7- Disturbing News
Maximus put his arms on the fence, resting his chin on them, while he watched in silence as the black colt trotted inside the round enclosure. Beside him, a fat and elegant man continued to switch his gaze from Maximus to the horse.
In the end the man anxiously asked, "So, Spaniard, what do you think of my Bucephalus?"
Maximus' gaze left the horse, and he turned to his companion, "He is a real beauty, Proconsul: he has a good head, sound limbs, and a strong back." he replied, restraining himself from commenting on the round man's scarce fantasy on names.
The politician beamed on hearing the praises that the most competent horseman in the whole province was bestowing on his animal. "Do you think you will be able to break and train him by the end of next month?"
Maximus reflected for few moments then nodded, even if inwardly he was not sure that spirited colt was the right mount for such out-of-form rider.
The Proconsul sighed, satisfied, and commented, "I am looking forward to giving him as a gift to our Caesar...."
Upon hearing the word 'Caesar', Maximus felt the blood drain from his face, but thanks to his tan the Proconsul didn't see it and went on, "....he has embarked on a long tour of the African provinces and just yesterday I got the announcement that he will be here by the end of October. Isn't it wonderful news? I hope his presence will be good for Zucchabar, and I hope I will be able to obtain the funds to construct a new aqueduct for the city."
Maximus was only able to nod a couple of times while his numbed mind tried to grasp the situation
.....Commodus was arriving in Zucchabar....
Octavia checked her sleeping little son one last time, then blew out the candle and slipped between the sheets, snuggling against her husband's warm body. She let out a small sigh and put her cheek on his chest, listening to his heartbeat. After some moments during which neither of them moved, Octavia began to slowly cover his chest and neck with kisses, but to her great surprise Maximus stopped her, saying, "Please, not tonight."
His wife's eyes widened, and she asked, "There is something wrong, Maximus? Since you came back from the Proconsul's villa you have been acting a little strangely."
Maximus kept silent for few seconds, thinking about what he should say, then murmured, "Today I have been informed Commodus will visit Zucchabar; he will be here in October."
Octavia was barely able to stifle a horrified gasp. Before they married, Maximus had told her about his past life and so she knew the emperor was responsible for his first wife and son's brutal murders, for the loss of his estates and for his enslavement. When Maximus told her about his past life, she had not been surprised to learn he had been a great general, the commander of all the Armies of the North -- she had always known her husband was a very special man -- but she had been stupefied to hear the great Marcus Aurelius had chosen him as his heir instead of his own son.
Octavia remembered Maximus' pained and chilling gaze when he told her about how Commodus had killed his own father and ordered his and his family's executions and she suddenly stiffened, afraid her beloved might decide to use this impromptu visit to have his revenge against the emperor.
Maximus felt her stiffen and, guessing her thoughts, tried to calm her, "Don't worry, Octavia, I have no intention of committing some madness. If I were alone, I might try to have my vengeance, but I am not alone..... I have you, and Martia and little Maximus to care for, so, please, relax and stay calm."
"I am happy to hear you say that," Octavia murmured, before kissing him softly.
Maximus kissed her back with passion, denying his own earlier words.
Octavia smiled and whispered seductively, "Have you changed your mind, my Spaniard?" Those words were now her most intimate endearment for him.
Maximus caressed her willing body and replied in kind, "Domina, you know your wishes are my commands...."
Their lips met again, and they lost themselves in their embrace, quickly forgetting all their worries.
8 - The Emperor Arrives
August and September passed quickly and with the approaching October, the city of Zucchabar threw itself in a blur of activities to adequately receive the emperor.
For Maximus Decimus Meridius, those were probably among the most difficult months of his life. In spite of what he said to his wife, the idea of having Commodus nearby made him nervous and ill at ease. He was afraid of what he could do if he ever found the emperor in front of him. The soldier in him was not dead -- he was merely sleeping inside the placid farmer-horse breaker, and the hate he felt for what Commodus did to his family had increased with the knowledge of the brutal way the new Caesar was ruling the empire. However, Maximus had promised to himself he would not interfere in the situation and would not put his family in danger.
"Spaniard, you are really great!" exclaimed Proconsul Licinius, watching with admiration as Bucephalus responded promptly to all the commands his trainer was giving to him.
Maximus smiled and jumped down from the saddle, walking to the enclosure gates, the colt in tow. He had always loved to ride, and he was grateful to the Gods his limp did not stop him from spending much of his time on horseback. He loved to be a horse breaker and his training method, which consisted of patience and gentleness instead of the usual beatings and violence, was much appreciated in the province, providing him with a lot of work to do and plenty of money for the comfort of his family.
Limping, Maximus reached the gates and gave Bucephalus' reins to Proconsul's servant, who led the beast away.
Licinius, enthusiastic at what he had just seen, didn't hesitate to put in Maximus' hands a bag full of coins and to slap him on his back, "You did wonderful work: now my horse is truly befitting of an Emperor!"
The smile disappeared from Maximus' face, and he asked, "When will he arrive?"
"He should be here for the Ides.... Surely you will come in town to see the parade, won't you?
Maximus gestured with his head and the Proconsul took that as a 'yes'..... In reality the former general had no intention of even coming near the center of the city while Commodus was there.
However, as often happens in life, the Fates decided otherwise, and the day after the Ides of October, Maximus had to leave his farm to go into the city. One of the special bits he used for training had broken, and he needed to have it repaired by a farrier. So he jumped on Tago, the chestnut stallion he had advised Octavia to buy two years ago, and prepared to leave.
As he was guiding the horse away from the courtyard he heard Martia's voice calling him. He turned around and saw the child running in his way, immediately slowing down to a walk when she remembered what he had taught her about not running near the horses.
Martia stopped near him and asked, "May I come with you?"
Maximus wanted to refuse, but the child's pleading eyes stopped him.... There was something in those eyes that made impossible for him to say 'no', and he suspected Martia knew it very well! Smiling to himself, he leaned down in the saddle, gave his arms to the child and picked her up, sitting her between his thighs.
"Are you ready?" Maximus asked, and Martia nodded, grabbing the horse's mane. He lightly touched Tago's flanks with his heels, and they trotted away directed to the city, without knowing the Gods had other surprises in store for him.
9 - Lucilla
The Lady Lucilla was walking down Zucchabar’s dusty streets, observing how the local populace lived. Her desire was dictated by her curiosity about new customs and also by the need to ascertain the damage done by almost four years of her brother's rule. Upon their arrival, two days ago, the town had put on a great celebration, but it was clear that many citizens had been obliged to attend it and that the discontent spread through the province, as it had been in the other towns they had recently visited. There had already been revolts in other parts of the Empire, but they had failed, put down with bloodshed, because the lack of strong leadership to organize them.
Lucilla's attention was attracted by the a commotion in front of her, and, seeing how the Preatorians were keeping at bay a crowd of beggars, she decided to leave the main street and turned left onto one of the lesser roads, followed by her entourage. The shop-lined street was deserted except for two people who were walking in front of her. They were a broad-shouldered man, who walked with a slight limp on his right leg, and a little girl of about six or seven years. The man had the child's hand in his much larger one, and he kept his head bent to the side, seeming to carefully listen to his younger companion's words.
Suddenly the child stopped, and she said aloud, indicating the entrance of a shop they had just passed, "Can we go see inside?"
Lucilla smiled upon hearing the excited tone, noticing the child was pointing to a bookshop, but her smiled disappeared when she heard the next sentence.
"Please, Maximus, let's go inside!"
The man and child stopped and turned, but Lucilla didn't see it, lost in remembrance.
Maximus. That name still caused pain and grief in her heart, even after almost four years. An image appeared in front of her eyes: a ruggedly handsome face.....two aquamarine eyes....a body so strong and yet capable of so much tenderness...
Lucilla felt rage rise inside her: what use she had for these regrets? Why did she torment herself with the 'buts', the 'ifs' and the 'maybes'? She closed her eyes to dispel her memories, but when she opened them again that face from her past was still there. However it looked different from how she remembered it.
A little older.
Lucilla brought her hand to her mouth to stifle a stupefied cry, then she whispered, "Maximus...."
She reached out a hand and hesitantly touched his arm, before quickly pulling it back. She started to speak again, but his gaze warned her against it and she understood.... there were too many witnesses...
The entire exchange had lasted only few seconds, and Maximus ended it by bowing deeply and then stepping aside, to let her pass. "My lady Lucilla," he said respectful, not betraying a hint of his shock.
Lucilla accepted his bow with the same gracious indifference with which she accepted the bows of other citizens, and walked away, followed by her servants and guards.
She barely resisted the urged to turn around to watch him, while her mind worked frantically. How had Maximus had managed to escape his assassins? Why he was here in Zucchabar? And more important of all, what could his presence mean for Rome?
10 - A Visit
Maximus was sitting in the arcate of his villa, intent on recording the farm bookkeeping, but that afternoon it was almost impossible for him to concentrate on the figures. His meeting with Lucilla had happened only few hours before and had yet to be over the shock, and he was distracted also because his instincts were telling him they would met again, and soon. Maximus raised his eyes from the wax covered writing tablet and once again cursed himself for his stupidity, because he went in the city while the emperor and his followers were still there. However, on the other hand, he needed a new bit for his job: he had several horses in training and he could not afford to not exercise them for more than two days.
Against his will his mind pictured the image of Lucilla, and he saw again her tired, pale face, so very different from the face of the young woman he knew many years before. So very different from the face of a happy woman.
A soft gurgle distracted him, and Maximus turned his head to the crib where his son was playing with a terra-cotta rattle, tossing his little legs in the air. With a tender smile he rose, went to the crib, and, bending over it, he began to gently tickle the small belly. Little Maximus reacted by grasping his father's fingers and gurgling more aloud. Maximus continued to move his second finger and made soft noises with his lips.
Suddenly a servant entered the arcate, ending that brief moment of play.
"I am sorry to disturb you, domine, but you have guests." the man said, and Maximus arched an eyebrow, as a shiver ran along his spine.
"Stay here and watch over my son while I am inside," and speaking thus he went to greet his guests.
Maximus entered the atrium with a decisive walk but stopped cold when he saw both his visitors. As he had predicted one of them was Lucilla, but her companion, instead of being a lady in waiting, was a Praetorian guard. Another figure resurfaced from his past.
The man who had him arrested.
His best friend.
Silence fell in the room as the air was loaded with tension. Maximus stiffened when he saw Quintus leave Lucilla's side and walk in his direction. His hand tightly gripped the hilt of the dagger he had picked up before entering the atrium.
When he was in front of his former commander Quintus stopped, and, looking straight into Maximus' eyes, he threw his gladius and dagger to the ground, kicking them away. Then slowly and with determination, he knelt at his feet, bowing his head and leaving his neck exposed and vulnerable, putting his life in Maximus' hands.
For several seconds Maximus stared at him, then opened his hand and let the dagger fall to the floor.
"Rise, Quintus," he said with a voice full of emotion, and the Praetorian obeyed. The two men looked at each other while Lucilla approached them, moving her gaze from one to the other.
Maximus motioned with his head, "Come with me." and he lead them back in the perystilium.
"Make yourself at home," he said, pointing to two chairs, and sat down at the table, putting away the books and dismissing the servant who had stayed to watch his now sleeping son.
Lucilla and Quintus sat on the chairs and another embarrassed silence followed until Maximus asked, "What do you want?" His hard tone made it clear he had no time or patience for pleasantries.
His guest were of the same idea. "We want your help to kill Commodus," Lucilla said with a matter of fact voice.
Maximus was barely able to contain his shock and, narrowing his eyes, asked, "Why should I?"
"For the good of Rome," she replied, and Quintus nodded.
"Why do you want me?"
"Because we know my father wanted you as his heir."
This time Maximus could not conceal his surprise, and, seeing it, Quintus explained, "The morning after Caesar died, while I was supervising the servants who were preparing his body for the journey to Rome, I found a scroll under his pillow containing an official act with which he nominated you Protector of Rome after his death. Evidently Commodus did not find it...." Quintus lowered his eyes and went on, "As soon as I read it, I understood why you refused to take his hand, and I realized I had just committed the greatest mistake of my life.... I... I tried to repair it by sending a messenger to stop the Praetorians dispatched to your home, but he didn't arrive in time." Quintus stopped, cast a brief glance to Maximus' face and added, "I am so sorry, Maximus; I should have known you would never betray Rome, and that you must have had a reason to refuse Commodus. I am sorry I did not understand it sooner, and I did not protect you as it was my duty...."
Maximus raised his hand and stopped that river of words, "Let's stop here, Quintus. What is done, is done: we can't turn back time and crying over spilled milk is useless. Let's concentrate on the present, and tell me what do you want from me."
"We want you to come to Rome and claim the Protectorship in front of the Senate," Lucilla began to explain, "We - I, Quintus and a Senator called Gracchus - have created a legion of selected soldiers who hate Commodus and are ready to fight on our command. Many former members of the Felix Legion joined, after they were informed of what my brother did to you. However, ‘till now we could not act because we needed an effective alternative to Commodus, a man strong and charismatic enough to control the populace and the other legions..... You are that man, Maximus: your name and the memories of your many victories are still fresh in the mind of the soldiers and even the mob knows about you... and more important, I still honor my father's last wishes...."
Maximus stared at her in silence then said, "No."
Lucilla's eyes widened, "No?! Did you hear well what I told to you? You are the only one who can save the Empire before my brother brings its downfall!"
"No." repeated Maximus, his voice cold.
"You will leave that madman on the throne?" Quintus sputtered, "Do you know he is destroying everything his father built with years of sacrifices? It this how you repay Marcus Aurelius' trust? Where is your sense of duty?"
Maximus could not contain himself anymore, "Don't speak to me of duty! I've already done my duty for Rome, and do you know what it cost to me? It cost to me my family, my home and my freedom...Oh, yes, because I spent more than one year of my life as a slave! It does not matter that my owner was the woman who is now my wife -- to be without rights is an anathema for a free born man. But I've been able to build for myself a new life, a new home and a new family, and I won't do anything which might put them in peril."
Upon hearing his father's shouting, little Maximus woke up and began to cry. Maximus hurried to him, picked him in his arms and tried to calm him down. Hugging the baby tightly he returned to Quintus and Lucilla and added more quietly, "Do you see how little he is? I never had the opportunity to hold my first son, Marcus, as I am doing with him. When I saw Marcus for the first time, he was already two. The second time I visited him, he was almost five....and the last time I saw him he was dead, burned and crucified still alive along his mother.... I am sorry I can't help you: if I were alone, I would do it without a second thought, but now I have Maximus iunior, his mother and his sister to protect and provide for as I should have done with Marcus and Selene." Maximus continued to hug his son, whose little face was a copy of his own, and with his eyes he prayed Lucilla and Quintus would understand his reasons.
In the end Lucilla nodded sadly and murmured, "I understand you, Maximus.... I too would do everything for my son, Lucius." She stood up, and Quintus followed her. "I wish you good luck and a happy life to you and your family. Farewell." Quintus saluted him, touching his heart with his fist and then they walked away, leaving Maximus alone with his boiling, contrasting emotions and his little child.
11 - Commodus
With a bored yawn, Commodus turned his back to Proconsul Licinius and walked away, leaving the rounded man to voice the Zucchabar problems to an empty room.
Walking fast along the marble covered hallways the emperor reached the great terrace and went outside, to savor the pleasantly warm autumn day.
Gods, how he hated the continuous begging and squabbling and flattering of the local governors! They always had something to complain about or requests of funds to make.....
Commodus leaned on the balustrade and looked down on the street. Contrary to the Roman standards, the Proconsul's villa was three stories tall and from the second floor terrace there was a wonderful view of the city and the landscape. The mountains he could see in the background were magnificent, and he was more than certain his idea of having a villa built nearby for his personal use was a good one.
The emperor lowered his gaze to observe the activities and the people walking in streets and it was then that he spotted one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She had long, shining, black hair and she was wearing a pale pink tunica and a white palla. She was not very young; in fact Commodus thought she was some years older than he, but she was slim, with curves in all the right place. There was something about her that made her stand out from all the other women in the market, poor creatures consumed by work, too many pregnancies and time.
Commodus stared at her for several moments then made a decision. "Guard!" he called.
A young Praetorian stepped beside him and bowed his head, "Caesar?"
"Do you see that woman with the black hair and the pink dress?" the emperor asked pointing to the crowd.
"Well go down there and tell her her emperor wishes to speak with her."
"As you wish, Sire." And the guard walked away.
Commodus returned to look down into the street, and he saw his guard reach the young woman and speak to her. From his higher position he could not hear their voices, but however he could see the Praetorian point in his direction followed by the woman's gaze. Commodus smiled and gestured with his hand. The woman stared at him mouth agape, then followed the Praetorian inside the palace.
Commodus left the terrace and went inside, crossing the large, marble-covered hall to meet his guest.
When she was finally in front of him he gasped: she was more beautiful he had believed, with sparkling brown eyes and glowing skin. He reached out with both his hands and raised her from her kneeling position.
"Domina, while I was looking from the terrace, I was enchanted by your beauty, and I wished to meet you."
"You are too kind, Caesar." The young woman replied embarrassed.
Commodus smiled at her discomfort and gestured to a nearby triclinius, "Please sit down."
His guest obeyed, and he could see she was very nervous. Well, maybe some wine would loosen her up. He clapped his hands and a slave appeared carrying a golden tray with an anphor and two cups.
The woman accepted a cup and imitated Commodus, bringing it to her lips.
"I wish to know your name," he said.
"My name is Octavia, Caesar."
"A beautiful name for a beautiful woman."
"You flatter me, Caesar."
"Please don't call me so. My name is Commodus." He sipped more of his wine then added, "I would like to have you as my dinner guest tonight." And not only for eating, he thought.
Octavia put down her cup and choosing her words carefully said, "I am sorry, Caesar, but I can't accept your kind invitation: my husband is waiting for me at home."
"We will send a messenger to tell him you will be late," he said as matter of fact, but she shook her head.
"I also have two young children to care for..."
Commodus was a bit annoyed by her refusal, even if in a sort of way he liked it: there was not much satisfaction on having a easy woman.... He would love to conquer her. So he said, "I understand. I hope we will see you again, lady Octavia." They both stood up and saluted each other. Then Caesar ordered one of his guards to escort his guest to the door.
While Octavia was walking away, Commodus gestured to Quintus, who had observed the whole scene hidden in the shadows, and said, "Follow her and tell me where she lives, who is her husband, what job he does, everything. I might need the information to 'persuade' her."
Quintus nodded and left the room, cursing under his breath: he knew Commodus' behaviour with women, and he was afraid that young lady was about to meet with a lot of sorrows.
12 - Quintus
"Do you understand, Spaniard? Not only did he refused to concede me the funds to built the new aqueduct, but now he wants me to increase the taxes because he wants a personal villa here! What need does he have for a villa? When he leaves, he will forget this place and never come back! And moreover, he wants to fight in our arena so I must buy some gladiators from the lanistas, so he can show us his skills with the sword! That man is a catastrophe!" Proconsul Licinius' eyes were almost popping out of his head as he rambled about Commodus' feats, and Maximus smiled bitterly, thinking about how nefarious were the effects of the new Caesar's reign, if he was able to enrage even the good-natured, easy-going Licinius. They were speaking in the stable area of Zucchabar, where the Proconsul - after storming out his office - had found Maximus waiting near his chariot for his wife's return. They had come in the city because she needed new linens for their son but he was impatient to leave and return in the country. Maximus looked around him, while his companion regained his breath after his tirade and smiled when he saw Octavia coming in their direction. He waved his hand, saluted the Proconsul, and reached her, taking the bags off her hands. "Did you find everything you needed?"
"Yes," she replied softly, "We can go home."
They walked to their chariot and he helped her to board it, before taking position by her side and reining the horse away.
Quintus watched them ride away along the road which led outside the city and to the nearby hills, then rushed to the stable and picked up a horse for himself.
While he galloped along the dusty path, he thought that the Gods had to have a sense of humor..... A wicked sense of humor, otherwise how could it be explained that, among all the women in Africa, Commodus had put his eyes on Maximus' wife?
Once they arrived home, Octavia went in the house while Maximus took the horse in the stable. She needed some time alone to decide what she had to do. Should she tell Maximus about her meeting with the emperor? Or should she keep silent? And what if Commodus decided he wanted to see her again?
Maximus watched his wife enter the house and frowned: she had been strangely silent during the trip home, and he was beginning to suspect there was something wrong. He groomed the horse and then left the stable, heading for the house. As he was crossing the courtyard, he saw a rider galloping along the roadway leading to his farm, and when he was near enough he recognized Quintus' features. Maximus suspicions became certainty: something had happened back in the city, and Octavia was involved in it. He felt a shiver run along his spine, but he ignored it and went to greet the Praetorian.
"Quintus," he said, taking the horse's reins.
"Maximus," replied Quintus jumping down from the saddle. Maximus gestured to his servant to take care of the horse then asked, "What's going on?"
"I am here to tell you that Commodus had rested his eyes upon your wife." Quintus told without him pleasantries.
Quintus told Maximus everything that had happened, using a gentler tone than before. ".....So he ordered me to follow her and to discover where she lived, who her husband was and so on. He wants the information in case she needs to be 'persuaded' to be more welcoming of his attentions. This is not the first time a thing like this has happened, and I can assure you, no woman has ever refused him after he decided to 'persuade' her..."
Maximus listened in silence, while on his face rage replaced shock. That bastard was menacing his family, his reason for living, and he could not allow it. He watched Quintus and said, "Come with me, I want to know EVERYTHING about your and Lucilla's plan to kill Commodus."
Octavia went down the stairs, headed for the kitchen, but was distracted by voices coming from the perystilium. One of the voice was Maximus', but she could not recognize the other. She walked outside and saw her husband talking to a Praetorian. She frowned, wondering why that man was in their house, but her line of thought was interrupted by Maximus' angry voice, "I swear I'll kill Commodus. I'll put that snake to the sword if it is the last thing I do."
"NO!!" shouted Octavia, leaving her hiding place, "You must not do it!"
Maximus and Quintus sprung up from their chairs while she threw herself into her husband's arms. "Maximus, you promised you would leave the emperor alone! That you would not seek revenge!"
He hugged her and said, "That was before he tried to seduce you! Quintus told me what happened today, and I can't allow Commodus to harm you or the children. I promised to myself I would always protect you, and I will do everything I can to ensure your safety."
Octavia looked at him with an imploring glance, her face streaked with tears, but Maximus had made his decision and no one could change his mind.
13 - Proximo
The following day, in early morning, Maximus left his farm to visit the most famous gladiator training school of Zucchabar, the one belonging to a former fighter called Aelius Proximo. He knew he was the lanista from whom Licinius purchased the slave destined to fight against Commodus, and so he had an interesting proposal for him.
Maximus reached the iron gates of the compound and motioned to a guard inside, "I want to speak with your master."
The guard looked at the stranger's clothes, saw their good texture and, satisfied he was not a beggar, opened the gates. "Follow me."
Maximus looked around him with a mix of disgust and curiosity. He was crossing a courtyard on the side of which opened a series of cages, some of which held feral animals, some other, men. On the farside he could see fighters practicing with wooden swords under the watchful eyes of a grey bearded big man. Maximus narrowed his eyes as a distant memory came back to his mind: he had already seen that man, he was the one who had examined him first when he was for sale at the slave market. Almost four years had passed since that fateful day, but Maximus still remembered the other man's last words, ".....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...." For just a moment he thought about what his life could had been like if Proximo had chosen him and looked around him with different eyes... this place could have been his home.... his prison.... his death place. Maximus shook his head and concentrated on what he had to say.
Proximo was sitting under a open tent, supervising the basic training for the new 'recruits' when he saw one of his guards approach him followed by a tall and robust man who walked with a slight limp.
"Sir, this man wants to speak with you," the guard told him.
Proximo arched an eyebrow, a bit surprised, then nodded.
The guard gestured to the visitor to join his master, then walked few steps away, to give them privacy.
The black haired man approached Proximo, who did not stand up to greet him, and asked, "Aelius Proximo?"
"I have a very profitable proposal for you."
"Really? And what it might be?"
"I want to become a gladiator."
Proximo's eyes widened as he burst in laughter, thinking he was speaking with a madman. Finally he dried his eyes and watched the stranger, ready for a caustic comment. But his words died on his lips when he met the man's fierce gaze. The man was not a fool, and the determination on his face clearly told he did not like to be derided. Proximo's behaviour changed, and, pointing to a nearby chair, he gruffly said, "Sit down and tell me everything."
Maximus dragged the chair nearer, sat down and began, "I know that within three days there will be a match in the arena, and that the emperor himself will fight against one of your gladiators."
Proximo's face darkened as he thought about his athlete, the man chosen to fight against the emperor and so already a walking corpse, because it was known by everyone that Commodus ensured his victories by injuring his opponents before the matches. However, the lanista was not understanding what the stranger was trying to say so he gestured for him to continue.
"I want to take your slave's place in the fight against the emperor."
"Then you are truly mad, as I first thought...... Do you really want to fight with that lame leg? Don't you know he will chop you in pieces? Are you so tired of living?"
Maximus smiled cruelly, "That has yet to be seen, and anyway it does not concern you. The only thing that should interest you is that you will keep your gladiator, earning at the same time the price of his purchase from Proconsul Licinius. As for myself, I have some things to settle with our 'dear' emperor... So, what do you say? Do you like my idea?"
Proximo kept silent for several minutes. He knew Caesar was hated in all the empire, and he himself detested him, because it was rumored he had killed his own father, the man who gave him his freedom when he was a gladiator, to obtain the throne. It was true that in re-opening the games in the Colosseum, Commodus had given a lot of work to the lanistas, but Proximo’s sojourn in Rome had been a complete financial disaster, because all of his men had been killed during a recreation of the Battle of Carthage. When he had heard about it Proximo had tried to retire them, but the emperor had obliged him to respect the contract terms.
In the end Proximo nodded and said, "So it be. Come to the arena backstage at least a hour before the match and we will effect the exchange."
Maximus nodded and held out his hand. Proximo shook it and, staring into his eyes, asked, "Who are you?"
"Here in Zucchabar I am known as the 'Spaniard', but my true name is Maximus Decimus Meridius."
"As in the general who was Marcus Aurelius' right arm in military matters?" asked Proximo watching him with new eyes.
Maximus slightly bowed his head, acknowledging the praise. "Precisely."
"I thought you were dead, killed by Commodus' order, or so I overheard some soldiers say when I was in Rome."
"That's true..... So you now understand what kind of things I want to 'discuss' with the emperor in the arena....."
Proximo grinned, when studied the former general's face closely, "We have already seen each other somewhere, haven't we? Your face is not new to me."
"You buy all your recruits at the slave market, don't you?"
"Then, maybe, we saw each other there," and speaking thus Maximus bared his left arm, and showed it to Proximo. The lanista stared at the deep scar just above the SPQR tattoo, while he remembered a feverish slave who had seen years before and who had a wound much alike that.
"Don't tell me that was you!?"
"Are you trying to tell me I let escape my chance to transform one of Rome’s greatest commanders into a gladiator?" Proximo sounded almost outraged.
Maximus smiled, "It seems so. However, if it can comfort you, you will have the opportunity to do so within a couple of days!" And with those final words, he stood up and walked away.
Proximo watched his retreating strong back then burst into laughter. Life in this flea-infested village was suddenly become much more interesting!
14 - Into The Arena
Two days later, all of Zucchabar came to life as hundreds of people arrived from the nearby villages to attend the great match in the local arena. The news that the emperor would fight against a gladiator had traveled fast, and many people wanted to see the spectacle.
The arena was situated in a ground depression surrounded by hills, so the not-so-rich audience could watch to the games without having to pay.
Maximus and Quintus stood in the dusty, dark and narrow passages in the arena bowels, in the cells where the gladiators were kept before the fights. The place smelled of blood, of sweat, of urine. It was the smell of fear, of death, and Maximus recognized it from his days in the army....How many times he had smelled it before a battle, walking near the enemy's lines or stepping beside some young, inexperienced legionaire? However he knew this would be the last time, one way or the other.
Proximo came near then and handed to Maximus a rough blue tunica and a simple leather armor, the usual uniform of his gladiators. With Quintus' help, Maximus changed his clothes, then stretched out his arms, so his friend could wrap his wrists and palms with large strips of soft black leather.
"Are you sure you want to go on with this plan?" Quintus asked Maximus, "We can still change and find another solution."
"I am sure. It'll finish here and it'll finish today." Maximus replied quietly before adding, "Is it all prepared?"
Quintus nodded, tying the last knot, "The populace had been informed about the tax increase Commodus wants to build his villa, and I would not be surprised if today he will receive a lot of whistles. The Proconsul had been informed that something might happen, and I think I never saw a more happy conspirator. As far as Lucilla is concerned, as you asked, she doesn't know anything about the entire matter, while your wife and children are already under the protection of my most trusted men.... I promise you on my life that nothing will happen to them -- it doesn't matter how the fight ends."
Maximus nodded, "Thank you, my friend."
"You must not thank me. I am only doing my duty to you, as I should have done in Germania." Quintus' voice was bitter, full of self-loathing.
"Please, Quintus, not another time. That was the past and none of us can change it. But we can mold the future, so we must concentrate on it, all right?"
Quintus nodded and went on describing how he had positioned his loyal men in the most strategic places of the arena -- it was clear to both the men that Commodus would not leave the building alive. As the great Julius Caesar had said, 'alea iacta est' -'the dice had been thrown'- and the emperor's fate was already decided: that day he would have pay the price of his many sins.
Commodus and his followers entered the arena to the sound of many trumpets, but the crowd's reception was less than enthusiastic. He exchanged a look with his sister, then sat down in the noble’s box and prepared to watch the first matches of the day. He was soon joined by Quintus, the chief of his bodyguards, and without raising his eyes from the arena ring, he asked, "Is it done?"
"Yes, Caesar, the gladiator is ready."
Lucilla snorted upon hearing whose words because she knew what they really meant. Commodus was too much of a coward to fight with a able-bodied gladiator, so all of his opponents were 'prepared' for the matches by a stab in their kidneys or in some other organ, to weaken and slow them and ensure an easy victory for her brother. Lucilla bent her head and murmured a quiet prayer for the already dead man waiting in the arena bowels.
Commodus did not see the disgusted look on his sister's face, but, satisfied all was going well, he looked around him, watching the crowd intent on the games. And it was then he saw her.
Octavia. She was sitting on the stands, among the richer people of the city and that made Commodus proud. His ego was so big he was sure the young woman had come to see him fight, and he already predicted how impressed she would be by his victory.
In reality Octavia was sitting in the arena to watch her husband fight. Maximus didn't want her to attend the games, but she had not listened to his words. Even if she fervently hoped it was not the case, this day could be her beloved’s last, and she wanted to be near him. Maximus iunior and Martia were awaiting at home under the surveillance of twenty heavily-armed soldiers ready to escort her away from Zucchabar and from the emperor if something should happen to her husband, and she too was protected by six other soldiers mingled in the crowd near her. She knew Quintus had ordered them to drag her away with force in case the plan went wrong.
Octavia sighed and stared to the wooden gates behind which Maximus was probably awaiting his turn. The waiting was wearing out her nerves and inside herself a struggle was going on between a part of her which wanted the fight to begin, so the torture of waiting would finish, and another part which wished those gates would never open to reveal Maximus.
Suddenly the crowd shouted aloud, and, turning to her left, Octavia saw Commodus, clad in white armor, leave the noble’s box surrounded by his Praetorians, Quintus among them. A shiver ran along her spine as she realized the moment of truth had arrived. Octavia closed her eyes and murmured a prayer for the Gods to help Maximus. As an afterthought she also prayed to Selene and Marcus to protect their beloved from Elysium.
15 - Waitings
Maximus was waiting behind a huge double door. The upper part of his face was covered by a mask-like helmet, which Quintus insisted he wore to avoid Commodus, upon recognizing Maximus at once, deciding to use some illegal move or refusing to fight. The helmet was surprising comfortable and its weight reminded him of the one he wore so many times while leading the Felix cavalry Regiment to the assault.
Maximus tried a couple of sword moves, cutting the air with the blade and smiled, satisfied at the condition of his muscle tone. Since his return to freedom, he had trained every day with the sword, to be ready to fight to defend his family had the need arose. True, he thought, this was not the way he had predicted to protect them, fighting in an arena, but the result was the same.
Maximus heard the sound of trumpets, followed by Proximo's steps.
"It is time -- Caesar stepped down in the sand ring. Be ready to exit because the gates will open soon."
Maximus nodded and walked to the exit, followed by Proximo's usual words to his gladiators, "Go and die with honor." The former general was calm, his mind focused. There was no fear in him, only determination. He heard the crowd roar and then the gates opened, the light invading the dark passage. Maximus gripped his sword hilt and stepped into the sunlight, to meet his destiny.
Commodus was waiting for his opponent in the sand ring, walking around it with his arms raised. He cut a striking figure with his white armor reflecting the sunbeams and shining like marble and mother pearl. When he was satisfied the crowd was impressed by his regal appearance, he gestured to his guards to open the gates and let exit the gladiator the editor was announcing as the 'Spaniard'; that fighter should be very popular among the people because after a moment of stunned silence the crowd exploded in a roar. Commodus smiled: he was always happy when his opponents were famous, because beating them meant an increase of prestige of his fame as invincible warrior. However his smile disappeared when he saw the Spaniard approach the center of the arena.
"Damn," the Emperor thought, "Those stupid Praetorians hurt him too badly and now he is limping!" It was true he did not want to run the risk of fighting against able-bodied gladiators, but he did not want to pass as a coward battling against a man so clearly injured. Commodus was on the verge of calling for another opponent when he saw that the Spaniard, instead of showing the submission of a slave in front of his emperor, was standing in front of him with his head high, staring at him with arrogant eyes. Commodus became furious and decided to teach that slave a lesson, his last one.
Lucilla was waiting for the fight to begin, because the sooner it started, the sooner it would be over and she could leave that place of death and pain. She looked with mild interest at the gladiator walking towards her brother but after some seconds she frowned. There was something familiar in the way that man walked but.... Suddenly she saw the 'Spaniard', as the editor had called him, plant his sword in the ground and bent down to pick up a handful of sand, slowly rubbing it between his hands. Lucilla felt the blood drain from her face while she watched the gesture that was so familiar to her eyes.....How many times she had teased him about that, because he was not able to precisely explain to her why he did it!
Lucilla gripped the balustrade with both her hands and prepared to watch to one of most important battles ever fought for the sake of Rome...the one between General Maximus Decimus Meridius and the Emperor Commodus.
Octavia's waiting finished as she watched her husband walk in the sand with measured and decisive steps, the head high, his bearing fiery and proud. She saw him stop in front of the emperor, in front of the man who caused him so much grief and, even if his helmet prevented her from seeing his face, she was sure his blue-green eyes were locked with his enemy's, pouring on him all the hate he felt. Then Maximus bent down and picked up some sand, in what he had explained her to be his pre-battle lucky ritual. After that he stood up, gripped his sword and assumed a defensive stance, as Commodus did the same.
There was a moment of unnatural silence, as if the whole audience was holding its breath, then the crowd roared as the two blades cut the air and met, sparks flowing as iron met iron.
Finally the wait was over.
16 - The Final Confrontation.
As soon as the duel began, it was clear to Commodus what something was wrong: his opponent might be lame but his force was intact, as he could sense by the blows he was striking. Commodus felt a rush of adrenaline run in his veins at the prospect of fighting a true battle. In fact, even if the Spaniard had not been weakened as usual, his limp was still a handicap and the emperor was sure his own greater agility would permit him to win.
Maximus was attacking with determination but trying to not walk around too much. His right knee was sound enough to resist to a lot of pressure but his movements were not as fast as they used to be.
Commodus was a skilled swordsman, but his experience was not one of a soldier, and Maximus hoped that fact would compensate for his slowness.
They went back and forth across the arena, slashing and deflecting, charging and dancing, without either of the two opponents clearly taking the upper hand. Suddenly Commodus saw the Spaniard take a bad step with his lame knee and threw his weight against him, pushing him to the ground and then trying to decapitate him with a chopping blow. Maximus rolled away just in time, feeling the point of the blade cut his tunica near his shoulder but not his flesh. He was back on his feet in few seconds and, having regained his balance, he thrust forward again. The crowd roared its approval since this was one of the best fights they had ever seen.
Maximus brought his sword down in a vicious, angry swipe, and Commodus staggered under the blow but recovered in time to ward off another that forced him to his knees. The Emperor raised his sword in time to catch the next swipe and deflect it, then jumped back on his feet. He was beginning to feel less sure of himself because he was already breathing hard while the Spaniard did not seem winded at all.
There was a moment’s pause, then the fight started again. Commodus lunged to attack, and as the Spaniard backed up a step to deflect the blow, he kicked him hard on his injured knee, throwing him once again on the sand. This time Maximus was not able to deflect the blade, and he felt the metal bite his right thigh. As blood poured from the gash he heard the crowd shouts and in all that clamour he was sure he recognized Octavia's voice screaming, "Nooo!"
Maximus scrambled on his feet, ignoring the hot blood coating his leg, and let the pain fuel his anger. Indomitable, he lunged forward again and caught Commodus slightly off guard, because the emperor was not expecting such a fast recovery. Their blades met few inches away from Commodus' chest and, as their eyes locked, Maximus pushed on the younger man's sword,obliging him to let the sword fall if he did not want to break his wrist.
Commodus heard his blade fell to the ground, and suddenly he was pervaded by terror, as he stepped back, gripping his painful wrist and looking wide-eyed at the Spaniard, who was still poised to attack. He looked down and saw his sword, but the gladiator seemed to read his mind and kicked some sand in his face, forcing him to close his eyes and back up some more steps. When he opened his eyes again, Commodus saw the Spaniard had kicked his sword away from him, leaving him powerless.
Caesar decided he had only one option and so, stretching his arms in front of him, palms up, he said loudly, "Spaniard, you have won. You are truly the best gladiator I have ever met, and I enjoyed our fight very much. Now, put your sword down, this combat is finished."
"I don't think so, Highness." replied the Spaniard coldly and Commodus frowned.
"What are you saying? I am offering to you a chance to walk away alive and as a freeman and you are giving orders to me?"
"Yes. You and I have other questions to settle, Highness."
Commodus narrowed his eyes and asked, "Who are you, slave?"
Maximus took a deep breath, then, with a decisive move of his left arm, he removed his helmet and staring straight at Commodus, voiced proudly, so that anybody could hear him, "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Army of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true Emperor, Marcus Aurelius." He stepped forward, coming eye to eye with Commodus and added, "Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife and I am about to have my vengeance."
Commodus stared, stunned, at his nemesis suddenly appeared from his past and tried to retort but his lips moved without emitting any sound. Finally he came to his senses and shouted, "Guards, kill this traitor!" But to his great surprise no one obeyed, while Quintus, walking in the sand, took position beside Maximus, showing clearly where his loyalty rested.
"I am sorry, Caesar, but the time of honouring yourself is ended. Today we will realize your great father's last wishes."
Commodus understood at once what the Praetorian meant and he paled, thinking all was lost... Then a desperate idea came to his mind. He bit his lower lip, controlling his anger, assumed a defeated stance, then turned his back to his enemies, in a calculated risky move. He knew they were too honorable to stab him in the back and all he needed was few seconds to pull out the dagger he kept hidden in his left sleeve. He did it and turned once again, approaching Maximus and Quintus with his head bowed and his shoulders slumped.
With a soothing voice he began to speak, "Surely we can find a solution to our problem, so nobody will be hurt....."
Maximus narrowed his eyes as a flash of metal jumped in his vision and, pushing Quintus away, raised his leather-covered left wrist to deflect the vicious swipe Commodus made with a dagger, aiming at his throat. Furious with himself for leaving his guard down, Maximus raised his sworded right arm and put an end to Commodus' treacherous life by decapitating him. The force of the blow made the severed head fly through the air and land several feet away from the body, which crumbled at Maximus' feet.
The former general looked at his enemy's corpse and felt relief wash other him. It was over: Commodus was dead, and his family was safe. He turned to Quintus but it was then that his wounded and abused right leg decided it had enough and crumpled under him, making him fall to the ground, while a wave of dizziness swept over him. Quintus was fast enough to catch him and when Maximus lost his senses because of the blood loss, he did it in his friend's arms.
17 - Conclusion
Maximus slowly opened his eyes, finding himself lying down on a soft mattress. He looked at his surroundings and saw he was in an unknown room lightened by several torches.
"Welcome back, General, I am pleased to see you awake. You scared us very much!" Proximo's thundering voice filled the room while the portly lanista left his position near a window and walked near the bed.
Maximus licked his lips and asked, "Where am I?"
"You are in my home and sleeping on my bed. After you fainted in the arena, we took you here because it was the nearest place."
Maximus' memory returned, and he reached a hand under the sheet to touch his right leg. His fingers met a tightly bound bandage. "For how long have I been here?"
"This is the second night: you lost a lot of blood, and you needed time to recuperate."
"Oh," thought Maximus, "Octavia will be frantic because I did not tell her I was going to be late..." Octavia...."OCTAVIA!!" he screamed, remembering suddenly she was in the arena watching him. He tried to leave the bed, but Proximo stopped him and pushed him back on the cot.
"Be quiet or you will open the stitches. Your wife is resting in a room nearby. Poor woman, she spent the last day and half tending you and caring for your children..."
"They too are here?"
"Of course, together with the Lady Lucilla, General Quintus and Proconsul Licinius....they are all resting in the other room. Do you want me to call them?"
"No, there is no need, let them sleep; you can tell me what happened after I --"
"--killed the Emperor?"
"Nothing special. Nobody started to cry, if this interests you. There were not disorders or revolts, the crowd was more concerned to know about YOUR health. Many people passed the first night under this window until the doctor told them you would be all right. Then they went home, but I bet some of them are still nearby."
Maximus was moved by the citizens' concern and sensing the tiredness wrap him again, he murmured, "Thank you for everything, Proximo."
The big man smiled, seeing his eyelids dropping. "Now I too will go to sleep.... However I first want to ask something to you..." he paused and Maximus arched an eyebrow, inviting him to go on. "I was wondering... would you like to become a professional gladiator? You could make a lot of money."
In spite of his weariness Maximus laughed and replied, "My wife will kill me first, if I should accept!"
Proximo joined his laughter, "I surmised it. She seems a young, determined woman. Not to mention, a very beautiful one."
Maximus bowed his head, acknowledging the compliment, and Proximo walked to the door. He opened it, but before leave the room, he added, "However, it is a pity. With your skills and my training you could be magnificent!"
When Maximus woke up again he found the room filled with light and very crowded: Octavia, Martia, Maximus iunior, Lucilla, Quintus, Licinius, Proximo.... They were all were, speaking quietly among themselves. Martia was the first one to see him move and announced it to the others by crying his name and jumping in his arms.
He hugged her tightly while the other people surrounded his bed.
Maximus' eyes met Octavia's, and she bent down and kissed him gently on the lips before saying softly, "Don't ever scare me so much again."
"I promise it," he replied in the same tone.
Octavia stood back, smiling, taking Martia with her, and left room to Lucilla, Quintus and Licinius.
Maximus sat up with his back to the head of the bed and shook hands with the Praetorian and the Proconsul, and then kissing Lucilla's. "How is the situation?" he asked.
"It is all under control. We blocked the borders so no one could leave the province with the news of Commodus' death before we sail for Rome." replied Quintus.
Maximus nodded, "What do you plan to do?"
"Well," answered Lucilla, "We think it would be better if you come to Rome with us as soon you are able to walk and travel."
Maximus began to shake his head, but Lucilla raised her hand, smiling, "Let me finish; I know you don't want to become a politician, and I am not asking it from you. I just want you to come to Rome and publicly hand the power to transform the empire back to a republic to Senator Gracchus. We will show the army, the Senate and the populace my father's last wishes and that, backed by your presence and by my and Quintus' authority, should guarantee a smooth passage of power. After that you will be free to leave the city and return here..... Oh, yes, maybe the Senate will want to donate some lands to you as reward and as compensation but...."
"I will come to Rome, but I don't want anything," Maximus interrupted her, then he seemed to change his mind and added softly, with longing, "Even if I would like to have back my Trujillo home.." He knew that when he had been declared a traitor, the empire had confiscated his lands as the law commanded.
Lucilla smiled and said, "They are already yours."
Maximus beamed then turned to Octavia, who had been listening silently, and said to her, "You will love the place: the climate is less harsh than here, there always is abundance of water and the air is perfumed by jasmine...."
Octavia smiled, seeing his dreaming expression and murmured, "You don't have to convince me: you know I will follow you to Ades......"
Husband and wife stared into each other's eyes, and the other people in the room realized it was time to go and leave them alone. Lucilla approached Octavia and asked, "May I?" before taking little Maximus from her arms and holding him to her own chest. Quintus did the same with Martia, who was impressed by the decorations of his breastplate, and, together with an emotional Licinius and a knowing-smiling Proximo, they all exited the room.
Maximus and Octavia continued to look at each other until he grinned and threw back the sheet covering him, saying, "Come here." He was completely naked except for the white bandage at his right leg, which contrasted strongly with his tanned skin, and his wife gulped, as her heart began to race. Octavia quickly shed her clothes and joined him on the bed. They kissed and caressed for several moments until Octavia whispered in his ear, "So my strong gladiator, would you care to show me what are you able to do with your 'sword'?"
Maximus smiled, winked at her and then he rolled over his wife and proceeded to do just that.....