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Chapter 3 One More Duty
The only light in the Emperor’s tent came from oil lamps.
Marcus sat with his back to Maximus. He was writing his diary and at first he did not realize Maximus had arrived.
“Caesar. You sent for me,” said Maximus. Marcus, lost in his thoughts, did not reply. “Caesar?” Maximus repeated.
“Tell me again, Maximus,” Marcus said. “Why are we here?” “For the glory of the Empire, sir.”
At first he thought Marcus had not heard him. Then Marcus slowly got up from his desk and softly said, “Yes, I remember . . .” He walked over to a large map of the Roman Empire and waved a hand across it. “Do you see it, Maximus? This is the world I have made. For twenty years I have tried to be a student of life and of men—but what have I really done?” He touched the map. “For twenty years I have fought and won battles. I have defended the Empire and increased it. Since I became Caesar I have only had four years of peace. And for what?” “To make our borders safe,” said Maximus. “To bring teaching and law.”
“I brought the sword! Nothing more! And while I have fought, Rome has grown fat and diseased. I did this. And nothing can change the fact that Rome is far away and we shouldn’t be here.”
“But Caesar . . .” Maximus started, but Marcus interrupted him.
“Don’t call me that,” he said. “We have to talk together now.
Very simply. Just as men. Can we do that?”
“Forty thousand of my men are out there now, freezing in the mud,” said Maximus. “Eight thousand are wounded and two thousand will never leave this place. I won’t believe they fought and died for nothing.”
“What do you believe, Maximus?”
“That they fought for you—and for Rome,” he replied.
“And what is Rome, Maximus? Tell me.”
“I’ve seen too much of the rest of the world and I know it’s cruel and dark. I have to believe that Rome is the light.” “But you have never been there,” said Marcus. “You have not seen Rome as it is now.”
Maximus had heard stories about Rome. People in the cities were hungry and food prices were much too high. Some Romans had become very rich, but most were poor. Bridges, roads, and ports all needed repairs, while tax money went into the pockets of the rich. There were many things wrong at the heart of the enormous empire.
“I am dying, Maximus. And I want to see that there has been some purpose to my life.” Marcus sat down again. “It’s strange. I think more about the future than the present. How will the world speak my name in future years?” He held out his hand to Maximus, who took it and came to sit next to Marcus.
“You have a son,” said the Emperor. “You must love him very much. Tell me about your home”
“The house is in the hills above Trujillo,” Maximus began. “It’s a simple place, pink stones that warm in the sun. There’s a wall, a gate, and a small field of vegetables.” Maximus looked up and saw that the old man had closed his eyes as he listened. He was smiling. “Through the gate are apple trees. The earth is black, Marcus. As black as my wife’s hair. And we grow fruit and vegetables. There are wild horses near the house—my son loves them.”
“How long is it since you were last home?” “Two years, two hundred sixty-four days—and one morning.” Marcus laughed. “I am jealous of you, Maximus. Your home is good—something to fight for. I have one more duty to ask of you before you go home.”
“What would you like me to do, Caesar?”
“Before I die, I will give the people a final gift. An empire at peace should not be ruled by one man. I want to give power back to the Senate.”
Maximus was shocked. “But sir, if no one man holds power, all men will reach for it”
“You’re right. That is why I want you to become the Protector of Rome. Give power back to the people of Rome.” Maximus said nothing. “You don’t want this great honor?” “With all my heart, no.”
“That is why it must be you,” Marcus replied.
“But what about Commodus?”
“Commodus is not a good man. I think you already know that. He must not rule. You are more of a son to me than he is.” Marcus stood up. “Commodus will accept my decision—he knows the army is loyal to you.”
A piece of ice struck Maximus’s heart. “I need some time sir” he said.
“Of course. By sunrise tomorrow I hope your answer will be yes. Now let me hold you as a son.” Marcus put his arms around Maximus.
Maximus left the Emperor’s tent feeling anxious. One more duty, one he did not want—but could he refuse? He was a loyal soldier, loyal to Rome and to Caesar. He stood outside the tent trying to think clearly. Suddenly, there was a voice behind him.
“You are my father’s favorite now.”
Maximus turned and saw Lucilla. As their eyes met, a shock of emotion ran through them both.
“It was not always true,” said Lucilla.
“Many things have changed since we last met,” said Maximus, and he turned to walk away.
“What did my father want with you?”
‘To wish me luck, before I leave for Spain,” he replied, “You’re lying,” said Lucilla. “I could always tell when you were lying. You’re not very good at it.”
“I was never as good as you, my lady.”
Lucilla did not try to deny it. Again, Maximus tried to leave.
“Maximus, please . . . is it really so terrible to see me again?” “No, I’m sorry. I’m tired from battle,” he said.
“And you’re upset to see my father so weak. Commodus expects our father to name him in a few days as the next Caesar.
Will you be as loyal to him as you have been to Marcus?” This was a difficult question, but Maximus never forgot that he was talking to one of the royal family.
“I will always be loyal to Rome,” he said.
“Do you know I still remember you when I speak to the gods?” said Lucilla, smiling.
“I was sorry to hear of your husband’s death, I understand you have a son.”
“Yes,” said Lucilla. “Lucius. He’s almost eight years old.” “I, too, have a son who is eight years old.” They smiled at each other again.
“I thank you for your kind thoughts,” said Maximus, and then he walked slowly back to his tent. Lucilla watched him go. Her thoughts were confused, and her emotions reminded her that she had once loved this man.
Maximus sat in front of a low table in his tent. On the table were small wooden figures of his family—parents and grandparents. In the center, protected by the others, were the two smallest figures.
These were his wife and child.
As he looked at his family, he tried to imagine what his father or grandfather would do in his situation. What would they decide? How would they advise him? He picked up the figure of his wife and kissed it.
“Cicero,” he called out. Behind him, his servant Cicero appeared and gave him a drink. “Do you ever find it difficult to do your duty?” Maximus asked him.
Cicero, a tall, thin man with long hair, thought about the question for a few seconds. “Sometimes I do what I want to do, sir,” he said. “The rest of the time I do what I have to do.” Maximus smiled. “We may not be able to go home,” he said, sadly.
Marcus Aurelius sat in his great tent, lit only by the light of a fire, and prepared himself to tell Commodus of his decision. Finally, he said, “You will do your duty for Rome.” Commodus stood in front of him, proud and tall, waiting to hear his father name him as the next Caesar. “Yes, Father,” he said.
“But you will not be Emperor,” Marcus said.
Commodus froze as his future suddenly disappeared. “Who will take my place?” he asked.
“My power will pass to Maximus, to hold until the Senate is ready to rule. Rome will be a republic again. I can see that you are not happy, my son . . .”
“You break my heart,” Commodus said. “I have tried to make you proud . . . but I could never do it. Why do you hate me so much? I only wanted to be your son, but I was never quite good enough.” Marcus put his arms around his son, and Commodus cried. “Why does Maximus deserve this instead of me? Why do you love him more than me?”
His voice grew louder as he held his father’s head tighter and tighter. Marcus could not breathe. He began to move, trying to get away, but Commodus held his father’s face close against his chest.
His strength was too great; Marcus could not escape. Commodus did not relax until he felt his father’s body drop in his arms.
He placed him on the bed, dead. “You didn’t love me enough,” he said softly.
Quintus woke Maximus in the middle of the night. Maximus realized immediately that there was trouble.
“The Emperor needs you,” Quintus said. “It’s urgent.” “What is it?” Maximus asked.
“They did not tell me,” said Quintus.
They hurried to Marcus’s tent together. At the entrance, the guards let them through without a word.
Inside, Maximus saw Commodus first. His face was white but showed no emotion. Lucilla stood in a corner of the tent, looking down at the floor. Then Maximus saw Marcus, lying on his bed.
He knew immediately that he was dead.
“How did he die?” he asked.
“In his sleep,” said Commodus. “The doctors say there was no pain.”
Maximus looked at Lucilla, but she turned away. He walked to the bed, bent over Marcus, and kissed the top of his head. Then he stood and faced Commodus. Commodus looked back at him and held out his hand.
“Your Emperor asks for your loyalty,” he said. “Take my hand, Maximus.” Maximus understood the situation exactly. He knew, without a doubt, that Commodus had killed his father. “I shall only offer it once,” said Commodus.
Maximus walked past him and out of the tent. Quintus already had his orders from the new Caesar. Commodus looked across at him and he followed his general out into the night.
Lucilla bent over her father and kissed him. Then she turned to her brother. Their eyes met. She hit his face twice, hard. He stepped back, shocked. Then she took his right hand, lifted it to her lips, and kissed it.
“I greet you, Caesar,” Lucilla said without emotion.
Back in his own tent, Maximus called to Cicero. “I must talk to the senators,” he said. “Wake Gaius and Falco! I need their advice.”
Quintus arrived just then, and caught the servants arm to stop him. “Maximus, please be careful . . .”
“Careful? The Emperor was murdered!” said Maximus.
“No,” said Quintus. “The Emperor died in his sleep.” Maximus looked toward the entrance of the tent and saw four royal guards with their swords ready. They came in and quickly tied his hands and arms.
“Please don’t fight, Maximus,” said Quintus. “I’m sorry . . . Caesar has spoken.”
Maximus understood. Quintus was a soldier, and his orders had come from the top. He had to obey.
“Quintus . . . promise me you’ll look after my family” said Maximus.
“Your family will greet you in the next world,” Quintus said, quietly.
Maximus jumped at him in anger. One of the guards hit the prisoner on the back of the head with the handle of his sword and Maximus fell to the ground.
“Take him as far as the sunrise and then kill him,” said Quintus.
It was nearly sunrise, and the five horses on the forest road had not passed anybody for several hours. Here there was nothing— no help, no hope.
“All right, this is far enough,” said Cornelius, the oldest of the guards and their leader. “Take him down there. No one will ever find him.”
Two of the guards climbed from their horses and pulled Maximus from his horse. His hands were still tied in front of him.
Cornelius searched in his bag for something to eat. He would make sure the orders from Caesar were obeyed but he did not want to have Roman blood on his hands. The other man, Salvius, stayed with the three horses.
The two guards led Maximus down the hill. They thought he had given up the fight, but he was like a cat watching a mouse. He could see they were young and their armor was still new. These were royal guards—they almost never left Rome and they did not usually go into battle. They were not experienced fighters.
“This is good enough,” said one of them. “On your knees.” Behind Maximus, one of the guards was ready with his sword to cut off his head. The second guard stood facing Maximus.
Maximus sunk to his knees and closed his eyes. As the sword came down, he turned very quickly and caught it between his hands. Then he brought the handle of the sword up into the guards face. In the next second he turned again and struck the sword through the other guard. As he got to his feet and turned back to the first man, he saw his chance and pushed the sword through his body.
On the road above, Cornelius and Salvius were waiting on their horses. They heard a cry from below, and then it was quiet again. Cornelius sent Salvius down to make certain Maximus was dead. The guard rode down the hill but saw nothing of his friends. Suddenly, he felt there was someone behind him. He turned in time to see Maximus’s sword as it flew through the air toward him and landed in his chest. He fell to his death.
Cornelius was still on his horse, eating his bread and meat. He heard some noises below, moved across the road, and looked down into the trees. With no sound at all Maximus came onto the road behind him.
“Guard!” he shouted.
Cornelius turned around and rode toward Maximus at full speed, his sword ready. As they met, Maximus struck his sword upward and back. It cut right through Cornelius’s body.
Cornelius fell off his horse and lay down to die.
But Maximus had also been wounded, with a deep cut to his shoulder from Cornelius’s sword. He fought the pain and moved toward the horses.
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