Chapter 5: Where the Tracks Lay
That night the pain had finally subsided until it was nothing more than a dull ache. The flame from the oil lamp had died, ushering darkness. But as soon as my eyes grew heavy, a high-pitch howl jolted my head from the pillows. A piercing cry left the creature's throat before it disintegrated into a low guttural sound. Then the low growls were overpowered by a rumble of thunder. They were sad cries, cries I could not quite make out lurking in the pastures beyond. They left me lying in my bed wondering, worrying, and waiting for them to end.
"What is that noise? Those noises are driving my sleep away!" Apollus whined. I could make out his voice anywhere even in the dark.
"There is some miserable beast out there. Let us put it out of its misery. Grab the torches Apollus," I could hear Barbarius say in the corridor outside my room. I eased into a sitting position, while leaning my head against the head post. I tuned out Apollus and Barbarius' conversation in anticipation for the next howl. I wondered what would happen if they caught this "beast." Apollus, Barbarius, and the few slaves they summoned had one mission. To find the creature that lurked in the brush. I was not quite sure what it was. It certainly did not sound like a horse… or at least not like one I have encountered. I lifted my head to peer out the window to catch a sliver of moonlight. The cries resumed, chilling my breath. I had to know what was outside. I peeled myself from the bed to join up with my brothers and their band of slaves but the corridor was empty. Whatever it was, my brothers would find it. I went back inside the warm covers.
The next morning I awoke to the whirring melodies of birds. One sat at my windowsill, opening its beak to burst into a song. It must have heard me chuckle because it flew away before it finished its song. The voice was beautiful. Just like my mother's. I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of wildflowers and damp grass. There was a calmness that came with living in the open pastures. Mother loved the simple pleasures that it brought. That was why father never made us relocate to the heart of Apathia. But there was no way getting around it. Everything seemed to remind me of her.
My shoulder was still tender but it was no longer an affliction of the flesh. I still welcomed the assistance of the slaves. My personal slave helped dress me in my finer tunic, while a young female slave lathered olive oil on my head before combing my matted locks with an ivory comb. After my early morning ritual of thanking the gods at the family shrine, I quietly headed to meet the others for breakfast. It was the last breakfast we would share at the villa. It was some three days but it felt so much longer. It was not what I had expected. I had hoped to relax but instead spent time in vigorous training. Physical training would help me be stronger. More manly. A better fighter. More like…. Barbarius. I glanced up from my plate to watch him eat his meal in silence. He had nothing to say after I beat him.
But I wondered how physical training would prepare me for my role as Mediator; a role that seemed so far off in the future. It would be years before I began training for the role and I assumed it would take more wisdom than anything to fulfill the role Grandfather spoke of. Right now my priorities were to concentrate on finishing my studies at the Grammaticus before continuing my studies at the Rhetoric school next spring. I may not be the strongest but I had a keen mind to learn. That was my strength.
We each had our turn sharing what we thought we got out of the experience. I was interested though of whatever happened to the "beast." As expected, Apollus went on and on with his exaggerated tale of how they were caught in the rain last night and how the beast is still on the loose.
"So what do you think was out there?" I asked, turning to Barbarius.
"I am not certain. It was certainly not as big as we imagined. But it should not be of much concern," he said in a matter-of-fact way. So you never saw the beast? "Anyhow I must be off to collect the reports from the slaves and culminate it into one final report on the welfare of the animals, the upkeep, and the vineyard. Make sure you two keep an eye out just in case of anything." Apollus and I nodded. I bit my lip, fighting back my urge to ask more questions about what exactly did they do all that time outside. I turned to Apollus with eager eyes. He replied with a silent shrug and dismissed himself.
Afterwards I went into the study to continue reading the book Aeneid from class; however my mind was somewhere else; floating into the wild pastures. Restless, I put the codex down and decided to go outside and get some fresh air. As I walked into the pasture, I noticed paw prints pressed into the damp earth where the grass was bare. The paw prints were rather small, resembling that of a fox or dog. I followed the paw prints until it led me down the olive trees alongside the narrow road. Then the tracks ended; the mystery had come to stop. As I looked around the tree I felt something fuzzy tickling my bare legs. It was a dog!
"So you were the 'beast' everyone was looking for!" I exclaimed. As I knelt down to pet him, he cowered.
"You do not need to be afraid. I will not hurt you." I kneeled down to pet him when I noticed his ribcage bulge as he panted. I knew I was taking a risk feeding this animal, because he would keep expecting food. My eyes hardened. I waved my hand, hoping the dog would scatter. His paws stood planted in the soft earth. His big black eyes stared up at me before he let a low whimper. I failed at being mean. I went into the kitchen and broke a loaf of uneaten bread. As soon as he saw me, the dog's ears perked up; his tongue hanging loosely from its unhinged jaw. I tossed the crumbled bread to the ground. The dog scampered towards the scattered crumbs now hiding in the grass. As he gobbled away, I slipped into the vineyard, hoping the dog would be too distracted to find me.
Tender vines formed uniformed rows across the tilled soil. Peeking from the far ends of the rows were field slaves tilling the soil for weeds. It was so big I got lost here as a child. Now my mind got lost here as I stared at the endless woody plants reaching for the veiled sun. The sounds of faint breaths snapped me from my thoughts. I turned to find the dog on my heels.
"What are you doing? I have no more food for you?" I whispered, holding up my empty palms. "Dogs are not allowed here. If they find you, I do not know what they will do with you. You have to go!" I turned around and pointed to the open gate. The dog would not budge. I rolled my eyes and trotted down the long narrow rows that separated the young woody plants. My stride quickened, leaving the dog behind.
"Troy, is that you?" Barbarius called. He was coming from the opposite side, coming to meet me in the middle. The dog scampered to my side. I froze.
"Hide!" I mouthed.
"Did you see anything?"
I shook my head as the dog scurried behind my legs.
"Good. I think the creature finally left." He turned his attention to the field slaves who were tilling the weeds. I sighed in relief. Then suddenly I looked behind me. The dog was gone! He was loose in the vineyard. Frantic, I scoured the dozen or so rows of vines. I had to find it before the slave or Barbarius did. They would be much harsher to the dog than I would be. Then I saw his bushy tail wagging towards the back row by the fence. I scurried over, jumping over several rows to get to the dog. By the time I got there he already escaped again!
"What are you doing Troy? This is not a place to romp about like a child." My hands dropped to my side.
"If you are looking for an assignment to do," Barbarius continued, "help me for once." He walked towards me with his usual blank expression. It was hard to tell sometimes if he was angry or indifferent. I hoped the latter.
"Is there something you would like to share?" Barbarius said folding his arms across his chest. I shook my head. Barbarius stooped down, studying the rows of vines.
"It looks like someone got hungry," he said, staring at me. He picked up an uprooted stalk.
"I did not eat any of it. I swear it." Barbarius gripped the staff in his hand.
"Keep an eye out then, I do not know who or what is loose in this garden but it needs to be removed. Make sure you get the report from the olive groves before we leave. Anything else you want to tell me?" he asked raising a brow.
"I will do my best. But…"
"But what?" he interjected.
"No tell me. I want to hear it." There was an edge to his voice.
"You need to relax and let the slaves do their jobs. This is our last day and we have not truly relaxed since we got here."
"There is no time for games; I have serious things to worry about. Maybe when you are a man you will understand," he said frowning.
"Maybe not," I said turning my back to him. "Do not worry I will keep an eye out on things here." Surprisingly Barbarius walked off, so different from our earlier confrontation. Maybe he had seen the folly of his character; someone so serious, so rigid, that he lost all touch with the rest of us. When the sight was clear, I whistled for the dog to emerge from hiding. I found him again, this time in the thorny bushes lining the vineyard fence.
"Look at you; you have so much dirt and twigs on your shabby golden fur. I would call you Rufus, or Felix, but you look like a shabby dog," I said, with a smile. As I kneeled down to pet the dog, it licked my face with its thick wet tongue, before pressing his damp nose against my neck. I laughed, backing away. It tickled too much.
"You know I cannot keep you," I said wagging my finger, like my father did when he warned us to obey.
I picked up a stick and threw it in the direction of the road. The dog ran off and I laughed to myself. That silly dog would forget about me and chase after the stick. But it came right back, with the stick jutted between its teeth!
"I cannot dare get rid of you. Do you have a home?" I asked, acting as if the dog could talk back to me. There was no brand mark, or any identification on the dog. "You can stay with me, but you have to remain out of sight, because I will get into trouble. You hear Shabby. Shabby," I repeated in a slow soft voice. "I think I will call you Shabby."
How was I going to conceal Shabby? He was far too big to squeeze inside my tunic. I told Shabby to lay low in the bushes as he followed me around the olive grove. Perhaps I could hide him in the small shed that was hardly used. Once I reached the shed, Shabby was still in the bushes some 30 paces away. I tried to open the door but it was locked! Between the shed and where Shabby was laying there was only open space. When nobody was around, I gestured for Shabby to run over. As he did, a squirrel was nibbling on some tree seeds.
"Ignore it and come here," I said in hushed tones. With one look at the squirrel, Shabby dashed towards the squirrel.
"Come here, please!" I pleaded. The dog chased the squirrel until the squirrel safely scurried up the tree. I ran over to Shabby who was clawing the tree and barking. I quickly covered his mouth with my hand as I hastily led him by the neck. Surprisingly he did not bite me.
"You almost got us into trouble," I scolded. "Just please stay put behind the shed, until I decide what I ought to do to you." Just then I froze. A field slave had walked by the front of the shed as I pressed against the east wall of the shed. He glanced in my direction and made his way over, with the dog hiding behind me.
"Master, I do not need this wheelbarrow anymore. Should I leave it at this shed?" he asked.
"Certainly, although I think the door latch is stuck. But you do not need to worry; I can take it from here."
"Very well. Here is the report for the olive groves." He handed the rolled up parchment. "I thought I heard barking over here. I saw some tracks earlier of what looked like a canine. There must be a stray dog on the loose. Your brothers would be highly displeased that some creature is eating their yield." I simply nodded and dismissed the slave to resume his duties. Once he left, I sighed in relief. I motioned Shabby to jump inside the wheelbarrow. I spread a small cloth over Shabby and wheeled the dog away, avoiding eye contact with the field slaves. I made it to the horse stable towards the back of the villa. Once I made it inside, I quickly led the dog to the water trough to drink up a bit. Just at that moment the door swung wide open. It was my personal slave; Alexander. He just stood there staring at it with his arms crossed.
"You will not tell anyone of the dog, will you?" I asked. He shook his head. An awkward silence followed as the dog continued to lap the water with its tongue.
"It was a stray dog, with no apparent owner. I need to keep it safe for now. Can I trust it in your care? You seem trustworthy." The slave simply nodded.
"I know you do not talk much, but I would like to thank you for your cooperation. I never had a dog so this is all new to me. Father says pets just create more messes," I laughed dryly. "Have you ever had a dog growing up?" The slaves just stood there with a blank expression.
"If you do not want to be bothered I will leave you to your duties."
"I am surprised you want to talk to me," he said softly.
"Why of course. People have talked to you before. This is not the first time," I scoffed.
"They talk down to me. There is a difference." I bit my lip. He was right.
"Please excuse me for saying this but you do not get it, Master. I did not expect you to get it. People respect and listen to you because you are the third son of the king. You were born with inherited wealth and power, whereas I am a mere slave of yours. It is the order of life."
"I know that. I know I have not worked a day in my life, and that I am the envy of my peers. Beyond the expensive tunics I feel like any other young boy trying to find his way."
"You are different," Alexander said softly. "You're not lofty. I thought when I first saw you that you were just like "them," but you're not. You are different, and you even think differently. No one has even taken the time to talk to me or learn if I owned a dog when I was a boy, let alone talk to me like a human being. I almost forgot how it felt to be human." I could not comprehend what it felt to be the possession of someone. It was something I never really contemplated. We gave them warm beds within our homes. We gave them leftovers to eat, which was plenty. They certainly had it better than our livestock. But his words filled me with guilt. Why should I be guilty for being rich?
"How did you become my slave?" I asked.
"It is a long story. Do you really want to know?"
I nodded. Just then footsteps shuffled into the stable. The slave quickly yanked Shabby from the trough and motioned for it to jump inside the wooden crate stuffed with hay.
"Troy, I was looking for you," Apollus began. "Make sure you have that slave help you pack your belongings away." I responded with a nod. I already know that Apollus. I am not a little boy. Apollus gave my slave a glare before leaving the stable.
"If you like Master, I can keep the dog here with me. I will make sure I put it away in one of those crates when you men begin to load the chariot," he said in hushed tones. I merely nodded in agreement.
"Then I will tell you the real truth as to how I how I came here."