A tense and riveting update - and one which tugged unmercifully at my heartstrings there. Quite an emotional update and masterly writing, too. As with McScottish, +rep.
A tense and riveting update - and one which tugged unmercifully at my heartstrings there. Quite an emotional update and masterly writing, too. As with McScottish, +rep.
don't be so free with the tears just yet, I have a few more tricks up my sleeves for our beloved characters.
Rufilla, Quintus Fabius Pictor (son of our current Pictor), THE COWARD KING'S BROTHER SULPICIUS CAMERINUS, Titus Rufus and Polybius, the rest of the curse from Sinon.
There's much more story to come from this tale. What I first thought was just going to be a Tale of a City soon grew to... well, this mess (lol).
And when it's all over, ONE of the aforementioned characters will have to compile everything into his/her personal account of the events in this lost kingdom.
Care to guess who?
Rufilla found Titus by the walls of the temple altar, cradling his helmet in his lap. The sun has finally set on the day of plundering, though the horrors of the day continued. The flowers of the Kerkis trees atop the temple of Pergamum were wilting, and a swirl of faded pink surrounded his huddled frame. She was accompanied by Polybius, who stood guard beside her and stared down any would-be assailants drunken with the power of terror. Her face was scrunched up in worry as she took tiny steps towards him--unsure of how she should approach him. Hesitant, she looked back at Polybius with a pleading look and received a reassuring nod instead.
As if struck by a bolt of lightning, he looked up at her. The Kerkis flowers continued swirling in the air around them. In the dying rays of the sun, they grew bright and blended with the specks of glowing ember that spiraled to the heavens. The helmet slipped from his finger and rolled gently on the marbled floor.
"Polybius has something to tell you."
Polybius took a step forward. "There's rumors flying about for a sacrifice ceremony tomorrow. They want you to do it."
"Is it not obvious? You are the most felix--favored by the gods--of all of us in this faithless army. If the words are correct about a voyage home, then we must secure our absolution before retiring, no?"
Titus looked away at the burning city before returning his gaze on Polybius and Rufilla. He pushed himself from the floor. "We won't be going home."
"But the war is over. The Kingdom's borders have been expanded. With Pergamon once again in our hands, the old pilgrim road will open. New blood will replace us, and we will fade forever to mere dust and memories."
Titus tilted his head to Rufilla.
"Which life was better, the one before pilgrims like us came, or the one after?"
Her eyes darted fearfully between Polybius and Titus before she whispered. "Before."
"And which path will this Kingdom see if more pilgrims are to come: peace, or war?"
She did not answer, and he turned his attention back to Polybius.
"You see, you have dedicated your entire life to warfare, to this Kingdom. You say we'll fade to dust and memories, but we still have a mortal life to fade into before we descend into the earth. What will you fade into?" He gestured at the blood-stained marble floors of the temple. "Have you known anything else but this?"
"What are you saying?"
"I have seen the fall of two Kings. I have seen how each has promised absolution, and how each failed to attain that for even themselves. I am losing my faith, Polybius, in the future for this kingdom. I see soldiers act with impunity within the temples, I see priests dragged by their robes only to be slaughtered like sheep, and I see an endless war fought over pointless reasons. I am tired of this. I will not be the priest to oversee another lie."
"How can you be so certain that it is another lie?"
"How? I have prayed for my family's freedom since my arrival in the Holy Kingdom. Each day, I am told that our faith will be rewarded. Each day, I am told that when the Kingdom is secure, that all of my sins and my family's sins will be forgiven. But each day, I see men die unburied on the field. Each day I see fresh carnage and death. I am committing more sins by the day than I am being absolved for. That is the lie."
"To fight on behalf of the gods is never a sin. We stand against the faithless as a stalwart to defend the pilgrims."
Titus crossed his arms and asked. "But do they not have gods as well?"
"They what, Polybius? Their gods were insignificant? Their gods are false? Do you not see the statues? Can you not see the temples? Their gods are every bit as true to them as our gods are to us."
Polybius sighed. "You will not perform the ceremony?"
"I will not trade my soul."
"So be it. But you realize that Pictor will not let you spurn his decision."
"That is business that he and I will discuss when the time comes."
"No, because we will be out of Pergamon by then."
"What do you mean?"
"You were at the Praetorium tent, you remember what Pictor said to Aebutius Drusus."
Titus looked away in disgust. "A human sacrifice. And I thought we were civilized."
Polybius nodded. "Rufilla told me that they're slated for the sacrifice at midday."
She turned her gaze to the ground. "I passed by a pair of Pictor's personal riders. They were joking about how far the blood will splatter." She closed her eyes and shuddered. "And making bets with each other."
Titus looked back to Polybius. "Midday, then."
"Midday. Now, there are a few men still loyal to Aebutius Drusus, nearly a third of the Army. Infantry, at least. None of the Praetorians hate Pictor that much to pledge themselves to Aebutius Drusus." He smirked. "Not any that we know at least."
"How are you so certain of this?"
"I've been busier than you have, my melancholic friend."
"Who else knows of this?" Titus asked with abated breath. He, like Polybius, did not believe in what he saw in the Praetorium tent that night. There was without doubt that Crassus had been struck down by the gods for some sacrilege that he may have committed. No mortal was, is or will ever be, able to inflict apoplexy at will upon a man. Titus had spent time with the Greek doctors to trust their judgment. He wished for no more deaths, and this was the perfect opportunity to save one of the most important lives of them all: one who can muster men under his banner."
"So, what must be done?"
Polybius peered over his shoulder. There was only the setting sun and greedy squawks of carrion birds flitting over the city. The trees cast flickering shadows across the empty cobblestoned roads. He pulled Titus close and whispered. "They are meeting tonight at this very spot."
Polybius nodded. "Symbolic, no?"
Titus could not disagree. Resting his hand on Polybius' shoulder, Titus broke out into a smile and started to chuckle. The gentle laughter grew infectious and soon both men laughed with the flickering shadows of trees, the greedy squawks of the carrion birds, and the ember rays of the setting sun.
One Promise Fulfilled
Truly, this is a marvelous ring. Bubulcus thought to himself as he turned the tiny band of gold in his calloused fingers. Delicate worksmanship upon the ring's signet depicted the Kingdom. There, an army was led against a collapsing wall. Here, a single man stands atop huddled masses with hands stretched out in supplication. A single eagle with defiant talons raised high, faced a wall of spears in a world encircled with gold.
How unfortunate, Bubulcus mused, that there is no more space left upon the ring for my reign. Flicking the ring through his fingers once more, he closed his palm and tucked the ring back inside the small pouch around his hip.
A trinket of a dying Kingdom. Hardly worth any noting or concern. Perhaps it would fetch a pretty price, for its sheer beauty, but nothing more. Regardless, it did not suit the purposes of MY kingdom.
"My kingdom." The words felt reassuring as it brushed forth from his lips. There was a certain power to that word, a power of unrivaled auctoritas--one that demanded to be heard. He repeated the words again and again, feeling a shudder go through his body with each utterance. An ecstatic grin appeared on his face and he took upon the countenance of a wild man who has lost all reason and facilities of speech.
He opened his eyes and stared out into the city. The burnt out husk of the Temple of Dionysus stood with glowing embers under the rapidly darkening sky. Yes, something will need to be placed there of course, to replace that depressing waste of space. The aqueducts can be redirected to his villa, which would of course be built on the citadel. He smiled to himself as he continued to imagine. At last, the children of Troy had sought revenge for their ancestors. The sacrificial fires that had been kept alive to ward off the vengeful Trojan spirits can be extinguished. The weight of remaining the watchmen of Rome can finally be lifted from the Gens Junia.
"Slave." He called over his shoulder. "Do fetch Legatus Numerius Fabius Pictor, will you? I have a request I would like from him."
The slave bowed and pattered away. Alone once more, Bubulcus breathed in the air that was putrid with the stench of death. The smell of victory, he told himself, that is what this smell truly is. It is not suffering as the men with less stomach would have people believe. Lost in his thoughts, he waited patiently for the slave to return. Ah yes, what else can I do with my Kingdom.
"You asked for me?" Pictor's flat voice knocked Bubulcus back from his fantasies.
"Numerius Fabius, yes I did." Smiling, Bubulcus nodded and walked towards Pictor. "Yes, I did indeed."
"What would you have your Legate do?"
"I did always fear you, Numerius Fabius. I did always fear you." Bubulcus folded his hands behind his back and smiled. "You were brilliant, utterly brilliant. You knew all of the machinations and all of the ploys that a politician ought to have. You were, as they say, an artist, at these kind of affairs. I had wondered for quite some time what I should do with you upon my coronation."
The look on Pictor's face was unreadable. "Do tell."
Anger flared in Bubulcus' mind. I will have you fear me, Pictor! He screamed in silence. I will have you stare at me in the same fearful way I had stared at you. But he smiled and continued. "Yes, I thought that were you to remain alive, you could present a problem for me. You would become quite the formidable political enemy, and certainly an untrustworthy adviser. And so I thought and thought and thought, but no effective solution came to mind. I can not simply strip you of your rank and send you to a remote fort in the middle of nowhere. You are too prominent for that. I cannot outright kill you. Your Praetorians will take my head. But what else could I do? How else can I remove you from your position of influence?"
"Have you tried asking?"
"Would you have given it up so easily? I think not." Bubulcus rounded on Pictor.
"So, what would you have your Legate do?"
"I wish to tie you closer to me." Bubulcus snapped his fingers, two of his own Praetorians strode into the room. "Aebutius Drusus still has supporters within the Army. They would follow him to the death. That is, if their centurions will follow. I need you to make an example of these centurions, their junior officers, and any men caught fraternizing with them."
"How do I know which ones?"
Bubulcus walked to the tiny desk and picked up a scroll. "This contains the name of every officer in the few men remaining in the army of Aebutius Drusus. Of course, I've taken the liberty to add several name of suspected men in our army as well."
Pictor remained emotionless, though in his heart he knew that this was his death sentence. With this single act, he will have wiped out his support in the army entirely. The presence of the two Praetorians beside him did not calm his thoughts. He wanted to smile at the fact that Bubulcus has found the one move to checkmate him with, that Bubulcus had only followed advice in order to deal the finishing blow from out of the blue. He had taken Bubulcus for a buffoon, Pictor mused. How foolishly naive. Taking care to keep his voice composed, he asked.
"What kind of example will you have your Legate make of those men?"
"Criminals fit for the cross."
The move had been exercised with extreme precision. At precisely half hour after Pictor had left Bubulcus' presence, a total of fifty armed Praetorians stood at attention by the citadel. To each Praetorian was passed an unpainted theater mask to conceal their faces. As Pictor looked back at the multitude of faces twisted into a sobbing grimace or a feral smile, he could not help shudder at what he set out to do. Drawing his sword, he nodded at the cornicen.
The bellow of the muster call sounded over the city like a surging wave pushing against a pile of sand. Slowly, it eroded away at the atmosphere and its sounds sank into every crevice in the cobblestones and every pore in the sun-baked bricks. Like bees drawn by the scent of the hive after a long day of endless labor, the soldiers drifted towards the citadel. The mustering took half an hour, and when the entire Army had gathered, the sun had set and torches needed to be brought out to illuminate the crowd.
"Will the centurions who had formerly been under the command of Numerius Aebutius Drusus step forward!" For the first time, Pictor stopped and realized that he and Aebutius Drusus shared a similar Praenomen.
Feet shuffled forward. Pride lined upon each man's face as he took another step.
"Lay down your weapons, citizens. Your terms of services have been fulfilled."
His soul would be tormented forever by the trials of Tartarus, but even that could not stop his heart from breaking as he raised his arm and gave the signal. Pictor now understood why the Praetorians wore masks.
These updates are riveting and I only wish you would update more often, chaplain118! The description of the kerkis flowers against the embers was beautiful and poignant. But the coupe de teatre is the Praetorians in the masks - chilling and moving at the same time.
I want to ask this of my readers:
Is the plotline too predictable?
As in, can you see what's going to happen way ahead of when they actually happen?
If not, is the plotline too dense, or worse, illogical?
I've only just read the last few chapters of this, having not really paid it any attention before and I have to say that this is quality writing. Will have to find time and start from the beginning. well deserved +rep for you.
'The Last Pagan Emperor'- An Invasio Barbarorum Somnium Apostatae Juliani AAR
'Immortal Persia' A Civilization III AAR
Prepare to imbibe the medicine of rebuke!
Other than that, definitely looking forward to whatever you have in store next for our pioneering crusaders!
After the blood had been wiped from the swords and the bodies hung upon crosses, individual soldiers were brought before Pictor one by one and interrogated about their involvement with the Centurions. Innocence became a luxury that few could afford. Jealousy rose up among the ranks. The prospect of gaining another man's spoils drove brothers in arms to deception and lies. Former comrades conspired with each other prior to putting forth a single name. Accusation flew across Pergamon as soldier after soldier was questions.
And all the while, fifteen men gathered by the Altar as the moon hung high in the sky, bathing the Kerkis flowers with a sheen of silver.
"We have been compromised." Strabo, one of the few junior officers who managed to avoid the same fate as his centurion, snarled at the gathered men. "Someone sold us out. This move came too early, too fast. We never should have included these..." he pointed at Titus and Polybius. "Outsiders, into our folds."
"Easy, Strabo." Modestus, an older soldier who had followed Aebutius Drusus to the Kingdom, held his hand up. "We have no evidence that anyone leaked details of our plan. We cannot be so quick to dismiss any help that may have pledged themselves to us."
"Quick to dismiss? Quick to dismiss?" Strabo could not keep his voice from shaking. "The centurions are dead. Soldiers are being dragged into the Praetorium to be interrogated as if they are prisoners. Pictor must know that there is foul play being planned, or else he would not have ordered such a public display of brutality. This is meant to keep us in line and afraid of him."
"I assure you, both Titus Rufus and myself have not endangered this task that you have set." Polybius stepped forward.
"You will speak when spoken to, Greek." Strabo shot a venomous stare at Polybius. "Who else have you spoken to about our plot?"
"No one." Polybius replied. But for a brief moment he thought about Rufilla, and his eyes flashed away.
Unfortunately for him, Strabo noticed the flash. "Aha! You HAVE told someone else of this. Whom?"
"No one that would have endangered this plot."
Strabo drew his sword and tapped it against his leg. "Do not test my patience. I want the truth."
"He has told no one aside from myself and the girl whom I rescued from Mikon's quarters." Titus drew his sword too. "Put your sword aside, Strabo. You're a centurion now, not a hot-headed soldier like the rest of us."
"When the lives of my men are being ended uselessly, I will act precisely how I wish!"
"This is going nowhere." Modestus pushed Strabo's arm down. "Arguing about it will achieve little but sow seeds of discord and mistrust among us. The most important issue at hand is this: our Legate will be executed in less than twelve hours. How many men do you think will remain loyal to him? How can we test their loyalty and ensure our own safety?"
"Before Pictor started this public demonstration? I'd say well over half of the Army would have sided with us, and even presuming that half of that actually pledge us their swords, we would be left with a sizable force for Aebutius Drusus--enough to break away from Pergamon and return to Ephesos by autumn. But now... Now I could probably count the number on my hands."
Modestus smiled and looked around. "I didn't realize that the gods had blessed you with extra digits."
"You know what I meant."
"Perhaps I was unclear." Modestus shook his head. "I want to know if we have sufficient men to stage a rescue."
"Of what magnitude?"
"Ever the strategist..." Modestus trailed off.
"Excuse me for wanting some specificity in this plan of yours. We cannot just barge into the prisons and take Aebutius Drusus with us!"
"No, that would be too easy."
Strabo stared at Modestus in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that the layout of the city will play into our hands..."
And as Modestus began laying out the details, Titus felt himself sweating from apprehension. So many parts of the plan hinged on luck. If they managed to accomplish this feat, then it surely must be the gods' will. Perhaps this was why they had sought him to join their ranks. Perhaps they needed one who was blessed by the gods to help them in their cause.
"So, it is agreed?" Modestus wrapped up the details of his plan. The fifteen men stood there, trembling from fear and excitement at what is to come.
"It is agreed." Strabo nodded.
Overhead, wisps of clouds drew themselves like spun wool to cover the shimmering stars and crescent moon. In the distance, solemn songs rose up along the roads where the centurions' bodies lay bleeding from the crosses. The shingles of houses shook under the weight of the hymns. Walls rattled, and even bronze statues reverberated in chorus. The cries of Praetorians rose up for a brief while. Naked swords slapped against fire-hardened shields and the songs stopped. The flames were extinguished, and their owners marched back to the Praetorium. Endlessly, the masks swam back and forth. Their eyes were always cast down upon the earth and never once seek the dying shimmers of light from heaven.
A Drop of Knowledge
"So where is he? Where has the usurper of my throne gone?" Aulus Sulpicius Camerinus paced in rage upon learning that Crassus had left the city almost three years ago. Why was there not information being relayed from his spies here? Have they not been keeping an eye on the other legates to ensure that in the event of his brother's death, that HE would be proclaimed king? What happened to Servilius Teucer? What about Glabrio? Pulcher? Where had they gone?
It was said that he flew into such rage upon hearing the news of their deaths and the failure of Pulcher to retain make a return to Ephesos that he had nearly killed the aged slave who deliver the news to him from fear alone.
Here he stood in Ephesos, and never King will he be. The usurper took the crown and the signet ring. What did Aulus have aside from a name probably no longer uttered. Fame was elusive and far more cruel upon these kings of the east.
"But sire." the aged slave who had been present to see the fall of the Coward King, and the departure of the Warmongering King dragged his frail body towards Aulus. His ancient breath rasped with each word, and wisps of silvery hair fluttered.
He whirled around and snapped a bitter retort, causing the old man to recoil.
"Sire, if you came with your army, there is little reason to not ascend the purple and retain your power through arms alone."
"And why do you say that, old man?"
"The Warmongering King Papirius Crassus has been away on campaign for three years, and each day we hear of exploits and victories in battle. He has beaten back the Greeks through cunning and brute force alone. He has with him the finest riders of his days, the finest of all of the world some may say."
"These are not words that I want to be hearing right now!"
"But sir, he has also been fighting endless battles for three years. His men are tired."
"But battle hardened veterans unafraid of pain and exertion."
"But tired nonetheless. They have been deprived of the luxuries of man in Crassus' reckless march across Asia, and should they encounter well-armed soldiers of the finest order... Why, they would throw down their arms and beg for an end to war."
"Or fight to dislodge us from our seat of power. Tired as they may be, they will fight to the bitter end."
"Not unless they meet against a wall of metal, an unbreakable bulwark of men and iron. A living city wall that cannot be breached by swords or spears or arrows."
"No man can be that well armed."
The old man smiled. There was no teeth behind his lips, and an empty hole stretched deep into his soul. "You have truly only arrived from the West. Tell me, Sire, have you heard of what the Greeks call... Katafractos?"
A family affair
As the night drew to a close, Bubulcus watched in amazement at the silent city. Things had gone exactly as planned. His Praetorians have subdued the rebellion. Aebutius Drusus will be executed at midday along with that insufferable old man Pulcher. Yes, things are coming to a very excellent turn right now. The dripping of the water clock in the garden kept his mind racing forward. The steady plop-plop-plop synchronized with the names he repeated in his head.
Balbus, Crassus, Aebutius Drusus, Pictor.
One problem at a time? Why not snuff them all out at once. He had the men to do so. He muttered the list again. Balbus, there was something special about that name. There was a reason he lingered so much on it. But what was it? He racked his brain for an answer but only received a formless thought. But Pictor, he can handle Pictor very easily.
Turning to the two Praetorians standing guard at his door, he said. "Fetch Praefect Macrinus."
Now, he would tie up the loose end that was Pictor. His mind no longer preoccupied with the pressing concern, he directed his attention back to Balbus. Balbus, Balbus, something about him was pulling at a savage side within him--one that sought to inflict pain but not through battle. The feeling tugged at his body from all angles and he felt his stomach tightening at the sensation. It was a feeling he had not felt in ages. A save side turned and snarled within him and he tried to suppress it. Something about Balbus has triggered the sole monster within him that had driven him to this Pilgrimage.
"Legatus, sir!" Macrinus' clear voice snapped Bubulcus from his descent of madness.
Macrinus furrowed his brow. "Sir, I believe you called me."
Shaking his mind, as if to clear away a troubling thought, Bubulcus cleared his throat and said. "I did, indeed. I need to make sure of a fact."
"Very good, sir."
"Whose Praetorians performed the slaughter of the centurions?"
"Those of Numerius Fabius Pictor."
"And you can verify this?"
Macrinus bowed. "I can assure you that I specifically instructed my men to remove their masks and instead melt into the crowd." He looked up. "As per your instructions."
"Excellent. You know what to do, Legatus Macrinus."
"You heard correctly, Macrinus. The King's passing from apoplexy is unfortunate, true, but he left no heir to the throne. Aebutius Drusus will be dead by sundown tomorrow, Pictor had just lost his final support, Balbus is already dead, who does that leave us?" A wild glint came in Bubulcus' eyes. "And as my first act as King of Ionia, I declare you: Gnaeus Macrinus, a Legate of the Kingdom."
Macrinus took a step back and clutched his chest, struggling to catch his breath at the news. Flustered, he brought himself to a military salute and apologized profusely for his lack of decorum upon receiving the honors. Finally, with iron-clad voice, he asked:
"What would you have your Legatus do?"
Bubulcus smiled. "Do it quickly. And make sure nobody sees."
Macrinus clicked his heels together, turned, and marched away from the chamber with his chest thrust out. Idealistic fool, Bubulcus thought, let him feel the ambrosial taste of auctoritas for a brief moment. Let him feel the sweet embrace of power for a fleeting second.
Bubulcus turned back to his own thoughts of Balbus and the monster inside of him crawling to burst free. There was only one thing that brought such a carnal thought to his mind. His one crime, and the most heinous crime of them all--one made especially to shame the family of both who were part of it. He now knows what loose end he needed to tie with Balbus.
He now knows why the the same familiar trembling he felt sixteen years ago shook through his body once more.
Balbus' daughter Atia had been scheduled to arrive to the Holy Kingdom this year.
Perhaps... The monster purred in his head and stroked at him gently. Perhaps she is here already, and fatherless, lacking a guardian. A poor, helpless little thing...
Before reason could stop himself, before the last shred of humanity clutched him and screamed at him to hold his tongue, Bubulcus called out to Macrinus.
"Legatus! Send your fastest riders to Ephesos and find me the daughter of the late Quintus Atius Balbus! I wish to speak with her of her father!"
The monster displayed itself, and the words "Just do it!" echoed down the hallway and did not fade to whispers until Macrinus collapsed in his private quarters located at the center of the city.
So many twists and turns, and now cataphracts! This is going to be a party to remember...
At last, I have been able to catch up on the latest update and what a tense piece of fiction it is. There is a wonderful cripsness in the dialogue between the characters that really pulls me in here. And as McScottish has written - so many developments and angles here. I only wish you would update more often but then again it is like a fine wine to be savoured slowly on a cold dark evening with the curtains closed and fire glowing in the hearth . . . Damn, need to spread rep!
I'm so far back on this. It's supposed to rain heavily on Sunday - I think I have some catching up to do. +rep from, um about page 2..
The Barred Path
The midday sun inched higher in the sky. Titus Rufus stood among the crowd, sweating in his armor that had been hidden by a comically oversized tunic that he wore. He was positioned at the crossroads where Aebutius Drusus and Pulcher would be marched through. It would seem that Pictor had some shred of Roman decency left in him. Reports from near the prison cells were that both prisoners were treated according to their former ranks. They were neither stripped naked or made to endure the humiliation of war captives. Deprive of their rankings and insignia, the two appeared just like any other men in the crowd. The plan was deadly simple: when Aebutius Drusus and Pulcher come into view, Titus will cause a diversion. Ordered chaos, as Modestus had described it with his lopsided grin. Upon creation of the chaos, both men would be pulled aside into a safe house. It would be from there that the ragged band of rescuers, plus Rufilla and the two former legates, would find their way to the outskirts of the city, taking advantage of the breaches and weakened portions of the walls. There they will disappear into the plains surrounding Pergamum and head for either Smyrna or Sardeis.
Strabo stood on the other side of the street, opposite of Titus. His face was blackened by soot, and for good measures he mixed the soot with his straw colored hair as well. The disguise would not fool anyone who knew him, but it would be sufficient to confuse the masses thronging the street. The din of the crowd ebbed and flowed in the distance. Jeers rose up in the streets and grew louder as the prisoners approached. Strabo flashed Titus a furtive look and his head dipped in a curt nod.
Titus felt the pommel of his sword with sweaty palms. His tunic had been strategically slit apart at the right side to let him quickly reach his sword. He hoped that there would be no need for it. As the sound of the crowd rolled inexorably closer, he felt apprehension for the plan. How would they even escape the city? The uproar would surely cause Pictor and Bubulcus to send their ruthless riders throughout the city to find the would-be missing prisoners. He could only pray.
He could hear the herald at the head of the column, announcing the presentation of the prisoners. An armed band of soldiers guarded the two as they proceeded down the road--six men in all. Three of them were visibly drunk. Titus' heart leaped in elation. So far, the gods have blessed this plan. Scanning the crowd for the most inebriated person, Titus made sure that there were neither women nor children nearby before he gave the unfortunate fellow a hard shove. As expected, the man swung in a haze of rage, fists lifted for fight when Titus simply looked away and pretended that he too was jostled.
"Who pushed me? Eh? Speak up!" The drunkard swayed on the spot. Sickly sweet breath drew disgusted looks from those nearby. Not satisfied with the demure looks of those around him, the drunkard grabbed a man and asked. "Was it you? I'll bet it was you, you little rat."
The man stammered and tried to respond, but the drunkard was in a fighting mood. Titus locked eyes with Strabo and saw urgency on the man's soot-blackened face. The fight wasn't escalating quickly enough. Feeling the pommel of his sword again, Titus approached the drunkard.
"Is there a problem?"
"Of course there is, this man attacked me for no reason!" The man held by the drunkard quickly stammered.
Titus took a brief moment to mutter his own prayer for forgiveness. He turned to the drunkard. "Is this true?"
"Of course not! There I was, minding my own business, when this rat shoved me."
"That's not true!" The other man was growing frustrated and his hands balled into fists.
"Did anyone else see?" Titus asked.
"Then neither of you are correct."
The drunkard took Titus' words as direct endorsement of his actions and shoved the other man into the crowd, knocking several people to the street. Grumbles rose up but no real altercations took place. Titus could see the prisoners getting closer. Cursing under his breath, Titus grabbed the drunkard and said "There is no need to knock him to the ground."
"No need? He shoved me!"
"And it is only a shove, it may have been an accident."
"I'll tell you what's an accident!" The drunkard suddenly swung. His fist was a blur. Had Titus not been wearing his armor beneath his tunic, he would have had the win knocked out of him. Instead, the drunkard held his fist in pain.
Grabbing the drunkard by his shoulder, Titus wrestled the man to the ground. Every fiber of his being detested what he was about to do. The only thought in his head as he drew his sword and brought it down to the drunkard's head was The greater good...
Though Titus did not want to start a riot, the iron flash of his sword and the graceful arc of blood from the drunkard--still a citizen of Pergamon--became the catalysts that set the chain of events in motion. Several Pergamene citizens cried foul and denounced Roman barbarism. Fists were raised at Titus, who only had his sword to defend himself. A few Roman sympathizers said that Titus acted correctly, that the drunkard was disturbing the peace. Bitter responses were exchanged between the two parties and soon, fights started breaking out. Those gathered on the other side of the street took their cue and rushed forward, eager for a piece of action themselves. Very little of the rage was turned on Titus, for he was well armed. He chanced another glance at Strabo, but the man was already gone.
Heads were smashed against the cobblestone street, and many sought to dislodge the stones to use as missile or clubs. A sharp blow lanced across Titus' back. He turned around with sword in full swing only to watch a young boy fall down clutching at a gashing face wound. Rocks were hurled at Titus, and he felt very much unprotected without his helmet. But on the plus side, the commotion of the mob was spreading. The tenuous calm that the Romans held through intimidation quickly shattered. Rage supplanted fear, and the Pergamene population rose up like an angry swarm of bees. They jeered at the Roman soldiers marching through the streets, hurling both insults and rocks. The six men assigned to guarding Aebutius Drusus and Pulcher were suddenly faced with a bloodthirsty mob. They drew their swords in an attempt to defend themselves and left their prisoners completely unattended.
But Titus was not able to see any of this, his eyes instead were focused on the growing number of people eyeing him with anger and hate. The blood on his sword was starting to dry. A rock whizzed by, barely missing his ear. Charging forward, he slashed wildly, hoping to disperse the crowd with his movements. The mob retreated when he swung, but pressed ever closer. To them, this single Roman swinging his sword was a symbol of the enemy and so they rushed him.
Left without a choice, Titus was forced into striking down innocent civilians. His sword first ran through a burly boy who rushed him. Wails rose up from mothers as they begged their sons to stop the madness. The iron flashed again, and another person went reeling to the earth. But he was still alone, unprotected on his flanks and rear. Someone knocked him forward and he slammed his face against the dusty stone. The salty metallic taste of blood was punctuated by the throbbing pain expanding from his nose and overtaking his entire face. Feet stomped his body and head. Rough fingers wrestled the sword away from his hand. Elbowing his assailants, Titus pushed himself up only to see a man charging towards him with his own sword. Turning his body slightly, Titus felt the sword brush against his armor, cutting through some of the rusted rings of his mail shirt. He delivered a bone-shattering punch to the man's face and gripped the man's wrist. In one fluid motion, he twisted the man's arm.
The sword clanged to the ground.
He dove for the sword, but it was already kicked away into the crowd.
Left with only one option left, he reached to his left side and drew out his dagger. Brandishing it menacingly, he managed to hold the attackers from the front at bay. He turned this way and that in an attempt to keep a constant eye on his surrounding. The din around him was disorienting. A loud cry rose up among the Pergamene and Titus saw the smoke-blackened shields of the Praetorians breaking through the ranks. Quickly tucking his dagger back inside its scabbard, Titus turned around and fled with everyone else: away from the Praetorians.
He looked around as he ran and his vision swam in pain. Aebutius Drusus and Pulcher had disappeared.
The Mournful Melody of Asia
Violence continued to flare up throughout the city wherever Roman soldiers went. It was as if they were fighting for the city again once more. However, when the fifteen men convened again at an empty house that Rufilla had found, they congratulated each other of the brief success. Now, as Modestus puts it, they would only need to fight their way out of the city.
"We need to move through the southern gate. The main road will lead us to the river. From there, we can disappear into the woods before making the journey south towards Smyrna." Modestus suggested.
"The southern gate will be the most heavily guarded one. To move through there is suicide." Strabo argued back while nursing his own wounds.
"The other gates will put us on the plains. We'll be caught the moment we leave."
"Why leave through the gates?" Titus suggested. His nose was still bleeding and it was tender to the touch. In all probability, it was broken.
"What do you mean?"
"We breached the south eastern wall when we made our way into the city. We can leave through there as well."
"Might I say something?" Aebutius Drusus spoke. His voice was hoarse but filled with a new strength of power not before heard.
The men stopped arguing and turned their eyes to Aebutius Drusus.
"I agree with Titus Rufus. If the wall has been breached at the south-eastern corner, then we will stand a much better chance of leaving through there. We can chance our escape to the south, but both myself and Pulcher will endanger everyone's lives."
"We are ready to die for you, legatus." Strabo stamped his feet.
"And I thank you for that, but we've seen enough dead today. Time is of the essence. We must move as quickly as we can, while disorder still engulfs this city. We must hurry."
"Legatus, the road southeast is barren. There are no forests to conceal our tracks. We'll be caught quickly. Plus, Pictor has stationed men along the breached walls to keep watch--" Strabo tried to argue but was cut off.
"Men who are not doubt being pulled down to attend to the riots in the city. The southeastern breach will be our exit to safety."
"But how will we proceed to Smyrna?"
"We'll head for Sardeis instead."
Incredulity flooded the room. "Sardeis?"
Aebutius Drusus nodded. "Pictor and Bubulcus will no doubt suspect that we would fall towards Pergamon. Its port will be instrumental in helping us secure external aid from the west. They will cut us off in the south before we even reach Smyrna. But Sardeis is nothing to them. A buffer state, nothing more."
"What of the Greeks?"
"We'll travel in disguises until we arrive at Sardeis. No point in drawing unnecessary attention. Have you any additional swords?"
"Aye, sir." Strabo motioned to one of the other men, and a pair of swords were brought out.
"Good, we depart at once."
"I won't go." Pulcher remain seated in his chair.
Pulcher sighed and stared blankly at the wall. "I've been running away for too long in these past few years. First I ran from the Coward King to Colophon, only to be saved by Papirius Crassus. I've made my peace with the gods twice already, I do not wish to make it a third time. Today will be the day I meet death happily. Perhaps the gods will see it fit for me to converse with the Coward King and allow me to apologize for my past transgressions."
Aebutius Drusus shook his head. "We cannot leave you."
A tired smile curled up on Pulcher's face. "But you must. You were always a fool, Aebutius Drusus. There are certain things in life that you cannot possibly avoid, nor can you run away from for so long. My time has come. Let an old man go to death in peace. Leave me a sword. I will create a diversion for you."
"Pulcher..." Aebutius Drusus wanted to say more, but instead chose to embrace the old man instead. He whispered in Pulcher's ear. "May the gods deliver you the absolution you seek."
The small band departed from the house and Pulcher was left by himself in the house. When he was quite sure that everyone had left, he left the sword on the table and went towards the citadel. He had been preparing for death too long to be denied it a third time. The road he chose was relatively quiet. The cobblestone seemed familiar to him. He had seen the Kingdom shrank in his years, but the streets of Pergamon had not changed in those years. He could close his eyes and still make his way around the city. Nostalgia overtook him as he retraced the steps that he had once taken so many years ago. He was a young man once more, riding beside the Coward King when the King was but a boy. Overhead, the imposing citadel of Pergamon loomed. When Pulcher arrived at the open square, he saw Pictor and Bubulcus, as well as the Praetorians. The common soldiers were still in the streets fighting the Pergamene.
When they saw Pulcher approach unarmed, quizzical expressions went up. Whispers and rumors fluttered from one man to another. Bubulcus had an unreadable look on his face--a mixture of confusion and anger. He held his hand up and a Praetorian walked forward, sword drawn and ready for blood. Pulcher gave no response. He thought about the words of Sinon the Greek. Yes, he was already a dead man but did not know it. Pulcher tilted his head and offered his neck for the Praetorian sword. The guardsman was hesitant at first and looked nervously at Bubulcus. When the nod was given, the iron flashed and pierced Pulcher's great vein. Life poured from the Pulcher's throat in rhythmic bouts but Pulcher did not yet die. Keeping his eyes locked on Bubulcus and Pictor, Pulcher began to sing.
It was the same song that had risen up among the soldiery the previous night. It was the same song that he had heard before years ago when he held the dying messenger in his arms at Colophon. His voice rasped with each word but he continued to sing. The Praetorian who had stabbed him looked on with puzzlement and fear. The power of the song seemed to echo in the open square even as the blood splattered into delicate flowers on the white marble. When the song ended, Pulcher fell to his knees, his body ashen from the blood loss. But still he would not fall.
Even in death, Pulcher retained the air and dignity of a former Legate of the Kingdom of Ionia.
Simply excellent, as all your updates. Poor old Pulcher, died like a noble should. But what is to happen now, that is what I want to know.
Well, hopefully by the time the End comes, I would've finally finished writing out the lyrics to the bloody hymn they keep singing
A beautiful and poignant update, chaplain118. The tableau of the song as Pulcher died was a monument to your skill as a writer. I must confess to a twinge of jealousy as a writer when I read that scene. Again, thanks for the update!
Sons and Daughters
The rider departed from Pergamon on the night before chaos took over the city. His black warhorse snorted and shook its mane as a plume of dust trailed after the speeding hooves. The thirsty sword clapped against his hip in rhythm to the gallops while the worn oak spear dangled mere inches above the heady sprout of the blades of grass. He was a rider who hated the mount, preferring the stability of the earth rather than the unbridled will of an animal. Under the crescent moon he rode--staying awake by the bones of the emaciated horse jabbing at his legs.
He knew nothing of the reason for his orders, only that Bubulcus speaks and he must obey. Taking a deep breath, he shook his head slightly and blinked himself awake. He had been riding for several days now and his lips were chapped from the drying gentle winds of Asia.
Stars shifted across the great canvas of the sky, drawing lines of brilliant fire as he rode forward. He stared in wonderment, unsure whether he saw the lines from his fatigue or if the gods themselves were guiding him on his way. Dawn's rosy fingers soon plucked away the stars and she rose higher into the sky, prompting the sun to chase her.
To the south, the familiar spires of the Ephesian gates swam into view. Familiarity and nostalgia washed over him as he remembered first seeing those gates many years ago. How many had it been, he asked himself. There was no answer to be had there and he slowed his horse to a trot. The animal sighed and snorted an incomprehensible thanks. He patted its stringy mane.
He passed by the surrounding farmlands of Ephesos. The three years of campaigning had prompted people to emerge from the city once more. A small hut was being constructed upon the battlefield where Papirius Crassus had first inherited the crown from the Coward King. As for the spot where the Coward King fell, the foundations to a temple was being built. Surely the soul of the former King of Ionia would continue protecting this land. After all, the Coward King's fortunes brought Papirius Crassus--savior of the Kingdom.
He chuckled bitterly at the workers hauling stones from the quarry to the temple. Oh how they would panic and throw their hands to the gods for protection if he told them of what had happened to their precious savior. The paved road was just as bad as he remembered it to be. Odd stones jutted out here and there, and he felt himself a disgruntled ox-cart driver who bounced incessantly on the uneven road. Stopping before the closed gates of Ephesos, he called out to the guards above. He was shocked at what they responded with.
"For whom do you ride?"
"The King, of course."
"Yes, but who is the King? Do you ride for the True King of Ionia, or do you ride for the Pretender Papirius Crassus."
He grew flabbergasted at the accusation. Pretender? He saw Papirius Crassus receive the ring. He saw the man parade through the streets of Ephesos with that ring raised high in the air. When he responded that Papirius Crassus was no longer King--an answer vague enough to conceal its true meaning--the guardsmen opened the gate and allowed him in.
Keeping his head bowed, he trotted through the busy streets of Ephesos. A path was opened for him by civilians who knew better than to stand in front of an armed man upon a horse. He did not know that another man had ridden through these streets in a similar fashion, to the very same destination. He noticed rows of soldiers walking through the streets. But these soldiers were armed differently than he expected. He knew that men fought in mail-shirts for the lightweight yet heavy protection. But these men, they looked as if they were made from iron. Solid bands of armor constricted their body and shoulders. Their shield arm was exposed, but ringlets of iron bands ran down the length of their sword arm. Even the helmets were heavyset, flaring up at the nape of the head to form a lip that sat perfectly above the armor without restricting sight and movement. If there was one word he could use to describe this armor, it was segmentata - segmented. The soldiers themselves reminded him of the horses the Ephesian nobles rode upon: kataphractoi--fully armored.
"Soldier!" He called out to one of them. "Where is the house of Atius Balbus?"
When he saw the face of the soldier, he gasped in recognition. It was the same face as Numerius Fabius Pictor. But those eyes were different. The boy lacked his father's cold calculating eyes.
"W-Why do you n-need to k-know?"
"I have news for her."
"Of her father?"
How is the son of Pictor so well-informed? Or is this boy a potential suitor to her? She is the daughter of a Legatus to the Kingdom. A former Legatus to be sure, but still one who commanded the hearts of enough infantry. The name alone is enough to rally men. Without wishing to disclose of further information, he nodded.
"She already k-knows. You've c-come too late. Another messenger has delivered the n-news."
"Tell her that I come bearing news from the King."
"The K-King is here. If he has business with her, he would send someone within, n-not without." The younger Pictor stood his ground and crossed his arms. The iron-banded right arm reflected sunlight into the rider's eyes.
"King? Here? The King is..." he thought about it. Who would be King now? Is it Bubulcus or Pictor?
Young Pictor did not care for another answer. He interrupted with, "The K-king is here. You may see him if you wish. He is not occupied today."
"See him? The King is in Pergamon, not Ephesos!"
"The Pretender King is in Pergamon."
Realization hit the rider and he understood what had happened. Someone else of power has come ashore once more and took hold of the power vacuum left in the absence of Papirius Crassus. He reached instinctively towards the sword on his hip, but knew it would be a futile gesture. He had a mission here, and he will see it to the end. He looked at the boy with an unreadable expression and said, "I must see the daughter of Atius Balbus."
"She k-knows of her father's death."
His mind was spinning now, turning new ideas forth before he even considered their credibility. "It concerns the troops that he commanded. They refuse to march to anyone but her father, and to a certain extent, to her as well."
"A most un-Roman ch-charateristic."
"But one that we must deal with. Lead me to her, for I rode with her father in the past."
The silence between them lasted far longer than he wanted it to. But he kept his eyes trained on young Pictor's face. After several agonizing minutes, young Pictor finally acquiesced. But in the second before that, the rider could have sworn that he saw a flash of cold calculation in those eyes. He followed young Pictor through the streets towards the house of Atia Balba. The crowds grew fewer and fewer as the two traveled. The rider turned his practiced eyes this way and that. There were no other soldiers nearby. They were approaching a rather plain looking house, one that he never would have expected to be the house of a Legate of Ionia. He saw young Pictor's unarmored hand raise up to knock on the door. In one swift motion he drew his sword. The iron flashed and he brought it down as hard as he could.
The band of seventeen traveled an old trading post along the main road to Sardeis. There, they spent the first night in hiding. Titus and Polybius were tasked with watch while the others slept. Titus still nursed the wounds he sustained in the brawl at Pergamon. Polybius sported a black eye and a bruised wrist. The two men were still capable of fighting, but were holding on at the edge of their strengths and endurance. They watched the stars drawing across the sky with little thought of weariness. Instead they chose to turn their eyes towards the flickering fire that jumped and snapped in the night. Drawing his tattered old cloak fading with age close to his body, Titus stocked the fire, letting it grow slightly in the breeze.
"Still no signs of followers?" Polybius stood up and stretched.
"Not a thing."
Polybius grunted and said nothing more. They were still days away from Sardeis, and it would be unlikely of them receiving any sort of welcome to the city. Aebutius Drusus was still a wanted man, a man whom few trusted. If they could scrape together any sort of resistance against Pictor and Bubulcus, it would not be Sardeis. Titus smiled at the sardonic reality. When they first took Sardeis, they made sure the city could no longer put up any measure of resistance. Now they would return to it and expect it to be miraculously repopulated. They would return to it with the expectation that men will swell the ranks of an army. He shook his head and almost laughed at the absurdity.
"Are we doing the right thing?" Polybius broke the silence.
"What do you mean?"
"We've deserted our posts, neglected our oaths of fealty, pledged our support to an enemy of the Kingdom. By all accounts, we're no longer good model soldiers. The war god, cruel as he may be, still look unfavorably upon those who spurn their duties. Will we be cursed, Titus Rufus? Have we embarked upon a path that we cannot return from?"
"Of course we have, but that path is no different than if we were to have through our lots with Pictor and Bubulcus."
"Had we remained in Pergamon, we would be pursuing Aebutius Drusus now. We will hunt him in these fields and put him down like a rabid dog. We will be commended for it, but then what? The blood of a former commander will have tainted our hands, and we would be no better than the other sinners. We would be just as unfavored by the war god as we are now. At least now, we act with conviction in our own cause. We act knowing that what we do is correct, that what we do is what the gods would have us do. The lack of followers behind is speaks volumes to that."
"Still, one cannot help wonder."
"Put the thought from your mind, Polybius. Dawn is coming, keep watch on the road while I get some sleep."
Polybius wanted to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, he nodded and said. "Of course. May Morpheus bring you better visions that what he brought me."
As Titus slept, the flickering flames etched patterns behind his eyelids. Colors rose up and fell. Images took shape in his mind. He saw once again the faces of those who died and remained unburied. The bloated bodies, the rain-washed faces, and the empty sockets where eyeballs had been pecked away by carrion birds who descended before their victims had even died. He saw the sad eyes of Rufilla looking at him, constantly and silently begging him to end her miserable existence upon this physical world. On days he nearly obliged her dark wishes. Far better to die than to endure the shame of her life--and secret. He saw once again, the terrible face of the boy who died on the tower at Sardeis. Will the body still be there when Titus returns? He did not want to think about what he would do if he saw that face again--though it must now have decayed tremendously. He thought about his own family. They must have all died by now. Too many years separated him and hope of rescuing them from their status.
The flames continued to flicker.
What was there left to his own life? Will he simply continue on, from one day to the next with no definitive goal in mind, or will he pursue another route? The gods have seen fit to let him live this long, perhaps they had a purpose for him. Perhaps they intend that he serve them in far more practical ways. As he finally slipped into the world that Morpheus the dream god built for him, Titus saw a familiar figure with its back to him. The figure was draped with the pristine white robes of a priest of Juppiter but was whispering prayers in Greek and Armenian. The temple that this priest tended looked neither Roman nor Greek, but took on that of a more exotic appearance. He wanted to call out to the figure but his voice did not emerge from his throat.
He knew. He was not meant to see the face of this priest. He could only listen to the prayers and watch as the sun rose directly above the temple this priest tended to. Atop the temple was a single statue of a god with rays emanating from his head. Finally, with the prayer having been said, the priest lowered his arms and turned around.
The flames continued to flicker in the real world, but in the dream world, Titus Rufus stared into his own eyes.
A moving and dramatic update, chaplain118. I do so admire the structure of thes updates which present episodic moments always hanging on a dramatic climax. It adds breadth and intrique to a riveting story - and makes me itch to read the next update, damn you!