She was being reckless, she knew. To leave Rome with only a slave for protection, a young woman of not yet seventeen, was reckless. But she had to find out more about the prophecy her mother had spoken of. If it truly was about her, then she had to know what was in store for her and her child.
Volumnia had prepared well. She had chosen the largest slave in their household to accompany her, ordered him to be silent about his mission, and told him to furnish himself with one of his master’s swords and enough food to feed them both on the journey, there and back. She had waited until Caecilius was away from home, off on one of his month-long jaunts with Prince Titus. She knew he would have stopped her had he known what she intended, not out of any concern for her, but for the child she carried.
It was early, still dark, when Volumnia and the slave set out for Ostia, the coastal port that would provide her with a boat to sail to Cumae. She had dressed in her dullest clothing, an unattractive brown dress that would not show off her true patrician status. This dress she had covered with a cloak taken from one of her other slaves, a threadbare thing that smelt of grease and sweat and failed entirely to keep her warm.
It was thrilling to be embarking on an adventure. And adventure it was, for it was no small matter to travel to Cumae, where the Sibyl was to be found. It was dangerous enough for a woman to travel alone — a slave could not be considered company — but for a Roman woman to travel alone past enemy territory was potentially fatal.
Volumnia and the slave reached Ostia by the late after- noon, not having stopped at all on the way from Rome. She ordered the slave to find a boatman willing to take them along the coast and waited while a price was negotiated. When the slave reported back, Volumnia winced. The sum demanded was high and would reduce her allowance significantly, but it could not be helped. The price paid, half up front, the other half promised on the return, Volumnia climbed into the boat and settled herself beneath the wooden shelter at the stern. Very weary, she fell asleep to the soothing sound of the water. Volumnia had never been on the sea before and she discovered she didn’t care for it. It was not only the constant rise and fall of the boat that she disliked; it was also the company she was forced to keep. She kept to the stern, crouched down beneath the shelter, trying to ignore the lascivious looks and vulgar comments they made regarding her. Some of the comments she didn’t understand, for the men were foreigners and didn’t speak Latin, but she under- stood their gestures well enough. She was heartily glad when, almost two days later, the boatman pointed to the cliff face and said, ‘Cumae.’
The boat moored at the jetty that projected out from the beach. There were a few hovels on the shore, their timbers turned grey by the salt breeze. Their occupants exhibited mild curiosity about the boat but did not leave their shelters. Volumnia supposed they received so many visitors wanting to see the Sybil that one more was not of great interest, though no doubt they would have their hands out when she passed. Well, they could forget that. She had already made too much of a dent in her allowance.
‘You have to climb,’ the boatman told her when he saw her frowning at the cliff-side. He pointed to an almost vertical ladder attached with ropes to the side of the cliff.
‘Up that?’ she cried.
The boatman grinned. ‘It’s the only way up there.’
‘Domina, are you certain you—?’ the slave began.
Volumnia shushed him, knowing he had no concern for her safety but for his own. If she had an accident in his care, he would do better to run away than return to Rome; Caecilius would have him killed for his negligence. The thought of climbing the ladder was not pleasant, but she had not come all this way to be cowardly now. She reminded the boatman he was to wait for her, ordered the slave to stay by the boat, and made her way to the bottom of the ladder.
She grabbed the rungs and tugged. The ladder seemed secure enough. Volumnia put her right foot on the bottom rung and began to climb. She made the mistake, about twenty feet up, of looking down and giddiness struck her, making her tighten her grip on the struts so that her knuckles whitened and press her body towards the cliff. She waited until the dizziness passed, then telling herself not to be such a coward, lifted her foot to the next rung. She managed to reach the top and clambered onto the clifftop, aware that if the boatman and slave were watching, they would probably be laughing at her undignified crawl.
Volumnia got to her feet carefully, thanking the gods she was on firm ground again. She felt the earth slide beneath her sandals and realised she stood on shale. Small shards and pebbles crept over her soles and bit into the soft undersides of her feet as she began her descent. She could see where she needed to go. There was an opening cut into the cliff halfway down, triangular, edged with cut stones. She made for it, slipping every now and then, having to clutch at plants and tufts of grass to stop herself sliding further.
She reached the entrance to the cave and gave a startled cry as a creature loomed out at her from the cave’s entrance. It was ragged thing, half naked, a pelt covering its lower region. The rest of its body — she could not truly describe it as a man — was covered in crusted mud, and the stench coming off it was foul. Volumnia covered her nose and mouth with her hand. The thing made a strangled noise. She shook her head, uncomprehending, provoking another sound and another.
‘I don’t understand,’ she shouted at it.
The thing opened its mouth and Volumnia saw its tongue was missing. She looked around, hoping someone would appear to help her, but there was no one. The thing grabbed her wrist and she tried to pull away. It held on tight and opened its other hand to show the palm. Relieved to finally understand, she delved into the purse on her belt and put an aes into its hand. Its fingers closed over the bronze bar and released her. She rubbed the place where its fingers had been, the skin tender, red and dirtied.
The entrance clear, she hesitated for a moment, nerves stilling her feet. Then she set her shoulders and stepped inside.
Her heart was banging in her chest; she could feel it thudding up through her throat, making the blood rush in her ears. It had been warm and bright on the cliff, but here the air was cool and damp; it felt almost thick and weighed her down. She had thought only the entrance had been managed by man, but as she walked, she saw the passage too had been worked by human hands. Like the entrance, the passage was triangular, carved with axes and chisels, and faced with stones to give a smooth finish.
Her way forward was slow, each step deliberate, considered. Her nose wrinkled the further she went, for her nostrils were filled with a sickly sweet odour. It was dark too, for oil lamps burned only at irregular intervals. Her eyes gradually adjusted to the dark, and she spied the end of the passage, a widening out into darkness. The smell of smoke entered her nostrils, and it was almost as if she was being pulled forward. Her pace quickened, and she had a sudden uneasy feeling that her will was no longer her own.
She emerged into a large chamber. Its walls had been left as nature carved them, no hand of man had worked its talent here. Oil lamps, stuck up on high stone ledges, threw dark shadows. The smell of decay was strong and, looking around, she saw that the cave was filthy with debris. Upon the floor were dried leaves and twigs, scraps of cloth, and, she saw with alarm, bones. She looked harder, her mind trying to work out whether they were animal or human, but she had no knowledge or ability to distinguish between the two and forced her gaze away. She moved in further, taking care where she stepped. A large stone chair was set against the furthest side of the cave. Lichen, moss and tree roots grew on and around it so that it had almost become part of the cave itself.
And someone was sitting in it!
Volumnia cried out in surprise and sank to her knees, head bowed, feeling the floor litter dig into her flesh. There came no response or answer, and Volumnia raised her head. The figure hadn’t moved. It remained shrouded in darkness, only one weak oil lamp burning above it illuminated it at all. Confused, Volumnia scrambled to her feet and edged closer. She peered up and jumped backwards. It was a desiccated body that sat in the chair, skin so shrunken over the skull that it had torn in places to show the white bone beneath. And now she remembered what she had heard of the Sibyl, how the current prophetess always shared her cave with the carcass of her dead predecessor, the corpse being left to dry and shrivel. Only a dead body, she told herself. No doubt other visitors would be scared away by such a frightful sight, but not she.
Her breathing slowed. She stepped away from the chair and looked around again. There was another doorway to the side of the chair, and she headed for it. Here was a much smaller chamber, and the stench was even greater. It was not only the stench of decay, but that of a warm and unclean body. Volumnia instinctively knew she was not alone. A small fire burned in the centre, creating a ceiling of swirling smoke. There was a rustle and cracking of twigs, and a figure lurched out of the darkness. She, for it was a she, stared at Volumnia, then moved to crouch beside the fire. Was this the Sibyl, Volumnia wondered, this woman with her matted hair, her face and body smeared with mud and who knew what else? The woman began muttering to herself in a language Volumnia could not understand.
‘Are you the Sibyl?’ Volumnia asked, and she heard the tremble in her voice.
The woman stopped her muttering and looked up, a long hard stare that chilled Volumnia to the bone. Then the woman laughed. It was light and high, almost musical. It seemed odd coming from such a foul creature. The Sibyl, for so she must be, spoke.
‘So, she comes with fear in her heart,
But will she stay to learn of her part?
The prophecy made, will it grieve or please?
The future known, yet the way unseen.’
‘I would know,’ Volumnia began, but the woman’s body jerked violently at the interruption and she fell silent.
‘Volumnia, Aemilia’s fair daughter,
Your future is set, surrounded by slaughter.
But not your hands that cause others to bleed,
Though your heart harbours that lust that all soldiers need.’
‘Do you mean Caecilius?’ Volumnia asked excitedly. ‘Will I make my husband kill?’
‘A wife cannot such a man make,
For he has been fashioned for his ancestors’ sake.
Yet a mother has power to create what she will,
And mould a son, her ambition to fulfil.’
Volumnia’s hands clasped her belly. ‘Yes, yes, I am pregnant. A son, you say?’
‘But glory may not last, and misery may ensue.
A price worth paying, will she think that too?
Act to change her fate, or walk the path so spoken?
Her blood lust unchanging, though hearts be broken?’
‘Will he be glorious?’ Volumnia breathed rapturously, her eyes closing as she conjured up an image of her son being applauded by all Rome.
‘The she-wolf barks, but she must also bite.
Room in her heart for one, put others out of sight.
Babes will come and babes will go,
None to rob son of adoration and foe.’
The Sibyl sank back on her haunches and stared at Volumnia.
‘What does all that mean?’ Volumnia pleaded, desperately trying to remember everything the Sibyl had said.
The Sibyl moved onto all fours, arched her back and hissed. Volumnia stumbled backwards, her body pressing against the damp cave wall as the woman shuffled around the fire, her back towards Volumnia. The audience was over.
Volumnia ran out of the chamber, through the next and down the long passageway, eager to breathe fresh air again. The sunlight dazzled her, and she fell as she burst out of the cave’s entrance. Her heart was pounding again and her breath was coming fast. She hurried back up the cliff, eager to be away, to get on the boat and sail back to Rome. Her descent down the ladder was hasty and several times she slipped, but still she did not stop, not until her feet touched down onto the shore. Remembering she was now observed, she willed herself to calm down, and made as dignified a walk back to the jetty as she was able.
‘Find out what you wanted?’ the boatman asked as he wound a length of rope around his hand and elbow.
Volumnia could tell from his expression that he was expecting her to voice her fear, to admit she had made a mistake, that she was only a woman, not brave enough for such an encounter. But she was not going to let him have his enjoyment. She stepped over the gunwale and said, ‘I did. Cast off at once. I want to get home.’
Denied his amusement, the boatman sulkily obeyed. Her slave offered Volumnia a cup of wine. She snatched it from his hand and drank eagerly, holding the cup out for a refill. As the wine streamed down her throat and warmed her chest, she began to relax. Her hand strayed over her belly. Inside her was a son, she told herself, a son who would be great if she made him so and make her proud. The journey to this dreadful place and the encounter with the Sibyl, terrifying though it had been, had certainly been worth it.