First bit here:
Escalation of events.
Julianus was nowhere to be found when I rode down the western perimeter to his lodgings. I hailed him heartily but the only replies came from the birds and insects. Unlike some landowners, I have never been one to simply barge into a lodging even though, technically, I own it. People make their homes and with that comes a sense of beneficial occupancy if not ownership, and I am uncomfortable with the thought of invading that small space and stripping away the freedom the occupants feel inside their walls. It did not come naturally to me in the army and, thankfully, it does not come naturally to me now.
So there I was, at a loss and a loose end. I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what it meant to me that my brother and my wife had formed at least a physical relationship in my absence. How long had it been going on? For how long had I toiled away in a place I didn’t want to be, doing things I didn’t want to do for people I loathed, only to discover that my efforts had been funding my family’s betrayal of me?
I had to sort this and sift it, lest it drive me from distraction to genuine stupidity. Whatever the situation, there would be an outcome, and as pained as I was in that moment I had to tell myself that the sun would rise and there would be a time when I was past all of this.
Julianus saved me from more introspection and even more dark thoughts. He hailed me from a distance and I heard his voice barely carry on the thin breeze. I rode to him as he raced to me, his eyes wide and his mouth open and yelling as he came. “Do not go home!” I finally made out his cries, and they perplexed me. “Veer off! Run and hide!” he called. His mount had been ridden hard and was frothing at the edges of its mouth, its flanks covered in sweat and foam.
Time in the army teaches you to follow an order immediately and question it later. “Which way?” I called, and Julianus pointed south. I bolted, heeding his direction and noting it took me away from home. I expected him to ride with me, to explain at some point what this was about, but I was alone, my horse coming alive and surprising me with her strength, her speed, and her deep, grunting breaths. I felt she could do this all day. Perhaps she’d have to.
Whatever had alarmed Julianus, it never came in sight of me. I rode to the southern perimeter and, not knowing what to do, I crossed it into the next property. I assessed that I had two to three hours of daylight left, and I wondered what to do with it.
I had been out for four days, avoiding all, and it had only been unpleasant in those small hours of the night when coldness becomes bitterness. Bantia fared well. To a horse, the natural world is a dining table from which they can pick and choose each blade of grass. Of course, being in a rural setting there was no shortage of food for both of us. She savoured the small and still bitter apples that were not yet ripened, and again my army training held me in good stead when it came to capturing a meal. I had a short sword, a dagger, and a horse that kept surprising me with her intelligence and experience. I suspected, but would never fully know, that at some time in her life she had served in the army, too. She just knew too much and was too disciplined to have lived a life of fetch and carry.
We circled about, zigzagging our way across hill and dale in a long and circuitous route. Circuitous, in that it was leading us out and away from home and then bringing us back toward it. I assessed that four days would be enough for the first flush of anger and excitement to ebb in the chest of whoever meant us harm. He, she, or they would be vigilant, but now less so. Under cover of night Bantia and I walked to the side of the last hill separating us from home, and we came out where I’d planned it, overlooking the home of Quintis and Aelia. I didn’t choose their home because I thought they’d give me refuge. I chose it because I thought Quintis had a hand in what was going on. In that, I was right.
At sunup he was out of his back door, striding to his stables, and ten minutes later he galloped out on a sturdy black and tan mare. She was more impressive than he, and he looked somewhat uncomfortable in the saddle. My hand reached for Bantia’s muzzle, holding it steady in the hope she wouldn’t nicker. Horses can detect that particular sound over long distances, and if she gave away our position I wasn’t at all sure we could outrun the mare, even though I knew I could outfight my brother.
At his gate he turned left and before I lost sight of him I saw him joined by others. He stopped, and they crowded their horses around his, cutting off his movement. Where I had been, that was a hostile act. What was all this about? I was too far away to hear their voices but it was plain that they were arguing. They became more animated, and all the signs were there that this was becoming dangerous. A glint of light flashed a warning my brother would never see, and a dagger sank into his shoulder from behind. Kicking in with his stirrups, his mare bolted forward and chest-charged the horse in front as Quintis, doubled over, came up fighting and slashed an assailant across the face. He lit out, and the shock of what he’d done left his assailants stunned for a few seconds before they took off after him. So, they were hired muscle but not ex-military. No Roman soldier would have reacted as slowly as them.
Quintis ran high on the hill and began doubling back, a stupid move that would slow him down and allow them to correct their course, coming at him in a straight line. They didn’t have to be that good; they had superior numbers. All they had to do was catch him. His mare, however, proved me wrong. She was a warhorse and, by the look of her, at her prime. Where did he get her? Horses like her are much prized and very hard to come by.
My brother was obviously a very capable farm administrator but as a warrior he was an average stock animal. It’s men like him whose bodies litter battlefields the world over while the real soldiers ride home and regale the inn with stories of victory. Quintis’ mare could have outrun his followers’ horses for days and nights, and yet he slowed as if trying to decide whether to leap ahead or return home. Home is not a safe place when your enemy sees it. At best, it becomes a temporary prison. At worst, it becomes your funeral pyre. He chose prison and pyre.
The assailants caught up with him, slashing at him with swords and mostly missing him, being out of kilter with the natural rhythms of their horses. For his part, Quintis slashed back, but it was obvious he would never make it home. I jumped up and dug my heels into Bantia, and she took off like lightning. I cut across in a straight line, thundering in from the right and behind them on an angle that made me invisible to them. The rider at the back fell noiselessly as my dagger severed his spinal cord at the neck. The next one gave me away when my lunge went wild and pierced his back. He pulled up, down but not necessarily out. The one with the bleeding face glanced over his shoulder and, seeing me, he pulled sharply to the left, fleeing the fight. The last one Quintis himself handled, clumsily knocking him from his horse.
I jumped from the slowing Bantia and made for the man on the ground. He was an idiot and he deserved the death he got. The man was on the ground, fumbling with and fouling the withdrawal of his sword. In that position, a sword is useless, as he found out. I came at him and my dagger found its mark. Before I could even withdraw my dagger I heard the thundering of hooves, and I turned just in time to witness a rare spectacle. Quintis, the brother I had just saved from certain death, was charging his mare down at me, intent on riding over the top of me. With only paces to spare Bantia charged in from the side and rammed the mare, forcing her off her feet and spilling Quintis from her back.
He leapt to his feet, his dagger held at the ready like a sword. “Quintis! It’s me!” I yelled at him, in case battle blood had made him lose his senses. “I have always hated you,” he hissed before lunging at me. Those who are not trained in battle are likely to lose it. A dagger held like a sword is next to useless. One holds it reversed, blade pointing toward the elbow. Thus, the handle hardens any punch made in close quarters, it can be used to lash out forward or backward, and it leaves the elbow free to strike. This is the classic pose of armed engagement; sword at the ready and dagger in reserve.
I took Quintis down easily, pinning him to the ground and turning his own dagger back on him. “What business is this, that you try to harm your brother and rescuer?” I asked, my heart beginning to calm. “The man of war!” he spat. “The learned man of words, of property, coming home to take what he didn’t build and doesn’t deserve.” It was like we were children again, fighting over a toy. “You always were a dimwit,” I said, striking him hard in the face and breaking his nose. “Live or die, but either way never set foot on my soil again,” I said. “Die, then!” he said belligerently. He always chose the most dramatic solution when we were young, hoping to bluff me, but we were no longer young. His eyes went wide with surprise as I pushed the blade through his throat.
I found the body of the slashed assailant a few hundred paces away. Blood loss had taken his consciousness and his horse had dragged him until he was dead. I searched the bodies, Quintis’ included, but I found nothing that would point toward who they were in the employ of or what this was about. By the time I was finished the first smell of smoke reached me. Quntis’ house was burning and a dim figure was standing on the porch.
Mounting Bantia, we shot forward at a full gallop, aiming for the house and the figure that was strangely still even as flames began pouring out from the doors, the windows, and from under the eaves. Thundering hooves behind us drew my attention and I glanced back over my shoulder to witness Quintis’ mare and the assailant’s riderless horses following us. There being no riders to give them direction they reverted to their nature and followed the lead horse. On turning my eyes back to the house I saw Aelia, swaying in the breeze created by the fire. She was the dim figure I had seen from afar. Aelia had hung herself and her unborn child. Soon, both would be consumed by the fire. I slowed and turned, trotting home.
I rode past the front of my house, seeing Gavia but not acknowledging her. Around in the stable, I walked Bantia into her stall and tethered the loose horses. They were all quiet and biddable, and I supposed they’d make good additions to our breeding and working stock, given time. I began working on Bantia, loosening the saddle, when Postumius gently laid one hand on my shoulder and took the reins with his other. I looked him squarely in the eyes. “I have no notion of what has brought on the past four days, but five men are down and dead in the north field,” I said. He nodded and said: “Octavianus Didius Sabinus. You need look no farther afield than him to know where all this evil has burst from.”
Sabinus, the name I knew well of a man I knew almost not at all. Sabinus was a local lout whom the years had not mellowed and matured. Discharged from the army, it was said, with his head still attached to his shoulders only because his father and uncle had been war heroes. Landed, he was ambitious enough to want more but untalented enough not to work for it, unlike those who had come before him. It seemed the apple had fallen far from the tree. But why me? And why now? And how was Gavia tied up in all of this? “Speak to Bruccia and Julianus. They know of all the evil, although I’m sure they didn’t know of all this ranged against you,” Postumius said.
As I closed the distance between the stables and the back door Gavia emerged, clutching her hands before her. I saw Bruccia inside the darkened doorway. “Step aside,” I said to Gavia, my face stony and intent. “Bruccia, there is a thing to be told to me and you’re the one to tell it. Time is of the essence, I think, for soon enough Sabinus will wonder at the absence of his men.”
The story spilled out of her, of layers of betrayal and lives shattered. Two things were certain: Sabinus would be coming and Gavia would be leaving. “Postumius, where is Julianus while all of this is unravelling?’ I asked when he joined us in the kitchen. “Sent out when we saw the flames. We knew it could only spell more disaster. He has gone for Titus and Servius,” he replied. Then it was worse than I thought.
Titus and Servius were retired Praetorians, elite guards of the Empire. The Praetorians were highly dextrous, working in secret service, as special forces, and as urban administrators. Handpicked, they were both famous and infamous soldiers who lived and died for an Emperor they loved, and worked for the downfall of one they didn’t. They had no reason to help me, and so I hoped without much joy that Sabinus had given them reason to hate him.
“If Julianus has gone for them, and if they come, we’re on our own for at least half a day. If Sabinus comes calling before that, all the Praetorians might find will be dead bodies and smoking ruins. Bruccia, quill and paper, if you please,” I said. “Gavia!” I yelled, and she entered the room immediately, so I knew she had been listening. “You have one minute to tell me,” I said, “and it should be the most honest minute of your life, if you want to live to the one following it.”
She stood there, her mouth opening and closing but no sound emerging from it. “It was Sabinus, in the end,” said Bruccia, returning with the quill and paper. “Quintis was ambitious for growth and he pushed the farm hard; harder than the soil would allow. The crops you’ve seen never reached maturity; they died before they ripened. The earthworks and stills at the grove belong to Sabinus. He financed them and he owns the crop for a generation, to pay down the debt. He also took Aelia into his bed as part of the price. It was his child she killed.”
What a tangled web! “Quintis was beside himself, but the mean streak in him came to the fore,” said Gavia, finding her voice. A bully hates being bullied, and so he made our lives a misery. Aelia was lost to him; that’s what he said. He would not touch her after Sabinus had been inside her, and yet he was too fearful to kill her, so instead he kept her around to torment. He raped Trebatia and brutalised her while Postumius was away searching out seed and fertiliser,” she said, looking at Postumius, who had his head bowed. “She killed herself before he arrived back.” My head dropped and I ran my hands through my hair. “That’s not all,” said Gavia. “Julianus’ child, young Umbria, was also raped. She developed a fever which damaged her brain, and she has been a drooling mess since.” Young Umbria. She was only eight years old. “And for myself, Gavia continued, “I hated your brother with a passion but I had to play along while he … did things to me … vile, unspeakable things, until we worked out how to tell you. It’s no excuse for me, I know, and you have the right to find me revolting, but I did it – we all did it – to keep you alive.”
My brother had ridden out to meet Sabinus’ men to tell them I had fled. He wanted them to give chase, to hunt me down and most assuredly kill me, but they had other ideas. Quintis had worn out his usefulness to them and they decided to occupy the farm for Sabinus. So, that’s what the fight had been about. In the battle to win everything Quintis had lost it all. “Quintis is dead at my hand this very day,” I said, before taking up the quill and writing furiously. In minutes I had finished and I pressed my seal into the paper, handing it to Postumius. “Go now, all of you. If you separate, find each other later. Head west, it’s the furthest away from Sabinus.” They saw the look in my eyes and they left wordlessly. I did not expect to see the end of this day, and I wondered if Sabinus woke this morning wondering if his last day had arrived, too. I returned to the stables and let the remaining animals loose. They were the old and the weary; the rest had gone with what remained of my household.