives. Surely they’ll be content with that until the meal is served.”
He handed her the flat board where slices of aged cheese and risen bread accompanied a bowl of olives. “Please attend them long enough to learn if they require anything further,” he said, walking with her to the door. He stooped and brushed a kiss on her cheek. “Thank you, dear Senna. If you wish, I’ll set aside a serving of the patina.”
She paused. “How did you know I favored that dish?”
“A man knows to follow a woman’s gaze,” he said, lifting an eyebrow.
Senna flushed as she grabbed the cheese board. “The best of the season to you, dear Tutonius. Good cheer.”
Pear Patina – Serves 4
- 1½ lb firm pears.
- 10fl oz red wine.
- 2 oz raisins.
- 4 oz honey.
- 1 tspn ground cumin.
- 1 tbspn olive oil.
- 2 tbspn fish sauce.
- 4 eggs.
- plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
Peel and core the pears and cook in the wine, honey and raisins until tender. Strain and process the fruit and return to the cooking liquor. Add the cumin, oil and fish sauce and the eggs well beaten. Pour into a greased shallow dish and bake in a preheated oven (375º F) for 20 mins or until set. Let the custard stand for 10 mins before serving warm. From the BBC Ancient History page.
Check out this page with Roman recipes for asparagus patinas, info on pans, etc.