Mark Antony galloped his horse past the crucified who lined the road from Capua to Rome. Red stained the wrists and ankles of the dead, and it streaked down the crude gibbets to which they were nailed. A stench of decay filled the air, and flies already swarmed with a relentless buzzing.
Five thousand slaves, dead at his word.
Antony forced himself to look at their faces. He had done what he must as a general of Rome, but as a man, each of their deaths weighed like lead in his stomach.
The sun dipped behind the hills as he stopped at a creek to water his horse. He would not reach the city this night. A breeze ruffled his tunic as he dismounted, and birds chirped from what few trees his men had not downed for the executions.
Even in the descending dark, the corpses seemed to watch him with accusatory stares.
As he stooped to fill his water skin and wash his hands, there was a rustling from the spindly grasses along the opposite bank. He froze. A shadow of a figure huddled there, too big for an animal. Antony drew his sword and hurdled the creek.
There in the dirt squatted a man, if such a wretch could be called a man. Twine secured a scrap of cloth around his waist, leaving bare a torso crisscrossed with whip scars. His skin seemed stretched too tight over his ribs, and his face all but vanished behind the limp, tangled strands of his hair and beard.
Time had transformed him almost beyond recognition. Almost.
Antony sheathed his weapon and whispered, “Caesar. Can it be? I thought you must be dead.”
The man grabbed at something unseen in the air.
“Julius Caesar, I know it is you.”
Antony knelt and set his hands on either side of the man’s face. The left eye, cut through by a long-healed gash, was pale, pale blue. Blind, Antony realized.
He said, ”Do you know me?”
The man squinted his good eye, and his face creased with concentration. Finally, recognition came.
“Mark Antony.” He leaned in close to whisper. “You must eat the flies before they eat you.”
He again grabbed at the air and stuffed his catch in his mouth. Antony drew back, repulsed.
How Caesar had escaped the gibbet, when thousands of others had not, Antony did not know. Or how he had survived at all since that night five years ago when, on the eve of the Ides of March and amid whispers of a terrible plot, Antony had smuggled him from the palace. For years, he had heard nothing, and then came rumors that an army of slaves, the same ones who now rotted alongside the road, marched at the command of the great emperor.
It seemed more likely, Antony now realized as he stared at the half-man, half-animal before him, that the leaders of the revolt had used Caesar as an unwitting figurehead. He could not lead a horse to water, let alone an army to the gates of Rome.
“Come,” he said and lifted Caesar to his feet. “I’ll take you some place warm.”
Caesar slept against Antony’s back as they rode beneath the vivid pinpricks of a thousand stars and alongside the endless stream of crucified slaves. They reached Rome at dawn. Antony dismounted to lead his exhausted horse and its passenger through a city waking to the calls of vendors, the rattle of cartwheels and the stomach-grumbling aroma of baking bread.
They soon passed through the gates of the temple of Empada and into a courtyard with a pond at its center. The doors to the temple itself stood open, as always. The goddess of charity never turned away those in need, and even at this early hour, supplicants waited in line for a handout of food.
Caesar dismounted and immediately dropped to a squat, clutched his knees to his chest and began to mutter nonsense.
Antony leaned over him. “I’m truly sorry for what has happened to you, and I swear I’ll do my best to make it right.”
He expected no response and so was not disappointed.
A young priestess walked toward them and bowed, and Antony nodded in return.
“General, how may we serve you?”
“I found this man south of the city. He needs sanctuary.”
“May I speak with him?”
“Of course,” he said, and the priestess took his place beside Caesar.
While he waited, Antony crossed to the pond and dipped in his hands to wash away the dirt from his ride. Ripples circled out from his wrists, and he watched them and wondered: What had his actions wrought? What horrors might have been avoided had he allowed the assassination of Caesar? The slave revolt, perhaps. Five thousand crucified. A great man broken by a circumstance worse than death.
He lifted his hands and gasped. In the morning light, the water that streaked down his fingers and palms was blood red.
The priestess glanced his way. “General, are you well?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
He looked again, and the water was only water.
It was a relief, but even so, he knew he could take no more. Let another man lead the armies of Rome, someone younger, whose ambition had not been worn away by the lives already taken in service of the empire.
He composed himself, straightened and brushed the dust from his tunic. “Priestess, will you give my friend sanctuary?”
“My thanks,” he said and then gathered the courage to ask for what he’d thought he never would. “Do you, perhaps, have room for one more?”
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks lives in Arvada, Colorado, where she tries to find time to write in between her two full-time jobs as a journalist and a mother of three.