Author: Ilaria and Steph
Character: Maximus Decimus Meridius, “Gladiator”
Disclaimer: The following story has been written with no intention of claiming ownership or solicitation, nor does the author claim the movie character(s) as his/her own. The movie character(s) have been borrowed solely out of a love of the particular movie and is not intended for any other purpose but amusement and entertainment.
“Dammit!” Ilaria sighed, “How I hate it when they don’t put any sort of sign on the ruins!!” Ilaria motioned to the vast expanse of the Palatine Hill in Rome.
“Yes,” Stephanie agreed, looking where her friend had indicated. They were surrounded y the majestic ruins of Ancient Rome but they didn’t have the slightest idea what all the walls, columns and marble remains might have been in the past.
Suddenly Ilaria cried out with excitement. “Look at that! I bet I know what it is! Its the Ludus Magnus, the place were the gladiators exercised!”
Stephanie followed her friend to a low iron fence. Below them, in a small indentation in the earth, there was a ring of sand surrounded by stones that marked its edges. The shape resembled that of the Collosseum, only in a much smaller scale. Of course, it was only a ruin but at least its past use seemed clear.
“Hey,” Ilaria said again, “Let’s go down to see it better!”
“Do you think that’s a good idea? I don’t think they put a fence around it just because it blended well with the landscape!” Stephanie said skeptically.
“Oh, come on! We should at least try! If someone tries to stop us, we will say we did not know it wasn’t allowed…We can pretend that we are both foreign!”
Ilaria began to climb the fence. Hesitantly, Stephanie followed her. What her friend had said was true, It was rapidly growing dark, and she really did want to savor the Roman atmosphere some more.
The women climbed the fence and then went down the small incline until they reached the ring. Around them there was a wall which was used to shore up the hill. In one corner there was a small tunnel. Ilaria decided to investigate it.
“Ilaria! Wait!!!.” Stephanie sighed as her friend slid into the narrow opening. She barreled after her Ilaria through the narrow corrider until they came to a dim looking passageway covered over with boards.
“Where do you think it leads to?” Ilaria asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered the narrow hole between the boards. It looked like a tight fit, but if she squeezed…
“Probably nowhere.” Ilaria’s American companion looked over her shoulder, worried that they would be caught. She felt self-conscious. The bright pink and orange of her skirt and the matching orange t-shirt were ill suited to sneaking off from tour groups.”The boards are probably left over from the restoration work. Come on…” Sighing, the Italian girl began to follow her friend. Then, a sound from the end of the corridor caught her attention.
“Ascolta!” She said, so suddenly that she momentarily lapsed into her native tongue. Noticing Stephanie’s puzzled expression, she gestured toward the hall. “Do you hear that? It’s Latin! Someone’s back there.”
“All the more reason for us to go.” The auburn-haired girl frowned, considering her golden watch and rings nervously. “There’s no one here to help us if there’s trouble.”
Ilaria snorted. “A thief who speaks Latin?” She pressed against one of the boards tentatively, smiling as it gave way. “Not likely…come on! Let’s see…”
“I don’t know…Ilaria?” Stephanie looked up just in time to see her friend’s dark hair dissappearing into the darkness of the tunnel. Grumbling, but curious, she began to follow.
The tunnel was very long and the more they walked along it the louder the voice became. Ilaria strained her ears to hear more. She had studied Latin for 6 years at school but it had been a long time since she had used it…that was probably why the words she was hearing made such little sense!!
From what she was able to translate, the voice was speaking about the evening meal of a gladiator, insisting that he had to eat more than the others because the opponent he had to meet the next day was very strong. Evening meal? Gladiator? Match? Ilaria was confused but curious. She turned to see if Stephanie was still following her and almost collided with a wall or, more properly, against a wooden door. She ran her hand against it nervously. The voices were very loud now, as if the wood was the only barrier between the speaker and the girls. Stephanie looked at Ilaria curiously, “What are they saying?”
Ilaria shook her head, “It doesn’t make sense…. I- wait a minute! I know what is happening! I read they are re-opening the Colosseum to use it as a theatre for Greek and Latin plays…I bet we found the place where the actors are doing the rehearsals!”
Stephanie smiled and without exchanging another word the two girls pushed the door open.
What they saw made them stare, mouths agape. It was the most terrific set that either of them had ever seen: the cells, the hallways, the costumes…they were so realistic that the girls believed they had just done fallen back in time and found themseles in a real Roman dungeon.
“Let’s go closer…” Ilaria whispered.
Stephanie nodded, and the two girls crept along the wall. The floor of the passage was damp, and the unpleasant odor of human sweat seemed to permeate the air, but they were too curious to turn back.
“Hey!” At least, the man had made a sound that seemed like “hey!”. One of the men dressed as a guard had noticed the girls, who both took a half step backwards as he started toward them.
“We’re sorry!” The American said quickly. The man’s frown merely deepened- as though he hadn’t understood her at all and resented it in some way…
“We were just passing through- we’ll go now.” Ilaria continued in Italian, percieving, as her companion had, that the man seemed not to comprehend English.
There was still no sign of understanding. The man was walking toward them quickly now. Even without words, his intent was clear- he was going to collar them both! Around them, the other occupants of the corridor- men who must have been the other actors, chained together at the wrist and feet- were beginning to pay attention. Their eyes widened, and a few made incomprehensible shouts in the same language as the guard.
Both girls lunged for the corridor, but Ilaria was a half-second too late. The guard’s rough hand closed on the collar of her shirt and dragged her roughly to the ground, her knees squishing into the soft earth. “Go!” She hissed through her teeth, pushing her friend forward even as the man’s hand pulled her backwards. “Get help.”
Stephanie nodded, barely evading capture herself, and scurried away down the hall.
Ilaria watched with trepidation as her friend ran out of sight. She was uncertain about what would happen next. She suspected that, whomever she had stumbled upon, they weren’t the actors that she had first assumed. She didn’t yet know why they spoke Latin, but that was the least of her worries as the guard’s rough hand slid from her back along her hip and thigh, caressing her in a vulgar fashion.
“Well, my little wolf…” her mind worked frantically to translate his words, shivering to recall the term’s double-meaning in Latin. “How did you get so far…? And what a strange little disguise you are wearing….” The hands traveled possessively along her trousers and she yelped in surprise and alarm.
“Let her go.”
For the first time, Ilaria became aware that the chained men, though handicapped by their bondage, greatly outnumbered her attacker. The guard moved a bit, clearly nervous about the threat in the voice of the man who had addressed him.
“No.” He answered timidly. Still his grip slackened. “Part of your fan club, Spaniard?”
The man he was addressing didn’t answer, merely stared defiantly. Ilaria watched the guard pale further and, finally, set her free. Only then did she turn her attention to her “savior”.
Although his rough garments and chained condition implied inferiority, there was nothing in the man’s demeanor that admitted to subjugation. His posture was straight, his gaze firm, and his features so ruggedly handsome that Ilaria felt herself blush with embarassment for sneaking into his presence to begin with. What had the guard said? “a member of your fan club”? Clearly, the man was an actor, and he must think that she had invaded the production to try to meet him….
Ilaria’s ears burned with embarassment. She couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes.
“What’s the hold up here?”Suddenly, the attention in the room shifted from her little scene to a man who had just entered the far end of the corridor.
Stephanie hurried into the dim corridors, cursing under her breath as she hit her shin on a pile of boxes that she hadn’t recalled encountering on her first pass through the tunnel. It seemed so much longer than it had a moment ago! Although she was used to running, she could feel her lungs begin to burn with exertion. Surely she had gone far enough already….and where was the boarded up entrance?
At last, Stephanie spotted a pale stream of sunlight ahead, and she hurried toward it, stopping only after she emerged, blinking in the sudden brightness. She was so disconcerted, that she didn’t notice the rider coming around the corner.
The man was barely able to stop the horse and the animal reacted to the sudden pull of the reins by rearing. The raider grabbed the beast’s neck to avoid falling and when the horse calmed down turned to look at the person that had caused such trouble.
Stephanie stared at the majestic soldier in front of her. He was stunning – all dressed in black and purple with a plumed helmet on his head. She was still gawking as the man dismounted and walked to her. He was muttering in an irritate tone. The sound made Stephanie snap to reality and she tried to apologize for the incident, but all her knowledge of the Italian language — aquired by sweating over the books so diligently — seemed to have disappeared. Barely resisting the desire to squirm she bent her head in the universal gesture which means, “Yes, you are right, I am ashamed of myself, I wont do it again” and almost jumped as she felt a hand on her arm. She looked up and found herself staring in two light blue eyes which bored mercilessly into her own.
Maximus drew his attention momentarily away from the prostitute and looked at Proximo. He wished that the lanista hadn’t come in. It would be bad for the girl. Proximo guarded his gladiators very closely- no sense “wasting their energy” before an important match. He would assume that the woman was a “gift” from a rival trainer- sent to ensure that his best fighters were too tired to win their matches.
“What is the meaning of this?” the portly old man bellowed again, and the narrow walls of the tunnel seemed to shake with his anger.
Maximus looked at the frightened girl. She was wearing trousers, like a man (no doubt that was how she had managed to sneak in) and the clothing made her seem especially foreign and helpless.
“Who is this?” The trainer snapped, thrusting his finger under the girl’s chin and appraising her disdainfully. “Who sent you here?”
The girl did not reply. Maximus could sense the older man’s anger building. He was a just man, after a fashion, but his justice was harsh. He did not take risks to his “investments” lightly.
“Very well. You won’t talk. Perhaps we can beat it out of you… Drusus!”
The girl made a little sigh of horror, and Maximus himself felt his heart skip a beat at the look of malice on his owner’s face. Clearly, this had not been his only vexation today. Something had already left Proximo in distinctly ill spirits before he had ever come to the training grounds…It wasn’t fair for the brunt of his anger to be borne by this poor, anxious girl.
“I sent for her.” Maximus said firmly, stepping out of line again. The chains on his wrists rattled as he moved.
The surprise on the other man’s face was palpable.
“You heard me.”
Maximus would not meet his eyes. He knew too well what the man was thinking that there was something else going on that he didn’t suspect. He had sent far too many pretty girls – and more than one pretty boy – to his fighter’s cell to allow him to accept blindly that the Spaniard would seek a woman’s comfort now.
There was a moment of silence. Would the lie be accepted?
The two men seemed to measure one another’s resolve. Proximo looked at the girl carefully — and then at Maximus.
It was true enough. She was not like the other women that had come seeking to take – or offer – favors from the general. In her air, there was something unusual, a sense of self-confidence missing from most girls of her age. In truth, he should be relieved. The constant brooding of his star was bad for business. His mind was made up. With a grunt, he gestured to Drusus that the girl could go. Then he indicated for Maximus to be unchained as well.
“The east room.” He said lowly. Overhearing the murmuring among the other men, he snapped at them tersely “And I don’t want any of you other mongrels causing trouble.” Still glowering, he walked away.
“Who are you?” Quintus Clarus, Prefect of the Praetorium barked again at the young woman in front of him. Once more his words received only a blank stare. Either the girl did not understand what he was saying or she was totally stupid. He opted for the first choice. The woman’s eyes were full of intelligence and something else. Fear? Quintus bent his head and looked at her better. Yes, that was fear…but fear of what? Of him? She did not look like an escaped slave afraid of being caught…her dress was too good to be a mere servant, even of a rich family. Quintus frowned while he looked her over again.
“She looks completely out of place.” He thought. Yes, that’s it, he decided. She was a foreigner…a noble lady from the North. Quintus tried a couple of lines in German that he had learned in his years on the frontier but once again she gave no sign of understanding him. Brittania, perhaps? Well, he couldn’t leave her all alone. Darkness was falling and it could be dangerous for a lone girl. Sighing, the Prefect decided to take her home with him until the morning. The next day, he could send his men to enquire whether there was a rich British merchant in the city who had lost a daughter…or was she a wife?” His eyes traveled to her delicate hands and seeing she was not wearing a wedding band he let out a sigh of relief. “And now, what was that!?” Quintus scolded himself inwardly. He barely know her! With another sigh Quintus turned away and gestured to his horse.
Ilaria had only caught fragments of the conversation between the men, but she could tell that the danger- at least the immediate danger- had passed. The surly guard was leading her down another passageway, the man they called general–a strange nickname because he did not look as one — was walking slightly ahead.
She was led into a dingy, cell-like room. It was indistinguishable from the others, save the fact that it had a proper door, rather than rusting iron bars. She walked to the low cot at the side of the room, wondering what would happen next.
The door slammed shut, and there was the sound of a key turning in the lock. Her heartbeat increased slightly at the thought of being trapped.
“Who are you?”
At last, the words were spoken clearly and slowly enough for her to understand.
“Ilaria.” She answered meekly. She tried to make out the features of her companion with the light that filtered in from the high window. “Why are you speaking Latin?”
The man looked puzzled, and then he frowned. “Don’t tease. You’re lucky to be alive.” He stepped forward, reaching for her. For a moment, in which Ilaria thought her heart would stop, she had the impression that he was going to draw her forward for a kiss, but his fingertips merely rested at her neck, sliding over the thin golden band of the necklace she always wore. He made a sound that could have been either curiosity or disgust. “A senator’s daughter.” He murmured. “Does your father know where you have gone?”
“To Rome? Yes…I told him that Stephanie and I…”
“My friend. The other girl–”
“He knew that we would be in Rome…but I am supposed to return tomorrow…I have to get out of here!”
Stephanie held on to the horse’s mane as her life depended by it. She was not used to riding let alone sitting between the thighs of an Ancient Roman soldier.
He WAS an ancient Roman. The amazing deduction was born by what Stephanie was seeing in the landscape around her: no more cars, no more modern buildings, no more ruins. Only beautiful marble temples, basilicas and monuments. On her left she could see the majestic Colosseum once more entire, its travertine marble covering shining in the orange light of sundown. How had it happened? Was it only a dream? She did not know and she did not care, at least for now. She was still too stunned by all that happened…and by the strange attraction she was feeling for the soldier.
Stephanie blushed at the idea. The soldier shifted his weight behind her as the horse turned in a hill-top road and that reclaimed her attention. They had left behind the forum and they were traveling in a place full of villas.
Suddently the horse came to a halt in front of a gate that opened if on cue. Two men bowed deeply in front of rider and said, “Welcome home, Domine.”
The horse moved again and entered the gate which immediately closed behind it and its riders.
For the first time Stephanie realized she was a prisoner.
Maximus could sense that the girl was growing hysterical, though he could not guess the real reason. He doubted that her father knew what quarter of the capitol her footsteps had led her to and he was sure that, whomever he had sent to accompany her (surely she had come with more than the little Jewish slave she was referring to) was growing frantic with worry.
“Where do you need to go?” He said calmly.
“G-Genova…Genua.” She said softly in Italian and then in Latin.
Maximus frowned. If she was expected tomorrow, she was already too late. Genua was at least a 2 days ride from Rome- longer with ladies traveling in a carriage. She had already been detained. From the looks of her odd attire, her misadventures had begun before falling into Proximo’s hands.
“Calm down.” He whispered, stroking her hair absently. He couldn’t tell how old the girl was. Her clear, unlined skin and even, pearly teeth were those of a girl only in her teens, but her prepossession- and her ability to travel to the city apart from her father- belied a woman of a much older age. She must be a young widow…a noble, obviously…but if she were married, why did she still wear the bulla? Puzzling….
Maximus searched his memory for anyone he knew in Genua. His knowledge was scanty, at best. He was not an Italian; in truth, he had never been to the peninsula before he had been drug there in chains. He knew very few true Romans, and even fewer from families settled in the outlying towns. “I knew a Caius Illarius,” he offered hopefully. “Perhaps…”
“Not Illarius, Ilaria. I’m not in the play! I just want to go home!”
“The play?” Maximus felt his heart sinking. It was unheard of for members of polite society to appear in the theater – but not uncommon for headstrong young nobles to take a notion to throw propriety to the wind. An explanation began to construct itself in his mind: The woman had been sent to Rome with a governess (this Stephanie she spoke of?) to visit family or friends. Enchanted by the theater, she had run off to auditions, she had applied for one of the spectacles that were staged along with the games and…
Maximus’ attention drifted back as he felt a little dab of moisture on his arm. The girl was crying, though she was trying to hide it. She was tired, and the pale rays that drifted through the barred window were beginning to dim. The gladiator brushed Ilaria’s hair away from her forehead, smiling faintly to let her know that he didn’t consider her tears a sign of weakness.
“Shhh….it will be alright. I will help you, Ilaria.” He shifted her weight a little so that she was resting in his arms. He was surprised at how good it felt. It had been so long. “Shh….” he whispered again, trying to clear the thought away.
“You may rest here tonight. I promise that you will be safe. Tomorrow, we will see about getting you on your way.”
“But I have a train to catch!” She didn’t both trying to come up with an approximation in Latin.
“Or an airplane…” Why was she suddenly so tired? She felt as though she hadn’t slept in days….
Yes, I….” She yawned, distracted by the gentle, steady rhythm of her rescuer’s heartbeat…surely a little nap would be okay- somehow she thought that she would have very pleasant dreams!
In the villa on the hill, Stephanie was staring open mouthed at the magnificent room she was in: rose marble pavement, frescos on the walls, a sparkling fountain in the middle. This was how she had always pictured a Roman villa. It was stunning. She felt a presence near her and turning her head she saw her ‘captor’ was standing close by. He had removed his helmet, making possible to her to see that he had fair hair, prominent cheekbones and wide scar between his eyes. He was not what one would call a beautiful man but Stephanie found him more than handsome.
“Get hold of yourself!” a voice called inside her. “You are stranded in Ancient Rome, you know very little Latin and you have no idea what happened to Ilaria. This is not the time to have romantic fantasies!”
Quintus looked at his guest, noticing her stupor as she looked over his domus.
The Clarus villa was his most prized possession and he felt proud to see the young Briton admiring it. He looked at her and in the glow casted by the lamps he remarked that her clothes, albeit very strange, were of fine texture. Moreover, she was wearing a lot of gold jewels with the grace of a woman born to wear it. She had to be rich, but how it was possible such that a lady traveled alone not knowing a word of Latin? Quintus shook his head and feeling her eyes on him tried again to speak with her.
“My name is Quintus Magnus.”
Stephanie smiled, finally understanding the word ‘nomen’, which was to similar to the Italian word ‘nome’, name in English. She touched her chest and replied, “Stephanie.”
He nodded pleased and motioned her to follow him.
When Ilaria awoke, it was very dark. For a moment, she thought that she was back in Stephanie’s flat on the Via Gatti, but the strange sounds and smells instantly told her that something was amiss.
“Where am I?” She cried out, startled to see- through the faint light that penetrated the cold stone walls- a human figure moving toward her.
“It is okay. You are still at the school.”
“Yes…for the gladiators…don’t you remember?”
Ilaria shook her head, fighting back the frightened tears that pooled once more behind her eyes. She was determined not to cry again. It was not usual for her character and, besides, there was something about the stranger that made her feel safe.
“Who are you?” She asked at last.
The man looked suddenly very sad. “A Spaniard.” he said, after a long pause, not wanting to tell her his real name…..relieved that she hadn’t recognized him from gossip as Maximus Decimus Meridas, the general turned gladiator.
“That’s not a name.”
“It’s name enough. The man I was….” his voice trailed off, and Ilaria could see that his thoughts were far beyond the stone walls that contained them. He was silent for a moment before returning his attention to the girl. “You are from Gaul.” He said at last.
Gaul? What a ridiculous notion! He certainly was a good actor- his face looked as though he honestly believed that….
A sudden chill ran along Ilaria’s spine as the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. All along she had thought that the man, and his companions, were pretending to be in Ancient Rome- part of some spectacle associated with the restoration of the Colosseum. Was it possible?
“Why do you say that?” She answered uncertainly, hoping to obtain as much information as possible before reaching a conclusion.
“Your words…they sound…as though you are not a Roman native. You are not from Genua originally, I think?”
Of course. She had slipped into Italian without even realizing it. He would recognize the bastardization of Latin and assume she was from the provinces. She blushed. “No.” She lied.
The man nodded, content with the explanation. Although she was smiling amiably, Ilaria’s heart was racing. If she really WERE in Ancient Rome, what would become of her? Luckily, she knew enough Latin to bluff her way along…but what would she eat? Where would she go? How would she ever get home?
Quintus took Stephanie in what seemed to be a library or a study and motioned for her to sit on a chair as he did the same. After that he crossed his arms over his chest and said, as slowly as possible, “What are you doing in Rome?”
Stephanie bent her head and then looked around her intently. Between her knowledge of French, Italian and the Latin she had learned as an attorney, she was almost sure she had guessed the meaning of his question. The problem was how to reply. If only she was able to find a way to write. Using her Palm Pilot was out of question but with a piece of paper…
As if reading her mind, Quintus took out a scroll of papyrus and gave it to her.
Stephanie thanked him with a blinding smile that made the soldier’s heart skip a beat she took a pen out of her purse and wrote, “I am visiting with a friend.” The words were a mix of French, Italian and Latin.
Quintus took the papyrus and studied it. The language was very crude, full of barbarisms, but the meaning was clear.
“Where is your friend?” he wrote back.
“I don’t know. I lost her near the Colosseum. We accidentally entered the gladiator school.” The sentence was more complicated than the first one and Stephanie hoped Quintus would be able to understand her. She looked at him as he frowned and then smiled slightly.
“It is late. Tomorrow we will search for her. For tonight you may stay here you would like, my lady.” Quintus did not know why he felt so anxious for her to accept his hospitality. Granted, the girl was beautiful: auburn hair kept away from her forehead by a strange headband, milky skin, luminous grey eyes – but he could have all the women he wanted. No, there was something different in her…a confidence he had never seen in other matrons. He was intrigued by her. And he wanted to spend more time with her, to know her better and to push away for some hours the trouble of his life. Maximus, Commodus, the Praetorians. He wanted to forget them for a little while.
Stephanie read the message and nodded. He was right. It was too late to search for her friend now. The sun had disappeared and in the darkness she would not able to recorgnize the place where she had seen Ilaria for the last time. She just hoped that her friend was safe as she was…Yes because she felt safe, there was something about Quintus that make her feel at home.
“Thank you for your hospitality, sir.” she wrote but Quintus knew her answer even before reading it. He smiled and reach out a hand to help her to stand up.
Stephanie took it and an electric current ran between them. They looked at each other surprised but neither of them tried to break the contact between their bodies because it felt so right.
“Breakfast!” Ilaria and the Spaniard both spun their heads around as heavy keys jangled in the lock, and the door was swung open. A scrap of cloth, covering two hunks of stale bread smeared with cream were tossed indifferently to the floor. Almost as an afterthough, a shiny apple was offered to the gladiator.
“Got to get your strength back up.” The guard leered. “Match tomorrow.”
The Spaniard nodded wearily.
The door closed.
“We have to think of a plan.” The man said quietly, staring at his reflection in the shiny skin of the apple. “They won’t allow you to remain much longer. I have to train.”
“For the match?” Ilaria felt another sense of forboding as the man nodded solemnly. She had only read about the great gladiatorial contests, of course, but the stories were gruesome enough to have made an impression. Still, it didn’t add up – The man seemed so gentle and kind. Could he really be a brutal killer?
“Who will you fight?”
A shrug. “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” A bitter frown. “Commodus will never stop until I am dead.”
Ilaria blinked. “The emperor?” Until this moment, she hadn’t considered what time period she had fallen into. The information was important – under the early Empire, one unguarded word of praise – or censure – for the wrong emperor could have brought death. She could only hope that she was near the end of the demented emperor’s reign…or that his actions were still tempered by the co-rulership of his father, Marcus Aurelius.
“How is it possible?” She said, almost before she thought. “I mean, he’s the emperor and you’re a…” her voice faltered.
Ilaria hung her head. She hadn’t meant to insult him. Once again, her curiosity had gotten the best of her.
“I wasn’t always a slave.”
No. Of course not. That much was apparent in his every move.
She didn’t have time to finish her thoughts before the heavy door swung open again. The old man- the gladiator trainer- from the day before was standing in the doorway.
“Well, General. I trust you ‘slept’ well.”
The gladiator made no sign of acknowledgement.
“You there!” Proximo gestured at Ilaria with his shoe. “Out. The guard will see that you are paid.”
The young Italian fought a moment of panic. Go? She was grateful for her freedom, but what would she do now?
“Come back to the gates at dusk.” The Spaniard whispered. “Along the west wall. I’ll try to help you.”
Ilaria barely had time to nod before rough hands were once again on her back and she was drug out of the cell.
Stephanie was awoken by a sunbeam filtering through a narrow window. Without opening her eyes she groaned, “Ilaria shut out the light? I’m still sleepy…” It was her usual early morning protest but this time she did not get an answer from her friend.
Opening her eyes Steph called, “Ilaria?” Once more there was only silence. Coming finally awake, she sat up on the bed and looked around. She was not in her apartment or a hotel room, but in a beautifully furnished bedroom that she did not recognize. In a flash the events of the past day returned to her mind: she and Ilaria visiting the ruins on the Palatine Hill, their walk into the darkened tunnel, the dungeon, her escape, her meeting with Quintus. A slow smile appeared on her lips as she thought about her host. He seemed to be the nicest man she had ever known. She thought back to the dinner they had shared the evening before — it had been delicious (maybe due to her companion) and she ate a lot, forgetting for once that she was extraordinarily picky about food — and their ‘conversation’ with the written papyruses. Quintus had asked her many question about her family and she had answered as well as possible without betraying the fact she came from the future. Quintus had also talked about himself. She had learned that he was unmarried and had four other siblings. She sensed that he was as attracted by her as she was by him but being a gentleman, he did not try to do more then lead her around the house with only a hand touching her elbow. Stephanie liked it. She had suffered through her fair share of ‘I-have-one-thing-in-mind-and-it-is-not-talking’ men and Quintus’ old fashioned manners, such bowing to her or kissing her hand goodnight were more than welcome.
A light knock on the door snapped her back to reality, “Yes?” she said in Italian.
The door opened and a young girl appeared, “My lady, I have a message from my master.”
“Oh?” Stephanie motioned the girl to come near and she did so, bowing to her and handing a folded piece of papyrus.
Stephanie opened it.
My Lady Stephanie,
I have been called away to the Imperial Palace. The Emperor needs me. I don’t know how much time I will be away but I fully inted to keep my promise: I will help you find your friend. In the meantime I would be honored if you would remain as my guest. My house and my servants are at your service. I took the liberty of ordering some clothes for you, so that you may change in something more suitable to your rank. I hope you will appreciate them.
Stephanie read the letter a couple of times to be sure she had it right. Quintus had written it in very simple way but it still was quite a challenge for someone with only the barest grasp of Latin. After a few moments, Stephanie raised her eyes and met those of the serving girl.
“Do you want any breakfast, My Lady? Or do you prefer a bath?”
“A bath, if you please…and then the breakfast.”
The girl nodded and walked away as Stephanie considered her situation. She loved the thought of spending another day in the villa — she had always liked beautiful homes and this one was truly spectacular — but on the other hand she was worried about Ilaria. Where was she? What was she doing? Was she safe?
The next few minutes went by so quickly that Ilaria barely knew what to make of them. One moment, she was being pulled through the dingy tunnels of the gladiator school, in the next, she felt the cool weight of coins being pushed into her hands, and, finally, she was thrust blinking into the strong sunlight.
“Get along, now!” A rough voice shouted. Behind her, the door slammed.
She took a moment to collect her thoughts. Now that her eyes had adjusted, the sun was less harsh. She noted the direction in which it was rising along the sky, then circled around the side of the building until she found the western wall.
She had no real reason to trust the Spaniard – well, aside from the fact that he hadn’t hurt her yet, but he was the only person in this strange place that had been kind to her at all, and she couldn’t risk casting him away. He had told her to return at dusk and she would obey. Taking care to memorize the location, she slowly wandered off the trail.
Luckily, history had provided her with a vague recollection of the layout of the city. She knew that the gladiator schools were by the Colosseum which was, in turn, at the edge of the forum. It was the center of the city- both geographically and spiritually. All the myriad life of the metropolis filtered through its wide plazas. Carefully, Ilaria threaded her way through the early morning throng until she came to the edge of the marketplace.
Her first order of business was to purchase some new clothes. She had no idea how much money she had been paid for her ‘services’, but she hoped that it was enough. If not, she assumed that, as much as she was loathe to part with it, she could offer her jewelry in trade. She didn’t need anything too fancy- avoiding attention was the plan.
She approached a likely looking booth, running her hands along a few of the neatly folded tunicas that a toothless old woman had for sale. Ilaria could see that they were used. Some were stained, and almost all were threadbare. Still, they would work. She selected a light brown one and held it across her hips. She wasn’t entirely certain how it was to hang.
‘Looking for something in particular?’ The old woman was suspicious. Why was such a strange looking customer loitering around her stalls.
“Uhm…yes…How much?” Ilaria gestured toward the dress, feeling sweat on her forehead as she tried not to give herself away.
“30 asses” Ilaria nodded. Well, that was fine…but how much did she have? She was completely ignorant of the value of the coins she held in her pocket. Unlike the modern money she was used to, the roman currency did not have its value conveniently stamped into its metal. To the stranger, they were merely discs of silver, bronze and copper with crude profiles in relief across their backs. She would have to take a risk. Ilaria reached into her pocket and retrieved the coins. She selected the largest and handed it over.
The woman’s hand remained extended.
The next largest coin.
At last, the old woman nodded. “Thank you. Do you need a belt or any shoes?” She glanced at Ilaria’s feet, and then frowned again.
Ilaria was glad that she had been wearing sandals when her adventures began. To an Ancient Roman, no doubt, they would seem improbably fine: thick, well-cut straps, thick sole, and even stitching, but they were not entirely out of place. They would do…as would the belt that suspended her trousers. Now, all she had to do was find a place to change.
Ducking behind the stalls, trying not to be seen, she did just that, throwing the tunica over her head in a single, swift motion, and then removing her shirt and trousers from underneath. She wrapped them into a little bundle that she tucked under her arm, then fastened her belt around her waist.
There was no mirror, of course, but she could sense that she looked much better. The other Romans no longer stared at her questionably as she wandered through the streets.
The next task was to find some breakfast.
Following the system she had used to buy her tunica (handing over coins until the seller looked satisfied), Ilaria purchased a roll and a piece of fruit. Her ire at being mistaken for a prostitute was soothed, somewhat, by the knowledge that, at least, she appeared to be an expensive one.
She spent the rest of the morning wandering between the stalls of the marketplace looking over the wares trying to enjoy the atmosphere, rather than wonder what was to become of her. The historian within her was fascinated by the little details of everyday life that she picked up as she moved through the streets. There were so many basic activities that went unrecorded in the archeological record- she wished that she could simply sit on the steps of one of the many temples and observe! She had seen a Vestal Virgin sweeping off the steps of the temple with one of her sacred brooms, a group of senators moving toward the assembly, a market filled with naked slaves…still, her observations weren’t only gawking. She was looking for Stephanie as well, though she hadn’t the slightest notion of how to find her. Even in this ancient age, Rome was a city of more than a million people – Ilaria couldn’t possibly cover it all.
There was another problem that vexed her. What if Stephanie wasn’t here at all? She had run back down the hallway. Had she returned to the future? Was it possible that she had never been here at all – that it was simply a magnificent dream that she had been unable to wake from?
Ilaria was so lost in thought that she stumbled over a rock, nearly colliding with a black-clad soldier. The dark-eyed, heavy-set man glowered, but did not snap at her as she expected. There were far more of the soldiers – Praetorians, she corrected herself – on the streets than she had expected. All of the citizens seemed edgy around them. Even Ilaria felt uneasy – all the more reason to hurry back to the gladiator school and see what the Spaniard had arranged.
Stephanie was walking around the peristilium of Quintus’ villa, admiring the flowers and the fountains. Every now and then she stopped to look at her reflection in the water. She was still trying to get used to the beautiful but unusual clothes she was wearing. Quintus had chosen a sheer lavendar sleeveless tunica with a deep V neck held together at the shoulders with silver Bee clasps and tied, just below the breasts, with a silver bow. She also had a sky-blue palla to cover her shoulders. The clothes were of the finest silk and complimented her very well. Quintus had a wonderful taste, and it was clear that he had spared no expense.
Steph was looking forward to see him again but nobody in the villa knew when he would be back. The servants informed her that the Emperor sometimes requested his presence for many hours. Hearing them speaking she had wanted to know more about which emperor they were speaking of, but her fear of sounding too ignorant even for a foreigner stopped her.
It was late afternoon when Quintus came home and he immediately went to see his guest. He found her in his study, bent over his desk. She seemed to be writing something and he cleared his throat to attract her attention. Stephanie turned her head and looked in his direction, a wonderful smile appeared on her lips as she stood up to greet him.
Quintus’ eyes widened as he looked at her. She was a vision, a goddess, a Venus gracing his home. The clothes he had selected fit perfectly. She seemed born to wear them, to be a Roman matron…to be the mistress of this house. He shook his head and walked to her, taking her hand and kissing it.
“My lady, I am pleased to see you liked my gift.”
“Sir, these are the most beautiful clothes I have ever had…I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Quintus smiled. “How was your day? I am sorry I stayed away so long but I have been very busy.”
“My day has been beautiful but I am worried about my friend. She is all alone in the city and I don’t know what could happen to her.”
Quintus nodded. “Tomorrow, I will send my best men to search the area where I found you and to question the inhabitants.”
“Your men?” Steph was a bit disappointed he would not do it himself but then she remembered that he was the commander of all the Praetorians and surely too busy to play detective.
Quintus nodded, “Tomorrow I must escort Caesar to the games and I will be busy most of the day. But don’t worry, my men are very good at finding people.” His last sentence was said in a bitter tone but Stephanie did not noticed it. Her disappointment in the prospect of another day spent alone was so great that she was not able to hide it. Quintus read look easily. “You could come with me….” he said slowly, hoping for a positive answer. Tomorrow would be a terrible day. There was the strong possibility that he would be forced to witness the death of one of his best friends and he wanted to have someone he really cared about near him.
He did not need to be worried: Stephanie’s face beamed and she answered, “Really?”
“Oh, Quintus, I would love to come with you!” Stephanie stopped, suddenly conscious she had called him by his name. Was that proper in Ancient Rome? No it was not, but Quintus smiled at her and replied, “I will be honored to have you at my side, my lady Stephanie.”
They stared at each other, communicating at a deeper level than speech until one of the servants came to announce that dinner was almost ready. The spell broken, Stephanie excused herself and returned to her room to freshen her make up, while Quintus decided to go and change his uniform. As he was about to leave the study he saw the papyrus she was using when he entered the room and, curious, he looked at it. What he saw left him speechless. It was a portrait, a simple, wonderful, drawing of himself, traced by a loving hand. He ran his finger along it reverently and then walked away to prepare for
dinner. It might be the most important dinner of his life: Quintus Clarus, noted for his calm, for his pondering and for his cold mind had just decided to ask Stephanie to marry him.
For one terrible moment, Ilaria thought that she was lost. Eventually, however, she managed to wade her way through the dwindling crowds until she found herself once more by the walls of the Gladiator school. The little side yard was nearly deserted. Only a vegetable seller, packing up his wares for the evening, a group of rough looking youths, and a man with a hood over his head remained in the clearing.
There was no sign of the Spaniard. Ilaria tried not to feel her disappointment too acutely. All day, when she should have been looking for her friend, she had, instead, been haunted by the sadness in his blue eyes.
What had happened to him? He had said he wasn’t always a slave….and his owner had called him ‘general’…What did it mean?
The hooded man was making Ilaria nervous. He seemed to be watching her. Every time she looked over her shoulder in his direction, he seemed to be another step closer.
Should she risk remaining here? In truth, she had nothing to hide, but the nervous tension of the Roman people, cowering at the sight of the black-clad police, had sunk into her subconscious, filling her with the same sort of nervous terror.
He wasn’t coming.
The sun had nearly set now, and there was still no sign of the fighter. He couldn’t help it. He was, after all, a prisoner, but Ilaria could afford to wait no longer. She would have to find shelter soon. It wasn’t safe for a woman to remain on the streets alone.
She turned to go.
The Italian nearly cried out in fright as she nearly ran into the hooded figure. Now that she was so close, she could see that the volunimous folds obscured the face of a young man with dark hair and eyes. He had very pale skin, and his hollow cheeks were slashed with deep scars.
“Ilaria?” He said again.
She swallowed, “Yes? Who are you?”
“A friend.” He answered quickly, taking her by the crook of the arm. “The general sent me for you.”
“The one you know as the Spaniard…Maximus.”
Maximus. So, he did have a name. Soundlessly, Ilaria let the syllables roll over her tongue.
A strong name. A powerful name. It suited him.
“I’ll explain later. We must go now.”
“Yes, of course.”
Taking his hand, Ilaria and the young man began another journey down the streets that led away from the forum.
By the time that they arrived at the dingy, unsteady looking insula, Ilaria’s legs were screaming in protest. It felt as though she had gone miles. The straps of her leather sandals had dug deep ridges into the sensitive skin of her feet. Her stomach was growling as well. She hoped that this friend of Maximus’ had something to eat.
Wearily, they trudged up the stairs to the little garret at the very top.
“Not much, I’m afraid.”
She merely nodded, smiling gratefully when he gestured for her to sit on a little pallet on the floor and offered her a piece of bread and some cold beans from a little pot.
“Now…I suppose you are wondering who I am. My name is Cicero. I am the loyal servant of General Maximus Decimus Meridas. The true ruler of Rome.”
Dinner was proceeding quietly in Quintus’ villa; too quietly, in Stephanie’s opinion. Her host was silent and his eyes had a distant look.
“Maybe he is worried about his job.” she thought and kept on eating. But after five more minutes she stopped. The strange atmosphere was beginning to get on her nerves and she could not stand the haunting silence any more.
“What is wrong, Quintus?” she asked.
He seemed to snap out of his reverie and replied, “There is nothing wrong, my lady.”
“If that is true, then why are you so silent…?”
Quintus looked at her with his penetrating eyes, licking his lips, and suddenly Stephanie understood he was not worried, he was nervous.
Quintus saw her bend her head to one side and look at him with interested. Sighing, he decided it was time to tell her about his proposal.
“I wanted to ask you something.”
“Do you like Rome?”
Stephanie nodded with enthusiasm. “Yes.”
“So much you would like to live in it?”
Steph was puzzled by the question, “I don’t understand….”
Quintus stood up and walked near her. “My lady…Stephanie…I don’t know what are the customs of your people in Brittain and I know this might sound hurried and inappropriate but…I love you and I would like to ask you for the honor of becoming your husband.”
Steph’s eyes widened with surprise. Had she heard correctly? Did Quintus really ask her to marry him? It was so sudden and unexpected that she was merely able to stare at him speechless. Not that the idea displeased her….her heart was flip-flopping in her chest with excitment, but she did not know what to do.
Quintus took her silence as a refusal. His face become cold and he straightened. “I am sorry to have offended you, my lady. I will not do it again.” As he started to walk away a hand touched him on his arm. “Quintus, stop.”
He turned again and looked to Stephanie expectantly.
“You did not offended me. You surprised me. I did not expected something like that.”
Quintus nodded, encouraging her to go on. Stephanie looked briefly at her hands before adding, “I am honored by your proposal but it is too soon. We’ve barely met and you don’t anything of me.”
“I know what I need to know: you are intelligent, beautiful and full of wit.”
Stephanie looked away for a moment. “Is that all you need to know, Quintus?” She sighed. “What if I were a country girl…or a servant…or a slave?”
The Praetorian frowned. “It isn’t possible.” He seemed to be waiting for her to confirm this. “…is it?”
She paused for a long moment. “No. I am not a slave…I am…something else…” Could she trust him? She wanted to so badly. She had only spent a day in his cloistered, beautiful world, but she knew that she wanted to be a part of it, always. But the practical, modern woman – the part of her that wondered if she could be happy living merely as a pampered wife – refused to give in. “I cannot marry you Quintus…yet.”
His eyes regained a little bit of hope.
“First, you must know my secret, I — ”
And then he kissed her, and she forgot how to speak entirely.
Ilaria shared her meal with Cicero in near silence. She was full of questions, but her stomach was also rumbling with hunger. The food was rustic, but edible. She ate heartily.
Finally, when their bowls were empty, and their stomachs full, she looked questioningly toward her host.
“So this…Maximus…who is he, and why would he want to help me?”
The young man smiled sadly. “He is the greatest general Rome ever had…and as for helping you, he is simply a good man. He cannot help but do good things. He told me to take you back to your father, in Genua and to find your friend.”
Ilaria nodded, grateful to know that she would have help, but anxious to learn more. “A general? But he is a slave-”
“He is a slave now. In body, at least, but Commodus will never break his spirit.”
Commodus. The emperor. “He said that the emperor hates him.”
“The feeling is mutual, I assure you.”
Ilaria listened, scarcely believing her ears as the loyal servant recounted his last days with his master, how after Maximus had led his definitive battle to end the campaign against the Germans, Marcus Aurelius had offered him the throne. He had confided only in his servant- and then settled in for a nap, to rest, and to think. He had never had a chance to make up his mind. The emperor – the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius had died- possibly been murdered by his son, and Maximus had been drug from his bed and carried into the woods to be executed before his men awoke.
These were tales omitted by her history books- tales, no doubt, carefully concealed by the emperor less his image be tarnished. She was speechless with horror at what had occurred.
Cicero himself had believed his master to be dead, until he himself had ended up in Rome and attended the games.
“It’s no wonder he’s sad.” Ilaria whispered, when he came to the end.
“He wants nothing more than to die and return to his wife and child…but his spirit is simply too strong to surrender without a fight.”
“His wife and child?”
Ilaria felt tears prick at the backs of her eyes as she heard the rest of the terrible story – how the Generals’ beloved family had been crucified and burned. She could hardly believe that such barbarous punishments existed – much less that they would be bestowed so unfairly upon the innocent.
“You look like her.” Cicero said. “When she was younger, at least…I wonder if that isn’t a reason that he was so eager to help you…”
Ilaria felt her heart breaking for the gentle, blue-eyed man who had stood up for her. “Commodus is a monster!”
The servant nodded, though he looked nervous that she would say such a thing aloud.
“He will never stop until Maximus is dead. He hated Maximus because Marcus Aurelius choose him over his own son.”
“We must help him.”
Cicero nodded. “Aye…but how?”
Quintus and Stephanie kissed for a long time, unleashing the fire that had begun to burn from the first moment that they had looked into each other eyes, until Stephanie’s practical mind called for a halt. As much as she loved what she was doing, she knew her true identity and her true provenience were too important to be simply ignored. The idea of staying in Rome with Quintus was exciting but what about her life in America? Also…how to cope with the real life in Rome? She was a true daughter of the 20th century, used to being independent and accustomed to a long list of items that were not even invented in Quintus’ time. Of course things don’t make happiness BUT still they were a part of her life. She gently pushed Quintus away. “Please Quintus, stop.”
He broke away and seeing her serious expression feared he had overstepped his limits. “Stephanie…I am sorry, I did not mean…” Steph silenced by him placing two fingers on his lips. “Shhh…I am not angry. But what I said before is true. I can’t marry you yet. There are many things you need to know about me…”
Quintus nodded, finally accepting she was really as interested in him as he was in her. With a streak of optimism he did not believe he had still inside him, he decided she only wanted to ponder her decision for a little while. He also thought she was showing remarkable restraint and intelligence, considering the practical side of the matter before the romantic one, and that made Quintus want her even more.
They stayed silent for a long time until he said, “I think it is time to retire. Tomorrow will be a long day. In the morning I must visit the barracks very early to give orders to my men and to search for your friend. Then I will return here to escort you to see the games….Oh, yes, about your friend, I saw how much skill you have in drawing portraits,” he smiled and Stephanie blushed realizing he was speaking about the picture that she had made of him while waiting for him to return, “why don’t you trace your friend’s face, so I can show it to my men?”
Stephanie nodded. Speaking of Ilaria had been a cold shower for her. All the pleasant thoughts concerning Quintus, the marriage and a possible life in Rome all but disappeared as the worry for her friend returned. She had to find her.
Ilaria tried to sleep that night. She was very tired, but she could not shake her sense of premonition that something terrible was going to happen to her Spaniard- to Maximus…and she felt that it was somehow her duty to help. At first, she had no idea what to do…how could a stranger, a “foreigner”, and a woman, no less (at least in this time period) ever save such an important man…finally, around midnight, and idea came to her head.
She had to find the tunnel again.
Maximus would be at the games tomorrow. Cicero had told her as much. He had another match to fight- another impossible set of odds to overcome. If she timed it just right….
That was, assuming that the tunnel would take her back to her own time period, and that she could find it again, Ilaria thought glumly.
The next morning, she told Cicero her intentions- that she wanted to help the general.
“But, your friend-” He began, skeptically. He had been given strict orders: find the girl’s missing friend and take her home. He was certain that the general would want her protected from the barbaric spectacle of the games. She didn’t seem the type of girl who would be accustomed to them.
Ilaria swallowed, and tried to hold her ground. “She may be there.” She insisted. “It was where we lost each other. At any rate, it is the first place that we should look.” She tried not to betray her own lack of conviction. It had been neatly 36 hours since she had first been captured by Proximo’s guard. Nearly thirty-six hours since the girls had parted. If something terrible had happened to her friend.
Ilaria shook the thought away. “Please, he has been so kind to me. I must try.”
The man looked uncertain, but at last relented. She was right. It was the first place to begin looking…
They arrived at the Colosseum just after dawn. Only a handful of spectators- those intent on saving the closest seats – were trickling into the stadium. Ilaria did not go directly inside. She waited by the gates where she had first met Cicero- beside the little yard where Proximo’s gladiators practiced and ate their meals.
Only a hundred yards away, Maximus stirred his bowl of beans without appetite. He couldn’t concentrate on food. Only the upcoming match and Ilaria. Had Cicero succeeded in finding her? If they had found her friend, they could set on their journey today.
He smiled, at the thought. Somehow, helping the young woman had made him feel less hopeless. She was so like Selene…not her appearance, precisely – they had the same coloring, but not the same height or features – but in her spirit. There was something so familiar in her intelligence and strength, and…something else. The smile faltered. He felt guilty to admit it, but there had been an attraction as well. She hadn’t thrown herself at him like other women. She hadn’t seen a war hero or, more recently, a gladiatorial hero — only a man. He wished, though he knew it was impossible, that they could have spoken longer. Somehow, in spite of his captivity, knowing that she was safely on her way home– that he had helped her, in spite of his own bondage– made him feel a semblance of his old self.
“Your fans wake up early.” Maximus was snapped from his reverie by the deep, teasing voice of his friend Haken. He looked up sharply, squinting toward the iron bars where the hordes of Romans that drifted in and out of the game sometimes gathered for a look at their heros. It was nearly deserted- save two small figured.
Stephanie stopped at the feet of the Colosseum and threw her head back to see its face. She had read many times about the giant stadium in her books and she had always wondered if it was really big as she had been taught. Now her curiosity had been satisfied and she walked around the arena admiring the details. She was in the very heart of Rome in company of five of Quintus’ female servants and two men. Instead of waiting his return in the villa she had asked him to let her wait for him in the forum, so that she could see some of the city. Quintus approved, thinking it was a good idea: it would help Stephanie decide if she wanted to live in Rome for the rest of her life.
The roads near the big arena were crowded with people who wanted to attend the games. Stephanie shivered despite the warm climate. Until this morning she had not realized what the word ‘games’ really meant. She had thought about races or other sporting contests, until Quintus had told her to wait for him near the Colosseum. In flash she had remembered the use of the majestic building in ancient times and her throat constricted….to see men kill other men was not exactly her idea of fun. She hoped that she would be able to stand it without fainting or vomiting. She was also nervous because she would have to sit in the imperial box, just behind the infamous Caesar Commodus. Lost in her thoughts she did not see Quintus approaching until he was standing in front her.
“My Lady Stephanie, are you ready to attend the games?” he asked.
“Yes, Quintus, I am ready.”
He offered her his arm — which she took — and together they walked to the Colosseum.
“What are you doing here?” Maximus’ voice was angry, but his eyes were soft, as though he were truly touched by her gesture. He had certainly never expected to see the girl again, as much as he would have liked it.
The younger man shuffled his feet without meeting the Spaniard’s gaze.
“Please, don’t be cross with him.” Ilaria said softly. “I made him bring me here.”
“To what purpose? To watch me die? I have a match in a few hours time….”
“To save you. Maximus, you don’t have to die.”
So. Cicero had told her his name- or she had heard it bantered around the street. How much of the rest of the story did she know? In the early morning shadows, the defiant turn of her jaw reminded him heartbreakingly of Selene.
“Save me?” He tried to hide his sense of sadness with a firm toned-voice. “How could you possibly save me?”
Ilaria held her breath. It was the moment of truth…she wasn’t even certain that he would believe what she had to tell him, but she had to try….”When they take you to the arena floor….will you pass the hallway where we first met?”
“The little corner that you came out of?”
“They must…Maximus, I haven’t told you the whole truth about myself…when I said that I was from Genua, it was true- but not the Genua you know…I was…I’m from…” She swallowed. “From the future, almost 2000 years. I think that I can take you back with me, Maximus…I think that I can save your life.”
Silence. Maximus squinted his eyes, as if looking her over carefully. Abruptly, he turned his gaze to Cicero. “I told you to take her home. She isn’t well.”
“Maximus!” Ilaria’s voice took on a sense of desperation. “I can prove it. I can show you…” Even as she spoke the words, her mind was racing ahead. How COULD she prove it, really? She had already determined that history, as she had learned it in school, was altered here…
“General!” The booming voice of the trainer called across the yard, and Maximus jerked suddenly around. “I have a match to fight.” He said, darkly. He tried to push away the thoughts of the beautiful, if troubled, black-haired girl, and concentrate on what was to come.
“Please.” She said softly, feeling tears drying on her cheeks. “You don’t have to die.”
“Perhaps I want to die.”
“Not like this.”
Another beat of silence.
“General!” Proximo’s voice was more insistent now, but his slave did not come as bidden. He continued to regard the girl. What could it hurt, to listen to her fantasies? At least he would give her comfort. “Come back tonight.” He murmured.
She nodded, relieved. It would have to be enough. “Good luck.” She whispered as he walked away.
He would need it.
Ilaria followed Cicero into the stands, worried about the match that was to come, but feeling hopeful, for the first time in days, that her ordeal- as well as that of the General- would soon be at an end. Though she and her companion dutifully attended the games, she tried to ignore the gory spectacle on the arena floor, focusing all of her energy on how she was going to convince the Spaniard that she wasn’t crazy- that she really had come from the future and that she could keep him safe.
Ilaria mentally catalogued the items in her pouch. Most of them, though unusually well-made and finely wrought for such ancient times, would be of little use in convincing a skeptic that she had come from the future. A comb was just a comb. The camera, without any ability to develop the film was just a fancy metal rectangle, the postcards….
That was it! The postcards! She had forgotten about them, never guessing that the silly souvenirs that she had bought with pocket change could be useful. Trembling with excitement, she unzipped the pouch and removed them. Careful to ensure that the crowd around her could not see what she was doing, she spread the colored pieces of cardboard on her lap. There were six: the Trevi fountain and the Spanish Steps could be discarded, but there- the Colosseum! There were two views: an arial panaorama of the ruined forum, and a side shot, showing one of the half-crumbled entranceways to the mighty arena. She shivered as she recognized the outline of the very passageway she had used that morning.
Cicero’s terse tone brought her quickly to the present. Ilaria hurriedly stuffed the postcards back in her bag.
He jerked his chin at the arena floor, and the Italian girl felt her stomach drop as she counted ten well-armored men about to face off against the general. Each opponent was clad in a different style of dress representing a different gladiatorial school. Each had a different style of fighting. Ordinarily, a ‘great champion’ engaged in such a fight would be required to confront only one man at a time, but she could see, as the ring of attackers moved closer, that was not the intention for this match.
Cicero had assured her that the General could win any fair fight. But then, this was not a fair fight. Ilaria felt her knuckles grow white from grasping the hem of her tunica when the battle began. She did not release her grip until the match was concluded. Maximus stood, improbably, but triumphantly, in the center of a gory circle of battered bodies- he was safe. For now.
When the editor called the end of the days games, Stephanie let out a relieved sigh. Thanks God it was finished. She had never saw a more horrible thing in all her life. So many men died that day she had lost count. In the beginning he had tried to convince herself she was watching a movie and the slain fighters were not *really* dead but as soon as the sweetish smell of blood had reached the imperial box all her efforts at self-conviction went to hell. As if the macabre spectacle in the arena was not enough, the nervous atmosphere in the stand had been so thick she could have cut it with a knife. Commodus — a young man with cruel and mad eyes which made Stephanie shiver every time he looked in her direction — had been in foul mood especially after one of the gladiators, a crowd-hero called Maximus, had survived against 10 men in a match– a feat almost incredible judging by the enthusiastic shouts of the spectators. Quintus had not been very helpful, aside from that fact that, sitting behind his chair, Stephanie could hide behind his back when the fights were too near the imperial box. The Prefect of the Praetorium had also looked very nervous during the games and Stephanie saw him pale when he first saw the 10 opponents lines up against Maximus. For reasons she could not quite pinpoint, Stephanie suspected something was going on between Quintus, Caesar and the fighter in the arena.
“Are you feeling well?” Quintus’ voice suddenly entered her consciousness.”You are very pale.”
Stephanie nodded, “I just need some fresh air, I can’t stand this smell anymore.” Quintus sighed. “You are right. The Emperor has gone back to the palace and he does not need me this evening. Would you like to walk with me for some time? We can go to the vigiles barracks and ask if they found your friend.”
“Yes….” For the first time in hours Stephanie felt the impulse to smile and she did so. Quintus gave her an answering smile and helped her to her feet.
Then he took her arm and led her outside the Colosseum.
Ilaria raced ahead of Cicero out of the stands toward the Ludus Magnus. A throng of other boisterous fans (and more than a few buxom young women) were bearing down toward their hero as well, but Ilaria had noticed a back passageway during her brief detention in the compound, and she used it now to slip ahead of the others. Even Cicero was lost in the swirl of faces as she raced toward her goal. Trying to avoid the attention of the guards, she squeezed through an opening in the heavy iron bars (certainly too small for a man bent on escape, but just wide enough for a determined, and slender female to push through) toward the stone structure that housed Maximus’ cell.
She was waiting for him when he arrived. He looked a bit surprise, arching an eyebrow, but saying nothing. He smiled halfheartedly. He was tired. No, she looked him over more closely. He was exhausted. Blood trickled from a few cuts on his forearm, and his eyes seemed distant.
“Sit.” She whispered, dipping the hem of her tunica in a little cup of water. She eased him to the ground and then dabbed the damp cloth on his wounds. “Shhh….” Her revelations could wait. He needed rest, and tending to his wounds.
Luckily, the cuts were superficial. She found it both exciting and terrifying that he could exact such terrible carnage on his foes and escape with such minor injuries himself. He was such a contradiction…gentle and ferocious in the same breath.
After the cuts were cleaned, Ilaria reached forward for another cup of water resting on a nearby table and held it to his lips. She expected a protest at the nursing, but she received none. He was either too tired, or too contented to object.
Stephanie and Quintus walked along the Roman roads in silence — a comfortable silence. They both seemed lost in their own thoughts but at the same time happy to be together. After fifteen minutes they reached the headquarters of the vigiles where Quintus enquired about the progresses made in finding Ilaria. The chief of the vigiles explained that they had done of their best to find the girl but, with all the chaos due to the games and the many persons came from outside the city to attend them, finding her was a long-shot. The more the officer talked the more Stephanie’s face fell; she had hoped for much better news.
“I am sorry.” Quintus touched her arm to comfort her.
Steph smiled faintly, “It is not your fault.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Can we walk a little more? There is still light and the evening is so warm.”
“If you wish….”
She took his arm once more as they walked away.
Quintus let Stephanie lead him, approaching all the monuments she wanted to look at up close. Inside her the modern American girl was comparing the monuments she was seeing to the ruins she had seen only two day before.
Without conscious thoughts their path returned to the Colosseum and then, near the Ludus Magnus.
Just a few blocks away, Ilaria was sitting on the dirty stone floor of a cell, her eyes fixed on Maximus. He was also sitting on the floor, his back resting against a wall and his eyes closed. In his lap rested an the empty cup she had given him about ten minutes before. Ilaria was huddled in the only dark corner of the cell, invisible to the guards who came and went along the hallways. She had come to speak with Maximus and convince him she was not crazy but she did not wanted to intrude his rest just now. So she remained silent, looking at him, admiring his handsome face and mentally rehearsaling her speech.
“Are you still here?” Maximus’ low voice asked.
Ilaria blinked a couple of time and then blushed; probably he had caught her staring at him because he had a slight smile on his lips.
“Uhm…I…I was thinking.” Ilaria stammered barely remembering to speak in Latin and not in Italian.
“About what?” He had turned his head to her and seemed really interested to her answer. Ilaria just hoped he was not giving her the look just to indulge a girl he believed mad.
“I have something I want to show you…could you come here? I don’t want to be caught by the guards.”
Maximus raised slowly on his feet and walked near her, dropping tiredly to her side.
“What is it?”
Ilaria opened her purse and pulled out her postacards with trembling hands. “Now is the moment of the truth.” She thought as she handed them to Maximus.
Maximus took the little pieces of cardboard and looked at them, while Ilaria watched with anxious eyes.
The first thought crossing his tired mind was about the talent of the man who had done the paintings. They were so perfect, so detailed…and done on such tiny surfaces! Truly they were masterpieces. However after few seconds of observation he became aware of the true subject of the paintings and he frowned. A stunned look appeared on his face when he came to the final card: it illustrated the Colosseum but it was all ruined, a large piece of the wall gone along with almost all the marble covering it. At its feet there throngs of people dressed in strange clothes and curious carts with wheels but no horses attached in front of them were passing on the street. He had never seen such things and his heart began to race.
“What happened?” he asked, his voice rough.
“The time and the barbarians.” Ilaria replied gently, hoping he was finally understanding.
‘The barbarians,’ he thought, accepting, without even realizing it, that Ilaria had said him the truth, she was really from the future. ‘The barbarian destroyed Rome.’ Maximus’ eyes scanned again the postcards and hissed when he saw the ruins of the Imperial Forum. He closed his eyes to block inside the pain he was feeling. Rome, the jewel of the Empire, the light in this cruel, brutal and dark world, reduced in ruins. So now he was really, truly broken. Everything he had valued and fought for in his life was gone: his family, his Emperor and now Rome. His chest constricted in pain.
Ilaria watched him pale and tense at her side with alarm. Maybe she had been wrong to tell him about the barbarians. She wanted to tell him that Rome still existed and prospered even if it was very different from the ancient city.
“Maximus?” she called softly. Silence was her only answer. She called him again and touched his shoulder. Nothing again; he seemed lost in a world where she could not enter. Ilaria pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. There must be a way to call him back to reality. She looked at his face intently and without realizing it her eyes stopped on his sensual mouth. A shiver run along her spine as she decide to try a different tactic. She scooted forward on her knees and bent her head, kissing Maximus full on the lips.
At the first brushing of their lips Maximus’ eyes snapped open and he found himself face to face with Ilaria. She smiled to him and made the move to step back but he stopped her. His hands cupped her face and he pulled her again against his lips, kissing her gently and then with more ardor as he felt her accept him. They surrendered their dark thoughts and lost themselves in pure sensations…the feel of their mouths, the warmth of their bodies, the smell of their skin. And for the first time in months Maximus felt really alive.
Maximus released Ilaria’s face and looked in her eyes. He was a bit ashamed of his reaction but she did not seemed upset…she seemed happy. He cleared his throat and gesturing to the postcards he said, “I see…see you told me the truth. You really have come from the future.”
Ilaria nodded, “Yes. You are looking at what remains of the ancient city of Rome, but if you look closely you will see other buildings on the background: they are part of the modern city.”
“Modern city?” Maximus’ eyes lit up and Ilaria smiled. “Do you mean that Rome still exists?”
“Yes, it still exists. It is the capitol of the modern Italian state and it is quite famous in the world. It is called the ‘Eternal City'”.
The former general smiled, relieved to know that the city he had always served still existed and asked, “Please tell me what happened to you.”
Ilaria sat against the wall and with her face turned to him began to speak, telling him all what happened to her and how she and Stephanie had discovered that tunnel was really a gate to the future.
Maximus listened to her with fascination, his exhaustion forgotten and when the girl stopped talking he remarked, “It is truly an amazing story. I saw the tunnel from where you came out…it is never used by the guards or by Proximo. I always thought it was too ruined to be used.”
Ilaria nodded again, “You are right, I had to push heavily on the wooden wall to arrive here. But I didn’t close it very well and I think we will be able to pull it open easily, especially with your strength….”
“My strength?” Maximus’ voice interrupted her.
“Of course, you will come with me and Stephanie when we will go back, so you will escape from Commodus….”
Maximus shook his head. “No, Ilaria, I cannot come with you. My place is here.” He said quietly.
“Here? To be at the mercy of a madman who want only to kill you? Are you crazy ?” Ilaria’s temper made her speak with passion so strong that she forgot to speak in Latin slipping in her native Italian.
Maximus was not insulted by the provocation. “I am not mad, Ilaria. I have a duty to do. You know my story, Cicero told you,” he paused and waited for her nod. “So you know Commodus killed my family and his father…” She nodded again. ” I have made two promises: I promised my wife and son that I would avenge them and I promised Marcus Aurelius that Commodus would not rule. And I will do all I can to keep my vows. I will try until I succeed or I–”
“– die trying.”
Ilaria nodded and slumped against the wall. She knew he would not change his mind, no matter what she said. A bitter smile formed on her lips: it was ironic that the qualities she most appreciated in him — his integrity, his sense of honor and duty– were now the cause of the pain she felt inside her chest. She had know him for such brief time but in her heart she knew he was the ‘one’…She had always believed at the love at first sight. Tears began to prick at her closed eyes and she began to tremble with the effort of keep them hidden.
Suddently Maximus’ strong arms were around her and she found herself pressed to his chest.
Maximus’ heart constricted in his chest as he held the girl near him. Ilaria was so lovely. Being with her was so easy, so comforting, so…..wrong. How could he betray Selene and Marcus in this way. For a moment, when he had realized her tales of life in the future were true, he had felt freedom in the thought of leaving with her- of discovering the new Rome together…Then he had remembered his promise to his wife. How unsettling it was to discover that he had forgotten to think of her, if only for a moment. Little details of her memory were beginning to fade. Already, when he closed his eyes, he could not remember the exact color of her hair or eyes, her lovely smile was slowly being replaced in his mind with one different, but equally lovely- with Ilaria’s. What was happening to him? Was it possible to love so deeply, and then to love again?
Was that what he felt for Ilaria? It had been so long ago when he first fell in love with Selene that he hardly remembered the sensations…the nervous solicitation of the other’s every expression and thought, the doubt-filled agony of being apart, the shimmering, frantic energy of time spent together…
He did not remember the stunning sweetness of a first kiss until he had tasted it again on Ilaria’s lips.
He wanted to go with her, but he could not.
How could he make her understand?
Still stroking the girl’s hair, he craned his neck to glance once more at the photographs.
Battered stones, pushed down and ground to dust, just like the walls of his heart. The city had transformed and endured, but he…?
He wouldn’t think it now. Night was falling. He had to put Ilaria somewhere safe. He had to prepare for the coming day. Lucilla would meet with him soon. Already they were concocting a plan….and maybe, if all went in the right way he might still been able to follow Ilaria in the future.
Feeling resolute again he said, “Little one, you must go now. It is getting late…”
Ilaria raised her head and brushed her tears away, smiling a little at his appellation. “Why can’t I stay here?”
“Because it is too dangerous to be seen near me.”
“But I lost track of Cicero and I don’t know Rome so well to find the insula again.”
“I see…well, maybe you don’t have to…Do you see that little building near the west wall?” Maximus pointed in the yard direction and Ilaria followed his gesture.
“Yes, I see it.”
“It is a deposit of grain and hay for the beasts. I noticed it two days ago and saw that there is a thick bed of straw on the floor. You can stay there for tonight and then slip away at dawn. I will give you my blanket.”
Ilaria turned to look at him. What a gentle man he was! She did not really want to leave him but he was so tired he needed a good night of sleep without worrying about her. “All right,” she said, “I will stay there.”
“That’s good, little one.” They smiled at each other and he pulled her once more in his arms for another sweet kiss. They embraced for some minutes and then he helped her to exit the bars of his cell.
Quintus and Stephanie walked slowly through the streets. The sun was setting, but they were not afraid. It would be a very bold thief indeed who would dare to attack the Prefect of the Praetorian, and if Commodus were out to get him..well, he had no need to make his attack by stealth.
They were walking so aimlessly, that Stephanie was surprised when she looked up and found that they were by the Ludus Magnus- the building where Stephanie had first entered ancient Rome.
“You said this is where you lost your friend?” Quintus asked curiously.
“Yes.” Stephanie craned her neck to look through the bars. She could see a little row of cells off to the side. New the edge of the yard was a small building used to house the animals that carried the human cargo to and fro.
“It’s unlikely that she would be about so late. I will tell my men to check extra carefully again tomorrow.”
The woman nodded. What else could she do? She was beginning to wonder if Ilaria were lost forever.
At that very moment, she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She squinted her eyes to see more clearly what was happening in the yard of the Ludus Magnus. Her heart began to race again when she reorganized her friend’s small form.
“Ilaria!” she called, running forward.
Quintus did the same, following Stephanie’s gaze. Just as Stephanie had recognized her friend with a single look, he noticed the man who was standing near the girl, divided from her by irons bars. Maximus.
Quintus cursed under his breath, still watching as Stephanie ran in toward her friend.
Ilaria and Maximus saw the violet clad figure approach them and they stiffened until Ilaria’s posture softened in recognition of her friend’s face.
“Steph!” she called, almost shouting, before running to embrace her.
Maximus watched the reunion with joy, happy because Ilaria was no longer alone. Her friend was very well dressed: maybe she had found a better way to disguise herself and perhaps….His line of thought was interrupted when he saw the other figure near the two girls. The black uniform, the high cheekbones, the scar…
“Quintus,” he said, controlling his anger with difficulty.
“Maximus.” They were the first words they had exchanged since that terrible night in Germania.
“What are you doing here?” Maximus asked and almost out of habit Quintus was about to reply, when Steph touched his arm and said, “Quintus, let me introduce you my friend Ilaria.”
Ilaria stiffened upon hearing the name and turned to look at Maximus, silently asking him if he was the same Quintus who had him arrested in Germania. The rage of his face was her answer. Suddenly the atmosphere was loaded with tension and Stephanie looked from one face to another trying understand what was happening. When her eyes stopped on Maximus she immediately recognized the gladiator who had fought that afternoon and she remember her speculation about the existence of some connection between Quintus and the man.
Stephanie noticed the uneasiness, but could not guess its source. She shifted her weight nervously.
“Where are you staying the night, Ilaria?” She asked, half-afraid that her friend would announce her intentions to return to the future that very night.
Ilaria’s eyes met the strange man’s. She seemed uncertain what to say.
“Your friend will be our guest, of course.” Quintus interjected quickly.
Ilaria frowned at the use of the word “our”…it seemed possessive somehow- what sort of man had Stephanie fallen in with? She turned toward Maximus, then blinked, amazed to seem him nod in indication that she should accept.
“Quintus will take care of you.” He said in a low tone that threatened his intentions if Quintus should fail to live up to this promise.
The two men stared at each other for a moment more. Then the Praetorian turned to go.
“Come, ladies.” Quintus said tersely. Stephanie looked curiously between the man and her friend, her eyes finally resting on the stranger. She nearly gasped aloud when she saw how softly the man was looking at her friend. His eyes were full of longing…and something deeper that the girl could hardly believe. She wanted to see more, to confirm her suspicions, but an insistent tug on her arm pulled her attention away.
Stephanie was relieved when Ilaria, looking over her shoulder to share another sad smile with the gladiator, fell into step behind her.
Quintus’ light eyes were stormy and brooding. Clearly, the meeting had affected him in a way that Stephanie could not understand. She lagged a few paces after him so that she could speak with her friend.
“Do you think that they know each other?” She asked in a whisper, “It was almost as if…”
“They definitely know each other!” Ilaria snapped. “You are sharing a home with a murderer.”
Stephanie’s eyes widened in shock. “Quintus?” Her features betrayed her conviction that this was impossible.
“They were friends once…best friends. Quintus served under Maximus at Vindobona..he betrayed him when Marcus Aurelius died.”
Stephanie sniffed in reply. It was ridiculous. Who had convinced Ilaria to believe such lies? It was true that Clarus’ position forced him to undertake many unpleasant tasks…but betrayal or a friend? It was impossible.
“I am sure that we will find pleasant accomodations for you…and a hot meal.” Stephanie said cooly, perturbed by the accusations. “Perhaps I will be able to loan you something decent to wear. I am sure that you will discover in short order that whatever the….slave…told you regarding the Prefect was incorrect.”
Ilaria glared. How blind her friend was! If she were not so relieved at having found her at last, she would have made a scene.
The party regrouped at the villa’s gates. Ilaria was consigned to the housekeeper for food and a hot bath. Stephanie and Quintus lingered in the little garden.
The servants were in the courtyard lighting torches, and the tart smell of pitch mingled with the scent of flowers to perfume the night air. The young woman seemed in no hurry to enter the house, and so Quintus remained with her amidst the greenery, leading her to a low bench behind some trees.
It was so peaceful here. The gentle gurgle of water tumbling from the pitcher of a sea-nymph in the center of the fountain was the only sound. It was a welcome respite from the fear and uncertainty of the day. Only here, with Stephanie, did Quintus realise why he had fought so hard to remain alive.
“The stars are out.” The young woman commented softly. She leaned her head backwards against the Praetorian’s chest, and he caught it in his hands, twining his fingertips into the soft locks at the temple and tugging them free from their confining pins. “…so strange to see them in a city.”
He laughed at her. Why should it be strange to see the stars anyplace if it were night? She could be so peculiar. “Yes. They are beautiful.” He whispered. “Not as beautiful as….” He fell silent, gauging her reaction. Since her refusal, he had not mentioned the topic of a betrothal again, but she seemed so open and willing now. Should he risk another proposal?
As if reading his thoughts, Stephanie grew suddenly serious. She righted herself and turned to face him, her lovely features tightly drawn and faintly sad.
“I CAN’T marry you, Quintus. I won’t.”
He blinked, surprised at the sudden declaration, his jaw quivered as he struggled to contain the crush of emotions released by her words. “You are certain?” He managed at last.
She nodded, chewing her lip. “I love it here, Quintus. I love….” She stopped, shaking her head as if to chase away the words she was about to say, or merely the thought of them. “You do not know me, Quintus. If you did…”
“There is nothing that we could not erase -”
“- isn’t there, Quintus? How old do you think I am?”
“Eighteen- nineteen, perhaps.”
“Twenty-five. And…” She flushed. “Hardly an innocent.”
She watched as the number registered in his mind. Her skin, more protected from the sun than her ancient sisters, and her more nourished figure appeared much younger to his eyes. Waiting for the shock to pass, she repeated her earlier argument. “What if I were a runaway slave? A murderess? A-”
“You are none of those things. Even if you were, I could forgive you. I can forgive you your past – I have secrets too.” He swallowed as he thought of Maximus, huddled in a cell somewhere, alone. A victim of his trusted friend’s betrayal. “I have secrets too…” he whispered. His light eyes searched her expression for some hint of softening, but found none. “What then? Will you leave me? Where will you go?”
She looked at her feet. “I don’t want to go, Quintus.”
“I don’t understand.”
She took his hand in hers and met his eyes uncertainly. They were sad and distant, the ember of hope almost burned out. She tried to rekindle it with a soft kiss placed on this palm. “I could…I could stay here. I could…be with you. Quintus, I do not have a family, or a father, or money or a past. I cannot be your wife, but I could be….”
The flatness of the words sent a chill up her spine, but the longing in her eyes evoked an answering bolt of heat. He was angry, she could see. He was struggling within himself to find the courage to deny her…to demand that she accept him on his own terms. She must put the struggle at an end.
Throwing caution to the Fates, she leaned forward against him, meeting his lips with her own, and drawing him into a deep kiss. It was not the chaste embrace of a young innocent, but the deep caress of a grown woman, full of desires that she needed desperately to communicate to her companion.
When she pulled away at last, they were both breathless. She could see in Quintus’ eyes that his resolve had broken, though regrets lingered.
“I don’t want it to be this way…” He protested softly, but as he scooped her into his arms, she could hear the words he did not say: “but I do want this…”
Ilaria felt much better with food in her stomach and clean clothes on her back. She had appreciated the hospitality of Maximus’ servant, but her present accommodations were much more comfortable- and much more familiar to a person accustomed to the everyday luxuries of 20st century life. After drawing back the curtain from the doorway to catch the breeze that drifted through the courtyard, she settled into the soft bed.
She yawned, bone tired, and wishing that she could sleep. But sleep would not come. There was too much to think about. The memory of Maximus’ kiss burned so brightly that she could almost feel his lips against hers and feel her heart pounding in her chest as their bodies touched. She had fallen in love with him, and it was too late now to escape. She had noticed the signs from the moment that she heard his warm voice ordering Drusus away, and the story of his family, his heroic fighting, and his selfless consideration of her comfort and safety had only strengthened her feelings. How could she convince him to give up his foolish quest for revenge and join her in safety? Other matters invaded her thoughts as well. Was she safe in this house? It was apparent, from a simple glance that her friend was quite taken with the Praetorian. Was she merely enchanted with his power, or his lovely house? Or was it deeper? Was it possible to love a monster such as him? And then….was it possible that she and Maximus were wrong about the Prefect’s true feelings? There were so many questions, and so few answers. She needed time to sort them all out… but for Maximus, time was almost at an end.
Stephanie awoke the next morning at dawn. She was alone. Even the pillow beside her had been smoothed so that no indentation would betray the hours of passion she had shared with Quintus the night before.
She pulled the sheet tightly around her shoulder, still shimmering from the warmth of his touch. It had been a memorable night. He had been a generous lover- but possessive and hungry in a way that excited her even more. The night’s delights blurred together in her memory- a seamless chain of lovemaking and tight embraces.
But now he was gone.
A light knock on the door distracted her.
“Steph, are you awake?” Ilaria called.
“May I come in?”
“Just a minute.” Stephanie left the bed, put on a robe, smoothed her hair quickly and went to open the door.
“Ciao,” said Ilaria, smiling at her friend, but the smile did not reach her eyes. They looked at each other, seeing on both their faces the signs of an almost sleepless night, even if the reasons behind them were completely different.
Ilaria looked at the room and even if she guessed what had happened during the night she did not mention it. She asked instead, “Where has Quintus gone?”
Stephanie shook her head. “I don’t know. He is probably in his study or giving instructions to the servants.”
“No. He is not in the house. I saw him leave about an hour ago. Some Praetorians came to the villa and he left with them in a great hurry. He seemed worried … I was hoping you might tell me what’s going on…..”
“I know nothing…. I did not even hear him leave the room.”
Ilaria frowned. “Very well” She said at last. “I am going to eat something…. why don’t you join me? We have to talk about our return in the future.”
Stephanie paled at the words but she nodded. “Give me a moment to get ready and I will join you.”
Her friend nodded again before leaving the room.
Twenty minutes later the two girls were enjoying a huge breakfast in the villa’s triclinium. If their minds had not been full of worry, they would have loved the experience of eating while lying on the soft couches, but that was not to be. Ilaria was worried about Maximus. He had appeared in her dreams that night, and she wanted to return to him as soon as possible. She had to find a way to save him from Commodus. As for Stephanie, she was thinking about the idea of returning in the future. She was pretty sure she loved Quintus, but she was not certain that she would be able to remain in the past…. And what about him? Would he be willing to follow her in the 21th century? She not told him the truth about her origins…. how could she? Stephanie raised her head from her plate and looked to Ilaria. Her friend had a distant look in her eyes, as she was many miles away, in spirit if not in body. The American girl studied her face for some moments before asking softly, “Do you love him?”
Ilaria blinked, recalled to reality, “What?”
“The gladiator, Maximus, do you love him?”
“Yes, I love him. I… he… has all the qualities I always searched in a man and never found before. But I will loose him very soon if I am not able to convince him to come with us in the future.”
“Could you tell me what happened to him?”
Ilaria repeated the story Cicero had told her, adding that Maximus has never spoken directly against Quintus but that it was obvious there was bad blood between the two men.
Stephanie pondered the words. She hated to admit it, but if the story was true, Quintus had betrayed his friend. Still, her attorney’s mind told her a man was innocent until proven guilty. There was only one way to know: he had to ask him – for herself and for Ilaria.
An hour later, dressed in a pink tunica and white palla under which she still wore her pants and shirt, Ilaria opened the door of Quintus’ villa to return to the Ludus Magnus and Maximus. However, she had barely put a foot outside when a strong arm grabbed her by the waist and dragged her again inside.
Her temper having the upper way on her, Ilaria shouted, “What the hell! What are you doing!?”
Quintus looked at her, stunned by her vehemence; he had never seen a girl screaming at him that way; they were usually too scared by his uniform. But this one was not afraid… she was furious!
“You can’t go outside; it is too dangerous for you.”
“Too dangerous? I spent two days alone in the city, and I can take care of myself. I want to see Maximus. Or I must consider me your prisoner?”
Quintus signed, “You are not my prisoner, but as a person Stephanie cares about so much, I can’t let you exit this house. The city is under martial law, and it is very dangerous to be alone.”
Ilaria calmed down a little. “Martial law? What happened? Is it why you left the villa at dawn?”
“Yes…. Last night there had been a riot against the Emperor…. Many of his opponents have been killed or arrested and…” Quintus looked away, and Ilaria felt a shiver run along her back.
“It is Maximus, is not it? He has been killed…” her voice broke as tears began to fall.
“No, he is still alive but… but I don’t know for how much longer. He tried to escape but he was arrested. He is now prisoner in the Colosseum; nobody can get near him.”
Ilaria swallowed hard, “What will they do to him?”
Quintus tried to soften the blow; he had noticed how his former commander and Ilaria looked at each other. “Caesar wants to fight against him in front of the crowd, and I am certain he will do everything to assure his victory. ”
He had phrased it delicately but Ilaria understood at once. Unable to stay in his presence a moment longer, she hastily excused herself and rushed away, tears blinding her.
Quintus watched the girl run away with a solemn look on his face. Since the terrible night that Marcus Aurelius had died, sorrow seemed to reach everything he touched. Was there any way to stop it now?
Sighing, and feeling very tired, he walked deeper into the house. He assumed that Stephanie was awake. Perhaps he could pass a few pleasant moments with her before he returned to the arena to witness his oldest friend’s almost certain death.
She looked up as he approached. Her expression was muted, but pleased to see him. He could see in her eyes that Ilaria had informed her of his history with Maximus. Did she hate him now? Was she disgusted by what had happened the night before? He clenched his hands nervously as he approached the bench.
“Domine.” A formal reply. She was upset.
“I’m sorry I left this morning… I had… business….”
“I didn’t want to leave.” Still no response. He sighed heavily. “Did you want me to leave? Do you want me to go now?”
“No. No, Quintus. Stay.” Forcing a tired smile, she took his hand and smoothed it between her two smaller ones. “I do not regret what happened last night… and I do not want you to go now. I’m just…confused….”
“Ilaria spoke with you about the Gladiator.”
“Maximus. Yes.” She met his eyes. “Is it true, Quintus?”
He wished that he could pull away from the gaze. Her deep, tear-glazed eyes were so beautiful- so hopeful that it still might be a simple mistake. Those hopes were quickly dashed. “Yes. It is true. I was the one who ordered Maximus executed. I ordered his family killed.”
“Why?” The blue eyes closed, and he could feel her body trembling slightly through their clasped hands.
“I didn’t think I had another choice. I thought that Commodus would simply kill all the ranking officers until he found one that would comply. I hoped that Maximus was wrong about the death of the emperor and I….” He looked at their twined fingers. “Perhaps I was afraid of death… it is one thing to face it on a battlefield, and quite another to…. die as a traitor.”
She nodded. It was terrible, the thing that he had done- but she could see in his features that the choice had not been easy, that he bitterly regretted what had become of his friend, but was too trapped in circumstances to fight his way free.
“What will you do, Quintus?”
He shrugged, helplessly. “I will watch my friend die. Then, I will wait until Commodus tires of me, or until the people tire of Commodus. Either way, I am a dead man. You were right not to marry me.” Had she seen his fate all along? “You would end the same way as Selene…. You will be safe here for tonight. Then I am sending you back to your home.”
Stephanie’s reached for his face, “Come with me.” She whispered softly. “We could be safe…. happy.”
He laughed bitterly. “I will not live my life on the run. I will stand and face my fate as I ought to have done in Germania. There is no place, my lady, where Commodus could not find me if he wished.”
“That isn’t true.” An idea was forming in her head. Was it possible that Quintus could return with her to the future. It would be difficult- she did not think that he would adapt well… but if it saved his life. “In my time-”
Quintus did not have time to question the odd beginning of the sentence. Stephanie had scarcely began to speak when a loud voice boomed from behind them.
They turned, two Praetorians stood behind them, the black plumes of their helmets swaying in the wind. “It is time.”
Quintus nodded grimly. He kissed Stephanie’s hand and then arose from the bench.
“Wait for me here.”
“Oh, no.” She protested. “We’re coming too.”
“That is not a good idea.” He sounded tired. “Please, trust my judgment and remain.”
Ilaria’s voice piped in. “We’re coming.”
Her voice would not admit refusals.
The Colosseum was already full of people when Quintus, Stephanie and Ilaria arrived. As soon as they stepped in, Quintus told to two of his men to escort the girl to the Imperial box and then disappeared along the dark hallway leading to the arena detention area.
Ilaria and Stephanie followed the Praetorians and took place where they indicated them to sit. In the box there already were other women and soldiers and a child of about eight-nine years. All the box occupants seemed worried and unhappy to be there, especially the best dressed on the ladies, who was very pale, with her eyes puffy, as she had cried a lot. The child was near her and from the similarities of their faces, the two friends surmised they were mother and son.
The atmosphere was so heavy and so full of tension that nobody dared to speak, and Ilaria and Stephanie began to stare straight ahead, behind the sand covered ring on which many children were throwing rose petals, behind the crowded stands, behind the Tiber river they were able to see. They wanted to estrange themselves from the terrible spectacle it was about to begin but the pull of their emotion was too strong, to connected with the place to leave them that kind of escape.
Ilaria knew all too well that she was probably to see Maximus’ death and her heart was breaking in her chest. Till that moment she had never lost one of her family members or one of her closest friends and she was not prepared for the terrible pain she was feeling.
Stephanie’s pain came too from the prospect of loosing the man she loved, if not to death, to time, because she wanted to return home. But in her there was still a sparkle of hope, maybe she could convince Quintus to come with her…
The girls’ attention was attracted by what was happening in the arena: a platform was raising to the surface from the Colosseum bowels. In the beginning all they could see was the shape of a testudo, the famous Roman army formation, created by the shield of a great number of Praetorians. Then the formation broke and the soldiers ran to form a big circle. Only three men remained inside the circle: Quintus, Maximus and Commodus.
Ilaria’s eyes ran to the former general and noticed he did not seem very steady on his legs. Throwing caution to the wind, she picked up her glasses from her purse and put them. That allowed her to see the dark stain marring Maximus’ blue tunica. A bout of nausea caught her when she understood what it was. Blood. Maximus was already hurt, to weaken him.
Ilaria saw Maximus bend slowly, painfully and pick up a handful of dirt. It was the same gesture he had made the day before, when he had fought and won ten men.
Ilaria knew the fight was about to begin and for the first time in years felt the inexorable need to pray…. So she slid on her knees on the imperial box, closed her eyes, bowed her head and began to beg God to save Maximus.
Stephanie did not see her friend’s desperate gesture, her eyes reverted too what was happening in the ring. As terrible as the view was, she was not able to tear her eyes away. So she saw Maximus and Commodus dance up and down the combat area delimited by the Praetorians; she also saw Commodus wound Maximus in his leg, only to be wounded himself to his arm and loose his sword. And then she saw and heard Commodus ask to Quintus for his sword. Her heart jumped in her throat when she understood that Quintus had no intention of obeying, and she felt proud of him when he also ordered to his men to not give their swords to Caesar. It was as if Quintus had raised his head again, deciding the good of Rome was more important than his life.
Stephanie reached out a hand to touch Ilaria’s shoulder and let her know Maximus was winning the match when she saw the gladiator drop his sword to the ground. Commodus was at once on him, a deadly stiletto-blade in his hand but Maximus was still able to overcome him and turning the blade to the younger man’s throat, he killed him.
It was finished.
Stephanie knelt on the floor and shook Ilaria shoulders, “Ilaria, Ilaria! Maximus won!! Commodus is dead!”
She saw her friend slowly raise her tear-streaked face and looked at her, a tentative smile fighting with tears of relief. However their joy was short-lived because when they stood up and looked in the arena they saw Maximus fell heavily to the ground.
“NOOO!” screamed Ilaria, before turning and ran away from the box. The Praetorians were too stunned to stop her or Stephanie and the two girls quickly reached the lower floor.
They tried to step in the sand ring but the Praetorians there caught them, “What are you doing here?”
“LET ME GO!!” the two girls shouted at unison and the cry reached Quintus’ ears. He turned his head and saw them. “Free them!!” he ordered to his men and the soldiers obeyed.
Once free Stephanie and Ilaria rushed to Maximus’ side where the sad lady of the imperial box was already kneeling.
“We can help him.” Ilaria said to her, hoping it was true. The Lady turned to look at Quintus and he nodded with his head. The lady rose on her feet and walked some steps away.
Ilaria knelt down almost reverently and touched Maximus’ neck. A relieved sigh escaped her lips when she felt his heart beat but her paramedic knowledge told her he was in a critical state, probably in shock. A strange calm invaded her and blessing the first-aid lessons she had taken years before, she softly said to Stephanie, “Help me to remove his armor.”
Steph nodded and in few seconds Maximus’ body was free. Ilaria gently probed his left side and when she retracted her hand it was covered with blood.
Without being asked, Steph removed her palla and handed it to Ilaria who used it as bandage.
“I think he has a punctured kidney,” the Italian girl said. “He is hemorrhaging. He will die if he does not get a blood transfusion soon.” Her voice was desperate.
The Praetorians and the gladiators around them had listen to the exchange and even if they did not understood all the words — the girls had spoken in Italian — they knew Maximus was in very serious conditions and needed medical attention soon. So some of them approached the fallen man and said, “We will carry him.” As Maximus was hoisted on their shoulders Ilaria gave a meanful look to Stephanie. The only way to save Maximus was to use the time tunnel and hope it still worked. And to do so they need Quintus’ help.
Stephanie nodded to her friend and ran toward the black clad man leading the procession, falling in step with him.
“Quintus…” She whispered softly.
He looked at her, his light eyes strained with the weight of all that was occurring around them.
“Do you trust me?” She held out her hand, fighting to remain calm at a moment. This was the moment that she had been dreading almost as soon as she had stepped inside the gates of his villa: the moment when she had to return to her old life. Would he follow her?
“Yes.” He said after a long pause. His shoulders slumped, nearly defeated. What did the question mean at a moment like this? The emperor was dead. The Felix legions might be marching on the city. Soon, his reign as Praetorian Prefect would be at an end, and with it, his life.
“Then come with me.” Stephanie reached for his hand. “Come with us!!!”
Nearby, Ilaria was herding the men who had carried Maximus’ body from the arena floor into the narrow halls of the Ludus Magnus… she wanted to leave them far enough behind that they could not see where she was going, but she knew that she and Stephanie could not carry the body alone. They reached the final doorway, and she nodded to her friend.
“Is he coming?”
Quintus frowned, still not understanding their meaning. Coming where? Were they leaving the city?
“Quintus?” Stephanie looked at him questioningly.
He swallowed, and then nodded sharply. There was nothing for him to lose by following his heart now.
Ilaria shared a look with her friend. The dark-haired girl had not yet decided to trust the Prefect. She knew what her friend was trying to do, and didn’t approve, but they had no choice.
“Tell them to leave Maximus here.”
Quintus spoke quickly to the men who had followed them. There were murmurings of disapproval, but they obeyed.
When they had left, Ilaria gestured toward a passageway that Quintus had not noticed before. It was half-obscured by the bricks.
“Hurry!” She said, using every ounce of strength to lift Maximus from the floor. Stephanie took the other shoulder, but the limp form did not begin to move until the Praetorian added his muscle.
“Down the passage.” Ilaria commanded.
Still uncertain, Quintus obeyed.
They walked for several moments in near total darkness. When they finally emerged, the sunlight seemed almost painfully bright. Quintus blinked as his eyes adjusted.
“Did it…?” he heard Stephanie begin to ask beside him.
“Yes!” the other woman shouted, sprinting away from the group.
“Help!” Ilaria cried loudly. “Someone please!!!!”
The Prefect of the Praetorian followed her with his eyes as she ran along a well-beaten path. They were in a clearing of sorts. Stones were scattered about haphazardly in the grass, and three slender columns, which seemed like the wasted remains of a beautiful temple, rose improbably from a low rise on the hill.
“Where are we?” Quintus asked, frowning. It hadn’t seemed that they had walked very far.
Stephanie laid her hand against his forearm. There was nothing unusual about the gesture, and yet… something made the hairs on his neck rise on foreboding.
“You are in Rome.” Stephanie said, and then, when his puzzlement only deepened, she added softly: “1800 years in the future.”
A sensor-light began bleating insistently. It was time for the IV bag to be changed. Ilaria’s eyelids fluttered open momentarily as she waited for the nurse to arrive. Near the head of the bed, the vital signs monitor hummed reassuringly. Nevertheless, Ilaria reached forward and laid her hand upon Maximus’ chest. It rose and fell evenly. Beneath her hand, she could feel his heart beating strongly within his chest. He was merely sleeping.
He had lost an enormous amount of blood.
The paramedics, responding to Ilaria’s frantic plea for help near the ruins of the Ludus Magnus, had not known what to make of the scene. They had listened in disbelief to her hastily concocted tale of an accident, staring at the odd clothing of the patient, and of the woman and man who had slipped away. They should have stopped them: should have questioned them regarding the stabbing, but there was no time. The victim was in too critical a state. In the end, it had taken three transfusions to save him.
Ilaria stretched as the nurse entered the room and threaded a fresh pouch of fluids onto the IV stand.
“He’s doing better.” She remarked companionably.
“He’ll probably wake up soon.”
Ilaria waited for the nurse to leave, and then laid her head on the pillow next to the sleeping man. In some ways, it was a relief that he had slept so long. The police were very interested in how a man, clad only in a short blue tunic, had appeared in the middle of the ruins of the Ludus Magnus with a stab wound in his back. Stephanie and Quintus had been seen, but thankfully, they had escaped before the police arrived. Ilaria only hoped that they had made it back to Stephanie’s apartment to change without drawing much attention.
There was another beep, and Ilaria smiled as she saw Maximus’ eyes flutter open. There was a second of confusion- the same confusion she remembered experiencing the first time that she awoke in the past…
“Where…. where am I?”
Ilaria smiled, caressing his cheek with her finger.
Stephanie led Quintus into her apartment and quickly shut the door. She wanted to get him off the streets as soon as possible. Already he was glass-eyed with shock. During her insistent herding, pulling him through the streets of Rome, into a taxi, and finally to the apartment she had let temporarily while she closed a deal for one of her firm’s Italian clients, she had sensed that only the velocity with which they had been moving forward had kept him from breaking down.
She hadn’t meant for it to be this way. She had meant to tell him long ago where she was truly from, but there had never been time….
Now he simply stared, looking like nothing so much as a piece of flotsam adrift at sea.
Stephanie led him to a chair and urged him to sit. He did so, but not without casting a nervous glance at the unfamiliarly plush furnishing.
“Where…. where am I?” He said lowly.
She took a deep breath, remembering what it had been like for herself encountering this phenomenon for the first time only a few days before. It had been easier for her in a way- she knew what the past looked like. She had always been a keen student of the civilization in Ancient Roman culture. Even the language, though different from her own, was a bit familiar from everyday life, particularly in her sphere as an attorney. For Quintus, everything was completely new– and unexpected, as she had never been brave enough to give him the faintest inkling of her true origins..
“You are in Rome.” She continued speaking in Latin, trying to make things as familiar as possible. “In my apartment…”
“Insula?” He asked. It was not a house… but it was furnished so richly! In HIS Rome, the higher apartments were very cheap- and incredibly unsafe. Why take the risk when, it appeared that she had enough money for a house? “Where is your father?”
She frowned. Such an unusual question! Then, she realized the intent of his inquiry. “My father isn’t here. I live alone.”
“Then, your husband…” his face fell, at last, at least part of her reticence made sense.
“No. No husband. I live alone.”
“It’s very common for women now… I do have a house in America though. I am in Italy for a year on a work assignment.”
“You… you work?”
“I’m an attorney.”
He blinked in amazement.
Stephanie sighed. There was so much to tell him. He was like a newborn baby. Everything that he touched seemed was completely unique in his experience. Perhaps she should begin at the beginning…
Maximus thought, at first, that he was finally in Elysium – but Selene and Marcus were nowhere in sight. There was no blue sky, no waving wheat, no warm sun- he was very cool, smooth, crisp cotton was pulled against his skin, and there was high, regular squeaking every second or so only a few inches from his head.
He opened his eyes.
It hadn’t been a dream. He was in a small, rectangular room, lying on a low bed. He seemed to be restrained; clear, stem-like ribbons trailed from steel pegs that had been driven into his flesh at the wrists. They were connected to a small, glassy sac filled with dripping liquid. He watched, fascinated as a drop of moisture trailed along the tube to the peg in his skin. Was it going into his body? Were they poisoning him?
At last, he was aware of movement nearby. It was Ilaria. His heart warmed – at last, something familiar! – “Where am I?” He asked, groggily.
Home. No, this was not his home. His home was a golden, sloping hillside far away- separated from him forever by both distance and time. Not home…but safe, at least it seemed so for now. Maximus did not know what they were doing to him, but with Ilaria nearby, he trusted that it was all right… it had to be.
His attention returned to the tubing. The pegs were held in place with thin bandages, if he tugged….
“Don’t!” Ilaria said quickly, nearly jumping from her chair.
“It’s medicine.” She explained. “You need it.”
“You almost died.”
Almost. He sighed. He had been so close to Marcus…. and Selene. He could almost touch them, but he had been jerked away again.
“You are much better now.” The woman assured him, “The doctors think that you will be able to leave in a few days.”
“Ah, our patient is awake, I see.”
Ilaria frowned as the nurse returned, bearing with no particular purpose apparent. The middle aged woman gave Maximus a blinding smile, and then fidgeted with the heart monitor.
Maximus had been receiving EXCELLENT nursing care. She was more than a little jealous.
“How are you feeling?” The intruder asked.
Ilaria looked to Maximus, wondering if he had picked up enough Italian from their brief time together to guess her meaning.
He concentrated for a moment- paying more attention to the context than the words. “Bene,” he answered at last.
“Well, it looks like your husband will be back to normal soon.”
Ilaria blushed furiously, hoping that he HADN’T learned enough Italian to guess that one. She had lied to the hospital when she checked in so that she would be able to remain in Maximus’ room during the night.
“Er…yes.” She answered, pretending to straighten her “husband’s ” sheet.
“I’m glad…. the doctor will be making rounds soon… and then, of course, the police still want to speak with him.”
“The police?” Ilaria gasped.
“Yes, of course…. about the stabbing.”
Of course. Ilaria hadn’t thought about the implications of bringing Maximus in for treatment. How would she explain away a giant dagger wound? They would be able to tell instantly that Maximus was not an Italian (thank goodness she had the foresight to register under an assumed name).
“I don’t think that he his ready to speak to them today.” She said quickly.
By tomorrow, they would be long gone.
Few hours later, with a technique befitting a master thief, Ilaria slipped inside another patient’s room and came out with some modern male clothes for Maximus, leaving in their place the money to repay them. Then, having taken note of the medications listed on Maximus’ medical folder, she did the same with the nurse’s room and returned with all the necessary drugs. She put everything in a plastic bag and went to help Maximus to get ready for their escape.
They waited till the last drop of IV medication was in his blood and then she gently freed him from the needles. Maximus tried to sit up and was able to do it at the third attempt, as the room stopped spinning. He was not discussing Ilaria’s directions, he was too weak, and also she had told him everything about their ‘jump’ in the future. He was not sure he liked the idea but for the moment he had not enough elements to judge the situation.
When Maximus was finally able to swing his leg on the side of the bed, Ilaria helped him to wear the shirt she had procured for him over his bandaged chest and then she took away the sheet covering his lower body. The girl blushed crimson when saw he was naked and looked away; she did not remember the doctors baring him completely.
Maximus saw her gesture and smiled. “You should not be embarrassed by it. I am your husband after all.” Ilaria became even redder when she realized he had understood the meaning of the nurse’s words and tried to find an explanation. However the view of his smile and the awareness he was willing to joke after all had happened to him stopped her. She instead replied to his smile with one of her own before handing him the pants.
She bent down and laces his boots and then offered him her hand to help him to stand up. Maximus needed some minutes to stabilize in an upright position and then leaning heavily on Ilaria, they exited the room.
Luckily for them in the middle of the night the hospital hallways were deserted and they reached the secondary exit without being seen by anyone. Proceeding slowly, they walked until they came upon a stand of taxis where they stepped in a car and Ilaria gave the driver the address of Stephanie’s flat.
During the run Maximus was quiet, his head resting on Ilaria shoulder, his eyes closed. The brief walk had exhausted him.
After twenty minutes they arrived. Ilaria paid the driver and then helped Maximus out of the car. He was very pale by now, his skin covered by sweat.
“Don’t give up now,” she urged him, afraid he might fell and open the stitches on his back. “We are almost there.” Maximus squeezed her hand and managed the three steps leading to the building hall. Luckily the condo had a lift and they boarded it easily.
Stephanie was awakened by a sudden movement near her. She sat up on the bed and turned on the bedside lamp. In the light she saw Quintus looking around him with wild eyes. She reached out a hand to touch his shoulder and he almost jumped.
“Shh…” she soothed, “It’s all right.”
“I heard a strange sound,” he whispered.
Steph concentrated and said, “I don’t hear anything. It was probably a car down in the street.”
Quintus looked at her. By now he knew that a ‘car’ was one of the strange chariots which moved without horses pulling them. He nodded and Stephanie smiled to him.
“Go back to sleep, you are safe here.”
Quintus nodded again but as soon he put his head back on the pillow, the sound which had awoken him repeated. He bolted on his feet and said, “Did you hear it?”
“Yes,” replied Stephanie, leaving the bed. “It is the door bell. Stay here; I’ll go see who it is.”
The girl padded to the flat hall, approached the door and called, “Who is it?”
“Steph, open the door. It is Ilaria and Maximus,” came the reply from behind the wood.
Stephanie unlocked the door quickly and opened it to let her friend and the wounded ex-gladiator enter. Maximus was leaning heavily on the girl, and she was struggling to keep him on his feet.
“We must put him in bed at once, I think he is about to faint.”
“Let me help.” It was Quintus’ voice who quickly came near them and took Ilaria’s place. “Tell me where I must take him.”
Stephanie ran in front of them, opened the door near her own bedroom and turned on the light. Quintus, Maximus and Ilaria followed and the Praetorian gently lowered his former commander on the bed. As Ilaria freed him from his boots, Stephanie found some spare cushions and put them under his legs, to facilitate the blood circulation.
Quintus watched in amazement and worry as Ilaria rummaged in a bag and pulled out a small vial, pouring its liquid in a strange object with a needle. His stupor reached almost comical proportions as he saw the girl near Maximus, bare his buttocks and press the strange object against it, before stroking the flesh with force.
Ilaria turned after practicing the injection and saw Quintus staring at her, mouth agape. She smiled at him and said, “I did not hurt him, I only gave him a medication. We should see its effects within few minutes.”
Quintus nodded with his head, not trusting his voice.
Stephanie noticed the strained expression on the Praetorian’s face. “We should get back to bed.” She said softly. He was clearly overwhelmed by the day, and a long, uninterrupted slumber was in order. “Ilaria can take care of Maximus.”
Quintus nodded slowly and followed her back to her bedroom.
<beep> <Beep> <beep>
Stephanie’s arm, swinging out of force of habit to reset her alarm clock for five minutes later, stopped in mid-air as the figure beside her sat bolt upright.
“What is it?” Quintus said urgently, clawing for the dagger that he had, against Stephanie’s protests, insisted on placing beneath his pillow.
“Shhh….” Still groggy, she tried to still his hands. “It’s only the alarm.”
“The alarm for what? Fire?”
She sat up, fully awake now. “No. To wake me up. It’s morning. I have to go to work.”
“Yes. My job.” She smiled. “Someone has to pay for this apartment. I’m an attorney.”
“But -” the words died on Quintus’ lips. There was no sense explaining the bewilderment he felt in the thought that a non-senator (a woman, much less!) could hold the post of attorney. It was merely the latest on a list of mysteries. Nothing made sense here. He felt childish and stupid even trying to understand. He would simply remain silent.
Stephanie seemed to notice the defeat in his eyes and took his hand in a gesture of reassurance. “I won’t be gone long…. I have to check in at the office and pick up some files. I’ll tell everyone that I’m going to review them at home and then come back here.” She offered a warm smile. “We’ll go sightseeing this evening.”
He nodded silently again.
Wishing she could say more, she swung her legs out of bed and headed for the shower. Quintus lay back on the pillow, trying to concentrate on the familiar sound- at least basic plumbing had remained the same, even if the faucets and stoppers were more complicated then they had been before- and lose himself in sleep.
Ilaria arose just as Stephanie was preparing to walk out the door.
“Going to work?” She frowned, not really sure that she wanted to be left alone in the apartment with two men who, in their various ways, needed constant supervision.
Stephanie shrugged. “It’s Monday.” It had been a lucky coincidence, time in the future seemed to be moving only marginally slower than in the past. In this time period, the girls had been missing only two days. “I have to pick up some files on the contracts we want to close next week. I think that I can come home at lunch.”
Ilaria nodded. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes!” Stephanie said enthusiastically, the caffeine deprivation of her trip to Ancient Rome had left her with pounding headaches, and an insatiable craving for her morning beverage.
“How is our patient doing?”
“Very well…. I think that he will be able to walk around some more today. I hope that, by tomorrow he will be able to go outside….” She paused, preparing for her next suggestion. “Stephanie, I do not think that it is good for them to be exposed to….” She could not think of an appropriate word, so she merely gestures out the window where crazy Roman traffic had already begun a blare of horns and flashing lights. “…/this/ so quickly. Perhaps we should retire to the countryside for a while.”
Stephanie nodded. “I think that you are right… but where shall we go?”
“My grandparents are in England.” Ilaria said, noticing that her friend immediately noticed where she was heading.
“Yes. It will be vacant for two months. We could stay there without arousing suspicion, and letting the men adjust gradually…. as for your job… well, if you could take a week off until Quintus gets settled, you could take the train back and forth for the weekends if you had to.”
Stephanie nodded. “It is an excellent plan…” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, no. I’m terribly late!” She frowned as she thought back to the delay she had encountered when Quintus had stepped on the Remote control and accidentally turned on the TV. “I will come back as soon as I can. Call if you need me.”
When Stephanie returned home for lunch, she found Quintus sitting on the divan, dressed in his full uniform, a book in his hand and a puzzled look on his face.
She smiled to him and said, “Hello. What are you reading?”
He showed her the title and she saw it was on the books in Italian about Roman History Ilaria had given to her.
“Did you find something of interest?”
“Many things. Too much news. I am still trying to digest.” Quintus let the book fall and rose on his feet, approaching her and Steph felt a pang in her chest when she saw his expression. He was trying hard to be brave, to be the man always in command of everything he had always been, but in his eyes there was a little-boy-lost look. She widened her arms and was relieved when he accepted her offer of comfort, even if that worried her a bit too because it was very unusual for a man of Quintus upbringing to seek help from a woman or to show weakness. They embraced for some moment then she asked, “Have you already eaten?”
“No, we wanted to wait for you.”
“Good. Where are Ilaria and Maximus?”
“Ilaria was here until few minutes ago then she went to see if Maximus had awakened.”
Maximus struggled into the blue jeans that Stephanie had bought for him on the way home, and pulled a soft, olive-coloured henley over his head. The clothes were loose – partially because she had little knowledge upon which to estimate his size, and partially out of recognition of the fact that, to men accustomed to wearing tunics, and loose fitting trousers, modern clothing would be unfamiliarly confining. She had also bought the men strange cotton garments like trousers with the legs cut out that were supposed to be used like loincloths.
The general sighed in frustration.
He had forgotten to put them on.
Gritting his teeth, and bracing himself from the pain in his side that began whenever he bent over, he unfastened the jeans and started all over again.
“Are you alright in there?” Ilaria called into the bathroom. She was waiting just outside, in case he forgot her instructions on using buttons and a zipper, and the many frustrated noises coming from the other side of the door were making her anxious.
“I am fine.” Maximus said with determination. He pulled the little underpants on, and then struggled into the jeans again. At last, the door opened.
Ilaria felt her heart quicken. A few moments ago, she had thought it impossible, but Maximus seemed even more attractive in 21th century attire. Though she was sure it had been unintentional, Stephanie had selected a shirt almost the same shade as his eyes. His hair had been freshly cropped, and, after many nervous moments with Ilaria demonstrating a safety razor and scissors, his beard had been neatly trimmed.
“You look wonderful.” She said, hoping that she didn’t frighten him away with her enthusiasm.
He looked slightly reassured, and together, they emerged from the bedroom.
Quintus had not yet changed his clothes, he was still attired in the loose black tunic that had been fitted beneath his Praetorian armor. He looked Maximus over critically.
“What are we eating?” Maximus asked gamely, smiling in amusement at the paper sacks on the kitchen countertop.
“McDonald’s.” Stephanie announced, as though this word should have meaning for them.
“American food.” Ilaria said, making a face. “Tonight I will fix you something edible.”
Stephanie sighed, rolling her eyes as she reached into the sack and began passing out little paper containers of food. They were piping hot and smelled quite delicious.
“I didn’t think that we were ready to start with knives and forks just yet.” She said to Ilaria. “Here.” She handed a Big Mac to Maximus, “You eat it with your hands.”
“Bread.” Quintus said, unwrapping his sandwich. He poked at the hamburger patty. “What is this?”
“Meat.” Ilaria supplied.
“Cow.” Stephanie elaborated further.
“And the yellow?”
“Cheese. Go on, eat it.” She demonstrated, biting into her own sandwich with gusto.
Looking nervous, the Quintus followed her example. There was a brief moment of indecision, and then he smiled. “It is good.”
Meanwhile, Maximus had discovered the french fries. They were extraordinary- crispy on the outside, yet very soft in the middle. They had a delightful saltiness as well. He stuffed a handful into his mouth as he turned to Ilaria. “What does ‘American’ mean?”
“It means that it comes from the country that Stephanie is from. America.”
Stephanie smiled as she listened to the conversation taking place around her. Ilaria was a very patient teacher, which was lucky, as her students had so much to learn. As the Italian explained the relative geography of Kentucky to the Italian peninsula, her friend began leafing through the newspaper. The front page was very boring. The EU was fighting amongst itself, and there had been another shooting in Palestine and…. she gasped.
Something about her friend’s strangled tone made the girl quit speaking mid-sentence. She followed her friend’s finger to a point half-way down the page. She blinked in shock as well. The headline read: Ludus Magnus Stabbing Victim Disappears from Hospital. “It’s about Maximus!” She said, in disbelief. She quickly scanned the article. “They think that the stabbing was related to a drug trafficing incident… they are looking for him.”
“Oh no!” Stephanie said in alarm, both girls had subconsciously reverted to English so that their companions could not understand them.
“What shall we do?”
“We must leave at once….” Ilaria said firmly. “This evening.”
The rest of the day was spent in preparations. Stephanie returned to her office and obtained from her boss a week of vacation — it was not an easy task but she managed to have her way. Ilaria instead stayed home and after seeing that Maximus rested all the afternoon, phoned to the caretaker of her grandparents’ villa and told her to ready the house for their arrival. After that she began to pack their belongings, followed as a shadow by Quintus. In the last day she had begun to change her opinion about the Praetorian maybe because, being in her own homeground, she was more sure of herself while him seemed more lost than even Maximus was. It was as if their positions had reversed and she could not help feel sympathy, knowing how he must feel.
Quintus watched Ilaria fill the suitcase with dresses, wanting to help but not knowing how. He had been informed they were going to leave Rome for a quieter place and the prospect was more than welcome. He hoped that a calmer atmosphere would be helpful for his nerves, enabling him to relax a little bit. The girls kept telling him he was safe but he was feeling almost a prisoner in that house full of strange things. Also, he often felt on him Maximus’ eyes and he knew a confrontation with his former friend was going to happen soon and he was glad Maximus had not carried weapons with him.
At six o’ clock, the four boarded Stephanie’s car and left Rome for Monghidoro, a little village near the city of Bologna. Ilaria sat near her friend in the front seat while Maximus and Quintus took the back seats. Dulled by the pain medication Ilaria had insisted he take, Maximus soon fell asleep, but Quintus remained awake, watching with a mixture of horror and fascination the landscape visible by the car window. He was also a bit frightened by the velocity of the ‘car’ but too proud to ask Stephanie to slow down.
The trip lasted almost 3 hours and after a little stop to retrieve the keys from the caretaker, they arrived to the villa.
Quintus and Maximus stepped out the car and looked at the building. “Finally something familiar!” They thought. The villa looked like a very beautiful Roman country house, stocky and solid. It was three stores high and all painted in white. The windows were protected by wooden shutters and a balcony ran on two sides of the building.
Ilaria opened the yellow and black iron gate and said, “Do you like it?”
“Yes,” the two men said, before following her along the gravel covered lane surrounded by a well kept garden, with flowers, grass and pine trees. The climate was slightly colder than the Roman one and the air smelled of roses.
Maximus breathed it in, and the never forgotten smell of the Nature filled him with joy. Quintus too absorbed the peaceful atmosphere as a thirsty plant drinks the water, and the two girls smiled upon seeing their radiant expressions.
“Tomorrow I will show the rest of the garden, but for this evening it is better if we go inside.” said Ilaria.
They entered a verandah enclosed by glass before entering the house. Ilaria quickly showed them where the 3 bathrooms (one for each floor) were, and where the bedrooms were located: two on the middle floor — where also were the kitchen and the living room — and three at the upper floor. The living room was large and along modern things as the TV and the radio it also sported a stone chimney. The men seemed pleased to see it and Ilaria told them, “There is another one in a room down stairs which I did not show to you. We call it the ‘Tavern’ and it is used when we have guests. I will show you tomorrow. Now it is better if we eat and settle down.”
Ilaria began to struggle up the stairs with her suitcase, but Quintus scooped it away. “Allow me.”
She started to protest, and then she saw how deeply he wanted to – not just to help her, but to feel useful again, and so she acquiesced. “Very well. I will go to the kitchen. I have promised you a delicious meal.” She turned to ask Maximus to help, but she noticed that he looked very tired. He was still not completely healed from his wounds. It must have been worse than she thought, because, when she suggested that he rest for a while on the couch, he quickly agreed.
Shrugging, Ilaria went to the kitchen alone, leaving her friend to assist Quintus with the bags and help him settle into his room.
On the couch, Maximus tried to clear his mind. He was happy to be here – the serenity of the villa was like cool water in a desert after the blaring bustle of modern Rome – but it was hard for him as well. The countryside, and the rustic house reminded him almost painfully of home. He had expected to see it at first, as they whizzed along the little lane that led to the building.
Thinking of home invariably conjured images of Selene and little Marcus, he felt his stomach cringe with guilt. Only few days before he had been lost in Ilaria’s kiss, feeling as if she were the only woman in the world. He was starting to love her; but how was that possible when he still missed his wife so much? It was a troubling question, one that he did not wish to confront.
The general sat up with a start. The room he was sitting in was pitch black, and he could only barely make out the figure hovering next to him. “Maximus? Come to bed.”
He rubbed his eyes.
“Yes. I am sorry to wake you, but you will be very stiff if you lie all night on the couch… come upstairs.”
“How long did I sleep?”
She laughed. “Five hours… are you hungry? We didn’t call you for dinner, you seemed to need your rest.”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Very well…” She took him by the hand, frowning as he abruptly pulled away.
“I can sleep on the couch.”
“No. There is a bed for you.”
Ilaria led him along the hallway and gestured to an empty room. The bedspread had been turned down, and a pair of soft trousers, and another set of the strange, legless pants were sitting on the edge of the bed.
“I’ll be across the hall if you need me.”
His features instantly relaxed. When she had led him away, he had half-feared that she intended to share a room. He had not explored the house, and didn’t know how many rooms it held. However, he did know that Quintus and Stephanie had been together the night before. He was worried that Ilaria intended the same…and while it would not be entirely unpleasant, his earlier thoughts prevented any enthusiasm for the idea.
“Thank you.” He said politely. “I will call if you are needed.”
Ilaria nodded. She almost leaned forward and kissed his cheek, but stopped a moment before. There was something odd in his demeanor – something she hoped was merely a symptom of his exhaustion – she would leave him be for now.
Quintus slept peacefully that night, though whether it was because he was simply exhausted, or because he was finally making peace with his surroundings, Stephanie could not tell….
The next morning as Ilaria showed the men the rest of the garden, included the orchard and the little kitchen garden in the backward of the villa, Stephanie went to the village to buy food and some items of interest for Quintus and Maximus, such some geographical maps and series of children books which explained in simple words and illustrations how cars, electric light, telephone and other modern things worked.
In the next two days things settle down smoothly. Maximus recovered from his wound and like Quintus began to show interest on understanding the new world they were. They were encouraged to ask questions, which don’t come easily for such men. Protected by the safe and quiet atmosphere of the villa, they became a more autonomous, spending a lot of time outside, leaving Ilaria and Stephanie free to pursue other activities, namely their jobs. Ilaria returned to write her historical novel based in the Tudor England, and Stephanie refined the legal contract she was working on.
However it was clear not all the problems were resolved. Ilaria didn’t seem to understand Maximus anymore. He had changed from the man she had known in Rome. He was silent, and he spent most of his time outside.
On the fourth day after their arrival, Ilaria saw him working in the kitchen garden. Hidden by a half closed window, she watched as he meticulously cleared the ground from the grass, leaving more space for the vegetables. From time to time he stopped, grabbed a handful of earth and sniffed it, before patting it back in his place. He seemed happy to have dirt on his hands, and Ilaria smiled.
“You love him very much, don’t you?” Stephanie’s voice almost made her jump.
“Yes,” she replied softly, it was useless to deny the evidence.
“Does he know it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have the courage to speak with him. I… You know how shy I am.”
“But I saw the way he was looking at you back in Ancient Rome…” Stephanie smiled knowingly, trying to cheer her friend up.
Ilaria made a bitter smile, “He has changed. He seems to be afraid of me…. Do you know, the last night we spent in Rome, when you found me, Maximus had begun to call me ‘little one’….. I loved it, but he never said it again. I am frightened he hates me now…” Ilaria turned her head away, and brushed away her tears.
“What?! Why should he hate you? You saved him!” Stephanie could not understand.
Ilaria sighed, “You know his story…. and how he lost his wife and son. His servant, Cicero, told me he loved them so much they were his reason of living. I thought that maybe Maximus WANTED to die to join them in the afterlife…. and I did not allow him to do so.”
Stephanie did not know what to say. Her practical mind wanted to reject that possibility as a romantic no-sense, but her heart was touched by it. She just hoped, for the good of her friend, that Maximus realized that life went on and that he could find happiness again, if only he gave it a chance.
“Is something wrong?”
“What?” Stephanie looked up from her laptop’s computer screen, feeling as though her head would burst from staring at the small print on the screen. Nearby, on the little table where they ate breakfast were a stack of fax documents regarding changes that the clients wanted in the document by the next morning’s negotiations. Quintus was looking at her with a concerned expression.
“You were frowning. I thought that something was wrong.”
“What? Oh. No… I’m just… frustrated.” She flashed a tired smile.
“Would you like to go for a walk? It is lovely outside.”
“No. I’m sorry, I have to get this done… maybe later….” She was already reaching for the next document as she spoke, and didn’t have time to see his face fall.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No. I’m sorry, there isn’t.”
Quintus sighed and started to walk away. He didn’t understand why a woman as lovely and pleasant as Stephanie would want to spend the afternoon cooped up indoors writing contracts. True, she claimed that she had to work… but with all the luxury surrounding them (the number of clothes the girls had just to carry in their suitcases was enormous!) he knew that she must be very wealthy… And even if she wasn’t, her father had been very remiss not to have found her a wealth husband by now.
“Could you get me another cup of coffee?”
He turned, following her gesture to the steaming pot of brown liquid that she had started to cook just before he walked into the room. He was confused by this substance. The girls seemed to drink it with every meal, and almost constantly in the early morning. It wasn’t alcoholic – at least, not that he could tell, but he didn’t trust it in some way they spoke of ‘needing’ coffee in the way that drunkards rhapsodized over wine.
“Would you like to try some?” She asked, rolling her eyes as she perused yet another unreasonable contract request.
Quintus shrugged. Why not? At least it would give him an excuse to stay inside with Stephanie. “Very well.”
“Milk and sugar?” She approximated the last word, there was no sugar in the modern sense in the Latin world – only honey and less refined syrups had been used as sweeteners.
“Nothing. I want to taste it as it is.”
“As you wish.” Stephanie poured him a cup of coffee and watched a little amused as he sniffed the brown beverage before tasting it. The expression which appeared on his face while was priceless for Stephanie, clearly showed Quintus did not like the coffee. He tried valiantly to hid his disgust but failed miserably. She smiled and said, “Well, not everybody likes it.”
Quintus nodded, grateful she was not offended and then started to leave the room. He stopped just in time to avoid Ilaria, who burst in the scene running, “I got a fabulous idea: why don’t we go to visit the horses?”
“Horses?” said Quintus with interest.
“Horses?” echoed Maximus’ voice as he appeared on her door.
“Yes. We own another, larger piece of land not very far from here and we keep some horses there.” replied Ilaria, happy to see how Maximus’ eyes shone. Seeing the men were more than glad to indulge her, she marched to the door and said, “Come with me.”
The two Romans followed readily, a little bit surprised by her commanding tone, but Stephanie remained seated at the laptop.
“STEPH!” Ilaria’s voice came from the stair, “What are you waiting for?”
“I am not coming, I have to work!”
“Oh no, my dear, you will come. It is beautiful outside and you won’t spend all the day inside.” The Italian girl returned in the room and approached her.
“No, don’t “listen” me! You will come with us. Stop.”
“In case you don’t noticed, I am working!” Stephanie hated when her friend became too bossy.
“In case YOU don’t noticed, I and Maximus are not the only two to have problems…. Quintus seems so lost to me… You must spend more time with him.”
Stephanie sighed. She knew Ilaria’s temper too well and she knew she could be stubborn as a mule when she decided something.
“Ok, I will come. I will consider you responsible if I get fired!”
“You won’t get fired, but even if it happens, I can always hire you as…. as…”
“As my… cook? No, you would feed me only with McDonald’s hamburger and American coffee.” Stephanie glared at Ilaria, “Secretary? Yes, but sometimes your spelling is so lous….” Ilaria ducked her head as one of Stephanie’s folders missed her face by few inches. She burst in laughter and said,
“Let’s go! Our handsome men are waiting for us.”
Twenty minutes later the group arrived to the stable. Quintus and Maximus stepped out the car and almost ran to the barn only to stop suddenly, a disappointed expression on their faces. The stalls — beautiful by Roman standards and befitting the most precious horses of the imperial stable — hosted four animals which did not seem deign to be there. Ilaria walked near the men and said, “Don’t judge them from their appearance; they are more than you see.” She began to caress the beasts one by one. “They are all former racehorses. Honest, brave animals which had only the fault of not being fast enough and thus destined to become meat. I saved them from the slaughterhouse, and now they are enjoying their retirement.”
Maximus and Quintus nodded approvingly — they could understand the desire to give to those warriors of the track the just repose — and stepped forward to caress them, as Ilaria and Stephanie watched satisfied. As many books say, there are few things more relaxing than patting a responsive animal.
“What are their names?” asked Quintus.
“From left to right: Pepe, Maia, Solkir and Orazio.”
“Orazio? As Horatius the poet?” enquired Maximus, raising an eyebrow.
“Exactly. What do you think about going out for a ride?” Ilaria asked, already sliding a bridle around the ears of the first horse.
Maximus nodded with enthusiasm. Since he was the largest, he chose the biggest horse, a dappled white and grey stallion.
The Praetorian looked at Stephanie. She frowned. “I’m not a very good rider… I’d rather sit here by the barn and watch. Ilaria frowned. She had noticed Stephanie tucking her laptop into the car. She could only guess what her friend intended to do as soon as they had left– but at least she had come this far.
She looked to the Praetorian again. He frowned; it was clear that he wanted to go riding, but did not feel comfortable with Maximus and Ilaria alone.
Sighing, but secretly happy to have Maximus to herself, Ilaria threw a blanket over the back of her mount, and gestured to Maximus where he could find equipment for his own. “The darker saddle fits best on that horse…. Quintus, are you sure you don’t want me to go ahead and saddle a horse for you in case you change your mind?
Maximus and Quintus shared an amused grin. “I think that I know what to do with a horse.” The Roman laughed.
Ilaria blushed. She had been prepared to explain to the pair about horses the same way she had taught them about everything else for the past few days, but, of course, they already knew.
“Very well. I have packed a picnic lunch, so we will return around noon to eat… is that all right?”
There were nods all around.
Maximus and Ilaria rode for several minutes in silence. The barn was merely a speck on the horizon now, and the horses had begun to climb up a little incline that led into the woods.
“I had forgotten how pleasant this was.” the Spaniard murmured.
“Oh?” Ilaria said, wondering what he meant.
“Riding for pleasure….” he added. His face abruptly fell. Ilaria was puzzled.
“Is something wrong?”
“No…. I was just…. remembering my last ride….”
The ride across the Pyrennees and into Spain. He had gone as fast as he could, night and day, but it still wasn’t enough. Selene and Marcus had still died. Selene.
He hadn’t realized that his eyes were clenched until he opened them again and saw that Ilaria had stopped her horse to stare at him.
“I…I’m sorry.” He murmured again. He pulled his animal to a stop as well, loosening his grip on the reigns so that it could bend forward for a bite of cool grass. “I was thinking of my family.”
Ilaria looked at her hands. Her heart seemed ready to pound out of her chest. So, her suspicions were correct. Maximus was not happy that she had saved him.
“No. It is I who am sorry.” She said, her eyelashes already damp with tears. “I am the one who took you from them. You were so close…almost home…”
“I could see it.” Maximus murmured in agreement. “I had almost touched the door when…when….”
“When I pulled you away.”
He thought about it for a moment, and then shook his head, leaning off of his saddle so that he could take the woman’s hand.
“No. You did not pull me away. I was not ready to die. I had learned that life was worth living.” He looked at her with an intensity that filled her with heat. “I learned that I could move on…”
“Could learn to love again.” Ilaria completed for him in her mind.
“I feel as though I SHOULD have wanted to die.” He explained. “That I am betraying them somehow by feeling better.”
Ilaria could only nod. Luckily, the Fates had spared her from loosing someone that she loved. Barely.
Thinking of how close Maximus had come, she shivered.
“I am happy here,” he said suddenly. The general seemed almost as surprised as Ilaria at having said it. “It is very strange, but very wonderful in many ways. I was sad, at first, to think that Rome was gone, but now I see how much of it has lived on… how so many tiny pieces have blended together to make something even more wonderful… change is not always bad, I suppose.”
At last, Ilaria smiled. She understood that he was still struggling with his feelings. He was not ready to declare his love…. but at last she could see that he was close. He only needed time. Thankfully, that was a luxury they now had in abundance.
Nearby, time was not something that Stephanie had to spare, and she was despairing of ever meeting her deadline on the contract changes. She ought never have let her friend talk her into the outing. With Quintus hovering nearby, it was obvious that she would not get any work done at all.
“This would be an amazing tool for the army! ” He said enthusiastically. “Imagine the amounts of information you could transport… troop profiles, maps….. and you would never have to worry about it falling into the wrong hands.”
Stephanie nodded, then she demonstrated how the CDRoms could be interchanged to provide even more portability.
“Incredible. Perhaps, when I return, I will take one with me….”
“When you return?” Stephanie was so shocked that she forgot to warn him about batteries. “Surely you are not going back…. Quintus!”
Quintus sighed. He hadn’t meant to bring this up, but it was becoming more and more apparent each day that he could not live in the modern world. Everything was frightening, loud, and fast. He felt useless and, more significantly, he felt stupid. He was tired of being spoken to as a child. Even Stephanie no longer looked at him as a man – in bed at night he received no more than a kiss on the cheek – she saw an interesting curiosity from the past.
“Yes. I must go back. This is not my place. Surely you see this.”
Stephanie did not answer. She could see it clearly as well, but could not bring herself to speak the words aloud.
“I….” She sighed. She may as well say it. “I do not want to lose you.”
Quintus felt his heart surge with hope for the first time in days. “Then come with me.”
“Come with me.” He closed the lid of the laptop with a snap. “You were not made for this….” Seeing the look of indignation that came to her eyes, he quickly continued speaking. “I do not mean disrespect. I know that you are very intelligent…. very capable and hardworking… but you deserve more. Every day and night you toil in front of that little machine…. and for what? ”
The American swallowed. He was right, of course, she had decided long ago that she found no joy in practicing law, but she had invested too much of her life in the training to try something new. She wanted nothing more than to find a little house in the country and tending to a garden and a great herd of children. If only….
“Come with me.” Quintus said again.
It was crazy. Impossible.
“Yes….” Her eyes were wide with fear at what she was committing to, but she knew it would be far easier to live in the past- where, at least, she knew how most things worked and had a basic grasp of the language- than in the future.
“There is a condition.”
She frowned. “Yes?”
“You must marry me. I will not take you back to be my concubine.”
“But I have no family…. no past…..”
Quintus shrugged. “We will think of something. The main thing is that we will be together.”
Maximus and Ilaria returned nearly an hour later. Both of them looked refreshed from their ride. They were eager to eat their lunch and explore another side of the property. “Will you and Quintus join us this time?”
Ilaria quirked an eyebrow upon hearing Stephanie’s tone. There was something different. Not knowing where to point her finger, she shook her head and went to saddle the horse for her friend.
This time, instead of going in the woods as before, they traveled along vast fields of grass, where the horses were routinely freed. The atmosphere among the small group was very relaxed, and Ilaria noticed how Stephanie and Quintus were affectionate to each other. She was happy to see that, in the last few days, even if she had been lost in her own misery, she had noticed a bit of cold in their relationship, but now thing looked decisively better.
Ilaria hoped a major closeness between the pair would help Quintus to adapt to the modern world: in fact she was a bit worried about his lack of progresses…. He still jumped every time he hear the phone ring or saw a plane pass over his head. Maximus, on the contrary, looked at the new things with curiosity and had even learnt how to use the TV, although he still preferred to spend his time outside among the trees. Maybe his brush with death had really ‘prepared’ him to accept a totally different life.
“Hey, what is it?” Stephanie’s voice attracted Ilaria’s attention.
“That rock formation near the far-end of the field.” Stephanie pointed the direction using the tree branch she was using to send away the flies. “Oh, that is what remains of a stone cave. From here it seems little but instead it is very deep has miles of galleries”
“A fascinating place…”commented Quintus.
“Too fascinating, especially for children playing the pirates in search of the gold. My parents had it blocked before we could wander inside and get lost.” Ilaria smiled remembering the many adventures of her childhood.
Maximus and Quintus were excited about the prospect of exploring the cave, but Stephanie begged them not to. She did not like crawling around in damp spaces, and amused the general very much with her declaration (in reponse to his statement that she was not a nature-lover) “I like nature very much, I simply don’t want it to touch me.”
Instead of spelunking, they returned home, and ate a simple meal on the porch of the cottage.
“I can see why you said what you did about the stars.” Quintus remarked, looking heavenward. In spite of the fact that they were in the country, the light pollution from the nearby city of Bologna obscured all but the brightest stars. “If you had not seen them before, you would not know how many you had missed.”
“No. I would not know a lot of things that I would have missed if I had not traveled into the past…. Oh, Quintus, are you really going to take me with you?”
“Yes. I am really taking you with me, and I am really going to make you marry me as well.”
“But what will we do?”
“About Commodus’ enemies… if time is moving forward there as it did here, they will have control of the city by now. You will be a marked man.”
Quintus set him lips in a very firm line. “I have a plan… I have been reading the books that you gave to me… they explain very carefully how Septimus Severus took power. I know the man… well, he is hardly the man I would pick to be emperor, but you could do worse….” He thought of Commodus and frowned. “We HAVE done worse, very recently…. still, I think that I can make him trust me. We will have to be very careful for a while, but we will manage.”
“What are the two of you speaking about so secretively?”
They both spun around at Ilaria’s voice, looking very sheepish. They hadn’t yet told their friends of their plans, anticipating that they would not be well-received. “Oh…nothing….”
“Well, if you are speaking of nothing, would you mind helping me in the kitchen?”
“What? Oh, of course.” Smiling briefly at Quintus, Stephanie scrambled to her feet and returned inside.
Quintus remained where he was. He was so intent on perfecting his plan, that he did not hear Maximus coming up behind him.
“You certainly look distracted.”
Quintus’ back stiffened.
“Scheming again?” The voice was challenging. Both men knew that the confrontation that they had been avoiding for many days was finally about to occur. Quintus slowly rose to his feet and turned to face his former commander and friend.
Maximus was staring at him with his arms crossed on his chest but his gaze was cold, not murderous. They looked at each other long and hard and in the end Quintus lowered his eyes, but he remained silent. What could say? ‘I am sorry’? Sorry I betrayed you and had your family killed?
“Why?” Maximus’ low voice cut the air. It was just a word but it contained thousand of questions.
Quintus looked at him. He could have lied, told Maximus Commodus had forced him, but instead decided to tell the truth.
“I was jealous of you, Maximus. Of your position, of your having Marcus Aurelius’ confidence, of your family.”
“What?” Maximus was almost speechless.
Quintus began to pace, disgust clear in his words, “Yes, I know it is a futile and vile reason, but it is the truth. You don’t know how difficult has been for me to live in your shadow, to see you achieve with ease all the goals I was never able to even approach. You, the provincial eques, had everything I, the senator’s son, had not.”
“Why have you never told me something? I would have understood, Quintus, really…”
“Tell you something? And read pity in your eyes as I am reading it now? No, I was too proud to do so. But to be too proud, even if it an asset in battle, can kill you in everyday life. My resentment increased, everything you did angered me and in the end when Commodus offered me the power I yearned for, I did not think twice. I grabbed my chance.”
Silence fell in the room until Maximus asked, “Why did you help me in the fight against Commodus?”
“I helped you because I had to give you the chance I denied you in Germania. And because in the months spent serving Commodus, I realized to be a commander is not an easy task. And I understood my jealousy for you was wrong: all you had obtained in life was because you deserved it. I could not repair all the wrong I did to you, but I could at least help you to gain your revenge.” Suddenly Quintus broke and said, “Oh Maximus, I am sorry! How I wish your family was never punished! I can only imagine what you suffered…. the mere thought of losing Stephanie is unbearable, and she is not even my wife….I…”
Maximus swallowed loudly and then sighed. He was not really ready to forgive Quintus but at least he could see the man had suffered the consequences of his actions. “Quintus, stop. What is done is done: I won’t seek revenge against you. I just hope you learnt the lesson and we will never speak of this again.” Maximus waited for Quintus to acknowledge his words with a nod and then bowed his head and walked away.
And behind the kitchen closed door Ilaria and Stephanie sighed with relief.
Ilaria and Stephanie left very early the next morning. Since both women were going (and since they did not really trust Quintus and Maximus alone with the vehicle) they took the car. The trip was long, but pleasant. Each girl spoke in excited tones about the amazing changes that had taken place since they had made the same journey only a week before.
Stephanie completed her business quickly, leaving her boss- the partner in charge of overseas contracts with his mouth hanging open at the nonchalant way that she announced that she would not be in for the rest of the week. Afterwards, the girls went to Ilaria’s publishers and collected the gallies of her new book.
“You certainly are acting rather cavalier about your job.” Ilaria remarked, as they ate lunch at a little shop downtown.
Stephanie merely shrugged. “I don’t really care about it very much anymore.”
“Well that is very good… but the pair of you are going to have to eat.”
“Yes… well Quintus will provide for us, I am sure.”
Ilaria tried to surpress a snicker. Maximus could earn his keep as a farmer, but Quintus was so bewildered in the modern world that she could not think of a single occupation that was even plausible for him- much less possible. Added to that, he was not accustomed to taking orders. He would not be a very good employee.
“Do you really think so?” Was all Ilaria managed.
The girls finished eating and went to Stephanie’s apartment. Ilaria watched in confusion as the girl packed all of her jewelry, her glasses, several pairs of contact lenses, and other small personal items into a small suitcase.
“Do you need so many things for a trip to the country?” Ilaria joked, pointing to the necklaces.
Stephanie sighed. There was no use keeping it a secret any longer.
“No… but I may need them in Rome… Ilaria, Quintus and I are going back,”
“I saw what you were thinking earlier, and you were right: Quintus will never make it here. Things have changed too much, and he loved his life in Ancient Rome. ”
“But what about you? Can you live in such a backwards place?’
“Ilaria!” She laughed, well aware that Ancient Rome was her friend’s favorite period of history. “It is not backwards. Quieter, perhaps, but clean… the villa is very lovely. I know that I will be happy there. And life will be very peaceful, knowing what is ahead.”
Ilaria was dumbstruck. “But, your job….”
“I am tired of my job. I am tired of getting up every morning wishing it were time to sleep, and dream again. I can be happy in Rome. Quintus and I will have a family, and I can stay at home and watch them grow.”
She noted the look on her friend’s face. “Yes, I know. You disapprove. The feminist deep inside of me is ashamed for my feelings as well, but I cannot stop them. I really want to go. I don’t want to lose him, Ilaria. I don’t want to lose this chance.”
Ilaria sighed and nodded. There was no point in arguing, really. She would make the same decision in her friend’s place. There was no place that she wouldn’t follow Maximus, though she shuddered at the sudden thought that he might want to go “home” without her.
Stephanie loaded her cats, Brutus and Portia, into the car. “Will you care for them while I am gone?” Ilaria nodded. Housecats were hardly common pets in the Ancient City (for real Romans anyhow), and, at any rate, the names Stephanie had chosen would hardly be popular under the emperors.
Stephanie smiled gratefully. “Thank you. I am also going to turn over my bank account to you… I will get a cashier’s check made out to “cash” so they cannot trace the money. I don’t want anyone to think, when I have disappeared, that you murdered me and stole my money!”
Ilaria grinned at the prospect.
Stephanie continued to chatter on about her plans while Ilaria looked over a newspaper she had picked up in town.
“Oh, no!” She gasped.
“What is it?” Stephanie slowed slightly, traffic going out of Rome was difficult even when one’s attention was not distracted.
“Look!” Since her friend was driving and could not look, Ilaria simply read aloud:
The city police have petitioned the government for permission to open the archeological site known as the Ludus Magnus to search for further clues into the Ludus Magnus Stabbing. The stabbing victim, a man checked into the Central Hospital as Massimo Calipari, disappeared two days after being discovered by a tourist bleeding on the grounds of the former forum. Two other persons, dressed in period costume, were seen fleeing the scene.
The city police believe that the trio were are part of a large drug smuggling operation which uses tourist facilities- where large congregations of strangers would not be unusual- to complete their illegal transactions.
Because the Ludus Magnus is a protected historical monument, the Police cannot disturb the site without a special waiver from the government.
Ilaria put the paper down.
“What if they find the tunnel!”
“I know… and how could they avoid it?” Ilaria said, visibly upset.
“And even more importantly, how will Quintus and I ever use it to return… provided that we CAN return. I am sure that they are watching for us.”
Ilaria frowned. Things were getting more complicated by the moment.
The girls returned to the villa sooner than predicted. As Stephanie parked the car, Ilaria entered the building and went in search of the men. A rapid tour of the house told her she was alone and so she stepped on the balcony — which had a great view of the garden — and looked around. A sigh of relief escaped her as she saw Maximus and Quintus walking side by side in the grass, their heads bent together. Ilaria began to smile, happy to see they seemed engaged in a pleasant conversation but her grin disappeared as fragments of their sentences arrived to her carried by the wind. “…I know Septimius Severus well…. he is a provincial like me…. not problem at … will follow him closely…. gaining his trust…” The wind changed direction and the voice became silent but for Ilaria it was enough. Her vision of Maximus talking and Quintus nodding blurred because of the tears in her eyes. Ilaria was devasted: Maximus was planning his return in Ancient Rome along with Quintus! He did not want to stay with her in the future! And she knew she could not leave with him, since she was not alone as Stephanie was. She had a family to care for and duties to perform.
Quintus and Maximus were now approaching the villa, and having noticed her presence, they waved to her with their hands. With a show of dignity Ilaria replied to their gesture before entering inside. Stephanie was in the dining room checking on Internet if there was more news about the Ludus Magnus stabbing and seeing her friend’s pale face she asked, “There is something wrong?”
“No… I… I don’t feel very well…. I think something I ate today at lunch made my stomach sick. I think I will go to bed now without eating.”
Stephanie looked at her critically, then nodded, keeping for herself the thought her friend was upset for their conversation. “OK, don’t worry, I will cook for the men.”
“Thank you.” Ilaria turned to leave and almost collided with Maximus’ chest.
The general saw at once her pale face, “Are you all right, Ilaria?” he asked gently.
Hearing the concern in his voice almost broke her. “Yes… I only nauseous… I will see you tomorrow.” And she almost run out of the room, followed by Maximus’ worried eyes.
Darkness had fallen on the villa and, curled up on her bed, Ilaria was crying desperately, so wrapped in her grief that she did not hear the door of her bedroom open nor the soft steps nearing her. The big hand that touched her shoulder made her jump with surprise. Ilaria turned on the light and her eyes met Maximus’. He was kneeling near the bed, and he whispered gently, “Why are you crying?”
“Because I will soon loose one of my best friends and when I will be back in this house, I will be alone, with only memories to keep me company.” Ilaria brushed away her tears.
“Alone? So I count nothing for you?” he sounded a bit wounded.
Ilaria sat up quickly as her heart began to pound. “What?”
“I will be here with you, little one, you won’t be alone.”
“But…. but I heard you speaking with Quintus in the garden… you were planning your return in the past…”
“I was planning HIS return in the past. I have no reason to come back… My only chance to be happy again is here, little one.” They stared at each other eyes and just before their lips met, Maximus added, “You are my future, Ilaria.”
They kissed long and slowly for many minutes. Then they separated, Ilaria threw back the covers, shyly inviting Maximus to join her. He smiled again, kisssed her on the tip of her nose, and turning off the light, accepted her offer.
Ilaria did not know how to tell Maximus that it was her first time, but he seemed to know, instinctively, to treat her with gentleness. His hands moved over her softly and possessively, telling her with his every touch that he had chosen to live only for her. She did not doubt that he would still have his moments of sadness, but they would be fleeting and brief. This night would be a new beginning for both of them: he would release his guilt, and she would conquer her fears.
Together, they would face the world.
Ilaria was shocked by the beauty of his body. She had always suspected the definition of his muscles and the power of his build from the manner in which he wore his clothes. Exposed to her, however, the effect was nearly breathtaking. She could scarcely believe that the events of the past two weeks had not been a dream, that this perfect moment was not the culmination of her slumbering imagination and that, all too predictably, the morning sun would awaken her before its completion.
But she did not wake up. Maximus made love to her, touching her on more than a physical level. When it was over they held each other tightly, smiling, a little bit embarrassed, but too giddy with the excitement of finally being together to release each other even a little.
They talked throughout the night. Maximus wanted to marry her! “Do they still do that sort of thing nowadays?” He had asked, and she had laughed at his innocence.
She felt as though her heart would burst with happiness as her mind sped forward to think of how she would share her news with her family and friends, wondering what her parents and grandparents would think of her Maximus, and how in the world she would explain his sometimes awkward mistakes.
Without thinking, Ilaria came instantly awake and sat up at the sound of her friend’s voice. Stephanie had entered the room to fetch a pair of sandals that Ilaria had borrowed the morning before, and she did not notice, until she saw the embarrassed flush on her friend’s cheek, that the Italian woman was not alone.
“Oh! … I!… I’m….” unable to mumble an appropriate apology, Stephanie merely seized upon her shoes and scurried out of the room.
“Well.” Ilaria began apologetically, turning to Maximus. “It looks as though our secret is out.”
Maximus tightened his grip around her waist and pulled her closer. “It’s not a secret.”
Ilaria sighed happily and allowed him to nuzzle her neck. Her mind was whirring with questions: When would they get married? Where would they live? What would her last name be? – but she quieted them for now.
It was very late when they finally came downstairs. The breakfast dishes had been washed and were drying next to the sink. A note tacked to the refrigerator informed them that their friends had gone into town again to buy some of the supplies that they would take with them back to ancient Rome. Ilaria had cautioned them about attempting to carry anything at all into the past- there was no telling what they might change, but Stephanie had persuaded her to think that a few concessions should be made. A lifetime without chocolate was too horrifying a prospect for any woman to face, and so she had assembled enough Peruguina Cappucino Chocolate bars (allowing her to indulge two vices in one bite) to mark the milestones of her life, and to sate any truly unbearable cravings. She had also decided to bring two of her favorite novels- ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘A Room with a View’, on the theory that, even if it were discovered, no one could read a book written in English anyhow. Quintus had packed a Roman history book as well. There was much more than she longed to take, but there was no room- she could bring only what she could carry, and it was more important to take the jewelry and items that could be bartered or sold in the event that Quintus’ possessions had been proscribed, than it was to bring items of sentimental value. The pair had not discussed when they intended to return to the past, but everyone sensed that it must be soon. No one could tell when the police would receive permission to search the building. As much as they hated the thought of destroying a piece of history, they all knew that the Ludus Magnus would have to be destroyed to prevent anyone else from using the tunnel.
The day of departure finally arrived and with a sense of finality Ilaria, Maximus, Stephanie and Quintus boarded the car and travelled to Rome. The plan was to spend a day or two studying the Palatine hill, to see how and where the police were watching it.
Luckily for the group, the Italian Police were slack in the assignment and the archeological site was deserted during the night. Also, an exam of the beginning of the tunnel shoved that the walls were already badly damaged: no great effort would be necessary to make them crumble.
The last two days spent together were bitter-sweet, especially for Stephanie. On one hand she was excited by the prospect of beginning a new life with the man she loved and in one of the most fascinating historical ages, on the other she was a bit scared by the path in front of her, because there was no way back. She was also sad to leave Ilaria but felt a certain relief knowing her friend would not be alone: since the morning she had discovered her and Maximus together, the relationship between the pair had strengthened greatly. She was sure they would lead a happy life but sad she would not be able to attend their wedding, as Ilaria could not attend her own.
Finally the night of the farewell had arrived.
Stephanie and Quintus checked again the two leather bags containing their belongings, then loaded them on the car. Together with Ilaria and Maximus they reached the Palatine hill: it was already dark and the car proceeded slowly with the light turned off so they did not attract unwanted attention.
When they reached the beginning of the tunnel, Maximus and Quintus took out of the car a long steel chain and wrapped it securely around a stone pillar, then tied the other end to the car: the plan was to pull away the pillar and let the wall crumble as soon as Quintus and Stephanie reached the wooden door on the other end; to signal their arrival the pair would use a portable flashlight, to be left behind in the tunnel.
At last the men returned. “It is finished.” Quintus said softly. He took his Praetorian’s helmet out of the trunk of the car and slid his sword into its scabbard. He offered Stephanie his hand. “Are you ready?”
“I-” Stephanie took a step forward, and then began to cry. All of her doubts and fears seemed to tumble free at once. Quintus blinked in surprise, and then he hurried forward to hold her. He knew too well how hard it would be to leave her home. He wished that there was another way for them to be together.
“I… I’ll be all right.” She stuttered through her tears, she was embarrassed for the outburst.
“It is okay.” Quintus soothed, brushing her hair away from her forehead and kissing it softly. “You are right to be afraid. We have no guarantees of what we will find on the other end.”
“Ilaria…” Her friend stepped forward, and Stephanie gave her a tight hug. “I will miss you so much! I will think of you every day!”
“And I you.” Ilaria squeezed Maximus’ hand, suddenly worried that she would begin to cry as well. “But, I think that you are making the right decision.”
“You must remember me at your wedding.”
“I wish that we could send you a present.”
“You already have!” Ilaria blushed. Stephanie had given all of her belongings in Rome to her friend. “I wish that we could do more for you.”
Stephanie swallowed, fighting the second round of tears that threatened to fall. “It was beautiful, wasn’t it?”
Ilaria knew without saying that she was thinking of her new home. “Yes. Very beautiful. You will be happy there.”
There was a sense of urgency in Maximus’ voice, and both girls swung around at the same instant. In the distance, a police car was making its way through the deserted Palatine.
Quintus took Stephanie’s arm.
“We have to go.” He met Maximus’ eyes. They did not speak- at least not aloud, but their look communicated courage one to the other as they had so often in battle.
“Strength and honor,” Quintus murmured.
Maximus nodded sharply. “Now go.”
Quintus and Stephanie ran for the tunnel as Maximus and Ilaria sped for the car. Ilaria watched over her shoulder as her friend hesitated at the tunnel entrance and then, fear in her eyes, followed the Praetorian inside.
The police car was getting closer.
“Do you see the light yet?” Ilaria asked nervously.
“What if we can’t see it? What if the light will not transmit from one side to the other?”
Ilaria swallowed. It was possible… it had certainly been long enough for them to make it down the little tunnel….
“It is almost here.”
Praying silently that her friend was all right, Ilaria slammed on the gas pedal and sped away. Behind her, there was a deafening crash as the crumbling facade of the Ludus Magnus tunnel collapsed in clouds of dust.
The police car turned on its lights and siren, but could not follow. It squawked impotently on the other side of the pile of rubble.
Ilaria drove as fast as she could through the streets of Rome, taking a thousand turns, barely able to see through the tears that veiled her eyes.
“Stop.” Maximus said, at last. “Stop. They can’t find us.” Ilaria nodded slowly and pulled the car into a space on the edge of the road. She collected her belongings, then double-checked to make certain that there was no sign of her having been there. It was Stephanie’s car. They would abandon it.
Maximus and Ilaria walked to a taxi stand, and then went to the station to catch their train. They were very quiet, not quite knowing what to say.
“Do you think they made it?” Ilaria asked, when they were finally home.
“I don’t know.” Maximus answered truthfully, wishing that he could offer more comfort than the strength of his arms.
EPILOGUE – 3 years later
It was a beautiful summer day when the phone rang, shattering the peace of the villa.
Ilaria went to answer, “Yes?”
“Ilaria? Francesco here, I am sorry to bother but could you come here as soon as possible?”
“There is something wrong?” she asked to the chief of the workers who were building a new stable in her farm.
“No…. but while excavating a hole for the new foundation for the barn, the found some kind of walls… They seem ancient ruins to me and since you are an expert and, of course, they are on your land I wanted you to inspect it before we go on.”
Ilaria approved, “Well done, my husband and I will be there soon.”
The conversation complete she went on the balcony and called, “Maximus!”
“Yes?” come his voice and she looked down to see him walking slowly in the grass holding the hand of their son, Massimo, a dark-haired, blue-eyed 15 months old boy. Ilaria smiled to her two men and said, “Francesco has just called. He told me they found some kind of ancient wall on the farm land and wish for us to go there and have a look.”
Maximus’ eyes shone with curiosity. “Just give me a minute.” He picked up Massimo and entered the villa.
Few minutes later, handed the child to the care of the house-keeper, the pair boarded the car and drove for the farm.
When they arrived they found Francesco waiting for them. The grey haired little man was excited, “Oh, thank God you are here! After I call you there was a crumble…and the earth gave way to a hole…Ilaria, a room has appeared! I think there is a house buried down there!”
The trio almost ran to the site of the excavation. The workers were all gathered around the giant hole, some of them were lying belly down in the dirt, peeking their heads to see better.
As the general he still was in his heart, Maximus evaluated the situation at once and began to issue orders. “We need a ladder and a lot of electric torches to lightened the place.” As the workers scurried away to find the items requested, Ilaria and Maximus knelt down and peered in the hole, squinting their eyes in the futile try to see something.
“It is useless, we have to wait.” They dropped to sit cross-legged on the dirt, exchanging looks and Ilaria lost herself again in his eyes. She was so happy with Maximus that sometimes she could not believe it. All was perfect in their life: they had a beautiful, bright son, her family had accepted Maximus without reservations and the book they had written together, a novel called ‘In this life or the next’ which basically told Maximus’ own story, had been a bestseller in many countries, making them more then rich and allowing them to realize their dream to breed horses.
“Are you still with me, little one?” her husband gentle voice recalled her to reality.
Ilaria smiled, “I was only thinking about how lucky I am to have you.”
“No more than me to have you, little one.” They shared another smile and then stood up as the workers returned with the torches and the stair.
Few minutes later Maximus went down inside the ruins to examine them before allowing Ilaria to join him. With a cloth in front of his nose to avoid to breath too much dust, he walked slowly here and there, pointing the flashlight beam against the walls. It did not take much time for him to realize he was standing in what remained of a rich, luxurious Roman villa. His heart began to race as he saw items from his past and then it almost stopped as the torch lightened a portion of the wall. Regaining his breath he returned to the starting point and shouted, “Ilaria come down please!”
He didn’t need to say it twice; Ilaria was more than eager to join him. When she was down she asked, “Found something of interest?”
Maximus nodded and led her to the wall, lightening it for her.
Ilaria gasped when she saw the painting. It was a fresco, the colors dimmed by time but the drawing was still detailed. It portrayed a family. A rich Roman family composed by husband, wife and five children. Ilaria turned to look at Maximus, asking silently if she was imaging everything but his smile showed her it was not a dream: she was really looking to the portrait of Stephanie, Quintus and their five — FIVE!!! — children, two girls and three boys who looked as miniature copies of their parents.
Ilaria felt tears of joy pool in her eyes: in the past three years she had wondered about her friend’s fate and now finally she seemed to have gotten her answer. Probably Quintus and Stephanie bought the land where now was her farm, knowing she one day would have owned it and left her a sign of their life together. As that thought crossed her mind, she began to move her torch to light the ground and she saw a tattered leather bag posed against the wall.
“Maximus!” she called
They bent down to examine it, before gently open it and inside they found a letter, written in Stephanie’s distinctive hand. The letter had been put under plastic — Ilaria remembered her friend taking away a kit to do so — and thus it had survived.
My Dear friend:
I hope that this letter finds you happy and well. So much has changed since we last spoke, but I have kept to my promise in thinking of you every day. Are you happy? Are you still young and beautiful? Is Maximus adjusting well? There is so much that I want to ask you, but since I shall never have the luxury of a reply, I shall tell you of my life instead.
Our first few days were very tenuous. As you know, there was a struggle for power. Quintus, as Prefect of the Praetorian, was a marked man. However, we took Maximus’ advice and fled to the country. I was sad to leave the villa- it was so peaceful and perfect!- but safety was of paramount important. Quintus installed me in a little villa near Genova, before going abroad to meet with Septimus Severus, and to inform him of the “hunch” he had that he was the man meant to rule Rome. Installing him to power was not easy. However, with Quintus’ help, it was accomplished. We were able to return to Rome with more money and security than we had ever enjoyed before- and the patronage of a sane emperor for a change!
But, you can read about that in your books. I am more interested to tell you what has happened to me. Quintus kept his word and married me shortly after our return. It was a small, private ceremony. Considering my lack of parents, we considered that it would be best to tell everyone that he had married me long ago in Germania and assumed that I was lost forever in the final battle. In the confusion surrounding the succession, no one questioned the lie. Our daughter, Clara was born a year later, and Titus and Appius shortly followed. The birth control pills, like the chocolate, did not last as long as I had hoped- we have another daughter, Clarilla, and son, Lucillius, as well, but I cannot complain. My life has been quiet, but happy.
Not long ago, we decided to quit the city entirely. Quintus is getting very old, and the big house seemed too quiet with the children gone (Titus is in the senate, while Appius and Lucillus have chosen the army like their father. The girls are both married, with children of their own! Me, a grandmother, can you picture it?!) so we transferred to a villa we used only for vacation, a property in the north.
How do you like what we decided on? I wasn’t sure that it was the same at first – the lay of the land has changed so dramatically. Or, more properly, perhaps, it hasn’t changed yet. At any rate, I knew it was the same when I found the cave. Do you remember the one I am talking about? The cave that we almost explored in the week before we returned to Rome? Go to it if you find this letter- I have found you a wedding present after all.
Wishing you all happiness,
Ilaria brushed away tears of joy and then hugged Maximus hard, wanting to share her happiness with him. They kissed for many minutes then decided to go to investigate the cave to see what Stephanie and Quintus had left to them.
They had barely stepped out the hole, ready to answer to the thousand of questions from the workers when Ilaria’s cellphone rang.
Rolling her eyes — she hated that thing but she wanted to be always reachable in case Massimo might need something– she opened it and said, “Pronto?” Before quickly switching to English.
Maximus watched interested as wonder and excitement replaced curiosity on his wife’s face and waited patiently until she finished the conversation.
Ilaria put away the phone and turned to look at him, “You would not believe your ears….”
Maximus tilted his head, inviting her to go on.
“It was a guy from America. He had read ‘In This Life Or The Next’ and he wants to know if he can buy the rights of the book. He wants to do a movie from it!”
“A movie? And what did you reply?”
“That I need your opinion. He said he will call back…. His name is David Franzoni.”
Hand in hand, husband and wife began to walk to the cave, wanting to see Stephanie’s gift, when suddenly Maximus stopped, a big grin crossing his face.
“What now?” asked Ilaria
“Nothing special, I was wondering about the actor who will portray me…”
Ilaria smiled, “What about Antonio Banderas? He is a Spaniard too.”
“Or Mel Gibson, he was quite good in ‘Braveheart’….”
“Or Tom Cruise….No, he is not the right type…”
“And what about that Australian actor…you know the one of ‘LA Confidential’, you said he reminds you of me……”
Ilaria and Maximus disappeared in the cave and their voices stopped as they saw….