Dardanus' feet left blood-smeared prints in the mountain snow. He ran faster, his breath puffing in white clouds around his face, his toes breaking the thin brittle crust with each footfall. Behind him the trumpet blared; his companions gave a yell and poised their weapons to strike. Dardanus raised his right hand and brought it down with all his might. His weapon found its mark, and he laughed.
His victim laughed with him. The girl stretched out her arms, leaning past her friends to shout at him as he passed.
But Dardanus had already gone; the next boy obliged her, and when his whip met her skin she screamed with glee and clung to the girls around her."What's wrong, Dar?" Crassus shouted. "Has your thong gone limp?"
Dardanus laughed and ran on.
The winter air drew icy claws down his legs and hips and back. All around him he heard the footfalls in the snow, the laughter and catcalls, the cracking of the whips and the screams of their targets. They lined the road on both sides from the castra to the village: women of all classes and stations, matrons and virgins, servants and whores. They shouted and cheered, elbowing their way to the front to call out to a favorite runner or push a shy companion forward. The runners — a dozen young men, some Roman, some Raetii, all handsome, all naked — were more than happy to serve them. They teased and leered, beckoning the reluctant and taunting the aggressive, laying stripes across hands and arms and the occasional shoulder with their softened goatskin lashes.
Every Roman girl in the village, and many of the Raetii, had waited all day for this part of the festival, for every female marked by these whips would take her blessing along with her pain. Unmarried girls would find husbands; young wives would conceive; expectant mothers would be granted safe delivery. Women crowded the road in scores, reaching out from winter cloaks and furs to receive their mark and flushing with delight when it came. The runners struck out in every direction, leather whips whistling through the air, sweaty skin steaming in the cold, bare feet sending bits of snow and ice flying into the crowd until the girls squealed with feigned dismay before pushing forward to extend their arms again.
Dardanus no longer felt the cold. His naked skin, streaked with sacrificial blood, flushed now not from chill but from exertion. He allowed himself the conceit that some of his victims out sought his whip in particular; perhaps they knew he carried an extra bit of good luck today. The notion made him smile. He lunged at a pair of young maidens barely old enough to bleed and watched their skin turn pink where his lash caught their arms; they screamed and clutched at each other, blushing as they compared marks. Grinning, Dardanus ran on.
The altar fires had almost burned out, and the scent of roasted meat greeted the twelve youths aas they ran the last stretch into the village. Women flocked down from tenements and townhouses to meet them, their arms bare in the cold and their hair flowing loose down their backs. The runners split up to reach as many as they could before they reached the village square.
The male voice caught his attention, and he turned to see his friend Iallus emerge from the crowd. On his hip he carried his young son, also called Iallus, and with his free arm he was pushing forward the pink-cheeked figure of his wife, Priscilla. Her winter cloak parted above her belly, rounded beneath her woolen dress. She elbowed her husband to stop his shoving, then smiled and presented her arms for Dardanus' lash. He got both with one swing.
"Hey, not so hard!" she cried. "You'll bring it early!"
Her grin canceled out her complaint. It turned mischievous as she looked him up and down, raising an eyebrow in appreciation. Iallus put a hand over his wife's eyes; Priscilla swatted it away, and little Iallus giggled as his father pulled his mother close. They kissed as Dardanus ran on.
The race ended in the marketplace, where the runners' arrival signaled the start of the feast. Evergreen garlands and wreaths of ribbons and ivy hung from every door and window, and fires burned in cauldrons to warm the square. Holly and pine cones adorned tables overflowing with bread baskets, bowls of nuts and cheese and olives, jars of preserved fruit and pickled vegetables, jugs of wine, oil, and garum, and great platters of steaming mutton and goat fresh from the sacrificial coals. Judging by the growing crowd, it would not have a chance to get cold.
As each runner finished his round he was met by slaves bearing warm clothes and hot drinks; one by one they handed off their whips and shrugged into woolen tunics and fur-lined boots and cloaks. Not one of them wiped the sweat from his face, for if he did he would wipe away the blood streaking his forehead and cheeks, and no one wanted to remove that badge of honor just yet. As he caught his breath Dardanus exchanged grins with the magistrate's son, a gangly boy of sixteen. He and Dardanus were the only northerners among the Roman runners; the rest were Italians, already shivering beneath their furs as they gulped down mugs of warm mead. Dardanus tied a linen tunic around his hips and threw a cloak over his shoulders, but set aside the wool tunic and leather boots until he cooled down a bit.
It still amused him that they had been allowed to run naked at all. In Rome the state ceremony had been revised by the Princeps to tone down its licentious themes, but in the provinces people kept to the old ways. Up here in the north the Lupercalia retained its original purpose: to ensure fertility, and to inspire its practice. Dardanus thought neither would be a problem tonight.
Iallus and Priscilla approached, accompanied by Iallus' friend Alexos. Iallus put his son down among the pack of children running around the tables and wrapped both arms around his wife, who smiled as she held her right hand out to Dardanus.
"Look! Here is your day's work."
From her knuckles to her forearm ran a lurid red welt, swelling in the cold and already going purple at the edges.
"Oh, Pris, I'm sorry!"
"What? No! This is the best talisman I could have asked for. None of the other girls will have a mark like this." She looked down and put her hand on her belly. "Fortuna wants this baby as much as I do."
"Well she ought to get her wish," Alexos said, eyeing her midsection. "Any minute now."
"I'm only half gone, ass. Don't ill-wish me." Priscilla whacked him, then kissed her welt quickly. Dardanus never realized she took these rituals so seriously; she seemed too practical for talismans and ill-wishes. Such was a woman faced with childbirth, he supposed — she welcomed all the help she could get. "And now, Dar, it's time for your good wish!" Priscilla plucked a garland from the nearest table and placed it atop Dardanus' head, settling the ivy in his thick brown hair. "There — now you have your proper honors. Or did you think we'd forget? Happy birthday!"
"Happy birthday, Dar!"
Dardanus smiled. He had received many such greetings throughout the day, and he had to admit, he liked it. No one had paid this much attention to his birthday since his mother died. It was certainly a far cry from his last birthday, which he spent nervously packing for the journey to Rome to meet his new military sponsor. That sponsor had been missing since the sacrifices at midday. After fulfilling his duties as legatus at the prayer ceremony, Valerian slipped away from the celebrations like he always did, preferring to skip the festive part of festivals. Dardanus had been too distracted by the novelty of being a brother of Lupus to go and find him. As a procurator's son Dardanus had participated in his hometown ceremony every year since coming of age, but his older brother Felix was always the Luperci, not him. Today, on his twenty-first birthday, he finally had a place in the celebrity line. It was as delightful as he had always imagined.
"Thank you," he said. "I always thought it was a blessing to be born on Lupercalia, and now I know it."
"It's very lucky," said Priscilla. "It means you'll have lots of sons."
"He has to get a wife first," said Iallus.
"Not necessarily," shrugged Alexos, who had left a string of bastards across the Greek coast before joining the legion.
"Not at all, if he doesn't cover himself up." An elbow poked Dardanus' ribs, belonging to a tall young man clutching a centurion's cloak around his lean frame. "Your parts are going to freeze, Dar."
"It's not even snowing!" Dardanus said. "You never could stand the cold."
"I'll remember that the next time you're whining about sunburn."
They both laughed, and Iocundis let go of his furs just long enough to embrace his best friend. "Happy birthday, Dar. Quite a party you're getting." Shivering, he pulled the cloak back into place. "You Romans. Running naked in the snow? No thank you."
"Well it's not snowing in Rome, you know. It's only up here we have to run in the cold."
"And be ogled by every female in the village as they beg you to favor them," added Priscilla.
Iocundis nodded. "I see your point."
"Were you at the sacrifices?" said Dardanus. "I was looking for you."
"It was too cold for me. I decided to leave the prayers to those more qualified and commemorate the day in my own way."
Alexos grinned. "And how is Rika?"
"Ulrike is very well, thank you. She and her ladies elected to donate their places in line to others, as fertility is not very good for business." He glanced at Dardanus. "I told her it was your birthday — she offered you a gift courtesy of the management."
Dardanus' face was still flushed, so fortunately he could blush no further. He could not recall everything from his sole encounter with the beautiful Raetii madam, but what bits and pieces made it through the haze were enough to make him cringe every time he remembered them. He was grateful to her, but that didn't mean he enjoyed reliving the awkward details.
"Come on, Dar, not even you could say no to that," Iallus said.
"Of course he can," said Alexos. "You forgot Dar is our little acolyte. Tribune Manilus is far too pure to lie with our common whores. Who exactly he does lie with is beyond me."
"I think I'm ready for those boots now," Dardanus said. His stomach growled, and he added, "And a plate of mutton."
"I'll get it," Priscilla offered. "It's your birthday, and if you want to live to see the next one without catching the wet cough, you'd best get yourself warm. Come, my love." She took her husband's arm, and they left in search of the serving trays with Alexos trailing behind them.
Iocundis looked around the growing crowd. "The general didn't stay for the feast?"
"No, I haven't seen him since the blooding ceremony. You know he never stays around for these things. I think he finds it improper to be seen at parties." Iocundis smiled. "And if there's one thing Cassius Valerian is careful about, it's being proper."
"That's true," Dardanus said.
Iocundis watched him for a moment, then clapped him on the back. "Come on — let's get you some boots and something to eat. And then I'll let you beat me at knucklebones. It's your birthday, after all."
Not for much longer. Dusk fell quickly in Raetia; the sun had already dipped behind the trees, and around the darkening village slaves lit torches while others prepared the bonfire in the square. The feast began in earnest, Romans and Raetii sitting together on long benches around tables brought out from shops and houses. Young women compared welts and giggled about the culprits, while young men took advantage of the rare opportunity to mingle with unmarried girls. Mothers dandled babies so swaddled in furs they looked like so many bear cubs; soldiers laughed and drank over gaming tables; old folks looked down in amusement from windows above. Near the closed market stalls, musicians tuned up their instruments to begin the evening's festivities. They began their first song, not a somber hymn but a bawdy local verse, and voices all around took up the tune. A Raetii girl eyed Iocundis and Dardanus as she passed by carrying her bread tray; Iocundis gave her an elaborate bow, and she laughed at them and shook her head. Dardanus, his hair stiff with frozen sweat beneath his ivy crown, dried blood cracking on his cheeks, drew his cloak around himself and grinned.