The soldier’s sword was slick with sweat and blood by the time that he cut his way through the last of the guards surrounding the chief. Somewhere in the fighting, his helm had been knocked off his head, and there was something damp and hot running down the side of his brow.
Lamphria… The soldier thought, for the briefest second as the sun dazzled his eyes. He could almost imagine her cool hands as she would press a moistened cloth to his brow after a long, hot day of swords practice.
‘Oh my Nico – what are the Legions doing to you?’ She would scold him lightly, before he would catch her golden-skin in his own rough grasp, pulling the woman he loved towards him-
No! The soldier shook his head. No time. No time to think about that now. Was he injured? He felt giddy, and a little weak – and there was a dull ache on his brow. Had the blow that relieved him of his helmet been stronger than he thought?
“Fluor roma hunds!!” The large man ahead of Nicodemus spat. Wulfic Ap Gorchaen, or ‘the Boar’ as he was known, was as tough as his name suggested, the Roman soldier could see. Even though Nicodemus had buried his short spear in the Germanic Chieftain’s leg, Wulfic still stood, having torn out the spear himself whilst his Shield Warriors had attacked the Imperial Roman Tax Collector.
“Speak Latin, Chief Wulfic, or else I’ll tell my men to drag you back to Rome naked and tied to the back of a horse!” Nicodemus cursed at the man who was still almost twice his size. It felt good to the Tax Collector to finally vent his anger and frustration.
Wulfic gasped, looking around his shoulder at the central fire-pit of their small camp, and at the makeshift tents made of rough weave and branches. This was a warrior’s encampment, but it looked as though ‘The Boar’ had no warriors left. The tents had been trampled, the fire’s coals scattered by Roman feet, and the body of half a dozen Germanic tribesmen lay scattered dead or in the process of becoming so.
But there was still one problem, and one that Wulfic could see as well.
“You may have me cornered, Roman, but where are your men, too?” The Chief wavered on his wounded leg, swiveling his head again to see if there was a weapon nearby.
Nicodemus didn’t have to answer, as screams echoed from the dense pine forests around. Some of the voices sounded Roman, but many more sounded Germanic to him. “Doesn’t matter, Chief Wulfic. I’m still the only one here with a sword. Now, on your knees and call your warriors off, or…”
“H’yah!” Wulfic screamed, suddenly lurching forward, his eyes rolling, phlegm frothing at his mouth. The soldier couldn’t understand what the big man was even thinking of doing, attacking unarmed. Did he imagine that he could win? Nicodemus coolly stepped aside, delivering a flat-of-the-blade strike to the Chief’s wounded leg, causing a squeal of pain as he tripped and smashed down into the muddy battle-churned floor.
They have some bizarre notion of dying in battle… Nicodemus remembered from his tutor’s lectures. All the German tribes are mad. All they want is a weapon in one hand and ale in the other! But the Tax Collector had never met a man who, when facing their own death, would not rather choose life. He stepped forward, prodding the Chief’s wounded leg with his own – causing another grunt of agony from the man below him.
“Hunds! Kopf! Shizer!” The Chief was grunting, falling suddenly silent as Nicodemus settled his blade just under the man’s hairy chin.
“You want to die, Chief Wulfic?” Nicodemus hissed, as there came a crashing and grumbling sound from the tree line. More Roman soldiers, prodding ahead of them bound, gagged, and injured Germanic warriors. “You want all of your men to be killed and burned in a heap by the roadside?” Nicodemus watched the Chief’s eyes widen, roll, and saw the fanaticism and the fear war in the man’s eyes. “Think before you choose, Chief Wulfic. Think of what I am offering you. A chance to leave Roman lands, go back up north to your mountains and your rivers and never set foot on Imperial soil again. You get to remain a Chief. You and your men get to see your children again – to have more sons and daughters… Isn’t that what every man wants?”
Chief Wulfic squirmed. “But you – you Romans will never leave us alone. This land – this land was ours-ACH!”
Nicodemus prodded him, none too gently, in the leg. He’ll be lucky if he ever walks straight again, the soldier thought. “This land is Roman land. And you never paid your taxes for Roman roads, and Roman trade, and Roman wine. So, this is your chance Chief Wulfic – if you so wish to deny what is Rome’s, then you may leave. Go far beyond her borders and take your people with you. Or, Rome will take her cost from your hide.”
“Argh!” Another prod from Nicodemus’s sword, as, behind him the rest of the soldiers were lining up the Chief’s warriors, and forcing them to kneel. Nicodemus saw the look change in the Chief’s eyes, as the fight went out of him.
“Wait!” The soldier held up one hand to his men.
“I – I accept.” Wulfic gasped from the floor. “Leave my men alive. We’ll go, we won’t come back…”
“Sir?” One of the Roman soldiers; a large man called Maximus bristled at the thought of letting these northmen go. “Captain Octavius!?”
“Halt your swords, men!” Nicodemus shouted, stepping back from the Chief at his feet. “You heard the man. He will take his tribe and leave Rome’s borders for good. We’ll spill no more blood this day.”
“Captain!” Maximus, himself helmet-less, shaved head with a lifetime of scars all over his body. “You cannot be serious – these are swine! Less than dogs! Let them go and they’ll only breed and come back ten times more!!”
“I said we let them go!” Nicodemus shouted, glaring at the larger soldier. Maximus had been in his squad since his first commission, and he’d been a thorn in his side from then on. “Obey me, Maximus, or by Mars himself, I swear…”
Silence fell over the ruined camp. The Chief on the ground looked from his captor to his soldiers, wandering who would win the day. The other Roman soldiers looked more in tune with Maximus’s way of thinking, but each wouldn’t dare to speak out against their Captain.
“Fine.” Maximus grunted, lowering his sword. “And may Pluto be your judge, Nicodemus Octavius.” He sneered, stamping away from the scene, back to where the squadron had left their horses.
Phew. Nicodemus thought. That could have been worse. “Take their weapons. Show them the road.” The Roman Captain said wearily, suddenly exhausted as he watched his squad none-too-gently prod their recent foes into action. The last to leave was Chief Wulfic himself, hobbling between two of his own injured men. The Chief looked back at Nicodemus, pausing on the edge of the trail back into the woods. For a moment the two men just silently regarded each other, both wondering if they had made the right choice, and then, with the best wolfish leer that the injured Chief could manage, he bared his teeth at the tax collector, before turning and vanishing into the trees.
I am such a fool. Maximus was right. Nicodemus groaned, tottering on his feet as the tiredness rushed up through his legs like a physical ache. He just barely managed to get his back to a tree and slide down it, as young Naevius rushed up to him with water.
“Bit of a bad old bash you got on your head there, Captain sir,” the lad – the youngest of their legionaries – babbled away as a sudden memory of laughter, and a hint of rose fragrance met Nicodemus’s senses. “Don’t worry Cap’ we’ll get you fixed up. And don’t worry about Maximus sir, the guy lost his family to the northmen you see, and that left him…”
Whatever the personal tragedy of the angry Maximus, Captain Nicodemus didn’t hear the rest of it as his mind was full of far-away scents, sights, and voices…
“You’re a stubborn old goat, Nicodemus Marius Octavius.” Lamphria says, smiling across at him. Nicodemus thinks that she looks like a goddess as she stands there in their tiny orchard – barely room for six vine trees that nestle against the stout stone walls. This small house is tiny – it used to belong to a merchant who died leaving debts high enough to reach Mount Olympus, but that made the place cheap enough for the newly-appointed Captain Octavius to afford. It was in Rome, and that was all that mattered. A Rome chateau, for a Rome life.
“But you like it?” Nicodemus had grinned. “We can press our own wine here, maybe have a goat or two…”
“You can press your own wine, Nico – and I won’t spend my years getting butted by a goat, thank you!” She laughed.
“Are you sure about that?” Nicodemus smiled wickedly, reaching out to grab her gossamer dress. Lamphria squealed with joyful laughter, slipping through his hands as they chased each other through the garden.
“Are you proposing to me, Captain?” She teased.
“Maybe I am. Maybe, I am.” Nicodemus smiled as, just for the moment – absolutely everything about his life was going well. It was perfect; he had just been promoted to Captain, given a squadron of his own to keep charge of, and seemed to be on the rise. What better prospects for a potential soldier’s wife?
Nicodemus made a grab for Lamphria once again, and she spun, spiraled out of his grasp – always deliriously out-of-reach. For a moment the sun flashed through her robes and Nicodemus had to squint at the brightness. She looked as though she had been transformed into golden light, as if Jupiter himself had become jealous of the two lovers…
The journey back to Rome was thankfully short for Captain Nicodemus, but it couldn’t have been shorter for soldier Maximus. Every night the large man grumbled from his place around their shared fire-pit, throwing many glances again and again in the direction of the Captain’s tent.
“What does he know of war?” maximus muttered to the other soldiers; only to receive dismissive taunts and jeers.
“Go to sleep Maximus!” They would laugh, or, “You’re getting paid ain’t you? Why grumble and complain?”
The soldiers were, for the most part a mixed bunch of Roman centurions. Some as old and seasoned as Maximus, some had seen their time on the battlefields and the distant frontiers of war. But there were always new faces, young, fresh, and eager for glory like Neuvius replacing those that had died. It meant that the balance of power was no more surrounding an old salt like Maximus, and he hated it. He was a natural bully, and had chosen the life of a centurion because of all of the things that he could do – fighting was what he was especially good at.
“No, I mean it!” Maximus said a little unsteadily in his wine cups. “He’s a young scrote from Rome. He doesn’t know what it means to have your village burned down by those heathens, to have to bury your family!” Maximus’s eyes went wide as he too, thought back to his childhood.
“Well, unlucky for you, that Captain scrote in there has the ear of Senator Vars!” Said Taxon, a rangy, gap-toothed centurion older than Maximus.
“Huh?” Maximus shrugged. What did he care who the Captain was friends with?
“Ugh, you’re as thick as pig-dung, Maximus. Don’t you go to the Baths? Hear the latest gossip – even a centurion would do well with seeing which way the wind is blowing in Mother Rome.” Taxon cackled. “There’s a new crop of Senators beeing appointed by the Consuls, replacing all those that died of the Coughing Fever last winter. One of them is Senator Vibis Vars; a youngish chap from Rome city itself.”
“So? I don’t see what this really has to do with me.” Maximus grunted.
“Well, if you took any attention to politics, like every centurion who wants to know his ass from his elbow should, you would know that the Octavius family and the Vars have been allies for generations. Vibius and Captain Nico grew up together. One word from Captain scrote and they’ll have you sent off packing for Briton.” Taxon laughed, as some of those around the fire shivered in disgust. It was well known that the Briton’s barely dressed, had no sanitation, and even ate their own. A gods-forsaken wildland under eternal rain and snow.
“Well, maybe we’ll be lucky and that knock on his head will finish him off before I have to…” Maximus sneered. “He’ll get us all killed, I tell you.”
“Centurion!” Taxon hissed, suddenly angry. “I’ve seen men hung for less treason then that! The Captain took down all of those northmen bodyguards, and the chief singlehanded, didn’t he? He’s no trembling mothers’ boy. If you want to get one over him then you had better get up earlier in the morning, I say!” Taxon cursed him, spitting into the fire. “I can’t listen to any more of this. Lucky if I don’t report you myself!” He hobbled off to his bedroll in the darkness.
Behind him Maximus still grumbled, but one thing did stick in his mind. The Captain’s friend’s a Senator. An ugly grin spread over Maximus’s face as an idea started to form…
The Imperial City of Rome rose above the Field of Mars in front of the Tiber River like a god. Straddled across seven hills, the city was the finest of its kind anywhere in the Known World. Its white walls shone when hit by the morning sun, and beyond them one could see its turrets and towers, buildings, and the vast domes and statuary of the amphitheaters and temples.
It always felt good to see the old city again, and it brought a smile to the face of Captain Octavius, as he temporarily forgot his thumping headache. His wound had not been more than a club to the head it turned out, but it was enough to annoy him.
Outside the walls and along the road a makeshift tented city had been tolerated, as hundreds and thousands of the poor and dispossessed came to find their wealth and riches here, in the home of the empire. Nicodemus could see Hiring Markets going on, as traders and workers from the city selected the best of the poor for a day’s labor on Rome’s fabled cobbled streets. On the other side of them, the air rung with the sound of haggling and bargaining, as people attempted to trade every conceivable object and service under the sun to the approaching centurions.
“Get away with you!” Taxon waved aside a gaggle of fortune-peddlers, clearing the road for the squadron to trot their horses up to one of the open gates. “Practice in the morning, sir?” Taxon called back.
Nico could see how his men’s eyes roamed favorably over the market, and all of the pleasures it might contain for returning soldiers. “Not tomorrow Taxon, tell the men to take a day off, and we’ll practice at the Field of Vejovis after first light the next day.” There was a cheer from the men, as they rushed to whatever errands and desires called them the most. The only one left behind with the Captain was Neuvius.
“Need help getting back sire?” The lad said, indicating the Captain’s head.
“No son, this is just a knock. I’m sure you have a sweetheart waiting for you somewhere in the city.” Nico grinned at the boy’s discomfort, before watching as he bobbed his head, and making his own eager way through the gates.
“When was I ever that young?” Nico muttered as he raised a hand to his aching head, dismounting from his horse as he nodded to the gate guards and stepped into the precinct of loud, smelly, raucous Rome.
“Not that long ago, I’m sure!” he was answered by a voice nearing him, and he looked up to see a handsome man of about his age, with black hair swept back from a high brow, wearing the cream and white robes of a senator.
“Vibius!?” Nico spluttered in delight. “Is that really you – and what’s this?” Nico pointed at the thin golden chain of office. “No! Really? How long was I gone? Has the world gone mad!” He teased, before the two men clasped forearms in a traditional comrade’s greeting.
“Three months this time, brother,” Vibius Plutocrates Vars said. “Just enough time for me to get the ear of Consul Contilius.” Vibius grinned. “What can I say?”
“That they like the fact that your family has money?” Nicodemus jibed back.
“Scandal! Have this petty centurion arrested!” Vibius pantomimed, “but wait before you denounce me Nico – there is someone here who was desperate to come with me to greet you on your victorious return!” Vibius stepped aside to reveal a large wooden carriage – a Carpentum pulled by a team of four horses. It’s side door was open, and from it stepped down a woman with tanned golden skin, and long black hair as thick as night.
“Lamphria!” Nicodemus’s heart leapt as he rushed to her side.
“Oh my Nico – what have they done to you? What did they do?” She kissed his bandaged head softly, and then his eyes, and then his lips.
“It is but a scratch, nothing could beat the ache in my heart when leaving you…” Nico breathed, marveling at how radiant she looked, every time that he went away and came back once again.
“Oh, you are still a stubborn old goat!” She chided him, but she was laughing and crying as she said it.
“So your answer?” Nico pressed. “Tell me: will you marry me, Lamphria Isidorus, before Venus and Jupiter and Apollo, and…”
“Oh wait, here? You ask me now?” Lamphria clutched her soldier to her. “Yes. Before the gods; yes.”
Joy shook through Nico’s form stronger than any wound. He almost felt dizzy with the force of it, as he turned to shout back at his friend.
“You hear that, Vibius? She says yes! Lamphria says yes! We’ll be married before three weeks is out!” He said gleefully, returning to cover Lamphria’s cheeks with kisses.
Behind him, unseen, the grinning and smiling face of Senator Vibius Plutocrates Vars suddenly fell as thunder crossed his countenance. Anyone who might be observing the encounter might think that the new Senator Vars was far from happy at his friends’ good fortune.
Even when the night falls in Rome, a city of her size never truly sleeps. From its dark streets there could still be heard the clatter of wagons, the shuffle of steps, the steady beat of the guards as they patrolled. The scents of bread baking, and the last of the incense smoldering into the coals of last night’s burners and fires mixes in the air.
But it is still peaceful, in a way, thinks the figure, standing at his balcony overlooking the dirty city before him. Somewhere a group of crows squabble as they are unsettled in their nest, and there is the distant shout of a guard chasing down a petty criminal.
To Vibius Plutocrates Vars it felt peaceful because the harsh light of the day had gone. The scrutiny, the eyes of the public, the petty rivalries and desires had faded. Now was the time that serious work was done, and it was to the work of the Senate that he was about to depart as they held another session.
The new Senator took his job seriously, he would attend every Senate meeting, argue his case, and vote tactically to shore up his position, or those of his allies. The game of Rome was a complex one, and it never slept. A favor here, a favor there, and the ‘likable young Vibius’ had become the ‘dependable young Vibius’ and perhaps, soon to be even the ‘well-respected Vibius’.
It was all a matter of timing, and of steady, careful work done under the cover of darkness. The business of the daytime – with its desperate grand gestures and amazed crowds was the stuff for fools – and it was to this realm that Vibius had cast his friend Nicodemus’s sudden proposal of marriage to none other than Lamphria Isidorus.
“What does he know of serious work?” Vibius asked the city. He felt a slow-burning anger in his chest when he thought of his friend and ally Nicodemus Octavius. Captain Octavius, as it was now.
Vibius had spent years working at his career, positioning himself to be invited to the right parties and to put up with the utter stupidity of the right people. He had bent or twisted the laws of the Republic more times than even he remembered for the sake of a potential ally, and what celebration or glory does he get? How many nights had he sacrificed for the good of the city that favored dull-witted men with swords?
Vibius had seen the ripple of applause around the pair even at the gate, and since then, his circles of peers hadn’t stopped talking about the upcoming marriage of the elevated – and promising looking – young Captain Octavius, and some soldier’s girl Isidorus.
But what accolades do they give me? He thought with a fury that almost frightened him. Anyone can wave a sword about, frighten a few northmen.
The real reason behind his anger he knew of course; was Lamphria herself. Vibius had grown up with Nicodemus, and together they had learnt to wrestle and to quarrel, and to ride horses. It had been Vibius who had first bested Nico at wooden sword play – not that any would believe it now! And together, it seems, they had come to the same conclusion about women.
Lamphria was a rare beauty, Vibius knew. Too rare a bloom for the likes of such oafish hands as Nico’s. The fact that the centurion had even found her amidst all of the others, out there in the grand city of Rome had always amazed Vibius.
What did she see in him? He’s beneath her! Vibius was sure of it. Lamphria, apart from being beautiful was also a lovely conundrum. She was gracious and graceful, and looked as though Venus herself had come down to earth – and yet she also had a wicked and sly sense of humor, an intellect that was almost a rival to his own, Vibius thought.
Over the years of their slow courtship, Vibius had seen his two best friends grow closer and closer, their attraction unable to be contained any longer.
But am I not a gracious man? A good friend? Vibius had let it happen. He did love his friend Nicodemus like a brother. He wanted Nico to have the best of things in life, but always before Vibius had been certain that one day Lamphria would see through Nico’s dubious charms and finally notice him; Vibius Vars, in the shadows all along.
Together they would laugh at how foolish she had been, and even Nico would accept that the better man had finally won. Things would be as they were meant to be, at last.
Lamphria was destined to be mine, obviously. Vars thought, his knuckles whitening as they clutched the balcony stone. The thought that she and Nico could mistakenly get married – could have children, could swear oaths to each other would threaten all of that.
“I cannot let it happen. But how? How to stop them?” He muttered, as a servant behind him coughed. “Yes? What is it?”
“Your litter for the Senate, sire. It awaits you at the door.” The servant bowed and withdrew, leaving Vibius to arrange his robes one final time, smoothing his hair before sweeping to the door, and his quiet steady work beyond.
The Senator had only just managed to settle on the wobbly box, held aloft by the six slaves before a figure detached from the shadows of under a tree, masked in a heavy cloak, and came rushing towards him.
“Guards!” Vibius gasped, feeling for his side-knife.
“Senator Vars! Senator Vars sir!” The large robed man whispered, ducking his head. “I mean you no harm – I bring urgent news. News of Captain Octavius – you know Captain Octavius, don’t you, sir?” The man held his breath as two of Var’s door guards clattered to the side of the street. Vibius waved them off impatiently.
“I do. What of it? Is the man well?” Vibius asked tersely.
The heavy-set robed man raised his head, letting the robe fall away from a balding head. The smell of wine wafted up from the man who had clearly spent the early evening deep in his cups.
“Yes Senator-sir, he is well, but I have disturbing news. I serve with him, you see – and I saw him let a load of northmen go. The Boar, too! The Chief that sacked Varsillaiom! He let them go, not punishment nor tribute nor nothing!” Centurion Maximus spat.
The Senator couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Captain Octavius? Are you telling me that he – he was helping the northmen?” Vibius felt an odd fluttering in his stomach, and he wasn’t sure if it was excitement, or fear. He knew that something very important was about to happen. The wild northmen had been a scourge of the northern Imperial rule, attacking and sacking the newly established outposts, and resisting their Roman Governors at every step and turn.
“Helping? Depends how you look at it, sir. He let them go free, only to come back whenever their bellies are empty.” The Centurion scowled.
“And you are?” Vibius asked.
“A Centurion under Captain Octavius’s command, Senator. You ask any of them. Taxon, Neuvius. Under oath they’ll tell the truth, and you’ll see that I’m right.” The man said, before nodding his head. “I won’t keep you sire. I know you’re a busy man.” The centurion stepped backwards, allowing the litter once again room to travel.
As the Senator wobbled his way through the city, he wondered at what had just happened – and at the strange centurion’s message.
The hall of the Senators was wide and circular, dressed in the finest of marble, with coals burning in their censures to distribute some warmth around the room. Vibius Vars spent the hours feeling as though his whole body was enervated with some mysterious force, lightning coiled in his belly, perhaps. Thoughts of Lamprhia, of Nicodemus, and that strange centurion’s words kept on coming back to him again and again – so much so that he missed half of the debate about how to shore up the garrisons on the Eastern Border.
Could it really be that simple? Could it? He wondered if the god Apollo were looking down on him, favoring him with skill and good fortune.
“And now, gentlemen of the Senate we come to the issue of Briton.” The Senate Crier announced. So far they had sent Generals and Legions up there to that gods-forsaken rock in the freezing sea, and all that they had received back were requests for more troops, more weapons, more armor, and more troops! Were it not for the regions rich seams of gold and silver then Vibius would advocate leaving the island to drown in its eternal inter-tribal rivalries.
But now, an entirely different idea appealed to him.
I can’t have Lamphria.
I can’t have Lamphria if she and Nicodemus are married.
I can’t have Lamphria with Nicodemus here.
Edging forward on his bench, he gently tapped the shoulder of the corpulent man in front of him. “Consul Contilius?” He said quietly, keeping his voice low as he leaned forward to whisper into the man’s ear.
The message came the very next day, early morning by a Runner. Nicodemus met the Runner at the door by their tiny home, his towel still wrapped around his body. The Mediterranean sun shone in through the open doorway, as he thanked the boy, tore the wax seal, and unrolled the scroll.
No. It cannot be.
“My love? What is it?” Muffled noises came from inside the house. A splash of water, a thump and thud of heavy linens and cloths and a few moments later Lamphria appeared, her own robe already securely and expertly tied, as she fixed her thick, dark hair over her head. She was still half asleep herself, until she noticed the look on her fiancee’s face. “Nico? By Hera – what is it?”
Nicodemus had no words to answer her, he just looked up, his face distraught. Wordlessly, his beautiful partner took the scroll from him, and read for herself.
“Captain Nicodemus Marius Octavius,
By Order of the Generals of Rome, as counter-signed by the Senate of the Most Glorious Roman Republic;
You are hereby commissioned to set forth for the Garrison of Gaulish Sileni, there to collect taxes from Lord Septimus, and receive a report on behalf of Rome. You are empowered by the Senate and the Republic on her behalf as Tax Collector, with all responsibilities, duties, powers, and oaths associated.
Strength and Honour~”
“But Nico – why? Why would they do this?” Lamphria says, as startled as he.
“I do not know. But I have to go. You know that I have to go.” Nico looked tired, but he smiled sadly. “It is not such a long time, my dear. I will go and come back before you even notice it! I will come back to you, and then we can be married.”
“Yes my love,” Lamphria places her hand on her belly, just slightly showing its first swell. “But come soon.”