I was commissioned to write a short story to introduce a theme for an SCA event this coming August and have been given permission to share it outside of the newsletter it will be published in. Hope you enjoy! It’s got a bit of the same flavor as “Amber Ashes”, so if you want to read more about this famous natural disaster, check out the Decimus Trilogy on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and other online retailers.
“Stop, thief!” the baker bellowed as the portly man rushed out of his shop.
Titus’s sandaled feet drummed against the stone-paved streets as he ran from the man he had stolen from. With his satchel securely strapped across his chest, his scrawny legs carried him far away from the bakery.
The street urchin weaved and ducked past the servants, politicians, and wealthy vacationers that crowded the walkway. To his left, carts rattled their way down the road, horses and donkeys hauling the loads of their merchant masters towards the forum. And that’s just where Titus was headed. He dodged to the left and around the corner on his right, passing by the shopkeepers and their stands full of wares that would forever be out of his reach. Since childhood, he was forced to steal what he couldn’t find and take what wasn’t his – what would never be his.
Masons busily slapped their mortar against the stone edifices of many shops and homes that had been damaged during the earthquakes earlier that morning. Titus had been awakened by the tremors just hours before, but like the other citizens of the city, this was nothing new.
Ceramic shards littered the walkways where pottery had tumbled to the ground and when tables were shaken by the inexplicable forces of the earth. Roof shingles were replaced, damaged goods were discarded, and life went on as it always did.
He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the baker was still not following him. When he turned back, he nearly collided with a beautiful woman clad in fine jewelry and silky garments that called to his manhood.
She smiled sweetly as he skidded to a stop just outside her place of business. The lady was not alone that day as her companions gathered around the entrance to the brothel.
“Running again, Titus?” she giggled.
Titus straightened his tattered and stained tunic and gave her a crooked grin. “Always running,” he replied.
She batted her thick eyelashes and turned as if to welcome him inside where other patrons were already getting their monies worth.
“There he is! Get him!”
Titus turned to see a pair of Roman guards, their breast armor glinting in the afternoon sun. He gave a regretful look to the lady and resumed his flight.
Through the din of the crowds, he could hear the guards approaching, their heavy swords and armor clanging together like resounding gongs to announce their presence to the populace. Titus, on the other hand, did not have such burdens to weigh him down and his appearance could allow him to blend with the masses.
The city was a metropolis of wealth and luxury. The ports to the west brought in exotic treasures from across the Roman empire and the merchants who traveled there were more than happy to sell the populace their textiles and goods. Politicians and nobility came here to escape their troubles by lounging in their decadent villas, surrounded by servants and slaves. Yet, in the presence of such indulgence, there was also great scarcity for those who were not lucky enough to be born into their status.
He came to the marketplace and temple of the Lares. He paused in reverence for the brick structure that was still being constructed by the master craftsmen. It was commissioned after the great earthquake to appease the gods of protection over the homes of the citizens. It was in that earthquake that Titus was born, just seventeen years prior. The ground had shaken many times since that day, but no greater calamity had befallen the city to compare.
As he turned the corner to step onto the forum grounds, he passed his hand over the columns and uttered a hasty prayer of thanks. Whether by his own strength or the benevolence of the gods, he had survived the disaster when others didn’t. He drew strength from it and knew that no matter what this city threw at him, he would live on.
In the forum, philosophers and merchants alike congregated on the spacious green expanse to discuss business and politics of their growing empire. A slave auction was conducted on the far end, souls from the far south and barbaric north shackled in chains to be sold to the highest bidder. All of this while pious worshippers flocked to the great Temple of Jupiter to pay their respects to the mighty god.
Titus slowed his steps as he came to the meeting place. The guards must have still been scratching their heads in the marketplace, searching for the inconspicuous peasant who had eluded them.
Publicized on one of the walls facing towards the forum was an announcement to the populace. On this day, to further celebrate the Feast of Vulcan, a great tournament would take place in the amphitheater. If his friend didn’t meet him soon, he would miss the gladiators who had traveled all the way from Verona to perform. He even heard rumors that a lion from the southern edges of the empire was to appear.
He turned to regard his friend, another poor son of the streets, as he came forward with a smile and wave. They clasped arms as brothers and Titus pulled out one of the bread loafs from his satchel.
“Here is your bread, as promised, Quintus.”
Quintus, a boy a few years younger than Titus, took the bread with dirty hands and nodded his thanks. “Mother and the others will be glad for this.”
Titus opened his mouth to inquire about Quintus’ family until he heard the unmistakable clatter of Roman armor enter the forum. He turned and saw the soldiers scanning the assembly. This was a place for public communion, but it was not a sanctuary.
He grabbed his friend by the shoulders and directed him to the south, towards the town council building and Hall of Duoviri. “Run!” he commanded.
The boy bolted into the crowd, his spry young legs carrying him far from the danger and towards home where he belonged.
Titus, likewise, darted to the east and chose the street that would lead him straight to the amphitheater. If he could evade the guards one more time, perhaps they would give up their search for the petty thief and turn their efforts to other matters.
Two or three story homes and villas lined the streets with wooden balconies that loomed over the pedestrians. Peeking through some of the open doors, Titus could see the vibrant mosaics in the tile floor or beautifully painted frescos on the walls of the vestibules. Roman art at its finest.
Passing restaurants and drinking taverns, the aromas of multitudinous foods and delicacies wafted past his nostrils. His belly growled at him, angry that it hadn’t been filled since the evening before. Just a little farther and he could rest.
He knew a public drinking fountain was close by, but when he came to it, Titus found it to be dry, just like the fountain on the other side of the city. He would have to quench his thirst later.
He passed one of the public baths as patrons were passing in and out of its great arched entryway. The pungent perfume of the oils filled his senses and he sighed, adoring their aroma. One day, he would go in and wipe away the filth of street life, but it would not be this day.
Titus’ eyes drifted to the buildings, some already mended from the quake and others in desperate need of attention; but he was not interested in the cracks that scarred the stone. He read the imprudently scrawled phrases and pictures. Some were humorous or obscene, but some were profound and were not covered by tapestries or potted plants to hide their existence.
For Titus, they were more than careless scribblings by other adolescents, drunkards, lovers, or philosophers. They were proof of their presence here. He had left his own mark on the outer city walls.
A generally uneducated man by fate, his mother praised him for the thoughtful prose that he brought to life in the quiet moments of his day when he wasn’t running for his life or digging for edible compost in the waste of the wealthy men who visited the city.
He carved the letters his father had taught him into the stone, leaving an impression on the city that would never be forgotten. Years, perhaps centuries from now, as long as that wall was still standing, the people would read it and know his struggle for life.
He heard the shouts of the spectators before he spotted the great amphitheater towering above the city skyline with its massive walls. It was one of the places that were open to all walks of life. Anyone, even a thief like himself, could pass through the gates and forget who they were for a short while as they watched the trained gladiators battle for the glory of applause.
He hustled forward to find a vacant seat and squeezed between a man draped in a toga and a woman in a bright red stola with jewels drooping from her ears and around her neck. Here he was, a peasant with stolen bread, sitting between two Romans of high status. Only in the amphitheater.
Titus pulled the other loaf of bread from his satchel and dug his teeth into the warm crust, savoring the rich taste as he chewed and swallowed.
Below, on the sandy stadium floor, two gladiators brandished their weapons and circled one another. One held a gladius, a short sword that he craftily spun in his palm. The other wielded a trident with menacing sharp tips. In his other hand was a net, much like a fisherman would use to reel in his catch.
The audience cheered for their favorite fighter, pounding their fists into the air in joy and woe as the battle raged on.
It took only moments before the fisherman was on his back, bleeding and immobile from his wounds. The victor looked to the sponsor as the crowded shouted their own verdict. “Iugula!” they screamed, calling for his execution.
With his mouth full of bread, Titus turned to the sponsor and anxiously waited for the gesture that would save or sacrifice the warrior.
But the order would never come.
The ground began to tremble, rocking the spectators from their seats. Titus looked to the east, beyond the city walls and to the mountain known as Vesuvius. Titus held tight to his half-eaten loaf of bread, but the wealthy man beside him was jostled and nearly fell into the thief’s lap.
The bread slipped from his grasp and toppled down the stadium seats, falling well out of reach.
But the bread was the least of his worries anymore.
Titus watched as the slopes of the mountain became steeper, converging upwards until the pressure became too much. The top of the mountain exploded, spewing a column of dark clouds higher and higher into the sky.
The Romans of Pompeii gawked at the sight of it. Women ceased their cooking and washing to step into the streets. Men turned away from their companions and conversations were ended. Servants, young and old, stopped in their daily tasks to wonder what they had just heard. Children cried and clung to their mother’s stolas in fear. Even the gladiators below turned and dropped their weapons as the mountain erupted. The clouds slowly crept across the clear blue sky, veiling the sun, and cast a darkness over the land.
As Titus stared, jaw slack and eyes wide, he hoped that his quick prayer to the gods had been heard. He would need them this day.