I was not one of those who feared the coming of the Romans. I had heard the same stories the others had, of these fearsome fighting men who were conquering the world. We knew they were the reason Carthaginian traders didn’t come up into the hills any more. But I had heard about the lives people lived under the Romans, about stone houses and heated floors, soft beds and softer clothes. I wanted that life.
When they came it was for our hills. Hardly surprising – they were beautiful hills.
There had always been a few men digging gold from the rocks or finding it in streams, trading it for tools and cloth. But the Romans longed for gold like a fisherman longs for oysters, and they were willing to smash through the hard shell of the mountains to find it. That meant they needed more than a few men, and when they came looking for labourers I eagerly signed up.
“How will this lead to gold?” I asked Trassus, the scarred old soldier in charge of our labouring team. He had us digging a broad pit on a hillside, while others dug the channel that would fill it with water.
“You’re a curious bastard, aren’t you?” He grinned. “Always with the questions.”
“I want to learn.” I grinned back. “One day I want your job, and then after that his.” I pointed to the supervisor who stood in his toga high on the hillside, directing construction of an aqueduct. “I want gold and soft bedding, and how else will I get that? So tell me, how will this lead to gold?”
Trassus laughed. “You’ll see.”
I frowned as I ran a hand through the wilting wheat. Hidden in dusk’s long shadows, the vegetables in my other field were smaller than in previous summers. I had been so busy at the mine, I had not had time to feed and water them properly. Even my three pigs looked skinny and discontented.
A hollow, tingling feeling rose in my chest. What was I doing, letting my livelihood dwindled like this?
Tightening my fist, I felt the solid edges of silver coins – more this week because I had worked so long and hard. Coins that could buy me more food if I needed it, as well as fine jewellery and a soft bed.
The fields could wait. I needed sleep, so that I could work even harder the next day, and earn even more coins.
The gate opened and water rushed from the basin we had dug, roaring down the channel and into a narrow cavity dug by other miners.
“We call it ruina montium.” Trassus bellowed to be heard. “The wrecking of mountains.”
As water rushed into the cavity there was a cracking sound, and then another. Rocks tumbled down the hillside.
“But how?” I asked. “It’s only water.”
Trassus hadn’t heard me, too busy shouting at another labourer. So instead I hurried down the hill, to get closer and see how it worked. I thought I heard him shouting something behind me, but the noise obliterated his words.
The ground beneath my feet trembled in anticipation of the gold to come. The sound of cracking stone echoed around the valley, and I looked up to see a chunk of the hillside, already swept clear of soil, breaking away.
I screamed and ran as rocks flew. One hit me in the side. I stumbled, fell, rose again just as a boulder crashed past to my right.
“Stupid Iberian bastard!” Trassus grabbed me and dragged me uphill. Behind us, half a hillside broke away and crashed to earth in a rush of escaping water.
Terror turned to relief as I realised how close I had come to death. A few last small rocks landed around us. Gold gleamed from them, and I knew that we would be well paid tonight.
But as I looked up at the red wound in the rocky hillside, water dripping from its surface like blood, I felt that same hollow tingling I’d experienced at the sight of my withered crops.
“No slacking.” Trassus pointed to where another basin was being dug. “You want to get paid, don’t you? Earn those silk sheets you’re always talking about?”
I nodded and followed him, my legs heavy, eyes still on the hillside.
How much did I want soft bedding now?
* * *
I heard about ruina montium from my awesome archaeologist buddy Ruth Fillery-Travis. Because I have to turn these flash stories around pretty quickly, I haven’t had time to run it past her for accuracy, so while the inspiration is hers, the inevitable historical errors are entirely mine.
Speaking of the ancient world, my fantasy novella Ocean Gods, Roman Blades is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Ancient history meets epic fantasy in an action packed novella of war, magic and one man’s struggle to find himself. If that appeals then you can pre-order your copy now and get it straight away when it comes out on 23 October. Go on, you know you want to.