She liked him on his knees in front of her, the earnest look of concentration, the way his nostrils flared in passion. But this time it was all through fear, Quintus telling her of the anger of the Gods, how the hills above the city rumbled with thunder even on clear days. He told her of fissures in the rock through which issued forth the very stench of Hades to choke the throat and burn the eyes.
Worst of all were the shepherds.
‘Dead,’ Quintus said. ‘The very souls sucked from their bodies, and not a mark to be seen.’
Julia sipped her wine and smiled in what she hoped would pass for devout sympathy. This almost man was growing tiresome. Where was the bundle of joy who had come to her garden straight from training to show her the latest sword thrust or wrestling move? Why was his tanned young body not slick with sweat and stripped to his undershorts as she clapped delight at his prowess?
Quintus shuffled closer to her couch. His voice was close to a whisper.
‘The Gods are angry at our sin.’
He was staring at her, eyes clear and wide. Julia swung her legs from the couch to sit up and face him.
Quintus ducked away. His voice became that boy’s mumble she was used to.
‘Our sin, in the city, I mean. Men and women, together.’ He dared a look, and added, ‘Fornicating together.’
The slaves in the garden jolted from their day dreams as Julia laughed.
‘Tell me,’ she said. ‘What else is new?’
Quintus showed her his earnest look once more.
‘The priests command offerings to the Gods in the hills.’
‘And in the dead of night appears a priest with a spade…’
‘Wine and oil, poured into the very soil,’ Quintus said.
Julia’s smile disappeared. A priest that didn’t want gold, that would rather see good wine ruined than spirited from the temple to the market?
One hour later they passed through the Porta Vesuvio gate on the road into the hills. Joy was in the face of Quintus as he drove the horses, leaning right or left as they took bends in the road threaded terraces of barley and wheat.
They drove to that roofless shepherd’s hut. Quintus made the offering, pouring out an amphora of wine for each sin, and if he noticed there were six not five he said nothing. She took the wool blanket into the hut and spread it on the ground. She stepped from her toga and then let fall her silk undertunic.
She called for Quintus then lay on the blanket, blindfold once more around her eyes, trying her hardest to conjure up an image of a husband not seen in eight years.
His running footsteps gave way to a gasp, and then silence.
‘Come to me, Quintus.’
‘My lady, we cann-‘
‘Dawdle and the gates of Pompeii will be barred to us. Then it is you that shall remain outside to guard the chariot through the night.’
And he came, and this time when the earth moved it did not stop.
Barley is a major cereal grain grown in temperate climates globally.
Pompeii was a Roman city engulfed in AD 79 by ash and lava, when the previously peaceful Mount Vesuvius above turned out to be a bloody big volcano.