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“Buck up, Hercules!” I shout, striking him across his rump with my stave. “What’s got into you? You can do much better than this. We’ll never get anywhere at this rate! You, too, Crispus, come on with you!”
Slowly – ever so slowly – we trudge on up the steep hillside, winding from terrace to dilapidated terrace, all of us heavily laden, dripping with sweat. Crispus is no problem; he’s a follower. But Hercules doesn’t like not having Dad to lead him. Perhaps he’s right to object. Why did Dad send me anyway? It’s a man’s job. And me all alone! It’s not fair of him, giving me on this job at my age. Two weeks away! Will I cope? What if something goes wrong? What if I twist an ankle, or get lost, or robbed. Why didn’t I take Ceasar along to protect us? And now Hercules is being awkward. “Come on, keep going! You had a drink five minutes ago.” I think he hates me. Sometimes I feel nobody really loves me.
It wasn’t like this four years ago, the first time I went with Dad. He was my hero in those days. He’d look after us all, whatever happened. He was taking me to to the big, exciting port I’d heard so much about: crowds, huge ships, the bustling market, taverns, no end of surprises.
But that was then. Don’t I love him any more? Why am I now so reluctant? Each year the expedition has become harder for me. Why didn’t Rufus – big bold Rufus – come with me, or quick-witted Pontus? Oh, how I miss them already. It’s tough at the best of times – exhausting, dirty, dangerous – and often not profitable.
What’s that? A frantic rustle and scraping in the undergrowth, the drumming of hard hooves on rock. I catch a glimpse of a huge, dark form, clumsily stampeding off to safety. A magnificent old boar; probably snoozing and startled by our approach. Pity I didn’t have my bow and arrows. But what would I have done with a dead boar? I’ve already got more than enough to carry.
On we plod, the sun climbing steadily higher, cruelly beating down on us as we leave the shade of the oak trees. Here’s our waterfall, where the lads and I spent many a summer afternoon, swinging from creepers, then dropping into the clear water. I take off my backpack, bend down and bathe my face in the pool, gulping in long draughts of cool fresh water. It’s more difficult for Hercules and Crispus to stoop down because of their loads. But I’m not about to unload anything and struggle to strap it on again a few minutes later; they’ll manage. I fill up my skin bottle, because there won’t always be a brook nearby when we’re thirsty, and stuff it into my bag. Then off we go again, climbing, climbing. Each step seems higher than the one before; I’m even beginning to gasp for breath.
“Look out, Hercules!” I scream, as he stumbles. Thank Aquila, he didn’t lose his balance and fall. I find my fingers furtively feeling for the eagle talisman Ceres makes me wear. If he’d fallen over, the amphorae would certainly have shattered and he would probably have hurt himself – a catastrophe. But it’s mule terrain. And Hercules is sure-footed. Crispus isn’t quite so strong, but he’s easy-going and his load isn’t so heavy.
Why did I grab the talisman and call on Aquila? Was I really expecting him to help? Most likely it was he who made Hercules slip in the first place. He’s got something against me, I’m sure. I really don’t know what to make of Ceres’ gods. They’re more of a threat than a comfort.