Mementos, by Chris Bone and Paul L. Mathews
Cato awoke at daybreak, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He yawned and stretched and scratched. As he groped about him in the semi-lit room, his thick fingers found his voluminous sandals before strapping them about his broad feet.
Cato had never been small. His mother had died with the effort of birthing him. Growing up, Cato fancied there was a sadness in his father’s eyes whenever they spoke of Cato’s mother. And sometimes—just sometimes—he swore he heard the old man cry at night.
He rose from his bed, belting his woollen tunic at the waist as he looked to the gladius that stood on a stand beside his bed. It gleamed even in this weak light, testimony to the hours that both he and his father spent polishing the blade.
A retired centurion, his father—known variously as either the Centurion, the Butcher, or simply Vitus—had owned the Golden Vine Rod caupona. Situated just off the Via Frumentarius, the caupona may have been modest, but his father always served good wine, and the place became a popular haunt for the men of his father’s old legion. Any son of old Vitus’, it seemed, was a son of theirs, and these grizzled old warhorses were always keen to teach young Cato dirty jokes and the martial skills they’d acquired in the service of the Emperor.
Cato reached for the gladius, picking it up and passing it from hand to hand as he relished its balance and weight. “Son,” Vitus would say, “Always treat your weapon with respect. Keep its edge razor sharp. Keep it oiled and always offer a prayer to Mars. Look after your weapon and it will look after you.” Wise words, but no sword could protect Vitus against the wasting illness that took his life.
Cato placed the gladius back in its stand and cleared his throat. Even now, after so many years, the thought of his father—and the wretch he had been reduced to—made his throat tight and his chest hollow. That was no way for a man like Vitus to die. It was cruel.
He left his small bedroom and descended the stairs, emerging into the quiet caupona. Dusty and modest—like Vitus—the only nod to decoration came in the form of various necklaces, bangles and rings Cato had nailed to the wall; keepsakes of fallen enemies and debtors. He paused at the foot of the stairs, nostrils flaring as he savoured the air. Even at this hour, the smell of the cooked meats, chickpeas and olive oil lingered in the air…
…As did the memories.
The caupona had—upon Vitus’ death—been taken over by Erebus of the Aventine, along with the massive debt that Vitus had incurred at dice. Erebus had not thrown the young Cato out onto the streets. Far from it. He had seen the lad’s potential. Cato demonstrated his gratitude by being a loyal second. He accompanied Erebus on debt collecting missions. There initially to loom imposingly as Erebus demanded his money, Cato one day progressed to removing parts of debtor’s anatomy with Vitus’ gladius.
“Good work, Cato,” Erebus had once said, voice raised over the screech of a bleeding debtor, who, writhing, lay with one hand clamped firmly over the other to staunch the bleeding from his severed finger. “And now, methinks we shall remove something lower—What’s that? Speak up! Aaah, so you do have the money after all?” Erebus laughed as the debtor pointed toward a simple amphora with his savaged, dripping hand. “See Cato,” he then said as he slapped the youth on the shoulder. “They always find the denarii from somewhere. Always.”
Cato paused by the caupona’s door, taking both an oilcloth and his cloak from the counter on which he’d left them. He frowned as he regarded the stains on the cloak, obvious even in this half-light. He knew he should wash the stains out of the cloak, but he remained too sentimental, even for such a grim memento. After all, how could he wash it? This was, after all, the cloak in which he had been sent Erebus’ head, the veteran succumbing to the savage jaws of Seneca’s mastiff during a turf war with the Palatine wolves.
He ground his teeth, hand going to the lead wedge he wore on a cord about his neck. Three days. Three days since he had unwrapped Erebus’s head, sent to him in this bloody cloak by that child Seneca. Three days since he’s found the flattened lead wedge in Erebus’ mouth, the mocking words ‘cave canem’ scratched upon it.
His pulse quickened, nostrils flaring at the notion he had not been there to protect his mentor. Now, three days later, his fury simmered at the memory of unwrapping Erebus’ head. Now the time for revenge had come. A dish best served cold as they said in Hispania…
…Few things were colder than steel.
He left the caupona, oilcloth firmly in hand. From there he made his way through the morning streets, rendered anonymous by the hood of Erebus’ bloodied cloak. He cared nothing for the drunks, lazars and prostitutes that lingered even at this hour, nor for the early risers who made daring—or naïve—sorties into early morning Rome.
It didn’t take long to reach the Forum Augustus and—more specifically—the Temple of Mars Ultor beside it. There he unwrapped the oilcloth, revealing his newly acquired blade. This gladius had once belonged to a famous Optio of the Seventh Victrix, pawned upon his return from Eboracum in Britannia. The bull’s head motif on the pommel gleamed where Cato had polished it. He knelt down and offered the sword to the priest that stood beside the altar.
“Father Mars, I pray and beseech that thou give me the strength to fulfil my purpose so that I may dedicate the blood of mine enemies to your glory. Strength and Honour.”
The priest took the gladius from him with obvious care, and dipped the blade in a bowl of votive oil. Gesticulating silently, he gazed solemnly upon the supplicant. Cato then passed the priest a small pouch of gold as an ‘offering’ to Mars Ultor.
“Go forth and unto your enemies,” said the priest. He smiled benignly and handed the blade back to Cato.
Cato stood and backed away, head still bowed as he stepped out into the early dawn. He was ready. He had his blade. He had his blessing. Soon he would have the head of Seneca and his accursed mastiff.
And he would keep them. As a memento.