The hours kept growing heavier, the sky more oppressive. Its blue dome sank onto the Earth, squeezing us beneath its weight. I kept my head ducked as I scurried from frantic streets to debris-choked alleys, afraid of feeling the celestial vault crashing down over my profane flesh. I tried not to think of it as I peeked around corners. I concentrated instead on the sounds around me, and the movements of disturbed sparrows and urchins that revealed approaching mobs or guards. I ran from them, and hid when I couldn’t run.
I’d left the Ludus the moment today’s games were cancelled. Long ago now, and every minute under that sky cinched my dread tighter. I couldn’t turn back though. I had to know. When I finally reached the Temple of Somnus I almost relaxed. My shoulders unwound fractionally, soothed by the thick stone columns rising around me. It was a stupid instinct. If the heavens fell, no stone walls would save us.
The priests inside waded through pools of incense smoke that wouldn’t rise. They speared me with glares of hatred when I asked if Aurelius was in. Of course he was in, where would he go? Was he safe? Everyone was safe; was I implying the temple couldn’t care for its own? All right, but could someone make sure he existed? What kind of fucking fool question was that?
Finally someone was sent to check. Yes, Aurelius was fine, he did actually exist, and could I kindly fuck off? I turned away, lightheaded. Good. Everything was good. Last night had been another dream. I even caught a distant glimpse of him as I left, a flash of bouncing gold.
The Aurelius of my dream had wanted to live. I had tasted his terror as he came apart. Dreams were awful enough before; I couldn’t take this new level of horror. I never wanted to feel that again. Next time I came to visit Aurelius–the Aurelius of this world–I would ask him how to destroy the dreamtime. What potion I could drink that would prevent me from ever sinking into dreams again. I couldn’t be held responsible for preserving the lives of people I’d never intended to create. Not at the cost of never waking again. It was too much to bear. I wasn’t a god.
The feeling of eyes tracking me brought me out of my brooding. I raised my head for an instant, took in ramshackle carts, desperate faces, before jerking it back down again. Blood stained the streets, mottled by hundreds of boots. Shit. I had stumbled into the Suburra. They would eat me alive if they smelled fear on me. I increased my pace as boldly as possible. This was how angry, busy people walked, right? Scowl. Look preoccupied. Maybe they wouldn’t smell my panic over the charcoal fumes of arson.
An excited messenger bumped into a local tough as I hustled along, and the large thug lashed out, smashing the man to the ground. Nearby muttered conversations grew steadily into shouting matches, voices finally rising to scream obscenities. The entire city teetered at the edge of an uneasy respite, dipping in and out of violent outbursts. Every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick.
Emerging from the warren of streets brought no relief. The Ludus was not as I had left it. Anxious energy seeped from the outer walls, stirred into muddled eddies by animal baying. An ox-drawn cart waited out front, in flagrant violation of statute. I broke into a scrambling jog. What now? Couldn’t anything ever go right?
The cramped confines of the stables mimicked the world outside in claustrophobia. My animals paced tight circles in their cages. Drawn-out lowing underlay huffed whines. Panting further thickened the air, mixing with the smell of fresh death. Sounds of hissed outrage drew me further in. A group had congregated near the end of an interior aisle. In the center stood two men I didn’t recognize, holding hooks and blades, instruments of butchery. Two Ludus slaves, Zia and Erik, bracketed them. Zia battered them with a folded kitchen towel and furious reproach. Erik stood several paces back, watching forlornly. A puddle of blood spilled from an adjacent cage, pushing outward in erratic ripples.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, approaching. “Zia, where are the guards?”
One man turned to me, brandishing a cleaver. “Don’t interfere,” he growled.
“Gone!” Zia’s eyes shone with tears of impotent rage. “Sextus took them all, and brought these idiots to kill our beasts!”
For a moment I gaped, truly not believing.
“Only the ones that were supposed to die anyway,” the other man said defensively. Like that made it better. Like that mattered at all. I pushed through them to look into the cage.
Cedric, one of our younger male lions, lay on his side in a pool of his own blood. It seeped from his form slowly, from a dozen ham-handed cuts and punctures, none of them striking anywhere vital. A sticky ring embraced him, a ridge clotting into his fur. His mane floated on viscous liquid ruby.
My knees went weak. I gripped the bars of the cage for stability. He had originally been slated to die today, in the Colosseum. How had I let myself feel relief? Why had I allowed that note of joy into my being? I’d thought while the Romans were busying carving themselves up in the streets my animals would enjoy a reprieve. A few months commutation, a bit more life. I would make it bearable. Comfortable, if I could.
Cedric’s eyes grew glassy. I was so stupid. Cedric’s flanks rose and fell unevenly, propagating the ripples I’d seen. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“Why?” I asked.
No one jumped to answer. Who cares for a slave’s whys? Finally Erik spoke up. “Food. Meat to be given out in celebration tonight.”
I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead against the bars. “Sextus was fine with this? They’re worth so much more than just their meat…”
“Marcus’s orders,” Erik replied. I heard strain in his voice. Something unsaid.
“What is it?” I prompted.
“Tomorrow… tomorrow will be worse. Every animal that’s killed in the Colosseum will be cooked and distributed. Every animal that isn’t killed in the Colosseum will be slaughtered here and cooked as well. So even the lowest plebeian may eat as the patricians for one day, or something. Tomorrow is the last day for all of them.”
A spiny groan cut its way from my lungs, ripping its way up my chest and escaping me in a gurgle. I looked down at the suffering lion beneath me. Saw blood lapping at my sandals.
“You have no idea what you’re doing,” I said. I straightened, and turned to face the two men. Wondered briefly what they would look like in cages, bleeding from a dozen inexpert gouges. “Leave the killing to us. We’ll do it quickly and mercifully. You can load the carcasses afterwards. Just don’t touch any of my animals with your fumbling spikes again.”
The men nodded. They looked relieved. I swallowed bile and began with Cedric.
I am sorry. You must die so that I may live. I don’t ask your forgiveness; this is the way of life. But know I wish this world was different.
After the third time, my mantra broke apart in my throat on the way up. As it crumbled back into my guts it took a pillar of my soul with it. Something cracked deep inside.
Hours later, the too-close sun finally at some remove as it descended through the afternoon, I labored against a handcart in Rome’s streets. It was illegal to move a cart through the streets during daylight hours, but with the rioting and burning and killing I figured my outbound carting was the least of anyone’s worries. Nonetheless, I affected an important air, as if dispatched by the Emperor himself. It was startling how much that actually made me feel like I had a right to be on the street. With a straightened spine and squared shoulders, I felt I deserved to hold my spine straight and my shoulders squared. No one had challenged me yet. Not even on the occasions the covered load emitted a series of short, animal whines.
“Are you sure?” Erik had asked me. I’d needed help to load the cages into the cart, and I realized I had come to trust him. It was an interesting feeling. I would have to think that over, later. “If they catch you,” he said, “it’ll be maiming for sure. Maybe execution.”
“I’m too valuable to Sextus,” I said, which was pushing the truth. But I didn’t care.
We placed both the wolf-pups in one transport cage, and their mother in another. They barely fit on the small handcart. We loaded them lengthwise, with the mother’s cage slightly hanging off the back. I halted Erik before he drew the burlap over them.
“This is the second time you’ve helped save these pups,” I said. “I’ve already named the girl Lady, and the mother is Ana, but the boy isn’t called anything yet. Would you like to name him?”
Erik pursed his lips. He cast me a doubtful look. “Why do you name them?” he asked.
I hesitated. Years ago I’d named the first animals because I was alone and in pain and it reminded me of Ehud. It’s what he would have done. I, too, had once asked Ehud why he named every animal. He’d said that only things don’t have names, and animals weren’t things. Maybe if animals had names, people would care about them more.
Names weren’t nearly enough. My name hadn’t kept him in our village–he’d left me behind as soon as he could. Nor had his name kept the stone in my hand when Rabbi Tzuriel turned his gaze on me. But after I’d named the first few animals it seemed unfair to name some and not others. And late at night, after they’d all been fed and rubbed down and everyone else had left, I could whisper secrets to them using their proper names. I imagined they hated me a little less for it.
I wasn’t about to tell Erik any of that. I shrugged. “It makes them easier to tell apart, I guess. I can keep track of who’s been fed, who still needs exercise, that sort of thing.”
“Guess that doesn’t matter now,” Erik said, gazing back to the pups. “I don’t know… I’ve never thought about it. I guess Erik is a good name. He can be an Erik.”
I nodded. “Erik it is.” We covered the cart, and I went to fetch the modest sack of coins I’d squirreled away over the years. I pressed a handful of them into Erik’s palm, and hid the rest under the burlap with the wolves.
“You don’t have to bribe me,” Erik said, his eyes sad.
I shook my head. “It’s not a bribe. If I don’t make it back, I want you to have something. The next months will be harsh. This might get you a loaf or two.”
Erik scowled and chucked the coins into the cart. “If things get worse the money won’t be much use anyway. We don’t need money, Joah. We need you.”
I stared at him in silence for several breaths. Finally I grunted in what I hoped was a non-committal way, took up the cart’s handles, and entered the implacable city.
I trudged east, on a path that took me directly away from the Palace. No need to get caught up in the fighting. A crow cawed to me at a crossroads, perched on the arm of a statue of Mercury. The crow’s shrill cries assaulted me, over and over, raising a wretched alarm. The statue it rested on wept. Black tears collected under the god’s eyes. Dark, oily tracks streaked his face. I lowered my head and hurried on.
I’d fled well past the Servian Wall, approaching the edges of the city, when the voice called out to me.
“Hey pops. Whacha got under there?” The voice cracked as it spoke, off to my right. I glanced over, catching sight of a pimply youth leaning against an alley wall. He played idly with a long dagger, half-lidded eyes roving over the covered cart.
“Nothing you’d care about,” I said, not stopping.
“Oh yeah? Maybe gimmie a peek and I’ll decide that.”
“No. Emperor’s business.” It was worth a shot. From the corner of my eye I glimpsed movement. A predator pacing his prey.
“You wanna die for an Emperor that won’t even be around tomorrow?”
Dammit. I stopped. I rotated the cart so its back opened to the kid. Then I walked around to its rear and flipped the cover aside. Two wolf-pups and their mother blinked in the sudden light.
“See? Nothing for you here.”
“Looks like a handful of coins, and some mighty good eating. Absolutely for me.” The kid grinned, flashing his weapon, and advanced on me. “Step back, old man.”
Ana rose to her feet.
“No,” I said. “No one gets these wolves. Not you, not Sextus, not even the Emperor.”
“I ain’t letting that much food get away. You think I won’t kill you for it? You’re already dead. You just need me to show you.” He stepped forward again. “Last chance.”
Ana bristled. A low growl rumbled from her chest. I reached over and grabbed the latch of her cage. “You take another step,” I said, “and I let their mother free. I don’t think she likes you.”
The boy narrowed his eyes. “Bullshit.”
I toyed with the latch. “Try me. Just try me.”
He hesitated, eyes shifting between us. Judging. Running a finger over his dagger.
Snarling, he leapt for me. Somehow I didn’t flinch back. I threw the bolt and flung the cage door open. A furry missile launched from within, snaring a bony human wrist in mid-flight. The boy screamed, falling to his knees. Deep growling and vicious shaking filled the street. I ignored the frantic screeching. Pulled the burlap back over my cart instead. In seconds I was clattering away, charging headlong from the thrashing scene. The cries distorted into distant echoes quickly.
Adrenaline spurred me, buildings flashed past. By the time I slowed to lumbering gasps I’d broken free of the city. I kept moving anyway, my whole body shaking. This was still too close to human habitation. I needed to be further out. Further from the evils of men.
Somewhere there must be such a place.
“Alright Lady, Little Erik. This is where we part ways.”
Around me, the dry ruins of failed wheat fields. The road here ran past a swelling hill. I could make out trees on the northern horizon–what I hoped was the start of a woods. This would have to do.
I opened their cage and stepped back. The pups looked at me expectantly. Little Erik yawned. I sighed, and reached in to dig them out.
“Come on, off you go.” I set Lady down first, then Erik beside her. They pawed at the unfamiliar ground, sniffing at the dirt. “Look, I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.” Erik lifted his leg to pee on his sister, like a jerk.
This wasn’t going to work. I was just trading one death for another. I’d been so determined to do at least one good thing. To spare these wolves, if no one else. And here they were, helpless on their own. I felt heat welling up beneath my lungs. Nothing ever turned out right. Not one thing.
Should I take them back? Then at least their deaths would mean something, allow a few people a few meals. I would put them down quickly and mercifully. It would be a far easier death than slowly starving in this wilderness. Or being mauled and eaten alive by some hungry predator. A vision came to me of Erik being crunched apart in a bear’s maw. Of an emaciated Lady sprawled on the ground, too starved to move, too weak to resist as a vulture plucked her eyes out.
My vision blurred. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They were supposed to have a chance. I had been doing a good thing. And that fucking punk kid had ruined it all. Now I could only decide if they would die mercifully by my hand, or painfully under God’s watch.
I crouched down, placing one hand over Lady’s head, the other at the base of her neck. I blinked rapidly, breathed shakily. Damn it all. I looked up, glaring into the sunken heavens. They pressed down tightly in spite. I couldn’t even raise my fists against them. There just wasn’t anything left within me.
A brush of movement, at the top of the overhanging hill. Something loped over the rise, four-legged and furry, head held high. Ana came to a stop at the hill’s crest, ears pricked into the sky. She stood regally, gazing out over the country. For a moment I forgot I could breath.
“Lady! Erik! Look! Your mother! She’s come for you! She tracked us here!”
The pups didn’t regard me, didn’t follow my broad gestures or stop their pawing. It was almost as if they had no idea how humans communicated. Oh hell, how was I going to do this? Could I pick them up and carry them to their mother without her mauling me?
At that moment the wind shifted and instantly both little noses lifted, twitching vigorously. A yelp from Lady, then from Erik, and the two bounded off. They scrambled up the hill to their mother, as she watched and calmly waited. In no time at all they sprung at her feet, licking and nuzzling. Ana sniffed at them to make sure they were her own, then lifted her head to the sky and unleashed a long, drifting howl.
Without a glance to me she turned and led her children away, toward the distant woods. I sunk to the ground in a heap, breathing helpless thanks.
Read next week’s chapter today by becoming a patron on Patreon. Also get author’s notes and deleted content.
First line of next week’s chapter: “No, that isn’t possible.”
First line of this week’s author’s notes: Did you know that sloths are a new-world animal?
Word-count of chapter 34 deleted content: 117