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


The Centurion
Book One: Chapter 3
by
Ismaro

ligela@sympatico.ca

 

A clatter of horses' hooves pounded the carriage drive in front of the Gregorius villa.

"Hail! Petrus Magnus Vidalos demands an audience with Felix Elias Gregorius! Is the Centurion in?" The voice was commanding, but it issued from a youngster in his mid-teens. The horse he bestrode, however, was undeniably a beauty and there was no doubt in the eyes of the two guards posted at the loggia door that this was a well-born scion from one of the wealthy Roman houses.

A tall, dark man with a military bearing stalked around the side of the two-story villa and answered, "Hail, Petrus Magnus Vidalos! I am the Gregorius. Come, talk with me. I can guess why you came."

The stocky youth dropped from the horse's saddle, handing the reins to a stable hand, who had rushed up at the sound of the hoof beats.

"You purchased a slave at the auction in Roma today. It was a mistake. He was not to be sold. He was promised to me, Centurion, and I wish to buy him back from you."

The tall man looked at the black curls and steady green eyes of the adolescent in front of him and smiled to himself. A boy of good courage. One who stood up for himself and what he believed was his. A good owner for a good slave. But not good enough for the Centurion's new slave.

"Yes, I purchased a new cook."

"A cook?" The teenager's relief was visible. "We were told he was..."

"Sold for a catamite?" Gregorious said bluntly. "To a big man with an angry look who had caught his new slave, shaken him hard, and frightened him nearly to fainting about his future?"

The Vidalos boy was taken aback. "Well, to be honest, Centurion, yes." The green eyes met the ice-blue ones steadily.

To the boy's surprise, the tall, forbidding man broke into a small smile. The change in the Centurion was amazing. His handsome features now seemed human, rther than chill as chalcedony.

Petrus found himself smiling back.

"How did it happen, young Vidalos? How was your promised slave sent to the auction block?"

The boy sighed. "I don't quite know. His name was not to be on the list, but everything else my grandmother owned was being sold at once and somehow, a mistake occurred. Certainly he's no man's catamite; we have at least seven broken-hearted women on the slave roster who are praying to Venus for his safe return to us. Really, though, he's my tutor, and I want him back. He's the best tutor any of us ever had in the family."

"How is he as a cook?"

"Very good. And as a herbalist. Cured me when the physicians had given me up for dead. He means a lot to me, Centurion. I, oh, I love him as if he were my older brother or something."

The Centurion could well believe that. It had been just a few hours and already the Gregorius had appointed himself the young slave's protector. The slightly built young man with the long brown curls had proved courageous, loyal, and compassionate in the extreme, in the same time he had proven rash enough to court physical and emotional harm in order to do those things that courage, loyalty and compassion demanded. The Centurion had absolutely no doubt that the new slave needed a strong owner's protection. And Gregorius was a war hero, one of the most redoubtable men in Roma.

"Why did it take until now to recognize the error?"

"My fault," the boys said, scuffing the ground with the toe of his boot. "I should have been at lessons with him, and then nothing would have happened. But it was auction day and I decided to..." He ran out of words, and looked desperately into the other man's face.

"Declare yourself a day off from school and go have some fun?" the big man asked gently.

"Yes. And look what happened!"

There was such regret in the green eyes that the Centurion found himself out of his depth. He had no intention of letting the new slave return to his old life. But he had to admit that it looked as if the new slave's tales about being a cherished member of the Vidalos family were entirely true. "Come, let us sit together and talk this over," he said at last.

"Can I see him?"

"Of course."

The thirty-ish man and the boy entered the cool Gregorius villa. The boy looked around, surprised at how spartan the home was. He had always been used to luxury. This place was a military stockade, from the looks of it, and noisy and entirely masculine to boot. Huh. His 'elder brother' was a young Adonis, and would miss the companionship of women if he had to stay here. Petrus was determined to bring him home to the Vidalos mansion, where he belonged.

A giant black man had entered the hallway, escorting the Centurion and the boy to couches in the ground-floor lounging room.

"Petrus, this is my major-domo, Capus. We fought together in Gaul. He is my best friend."

The teenager gave the fist-to-shoulder salute of the military. "Hail, warrior."

"Hail, young Vidalos."

"How did you know who I am?"

"Me," said a slightly rushed voice, which preceded its owner into the room. The slave, twenty-four to his student's sixteen, was more slightly built than the teenager. But he made haste to grasp his pupil by the upper arms and pull him close into a small hug.

"Petrus! Ahhh!" The slave gasped at the keenness of the vigour with which his light embrace was returned.

"Are you all right?" Petrus asked anxiously. "What did they do to you?" he demanded, drawing back to note the blue bruising on the whole of the right side of the tutor's face.

"A flogging. Not my first, you know," the slave said drolly. "Just still tender."

The Centurion was rising with a small frown. He knew the boy's enthusiasm most probably had caused the weals to open for the third time that day and that the new slave would be bleeding yet again. He moved unobtrusively to the side of the brown-haired man and the scowling increased. Dis! Something would have to be done about that slave driver!

"Who?" Petrus Vidalos' tone was fierce, and the look he turned on the Centurion was as edged as a dagger. He took a rapid step forward.

"Oh, not the Centurion!"

The slave astonished his new owner yet again. He stepped between the angry teenager and the vastly larger war hero, holding the teenager back. The injured slave protecting the veteran who thought of himself as the slave's protector? Gregorius shook his head a trifle at the very idea, and regained a portion of his temper.

"Petrus, it was the slaver. I tried to run." The slave smiled, and his deep blue eyes danced. "You know me. Freedom before all else." He shrugged, and tried to hide his wincing.

"But it is only three months until your birthday!" the boy lamented.

"I know." The words the slave spoke were toneless.

Petrus turned to the Centurion. "Felix Elias Gregorius," he said formally, "you have my apology for misjudging you."

The Centurion smiled and the face was transformed again into humanity. If the tutor were reponsible for the boy's manners he had taught the child well.

"I want you to know," the teenager looked from slave to owner, "that I am going to have the slaver killed." He spoke conversionally, and his decision was final. The slaver was a dead man.

"What, for beating a runaway slave? That's his job!" Long brown curls were shaking. No, Petrus. "He was doing it to protect the Vidalos' assets. You can't have him killed for that."

Again the slave had surprised Gregorius. Forgiveness and understanding for the monster which called itself a man?

"Well enough, then, I'll have him killed for trying to sell you as a catamite to the Centurion here."

"But I'm not his bedwarmer, Petrus. Am I?" The new slave looked to Gregorius for confirmation.

"No, Petrus, he's actually my apothecary. Although I let the slaver think I wanted him for my bed and was only willing to pay for a cook because he was damaged goods." The Centurion grinned, and the man became, amazingly enough, pleasant to look at.

The teenager was won over into thinking that his friend might well have ended up in worse hands than he had been led to believe Gregorius' were. He looked back at the slave who was grinning just as beamingly. "You had a hand in it too, didn't you?" the boy accused his tutor.

"Yes, he certainly did." The Centurion nodded lazily at the new slave.

"But it was actually the Centurion's idea." The new slave gave credit where it was due.

"This is too complicated," the boy complained. "How did you know what each other was thinking?"

The slave and owner exchanged blank glances and lifted their shoulders at the same time.

"So the slaver didn't sell me for a catamite. You can't kill him just for trying to bring n the highest bid for me, can you, Petrus?"

"Why the bruising?"

"For fun, Petrus," the Centurion said too quietly. "No other reason. The slaver was disappointed in his sales before. He simply backhanded him with his bullwhip. It gave the slaver pleasure."

"That's good enough for me! The slaver will be dead before dinner." Petrus was adamant.

"Petrus..."

"Do you want me to tell your student about the hamstringing now or after the slaver is dead?" the Centurion addressed his slave.

At his pupil's gasp, the tutor gave up trying to hide the truth. "I tried to run twice, you know. Ran right into the Centurion the second time. Lucky for me. The slave handler would have caught me and he would have cut my tendons. But still, he had that right, Petrus."

There angry, scared tears at the corners of the boy's eyes, but he was holding them back manfully. "The man is dead. You have the word of a Vidalos on that."

"You have the gratitude of the Gregorius, then, young Vidalos," the Centurion put in quietly., and heard his new slave gasp in turn.

"If you do not kill him, you will have my gratitude." The younger man with the walnut curls spoke hopelessly.

Capus was in a corner, watching interestedly. His friend had certainly taken a liking to the new slave, who clearly had no idea of it. Had Gregorius ever actually smiled at the slave? He must have done so; he had smiled so often that day because of what the slave had said or done, that he must have smiled at the slave himself. It was not often that two people met with as much sympathy as this slave and this slave owner shared. Maybe they were right. Maybe it was all the gods' doing.

Petrus was thinking about the Centurion's words. "You won't sell him to me, will you?" he asked at last. "You have decided to keep him."

"Yes, I have," the Centurion pronounced definitively. "Do you know my family's watchword?"

"'Custodio.' 'I keep my own.' That's how you feel, then, Centurion?"

"I keep my own."

"You know he wants his freedom above all else?"

"I do."

"And if he decides to run from you, what will you do then, Centurion? A flogging for a first offence, and then the cutting of his legs?"

The new slave had his head buried in his hands.

"He has told me he won't run."

"You believe him?"

"I do."

"May I speak with him alone, Centurion?" Petrus asked courteously.

"Certainly." The war hero nodded to his compatriot in the wars, who left immediately. But as the Centurion crossed the room, his new slave's hand came up to stay him. Too softly for the boy to hear, the slave asked bitterly, "Please, will you not listen? For Petrus' sake, if not for mine. I am, after all, yours, and even my speech belongs to you. 'Custodio.' I understand. But he is not yours and I am asking for his privacy."

The Centurion looked into the gentian eyes, but made no response. Then he left and went out-of-doors.

"Petrus!"

"I am so sorry. This is all my fault. You weren't to be sold at all, you know." A hand came up to dash at hot tears held back too long.

"I know. I had your grandmother's word, and your father's too, on that. It was a mistake, wasn't it?"

"You were supposed to be with me, or I with you, rather. No mistake could have..."

The self-accusation was cut off in midstream. "Are you blaming yourself because you decided to take a day off from your lessons? Oh, Petrus!"

The green eyes had begun to flow steadily and the slave's arm went around the boy's shoulders as he hugged him close.

"I am going to tell you the truth, Petrus. You must listen to me. This is confidential. Not meant for anyone except you and me." And Dis damn anyone listening in, the slave thought privately.

The boy looked at his friend then. "Confidential. I understand."

The slave nodded. "The Centurion saved my life. If I had had my legs cut and been sold off as a catamite, I would have killed myself."

"The honourable thing to do," Petrus said with complete acceptance, as if 'Honora super alia' were the watchword of this most unusual slave.

"He has a medical need. Something I know I can help him with. Something I am afraid only I can heal him with. But I'm not sure about the last part."

"What kind of need?"

The slave smiled at his pupil. "Guess."

"Confidential."

"Good answer. But do you see the position I am in? I owe him my life. He needs my help. Whatever I may wish about being free—now or in three months from now—I cannot ignore my responsibility to him."

"So you will keep your word to him? Not run?"

"I will."

"Will he treat you well?"

"I trust him, Petrus."

"Why? How can it be that this morning I was slipping out the window and this afternoon you are here, and I may never see you again?" The boy's face was anguished as he contemplated the loss of a good friend, someone who was like one of the family, his almost-brother.

The slave squeezed his pupil's shoulder reassuringly. "I think the gods are behind it. So does the Centurion."

"You do?" came the disbelieving reaction.

"We do, both of us. You know I am dedicated to Bona Fortuna, goddess of luck. If it had not been for the goddess sending me into the Centurion's path at the right time, I would very likely be lying with my wrists slit in a back alley somewhere now. I may not be free, but I am alive still. I am grateful to my goddess, and to the Centurion and his goddess, too."

"His goddess?"

"He dedicated himself to Minerva."

"Goddess of justice as well as war. I see why you feel you can trust a man who reveres justice so highly as to dedicate himself to her."

"And goddess of wisdom, too. I do not claim to be the wisest man on Terra, but I do know that very few people could help the Centurion right now. I am one of them, perhaps the only one in Roma. His goddess, Minerva, must have sent him to me, equally. Either one of the goddesses might have lured you out of that window, just to give us the opportunity to meet each other. To help each other."

"Must have been Minerva, then. This is not good luck to me, my brother," the youngster said, clasping his friend as close as he dared without hurting him again.

"But there may be some wisdom in the exchange, Petrus," the slave said softly. "Friends do part, even friends who are as close as brothers. And I am not an easy slave to manage; we both know that."

Petrus managed to turn up the corners of his mouth.

"I don't think you could have had me whipped, even if you decided I deserved it," the slave continued. "Could you? I might well have been too much for you."

"But not for the Centurion," the boy whispered back mournfully.

"No, not for the Centurion," the slave sighed gravely. "And unless he has plans to go back to war, which as his herbalist I seriously doubt at this moment, I will be out and around in Roma all the time, and we will meet often in the city. He will trust me to come back. I gave my word to him."

"Then Minerva must be his goddess, if he is wise enough to trust you on so little acquaintance."

"And in spite of such a bad history?" Sapphire eyes sparkled.

"Despite such a bad history." Emerald eyes returned the glow. "Does he know your good points yet?"

"He'll learn them if I don't get myself killed first."

"I'll come back in three months' time and try to buy your freedom then, you know."

"I know. But if he is not well..."

"You still won't go."

"Not unless he sells me off or throws me out. That is his privilege."

"If he throws you out, come to us. Promise."

"I do.

"If he sells you off, I'll make sure he knows where he can get the highest price possible."

"You are a good man, Petrus. You make me proud to have been your teacher."

The two shared a final embrace, and the slave walked the boy to the door with meaningless instructions on what to tell his next tutor about how Petrus had progressed in his studies. They were met at the threshold by the Centurion.

"I think you were going to prepare dinner, weren't you?" he asked the brown-haired slave unsmilingly.

"I was? Well, it seems I was." The slave saluted his former student. "Salve, Petrus Vidalos. Please give your family my love and assure them that things are well with me."

"Salve, my brother. I will."

The Centurion was left alone with the teenager.

"Felix Elias Gregorius?"

"Yes?"

"I will pay the highest price in Roma for that slave if ever you wish to sell him. And should I die, you may apply to any member of my family, and receive the same assurance from him or her. We will establish a trust fund for the monies to buy his freedom whenever you wish to let him go, as soon as I reach home."

"Very well, young Vidalos," the Centurion said graciously.

"And in three months' time, I will apply to you again to purchase his freedom. Do you know why?"

"Your family promised him he would be freed on his twenty-fifth birthday," the Centurion answered. "Is that when it is?"

"Yes."

"I understand. Will you tell me some things about my new slave before you go?"

Petrus was instantly suspicious. "What do you want to know, Centurion?"

Everything! "First, in all the commotion, I... never asked his name." There was a flush on the war hero's cheeks.

"Really?" The boy was agog.

The Centurion acknowledged the truth with a wave of his hand.

Petrus began to smile again. "It is Libra."

"Like the sign of the scales?" Minerva's scales of justice? And I am 'Felix', the happy one, blessed by Bona Fortuna. Even our names... The juxtaposition of coincidences flashed through the ex-soldier's mind like a thunderbolt.

"Yes, Libra, the scales. No one else I know carries the name, but his mother... Well, I understand that she was bred to be a courtesan, and knows how to look pretty, hold her wine or drugs, and, well, be a courtesan. She never could think. How she ever had a child like Libra is inexplicable to everyone. Some of us think he must be some god's son. No one knows who his father really is; she was a courtesan, after all. He was born under the sign, a Venus-baby, mid-month. She called him for it. But I never thought it suited him, somehow."

"Hmmm. He's been beaten too often for someone his age; the white scars won't fade any further, you know. Do you know why?"

Petrus blushed a very deep red. "He took a number of whippings for me. Protecting me when I had misbehaved or slipped away with his approval. My father did not like that; he wanted me in the classroom all day every day, but Libra thought if I got ahead of my lessons in class, there were things to be learn outdoors also. He used to take me on rambles through the woods, and we would go fishing. I'm a fair naturalist myself, now; I won't die from poison mushrooms, or starve if there is game about. Nothing precisely military in what we did, but useful, he thought, and a small break in the routine made it easier to go back to work on Julius' writings the next day. Libra said it made me a better student."

The boy's mouth worked hard before he could go on. "Whenever he did it, my father would have him beaten. Father couldn't do it himself, none of us could ever do that; Father had to have another slave do it. There was one who didn't know Libra well enough to soften the blows." The teenager drew a sharp, deep breath. "Ah, well, but my father just wanted him to stop being so stubborn. Libra said my father was a Mars-blessed general who knew nothing about educating the young and if he wanted a well-taught child, he needed a well-rounded one also. So Libra just kept doing what he thought was in my best interests. The beatings stopped when I grew old enough to realize he was paying for my escapades; he'd hidden it from me before then. I went to my father, and I faced him down. He had no idea just how much Libra had taught me ab out the world, and its peoples and customs."

"He did an excellent job with you, young Vidalos."

The boy flushed again, but with pride rather than shame. "I think you should tell him that, sir."

"I will."

"When do you want his things delivered?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Libra's things. His clothes, his herbs and spices, his mementos from around the world."

"All the things he said about travelling are true, then? He was described as a good storyteller, but there was no guarantee that any of his stories are real."

"Of course. Before he came to us, his mother journeyed about as a courtesan, and she took Libra with her all the way to the borders of China and back, through I don't know how many different lands. She was considered very exotic in the east and the south. And she was a winsome thing, and would not be parted from her child at any cost. So her owners indulged her."

Given the amount of indulgence the Centurion was extending to her son, he found the information somewhat comforting.

The boy continued, "Then she found a buyer who did not want to think of her as the mother of a son of sixteen years, and he came to our family and was put to work in the kitchen. It was only a couple of months later that he saved my life." A raised eyebrow met with a ducking of the Centurion's head; that story did not need recounting. "By that time he had knowledge most men of sixty would trade their teeth for. He came on expeditions with me, as my guide, because of his knowledge of so many languages and customs. Together we've circled the sea and gone down the Nile. Did you really think all his talk was just a slave dreaming of freedom, having grand ideas?" The green eyes flashed and the boy strained to hold back his laughter. "I'll have his things here by suppertime, if possible, Centurion. Perhaps then you can ask him about his travels. He'll tell you all you want to know, and more!" Petrus' grin drew a small smile from his hearer.

The stable hand brought up the prancing horse, and Petrus leaped into the saddle. He extended a hand to the Centurion, and they clasped forearms. "Thank you for buying him. But never forget that he has somewhere else to go, Felix Elias Gregorius, if you decide to put him out."

"I will not forget, young Vidalos. Salve."

"Salve."

The Centurion watched the youth on the horse until they were out of sight—a very long way, he suddenly realized, and turned back to find Libra standing, arms folded across his chest, spitfire in his eyes.

"Well, did you hear anything you object to?" the slave challenged.

"You asked me not to listen," came the too-mild reply.

"And you made me no promise. So you have not answered the question. Did you hear anything you objected to?"

The Centurion looked into the furious stare, and suddenly something did occur to him which he had not understood, and needed to know. His own face grew harsh. "Yes, I did. Walk with me, there to the grove. We will talk there."

The silent olive grove found slave and owner both holding down anger so tautly that they could hardly breathe. The Centurion grabbed the new slave at the upper arms, swung him around brutally, and backed him against a slender olive trunklet. The new slave yelped as his back began bleeding again, but the Centurion ignored the younger man's distress in his own loss of control.

"'Custodio.' Even your speech is mine."

"I know. What do you want me to tell you?" The evenness of the words should have betrayed Libra's rebuilding wrath.

"You said I have a medical condition which only you can help me with."

"I said I might be the only one in Roma now, not that there is no one else..."

The larger man pulled at the smaller one and slammed him back against the tree again.

"What medical condition? All I have are headaches! I do not believe you are the only herbalist in Roman who treats headaches!"

The gentian blue eyes had gone from shock to fear to anger again, and were smelting sparks at the slave owners. "You do not only have headaches."

"What do you mean?"

"Let me go and I will tell you."

The Centurion used his strength against the slave again.

"Let me go," the slave said through gritted teeth, the anodyne of shock wearing off, "Centurion."

The larger man lost control of his ire at the slave's demand and threw him against the tree once more.

"Let me go, Greg, please." The slave gasped as the agony of his open wounds nearly blinded him.

The Centurion heard his name, the one used only by his intimates, issue from Libra's mouth, and suddenly realized what he was doing. He let the slave's arms go, and watched, stunned at himself, as the smaller man slid down the tree trunk to rest at its base, a red trail marking his passage down its length. The sight of the slave's blood seeping through the fabric of his tunica sent the Centurion to his knees.

"By all the gods, I'm sorry, Libra!" The Centurion used a cloak for the second time that day to pad and brace the wounds on his new slave's back, bending the slighter form forward and ripping the front and back of the tunica to push its new straps down to the slave's waist.

"Petrus told you my name, huh?" The blue eyes were still closed, but the full lips quirked up at one side to let the Centurion know the slave was recovering, at least insofar as his temper was concerned.

The Centurion, on the other hand, was almost distraught. "I have never done this sort of thing to anyone before." He kept pressure on the cuts, which had opened too many times that day to close easily now.

"You have a medical problem, Centurion. That's all that's to blame." It was hardly louder than a whisper, but the pardon resounded like brass horns in the quiet grove.

The fear-filled eyes of the soldier met with compassionate warmth in his slave's gaze.

"Can you tell me here? Shall I take you back to the villa?"

"Just let me catch my breath." There was a hitch in the intake of air. Then, "It's not that bad. Only like being flogged twice in a day." "Have you been?" Twice in one day. Gods!

"No, Centurion. That was a joke."

Humour from a man with a true grievance and anguish in his gasping? "Bad joke," concluded the Gregorius.

"I am not at my best," the slave reminded him dryly. "If you pillow the cloak and me sit back against the tree, I can talk now."

The Centurion did as he was bid, and sat back to stare in sombre silence at the younger man. His completely surprising and unpredictable slave.

"You have a medical problem, Centurion. It is very rare, and I have only heard a few things about it from the healers and wise men I have met in the East and the South."

"Not just the headaches?"

"No. Stop and think. How can a man hear the heartbeat of another from across a city and up a hillside? How can a man watch another ride away for miles without realizing that everyone else around him lost sight of the rider a good half a hora before? How can a man stand outside his villa and hear the conversation of two quiet people inside, when he is nowhere by a window?"

"I did these things today." The reluctant admission was no more than the truthful slave's due.

"Yes. You did. And I think from the headaches you've experienced, you've been doing things like them for some months now. Not all at once, praise the gods: you likely would have gone mad then."

"Am I going mad?" the Centurion asked for the second time that day. "I just brutalized you..."

The slave interrupted. "I'll heal! I really will, you know. It just hurts, that's all. But, no, I told you before you're not going mad. I haven't lied to you. But I didn't want to talk to you about what this is, what I think it is, until I could be entirely certain first. That's the foremost reason I asked you not to listen to Petrus and me, though I was concerned for his privacy too. I was fairly certain, you see, that I would have to tell him enough about your condition to make you angry or frightened. And I didn't want to make you angry or frightened, Centurion."

"Call me Greg," the Centurion said absently, never noticing the startlement in his slave's eyes. "Why didn't you want me angry or frightened? Because you knew I'd react like this? That I would hurt you?"

"No! It's because it's something that can be controlled, and so there's no reason to fear it. Being angry, well, that's just human. I would likely be outraged if it happened to me."

"What is it then, Magus?"

Again the sapphire eyes popped with surprise, but then their owner regained his composure. "Your senses are increasing, well beyond the best of any man, Greg." The last word was said shyly, but the Centurion only nodded comprehension, and the new slave went on. "You have begun to see like the eagles, to hear better than I think the wolves or bats do. You'd had only one or two episodes to start with, but it's becoming more frequent and is getting stronger very quickly, isn't it? Is that not what has been happening to you?"

"Yes, I think it is. But why? How?"

"Ask the gods, Greg. Ask Minerva for the wisdom to understand it. I can only tell you, first, that you are not the only man it has happened to; second, that it is a gift and not a curse..."

The Centurion slammed a fist so hard on the ground that the slight slave cringed away.

"Not a curse? When I have pain too sharp to bear? I lose control of my temper and become violent, and think I'm running mad?"

The brown-haired slave took a deep breath and cracked the Centurion hard with his open palm on the side of the face. "Stop that now!"

For an instant, the Centurion's features hardened so completely that the slave thought he might well die at the angry man's hands, but then the light of intelligence returned, and Gregorius looked down tiredly at the man he had dragged to the grove so that he might learn from him, but had terrified instead.

"Again, I am sorry, Magus. What you're telling me is the stuff of superstition and legends, not something people live with!"

"I know. I've read Ovid and I don't expect to metamorphose into something else, either. But you have to live with it, Greg." The slave's voice was gentle but firm. "You can do it. Others have. There are ways to regain control of your senses. I know something of them, and can teach what I know to you. That was the third thing I had to say. Do you see now why I asked you to let me keep my confidences with Petrus?"

The Centurion's shoulders slumped. "I wasn't ready to hear this. And I forced it out of you. At your cost."

"And at yours. How well do you know me?"

"Not at all, Magus." The ice blue eyes held frankness. "You are something new to me, something I have never seen before." Gregorius closed his eyes briefly, but still his new slave was as different as a wolf from a lion.

"How much trust can you put in what I tell you?" Libra probed. "Perhaps I'm just trying to find myself a comfortable berth as a slave in your household."

"Right now, you don't look any too comfortable in my household," the Gregorius cut in.

The big, dark blue eyes sparkled with laughter at him, and the Centurion began to feel as if the world was not necessarily coming to an end.

The deep, low, comforting voice resumed. "I know this is not easy for you, Greg. And I know that all the sympathy I can give you must sound empty because it is not happening to me. I got off lightly today; it is you who have the work to do, to learn to control your senses and deal with the episodes they cause you."

"There's more."

So the Centurion had not trusted his new slave with all his secrets, though the slave might need to know them, in order to aid him in his troubles. The two men shared a timeless moment of rapport, the need for secrecy unspoken but mutually understood.

Libra admitted quietly, "I was afraid there might be. Another reason why I did not want to speak too quickly. If I tell you what I think it is, and I'm correct, perhaps that will help you to trust me more. Do you think so?"

The Centurion bobbed his head brusquely in answer.

The slave drew in a double lungful of air. "I think that sometimes you become so enraptured by something you see or hear that you lose touch with the outside world. You are trapped where you stand, and there is nothing you can do about it because you don't even know it's happening. Whenever it does happen, you are easy prey. You could be harmed by anyone or anything, and never have the ability to fight back. And because these raptures have happened more than once, and perhaps because you have been hurt during one or more of them, you, a fighter, a war hero, are as terrified as if Pan himself were chasing you down."

Gregorius' face was stony. "How did you know this?" he demanded curtly.

The slave shrugged hard, and flinched at the pain of moving. "I have met with other healers who have told me about these things, read some few scrolls they lent me, and I have watched you, Felix Elias Gregorius. 'Custodio.' I, too, have watched what I keep and care for; it is you I have been watching. What I saw today convinced me that you really do have these gifts. And that you need someone to help you with them. That, too, is spoken of in the tales and the scrolls; there must be someone else who knows of the gifts, to watch the back of the one who bears them. I, apparently, am that someone, for you. Thank Minerva and Bona Fortuna."

"Thank Minerva and Bona Fortuna," came a murmur. "But why a gift?"

The slave considered for a moment. "I am partly telling you what I have been told or have read, and partly telling you what I have deduced from watching and learning about you today. There is a name for the people to whom this gift is given. They are called 'Watchmen'."

Gregorius gasped sharply.

"I know," Libra said. "'Custodio.' I watch, I keep. I think you are a Watchman, and that it is a divine appointment. You have dedicated yourself to Minerva. You have fought in battle as her servant, but you retired from war. I believe she has decided it is time for you to come out of retirement," the younger man conjectured.

"Back to war again? No. I can't. She knows that. Not war."

Libra paused to scan the suddenly agonized war hero, who lowered his face to avoid the gaze. "No," the slave said quickly, "not war, I think, Greg."

The Centurion looked up again at the use of his shortname, and realized he had authorized the slave—no, the not-a-slave—to use it. At a lift of other man's eyebrows, Gregorius nodded for him to continue, and meant not only the analysis but also the term of intimate equality.

"Very well," the slave concurred. "Minerva is also the goddess of wisdom and justice. I think when you have come to control your gift, she will expect you to be a Watchman for justice. How that would work when you are not a member of the Roma's Guard, I cannot say. But as I told you, I am giving you guesses now, not real answers." Libra leaned more securely against the tree, ignoring the sticky trickle down its trunk. "This whole day has been so strange that I cannot believe the gods are not behind it. Can you?"

Open candour from a man bleeding at his hands? It was time for Gregorius to respond in kind. "No, Magus, I cannot."

"You call me 'Magus' now, a wise man," sighed the slave. "I don't feel very wise, Greg. I wish I had more than guesses to work with. I wish I had a Thibetan spice to brew into tea or a drug from Africa to put in your wine, so that I could take this all away from you, because I know you don't want it. But I haven't those things. I do know how to teach you to control the pain, or at least part of it. That I can offer without hesitation. Is it enough for you? For now? Until I can learn more about you and your calling as a Watchman?"

Greg stared measuringly back. "Yes." Enough, and more than enough. Hope. A new purpose. And a gift from the gods that came not in the form of senses that could hurt and kill, but as a young man with long brown curls and blood on his back. "Thank Minerva and Bona Fortuna."

Continue on to Chapter 4


E-Mail Ismaro at ligela@sympatico.ca
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Page last updated 8/15/03.