Tuesday 13 October 2020

October - the Halloween Month. A magical place in Ancient Roman Bath

 The ancient world believed in magic. In my novel "Flavia's Secret", set in ancient Roman Bath, the heroine Flavia takes the hero Marcus to a place that was rumoured to have belonged to a sorcerer. Here is an excerpt of what they found.

Leaving the carter in one of the side alleys close to the Great Bath, Flavia darted ahead through the ever-increasing crowds and took Marcus off in the direction of the small hot spring sacred to the healing god Aesculapius, a part of the city he had rarely been in. She sped past the tall, oval, roofless walls of the small healing spring, her bright hair visible to Marcus even among the throngs of visitors and worshippers who gathered to make offerings and offer prayers to Aesculapius. Coming to a cross-roads, she glanced back to check that he was still following and walked quickly down a narrow, unpaved side street.

‘Not far,’ she said as he caught up. She slowed as they reached the high boundary wall of a private house. The back boundary wall, Marcus registered, as Flavia looked up and down the street.

She stepped close to him and muttered, ‘When no one is close we climb over the wall. The house is deserted,’ she added.

Marcus stifled amazement and questions and waited for Flavia’s tense, ‘Go!’ before launching himself at the high wall.

There were jutting stones and easy hand-holds in the weathered stone and Flavia climbed as swiftly as he did, nimbly reaching the flat top of the wall and rolling over the other side. He did the same, dropping afterwards into the garden of the deserted house.

Flavia came beside him. ‘Will you wait here? Just for a moment. I don’t think there will be any of my people here at this time, not so early in the morning when there are many tasks to be done, but even so I need to make sure we are alone.’ She gave him a considering look. ‘You would alarm them.’

‘I will wait.’ Folding his arms, Marcus leaned back against the boundary wall.

It was hard for him to watch her leave, darting between the bushes and trees of the overgrown garden, but he knew that he must. She had to know that she could trust him.

Her footsteps were soon lost in the clamour of the unseen streets around them and in the fallen leaves and bare earth paths of this strange, deserted place.

The garden was wildly overgrown, full of straggling rose bushes with wizened red hips and unclipped rosemary and lavender bushes. The little of the house he could see through the bushes and the spreading branches of an oak tree growing in the centre of the garden looked very old. He could just make out some sagging timber walls with peeling paint and a broken-tiled roof.

‘What is this place?’ he asked when Flavia returned, skirting round a rosemary almost as tall as she was.

‘It is supposed to be haunted by the last owner, who was rumoured to be a sorcerer,’ she answered calmly. ‘I think that is why it is still deserted. That, or the man’s family cannot agree what to do with it. A slave showed me how to come here many years ago, soon after I had lost my parents and before Lady Valeria bought me. I think he was sorry for me. He said it was a place of safety and peace for slaves, that if the owner did haunt the house and grounds, he gave no trouble to slaves. The slave told me that we could be ourselves here and no one would see.’

She tilted up her chin, the rising sun lighting her red lips and rose complexion, making her look prettier than ever. Marcus forced himself to attend to what she was saying.

‘The slave made me promise never to tell anyone else about this place—except for one person, who must also swear the same.’

‘And that’s me?’ Marcus asked, astonished and amazed afresh, honored and touched by her confidence.

She smiled at him: an old smile, a secretive smile that he had sometimes seen on his mother’s face. ‘It is safe to go on: no one else is here,’ she said. ‘I will show you round.’


* * * *


Walking quickly, to show that she did not regret her decision to share this place with him, Flavia returned along the twisting beaten-earth path between the rampant rosemary and lavender bushes. One more twist of the path and they reached the heart of the garden and its startling secret—a private outdoor pool, its shimmering waters steaming in the sun.

‘By Mithras, what a place.’ Looking around, Marcus halted beside her, dropping onto his knees to test the waters of the deep, lead-lined pool. ‘It’s hot!’ he exclaimed, shaking moisture from his hand.

Flavia pointed to a large lead pipe leading away from the pool in the direction of the deserted house before it was lost in the luxuriant undergrowth.

‘We think the owner fixed a conduit somewhere off the spring waters of the Aesculapius spring and directed some of the thermal water here,’ she explained. ‘The pool drains somewhere, too, but we do not know where.’

Marcus sat back on his heels. ‘We?’

‘Those of us who come here, when we can.’

‘Your own private bathing place.’ Marcus jumped to his feet again and walked around the marbled perimeter of the pool. ‘I am surprised nobody has tried to make money with it.’

‘We are careful who we tell,’ Flavia said, squashing disappointment at Marcus’ mercenary approach, but he was staring across the sun-gilded water at the leaf-strewn timber portico leading to the deserted house.

‘I am not surprised at that,’ he said quietly. ‘It is beautiful.’

He watched a small breeze tumble a bronze oak leaf along a small marble walkway leading from the semi-derelict portico to the edge of the pool. ‘Mysterious, quite eerie, but also...comforting. As if you are in an entirely different world.’ He turned about, pointing to the sparkling spiders’ webs on the lavender bushes, rimed with heavy dew. ‘Somewhere forgotten by the rest of the city. A place where magical things become possible.’

‘You understand,’ Flavia whispered, breathing out in relief.

He smiled. ‘It is more than likely that the old owner saw an easy chance to grab some free hot water, but what he has made here, what time has made...I am not surprised he was thought to be a sorcerer.’

Marcus held out both hands to her. ‘Thank you for sharing this, and be assured—your secret with be safe in my keeping.’

Flavia walked to the edge of the secret pool and joined him in studying the waters.

‘It has hardly changed,’ she murmured. As if from far off, she caught a faint whiff of incense wafting from the altars close to the spring shrine to Aesculapius. Listening, she could hear nothing of the city outside the high boundary walls, only her own breathing and the creak of the bare-branched oak tree. A raven was perched in its branches, preening itself. She and Marcus were standing away from the shade of the empty house, in a clear patch of warm flagstones where the bushes had not yet encroached. The sun was warm on her skin and Marcus’ hand around hers warmer still.

Flavia's Secret 

Dare Celtic Flavia trust her new Roman Master Marcus? 

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