F Chance Met in Capua

Editor’s Foreword

A gentle reminder that the absence of fairies and unicorns doesn’t indicate a lack of magic in our lives.

The pale blue terra cotta goddess made no sound while Lucius squirmed. Claudia mouthed another supplication as she rubbed the small figurine in her free hand, willing it to respond. “P-please, Bona D-dea, give me a sign,” she whispered, her eyes falling closed. “P-please.”

Nothing happened. She opened her eyes and spared the goddess once last, red-eyed stare. When the Bona Dea again failed to respond, Claudia bowed her head. This was the last possible day she could yet hope for a miracle. After giving up her last copper as for the figurine, there was no more money. She hadn’t eaten in two days. Lucius hadn’t eaten since this morning. And he was teething.

Yet nothing happened. She cupped her hand around the goddess and mouthed one last prayer.

Lucius twisted on her hip, gurgled and reached out. Looking up, Claudia’s heart stopped as she received what she thought must be her sign. A slave following his mistress was grinning at her son.

The slave had Marcus’ smile.

Not that, she whispered. The agony that flooded into her surprised her. Pain had been such a part of her life since the Assyrian had given her the choice a market interval ago that she’d begun to think herself impervious. Not so. She hugged her son to her and sobbed as the slave moved past.

Oh, Bona Dea, she thought, no, no, please. Her throat tightened and her heart hammered.

The slave glanced back at them one last time. Lucius made happy noises as he chewed a finger and Claudia dried up inside and blew away. She didn’t want to believe it.

But she’d had not one other sign.

Bona Dea, she miserably asked the blue figurine, is this your will?

Lucius gurgled again and bounced on her hip.

Claudia sighed, then if it must be, it must be.

Numb, she turned and limped through the crowd between her and the main temple doors. The press seemed to lessen a bit as she passed outside into the drizzle hanging dank and listless over the Capuan forum. She turned towards the moneylenders’ quarter.

Claudia caught a flash of vermilion and a whiff of boiled leather as she slammed into a man with one hand. The man screamed and she nearly dropped Lucius. She did drop the figurine of the Bona Dea. The blue goddess shattered on the cobbles.

“Hades’ bastard, woman! Watch what the blazes you’re doing!” the man roared, holding the inflamed stump of his right arm in his left hand.

“S-sorry! I’m…I’m…s-sorry,” Claudia stammered. Lucius wailed and she hugged him close.

The impact caused the puffy, scabbed flesh of the man’s stump to ooze a thin, bloody fluid. He cursed again and tucked his ruined arm back under his military-style sagum. The oily wool poncho was weather beaten and stained.

Red-rimmed eyes wide, Claudia bounced her son in her arms to try to calm him and said, “I s-said I’m s-sorry. And th-that’s no w-way to t-talk so near the t-temple.”

The man’s lips went thin. “Screw how I talk, woman. And quiet that brat down.”

Claudia’s eyes filled and she blurted, “wh-what’s the m-matter with you, th-that you t-talk to me like th-this?!”

The man gave his head a little shake and winced as he shifted his arm. “Nothing more than being mustered out, paid off and cast aside like a broken toy.” The corners of his mouth turned down.

“Where are you off to in such a damned hurry anyway? You going to throw yourself and the lad off the city wall?” he asked.

Tears streaked the grime on Claudia’s face. “H-how can you s-say such a th-thing! N-no, I…I was going t-to…”

She bit her lips as the monstrosity of her decision hit her again and she lowered her head. Her son crammed a grubby fist into his mouth and looked up at the man.

The man made no sound.

Claudia sniffled and shifted Lucius to her other arm. She wiped her face hard with her free hand and looked back up at the man. Her short leg ached and her empty belly growled, magnified several-fold by the torment of what she realized she had to do. “Wh-what I’m doing is m-my own b-business.”

“Hmm,” the man said, stepping closer to her. Claudia stiffened as she felt his washed-out, pale blue eyes range over her, up from her clubfoot over her curved spine to rest on her son. She cast her eyes back down and pushed desultorily with her foot at the shattered goddess.

The man’s eyes followed hers. “Well, she won’t do you any good.”

“The l-least you c-could do is pay to re-replace it.”

The man snorted. “I have no truck with the gods. They’ve never helped me.”

Claudia shook her head. Lucius gurgled. “Y-you shouldn’t talk like that. The Bona Dea hears y-you.”

“Enough. You get home to your man, woman.”

Tears again filled Claudia’s eyes and she moved to step around the man.

He grimaced. “More tears? What, you have no man? Then where did you get this lad?”

“Marcus was m-my husband and the f-father of my s-son,” Claudia said.

In an even voice the man said, “I had a son once. Long time ago. He was a good lad.” He shook his head. “But the gods took him and his mother with the coughing disease.”

“Marcus was a legionary like you,” Claudia said, stopping and looking the man in his tired blue eyes. “N-no, not like you. He was a good m-man.”

“Meaning I’m not, no doubt. I’ll not say you’re wrong there. But you say ‘was.’ Where is he now?”

“Where he’s b-been since last y-year. In the g-ground of Pannonia Inferior.”

“He was with Legio II Adiutrix then? Good outfit, for a pack of scoundrels. That’s damned inconvenient for you, I’d say.”

Lucius whined, sensing the tension between his mother and the man. Claudia shifted him to her other hip, straightened up as tall as her twisted torso would allow and said, “I am n-not to blame f-for your hand, legionary. Y-you have n-no call to s-speak to me this way.”

“Then you can call me ‘centurio.’ I was pilus prior in the VIII Augusta in Germania Superior before the Chatti ended my service.” He looked away over Claudia’s head.

“I’d think with your man’s burial dues you can buy as many figurines of the Bona Dea as you want.”

Claudia buried her head in Lucius’ neck.

The centurion glanced back at her. “You did get his dues, didn’t you?”

She couldn’t bring herself to speak. She shook her head instead.

“I’ll be damned. What, did he gamble it all away?”

Claudia started to move off but the centurion put out his good hand and stopped her. “That was it, wasn’t it? And you’re out of money but not out of his debt, I’ll warrant.”

Claudia nodded.

“Then why are you here of all places…” the centurion muttered as his eyes lit upon Lucius again.

The centurion’s hand gripped her shoulder painfully. “Let m-me go,” she said but he didn’t release her.

“Where are you off to, I wonder?” he asked, staring. She was crying again and no sounds came out of her mouth when she tried to speak.

“I think I know,” he said softly. “One need only look at you with your twisted shape and the answer screams.”

She wanted to convey her torment; she tried to tell the man of the laughs and cuffs she’d received when she’d tried to find work. She wanted him to feel the pain and despair of being a woman, completely alone in this uncaring city with a toddler to feed. But all she could do was cry soundlessly now that she’d gotten the sign she’d dreaded.

The man let her go and started to turn away from her, when without warning the monstrosity of it all hit her again like a physical blow and the shock jolted her voice free. “I tried to sell myself but not even the Assyrian will buy me! Not like this!” Her voice rose as she gestured at her clubfoot.

The centurion’s face paled and his blue eyes gleamed as she savagely bit off her words. “I must pay Marcus’ debts–there’s the law. I have no family here and can’t leave Capua. There’s n-no money left. Aside from c-cooking and sewing I have no skills to sell. I c-can’t even read!”

Then all the rage and fear and desperation left her, streaming out of her like steam escaping a cauldron and she sagged back from the man. Lucius started to sob and she hugged him perfunctorily.

He regarded the small, bent woman before him for a long and silent moment. Then he shook his head and said, “What kind of mother would sell her son?”

Her legs gave out and Claudia collapsed against a column. Lucius began to cry lustily and she joined him.

All passersby ignored them.

After what seemed an eternity her crying seemed to stop of its own accord and she stood. The soldier had gone. Her body and her life felt heavy, leaden and dull. It was approaching dusk, and she had received her answer from the goddess.

She let Lucius chew on a bit of leather as she walked slowly, very slowly down the forum towards the moneylender’s and slave-handler’s shops.

Claudia felt nothing. Now that the time she had so fearfully anticipated these past days had come, she was detached and floating, completely numb.

All she could think of was putting one foot in front of the other. Keep moving, she told herself. It will be over soon.

She heard the crack of a whip accompanied by a cry of pain as she drew abreast the first slave-handler’s and it horrified her. Lucius glanced up as he worried the leather.

Claudia did not look into the slave pens as she passed. She did not see their empty eyes or their dirty faces.

She plodded on until she reached the Assyrian’s shabby warehouse. It would do no good to wait any longer, she told herself as she passed inside. She walked about inside the dank warehouse until she found the Assyrian in his flowing blue robe.

He had his broad, fat back to her as he haggled with a hulking Ligurian over the price of two Gauls. She waited, numb, while the bargaining finished. As the Assyrian turned, she surprised herself with the steadiness of her voice.

“I’ve come to accept your offer, Bahdman,” she said.

The Assyrian ran his thick fingers through his black, oily beard and considered her in the lamplight. His dark eyes widened as he recognized her. “Ahh, yes, Claudia wife of Marcus Nicolensius, yes, yes. What do you want?”

“I-I just said. I a-accept.” She hugged Lucius one final time. Good-bye, my son, my heart, she wanted to whisper, but the Assyrian’s words stopped her.

“What is this, some kind of joke? I haven’t time for this, I assure you,” the Assyrian said, and made as if to move off.

Claudia could scarcely believe her ears. “W-What did you say?”

“What, did I not say? Do you not have ears to hear? I said I haven’t time.”

Mouth working, Claudia put out her free hand as the Assyrian tried to brush past her. “W-wait. I-I don’t understand.”

He bent down and peered closely at her face. She could smell onions and sage on him. “You’re serious. You really don’t know?”

She shook her head helplessly.

“Talash!” the Assyrian roared by way of reply, and presently a rotund man in a dirty tunic with a short vest over it appeared.

“Talash, did you not come to me just a short while ago and tell me that the debt of Marcus Nicolensius was paid in full, along with an additional credit?”

“That I did, Bahdman,” Talash said, eyeing Claudia.

“And did you not give to me the written proof of this payment?”

Talash struck his forehead. “Alas, I did not. Here it is,” he said, pulling several bits of papyrus out of a pocket on his vest. He thumbed through them and finding the correct one, passed it to the Assyrian who presented it to Claudia with a flourish.

She took it with open mouth and shaking hand. She looked at it and then back to the Assyrian in mute appeal.

“You cannot even read? By Marduk’s hair, save me from uneducated women,” he griped and took the slip of papyrus back.

Holding it at an angle to the lamplight he read out loud “done this day the sixteenth day of Augustus’ month in Capua in the third year of the glorious reign of the deified Antonius Pius, I Talash on behalf of Bahdman Raddur received a draft for 1500 sesterces in full payment of the debt of Marcus Nicolensius in the amount of 1000 sesterces.” He looked at Claudia’s astonished face and smiled as he handed the papyrus back to her.

“I am holding the additional 500 sesterces on account for you until you or your male guardian tells me otherwise. Do you now understand?” he asked.

“H-how is this p-possible?” she croaked.

The Assyrian looked over at Talash, who held out his hands to her, palms up. “But your courier came not over an hour ago. He gave me the draft and I went straight away to Mummius’ bank. All was in order.”

Claudia clung to Lucius like a drowning man clings to a floating branch. Her son squirmed and whined at her clutch. “M-my courier?” she asked with wooden lips.

“Of course,” Talash smiled. “The one-handed man in the red sagum.”

 

About the Author

S Fazekas is active duty military, married and has a 14 year old son and a 12 year old daughter.   Spare time activities include losing heavily to the son at soccer and carting the daughter around to her after-school activities.  Favorite reads are classical Roman and Greek authors, as well as all kinds of science fiction and fantasy. S Fazekas is an avid if not particularly graceful snowboarder, and loves football.

 

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