He felt himself meandering. Bodiless, yet vaguely aware, adrift through a timeless vacuum. An intangible space devoid of meaning or measure. He wanted to say he was somewhere, anywhere, but he couldn’t say a thing. There was nothing. No colour, no shape. No sound. Just white emptiness and the languid sensation of lurching through the unfathomable deep.
Who am I?
He couldn’t remember. His perception, his memory, pointless nothings within an abstract shell tied to a blank void. He tried to look down at himself, but there was no direction. Nothing of substance to see. Unsettling…
Then the first sounds in what felt like ages crept into his consciousness. Whispers here, muddled murmurs there… To begin with, he could not discern their definition. Tones beyond comprehension. Syllables that formed nothing. Noise. Until that noise took form. The words became whole, seeping into his thought.
“My father told me that I would forever regret marrying you,” the voice whispered.
Me? Who are you? Who am I? He demanded, but the words failed to sound.
“He’s not of noble birth, he said. He’s a commoner, he said. I wanted to marry for love, not for influence nor wealth. I saw in you a great strength, a determination that no man could rival. Despite everything my father said, I wanted you more than anything in the world.”
But who am I?
“She still wants you, father,” chimed another voice. Softer. Brimming with innocence. “I want you. We need you.”
Something utterly magical about that voice struck an unseen chord within. It pulled and pulled. The hollow structure nursing him in nullity started to unravel at the seams. A name planted itself in his thoughts.
Aggripina… My Agrippina! Then another. Penelope! He remembered now.
Trajan awoke with a jolt! Colour and taste, sound and smell, everything came crashing back in a single overwhelming wave! It was frightening. It made him sick to his stomach. The clawing of something soft but scratchy on his back led to the realisation that he was lying down, probably upon a bed of straw. As clouds of deep slumber dissipated from sight, he noticed the ugly straw twining of a thatched roof above him. The fibres twisted and swam like yellowed spectres in a demented dream. Bile rushed up his throat and he rolled onto his side, unable to prevent himself regurgitating a stream of clear fluid. That single motion set sparks of agony lancing through his gut! He retched and gasped for breath. His mouth, now soiled with the fiery taste of vomit, was dryer than desert sand. He needed water. Something, anything! His head throbbed angrily, as if someone had clobbered his skull with a mace.
What in Hells name happened? Trajan wondered, disoriented and desolate. Where was he?
Groaning and sucking down as much sweet air as his lungs could handle, he rolled onto his back again. He glanced down at himself. His blue trousers were filthy, stained with dried blood and the contents of his stomach. His chiselled torso bare, coated with clammy rivulets of sweat. Three bandages blemished with scarlet blotches criss-crossed his abdomen. Wounds. That explained the furious burning sensation whenever he moved. That’s when it all came flooding back, the memories. Dark and demoralising recollections. Lessons in the futility of trust. He recalled his clandestine meeting in that abandoned old watchtower. His exchange with senator Occulus. The stabbing… His ally, his friend, the man he had loved like a brother… Sertorius. Sertorius, repeatedly plunging a blade into his belly. He flinched at the memory of each treacherous blow. Grief tightened a noose about his throat. The thought of the betrayal hurt more than any physical wound. He sobbed pathetically. Why?! Why had Sertorius done this to him? And how had Trajan survived? He recalled having been on his knees, holding onto Sertorius with every last ounce of his waning resolve. He shuddered, recalling the third time his friend drove that knife into his bleeding body. What was it, Sertorius had said? Something about not letting him be crucified. Something about his family…That was it! His family.
“Do not fear for your family, brother. They shall soon join you in the afterlife.”
Indirectly, Sertorius had threatened his wife and daughter. The connotations were clear. If Sertorius had betrayed him, it had to be because he colluded in secret with the Emperor. Trajan’s wife and daughter were in the gravest of danger.
Hearing the threat, Trajan lost it. He found fury in the depths, a raw, reinvigorating power where there should have been nothing left. He struggled to his feet, his blood pattering like scarlet rain over the floorboards. But he didn’t care. He shoved Sertorius away and stumbled through the gloom of the watchtower, past a shocked and fuming Occulus. Past his friend, captain Servilius. Trajan had believed that Servilius, bound for the entirety of the meeting to his chair, cloaked by impenetrable darkness, was simply being Servilius. Stoic and unsociable. But as Trajan staggered to the window, he noticed a crimson grin gouged in the man’s neck from ear to ear. The bastards had cut his throat. With no time to grieve his battle companion, Trajan threw himself at the weary timbers of the boarded up window, crashing through in an eruption of stabbing splinters. Slithers pricked his face and jabbed his hands. He leapt! Two stories he fell. Tendons ruptured in his leg upon impact. His right foot was broken.
But nothing could stop him.
He didn’t know how he managed to climb to his feet again. It was beyond comprehension how he mustered the energy to limp, to run with every last ounce of his dying strength. All he could see was Penelope and Aggripina. He hurted haphazardly through the streets, down hidden back-roads and into twisted nests of dark alleyways. Anywhere. Anything he could do to escape! His wife and daughter’s fate teetered on his ability to evade his would-be assassins. He staggered and hobbled and loped like a maimed animal. Until at last, he succumbed to his wounds and collapsed, Divallo only knew where. The world turned black.
“You’re awake I see,” a woman croaked, dragging Trajan from his woeful vision. Back to the present.
An elderly woman, short and squat, with a wrinkled face like an old leather satchel. Her iron grey hair was braided and fell to her shoulders. Her emerald eyes were bright and cunning. As Trajan took her in, he noticed his new surroundings for the first time. A small single room, cluttered with dilapidated, ragtag pieces of furniture. A bare hearth yawned in the corner.
“Welcome to my humble abode, stranger” she said. “It’s not much, but it’s warm. And safe. I’ve no doubt you will appreciate a little security after your ordeal.”
It was a shabby hovel, but Trajan didn’t care. He was lucky to have been taken in. He was even luckier to be alive, it was nothing short of a miracle.
“Where are we?” He asked.
“Oldtown, good sir. The outer ring of the city.”
Kindness it seemed, thrived in the most unlikely of places. It was an allaying thought. He needed as many of those as he could muster these days. “Thank you for your kindness, my lady.”
“Ohh, do ya hear that? My lady. Haven’t been called that in a while! You’re welcome good sir, mighty Divallo commands us to help the needy. How are you feeling? You’re lucky to be alive, you know. The Great Lord must have his eye on you.”
Trajan felt awful. Everything hurt. “I’m fine,” he assured her.
“You don’t look fine. My oh my, you were in such a terrible state. My son found you lying in an alleyway in a pool of your own blood. He wrapped you up and dragged you back here.”
Thank all that was hallowed. If it wasn’t for the generosity of this woman’s son, Trajan would have bled out alone in a dirty alleyway. An ignoble end for a courageous soldier. “How long was I passed out?”
“About two days. You’re fortunate my mother was a nurse of the old hospice, she taught me a thing or two about healing back in the day.”
Two days?! No no no! He did not have the time to tarry here! He needed to make haste to the countryside. He could only pray that Attilo’s lackeys had not yet departed for Claudia’s farm, where both his wife and daughter were currently in hiding. If Sertorius was willing to stab his professed brother in the back, then what barred him selling his family to the wolves?
“I have to get out of here,” he exclaimed. Panic pulled like grasping claws at his innards. Ignoring the knifing pain from his wounds, he hiked to his feet. Unsteady, he almost fell back onto the bed. The simple act of throwing out his arms to maintain balance prompted a storm of torment in his stomach. The injuries seethed beneath their linen bandages. He doubled over, panting for breath.
“You’re in no condition to go anywhere, sir. I suggest you get back on the mattress and rest.”
“No, you don’t understand! My family is in terrible danger.”
He could feel the eyes of a sage scouring him, sizing up his claim. The old bat must have heard his sheer desperation. Perhaps she had glimpsed the candour in his eyes, for she relented. “Dear old me,” she bumbled. “You cannot go dressed in bloody trousers though, I shall have to give you some of my son’s old clothes.”
She had a point. He would stand out like a panther in a pig pen. The last thing he needed was extra attention. What if Sertorius and Occulus had alerted the city guard in response to his escape? Sertorius you fucking bastard! He indulged in a few deep breaths, fighting to master his panic, his rage. The pragmatist in him returned to life. “Do you know where I could find a horse, my lady?” It was a stretch, but worth a try. He could, of course, make his way to his own villa and round up a stallion, but that could prove too costly. The enemy would be watching for him there.
“Tch! This is Oldtown, young man! You’re asking the wrong woman.”
She delved into one of the numerous boxes littering her dilapidated table, emerging with a worn brown tunic and a scratchy looking pair of trousers. Trajan accepted them, and gritting his teeth against the pain of movement, shed his soiled bottoms and pulled on the ill-fitting articles.
“A weapon,” he said. “I need a weapon. A knife, anything.” He hated to burden the woman with such demands, she looked as if she barely scratched a living on the poverty line. But dire straights called for drastic measures. He would take her name and repay her in full when able.
“I can give you a knife, but that’s it,” she huffed, turning away to forage through the clutter on her table. She returned with a rusty old kitchen knife. “Here. I would love to offer you more, but we’re a simple family. We don’t have much.”
Trajan nodded and gently pried the knife from her gnarled claws. As he did so, he grasped her boot-like palm and squeezed gratefully. “I appreciate all that you have done for me. What is your name, my lady?”
“I am Acquilina Drusus.”
“My name is Lucius Trajan. I thank you Acquilina Drusus, from the bottom of my heart. I shall never forget what you have done for me, and I promise you, when it is safe for me to return to Denerem, I shall repay your kindness.”
Doubt flickered in her eyes. Who could blame her? Acquilina was no fool. The poor and hungry of the Imperium were perpetually offered wind and false promises. Trajan would make a point of honouring his vow. Perhaps one day, he could lift her family out of poverty. Acquilina bustled to the door of her humble hovel and opened it.
A gust of scorching summer air billowed into the room. The winds of fate beckoned. Where would they lead? Trajan needed supplies, a better weapon and a horse. Stealing ran contrary to his code of conduct, but this was a desperate predicament he found himself mired in. He would do anything for his wife and daughter. They needed him. Whatever was needed to make it to Claudia’s farm, he would make it happen.
“Thank you, again Acquilina.”
As he shuffled out into the blasting heat, he heard the woman crow in his wake.
“May Divallo and the fates send you swiftly to your family, Lucius Trajan.”
He took her words to heart. He was unsure whether he believed in the Great Lord, but he would take all the divine aid he could garner, even if it was only a psychological push. His only hope was to reach the farm before the Emperor’s lackeys did. Ignoring the crippling explosions of pain assaulting his stomach, he set off on a limping jog. He could barely place any weight upon the brutalised bones of his right foot. Somehow, he found a way.
How long did he have? It was hard to know. Would he make it in time? He had to. The race was on.