Painted Children by Lydia Anne Klima by Lydia Anne Klima - Read Online

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Painted Children - Lydia Anne Klima

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One

POMPEII, ITALY, MAY AD 61

Dressed solely in a loincloth, the German slave standing before Lady Zan had shaggy golden hair that ran past his muscular shoulders onto a scarred barrel chest—war wounds he was obviously proud of. His beard, of a darker color, was long and unkempt, and his fierce blue eyes shot holes through Lady Zan. Five field slaves had subdued him. They put Ullric in manacles and fetters, beat him with rods, then brought him before Lady Zan demanding justice. Ullric had set fire to her barn near Mount Vesuvius. Her farm produced the best oil and wine in Campania; it made Lady Zan very rich. Even the overseer Ullric murdered wouldn’t be missed, but Lady Zan had to do something or Ullric would go on destroying her property.

Now the field slaves surrounded Ullric in the atrium of Lady Zan’s Pompeian villa. They shoved him to the floor, then brandished their axes and pitchforks. If Lady Zan gave the word, they’d kill Ullric right there. As for the house slaves who stood by, they’d run if Ullric raised an eyebrow.

Wanting to help, a slave girl with freckles and shocking red hair came forward and bowed to Lady Zan.

Excuse me, milady, Petra began. Ullric’s from my country. May I interpret for you?

Lady Zan nodded, her eyes fixed on the barbarian. Ask him why he killed my overseer.

In response to Petra’s question, Ullric spat to the side; then he railed at Lady Zan in his native tongue.

Eyes lowered, Petra blushed as she gave the barbarian’s response. He hates Romans, milady. Instead of demanding animal hides to pay his taxes, the Romans wanted his wife and children. When he refused, they put his family to the sword.

Lady Zan didn’t understand. The Germans on the Rhine mixed freely with the Romans. Germans exchanged cattle and slaves for Roman bronzes and glassware. Furthermore, Germans enlisted in the Roman army. So what had gone wrong?

Lady Zan faced Petra, rubbing her brown from exhaustion. Pray, what job does Ullric perform?

He guards your farm against vandals and trespassers.

Zan nodded, finally reaching a decision. Tell this barbarian I’m sorry about the loss of his family. Nonetheless, he must make restitution for his crimes.

Petra paled. But he’s German, milady. As such, his superiority’s based on aggression.

He shall be broken. Zan looked the barbarian over. Ullric gazed at her with a superior attitude that expressed his confidence and contempt. Undeterred, she stepped forward and met his fierce blue eyes. To Petra, she said, As long as he lives under my roof, he has no rights, no personality. Next time he destroys my property or kills my employees, he shall be executed.

As Petra translated Zan’s words, Ullric smirked and laughed. He remembered the lance he sent through a Roman cavalryman before he was captured; how he slowly raised the lance with the armored Roman kicking and vomiting on the end of it. So this pale Roman noblewoman didn’t frighten him.

Zan spoke to Petra. I want his hair cut to a decent length. He must be clean shaven. To her field slaves, she added, Take him to the public baths and wash the filth off him. Then put him in the strong room. That should cool his temper.

The field slaves grabbed Ullric to do as she commanded.

Just a moment! Zan exclaimed, and in so doing, she broke into a fit of coughing that rent her entire body. When she recovered, she mopped her face and neck with a hanky; then she breathed deeply to catch her breath. She finally addressed the field slaves, speaking haltingly. I’m sorry…about the overseer. I know he was cruel. I shall replace him…with…someone more…benevolent.

The field slaves gawked in disbelief. They worked from dawn till dusk and slept in chains. Most dropped dead while working in the fields, long forgotten by family and friends.

Off you go! Petra waved the field slaves out of the house.

That night the field slaves brought Ullric to the all-night bath in Pompeii, lit by a thousand lamps. To their dismay, Ullric sang in a booming voice as he went from one room to another, but his joy was short-lived. The field slaves threw hot water on him, then scraped dirt off his body with a strigil, leaving deep cuts on his body. Then they threw Ullric in the frigidarium and held his head underwater, almost drowning him. They laughed as Ullric gasped for breath. After all, they could have been blamed for killing the overseer; then they would have been put to death.

Ullric survived, however, for he’d gone naked through snowstorms, and he climbed to the summits of mountains through snow and ice, only to come sledding down on his broad shield. Yes; he survived, but when the field slaves saw they hadn’t bested Ullric, they beat him again and threw him in the strong room.

Completely exhausted, Ullric slept like a baby.

The next morning, the heavy door swung open. Ullric sat up and blinked, his feet in stocks, his hands in manacles; his entire body aching from yesterday’s ordeal. The German slave girl with the terrible freckles had come to rescue him.

Quick, free me. Ullric held up his manacled hands.

Petra smiled at his black eyes and swollen face.

Hurry, he demanded.

You’ll stay right there. Petra placed her hands on her hips and wagged her head. By rights, Lady Zan should have killed you.

You defend that slut?

Lady Zan showed you mercy. Anyone else would have called a crucifixion contractor and executed the lot of you. Petra motioned to the small man behind her.

The slave barber pulled out a bronze razor.

Ullric flushed with indignation. You’ll have to kill me before he cuts one hair on my head.

Then you’ve never killed a man, Petra said.

I’ve killed more than I can remember!

A German warrior always cuts his hair after he kills a man. It’s the way of our people.

His jaw set, Ullric refused to speak, for Petra was right.

When Petra nodded, the slave barber began transforming Ullric with his razor. Petra walked around the barbarian, speaking to him like a child.

You got off to a bad start, but you can be rewarded for good behavior. Lady Zan gives us a small stipend. If you work hard and show respect, you can save your money and buy your freedom. I’ve already collected a small nest egg. Now you must promise to behave yourself.

Oh sure. Ullric laughed.

Swear to Mercury.

Mercury represented the German god Wodan. If Ullric gave his word, Mercury would expect him to keep it. So Ullric studied the heavy door and the barred windows, and then he nodded his agreement, at least for the time being.

After the slave barber finished, Petra sent him to the kitchen for some breakfast.

Free of shaggy hair and a beard, Ullric still looked horrible because of his battered face. In addition to this, his face had been nicked a couple times, but the barber remedied this by sealing his cuts with cobwebs soaked in oil and vinegar.

Pleased, Petra clapped her hands.

A moment later, a boy of ten entered the strong room with a floppy-eared mutt.

Petra ruffled the boy’s curly hair, then introduced him to Ullric.

This is Drusus, our messenger boy. When you learn to behave, Drusus will take you to school.

School? Ullric asked, not comprehending.

"Lady Zan wants you to learn Greek and Latin.

I don’t need school. I’m a warrior!

You’ll do as you’re told.

The boy gazed at Ullric’s giant muscles and terrible face. Then he addressed Petra in wonderment.

I thought Hercules whipped everybody.

That’s not Hercules. Ullric’s a slave like the rest of us.

Ullric made a face, for he understood Latin quite well; he even sang about Hercules when engaged in battle, so he spoke to Petra in fluent Latin. I’m greater than Hercules!

Petra gaped, knowing Ullric was not the fierce barbarian he portrayed himself to be.

Chapter Two

After spending more time in the strong room, Ullric begged to go to school. The school was simply a rented shop near the forum. The students, all boys, were in their early teens. School started at dawn and ended by noon. Students sat on long benches with their styluses and wax-covered tablets. Grammaticus Demetrius was a strict disciplinarian, who caned the boys who misbehaved, and if they sassed him, he brought out the feared Scythian scourge. He also enforced his precepts with blows to the head and exclamations of, Don’t you get it? Are you stupid?

Truth to tell, Grammaticus Demetrius disliked Ullric from the start because he taught the boys German battle tactics, and he dressed in a knee-length tunic and long trousers, so very un-Roman. To Grammaticus Demetrius, all Germans were illiterate barbarians, who left no permanent record of their history in writing or in monuments.

Today Ullric had spoken out of turn, so Grammaticus Demetrius caned the barbarian over the head, called him horrible names, and made him write on his wax tablet: ‘I won’t speak out of turn again’ until his whole tablet was covered in Latin scrawl.

When Ullric finished his tedious chore, Grammaticus Demetrius made him write the same sentence over again in Greek. So Ullric erased his wax-covered tablet with the dull end of his stylus, and then he began writing. On and on he wrote until the sounds of Pompeii distracted him.

The school was sandwiched between moneychangers and a tavern. The tavern owner grew hoarse from announcing his daily specials. Moneychangers rang coins onto dirty tables. Carpenters’ hammers sounded and beggars shouted, Give, give! It was so noisy Grammaticus Demetrius shouted in order to be heard.

So when Ullric saw a lance one of the students brought in for Show and Tell, he threw down his stylus and grabbed the lance from beneath a bench. Then he made his way down the center aisle toward Grammaticus Demetrius, who sat on a bronze chair talking about their upcoming field trip to the Odeon.

As Ullric approached his teacher, he was promptly ordered back to his seat, but the boys shouted, Kill him! Kill him! for they were accustomed to seeing bloodshed in the amphitheater, and Ullric bragged about his battle exploits; how he fought in the front rank of the army; how he blackened his shield and dyed his body black and chose pitch-dark nights to kill his enemies. Ullric even removed his tunic to show them his battle scars, and he recounted with gory detail how each scar had been received and how it had ended badly for his enemy. Of course, German children were trained in the use of arms from an early age, so Ullric stood back and readied his lance for the kill. One thrust and he would carry Grammaticus Demetrius around the schoolroom for his own form of Show and Tell.

Upon reaching his teacher, Ullric jabbed the lance at the hook-nosed Greek. The Greek screamed and started to run.

Ullric snagged his toga and pinned Grammaticus Demetrius to a wooden beam in the ceiling.

The Greek flailed his arms and legs, but not one drop of blood had been spilled. The students looked disappointed.

Then Ullric spoke in a booming voice. Go home, kids. School’s a waste of time!

Some boys ran through the curtained doorway into the excitement of the forum. Others threw their wax tablets at Grammaticus Demetrius. One even searched for the feared Scythian scourge.

Ullric stepped outside, where he was met by Drusus, Lady Zan’s messenger boy, and Darius, the floppy-eared watchdog.

Drusus made a face. Why did you pin your teacher to the ceiling?

You’re right. I should have killed him.

You’ll get beaten when Lazy Zan finds out.

I’ve had worse things happen.

The barbarian wound his way through the