We reached the crossroads late the next day. It actually had a name, Falacrīnum, after the birthplace of the Emperor Vespasian and the later Emperor Aldus. Being the birthplace of two wearers of the Purple made it a natural-born tourist trap, so it was a pilgrimage site in Italy. In Agus, it was merely a small town that was the home of a coven, but one that was well-respected, even famous locally. The sick, the lovesick, and the unhappy came to them. They functioned as doctors, matchmakers, counselors, and comforters. They made potions, poltices, amulets, and charms. Everyone was convinced that they worked.
When I was in Afghanistan we’d occasionally trade live ammunition with the locals. They’re a ferocious bunch, born warriors, not soldiers. That means they grimace a lot and they strut, but they don’t have much in the way of discipline. Soldiers are trained to discipline, and given roughly equal numbers will beat warriors every time. Thing was, lots of the dead guys on the other side wore amulets to protect them against what killed them. That told me they didn’t work. West African shootouts, like in Democratic Republic of Congo or in Liberia a few years ago, are carried out by guys who had amulets that were supposed to make them invisible, or impervious to bullets. They didn’t work either.
It was hard to keep my disbelief suspended, but I tried hard. Nevianne believed in it, and I believed in Nevianne, even if it meant not disbelieving five impossible things before breakfast.
The Falacrīnum coven did us well. They gave Nevy’s Mom enough cash to feed us and otherwise care for us on the way to the capital, and they arranged rental of two carts, each with a pair of horses to make the trip. The horses were nags that couldn’t walk much faster than we could, and the carts were two wheelers without springs, but they’d be a lot easier on our feet, even if they would be harder on our backsides. We overnighted in an actual guest house, just off the forum. Nevy and I and her Mom and Blæda shared a room and Nannakussi and his family shared one. Frugal Leofgif thought the Nannakussi family should stay with us, but it wasn’t to be; our room wasn’t big enough to accommodate seven people, even if one of them was three feet tall. We were tight with four people in one bed. I slept on the floor. Gallantry is highly overrated. Just ask my back.
We left Falacrīnum early the next morning. Nannakussi drove one cart and Leofgif drove ours. I had never in my life driven a horse cart. I was pretty sure I couldn’t pass the test for a carter’s license without a bit of practice, and the language barrier precluded coherent instruction. I sat next to my intended mother-in-law, feeling foolish, while she drove, watching what she did so that I could take over at some point. Nevy and Blaeda sat in the back, talking to each other and to occasional passers-by. We couldn’t join the conversation because iron-rimmed wheels are damned noisy on a stone road.
Our two or two and a half miles an hour rate of travel now jumped to a blinding four per hour. It made for a long day, but not as long as it would have been without the nags. We had about ninety miles to cover to what was known as the Kent Island Narrows in my reality stream. We made about thirty a day, with stops for meals and potty and such. I actually did learn how to drive a two-horse cart. Mom was able to go sit in the back and Nevy and Blæda took turns entertaining me. Both women were intensely curious about my “realm.”
“Don’t get your hopes up too much, my lady,” I had to warn my beloved. “We don’t know if I’ll ever be able to find it again.”
“Between us, we will,” she assured me. “When you believe in magic, I’ll be able to send you there, just like I brought you here.”
“That sounds promising,” I told her happily. “How are you going to come along?”
“By holding thy hand, of course.”
“Don’t you need your hands for the spell?” I asked, trying hard not to disbelieve. “And you have to be naked, right?” The Really Later Roman Empire was much more lax in its standards for public nudity than my reality stream.
“Aye, ‘tis the truth. Thou can’st hold my dress and shoes and touch me when I tell thee.”
I had a brief vision of arriving at The Cove with a naked blonde in the middle of a busy day – a naked blonde with no ID, speaking a language that was incomprehensible to most, and even to them only with intense concentration. Or, considering our direction of travel, we could arrive in downtown Annapolis.
We’d figure something, assuming I could make myself Believe, and the belief wasn’t in vain. After all, she had Seen us in my house in Selbyville, and in my shop, had been able to describe them to me.
So I told her all I could think of about her future home and how things work. For most of it she had no comprehension at all. Stoves without wood? Sure, fellah. Ice machines? Washing machines? Dryers? And carts that could go seventy miles an hour without a horse? Airplanes?
In return she filled me in on detail of a reality stream that had split from ours, as close as I could tell, at about the time of Constantine. The Emperor was (and remained) the Pontifex Maximus, which made him the head of all religions within the State. Nevy hadn’t heard of the Battle at the Milvian Bridge, which may or may not have been significant with a couple thousand years of history to keep track of. A few years later, Julian, the last of the pagan emperors, had established, and enforced, parity among sects. In my reality stream Julian had been relatively obscure, ruling for three years and dying in battle. Here he ruled for thirty two years and died in bed. By the time he passed on there was a Department of Religious Affairs in place that kept any one sect or faction from establishing dominance over the others.
It would have made a really nice, liesurely three day trip. The weather had turned perfect, the company was good, the steady “clip-clop clip-clop” of the horses was relaxing. The only fly in the ointment was the gibbets. Most were simple hangings. Some were strung up by other than the neck, usually by one or both ankles, some in even more inventive ways, like by one ankle. They went up and they stayed there until they died, then rotted away, and their bones fell apart. The displays of cruelty were meant as warnings to the populace at large, courtesy of Governor Rægan. Palégos, according to Nevy, inflicted even worse tortures. They were a reminder of why I was there. I won’t say the locals ignored them, but they spent a lot of time not looking at them or smelling them.
We dropped the horses and carts off at a village by the water and caught the ferry to Kent Island. I forget what it was called locally, if it was called anything special. We got down and walked again, to Apollonia Maior. A couple hours later we were on another ferry, headed for the provincial capital.
The area was beautiful. It was a prosperous and productive agricultural and fishing area. Early June is the prettiest time of the year, before the heat and humidity of July sets in. Flumen Martii was the big city to all of our crew. It was spread out along the left bank of what to me was South River, starting out as a dribble of farms raising corn and wheat, then turning into hamlets and then larger villages until we hit the walled city. The population was mixed Saxon and native, heavily intermarried, and Latin, also intermarried but not quite as much even at this late date. That was because of the continual influx of administrators from Europe. The Romans never had any reservations against intermarrying with the local populations, especially the local aristocracy. Caesar and Marc Anthony both went for Cleopatra, and Galla Placidia was married to the first Visigoth emperor, Athaulfus (Adolf) the Great.
We just walked into the city along with everybody else. If there was a Be-on-the-Lookout on us it wasn’t very effective.
“Where to now?” I asked when we were headed for the forum.
“The Church of St. Simon Magus,” Leofgif told me, looking around like she’d never seen a city so grand, which she hadn’t. I’d have put the population at around fifteen thousand, twenty at the ouside. The girls were all really impressed by some three-story buildings just off the forum. I was afraid Winky was going to dislocate her neck, the way she was taking in the sights. Nannakussi was maintaining his dignity, manfully trying not to play tourist.
“’Saint Simon Magus?’” I asked, feeling blasphemous just saying the words.
“Yes,” she replied in a “what’s wrong with that?” tone of voice.
I wondered why they hadn’t named it “The Church of the First Heretic.”
“The archbishop is learned in the ways of magic, my love,” Nevianne explained to me. “He was highly recommended to help you by the coven in Falacrīnum. He can help the rest of us expand our knowledge as well.”
We had to ask around to find out where the Simonian basilica was located. A guy who was painting the front wall of the synagogue happened to know where it was. We set off in search of it, got lost twice despite the town’s regular street layout, and arrived at a seedy-looking wooden structure that housed the church on its second floor. I’d been expecting a grand stone building, what we think of as a basilica in my reality line. I wasn’t fond of the neighborhood. It looked like a breeding ground for cutpurses and footpads and such. The condition of the streets promised periodic cholera epidemics, with maybe occasional typhus for variety.
The “basilica” was just a second floor meeting room. There weren’t any statues or paintings. It turned out they were Reformed Novatians and didn’t believe in such fripperies. They shared the space with a tiny Monophysite congregation. Between the two, they may have represented the entire Christian population of the town.
Since he was a Simonian, I had expected the archbishop to look something like I’d always imagined the original Simon Magus, which was dark and squinty-eyed and scheming, of highly dubious honesty. This guy looked like he was about a hundred and ninety two years old, bald except for a long fringe of wispy white hair. He had rheumy-looking pale blue eyes and several teeth left in his head, all in need of major dentistry. His liver spots had liver spots. He wore a gray tunic, no different from what most men wore, that was spotted with whatever he had had for breakfast. He looked like a strong sneeze would blow him away. His wife was about his age and they looked so much alike you had to look at what they were wearing to tell them apart; women’s tunics were longer than men’s. The toga and the stola were for formal occasions. His name was Simon and hers was Helen, just like the original Simon Magus.
He was going to give me magic lessons.