One Last Drink

Writing Prompt: Randomly Rolled Wikipedia Article

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The man named Servius Tuccius Cotta approached the refugee camp with his head down. He had not been born the man he was now, but those names remained a part of him. Even with Batavia in revolt against the empire, those were still his names. He’d earned them, no matter who he served.

This battered camp was perhaps threescore tents and lean-tos, but many huddled in the cold and mud. People fled Tongeran when runners brought news of fighting between Julius Civilis and Claudius Labeo at the Mass river, and Tuccius suspected more would flee in the hours ahead. These were uncertain times.

He was an assassin by trade, a man who killed so others wouldn’t have to. He had tracked Labeo for the better part of the day, ever since the man slipped free of the Tungrian lines. Every last Tungrian had abandoned Labeo for Civilis, but Tuccius did not blame Labeo for that. He had planted the seeds himself.

Labeo’s distinctive tracks entered this camp, and circling the camp assured Tuccius they did not leave. Labeo’s fine boot prints differentiated his tracks, another mistake. That was the problem with men accustomed to luxury, even experienced cavalry commanders. They loved expensive boots.

Tuccius affected a limp as he entered the camp. His own cloak hung on his frame. No one gave a beggar a second look, and a beggar among refugees was a stalk in a field of wheat.

He passed figures huddled around sputtering fires, listened to coughs and moans from those who’d been injured or taken sick. A drizzle had fallen since dawn, beating on people and tents alike. Tuccius held out his bowl at each fire, muttering apologies, and each time, the refugees turned him away.

None of the refugees at these fires were Labeo. None wore the man’s fine boots. Tuccius moved on.

It was at a small fire at camp’s edge where he finally found a man whose frame and bulk suggested regular meals. Mud covered the boots protruding from his cloak, but the tips were distinctive.

Tuccius extended his bowl. “Please, I’m sorry. Anything you can spare.”

“Off with you, beggar.” The man beside Labeo glared, his face covered in mud. “We’ve nothing for you.”

“Don’t be cruel.” Labeo motioned Tuccius to the fire. “You may warm yourself by our fire.”

“Thank you, master.” Tuccius found a place between two other scowling refugees, both women, and sat.

One woman wrinkled her nose and scooted away, reacting to the dung Tuccius had smeared on his cloak earlier today. The other stared at the fire without speaking, barely breathing. She had lost someone today. Tuccius had seen that blank look on so many faces since Batavia rebelled against Rome.

Labeo’s cowl obscured his face. All Tuccius could make out was a strong chin, thick with stubble. This assassination must be quiet.

Many in Batavia respected Claudius Labeo for his actions at Nijmegen. They resented Civilis’s decision to exile such a useful commander, but killing him would have been an even bigger mistake, at the time.

Poisoning Labeo’s drink would be easiest—Tuccius carried a powder that would bring on the runs days later, when he was gone—but Labeo would be watching for poison. He could follow the man to the latrine ditch, but Labeo was a notable warrior as well. There was no guarantee Tuccius would prevail.

“What brings you here to us, friend?” Labeo asked. “Have you fled Tongeran as well?” He motioned to the others. “We are all Tungrians, here, and any countryman of ours is welcome.”

“I’m Marsaci,” Tuccius muttered. There were too many things he did not know about Tongeran, and presenting himself as a Tungrian invited questions he could not reliably answer.

The woman who had moved away wrinkled her nose. “We don’t need no stinking Marsaci in our camp.”

“Why?” Labeo asked. “A beggar is not to blame for this war.”

“It’s Labeo’s fault, you ask me.” The mud-covered man spit at the fire. “If that stubborn cunt hadn’t set fires all over Batavia, Civilis would have sent the legions running by now.”

“Perhaps,” Labeo said, and Tuccius heard no anger in his words.

“Bah,” the boiled man said. “Need to piss.” He rose and stalked from the camp.

Tuccius rose and followed him. “I shall not trouble you further.” The man who’d cursed Labeo was an opportunity. If he could convince an actual refugee to murder his target…

Tuccius found the smaller man at a makeshift latrine, dug by those among the refugees who knew defecating where you ate and slept was a wonderful way to start a plague. The refugee stood with his back to Tuccius, whistling as he aimed a golden stream into the ditch. Tuccius limped closer.

“Marsaci!” The refugee turned, his cock flopping before he crammed it back into his soiled breeches. “Come to contribute?”

“Did you mean it?” Tuccius asked.

“Mean what, beggar?”

“About Claudius Labeo being the cause of all this.” Tuccius made himself shudder.

“What’s it to you who I back? You heard something?” The mud-covered refugee leaned closer, eager for gossip. Without food, gossip was the only nourishment many had.

“I heard Labeo’s working for the Romans again, against Civilis,” Tuccius whispered.

The refugee scoffed. “Labeo’s a cunt, I’ll give you that, but he’s no Roman spy.”

“Really?” Tuccius said. “And a Roman spy wouldn’t disguise himself as a Tungrian refugee?”

“Say what?”

“Did you notice the boots of the man beside you, his bearing, his girth? He’s no beggar. I think he might be Claudius Labeo.”

“You think so?” The boiled man leaned closer. “Say, has Civilis got a reward for him?”

Greed and desperation made fools of all men. “As much gold as you can carry, last I heard. We could take him, between the two of us. We could split the reward.”

There was no reward, of course—offering a bounty for Labeo would be foolish when Civilis lacked the money to pay even his own soldiers—but this refugee wouldn’t know that.

The refugee pulled a small flask from inside his cloak. “You’ll help me? I ain’t killed no commander before.”

“I’ll help as I’m able,” Tuccius said. “I need the coin.”

“Then let’s drink to our new wealth!” The refugee raised the flask and took a long drink, Adam’s apple bobbing. He passed the flask to Tuccius. “To piles of Roman gold.”

Tuccius hesitated, but only a moment. The man had drunk before him, and this was too good an opportunity to scuttle. The water tasted foul. Soon after, they were off to murder a commander.

“Say there, beggar, what’s your name?” The refugee might be nervous.

“Tuccius.” No harm in giving his real name, and he needed to keep this man calm. “What’s yours?”

“Claudius,” the refugee said, as he straightened and turned.

Tuccius missed a step as mud roiled around him. “What?” His eyes watered and his throat clamped.

“Claudius Labeo,” the small, mud-covered man said. “The big man at the fire is one of my many loyal soldiers, but there’s no way you could know. My reputation is bigger than me.”

“But I…” Tuccius coughed and fell, trying to understand the fire consuming his belly. “You drank…”

“Did I?” Labeo smiled with teeth far too clean for the mud cloaking his face. “Seems a tongue could clog that spout pretty easily. Have you ever tried that, Tuccius?”

Stupid. Tuccius had been stupid, too focused on the boots, the cloak, the bearing. Claudius Labeo was not a big man with a fine cloak and fine boots. He was a small man, dressed like all the other small men in the refugee camp, and he had just beaten an assassin at his own game.

Tuccius’s eyes glazed over as his vision swam and the poison burned through his gut. Yet despite his agony, his fear, he respected Labeo’s gambit. There was no shame in dying to a man like this one.

“You were only doing your duty,” Labeo said, as his voice came from somewhere far away. “I won’t let you suffer. Go in peace.”

Tuccius felt cold steel against his throat. He would have thanked Labeo for that mercy, had he been able to speak, but perhaps the man understood anyway. Tuccius imagined his wife, his daughter, and home.

One day, he hoped, Civilis or Labeo would bring them peace again.

THE END

 

About the Story:

This month, every writer participating clicked a link that selected an article, at random, on Wikipedia. We then had to write a story incorporating that article. We ended up with some weird subjects, but mine was actually fairly straightforward. Essentially, I ended up writing historical fiction for the first time ever (or, at least, making an attempt).

I’ll admit it’s never been a genre I enjoyed, and I have no doubt this story is full of anachronisms and inaccuracies (I didn’t research much about Roman life beyond the Wikipedia article). Still, writing this was more fun than I expected, and without the article, I would never have learned about Julius Civilis, Claudius Labeo, and the intrigue associated with Batavia rebelling against Rome. That would make a good book in and of itself!

The original Wikipedia Article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudius_Labeo

More Information: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/claudius-labeo/?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/68801711@N00/27932908521″>Ampitheatre@Ephesus</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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