The Collector I-III

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The Captain hurt all over. His body was patterned fresh yellow and green over fading purple, the old bruises and scrapes of his fall into the icy river fading as the fresher bruises replaced them; parting gifts from the fists of the Boar’s men when they had chucked him in here.

The Hole was well named – barely larger than a well, the rounded cavern had only one entrance – and that was from above. A vertical shaft that stretched nearly thirty feet straight up to the chill winter’s air above. There were other narrow fissures, cracks, and gaps through the soft, porous-like rock, Nico saw – there had to be, because every night the Hole filled with an inch or so of water, and it had all soaked away by the time that morning had come.

The Captain wondered how many people had drowned down here.

Nico also wondered if he could still call himself a Captain if he had lost his entire squad, and got the last two imprisoned alongside him. Taxon was taking it well, all things considered – better than Neuvius, anyway. The youngest didn’t speak at all now, however many days had gone by. Nicodemus wondered which one would die first.

“They’re coming.” Said a third voice, the only other occupant of their dungeon – an old man who had been down here when they had been hoisted down on ropes, and who had helped untie their hands and legs from the rope that the barbarians had hoisted hem down with.

Neuvius had made it obvious that he wanted to kill the old man, that he didn’t trust him – but Taxon had counselled patience.

“Why?” Nico heard himself ask, and the old man’s albino-like face loomed out of the murky darkness. The Captain thought that the old man looked a little like those odd deep-sea fish that were eventually brought into the fish markets. Pale, ugly-looking things, all eyes and pocked flesh.

“Questions, maybe?” The old man named Vestus coughed. He had lank, blonde hair that had grown long and wiry in the dark. His skin – when visible was pale and looked ill. His eyes were rheumy and almost opaque as he scrabbled towards the Tax Collector. Vestus claimed that he had been down here for more days than he had fingers – and Nico could well believe him. “Questions for you,” Vestus bobbed his head towards Nicodemus.

“Hhm.” Nico grunted, trying to sound determined and strong – for the boy’s sake at least, but found that he could answer nothing.

I’m going to die down here, we all are. Or worse – become like this poor fool Vestus!

The crunch and thump of feet far above, then the low grumble of laughter. A sudden scattering sound as a handful of – somethings – are thrown down the shaft, and the feet thump and crunch away. Vestus’s face turns to the illuminated patch of well-light eagerly, hungrily, and Nico could look past him to see, gleaming on the floor a handful of cast-off hunks of bread, a few pig’s knuckles, and little else. Not enough to keep four men alive, but more food than any of them had had in a few days.

“Food!” Neuvius, the younger, croaked – his voice breaking on the last syllable as he scrabled to the light.

“Wait!” Vestus said, grabbing the boy’s torn tunic.

“Get off!” Neuvius shrugged the weakened old man away easily, throwing him back against the wall to hit it with a painful-sounding thud.

“Neuvius!” Taxon croaked, but the boy was already moving, scrabbling in the light for the food. Nico didn’t say anything, wondering if this was it – the time that they would have to fight each other for scraps. He knew that he wouldn’t do it.

But how can I leave my Lamphria? A desperate voice inside of him said. Would you not do anything to get out of here?

“Not for you, old man!” Neuvius was saying. “This food is for me, Taxon and the Captain! I’ve had enough of you, I’ve…”

His voice suddenly stopped as there came the sound of laughter from above, echoing down the shaft. Nico just had time to see Neuvius look up, then he heard the splat as the barbarians above threw down handfuls of horse shit at the upturned face.

“Phagh! Uch!” Neuvius coughed and spluttered, skittering back with most of the food clutched to his chest – the rest ruined by the foul-smelling gunk. Nico still knew that they would end up eating it anyway, if it came to it.

“I told you to wait…” the old man foolishly said, as something snapped inside of Neuvius. He screamed, throwing himself against the side of the wall, rebounding off of it, and dropping the food everywhere. The sound of barbarian laughter could be plainly heard above them all.

“It’s you! Your fault!” the boy launched himself at Vestus, his young arms still the strongest of all of them as he seized he old man by the neck.

Boy!” Taxon was hissing from his crouch, too weak to move. A startled shriek from Vestus, and it was up to Nico to seize his youngest centurion around the chest, and pry his fingers from their neighbors throat.

“Get off me! Get off me!” Neuvius was shouting.

“Steady, son. I know – no one wants to be down here…” Nico was whispering as the laughter continued above.

“No! It’s not fair! Not fair – I shouldn’t be here-! I never deserved this!” Neurvius rage broke in a sudden swell, leaving him with just cold, shaking sobs as he slumped in his commander’s arms.

None of us did, boy,” whispered Taxon from the wall, his voice sounding thin and watery. “Glory to Rome. Glory to the Legions.”

Nico couldn’t make out if the older centurion was being sarcastic, or reminding the younger of his duty. Perhaps both. You could never escape your duty, after all. And then he saw Taxon shudder, and slump still. There was a feeling of goosebumps over Nicodemius’s skin as they all realized at once what had happened.

Taxon had died.

Ave,” Nico whispered.

Ave.” The boy, broken and now another comrade down, whispered.

*

Nicodemus couldn’t say how long it took them to haul the body of Taxon out, but his and Vestus’s voice was hoarse from shouting for them to come, when they eventually did. It grew cold, and a flurry of snow came down the well shaft on their upturned faces as they waited.

“Sometimes they leave the dead down here,” the older Vestus whispered, looking fearfully upwards again and again. Nico wondered if he had gone quite mad with his long incarceration down here.

Eventually, however, with a thump, down fell a blanket, and a scrap of twine, followed by guttural Germanic speech that the Captain didn’t understand.

“We tie up the body. Wrap and tie them. Take them away.” Vestus muttered, snatching at the cloth to start wrapping Taxon’s legs.

Just like at home. Nico thought, remembering how each Roman body is wrapped and taken to the funerary pyres, or the catacombs. Odd to think that up here, in the far Gaulish North they would treat their dead enemies in the same way.

“Leave him,” Neuvius shuddered. “I said, leave him!” He batted away at Vestus’s pale and pocked hands. “I’ll do it. He was my friend.”

“Yes, young sir, yes.” The older replied hurriedly, not wanting a repeat of what had happened earlier. The Captain watched the boy as he worked, carefully smoothing the older centurion’s hair aside, closing his staring eyes, massaging his stiffened limbs to get the blanket to wrap around them. Nico could see a traumatized man when he saw one, and he wondered if – if any of them got out of this – he would ever be the same again.

Neuvius was quiet as he worked, carefully tying the blanket down and leaning back to look at his work. Something had changed in him, he was quiet and self-contained, and obviously riven with guilt. Nico wondered what he was thinking, as a rope fell from above, and Vestus, without saying a word, pointed to the body. The boy nodded, grimacing as he tied the rope around Taxon’s crooked feet, and pulled on the rope to tell the barbarian guards above that they were done.

“Wrap them up, carry them away.” Vestus breathed, repeating the mantra again and again until Neuvius shot him a warning look. They watched as the rope went taught, and the body of their friend was dragged up, into the light and away. Neuvius sat for a long time, watching the well where his friend had gone, and then turned, without saying a word, and hunkered down in the dead man’s corner, and was silent. Nico waited, but it was impossible to tell if the boy was asleep or merely in mourning.

“Never give up. You can’t give up.” Vestus sighed sadly after a while, and the Tax Collector made an agreeing noise. Your spirit had to be as hard as stone and ice sometimes, if you were to survive. Nico knew that, when people are tested there are a number of ways that they might choose – either they become harder and fiercer, or they break into a thousand fragments. He had yet to judge which way Neuvius would go.

“How long have you been here, Vestus?” Nicodemus said under his breath.

“Too long!” He said at once, almost chuckling, before his watery breath caught, and he frowned as he coughed. A flutter of hands as he tried to count, then shook his head. “Summer? Since Summer?”

Nico tried to calculate how long ago that had been – a few months, at least. Had he been down here all that time? “Did the Boar attack back in Summer? The Barbarian Wulfric?” He asked. He was astounded and amazed that, if that was the case, no word had got back to Rome. Half a year of barbarian invasion of a Roman township? Even Captain Aurelius back at the border fort – as corrupt as he might have been, would have had to send word about that…?

But we were attacked on the pass. Attacked by forces that could have been military… Nico tried to get his half-starved, and very-exhausted head to work.

“Wulfric? The Boar?” Vestus appeared amused, smiling wryly. “Not the barbarian’s you have to worry about, if they’ve sent you to Sileni!” He almost cackled.

“They?” Nico asked. “Who’s they? The barbarian tribes? The Gaulish?”

“Ha. Silly centurion. Truth and Honor, yes? Ha!” Vestus chuckled under his breath again. “Septimus was in league with the Boar a long time before you came here, a long time before I came here, I think.”

“Ah yes, Governor Septimus.” Nico felt a surge of anger, so powerful that it made his hands shake, but he forced it down, doing his best to ignore it. Now wasn’t the time to explode, or lose that fury. He had to temper it, to turn it into a white-hot fire that would burn through every obstacle between here and getting back to his Lamphria.

“But how does Septimus stay in charge, riddle me that, centurion?” Vestus asked snidely. “The Boar treats him like his own lapdog – why doesn’t Septimus just call in the Legions?”

Nico wondered himself. It wasn’t too far until the next outpost – and the ninth and the thirteenth were always back and forth through Gaul. They probably passed by Sileni only a days’ ride or so away three or four times this year alone! It wouldn’t take a lot to send a runner, or a pigeon even.

“It only makes sense if Wulfric has got a hold on Septimus somehow. Hostages? Greed?” Nico wondered.

“Wrong questions, centurion!” Vestus laughed again. “How many hostages before it becomes too much, too far? When even a sword to the gullet or a bird to the Legions sounds like a better option? The barbarians have been here a long time, they are comfortable – and they are not going anywhere, you see…”

Yes, it is true. The Boar had been a menace throughout the mountain and near territories for this past year, Nicodemus thought. He had thought for a long time that perhaps he had a base somewhere up here. Somewhere that he could run and hide to.

And it looks like Sileni has been it, all along. Nico nodded. But it still didn’t make sense. He frowned.

“Ahhh – you see it now?” Vestus’s eye twinkled in the scant light.

“Why doesn’t Wulfric press his advantage? Or carry his spoils home?” Nico murmured. “Yes, he might be successful here – but unless he captures more territory, or leads a full-scale revolt – why is he just sitting here, in this tiny out of the way place for so long?”

“Yes, go on…” Vestus urged.

“How could he get away with it for so long?” Nico whispered.

“Aha!” The older prisoner nodded. “Exactly. How? Impossible, yes? It cannot be done.”

Nico shook his head. No. It went against all sense that an entire Gaulish war-band could control a town in roman territory, and no one notice it at all. Unless, of course….

“Let me tell you a story, centurion. One that might make a little more sense to you…” The old prisoner’s voice began…

*

“I met him at the Senate – although he wasn’t a Senator, but then again, neither was I. We were just two young men, caught up in the strength of our youth.

We didn’t know it then, but those were the happiest times of our lives. Or they were going to be, looking back. His name didn’t matter – only that he had auburn-olive skin, the sort that looked like bronze in the sun, and shed water like a seal. Oh! He was a beautiful man, and he must have taken pity on me – for I was nothing but a shallow, bookish clerk from the Hill of Medes. I had never been a particularly sporty sort of youth nor man. My father was a Senator, you see, so we never craved money nor food. I never had to work for anything except managing the estate’s books – which I did well of course, always making sure that I and my friend got a sizeable allowance to play with.

The problem, as you can imagine – wasn’t particularly that he and I were men. Did not Apollo and Mercury themselves have male lovers? And the old Spartans from ancient times too? No – my father could understand that – although he found any public show of affection between men a little distasteful to his senses – no, what my father had always hated was the fact that the boy was a servant. He was a slave. A very high-class slave, but a slave nonetheless.

You see, my father had brought me to the Senate that day to ensure that I started to learn the rules of governorship – because maybe I, too, would be elected to the Senate after my father had passed onto the law courts or retired. It was to be my big entrance to Roman society; and I fell in love with the wine-boy.

My father was furious. He couldn’t stand the fact that his son was so intent on embarrassing him in front of the other Senators. There was some war on of course, as there always is for the glory of Rome, and my father was trying to win sway over one section or another of the Senate, and my liking for slaves and servants played into my father’s enemies cries of our family being bleeding-hearts, and too soft for the campaigns.

Anyway, he sent me away to be schooled in Iberia; there to learn warring and rising horses and hopefully fall for some Iberian girl.

Of course the heart wants what the heart wants though, doesn’t it? I could no more fall for a girl than I could stop thinking of my slave-boy back in the senate. When my schooling was done, and I returned to Rome a man, I found that my lover had gone, had been sent off to some distant outpost, and I was bereft. I was foolish – thinking that my father would forever love me no matter what, would lavish his estate and legacy upon me, as his only son.

However, that was just not to be – my father, you see, had taken a new wife while I was being schooled for those many long years in the west. He had taken a new, plump little wife and they had had fat little twins. Boys, would you believe it – both as fair as my father had been, and both as malicious. My new stepmother disapproved of me going near them, and worked against me in my father’s heart and so, once again, when I sought to find the lover of my youth, my father intervened.

‘I have a job for you at last, my son!’ My father had said. ‘Go and do this task well, and you may return here with riches and my blessing.’

I was amazed. Did he mean that I could lead the life that I wanted? That I could find my slave-boy and that he would let me have a little of the inheritance, and that we two would disappear off to the estates, to pick grapes and maybe grow an orchard or two?

It seemed that he did. ‘I have talked to my friends in the Senate, and they have agreed to sent you to Sileni.’

‘Sileni? Where by the holy name of Jupiter is that?’ I remember asking.

‘Sileni will be your future, son,’ I remember my father telling me. ‘They need a clerk. Someone to sort out their governing accounts, and keep records. It will only be a couple of years, and then you may return. I have spoken especially to some of my friends here on the Senate, and this is what they advise…’

Of course, how was I to know that this was all a part of my father’s deception. A wonderful way to get me out of the way, to send me off to the edges of the empire for a few years, perhaps hoping that I would either die or decide to never come back. Maybe fall in love with some strapping barbarian lad and leave him and the two brats to inherit.

It was only after the first few months that I started to suspect that there was something much more suspicious going on up here with the Governor Septimus.

The Governor gave me scrolls and accounts that never quite balanced, no matter whom I interviewed or how I looked at the numbers. Large sums disappearing, and at a constant rate. When I asked about it, I was told to keep quiet – and when I started to think that I should send a bird to the next outpost, well, that was when the accusations started. That I had been stealing money, that I had assaulted someone, that I was a liar, or had disgraced Rome. Within the span of a few short ten-days, I was thrown into the hole here, and have been here ever since…

 

*

Vestus panted as if he had run a race after telling his story. For the man listening, it felt to the Captain as if his heart had grown as cold as ice. There was something about the older prisoner’s story that made a horrid kind of sense to him. It all fit so perfectly with his own story, but if only he could join up the dots…

“You have suffered long, my friend,” he said at last. “But when we are free – you will be safe again, I promise. You may even find the man that you love.”

Love. The word felt too painful to say in Nicodemus’s throat. Images of Lamphria rose, unbidden in his mind: Lamphria with her hair down, laughing, Lamphria running through the small orchard, Lamphria stopping to smell some of the vegetables and spices in one of the many Roman markets. She was everything to him.

“Ha! And I thought that you had more sense than that!” Vestus laughed morosely. “No, if I ever feel the proper sunlight and fresh air on my face again, it’ll be through the cloth of one of those death-blankets!” He chuckled, and Nico winced as the sound was so sickly, weak and cruel. The Tax Collector was sure that the man was right.

“You see, Captain, there is a part to my story that you have yet to admit.” Vestus said urgently. “That you have yet to understand.”

“Go on,” Nico nodded in the darkness.

“Over the long months that I have been down here, there have been others. Others like us, like you, like the boy and your centurion there. Always the odd centurion, the old senator’s son, or some disgraced official or another. Sent up here o collect taxes or keep books or deliver some new edict or another – and all of them have ended up down here, with me in the dark.” Vestus said, somewhat ghoulishly. “You see, captain – that is the real question that you should be asking. How does Wulfric and Septimus get away with it? Why has no one noticed these good people missing?”

The penny dropped for Nicodemus all at once, and only this time the wave of feeling that swept through him wasn’t a hot anger that threatened to shake his hands and twitch his limbs – it was a cold flush, a feeling of ice freezing him solid. He had been pushed o his breaking point, but instead of exploding as the boy had done, the Tax Collector was refined and purified.

Vibius. The word hung in his mind like an accusation, a promise, a debt that needed collecting. The captain didn’t need to hear the agreeing information from Vestus, but he did anyway.

“Do you know the one thing that I, and every other one of those wanderers who ended up down here had in common, captain?” Vestus asked.

“I think I do.” Nico answered. “Were they all sent here, by the Senate?”

“Yes, Captain. What do you think about your Truth and Honor to Rome now, huh?” The old man asked. “This place – Sileni – it isn’t just some corrupt little provincial Governor, paying off the local Gaulish warlord. It is far more than that, Captain. It is the sinkhole for the Senate’s problems; the troublemakers and all of those who are better out of the picture, at least in their mind.” Vestus growled.

“But, but why?” Nico’s voice was calm and measured, but very, very exact. “What threat have I ever been to the Senate?” Even now, he could think of no crime that he had committed that had earned him this.

“Oh, Captain!” The old prisoner laughed. “You think that it is only the criminals and the deserving who end up here? Or the ones with impolite passions and scandals, such as me?” Nico couldn’t see the man, but he could sense him wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes. “The Senate is just a gang of power-hungry thugs! Lost in their games of politics with each other, waging their wars, deciding on their laws, whilst the rest of us have to toil and do the work for them. What else could it be? Maybe you did nothing to the Senate, or maybe they feared the man that you might become, or the fame that you already had. Or maybe one of them has a grudge against you. Think. Do you know any of the Senate? Have you had any dealings with them at all?” The man asked.

Vibius. The name rang in Nico’s head once again, like a bell.

Vibius Plutocrates Vars.

“Yes, I have had dealings with them.” Nico said in the darkness.

*

That night – or what they thought must be night, as they grew tired, and the light changed from a shaft of yellow to a filtered deep grey – that night the boy Neuvius disappeared.

Nico awoke as his body was shivering, but curiously he didn’t feel cold. He wondered if it was the first stage of hypothermia, or whether his internal rage was so deep that he would never feel any pain again. After he had realized what had happened, he had slumped into quiet, but it was a different quiet then the one that Neuvius had descended into. It was a quiet of a waiting raptor, or a crouching tiger. It was the concentrated pressure and tension of compressed rage, forming a perfect stillness.

Nico opened his eyes with a particularly powerful body tremor, to hear scraping and pained sounds. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, and when the pitch black had merely become a dep grey, he realized that what he was listening to was the boy Neuvius seeking to climb out of the shaft.

The Tax Collector was quite impressed with the boy’s resilience, if not his wits. They will be guarding up there. He thought, as he moved his limbs towards the well-shaft, to see if he could coax the boy back down.

Neuvius was spread like a spider, pushing his way up the shaft using his legs, back, and arms. Every muscle was taut and tense as he moved ever higher, inch by inch. He was even near the top when Nico saw him.

Neuvius! No – wait, I have a plan-!” Nico hissed, realizing only at that moment that he did. It was a foolish, crazy sort of plan, but the only one that he could see working with the limited resources that they had before them.

“No, captain, you saw what happened to Taxon. I heard you last night. This ‘ain’t our fault you pissed off some bloody self-important prick from the Senate. I won’t stay for you, captain, I won’t!” The boy hissed back down, and Nico couldn’t really blame him for the decision. If the tables were turned, and he was in that boy’s position, then what would he do?

Everything I could to get back to Lamphria. My Lamphria. Nico wondered if the boy was even making sense, but still chose to fall silent otherwise he would alert the guards himself.

I’ll wait. If the boy makes it, I’ll follow, if I am still strong enough to do what he is doing. The captain thought. I’ll even carry Vestus on my back!

The Tax Collector found himself grinning, bearing his teeth in the night, and knew that he was near hysterical with rage and desperation. He watched as the boy reached the top, then paused, breathing, and flipped an arm to the stone edge of the well, and, his muscles bulging and sweat falling from him, hauled himself over the top, to land with a thump on the other side.

The Collector held his breath, and even his heart appeared to stop for a second. He looked up at a circular patch of sky far above, silver-grey. After a pause the grey parted, revealing a darker shade, and a singular, shining star.

My love… Nico wondered if Lamphria herself was looking out of her Mediterranean window at that moment, wondering what might be happening to him. If only you could see me now, if only I could fly away, as straight as an arrow-

Phwt! As if in answer to his thought, the sound of the wind ripping in two, answered him.

Phwt, Phwt-Phwt! The inevitable thud of arrows piercing the ground, a guttural, Gaulish shout, and the sound of urgent feet running over churned up mud. But the problem was that Neuvius, despite being the youngest, had already spent weeks underground in cramped conditions, with little food and even less light. Nico listened as he stumbled, cursed, spat, and then-

Phwt-Phwt!

Nico thought that there was an almost recognizable sound as an arrow hits human flesh. It is not the dull, heavy thud of an arrow landing in mud, or the sharp Sprong! – of an arrow embedding itself in wood. Instead, it is a wetter, meatier sound, and the swift exhale and gurgle as blood fills the throat and lungs from a burst heart.

Another thud, as Neuvius fell to whatever ground was up there, followed by the harsh, cruel cheers and cries of the Gaulish guards up top. It was all a part of the game to them, Nico saw. Another fine piece of sport for bored soldiers.

*

Vestus was not surprised when Nico told him the news the next morning. He made an agreeing, nodding sort of sound as if it was all normal.

“It has happened before.” The old prisoner agreed. “They try to escape, they die. There is no escape from the Hole. There is just waiting, and there is just death.”

“There might be a way,” Nico contradicted him. “A way for one of us to get out.”

Vestus looked at Nico, incredulous. “Ha. You have only been here a few weeks – or is it months now? You are still hopeful and foolish.” Vestus leaned against one side of the cavern, stretching out his legs in the damp stone. “And what would you do when you are free, my tax-collecting captain?” He laughed.

Lamphria! The man thought, but did not say. Her name seemed too precious for this place of darkness and woe.

“You know what I would do?” Vestus continued. “I would go back and find the Treasure of Wulfric!”

Nico had to laugh, but it came out as a hollow sound. “The Treasure of Wufric? The Boar, you mean?”

“A myth perhaps,” Vestus sighed sadly. “But I think that there is a reason that Rome has not been getting its tithes, nor Wulfric wearing gold. A few months ago I overheard the guards above talking about that Wulfric was hoarding all of his gold that he was stealing from Septimus – and that he was working with some Roman fort along the mountains, taking as many lives and jewels as they escorted through!”

Aurelius. Nico thought, nodding to himself. That would explain the attack.

“The guards said that between them, Wulfric, Septimus, an this roman fort, they had a vast treasure trove – enough for all of them to retire on, if they could agree on how to split it!”

“And you know where it is, I take it?” Nico smiled weakly, thinking that it must surely be a soldier’s late-night story.

“I told you that I worked as a clerk, did I not?” Vestus said. “And you know what we clerks’ do? We ask questions. We read. We scour documents. I found out where the treasure-trove is, I think, and I was close to discovering just what was going on here at Sileni, before Septimus had me ‘vanished’. But the truth was, that there were a lot of reports, accounts, and sightings of barbarians as well as messengers travelling up to an island on the edge of the widest rivers, and every time they did that, the money never added up afterwards.”

“I see. The treasure-trove of the three most corrupt men in the entire empire?” Nico asked.

“No.” Vestus said, his voice as serious as a blade. “The most corrupt men in history would surely be the Senate themselves!”

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