Lupercalia MDCCLXXVIII Anno Diocletiani
It was Lupercalia, the day when everyone celebrated romance – and it’s close friend fertility. The shops were full of silly cards and chocolate wolves, and the flower sellers all had sudden hikes in their prices. Dai Llewellyn sat opposite his diminutive wife at the breakfast table and inwardly debated whether she had truly forgotten the date, or she was playing a deep game of her own. Whichever way Julia went on this one, he was convinced he had the situation covered and he carefully camouflaged an inner smile.
He finished his porridge and leaned over to kiss Julia’s pink mouth. She responded with her usual flattering ardour and he put up a hand to ruffle her dark curls.
“Work calls. I won’t be back until supper time. Is there anything you want from Viriconium?”
“I don’t think so. See you later.”
He kissed her again and went out to where his personal all-wheel awaited him. To his surprise, Julia’s bodyguard, Edbert, was leaning casually against the vehicle. The great wolfhounds Canis and Lupo stood with him, waiting for their morning walk.
“You haven’t forgotten what day it is, I hope.”
“No. You’re all right. I have it covered.”
The huge northerner mimed mopping his brow and sloped off. Dai got into the driving seat and allowed himself a smug grin.
He pulled up outside Bryn’s square stone-walled house and tooted cheerily. His friend and second-in-command ambled out with a grin from ear to ear, greying hair tied back and a doorstep of bread and honey in one hand. He climbed aboard and favoured Dai with a straight look.
“I hope you have remembered what day it is?”
“Why does everybody think I need reminding of an over-commercialised randomly-chosen date? Surely my wife knows I love her without some sort of overpriced gift?”
Bryn eyed him narrowly.
“I hope for your sake you’re winding me up, Bard.”
“I am. Here. Look.”
Dai took a red velvet pouch out of his tunic pocket and spilled the contents onto the palm of his hand. Bryn barely looked, instead he stuck his head out of the vehicle window and whistled shrilly. His wife opened the front door and trotted out.
“Show it to Gwen. I was told if it was jewellery she needed to make sure you got it right.”
Dai laughed and leaned out to display a silver chain bracelet from which there hung three charms.
“See,” he said, “there’s a golden ball for when I asked her to come and be my love, the disk has the date of our marriage, and there’s a wolf for Lupercalia. I can add more charms as the years go by.”
“That’s perfect,” Gwen stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek before returning to her house.
Dai put the bracelet back in its pouch and the pouch in his pocket before starting the engine and engaging drive.
They were about halfway to Viriconium when both men’s wristphones bleeped simultaneously. Bryn answered.
“SI Cartivel. What’s the panic?”
“Missing child. Cadell Glaw. The kid’s up in the hills somewhere. Parents are sheep farmers and he must have slipped out during the night. He’s three years old and the temperature is well below freezing.”
“You don’t need to ask me, man, get the tracker dogs out!”
“No can do. They are on their way back from Eboracum where there was that big jailbreak. Won’t be here until tomorrow morning. We can’t wait that long.”
“No. We can’t.” Bryn looked at Dai questioningly.
“Alright. Get the address and then call Edbert. Canis and Lupo would appear to be our only chance. Julia will lend them gladly in these circumstances.”
Some two hours later, and it was perishingly cold out on the hill. The farming couple were small dark-haired folk, who quickly understood what Dai had in mind. The man shut his own dogs in the barn and his wife went for a favourite toy to give Canis and Lupo the child’s scent.
“We tried our sheepdogs,” the man said quietly, “but they couldn’t grasp what we wanted.”
“I don’t suppose they could, but these boys are trained to seek.”
Edbert was bundled up, looking for all the world to Dai’s eyes like a multicoloured version of one of the bears that hunted his native forests. Clad in a thick plaid winter coat, with a fur hood pulled close over his head, Edbert seemed oblivious to the cold as he put long leather leashes on the wolfhounds. When they had sniffed the stuffed sheep he snapped his fingers.
“Seek,” he said firmly. “Seek.”
The dogs cast about the farmyard quartering the ground with care, but for a tense few minutes, they could find nothing. Then Lupo’s tail went up and he gave an excited whimper. Seconds later Canis caught the same scent. Then they were off, all but dragging Edbert in their wake. Dai and Bryn got in the all-wheel and followed, leaving the farmer and his wife to wait and hope.
It was an uphill trek, and even Edbert’s formidable fitness was being tried by the rough terrain. After nearly three quarters of an hour of sinew-stretching running and careful driving, Dai was about to call a rest halt when the dogs lost the scent in the bottom of a rocky valley. Bryn looked stricken, but Dai had more faith in the dogs who cast carefully about the scree-covered valley bottom before drawing a blank. The dogs whined and Edbert encouraged them up to the slope to where they obediently ran around seeking the elusive trail. Dai was beginning to think his faith in the hounds might have been misplaced when Canis lifted his head and gave an excited whine.
“They’ve only found it,” Bryn whispered, “they’ve only gone and found it”.
Before Dai could think of a suitable response the dogs and Edbert had breasted the rise and the hunt was on again.
They seemed to have reached the apex of the hills and the trail led across the tops now where the wind whistled unforgivingly around the stunted trees. Bryn looked increasingly grim, and Dai himself wondered how a small child dressed only in his nightshirt and dressing gown would cope with such cold or indeed, could have travelled so far on his own. Before his imagination could go any further the dogs stopped again, but this time they stood stock still pointing, with their tongues lolling and their eyes sparkling. Edbert beckoned, and Dai stopped the all-wheeler. He and Bryn jumped down.
Once they were out, it was obvious why Edbert wouldn’t take Canis and Lupo any closer. The small sleeping figure was curled up between the woolly bodies of two sheep, with his booted feet sticking out, and a lamb clutched to his chest. Bryn looked at Dai and his eyes were suspiciously bright.
“I really thought we might be looking for a body,” he said.
“Me too,” Edbert admitted in his slow, deep voice.
Dai didn’t waste time talking, he crossed to the sleeping child and put a gentle hand on the head of rough, dark curls.
“Cadell,” he said quietly, “time to go home”.
The little boy sat up and studied Dai through round black eyes.
“Ewythr,” he said and held up his arms.
It was hours later when the medicus had examined Cadell and declared him none the worse for his ordeal, and Edbert and the dogs had made their own way home, that Dai and Bryn climbed back into their transport.
“No point in heading for Viriconium, now,” Dai said genially. “We may as well knock off a bit early and go home to our wives.”
He put his hand into the pocket where his Lupercalia gift for Julia lay, only to find the pocket empty. For a moment the cold of the mountains reached in to touch his soul. He searched with increasing desperation, but it was nowhere to be found.
“Bryn,” he said in a tense thread of a voice. “I’ve lost Julia’s present. It must have fallen out of my pocket somewhere.”
Bryn smiled wryly.
“It did, Bard. Out on the hill. When you bent to pick up young Cadell.”
“What? Did you pick it up?”
“No. I didn’t even see it fall…”
Dai was sure he looked as puzzled and irritated as he felt. “What are you telling me you spado? Is it still up there on the hillside?”
“No.” Bryn put a hand in his own pocket and grinned. “It’s here. Lupo must have seen you drop it and he retrieved. He fetched it to Edbert, who gave it to me because you were busy.”
Dai took the pouch and dusted it off with a trembling hand.
“I owe that dog a great big bone.”
Glossary of Non-English Terms
Please note these are not always accurate translations, they are how these terms are used in Dai and Julia’s world.
Eboracum – we would call it York.
Ewythr – uncle
Lupercalia – once celebrated with raucous rabbles running through the street, by Dai and Julia’s day it is much more like our own Valentine’s Day.
Spado – literally ‘eunuch’, metaphorically ‘stupid fool’.
Viriconium – we would call it Wroxeter.
You can collect the Dai and Julia Mysteries as individual novellas or snag The First Dai and Julia Omnibus and The Second Dai and Julia Omnibus by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago.
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