The Slave that Slew the Slayer
W. G. HARDY
A dramatic story of a perilous wooing in the days when Rome was ruled by the sword
HE WAS almost as motionless as the tree under which he stood. Behind him, half hidden in the tangled depths of the Sacred Grove, glimmered the delicate outlines of Diana's temple. From the rounded shrine to the right floated the lazy singing of Vestal Virgins as they tended the undying fire of Nemi.
Yet the watcher under the giant oak did not stir. Tall and powerfully muscled, a naked sword grasped in his right hand, he stared down at the lake of Nemi. It lay below him in the lap of the Alban hills like a sheet of iridescent glass. Far out, a single-colored sail floated like a fallen butterfly. But right beneath him and moored close to the shore were two huge barges, gay with the glitter and the gold of Imperial Rome.
"Caligula!” the watcher muttered in barbaric Latin. "Caligula, the mad Caesar! What does he here?”
A fancied sound in the wood behind him brought him whirling round, his sword-point raised. It was a long moment before he relaxed. Then, with a swift glance at the royal barges, he began to pace along the beaten path that encircled the sacred oak.
Gracefully, voluptuously, she stepped out from the trees that had shaded the path up from the shore and stopped, dazzled by the sunlight. Her skin was clear as milk and her lips as red as a pomegranate flower.
“Where is he, this King of the Grove?” she demanded imperiously of her maidens. She shaded her eyes against the sun and looked across the glade. "Ah, there he Is, yonder under the tree. Go, Diophante. Fetch him hither.”
Lightly the Greek girl hastened across the sward.
The watcher under the oak stood motionless, waiting like a hawk poised to strike. Then, as she came closer, he started forward in astonishment.
“Diophante!” he exclaimed.
She halted abruptly, her hand fluttering to her throat.
"Viridovix!” she cried and checked herself. She glanced behind her at the distant figure of her mistress and spoke eagerly, swiftly: “But I thought three years agone when I aided thy escape ...”
"’Twas hard,” he in-
through to the Rhine. The soldiers of Rome were everywhere. ’Twas this,” he gestured toward the temple, "or capture.” He laughed harshly. "A kingdom for the taking. A kingdom that only a fugitive slave might win.”
"Priest-king of Diana of the Grove, ’ she murmured, “a strange, a forgotten kingship—save to the women of Rome. Yet here, at least, thou art safe.”
"Aye,” he said gloomily, "until some other fugitive slave shalt slay me. Thou knowest the law?”
"I know.” Her hand fell like a petal on the bronze of his arm. "Oh, Viridovix, how oft have I prayed for thee . . . these three long years.”
"And I for thee.” He thrust his sword blade into the turf and turned to her. “Diophante . . .” a flicker of movement among the women at the end of the glade caught his attention and he stepped back, his eyes hardening in quick suspicion. "But stay, who are these? Surely, she is not here?”
Diophante looked behind her nervously. "Aye,” she whispered, "she is here.”
A red flush of anger stained his face. "She!” He seized his sword again. "She! Fortunata! May Odin smite her. What does she here?”
"Diophante.” The call came to them, faint but imperious. "Diophante.”
The girl shivered. "Come,” she said. "She calls. Let us hasten, Viridovix.”
His hair was fire-red in the sunlight. "Hasten!” he exclaimed. "Do thou bid her come to me.”
"Nay,” she said catching at him. “Thou must come. She hath the ear of Caligula.”
"His couch, thou wouldst say.”
“’Tis all one. Come. Nay, thou must come . . . darling. Else I ... I shall be punished.”
He looked at her. "Well, then, for thy sake. But does she know that I am King of the Grove?”
"Nay. ’Tis her first visit to the Grove. And ’tis her belief that thou didst win across the Rhine. But come . . . oh, we are too late.”
"pORTUNATA had waited long enough. Imperiously and yet voluptuously she was sweeping toward them across the glade, her frail robes of Coan silk clinging to the tempting outlines of her body. She looked angrily at Diophante as she came up and then her glance swept from her to the King of the Grove. She stopped in midstep as if a serpent had risen in her path.
"Aye.” Viridovix’s face was stern.
"Thou . . . King of the Grove !”
"Aye, and priest of Diana of Nemi, and,” he swung his sword toward the sacred oak, "husband to the goddess, too. So far as man may be husband to a tree.” The red lips were stamped with cruelty.
"Thou didst escape me three years agone,” she said. "But now . . . the dungeon and the torturer wait for thee, gallowsbird.” She raised her hand. "Kneel for grace. Kneel, slave.”
Viridovix flung back his head and laughed a great laugh.
"Slave,” he gibed. "Thy slave no longer, Fortunata ... so long as I dwell here. Nay, Diana of the Grove hath freed me of that, most noble lady. Kneel,” he repeated, his anger rising fiercely. "Kneel! I am king here. ’Tis thou shalt kneel to me.”
She did not flinch. r‘Kneel to thee?” she said coldly. “Thou art mad, slave. Nor do I come for thee. ’Tis to pay my vow to Diana.”
Diophante’s face was white. But Viridovix did not heed her.
“Thou !” he scoffed. "A vow to Diana. Diana, goddess of offspring and easy childbirth. Thou and childbirth!” There was a cold and secret smile on her face. "’Tis
not for childbirth, slave.” Comprehension came to Viridovix. “Ah,” he said, "I had forgot the ways of Roman women ... to murder the unborn. All the more shalt thou kneel, thou wanton.”
Her rage was devastating. "Out of the way, scum. I will to the temple.”
He barred her path. "Nay,” he said, his white teeth gleaming. "Thou didst have me whipped three years agone. Whipped like a dog till my flesh hung in shreds. Had not one—” he saw Diophante’s appealing look and broke off his sentence. "But here I am king! King . . . and
inviolate by the crazy laws of thine own Romans. And I say that thou shalt kneel. Caesar’s wanton or not, thou shalt
kneel to me . . . thy slave.”
“Caesar,” the light in her eyes was calculating. “Caesar.
’Tis three years thou hast ruled, slave?”
“What matters it?”
“Three,” she repeated.
“’Tis overlong. The goddess,” she went on smiling, “may well be weary of her husband. We must look to this.” Behind the Roman lady Viridovix saw Diophante’s despairing, pleading gesture. But his fierce northern rage was in full flood. He stepped toward Fortunata.
“Caesar’s wanton or not,” he said in a level, dangerous voice, “thou shalt kneel.”
She stared at him and in spite of herself gave back a step. But she still faced him proudly. Suddenly his great sword swept in an arc of light above her head.
“Kneel,” he said between narrowed lips. “Or else ...”
Crimson with anger and pale with fear she knelt.
rT'HE shadows of evening fell over the jewelled waters of Nemi. The full moon rose above the wooded hills in splendor. Over the surface of the lake floated a golden, inverted bowl of light, the royal barge of Caligula. Naked girls wreathed with flowers sat at the rowlocks, and as their graceful bodies swayed slowly to the splash of the oars they sang a languid song of love, a song drowned by the fierce bursts of merriment from the centre deck. There, under the myriad lights and in the shade of palms and vines and fruit trees growing amid green grass as on land, was spread a Roman feast.
The low tables blazed with gold and jewels. Strange foods were on them, platters of nightingales’ tongues and pheasants’ brains, eggs stuffed with honeyed reedbirds, spiced wines from Asia cooled with snow, all the dishes that the mighty wealth of Rome could procure and the ingenuity of man devise. Around the tables on couches strewn with purple reclined the nobility of Rome, the men in gaily colored clothes, the women in gauzy robes of silk half flung aside and half retained in conscious coquetry. The spray from leaping fountains cooled them. Nude waiting girls and giant Nubian slaves, their black skins glistening, served them to drink in golden goblets set with rubies and pearls and amethysts; while in the oblong square left vacant by the tables a troupe of wanton and skilful dancing girls from Gades posed and postured.
It was a feast worthy of Caligula, Caligula the frenzied emperor of the Romans. Had he not already drained the enormous treasures of the Caesars by his prodigality?
Did not his favorite horse stand in a marble stall and eat from an ivory manger? Had he not granted it a house and a retinue of slaves, and in its name invited consuls to dine with it?
Had he not, too, monster of cruelty that he was, wished that the people of Rome had but a single neck for the executioner’s axe? A mad emperor, stingy to meanness one moment, prodigal the next, granting unexpected favors, yet given to sudden and frenzied acts of cruelty. No man could fathom his crazed brain. No man could even guess what his next deed might be. No wonder that even in this orgy on the barge, in the midst of their merriment, the eye3 of his guests kept turning uneasily to look at him. There he lay in the centre of the couches, his great head poised like a turtle’s on his scrawny neck as he stared at the dancing girls.
Couched at his side, Fortunata watched his every move. She was his mistress, but none knew better than she how precarious her influence was. Needs must she anticipate his every whim, his sudden fits of cruelty, his equally dangerous spells of boredom. And tonight she had a purpose in mind. Diophante kneeling behind her, trembled as she watched her mistress’s face. Why had she not been punished, she wondered. Why had Fortunata brought her to this orgy? Fortunata and Viridovix . . . what would Fortunata do?
The dancing girls had finished. The guests burst into applause. Caligula turned his head away wearily. Fortunata leaned toward him.
“Did they not please thee, Divinity?” she asked anxiously.
"Nay.” He drained his goblet and looked at her darkly. “’Tis a pretty neck,” he said suddenly and reached out a hand to fondle it.
Fortunata smiled up at him. He laughed harshly, abruptly.
“What is it, Divinity?”
“I did but think,” he confided, “how at a nod of mine the axe would shear it. Yes, tis a pretty neck.”
“And who,” she asked reproachfully, though her lips were parched, “would make thee merry, then, Caesar?”
“The blood would spout,” he Raid reflectively. “Still, we will spare it. And yet, blood, ’tis pretty. Blood, crimson, bubbling.” He flung himself back. “To think,” he added, nodding sardonically at the courtiers, “that at a word of mine all those would tumble headless, like wilted flowers.” He laughed crazily. “W’as ever such power as mine? Caesar . . Lord of the World. And yet,” he went on gloomily, “yonder moon, Diana, how oft have I called her to my embraces. But she doth not come. She doth not come.”
“Yet, Divinity,” Fortunata ventured.
“What is it?”
“Yet is there one in Italy,” Fortunata’s voice was carefully casual, “who doth not own thy sway. He claims a kingship—in spite of thee.”
“A king!” he started up, staring at her with fierce eyes. “A king, sayest thou?”
“’Tis a strange kingship,” she said lightly. She raised a white arm to point to the black and wooded shores. “Yonder is his realm. Yonder he ruleth, King of the Grove and,” she turned to Caligula smiling, “he hath Diana to wife, Diana of the Grove. And yet he is but a slave, a runaway slave.”
“Thou speakest in riddles.”
“Hast thou never heard of the priest-king of Nemi? The women of Rome know him well.”
“Mayhap,” he said reflectively. “But now I
forget. ’Tis a riddle. How came this priesthood there? A runaway slave—and yet a king? A runaway slave and Diana . . . Diana . . . for his bride?”
“My slave, Diophante, shall unriddle it for thee. She is Greek, and skilled in the lore of the priests.”
“Bring her hither.”
“She is here, O Caesar. Come, Diophante.” Unwillingly the girl came forward and knelt at Caesar’s feet. Caligula looked and looked again. Bending forward he took her chin and tilted up her averted face.
“Thou has hidden a treasure from me, Fortunata,” he said chidingly. “Why did I not see this face before?”
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The Slave That Slew the Slayer
Continued from page 7
Fortunafa’s eyes were smoldering, but she compelled herself to speak indifferently. “She is thine when thou wishest it, O Caesar. But tell thy story, girl. Tell of the King of the Grove.”
Diophante looked at her appealingly. “Nay, my lady,” she said. “I know naught of the King of the Grove.”
Fortunata raised herself on her elbow. "What!” she exclaimed. “Darest thou tell me this? Whom wouldst thou save? Viridovix? Speak. Or, by the Furies, the whips shall compel thee.”
Hurriedly Diophante began. “Many are the legends of the King of the Grove, O Caesar. For when Hippolytus . ”
“Tell him not of Hippolytus,” Fortunata interrupted. “Tell him of the priest-king of Nemi.”
“’Tis told,” Diophante said after one despairing glance around her, “that in the olden days before Romo was, the priestking of the Latin League dwelt in yonder Sacred Grove. In his body was incarnated the god, and so they wedded him to the Sacred Tree which was Diana. Yet since he was the god, needs must he die when the power of the god in him grew weak. Else would the crops fail and fertility be lacking to the flocks and herds. So the manner of his slaying was this. Whosoe’er tore off a bough of the Sacred Tree and challenged him he must fight. So long as the power of the god was strong in him he slew his adversaries. But when the power of the god grew weak, then was he slain and his slayer ruled in his stead.” “A pretty king, forsooth,” Caligula sneered.
“Go on, girl,” Fortunata said.
“When Rome,” Diophante went on in a lower voice, “blotted out the Latin League, she did decree that the priestking should remain so that the ancient rites might not die out. Yet also—that he might not become a power—she did decree that he must be a slave, fled from his master. Needs must this slave tear a bough from the Sacred Tree and slay him who is the priest. Then, and not till then, he ruleth in his stead.”
“And then,” Fortunata added laughing, “this slave is King of the Grove and husband to Diana, 0 Caesar, until another slave doth slay him. Yet until then he is a king and none can touch him—not even Caesar.”
“A king,” sneered Caligula, “who slays a slayer and shall himself be slain. But thou,” he leaned forward to Diophante, “as wise as thou art beautiful . ”
“The present king,” Fortunata said smoothly, “hath ruled for three long years. Three years,” she added venomously, looking at Diophante, “as husband to Diana.”
"’Tis overlong,” Caligula agreed, turning to glance at her.
Fortunata leaned forward, her eyes bright and eager. Diophante, forgetting her own fear, stared up at Caesar, her face white. Viridovix . what would i Caesar do?
“But stay,” Caligula exclaimed, attracted by movement in the centre space of the tables, "what have we here? Gladiators!” With a wave of his hand he dismissed Diophante. “Gladiators. Now we shall have sport—sport and blood.” Diophante knelt again thankfully behind her mistress. Viridovix, she thought, Viridovix was saved. In front of her, Fortunata smiled with thin lips cursing the fate that had robbed her of certain vengeance; cursing, too, the chance that had made Diophante attractive to Caesar. In the open space six gladiators, huge figures bronzed by the sun and hardened by toil, raised their swords.
“Hail, Caesar. We, who are about to die, salute thee.”
Caligula rose and lifted up a garland, rosebuds peeping through green leaves. “’Tis to the death,” he said. “And let
each man’s hand be against all his neighbors.”
The six ranged themselves in a circle, their swords ready, their fierce faces intent. Caligula dropped the garland. There was a maddening clash of armor, a panting of hard-smitten blows, tho sudden cry of a man pierced to the heart. None heeded him. All eyes were fixed on the five who still strove in the narrow space, feet shuffling on the slippery deck, each man slashing at all the others and slashed at by all in turn.
The deck became a shambles. Blood spattered the tables and the guests. One by one the gladiators, cut and pierced and slashed, tumbled to the planks until at last only two were left erect. An instant’s pause and one of them, feinting, drew his opponent’s guard and slipped his sword into his side to the hilt. Withdrawing the blade he put his foot on his corpse and, himself by some miracle almost unscathed, turned a smiling face and a dripping sword toward Caligula.
“Hail, Caesar,” he bellowed.
There was a furious burst of applause from the blood-maddened men and women of the court.
“A boon, Caesar,” they cried. “A boon for the gladiator.”
Rising to his feet Caligula looked at them uncertainly. A boon he must give, and yet, always, to grant a rich prize to a gladiator cost him a pang. They should fight for fighting’s sake. His glance fell on Fortunata’s upturned face. He raised a hand, a broad smile on his face, thinking that this prize, at least, would cost him naught.
“What is thy name, gladiator?”
“Gnatho, O Caesar.”
“I grant thee, Gnatho,” Caligula said grandiloquently, “a kingdom . . . and a bride. The bride, ’tis Diana of Nemi. And the kingdom,” he pointed toward the shore, “thou shalt win it with thy sword. The lady Fortunata, she shall show thee the way.”
Fortunata raised herself on her elbow. Her other hand gripped Diophante’s wrist with cruel intensity.
“And to the divine bride, Gnatho,” she said, “will I add one of flesh and blood for the victor in the struggle. Stand, Diophante.”
The gladiator’s uncouth face was severed by a grin. Caligula sat down scowling. The gladiator cried out his thanks and left the deck. A corps of slaves rushed in to clear away the bodies and to cleanse the blood. Then a girl, instinct with the lure of the East, leaped into the open space and began the dance that is older than the East, the Dance of the Seven Veils. Caligula’s frown left his forehead. He leaned forward to watch. Fortunata looked at the trembling Diophante and smiled her secret smile.
Up in his glade, as the orgy went on into the night, Viridovix, leaning on his sword, watched the moonlit, silver lake | and the gilded barge that drifted on it like a dreamboat from faeryland.
T HAVE risked my life to tell thee, -*■ Viridovix. No, let me go before the dawn breaks. Needs must I hasten hack. They are all sunk in slumber now. But if she should come to know that I had been here to warn thee . . . thou knowest her cruelty.”
Viridovix released Diophante unwillingly. ‘‘She hath always hated me,” he said. “Ever since when in Rome she could not bend me, a slave, to her will. May Odin smite her.”
“May Odin and Ares, too, help thee to conquer today.”
“And if I conquer—what further gain have I? My slayer will still come. Death will still wait for me.”
“Death! May Aphrodite avert the omen. If thou dost conquer
Caligula, they say, goeth back to Rome on the morrow. And I have heard,” she dropped her voice and looked around her, ‘‘that assassins wait for him. Even Rome is weary of his cruelty.”
“And Fortunata? Thinkest thou that one attempt will content her?”
Diophante’s eyes flashed. She caught her underlip in her pretty teeth. “I have a knife,” she said venomously.
“Nay,” Viridovix exclaimed. “I will not have it so. What boots this kingship of the Grove. Death will come upon me soon or late. But life with thee . . . flee with me, Diophante, now. I know these woods.”
She shook her head. “Nay, Viridovix, ’tis madness. I am a slave. And so art thou, if thou dost leave this grove. Nay, thou must fight and conquer. Besides,” she added, considering him, “I am prize to the victor.”
“I did not mean to tell thee. Thy head must needs be cool for the fight. But that gladiator—oh, thou must save me from him, Viridovix.”
“He shall not lay a finger on thee," he swore, catching her in his arms.
She rested there a moment. “Oh,” she said bitterly, “if we were not slaves, thou and I. Pray to thy gods as I will to mine that Caligula is merry today. And now—one kiss before I go.”
IT WAS mid-afternoon. Sword in hand Viridovix stood under his tree and watched the Romans come laughing and talking out into the glade and range themselves along the green turf to see the play. He gripped his sword hilt tight, as he picked out Caligula among them, and Fortunata beside him. And there was Diophante staring with fascinated eyes at the huge limbs of the gladiator. Would they had all one neck, these Romans. Stepping out from the shadow of the oak he waited, a strange, a grim figure in the sunlight.
The preliminaries were soon over. The giant gladiator had torn off from the Sacred Tree the bough that gleamed with the mistletoe, mystic symbol to Roman and Teuton alike of life in death, and had flung it down. Viridovix faced him. For an instant they glared at each other, the tall, red-headed King of the Grove and the huge and bulky gladiator. Then, swift as a snake striking, Gnatho lunged. Viridovix parried and his answering stroke was keen and rapid. In a moment he had forgotten all but the man in front of him.
For long moments they had fought over the trampled sward. For once Viridovix had found an antagonist who could withstand his fierce rushes, could more than withstand them. Twice already the point of Gnatho’s sword had stabbed deep. And now, weakened insensibly by the welling blood, Viridovix was giving ground.
Diophante gasped suddenly. A third time the active blade had slipped under her lover’s guard. She saw Viridovix jump back, saw him leap forward with one furious, down-crashing blow at his adversary’s head. Quick and unexpected as the stroke was, Gnatho was quicker. He could not avoid the blow altogether. But he diverted it from his head to fall slanting on his shoulder. It shore a bloody road.
But overbalanced by the effort Viridovix slipped and fell prone. In an instant of time he felt the grass warm to his skin; saw the blue sky and the hot sun overhead; saw, too, the downward thrusting stab of his opponent's sword and heard, suddenly, Diophante’s scream.
There is one supreme effort possible in
the life of every man. Viridovix made it. Rolling away from the piercing thrust he was on his feet again. The gladiator’s blade was still deep in the turf. Like a panther leaping, Viridovix struck and felt his sword hilt bruise against his adversary’s flesh, felt his sword wrenched from his hand as Gnatho fell, a huddled mass, a foolish look of surprise still on his face.
A great shout of applause went up from the Romans. Mechanically, Viridovix recovered his sword and turned to face them.
“A boon, 0 Caesar,” the courtiers were calling. “A boon for the priest.”
Caligula rose uncertainly. Another prize to give. “What wilt thou, slave?” he asked.
The world was reeling round Viridovix. He brushed his hand across his brow. There was Fortunata’s angry face—and there, there was Diophante, hands to her mouth in hope and fear. He steadied himself and, compelling his pride, fell to his knees.
“There was a bride, 0 Divinity,” he said, “for the victor in the fight.”
Caligula glanced at Fortunata. This, at least, would cost him nothing.
“Nay,” she cried. “’Twas not for him. ’Twas for that carrion yonder, if he had won.” She rose to her feet. “Thou shalt not gift him with her,” she declared passionately, regardless of the danger of striving to compel the mad Caesar’s will. “Thou shalt not. That priest, he is my slave. And as for her, she hath deceived me with him. I see it now. The whips shall make her tell how he did escape me, three years agone.”
Caligula’s face was flushed. “The girl,” he said coldly, “is his. Thou thyself didst gift her to the victor. Nay, no more, Fortunata.”
She shrank back. “King of the Grove, Divinity,” she ventured. “And husband to Diana, the Diana that will not come to thee.”
“True,” Caligula reflected. “I like it not, this kingship. Only I should be king in Italy—or have a goddess to wife.” “Free me,” Viridovix pleaded humbly, “of this kingship, Divinity. Free me oi it and of my slavery and I will take my bride across the Rhine.”
“Aye, free him,” Fortunata said, gliding up to Caligula. “Free him by death, O Caesar.”
Caligula pondered, staring at her. She smiled at him seductively. He looked at his courtiers and saw them whispering. He turned away.
“I gift thee with freedom, slave,” he said magnificently, “thee and thy bride. Only get thee across the Rhine.”
Fortunata’s smile had changed to anger. “Thou canst not, O Caesar,” she cried in fury. “’Tis the law. They are my slaves, not thine. Only I can free them. Thou canst not. ’Tis the law.” He looked at her. Even in her rage she was beautiful. The sunlight streamed on the tempting curves of her body, on the graceful poise of her head.
“’Tis a pretty neck,” he said inconsequentially and motioned to the headsman.
ON THE morrow Caligula rode to Rome where, though he knew it not, his murderers waited in his palace. And on the morrow, Viridovix, leaning on Diophante’s shoulder stood under the giant oak and looked his last at the lake of Nemi.
“To the north,” he said. “’Twill be but a rude life for thee, Diophante.” “What matters it,” she answered, and drew him closer to her. “We shall be free, Viridovix; thou and I.”