Your head grew light on the return march, your insides hollow. You stumbled over your own feet. Unable to wait, you cut open your sixty-pound sack of grain, scooped a handful into your mouth, and chewed as best you could. The hard, dried seeds cracked reluctantly, like rough pebbles. They desiccated your mouth, pulled moisture from under your lips, stuck to your gums. You swallowed gravel, grateful for anything to quell your stomach.
You still couldn’t keep up with the rest of the party. Their forms grew distant, then disappeared over a rise. Weak with hunger you lagged behind, sporadically spilling grain from the slit you’d cut. It salted the road behind you.
The gods grew ever louder in your mind during the return trek. They started as a hiss, as a dozen hisses, overlapping softs and harshes. The sounds of grain sacks emptying into a river, the sounds of a final rattling breath. They’ve grown and interwoven, building into sibilant voices, not quite forming words yet. But soon. Soon.
You stumble into the city after nightfall, knowing you have to stop the gods while you still can. It’s been weeks since you’ve touched wine, months almost, but you don’t have any other choice at this point. You ramble down worryingly abandoned streets, looking for an open shop. Anywhere you can turn this grain into coin. All doors are barred, all windows shuttered.
You turn behind the next building to cut through an alley. A misstep.
It’s coming for you, whispers a god’s voice in your ear, but you already know. A dart of movement in shadows alerted you. Something man-sized slithers in the gloom, stretching from one pool of darkness to meld into another.
You drop the sack of grain and reach to your belt, but your sword isn’t there. It was bound into its scabbard and stowed in your pack when you entered the city, the only way you could legally carry it within the walls of Rome. Not enough time to get it now.
You skip back, creating distance so you’ll be able to yank the small hidden dagger from under your tunic, strapped to your inner thigh. The form lurches after you, closing too fast. You bring up clenched fists and set your feet. If you die tonight it won’t be easily.
The shadow detaches from the mouth of the alley and stumbles into the street, an old drunk in a tattered tunic. He pulls up short when he sees your stance, blinks back in surprise.
‘Ho there young ‘un, where’s the rumble? No one here but me and my friend.” The man smiles and raises a bottle held in his left hand. “But he’s running kinda dry.”
You step back again and cautiously lower your shoulders. Just a trick of the light? But the gods were fooled too. You cross your arms and regard him. His wiry hair sticks out all over, creating an unlikely crown. “I don’t like being snuck up on,” you say.
“Who’s sneakin’? I haven’t done any sneaking since my wife run out. Good thing too, never did like it. I’m Cornelius.” You look at his outstretched hand, but make no move to shake it. Cornelius lets it drop, then replaces it with his other hand, holding out the bottle. “Have a swig, then? Cheap and strong, so swallow quick.” He titters drunkenly.
You hesitate for only a second before taking it and gulping down wine. It clears much of the wheat grit from the back of your throat, and your body surges at the influx of sweetness. You have to force yourself to return the bottle, breathing heavy. You need more.
“Can you get me more?” you ask. Doubt flickers in his eyes. You lift the sack of grain and shove it under Cornelius’s face. “I can trade. I have sixty pounds of wheat grain.”
The old man’s face lights up. For a split second you swear you see an unnatural glimmer flash in his eyes. But then he’s smiling at you, a regular human man without fangs or claws.
“Son, with sixty pounds of wheat grain, I can get you all the wine you can drink.”
“And bread?” you ask.
“Sure, bread too. But son, I still don’t know your damned name.” Cornelius offers his hand again, like some sort of demon bound by overly specific laws. You wonder if he can’t enter a house unless invited in as well.
You take his hand and shake it. “Andreas. Andreas Baros. Former legionnaire, of the Legio XXII Deiotariana.”
“A military man! My pa was a military man!” Cornelius claps you on the shoulder and grins broadly. “Come with me, it’s not far.”
You shoulder your grain and walk with him. His route sinks into the slums. Ages ago this area was swampland, and it hasn’t forgotten its roots. The streets narrow, the buildings pack ever tighter. Soon you find yourself in a jungle of large tenement buildings, six stories above you on all sides. They thicken the night, choking off the moonlight before it can reach you.
Cornelius talks constantly, and you grunt acknowledgements when you can. You pray no one passing you in the streets recognizes the grain sack for what it is. The life it carries. The gods swirl louder in your mind, snatching your attention every few moments. They slip into fully formed words sporadically. You glance behind yourself constantly, feeling phantom dagger points at your back. You never catch anything. Maybe a twitch of movement, just out of the corner of your eye. But nothing solid. It could be death, glittering from covetous eyes. It could just be the gods, jabbing at you.
A voice rises in your mind, speaking over Cornelius’s chatter.
These people need the grain more than you do.
You can’t. You have to have something to show for your work. You owe so much to your family, you have to help them first. You grip the sack tighter and ignore the growing whispers in your head.
“So then I said, ‘Gladiator? He barely knew her!’ Ha!” Cornelius glances back at you. “Say, you alright there?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” You throw him a grin, and leave it at that.
“Alright. Anyway, it’s right through here,” he says, unlocking a door shorter than he is. He ducks within and you slip after him.
Darkness swallows you. You stop dead. Immediately your throat seizes and you drop the sack of wheat. Beyond the door is a narrow passage through the building, into its center courtyard. It’s maybe three feet across, its ceiling so low you can’t straighten your head.
It’s a goddamned tunnel. It distends in your vision, stretching forward for miles. It can’t be miles, though. You can see light at the other end, a courtyard of some kind. It isn’t like the tunnels underneath Jerusalem, it doesn’t twist and snake and drop. It doesn’t echo with the screams of men throwing themselves under sacrificial blades. Your heart pounds in your ears.
“Come on, we’re almost there.” Cornelius’s face is a mask of shifting shadows in the dark.
You want to pull your dagger, just as a precaution, but you resist. Cornelius would see. You don’t want him to think you’re paranoid.
The air grows heavier as you walk. Your eyes dart to the walls. There are no bloody runes scrawled on them. No bile seeps from between the bricks. Another step forward. You force your eyes down. Wails of unnatural hunger don’t erupt around you.
“Son? You alright?”
You pant for air. You realize you’re out through the other side of the tunnel, under open sky. Your eyes had locked so tightly onto Cornelius’s sandals you hadn’t noticed.
You try to say something, to laugh this off, but the air is too loud. You still hear hissing in your head. A boy falling. Endless spilling.
“Fuck’s sake, you’re in a bad way. Let’s get you a drink before you start shaking.”
You don’t correct him.
The tenement rises around you. Bare dirt in the courtyard. Weathered brick walls ringing it all on sides, up to the fourth floor. After the fourth floor they turn to worn-out wood, added on illegally after the initial construction. You stand at the bottom of a wide well, a square of star-flecked sky above you. The grunting sounds of lovemaking spill from a nearby window; the grating cries of an infant cascade from a far one.
Cornelius leads you to one side, to an open door and two wide windows gushing golden light. A low clamor of voices bubbles from within and overflows into the courtyard. You glance back one last time before you enter, but the courtyard stands empty.
A communal kitchen lies inside. Two rows of three tables greet you in the eating area just past the door. Further back entryways to an oven room and pantries stand open. Three men and two women lounge at the nearest table. The conversation stalls as five pairs of eyes rise as one to consider you. You swear they don’t blink.
“–is Andreas,” Cornelius claps a hand on your shoulder, causing you to flinch. You try to turn it into a nod and a grin. “He’s got grain that he wants to barter for bread and wine. Eydis, let’s get him started with a loaf, yeah?”
The woman who stands looks to be in her late teens, and unusually pale. Honey-colored hair flows down her back in waves. Hard blue eyes glare at you with some unknown anger. For a moment, even the gods still. She turns with a snap and stalks into a back room.
Cornelius jostles you lightly. “Not bad for a barbarian, right?” An older man at the table rolls his eyes. “C’mon, sit down, I’ll get you a cup.”
Cornelius toddles off, humming something you don’t recognize as music. Accusing eyes pierce you with a dozen jabs.
“You another one of Cornelius’s ‘drinking friends?’” asks a gaunt middle-aged man. “Here to sponge up what you can?”
“I… No? I just met him, he said he could get me some food and drink.”
The man snorts and crosses his arms. “Fucking figures. You should just go right now.” You glance around the table. Everyone eyes you with grim disapproval.
“Hey, fuck off, I brought shit to trade,” you say. You lift the sack up as a shield against the hungry stares. Proof that you have worth, that you come as friend and not despoiler. You drop it onto the table. “Enough grain for a man for a month. Think I can get some bread and wine for that?” The room turns, focus pivoting to the grain, every face drawn in famished envy. The whispers of the gods surge again, gathering into a swirling storm.
They need this more than you do.
“Damn.” A young man–almost a kid–swallows, glances up at you, then looks back to the sack. “You kill someone for that?” He can’t be any older than you were when you joined the legion.
“I… I helped stop a group of smugglers today.” You fight back guilt crawling up your throat, you try to feed it into a flare of anger instead. “Keeping Rome safe for you, ya know?”
“Don’t pester the man, Benayah,” Cornelius calls from the wine barrels set by the pantry. “Can’t you see he needs a drink?”
You snap your mouth shut and peer intently at Benayah’s face. It’s a Jewish name. His hair isn’t that curly though, and his skin’s not really olive. Maybe he’s only half blooded. You’ll have to watch him anyway.
Cornelius continues, “You young ‘uns today, no manners at all.” He sways back to the table, gulping from his cup as he comes. He sets yours down roughly, but without spilling a drop. You snatch it up and down a third of it in a single long swig. Immediately the sharpest edges come off the voices in your head, fuzzing just a touch. You can see toe-holds of control returning to you. You sigh gratefully.
“How much?” you ask.
Cornelius waves a hand dismissively. “First one is on me,” he says.
“Four cups of grain,” comes a woman’s voice. You look up to see that Eydis has returned, standing by her chair. Intense blue eyes spear you. A loaf of bread sits on the table before her. “And six cups of grain for the loaf of bread.”
Two cups mills into enough flour to make a loaf. Six cups is a steep price.
These people need the grain more than you do.
You take another swig of wine, pushing the gods further back.
“Four for the wine, sure. Make it eight for the loaf, I’m not greedy.” You snatch the bread up and stuff a corner in your mouth without waiting for her reply.
Oh gods. Oh gods that’s good. It’s been days since you’ve had any real food. Your hand trembles, and you close your eyes to hold back tears. What kind of bullshit is this? You shouldn’t be crying over something as simple as eating food. It’s just a dumb need, not some kind of divine ecstasy. And yet your breath comes ragged. This is what primal, animal happiness is. You swallow bliss, then lift the cup of wine to your lips and drain the rest.
Only then do you open your eyes. Eydis studies you skeptically.
“Hungry?” she asks. Her voice is lightly accented, the vowels rounder than they should be. You smile and stuff more bread into your mouth.
A loaf of bread and another four cups of wine later you’re feeling good. The gods have slurred into a distant, indistinct mumble that’s easily ignored. It turns out Cornelius is the landlord of this tenement. He sits by the older lady at the table, one arm draped over her sharp shoulders, sloshing the contents of his sixth cup of wine. She laughs with him, a deep laugh for a woman. She and the three other men are tenants here, and the closest thing Cornelius has to friends. Eydis is Cornelius’s slave. He bought her for a song six years back, when she was eleven years old. She sits to your left, as much a part of the group as anyone else, the only distinction between her and the renters being that she refills Cornelius’s cup when it runs dry.
Slowly they’ve warmed to you, which feels nicer than the wine. Or maybe it feels nice because of the wine? Regardless, you’ve slipped into relative calm and you don’t spend much time watching their hands or checking the door. These are good folk. People like this are the reason you joined the legion. It’s good to be reminded of what you fought for, to see good people living in safety due to your efforts. It was too easy to forget back in Jerusalem.
Eydis returns again with a full cup of wine for Cornelius, soft hips swaying ever so slightly with each step. She extends another cup to you as well.
“I noticed you were empty,” she says. “You want it?”
A constant fire burns inside Eydis, a passion you can feel radiating from her. All night you’ve found your eyes sliding back to her, enraptured by that glow. It’s like gazing into a campfire on campaign, but more tantalizing, and potentially far more dangerous. Until now she’s kept her distance. You figure this offer could be an invitation.
“Let’s share it,” you reply. “On me.”
She smirks. “Sure, but it won’t help your chances any. That brings you up to thirty-two cups of grain.”
“Fair enough. So where’s the accent from?”
Her smirk drops from her face. For a second you see the full inferno hidden behind it, before a rigid mask of control slams into place. Your heart skips two beats. She sits down and turns away from you. “Nope, bad move,” she says.
Benayah overheard, and leans in. “She’s a Teuton,” he offers, “from early in the campaign. Not great to remind her of it.”
Ah, shit. That would explain Cornelius’s barbarian crack. You’re not sure how many of her people are left. Her generation will be the last.
“Shut up, Ben,” she says. Benayah shrugs and returns to the general conversation. Eydis takes a sip from the wine cup and places it back on the table in smoldering silence.
“Sorry,” you say, and fumble for a change of topic. “Where, uh… where’d you learn arithmetic?”
Eydis tilts you a dubious glance. “That’s certainly a new one. I help Cornelius collect rent. You do it long enough and eventually you figure out how the numbers go together.”
“I dunno, I guess. I can’t do anything fancy.”
“I could go for some more food. If I was to get two loaves for the table, what would that put me to?”
Her eyes narrow at that. “I don’t have to prove shit to you,” she says without pausing, “but it’d be forty-eight cups.”
You break into a grin. Sitting inches away from a soul this fiery is intoxicating. “My father sells olive oil. He taught us all arithmetic. He says–” you stumble, because what he says is that numeracy is a mark of civilization, and anyone who can’t do basic figures is a guttering barbarian, and you sure as hell can’t say that “–it’s an admirable skill. And, you know, it is.”
Eydis lifts an eyebrow. “You’re an odd one.”
“Come on, let’s get that bread.” You turn to Cornelius and raise your voice. “Hey Cornelius, I’m buying two more loaves, for everyone to split. You got two more loaves, right?”
Cornelius looks at Eydis questioningly.
“Exactly two more,” she confirms.
“Yeah, fuck it,” he slurs, gesturing sloppily with his cup. “If you’re payin’ with grain I won’t have no problem replacin’ ‘em. Tonight… we feast!” He guffaws, and a ragged cheer rises from the table.
The sky’s brightening into a pale pink dawn by the time you finally take your dizzy leave. Cornelius has been dozing, slumped on the table, for a couple hours already. One of the older men and the older woman left soon afterwards, and Benayah has fallen into an intense drunken debate with the remaining man. You swear Eydis is still around–you have the distinct impression you’d just traded some words with her a moment ago. Something jovial, as you’re still smiling. You look around the room, setting your head spinning, and you decide that rapid head movements are not the wisest idea.
She must’ve left, and you should too. The gods are silent, you have won. Muttering a general goodbye you sway to your feet. You turn and suddenly you’re nose-to-nose with Eydis again. Her blue eyes pierce you, not looking droopy or faded with wine. Looking accusatory, actually, but you’re not entirely sure… it’s hard to focus right now. At any rate, it’s nice to see her one last time.
“Yes?” you ask. Maybe she’ll ask to see you again tomorrow. If not, maybe you’ll ask instead.
“You protected Rome from smugglers yesterday?” Eydis asks you.
You nod, a bit too energetically, and pause a second to let the world stabilize. “Yup.”
“And afterwards you were hauling around a sixty-pound sack of grain. Seized from the smugglers as part of your pay?”
“It’s a common way to pay commissioned help.”
“But I don’t imagine anyone would be trying to smuggle grain out of Rome right now–food prices are triple what you can get anywhere else.”
“So you must have stopped people who were trying to smuggle food into Rome, in the middle of a famine.”
Like she has any excuse to judge you. What has she ever risked, to keep the city safe? To protect her fellow man?
“You weren’t complaining when I was doling it out all night,” you retort.
Her eyes grow hard, and the glare constricts your chest. The gods stir again. Shit. This is all wrong. What is she doing? How is she doing this?
“You should take your wheat, get the hell out of here, and never come back,” she says.
You swallow thickly, and turn to look at your sack of wheat upon the table. It’s nine-tenths empty. Discontent brews inside you. Nothing is right.
It must be put right.
The gods are roused, somehow, and they are on her side.
“Keep it,” you say, pushing past Eydis. “You need it more than I do.”
“Fuck you,” she calls after you as the gods’ displeasure mounts. You do your best to walk casually, not at all like someone fleeing. Who is this barbarian girl, that wakes the gods? You have to get out of here now.
You stumble recklessly down the passage through the building, your hands bracing against brick, pushing you along. Mercifully, in the morning light it’s no longer a damn tunnel, it’s just another passageway. It spits you into the thick of Rome, and then you run.
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First line of next week’s chapter: Marcus lowered himself into the steaming water with a grimace.
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