The sounds of the family being slaughtered haunted Jon's feverish dreams. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he gasped as he tried to move, only to fall back on his side in pain. Darkness and rain cloaked him as he lay there, one arm trapped by the fallen boulder.
The next time he woke, a hot sun beat down upon him. Squinting in the light, he saw the body of one of his attackers, his head smashed open against a rock. A few feet separated them, a few arm lengths between death and this near-death state. Jon closed his eyes and wondered if the other man was the lucky one - to die instantly, and not linger and die slowly in pain and thirst.
An image of the sea came to him, he was a small boy wandering along the shore, dreaming of what lay beyond the horizon. He had the misfortune to find out. Soon enough, he would be bundled into the cargo hold of a ship like the ones he saw on that sunny morning. A rough and dangerous voyage took him across the sea to his new owners, new beatings, and new languages and customs to decipher.
In his mind, Jon could still hear the sea as it softly lapped against the shore, like a mother gently soothing a child.
The screech of a bird and a cloud crossing the sun drew him back to the reality of his unhappy fate. After a few moments, Jon imagined that he could hear voices, but it might have been the chattering birds that had started to gather, one of which hopped over to the dead man and snatched a chunk of brain from the scalp and dragged it free.
A wave of nausea washed over Jon, and he started to cough and retch, sending a fresh jolt of pain through his body.
A figure suddenly loomed over him, blocking out the sun. Jon shrank back, heart pounding, as the man squatted down in front of him. The man was a soldier, strong and handsome. He took out a flask and held it to Jon's lips, grasping Jon's head to support him. Jon drank the wine in gulps, breathing heavily, eyes closed in relief.
Jon thought he could feel the soldier stroking his hair and he opened his eyes, blinking in surprise as another soldier knelt down where the boulder had been. Next to him was a small pot filled with a stew of aromatic herbs. From it the man took a cloth and wrapped it around Jon's now freed arm.
The second soldier nodded back at the dead man, grinning, "Looks like our slave here managed to get one of them. We should bring him along and unleash him on the others."
The first soldier smiled at Jon, "Are you going to be our secret weapon?"
Jon stared back in confusion, "What? No. I'm just a slave. I'm not a soldier. I've never killed anyone!"
The first soldier chuckled, his hand still stroking Jon's head, "My friend's teasing you. Don't worry about him, his muscles are large, but his brain is small. Isn't that right, Paul?"
Paul nodded philosophically, "True enough, but my cock is large, too."
Jon tried to keep up with the soldier's dialect, frowning as he tried to understand, "You have a big rooster?"
Paul tilted his head, "What? Stephen, I think this man has had his brains eaten by the birds."
Stephen shook his head, smiling, "He wouldn't be the only one." He glanced at Jon then added, "Go and check on the others, please."
Paul nodded and walked back up the slope, leaving Stephen to help Jon sit up.
Jon looked at his arm and back to Stephen, "Thank you. I thought I was going to die alone out here." Jon stared up at the rocky hill, "We tried to escape, to fight them off. One grabbed me, I grabbed him back and the cliff gave way. We fell." He paused and drew in a sharp breath, "It was dark, and I could hear my master's little girl screaming. I couldn't move. Then the screams stopped." Jon stared blankly at the rocks, and whispered, "She was only nine."
Stephen grasped Jon's shoulder, "They shall be avenged, I promise you. Tomorrow, we'll arrive at the port and we shall drive them out and into the sea."
Jon finally looked into Stephen's eyes, there was a fierceness there that terrified Jon, but also a warmth that comforted him.
"We can't leave you out here alone, so you will come with me. You can polish my sword later. Prepare it for all the blood it will taste," Stephen smiled grimly.
Jon nodded silently, resigned to his fate with his new master.
* * *
The battle-ravaged town by the sea was already shattered, soon it would be reclaimed by the invading Roman army, more blood would be spilt, more lives destroyed.
Jon watched as Stephen prepared his troops, pointing out lines of attack and ambush points. A few times, he caught his master's gaze and Stephen's eyes would soften for a moment before he turned away.
As the soldiers moved out, Stephen paused by the shrine and knelt in honour of the gods. He softly uttered the oath offering his own life to Mars Gradivus if his campaign failed, then stood and patted Jon on the shoulder and took his leave.
Jon's arm flared in pain as he watched the horror unfolding down on the plain. He looked across at a waiting medic and wondered what good the man could actually do. Soldiers were indistinguishable from one another at this distance, it was even hard to tell which ones were the Romans and which were the invaders in all the rising dust.
As dusk drew in, the battle took hold in the town and the stars became visible. Mars shone red in the gathering twilight, watching over his victims.
The call came to bring the relief and medics down, and Jon trudged down the hill with a leaden heart. The dead lay everywhere, with a scant few still alive and able to be helped.
* * *
On any other day, the morning would be glorious. A blue sky and a gentle breeze set off by a warm sun would normally be greeted with delight by the townsfolk. Jon shielded his eyes against the light and staggered along with a wounded man, helping him to the bed of an abandoned house. Outside, he paused to lean against a wall and rub his bleary eyes.
Someone grabbed hold of him and he opened his eyes, "What?"
Paul stood before him, tired and bloodied, "Come on, in here. Can't find a medic anywhere." He led the way to another house and inside. Jon stopped as he saw Stephen on the floor, a deep leg wound staining the cloth around it. Stephen heaved a sigh, spurring Jon into action. He lit a fire in the hearth and set up a broth of the healing herbs before running over to Stephen.
Paul returned with some bedding and tore it up, handing it over for Jon to use as bandages.
Jon smiled at Stephen as he worked, "You'll be okay. You took care of me, now it's my turn. I am going to fix your leg up and you are going to go out there and kick those fuckers in the head!"
Stephen swallowed and rasped a chuckle, "Maybe you are our secret weapon after all?" Stephen glanced over at Paul, "How's the battle?"
Paul picked up some broken statues and tiles from the floor and arranged them back on the household shrine, "Victory is in sight. I'll lead the onslaught and drive them under the sea." He smiled grimly and made a prayer.
After Paul left, an eerie quiet seemed to settle over the town. Jon brought over the pot and bathed Stephen's wounds.
"I thought I'd never see you again and I'd be alone in a strange place," Jon softly spoke.
"You're stuck with me now," Stephen replied with a smile.
"So, I'm your slave now?" Jon asked, dubiously. "Not free?"
Stephen frowned, "You're too good an asset. I can't let you go wandering off and having someone unworthy get a hold of you. Someone who won't appreciate what he's got. That's a ridiculous notion."
Jon found some wine and helped Stephen to drink some, "Is it a more ridiculous notion than the idea of owning another person?"
Stephen licked his lips, "The owner has good taste in wine. But it's not ridiculous. It's the natural order of things. The gods, man, slaves and animals. Simple."
Jon couldn't help but smile, "Man? And what of women?"
"Women! That needs more wine," Stephen laughed as he took another sip.
Jon watched as the fresh cloth became red with blood, and held it firmer against Stephen's thigh. "I hope your friend is victorious. The gods shouldn't take your life, that's not a good bargain."
"Life is unfair, and the gods are capricious," Stephen smiled serenely. "Enjoy every moment of it, each breath could be your last!"
"Will you still enjoy life if you can't be a soldier?" Jon asked, keeping a worried eye on the wound.
"Yes. No matter what you do, you have to find the joy," Stephen's eyes gleamed.
"Hmm, I like the idea, but it's not possible. Not for me," Jon pondered.
"Stick with me and try it. I promise you," Stephen vowed, closing his eyes.
Jon sat with his heart in his mouth, waiting for Stephen to breath, not daring to move. Faint cries carried in on the breeze. They became louder and clearer, "Victory, victory!"
Jon drew in a deep breath and smiled as Stephen opened his eyes again.
"I promised you," Stephen's eyes gleamed as he smiled back at Jon.