Rome's Fallen Eagle(4)
Author:Robert Fabbri


    A shrill female voice cut through the clamour. ‘Just what is going on here?’

    Sabinus turned to see a tall woman with a long, horse-like face and pronounced aristocratic nose; she held a child of about two years old in her arms. The girl’s young eyes stared greedily at the blood wetting the floor.

    ‘My husband will hear of this.’

    ‘Your husband will hear nothing, Milonia Caesonia,’ Clemens informed her coldly, ‘ever again.’

    For a moment she hesitated; then she drew herself up and looked Clemens in the eyes; defiance burned in hers. ‘If you mean to kill me too then my brother will avenge me.’

    ‘No he won’t. Your half-brother, Corbulo, thinks that you’ve brought shame and dishonour to his family. If he’s sensible he’ll get his legion, the Second Augusta, to swear loyalty to the new Emperor; then, when he’s served his term as legate, he’ll come back to Rome and hope that the stain on his character that you have left will be forgotten in time.’

    Milonia Caesonia closed her eyes, as if acknowledging to herself the truth of the statement.

    Clemens walked towards her with his sword drawn.

    She held up the child. ‘Will you spare Julia Drusilla?’

    ‘No.’

    Milonia Caesonia clutched her daughter tightly to her breast.

    ‘But as a favour to you I will kill you first so you don’t see her die.’

    ‘Thank you, Clemens.’ Milonia Caesonia kissed her child on the forehead and set her down; she immediately started to wail, holding her arms up to her mother and jumping up and down to be picked up again. After a few moments of being ignored she flew at her mother in a frenzy, tearing at her stola with sharp nails and teeth.

    Milonia Caesonia looked down with tired eyes at the screaming brat at her feet. ‘Do it now, Clemens.’

    Clemens grasped her shoulder with his left hand and punched his sword up under her ribs; her eyes bulged open and she exhaled softly. The child looked at the blood seeping from the wound and, after a moment’s incomprehension, started to laugh. Clemens gave one more thrust and Milonia Caesonia’s eyes closed. He wrenched his sword out and the child’s laughter died. With a squeal of fear she turned and scampered off.

    ‘Lupus! Get that monster,’ Clemens shouted, laying Milonia Caesonia’s body down.

    The centurion sprinted after the small figure and caught her within a few paces. She lashed out with her nails, drawing blood on his arm, as he lifted her, before sinking her teeth into his wrist. With a cry of pain, Lupus grabbed her ankle and held her, struggling and screeching, dangling upside-down at arm’s length.

    ‘For the sake of the gods, finish her!’ Clemens ordered.

    A shriek curtailed by a sickening crunch made Sabinus wince.

    After a quick look at his handiwork Lupus tossed the lifeless body aside to land in a crumpled, broken heap at the base of the bloodied column.

    ‘Good,’ Clemens said, sharing the relief that everyone in the room felt at the sudden quiet. ‘Now take half of your men and search the eastern side of the palace for Claudius.’ He pointed at a Praetorian optio. ‘Gratus, you take the other half into the western side.’

    With smart salutes Lupus and Gratus led their men off.

    Clemens turned to Sabinus. ‘I’m going to find where my drooling idiot of a patron has hidden himself. You should go now, my friend, it’s done; get out of the city before this becomes public.’

    ‘I think it already has,’ Sabinus replied. The good-humoured noise that had emanated from the theatre below had now turned into uproar.

    Sabinus squeezed his brother-in-law’s shoulder, turned and ran out of the palace. Screams and panicked cries filled the air as he raced down the Palatine.

    People had started to die.





    PART I



    ROME, THE SAME DAY





    CHAPTER I


    VESPASIAN HAD ENJOYED the play despite the Emperor’s constant interruptions; The Pot of Gold was not his favourite by Plautus but the dual-meaning dialogue, misunderstandings and slapstick chases as the miserly protagonist Euclio tries to hang onto his new-found wealth always made him laugh. The problem he had with the play was that he actually rather sympathised with Euclio’s desire to part with as little money as possible.

    The troupe of young male acrobats currently leaping about the stage did not enthral Vespasian in the way they did his uncle, Gaius Vespasius Pollo, seated next to him, so, as he waited for the next comedy to commence, he closed his eyes and dozed peacefully, thinking of his young son, Titus, now just over a year old.

    Vespasian woke with a start as a harsh, throaty cry cut through the half-hearted applause for the acrobats as their act reached a tumbling finale. He scanned his eyes over the heads of the audience for the source and cause of the yelling. Twenty paces to his left, a German Imperial Bodyguard came racing out of a covered staircase; his right hand was raised and covered in blood. He sprinted, shouting unintelligibly in his native tongue, towards eight of his colleagues guarding the entrance of the imperial box, recently vacated by the Emperor. The audience close by stared at the man in alarm as he brandished his blood-soaked hand in the bearded faces of his comrades.

    Vespasian turned to his uncle, still applauding the scantily clad youths leaving the stage, and stood, tugging at the sleeve of Gaius’ tunic. ‘I’ve a feeling that something bad is about to happen. We should leave immediately.’

    ‘What, dear boy?’ Gaius asked distractedly.

    ‘We need to go; right now!’

    The urgency in his nephew’s voice made Gaius heave his corpulent body to his feet, pulling a carefully tonged curl away from his eyes and casting one last look at the disappearing acrobats.

    Vespasian glanced nervously back over his shoulder as the German Bodyguards drew their long swords simultaneously. Their combined bellows of rage silenced the crowd nearest to them; a hush spread in a wave until it encompassed the entire audience.

    The Germans held their swords aloft, their faces contorted with rage, the roar dying in their throats. For an instant the hush, deep and tense, enveloped the whole theatre; all eyes fixed questioningly onto the nine barbarians. Then a sword flashed and a head spun through the air, spiralling blood that fell in heavy drops onto the people gawping up in open-mouthed bewilderment at the macabre missile spinning over them. The body of the decapitated spectator – a senator – spewed forth gore for two or three heart-pumps, sitting upright and motionless, drenching the horrified people surrounding it. It slumped forward onto a wideeyed, uncomprehending old man – also a senator – twisting round in the seat in front; a sword slammed into his gaping mouth, the point exploding through the back of his skull without his eyes changing expression.

    For another half-heartbeat there was complete stillness; then a single scream of a woman, as the head landed in her lap, shattered the moment and unleashed a cacophony of terror. The Germans swept forward in a blur of flickering iron, carving their way indiscriminately through the crowd, leaving in their wake the limbs and corpses of anyone too slow to join the immediate stampede away from them. In the imperial box the Senior Consul gazed stupefied at a snarling barbarian bearing down on him before leaping over the balustrade at the front and falling, arms and legs flailing, onto the backs of the panicking mob below.

    Vespasian thrust his uncle forward, pushing aside a screeching matron, and headed for the nearest gangway leading down between the aisles of seating, towards the stage. ‘Now’s not the time for good manners, Uncle.’ As he shoved his way down through the crush, using his uncle’s bulk as a battering ram, he caught glimpses of the mayhem all around. To his left, two senators went down under a hail of slashes. Behind him, three maddened Germans hacked their way through the surging mass, in a welter of blood, closing in on them. Vespasian caught the eye of the leading swordsman and felt his concentration fixed upon him. ‘Senators seem to be their main target, Uncle,’ he yelled pulling his toga from his right shoulder so that the broad, purple senatorial stripe would be less visible.

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