A horse gently cantered alongside the ill-treated road, guided by the ankles of a skilled rider. Sad fields surrounded man and beast, silent witnesses to the double scourge of war and depopulation. These were the forsaken bones of the Bull, were not even Wolves prowled.
Nothing green or golden was allowed to rest in the soil; harvested to the brown and sent to the front. After the grain, it was the turn for Men to depart the land, every single capable fighter needed against the Gaulish Terror. Stopping for a moment to adjust his wide brim pastoral hat, the knight wondered how many of these auxillii would return home and whom would greet them back upon their arrival; unsung were those that felt at the homestead front, giving up their lives alongside winter supplies. All to keep the troops fighting a few more days.
Thanks to his mount’s devotion, the rider quickly found himself surrounded by different fields. These have not been abandoned due to war nor lost their farmers to the needs of conflict; everywhere were the signs of neglect, out of season crops rotting away, marks on the soil of inadequate tools, brittle soil eroded by years of careless irrigation. Incompetence ruined these lands. Who were these people, these miserable stewards?
Seeking to learn more about them, the knight forced his horse to halt and dismounted. He toyed with the lance in his saddlebags, fingers dancing along the shaft as he surveyed the bleak horizons. Trusting Fortuna and the other Gods, the rider cleared the dust off his simple and worn tunic before leaning over the trails crossing the region.
Rabbit droppings, no wheel marks or footprints, all made a distressing sight. Not even the tell-tale sign of wandering sheep or adventurous goats. Whoever lived here seemed to have given up, dropping any attempts to tend the land or learn its mysteries.
“It seems they found the land frigid towards the caresses of their thumbs.” The knight concluded. “Where they expecting it to be more welcoming of human seed? Such a disharmonious marriage of spirits, I dread to think about the children of such union.”
His contemplations were interrupted by the whinnying of his horse, the beast complaining as it tore the ground with its muzzle, finding only frail and dry grass.
“Patience.” The man whispered as he caressed its mane. “There is nothing here for you, there is nothing here for anyone.”
The horse mood was not amenable and it was quick to resume complaining. The man rose and lined his left hand with his eyes, scanning his surroundings. A haunting spectral melody announced someone’s approach; it was simple, repetitive and lacking in creativity. The same notes, locked in chains.
Calming the beast by softly slapping its back, the rider took reins and guided it, walking side by side in an apparently relaxed march. The musician made itself known, a balding tall man that blew a pan flute, escorted by two companions: one starving youth and another old and wasting away. Their curious bucolic looks stood out against the worn bits of armour that dangled over their torn clothes and dirty bodies; scythes and rakes beaten and whet into nasty improvised weapons advertised their change of lifestyle.
The dismounted knight lowered the brim of his hat, covering his face in shadows, continuing ahead without breaking pace. As the trio approached, the fear felt by the horse became almost palpable. The three men stopped in front of them, blocking their path. The rider’s breath slowed down, reduced to few thoughtful and resolute breaths, his facial muscles relaxed with stoic serenity, his posture attentive to any attempt to surround him.
“Salve.” The youngest greeted. “That is a nice horse you have there. What brings you here, to these Ceres-forsaken lands?”
The horse whinnied once again, demanding to be appeased with more caresses. It was with delight that the trio studied the knight as he tended to the beast, eyes wandering over the blood-soaked bandages that covered most of his chest and left arm.
“Salve.” The rider finally acknowledged the greeting, his tone calm and confident. “I fear that my purpose here matters only to me and my master.”
The old man frowned as the flautist continued to study the knight.
“A slave? With such bearing? It really pisses me off.”
“If there is one thing I cannot stand is lack of respect. Do you think you are better than us, slave? Just because your master is rich and pampers you with a horse? We are just like him free men, are we not owned the same degree of deference?”
The knight exhaled exasperated, showing a chink in his armour of dignity.
“Are we boring you, slave?”
“The one I serve has no equal in this world. I bring her message to the stewards of Italia and its people.”
“Do we not inhabit these lands?” The old man enquired, rhetorically. “Are we not its stewards? Perhaps that message is meant to us. Have you considered that?”
The slave turned his head slightly around, as if replying by pointing out to the sorry state of the fields.
“You cannot hold this against us! This land rejects us like an unbroken horse or wife. There is more salt than water in the soil and the little nurturing patches are quickly consumed by savage thorns and grasses that poison any man or beast that tries to eat them. Not even goats are willing to call this place home.”
This made the knight ponder, raising chin and hat, revealing his youth and the scars that blemished his clean-shaven face.
“I am sorry to hear that. However…”
“However, nothing. Give us your horse and clothing, slave, as well as anything else you might be hiding on those saddlebags.” The youngest interloper interrupted, running out of patience. “This should be a lesson for your master, for not sending a proper escort and not disciplining his slaves. Remember who bleed and sweat to keep you fat and safe! If you are fast dropping to your knees and beg for forgiveness, I may feel generous enough to bring your message to the closest municipium.”
While the other talked, the rider jumped into action, spinning over himself and shocking the trio. They waved their weapons at the air, trying to stop him; efforts soon rendered futile as the rider made his spear jump, parrying attacks as he guided the head with his wounded hand. A ferrous scent filled their nostrils.
Pine and steel described a dreadful arc, forcing the trio to separate from each other, trying to flank the slave and exploit his blind spots. It was easier said than done, the shaft spinning at high speed between his two hands, rotating in such angles that tricked the eye, seeming to disappear for precious seconds only the reappear in the offense. The older attacker had more experience than his two companions, able to deal tricky rake strikes that never failed to connect with the spear, forcing the rider to slow down and progressively wearing him down, hoping to create an opening.
Having identified the most dangerous of his opponents, the slave struck the horse, making it rise on its hind legs, waving the hooves towards the trio. Fully exploiting the well-needed moment of distraction, the knight darted towards the flautist, unleashing a torrent of blows; he tried to keep him at bay by flaying the scythe in panicked fury, rending his tunic but failing to meet flesh.
The slave was more efficient, each blow costly, ending by impaling the spear in the flautist’s leg. As he howled in pain, a knife was smuggled from out of his clothes and buried across the throat of the unfortunate musician.
Assuming that the knight had lowered his guard, the youngest attacker rushed to stab at his back. A surprisingly fast turn and knife throw quickly made him regret his choice, forcing him to retreat with a painful present right between the kidneys.
The rider could feel the blood rushing though his vein, marching at the command of his rising heartbeat, the breathing harsh and pained. It was not enough to let him run away; this had to finish now.
He whistled, his horse answered the summons, knight mounting with a jump and forcing gallop with ankle nudges. Arm raised, spear aligned, the slave narrowed his eyes, feeling the impulse and balance. The youth turned back, face twisted in terror as he realized what was about to happen.
A wet thud as the spear tip met skull, projecting the poor assailant one meter or so. The slave drove by, not looking back.
Only the old man remained.
Gazes meeting, they took a measure of each other. Slave dismounted; the veteran assumed a defensive posture. The slave shrugged, recovered the spear with a pull. The old man kept his distance, trying to keep him away with the rake. The slave just threw his spear with inhuman strength, pinning the old man against the ground.
Horse following behind him, the slave knight approach the wounded veteran. It was funny as the short distanced seemed to stretch, space twisted into a scarlet and brown infinite, adrenaline fading and leaving him all too conscious of his actions, of the bitter fruits of his excess of zeal and brutality.
And for a moment he was lost. No longer in the lands of the Bull. Back in the Wolf’s den.
Working in a cold and humid cell, the light barely enough for the tasks at and. And the woman; tall as no other. Black, golden and scarlet. Offering him a hand entwined with rope and leather. A hand and a smile.
“I am beyond impressed. Even after all that happened, you found a way to continue serving the Republic.” She told him, her Latin unpolished and full of plebeian quirks. Even so, her words still ringed sweeter than those of any patrician. “The world has moved ahead without you, Sextus. Nobody expects anything from you, nobody expects you to give anything else for the Senate and People. You already gave your everything. You could have let the waters of Lethe taken you, enjoyed the right to be forgotten. But it is no comfort, is it? No, it torments you. You cannot stand not being relied on. You need to be needed.”
Her eyes wander towards the pile of documents that the slave still had to audit before dawn. It was civic service, even if it was a subtle and unglamorous one.
“I will not insult you by offering you freedom.” The woman cloaked in red continued. “I offer you the possibility to become someone that can protect the Senate and People; perhaps then you might find true liberation or at least contentment.”
She threw a heavy bag on top of the scroll pile. It opened, revealing silver disks.
“You are not the only one with a debt to repay. Who better than you to pay Rome’s debts? Erase the debt, save our future.”
The slave was back to the mistreated field, spear in his hands, shaft pressing against the neck of the vanquished old man. This one murmured something, trying to catch the attention of the rider.
“Cis romanus sum.”
The knight put the spear aside.
“Perhaps it would have been wiser to start this dialogue of ours with that.”
“A free citizen does not have to answer to a man that only lives through the clemency of another.” The veteran gestured a sign of compliance, searching in his clothes for something. He pulled out a worn military scarf, wrapped around a metallic plate. “Here it is, my diploma.”
The slave planted his spear in resting position, examining the legitimacy of the document. Certified by the Senate, granting the man and his kin full citizenship.
A true veteran.
Returning the diploma as gently as if it was feathers instead of bronze, picked up his weapon and turned his back, lost in thoughts. He had no right to censor the old man. Being a good soldier and auxiliary granted him citizenship and lands, however, did not come with agricultural knowledge and the talent to be a farmer. He was, however, good at fighting. Who can be blamed for trying to make a living with the skills they have? His flaws did not rob him of his humanity; if anything, it allowed it to express itself. Besides, he now longer stood between him and his mission and he had already unleashed more violence than the situation demanded.
Tending to his horse and after making sure the beast was not hurt during the fight, the slave returned to the struggling veteran with a proposal.
“You do not have to pretend to be who you are not; you do not have to betray your legacy either. Go North, I am sure you will find purpose once again.
The old man rose and spat on the ground.
“Manes take you, slave! You do not know me. Who are you to say such things?”
Looking for something on his saddlebags, the slave returned with something. A single silver coin.
“I know enough, I learned that you are a Roman, someone even more fitting than I am to carry this message. These lands and its peoples once gave everything they had to my master in order to present a united front during the wars against Greeks and Carthage. We survived together, and earned our peace. It is only fair that we pay them back, return what was borrowed, show how well we took care of the secrets to us entrusted.”
Those words roused the curiosity within the old man’s heart, making him accept the coin. A horse in one side, the words “CELERES” engraved in the other. The veteran made coin dance within its fingers, as if expecting further insights into its nature.
“Give it to the first magistrate or priest you meet.” Mounted, ankles and gallop. The slave had said what he had to say.
“Wait!” The old man stumbled behind the speeding horse. “What the Dis Pater is this?”
“A promise. ” The knight shouted back. “One that we will all see fulfilled.”