Sometimes, you get second chances. If you’re really lucky sometimes you even get third chances. But the thing about fourth chances is–nobody ever, ever gets one of those. Not one in a million.
Early this morning Sextus gave you a fourth chance. You knew it was your last, it was one past your last, and you absolutely could not fuck up again. So a few hours later, standing on the banks of the Tiber River with a hundred other men, panic thunders into your heart when you feel the stirrings of the gods within your chest.
You inhale sharply, holding your breath to steady yourself. A warning rumble shivers through your mind. You know why. It has to be the grain. The Tiber rushes by on your right, browned with the refuse of Rome. An ox on your side of the river lows plaintively. Harnessed in fours on both banks, the oxen hold great barges still against the current. Ten barges float in wait, riding low in the water under their load. They carry life.
Tons of it in bulging sacks.
The sun beats down mercilessly on parched earth. Failed fields line the Ostian Road, dry wheat fields already wasted to yellow stalks. You stand at the fore of the armed party blocking the road. They’re mostly rabble–less than two dozen are former soldiers like yourself.
“I have orders directly from Senator Paullus Pulcher,” squawks a little man at your commander, three paces before you. “You aren’t touching my grain!” The man speaking to your commander looks like a pleb to you, leading a band of thugs–his hair unkempt and his tunic fraying. Exactly the sort of man that would hold life hostage. A “merchant.” Your sword trembles in its scabbard, your palm itches to take hold of the hilt and draw it out. But you can’t fuck this up, so you remain still.
Your commander repeats his earlier charges, still holding an official senate document bearing the seal of Senator Marcus Verus. Something about dodging tariffs and missing permits. In your head, the gods growl in protest. They don’t care about legalities. They see only barges full of life straining to reach Rome. They hear tens of thousands of wailing bellies. That much life shouldn’t be subject to the vagaries of greed and politics. Fear runs down your spine at what the gods may demand. You cement your gaze onto your commander, praying for the voices to still. You draw strength from Largo, standing rigid at your side. This is your last chance. Sextus made that very clear.
You remember the look of weariness that crossed Sextus’s face when you entered the office in his home. His visceral disappointment. “Ah, Andreas, back again?” he asked, shaking his bald head. He’d gone to fat as he aged, but still held the shoulders of a military man. “I don’t think I can add any more to your father’s debt.”
You only half heard his words. You disliked his office. The ceiling stretched too high, the walls leaned too close, and two guards glowered at your back. They carried weapons, you were unarmed. If they turned on you, what chance did you have? You hadn’t eaten in too long. You eyed escape routes. Your best bet would be over the desk, past Sextus, into his garden beyond the curtains.
“I’m here for work,” you said. “Largo said you need enforcers. You know I’m worth as much as any three other men.” You’re big, several inches taller than most soldiers. You’re muscled, every day you spend hours at the public gymnasiums. You’re combat hardened, you were at the front of every major action in Risen Jerusalem. Its tunnels were painted red by your sword.
Sextus raised an eyebrow. “You certainly are, when you’re sober and you show up.” He leaned back and folded his hands over his belly. “Why should I trust you again?”
Because I need to eat, you thought. The gods torment you with their demands, but do they provide anything to their servant? Even so much as stale bread to keep the hunger pain away? That’s just another detail they expect you to take care of on your own.
“I won’t let you down again. I have nowhere else to go.” It was the best you could offer.
“You seem to keep forgetting that, and I’m getting tired of it,” Sextus said. “But your father needs help repaying that debt, and on his behalf I’ll give you one final chance.” With that he had Largo take you to Claudius, your commander for the day.
“Rome is starving.” The sniveling voice of the grain shipment’s leader jerks you back to the fallow fields by the Tiber. He jabs his finger into Claudius’s chest. “If you try to stop me there’ll be hell to pay.”
He leads a sprawl of a hundred or more armed men. They aren’t soldiers, but then neither are most of the men on your side. And your opposition looks well fed, which can make a big difference. They must have been paid at least partially in food.
“This shipment is contraband and you will comply immediately or I’ll take it by force.” Your commander’s voice hardens as his patience wears away. You’ll be first into the fray if a struggle breaks out. You stand in one of the ex-legionnarie squadrons just behind him, nearest the river.
You’re proud to stand among the soldiers. If a Horror erupts here there will be no screaming panic, no weeping and mayhem, only the precise martial response of true Roman men. If you die it will be as a soldier with his brothers, not as a squealing pig. You have no faith in the untrained toughs making up the bulk of your force to contribute anything but blind violence. They’d almost be more useful as healer fodder.
“You’re nothing but thieves,” the merchant says, and spits in the dirt. That disrespect shown to a Roman commander is a slap to your face. Your eyes flare, your arms tense, and the gods rally within you, giving you strength. You force them back, force yourself to wait for orders. Failing at that had cost you your second chance.
Claudius regards the man in silence for the span of two breaths. Then he rolls up the senatorial decree. “This shipment will go no further.” His voice has acquired a biting edge. He motions to your group. “Cut the first barge loose.”
The ten barges stretch in a line down the Tiber, each loaded to full capacity with thirty tons of grain. They carry 600,000 pounds of grain among them. Enough to feed the entire city of Rome for one full day. Two days at half rations, you remind yourself. The city’s been at half rations for months.
The weight of a furious mountain shifts within you. Unrest flares among the gods. No! echoes in your mind.
It’s a bluff, you think, placating. Obviously.
The shabby man’s eyes bulge in disbelief. “It will founder!” he sputters. As your squad moves to the oxen teams their handlers retreat behind the big animals. “We’ll lose the barge and the grain!”
Claudius nods. “That is the point. Hand them over to me or lose them entirely.”
You move in lockstep with seven other soldiers. None of you in uniform, of course, but it’s impossible to miss the drilled march, shields held steady in an unwavering line. You stride past the oxen and draw up beside a rope as thick as your arm. A mob of armed men faces you not a dozen paces away. Your right hand grips your hilt, but no one had yet drawn weapons. You were ordered not to draw first. You feel naked, your half-shield a fig-leaf clutched in one hand. You scan the mob, searching for flashing steel, but there are too many hands. You can’t keep track of them all.
“Cut the rope,” Claudius orders.
“Stop them!” shouts the shabby merchant.
Behind you! an urgent whisper strikes into your mind.
When the gods speak it is misleading to say they use words. Yes, you hear words, as if someone nearby is speaking. But words are only symbols meant to represent thoughts. At best they convey a surface-level approximation of what their speaker intends. Gods have no such limitations. The words of gods are transformative. The knowledge they impart becomes a part of you. Your emotions are transmuted so you feel the message exactly as the gods mean it. When they tell you someone is good, you overflow with warmth towards them. When they tell you someone is plotting against you, you can feel that person’s malice seeping out even through their smiling teeth.
And when they warn you that someone’s behind you, that warning comes with both panic and knowledge already set within. You know one of the handlers hiding behind an ox has moved against you, is even now diving at your back. You find yourself spinning, your sword out. You lash upward before you see your target, reacting to a glimpse of motion.
Your blade catches a downward-driving wrist, and your momentum severs the hand from its owner. You catch a glint of metal–maybe a long dagger–as it arcs into the river. For an instant you’re locked rigid, despite charging war cries at your rear. A boy in his early teens–curly black hair, a screaming mouth–crumples before you, clutching a gushing stump. Peach fuzz on his face, too young to shave, too stupid for this fate. What was he thinking? You don’t have time, you spin around, rejoining the squadron. You are needed.
The disbelieving eyes of that boy burn in your mind as flashing blades descend from all sides. Noise crashes over you in waves. Thinking becomes a luxury. None of this should be happening. You strike at the vermin before you in a haze. You breathe in air and breathe out fire, smashing men one by one by one.
After a long while you fall back and collapse to the dirt, gasping for air. Your arms burn, your head spins. You need time. Just a couple minutes.
Around you steel rings against steel, and moans rise from the ground. You hadn’t heard them before but they’re so loud now, loud as your ragged breaths.
You’re so weak. Just another minute. You lick blood from your swordhand, greedy for any nourishment. You lick it clean down past the wrist. Then you rise again, heft your shield, and push your way back to the front. They’re counting on you. They will die without you.
Eventually conscious thought returns. The fog lifts from your mind with a smattering of victory cries. The opposing gang of thugs flees, their weapons abandoned. A few of the younger hirelings on your side give chase, but are quickly called back. You let your shield slip from your grasp and slump into a sitting position, sword across your lap. It is over.
You scan the battlefield–the wide road, the ox path, the grassy shoulder of the river. Fifty-ish bodies lay scattered, maybe twenty of them from your side. Many still writhe in the dust. Neither side brought healers; they aren’t allowed outside Rome without a full cohort as escort. The wounded will have to make due with bandages and pray for a clean recovery. You press a hand against a burning cut at your hip, aware of it for the first time. You were lucky, it’s only a glancing blow.
Claudius approaches you, wiping his blade clean on a rag. “Good work soldier.” He pulls a small clay token imprinted with a numeral III from his satchel. “You fought like a demon. Present this to Sextus when you collect your pay and he’ll give you a modest bonus.”
You take it without comment.
It is a strange sort of hiss. It’s the sound of a soft, steady wind in the forest, the constant susurration of leaves. Or the hiss of a desert snake, if it was diffuse and endless. More than anything else, it’s the constancy that strikes you. That steady, unbroken sound.
You stand on a barge, knife in hand, and watch grain spilling overboard. Listening to the hiss of three hundred tons of wheat as they drain away, one pound at a time. The lifeblood of Rome pours over your boots and runs into the filthy river.
“Andreas, quit slacking.” The voice of one of your fellow soldiers, halfway down the barge, dutifully carrying out his part of the massacre. “You want another fight?”
Claudius gave you all of five minutes to gather your strength, then set you to work. Escorting the grain the rest of the way to Rome was impossible, he’d said. Travelling at the pace of oxen towing barges? You wouldn’t arrive until well after nightfall. By then the thugs could return to the port of Ostia, gather reinforcements, and strike back. You would be waylaid by a superior force and today’s deaths would have been for nothing. There was only one way to prevent the smugglers–Claudius calls them smugglers now, though you don’t remember him using that term before–from sneering at Roman laws and laughing at Rome’s enforcers. Destroy the contraband.
A cloud passed over the hired muscle at that. So much grain. Rumblings under breath like distant thunder, eyes flashing in darkened faces. You prepared for a bloody storm. Claudius asked sharply if this was where they wanted to declare treason against Rome. He demanded to know whether they felt they weren’t being paid enough. Then he gestured towards the barges and offered them the pay they needed most, in the currency smothering him. All they could carry, for every man there.
It was enough.
Grain spills from burlap wounds, flowing with that unending hiss.
You sweep a mostly-empty sack into the river. You plunge your knife into the next sack and pull across its length, watching the grain burst from the tear in a pale-gold gush. It’s not unlike blood. It’s not unlike the spill of crimson from the Jewish boy’s back when you’d pulled your javelin from his body, gurgling into the streets of Jerusalem. You’d watched him twitch feebly as his life drained away, your mind empty but for two worthless words. Your mind echoed with those words for weeks, growing louder by the hour. Overwhelming you. Letting in the gods. Your mind echoes with those same words now. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
The words run together, harsh and buzzing, blurring into something new and insistent. Stop this. Hissed by the gods. Stop this, stop this, stop this. They grow heavy, swelling with power as the gods shake off sleep. They wake within you, straining against your internal dams. Stop this!
Why won’t they just shut up? You’re following lawful orders. No one you know will starve. What do they expect you to do? How can one man stop this?
Two emptied barges spin lazily downriver. They were cut loose after being gutted, their oxen unharnessed and run off. Another sack empties under your knife and falls silent. You sweep it overboard, stab down, tear across. Yes, you are slacking. You could work three or four stacks at once, like your fellows. You start stabbing and tearing at an increased pace, several bags at once. Up, down, right to left. Repeat twice, then return to the first sack. Push it into the water, and begin anew. You have to finish before the gods come into their power.
Up, down, right to left. Step, sweep, repeat. Hiss, hiss, all around you. Keep at it, you can’t afford to fuck up again.
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First line of next week’s chapter: Senator Marcus Verus sat frozen, drowning in the Senate Hall.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: The first reaction I get from everybody when they come to this chapter is “Wait, what the hell is with this 2nd-person POV thing?”
Word-count of chapter 2 deleted content: 549