It began here:
Then it escalated here:
Now it finishes here. I think the ending to this is one nobody is going to see coming, and I think it’s the most surprising ending I’ve written.
For those of you not versed in Latin (yes, there are still some people who can’t speak it), Tempora Mutantur means Times Change. Enjoy.
I rode out, intent on paying an unannounced visit to Sabinus. I banked on two things: that Sabinus was not man enough to lead his group into harm’s way, and that my mother’s sage advice would hold true across the years. Of the first, the only way to find out was to go there; my farm was lost anyway. Of the second, I chuckled in the face of adversity as I recalled for the thousandth time something my mother had said when I was just learning to form words.
Mouser, our one and only house cat, was typical of her species. She’d rub up and purr contentedly before leading with a wicked left-right combination and then running away. I loved that cat, and I still do. “It’s what cats do,” my father said, unhelpfully, as he dried my tears of fright.
Days later, Mouser attacked me again. “Mama! Mouser’s being a cat at me!” I called. “Well, be a cat back!” my mother replied. In the scope of all a small child hears, learns, and retains, I retained that. To be a cat back. It has proven itself priceless over the years and decades. ‘Be’ the thing that is causing you trouble. Get into its mind, its way of thinking, until it becomes obvious. Sabinus was a coward and a thug, both signs of a weak spirit. He would not risk himself, I was certain of it, and so I struck out in the hope and belief that he would remain true to form and stay far away from the fight.
I was right. Less than an hour later I was on his porch, which was strangely unguarded. I wasn’t expecting that. I suspected he’d send most of his men, but not all of them. Hubris? There was only one way to find out. I stepped back and called him out. If he had men secreted inside his house I wanted to fight and die out here in the open. I saw a woman, his wife perhaps, flutter to the window and then away. I called him out again, and this time the door opened just a fraction. There was a scant six inch opening and through it I could see him standing behind a child, his hand on her shoulder. I had the measure of the man; he would sacrifice his child if it meant her body would act as a shield.
“Sabinus!” I called again, and then a miracle happened. An arrow whistled from the corner of the house and Sabinus fell into the interior darkness of his home, the arrow embedded in his head. The door slammed as I looked right, and there stood Bruccia, nocking another arrow into her bow. “Bruccia, bastard daughter of Titus,” she said. Yes, that Titus, the retired Praetorian who had, it seemed, been free with his seed. With Sabinus dead what might have been a fight had now become a war. His men, unchecked, would no doubt loot his home, and that done, if they hadn’t already destroyed mine they surely would now.
Smoke rose in heart-wrenching columns as Bruccia and I rode back at speed to my home. I was too late to save it. All I could do now was try to whittle down the numbers so there were less men to fight when once again I came back. If I didn’t die this day, that is. My mind should have been in the fight to come, but there were so many revelations this day that I had been turned about. “About you and Titus,” I said. “Tell me.”
There was little enough to tell, really. Bruccia’s mother had worked in service on one of Titus’ farms and she had turned his eyes. Bruccia was the result, and hardly a one-off. Titus has bastard children all over his properties, but at least he treated them with some specialness; educating those who showed promise and training those with a more practical bent. Bruccia was practical. She had been trained in some weaponry before it was decided she’d live her life as a cook, where indoor life held a higher guarantee of survival.
When in time Titus turned his eyes toward the grown girl she knew it was time to leave. Sex with her father, although he didn’t see himself as that, was abhorrent to her. Titus didn’t care; she was nothing to him and he let her go freely. Such has ever been the way of the landed and the titled.
With what was close to a two hour head start I worried that Sabinus’ men would have done their work before I could so much as try to stop them, but in that I was wrong. Sabinus’ hubris had bred arrogance in his men, and they saw no hurry. We sighted their back rider with nearly half an hour’s grace before they reached my home. While I have never held the gods in high regard, considering them to be wishful tales, this day I hoped that Nemesis would once again come out of retirement and punish the arrogant.
The back rider was easily dismissed by another of Bruccia’s arrows, but soon enough he would be missed and questions would be asked. At least there was one man we wouldn’t have to fight again. We were now on the in-breath. Events would soon come rushing out at us and our future was uncertain. “Break away, and ride for your life,” I said to Bruccia. “This is not your fight.” She ignored my words and kept riding. “I said …” She cut me off. “I heard what you said. Umbria, Julianus’ daughter, is my sister. I brought her here with me but Quintis would not have a child in the house, and so Julianus adopted her as his own.”
I was a stranger in my own home, that much was clear. There had been lives and intrigues playing out here that I, ensconced in the artificial world of the Senate, knew nothing of. What a blighted life these people had lived, existing by the leave of the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt. So this was the great Republic, a confusion of rich old men and ambitious younger ones. If I survived this day with the help of Titus and Servius, and perhaps the invisible gods, what would I be surviving for? The old Praetorians would want their pound of flesh. In success, there would be a price to pay. In defeat, the same.
We stopped just before the gates. The intruders were out of sight now, wending their way up to the house, when the first shouts called our attention to columns of smoke and ever-growing flames in the south field. Even from here were heard the thunder of hooves and men yelling out in anger and confusion. They had lit the field, and the dried corn stalks were rumbling as fire raced through it, throwing hot and burning ashes into the air that floated with the breeze, causing the ignition of spot fires.
Horses whinnied as they were forced to charge into the field, and then the screaming began. This was odd. Corn releases a grey smoke, and yet with our own eyes we saw billows of deep black being released into the sky. The wind changed and with it came the first acrid scent of oil. Then the fire turned back on itself, racing along the ground for the fuel that would keep it alive. The rushing of air sounded like thunder turning over and over, and I dug my heels into Bantia and she leapt forward.
Riding like the wind itself, horse and I charged up the long lane and into thin tendrils of smoke that were wafting across our path. I rounded a turn and was startled by a man staggering out of from between stalks he was igniting with his passing movements, his clothes afire and him screaming in agony. My sword out, I readied myself to end his life, but I didn’t, and it is not the making of the best of me that it was so. I let him burn, rolling around on the ground and screaming for salvation. Perhaps the kind of mercy he’d intended for me and mine?
I was now blanketed in smoke and breathing had become difficult. Horse and I were disoriented, but we both knew that any possible escape would come by maintaining our path along the lane. An arrow hit me in the shoulder and knocked me out of my saddle, and Bantia panicked in the madness, stepping back painfully onto my right thigh. She bolted when I yelled out to her, and I kept as low to the ground as I could. For a full minute I was lost, and then a patch of clear air as wide as a house opened up as the wind shifted again. As if in slow motion, Bruccia and her horse leapt out of the retreating smoke and barrelled down the distance between us.
She nearly ended my life right there, the hoof of her horse missing my head by a short inch. Bruccia dropped a short length of rope, bidding me tether myself with it, and the free end she wrapped around her pommel. With a leap, we were off, Bruccia calling the horse to action while I was dragged behind. The smoothness of the lane proved to be completely other when being dragged across it, and my clothes snagged and tore, just as the skin under them did. The arrow embedded in me caught and snapped and I heard my own scream above the surrounding din.
And then we were out of the smoke and heat and once again in clear air, the house standing intact before us. Laying on my side, torn and bloodied, I raised my head just a little, looking up at Bruccia. She was slumped forward in her saddle and her horse was swaying from side to side. In an instant I was dragged further as the horse toppled.
I moved very slowly; speed was now an impossibility to me, but I pulled myself toward Bruccia, who was still in the saddle. The horse twitched and let out a long last breath; it was dead. Pulling myself up along its flank, I saw what had happened and what it had cost them both. Bruccia’s leg had been pierced by an arrow which had gone straight through the muscle and into the horse, pinning them together. Her other leg was trapped under its carcass.
She was alive but in pain, and the immediate danger was shock. I’d seen it on the battlefield a hundred times. There was no way to lift the horse off her leg. I could barely lift my head to view this wreckage.
Piercing pain brought me back to consciousness. Trying to sit up, the lancing in my injured shoulder shocked me into retreat. Coming more to my senses, I felt the restraints and made to test them when the worst pain I’d ever experienced tore through me. I heard a dull sucking sound and the arrowhead was pulled clear of my shoulder. It was excruciating, and I think I fainted again.
There is little point in expressing the volume of injuries we took that day, other than to say Bruccia suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, and a dislocated shoulder, as well as the arrow wound. Her recovery would be long and not without trials and tribulations, but she would be free to walk again, although running was questionable.
The greater story was that instead of going for Praetorian help the small and ragged team of Gavia, Postumius, and Julianus had decided to stand and fight. I suppose I had told the story of the cat so much over the years that it had ingrained itself in Gavia’s mind, and the three of them decided to ‘be a cat back’. They assumed Sabinus’ riders would be arrogant and think themselves untouchable, and as they entered our gates nothing changed that perception.
The three set up a magnificent ambush, corralling the intruders into an area of the field that had been set up for a showdown. The first intruder killed was used as bait to lure the others in and, being so sure of themselves, they charged. Yes, they charged directly into a carefully cordoned area that had been doused with olive oil and lit behind them. Trapped, the intruders themselves had then been doused by old wine skins that had been refilled with oil and thrown at them.
Positioning themselves well, the trio had formed a loose triangulation, each responsible for a third of the circle of fire. They had heaped skin upon skin and thrown with vigour until the black-smoked inferno had sucked the breathable oxygen out of the circle. The intruders burned where they were or died of their injuries after they broke the circle, flaming, their bodies blistering beyond recognition.
Word reached the Praetorians and two days after the fight they arrived en masse, each bringing forty men. While I had been in awe of the Guard while I was in the service, life in the Senate and trouble in my home had wrought it out of me, and their supercilious demeanour at our troubles did not rouse affection in any of us.
They offered to leave guards, at a price, they said. I thanked them and declined. They were a more polite form of Sabinus, and that was all they were. Titus insisted, making clear by implication that we had little choice in the matter. He had incurred expenses, he said. Ours were greater, Bruccia replied from her padded day bed, standing up to him and calling him ‘Pater’. I doubt he recognised her, but he recognised his paternity and quietly prided himself on sowing seeds made of steel. The fall of the Republic began with men such as these who had forgotten their vow of service and had become high-ranking parasites.
In the days and months after the Praetorians left, empty-handed, we all healed as best we could, but some wounds leave a thick and ragged scar. Such was the way of it with Gavia and I. She protested her innocence and there was probably some truth to it, but my mind kept circling back to the day I rode the perimeter and I saw her, emerging from the copse with a big smile on her face and a lightness in her step. I recalled in great detail the overt and nuanced movements she made toward Quintis, and perhaps there is a woman who charms her rapist so but I have never met her. No, Gavia had always had a careful way about her that made it appear she was suiting the needs of others when, in fact, she was suiting herself.
When once again I was limber enough to mount a horse with minimal discomfort, I rode out for a few days visit to an old friend and colleague, Gallus, who had retired from service and had done rather well while in it. I raised a loan from him sufficient to be fair to Gavia, although by law and morality I had no duty left to her. She knew of my mission before I left and she was ready to leave upon my return. In many ways, I think she was relieved to be going. Life and circumstance make fools of us all. All we have from it is to evaluate our actions and change as we see fit, if we have the self-enlightenment to see anything at all.
Over the next two seasons we worked hard, taking on help where necessary. Our land prospered and so did we. Postumius and Julianus had plans they brought to me. They wanted to use the foundations of Quintis’ burned down house to raise two villas with a common central wall. It would require years of work for which they were willing to indenture themselves for life. Bruccia spoke little of her dreams for the future, perhaps because she was too scared to make any.
I cleared my debt and I cleared my table, calling the trio in from their various duties. On the day I had gone after Sabinus I had not anticipated to see the stars that night or any other. The paper, quilled with my words and sealed with my stamp, was written that day in front of these people, although they knew not the contents of the sealed roll. I had retrieved it from them long ago, and now it was time to share it. In it, I left them three equal shares in the estate, unencumbered, and to do with as they wished as long as it was not sold or mortgaged until they were too old to work the land productively. I kept a fourth share for myself and I would receive a tithe of ten percent of annual profits and the same share upon eventual sale. In essence, an annuity for life and a once-only payment at retirement.
Like most, they wanted to argue politely against their own best interests. I hushed them; my decision was firm and it held. For my part, country life had brought me more pain and misery than ever the Senate could, and I realised that my heart was in the city. To that end, I had made enquiries among old friends and colleagues and I had been offered a very handsome position with an up and coming young noble who, it was whispered, would one day become the Emperor of Rome. His name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, but the soldiery with whom he’d served called him ‘the Little Boot’. An odd name, and one that sat unwell with me, and so I call him by the name both he and I preferred: Caligula.