SAYING “I should have known” is a poor substitute for analysis, but as gritty black smoke bulged through the woods, and handkerchiefs covered noses in a panicked flourish, that is precisely what Laelius said.
The blast furnace at the iron works two miles down the road had come alive. Of course. That was why he was here: the iron works. Rome wanted to build a canal to transport goods from the works to points north and to the coast. First they had to make sure the land would support the project and, what was more important, that no sacred groves or burials were at the location. A forgotten or unmarked cemetery would mean moving the canal. So far, Laelius and his team of university students had found nothing. So far, however, was hardly far at all. The study was in its early hours. Laelius had been ordered to report back to Rome before the Ambarvalia, the festival honoring Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Smoke from the furnace could postpone the dig for days, if not weeks. And the Ambarvalia, an important dies ferialis—a festive holy day—was less than a week away.
The site looked nothing like the wild vine-corseted grotto Laelius and the half-dozen young men he mentored had encountered a few hours ago. Brambles had been hacked away and small shrubs and trees rooted out. Shallow trenches scarred the turf, destined to expose the dirt and what lay beneath. Not even the students looked the same. Sparkling, clean-shaven faces and laundered, if well-worn, work shirts had acquired the scum created by playing in dirt. As the smoke invaded, adding a prickly patina of filth, everyone dropped or threw aside whatever he was holding, reached for his handkerchief and grumbled what Laelius himself was thinking but as a leader dare not voice: “Bloody hell,” “Just what we need,” “How are we supposed to see what we’re doing?” “Forget seeing! I’d rather breathe!”
Only Valeria had no complaints. She knelt in a short trench, her boots and britches caked with damp, reddish dirt not unlike the stuff she was scraping from the aside with a trowel. When the party had ridden out at dawn, she was wearing a full riding habit made of tropical-weight black wool. Now the jacket and skirt were draped atop a shaggy hedge. Though patches of sweat smutched her blouse beneath the arms and high on her back, along the neckline of her chemise, she kept that blouse buttoned high, and closed at the neck by a neatly tied black cravat. She had tied a handkerchief around her nose and mouth to ward off the gritty smoke. Her eyes had the stare of a searcher intent on a quest.
Laelius, who had resolved to set an example of courage by not covering his nose against the smoke, crouched beside her in the ditch. “Dearest, I think we should stop for the day. There’s enough smoke to fill a city.”
Valeria shook her head. “I don’t mind. The sooner we finish, the sooner we’ll be back in Rome. We missed the Ambarvalia last year. I don’t want to miss it again. It could be the last time I see my parents.”
Close by, knee-deep in a hole, spindly, red-haired Didius leaned on his shovel and wiped his brow with a clay-blotched cloth. “We will finish in time to celebrate the Ambarvalia in Rome, won’t we, Marcus Laelius?” The stress on “will” impressed Laelius as an attempt to think the wish into a reality.
“Probably not,” said Valeria while Laelius mused upon the boy’s wistfulness, “but we can always do what we did last year. Laelius conducted the rite himself. Gathered us around a wobbly altar made of boxes and made a glorious mess of everything.”
Didius squashed a snort. “You, Marcus Laelius? Make a mess of everything?”
Laelius found no humiliation in the youth’s mirth. He rather enjoyed making people laugh, even if the joke was on him. Truthful, unabashed, he said, “I’m not a priest, I’m a scholar. If you like, if we are indeed stuck here for the Ambarvalia, I’ll put you in charge of the ceremonies.”
“But you must be exceedingly careful with the sacrifice,” Valeria teased. “The animal we’re instructed to use if we observe outside the city walls isn’t as small and vulnerable as it appears. When Laelius made the cut, the blood shot out as if a water main had burst! It went everywhere—our heads, our faces, our clothing. By the time the poor creature was empty, we were sloshing around ankle-deep in the stuff and we looked as if we’d taken part in a massacre. We had to beg Rome to give us additional money so we could buy new clothes.”
“And did Rome oblige?”
“Alas, no. They said it was all Laelius’s fault. He knew we might still be outside Rome when it came time for the festival, so he should have known how to perform the rite.”
Didius laughed but winced. “If I may say so, that’s harsh.”
“No, that’s Rome,” said Laelius, hoping the tone would suffice to lecture Didius about the impunity with which Rome did business. If Rome was displeased about the request to fund their bureaucrats’ wardrobe, Laelius could only imagine how it would react to news about a delay in their grand plans to build the canal. No matter. He was responsible for the welfare of his students. He could not in good conscience let them work in this air-flung dung. “Time, gentlemen. We’re retreating until the wind changes.”
The students expressed disappointment at having to leave, but they packed up with a speed with made Laelius suspect the disappointment was a façade of politeness; they really had no desire to stay there longer than necessary.
Valeria slung the jacket and skirt of her riding habit across the horse’s withers and stood with one hand gripping the reins. She was waiting for Laelius to give her a leg up. Laelius, however, had his eye on the saddlebag, which was moving and making a noise that reminded him of a whimpering dog.
Undeterred by Valeria’s insistence to help her, Laelius opened the saddlebag. Inside was a chocolate-colored puppy no bigger than his fist. It was squirming, scratching at the leather with its front paws. Laelius had no idea if it was whimpering because it was hungry or it had heard the humans and hoped they would help it escape. He scooped it out and held it up to examine it. The puppy turned its head, trying to nibble Laelius’s hand. Laelius considered the little animal was happy enough. But he, Laelius, was not. “This little fellow has been in there all day?”
“He likes it in there! Besides, you wouldn’t want a puppy running around the site, getting underfoot and tipping things over, would you?”
“I’d rather you left him at the inn.”
“Locked up in the room?”
“You could have left him with the landlord. The landlord would have let him play in the stables.”
“He played with Didius and Artorius! Didn’t you see them sneaking away to feed him?”
“I saw them sneaking away, yes, but I thought they were off to Nature’s privy, not to dandle a dog.”
“Really, Laelius, just put him back and let’s be on our way! He’s perfectly fine.”
For the moment, Laelius thought as he gently set the puppy back in the saddlebag.
He knew Valeria wasn’t carrying the pup around for the sake of mere safekeeping. She was preserving him for the Ambarvalia.
He was going to be the sacrifice.