The Forum

The Forum was much quieter than usual. The crowds that on any other day would have argued and jostled and hawked had fled the City, either to Veii or to the Capitoline Hill, or were barricaded in their homes, awaiting the invaders. The only sign left of what this place had been were the wheel-marks and hoof-marks that they had left in the previous days.

The only occupants of the forum now, beneath the glaring white sun-disk, filtered through a rippling, yellow, smoky sky, were a crowd of stern-faced and weathered old men, clad in the fine robes of their ancient offices.

One of the old men awoke from a sleep of a thousand rasping snores, with a dark, wet patch beginning to appear in the splendid white of his toga.

“Have the Greeks been yet?” He asked, hesitantly, looking around at his companions.

“It’s the Gauls, you old fool! It’s the ruddy Gauls we’re waiting for!” One of the men shouted from somewhere behind him.

“Oh, yes, the Gauls. I used to have a slave who was Greek.”

“Be quiet, man!” The same voice shouted again.

“I think he was called Protagoras or Pythagoras or something like that. I bought him the year Furius Medullinus was Consul.”

“What part of that do you not understand?”

“I seem to remember he was magnificent in bed.”

“What did you say?” Came another creaky voice.

“Nobody said anything to you! For Jupiter’s sake, stop spouting off all your ridiculous poppycock and balderdash! We’re supposed to be offering ourselves up for our people and our city. Show some respect.”

At that point, Gaius Flavius, formerly Priest of Mars, let out a deep and anguished moan as his bulbous and blotchy arms forced his body out of his ivory chair. His feet, red and pink and brown and gout-swollen and oozing out among the straps of his sandals, shuffled forward, one and then the next and then the first again, as the old priest winced behind a ragged, grey beard.

Somewhere in the City, there was a groan of wooden beams at last defeated, and a crash as a roof gave way to ravenous flames.

“I couldn’t do anything like that now. The last time I got it up must have been, what, 19 years ago?”

“Did you know that my father fought against Coriolanus?”

“Even then I couldn’t keep up. He was so young and energetic. He was like one of those Greek statues, you know?”

By this point, Gaius Flavius, panting like a dog with exhaustion, had made it to an empty enough patch of dirt behind everyone’s backs. He hitched up the folds of his toga and unleashed a golden torrent of steaming piss, that twisted among stones and bumps and hollows in the ground, too small to be detected by human eyes, and diverged into a shifting and meandering delta, watering every little crack in the sun-baked soil, before each tributary converged once more into a mighty river, rolling down the a wheel-rut.

He gradually made his way back to his chair, sagging under his own weight like an overladen camel.

“Is this how they felt in Veii?” said a senator on the front row.

A few of the men around him looked at him, confused or curious.

A scream, somewhere deep in the blazing city of Romulus and Remus, was abruptly cut short.

“The way their city was destroyed. The way we slaughtered and plundered and burned.”

Nobody said anything for a while after that. Even the ones who were awake.

There were faint shouts, in a strange, Barbarian tongue, rising above the snapping and blustering fires.

Aulus Cornelius Cossus, with lips shrink-wrapped over empty gums, and eyes ringed by time-worn hollows of darkness, grumbled something. The senator who had spoken continued.

“Do you think this is us getting what we were due? You know? I’m just, you know, thinking, as it were.”

Aulus spoke up this time.

“My grandson risked his life for Rome at Veii. He fought…”

The wind blew a cascade of smoke across the Forum. Aulus coughed, violently.

“He fought…”

More smoke. More coughing.

“My grandson fought bravely and…”

Aulus, his gaunt and wrinkled face becoming more impassioned with every time he was cut off by the smoke from his beloved city, seemed resolved to finish his sentence at all costs.

“He won a great victory for his people.”

“And the Gauls are winning a great victory for theirs right now.” The senator retorted.

“Do you want to say that again?” Aulus taunted him. “Nobody talks like that about my family, and about Rome, and get away with it. Nobody.”

Aulus stood up, slow and shaking, placing his fragile, bony weight on an ivory walking stick. He began to shuffle precariously in the direction of the senator who had dared to speak ill of his grandson’s daring exploits.

Another roof crumpled and collapsed with a deep growl.

About a third of the way across to where his adversary was seated, his fragile feet gave way, and his veiny legs began to buckle.

The Priest of Quirinus was quick to his feet, followed more slowly by the two ex-consuls either side of him, and, stifling laughter, he caught the flailing old Equestrian. Lucius, with some reluctance, allowed himself to be helped back into his chair.

The 82-year-old, who the citizens of Rome had elected as Consul on two separate occasions, readjusted his toga and muttered something incomprehensible and toothless.

“Did you know, my father fought against Coriolanus?”

And a lone figure stumbled into the Forum from the tangled streets. She was almost dragging herself forward, coughing up soot from burned and smoke-poisoned lungs. Her patched and threadbare tunic at one point disintegrated into blackened threads, embedded in charred flesh. Her hair, black and tangled on one side, was gone from the other, and where it had been half her face had been eaten by the flames, and was now just bare flesh, stretched across a cavernous skull, glistening pink and then the deepest charcoal-black.

She fell to the ground. She was not moving any more. Her rasping breaths slowed, and became inaudible.

A few of the patricians cautiously got to their feet and began to edge forward, as if each was waiting for the others to move first.

“When are the Greeks getting here?”

the priest of Quirinus, who had caught Aulus Cornelius Cossus when he had fallen, was first to return to his seat. The others who had stood up followed, constantly glancing to one another for reassurance that this was the proper thing to do. The Patricians were still and silent.

And through the streets around the Forum, there were Barbarian cheers, and sword-hilts rapped on the rims of resonant shields.

Svartskerry: Part 1

See also: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

“How much do you know about what happened at Svartskerry?” Abigail asked, casually stepping off the pier into the little dinghy, bobbing in the murky harbour.

“I don’t know anything except it’s meant to be haunted.” Replied Sophie, tentatively stumbling onboard and quickly sitting down.

Abigail started the engine, and the boat began to pull away.

“It’s haunted as fuck. There’s a pretty cool story behind it as well.”

“Go on.”

“You see what happened was, while the lighthouse was still working, there were two people living there, right? There was the lighthouse-keeper, and his assistant. Now the lighthouse keeper was pretty standard, right? He was just a guy who’d used to be in the Merchant Navy. But his assistant was more interesting. The thing with his assistant is nobody knows who he was. The name he was calling himself was almost certainly fake, and he never told anyone his real name. But he didn’t t in at all. He was very well-spoken, obviously educated. Going off his accent, he was English. But he barely spoke to anyone. He kept himself to himself, and nobody knows how or why he ended up out here at all, working at the lighthouse. I guess they were just desperate for people to work there and didn’t ask many questions.”

“Then what?”

The boat roared through the voe, cutting through the bluegreen-brown waves, as the village became nothing more than a series of white specks beneath the lowering clouds.

Sophie would never admit it to Abigail, but she was starting to feel seasick.

“What’s that, Sophie? You want me to slow down?” Abigail taunted, over the hum of the engine and the roar of the waves against the bow.

“No, keep going. What happened to these lighthouse-keepers?”

The boat turned round a towering, grey headland, and into the open sea. Abigail, standing proudly, feet wide apart, at the helm, with the raging sea breeze whipping cold and salty spray across her face, turned her head back towards Sophie.

“So what happened was the two of them had been working there for a couple of years right? And one winter a storm blew up. You seen the storms out here? Waves 60 feet high crashing against the lighthouse, wind so strong it’s hard to stay standing. etc. etc. So anyway, the light’s on in the lighthouse one of these stormy nights, and in the morning it just stays on. And all day into the next night and the next day, until it starts to run out of fuel. So of course the lighthouse-keepers were meant to put the light out in the morning and light it at night and keep it topped up with fuel, so now people knew something was up.
“The problem was the sea was very rough, and there was no chance of landing a boat there, so they couldn’t get anyone to the lighthouse for a few days. When the sea had calmed down a bit and they got a chance, There was nobody there.

“They looked all over the lighthouse, but they didn’t find any traces of anyone. No bodies, nothing. Sort of a Marie Celeste kind of thing. The strangest part, though, was that the boat that they’d had moored at the jetty was still there. If the boat had been gone, you could have said they left in that, but it was still there. It was still tied up to the jetty. It didn’t look like there was any way they could have left, but there they weren’t.”

The shore was now nothing more than a black stripe on the horizon, beneath the brooding clouds. Abigail laughed as the little boat lurched up and down and up and down, bounding over the choppy water. Sophie tried to bury her head in her coat in an effort to keep of the frigid wind and biting spray.

“A few lighthouse keepers came and went, but none of them could handle it. The place was abandoned in the ’30s.”

Before long, their destination came into view – a mass of black slabs of rock, rising up from the water, and a dirty-white column piercing the menacing sky. Abigail turned off the engine, and the boat just bobbed, silently, as the waves rolled around it. She stepped up to the bow and stood there, like Washington Crossing the Delaware, as she surveyed the rugged skerry, looking for a landing site.

The rocks on the near side of the island had been beaten into a precariously balanced arch, and Sophie became briefly mesmerised by the waves rising up, crashing around inside it, foam racing up into the crevices of the layered rock and then back out. In and out and up and down and in and out…

“Hey! Sophie!” Abigail shouted.

Sophie lifted up her head and looked over to where Abigail was pointing. She couldn’t help but smile as she noticed a big, blubbery seal roll over and slide and drag itself off the rocks into the dark water.

Abigail returned to the helm, and the engine sputtered back into life. She began slowly steering the boat round the skerry, eventually pulling up alongside the rusty remains of an old iron jetty.

She vaulted up onto the bent metal platform. Sophie, eager to stand on firm ground again, tried to stand up.

“Hold on a moment, will you?” Abigail reprimanded her, as she secured the boat to a post, caked in rust, and did the same at the other end.

Sophie took her hand and heaved herself up, staggering onto the uneven surface. Abigail leapt back into the boat and pulled out a carrier bag full of food, a crate of lager, two sleeping bags and a hurricane lamp, passing them up to Sophie.

Slowly and cautiously, to avoid slipping on the rocks that gleamed with rain and spray, the two adventurers scrambled up towards the windswept lighthouse.