recovering. In fact we left him where he was and it was soon over. He never regained consciousness.

Because a man has to stick to his personal standards, I stayed with him until he died.



A.D. 73: 25 May

In some parts of the city there are no longer any visible traces of bygone times, any buildings or stones to bear witness to the past… But the certainty always remains that everything has happened here, in this specific space that forms part of a plain between two rivers, the mountains and the sea.

– Albert Garcia Espucbe, Barcelona, Veinte Siglos


From Castulo to the northern coast is a long, slow haul, at least five hundred Roman miles. It depends not just on which milepost you start counting from, but where you want to end up-and whether where you do end up is the place where you wanted to be. I had shed my spare mule then used my official pass for the cursus publicus and took it in fast stages, like a dispatch-rider-one who had been charged to announce an invasion by hordes of barbarians, or an imperial death. After several days I hit the coast at Valentia. I had come pretty well halfway; then it was another long trek north with the sea on my right hand, through one harbor town after another, right past the provincial capital at Tarraco at the mouth of its great waterway, until at length I was due to reach Iluro, Barcino and Emporiae.

I never got as far as Emporiae, and I'll never see it now.

At every town I had stopped to visit the main temple, where I demanded to know if there was a message. In this way I had traced Helena, Aelia and Claudia from place to place, encouraged by confirmation of their passing through ahead of me-though I noticed that the brief dated messages were all written by Aelia.

Annaea, not Helena herself. I tried not to worry. I was closing on them fast, so I convinced myself our journeys would coincide at Emporiae as planned. Then I could take Helena safely home.

But at Barcino, the message was more personal: Claudia Rufina was waiting for me on the temple steps.


The one place on that heartbreaking, backbreaking journey that sticks in my mind. All the others, and the previous long crosscountry and coastal miles, were obliterated from my memory the instant that I saw the girl and realized she was weeping into her veil.

Barcino was a small walled town in the coastal strip, a pausing place on the Via Augusta. It was built in a circlet of hills near the sea, in front of a small mountain that was quarried for limestone. An aqueduct brought in water; a canal carried the sewage away. The area was rural; the hinterland was divided into regular packets of land, typical of a Roman settlement that had started life as a military veterans' colony.

Wine-growing was the local commercial success, every farm possessing its kilns for making amphorae. Laeitana: the wine I had last drunk at the dinner for the Olive Oil Producers of Baetica. Wine export thrived so well the town had an official customs post on a bridge beside one of its rivers. The harbor was notoriously terrible, yet because of its handy location on the main route to Gaul, then onwards to Italy, the port was well used. Low breakers rolled unthreateningly on the beaches beyond the inlet. I could have cheerfully taken ship to Rome from here with Helena, but the Fates had another plan.

I had ridden in through the southeastern gate, a triple entrance set in the middle of the town wall. I took the straight road to the civic center, past unpretentious two-storied houses, many of which had a section devoted to wine production or handicrafts. I could hear the trundle of corn- and olive-mills, with occasional bleats from animals. I never thought that my journey would be ending here. I was now so close to Emporiae, which I had planned to use as our staging post; it seemed ridiculous that anything should intervene so late in the journey. I believed we were going to make it.

I reached the forum, with its modest basilica, tempting food-shops, and an open area dedicated to honorary monuments. It was here I saw Claudia. She was leaning against one of the fine local sandstone Corinthian columns in the temple, anxiously looking out for me.

My arrival had made her hysterical-which did nothing for my own peace of mind. I calmed her down enough to let her blurt out what had happened: 'We stopped here because Helena was about to have the baby. We were told they had a decent midwife-though it seems she has gone to deliver twins on the other side of the mountain. Aelia Annaea has rented a house and she's there with Helena. I came to find you if you arrived today.'

I tried in vain to compose myself. 'What are the tears for, Claudia?'

'Helena has gone into labor. It's taking far too long, and she's exhausted. Aelia thinks the baby may have too big a head-'

If so, the child would die. And Helena Justina would almost certainly die too.

Claudia led me as fast as possible to a modest town house. We rushed in through a short passage to reach an atrium with an open roof and a central pool. A reception room, dining room and bedrooms led off it; I could tell at once where Helena was because Nux was lying at full stretch outside the bedroom, with her nose pressed right against the crack under the door, whining pitifully.

Aelia's rental was clean and would have been prepossessing, but it was full of strange women, either clamoring dolefully-which was bad enough-or doing routine needlework as if my girl's suffering merely called for attendance by the civic sewing circle. A new spasm of agonizing pain must have come over Helena, for I heard her crying out so dreadfully it shocked me to the core.

Aelia Annaea, ashen faced, had met us in the atrium. Her greeting was merely a shake of her head; she seemed quite unable to speak.

I managed to croak, 'I'll go to her.'

At last this male forwardness silenced a few of the wailing women. I was weary and hot, so as I passed I rinsed my face in the atrium pool-another sacrilege, apparently. The needles had stopped stabbing, while the hysteria increased.

I scooped up Nux, whose only reaction to me was a slight tremble of her tail. All she wanted was to reach Helena. So did I. I dumped the whining dog in Aelia's arms then I grasped the door handle. As I stepped inside, Helena stopped screaming just long enough to yell at me, 'Falco, you bastard! How could you do this to me?- Go away; go away; I never want to see you again!'

I felt a wild surge of sympathy with our rude forefathers. Men in huts. Men who really were capable of anything. Men who had had to be.

Behind me Aelia gasped, 'Falco, she can't do it; she's too tired. The baby must be stuck-'

It was all out of control. Helena looking ghastly as tears mingled with perspiration on her face; Aelia wrestling with the frantic dog; strange women fluttering uselessly. I let out a roar. Hardly the best way to regain calm. Then, infuriated by the noise and fuss, I seized a broom, and with wide sweeps at waist height I cleared the room of women. Helena sobbed. Never mind. We could panic and suffer just as well on our own; we could manage without interruptions from idiots. I strode to the door after them. Aelia Annaea was the only sensible one present so I rapped out my orders to her: 'Olive oil and plenty of it!' I cried. Adding thoughtfully, 'And warm it slightly, please.'


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