AU - LB Rome
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: This story is a direct sequel to A Midnight Clear by Nancy W. If you have not read it, then grab a box of Kleenex and do so right now – you won’t regret it
After that strange but somehow marvellous night in the City of David, their trip seemed to be charmed. Ezra had engaged Buck and Chris to travel to Judea to collect 400 fine horses and bring them back to Rome. As well as Ezra’s own retinue and the men hired to drive and care for the horses, Chris and Buck’s adopted sons had joined them, along with their two slaves, Nathan, Chris’ healer, and Josiah, the boys’ tutor. Until that night, when the boys had left the inn they were staying in and found a new born child and his parents in a stable, Vin had been crippled by an old back injury and JD had been so sickly he was unlikely to reach his next birthday and might not even make it back to Rome. That was before, now, while his spine was still slightly curved and scarred, Vin was lithe and fit, untroubled by pain or weakness in his limbs. JD was a picture of health, his cheeks glowed, he never coughed and, until he crashed out at the end of the day, he had boundless energy.
After Ezra had completed the tedious process of being counted in the census in the town of his birth, he left them and with his servants and two men for protection, rode on to Antioch , where the horses would be loaded on ships for Rome. By the time the horses arrived, corrals, feed and ships would be waiting. Ezra’s initial enquiries had suggested that the most ships he could engage at one time would be five, and since each ship could only hold 20 - 24 horse along with men to care for them, feed and crew, they were looking at a long wait in port with a two to three week turn around for each trip. Yet when he arrived there were ten ships and crews just there, in port, looking for work.
Once again Ezra travelled ahead in a faster ship with some of the men to make preparations for their arrival at Ostia. While they waited in Antioch for the ships to come back, Buck and Chris made sure both boys got to see and learn as much as possible, as task Josiah embraced with a worrying enthusiasm.
As part of their payment for the trip, Chris and Buck were to each pick out five horses from the herd. They had agreed to choose three stallions and seven mares. With these they could start their own horse breeding business and earn money immediately from stud fees. Both men, now with a new perspective on parenting and the needs of fit, healthy, energetic boys, had concluded that the city was no place to raise children. Boys needed fresh air, space and an absence of the low level, mostly but not always, petty crime that was a constant presence in the areas of the city they could afford to live in. Nathan insisted the boys also needed less filth in the streets, but Buck wasn’t so sure. He’d grown up in Pompeii and not the fancy party of town either. Dirty streets had never done him any harm. All this had led to the acquisition of another horse. After much pleading, Chris and Buck had spent a long day with the city’s horse dealers looking for a small, well trained, fit horse for Vin. At the end of the day they had returned with Pyr, who despite her name, was a mostly placid black, with a white blaze, standing just over 14 hands. Vin loved his horse but was not keen on the name.
“Well, don’t change it much. She’s used to that name,” Chris had warned.
Pyr became Pyro and seemed to be happy with that. Any time Chris, Buck or one of the men was free, Vin was asking for a riding lesson and JD was not happy about that.
“I wanna horse too,” he pleaded.
Buck was still getting used to the idea that his precious son wasn’t going to die. He was only five and small for his age, and Pyro as the smallest horse they had seen which had been even remotely suitable for a boy. There was no way he was going to let JD ride a hose that big. He placated JD by taking him for rides on his own horse, a big grey called Grace and promising to look for a ‘really small’ horse when they got back.
Pyro was sold to them as the horse the dealer’s own son had outgrown. To prove she was a safe horse for a novice rider, he had his youngest boy, not much older than JD, ride the horse around the corral bareback with just a rope halter; she was as good as gold. Chris then rode the horse as well. She did seem perfect.
“If she’s so good, how come you don’t keep her for your other son?” Buck asked, gesturing to the small boy who was back sitting on the horse.
The dealer, a barrel chested man with a big smile, big hands and stubble looked at them as if they were simple.
“He has his own horse,” he explained. “By the time he’s finished with her, Pyr here will be too old.” He shrugged. “She’s a good horse, it’s best another boy can use her.”
What they had not seen or been told was that Pyr, now Pyro had some quirks. When being groomed she tried to nibble and nip the person grooming her. She would try to snatch any food that came even vaguely close to her. She also tried to bite any equine rump she could reach. Vin had fallen in love and forgave every transgression.
They travelled home on the last ship to leave. Aboard their ship were twenty pens measuring about ten foot by eight set up on deck in a block, two pens wide, ten long, each with plenty of straw. They had to build an extra pen to hold Pyro, making sure it was far enough away to prevent her tormenting any other horse. She was never lonely. Vin spent all his time with her, sitting astride his mount when Chris deemed the sea calm enough. Buck let JD sit on Grace, though he stood beside him and kept hold of his ankle. Chris and Buck’s riding horses had been purchased in Alexandria when they arrived and over the course of the trip the men had bonded with their mounts. Buck had chosen the big grey on conformation and looks, but she proved to be exceptionally even tempered, so much so that she tended to fall asleep if left alone with nothing to do or eat, even when being groomed, or with a small boy in her back. When called upon however, she was wickedly fast. She had been given the name Graceful by a previous owner, but Buck just called her Grace, stating that no horse needed more than one syllable in its name. Chris had picked a nimble black, who was barley broken and needed a firm hand. He had no name; the dealer just called him Ibr, which apparently meant ‘horse’ or possibly ‘stallion.’ Josiah had to admit his Egyptian didn’t run to equine terms. Chris said he’d think of name for him, but to date he hadn’t, so the horse was now called Iber, because JD couldn’t pronounce Ibr.
Like their trip from Bethlehem to Antioch, the sea crossing went without a hitch; a steady north westerly blew them on to Rome in just nine days. No one, human or equine was sea sick, not even their faithful milk goat Julia. No one got hurt, nothing was lost overboard, and the sun shone every day. As they disembarked, with JD leading Julia, Ezra was there to meet them.
“Wonderful news, gentlemen,” he announced with a beam.
“Which is?” Chris asked.
“The horses are all sold, even the ones you have with you.”
Ezra explained that the Emperor’s horse buyer was very impressed; he had shown a selection of horses to the Emperor who instructed him to buy the best 50 for the Imperial stables and 200 for the cavalry. On the back of this, prominent citizens had snapped up the others.
“In truth I could have sold them three times over,” Ezra told them with evident glee as they watched the horses being unloaded.
“Which means you charged them well over the odds and made them all pay in cash?” Chris postulated, knowing the answer.
Ezra feigned indignation. “What else could I do?”
The last off were their own horses, identified by strips of red cloth tied to their rope halters. Ezra scrutinised them.
“Don’t let the Emperor see those; he thinks he got the best.”
Buck grinned. “What did you expect?”
Ezra clapped him on the back. “No less my friend, no less. Hello, who is this?”
Vin was now leading Pyro off the ship, the very last horse to disembark.
Vin grinned. “She’s my horse, isn’t she beautiful?”
JD arrived, having found a small patch of rough grass just behind them were he had let Julia graze contentedly for a few minutes. Ezra agreed that Pyro was very fine. He promised his young friends that when they reached the city, he would show them the horse he has chosen for himself.
“He still lacks a name; perhaps you two young men could assist me to find one?”
It took a few days for all the horses to be collected by their new owners. Their own horses were stabled at the livery where Chris and Buck had been working before the trip. It was owned and operated by a former Cavalry centurion from Gaul. He was a large man, and Buck had often wondered how a horse managed to carry him into battle. One day, the worse for wine, he had even asked him.
“I was a lot thinner back then,” came the reply.
As is common in every the army, he was given an ironic nickname – Tiny. So well had this name stuck it was the only name he now answered to, and admitted he had to stop and think to remember his given name. The boys loved to go to the stables. Tiny and Vin, who was also a Gaul, at least on his father’s side, often had conspiratorial conversations in their native tongue. JD was also picking up the language. Given how little he was exposed to it at the stables, Josiah suspected Vin was teaching him.
Much thought went into finding a name for Ezra’s new horse, a fine chestnut. In the end Ezra, liked the sound of the Gaul word for horse, c’hezeg, but ended up shortening it to Chez.
Chris and Buck’s plan was a good one, but for one, teeny, tiny problem. They had no money, or rather, they had nowhere near enough money to buy the land their plan needed. They were both ex-soldiers, but unusually, neither had served out their mandatory 20 years’ service. They had met in Germania, serving under Drusus, a gifted general and the stepson of the emperor. Chris, from a prominent Roman family, had been appointed an optio immediately after completing his basic training, rising quickly – due to the deaths in rapid succession of no less than six predecessors – to the rank of Centurion. He had then appointed Buck to be his optio. Buck’s service, however, had been very short. When the Chatti attacked their camp, he was seriously wounded saving the life of a young tribune. A Germanic battle axe had sliced across his chest. For most, it would have been a mortal blow, but Buck survived. Unfortunately the huge scar he was left with healed so tight, it restricted his movement, and even, on occasion, his breathing. He was discharged from the army as unfit to serve. Buck, however, had no intention of living his life as an invalid and, using the reward money the tribune’s rich father had given him to support himself, he worked tirelessly for two years to regain the movement he had lost. These days, no one would ever know that he had once been a stiff, wheezing, cripple, and the scar had faded to a pale line that only hinted at the life changing nature of his injury.
Chris continued to serve, but when Drusus was tragically killed in a riding accident, he returned to Rome with his body and Drusus’ older brother Tiberius. Both men walked the whole way. It was Chris who had reached Drusus first after the fall, and it was he who had stayed with his general, only a year older than he was. He held him and comforted him as he died, drowning in his own blood from a punctured lung.
Tiberius was forever grateful to Chris for being with his much loved younger brother that terrible day. Against Chris’s wishes (though he never said anything), he had Chris transferred to the Pretorian guard. As a Pretorian, Chris only had to serve 16 years, but he left the army after only 3 more years. He was given the very rare honour of a ‘honesta mission’ - an honorary discharge granted as a gift of the emperor, even though it was Tiberius who had arranged it. Why he was accorded this honour was never explained, although it coincided with Tiberius self-imposed exile on Rhodes. Buck had his own theory but he knew better than to speculate out loud.
“Would your father give you the money?” Buck had asked, though he knew the answer.
“Unlikely, and I have no intention of asking him,” Chris had growled one night as they sat in his house, the boys sleeping in the next room.
Chris poured himself some more wine and said no more on the subject. His father had all but disowned his only son for marrying a Hebrew woman; her father had done the same. When Chris had been unfairly stripped of his money and land following the death or Sarah and their son Adam, his father had not even attended their funeral, let alone helped his son.
Finally Buck said. “Guess we’ll have to borrow it from Ezra.”
Chris had not responded; there was no other option and Ezra now had money to spare and could be persuaded to loan to them at a favourable rate, but Chris hated to be in debt to anyone. Besides, they hadn’t even found the land yet, so they had no idea how much they needed.
Seeking out property to purchase was not an unpleasant task. They set themselves a limit of no more than one day’s easy ride from the city. Every Nefasti day and any other day they could take off from training Tiny’s horses and their own, they set out to look for property. The boys loved these days out. They packed food into their saddle bags and with JD sitting in front of Buck they set out. Sometimes they got distracted, like the day near Fregenae, where they galloped on the beach and swam in the sea. They enjoyed that day so much that they began to concentrate on the area around Alsium, since property near Fregenae was too expensive. They had manage to organise a day off either side of a Nefasti, giving them three days to explore a promising area at the base of the mountains north of Alsium. At the end of the second day, with thunder storms threatening, they headed toward Caere to find lodgings and stables for the horses.
They had just finished a fine meal of chicken with chickpeas, squash, carrots in a fine wine and chestnut sauce. Chris and Buck were enjoying some bread with a sweet olive oil dip while the boys ate pear and honey cakes, when a man came over and joined them.
“Centurion Cresencius?” he began, addressing Chris.
Chris looked up, studying the man’s weathered face.
“Aquilius?” he asked, not sure he had it right.
“The very same! Good to see you again, Chris!” The man beamed at him.
Recovering from his surprise, Chris greeted the older man and made the introductions.
“Buck, boys, this is Tribune Varius Aquilius.” He looked over at Buck. “He joined us just after you . . . after you left. Actually didn’t you make legit?” he asked turning back to Aquilius.
“I did, and eventually general.”
Aquilius was a stocky man, with salt and pepper hair, a deeply lined face, narrow nose and chin and soft brown eyes all but lost under huge bushy eyebrows that almost met in the middle.
“Wow,” JD gasped. “Are you a really a general?”
“Well, I was. I’ve been retired for a while now.” He turned back to look at Buck. “So you’re the famous Buccio?”
Buck was confused. “I’m famous?”
“Are you kidding? The man who survived a Germanian battle axe to…”
Buck held up one finger and gave a small nod of the head toward the boys.
“Why’s Buck famous?” JD asked wide eyed.
“Because he was a very brave solider,” Aquilius supplied hastily.
They chatted and reminisced, as much as they could with small ears listening, until Buck put the boys to bed.
With the boys gone, the talk and reminiscences became more adult.
“So why are you here now Sir?” Buck asked.
Aquilius sat back, cradling his wine goblet. “Ah, yes, well I have some land, just north of here. It’s a nice place, prefect in fact, but it’s just sitting there. I brought it when I retired. It was my wife’s dream to live on a farm.” He smiled. “Not that I was ever going to be a real farmer. I think she just wanted to have a nice villa with some pretty animals and fields of corn to look at. But then she got sick and died.”
He stopped talking and the conversation faltered.
“I’m sorry,” Buck said softly, his eyes moving to Chris briefly. “That’s tough.”
Aquilius understood. “Yes, well, it happened and I have to move on, but I have no desire to live on that land, that was her dream.” He seemed to brighten. “Besides, my youngest daughter – we had three girls, no boys,” he added to explain why he didn’t just pass the land on to his son. “The middle one died when she as very young, but the other two are all grown up and married now. Livia, she married the son of an olive grower from the north; well I say olive grower - he has dozens of farms, vineyards too, doing very well. Anyway, the father died, poor Ennius is the only son and, well, between you and me, I think he needs some help. He’s only 22, poor boy. “
Buck and Chris looked at each other and then at the retired general.
“What?” Aquilius asked.
“Well,” Chris began. “We are looking for some land.”
“To breed horses,” Buck added.
The land was perfect, about as perfect a parcel of land to breed horses as they could have dreamed of. It backed onto the mountains, and a bright, clear spring-fed stream emerged from the base of the mountain to meander across the mostly flat land. The pasture was not the end of the property, though. It ran up though the steep, wooded slopes of the mountain.
“I own the whole mountain,” Aquilius explained. “There is some pasture and a stream up there but I am told it dries out very fast in the summer. The last owner used that land to grow hay. Of course you’re never short of fire wood.”
The pasture had been divided into fields with dry stones walls. They needed repairs, but all the hard work had been done. There was a barn, in good repair, another building that seemed semi derelict, and a half-built villa.
“This was to be our place,” Aquilius explained. “Never did get to put a roof on it.”
It might not have had a roof but the walls and foundations looked sound.
The boys had discovered that just below the villa, a long looping meander of the stream had created a river beach of sand and fine gravel, where small boys could paddle and play. As the sun reached its zenith, they called the boys and retreated to the back of the half-built villa, where the archway into the kitchen courtyard offered some shade. Their food was shared as they looked out at the small orchard behind the house and what had clearly once been an extensive kitchen garden.
“We planned to add some bee hives at the far end,” the general explained around a mouthful of bread and cheese.
Chris and Buck didn’t respond as they drank some wine and both contemplated the awful truth, that they had found the most perfect place there could be to raise boys and horses and that there was no way they could afford it. They could, of course, borrow even more money to buy it, but then they’d still be playing for it when the boys made them grandfathers .
Once the boys had wandered off to explore the orchard, Aquilus turned to them.
“Do you think this place would suit you? he asked.
Buck knew Chris would prefer he break the bad news.
“Sir,” he began, “this place would more than suit us. It’s perfect, but we could never afford it.”
The old man looked confused. “But I haven’t even told you how much I’m asking.”
“It doesn’t matter, We’ve seen places we can afford and this place is so much bigger and better,” Buck explained to him sadly.
“Try me,” he challenged.
Chris turned to give him a look that was half glare, half question.
Aquilius named his price. It was at least half what the place was probably worth and well within their self-imposed price limit.
“That’s ridiculous,” Buck told him.
“Optio Buccio, you do not tell a general he’s being ridiculous.”
“We’re retired,” Buck reminded him.
“None the less, that is the price. The thing is, like I told you, this was my wife’s place, her dream. She wanted a rural idyll, but close to Rome.” He turned his head to look at Buck. “She liked to shop.”
“Yes, never understood that,” Buck admitted but glanced at Chris, who was standing a little way off with his back to them. Sarah had also loved to shop.
“I’ve been trying to sell it for three years, and I’ve had many offers, full price, more than full price but,” he sighed, “I couldn’t let it go to just anyone. It had to go to the right person, or people. To someone who would enjoy it, who would cherish it and . . . .” He looked at the boys, now chasing each other around the trees. “. . . they had to have children. This was where our grandchildren would come and play.” He seemed to pull himself together and turned to Buck. “It’s stupid I know. I’m just a sentimental old man, but I want you two to have this place. Helena would want you two to have it, you and your boys. I could just give it to you. I don’t need the money. But I know you wouldn’t take it.” He turned to look at Chris’s back. “It’s a fair price for a small farm. Think of the rest as your gift from your old general.”
There was a long tradition of generals providing for their troops retirement, with either land in the colonies or money to the value of the land.
“If you had stayed with me, I would have settled land on you,” the general addressed Chris. “It was not my choice you were transferred to the Pretorian. I did not want to loose my best Centurion.”
Chris turned to face him. “I didn’t want to leave either.” He looked over at Buck, who nodded his approval of the offer. “Very well, we accept your offer. We don’t have the money right now. We’ll need to arrange a lone with a friend of ours in Rome.”
“Ezra will protest,” Buck added. “But he’ll come around.”
Aquilius looked from one to the other. “Ezra the horse trader, the one who brought all those fine horses in last month?”
“You mean the fine horses we brought in for him,” Buck corrected. “How else could we afford our breeding stock?”
“Well then, you must have the land. Those horses need the best pasture.”
They arranged to meet the general at a tavern well known for being friendly to old soldiers in a week’s time.
Having said goodbye to Buck and JD at Buck’s apartment, Chris and Vin headed down the street to his place. Nathan flung open the door.
“At last,” he exclaimed, “I have been waiting for you.”
“What’s wrong?” It was clear to Chris that Nathan was somewhat agitated.
“I don’t know. A lawyer came here looking for you.”
“A lawyer?” Chris was incredulous and, though he would never show it, somewhat worried.
“He told me his name was Quirinus Scribonius. He refused to tell me what it was about.”
Chris had never heard of the man. He had told Nathan that Chris should come to his place of business the next day, as soon as he could.
Vin had been trying to follow the conversation and had picked up that both men were somewhat concerned. He had been holding Chris’s hand as they walked down the street, and now his grip tightened slightly. Chris looked down.
“Nothing to worry about,” his father told him with a small smile.
The trouble was, he didn’t believe it.
Quirinus Scribonius was not what Chris had expected. He’d set out early, aiming to get to the address Nathan had been given as the day’s business began. When he dropped Vin off, Buck was alarmed by the news and offered to come with him. Chris told him the best help he could be was to keep Vin safe and occupied, since he had no idea how long he would be away.
Scribonius worked out of a room on the top floor of a four-story building with a bakery on the ground floor, the baker’s home on first floor, and a tailor on the floor below the lawyer. He was a young man, with long limbs and almost spider-like fingers. His face was angular with an intense expression, which was only slightly softened by his huge grin.
“What an honour, to have the great Cresencius here in my office,” he all but gushed. “I was a great fan of your prowess in the arena.”
“Thanks,” Chris acknowledged, giving nothing away.
“Please do have a seat.” Scribonius pointed to a well-worn chair on the far side of a desk piled high with tablets and scrolls.
He went on to explain that his father had been engaged three years before to look into the confiscation of Chris’s land and money. Everything Chris owned had been taken to pay a non-existent tax bill. In his rage and grief, Chris had assaulted a rich man whose spoiled and arrogant son had caused the death of Sarah and Adam. He had assumed the sudden tax demand was the man’s revenge.
“The law, you understand, moves very slowly,” Scribonius explained. “My father died last year and I inherited the case. Last week we had a breakthrough.”
“We?” Chris asked.
“You and me.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Chris told him plainly.
“Oh, I know. The client who engaged my father was quite clear that you were not to know who was paying us.” He grinned conspiratorially. “So I finally managed to present the evidence to the treasury and we won. Your money is to be repaid in full, plus the value of the land seized.”
Chris sat there somewhat stunned. “How much do I get?”
The lawyer showed him a wax tablet with a number on it.
“That’s a lot.”
“I am told it was good land.”
“It was. Why don’t I get it back?”
“Because it was sold, right after you left.” Scribonius leaned in. “If you ask me, revenge was not the real motive. Someone wanted that land.”
That made sense to Chris. He even wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before. His land hadn’t been huge, but it had water and it was between two large estates, both of which were perilously close to running out of water.
“So I have here your warrant,” Scribonius continued, handing over a scroll. “All you have to do is present it at the Treasury and the money is yours.”
The money was enough to buy the land without a loan from Ezra, but Buck was not happy. They had planned to borrow the money together and own the land jointly, and now it would be Chris’s land.
“It will be our land,” Chris assured him.
“I don’t need charity,” Buck growled.
“I know, and this is no more than your right. If it wasn’t for you, none of this would be happening because I’d be dead. Without you, I’d have let someone kill me in the arena or just slit my throat in that first year. If that had happened, Vin and JD would probably both be dead, too. Think about that.”
Buck looked over at him. “If you were dead, Vin’s real father would still be alive.”
“Maybe.” Vin’s birth father had been a gladiator, a gladiator Chris had killed in his last fight, something Vin was still ignorant of. “But he had no future in that life, you know that.”
Buck shrugged his acceptance of this. “JD would have been dead anyway, if it wasn’t for . . . ”
Chris gave Buck the look that said ‘stop now,’ and he did. They had an unspoken agreement not to speak of that night. That cold night in Judea, in an overcrowded inn, when they had met a new born baby and his parents, when the sky sang. The night Vin was no longer crippled by an old back injury, the night JD was no longer slowly dying before their eyes. Something had happened, was maybe still happening, something they couldn’t explain or even begin to understand, and it all had to do with that baby, in that stable.
“Aquilius wanted us to have the farm. Not me on my own – us - his old centurion and the famous Buccio.”
Buck still wasn’t buying it, so Chris changed tack. “How about this, you give me half ownership in this place? Then were even.” Unlike Chris, who only rented his apartment, Buck owned his place, a modest two story building. He and JD lived in the two bedroom ground floor apartment and Buck rented out the two smaller apartments above it, providing him with a small additional income. It wasn’t worth as much as the farm but it was still worth money. He agreed.
That left the question of who had engaged the lawyer.
“Any idea?” Buck asked.
“Well I asked, but the kid’s a good lawyer, he wasn’t giving anything away.” Buck could well imagine Chris’s version of asking, so the young lawyer really must be made of stern stuff. “But he admitted his father was engaged before I fought in the arena,” Chris continued.
“So not a fan then,” Buck finished. “Which leaves . . .”
“But he was in Rhodes by then,” Buck pointed out. “Could it be your father?”
It was an interesting possibility, but a question that was probably never going to be answered.
It took almost a month to get everything ready to make the move to their new home, which was called Four Corners. Although the prime flat pasture land was more in shape of a triangle, the whole plot mapped out a rough diamond. Giving your farm a name wasn’t common but combining their names just made the name impractically long. Besides, giving it a neutral name included everyone who would live there. As well as Chris, Buck and the boys, Josiah would join them as the boy’s tutor and farm hand. Nathan would stay on in Rome at Chris’s apartment, where he would continue treating slaves and those too poor to pay for a true physician. He already had a growing reputation, such that even some who could pay for a physician came to him, including many ex-soldiers.
The ongoing effect of that night, the night their lives changed, had strengthened Chris’s resolve to free Nathan and Josiah. Buck had never been comfortable owning slaves. His mother had been a slave for much of her life. Chris had never really thought about it. He had grown up with slaves, but his mind was changed that night, though he couldn’t say why. Freeing the two men was one thing, but they desperately didn’t want to say goodbye. The boys were much attached to them for one thing. So, in a move they freely admitted to each other was self-serving, they delayed the emancipation until they had jobs to offer them.
They would use their now jointly owned apartment as their base when vising Rome. Ezra promised to visit often and keep an eye on Buck’s apartment and tenants – for a percentage of the rent, of course. The boys doted on Ezra and, though he would never say it, the feeling seemed to be mutual.
Moving was one thing, getting everything fixed up was going to take a lot longer. The fields and walls had to be fixed before the horses came, but that didn’t take long. The barn would need work but it was serviceable and didn’t need urgent attention. The building that had seemed derelict wasn’t as bad as they had feared. It incorporated a small barn, and several stables - suitable to keep their saddle horses when needed to segregate the stallions. The last section contained an olive press, a welcome bonus. The orchard was mostly olives, and pressing their own would save them money and they could sell any excess. As well as olives there were also almonds, pears, apples and plums. To JD’s delight, they found a fig tree growing against the barn wall. Josiah was very keen to get some bee hives. At the very back of the orchard was a low building enclosed by a low wall, evidently a pig sty.
“Julia can live here,” JD declared. Apparently Julia agreed, nimbly hopping up onto the roof. “See? She likes it!”
Now that the horses and the goat were all accommodated, the biggest issue was the lack of a home, or rather, the lack of a roof on the home. As an interim measure - Chris decided not to ask too many questions as to where they came from - they had army tents. Made of goat skin, these were the kind of tents the army used for long term camps, rather than bivouacking. There was a very large one, such as a general or legit might use, two of the kind used by centurions. Buck, Chris and the boys would use the larger one. The tents were set up to form an open square, with the two smaller tents flanking the large one.
That first evening, Ezra joined them as they built a fire pit. They placed rugs, blankets and cushions around it and enjoyed a meal together.
His belly full, JD was nodding off when Buck lifted him up onto his lap, mindful that the sun was setting and it would soon be too dark to read.
“Come on now, Little One, you need to be awake for this,” he encouraged.
JD was none too happy. He and Vin had spent all day helping as much as they could and when there was nothing they could do, they had messed about in the stream or played hide and seek in the orchard. In truth Vin was fighting to stay awake, too, but for now his eyes were still open.
“I’m sleepy,” JD protested in a whiny voice.
“Let him sleep,” Josiah encouraged, “I can put him to bed.”
“No,” Chris cut in. “He needs to be awake.”
It look a little longer but a slightly grumpy JD was finally sitting awake on his father’s lap.
“So,” Chris began. “We’re making a new start and to do that we - me and Buck - we wanted to make sure it was a new start for everyone.” He gave Vin a pat on the shoulder and then stood up, crossed to his old army pack, which had been sitting on the ground behind him, and pulled out two scrolls. He handed one to Josiah and one to Nathan.
Sitting down again, he gave both men the chance to read them.
Nathan read it twice and then looked over at Josiah, who grinned. He was facing the sun and his big smile glowed gold as the sun caught his teeth.
“’Siah’s made of gold,” JD giggled.
“More than that, I am a free man,” Josiah told him happily.
“Wha . . .?” JD asked.
“We,” Buck looked down at him and then pointed to himself and Chris, “we have freed Josiah and Nathan, they are no longer slaves.”
JD didn’t seem to really understand the significance of the announcement but Vin was frowning.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked.
Vin looked over at Josiah and Nathan and then back to Chris, then he whispered to his father.
Chris listened seriously, then smiled. “Well let’s see,” he told him, then looked over at the men in question. “Vin wants to know if that means you will be leaving us?”
Now JD understood.
“’Siah and Nathan is leaving?” he asked with undisguised concern, now sitting up, fully awake.
“Hold your horses ‘little ‘un, let’s find out,” Buck soothed.
Chris and Buck then went on to explain to their now free friends that of course they were free to do whatever they wanted. If they wanted to stay, then Nathan was welcome to take over Chris’s apartment and work full time as a healer, keeping all his fees.
Nathan accepted almost before Chris had stopped speaking. It was, after all, what he had always wanted.
“Josiah,” Buck continued “We would like you to stay on as the boys’ tutor and as an extra pair of hands around here. We can’t pay you much at the moment but as soon as we have money coming in, you’ll get your share.”
“Please stay,” JD pleaded, while beside him Vin gave Josiah the big eyes.
“I can’t think of anything I would enjoy more,” he told them with another golden grin.
Ezra offered his congratulations, having watched but said nothing. He was that rare breed, a rich Roman who had servants not slaves. Why, he did not elaborate on, although all his staff were freed slaves, mostly well trained by their former masters.
Once the boys were asleep, Buck poured himself and Chris a goblet of the best wine they had. Outside Nathan and Josiah sat side by side in front of the fire, their backs to their former masters and his friends.
“Josiah?” Nathan began.
“Mumm,” came the response. Josiah was leaning back, gazing at the stars.
“Do you believe in the gods?”
Josiah did not move, and for a while he did not speak. Finally he began, “My father was Greek and he believed in their gods. At least I presume he did. We had a shrine, he went to the temples and made offerings.”
Here he stopped.
“But you do not believe?” Nathan speculated eventually.
“Arr, well, my mother was a Jew – as I suspect was Ezra’s but he’ll not admit it.”
“I heard that,” Ezra told them. He had been feigning sleep, but now sat up, pouring himself some more wine. “Do continue.”
Josiah gave him a mock glare then turned back to Nathan. “To marry my father, which she had to do, because my sister was on the way, she had to give up her Hebrew god. However, to not raise you children in the faith is a great sin for her people. So in secret, she taught us her true beliefs. We were sworn to secrecy you understand.”
Now Josiah sat forward and looked at his friend. “We were taught to believe in one god. I have to be honest, I was never too sure I believed in all of it. But there was something in her stories that have stayed with me, here.” He patted his chest. “What of you? What do you believe?”
Nathan took a deep breath. “My people, in Nubia, believed in many gods and spirits. They call them Orisha. I was only boy when I was taken, and I do not remember all of it, but there was one for almost every aspect of life; for the hunt, for rainbows and storms and games and tricks. I have to admit I believed it as a boy, but now . . . That night?” Now it was he who gazed up at the stars. “You remember, in Bethlehem, the baby? I never felt anything like that before.”
“The Jews believe that they are waiting for what they call the Messiah, a chosen one, who will be sent by their god to save the world,” Josiah told him.
“Do you think? . . . ” Nathan began.
Josiah had thought about it a lot, on and off, ever since that wondrous night, but his thinking got him nowhere. There were too many questions for which there weren’t, and could never be, any answers. So he had given up.
“I try not to, not on such matters. I makes my head hurt,” he told Nathan sagely, before he lay back to better contemplate the stars.
Nathan joined him.
Ezra had wondered about that night as well, and that child, a child of his people. His mother had not bothered to raise her son in the faith of her parents. That he had been born in Judea had been an accident. His mother had fallen ill while traveling back to Rome, and by the time she was better she was too close to her time to continue, so that was where Ezra was born. His mother was firmly of the opinion that you had to make your own good fortune and not implore some divinity for it. As to the afterlife, that, she stated, would take care of itself. Still, Ezra did wonder.
Buck turned to Chris, a question on his lips.
“It makes my head hurt,” Chris warned him in a hushed voice that brooked no argument, before walking out and joining the other men in their star gazing.
Buck looked back at the two small figures on their low beds, just visible in the weak glow of the fire.
It did not make his head hurt. It made his heart sing.
The End – for now
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