SUMMARY: A house once shaken by the gods lies cursed forever. In which Stephanos plays more latrunculi than he would like, and reflects upon both Aquilae. Mostly movie-based, with some nods to book canon.
NOTES: I meant to write a silly drabble about Stephanos throwing latrunculi games. Oops? Thanks to Sineala, savvierthanu, and Aleathiel for beta-ish comments, even though this story has no slash in it.
For more Eagle and Eagle of the Ninth stories, I recommend the ninth_eagle community on Livejournal: livejournal DOT com SLASH community SLASH ninth_eagle. My own Eagle fiction (including many more stories than I have posted here, since most of what I've written in this fandom is sexually explicit and I don't really post to FFN anymore anyway) can be found at archiveofourown DOT org SLASH users SLASH Carmarthen.
Four Messengers to a Shaken House
I. The Stone Eagle
Stephanos pauses outside the door to the room where Aquila has put his injured nephew, listening to the murmur of voices inside. He still eavesdrops shamelessly; it is the only way a slave finds anything out, especially in this house.
"Most of the time I only play old Stephanos. I believe the score is presently four hundred to two," Aquila says, and Stephanos almost snorts. He has won a great many more than two games, albeit mostly in the beginning, before he decided to try to bore Aquila into losing interest in latrunculi.
When he was a young man, Stephanos had dreamed of freedom, of marriage and freeborn children. Now he is old and set in his ways; there are worse masters than Lucius Flavius Aquila, and he has no idea what he would do as a freedman at his age. Likely what he does for Aquila now, and he has no family who could use a little extra money. He will be freed in Aquila's will, if he lives longer, but what would he do with freedom now?
Still, there are times when he devoutly wishes he could tell Aquila where to put his latrunculi board.
At first, he had not minded the game so much; it was less tedious than ludus calculorum, and a change from the routine. Then it became the routine, and Stephanos had stopped trying to win, and then started trying to lose, hoping Aquila would at least suggest another game.
Yet although Aquila had grumbled that Stephanos presented no challenge, still the latrunculi board came out every few days, and Stephanos has grown to hate the click of the black and white stones on the wooden board, the heavier sound of the aquilae pieces.
"hasn't left your side in days," Aquila says.
"Days? How long have I been here?" The nephew's voice is strained and hoarse.
Stephanos takes that as his signal to enter the room with the medicinal broth Sassticca has prepared; it is rich with marrow and bitter with herbs and will do the lad good. He holds it for the lad to drink and then presses him back with a hand on his shoulders. "You must rest," he says, and then he looks at Aquila in a way he knows his master will understand.
Aquila gives him a sheepish look in return and clears his throat. "Stephanos is right, Marcus. There will be plenty of time to talk later."
It is a petty thought, and Stephanos is ashamed to have it while the lad is still fever-bound, but perhaps now Aquila will inflict latrunculi on his poor nephew instead of on Stephanos.
II. The Younger Eagle
Aquila's nephew Marcus is still unable to lie on his belly without putting painful pressure on the healing wound in his thigh. Privately, Stephanos is not sure the wound is healing as it should, but he is no surgeon, to be certain. Since Marcus cannot lie down, Stephanos must let him sit in the tepidarium and oil and massage him as best he can that way.
Marcus is a big man, almost as big as some of the local Britons, and perhaps that is how he survived such wounds. Besides the raw, inflamed flesh of his thigh, which looks as though it was gnawed by a hound, he has other healing wounds on his chest and arms. His forearms are covered with scabbed-over cuts, some very deep, where he must have thrown his arms up to protect his head when the chariot bore down on him.
Stephanos can tell he is in a great deal of pain by how Marcus sits like a statue and ignores him. He does not think it is because Stephanos is a slaveneither Aquila is that kind of masterbut because Marcus cannot bear to be seen by another person in such a state of weakness, and so he pretends that Stephanos is not a person. He is young and soldier-proud, and Stephanos does not take it to heart.
But today is different. "I am sorry for your suffering," Marcus says as Stephanos is carefully working oil into his shoulder, avoiding the worst of the cuts.
"Domine?" Stephanos says, honestly not sure what Marcus is talking about.
"Latrunculi." Marcus shudders a little. "I thought it would not be so bad, but he is insatiable. And truly, even then it would not be so terrible without the puns."
Stephanos smiles a little to himself, since Marcus cannot see it. The puns would not be so bad if it were only one or two, but he thinks he has now heard every pun there is to make on aquila fifty times over. And with two of them playing, ah, it must be a hundred times worse. "He is glad to have you here," Stephanos says, carefully.
"Of course," Marcus says, and slumps a little, so little Stephanos would not notice if he did not have his hands on the man's shoulder. "How long can he keep a crippled soldier on charity, do you think?"
Before he can think of what is safe to say, Marcus waves a hand irritably. "No, don't answer that. Help me into the caldarium, if you please."
Marcus is so very young, Stephanos thinks. He has not yet learned to bend with life, and now life will force him to bend or break. He hopes, for Aquila's sake as much as his nephew's, that Marcus will learn to bend.
III. The Elder Eagle
Most men retiring from the army buy a young, strong body slave, one who will be pleasing to look at, able to perform his duties without trouble, and perhaps, if his master is so inclined, to warm his bed. Stephanos had been nearly Aquila's own age, and never handsome, and at any rate Aquila did not want that of him. He was literate in Greek and Latin, but not enough of a scholar to be sold as a tutor; a competent cook, although he had been glad when Aquila purchased Sassticca; a tolerable house-slave. But Aquila liked a small household, and he wanted a body-slave who could drape a toga and scribe a letter and cook a decent meal and converse in Greek, and did not care if he could do all those things equally well. Stephanos might have thought Aquila was one of those men who believed he could be friends with his slaves, except Aquila has always kept a certain distance between them.
Marcus has been at the villa for a month before Aquila calls Stephanos into the tablinum after the evening meal to play latrunculi. Although Stephanos sighs inwardly, he sits downit is good to sit after a long and wearying dayand begins setting up his side of the board.
"I am concerned that Marcus's leg is not healing," Aquila says, after a time, in Greek. It is not unusual for him to speak Greek when they play latrunculi. Living outside Calleva as he does, he has little opportunity to speak it with others of his class, and it is difficult to keep sharp from reading alone. "What do you think of it?"
It is unusual for Aquila to ask him his opinion, and after a moment Stephanos realizes why this is so strange: Aquila is speaking to him like a friend whose thoughts he values and wishes to know.
He doesn't know how to react to that.
"He is in some pain, I think, although he will not admit it," Stephanos finally ventures. "The wound still looks raw, as if perhaps it was not cleaned well."
Aquila frowns. "These fort surgeons are not always the best, especially in the auxiliaries."
"What of your friend from Durinum?" Stephanos asks, absently capturing one of Aquila's pieces. "The surgeonRufrius something. Perhaps he would come look at it."
Aquila grins at him, suddenly pleased; it is the soldier still in him, always glad to seize upon a course of action. "Rufrius Galarius! Yes, a good idea, Stephanos. Take down a letter for me in the morning, so I may send it with the next trader bound that way."
Stephanos loses that game, too, although as usual he does not really try to win. But this time he is less annoyed; Aquila is so Roman sometimes, that he must find secret ways to do as he wishes.
"Perhaps we might play tabula next time," Stephanos offers as Aquila puts the game pieces away. He doesn't add domine, testing.
Aquila fumbles one of the black pieces, dropping it on the table, as he looks up at Stephanos in surprise. "Of course," he says, with a self-deprecating smile. "You are probably tired of latrunculi, eh?"
IIII. The Bronze Eagle
Stephanos has never entirely understood why Roman soldiers are so attached to their standards, especially the bronze eagles of the legions. It is only a metal bird, and to attach so much to a symbol makes little sense to him. The legions will trample all in their path with their hobnailed caligae no matter whether those golden wings spread above them or not.
But the aquila is important to the Romans, and there has been a new fire in Marcus Aquila's eyes and a straightness in his back since he decided to go north into Caledonia. His British body-slave seems happier, too, although Stephanos cannot always tell with that sullen one. Esca burns for freedom like only a man born free can; Stephanos, a slave from the womb, had never longed for it as intensely.
It is an autumn day when the young men ride out from the villa, towards the great wall built across Britain by Emperor Hadrian to protect the south from the barbarians in the north. Aquila had protested, saying they should wait until spring and better weather, and he had nearly prevailed until he suggested that Marcus needed more time to regain his strength. At that the younger man's jaw had firmed and Stephanos knew that Aquila had just ensured that Marcus would leave before the harvest was fully in.
"I will restore my father's honor," Marcus says now, fiercely, leaning down from his saddle to clasp his uncle's hand. Behind him Esca meets Stephanos' eyes and shrugs, as if to say, Romans. "We will bring the Eagle back."
"Of course you will, dear boy," Aquila says. "But you must bring yourself back first of all; I care more for you than any other eagle."
Marcus and Esca do not look back as they ride up the road, disappearing over the hill.
"He reminds me so much of his father, sometimes," Aquila says, his voice faraway, and Stephanos has known him long enough to understand that this is not entirely praise. "Where once the anger of heaven has struck, that house is shaken forever."
Aquila looks years older, all his usual vigor gone, as if he is bent under the weight of his worry. He has no children of his own, and there had been no chance of that after the girl he buried at Glevum, twenty years and more before he bought Stephanos, the girl he only speaks of occasionally when deep in his cups. In his brother's son he has found something he never thought to have, and Stephanos cannot imagine how it must be to watch Marcus ride out for the cold, dark wilds of Caledonia where Marcus's own father had been killed twenty years before, knowing how little chance there is that he will return.
Stephanos hesitates; comfort has had no place in his relationship with this man he has loved and resented in equal measure for half his adult life. Finally he lets his hand rest on Aquila's shoulder for a moment.
"They will return, I know it," he says. He believes it, then, truly believes that in a month or two Marcus and Esca will ride back into the courtyard with that ridiculous metal bird that Aquila's brother died for in Caledonia. "This house may be shaken, but it has not fallen."
Aquila looks at him as if, suddenly, he is truly seeing Stephanos for the first time, and he says softly in Greek, his words as much apology as gratitude, "Thank you, Stephanos."
Historical Notes: When I was in high school we studied Sophocles in English, as well as Anouilh's Antigone, and the theatre program put on Euripedes' The Trojan Women my freshman year, so for a while I had a lot of Greek tragedy on the brain. At one point we had a field trip to see very odd production of Antigone, which mashed up Sophocles with other influences.
The one line that stuck with me for years and years from that odd production was "A house once shaken by the gods lies cursed forever," and I almost used that but ended up going with the more standard translation from Sophocles' Antigone for Uncle Aquila's line in the last section,
"Fortunate is the man who has never tasted God's vengeance!
Where once the anger of heaven has struck, that house is shaken
For ever: damnation rises behind each child
Like a wave cresting out of the black northeast,
When the long darkness under sea roars up
And bursts drumming death upon the windwhipped sand."
-Antigone, Ode 2, Stroph 1
The Greeks believed that Zeus had an eagle, Aetos Dias (αετός Δίας), as a messenger.
Latrunculi was a Roman game often compared to chess, although I personally think it might have resembled Go more; the object might have been to trap an aquila piece, representing a legion's eagle standard. Ludus calculorum was a general term; Stephanos is referring to a game similar to checkers that we now call calculi to distinguish. Tabula was Roman backgammon.
I don't believe Uncle Aquila has a canon praenomen, so I picked one used by gens Flavia. This is largely movie-based (with a bit from the shooting script); there are a couple references to the book. I don't think this Stephanos meshes well with the one we catch glimpses of in the book, but in the movie he's something of a cipher.