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Lemures – a short story for the Halloween season

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Nemesis

Caius Attius Flaccus stood in the atrium of his villa and shuddered. Something ran up his spine like ice on bare flesh, making him quail and quiver on the spot.

He snarled at his own failings and took a step closer to the small impluvium pool, looking down into the gathered rainwater, disturbed by the occasional drip from the atrium’s sloping tile roof. A sad, slightly misshapen, warped face looked back up at him, and he resisted the urge to look away. Most often he looked away – almost always, in fact, he looked away – for that rippling reflection caused more than just a shudder.

The left ear was fine. A beautiful ear, even.  A classic example that would look fitting on a statue by Myron. The right? The right was a gnarled, curled thing. A hideous misshapen item, twisted at a young age with white-hot tongs. The nose was fine but, though his eyesight was more than adequate, those orbs were hard  to look at, pale and watery and with virtually no iris visible – the  result of having spent the first eleven years in a dark closet. The lips were thin, the bottom one jagged and mangled from all the biting where it had sobbed its woes into the ragged flesh, helping to endure the endless beatings.

And its skin… its skin so pale as to be almost translucent. The only colour to it was the veins criss-crossing that sallow parchment that coated its bones.

It was hideous.

He knew that, of course; knew he was unsightly and monstrous in the eyes of the world. On the odd occasions when Gaius was required to step outside the sumptuous villa and into the heart of the eternal city, no matter how much he kept to his litter and the four Numidian slaves, nor how much he played on the fact that he had been elected a pontiff this season and could cover his misshapen body and unsightly head with the white toga, the public would inevitably catch sight of him. Children would scream and women would hustle their young ones away from this despicable creature. Sometimes he wondered what he would have looked like if he’d been left to grow up like a normal boy. After all, all his deformities had been thrust upon him…

There it was again – that strange deep, guttural grating noise that had first caused him to stop as he passed through the atrium. How odd. Was one of his neighbours having works done at their domus at this time of night?

He spat reflexively at the biter taste of a name on his tongue and moved around to another side of the small pool, waiting until the ripples dwindled to look down into its damning depths.

Lucius Attius Flaccus. His father. If ever a man had needed another father, it was this poor, deformed soul. But he’d been stuck with Lucius, husband of Cornelia. He’d been a swine from the first day Caius remembered, and likely long before then. He had, after all, killed his wife when their baby boy was not quite two years old, flying into a rage over some imagined insult and beating her to death with a bust of his illustrious grandfather, smashing her skull to a pulp so that the brains had to be cleaned from every surface in the room. The bust had been sent to be re-chiselled, because he’d hit her so hard that he’d shattered the marble nose.

His mother. The only person who could have protected him from a monster of a father. None of the slaves would help, not that many lasted more than a season before the brutal beatings robbed them of their lives.

There was that odd grinding noise again, like the quern stones of Eurysaces’ bakery down the road. It really was odd. It must be coming from the direction of the Esquiline because he’d moved that way around the pool, and this time the sound was louder. Whoever it was was clearly most inconsiderate.

Outside, he could hear the traditional rites of the Lemuria – the exorcism of the restless dead from the homes of good Romans with prayers and offerings of beans – being carried out in other houses. But because no good Roman could observe a religious practice without the appropriate amount of debauchery, this hallowed rite was too often carried out in haste to make way for a lavish feast and possible an orgy with dancing girls, roasting oxen, prostitutes at a finger’s beckon and all the lascivious depth of Roman nobility!

Ha! Roman nobility! Caius’ father had been considered the very epitome of Roman nobility, even  as the neighbours were watching buckets of his wife’s brains being ferried outside and slopped into the drains.

Well Caius had carried out his own rite of exorcism three years gone, and had felt untroubled ever since. Certainly, he’d felt no urge to don a silly costume and start an orgy…

The grating again! Somehow it seemed even louder than the sounds of Rutilius’ debauched get-together next door.

The moon began to insist itself upon him in the dark reflection of his ruined face, and Caius moved to the third side of the impluvium pool to move out of its blinding silver light. His seething dark heart, born of so many years of imprisonment and stygian gloom, filled with spite as he remembered that night of the casting out.

The villa owners of Rome waved their expensive Arabian incense and spoke words to the counsellor Gods, offering beans and gold – for beans alone seemed so Plebeian to some of these people. They spoke the words by rote and offered set prayers handed to them on scraps of vellum. Not one of them had met the lemures – the spirits of the restless – who supposedly haunted their houses. And so they went about it as a common ritual.

Caius had had to do it for real. His lemure had been living, breathing and swinging knotted ropes. His father had been all too real. And he had not used beans to exorcise him.

One night, lurking in his dark alcove, Caius had finally summoned up the strength to do something about his predicament. Eleven years of torture had been enough. He had snapped. He had gone insane, yet was lucid enough to recognise the fact. He had scraped away the mortar and removed a brick from the wall of his cellar-prison, and when the slave had come to deliver his drab, pale dinner, he had hit the poor bastard with the brick, stoving in his skull. It was a low thing to do. The slave had really deserved saving, not a painful murder. But some things had to be done, and he had known the slave would not help him and risk offending his master. A slave rarely lasted six months in this villa.

Caius had emerged from the cellar with one single goal in mind. He’d found his father whipping a whore to death in his office. Caius cared not for the whore, of course, but the knowledge that his father was meting out yet more arbitrary agony had snapped his already fraying senses, and he’d had pulled an unlit torch from the wall, walked into the room, and begun the business of turning his father into little more than a piece of ragged meat.

He had not stopped the beating until his father was utterly unrecognisable. There was not an inch of skin left unmarked, and the head had gone, now just a wet mess of pink and white splayed across the bed. The whore had died in the process, catching many of the blows meant for her abuser. Caius had slowly returned to his senses, and had then begun the business of tidying up, with neither remorse nor regret tainting his heart.

Curiously, it had been the day of the Lemuria festival that day too, and apart from the slave assigned to feed and muck out Caius the villa was empty of staff, leaving the master of the house alone to abuse his whore unobserved. By the time the house’s major domo and the staff had returned just before First Watch the next morning, Caius had buried the smashed, pulped remains of his father and the broken whore under the flagstones of this very atrium, depositing the excess soil in the peristyle garden, disposing of the blood-and-brain-soaked upholstery in one of the ubiquitous piles of trash in the alley beside the domus. The room had been cleaned and dried and bore no sign of the bloody violence that had been perpetrated there, by a master against his whore or by a son against his father. The broken slave had gone into the ground with them, too, and it had been a work of supreme irritation putting the brick back into the cellar wall and cramming the powdered mortar around it, and then locking the cellar door from the inside and pushing the key back beneath it.

He had been found. He had been looked after. For three weeks the city was on alert, looking for the missing Lucius Attius Flaccus. But he had gone. Many said he had eloped with a whore, but those who knew Lucius and his dark tendencies doubted this. Caius had been consoled. His last living relative had gone and while he would inherit the domus, they commiserated, it would obviously be no replacement for a father. Idiots. If only they’d known.

Over the next half year, Caius had set his seal on his ownership of the Domus Attius. He became the master of his demesne. He treated his servants and slaves well, and they gradually overcame their fear of his physical deformities to accept him as a master with a great deal more respect than they’d shown his father.

There was that damned noise again! People had no consideration during a festival. It was almost certainly late night work in the bakery. He would have such a word with Eurysaces tomorrow! The jumped-up little ex-slave clearly did not know his boundaries.

Caius had changed things in the domus. He would not live in the room where his father had abused and murdered whores. He would not work in that office. The house had to be cleaned and redecorated.

But the most important change had been here in this very atrium.

For he would not have a statue of his despicable father glowering at him as he passed, standing so close to the secret burial place of the man it depicted. For Lucius had commissioned a life-sized replica of himself the year before he died, and it had stood proudly at the side of the atrium, watching as his son buried his mortal remains beneath the flags.

The statue had gone straight away, but not permanently. One never wasted good marble, after all. In response to a lifetime of abuse by the bastard, Caius had commissioned one of the better young artists of this generation to re-carve the statue into a smaller, more delicate one of Nemesis – the goddess of rightful vengeance.

He turned and smiled at Nemesis. It had been three years since he had buried the bodies and had that form reshaped. Three bodies, three years. Three years this very night, in fact.

His brow folded into a frown. There was something distinctly odd about the statue tonight. Perhaps it was his imagination, fuelled by the dancing lamplight? No, there was definitely something odd. For Nemesis was not a smiling goddess. And the somehow twisted face of the statue was grinning – a maniacal rictus that could not in any way be described as happy. Her eyes seemed tiny and set deep in a harsh face. This Nemesis was, frankly, hideous. As hideous as he himself.

He realised far too late where he had seen those features before.

The whore!

The whore his father had been abusing. The whore he had inadvertently – yet uncaringly – beaten to death as collateral in his father’s demise. The whore who was now the statue. The whore who was now Nemesis!

The marble hand closed around his throat.

Caius felt a panic the like of which he’d never before experienced. Only briefly, though. For that cold, unyielding marble hand gripped his windpipe and jerked him forward so that his head cracked against the grinning face. He chipped one marble tooth and three real ones.

He screamed.

There was no one around tonight. He always allowed the staff festival nights to themselves. And with the sheer noise emanating from other villas, no one heard or cared. He screamed and screamed, the shrieking descending first to a gurgle and then to a moan as the marble grip smashed his face into the whore’s horrifying visage again… and again… and again.

Finally, his body twitching in what he knew to be its death throes, Caius realised the statue had let go, and he had collapsed to the ground. His remaining eye stared up in blind, panicked confusion at the statue that had killed him. Once more it had revert to its divine polished glory. It was no longer the whore his father had abused and he had beaten to death. It was Nemesis, the lady of righteous vengeance, staring down at the bloody, dying heap of her murderer.

He felt cold. In the morning, the slaves would find him again, like they had three years earlier. But this time, he would be dead, having apparently battered his own brains out on a statue that had once been his father.

With a sigh, Caius Attius Flaccus expired atop the very slab that covered his erstwhile victims.

To some extent, it was a relief.

Happy Halloween, everyone (or if you’re an ancient Roman and it’s March, Happy Lemuria!)

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Written by SJAT

October 15, 2018 at 6:57 am

Caesar’s Emissary

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Image result

You might remember that some time back I reviewed the first short story in this series with mixed feelings due to the heavy use of modern vernacular. Well, recently I have been reading pre-publication manuscripts, my own work for heavy edits and very serious research texts, and so with a couple of days free, I picked up the second book, and thought ‘I’ve done too much heavy stuff recently, so why not?’

I’m glad I did. I cannot be certain whether it was because this time I was prepared for what I was about to read, or possibly that with a second story, Johnston had honed his craft some, but I enjoyed Caesar’s Emissary far more than the first book.

These, by the way, are very much not serious, heavy Historical Fiction. If you are looking for another Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden, you’re looking in the wrong direction. But if you’re looking for an entertaining light read to fill in a few hours, then look no further.

The humour in these books is akin to Ron Gompertz, I would say, if a little more direct. There is an odd undercurrent of the old ‘film noir voiceover’ in the way they are written. In this volume, Mettius is talked into going to Alexandria to sort out the grain shipments there. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Ptolomaic rulers and all sorts. The highlight for me was a scene in a bar with a local comedian doing his skit.Sounds barking mad, but for some reason it worked and was a truly entertaining scene with some real laugh-out-loud lines.

This, for instance, is a joke from the sketch about the Ptolomaic dynasty:

“The other night [my wife] said she wanted to have sex with her brother. I told her I wasn’t in the mood.”

And here’s part of his description of Alexadria, which I love:

“Wild statues of bird gods and those weird animals with human heads they called sphinxes were everywhere. It was as if some deity had grabbed a cauldron and mixed Greek aesthetics, the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife, a pinch of balmy climate and a shitload of money…”

I think I am rapidly warming to these short, humorous episodes. And if you are a student of the era you will find a lot of in-jokes and colour that will sit well with you. Johnston’s stories have become my palate cleanser of choice between larger works.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

Caesar’s Ambassador

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caesars-ambassador-alex-johnston

Caesar’s Ambassador is a short story I picked up at random somewhere along the line and has just sat there on my kindle. Recently, I had a day free in my reading schedule, so I decided to give it a read.

The story is set in a very familiar milieu for me, being the first year of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (the setting for Marius’ Mules I) and takes as its main character one Marcus Mettius, who is a minor supporting character in Caesar’s book. Mettius is one of two men the general sends to negotiate with the German king Ariovistus and who are captured and held by the man. That’s pretty much his run in history apart from minting coins the year of Caesar’s death. Virgin ground to work with then for a storyteller.

This is only a short story, but if you like it, there are a run now of about six shorts in the series, which probably adds up to a good sized novel between them. As you may know, my policy on reviewing books is to only review those I consider at least 3* books, since poor reviews can damage an author’s livelihood and it seems unfair to do that simply because I don’t like it. For me, Caesar’s Ambassador was really hard to rate. In the end I’ve given it 3 stars, but it could have gone up or down from there because there are so many things about it I like and, while there’s only one thing I don’t, it’s pretty crucial.

So on the positive side, this is a truly fresh and interesting angle on the events of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, an interesting, bold and inventive choice. Mettius himself is an interesting character with an intriguingly uncharted history, and Johnston has done a sterling job of bringing him to life, giving him real personality and filling in history’s blanks. He’s also done an excellent job of depicting the times and the locations, with some of the detail being exquisite (a scene in a tavern particularly stands out.) Better still, given Mettius’ history, Johnston has chosen a character he can take on from there, and I know he covers quite a few years in subsequent books. The story is pacey, the characters vivid, the descriptive excellent. Additionally, there is a quirky humour throughout that really hits the spot, reminiscent for me of Ron Gompertz’s novels.

So what didn’t I like about it then? Quite simply the heavy anachronisms. I’m hardly free of blame for that myself, though I have gradually ironed out such things as I progress. But even at my strongest, I was nothing to this. Johnston’s idiom and terminology are almost entirely modern American in the tale, and some of the phrases used in an ancient setting just had me wincing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that as a Brit, perhaps I’m not the target audience and that for all I know this is a standard in the American market, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me the idioms and modern, anachronistic terms marred what could have been an excellent tale.

I still enjoyed Caesar’s Ambassador, and I will read the second in the series when I have the time, and so I leave it up to you whether this is a story for you, as I cannot doubt that what damaged it for me will certainly appeal to some readers, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I am right all the time. To be honest, at $0.99 it’ll hardly be breaking the bank to take a punt on it and see what you think.

Written by SJAT

July 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

Lucilla

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A short story for Halloween. Enjoy…

* * * * *

Lucilla licked her lips and rolled over, pulling the covers tighter. The room was chilly in the November night, frost forming on the garden of the villa outside her wall, the bone-cold breeze sneaking in through the shutters and lowering the room’s temperature.

Briefly she contemplated leaving the room and going to the closet to collect a spare blanket. Possibly one of the slaves would still be up and about preparing things for the morning and could get her one. Certainly if her mother or father caught her wandering around the villa’s corridors at this time of night, no amount of defensive argument over the temperature would save her from trouble.

She rolled back over again, irritation at her parents bringing her extra wakefulness and driving elusive sleep that bit further away. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her parents. Of course she did; they were her parents, after all. But they were sometimes a little too careful about her, instituting so many rules to keep her safe and sound that at times her safe, sound life felt more like a prison.

The few friends she’d had years ago were gone now, leaving the valley and its wealthy villas, taken to Deva where they were matched and married off. Oh, Lucilla should have been married and gone from here more than two or three years herself. She was hardly a girl anymore, anyway. At sixteen years, she should already be contemplating her own children.

But she wasn’t healthy. No man would want her, as her father told her repeatedly. Her body was too frail; too weak. She was not the bright and robust girl her friends had known when they used to play in the woods and river of the valley.

It had begun with the visit from her sister. Her father would deny that, of course, as would her mother. But then they had always denied even the very existence of her sister. Whatever Livia had done when Lucilla was still a baby had been so horrifying that they had shut her out of their life, not even speaking of her. Only one or two of the slaves spoke warmly of her when confiding in Lucilla.

She turned over again, shivering in the wind, wondering once more about getting that blanket.

Yes, it had begun with her sister; that first night about three years ago when she had found out that Livia even existed. The older girl, very reminiscent of her younger sibling, had defied their parents and crept back into the house, into Lucilla’s room. She hadn’t said anything, just stood watching with a sad smile on her face. It made Lucilla’s heart break to think of her sister being out there in the outbuildings, denied her parent’s love and the comforts of the villa. Perhaps that was why mother and father kept Lucilla so safe?

No. That was because of her frailty. But her frailty had begun then. It had, as she had said, made her heart break. Quite literally. The next morning, the robust girl was gone, leaving this pale, willowy, feeble girl with the short breath and the twitch.

Her mother had been quite distraught, and her father, calling on his veteran’s benefits, had brought the legion’s chief medicus from Deva to examine her. The surgeon had explained, after lengthy tests, that her heart was damaged. Some great shock had actually stopped it for a time, and it had resumed its beat with a problem.

The care and virtual imprisonment had begun that day. Perhaps she would have recovered in time; found herself a handsome soldier to wed, and been gone from this dreadful, grey, chilling villa, if only she had not declined in steps.

Every step, of course, coincided with the infrequent visits from her sister. Livia could only sneak into the house very rarely when it was dark and everyone but Lucilla was asleep. Perhaps twice or three times a year she came.

Every time was a wrench for Lucilla. She loved her poor, exiled sister so much and the warmth of her return filled her with a fleeting joy that soon plummeted into the icy river of sadness again as Livia, wordlessly, smiled that sad smile and returned to her freezing den in the outbuildings.

Lucilla had stopped telling her parents about Livia’s visits after the first year, as the conversation inevitable led to an argument and anger from her father, denial that Livia could have come to see her, and an extra layer of cold security being placed around their younger daughter.

But the visits still came. Livia never explained why she came or how she could live like she did, but Lucilla didn’t care. It was enough even to see her beautiful sister on those rare occasions. Even if it was rapidly dragging her toward her own demise, her weakening heart now making it dangerous for her even to leave the interior of the villa. Eventually, if she died, her sister would join her and they would be together in the beyond, living in the light of Sol Invictus.

Too cold. The temperature just appeared to be dropping all the time. It had merely been chilly earlier, but Lucilla would swear she could see ice on the shutters, reflecting the moonlight shining through the crack in the shutters. Frost seemed to be forming on her blanket.

She gave a deep sigh and sank back into her blankets, feeling the welcome pull of sleep at last.

It was then she knew that Livia was in the room. Shuddering, she sat up rigid to see the pale figure in her grey tunic, with the long, lustrous black tresses of her hair hanging low, touched and speckled with the frost.

Lucilla smiled. It had been long months since her last visit. She straightened her night tunic and raised her eyebrows questioningly. Livia never spoke, of course. She couldn’t. But Lucilla instinctively knew what her sister was wanting or trying to say.

Livia curled a beckoning finger, and Lucilla frowned. This was new. She’d never left the bed before. A surge of dangerous excitement ran through her cold, frail figure. Could Livia be taking her to show her the den where she spent her time? Gingerly, wincing at the freezing marble of the floor, Lucilla swung out her legs and climbed from the bed, swaying slightly for a moment, before she got herself under control. Her legs were so weak she had to shuffle toward the figure in the doorway, holding out her hand to the wall to steady herself.

Livia smiled that sad smile of hers, but this time, actually walking toward her, it didn’t drive Lucilla’s spirits down into that icy river of loss once more. Instead she felt the electric thrill of discovery. She would, she knew instinctively, find out about her sister this time. She had to. It felt right.

As she approached the open doorway of her room, the corridor dark beyond, Livia beckoned once more and then slipped around the corner out of sight.

A sense of urgency overtaking her, unwilling to let her sister out of her sight for fear she might lose her entirely, Lucilla let go of the wall and tottered quickly to the doorway, her feet slapping on the freezing floor.

The move was too quick for her frail body and as she reached the door jamb, dizziness overcame her and she slumped, her mind fogging with confusion and pain, her body cold and aching. It was almost half a minute before she pulled herself up, peering off around the corner, hoping her sister was still there.

And there was her room. Somehow, during her dizzy fall, she must have got turned around and confused.

There was Livia, lying on her back on the bed, her grey, thin face surrounded by lustrous black hair as she rested among the blankets and pillows. She looked so peaceful.

Lucilla smiled sadly. Best not disturb her now. She’d come back and see her soon.

Written by SJAT

October 31, 2011 at 10:35 am

Trackside seats

with 6 comments

A new short story for you. Hope you like it, folks.

* * *

 

Lentullus leaned to his left, closing on Citus’ ear to be heard over the general hubbub.

“Should be a good one today. Prudens is up for the greens, and you know what he’s like.”

Citus’ voice came back, deep and hoarse as always.

“He’ll have a hard race against Sura, make no mistake.”

Lentullus let out a low chuckle. According to his sources, which were, after all, quality ones, Prudens stood little chance of a loss today. His team had been carefully selected from the best steeds bred by Sarmatian trainers who knew their horses better than any man. Certainly his sources damn well should be correct, given the amount he paid them. Even if Prudens walked away with a clear victory today, Lentullus’ profits would be heavily eaten into by what he owed to various people ‘in the know’. Of course the profit he cleared would still buy him the nice new estate down near Antium he had his eye on… figuratively speaking, of course.

“Andros? Are you there?”

The slave turned to his master, grateful that the latter’s long-term total blindness prevented him from seeing the expression on the young, long-suffering Greek’s face.

“I am, master.”

“What’s happening?”

Lentullus lounged back, his hand tapping along the marble of the seat toward Citus until it closed on the cheese and grapes that rested between them on a bronze plate.

“Master… the quadriga aren’t out yet, but I can see movement in the carceres. Should be any moment now.”

“Don’t miss a thing, boy. You hear? If this goes well, I’ll perhaps take you with me to Antium for the weekend.”

Andros nodded, frowning, trying to keep the ennui and sarcasm from his voice while speaking. Lentullus was sharp enough, but his equally blind friend Citus could almost hear an eyebrow rising.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Good. Now pay attention.”

Citus leaned to his friend.

“You say the boy is good?”

“Excellent. It’s almost as good as actually seeing it, though I have to admit it’s been so long I can barely remember.”

Andros leaned forward onto the rail, looking along to his left toward the starting gates. The crowd thronged the circus maximus, every stand full to capacity. He shouldn’t complain, really. How many slaves got to have trackside seats at one of the most important chariot races of the year? Glancing directly across, past the spina that ran along the centre of the circus, he could just make out the purple robe of the Emperor Domitian, himself leaning on a railing, the Praetorian Guard surrounding him and glinting in the sunlight.

No. He really shouldn’t complain. When his family had sold him eight years ago in order to have the money to keep his brothers and sisters alive after his father’s business failure and their subsequent eviction, he’d been sure the world was going to end for him. He would end up chipping marble in a quarry or fighting gladiators for the right to live another day. His father had smiled and told him he really landed on his feet with service to the ageing blind senator, while his mother cried in a corner.

Of course, his father didn’t know how strict Lentullus was. He didn’t realise that the reason the senator needed a new slave was because he’d beaten the last one to death over a petty theft. But all things considered, Lentullus wasn’t that bad. Andros had only ever been beaten twice, and both times he’d made mistakes. Now he was wise and knew how to hide his mistakes from the sightless senator. But it would be nice to be free again. He’d never experience manumission, of course, but he could still dream. There were people who could remove all traces of slave marks from you. You just needed to get far enough away and fast enough to evade the slave hunters.

But what use would escape be anyway. To be free and penniless in Rome was worse than any slavery.

He shook his head and concentrated as he heard a fanfare.

“Ah… this’ll be it” said master Citus with a smile.

“Alright boy. Here you go. The best you can and I may even give you a free day in Antium with some coin.”

That was a surprise. Lentullus was hardly noted for his generosity with money.

“The Emperor is raising his hand… and he drops the nappa cloth.”

He took a deep breath. There was an art to the commentary.

“The gates spring open. First, third and fifth are out ahead. Fourth and seventh are close behind, with the others lagging. Already they are settling into that order.”

The blind senators leaned forward instinctively, as though they could see better there. Citus opened his mouth to complain that he didn’t know which rider was in which gate, but Andros was already thundering on with his commentary.

“From gate three, Sura in the red, has taken an early lead with a light, bronze quadriga built for speed rather than sturdiness, I’d say. His team are all blacks and pretty big, like the mountain horses from Armenia. I think that’s what they are. Seems he’s got two equally well-trained mares on the inner and outer position balancing the team.”

Citus leaned back happily. Lentullus was absolutely right. The lad was a genius at this. Hopefully he would never let the boy go.

“Behind Sura the three, Prudens came from the first gate. He has a fairly plain quadriga, pulled by three chestnuts and a piebald. The piebald is the biggest; a really powerful looking horse, on the inside to guide and control the team. The team look a little weak in themselves, but the piebald is holding them together nicely. He’s closing on Sura, but the lead driver is swerving here and there, trying not to leave enough room to pass.”

Lentullus grinned. Prudens was just playing at this point.

“The third chariot is from the fifth gate. I think its Scauvus the Sicilian for the blues. He’s got two whites and two greys. Very pretty and sleek. I think they’re chosen for their speed. He doesn’t seem to have an anchor horse in his team, but they’re working well together anyway. He’s a good length and a half behind the other leaders and the nearest to him is another red perhaps three lengths back.”

Andros cleared his throat, took a deep swig of water from his cup and a deeper breath.

“The rest are too far back to make a play for victory. It’s all going to be between Sura, Prudens and Scauvus. There’s no sign of a white until far back in the crowd. The dust cloud’s kicking up strong, but they’re coming clear into view again as they reach the end of the spina and turn.”

He grinned. A spectator at the far side had just turned round, lifted his toga and bared his backside at the third driver. Scauvus wouldn’t have been noticed, of course, but the laughter around him showed the act had been taken in good spirits.

“They’re rounding the spina. Sura is still in the lead, but he took it quite wide. I think the outer horse on his team was vying for dominance with the inner. He’s going to have trouble between the two mares before long.”

His master nodded in the darkness, smiling. It was all decided long before the day, really, by the choices of horse, driver and vehicle, but it was still always exciting.

“Prudens has pulled a much tighter turn. His guide horse is really excellent. He’s jostling for position with Sura now. There’s trouble… they’re almost touching… but Sura has pulled out a little. It’s close now.”

Another momentary pause.

“Scauvus has made a beautiful tight turn and reclaimed almost a length from the leaders. The three are in close competition now, with the next nearest far enough back that he might as well be in a different race.”

“How’s the crowd?” Lentullus enquired, tensely.

“Mostly in good spirits, though with some bad feeling. Particularly bad among the white supporters. There’s a crowd of them not far from the carceres on the other side of the track and they’re weighed down with curse tablets they’re hurling into the riders. Some of them are waiting for the leaders, I think.”

“Ha. They’ll have to throw like Hercules himself to hit the leaders near the centre.”

“Indeed, master. The three drivers are passing us.”

Hardly necessary commentary, really, given the deafening roar from the crowd and the noise from the vehicles on the sand below.

“Now they’re coming into the turn again for the end of the first lap. Sura is close enough to see the man in white at the back of the previous lap and might pass him this time. He turns and it’s tight… tighter than last time. He’s managed to keep Prudens behind him, trapped. The positions are the same as they come into the initial straight for the second time.”

The first of the gold dolphin markers that counted off the laps tipped up, to a massive roar from the crowd.

“First lap over and nothing much has changed: the lead three are all a little closer together, but no difference in position. Again, Scauvus is pushing like mad to close with the first two and, as they pass the Emperor in his box, it’s still Sura leading by half a length, Prudens fighting him desperately for first place, and Scauvus less than a length behind them.”

He swallowed another mouthful of water quickly. It was thirsty work.

“There’s trouble for the whites, but they’ve lost anyway. Their second quadriga is pulling off without even completing a lap and making for the carceres. Looks like the outer horse is lame. He’s… yes, he’s off the track and out of the race.”

“Screw him” the blind master snapped excitedly. What about the three? Are they at the corner yet?”

Andros took a deep breath.

“As they round the far corner again, positions are the same. It’s tight, though… so tight you wouldn’t believe. Now, there’s hardly room to separate the three. Sura and Prudens are almost alongside, with Scauvus close behind. They’re putting on extra speed as they close to our corner again.”

Lentullus nodded eagerly.

“Yes, yes. Are they here? I can’t hear the horses for all the shouting. Are they at the next turn?”

“They’re closing on it now, master. Here they come: Sura first, but his two mares are still arguing and…” his voice rose a notch. “Yes… they’ve pulled out too wide for the turn and Prudens has found the room. He’s in now, neck and neck. As they come back into our straight, it could go either way by the end of this lap!”

Something was happening in the crowd off to his left, but he kept his eyes riveted on the action just left of straight ahead.

“Scauvus is still closing. It’s so tense and overwhelming. If we’re lucky we might see all three of them jostling for first by the time they straighten out!”

But the cause of the commotion in the crowd suddenly became apparent, with a roar and screams. Half a brick, cast with anger and deadly accuracy, hurtled out from the stand, smashing into the nearest guide horse of Sura’s team. The blow was not hard enough to damage the horse, but the shock did enough. The black Armenian mare reared desperately in pain, and the entire team foundered, chaos ensuing.

Desperately, seeing what had happened, Prudens hauled on his reins and steered his chariot in so close to the spina that the wheel hub raised sparks from the stonework. In a heart-stopping moment, he pulled out past the rolling disaster that was Sura’s quadriga.

Half the crowd cheered, not entirely sure what was happening but aware that, whatever it was, Prudens was out clear now and in the lead.

But the disaster wasn’t over. Unable to swerve enough from his following position, Scaurus’ team drove straight into the former leader’s chariot, the two vehicles slamming together. Horses went down in squeals of pain, while the one wounded by the brick broke free from the trouble and galloped off ahead down the track, yanking the hapless rider straight from the wreckage of his chariot and throwing him to the sand of the arena, where it proceeded to race away, dragging the broken charioteer away by the rein-wrapped arms.

Chaos and death.

Disaster for the teams.

Financial ruin for many spectators.

But what had immediately occurred to Andros in that flash of panic as the accident began, was just how close to the track they were and the location and direction of the two chariots as they collided. A tiny mental calculation based on the approach angles, and he was already leaping away through the crowd at the very moment Scauvus’ quadriga smashed into that of Sura, running up the stands.

The great, broken wooden bulk of the chariot, borne aloft by the momentum of the crash, the yoke sheared away and freeing the poor horses, hurtled through the air and into the stands.

Lentullus turned to his sightless friend.

“Where’s the boy. What’s going on?”

A whistling noise and growing rush of air was the last thing either of them ever heard.

 

Andros, his heart still racing, watched the panicked and miserable crowd filing out of the circus. In the chaos following the fatal crash that had demolished part of the stands and killed or injured more than a dozen people, nobody thought to question the young Greek slave as he made his way to the raised seating area where senator Paulinus sat.

The ageing man had barely raised an eyebrow, given the scale of his losses today, as he paid the young man with a large leather bag of coins. After all, the boy was Lentullus’ slave, and had the legal chitty.

Andros grinned.

Life was going to be rather nice. By the time the chaos was under control, and he was missed, he would be at Ostia boarding the first ship bound for home.

And he’d be going home richer than the Gods.

“Bless you, Prudens the master charioteer.”

Written by SJAT

October 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Short Story

Tagged with , , , , , ,

The Palmyrene Prince

with 8 comments

Ok folks. Another short story, since I’m writing them at a rate of knots at the mo. Something with a more eastern feel this time.

The Palmyrene Prince

Vaballathus, son of Odaenathus and Zenobia, crown prince of the Empire of Palymra, sat impatiently on the small, highly-decorated silk stool. His four guards stood by the outer door to the chamber, armoured but denied the right to wear their weapons within the palace. It galled him, as a member of one of the most noble royal houses in the world and heir to the throne of an ancient land, to be kept waiting in the entrance chamber by a fellow independent ruler.

He sighed and rubbed his knees. The ride from Palmyra, better part of four hundred miles to the west, had been a swift, desperate and uncomfortable one, with fewer in the entourage than he would have liked, but time was of the essence and the Palmyrene army had few enough men to spare at this point.

Standing, he strode along the walls of the great guest chamber, decorated with silk and gold, murals depicting Kings of Persia from the days of antiquity; faces long forgotten stared back at him from under glittering crowns and ruffled their huge beards grandiosely.

He ground his teeth.

“Erabas? What did the lackey say when you spoke to him?”

“Sire, he said he would consult with his master and find us upon his return.”

“Who does he think I am?” snarled the young prince, kicking the elaborate stool’s leg and chipping the beautiful carving.

Erabas swallowed nervously and steeled himself.

“Respectfully, your magnificence, your mother, may she bathe in the light and magnificence of a thousand suns, did make it clear that we were to be as polite as possible. Much rides on our success.”

Vaballathus’ head snapped round angrily. No one spoke like that to the son of the great Zenobia; yet the man was right. For all his insolence, they must maintain perspective on why they were here. Palmyra was not the power it had been when they freed themselves from Rome over a decade ago. Back then, the foolish Romans had neither the wit nor the power to prevent their cessation; now, with that strict and clever bastard Aurelian in the purple, they had all but brought Palmyra to its knees again. Hammered by the legions at Immae and Emesa, the shattered remains of the Palmyrene army had drawn itself protectively around the capital, preparing to fight to the last, for that was all that was left to them.

Unless Vaballathus could persuade the Persian King to send them more men; to support their ongoing resistance to Rome.

He ground his teeth again and snarled at the guard.

“Be grateful that we are here and not at home in a time to peace. The next time you presume to dictate to me I will have you flayed and then boiled.”

“Yes, your magnificence. A thousand apologies.”

It was an empty threat, of course. There was a very real possibility that when they returned to Palmyra they would find Aurelian sitting on the throne in his mother’s palace, heating up the oil for Vaballathus and his family.

He wandered impatiently around the walls. Prizes from a hundred campaigns filled this great chamber, placed here deliberately in the waiting room to impress and intimidate visitors. Roman standards were bolted to the wall in their dozens. No eagles, but many others, including a prized image of a long-gone emperor. There were jewelled weapons and silks and more from the peoples of the Indus to the east and a few furs, all that was worth taking from the nomad riders in the north. But Roman prizes were many.

His eyes settled once again on the most impressive and by far most grizzly of all prizes and he wandered over to examine it.

The body stood as though to attention on a wooden plinth, a post rising up from the base and entering the backside, rising to the head and forming a replacement for the man’s spine. Lifeless empty hollows stared out from beneath once-noble brows. Either the man had had bulky jowls, or the head had settled a little over time.

Valerian, once Emperor of Rome, had little to say these days. Having been taken in battle by the Persian King Sapor, he had served as Sapor’s footstool and mounting block for the next fifteen years until finally old age had rendered him incapable of performing menial tasks. When his bones grew too old, his muscles seized and his joints froze, Sapor had had him cut into pieces, emptied, preserved in the manner of the ancient Aegyptian Kings, and then stuffed and mounted as a palace decoration.

The Emperor Publius Licinius Valerianus Augustus stared desperately at him with empty eyes, his jaw sagging. The decoration clearly needed re-stuffing before it sagged too much.

Vaballathus stepped back, his eyes taking in not only the ghastly emperor, but the many Roman standards, officer’s helms, flags and cuirasses. He smiled for the first time since their arrival three tedious hours ago. Sapor would have helped Palymra fight the Romans off. He would have made Aurelian eat his own lips. Sapor was a King to be reckoned with.

But Sapor had died almost two years ago, his renowned son following soon after. This new Persian King was an unknown quantity.

Oh, Bahram had sent troops initially to help his mother hold the Romans off, but they had been too few; too small a gesture, and the Persian contingent had been slain at Emesa with the rest of the Queen’s army. But he could yet do so much more. It was said that Bahram modelled himself on the great Sapor; that he wanted to be Persia’s next great ruler. Clearly there was only one solution: Bahram would have to send an army to save Palmyra. The Queen would repay him with riches beyond belief, and the Persians would acquire wealth and glory both. Aurelian’s body would soon stand next to Valerian’s… unless Bahram was kind and let them keep it in Palmyra as a prize.

That’s what he would do when…

He was interrupted as the main door opened.

Four servants scurried in, one of the numerous palace officials hurrying along behind them and pausing to close the door. The servants bowed deeply to the guest before rushing across to the wall. The minor functionary in his silks and robe of office, his beard combed and intricately plaited, inclined his head respectfully and smiled.

“Forgive our interruption, eminence.”

Vaballathus frowned.

“You have not come for us?”

“I regret no, sire.”

The Palmyrene prince watched in confusion as the four servants grasped the sagging body of the Roman emperor, his frozen rictus vaguely comical, and hurried across the floor with it. The official bowed once more and then the five opened a previously unnoticed door at the far end of the room and passed through it carrying their strange, macabre load. Vaballathus stared at the door as it closed.

“What in the name of Baal?”

Almost as the second door closed with a quiet click, hiding the strange procession, the first door opened once again and the vizier who had first greeted them hours ago entered with a deep bow.

“Good morning once again, Prince Vaballathus. I must apologise for the delay. I have been consulting with my master.”

The prince turned and strode toward him angrily.

“And will his majesty be joining us now?” He tried to keep the irritation from his voice. Everything depended upon their success, which would require patience and a show of respect.

The vizier stepped back, giving a strange, oily smile.

“I am afraid not. His majesty is tied up with affairs of state. In the meantime, though, his majesty would very much like me to introduce you to our other visitor.”

The four guards reached for their sword hilts, remembering too late that the scabbards were empty. Vaballathus’ eyes widened as a full century of Roman legionaries stomped into the room, their hob-nailed boots clattering as they chipped the delicate marble flooring. The horn-players and standard bearers stepped to one side as their fellow soldiers surrounded the four Palmyrene guards. The centurion followed his men in and stood beside them as they came to attention in ordered rows in the hall.

A man appeared behind them in the doorway; a tall man with aquiline features and severe, iron grey hair. He wore the decorative breastplate and Hercules knot of a senior officer in the Roman army, his crimson cloak settling as he came to a halt.

“Gaius Attius Severinus at your service, Prince Vaballathus.  I must say, the Imperator Aurelian is very much looking forward to meeting you.”

He smiled.

“You are looking well, highness. Let’s see if we can change that.”

Written by SJAT

October 18, 2011 at 11:23 am

Vigil – A short story

with 4 comments

Gaius Postumus turned over in his bed, snorting and pulling the cover tight up to his throat. What a lovely dream. He knew it was a dream, for sure, but continued forcing himself to stay that little bit more sleepy, prolonging the night time images as long as possible. Half a sow turned on the spit, fat dripping down into the fire and sizzling with a delicious smell. Probably wine. Those goblets looked like wine goblets. He wondered who was holding the party, since he seemed to be the only guest. Why so many goblets and so much food just for him.

Finally, the messages from his frantic and overactive nostrils won through a passage into his gluttonous brain, and Postumus’ right eye flicked open with some difficult, the sticky sleep still trying to hold it shut.

Smoke?

His eye closed again and a satisfied smile crept across his face. Of course there would be smoke. You couldn’t roast a hog without there being some smoke. He would have to tell Safranius how delicious it was in the morning.

Safranius.

The morning.

Smoke.

The eye flicked open again.

In a fraction of a second, before even the left eye could join its fellow in wideness, Postumus was out of the bed and frantically panicking, spinning this way and that and waving his arms, achieving entirely nothing.

He stopped, trying to remember his training through the combined fug of sleep and panic. As one of the vigiles, the fire-fighters of Rome, Postumus had been trained well and trained hard for months in every aspect of his duties. It had been said, even by his mother, that his head was so thick that not even basic concepts could pass into it. Hurtful and untrue, but he had to sadly confirm that at this very point, standing in his room on the second floor of the insula that had been allocated as the headquarters of the Second century in the Fourth cohort of vigiles, he couldn’t even remember his name without concentrating really hard.

Safranius would kill him.

The heavy pall of roiling smoke was coming under the door to his room in puffs. That meant it must be coming up the stairwell.

Postumus slapped his hand over his face. Idiot. His had been the simplest duty of all, tonight. The rest of the century were absent. Half of them were asleep in their own homes, it being their week off-duty. Many of the others had been given special leave to go to the Lucaria festival. The rest would be out patrolling the streets, watching for signs of fire or for acts of criminal behaviour. Safranius would be leading the first patrol.

He would be less than happy to get back to the headquarters some time just before dawn to find it had been gutted by fire and all because the untrustworthy idiot he left in charge of the insula had started the stove in the kitchen to cook his fish supper and had come over ever so tired and gone to bed, leaving it burning.

Prat.

His days in the vigiles would almost certainly be numbered after this. Particularly given that debacle last week with the explosion at the emporium. His wages would be halved for the next thousand years to pay for the replacement pump.

Hurriedly throwing on a cloak and grateful that he’d gone to sleep wearing his tunic and breeches and not even unlacing his boots because he was so tired, he decided on his course of action. He would have to check the extent of the fire and get down to the yard. In the central courtyard that had previously been the light well for the insula, a series of large tablets on the walls bore the instructions and rules and regulations for all trainee vigiles. He would have to read them and remind himself of what to do next.

Reaching out, he grasped the door handle and pulled.

The words ‘back draft’ rose though the levels of denseness in his head a fraction of a second before the explosion of boiling fire blew the suddenly freed door into the room, knocking him flat, but miraculously protecting him from the worst of the heat.

Struggling out from under the battered portal, he peered fearfully around the room. The blast had calmed and the fire was starting to take hold on the walls and furniture in his room. Pulling himself upright, he wandered across to the large bronze mirror next to a small glowing oil lamp that seemed almost ridiculous in the circumstances.

His eyebrows had gone and his lush, curly black hair had disappeared as far back as his ears, leaving only tiny charred stumps. His face was covered in sooty grime, pink lines extending from his eyes where he had instinctively screwed them up.

He looked idiotic. But then people told him that under normal circumstances, too.

Leaning to the side, he peered out into the corridor. The formerly painted walls, white and red, with a decorative strip of something he couldn’t remember, were black, fire ripping its way along the wooden railing that surrounded the stair well. Leaning the other way, he could see the blanket of flame that filled the corridor, blocking off any chance of reaching the other stairs. Other than trying to jump down the fifteen foot drop into the light well, these stairs would have to do.

All the vigiles had practiced the jump, of course. They were supposed to be able to manage something as easy as that. It was often required in the course of duty. Postumus, with his somewhat portly figure and his apparently severed connection between mental function and the gangling muscle-free flesh he called limbs, had never managed anything but a temporarily-crippling belly-flop onto the hard floor. He had in the past year, broken one ankle, twisted another, cracked five ribs and broken his nose during training jumps. Two months ago Safranius had given up trying.

Honestly, if it weren’t for his illustrious lineage and the sizeable donations his long-suffering father made to help the vigiles, he would probably have been thrown out long ago.

Taking a deep breath and gagging on the smoke, he stepped closer to the stairs, muttering a quick and very fervent prayer to the lares and Penates of the building.

A flickering orange glow was visible through the cracks in the wooden staircase. Downstairs was already an inferno. But there was nothing else for it. He had to brave it.

Putting one foot delicately on the top step, he applied pressure and winced as it groaned and shifted underfoot. Biting his lip, he put all his weight on that leg and moved down a step. Another charred groan.

Postumus whimpered and hoped his bladder would hold under the panicked pressure.

He was just reaching out with his first leg again when a noise caught his attention.

‘Meeee-owwwwwooooo?’

“Mister Socks!”

The second step cracked as he turned hurriedly and ran back up into the corridor. Mister Socks was the station cat; a mangy, fat thing with an evil temper, one ruined eye, a perforated ear and a bad case of flatulence. Of the eighty periodical occupants of the building, the only one that treated Postumus as anything other than an unfortunate piece of furniture was Mister Socks. It wasn’t that he didn’t bite and scratch the overweight vigil; he did, and frequently, but less frequently than he bit and scratched the others.

Of course, it was Postumus that fed Mister Socks, which might go a long way to explaining it. Many of the others just kicked the station cat and would happily evict the menacing, evil creature. It was Postumus that had renamed ‘That Smelly Bastard Cat’ as Mister Socks. It was so much nicer.

Running along the corridor, he spotted the four legged terror of the station crouched in a doorway, hissing at the danger all around. Beyond, the inferno had gripped the corridor, making it impassable to man and beast alike. Through the doorway, the glow of violent orange spoke volumes. A rafter fell between the two of them, roaring with dancing flames and sealing off the cat. Even the wooden frame of the balcony above the light well on remaining wall was starting to char and fall away.

“Don’t worry Mister Socks. I’m coming.”

Carefully, he edged toward the burning beam and jumped across it, just as another fell where he had been standing but a moment before. His heart lurched. A whole insula, just for the sake of a late night snack and forty winks!

Reaching out, his face turned away from the searing heat, he reached out for Mister Socks, muttering soothing noises.

The cat turned its one baleful eye on him and leapt away, momentarily touching the charring balcony to gain leverage, and dropped to the courtyard below, landing, as expected, on its feet. Postumus leaned close to the balcony and stared down to see Mister Socks give him a superior glance, turn, display its bottom in graphic detail, and then prance away to the safety of the street.

Postumus sobbed.

Standing straight and taking in ragged breaths, the vigil nodded to himself and turned. Taking two steps carefully across the burning rafters, he felt his bowels loosen a little as a third crashed down next to him, bouncing off his foot and hurting his little toe.

A moment later, he was back at the stairs.

Carefully navigating the first, he passed over the cracked second step and winced as the third almost gave under him. He could feel the hot glow beneath him and a gust of warm air blew his tunic up around his armpits.

Pushing it back down coquettishly, he stepped as lightly as possible down the stairs to the first turning. The fire on the floor below was blazing, filling the corridors. There was no way out that did not involve passing through a wall of fire.

Taking yet another deep breath and gagging and coughing on the roiling smoke, he unfastened his cloak from around his neck and wrapped it around him as thoroughly as he could, leaving a small spy-hole to see through.

Damn that cat.

“One…”

Safranius was going to crucify him.

“Two…”

The people out in the street would be watching in amusement as the fire-watch station burned down, knowing damn well who was at the heart of the problem.

“Three!”

Lowering his head, Postumus charged into the sheet of roaring flame, his legs pumping as they scorched and seared while he ran, heedless of the pain, through the corridor, around the bend, past the well-room and its blessed water, through the courtyard, where he managed a couple of deep, cleansing breaths without slowing, and on into the far side of the building.

The main corridor ran from the light well and past rooms that had once been people’s residences, out past the shops that occupied the outer façade, looking onto the street.

Without pausing, he ran on along the corridor. The flames had not yet consumed the main entrance, but it was dark and solid with smoke.

Choking, wheezing, and stinging red from the heat, Postumus burst out into the street, the twin hills of the Palatine and Caelian rising before him, behind the insulae opposite. He stopped, heaving breaths, bent double with his hands on his knees, coughing up black dust and spitting soot onto the road.

Mister Socks appeared from nowhere and rubbed around his red raw ankles, purring affectionately.

It was then that Postumus straightened and looked about him.

Buildings flowered with blooms of flame. Roiling black columns rose from insulae along the street. Flames burst from windows and screaming citizens ran wildly in the thoroughfare, their panic infectious.

The city was afire.

But something Safranius had taught him had apparently stuck in his brain after all.

How to track the source of a fire.

Buildings were burning all the way along the street and up side alleys also. But the progression was clear. The insula of the Second century in the Fourth cohort of vigiles was the furthest gone and the epicentre of the spreading chaos.

“Gods, Postumus. What have you done?”

* * * * *

The great fire of 64 AD burned for five and a half days and levelled three quarters of the city, destroying thousands of homes and some of the grandest buildings that had stood for half a millennium. Rumour placed the cause in the hands of the Emperor Nero, who hurriedly, and very effectively, passed the blame on down to the burgeoning cult of Christians.

Gaius Postumus rose to the rank of tribune, commanding one of the cohorts of Vigiles, one of few survivors of the service during the conflagration.

Of the fate of his fish supper, history does not relate.

Written by SJAT

October 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm