Publius heard a harsh knock at the door of the rear room of his little house where he practiced. Without hurrying he got up from his desk and went to the threshold. He opened the door, finding himself at the presence of a praetorian guard who told him with a commanding tone: “Your services are required at the Coliseum, now.”
“Let me take my instruments and I’ll follow you,” he replied gently while the other man stood stock still in his frightening black uniform.
Publius knew quite well that under other circumstances the praetorian’s behavior wouldn’t have been so patient. On the other hand, having relieved the man’s mistress from an unpleasant venereal disease he had passed on to her, earned him a little more respect. Publius wondered about this calling. The last time he had been called to his duty as surgeon of the arena, had been a while ago, when the Spaniard had defeated Tigris. This had been the last fight held since then and nobody had been able to say why. Publius had heard voices about an aborted plot against the emperor, but since plotting in Rome was a sport just as popular as gladiatorial games, he hadn’t paid attention. Still puzzled he took his bag following the guard toward the short road to the Coliseum.
Once there, he was escorted to the deepest bowels of the building. This was a place where he had never been before and he felt uneasy, recalling the voices he had heard about what took place there. His destination was a heavy door. The praetorian unlocked it and gestured him to go inside. In the dim light of a single torch, no one else seemed to be in sight and for a moment Publius feared that they were going to banish him in there. He didn’t know why, but a reason was rarely needed in these matters. He heard ragged breathing coming from the shadows. He headed to the source of it to spot the shape of a body of a man in chains, lying unconscious on the floor. The physician turned toward the guard who had remained near the door.
“Please, bring me some water and more light.”
Without speaking the man complied, returning with a jug and a new torch. He put the latter into a support on the wall, and the ewer on the floor, then noisily closed the door behind his back.
The new source of light helped Publius to have an idea about the conditions of the man he had been called to tend to. His patient hadn’t been injured in a fight, or in sword practice, he had been tortured. The physician wondered briefly about why he had been called until the truth hit him. He had been summoned just to keep him alive a little longer to stand further abuses. He knelt near the prisoner trying to decide where to start; asking to himself if what he was doing was just another torture. Sighing he began to remove the few remaining rags of a blue gladiator tunic. He tried to be as gentle as possible, dampening the parts where the fabric stuck to the wounds. When all the man’s back was bare, he proceeded to clean the dried blood and the dirt with as much care as possible. The slave flinched twice, but still didn’t wake up and Publius began to apply his ointments meant to ease the pain and avoid infections. Surmising that the man’s back wasn’t the only part to have received the praetorians’ attentions, he got hold of his head and turned it toward the light.
“The Spaniard. That answers some of the questions,” he thought. Brushing the dampened cloth on the gladiator’s swollen lips, Publius saw him react. Rummaging in his bag he found a small recipient. He poured some water, and then gently raised the Spaniard’s head to allow him to quench his thirst. The man drank greedily and, swallowing, he opened his eyes.
“Thank you,” he whispered. Publius gave him more water and when it was enough he helped the Spaniard to turn on his right side.
“What did the most famous hero of the arena do to deserve this?” the physician asked.
“The emperor and I are long time friends. He wanted to strengthen the old friendship.”
“If this is a sign of friendship, I’m afraid to know what enmity is.”
“He wants an answer. The one he’ll never get and these are his efforts to make me change my mind.”
“It’s seems like he’s trying very hard.”
“What is the question?”
“Will you take my hand?”
“Is it worth all this and your life?”
“Yes, it is. And it’s worth many other lives he destroyed.”
The Spaniard’s voice weakened as he struggled to fight the pain in his body. He breathed deeply and then continued, “I’ll rather die than surrender. Have you been summoned here to keep me alive a little longer?” he said.
The physician nodded.
“I guessed it. They didn’t show such concern for me before.”
Publius remained silent, not knowing what to reply. He proceeded to clean up Maximus’ wrists as far as the chain allowed, and then repeated the operation at his ankles.
“Don’t waste your skills. I won’t survive enough to grieve over a few more scars.”
“Is there something I can do for you?”
“Lend me a knife, so that I can slid my wrists and vex Commodus beyond reason.”
“I wish I could, but I have a family to think of and I cannot risk their lives.”
“Forgive me if I asked. I’ve already too many innocent lives on my soul to add your family’s and yours. I’m sorry,” was the astonishing answer.
“You are sorry? I’m adding days to your pain and YOU ARE SORRY? You’re unbelievable.”
“I’m sorry for all the pain I couldn’t stop.”
“Would you like something to ease your pain, to let you sleep?”
“If you wish so, but don’t bother. I have my rest. My life is not so active these days. No fights, no sword practice,” Maximus said, concluding with a bitter laughter. Publius gave him more water as the struggle to speak made him cough.
“Would you like me to tell anyone where you are now? Your family?”
“I have no family left. Commodus took care of them long ago. The few that still might be interested in my fate are slaves and they already know what’s happening to me. But thank you for the offer,” Maximus said closing his eyes, while the medicine did its job on his battered body. Publius gathered his things and went away.
Publius was summoned again after a couple of days. As he had guessed, the patient was still the Spaniard and his conditions were desperate. The strong man was dying and his strength was just prolonging his agony. The physician thought over while rummaging in his bag. He found a small vial he kept well hidden in a secret compartment, then mixed its content with some water. When the liquid looked transparent again he grabbed the prisoner’s head making it lean on his lap.
“Spaniard, wake up. I’ve something for you. Please wake up.”
A pained moan was the answer. The battered man attempted to speak but the words died on his swollen lips.
“Drink this,” Publius urged and Maximus complied wearily.
“It’s bitter,” the gladiator complained.
“I’m sorry but poisons rarely taste good.”
Maximus’ eyes sprang open.
“Poison? I thank you very much but I hope you didn’t put yourself in trouble to help me.”
“No, I didn’t. This poison is impossible to discover.”
“Too bad I’ll not be able to see Commodus’ face.”
“The poison will act soon, but now you must listen to me. Don’t fight it,” Publius neared his mouth to Maximus’ face whispering words he alone could hear.
When the praetorian returned, he found Publius already waiting for him.
“You called me too late. He died before I could tend to him,” the physician said evenly.
“What are you talking about?” the guard yelled.
“That you tortured him to death. I’m a doctor, not a wizard. He had already started his journey to the Elysium. There was nothing I could do to prevent this.”
The praetorian pushed Publius out of the cell, marching him outside the Coliseum and then returned to report the new development to his superior. When the two men arrived at the former general’s cell all that they saw was his still body on the ground.
A chill ran through their spines.
Commodus had heard the general of his personal guard stepping in, but he just loved sensing the other man’s discomfort. At the end curiosity won over and he asked.
“Why are you here, Quintus? Did he finally surrender?”
“Sort of. He died.”
“What?” the emperor yelled turning to face him “How did he dare?”
“I don’t think he dared anything. He just didn’t survive to the guards’ desire to please you.”
“I must see him with my own eyes. I’m going to the Coliseum. Send your men to fetch Lucilla and Lucius. They must be there, too.” Quintus nodded and went out to execute the emperor’s orders.
Two guards had been charged to prepare the body for the Emperor’s arrival. Unwilling to mess up their clean uniforms, they temporarily released some of the surviving gladiators belonging to the late Proximo. Juba had volunteered to go. Though he hadn’t been told what they had been summoned for, he knew that it must have something to do with Maximus. He hadn’t heard about him since the day of Proximo’s death and he had often wondered what had become of him. The fact that he and the other rebels hadn’t been executed was a clue of the fact that he was still alive. Or, at least, he had been until now. When he and another slave were marched inside the cell, the sight of the man shackled confirmed his hunch.
“Remove the chains and put him on the table,” the guard prompted and Juba complied with as much care as possible. Deep in his heart he knew that Maximus was beyond any pain, but the Numidian had decided to give him the respect he had missed in life. Adjusting his friend’s body on the table, Juba saw the results of Commodus’ wrath. His face looked peaceful, though, as if he had already embraced his family in the Afterlife. The Numidian silently raised a prayer to the Gods to grant his friend a safe journey. As they finished, the guards ordered them to move to a dark corner of the cell, should their strength be needed again. A blanket was draped upon the Spaniard’s body.
When the guards had dragged Maximus back to the Coliseum, Commodus had been there to welcome him, relieving at the sight of the great general, the mighty gladiator who had dared to defy him in front of the mob, restrained by shameful shackles, completely at his mercy. But Maximus hadn’t begged for that mercy, he hadn’t asked to be spared. He had defiantly sustained the emperor’s gaze, despite the chains and the bruises. It hadn’t shown the shame of having been stripped of his armor, to be left with nothing but rags.
“You’re going to die. You know this Maximus, don’t you? Aren’t you afraid of the darkness?”
“I thought you were the one afraid of the darkness, Caesar,” was the insulting answer. Commodus had slapped him hard on the face, but the slave didn’t flich, while a mocking smile curled his lips.
“Unlike Maximus the invincible, who knows no fear?” the emperor said.
The former general replied with a wry smirk “I knew a man who once said “Death smiles at us all. All that man can do is smile back”.”
“I wonder. Did your friend smile at his own death?”
“You must know. He was your father.”
These words had plunged into Commodus’ heart like a burning knife. He paled, but managed to keep his anger at bay.
“You’ve always tried to steal my Father’s love from me and I see you go on now that he cannot unveil your lies. But to show the extent of my mercy, I’m going to give you a chance. Swear your loyalty to me and you’ll be free.”
Maximus exploded into laughter, to stop only when Commodus slapped him again, adding a new bruise on his battered face. His expression, though, hurt the emperor more than everything else.
“All right, now I know your answer. I offered you my mercy and you refused it, now you’ll know my wrath.”
The emperor nodded to the guards and turned. The feeling of his enemy’s eyes on his back made him shiver.
Commodus never returned to the cell under the Coliseum. He knew from his guards what was going on, but even if the thought of witnessing Maximus’ pain was tempting, he was afraid to see that cursed slave defying him once again, with his strength, his power. Marcus Aurelius had loved the general more than his own son and what the Spaniard had to face was the punishment for having had what Commodus had never gained: his father’s pride and love.
And now everything was over.
Quintus felt a sense of freedom. Maximus had died, at last, and now his accusing shadow would not be hanging over their lives. The old friendship the two soldiers had shared had been poisoned but Quintus’ envy. He had always felt deprived of something that was his. And knowing that his former commander had deserved everything he had achieved didn’t help a bit. Commodus’ rise to power had been the answer to his prayers. He hadn’t been proud of his part in Maximus’ family slaughter, but every war has its casualties and they had been caught in the middle of something greater than their lives.
And now everything was over.
A black-clad praetorian had come to Lucilla’s rooms to announce Commodus’ summons. She had seen the smirk under the man’s sober expression. The emperor’s personal guard was loyal only to him and Lucilla knew that they knew about her involvement in the aborted plot. Aborted because of her betrayal that she had excused with her son’s life.
And now everything was over.
“Mum, where are we going to?”
“To the Coliseum. Your uncle has requested our presence.”
“For what? There aren’t games, today.”
“I don’t know Lucius, just get prepared.”
Commodus loved the smell of the bowels of the giant arena. The heavy mixture of blood, dirt and fear, suited him better than all the perfumes brought to Rome by the merchants of far away countries. His marble white attire had an unnatural glow under the light of the torch held by Quintus and the emperor strode his way like a god, making his way in the world of mere mortals.
Lucilla’s stomach tightened at the sight of the Coliseum as it had in the past. While her mother and brother had had a fondness for the blood sports taking place there, she had always felt revulsion for the useless waste of lives. And lately, when she had seen Maximus – her Maximus – turned slave and gladiator, fighting cheered by the mob, she had wished she’d never been there. Nor Lucius, too young to understand the viciousness of his uncle, too young to understand the damage he had done revealing the plot against Commodus, too young to face what he was going to face now.
The room had been enlightened for the emperor’s arrival and the smoldering torches creating a sort of fog. The opening of the door cleared only slightly the atmosphere without lessening the heavy scent of blood and pain lingering inside.
He was floating. His body seemed no more his, but something detached from his essence. Something was missing and he wondered what. With an effort he focused and he realized that he felt no pain, the faithful companion of his days had somehow decided to release its hold. An inner smile curled the lips of his soul’s mouth. Little by little the sense of floating withdrew and he began to feel again. He smelled blood, dust and smoke; heard people breathing; sensed wood under his back.
A door creaked open, someone entered.
Commodus smiled at Lucilla as she got in. He had waited for her and Lucius to have his little show.
“Where is Lucius? I required his presence, too,” he asked pouting.
“I left him outside. He’s too young for this place. Let him think of you as his hero, not as a cruel tyrant.”
The emperor was going to reply, but decided that his sister was probably right. He wanted Lucius’ love and killing his hero could have proven a bad move. Better let him forget Maximus and replace him with himself later. He smiled broadly and went to the table. Even though he knew what he was going to find under the blanket, he shivered with anticipation grabbing the fabric.
Coldness. He suddenly felt cold air on his skin.
The few remaining rugs of the slave’s tunic did little to hide the signs of the torture and Commodus relished at the thought of having been responsible for those wounds.
“And now, General, where are your strength, your pride and courage. My father was wrong placing his bet on you. You lost everything and I won: Rome, Lucilla and your life. Everything’s mine, now.”
Caesar’s last words were whispered in his enemy’s ears.
Words, he could hear words and he was able to sense the anger and the hatred lying underneath, even before he could understand their meaning.
“I’m not dead,” he thought recalling Publius’ promise. “I’m not dead, yet,” he repeated to himself.
Then he felt warm breath on this face.
Commodus jumped in surprise finding himself staring at the angry eyes of a man he had already believed dead, but didn’t go far as his throat was closed in a deadly grip by his enemy’s arms. All the bystanders froze watching Maximus raise and with a swift movement twisting the emperor’s head until his neck snapped with the horrible sound of the breaking of a branch. The young man folded like a stringless puppet, his dead face frozen in stupor. The anger that had sustained Maximus in his assault brought back all the sensations and he collapsed on the table, hissing with pain.
Quintus moved toward him, but Lucilla trampled him. As the Praetorian leaned on the table to steady himself, she grabbed his gladius with both hands. He turned to face her, just in time to receive his own sword in the gut. The two guards who tried to intervene were strangled by the gladiators’ chains.
The whole thing had lasted maybe a minute, but it seemed hours after the entrance of the small group into the cell.
“And now?” Lucilla asked addressing nobody in particular.
“How many men are there outside?” Maximus asked struggling to sit up.
“Two with Lucius just outside the door, many other at the external door.”
“Free Juba and Livius, then call the guards outside,” the general said and Lucilla complied with shaking hands. When the two fighters were free, they prepared the scene. The corpses were hidden in the shadows, while Maximus eased himself back on the table. Lucilla covered him with the blanket, while the others armed themselves with the fallen guards’ weapons. As soon as everybody was ready, she took a deep breath and shouted ‘Help, Caesar needs help!'”
The door slammed open and two praetorians stepped in. They never went past two steps from the door ad they were killed by Juba and Livius.
Lucilla returned to the table to remove the blanket over Maximus who was breathing heavily, looking bad.
“We must go through the Ludus Magnus. Publius is waiting for us there,” he managed to say. Lucilla helped him to sit up, soon sided by Juba. Together they were able to keep him upright as the Spaniard’s legs weakened. Livius grabbed a torch and a sword, opening their way. Lucius was outside and his eyes widened as he saw her mother emerging from the cell with Maximus half carried by a big black man he remembered having seen in the arena.
“Mother, what happened?”
“It’s a long story, my dear. I’ll tell you later. Now we must go.”
The boy nodded and followed the small group through the dark corridor.
As soon as they reached the cages where the other captives were held, they opened all the gates and all the slaves stormed out.
Senator Gracchus was the last to come out, looking the more strained by his captivity. He froze, seeing those he owned his freedom to.
“My lady Lucilla, General,” he said but was interrupted by Maximus who hissed: “There’s no time for this. We must get out of here through the Ludus Magnus.”
The man took the hint, grabbing the torch from Livius’ hand to show the way. The Spaniard resumed walking, fueled only by will power. He stumbled frequently, but Juba managed to keep him going until the small group reached the door leading outside. Gracchus replaced the Numidian on the general’s side as Juba carefully opened the door.
A cloaked figure was waiting outside.
“Is everything alright? Who are you? Where is the Spaniard?” the man asked.
“Here,” Maximus himself replied wearily from the door. Publius ran to him checking his conditions with a glance.
“The cart is waiting for us. Follow me.”
Juba and Livius led their fellow gladiator to the wagon, helping him to climb up. Once inside, the fatigue had the best of him and he passed out before being completely lying down. The physician jumped next to him and once asserted that the Spaniard was actually alive, he turned to face the others.
“We must go away before the Emperor discovers us.”
“Not likely,” Lucilla replied somehow bitterly “but where can we go?”
“To Ostia, to the Felix Legion, I think he could be safe there.” Publius said “The chief surgeon, Marcianus, is a friend of mine. Augusta Lucilla, while we’re still within the walls, I suggest that you and your son remain inside the cart. The others can walk until we buy some horses and supplies. It’s a one day journey to Ostia,” Senator Gracchus advised.
“Alright, let’s go.” Lucilla said finally and Juba helped her and Lucius to go inside.
The small procession began to move with Juba leading the horses and Livius on his side, weapons ready and senses on alert.
The never-ending activity taking place in the crowded streets of Rome slowed them down, providing at the same time a sort of invisibility. They reached a pawnshop where Publius traded some of Lucilla’s jewels, collecting a bag full of coins that was soon lightened purchasing horses and supplies. When they left the city for the low green hills of the countryside, they stopped near a shepherd’s hut and Publius checked Maximus’ conditions. The physician tended to his wounds with all the care he couldn’t use before, happy to use his skills to preserve the man’s life, instead of prolonging his torture. The Spaniard’s skin was chill and while Publius did his best for his external bruises, there was little he could do to help him fight the poison that had saved his life, but at a hard price for his heart. He only hoped that the man was strong enough to survive this ordeal.
“How’s he?” Lucilla asked, trying to conceal the fear in her voice.
“Bad. He’s been through things that could have killed him more than once, but he’s strong and he had chances. Not a lot of them, but we can hope.”
The woman nodded and Publius admired her composure. She really was her father’s daughter. Unlike Commodus, he added to himself.
They all were having an early dinner before starting their journey to Ostia, when Senator Gracchus asked: “What happened before you freed us?”
Lucilla tensed, unwilling to tell the whole story at Lucius’ presence.
“Lady Lucilla, would you mind taking some water from the spring near the house?” Juba said, sensing her discomfort “Master Lucius, would you please help her?”
Mother and son complied and Lucilla gave Juba a thanking smile.
Publius began to tell his part in the plot and Juba intervened supplementing the story with what the physician didn’t know.
“So Commodus had died.” Gracchus said at last “I had hoped to see a moment like this, but everything exactly how we planned it.”
“The general had his revenge,” was the Numidian’s reply.
“General?” Publius asked puzzled.
“The man you know as the Spaniard is General Maximus Decimus Meridius, former Commander of the armies of the North, general of the Felix Legions and Marcus Aurelius’ right arm. You know him as a slave because of Commodus’ hatred.” Juba explained.
“He had started to say something, but I didn’t know. I only wanted to give him a chance, if not to escape, to die in a fight was more suitable to a man like him.”
“You did. Should he die, he’d be able to face his ancestors in the Afterlife with his head high,” Gracchus replied and Juba nodded his agreement.
Lucilla led her son toward the water and as they got there she gestured to him to sit next to her. She put her arms around him and began to explain the facts that had led to the present situation. She told him the truth, only trying to spare him the meanest parts of Commodus’ temper and Lucius’ unintentional betrayal. Lucius listened attentively, his young face too serious for his mother’s heart’s comfort and Lucilla thought about how much he resembled his father, a good man whose life had been too short, leaving his wife and child to face the dangerous waters of the imperial palace. Even if Lucius was nearly too grown up for this, she put him on her lap, cradling him like she had done so many times in the past. She sensed his silent tears and rocked him while she let her own flow down her face. She mourned for all the losses in her life, her mother, her sweet husband, her beloved father and her little brother, for the child afraid of the darkness that he had been, before turning into a heartless monster, capable of unspeakable cruelty. She had a thought also for Olivia and Marcus, Maximus’ loves, which had paid with their lives for her father’s last wish. At the end she wept also for herself, for the young girl who had been madly in love with a handsome officer of the army, a man she had rejected in the name of the reason of state, a man she had betrayed more than once and she couldn’t help herself but to care for.
As the tears stopped, mother and son returned to the small camp. After supper, Publius checked Maximus who seemed close to wake up, his eyelids fluttering briefly. He didn’t, though, and the physician went down to meet the others. They agreed to travel the whole night to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Rome.
Marcus Aurelius was talking to him and Maximus was puzzled because his last memory of the old man was his body lying on a bed.
“I know that I asked so much from you in the past, but there’s one more duty for you to fulfill.”
Maximus tried to stand up on attention but he had problems to assert where up was. He attempted to speak but his voice refused to come out and he just floated away in the darkness, missing the Emperor’s request.
Lucilla observed Maximus moaning in his sleep and she brushed his cheeks. She passed her fingers over the dark circles under his closed eyes, feeling guilty for having caused the pain that had brought them on his face. She prayed to the Gods to let him live. He had paid the highest price for his loyalty and he deserved something for himself, even if this meant dying as a free man and not as a battered slave. She hoped that he could have something more than this. She just couldn’t help herself wishing she could have something for herself, too.
As they reached Ostia, it wasn’t hard finding where the Felix Legion was camped. From inside the cart Lucilla recalled how many camps she had seen in her life, during her father’s travel throughout the empire. Despite what people used to think about her, she had always loved the long journeys on never-ending roads, leading to the wildest part of the world. She did like the luxury of her condition, but she had loved so much more the moments she had shared with her father, when she had been able to talk to him as a peer. He was one of the few who had really listened to her words. Him and Maximus, since they met so many years ago.
“Milady Lucilla” a respectful voice said and she turned finding herself facing the brightest blue-green gaze she’d ever seen and that she wasn’t going to forget.
The sentry at the main gate wasn’t too thrilled when Publius asked to see the chief surgeon, but since he hadn’t apparently more urgent matters to attend to, he elected to go and fetch him. He soon returned with Marcianus. The man’s face brightened seeing who the visitor was and hugged him.
“Publius, my friend, what brings you here?”
“I have a patient I’m really worried about. I came here to ask for your advice.”
Knowing the skills of his friend, Marcianus looked puzzled as he followed Publius inside the cart. As the curtains were opened, the sun shone on the unconscious man lying on his stomach, his head turned toward the physician. Marcianus gasped in surprise.
“How… how can this be? I’d heard that he had been killed in Germania,” he stammered.
“This was the intention. But he survived and the Emperor tried to fix his first mistake. I gave him a potion that caused a death-like state. This saved his life for a while, but he’s been tortured and I’m not sure he’ll survive. Could you please hide and help him?” Publius explained.
“Were you followed? Is the Emperor looking for him?”
“I don’t think so, at least not the Emperor. But others may be curious about his whereabouts.”
Marcianus nodded and left him for a moment, to speak with the guards. After few words, they let the cart pass the gate.
As the group reached Marcianus’ tent, the surgeon went in to prepare his tools. Meanwhile Juba and Livius moved Maximus inside. Marcianus hadn’t been surprised at Lucilla’s presence at the general’s side. He remembered her very well, having seen her with her father from childhood, until she had become the beautiful woman she was now. What he didn’t remember having seen before was the deep concern that crossed her regal features. She looked even more beautiful, though, as her will power and cleverness emerged. She looked sad, too, as if she was carrying all the weight of the world upon her shoulders. He gave her a reassuring smile, praying that he could do something to ease hers and Maximus’ pain.
Once the Spaniard was put on the table, Marcianus assessed his conditions, shaking his head in disbelief. He had cured his former general and friend many times in the past and he had feared for his life more than once, because Maximus had never been prone to remain safe within the Praetorium yelling orders. But, back then; it had been for “clean” wounds, battle injuries. He just couldn’t accept this wickedness. Even though Publius hadn’t explained everything, Marcianus knew that Commodus must have been behind this, talking delight in the pain he caused. The physician had witnessed the younger man’s hatred for the general growing and festering, fueled by Commodus’ insanity, as well as by Marcus Aurelius’ blindness to what his lack of affection towards his son was causing.
“My decision disappoints you?” Marcus Aurelius asked.
“You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues — wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. As I read the list I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, Father — ambition, that can be a virtue when it drives us to excel; resourcefulness; courage, perhaps not on the battlefield but there are many forms of courage; devotion, to my family, to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then it was as if you didn’t want me for your son.” was Commodus’ reply, his eyes full of tears.
“Oh, Commodus, you go too far.”
“I searched the faces of the gods for ways to please you, to make you proud…. One kind word, one full hug while you pressed me to your chest and held me tight, would have been like the sun on my heart for a thousand years…. What is it in me you hate so much? All I ever wanted was to live up to you, Caesar, Father.”
Marcianus had always hoped for a positive ending to that, but there had been none, until now. He used all his skills to continue Publius’ cares, doing his best to fight what was killing Maximus and when he had finished, he asked the two gladiators to move Maximus to one of the cots of the infirmary.
Juba was actually stunned when the physician thanked them. It had been so long since someone had addressed him with respect, that he had quite forgotten how it was to be treated like a human being and not cattle.
“He’s a friend of mine. He deserved this,” and Marcianus smiled his agreement to that statement.
“He’s bad. I’m not sure if he’ll survive, but we did our best and now only God may decide. I put his life in His hands.”
“God?” Lucilla asked, “Are you one of those Christians?”
“Yes, Domina, and I hope this isn’t a problem for you.”
“Not at all. I’ve always known you as a good man and the God you pray to hasn’t changed that, as far as I can see,” she replied and Marcianus nodded to her acknowledgement while she moved near the cot where Maximus laid. She took a chair, preparing herself for a long wake.
Publius waved a goodbye to his old friend on his way back to Rome and his family, while Marcianus began to work on a solution concerning the new guests’ accommodation.
The new commander of the Felix Legion didn’t like the army life style, preferring his rich palace in Rome, so it wasn’t a problem hiding the presence of new recruits in the camp. But someone else had to know, so Marcianus spread the news to the officers who had been closer to Maximus. Silently they built up a defense around their former leader from the threats to come.
His mother’s touch was wonderful on his hot face and Maximus smiled. He struggled to open his eyes, but as he was able to do so, he saw Lucilla next to him. It took him a while to put everything back in place, but as he was able to gather his wits, he noticed the worry lines on her face.
“Am I so bad?” he wondered “Yes, probably,” his aching body reminded him, but he managed to put a smile on his swollen lips to reassure her. He didn’t know if he had been successful because darkness took him again and he returned into its cold embrace.
While his mother was on Maximus’ side, Lucius spent his time with Juba. The Numidian was happy of being able to lift the boy’s sadness, telling him tales about his home country, the nature, and the animals he used to hunt. The young boy was curious about everything, coaxing him to say more. On his side, Juba was more than willing to share his memories with him, and the sensation of being unshackled was heartwarming. If only he could go back home.
Marcianus returned often to check his patient. The Spaniard’s conditions weren’t improving, but at the same time he wasn’t getting worse, so the physician allowed himself a little hope.
After the first day, Senator Gracchus decided to return to Rome, assuring Lucilla that he would send news and Livius had escorted him back. The former gladiator had little to do in the camp, so he preferred to find his own way in life. Lucilla had thanked him for his help, rewarding him with a purse fat of sesterces and a document assuring his freeing. He had thanked her and never turned back.
Maximus was still fighting death, as the news that Pertinax – after Commodus’ death – had declared himself Emperor reached Ostia and the camp. There were rumors concerning the late Emperor’s sudden death, but nothing was sure and the new Caesar didn’t seem eager to discover who had done him such a gift. The Commander of the Felix Legion entrusted by Commodus, apparently decided to reduce even more his visits to his supposed army and the officers had a meeting to decide what to do. Most of them had suspects about the identity of the man who had freed Rome from Marcus Aurelius’ son, but nobody gave voice to those dangerous thoughts, just in case the Praetorians came to exact revenge. After some time, they decided to just wait for developments, the situation in Rome seemed quite under control, given the circumstances, so the better choice seemed to be to wait and see.
“Please, my Friend, stay with me a little more. Give me time to tell you how much I’m sorry for you. Please, Maximus, live.”
Lucilla had whispered these words like a prayer, the seventh day after the escape from Rome. Her eyes were dry after so much crying for him and she was struggling not to despair.
“If this is an order, I’ll obey, Domina.” was the weak answer.
Lucilla jumped in surprise, as she saw Maximus looking at her. He was pale and tired, but awake. She cried softly and squeezed his hand, just to be sure that she wasn’t dreaming. He smiled at her, blinked and fell asleep again. She sighed, but for the first time in days, the dark desperation she allowed herself to dream.
Lucilla had left Maximus’ side for a while to look for Lucius. Some of the cavalrymen were teaching him how to ride a big horse, instead of the pony he was used to and she could see that he was happier than he had looked in months. He was rumpled and dirty, but at ease with those men. His fair skin had acquired a darker color and his freckles were even cuter on his young face.
“He’s fine. They are taking care of him,” Juba said behind her and she turned.
“I never thanked you enough for what you did for him and for me.”
“You didn’t have to, I read it in your eyes. They changed since your arrival here and this is my reward.”
Lucilla’s answer was a smile.
Marcianus arrived at the infirmary to check Maximus. The physician unfastened the bandages, and then spread his ointments on the raw skin. The general was going to bear the scars of his ordeal, but the wounds were healing.
“Did you ever tire of patching me up?” his patient asked and Marcianus jumped in surprise.
“Welcome back, Maximus. I’m really glad to see that the general has won another battle.”
“Thanks to your skills.”
“And to the fact that you’ve always been too stubborn to surrender. That had always helped me very much. I’m so happy to see you awake. You made me fear for your life, this time, you know.” Marcianus added with a chastening look. The general laughed at his expression, but began to cough and the physician helped him to drink some water.
“You look as if you’ve been caught in the middle of a cavalry drill, but it seems as if the worst’s over. Now you must rest and allow time to heal you.”
“I wasn’t planning to go anywhere in the near future,” Maximus added, his words fading as he fell asleep again.
As soon as the news that Maximus was better spread throughout the camp, some of his soldiers came to meet him. Grizzled centurions, as well as young boys, arrived at the infirmary even just to take a look, to be sure that their beloved commander was still with them. They looked concerned about his condition and some cursed loudly witnessing his wounds, soon blushing as they remembered the presence of a lady with him. Maximus was very touched by their loyalty, often fighting tiredness and pain to stay awake during their visits. More than once Marcianus had to shoo the legionaries away when he saw that his patient was exhausted by their visits. He knew, however, that their affection was helping the general’s recovery, more than his potions. This and Lucilla always on his side.
“Mother, a man is here for you from Senator Gracchus.” It took a while for Lucilla to realize that Lucius was talking to her.
“All right, Lucius. I’m coming,” she answered fully awake at once. She quickly dressed without help, something that would have seemed ludicrous just a while ago. She didn’t miss her servants, though, as well as her life in the imperial palace. She still hadn’t a mirror, so she just left her hair free on her back and went out.
Gracchus’ messenger was a handsome young slave, the kind of servant that the senator had always preferred. The man bowed reverently, handing a scroll to her, She unrolled it and read the news.
“Please tell Senator Gracchus that I thank him for the news and that I took good note of its meaning. Thank you very much.”
The young man nodded and returned to his horse. With the scroll still in her hands, she went to see Maximus, hoping he was awake.
The Spaniard was having breakfast and smiled as she came in. Watching the parchment he asked: “News from Rome?”
“Yes, Pertinax is still working, or rather “paying” to strengthen his position on the throne.”
“I’m sorry for this. I wasn’t able to fulfill your father’s dream. I failed him for the first time in my life,” Maximus replied to her words.
“No you didn’t. It was foolish of my father just thinking to put such a burden on your shoulders. You’re far too much of a good man for Rome and her politics. He should have let you return where your heart belonged, instead of putting you through the living hell you experienced. You ought to have to be rewarded for your loyalty to the Empire, not paying the price you paid. My family owes you a lot. I hope you could ever forgive us for what we committed against you. I hope you could forgive me,” she ended saying, her voice hoarse.
“I already did.”
“How could you? Commodus had you tortured because of me.”
“Not because of you, but because of his hatred. He had used you to reach me, as he would have done with anyone. I was afraid he would hurt you. I’m happy he didn’t.”
“He did, with the poison of his words, with his lust and madness. Every single day since your capture, he gave a report of what they’ve been doing to you, laughing as I paled. He threatened to kill Lucius if I didn’t accept his attentions and he said he wanted to start a new royal dynasty with me.”
The color drained from Maximus’ face at her words.
“Did he touch you?” he asked in a whisper.
“No, thank the Gods. I guess he wanted to wait for your death. He was still afraid of you, even chained in the darkness of his prison. And he envied you, as he had envied everyone I loved. When I got married he just couldn’t stand my husband. Luckily we lived far away from Rome, but when Lucius died, my father asked me to return. I wish I had said no.”
“When I think of my last meeting with your father, I wish I had said yes, but still I’m not sure if this would have changed the outcome, probably only the timing. Commodus would never have accepted me in the position he wanted for himself. He would have fought with all his might and this could have torn the Empire to pieces. I only would… would have preferred being the only one to pay for his hatred. The silliest thing was that he missed his true target, me.”
“I’m happy he did it. I would have lost a piece of my heart, as I did when I though he had you killed in Vindobona.”
Maximus was looking at her with an expression she couldn’t read and she thought she had upset him with her words, but it was only a glimpse and he returned to his breakfast.
“How’s Lucius?” he asked after a while.
“He’s fine. Your men and Juba are spoiling him shamelessly. They’re teaching him to ride warhorses and he’s having the time of his life. He’s never been happy on the Palatine hill. When my husband was still alive, he used to play with Lucius any time he could. I remember them returning home at dusk, sweaty, dirty, giggling like two naughty children.”
“I always wanted to do so, but I could only few times. I think that what kept me from going insane in the long cold Northern nights, was the thought that I was doing what I had to protect them and other families from the darkness.”
Maximus’ words faded as he tried to fight the tears running down his cheeks at the thought of his family. Lucilla went closer and sweetly kissed a tear away before saying: “You did, General, you did. Your family must be proud of you in Elysium.”
His stunned gaze was fixed on her.
Two weeks after the escape from the bowels of the Coliseum, Senator Gracchus came to the camp in person. He was glad to see that the general was well enough to talk with him and Lucilla. His left arm and hand were bandaged, and the exposed flesh bore a frightening array of bruises and wounds. As he rose to his feet to meet him, the politician noticed a light limp, but given what the man had been through, the Spaniard looked better than expected. After the greetings, Maximus went straight to the point: “How’s the situation in Rome?”
“Precariously balanced between peace and disaster. Pertinax is still on the throne, but how long he will last, is something I cannot surmise.”
“Are they looking for me or Lucilla and Lucius?” Maximus asked.
“I’m not sure, because the Praetorians aren’t exactly fond of me. Pertinax spread the news that Commodus died from natural causes and he attended at the funeral in strict mourning. To those puzzled of Lucilla’s and Lucius’ absence, he explained that you were both so distressed that it would be too much for you being there. I guess he’s curious, but more than this he’s struggling to keep his position. He doesn’t seem inclined to spare his men to look for you. Did you have problems with the commander of the Legion?”
“No, after Commodus’ death, he made himself scarce. Good thing that the supplies were paid and delivered before the last turn of the events. His second in command, Donatus is a clever man and a good soldier.”
“Given the situation,” Lucilla asked, “do you think that the idea of making Rome a republic again is feasible?”
“I’m afraid not anymore. Everything changed in the meantime. Should the Legions march toward Rome now, that would mean a blood bath. The Praetorians are on alert now, and they won’t be willing to give up their control of the throne, in favor of a republic. And the senate supports the new emperor. Especially because he’s backed by the Praetorian Guard. I’m afraid, though, that the situation is likely to change, as soon as he’ll find no more money in his purse, or the Praetorian Guard find a more appealing leader.”
“So the blood bath would be only delayed?” Maximus offered and Gracchus could only nod at the sad truth in his words.
“How much time do you think we have?” Lucilla asked.
“Not much. Pertinax had bitten more than he could chew and short of a miracle, he’s not destined to keep his seat for long.”
“So we must find a suitable replacement and do this quite soon,” Maximus said.
There was silence, when everybody mused upon his words. It was again the General who broke it saying after a long pause “What about Septimius Severus?”
“I’ve heard his name before, even if I don’t know him. Do you know him?” Gracchus demanded, his political mind already recalling the memories he had of the man.
“I met him during our years in the Army. Last time I’ve heard about him, he was Governor of Pannonia. He’s a very capable soldier, and a true leader. He could be the answer.”
“But what about you?” the senator replied, “You were Marcus Aurelius’ choice.”
“He didn’t want me to rule as an emperor. He asked me to make Rome a republic again. Now that his dream cannot be fulfilled anymore, I’m free to decide upon my life and I don’t want to rule.”
“But…” Gracchus started to say, but Maximus stopped him waving his good hand.
“You won’t make me change my mind, so don’t even try.”
“He’s right. He has given everything for the sake of Rome and now She owes him,” Lucilla added much to Gracchus’ surprise.
“So what are we going to do?” he asked.
“Call Septimius Severus and offer him the throne. If we are fast enough, we could bring him to Rome before the real trouble starts.” she said.
“The travel to Pannonia is long and likely dangerous.” the senator observed “Will it be safe to trust a messenger to deliver the request to him, and him only?” He turned to Maximus, saying, “You said you knew him. Will he trust you?”
“I think so. We weren’t close, but we always shared a mutual respect. He would listen, even if I cannot assure you that he would accept.”
“But you cannot embark in such a long journey in your condition,” Lucilla observed, her voice tinged with concern, “you’re still recovering and bumping on endless roads on a cart, is not exactly the healthier way for a proper recovery.”
A bitter smile crossed Maximus’ features as he spoke: “In my haste I forgot something that could prevent me from reaching my goal: I’m still a slave and slaves aren’t supposed to travel without their master. Since Proximo is dead, I don’t know whom I belong to. I could be property of the Empire.”
“You belong to me,” Lucilla whispered.
“What?” the Spaniard asked.
“After Proximo’s death, Commodus declared that because of your owner’s betrayal, you and all the other gladiators had became his. He kept taunting me with this story, saying that you would have been a gift for me, in case of his early departure.”
“I’m your slave,” Maximus said in a blank tone.
“I would give your freedom back to you right now, but this would mean reveal your identity and this might be dangerous for you. Not to mention that as a Roman citizen, you shouldn’t have been enslaved from the beginning. You ought to have recourse to a court, so that your status of a free citizen can be restored, but this would mean attracting attention. Until that moment we must be careful,” she continued, while her mind returned to the past.
“What would you do for me, my Love?” Lucilla asked the handsome soldier who had professed her his love.
“Whatever you want, because I’m your slave.”
“And a real handsome one. You would be worth the highest price ever paid in a market of the Empire.”
Maximus laughed at her words.
“There’s no need to reveal neither his identity, nor his state” Gracchus said stealing Lucilla from her reverie “He could travel under another name.”
“And what if someone recognizes him as the Spaniard? They could think he’s a fugitive slave and capture him.”
“I could travel as a common slave, nobody pays notice to slaves. They’re just part of the scenery.”
Lucilla’s guts clenched at his words.
“You could travel with Lucius and me, as an escort, without need to explain.”
“It’s too dangerous for you” – Maximus retorted – “and what about Lucius?”
“We’ve always been in danger, since the day Commodus killed our father. The closer we remain to Rome, the more in danger we are.”
“This could work,” Gracchus said, perusing her words. “You could travel, hiding your identities as much as possible.”
“We must talk to Marcianus, first. You will travel only when he says that this won’t hurt you.” Lucilla added looking Maximus right in the eye and he nodded, knowing that she was right and dying on the road would have been of no use for the sake of Rome.
Marcianus arrived a couple of hours later to check his patient. He seemed pleased of what he was seeing, until Maximus spoke about the journey.
“I won’t tell that it would be better not to go, because I know this would be useless, but you must wait at least a week or two before leaving. You’re not well enough for this. You need to regain more of your strength or my efforts will go wasted. Give your body a chance.”
Surprisingly the Spaniard agreed and Marcianus smiled at him.
After the physician’s departure, Maximus got up to meet Donatus. His slow walk through the camp was saluted by the soldiers who wanted to congratulate him for his recovery. As he finally reached his destination, the second in command was grinning.
“I ought to know it was you. I’ve heard you arriving, like you can feel a storm approaching.”
“I hope you don’t consider me as a natural disaster.”
“Of course not, but some of your foes may have thought this in the past.”
Maximus’ eyes twinkled in response and Donatus gestured his friend to sit down.
“You know the reason of Senator Gracchus’ presence at the camp, today, don’t you?” the Spaniard said, stating something, more than asking.
“Yes, he passed here before leaving. Do you think this would work?”
“I hope so. I don’t see other solutions. Pertinax isn’t bound to last, so we must act fast.”
“Septimius Severus is a good soldier, with a knack for politics. The Gods know why! Who do you think you should go and talk him into this scheme?”
“I volunteered, together with Lady Lucilla and Lucius.”
“Smart idea. As long as they remain close to Rome, they are in danger, and you too. But what did Marcianus have to say about this? Does he think that you are strong enough for such a journey?”
“He told me to wait, but it’s feasible, as soon as I don’t overstrain myself.”
“You’ll need an escort. I’ll give you some legionnaires.”
“Don’t get in trouble for me. Lucilla has enough money to hire help.”
“I’m the officer in charge and thinking of the safety of sister of the late – even if not mourned – emperor and her son is a duty for me. And I don’t think that the commander would notice, in the improbable hypothesis he’d find the way back to this camp. I wonder if he ever remembers we exist. Just tell me when you’re going to leave and I’ll arrange a suitable escort. The only problem will be sorting out the men. I’m afraid that leaving with half of the legion in tow would attract attention and this is what’s going to happen if I let the men have a word about who wants to go.”
Maximus didn’t answer, but Donatus saw that he was moved by the men’s loyalty. He stretched carefully to ease the stiffness in his body, but the movement made him wincing in pain.
“I guess it’s time for you to listen to Marcianus’ piece of advice and rest. There’s a long road waiting for you and you must be in good shape, now that the Fate of Rome is once again into your hands,” Donatus added to himself.
“I hate to say this, but I must agree with you. These days everything seems just harder than it used to be.” Maximus got up with an effort and Donatus helped him to regain his footing when he staggered.
“What are friends for, if not for offering their support?” the second in command asked witnessing the Spaniard’s expression when he offered his arm. Maximus nodded tiredly at his words and allowed his friend to help him on his way back to his tent.
The dark cell under the Coliseum that was now his world seemed to be shrinking around him. He could feel the walls touching his wounded body, hurting him, taking his breath away. He tried to shout, but his throat was closed and a ragged moan was all that he could muster. He made another attempt, but still no sound and the walls were closer, now.
Maximus woke up breathing hard, noticing with relief that he wasn’t in the bowels of the Coliseum anymore. Lucilla was looking at him, worried.
“It was a dream,” he said, as if to reassure himself that the torture was over.
“You’re safe now. I’ll protect you,” the woman replied, softly brushing his forehead with cool hands.
“I wasn’t able to protect you,” he said and his voice sounded eerie, as if it still belonged to the nightmare.
“You’re wrong. You did it more than you would know,” she answered and the sweetness of her smile made him think that she could be telling the truth. The thought was so heartwarming that he was able to relax and return to sleep, this time without nightmares haunting him.
The following days, a bad weather hit the camp, bringing rain and cold. Maximus’ recovery seemed delayed by the lack of sun and he had a fever. Marcianus pointed out that he wasn’t in danger, but since he was still very weak, they had to be careful.
Juba was in Maximus’ tent when a thunder exploded close and they both jumped. The Numidian grinned at his own reaction, his white teeth contrasting with the dark skin.
“In my country, it’s time to prepare everything before the rainy season.” he said.
“Good time for traveling?”
“Yes, when the rains start, moving will be really hard, but why are you asking?”
“Why are you still here, my friend, when you could be on a ship headed to Africa?”
“Because this is my place.”
“You saved my life more than once and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for your help, but you still have a family and they need you more than I do. Go to them.”
“But you’re gong to start another long and dangerous journey. I’m a good warrior and a good hunter and you still need me.”
“Yes, I’m not arguing about your talents, but I won’t be alone and you’ve someone more important than me to care for.”
“You’re a friend and you matter to me.”
“Yes and I thank you for this, but your wife and daughters matter more than me.”
“Not more, in a different way. But you’re right. Ever night and every day I think of them and my heart breaks.”
“Ostia is a big harbor and there are vessels headed to everywhere in the world. If you leave soon, you may arrive home before the bad season.”
“But I have no money to pay the passage and I don’t think that my skills would pay the passage for me.”
“This isn’t a problem,” Lucilla said from the entrance “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard your words. I owe you very much; let me help you to return to your family. I’ll give you all the money you may need for your journey, as well as your freedom.”
“I don’t know what to say, my Lady” Juba said after few moments of awkward silence.
“Just leave as soon as possible.”
“I’ll do my Lady. Thank you for everything,” the man replied leaving the tent.
“I wonder why Commodus kept the whole Proximo’s herd,” Maximus said, as his friend wasn’t at earshot anymore.
“Maybe he wanted someone to train with better skilled than the Praetorians. I’m glad that I can do something for him. It’s a shame that I cannot do the same for you.”
“I know it and I understand.”
“You understand, of course, but this is hurting you deeply and I really wish that there could be another way.”
Maximus didn’t reply, acknowledging that she was right. It wasn’t her fault, but he just couldn’t help thinking that belonging to her was even worse than belonging to Proximo or even Commodus. They hadn’t mattered for him, but she had and this hurt. At first, when he had woken up as a slave, the pain in his soul had been so deep to prevent him from mourning about the loss of his freedom. After a while, his pride and his desire for revenge had helped him to think that Proximo wasn’t his owner, but a tool to reach Commodus. He had been sorry to have caused the lanista’s death, but Proximo knew what he was doing deciding to take part in the plot and he had been richly rewarded. After that, the long days in the cell under the Coliseum had erased most of his thoughts, while he concentrated in the effort not to show the pain consuming him. Now everything was different, he had had his revenge, the wounds were healing and his brain was free to think. Free, as he was not.
Lucilla hadn’t intruded Maximus’ silence, knowing how the present situation was affecting him. She just hoped that this wasn’t going to tear them apart like it had happened in the past, leaving both full of sorrow and disappointment.
Lucius’ entrance, like a whirlwind, broke the adults’ reveries.
“Mum, dinner’s ready. The cook said that we must hurry or he’s going to feed the animals with it.”
Lucilla and Maximus laughed following him outside.
On the first day without rain, Juba reached Ostia’s harbor to collect information about the vessels headed to North Africa. As he returned, at noon, his dark eyes were shining.
“So this is a farewell,” Maximus said hearing that a ship was going to leave in two days for Carthage and that his friend was going to be on it. “I’m so happy for you my friend.”
“It’s odd, but a part of me would like to follow you in your journey, while the other just cannot wait to sail.”
“Just think of me, from time to time, and you’ll be with us.” Maximus added smiling broadly. “Is everything alright with your documents?”
“Yes, Lucilla has freed me. I cannot read the scroll she gave me, so I hope everything is all right. She also gave me money for the journey. I wish I could repay her for her kindness.”
“She’s truly her father’s daughter. Marcus Aurelius was a true leader, kind at heart, but tough and cold when needed. He was generous and he always listened. He was like a father for me and I miss him. He would have surely been proud of Lucilla as Caesar and she would have done her best for the sake of Rome.”
“Just like you.”
“Yes I did, but somehow it wasn’t enough.”
“Do you really believe you could have prevented what happened with Commodus?”
“I don’t know, maybe not, but I would have preferred not to be part of it. Being a soldier or a gladiator is easier, in a sort of way. You fight for life or you die, that simple. You don’t have to deal with treachery, politics, plots and schemes.”
“That’s why you refused the throne?”
“Yes, it’s not for me.”
“Who would have imagined that the man I met on a jolting cart headed to the slaves’ market of Zucchabar, would have been my key to freedom. When they hurled you on the wagon, feverish, dirty and half-dead, I only thought that I couldn’t let you die like this, to be fed to the lions.”
“At first, I wasn’t so glad that you saved my life, but when my heart started to feel again, it was good having a friend like you.”
“When I leave, it’s unlikely that we’ll see each other again, but you’ll always be my friend.”
“So will you be.”
“Strength and honor.”
“Strength and honor.”
Juba’s leave was bittersweet, but the light of joy in his eyes was all that Maximus needed. His friend was headed back home to his family and he was proud of having been part of his return. They hugged and said their farewells, knowing that they would probably never meet again, but the things were just going in the right direction. Lucilla shook his hand and Lucius kissed him on the cheek, trying manly to hide his tears. The Numidian smiled, waved a last time and walked in sure strides toward the ship waiting for him.
In the following days messages came from Gracchus about the situation in Rome and Septimius Severus. The senator said that nothing had changed significantly, but part of the Senate had found the idea of calling the governor of Pannonia quite appealing, especially if he could take the breath of the Praetorian Guard from its neck. Some had wrinkled their patrician noses at the thought of a Provincial from Africa on the highest seat on the Palatine Hill, but other ones had given their support to Gracchus. Maximus’ health was improving and he started to train with the soldiers. He joked with them when the fear of hurting him had made them too cautious.
“Don’t treat me like an old lady,” he had said once “use your bloody swords the way they’re supposed to be used! I won’t fall into pieces.”
This had earned him a better training fight, as well as aches everywhere, but that wasn’t something he was going to reveal to anybody. When he returned to the tent he shared now with Marcianus, he was so worn out that he collapsed on the cot with a sigh, dozing off with his clothes on, causing the physician to smile when he was back. Even if Maximus was only a few years younger than him, he had always been a sort of son for Marcianus, to be proud of and to be worried about when his courage and strength put him in danger, and now, deep into an exhausted sleep, he looked as vulnerable as a child.
“Please, almighty God, be kind to him. He’s not one of your flock, but he’s a good and honorable man and he deserves happiness,” Marcianus prayed softly, while covering the sleeping man with a blanket.
Six weeks after the escape from Rome, Marcianus declared through half gritted teeth that Maximus was well enough to leave and the preparations started in earnest. He had several meetings with Lucilla, Donatus and some of the officers and it was decided that the former general and the Augusta would have an escort of twenty men, a number suitable for rich matrons. They also decided to hire a woman to be her maid and the choice fell on the niece of a centurion who lived in Ostia, Fulvia. She was a plump sixteen year-old girl, with a friendly smile and sweet manners. She didn’t look very skilled in rich ladies’ grooming, but she was smart, eager to learn and Lucius liked her from the start.
The day of the departure there were many faces suddenly tears-stained at the sight of General Maximus leaving. His men waved at him until the caravan was out of sight, before returning to their daily chores.
While they were still close to Rome, Maximus, Lucilla and Lucius spent the first days of the journey inside the cart, going out when it was dark or nobody was around. Since the young boy was restless, Maximus played board games with him, but most of the time he listened to the stories that Lucius was so eager to share. One afternoon, when the little boy was explaining excitedly to the general his first ride on a warhorse, comfortably leaned against the man’s chest, Lucilla caught a veil of sadness in Maximus’ eyes and she understood why. When Lucius finally fell asleep, the Spaniard didn’t move and soon he dozed off, too, cradled by the movements of the wagon. Watching her son resting in the comfort of the man’s strength, she felt like crying. Maximus had been her first love, the one who had made her heart beat faster, who had had her young girl’s awkward and yet passionate kisses, who had taught and learned love. Listening to the even breathing of the two people she had cared for most in her life, apart from her father, she came to a resolution she had dreaded to take. She got up and went to the small table in the joggling cart.
It was evening when Maximus and Lucius woke up, startled by the sudden stop of the wagon. Lucilla was watching them and smiled at the man’s embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sleep. I guess I was tired,” he said while Lucius jumped down from the cart.
“I didn’t mind. You both looked so peaceful.”
“I was dreaming I was a little boy, back home in Spain and my father was teaching me to ride.”
“Were you a good boy?”
“Only when it came to horses. My mother used to threaten me to accept a neighbor’s piece of advice to confine me in the stables from time to time, just to give a rest to everybody’s nerves.”
“What did you do to make them think so?”
“Once I risked putting his barn on fire, because I was experimenting burning glasses.”
“Yes, I’d read of them and I was curious.”
“Did you actually cause damages?”
“No, because I took the precaution to have water handy, but he wasn’t happy of my ingenuity.”
“I can believe it.”
“Last time I saw him I was already tribune. He was paying a visit to my parents and he confessed that he hadn’t thought I could have survived my teen years.”
“My nurse used to say something similar after chasing me throughout the palace for years- I was thin and fast and used to escape at top speed whenever they averted their eyes for a moment. I guessed that if I weren’t the Emperor’s daughter, they would have me tied to the bed.”
They both laughed at their early days’ feats, then Lucilla returned serious and Maximus looked at her puzzled by the sudden change of mood.
“I have something for you. Something that I should have given you early, but…” she ended while handing him a scroll with shaking hands. He took the parchment and read it.
His eyes saw the words, but his mind seemed unable to make a sense out of them, until he willed himself to focus. It was the document by which Lucilla was freeing him. He recognized her signature and seal, as well as her elegant writing and his heart threatened to jump from his chest. He just couldn’t believe it, until when, all of a sudden, he realized something.
“Why does the document bear only your signature? I though that it required a witness. How did you manage to avoid this?” he asked.
“You never owned a slave, did you?”
“Never, I don’t think someone should own another human being.”
“I guessed it, because if you did, you would have known that a master is entitled to write down this sort of document without help or need for witnesses.”
Maximus didn’t speak for a while, then his blue eyes turned into ice as he asked: “But if this is true, why did you tell me that freeing me would have involved revealing my identity?”
“Because I thought that this could have been safer for you. Belonging to me, you’d have enjoyed the protection of my name and rank. Being a free man, before we can summon a magistrate to recognize your legal position, could have been dangerous for you.”
“Did you think that being a slave of yours would have prevented a Praetorian guard to slay me out of revenge for your brother’s death, or a sword to seize my heart during a fight? Why did you lie to me? Didn’t I deserve at least some honesty?” he demanded in such a cold and angry voice that she fought the tears welling up in her eyes. The last time he had talked to her this way had been when she had visited him under the Coliseum and he had rejected her idea for a plot against Commodus.
“I…. I… I thought it was the wisest thing to do. I didn’t mean to lie to you, I, I.. only wanted to protect you,” she concluded her eyes downcast.
Silence fell once again and unable to look at his angry gaze, she turned toward the door of the cart. Lucius was running around laughing and this put a little smile on her face.
“You were through so many things that I wanted to keep you safe. I was trying to repay you for every time you protected my father and me as well. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she continued.
“Why did you change your mind, then?” he said and his tone sounded slightly less harsh.
“I saw you sleeping with my son in your arms and I knew that as much I as couldn’t think of owning his life, I couldn’t own yours, even to keep you safe.”
Maximus was looking at Lucius, too, and this recalled memories of his son. He thought of how proud and happy he had been when he had first taken the small wailing bundle from his wife’s arms and he understood Lucilla’s words. His anger melted and he thought of gathering her in his arms, but he realized that he wasn’t ready for this, so he just said: “Thank you Lucilla, this means a lot to me.”
Lucilla turned to him, puzzled, tears shining in her eyes.
“There’s another thing to complete the ritual,” she said. “Please come closer.”
He obliged and when he was next to her, she brushed his chin with her long fingers.
“This should have been a ritual slap, but I think that Marcianus would have objected if I added new bruises on you, after all he did to patch you up.”
The general’s eyes sparkled and she got lost in them. The sound of hooves-beats startled her, reminding her where she was. Maximus grinned as he helped her to go down from the cart.
The first part of the journey through the Italic peninsula was uneventful. They traveled slowly because of the cart hosting Lucilla, Lucius and the maid. Maximus stayed with them during the day, while – at night – he shared one of the tents of the soldiers. When nobody was around he rode one of the horses and Lucius often begged to be allowed to ride with him, in front of his saddle, knowing that the general was more than happy to oblige. Lucilla watched them together and she laughed to herself thinking about how much she would have liked to be in her child’s position.
When they stopped in the evening, Maximus kept himself fit doing sword practice. He taught the soldiers some tricks he had learned in the arena and they were happy of the camaraderie they could share with their former leader. Lucius witnessed their training eager to be part of it, but Maximus always refused to let him use a weapon.
“You’ll have time for this later,” he answered the first time the boy complained.
Lucilla who was watching from near the campfire smiled at his wisdom. No wonder that her father trusted him enough to entrust him to restore the Republic: he possessed all the virtues that Marcus Aurelius expected and respected in a man and a leader. This thread of thoughts led her to think of Commodus. Despite what he had done and had been about to do before his death, she mourned him for what he could have become. He had always been difficult to understand, with a flaming temper that spared no one in his hunger for affection that made him blind to reason or common sense. For the umpteenth time she wondered what would have happened if he had received a fraction of the love Marcus Aurelius had reserved for Maximus. The Spaniard was honest, brave and trustworthy, with a great sense of duty and responsibility, an easy target for love and respect, while Commodus had been foul-tempered, unpredictable and cruel. On the other hand she remembered the little child afraid of the darkness lingering through the cold marble columns of the Imperial palace and also the stern look on her father’s face while he explained that a man must not be afraid of the darkness because it was a gift of the Gods just like the light. Wise words, indeed, but hardly suitable to soothe a boy of five and after this the Emperor had left the room with a satisfied look on his face, ignoring the tears in his son’s eyes while she cradled him into sleep.
The Flaminia road unrolled under their feet as they headed north. Sometimes the passage of a cart with an escort of twenty men frightened the farmers along the way and Maximus couldn’t blame them for being prudent. Despite they wariness, when it became apparent that the group wasn’t looking for trouble, the country folks acted friendly and welcomed them warmly. From time to time the group stopped for buying food and make camp and then Lucius had the chance to run and play with boys and girls of his age, looking happier than ever. He collected grazed knees and assorted bruises, as well as tears in his silken garments until Lucilla asked Donata to sew rough cotton clothes for him in which he was perfectly comfortable. Maximus also got new additions to his wardrobe. He had opted for plain clothes in neutral colors, different both from the deep red of his former uniform, as well as from the gladiator tunic, saying that they could help him to walk around unnoticed. Lucilla had to refrain herself from objecting that it would have been impossible for him not to be noticed. The power in him was palpable, draped over his shoulders like the cloak with the wolf pelts he used to wear. He walked and rode like the natural leader he was and people always looked at him in awe, but not in fear, unless he wanted so. Sometimes, watching him playing with the children as he did frequently, Lucilla found it hard to reconcile this sweet-voiced patient man, with the warrior he was. When he was in Germania the tribesmen had nicknamed him “The Berserker Wolf from Rome” and while they would have given nearly everything to put their hands on him, they had respected him. Before knowing that the gladiator going under the name of “Spaniard” and her Maximus were the same person, when she had heard about his feats in the arena, his courage and strength, she had thought of an exaggeration. When she had seen him leading his scratch Barbarian Horde to an unexpected victory, she had believed the rumors, though.
Watching him lying on his back, with a whole herd of children tickling him, pretending to be overcome by their force, she knew that this was his true self and that she would do everything to keep him in such a state.
At Fanum Fortuna, they left the Via Flaminia for the Via Aemilia heading northward. Some of the soldiers went in town for supplies of food and information. The situation hadn’t changed so far and Pertinax was still on the throne. Despite the apparent normality of the day-to-day life, they felt a sense on uneasiness for the secrets and rumors surrounding his accession to the throne, the strange events before Commodus’ death and the effect of the power held by the Praetorian Guard. Maximus was listening to the men’s report watching Lucilla and he recalled having seen the same expression on her father’s face during the meeting with the officers. They were both able to give all their attention to what was going on, missing nothing, asking questions and using their judgment to sort out a solution for any problem. They also were able to manipulate people, lying if needed, but always for a good cause, not just out of personal interest. He had admired both for their political skill, without being able or willing to do the same. He knew that his attitude had earned him an aura of naivety among the Emperor’s entourage, but he knew that he couldn’t have behaved otherwise.
“You are lying. I could always tell when you were lying because you were never any good at it.”
“I never acquired your comfort with it.”
“True. But then you never had to. Life is more simple for a soldier. Or do you think me heartless?”
“I think you have a talent for survival”, he thought.
The countryside looked very much like his native Hispania and Maximus’ musings often went to his home of pink stones. He willed himself to remember the smell of jasmine in the air after the sunset, in the attempt of banishing his last memories of the fire, the ruins, his beloved ones’ bodies swaying in the breeze stained with the smell of death and destruction. It didn’t work, but even if revenge hadn’t brought them back, he knew that Commodus was going to do the same thing to other families and this allowed him a bit of ease of mind. Lucius’ presence had also helped him to start thinking of a possible future, instead of just of his past. It was heart-warming helping him in his way to manhood, witnessing his mind and body blossoming on the road instead that confined in a palace, with a mad uncle wanting to teach him only violence. He thanked the Gods for this, while he tried really hard not to think of the boy’s mother. They had been friends, lovers, foes, and friends again and now he didn’t know what to make out of his feelings. He laughed at himself for his cowardice on the subject, but he really didn’t feel strong enough for such a feat. He needed time.
Entering Piacentia to reach the Via Postumia leading north, they were asked for their documents. Lucilla had a set of them bearing a cousin’s name, Cornelia, who lived in Egypt with her family and who was unlikely to return to Italy in the near future. If the guard at the town’s gate found it strange that a rich matron with such an escort had only one maid, he didn’t show it. The man neither took notice of the male servant driving the cart, in silent wait for her commands. He wore a hooded cloak and all that was visible of him were his big, scarred hands. As they passed the gate, Lucilla had to rethink her first idea about Maximus’ ability to pass unnoticed. He seemed having melted into the background, a shape against the landscape, hard to remember.
“Where did you learn to vanish?” she asked him as they were out of earshot.
“What?” he replied, his eyes hidden by the darkness of the hood, but she could feel the smile in his voice.
“Exactly what I said. You were next to me and after a moment it was as you’ve turned into a ghost.”
“Practice born out of necessity. Being able to take an enemy by surprise is the difference between life and death in a misty, cold German forest and everywhere else. Sort of what I saw you doing when your father met the officers. You used to erase yourself from the picture, making everybody forget how beautiful you are so that you could listen to what you really were interested in.”
“It’ didn’t work on you, I see now.”
“No, but remember that I knew you.”
“And you never made the mistake of thinking that as a woman I hadn’t been bestowed with a brain.”
“Underestimating an enemy … or a friend is fatal, and I’ve always been prudent.”
Lucilla smiled and caught a glimpse of his grin as he turned to her, while he spurred the horses on.
Their next stop was Verona, a town of enough importance to have an amphitheater. The place was smaller than the Coliseum in Rome, but with its three orders of arches it was impressive. Maximus frowned at the idea of even getting closer to it, but when he saw a painted billboard advertising a “Tauromachy” he became curious. This was performed by a Cretan troupe and wasn’t supposed to be a display of blood and gore, but of agility and skill. The others were attracted by the idea of a diversion during the long journey, so they all went to assist.
The editor presented the group of young girls and boys who were going to defy a huge white bull. They looked so small and frail compared to the mass of flesh and power that emerged from a wooden door, but their speed made up for their size. It seemed so easy watching them waiting for the bull’s attack, then run and jump, using the animal’S body as a trampoline to “fly” above him and land safely behind his back, but it was always a matter of instants between life and what could have been a sudden death. In their short and diaphanous tunics the athletes looked like butterflies and Maximus found himself cheering for them. He knew that these shows sometimes had ended with accidents, but thanks to the Gods this wasn’t the occasion and he could enjoy the whole performance. Lucius was so thrilled that he wanted to congratulate the troupe. He was so persuasive that Lucilla gave her consent and Maximus volunteered to escort him. A guard at the entrance of the gate of the performers’ quarters, after a suitable inducement paid in cash, let them in, pointing them in the right direction. Getting closer they heard a racket going on and Maximus gestured to Lucius to remain behind him. They followed the light and they reached the arena in time to see the enraged white bull running after one of the girls. The animal was still far away, but the Spaniard knew how fast they could be and he ordered Lucius to reach the higher bleachers and not to come down for any reason. When the boy was safe, Maximus assessed the situation. The star of the show had apparently managed to leave his place and it didn’t seem in the mood for behaving. The girl was fast but this could not be enough. The general removed his cloak and began to shout, to capture the animal’s attention. The beast stopped looking at him puzzled. Maximus swayed the cloak in circular movements meant to mesmerize the bull and this gave time to the girl to reach a safe spot on the bleachers. He had his eyes on the beast that had started to tap his right hoof on the sand. When the bull started to gallop in his direction, Maximus didn’t run away, but kept moving the cloak until the animal’s horns were a few feet from him. He stepped away, feeling the wind and turned in a swift movement, ready for the return of the bull. Someone began to make noise on the other side of the amphitheater, helped by the amazing acoustic of the place. The choice between different targets confused the beast that he stopped turning his big head from left to right, unable to decide. This seemed to sooth his temper, until he trotted toward the door from where he had stormed out just moments before. When everything was peaceful again, a sigh of relief escaped from someone’s lips. It seemed so loud in the giant building that everybody laughed. Maximus turned to see Lucius who had watched him in fascination.
“That was great. You were wonderful,” the boy shouted nearly flying down from the bleachers into the man’s arms.
“Thank you very much,” another voice said and Maximus saw that it was the girl he had helped. “Where did you learn that?”
“Where I was born in Hispania we have plenty of short-tempered bulls. They’re black as demons and just as dangerous. I learned how to deal with them when I was very young.”
“Well, it worked. I don’t know why it happened, but Zeus usually doesn’t behave like that.”
“Perhaps he was looking for his Europa,” the Spaniard answered and they both laughed. Lucius was looking at the girl in awe and Maximus made introductions.
“This young man had admired your show and wanted to congratulate the troupe. May we ask for your name?”
“I’m Caenis and I’m flattered by his enthusiasm. What’s yours, young man?” the slim brunette with a friendly smile asked.
“My name is Lucius and this is my friend Decimus.”
Maximus secretly beamed at the boy’s praise.
“He proved himself very smart and he helped us very much. I’m happy you decided to come here to meet us. Thank you Decimus, Lucius’ friend.”
“You’re welcome, Lady Caenis.”
“Lady Caenis, that sounds nice. Come with me, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the group,” she said, gesturing them to follow her. Lucius grabbed the Spaniard’s hand and they reached the others. The boys and girls thanked Maximus for his help and gratefully accepted Lucius’ compliments. They chatted for a while, until Maximus noticed that it was getting late and they returned to meet the others. One of the girls, watching the former gladiator walking away in sure strides, asked Caenis: “You said that his name is Decimus?”
“He said so.”
“I was wondering…. Do you think there’s a chance that the other nine are just as gorgeous?”
“Who knows, we could schedule a tour in Hispania just to be sure.”
“That would be great,” the girl answered and they both exploded in laughter.
At the inn where they were going to spend the night, Lucius gave an animated report of what had happened so full of particulars and remarks, to make it last at least three times longer that the actual event. Lucilla was glad to see him so happy and smiled when he began to describe the girls’ short tunics. She was also amazed that despite all the things he had been through, her son had managed to remain a cheerful and nice boy. Her heart froze for a moment at the thought of what would have happened if Commodus hadn’t died. He had loved Lucius, in his twisted way, but at the same time he had been envious of the feeling she had for her son, afraid as he was of losing even a small fraction of her love and attention.
Commodus was observing Lucius sleeping with an expression Lucilla didn’t like a bit.
“He sleeps so well because he is loved,” he said, sensing her presence next to him.
“Come brother, it is late,” she said leading him outside, before … she didn’t know what she really feared, but she knew that it was better taking her brother away from her son.
Her brother’s curse had been his mad wish to completely posses what he cared for, oblivious to all the pain that his actions sometimes involved. When he had hurt her with the tale of Maximus’ torture, he had thought that this would have brought her back to him. He had never been able to understand that you cannot force people to love you.
Father, I would butcher the whole world if you would only love me!!!
His hunger had devoured his whole being; until he had died in the darkness of the hell he had condemned his worst contender to. Her hope was that, at least in Elysium, he had found the peace he had never been able to grasp in his short and violent life. That peace that she hoped she could give to Lucius.
Something woke up Maximus in the middle of the night. He strained his ears, but the inn seemed silent. Yet his senses were on alert and he got up without making a sound. He grabbed his sword and went to the door dividing his room from Lucilla’s and Lucius’, catching a breathing belonging to someone wide-awake. Not believing that one of the occupants was taking a walk, he took the knob in his hands and slammed the door open. As he entered the room, he was attacked by a black-clad figure with a dagger, trying to skewer him. Maximus’ training reacted fighting back. The clank of their weapons awoke Lucilla and Lucius. In the light of the moon she recognized her savior and proceeded to light up a candle to help him, while she whispered to Lucius not to move. Thanks to the new light she could see that Maximus was having the best against his enemy, until the stranger shoved him against the wall that he hit with his injured left hand. This made Maximus wince in pain and the thief renewed his attack. Lucilla looked frantically for a solution and when she saw the pitcher on the nightstand, she threw it across the room, aiming at the man fighting against the Spaniard. The projectile reached him on the head, half knocking him out. Maximus finished her work with the hilt of his gladius and when the man collapsed on the ground, he proceeded to tie him securely.
“Are you alright?” Maximus and Lucilla asked at the same moment and soon the laughed to relieve the tension.
“I’m fine, thank you,” she answered. “How did you know?”
“You forget I’ve been a soldier for most of my life. My senses keep working even when I sleep. I sensed that something was wrong and I came to investigate. Thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome. Your hand?”
“Sore but fine,” Maximus replied checking the unconscious man whose clothes were plain, but made of good fabric. The Spaniard found a purse hanging from the man’s belt and opened it, scattering its content on the bed. One of the coins attracted his attention.
“Lucilla, will you please bring the candle closer?”
“Did you find something?”
“Do you remember this?” he said pointing at a gold coin damaged exactly in the middle.
“Yes, it’s the one you used for target practice the other day. I paid our stay here with it. But how can he have it?”
“Either he had robbed the inn-keeper before coming here, or it was an advance on a bargain. Let me see the door.”
As a matter of fact the door was undamaged, as if the thief had used a key to open it.
“Our host has decided to gain a little extra from our stay,” he observed with heavy irony, at the same time relieved that there weren’t political reasons for the assault. “We must call the city guard.”
“Wouldn’t this attract attention?” Lucilla objected.
“I know but if we don’t stop it, others will fall into this trap. And I don’t want this gentleman to walk away free as a bird.”
“I see your reasons,” she agreed and Maximus, after having checked that the thief was still out and properly secured, walked out of the room to wake up one of the soldiers. The youngest ran out of the inn to call a patrol. Meanwhile the innkeeper had finally woken up and was watching with concern the night activities taking place in his tavern. From his expression it wasn’t clear if his worries were for his guests’ safety or his own, though. About fifteen minutes later, the soldier returned with the patrol commanded by an officer.
“Good night, my Lady. My name is Hypparcus, the officer in charge,” the man said as Lucilla let him into the room.
“Good night, Officer. I’m sorry to disturb you at this early hour but this gentleman entered my room to steal. Too bad – for him of course – that I’m well protected and he hadn’t a chance to steal or hurt,” she replied and when she mentioned “being protected” the officer looked at Maximus who had dressed in his plain clothes and had remained in the shadows of the farthest corner of the room. While his face was hidden, his figure and muscular arms were recognizable and Hypparchus grinned, feeling quite sorry for the unlucky bastard who had come too close to this man’s lady.
“When the thief was secured, we found out something strange about him, though.”
The lady’s words regained his attention and he asked.
“What did you find strange?”
“The man had already a purse fat with coins, attached to his belt, among which there was a gold piece that I used to pay our stay in advance this evening and – as you can see – the door hadn’t been forced.”
“It seems that this time the inn-keeper had stepped on the wrong toe. Good! It was time!”
“Do you know him?”
“Yes, unfortunately, I do. Many travelers have been robbed in this inn before, but no one had ever been able to recognize the thieves. The owner had always pretended to be shocked by his misfortune, but not too convincingly for my taste. Now I have evidence that something was afoot and I think it’s time for him to pay. Oh, our friend here is waking up,” the observed seeing that the thief was coming to his senses, groaning.
“Damn, my head hurts like hell,” he muttered still not fully awake.
“Occupational hazard,” Maximus said from the darkness and the man on the floor turned to him, finding himself staring at a blue gaze that he hadn’t been able to see before and frowned. Looking around he recognized the guard and paled, but didn’t speak.
“Take him away. I’ll interrogate him later, in his cell. We cannot disturb these honest people any further,” Hypparchus said to the other two men of the patrol and they hauled the thief onto his feet. They were about to pass the threshold, when the innkeeper walked in the aisle. The look that they weren’t able to hide meant a lot for the officer who grinned.
“Well, my Lady, I’ll return tomorrow in the morning for some more questions. At what time will it be good for you?”
“We don’t want to be a problem, we’ll be in your office by mid-morning.”
“As you wish. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Lucilla smiled at him as he followed his men outside.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to fall asleep again, tonight,” Lucilla confessed as the patrol left the room.
“It was great. Mother you were fantastic,” Lucius said excitedly.
“You’re right, Lucius. I think I’m going to enlist her as a slinger. She’s a wonderful shot,” Maximus joked and Lucilla poked him in the rib.
“Ouch, she has a hell of a punch, too,” he said, pretending to be hurt. Soon the room sounded with laughter. The boy was the first to yawn and Lucilla tucked him back in bed. Maximus walked toward the communicating door and was about to return to his room when Lucilla came next to him and kissed him, full on the lips.
“Thank you, my Friend, for everything,” she said and returned to the bed, leaving a stunned man staring at her.
The next morning, Maximus and Lucilla went to the office of the city guard to meet Hypparchus. The officer was already waiting for them, with a huge grin plastered on his face.
“The thief you caught last night, has already started singing like a bird in the mating season,” he told them as they settled in two comfortable chairs he had prepared for them. “Now I need your testimonies to complete my file.”
First Lucilla, then Maximus filled him in with the particulars of the previous night, while a scribe noted everything. As they both finished, Hypparchus offered them some refreshments and Lucilla took the occasion for asking:
“Since we’re traveling and we’re quite in a hurry, are we obliged to stay here to testify, or will it be enough to sign the transcription of our testimonies?”
“You ought to stay here, but I’m going to ask the magistrate in charge of this case if he can make an exception for you. He’s due to arrive any moment.”
As if on clue, a clerk came to announce that the magistrate had just arrived. Hypparchus said to the man to let him in and three heads turned toward the door. As the newcomer came into view, Lucilla froze. The officer of the city guard introduced the man to Lucilla and Maximus. Arrus was a slim man, with few hair left and a dark piercing gaze that didn’t flinch when the Emperor’s daughter was presented to him under another name. As they completed the greetings, Hypparchus present to him her request of a written testimony and Arrus seemed to think about it.
“It’s an unusual request, but it may be granted under special circumstances. My Lady, would you like to be my guest tonight in my villa for supper?”
“It would be my pleasure,” Lucilla replied gracefully, while Maximus observed her reaction in silence.
Hypparchus proclaimed that for him they could go, so they left his office in a flurry of polite farewells.
“You know Arrus, don’t you?” Maximus asked as they were a few buildings away from the patrol’s station.”
“Yes, for a long time. But he’s a good man, loyal to my father. I think that we can trust him. After all, he didn’t reveal my identity to Hypparchus.”
“Would you prefer meeting him alone? Explaining my involvement could be a problem,” he reasoned thinking of the fact that he was, in all account, the murderer of the late ruler of the Empire and he didn’t think it would work to claim that he had reasons.
“I need you to be with me.”
“All right, just tell me something about him, so that I may have an idea of the man.”
That evening both Lucilla and Maximus took a great care in the preparation for the dinner with Arrus. She dressed in a simple but elegant green silk dress that enhanced her fair skin and Fulvia did her best to curl her long hair, entwining ribbons in it. The former general donned a white shirt, a dark woolen tunic and boots. He didn’t look like the servant he was supposed to be, but he didn’t think this was going to be a problem, if Arrus was the man Lucilla said he was. If he weren’t, their problems would have been so much worse than being overdressed. As they were ready, they discovered that the magistrate had sent a litter to carry them to his villa. After having helped Lucilla to climb on, Maximus walked next to it in a fashion suitable for a servant, but also because he frowned at the idea of someone being obliged to carry him while he was fully capable to walk. The road to Arrus’ house wasn’t long and they arrived after a short walk in the upcoming dusk.
The master of the house and his wife welcomed them on the threshold without pronouncing Lucilla’s name in front of the servants. Maximus, true to his role, didn’t say a word, but the magistrate didn’t miss the fact that his attitude toward his lady wasn’t just business-like and while she behaved exactly like the patrician she was, there was a subtle fondness and respect in the way she let him help her down from the litter. Maximus consigned his sword and cloak to a servant and followed Lucilla two steps beyond her. They were escorted to the dining room where husband and wife reclined at a triclinium, gesturing to Lucilla to do the same. When the Spaniard was about to take his place, standing against the wall, Arrus spoke: “Augusta, please ask your friend to have a seat with us. I’m sure you’ll both be more at ease this way.”
Maximus looked at Lucilla and as she nodded, he stepped forward to sit on a chair next to her couch.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m not accustomed to recline,” he said watching Arrus who smiled in response.
After the first part of the meal when the small talk of Aurora, the magistrate’s wife, had filled the silence, Arrus gestured to the servants to go away and close the door. When there were only the three of them in the room, the old man asked: “Now, Augusta Lucilla, would you consider it unrespectful to ask why Marcus Aurelius’ daughter is traveling under a fake name, in company of a man who behaves like a servant, but has the figure and the scars of a fighter?”
“I remember that my late father used to say that you were used to go straight to the point and I see that you haven’t changed. I have a task to fulfill and using my true name would have been dangerous.”
“Has this something to do with the late emperor’s death, your sudden departure and Pertinax’ accession to the throne?”
“Yes, a lot, actually. Before I go on, I must warn you that if I trust you with my secret, you’d be in serious danger just knowing it, even without having a part in it. I’d be in danger, my son, too and many others. Do you still want to know?”
“More than ever.”
Lucilla sighed and explained: “After my brother’s death, the Praetorian Guard seized the power and sold it to the highest bidder. Pertinax won the contest, but he’s not bound to last, this is why we’re going to Pannonia to meet Septimius Severus and try to convince him to accept the throne.”
“We?” Arrus’ wife asked. “You mean you and your silent companion? We haven’t heard many words from him. He’s actually very good at making us forget his presence in this room.”
Maximus looked at the elderly woman and smiled. His face changed in a way that made Aurora realize how handsome he was.
“I’m another part of this story that could be dangerous for you to know, but since the Augusta trusted you with such knowledge, I’ll explain my involvement in this scheme.”
He then proceeded to explain quietly what had happened since the battle in Vindobona, Marcus Aurelius’ murder, Commodus’ first attempt to kill him, the escape and everything else until the previous night. Even if she already knew the story, Lucilla’s heart broke at his recalling of his family’s death, the enslavement, the arena and the torture. She noticed that Maximus hadn’t stressed her part in the failure of the plot and she silently thanked him.
“You were the fighter they called the Spaniard?” Arrus asked as the tale ended.
“Yes, I was.”
“I’ve heard all sort of things about you, now I understand that the truth is far more amazing than any tale.”
“Not more amazing, just harder.”
“I can understand.”
“Forgive me, but I don’t think that you can,” Maximus added with a deep sadness in his voice. “One day I was the Emperor’s most trusted general, a husband and a father and soon I wasn’t a human being anymore, but a piece of chattel, to sell and dispose of. No you cannot understand.”
“But as a Roman citizen you shouldn’t have been enslaved. This is against the law.”
“Yes, but who would have cared? The slave-traders that found me unconscious among the ruins of my burnt farm didn’t bother to ask who I was and given what had happened, who would have cared for the life of a traitor? As I recovered from my wounds, it was safer for me to hide my identity. It was no use letting Commodus know that I was still alive, considering that my goal was having revenge against him.”
“But why didn’t you have recourse to a magistrate after Commodus’ death? Pertinax doesn’t seem to care about the identity of his benefactor.”
“He could be. Killing an emperor is an action that he could hardly accept and if he knew what I’m planning to his expenses, I don’t think he would be overjoyed. And there could be people willing to avenge Commodus’ death or who are troubled by the fact that I’m still alive.”
“But wouldn’t you like to be free again?”
“Of course, how could it be otherwise? But since it cannot be accomplished without jeopardizing our mission, I think I’ll have to wait.”
“What if I help you to regain your status, right here and now? I can give you a document bearing my sentence and you could keep it hidden until the circumstances will be more favorable for you.”
Both Maximus and Lucilla beamed at the idea and Aurora had the feeling that between them there was, or was going to be, more than a mission to accomplish.
“Could you, really?”
“Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t have talked. Luckily this is a thing that has never occurred to me to do before, but the rules are clearly stated. I’ll prepare the document tonight and if you return tomorrow at noon everything will be ready.”
“Thank you very much. This is more than I could have hoped,” Maximus said while the happiness in his eyes turned into a grin.
Arrus watched him puzzled and asked: “What’s that for?”
“Nothing. Actually I was thinking of that unlucky thief. I ought to send him a goblet of wine to thank him for his unintentional help.”
At his words everybody started to laugh.
After the end of the meal, Lucilla and Maximus returned to the inn. Arrus had offered the litter once again, but Lucilla declined the offer and she and the Spaniard just walked. The evening was cool but not cold, with a gentle breeze coming from the river Adige that crossed the whole town. While his senses were alert as they always were. Maximus wasn’t worried about wandering in a strange town. Despite the adventure of the previous night, the streets were peaceful, with people walking and talking just like they were doing. The wind played with his hair and he tried to comb it with his left hand but unsuccessfully. The thick hair that had now grown longer and curled, was hard to tame. Lucilla had memories of doing this a long time ago and, out of an impulse, she did the same. Maximus’ hair was soft as she remembered and this made her smile.
“Why did you do this?” the man asked startled by her move.
“I just couldn’t resist. You know, I always loved you silken and soft hair.”
Maximus smiled and she willingly got lost in his eyes stealing the blue from the fall sky, as he put a large hand on her nape, moving her closer to his lips. He stopped the movement just before touching her mouth, to give her the possibility to go away, but she didn’t, stepping further against his broad chest and his soft mouth. The kiss was gentle and firm, slow and thorough.
“Why did you wait so long?” Lucilla asked short of breath as they finally parted slightly.
“It wouldn’t have been proper for a freed slave to kiss his former owner,” Maximus replied jokingly, but his eyes were serious.
“Now I know why you’re so bad at lying,” Lucilla said and he looked at her puzzled.
“What do you mean?”
“Your eyes. Don’t let them be seen if you want to lie. They talk more than your mouth. You’re trying to joke, but I know that there’s something more than this.”
Maximus didn’t reply at first, and Lucilla saw the struggle in his face. Just as she had just observed, he spoke too much with it to be a good liar.
“I don’t know how I feel about you, about us.” He paused a bit taking her hand, before going on. “I thought that I had lost my heart and soul the day I found my family destroyed. Despite this, I slowly began to care for Juba, for the other gladiators, even for Proximo in a strange sort of fashion and then you came to me, from my past. The first time you came to me under the Coliseum, I really wanted to hurt you because you were alive and my wife and son were not. I wanted to hate you, but I simply could not. I wanted to believe that you were lying to me, but I read the truth in your eyes and I knew that you never ceased to matter to me. Even when I was captured by the praetorians I wasn’t able to blame you because I knew that you were protecting your child, like I always wanted to do. I was afraid, instead, of what Commodus was going to do to you and Lucius.” As he spoke, he had stopped near a stone bench, where he sat down, gesturing to Lucilla to do the same. “Before Publius’ trick to save my life, I was beginning to say my farewells to all the people I cared for that were still alive and I prepared myself to join my family and your father in the Afterlife, but once again everything changed. I was alive again, with a future ahead but to what end? I was alone and I wasn’t sure if I should be thanking Publius or asking him to just let me die. But then I heard you asking me to live and I had to obey. And I didn’t know what to do with my heart and soul when I discovered that were in the same place as before.”
Lucilla didn’t talk for a while, and then she took his right hand, entwining her fingers in his. She softly brushed his raw skin; so different from the other men she used to know. Her familiarity with politics and its schemes had made her unprepared for Maximus’ honesty, his strength, his going straight to the core of things, his capacity to love. When they were both younger she had played with him, not understanding that this would have been the worst thing to do. She had paid for her mistake, watching him going away without her, resentful and cold, as she hadn’t seen him before.
“Please Maximus, listen to me,” she pleaded, but watching how cold his eyes had become, she knew she had lost.
“I’ve listened to your lies too many times. I’m not going to do this anymore,” he answered angrily and left the tent. The icy air coming inside, was nothing compared to the cold Lucilla felt in her heart.
After all the storms they both had been through, here they were again, the princess and the soldier or – more simply – a woman and a man with a past and, possibly, a future.
“I don’t know what to do or feel, either,” she said at last, “You’ve always been part of my life, even when you were so far away. Now you’re alone and I have only my son left. We’re both survivors and I think that we could find some happiness together. Do you think that you could find some love for me in your heart?”
“More than some and this frightens me. I loved Olivia with all my heart and I still love and miss her terribly, but I ….. I think I’m falling in love again with you and I have this feeling of guilt for I feel as if I’m betraying her memory. But at the same time I don’t want to let this chance pass by.”
“Neither me. I won’t repeat the mistake to sacrifice my heart to the reason of state. I’m here for you and I won’t go away.”
Maximus looked at her, to read her expression and she removed all the walls that she had had to learn how to build around her feelings to let him see that she was telling the truth. He got closer and Lucilla thought that he was going to kiss her again, but he pulled her towards his chest, easing her head on his shoulder and so they remained for a long while, listening to the delicate sound of the river flowing lazily to the sea.
Back at the inn they parted with a light kiss and Lucilla dismissed Fulvia who was waiting for them, sewing. Lucius was already sleeping but woke up as she sat down on the bed.
“Hi Mother, welcome back.”
“Hi Little One, I’m sorry that I woke you up.”
Her son smiled and crossed the bed to hug her.
“Ouch. You’re becoming too strong for your old mother. I wonder if I can let you go on exercising with Maximus and the soldiers,” she said in a mocking serious tone.
“No, please, don’t,” he replied worried, unsure if she was serious or not.
“Don’t worry, I was only joking. I won’t ruin you carrier as a cavalry man.”
“Do you think that I’ll ever be as good as Maximus?”
Lucilla smiled at the obvious admiration in the boy’s voice and replied: “He worked really hard for what he has attained, but I think that you can be whatever you want to be. Your father used to say that you were born on horse-back.”
Lucius remained silent for a while before confessing: “I barely remember him, just few things. What I remember the most was a sweet deep voice and warm hands.”
“He loved you so much. He used to pass a long time next to your crib, observing you with such love in his expression that my heart melted. He was with you the day you spoke your first words and I saw him crying for joy as you said “tata”.”
“Do you miss him, Mother?”
“Yes. It hurts me knowing that he missed you growing-up.”
“But you like Maximus, too, don’t you?”
“What makes you say that?” she asked stunned at his perspicacity.
“Your eyes are happier when he’s around. They’ve never been like that when we lived in Rome. You were sad, back then, now you’re not.”
“You’re very smart, Lucius, you know that? Yes, I like him very much. Does this upset you? Do you mind?”
“Not really. He likes you, I guess, because he looks happier, too.”
“It’s a wonderful feeling being so proud of a son.”
Lucius looked at her smiling and Lucilla kissed him loudly on the cheek. He laughed merrily and let her tuck him into bed.
The following morning Maximus and Lucilla went back to the Civil Guard station where Hypparchus was waiting for them with their testimonies to sign and two scrolls from Arrus. One was for the general bearing the restoration of his Roman citizenship, the other contained the magistrate’s declaration about Lucilla’s and Maximus’ true identities and that he had accepted their testimonies even if made under another identity. Hypparchus thanked them for their cooperation and they left Verona headed to the sea, to the city of Tergeste where they could take the road to Pannonia.
Part Two (back to top)
Tergeste was a big city set between barren hills and a light blue sea. A wild cold wind greeted them and while they were stunned at its violence, the locals weren’t impressed. Watching chains bolted on the corners of the steepest roads, Maximus realized that they were probably accustomed to it. Well covered in a warm wool cloak, he took a walk near the sea and he thought how different the Mare Nostrum was all along its coasts. Here it was nearly white and shallow, while it got deeper and blue-green South. On the Western side of the Italic peninsula it was deep and dark green, while it was blue in the open. It was strange and magic.
The stay in Tergeste was a brief one, just enough time to rest a night, buying supplies and heading north.
After their talk in Verona, Maximus and Lucilla started to give more reins to their feelings and even if they didn’t act in a different way, it was clear that something had changed for good between them.
“Well, it was time. She couldn’t have found a better man,” one of the soldiers observed to himself one evening seeing the general and the lady taking a walk hand in hand, when they thought nobody was watching them. When he returned to the camp, he couldn’t resist spreading the news and more than a few cheers greeted the announcement.
Summer turned slowly into fall and the rain began. This wasn’t a real problem, until the cart got stuck in a swollen stream. All the efforts to take it out were fruitless and when they decided to use the horses for the job, their military training was of little help in the situation. Maximus asked the men to stop a minute to think of a solution when they heard hoof beats of a horse on the run. All the heads turned to the sound, in time to see a huge black animal jumping above a spot where the stream was narrower but too high for the cart. Despite his size, the horse seemed having flown across the distance. Some of the soldiers whistled at such skill and the rider stopped the run. As the animal turned, they all could see the woman rider looking at them puzzled. She spurred the animal to a trot toward them and when she was close asked: “Need help?”
“The cart got stuck in the mud and we were trying to take it out, but out beasts aren’t cooperating,” Maximus said admiring how she controlled the big horse.
“I see. They are warhorses, unfamiliar with this kind of work. Rest a bit; I’ll be back in a few minutes with some help. My farm is close.”
“Thank you, my Lady,” the Spaniard said smiling. The woman returned the smile and rode away.
True to her word, the woman was back a quarter of an hour later, together with a man, two girls and eight big workhorses. The group stopped and dismounted. She presented her family, Sylvanus her husband, Helena and Hippolyta were their daughters and her name was Melanhyppe. Maximus and Lucilla did the same and then they all proceeded to tie the horses to the cart. The combined strength of the big animals and their master’s encouragement solved the problem and the wagon finally gained the shore, greeted by a loud cheer.
“Thank you very much for your help. Your horses are awesome,” Maximus said showing his admiration for the big animals and their breeders.
“We’re very proud of them. We breed them to be sold for transports of heavy loads,” Sylvanus said stretching the hand that the Spaniard had moved in his direction. He was tall, with dark curly hair, while his wife had straight hair. Their daughters seemed a mix of the two.
“This exercise must have made you hungry. Come with us, we’ll organize lunch.”
“We don’t want to be a bother”, Lucilla observed but Melanhyppe replied.
“Don’t worry. Sometimes we organize a horse market here, so we’re accustomed of having guests. Follow us.”
Lucilla nodded and the whole group got ready to leave the stream shore.
The fences and the horses reminded Maximus of his late wife’s family business, even if the animals were different. Pannonian horses were bigger and bulkier than their Spanish siblings, showing in their large legs and bodies their destiny. His trained eye was able to spot some whose figure suggested something different, though. He saw the big black horse that Melanhyppe had been riding as they had met and he didn’t seem willing to do something as trivial as dragging a cart. Maximus dismounted to take a closer look and walked toward the fence where the beast was cantering. The animal ignored him, at first, but when the former gladiator produced an apple, he turned his muzzle to beg for it. Maximus obliged, taking the opportunity to pet the soft skin, while he observed the beast at leisure.
“Do you like him?” Sylvanus asked and the Spaniard nodded. “His name is Black Fire he’s my wife’s pride. She chose his dam personally and mated her with one of our workhorses who had a bit of a strong head. Now we have a huge strong horse with a temper.”
“He’s a real beauty. How much do you ask for him?” Maximus asked, amazed by the horse, even if he knew that there wasn’t a way for him to buy him, because he had no money.
“You should ask Melanhyppe. He’s mummy’s darling. I wonder if she’ll ever sell him. The day he was born, she swore that she was going to be sure that the buyer was worth her efforts,” Sylvanus replied. Maximus went on patting the animal and the other man thought that if someone had a chance to have Black Fire it was this Roman. He had the same dreaming expression as his wife while looking at the animal, he added to himself, grinning.
Melahyppe was showing a spare room to Lucilla and Fulvia where they could freshen up a bit before lunch, then excused herself to head for the kitchen to prepare the meal. When she left, Lucilla took the opportunity to observe the room. Like the rest of the house, it was simple but comfortably furnished.
“I wonder if we arrived in the land of the giants my father told me about” Fulvia said breaking her reverie.
“Because everything is bigger. I thought that you were tall, Domina, but that woman with the name of an Amazon queen is taller even than Master Maximus who is a big man. Her daughters are younger than me, but both could overcome my father in height. Their horses are huge and even the beds are twice the size I’m accustomed to.”
Lucilla smiled at the maid’s worries, but she had to agree that many things seemed have been made on a different scale. Thinking about the huge bed, put a smile on her face, while pretty indecent thoughts crossed her mind as she saw Maximus through the window.
“Exactly the right size for some interesting games,” she whispered to herself, careful not to be heard by Fulvia.
The meal was served on tables arranged in an empty barn and there was place for everyone. Lucius ate like a wolf cub and after having cleaned his plate twice; he asked his mother’s permission to go playing with Helena and Hippolyta. They ran away, already laughing and giggling like fools. After the meal, everyone helped to clean up the tables, even the soldiers and when everything was quiet again, Lucilla and Maximus went for a walk within the boundaries of the farm. The air was crispy, but the Augusta didn’t care as Maximus had pulled her closer to him, draping his cloak around her shoulders. She tried to recall another moment in which she had felt so safe, relaxed and happy and she couldn’t. Through the layers of clothes, she sensed his warmth, like the fire that brings comfort in the night and yet dangerous when needed.
“How on earth did I let him go?” she thought, berating herself for the stupid mistake she had committed. She knew that she had had little choice in the matter, but she had hurt him and herself so deeply that the wound sometimes seemed to be pulsing again. She wrapped her arm around his waist, soon being rewarded by his big hand on hers.
“These are the moments when I wonder if this is just a dream and I’m going to wake up in a cell for another day of torture,” Maximus said and his low voice reverberated on her arm. “But when I feel you so close, I’m able to believe that this is real. You’re a dream come true.”
They stopped for a kiss, taking their time to savor each other’s taste, getting reacquainted, losing themselves in a passion dating many years back, but not forgotten. As their lips parted. Maximus put his hands under her chin, looking her straight in the eyes, as if to memorize her expression, still shining for their kissing and smiled.
“You’re a wonderful kisser for a princess,” the Spaniard said and Lucilla replied:
“How many princesses did you kiss to say that?”
“As a matter of fact, only you, but you really know how to make a man beg for more.”
“Flatterer,” she said and got hold of his lips for another deep, long kiss.
It was late afternoon when Lucius returned to the farm with Helena and Hippolyta. When they got closer, Lucilla began to worry, as her son’s hair was tousled, his clothes ripped in a couple of places, his face bruised and the two girls were in similar conditions. She ran to him asking:
“Lucius, what happened?”
“Nothing. We met some people and ….” he stopped, unsure of his mother’s reaction.
“Who did you meet?”
Witnessing the boy’s discomfort, Hippolyta came to his rescue.
“We met some boys from the village who began to tease. We tried to ignore them, but to no avail. They wanted a fight and we gave them exactly what they had called for,” she concluded grinning wickedly.
“They thought that they would have had an easy victory because they were six boys and we only three, but they were wrong. Lucius fought like someone twice his size and THEY RAN AWAY scared and in worse conditions than us,” Helena added with a mischievous light in her black eyes.
“It was fun, wasn’t it?” she asked Lucius and the boy struggled not to smile.
“Yes, so they will learn not to mess with us,” he said looking happy as a clam. Watching his mother’s stern face, he tried to look contrite, but not really convincingly. Lucilla looked at Maximus hoping he would help her to explain that being in a fight wasn’t exactly a proper behavior, but since the Spaniard was trying as hard as the boy not to smile, she shook her head and returned to face Lucius.
“Go to Fulvia to get cleaned, before I change my mind and decide to finish what those guys started.”
At her words Lucius looked relieved and ran toward the house, while the two girls went to a trough nearby to wash before meeting their parents.
“You were of little help, you know,” Lucilla said watching Maximus who looked more like a rascal, than a general.
“He was so proud. Why spoil him of the fun?”
“You’re worse than him.”
Maximus laughed out loud and soon she joined him in the mirth, realizing how proud she was of her little boy, as well as of the man next to her.
Melanhyppe was feeding the big black horse, as Lucilla went close.
“You must be proud of this horse, he’s simply wonderful.”
“Yes, I am. My husband is always teasing me, saying that he’s Mummy’s darling.”
“What price would you ask for him?”
“For yourself or for your man?”
“For him. I’d prefer something smaller.”
“From what I saw, I think your man could be a good friend for Black Fire.”
“I think so, too. They deserve each other.”
The black-haired woman thought for a while, and then named her price. It was a great sum, but Lucilla knew the value of good mount and she could say that it was fair. She stretched her hand toward the other woman to seal the bargain and asked her to follow to their cart to retrieve the money.
“Just one thing,” the Augusta asked. “Don’t talk to Decimus of our deal. I want to surprise him.”
“I bet he’ll be surprised by such a gift.”
“That’s the other reason why I wanted the horse,” Lucilla replied and they both laughed.
That evening Sylvanus renewed the invitation, but this time the legionnaires provided for the meal, bringing and cooking animals they had hunted along the way. It was a nice evening and when it was finally over, everybody was happy and relaxed.
Later that night, alone in the huge bed Lucilla wasn’t sleepy. Melahyppe had offered her the spare room and she had accepted, while Fulvia had opted to remain in the cart with Lucius. She was thinking of the end of the journey and she knew that there wasn’t only the fate of the Empire in her thoughts. She was doing her best to follow her father’s last will, but on the other hand she deemed that she had given so much to Rome, that she wanted something for herself, or better she wanted someone. She got up and went to the window to ask the foreign sky for a piece of advice, or just to enjoy the white light of the moon. She was lost in her musings, when she sensed someone else’s eyes on her. Maximus was looking at her from outside his tent in the farmyard. She smiled at him, unsure if he could see her expression in the darkness. They both remained still for a minute, then the Spaniard moved toward the house. Soon he was next to her window and her heart jumped in her throat seeing him so close.
“I hoped you would come,” she said inviting him to enter. When he was inside the room, she took hold of his hand. It was so warm as she brought it to her chin, kissing his palm. He shivered and raised his other hand brushing her hair. She nearly purred when his fingers combed her curls. She let him free, beginning to take off her nightgown, unable to wait anymore. He took the hint and undressed in quick moves. They stood naked for few moments as if to compare the memories with the present reality.
Lucilla’s figure was fuller than it used to be and Maximus just loved how womanly she was now, curved and soft looking, her rounded breasts pointing at his heart, so tempting that his breath caught in his throat. As he got closer he could smell her perfume. She had always had a special scent, as if being a princess had given her a different taste.
Maximus’ body bore the scars of his troubled life, just like his muscles betraying the strength under the bronzed skin and Lucilla thought that she had never seen such a gorgeous man. He was magnificent and she just couldn’t believe that after so many years, they were going to share a bed once again.
The moment of stillness passed and Maximus picked her up, moving toward the bed. She kissed him, not stopping when he eased her onto her back in the fresh linens. Their arms seemed unable to linger in a place too long, eager as they were to touch, explore and savor and neither of them took notice of the cool air of the night coming from the window.
“Are you sure?” Maximus asked hoarsely in-between kisses, trying to regain his wits enough to be sure that he was doing what she wanted.
“More than everything in my life. Now shut up and don’t stop kissing me,” she answered.
“At your orders, Domina,” he said adding laughter to his next assault to her waiting red mouth.
They realized in that moment, how much they had missed this closeness and they drowned into it. Their bodies soon recalled the memories of each other’s reactions, adding the experience made traveling different roads. Despite the long time passed since their last time together, they were able to renew the magic of their lovemaking, like it used to be and they forgot the rest of the world, to drown in their passion.
“Was I very different then?” she asked Maximus, afraid of his answer.
He replied with a slight smile, gently stroking her face: “You laughed more”.
“I have felt alone all my life, except with you. …. I must go,” Lucilla said, dreading their farewell.
“Yes,” he had replied, before exchanging a long and tender kiss.
Waking up in the safety of Maximus’ arms wiped away the feeling of loneliness that had been Lucilla’s companion for a great part of her life. Being the Emperor’s daughter was a curse, more than the blessing people used to think. She had experienced the power, but also the impossibility to share her true thoughts and feelings. She had never had friends, but her father and Maximus, the only two people that had come to really know her and tried to understand what was lying under the faÁade. Smiling happily, she snuggled closer to him.
Maximus’ thoughts were focused on his late wife and he thanked her for all the love she had given him, despite the long years they had spent away from each other. He owed her for the feelings that he was now feeling again, after all the pain he had suffered after her murder. At first he had wished to die to reach her and their son in Elysium and to forget the sorrow in his heart and soul. He had continued to live only to exact his revenge, careless of what would have happened next. Against all odds he had had his vengeance that had nearly cost him his life. Once again he had survived and much to his surprise, he had discovered that he wanted to live and he knew that this was Olivia’s last gift. She had loved him so much, to make him willing to try to taste this happiness once more. These thoughts led Maximus to realize that he hadn’t fallen in love again with the girl that Lucilla had been, but with the woman she was now. He, too, was a different man and they had met at a moment in time when they both were ready for a new beginning. He put her closer to his heart, enjoying the smoothness of her skin against his own.
A feather-like kiss awoke Lucilla near dawn.
“I have to go now. I don’t want to risk your reputation,” Maximus told her looking her straight in the eye.
“Keep on looking at me like that and I’ll have you tied to the bed to prevent you from leaving me.”
“I’d just love that,” he said grinning in the dim light “but I must return to my tent before someone discovers where I spent the night.”
“All right, Soldier, you have my permission, but only this time. What happened tonight is something I want to happen again.”
“So do I, now go on sleeping.”
Maximus brushed his lips across her forehead. In the light of the dawn he looked for his discarded clothes and Lucilla observed him getting dressed. Sensing her eyes on him, the Spaniard looked at her.
“Does the lady appreciate the view?”
“Yes, the lady does, indeed. Your body must have been conceived with carnal sins in mind,” she replied coyly, and then more seriously “Thank you for being what you are.”
Maximus’ seemed to glow in the shadows when he gave her a loving look that lulled Lucilla back to sleep.
It was mid-morning when the group began to greet their hosts for the help and warm welcome. The two girls kissed Lucius on the cheek and the boy blushed furiously, while the soldiers whistled. Sylvanus said farewell Maximus and Lucilla, while the former general praised him for his farm and animals. Strangely Melanhyppe was nowhere to be found. Maximus was about to mount his horse when a voice stopped him.
“Wait a moment, Decimus. You’ve got the wrong animal.”
The Spaniard turned puzzled and saw Melanhyppe leading Black Fire by the bridle. This is your mount, now,” she added.
“But how?” he said quizzically.
“Someone managed to convince me that you could be a good friend for him and now he belongs to you. Take good care of him.”
The general looked at Lucilla and she smiled the answer to his question. Still shocked he approached Black Fire and petted him on the neck, talking softly to him. The horse was saddled and Maximus’ next move was to climb up. The horse accepted his weight with ease, but tried to swerve to put his rider to the test. Maximus held the bridle and used his knees to signal to the beast who was in control. The horse seemed to accept the challenge and stood still under him.
“Farewell to you both. Don’t forget me,” Melanhyppe said to Black Fire then addressed to Maximus “Treat him fairly of I’ll come looking for you.”
“I’ll do, be assured,” he answered and led the horse near the cart.
“Thank you, my lady,” he said to Lucilla signaling with his eyes that they were going to talk about the whole thing. Melanhyppe tied Maximus’ former horse to the back of the wagon and the group left for good, still exchanging farewells and wishes of good journey.
Later that night, Maximus was taking care of Black Fire. Lucilla came close to the pair, observing how comfortably the man and the horse were with each other after so little time.
“You shouldn’t have bought him and I shouldn’t have accepted such a rich gift. I ought to be the one to bring you presents and not the other way around,” the Spaniard said, sensing her presence.
“Why, because I’m a woman?”
“Yes, partly, and because I don’t want to owe you so much, when I cannot repay you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“But I have nothing to give you. Even if I’m a free man now, I don’t even own the clothes I’m wearing.”
“If you think that you cannot accept a gift from me, consider this as something I owe for protecting my son and me. I couldn’t have hired a better guard.”
“No buts. You must not feel guilty. You deserve this and many things more. And before you could think that this has something to do with what happened last night, I bought the horse yesterday morning.”
“I hadn’t thought.”
“Good, because it wasn’t meant like that. I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy the night, though,” she added coyly.
“Lucilla – he warned her – you’re playing with fire and since I cannot let it burn right here and now, you better be careful.”
“Or I might be tempted to do something that a Lady and his body guard ought not to do.”
“Now that you make me think, my body needs to be guarded really closely. I’m afraid of this wild lands.”
“You wicked woman,” Maximus growled, approaching with fire in his eyes.
Lucilla was looking forward to pursue the matter further when a young soldier came to report that the meal was ready. She had to suppress a smile, when she heard Maximus sighing in frustration and they returned to the camp.
The road toward Carnuntun where they knew that Septimius Severus was camped at the moment traversed wilder looking countries and Maximus instructed the men to pay more attention. He spent more time riding, instead of traveling in the cart, both to train his new horse and to test his regained strength. He was still achy after a day-ride, but he felt his body reacting in a different way. He knew that he was recovering and it really felt great being nearly as strong as he used to be. >From time to time, Lucius asked to ride in front of him and Maximus agreed with joy. He was very fond of the youngster, he was smart and polite, but with a touch of mischievousness that he me must have taken from his mother. The Spaniard had noticed that during the journey Lucius had gained in height. He was going to become tall and slender, so much as his parents. He wondered how Marcus would have been as a teenager if he had been given a chance to grow-up. Could he have been thin like his mother, or sturdy like him? Tall or short, shy or bold? There wasn’t a way to know it, because the boy’s chances had been burnt, literally. The Praetorians sent to his farm had killed, abused and destroyed, leaving only ruins in his land and soul. He realized not for the first time that what had pushed him the most to act against Commodus had been the will to avenge the innocent lives he had destroyed without reason. He could have understood Marcus Aurelius’ death and even his own, because the two of them were on the brat’s way toward the throne, but not those of his family and the people at his farm, whose only guilt was to be connected with him. The massacre had been absurd. Commodus could have simply have him killed. Soldiers die and the generals, too, so Olivia would have wept and mourned for him, but she would have been alive. The memories of what had been his house were hazy by the pain and desperation, yet so strong that he could even smell the smoke of the fires and his eyes filled with tears.
Lucilla was watching Maximus slowly riding close to the wagon. She saw his expression turning from serious to pained and while she could just guess why, she didn’t want him to look like that. She whispered his name and he turned his head in her direction to see a sympathetic smile. His eyes softened a bit and he managed to smile back.
Maximus had sensed Lucilla’s eyes on him, before hearing her call. He was grateful to her because, just with a smile, she had prevented him from falling into sorrow again. She was so smart and ready to read people that made him wonder what would have happened if women were allowed to rule. What a great Caesar she would have been and he himself would have been proud to serve her as he had done with her father. And as a woman and a mother she had a different point of view concerning the preservation of life. During his long years of war, he had never acquired that sort of indifference toward wasting his men’s lives that he had witnessed in other generals. He saw them as human beings, not numbers on a scroll. And his enemies, too. They had lives and desires and he had often wondered what would have happened if he had happened to be on the opposite side of the fence.
The barbarian called out his cry and tossed the head into the mud as his mangy band of barbarians emerged from the forest, shaking and waving their spears and shields, hollering the feral cries of war, ready to fight.
“People should know when they’re conquered,” Quintus had said and Maximus had replied, much to his second in command’s surprise:
“Would you, Quintus? Would I?”
Maximus remembered Quintus often teasing him for his tender heart and he had laughed with him. Maximus hadn’t laughed, though, discovering that his supposed friend had had little problems to order his execution, as well as his family’s.
“Maximus, please be careful, that was not prudent,” Quintus had said returning to Maximus’ tent.
“Prudent! The Emperor has been slain,” he had answered angrily.
“The Emperor died of natural causes.”
“Quintus, why are you armed?”
“Guards!” he had ordered and four guards had quickly entered, spinning Maximus around as they secured him. “Maximus, please don’t fight,” Quintus had added, looking away as the guards held Maximus. “I am sorry, Caesar has spoken.”
Cicero had looked at Maximus as if to hand him his sword but the general had shaken his head no, while Quintus turned to the guards.
“Ride until dawn and then execute him.”
“Quintus, look at me. Look at me! Promise me that you will look after my family.”
“Your family will meet you in the after life.”
Maximus had struggled and one of the guards hit him across the back of the head with a sword. Quickly, the vision of his wife and son, his land and home, as he walked through the wheat field, had flashed before him.
Now Maximus saw his future flashing before him and he spurred his horse next to the cart.
“Lucius, would you like to ride with me?” he asked and the boy beamed at his request.
“Yes! Yes!” he answered and practically jumped toward him. Maximus grabbed him and placed him in front of him.
“Are you all right?”
“Oh yes, Sir. This is a real huge horse. Everything seems different from here.”
“Yes, riding so high gives you another point of view.”
“Thank you, Sir. I love horses.”
“It’s Maximus, remember that we are friends.”
“Yes we are and I’m really happy of this,” the boy said while Maximus relished Lucius’ simple joy.
“Me, too,” he added to himself.
During their road North, they were checked from time to time. Nobody put in discussion their presence, but Maximus resumed his place as driver of the cart, just in case someone could recognize him. As they saw the indication of Vindobona, something stirred in everyone.
The soldiers thought of the massive battle, the cold of the wind and the snow. of their general performing the rite that was going to connect him to the land, then the violence, the fire and the blood. When it had been over, they just couldn’t believe it; it didn’t seem possible having finally won, after so much time.
And soon after the victory, barely having time to celebrate, everything had changed. The old Emperor had died in mysterious circumstances, the general had vanished, labeled as a traitor and the Felix Legion moved back to Rome, under the command of some fool from Rome who had no idea at all about warfare.
Lucilla was thinking of the never-ending journey to Vindobona with Commodus and she would never have traded her present condition with all the luxuries of that travel. She had lost her father, a friend of hers, her brother and her peace of mind when everything that had been boiling under the surface for years, came to an end. She couldn’t think of Vindobona without shivering.
Maximus’ thoughts were halfway between the soldiers’ and Lucilla’s. He remembered the battle, the blood singing in his veins and the fire. Then the astounding summon from the Emperor and his request. The request he wasn’t sure he could accept.
“Cicero. Do you find it hard to do your duty?” Maximus had askedhis orderly and friend, once he had returned to his tent.
“Sometimes I do what I want to do, the rest of the time I do what I have to,” had been the answer and Maximus had reached his decision.
It still hurt him not being able to tell to Marcus Aurelius what decision he had reached.
“We may not be able to go home after all,” Maximus had replied, thinking at what he was going to say to his wife about his new assignment.
A really stunned sentry announced to the military governor of Pannonia camped near Carnuntum that the Augusta Lucilla was out of the Praetorium to pay a visit to him. Septimius Severus nearly jumped from his chair and gestured to the young man to let her in.
After few moments, she entered in company of a hooded man that the governor supposed was her personal guard. Severus bowed to her and she replied with a smile and sat down.
“You’re surely wondering why I am here,” she said going straight to the point. “But before I start I’d like to introduce to you someone you surely know.”
At her words, he looked at the man in the shadows who was removing the hood and even if he had last seen him years ago, he recognized his face.
“General Maximus Decimus Meridius? How can you still be alive?”
“Whimsies of fate, Governor. I’m glad you still remember me.”
“It would have been quite hard to forget you. But I’ve heard that you were dead, executed for treason. I guess I was wrong.”
“No, you weren’t. That was the idea, but something didn’t go the way it had been planned. The reason of our presence here is related to what you heard about me and to Marcus Aurelius’ death. If you would listen, we’re going to explain.”
“Please, sit down. I’m sure that this is going to be an intriguing story.”
Maximus smiled sadly and began to narrate. His account was calm and deprived of emotions, punctuated by Lucilla’s additions when he hadn’t a direct knowledge of the facts. Septimius Severus listened to them attentively, just as emotionless until Maximus’ last words.
“The situation in Rome is too serious to be left in Pertinax’ hands, because he’s not bound to last, so we came here to ask you to seize the throne of the Emperor of Rome.”
A deep silence fell upon the room, while the Spaniard looked at his interlocutor, trying to read in his face, what he was going to answer. When Severus broke the silence, his voice was clear:
“You were good prophets, too good, I’m afraid. I’ve just received news that Pertinax has been killed and that the throne is vacant or, I should say, on sale.”
“That being stated, will you accept our proposal?” Lucilla asked, while her mind was already working on the implications of what the man had just said.
“I must think about this. I want to take a little time before I plunge myself headlong into a career that can get me killed out of revenge or greed.”
Maximus started to reply, but the governor stopped him.
“You had righteous reasons for doing what you did, but I don’t think that, as a probable Emperor, I was glad to listen to your actions. And I never rushed things unnecessarily so tonight you’ll be my guests and tomorrow I’ll let you know my decision.”
Lucilla and Maximus were about to move, when Severus said.
“And please, General, when you go out, pull your hood back on. I’d like to surprise my officers, tonight.”
The Spaniard nodded, grinning.
The young soldier sent to inform Maximus and Lucilla, that supper was ready, had never met either of them, so he didn’t show emotions accompanying them to the Governor’s tent, but some of the legionnaires they passed by in the short walk, gaped in surprise. Something similar happened when they entered. Maximus wasn’t in uniform and he had longer hair, but many recognized him and Lucilla and the room went silent all of a sudden.
“Welcome my Lady, General,” Severus greeted them, breaking the odd silence that had fallen and they took a seat next to him. The servants brought food and the meal began. The governor and the Augusta did most of the talking, while Maximus remained silent, observing the officers, trying to guess if they were going to support Severus in his way to the throne. He thought so, because in addition to the voices he had heard about Severus’ men’s loyalty, he had seen traces of it in the camp. There was a sense of closeness that made him think of his own legion, of his men who had done so much for him, in the name of Rome. He respected Severus very much for having been able to gain such loyalty and hoped that he would accept the throne.
When the supper was over, the governor stood up and all the voices stopped.
“My officers and friends. Tonight as you all can see we have guests from Rome: the Augusta Lucilla, and General Maximus Decimus Meridius. I know that the last news about him spoke of treason, but from what I recently heard, everything in his deeds was meant for his love for Rome and the Empire. He came here, at the risk of his life, together with the daughter of the great Marcus Aurelius with a very serious question for me to answer. They asked me to accept the throne. Do you think I should accept?”
There was a collective sigh at the astounding announcement, as if the room itself was holding its breath. At last one of the older soldiers said.
“I think that you should, Governor, and I’ll be with you.”
“Me, too,” another voice replied, followed by all the other.
Severus smiled at this sign of trust and addressed Lucilla and Maximus: “This is my answer. Tomorrow we’ll have a meeting to define the particulars.”
True to his word, Severus summoned Lucilla and Maximus to talk about the situation in Rome, the Senate and the people. Lucilla didn’t try to conceal the problems that the governor was going to face on his way to power and he asked as many questions as he could think of. Maximus didn’t talk very much, knowing that the Augusta was much more skilled than him in the matter. The military side of the problem would have to be faced at the right moment and it couldn’t be planned ahead. Severus didn’t miss the Spaniard’s silence and finally asked.
“General, we’ve been talking for a while and you didn’t say a word about all this. Now, I have a question for you: why didn’t you seize the power for yourself? You were Marcus Aurelius’ first choice and with Lucilla’s help your position could have been hard to hinder.”
“Marcus Aurelius wanted me to lead Rome toward being a republic again, not to rule as an emperor and I don’t want to rule. I’m not a politician and I don’t want to become one.”
“And is there something you’d like for yourself?”
Maximus waited for a bit, before saying “Some peace and maybe a place where to remember when life seemed fair and Rome was the light in a cruel and dark world.”
“And you know such a place?”
“I used to know it once, now there’s nothing left, just ashes and death.”
Lucilla read in his eyes all the pain he was feeling ad the memories and she cursed both her father and brother for what they had put this brave man through, one for too much love, the other for too much hatred.
“Would you like to have back your place in the army?” Severus continued.
“No, I’m tired of blood. I don’t want it on my hands anymore.”
“I can understand you, but since you came here at the risk of your life to offer me the throne, I think I owe you something.”
“Be a good ruler. Make Rome the light of the world once again and the Empire a safe place for the people.”
“This is a great weight you’re putting on my shoulders, do you know?”
“Nobody ever said that it would have been easy.”
That’s true. Will you return to Rome with me?”
“No,” Lucilla answered. “It wouldn’t be a good idea. It would be too dangerous. Being Marcus Aurelius’ heir Lucius could be seen and used as a weapon against you and I don’t want this. Not to mention that Maximus’ presence could lead to questions about Commodus’ death that would be hard to answer. And I don’t want to lose him anymore,” she added to herself.
“You’re right. Even though your presence would have helped a great deal.”
“When you arrive, ask for Gracchus’ advice. He will be a pain in the arse most of times, but he’s loyal to Rome and a good politician,” Lucilla replied and after the first moment of surprise for her choice of words, Severus and Maximus laughed out loud.
“Is there really nothing that you would like for yourself?” Lucilla asked Maximus when they left the Praetorium after the meeting with Septimius Severus.
“I’ve always been accustomed to work for what I wanted or needed and I cannot accept charity, even if I don’t own neither the clothes I’m wearing, not the horse I’m riding. That’s why I’m not going to have what I’d desire the most,” Maximus added sadly, averting his eyes from her face.
Lucilla got closer, kissing him lightly on the chin, she breathed in his ears, whispering, “What do I have to do to make you talk? Seduce you?”
The Spaniard attempted a smile but it didn’t reach his eyes that remained full of sorrow as he spoke.
“I would like to offer a home to you and Lucius, a new life for us all where the past could become something more than a painful memory, but there’s no way I can do this in the near future and I’ll never be able to give what you deserve. My present position is even lower than a slave’s, because there’s nobody that is interested in feeding me, or to use my skills. Moreover, my only skill in which people seem interested is killing and this is something I’m not ready to do anymore.”
Lucilla took his hands in hers and squeezed them.
“These are the sweetest words I’ve ever heard from a man and I’m so glad you were the one saying them. There’s nothing that I’d like more than spending my life with you and I don’t really care if we’re going to live in a palace or a small hut, as long as I can be with you.”
“I care, though, and years may pass before I have enough money to give you a roof to live under.”
“What kind of work did you have in mind, because I have an offer for you. We can become business partners.”
“My idea was breeding horses. Apart from being a solider, dealing with horses is what I’m best at.”
“Great. I could borrow you the money to start a new business and you will repay me as soon as you begin to make money. And we’ll live of our work. What do you think about this?”
Maximus thought about her words. The idea was appealing and it was more than he had hoped for.
“Are you sure? I cannot grant that this is going to be a good business for you.”
“Oh, I’m going to make you work hard for me,” she answered with a wicked smile. “You’re going to regret Army discipline.”
Maximus’ face brightened with a heart-melting smile and he kissed her full on the lips. Lucilla’s heart pounded wildly in her chest and when the kiss ended she whispered: “I…. I’ll take this as an advance payment.”
“Will you marry me, Lucilla?”
“Yes, with all my heart and soul,” she answered and kissed him back, to seal the most important bargain of her life.
The first to be informed of the news was Lucius. The boy smiled and kissed his mother, then looked at Maximus, asking shyly: “May I kiss you, too?”
“Of course you can,” the former gladiator answered and Lucius gave him a loud kiss on the cheek.
“Ouch, you’re rough. Mama’s cheeks are softer.”
“I hope so. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so eager to marry her.”
“I’m flattered,” she replied grimacing and the three of them giggled.
“Lucius, there’s something else I’d like to assure you of,” Maximus said. “I’ve no intention to replace your father, but I love your mother and I’m going to do my best to make her happy and you, too.”
“I thought you would and I guess you had a good start, because she’s happier now, than I’ve seen her in ages.”
The three of them shared this first moment of being a family in a silent hug.
“So, there was something you wanted for yourself,” Severus said grinning when Maximus came to speak with him, asking if there was a pontifix in the camp who could celebrate a marriage.
“Yes, this is something I really want,” the Spaniard replied self-consciously.
“I’m happy for you. I’m going to send word to the pontifix to contact you for the particulars. When do you plan to marry?”
“As soon as possible. Now that our mission is accomplished, we want to start a life on our own.”
“All right, I’ll send you Albanus.”
“Thank you, Governor. For everything.”
“I’m the one who ought to thank. I only offered you the services of a priest, while you gave me a throne,” Severus added grinning, patting Maximus on the shoulder while escorting him outside.
A cloudless autumn sky witnessed the exchange of the vows between Maximus and Lucilla. A good part of the legion was present and Severus whispered in Maximus’ ears if he had organized with their enemies an assault during the ceremony.
“I couldn’t. Lucilla would kill me,” the Spaniard answered, after thanking the Governor for the gift of a proper attire for the wedding. Maximus was wearing the traditional Roman dress for a civilian, consisting in a tunic and a white toga, purple striped. He had thought about wearing this later, but since now his identity was established again and he didn’t need to hide it, he was entitled to this sign of his belonging to the senatorial class. The tunic was blue, made from soft wool, with long sleeves to keep him warm in the cold autumn climate. The hems of the sleeves and the collar of the tunic were decorated with a thin stripe of golden ribbon. The toga was fixed on his shoulder by a gold fibula in the shape of a wolf’s head whose eyes were made of two sapphires. A pair of elaborated boots completed his dress. Lucilla saw him waiting for her and noted how the color of the tunic, matched his blue eyes and she wondered if Severus had his wife helping him in the choice. Maximus looked gorgeous and she was overly proud that the smile in his gaze was for her.
Maximus was thinking something similar about her. Lucilla had decided not to wear the traditional read flamine and white tunica, which were the usual dress of a Roman bride. Instead she was dressed in a light blue tunica with silver acanthus leaves adorning her collar and shoulders. Atop of the tunica she had a simple white wool stola. Her head was bare except for a little silver tiara that kept in place a veil of the same color, her hair loose on her shoulder. A nice pair of mother-of-pearl earrings completed her attire.
“She’s a mermaid, arrived here to lead me to disaster,” he thought with an inner smile welcoming his bride-to-be.
After the marriage, Severus took both Maximus’ and Lucilla’s hands and presented them to the legions. Cheers and loud wishes of good luck and happy lives echoed all around the place and Lucius was cheering the loudest.
“I guess that this means that they approve your choice,” the governor said to the Spaniard who smiled in response. “I think that you can kiss the bride, now. You earned the privilege.”
Maximus obliged and if the ceremony had been performed between walls, these would have crumbled at the vibrations of the clapping.
“I’m sorry to interrupt the celebration,” Severus said silencing the celebrations, but I have something to ask you. I suppose you were wondering about the reason of Augusta Lucilla’s and General Maximus’ presence here and I trust you had come to the opinion that it wasn’t just for getting married in Pannonia,” he added and there was a collective laughter. “Well, let us hear from her lips the true motives.”
Lucilla stepped forward and smiled to the men gathered around, remembering how many other crowds she had faced. But this time it wasn’t to enjoy a blood sport.
“My father’s last wish was the return of Rome of being a republic, but unfortunate circumstances prevented the actual realization of his dream. Now Rome s without a ruler and this cannot be. We came here to ask your commander to become the new emperor. He accepted. Will you support him, in the name of Rome?”
Her last words resulted in a frozen silence, as they sank in. Pretty soon, though, a yes began to sound, followed by many others, until the whole legion was giving its support to Severus. The Governor brought his right fist to touch his chest in acknowledgement of his men’s praise. Seeing that gesture, meant to tie a bond with the soldiers, Maximus and Lucilla recognized the uniqueness of the moment and went away together with Lucius, in silence.
“A military tent was quite an usual place for a honey moon”, Lucilla thought, but she didn’t mind, as long as she was with Maximus. He was really handsome in the blue tunic that matched his eyes.
His eyes, never of the same color, as if they had a life of their own. The sweetest sight ever when they expressed love and the scariest when he was angry. She hoped she could see them only shining with happiness.
“And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
Lucilla had been curious watching the gladiator known as the Spaniard removing his helmet and her heart had stopped for a while recognizing the face of a ghost. A face burning with hatred, eyes shining with rage, a cold fire so dangerous that for a moment she felt sorry for her brother who was the recipient of such a gaze.
“You’re really handsome, Husband, you know,” she said watching Maximus taking off his toga, to remain in the blue tunic. She went closer, hugging him from behind, letting her head rest on his shoulder.
“So I must suppose that you married me only because of my good looks?” he asked in an amused tone.
“Of course. I’m accustomed to have the best in everything and you fit the bill.”
“I’m happy to hear this. It would have been sad if you married me only to protect my reputation.”
“Yes. After you took advantage of me…”
“What did I do?”, she asked finding his ticklish spots. He made a less than half-hearted attempt to resist, ending in a bout of laughter as she went on.
“You won. I surrender.”
“I must say that for being a former general, a ruler of armies and a fearsome gladiator, you gave in quite easily.”
“The sooner I surrender, the sooner you’ll be able to take advantage of me again,” he replied kissing her.
“That sounds encouraging,” she said in-between kisses. “You’re my prize of war and I’m going to take advantage of you as much as I can.”
“Cruel,” he muttered, never missing her skin with his lips, until the urgency of their love, made time lose meaning.
Maximus woke up, early in the morning, at the sounds of preparation of an army about to move. Lucilla was sleeping next to him, with her back warming his left side and he beamed at the idea that he wasn’t supposed to go away from her warmth. He turned spooning against her and he returned to sleep, smiling.
A young soldier came bringing breakfast and Lucilla and Maximus were reached by Lucius who kissed both of them with sticky lips, after he had had honey filled rolls. Maximus wiped his cheek grinning and said: “Now that our task here has been fulfilled, your Mother and I were thinking about what we’re going to do. We decided to go back to Spain and start a new life there. What do you think about this?”
“That would be great. Will we have horses?”
“As a matter of fact, the idea was to run a farm and breed horses. I’m happy to hear that this meets your expectations.”
“Yes. Sure.” Lucius replied happily and started to ask one thousand things at the minute about horses, Spain and everything else.
Maximus and Lucilla had decided to return to the farm where they got Black Fire to buy horses for their new business, so they made the first part of the journey through the army marching to Rome. They greeted old friends, among which Fulvia and the soldiers of the Felix Legion. Their new escort was made of soldiers from Severus’ legions and since secrecy wasn’t vital in the place they were headed to, it was in full uniform. They were using the same cart that had brought them from Rome, but this time Maximus was going to share it with his new family. They left with supplies for a long journey, as well as money from Severus who insisted.
“I owe both of you a lot more than this,” he had replied at Maximus’ attempt to refuse. “And you still have a lot of back pay to collect,” the governor had added patting the man on the shoulder, waving his goodbye.
As the group arrived at Melanhyppe’s and Sylvanus’ farm, they were welcomed by the girls who were tending to some horses. Helena ran to call their parents. After the usual greetings, Sylvanus asked the reason of their return, with a military escort.
“We’re going back to Spain to start a farm and I’d like to breed horses. I wanted to mix some of your big beasts with Spanish horses to improve the race,” Maximus explained.
“You’re going to compete with us,” the tall man replied but his tone wasn’t serious.”
“I’m afraid so, but I guess that the Empire is wide enough for the two of us.”
“Of course. Come with be, I’ll show you some of the best.”
While the two men, with Lucius in tow, walked to the stables, Melanhyppe invited Lucilla inside for some refreshments.
“You look really happy. I guess things went as you expected after our last meeting,” the dark haired woman said watching the Augusta.
“I’m married now, and I’m going to start a new life with a man I love with all my heart. Yes, things went as I had dreamed, more than expected, for the first time in years. In my whole life, to tell you the truth.”
“May the Gods you pray to be kind with you. What happened to your little maid?”
“She’s going to return to Rome. Don’t laugh but she was a little afraid of you.”
“Some of the men escorting you thought the same. I guess you Roman aren’t accustomed to the people of the prairies.”
“I think so. This land looks wild but it’s really wonderful.”
“It’s wild, but I won’t trade it for all the gold in Rome.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“No, but I’ve heard stories.”
“Rome is an odd place. She’s the heart of the light and the darkness of the world. I have lived there for a great part of my life and I’m not going to mind if I’ll never see it again.”
“Have you ever been in Spain before?”
“Yes, I traveled with my father throughout the Empire and we’ve been there, too. It’s where I met Maximus for the first time.”
“Was your father a soldier?”
“Not exactly. He was the Emperor.”
Melanhyppe gaped at her words.
“So you must be Lucilla, daughter of Marcus Aurelius and sister of Commodus. I know that I should bow to you, but I’m not going to do this. I kneel only in front of my Gods, not in front of a living man or woman. I mean no disrespect toward you.”
“I’m glad you don’t and my father thought the same. He knew that respect had little to do with your titles and so much with your actions.”
“I saw your father once, when I was a child. I remember having thought that he was thin for an emperor. I had the idea that Caesar ought to be big and imposing. I was so disappointed, until he turned in my direction and I saw his eyes. He caught me with the intensity of his gaze. I knew, then, that power lies more in your soul than in your body. Your father had a great soul and your husband, too. I saw how his men look at him, with respect, even fondness, because they know that he’d be ready to give his life for them. Yes, he has a great soul.”
“I cannot but agree with you. My father loved him, too, even if he didn’t consent
to our marriage, a long time ago.”
“My father didn’t like Sylvanus. He said that I needed someone to tame me and that he was just too kind. I answered that I wasn’t a horse and that I was going to marry Sylvanus or just to elope with him, no matter what he said. We had never ending arguments, but I refused to give up and I ended up having my way.”
“You were right. I wish I had done the same.”
“I guess it would have been harder for you. I was neither a patrician, nor the daughter of an emperor.”
Lucilla smiled at the other woman’s sympathetic words and they spent some more time in silence, drinking and just enjoying each other’s company.
When they left the farm, in the afternoon, they had four more horses and fresh supplies and water. On their way to Spain, Maximus and Lucilla bought a few more beasts and things they were going to need. Lucilla recorded the expenses on a small journal, knowing that Maximus was going to keep his word to repay her.
“As if he wasn’t doing this already,” she thought.
The journey home was slow and peaceful. They traveled leisurely, resting the horses, stopping in the towns along the way and it was nearly winter as the hills of Trujillo come into view. Maximus and Lucilla had discussed about this and they had decided to return to his former house. Because of Maximus’ supposed treason, it and the lands around belonged to the Empire, but given the situation in Rome, it was unlikely that somebody would argue about the ownership.
Maximus asked of Lucilla that he be the first to return to the remaining of his home and she understood. He went on at a slow trot; so different from the frantic run from Vindobona that had killed the horses he had taken from his supposed murderers. Painful memories hit him, but he struggled to recall those of happier times, when Marcus and Olivia had walked with him in the fields, after dusk, when the smell of jasmine filled the air. He reached his family’s graves. They were still where he had dug them with his bare hands. Everything looked both familiar and alien. He knelt between the two mounds, praying for his wife and son, asking for their blessing and wishing them all the happiness that Elysium would provide. He bid them farewell as he hadn’t been able to do when he had buried them. He had been too desperate and worn-out to even think straight. He put his hands on the graves one last time and returned to the rest of the group.
Maximus and Lucilla hired workers from the town nearby to rebuild the house. The first to come were either curious, or had known Maximus for a very long time and wanted to be sure that he was still alive. When everyone realized that he wasn’t a ghost, things began to go on better and the new family’s life began in earnest. After a few weeks the soldiers returned to their legion, wishing good luck and Lucius followed them for a while, down the road, before going back to the still small house.
Months passed and the news from Rome wasn’t positive. Severus was facing a strong opposition, but with the Legions and part of the Senate on his side, he was slowly taking control of the situation. Meanwhile life went on slowly at the farm. Meanwhile life went on slowly at the farm. Maximus began to breed a new race of horses mating local beasts with the Pannonian ones and he was flattered when when other Spanish breeders went to take a look at his animals, asking for his advice. As the business developed, he began to repay Lucilla and she always accepted his money. One year after their return, she welcomed him home from a day in the fields and stables with a stunning piece of news. She was pregnant and the baby was going to arrive before the end of the next autumn. Maximus was overjoyed and Lucius, too, hoping for a little brother to play with. When his mother suggested that there was the possibility to have a sister, he wrinkled his nose, but admitted that he wouldn’t have minded. His prayers were answered, partially, because after a long labor, Lucilla gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl that were named Maximus and Aurelia. Seeing his wife’s exhausted face smiling at the two tiny new born babies, Maximus’ heart melted and he thanked the Gods for this second chance.
Maximus was checking a fence that needed to be repaired when one of the servants brought to him a scroll that had been just delivered by a military messenger. Maximus wasted no time and opened it. It was an official letter from Septimius Severus, Emperor of Rome. It contained a complete pardon for the accusation of treason raised by Commodus, as well as any deed he might have perpetrated during his enslavement and the full restoration in his state of Roman Citizen, of the senatorial class. This implied that his lands had returned to be his and he would be able to bequeath them. A broad smile traveled from his mouth to his eyes, while he went back to the house. The earth under his feet was soft and he went down on one knee to grab a handful of it. It smelled of sun and life and he knew in that moment that this was this answer he had been looking for.