Sneak Peeks

A War Within: The Gladiator

Prologue: Betrayal

 

 

         The sun was hot overhead, baking the sands of the Coliseum.  Antonius Maximus could feel the heat beat through his sandals.  Nearby, flies already buzzed around the freshly-killed lion carcasses.  In the stands surrounding him, fifty thousand Romans were buzzing as well, eagerly discussing, betting on, and awaiting the blood sport to come.  He could smell the lions’ blood.  It was on the sand, on his sword, on his armor, testifying to the awful death struggle that had already played out this day.  The blood felt slippery on his sword hilt, and he reached down, taking a handful of gritty sand and letting it trail through his fingers.

From the corner of his eye, he saw figures disappearing through an open gate into the bowels of the arena and he felt a moment of relief.  At least his family was safe.

         Lord, keep them safe.  He fired off a prayer toward heaven.

His father, his sister, and Sabina; the thought of the girl he loved fighting lions alongside him made his heart hurt, and he shook his head to clear it.

        Focus, Antonius, he thought to himself.  No time for distractions now.

Antonius narrowed his vision until all he saw was his opponent, circling him slowly.  Piercing brown eyes he knew so well peered at him over the iron rim of a  legionnaire’s shield.  Twin scars he knew were dealt by a trident ran parallel across cheek and forehead, showing only slightly under the gleaming helmet with its crimson officer’s crest: a helmet just like his own.  The hand he had so often clasped in friendship now held a glittering sword, and Antonius was aware enough to appreciate the irony of the situation.

His best friend was about to kill him.

One of them had to die here, and Antonius knew he could not kill his friend.  Despite the sting of betrayal, it was not in his heart to kill the man who had saved his life so many times.  All his anger, all his hatred, all the longing for revenge that had so shaped his life and fueled his passion to fight had gone.  He couldn’t kill this man.

With that thought, Antonius’ sword arm dropped almost imperceptibly, and his opponent seized the opportunity and stepped in, sword slipping forward for the kill stroke.  Instinctively, Antonius spun away, pivoting on his right foot and letting the blade slip by him.  Thrusting forward his shield with his left hand, he knocked his opponent’s sword arm further out of line, leaving his center open.  Without thinking, he thrust hard under the over-extended arm for the exposed midsection, but his sword met the other’s shield and was knocked aside.

The crowd was on its feet, roaring, at the near miss on both sides.

Instead of disappointment that his thrust hadn’t landed, Antonius felt a surge of relief that it had missed.  He shook his head, mentally warning himself to curb the killer instinct that had been drilled and beaten into him.

         Not that it would matter if I really tried, he thought with a streak of wry humor.  He’s always been the better swordsman.

Both fighters sprang back, circled for position, and then slammed together again.  Shield on shield, sword on sword, they clinched for a long moment.  To the crowd in the stands it looked as though they were simply standing face to face, each staring the other down.  In reality though, every muscle was straining, feet set, legs and arms pressing, teeth bared and grimacing, each struggling to over-balance the other and attain that moment of superiority that would end this contest of blood.

Slowly, inch by inch, Antonius fell back, sandals skidding furrows in the sand, still fighting fiercely even as he gave way before his opponent’s superior strength.  With a final heave, the scarred warrior sent him stumbling back, his heels pounding frantically at the sand as he fought to regain his balance against the backward momentum.  His opponent went with him, pressing his advantage, keeping him off balance as his sword slammed into Antonius’ shield over and over again.

A final blow sent Antonius’ shield spinning away, and he tumbled backward to the sand.  Desperately he fought his way to his feet, dancing lightly now, staying away from his better-armed foe.  For a handful of long-drawn minutes they circled on the sands, blades flickering in and out, clashing with sparks.  The crowds roared their encouragement at the contestants, shouting in delight as blood and sweat ran down, screaming and chanting impatiently for the kill.

And then, the loudest shout of all issued from fifty thousand throats as Antonius’ sword was knocked aside, a glinting sword thrust in and came out bloody, and he fell to the sands.

Throwing aside his battered shield and stepping forward, his opponent placed his sword at Antonius’ throat, and then lifted his eyes to the Emperor’s booth for the life-or-death verdict.

The Emperor’s fist rose, his thumb held sideways.  After the barest moment of hesitation, playing to the crowd, he turned thumbs down.  Without hesitation, the scarred fighter swept his sword across his fallen enemy’s neck.  It came away trailing red.  He knelt for a moment, left hand at Antonius’ throat, and blood flowed through his fingers.  Then rising, he punched his sword at the sky and the crowd erupted.

With all eyes on the victor, no one noticed the twitch of Antonius’ eyelids or the fading flutter in his blood-soaked throat.  From the sidelines, a grey-bearded physician ran forward.  He felt for a pulse, leaned down his cheek to check for breath, then motioned to the grizzled centurion whose squad of soldiers waited with long hooked poles to drag the body away.  The doctor caught the victor’s eye and gave a barely perceptible nod, received a slight twitch of a smile in return.

And the victorious fighter whipped the crowd into a frenzy, sword held high in the blazing sun.

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A War Within: The Legionnaire

             Antonius Maximus rapped on General Severus’ door.  He entered at Severus’ call and started to salute, but the older man waved to him to relax.  Instead he settled into parade rest, eyes on the general he had already come to admire and respect.

“I want you to go to Rome.”  Severus’ words were calm and matter-of-fact, but Antonius’ eyes widened in surprise.  He started to speak and thought better of it, simply settling for a curt nod.

“The Praetorians are powerful.  No soldiers are allowed armed in Rome except for them, and they hold the Emperor’s safety in their hands.”  His voice was forceful.  “It’s imperative that I know whether they’re loyal to the new emperor, Pertinax, or not.  I’ll give you letters that will allow you to infiltrate the Praetorian Guard.  You will be perfectly positioned to test their true opinion of the new Emperor, and report back to me personally.  I’m sending your friend Theudas with you.  If you need to get out a message to me while remaining on site and undercover you’ll send it through him.”

Inwardly, Antonius found himself wondering why a provincial governor and general would be so interested in the new Emperor and his guard. Severus obviously had his own reasons for this mission, and Antonius suspected they were deeper than mere concern for this new Emperor.  But he said nothing. “When shall I report back?” he asked instead.

“As soon as you know if the Praetorians are loyal.  Stay long enough to be sure, but no more than three months.”

“When do we leave?”

“Within the hour.”

***

            The Praetorian patrols all returned to camp for their afternoon meal, and it was there, during their free time that it began.  Men in full armor hunched forward over the tables, muttering under their breath.  Groups congregated around the parade ground, and voices began to rise menacingly.  Soon the groups of ten and twenty began to swell and coalesce, the soldiers shouting and gesturing angrily.  Mob mentality was quickly taking over and now Antonius saw swords being brandished.  The voice of the mob steadily grew to a roar as more and more Praetorians streamed out to join it from all sides of the camp.

Antonius knew that in minutes or maybe moments the riotous guardsmen would reach a decision and likely head to the palace to confront Pertinax.  Antonius headed for the gate, where he found that the guards had abandoned their post to join the ever-growing mob.

He slipped out in the confusion, and began to run, racing first to the stable where Theudas waited.  He burst into the stable breathlessly and looked around for Theudas desperately.  His friend looked up as he rushed over, and immediately began leading the horses from their stall.

“The Praetorians are forming a mob, right now!” Antonius gasped breathlessly.

“Do I ride, or stay?”

“We both ride, but not to Severus.  We’ve got to get to the palace before that mob!”

Antonius was already swinging atop his horse, and Theudas followed suit in a quick awkward scramble, then they both burst out of the stables at a gallop, pounding down the cobblestoned street.

Up the street dead ahead they saw the mob of Praetorians boiling out the gates of the camp and into the street, streaming towards them with weapons raised.  Hearts pounding, they reined their horses down a side street and kicked their heels into their ribs, urging them to go faster, their horseshoes ringing loudly as they pounded down the street.  As they rode, they could hear the clamor of the mob slowly dimming and could tell that they were gaining ground.

Pedestrians spun away from their charging horses, merchants scrambled to protect their wares, and an angry stream of curses followed their progress through a busy market thoroughfare.  Heedlessly, Antonius and Theudas pressed on.

They broke out into the plaza surrounding the vast Coliseum and a wave of memories hit Antonius.  So much of his life’s tragedy had played out in that building that just looking at it brought a pang.  They turned their horses down the wide avenue leading to Palatine Hill, the Temple to Rome and Venus looming on their right, and Antonius realized that they were retracing the steps he and his father had taken the day his mother died.  Then they were pounding up to the gates of the palace and drawing their blowing horses to a stop.

In his haste to warn the Emperor Antonius hadn’t thought this far ahead.  Now, faced with a squadron of hard-faced, scruffy-looking Praetorians he wasn’t sure what course to take.  Should he tell them about the rioting Praetorians who were on their way?  Or would they sympathize with their comrades and keep him from warning Pertinax?  And how would he explain Theudas being there?

Mind whirling with thoughts, he swung down from his horse and Theudas followed suit.  “Antonius Maximus with a message for Emperor Pertinax from Prefect Laetus,” Antonius announced.

The centurion commanding the gate guard advanced, hand extended.  “Identification and orders.”

Antonius handed over his identification, but had no orders to offer.  “My business is urgent, the Prefect had no time to pen and seal a letter.  You’ll find my papers are in order.”

The centurion’s eyes narrowed suspiciously and Antonius realized that he wasn’t buying it.  “I’ve never seen you carrying messages to the Emperor before.”  He gestured to his nearby soldiers.  “Hold them!”

Instantly they were surrounded by armed soldiers, their arms forcibly wrenched behind their backs and pinned there.  Soldiers took charge of their horses and held them.

“Now.  You will give me the message from Prefect Laetus, and if I think it has merit I will carry it to the Emperor.”

Antonius’ mind spun.  He couldn’t tell this Praetorian guardsman what the other Praetorians were doing.  Or should he warn them so they could prepare?  More likely the officer, already suspicious, would think he was there trying to assassinate the Emperor.  But then he may already think that, and if he didn’t give good reason for being there…

“Antonius!”

His name, called from inside the gate snapped him out of his whirling thoughts.  It was his father’s voice!

Titus Maximus was crossing the palace courtyard toward him, concern etched on his face and surprise in his eyes.  As Titus drew closer, the Praetorians pulled the gates wide for him in obvious respect.  He waved a hand at the guards holding Antonius and Theudas and they released the young men.  Titus advanced smiling, arms outstretched to embrace his son, then seeing his hard look extended his hand instead, which Antonius grudgingly took.

“It’s good to see you, son!  Julia and I have been so worried.”

Antonius just nodded stiffly.  “I have a message for the Emperor.  Can you take me to him?” he said urgently.

Titus’ smiling face grew grave.  “Come with me.”  With a look to the centurion, who nodded, Titus led Antonius and Theudas into the grounds and gardens of the Imperial Palace.  As soon as they were out of earshot of the Praetorians, Antonius asked Titus, “Is there a rear entrance to the palace grounds?  Another exit?”

“There’s an exit near the stables for taking out the horses, another near the kitchen for bringing in supplies,” Titus replied, a question in his voice.

“The stables,” Antonius told Theudas.  “See if you can secure two more horses, have them saddled and ready.”

“And if the stable master won’t give them to me?”

Antonius gave him a hard look.  “Then convince him!”  Theudas just nodded grimly and hurried away with the horses in tow.

“What’s this all about?” Titus asked.

“We don’t have much time.  The Praetorians are rioting.  They’re on their way here to demand their pay.”

Titus wasted no time.  “Let’s go!”  He broke into a run for the palace doors, Antonius sprinting alongside him.

“This is what I feared.” Titus said as he ran.  “We’ve got to get Pertinax out of here.  The people love him; we just have to keep him safe until the masses hear about this and they’ll force the Praetorians to submit by sheer numbers.”

Titus drew up momentarily on the front steps of the palace to address the squad of guards there.  “A mob is on the way to attack the palace.  Get everyone out.  Bar the gates and the doors.  No one comes in.”  Then they were racing down the echoing halls of the palace.

The Praetorians guarding the gate had locked and barred it, and now the mutineers thronged the gate, rattling the bars and demanding entry.  Someone had started a chant, demanding their pay or Pertinax’s head, and the soldiers were whipping themselves into a killing frenzy.

Some of the mob began climbing the wall, threatening to kill the loyal guards inside if they didn’t open the gate, while others harangued them to turn against Pertinax, telling them about the short pay that awaited them at the end of their guard duty.  Finally the guards relented, unbarred the gates and stood aside, and the murderous mob rushed in like ants streaming from an ant hill.

They rushed across the courtyard, overturning statues and trampling the beautifully manicured gardens as they came, then climbed the grand palace steps to hammer spear butts against the thick, ornate door.  With a shout, a dozen burly guardsmen hefted a marble statue and labored up the steps with it.  More willing hands grabbed hold, and together they began swinging the heavy base into the door.

Inside the palace, a handful of loyal guards pressed themselves against the door to brace it, only to be thrown back at the impact.  The boom echoed through the marble halls of the palace foyer.  With a cry, the guards threw themselves back against the door to receive the next blow.

“Unbar the door.”  The voice was calm and grave, but commanding.  Publius Helvius Pertinax, general, senator, and now Emperor, stood there in his simple white toga, the only sign of rank its broad purple stripe.  The guards looked questioningly at the elder statesman and then obeyed, raising the heavy bar from the gates, and stepping back to flank their Emperor, swords drawn.

At the next impact of the battering ram the unbarred doors gave way so suddenly that the soldiers bearing the statue stumbled into the foyer, some tripping and falling over one another.  The marble statue fell on two of the Praetorians, crushing their legs and pinning them screaming to the floor.  The bloodthirsty mob surged in around them spears and swords brandished.  Emperor Pertinax just stood there, shoulders square, head up, eyes leveling a steely gaze on his attackers.

Titus stood behind and to the side of the Emperor, Antonius beside him, sword at the ready.

One inescapable reality seared itself into Antonius’ mind.  If they charge, we all die.

Grabbing the back of his father’s robe, Antonius caught him off balance and began to pull him back down the hall.

As Titus began to protest and struggle the Praetorians charged.

 

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A War Within: The Praetorian

             Dusk was falling over the city of Rome, the dying sun casting its last light between the monolithic marble columns to draw an ominous pattern of blood-red beams and black bars of shadow across the forum. At this time of day the usually-bustling forum was all but empty, save for a single lean figure in the muscled breastplate and high-crested helmet of a Praetorian tribune striding quickly across its broad limestone paving stones.

To anyone who did not know him well – and there were only a few who did – the young man would have appeared the very picture of confidence. His dark-complexioned face was hard and wolfish, with a prominent nose and skin stretched tight over high cheekbones as if all excess weight had been chiseled away. But beneath his helmet’s brim the young man’s dark brows were drawn down causing his dark brown eyes to narrow just slightly, and there was a twitching tension in the muscles of his strong jaw.

Theudas ben Yair was nervous.

It was not a feeling he was accustomed to, and he hated it.

He was a warrior, a fighter. He had faced more battles in his twenty-one years than most men fought in a lifetime. The scars of a trident thrust running parallel across his left cheek and forehead attested to only one of many times when death had been just an inch off the mark. He had fought in the Coliseum and on battlegrounds from Syria to Gaul and he had survived. No, he was not accustomed to being nervous.

But then the message had come half an hour before. Half an hour that his stomach had spent twisting in on itself as he crossed the city from the Praetorian fortress.

Meet me at the carcer immediately. Come alone.

The carcer. The prison. Rome had only one prison, so everyone simply called it ‘the carcer.’ This was due not to a lack of lawlessness, but rather because lengthy incarceration was not a penalty meted out by the courts; prisoners were held in the carcer only until their trial. Justice, or what passed for it in the Empire, was swift. The guilty were either fined or exiled – if they were rich or fortunate – or else flogged, enslaved, or executed. Only if the verdict handed down was execution would the prisoners be returned to the prison, there to be cast into the miserable hole known as the tullianum beneath the prison. There, in the perpetual night of what was once a cistern, the condemned would come to long for the day of their execution.

But it was not the reputation of Rome’s infamous gaol that caused Theudas’ heart to beat heavier than usual under his cuirass and caused his knuckles to whiten on the hilt of his sword as he loosened it in its sheath for the tenth time in as many minutes. It was the name and seal pressed into the wax tablet beneath the single cryptic line that summoned him to the carcer.

Gaius Fulvius Plautianus.

To meet the newly-appointed Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Theudas’ direct superior and the second-most-powerful man in Rome after the Emperor himself, would be nerve wracking enough. To be commanded to meet him, alone, at the carcer caused cold foreboding to writhe down his spine and settle heavily in his guts.

Is it possible that he knows? Theudas wondered. Can he have discovered my secret so quickly?

As Theudas turned right past the columned bulk of the Senate House a sight greeted him that nearly made him break stride. He had come alone, but the Prefect had not. For a moment the sun’s last rays painted the armored ranks of Praetorians with a ruddy glow, then it fell behind the bulk of the Tabularium.  The blocks of men that flanked the door of the carcer fell into shadow against the thick stone walls. Theudas’ heartbeat quickened even further, adrenaline pushing energy to his limbs, readying him for either fight or flight.

To his left, in a shadowy cleft between the Temple of Concord and the carcer rose the Gemonian Stairs, the Stairs of Mourning. For a moment Theudas considered fleeing up those stairs, or simply turning and running back the way he had come.

            He knows! he thought desperately. He knows I’ve been going to the services.

By sheer force of will he fought down the panic that threatened to overwhelm his reason. This could as easily be just a routine assignment, he told himself. Running away would only prove guilt where there may not even be suspicion. So instead of running he forced himself to advance with a steady, confident stride. His hobnailed sandals echoed loudly against the buildings around him, the sound all the more obtrusive in the presence of the silent scores of soldiers watching him approach.

With a rusty creak the heavy, iron-bound door of the prison swung open and Prefect Plautianus stood in the doorway, the dim torchlight from the interior glinting off the golden shoulder bosses that held his crimson cape in place. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and thick-chested under his ornate, form-fitting breastplate. He simply stood there impassively, waiting for Theudas to approach.

The two blocks of soldiers flanking the doorway – eight on each side, five rows deep –created a narrow path for Theudas to pass down in order to reach Plautianus. His muscles tightened in the center of his back as he passed the first row of Praetorians, then the second. He forced himself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly, then another. If this is a trap I’m walking right into it, he thought, but what choice do I have?

Without a word Plautianus turned in the doorway, gesturing with outstretched arm towards the interior of the prison for Theudas to enter. Instead, he stopped in the doorway and pivoted smartly to face the prefect. He would take this man’s measure before walking voluntarily into prison with Plautianus behind him.

Theudas raised an arm in salute while rapping the other fist against his breastplate. “Tribune Theudas ben Yair, reporting as ordered, sir,” his voice was level and hard. He searched the prefect’s features, looking for any hint of his intentions.

Plautianus’ face was craggy and powerful, as though it could easily smash stone. In the muted glow of the torches, shadows turned his eyes into dark pools under craggy brows and a deep-furrowed forehead. His nose was blunt, his cheeks outlined with wrinkles. Steel-grey hair was cropped short and a tightly-curled beard and mustache lent further strength to his heavy jaw. His complexion was slightly swarthy, giving him a foreign appearance, and Theudas realized that the prefect shared the Emperor’s skin tone. He vaguely remembered hearing that they both came from the same town in North Africa.

Theudas was skilled at sizing up an opponent, could almost invariably discern their thoughts written on their faces; the talent had saved his life more than once. Today it failed him. Plautianus’ face was inscrutable. In response to Theudas’ salute he merely nodded, once, and flicked the fingers of his out-stretched hand to again indicate that Theudas should proceed him into the prison.

Every muscle in his body coiled spring-tight, Theudas stepped across the threshold and into the carcer. The rank smell of unwashed bodies, human waste, and damp rot hit him like a punch in the nose. Prisoners huddled in miserable bundles of rags on the floor or sat slumped against the massive hewn stones of the prison wall. Any small stirring brought the clink of chains. Despair was palpable in the fetid air. The hairs on the back of Theudas’ neck prickled, half expecting the door behind him to slam shut.

And it did.