Chapter 35: "Ides of March"
Where is the letter? I scrambled around, fingering through my bag.
My body rattled in my seat. I looked around, waiting for the earth to shake but the ground was still. I held my breath.
"I thought the outskirts of Rome had better roads then this," Hyros remarked before resuming his conversation with Theseus. I sighed in relief only for my head to erupt in a throbbing headache as the wheels jostled over the uneven stone road. Where was the letter? I blew a hot breath as I continued digging through my bag. How could I lose his letter?
"Looking for something?" Theseus asked.
"A letter," I sighed.
"You mean this?" Hyros asked, waving it in my face. "You should be careful that this does not end up in the wrong hands," Hyros said with a smirk.
"Thanks!" I said snatching it from his hand. I looked up at the darkening skies. The stars and the moon were our light now. It was getting darker with the passing of time and the buildings had gotten fewer and fewer until all there was left were open pastures. There was no inn around.
"We should have stopped at the last trade post. There might have been an inn," Theseus said. "There is nothing out here but open stretches of land," Theseus sighed.
"It kind of defeats the purpose to go backwards," Hyros remarked. "Well, while you two figure it out, I am retiring to bed," he said pulling out his wool blanket. Our driver brought the chariot to an abrupt stop next to a cluster of trees. Owls hooted from the treetops. I pushed aside my own growing unease as I clamored for my cloak. We were alone in the elements; with Rome long behind us. I sharpened the blade of my dagger that would lie next to my head. We could not afford to take chances. There was no telling who or what lie in the dark.
There was shouting as I found myself engrossed by the mob. In front of us a young woman trudged her feet across the stone paved courtyard. Her blue eyes held deep glistened with tears as she looked back at the scowls that greeted her. She never looked so frightened… so vulnerable. Some whispered while others wagged their heads. What did she do to deserve their displeasure? Titus stood in front of the crowd with his arms folded against his chest. Why was he not stopping the cloaked figure that was leading her to the center of the public square? What kind of husband was he? His look of conceit disturbed me. The guard's burly hands cupped Priscilla's dainty wrists before spinning her around to face the crowds. He tied a blindfold across her glossy eyes. But their disdain burned through the cloth. The crowd's chants were growing louder and more fervent. I squeezed through the mob, hoping to get to her. I had to save her. Titus picked up a round stone from the ground. His eyes squinted as he licked his lips.
"Stop!" I shouted, shoving against the crowds to get to Titus. I had to stop him!
He flung it aiming for her head.
"Duck!" I cried.
My eyes flew open. I was back in the chariot. There beside me was Hyros and Theseus slumbering away in their blankets. I took several deep breaths, waiting for my heart to settle. I forced my eyes shut but I could not fall back to sleep. I was more scared of my mind then the outside. I kept thinking about her.
I had to go back to Aegea.
I kept on guard until dawn broke forth. It was not long before our driver awoke and began our ride to the nearest inn. It was a chance to refresh ourselves and eat some food. There was only a few miles left in the journey. Hyros and Theseus could not understand why I was silent the last leg of the journey although the driver mostly went without words. I let my eyes drift to the open expanse around us, absorbing the scenery of laborers tilling the soils of the villas belonging to the rich. Flocks of birds took to the skies, settling on the swaying branches of the trees. For the first time in a long time there were no sounds of noisy cattle or the sounds of goods being carted in wagons. Nor the sound of children playing or adults bickering or conversing. The only sounds were of birds chirping in the distance or the rustle of a slight breeze against the tree branches. There in the wildness of the landscape I found peace. With the letter in my sheath I pulled it out. I was ready now.
Greetings from Clitus to Troy,
I wish to see you in person but this letter will do. I am not good with words so I hope my message is clear. I wish only good things for you, Troy, even though things did not end well between Julia. I suppose I deserved her brother's abuse. Your cousin resists me but I wish he would accept my apology of ever trying to hurt Julia. That was never my intention. I did not think of the consequences that night only that it felt right. I never meant to rob her innocence or joy. Her mother was right. She was too good for me. I did not deserve someone so charming and kind. People like me rarely get anything good handed to them. I just wish to find someone else in this world that could accept me.
I am grateful to taste freedom thanks to Claudius my patron. I wished I had a family like yours though. I envy you. I hope to find my own extended family. Maybe I will not feel so lost. Perhaps they are out there waiting for me. I hope they recognize me if I even can recognize them. Before I die I want to see the last of my kin. I hope to venture to my homeland. I do not know what is out there but I am not scared of the unknown. Thank you Troy. Because of you I can even write this letter.
There was a tinge of sadness in his words. They were words filled with regrets from a young man inflamed in his own lust, sorrow, and despair. But there was something else too.
There was still a chance. I stared out into the glistening river as the horses treaded the cobblestone road where tender shoots of grass escaped between the cracks. Along the riverbank the songs of birds competed with our voices.
"So Theseus, what are your plans once you land in Crete?" Hyros asked.
"The first thing is to see my family again," he said wistfully. "Maybe this time I will stay a little longer. But I hope to move them to Rome soon."
"That is quite the adjustment. You think they are ready for the big move?"
"I do not know. I ask myself the same thing. My wife might be the biggest contender with the idea."
"Well good luck trying to convince your ole wife there to board a ship with two small children. Oh the beauty of being my own man," he said with a grin.
"One day you will settle down and get married like everyone else. At twenty-five years old I would expect marriage in your picture," Theseus said with a smile.
"It's not in my picture anytime soon. Eventually I will get married but I might get bored waking up in bed with the same woman every day for the rest of my life. Talk about exciting," he scoffed. Theseus pursed his lips. "At least Troy and I are still free to be our own person. Is that not right, Troy?" I merely nodded. Most men were given the choice to hold off marriage till their mid-twenties. I still had several more years before I worried about that.
Just then our chariot hurried past a wooden stake towering as high as the trees. What was a stake doing here? The very presence of a stake made the hairs on my neck stand. Nailed across the impending stake was a plaque that bore faded Latin letters.
Os…. The letters were shrinking from view.
What did it say?
"Did you see what it said?" I asked, wrinkling my brow.
"See what?" Hyros asked, shrugging his shoulders.
"The sign," I muttered. "I could not make out the letters."
"I apologize for not paying attention to the map. I suppose we are closer than I thought…" Theseus said staring down at his map. Ahead of us was a cluster of multi-story buildings looming in the horizon along the banks of the river. We were getting closer.
"Fellows, welcome to Ostia," Theseus announced.
Rows of stone warehouses obscured my view of the Tiber River. It was not long before we could see the ships and boats in the distance straddling along the port at the mouth of the river. I was immersed again with the familiar sight of people transporting goods by mules or walking alongside the stone-paved streets. I looked up at the sky with, observing the sun peeking out the wispy clouds. In an hour or so it would be noon. We had taken a scenic route through the streets of Ostia, allowing us time to familiarize ourselves of where to find the nearest latrines and bathhouses. After spending most of the morning cramped in the chariot we were all relieved to step inside the latrine and refresh ourselves at the baths. From there we would make our trek to the port.
"Which boat is ours?" I asked Theseus as we walked along the Tiber River. Vessels of all sizes bobbled along the gentle currents that flowed out to the Great Sea. Each ship had their distinctive character. Some were small and slender; others had a wide rounded hull with square sails.
"It is this one further down," Theseus said, pointing. "It resembles the last vessel we boarded last fall."
"Whatever happened to the other boat?" I asked.
"It never made it to Ostia, Troy. We could not haul the ship in time to the port so we had to winter it in a cove a few miles south of where the storm casted us. It was a struggle just to do that and by then most of the crew had went their own way," Theseus said with a sigh.
"Mind you, the hull was damaged by bedrock. You could wade waist-deep in water if you were inside the hull. There is no use saving the boat, with it already capsizing on one side," Hyros said gesturing with his hands. "Some things you just have to let go," he said, plunking a flat stone in the water. Theseus kept silent. Hyros was right. Some things were better left behind.
Once we arrived at the end of the shipyard along the river's edge, Theseus pointed out which ship we would be boarding. The ship loomed over the small fishing boats that bobbled beside it. Upon closer inspection, the swan sternpost was much larger than our old boat. Its long neck arched into a bow, kissing its breast feathers with its yellow beak. The mainsail, adjoined with triangular topsails seemed to reach for the sky. There was more room for supplies and men alike than ever before.
Theseus wasted no time orchestrating teams of able-bodied men to get the ship ready for cargo to be loaded. Meanwhile Hyros and I inspected the ship to make sure it was sound for the journey. Hyros boarded the ship while I stayed on the docks, inspecting for any fissures along the smooth outer walls. After several close inspections, the ship was fit for sailing. I glanced around looking for Theseus to report my findings. I could not find him. I looked up and saw Hyros who was talking to a fellow crewmember that looked familiar. However his name escaped my mind.
"Hyros," I called. He kept on talking. "Hyros," I repeated, raising my volume. Hyros turned his attention from the older fellow and looked down from the ship at me.
"I do not mean to disturb you but I want to tell you that I found no cracks."
"Good! I think we are ready to get this boat loaded," Hyros said sticking his thumb out.
"Will he be joining us?" the man asked who was standing by Hyros.
"Yes, Crispus he will be joining us. Short notice, I know," Hyros said patting him on the shoulder. It was Crispus, the Physician! He waved at me. I waved back observing his face soften before the planes in his face tightened again as he continued conversing with Hyros. I was relieved to see familiar faces again yet there were many new faces and new names I would have to learn.
"So we meet again, Troy," a man uttered from behind. I knew his voice from anywhere. I swung around to face Maximus and Sergius!
"What a pleasant surprise," I said sarcastically. He nodded at my words.
"I am glad to see you prompt at the shipyards. Just a few days before the Ides of March too. I almost thought you would have a change of heart and not come," he remarked slyly.
"I suppose you do not know me very well," I replied smartly. He grinned. We stepped aside as men were unloading cargo from a wagon.
"Troy, they are getting the cargo ready so I think it might be time to start boarding…" Hyros' voice trailed. Instantly his eyes darted to Maximus and Sergius who were heading to the boat. "Wait a moment," he said, walking towards the entry of the boat. "Are these lads lost or something? I believe you have the wrong boat," Hyros said, sticking his chewing stick between his teeth.
I watched as Maximus stepped foot on the ramp. Hyros met him midway on the incline, blocking his entry. But Maximus kept on walking closer to Hyros.
"I believe you have the wrong boat, sir," Hyros said, crunching down on his stick.
"Is this boat set to depart before the sun strikes the western skies?" Maximus asked.
"If the winds are favorable, then yes," Hyros answered.
"Then this is the right boat, sir," Maximus replied staring at him. Hyros scrunched his brows. Then he looked back at me as I stood on leveled ground looking up at the two of them.
"Since when were you authorized to set foot on this boat?" Hyros mumbled, letting out a snort.
"Since I paid my fare," he said pointing to a distinguished young man talking to some other crew members. It was Jason! I had no idea he was returning again.
He plucked the chewing stick from his teeth. "You cannot possibly be serious," he said in an assertive voice. "I am not letting you or your men get on this boat. Theseus grants me a weighty task in overseeing things and I am not buying your words. Now please just step aside because these kind men behind you would like to bring the foodstuff," Hyros said pointing to two men carrying heavy sacks stuffed with grain.
"Let us pass," Maximus said in a quiet but stern tone.
"Sorry I cannot," Hyros said crossing his arms against his chest. "Now please step aside. Those men look like they are about to drop their sacks." Maximus tried to push past Hyros, only for him to block his movements. They were merely a foot away from each other.
"Please do not test me. I am not in the mood you two," Hyros warned. As quickly as it happened Sergius dug into his sheath.
"I am not in the mood either to play!" Sergius snarled, whipping his knife out at Hyros throat. Hyros took a step back.
"You heard Hyros!" one of the bag holders shouted from behind. You are holding everyone up!"
"Hyros, please," I begged.
"So are we going to resort to knives to get our way?" Hyros retorted.
"What is going on here?" Theseus asked, raising his voice. Sergius quickly withdrew his blade back in its sheath. I could see Hyros' cheeks flush red. I bit my lip as Hyros' eyes narrowed at his opponents.
"This man denies us of our passage on this boat!" Maximus said in an icy tone.
"Did he pay his fare for the passage?" Hyros asked.
"Yes, he did!" Theseus replied sternly. Hyros rolled his eyes.
"Me too!" Sergius interjected. Hyros stepped aside as Maximus and Sergius stepped onboard. Each man exchanged icy glances at the other. The rest of the men began to file on board, bringing amphorae and long bundles of ropes. As I boarded the ship, I recognized familiar faces from the crowd of men. Were some of them members of the "Brotherhood," Hyros spoke of?
"We certainly have more men on the ship then I was being made aware of," Hyros remarked aloud. "Do you know any of them, Troy?" he asked, turning to me.
"Only Maximus and Sergius," I shrugged. I watched as Theseus approached Hyros and me.
"Hyros. I did not ask you to join me on this voyage only for you to make enemies with the new crew," Theseus replied sternly.
"Too late!" Hyros replied coolly, tossing his chewing stick in the water. "Where these other men come from anyhow?" he asked, wrinkling his brow.
"I honestly do not know. But to be fair most did pay their money to Jason. Many of them I believe are travelling as passengers."
"Most? All of them should have paid their fare. If it was to me I would not let them ride if they cannot afford it. After all was that not always our policy?" Hyros questioned.
"You are correct. But sometimes exceptions can be made," he said looking at me. I looked down at my sandals. Already their eyes were fixed on me. They were staring at the first exception. The day I set sail to Rome with no money I changed the rules.
"A man by the name of Maximus said he will cover the passage of the other men. He is working out the reimbursements with Jason. Look Hyros. I know you are trying to do the right thing but I wish you would have consulted me or Jason first before you allowed the situation to escalate. That was not wise!" Theseus reprimanded.
"Oh wonderful. I am being blamed and for once I am trying to be responsible," Hyros retorted, his words dripping with bitter sarcasm. Theseus heaved a sigh.
"Everyone on board?" Jason asked, approaching our group. Our group remained quiet.
"Why the long faces? " Jason asked, fiddling with the scroll.
"I don't know. You might want to wait. Three more men might climb on board," Hyros said in a whimsical tone.
"Ha. Very funny, Hyros. I certainly missed your humor," Jason said with a forced laugh.
"Do not worry. You will get to enjoy my antics for the next month. You will die of laughter when I am done." There was no hint of a smile on his face. Theseus cleared his throat while Jason smirked. If Marius was here, I imagined him slapping his knees and hollering with laughter. He always seemed to find humor in things even at the most inappropriate times. He just could not help but laugh. A part of me found it childish. The other part admired his light-heartedness; even found it refreshing. Already I was beginning to miss him. If nothing else he taught me it was all right to make light of things.
I decided to volunteer by assisting in carrying the last of the cargo on the ship. The morning breeze had largely subsided as the sun raised mid-sky. As the crew scurried to adjust the red mainsail, I gazed into the open sea. There was no land in sight, just bluish green water that glimmered in the sunlight. The water was calm; the winds subdued. The only thing left to wait for was the wind. According to Theseus you needed a "good" trade wind before sailing. Too little and you would have a difficult time getting the ship to propel forward. Too much and you risked wind damage to the mast. Not to mention the wind needed to be blowing in the direction you were sailing. Everything had to be just so. So we had to wait some more.
The golden sun was creeping towards the western skies as thicker clouds from the east rolled in. Evening had brought a sudden chill to the air, as the winds stirred from the east. The winds were blowing in our favor. It was time. Some of the men adjusted the foresail at the back of the ship, while others standing on the dock began pulling out the anchors one by one. As Theseus took count of the men, I was looking for Hyros in the midst of the throng. He was standing outside the captain's cabin, alone. I maneuvered my way through the men as I made my way over to Hyros.
"It looks like we are finally ready to set sail," I said with a weak smile. He responded with a shrug.
"Yes I suppose so," he said dryly.
"Look, I am sorry about what happened to you earlier. I was not expecting Sergius to do that to you," I said in an undertone.
"It is not your fault Troy. You have no need to apologize. I should have taken your words seriously. Those are dangerous men. I don't trust them at all," he said.
"I cannot say I fully trust them but we have to tolerate them at least for the journey… Maximus is not so bad once you get to know him," I said softly.
"Someone is singing a new tune. You somehow have gotten on his good graces. Perhaps that is what saved you from being killed. But for me I am not tiptoeing for anybody," Hyros snorted. Our bodies jerked as the boat began gliding from the docks and towards the mouth of the sea. We were moving.
"Hyros. We may need you back over by the mast," Jason called out.
"I am coming," Hyros said as we both walked together. Just then Hyros bumped shoulders with Maximus who was walking in the opposite direction.
"Oops. Did not mean to do that," Hyros said in his usual whimsical tone. Maximus gave Hyros a nasty scowl. "Look, I'm sorry. No one told me your name was on the list," Hyros continued with a shrug. "I am the last to know anything so you cannot blame me for being wary."
"Watch your back!" he replied in a soft but deadly tone. I looked at Maximus and then at Hyros who frowned. "Troy, tell your friend that I am not one to be played with," he warned, glaring at Hyros. Hyros stood his ground as the two locked gazes. The air was so tense I could cut it with a knife.
"Come on Hyros," I said tugging at his arm, but he would not budge.
"Hyros!" Jason called again.
"Coming," Hyros replied coolly, breaking his gaze with Maximus. There was no anger left in Maximus' eyes. His face was devoid of emotion. I wished he was angry because the only thing I read was sheer coldness. That scared me more than his anger. As I stepped closer to observe the flapping sails, men climbing up and down ladders, while others paced back and forth between the deck carrying goods. I dodged their movements as I stepped closer to the mast.
"I am not letting anyone intimidate me. Not while I am in command. I do not care if they paid their fare; I want those men off the boat!" Hyros snapped, charging at Jason.
"What do you want me to do? The boat is already in motion," Jason said, throwing his hands up. Before I realized it the boat had already drifted past the river delta, verging into the open sea. We were heading into the deep.