Please see all notes, warnings, and disclaimers in Chapter 1.


The Centurion
Book One: Chapter 2
by
Ismaro

ligela@sympatico.ca

 

They were within reach of the steps to the marble terrace overlooking the Gregorius landholdings when the new slave spoke again.

"Centurion?"

"Yes?" The tall dark man with the military haircut was squinting in pain. The Mediterranean sun had almost done him in.

"Exactly why did you buy me?"

"I need a cook."

"Oh, Dionysus! I should have asked you to buy my herbalery for me, and my apothecary kit too. Um, they took them away when they decided to sell me for other purposes." The slave with the long brown curls and sparkling blue eyes had nearly been sold for his good looks to a brute from the Colosseum, until the Centurion stepped in to buy a cook.

"Dis, you're right! I'll have to get the trader to supply them."

"So who is your staff now?"

"My major-domo is..."

A huge black man threw open the doors of the Villa Gregorius.

"Capus."

"Centurion."

The two men clasped arms, and the new slave noticed that the head of the household staff stood a couple of inches taller and held a few more years than the Centurion himself. There was clearly a loyal friendship between them. The slave guessed that they had served Roma together in the wars and chosen to keep the friendship alive in retirement after battle. The slave thought it was a fine thing for comrades-in-arms to do. He smiled pleasantly at the major-domo and was rewarded with a blistering glare that took him back a step. Unfortunately, it was to the top of the stairs, and the new slave stumbled back down until a large hand caught the front of the toga and pulled him upright again. The new slave turned vermillion.

"Centurion?" The major-domo's voice was low but dangerous.

"I bought a new staff member. He's a cook."

"We don't need a new staff member. I bought a cook yesterday."

"Then we have two cooks."

"Do you see why you should talk to me about these things, Greg?"

Oh, so the Centurion cared for neither his given name nor his family name, but only for the personally chosen 'Gregorius', and preferred 'Greg' to all, no matter how unorthodox a use name. Hmmm.

The black man looked over the much smaller brown-haired slave with distaste and sighed. "He can go back on the block tomorrow."

The Centurion caught a glimpse of utter terror in the new slave's gentian blue eyes. The slave block meant that the young man would be crippled. Without the protection of the Centurion to shield him, his history of running would have him hamstrung the second he was returned to the slaver. And the slaver had shown every intention to enjoy the process before Felix Elias Gregorius stepped in and purchased the man.

"No, now we have two cooks, Capus." The tone was somehow airy and final at the same time.

"You're keeping him?" The words were so incredulous and loud that the Centurion was not sure he had heard the whisper of thanks take came from his side.

"He's also an apothecary."

"If you'll excuse me, Capus," the deep, gentle voice began, "the Centurion has been having headaches lately and I think I can help him with them."

Both men turned to look at the object of their argument. It was not supposed to have spoken. It clearly was not house-trained, no matter how many houses it had served in.

The soulful blue eyes peered from one large man to the other. "Centurion, you have been having headaches, and very bad ones too, haven't you?"

Felix Gregorius felt himself reddening with embarrassment. "So I have been having headaches," he admitted, biting out the words.

"And you didn't tell me about this?" the black man exploded, clearly on the way to a long scolding.

But he was reduced to silence by the gentle voice.

"Uh, Capus, I think you might want to lower your voice. The Centurion is particularly sensitive to sounds today. I laughed earlier and he almost fell to his knees."

The black man stared uncertainly at the younger man, then looked his friend in the face. "Greg, is this true?" he asked, his voice much reduced in volume as he took in the lines of strain in the Centurion's face.

The Centurion nodded slowly, cold eyes turning to promise vengeance on the new slave. The new slave looked right back at him and raised his eyebrows in a resigned challenge. He had been flogged once already that day by the slave handlers, and the Centurion himself had bound the wounds. If the Centurion wanted to flog him with his own hand, the eyebrows said, it was his prerogative.

"Let's get you in out of the sun, and we'll find some cold water too." The black man led the way to the door.

"Good idea," came the gentle voice, "but water for his head, not to drink. Do you have any willow bark in your stores, Capus?"

The black man looked insulted to have been addressed by the new slave again, but the Centurion put his hand on his friend's arm and said, "Check the stores for willow bark, please. He hasn't got his herbs and spices with him or he'd get it himself. All I want is to lie down in darkness for a while, Cap."

"Well enough." The black man shot the new slave a fulminating glance, but it was clear that he was more concerned for his friend's health than the schooling of an impudent article that should have been inanimate.

The two friends entered the villa and the new slave followed, shocked at first at how loud the place was, shouting voices and pounding feet reverberating from marble and plaster as if echoing off mountains. He looked around interestedly. It was amazing to him how barren the building was. The terrazzo flooring was almost the only decorative touch in the entire place. The new slave had been to enough lands of the Terra Cognita to know true beauty when he saw it, and his spirit cried out to bring some of the loveliness into the bleak Gregorius household. But he could not see how a very new and mostly unwanted slave could do much of anything in what was an army barracks and not a home.

"Your bedroom, Greg?"

"Capus? What is the quietest room in the villa?" the slave asked.

"Carolina's room," the Centurion and Capus said in chorus.

"Could we try that first, please?"

The large men looked at each other disbelievingly and led the way to an unused wing with a room empty except for a comfortable couch and a few pillows. The new slave went immediately to the windows and closed all the shutters tightly, lowering the light values immensely.

"You've cut off the breeze." The major-domo was accusatory. "The heat will cause the pain to grow, fool!"

"Not for some time, Capus, and right now, the Centurion needs darkness and quiet." Strange how firm that low voice could be. "Um, about the willow bark? I'd get it myself from the stillroom, but I don't know my way around the villa."

"With your luck, you'd be killed as an intruder before you could get there," the Centurion sighed. "So, Cap?"

"I'll go for it, Greg. (You harm him, you little weasel, and I will tear you limb from limb.)"

The Centurion picked up the hissed vow as his friend left and grinned weakly at the new slave. "It seems my friend does not much like you."

"So I gathered," murmured the new slave. He led the way to the couch and placed pillows against the scrolled arm, gesturing for his owner to lie down. As his owner took his place, the slave sank down to sit on the floor beside him. "But, you know, I really can help with the headaches. How long have you had them?"

"Some months."

"How often?"

"Sporadically. Sometimes once a day, sometimes three or four times. Once... two straight days."

"Any vision problems?"

"No, none."

"Not only whether you can see to read. Lights before your eyes, or patches where you don't see anything, or odd patterns overlaying your line of vision?"

"None of those. And I can see to read, thank you."

"Wish I saw better when I read," the new slave said ruefully.

"You're literate?" Something nagged at the back of the patrician's mind but he couldn't quite grasp it.

"Yes, in a number of languages," the slave replied. "Part of the world viewing was to turn me into a first-rate mentor for one of the better philosophical academies. Another of Claudia's gifts: she sent me with her grandsons and their tutors, and then me alone as tutor to Petrus myself. She wanted to give me a profession to follow when I was free."

Ah, yes, that was it. The slaver had said the young man wouldn't be sold as a scholar 'this time'. So that was how he had acquired his valuable knowledge. "Then none of the whippings you took before were for being a poor student?" the Centurion asked, sure of the answer.

"Minerva, no!" the slave exclaimed fervently, then hushed his words as his owner winced. "I love learning new things. I love teaching, too. You haven't any...? No, it's typical of my luck. The whippings, though—it's my mouth. I can't bite my tongue until it's too late, I'm afraid."

"That I can believe. How many slaves call their last mistress by her first name, especially when they're not house pets?" Would that do as an apology?, the Centurion wondered hopefully.

"Claudia was my friend. She told me to call her by her first name." The slave looked somewhat confused. He had clearly forgotten the early conversation that had weighed on his owner's mind with more than a little guilt about hurting the new slave's feelings. "Have I been insolent to you, Centurion? I don't remember it, if I have. But I am very sorry if I was, and I am not speaking as a slave to his owner now."

"You seldom do," the Centurion said drily.

"I don't?" The slave was taken aback. "Hmmm. I didn't know that. I generally try to be polite; I keep more skin that way. Anyway, I want to thank you for buying me and for not returning me to the slave pits. Losing the ability to walk and being turned into a gladiator's catamite both in one day are more than I could live with. I would not have been alive in the morning if you had not caught and kept me. I knew when I hit the driver that they'd catch me, of course." The slave sighed heavily. "I had to try to escape, naturally, despite the rest of it." He stopped and looked at his hands.

"Are you going to run from here?" The question was asked conversationally.

But the slave's head swung up quickly and his open face was uncomprehending. "From you? No, of course not. You have the headaches. I can heal them. I owe you more than I can say. Running out on you when you're in pain would be a slap in the face to the gods that sent me to you. Not to say a complete betrayal of a man who does not deserve that from me."

The Centurion was amazed that he could see the slave clearly, despite the darkening of the room, and even more amazed by the absolute sincerity written all over him. The slave meant every word. Gregorius was not sure he could have done the same thing, felt the same way, if he had been in the other man's place. It was singularly touching.

"But the headaches." That was the real concern in the slave's mind, and he insisted on dealing with it. "What starts them, do you know?"

"Jupiter, anything! Sometimes it's a build-up of noise, and then one sharp one too close to me."

"Me laughing in the marketplace today."

"Yes, but thunder, or horses' hooves (which is why I walked to Roma today), or a dropped pottery dish, any of those, too. Not usually laughter; it was the proximity, not the sound itself. You were simply right at my side, laughing heartily straight into my ear. So don't bother to try to check your laughter." I don't think you could, and I already know I'd miss it if you did. "But sometimes it's light. Not necessarily a bright light, that of course can do it, but even a soft sunset. Sometimes smells..."

The slave cut him off. "Oh, Zeus! And you came down to the slave pens. Why did you do it? Why didn't you let Capus buy the new cook, instead?" The words were a groan of sympathy.

The degree of the younger man's solicitude was patent. The new slave had forgotten entirely what benefit he had received from Gregorius' presence at the sale. He was truly wishing that his owner had not had to experience the stress of the visit to the yard.

Gregorius looked closely at his new cook and took a deep breath. "I don't know. It was strange. It may have been the gods who led me there."

The slave raised curious brows. "Why do you say that, Centurion?"

"I knew I had to go into the city," Felix Elias Gregorius said slowly, knowing he could never have made this admission to anyone else on Terra, "but I didn't know why. When I reached the centre of town, I could hear something. I had to follow it." He paused, looking inwardly.

"Hearing again," his slave mused. "What was it, this sound?" he asked at last.

"Your heartbeat."

There was absolute dead silence in the room.

Then a small voice asked, "Did I hear you correctly, Centurion? Did you just say you came into the city unknowing what you'd find and what you found was my heartbeat? You heard my heart beating? From the centre of town?"

"You heard me correctly," Gregorius said brusquely. "Actually, I heard your heart beating from here." He hesitated and flung reason to the winds. "Do you think I'm being struck with madness by the gods?"

There, it was out at last. The dreadful fear the Centurion had kept bottled up all day, all week, all month, all season. Said to a slave he had known for less than two horae.

A large, square hand came up to grasp the ex-soldier's arm. "No, Centurion. I don't think you're going mad. But I think you might be partly right. I think the gods may have been behind it after all." The younger man spoke slowly, earnestly.

The Centurion's own hand sought the slave's and squeezed it hard. "Why?"

The slave swallowed. "Because twice today I felt you close by me. Before I tried to escape the slave coffle, I mean. Something told me there was a watcher in the shade of the tent. I couldn't see it, or you, but I knew you were there. Then again, later, as if I almost could hear you myself, but nothing you said, more like something you were thinking." The new slave paused. "I know that does not sound like a 'mens sana in corpore sano' confession, but it's true nonetheless." He furrowed his forehead. "Now I stop to think about it, it may have been why I ran toward you, rather than away from you. Running toward something you know is there, when you're trying to escape everyone and everything, is not rational." He looked at his owner, unable to see him clearly in the dusky room.

The Centurion squeezed the slave's hand once more, and dropped his hands into his lap. "So someone, or some gods, were instrumental in our meeting," he concluded.

The slave had let his hand fall also, and he was nodding in agreement. "I think I owe Bona Fortuna my cloisonne earrings."

"I already made my own promise to Minerva for buying you."

"You did?" Disbelief coloured every syllable. "What did you get out of it? Except a bloodied cook you don't need and a slave who is insolent without even knowing it?"

"A healer, I hope." A friend, maybe. Time would tell, but the mere chance of such a thing was a miracle in itself to the stiff and unfriendly Centurion. Maybe even something more and very, very different. But not a slave, no matter the legalities. That had not happened, and Gregorius was absolutely certain of it.

"A healer..." the slave echoed. "Oh, the headache! I'm sorry, I've kept you talking too long. Listen, now, to me. There are techniques used in the East to control some of what we experience in our bodies. I can teach you these. They'll help you stop the pain."

"I'm prepared to try any suggestion." The Centurion made fists in his lap.

The slave must have heard something, because he reached up to lay the flat of his palms on either shoulder and run them slowly down the Centurion's arms, untwisting the fists. Then he scuttled around behind the scrolled couch arm where his owner's head lay and began to whisper softly.

"First, you need to ignore all the extra sounds and sights and smells and feelings, and concentrate on only one or two pleasant ones. Are your eyes closed?"

"Yes." The Centurion's tones were as low as his slave's, sighing in the darkness.

"Can you see any light through your lids?"

"No."

"Good. I'm going to touch you, so don't be startled." Long, firm fingers were set to stroke at the Centurion's temples, then moved the length of the jaw, coaxing it to open and relax. Then they ran over the and along the neck and shoulders, and worked their way back up again. "Is that all right?" The slave kept up the soft massage.

"Fine. Comfortable."

"Good. Do you still hear my heart beating?" the slave asked lightly.

"Yes. I like it. Don't take it away." I don't think I can ignore it, anyway.

The slave must have heard a smile in his owner's voice. "If you say so, Centurion," he consented drolly. "Now listen to my voice. Forget everything else in the room and outside. Just listen to me as I tell you how the healers of the East can relax every part of their bodies..."

The soft voice fell lower and lower, slower and slower, until even the Centurion could hardly catch the whispers which repeated words of comfort and ease. He never even noticed when the new slave stopped calling him 'Centurion' and started calling him 'Greg.'

It was the most peace Gregorius had had in weeks. There was nothing in the room except the gentle fingers and the soft voice and the reassuring heartbeat. He drifted off to sleep and the voice and the fingers rested. The brown-haired slave knelt at the scrolled edge of the couch, watching the man whose motto was 'Custodio'. A small scraping in the hall sounded a warning, and the younger man rose fluidly to intercept the passage of the empty-handed major-domo into the room, stopping him in the hallway beyond.

"He's sleeping. Please, let him sleep, Capus. It's what he needs most now."

The huge man looked as if he could not quite believe his ears. He pushed past the smaller man, who shook his head sadly and went out into the hall. The new slave said something about willow bark again, and another slave answered, leading him away from the room. The major-domo stopped at the doorway to the darkened suite.

"Cap?"

"The little rat said you were sleeping."

"I was, Cap, until you came to the door."

"How did you know?"

"I heard you."

"Sorry, Greg. I wanted to see..."

"... that the little rat hadn't killed me. Yes, I know. Thank you for your concern." A grin was audible in the room. "Actually, the sleep or the relaxation technique or something he did worked a wonder. I haven't a trace of the headache left."

The huge black man harrumphed.

The Centurion swung himself up off the couch. "So we have a new slave to house, Cap. I want him out of that disgusting 'toga' and into something decent to wear, oh, and sandals! He must have sandals." He crossed to the windows and let light and air filter into the lounge once more.

"You mean that disgusting 'toga' is not his usual garb?"

"No, he was being sold for his body, not his mind."

"He's pretty enough."

"Had a fond mistress before. Claudia Vidalos, you know, the great-grandmother, and I gather she kept him well protected from being exploited sexually while she had him."

"So that's why he was on the block? Her death?"

"I'd think so. Pity she didn't leave him his freedom in her will, but he says she never expected to die." The Centurion sighed slightly.

"Why protect him if he wasn't a lapdog?"

The Centurion explained about the Nile fever cure.

"So the slave actually does know something about the healing arts." The major-domo shook his head. "You wouldn't think it from looking at him."

"No," the Centurion said with determination, "and I think that sweet, young, innocent expression and the small body are his greatest curse. He hates being a slave, was born into it, and keeps trying to escape."

"Huh. I would too." This was a great concession from the black man.

"Yes, but you would have a chance of making it, Cap," the Centurion argued. "You're big and strong enough to fight, and you have a soldier's conditioning. He hasn't, but I saw him lay out his slave driver today and run for his freedom, right after being warned that they'd slit his Achilles' tendons if he tried again."

"Again?" There was no mistaking the surprised respect in that word.

"Second time today. They flogged him the first time," Gregorius explained. "I had to stop the bleeding myself, on the way here. Then he risked me flogging him again when he told you about the headaches."

"I was surprised you didn't have me do it on the spot. He has courage, the young slave."

"Yes, but he's got his limits, too. He thanked me for buying him—I got him at a cook's price, not a plaything's, and he actually helped me dupe the driver into bringing the price down! I couldn't credit that he was doing it, Cap. But when he thanked me, he said he knew he couldn't get away, but he had to try to escape anyway." The Centurion shook his head. "He actually expected to be hamstrung and thrown to Leotis, the gladiator, as a post-circus treat. He was going to kill himself afterwards. But still he tried to escape."

"That one is not a natural slave," Capus remarked direly.

"That one is not a slave at all." The Centurion looked into his friend's deep, dark eyes. "I think I just took over Claudia's role. I'm going to have to protect him from himself, Cap. He's so fast-thinking that he cannot hold back his thoughts, and slaves are not supposed to talk as freely as he does. Nor make their own judgments about what their owner needs—or what their owner's major-domo needs to hear, that their owner has been hiding carefully for months."

The big black man swore under his breath. "Months. Yes, I'd forgotten that. He did do me something of a favour there."

"Me, too." The two friends smiled at each other.

"And nearly got himself another beating for it," Capus noted. "Thought too fast or too slow?"

"Didn't care. He did what he thought was honourable, and right. Right for me. Maybe even right for you. This head pain has been extreme, Cap. If it is something serious, I shouldn't be hiding it from you. You need to know for both our sakes. He knew that instinctively. I never could have guessed he would say anything, because I judged him still by the standards of a typical slave, and he isn't a slave at all, unless it's to the gods. He was dedicated at birth to Bona Fortuna. But I'm learning to interpret why he says and does the things he does, afterwards."

"He's certainly a surprise. I'm not sure I'll ever like him. But he isn't the utter loss I thought him at first. Those curls! Dedicated to Bona Fortuna?"

"Yes."

"Is that what he is to you, then? A living good luck piece?"

The Centurion looked blank. "I don't know, Cap. But I'm relatively certain—and so is he, by the way; we both intend sacrificing to our goddesses—that the gods arranged this meeting as well as whatever may be the reality behind it of his relationship to me, healer or mentor or whatever he is, to protector and owner. By the way, I want him sleeping in my suite."

"That will cause talk. Jealousy too."

"I want him sleeping in my suite. Not my bed. My suite. I have five unused rooms off my bedchamber and I want him there, in one of them, if I have another headache tonight, not half the villa away! Maybe the second visitors' chamber, or the robing room, whichever is bigger. Something large enough to allow him to set up an apothecary's stock. And to study in."

"He's literate too?" Capus was incredulous.

"Claudia was having him trained to be a mentor in one of the large academies. He loves to learn, and I haven't even told him about the librarium yet."

Two equally broad grins met and became laughter.

"By the way, you should talk to him about Darius."

The major-domo frowned. "Why?"

"If one day Darius is going to step into your place, and we both know that that is what he wants, he needs training in reading and writing more languages than Latin, and in higher mathematics too. And marketing and geography. Darius is the right age for it. The new slave was asking if I had children to tutor, but of course I don't. I think he would be delighted to meet Darius. And I don't think he'd use a rod, Cap."

The brown eyes turned meditative. "It might work at that. Maybe I will speak to him about tutoring Darius. What did you say his name is?"

The Centurion looked disgusted with himself. "I have no idea. I never asked him."

Continue on to Chapter 3


E-Mail Ismaro at ligela@sympatico.ca
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