“You’re kidding, right? They’ll never accept me!” Benayah looks at you with incredulous eyes. He doesn’t believe you, but you can see the change in him. He’s killed now. He’s killed a man in combat, a man who didn’t want to die and fought him for his life. That changes a person. Everyone else can see it too. They may never accept him, but they’ll listen.
“Every tenement along Argiletum road,” you stress. The two of you stand on the roof of the repurposed manor, looking down on the rush of preparation below. “There’s plenty of sick and elderly among them. I need you.”
Benayah shakes his head. He doesn’t believe there’s enough hours left before daybreak to evacuate them all. Neither do you, for that matter. But the gods insist it be done, and you don’t have the energy to fight them on this.
“Get Ruso to do it,” Benayah says.
“Ruso’s with Sura, defending the western half of the Suburra. Look, the people know I favor you, they’ll pay attention.”
“I’m a kid. I’m weak. I’m half Jewish.”
“None of that matters as much as you think. Fake it. Pretend your God is speaking through you. This is important enough to try.”
“And if I fail?”
“Then fuck it, you did what you could. All I ask is that you really try.”
When Benayah doesn’t protest immediately, you know you’ve got him.
“You’re my right hand in this,” you say. “I’ll announce that you speak for me. Anything Benayah says, Andreas says as well. ”
You do, and damned if it doesn’t work.
“Who goes there?”
The dreaded query from the dark. Such a cliche too. You’d hoped your father’s guards were more original than that. Splashes of torchlight leak through thin gaps in the casks surrounding you–olive oil stacked to the roof.
“No one dies,” you hiss at your men. You quietly set down your cask, as rapidly approaching footsteps sound through the warehouse. With padded steps you stalk towards them. The excited voices of the gods rise to a low buzzing in your head.
The guard draws up short when he turns the corner, clearly not expecting to see a small company of rugged men. You’re two strides from him, tensing for the lunge, hands ready to choke him into some sort of forced slumber. You see his mouth open to raise an alarm–you know you’ll reach him in time–when recognition flashes over his eyes and the alarm turns to surprise.
“Master Andreas?” he asks.
“Largo?” You recognize him too, he’s been working for your father for years.
“Sir, what are you doing here?” His brow furrows in confusion.
A snap decision, prompted by every god in your mind shouting as one Trust him.
“I’m stealing all my father’s olive oil. We need it in the Suburra.” You made the decision just after midnight. You can no longer think of your family’s loans and debts. You can no longer worry over ruined businesses. Not when the soul of Rome hangs in the balance. Your father will understand. The people of the Suburra need this oil far more than your family does.
Largo’s eyes grow wide. “It’s true then? What I heard about you?”
You look to the men behind you with raised eyebrows. They look back blankly. One shrugs.
“I guess that depends on what you heard.”
“You’re a champion of the people now. You fight for the poor, against the rich and the corrupt. You speak the words of the gods themselves, working without sleep or rest, and no blade can touch you in combat.”
“Huh.” You scratch your chin with your right hand, slipping your bandaged left hand out of sight. “That’s actually pretty much right on.”
Largo drops to one knee, and holds a fist over his heart.
“Take me with you, young master. I will fight for you. Tonight, if you’ll have me.”
The approval of the gods breaks over you like a warm surf. For once, things seem to be going alright. You could get used to this.
“Sure thing, Largo. Let’s hurry though, we don’t have much time.”
You flee, bolting down the Suburra’s winding streets, two dozen men running pell-mell at your side. The rising sun lashes your back, bearing down on you. It’s not the sun you flee from. It’s the full century of Praetorian Guardsmen giving chase.
You break around a corner, hurdle heaped debris. You glance sideways, see Largo keeping up. Rocks crash to the streets at your heels, smashing into your pursuers. Curses, and shouts of pain. You’re almost there. You sprint around another corner.
Feigned routs are dangerous. Even a drilled Roman legion can have difficulty pulling them off. It takes iron discipline to stop in mid-flight and turn to face your pursuer, because every man fears doing so alone. If he stops before his brothers, the enemy sweeps into him and cuts him down in an eyeblink. Better to run two more steps and watch your fellows, to make sure they stop as well. Unless fully half the men are all willing to be the first one to stop, and do so as one, the feigned rout becomes real. There’s no way your rag-tag crew could pull it off.
You lead your men around a final turn. A dead-end looms ahead, two decrepit tenements flush without any entrances facing this alley. At the end you will all stop, as there will be nowhere left to run. The best way to overcome human nature is to overpower it entirely with sheer walls of brick and mortar. They knew this was the plan, and yet several still yelp in dismay. Fortunately, it’s too late to back out now.
You spin before you reach the wall, let the men rush past you, and take the fore again. The sun spears your eyes. The Praetorians bear down on you, barely thinned by the earlier bombardment, but they’re in the killing slot now. They crowd each other as the dirty alley narrows. Larger stones drop from six floors above, some easily a hundred pounds. One crushes a man in a juicy burst. You heft your shield and watch hands as they raise flashing swords. The hands show where the steel goes–
They hit in a solid wave. Two dozen irregulars pressed into a dead-end would be massacred by a century of trained Praetorians in a fair fight. You are not fighting fair. You aren’t even supposed to be trying to break anyone, just stay alive until the ax drops. You can’t help lashing out anyway. You feel the thrum of hatred singing in your veins. These fuckers are trying to kill you. Trying to shove steel through your body. The terror of that violation drives you. The anticipation of feeling sharpened metal pushing apart the fibers of your muscles, plunging into your organs. In the moments that shields are forced down you see enraged Praetorian faces, teeth grinding. They feel it too. You’ll get them first.
The first shouts of alarm rise from the back of the Praetorian century. You can’t see to the rear ranks, but you know what’s happening. The striking company has poured from the tenements they’d hidden in and driven into the Praetorian’s backs. They lead with heavy cudgels and two-handed axes, crushing spines and skulls. Rows of long spears behind them, piercing further forward, tenderizing enemy flesh. The century recoils, compresses into itself. The screams grow frantic. Their forced about-face doesn’t quite complete, too late. You roar and push forward, stepping on a writhing body. Fingers crunch under your feet.
You sit on slick cobblestones, gulping down water. Children run among your group, passing out bread and drink. You need to keep your strength up. You ignore the moaning. The sun beats down from just above the high walls hemming you in.
A girl child missing her front teeth dashes to you in a totter, holding a loaf of bread. It’s still warm, freshly baked from stolen grain. You stuff it in your mouth and it feels like the sunlight of childhood days, going down. It’s good to be holding bread again, however briefly. Good to hold what you’re fighting for in your hands.
Around you, mortally wounded irregulars are quickly bandaged and tourniqueted. They’re rushed through the slum’s jumbled maze to the single Vestal Handmaiden in your half of the Suburra. Praetorian wounded are carried to her as well, though without bandaging or delicacy. Those still conscious cry in pathetic panic. They know what awaits them.
The infirm of the Suburra step around you. They collect stones and hunks of masonry, hauling them back up the tops of the tenements to be reused in the next skirmish. Guilt needles you as you watch.
This isn’t fair, the gods whisper. You should be doing that.
You know you should. A boy no older than ten struggles to lift a jagged rock before you. You are so much larger than him. It would be easy for you to heft that for him and climb a few flights of stairs. Why should he struggle so keenly when it would be so simple for you? It’s grotesquely selfish to sit and do nothing. But you can’t do everything. There are so many rocks, and so much to do, and you have to conserve your energy for the next assault. You are not a god. The frustration of that sears you. It burns your eyes, hot and wet. If only you had more time, more energy, more body. In this flesh, you always fall short. You will never be enough.
You try to look away, but the gods won’t allow it. If you cannot help, you will at least watch. You will honor their struggle that much.
You don’t reply to them. When do they ever listen to you anyway?
The lookouts on the roofs trill a series of whistles. Another Praetorian century approaches. You catch Benayah’s eye, across the street. He flashes you a grin, then turns to the ambushing force resting with him. Words you can’t hear, followed by Benayah’s men rising and taking up their weapons. In moments they’ll be gone, reabsorbed into the nooks and crannies of the Suburra.
The gash in your left hand throbs. It reopened in the fighting and it’s been leaking blood since. It makes your shield harder to grip. A thing like that could kill a man. Fortunately you have the gods protecting you.
You stand to marshal your company. It’ll be a long and merciless day.
Later. A wider street. More men on your side, more Praetorians opposing you as well. A shield crashes against your own, drives it to your left, leaving your right side open. You swing down, knowing what’s coming–the sword point of the Praetorian diagonally to your right, exploiting the opening. Professional soldiers, working as one, without needing to stop to think. You clang down on metal, feel it deflected, and immediately chop down again, reaching, hoping to bite the flesh of an exposed arm. Nothing.
Hold the line, wait for–DUCK
You flinch away just as a sword darts over the top of your shield, jabbing at your face. The point almost took your eye. At the same time a crash of metal to both sides of you, grunts of effort as Largo slams forward, stabbing repeatedly. You heave your shoulder up under your shield, lift and lunge, strike into the gap that opens. Your sword glances off metal plates. Too much weight, the gap closes. You jerk back before seeking blades can open you up.
And then there it is, the sound of the striking company plowing into the Praetorian’s rear. A groundswell of chaos. The men before you jostle for room to swing their arms. You strike out, sword catching a jaw, breaking into the bone. The screams grow frantic. Rocks dropping from above find packed targets.
Strange action in the Praetorian ranks catches your eye. When the wounded are pulled back from the front there’s no rear to take them to. A Praetorian catches a man falling before him. He drags him back a few strides as another fighter takes his place. The rear man holds a knife, already dripping blood. As you watch he whispers quick words into his wounded companion’s ear, then smoothly slides the knife into his neck and withdraws, lowering him to the ground as life spills down his chest. It glistens where the sun catches it.
The man beside you falls, shrieking. Largo muscles into the emptied spot before it can be exploited, ringing steel. You follow up, shield-push followed by sword-thrust, but you’re distracted. You see Praetorians crouched, swords drawn, stabbing out at prone companions that have fallen too far away to be pulled back.
They’re killing their own wounded. They know they’re lost. They’re finishing their own men so you can’t use them as healer fodder.
“PUSH!!” you shout, lunging forward, wading into the slick. You have to stop them. You need those wounded. A plummeting rock the size of your head nearly takes your arm, splits on impact beside you with a thunder crack.
Minutes later it’s all over but the moaning. There are no more than a handful of Praetorians left breathing. You curse, but there is nothing to be done, and no time anyway. One block ahead you see Suburrans fleeing a tenement from the top floor. They lay planks across a narrow alley way and scramble across to the next building. It’s mostly the older women and children that drop artillery onto the streets below, those who want to fight but can’t man the front lines. At least twenty of them crowd on the roof, anxiously waiting their turn to cross. A trailing century of Praetorians must be storming that building, clearing it of hostiles.
“You!” You single out the leader of the supporting company that’s bolstered your own. “Get to the top of that building,” you point to the building being evacuated into. “Make sure the Praetorians don’t cross over!”
You lift a fist to signal your remaining company and Benayah’s striking force, punching at the glowering sun. “We’re going to barricade them inside, and torch the place. After me!”
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First line of next week’s chapter: The extent that my real day followed the course of my dream was surreal.
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