The astonishing life of Julius Caesar is recreated in a magnificent new novel that brilliantly interweaves history and adventure.
Emperor: The Gates of Rome is an epic tale of ambition and rivalry, bravery and betrayal, from an outstanding new voice in historical fiction.
From the spectacle of gladiatorial combat to the intrigue of the Senate, from the foreign wars that created an empire to the betrayals that almost tore it apart, the Emperor novels tell the remarkable story of the man who would become the greatest Roman of them all: Julius Caesar.
Brilliantly interweaving history and adventure, The Gates of Rome introduces an ambitious young man facing his first great test. In the city of Rome, a titanic power struggle is about to shake the Republic to its core. Citizen will fight citizen in a bloody conflict – and Julius Caesar will be in the thick of the action.
The track in the woods was a wide causeway to the two boys strolling down it. Both were so dirty with thick, black mud as to be almost unrecognizable as human. The taller of the two had blue eyes that seemed unnaturally bright against the cracking, itching mud that plastered him.
"We're going to be killed for this, Marcus," he said, grinning. In his hand, a sling spun lazily, held taut with the weight of a smooth river pebble.
"Your fault, Gaius, for pushing me in. I told you the riverbed wasn't dry all the way."
As he spoke, the shorter boy laughed and shoved his friend into the bushes that lined the path. He whooped and ran as Gaius scrambled out and set off in pursuit, sling whirring in a disc.
"Battle!" he shouted in his high, unbroken voice.
The beating they would get at home for ruining their tunics was far away, and both boys knew every trick to get out of trouble—all that mattered was charging through the woodland paths at high speed, scaring birds. Both boys were barefoot, already with calluses developing, despite not having seen more than eight summers.
"This time, I'll catch him," Gaius panted to himself as he ran. It was a mystery to him how Marcus, who had the same number of legs and arms, could yet somehow make them move faster than he could. In fact, as he was shorter, his stride should have been a little less, surely?
The leaves whipped by him, stinging his bare arms. He could hear Marcus taunting him up ahead, close. Gaius showed his teeth as his lungs began to hurt.
Without warning, he broke into a clearing at full tilt and skidded to a sudden, shocked stop. Marcus was lying on the ground, trying to sit up and holding his head in his right hand. Three men—no, older boys—were standing there, carrying walking staffs.
Gaius groaned as he took in his surroundings. The chase had carried the two boys off his fathers small estate and into their neighbors' part of the woods. He should have recognized the track that marked the boundary, but he'd been too caught up in catching Marcus for once.
"What do we have here? A couple of little mudfish, crawled up out of the river!"
It was Suetonius who spoke, the eldest son of the neighboring estate. He was fourteen and killing time before he went into the army. He had the sort of trained muscles the two younger boys hadn't begun to develop. He had a mop of blond hair over a face speckled with white-headed eruptions that covered his cheeks and forehead, with a sprinkling of angry-looking red ones disappearing under his praetexta tunic. He also had a long, straight stick, friends to impress, and an afternoon to while away.
Gaius was frightened, knowing he was out of his depth. He and Marcus were trespassing—the best they could expect was a few blows, the worst was a beating with broken bones. He glanced at Marcus and saw him try to stagger to his feet. He'd obviously been belted with something as he ran into the older boys.
"Let us go, Tonius, we're expected back."
"Speaking mudfish! We'll make our fortune, boys! Grab hold of them, I have a roll of twine for tying up pigs that will do just as well for mudfish."
Gaius didn't consider running, with Marcus unable to get away. This wasn't a game—the cruelty of the boys could be managed if they were treated carefully, talked to like scorpions, ready to strike without warning.
The two other boys approached with their staffs held ready. They were both strangers to Gaius. One dragged Marcus to his feet and the other, a hefty, stupid-looking boy, rammed his stick into Gaius's stomach. He doubled up in agony, unable to speak. He could hear the boy laughing as he cramped and groaned, trying to curl into the pain.
"There's a branch that will do. Tie their legs together and string them up to swing. We can see who's the best shot with javelins and stones."
"Your father knows my father," Gaius spat out as the pain in his stomach lessened.
"True—doesn't like him though. My father is a proper patrician, not like yours. Your whole family could be his servants if he wanted. I'd make that mad mother of yours scrub the tiles."
At least he was talking. The thug with the horsehair twine was intent on tying knots at Gaius's feet, ready to hoist him into the air. What could he say to bargain?
His father had no real power in the city. His mothers family had produced a couple of consuls—that was it. Uncle Marius was a powerful man, so his mother said.
"We are nobilitas—my uncle Marius is not a man to cross..."
There was a sudden high-pitched yelp as the string over the branch went tight and Marcus was swung into the air upside down.
"Tie the end to that stump. This fish next," Tonius said, laughing gleefully.
Gaius noted that the two friends followed his orders without question. It would be pointless trying to appeal to one of them.
"Let us down, you spot-covered pus-bag!" Marcus shouted as his face darkened with the rush of blood.
Gaius groaned. Now they would be killed, he was sure.
"You idiot, Marcus. Don't mention his spots; you can see he must be sensitive about them."
Suetonius raised an eyebrow and his mouth opened in astonishment. The heavyset boy paused in throwing the twine over a second branch.
"Oh, you have made a mistake, little fish. Finish stringing that one up, Decius, I'm going to make him bleed a little."
Suddenly, the world tilted sickeningly and Gaius could hear the twine creak and a low whistle in his ears as his head filled with blood. He rotated slowly and came round to see Marcus in a similar predicament. His nose was a little bloody from being knocked down the first time.
"I think you've stopped my nosebleed, Tonius. Thanks." Marcus's voice trembled slightly and Gaius smiled at his bravery.
When he'd first come to live with them, the little boy had been naturally nervous and a little small for his age. Gaius had shown him around the estate and they'd ended up in the hay barn, right at the top of the stacked sheaves. They had looked down at the loose pile far bebw and Gaius had seen Marcus's hands tremble.
"I'll go first and show you how it's done," Gaius had said cheerfully, launching himself feetfirst and whooping.
Below, he'd looked up at the edge for a few seconds, waiting to see Marcus appear. Just as he'd thought it would never happen, a small figure shot into the air, leaping high. Gaius had scrambled out of the way as Marcus crashed into the hay, winded and gasping.
"I thought you were too scared to do it," Gaius had said to the prone figure blinking in the dust.
"I was," Marcus had replied quietly, "but I won't be afraid. I just won't."
The hard voice of Suetonius broke into Gaius's spinning thoughts: "Gentlemen, meat must be tenderized with mallets. Take your stations and begin the technique, like so."
He swung his stick at Gaius's head, catching him over the ear. The world went white, then black, and when he next opened his eyes everything was spinning as the string twisted. For a while, he could feel the blows as Suetonius called out, "One-two-three, one-two-three..."
He thought he could hear Marcus crying and then he passed out to the accompaniment of jeers and laughter.
He woke and went back under a couple of times in the daylight, but it was dusk when he was finally able to stay conscious. His right eye was a heavy mass of blood, and his face felt swollen and caked in stickiness. They were still upside down and swinging gently as the evening breeze came in from the hills.
"Wake up, Marcus—Marcus!"
His friend didn't stir. He looked terrible, like some sort of demon. The crust of crumbling river mud had been broken away, and there was now only a gray dust, streaked with red and purple. His jaw was swollen, and a lump stood out on his temple. His left hand was fat and had a bluish tinge in the failing light. Gaius tried to move his own hands, held by the twine. Though painfully stiff, they both worked and he set about wriggling them free. His young frame was supple and the burst of fresh pain was ignored in the wave of worry he felt for his friend. He had to be all right, he had to be. First, though, Gaius had to get down.
One hand came free and he reached down to the ground, scrabbling in the dust and dead leaves with his fingertips. Nothing. The other hand came free and he widened his area of search, making his body swing in a slow circle. Yes, a small stone with a sharp edge. Now for the difficult part.
"Marcus! Can you hear me? I'm going to get us down, don't you worry. Then I'm going to kill Suetonius and his fat friends."
Marcus swung gently in silence, his mouth open and slack. Gaius took a deep breath and readied himself for the pain. Under normal circumstances, reaching up to cut through a piece of heavy twine with only a sharp stone would have been difficult, but with his abdomen a mass of bruises, it felt like an impossible task.
He heaved himself up, crying out with the pain from his stomach. He jackknifed up to the branch and gripped it with both hands, lungs heaving with the effort. He felt weak and his vision blurred. He thought he would vomit, and could do no more than just hold on for a few moments. Then, inch by inch, he released the hand with the stone and leaned back, giving himself enough room to reach the twine and saw at it, trying not to catch his skin where it had bitten into the flesh.
The stone was depressingly blunt and he couldn't hold on for long. Gaius tried to let go before his hands slipped so he could control the fall back, but it was too hard.
"Still got the stone," he muttered to himself. "Try again, before Suetonius comes back."
Another thought struck him. His father could have returned from Rome. He was due back any day now. It was growing dark and he would be worried. Already, he could be out looking for the two boys, coming nearer to this spot, calling their names. He must not find them like this. It would be too humiliating.
"Marcus? We'll tell everyone we fell. I don't want my father to know about this."
Marcus creaked round in a circle, oblivious.
Five times more, Gaius spasmed up and sawed at the twine before it parted. He hit the ground almost flat and sobbed as his torn and tortured muscles twitched and jumped.
He tried to ease Marcus to the ground, but the weight was too much for him and the thump made him wince.
As Marcus landed, he opened his eyes at the fresh pain.
"My hand," he whispered, his voice cracking.
"Broken, I'd say. Don't move it. We have to get out of here in case Suetonius comes back or my father tries to find us. It's nearly dark. Can you stand?"
"I can, I think, though my legs feel weak. That Tonius is a bastard," Marcus muttered. He did not try to open his swollen jaw, but spoke through fat and broken lips.
Gaius nodded grimly. "True—we have a score to settle there, I think."
Marcus smiled and winced at the sting of opening cuts. "Not until we've healed a bit, though, eh? I'm not up to taking him on at the moment."
Propping each other up, the two boys staggered home in the darkness, walking a mile over the cornfields, past the slave quarters for the field workers and up to the main buildings. As expected, the oil lamps were still lit, lining the walls of the main house.
"Tubruk will be waiting for us; he never sleeps," Gaius muttered as they passed under the pillars of the outer gate.
A voice from the shadows made them both jump.
"A good thing too. I would have hated to miss this spectacle. You are lucky your father is not here; he'd have taken the skin off your backs for returning to the villa looking like this. What was it this time?"
Tubruk stepped into the yellow light of the lamps and leaned forward. He was a powerfully built ex-gladiator, who'd bought the position of overseer to the small estate outside Rome and never looked back. Gaius's father said he was one in a thousand for organizing talent. The slaves worked well under him, some from fear and some from liking. He sniffed at the two young boys.
"Fall in the river, did we? Smells like it."
They nodded happily at this explanation.
"Mind you, you didn't pick up those stick marks from a river bottom, did you? Suetonius, was it? I should have kicked his backside for him years ago, when he was young enough for it to make a difference. Well?"
"No, Tubruk, we had an argument and fought each other. No one else was involved and even if there had been, we would want to handle it ourselves, you see?"
Tubruk grinned at this from such a small boy. He was forty-five years of age, with hair that had gone gray in his thirties. He had been a legionary in Africa in the Third Cyrenaica legion, and had fought nearly a hundred battles as a gladiator, collecting a mass of scars on his body. He put out his great spade of a hand and rubbed his square fingers through Gaius's hair.
"I do see, little wolf. You are your father's son. You cannot handle everything yet, though; you are just a little lad, and Suetonius—or whoever—is shaping into a fine young warrior, so I hear. Mind yourselves, his father is too powerful to be an enemy in the Senate."
Gaius drew himself up to his full height and spoke as formally as he knew how, trying to assert his position. "It is luck, then, that this Suetonius is in no way attached to ourselves," he replied.
Tubruk nodded as if he had accepted the point, trying not to grin.
Gaius continued more confidently: "Send Lucius to me to look at our wounds. My nose is broken and almost certainly Marcus's hand is the same."
Tubruk watched them totter into the main house and resumed his post in the darkness, guarding the gate on first watch, as he did each night. It would be full summer soon and the days would be almost too hot to bear. It was good to be alive with the sky so clear and honest work ahead.
The following morning was an agony of protest from muscles, cuts, and joints; the two days after that were worse. Marcus had succumbed to a fever that the physician said entered his head through the broken bone of his hand, which swelled to astonishing proportions as it was strapped and splinted. For days he was hot and had to be kept in darkness, while Gaius fretted on the steps outside. Almost exactly one week after the attack in the woods, Marcus was lying asleep, still weak, but recovering. Gaius could still feel pain as he stretched his muscles, and his face was a pretty collection of yellow and purple patches, shiny and tight in places as they healed. It was time, though: time to find Suetonius.
As he walked through the woods of the family estate, his mind was full of thoughts of fear and pain. What if Suetonius didn't show up? There was no reason to suppose that he made regular trips into the woods. What if the older boy was with his friends again? They would kill him, no doubt about it. Gaius had brought a bow with him this time, and practiced drawing it as he walked. It was a man's bow and too large for him, but he found he could plant the end in the ground and pull an arrow back enough to frighten Suetonius, if the boy refused to back down.
"Suetonius, you are a pus-filled bag of dung. If I catch you on my father's land, I will put an arrow through your head."
He spoke aloud as he went along. It was a beautiful day to walk in the woods, and he might have enjoyed it if it weren't for his serious purpose in being there. This time, too, he had his brown hair oiled tight against his head and clean, simple clothes that allowed him easy movements and an unrestricted draw.
He was still on his side of the estate border, so Gaius was surprised when he heard footsteps up ahead and saw Suetonius and a giggling girl appear suddenly on the wide track. The older boy didn't notice him for a moment, so intent was he on grappling with the girl.
"You're trespassing," Gaius snapped, pleased to hear his voice come out steady, even if it was high. "You're on my father's estate."
Suetonius jumped and swore in shock. As he saw Gaius plant one end of the bow in the path and understood the threat, he began to laugh.
"A little wolf now! A creature of many forms, it seems. Didn't you get enough of a beating last time, little wolf?"
The girl seemed very pretty to Gaius, but he wished she would go away and lose herself. He had not imagined a female present for this encounter and felt a new level of danger from Suetonius.
Suetonius put a melodramatic arm around the girl.
"Careful, my dear. He is a dangerous fighter. He is especially dangerous when upside down—then he is unstoppable!" He laughed at his own joke and the girl joined in.
"Is he that one you mentioned, Tonius? Look at his angry little face!"
"If I see you here again, I'll put an arrow through you," Gaius said quickly, the words tumbling over themselves. He pulled the shaft back a few inches. "Leave now or I will strike you down."
Suetonius had stopped smiling as he weighed up his chances.
"All right then, parvus lupus, I'll give you what you seem to want."
Without warning, he rushed at him, and Gaius released the arrow too quickly. It struck the tunic of the older boy but fell away without piercing. Suetonius yelled in triumph and stepped forward with his hands outstretched and his eyes cruel. Gaius whipped the bow up in panic, hitting the older boy on the nose. Blood spurted and Tonius roared in rage and pain, his eyes filling with tears. As Gaius raised the bow again, Tonius seized it with one hand and Gaius's throat with the other, carrying him back six or seven paces with the sheer fury of his charge.
"Any other threats?" he growled as his grip tightened. Blood poured from his nose and stained his praetexta tunic. He wrenched the bow away from Gaius's grasp and set about him with it, raining blows, but all the time keeping hold of his throat.
He's going to kill me and pretend it was an accident, Gaius thought desperately. I can see it in his eyes. I can't breathe.
He pummeled at the larger boy with his own fists, but his reach was not enough to do any real damage. His vision lost color, becoming like a dream; his ears ceased to hear sound. He lost consciousness as Tonius threw him down onto the wet leaves.
Tubruk found Gaius on the path about an hour later and woke him by pouring water onto his bruised and battered head. Once again, his face was a crusted mess. His barely scabbed eye had filled with blood, so that his vision was dark on that side. His nose had been rebroken and everything else was a bruise.
"Tubruk?" he murmured, dazed. "I fell out of a tree."
The big mans laugh echoed in the closeness of the dense woods.
"You know, lad, no one doubts your courage. It's your ability to fight I'm not too sure about. It's time you were properly trained before you get yourself killed. When your father is back from the city, I'll raise it with him."
"You won't tell him about... me falling from the tree? I hit a lot of branches on the way down." Gaius could taste blood in his mouth, leaking back from the broken nose.
"Did you manage to hit the tree at all? Even once?" Tubruk asked, looking at the scuffed leaves and reading the answers for himself.
"The tree has a nose like mine, I'd say." Gaius tried to smile, but vomited into the bushes instead.
"Hmmm. Is this the end of it, do you think? I can't let you carry on and see you crippled or dead. When your father is away in the city, he expects you to begin to learn your responsibilities as his heir and a patrician, not an urchin involved in pointless brawls." Tubruk paused to pick up a battered bow from the undergrowth. The string had snapped and he tutted.
"I should tan your backside for stealing this bow as well."
Gaius nodded miserably.
"No more fights, understand?" Tubruk pulled him to his feet and wiped away some of the mud from the track.
"No more fights. Thank you for coming to get me," Gaius replied.
The boy tottered and almost fell as he spoke, and the old gladiator sighed. With a quick heave, he lifted the boy up to his shoulders and carried him down to the main house, shouting "Duck!" when they came to low branches.
Except for the splinted hand, Marcus was back to his usual self by the following week. He was shorter than Gaius by about two inches, brown-haired and strong-limbed. His arms were a little out of proportion, which he claimed would make him a great swordsman when he was older because of the extra reach. He could juggle four apples and would have tried with knives if the kitchen slaves hadn't told Aurelia, Gaius's mother. She had screamed at him until he promised never to try it. The memory still made him pause whenever he picked up a blade to eat.
When Tubruk had brought the barely conscious Gaius back to the villa, Marcus was out of bed, having crept down to the vast kitchen complex. He'd been in the middle of dipping his fingers into the fat-smeared iron pans when he heard the voices and trotted past the rows of heavy brick ovens to Lucius's sickroom.
As always when they hurt themselves, Lucius, a physician slave, tended to the wounds. He looked after the estate slaves as well as the family, binding swellings, applying maggot poultices to infections, pulling teeth with his pliers, and sewing up cuts. He was a quiet, patient man who always breathed through his nose as he concentrated. The soft whistle of air from the elderly physician's lungs had come to mean peace and safety to the boys. Gaius knew that Lucius would be freed when his father died, as a reward for his silent care of Aurelia.
Marcus sat and munched on bread and black fat as Lucius set the broken nose yet again.
"Suetonius beat you again then?" he asked.
Gaius nodded, unable to speak or to see through watering eyes.
"You should have waited for me, we could have taken him together."
Gaius couldn't even nod. Lucius finished probing the nasal cartilage and made a sharp pull, to set the loose piece in line. Fresh blood poured over the day's clotted mixture.
"By the bloody temples, Lucius, careful! You almost had my nose right off then!"
Lucius smiled and began to cut fresh linen into strips to bind around the head.
In the respite, Gaius turned to his friend. "You have a broken, splinted hand and bruised or cracked ribs. You cannot fight."
Marcus looked at him thoughtfully. "Perhaps. Will you try again? He'll kill you if you do, you know."
Gaius gazed at him calmly over the bandages as Lucius packed up his materials and rose to leave.
"Thanks, Lucius. He won't kill me because I'll beat him. I simply need to adjust my strategy, that's all."
"He's going to kill you," repeated Marcus, biting into a dried apple, stolen from the winter stores.
A week later to the day, Marcus rose at dawn and began his exercises, which he believed would stimulate the reflexes needed to be a great swordsman. His room was a simple cell of white stone, containing only his bed and a trunk with his personal possessions. Gaius had the adjoining room and, on his way to the toilet, Marcus kicked the door to wake him up. He entered the small room and chose one of the four stone-rimmed holes that led to a sewer of constantly running water, a miracle of engineering that meant there was little or no smell, with the night soil washing out into the river that ran through the valley. He removed the capstone and pulled up his night shift.
Gaius had not stirred when he returned, and he opened the door to chide him for his laziness. The room was empty and Marcus felt a surge of disappointment.
"You should have taken me with you, my friend. You didn't have to make it so obvious that you didn't need me."
He dressed quickly and set out after Gaius as the sun cleared the valley rim, lighting the estates even as the field slaves bent to work in the first session.
What mist there was burned off rapidly, even in the cooler woods. Marcus found Gaius on the border of the two estates. He was unarmed.
As Marcus came up behind him, Gaius turned, a look of horror on his face. When he saw it was his friend, he relaxed and smiled.
"Glad you came, Marcus. I didn't know what time he'd arrive, so I've been here awhile. I thought you were him for a moment."
"I'd have waited with you, you know. I'm your friend, remember. Also, I owe him a beating as well."
"Your hand is broken, Marcus. Anyway, I owe him two beatings to your one."
"True, but I could have jumped on him from a tree, or tripped him as he ran in."
"Tricks don't win battles. I will beat him with my strength."
For a moment, Marcus was silenced. There was something cold and unforgiving in the usually sunny boy he faced.
The sun rose slowly, shadows changed. Marcus sat down, at first in a crouch and then with his legs sprawled out in front of him. He would not speak first. Gaius had made it a contest of seriousness. He could not stand for hours, as Gaius seemed willing to do. The shadows moved. Marcus marked their positions with sticks and estimated that they had waited three hours when Suetonius appeared silently, walking along the path. He smiled a slow smile when he saw them and paused.
"I am beginning to like you, little wolf. I think I will kill you today, or perhaps break your leg. What do you think would be fair?"
Gaius smiled and stood as tall and as straight as he could. "I would kill me. If you don't, I will keep fighting you until I am big and strong enough to kill you. And then I will have your woman, after I have given her to my friend."
Marcus looked in horror as he heard what Gaius was saying. Maybe they should just run. Suetonius squinted at the boys and pulled a short, vicious little blade from his belt.
"Little wolf, mudfish—you are too stupid to get angry at, but you yap like puppies. I will make you quiet again."
He ran at them. Just before he reached the pair, the ground gave way with a crack and he disappeared from sight in a rush of air and an explosion of dust and leaves.
"Built you a wolf trap, Suetonius," Gaius shouted cheerfully.
The fourteen-year-old jumped for the sides, and Gaius and Marcus spent a hilarious few minutes stamping on his fingers as he tried to gain a purchase in the dry earth. He screamed abuse at them and they slapped each other on the back and jeered at him.
"I thought of dropping a big rock in on you, like they do with wolves in the north," Gaius said quietly when Suetonius had been reduced to sullen anger. "But you didn't kill me, so I won't kill you. I might not even tell anyone how we dropped Suetonius into a wolf trap. Good luck in getting out."
Suddenly, he let rip with a war whoop, quickly followed by Marcus, their cries and ecstatic yells disappearing into the woods as they pelted away, on top of the world.
As they pounded along the paths, Marcus called over his shoulder, "I thought you said you'd beat him with your strength!"
"I did. I was up all night digging that hole."
The sun shone through the trees and they felt as if they could run all day.
Left alone, Suetonius scrabbled up the sides, caught an edge, and heaved himself over and out. For a while, he sat there and contemplated his muddy praetexta and breeches. He frowned for most of the way home, but as he cleared the trees and came out into the sunshine, he began to laugh.
Gaius and Marcus walked behind Tubruk as he paced out a new field for ploughing. Every five paces, he would stretch out a hand and Gaius would pass him a peg from a heavy basket. Tubruk himself carried twine wrapped in a great ball around a wooden spindle. Ever patient, he would tie the twine around a peg and then hand it to Marcus to hold while he hammered it into the hard ground. Occasionally, Tubruk would sight back along the lengthening line at the landmarks he had noted and grunt in satisfaction before carrying on.
It was dull work and both boys wanted to escape down to the Campus Martius, the huge field just outside the city where they could ride and join in the sports.
"Hold it steady," Tubruk snapped at Marcus as the boy's attention wandered.
"How much longer, Tubruk?" Gaius asked.
"As long as it takes to finish the job properly. The fields must be marked out for the ploughman, then the posts hammered in to set the boundary. Your father wants to increase the estate revenues, and these fields have good soil for figs, which we can sell in the city markets."
Gaius looked around him at the green and golden hills that made up his father's land.
"Is this a rich estate then?"
Tubruk chuckled. "It serves to feed and clothe you, but we don't have enough land to plant much barley or wheat for bread. Our crops have to be small and that means we have to concentrate on the things the city wants to buy. The flower gardens produce seeds that are crushed to make face oils for highborn city ladies, and your father has purchased a dozen hives to house new swarms of bees. You boys will have honey at every meal in a few months, and that brings in a good price as well."
"Can we help with the hives when the bees come?" Marcus spoke up, showing a sudden interest.
"Perhaps, though they take careful handling. Old Tadius used to keep bees before he became a slave. I hope to use him to collect the honey. Bees don't like to have their winter stores stolen away from them, and it needs a practiced hand. Hold that peg steady now—that's a stade, 625 feet. We'll turn a corner here."
"Will you need us for much longer, Tubruk? We were hoping to take ponies into the city and see if we can listen to the Senate debate."
Tubruk snorted. "You were going to ride into the Campus, you mean, and race your ponies against the other boys. Hmm? There's only this last side to mark out today. I can have the men set the posts tomorrow. Another hour or two should see us finished."
The two boys looked at each other glumly. Tubruk put down his spindle and mallet and stretched his back with a sigh. He tapped Gaius on the shoulder gently.
"This is your land we're working on, remember. It belonged to your father's father, and when you have children, it will belong to them. Look at this."
Tubruk crouched down on one knee and broke the hard ground with the peg and mallet, tapping until the churned, black soil was visible. He pressed his hand into the earth and gripped a handful of the dark substance, holding it up for their inspection.
Gaius and Marcus looked bemused as he crumbled the dirt between his fingers.
"There have been Romans standing where we are standing for hundreds of years. This dirt is more than just earth. It is us, the dust of the men and women who have gone before us. You came from this and you will go back to it. Others will walk over you and never know you were once there and as alive as they themselves."
"The family tomb is on the road to the city," Gaius muttered, nervous in the face of Tubruks sudden intensity.
The old gladiator shrugged. "In recent years, but our people have been here for longer than there was ever a city there. We have bled and died in these fields in long-forgotten wars. We will again perhaps, in wars in years to come. Put your hand into the ground."
Reaching out to the reluctant boy, he took Gaius's hand and pushed it into the broken soil, closing the fingers over as he withdrew it.
"You hold history, boy. Land that has seen things we cannot. You hold your family and Rome in your hand. It will grow crops for us and feed us and make money for us so that we can enjoy luxuries. Without it, we are nothing. Land is everything, and wherever you travel in the world, only this soil will be truly yours. Only this simple black muck you hold will be home to you."
Marcus watched the exchange, his expression serious. "Will it be home to me as well?"
For a moment, Tubruk did not answer, instead holding Gaius's gaze as the boy gripped the soil tightly in his hand. Then he turned to Marcus and smiled.
"Of course, lad. Are you not Roman? Is not the city as much yours as anyone's?" The smile faded and he returned his gaze to Gaius. "But this estate is Gaius's own and one day he will be master of it and look down on shaded fig groves and buzzing hives and remember when he was just a little lad and all he wanted was to show new tricks on his pony to the other boys of the Campus Martius."
He did not see the sadness that came onto Marcus's face for a moment.
Gaius opened his hand and placed the earth back in the broken spot Tubruk had made, pressing it down thoughtfully.
"Let us finish the marking then," he said, and Tubruk nodded as he rose to his feet.
The sun was going down as the two boys crossed one of the Tiber bridges that led to the Campus Martius. Tubruk had insisted they wash and change into clean tunics before setting out, but even at that late hour the vast space was still full of the young of Rome, gathered in groups, throwing discuses and javelins, kicking balls to each other and riding ponies and horses with shouted encouragement. It was a noisy place and the boys loved to watch the wrestling tournaments and chariot practices.
Young as they were, they were both confident in the high saddles that gripped them at the groin and buttocks, holding them secure through maneuvers. Their legs hung long over the ribs of the steeds, gripping tight in the turns for added stability.
Gaius looked around for Suetonius and was pleased not to see him in the crowds. They hadn't met again after trapping him in the wolf pit, and that was how Gaius wanted to leave it—with the battle won and over. Further skirmishes could only mean trouble.
He and Marcus rode up to a group of children near their own age and hailed them, dismounting with a leg flung over the pony's side. No one they knew was there, but the group parted as they approached, and the mood was friendly, their attention on a man with a discus gripped in his right hand.
"That's Tani. He's the champion of his legion," one boy muttered aloud to Gaius.
As they watched, Tani launched himself, spinning on the spot and releasing the disc at the setting sun. There were whistles of appreciation as it flew, and one or two of the boys clapped.
Tani turned to them. "Take care. It'll be coming back this way in a moment."
Gaius could see another man run to the fallen disc and pick it up before spinning it into flight once more. This time, the discus was released at a wide angle and the crowd scattered as it soared toward them. One boy was slower than the rest, and when the discus hit and skipped, it caught him in the side with a thump, even as he tried to dodge. He fell winded, and groaned as Tani ran up to his side.
"Good stop, lad. Are you all right?"
The boy nodded, clambering to his feet but still holding his side in pain. Tani patted him on the shoulder, stooping smoothly to pick up the fallen discus. He returned to his spot to throw again.
"Anyone racing horses today?" Marcus asked.
A few turned and weighed him up, casting gazes at the sturdy little pony Tubruk had chosen for him.
"Not so far. We came to watch the wrestling, but it finished an hour ago." The speaker indicated a trampled space nearby where a square had been marked out on the grassy ground. A few men and women stood in clusters nearby, talking and eating.
"I can wrestle," Gaius broke in quickly, his face lighting up. "We could have our own competition."
The group murmured interest. "Pairs?"
"All at once—last one standing is the winner?" Gaius replied. "We need a prize, though. How about we all put in what money we have and last one standing takes the collection?"
The boys in the crowd discussed this and many began to search in their tunics for coins, giving them to the largest, who walked with confidence as the pile of coins grew in his hands.
"I'm Petronius. There's about twenty quadrantes here. How much have you got?"
"Any coins, Marcus? I have a couple of bronze bits." Gaius added them to the boy's handful and Marcus added three more.
Petronius smiled as he counted again. "A fair collection. Now, as I'm taking part, I'll need someone to hold it for me until I win." He grinned at the two newcomers.
"I'll hold it for you, Petronius," a girl said, accepting the coins into her smaller hands.
"My sister, Lavia," he explained.
She winked at Gaius and Marcus, a smaller but still stocky version of her brother.
Chatting cheerfully, the group made their way over to the marked square, and only a few remained on the outside to watch. Gaius counted seven other boys in addition to Petronius, who began limbering up confidently.
"What rules?" Gaius said as he stretched his own legs and back.
Petronius gathered the group together with a gesture. "No punching. If you land on your back, you are out. All right?"
The boys agreed grimly, the mood becoming hostile as they eyed each other.
Lavia spoke from the side: "I'll call start. All ready?"
The contestants nodded. Gaius noted that a few other people were wandering over, always ready to view or bet on a contest in whatever form. The air smelled cleanly of grass and he felt full of life. He scuffed his feet and remembered what Tubruk had said about the soil. Roman earth, fed with the blood and bones of his ancestors. It felt strong under his feet and he set himself. The moment seemed to hold, and nearby he could see Tani the discus champion spin and release again, his discus flying high and straight over the Campus Martius. The sun was reddening as it sank, giving a warm cast to the tense boys in the square.
"Begin!" Lavia shouted.
Gaius dropped to one knee, spoiling a lunge that went over his head. He shoved up then, with all the strength of his thighs, taking another boy off his feet and leaving him flat on the dusty grass. As Gaius rose, he was hammered from the side, but spun as he fell so that his unknown attacker hit the ground first, with Gaius's weight knocking the wind from him.
Marcus was locked in a grip with Petronius, their hands tight on each other's armpits and shoulders. Another struggling combatant was shoved blindly into Petronius and the pair fell roughly, but Gaius's moment of inattention was punished by an arm circling his neck from behind and tightening on his windpipe. He kicked out backward and raked his sandals down someone's shin, hacking back with an elbow at the same time. He felt the grip loosen but then they were both sent sprawling by a knot of fighting boys. Gaius hit the ground hard and scrambled to get to the side of the square, even as a foot clouted into his cheek, splitting the skin.
Anger swelled for a moment, but he saw his attacker hadn't even registered him, and he retired to the edge of the square, cheering on Marcus, who had regained his feet. Petronius was down and out, knocked cold, and only Marcus and two others were still in the competition. The crowd that had gathered to watch were yelling encouragement and making side bets. Marcus grabbed one of the pair by the crotch and neck and tried to lift him into the air for throwing. The boy struggled wildly as his feet came off the ground, and Marcus staggered with him just as the last gripped him around his own chest and knocked him over backward in a heaving pile of limbs.
The stranger came to his feet with a whoop and took a circuit of the square with his hands held high. Gaius could hear Marcus laughing and breathed deeply in the summer air as his friend stood up, brushing off the dust. In the middle distance, beyond the vast Campus, Gaius could see the city, built on seven ancient hills centuries before. All around him were the shouts and cries of his people, and underneath his feet, his land.
In hot darkness, lit only by a crescent moon that signaled the month coming to a close, the two boys made their way in silence over the fields and paths of the estate. The air was filled with the smell of fruit and flowers, and crickets creaked in the bushes. They walked without speaking until they reached the place where they had stood with Tubruk earlier in the day, at the corner of the peg-marked line of a new field.
With the moon giving so little light, Gaius had to feel along the twine until he came to the broken spot at the corner, and then he stood and drew a slim knife from his belt, taken from the kitchens. Concentrating, he drew the sharp blade across the ball of his thumb. It sank in deeper than he had intended and blood poured out over his hand. He passed the blade to Marcus and held the thumb high, slightly worried by the injury and hoping to slow the bleeding.
Marcus drew the knife along his own thumb, once, then twice, creating a scratch from which he squeezed a few swelling beads of blood.
"I've practically cut my thumb off here!" Gaius said irritably.
Marcus tried to look serious, but failed. He held out his hand and they pressed them together so that the blood mingled in the darkness. Then Gaius pushed his bleeding thumb into the broken ground, wincing. Marcus watched him for a long moment before copying the action.
"Now you are a part of this estate as well and we are brothers," Gaius said.
Marcus nodded and in silence they began the walk back to the sprawling white buildings of the estate. Invisibly in the darkness, Marcus's eyes brimmed and he wiped his hand over them quickly, leaving a smear of blood on his skin.
Gaius stood on the top of the estate gates, shading his eyes against the bright sun as he looked toward Rome. Tubruk had said his father would be returning from the city, and he wanted to be the first to see him on the road. He spat on his hand and ran it through his dark hair to smooth it down.
He enjoyed being away from the chores and cares of his life. The slaves below rarely looked up as they passed from one part of the estate buildings to another, and it was a peculiar feeling to watch and yet be unobserved: a moment of privacy and quiet. Somewhere, his mother would be looking for him to carry a basket for her to collect fruit, or Tubruk would be looking for someone to wax and oil the leather harnesses of the horses and oxen or perform one of a thousand other little tasks. Somehow, the thought of all those things he was not doing raised his spirits. They couldn't find him and he was in his own little place, watching the road to Rome.
He saw the dust trail and stood up on the gatepost. He wasn't sure. The rider was still far away, but there weren't too many estates that could be reached from their road, and the chances were good.
After another few minutes he was able to see the man on the horse clearly and let out a whoop, scrambling to the ground in a rush of arms and legs. The gate itself was heavy, but Gaius threw his weight against it and it creaked open enough for him to squeeze through and run off down the road to meet his father.
His child's sandals slapped against the hard ground and he pumped his arms enthusiastically as he raced toward the approaching figure. His father had been gone for a full month, and Gaius wanted to show him how much he had grown in the time. Everyone said so.
"Tata!" he called, and his father heard and reined in as the boy ran up to him. He looked tired and dusty, but Gaius saw the beginnings of a smile crease against the blue eyes.
"Is this a beggar or a small bandit I see on the road?" his father said, reaching out an arm to lift his son to the saddle.
Gaius laughed as he was swung into the air and gripped his father's back as the horse began a slower walk up to the estate walls.
"You are taller than when I saw you last," his father said, his voice light.
"A little. Tubruk says I am growing like corn."
His father nodded in response and there was a friendly silence between them that lasted until they reached the gates. Gaius slid off the horse's back and heaved the gate wide enough for his father to enter the estate.
"Will you be home for long this time?"
His father dismounted and ruffled his hair, ruining the spit-smoothness he'd worked at.
"A few days, perhaps a week. I wish it were more, but there is always work to be done for the Republic." He handed the reins to his son. "Take old Mercury here to the stables and rub him down properly. I'll see you again after I have inspected the staff and spoken to your mother."
Gaius's open expression tightened at the mention of Aurelia, and his father noticed. He sighed and put his hand on his sons shoulder, making him meet his gaze.
"I want to spend more time away from the city, lad, but what I do is important to me. Do you understand the word 'Republic'?"
Gaius nodded and his father looked skeptical.
"I doubt it. Few enough of my fellow senators seem to. We live an idea, a system of government that allows everyone to have a voice, even the common man. Do you realize how rare that is? Every other little country I have known has a king or a chief running it. He gives land to his friends and takes money from those who fall out with him. It is like having a child loose with a sword.
"In Rome, we have the rule of law. It is not yet perfect or even as fair as I would like, but it tries to be, and that is what I devote my life to. It is worth my life—and yours too when the time comes."
"I miss you, though," Gaius replied, knowing it was selfish.
His father's gaze hardened slightly, then he reached out to ruffle Gaius's hair once more.
"And I miss you too. Your knees are filthy and that tunic is more suitable for a street child, but I miss you too. Go and clean yourself up—but only after you have rubbed Mercury down."
He watched his son trudge away, leading the horse, and smiled ruefully. He was a little taller. Tubruk was right.
In the stables, Gaius rubbed the flanks of his father's horse, smoothing away sweat and dust and thinking over his fathers words. The idea of a republic sounded very fine, but being a king was clearly more exciting.
Whenever Gaius's father, Julius, had been away for a long absence, Aurelia insisted on a formal meal in the long triclinium. The two boys would sit on children's stools next to the long couches, on which Aurelia and her husband would recline barefoot, with the food served on low tables by the household slaves.
Gaius and Marcus hated the meals. They were forbidden to chatter and sat in painful silence through each course, allowing the table servants only a quick rub of their fingers between dipping them into the food. Although their appetites were large, Gaius and Marcus had learned not to offend Aurelia by eating too quickly and so were forced to chew and swallow as slowly as the adults while the evening shadows lengthened.
Bathed and dressed in clean clothes, Gaius felt hot and uncomfortable with his parents. His father had put aside the informality of their meeting on the road and now talked with his wife as if the two boys did not exist. Gaius watched his mother closely when he could, looking for the trembling that would signal one of her fits. At first, they had terrified him and left him sobbing, but after years an emotional callousness had grown, and occasionally he even hoped for the trembling so that he and Marcus would be sent from the table.
He tried to listen and be interested in the conversation, but it was all about developments in the laws and city ordinances. His father never seemed to come home with exciting stories of executions or famous street villains.
"You have too much faith in the people, Julius," Aurelia was saying. "They need looking after as a child needs a father. Some have wit and intelligence, I agree, but most have to be protected..." She trailed off and silence fell.
Julius looked up and Gaius saw a sadness come into his face, making Gaius look away, embarrassed, as if he had witnessed an intimacy.
Gaius heard his father's voice and looked back at his mother, who lay like a statue, her eyes focused on some distant scene. Her hand trembled and suddenly her face twisted like a child's. The tremor that began in her hand spread to her whole body, and she twisted in spasm, one arm sweeping bowls from the low table. Her voice I erupted violently from her throat, a torrent of screeching sound that made the boys wince.
Julius rose smoothly from his seat and took his wife in his arms.
"Leave us," he commanded, and Gaius and Marcus went out with the slaves, leaving behind them the man holding the twisting figure.
The following morning, Gaius was woken by Tubruk shaking his shoulder.
"Get up, lad. Your mother wants to see you."
Gaius groaned, almost to himself, but Tubruk heard.
"She is always quiet after a... bad night."
Gaius paused as he pulled clothes on. He looked up at the old gladiator.
"Sometimes I hate her."
Tubruk sighed gently. "I wish you could have known her as she was before the sickness began. She used to sing to herself all the time, and the house was always happy. You have to think that your mother is still there, but can't get out to you. She does love you, you know."
Gaius nodded and smoothed his hair down carelessly.
"Has my father gone back to the city?" he asked, knowing the answer. His father hated to feel helpless.
"He left at dawn," Tubruk replied.
Without another word, Gaius followed him through the cool corridors to his mother's rooms.
She sat upright in bed, her face freshly washed and her long hair braided behind her. Her skin was pale, but she smiled as Gaius entered, and he was able to smile back.
"Come closer, Gaius. I am sorry if I scared you last night."
He came into her arms and let her hold him, feeling nothing. How could he tell her he wasn't scared anymore? He had seen it too many times, each worse than the last. Some part of him knew that she would get worse and worse, that she was already leaving him. But he could not think of that—better to keep it inside, to smile and hug her and walk away untouched.
"What are you going to do today?" she asked as she released him.
"Chores with Marcus," he replied.
She nodded and seemed to forget him. He waited for a few seconds and, when there was no further response, turned and walked from the room.
When the tiny space in her thoughts faded and she focused again on the room, it was empty.
* * *
Marcus met him at the gates, carrying a bird net. He looked into his friend's eyes and made his tone light and cheerful.
"I feel lucky today. We'll catch a hawk—two hawks. We'll train them and they'll sit on our shoulders, attacking on our command. Suetonius will run when he sees us."
Gaius chuckled and cleared his mind of thoughts of his mother. He missed his father already, but the day was going to be a long one and there was always something to do in the woods. He doubted Marcus's idea of hawk-catching would work, but he would go along with it until the day was over and all the paths had been walked.
The green gloom almost made them miss the raven that sat on a low branch, not far from the sunlit fields. Marcus froze as he saw it first and pressed a hand against Gaius's chest.
"Look at the size of it!" he whispered, unwrapping his bird net.
They crouched down and crept forward, watched with interest by the bird. Even for a raven it was large, and it spread heavy black wings as they approached, before almost hopping to the next tree with one lazy flap.
"You circle around," Marcus whispered, his voice excited. He backed this up with circling motions of his fingers, and Gaius grinned at him, slipping into the undergrowth to one side. He crept around in a large circle, trying to keep the tree in sight while checking the path for dry twigs or rustling leaves.
When Gaius emerged on the far side, he saw the raven had changed trees again, this time to a long trunk that had fallen years before. The gentle slope of the trunk was easy to climb, and Marcus had already begun to inch up it toward the bird, at the same time trying to keep the net free for throwing.
Gaius padded closer to the base of the tree. Why doesn't it fly away? he thought, looking up at the raven. It cocked its large head to one side and opened its wings again. Both boys froze until the bird seemed to relax, then Marcus levered himself upward again, legs dangling on each side of the thick trunk.
Marcus was only feet from the bird when he thought it would fly off again. It hopped about on the trunk and branches, seemingly unafraid. He unfolded the net, a web of rough twine usually used for holding onions in the estate kitchens. In Marcus's hands, it had instantly become the fearsome instrument of a bird catcher.
Holding his breath, he threw it, and the raven took off with a scream of indignation. It flapped its wings once again and landed in the slender branches of a young sapling near Gaius, who ran at it without thinking.
As Marcus scrambled down, Gaius shoved at the sapling and felt the whole thing give with a sudden crack, pinning the bird in the leaves and branches on the ground. With Gaius pressing it all down, Marcus was able to reach in and hold the heavy bird, gripping it tightly in his two hands. He raised it triumphantly and then hung on desperately as the raven struggled to escape.
"Help me! He's strong," Marcus shouted, and Gaius added his own hands to the struggling bundle. Suddenly an agonizing pain shot through him. The beak was long and curved like a spear of black wood. It jabbed at his hand, catching and gripping the piece of soft flesh between thumb and first finger.
Gaius yelped. "Get it off. It's got my hand, Marcus." The pain was excruciating and they panicked together, with Marcus fighting to hold his grip while Gaius tried to lever the vicious beak off his skin.
"I can't get it off, Marcus."
"You'll have to pull it," Marcus replied grimly, his face red with the effort of holding the enraged bird.
"I can't, it's like a knife. Let it go."
"I'm not letting it go. This raven is ours. We caught it in the wild, like hunters."
Gaius groaned with pain.
"It caught us, more like." His fingers waved in agony and the raven let go without warning, trying to snap at one of them. Gaius gasped in relief and backed off hurriedly, holding his hands against his groin and doubling over.
"He's a fighter, anyway," Marcus said with a grin, shifting his grip so the searching head couldn't find his own flesh. "We'll take him home and train him. Ravens are intelligent, I've heard. He'll learn tricks and come with us when we go to the Campus Martius."
"He needs a name. Something warlike," Gaius replied, in between sucking his torn skin.
"What's the name of that god who goes round as a raven or carries one?"
"I don't know, one of the Greek ones, I think. Zeus?"
"That's an owl, I think. Someone has an owl."
"I don't remember one with a raven, but Zeus is a good name for him."
They smiled at each other and the raven went quiet, looking around him with apparent calmness.
"Zeus it is, then."
They walked back over the fields to the estate, with the bird held firmly in Marcus's grasp.
"We'll have to find somewhere to hide him," he said. "Your mother doesn't like us catching animals. You remember when she found out about the fox?"
Gaius winced, looking at the ground. "There's an empty chicken coop next to the stables. We could put him in there. What do ravens eat?"
"Meat, I think. They scavenge battlefields, unless that's crows. We can get a few scraps from the kitchens and see what he takes, anyway. That won't be a problem."
"We'll have to tie twine to his legs for the training, otherwise he'll fly off," Gaius said thoughtfully.
Tubruk was talking to three carpenters who were to repair part of the estate roof. He spotted the boys as they walked into the estate yard, and motioned them over to him. They looked at each other, wondering if they could run, but Tubruk wouldn't let them get more than a few paces, for all his apparent inattention as he turned back to the workers.
"I'm not giving Zeus up," Marcus whispered harshly.
Gaius could only nod as they approached the group of men.
"I'll come along in a few minutes," Tubruk instructed as the men walked to their tasks. "Take the tiles off the section until I get there."
He turned to the boys. "What's this? A raven? Must be a sick one if you caught it."
"We trapped him in the woods. Followed him and brought him down," Marcus said, his voice defiant.
Tubruk smiled as if he understood, and reached out to stroke the bird's long beak. Its energy seemed to have gone and it panted almost like a dog, revealing a slender tongue between the hard blades.
"Poor thing," Tubruk muttered. "Looks terrified. What are you going to do with him?"
"His name's Zeus. We're going to train him as a pet, like a hawk."
Tubruk shook his head once, slowly. "You can't train a wild bird, boys. A hawk is raised from a chick by an expert, and even they stay wild. The best trainer can lose one every now and then if it flies too far from him. Zeus is fully grown. If you keep him, he'll die."
"We can use one of the old chicken coops," Gaius insisted. "There's nothing in there now. We'll feed him and fly him on a string."
Tubruk snorted. "Do you know what a wild bird does if you keep him locked up? He can't stand walls around him. Especially a tiny space like one of the chicken coops. It will break his spirit and, day by day, he will pull his own feathers out in misery. He won't eat, he'll just hurt himself until he dies. Zeus here will choose death over captivity. The kindest thing you can do for him is to let him go. I don't think you could have caught him unless he was sick, so he might be dying anyway, but at least let him spend his last days in the woods and the air, where he belongs."
"But..." Marcus fell silent, looking at the raven.
"Come on," Tubruk said. "Let's go out into the fields and watch him fly."
Glumly, the boys looked at each other and followed him back out of the gates. Together, they stood gazing down the hill.
"Set him free, boy," Tubruk said, and something in his voice made them both look at him.
Marcus raised and opened his hands, and Zeus heaved himself into the air, spreading large black wings and fighting for height. He screamed frustration at them until he was just a dot in the sky over the woods. Then they saw him descend and disappear.
Tubruk reached out and held the necks of the two boys in his rough hands.
"A noble act. Now there are a number of chores to do, and I couldn't find you earlier, so they've piled up waiting for your attention. Inside."
He steered the boys through the gate into the courtyard, taking a last look over the fields toward the woods before he followed them.
On August 2, 216 BC Rome suffered one of the most catastrophic defeats in military history. The town of Cannae, located about 300 miles south of Rome in Apulia, controlled the approaches to southern Italy and operated a granary important for supplying food to the city of Rome. There, on a flat, featureless plain, Hannibal accomplished a feat that was thought to be impossible: with his small army he enveloped a much larger Roman force. Surrounded and unable to maneuver, the Roman army disintegrated as a coherent fighting force. According to Livy, 48,200 Romans were killed and another 20,000 captured before nightfall put a stop to the slaughter. Polybius puts the number of dead at 70,000. The victory had been costly for Hannibal as well. Nearly 6,000 of his troops fell in the battle. Modern historians tend to be more conservative about the size of the Roman army, but even so they put the number of Roman dead at around 30,000. Regardless of the exact toll, the greatest army that Rome had fielded to that point—a grand army assembled with the sole purpose of driving Hannibal out of Italy—had been annihilated. The consul Aemilius Paullus lay among the dead, as did both consular quaestors, 29 military tribunes, and another 80 men of senatorial rank. According to Livy, the surviving consul, Terentius Varro, escaped from Cannae with a mere fifty soldiers. The Roman defeat was total.
The scale of the slaughter at Cannae is difficult to comprehend. If the ancient estimates of casualties are accurate, Cannae saw the second deadliest single day of combat ever visited on a western army, and it is estimated that over one hundred Romans died every minute during the height of the battle. Regardless of the exact number of dead, there is no disputing the magnitude of the disaster that Hannibal had inflicted upon Rome, or the daring and brilliance he and his troops displayed on that day.
That summer saw the start of the boys' formal education. From the beginning, they were both treated equally, with Marcus also receiving the training necessary to run a complex estate, albeit a minor one. In addition to continuing the formal Latin that had been drummed into them since birth, they were taught about famous battles and tactics as well as how to manage men and handle money and debts. When Suetonius left to be an officer in an African legion the following year, both Gaius and Marcus had begun to learn Greek rhetoric and the skills of debate that they would need if, as young senators later on, they ever chose to prosecute or defend a citizen on a matter of law.
Although the three hundred members of the Senate met only twice each lunar month, Gaius's father, Julius, remained in Rome for longer and longer periods as the Republic struggled to deal with new colonies and its swiftly growing wealth and power. For months, the only adults Gaius and Marcus would see were Aurelia and the tutors, who arrived at the main house at dawn and left with the sun sinking behind them and denarii jingling in their pockets. Tubruk was always there too, a friendly presence who stood no nonsense from the boys. Before Suetonius had left, the old gladiator had walked the five miles to the main house of the neighboring estate and waited eleven hours, from dawn to dusk, to be admitted to see the eldest son of the house. He didn't tell Gaius what had transpired, but had returned with a smile and ruffled Gaius's hair with his big hand before going down to the stables to see to the new mares as they came into season.
Of all the tutors, Gaius and Marcus enjoyed the hours with Vepax the best. He was a young Greek, tall and thin in his toga. He always arrived at the estate on foot and carefully counted the coins he earned before walking back to the city. They met with him for two hours each week in a small room Gaius's father had set aside for the lessons. It was a bare place, with a stone-flagged floor and unadorned walls. With the other tutors, droning through the verses of Homer and Latin grammar, the two boys often fidgeted on the wooden benches, or drifted in concentration until the tutor noticed and brought them back with sharp smacks from the cane. Most were strict and it was difficult to get away with much with only the two of them to take up the master's attention. One time, Marcus had used his stylus to draw a picture of a pig with a tutor's beard and face. He had been caught trying to show it to Gaius and had to hold out his hand for the stick, suffering miserably through three sharp blows.
Vepax didn't carry a cane. All he ever had with him was a heavy cloth bag full of clay tablets and figures, some blue and some red to show different sides. By the appointed hour, he would have cleared the benches to one side of the room and set out his figures to represent some famous battle of the past. After a year of this, their first task was to recognize the structure and name the generals involved. They knew Vepax would not limit himself to Roman battles; sometimes the tiny horses and legionary figures represented Parthia or ancient Greece or Carthage. Knowing Vepax was Greek himself, the boys had pushed the young man to show them the battles of Alexander, thrilled by the legends and what he had achieved at such a young age. At first, Vepax had been reluctant, not wanting to be seen to favor his own history, but he had allowed himself to be persuaded and showed them every major battle where records and maps survived. For the Greek wars, Vepax never opened a book, placing and moving each piece from memory.
He told the boys the names of the generals and the key players in each conflict as well as the history and politics when they had a direct bearing on the day. He made the little clay pieces come alive for Marcus and Gaius, and every time it came to the end of the two hours, they would look longingly at them as he packed them away in his bags, slowly and carefully.
One day, as they arrived, they found most of the little room covered in the clay characters. A huge battle had been set out and Gaius counted the blue characters quickly, then the red, multiplying it in his head as he had been taught by the arithmetic tutor.
"Tell me what you see," Vepax said quietly to Gaius.
"Two forces, one of more than fifty thousand, the other nearly forty. The red is... the red is Roman, judging by the heavy infantry placed to the front in legion squares. They are supported by cavalry on the right and left wings, but they are matched by the blue cavalry facing them. There are slingers and spearmen on the blue side, but I can't see any archers, so missile attacks will be over a very short range. They seem roughly matched. It should be a long and difficult battle."
Vepax nodded. "The red side is indeed Roman, well-disciplined veterans of many battles. What if I told you the blues were a mixed group, made up of Gauls, Spaniards, Numidians, and Carthaginians? Would that make a difference to the outcome?"
Marcus's eyes gleamed with interest. "It would mean we were looking at Hannibal's forces. But where are his famous elephants? Didn't you have elephants in your bag?" Marcus looked hopefully over at the limp cloth sack.
"It is Hannibal the Romans were facing, but by this battle, his elephants had died. He managed to find more later and they were terrifying at the charge, but here he had to make do without them. He is outnumbered by two legions. His force is mixed where the Roman one is unified. What other factors might affect the outcome?"
"The land," Gaius cried. "Is he on a hill? His cavalry could smash—"
Vepax waved a hand gently. "The battle took place on a plain. The weather was cool and clear. Hannibal should have lost. Would you like to see how he won?"
Gaius stared at the massed pieces. Everything was against the blue forces. He looked up.
"Can we move the pieces as you explain?"
Vepax smiled. "Of course. Today I will need both of you to make the battle move as it did once before. Take the Roman side, Gaius. Marcus and I will take Hannibal's force."
Smiling, the three faced each other over the ranks of figures.
"The battle of Cannae, 126 years ago. Every man who fought in the battle is dust, every sword rusted away, but the lessons are still there to be learned."
Vepax must have brought every clay soldier and horse he had to form this battle, Gaius realized. Even with each piece representing five hundred, they took up most of the available room.
"Gaius, you are Aemilius Paulus and Terentius Varro, experienced Roman commanders. Line by line you will advance straight at the enemy, allowing no deviation and no slackness in discipline. Your infantry is superb and should do well against the ranks of foreign swordsmen."
Thoughtfully, Gaius began moving his infantry forward, group by group.
"Support with your cavalry, Gaius. They must not be left behind or you could be flanked."
Nodding, Gaius brought the small clay horses up to engage the heavy cavalry Hannibal commanded.
"Marcus, our infantry must hold. We will advance to meet them, and our cavalry will engage theirs on the wings, holding them."
Heads bowed, all three moved figures in silence until the armies had shifted together, face-to-face. Gaius and Marcus imagined the snorts of the horses and the war cries splitting the air.
"And now, men die," Vepax murmured. "Our infantry begin to buckle in the center as they meet the best-trained enemy they have ever faced." His hands flew out and switched figure after figure to new positions, urging the boys along as they went.
On the floor in front of them, the Roman legions pushed back Hannibal's center, which buckled before them, close to rout.
"They cannot hold," Gaius whispered, as he saw the great crescent bow that grew deeper as the legions forced themselves forward. He paused and looked over the whole field. The cavalry were stationary, held in bloody conflict with the enemy. His mouth dropped as Marcus and Vepax continued to move pieces and suddenly the plan was clear to him.
"I would not go farther in," he said, and Vepax's head came up with a quizzical expression.
"So soon, Gaius? You have seen a danger that neither Paulus nor Varro saw until it was too late. Move your men forward, the battle must be played out." He was clearly enjoying himself, but Gaius felt a touch of irritation at having to follow through moves that would lead to the destruction of his armies.
The legions marched through the Carthaginian forces, and the enemy let them in, falling back quickly and without haste, losing as few men as possible to the advancing line. Hannibal's forces were moving from the back of the field to the sides, swelling the trap, and, after what Vepax said was only a couple of hours, the entire Roman force was submerged in the enemy on three sides, which slowly closed behind them until they were caught in a box of Hannibal's making. The Roman cavalry were still held by equally skilled forces, and the final scene needed little explanation to reveal the horror of it.
"Most of the Romans could not fight, trapped as they were in the middle of their own close formations. Hannibal's men killed all day long, tightening the trap until there was no one left alive. It was annihilation on a scale rarely seen before or since. Most battles leave many alive, at least those who run away, but these Romans were surrounded on all sides and had nowhere to flee to."
The silence stretched for long moments as the two boys fixed the details in their minds and imaginations.
"Our time is up today, boys. Next week I will show you what the Romans learned from this defeat and others at the hands of Hannibal. Although they were unimaginative here, they brought in a new commander, known for his innovation and daring. He met Hannibal at the battle of Zama fourteen years later, and the outcome was very different."
"What was his name?" Marcus asked excitedly.
"He had more than one. His given name was Publius Scipio, but because of the battles he won against Carthage, he was known as Scipio Africanus."
As Gaius approached his tenth birthday, he was growing into an athletic, well-coordinated lad. He could handle any of the horses, even the difficult ones that required a brutal hand. They seemed to calm at his touch and respond to him. Only one refused to let him remain in the saddle, and Gaius had been thrown eleven times when Tubruk sold the beast before the struggle killed one or the other of them.
To some extent, Tubruk controlled the purse of the estate while Gaius's father was away. He could decide where the profits from grain and livestock would be best spent, using his judgment. It was a great trust and a rare one. It wasn't up to Tubruk, however, to engage specialist fighters to teach the boys the art of war. That was the decision of the father—as was every other aspect of their upbringing. Under Roman law, Gaius's father could even have had the boys strangled or sold into slavery if they displeased him. His power in his household was absolute, and his goodwill was not to be risked.
Julius returned home for his son's birthday feast. Tubruk attended him as he bathed away the dust of the journey in the mineral pool. Despite being ten years older than Tubruk, the years sat well on his sun-dark frame as he eased through the water. Steam rose in wisps as a sudden rush of fresh hot water erupted from a pipe into the placid waters of the bath. Tubruk noted the signs of health to himself and was pleased. In silence, he waited for Julius to finish the slow immersion and rest on the submerged marble steps near the inflow pipe, where the water was shallow and warmest.
Julius lay back against the coldness of the pool ledges and raised an eyebrow at Tubruk. "Report," he said, and closed his eyes.
Tubruk stood stiffly and recited the profits and losses of the previous month. He kept his eyes fixed on the far wall and spoke fluently of minute problems and successes without once referring to notes. At last, he came to the end and waited in silence. After a moment, the blue eyes of the only man who'd ever employed him without owning him opened once again and fixed him with a look that had not been melted by the heat of the pool.
"How is my wife?"
Tubruk kept his face impassive. Was there a point in telling this man that Aurelia had worsened still further? She had been beautiful once, before childbirth had left her close to death for months. Ever since Gaius had come into the world, she had seemed unsteady on her feet, and no longer filled the house with laughter and flowers that she would pick herself out in the far fields.
"Lucius attends her well, but she is no better.... I have had to keep the boys away some days, when the mood has come on her."
Julius's face hardened and a heat-fattened vein in his neck started twitching with the load of angry blood.
"Can the doctors do nothing? They take my aureus pieces without a qualm, but she worsens every time I see her!"
Tubruk pressed his lips together in an expression of regret. Some things must simply be borne, he knew. The whip falls and hurts and you must quietly wait for it to fall no more.
Sometimes she would tear her clothes into rags and sit huddled in a corner until hunger drove her out of her private rooms. Other days, she would be almost the woman he had met when he first came to the estate, but given to long periods of distraction. She would be discussing a crop and suddenly, as if another voice had spoken, she would tilt her head to listen, and you might as well have left the room for all she remembered you.
Another rush of hot water disturbed the slow-dripping silence, and Julius sighed like escaping steam.
"They say the Greeks have much learning in the area of medicine. Hire one of those and dismiss the fools who do her so little good. If any of them claim that only their skills have kept her from being even worse, have him flogged and dumped on the road back to the city. Try a midwife. Women sometimes understand themselves better than we do—they have so many ailments that men do not."
The blue eyes closed again and it was like a door shutting on an oven. Without the personality, the submerged frame could have been any other Roman. He held himself like a soldier, and thin white lines marked the scars of old actions. He was not a man to be crossed, and Tubruk knew he had a ferocious reputation in the Senate. He kept his interests small, but guarded those interests fiercely. As a result, the powermongers were not troubled by him and were too lazy to challenge the areas where he was strong. It kept the estate wealthy and they would be able to employ the most expensive foreign doctors that Tubruk could find. Wasted money, he was sure, but what was money for if not to use it when you saw the need?
"I want to start a vineyard on the southern reaches. The soil there is perfect for a good red."
They talked over the business of the estate and, again, Tubruk took no notes, nor felt the need after years of reporting and discussing. Two hours after he had entered, Julius smiled at last.
"You have done well. We prosper and stay strong."
Tubruk nodded and smiled back. In all the talk, not once had Julius asked after his own health or happiness. It was a relationship of trust, not between equals, but between an employer and one whose competence he respected. Tubruk was no longer a slave, but he was a freedman and could never have the total confidence of those born free.
"There is another matter, a more personal one," Julius continued. "It is time to train my son in warfare. I have been distracted from my duty as a father to some extent, but there is no greater exercise to a man's talents than the upbringing of his son. I want to be proud of him and I worry that my absences, which are likely to get worse, will be the breaking of the boy."
Tubruk nodded, pleased at the words. "There are many experts in the city, trainers of boys and the young men of wealthy families."
"No. I know of them and some have been recommended to me. I have even inspected the products of this training, visiting city villas to see the young generation. I was not impressed, Tubruk. I saw young men infected with this new philosophical learning, where too much emphasis is placed on improving the mind and not enough on the body and the heart. What good is the ability to play with logic if your fainting soul shrinks away from hardship? No, the fashions in Rome will produce only weaklings, with few exceptions, as I see it. I want Gaius trained by people on whom I can depend—you, Tubruk. I'd trust no other with such a serious task."
Tubruk rubbed his chin, looking troubled. "I cannot teach the skills I learned as a soldier and gladiator, sir. I know what I know, but I don't know how to pass it on."
Julius frowned in annoyance, but didn't press it. Tubruk never spoke lightly.
"Then spend time making him fit and hard as stone. Have him run and ride for hours each day, over and over until he is fit to represent me. We will find others to teach him how to kill and command men in battle."
"What about the other lad, sir?"
"Marcus? What about him?"
"Will we train him as well?"
Julius frowned further and he stared off into the past for a few seconds.
"Yes. I promised his father when he died. His mother was never fit to have the boy; it was her running away that practically killed the old man. She was always too young for him. The last I heard of her, she was little better than a party whore in one of the inner districts, so he stays in my house. He and Gaius are still friends, I take it?"
"Like twin stalks of corn. They're always in trouble."
"No more. They will learn discipline from now on."
"I will see to it that they do."
Gaius and Marcus listened outside the door. Gaius's eyes were bright with excitement at what he'd heard. He grinned as he turned to Marcus and dropped the smile as he saw his friends pale face and set mouth.
"What's wrong, Marc?"
"He said my mother's a whore," came the hissing reply. Marcus's eyes glinted dangerously and Gaius choked back his first joking reply.
"He said he'd heard it—just a rumor. I'm sure she isn't."
"They told me she was dead, like my father. She ran away and left me." Marcus stood and his eyes filled with tears. "I hope she is a whore. I hope she's a slave and dying of lung-rot." He spun round and ran away, arms and legs flailing in loose misery.
Gaius sighed and rejected the idea of going after him. Marcus would probably go down to the stables and sit in the straw and the shadows for a few hours. If he was followed too soon, there would be angry words and maybe blows. If he was left, it would all go with time, the change of mood coming without warning as his quick thoughts settled elsewhere.
It was his nature and there was no changing it. Gaius pressed his head again to the crack between the door and the frame that allowed him to hear the two men talk of his future.
"...unchained for the first time, so they say. It should be a mighty spectacle. All of Rome will be there. Not all the gladiators will be indentured slaves—some are freedmen who have been lured back with gold coins. Renius will be there, so the gossips say."
"Renius—he must be ancient by now! He was fighting when I was a young man myself," Julius muttered in disbelief.
"Perhaps he needs the money. Some of the men live too richly for their purses, if you understand me. Fame would allow him large debts, but everything has to be paid back in the end."
"Perhaps he could be hired to teach Gaius—he used to take pupils, I remember. It has been so long, though. I can't believe he'll be fighting again. You will get four tickets then; my interest is definitely aroused. The boys will enjoy a trip into the city proper."
"Good—though let us wait until after the lions have finished with ancient Renius before we offer him employment. He should be cheap if he is bleeding a little," Tubruk said wryly.
"Cheaper still if he's dead. I'd hate to see him go out. He was unstoppable when I was young. I saw him fight in exhibitions against four or five men. One time they even blindfolded him against two. He cut them down in two blows."
"I saw him prepare for those matches. The cloth he used allowed in enough light to see the outlines of shapes. That was all the edge he needed. After all, his opponents thought he was blind."
"Take a big purse for hiring trainers. The circus will be the place to find them, but I will want your eye for the sound of limb and honor."
"I am, as always, your man, sir. I will send a message tonight to collect the tickets on the estate purse. If there is nothing else?"
"Only my thanks. I know how skillfully you keep this place afloat. While my senatorial colleagues fret at how their wealth is eroded, I can be calm and smile at their discomfort." He stood and shook hands in the wrist grip that all legionaries learned.
Tubruk was pleased to note the strength still in the hand. The old bull had a few years in him yet.
Gaius scrambled away from the door and ran down to see Marcus in the stables. Before he had gone more than a little way, he paused and leaned against a cool white wall. What if he was still angry? No, surely the prospect of circus tickets—with unchained lions no less!—surely this would be enough to burn away his sorrow. With renewed enthusiasm and the sun on his back, he charged down the slopes to the outbuildings of teak and lime plaster that housed the estate's supply of workhorses and oxen. Somewhere, he heard his mother's voice calling his name, but he ignored it, as he would a bird's shrill scream. It was a sound that washed over him and left him untouched.
The two boys found the body of the raven close to where they had first seen it, near the edge of the woods on the estate. It lay in the damp leaves, stiff and dark, and it was Marcus who saw it first, his depression and anger lifting with the find.
"Zeus," he whispered. "Tubruk said he was sick." He crouched by the track and reached out a hand to stroke the still-glossy feathers. Gaius crouched with him. The chill of the woods seemed to get through to both of them at the same time, and Gaius shivered slightly.
"Ravens are bad omens, remember," he murmured.
"Not Zeus. He was just looking for a place to die."
On an impulse, Marcus picked up the body again, holding it in his hands as he had before. The contrast saddened both of them. All the fight was gone and now the head lay limply, as if held only by skin. The beak hung open and the eyes were shriveled, hollow pits. Marcus continued to stroke the feathers with his thumb.
"We should cremate him—give him an honorable funeral," said Gaius. "I could run back to the kitchens and fetch an oil lamp. We could build a pyre for him and pour some of the oil over it. It would be a good send-off for him."
Marcus nodded and placed Zeus carefully on the ground. "He was a fighter. He deserves something more than just being left to rot. There's a lot of dry wood around here. I'll stay to make the pyre."
"I'll be as quick as I can," Gaius replied, turning to run. "Think of some prayers or something."
He sprinted back to the estate buildings, and Marcus was left alone with the bird. He felt a strange solemnity come upon him, as if he were performing a religious rite. Slowly and carefully, he gathered dry sticks and built them into a square, starting with thicker branches that were long dead and building on layers of twigs and dry leaves. It seemed right not to rush.
The woods were quiet as Gaius returned. He too was walking slowly, shielding the small flame of an oily wick where it protruded from an old kitchen lamp. He found Marcus sitting on the dry path, with the black body of Zeus lying on a neat pile of dead wood.
"I'll have to keep the flame going while I pour the oil, so it could flare up quickly. We'd better say the prayers now."
As the evening darkened, the flickering yellow light of the lamp seemed to grow in strength, lighting their faces as they stood by the small corpse.
"Jupiter, head of all the gods, let this one fly again in the underworld. He was a fighter and he died free," Marcus said, his voice steady and low.
Gaius readied the oil for pouring. He held the wick clear, avoiding the little flame, and poured on the oil, drenching the bird and the wood in its slipperiness. Then he touched the flame to the pyre.
For long seconds, nothing happened except for a faint sizzling, but then an answering flame spread and blazed with a sickly light. The boys stood and Gaius placed the lamp on the path. They watched with interest as the feathers caught and burned with a terrible stink. The flames flickered over the body, and fat smoked and sputtered in the fire. They waited patiently.
"We could gather the ashes at the end and bury them, or spread them around in the woods or the stream," Gaius whispered.
Marcus nodded in silence.
To help the fire, Gaius poured on the rest of the oil from the lamp, extinguishing its small light. Flames grew again and most of the feathers had been burned away, except for those around the head and beak, which seemed obstinate.
Finally, the last of the oil burned to nothing and the fire sank to glowing embers.
"I think we've cooked him," whispered Gaius. "The fire wasn't hot enough."
Marcus took a long stick and poked at the body, now covered in wood ash but still recognizably the raven. The stick knocked the smoking thing right out of the ashes, and Marcus spent a few moments trying to roll it back in without success.
"This is hopeless. Where's the dignity in this?" he said angrily.
"Look, we can't do any more. Let's just cover him in leaves."
The two boys set about gathering armfuls and soon the scorched raven was hidden from view. They were silent as they walked back to the estate, but the reverent mood was gone.
The circus was arranged by Cornelius Sulla, a rising young man in the ranks of Roman society. The king of Mauretania had entertained the young senator while he commanded the Second Alaudae legion in Africa. To please him, King Bocchus sent a hundred lions and twenty of his best spearmen to the capital. With these as a core, Sulla had put together a program for five days of trials and excitement.
It was to be the largest circus ever arranged in Rome, and Cornelius Sulla had his reputation and status assured by the achievement. There were even calls raised in the Senate for there to be a more permanent structure to hold the games. The wooden benches bolted and pegged together for great events were unsatisfactory and really too small for the sort of crowds that wanted to see lions from the dark, unknown continent. Plans for a vast circular amphitheater capable of holding water and staging sea battles were put forward, but the cost was huge and they were vetoed by the peoples tribunes as a matter of course.
Gaius and Marcus trotted behind the two older men. Since Gaius's mother had become unwell, the boys were rarely allowed into the city proper anymore, as she fretted and rocked in misery at the thought of what could happen to her son in the vicious streets. The noise of the crowd was like a blow, and their eyes were bright with interest.
Most of the Senate would travel to the games in carriages, pulled or carried by slaves and horses. Gaius's father scorned this and chose to walk through the crowds. That said, the imposing figure of Tubruk beside him, fully armed as he was, kept the plebeians from shoving too rudely.
The mud of the narrow streets had been churned into a stinking broth by the huge throng, and after only a short time their legs were spattered almost to the knees by filth, their sandals covered. Every shop heaved with people as they passed, and there was always a crowd ahead and a mob behind pushing them on. Occasionally, Gaius's father would take side streets when the roads were blocked completely by shopkeepers' carts carrying their wares around the city. These were packed with the poor, and beggars sat in doorways, blind and maimed, with their hands outstretched. The brick buildings loomed over them, five and six stories high, and once, Tubruk put a hand out to hold Marcus back as a bucket of slops was poured out of an open window into the street below.
Gaius's father looked grim, but walked on without stopping, his sense of direction bringing them through the dark maze back onto the main streets to the circus. The noise of the city intensified as they grew close, with the shouted cries of hot-food sellers competing with the hammering of coppersmiths and bawling, screaming children who hung, snot-nosed, on their mothers' hips.
On every street corner, jugglers and conjurors, clowns and snake charmers performed for thrown coins.
That day, the pickings were slim, despite the huge crowds. Why waste your money on things you can see every day when the amphitheater was open?
"Stay close to us," Tubruk said, bringing the boys' attention back from the colors, smells, and noise. He laughed at their wide-mouthed expressions. "I remember the first time I saw a circus—the Vespia, where I was to fight my first battle, untrained and slow, just a slave with a sword."
"You won, though," Julius replied, smiling as they walked.
"My stomach was playing me up, so I was in a terrible mood."
Both men laughed.
"I'd hate to face a lion," Tubruk continued. "I've seen a couple on the loose in Africa. They move like horses at the charge when they want to, but with fangs and claws like iron nails."
"They have a hundred of the beasts and two shows a day for five days, so we should see ten of them against a selection of fighters. I am looking forward to seeing these black spearmen in action. It will be interesting to see if they can match our javelin throwers for accuracy," Julius said.
They walked under the entrance arch and paused at a series of wooden tubs filled with water. For a small coin, they had the mud and smell scrubbed from their legs and sandals. It was good to be clean again. With the help of an attendant, they found the seats reserved for them by one of the estate slaves, who'd traveled in the previous evening to await their arrival. Once they were seated, the slave stood to walk the miles back to the estate. Tubruk passed him another coin to buy food for the journey, and the man smiled cheerfully, pleased to be away from the back-breaking labor of the fields for once.
All around them sat the members of the patrician families and their slaves. Although there were only three hundred representatives in the Senate, there must have been close to a thousand others in that section. Rome's lawmakers had taken the day off for the first battles of the five-day run. The sand was raked smooth in the vast pit; the wooden stands filled with thirty thousand of the classes of Rome. The morning heat built and built into a wall of discomfort, largely ignored by the people.
"Where are the fighters, Father?" Gaius asked, searching for signs of lions or cages.
"They are in that barn building over there. You see where the gates are? There."
He opened a folded program, purchased from a slave as they went in.
"The organizer of the games will welcome us and probably thank Cornelius Sulla. We will all cheer for Sulla's cleverness in making such a spectacle possible. Then there are four gladiatorial combats, to first blood only. One will follow that is to the death. Renius will give a demonstration of some sort and then the lions will roam 'the landscapes of their Africa,' whatever that means. Should be an impressive show."
"Have you ever seen a lion?"
"Once, in the zoo. I have never fought one, though. Tubruk says they are fearsome in battle."
The amphitheater fell quiet as the gates opened and a man walked out dressed in a toga so white it almost glowed.
"He looks like a god," Marcus whispered.
Tubruk leaned over to the boy. "Don't forget they bleach the cloth with human urine. There's a lesson in there somewhere."
Marcus looked at Tubruk in surprise for a moment, wondering if a joke had been made of some kind. Then he forgot about it as he tried to hear the voice of the man who had strode to the center of the sand. He had a trained voice, and the bowl of the amphitheater acted as a perfect reflector. Nonetheless, part of his announcement was lost as people shuffled or whispered to their friends and were shushed.
"...welcome that is due... African beasts... Cornelius Sulla!"
The last was said in crescendo and the audience cheered dutifully, more enthusiastically than Julius or Tubruk had been expecting. Gaius heard the words of the old gladiator as he leaned in close to his father.
"He may be a man to watch, this one."
"Or to watch out for," his father replied with a meaningful look.
Gaius strained to see the man who rose from his seat and bowed. He too wore a simple toga, with an embroidered hem of gold. He was sitting close enough for Gaius to see this really was a man who looked like a god. He had a strong, handsome face and golden skin. He waved and sat down, smiling at the pleasure of the crowds.
Everyone settled back for the main excitement, conversations springing up all around. Politics and finance were discussed. Cases being argued in law were raked and chewed over by the patricians. They were still the ultimate power in Rome and therefore the world. True, the people's tribunes, with their right to veto agreements, had taken some of the edge off their authority, but they still had the power of life and death over most of the citizens of Rome.
The first pair of fighters entered wearing tunics of blue and black. Neither was heavily armored, as this was a display of speed and skill rather than savagery. Men did die in these contests, but it was rare. After a salute to the organizer and sponsor of the games, they began to move, short swords held rigid and shields moving in hypnotic rhythms.
"Who will win, Tubruk?" Gaius's father suddenly snapped.
"The smaller, in the blue. His footwork is excellent."
Julius summoned one of the runners for the circus betting groups and gave over a gold aureus coin, receiving a tiny blue plaque in return. Less than a minute later, the smaller man sidestepped an overextended lunge and drew his knife lightly over the other's stomach as he stepped through. Blood spilled as over the lip of a cup, and the audience erupted with cheers and curses. Julius had earned two aurei for the one he'd wagered, and he pocketed the profit cheerfully. For each match that followed, he would ask Tubruk who would win as they began to feint and move. The odds sank after the start, of course, but Tubruk's eye was infallible that day. By the fourth match, all nearby spectators were craning to catch what Tubruk said and then shouting for the betting slaves to take their money.
Tubruk was enjoying himself.
"This next one is to the death. The odds favor the Corinthian fighter, Alexandros. He has never been stopped, but his opponent, from the south of Italy, is also fearful and has never been beaten to first blood. I cannot choose between them at this point."
"Let me know as soon as you can. I have ten aurei ready for the wager—all our winnings and my original stakes. Your eye is perfect today."
Julius summoned the betting slave and told him to stand close. No one else in the area wanted to bet, as they all felt the luck of the moment and were content to wait for the signal from Tubruk. They watched him, some with held breath, poised for the first signal.
Gaius and Marcus looked at the crowd.
"They are a greedy lot, these Romans," Gaius whispered, and they grinned at each other.
The gates opened again and Alexandros and Enzo entered. The Roman, Enzo, wore a standard set of mail covering his right arm from hand to neck and a brass helmet above the darker iron scales. He carried a red shield with his left hand. His only other garments were a loincloth and wrappings of linen around his feet and ankles. He had a powerful physique and carried few scars, although one puckered line marked his left forearm from wrist to elbow. He bowed to Cornelius Sulla and saluted the crowd first, before the foreigner.
Alexandros moved well, balanced and assured as he came to the middle of the amphitheater. He was identically dressed, although his shield was stained blue.
"They are not easy to tell apart," Gaius said. "In the armor, they could be brothers."
His father snorted. "Except for the blood in them. The Greek is not the same as the Italian. He has different and false gods. He believes things that no decent Roman would ever stand for." He spoke without turning his head, intent on the men below.
"But will you bet on such a man?" Gaius continued.
"I will if Tubruk thinks he will win," came the response, accompanied by a smile.
The contest would begin with the sounding of a ram's horn. It was held in copper jaws in the first row of seats, and a short bearded man was waiting with his lips to it. The two gladiators stepped close to each other and the horn sound wailed out across the sand.
Before Gaius could tell whether the sound had stopped, the crowd was roaring and the two men were hammering blows at each other. In the first few seconds, strike after strike landed, some cutting, some sliding from steel made suddenly slippery with bright blood.
"Tubruk?" came his fathers voice.
Their area of the stands was torn between watching the fantastic display of savagery and getting in on the bet.
Tubruk frowned, his chin on his bunched fist. "Not yet. I cannot tell. They are too even."
The two men broke apart for a moment, unable to keep up the pace of the first minute. Both were bleeding and both were spattered with dust sticking to their sweat.
Alexandros rammed his blue shield up under the other's guard, breaking his rhythm and balance. His sword arm came up and over, looking for a high wound. The Italian scrambled back without dignity to escape the blow, and his shield fell in the dust as he did so. The crowd hooted and jeered, embarrassed by their man. He rose again and attacked, perhaps stung by the comments of his countrymen.
"Tubruk?" Julius laid his hand on the man's arm. The fight could be over in seconds, and if there was an obvious advantage to one of the fighters, the betting would cease.
"Not yet. Not... yet..." Tubruk was a study in concentration.
On the sand, the area around the fighters was speckled darkly where their blood had dripped. Both paced to the left and then the right, then rushed in and cut and sliced, ducked and blocked, punched and tried to trip the other. Alexandros caught the Italian's sword on his shield. It was partially destroyed in the force of the blow, and the blade was trapped by the softer metal of the blue rectangle. Like the other, it too was wrenched to the sand, and both men faced each other sideways, moving like crabs so that their arm-mail would protect them. The swords were nicked and blunted and the exertions in the raging Roman heat were beginning to tell on their strength.
"Put it all on the Greek, quickly," Tubruk said.
The betting slave looked for approval to the owner behind him. Odds were whispered and the bets went on, with much of the crowd taking a slice.
"Five to one against on Alexandros—could have been a lot better if we'd gone earlier," Julius muttered as he watched the two fighters below.
Tubruk said nothing.
One of the gladiators lunged and recovered too fast for the other. The sword whipped back and into his side, causing a gout of blood to rush. The riposte was viciously fast and sliced through a major leg muscle. A leg buckled and as the man went down, his opponent hacked into his neck, over and over, until he was thumping at a corpse. He lay in the mixing blood as it was sucked away by the dry sand, and his chest heaved with the pain and exertion.
"Who won?" Gaius asked frantically. Without the shields it wasn't clear, and a murmur went around the seats as the question was repeated over and over. Who had won?
"I think the Greek is dead," the betting slave said.
His master thought it was the Roman, but until the victor rose and removed his helmet, no one could be sure.
"What happens if they both die?" Marcus asked.
"All bets are off," replied the owner and financier of the betting slave. Presumably he had a lot of money riding on the outcome as well. Certainly he looked as tense as anyone there.
For maybe a minute, the surviving gladiator lay exhausted, his blood spilling. The crowd grew louder, calling on him to rise and take off the helmet. Slowly, in obvious pain, he grasped his sword and pushed himself up on it. Standing, he swayed slightly and reached down to take a handful of sand. He rubbed the sand into his wound, watching as it fell away in soft red clumps. His fingers too were bloody as he raised them to remove the helmet.
Alexandros the Greek stood and smiled, his face pale with loss of blood. The crowd threw abuse at the swaying figure. Coins glittered in the sun as they were thrown, not to reward, but to hurt. With curses, money was exchanged all around the amphitheater, and the gladiator was ignored as he sank to his knees again and had to be helped out by slaves.
Tubruk watched him go, his face unreadable. "Is he a man to see about training?" Julius asked, ebullient as his winnings were counted into a pouch.
"No—he won't last out the week, I should think. Anyway, there was little schooling in his technique, just good speed and reflexes."
"For a Greek," said Marcus, trying to join in.
"Yes, good reflexes for a Greek," Tubruk replied, his mind far away.
While the sand was being raked clean, the crowd continued with their business, although Gaius and Marcus could see one or two spectators reenacting the gladiators' blows with shouts and mock cries of pain. As they waited, the boys saw Julius tap Tubruk on his arm, bringing to his attention a pair of men approaching through the rows. Both seemed slightly out of place at the circus, with their togas of rough wool and their skins unadorned by metal jewelry.
Julius stood with Tubruk, and the boys copied them. Gaius's father put out his hand and greeted the first to reach them, who bowed his head slightly on contact.
"Greetings, my friends. Please take a seat. This is my son and another boy in my care. I'm sure they can spend a few minutes buying food?"
Tubruk handed a coin to both of them and the message was clear. Reluctantly, they moved off between the rows and joined a queue at a food stall. They watched as the four men bent their heads close and talked, their voices lost in the crowd.
After a few minutes, as Marcus was buying oranges, Gaius saw the two newcomers thank his father and take his hand again. Then each moved over to Tubruk, who put coins in their hands as they left.
Marcus had bought an orange for each of them, and when they'd returned to their seats, he handed them out.
"Who were those men, Father?" Gaius asked, intrigued.
"Clients of mine. I have a few bound to me in the city," Julius replied, skinning his orange neatly.
"But what do they do? I have never seen them before."
Julius turned to his son, registering the interest. He smiled. "They are useful men. They vote for candidates I support, or guard me in dangerous areas. They carry messages for me, or... a thousand other small things. In return, they get six denarii a day, each man."
Marcus whistled. "That must add up to a fortune."
Julius transferred his attention to Marcus, who dropped his gaze and fiddled with the skin of his orange.
"Money well spent. In this city, it is good to have men I can call on quickly, for any sudden task. Rich members of the Senate may have hundreds of clients. It is part of our system."
"Can you trust these clients of yours?" Gaius broke in.
Julius grunted. "Not with anything worth more than six denarii a day."
Renius entered without announcement. One moment, the spectators were chatting amongst themselves with the dirty sand ring empty, and the next a small door opened and a man walked out of it. At first, he wasn't noticed, then people pointed and began to stand.
"Why are they cheering so loudly?" Marcus asked, squinting at the lone figure standing in the burning sun.
"Because he has come back one more time. Now you will be able to say you saw Renius fight when you have children of your own," Tubruk replied, smiling.
Everyone around them seemed lit up by the spectacle. A chant began and swelled: "Ren-i-us... Ren-i-us." The noise drowned out all the shuffling of feet and rustling clothing. The only sound in the world was his name.
He raised his sword in salute. Even from a distance, it was clear that age had not yet taken a good twisting grip on him.
"Looks good for sixty. Belly's not flat, though. Look at that wide belt," Tubruk muttered almost to himself. "You've let yourself go a little, you silly old fool."
As the old man received the plaudits of the crowd, a single file of fighting slaves entered the sandy ring. Each wore a cloth around his loins that allowed free movement and carried a short gladius. No shields or armor could be seen. The Roman crowd fell quiet as the men formed a diamond with Renius at the center. There was a moment of stillness and then the animal enclosure opened.
Even before the cage was dragged out onto the sand, the short, hacking roars could be heard. The crowd whispered in anticipation. There were three lions pacing the cage as it was dragged out by sweating slaves. Through the bars they were obscene shapes: huge humped shoulders, heads and jaws tapering back to hindquarters almost as an afterthought. They were created to crush out life with massive jaws. They swiped with their paws in unfocused rage as the cage was jarred and finally came to rest.
Slaves lifted hammers aloft to knock out the wooden pegs that held the front section of the cage. The crowd licked dry lips. The hammers fell, and the iron lattice dropped onto the sand, an echo clearly heard in the silence. One by one, the great cats moved out of the cage, revealing a speed and sureness of step that was frightening.
The largest roared defiance at the group of men that faced it across the sand. When they made no move, it began to pace up and down outside the cage, watching them all the while. Its companions roared and circled and it settled back onto its haunches.
Without a signal, without a warning, it ran at the men, who shrank back visibly. This was death coming for them.
Renius could be heard barking out commands. The front of the diamond, three brave men, met the charge, swords ready. At the last moment, the lion took off in a rushing leap and smashed two of the slaves from their feet, striking with a paw on each chest. Neither moved, as their chests were shards and daggers of bone. The third man swung and hit the heavy mane, doing little damage. The jaws closed on his arm in a snap like the strike of a snake. He screamed and carried on screaming as he staggered away, one hand holding the pumping red remains of the other wrist. A sword scraped along the lion's ribs and another cut a hamstring so that the rear quarters went suddenly limp. This served only to enrage the beast and it snapped at itself in red confusion. Renius growled a command and the others stepped back to allow him the kill.
As he landed the fatal blow, the other two lions attacked. One caught the head of the wounded man who had wandered away. A quick crack of the jaws and it was over. That lion settled down with the corpse, ignoring the other slaves as it bit into the soft abdomen and began to feed. It was quickly killed, speared on three blades in the mouth and chest.
Renius met the charge of the last to his left. His protecting slave was tumbled by the strike and over him came the snapping rage that was the male cat. Its paws were striking and great dark claws stood out like spear points, straining to pierce and tear. Renius balanced himself and struck into the chest. A wound opened with a rush of sticky dark blood, but the blade skittered off the breastbone and Renius was struck by a shoulder, only luck letting the jaws snap where he had been. He rolled and came up well, still with sword in hand. As the beast checked and turned back on him, he was ready and sent his blade into the armpit and the bursting heart. The strength went out of it in the instant, as if the steel had lanced a boil. It lay and bled into the sand, still aware and panting, but become pitiful. A soft moan came from deep within the bloody chest as Renius approached, drawing a dagger from his belt. Reddish saliva dribbled onto the sand as the torn lungs strained to fill with air.
Renius spoke softly to the beast, but the words could not be heard in the stands. He lay a hand on the mane and patted it absently, as he would a favorite hound. Then he slipped the blade into the throat and it was over.
The crowd seemed to draw breath for the first time in hours and then laughed at the release of tension. Four men were dead on the sand, but Renius, the old killer, still stood, looking exhausted. They began to chant his name, but he bowed quickly and left the ring, striding to the shadowed door and into darkness.
"Get in quickly, Tubruk. You know my highest price. A year, mind—a full year of service."
Tubruk disappeared into the crowds and the boys were left to make polite conversation with Julius. However, without Tubruk to act as a catalyst, the conversation died quickly. Julius loved his son, but had never enjoyed talking to the young. They prattled and knew nothing of decorum and self-restraint.
"He will be a hard teacher, if his reputation is accurate. He was once without equal in the empire, but Tubruk tells the stories better than I."
The boys nodded eagerly and determined to press Tubruk for the details as soon as they had the opportunity.
The seasons had turned toward autumn on the estate before the boys saw Renius again, dismounting from a gelding in the stone yard of the stables. It was a mark of his status that he could ride like an officer or a member of the Senate. Both of them were in the hay barn adjoining, and had been jumping off the high bales onto the loose straw. Covered in hay and dust, they were not fit to be seen and peered out at the visitor from a corner. He glanced around as Tubruk came to meet him, taking the reins.
"You will be received as soon as you are refreshed from your journey."
"I have ridden less than five miles. I am neither dirty nor sweating like an animal. Take me in now, or I'll find the way myself," snapped the old soldier, frowning.
"I see you have lost none of your charm and lightness of manner since you worked with me."
Renius didn't smile and for a second the boys expected a blow or a violent retort.
"I see you have not yet learned manners to your elders. I expect better."
"Everyone is younger than you. Yes, I can see how you would be set in your ways."
Renius seemed to freeze for a second, slowly blinking. "Do you wish me to draw my sword?"
Tubruk was still, and Marcus and Gaius noticed for the first time that he too wore his old gladius in a scabbard.
"I wish you only to remember that I am in charge of the running of the estate and that I am a free man, like yourself. Our agreement benefits us both; there are no favors being done here."
Renius smiled. "You are correct. Lead on then to the master of the house. I would like to meet the man who has such interesting types working for him."
As they left, Gaius and Marcus looked at each other, eyes aglow with excitement.
"He will be a hard taskmaster, but will quickly become impressed at the talent he has on his hands..." Marcus whispered.
"He will realize that we will be his last great work, before he drops dead," Gaius continued, caught up in the idea.
"I will be the greatest swordsman in the land, aided by the fact that I have stretched my arms every night since I was a baby," Marcus went on.
"The Fighting Monkey, they will call you!" Gaius declared in awe.
Marcus threw hay at his face and they grabbed each other with mock ferocity, rolling around for a second until Gaius ended up on top, sitting heavily on his friends chest.
"I will be the slightly better swordsman, too modest to embarrass you in front of the ladies."
He struck a proud pose and Marcus shoved him off into the straw again. They sat panting and lost in dreams for a moment.
At length, Marcus spoke: "In truth, you will run this estate, like your father. I have nothing and you know my mother is a whore... no, don't say anything. We both heard your father say it. I have no inheritance save my name, and that is stained. I can only see a bright future in the army, where at least my birth is noble enough to allow me high position. Having Renius as my trainer will help us both, but me most of all."
"You will always be my friend, you know. Nothing can come between us." Gaius spoke clearly, looking him in the eye.
"We will find our paths together."
They both nodded and gripped hands for a second in the pact. As they let go, Tubruk's familiar bulk appeared as he stuck his head into the hayloft.
"Get yourselves cleaned up. Once Renius has finished with your father, he'll want some sort of inspection."
They stood slowly, nervousness obvious in their movements.
"Is he cruel?" Gaius asked.
Tubruk didn't smile. "Yes, he is cruel. He is the hardest man I have ever known. He wins battles because the other men feel pain and are frightened of death and dismemberment. He is more like a sword than a man, and he will make you both as hard as himself. You will probably never thank him—you will hate him—but what he gives you will save your lives more than once."
Gaius looked at him questioningly. "Did you know him before?"
Tubruk laughed, a short bark with no humor. "I should say so. He trained me for the ring, when I was a slave."
His eyes flashed in the sun as he turned, and then he was gone.
* * *
Renius stood with his feet shoulder-width apart and his hands clasped behind his back. He frowned at the seated Julius.
"No. If anyone interferes, I will leave on that hour. You want your son and the whore's whelp to be made into soldiers. I know how to do that. I have been doing it, one way or another, all my life. Sometimes they only learn as the enemy charges, sometimes they never learn, and I have left a few of those in shallow foreign graves."
"Tubruk will want to discuss their progress with you. His judgment is usually first rate. He was, after all, trained by you," Julius said, still trying to regain the initiative he felt he had lost.
This man was an overwhelming force. From the moment he entered the room, he had dominated the conversation. Instead of setting out the manner of his son's teaching, as he had intended, Julius found himself on the defensive, answering questions about his estate and training facilities. He knew better now what he did not have than what he did.
"They are very young, and..."
"Any older would be too late. Oh, you can take a man of twenty and make him a competent soldier, fit and hard. A child, though, can be fashioned into a thing of metal, unbreakable. Some would say you have already left it too late, that proper training should commence at five years. I am of the opinion that ten is the optimum to ensure the proper development of muscle and lung capacity. Earlier can break their spirits; later and their spirits are too firmly in the wrong courses."
"I agree, to some ext—"
"Are you the real father of the whore's boy?" Renius spoke curtly but quietly, as if inquiring after the weather.
"What? Gods, no! I—"
"Good. That would have been a complication. I accept the year contract then. My word is given. Get the boys out into the stable yard for inspection in five minutes. They saw me arrive, so they should be ready. I will report to you quarterly in this room. If you cannot make the appointment, be so good as to let me know. Good day."
He turned on his heel and strode out. Behind him, Julius blew air out of puffed cheeks in a mixture of amazement and contentment.
"Could be just what I wanted," he said, and smiled for the first time that morning.
Issued by the moneyer C. Vibius C.f. Pansa - A moneyer is someone who physically creates money; moneyers have a long tradition, dating back at least to ancient Greece; they became most prominent in the Roman Republic, continuing into the empire. Obverse features a laureate bust of Apollo, facing right, with "PANSA" behind - Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in classical Greek and Roman religion and Greek and Roman mythology. The ideal of the kouros (a beardless, athletic youth), Apollo has been variously recognized as a god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry, and more. Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto, and has a twin sister, the chaste huntress Artemis. - Reverse depicts Minerva holding trophy and spear in quadriga, charging right, with "C VIBIVS CF" - Minerva was the virgin goddess of music, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts, and magic. From the 2nd century BC onwards, the Romans equated her with the Greek goddess Athena.
Struck from silver
Diameter: 18 mm (at widest point)
Weight: 3.8 grams
The first thing they were told was that they would get a good night's sleep. For eight hours, from before midnight to dawn, they were left alone. At all other times, they were being taught, or toughened, or cramming food into their mouths in hasty, snatched breaks of only minutes.
Marcus had had the excitement knocked out of him on that first day, when Renius took his chin in his leathery hand and peered at him.
"Weak spirited, like his mother was."
He'd said no more at the time, but Marcus burned with the humiliating thought that the old soldier he wanted so much to like him might have seen his mother in the city. From the first moment, his desire to please Renius became a source of shame to him. He knew he had to excel at the training, but not in such a way that the old bastard would approve.
Renius was easy to hate. From the first, he called Gaius by his name, while only referring to Marcus as "the boy" or "the whore's boy." Gaius could see it was deliberate, some attempt to use their hatred as a tool to improve them. Yet he could not help but feel annoyance as his friend was humbled over and over again.
A stream ran through the estate, carrying cold water down to the sea. One month after his arrival, they had been taken down to the water before noon. Renius had simply motioned to a dark pool.
"Get in," he said.
They'd looked at each other and shrugged.
The cold was numbing from the first moments.
"Stay there until I come back for you" was the command called over his shoulder as Renius walked back up to the house, where he ate a light lunch and bathed, before sleeping through the hot afternoon.
Marcus felt the cold much more than his friend. After only a couple of hours, he was blue around the face and unable to speak for shivering. As the afternoon wore on, his legs went numb and the muscles of his face and neck ached from shivering. They talked with difficulty, anything to take their minds off the cold. The shadows moved and the talk died. Gaius was nowhere near as uncomfortable as his friend. His limbs had gone numb long before, but breathing was still easy, whereas Marcus was sipping small breaths.
The afternoon cooled unnoticed outside the eternal chill of the shaded section of fast-flowing water. Marcus rested with his head leaning to one side or the other, with an eye half submerged and slowly blinking, seeing nothing. His mind could drift until his nose was covered, when he would splutter and raise himself straight again. Then he would dip once more as the pain worsened. They had not spoken for a long time. It had become a private battle, but not against each other. They would stay until they were called for, until Renius came back and ordered them to climb out.
As the day fled, they both knew that they could not climb out. Even if Renius appeared at that moment and congratulated them, he would have to drag them out himself, getting wet and muddy in the process if the gods were watching at all.
Marcus slipped in and out of waking, coming back with a sudden start and realizing he had somehow drifted away from the cold and the darkness. He wondered then if he would die in the river.
In one of those dreaming dozes, he felt warmth and heard the welcoming crackle of a good log fire. An old man prodded the burning wood with his toe, smiling at the sparks. He turned and seemed to notice the boy watching him, white and lost.
"Come closer to the warm, boy, I'll not hurt ye."
The old man's face carried the wrinkles and dirt of decades of labor and worry. It was scarred and seamed like a stitched purse. The hands were covered in rope veins that shifted under the skin as the swollen knuckles moved. He was dressed like a traveling man, with patched clothes and a dark red cloth wrapping his throat.
"What do we have here? A mudfish! Rare for these parts, but good eating on one, they say. You could cut a leg off and feed us both. I'd stop the bleeding, boy, I'm not without tricks."
Huge eyebrows bristled and rose in interest at the thought. The eyes glittered and the mouth opened to reveal soft gums, wet and puckered. The man patted his pockets and the shadows copied his movements, flapping on dark yellow walls that were lit only by the flames.
"Hold still, boy, I have a knife with a saw edge for you..." A hand like rough stone was pressed over his whole face, suddenly larger than a hand had any right to be.
The old man's breath was warm on his ear, smelling foully of rotting teeth.
He awoke choking and heaving dryly. His stomach was empty and the moon had risen. Gaius was beside him still, his face barely above the black glass water, head nodding in and out of the darkness.
It was enough. If the choice was to fail or to die, then he would fail and not mind the consequences. Tactically, that was the better choice. Sometimes, it is better to retreat and marshal your forces. That was what the old man wanted them to know. He wanted them to give up and was probably waiting somewhere nearby, waiting for them to learn this most important of lessons.
Marcus didn't remember the dream, except for the fear of being smothered, which he still felt. His body seemed to have lost its familiar shape and just sat, heavy and waterlogged beneath the surface. He had become some sort of soft-skinned, bottom-dwelling fish. He concentrated and his mouth hung slackly, dribbling back water as cold as himself. He swayed forward and brought up his arm to hold a root. It was the first time a limb had cleared the water in eleven hours. He felt the cold of death on him and had no regrets. True, Gaius was still there, but they would have different strengths. Marcus would not die to please some poxed-up old gladiator.
He slithered out, an inch at a time, mud plastering his face and chest as he dragged himself to the bank. His bloated stomach did seem buoyant in the water, as if filled from within. The sensation as his full weight finally came to bear on the hard ground was one of ecstasy. He lay and began to shudder in spasmodic fits of retching. Yellow bile trickled weakly out of his lips and mixed with the black mud. The night was quiet and he felt as if he'd just crawled out of the grave.
Dawn found him still there and a shadow blocking the pale sun. Renius stood there and frowned, not at Marcus, but at the tiny pale figure of the boy still in the water, eyes closed and lips blue. As Marcus watched him, he saw a sudden spasm of worry cross the iron face.
"Boy!" snapped the voice they had already come to loathe. "Gaius!"
The figure in the water lolled in the moving current, but there was no response. A muscle in Renius's jaw clenched and the old soldier stepped up to his thighs into the pool, scooping up the ten-year-old and throwing him over his shoulder as if the boy were a puppy. The eyes opened with the sudden movement, but there was no focus. Marcus rose as the old man strode away with his burden, obviously heading back to the house. He tottered after, muscles protesting.
Behind them, Tubruk stood in the shadows of the opposite bank, still hidden from sight by the foliage as he had been all night. His eyes were narrowed and as cold as the river.
Renius seemed to be fueled by a constant anger. After months of training, the boys had not seen him smile except in mockery. On bad days, he rubbed his neck as he snapped at them, and gave the impression that his temper was cracking every second. He was worst in the midday sun, when his skin would mottle with irritation at the slightest mistake.
"Hold the stone straight in front!" he barked at Marcus and Gaius as they sweated in the heat. The task that afternoon was to stand with arms outstretched in front, with a rock the size of a fist held in their hands. It had been easy at first.
Gaius's shoulders were aching and his arms felt loose. He tried to tense the muscles, but they seemed out of his control. Perspiring, he watched the stone drop by a hand's width and felt a stripe of pain over his stomach as Renius struck with a short whip. His arms trembled and muscles shuddered under the pain. He concentrated on the rock and bit his lip.
"You will not let it fall. You will welcome the pain. You will not let it fall."
Renius's voice was a harsh chant as he paced around the boys. This was the fourth time they had raised the stones, and each time was harder. He barely allowed them a minute to rest their aching arms before the order to raise came again.
"Cease," Renius said, watching to see that they controlled the descent, his whip held ready. Marcus was breathing heavily and Renius curled his lip.
"There will come a time when you think you can't stand the pain any more and men's lives will depend on it. You could be holding a rope others are climbing, or walking forty miles in full kit to rescue comrades. Are you listening?"
The boys nodded, trying not to pant with exhaustion, just pleased he was talking instead of ordering the stones up again.
"I have seen men walk themselves to death, falling onto the road with their legs still twitching and trying to lift them. They were buried with honor.
"I have seen men of my legion keep rank and move in formation, holding their guts in with one hand. They were buried with honor." He paused to consider his words, rubbing the back of his neck as though he had been stung.
"There will be times when you want to simply sit down, when you want to give up. When your body tells you it is done and your spirit is weak.
"These are false. Savages and the beasts of the field break, but we go on.
"Do you think you are finished now? Are your arms hurting you? I tell you that you will raise that rock another dozen times this hour and you will hold it. And another dozen if you let one fall below a hand's width."
A slave girl was washing dust from a wall at the side of the courtyard. She never looked at the boys, though occasionally she jumped slightly as the old gladiator barked a command. Gaius saw she looked exhausted herself, but he had noticed she was attractive, with long dark hair and a loose slave shift. Her face was delicate, with a pair of dark eyes and a full mouth pressed into a line by the concentration of her work. He thought her name was Alexandria.
As Renius spoke, she bent low to dip the cloth in the bucket and paused to wash the dirt from the material. Her shift gaped as she pressed the cloth into the water, and Gaius could see the smooth skin of her neck running down to the soft curves of her breasts. He thought he could see right down to the skin of her stomach and imagined her nipples gently grazing against the rough cloth as she moved.
In that moment, Renius was forgotten, despite the pain in his arms.
The old man stopped speaking and turned on his heel to see what was distracting the boys from their lesson. He growled as he saw the slave and crossed to her with three quick strides, taking her arm in a cruel grip that made her cry out. His voice was a bellow.
"I am teaching these children a lesson that will save their lives, and you are flashing your paps at them like a cheap whore!"
The girl cowered from his anger, pulling as far as she could reach from the held wrist.
"I... I..." she stammered, seeming dazed, but Renius swore and took her by the hair. She winced in pain and he swung her to face the boys.
"I don't care if there are a thousand of these behind my back. I am teaching you to concentrate!"
In one brutal move, he flicked her legs away with a sweep of his foot and she fell. Still holding her hair, Renius raised his whip in his other hand and brought it down sharply, in sequence with his words.
"You will not distract these boys while I teach."
The girl was crying as Renius let her go. She crawled a couple of paces, then came up to a crouch and ran from the yard, sobbing.
Marcus and Gaius looked dumbfounded at Renius as he turned back to them. His expression was murderous.
"Close your mouths, boys. This was never a game. I will make you good enough and hard enough to serve the Republic after I am gone. I will not allow weakness of any kind. Now raise the stones and hold them until I say to cease."
Once again, the boys raised their arms, not even daring to exchange glances.
* * *
That evening, when the estate was quiet and Renius had departed for the city, Gaius delayed his usual exhausted collapse into sleep to visit the slave quarters. He felt guilty being there and kept an eye out for Tubruk's shadow, though he couldn't quite have explained why.
The household slaves slept under the same roof as the family, in a wing of simple rooms. It was not a world he knew and he felt nervous as he walked along the darkening corridors, wondering whether he should knock at doors, or call her name, if it really was Alexandria.
He found her sitting on a low ledge outside an open door. She seemed lost in thought and he cleared his throat gently as he recognized her. She scrambled to her feet in fright and then held herself still, looking at the floor. She had cleaned the dust of the day from her skin, and it was smooth and pale in the evening light. Her hair was tied back with a scrap of cloth, and her eyes were wide with darkness.
"Is your name Alexandria?" he said quietly.
"I came to say sorry for today. I was watching you at your chores and Renius thought you were distracting us."
She stood perfectly still in front of him and kept her gaze on the floor at his feet. The silence stretched for a moment and he blushed, unsure how to continue.
"Look, I am sorry. He was cruel."
Still she said nothing. Her thoughts were pained, but this was the son of the house. I am a slave, she longed to say. Every day is pain and humiliation. You have nothing to say to me.
Gaius waited for a few more moments and then walked away, wishing he hadn't come.
Alexandria watched him leave, watched the confident walk and the developing strength that Renius was bringing out. He would be as vicious as that old gladiator when he was older. He was free and Roman. His compassion came from his youth, and that was fast being burned away in the training yard. Her face was hot with the anger she had not dared show. It was a small victory not to have talked to him, but she cherished it.
Renius reported their progress at the end of each quarter-year. On the evening before the appointed day, Gaius's father would return from his lodgings in the capital and receive Tubruk's summary of the estates wealth. He would see the boys and spend a few minutes extra with his son. The following day, he would see Renius at dawn and the boys would sleep in, grateful for the slight break in their routine.
The first report had been frustratingly short.
"They have made a beginning. Both have some spirit," Renius had stated flatly.
After a long pause, Julius realized that there was to be no further comment.
"They are obedient?" he asked, wondering at the lack of information. For this he'd paid so much gold?
"Of course," Renius replied, his expression baffled.
"They, er... they show promise?" Julius battled on, refusing to allow this conversation to go the way of the last one, but again feeling as if he were addressing one of his old tutors instead of a man in his employ.
"A beginning has been made. This work is not accomplished quickly."
"Nothing of value ever is," Julius replied quietly.
They looked at each other calmly for a moment and both nodded. The interview was at an end. The old warrior shook hands with a brief touch of dry skin in a quick, hard grip and left. Julius remained standing, gazing at the door that closed behind his exit.
Tubruk thought the training methods were dangerous and had mentioned an incident where the boys could have drowned without supervision. Julius grimaced. He knew that to mention the worry to Renius would be to sever their agreement. Preventing the old murderer from going too far would rest with the estate manager.
Sighing, he sat down and thought about the problems he faced in Rome. Cornelius Sulla had continued to rise in power, bringing some towns in the south of the country into the Roman fold and away from their merchant controllers. What was the name of that last? Pompeii, some sort of mountain town. Sulla kept his name in the mind of the vacuous public with such small triumphs. He commanded a group of senators with a web of lies, bribery, and flattery. They were all young and brought a shudder to the old soldier as he thought of some of them. If this was what Rome was coming to, in his lifetime...!
Instead of taking the business of empire seriously, they seemed to live only for sordid pleasures of the most dubious kinds, worshipping at the temple of Aphrodite and calling themselves the "New Romans." There were few things that still caused outrage in the temples of the capital, but this new group seemed intent on finding the limits and breaking them, one by one. One of the people's tribunes had been found murdered, one who opposed Sulla whenever possible. This would not have been too remarkable in itself; he had been found in a pool, made red by a swiftly opened vein in his leg, a not-uncommon mode of death. The problem was that his children too had been found killed, which looked like a warning to others. There were no clues and no witnesses. It was unlikely the murderer would ever be found, but before another tribune could be elected, Sulla had forced through a resolution that gave a general greater autonomy in the field. He had argued the need himself and was eloquent and passionate in his persuasion. The Senate had voted and his power had grown a little more, while the power of the Republic was nibbled away.
Julius had so far managed to stay neutral, but as he was related by marriage to another of the power players, his wife's brother Marius, he knew eventually that sides would have to be chosen. A wise man could see the changes coming, but it saddened him that the equalities of the Republic were felt as chains by more and more of the hotheads in the Senate. Marius too felt that a powerful man could use the law rather than obey it. Already he had proven this by making a mockery of the system used to elect consuls. Roman law said that a consul could only be elected once by the Senate and must then step down from the position. Marius had recently secured his third election with martial victories against the Cimbri tribes and the Teutons, whom he had smashed with the Primigenia legion. He was still a lion of the emerging Rome, and Julius would have to find the protection of his shadow if Cornelius Sulla continued to grow in power.
Favors would be owed and some of his autonomy would be lost if he threw his colors into the camp of Marius, but it might be the only wise choice. He wished he could consult his wife and listen to her quick mind dissect the problem as she used to do. Always she could see an angle on a problem, or a point of view that no one else could see. He missed her wry smile and the way she would press her palms against his eyes when he was tired, bringing a wonderful coolness and peace...
He moved quietly through the corridors to Aurelia's rooms and paused outside the door, listening to her long, slow breaths, barely audible in the silence.
Carefully, he entered the room and crossed over to the sleeping figure, kissing her lightly on the brow. She didn't stir and he sat by the bed, watching her.
Asleep, she seemed the woman he remembered. At any moment, she could wake and her eyes would fill with intelligence and wit. She would laugh to see him sitting there in the shadows and pull back the covers, inviting him in to the warmth of her.
"Who can I turn to, my love?" he whispered. "Who should I support and trust to safeguard the city and the Republic? I think your brother Marius cares as little for the idea as Sulla himself." He rubbed his jaw, feeling the stubble.
"Where does safety lie for my wife and my son? Do I throw in my house to the wolf or the snake?"
Silence answered him and he shook his head slowly. He rose and kissed Aurelia, imagining just for one moment more that, if her eyes opened, someone he knew would be looking out. Then he left quietly, shutting the door softly behind him.
When Tubruk walked his watch that evening, the last of the candles had guttered out and the rooms were dark. Julius still sat in his chair, but his eyes were closed and his chest rose and fell slowly, with a soft whistle of air from his nose. Tubruk nodded to himself, pleased he was getting some rest from worry.
The following morning, Julius ate with the two boys, a small breaking of the fast with bread, fruit, and a warm tisane to counter the dawn chill. The depressive thoughts of the day before had been put aside and he sat straight, his gaze clear.
"You look healthy and strong," he said to the pair of them. "Renius is turning you into young men."
They grinned at each other for a second.
"Renius says we will soon be fit enough for battle training. We have shown we can stand heat and cold and have begun to find our strengths and weaknesses. All this is internal, which he says is the foundation for external skill." Gaius spoke with animation, his hands moving slightly with his words.
Both boys were clearly growing in confidence, and Julius felt a pang for a moment that he was not able to see more of their growth. Looking at his son, he wondered if he would come home to a stranger one day.
"You are my son. Renius has trained many, but never a son of mine. You will surprise him, I think." Julius looked at Gaius's incredulous expression, knowing the boy was not used to praise or admiration.
"I will try to. Marcus will surprise him too, I expect."
Julius did not look at the other boy at the table, although he felt his eyes. As if he were not present, he answered, wanting the point to be remembered and annoyed at Gaius's attempt to bring his friend into the conversation.
"Marcus is not my son. You carry my name and my reputation with you. You alone."
Gaius bowed his head, embarrassed and unable to hold his fathers strangely compelling gaze. "Yes, Father," he muttered, and continued to eat.
Sometimes he wished there were other children, brothers or sisters to play with and to carry the burden of his father's hopes. Of course, he would not give up the estate to them, that was his alone and always had been, but occasionally he felt the pressure as an uncomfortable weight. His mother especially, when she was quiet and placid, would croon to him that he was all the children she had been allowed, one perfect example of life. She often told him that she would have liked daughters to dress and pass on her wisdom to, but the fever that had struck her at his birth had taken that chance away.
Renius came into the warm kitchen. He wore open sandals with a red soldier's tunic and short leggings that ended on his calves, stretched tight over almost obscenely large muscles, the legacy of life as an infantryman in the legions. Despite his age, he seemed to burn with health and vitality. He halted in front of the table, his back straight and his eyes bright and interested.
"With your permission, sir, the sun is rising and the boys must run five miles before it clears the hills."
Julius nodded and the two boys stood quickly, waiting for his dismissal.
"Go—train hard," he said, smiling. His son looked eager, the other—there was something else there in those dark eyes and brows. Anger? No, it was gone. The pair raced off and the two men were once again left alone. Julius indicated the table.
"I hear you are intending to begin battle school with them soon."
"They are not strong enough yet; they may not be this year, but I am not just a fitness instructor to them, after all."
"Have you given any thought to continuing their training after the year contract is up?" Julius asked, hoping his casual manner masked his interest.
"I will retire to the country next year. Nothing is likely to change that."
"Then these two will be your last students—your last legacy to Rome," Julius replied.
Renius froze for a second and Julius let no trace of his emotions betray itself on his face.
"It is something to think about," Renius said at last, before turning on his heel and going into the gray dawn light.
Julius grinned wolfishly behind him.
Gladius was one Latin word for sword, and is used to represent the primary sword of Ancient Roman foot soldiers. Early ancient Roman swords were similar to those of the Greeks, called xiphos. From the 3rd century BC, however, the Romans adopted swords similar to those used by the Celtiberians and others during the early part of the conquest of Hispania. This sword was known as the gladius hispaniensis, or "Hispanic sword".
As officers, you will ride to the battle, but fighting from horseback is not our chief strength. Although we use cavalry for quick, smashing attacks, it is the footmen of the twenty-eight legions that break the enemy. Every man of the 150,000 legionaries we have in the field at any given moment of any day can walk thirty miles in full armor, carrying a pack that is a third his own weight. He can then fight the enemy, without weakness and without complaint."
Renius eyed the two boys who stood in the heat of the noon sun, returned from a run and trying to control their breathing. More than three years he had given them, the last he would ever teach. There was so much more for them to learn! He paced around them as he spoke, snapping the words out.
"It is not the luck of the gods that has given the countries of the world into the palms of Rome. It is not the weakness of the foreign tribes that leads them to throw themselves onto our swords in battle. It is our strength, greater and deeper than anything they can bring to the field. That is our first tactic. Before our men even reach the battle, they will be unbreakable in their strength and their morale. More, they will have a discipline that the armies of the world can bloody themselves against without effect.
"Each man will know that his brothers at his side will have to be killed to leave him. That makes him stronger than the most heroic charge, or the vain screams of savage tribes. We walk to battle. We stand and they die."
Gaius's breathing slowed and his lungs ceased to clamor for oxygen. In the three years since Renius had first arrived at his father's villa, he had grown in height and strength. Approaching fourteen years of age, he was showing signs of the man he would one day be.
Burned the color of light oak by the Roman sun, he stood easily, his frame slim and athletic, with powerful shoulders and legs. He could run for hours round the hills and still find reserves for a burst of speed as his father's estate came into view again.
Marcus too had undergone changes, both physically and in his spirit. The innocent happiness of the boy he had been came and went in flashes now. Renius had taught him to guard his emotions and his responses. He had been taught this with the whip and without kindness of any kind for three long years. He too had well-developed shoulders, tapering down into lightning-fast fists that Gaius could not match anymore. Inside him, the desire to stand on his own, without help from his line or the patronage of others, was like a slow acid in his stomach.
As Renius watched, both boys became calm and stood to attention, watching him warily. It was not unknown for him to suddenly strike at an exposed stomach, testing, always testing for weakness.
"Gladii, gentlemen—fetch your swords."
Silently, they turned away and collected the short swords from pegs on the training yard wall. Heavy leather belts were buckled around their waists, with a leather "frog" attached, a holder for the sword. The scabbard slid snugly into the frog, tightly held by lacing so that it would remain immobile if the blade was suddenly drawn.
Properly attired, they returned to the attention position, waiting for the next order.
"Gaius, you observe. I will use the boy to make a simple point." Renius loosened his shoulders with a crack and grinned as Marcus slowly drew the gladius.
"First position, boy. Stand like a soldier, if you can remember how."
Marcus relaxed into the first position, legs shoulder-width apart, body slightly turned from full frontal, sword held at waist height, ready to strike for the groin, stomach, or throat, the three main areas of attack. Groin and neck were favorites, as a deep cut there would mean the opponent bled to death in seconds.
Renius shifted his weight, and Marcus's point wavered to follow the movement.
"Slashing the air again? If you do that, I'll see it and pattern you. I only need one opening to cut your throat out, one blow. Let me guess which way you're going to shift your weight and I'll cut you in two." He began to circle Marcus, who remained relaxed, his eyebrows raised over a face blank of expression. Renius continued to talk.
"You want to kill me, don't you, boy? I can feel your hatred. I can feel it like good wine in my stomach. It cheers me up, boy, can you believe that?"
Marcus attacked in a sudden move, without warning, without signal. It had taken hundreds of hours of drill for him to eliminate all his "tells," his telegraphing tensions of muscle that gave away his intentions. No matter how fast he was, a good opponent would gut him if he signaled his thoughts before each move.
Renius was not there when the stabbing lunge ended. His gladius pressed up against Marcus's throat.
"Again. You were slow and clumsy as usual. If you weren't faster than Gaius, you'd be the worst I'd ever seen."
Marcus gaped and, in a split second, the sun-warmed gladius was pressed against his inner thigh, by the big pulsing vein that carried his life.
Renius shook his head in disgust. "Never listen to your opponent. Gaius is observing, you are fighting. You concentrate on how I am moving, not the words I speak, which are simply to distract you. Again."
They circled in the shadows of the yard.
"Your mother was clumsy in bed at first." Renius's sword snaked out as he spoke and was snapped aside with a bell ring of metal. Marcus stepped in and pressed his blade against the leathery old skin of Renius's throat. His expression was cold and unforgiving.
"Predictable," Marcus muttered, glaring into the cold blue eyes, nettled nonetheless.
He felt a pressure and looked down to see a dagger held in Renius's left hand, touching him lightly on the stomach. Renius grinned.
"Many men will hate you enough to take you with them. They are the most dangerous of all. They can run right onto your sword and blind you with their thumbs. I've seen that done by a woman to one of my men."
"Why did she hate him so much?" Marcus asked as he took a pace away, sword still ready to defend.
"The victors will always be hated. It is the price we pay. If they love you, they will do what you want, but when they want to do it. If they fear you, they will do your will, but when you want them to. So, is it better to be loved or feared?"
"Both," Gaius said seriously.
Renius smiled. "You mean adored and respected, which is the impossible trick if you are occupying lands that are only yours by right of strength and blood. Life is never a simple problem from question to answer. There are always many answers."
The two boys looked baffled and Renius snorted in irritation.
"I will show you what discipline means. I will show you what you have already learned. Put your swords away and stand back to attention."
The old gladiator looked the pair over with a critical eye. Without warning, the noon bell sounded and he frowned, his manner changing in an instant. His voice lost the snap of the tutor and, for once, was low and quiet.
"There are food riots in the city, did you know that? Great gangs that destroy property and stream away like rats when someone is brave enough to draw a sword on them. I should be there, not playing games with children. I have taught you for two years longer than my original agreement. You are not ready, but I will not waste any more of my evening years on you. Today is your last lesson." He stepped over to Gaius, who stared resolutely ahead.
"Your father should have met me here and heard my report. The fact that he is late for the first time in three years tells me what?"
Gaius cleared his dry throat. "The riots in Rome are worse than you believed."
"Yes. Your father will not be here to see this last lesson. A pity. If he is dead and I kill you, who will inherit the estate?"
Gaius blinked in confusion. The man's words seemed to jar with his reasonable tone. It was as if he were ordering a new tunic.
"My uncle Marius, although he is with the Primigenia legion—the First-Born. He will not be expecting—"
"A good standard, the Primigenia, did well in Egypt. My bill will be sent to him. Now I will indulge you as the current master of the estate, in your father's absence. When you are ready, you will face me for real, not a practice, not to first blood, but an attack such as you might face if you were walking the streets of Rome today, among the rioters.
"I will fight fairly, and if you kill me you may consider yourself to have graduated from my tutelage."
"Why kill us after all the time you have—" Marcus spluttered, breaking discipline to speak without permission.
"You have to face death at some point. I cannot continue to train you, and there is a last lesson to be learned about fear and anger."
For a moment, Renius looked unsure of himself, but then his head straightened and the "Snapping Turtle," as the slaves called him, was back, his intensity and energy overpowering.
"You are my last pupils. My reputation as I go into retirement hangs on your sorry necks. I will not let you go improperly trained, so that my name is blackened by your deeds. My name is something I have spent my life protecting. It is too late to consider losing it now."
"We would not embarrass you," Marcus muttered, almost to himself.
Renius rounded on him. "Your every stroke embarrasses me. You hack like a butcher attacking a bull carcass in a rage. You cannot control your temper. You fall for the simplest trap as the blood drains from your head! And you!" He turned to Gaius, who had begun to grin. "You cannot keep your thoughts from your groin long enough to make a Roman of you. Nobilitas? My blood runs cold at the thought of boys like you carrying on my heritage, my city, my people."
Gaius dropped the grin at the reference to the slave girl that Renius had whipped in front of them for distracting the boys. It still shamed him and a slow anger began to grow as the tirade continued.
"Gaius, you may choose which of you will duel first. Your first tactical decision!" Renius turned and strode away onto the fighting square laid out in mosaic on the training ground. He stretched his leg muscles behind them, seemingly oblivious to their dumbstruck gazes.
"He has gone mad," Marcus whispered. "He'll kill us both."
"He is still playing games," Gaius said grimly. "Like with the river. I'm going to take him. I think I can do it. I'm certainly not going to refuse the challenge. If this is how I show him that he has taught me well, then so be it. I will thank him in his own blood."
Marcus looked at his friend and saw his resolution. He knew that, as much as he didn't want either of them to fight Renius, it was he who had the better chance. Neither could win outright, but only Marcus had the speed to take the old man with him into the void.
"Gaius," he murmured. "Let me go first."
Gaius looked him in the eye, as if to gauge his thoughts. "Not this time. You are my friend. I do not want to see him kill you."
"Nor I you. Yet I am the faster of us—I have a better chance."
Gaius loosened his shoulders and smiled tightly. "He is only an old man, Marcus. I'll be back in a moment."
Alone, Gaius took up his position. Renius watched him through eyes narrowed against the sun.
"Why did you choose to fight first?"
Gaius shrugged. "All lives end. I chose to. That is enough."
"Aye, it is. Begin, boy. Let's see if you have learned anything."
Gently, smoothly, they began to move around each other, gladii held out and flat-bladed, catching the sun.
Renius feinted with a sudden shift of a shoulder. Gaius read the feint and forced the old man back a step with a lunge. The blades clashed and the battle began. They struck and parried, came together in a twist of heaving muscle, and the old warrior threw the young boy backward and left him sprawling in the dust.
For once, Renius didn't mock him, his face remaining impassive. Gaius rose slowly, balanced. He could not win with strength.
He took two quick steps forward and brought the blade up in a neat slice, breaking past the defense and cutting deeply into the mahogany skin of Renius's chest. The old man grunted in surprise as the boy pressed the attack without pause, cut after cut. Each was parried with tiny shifts of weight and movements of the blade. The boy would clearly tire himself in the sun and be ready for the butcher's knife.
Sweat poured into Gaius's eyes. He felt desperate, unable to think of new moves that might work against this hard-eyed thing of wood that read and parried him so easily. He flailed and missed, and, as he overbalanced, Renius extended his right arm, sinking the blade into the exposed lower abdomen.
Gaius felt his strength go. His legs seemed weak sticks and folded beyond his control under him, rubbery and painless. Blood spattered the dust, but the colors had gone from the courtyard, replaced by the thump of his heartbeat and flashes in his eyes.
Renius looked down and Gaius could see his eyes shine with moisture. Was the old man crying?
"Not... good... enough," the old gladiator spat. Renius stepped forward, his eyes full of pain.
The brightness of the sun was blocked by a dark bar of shadow as Marcus slid his sword under the sagging throat skin of the old warrior. One step behind Renius, he could see the old man stiffen in surprise.
"Forgotten me?" It would be the work of a single thought to pull the blade back sharply and end the vicious old man, but Marcus had glanced at the body of his friend and knew the life was pouring out of him. He allowed the rage to build inside him for a moment, and the chance for a quick death disappeared as Renius stepped smoothly away and brought up his bloody sword again. His face was stone, but his eyes shone.
Marcus began his attack, in past the guard and out before the old man had a chance to move. If he had been trying for a fatal blow, it would have landed, as the old man held immobile, his face rigid with tension. As it was, the blow was simply a loosener and the life in the old man came back with a rush.
"Can't you even kill me when I hold still for the strike?" Renius snapped as he began to circle again, keeping his right side to Marcus.
"You were always a fool—you have a fools pride," Marcus almost growled at him, forced to pay attention to this man as his friend died in the heat, alone.
He attacked again, his thought become deeds, no reflection or decision, simply blows and moves, unstoppable. Red mouths opened on the old body, and Marcus could hear the spatter of blood on the dust like spring rain.
Renius had no time to speak again. He defended desperately, his face showing shock for a second before settling into his gladiatorial mask. Marcus moved with extraordinary grace and balance, too fast to counter, a warrior born.
Again and again, the old man only knew he had stopped a blow when he heard the clash of metal as his body moved and reacted without conscious thought. His mind seemed detached from the fight.
His thoughts spoke in a dry voice: I am an old fool. This one may be the best I have trained, but I have killed the other—that was a mortal blow.
His left arm hung, flapping obscene and loose, the shoulder muscle sliced. The pain was like a hammer and he felt sudden exhaustion slam into him, like the years catching up with him at last. The boy had never been this fast before; it was as if the sight of his friend dying had opened doors within him.
Renius felt his strength desert him in one despairing sigh. He had seen so many at this point where the spirit cannot take the flesh further. He warded off the battered blade of the gladius without energy, batting it away for what he knew would be the last time.
"Cease, or I will drop you where you stand," came a new voice, quiet, but carrying somehow through the courtyard and house.
Marcus didn't pause. He had been trained not to react to taunts, and no one was taking this kill from him. He tensed his shoulders to drive in the iron blade.
"This bow will kill you, boy. Put the sword down."
Renius looked Marcus in the eyes, seeing madness there for a moment. He knew the lad would kill him, and then the light was gone and control had come back.
Even with the heat of his own blood warming his limbs, the yard seemed cold to the old man as he watched Marcus glide backward out of range and then turn to look at the newcomer. Renius had rarely been so certain of his own death to come.
There was a bow, with a glinting arrowhead. An old man, older than Renius, held the bow without a shiver of muscle, despite the obvious heft of the draw. He wore a rough brown robe and a smile that stretched over only a few teeth.
"No one has to die here today. I would know. Put the weapon away and let me summon doctors and cool drinks for you."
Reality came back to Marcus in a rush. The gladius dropped from his hand as he spoke. "Gaius, my friend, is injured. He may die. He needs help."
Renius sank onto one knee, unable to stand. His sword fell from nerveless fingers and the red stain widened around him as his head bowed. Marcus walked past him without a downward glance, over to where Gaius lay.
"His appendix has been ruptured, I see," the old man said over his shoulder.
"Then he is dead. When the appendix swells, it is always fatal. Our doctors cannot remove the swollen thing."
"I have done it, once before. Summon the slaves of the house to bear this boy inside. Fetch me bandages and heated water."
"Are you a healer?" Marcus asked, searching the man's eyes for hope.
"I have picked up a few things on my travels. It is not over yet." Their eyes met.
Marcus looked away, nodding to himself. He trusted the stranger, but could not have said why.
Renius slid onto his back, his chest barely moving. He looked like what he was, a frail old brown stick of a man, made hard but brittle in the Roman sun. As Marcus's gaze fell on him, he tried to rise, shuddering with weakness.
Marcus felt a hand press down on his shoulder, interrupting his rage as it grew again. Tubruk stood beside him, his face black with anger. Marcus could feel the ex-gladiator's hand shake slightly.
"Relax, boy. There'll be no more fighting. I have sent for Lucius and Gaius's mothers doctor."
"You saw?" Marcus stammered.
Tubruk tightened his grip.
"The end of it. I hoped you would kill him," he said grimly, looking over to where Renius bled. Tubruks expression was hard as he turned back to the newcomer.
"Who are you, ancient? A poacher? This is a private estate."
The old man stood slowly and met Tubruks eyes. "Just a traveler, a wanderer," he said.
"Will he die?" Marcus interrupted.
"Not today, I think," the old man replied. "It would not be right after I have arrived—am I not a guest of the house now?"
Marcus blinked in confusion, trying to weigh the reasonable sound of the words with the still-swirling pain and rage inside him.
"I don't even know your name," he said.
"I am Cabera," the old man said softly. "Peace now. I will help you."
Gaius lifted into consciousness, woken by angry voices in the room. His head pounded and he felt weak in every bone. Pain from below his waist heaved in great waves, with answering throbs at pulse points on his body. His mouth was dry and he could not speak or keep his eyes open. The darkness was soft and red and he tried to go back under, not yet willing to join the conscious struggle again.
"I have removed the perforated appendix and tied off the severed vessels. He has lost a great deal of blood, which will take time to be replenished, but he is young and strong." A stranger's voice—one of the estate doctors? Gaius didn't know or care. As long as he wasn't going to die, they should just leave him alone to get well.
"My wife's doctor says you are a charlatan." His father's voice, no give in it.
"He would not operate on such a wound—so you have lost nothing, yes? I have removed the appendix once before; it is not a fatal operation. The only problem is the onset of fever, which he must fight on his own."
"I was taught that it was always fatal. The appendix swells and bursts. It cannot be removed as you might cut off a finger." His father sounded tired, Gaius thought.
"Nevertheless, I have done so. I have also bandaged the older man. He too will recover, although he will never fight again, with the damage to his left shoulder. All will live here. You should sleep."
Gaius heard footsteps cross his room and felt the warm, dry skin of his father's palm on his damp forehead.
"He is my only child; how can I sleep, Cabera? Would you sleep if it was your child?"
"I would sleep like a baby. We have done all that we can. I will continue to watch over him, but you must get your rest." The other voice seemed kind, but it did not have the rounded tones of the physicians that tended his mother. There was a trace of a strange accent, a mellifluous rhythm as he spoke.
Gaius sank into sleep again as if he held a dark weight on his chest. The voices continued on the edge of hearing, slipping in and out of fever dreams.
"Why have you not closed the wound with stitches? I've seen a lot of battle wounds, but we close them and bind them."
"This is why the Greeks dislike my methods. The wound must have a drain for the pus that will fill it as the fever strengthens. If I closed it tight, the pus would have nowhere to go and poison his flesh. Then he would surely die, as most do. This could save him."
"If he dies, I will cut your own appendix out myself."
There was a cackle and a few words in a strange language that echoed in Gaius's dreams.
"You would have a job finding it. Here is the scar from when my father removed mine many years ago— with the drain."
Gaius's father spoke with finality: "I will trust your judgment then. You have my thanks and more if he lives."
Gaius woke as a cool hand touched his forehead. He looked into blue eyes, bright in skin the color of walnut wood.
"My name is Cabera, Gaius. It is good to meet you at last and at such a moment in your life. I have been traveling for thousands of your miles. It is enough to make me believe in the gods to have arrived here when I was needed. No?"
Gaius couldn't respond. His tongue was thick and solid in his mouth. As if reading his thoughts, the old man reached over and brought a shallow bowl of water to his lips.
"Drink a little. The fever is burning the moisture from your body."
The few drops slid into his mouth and loosened the gummy saliva that had gathered there. Gaius coughed and his eyes closed again. Cabera looked down at the boy and sighed for a moment. He checked that there was no one around and then placed his bony old hands over the wound, around the thin wood tube that still dribbled sluggish fluid.
A warmth came from his hands that Gaius could feel even in his dreams. He felt tendrils of heat spread up into his chest and settle into his lungs, clearing away fluid.
The heat built until it was almost painful, and then Cabera took his hands away and sat still, his breathing suddenly harsh and broken.
Gaius opened his eyes again. He still felt too weak to move, but the feeling of liquid moving inside him had gone. He could breathe again.
"What did you do?" he murmured.
"Helped a little, yes? You needed a little help, even after all my skills as a surgeon." The old face was deeply lined with exhaustion, but his eyes still shone out from the dark creases. The hand was pressed against his forehead again.
"Who are you?" Gaius whispered.
The old man shrugged. "I am still working on an answer to that. I have been a beggar and the chief of a village. I think of myself as a seeker after truths, with a new truth for each place I reach."
"Can you help my mother?" Gaius kept his eyes closed, but he could hear the soft sigh that came from the man.
"No, Gaius. Her problem is in her mind, or the soul, perhaps. I can help a little with physical hurt, but nothing more. It is much simpler. I am sorry. Sleep now, lad. Sleep is the real healer, not I."
Darkness came, as if ordered.
When he woke again, Renius was sitting on the bed, his face unreadable as always. As Gaius opened his eyes, he took in the changed appearance of his teacher. His left shoulder was heavily bound close to the body and there was a pallor under the sun-darkened skin.
"How are you, lad? I can't tell you how good it is to see you getting better. That old tribesman must be a miracle worker." The voice at least was the same, curt and hard.
"I think he may be, yes. I'm surprised to see you here after almost killing me," Gaius murmured, feeling his heart pump faster as the memories came fresh. He felt sweat break out on his forehead.
"I did not mean to cut you badly. It was a mistake. I am sorry." The old man looked into his eyes for forgiveness and found it there waiting for him.
"Don't be sorry. I am alive and you are alive. Even you make mistakes."
"When I thought I'd killed you..." There was pain in the old face.
Gaius struggled to sit up and found, to his surprise, that his strength was growing. "You did not kill me. I will always be proud to say it was you who trained me. Let there be no more words on this. It is done."
For a second Gaius was struck by the ridiculousness of a thirteen-year-old boy comforting the old gladiator, but the words came easily as he realized he felt a genuine affection for this man, especially now he could see him as a man and not a perfect warrior, cut from some strange stone.
"Is my father still here?" he asked, hoping he would be.
Renius shook his head. "He had to return to the city, though he sat by your bed for the first few days, until we were sure you were on the mend. The riots grow worse and Sulla's legion has been recalled to establish order."
Gaius nodded and held out his clenched hand before him. "I would like to be there, to see the legion come through the gates."
Renius smiled at the young man's enthusiasm. "Not this time, I think, but you will see more of the city when you are well again. Tubruk is outside. Are you strong enough to see him?"
"I feel much better, almost normal. How long has it been?"
"A week. Cabera gave you herbs to keep you asleep. Even so, you've healed incredibly quickly, and I've seen a lot of wounds. That old man calls himself a seer. I think he does have a little magic about him, that one. I'll call Tubruk."
As Renius rose, Gaius put out his hand. "Will you be staying on?"
Renius smiled, but shook his head. "The training is over. I am retiring to my own little villa, to grow old in peace."
Gaius hesitated for a second. "Do you... have a family?"
"I had one, once, but they are long gone. I will spend my evenings with the other old men, telling lies and drinking good red wine. I will keep an eye on your life, though. Cabera says you are someone special, and I don't believe that old devil is wrong very often."
"Thank you," Gaius said, unable to put into words what the gladiator had given him.
Renius nodded and took his hand and wrist in a firm grip. Then he was gone and the room felt suddenly empty.
Tubruk filled the doorway and smiled a slow smile. "You look better. There is color in your cheeks."
Gaius grinned at him, beginning to feel like his old self again. "I feel stronger. I have been lucky."
"No such thing. Cabera's responsible. He is an amazing man. He must be eighty, but when your mother's latest doctor complained about how you were treated, Cabera took him outside and gave him a hiding. I haven't laughed so hard in a long time. He has a lot of strength in those skinny arms and a fast right cross as well. You should have seen it." He chuckled at the memory, then his face became sober.
"Your mother wanted to see you, but we thought it would... distress her too much until you were well. I'll bring her in tomorrow."
"Now would be all right. I am not too tired."
"No. You are still weak and Cabera says you shouldn't be overworked with visitors."
Gaius's face showed mock surprise at Tubruk taking advice from anyone.
Tubruk smiled again. "Well, as I said, he is an amazing man, and after what he managed with you, what he says goes, as far as your care is concerned. I only let Renius in here because he is leaving today."
"I am glad you did. I would not have liked to leave unfinished business."
"That's what I thought."
"I'm surprised you didn't take his head off," Gaius said cheerfully.
"I thought about it, but accidents happen in training. He just went too far, that's all. For what it's worth, he's proud of both of you. I think the old bastard developed a liking for you, probably for your stubbornness— you're as bad as he is, I think."
"How is Marcus?" Gaius asked.
"Itching to get in here, of course. You might try to convince him it wasn't his fault. He says he should have forced you to let him fight first, but—"
"It was my decision and I don't regret it. I lived, after all."
Tubruk snorted. "Don't become overconfident. It makes a man believe in the power of prayer to see you survive a wound like that. If it weren't for Cabera, you would not have survived it. You do owe him your life. Your father has been trying to get him to accept some sort of reward, but he won't take anything except his keep. I still don't really know why he is here. He seems to believe... that we are moved by the gods like we throw dice, and they wanted him to see the glorious city of Rome before he was too old." The bluff freedman looked perplexed and Gaius thought that it wouldn't help to mention his strange memory of the heat from Cabera's hands. That would keep, no doubt.
"I will get some soup brought in. Would you like some fresh bread with it?"
Gaius's stomach agreed wholeheartedly and Tubruk left, smiling once again.
Renius gained the saddle of his gelding with difficulty. His left arm felt useless, the pain more than the simple ache of healing gashes he had known so many times before.
He was pleased there were no servants or slaves around to see his clumsiness. The great estate house seemed deserted.
At last, he was able to grip the body of the horse with his legs, allowing his muscles to support their weight. Even with evening coming on, he would make it back to the city before complete darkness. He sighed at the thought. What was there, really, for him now? He would sell his town house, although the prices had dropped during the rioting. Perhaps it would be better to wait until the streets were quiet again. With Sulla leading his legion into the city, there would be executions and public floggings, but order would eventually be restored. It had happened before. The Romans did not like war on their doorstep. They thrilled to hear of broken armies of barbarians, but no one enjoyed the brutality of martial law, with a curfew and the scarcity of food that would inevitably—
He heard a sound behind him and his thoughts were interrupted.
Marcus stood watching him, his face calm. "I came to wish you goodbye."
Almost unconsciously, Renius noticed the developed shoulders and the easy way of standing the boy had. He would make a name for himself in some future the old warrior would not be there to see.
A shiver touched him at the thought. No one lives forever, not an Alexander, not a Scipio or a Hannibal, not even a Renius.
"I am glad Gaius is healing," Renius replied clearly.
"I know. I did not come to be angry at you, but to apologize," Marcus said, looking at the sand at his feet.
Renius raised his eyebrows.
Marcus took a deep breath. "I am sorry I did not kill you, you twisted, evil bastard. If our paths ever cross in later years, I will take your throat out."
Renius swayed in the saddle, as if the words were blows. He could feel the hatred and it cheered him up immensely. Laughter threatened to overcome him as the little cockerel made its threats, but he realized he could give a last gift to his pupil, if he chose his words carefully.
"Such hatred will kill you, boy. And then you won't be there to protect Gaius."
"I will always be there for him."
"No. Not until you can keep your temper. You will die in some brawl in a stinking barroom, unless you can find calm in yourself. You would have killed me, yes; at my age, my stamina melts faster than I care to admit. But if we had met when I was young, I would have cut through you faster than corn falls to the knife. Remember that the next time you meet a young man with a reputation to make." Renius grinned then and it was like seeing the teeth of a shark, lips sliding back over a cruel expression.
"He may get the chance sooner than you think," Cabera said, coming out of the shadows.
"What? You were listening, you old devil?" Renius said, still smiling, although his expression eased at the sight of the healer, whom he had come to respect.
"Look to the city. You will not be going anywhere tonight, I think," Cabera continued, his expression serious.
Both Marcus and Renius turned to look out over the hills. Although Rome was hidden by the rise of the land, an orange glow grew brighter as they watched in horror.
"Jupiter's balls—they've set the city on fire!" Renius spat. His beloved city.
For a moment, he thought of spurring the horse away, knowing his place should be in the streets. Men knew his face; he could help restore order. A cool hand touched his ankle and he looked down into the face of old Cabera.
"I see the future occasionally. If you go there now, you will be dead by dawn. This is truth."
Renius shifted his weight and the gelding clopped its hooves on the sand, feeling his emotions.
"And if I stay?" he snapped.
Cabera shrugged. "You may die here too. The slaves will be coming to loot this place. We don't have long now.
Marcus gaped at the words. There were close to five hundred slaves on the estate. If they all went wild, there would be butchery. Without another word, he ran back into the buildings, shouting for Tubruk to raise the alarm.
"Would you like a hand dismounting from that fine gelding?" asked Cabera, his eyes wide and innocent.
Renius grimaced, suddenly able to muster his usual anger despite the cheerful old man. "The gods don't tell us what is going to happen," he said.
Cabera smiled wistfully. "I used to believe that. When I was young and arrogant, I used to think I could somehow read people, see their true selves and guess at what they would do. It was years before I was humble enough to know it could not be me. It isn't like glancing through a clear window. I just look at you and toward the city and I feel death. Why not? Many men have talents that could almost be magic to those without them. Think of it like that if it makes you more comfortable. Come on. You will be needed here tonight."
Renius snorted. "I suppose you have made a lot of money with this talent of yours?"
"Once or twice I have, but money does not stay with me. It steals out into the hands of wine merchants and loose women and gamblers. All I have is my experiences, but they are worth more than coin."
After a few moments of thought, Renius accepted the helping hand and was not surprised to find it steady and strong, not after seeing those skinny shoulders pull the heavy bow in the training yard.
"You will have to hold my scabbard for me, old man. I will be all right when my sword is out." He began to lead the horse back into the stables, stroking its nose and murmuring that they would ride later, when all the excitement was over. He paused for a moment. "You can see the future?"
Cabera grinned and hopped from one foot to the other, amused. "You want to know if you will live or die here, yes?" he chattered. "That is what everyone asks."
Renius found his usual sourness coming back in force. "No. I don't think I do want to know that. Keep it to yourself, magician." He led the horse away without looking back, his shoulders showing his irritation.
When he had gone, Cabera's face filled with grief. He liked the man and was pleased to find that a sort of decency still resided in Renius's heart, despite the fame and money he had won in his life.
"Perhaps I should have let you go and wither with the other old men, my friend," he muttered to himself. "You might even have found happiness somewhere. Yet if you had left, the boys would have been surely killed, so this is a sin I can live with, I think." His eyes were bleak as he turned to the great gates of the estate outer wall and began to push them closed. He wondered if he too would die in this foreign land, unknown in his own. He wondered if his father's spirit was close by and watching and decided that it probably wasn't. His father at least had had the sense not to sit in the cave and wait for the bear to come home.
Galloping hoofbeats sounded in the distance. Cabera held the main gate open as he watched the approaching figure. Was it the first of the attackers or a messenger from Rome? He cursed his vision that allowed him such fragmentary glimpses into the future, and never anything that involved himself. Here he was holding the door for the rider, so he had had no warning. The clearest visions were those in which he wasn't involved at all, which was probably meant to be a lesson from the gods—one rather wasted on him, on the whole. He had found that he could not live life as an observer.
A trail of dark dust followed the figure, barely showing in the gloom of the gathering twilight.
"Hold the gate!" a voice commanded.
Cabera raised an eyebrow. What did the man think he was doing?
Gaius's father, Julius, came thundering through the opening. His face was red and his rich clothes were stained with soot.
"Rome is on fire," he said as he jumped to the ground. "But they will not get my home." In that moment, he recognized Cabera and patted his shoulder in greeting.
"How is my son?"
"Doing well. I am..." Cabera trailed off as the vigorous older version of Gaius strode away to organize the defenses. Tubruk's name echoed around the internal corridors of the estate.
Cabera looked puzzled for a moment. The visions had changed a little—the man was a force of nature and might just be enough to tip the balance in their favor.
His mind went blank again as he heard the shouts rise in the fields. Muttering in frustration, Cabera climbed the steps up to the estate wall, to use his eyes where his internal vision had failed.
Darkness filled every horizon, but Cabera could see pinpoint pricks of light moving in the fields, meeting and multiplying like fireflies. Each would be a lamp or a torch held by angry slaves, their blood warmed by the heat of the sky over the capital. They were already marching toward the great estate.
All the house servants and slaves stayed loyal. Lucius, the estate doctor, unwrapped his bandages and materials, spreading vicious-looking metal tools on a piece of cloth on one of the wide kitchen tables. He collared two of the kitchen boys as they were grabbing cleavers to help in the battle.
"You two stay with me. You'll get your fill of cutting and blood right here." They were reluctant, but Lucius was more of an old family friend and his word had always been law to them before. The lawlessness that was rife in Rome had not yet spread to the estate.
Outside, Renius had everyone in the yard. Grimly, he counted them. Twenty-nine men and seventeen women. "How many of you have been in the army?" his voice rapped.
Six or seven hands rose.
"You men have priority for swords. The rest of you go and find anything that will cut or crush. Run!"
The last word shocked the frightened men and women out of their lethargy and they scattered. Those who had already found weapons remained, their faces dark and full of fear.
Renius walked up to one of them, a short, fat cook with an enormous cleaver resting on his shoulder. "What's your name?" he said.
"Caecilius," came the reply. "I'll tell my children I fought with you when this is over."
"That you will. We don't have to break a full assault. The attackers are out for easy targets to rape and rob. I mean to make this estate a little too hard to crack for them to bother with. How's your nerve?"
"Good, sir. I'm used to killing pigs and calves, so I won't faint at a drop or two of blood."
"This is a little different. These pigs have swords and clubs. Don't hesitate. Throat and groin. Find something to block a blow—some sort of shield."
"Yes, sir, directly."
The man attempted to salute and Renius forced himself to smile, biting back his temper at the sloppy manners. He watched the fat figure run away into the buildings and wiped the first beads of sweat from his brow. Strange that such men as that should understand loyalty where so many others threw it aside at the first hint of freedom. He shrugged. Some men would always be animals and others would be... men.
Marcus walked out into the yard, his sword out of its scabbard. He was smiling. "Would you like me to stand near you, Renius? Cover your left side for you?"
"If I wanted help, puppy, I'd ask you. Until that time, take yourself to the gate and keep a lookout. Call me when you can see numbers."
Marcus snapped off a salute, much crisper than that of the cook, yet held a little too long. Renius could sense his insolence and considered breaking the boy's mouth for him. No, right now he needed that stupid confidence of youth. He'd learn soon enough what killing was like.
As the men returned, he sent them to positions along the walls. They were far too few, but he believed what he had said to Caecilius. The outbuildings would be burned, no doubt; the granaries would probably go and the animals would be slaughtered, but the main complex would not be worth the deaths it would take. An army could take it in minutes, he knew—but these were slaves, drunk on stolen wine and freedom that would vanish again with the morning sun. One strong man with a good sword arm and a ruthless temperament could handle a mob.
There was no sign yet of Julius or Cabera. No doubt the former was putting on his breastplate and greaves, the full uniform. But where had the old healer got to? That bow of his would be a useful asset in the first few minutes of bloodshed.
The noise of the men on the walls was like a flock of geese cackling in excited nervousness.
"Silence!" Renius snapped. "The next man to speak will get back down here and face me."
In the sudden absence of chatter, they could again hear the screams and yells of the slaves in the fields.
"We need to listen to what is going on outside. Keep silent and stretch a few muscles. Keep a distance from the next man along, so you can swing without cutting his head off."
The men shuffled apart from the little knots that had formed out of a need for contact. The fear was in all their eyes. Renius cursed to himself. Ten good men from his old legion and he could hold this place until dawn. These were children with sticks and knives. He took a deep breath as he tried to find words to encourage them. Even the iron legions had needed speeches to fire their blood, and they were confident of their skills.
"There is nowhere to run to. If the mob breaks past you, everyone in this house will die. That is your responsibility. You must not leave your position—we are stretched thinly enough as it is. The wall is four feet wide—one long pace. Learn it—if you take more than one step back, you will fall."
He watched as the men shuffled around on the wall, checking the width for themselves. His face hardened.
"I will keep fighters in the courtyard to deal with any that get over the wall. Do not look down, even if you see your friends being killed before you."
Cabera came out of the buildings, his bow restrung in his hand. "This is how you inspire them? Your empire is built on this sort of speech?" he muttered.
Renius frowned at him. "I have never lost a battle. Not with my legion, not in the arena. I have never had a man run or break under my command. If you run, you will pass me, and I will not run."
"I won't run," Marcus said clearly, into the silence.
Renius met his eyes, seeing a touch of the madness he had witnessed before.
"Nor will I, Renius," said another.
The others all nodded and murmured that they would sooner die, but still the faces of a few were puckered in terror.
"Your children, your brothers, your fathers will ask you if you did. Be sure you can look them all in the eye."
Heads nodded and shoulders lifted a little straighter.
"Better," Cabera muttered again.
Julius moved easily through the open door onto the courtyard. His breastplate and leggings were oiled and smooth. His short scabbard swung as he walked. His face was a brutal mask as an obvious rage burned inside. The men on the wall turned away from him, looking out over the fields.
"I will take the head of every man from my estate not within these walls," he growled.
Cabera shook his head quickly, not wanting to disagree with the man while those on the wall were listening. "Sir," he whispered. "They all have friends outside. Good men and women who are trapped or unable to fight through to you. Such a threat hurts their morale."
"It pleases me. Every man outside these walls will be killed and I will pile their heads inside the gates! This is my home and Rome is my city. We will cut out the filth that burn the houses and scatter them on the wind! Do you hear me, little man?" His internal fury built into incandescent rage. Renius and Cabera stared at him as he climbed up the corner steps and walked the length of the wall, shouting orders and noting sloppiness.
"For a man in politics, he has an unusual approach to a problem," Cabera said quietly.
"Rome is full of men like him. That, my friend, is why we have an empire, not empty speeches." Renius smiled his shark smile and walked over to where the women waited in a quietly murmuring group.
"What can we do?" asked a slave girl. He recognized her as the one he had whipped so many months ago for distracting the boys in their training. Her name was Alexandria, it came back to him. While the others shrank from his gaze, as befitted the rank of slaves of the house, she held his eyes and waited for his answer.
"Fetch some knives. If anyone gets past the wall, you must fall on them and keep stabbing until they are dead."
A gasp came from a couple of the older women, and one looked a little sick.
"Do you want to be raped and killed? Gods, woman, I am not asking you to stand on the wall, just to protect our backs. There are too few men to bring some down to protect you as well!" He had no patience with their softness. Good for bed, but when you had to depend on one... Gods!
Alexandria nodded. "Knives. The spare wood axe is in the stable, unless someone has it. Go and search for some, Susanna. Quickly now."
A matronly type, still looking pale, trotted off on the errand.
"Can we carry water? Arrows? Fire? Is there anything else we can do?"
"Nothing," Renius snapped, losing patience. "Just make sure you kill anyone that lands in the yard. Put a knife in their throat before they can regain their feet. It's a ten-foot fall; there'll be a moment of weakness when you must strike."
"We won't let you down, sir," Alexandria replied.
He held her gaze for a second longer, noting the flash of hate that broke through the calm demeanor. He seemed to have more enemies in this place than outside the walls!
"See you don't," he said curtly, and turned on his heel.
The cook had returned with a large metal plate strapped to his chest. His enthusiasm was embarrassing, but Renius clapped him on the shoulder as he went to join the others.
Tubruk was standing with Cabera, holding a strung bow in his large hands.
"Old Lucius is a fine shot with a bow, but he's in the kitchens setting up for the wounded," he said, his face grim.
"Get him out here. He can climb down later, when he's done the job," Renius replied, without looking at him. He was scanning the walls, noting the positions, looking for failing nerves. They couldn't hold against a proper attack, so he prayed to his household god that the slaves outside couldn't mount one.
"Will the slaves have bows?" he asked Tubruk.
"One or two small ones for hares, perhaps. There's not a decent bow on the estate except for this—and Cabera's."
"Good. Otherwise, they could pick us all off. We'll have to light the torches in the yard soon, to give them light to kill by. It will silhouette the men, but they can't fight in the dark, not this lot."
"They may surprise you, Renius. Your name has a lot of power still. Remember the crowds at the games? Every man here will have a story for all the generations of his family to come, if he survives."
Renius snorted. "You'd better get to the wall; there's a space on the far side."
Tubruk shook his head. "The others have accepted you as leader, I know. Even Julius will listen to you once his temper calms down. I will stay by Marcus, to protect him. With your permission?"
Renius stared at him. Would nothing work properly? Fat cooks, girls with knives, arrogant children? And now his orders were to be ignored just before a fight? His right fist lifted in a smashing uppercut that seemed to lift Tubruk up and backward. He hit the dust unmoving and Renius ignored him, turning to Cabera.
"When he awakes, tell him the boy can look after himself. I know. Tell him to take his place or I will kill him."
Cabera smiled, his eyes wide, but the old man's face was like winter. In the distance, there was a sudden clamor of metal beating on metal. Sound rose in a wave and chants filled the black night. The torches were lit just as the first few slaves reached the estate wall. Behind them were hundreds from Rome, burning everything in their path.
It very nearly ended before it had begun. As Renius had thought, the wild-looking slaves that streamed up to the estate walls had little idea of how to overcome armed defenders and milled around, shouting and screaming. Although it was a perfect opportunity for bowmen, Renius had shaken his head at Cabera and Lucius, who watched with arrows ready and cold eyes. There was still a chance the slaves would look for easier targets, and a few arrows might fan their rage into white-hot desperation.
"Open the gates!" someone shouted from the mass of torchbearers. In the flickering light, it could have been a festival if it were not for the brutal expressions of the attackers. Renius watched them, weighing options. More and more came from the rear. Clearly there were already more than a small estate could support. Rogue slaves from Rome swelled the ranks with nothing to lose, bringing hate and violence where reason might have won the day. Those at the front were pushed forward and Renius raised his arm, ready to have his two lonely archers send the first shafts into the crowd. They could hardly miss at this range.
A man stepped forward. He was heavily muscled and sported a thick black beard that made him look like a barbarian. Probably, only days previously, he had been meekly carrying rocks in a quarry, or training horses for some indulgent master. Now his chest was splashed with someone else's blood and his face was a sneer of hate, his eyes glimmering in the flames of his torch.
"You on the walls. You are slaves like us. Kill those who call themselves your betters. Kill them all and we will welcome you as friends."
Renius dropped his arm and Cabera put a feathered shaft through the man's throat.
In the moment of silence, Renius roared at the crowd of slaves: "That is what you will get from me. I am Renius and you will not pass here. Go home and wait for justice!"
"Justice like that?" came a scream of rage. Another man ran to the walls and jumped for the high ledge. The moment had arrived and suddenly the crowd howled and came forward in a rush.
Few had swords. Most were armed, like the defenders, with whatever they could find. Some had no weapons except their frenzied rage, and Renius dispatched the first of these with a slick blow to his neck, ignoring the quivering fingers that scrabbled at his breastplate. All along the line, screams rose above the crash of metal on metal and metal into flesh. Renius could see Cabera drop his bow and raise a wicked-looking short knife, with which he stabbed and leapt away, letting the bodies fall back on their fellows. The old man stamped on fingers that gained easier and easier holds on the wall as the bodies of the dead served as props for new attackers.
Renius grew slightly light-headed and knew his shoulder had torn again, feeling the sudden warmth from the bandages accompanied by a blistering pain. He set his teeth against it and slammed his gladius into a man's stomach, almost losing the weapon in the slimy grip of his guts as he toppled backward. Another took his place and another, and Renius could not see an end to them. He took a blow from a length of timber that left him dazed for a second. He staggered back, reeling, trying to find the energy to lift the sword to meet the next one. His muscles ached and the exhaustion he had felt fighting Marcus came back to hit him once again.
"I am too old for this," he muttered, spitting blood over his chin. There was a movement to his left and he swung to meet it, too slowly. It was Marcus, grinning at him. He was covered in blood and looked like a demon from the ancient myths.
"I am a little worried about the speed of my low guard. I wonder if you could observe it for me? Let me know where the trouble is?"
As he spoke, he shoulder-barged a man as he tried to straighten. The man fell badly, toppling backward onto his head with a yell.
"I told you not to leave your position," Renius gasped, trying not to show his weakness.
"You were going to be killed. That honor is mine—not to be given away lightly to motherless scum like these, I think!" He nodded over to the other side of the gate, where the man Caecilius, known to most simply as Cook, was grinning hugely, cutting around him with abandon.
"Come, pigs, come, cattle. I will cut you to pieces." Underneath the fat there must have been muscle, for he waved the enormous cleaver as if it were made of light wood.
"Cook is holding them without me. In fact, he is having the time of his life," Marcus went on cheerfully.
Three men breasted the wall at once, leaping from the pile of bodies that was now half as high as the top. The first swung a sword at Marcus, who slid his own into the man's chest from the side, letting the wild lunge carry the man onto the cobbles of the yard below. The second he dispatched with a reverse cut that caught the man at eye level, cutting into meat and bone. He died instantly.
The third whooped with pleasure as he closed on Renius. He knew the old man for who he was, and in his mind was already telling the story to friends as Renius brought his sword up under his guard, ripping into his chest.
Renius let the man fall, and the sword slid clear. His left arm was hurting again, but this time it was a deep ache. His chest pulsed with pain and he groaned.
"Are you hurt?" Marcus asked, without taking his eyes off the wall.
"No. Get back to your post," Renius snapped, his face suddenly gray.
Marcus looked at him for a long moment. "I think I'll stay awhile longer," he said softly. More men surged over the wall and his sword danced, licking from one throat to the next unstoppably.
Gaius's father barely noticed those who fell beneath his sword. He fought as he had been trained: thrust, guard, reverse. The bodies piled most thickly at the foot of the gate, and a little voice was telling him they should have broken by now. They were only slaves. They did not have to pass this wall. Why didn't they break? He would have the wall raised to the height of three men when this was over.
It seemed as if they threw themselves onto his sword, which wetted itself in their blood, drenching the wall and gates with the gushing fluids, drenching him. His shoulders ached, his arm was leaden. Only his legs were still strong beneath him. They must break soon and look for easier targets, surely? Thrust, guard, and reverse. He was locked in the legionary's rhythm of death, but more and more were climbing the piles of flesh to get into the estate. His sword had lost its edge on bone and blades, and his first cut only scraped a man leaping at him. A dagger punctured the hard muscle of his stomach and he grunted in agony, whipping his sword through the man's jaw and dropping him.
Alexandria stood in the yard, in a pool of darkness. The other women were crying softly to themselves. One was praying. She could see Renius was exhausted and was disappointed when the boy Marcus stepped in to save him. She wondered why he had done it and widened her eyes at the contrast between them. On the one side, the grizzled warrior, veteran of a thousand conflicts, slow and in pain. On the other, Marcus, a smooth-moving murderer, smiling as he brought death to the slaves that met his sword. It did not matter if they had swords or clubs. He made them look clumsy and then took away their strength in a slice or a blow. One man clearly didn't realize he was dying. His blood poured from his chest, but he still kept hacking away with a broken spear shaft, his face manic.
Curious, Alexandria strained to see the man's face, and she caught the stricken moment when he felt the pain and saw the darkness coming.
All her life she had heard stories of men's strength and glory, and they seemed to hang over this butchery like golden ghosts, not quite fitting the reality. She looked for moments of comradeship, of bravery in the face of death, but down in the shadows, she could not see it.
The cook was enjoying the fight, that was obvious. He had begun to sing some vulgar song about a market day and pretty maids, thumping out the chorus with more volume than tune, as he buried his cleaver in skulls and necks. Men fell from his blade and his song grew more raucous as they dropped.
On her left, one of the defenders fell into the yard from the walkway. He made no attempt to protect himself from the impact, and his head smashed on the hard stone with a wet sound. Alexandria shuddered and grabbed the shoulder of another woman in the darkness. Whoever it was, was sobbing quietly to herself, but there was no time for that.
"Quickly—they'll be coming through the gap!" she hissed, pulling the other along with her, not trusting herself to do the job alone.
As they moved, there was another crunching thud from a different section of the wall. Screams of triumph sounded. A man scrambled down, hanging for a moment before letting go and falling the last couple of feet.
He spun, a wild, bloody nightmare, and as his eyes lit up at the lack of defenders, Alexandria rammed her blade up into his heart. Life escaped him with a sigh and another man hit the cobbles nearby. The snap of his ankle was audible even over the baying from outside the walls. The matronly Susanna, usually so careful over the exact setting of the master's table at banquets, slipped a skinning knife across his throat and walked away from him as he shuddered and spasmed behind her.
Alexandria looked up at the bright ring of torches above. At least they had light! How awful it was to die in the dark.
"More torches here!" she yelled, hoping that someone would answer.
Hands grabbed her from behind and her head was wrenched to one side. She tensed for the agony that would come, but the weight on her shoulders fell away suddenly and she turned to see Susanna, her knife hand freshly covered in red wetness.
"Keep your spirits up, love. The night's not over yet." Susanna smiled and the moment of panic passed for Alexandria. She checked the yard with the others and barely winced when another defender fell, this time screaming as he hit the yard. Three men came through the gap he had left this time, with two more visible as they struggled up over the slippery bodies.
All the women drew their knives and the torchlight caught the blades, even down in the yard's blackness. Before the men's eyes could adjust to the gloom, the women were on them, gripping and stabbing.
Gaius came awake with a start. His mother sat by the bed, holding a damp cloth. Its touch had awakened him, and as he looked at her she pressed it to his forehead, crooning gently to herself. In the distance, he could hear screams and the clear sounds of battle. How had he remained asleep? Cabera had given him a warm drink as the evening darkened. There must have been something in it.
"What is going on, Mother? I can hear fighting!"
Aurelia smiled at him sadly. "Shhh, my darling. You must not excite yourself. Your life is slipping away and I have come to make your last hours peaceful."
Gaius blanched a little. No, he felt weak, but sound. "I am not dying. I am getting better. Now, what is happening in the yard? I should get out there!"
"Shhh, shhh. I know they said you were getting better, but I also know they lie to me. Now be still and I will cool your brow for you."
Gaius looked at her in disbelief. All his life, this shambling idiot had been coming to the fore, dragging away the lively, quick-witted woman he missed. He winced in anticipation of the screaming fit that would follow a wrong word from him.
"I want to feel the night air on my skin, Mother. One last time. Please leave so that I may dress."
"Of course, my darling. I'll go back to my rooms now that I have said goodbye to you, my perfect son." She giggled for a moment and sighed as if she carried a great weight.
"Your father is out there getting himself killed instead of looking after me. He has never looked after me properly. We have not made love in years now."
Gaius didn't know what to say. He sat up and closed his eyes against the weakness. He couldn't even hold his hand in a fist, but he had to know what was going on. Gods, why wasn't there someone around? Were they all out there? Tubruk?
"Please leave, Mother. I must dress. I want to sit outside in my last moments."
"I understand, my love. Goodbye." Her eyes filled with tears as she kissed his forehead, and then the little room was empty again.
For a moment, he was tempted simply to fall back on the pillows. His head felt thick and heavy and he guessed the drug Cabera had given him would have kept him under till morning if his mother hadn't had one of her ideas. Slowly, he swung his legs out and pressed his feet against the floor. Weak. Clothes. One thing at a time.
Tubruk knew they couldn't hold much longer. He ran himself ragged trying to cover a gap where two other men had once stood beside him. Again and again, he spun barely in time to meet the attack of those who were creeping up on him as he killed those in front. His breath came in wheezing gasps and, for all his skill, he knew death was close.
Why would they not break? Damn all the gods to hell, they must break! He cursed himself for not arranging for some sort of fallback position, but there really was none. The walls were the only defense the estate had, and these trembled on the brink of being completely overwhelmed.
He slipped in blood and went down badly, the air rushing out of him. A dagger punched into his side and a dirty bare foot tried to crush his face, pressing his head down. He bit it and distantly heard someone scream. He made it to one knee too late to stop two scrambling figures dropping down into the yard. He hoped the women could handle them. Gingerly he felt his side and winced at the trickle of blood, watching it for air bubbles. There were none and he could still breathe, though the air tasted like hot tin and blood.
For a few moments, no one came at him and he was able to look around the walls. Of the original twenty-nine, there were fewer than fifteen left. They had worked miracles up on the wall, but it wasn't going to be enough. Julius fought on, despairing as his strength flowed from his wounds. He pulled the dagger out of his flesh with a groan and instantly lost it in the chest of the next man to face him. His breath was burning his throat and he looked into the yard, seeing his son come out. He smiled and the pride felt as if it would burst his chest. Another blade entered him, shoved down into the gap between his breastplate and his neck, deep into his lung. He spat blood and buried his gladius into the attacker without seeing or knowing his face. His arms dropped away and the sword fell from his grasp, clattering on the stones of the courtyard below. He could only watch as the rest came on.
Tubruk saw Julius collapse under a mass of bodies that spilled past him over the narrow walkway and down into the dark. He cried out his grief and rage, knowing he couldn't reach him in time. Renius was still on his feet, but only Marcus's care kept the old warrior from death, and even that blinding whirl of blades was faltering as Marcus bled from wounds, his life dribbling away in a score of gashes.
Gaius climbed up beside Tubruk, his face white from the effort of dragging himself up the steps to the wall. His gladius was out and he swung it as he reached the top, cutting into a man levering himself up over the dark bodies. Tubruk slid his blade into the man's ribs as Gaius swayed, but still the slave wouldn't die. He flailed with a dagger and cut Gaius across the face. Gaius hammered another blow at his neck and then the life was gone. More faces appeared, shouting and cursing as they struggled onto the slippery stones.
"Your father, Gaius."
"I know." Gaius's sword arm came up without a quiver to block a spear, relic of some old battle. He stepped inside its reach and took out the man's throat in a spray of bloody wetness. Tubruk charged two more, making one drop over the edge, but falling to his knees in the sticky mess of the floor as he did so. Gaius cut the next down as he reversed his blade to plunge it into Tubruk. Then he staggered back a pace, his face white under the blood, his knees buckling. They waited together for the next one up to the edge.
The night suddenly became brighter as the feed barns were set alight, and still no new attacker came to end it for him.
"One more," Tubruk swore through bloody lips. "I can take one more with me. You should go down, you're not fit to fight."
Gaius ignored him, his mouth a grim line. They waited, but no one came. Tubruk edged closer to the outer wall and looked over at the mangled limbs and broken carcasses that were piled beneath the ledge, sprawled in slippery gore and glassy expressions. There was no one there waiting for him with a dagger, no one at all.
The light from the burning barns silhouetted leaping figures as they capered around in the darkness. Tubruk began to chuckle to himself, wincing as his lips split again.
"They've found the wine store," he said, and the laughter could not be stopped, despite the wrenching pain it brought.
"They are leaving!" Marcus growled, amazed. He hawked and spat blood at the floor, wondering vaguely if it was his own. He turned and grinned at Renius, seeing how he sat slumped, propped against two carcasses. The old warrior just looked at him, and for a moment Marcus began to remember his acid dislike.
"I..." He paused and took two quick steps to the old man. He was dying, that was obvious. Marcus pressed a hand made black with blood and dirt onto Renius's chest, feeling the heart flutter and miss. "Cabera! Over here, quickly!" he shouted.
Renius closed his eyes against the noise and the pain.
Alexandria panted as if she were in labor. She was exhausted and covered in blood, which she had never imagined would be as sticky and foul as it actually was. They never mentioned this in the stories either. The stuff was slippery for a few moments, then gummed up your hands, making every surface tacky to the touch. She waited for the next one to drop into the yard, walking around almost drunkenly, her knife held in a stiff arm by her side.
She stumbled over a body and realized it was Susanna. She would never cut a goose again, or put fresh rushes down in the kitchens, or feed scraps to stray puppies on her shopping trips in Rome. This last thought brought clear-water tears that ran through the mud and stink. Alexandria kept walking, kept the patrol going, but no new enemies appeared, landing in the yard like crows. No one came, but still she staggered on, unable to stop. Two hours to dawn and she could still hear screaming in the fields.
"Stay on the walls! No man leaves his post until dawn," Tubruk bellowed around the yard. "They could still be back."
He didn't think they would, though. The wine store held the best part of a thousand wax-sealed amphorae. Even if the slaves smashed a few, there should still be enough to keep them happy until sunup.
After that final command was given, he wanted to climb down himself to cross quickly to where Julius lay among the dead, but someone had to hold the place.
"Go to your father, lad."
Gaius nodded once and descended, bracing himself against the wall for support. The pain was agonizing. He could feel that the operation incision had ripped open, and touching the area left his fingers red and glistening. As he dragged himself back up the stone steps to the defenders' positions, his wounds tore at his will, but he held on.
"Are you dead, Father?" he whispered as he looked down at the body. There could be no answer.
"Hold your positions, lads. It's over for now," Tubruk's voice snapped across the yard.
Alexandria heard the news and dropped the knife onto the cobbles. Her wrists were being held by another slave girl from the kitchens, saying something to her. She could not make out the words over the screaming of the wounded, suddenly breaking into what she had thought was silence.
I have been in silence and darkness forever, she thought. I have seen hell.
Who was she again? The lines had blurred somewhere in the evening, as she killed slaves who wanted freedom as much as she did. The weight of it all bore her down to the ground and she began to sob.
Tubruk could not resist any longer. He limped down from his place on the wall and up again to where Julius lay. He and Gaius looked down at the body without words.
Gaius tried to feel the reality of the man's death. He could not. What lay on the floor was a broken thing, torn and gashed, in spreading pools of a liquid that looked more like oil than blood in the torchlight. His father's presence was gone.
He spun round suddenly, his hand coming up to ward something off.
"There was someone next to me. I could feel someone standing there, looking down with me," he began to babble.
"That would be him, all right. This is a night for ghosts."
The feeling had gone, though, and Gaius shivered, his mouth set tight against a grief that would drown him.
"Leave me, Tubruk. And thank you."
Tubruk nodded, his eyes dark shadows as he limped down the steps into the yard. Wearily, he climbed back up to his old place on the wall and looked over each body he'd cut down, trying to remember the details of each death. He could recognize only a few and he soon gave that up and sat against a post, with his sword between his legs, watching the waning flicker of fire from the fields and waiting for the dawn.
Cabera placed his own palms over Renius's heart.
"This is his time, I think. The walls inside him are thin and old. Some are leaking blood where there should be none."
"You healed Gaius. You can heal him," said Marcus.
"He is an old man, lad. He was already weak and I..." Cabera paused as he felt a hot blade touch his back. Slowly and carefully, he turned his head to look at Marcus. There was nothing to reassure him in the grim expression.
"He lives. Do your work, or I'll kill just one more today."
At the words, Cabera could feel a shift and different futures came into play, like gambling chips slotting into position with a silent click. His eyes widened, but he said nothing as he began to summon his energies for the healing. What a strange young man who had the power to bend the futures around him! Surely he had come to the right place in history. This was indeed a time of flux and change, without the usual order and safe progression.
He pulled an iron needle from the hem of his robe and threaded it neatly and quickly. He worked with care, sewing the bloody lips of slashed flesh together, remembering what it was to be young, when anything seemed possible. As Marcus watched, Cabera pressed his brown hands against Renius's chest and massaged the heart. He felt it quicken and stifled an exclamation as life came flooding back into the old body. He held his position for a long time, until the etched pain eased from Renius's expression and he looked as if he were merely asleep. As Cabera rose to his feet, swaying with exhaustion, he nodded to himself as if a point had been confirmed.
"The gods are strange players, Marcus. They never tell us all their plans. You were right. He will see a few more dawns and sunsets before the end."
An ancient Roman relief with a scene of a butcher shop. (Note: Cleaver)
In ancient Rome, where butchery practices were refined and standardized, hatchets, cleavers and chopping blocks became the standard butcher’s tools. A relief panel from a funerary monument dating to the second century A.D. shows a classic scene from a Roman butcher shop: the butcher standing at his table with his cleaver, surrounded by cuts of meat hanging from the walls. Roman butchers exported the tricks of their trade to Britain, where as early as A.D. 975, butchers in London began meeting at a place called “Butchers’ Hall,” paving the way for the founding of the Worshipful Company of Butchers in the 14th century. It is one of London’s oldest livery companies, organizations descended from the medieval trade guilds that still play an important role in the workings of city government.
The fields were deserted by the time the sun came over the horizon. Those who had broken into the wine store were no doubt lying amongst the corn, still in the deep slumber of drunkenness. Gaius looked out over the wall to see sluggish smoke rising from the blackened ground. Scorched trees stood stark and bare, and the winter grain still smoldered in the skeletal wrecks of the feed barns.
It was a strangely peaceful scene, with even the morning birds silent. The violence and emotions of the night before were somehow distant when you were able to look out across the fields. Gaius rubbed his face for a moment, then turned to walk down the steps into the courtyard.
Brown stains spattered every white wall and surface. Pools of blood congealed in corners and obscene smears showed where the bodies had already been shifted, dragged outside the gates to be taken to pits when carts could be arranged. The defenders were laid out on clean cloths in cool rooms, their limbs arranged for dignity. The others were simply thrown onto a growing pile where arms and legs stuck out at angles. Gaius watched the work and in the background heard the screams of the wounded as they were stitched or made ready for amputation.
He burned with anger and had nowhere to unleash it. He had been locked away for safety while everyone he loved risked their lives and while his father had given his in defense of his family and the estate. True, he had still been weak from the operation, his scabs barely healed, but to be denied the chance to help his father! There were no words, and when Cabera had come to him to offer sympathy, Gaius ignored him until he went away. He sat exhausted and trickled dust through his fingers, remembering Tubruk's words years before and understanding them at last. His land.
A slave approached, one whose name Gaius did not know, but who bore wounds that showed he had been part of the defense.
"The dead are all outside the gates, master. Shall we find carts for them?"
It was the first time any man had addressed him as anything but his own name. Gaius hardened his expression so as not to reveal his surprise. His mind was full of pain and his voice sounded as if from a deep pit.
"Bring lamp oil. I'll burn them where they lie."
The slave ducked his head in acknowledgment and ran for the oil. Gaius walked outside the gates and looked on the ungainly mass of death. It was a grisly sight, but he could find no sympathy in him. Each one there had chosen this end when they had attacked the estate.
He doused the pile in oil, sloshing it over the flesh and faces, into open mouths and unblinking eyes. Then he lit it and found he couldn't watch the corpses burn after all. The smoke brought back a memory of the raven he and Marcus had caught, and he called a slave over to him.
"Fetch barrels from the stores and keep it burning until they are ash," he said grimly. He went back inside as the heat built and the smell followed him like an accusing finger.
He found Tubruk lying on his side and biting onto a piece of leather as Cabera probed a dagger wound in his stomach in the great kitchen. Gaius watched for a while, but no words were exchanged. He moved on, finding the cook sitting on a step with a bloody cleaver still in his hand. Gaius knew his father would have had words of encouragement for the man, who looked desolate and lost. He himself could not summon up anything except cold anger and stepped over the figure, who stared off into space as if Gaius weren't there. Then he stopped. If his father would have done it, then so would he.
"I saw you fight on the wall," he said to the cook, his voice strong and firm at last.
The man nodded and seemed to gather himself. He struggled to stand. "I did, master. I killed a great number, but I lost count after a while."
"Well, I've just burned 149 bodies, so it must have been many," Gaius said, trying to smile.
"Yes. No one got past me. I have never known such luck. I was touched by the gods, I think. We all were."
"Did you see my father die?"
The cook stood and raised an arm as if to put it on the boy's shoulder. At the last moment, he thought better of it and turned the gesture into a wave of regret.
"I did. He took a great many with him and many before. There were piles around him at the end. He was a brave man and a good one."
Gaius felt his calm waver at the kind thought and his jaw clenched. When he had overcome his surge of sorrow, he spoke graciously: "He would be proud of you, I know. You were singing when I caught a glimpse of you."
To his surprise, the man blushed deeply.
"Yes. I enjoyed the fight. I know there was blood and death all around, but everything was simple, you see. Anyone I could see was to be killed. I like things to be clear."
"I understand," Gaius said, forcing a bleak smile. "Rest now. The kitchens are open and soup will be brought around soon."
"The kitchens! And I am here! I must go, master, or the soup will be fit for nothing."
Gaius nodded and the man bolted off, leaving his enormous cleaver resting against the step, forgotten. Gaius sighed. He wished his own life were that simple, to be able to take on and cast off roles without regret.
Lost in thought as he was, he didn't notice the man's return until he spoke.
"Your father would be proud of you too, I think. Tubruk says you saved him when he was exhausted at the end, and with you injured as well. I would be proud if my son were as strong."
Tears came unbidden to Gaius's eyes and he turned away so the other would not see them. This was not the time to be breaking apart, not when the estate was in a shambles and the winter feed all burned. He tried to busy himself with the details, but he felt helpless and alone and the tears came more strongly as his mind touched again and again on his loss, like a bird pecking at weeping sores.
* * *
"Ho there!" came a voice from outside the main gate.
Gaius heard the cheerful tone and composed himself. He was the head of the estate, a son of Rome and his father, and he would not embarrass the old man's memory. He walked the steps to the top of the wall, barely aware of the phantom images that came rushing at him. Those were all from the dark. In the sun the shadows had little reality.
At the top, he looked down on the bronze helmet of a slim officer on a fine gelding that pawed the ground restlessly as it waited. The officer was accompanied by a contubernium of ten legionaries. Each man appeared alert and smartly turned out. The officer looked up and nodded to Gaius. He was around forty, tanned and fit-looking.
"We saw your smoke. Came to investigate in case it was more of the slaves on the rampage. I see you've had trouble here. My name is Titus Priscus. I am a centurion with Sulla's legion, who have just blessed the city with their presence. My men are ranging the countryside hereabouts, on cleanup and execution detail. May I speak to the master of the estate?"
"That would be me," Gaius said. "Open the gates," he called below.
Those words achieved what all the marauders of the night before could not, and the heavy gates were pulled open, allowing the men entry.
"Looks like you had it rough out here," Titus said, all trace of cheerfulness gone from his voice and manner. "I should have known from the pile of bodies, but... did you lose many of your own?"
"Some. We held the walls. How is the city?" Gaius was at a loss as to what to say to the man. Was he meant to make polite conversation?
Titus dismounted and gave the reins to one of his men.
"Still there, sir, although hundreds of wooden houses went up and there are a few thousand dead in the streets. Order has been restored for the moment, though I can't say it would be safe to stroll out after dark. At the moment, we're rounding up all the slaves we can find and crucifying one in ten to make an example—Sulla's orders—on all the estates near Rome."
"Make it one in three if they're on my land. I'll replace them when things have settled. I don't like the thought of letting anyone who fought against me last night go without punishment."
The centurion looked at him for a second, unsure. "Begging your pardon, sir, but are you able to give that order? You'll excuse me checking, but, in the circumstances, is there anyone to back you?"
For a second, anger flared in Gaius, but then he remembered what he must look like to the man. There had been no opportunity to clean himself up after Lucius and Cabera had restitched and rebandaged his wounds. He was dirty and bloodstained and unnaturally pale. He didn't know that his blue eyes were also rimmed with red from the oily smoke and crying, and that only something in his manner kept a seasoned soldier like Titus from cuffing the boy for his insolence. There was something, though, and Titus couldn't have said exactly what it was. Just a feeling that this young man was not someone to cross lightly.
"I would do the same in your position. I will fetch my estate manager, if the doctor is finished with him." Gaius turned away without another word.
It would have been politeness to offer the men refreshment, but Gaius was annoyed that he had to summon Tubruk to establish his bona fides. He left them waiting.
Tubruk was at least clean and dressed in good, dark clothing. His wounds and bandages were all concealed under his woolen tunic and bracae—leather trousers. He smiled as he saw the legionaries. The world was turning the right way up again.
"Are you the only ones in this area?" he asked without preamble or explanation.
"Er, no, but..." Titus began.
"Good." Tubruk turned to Gaius. "Sir, I suggest you have these men send out a message that they will be delayed. We need men to get the estate back in order."
Gaius kept his face as straight as Tubruk's, ignoring Titus's expression. "Good point, Tubruk. Sulla has sent them to help the outlying estates, after all. There is much work to be done."
Titus tried again. "Here, now look..."
Tubruk noticed him once more. "I suggest you take the message yourself. These others look fit enough for a little hard labor. Sulla won't want you to abandon us to our wreckage, I'm sure."
The two men faced each other and Titus sighed, reaching up to remove his helmet.
"Never let it be said that I shirked a job of work," he muttered. Turning to one of the legionaries, he jerked his head toward the fields. "Get back out and join up with the other units. Spread the word that I'll be held up here for a few hours. Any slaves you find—tell them one in three, all right?"
The man nodded cheerfully and took off. Titus began to unbuckle his breastplate. "Right, where do you want my lads to start?"
"You handle this, Tubruk. I'll go and check on the others." Gaius turned away, showing his appreciation with a quick grip of the other's shoulder as he left. What he wanted to do was to go for a long walk in the woods by himself, or sit by the river pool and settle his thoughts. That would come later, though, after he had seen and spoken with every man and woman who had fought for his family the night before. His father would have done the same.
As he passed the stables, he heard a pulsing sob from the darkness within. He paused, unsure whether he should intrude. There was so much grief in the air, as well as inside him. Those who had fallen had friends and relatives who had not expected to begin this day alone. He stood for a moment longer, still smelling the oily stink of the bodies he had fired. Then he went into the cool shadow of the stalls. Whoever it was, their grief was now his responsibility, their burdens were his to share. That was what his father had understood and why the estate had prospered for so long.
His eyes adjusted slowly after the morning glare, and he peered into each stall to find the source of the sounds. Only two held horses, and they nickered softly to him as he reached and stroked their soft muzzles. His foot scraped against a pebble and the sobbing ceased on the instant, as if someone were holding their breath. Gaius waited, as still as Renius had taught him to stand, until he heard the sigh of released air and knew where the person was.
In the dirty straw, Alexandria sat with her knees tight against her chin and her back to the far stone wall. She looked up as he came into sight, and he saw that the dirt on her face was streaked with tears. She was close to his own age, maybe a year older, he recalled. The memory of her being flogged by Renius came into his mind with a stab of guilt.
He sighed. He had no words for her. He crossed the short distance and sat against the wall next to her, taking care to leave space between them as he leaned back so that she would not be threatened. The silence was calm and the smells and feel of the stables had always been a comforting place to Gaius. When he was very young, he too had escaped here to hide from his troubles or from punishment to come. He sat, lost in memory for a while, and it didn't seem awkward between them, though nothing was said. The only sounds were the horses' movements and the occasional sob that still escaped Alexandria.
"Your father was a good man," she whispered at last.
He wondered how many times he would hear the phrase before the day was over and whether he could stand it. He nodded mutely.
"I'm so sorry," he said to her, feeling rather than seeing her head come up to look at him. He knew she'd killed, had seen her covered in blood down in the yard as he'd come out the night before. He thought he understood why she was crying and had meant to try to comfort her, but the words unlocked a rush of sorrow in him and his eyes filled with tears. His face twisted in pain as he bowed his head to his chest.
Alexandria looked at him in astonishment, her eyes wide. Before she had time to think, she had reached over to him and they were holding each other in the darkness, a blot of private grief while the world went on in the sun outside. She stroked his hair with one hand and whispered comfort to him as he apologized over and over, to her, to his father, to the dead, to those he had burned.
When he was spent, she began to release him, but in the last fragment of time before he was too far, she pressed her lips lightly on his, feeling him start slightly. She pulled away, hugging her knees tightly, and, unseen in the shadows, her face burned. She felt his eyes on her but couldn't meet them.
"Why did you...?" he muttered, his voice hoarse and swollen from crying.
"I don't know. I just wondered what it would be like."
"What was it like?" he replied, his voice strengthening with amusement.
"Terrible. Someone will have to teach you to kiss."
He looked at her, bemused. Moments before, he had been drowning in a sorrow that would not diminish or wane in him. Now he was noticing that beneath the dirt and wisps of straw and smell of blood—beneath her own sadness—there was a rare girl.
"I have the rest of the day to learn," he said quietly, the words stumbling out past nervous blockages in his throat.
She shook her head. "I have work to do. I should be back in the kitchen."
In a smooth movement, she rose from her crouch and left the stall, as if she were going to walk right away without another word. Then she paused and looked at him.
"Thank you for coming to find me," she said, and walked out into the sunlight.
Gaius watched her go. He wondered if she had realized he had never kissed a girl before. He could still feel a light pressure on his lips as if she had marked him. Surely she hadn't meant "terrible"? He saw again the stiff way she had carried herself as she left the stables. She was like a bird with a broken wing, but she would heal with time and space and friends. He realized he would as well.
Marcus and Tubruk were laughing at something Cabera had said as Gaius came into the room. At the sight of him, they all fell silent.
"I came... to thank you. For doing what you did on the walls," Gaius began.
Marcus cut him off, stepping closer and grabbing his hand. "You never need to thank me for anything. I owe more than I could ever pay to your father. I was sorry to hear he fell at the last."
"We came through. My mother lives, I live. He would do it again if offered the chance, I know. You took some wounds?"
"Toward the end. Nothing serious, though. I was untouchable. Cabera says I will be a great fighter." Marcus broke into a grin.
"Unless he gets himself killed, of course. That would slow him down a little," Cabera muttered, busying himself with applying wax to the wood of his bow.
"How is Renius?" Gaius asked.
Both seemed to pause for a second at the question. Marcus looked evasive. There was something odd there, Gaius thought.
"He'll live, but it will be a long time before he's ever fit again," Marcus said. "At his age an infection would be the end of him, but Cabera says he'll make it."
"He will," Cabera said firmly.
Gaius sighed and sat down. "What happens now? I'm too young to take my father's place, to represent his interests in Rome. In truth, I would not be happy running only the estate, but I never had time to learn about the rest of his affairs. I don't know who looked after his wealth, or where the deeds to the land are." He turned to Tubruk. "I know you are familiar with some of it and I would trust you to control the capital until I am older, but what do I do now? Continue to hire tutors for Marcus and myself? Life seems suddenly vague, without direction, for the first time."
Cabera stopped polishing at this outburst. "Everyone feels this at some time. Did you think I planned to be here when I was a young boy? Life has a way of taking twists and turns you did not expect. I would not have it any other way, for all the pain it brings. Too much of the future is already set; it is good that we cannot know every detail or life would become a gray, dull sort of death."
"You will have to learn fast, that is all," Marcus continued, his face alight with enthusiasm.
"With Rome as it is? Who will teach me? This is not a time of peace and plenty, where my lack of political skill can be overlooked. My father was always very clear about that. He said Rome was full of wolves."
Tubruk nodded grimly. "I will do what I can, but already some will be looking at which estates have been weakened and might be bought cheaply. This is not the time to be defenseless."
"But I don't know enough to protect us!" Gaius went on. "The Senate could take everything I own if I don't pay taxes, for example, but how do I pay? Where is the money and where do I take it and how much should I pay? Where are the names of my father's clients? You see?"
"Be calm," Cabera said, beginning the slow strokes along the wood of his bow again. "Think instead. Let us begin with what you do have and not what you don't know."
Gaius took a deep breath and once again wished his father were there to be the rock of certainty in his life.
"I have you, Tubruk. You know the estate, but not the other dealings. None of us knows anything about politics or the realities of the Senate."
He looked again at Cabera and Marcus. "I have you two and I have Renius on hand, but none of us has even entered the Senate chambers, and my father's allies are strangers to us."
"Concentrate on what we have, otherwise you will despair. So far you have named some very capable people. Armies have been started with less. What else?"
"My mother and her brother Marius, but my father always said he was the biggest wolf of them all."
"We need a big wolf right now, though. Someone who knows the politics. He is your blood, you must go and see him," Marcus said quietly.
"I don't know if I can trust him," Gaius said, his expression bleak.
"He will not desert your mother. He must help you to keep control of the estate, if only for her," Tubruk declared.
"True. He has a place in Rome I could visit. There is no one else to help, so it must be him. He is a stranger to me, though. Since my mother began her sickness, he has rarely been to the estate."
"That will not matter. He will not turn you away," Cabera said peacefully, eyeing the shine he had wrought in the bow.
Marcus looked sharply at the old man. "You seem very sure," he said.
Cabera shrugged. "Nothing is sure in this world."
"Then it is settled. I will send a messenger before me and visit my uncle," Gaius said, something of his gloom lifting.
"I will come with you," Marcus said quickly. "You are still recovering from your wounds and Rome is not a safe place at the moment, you know."
Gaius smiled properly for the first time that day.
Cabera muttered, as if to himself, "I came to this land to see Rome, you know. I have lived in high mountain villages and met tribes thought lost to antiquity on my travels. I believed I had seen everything, but all the time people told me I had to visit Rome before I died. I said to them, 'This lake is true beauty,' and they would reply, 'You should see Rome.' They say it is a wondrous place, the center of the world, yet I have never stepped inside its walls."
Both boys smiled at the old man's transparent subterfuge.
"Of course you will come. I consider you a friend of the house. You will always be welcome anywhere I am, on my honor," Gaius replied, his tone formal, as if repeating an oath.
Cabera laid the bow aside and stood with his hand outstretched. Gaius took it firmly.
"You too will always be welcome at my home fires," Cabera said. "I like the climate around here, and the people. I think my travels will wait for a little while."
Gaius released the grip, his expression thoughtful. "I will need good friends around me if I am to survive my first year of politics. My father described it as walking barefoot in a nest of vipers."
"He seems to have had a colorful turn of phrase, and not a high opinion of his colleagues," Cabera said, giving out a dry chuckle. "We will tread lightly and stamp on the occasional head as it becomes necessary."
All four smiled and felt the strength that comes from such a friendship, despite the differences in age and background.
"I would like to take Alexandria with us," Gaius added suddenly.
"Oh, yes? The pretty one?" Marcus replied, his face lighting up.
Gaius felt his cheeks grow red and hoped it wasn't obvious. Judging by the expressions of the others, it was.
"You will have to introduce me to this girl," Cabera said.
"Renius whipped her, you know, for distracting us at practice," Marcus continued.
Cabera tutted to himself. "He can be charmless. Beautiful women are a joy in life..."
"Look, I—" Gaius began.
"Yes, I'm sure you want her simply to hold the horses or something. You Romans have such a way with women, it is a wonder your race has survived."
Gaius left the room after a while, leaving laughter behind him.
* * *
Gaius knocked at the door of the room where Renius lay. He was alone for the moment, although Lucius was nearby and had just been in to check the wounds and stitches. It was dark in the room and at first Gaius thought the old man was asleep.
He turned to leave rather than disturb the rest he must need, but a whispering voice stopped him.
"Gaius? I thought it was you."
"Renius. I wanted to thank you." Gaius approached the bed and drew up a chair beside the figure. The eyes were open and clear and Gaius blinked as he took in the features. It must have been the dim light, but Renius looked younger. Surely not, yet there was no denying that some of the deep-seamed wrinkles had lessened and a few black hairs could be seen at the temples, almost invisible in the light, but standing out against the white bristles.
"You look... well," Gaius managed.
Renius gave a short, hard chuckle. "Cabera healed me and it has worked wonders. He was more surprised than anyone, said I must have a destiny or something, to be so affected by him. In truth, I feel strong, although my left arm is still useless. Lucius wanted to take it off, rather than have it flapping around. I... may let him, when the rest of me has healed."
Gaius absorbed this in silence, fighting back painful memories.
"So much has happened in such a short time," he said. "I am glad you are still here."
"I couldn't save your father. I was too far away and finished myself. Cabera said he died instantly, with a blade in his heart. Most likely, he wouldn't even have known it."
"It's all right. You don't need to tell me. I know he would have wanted to be on that wall. I would have wanted it too, but I was left in my room, and..."
"You got out, though, didn't you? I'm glad you did, as it turned out. Tubruk says you saved him right at the end, like a... reserve force." The old man smiled and coughed for a while. Gaius waited patiently until the fit was over.
"It was my order to leave you out of it. You were too weak for hours of fighting, and your father agreed with me. He wanted you safe. Still, I'm glad you got out for the end of it."
"So am I. I fought with Renius!" Gaius said, his eyes brimming with tears, though he smiled.
"I always fight with Renius," muttered the old man. "It isn't that much to sing about."
Gaius Julius Caesar (ca. 140 BC – 85 BC) was a Roman senator, a supporter of his brother-in-law, Gaius Marius, and the father of Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar was married to Aurelia Cotta, a member of the Aurelii and Rutilii families. They had two daughters, known as Julia Major and Julia Minor, and a son, Gaius, who was born in 100 BC. He was the brother of Sextus Julius Caesar (consul in 91 BC) and the son of Gaius Julius Caesar II. Caesar's progress through the cursus honorum is well known, although the specific dates associated with his offices are controversial. According to two elogia erected in Rome long after his death, Caesar was a commissioner in the colony at Cercina, military tribune, quaestor, praetor, and proconsul of Asia. The dates of these offices are unclear. The colony is probably one of Marius' of 103 BC.
In his will, he left Gaius the bulk of his estate.
The dawn light was cold and gray; the skies clear over the estate lands. Horns sounded low and mournful, drowning the cheerful birdsong that seemed so inappropriate for a day marking the passing of a life. The house was stripped of ornament save for a cypress branch over the main gate to warn priests of Jupiter not to enter while the body was still inside.
Three times the horns moaned and finally the people chanted, "Conclamatum est"—"The sadness has been sounded." The grounds inside the gates were filled with mourners from the city, dressed in rough wool togas, unwashed and unshaven to show their grief.
Gaius stood by the gates with Tubruk and Marcus and watched as his father's body was brought out feetfirst and laid gently in the open carriage that would take him to the funeral pyre. The crowd waited, heads bowed in prayer or thought as Gaius walked stiffly to the body.
He looked down into the face he had known and loved all his life and tried to remember it when the eyes could open and the strong hand reach out to grip his shoulder or ruffle his hair. Those same hands lay still at his sides, the skin clean and shining with oil. The wounds from the defense of the walls were covered by the folds of his toga, but there was nothing of life there. No rise and fall of breath; the skin looked wrong, too pale. He wondered if it would be cold to the touch, but he could not reach out.
"Goodbye, my father," he whispered, and almost faltered as grief swelled in him. The crowd watched and he steadied himself. No shame in front of the old man. Some of them would be friends, unknown to him, but some would be carrion birds, come to judge his weakness for themselves. He felt a spike of anger at this and was able to smother the sadness. He reached out and took his father's hand, bowing his head. The skin felt like cloth, rough and cool under his grip.
"Conclamatum est," he said aloud, and the crowd murmured the words again.
He stood back and watched in silence as his mother approached the man who had been her husband. He could see her shaking under her dirty wool cloak. Her hair had not been tended by slaves and stood out in wild disarray. Her eyes were bloodshot and her hand trembled as she touched his father for the last time. Gaius tensed, and begged inside that she would complete the ritual without disgrace. Standing so close, he alone could hear the words she said as she bent low over the face of his father.
"Why have you left me alone, my love? Who will now make me laugh when I am sad and hold me in the darkness? This is not what we dreamed. You promised me you would always be there when I am tired and angry with the world."
She began to sob in heaves and Tubruk signaled to the nurse he'd hired for her. As with the doctors, she had brought no physical improvement, but Aurelia seemed to draw comfort from the Roman matron, perhaps simply from female companionship. It was enough for Tubruk to keep her on, and he nodded as she took Aurelia's arm gently and led her away into the darkened house.
Gaius breathed out slowly, suddenly aware of the crowd again. Tears came into his eyes and were ignored as they brimmed and held against his lashes.
Tubruk approached and spoke quietly to him. "She will be all right," he said, but they both knew it wasn't true.
One by one, the other mourners came to pay their respects to the body, and more than a few spoke to Gaius afterward, praising his father and pressing him to contact them in the city.
"He was always straight with me, even when profit lay the other way," said one gray-haired man in a rough toga. "He owned a fifth part of my shops in the city and lent me the money to buy them. He was one of the rare ones you could trust with anything, and he was always fair."
Gaius gripped his hand strongly. "Thank you. Tubruk will make arrangements to discuss the future with you."
The man nodded. "If he is watching me, I want him to see me being straight with his son. I owe him that and more."
Others followed and Gaius was proud to see the genuine sadness his father had left behind. There was a world in Rome that the son had never seen, but his father had been a decent man and that mattered to him, that the city was a little poorer because his father would no longer walk the streets.
One man was dressed in a clean toga of good white wool, standing out in the crowd of mourners. He did not pause at the carriage, but came straight to Gaius.
"I am here for Marius the consul. He is away from the city, but wanted to send me to let you know your father will not be forgotten by him."
Gaius thanked him politely, his mind working furiously. "Send the message that I will call on Consul Marius when he is next in the city."
The man nodded. "Your uncle will receive you warmly, I am sure. He will be at his town house three weeks from today. I will let him know." The messenger made his way back through the crowd and out of the gates, and Gaius watched him go.
Marcus moved to his shoulder, his voice low. "Already you are not so alone as you were," he said.
Gaius thought of his mother's words. "No. He has set my standard and I will meet it. I will not be a lesser man when I lie there and my son greets those who knew me. I swear it."
Into the dawn silence came the low voices of the praeficae women, singing softly the same phrases of loss over and over. It was a mournful sound and the world was filled with it as the horses pulled the carriage with his father out of the gates in slow time, with the people falling in behind, heads bowed.
In only a few minutes the courtyard was empty again, and Gaius waited for Tubruk, who had gone inside to check on Aurelia.
"Are you coming?" Gaius asked him as he returned.
Tubruk shook his head. "I will stay to serve your mother. I don't want her alone at this time."
Tears came again into Gaius's eyes and he reached out for the older man's arm.
"Close the gates behind me, Tubruk. I don't think I can do it."
"You must. Your father is gone to the tomb and you must follow, but first the gates must be shut by the new master. It is not my place to take yours. Close up the estate for mourning and go and light the funeral pyre. These are your last tasks before I will call you master. Go now."
Words would not come from his throat and Gaius turned away, pulling the heavy gates shut behind him. The funeral procession had not gone far with their measured step, and he walked after them slowly, his back straight and his heart aching.
The crematorium was outside the city, near the family tomb. For decades, burials within the walls of Rome had been forbidden as the city filled every scrap of available space with buildings. Gaius watched in silence as his father's body was laid on a high pyre that hid him from view in the center of it. The wood and straw were soaked with perfumed oils, and the odor of flowers hung heavily in the air as the praeficae changed their dirge to one of hope and rebirth. Gaius was brought a sputtering torch by the man who had prepared his father's body for the funeral. He had the dark eyes and calm face of a man used to death and grief, and Gaius thanked him with distant politeness.
Gaius approached the pyre and felt the gaze of all the mourners on him. He would show them no public weakness, he vowed to himself. Rome and his father watched to see if he would falter, but he would not.
Close, the smell of the perfumes was almost overpowering. Gaius reached out with a silver coin and opened his father's loose mouth, pressing the metal against the dry coolness of the tongue. It would pay the ferryman, Charon, and his father would reach the quiet lands beyond. He closed the mouth gently and stood back, pressing the smoking torch against the oily straw stuffed between the branches at the base of the pyre. A memory of the smell of burning feathers slipped into his mind and was gone before he could identify it.
The fire grew quickly, with popping twigs and a crackle that was loud against the soft songs of the praeficae. Gaius stepped back from the heat as his face reddened, and held the torch limply in his hand. It was the end of childhood while he was yet a child. The city called him and he did not feel ready. The Senate called him and he was terrified. But he would not fail his father's memory and would meet the challenges as they came. In three weeks, he would leave the estate and enter Rome as a citizen, a member of the nobilitas.
"Rome—the largest city in the world," Marcus said, shaking his head in wonder as they passed into the vast paved expanse of the forum. Great bronze statues gazed down on the small group as they walked their horses through the bustling pedestrians.
"You don't realize how big everything is until you get up close," Cabera replied, his usual confidence muted. The pyramids of Egypt seemed larger in his memory, but the people there looked always to the past with their tombs. Here, the great structures were for the living and he felt the optimism of it.
Alexandria too seemed awed, though in part it was at how much everything had changed in the five years since Gaius's father had bought her to work in his kitchens. She wondered if the man who had owned her mother was somewhere still in the city and shuddered as she recalled his face, remembering how he had treated them. Her mother had never been free and died a slave after a fever struck her and several others in the slave pens beneath one of the sale houses. Such plagues were fairly common and the big slave auctions were accustomed to passing over a few bodies each month, accepting a few coins for them from the ash makers. She remembered, though, and the waxen stillness of her mother still pressed against her arms in dreams. She shuddered again and shook her head as if to clear it.
I will not die a slave, she thought to herself, and Cabera turned to look at her, almost as if he had heard the thought. He nodded and winked and she smiled at him. She had liked him from the first. He was another who didn't quite fit, wherever he found himself.
I will learn useful skills and make things to sell, and I will buy myself free, she thought, knowing the glory of the forum was affecting her and not caring. Who wouldn't dream in a place that looked as if it had been built by gods? You could see how to make a hut, just by looking at it, but who could imagine these columns being raised? Everything was bright and untouched by the filth she remembered, narrow dirty streets and ugly men hiring her mother by the hour, with the money going to the owner of the house.
There were no beggars or whores in the forum, only well-dressed, clean men and women, buying, selling, eating, drinking, arguing politics and money. On each side, the eye was filled with gargantuan temples in rich stone; huge columns with their heads and feet gilded; great arches erected for military triumphs. Truly, this was the beating heart of empire. Each of them could feel it. There was a confidence here, an arrogance. While most of the world scrubbed in the dirt still, these people had power and astonishing wealth.
The only sign of the recent troubles was the grim presence of legionaries standing to attention at every corner, watching the crowds with cold eyes.
"It is meant to make a man feel small," Renius muttered.
"But it does not!" Cabera countered, gaping around him. "It makes me feel proud that man can build this. What a race are we!"
Alexandria nodded silently. It showed that anything could be achieved—even, perhaps, freedom.
Small boys advertised their masters' wares from hundreds of tiny shops along the edges: barbers, carpenters, butchers, stonemasons, gold and silver jewelers, potters, mosaic makers, rug weavers—the list was endless, the colors and noises a blur.
"That is the temple of Jupiter, on the Capitoline hill. We will come back and make a sacrifice when we have seen your uncle Marius," Tubruk said, relaxed and smiling in the morning sun. He was leading the group and raised his arm to halt them.
"Wait. That man's path will cross ours. He is a senior magistrate and must not be hindered."
The others drew up and halted.
"How do you know who he is?" Marcus asked.
"Do you see the man beside him? He is a lictor, a special attendant. Do you see that bundle on his shoulder? Those are wooden rods for scourging and a small axe for beheading. If the magistrate were bumped by one of our horses, say, he could order a death on the spot. He needs neither witnesses nor laws to apply. Best to avoid them completely, if we can."
In silence, they all watched the man and his attendant as they crossed the plaza, seemingly unaware of the attention.
"A dangerous place for the ignorant," Cabera whispered.
"Everywhere is, in my experience," Renius grunted from the back.
Past the forum, they entered lesser streets that abandoned the straight lines of the main ones. Here, there were fewer names on the intersections. The houses were often four or even five stories high, and Cabera, in particular, gaped at these.
"The view they must have! Are they very expensive, these top houses?"
"Apartments, they are called, and no, they are the cheapest," said Tubruk. "They have no running water at that height and are in great danger from fire. If one starts on the bottom floor, those at the top rarely get out. You see how the windows are so small? That is to keep out the sun and rain, but it also means you can't jump from them."
They wound their way through the heavy stepping-stones that crossed the sunken roads at intervals. Without these, the fastidious pedestrians would have had to step down into the slippery muck left by horses and donkeys. The wheels of carts had to be set a regulation width apart so that they could cross in the gaps, and Cabera nodded to himself as he watched the process.
"This is a well-planned city," he said. "I have never seen another like it."
Tubruk laughed. "There is no other like it. They say Carthage was of similar beauty, but we destroyed that more than fifty years ago, sowing the land with salt so that it could never again rise in opposition to us."
"You speak almost as if a city is a living thing," Cabera replied.
"Is it not? You can feel the life here. I could feel her welcoming me as I came through the gate. This is my home, as no other house can be."
Gaius too could feel the life around him. Although he had never lived within the walls, it was his home as it was Tubruk's—maybe more so, as he was nobilitas, born free and of the greatest people in the world. My people built this, he thought. My ancestors put their hands on these stones and walked these streets. My father may have stood at that corner, and my mother could have grown up in one of the gardens I can glimpse off the main street.
His grip on the reins relaxed and Cabera looked at him and smiled, sensing the change of mood.
"We are nearly there," Tubruk said. "At least Marius's house is well away from the smell of dung in the streets. I don't miss that, I can assure you."
They turned off the busy road and walked the horses up a steep hill and a quieter, cleaner street.
"These are the houses of the rich and powerful. They have estates in the country but mansions here, where they entertain and plot for more power and even more wealth," Tubruk continued, his voice blank enough of emotion to make Gaius glance at him. The houses were sealed from the public gaze by iron gates, taller than a man. Each was numbered and entered by a small door for those on foot. Tubruk explained that this was only the least part; the buildings went back and back, from private baths to stables to great courtyards, all hidden from the vulgar plebeians.
"They set great store by privacy in Rome," Tubruk said. "Perhaps it is part of living in a city. Certainly, if you were just to drop in at a country estate, you would be unlikely to cause offense, but here you must make appointments and announce yourself and wait and wait until they are ready to receive you. This is the one. I will tell the gatekeeper we have arrived."
"I'll leave you here then," Renius said. "I must go to my own house and see if it has been damaged in the rioting."
"Do not forget the curfew. Be inside as the sun sets, my friend. They are still killing everyone left on the streets after dark."
Renius nodded. "I'll watch out."
He turned his horse away and Gaius reached out to put a hand on his good right arm.
"You're not leaving? I thought..."
"I must check my house. I need to think alone for a while. I don't feel ready to settle down with the other old men, not anymore. I will be back tomorrow dawn to see you and... well, tomorrow dawn it is." He smiled and rode away.
As he trotted down the hill, Gaius noted again the darkness of his hair and the energy that filled the man's frame. He turned and looked at Cabera, who shrugged.
"Gatekeeper!" Tubruk shouted. "Attend to us."
After the heat of the Roman streets, the cool stone corridors that led into the house grounds were a welcome relief. The horses and bags had been whisked away, and the four visitors were taken into the first building, beckoned on by an elderly slave.
They stopped at a door of gold wood and the slave opened it, gesturing inside.
"You will find all you need, Master Gaius. Consul Marius has given you leave to wash and change after your journey. You are not expected to appear before him until sunset, three hours from now, when you will dine. Shall I show your companions the way to the servants' rooms?"
"No. They will stay with me."
"As you wish, master. Shall I take the girl to the slave quarters?"
Gaius nodded slowly, thinking. "Treat her with kindness. She is a friend of my house."
"Of course, sir," replied the man, motioning to Alexandria.
She flashed a glance at Gaius and the expression was unreadable in her dark eyes.
Without another word, the quiet little man left, his sandals making no noise on the stone floor. The others looked at one another, each taking some form of comfort from the company of friends.
"I think she likes me, that one," Marcus mused to himself.
Gaius looked at him in surprise and Marcus shrugged. "Lovely legs, as well." He went in to their quarters, chuckling, leaving Gaius stupefied behind him.
Cabera whistled softly as he entered the room. The ceiling was forty feet from the mosaic floor, and a series of brass rafters crossed and recrossed the space. The walls were painted in the dark reds and oranges that they had seen so often since entering the city, but the floor was the thing that caught the attention, even before they looked up at the vault of a roof. It was a series of circles, gripping a marble fountain in the middle of the huge room. Each circle contained running figures, racing to catch the one in front and frozen in the attempt. The outer circles were figures from the markets, carrying their wares, then, as the eye followed the circles inward, different aspects of society could be seen. There were the slaves, the magistrates, the members of the Senate, legionaries, doctors. One circle contained only kings, naked except for their crowns. The innermost ring, forming a belt around the actual fountain, contained pictures of the gods, and they alone were still. They stood looking up at all the running hordes that sprinted around but could never leap from one circle to another.
Gaius walked across the rings to the fountain and drank, using a cup that rested on the marble edge. In truth, he was tired, and impressed as he was by the beauty of the room, the most important fact was that no food or couches were included in the splendor. The others followed him through an arch into the next room.
"This is more like it," Marcus said cheerfully. A polished table was laid with food: meat, bread, eggs, vegetables, and fish. Fruit was piled in bowls of gold. Soft couches stood around invitingly, but another door led onward and Gaius could not resist looking.
The third room had a deep pool in the center. The water steamed invitingly and bare wooden benches lined the walls, piled high with soft white cloths. Robes hung from stands by the water, and four male slaves stood by low tables, ready to give massages if needed.
"Excellent," Tubruk said. "Your uncle is a fine host, Gaius. I am for a bath first, before I eat." As he spoke, he began to pull off his clothes. One of the slaves walked to him and held out an arm for the garments as they were removed. When Tubruk was naked, the slave disappeared with them out of the only door. A few moments later, another entered and took up his place at the tables.
Tubruk lowered himself completely into the water, holding his breath as he slid below the surface and relaxing every muscle in the heat. By the time he surfaced, Gaius and Marcus had scrambled out of their garments, flung them at another slave, and plunged into the opposite end, naked and laughing.
A slave held his arm out for Cabera's clothes, and the old man frowned at him. Then he sighed and began stripping the robe from his skinny body.
"Always new experiences," he said as he eased into the water, wincing.
"Shoulders, lad," Tubruk called to one of the attendants.
The man nodded and knelt at the side of the pool, pressing his thumbs into Tubruk's muscles, unknotting the stresses that had been there since the slave attack on the estate.
"Good," Tubruk sighed, and began to doze, lulled by the heat.
Marcus was first out onto the massage table, lying on the smooth cloth and steaming in the colder air. The nearest slave detached some instruments from his belt, almost like a set of long brass keys. He poured warm olive oil on liberally and then began to scrape Marcus's wet skin as if he were skinning a fish, working the dirt of the journey off the surface and wiping a surprising amount of black filth onto a cloth at his waist. Then he rubbed the skin dry and poured a little more oil on for the massage, beginning great sweeping strokes along the spine.
Marcus groaned with satisfaction. "Gaius, I think I'm going to like it here," he muttered through slack lips.
Gaius lay in the water and let his mind drift free. Marius might not want to have the two boys around. He had no children of his own and the gods knew it was a difficult time for the Republic. All the fragile freedoms his father had loved were coming under threat with soldiers on every corner. As consul, Marius was one of the two most powerful men in the city, but with Sulla's legion on the streets, his power became a fiction, his life at Sulla's whim. Yet how could Gaius protect his father's interests without his uncle's help? He had to be introduced to the Senate, sponsored by another. He could not just take his father's old place; they would throw him out and that would be the end of everything. Surely the blood tie to his mother would be worth a little help, but Gaius could not be sure. Marius was the golden general who had dropped in on his sister occasionally when Gaius was small. But the visits had become fewer and fewer as her illness progressed, and it had been years since the last visit.
"Gaius?" Marcus's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Come and have a massage. You're thinking too much again."
Gaius grinned at his friend and rose from the water. It did not occur to him to be embarrassed at his nakedness. No one was.
"Cabera? Ever had a massage?" he asked as he passed the old man, whose eyes were drooping.
"No, but I'll try anything once," Cabera replied, wading toward the steps.
"You're in the right city then," Tubruk said with a chuckle, eyes closed.
Clean and cool in fresh clothes and with the edge taken off their hunger, the four were escorted to Marius at sundown. As a slave, Alexandria did not accompany them, and for a moment Gaius was disappointed. When she was with them, he hardly knew what to say to her, but when she was gone his mind filled with clever pieces of wit that he could never quite remember to say later. He had not brought up the kiss in the stables with her and wondered if she thought of it as often as he did. He cleared his mind of her, knowing he had to be sharp and focused to meet a consul of Rome.
A portly slave stopped them outside the door to the chamber and fussed with their clothing, producing a carved ivory comb to pull Marcus's curls back into place and straightening Tubruk's jacket. As the fleshy fingers approached Cabera, the old man's hands shot out and slapped them away.
"Don't touch!" he snapped waspishly.
The slave's face remained blank and he carried on improving the others. At last he was satisfied, although he permitted himself a frown at Cabera.
"The master and mistress are present this evening. Bow first to the master as you present yourselves, and keep your eyes on the floor as you bow. Then bow to Mistress Metella, an inch or two less deep. If your barbarian slave requires it, he can knock his head on the floor a few times as well."
Cabera opened his mouth to retort, but the slave turned away and pushed the doors open.
Gaius entered first and saw a beautiful room with a garden in the center, open to the sky. Around the rectangle of the garden was a walkway, with other rooms leading off it. Columns of white stone held the overhang of roof, and the walls were painted with scenes from Roman history: the victories of Scipio, the conquest of Greece. Marius and his wife, Metella, stood to receive their guests, and Gaius forced a smile onto his face, suddenly feeling very young and very awkward.
As he approached, he could see the man sizing him up and wondered what conclusions he was drawing. For his own part, Marius was an impressive figure. General of a hundred campaigns, he wore a loose toga that left his right arm and shoulder bare, revealing massive musculature and a dark weave of hair on the chest and forearms. He wore no jewelry or adornment of any kind, as if such things were unnecessary to a man of his stature. He stood straight and radiated strength and will. His face was stern and dark brown eyes glared out from under heavy brows. Every feature revealed the city of his birth. His arms were clasped behind him and he said nothing as Gaius approached and bowed.
Metella had once been a beauty, but time and worry had clawed at her face, lines of some nameless grief gripping her skin with an old woman's talons. She seemed tense, the cords of sinew on her neck standing out. Her hands quivered slightly as she looked at him. She wore a simple dress of red cloth, complemented with earrings and bracelets of bright gold.
"My sister's son is always welcome in my house," Marius said, his voice filling the space.
Gaius almost sagged with relief, but held himself firm.
Marcus came up beside him and bowed smoothly. Metella locked eyes with him and the quivering in her hands increased. Gaius caught Marius's sideways glance of worry at her as she stepped forward.
"Such beautiful boys," she said, holding out her hands. Bemused, they took one each. "What you have suffered in the uprising! What you have seen!"
She put a hand to Marcus's cheek. "You will be safe here, do you understand? Our home is your home, for as long as you want."
Marcus put his hand up to cover hers and whispered, "Thank you." He seemed more comfortable with the strange woman than Gaius was. Her intensity reminded him too painfully of his own mother.
"Perhaps you could check on the arrangements for the meal, my dear, while I discuss business with the boys," Marius boomed cheerfully from behind them.
She nodded and left, with a backward glance at Marcus.
Marius cleared his throat. "I think my wife likes you," he said. "The gods have not blessed us with children of our own, and I think you will bring her comfort."
His gaze passed over them.
"Tubruk—I see you are still the concerned guardian. I heard you fought well in the defense of my sister's house."
"I did my duty, sir. It was not enough in the end."
"The son lives, and his mother. Julius would say that was enough," Marius replied. At this, his eyes returned to Gaius.
"I can see your father's face in yours. I am sorry for his leaving. I cannot say we were truly friends, but we had respect for each other, which is more honest than many friendships. I could not attend his funeral, but he was in my thoughts and prayers."
Gaius felt the beginnings of liking for this man. Perhaps that is his talent, warned an inner voice. Perhaps that is why he has been elected so many times. He is a man whom others follow.
"Thank you. He always spoke well of you," he replied out loud.
Marius laughed, a short bark. "I doubt it. How is your mother, is she... the same?"
"Much the same, sir. The doctors despair."
Marius nodded, his face betraying nothing. "You must call me Uncle from now on, I think. Yes. Uncle suits me well. And you, who is this?" Once again, his eyes and focus had switched without warning, this time to Cabera, who looked back impassively.
"He is a priest and healer, my adviser. Cabera is his name," Gaius replied.
"Where are you from, Cabera? Those are not Roman features."
"The distant east, sir. My home is not known in Rome."
"Try me. I have traveled far with my legion in my lifetime." Marius did not blink, his gaze was relentless.
Cabera didn't seem perturbed by it. "A hill village a thousand miles east of Aegyptus. I left it as a boy and the name is lost to me. I too have traveled far since then."
The flame gaze snapped away as Marius lost interest. He looked again at the two boys.
"My house is your home from now on. I presume Tubruk will be returning to your estate?"
"Good. I will arrange your entrance to the Senate as soon as I have sorted out a few problems of my own. Do you know Sulla?"
Gaius was painfully aware that he was being assessed. "He controls Rome at present."
Marius frowned, but Gaius went on: "His legion patrols the streets and that gives him a great deal of influence."
"You are correct. I see living on a farm hasn't kept you completely away from the affairs of the city. Come and sit down. Do you drink wine? No? Then this is as good a time as any to learn."
As they sat on couches around the food-laden table, Marius bowed his head and began to pray aloud: "Great Mars, grant that I make the right decisions in the difficult days to come." He straightened and grinned at them, motioning for a slave to pour wine.
"Your father could have been a great general if he had wanted," Marius said. "He had the sharpest mind I have ever encountered, but chose to keep his interests small. He did not understand the reality of power—that a strong man can be above the rules and laws of his neighbors."
"He set great stock by the laws of Rome," Gaius replied, after a moment's thought.
"Yes. It was his one failing. Do you know how many times I have been elected consul?"
"Three," Marcus put in.
"Yet the law only allows one term. I shall be elected again and again until I grow tired of the game. I am a dangerous man to refuse, you see. It comes down to that, for all the laws and regulations that are so dear to the old men of the Senate. My legion is loyal to me and me alone. I abolished the land qualification to join, so many of them owe their only livelihood to me. True, some of them are the scrapings of the gutters of Rome, but loyal and strong despite their origins and birth.
"Five thousand men would tear this city apart if I were assassinated, so I walk the streets in safety. They know what will happen if I die, do you see?
"If they can't kill me, they have to accommodate me, except that Sulla has finally come into the game, with a legion of his own, loyal only to him. I can't kill him and he can't kill me, so we growl at each other across the Senate floor and wait for a weakness. At present, he has the advantage. His men are in the streets, as you say, whereas mine are camped outside the walls. Stalemate. Do you play latrunculi? I have a board here."
This last question was to Gaius, who blinked and shook his head.
"I will teach you. Sulla is a master, and so am I. It is a good game for generals. The idea is to kill the enemy king, or to remove his power so that he is helpless and must surrender."
A soldier entered in full, shining uniform. He saluted with a stiff right arm.
"General. The men you requested have arrived. They entered the city from different directions and gathered here."
"Excellent! You see, Gaius, another move in the game is upon us. Fifty of my men are with me in my home. Unless Sulla has spies on every gate, he will not know they have entered the city. If he guesses my intentions, there will be a century from his legion waiting outside at daybreak, but all life is a gamble, yes?"
He addressed the guard. "We will leave at dawn. Make sure my slaves look after the men. I will come along in a while."
The soldier saluted again and left.
"What are you going to do?" Marcus asked, feeling completely out of his depth.
Marius rose and flexed his shoulders. He called a slave over and told him to prepare his uniform, ready for dawn.
"Have you ever seen a Triumph?"
"No. I don't think there has been one for a few years," Gaius replied.
"It is the right of every general who has captured new lands: to march his legion through the streets of his beloved capital city and receive the love of the crowd and the thanks of the Senate.
"I have captured vast tracts of lush farming land in northern Africa, like Scipio before me. Yet a Triumph has been denied me by Sulla, who has the Senate under his thumb at the moment. He says the city has seen too much upheaval, but that is not the reason. What is his reason?"
"He does not want your men in the city, under any pretext," Gaius said quickly.
"Good, so what must I do?"
"Bring them in anyway?" Gaius hazarded.
Marius froze. "No. This is my beloved capital city. It has never had a hostile force enter its gates. I will not be the first. That is blind force, which is always chancy. No, I am going to ask! Dawn is in six hours. I suggest you get a little sleep, gentlemen. Just let one of the slaves know when you want to be taken to your rooms. Good night." He chuckled and strode off, leaving the four of them alone.
"He—" Cabera began, but Tubruk held up a warning finger, motioning with his eyes at the slaves who stood by so unobtrusively.
"Life will not be dull here," Cabera said quietly. Both Marcus and Gaius nodded and grinned at each other.
"I'd like to see him 'ask,'" Marcus said.
Tubruk shook his head quickly. "Too dangerous. There will certainly be bloodshed, and I have not brought you to Rome to see you killed the first day! If I had known Marius planned something of this sort, I would have delayed."
Gaius put a hand on the man's arm. "You have been a good protector, Tubruk, but I too want to see this. We will not be refused in this."
His voice was quiet, but Tubruk stared as if Gaius had shouted. Then he relaxed.
"Your father was never this foolhardy, but if you are set, and Marius agrees, I will come along to watch your back, as I have always done. Cabera?"
"Where else would I go? I still wander the same path as you."
Tubruk nodded. "Dawn, then. I suggest you rise at least an hour or two before daybreak, for stretching exercises and a light breakfast." He rose and bowed to Gaius. "Sir?"
"You may leave, Tubruk," Gaius said, his face straight.
Marcus raised an eyebrow, but Gaius ignored him. They were not in private and could not enjoy the casual relationship of the estate. Kin or not, Marius's house was not a place to relax. Tubruk had reminded them of this in his formal style.
Marcus and Cabera departed soon after, leaving Gaius to his thoughts. He lay back on a couch and stared at the night stars over the open garden.
He felt his eyes fill. His father was gone and he was stuck with strangers. Everything was new and different and overwhelming. Every word had to be considered before it left his mouth; every decision had to be judged. It was exhausting, and, not for the first time, he wished he were a child again, without responsibility. He had always been able to turn to others when he made mistakes, but whom could he turn to now? He wondered if his father or Tubruk had ever felt as lost as he did. It didn't seem possible that they knew the same fears. Perhaps everyone had them, but hid their worries from others.
When he was calm again, he rose in the darkness and walked silently out of the room, barely admitting his destination to himself. The corridors were silent and seemed deserted, but he had walked only a few paces before a guard stepped toward him and spoke.
"Can I help you, sir?"
Gaius started. Of course Marius would have guards around his house and gardens.
"I brought a slave in with me today. I would like to check on her before I sleep."
"I understand, sir," the guard replied, with a small smile. "I'll show you the way to the slave quarters."
Gaius gritted his teeth. He knew what the man was thinking, but speaking again would only worsen his suspicions. He followed in silence until they came to a heavy door at the end of the passage. The soldier knocked quietly and they waited for just a few moments before it opened.
A senior female glared at the guard. Her hair was graying and her face quickly set into disapproving lines, clearly a common expression with her.
"What do you want, Thomas? Lucy is asleep and I've told you before—"
"It's not for me. This young man is Marius's nephew. He brought a girl in with him today?"
The woman's manner changed as she perceived Gaius, who was shaking his head in painful silence, wondering how public things were going to get.
"Alexandria, wasn't it? Beautiful girl. My name is Carla. I'll show you to her room. Most of the slaves are asleep by now, so tread quietly, if you please." She beckoned for Gaius to follow and he did so, neck and back stiff with embarrassment. He could feel Thomas's eyes on his back before the door closed gently behind him.
This part of Marius's house was plain but clean. A long corridor was lined with closed doors, and there were small candles in holders along the walls at intervals. Only a few were lit, but enough light was shed for Gaius to see where they were going.
Carla's voice was lowered to a harsh whisper as she turned to him. "Most of the slaves sleep in a few large rooms, but your girl was put in one of her own that we keep for favored ones. You said to treat her kindly, is that true?"
Gaius blushed. He had forgotten the interest that Marius's slaves would take in Alexandria and himself. It would be all over the house by the morning that he had visited her in the night.
They turned a final corner and Gaius froze in astonishment. The final door of the corridor was open, and against the low light from within, he could see Alexandria standing there, beautiful in the flickering candlelight. She alone would have caused him to take a quick breath, but there was someone with her, leaning against the wall in the shadows.
Carla darted forward and they both recognized Marcus at the same time. For his part, he seemed just as surprised to see them.
"How did you get in here?" Carla asked, her voice strained.
Marcus blinked. "I crept about the place. I didn't want to wake everyone up," he answered.
Gaius looked at Alexandria and his chest tightened with jealousy. She looked annoyed, but the glint in her eyes only heightened her tousled appearance. Her voice was curt.
"As you can both see, I am fine and quite comfortable. Slaves have to be up before dawn, so I would like to go to sleep, unless you want to bring Cabera or Tubruk along as well?"
Marcus and Gaius looked on her with surprised expressions. She really seemed quite angry.
"No? Then good night." She nodded to them, her mouth firm, and gently closed the door.
Carla stood with her mouth open in astonishment. She wasn't sure how to start apologizing.
"What are you doing here, Marcus?" Gaius demanded, keeping his voice low.
"Same thing as you. I thought she might be lonely. I didn't know you were going to make it a social occasion, did I?"
Doors were opening along the corridor and a low female voice called, "Everything all right, Carla?"
"Yes, dear. Thank you," Carla hissed back. "Look. She's gone to bed. I suggest you two follow her example before the whole house turns out to see what's happening."
Grim-faced, they nodded and walked back down the corridor together, leaving Carla with her hand over her mouth to stop her laughing before they were out of earshot. She nearly made it.
As Alexandria had predicted, the house of Marius came suddenly alive a good two hours before dawn. The kitchen ovens were lit, the windows opened, torches placed along the walls until the sun rose. Slaves bustled around, carrying trays of food and towels for the soldiers. The silence of the dark hours was broken by coarse laughter and shouts. Gaius and Marcus were awake at the first sounds, with Tubruk only a little behind them. Cabera refused to get up.
"Why would I want to? I will just throw on my robe and walk to the gates! Two more hours till dawn sounds good to me."
"You can wash and have breakfast," Marcus said, his eyes lively.
"I washed yesterday and I don't eat much before noon. Now go away."
Marcus retreated and joined the others as they ate a little bread and honey, washed down with a hot, spiced wine that filled their bellies with warmth. They had not spoken of the events of the night before, and both could feel a small tension between them and silences in the spaces they would usually have filled with light talk.
Finally, Gaius took a deep breath. "If she likes you, I will stay out of it," he said, each word pronounced clearly.
"Very decent of you," Marcus replied, smiling. He drained his cup of hot wine and walked out of the room, smoothing his hair with one hand.
Tubruk glanced at Gaius's expression and barked out a laugh before following.
* * *
Looking fresh and rested, Marius strode back into the garden rooms with the clatter of iron-soled sandals on stone. He seemed even bigger in the general's uniform, an unstoppable figure. Marcus found himself watching the walk for weaknesses, as he had learned to watch any opponent. Did he dip a once-injured shoulder or favor a slightly weaker knee? There was nothing. This was a man who had never been close to death, who had never known despair. Though he had no children, a single weakness. Marcus wondered if it was Marius or his wife who was barren. The gods were known to be capricious, but what a jest to give so much to a man yet leave him unable to pass it on.
Marius wore a chestplate of bronze and a long red cloak over his shoulders. He had a simple legionary's gladius strapped to his waist, though Marcus noted the silver handle that set it apart from common blades. His brown legs were mostly bare under a leather kilt. He moved well, uncommonly well for a man of his age. His eyes glittered with some excitement or anticipation.
"Good to see you all up and about. You'll be marching with my men?" His voice was deep and steady, with no trace of nerves.
Gaius smiled, pleased not to have had to ask. "We all are, with your permission... Uncle."
Marius nodded his head at the word. "Of course, but stay well back. This is a dangerous morning's entertainment, no matter how it turns out. One thing—you don't know the city, and if we do become separated, this house may no longer be safe. Seek out Valcinus at the public baths. They will be shut until noon, but he'll let you in if you mention my name. All set?"
Marcus, Gaius, and Tubruk looked at each other, dazed at the speed of events. At least two of them were a little excited at the same time. They fell in behind Marius as he strode out to the yard where his men waited patiently.
Cabera joined them at the last minute. His eyes were as sharp as ever, but white stubble showed on his cheeks and chin. Marcus grinned at him and received a scowl as reply. They stood near the back of the group of men, and Gaius took in the countenances of the soldiers around him. Brown skinned and dark haired to a man, they carried rectangular shields strapped to their left arms. On the brass face of each shield was the simple crest of the house of Marius—three arrows crossing each other. In that moment, Gaius understood what Marius had been explaining. These were Roman soldiers who would fight in defense of their city, but their loyalty was to the crest they carried.
All was silent as they waited for the great gates to swing open. Metella appeared out of the shadows and kissed Marius, who responded with enthusiasm, grasping a buttock. His men regarded this impassively, not sharing his lively mood. Then she turned and kissed Gaius and Marcus. To their surprise, they could see tears shining in her eyes.
"You come back safe to me. I will wait for you all."
Gaius looked around for Alexandria. He had a vague notion that he could tell her of his noble decision to make way for Marcus. He hoped that she would be touched by his sacrifice and scorn Marcus's affections. Unfortunately, he could not see her anywhere, and then the gates opened and there was no more time.
Gaius and Marcus fell in with Tubruk and Cabera as the soldiers of Marius clattered out onto the dawn streets of Rome.
Under normal circumstances, the streets of Rome would have been empty at dawn, with the majority of the people waking in the late morning and continuing business up to midnight. With the curfew in force, the rhythm of the day had changed and the shops were opening as Marius and his men marched out.
The general led the soldiers, his step easy and sure. Shouts of warning went up from passersby, and Gaius could see people duck back into doorways as they spotted the armed men. After the recent riots, no one was in the mood to stand and watch the procession as it wound its way down the hill to the city forum, where the Senate had its buildings.
At first, the main roads emptied as the early-rising workers stood well back for the soldiers. Gaius could feel their eyes on them and heard angry mutters. One word was repeated from hard faces: "Scelus!"—a crime for soldiers to be on the streets. The dawn was damp and cold and he shivered slightly. Marcus too looked grim in the gray light, and he nodded as their eyes met, his hand on the hilt of his gladius. The tension was heightened by the clatter and crash as the men moved. Gaius had not realized how noisy fifty soldiers could be, but in the narrow streets the clank of iron-shod sandals echoed back and forth. Windows opened in the high apartments as they passed, and someone shouted angrily, but they marched on.
"Sulla will cut your eyes out!" one man howled before slamming his door shut.
Marius's men ignored the taunts and the crowd gathering behind them, drawn by the excitement and danger into a swelling mob.
Up ahead, a legionary carrying Sulla's mark on his shield turned at the noise and froze. They marched toward him and Gaius could feel the sudden excitement as every eye fixed on the lone man. He chose discretion over valor and set off at a trot, disappearing around a corner. A man at the front with Marius leaned forward as if to follow, but the general put a hand against his chest.
"Let him go. He'll tell them I'm coming." His voice carried back through the ranks and Gaius marveled at his calmness. No one else spoke and they continued, feet crashing down in time.
Cabera looked behind them and blanched as he saw the streets filling with followers. There was nowhere to retreat; a crowd was dogging their footsteps, their eyes bright with excitement, calling and hooting to each other. Cabera reached into his robe and brought forth a small blue stone on a thong, kissing it and mumbling a short prayer. Tubruk looked at the old man and put a hand out to his shoulder, gripping it briefly.
By the time they reached the great expanse of the forum, the crowd had spread to fill parallel roads and spilled out behind and around them. Gaius could feel the nervousness of the men he walked behind, and saw their muscles tense as they loosened their swords in the scabbards, ready for action. He swallowed and found his throat dry. His heart beat quickly and he felt lightheaded.
As if in mockery of the mood, the sun chose the moment they entered the forum to break from behind the morning mists, lighting the statues and temples on one side with gold. Gaius could see the steps of the Senate building ahead and licked suddenly dry lips as white-robed figures came out from the darkness and stood waiting for them. He counted four of Sulla's legionaries on the steps, hands on swords. Others would be on their way.
Hundreds of people were filling the forum from every direction, and jeers and calls could be heard echoing in the nearby streets. They all watched Marius and his men and they left an avenue to the Senate, knowing his destination without having to be told. Gaius clenched his teeth. There were so many people! They showed no sign of fear or awe and pointed, shouted, jostled, and shoved each other for a better view. Gaius was beginning to regret having asked to come.
At the foot of the steps, Marius halted his men and took one pace forward. The crowd pushed in around them, filling every space. The air smelled of sweat and spiced food. Thirty wide steps led up to the doors of the debating chamber. Nine senators stood on them.
Gaius recognized the face of Sulla, standing on the highest step. He stared straight at Marius without expression, his face like a mask. His hands were held behind his back, as if he were about to begin a lecture. His four legionaries had taken up position on the lowest step, and Gaius could see that they at least were nervous about what would happen next.
Responsive to some invisible cue, the swelling crowd fell silent, broken here and there by mutters and curses as people struggled for better positions.
"You all know me," Marius bellowed. His voice carried far in the silence. "I am Marius, general, consul, citizen. Here, before the Senate, I claim my right to hold a Triumph, recognizing the new lands my legion has conquered in Africa."
The crowd pressed closer and one or two came to blows, sharp yelps breaking the tension of the moment. They pressed against the soldiers and two had to raise their arms and shove figures back into the mass, with more angry shouts in response. Gaius could feel the ugly mood of the crowd. They had gathered as they did when the games were on, to see death and violence and be entertained.
Gaius noticed that the other senators looked to Sulla to respond. As the only other consul, it was his word that carried the authority of the city.
He took two steps down, closer to the soldiers. His face reddened with anger, but his words were quiet.
"This is unlawful. Tell your men to disperse. Come inside and we will discuss this when the full Senate has convened. You know the law, Marius."
Those in the crowd who could hear him cheered this, while others shouted vulgarities, knowing they were protected from being seen by the churning mass of people.
"I do know the law! I know that a general has the right to demand a Triumph. I make that demand. Do you deny me?" Marius too had taken a step forward and the crowd surged with him, pushing and shoving, spilling onto the Senate steps between the two men.
"Vappa! Cunnus!" They screamed abuse at the soldiers who rebuffed them, and Marius turned to the front row of his fifty. His eyes were cold and black.
"Enough. Make room for your general," he said, his voice grim.
The front ten men drew their swords and cut down the nearest members of the crowd. In seconds, gashed bodies spat blood over the marble steps. They did not stop, killing with a cold intensity, men and women falling before them. A wail went up as the crowd tried to back away, but those at the rear could not see what was happening and continued to push forward. Every man of the fifty soldiers drew his gladius and cut around him, careless of who fell under the blade.
It must have been only a few seconds from start to finish, but it seemed hours to Gaius and Marcus, who could only watch in horror as the ranks of the crowd were sliced down like wheat. The bodies littered the forum and the crowd was suddenly fighting to get away, the message having finally got through. A few more seconds and there was a great ring around Marius and his men, growing wider as citizens and slaves alike ran from the red swords.
Not a word had been said. Blades were wiped on the dead and resheathed. The men returned to their positions and Marius looked up at the senators again.
The stones of the forum were slicked wet with blood. The other men on the steps had gone pale, taking involuntary paces backward away from the slaughter. Only Sulla had held firm, and his lips twisted into a bitter grimace as the stench of fresh blood and opened bowels came to him.
The two men looked at each other for a long moment, as if only they were in the forum. The moment stretched and Marius raised his hand as if to give another command to his waiting men.
"One month from today," Sulla snapped. "Hold your Triumph, General, but remember you have made an enemy today. Savor the moments of joy that are due to you."
Marius inclined his head. "My thanks, Sulla, for your wisdom."
He turned his back on the senators and called the turn, walking through the ranks to take up position at the front again. The crowd held back, but anger was on every bitter face.
"Forward," came the bellow, and once again, the crash of iron on stone was heard as the half-century followed their general out of the plaza.
Gaius shook his head in wonderment at Tubruk and Marcus, saying nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a century of Sulla's men enter the plaza from a side street, each man running with his sword out and in hand. He tensed and would have shouted a warning, but caught Tubruk's shake of the head.
Behind them, Sulla had raised his hand to halt his men, and they stood to attention, watching Marius leave with angry expressions. As Gaius reached the edge of the forum, he saw Sulla make a circle with his right hand in the air.
"A little too close in timing for my liking," Tubruk whispered.
Marius snorted up ahead, overhearing. He strode forward, his voice carrying back. "Close formation in the streets, men. This is not over yet."
The soldiers drew into a tightly packed unit. Marius looked back over his shoulder.
"Watch the side streets. Sulla will not let us get clean away if he can help it. Keep your wits about you and your swords loose."
Gaius felt dazed, carried along by events beyond his control. This was the safety of his uncle's shadow? He walked along with the others, hemmed in by legionaries.
A short, barking scream sounded from behind and Gaius whirled, almost knocked off his feet by the soldier behind him. One of the men was lying on the cobbles, in the filth of the road. Blood pooled around him and Gaius caught a glimpse of three men stabbing and cutting in a frenzy.
"Don't look," Tubruk warned, turning Gaius forward with gentle pressure on his shoulder.
"But the man! Shouldn't we stop?" Gaius shouted, astonished.
"If we stop, we'll all die. Sulla has unleashed his dogs."
Gaius glanced into a side street as they passed and saw a group of men with daggers drawn, running toward them. By their bearing, they were legionaries, but without uniforms. Gaius drew his sword almost at one with all the others. His heart began to pound again and he felt sweat break out on his forehead.
"Hold your nerve! We stop for nothing," Marius shouted back, his neck and back muscles rigid.
The knife men attacked the back row again as it passed, one of them going down with a gladius in his ribs before the others bore their man down onto the ground. He yelled in fear as his sword was wrenched from his grasp and then the yell was cut suddenly short.
As they marched on, Gaius could hear hoots of triumph from behind. He sneaked a look back and wished he hadn't as the attackers raised a bloody head and howled like animals. The men around him swore viciously and one of them suddenly stopped, raising his sword.
"Come on, Vegus, we're nearly there," another urged him, but he shook off the hands on his shoulders and spat at the ground.
"He was my friend," he muttered, and broke rank, racing back toward the bloody group. Gaius tried to watch what happened. He could hear the cry as they saw him coming, but then men seemed to pour out of the alleyways and the soldier was torn apart without a sound.
"Steady," Marius shouted, and Gaius could hear the anger in the voice, the first touch of it he'd seen in the man. "Steady," he called again.
Marcus took a dagger from the man on his right and drifted back through the ranks. He was in the last row of three when they passed the dark mouth of an alleyway and four others sprang, their knives held to kill. Marcus ducked and took the weight of an attacker as they crashed together in a violent embrace. He pulled his knife across the throat he saw so close to his own and blinked as the blood spurted out over him. He used the body to block another thrust and then threw it at the remaining attackers. As it landed, the men went down to swift, punching stabs from the three legionaries, who then rejoined the ranks without a word. One of them clapped a hand on Marcus's shoulder and Marcus grinned at him. He ghosted up through the ranks again and arrived at Gaius's side, panting slightly. Gaius clasped the back of his neck for a second.
Then the gates were opening in front of them and they were safe, holding formation until the last man was through into the courtyard.
As the gates closed, Gaius went back to look down the hill they'd walked together. It was deserted; not a face showed. Rome seemed as quiet and orderly as ever.
Four versions of the Roman cestus, a leather glove used in ancient boxing.
Marius almost glowed with pleasure and energy as he walked amongst his men, clapping his hands to shoulders and laughing. They grinned wryly, like schoolboys being congratulated by a tutor.
"We've done it, boys!" Marius shouted. "We'll show this city a day to remember a month from today." They cheered him and he called for wine and refreshments, summoning every slave of his home to treat the men like kings.
"Anything they want!" he bellowed. Wine cups of gold and silver were pressed into the rough hands of every man back in through the gates, Gaius and Marcus included. Dark purple wine sloshed and gurgled as it was poured from clay jugs. Alexandria was with the other slaves and smiled at both Marcus and Gaius. Gaius nodded to her, but Marcus winked as she passed him.
Tubruk sniffed his wine and chuckled. "The best."
Marius held his cup high, his expression somber. Silence fell after a few seconds.
"To those who didn't make it today, who died for us. Tagoe, Luca, and Vegus. Good men all."
"Good men all!" Every voice echoed his in a guttural chorus, and the cups were tipped back and held out for refills from the waiting slaves.
"He knew their names," Gaius whispered to Tubruk, who brought his head close to reply.
"He knows all their names," he muttered. "That is why he is a good general. That is why they love him. He could tell you some of the history of every man here and a good portion of the legion outside Rome as well. Oh, you can call it a trick if you like, a cheap way to impress the men who serve. I know that's what he would say if you asked him." He paused to look at the general as he caught a huge and husky soldier in a headlock and walked through the crowd with him. The man bellowed, but didn't struggle. He bore it as it was meant.
"They're his children, I think. You can see how much he loves them. That big man could probably tear Marius's arms off if he wanted. On another day, he'd put a dagger in a man for looking at him with a squint in the noonday sun. But Marius can lead him around by the head and he laughs. I'm not sure you can train a man into that skill—I think it's born into you, or not. You don't even need to have it to be a good general.
"These men would follow Sulla if they were in his legion. They'd fight for him and hold formation and die for him. But they love Marius, so they can't be bribed or bought, and in battle they will not ever run, not to the last man. Not while he's watching, anyway. There used to be a land qualification to be in the legions, but Marius abolished it. Now anyone can make a career fighting for Rome, at least for him. Half these men wouldn't have made it into the army before Marius had his law passed by the Senate. They owe him a great deal."
The men began to walk out of the entrance square, off to be bathed and massaged by the prettiest female slaves on the grounds. Several beauties had taken arms and were already gasping and exclaiming at stories of battle prowess. When Marius let go of the big legionary's head, he immediately called a girl over, a slim brunette with kohl-dark eyes. The big man took one look and grinned like a wolf, gathering her up into his arms. The echoes of her laughter came back off the brick walls as he trotted into the main buildings.
One young soldier dropped a powerfully muscled arm onto Alexandria's shoulder and said something to her. Marcus came up behind the man quickly.
"Not this girl, friend. She's not from this house."
The soldier looked at him and took in the boy's bearing and determined expression. He shrugged and called to another slave girl as she passed by. Gaius stood watching the exchange and when Alexandria caught his eye, her face filled with anger. She turned her back on Marcus and strode into the cool interior of the garden rooms.
Marcus turned to his friend. He had noticed her expression and his own was thoughtful.
"Why was she so annoyed?" Gaius said, exasperated. "I wouldn't have thought she wanted to go with that big ox. You saved her."
Marcus nodded. "That may be the problem. Perhaps she didn't want me to. Perhaps she wanted you to save her."
"Oh." Gaius's face lit up. "Really?"
Marius staggered over to Gaius and his friends, still laughing, his hair plastered to his forehead with wine emptied over him. His eyes were shining with pleasure.
He took Gaius by both shoulders.
"Well, lad? How was your first taste of Rome?"
Gaius grinned back at him. You couldn't help it. The man's emotions were infectious. When he frowned, dark clouds of fear and anger followed him around and touched all who met him. When he smiled, you wanted to smile. You wanted to be one of his men. Gaius could feel the power of the man and for the first time wondered if he could ever command that kind of loyalty himself.
"It was frightening, but exciting as well," he replied, unable to stop his lips from smiling.
"Good! Some don't feel it, you know. They just add up supply figures and calculate how many men it would take to hold a ravine. They just don't feel the excitement."
He looked over at Marcus, Tubruk, and Cabera.
"Get drunk if you like, have a woman if you can find one by now. We'll do no work today and no one can leave until it's dark after that trouble we had. Tomorrow, we'll start planning how to bring five thousand men fifty miles and all the way through Rome. Do you know anything about supply?"
Both Marcus and Gaius shook their heads.
"You'll learn. The best army in the world is lost without food and water, boys. That's the thing to know. Everything else falls into place. My home is your home, remember. I'm going to sit in the fountain and get drunk." He collected three unopened jugs of wine from the remaining male slaves and walked away—a man with a mission.
Tubruk watched him leave the courtyard with a wry smile. "Once, in North Africa, on the eve of a battle against a savage tribe, they say Marius walked alone into the enemy camp carrying a jug of wine in each hand. Remember, this was the camp of seven thousand of the most brutal warriors the legion had encountered. He drank all night with the chief of the tribe, despite not understanding a word of each others language. They toasted life and the future and courage. Then the next morning he staggered back to his own lines."
"What happened next?" Marcus said.
"They wiped out the tribe to the last man. What would you expect?" Tubruk laughed.
"Why didn't the chief kill him?" Marcus continued.
"I suppose he liked him. Most people do."
Metella came into the courtyard and held out her hands to Gaius and Marcus, smiling. "I'm glad you are safely returned to us. I want you both to think of this house as a place of peace and refuge for you."
She gazed into Marcus's eyes and he looked back calmly. "Is it true you grew up without a mother?"
Marcus blushed a little, wondering how much Marius had told her. He nodded and Metella gave a little gasp.
"You poor boy. I would have brought you to me earlier if I had known."
Marcus was wondering if she knew what the legionaries were getting up to with her female slaves. She didn't seem to fit into the bluff world of Marius and his legion. He wondered what his own mother was like, and for the first time considered trying to find her. Marius would probably know, but it was not a question he wished to ask the man. Perhaps Tubruk would tell him before he returned to the estate.
Metella took her hand away from his and reached up to brush his cheek.
"You have had a rough time of it, but that is all over now."
Slowly, he touched her hand with his and it was as if they had reached some private understanding. Suddenly her eyes glistened with tears and she turned and walked away along the cloisters.
Marcus looked at Gaius and shrugged.
"You have a friend there," Tubruk said, watching her retreating figure. "She has taken a liking to you."
"I'm a bit old to need a mother," Marcus muttered.
"Possibly, but she's not too old to need a son."
At noon, there was a commotion at the house gates. Some of the legionaries turned out with swords drawn in case it was a reprisal for the morning's work. Gaius and Marcus rushed to the courtyard with the rest and then stopped and gaped.
Renius was there, draped through the metal bars and singing a drunken dirge. He used the crossbar of the gate to steady himself, but his tunic was soaked with wine and specks of vomit. A guard stepped up to the bars and spoke to him as Gaius and Marcus came up, Tubruk just behind them.
Suddenly, Renius reached up to the man's hair and pulled his head into the metal with a clang. Unconscious, the soldier fell away and the others began to shout in anger.
"Let him in and kill him!" yelled one man, but another said it could be a trap of Sulla's to make them open the gates. This gave them all pause and it was Gaius and Marcus who approached the gates next.
"Can we help you?" Marcus said, raising his eyebrows in polite inquiry.
Renius mumbled angrily, "I'll stick my sword up you, whore's boy."
Marcus started to laugh.
"Open the gates," Gaius called to the other guard. "It's Renius—he's with me."
The guard ignored him as if he had not spoken, making it clear that Gaius could not give orders in that house. As Gaius stepped toward the gate, a legionary took a pace to stand in front of him, shaking his head slowly.
Marcus sidled over to the gate and said a few quiet words to the guard there.
The man was in the middle of replying when Marcus butted him savagely, knocking him down into the dust. Ignoring the guard as he flailed and tried to get up, Marcus ran back the big bolts that held the door secure and opened it.
Renius fell into the yard and lay flat, his good arm twitching. Marcus chuckled and began to close the gate when he heard the smooth metallic sound of a knife coming from a sheath. He spun and was just in time to block a thrust from the furious guard with his forearm. With his left hand, he backhanded the man across the mouth and sent him sprawling again. Marcus shut the gate.
Two more of the men ran up to grab him, but a voice called "Hold!" and everyone froze for a second. Marius walked into the courtyard, showing no effects from the wine he had been putting away steadily for two hours. As he approached, the two men kept their eyes on Marcus, who looked calmly back at them.
"Gods! What is going on in my house?" Marius came up and put a heavy hand on the shoulder of one of the men facing Marcus.
"Renius is here," Gaius said. "He came with us from the estate."
Marius looked down at the sprawling figure, peacefully asleep on the stones.
"He never got drunk when he was a gladiator. I can see why if this is how it affects him. What happened to you?" The last question was addressed to the guard who had resumed his post. His mouth and nose were bloody and his eyes sparked with indignation, but he knew better than to complain to Marius.
"Caught myself in the face with the gate when I was opening it," he said slowly.
"Damned careless of you, Fulvio. You should have let my nephew help you with it."
The message was clear. The man nodded and wiped a little of the blood away with his hand.
"Glad we've cleared that up. Now, you and you"—he pointed a stiff finger at Gaius and Marcus—"come with me to my study. We need to discuss a couple of things."
He waited until Gaius and Marcus had walked in front of him before falling in behind. Over his shoulder, he called, "Get that old man somewhere to sleep it off, and keep that damned gate shut."
Marcus caught the eye of the legionaries nearby and found they were all grinning, whether in malice or genuine amusement, he couldn't say.
Marius opened the door of his study and let the two go through into a room lined with maps on every wall, showing Africa and the empire and Rome herself. He closed the door quietly and then turned to face them. His eyes were cold and Gaius felt a momentary pang of fear as the man focused his dark gaze on him.
"What did you think you were doing?" Marius spat from between clenched teeth.
Gaius opened his mouth to say he was letting Renius in when he thought better of it.
"I'm sorry. I should have waited for you."
Marius banged his heavy fist on the desk. "I suppose you realize that if Sulla had had twenty picked men in the street waiting for just such an opportunity, we would most likely be dead by now?"
Gaius blushed miserably.
Marius swiveled to face Marcus. "And you. Why did you attack Fulvio?"
"Gaius gave the order to open the gates. The man ignored him. I made it happen."
There was no give in Marcus. He looked up at the older man and met his gaze unflinchingly.
The general raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "You expected him, a veteran of thirty conflicts, to take orders from a beardless boy of fourteen?"
"I... didn't think about it." For the first time, Marcus looked unsure of himself, and the general turned back to Gaius.
"If I back you in this, I will lose some of the respect of the men. They all know you made a mistake and will be waiting to see what I do about it."
Gaius's heart sank.
"There is a way out of this, but it will cost you both dearly. Fulvio is the boxing champion of his century. He lost a lot of face today when you clipped him, Marcus. I daresay he would be willing to take part in a friendly fight, just to clear the air. Otherwise, he may well put a knife in you when I am not around to step in."
"He'll kill me," Marcus said quietly.
"Not in a friendly match. We won't use the iron gloves, because of your tender age, just goatskin ones to protect your hands. Have you been trained at all?"
The boys murmured that they had, thinking of Renius.
Marius turned to Gaius again. "Of course, win or lose, if your friend shows courage, the men will love him, and I can't have my nephew in his shadow, do you understand?"
Gaius nodded, guessing what was coming.
"I'll put you in against one of the others. They're all champions at some skill or other, which is why I chose them for the escort duty to the Senate. You'll both take a beating, but if you handle yourselves well enough, the incident will be forgotten and you may even gain a bit of standing with my men. They are the scum of the gutters, most of them; they fear nothing and have respect only for strength. Oh, I can just order them back to duties and do nothing, letting you hide in the shadow of my authority, but that won't do, d'you see?"
Their faces were bleak, and he snorted suddenly.
"Smile, boys. You might as well. There is no other way out of this, so why not spit in old Jupiter's eye while you're at it?"
They looked at each other, and both grinned.
Marius laughed again. "You'll do. Two hours. I'll tell the men and announce the opponents. That'll give Renius time to sober up a little. I should think he would want to see this. By all the gods, I want to see this! Dismissed!"
Gaius and Marcus walked slowly back to their rooms. Their initial levity had faded, leaving a sick churning in both their stomachs at what was to come.
"Hey! Do you realize I put a century boxing champion on his back? I am damn well going to try and win this match. If I can hit him once, I can knock him out. One good strike is all it takes."
"But this time he'll be expecting it," Gaius replied morosely. "I'll probably get that big ape Marius was leading around by the head earlier; that would be just the sort of joke he likes."
"Big men are slow. You're fast with the cross, but you'll have to stay out of range. All these soldiers are heavy and that means they can hit harder than we can. Keep moving your feet and wear them down."
"We're going to be murdered," Gaius replied.
"Yes, I think we probably are."
Tubruk was calmly accepting when he heard the news back at their rooms.
"I expected something like it. Marius loves contests and is forever staging them between his own men and those of the other legions. This is just his style—a bit of cheering and a deal of blood and everything is forgotten and forgiven.
"Thankfully, you haven't drunk more than a cup or two of wine. Come on, two hours is not long to get you warmed up and ready. You'd better spar for a while in one of the training rooms. Get a slave to direct you to one, and I'll find you as soon as I have some gloves. One thing—don't let Marius down. Especially you, Gaius. You're his kin, you have to put on a good show."
"I understand," Gaius replied grimly.
"Then get going. I'll have some of the slaves throw ice water on Renius—from a distance so that he doesn't go berserk."
"What happened with him? Why was he drunk so early in the day?" Gaius asked curiously.
"I don't know. Concentrate on one thing at a time. You'll have a chance to speak to Renius this evening. Now go!"
While the rest of Rome slept through the heat of the afternoon, the men from the First-Born legion gathered in the largest training room, lining the walls, laughing, chatting, and sipping cool beer and fruit juices. After the fights, Marius had promised them a ten-course feast of good food and wine, and the mood was relaxed and cheerful. Tubruk stood with Marcus and Gaius, loosening the shoulders of one, then the other. Cabera sat on a stool, his face inscrutable.
"They are both right-handed," Tubruk said quietly. "Fulvio you know; the other, Decidus, is a javelin champion. He has very strong shoulders, though he doesn't look fast. Stay away from them, make them come to you."
Marcus and Gaius nodded. Both were a little pale under their tanned skin.
"Remember, the idea is to stay upright long enough to show you have nerve. If you go down early, get up. I'll stop it if you're in real trouble, but Marius won't like that, so I will have to be careful." He put a hand on each of their shoulders.
"Both of you have skill and courage and wind. Renius is watching. Don't let us down."
Both boys glanced over to where Renius sat, his useless arm strapped to his belt. His hair was still damp and murder glinted from his expression.
Cheering began as Marius entered. He held up his hands for quiet and it came quickly.
"I expect each man to do his best, but know that my money will be on my nephew and his friend. Two bets, twenty-five aurei on each. Do I have any takers?"
For a moment, the silence held. Fifty gold pieces was a huge bet for a private fight, but who could resist? The gathered men emptied their pouches and some left for their rooms to fetch more coins. After a while, the money was there and Marius added his own pouch so that one hundred gold pieces were held in his great hand, enough to buy a farm, or a warhorse and full armor and weapons.
"Will you hold the bag for us, Renius?" Marius asked.
"I will," he replied, his tone solemn and formal. He seemed to have thrown off most of the effects of drink, but Gaius noticed he did not try to rise and waited until the money was brought to him.
Fulvio and Decidus entered the training hall to more cheering from the men. There was now no question where their support lay.
Both men were wearing only a tight-fitting cloth wrapped around their groins and upper thighs, held by a wide belt. Decidus had the sort of shoulders and physique usually seen on the statues of the forum. Gaius watched him closely, but there were no obvious weaknesses. Fulvio did not wave to the crowd. His nose was bound with a strip of cloth tied at the back of his head, and his lips were swollen and angry looking.
Gaius nudged Marcus. "Looks like you broke his nose with that butt earlier on. He'll be expecting you to hit it again, you realize. Wait for a good opportunity."
Marcus nodded, engrossed as Gaius had been with his study of the man and his movements.
Marius raised his hands again to be heard over the lively soldiers.
"Marcus and Fulvio will fight the first bout. No time limits, but a round ends when one man has a knee or more on the ground. When one is unable to rise, the bout is over and the other will begin. Come to your marks."
Fulvio and Marcus came to stand on either side of the general.
"When the horn is blown, you begin. Good luck."
Marius walked sedately to the sidelines with the men and signaled to one to sound the horn usually used in battle. A hush fell and the blare resonated as a pure note.
Marcus loosened his shoulders, rocked his head from side to side, and stepped forward. He held his hands high as he had been taught by Renius, but Fulvio kept his fists relaxed, his arms only slightly bent. He swayed as Marcus jabbed with his left, and the blows went by harmlessly. One fist shot out and thumped into Marcus's chest, over the heart. He gasped in pain and backed away, then set his teeth and came in again. He launched a fast jab followed immediately by a straight right, but again Fulvio moved out of the way with a single step and hammered the same spot with his gloved right hand. Marcus felt the air explode out of him with the pain.
The men had begun cheering and only Gaius, Tubruk, and Cabera cheered for the younger fighter. Fulvio was smiling and Marcus began to think. The man was fast and difficult to hit. At present, Marcus was doing all the work, winning nothing for his efforts. He growled in rage and surged forward, his right arm cocked. He saw Fulvio steady himself and then pulled up suddenly, letting the blow that should have knocked him out go past his chin. Marcus punched fast and hard at Fulvio's nose and was gratified at the crunch of bones he felt. At that second, a cross caught him on the side of his head and he went down hard on the wooden floor, dazed and winded.
He panted as he came up onto one knee and looked up at Fulvio standing a couple of paces away. Blood streamed from his nose again and he looked murderous.
Marcus got up into a flurry of blows. He tried to stay away and fend off the worst of them, but Fulvio was all over him, thumping fists into his stomach and kidneys from all angles, chopping him to pieces and, when the pain made him hunch, catching Marcus with swift uppercuts to the head, rocking him back. He fell again and lay there, his chest heaving painfully. He tasted blood in his mouth and his left eye was swelling shut under the assault of Fulvio's straight right.
This time he rose and took three quick steps backward to give him time to compose himself. Fulvio came at him remorselessly, moving his head and body from side to side as he looked for the best place to hit. The man resembled a snake about to bite, and Marcus knew the next time he went down he was unlikely to get up. Anger flooded him and he ducked the first punch on sheer reflexes, batting the follow-through away with his arm. He felt Fulvios forearm slide under his fingers and suddenly gripped the wrist. His right fist came into the man's stomach with all the power of his shoulders behind it, and he was rewarded with a slight whoosh of pain.
Still holding the arm, he tried to repeat the punch, but Fulvio brought his left over and clipped him hard on the jaw. The world went black and he fell down, barely feeling the hard wooden boards underneath him. His legs seemed to have lost all strength, and he could only manage to get himself up onto all fours, panting like a beast.
Fulvio waved a glove at him to get up, still unsatisfied. Marcus looked down at the floor and wondered if he should. Blood dribbled from between his lips and he watched it spatter into a small pool.
Ah well, he thought. One more try.
This time Fulvio didn't rush him. He was grinning again and beckoned with his hands for Marcus to come on. Marcus tightened his jaw. He was going to put the man on his back one more time if it killed him. He imagined each of Fulvio's fists held a dagger, so that any contact would mean death. He felt his spirits rise. He knew how to fight with swords and knives, so why was this so different? He let himself sway a little, wanting Fulvio to come in. Most of his knife training had revolved around counterstrikes, and he wanted the boxer to throw another punch. Fulvio quickly lost patience and came in fast, fists bobbing.
Marcus watched the fists and when one exploded toward him, he blocked, lifting it with his forearm, and counterpunched into Fulvio's abdomen. Fulvio grunted and the left came over the top again in reflex, but this time Marcus dropped his head and the blow skidded over him, leaving Fulvio open for a split second. Marcus hammered everything into a straight left stopper, wishing it were his right. Fulvio's head rocked back and, when it came level, the right was ready and Marcus smacked it into the boxer's broken nose again. Fulvio took a sudden seat and fresh blood poured from his battered nose.
Before Marcus could feel any pleasure, the man leapt up and poured out a string of blows, seeming to move twice as fast as he had before. Marcus went down after the first two and caught two more as he fell. This time he didn't get up and didn't hear the cheers or the horn as Marius nodded to end the match.
Fulvio raised his hands in triumph and Marius ruefully signaled the first fifty of the hundred gold coins to be given back to the men. They gathered together in a momentary huddle and then, when silence had fallen, one of them offered the bag back to Marius.
"We'll let the win ride for the next one, sir, if you're willing," he said.
Marius grimaced in mock horror, but nodded and said he would cover the bet. The men cheered again.
Marcus woke up as Tubruk threw a cup of wine in his face.
"Did I win?" he said through smashed lips.
Tubruk chuckled and wiped some of the blood and wine off his face.
"Not even close, but you were still astonishing. You shouldn't have been able to touch him."
"Touched him properly, though," he mumbled, smiling and wincing as his lips cracked. "Knocked him on his arse."
Marcus looked around for somewhere to spit and, finding nothing handy, swallowed a gummy mixture of phlegm and blood.
Every part of him hurt, worse than it had when he'd been tied up by Suetonius years before. He wondered if he'd be as good-looking when he'd healed, but his thoughts were interrupted by Fulvio coming over, taking off his gloves as he walked.
"Good fight. I had three gold pieces on me, myself. You're very fast—in a few years, you could be seriously dangerous."
Marcus nodded and put out his hand. Fulvio looked at it and then shook it briefly and walked back to the men, who cheered him all over again.
"Take the cloth and keep dabbing as the blood drips," Tubruk continued cheerfully. "You'll need stitches over your eye. We'll have to cut it to get the swelling down as well."
"Not yet. I'll watch Gaius first."
"Of course." Tubruk walked away, still chuckling, and Marcus squinted at him through his one good eye.
Gaius clenched his fists and waited for Tubruk to reach him. His opponent had already taken the floor and was limbering up, stretching his muscular shoulders and legs.
"He's a big brute," he muttered as Tubruk came alongside.
"True, but he's not a boxer. You have a reasonable chance against this one, as long as you don't get in the way of one of his big punches. He'll put you out like snuffing a candle if he catches you. Stay back and use your feet to move around him."
Gaius looked at him quizzically. "Anything else?"
"If you can, punch him in the testicles. He'll watch for it, but it isn't strictly speaking against the rules."
"Tubruk, you do not have the heart of a decent man."
"No, I have the heart of a slave and a gladiator. I have two gold pieces on you for this one and I want to win."
"Did you bet on Marcus?" he asked.
"Of course not. Unlike Marius, I don't throw money away."
Marius came to the center and signaled for silence once again.
"After that disappointing loss, the money rides on the next bout. Decidus and Gaius, take your marks. Same rules. When you hear the horn, begin." He waited until both stood eyeing each other and walked to the wall, folding his great arms over his chest.
As the horn sounded, Gaius stepped in and slammed his fist up into Decidus's throat. The bigger man gave out a choked groan and raised both his hands to his neck, in agony. Gaius threw a scything uppercut that caught Decidus on the chin. He went down onto his knees and then toppled forward, his eyes glassy and blank. Gaius walked slowly back to his stool and sat down. He smiled silently and Renius, watching, remembered the same smile on a younger boy's face as he'd lifted him from the icy waters of a river pool. Renius nodded sharply in approval, his eyes bright, but Gaius did not see it.
The silence roared for a second, then the men released the breath they'd been holding and a rabble of voices broke out—mostly questions spiced with a few choice swearwords as they realized the bets were all lost.
Marius walked over to the prostrate figure and felt his neck for a second. Silence fell again. Finally, he nodded.
"His heart beats. He'll live. Should have kept his chin down."
The men gave a halfhearted cheer for the winner, though their spirits weren't really in it.
Marius addressed the crowd, grinning. "If you have an appetite, there's a feast waiting for you in the dining hall. We'll make a night of it, for tomorrow it's back to planning and work."
Decidus was revived and taken out, shaking his head groggily. The rest trooped after him, leaving Marcus and Gaius alone with the general. Renius never left his seat and Cabera stayed back as well, his face alive with interest.
"Well, boys, you've made me a lot of money today!" Marius boomed, starting to laugh. He had to lean against a wall for support as the laughter shook his frame.
"Their faces! Two beardless boys and one puts Fulvio on his backside..." The laughter overtook him and he wiped his eyes as tears streamed over his red face.
Renius stood up, swaying a little. He walked over to Marcus and Gaius and clapped a hand on each shoulder.
"You've started making your names," he said quietly.
On the night before the Triumph, the First-Born camp was anything but peaceful. Gaius sat around one of the campfires and sharpened a dagger that had belonged to his father. All around, the fires and noise of seven thousand soldiers and camp followers made the darkness busy and cheerful. They were camped in open country, less than five miles from the gates of the city. For the last week, armor had been polished, leather waxed, tears in cloth stitched. Horses were groomed until they shone like chestnuts. Marching drills had become tense affairs; mistakes were not tolerated and no one wanted to be left behind when they marched into Rome.
The men were all proud of Marius and themselves. There was no false modesty in the camp; they knew they and he deserved the honor.
Gaius stopped sharpening as Marcus came into the firelight and took a seat on a bench. Gaius looked into the flames and didn't smile.
"What's the word?" he said angrily, without turning his head.
"I leave at dawn tomorrow," Marcus replied. He too looked into the fire as he continued speaking. "This is for the best, you know. Marius has written a letter for me to take to my new century. Would you like to see it?"
Gaius nodded and Marcus passed a scroll over to him. He read:
I recommend this young man to you, Carac. He will make a first-rate soldier in a few years. He has a good mind and excellent reflexes.
He was trained by Renius, who will accompany him to your camp. Give him responsibility as soon as he has proved he can handle it.
He is a friend of my house.
"Fine words. I wish you luck," Gaius said bitterly as he finished, passing back the scroll.
Marcus snorted. "More than just fine words! Your uncle has given me my ticket into another legion. You don't understand what this means to me. Of course I would like to stay with you, but you will be learning politics in the Senate, then taking a high post in the army and the temples. I own nothing except my skills and my wits and the equipment Marius has given me. Without his patronage, I would be pushed to get a post as a temple guard! With it, I have a chance to make something of myself. Do you grudge it of me?"
Gaius turned to him, his anger surprising Marcus. "I know it's what you have to do, I just never saw myself tackling Rome alone. I always expected you to be with me. That is what friendship means."
Marcus gripped his arm tightly. "You will always be my greatest friend. If ever you need me to be at your side, then call and I will come to you. You remember the pact before we came to the city? We look out for each other and we can trust each other completely. That is my oath and I have never broken it."
Gaius did not look at him and Marcus let his hand fall away.
"You can have Alexandria," Marcus said, attempting a noble expression.
Gaius gasped. "A parting gift? What a generous friend you are! You are too ugly for her, as she told me just yesterday. She only likes your company for the contrast. You make her look more beautiful when your monkey face is around."
Marcus nodded cheerfully. "She does seem to want me only for sex. Perhaps you can read poetry to her while I run her through the positions."
Gaius took a quick breath of indignation, then smiled slowly at his friend. "With you gone, I will be the one showing her the positions." He chuckled to himself at this, hiding his thoughts. What positions? He could think of only two.
"You will be like a bullock after me, with all the practice I have been getting. Marius is a generous man."
Gaius looked at his friend, trying to judge how much of his boasting was just that. He knew Marcus had proved a favorite with the slave girls of Marius's house and was rarely to be found in his own room after dark. As for himself, he didn't know what he felt. Sometimes he wanted Alexandria so much it hurt him, and other times he wanted to be chasing the girls along the corridors as Marcus did. He did know that if he ever tried to force her as a slave, he would lose all that he found precious. A silver coin would buy him that kind of union. The idea that Marcus might have already enjoyed what he wanted made his blood thump in irritation.
Marcus broke in on these thoughts, his voice low. "You will need friends when you are older, men you can trust. We've both seen what sort of power your uncle has, and I think both of us would like a taste of it."
"Then what good will I be to you as a penniless son of a city whore? I can make my name and fortune in my new legion, and then we can make real plans for the future."
"I understand. I remember our oath and I will stick to it." Gaius was silent for a moment, then shook his head to clear it of thoughts of Alexandria. "Where will you be stationed?"
"I'm with the Fourth Macedonia, so Renius and I are going to Greece—the home of civilization, they say. I'm looking forward to seeing alien lands. I have heard that the women run races without clothes on, you know. Makes the mind bulge a bit. Not just the mind, either." He laughed and Gaius smiled sickly, still thinking of Alexandria. Would she have given herself to him?
"I'm glad Renius is your escort. It'll do him good to take his mind off his troubles for a while."
Marcus grimaced. "True, though he won't be the best of company. He's been out of sorts ever since he turned up drunk at your uncle's, but I can understand why."
"If the slaves had burned my house down, I'd be a bit lost as well. They even took his savings, you know. Had them under the floor, he said, but they must have been found by looters. That was not a glorious chapter in our history, slaves stealing an old man's savings. Mind you, he's not really an old man anymore, is he?"
Marcus looked sideways at him. They had never discussed it, but Gaius hadn't seemed to need telling.
"Cabera?" Gaius said, catching his eye.
"I thought so; he did something similar for me, when I was wounded. He is certainly a useful man to have around."
"I am glad he's staying with you. He has faith in your future. He should be able to keep you alive until I can come back, covered in glory and draped with beautiful women, all of whom will be the winners of footraces."
"I might not recognize you underneath all that glory and those women."
"I'll be the same. I'm sorry I'll miss the Triumph tomorrow. It should really be something special. You know he's had silver coins printed with his face? He's going to throw them to the crowds in the streets."
Gaius laughed. "Typical of my uncle. He likes to be recognized. He enjoys fame more than winning battles, I think. He's already paying the men with those coins so the money gets spread around Rome even faster. It should annoy Sulla at least, which is probably what he really wants."
Cabera and Renius came out of the darkness and took up the spaces on Marcus's bench.
"There you are!" Renius said. "I was beginning to think I couldn't find you to say goodbye."
Gaius noted again the fresh strength of the man. He looked no more than forty, or a well-preserved forty-five. His grip was like a trap as he put out his hand and Gaius took it.
"We'll all meet again," Cabera said.
They looked at him.
He held his palms up and smiled. "It's not a prophecy, but I feel it. We haven't finished our paths yet."
"I'm glad you're staying, at least. With Tubruk back at the estate and these two off to Greece, I would be all on my own here," Gaius said, smiling a little shyly.
"You look after him, you old scoundrel," Renius said. "I didn't go to all the trouble of training him to hear he's been kicked by a horse. Keep him away from bad women and too much drink." He turned to Gaius and held up a finger. "Train every day. Your father never let himself become soft and neither should you if you are to be of any use to our city."
"I will. What are you going to do when you have delivered Marcus?"
Renius's face darkened for a second. "I don't know. I don't have the funds to retire anymore, so we'll see... It is in the hands of the gods as always."
For a moment, they all looked a little sad. Nothing ever stayed the same.
"Come on," he continued gruffly. "Time for sleep. Dawn can't be more than a few hours away, and we all have a long day ahead of us."
They shook hands in silence for the last time and returned to their tents.
When Gaius awoke the following morning, Marcus and Renius were gone.
By him, folded carefully, was the toga virilis, a man's garment. He looked at it for a long time, trying to recall Tubruks lessons on the correct way to wear one. A boy's tunic was so much simpler, and the low toga hem would become dirty very quickly. The message was clear in its simplicity: A man did not climb trees and throw himself through muddy rivers. Boyish pursuits were to be put behind him.
In daylight, the large ten-man tents could be seen stretching into the distance, the orderly lines showing the discipline of the men and their general. Marius had spent most of the month mapping out a six-mile route along the streets that ended, as before, at the Senate steps. The filth had been scrubbed from the stones of the roads, but they were still narrow, winding courses, and the legion could get only six men or three horses across. There were going to be just under eleven hundred rows of soldiers, horses, and equipment. After a lot of argument with his engineers, Marius had agreed to leave his siege weapons at the camp—there was just no way to get them around the tight corners. The estimate was that it would take three hours to complete the march, and that was without holdups or mistakes of any kind.
By the time Gaius had washed, dressed, and eaten, the sun was clear of the horizon and the great shining mass of soldiers was in position and almost ready to march. Gaius had been told to dress in a full toga and sandals and to leave his weapons in the camp. After so long carrying a legionary's tools, he felt a little defenseless without them, but obeyed.
Marius himself would be riding on a throne set atop a flat open carriage, pulled by a team of six horses. He would wear a purple toga, a color that could only be worn by a general at the head of a Triumph. The dye was incredibly expensive, gathered from rare seashells and distilled. It was a garment to wear only once, and the color of the ancient kings of Rome.
As he passed under the city gates, a slave would raise a gilded laurel wreath above his head and hold it there for the rest of the journey. Four words had to be whispered throughout the Triumph, cheerfully ignored by Marius: "Remember thou art mortal."
The carriage had been put together by the legion engineers, made to fit perfectly between the street stepping-stones. The heavy wooden wheels were shod with an iron band, and the axles freshly greased. The main body had been gilded and shone in the morning sun as if made of pure gold.
As Gaius approached, the general was inspecting his troops, his expression serious. He spoke to many of the men and they answered him without moving their gaze from the middle distance.
At last, the general seemed satisfied and climbed up onto the carriage.
"The people of our city will not forget this day. The sight of you will inspire the children to join the forces that keep us all safe. Foreign ambassadors will watch us and be cautious in their dealings with Rome, with the vision of our ranks always in their minds. Merchants will watch us and know there is something more in the world than making money. Women will watch us and compare their little husbands to the best of Rome! See your reflections in the eyes as we pass. You will give the people something more than bread and coin today; you will give them glory."
The men cheered at the last and Gaius found himself cheering as well. He walked to the throned carriage and Marius saw him.
"Where shall I stand, Uncle?" he asked.
"Up here, lad. Stand at my right shoulder, so that they will know you are beloved of my house."
Gaius grinned and clambered on, taking position. He could see into the far distance from his new height and felt a thrill of anticipation.
Marius dropped his arm and horns sounded, echoing down the line to the far back. The legionaries took their first step on the hard-packed soil.
On each side of the great gold carriage, Gaius recognized faces from the first bloody trip to the Senate. Even on a day of rejoicing, Marius had his handpicked men with him. Only a fool would risk a thrown knife with the legion in the streets; they would destroy the city in rage—but Marius had warned his men that there were always fools, and there were no smiles in the ranks.
"To be alive on such a day is a precious gift of the gods," Marius said, his voice carrying.
Gaius nodded and rested his hand on the throne.
"There are six hundred thousand people in the city, and not one of them will be tending his business today. They have already begun lining the streets and buying seats at windows to cheer us through. The roads are strewn with fresh rushes, a carpet for us to walk on for each step of the six miles. Only the forum is being kept clear so that we can halt the whole five thousand in one block there. I shall sacrifice a bull to Jupiter and a boar to Minerva, and then you and I, Gaius, we will walk into the Senate to attend our first vote."
"What is the vote about?" Gaius asked.
Marius laughed. "A simple matter of officially accepting you into the ranks of the nobilitas and adulthood. In truth, it is only a formality. You have the right through your father, or, indeed, my sponsorship would do it. Remember, this city was built and is maintained on talent. There are the old houses, the purebloods; Sulla himself is from one such. But other men are there because they have dragged themselves up to power, as I have. We respect strength and cherish what is good for the city, regardless of the parentage."
"Are your supporters from the new men?" Gaius asked.
Marius shook his head. "Strangely enough, no. They are often too wary of being seen to side with one of their own. Many of them support Sulla, but those who follow me are as often highborn as they are new wolves in the fold. The people's tribunes make a great show of being untouched by politics and take each vote as they find it, although they can always be depended on to vote for cheaper corn or more rights for the slaves. With their veto, they can never be ignored."
"Could they prevent my acceptance then?"
Marius chuckled. "Take off the worried look. They do not vote in internal matters, such as new members, only in city policy. Even if they did, it would be a brave man to vote against me with my legion standing thousands deep in the forum outside. Sulla and I are consuls—the supreme commanders of all the military might of Rome. We lead the Senate, not the other way around." He smiled complacently and called for wine, having the full cup handed to him.
"What happens if you disagree with the Senate, or with Sulla?" Gaius asked.
Marius snorted into his wine cup. "All too common. The people elect the Senate to make and enforce the laws—and to build the empire. They also elect the other, more senior posts: aediles, praetors, and consuls. Sulla and I are here because the people voted for us, and the Senate do not forget that. If we disagree, a consul may forbid any piece of legislation and its passage stops immediately. Sulla or I have only to say 'Veto'—'I forbid it'—as the speeches begin and that is the end for that year. We can also block each other in this way, although that does not happen often."
"But how does the Senate control the consuls?" Gaius pressed, interested.
Marius took a deep draft of the wine and patted his stomach, smiling. "They could vote against me, even remove me from office in theory. In practice, my supporters and clients would prevent any such vote going through, so for the whole year, a consul is almost untouchable in power."
"You said a consul was only elected for one year and has to step down," Gaius said.
"The law bends for strong men, Gaius. Each year, the Senate clamors for an exception to be made and for me to be reelected. I am good for Rome, you see—and they know it."
Gaius felt pleased at the quiet conversation, or as quiet as the general ever managed, at least. He understood why his father had been wary of the man. Marius was like summer lightning—it was impossible to tell what he would strike next—but he had the city in the palm of his hand for the moment, and Gaius had discovered that was where he too wanted to be: at the center of things.
They could hear the roar of Rome long before they reached the gates. The sound was like the sea, a formless, crashing wave that engulfed them as they halted at the border tower. City guards approached the golden carriage and Marius stood to receive them. They too were polished and perfectly turned out, and they had a formal air.
"Give your name and state your business," one said.
"Marius, general of the First-Born. I am here. I will hold a Triumph on the streets of Rome."
The man flushed a little and Marius grinned.
"You may enter the city," the guard said, stepping back and waving the gate open.
Marius leaned close to Gaius as he sat down again. "Protocol says I have to ask permission, but this is too fine a day to be polite to guards who couldn't cut it in the legions. Take us in." He signaled and again the horns blew all down the line. The gates opened and the crowd peered around, roaring in excitement. The noise crashed out at the legion, and Marius's driver had to snap the reins sharply to make the horses move on.
The First-Born entered Rome.
"You must get out of bed now if you want to be ready in time to see the Triumph! Everyone says it will be glorious and your father and mother are already dressed and with their attendants while you lie and drowse!"
Cornelia opened her eyes and stretched, careless of the covers falling away from her golden skin. Her nurse, Clodia, busied herself with the window hangings, parting them to air the room and letting sunshine spill in.
"Look, the sun is high and you are not even dressed. It is shameless to find you without clothes. What if I was a male, or your father?"
"He wouldn't dare come in. He knows I don't bother with nightclothes when it's hot."
Still yawning, Cornelia rose naked from her bed and stretched like a cat, arching her back and pressing her fists into the air. Clodia crossed to the bedroom door and dropped the locking bar in case someone tried to enter.
"I suppose you'll be wanting a dip in the bath before you dress," Clodia said, affection spoiling the attempt at a stern tone.
Cornelia nodded and padded through to the bathing room. The water steamed, reminding her that the rest of the house had been up and working since the first moments of dawn. She felt vaguely guilty, but that dissolved in the soothing heat as she swung a leg over the side and climbed in, sighing. It was a luxury she enjoyed, preferring not to wait until the formal bathing session later in the day.
Clodia bustled in after her, carrying an armful of warm linen. She was never still, a woman of immense energy. To a stranger, there was nothing in her dress or manner to indicate her slavery. Even the jewels she wore were real and she chose her clothes from a sumptuous wardrobe.
"Hurry! Dry yourself with these and put on this mamillare."
Cornelia groaned. "It binds me too tightly to wear on hot days."
"It will keep your breasts from hanging like empty bags in a few years." Clodia snorted. "You'll be pleased enough to have worn it then. Up! Out of that water, you lazy thing. There's a glass of water on the side to clean your mouth."
As Cornelia dabbed her body dry, Clodia laid out her robes and opened a series of small silver boxes of paints and oils.
"On with this," she said, dropping a long white tunic over Cornelia's outstretched arms. The girl shrugged herself into it and sat at the single table, propping up an oval bronze mirror to see herself.
"I would like my hair to be curled," she said wistfully, holding a lock of it in her fingers. It was a dark gold, but straight for all its thickness.
"Wouldn't suit you, Lia. And there's no time today. I should think your mother is already finished with her ornatrix and will be waiting for us. Simple, understated beauty is what we're after today."
"A little ochre on the lips and cheeks then, unless you want to paint me with that stinking white lead?"
Clodia blew air out of her lips in irritation. "It will be a few years before you need to conceal your complexion. What are you now, seventeen?"
"You know I am, you were drunk at the feast," Cornelia replied with a smile, holding still while the color was applied.
"I was merry, dear, just as everybody else was. There is nothing wrong with a little drink in moderation, I have always said." Clodia nodded to herself as she rubbed in the colors.
"Now a little powdered antimony around the eyes to make men think they are dark and mysterious, and we can start on the hair. Don't touch it! Hands to yourself, remember, in case you smudge."
Swiftly and dexterously, Clodia parted the dark gold hair and gathered it into a chignon at the back, revealing the slender length of Cornelia's neck. She looked at the face in the mirror and smiled at the effect.
"Why your father hasn't found a man for you, I will never know. You're certainly attractive enough."
"He said he'd let me choose and I haven't found anyone to like yet," Cornelia replied, touching the pins in her hair.
Clodia tutted to herself. "Your father is a good man, but tradition is important. He should find you a young man with good prospects, and you should have a house of your own to run. I think you will enjoy that, somehow."
"I'll take you with me when that happens. I'd miss you if I didn't, like... a dress that is a bit old and out of fashion but still comfortable, you know?"
"How beautifully you put your affection for me, my dear," Clodia replied, buffeting Cornelia's head with her hand as she turned away to pick up the robe.
It was a great square of gold cloth that hung down to Cornelias knees. It had to be artfully arranged for the best effect, but Clodia had been doing it for years and knew Cornelias tastes in cut and style.
"It is beautiful—but heavy," Cornelia muttered.
"So are men, dear, as you will find out," Clodia replied with a sparkle in her eyes. "Now run to your parents. We must be early enough to have a good place to watch the Triumph. We're going to the house of one of your father's friends."
"Oh, Father, you should have lived to see this," Gaius whispered as they passed into the streets. The way ahead was dark green, with every spot of stone covered by rushes. The people too wore their best and brightest clothes, a surging throng of color and noise. Hands were held out, and hot, envious eyes watched them. The shops were all boarded shut, as Marius had said. It seemed the whole city had turned out for a holiday to see the great general. Gaius was astonished at the numbers and the enthusiasm. Did they not remember these same soldiers cutting themselves room on the forum only a month before? Marius had said they respected only strength, and the proof was in their cheers, booming and echoing in the narrow streets. Gaius glanced to his right into a window and saw a woman of some beauty throwing flowers at him. He caught one and the crowd roared again in appreciation.
Not a soul pushed onto the road, despite the lack of soldiers or guards along the edge. The lesson of the last time had clearly been learned, and it was as if there were an invisible barrier holding them back. Even the hard-faced men of Marius's own guard were grinning as they marched.
Marius sat like a god. He placed his massive hands on the arms of the golden throne and smiled at the crowd. The slave behind him raised the garland of gilded laurel over his head, and the shadow fell on his features. He nodded and every eye followed his progress. His horses were trained for the battlefield and ignored the yelling people, even when some of the more daring landed flowers around their necks as well.
Gaius stood at the great man's shoulder as the ride went on and the pride he felt lifted his soul. Would his father have appreciated this? The answer was probably not and Gaius felt a pang of sorrow at that. Marius was right: Just to be alive on this day was to touch the gods. He knew he would never forget it and could see in the eyes of the people that they too would store away the moments to warm them in the dark winters of years yet to pass.
Halfway along the route, Gaius saw Tubruk standing on a corner. As their eyes met, Gaius could feel all the history between them. Tubruk raised his arm in a salute and Gaius returned it. The men around Tubruk turned to look at him and wonder at his connection. He nodded as they passed and Gaius nodded back, swallowing down the catch in his throat. He was drunk with emotion and gripped the back of the throne to keep from swaying in the tide of cheering.
Marius gave a signal to two of his men and they climbed onto the carriage, holding soft leather bags. Hands were plunged into the dark recesses and came up glinting with fistfuls of silver coins. Marius's image went flying over the crowd, and they screamed his name as they scrabbled for the metal in his wake. Marius too reached in and his fingers emerged dripping pieces of silver; he sprayed the coins high with a gesture and laughed as they fell and the crowd dipped to pick up the gifts. He smiled at their pleasure and they blessed him.
From a low window, Cornelia looked out over the bobbing mass of people, pleased to be clear of the crowds. She felt a thrill as Marius drew close on his throne, and cheered with the rest. He was a handsome general and the city loved heroes.
There was a young man next to him, too young to be a legionary. Cornelia strained forward to get a better look. He was smiling and his eyes flashed blue as he laughed at something Marius said.
The procession came abreast of where Cornelia and her family watched. She saw coins go flying and the people rush to grab the pieces of silver. Her father, Cinna, sniffed at this.
"Waste of money. Rome loves a frugal general," he said waspishly.
Cornelia ignored him, her gaze on Marius's companion. He was attractive and healthy looking, but there was something else about him, about the way he held himself. There was an inner confidence, and as Clodia often said, there was nothing in the world so attractive as confidence.
"Every mother in Rome will be after that young cockerel for their daughters," Clodia whispered at her elbow.
Cornelia blushed and Clodia's eyebrows shot up in surprise and pleasure.
The Triumph passed on for another two hours, but for Cornelia it was wasted time.
The colors and faces had blurred together, the men were heavily draped in flowers, and the sun had reached noon by the time they began the entry to the forum. Marius signaled to his driver to put the carriage at the front, by the Senate steps. The space echoed as the hooves struck the stone slabs and the noise of the streets was slowly left behind. For the first time, Gaius could see Sulla's soldiers guarding the entrances to the plaza and the boiling mass of the crowds beyond.
It was almost peaceful after the colorful riot of the trip into the center.
"Stop her here," Marius said, and stood from the throne to watch his men come in. They were well drilled and formed tidy ranks, layer on layer from the farthest corner to the Senate steps, until the forum was full of the shining rows of his soldiers. No human voice could carry to every man, so a horn gave the order to stand to attention, and they crashed their feet together and down, making thunder. Marius smiled with pride. He gripped Gaius's shoulder.
"Remember this. This is why we slog through battlefields a thousand miles from home."
"I could never forget today," Gaius replied honestly, and the grip tightened for a moment before letting go.
Marius walked to where a white bull was held steady by four of his men. A great black-bristled boar was similarly held, but snorted and chafed against the ropes.
Marius accepted a taper and lit the incense in a golden bowl. His men bowed their heads and he stepped forward with his dagger, speaking softly as he cut the two throats.
"Bring us all through war and pestilence, safe home to our city," he said. He wiped the blade on the skin of the bull as it sank to its knees, bawling its fear and pain. Sheathing the dagger, he put an arm around Gaius's shoulder, and together they walked up the wide white steps of the Senate building.
It was the seat of power in all the world. Columns that could not be girdled by three large men holding their arms outstretched supported a sloping roof that was itself mounted with distant statues. Bronze doors that dwarfed even Marius stood closed at the top of the steps. Made of interlocking panels, they looked as if they were designed to stand against an army, but as the pair ascended, the doors opened silently, pulled from within. Marius nodded and Gaius swallowed his awe.
"Come, lad, let us go and meet our masters. It would not do to keep the Senate waiting."