Read an Excerpt
Moonlight shone through the tiny window, casting a gentle glow on the face of Annia's beautiful newborn baby girl. The tiny gold bear charm on the baby's necklace sparkled for just a moment before the moon took refuge behind the clouds.
"If I could only tell you how much you are loved, and have you understand," Annia murmured.
She laid the baby down on the prickly straw-filled mattress and pulled the urine-soaked cloth from beneath the swaddling, deftly replacing it with a clean one. She picked up the newborn and kissed her tiny head, then cradled her in her arms.
"My sweet baby girl," she murmured into the soft newborn hair, "I will love you as much as a mother and a father."
Annia herself was not feeling particularly loved. Nine days ago, she had given birth alone except for the midwife and Annia's slave, Virginia.
Annia's husband, Galerius Janius, had divorced her on false charges of adultery. He had separated her from her two small sons and exiled her to this small villa at the outermost edge of Rome.
But he didn't take her baby. Not even he could be that cruel.
Or perhaps he had forgotten the baby in his rush to marry the wealthy cousin of the emperor.
Annia placed the baby in her wooden cradle, and the scent of rosemary filled the air. The mattress, stuffed with carefully chosen herbs, kept the infant safe from the chills brought by the heavy Roman mists.
The baby slept, and Annia considered calling Virginia for a taper. Perhaps if she read for a while, her heart would stop hurting so badly. She looked at the scrolls stowed neatly in the racks she had built on her wall. Maybe a Psalm would remind her she was not alone in her pain.
"Lord, keep my children safe," she whispered.
The ache of losing her boys hurt far worse than having her husband discard her.
Annia could only hope that Janius's new wife would find the boys tiresome and send them away. And then Annia could have them back.
Janius had made it clear for many years that he did not love her. Shortly before he accused her of adultery, he revealed that he had never loved her.
Perhaps her boys would remind Janius of Annia. Or he would want them out of his sight. Possibly she would get them back even sooner than she expected.
She lay down and covered herself with a light wool blanket. She might be able to sleep on this happy thought.
Before she could drift into blissful forgetfulness, the rhythmic crunch of hobnailed sandals echoed on the basalt-paved streets below.
It was the footsteps of soldiers. She sat up in her bed. Their torches lit the street below, reflections casting ghastly shadows on the frescoes covering her tiny bedroom walls.
The banging of bronze against wood told her they had come to her villa.
Why? What could they possibly want with her?
She heard Virginia shuffle down the stairs in her soft house sandals.
"Who's there?" Virginia asked.
"Marcus Sergius Peregrinus, commander of the Vig-ilesf a gravelly voice answered. "By order of the emperor Claudius, we are here to retrieve the stolen property of Galerius Janius."
"What stolen property?" Virginia asked pertly. "The only thing here is the wife he divorced, and she is no longer his property."
"It is not the woman we are here for," the gravelly voice continued. "It is the baby."
"The baby?" Virginia asked. "What does he want with her?"
"She is to be exposed before sunrise," the man said. "To die or be taken by the slave traders as the gods decree."
Exposed? The barbaric custom of leaving an infant out at the specifically designated place of exposure to die or be picked up by slave traders was something Annia had never expected to have happen to one of her own children. Dear heavenly Father, she prayed, please, not that. But the Roman father-the paterfamilia-had the power of life or death over any of his children. And he was not required to be merciful like her heavenly father.
Annia had always considered the ceremony shortly after birth whereby the midwife placed the newborn at the father's feet to be picked up and named or left on the floor, indicating it was to be exposed, merely a formality.
Surely, no father in his right mind would order his own healthy child exposed.
Annia tried to remember what her midwife had said when she brought the baby back to Annia. But the memory was a blur.
"Leave us alone," Virginia said to the gravelly voiced commander. "What possible harm can a baby do such a gallant as Galerius Janius? Does he fear a child?"
"That is not for me to determine," Marcus Sergius replied. "Now open the door, or we will be forced to open it for you."
The door opened. "Wait here," Virginia said. "I will get the child."
"Annia," Virginia called, running up the stairs, "Annia. The Vigiles are here."
"Is there a fire?" Annia asked, her humor masking the raw panic in her heart.
"No," Virginia said. "They've come to take Mae-lia. Galerius Janius wants her exposed. Do something, Annia."
Annia loosely belted her stola, the tunic-like dress- allowing it to fall easily over the coarse slave's tunic she wore beneath. She donned a blue silk palla. Rather than pinning the long oblong covering with the traditional bronze pin, she threw it casually over her shoulder and wrapped the baby in a matching blue silk blanket. She walked down the stairs, her footsteps certain, though her heart quaked.
"How can you be so calm?" Virginia asked. "They want to take her away."
"Be quiet," Annia hissed. "I will make certain they do not."
She walked beside the small pool that formed the center of her modest villa and into the atrium where her guests waited.
"You wish to see me?" Annia said to the commander, demanding an accounting of his presence with her question. She handed Maelia to Virginia.
Marcus Sergius transfixed her with dark eyes under a leather helmet. His build was strong and hard, his chiseled features matched his gravelly voice. He was younger than he sounded, perhaps midthirties. And even in the uneven light cast by the lantern he held, she could see he was a handsome man.
She felt certain she had seen him before. Had she walked by him on the street as he led his men? That wasn't it. A dinner? That was it. He had been invited to one of Galerius Janius's dinners. It seemed a lifetime ago.
"May I see the emperor's order?" Annia asked.
He took a scroll from beneath his leather breastplate and handed it to her.
Annia examined the purple wax seal. She read the scroll. It was genuine. She looked up at the man. Marcus Sergius avoided her eyes.
"If you must go through with this barbaric practice on my child," Annia said, her voice steely, "then I will go with you. I will carry her to that place of death and lay her on a pile of rubbish myself." She handed Virginia the scroll and took Maelia from her arms.
The fierce commander raised his chin. "That is unheard of," he said.
"Just because it is unheard of does not make it impossible," Annia returned. She stood tall, but her height was nothing compared to his.
"Hand me the baby, dominaf Marcus Sergius said, holding out his arms.
"I said I will take my baby to that place of horror." Annia pushed her way through the eight soldiers and out the large wooden door. She stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of her villa and began walking down the street, her silk stola swishing behind her.
The Vigiles stared, their mouths agape.
"What are you waiting for?" Marcus Sergius demanded. "Follow her."
She was soon forced off the street by a merchant's wagon, the metallic clamor of iron wagon wheels turning on stone pavement filling the air.
But she feinted to the opposite side of the street from the surprised soldiers. She looked behind her to make certain she had lost them.
The night police-Vigiles-were heading in the opposite direction.
The moon was her friend and ducked behind a cloud just as she melted into a narrow alleyway.
Sheltered by the darkness, she shed her silk palla and stola and dropped the baby's blanket. Beneath all of it she wore the rough homespun of a slave, and her baby was wrapped in slave's swaddling. Annia wore soft leather calcei, as well. The moccasins were comfortable and perfect for running.
She had no time to take off the baby's golden crep-undia necklace, its tiny toys jingling on their string, nor her own gold necklace with its matching bear charm. She prayed no one would notice the expensive jewelry marking her as anything but a slave. She wrapped the baby tightly in the rough wool blanket she'd hidden beneath the silk and fashioned a sling from her long wool belt.
She secured the sling around her and tucked the baby beneath her breasts.
And then she ran.
The streets of Rome at night were dark and noisy, filled with merchants carrying their wares in the carts that were forbidden on the Roman streets by day. As long as she stayed close to the swiftly moving traffic, she was safe.
She looked like a slave, as her former husband had often reminded her. She was small and dark like her mother's people in Britain. Her eyes were large and brown, and her hair was dark and so curly that she had to keep it cut short like a boy's. Otherwise, it grew in a wild tangle around her face that even the patient Virginia was hard-pressed to comb out.
In the darkness she could not see to avoid the street trash and nearly slid on a pile of smelly kitchen offal, scattering a group of howling street cats dining on their supper.
Fueled by anger and fear, Annia ran. She was quick and she was strong. She listened for the telltale sign of hobnailed sandals following her, but heard none.
Had she escaped so easily?
She had never been so grateful for her athletic training in Britain as she was now. She had been the laughingstock of other Roman matrons when she was married to Janius because she insisted on training like a man. She ran. She exercised. She even sparred with anyone willing to take her on.
In Britain it had been necessary. Even after Claudius had come and secured the island for Rome, you never knew who or what might jump the stone fence of your outpost farm and try to seize your cattle and rob your stores.
In Rome, the exercise allowed her to live within the stifling social order with a measure of contentment.
She paused, hiding behind an erect wooden board inserted into the pavement. The board and weighted bronze bolt safeguarded the jewelry shop behind it. Maelia slept, tied snugly against her.
It was completely dark. She heard movement at the end of the street. When the moon peeped from behind the cloud, she could see a human figure stop, walk forward a little, then stagger against a wall.
She breathed a sigh of relief. It was only a drunk.
She crept from behind the sheltering board, looked right and left and dashed down the now dangerously moonlit street. She prayed the moon would hide itself again, but it did not.
Annia felt she was running in glaring daylight, so bright did the moon shine. She could see the cracks in the basalt squares of the road. She could almost make out the lettering on the walls above the closed shops.
She grasped the baby nestled safely in the makeshift sling. Fear propelled her forward once again. But when she turned down the next alley, she ran directly into a hard-chested Roman soldier who grasped her tight.
Marcus Sergius hadn't expected to find her so quickly, but he thanked the one God that he did.
Only Marcus could keep this baby safe, but he hadn't the time to explain that to her.
The woman struggled like a bear. He held her tightly against him, careful not to crush the infant. He felt Annia's warmth through his thin leather chest-plate. The baby nestled beneath Annia's protective arm, her other arm pinned safely beneath his.
She kicked his shins, her legs surprisingly strong, though her moccasins were too soft to cause any real damage. She tried to bite through his leather breastplate.
She was nearly successful.
"Give me the baby," he said to her. "I won't hurt her." He tried to keep his voice level and calm, but he found himself jumping with each vicious little kick.
"You won't hurt her?" she said, jeering. "No, you probably won't. She wouldn't be worth much on the slave market if you damaged her."
This was not going as he intended.
He had managed to successfully separate himself from the eight new recruits, but at any moment one could appear. They were young and stupid. None had seen battle. Each thought soldiering glamorous.
Young fools. He hoped they would never see the horrors he had seen in Britain against Caratacus and his guerrilla warriors.
Could she understand if he tried to explain that he had a safe place for her baby? The fury in her voice and the steely anger in her eyes told him what he needed to know.
Perhaps he could take her with him. No, that would be too dangerous. She was beautiful.
And that very beauty would be noticed. Someone would see him accompanied by such a lovely slave carrying a baby.
No, he had to take the baby and leave her here. He would come back for her later.
It should have been easy. He thought back over his plan. It usually worked. It had worked many times before. He went into the house in the dark of night. He took the baby. He sent his young recruits to rest at the local eating place under the auspices of needing to be alone while he exposed the baby at the vegetable market.
But what really happened, that is, what really happened on every night except for tonight, was that instead of taking the baby to the vegetable market to be picked up by slave traders, he took the baby to his mother.
His mother took the teachings of the Master very seriously when He said to care for widows and orphans. She left the widows up to someone else, but she set it as her life's mission to care for orphans, specifically the babies that would most certainly become slaves or die if left on the rubbish pile.
And her strong, handsome son, home from the war and conveniently placed as the commander in charge of the Vigiles, was the perfect accomplice.
But Annia was different. He had never come in contact with a mother who fought so immediately for her baby. Usually, the husband ordered the wife drugged with poppy juice so that she was unaware of exactly what was taking place.
Of course, this was the first baby he had taken from a divorced woman. It was also the first he had taken so long after birth. Usually, the marriage was intact, and the husband simply did not want to divide his wealth with another child. The child was taken at birth, and the wife complied because she feared losing her marriage.