Trial by Trek

Aquila, Chapter 1, Excerpts

Slowly – ever so slowly – we trudge on up the steep hillside, from terrace to dilapidated terrace, all of us heavily laden, dripping with sweat. Crispus is no problem; he’s a follower. But it seems Hercules doesn’t like going just with me, without Dad to lead him. Perhaps he’s right to object. Why did Dad send me anyway? It’s a man’s job. And me all alone! It’s not fair of him, giving me such a difficult task at my age. Usually, we’ve been away for about two weeks; can I cope that long alone? What if something goes wrong? I might break a leg. Or get lost. Or robbed. Why didn’t I take Caesar along to protect us? And now Hercules is being awkward. “Come on, keep going! You had a drink five minutes ago.” I think he hates me. But sometimes I think nobody really loves me.

Hercules and me on a previous trek?
Hercules and me on a previous trek?

It wasn’t like this four years ago, the first time I went with Dad. Then, you couldn’t hold me back. I remember running on ahead, up and down, scrambling through the thick macchia and lying in wait to pounce out on him when he passed, exploring an overhanging rock, discovering new things at every turn. Dad was my hero then. He’d look after us all whatever happened. He was taking me to the big, exciting port I’d heard so much about: crowds, huge ships, the bustling market, taverns, no end of surprises.

. . .

So here I am now, curling up between a couple of goatskins to keep warm, as I settle down for the night in an ancient dry-stone shepherd’s hut. It’s the first night I’ve ever spent all alone and far from home. There’s nothing dangerous here, I know. No need to be afraid. But there are all kinds of strange sounds I never notice in the daylight. The howling wind is getting stronger; that must have been a branch breaking off a tree not far away. A little cracking noise just outside; was that one of the mules stepping on a dry stick – or something else? A life ends with a cut-off shriek, as some small creature falls prey to a marten, perhaps; well, he needs his food, too. And what’s that rustling behind the hut, as if something rather large is pushing it’s way through the macchia: a goat? a boar? I try to relax; after all, there’s nothing dangerous here. Now, also very near, the mournful hoot of a long-eared owl; and, sure enough, an answering call from far away. Why do these familiar noises startle me? Why do they sound so eerie when I’m alone at night on the hillside? Why am I so nervous? There’s nothing to fear, nothing dangerous here.

Weary, I drop into an uneasy slumber, only to leap up with a hammering heart as something brushes lightly against my cheek! What on earth was that? In here with me! Gradually my heartbeat returns to normal as I realize it was just a bat. Of course. There are probably several. I’m intruding in their bedroom. Why is it so hard to calm down, just because of some unidentified noises? There’s nothing dangerous around here.
But I can’t sleep. Should I ask Aquila to protect me? He doesn’t care.

Does anyone care about me? Would anyone miss me if something happened to me? if I never came home?

Is there a god – is there anything – out there at all, to hear my cries, to give me comfort, protection, help? Or is it that I – that we all – just crawl around on this island for a few years and then die, like so many beetles, never to be thought of again? There must be more meaning to life than just slaving away, repairing the never-ending damage done to the terraces and fences by storms and wild boar, toiling for days through the wild hills just to try to sell the miserably few items we manage to produce, scraping together enough food to keep the flesh on our bones. Why is Dad so bitter and so nasty to Mum and Little Eli? Why does he criticise me all the time? Is this all that life has to offer? No peace, no rest. What is life really about?

“Jupiter, Aquila – or whoever you are – help me! Protect me! And give me a reason to live!”

. . .

…lodged across the gorge

As I scout around, I now see the huge boulder that crashed down last night. It got lodged high up in the gorge. If I’m careful – and since there’s nothing else to do for the time being – I’ll climb up to have a look at it and see where it came from. The mules will be alright; they won’t go far in this narrow gorge.

It’s not an easy climb, since the cliff is nearly vertical in places. But it’s not that high and there are convenient ledges and cracks I can use. I grab a small tree but it gives way and I slide down, scraping arms and knees. Perhaps I should have got dressed first. I try a slightly different route but it’s a dead-end and I have to go back. Eventually, I find a way up to the boulder. It’s definitely firmly stuck between the two cliff faces, forming a kind of bridge. I can even see the cavity higher up on the opposite bank where it must have come from. Do I dare venture across with the raging stream below? I was never one for refusing a challenge. Gingerly, I crawl across and clamber up the steep slope to the gaping hollow where it had lived till now.

What I see almost takes my breath away: the back wall is covered with

Colourful crystals!

. . .

“You’re welcome, lad,” he says, chuckling. “You remind me of our own son, Petrus, when he was your age; he’s off studying in Rome, so we haven’t seen him for… How long is it now, Drusa? Three years, I guess!”

He, too, asks where I’m from and how my journey has gone. I tell him about the storm and the cave, but am careful not to mention the crystals. You never know. I’m rather puzzled that he makes a point of asking about my eagle talisman, and adds, “I’ve never been to the other side of Monte Capanne, but I have heard of Ceres.” That puzzles me. Is she so well-known? He doesn’t dwell on it, but it’s obvious that her influence in that area doesn’t please him at all.

“Lord, we thank you for our health and strength,” he suddenly calls out in a powerful voice. Who’s he talking to? “Thank you for protecting Silvanus in the storm and bringing him here as our guest. Bless this food to us now, in the name of Jesus.” A pause. “Right, there’s a bowl there. Help yourself to some pottage and focaccia and make yourself at home.”

I’m mystified, but feel truly welcome. Who was he talking to? A god I don’t know? I don’t dare to ask. But I really appreciate the well-seasoned vegetable soup, the spiced bread and the freshly pressed young wine. We chat a bit, but they notice how tired I am and soon show me the couch where I can sleep. I don’t need much persuasion.

. . .

Silvanus is by now two-thirds of the way to Fabricia. But you can view the entire route of his trek here. The cave next to the gorge, where he spent two nights, is labelled “Boulder”; “Hosts” is where he stayed with the friendly elderly couple.

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