BEFORE COCK CROW, BRITTA awakened from a dream of Heimat--the cool German forests east of the Rhine--into her current home: the fetid shadows of the stilted, soiled, and slanted stairwell between the fifth and sixth floor of an insulae, owned by her Greek master, Apollonius, senior secretary to Caesar. Moaning softly, sore from Titus’ rough handling of her the night before in the shadows outside the master’s kitchens on the second floor, she stretched and lifted the ragged shift she wore over her slight twelve-year-old body to relieve herself into a Terra-cotta vase, lodged in the corner of the crumbling step above her stone pillow. Squatting over the vase, she tried to recapture the bucolic images of her dream, which were a relief from the cruelty of her daily life: she imagined the evergreen forest with its scent of pine and resin, the caress of chilled winds of the north against her cheek, her father, riding a stout northern pony from the kraal into the woods, and her playing with her brothers in the snow. But instead the odors of the dank, dark rooms of the upper apartments, tinged with wood smoke, night soil, and urine assailed her nostrils with their acrid aroma, while the clanking sounds of Rome’s awakening populace in the streets below disturbed her concentration and reminded her that her rapist, the young slave Titus, would soon be looking for her. Accepting her dream was faded now beyond remembrance, she dried between her legs with the filthy corner of her shift, lifted the vase, and climbed the stairs to the top floor. Her first task of the day was to collect urine from the tiny cenacula on the fifth and sixth floors and empty them into the dolium on the first floor. It was early but some of the inhabitants would be awake and she could collect their night’s deposit before the heat of the summer sun made hauling the Terra-cotta vase up and down the stairs unbearable. Because Platus was always awake early, she worked her way to his cell. Besides, she liked the old man with the bald head, who tried to teach her a little Greek each day. He was a welcome relief from Titus, who, last night, pressed her face against the wall and forced his fingers into her, as he licked her neck and bit her ears.
The sixth floor was a cheap add-on, an unlicensed, un-approved layer to the insulae; consequently, the stone stairwell of its original design ended at the fifth floor and a rough-hewn wooden stairs led to the smaller and cheaper cells. When she reached the top landing, she noticed the door to Platus’ tiny cenaculum ajar and heard muffled moans emanating from its dark interior, where she paused, straining to ascertain whether the old man was sick or wounded. Thieves had been known to prey on the old and feeble in the neighborhood and she did not want to rush in and join Platus in a pool of blood. At the lintel, she lay down and twisted her head to see into the room; a thread of light from a skylight above the stairwell leaked into the cell at an odd angle and illuminated a tiny square near the door. Within this shred of ragged light she recognized Plautus’ wrinkled and aged foot; the light/dark dichotomy severed the foot from an unrevealed body, hidden in the dark. Discovering Platus down, she leaned against the wall; her heart racing and her breath shallow and quick. She could call out to him but his attacker would then know she was there; instead, she backed down the stairs on her hands and knees, turned, and ran to the ground floor to find Lepidus, the house guard. He would help her, she thought. He would know what to do.
She located Lepidus, leaning against the wall of the insulae and yawning, as he watched shop owners opening their stalls through half-closed eyes. He ignored her until she grabbed his thick arm, covered in curly, black hair, and shook it, insisting he follow her upstairs. “Wake up,” she cried, “someone has attacked Platus.” The man sighed and rubbed his eyes with his left hand, as he reached for his vitis, a short vine stick he had carried in Caesar’s legions, with his right. He pushed her away and said, “Stay here.” She waited a few seconds and then followed him into the building and up the stairs.
As he passed Titus on the second floor, Lepidus ordered him to bring a lamp to Platus’ cenaculum. Titus smirked and Lepidus, knowing the boy to be a malingerer, struck him a wicked smack across his right shoulder and growled. “Hurry up before I lay into you, boy.” Tears of anger and frustration welled up in his eyes, while Britta held back in the shadows, knowing Titus would take out his humiliation on her if he caught sight of her. When he disappeared into the dominus’ apartment on the second floor, she hurried after Lepidus, who stopped outside Platus’ cell and called his name. No response until a feeble cry for help issued out of the shadows. Lepidus slapped the vitis into his left palm, anxious to help the old man, but he hesitated to enter the dark cell; he would wait for Titus and the lamp. Behind him, Britta moved away from the stairs and took up a position in a narrow niche in the hall, where she could see but not be seen.
Titus’s bare feet slapped the steps as he ran up the stairs carrying the oil lamp. When he reached the landing, he pushed the lamp toward Lepidus, who refused it. “I will go in first; you will follow close behind. If there is anyone there, do not run. I will handle them but I will need the light.” He stared into Titus’ wide eyes. “Do you understand?” The boy gripped the lamp tightly, as Lepidus moved forward. He lifted the vitis, ready to strike, as the oil lamp illuminated the tiny room, revealing Platus lying on the floor, naked, covered with blood.
Britta, moving forward, away from her hiding place, shivered, seeing the old man covered in blood and lying in a puddle of urine. Edging even closer to procure a better view, she spied blood smeared on the walls. Lepidus, who also noticed the strange markings, touched an amulet around his neck and mumbled a prayer of protection, while Titus shook in fear at his elbow. Britta covered her mouth, squelching a cry; she had seen the same markings on trees in the deep woods of the North.
Ignoring the two, Lepidus stooped and lifted the old man’s head. Blood oozed from a cut above his left ear. “Platus, it is Lepidus. Can you hear me?” The old man struggled to open his eyes; they fluttered wildly, as he opened his mouth, trying to speak. Unnerved, Lepidus lowered the man’s head and ordered Titus to request the master to summon the medicae. As Titus turned to leave, he handed the lamp to Lepidus, who raised it and closely examined the blood streaks on the wall. Lepidus asked: “Did he do this?” Britta did not respond; she knew he did not expect an answer. But she could not imagine the old man smearing his own blood on the walls. And how, she wondered, did he know the sacred runes of Wodin? Because that was what covered the walls—it was sacred runes.
Voices projected from below roused Britta to seek once again the safety of the niche outside the cell. She just made it back, as Apollonius appeared on the landing, followed by his Batavian bodyguard. Esca saw her but he said nothing; he was from the north like her. He had always been kind to her, speaking to her in her own language. It was his job to see everything and he saw her, crouched in the corner, even though the master did not turn his head in her direction.
“What madness is this?” asked Apollonius, bending down to examine Platus. Lepidus held the lamp up to the wall and said, “Master, have you seen this?” Rising, Apollonius’ mouth fell open but it was Esca that spoke. “Runes, my lord; they are Wodin’s runes.” Apollonius had campaigned with Caesar against the Germans and he had seen runes carved in trees. “You are right. They are bloody runes.” He looked at Esca and asked: “Can you decipher them?” The Batavian shook his head. Lepidus watched the interchange and then added: “Have you noticed?”
Both men looked at him, waiting for an explanation. “It’s cold in here. Outside, in the hall, it is stifling; in here it is cold.”
Esca recited a prayer in German and slowly backed toward the door with his right hand on the hilt of his gladius, while Apollonius rubbed his chin with his right hand and nervously cleared his throat. Lepidus offered: “Maybe we should move him downstairs?” Apollonius shook his head. “No, you will wait for the medicae. I must attend Caesar. ” Lepidus nodded, as Apollonius and the Batavian descended the stairs. As soon as they were gone, he left the chilled room and sat on the landing near Britta. After a few moments, he took a deep breath and stood. “Stay here until the medicae arrives. I will inform the domina.”
By the time Ambrosius, Apollonius’ medicae, arrived ten or more of the insulae’s tenants had gathered around the entrance to Platus’ cell. The medicae pushed through the crowd, followed by Lepidus, carrying a lamp. He pronounced Platus dead, shrugged his shoulders and soon left, followed by Lepidus, who instructed Titus to contact the pollinctores, the undertakers, to remove the body. The other tenants now nervous and fearful skulked away, leaving only Britta, who entered the darkened room and touched the cold corpse of Platus. He was not the first dead man she had seen: Roman legionaries attacked her village two years ago and killed most of the men, including her father and her three brothers. What interested her was the mystery inherent in this room? She suspected sacred magic connected to her home had been used and rather than scaring her, the runes held a fascination she could not shake. Power emanated from those marks that could protect her, she thought. After all, they were runes from her country and her people.
She remained in the hall until the three slaves from the pollinctores arrived to remove the body. Watching them descend the narrow stairs with the corpse, she sat on the top step of the landing and scratched mosquito bites on her leg. Soon, she guessed the domina would send someone to find her. The chamber pots were overflowing and she would be punished. So, reluctantly, she picked up her vase and began her collection from the top two floors.
At dusk Britta helped the cooks in the small kitchen prepare the evening meal for the dominus and his guests. Esca sat just outside the kitchen door in the atrium, sharpening his gladius, and Britta, in her native tongue, whispered to him through the door. “Did you see the runes?” He nodded without turning his head. “Do not speak of them.” She leaned toward him, grasping the wooden lintel for support, telling him what he already knew. “They were Wodin’s runes; an incantation to raise the dead.” Why, she wondered, did someone kill Platus and then use his blood to write in sacred runes a chant to raise the dead?
The party lasted way into the night and Britta was finally released to climb the stairs to her place on the stairs. She was exhausted and feared Titus would seek her out. Suddenly she had an idea: she would sleep in Platus’ cell. Titus would be too scared to seek her there. Already the inhabitants of the house were reciting protective spells and incantation as they passed the room. She entered the dark cell and crawled onto the man’s bed. His mattress smelled of sour sweat but she was too tired to care and fell quickly asleep.
She slept late and awoke suddenly, terrified she would be punished. The sun from the sky light pushed into the room illuminating the now dark stains of the runes and a figure standing in the shadowed corner across from the bed. She cried out in panic. “Who are you?” The man moved from the shadows into the light. He wore a toga but also a small round hat perched incongruously on the back of his head. The covering and his thick black beard marked him as a barbarian. But he was not a Greek, like Platus or Apollonius. He was something else; something she had never seen before in her young life. Although his Latin was flawless, his accent was heavy like Esca’s, but different. He was not a northerner; she was sure. His skin was the color of the clay amphorae that holds the wine and his eyes a dark black. Once he stood in the light, he answered her question: “I am Asa. People call me the ‘antiquarian’ or the Alexandrian.”
She rose from Platus’ bed. “Why are you here?” A slight sly smile began at the corners of his mouth. “Apollonius requested I solve the riddle of the markings.” He paused and then continued. “I have a reputation as a linguist.” She scratched her head, arms, and legs; Platus had bedbugs. “They’re runes from the north,” she said. His eyes brightened, as he pressed his hands together. “Mystery solved, then.” She smiled at him, even though she knew he was making fun of her. He moved to the side of the bed and picked up the oil lamp left by Lepidus the day before and walked outside the cell, where he lit it from a sputtering clay lamp, hanging from a chain on the wall. Entering the chamber, he said: “Go about your chores today but I will be back tonight to talk to you.” The girl straightened her shift and looked shyly at the man, who lifted the light to study the runes on the wall.
“The spirit is quite angry,” he muttered to himself.
“What?” the girl asked.
He turned and smiled. “Nothing, Britta, just go now.”
Britta worked throughout the day. Several times Titus bumped into her, pinched her or touched her. Once, he ran his hand up the inside of her shift and she pulled away and fled up the stairs; her eyes filling with tears. Later that night, she trudged up the stairs to her step but the bearded man called to her from Platus’ cell and signaled for her to enter. Two lamps sputtered and illuminated the room. The walls had been cleaned and the bug-infested mattress had been replaced with a new one. “You should sleep here for awhile,” he said, taking a seat in a chair against the wall.
She sat on the bed, wary of the man, and ready to flee.
He sat in a chair in the far corner of the room. Beside it was a wooden chest, where a platter of food and an amphora of wine rested. “You need not fear me. I’m here to solve the mystery of the runes.”
“I told you already,” she said softly.
He nodded and poured a cup of mulled wine and handed it to her. “Britta, I want you to drink this. It will calm you.”
She sniffed and then sipped the wine.
“Please drink all of it,” he urged.
She drained the cup of the dark, sweet liquid, and her first thought was to ask for more. Suddenly, before she could extend her arm, asking for her cup to be filled, all the edges of the room seemed sharper and all the colors brighter. Beads of sweat formed at the top of her head; her fingers and toes began to tingle; and she felt dizzy. The man with the black beard and the dark eyes, ignored her empty cup, and asked: “Britta, where did you learn Wodin’s prayer?”
Her arms and legs weighed her down, centering her, slowing her thoughts. She felt herself moving into the center of her being, which was the same as the clearing in the forest, where she followed her mother and other women of her tribe for the ritual calling of the dead. She heard them chanting, as she watched them spill their blood to paint the runes on the rough bark of the evergreen trees, summoning die Geister from the frost fog that hovered over the surface of the bogs. She gasped, when the wights with their iron shirts stumbled into the clearing, wearing rusted helms and carrying stained swords. She repeated the words of the chant and cursed the Romans. Finally, she answered: “In the forest with my mother, during the summoning of die Geister.”
The man rose from his chair and drew a charcoal circle on the wooden floor. From within the circle he sketched a pentagram then drew his dagger and pricked his left thumb and let drip seven drops of blood onto the center. From the circle he asked: “Why did you summon the Geist, Britta?” In a whisper, she responded: “I didn’t call her. She came to protect me.”
“From Platus?” he asked. The girl vehemently shook her head. “No, from Titus; she came to protect me from Titus. It is he who violates me; shames me” She whimpered.
“Then why did she attack Platus?”
“Because he touched me on the stairs; he heard me crying in my sleep.”
The man stroked his beard, as he thought. “You did not call her; she came unbidden?”
“She scares me,” confessed the girl, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Call her now. Recite the prayer,” ordered the man.
“She will kill you, like she did Platus.”
“Call her. I will be safe in my circle.”
The girl, in her trance, recited Wodin’s prayer. Finished, the two sat silent, waiting. First, the temperature of the room dropped and then the flames of the lamps flickered and faded. The girl whimpered softly, as the snow fog slithered across the floor and the wight, a young woman dressed in leathers, carrying a hammer, floated into the room. Asa grasped the amulet hanging round his neck and chanted in his native language, as the enraged Geist slammed her hammer against the invisible ward. Finally, he said in Latin: “Britta, tell her she must leave.”
Britta spoke to the spirit, who ceased striking the ward and approached the girl. “She asks why.” The man faced the spirit and answered: “I will protect the girl from the boy. He will never harm her again.” The spirit touched the invisible ward with her empty hand, palm outward and stared into Asa’s dark eyes. Minutes passed and then she withdrew. The room went dark and Asa sat in the center of his circle and waited, while Britta curled up on the bed and fell into a deep sleep.
At cock crow, the girl awoke. The man was gone and she had a slight headache from the heavy wine. She could remember nothing about the night from the moment she sipped it. She hopped out of bed and relieved herself in the vase before starting her chores.
Later the cook told her the dark man left that morning with Titus and Macro, the slave dealer.
A week after that she overheard the dominus tell Lepidus he sold Titus to a muleskinner on his way to Palestine.