“For the last time, put that thing away.” Carausius glared at the labourer in the grey tunic, the one who kept trying to place offerings next to the syphon pipes. “If the senate thought we needed gods to carry our water then they would have sent a priest, not an engineering team.”
“But the god of this hillside-” the man began.
“A pox on the god of this hillside,” Carausius said. “We have laid the pipes perfectly, there is no need for magic.”
He laid a hand on one of the lead tubes. The siphon ran down one hillside, across the valley, and back up the other side, from a rural collection tank to a water-tower on the edge of Rome. Even by his standards it was excellent work.
“Open the gates,” he called up the hill.
“I already did,” came the reply from near the collection tank.
Frowning, Carausius leaned down and pressed his ear against the pipe. There was no sound, nor the slightest vibration. No water flowed.
He stomped up the hillside, followed by the labourer. At the top stood his assistant Itimerius, his face crumpled with concern.
“Look.” Itimerius pointed to the gate leading from the tank into the pipe. It was open, but no water flowed through. A foot-wide bubble blocked the way, and in the middle of it stood the tiny figure of a water sprite, hair hanging green around her scaly shoulders.
The tank wasn’t full yet, but the water reached Carausius’s knees as he dropped down inside, a measuring stick in one hand.
“Get out.” He stabbed at the sprite with the stick, but she darted giggling out of the way. The air bubble remained. Taking a deep breath, Carausius forced himself to smile at the tiny creature. “What would you like in return for letting the water flow?”
“Not me.” The sprite giggled again, the sound grating at Carausius’s nerves. “Hill god wants offering. Hill god friend.”
“Fine.” Carausius gripped the edge of the tank and hauled himself out. As he stood dripping on the hillside, he turned to the labourer in grey. “Make an offering. Summon the god of this blasted hill.”
“Um…” The labourer pointed past Carausius.
A face had appeared in the freshly dug dirt beside the tank.
Letting out a deep sigh, Carausius turned to the god of the hillside.
“Oh spirit,” he began.
“You mean ‘oh mighty spirit’.” The hill god’s voice was deep, rich and arrogant. Apparently it thought it was one step down from Jupiter, not one step up from a pile of rocks.
“I mean oh noxious vapour,” Carausius replied. “Now tell me what you want, so we can get this over with.”
“What I want is some respect,” the god said.
“Respectfully, what do you want?” Carausius snarled.
“I knew you were too proud.” The god frowned. “You’re one of those humans who thinks you’re good enough without gods.”
“I built this siphon.” Carausius pointed at the pipeline. “I’m good enough without anyone.”
“You didn’t ask my permission to build on my slope.”
“I didn’t need to. The senate priests did that.”
“You didn’t ask for help.”
“I didn’t need your help!”
“You still could have asked.”
“For what? To protect your feelings?”
“To show some respect.”
“How’s this for respect – let the water flow and I won’t turn this hillside into plebeian housing.”
“See – too proud.” Dirt flew as the god snorted. “You’d delay Rome’s water supply rather than say please.”
On the verge of shouting, Carausius caught a glimpse of the city in the distance, and of his team looking at him in resignation.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep, calming breath.
“Oh mighty spirit,” he said between gritted teeth. “Please help the water to flow.”
“And what do you offer me for this assistance?” the god asked.
“Offer you?” Carausius yelled. “You wanted me to-”
He caught himself, took another deep breath, and held out the measuring stick. His hands trembled with anger.
“I offer you the instrument of my craft.” He snapped the stick in half, then plunged it into the dirt. “Which is nothing compared with your power.”
Everyone turned with bated breath to look at the god.
“Very well.” It smiled. “Thank you for your offering.”
The dirt face disappeared, and a moment later there came the sound of water running down the lead pipes.
“Itimerius, take a note,” Carausius called out as he strode away.
“Yes, master.” His assistant ran to catch up with him, a wax tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other.
“Note for our next project,” Carausius said. “Get a commission for something ugly, dirty or smelly.” He waited for Itimerius to scribble that down. “And then build it on this hillside.”
He looked back up the hill with a sneer.
“I’ll show him what pride’s about.”
* * *
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like Demons and the Deep, my new short story about piracy and magic in the ancient Roman Mediterranean, out now for free on Amazon, Smashwords, and other ebook stores.