Octavian winced as he felt the heat of the rocks burning through his thin sandals. Though Rome claimed to have finally brought civilization to Greece, he could see little sign of it in the hill villages. Away from the coast, the people were either suspicious of strangers or openly hostile. Even a simple request to use a well was met with frowns and doors shut in their faces. All the while, the sun beat down, reddening their necks. Octavian remembered how he had smiled when the local praetor said there were places in Greece where a young Roman had about as much chance of survival as a tax-gatherer. It had been an exaggeration, but not by much.
He stopped to wipe sweat from his face. The land itself was wild, with canyons that seemed to drop forever. Octavian took a deep breath, suddenly certain he’d be walking out. Nothing would give the local boys more pleasure than seeing three footsore Romans searching for stolen mounts.
Octavian stayed alert as he climbed, looking for some sign of the group of ragged men they followed. The trail had been easy at first, until it split and split again. Octavian didn’t know if the bandits knew they would be pursued or had just taken different routes home, vanishing into the cauldron of mountains as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. He felt an itch and craned his neck to see as far as he could. It was too easy to imagine a bowman leaning over the lip of some crag and attacking before they even knew he was there.
“Call out if you see anything,” he said.
Maecenas snorted, waving a hand at bare rocks. “I’m not a tracker,” he replied. “For all I know, they could have passed through here with a herd of goats just an hour ago. Why don’t we go back to the main group and take up the search from there? This is not how I expected to spend my leave. I imagined more wine and less . . . climbing.” He grunted as they reached a great step in the rocks.
There was no sign of a path and each man heaved himself up, their sandals skidding and scrambling as they went. The sun was fierce above and the sky was an aching blue. All three were sweating heavily and the single flask of water was already empty.
“At least the men from the town know these hills,” Maecenas went on. “They know where to search.”
Octavian didn’t have the breath to respond. The slope grew steeper and steeper until he had to use his hands to steady each step, then really climb. He was panting lightly as he reached the top of a crag and stared, judging the best route down the other side. The maze of gray rocks stretched into the distance, empty of life beyond the lizards that skittered away with every step.
“You’d have me stand by and watch, doing nothing to help them?” Octavian said suddenly. “A rape and a murder, Maecenas. You saw her body. What honor would there be in letting a few farmers chase them down while we stand and watch, confirming everything they say about idle Romans? Come on.”
He jerked his head at a route that would take them to the floor of the canyon and began climbing down. At least the shadowed clefts were cooler, until they climbed back into the burning sun once more.
“Why should I care what Greek peasants say?” Maecenas muttered, though he pitched his voice too low to be heard. Maecenas was of such ancient lineage that he refused to claim descent from the twins who suckled at a she-wolf and went on to found Rome. His people, he said, had owned the wolf. When they’d first met, he’d assumed Octavian had known Caesar, so a mere Roman noble could not impress him. Over time, he’d realized Octavian took Maecenas at the value he set for himself. It was slightly galling to have to live up to his own sense of superiority. Maecenas felt that Octavian had rather missed the point of noble families. It wasn’t who you were—it was who your ancestors had been that mattered. Yet somehow that simple faith was something he could not shatter in his friend. Octavian had known poverty, with his father dying early. If he thought a true Roman noble would be brave and honorable, Maecenas didn’t want to disappoint him.
Maecenas sighed at the thought. They wore simple tunics and darker leggings. Any clothing was too hot for climbing in the noon sun, but the leggings were terrible, already dark with perspiration. He was convinced he’d rubbed himself raw under them. He could smell his own sweat as he climbed and skidded down, wrinkling his nose in distaste. The scabbard of his sword caught in a crevice and Maecenas swore as he freed it. His expression darkened as he heard Agrippa laugh behind him.
“I am glad to provide some amusement for you, Agrippa,” he snapped. “The pleasures of this day are now complete.”
Agrippa gave a tight smile without replying as he came level and then went past, using his great strength and size to take enormous steps down the crag. The fleet centurion was a head taller than his companions and the constant labor on board Roman galleys had only increased the power in his arms and legs. He made the climb look easy and was still breathing lightly by the time he reached the bottom. Octavian was a few steps behind and the pair waited for Maecenas as he clambered down after them.
“You realize we’ll have to go back up that hill again when we turn around?” Maecenas said as he jumped the last few feet.
Octavian groaned. “I don’t want to argue with you, Maecenas. It would be easier if you just accepted we are doing this.”
“Without complaining,” Agrippa added. His deep voice echoed back from the stone all around them and Maecenas looked sourly at them both.
“There are a thousand different paths through these cursed rocks,” Maecenas said. “I should think the bandits are far away from here by now, sipping cool drinks while we die of thirst.”
Gleefully, Agrippa pointed at the dusty ground and Maecenas looked down, seeing the footprints of many men.
“Oh,” he said. He drew his sword in a smooth motion, as if he expected an immediate attack. “Probably local herders, though.”
“Perhaps,” Octavian replied, “but we’re the only ones following this path, so I would like to be sure.” He too drew his gladius, shorter than Maecenas’s duelist’s blade by a hand’s breadth, but well oiled, so that it slid free with barely a whisper. He could feel the heat of the blade.
Agrippa freed his own sword and together the three men walked silently into the canyon ahead, placing their steps with caution. Without planning it, Octavian took the lead, with Agrippa’s bulk on his right shoulder and Maecenas on his left. Ever since they had become friends, Octavian had led the group as if there were no alternative. It was the kind of natural confidence Maecenas appreciated and recognized. Old families had to start somewhere, even when they began with a Caesar. He smiled at the thought, though the expression froze as they came around a spire of rock and saw men waiting for them in the shadows. Octavian walked on without a jerk, keeping his sword lowered. Three more steps brought him into the gloom of the chasm, with rock walls stretching up above their heads. He came to a halt, looking coldly at the men in his way.
There was another path out on the other side and Maecenas noticed laden mules waiting patiently. The men they faced did not seem surprised or afraid, perhaps because there were eight of them, staring with bright-eyed interest at the three young Romans. The biggest of the men raised a sword from another age, a great length of iron that was more like a cleaver than anything else. He sported a black beard that reached right down to his chest and Maecenas could see the bulge of heavy muscles under a ragged jerkin as he moved. The man grinned at them, revealing missing teeth.
“You are a very long way from your friends,” the man said in Greek.
Maecenas knew the language, though Octavian and Agrippa spoke not a word. Neither of them looked around with so many blades being pointed in their direction, but Maecenas could feel their expectation.
“Must I translate?” he said, dredging up the words from his memory. “I know the high speech, but your peasant accent is so thick, I can hardly understand you. It is like the grunting of a dying mule. Speak slowly and clearly, as if you were apologizing to your master.”
The man looked at him in surprise, anger darkening his face. He was aware that the death of Romans would make him a wanted man, but the mountains had hidden bodies before and would again. He tilted his head slightly, weighing his choices.
“We want the one who raped and strangled the woman,” Maecenas said. “Hand him over to us and go back to your short and pointless lives.”
The leader of the bandits growled deep in his throat and took a step forward.
“What are you saying to him?” Octavian asked without taking his eyes off the man.
“I am praising his fine beard,” Maecenas replied. “I have never seen one like it.”
“Maecenas!” Octavian snapped. “It has to be them. Just find out if he knows the one we came to find.”
“Well, beard? Do you know the one we want?” Maecenas went on, switching languages.
“I am the one you want, Roman,” he replied. “But if you have come here alone, you have made a mistake.”
The bandit looked up the rocks to the blue sky, searching for any hint of a moving shadow that would reveal an ambush or a trap. He grunted, satisfied, then glanced at his sharp-eyed companions. One of them was dark and thin, his face dominated by a great blade of a nose. In response, the man shrugged, raising a dagger with unmistakable intent.
Octavian stepped forward without warning of any kind. With a vicious flick, he brought his sword across so that it cut the throat of the closest man to him. The man dropped his dagger to hold his neck with both hands, suddenly choking as he fell to his knees.
The leader of the bandits froze, then gave a great bellow of rage with the rest of his men. He raised his sword for a crushing blow, but Agrippa jumped in, gripping the sword arm with his left hand and stabbing his short blade up between the man’s ribs. The leader collapsed like a punctured wineskin, falling onto his back with an echoing crash.
For a heartbeat, the bandits hesitated, shocked by the explosion of violence and death. Octavian had not stopped moving. He killed another gaping bandit with a backhand stroke against his throat, chopping into flesh. He’d set his feet well and brought the whole of his strength into the blow, so that it almost decapitated the man. The gladius was made for such work and the weight felt good in his hand.
The rest might have run then, if their way hadn’t been blocked by their own mules. Forced to stand, they fought with vicious intensity for desperate moments as the three Romans lunged and darted among them. All three had been trained from a young age. They were professional soldiers and the bandits were more used to frightening villagers who would not dare to raise a blade against them. They fought hard but uselessly, seeing their blades knocked away and then unable to stop the return blows cutting them. The small canyon was filled with grunting and gasping as the bandits were cut down in short, chopping blows. None of the Romans was armored, but they stood close to one another, protecting their left sides as the swords rose and fell, with warm blood slipping off the warmer steel.
It was over in a dozen heartbeats and Octavian, Agrippa, and Maecenas were alone and panting. Octavian and Agrippa were both bleeding from gashes on their arms, but they were unaware of the wounds, still grim-eyed with the violence.
“We’ll take the heads back,” Octavian said. “The woman’s husband will want to see them.”
“All of them?” Maecenas said. “One is enough, surely?”
Octavian looked at his friend, then reached out and gripped his shoulder.
“You’ve done well,” he said. “Thank you. But we can make a sack from their clothing. I want that village to know that Romans killed these men. They will remember—and I suspect they will break out the casks of their best wine and slaughter a couple of goats or pigs as well. You might even find a willing girl. Just take the heads.”
Maecenas grimaced. He’d spent his childhood with servants to attend to every whim, yet somehow Octavian had him working and sweating like a house slave. If his old tutors could see him, they would be standing in slack-jawed amazement.
“The daughters have mustaches as thick as their fathers’,” he replied. “Perhaps when it’s fully dark, but not before.”
With a scowl, he began the grisly work of cutting heads. Agrippa joined him, bringing his sword down in great hacking blows to break through bone.
Octavian knelt next to the body of the bandit leader, looking down into the glazed eyes for a moment. He nodded to himself, playing over the movements of the fight in his head and only then noticing the gash on his arm that was still bleeding heavily. At twenty years old, it was not the first time he’d been cut. It was just one more scar to add to the rest. He began to chop the head free, using the oily beard to hold it steady.
The horses were still there when they came back, parched and staggering, with their tongues swelling in their mouths. It was sunset by the time the three Romans reached the village, with two sopping red sacks that dribbled their contents with every step. The local men had returned angry and empty-handed, but the mood changed when Octavian opened the sacks onto the road, sending heads tumbling into the dust. The woman’s husband embraced and kissed him with tears in his eyes, breaking off only to dash the heads against the wall of his house, then crushing Octavian to him once more. There was no need to translate as they left the man and his children to their mourning.
The other villagers brought food and drinks from cool cellars, setting up rough tables in the evening air so that they could feast the young men. As Octavian had imagined, he and his friends could hardly move for good meat and a clear drink that tasted of aniseed. They drank with no thought for the morning, matching the local men cup for cup until the village swam and blurred before their eyes. Very few of the villagers could speak Roman, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Through a drunken haze, Octavian became aware that Maecenas was repeating a question to him. He listened blearily, then gave a laugh, which turned into a curse at his own clumsiness as he spilled his cup.
“You don’t believe that,” he told Maecenas. “They call it the eternal city for a reason. There will be Romans here for a thousand years, longer. Or do you think some other nation will rise up and be our masters?” He watched his cup being refilled with beady concentration.
“Athens, Sparta, Thebes . . .” Maecenas replied, counting on his fingers. “Names of gold, Octavian. No doubt the men of those cities thought the same. When Alexander was wasting his life in battles abroad, do you think he would have believed Romans would one day rule their lands from coast to coast? He would have laughed like a donkey, much as you are doing.” Maecenas smiled as he spoke, enjoying making his friend splutter into his cup with each outrageous comment.
“Wasting his life?” Octavian said when he had recovered from coughing. “You are seriously suggesting Alexander the Great could have spent his years more fruitfully? I will not rise to it. I will be a stern and noble Roman, too . . .” He paused. The drink had muddled his thoughts. “Too stern and noble to listen to you.”
“Alexander had the greedy fingers of a merchant,” Maecenas said. “Always busy, busy, and what did it get him? All those years of fighting, but if he had known he would die young in a foreign land, don’t you think he would rather have spent it in the sun? If he were here, you could ask him. I think he would choose fine wine and beautiful women over his endless battles. But you have not answered my question, Octavian. Greece ruled the world, so why should Rome be any different? In a thousand years, some other nation will rule, after us.” He paused to wave away a plate of sliced meat and smile at two old ladies, knowing they could not understand what he was saying.
Octavian shook his head. With exaggerated care, he put his cup down and counted on his fingers as Maecenas had done.
“One, because we cannot be beaten in war. Two . . . because we are the envy of every people ruled by petty kings. They want to become us, not overthrow those they envy. Three . . . I cannot think of three. My argument rests on two.”
“Two is not enough!” Maecenas replied. “I might have been confounded with three, but two! The Greeks were the greatest fighting men in the world once.” He gestured as if throwing a pinch of dust into the air. “That for their greatness, all gone. That for the Spartans, who terrified an army of Persians with just a few hundred. The other nations will learn from us, copy our methods and tactics. I admit I cannot imagine our soldiers losing to filthy tribes, no matter what tricks they steal, but it could happen. The other point, though—they want what we have? Yes, and we wanted the culture of the Greeks. But we did not come quietly like gentlemen and ask for it. No, Octavian! We took it and then we copied their gods and built our temples and pretended it was all our own idea. One day, someone will do the same to us and we will not know how it happened. There are your two points, in ashes under my sandals.” He raised a foot and pointed to the ground. “Can you see them? Can you see your arguments?”
There was a grunt from another bench, where Agrippa was lying stretched out.
“The ape awakes!” Maecenas said cheerfully. “Has our salty friend something to add? What news from the fleet?”
Agrippa was built on a different scale from the villagers, making the bench groan and flex under his bulk. As he shifted, he overbalanced and caught himself with a muscular arm pressed against the ground. With a sigh, he sat up and glared at Maecenas, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his bare knees.
“I could not sleep with you two clucking.”
“Your snoring calls you a liar, though I would not,” Maecenas replied, accepting another full cup.
Agrippa rubbed his face with his hands, scratching the curls of black beard he had grown over the previous weeks.
“So I will say only this,” Agrippa went on, stifling a yawn, “before I find a better and a quieter place to sleep. There will be no empire to follow us because we have wealth enough to withstand any new tribe or nation. We pay for men by the hundred thousand, swords and spears by the million across all our lands. Who could stand against us without the full might of Caesar falling on his neck?”
“It is always about money with you, isn’t it, Agrippa?” Maecenas replied, his eyes bright with amusement. He enjoyed needling the bigger man and they both knew it. “You still think like a merchant’s son. I am not surprised, of course. It is in your blood and you cannot help it, but while Rome is full of merchants, it is the noble classes who will decide her future, her destiny.”
Agrippa snorted. The evening had grown cold and he rubbed his bare arms.
“According to you, a nobleman would spend his day in the sun, with wine and beautiful women,” Agrippa said.
“You were listening! I don’t know how you do it, snoring all the while. It is a rare talent.”
Agrippa smiled, showing very white teeth against his black beard.
“Be thankful for my blood, Maecenas. Men like my father built Rome and made her strong. Men like you rode pretty horses and gave impressive speeches, just as Aristotle and Socrates once held court in the agora.”
“I sometimes forget you have been educated, Agrippa. Something about you says illiterate peasant whenever I look at you.”
“And something about you says that you enjoy the company of men more than most.”
Octavian groaned at the bickering. His head was swimming and he had lost all track of time.
“Peace, you two. I think we’ve eaten and drunk an entire winter’s store for these people. Apologize and join me in another jug.”
Maecenas raised his eyebrows. “Still awake? Remember that you owe me a gold aureus if you fall asleep or vomit before me. I am feeling very fresh.”
Octavian held his gaze for a moment, waiting until Maecenas gave way with a grunt.
“Very well, Octavian. I apologize for suggesting Agrippa’s skull would find its best use as a battering ram.”
“You did not say that,” Octavian replied.
“I was thinking it,” Maecenas said.
“And you, Agrippa? Will you be as noble?”
“I struggle to reach his level, Octavian, but as you ask, I apologize for saying he would not earn as much as he thinks, renting himself out by the hour.”
Maecenas began to laugh, but then his face grew pale and he turned aside to empty his stomach. One of the old women muttered something he did not catch.
“That is an aureus you owe me,” Octavian told Maecenas with satisfaction. His friend only groaned.