1- The Slave Market
The heat around him was oppressive and heavy, so very different from the chilly and clean climate he had gotten used to in Germania. The air was thick, hot and dust-choked, and it caused him to breathe with difficulty. Not that he cared a lot about it: he was so weak and fevered that simply keeping his head up was too much of an effort.
The slave market around him was bustling with activities, like an army before a major battle, but the noises and the smells barely entered his pain-numbed mind.
Maximus' eyes were fixed on a point well faraway from that place and the lack of light in the blue-green pools reflected the void he felt in his heart and soul. His family was gone, his emperor was gone, his life was gone... He was now a slave with no rights and no control over his own destiny, but he did not mind it at all. If he was lucky, his life would end in a short time, enabling him to join his wife and son in the after life. That was his hope.
Two men approached the poles to which the slaves were chained, and Maximus recognized one of them as the man who had captured him. The slave trader was singing the praise of his stock, especially of the young Numidian who had saved Maximus' life, nursing his wound during the long trail in the desert. The other man was tall and big, with a grey beard and covered with dark clothes. He was listening to his companion with only one ear, intent as he was on making his own conclusions about the slaves he was examining.
Finally the two men moved to Maximus' place, and the buyer prodded his fly-covered wound with the tip of a stick. Pain shot to his brain, but Maximus barely flinched: he had not enough strength to do anything more.
"The mark of the legions," commented the dark-clad man upon seeing his SPQR tattoo. "You a deserter?"
Maximus said nothing.
"Probably," replied the Bedouin slave trader, "Who cares? He is a Spaniard."
"Uhm. I will take six for 1,000."
"1000?! The Numidian alone is worth 2,000!" protested the trader.
The other man moved away from the slaves, pushing Maximus' head forward as he passed, "These slaves are rotten!"
"It adds to the flavor!"
The buyer started to walk away and the Bedouin quickly added, "No, no, wait, wait, wait! We can negotiate."
"I'll give you 2,000 and 4 for the beasts. That's 5,000 for an old friend."
Maximus listened to the exchange as if it was happening faraway from him and did not concern him at all.
In the end, the two men came back, and the grey-bearded man began to shout orders to the servants who followed him.
"Take that, that and the other one." he said pointing to the slaves, and his men rushed to unlock the chains which tied the new 'purchases' to the poles.
One of the servants reached for Maximus' chains but his master's voice stopped him.
"Leave him there. That wound could still kill him before I send him in the arena, and I don't have money to throw away. Take the other one."
Maximus watched with half closed eyes as the other slaves, the young Numidian among them, were dragged away and found inside himself the force to wonder what the Fates had in store for him.
2 - Octavia
Octavia was walking around the slave market, trying to not remember her past experiences in places like this one. It did not matter that she was now a freewoman -- the memories of the horrible partings from her family members and degrading examinations still haunted her.
The twenty-two year old woman was visiting the market, searching for a man to help her with the heavier jobs on her little farm just outside the city. Since her husband's death, she had had the help of another freeman, but now he had left her, having received the offer of a better job, while her other workers were too old for the task.
It was late afternoon, and Octavia realized the best slaves had already been sold, since she could see only under-nourished children or thin and sore-covered old men, too weak for the kind of work she had in store for them.
Suddenly her eyes spotted the large frame of a younger man chained in the middle of a now empty area. She walked in his direction and then stopped in front of him.
Her eyes immediately registered his feverish condition and his ugly wound, but they also saw his muscled arms, shoulders and back. He could be the one she was looking for, if the price was not too high.
"May I help you, lady?" asked to her the slave trader, having noticed the interest of the beautiful young woman.
"How much do you want for him?"
Octavia narrowed her eyes and said, "300."
The Bedouin crossed his arms on his chest, threw another look to his slave and replied, "350 and not one less."
The woman paused some seconds then nodded, "All right." And she pulled out a small leather bag full of coins.
The trader smiled satisfied: he had got ridden of an ailing slave for more than he hoped for! Of course if that slave recovered well from his wound he would be worth much more than 350, but that was a big 'if'. He preferred to have an egg today than a chicken tomorrow.
Octavia handed the money to the man, and he counted it. When he finished he nodded and asked, "Do you want help to bring him to your home, lady? I no longer have other slaves to sell here, and I can escort you."
Octavia looked down at her new slave and said, "No, thank you; I don't need help."
"As you wish." The Bedouin knelt and pulled off the chain from the pole, giving its end to Octavia. "Get up, Spaniard, and go with the lady. Be a good worker, I don't want to hear complains about my stock!" The man laughed and slapped the slave on his back, almost throwing him to the ground.
Octavia watched with concern as the Spaniard staggered, and then, with a gentle tug to his chains, she guided him outside the market to the place where her cart was waiting for them.
3 - A New Duty
Maximus woke up hearing a cock singing very near to him. He opened his eyes and looked around him. Thank to the light which was entering from a little window, he saw he was in a small room, simply furnished and clean. He heard a noise of keys, and his gaze moved to the door which was in front of the sleeping cot where he was lying. The door opened, and a slim figure entered the room and approached him.
"Spaniard," said a feminine voice, "What a pleasure to see you awake! I hope you are feeling better."
Maximus nodded respectfully, recognizing the young woman who had purchased him at the slave market days -- how many, he idly wondered -- ago. She knelt beside him and examined his now clean wound and smiled, satisfied. "You are good as new."
Maximus sat up with a little difficulty, but without the nausea and the dizziness of the past days, and murmured gently, bowing his head, "Domina, I thank you for your kindness."
She waved her hand, "I need for you to be up soon..... Have you experience with country jobs?"
Maximus paled while images of his farm in Trujillo flashed in his mind, then nodded. "Yes, domina."
"Good, it seems you are really what I need." She stood up and added, "I will let you rest today. Tomorrow you will start to work."
Maximus bowed his head once more and watched her walk away and exit the room. When he was once again alone, he began to reflect about his situation. It was evident that the young woman with long dark hair and eyes had purchased him to help her on a farm, probably one of the many small estates he had noticed the day he had arrived in Zucchabar. Maximus sighed, not because of the idea of having to work, but because his sense of duty --which he believed dead and buried along the rest of his past life -- was returning in him. He knew the woman had spent a lot of money for him, and, even if his broken heart wanted nothing more than join his family in Elysium, his mind and his conscience compelled him to keep on living, to repay the woman who was counting on his help. He did not like it, but he had no choice.
Octavia closed the door but did not lock it. In her heart she knew the Spaniard wouldn't try to escape, and not just because of his weakness. It was something she had seen in his eyes.... Octavia shook her head: she had to be prudent, because her trusting nature could lead people to abuse her, but she could not act as a careless slave owner. She had suffered too much under cruel masters, until her late husband had bought and freed her, and she would not behave like them. She had liked the Spaniard from the beginning and nursing him trough his delirium had made her like him more. He was a strong man, and, even if she did not know why he was now a slave, she was sure the former soldier was not a deserter. His eyes were too honest.
A joyous cry snapped her back from the reverie, "Mother!"
Octavia turned her head and smiled, seeing her daughter Martia running in her direction. The child reached her and tugged her tunica saying, "I am hungry, mother! I want my breakfast!"
Octavia took the dark haired child's hand and said, "I told you many times, Martia -- you must not use the word 'want' so much. You must say, 'May I have my breakfast?'"
Martia lowered her eyes and mumbled, "May I have my breakfast?"
Octavia smiled and said, "Of course, darling, come with me."
And mother and daughter disappeared along the hallway.
4 - Martia
Maximus dried the sweat from his brow using his forearm, and looked over the fence he had just finished repairing. A satisfied smile appeared on his lips, briefly lightening his eyes, while he rested a little. He heard a noise behind his back and turned around, bowing his head when he saw his mistress. "Domina," he greeted her respectfully.
Octavia barely resisted the urge to snort: she had told him a hundred times she didn't want to be called so but the Spaniard did not want to listen.
"You have done a great job, as usual," she praised him, admiring his handy work.
Maximus didn't answer but bowed his head again.
Octavia walked near him, while her eyes lingered on his bare chest and muscled arms. The unmerciful African sun had bronzed his skin and lightened his hair and well trimmed beard, and she said to herself, "Gods, how beautiful he is..." It had been quite some time since she had first acknowledged that her feelings for the strong and silent man were different for the ones she should had have for a slave, but she had been alone for so much time.... Octavia studied his face and for the umpteenth time felt the desire to caress him, to dispel the sadness which seemed to linger in his blue-green eyes. She pushed away those thoughts and said, "Come with me, I wish to hear your opinion about one matter."
Maximus nodded and followed her, some paces behind her back, as his status of slave required. Octavia rolled her eyes -- that was another thing she did not like -- but said nothing.
While they were walking along the dusty path which led from the fields to the house, Maximus found himself thinking about his life in the past year and about the changes that had happened inside him. In the beginning, when he had started to work on the farm, he had done it only out of a sense duty and responsibility, doing his work as well as he possibly could, but without putting his heart in it. Then slowly, without realizing it, he had left his prison of grief and pain, and he had started to live again. He had befriended his fellow workers -- a man and two women much older than himself-- and to perform his job with passion, proposing and making improvements to the cultivations. His mistress had put more and more responsibilities on his shoulders, and he had accepted them with pleasure, basking in the feeling of being useful.
A voice calling him attracted Maximus' attention, and he smiled upon seeing Martia, the young daughter of Octavia -- the little four year old 'earthquake' who had entered his bleeding heart first.
"Spaniard!" cried the child, running to him, and Maximus bent down, ready to receive her embrace.
Octavia observed her gentle giant --as she had secretly nicknamed him -- take her daughter in his arms and raise her into the air, provoking the child's laughter. Martia had never known her father since he had died before she was able to walk, and Octavia was pleased with her relationship with the man, her 'big' friend, as Martia called him. In fact, her daughter had been the first one to break the wall of silence and solitude in which the Spaniard had lived since his purchase, approaching him one evening while he was feeding a calf whose mother had died. With her innocent curiosity, Martia had been able to provoke a reaction in the stoic former soldier and since then the mutual love between the child and the man had continued to grow and deepen. Sometimes Octavia felt irrationally jealous of all the attentions her daughter received by that handsome man.... She wanted him to look at her with those soft eyes, as he was doing now, while he listened to Martia's voice.
"Where are you going?" asked the child, her small arms wrapped around his neck.
"I don't know, my little mistress. I am following your mother."
Martia turned to her mother and asked, "May I come with you?"
"Good," whispered the child, making herself comfortable in the arms of her big friend.
The two adults exchanged a little smile and began to walk again.
After some minutes they reached the stables where a man Maximus had never seen before was waiting along a beautiful chestnut horse. Maximus turned to his mistress, arching an eyebrow questioningly and she said, "Our neighbors need money because they had to provide a dowry for their daughter, so they decided to sell the horse. Since they need the money soon they can't wait for the fair to sell him and asked me if I would be interested in buying him. I would like you to inspect him and give me your opinion."
Maximus nodded, put Martia on the ground and walked to the horse, making soft sounds with his tongue. He patted the muscular neck then bent down and examined carefully the animal's tendons and feet, touching and prodding, bending the joints to be sure he was not in pain. Then he examined the eyes, the mouth and listened to his breath and heartbeat. When he had finished, Maximus returned to Octavia who had watched him with fascination.
"Domina, the horse is sound, and he can became a good breeding stallion in the future. I advise you to buy him."
"They said he is yet not broken to the saddle, and I know the horse-breakers want a lot of money to do it... I am not sure I can afford to buy him and then pay a trainer."
Maximus smiled briefly, "I will break him, domina."
Octavia's heart melted in her chest at seeing his smile, and she said with a little wonder, "Is there something you are not able to do, my Spaniard?" Before he could say anything she walked to the horse seller and told him to put the colt in the stable, since she would buy him.
Martia tugged Maximus' hand and when he looked down she raised her arms, asking to be picked up. Maximus obeyed and when she was his arms, she said, "That horse is so beautiful...."
Maximus smiled at her and replied, "Yes, he is."
"When I am old enough, will you teach me to ride?"
Maximus' smile disappeared as his own son's very words returned to his mind... Marcus too had asked him to teach him to ride, but he had never had the chance to do so. Maximus blinked away his tears and tried to be cheerful, while speaking through the lump constricting his throat, "Yes, my little mistress, I will teach you to ride."
Martia smiled and, planting a small kiss on his rough cheek, said, "Thank you Spaniard.... I love you so much."
"I love you too, my little mistress," replied Maximus, as tears once again welled up in his eyes. But this time they were tears of joy, because he knew those words were absolutely true. He had believed he would never feel love again after he had discovered his murdered family, but this child had performed a miracle, and he was very grateful for it, because thanks to her he was living again and not merely existing and waiting for death.
5 - The Incident
It was a beautiful spring morning and Maximus, Octavia and Martia took advantage of the still cool climate to visit the fair in Zucchabar. Octavia was looking for some fabrics for her clothes while Maximus needed some tools for his work in the fields. Martia instead wanted only to spend some time with her mother and her beloved big friend.
While they walked around the fair, a lot of people turned to see them better as they appeared very much to be a happy, small family. Maximus seemed blind to the looks they there receiving from the other people, intent as he was on listening to Martia's excited comments, but Octavia noticed the way many matrons watched her Spaniard, who, dressed with a simple beige tunica, was gracefully moving along with her child in his arms. Octavia stepped nearer to him and put a possessive hand on his forearm. Maximus felt it and threw a side-glance in her direction. It has been quite some time since Maximus had discovered that his feelings for his mistress had changed, and he did not know how to take it. Some part of him was feeling guilty because he believed he was betraying his wife's memory, but another part of him couldn't help to notice the way Octavia walked, the way she smiled, her shining brown eyes and the gentle curve of her breasts. Moreover, she was a wonderful mother and a clever, competent administrator for her little farm.... Maximus sighed silently, casting away those thoughts, and savored the touch of her hand on his bare arm.
They reached the clothes shop and Octavia threw herself in an animated search through the cotton, silk and linen fabrics, examining them with critical eyes, with Martia intent on 'helping' her.
For almost twenty minutes Maximus stayed by their side in silence, until Octavia saw his resigned expression and with a warm smile invited him to wait for them in the tavern along the road where they would have lunch.
Maximus nodded grateful and left the shop.
The tavern was small and cool and Maximus sat down at a table, lost in his thoughts, waiting for Octavia and Martia. The owner decided to join him, since there weren't any other customers, and the two men began a light conversation.
Some minutes later Octavia burst into the inn, shouting, "Spaniard!"
Maximus turned around quickly and sprang to his feet, then he saw her ashen face, "Domina?"
"Spaniard, Martia has disappeared!" she said, terrified.
"She was with me in the shop and then, suddenly, after I paid, I saw she was no longer there.... What can we do?"
Maximus forced himself to remain calm and replied, "She could not go very far -- let's separate and look for her."
Octavia nodded and relaxed a little, so great was her trust in this man.
Few seconds later mistress and slave left the tavern and stepped into the street, walking away in different directions.
Maximus elbowed his way through the crowd amassed in the streets, moving his eyes from left to right, scanning every place, stopping on the face of every child he saw.
After about fifteen minutes of methodical searching he saw Martia walking alone and scared in the area of the fair near to the beast market. Maximus sighed in relief and walked quickly to her, hoping the child would not disappear again from view. He had almost reached her when he glimpsed movement on his right. He turned his head and saw a two-horse chariot galloping fast in the direction of Martia. It was evident that the driver had lost the control of his beasts, and he was not able to stop them.
Maximus began to run, pushing the people out of his way, while shouting desperately to the child, "Martia, move aside!" But with all the noise surrounding them, the child didn't hear him, while she continued to stare at a little lamb tied nearby.
Maximus reached Martia and grabbed her, pushing her away from the chariotís path, but he had no time to do the same for himself. He felt one of the horseís hooves smash against his right leg, followed by a blinding pain, but he continued to roll away, dragging the child with him.
His breath ragged, he sat up and checked Martia for injuries, but, thanks to the Gods, she was all right, albeit very scared.
Maximus tried to stand up but his right leg could not support his body weight, and he fell to the ground. He looked down at his leg and saw it was bent at a strange angle below the knee. He cursed under his breath, then felt Martia's little arms around his neck while she pressed her trembling body against him, seeking comfort from her fear. Maximus hugged the child tightly, trying to calm her and hoping Octavia would arrive soon.
Octavia reached the area where the beast market was kept, attracted by the crowd's cries. She saw that many people were gathered together watching something and so she sought out more information.
"What happened?" she asked another woman.
"Oh, there has been an accident: a child was going to be trampled by a chariot, but a man saved her. However he was wounded... Someone called a doctor -- he should be here soon."
An horrible sense of foreboding crossed Octavia's mind as she listened, and she quickly elbowed her way through the crowd, finally seeing with her eyes what she already knew she would see.
The Spaniard and Martia were sitting side by side in the dusty square, his face contorted in a grimace of pain, her small hands patting his arms, as to comfort him.
Octavia rushed to them and bent down. "How are you feeling?" she asked, her face full of concern, while wrapping Martia in her arms.
"I have been better," Maximus replied, trying to lighten the mood.
It was then that a man, elegantly dressed and bearing a leather bag, joined them.
"I am a doctor," he introduced himself, "I am here to help."
"Yes," nodded Octavia relieved, "Please, sir, help him -- the price of your services is of no importance."
The man waved her words away and gently and expertly examined Maximus' leg. "Uhm," he commented, pressing his lips.
"What?" asked Maximus and Octavia in unison.
"The leg is broken just under the knee, and unfortunately the two pieces of bone are no longer aligned."
"What can you do? Can you help him?" asked Octavia anxiously.
"Yes, I can re-align the bone, but it must be done soon. I advise you to stay here while I return to my study to fetch some bandages and wood planks. On my return I will put the bone back in its place and bind the leg." The doctor stopped talking and looked at his patient and then the woman, and upon their affirmative nods, walked quickly away.
Martia approached Maximus and asked in a small voice, "Will you be all right?"
"Of course!" he said trying to reassure her but in his heart he was not so sure.... He had seen so many broken legs during his years on the frontier, and he knew that the knees were very delicate. Maximus felt small lips kissing his flesh and looked down to see Martia bent over his injured knee. "Mother says a kiss makes pain fade away, and I wanted to see if it worked with you too."
Maximus opened his mouth to answer, deeply touched by the innocent gesture but the doctor's return stopped him.
The man bent down, handed the bandages and the planks to Octavia, then concentrated on Maximus.
"This is going to hurt very much," he told him, "Maybe you would like to have something to bite."
Maximus nodded and the doctor gave him a tightly bound piece of cloth from his bag. Maximus put it in his mouth, braced himself, putting his hands on the ground behind him and then nodded.
The doctor put his hands on his patient's already swollen knee and pushed.
A terrible shot of pain traveled Maximus' entire body, and he stiffened before losing his senses and going completely limp in Octavia's arms.
6 - Freedom
Ten days later, Maximus was sitting in the small villa's courtyard, his bound leg propped on a pile of cushions. In his hands he had a stone he was using to sharpen the blades of some knives and scythes. He was quietly humming to himself, happy that the throbbing in his broken limb had disappeared. A shadow obscured the sun, and he raised his head, locking his eyes with Octavia's.
Maximus smiled then bowed his head in greeting, "Domina."
Octavia returned his smile, sat on a bench near him and said, "Please stop to work for a little, I have some things for you."
He put down his tools and looked curiously at her. Her voice had sounded a little strange to his ears.
Octavia cleared her throat, then said, "Give me your hands."
Maximus obeyed, and she put a scroll and a small leather pouch in his open palms. Then she stunned him by lightly slapping his face. He raised his surprised eyes to her face and saw there were tears in her eyes... What was happening?
Octavia smiled gently at his surprised expression and said, "After you have read the scroll all will be clear." She paused a little, then added, "I told to the scribe to write it for Ďthe Spaniardí, since you never told me your true name."
More curious than he had ever been, Maximus did as she told and opened the papyrus, reading it quickly. His breath caught in his throat when he finally understood..... The scroll, the traditional slap on the cheek, the money in the pouch -- Octavia had just made him a free man again!
He raised his head and mumbled, "Thank you, domina.... I have no words to tell you how much this means to me."
"It was the least I could do for you... .You saved my daughter and I am the one who doesn't have enough words to say thank you."
Maximus looked down to the pouch still in his palm, and Octavia followed his gaze.
"The money inside should be sufficient to pay for a transport to Hispania."
Maximus raised his head, "Do you want me to leave?"
"Of course not, but I thought you would like to return to your home land... and to.... your family." She added hesitantly, remembering the names he had cried out when he was delirious with fever.
Maximus shook his head, "There is nothing in Hispania for me to return to. My family is dead.... and my home destroyed."
"I am so sorry." She said, angry with herself for provoking his sadness. This should be a joyful day for him, she did not want to ruin it.
"If you don't mind, I would like to remain here and keep on working for you. I know I will probably be lame for the rest of my life, but I still can be useful for you."
Oh no, she thought, he had taken her comment about the travel as an indication she no longer wanted him here! She decided the time had arrived to tell him the truth about her feelings for him. Octavia slipped down the bench and knelt beside his chair. "Spaniard," she said, "I would keep you here even if you were without a leg, an arm and an eye. I don't know how it happened, and I know it is not appropriate to say this but.... but I love you. Iíve loved you for a long time, and I don't want to lose you." She bent her head and waited for his reply.
Maximus' heart jumped in his chest at hearing her confession.... She loved him! And he loved her.... It had taken a lot of time to admit it to himself, but now he was sure. He would never forget his late wife and son, but he loved Octavia. He turned at the waist and sneaked a hand under her chin, gently raising her head until their eyes locked.
"I love you too, I have for quite some time, but until now I could not express my feelings." he said and then smiled seeing the radiant expression appearing on her face.
"Is it true? You really love me?"
"Yes, yes I do. After my wife and son's deaths, I thought I would never fall in love again.... in fact, I just wanted to die and join them in Elysium. But then I met you and Martia; you gave a new meaning to my life, and now I just want to stay here, care for you and make you happy." He stopped for some seconds then added seriously, "Will you marry me, Octavia?"
Octavia's eyes widened with shock, and then she cried, "Yes! Ten thousand times yes!"
Maximus smiled gently. "Once will be enough." he joked, then patted his legs and added, "Come here."
Octavia rose to her feet and carefully sat on his lap, avoiding putting her weight on his injured leg.
He slipped his arms around her back and pulled her to his chest, hugging her tightly. They stayed so for several moments, then he released her, tilted her head up and put his mouth on hers. The kiss was sweet, tentative at first, but rapidly became wildly passionate as the love they had held in check for so much time took control of their bodies.
Finally they separated, breathing hard, a large grin on their faces. Octavia signed, content, and whispered, "You are a wonderful kisser, my Spaniard....."
He smiled and said, "Maximus."
"My name is Maximus. Maximus Decimus Meridius to be exact."
"Maximus," she repeated, savoring its sound, "I like it: a great name for a great man."
He smiled once more then kissed her again.