Candace heaved a heavy sigh as she raised herself from the crouched position she had placed herself in for most of the morning. Sitting back on her heels, she turned her eyes to the clear blue sky above. Just one cloud would have been blessing, a chance for shade from the hot sun. The edges of the roof around the atrium gave some relief, but at this particular time of the day, it gave no reprieve.
It had seemed more like a lifetime, rather than only a few years, since she joined the excavation team at Pompeii. And no matter how many times she participated in fieldwork, it never got easier. Her once pale skin that she’d lived with for most of her life in Washington state back in America had tanned and no longer burned as badly as it had that first summer in the ancient city.
But all the nights applying aloe to her seared skin were worth it for the chance to be part of a great cause as this was.
Much of the city had already been excavated over the last few centuries, but they had recently discovered this new villa in Region IX of the site. The vestibule was currently being exhumed. From what she gathered in the excited talk of the university interns, the walls looked to be beautifully painted. Candace would have much rather been down there, taking the first peeks of the murals than up here in the baking sun of the peristyle’s atrium.
Her gaze fell downwards onto the reason she was there in the middle of the house rather than towards the street. They filled the body cast some time ago, but they had reason to believe artifacts could be unearthed from around it. So far, Candace had found nothing. Not even a lamp, which was often found around the victims of that long ago eruption of Vesuvius.
Candace wiped her dusty arm across her sopping brow and stared into the grey eye sockets of the cast. It seemed strange that the body should be found this far above the ground floor of the villa near the roofline. The body was lying flat on its back as if the person had been gazing up at the darkened sky on that fateful day, rather than cowering for their life in the fetal position as so many other bodies were shriveled into. She had seen bodies positioned this way only a few times, but never like this. Even the expression seemed at peace.
The casts of the bodies that littered the streets of Pompeii were haunting to say the least. The spirit of the people had left the body over two thousand years ago and their bodies had long decayed under the several feet of ash and debris that covered the city in the tragedy. But to Candace, giving the victims a face, even an obscure one without defining features, brought them to life once more.
This was the reason she wanted to become an archeologist. She wanted to learn their stories and honor the lives they lost.
Pompeii had captured her imagination from an early age and refused to let go. As a child, her parents grew concerned that she studied such morbid topics when she could have been outside playing with the neighborhood kids. Even now, when she could have been taking a break for lunch, the cast of this poor soul beckoned her to keep digging, to keep searching. Perhaps somewhere amongst the layers of pumice, the key to their story lay waiting to be discovered. It was too great of a pull to resist.
Candace settled back into her crouch and gently scraped her spade over the dirt, brushing away the layers around the body’s shoulders. She had grown so used to the sound of the metal skidding across the debris that her ears had become tuned to catch any variance in pitch.
It didn’t take too much longer before she heard the spade clang against another metal piece. Candace, heart racing, dropped the spade and began to use her fingers to claw away the excess dirt from where she heard the spade strike.
Slowly, an artifact emerged. A round piece of jewelry. She recognized it immediately as a Roman fibula, something the ancient people used to pin their clothing together. And this piece was extraordinary.
Taking her brush tool, she carefully dusted away the ash to reveal an intricately crafted setting with what she could only guess was a carnelian stone in the center. They had found many of these at Pompeii and all over other Roman sites. She could see, just like the others, that there was an image carved into the gem. But no matter how vigorously she brushed, she couldn’t make out the relief.
Looking down to the body cast, she silently asked, “Who were you?”
Pompeii, 79 AD
The forum was crowded that day as Decimus and Titus weaved their way through the throngs of pedestrians, worshippers and merchants.
Decimus, already in a disgruntled mood was not amused by the way the masses were congesting the walkways. The beast wasn’t pleased either. Too many people, too many sights, noises and smells. It was too much pressure.
A growl rumbled in his throat and he could feel the beast panic. His eyes flash gold and Decimus stopped to take a breath. Eyes closed, Titus stood beside him like the faithful servant that he was.
Panthia set him on this errand by complaining that she had no help in the kitchen. With his constant demand for roast meats at seemingly all hours of the day, she was feeling spread thin between the cooking and cleaning chores at the villa. Titus’s professional suggestion was to purchase another slave to help balance the load.
Decimus didn’t want to own another slave. He owned four now, not including the men he hired to run the winery for the business. It’d been eight years since he began this journey and he felt more strained than ever before. With the burden of caring for the well being of more than just himself and managing a growing business, it was a wonder he hadn’t snapped under the pressure long ago.
But the gentle, bony hand on his shoulder reminded him of exactly why he hadn’t given up just yet. Titus had become more than just a servant. He was a true comrade and invaluable help in his life.
“Is it the beast, master?” he asked in hushed tone.
Yes, Titus knew. It didn’t take him long to find out in the beginning. And since then, they had worked to keep it a secret. Unlike Marcus, his lanista from long ago, Titus did not hold the secret over his master’s head like an execution blade ready to fall at the slightest grievance between them. Titus somehow respected him without fearing him. Why was still a mystery, even to Decimus.
“Yes, just give me a moment.”
Titus was patient and waited, guiding pedestrians around him, ensuring that no one set his master off by an accidental bump of the shoulder.
The beast simmered down and Decimus felt he was able to continue.
They made their way to the slave quarters near the forum. Decimus could already smell the stench of fear, sweat and misery. The poor souls that huddled together in captivity like frightened animals were the last thing Decimus wanted to see again. Having been there himself, he felt true empathy for their plight.
He passed them by. Men, women and children from all different countries both domestic and foreign chained together behind bars in a prison-like corridor. The men and young boys put on a brave face, probably hoping they would be chosen for a life in the arena. Decimus would not wish such a thing on any human. The women and little girls did not hide their fear. Decimus expected nothing more.
“Keep your eye out for a woman who could be a good aid for Panthia,” he advised Titus as they continued their search.
“Many of these woman are foreign, master. What if she doesn’t speak our language?”
“Then we will either learn hers or if she’s willing, she will learn ours. I’m not concerned about her origins.”
They continued on, but Decimus couldn’t find one slave that suited him. Titus offered suggestions, but after looking them over, Decimus always found something amiss.
It wasn’t that Decimus had high expectations. He simply didn’t want to buy another human being. He never agreed with the idea of slavery, but it seemed to be a necessary evil in days like this.
When Decimus had almost given up hope for finding a house slave, his senses caught onto something peculiar. It was odd and yet, beguiling. He followed it relentlessly until he came to one part of the slave barracks that was nearly empty.
Behind the bars, he saw her. She was sitting on the ground, her darkened face smudged with dirt and knees curled up to her chest. Her long ebony hair was a matted tangle pulled back away from her face. Her sable eyes, rimmed by dense lashes were exotically shaped, narrow and enticing. He recognized her as a woman from the southern border of the Roman Empire.
She was thin, but not too frail with a full womanly figure. Her eyes were turned away, focused on a spot somewhere inside the barrack. Decimus stood deathly still and breathed in the scent that led him to her.
It wasn’t fear. It was the lack of fear. She had a bold, determined expression as if she were angry at the world and everyone in it. He could see the glow of stubbornness in her that would deter most slave owners immediately. Such a slave could not be taught, could not be tamed.
Her strong, silent spirit called out to the beast within him. They were equals. He didn’t know her name, he didn’t know where she was from or what language she spoke, but he knew that they were equals. She was not cursed like he was, but there was still a fire in her soul.
When she looked up and their eyes met, Decimus was lost. Her gaze was hard and cold, and he stared back with equal severity. She did not soften or quiver under his stare. She was strong.
He turned to Titus and snatched the money pouch from his servant’s belt.
“But, master – ”
“No,” Decimus said. “I will not need you telling me I can’t spend what I wish. I will have her.” He jerked his chin down from where they came. “Go get that Grecian slave further down the way that you picked out. She will do for Panthia’s aid.”
“Then what is this girl for?” Titus asked, pointing to the exotic beauty in the barracks that had captured his master’s heart.
“I have a special purpose in mind for her. I made a promise to Quintus, your former master, some years ago and I intend to make good upon that promise.”
Without any further questions, Titus turned and hurried away.
Decimus looked back to the slave woman and saw that her hot gaze was still trained upon him like a tiger that watched its prey.
Yes, the fire was in her and Decimus intended to keep it that way.