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Destiny – A Roman short story for Halloween

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My name is Marcus Annius Blaesus and I am a man with a destiny, for all the good that might do me. Before this night that has changed, poisoned, destroyed my life, I have been acclaimed a good man, a strong man, even a hero. I am a legionary of the Twentieth Valeria Victrix, based at the great red fortress of Deva in the province of Britannia. It is the year of the consuls Gavius and Aquilinus, under the glorious reign of the great emperor Decius, who has vanquished the Arab named Phillipus and taken the throne, may he live for a thousand years. But this is not his story, nor indeed mine, in truth, It is a story about one of my room mates by the name of Caius Pincius Baritus.

It began three weeks ago…

For the love of blessed Minerva, was it that recent?

The bastard emperor Phillipus was dead. The news came through the trade routes and the grapevine of the ordinary folk hours before the official report was proclaimed in the fortress to a parade ground full of tired, worn legionaries. And we heard that Decius, the renowned and beloved commander of the Danubius, had donned the purple cloak. It suited us all. Phillipus had been a watery, odd Syrian with no real ability or strength, while Decius was of good senatorial stock, from a Pannonian city and with a pedigree in the legions.

But the news didn’t go down so well with everyone. You see, being a soldier of Rome these days is a little like betting on the horses, or the gladiators of the Deva ludus. You put your money on a claimant to the throne and if he stays in power long enough for you to claim your retirement benefits, you’ve won the game. If your stake is attached to one of the more numerous would-be emperors that barely have time for buttock to meet throne before sword meets neck, then your career can be in tatters at a remarkable speed. And so can your neck, for that matter.

A number of the Twentieth’s officers – even the senior officers… especially the senior officers – had put their money on Phillipus. Several of our tribunes, our legatus, our camp prefect – even the damned medicus and the chief barber – owed their position and the hope of a future career to the poor, rapidly-decomposing Phillipus.

Yes. If I’m going to tell you this, I’ve probably vacillated enough, and I should start in earnest here.

It was early November and Deva was slowly drowning in a sea of soggy brown leaves, the trees denuded and reaching up like skeletal hands to the lead-grey skies above. The winds in Britannia in November are more insistent than Catullus and more piercing than a Thracian chorus. They cut you down to the bone, and leave a wet, chilly corpse in your place. I think you know what I’m getting at. Think northern Etruria in January and make it wetter, browner and colder, and you’ll be about right. It ruins the mood of every serving soldier. And there is little more depressing than standing on a soggy, leaf-strewn parade ground listening to a senior officer bang on about loyalty and duty and what it means to be Roman, unless it’s doing so while your best mate is busy rubbing his neck incessantly and you have to cover for him.

Baritus was constantly ravaging his neck that morning, as though a thousand insects had bitten him around the throat. I stood, half-listening to the legatus, mostly trying to keep an eye on the centurion and the optio to make sure Baritus wasn’t made an example of. And every time an officer looked our way, I had to grind my hobnailed boot down into my mate’s foot enough to stop him rubbing until their gaze moved on elsewhere. It didn’t do to be considered inattentive when the commander spoke. That sort of thing ends with you mucking out the latrines.

Indeed, just as my patience was wearing to its thinnest, Baritus stopped entirely. I risked a sidelong glance. His neck was pale – as usual – but where he had rubbed it a wide ring of ruptured red flesh gave him a self-made collar above his scarf line. I tried to ignore him. He’d gone quiet and still. Instead I paid attention to the tribunal stand, where the legatus was busy addressing his men.

He was busy now droning about the values of an emperor and the qualities of a leader, as though any of us thought further than the next payday, the next drink, the next whore. I almost missed it, so wrapped up was I in my own weather troubles and my friend’s current weirdness. I snapped back to staring at the legatus and ran my memory over the words I was sure I’d heard from the man, but there was really no need. If an officer has to say something he likes the sound of, he’ll find a way to work it into a speech five or six times anyway. And there it was again. Our allegiance should be given to a legitimate emperor – an emperor of the people, who knew what the provinces needed…

I felt the familiar sinking feeling. Decius was our legitimate emperor now, and we’d already had that speech a few days ago, when the news came. Them the legatus had been virtually fawning at Decius’ name, and already he was intimating a need for revolution. How quickly had the commander changed his tune, eh? I heard Pulcher’s name and that sinking feeling went subterranean. Marcus Martiannius Pulcher was the governor of Britannia Superior – a man with senatorial and military form, popular with the chinless officer class. We’d all seen or heard enough of governors being proclaimed emperor – Decius, after all, was one of them – but while Decius was approved by the senate, I was now aware that my own commander was pledging the legion’s support to the governor of Britannia instead. A usurpation. Treason en-masse. Stupid. Far from lacking in guts to suggest such a dangerous thing, but stupid. Most of the men knew that Decius would be attentive to legion pay and honours until he was secure, and little matters more to a soldier than pay and honours. Certainly not the value of a man who understands the provinces. Of course, some of the men would cleave to the legatus in the belief that he would do what was best for them. Those who didn’t know how the upper class worked, anyway…

I struggled to hold my peace in the face of such treason being proclaimed in the name of my own legion, but I didn’t have to for long, anyway. A centurion from the third cohort bellowed his loyalty to Rome and to its legitimate emperor, Decius, defying his commander. He barely had time to finish his sentence before a mob of legionaries jumped him from behind and dragged him to the ground. Even as the officers shouted themselves hoarse, trying to assert control, the parade ground erupted. Legionary against legionary, those who thought they might gain from supporting the commander shoved and punched against those who thought they would best achieve their goals by maintaining their allegiance to Decius.

For all my recognised scepticism and cynicism, I had been thrown by the development, and I was standing, almost dumbfounded, when some soldier I barely knew in the next line punched me in the jaw, spinning me round. I struggled to right myself and defend myself, but he was already off, fighting someone else. Instead, I found myself face to face with my friend Baritus, who jabbed at my shoulder and pointed off towards the fortress gate.

‘Come on.’

I guess I was still befuddled. I certainly had no desire to stand in the midst of this growing chaos. It resembled the largest bar brawl in the city’s history, five thousand legionaries pushing, shoving, punching and ducking, their officers mostly bellowing in an attempt to instil some sort of order (although in fairness, a number of officers were busy laying into one another too.) Well, they say you should never discuss politics, and certainly not in a volatile crowd of trained warriors. As Baritus and I ducked and dodged through the chaos, making for the fortress, where a skeleton garrison remained atop the walls, watching developments with interest, the brawl turned nasty. Someone, somewhere drew his pugio dagger and plunged it into the belly of a comrade. There was a tiny, odd pause, as though the world shuddered, while the enormity of the act hit those involved, and then suddenly more weapons were drawn. Men bellowed their battle cries of ‘Decius imperator! Decius the god!’ or ‘Pulcher! Pulcher for Britannia!’

Idiots.

But then we’d had years of peace in Britannia and at least half the legion had never seen action more brutal than digging ditches or arresting wayward locals. Those of us who remembered real battle and real killing were in much less of a rush to experience it again over something that it was not even our place to decide. Men started to die.

Baritus and I were the first men from the parade ground to reach the gate, which stood open, waiting for the return of the cohorts. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed that many of the veterans were also running for the relative safety of the fortress. Sadly, not far behind them, the legatus was running for his safe headquarters, a small group of officers and men clustered around him for protection.

Baritus burst through the gate with me at his heel.

‘What now?’ I said rather breathlessly. We would not have long. The chaos outside would soon move inside the fortress and would not end until one side or the other became ascendant.

‘We’ve got just moments,’ Baritus muttered and there was something odd in his voice that sent a shiver up my spine. I had once heard a haruspex pronouncing disaster at a public event, and this carried those same expectant, dreadful leaden tones.

‘What do you mean?’

My friend turned and grasped my shoulders and the look on his face was even more fear-inspiring than his voice. His eyes had taken on a hollow, glassy look. He squeezed my shoulders, in the manner of a father sending his son on a long journey. It was perhaps the eeriest thing I’d ever experienced… thus far, at least. He swallowed and sighed. ‘My time’s up. And I can’t do anything about it. But you… you need to go. Once this settles, get away from here. As far as you can and as fast as you can. Don’t stop until… just don’t ever stop. Do you understand?’

‘No.’ And I didn’t. Baritus gave the most humourless smile I ever saw and said ‘pick a building.’

‘What?’

‘Pick a building. For us to go hide in and wait this out.’

I shrugged. ‘Have you been at the medical supplies?’

‘How about that one?’ he asked, gesturing to a long, low, flat structure.

‘The smithy?’ What in Hades was the man saying.

But already men were beginning to flood into the fortress behind us. Fights were breaking out under the gate, in the street, on the walls. The idiocy was spreading and following us. The legatus, cowering and fleeing like a fox caught in the hen house, was running for the headquarters, surrounded by armed men. I stared at the smithy. ‘Why there?’ Although I was already running for the door.

‘Because it’s my best chance.’ Again, he rubbed at his ruined neck, and I frowned as we reached the door. Pushing it open, we scurried inside and ran the length of the building towards the storage area at one end, where the nails, rivets and plates of iron were kept. I couldn’t quite fathom why we were there, but Baritus was so forceful, so purposeful, so adamant…

‘We could hide in our room. This will be over in less than an hour one way or another and no one’s going to start searching barracks.’

Baritus shook his head. ‘This is my best chance, I think. Though even then, I know in my heart that there’s no chance. Watch and learn, Blaesus, and when it’s over go out to my place in the canabae and sort through my things. Most of my stuff is there, not in the barracks. Take it and run.’

‘You’re raving, Baritus,’ I rolled my eyes. ‘To desert the legion? And bring that dishonour and punishment down on my head? You’re out of your mind. And anyway, won’t your favourite little woman be there? She will want your stuff.’

‘Annilia has gone back to Gaul,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I sent her last week.’

I frowned. The canabae was the settlement that housed the civilians outside the fortress, and Baritus and his girl had had a house there for five years. He’d been expecting to live there with her as husband and wife when he was given his pension in a few years’ time. But now… all this talk of his time being up, and Annilia having been sent away? Another shudder ran the length of my spine.

‘Listen,’ I managed, getting a hold of myself and trying to talk over the noise of the fighting and arguments in the streets outside, ‘I don’t know what all this morbidity and weirdness is about, but I’m not having it. We’ll sit it out and then everything will return to normal. A few officers will be told to fall on their swords, but most of us will just settle back into daily routine. And then you’ll stop panicking and you’ll send for Annilia again.’

‘When you go there,’ he said, apparently ignoring me, ‘make sure to check the back room. I have the most important things in there.’

There was a bang as the door was thrown open at the far end of the smithy and two men tumbled in, punching and roaring. For some reason, as Baritus ducked down behind a table, I found myself joining him.

‘Time’s up, Blaesus,’ he smiled. ‘See you on the other side.’

As I frowned in complete incomprehension, my friend withdrew a coin from his purse, pushing it under his tongue to pay the ferryman, and sat back in an oddly relaxed pose.

I shook my head in disbelief.

‘Listen…’

If it hadn’t happened before my very eyes, I would not believe it. You won’t believe it, so insane does it sound. As I watched in disbelief Baritus lower his gaze to the floor, sitting peering down between his knees, I could hear the two struggling men a few tables down the room, battering at one another and slamming back into cupboards as they fought. And then one of them fell away and the other took the advantage of freedom to pull back his arm and throw. I have no idea what it was he threw, only what it did. For one thing it missed its intended target as that other soldier ducked to the side. But the truly terrifying and unbelievable thing was that the thrown object smashed into the wall above us and there was a tremendous metallic shudder as the shelves of stored gear shook and rattled. And then, like the hand of the Furies, a single item fell.

A cleaver.

I watched in disgusted horror as the blade slammed into the exposed neck of my friend, shattering his backbone as it dug deep into the flesh. Baritus’ legs spasmed and shook as blood fountained up from his neck, the cleaver, its job done, falling away to the floor with a metallic clatter.

I was dumbstruck. The blade had neatly struck the line of red welts where my friend had been scratching his neck all day. I barely even registered that I was covered in his blood. My hearing seemed to have gone dull and all I could hear was my own racing heartbeat. My eyes bulged, seemingly unable to leave the grisly sight beside me, my eyelids apparently unwilling to close. In the end I tore my gaze away from him like a man pulling a boot from deep sucking mud, and rose, shuddering, freezing, white as a sheet. The two combatants in the room had met in a final clash and one was now busy beating the other senseless with a wooden mallet. As I staggered past him on the way to the door, shock filling me to the seams, the survivor snarled ‘who are you for?’

‘What?’

‘Who are you for?’ he repeated vehemently.

‘Me,’ I relied quietly and staggered off through the door.

Already things were changing outside. One of the more respected centurions had managed to pull together a couple of centuries of men and form them into a proper unit, and was even now moving through the fortress, drawing officers to his side and bellowing at the men to stand down. I hardly noticed. I had other things on my mind.

Through the chaos I stumbled, heading for the south gate. The canabae. Baritus’ house.

I was faintly aware of what was going on around me. You’ll know, of course, what happened in the end that day. Despite the seeming chaos, nine men in ten held true to the new emperor Decius and only the legatus and two tribunes paid the price for attempted insurrection. That centurion with great presence of mind rallied the whole legion and placed the legatus under arrest, offering him the chance to take his own life before he was dragged off in chains. The man hadn’t even the guts to do the right thing then. I hear that Decius has him in the carcer already, trying to decide what punishment fits best. And of course the Twentieth has received the honorific Deciana for our honourable defence of the true emperor in the face of treason. It’s all great and good, and makes some of what happened that day worthwhile, anyway. But not for me. And certainly not for Baritus.

I staggered out through the civil settlement until I got to his little love nest near the bridge. It was not a great villa or anything. Just four rooms, but it was his and it was dry and neat. Not locked, though.

I entered the front room and noted the fact that everything of Baritus’ was already packaged and labelled. His valuables were on the table in piles, his treasured graves made by an Italian armourer on the pile of unworn spare tunics. It was eerier even than the man’s freak death in some ways. I had no intention of climbing the stairs to the couple’s bedroom, and wandered through to the rear door, taking in the neat piles of his kit around me.

I opened the door to the rear room and stepped in.

And my life changed.

This was where he kept the most important things.

The room was well lit by a large window. Illuminated enough for me to realise that the room was bare. Completely devoid of possessions or furnishings. The door to the small cucina – the kitchen – stood closed. But despite the lack of anything I could possibly have catalogued or disposed of, I knew instantly what he had meant by his most important things.

Someone had painted the walls. Someone with little talent, in truth, and I had the suspicion it had been my friend himself. I know that to be the case, now, though then it was a mere notion. A series of painted panels ran along two of the walls. I found myself turning to the first, fascinated. The crude depiction of Baritus and myself at the gladiator fight last month was poorly painted, but executed well enough that I could recognise us. Us and the old hag that had tried to press us for money to feed her brood of feral children that were busy trying to rob innocent passers-by. I remembered that day. We had both done quite well at the book-makers.

The second panel showed another scene I remembered. Last payday at the fortress. There were the crowds of angry soldiers bellowing for their pay, since the money was late. One of the unfortunate side effects of an unexpected change of emperors is that sometimes things like pay for provincial legions gets put to the back of the queue.

Other panels followed. I recognised many of them for what they were even if I hadn’t been there. Images of my friend, painted by himself.

And then, as I changed wall, there was an image of his head and shoulders, like a marble bust, though with a red ring around his neck. I shuddered and fearfully flickered my glance to the next panel. There was an image of the emperor Phillipus stuck with half a dozen military daggers. It came as little surprise to me to see that in the background of that image, legionaries struggled and fought one another. There were three panels left. I could hardly bear to move on, and yet some morbid fascination drove me.

There it was.

The next panel.

Baritus crouched with his head hanging forward and a hole in his neck, blood everywhere. Me next to him, with a baffled expression. My heart groaned at the sight. Had Baritus been living with this premonition for weeks? No wonder he’d been rubbing his neck this morning. How had he…

My heart jumped for a second.

There were two more panels…

I stepped a pace to my right, my eyes squeezed shut. I could feel my heart racing, my blood thundering through my veins, chilly as ice water. Somehow I had the feeling the Fates were watching, and that they were far from friendly.

I opened my eyes. There I was. Crudely painted, like the rest, but it was definitely me. And I was sitting at a table in a bar, talking, just as I am now. Innocuous, eh?’

The last picture drained all the blood from my face and the heat from my body. There I was half naked with a red line of welts and scabs running from my left armpit to my right hip.

Go on. Tell me I’m being stupid. I would. I did. I’ve been there, remember?

Want to see the marks? The itching started before dawn and try as I might, I just couldn’t stop myself. All the way from armpit to hip. And you know what? Baritus’ advice was useless. Here I am, a deserter – a wanted man with a death sentence hanging over me, for all that might bother me now. And I’ve run all the way to Gaul to escape what’s coming, but it makes no difference. It follows you. I know that now. And I know that by dawn tomorrow I’ll be clasping hands with Baritus across the endless river. I even have my coin ready, you know?

What? You don’t believe any of this? No, of course you don’t. Nor would I had it not happened to me, but mark my words that everything I told you tonight is true.

No, I don’t expect you to do anything, and I don’t want any money. Don’t you see? I’m not here for charity or aid? I’m here because this is where I have to be… where I’ll die. And I’m here to give you this. Go on… unfold it. I really recommend you do.

You see, while I was on the run, I started painting. It turns out I’m much better at it than Baritus was, and I’m sure you can see the resemblance, can’t you?

Can’t you?

 

THE END

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Written by SJAT

October 29, 2015 at 9:30 am

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