There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible
as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man. - Polybius (205 BC -
Rubbing his shoulder, Gaius tried to massage out the dampness of his cell. He was hungry, and the noon mealtime had come and gone. He had lost weight and patience during this trial. He had hoped that it would be over by now, and either punishment or freedom announced. Roman justice was placed in the hands of Lady Justitia, the goddess of justice. Her flowing gown draped her shapely form, and held high in her right hand were the scales of justice. Right and wrong were presented and weighed to find the accused innocent or guilty. The blindfold covering her eyes was a symbol of fairness: she would not be prejudiced in her judgment. The sword in her left hand, tip down, was reserved for the guilty, and it would be swift.
The tribunal, however, was far from a court of law. As a soldier he was under the rule of the military, and the law it wielded was different. Gaius sensed that something else was afoot, more than weighing out evidence and casting a verdict. The Tribunus wanted something more, something that Gaius wasn’t sure he was capable of delivering. There was an accusation, but no witness, no evidence of guilt or innocence. The Tribunus only asked questions. He seemed more interested in the past than the present.
The small food door clanked as it slid open. Gaius hoped it was his forgotten lunch. The plate, however, didn’t contain food, rather a note. Fumbling with the parchment, he wondered who its author was. Odd that his interest was less in the message than the messenger. He had been here for so long without any conversation, and his guards were instructed not to engage him in dialog, whatsoever. It was a typical integrative tactic: keep the prisoner isolated and alone. The note was definitely in violation.
Tilting the parchment toward the faint light streaming through the cracks of his cell door, Gaius could barely read what was written. When his eyes finally focused, he gasped at its unexpected content. He didn’t know what to think. His mind swirled to grasp some center, some sense of meaning. Leaning back against the wall he mouthed the one word message: Aalina.
Aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed. Phaedrus (15 BC - 50 AD)
The rear guard was the least desired post of the army. On long marches the thousands of men in front kicked dust in the air, and by the time the last soldier stopped for the day he was caked with layers of fine sediment. What doubled the agony was the work required before finding a stream to wash the filth away. Gaius’ centurion had instructed his men the night before that they were to take up this position. The groans were met with a reprimand and a stern look. By midmorning the camp had been struck and the ranks were filing down the road. As they waited, the Centurion called them to attention.
“Last night I was informed that my optio had been transferred to another century. He was given additional rank and responsibilities left vacant by Valerius, who has been sent, with some others, on a special mission.” Gaius felt only disgust at the mention of his name. He tried setting his feelings aside, but every time his name was mentioned darkness spread across his mind, and he could think of nothing else.
Hearing his name shook him from his trance.
“I have been instructed by our legate, as a result of your recent work in resolving the farmer rebellion, that you will receive a medal of commendation, and a promotion to the rank of optio.”
Aulus was the first to congratulate him, and when he had received his medal the rest of the century made their way to him, shaking his hand or slapping him on the back. Gaius was respected among the troops as an honest and honorable soldier. None resented his promotion and all knew that he would make a good leader.
Finally the Century spoke. “Optio, give the command.”
“Alright you dog faces, pick up your gear and fall in line.” Immediately the soldiers responded, in honor of their friend, and with light hearts. Gaius was glad to finally be heading north again. This business with the farmers, though it had worked out well for him, was a distraction from the conflict ahead. He took his craft as a soldier seriously, and he spent spare moments in the evening refining his sword skills, and sharpening his javelin. He found, however, that his new position as optio didn’t afford much extra time. Though his comrades initially were excited about his new position, only Aulus, Manius and Appius stayed true to their friendship. The others thought their new optio would be more lenient, but that didn’t prove to be the case. Gaius was fair, but he held true to military discipline.
The morning of the second day’s march after his promotion, Comenius, a seasoned soldier who had not moved up in rank, decided to test his new optio. He had a reputation of insubordination and laziness. Gaius had called the century to order, but found that Comenius was absent. Looking at his decanus he asked, “Where is Comenius?”
“I have called him three times, Optio, but he always has an excuse for not being prompt. I will go get him right away.” The Decanus was a little nervous himself. Not only was Comenius late, but his actions also reflected on his decanus’ ability to lead.
“Hold fast, Decanus. Why have you not dealt with this before? His lax behavior is your lax command.” He didn’t expect an answer. Gaius dismissed half the century and the remaining formed a circle. He then dispatched Aulus and Appius to fetch Comenius.
The two friends approached the missing soldier. “Comenius, the Optio has instructed us to bring you to the center of the camp.” They waited for him to follow, but he ignored them. “Comenius, we will drag you if we must, but it would be easier if you cooperate.” He shrugged them off and butted shoulders with Appius as he walked by. When they arrived back and found the large circle their curiosity was peeked. “What is Gaius up to?” Aulus quietly said to Appius.
“Ah, Comenius, it is so good to have you join us.” Gaius could see that the Centurion was standing outside the circle watching. Like Aulus, he wasn’t sure what was going on either, but he wanted to give his new optio some leeway. Hopefully, it would be a good outcome.
“Come stand with me in the center of your fellow soldiers.” His pleasant tone was deceiving, and placing his hand on Comenius’ shoulder he continued. “These men, who encircle you, have worked hard, trained harder, and have earned my respect for being men of honor. We are Rome’s finest and we either lift one another or we diminish one another.”
Comenius was becoming more nervous.
Looking into Comenius eyes Gaius inquired, “Do you believe your conduct builds or diminishes? Careful how you respond.”
Standing at attention he replied, “It diminishes, sir.”
“Honesty is good. However, this isn’t your first offense. It has been brought to my attention that your decanus has allowed your behavior to flourish. That makes your offense his offense.” He motioned and the circle broke ranks and allowed Titinius, the Decanus to step into the circle. “Decanus Titinius has an opportunity to redeem himself. If Titinius overcomes, it will be over, but if he loses he will be demoted, and you will then face me.” Gaius shot a look at the Centurion. He was overstepping his authority, and should have approved it, but he tended towards action first. The Centurion had a puzzled look on his face. If Comenius proved able to beat both men, then he was left to discipline Comenius, and deal with the failure of two leaders. It would have been much easier to flog him and be done.
Cautiously, the two men circled one another. Neither one really wanted to engage the other, but much was at stake. For Titinius, honor, pride, respect and rank were on the line. Comenius was motivated by the thought of beating Titinius and then putting the new upstart Gaius in his place.
The two titans came at one another and clashed. Holding one another’s arms like two Greek wrestlers, each soldier maneuvered to throw the other off balance. Titinius found an opportunity and pivoted his body, slumping to one side, and flipping Comenius over his shoulder. But before he could take advantage, Comenius was on his feet, and with one quick movement rushed his opponent, and struck him across the face with his forearm, driving him to the ground. Comenius jumped Titinius and began hitting him in the face, and right when everyone thought it was over, Titinius pulled his leg up and around Comenius’ head and, again, flipped him to the ground. He was able to stand, but staggered backward trying to regain some composure. Comenius was up and running at Titinius, again pummeling him to the ground, and this time Titinius didn’t get up. Gaius motioned and two soldiers pulled Comenius off his former decanus.
Stepping back Comenius raised his head and arms to the sky and let out a scream. Catching his breath he turned to Gaius and taunted him. “Now that I have beaten Titinius, it is your turn Optio.” His disgust was apparent. This was not what Gaius had hoped for, but he had known that it could happen. He saw the Centurion roll his eyes. Much more than pride was at stake; discipline had to be kept as well. If this man were able to beat both Titinius and himself, there would be hell to pay. So, it was up to Gaius to make sure he didn’t.
He had learned one thing over the years: surprise and speed where his best weapons. Turning his back on Comenius, he unbuckled his waist belt and let his small sword drop to the ground. Comenius was predictable. As soon as he saw Gaius turn his back he attacked. But he was loud and clumsy. Gaius gauged his footsteps, and right when he knew Comenius was upon him, he turned, bent over, and, as Comenius flew over, Gaius grabbed his arms and flipped him to the ground. With one swift move, Gaius drove his forearm against Comenius’ temple and knocked him out. The circle erupted with cheers!
Motioning to two soldiers, Gaius said “Take him back to his tent.” Walking over to Titinius he continued, “I am sure that the Centurion will want to speak to you in regard to your rank. I really had hoped you would beat him.” Slapping him on the back he walked out of the circle and up to the Centurion. “Beg pardon, sir. I did not mean to overstep my authority. I just felt this issue needed quick and decisive attention.”
“Gaius, are you bucking for centurion?” Gaius’ expression turned to astonishment. His actions had challenged his Centurion, and this disrespect could not go without discipline.
“It was not my intent. I … I was wrong, Centurion. Accept my apology as I accept your discipline.” He remembered what the General had taught him. Look up, with nothing to hide, but not in the eyes lest you show disrespect.
This is an unusual young man, the Centurion mused. His honor was impeccable, and the Centurion understood what the General saw in him. However, he needed to learn discipline and chain of command. “You have potential beyond your comprehension, Gaius, but your impetuousness will be the end of you. The gods have smiled on you, whether with the General, the farmers, or your comrades in arm.” He too had to pause. “If I discipline you though, it will seem as if I did not have a hand in this matter. That would not play well with those above me. So, I have decided to let fate have its way this time. Get your men in order. We are already behind schedule. We leave in half an hour.”
Gaius snapped to attention, and after the Centurion left, he set his mind to his duties.
News spread fast, and even within a contingent as large as this, Gaius’ name was becoming well known. Breaking into the brotherhood of centurions wasn’t easy. As Optio, he had an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest soldiers Rome had produced. It was his ingenuity and honor that won him accolades, and instead of feeling threatened, his own Centurion saw Gaius’ victories as his own. If Gaius prospered, he would use it to his own advantage. Gaius was on his way to do great things for Rome. The coming months and years would not be easy, but the way he was going, Gaius had the world at his feet.
A bad beginning makes a bad ending.
~ Euripides (484 BC - 406 BC)
As rapidly as Gaius’ honor spread, it seemed Valerius’ dishonor spread just as quickly. His assignment led him away from the legions and he was glad. The men traveling with him were cut from the same cloth, and though they wearied of Valerius, they cared less about honor than about money. They were mercenaries more than Roman soldiers. Valerius had been entrusted with missions like this one, but with recent events he was now under the watchful eye of his Centurion.
Genua was their destination. The small fishing village had been a center of art, music, and architecture, but the Punic Wars saw the city so demolished that it had to be rebuilt. Much smaller now, it still was the hub of trade for wood, honey and skins. The army, as it moved north, would need supplies of wood for ramparts and ships, but most of all they needed information. Genua’s ports ran close to the border of Hispania, and word had spread of collusion between the Hispanians and Arminius.
Hispania had a tumultuous history with Rome. Hannibal and Hispania fought together against Rome, and after their defeat, Hispania was broken into two providences: Hispania Citerior, Nearer Hispania, and Hispania Ulterior, Further Hispania. But Rome’s rule would not go uncontested. Over the next 200 years Hispania was a constant battleground. Julius Caesar finally defeated the larger warlike tribe, Lusitani, and Caesar Augustus accomplished the final conquest over Hispania. Eventually Hispania had been divided into three principalities: Baetica, Llustiania, and Terraconensis. Since then the silver mines had contributed to the greatness of Rome, and Hispanians’, for their loyalty, were granted Roman citizenship. Yet even as their loyalty towards Rome became more steadfast, the Emperor in his wisdom, kept Legio VII permanently stationed at Hispania Terraconensis. The Seventh Legion would protect Rome from any uprising, but if Hispania sent ships off its northern shore to help Arminius, General Germanicus’ fight would be all the more difficult.
As General Sextus’ army pushed toward the Germanic frontier he wanted to quell any rumors of insurrection. Speculation would only serve to demoralize his troops. Putting an end to these rumors was their mission. As the Centurion was making preparations for purchasing and transporting supplies, Valerius was to make contact with certain spies.
After two days of travel, the soldiers were looking forward to the company that a bustling fishing village would afford. They had exited the mountains near the small town of Massa, and then headed north to Genua. The Via Aurelia snaked its way along the coast with the gentle rolling hills of the Apennines to the east. The cobblestoned Roman road entered the village from the southwest, where Genua was built on the crease between the hills and the Ligurian Sea. The port was filled with ships loading and unloading their wares, and shops lined the road where merchants haggled with every potential customer who passed. Beyond the main avenue, small homes, built close together, dotted the hillside. Women washed laundry as children played in the streets. Old men sipped coffee and talked over the latest town news.
The century would not enter the town. The Centurion ordered his men to set up camp a half-mile outside of the village. Their dissatisfaction was evident; they had hoped to spend some time drinking and womanizing, but army discipline won out as they dutifully obeyed. While the bulk of the century went about their duties, the Centurion selected Valerius and two other men to accompany him into Genua. By the time they reached the city center it was early afternoon. They had plenty of time before sundown to negotiate with local wood merchants, make the necessary preparations for travel, and return to camp. Valerius’ task would take longer.
“How long will you need?” The Centurion didn’t feel good about leaving Valerius to himself.
“I am not sure, Centurion,” he responded, hoping to use the ambiguous nature of this clandestine meeting to his advantage. “My contact is to meet me at the local taberna, wearing a purple tunic.” Looking around at all the people wearing tunics, the Centurion could appreciate the difficulty.
Looking Valerius squarely in the eyes he said, “Make sure there isn’t any trouble. We need to be on our way in three days. You have until then to make contact.”
Leaving his commander, Valerius entered the taberna called The Ox Cart. It was dark, and shadows danced against the walls from lanterns wafting puffs of black smoke into the air. After the fresh air of the Apennines mountains, the dingy smell of men and animals was almost enough to overwhelm even Valerius. He ordered a drink and sat at a table in the corner, keeping his back to the wall. It was unusual to see a Roman soldier in this establishment, and wary eyes guarded his every move. Several men entered and exited over the next two hours, and Valerius was becoming impatient. He didn’t mind relaxing and drinking, but he would rather not do it alone. He slowly sipped his drink, not wanting to become intoxicated and impair his judgment. Finally, two men entered, and one was wearing a purple tunic. The second man sat a table close to the door while the other surveyed the room. When his eyes fell on the only soldier in the taberna he made his way to Valerius and sat down.
“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long?” His wasn’t sincere. “I had some other business in town.”
Silently, Valerius waited.
“I hope that you have brought money?”
This man was a spy for Rome, a mercenary whose only loyalty was profit. He was Hispanian, and that alone made him suspect. Even Valerius was disgusted with him. “The money depends on the information. Tell me what you know.”
Hadrianus was nervous, though he held his emotions in check. Slightly glancing at the man by the door he began, “Alejo, from the province of Llustiania, has been stirring up discontent. He calls himself a general, and fights for the freedom of his tribe and all of Hispania. He has a small following, but nothing that could give assistance to Arminius.” He took a sip of his drink. “But this is the juicy part. It has been said that a small group of Hispanians in the First Cohort of Rome sympathize with his cause.” Leaning toward the table he whispered, “I have been told that they will try to assassinate Tribunus Sextus.”
Valerius’ widening eyes could be seen clearly, even in the darkness. He had remained stoic during the discussion, but this information provoked a reaction. “Are you certain? What are the names of the sympathizers?”
“I have no names.” Hadrianus was fidgeting. “I can’t say any more. The man by the door is, well, let’s just say he thinks our conversation is about something else.”
Valerius gave a quick glance and noticed the man leaning toward them, as if trying to hear their conversation. “What is he doing here?”
“He is Alejo’s cousin, Edmundo. He thinks I am here gathering information about the saboteurs. I guess I am what you call a double agent.” Valerius wasn’t amused. In fact it infuriated him. But for the Centurion’s caution echoing in his mind, he would have had no qualms about dispatching both these men.
Valerius stood, walked over to the table, and sat down. Edmundo sat straight in a defensive posture. “I understand that I should be talking to you?”
Hadrianus was right behind him, his agitation rising. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen.
“My name is Valerius and I have recently fallen out of favor with General Sextus. I was sent here to gather information about your cousin.” He looked in Edmundo’s eyes sizing up the situation. “Before I left for this mission I was handed a note.” He slid it across the table. “I gather it is from one of your kin who is near the General.”
Valerius, you have been wrongly accused. If you desire justice, hand this note to the companion of the man you seek. “All is well.”
“It seemed a little cryptic, but I see its meaning now, considering our meeting.” Glancing toward Hadrianus he continued, “This man, however, is plotting against your family and their cause.”
Hadrianus was shocked. His cover blown he pushed away from the table moved toward the door, but as quick as he turned, Edmundo threw a knife into his back. He slumped to the floor, slowly bleeding to death.
“I think we should leave this place,” Valerius urged, and they both hurried out the door and melted away in the streets.
Power and rank in Rome were often advanced through the thrust of a knife. The conspiracy on the part of the Hispanians’ might have been nationalistic, but was more likely opportunistic. Hispania was successfully integrated into Roman society. Culture, language, and citizenship melded them into the empire as one of its own, and those who had risen to power could be involved in national intrigue just as well as any other Roman. Valerius saw this as an opportunity. Under General Sextus he would only be “useful.” If he were ever to advance in position and power it would be under the leadership of someone else. He would rather risk his life in the pursuit of his own agenda than for the cause of someone who despised him.
Edmundo led them hastily down the main avenue, quickly turning right onto a small side street leading up a hill and ducking into a small house. No one had followed, but Valerius knew that word of a Roman soldier involved in a death couldn’t be kept quiet. His centurion was sure to find out. He wasn’t worried about the local authorities, but he needed to contrive a story that would satisfy his superiors. Edmundo grabbed the ladle in the bucket of water and took a long drink. Valerius paced back and forth. He couldn’t stay here; he needed to be proactive. If he waited for the Centurion, he would lose any advantage of his story being believed.
“What are you going to do, Roman?” Edmundo asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “Are you with our cause, or do I need to kill you too?”
Valerius looked at him with contempt. He had considered that this man would attempt to kill him. He decided not to turn his back on him again. “Your threats are useless. If I had wanted to kill you, I would have done it at the taberna. As for my loyalties, they lie with me alone. I have no love for General Sextus, and I have no loyalty for those who would dispose of him, unless their interests and mine are the same.” He stood as tall as his could over Edmundo. “What assurance do I have that you will not betray me?”
The air between them quieted as Edmundo mulled over his next move. He decided that the blunt candor of Valerius’ explanation was satisfactory. They would include him in the conspiracy. Reaching into his tunic he pulled out a medallion. “This is my brother’s seal. Everyone involved has one. If you show it to the others they will know you are with us.” He handed it to Valerius. “Since you have already been approached with the note, my comrades will approach you again. If you show them the medallion they will welcome you into their circle. They will know it is from me.”
Rolling it over in his hands, Valerius weighed the consequences of his predicament. The medallion gave him what he needed, and with one quick motion he drew his sword and stabbed Edmundo through the stomach. “Allowing you to live leaves a witness that could contradict any story I choose to tell. Die knowing that your treachery has been judged.” Edmundo couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t speak. All he could do was listen to his murderer as his life slipped away. Wiping the bloody sword on the lifeless corpse, Valerius turned and strode out the door with a confidence he hadn’t felt for a long while.
It was the evening’s ninth hour by the time Valerius found the spot where he had left his horse, and it wasn’t there. He had tied it in front of the taberna, but was sure that the Centurion had found it, inquired as to where he was, and been informed concerning the days activities. He would have to walk back to camp. At least he would have time to contrive a story that made sense, one that would not reveal his part in the plot. No one in the taberna had been privy to his conversations. All they would have seen was a disagreement and Edmundo killing Hadrianus. Valerius could fill in the blanks with his own story, and a half-truth is easier to believe then a whole lie.
He approached the Centurion’s tent right away. “Where have you been, and what in Hades have you done?” His harsh tone was menacing, but Valerius had expected as much.
“Centurion, beg my pardon. I was under the impression that I had three days to fulfill my task.”
“Don’t be impertinent.” He was almost to the point of shouting. “You know exactly what I am talking about. I told you not to cause trouble, and what do I find? Your horse is abandoned, and a dead man is left in the middle of the taberna. The city is in an uproar, and you are nowhere to be found!” He took a short breath. “Then you stroll into camp as if it were a summer vacation.” The Centurion paused for effect. “Now, give an account of yourself.”
“It was not my intent to bring this conflict on your head, Centurion.” He hated groveling. “I met with Hadrianus, the man you found dead, at the taberna as instructed. He informed me that a man named Alejo was causing contention in the province of Llustiania, but it was not of sufficient strength to contribute to the war with Arminius.” He paused only briefly, but to him it seemed an eternity. Collecting his composure and prepared story, he continued, “Hadrianus informed me that his companion was Alejo’s cousin and didn’t know that they had come to give us information. He believed he was meeting me to find out information about our military strength. I decided it would be in the interest of my Centurion to bring Alejo to you.” The half-truth was spoken, and now on to the lie. “When I informed him that he was to come with me, he drew a knife and threw it at Hadrianus, killing him for his treacherous act. He then fled and I pursued, but he had a better knowledge of the village than I, and it took me a while to find where he was hiding. I burst into the house where he had fled and drew my sword. He was waiting inside with his own sword drawn and I engaged him.” Valerius took a breath. “As you can see, I won. Immediately I came back to camp to inform my centurion of this matter.”
The Centurion looked intently at Valerius. His story matched most of what the taberna owner related. Some minor details were off, but the Centurion dismissed them as witness divergence. What more could he expect from this soldier? Send a killing machine into a dangerous situation and someone will die. Whether the deaths occurred or not, the information would have been the same, and his trust, or distrust, in Valerius wouldn’t have changed. “I am satisfied with your answer. Valerius you’re going to be the death of me. We will leave first thing in the morning. Dismissed.” The Centurion still didn’t trust Valerius, but it wasn’t his call. He would deliver the message, and the supplies as he was instructed. The rest would be left to General Sextus.
Valerius had options, and he liked his prospects. He could join the conspiracy and hope for a grand reward, or he could thwart their efforts and regain his position and status. As he lay in his bedroll, he caressed the medallion as he would a lover. He drifted off to sleep, believing his fortunes had changed and the gods were smiling on him.
Summer days were reaching their hottest by the time General Sextus had his legions set up camp on the east side of the River Trebbia. As Gaius and the other soldiers worked to fortify weak points in the camp’s perimeters, the ghosts of previous battles haunted the grounds. General Postumius Albinus had lost a great battle against the mutinous Hannibal. Not only did he lose the battle, but also his life: the barbaric Cisalpine Gauls had decapitated him and fashioned a sacrificial bowl from his skull. The desecration and humiliation wouldn’t be avenged until eighty years later when the Boii were finally defeated and subjugated in 194 BC.
As evening fell stories were told and retold of glories past, but there was always one who would tease. “Did you hear that?” Appius said hauntingly. “I could have sworn I heard the cries of dying men.”
“I have heard them too.” Numerius was serious. “They are the disquieted spirits that have not gone on to the next life. Growing up my father told us that soldiers whose heads were cut off by an enemy walked the field of battle in search of their severed heads.” He looked around with a mixture of reverence and fear; speaking softly he said, “Marcus Arius, five years ago, was found in this camp dead, with his head cut off and no one could find it. They said one of the ghosts had done it, and now he walks these same fields.”
“Gaius.” everyone jerked, startled as an approaching soldier interrupted. “The Centurion wants to talk with you.” Everyone laughed as Gaius got up and went to the Centurion’s tent.
There was another centurion in the tent, but he left as soon as Gaius stepped through the flap. The Centurion motioned for him to take a seat. “I have just received a note from a brother centurion. He found it in his pack this evening.” He handed it to Gaius and waited for him to read it. Gaius’ face turned white as all the color drained. “I know what you want to do, but you need to have restraint.”
“Restraint? I am not sure what to think. Valerius has killed Aalina? Where? How? Why? It doesn’t make sense.” He was mulling it over in his mind, all the possibilities, all the implications, but he couldn’t make any of it fit together. “Aalina, had left for Rome, and she didn’t like Valerius. How could she have ended up with him?”
The Centurion was more accustomed to giving orders than advice or compassion. There were times, however, when brothers stood together in silence, and the silence was enough. “I wish I could answer your questions, but I haven’t any more answers than you. What I do know is that you must not take vengeance on Valerius at this time. He is in the service of the General. Let your discipline take control.” Putting his hand on Gaius’ shoulder he continued, “When the time is right I will stand with you in any challenge you want to take in the matter.”
Rising, Gaius bowed his head slightly and left the Centurion’s tent.
Ghosts were not what haunted Gaius that night. He could remember the touch of Aalina’s hand against his skin, her soft hair and gentle voice. He still loved her, and though he had pushed thoughts of her to the back of his mind, there were moments when something familiar, a fragrance or taste, would awaken his memory. Maybe this was why soldiers weren’t allowed to have wives. They were a distraction, and distractions could lead to death in battle. Yet, they were also symbols of hope, of something more that anchored them to the good in life in the face of brutality and destruction.
His stomach was gurgling and nauseated. He had dealt with Aalina leaving, but he imagined her reaching her goals of freedom and success. Now all he could imagine was her cold and lifeless form at the hands of Valerius, and an icy anger began to resolve his heart.
The following day found wagons of wood and food supplies rolling into camp. The army contingent had arrived from Genua and their mission had been successful. Gaius was filling out some required paperwork his centurion had requested when he looked up and saw the envoy making its way into camp. He moved toward the center of the Via Praetoria. The wagons would remain outside the camp. There was no danger, at this point, that an enemy would stage a raid on their supplies. Of course guards would be posted to secure the stocks from local thieves. But Gaius’ interest was on one person only: Valerius. Rumor had it that he had been tasked with a covert operation, and Gaius knew that General Sextus would be waiting for the information. Positioning himself near the Praetorium, Gaius waited.
Sure enough, Valerius rode his horse up to the General’s tent, dismounted, and disappeared inside. “Valerius at your service, General.” With a slight bow and a snap to attention, Valerius held out a scroll. It was his report on the activities of Hispania.
The General unrolled the parchment and sat in his chair as he read its contents. After a few moments he looked up at Valerius. “Well done. You’re dismissed.” He was satisfied with the results of the mission. Knowing that the Hispanians were not a real threat to the immediate goals of the army set the General’s mind at ease. He could now focus on getting the legion north in time to meet General Germanicus. He called in his guard and sent for his commanders. The sooner they were on their way, the better he would feel.
Standing off to the side, Gaius saw Valerius exit the General’s tent, and then make his way to where the Praetorian guards were housed. This seemed unusual; Gaius had never seen ordinary soldiers interact with this elite force. The nature of their command, protecting the General, kept them separate from the rest of the army. His bitterness toward Valerius allowed suspicion and paranoia to creep into his thoughts. Surely, he was up to no good.
Valerius was met with harsh looks. As soon as he entered the confines of the Praetorians’ tents, two threatening soldiers met him.
“What is your business here?”
He wasn’t sure how he was to identify the Hispanians who were plotting the General’s assassination. He couldn’t come right out and say what he wanted and who he was looking for, so he decided to take a chance.
“I was given this by a dying man while in Genua.” He held the medallion out for the solders to see. “In his last breath he asked if I could give it to a kinsman in the Praetorian guard of General Sextus. I am merely honoring his wishes.” One of them reached out to take the object, but Valerius closed his fist around it. “I am sorry, I would rather not part with it. If you could ask around I would appreciate it. The dying man was Hispanian, if that helps. If you know of anyone who is interested, my century is located over there.” He pointed to the south end of the camp. Bidding them good day, he turned and left. He hoped that one of them would recognize the medallion and know to report it to someone of importance but it was a long shot. He still hadn’t decided what he was going to do¾whether turn them in or join them. As always, Valerius was making it up as he went along.
Drawing near to Valerius, Gaius could overhear their conversation. One of the Praetorians said he knew some Hispanians, so Gaius decided to follow. He marched into the Praetorian section with confidence. That confidence hid him in plain sight. No one questioned him because they believed he had business there. But all he saw were the two guards talking to three different Praetorians. He wasn’t sure if their discussions centered on Valerius or another matter. In the end he didn’t know any more than before. He decided that his efforts would be better spent in following Valerius, so he headed toward his century. At least there Gaius would blend in better with the other soldiers.
By dusk his stomach was growling, but food would have to as he noticed a Praetorian soldier enter Valerius’ century. Gaius moved as close as he dared, hoping to hear what he could of their conversation. He felt guilty for a moment, but just as quickly his resentment pushed it down. Surely anything involving Valerius would be of no good.
Entering Valerius’ tent the Praetorian said, “I believe you have something for me?” He said nothing else, but held out his hand.
“I do not know you.” Valerius met his gaze. “Do you know the name of the man who has sent you a message?”
It was an impasse of trust: neither had it for the other. The Praetorian was smart and hadn’t gotten there by taking chances. Revealing his friend’s name didn't mean duplicity. “I am not sure who has sent you, but my friend Edmundo had a medallion like the one you possess.” This didn’t commit him to anything. It was the password that was important, a phrase no one would know unless it had been spoken to him.
“His message was simple,” Valerius said. “All is well.”
“Thank you, that is all I need. You may keep the medallion.” He turned to leave.
Valerius reached out and grabbed the Praetorian’s arm. “Wait. I know what you are planning.”
The guard stopped, and slightly turning, looked at Valerius’ hand on his arm. “Then I would advise you to either yell for help, or die alone.” Drawing his sword the Praetorian swiveled quickly and bore down on Valerius, but he was just as quick, grabbing a piece of wood to block the force of the sword. In such close quarters the wood held but sent Valerius back against the tent.
Gaius had moved closer to the tent when the Praetorian entered. When Valerius fell against the tent, other soldiers in the area came to investigate the commotion, and Gaius was forced to engage the situation. He stepped into the tent right as the Praetorian was bringing the force of his sword against the fallen Valerius. Gaius threw his weight against the assailant, and they both tumbled down on top of Valerius, collapsing the whole tent as well. There was no room to maneuver weapons, and the close-quarter brawl found three men frantically trying to get free. Valerius’ centurion came quickly and enlisted others around the tent to pull the men apart. When he noticed that a Praetorian was involved, he quickly dispatched two messengers, one to the Praetorian commander, and one to his own.
By the time the two commanders arrived, the three soldiers had been separated and each man had two guards standing next him. As expected, the Praetorian commander was as suspicious of the rest of the army as of his own men, and didn’t trust another commander to question his soldier. When he began to order the release of his man, the regular commander counteracted the order, telling his men to stand fast. They faced each other head on; it seemed they would come to blows. Only General Sextus could alleviate the stalemate, and the two commanders would not stand down until he arrived.
“What in the names of the gods is going on here?” The commanders snapped to attention, as did the three combatants. Obvious confusion showed on the General’s face when he saw the three. Not so much Valerius and Gaius¾he knew of their differences¾but why were the praetorians involved? General Sextus ordered everyone to the central command post. The three were kept under guard outside and the commanders were instructed to follow him inside. He needed to find out what mischief was really happening.
“At ease! Gentlemen, what is going on here? Commander Servius, why is a Praetorian out of his command area?”
“I don’t know sir!” He looked straight ahead.
“You don’t know? Commander Lucius, pray tell, enlighten us to why my army has been disrupted in such an undisciplined manner.”
Commander Lucius was just as perplexed and merely replied, “I don’t know sir!”
“Ah,” replied the General, “instead of working together to restore discipline, and ferret out the cause of this commotion, you have chosen to allow your own suspicions to dictate your actions.” He motioned them to stand on either side of his tent, and then instructed the guard to bring in the prisoners. As they stood, three abreast, the General began his own interrogation. “Praetorian, what were you doing so far from your quarters and how did this fight begin?”
It wasn’t surprising that the General began with his elite guard. They were the ones he could supposedly trust. He had no reason to doubt the guard’s word. Valerius, on the other hand could never be trusted. Then, of course, there was Gaius. He would address him in a minute.
“My lord, I was summoned to Valerius’ tent, and when I arrived he accused me of treason and drew his sword. I defended my honor, and would have slain him if this man had not interfered.” It was a half-truth spoken in confidence.
“Valerius, of what treason do you accuse this trusted soldier?” This was a serious charge, but the General knew the duplicity that could come from even a Praetorian.
The Praetorian’s comments had surprised Valerius. His half-truth would be difficult to counter, so he ventured with his own. “It is true. While in Genua a man approached me with this medallion and said that a Praetorian of Hispanian decent was plotting your assassination.” Shocked, General Sextus reflexively took a step backward. Anticipating the General’s question, Valerius continued, “I didn’t report it directly because I did not have any proof. Early, I went to the Praetorian quarters and presented the medallion. I said if anyone was interested in it, they should come to my tent. When I confronted this man with his treachery he drew his sword. If not for Gaius, he might have succeeded.”
Knowing their history, this last statement was a surprise to the General. However, enlisting Gaius was Valerius’ attempt to gain favor with the General. Everyone knew he was Sextus’ pet.
If they had dared, all eyes would have turned to Gaius, but only the General’s were allowed. “Gaius, how on earth are you involved in this matter? Why were you there, and what light can you shine on the matter?”
Truth, half truths, and lies: everyone spins their stories to escape the consequences. He chose truth as his weapon. “General, earlier today I was given this message.” He handed over the note his centurion had given him. Before the General had a chance to read it, Gaius blurted out, “It says that Valerius killed Aalina!”
Valerius’ eyes grew wide in surprise. Gaius was there to kill him, and ended up saving his life. “I had followed him all day, waiting for an opportunity to confront him. I was there when he went to the Praetorian quarters. I was there when the Praetorian came to his tent.” He relayed the conversations that he had overheard, and it was the last that condemned the Praetorian soldier. “It is my belief that the Praetorian was planning something ill, and was going to kill Valerius because he knew what it was. I intervened because I did not want my vengeance stolen by another.”
The Praetorian’s commander drew his sword to slay the soldier as he stood. His involvement in this attempt would not be tolerated. Before he could finish the task though, General Sextus ordered him to stand down. “If we knew for sure he were the only one I would allow you to finish him, but we need to know for certain the extent of this plot. I have sent for Commander Gallius. He will extract the truth from this traitor.”
Commander Servius started to question the decision; he wanted the job himself. He realized the conflict of interest however, and held his tongue. The General would want to know if his commander was part of the plot.
Roman interrogation was efficient, and it didn’t take long to find out the details. Three Hispanian Praetorian soldiers were complicit in the plot. As an example to any others who thought to rid their army of the General’s command, he had them crucified north of the camp. As the army marched out, every soldier would see the consequence of treason. Commander Servius was ordered to carry out the discipline and to get his cohort in order.
Once the Praetorian soldier was escorted from the General’s tent, Sextus was able to give his attention to the remaining two. Gaius didn’t trust Valerius or his story. He knew Valerius wasn’t telling the whole truth, but couldn’t accuse him of disloyalty unless he was certain. General Sextus’ patience with Valerius was coming to an end, but could not charge him with anything in this matter. The issue had turned from rebellion to Aalina. General Sextus saw an opportunity. “Valerius, what have you done? Is Gaius’ accusation true?”
Valerius couldn’t know how he found out, so another half-truth might dispel any trouble. “It was an accident, my lord. I was telling her that she would be left behind because of my mission to Genua. She was sorely grieved and when she turned to leave I reach out to grab her arm. But when she pulled away, she fell and hit her head. Seeing that she was dead and she being a whore, I threw her body into the river.” He had to divert this conversation, and change himself from a villain to the hero. “I knew that my mission came first, and as a result this conspiracy has been uncovered.”
Gaius’ blood boiled. “Aalina never would have gone with him willingly! She must have been held against her will.” General Sextus held up his hand for silence.
“Valerius, I know the love that Gaius has for Aalina. I know that you have caused him great harm. If I do not settle this agreeably, then it will carry itself throughout this campaign and cause me nothing but trouble. Tomorrow at midday you will engage in the lex talionis, a life for a life. May he who the gods smile upon win, and we will be done with this matter.”
The centuries of both Gaius and Valerius gathered to watch their champions do battle. Legate Gallius, who wished he was the one to fight Valerius, and avenge his family’s honor, stood prominent in the circle. Each combatant held a gladius and shield.
Valerius knew the cunning mind of his opponent, and Gaius understood Valerius’ brute strength. They were equally matched as they slowly circled one another, each looking for an opening. In his impatience Valerius lunged first. Gaius quickly parried and Valerius rotated swiftly to protect his exposed side.
“Don’t think yourself my superior. You are weak, just like Aalina. She wanted freedom but wilted under my touch. She lived a whore and died a whore.”
Gaius held his emotions in check. He knew Valerius was trying to make him angry and cause a misstep. Valerius lowered his shield to be heard, and Gaius took the opportunity. He thrust his sword toward his opponent, and as he parried Gaius struck hard with his shield, pushing him back. As Valerius stumbled, Gaius struck his opponent’s shield three times in a row with his sword. It was all Valerius could do to keep his balance, and as Gaius attempted a fourth strike, Valerius spun to the side, causing Gaius to fall forward with his momentum. With a quick strike of his sword he caught Gaius’ back and blood spilled from the wound.
In support, Gaius’ century chanted. He would not let this wound stop his advance, but as soon as Valerius saw he had drawn blood he reacted quickly, and rushed. Gaius barely turned in time to ward off a thrust that would have pierced his spleen. He threw up his shield and deflected the blow, but it pushed him sideways, knocking him to the ground. Quickly he rolled to the side as Valerius swung wildly at the place where he had been seconds before. Gaius kicked out with his foot and caught Valerius’ ankle. Pinching his opponent’s leg between his own, he brought Valerius to the ground. Rolling over again, he brought his sword solidly across Valerius’ chest. He cried out in pain, but was able to get to his feet.
Facing one another again, they breathed heavily. “I have drawn blood, Gaius. Drop your shield and I will give you a quick death. Let me give you what you want. Let me send you to your beloved Aalina.”
Gaius dropped his shield and rushed hard. His anger fueled his vengeance, and fury rushed through his veins. Valerius parried the first thrust, but Gaius quickly spun and thrust again, and again, and again. The quick response caught Valerius off guard and his primitive mind could not react fast enough to ward off Gaius’ retribution. Gaius allowed his muscle and instinct to take control. These, coupled with his training, he waged war against Valerius. His force and furor ended as Valerius lay on the ground weaponless and defenseless. Gaius hesitated long enough to see the hatred in Valerius’ eyes, and with all his might he plunged his sword through his adversary’s heart.
When Valerius’ eyes dimmed in death, Gaius’s body relaxed and fell to the ground. The cheers of his century filled the air and the whole of the army knew it was over. They picked up their champion and carried him back to his tent to be sewn up and convalesced. Legate Gallius walked up to the body and spat on its face. When he walked away, the disgraced century took Valerius’ body and buried it where no one could find it.
General Sextus was in the Principia when he heard of the outcome. His comment was only one word: “Good.”