Maximus slumped wearily in the chains that bound him, shoulders aching, muscles overstrained, body broken and abused. Beneath his dirty and bloodied exterior, the gladiator knew that he was all but beaten. No less than two broken ribs stabbed painfully into the skin imprisoning them; at least one ankle was badly sprained, if not broken; he was dizzy and disoriented, and surprised he was still alive. To say the least, he was in serious trouble. Despite his old, battle-hardened, resolve, he could not check a sigh; Maximus the great, the indomitable, the invincible – was beaten. For the first time in his life, he had lost.
Sudden images of what might have been assaulted his mind, his memory, and his imagination. As before, as every other time, he longed for what he lost. Yet the images were no longer of only his lost wife and son, of noble and dead Marcus Aurelius – now he saw Lucilla, Lucius, Quintus, and even Commodus, lying murderer that he was. How many more would die now because of his failed escape? Proximo had already fallen; would now it be Juba, Haken, or one of the others? Or would Lucilla fall under her evil brother’s eye – to die; or worse.
Maximus’ chest contracted with pain. Lucilla…suddenly it meant very much not to lose her again, not to cause her more pain. Old feelings, long forgotten, floated again to the surface of his now unshielded heart. Lucilla…Lucilla and Lucius, so innocent, so pure…could he be the cause of their deaths as well? His shoulders tightened in a shudder at the thought. The dark, dank walls of his cage closed in upon him like the jaws of death, imprisoning not only his physical self, but his spirit and soul as well. He had lost a battle he had not known to fight, been captured moments after Cicero’s unjust death, then tortured and beaten – for what? There were no questions, no apparent reasons; the Praetorians seemingly knew all the answers he never would have surrendered anyway. No, Commodus’ spite and hatred drove them, nothing more. But Maximus could not despise his tormentors in return; they were loyal to their Emperor, just as he had once been. Marcus.
Sorrow pierced his heart. He had failed not only himself and his family, and not only Rome – he had failed Marcus Aurelius’ dream. He had failed to fulfill the last wishes and commands of his Caesar; he had let down Marcus for the first and only time. The whisper had died with hardly a protest, expelled on the last breath of its noble owner. Almost without a conscious decision, the words left his lips as if in prayer.
“Forgive me old friend; I have killed your dream,” Maximus whispered, heart laced with sorrow, regret, and shame that he almost could not bear.
Once spoken, however, the weight of his failure seemed to ease. For a moment, he almost felt the presence of his dead Emperor, and from somewhere inside, he felt that the battle was not over. Almost in a daze of shock and bewilderment, Maximus lifted his weary head to gaze at the blue sky he was certain lay somewhere beyond the prison’s dark ceiling. His heart filled with a childlike wonder for the first time in years as it all became clear.
“Is that your command, Caesar?” he asked in awe. “Am I still your Protector, Marcus?” Tears he’d not shed since burying his wife and child flooded his eyes and his heart exerted itself fully for the first time since he’d lost everything he held dear. Revenge no longer mattered; he lived for Rome. There was one dream left to fulfill.
Maximus Decimus Meridius, a man unaccustomed to failure, straightened in his chains. It was not over. Please forgive that I cannot join you yet, my loves, he thought. I will see you again, but not yet.
Quintus paced restlessly on the ground floor of the Praetorian barracks. Their finery and decoration meant little to him; he was lost in other thoughts. He was a solider; he obeyed – but this was something he could not bear! Maximus, true, had defied the Emperor – turned his back on him! – but Commodus’ treatment of him was unbearable. Better to give the man a clean death. Maximus deserved at least that much. He had served Rome for too long, and too well, to be given anything less.
For the ten thousandth time, Quintus found himself half-wishing he had refused Commodus’ first command. What would have then come, he did not know, yet – yet Maximus would surely have been a more just leader than Commodus could ever be. Had he been staging a coup? Could that have been the miracle Quintus almost dreamed of nearly every night? If only Maximus had been able to act – if only I had allowed him his chance – what a fine Caesar he would have been. If he could have been persuaded to rule, Quintus reminded himself. The man had no ambition – he was a symbol of honor in a now dark world – honor that Rome so desperately needed. Honor that Rome desperately wanted – already the masses of the Coliseum screamed his name in the distance, yet Maximus would not fight today, destined as he was to Commodus’ dark torture cells.
“General!” a desperate voice screamed his name, breaking through his dreary reverie and forcing him back to only a slightly more pleasant reality. One of his lieutenants, Presario, came running toward him, his normally immaculate Praetorian uniform stressed into disarray.
Eyes darting wildly in a soldier’s instinctive way, Quintus spun, unable to identify the threat he knew must be there. “The Emperor?” he asked breathlessly, halfway between hope and dread.
“An army, sir,” Presario gasped. “An army approaches from the north!”
Maximus? No, the Felix Legions are still unaware… and lack the leadership to fight for their champion. “Whose?” he barked, barely comprehending what he had just heard. An army marches on Rome?
“Germanian?” That was impossible, incredibly impossible. Maximus has smashed the last of the Germanian armies, securing the Empire’s borders once and for all… When the finality sunk in, Quintus could barely force words past his suddenly parched lips. “To Rome?”
Presario, out of breath for words, merely nodded. The unthinkable was as unbelievable for him as it was for his commander, yet Quintus’s mind was already racing ahead, pulled by the Emperor’s best stallions in the world’s second fastest chariot. Not in ten centuries had an army marched into Rome… and one was not going to enter on his watch. Not while he commanded the Praetorian Guard. Possible solutions battled for attention in his mind, yet not one reached the top of the stack. Perversely, he wished that just once, he could speak to his old mentor again, have just one more chance to ask for guidance.
…But there was no chance of that. Not now. Not ever.
So he snapped into action. “Assemble the guard at the northern and eastern walls. Every available man – everyone, you hear me? Leave six men on the Emperor, six only. Muster every retired solider from the city.”
Quintus took a deep breath, willed control, and turned to his secretary “Scribe!”
“What legions are closest to Rome?”
“Four northern legions are at Ostia, four hours’ march. There are three also to the south, two days hard march,” the scribe replied rapidly – but not nearly quick enough for Quintus’ tastes.
“I know how far it is to Ostia!” he thundered, allowing his grief and worry to overflow in one satisfying bellow. Of all the men to be closest, it must be Maximus’… and they will never fight well without their general. Yet we have no choice. “And we don’t have the time for anything else,” he finished aloud.
“Sir?” the scribe questioned cautiously.
Quintus regained self-control with an effort. “Never mind. Speed messengers to all legions within a week’s ride. Tell them to drive hard to Rome. We have a Empire to defend.”
“Yes, sir.” And with that, the scribe sped off as well, leaving Quintus alone to face the world. And to tell his emperor the news.
Lucilla strode through the corridors of Imperial Palace, thankful for her first moments out of her brother’s sight since… since she had been forced to betray Maximus. Forced? No, not quite forced. Had she been stronger, she could have found another way, any way, to delay Commodus just long enough for Maximus to make his escape – but what done was done, and she was powerless now; powerless to help the man she’d only days before admitted she still loved. Impossibly, she found herself wishing to see him one last time, just long enough to apologize for what he must have known she had done.
Just as she threw herself into a chair in her private quarters, Lucius bound into the room. The Empire must be falling apart, she reflected bitterly, since Commodus allows me to see my beloved son. He thinks I will taint Lucius – but with what? The truth? Hardly. I have no truths left to tell after I betrayed the only man who could have set my world to rights.
“Mother!” her son cried joyously – he still did not understand that this forced separation was permanent. Lucilla forced a brave smile for him as she pulled the boy into her lap. He hugged her eagerly, exclaiming “Guess what?”
“What?” Lucilla asked, playing along with the old game for her son’s sake, but her heart was no longer with it. Her heart had broken with her betrayal; nothing short of a miracle could mend it again.
“Quintus is gathering the Praetorians! They say there’s going to be fighting in the city!”
Lucilla was agape. Now even the smallest remaining elements of her world were going to pieces. “Against who? The Senate?” she gasped. Oh, Father, what have I done?
The boy’s eyes widened as he shook his head, excitement racing through his simple young brain. “Against an army!” he cried. “It’s going to be a real battle! Can I go?”
“No!” she cried, horrified, but again forced her calm to rule her. Lucilla felt near fainting at the possibility that Lucius would even see a battlefield, yet she could not allow him to see how worried she was. “A battlefield is no place for young boys,” she added evenly, surprised at her own control, which was greater than anything she would have managed before her father’s death. “Was I so very different then?”
“You laughed more.”
Things were simpler then, Maximus. I had more to laugh about. I had you.
“But uncle says the games make me strong. Why wouldn’t battle?” Lucius asked innocently.
Lucilla stroked his beautiful hair with one hand, heart hammering. “Because there are no rules in battle, Lucius. The games have rules to protect innocent bystanders. War does not.” People die, she did not say. Like my father. Like Maximus. Like me, if I’m lucky. But she knew she was not that weak. She would live for her son, and to someday see that bastard of a brother thrown to the ground in the Coliseum for his crimes, to be eaten by the wild animals he put there, or killed by the gladiators he imprisoned. Like Maximus.
No matter what she did, her thoughts always returned to him. Maximus – her general, once upon a time. A wistful smile found a place upon her lips as she remembered the rumors. Ten years ago, the entire court had been sure the two of them would marry – and even then, gossip said that Maximus would become the successor of Marcus Aurelius. They both had laughed then, too happy in their “secret” relations to consider changing a thing. So close they had been, before it all fell apart… She still remembered his touch, his warmth, and his laugh. He, too, had laughed more, once upon a time. One kiss had been enough to reopen all the doors she’d locked inside her heart concerning him; once again, he was her general, her Maximus. In her dreams they were still together, happy, deliriously dreaming of what might come next.
But war had again come, and fearful for his safety, Lucilla had convinced her father to keep Maximus back with him at the base camp, allegedly for the Emperor’s protection, but really because Lucilla feared for Maximus’ life. Unknowledgeable of his deep and intense feelings for the men he led, Lucilla unwillingly created the deepest of rifts between herself and her lover. Day after day, the wounded and dying had stumbled in from the front, and Maximus grew more and more restless, eventually begging Caesar to allow him to return to the lines, to turn the day – and Marcus had turned him to Lucilla, meaning only to show Maximus the depth of her feelings. It backfired.
Maximus had almost hated her for it. She remembered his angry words, as fifty of his dying men staggered into the camp carrying twice their number in dead, even over a decade later when they had come to have almost no meaning at all. “You are the cause of these men’s deaths! Their lives lay on your soul!” he had roared, yet she had argued that one man could not make that much of a difference, but known she was wrong even then. He may have been her general, but he was the Empire’s military genius. He could have made the difference, saved those men’s lives – and he told her so.
Her fear, however, remained that he could become one of the dead, that she would see his lifeless body borne into camp as a hero. Even then, Lucilla could see him fearlessly charging to his own death, for honor and for Rome, for a city he’d never seen. But Maximus had laughed at her concerns, and said they were no excuse for others to die; besides, he never lost. Just minutes later, with her father’s parole, he had ridden to the front, and saved an all but hopeless battle. Maximus had won the day at the price of their love.
They could have reconciled, but both were too proud for that. And so they moved on, each marrying, each with a son – the parallels struck Lucilla as amazing. But she was a widow now, and Maximus’ wife and son had been murdered at the hands of Lucilla’s flesh and blood brother. She was amazed that he trusted her at all, that he could find it in her heart to love her once again… For she had felt the strength of his emotion in the one desperate, passionate kiss they had shared. Once again, he was the undefeated commander of the Army of the Danube, no more a slave than he had ever been. She had been so confident of his success then, so sure he would succeed, and that the next she saw him, Maximus would be riding into Rome at the head of 5,000 men.
“Mother?” Lucius asked quietly, breaking her from her reverie.
“Yes, sweetheart?” A momentary pang stole into her heart for her former lover; she had lost her freedom, but Lucilla still had her child. Maximus had lost everything he held dear.
“Why does Maximus not fight now?” her son asked innocently, still thinking of battle and the games with a boy’s curious wonder.
Lucilla took a deep breath, feeling as her heart broke for the hundredth time. “Maximus angered your uncle very much, Lucius,” she said quietly. “Your uncle would prefer him to be dead and forgotten.”
“Why?” the boy demanded, jumping to his feet. “Maximus is the savior of Rome!”
Lucilla pulled him to her and hushed him gently. “You must not say such things here, my son,” she warned.
“But you said…”
Sorrow racked through her for the wrongs she had wrought, threatening to bring tears to her eyes. “I know,” she whispered. “I know.”
Quintus turned and bowed in reply to his Caesar’s shout, inwardly wishing that the ingrate would go away. The current emperor might have been Marcus Aurelius’ son, but he was not his father, and he had no aptitude for warfare. All he did was muddle an already serious situation up more. “Highness?” he asked.
“Your men are moving too slowly, Quintus,” Commodus said arrogantly. “Remind them that it is Rome herself they are defending.”
The general bowed his head to hide his disapproving frown, yet beckoned his officers near obediently. “Press the men to move quickly,” he said quietly, aware that Caesar’s eyes left him for not a moment. “We must hurry.”
“Sir, they’re moving as fast as they can,” one of the lieutenants objected respectfully, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
Quintus sighed helplessly. “I know,” he said softly, trying to convey his understanding without having to speak against Commodus. “But remember that we are fighting for Rome. She is worth defending.”
His officers nodded as one; they might not have understood completely, but they had their orders, and they obeyed. Quintus watched their backs as they retreated, wishing he did not feel so out of his depth. His specialty was small unit tactics, uniquely suited to the Praetorian Guard, the civil soldiers of Rome herself, but the coming battle would demand a scope of tactics that he had not yet begun to dream of. He knew the basics of what he needed to do, but was nowhere close to his former commander’s instinctual understanding of his men and their enemy.
Maximus is not here, he reminded himself. I am. And so I must act to defend Rome from her enemies. May the Gods guide me carefully, for I will need their aid. He glanced to the beautiful blue sky for a moment, hoping his silent prayer had been heard.
Suddenly, words split the humid air. “A scout is returning!” The cry echoed across the defensive line the Romans were building, mixed with joy, apprehension, and fear.
Quintus quickly pushed his way toward the rider galloping through his lines, reaching his side as the man dismounted. Impatient for news, he grabbed the scout’s shoulder roughly. “What news?” he demanded, heart threatening to leap from his chest to bounce wildly upon the beautiful Roman countryside.
“They come forward,” the soldier gasped, vying for breath. “Ten thousand strong, including horse.”
“Ten thousand!” Presario repeated softly, turning to Quintus, fear evident in his eyes. “We can’t stand up to that many, sir.”
Quintus felt his temper flare briefly. Yes, the odds were long, but an officer never expressed doubt in the ability of Rome’s armies – especially not in front of a regular such as the scout was. “We will do what we must,” he said abruptly, then turned to the scout once more. “How far?”
“Six hours. Perhaps less,” the man allowed.
“Very well. You are dismissed.” Again, Quintus turned to his gathered officers. He could see in their faces how they were waiting for his commands, waiting for him to pull some miracle out of the heavens – but he didn’t have a miracle to give. He was lost. “Ideas?” he finally asked.
It was not what they expected from him. They expected orders, not a plea for advice, and faced with it, they suddenly were as lost as their commander. Quintus checked the despair running through him as he remembered that these men were not the battle-hardened troops he had fought with in Germania. These men were civil guards, the Caesar’s own protection – and few of them had ever fought a war – just as he had never commanded one. Quintus had never felt lost before, but there was a first time for everything. Doom stared him straight in the eye and threatened to become his life.
Their blank looks were the only answers he received, and feeling the need to exert control – any type of control – over the situation, Quintus took a deep breath. “All right,” he began, turning to Presario. “Give me a break down of our forces.”
“Twenty-eight hundred Praetorians, plus four hundred retirees mustered from the city,” Presario returned automatically, clearly thankful for the simplicity of the assigned task. “Including two hundred light cavalry, four hundred archers.” The Lieutenant shook his head helplessly. “No heavy cavalry.”
“How long would it take to outfit the two hundred to heavy cavalry?” Quintus asked, knowing the answer and praying he was wrong.
“Too long,” Clemens, his master of horse, replied heavily.
Quintus hesitated a moment, then submitted the best plan he knew. “Cavalry is our spearhead,” he commanded. “Infantry to fall in behind them, archers to the left rear. We’ll hit them early and hit them hard.”
The others nodded and moved to their respective tasks; Clemens fidgeted and hesitated a moment. Quintus read the look in the man’s eyes and slapped him on the shoulder, knowing he had condemned the man and his battalion to death by placing them first, but also realizing that he had no choice; the cavalry commander would die willingly for Rome and victory. “Strength and honor,” Quintus rasped.
“Strength and honor,” Clemens echoed, then added: “We’ll take as many with us as possible, General.”
Quintus could not help but wince as the officer moved away. His army was resigned to death; that was far from good. Willingness to die was necessary; expecting it was a disaster for a soldier – and one that he did not know how to divert. His army was outnumbered by three to one, and no amount of superior Roman training could overcome that in the present circumstances. He would not surrender, but Quintus knew he had lost. “People should know when they’re conquered,” he remembered.
“Would you, Quintus? Would I?” Oh, dear gods, why now and like this? Why did he always have to learn his lessons the hard way? He had always hated school, but this was learning of a far different and much less pleasant sort.
A voice from behind broke him from his reminiscences and made him turn. “General.”
Quintus turned and bowed to the slender man who stood before him, out of place on the battlefield in his white senatorial robes. “Senator Falco.”
“How does it go?”
What do you think? Quintus almost asked, but restrained himself. No good could come out of giving the arrogant senator a piece of his mind. “We will be ready,” he replied, wishing his words were as true as he made them sound.
“I hear things are not going well,” Falco said quietly sounding genuinely concerned – more concerned, Quintus was sure, than he really was. The Praetorian commander knew that this particular senator always had his own benefit in mind, regardless of the circumstance. Rome could be burning, and Falco would be thinking about political profit.
“It could be better,” Quintus allowed, wary for the baited hook sure to come.
“If I could be of assistance, I would gladly do all possible in hopes of Rome’s victory,” Falco said smoothly.
“To be honest, Senator, there –”
“They are coming!” Panicked cries echoed across the field; no wonder the fear; the army was far from prepared for battle.
“By the Gods…” Quintus whispered, rushing away from Falco and to the raised command point. It could not be happening – they were not ready! The Germanians were three hours away yet – before he arrived, however, his army began to cheer.
“The Northern Army!” the victorious exclamation rose and spread like wildfire.
“The Felix Legions!”
As Quintus reached his observation post and swung around, he felt his heart buoy. Rank after rank of Roman legionaries marched forward in the distance, standards stabbing proudly into the air as they moved to Rome’s defense. Smiling wildly, Quintus raised his arms in triumph and joined in his army’s cheers. It was not over. “Thank the Gods…” he whispered. The best trained and most experienced of all Rome’s armies had come to defend their capital.
But as the distance closed, Quintus’ experienced eye knew something was wrong. The distant legion was advancing as if for battle, as if ready to face their own…
Side by side, the two Roman armies stood, the threat of civil war hanging heavily in the air. Tension rode high as countrymen eyed each other warily, Felix vs. Praetorian, each wondering if they were to fight for or against one another. Taking leave of General Arvalis, the commander of the Northern Army, Quintus moved to speak to Valerius, his old friend and comrade, the Infantry Commander, or master of foot, for the legion that had arrived.
They stood face to face for an instant, each assessing the other and the changes that the past eighteen months had wrought. Though once old friends, the two men now looked as potential enemies, knowing that their Caesar’s actions could doom them to separate sides in the inevitable civil war – or worse yet, death at the hands of the barbarian army they had both been called forth to fight.
Valerius finally broke the strained silence. “Sir, I’ve got to tell you that the First Felix would rather spit on Caesar than fight for him.” The burly man’s formality seemed out of place for such old friends, but such familiarity was a thing of the past, a thing of Maximus’ time.
Quintus’ eyes narrowed. “General Arvalis says otherwise,” he replied evenly, yet he knew with every fiber of his being that Valerius was right. As good as the 1st Felix Legion was – as good as Maximus had trained them to be – their moral was now a fickle thing, plummeting down to an all-time low as they were asked to defend the man who had condemned their champion.
Valerius’ temper boiled over. “General Arvalis is a fool, Quintus,” he rasped, obviously warring for control of his rage and hatred for the Northern Army’s new commander. “He doesn’t know these men. They won’t fight for Commodus. They know what he did!”
“And you think I don’t?” Quintus challenged, thinking, I know better than any man. I have seen it. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but we have a duty to protect Rome! That goes beyond any personal feelings we may have.”
“Does it?” Valerius replied. “What about Rome is worth defending now?”
Closing his eyes, Quintus felt as if an arrow had pierced his heart. Of course, Valerius was right, to a degree – but damn it if Rome wasn’t two hours away from falling to Germanian troops. “We are soldiers!” he rasped. “We obey!”
“Not this army,” Valerius said with finality, his every word pounding into the Praetorian’s ears. “Not for him. Maybe you don’t remember what it is like to believe, Quintus. Maybe you’re caught up in rank and riches. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you anymore.” Valerius’ eyes flashed. “But it mattes to us! We haven’t forgotten.
“And let me tell you, General, that this army would rather march on Rome than for it.”
What? Quintus’ jaw dropped. He could not believe his ears; that a loyal, highly trained, Roman army would threaten the city was unbelievable – such a thing was just not done in time of war, and even political battles were fought without Roman armies taking sides. The Gods must have a sense of humor, he lamented inwardly. Sense of humor… or was it a sense of decency? Nearly five thousand men had arrived with one goal in mind – to take from Rome their champion. Five thousand men, all defying their homeland in the name of one man, one extraordinary man… “Would you, Quintus?”
Oh, how he wished events had turned out differently.
Overcoming his speechlessness, Quintus finally managed “You would march on Rome?” However, he knew the inevitable answer. Maximus had recently captured the hearts and minds of the Roman people; he had won his army long before that.
“You know I’m not bluffing, General,” Valerius replied formally, making Quintus’ heartache for the friendships and camaraderie of old. He felt something tear inside every time that Valerius rightfully accused him of being caught up in the new Caesar’s promises of glory. What had he come to in the months since Germania? Who had he become? Commodus had accused Maximus of treason against Marcus Aurelius, but Quintus knew the man was incapable of betraying the old Caesar’s trust. Maximus had loved Marcus Aurelius, been willing to die for him – so how had he angered Commodus so much as to be sentenced to death? What had he done to make his family die with him?
“I know,” Quintus finally agreed, head pounding and heart hurting. “But can’t it wait until we have defended Rome? There are ten thousand Germanians marching this way, intent on destroying everything we hold dear! Can’t you put your personal differences aside that long?”
Valerius shook his head. “You know I fought for Rome, sir,” he replied. “But Commodus is not Rome. What he’s done is wrong. We’re here for the general.”
He did not have to say which general.
“The general has a good point, Caesar,” Falco said quietly.
“No!” Commodus snarled as he paced back and forth behind his army’s lines under the watchful eyes of his own personal guard detail. His furious attention was still focused on the back of his retreating Praetorian commander. “I will not make him a hero!”
“Yet General Quintus says that the Northern Army will not fight without him,” the senator reminded him neutrally. Commodus swung to face the older man, eyes narrowing ominously. What were the crafty politician’s objectives, anyway? What could he possibly hope to gain? Falco always had his own profit in mind, no matter what the situation. That was one of the reasons Commodus trusted him; he could always depend on the senator’s motives to stay personal.
“What are you getting at, Falco?” Commodus asked shortly. There were too many problems, too many situations to face… On one hand, he had a Germanian army bearing down on Rome – the gall of those barbarians was amazing – and on the other, his most trusted advisors were asking him to let his worst enemy out of prison! The Caesar shuddered at the mere thought. First Quintus had gone insane, and now Falco, too?
“We may have to ask for Maximus’ help,” Falco replied.
“And you’re the one who wanted me to kill him!” Commodus exploded. There were too many problems, far too many problems. His head was beginning to spin with the pressure. Why couldn’t those arrogant Germanians realize when they were defeated? Didn’t they know that marching on Rome just wasn’t done?
“But he has uses now, sire,” Falco whispered, still unfazed by the emperor’s outburst. “Besides, if we are lucky, he will be killed in battle. What more a death can you ask for?” He spread his hands with an innocent smile. “It will solve all of our problems.”
Commodus’ eyes narrowed in concentration; he had to fight a smile. It was an appealing idea; however... “What if he doesn’t?”
Falco bowed. “Then we arrange it ourselves, sire.”
This time he allowed the smile to surface. Let him have a hero’s death, he thought. Let him die serving me. Then the people will have to love me. “Get me Captain Albinus.”
The door creaked loudly, startling Maximus out of his fist-induced bout of semi-blackness. Squinting in the suddenly bright light, he brought his head up to face his newest visitor, and was far from surprised to see Captain Albinus of the Praetorian Guard, Commodus’ personal favorite enforcer. Maximus resisted the urge to spit at the twisted man, whose purposes he knew full well without asking. Instead, he contented himself with glaring evenly at the interloper.
The Praetorian shifted slightly under the heat of the former general’s eyes, but spoke clearly. “The Emperor demands your service, slave,” he said with his typical arrogance.
Maximus could not help but laugh. The irony was incredible – not to mention as ridiculous as Commodus was. “And what makes you think I would serve him?” he challenged, only to grit his teeth as a fist buried itself in his stomach.
“You do not say no to Caesar,” Albinus hissed in his ear, fury making his words come short and sharp.
Turning to look him straight in the eye, Maximus stressed every word: “I just did.” He had no intention of ever doing anything Commodus wanted him to – not in that life, the next, or in any other. Unless, of course, Commodus wished to die, which he would oblige to do rather happily… Nevertheless, that did not hold the promise it once did. No longer would he live kill the unworthy and traitorous son of Marcus Aurelius, for his emperor’s last command still echoed over and over in his mind.
This time the backhand crashed ruthlessly into his face, making him wince slightly as his bruised left cheekbone received still more abuse. He blinked once, refusing to show pain as the Praetorian continued angrily. “There are Germanian troops closing on Rome,” he rasped.
Rome? Maximus’ heart leapt into his throat and his stomach danced in circles. That quirk of fate assaulted him for but a moment – Commodus’ arrogance leading to the jewel of the empire being attacked was so predictable, and yet also so unbelievable, to a military mind accustomed to thinking in terms of attack and defense. Rome, under attack – under attack! – by a barbarian army that Maximus himself had crushed only eighteen months before – before…before everything, before it all had changed. For an instant Maximus laughed a half-insane laugh… Commodus had no military mind and clearly not the sense to let those who did defend his empire. That the Germanians had made it as far as they had – however far that was – spoke very badly for Commodus’ new commander of the Northern Army. “Who’s in command?”
“Some fool from Rome.”
Clearly an idiot whom knew not what he did. Rome, in danger from the north; Rome, attacked by a barbarian army; Rome, the light of the world, facing ruin in the eye – it was incredible. And now Commodus wanted his help, which was even more astonishing.
And yet the stupidest part of all was that Commodus expected to get it.
The Praetorian was staring at him impatiently. “Well?” he prompted, expecting a favorable answer from the ex-general turned slave and gladiator. After all, who would dare defy Caesar?
Maximus turned his head slowly to face Albinus once more, looking deep into the man’s eyes and seeing only a smug superiority that made him want to wrap his chains around the fool’s neck and never let go. Fiery eyes met ice as they glared; Albinus glanced away from the general’s calculating gaze, unable to equal the challenge. Finally, Maximus spoke.
“You go tell Commodus that I will never serve him.”
Albinus’ eyes widened in shock, then fury, as Maximus’ reply sunk in. One thousand questions seemed to touch upon his lips; however, not one passed into speech. He blinked, unable to comprehend what he had just heard, and then Maximus’ practiced eye picked up the movement to his right.
Searing pain, then blackness, took him.
“How dare he refuse me! I am his emperor! I am Rome!”
“Sire, please –” Falco tried to placate him.
“No!” Commodus shouted. “I will not listen to any more of this foolishness! Kill him!” Albinus, only feet away, hesitated – not for dislike of the Caesar’s command, but for fear that he’d change his mind, as he all too often did. However, his hysteria was holding for the moment. “Now!”
The Praetorian bowed and turned to depart, but a rapidly approaching Quintus grabbed him.
“What is it now, General?” Commodus demanded, fury playing all over his otherwise handsome face.
“Forgive me, Caesar, but I heard you wanted Maximus’ help,” Quintus said hurriedly, praying with every fiber of his being that he could talk the young emperor out of killing his old friend – for Rome, he told himself repeatedly. I do this for Rome.
Because he didn’t want to examine his other reasons.
“And he refused,” Commodus snarled. “Your point?”
Quintus almost stepped back from his emperor’s heated rage, but a sense of duty kept him from it. Rome needed Maximus. There was no other choice, no other way to win. He took a deep breath. “I might be able to convince him, sire,” he said quietly, hoping to the gods that he was right and dreading what would happen if he were not.
“And why would you be able to?” Commodus mocked him, and for a moment Quintus fantasized about drawing his own sword and ending the brat’s reign then and there. But no – he was too loyal for that; he’d sworn an oath to the Empire that he intended to keep; however, at the moment he could easily sympathize with Maximus’ lust for this man’s blood. It was easy to hate Commodus, even when you were the commander of his praetorian guard.
“I served with him, highness,” Quintus replied carefully. The last thing he needed was to end up in the cell next door to his old friend. “I knew him well. He might listen to me.” If he doesn’t we’re all dead anyway, so what’s the difference?
“Might? Might?” the Caesar exploded. “I don’t have time to rely on your guesswork, Quintus!”
Biting back the reply Commodus so richly deserved, the Praetorian commander calmly tried again. “Majesty –”
“No! That arrogant fool will never do as I say. You know that!” Commodus spat, so completely certain of his own doom that he couldn’t see chance when it looked him in the eye.
Senator Falco intruded before the monarch’s temper could get out of hand. Smiling gently and harmlessly, he placed himself between the emperor and his general. “Caesar, General Quintus might succeed,” he said smoothly, and for an instant, Quintus envied the senator’s control.
But it was too late to prevent Commodus. “No! I will not go crawling – ”
Stepping out from Falco’s shadow, Quintus finally lost control and interrupted angrily. “What do we have to lose?” he demanded. “The First Felix won’t fight without him! We wouldn’t have enough men even if they did. Maximus is our only chance.”
“How dare you – ”
“Maximus.” The call floated in on him, shifting though the hazy corridors that still called themselves his mind. Drifting within him aimlessly, uncomprehended and unwanted, much as life had often been as of late, the word had little effect. Somehow he knew that he should listen, but he was beyond caring. “Maximus?”
The summons bounced about, striking off memories and old, yet unforgotten, pains. What was so important? Ah, yes, it was his name that someone was saying. Why wouldn’t they just shut up and leave him to the stillness and to the blackness? What did they want now? All had been quiet before the intrusion. He had been at peace.
“Maximus!” Quintus’ bellow brought his head snapping up and broke what little connection he’d had left with the world of unconsciousness. Maximus blinked dizzily twice, struggling to place his former second-in-command with his current surroundings, but not succeeding. What the hell was Quintus doing there? He was the commander of Commodus’ Praetorian Guard, and had proven where his loyalties laid long before. Then again, disoriented as he was, he couldn’t be sure that this was Quintus at all.
“Quintus?” he asked, trying to shake off the pounding lashing through skull; however, the pain only seemed to get worse as he tried to push it away. Colors ran together and the world spun around him as he forced his tired knees to support his aching body, more from habit than any other reason.
His old companion finally came into slightly better focus. Indeed it was Quintus… probably on some stupid praetorian errand. “Are you all right?” the general asked. “You look like hell.” Bless his foolish heart; he sounded worried.
Maximus’ temper flared. He’d never been able to abide stupid questions, and what he was being asked, coming from Quintus in the worst of all possible situations, seemed more foolish than asking if the sky was green and the grass was purple. At another point in his life, he would have forced himself to bite back the sarcastic and heated response he found rising, but he had no reason to control himself now.
“Of course I’m all right,” he snapped, all his frustration and anger finding home in his words. “I’ve lost my family and everything I’ve ever known to that madman you call ‘Caesar.’ And for following my Emperor’s last command, I’ve become a slave and am facing the worst death that Commodus can possibly imagine. Yes, I am just fine.”
Quintus blinked in surprise at the outburst and the truths it contained. “What?”
Only then did Maximus realize that he’d gone too far, begun to speak of a secret that he had never told anyone before – a secret and a request that chance and fate had prevented him from fulfilling for so long. The awareness quickly cooled the gladiator’s long-dormant rage into ice. “Nothing,” he said softly, doubly aware of the ache in his skull once he had regained control of himself. “My temper got the better of me.”
Through the pain, he studied Quintus. The other man was nodding silently, seemingly trying to find the words for – for what? He looked hassled and harried, with confusion running rampant through his troubled features, making him look older than the thirty-three years Maximus knew him to be. Maximus’ calculating eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he understood. “You’re here from Commodus.”
Though not truly asked a question, Quintus answered anyway. “Yes,” he admitted. “But this isn’t what you think.”
“Really,” Maximus responded dryly, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. He knew damn well where this was leading. “So he doesn’t want my help.”
“No, he doesn’t,” the praetorian replied honestly. “But we’ve managed to convince him that Rome needs you.”
“Rome needs me,” Maximus repeated, not without irony. Then he smiled the nasty, dangerous smile he usually reserved for enemies met in battle. “He should have thought about that before he tried to have me killed the first time.” An angry light flashing into his old friend’s eyes rewarded his unconcern. Quintus still had his illusions about the honor and glory of Rome.
“Maximus, this isn’t about Commodus!” Quintus spat angrily, yet his eyes pleaded with his general to understand. “It’s about the Empire! It’s about everything we spent years fighting for!”
“I didn’t fight for him!” Maximus snarled. If he had not been chained, he would have gladly punched Quintus for the implications of his words, yet his heart was torn inside by truths he still remembered. “Commodus can not rule. He must not rule.” But he didn’t know how to realize that last command. It lay beyond his power, and his inability to justify his emperor’s faith in him hurt more than Maximus would have ever thought possible.
“No, you fought for Rome,” the Praetorian shot back. “Isn’t that worth more than your hatred for him?”
No. Yes. Of course. Maximus hissed in vexation. Yet he’d not let down the promise he made to himself. “I won’t fight for him,” he replied angrily.
“What about Rome?” Quintus demanded.
“What about it?” he countered, looking his old friend in the eye. Barriers separated them now, barriers that wouldn’t drop because of the beliefs Maximus had willingly sacrificed when he’d seen his wife and son hanging from his family home’s archway, burnt and dead.
Quintus looked at him in disbelief, but Maximus only looked back, conveying the response to the unasked question silently with his eyes: Yes, I did change this much. “Doesn’t it matter?” the Praetorian commander pleaded.
The other man’s shoulders slumped, defeated; wordlessly, he turned to leave. Maximus began to allow himself a bitter smile, tinged with anger at himself and the world in general, but suddenly Quintus spun around and grabbed him roughly by the shoulders. “Dammit, Maximus!” he cried. His great emotion made Maximus ignore the pain shooting through his injured shoulders at the unexpected contact. “This is no time for your stubborn pride! There are ten thousand Germanian troops less than two hours away from the city, and I don’t even have three thousand Praetorians standing by! The first Felix is here, but they refuse to fight.”
He blinked. “Felix,” Maximus mused aloud, his heart suddenly beginning to pound. He looked at Quintus closely. “They refuse to fight?”
Now Quintus returned his gaze steadily. “They want you,” he said.
The former general could not help but laugh. “Ten thousand,” he repeated. “And even if Felix would fight, you’re still outnumbered.” The irony was hard to believe; nonetheless, Maximus was touched by his men’s loyalty. They risked Rome for him – and how did he repay them? By refusing to risk anything at all? His conscience was beginning to stir; yet the idea of fighting for Commodus still repulsed him. It was more than unthinkable; it was impossible. To fight for the man who had killed his family, who had killed Marcus Aurelius… He could not do it.
“I knew a man once, a noble man, a man of principal, who loved my father. And my father loved him. This man served Rome well.” The words echoed through his head, leaving only one question behind in their wake. Was that man really dead after all? But that was something Maximus was unsure he was ready to answer. In anguish, he closed his eyes, trying to shut out the voice of she who knew him better than he knew himself, and who again meant so much to him…
“I cannot do this,” Quintus replied quietly, and Maximus knew what an admission that was for the Praetorian to make. Quintus had as much pride as any man, and was a damn good field commander – with potential to be one of the best – but he wasn’t ready for this, and he knew it. And the stakes were too high for him to risk trying.
Swallowing hard, Maximus opened his eyes. Studying the molding walls of his cell for a moment, he wondered if he really was ready to take that giant leap of faith – but he already knew the answer. “All right,” he whispered.
“What?” Quintus asked in disbelief.
“I said all right!” Maximus snapped, not wanting to help Commodus but unwilling to sacrifice other’s lives merely for the sake of his hatred. He twisted his head around to meet Quintus’ eyes once more, self-loathing making his gaze sharp. “But we do this my way.”
The Praetorian nodded anxiously. “Right,” he gulped, obviously wanting to ask what had made Maximus change his mind so suddenly, but not daring to incur the wrath he knew so well of old. Quickly, he called a guard to unlock the general’s chains. The man entered, watching the gladiator warily. After hesitating, he finally turned to Quintus.
“Sir, are you sure that you want me to – ”
“Yes!” Quintus snapped, bringing a rueful smile to Maximus’ face. The general rubbed his wrists absentmindedly after their release, his mind already working far ahead of his body. There was much to be done and little time to do it in, but that was the story of his life. “I’d say I have them cowed,” he remarked, nodding after the retreating guard.
A fleeting smile lit his old comrade’s features as he gained the courage to voice the question painted all over his face. “What will you do?” Quintus asked curiously.
Despite himself, Maximus grinned. “Win.” Then his eyes and face hardened into the general’s mask of old. “You do have a horse and armor?” he commented, rolling his shoulders and wishing they weren’t so stiff and sore. Then again, his entire body felt as if he’d been run over by a chariot. Repeatedly.
Quintus smirked victoriously. “Julius!” he called out the door, then looked back to Maximus. “Argento is waiting outside as well,” the Praetorian added.
Maximus began to smile, but the expression froze in place as Cicero’s younger brother walked in. Closing his eyes, he was there again for a moment, holding desperately to his manservant’s legs as Praetorian arrows landed in his chest… With an effort, he wrenched himself from the memories and forced his eyes open. That was merely another thing that Commodus had to pay for.
“Julius.” Greeting the young man with a nod, Maximus tried to avoid the youthful eyes that searched his face hopefully. Once more he felt the weight of an empire’s hopes descending heavily onto his shoulders, and everything he had been was returning to haunt him. So many, just like Julius, saw him as a hero and a savior despite that he’d not been able to save Cicero, his family, or so many innocent others…
Maximus swallowed heavily as Julius’ pleading eyes followed him, looking with expectation, desire, and trust in the man he believed would save Rome. Emotion welled up within him once more, but he pushed it away. “I am sorry about Cicero,” he finally said hollowly. From deep inside, Maximus found the strength to meet the younger man’s innocent gaze. “He was a good man.”
“I know,” Julius whispered, looking away briefly. Then he looked up again. “He loved you, sir.”
Once more, Maximus found himself momentarily unable to find words to communicate his deep feelings. In the silence, he made a pact to himself. He looked Julius in the eye. “His death will not have been in vain,” he promised.
“I know, sir.”
Quintus cleared his throat. “Maximus…” he began.
The general looked to him and smiled grimly, reading the other man’s face and mind. “Don’t worry, Quintus,” he said easily. “I won’t kill him until this is all over. Not until Rome is safe.”
To his surprise, the Praetorian nodded and slapped him on the shoulder. “I trust you,” he replied.
Confidence buoyed inside Maximus – it was almost like a page out of the past. So much had changed, yet for one small moment in time, all remained the same. “Then let’s do this.” He turned to Julius. “Armor.”