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December, 74AD - the Via Latina, a day's walk/half a day's ride from Rome

As was customary, Horatia lit the sprig of incense in front of the marker, erected some way back from the dusty road that drove south to Naples. Unlike many of the funerary monuments constructed on this route, the one she came to visit was set back into the forestry - concealed from travellers, and secluded. Her arms were covered in a thin film of goosebumps at the memories that flooded her mind in this place, and why she had deigned to visit, in secret. It had been twelve years but everything was as vivid as if she were reliving it yesterday; the wight of the toddler Titus in her arms, the ear piercing scream, the smell of blood, the feeling of fingers working under her tunica1. She swallowed the lump in her throat and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. This was an evil place, full of awful memories, but one she had to visit.

A year after the incident she had erected the stone to Decius, the man that had lost his life here. He was a slave, his absence hadn't been commented on or noticed by her parents in law, or Aulus when he had returned home some seven years later, but Horatia keenly felt his loss. He had protected her, even in immense pain. He had been kind. And so she visited every year she could, on the anniversary of his passing, of that fateful day. She never told her husband or own family where she was going; insisting that she was going to visit a friend in a villa and so needed a horse and her freedman; employed for her protection. Said freedman stayed well back from her, standing with the horses on the road. Neither did her husband or her family know about the little monument she had erected; she used funds from her father which she had informed him was for repairs to a women's respite home in the Aventine. She had then told her parents-in-law a similar tale to get double the funds so she got her stone and the women got their home. Everybody won, but poor Decius. 

She sniffed back her upset as she crouched in front of the marker, until she heard a twig snap; somebody walking through the clearing. She spun around on her heel and blinked, trying to figure out who it was.

 

TAG: OPEN

Horatia is thinking about her flight from Rome to Baiae in the civil war, as recounted here.

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Eppitacos had been a free man for almost a month. Calpurnia, whom had purchased him by way of proxy at the private auction held by the Caesars earlier in the same year, had surprised him with an early Saturnalia present. As she had said: "This year, your freedom won't end after a week of celebrations." As was the custom, and as he felt obliged to do, he took her gentile name, and took the name of his mother, then added on his own to officially restyle himself as Servius Calpurnius Eppitacus... though to most he was still Eppitacus, or just Epp.

The first thing he decided to do with his freedom was leave Rome. As much as his curiosity of the greater world outside of Rome interested him, he hadn't once in over ten years had an opportunity to truly see the countryside. The Romans had built the greatest city the world would surely ever know in Rome, but he knew that they had come from hills and pastures the same as his people.... once upon a time. And so he desired to see these lands for himself.

He started south, with his initial destination set for Neapolis. The trip took him just under a week, though - by way of a suggestion from a rather drunk soldier at a taverna - he ended up traveling on to Pompeii. He had never seen so many bordellos on one street as he did in that city... but he enjoyed himself. What little money Calpurnia had gifted him was spent quicker than he anticipated. Once he was out, he debated whether to try and etch out a life in Pompeii, or somewhere else, or return to Rome. In the end, Eppitacos decided that Rome offered more opportunity by way of his patron Calpurnia, and so he made the return trek.

After days walking he entered a stretch of the roadway that was crowded by foliage on either side. He felt a sudden flashback to his home, where roads had been made through nature, not on top of her. He thought about how, in his previous life, he had been among the trees, looking out on the Romans stomping forward on roads. Now he was stomping just the same. It had been some time since he simply wandered the woods. He wondered if he could even speak with nature anymore, as his Druid fathers had taught him.

With a deep breath, Eppitacos stepped away from the roadway and into a small sliver of the world the Romans had decided to let be.

He felt suddenly alive, surrounded by the quiet of the trees. But he quickly realized he wasn't alone. He stepped forward, not entirely carefully, as the path continued farther into the woods, until it seemed to open just slightly.

His eyes caught sight of a woman standing alone and he felt his curiosity take over him.

Another step.

What's she doing here alone? He thought to himself. Could she be in trouble?

Thinking back to the signs he had seen at the mile markers about brigands, Eppitacos took his eyes away from the path and surveyed his surroundings.

Another step and this time a twig snapped beneath his foot.

He instinctively looked down, and then immediately up to see that the woman had turned in surprise. He held up his hands... well, his right hand and the stump of his left forearm to show that despite his certainly ragged appearance, he meant no harm.

"Apologies for the surprise, domina," he said, as gently as possible while thinking to himself, "Please don't scream."

 

@Sara

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Horatia felt like her heart was going to explode out of her chest at the sight of the man, towering, dishevelled and maimed. This can't happen again. It beat against her  her ribs, with such force that she had to wind a hand across her chest to help herself calm down. She took a step back and her foot caught on the edge of the incense she had lit, and she winced at the burning pain. "My freedman is on the road, if I scream he'll be here quicker than you can draw a weapon." She said, trying to collect her thoughts as she found herself backed against the funerary marker she had erected for poor Decius. 

She glanced him over. He was significantly larger than her - which was not uncommon given her slight frame - and although obviously maimed, looked to be in fine physical shape otherwise. She didn't much fancy her chances should she try and run. 

"Who are you?" She called out, but pointedly kept her distance and wound her palla tighter around her. Her voice was steady and calm, but the slight widening of her eyes and the tension rippling across her body must have been a signal she was extremely uncomfortable. "What are you doing here?" The thought briefly crossed her mind that he might be employed by her family, extended or nuclear. She had always been opaque about where she went on this day every year; perhaps they had gotten wise to her lies and employed him to follow her here? Surely Aulus would have just come himself? She swallowed at the thought.

 

TAG: @Chris

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Eppitacos caught her every moment from her stilted breaths to the way her foot caught against the incense burner and brought a grimace to her face. Yet her fear held her in place. He heard her warning: That she had a freedman on the road ready to protect her if needed. Before he could say anything to reassure her that he had no ill intent, she spoke again, questioning who he was and what he was doing. Both valid questions considering the circumstance.

"I haven't any weapons," he said first, keeping his arms raised and his voice as calm as possible. "So you don't need to call out to anyone." Though he didn't remember seeing any freedmen waiting by the road.

"My name is Servius Calpurnius Eppitacus," he said, deciding it a safer move to give his Roman name than the Briton one - though he had no way of knowing that the woman he was speaking to was a relation to his former master Calpurnia.

Why had he entered into those woods? "I don't have a good reason for being here," he added, honestly. "I simply noticed an opening in the wood and thought I might explore. Then, I saw you and wondered if you might be in some sort of trouble.

"I can leave if you prefer."

@Sara

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Horatia trusted the man as far as she could throw him, which was to say, not at all. He could have a knife in his belt ready to pull and so she kept pressed up against the funerary marker - eyes flitting between his figure and the route back to the road. 

But fear gave way to confusion as he gave his name. Calpurnius? What? She let him finish answering her questions, explaining (or...not) why he was here. She ignored his question, however, confusing reigning and a nagging question lingering in her mind. "Servius Calpurnius Eppitacus?" She repeated and flitted her gaze up and down his form and then back over her shoulder, just to ensure nobody was approaching from behind. "I wasn't aware of any Calpurnii with your cognomen." She narrowed her eyes and swallowed the lump in her throat. It also didn't sound like a Latin name, but she knew freed slaves took their masters names. "You are a freedman? Who did you belong to?" She asked perceptively before tensing her shoulders again, "Unless the name is perhaps made up and you'd like to tell me your real name?" 

She folded her arms over her chest protectively and still moved no nearer to him, although her eyes occasionally darted back through the clearing, back towards the road.

 

TAG: @Chris

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Eppitacos had been raised to observe nature, and observe people. First as a Druid, and for the rest of his life to that point as a fighter. He could understand how a person felt, or what they might be thinking based on how they stood, or how their eyes darted frantically back and forth.

Truthfully a part of him hated that for everything he had earned, all the riches and glory, he was still beholden to this frightened woman in the middle of a bunch of trees. That his newfound freedom could be taken away with a simple call for help from her.

But, there was a chance to diffuse any sort of escalation by way of his name... only he presumed it was from the fame attached his his Briton name.

"My real name is Eppitacos," he said, still adamant on being truthful. "Surely you've heard the name? Briton warrior? Gladiator?" Though he was a modest man, he found it hard to believe she had not heard his name.

"Calpurnius is a new addition," he continued. "I was purchased from Caesar by the Vestal Calpurnia and by her earned my freedom." He hated even saying those words: that he had earned his freedom. Freedom wasn't a thing to be earned, or owned, or even given. He was sure this Roman woman disagreed.

He watched her eyes continue to jump from him to the clearing behind him, to the roadway beyond the trees and the noise of the traffic upon it.

@Sara

 

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Horatia nodded, realisation dawning on her. Panic and fear had taken over her senses, but now she was calming down she remembered she had heard of him, and from the horses mouth - as it were - directly. 

"I know Calpurnia," She admitted weakly and wrapped her arms around her waist protectively, "And you." She narrowed her bright blue eyes on him. "I'm her sister in law." She finally admitted. What was a freedman going to do with the information that she was out here alone? She considered lying, stating she was some random equite, but what good would it serve, and besides, she was intrigued. "She wrote to my husband about you, and to me, but I hadn't realised she'd freed you." She looked at him, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. 

"Fortuna smiled on you today, Eppitacos," She finally managed with a more relaxed smile, "Had you stumbled upon a woman who did not know Calpurnia or that she rated you highly, she would have likely screamed bloody murder." Horatia wouldn't, not now, not unless he did something to warrant it - but she didn't full fully calm yet. This was an awkward encounter, given where she was and what she had been doing. 

"I...just needed to stretch my legs," She said by way of an explanation, a lie of course, "That's why I'm here...not that you asked."

 

TAG: @Chris

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