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The Guest Star (6), Cassius

Tomorrow morning Bruttia asked her Praetorian guard and Pilus prior of the Naissus defense cohort to join them for breakfast. Lucia and Hero insisted on continuing their journey alone and she wanted a security report on the route north. When it came to security, Rome had recently become aware that the existence of an imperial workshop of that size with precious metal mines in the vicinity was not something that could be kept secret for so long. One cohort in the city, one in Timacum stations, and one in Remesiana, both less than twenty miles apart, might not be enough to meet all the dangers in the coming years. In the atrium, she hosted them at a long stone table behind the fountain.

Pilus prior of the cohort of Aurelia Dardanorum sat opposite Bruttia. "The road is safe. We have the first mine shaft only ten miles up the road and another Timacum station at the same distance after Maius and patrols are frequent. As long as they are on the road, there would be no problem."

"I would feel much safer if they had a gladius and crossbows with them. Bruttia was insistent. "Marcus, please include them along with the supplies, just in case."

"Yes, my empress."

"Hero, I know you don't have any military training, but trust me, even I could handle these arcuballistas." Bruttia turned to Hero and Lucia. "But, I am still not happy that you want to go alone."

"We will be on the road all the time." Hero was confident. "Also, it's mostly farmland and there are many rustic properties where families have lived for decades. We will be fine."

Soon after, they went to the palace stables to prepare the horses and supplies for one day journey only to find that they were already ready. Hero didn't know how they would ever repay Bruttia for all she had done for them in the last ten days. But he understood, especially since they arrived in Naissus, what Vitus meant when he said she was a remarkable woman.

They said goodbye, mounted their horses and, accompanied by another donkey for luggage, went eastward. The road led along the right bank of the river Naissa, after which the city got its name. The river was not wide and it was not navigable, but it was big enough to pose a danger in periods when it would rain without stopping, or in late winters when the snow melted on the mountains and the river carried water to the Danubius and further to the Pontus Euxinus. Summers were a completely different matter and with its crystal clear waters, Naissa looked mystical at times.

"Quintia told me that the old Celtic peoples, who lived here many centuries ago, named this river." Lucia and Hero had just left the eastern outskirts of the city and were now riding next to Naissa towards the exit of the valley.

"I was actually wondering about the name of the town. It's really unusual. I've never heard of that word before. Who were the Celts? You mean the Galli?" Hero asked.

"Yes." Lucia added. "They are now living mostly in the province of Gallia Celtica. But this is how they call themselves. Anyway, the name pretty much means the river of fairies."


"I guess this valley looked like a Celtic otherworld to them, based on the scenes from their beliefs." The road turned north and soon they were heading uphill leaving the fairy river behind. Lucia took one last look at the river bed and spurred her horse towards Hero's.

Mining activities soon became visible on their left, after several hours of traveling on surprisingly good cobblestone. The mine was a few miles away towards the mountain range that loomed in the background. The presence of numerous legionaries indicated that the mine was not only rich in iron, but most likely also in silver and gold. The mountain slope in front of them and just behind the mine was not far and they decided to take their first break after reaching it about an hour and a half after crossing the mine area.

"We might run into Cassius today." Hero noted as they dismounted and prepared to eat prandiums with last night's leftovers, mostly goat meat with spices wrapped in slices of bread, which they had gotten from Bruttia's kitchen. "Why do you think he came here?"

"I was thinking about it last night. He didn't take my rejection well and..." Lucia tried to find the words. "I mean, he wasn't violent or anything. He was more confused because he wasn't expecting it.. Maybe it's my fault, I should have stayed that afternoon and tried to talk to him about everything... Instead, I just left."

"So you think he is looking for a closure, or is more than that?"

"I don't know." Lucia's mood changed a little. "He's a nice guy, but I... I just couldn't. My feelings changed... He changed.. It wasn't the same as before."

Hero felt it would be best to change the subject, but he knew that sooner or later they would have to deal with the situation, especially now since he was here as well.

"He couldn't have known we'd been on Crete for three days and Gaius and him probably used that wind to get to Lissus as soon as possible to find us there. When they didn't, I guess he thought we'd already left. Maybe he thinks that we are only a day ahead of him and that he will find us in Naissus or Timacum Maius." Hero got up and went to the horses to get their water bags. He took a long drink and offered Lucia hers. "But, that also means he doesn't know that Gaius is dead... Cassius is my best friend, Lucia. Maybe it's a good idea for me to explain him how exactly everything happened?"

"No, Hero." Lucia was determined. "Please let me fix this. I owe him an explanation."

"You are probably right." Hero climbed a small boulder to see where the road went next. The cobblestone was visible for several miles before entering the forest. "If you're ready, shall we go? The neighbor said there's a waterfall to the right of the road before Maius. It could be just after that woods."

* * *

The road from Lissus to Naissus had no unusual parts and strategically speaking, it always had good visibility in all directions. This was now the first time they had come across a section that went through a dense forest. Hero was sure that the road would have been built around the forest, if they could have built it in a safe way, but it made sense to go straight through the woods, because there was a large mountain range to the south, while to the north it was constantly uphill and then downhill and vice versa, at an unusual angle.

The moment they entered the forest, the landscape and temperature changed dramatically. The trees were tall, mostly centuries-old oaks, but also a lot of wild chestnut, big black birch and beech. At the same instant, Lucia felt а primal admiration but also a touch of fear.

The sounds of nature have also changed, somehow they have become quieter and more eerie and mystical. For the first time she missed the presence of Vitus' and Caelius' legionaries. The forest was long, but the road was neatly built and maintained, and there was enough cleared space between the edges of the road and the vegetation. The horses didn't seem to notice any dramatic change or any hint of danger and continued at the same pace.

"How long do you think the forest is?" Lucia forced her horse to get closer to Hero's.

"I'd be surprised if it's longer than a mile." Hero looked at her. "From the hill I saw its end in the distance."

"Hero, what do you think of Bruttia? She did so much for us, for no particular reason, it seems to me. I mean, she's an amazing woman…" Lucia wanted to change the subject and take her mind off the forest around them.

Hero noticed in Lucia's body language that she was a bit scared and smiled. "I think she's genuinely interested in our quest. I mean, you can't find too many people wandering around looking for answers about the sky and the stars." He reached for the water bag. "Actually, if I come to think of it little more, I'd say she's a little envious because she can't be with us."

"Don't be like that. She's an empress. Every woman in Rome would want to be in her place."

Hero stopped his horse and looked seriously at Lucia. "You're wrong, Lucia. If she could, she'd switch places with you in an instant and get as far away from Rome as possible." He paused for a moment. "What I'm trying to say is, she's a strong person like Lucilla was, and you know what happened to her."

Lucia knew exactly what he meant and deep down she felt sorry for Bruttia. Hero was right. Being a royalty means being in the middle of intrigues and fake smiles, and knowing what others, even your closest ones, think about you is almost impossible. To say the least.

"This is a magnificent place." Lucia looked around. Then she moved even closer to Hero, leaning towards him and giving him that competitive look, just like on the mountains of Crete.

"Oh no." Hero knew exactly what would follow.

"Race you to the exit of the forest!" She bucked her horse and galloped down the road.

And as before, Hero watched her sitting on his horse, accompanied by a donkey that carried their belongings. He couldn't hide his smile. She was an amazing in every way. After all those years in Alexandria hanging out with Cassius and her, and then being in Lucia's company for the last two weeks, he felt like he didn't really know her at all. The race was futile and Hero slowly took off towards her.

But just three hundred feet away, she suddenly stopped and looked down at the forest floor. Then she looked towards him. "Hero, come quick!" She shouted.

When he arrived, Lucia had already dismounted and was standing in the middle of the scattered things. It looked like someone had been ambushed and robbed. Scattered bags and their contents could be seen deeper in the forest to the south. There was food, leather bags and postal scrolls and papyrus, but also personal belongings.

"The food was taken out and half eaten. Whatever happened must have happened yesterday. The forest animals scattered the food over night." Hero crouched down to pick up the bag of documents. "This has an imperial postmark. Those attacked were probably people from the Cursus Publicus."

Lucia stepped deeper into the forest, following the trail of scattered items. "This bag is definitely not theirs." She opened it and pulled out several thick scrolls. All had the seals of the Library of Alexandria. "Cassius was with them. I saw these scrolls and this bag, when he was packing in the dorm." She picked up another bag and found clothes inside. "These tunics are also his."

Hero came closer and started collecting things. "Let's gather what we can and move on. Whoever attacked them, may still be around."

* * *

The road soon emerged from the forest into a narrow valley, still surrounded by mountains to the south and inaccessible terrain to the north. Burdened with extra baggage, Hero and Lucia were now moving more slowly, but both were relieved to be out of the woods.

"I don't understand." Lucia thought aloud. "If they were attacked by robbers, why they didn't take anything? Did they manage to escape and left their stuff behind?"

"It's possible. If they did, they are probably in Maius, even if they escaped on foot." Hero didn't sound convincing. "Then again, they would probably be back with the legionaries by now, to pick up the luggage, wouldn't they?"

"You think there's other possibility?"

"They could have run into someone else. Not the robbers."


"I don't know. Maybe Titus would know more about it. If something like this happened before..." Hero spurred his horse. "Come on, let's hurry. The waterfall must be close, we should find it before dark."

They had been riding for almost an hour before they heard the first trickle of water. The waterfall was mostly hidden by the summer vegetation and it was not the first site visible from the road. Rather, it was the beginning of a modest aqueduct that apparently drew water from the falling water from a sharp cliff on the northern slopes. The watercourse of the aqueduct, not far from its construction at the source, disappeared not far on its course to Timacum Maius behind trees and vegetation.

Almost on the entire land to the right of the road to the waterfall itself, there were rows of vines, as well as many fruit trees, mainly pears and plums, and a large area seems to have been made up of apples, a new type of fruit that arrived by the Silk road a few decades ago. A dirt road turned right that led directly to the rustic mansion of the Valerius family.

Apparently, given the uphill terrain, the road was easier to see from the direction of the villa than the other way around, and a man and woman in their forties met them halfway, seeing them approach.

"Hello there." The man greeted them warmly and took hold of the reins of Lucia's horse. "Are you looking for someone or maybe lost your way?"

"We are looking for the Valerius family. Are you Titus Valerius, great-grandson of Tiberius Claudius Valerius?" Hero dismounted and offered a handshake.

"Yes, that's me." Titus took it little confused. "I don't think anyone has ever asked me about Tiberius before. Who are you?"

"Forgive me." Hero apologized. "I am Herodian of Antioch, and this is Lucia Gavia Corvinus of Rome. We are from the Library of Alexandria, researching historical facts about your great-grandfather and his cohort. We were hoping you could help us."

Titus' expression morphed from confusion to warm hospitality. "I am very glad to meet you both. This is my wife Livia." He held out his hand for Lucia to help her dismount safely. "Please welcome to our estate. Let's go to the house, we can talk over dinner."

Just a hundred feet from the roar of the falls on the far side of the aqueduct, lay their rustic villa, surrounded by ornamental plants and with an open courtyard outside the main gate. The water pressure was extraordinary and the fountain in the middle of the atrium threw water probably six feet high. Titus' and Livia's three young daughters introduced themselves and went to help in the kitchen.

"You are living in a perfect place! This here..." Lucia spread her arms wide. "...I always imagined the Elysian fields looked something like this!"

"Thank you." Livia sat down next to Lucia. "Except for the humming of all the water. I don't think I'll ever get used to it."

"I don't mind it anymore. In fact, when we are in Naissus, I sometimes have trouble falling asleep in silence." Titus smiled at his wife. "But perhaps, before the food arrives, we could answer your questions about Tiberius?" He turned to Hero. "Actually, I'm not quite sure how much we can help you. There are only a few of his things here. It was a really long time ago."

"Of course." Hero went to take the note out of his bag, but stopped. "I have Tiberius' note from the Library to show you, but before that, if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about something else? Something we came across in the woods a few hours ago."


"Our friend from the Library came to Naisus two days before us." Hero was looking for the best way to describe how it all happened. "We traveled separately, he was with the Cursus Publicus, and we came in the company of the empress Bruttia and her escort. We believed that yesterday on his way to you, or to Timacum Maius, he and his companions from the post service were ambushed and attacked in the forest."

"That's terrible! Were they all..." Livia put both hands on her face." Were they killed?"

"That's the thing." Lucia jumped in. "We found all their luggage scattered on the road and nothing else. There were no signs of blood or struggle. It looks like they were kidnapped. We don't understand why would someone do that."

"We were wondering if something like that happened before?" Hero added.

"No, never. At least I can't think of anything like it. This is actually a quiet area. Half the cohort is located less than five miles away. The road is full of legionaries almost every day."

"Did something strange happen yesterday or the night before?"

Titus pointed a forefinger to his nose. "Now, when you mentioned... Something did happen last night." He stood up. "Pia!" He shouted. "Please come here."

Pia, their oldest daughter came promptly from the kitchen. "Yes, father?"

"Pia told me that she heard a strange sound in the middle of the night. It scared her. She woke me up and we came here to try to hear it again. The way she described it, it could be a bird, but it was never heard from again." He leaned over to address his daughter. "Pia, did you hear it again later during the night? Maybe this morning? Can you guess what it was?"

"No. I didn't. But.. father… I…" Pia looked a little scared. "I don't think it was a bird, but someone trying to imitate it."

* * *

Dinner was quick and Hero was already packing his backpack and getting ready for the scouting mission. He took the crossbow and clipped it to his belt. He didn't know where the arrows were going, so he put them all in the bag as well. Titus came along from the house carrying a real bow and long arrows with a quiver bag on his back. They both already mounted gladius swords.

The sun had set about half an hour ago and night was already descending from the east. Lucia stood next to Hero helping him tighten the straps on his backpack.

"Lucia, please wait for me." He tried to catch her elusive eyes. "Don't go to Maius alone. We don't know who they are, where they are exactly, or what they want. It can be dangerous to ride alone at night." She finally looked at him and he saw that she was on the verge of tears. "Don't worry, we'll be fine. We should be back by dawn. If we're not back by then, send a servant to alert the soldiers and lock yourself in the house."

She hugged him tightly and did not let him go for a long time. Then she looked into his eyes and kissed him briefly on the lips. Without waiting for his reaction, she turned and ran inside. Hero was frozen for a few moments, not sure how to react.

"Well, I remember those moments. I've been there myself." Titus gave him a big smile and then punched him pretty hard on the shoulder. "Come on Hero, let's not waste time."

They made their way to the waterfall and under the twenty foot high arch of the aqueduct at the end of which was a large wheel with paddles that fed the water into a narrow stone channel. Not far from it was a goat path that zigzagged up the hill almost parallel to the water that fell from a cliff a hundred feet high. When they reached the top, Titus led them upstream.

"I hunt a lot in these woods. There are also a lot of traps I set last month, so watch your step."

They hurried further south. The terrain was mostly wooded, but from time to time they came out on glades of different sizes. These mountain ranges were millions of years old and stretched in a west-east direction starting from the northern slopes of Naissus up to the beginning of the Haemus mountain ranges that separated Moesia Inferior and Thracia.

"Are you sure they should be around here?"

"Yes, based on what you said where you found things scattered on the road, they probably took them south or southeast and if we continue this way we will be where they must have passed." Titus pointed in the direction of the bare cliffs in the distance. By then, the night had completely replaced the day, but the sky was not completely dark, due to the large moon rising from the east. "Come on, we'll be there in half an hour."

"I can't wrap my head around the logic behind this." Hero broke the silence after a few minutes of their fast pace. Now, because of the thick vegetation, they progressed more slowly. "Kidnapping postal officers and a library student.. Why?"

"Your friend is most likely just collateral damage." Titus offered. "But the Cursus Publicus... They may have conveyed something, or known something important."

They came to the cliffs and stopped to listen. But nothing, except for the usual forest sounds, was heard. Titus pointed the goat path leading around and they entered dense vegetation again. "On the other side of these rocks is a large opening that leads to the entrance of the old cave. If I were them, I would camp there. It is isolated and faces the opposite side of the road. Try not to make any sounds. It's close."

They sneaked another hundred feet to reach the end of the cliff. Titus put his finger to his mouth and walked carefully to a spot that overlooked the other side. He peered out and watched the open glade by the cliff on the other side for a few moments. Then he gestured for Hero to come over.

About two hundred feet from them, a small campfire was lit around which sat five men dressed in unusual clothing. They all had long hair and beards. Some also had armor, while their fully round shields were lined up against the large boulder. On the other side of the fire, knelt two postal officers and Cassius, their hands tied to a thick branch that was horizontally wedged a foot above their heads.

"The Goths!" Titus whispered.

He motioned to Hero and they retreated back to a safe distance.

"This doesn't look good." Titus said as they found cover between two boulders. "They are heavily armed and most likely they are here to scout the area." He leaned against a stone. "After they get what they want, they will kill them for sure."

"What should we do?"

"Let's wait until they fall asleep. Then we attack. That's the only way. There are five of them and we only have light weapons. The element of surprise is our only advantage."

The next three hours were probably the longest hours of Hero's life. From time to time they went to the end of the cliff to see if anything had changed, but each time they found the Goths in the same position around the fire, talking and laughing.

"Cassius doesn't look good." Hero said after he returned from the latest observation. "I think he is not conscious... The other two are not moving either..."

The moment he said that, a strange sound like the shrieking of a hawk spread out from the direction they came.

"This is definitely not a bird." Titus stood up listening.

There was another shriek, closer this time, and soon they heard the sound of a horse trotting behind them. Titus and Hero lay down on the ground and only moments later two horses passed within a few feet of them.

* * *

Cassius' arms went numb. They have been in this position since this morning and were untied when they were given food and water, and only for a few minutes. He has been passing out and regaining consciousness several times since this morning. All three of them were exhausted from this position, which was apparently one of the techniques to wear out the prisoners so they wouldn't have the strength to escape.

From the moment they were ambushed, almost two days had passed and he couldn't understand why they took them. They were obviously waiting for something. Cassius was sure they were from the north, probably from one of the Germanic tribes, but he didn't know any Germanic languages at all, and it was just a guess.

It was probably around midnight when he heard horses from the direction of the cliffs. When new arrivals dismounted, it was clear that their leader had finally appeared. Cassius understood that his name was Briar, which also gave him no indication of their origin. He was a large man, probably in his late thirties. Like the others, he had long messy hair and a beard.

After Briar's companions gave him a report on the previous two days, his attention finally shifted to the prisoners.

"Do you know why you are here?" Briar asked in bad Latin, heavily accented. He addressed Calix and Remus, his postal companions, but neither answered. Both were conscious, but barely.

"How many cohorts are in Naissus?" Briar raised his voice. "How many here?"

Calix looked up, finally realizing the point of all this.

"You are a fool if you want to raid Naissus…" His voice was barely above a whisper. Dehydration and fatigue had taken their toll and Calix was breathing heavily. "One... is too many for you..." He found the strength to look into Briar's eyes. " barbaric savage!" Calix had no doubts about their fate and stared at him defiantly.

Briar slowly took out his heavy sword and wordlessly decapitated Calix in one swing, cutting the branch above them in the process. Remus and Cassius fell to the ground. There was blood everywhere. The site was sickening and disgusting. Remus passed out and Briar turned to Cassius who had the urge to throw up.

Briar lifted Cassius up with one hand so that their eyes met at close range. "How many cohorts?" He didn't have to raise his voice now. "How many mines? What are they digging?"

But Cassius had no time to answer. What happened in the next tens of moments, he could not understand. First, there was the distinct sound of an arrow flying through the air. The iron tip of the arrow struck Briar in the back of the head and he collapsed instantly. Blood spattered Cassius' face and he fell to the ground, dragged by Briar's hand which still held his tunic tightly.

He managed to see two more arrows that flew from the direction Briar had just ridden in. Two more Goths fell to the ground. And then he saw another pair of arrows, before two silhouettes burst out of the vegetation and rushed towards the clearing. One took out his gladius and engaged the remaining two Goths, while the other ran towards him.

"Cassius!" Hero knelt down and gently supported his head. "Thank the gods you're all right!"

As he was in shock, Cassius struggled to understand exactly what had happened. He caught sight of Briar's head and saw that the arrow had gone through his entire skull and exited his left eye, stopping probably only an uncia from his own. He looked up.


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