Beneath the midday sun, the smell of sweat and dust filled the air and reminded Aulus of all that he had to lose – his family and his home, tucked neatly into their own small corner of the Seven Hills. He thought of round Caecina and their seven children. This was no place for Caecina.
The scent of blood came sweeping up from the east, defiling her image as it stood in his mind and bringing the crushing weight of the present down onto his thick shoulders. Aulus shook his helmed head and kept moving; he was used to the rich smell of blood. He passed through the burned and despoiled wasteland of the camp until he approached the gilded and resplendent tent of the legatus. It rose up before him in gold and red, a palace amidst the ruin of the battlefield.
“Aulus Livius Macatus,” he said to the doorwards as he handed them his sword. They let him pass through the canopy into the stiff air of the commander’s tent; he removed his helm as he went.
The legatus sat at the far end of an immense rectangular table that was covered in maps. Lamps hung from the posts that held aloft each corner of the pavilion. From the central post hung a great orb of light; though the table was drowned in incandescence, there was a darkness lurking in the far corners of the canopy. Directly under the warm glow, the legatus’ eyes were intensely focused on the map before him and, without breaking from his study, he gestured for Aulus to take a seat opposite him. Aulus sat down, placed his helm on the bench beside him, and sat in silence. He did not wish to disturb the legatus any further.
Aulus was a confident and capable man. He had been given command of his centuria nine years ago when its previous centurion – Cordus – had been made legatus; in light of Aulus’ exceptional valor and leadership in battle, he was named as Cordus’ successor. Unlike his predecessor, he was not a wise or particularly learned man and made no claim to be. It was his strength and passion that inspired his men, and inspire them it did – Aulus knew that they would follow his lead to whatever end.
While he had never risen above his centurion’s rank despite the long years that he had served, Aulus was self-aware and had no ambition to hold a post beyond his means; he did not begrudge the men who had hurdled him to increase their own rank and power. The new legatus was one such man.
It had only been four years since he began his time as a tiro and, although he had enlisted at a later age than most, he quickly proved both his strength and cunning and had climbed the ranks in a remarkably expedient fashion. This was his first campaign as the legatus – he had been awarded the title after Cordus’ untimely death only a few short weeks ago. He was the youngest man to have ever held the post and if there were some who questioned the speed with which he rose to power, they spoke only in whispers and they did not whisper long. Deadly on the battlefield and ruthless in command, he was the kind of man that awoke fear in the hearts of the bravest men, no matter what their allegiance. He was tall and broad; his eyes had the glossy black veneer of a shark’s and his slight coif was the faded gold of a lion’s mane. The legatus was a man bred for war.
It is not surprising then that, strong as he was, Aulus felt murmurs of anxiousness in his heart as he sat in the legatus’ tent, awaiting whatever fate his deeds had earned him. For a long time he sat in silence. If he had been a wiser man, he might have suspected that the legatus maintained such a long and pronounced quietude deliberately, maliciously allowing the demons of fear and apprehension time to take their hold, but no such thought troubled Aulus. His life was likely forfeit, he knew, but Aulus did not fear death and it was this fortitude that gave him strength enough to face the legatus without shame. Much was beyond his control, but this one thing he could manage – Aulus would not die a coward.
And so it was that, when the legatus finally raised his eyes to the centurion, he saw a stern and brave face, not at all like the withered and nauseous look that he had anticipated and was accustomed to finding on his guests. But if this confused or troubled him, he did not show it.
“Macatus,” he said as he stood. He began to pace slowly around the table. “It was your centuria, under your command, that took Manivil, was it not?”
“It was, sir.”
“And you instructed that the captured men were to be bound and entered into the auxilia?”
“Now tell me, Macatus: what did you do with the women and children of that festering ash-heap of a town once the men were sent away?”
It was as Aulus had feared. The messenger had made no error. His words had been so cruel and callous that Aulus could not bring himself to believe them – surely, he had thought, there had been an error of communication. Aulus had been wrong. His heart told him that that he would not live to see the morrow.
“I had them bound – both women and children – and sent them with a guard to the rear of the Legion, where prisoners are kept, sir.”
The legatus passed behind Aulus and emerged to rest his hands on the table, his young blonde head, red with anger or drink or both, loomed up only inches from Aulus’ face. Aulus could smell wine on him. It was not only anger, then.
“That is where Cordus kept the prisoners,” said the legatus with pointed words. Aulus thought that he could smell more than wine on the legatus’ breath, but the smell puzzled Aulus – for a man so young, it was strange that his breath stank of decay. The legatus pushed off from the table and resumed his circuitous ambling. “But Cordus is no longer legatus, is he?” He did not wait for Aulus to reply. “Tell me, Macatus, did not the tribunus instruct you on how to deal with such prisoners?”
“I did not speak with the tribunus at my return, sir.”
A faint and futile hope flickered in Aulus’ simple mind – he hoped that this slight feint would throw the drunken legatus off the scent, but the legatus was a much cleverer man than Aulus, even with a belly full of wine.
“But surely one of his men brought you his instructions.”
It was true. In his mind, Aulus cursed his honesty, and then he spoke very carefully.
“I spoke with a man who claimed to be the tribunus’, upon my return.”
“Who claimed to be the tribunus’? Why would you doubt such a man, Macatus, here where all men belong to me? What message could he have carried that you so feared to be true?”
The legatus knew well what had transpired and now he had shamed Aulus with his mention of fear, a shame that no soldier could openly bear. Aulus did not speak; the game was done and he had barely moved a piece. The legatus continued.
“The tribunus’ messenger speaks with the tribunus’ voice, the tribunus speaks with my voice, and I speak with the Emperor’s voice. Would you so boldly defy the Emperor? Traitors are dealt only death, this you know, but a traitor needn’t suffer alone. If a man has committed treachery, how can the Emperor hope to trust those who have shared his home or his bed? Would they not also, having eaten a traitor’s food and having drunk his wine, be a threat to betray the Empire? Treachery begets treachery, they say. The Empire must be protected, Macatus, the seeds of the traitor must be uprooted and crushed before they taint Roman soil.” A grin more sickly than any Aulus had ever seen amongst the living swam onto the legatus’ sharp and severe face. “They beg for death before it is done, Macatus. They beg for it. I have heard their cries,” Aulus could see precise teeth behind that miserable, jagged smile, “and I have denied them all. A woman who takes a traitor into her bed is not fit for even a whorehouse, and her children are even more contemptible.”
The color had drained from Aulus’ face. His death was a trifle but this – Caecina, the children – this was a fate worse than death.
“I see your slow wit begins to understand me, Macatus. Fearless as you are, you are not an entirely unfeeling man and there are those that you love who are not so fearless as one Aulus Livius Macatus.”
Swallowing down a great knot in his throat, the legatus abruptly stopped his speech and his step and put his right hand on the table to steady the spinning world. He breathed deeply and composed himself once again. He spit on the floor and looked down on Aulus in knowing silence.
“What would you have me do?”
The legatus was pleased. Once again, he was in control.
“What you should have done has been done for you. The tribunus’ men dealt with those filthy women and their bastard children,” the wry, twisted smile continued to play across the legatus’ face and made Aulus feel ill – an effect not lost on the legatus, who was enjoying the torment. “Yes, they are gone now – it does not do to have slaves and prisoners leeching supplies from the Legion as we march. You should have done it yourself, Macatus, if you had the courage. I expect more from one of the primi ordines. Because of your sympathy – your weakness – they did not pass out of this world so easily as some. And do not think that I know not mercy, Macatus – the tribunus’ messenger, for instance: his death was quick and honorable.”
“The messenger? But why?” Aulus interjected, failing to see any evidence of mercy.
“He was made an example of,” the legatus said, curtly. He placed one of his well-clad feet onto the bench and threw his head back in triumph, his face glowing in the lamplight, “To carry my word – or the Emperor’s word or the tribunus’ word – is to carry our power. It does not do to see that power ignored out of hand without recompense, just as it does not do to ignore it. Our future messengers will not be so lightly cast aside, should you again be so unwilling to hear the counsel of your superiors, Macatus.”
Color returned in a flush to his face as Aulus realized Caecina and the children were safe – for now at least – and that he need not die on this day. And yet, for the first time since he was a small boy, Aulus knew how it felt to fear a man. He had fought in many battles and had killed many men and fought alongside many great warriors – he had seen the terror of men. But warriors and their physical strength did not frighten Aulus; they were simply the weapons of their superiors. It was those superiors who held the true power, and it was power that could inspire fear. The legatus had both power and strength and, most frightening of all, he desired to use them, and not for any greater purpose, but for their own sake – they were his muscles and he would flex them for all to see. He was a dangerous man, the legatus. This fear tumbled beneath Aulus’ waking thoughts like a muddy undertow, thick and opaque. He did not understand it, but he felt it. The legatus terrified him. Aulus wanted nothing more than to leave his company and that awful place.
“I ask you again, sir. What would you have me do?”
Aulus hoped that the answer would be quick and sharp, strong and clean – orders an old soldier could stand to hear and carry out.
“Your centuria has ever been strong and reliable. You lead your men well, Macatus, and rest assured that if you did not you would not have lived so long as to share this little dialogue. You will lead your men as I or the tribunus or praefectus or any other ranking officer commands you. And should you fail to do so, your death will be sure and sudden, and your wife and your children shall beg for such mercy. Do we have an understanding?”
Quick and sharp, indeed. There was nothing for Aulus to say or give beyond his bowed acceptance. The legatus smiled and laughed lightly. He took up a flagon of wine and filled two cups, handing one to Aulus, whose heart was drumming out a furious beat. The legatus pulled forth a map and began tracing battle lines. “There is war to be made,” he said. For hours he orated his plans for the marches and battles to come. There were vile heathens all about this part of the world, he assured Aulus, and their filth must be washed away, cleansed by the purity of Rome’s brilliant might. He waxed on about the heresy of opposing Rome while the sky grew dark and the flagon emptied.
When Aulus finally passed out of the tent, the legatus clapped him on the back like an old friend. “We march on the morning,” he said. And then his voice turned dark and a shadow seemed to pass across his face, though Aulus told himself that it was only the flickering light of the lamps that distorted the man’s face. “Enjoy the memory of this night,” the legatus said, though Aulus was sure that he would not, “but do not forget the words we shared when the sun was high. Rome does not suffer traitors. And out here, where I am her will and word, judgment is swift.”
The legatus disappeared into the dark folds of his tent. As Aulus walked from the seat of power he could hear a whistle and then the chatter of women behind him. The legatus had yet spared some of the heathens then, though none would live to see the morning.
At noon of the second day since Aulus’ meeting with the legatus, the village of Taevera broke the eastern horizon, its small and shabby buildings surrounded by farmland and entirely undefended. The Taeverans were farmers; they had no scouts or soldiers who could have warned them of the coming onslaught, and none had been so lucky as to escape the Roman nets that encircled Manivil when it was taken. No one had brought word to those ahead that the time of their doom was nigh. The legatus was far too careful to let such a thing happen. Even now troops were in place, having moved noiselessly and unseen through the fields and forests of Taevera’s territory in the night, setting up a perimeter that would, at the legatus’ signal, close swiftly and tightly, leaving no hope of escape.
Aulus rode before his men. He had discovered the horse outside his tent the morning after his meeting with the legatus – it was a gift, a show of good faith in the centurion’s commitment to the legatus’ command. Aulus would have cut down the horse and all its bribery under the morning sun had fear for his wife and children not stayed his hand. He had accepted the horse as he had accepted the legatus’ terms: because he had no other choice. Now he was bound by his actions as well as his words.
With Taevera in sight, Aulus quickened his horse so that the nearly two hundred men in his command had to walk briskly to keep the pace. They would take the city while the sun was rising to its zenith. All the men and able-bodied boys of Taevera would be out in the fields at this hour, scattered and unarmed, and the village itself – and all the women and children within it – would be defenseless. As Aulus’ centuria razed the town, the perimeter would close – the tightening noose sealing off the last breath of air from Taevera’s broken lungs.
The men and boys of Taevera who survived capture would be moved to the back of the convoy, to become the slave-warriors of the auxilia, to fight and die for the Emperor’s honor. The women and children were Aulus’ charge – the legatus had handpicked him for the assignment – and would not be forced to such hypocrisy.
When Aulus and his men were a bowman’s shot from the first buildings of Taevera, a woman appeared in the center of the road. She looked worn and weathered, though she was young. Her dress was faded and stained and patched in several places. Her dark hair was unkempt and fell around her face like a tangle of brambles. She stood with her legs wide and her feet firmly planted, she had stones in her hands and a swirling hatred in her eyes. This was all the defense that Taevera would muster: one frail woman throwing stones against all the might of the Empire.
Though much taller and thinner than Caecina, this woman reminded Aulus of his wife. Perhaps it was the dark skin or the strong hands. He thought of his love and what she might be doing at that very moment in their modest home on the Quirinal. She was not a beautiful woman in the minds of most men, but Aulus loved her unreservedly. She was small and sturdy and ripe with life – as fertile as the Earth: she had borne Aulus seven children already and, though he did not know it yet, she was expecting their eighth. They had conceived the night before Aulus had left for this tour. By the time he returned – if he returned at all – she would be swollen with the child and he would be shocked and thrilled at the sight. Aulus knew very few things in this life, but he knew that he loved his family – even more than his country, if that was possible – and that he would do all that his body could muster to protect them. He wondered where this woman’s husband was and whether death had found him yet, on the plains of his home.
When the woman threw her first stone it fell far short of Aulus and his men. All the strength of Aulus’ constitution was tested as he spurred his horse forward, calling behind him for his men to keep their steady and deliberate pace. He bore down on the woman. She unloaded two more stones, both aimed haphazardly at the steed that was racing up to meet her; the first sailed high and wide, and panic took hold as she threw the second – she waited too long to release it and, instead of unhorsing her adversary, she merely smote the stone down at her feet as if it would awaken some earthen god to her defense. There was no such god – or worse yet, like so many of the old gods, he was dead.
Aulus grit his teeth and fixed his gaze, though it pained him. In one smooth and well-rehearsed motion he unsheathed his sword and felled the woman. No cry or cheer escaped his stony lips. There was barely any blood on his sword as he sheathed it and returned to his place before the marching horde. He instructed one of the men to move her dismembered remains out of their path. The man scurried ahead to his duty and, when it was done, when the pieces of the woman lay in a gentle heap against the wall of a building that had most likely been her home, he returned to his place in the marching ranks. If I must wantonly kill women as beasts, Aulus thought, I will not have them trampled as carrion.
The sack of Taevera was swift. Aulus’ centuria easily took the town. In accordance with the legatus’ orders, the buildings were burned; they were not remarkable in their quality or architecture, but Aulus was pained to give the order to destroy them when they so clearly could have been used by whatever Romans were sent to occupy this place. He feared he knew which officer might receive such a placement. But even if the nowhere of Taevera were not to be his post, it seemed needless to burn it to the ground. Cordus would not have done this, he thought.
When the sun was at its highest and the shadows were gone, Aulus stood on a hill on the eastern edge of the village. His centuria had swept through the town, burning the buildings and binding all those that they found within them. Those few Taeverans who dared to raise a hand against the Emperor were killed where they stood.
The hands and feet of all the survivors were bound – a hundred women and children and a handful of gnarled and bent old men. Screams filled the air – their mouths had been left uncovered. The women begged for the lives of their children, the children screamed in fear and confusion, and the old men stood wordlessly or speaking only in whispered comforts to those around them. Another centurion and his men passed to the south of the hill and marched west with all those who had been captured in the outlands of Taevera – their number was small: the village of Taevera had no more than forty men and many had been killed in the fields.
Voices high and shrill rang out from the women who struggled at their bonds, grasping for their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. Deep and hard replies, like the sound of stone grinding on stone, came from the men, promising a peace and salvation that would never come. Death makes liars of us all, thought Aulus. His mind went out in search of Caecina and their children. She was an amaranth, he thought, small and difficult, but useful and beautiful beyond measure once tamed. An image of her lifting dark-haired Jura, their youngest daughter, with her small but sturdy hands raced through Aulus’ mind. He wondered what his family pictured when they remembered him – what image did he conjure in their minds? Was he arrayed in the splendor of battle or did he appear in the simple robes of their home? Did they think of him often, the man who was gone for so long? Aulus stopped himself. He would not let himself think such thoughts. Not here and not now. He did not deserve them here and now.
Looking out at the horizon, it occurred to Aulus that the centuriae that had closed in around Taevera now stood in a vast circle around the hill on which he, his men, and the bound citizens of Taevera danced their wretched dance. So they will watch and see, he thought. Death was on the air. The noose was drawing closed.
From his ranks, Aulus selected his twelve best men – men of honor and valor and decency who had fought under his centurial signum for many years. He knew that they were the men, of all his company, who would enjoy this the least. If wicked work must be done, let not the wicked do it. The words were Cordus’ and they guided Aulus now more than ever. Long ago they had been spoken in his ear, a warning against the greed and lust that lurks in all men who love the smell of blood.
The twelve chosen men stood the prisoners in a line, arm against arm, and then stepped behind them and held them, two men to each prisoner. Aulus stood before them all. He drew his sword in silence. Aulus slit the throat of each man, woman, and child in the line. His chosen men laid the bodies aside as they fell and then moved to hold the next in the line. When those who saw their death stalking up to meet them tried to flee, they fell to the ground to crawl – with their feet bound, the prisoners could not run even if they had had somewhere to go. Those who tried to run were given the only mercy that Aulus could offer: they were stood up and taken to the front of the line.
The dead fell like animals, writhing and kicking, spasming and wretching until all the life had drained from them. Not once did Aulus see the movement of the bodies. He did not hear their screams over the dirge that his sword played to the constant beat of bodies falling to the ground. His stare moved from one face to the next in an unbreaking line, delving deep into the eyes of the doomed. He saw their fear and their hatred, their pleas for love and compassion. He saw all that made them human. And then he took it away from them, then he watched it fade from their eyes, then he did what men do: he used the little power that he had to protect the small part of the earth that was his.
The rest of Aulus’ centuria watched from atop the hill, and the rest of the Legion watched from the ring around it. At last there was only the sound of the wind. The last prisoner, an old and toothless man who had looked bravely into the unflinching face of his long-foreseen death, had fallen. Aulus did not know how long it had taken. The sun was still high and bright. All around the hill, the ring of the other centuriae was breaking and disbanding. Ranks were being reformed for the march that would continue until nightfall. Standing before his centuria, Aulus drove his sword into the earth, to clean it of blood. “Find me a dozen spades that have escaped the burning of this place,” he said to a young miles who stood at the front of the congregation. Aulus stood between the rows of bodies and the strength of his armed men while he waited to see what the fire would deliver.
The miles returned and doled out an armful of charred tools. Aulus Livius Macatus drove his spade deep into the rich soil. He had thrown his helm to the ground and the pink skin atop his hairless skull glistened with sweat under the high, westering sun. His chosen men were about him, digging fervently in the scorching heat. Aulus savored the labor while it lasted. He felt he could have dug for a long, long time. But the work was short-lived. In only a few hours they had dug a large rectangular grave wider than three men lying down, as long as two, and deeper than any man in the centuria was tall.
Aulus climbed out of this freshly rent hole in the earth and wiped the dirt from his cuirass as he gestured for his twelve trusted men to begin lowering the bodies down into their final beds. The men followed his orders absolutely. They did not toss the deceased into the grave or haul them in heaps as large as their battle-hardened arms would allow, but rather carried the dead one at a time down a slope on the western side of the grave and laid them gently to rest. All the while, Aulus stood squinting on the eastern precipice, the sinking sun shining brightly on his mail and in his eyes, and spoke the few soft words of grace and peace that he knew to the mounting dead.
The sun was beginning its final, furious descent as the men laid the final body down. It did not take long to cover the grave – full as it was, there was little space to pile the displaced dirt. The excess soil was mounded above the grave; in years to come it would be a green down, its life fed and nourished by the death buried beneath it, but not yet – now it was a hulking brown mess of dirt and dust and clay. No man heard the final words of Aulus’ bitter eulogy – they were swept up in the western breeze and carried far beyond the ears of the Legion to mingle with the sounds of leaves and streams and stones and become part of the endless song of the natural world.
Behind him, six to a side, Aulus’ chosen men stood, waiting. He turned to them and nodded a signal. It is done, he thought, as his men made for their places in the ranks. For a moment he watched their movements, and was awed to find them so precise and accurate, and for the first time in many a year he thought how magnificent was the unison of so many moving pieces.
Aulus called for his horse. Atop his mount, his sword at his waist, his signifier at his flank and a host of men behind him, Aulus Livius Macatus began to ride. He spurred his horse and rode out in front of his men, leading them down the path that the legatus’ army had beaten into the earth. In the west, the sun set with an orange wrath, its light shattering around the huge mound of dirt that Aulus and his men had forced the earth to vomit up, that nature might hide the folly of men.
“Let us leave this place,” he said, though he rode alone, ahead of his men, where none could hear him.