Mystery of the Roman Fountain
by Jeff Baker
(A Quintus Mystery)
“Quintus! Look at this.”
My master Cato’s voice echoed through the empty halls of the old villa we had come across on an overgrown road outside of one of the small towns surrounding Rome. The front entrance had fallen in on itself, so we were exploring from the back rooms onward. It was not quite as big as the villa of Cato’s Grandfather where we had been raised and where I’d been given to him when we were both about seven. Still, if one had to be a slave, there were worse masters than Marcus Plinius Cato, aspiring poet and playwright, especially after he had inherited his grandfather’s estate. That estate was why we were traveling, inspecting a farm Cato owned that he had never seen. Ever curious, Cato decided to explore down one of the roads. Thankfully, we took his chariot. Also, thankfully, we were heading back to Rome in a meandering sort of way.
Cato had found the atrium, the courtyard in the center of the house, big and open with a stone fountain against one wall, a fountain still trickling with water. I sniffed and then cupped my hands and took a drink. “Cool and refreshing,” I said.
“Who do you think lived here, Quintus?” Cato asked, as he cupped his hands into the water. It was early evening and the sky was still blue with dusk and I could see a white half-Moon above us in the courtyard.
“I would have no idea, Master,” I said. The slaves at the farm had not discussed this with me, they looked on me as the privileged personal slave of a wealthy poet. Besides, Cato was the one whose curiosity rampaged like the bull that chased Io.
“The family who run my farm mentioned nothing of this, even when I said we were going to travel back to Rome on this back road,” Cato said.
“And you didn’t ask if there was an inn on the road,” I muttered under my breath.
“Who dares intrude?” The voice was sharp and made us jump. The dark-robed figure who stepped out of a shadowy corner was tall, female and had long dark hair. She reminded me of a Vestal Virgin I’d once heard described.
“Good woman,” Cato said. “I am Cato, the poet. We meant no harm, my slave and I were traveling through and we…”
“I know who you are,” she said. “I am no mortal woman, I am Neriea, one of the spirits of the sea exiled when Posideon deposed Nereus as Lord of the Oceans. All you have is now mine, or face the wrath of the naiads!”
Cato stood speechless. I found my voice.
“You are no more a naiad than I am,” I said. “I am not as naive as my Master. You can call on no power to stop us or take anything we have.”
The woman stared at us for a moment and then turned and walked back into the shadows.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. She may have no magic but she may have accomplices.”
We made our way out of the villa with surprising swiftness and were soon back on the road in the chariot.
“Living there without benefit of ownership,” I said, as I guided the chariot down the darkening road, hopefully with an Inn along the way.
“Look, I know you don’t believe in things like gods and naiads but how could you be certain that what we saw wasn’t real?” Cato asked. “I mean, that she wasn’t a spirit or river-goddess of some kind?”
I smiled. “I saw one of the back rooms when we were first in the villa,” I said. “Stores of food. Something that a goddess or spirit wouldn’t need.”
Cato laughed, then grew thoughtful. “How does this sound?” he said. Then began to recite:
“I came across, on a long-neglected road
A villa, its owners vanished and gone
Full now of only darkness and ghosts
A home for wayward gods…”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the latest of several (usually longer) mysteries about Quintus I’ve written, putting the two twenty-somethings into mystery and adventure in the last decade of the Second Century B.C. (Circa 107 B.C. or thereabouts.)