Skip to main content

The Guest Star (7), Timacum Maius

Lucia was worried sick all night after they heard a shrieking sound in the middle of the night, followed by another that seemed to come from a greater distance away. Both sounded distant and muffled, but she understood what Pia meant when she said it wasn't a bird. There's no bird that sounds like that, and even falcons and night owls weren't that creepy. She had a bad feeling about all of this. Livia tried to calm her down, telling her that Titus was a military veteran of over five years and would still be in service if he hadn't been wounded in the battle against the Quadi tribe in the Marcomanni Wars and if anyone could do this, it was him. Alerting the legionaries at the station was not an option. If they had gone to Timacum Maius first, it might have been too late and the kidnappers would probably have disappeared.

The hours passed incredibly slowly and an hour before dawn even Livia showed a touch of nervousness. All of them were sitting under the atrium table and even four-year-old Amelia was awake listening to the sounds of the night. Livia broke the silence by calling their servant.

"Marcellus, thank you for coming this quick." She stood up when he appeared. "Please saddle your horse and prepare to go to Maius with first light. Find centurion Cato and tell him to rush here with at least two squads. Tell him we have intruders who attacked the Cursus Publicus yesterday and that Titus has gone to the mountains to find their hiding place."

"Right away, Domina."

Dawn soon broke and night slowly receded from the east, illuminating the peaks of Mount Haemus which were only thirty miles away. Marcellus mounted his horse and headed for the road not long after. Livia locked the gate behind him and returned to the atrium.

Amelia and Gaia could no longer keep their eyes open and fell asleep at the table. "Lucia, could you please help me carry them inside?" She took the older Gaia and headed for the door. Lucia followed suit with Amelia in her arms. "Sorry to bother you, this is usually Titus' job."

"They are beautiful, Livia." Lucia put Amelia down on the bed. "You should be so proud."

Livia took both of her trembling hands and led her back to Pia. "Try not to worry too much." She silently closed the door. "I had nightmares every night when Titus was abroad with the legion. Come on, let's make some hot calidas with thymus and mentuccia. It will help."

The water began to boil when they heard the first sound of a trotting horses from the road. Titus and Hero had gone upstream on foot and there was no time for Marcellus to return so quickly. Livia took the lead and the three of them went up to the highest chamber in the mansion, which had a perfect view in all directions and saw horsemen coming from the direction of Naissus. The day had not yet completely overcame the night and they could not clearly see who they were, but there appeared to be four of them with as many empty horses attached to each rider. They turned onto the dirt road towards the mansion.

"We should lock everything up and hide in the basement." Livia reached for the wooden blinds.

"No, wait…" Lucia climbed onto the crate by the window trying to get a better angle. "Livia..." She nearly lost her balance. "This is them.. This is them! They are back."

They hurried to open the gate and Titus and Hero rode in with two other horsemen and three empty horses. Remus and Cassius were visibly at the edge of their strength and once everyone was inside, after Titus and Hero helped them down, they both collapsed to the ground.

Livia and Pia hugged Titus on either side of him while Lucia rushed to hug Hero. She silently hugged him for a long time, resting her head on his shoulder.

"You worried for no reason, Lucia." Hero felt the moment was a bit awkward, taking a step back until he saw her face. "Titus was a super warrior. He took them down in a flash. They had no chance."

"Come now, Hero." Titus helped Remus to his feet. "Don't be modest. You were a natural. Not one of your arrows missed."

"Where have you been for so long?" Livia asked.

"They were hiding by the cave. The Goths. Seven of them. They took Cassius and two postmen to question them about military numbers and mines."

"Two postmen?"

"Unfortunately, we were unable to save both of them." Titus took off his weapons and lowered it to the ground. "That leader of theirs was cruel. I couldn't even describe what he did. We could not react in time". He motioned for Hero to help Cassius walk. "Come inside, Livia, can you set up the guest room, these two can hardly stand on their feet. They've been tortured for two days."

Hero carefully lifted Cassius, but he was too weak and heavy, so Lucia helped him from the other side and they slowly led him to the room and put him on the bed. She closed the blinds almost all the way, so the sun wouldn't bother him, and followed Hero out of the room. She was closing the door when she heard his barely audible voice.


"Rest now, Cass." She didn't look at him. "We'll talk in the afternoon."

* * *

Exhaustion finally took over and everyone collapsed into their beds to get at least a few hours of sleep. All except Titus, who crashed into a cubiculum in the open atrium, waiting for Marcellus to return with the legionaries.

He had only slept for an hour, when the iron knocker on the main gate woke him up. The peep-door revealed Marcellus in company of centurions Cato and Linus. "Cato! Linus!" Titus warmly welcomed his former friends from Claudius' Seventh Legion with whom he had served at Viminacium for more than three years. "Please, come in!"

The horses were still tethered in the front yard, as Titus had only taken off the saddles and weapons belonging to the Goths and left them beside. Cato glimpsed the site with a look of awe on his face.

"Well, well… Titus, you dog!" He gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder. "If you'll do all of our work, what will be left for us, my friend!" He raised both hands in the air. "Not that I'm complaining... Just saying."

"Goths again?" Linus crouched down to inspect the patterns on the shields and swords.

"Yes." He confirmed. "As far as I know, this is the second incursion, only in this area."

"Fourth, if we count one in the woods around Remesiana last year and one in Serdica the year before." Cato added and walked to the horses to check the contents of the saddlebags. "Where did you find them? Was it on the other side, by the cave?"

"Yes, exactly there.. They weren't very smart in choosing their hiding places. Or careful. There were no sentries posted around the campfire. We took them down in less than a minute."


"We have guests from the Great Library. Two students. They are researching the history of my great-grandfather and the cohort he commanded while stationed at Maius." Titus handed two more swords from the other pile to Cato. "On their way here, in the forest of Fraxinus, they came across the place where the Goths had set up an ambush. Two Cursus Publicus men and another librarian. One was killed before our eyes. We couldn't wait any longer, so we decided to attack them when they least expected it. Hero, the student who went with me, was as brave as an experienced legionary. Actually, if it wasn't for him, I don't know if I would have made it on my own."

"Good gods!" Cato was impressed to say the least. "All right, I will leave here six men and four extra horses and will take the rest to the cave mouth. Maybe you overlooked or forgot something."

"Thanks Cato." Tiredness began to show on Titus. "See you tomorrow, I've only slept one hour since yesterday." Titus turned to the gate and then stopped, remembering something else. "We had to bury all seven of them and one Cursus' man, but it was night and we had no tools. We used what we could. Please check and cover the graves with rocks. There are many wolves here, especially in winter. We marked Cursus' grave with one of their shields."

After they left, he returned inside and went straight to their bedroom. For the next six hours, the only sounds in the villa, apart from the gurgling of the water, were the muffled voices in the kitchen where the servants were preparing the food for the afternoon and evening ahead. The legionaries who remained, spent the time in the stable where they took care of the horses of the dead Goths and where they awaited further instructions.

A few hours after noon, Lucia woke up to realize that she had slept for more than eight hours. The sun crossed the highest point in the sky and she felt refreshed and relieved. She shared a room with Pia, who was still sleeping, so she slowly, without disturbing the silence, refreshed herself with water from the nightstand in the corner of the room, fixed her hair, and pulled her sleeveless stola over the long tunic she was sleeping on.

She went down into the atrium to find only Cassius and Remus at the stone table packing their belongings into travel bags. Remus stood up and bowed to Lucia.

"I'm so glad you both look much better." She sat opposite Cassius and next to Remus. "Did you find something to eat?"

"Yes. Marcellus took good care of us. Thank you very much for all you have done for us. The legionaries have just informed us they are ready to escort us to Naissus." He was a man of about forty years old, and he had a hard time enduring the torture. His face showed that he still hadn't recovered from the pain in his arms, and especially in his back. "Please give our eternal gratitude to Titus and Hero. We wouldn't be alive if it weren't for them. I will return in a following days to personally thank Titus as soon as I sort all things up with the office and with Calix family." He bowed again and walked towards the gate.

It wasn't until he was gone that Lucia looked at Cassius. "You're leaving with them, aren't you?"

"Yes." His expression was sincere, but at the same time a little sad. She hadn't seen him like this since the first days of Alexandria. "Lucia..."

"I'm so sorry, Cassius." She interrupted him. "I should have stayed and been honest with you." She didn't know how to continue without hurting him. "To talk more... and explain my feelings. I shouldn't have left like that..."

"I saw how you were looking at him."

"Cass..." Lucia couldn't find the right words. "He wasn't the reason why I left."

"But he is now, isn't he?"

She didn't say anything. A quiet tear appeared in her eye and she just looked down. "I am so sorry."

He tried to get up, but Lucia stopped him by holding his arm. She wiped away a tear and looked into his eyes again. "I have to tell you what happened in Lissus."

Her expression was completely different now, somehow resolute, and he sat back down. She talked to him for several minutes, explaining him everything that had happened, from the beginning when they docked in the port, how they were followed throughout the city, to the kidnapping in the market and the events on the ship itself, not leaving out a single detail. She specifically described Gaius' sacrifice at the end when he stood up to his rogue sailor, which ultimately cost him his life.

Cassius closed his eyes briefly when she finished. "I loved that fool." He opened them again and she saw all the sadness that had enveloped him. "I told him to leave and do nothing... But he never listened to me..." He sat like that for a while, then got up and walked towards the gate without saying a word. He stopped for a moment halfway, and then turned around.

"I wish you all the happiness Lucia. I mean it. No one deserves it more than you."

* * *

When they left she sat in her thoughts for a few more minutes thinking about everything that had happened in the past few weeks and then decided to go to the kitchen to help with the food and clear her mind. Everyone had skipped breakfast and she expected the crowds in the atrium to return soon. Livia was the first to appear in the kitchen. "How can I help, my ladies?" She was in a good mood. "And Marcellus, of course!"

There were no strict rules regarding civil servants and slaves in the empire, but in most family estates they were exploited to the max, often to the level of brutality. But this was not the case in the Valerius family. Everyone who worked in the fields and in the house was not only paid regularly, but also treated fairly and with full respect. Titus even had a rule that every now and again, especially during the summer, the entire Valerius family with all the employees dined at the long stone table in the atrium. Many wealthier families, especially in Naissus, mocked them for this, but Titus did not care much. The fact is that when the Valerius family was looking for new workers, the line in front of their house was always long.

"We've got this, Livia." Lucia was busy with the boiled eggs. "Just go and take care of the girls."

There were not often guests in the villa, but when this was the case, it was usually an occasion for a rich feast of wild game meats and the best products of the Valerius family including the red wine that Titus made every autumn and for which he was famous far beyond the district. But today was quite the opposite. Hero and Lucia, because of everything that happened during the past day and night, became more than ordinary guests in just two days of staying in the villa. 

So instead of a rather formal meal, it was one of those days when everyone gathered around the big stone table and enjoyed the beginning of the day, which due to circumstances started unusually late. On the table was a hearty breakfast. In addition to a ridiculous amount of boiled eggs, equally large amounts of white goat cheese, raw and fried in olive oil, the reward on the table were sour apples from their fields, which Titus had planted only five years ago. They were still rare in the Naissus valley and beyond, but they were a fruit that grew in popularity with each passing year.

Understandably, the last to appear in the atrium was Titus who was greeted with a round of loud applause. He sat at the head of the table, his family on the left, while Hero and Lucia were on the right, followed by Marcellus and the other servants. He took the opportunity to describe in detail what had happened last night, trying to avoid the disgusting details but failed. He presented Hero as his equal in all the events of last night, from following the tracks, through the tactics of the attack and the fight with the Goths itself.

"Hero, didn't you say you had no military training?" Livia asked.

"It's not how exactly... I mean, I was just trying to copy Titus and not slow him down. That's all."

Titus saw that it was time to change the subject. He had talked to Hero briefly last night about the reasons for their visit, but they didn't have much time because of all they had been through. "Hero, maybe now that this is over, it's time to show me the Tiberius's note?"

"Absolutely." Hero took the papyrus out of his pocket and handed it to him.

"The new star on the sky?" Titus loosely translated from the Greek.

"Yes, apparently, this is the translation of these ancient pictographs. We became interested in this, after a new star appeared in the sky of Alexandria last December, the largest ever, which remained there for eight full months before disappearing for good."

"Nothing like that could be seen from here." Titus was completely lost in thought. "From all of my time spent in the Legion, we've always looked to the stars for some kind of prophecy. Especially before going into battles. They said if Mars was close to a sign, a battle would be inevitable, but I always thought of that as horseshit. Stories for the feeble minded."

Lucia and Hero looked at each other.


"Mars was indeed close to the new star. At least first two months and then retreated backwards on the sky." Hero remembered his notes. He was marking the position of Mars for as long as the newcomer was visible.

"There you go." Titus proved his point. "There were no wars in Aegyptus during those eight months. These are just folktales for the children. Don't tell me that Alexandrian scholars believe these stories?"

"Of course not, that's why we're here." Lucia pointed to the note in Titus' hands. "We believe if we find more information about these pictographs, we could try to understand the nature better."

"I wonder, how does this even have to do with Tiberius…" Titus mused aloud. "Where would he even find something like this?"

"We went to Crete first. We thought his family was still there in Hiera, but we found out he never returned to the island. Then we went to Gortyn and Cnoso and there we talked to a great guy, Ioannis, an old Greek teacher from the local school who showed us ancient ruins that he believed existed many millennia before the Romans and even the Greeks.'' Hero took out another papyrus, which he copied from the bone pendant that Ioannis showed them. "This is the writing of people from the Kingdom of Serica."

Titus took the other note and put both of them on the table. Everybody gathered around to take a better look. "Hmm, they are not the same, but..."

"These two are the same!" Pia pointed to a sign represented by one horizontal and one vertical line that crossed in the middle. "And these two also!"

"So you think that..."

"Ioannis said that there is a possibility that these ancient people from Crete came from the far east a long time ago and could be of the same origin as the people who wrote the Tiberius' note."

"Did you find someone on the island who could translate it?" Pia asked.

"Unfortunately, no." Lucia unconsciously paused, remembering Ioannis words. "They perished in a volcanic catastrophe, just like Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted. They are all gone."

"It is horrible!" Livia and Pia said it almost at the same time.

"But in Naissus we met a man who is from Serica, the official ambassador for the affairs of the Silk Road, who said that his friend who is currently in Byzantium would be able to translate it." Hero pointed to the note again. "We were hoping you had Tiberius's old things here so we could search among them for more information. Maybe the original note is there too? Or maybe.. there could be more notes with pictographs..."

"We do have some old stuff from Tiberius' time, but I'm sure there's nothing out of the ordinary among them. Nothing like this." Titus turned to his wife. "Maybe in the basement there are more stuff, but I don't think.."

"There are more notes."

Everyone looked at Marcellus who said it.

"Two more." He said it like it was something everyone knew, but when no one took the quizzical look off their faces, he felt he had to explain. "In Maius..." He was waiting for at least a hint of recognition. "Tribute of the Cretan cohort in the temple of the Muses!"

* * *

Tomorrow morning, after breakfast which this time happened in a more or less regular time, Titus and Hero mounted their horses and accompanied with a wooden plaustrum, a large cart loaded with three casks of red wine, and with Lucia and Pia at the helm. After what had happened with the Goths, Titus felt it would be wise not to leave the property without at least a few people to guard the house and his family, so Marcellus stayed with Livia and the girls, but Pia was keenly interested in Hero's and Lucia's quest and he didn't have the heart not to take her with him.

Timacum Maius was less than five miles to the north, and they soon, in a few minutes, descended to the river from which the station took its name. The road led downstream along the river's left bank. Titus and Hero rode in front of the wine cart that was one of Titus' biggest incomes. He sold his wine to the Roman army located at the station throughout the year and this batch was the last one from his cellar. The new harvest was due to start in the next few weeks, and the second part of September and almost the whole autumn was the busiest time in his villa.

"Hero, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure." Hero felt he might know what the question would be.

"Cassius. You said he was also from the Library and on the same assignment with you and Lucia." He spurred his horse to close the distance to Hero. "Well, I understand that he was kidnapped and tortured, but yesterday he left so quickly, without waiting for us to at least say goodbye... What was that about?"

Hero turned his head to check that Lucia and Pia weren't too close to hear them. The truth was that even he did not understand why he left so early. Lucia told him that they had talked and that everything was fine, but he wasn't so sure. In any case, he saw no point in troubling Titus with all that had happened since they left Alexandria.

"I don't now, Titus... It's.." He couldn't find convincing words. "'s complicated." He said this while looking at Lucia and Pia who were in lively conversation. He looked ahead at the road again, avoiding looking back at Titus.

Now it was Titus' time to look back at his daughter and Lucia. Although he had only known them for a few days, he seemed to understand better what was happening with those two. He just gave him a fatherly smile before giving him a friendly pat on the back. "I'd say it's not complicated anymore."

Twenty feet away, Pia was vividly explaining to Lucia the geography of their valley. Lucia thought she was as bright as she had been at her age. Perhaps even more hungry for knowledge and education than Lucia at a time when her father did not return from the war, and she mourned for days and months at home. But life in Rome was incomparable to this here. Pia was lucky to have a full life now, but it would be a shame if she decided not to continue expanding her knowledge and interests.

"I learned that the name of the river was taken from the people who lived here many centuries ago." Pia continued her lecture. "It means 'black water' in their language, although here is not black at all, but its color really darkens upstream, when you pass the Timacum Minus station. Maybe a hundred miles from here, all the way towards Danubius."

"So, there are two Timacum stations?"

"Yes, this one here is bigger, that's why there is an aqueduct built, but there is also a hot spring on the other side and a river bathing place around a big rock not far from the station. The water there is always warm, even in the winter. But it is almost always full of legionaries. Dad says the water heals them if they are wounded or sick."

The road led through accessible terrain, and in the distance the canyon carved by the river over thousands of years could already be seen. Timacum Maius lay at the entrance to the canyon, and soon they were in front of the garrison that spread out at the very beginning of the station, where numerous long barracks for the legionaries were.

Lucia thought it would be difficult to describe this settlement. It was definitely more than a military garrison and bigger than any road station they had encountered on their travels so far. But at the same time it was smaller than the size of the city, it didn't have a forum or anything like that, and the residential part was made up only of the people who served the station. The spa on the other hand, with its healing properties and hot water, attracted many civilian travelers for whom Maius was the target destination.

In its center, the most prominent building was a temple built in honor of the goddesses Parcae. It was quite tall compared to the other buildings surrounding it. Three Parcae were sculpted at the entrance, Nona who spun the thread of life on a spindle, Decima who measured the thread with her rod, and Morta who cut it at the end of a man's life. The goddess Decima was slightly sculpted larger than the other two. Across from it was a smaller temple-like structure, but its purpose was quite different. This was their destination, the temple of the Muses, rectangular in shape with an entrance about forty feet long.

"This is magnificent!" Lucia admired the style and architecture of both buildings. "But, I don't get it... Why Parcae? I was more expecting a red-painted temple, in the sacred color of the god Mars, dedicated to the patron of all Roman warriors."

"Well, the scutum shield of the Roman legionaries has a spindle in the middle, which is a symbol of the goddess Decima who is determining the fate of each of the living." Titus explained. "It's a sign of fate, and a symbol of the inevitability of death." He shrugged and raised both hands in the gesture of indifference. "That's what they teach us in the first class before we get our swords. It's a little spooky if you ask me, but it's not wrong."

* * *

The Temple of the Muses was not a temple at all. In all major cities throughout the empire, exhibitions of valuables and important artifacts from history were generally organized in the atriums of wealthy people or in the royal palaces and grand villas where they stayed on their travels. But at places like Timacum Maius, there was always at least a modest space where inscriptions, dedicatory plaques, and important related objects were displayed. Ever since the time of the ancient Greeks, the Muses have always been considered a source of knowledge and artistic inspiration, and over time, people called places like this simply the temples of the Muses.

For the past dozens of years, perhaps even two full centuries, Timacum Maius had primarily been a military station and almost all they saw when they entered the tall marble hall, was the memory of the legions or well-known cohorts that had been stationed here.

"Come over here." Titus led them to the eastern wall of the hall. "Here it is." A brick seal of the first cohort of Cretans was embedded in the wall, indicating that this part of the temple was dedicated to the army unit of Titus' great-grandfather. There were many items from their arsenal neatly displayed, shields, swords, many helmets, bows and arrows. He picked up the quiver bag with engraved letters TCV. "Tiberius Claudius Valerius. This is the arrow bag that belonged to my great-grandfather."

Hero took it to feel the weight. It was heavier than he anticipated. "A vice praetor of the Hiera told us that, and those were exactly his words, he could shoot an arrow and hit a running rabbit from a long distance." Hero put the arrows down and took the Archus, the heavy bow, weight about five libras, maybe more. "I didn't believe him until I saw how accurate and fast you were the other day with the Goths."

Lucia and Pia were less fascinated by the military equipment and went straight to the marble wall against which were leaning two huge open chests containing smaller objects from the time of Tiberius. "Marcellus said the notes were in one of these crates." She crouched in front of the left crate. "I'll search this one. Pia, could you please look at that one?"

The crates were full of roman ensigns, trumpets and buccinas made of brass and many armor parts. There were lots of knives and tools of various sizes and purposes, as well as personal and religious items that belonged to fallen legionaries.

"I found them!" Pia exclaimed with satisfaction. In her hands were two solid objects with engraved pictographs. They all walked up to her to see the notes and they were all surprised to see how old they apparently were.
Hero took one of them. "This is the one from the library." He examined it from all sides. "It looks incomplete though... Like it's broken and probably missing more pictographs, but this is it." He shifted his focus to the second one. "This one though..." He handed the first object to Lucia and took the second. "Look at the pictographs... Not a single sign is the same as the ones from the first."

"How old do you think they are?" Titus asked.

"This one is engraved into a bone." Lucia took the second from Hero's hand. "But this is.. what? A turtle shell?"

"I think you're right, and that means, compared to similar artifacts from the Library, that they are at least one millennium old." Hero handed over the turtle shell to Titus.

He tried to look at it from different directions, but couldn't figure out the right way to hold it to read the signs. "Well, unless we find a millennial old man to ask him to translate it for us, I would say your job here is done." Titus stepped towards them and put one arm around Pia. "Obviously Tiberius brought this with him all the way from Crete and if your friend Ioannis was right, it originated in the far east." He pointed to Hero. "And it means that you two have no choice but to..."

"...go to Byzantium." He finished his sentence.

The silence took over, but only for а couple of short moments when a familiar voice came from the entrance, thirty feet behind them.

"And tomorrow morning we leave at first light."

They all turned towards the entrance, where the voice had come from, and saw Vitus standing there in the company of Centurion Cato.

© 2023 Milan's Public Journal