Legend says two brothers raised by wolves founded Rome shortly before the solar eclipse of 245 ab urbe condita. Almost four hundred years ago. Astronomers foretell of another solar eclipse occurring today, shortly after the sixth hour. And in that hour, we will escape to found our own Rome.
Last night, winter rain poured from the sky like upturned buckets. Thick mud and horseshit covers the practice yard. My feet slip and squelch in equal measure. In the hem of my tunic I’ve sown four denarii. They clink together, announcing their illegal presence on my person. I should have sown one into each of our tunics, but Philo complained there were five of us and only four coins. He’d rather I carried them all than — Zeus forbid — he ended up without. Sextus would gladly have offered to let Philo carry his. Sextus shivers, the northern wind could knock him facedown into the muck. My champions of Rome.
As soon as we’re far enough away from the stables, we’ll have to strip our blue tunics and steal clothes more suitable for freeborn boys. The tattoos on our wrists that mark us as gladiator fodder will have to be burned off. Or worse … put to the knife. Before I obsess about it and freak myself out, the small sliver of the moon clouds across the sun in a faint, hazy way.
Cornelius whickers from across the yard, as if I wasn’t already aware of how many people were staring up or the way my fingers have begun to tremble — from the wet air or fear, I don’t know.
“Boy!” Laelius shouts at me in his gruff voice. “Stop playing in the mud and feed the fucking horses.”
I wrap both my hands around my thigh and yank. My foot tears from the mud with sharp sucking sound. I grab an empty oat bucket and let it swing in an arc at my side. Our plan is going better than expected. Someone needs to be near the stables to cut Laelius’s throat when the outtermost rim of the sun appears to be burning a perfect ring in the sky. Only, it’s not supposed to be me.
Philo sneaks along the wall, slipping the crude knife undernearth the ragged cuff of my tunic. His look is at once apologetic. He shrugs as I glare at him. He pulled the short straw. He was supposed to kill the guard while I readied a horse. The blade is cold and finite against my goose flesh. Damn him to Tartarus and the open maw of the hydra! I stalk off to the stable, bucket banging against my thigh. During my first day here, a now long-dead gladiator told me to channel my anger into my fists. I was always bone-thin, and my anger never made it down that far. It was too busy keeping my core warm.
Underneath the thatched roof of the stable, Titus grooms the big Andalusian stallion. I fill the bucket with rolled oats and whicker at him. He nods his head once without acknowledging me. Passing several stalls, I settle on a chesnut mare. Her name is Flavia. Her eyes are soft and trusting, unlike the stallion’s. She accepts the bucket’s rope handle being put over her head and ears. She feeds noisily, as first I lay a blanket across her back and then the thick leather saddle. Her munching is replaced by the flow of blood past my ears. The straps slip several times from my sweaty hands. I pull out the blade and feel the weight of it in my hand. It’s dusky light and breezy outside the stall. It will be dark soon. Dark enough for dirty deeds.
Laelius’s distinctive tread sounds on the dirt path of the stable. A thousand and one excuses flit through my head. I discard each, frantic for one close enough to the truth to stop my hand from doing this thing. Philo said he’d already killed a man. He said his crime would never wash clean, and that’s why he was glad he’d drawn the short straw. He’d acted like the hero saving us from it. I curse his name under my breath as the edge of the knife scratches against my stomach.
“Master,” Titus says, breaking the silence and letting me breathe. “He needs new hipposandals.”
I jump as the loud creak of the stallion’s gate sounds. Laelius’s shuffle moves from hard packed earth to the soft sussurrus of straw. The murmur of conversation covers my footfalls as I leave the mare’s gate. I loosen my fists, walk to the pile of buckets and fill another. Across from the stallion, Laelius, and Titus, I put another bucket of feed over another horse, staying in direct sight of Laelius.
Titus pops his head up, stares at me and nods. Laelius is crouched down beside the stallion, his hands inspecting the horse’s enormous hoof. The stallion huffs a deep breath, pricks his ears this way and that, and kicks away from Laelius. The broad-shouldered guard stands and soothes the stallion. He’s kinder to the horse than he’s ever been to any of us.
Titus’s eyes find mine and scream, “Now! Now! Now!”
I reach beneath my tunic and grip the poorly-made knife handle. Muscles and sinews pull and strain. I’m over the stallion’s gate and onto Laelius’s back. The knife slides against the thick hairs at his throat before sinking deep. Warm liquid gushes over my hand, down my arm. Laelius never utters a sound, and the knife bites deep into his neck.
Titus pulls me off Laelius’s back. The guard falls bonelessly against the hay-covered earth. The stallion screams and screams, kicking his back legs against the wooden walls of his stall. In the blink of an eye, Philo and Sextus are at my elbows, hauling me out of harm’s way. They throw buckets of icy water over my arms, sticky and coated in blood. I scrub at my arms with an abandoned horse blanket. The dark stains almost disappear into the cloth.
Cornelius leads Flavia out of her stall and into the darkness of the eclipse. Not more than five minutes have passed since I jumped Laelius. How could such a brutal act take so little time? The others are laden with stolen packs of food and extra shoes.
I’ve forgotten the plan. I find myself staring at the huge Andalusian. His large intelligent eyes are wide with fear. The heavy smell of blood and death at his hooves. My hands move before my brain agrees, and I saddle the stallion, running a soothing hand along his neck.
“Felix!” shouts Philo. “We must go now! Leave the damn horse. He’ll bring attention to us on the road.”
But I can’t. I hop onto the stallion’s back and kick my heels hard into his sides. He moves under me like wind. Like lightning. And Freedom spreads her arms open before us as the stars wheel above.
Stay tuned for Rebecca’s answer to this prompt next Monday. Follow us on Twitter to get updates and news.