October – A.D. 9
The rain fell hard upon Publius Quinctilius Varus and his remaining men. They were exhausted and hungry, but they had to keep moving at any cost. They had to reach an open space where they could dig in and fight.
With the rain and the onset of night, the Romans could no longer see their pursuers. But they could hear them. Oh, yes. They could hear them. A sound to chill the Gods themselves.
“Use the last of the pitch to light torches, Tribune,” Varus commanded. The man obeyed without a word and within minutes a ring of fire encircled the shield wall that protected the legate, his few remaining officers, and three broken centuries.
How is it possible? Varus wondered. Three centuries left of my three legions…
Varus removed his helmet with the broken crest and looked up at the three golden aquilae of his savaged legions. Firelight played on the golden breasts of those symbols of Rome’s might. The commander thought they still looked proud, strong.
His men were anything but.
For three days they had been harried through the Teutoburg forest, that Germanic Hades. The legions had been ambushed over and over and over… from all sides, at all hours. For days, all Varus had heard were the cries of his men in the black, gnarled woods.
The nights were the worst.
That sound… an incessant howling that tore into one’s person as efficiently as any gladius. Varus closed his eyes in the face of the sputtering rain-slapped torches and tried to imagine his villa at Baiae, the scent of jasmine, the heat of the sun.
But all he felt was the cold, and the wet. All he heard was the terrifying sound of ripping flesh, and the harsh breaking of bones like dried twigs.
“Commander!” The tribune came up beside Varus. “They’re forming up for a charge, sir!”
“So they are, Tribune.” Varus opened his eyes and looked at the surrounding tree lines where black shapes cursed in ugly guttural intonations, spears, scythes, and clubs waving madly at the Romans.
“What shall we do, Commander?” the tribune pressed.
“We shall die, Tribune. Like all the rest.”
The tribune shook his head in frustration and moved past Varus. “Form up! Prepare to receive attack!” he ordered as he placed his helmet on his head and hefted a pilum.
Varus hears the insubordination in the tribune’s voice but thinks only of the eagles and the rain upon his face. He no longer thinks of Arminius and how the man had betrayed him, and Rome. He cares little for the civilians he had abandoned to the Germans once the attacks had begun.
When the pained, tormented, and raging howls of the enemy begin anew, Quinctilius Varus thinks only of the ancestral gladius at his side. When the barbarians’ visages begin to transform, when the teeth begin to gnash and rip through Roman shields, armour, and bone, then does Varus draw his sword and plant the handle in the deep mud.
As the beasts rush in, huge and dark and matted with gore, Varus watches his men crumple on all sides. The body of Varus’ last tribune flies over his head as he drops on his old knees and places the tip of his blade beneath the rim of his ornate cuirass.
Varus falls on his sword, even as Arminius struts up to him and hacks the head from his body without hesitation.
The hunt comes to a violent end as the moon cuts through the clouds and shines upon the field.
It is full, and bright, and all at once, several thousand of the enemy begin to bay at its light.
Thick mist shrouded the early morning fields that surrounded the city of Rome. Peasants and slaves were making their way to the places of their assigned tasks – tilling fields, moving animals from one pasture to another, fixing a water wheel, or loading a wagon. They all moved around in ignorance of the world beyond their everyday.
Gaius Justus Vitalis ran past them every day since he had returned to Rome. But he ignored the labouring drones by the wayside.
He only ran, was driven to do so.
Every morning, Gaius plunged into the pre-dawn darkness to run out of the city along the Via Appia almost all the way to Tarracina, to the south. There, he would drink water, and then return to Rome.
His legs drove on, relentless. His arms pumped hard, timed with his breath.
The peasants and slaves beside the road stared at the shirtless soldier who raced past them every morning as though the Furies were at his heals. He never stopped. His eyes were always forward, his mind elsewhere. They made the sign against evil as he passed, though they knew not why. They did not know of Mithras, or of Immortui, nor that the Heliodromus who sped by them had run with a god out of the very depths of Hades.
When he came to the white tomb of Caecilia Metella, Gaius Justus Vitalis, centurion in the legions of Emperor Augustus, lashed himself to a speed unattainable by most men.
Run with me, Sun Runner, the voice in his mind said, urging him on faster and faster until he was at the city gates.
The soldiers had come to know the running centurion well and waved him through at a jog.
Gaius poured sweat as he passed the cliff of the Palatine Hill where the emperor was building his sprawling palace complex. He pressed on up the Caelian Hill to the home that had been in his family for generations, and where his wife and daughters now waited for him to break their fast together.
He rapped on the door and immediately Ludo, the door slave, opened. Gaius entered, touching the image of Mithras on the wall as he passed into the small atrium.
“Did you have a good run, Master?” Ludo asked, running a hand over his closely shaved head.
“Yes, Ludo. I did.” Gaius accepted a towel and dried his face, chest and arms.
“I do wish you would take Pugio with you, Master. There are bandits on the Via Appia.”
Gaius smiled at the old slave who had been his father’s.
“Worry not, Ludo. There are no bandits that would bother me. Besides, Pugio cannot keep up with me. Gladiators are not meant for long distance running.
“Nor are dearly-missed husbands who leave their wives’ beds in the small hours.”
Gaius turned, smiling for the first time that day, to see Fulvia coming toward him. She wore a silver and blue stola, and her hair fell loosely about her shoulders.
She was the most beautiful woman Gaius had ever seen, and though he had been home over two months on his furlough, he felt each sight of her as sharply as the first time, when he had finally come home to her arms.
Ludo slipped away, beckoning to Nisica, Fulvia’s body slave, to follow him.
Gaius took his wife into his arms and kissed her. She did not shrink from his sweating body.
“Good morning, my love,” he said.
“Good morning to you. It would be even better if you stayed abed, you know.” She smiled and ran a finger between he muscles of his chest. “I’ve had too many lonely mornings these past years.”
Gaius gazed at the floor a moment and then stood back a half step.
“I had a particularly brutal dream, and needed to run it out.”
“Another?” Fulvia stepped closer to him. “Why do the Gods torment you with these dreams every night?”
“I don’t think it’s the Gods, my love.”
“Who then? What?” She looked at her husband and remembered him momentarily as he had been – dark and curly of hair, strong, muscular, and calm. Now, Gaius’ hair had gone more to grey and was short. His body was still beautiful and well-muscled, but scarred, angular, tight, and quick as a wild beast’s.
“I don’t know,” he lied. The laughter of those mountains where his men had been slaughtered, where he had killed his friend, Julius, still echoed in his mind. And with the laughter, dreams of blood, of death and dying, and crimson waves thrashing him.
“Gaius?” Fulvia’s hand was on his cheek and he realized he had been away for a moment.
“It’s nothing.” He forced a smile. “Go rouse the girls and I’ll bathe quickly.”
She smiled a little pitifully, turned, and went to their daughters’ cubiculum.
“Master?” Pugio’s great bulk appeared down the corridor. “You bathe now?”
“Yes,” Gaius answered.
Pugio handed him a fresh towel and strigil, and followed Gaius down the hall.
A short time later, Gaius and Fulvia were seated in the triclinium with the table laid out with fresh bread, cheese, boiled millet, figs, and honey. They enjoyed the rare moment of peace together on the couch.
Soon, in came Aemilia and Faustina wearing pink and yellow tunics. They walked arm in arm in mock regality, their heads high, and proud, and topped by delicate olive crowns with braided ribbons which Nisica had fashioned for them.
“Good morning, ladies,” Gaius stood, his hands on his hips.
The two little heads turned to him slowly as if they had only just noticed him.
“And who is this before us, sister?” asked Aemilia.
“I do not know, sister,” replied Faustina. “But he seems to have eaten most of our cheese.”
Fulvia stifled a laugh behind her husband who furrowed his brow in anger. When the girls’ act wavered, Gaius burst out in laughter and lunged for them, scooping them up and tickling them.
Their laughter rang through the domus and washed over Gaius like a healing rain, helping him to forget his blood-soaked nightmares for a time.
“You’ll wake the whole Caelian!” Fulvia chided, however much it did warm her heart to see Gaius and the girls laugh together. Their home had been too quiet in his absence.
“Let the lazy folk wake!” Gaius roared with Aemilia slung over his shoulder.
“Oh, they shall,” Fulvia gazed out to the garden where the builders’ materials lay scattered about. “They already turn their noses at our run-down home.”
Gaius stopped laughing. He knew Fulvia could handle any of their snobby neighbours, but their criticisms of their family home set his teeth on edge.
“Well, soon they’ll have no reason to do so, our prickly neighbours.”
“No,” Fulvia smiled as Gaius and the girls settled themselves down to eat. “Calista!” Fulvia called their kitchen slave who came running.
“More cheese for the girls.”
The slave nodded and went back to the kitchen.
“Are you happy with the architect’s plans?” Gaius asked his wife. The bonuses and increased centurion’s pay had made it possible for Fulvia and Gaius to retile the roof, redesign the perystylium and atrium, and to expand the triclinium. Fresh paint and frescoes were being added throughout the house as well as mosaics. The cost was great but now, it seemed, they could afford it.
“I’m happy to be able to brighten up our home, but nothing does so more than having you here.”
“It will not last, I’m afraid.”
“Then let’s enjoy the time we have, Gaius. All of us.”
He nodded, knew she was right. What good was the present joy if he only spent his time worrying over the morrow?
A shadow passed swiftly in front of the doorway.
Gaius jumped up, but calmed himself immediately. He was always edgy now. There was only one person missing from the gathering.
“I’ll go.” Gaius went out of the triclinium and into the sunlit garden to see the boy sitting against a column among the buckets and plaster trowels. “Daxos?”
The young Thracian sat there trembling, his eyes hidden by his long black hair.
“Why don’t you come and eat, Daxos?”
“I not want to disturb you family, Centurion.”
“Come now. You’re our guest here.”
“I had the dreams again. Of Immortui eating. Of my parents.”
Gaius breathed deeply, full of pity for the boy. He had thought bringing him to Rome and showing him the wider world would help him to forget.
He had been wrong. Daxos’ nightmares had followed him, the horror more persistent than ever. It was something that they shared.
Gaius sat down beside Daxos, and stared at the same dusty plaster bucket.
“I have the dreams too. Every night.”
Daxos looked up for the first time. “You?”
“Yes. Me. All twelve of us who survived will remember and have dreams.” Gaius paused a moment as he thought of something. “You’ve not told your dreams to Aemilia or Faustina, have you?”
Daxos shook his head. “Your girls, they laugh at me.”
“I not belong here, in Rome.”
“Why do they laugh?”
“Promise me something, Daxos.”
“That you will not say anything about Immortui to the girls or my wife. Understand? It is too scary for women.”
Daxos nodded. “I promise.”
“Thank you. And I will speak with the girls about their laughing. All right?”
The boy nodded again and went back to his cubiculum before Gaius could ask him to join them for breakfast.
Gaius stood still for a moment in the shambles of a garden and felt the sunlight upon his face.
Mithras. Lord. Help me through this darkness, he thought.
“Where is Daxos?” Fulvia asked when Gaius returned.
“He had bad dreams and went back to his room.”
“Is he ill?” she asked.
“No. Just misses his parents terribly. Seeing us reminds him of what he has lost.” Gaius turned to Aemilia and Faustina. “By the way, girls, have you been laughing at Daxos?”
“He speaks so strangely, father. He gobbles all of his words,” said the younger Faustina.
“Why did you have to bring him home, father?” asked Aemilia. “He scares me the way he stares at things and cries all night.”
“Girls…” Fulvia began but Gaius waved her down.
“My loves, you are kind girls, and I know you will understand that I brought Daxos here out of kindness. He has lost his family, his entire people. And without his help, I would not be sitting here with you now, or ever again. Do you understand?”
Aemilia nodded, but Faustina still needed plain words.
“You mean you would be dead if Daxos had not helped you?”
“Yes. That is what I’m saying, my girl.”
“We will treat him better, Papa,” Aemilia said, Faustina nodding with little tears on the edge of her lids.
“I know you will, girls. I know,” Gaius soothed as he squeezed his wife’s hand without thinking.
The girls finished eating in silence. The sobering thought of their father’s near death had sapped the silliness from them. Aemilia whispered something to Faustina and the two looked at their parents.
“May we be excused, Papa?” asked Aemilia.
“Yes, of course.”
“Remember, girls. We’re going to the Forum later,” Fulvia added.
“Yes, Mama,” they said as they left the triclinium.
“You and Daxos should come too, Gaius.”
“To the Forum?”
“Anywhere. He’s a lonely boy. We can’t leave him locked away in this house with his memories. He needs distraction.”
Gaius smiled at his wife. At first she had been upset he had brought the boy home with him, that they had to share Gaius’ time with an outsider. But now, as ever, Fulvia was the kinder, wiser one among them. She too had imagined if the letter she had received from Troesmis had been a notice of Gaius’ death rather than a letter saying he was bringing a guest.
The thought of the former was unbearable. It had seemed to her then, after that sobering thought, that helping the boy was the Gods’ will. She knew Juno, Vesta, and Diana would smile on them.
As Gaius finished eating, she leaned closer to him. He had that vacant, faraway look creeping in upon him again.
“Have you decided to tell me what exactly happened to you in those mountains, my love?” She felt his muscles tighten and release.
“No, Fulvia. I can’t.”
“We always tell each other everything. At least we always did.”
Gaius breathed deeply. He could not blame her. He knew the changes in himself must be worrisome. He knew his strong woman wanted to help.
“I know. And I do tell you everything. You will always know my heart.”
“Good,” she smiled.
“But you cannot know these things. You should not.”
“Just know that Mithras is with me. He protects me.”
“How can I take comfort from a god no woman worships?”
“You have to trust me, Fulvia. Please.”
She pulled away slightly, shaking her head, struggling with the anger that was rising in her breast.
“When I was fighting for my life in those mountains, it was not only Daxos who saved me by running ahead to find the army, or sitting by my bedside.” Gaius took her lithe hand and kissed it. “Mithras was with me as I ran and fought, but what gave me a will to go on, to fight when my limbs were as lead, were thoughts of you and of our girls. If you trust in anything or anyone, trust in Venus and the deep love I have for you, the love she kindled in my soul the very moment we met. Can you trust in that at least?”
Fulvia stood and looked down at her husband. She smoothed the fabric of her stola and held out her hands to him. He took them and stood.
“Of course I trust in that. With all the power within me. I always will.”
Gaius hissed her then, and for those moments, the dark laughter at the back of his mind was completely strangled, giving him some peace.
When they came out of the triclinium, the sound of laughter echoed off of the walls, loud and joyous.
“What’s all this?” Gaius demanded.
“We’re playing!” Faustina giggled as a ball bounced past her and off the wall.
Then Aemilia and Daxos came running around the corner, both smiling and laughing, cheeks flushed from the game. They stopped when they saw Gaius, but his smile put them at ease.
He caught the ball and threw it past them so that Daxos and Faustina charged after it.
Aemilia was about to run, but Gaius mouthed a ‘Thank you’ to her. She smiled back and went to rejoin the game.
“We should trust in our daughters too,” Fulvia said as they went to get ready for their outing.
“They’re full of surprises.” Gaius laughed, looking back over his shoulder as they went up the steps to their cubiculum.
The Forum Romanum was bright and busy that afternoon as Gaius, Fulvia, the girls, and Daxos walked about gazing at the vendors’ stalls, greeting acquaintances, and admiring the slew of new buildings and improvement projects commissioned by Augustus and the Senate.
Rome had changed much in the few years Gaius had been away. Everywhere he looked, it seemed wood and stone had turned to marble. Statues stood sentry everywhere you looked. From atop the Palatine Hill, the sounds of workmen and their hammering spilled into the Forum.
“Why are they building so much?” Daxos asked Aemilia. He had been to the Forum another day, but this time he took things in.
“The Emperor wishes to make Rome pretty for the people, “Aemilia answered.
“And to reflect Rome’s greatness,” Gaius added behind them where he walked beside Fulvia. He wanted to hold her hand as they went, not ever let go of her, but he knew that was frowned upon. If everyone had been through what I’ve been through, they wouldn’t be so damned stuffy! he thought.
So, instead of holding his wife’s hand, Gaius, accustomed to a lorica and pteruges, spent his time trying not to let the folds of his plain toga fall apart.
They came to a stop in front of the Rostra where the girls began to explain to Daxos that the prows of the ships that protruded from the platform were from captured enemy ships.
Daxos gazed about awestruck by the sights, the smells, the history. Then his eyes came to rest on something in the crowd.
“Daxos!” Gaius called and went after the boy, cutting a swathe through the startled crowd.
“Where did he go, Mama?” Faustina asked,
“I don’t know, dear. Let’s wait here for your father to come back.” Fulvia put her hands on the girls’ shoulders and searched the mass of heads for a sign of Gaius.
Gaius found Daxos clinging to a man at the bottom of the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
“Antonius?” Gaius said as he arrived.
“Gaius! Erm… I mean, Centurion.”
“Pah! We’re civilians for now.” Gaius spread his arms to show his toga. “Gaius is fine.”
The two men clasped forearms in greeting and Antonius ruffled Daxos’ hair.
“I was just coming out of the temple when this one came running up to me.” Antonius smiled. “Scared me to death.”
“Me too.” Gaius gave Daxos a disapproving look. “Don’t run off like that again. All right?”
The boy nodded and they began to walk back toward Fulvia and the girls.
“How come I haven’t seen you in Rome these last months?” Gaius asked.
“I went south to see our family lands, make the rounds. You know, make sure the relatives know I’m not dead.”
“Got it!” Gaius laughed.
“I also got married!”
“What? Well, congratulations, my friend. Who is she?”
“Her name’s Vera. I met her through my cousin, Quintus. She’s a butcher’s daughter, and as pretty as Venus herself.”
“Well, I’m happy for you. Speaking of Venus…” Gaius sped up to reach Fulvia whose worried look dissolved when she saw him coming. “My love, this is my optio, Antonius.”
“I’m happy to meet you, Optio. I’ve heard all about you.”
“Likewise, Lady Justa. And these young ladies must be Aemilia and Faustina. Correct?” Antonius knelt down smiling. Gaius noticed the shake of his hands before he steadied them on his knees.
“Optio,” the girls greeted in unison.
“So, any news, Antonius?” Gaius asked. “How’ve you been?”
Antonius’ eyes darted momentarily before answering. “Well enough. With a new wife to keep me busy, tired mostly.”
“Erm.” Fulvia looked at Antonius and then to the girls and Daxos.
He froze. “Apologies. Barracks life and all.”
“Yes, well…” Gaius laughed. “How about you come to our home the night after next for a meal so we can catch up?”
“Sounds good,” Antonius answered.
“And bring your wife, Optio,” Fulvia added.
“I will, lady. Thank you.”
With that, Antonius set off for his home on the Aventine, and Gaius and the family continued to stroll about the Forum.
Daxos remained close to Gaius at all times after that.
The following day, Gaius took himself to the baths for a wash and some proper exercise with some of the other off-duty legionaries.
When the centurion stepped onto the palaestra, several of the competitors took in his sharp, muscled physique and the array of scars criss-crossing his arms and chest. It was not long before a couple of younger, unseasoned lads asked if he would box or wrestle with them.
Gaius was not unused to younger men wanting to test themselves against him, but in Rome many young citizens thought it entertaining to try and humiliate off-duty soldiers.
The tension and memory of dark laughter had set Gaius on edge that morning. He was feeling particularly punchy, so he accepted the challenge.
“Actually, boys,” he said as he put his towel down, wearing only his loincloth. “I’m eager to get in the water, so I’ll just take you both on at the same time.”
It was not long before a crowd had gathered to watch, and the bets were being laid.
The two young men flexed and circled like game cocks while Gaius stood calm, watching each of them.
The youths were lean and fast, but it did not take Gaius long to see that they were not used to team fighting. They wanted individual glory.
Definitely not men of the Legions.
They charged him fast at the same time from either side.
When Gaius leapt out of the way at the last second, the first youth’s nose exploded where his own friend had landed his punch. The stricken one screamed and Gaius shoved him out of the way while he squared up to the other.
A feint, and a combination of three blows left the second grabbing his head while it rang.
“Come now, boys!” Gaius teased. “I need some exercise!”
“Ahh!” the one with the pulped nose ran and punched Gaius clumsily on the shoulder. Gaius dodged the follow-up and sent him spinning to the ground.
“Your turn, old man!” the other spat. He was angry, rabid for all his humiliation. Gaius waved him on.
When he came at Gaius, it was with a pankrationist’s stance and attack to the leg.
The kick caught Gaius hard on the thigh, but he managed to duck beneath the closed-fisted swing to his ear, and then get behind the youth to wrap his arm like a vice about his neck.
“Yeah!” cheered some of the veterans from the sideline.
Gaius squeezed and spoke to the lad. “You’re too angry. Not enough focus for fighting. Street brawls are sloppy.”
The young man tried to swing at Gaius’ head, but the angle was not right. When his body began to go limp, Gaius let him fall. He did not see the blade that was coming from behind in the hand of the nosey one.
“Centurion!” a voice called out, preceding a grunt, and then a distinct crack of bone.
“Ahh! Ahh!” the other youth fell to his knees clutching his broken wrist beside the enormous Gaul who had stopped him.
Gaius turned quickly, furious. But his smile returned when the Gaul bellowed with laughter.
“Vitorix!” Gaius recognized him. “Well-timed, as ever!”
“You didn’t really need my help, Centurion. Just didn’t think the little cock was playing fairly, is all.”
“No, he wasn’t,” Gaius eyed the two bloody youths darkly. “I suggest you two stick to tavern brawls instead of real fighting.”
As the two crawled to each other, guards came over to take them away. No weapons were permitted on the palaestra floor.
“Maybe next time I’ll break a sweat,” Gaius joked.
“Ha!” Vitorix laughed.
As one of the survivors of their journey into the Carpathians, Gaius thought it amazing to see his jollity intact. He too laughed, slapped the big Gaul on the back, and they went to continue their exercises.
After training with weights and going through the warm, hot, and cold plunges, Gaius and Vitorix submitted to the massage slaves’ ministrations, grunting as the knots were hammered out of their muscles.
“So how have you been, Vitorix?” Gaius asked through closed lids.
“Hmm. Fine. Bored, I guess. I’d rather be fighting Germans.”
“Same old Vitorix. You’ll get your chance.”
“Truth is, sir, I can’t sleep. Not at all since…well…you know.”
Gaius opened his eyes. “Not at all?”
“Nope. Not a wink until I’m so drunk I’m forced to fall over wherever I am. I’m drinking too much. Been mugged twice cause I’d fallen in the fucking Subura.”
“What? Mithras, man. No sleep other than that?”
The Gaul looked embarrassed, so Gaius changed the subject.
“Seen any of the other men since our furlough began?”
“Hmm, Yes. Barna’s here. He cries in his sleep. Like a bloody baby. Sabinus is in Rome too. But he’s just always sharpening his gladius or pugio in some corner. Says he wants to keep’em sharp in case.”
“In case of what?”
“Why, in case of Immortui, sir.” Vitorix whispered. The slave stopped suddenly but continued when Vitorix barked at him. “Saguntus, the Iberian, is also in Rome.”
“Does he have any…problems?” Gaius asked.
“Always whispering prayers to Mithras. Never stops really, unless you speak directly at him.”
Gaius felt for his men. He had known they were all affected by that ill-fated mission but had secretly hoped a few months of leisure would make it all go away.
It would seem not.