My mobile rang as Fran and I were cycling along the river, and since I recognised Peter’s ringtone, I called to Fran to wait while I stopped and answered it.
“Jane? I need your help. Have you anything planned yet for this weekend?”
“This weekend?” My brother’s weekend plans were usually more exciting than mine. “No, not that I can think of. Why?”
“How would you like to travel back in time to Roman Britain for a day?”
It would have been difficult to grow up alongside Peter without his enthusiasm for all things Roman rubbing off on me, but I was not as deeply engrossed in it as he. I had only taken the minimum Latin requirement in school. Yet I had always attended his group’s re-enactment events when I could, and the idea of participating in one sounded enticing.
“I don’t have a costume,” I reminded him.
“Period clothing, you mean,” he corrected me. “That’s not a problem. You can have Sandy’s.” He told me his classmate had been rushed to hospital with a burst appendix. “And her best friend Betty isn’t coming either, so we have no girls at all. You wouldn’t know if Fran’s available and interested, by any chance, would you?”
“In fact, she’s standing right next to me. Let me ask her.”
I quickly told Fran what Peter’s call was all about. Even before I had finished, I could tell she was game. She had always liked my older brother, and she had accompanied me to a couple of their re-enactment events before.
“She’s coming,” I announced to Peter. “What are we supposed to do?” I activated the loudspeaker so Fran could her him too.
“You don’t need to do much,” he explained. “This is not like one of our regular events. In fact we’ve been invited to provide the appropriate atmosphere at the unveiling of a spectacular find they made in some recent diggings near the Wall. It’s all top secret to make it more dramatic. But what I mean to say is that all you need to do is walk around the place in period clothing. You’ll get to eat period food like the rest of us and the visitors, but we’re really doing just the minimum here. Are you still game?”
Fran nodded eagerly, which made me laugh. “Yes, we are.”
“Good, I’ll pick you up on Friday evening then. Bring your overnight things, we’ll be staying with my professor’s sister who lives in a village near the Wall. She’s got a bunch of mattresses in the attic, and there’ll be four other guys staying with us, Sam, Daniel, Jamie and Jacob. We usually room together with the girls when we’re at an event. You don’t mind that, do you?”
“Isn’t that an awful lot of people for one lady’s attic?” Fran interjected. “Sorry, hi, Peter, it’s Fran. Maybe we could book a room in a B&B somewhere? We’re way out of tourist season, it can’t be too expensive.”
“You haven’t seen the house yet,” Peter replied. “And the boys would be offended if you refused to room with them. They are disciplined Roman soldiers, very well-behaved.”
“Didn’t Roman soldiers behave like any other soldiers in history?” Fran asked. “Especially since they were in the army for twenty years or more before they could ever think of getting married and settle down?”
“I’ll correct you right away there, Frannie,” Peter said. I could tell by the sound of his voice, even over the phone, that he was grinning. The two of them had enjoyed teasing each other for years.
“Roman soldiers were only allowed to get married once they had finished their military service, that is right, but most of the time they would have taken what we’d call a common-law wife and had children with her long before that, and would then officialise the union as soon as they had left the army.”
“And I bet there were an awful lot who conveniently forgot about that last part,” Fran retorted.
“Before you get into a historical argument on the marital behaviour of Roman soldiers,” I interrupted them, “maybe we could just agree on the details, and you can continue your discussion on Friday in the car?”
“Right, sorry. How about we pick you up around 7pm? Jamie will be driving, and we’ll meet the others there.”
“Is there anything other than our overnight things that we should bring?” I asked. “Or for that matter, anything we should not bring?”
Peter thought for a moment before he replied. “Don’t bring too many valuables,” he finally said. “Credit card, papers, that kind of stuff. You’ll only be able to have a minimum of personal effects on you during the event, so don’t bring any credit cards and whatever you usually carry around in your purses. Keep it as light as possible. Just some cash and your mobiles, I’d say, and whatever you deem indispensable.”
We asked him a few more questions and then hung up. As we continued our ride, Fran wore a wide grin on her face. Her misgivings about sharing an attic with four Roman foot soldiers and one officer has visibly dissipated. Though I could not help thinking that she was speculating about that officer.
“These are your clothes. First the tunica, in fact it’s a long white T-shirt, then the stola, and on top, the palla.” Jamie, who had picked up the costumes from Betty’s house the night before, showed us the different items on Saturday morning.
“How do you wear this, is there a front and back?” Fran asked, holding up the thing Jamie had called a stola, and which consisted of two rectangular pieces of white cloth held together with safety pins.
“I don’t think so, unless you see a difference somewhere,” he ventured.
“And this one?” I asked, turning the palla around in my outstretched hands.
“Looks like a shawl,” Fran commented.
“That’s pretty much what it is,” Peter said, “and you can wear it any way you like. They come in a number of colours, and some even have hoods.”
“It’s not that cold yet,” Fran said.
“No, of course not,” Peter said, “but remember that for Romans, who are accustomed to the Mediterranean climate, Britain would always be cold even in summer. In fact, there’s a sort of coat that was worn specifically in Roman Britain in those days, it’s called the birrus britannicus.”
“I suppose Roman women didn’t have handbags?” I asked, looking in vain for pockets.
“No, but there’s these.” Jamie held out two small leather pouches.
“I warned you,” Peter said. “And please put your mobiles on vibration mode. All those visitors’ phones constantly ringing and playing music and simulating crying babies and stuff is irritating enough. But keep them with you just in case.”
“Why? Is the area where we go that big?”
“No, but there’s going to be an awful lot of people. Remember, there is a big ceremony, the heritage minister is coming, so the press will be there, and representatives of the university and the British Museum.”
“It’s something really big,” Jamie nodded. “Now, please, could you take these and change? I still need to get into my uniform myself, and then I have to help you with your hair.” He blushed as we stared at him.
Peter chuckled. “Jamie is our expert on hairstyle,” he explained.
“Are Roman women’s hairdos so complicated?” Fran asked.
“Well, Sandy has really short hair, so she’d wear a wig. That was hard to get into shape, I can tell you. Because of course it wasn’t a very expensive wig she’d got, just something she’d picked up at a cheap hairdresser’s sale or whatever. Anyway, get dressed, and we’ll see about the hair afterwards, right?”
Jamie went off down the attic stairs and presumably into the bathroom, to change into his Roman soldier’s uniform.
“Don’t you have to get changed too?” Fran asked my brother.
“I’ll change later, while Jamie does your hair,” Peter explained. “But unless you have any vital questions about getting dressed, I’ll disappear downstairs now to get a coffee.” He yawned.
Fran and I exchanged a guilty look. The boys had been up very late the previous night to set up the basic stalls or whatever was required, and had only come back to the attic when we were already fast asleep.
As Peter cluttered down the attic stairs, Fran resignedly began to take off her sweatshirt and pants that she had slept in and pulled the tunica over her head while I did the same. When we had both adjusted each other’s stola with the safety pins and draped the palla over our shoulders, we began to regret that there was no mirror in the attic.
“We’ll just have to wait till Jamie is finished in the bathroom,” Fran shrugged and picked up one of the leather pouches. “What do you think we should take?”
“Some money, and our mobiles, and the driver’s licence and house keys, I’d say. Actually, that’s all I brought.”
As I fitted my keys complete with their lucky charm keychain into the pouch, I realised there was a crucial element of our costumes missing.
“Jamie? Peter?” I called down the stairs.
“Yes?” Jamie’s muffled voice came from the bathroom. “I’ll be back up in a moment! Can you girls get your hair ready?”
Fran wordlessly threw me her hairbrush, and mechanically I began to disentangle my shoulder-length hair. A minute later heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs.
“Jamie,” I turned, but the sight of him distracted me completely. Of course I had seen him in his Roman uniform before, but always out in the open. In the close confines of the attic he looked a lot more imposing than I remembered.
“Yes?” he asked, unperturbed. I felt my ears burn, but at least I remembered what I wanted to say. “We don’t have any shoes.”
“Darn, I knew I’d forget something. Let’s see, is your stola long enough to hide your feet? What kind of shoes have you brought?”
Fran’s were a pair of sneakers which Jamie resolutely declared would not do, even were the stola long enough, which it was not. My ergonomic sandals received a slightly more approving look, but I was told we both needed to get appropriate footgear. With images of Roman soldiers catapulted out of their caligae by Asterix and Obelix in mind, I wondered what appropriate would mean.
When we finally arrived at the site half an hour later, it was already as busy as a beehive.
“Why are we trying so hard to look authentic with all this high-tech stuff around?” Fran asked upon seeing the tons of media equipment and a decidedly modern-looking marquee with security guard all around.
“Because they are the media, that’s their job. We’re the Romans, that’s our job,” Jamie replied. “Come, the Imp said he had some shoes to spare.”
Peter laughed at my expression. “Professor Cornelius, also called the Imperator.”
“Oh, your archaeology professor! But you don’t call him the Imp to his face, do you?”
“No, of course not. We just call him Imperator.”
The Roman-style tent they led us to turned out to be the re-enactment group’s military headquarters, and we finally met Peter’s professor who was one of its founding members.
“Salve,” he greeted us, and Jamie saluted sharply. “Ave, Imperator.”
“Ave, ave,” Professor Cornelius replied. I knew him by sight from the previous re-enactments of the group I had attended.
“Ladies, this is Cornelius, also called the Imperator,” Jamie said. “Obey his orders, or you’ll be quartered or thrown to the lions at the next circus games.”
“Panem et circenses?” Fran threw in quickly. Her store of Latin was even more limited than mine, though of course she was fluent in Italian.
“Panem today, only panem,” Professor Cornelius replied, smiling. “I take it you two don’t have Latin?”
I shook my head. “When I dropped Latin and took up French in school, I forgot almost all I’d learned. I guess I could get by as a tourist in Ancient Rome, but only barely.”
“I’ve never even taken Latin,” Fran said.
“But we told Peter, I mean Marcus,” I added.
“That’s alright, you won’t be required to talk. Just smile and say salve if someone greets you. We’re glad you two agreed to help out. Now, Sextus said you need shoes?”
“Sextus?” Fran was confused.
“Jamie’s Roman name,” I reminded her. I knew from Peter they all adopted Roman names to get fully into their personae. Some were so much into it that they would not react to their real names while in costume, and I was by now used to calling my brother Marcus whenever he was in uniform.
The professor led us over to a wooden chest in a corner that was revealed to contain a collection of various accessories, including several pairs of sandals.
“Call me Cornelius, please, and don’t worry about speaking Latin,” he told us. “We only do that among ourselves. Visitors don’t understand it anyway, most of them at least.”
“Where do you get those sandals?” I asked curiously. They were definitely not soldier caligae as I had feared, but delicately decorated ladies’ sandals.
“I make them,” he replied simply. “And they are not just decorative, they are meant to be used. Still I would be grateful if you could try to avoid the muddier parts of terrain around here.”
“I’d never step into the mud with something that beautiful!” Fran exclaimed, but the professor only smiled indulgently. “You will find there is more mud than you’d have guessed.”
He knelt down to fit us with the sandals, and for a brief moment I felt oddly like Cinderella preparing for the ball. Wrong period, I thought.
When he straightened up again, the professor looked us over. “Perfect. And very nice hair. Sextus has outdone himself again. But then, it can only be as good as the basic material.”
Fran took that as a compliment and blushed.
“Now all you need is Roman names, or have you chosen them already?”
We shook our heads.
“There weren’t proper women names in Ancient Rome, you know,” he said. “Women would use the feminine version of their fathers’ name. The best-known example is Caesar’s daughter Julia. Gaius Julius Caesar.”
“Julia is fine with me”, I said.
“Is that where some of our girls’ names come from, then?” Fran asked curiously.
“Yes, names like Julia, Claudia, Emilia or Cornelia can be traced back to Roman times.”
“I’ll take Claudia then,” Fran said quickly.
“Very good. Julia and Claudia it is,” he nodded.
“The minister’s arriving!” someone called.
“Already?” The professor hurried over to the tent entrance where Marcus poked his head and officer’s helmet in.
“They want us in place in five minutes,” he added.
“Right,” the professor said. “Come in, Decurio.”
He turned to the assembled Roman solders in the tent.
“The decuria, you stand in formation behind the minister, slightly off to the right, during the announcement. Decurio, after the formal part is over, move them around at leisure.”
Marcus saluted, and the group of about a dozen soldiers stood at attention. It was not the first time I saw my brother commanding his decuria, a unit of about ten legionaries, and I knew that they had slipped into their roles. If I addressed Peter or Jamie by their names now, chances were they would not react.
“Professor?” Fran began.
“Cornelius, please, my dear Claudia. You two just mingle with the spectators for now. The civilians at the stalls will provide food and drinks after the official part is over. We want the visitors to linger and get a feel for the atmosphere of Roman Britain at the time of Hadrian’s Wall.”
He picked up a leather bag and shook out a handful of coins. “Here, share those between the two of you. They will enable you to purchase refreshments from our civilians.”
“They are not real, are they?” I turned one over in my hand.
“Real, no, but as authentic as possible. We use them as tokens at bigger events, that visitors can exchange their modern pounds for and then purchase goods and food. Today everything is much smaller in scale, as you’ll know, Julia.”
I nodded. The re-enactment events I had been to involved a number of groups, many of which travelled from halfway across the country to participate in two or three days of Roman life, and often visitors were asked to dress up, being provided some basic clothes they could wear over their contemporary ones in order to blend in.
“But what are we supposed to actually do?” Fran asked. “And what if someone asks us questions?”
“You refer them to me or to Decurio Marcus. And you’re not supposed to do anything specific. Just walk around and pretend you’re two young ladies from the vicus.”
“The civilian settlement near the fort.”
“Imperator?” Jamie/Sextus was looking into the tent. “Someone from the ministry for you.”
“Alright, girls, off you go,” the professor told us.
We followed him outside the tent but he was immediately whisked off by a man in a suit with a badge around his neck.
“Where do we go?” Fran asked, looking around, but Jamie, or Sextus, I reminded myself, had disappeared again.
“Look, aren’t they impressive?” I spotted him slipping back into the line of the decuria’s formation.
Marcus had positioned them strategically behind the microphone-studded podium that was at the centre of the TV cameras’ attention.
“You hardly recognise him with that funny helmet of his,” Fran said, referring to my brother.
“If you knew how much time he spent getting it just right, you wouldn’t call it funny.” I took her sleeve and pulled her off to the side, away from the cameras, just as the minister and his entourage arrived from the opposite direction.
“Now we’ll finally learn what all this fuss is about,” Fran said.
“Must be something major if the minister himself comes up from Londinium.”
“Sorry, London, of course.” I laughed. This was infectious.
The minister stepped up onto the podium, and the audience applauded. The TV cameras rolled, as did a number of amateur video cameras and the unavoidable mobile phones, which reminded me to check I had turned mine to vibration mode.
“Darn, I forgot my phone in the car!”
“Never mind,” Fran told me, “you’re not supposed to use it anyway. Come, let’s stand over there.”
The minister began to speak, and suddenly everyone fell quiet.
“We have come here today, to the site of a Roman fort at Hadrian’s Wall, to present the public with a find more spectacular than the Staffordshire Hoard that was made earlier this year in the hills beyond the Wall.”
“More spectacular than the Staffordshire Hoard?” Fran whispered under her breath.
We had both seen parts of the Hoard as they were on exhibit in different museums in an attempt to raise money to keep it in a public museum. It was hard to imagine a more spectacular find.
I found myself eyeing the big marquee curiously. It was there the key objects of the find were on exhibit, accessible once the minister’s speech was over.
That could take a while, I realised, as he continued to talk about the significance of this find, the implications it had on archaeological research, government funding…
“I’ll just slip off to the car and get my phone,” I whispered to Fran. “It’s bound to be in full sight, and I don’t want to have to pay Jamie for the repair works if someone is tempted seeing it there.”
Fran nodded, and I hurried off towards the car park. Jamie had entrusted me with his car keys because his uniform had no pockets and he had lost his leather pouch. I unlocked the car and grabbed my phone which was indeed lying invitingly in the centre of the back seat where I had sat. I put it on vibration mode before I slipped it together with the keys into the leather pouch where it jangled against the replica sestercii.
I heard thundering applause which had to mean the minister had finished his speech. As I came to the marquee, I noticed the security guards had already opened the tent flap in anticipation of the crowd of curious visitors. Still for the moment everyone was grouped around the stage where the director of the archaeological site was now adding a few words, and the security guards were talking while sipping coffee.
One of them waved over to me. “Want a coffee?” he asked.
“No thanks,” I replied.
“You’re Roman, are you?” He winked.
“Roman-British,” I said, keeping a straight face. “My mother’s from the village over there, but my father’s stationed here at the fort.”
He laughed. “I see. So you don’t drink coffee because it hasn’t been imported yet?”
“No, just because I don’t like the taste. But thanks anyway!”
The exchange had given me a chance to glance past the guard inside the marquee which contained several partitions, either to channel the visitors or to reveal the treasure gradually, I guessed. Towards the far end I thought I had seen a silhouette of a man in Roman costume, or period clothing as my brother would remind me. What was he doing there?
“Oh we don’t have a monopoly on period clothing,” I told myself and went on to join Fran who was listening to the director of the site reminding us the Wall was nearly 2000 years old, its construction having begun under the Roman emperor Hadrian’s reign.
That should be obvious, what with its name, I thought, as I found my eyes wandering away towards the Wall that served as backdrop to the scene. It was partly overgrown, but the stone structure was still exposed at the top. Behind us were the remains of the Roman fort that I had visited several times on school trips and more often still with the family, given Peter’s obsession with all things Roman. I knew the fort, the museum and this section of the Wall almost as well as I knew the house where I had grown up.
Most visitors believed the Wall had served to keep the barbarians of northern England and Scotland out, but various historians had pointed out that the Wall would have been ineffective against a large-scale attack. It was far more likely that the Wall had been intended as a reminder of Rome’s power in this far-flung province, as well as a point to collect taxes and other duties from locals crossing it at the numerous gates, and to control their comings and goings.
I recalled how as a child I had struggled to understand the concept of taxes. The idea of a barricade to keep barbarians out seemed so much more plausible when you remembered that in those days the rolling hills beyond the wall were covered with deep dark woods where anything and anyone might be lurking.
The applause at the end of the director’s speech brought me back to the present.
“A pity we’re supposed to stay outside, it means we can’t go and see this fabulous treasure,” Fran said with regret. “No-one will care if there are a few Romans running around here anyway.”
“I saw a Roman inside the marquee on my way back,” I told her. “There are more costumed people here than just Professor Cornelius’ army contingent.”
“Why don’t we go over to the decuria, then?”
I grinned, suspecting it was really the Decurio she wanted to see.
“Ladies and gentlemen!”
We turned back to the podium, where a man in a suit with a badge around his neck was trying to keep the attention of the visitors. I was wondering who he was and if we were in for yet another speech.
“Here at Hadrian’s Wall, under the protection of the Roman army,” at which point he gestured to the decuria, “you may safely visit our Roman-British settlement and sample traditional food in the company of local inhabitants.”
“Come.” I recognised a cue when I heard one, and I pulled Fran over in the direction of the stalls. “I expect he’s trying to avoid everyone storming that exhibition marquee at once.”
“Roman-British settlement indeed,” someone muttered. “It’s a fort, a fort, by Jupiter, a fortified garrison! We don’t have the Roman army here, only auxiliaries.”
“Jamie?” Fran was startled.
“Sextus,” I corrected her automatically. “Has the Decurio given you leave?”
“No,” he grinned. “I’m the deserter of the day.”
“Just joking. Marcus asked me to bring you two over to the area where the civilians have put up their stalls.”
“We were just going there.”
“Then come on. Apparently there are some photographers who need a few more ‘locals’ for their pictures.”
The fort had been reconverted into what looked like a market, with stalls selling craft items and food.
“Are these part of your group too?” Fran asked.
“Yes, the civilian section,” Sextus replied. “I don’t think I know everyone there, we don’t mingle much. They are mostly history students, theoreticians, not hands-on archaeologists.”
“Do they sells drinks, too? I’m parched.”
“There’s spring water for free,” Sextus reminded her. “The source is over there behind those walls. No need to spend your sestertii on something you can have for free. Let me show you.”
“I know where the source is,” I put in. “We’ll go over there and be back in a moment for that photo op, alright?”
Sextus agreed, and I led Fran off. “Have you never been here before?” I asked in disbelief. I had always found it fascinating that the same source that had served the garrison in Roman days was still running now.
“Sure, with school, once,” Fran said. “I don’t have a brother in Ancient Rome, remember.”
I grinned. “Never mind. There it is. Let’s hurry to get back to the others. I want to know what this spectacular find is.”
As we returned into the fray, we found the photo op was over, and the entire decuria was milling about the stalls. Decurio Marcus was chatting with a guy selling dried figs.
“Did they really have figs up here?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “At some point or another, they might well have.”
“It’s a staple Roman food,” the vendor said, “and it’s a lot less fuss than some of the other stuff they ate in those days. We have to think practical too. Oh, by the way, I’m Gaius.”
“I’m Julia, and this is my good friend Claudia.” Fran chuckled at my words, but Gaius nodded seriously, then offered each of us a fig.
“Granted,” Marcus said. “Pigs’ ears in honey do sound tempting, though.”
“So when can we go see the find?” Fran asked. “What the minister said sounded pretty intriguing.”
“From what I understood, it’s not a gold treasure like the Hoard was,” Marcus said, “but instruments of some sort. They are not sure of their use yet, though.”
“Instruments?” I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Not the musical kind, right?”
Gaius laughed. “That’s wouldn’t be very spectacular. There are lots of finds of musical instruments all across the Roman world. He should have said artefacts.”
“Salve, Gaius,” a voice said from behind us. “Not much happening here. How about we go and line up at the marquee for a peek at the treasure?”
“Salve, Sextus,” Gaius replied. “I can’t leave my stall. If you go, will you tell me?”
We promised and followed Sextus past the one-room museum in the direction of the big marquee. The boys only took a moment to stop at the Roman tent to dump their uniforms, leaving them in Roman tunics and caligae.
As we arrived at the marquee, I groaned at the long line-up that had formed at the entrance. “It’ll be hours before we get in there!”
“You’re all from the re-enactment group?” someone suddenly asked, and we turned to find my earlier acquaintance the security guard smiling at us. “Come on, Romans can use the VIP entrance.”
Fran and I grinned at each other. At least we hadn’t dressed up for nothing.
“You’re the centurion, right?” the security guard asked Marcus. “That uniform looked really impressive, but I guess it’s a bit heavy, no?”
“Clunky, especially,” my brother replied, refraining from correcting the nice guard on his rank.
We let him lead us to the VIP entrance which was an opening in the side of the marquee, almost opposite to the main entrance. “Here, that way you get to the most interesting pieces first,” he told us.
We thanks him and slipped inside. This part of the marquee was still devoid of people, and as my eyes adjusted, I understood why. Further on, more security guards were regulating the flow of visitors, and no-one had yet made it to the last partition.
“Look at that!” Sextus exclaimed.
We all bent over one of the temporary exhibit glass cases. “The Vindolanda tablets!” Marcus exclaimed.
“Hello, what are you doing back here?”
We all jumped guiltily, but Marcus and Sextus relaxed when they saw who the speaker was. “Professor,” Sextus said, “it’s us, from Professor Cornelius’ re-enactment group. We were allowed to jump the queue.”
“Oh, yes of course, James Parton, isn’t it?”
“This is Professor Valerius, he works for Heritage, but he holds guest lectures at our university once a year,” Marcus told us.
“Professor, are you involved with this find?” Jamie/Sextus asked. “These are not the Vindolanda tablets, are they?”
“What are the Vindolanda tablets?” Fran whispered in my ear so that the professor wouldn’t hear her.
“The oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain,” I replied. “About as old as Hadrian’s Wall.”
“No, of course not,” the professor answered Sextus’ question. “This is a new find, probably contemporary. We are very excited though we still have to decipher them.”
“I imagine,” Marcus said. “So this is an original? Isn’t that risky to exhibit these precious objects here?”
“Oh, the greatest care has been taken,” the professor assured him. “And this is only a small part of the treasure. But we had to show something real to the public.”
“And the media,” I added, and he nodded.
“We need funding for our research, and money doesn’t grow on trees,” he admitted.
“Can you tell us more?” Marcus asked, “before the crowd comes in?”
The professor moved over to the second glass case. “Here is another tablet, and an objet we think is an amulet, a lucky charm, you know?” We bent over the glass case, and I tried to recognise at least a few letters of the writing, even if I wouldn’t be able to understand the Latin it was presumably written in.
“I know why I’m not studying archaeology”, I whispered to Fran, my eyes watering from the effort.
“Professor Valerius?” someone called.
“You’ll excuse me,” the professor said to us and vanished through the VIP entrance.
I drifted back over to the other glass case. “Maybe you’ll be able to study these later,” I said to Sextus and Marcus. “Doesn’t it take years until such finds are fully analysed?”
“Yes, and some never give up all their secrets,” Marcus said, squinting at the writing on the first tablet, as I had tried before. “Hey, I think I can actually read something there!”
“Be careful, don’t support yourself on that glass case,” Fran warned.
Marcus took he hands off but continued his deciphering.
“Jane, I mean Julia, look here,” Fran said. She was admiring the amulet. “It looks like there’s a part missing, doesn’t it?”
“Antique finds are rarely in one piece.”
“Yes, but I think it’s been cut out on purpose, or else the amulet was made intentionally to consist of two pieces.”
I looked over her shoulder. “Maybe the other part is somewhere else, and they haven’t realised they belong together?” she said, looking about hopefully.
“Foramen in tempore – ” I heard Marcus mumble excitedly, when suddenly the first group of visitors flowed into the partition, talking and taking pictures with their mobile phones.
Without concerting, we turned to the VIP entrance and fled.
“Phew,” Sextus wiped his forehead. “It’s warm in there. Let’s go get a drink.”
“Were you able to decipher something there?” I asked my brother.
“No, not really,” he said. “I thought I could read a few words but I can’t have been right. Never mind. Jamie’s right, let’s get a drink.”
I gave him a sharp look as we walked back to the fort. For him to slip out of his persona and call Jamie by his real name, something had to have disturbed him.
I paid it no more heed however, because I too was thirsty, and not for the spring water from the source but for the grape juice I had seen on offer at the stall next to Gaius and his figs.
“We can’t offer wine, obviously,” the vendor told us, “so we’re having grape juice.”
“Just as well,” Fran said, seeing Sextus down his second cup. “He’s our driver.”
“What do we do now?” I asked, looking around. Most people were still queuing at the exhibit marquee. “Are you going to put your uniforms back on?”
“I guess we should,” Marcus said. Sextus groaned.
“Come on,” my brother told him. “That’s an order!”
Fran chuckled which earned her a growl from Sextus. She stuck out his tongue at him. “Why did you sign up for the legion?” she teased him.
“The adventure, the travel, of course,” Marcus said. “The foreign girls!”
“You!” Sextus pretended to attack him, but Marcus blocked. “You’re lucky I don’t have my sword.”
Laughing, they went off.
“Foreign girls indeed!” Fran said.
“He was joking,” I reminded her. I knew she had a crush on my brother, and a remark like that, meant seriously, would have truly hurt her. Technically speaking, she was a foreigner, her grandparents having immigrated from Italy after the war.
“Come on, let’s go for a walk,” I suggested to distract her. “Have you been to the far side of the Wall?”
“I guess I must have been on my school trip,” she said, “but I can’t remember. Doesn’t it look much the same as from this side?”
“The Wall itself yes, but there’s nothing around it for miles, it’s much easier to imagine what it would have been like in those days, except of course the hills were covered in woods.”
“Oh yes, a bit of silence.”
We went off. Just in time I remembered to ask Gaius to tell Marcus and Sextus where we were in case they came looking for us.
As we walked through the former gate, I reminded Fran how high the Wall had been originally in this section.
She looked out over the hills. “Can you imagine what it must have been like to stand here once the gates were shut? Imagine you found yourself coming back in the evening and the gate was already closed.” She shuddered.
“There’d be a guard on duty who’d let you in if you knew the password, surely.”
“But what if not? Then you’d have to spend the night here, at the mercy of the barbarians.”
“They weren’t all barbarians. And strictly speaking, the Romans were the bad guys. I mean, they invaded and occupied the country, right? Those barbarians lived here before the Romans came.”
As we were talking, we were walking along the Wall, slowly moving away from the gate. After a while, we turned around and realised the gate was no longer in sight.
“Let’s go back!” Fran called, still immersed in her earlier scenario, “before they close the gate!”
“They can’t close the gate,” I reminded her, “there is no gate any more, just an open archway.”
Still, we began to walk back. I silently wondered why Marcus and Sextus hadn’t joined us. Had Gaius not told them where we had gone?
Suddenly I felt my phone vibrate in my leather pouch and took it out just in time to catch my brother’s call.
“Where are you?” He sounded excited, or breathless, I wasn’t sure.
“On the far side of the Wall, why?” I answered, a bit surprised at his tone.
“You better get back here.”
I switched on the loudspeaker. “Why? Has something happened?”
“One of the artefacts has disappeared. They are closing off the area and the police are on their way.”
I glanced at Fran who looked as shocked as I felt. “We’re coming.”
I rang off and we hurried back towards the gate. Suddenly Fran slipped in the grass and fell with a cry of pain.
“Don’t tell me you’ve sprained your ankle again!” She had managed to do that about three times over the past year, and her right leg was still a little weaker than her left.
Fran carefully touched her ankle. “No, not sprained. But I shouldn’t put too much weight on it just in case.”
She tried to stand, and I helped her up, but she found it difficult to hop one-footed over the uneven ground. With a sigh, I took out my mobile again.
“Peter, can you meet us? We’re a stone’s throw from the gate now, but Fran’s injured her foot again and can’t walk.”
I sat down beside my friend in the grass and waited.
“Jane! Fran!” we heard two familiar voices call. “Where are you?”
“I told them we were just off the gate!”
“Maybe they closed it off already.”
“Then Peter would call me.”
“We’re here!” Fran called out.
“Off to the left!” I added. “Sinistra!”
A few moments later we heard the clanging of the metal on their uniforms, and then Peter and Jamie came into sight.
“You’ll get us into trouble!” Jamie said. “they are closing everything off. If someone saw us pass the gate – ””
“Stop it,” Peter cut him of. “Can’t you see Fran’s injured? Besides, no-one seems to have thought of the gate yet.”
Fran smiled at him gratefully.
“Come on,” Peter said, putting his arm under hers. “Jamie, take her on the other side. There we go. The right foot again, is it?”
Fran nodded, biting her lip as her foot accidentally touched a bump in the ground. “Ouch!”
“Come on, it’s not far,” Peter encouraged her as I walked along behind them.
Then just as we reached the gate, someone charged through and bumped into Jamie who lost his balance and made all three of them topple over, Fran screaming in pain as she fell on me and Peter on top of her.
How stupid is that? I thought. Now her ankle’s sprained for sure.
Suddenly a bright light blinded me, and Fran’s moans as well as Jamie’s curses faded away. I wondered why I was losing consciousness. I hadn’t hit my head or anything, and I was still able to think clearly.
The bright light faded to darkness, and I carefully opened my eyes. I was still lying on the ground, and Fran and Peter were still lying partly on top of me, but the darkness remained.
“Peter? Fran? Jamie?” I asked in a whisper.
“What was that?” Peter asked, carefully rolling off to the ground. “Fran, I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” she mumbled. “But what was that?”
We sat up in the grass and tried to discern something, anything, in the seemingly impenetrable darkness around us. Something was wrong, very wrong, and we all felt it. Then the moon appeared from behind a cloud and we stared. Where before had been the grass-covered stones that were the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, there was now a five-metre-high white wall rising up into the night sky. Turning my head, I saw only trees where the green hills had been only moments earlier.
“Where are we?” Fran whispered.
“That’s still the same wall,” Peter said matter-of-factly, having got to his feet and stepped up to inspect the wall. “I think the question is not where we are, but when we are.”