The voice bellows in my ear. I jump and turn around to find the source, but realize it’s coming from inside my head.
“No need to yell,” I scold, somewhat grumpily. My stomach is churning, and I still dislike the blurred vision and spinning head that accompanies each time-hop.
“Sorry.” Matt’s voice is apologetic. “I’ve been trying to contact you for a while, but I couldn’t get a connection.”
“Well, I’m here, what do you want?”
“We’ve found the source of the virus,” he explains. “I’m running the clean-up program now, so it shouldn’t be long before we establish the recall link.”
“You mean you can finally get me back?” Relief rushes through me. I’ve been travelling for an eternity, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen my kids. At least, I think it’s been ages. I’ve journeyed across millennia, but I could have been missing mere hours back in my own time.
“That’s the plan. Just a couple more jumps, I think. You should be landing now.”
As if to confirm his words, my vision begins to clear. Yellow lights dance in front of my eyes, and voices rise around me as if someone’s turning up the volume.
“Make it quick,” I say to Matt. Although the thrill of travelling through time hasn’t quite worn off, I’d prefer the adventures to be my decision rather than being forced upon me.
“Over and out.” The shell in my head hisses, crackles, and his voice fades.
I blink, and the view before me sharpens into focus.
I’m standing at the edge of a crowd in a huge stone building. The ceiling is supported by large pillars carved and painted with vines and leaves. When I look down, my gaze falls on a mosaic floor made from tiny pieces of tile. The picture is mostly hidden beneath people’s feet, but they can’t hide the beauty of the craftsmanship. I’m pretty certain it’s Roman, although these floors have been found in Europe from Cornwall to Germany, so I could be anywhere.
I look around the building, and I’m stunned by the amount of candles I can see. On every statue, every wall, every shelf, there are hundreds of white candles, filling the air with flickering light and a veneer of smoke that drifts slowly to the high ceiling. The candles highlight everyone’s faces, and their eyes shine as they look up to the figure on top of the dais at the front.
I turn to look at him, and flinch as I see him holding up blood-covered hands. Something gross hangs from them—innards of some description—and my stomach clenches.
Next to me, a person sniggers. “You have turned whiter than milk. You have such a weak stomach!”
“It is the smell,” the person whose head I’m inside says in a deep, male voice. I have to agree—I’ve never liked the odour of fresh blood.
The man on the dais—a priest, I’m gathering, judging by the way he’s just sacrificed the lamb lying dead at his feet—declares the entrails to be clean and clear of decay, and the crowd cheers.
The sacrifice and the lettering carved around the building confirm to me my first thought—I’m in Rome. I’m standing in a temple, and I look around for signs of who it’s dedicated to. My gaze falls on the large statue next to the dais. The man looks a little like Father Christmas, with a thick curly beard, and he carries a scythe. Saturn, then—and this must be the festival of Saturnalia—the equivalent of our Christmas.
Normally, everyone would be wearing togas, but today these have been exchanged for colourful clothes, and everyone wears conical felt hats called pilleus. The priest’s head, however, is uncovered, and as I watch, he and a couple of others remove some wool bindings from the feet of the statue of Saturn. This, I know, symbolises liberation. Following this, the men lift the statue and lay it on an elaborate couch, as if Saturn himself is about to take part in the festivities.
“Come on,” the voice beside me mutters. “Before we get crushed in the crowd.”
I turn and follow the man through the throng of people. The front portico of the temple consists of eight enormous columns, and as we walk through them, I found myself in a huge open square—the Forum Magnum, and I know I am truly in Rome.
I glance up over my shoulder, and my gaze falls on the pediment above the pillars. It bears the inscription Senatus Populusque Romanus incendio consumptum restituit. I struggle briefly with the Latin—it means “The Senate and People of Rome have restored what fire consumed". It confirms to me that it is at least the late third century, as this is the third temple to stand here, rebuilt after a fire destroyed the previous one in 283AD.
The Forum is packed with rows of wooden tables heaped with plates of food, and the atmosphere is carnival-like. There are people singing and playing instruments, groups of others gambling with dice and knucklebones, and everyone is eating. At first glance, it looks as if everyone is dressed the same, but when I peer more closely, I see that those serving the food are wearing elaborate jewellery and their clothes are of a far finer material. Saturnalia was a festival of role-reversal, and the masters are serving the slaves, although I am certain the slaves would have prepared the food themselves.
“You want something to eat?” The man I inhabit seems oddly out of place here. He fidgets at the edge of the festivities, his hands behind his back, either nervous or uncomfortable, I’m not sure which.
“In a moment.” My friend also hangs back. I glance across at him. His gaze is distant, looking out to the hills. “Do you think they will come?”
I shrug. “Nothing is certain.” I hesitate. “But the priest predicts good news, so we should not worry.” I am conscious of trying to reassure my friend. I wonder to whom he is referring. Who is coming? And why are they not welcome?
“I miss my wife,” my friend says glumly. “She will have roasted a whole pig, and my son will have organised a play. Did I tell you he writes?”
“You did. I hear he is much to be admired.”
“He has talent, that is true. I am proud of him, although sometimes I wish he had a little skill with a sword. If the tribes do cross the Rhine, they will head for Gaul, and it would be good to know he was able to defend his mother.”
“They will have to get through us first, Gaius,” I say, somewhat fiercely. We are soldiers then, awaiting the hordes of barbarians who nibble at the edges of the Empire, trying to find a weakness.
Gaius nods. “They might not come.”
“No. They might not.”
Our silence suggests neither of us believes that.
Common thought is that the Vandals, Alans and Suebo tribes crossed the Rhine in 406, possibly on the thirty-first of December. If that is the case and it is indeed that year, then the soldiers are right and we are standing on the brink of an invasion, observing the Empire as it teeters around us, about to crash around our ears.
“I will be a grandfather soon,” I say. “I am expecting word any day now.”
“We grow old, my friend,” he says with a smile. “We have seen good times, have we not?”
We lapse into wistfulness, watching those around us celebrating, but the shadow of invasion hangs over our heads too heavily for us to join in. I muse that it has always been the same at this time of year. Everyone wants to be with their families, to watch their children and grandchildren grow up, and to be at peace.
“Come on,” my friend says eventually. “We grow morbid. Let us play at dice, and you can lose all your coins to me, and that will make me cheerful again.”
Laughing, we descend the steps, and lose ourselves in wine and dice in an attempt to forget the doom that hovers over us.