Marcus, at the grand age of thirteen, was now a man. He belonged to the Corieltauvi tribe that had lived and thrived in his region for a long time before the Romans came to Britain. His mother had given him a Roman name in the hope that it would benefit him in the future; after all, the Romans were the rising stars in this land, their continued domination seemingly inexorable. His naturally impatient personality had caused him to anticipate, for what seemed like a lifetime, the day he would become a man, believing things would be different and better for him. Finally that day had come, and although the reality of it turned out to be an anti-climax, he did receive the good news that he was to be introduced to the world outside his hamlet in the form of the major town that was Ratae Corieltauvorum. For all the years he had been on God’s earth, this was the first time he had left the bounds of his own little village, Enderby, located five miles to the south west of this great metropolis, a word Abraham liked to use to describe it.
Abraham was a Jew, one of a growing number of his people attracted to the Roman style of commerce in Ratae. A widower, he lived in Enderby because he had never felt safe in the big town; he also preferred the quiet of the country. Marcus loved him like a father. The young man’s own father had succumbed to disease some years previously, his demise never to be spoken of. As a boy he had tried to get his mother to talk about him, but all she would do is tear up and turn away. It had frustrated him, causing him to play up, behaving like a fool.
It was feared Marcus would eventually become an outcast; his behaviour was becoming more and more unacceptable to the people living in the surrounding dwellings. That was until Abraham had agreed to take him under his wing. Since then, he had calmed down and begun to take instruction from the old man; after all he was the only one in the town who had anything akin to an education: he could read and write. He also spoke several languages, including Latin, Greek, Yiddish and Arabic, and was exceptional with numbers. The boy was a fast learner and was soon fluent in Latin, a very useful language in these parts; the Roman influence was very strong, and with his given name and knowledge of their language, he had the potential to go far, if that was what he wished for himself. And so they entered Ratae’s outer limits. Marcus had never been so excited. The town and Abraham’s knowledge of it would be a good place to start his real world education.
Even on the outskirts of the town Marcus was seeing things he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams, no matter hard he had tried, and he had tried. There were so many people! He didn’t know so many existed in the world. Some of the smaller houses he walked past were of wattle and daub construction similar to his own, but it was the larger ones that caught his attention. They were made out of stone and they looked as though they could stand the charge of a hundred elephants (he had learnt about Hannibal and the elephants in the old days, over two hundred years previously, so knew what he was talking about). Some of them, the more official buildings, were made of stone that was so cleverly and perfectly stuck together he couldn’t see how it had been done, the joins were barely visible. He knew right away he was going to love his time in this place.
“Abraham,” he began.
“That’s my name,” Abraham replied.
“How old are these buildings?” he asked, pointing at a particularly fine example.
Abraham thought for a moment. “Probably fifty years old.”
“But they look so new. My house would never look like that after fifty years.”
“Wait until we get to the Forum. Then you will be amazed.”
Marcus didn’t reply, already lost in a daydream.
They were startled by a commotion further down the road. A man was running ahead of a uniformed patrol, who were intent on capturing him. The clatter of their light-weight armour and weapons on leather jerkins, the loud slapping of their sandaled footfalls on the paved road imparted the sense of urgency with which they chased their quarry. Another first for him: a Roman soldier. Only once in his life had any come to his village; unfortunately he had been in the fields working and so had missed the sight. Seeing them in all their glory made him determined that he should become one when he was the right age.
The soldiers now caught the man, bringing him to the ground by a well-placed spear shaft between his legs, causing him to trip face down into a pile of dung. This brought laughter from the patrol and some of the bystanders. In spite of his covering of dung, it was clear the fallen man was a strange looking creature, dark under his eyes, gaunt with tatty clothes. Except for the lack of a leather apron, he could have been a butcher, for there was copious amounts of blood all down the front of his shabby tunic. Two of the soldiers trod on the man’s arms, pinning him down. In spite of this the victim thrashed furiously, his yellow and black teeth snapping at the air, trying to bite any limbs that came close enough. Laughing at the futility of the poor creature’s efforts, a third soldier raised his gladius and with a single, swift blow, severed the man’s head from his shoulders. Sparks flew as the sword hit a stone under the man’s neck. Marcus gasped in horror, but continued to watch, caught in the hypnotic fascination of sudden death. As the man’s head rolled away and came to rest, the face looked directly towards the lad. Its mouth continued to gnash its teeth; the eyes, whitened as with cataracts, blinked at him. Somehow Marcus knew the man was looking directly at him, could see him, even in death. A second blow and the head was cut in two like a fresh melon, spewing blood and brains across the roadway.
A sigh of relief went up from the people surrounding the incident. It was as if they knew exactly what the problem had been and accepted the harsh punishment meted out to the poor, unfortunate soul. The soldiers began to drag the corpse away, leaving the severed head for the dogs. Abraham had gone pale; Marcus thought it was the sight of blood that had unsettled the old man, but he should have known better.
“Come on, Boy,” Abraham commanded. The lad didn’t argue, there was something in the old man’s voice, a tone that suggested it was wise to obey.
Hurrying to catch up, he asked his mentor about what he had just witnessed. “What do you think he did, for them to do that to him?” At the question, Abraham quickened his pace.
“We have to be at John the Elder’s house before dark,” was all he said by way of reply.
“No more questions, Marcus.” And in a more conciliatory tone, “sorry I called you ‘boy’ just now. Come on, quickly. It is already late.”
No more words were spoken, instead they walked briskly in companionable silence, the lad progressively overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells all around him. He wondered how the inhabitants, of which there were so many, could breathe in the alleys between the buildings. The air was rank with the stink of old shit and piss, dead animals, and one or two lifeless people, lying inert like bundles of decaying rags at the side of the road. The country boy was beginning to wish he was home, or at least somewhere else.
Finally they came to the Forum, a relatively new set of grand buildings with columns and covered forecourts that surrounded a good size cobbled square. In the centre was a plinth upon which stood a Roman god, although Marcus did not recognise him. He knew from his lessons with Abraham that the Romans would adopt local gods as their own to appease the conquered nations, thus creating new faces for statues everywhere they went. On the walls were brightly coloured painted murals, depicting more recognisable Roman Gods as well as events about which Marcus was ignorant.
I could keep over a hundred cattle in this space, Marcus mused in wonder. In his innocence, he failed to notice the looks on the faces of the people surrounding him. Everyone appeared to be on a mission, scurrying quickly past, their faces covered as if warding off some invisible force. Rickety wagons were being pulled into the square by old, withered oxen, the drivers’ whips cracking as they were urged onwards with their loads. Abraham looked nervous, skittish even. It made Marcus scared; in spite of his new manhood, he was still just a boy, out of his depth in this strange place. He didn’t even know where he was going to be staying for the night, the gathering dusk making this need more urgent to his restless mind.
“This place feels strange, Abraham,” he commented, hoping for more information that might sooth his jangling nerves.
“It is only because it is so new to you. I promise we will have a proper look tomorrow, young man,” he replied and pointed. “We have to go down that alley, John the Elder’s house is down there on the left.”
Marcus peered down the street. Its narrowness made it appear as if it went on forever, getting darker and narrower as they entered its confines. Just ahead of them, on an upper level, a leather window cover was drawn back and brown water was hurled to the ground, missing them by a few feet. The thrower, an older woman, just stood and stared as they approached.
“She didn’t even look out below before doing that.” Marcus exclaimed, indignant at the sheer rudeness of the action.
“Take it as a lesson, don’t walk along here early in the morning when they expel the night soil from the upper rooms.”
The boy was horrified. In his village they threw it out the back door to add to the pile of fertilizer they would use on the fields. Apart from the fact that he didn’t want to wear someone else’s effluent, it was a waste of what he knew to be a valuable resource.
“I know what you’re thinking, boy, but look at what you’re walking on.” Abraham pointed at his feet.
Looking down, he realised that the ground had become soft, and now realised why. “Shit!” he exclaimed.
“Precisely,” Abraham said, grinning broadly at the germane expletive. Marcus looked around, trying to find somewhere to stand that was not so piled in excrement. There was nowhere.
“Are we nearly there, yet?” he asked, tired of new discoveries, yearning for familiarity.
“There it is, just up ahead.”
Marcus peered into the shadows of the street, made all the more impenetrable by the approaching dusk. He saw a wide oak door, a large cast iron knocker at its centre, just begging for a hand to use it. A lantern hung next to the door, allowing him to look more closely at the device’s detail. On it he could see an effigy of a face, a hideous face with missing teeth, staring, blank eyes, and what looked like a gash down one cheek. His desire to use it waned at the sight. Instead Abraham lifted it and let it slam loudly against the thick door. The sound echoed inside the building and after a moment sandaled feet were heard before a cut-out peephole, high in the door, opened. A face peered out with a questioning look.
“Who are you?”
“The Father.” Abraham cryptically replied.
“Bless you,” came the response and a click announced the release of the door. It swung open and the man ushered them inside. “Quickly now, it’s nearly dark.”
Confused by the verbal challenge and response, Marcus followed them into the house. His jaw dropped, he had never been inside a stone building. It was deathly quiet after the frenetic noise of the streets. The reception area was as big as his whole house, or so it felt as the ceiling was so high. The air was clear, not misted by smoke from the hearth, another first. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not, it felt a little cold. A beautiful and detailed frieze had been etched into the stone wall of the entrance. It showed a great battle, men on horses, arrows flying, men dying. Before he could ask what it was, he was pulled by the tunic sleeve into the main room. In the centre was a raised fireplace, upon which logs were blazing, the smoke being drawn towards the even higher ceiling before exiting through a hole that allowed him to glimpse the first evening star.
Three men sat in the room, including the one who had opened the door. Instead of chairs, they sat on stuffed leather stools, a few of which were lying unused around the fire.
“Abraham, my Father,” the tall, older one said. His eyes were warm with affection. Father? Marcus wondered, the old man was clearly older than Abraham. Or was he?
“My Lord, John,” Abraham replied equally warmly, “it has been so long.” John stood and they hugged each other in genuine affection.
“And is this the young man your message spoke of?” John asked, amused curiosity on his face.
“My name is Marcus,” the boy interjected, asserting himself in this room of men.
“You are welcome, young Marcus,” John replied, pleased at the boy’s spirit. He looked at Abraham. “I see what you mean about him. He has his father’s defiant eyes and confidence.”
“You knew my father?” Marcus asked, astonished.
“You have not told him?” John asked of Abraham.
“No, I thought it best to wait until now. Just as well, too. I saw one today.”
“Really, another? I’m sorry to say it wasn’t the first in these parts. One was destroyed yesterday. I have sent the men out to find any Newborns it may have spawned.”
“I think I am confused,” Marcus interrupted, his head swimming at this esoteric conversation. It was as if he had lost the use of language; he knew the words but not their meaning.
“Sit down, boy,” John said, indicating one of the spare stools. For the use of the word ‘boy’, he received a well-earned glare from the young man. “Aeowyn! Bring some ale!” he shouted through the door at the rear of the room.
Abraham spoke. “Marcus, it is time that we explained a few things to you. As you are now a man, the true purpose of this journey was to bring you into a special fold, in which you father was a member before his untimely death.”
Marcus sat up, face expectant. This was the first time anyone had spoken of his father since his death, and so openly. His heart beat faster, goose-bumps rising just like when he went hunting, at the moment of the kill. He had always wondered why his mother would never speak of him, no-one else would, for that matter. He didn’t even know his father’s name.
At that moment Aeowyn entered the room, carrying a tray with several jugs of ale. Marcus’ heart stopped, the love struck young man’s jaw went slack, and all other thoughts went clean out of his head. She was so beautiful it made his chest tight as a drum, and he struggled to take his next breath.
Abraham chuckled at Marcus’ reaction to the girl. He understood why. Aeowyn was the prettiest girl Abraham had ever seen in his long life, and he had seen many. She was about the same age as Marcus, and had the whitest alabaster skin, and long, straight black hair that had a blue sheen suggesting the clear perfection of a night sky. Her eye lashes were long and dark, accentuating the brown, almond eyes that sat perfectly positioned above a slightly too large nose that somehow brought the face together, creating a vision of beauty that would stop men speaking when she entered a room.
“Ah, Aeowyn. Thank you girl,” Lord John appeared oblivious of the effect she had on all present. Having handed out the drinks she retired from the men’s presence once more. The atmosphere in the room relaxed, and the men returned to the matter in hand, sipping their ale.
“Tell me about my father,” Marcus insisted, his need for knowledge returning.
“It isn’t that simple. We have to go further back in time in order to put all we represent and do into context,” Abraham explained. Confusion filled Marcus’ heart and mind. What was this?
“Firstly, we are an Order, called Debitum Naturae. The order is some eight hundred and fifty years old, nearly as old as Rome itself. Do you know what Debitum Naturae means?”
“Debt of nature?” Marcus answered. He knew what the words meant but not their intent.
“Almost. You have translated correctly, but the meaning is more subtle. At the end of your life, what do you expect? It isn’t a trick question.”
“Death?” the boy answered hesitantly.
“Exactly. Of course it is,” Abraham replied.
“The problem is,” Lord John interjected, “some people don’t die,” Marcus felt confused; he was feeling like this a lot this evening, he thought. He shook his head slowly.
“That’s not possible,” Marcus replied, after a moment. It was against nature. And then the penny dropped. When we died it was natural, a debt to nature, returning the body to the earth to begin the cycle once more.
“He sees,” Agrippa said, pleasure on his face. Agrippa, one of the others in the room, was an enormous man, a mountain of muscle and the tallest in the region. He was well-known and had fought frequent battles to the death with those who sought honour by challenging him. The scars on his face, forearms and hands attested to his many battles, his presence evidence of his constant victory. He wore many torcs on his arms and one around his neck, this one being iron interwoven with gold threads. It was rumoured that he had his slain opponent’s swords reworked into a new torc after each victory; if that was true then even he would have had difficulty in standing under the weight of them all. In his private life, he was head of the forces that were employed to do the Order’s will. They were a secretive paramilitary organisation, even the lowliest member had to subscribe to its codes of practice, upon pain of death. There was also rumoured to be a tie to the Mithraic sect, but that was probably deliberately seeded to ensure a copious supply of fighting men to join the Order.
“Our Order is here to make sure the debt is repaid,” Abraham began to fill in some of the blanks. “We aren’t sure how long this has been happening, but since anyone can remember some people simply haven’t died in the conventional sense. They appear to, and by rights they ought to stay down, content in their eternal sleep, as the Christians call it, awaiting resurrection.”
“What?” Marcus was really confused. “So you don’t stay dead?”
“The Christians, as I’m sure Lord John will tell you, for he is one, believe that their god will resurrect the righteous, although only the Gods know how that can be done. This new religion has some strange ideas.”
“I think I’m lost.” Marcus hung his head, ashamed he couldn’t follow the discussion. He had thought himself clever.
“Do not worry, you have a lot to learn.” Abraham put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, trying to reassure him. “By the position of your father, you have automatic admission to the Order. Your family ties are your oath of secrecy. You never had a say in what you are to do with your life, it was sworn to the Order by your father, on the day of your birth.”
“Does my mother know of this?” he asked, incredulous.
“She knows some of what we are going to tell you, in as much as she knew you had a destiny beyond your or her control.”
At this point, Marcus felt light-headed. It appeared that he knew nothing of life, nothing of what had been around him all the time. It was as if he had been living in a parallel dimension to this new reality.
Copyright © 2013 David Kingsley Roberts