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Remmy Meggs 

Grapes of Italy Chapter 15

Although there was a lot of pushing and shoving, Fedele finally calmed down Lothario enough to talk. They seem to have spoken together for hours when the meeting inside broke up. Ettore immediately came outside with Cyrus and Roman and looked at Lothario sitting in the grass, with Fedele less than a foot away.

Roman looked around, and at the other end of veranda, saw the two dogs and Anthony watching Lothario and Fedele from a distance. He walked down and grabbed up Anthony and put him in bed, "Si you get sicker and I have to pay for it. You stay put."

"They were arguing. Me and the dogs were going to kill Fedele if he hurt Master." Anthony explained.

"Shush, Lothario can take care of himself."

"Roman, I have been laying here for months!"

"Days Anthony, it has been days." Roman corrected.

Anthony pulled up his tunic, "See I am almost healed."

"Si, when the doctor says you are well, then you will be well."

"I should know when I am well. I am well. Besides Master Lothario needs me, Cyrus does the work but he does not do it right." Anthony nodded and folded his arms as if that was the final statement.

"Si I have seen this is true, however, even though I am not as well trained as you are I have been trying to help. They say three to four weeks. I think you can get up and walk a little, but don't let Master Lothario see you and don't you tell him I said it was alright to do. I get myself in enough trouble without your help."

"You are free though Roman, how can you get in trouble now?"

"Oh that is easy to do. I ran through the house and knocked over a vase. You have no idea how many pieces a vase can break into until it hits a marble floor. I have run into Lothario knocking him, myself or both of us down at times. I ran through the kitchen after being told not to run in the house anymore knocking down three breadbaskets. When I turned to catch the bread, the meat was on the counter ready to be cut and I stepped back into it, knocking it on the floor. All that happened today. So see, I do not need your help getting in trouble."

Anthony was laughing, "Everyone knows not to run into the house and never go into the kitchen without being asked. What did Esta say?"

"She said in the morning while everyone is getting ready to go, I will be in here like a slave girl cleaning the tub and the floors and the columns by myself." Roman frowned, "That does not sound too bad, but I wanted to be with Lothario."

"Si so do I. I don't think they are taking me. No one has said anything."

Roman shrugged, "Then we will probably be together a lot until they return."

"No, you don't understand, they are not coming back here. They are going to Rome!" Anthony yelped.

Roman's eyes widened, "Rome? Why would they go to Rome? It is so dirty and stinky compared to here. This is like Summerland, or the closest most of us will get to Summerland."

Anthony sighed, "I do not know why. I just heard Cyrus and Ettore talking about it. I only heard part of what was being said before I fell asleep."

"Speaking of sleep, you should be resting now." The deep voice of the doctor in the hallway echoed, "Now let me see how you are doing."

Lothario came up behind the doctor and went to Anthony's side to hold his hand, "Si, it will have to all come off?"

The doctor didn't smile, "It is healing, the mites are gone, I think. Si, we still may have to cut everything off." He chuckled and looked at Anthony, "You will be fine." He looked at Lothario, "He can go tomorrow but I do not want him walking and have one of the slaves put the salve on him in the mornings, at noon and at night. Whatever you do keep him clean, or he will not like what I have to do."

Lothario grinned wide, "Si be good or be a girl. I understand completely." Lothario looked at Anthony, "Do you understand Anthony?"

Anthony swallowed hard, "Si, I am excited I can go, but I want to be good. Is Roman coming with us?"

Lothario looked surprised, "Why wouldn't Roman come with us?" Lothario looked at Roman who looked away, "What has happened?"

The doctor stood up, "I will leave the things to young men that concern young men, I have other patients to see tonight before they will be able to leave tomorrow."

Lothario thanked the doctor and turned back to Roman, "What have you done?"

"I made a few messes in the house, and I have to clean your columns, floor and bath before I can leave tomorrow." Roman looked at the floor and turned red.

"I guess you are better off than being whipped, but still Roman, we are leaving early. You will have to work hard and fast to be on time." Lothario grumbled. He turned to Anthony, "You will be riding in the leticia with teacher, and if he has you doing work you do it, no matter how sick of it you get."

Cyrus and Ettore walked into the room while Lothario was talking, but stayed quiet, "Roman, you have enough money to get a horse, make sure you get a young fast one because you are probably going to need it to catch up with the rest of us. Now get going before it is dark, ask the horse master to help find you one. There are several traders down in the valley."

Ettore sat and Cyrus started taking off the armor, "What did Fedele say to you?" Ettore asked.

"He said if I ever have an outburst like that again, even if others are not around, he will whip every slave I have to the bone. I won't even go into what he would do to you. In the morning meeting I have to apologize too. Really though I don't think it is right." Lothario sat as he finished.

Ettore looked at Cyrus, Anthony and Romano. Anthony especially had a look of horror on his face. Ettore swallowed hard, "You are teasing right?"

Lothario threw a pillow at Anthony, and the other four began wrestling on the floor, Lothario yelped, "Of course I am teasing."

"Get him Master Ettore that was not funny at all!" Anthony giggled from his bed.

Morning came too soon. Soldiers were usually in bed by nightfall, unless they were on duty, the boys had been asleep since 8 pm, but still woke drowsy. They bathed while Roman worked as fast as he could to clean things up, starting with the twelve foot tall columns, using scaffolding other workers brought in. This would be the last cleanup of Lothario's room, until they returned from Rome someday in the future. Esta wanted the house spotless.

Centurions Aquil, Crispin, Valentine, Burrus, along with their Opticos, were waiting outside the front of the villa for Lothario and Ettore. The group shook arms and Ettore brought up something that was bothering him, "With Pao in Rome with his men, even with Valentine that still leaves us one group short of a full Cohort. We are supposed to have three cohorts and have less than one."

The others looked at Ettore, but it was Lothario that answered, "Si we are short two cohorts, but then again we have the finest cohort in the legion. Now let's go inside with the others and have warm grape juice and breakfast. We have a long day ahead of us."

The young soldiers entered and made their rounds meeting and making sure they recognized other officers. When the meeting started the men broke into groups under their commander. When everyone was settled and sitting, yet before breakfast was served, Lothario stood and walked to the front in front of his father and knelt, "Never again papa will I question your word."

A cough from Fedele made Lothario look up, "I mean Consul Nico, you will always be my leader."

Several stomped their feet in approval. Don Nico looked at his son, "Every well. Have a seat and eat, this maybe the last good meal we will have in many weeks."

As they ate and drank the sun began to rise in the sky. Only the Generals were talking, some making last minute decisions and changing orders. When they finished, the sun was visible. Consul Nico stood and looked at everyone, "We should not incur a war out there, but there may be several battles. Just keep in mind what Lothario has said to his own men. You are Roman, and a dead Roman does no one any good. So stay alive and build a Greater Rome."

Lothario did not actually say those words during the battle at the lake, but it was similar. He thought better than to correct his father. When they went outside, thousands of soldiers were preparing themselves and their units. Slaves, free men, citizens, soldiers all working for the common goal. It was this action that would someday make Rome the greatest empire on earth.

Don Moretti's troops began moving out, followed by Don Fedele's troops. Although Lothario could not see or hear them, his parents were wishing each other well, and promised to meet in Rome and the house. Esta came up to Lothario with his teacher and Anthony in hand, "Master Lothario, it pains me, but your mother insists that your teacher and Anthony travel with us for safety, instead of going from battle to battle."

Lothario saw tears running down Anthony's face. Lothario jumped up onto his horse and looked at Anthony, "I was thinking the same thing. You both would just slow us down, even more than we already will be. It is best that you both go to Rome with the rest of the family. I had another reason for deciding that." Lothario pulled out his sword, leaned over and handed it to Anthony, "I cannot be there to protect my family. It would be an honor to me, if you would take care of them."

Anthony took the sword, fell to the ground and began a horrid cry. Lothario had to look away. Don Nico heard the cry and turned to see Lothario and his men riding away from the boy on the ground. He saw that Lothario did not look back.

Nico swallowed hard as trumpets sounded from the hill, "Now what?" He looked up and down the road for any movement. Whatever or whoever it was still too far away to see. Lothario sent Ettore to the road to see what was going on.

Everyone waited as Ettore confronted the army in front of him, alone. Lothario looked at the dogs, "Go make sure he is safe" Then he turned to the others, "Centurions, follow them and take some men with you."

Lothario, followed by his horses rode over to his father, who was also watching the road. His father smiled, "I can't see them all bambino, but I think that might be your two cohorts and maybe replacements for the others."

Lothario sighed, "That means I will be delayed another day at least. Ettore wants to see that his family is well."

"Oh if it isn't one thing it's another that you complain about." Don Nico smiled.

"Well I am the one that has to listen to him all day long complaining."

Nico laughed, "Si, and Fedele and I listen to you all day long complaining, poor, pathetic, pitiful Lothario."

Lothario grinned, "Am I that bad?"

"Sometimes, and sometimes I don't see you for days, lately it has been weeks. The complaints you will always hear, whether it is from Ettore or your other centurions. It comes with the job. What you need to learn is how to handle it. I have taught you, you just need to remember it."

Lothario looked at his father and sighed, "I guess I should listen to myself more."

"Oh don't do that bambino; you will drive yourself crazy like you have your mother and me. Now go down and meet your troops. I am sure that is who they are." Nico laughed.

Roman looked at the empty bath, he double checked the marble floor and went to get Esta, who was holding a crying Anthony. "I am finished Esta, the room and the bath are clean and the water valve has been turned off."

Esta turned to look, "Very well Roman, you are forgiven. Now go get your horse before Lothario leaves without you."

That statement made Anthony return to his crying. Roman kissed the boy's head, "You will be with us in just a short time. Until then you can have the teacher keep you occupied."

Anthony began wailing, "He is my Master I should always be with him."

Esta looked at Roman, "Go on, I will take good care of him."

Roman ran to the stables and looked at the young man who ran the place. The man looked at Roman, "You would only be here if you wanted a horse. I doubt you have the money for one."

"I have money." Roman answered.

"Si picked from the pocket of Tribune Lothario, I am sure." The man stated. "Well you need a good riding horse to keep up with that boy, a horse that will get along with that stallion of his." The man started walking through the stable, followed by Roman, "I guess he wouldn't have sent you if you didn't have the money. Still I wonder sometimes, why didn't he let you ride one of his horses?"

Roman puffed up, "Because I am a freeman, and he says I need my own horse!"

The man turned and grinned, "So you are. This horse is four summers old, well trained, a bit playful, and a good horse for a beginning rider. You will need a saddle, and that is extra, blankets, reins, a pack and bedding is extra too. You have enough for all of that?"

Roman handed the man a handful of coins. The man frowned, "By the gods, I didn't tell you how much. Thirty copper will cover it all. You can trust me because I am a member of the household, but don't ever hand someone else all of your money and trust them."

"I will need a sword, or at least a knife." Roman grinned as he paid the man.

The man frowned, "You are not Lothario or his trusted men. You will not have a sword from this family. Let me show you how to take care of this horse. Your time is running short."

Pao was already dismounted when Lothario rode up to the large group. Lothario dismounted and they hugged. Pao grinned, "I missed you greatly. I have brought two and a half cohorts with me, and another cohort for replacements in your fathers armies, all courtesy of the senate and the persuasion of Consul Brutus."

"How is Consul Brutus?" Lothario asked.

"Not well Tribune Lothario, not well at all. He sent this scroll to you. I was to give it to you personally." He said handing the scroll to Lothario, "I see we are moving out for action today."

The Centurions behind Lothario winced. Lothario frowned, "We are moving out, but glory is not with us this week."

"Then you have time to inspect your new troops, and maybe let them rest for the night?" Pao smiled.

Ettore spoke up, "When did they rest last?"

Pao sighed, "We were four miles away last night."

Ettore groaned, "Then he has time to inspect them, but we must leave today."

Lothario read the scroll smiled, "That cheeky dirty old man." He looked up at Pao, "Ettore is right as usual. Form them on the parade ground and I will come down. Leave the wagons... Exactly how many wagons do you have behind you?"

"Sixty-two, that is not counting the vendors, and about forty carts. We also have sheep, chickens and fresh fruit, wine and juice." Pao grinned.

Ettore frowned, "Slaves, freemen and citizens?"

"About a hundred." Pao sensed foreboding in Ettore's voice.

Ettore looked at Lothario, "That will slow us down Don Lothario, immensely; it will take weeks for what we planned to be three days just to my villa."

Lothario quickly turned to see if any of the other leaders were left. He walked around for a few minutes, and then he had Pao move the men to the parade ground, while Ettore fussed about the time. It was the first time Lothario was in complete command of his troops. Lothario looked at the other centurions and nodded to go with the new troops, "I might as well inspect everyone."

Once they were out of earshot Lothario looked at the dogs, their personal horses and finally at Ettore, "Don't you see I am afraid? I don't know what to do and you are not helping. This changes everything!"

For once Ettore shut his mouth and looked at his best friend closely. He could now see the fear of leadership in Lothario. Suddenly he felt the fear in himself as well. There were so many men older than them, so many decisions.

Lothario laid his head on Mars, "My head hurts, and my armor feels heavier than usual. I am almost thirteen summers, a warrior, and suddenly I feel like I should go play in the sandbox."

Ettore smiled as Roman rode up to them and dismounted. Roman looked at them both and said nothing, but he bent a knee to Lothario, and stood. Lothario smiled and turned to Ettore, "I need time to think this over, give me that at least."

Ettore nodded and the three mounted their steads. As they went into the valley Ettore's eyes widened, "Lothario there are a lot of men on horses down there."

"I guess we will soon find out why." Roman said as he adjusted himself on the horse.

Ettore noticed it, "You haven't ridden before Roman?"

"No sir."

Ettore looked at Lothario, "Well I guess he won't be running messages." Ettore turned and called for Cyrus, "Give the reins to the extra horses to Roman, "You ride down and tell Pao and Andio we are ready."

Lothario looked up, "Andio is down there?"

"He is Centurion Andio now. He wanted to greet you but said you would have your hands full and it could wait." Ettore explained as Cyrus rode down the valley quickly.

Lothario stopped and looked at the men in the distance, "So many men, so many lives Ettore, and they are my responsibility."

"It is a little late to be thinking of that."

"I was just getting used to the first cohort, and now this."

"It is about one thousand men. Your father must be laughing his head off." Ettore frowned.

"Si Fedele will be laughing to be sure." Lothario answered and began his dreaded ride to meet men that probably would not see him as anything but a spoiled boy.

Ettore looked closer as they stopped in front center of the men. Pao called out attention and the men moved accordingly. He turned to Lothario, "There are four cohorts. Three on foot, and one complete cohort on horseback."

As they dismounted Pao, Andio and the other centurions close to Lothario bent a knee to him. Then rose and hugged him and Ettore. The first cohort he met was the newest troops. They had less than two weeks training, but several were gladiators, or those training to be gladiators. Some of the boys came from the gladiator school as Pao pointed out to Lothario. All the others were citizens. Half the cohort was pikers, and the other half were swordsmen.

The next cohort was archers and slingers. The following cohort, Lothario stopped in shock. An entire two groups had their legs painted green and red. He turned to Andio and Pao as well as the centurion in charge of the group, "They are not Romans?"

"They come from the far north Lothario and that is their custom." Pao said as he took a deep breath.

"Have them wash their legs before we leave, if they refuse cut their legs off, starting with their leader first. If they want to be Roman they will act like, dress like, and follow our ways." Lothario stated.

"That is one third of this cohort Lothario." Pao said.

"Pao we have fought with much less, do as I say." Lothario quipped and went on to meet another third of the cohort dressed in black, "Alright, does someone think this is funny? What are these men about?"

"You mean the black leather I take it?" Andio smiled.

Lothario frowned.

"Alright, I handpicked these men. I trained them as assassins. I thought you would be pleased. They go in before a battle and kill guards and anyone else they can." Andio stated proudly, "The black is to hide them in the dark."

Ettore bit his lip waiting for Lothario to speak. "It is too late to get them proper uniforms, this trip out I will allow it. After we get to Rome, they get regular uniforms, but I will allow them to have a black cape, if General Fedele approves. They can wear it when we are not in battle, and during battle they can wear their black." Lothario stopped a moment and then turned to Pao, "I changed my mind. The same with the northerners, during battle they can wear that stupid paint as long as they prove themselves."

Pao smiled, "Si sir."

A third of that cohort were archers. Lothario seemed very pleased. The last cohort was the horsemen. He walked the first line as Pao and their centurion explained. "Half the cohort is heavy cavalry, and the other half is light cavalry, just as you wanted General Lothario." The centurion explained.

Lothario turned away from them and smiled broadly, then turned back, "How did you arrange this Pao?"

"It wasn't hard Lothario. After your exploits at the lake the senate saw to your every need." Pao answered.

Lothario mounted, as well as the other centurions and followed him to the front of the formation. Lothario turned to Ettore, "Find a way to get those boys out of the first cohort without hard feelings."

Ettore frowned, "I see who gets the hard work around here." He thought a few minutes and smiled. He rode through the ranks announcing that he needed twenty four of the best fighters for a special mission."

Cyrus looked at Lothario, "Master, what special mission?"

Lothario shook his head, "I have no idea but I am not leading it."

As Ettore expected those boys were the first to run out and leave the ranks standing in front of Lothario, at a distance. They were followed by several men and eight horsemen. Some of the centurions rode forward and complained. Lothario sat quiet on his horse until Ettore returned. Ettore was pleased with himself and showed it.

Lothario looked at him, "These centurions don't like what you just did. Maybe you can explain it to them."

Ettore smiled, "If you would rather take their place you are welcome to. These men will be in front of the first cohort, and lead any battle with Tribune Lothario and myself."

The group became quiet. Andio and Pao were beside themselves but held their tongues until everyone went back to their places. Andio looked at Ettore, "Optico or not, are you crazy? You think we are going to let you and Lothario both lead a charge again?"

"Maybe and maybe not, but these men and boys will be Lothario's personal guard regardless of what he does."

Lothario laughed, "Thank you Ettore, I never would have thought of that. It was an excellent move on your part."

Ettore bowed, "Thank you Tribune."

Lothario looked at the centurions, "Move out the wagons, at midday move out the men."

** *

Don Moretti stopped his army ten miles from Don di Francesco's villa. He was in a rush, but not so much to upset Don Nico. He turned to Don Romano, "Are you sure you want to see what I do to these people?"

The two men sat down while others saw to their needs. Don Romano frowned, "You will do what you need to do Don Moretti, just remember to have a heart like Lothario does. There is probably no need to kill everyone."

"I think well of Lothario Don Romano, but he is soft."

"Soft after all the men he killed, not to mention those he killed for not doing what he told them to do?" Don Romano asked.

Moretti smiled, "I don't mean that sort of soft. His heart overtakes his brain, and he gives leniency when he should take vengeance."

Don Romano grinned widely, "I see no problem with that. He is trying to make friends for the future."

Moretti frowned, "Si, maybe he is. Then again, he could be setting himself up for failure. Tell me Romano, do you want vengeance for the death of your family?"

Don Romano looked Moretti in the eye, "You know I do."

"Then why did you talk Lothario out of attacking di Francesco as soon as he heard about this atrocity?" Don Moretti grimaced.

"I really do not know why. Maybe I should have. Whatever vengeance he would have enacted would have been swift, and not a bloody lesson in torture, like I know you will perform." Don Romano stated.

"You are getting old Don Romano. Look at Abalone di Gotti over there. Just sixteen summers, his family is gone, wiped out, probably in horrible ways, you know how the Sabine's are. Your family is gone, and mine as well. Si, Lothario would go in and kill them straight away if he found them guilty of wrongdoing. We do not have that luxury, to that boy they are all guilty and he will want my kind of vengeance." Moretti barked.

Abalone heard part of the conversation. He walked over to the two men and sat with them. "You are deciding on what to do tomorrow?"

"Si." Moretti answered, "It may be a sight you will not want to see."

Don Romano smiled at the young man then turned back to Moretti, "Even Don Nico has a fair streak to him, and that streak has saved many people."

Moretti frowned, "Si but when someone breaks the law, he is swift, and do not tell me he hasn't tortured anyone to find out the truth. Don't tell me Don Romano that Don Nico is as innocent and nave as Lothario."

"Lothario is hardly nave, he just does not have the tenacity of some of the Dons. That will happen in time. I know I can't talk you out of mass murder this week, but at least ask the right questions first."

Moretti thought a few moments, "I will make a bargain with you. You wear your uniform, and before anyone is hurt, that is captured alive of course, you will get to ask the questions. I will not kill anyone who is not guilty."

Smirking, Don Romano said, "Si now you are putting me on the spot. Alright my friend, I will do as you ask. Make sure you do as you say."

Abalone looked at the two of them, "Do you think any of our families survived?"

Moretti put his hand on the boy's shoulder and hugged it, "If they were alive, they would have gone to Don Nico's just like you did. I am not going to tell you they are dead, but please don't have your hopes up, you are a fine young man. Rome needs men like you and if you let this get to you, you may not be any good to yourself or anyone else."

"Si, I understand. I know even the runners that Centurion Valentine sent out, never returned. He says it is a bad omen when you can't even get a report." Abalone was about to cry.

"Don Nico is taking his troops to the border, when we attack di Francesco's villa, Don Fedele will enter the di Gotti villa. He will send word back for you once he has it secure." Don Romano consoled the boy.

Regardless of what happens Abalone, justice will be served, or vengeance according to Don Romano. Do not let him fool you, he wants vengeance just as much as the rest of us." Don Moretti smiled.

"Si, I do. But justice is not slaughter."

"Oh and Lothario did not slaughter his own men and the bodyguards of all those boys?" Don Moretti asked.

"They died quickly, and they were armed. Don't forget that he killed over sixty Etruscan warriors to save those boys. He gave an order to those men and they froze, so Si he killed them all." Don Romano reminded the man.

"Let's not talk about this anymore tonight. You see him as an Angel of Vengeance, and I see him as a skilled warrior that already knows how to deal with his enemies. Someday when you and I are long gone, he will be a good man, but one that will act swiftly if he is wronged. Do you at least agree with that?"

Don Romano frowned, "That could be old friend, and it probably will be. For now I want to see him as an angel as I believe a warrior for Mars, which he truly is. Later on as you say things could change."

Abalone smiled, "He seems to be nice, and he feels the pain of others. I have to admit though, he can probably be frightening."

Grinning Do Roman told him, "You would have to ask Ettore or one of Lothario's slaves about that. They are the ones that could see it. Yet, like Don Moretti said, he is deadly."

"Si, that Ettore boy, he seems strong and he is dedicated to Lothario, but he is hardly a warrior. You would think he would pick Andio or someone like that to stand at his side." Moretti began eating his dinner.

"Something on that battlefield at the lake changed all of that. Who knows what happened, but now they can't be separated for long." Don Romano explained.

Don Moretti grinned, "You always know more that you say Don Romano, but I have heard Don Nico is separating them once they get to Rome."

"He did not say that. He said they will find wives, get married, and live in their own villas. They can still be friends and see each other, but not as much as they do now." Don Romano laughed.

"Si, well I for one think they should sow some oats around before they get married. They are too young to be married as far as I am concerned. They have no idea what it is like to be with many girls, so how would they decide on a single girl, unless they are marrying much older women. Speaking of that, where is Don Nico going to find girls their age, where the father will allow it. Usually they want old rich men to marry their daughters and a Roman girl at that, Don Nico wouldn't settle for less."

Emilio came running up to the others with his dinner and sat down next to Don Romano, "I didn't drop anything."

Moretti grinned, "You will find your feet young Emilio, you are just going through an awkward time in your life."

"Si I have been going through that time for three summers." Emilio laughed.

"That may be true, but you will grow out of it, believe me."

"The boys in the gym do not seem to have a problem. I have watched them, everything about them is almost perfect." Emilio stated.

Abalone looked perplexed, "At least you have muscles and a good solid build. Look at me I am tall and skinny, I am sixteen summers and have no muscles at all, and I work in the fields and help around the house. Father never had enough slaves to do all the work and I loved helping."

Don Moretti grinned, "We all have good things and bad things about us. I used to be skinny, now I am strong and have muscles, but I have a fat belly." He laughed. "Now look at Don Romano, he is good looking for someone his age. He is strong but he is smarter than most men. He doesn't have a fat stomach, but he is slower than a worm, and has to have as much help as I do to get on a horse."

Don Romano and the boys laughed, "Si all this is true Abalone, Emilio, but you will both grow into strong men, in different ways of course, not everyone can be warriors like Lothario, Don Nico or many of the gymnasts and gladiators. We each have or will have our own abilities. Lothario, Don Nico, myself, and even Don Moretti recognize these traits, help people with them, and have them work to fulfill their dreams."

Emilio sighed, "Si but it would be nice to be a warrior like Lothario, and even that overbuilt Ettore who aggravates me to death."

Don Romano laughed, "We all know why he aggravates you so much, and regardless of his abilities, Lothario sees something maybe you don't see. Ettore is a warrior, just not as well trained and sharp like Lothario. Emilio, Abalone, whatever the near future brings you, it will be good fortune."

The four became quiet. Don Moretti seeing the look in everyone's eyes gave a half smile, "We have mourned our dead, we will still have to bury many of them of course, but that is now, not your futures."

Don Romano put his plate down, "Come Emilio, we should retire. Don Moretti has fun getting everyone up much earlier than needed; he is a cold hearted man sometimes!"

Moretti laughed, "Si and Don Romano sleeps like a baby until noon if you let him."

Emilio started to pick up the plates and bowls. Don Romano turned and watched, "Emilio, the slaves will take care of that, come lets freshen up before bed. You have your own tent, but there is a separate bed for you in mine if you wish... just don't bring some stray home and keep me up all night with your moaning. Keep them in your own tent."

Some of the soldiers heard and started laughing making Emilio blush in the darkening sky. Abalone grinned and looked at Don Moretti, "I will never be a warrior. But I do want vengeance. I would like to see what happens at that villa."

Moretti sighed, "Si, I understand. You understand this: once it starts you say nothing either way, but you are more than welcome to leave and not watch at all."

"What of Lothario?"

"What of him? He is just a boy that was at the wrong place at the right time. He is afraid of his shadow. He may have been awarded many things in the last few weeks, but he is still a little boy and he will do what little boys do. You are old enough to understand the ways of men I hope, but that is years away from being a bambino that is good with a sword."

Abalone chuckled, "Si, I don't think I would say that around him."

"No, don't you dare say something like that around him. You don't have to worry what he would do, he would ignore it, it is his men you have to watch for." Moretti grinned, "It is best you stay with my group until we can get you settled at your villa. After all, Lothario has three cohorts, I have twelve, and I have four tribunes, and countless centurions." Moretti bragged, "He doesn't even want to be in the legion in the first place, well Si he does, but he thought when he was much older. He still plays with toys... I think Don Romano is trying to hide the fact that Ettore is Lothario's new toy away from home."

"Are you sure?" Abalone asked.

"No, if I was sure I couldn't have said it in the first place. Lothario is too young for such things, but that Ettore is not. I am afraid of what Ettore could do to Lothario if Lothario let his guard down." Moretti frowned, "For instance, if Lothario trusts someone so much as he does that Ettore, what if Ettore turned out to be a traitor? Imagine what could happen to Lothario's family, the south of Rome here, and to Rome itself. It only takes one person to ruin the lives of many. It is things like this I worry about, not just with good Lothario, but with all of us that have a little power."

"Power?" Abalone asked.

"Si, you may have inherited your father's estate. That will make you a Don, you have property, slaves, an income, and friends. Your friends are your power. Yet as good as we try to be, sometimes a friend turns on you. They want your power. The Greeks have been killing each other for generations over it. I am sorry to say that even here in Rome over the last hundred years, hundreds have been killed for power, their lands and their money, while the crown holds the overseas lands and become wealthy off the death of their "friends". These are the things to watch for. You can listen to Don Romano and the other Dons, you should... Your villa is under the protection of Don Romano, his is under my protection, and I am under Don Praetorio. This is how it works and always has."

"Then how did all of this happen if we are all protected?" Abalone asked.

Moretti rubbed his chin and leaned over, "Because there is a spy in our midst that told this pig di Francesco we went to war and had no troops in the south. If Lothario would have got home on time, he would have already sorted this, just not the way his father wants it done. We need to find out who the spy is; Lothario would have killed or sold everyone off into slavery before thinking. That is why Don Romano wanted Lothario to wait." Moretti drank half a cup of wine and continued, "That is why Don Romano wants to question everyone, to find out who it is, before I kill them all. Lothario would have asked questions, but because he is a child he did not know what the rest of us knew."

"Si, so he was left out on purpose or for some other reason?" Abalone asked.

"He was not left out at all; when these things were discussed he was the little bambino of a powerful Don. He was and is a child and had no business worrying about the things of men. It is not that we left him out, it wasn't his time. Things happened so fast, we were all a bit confused, especially Don Nico. Fedele even suggested Don Nico take a vacation because of his worries, none of us can afford to have Don Nico sick while Lothario is still a boy. Too many bad things could happen to all of us." Moretti explained.

"So if he wasn't left out on purpose, then why didn't Don Romano just explain to him, and then go ahead and let Lothario take care of it then?" Abalone asked.

Moretti's smile left his face, "That is a good question, but I have no answer for it."

On the third morning General Don Moretti was helped onto his horse. He looked over his forces thinking there were too many and too noisy to sneak onto di Franceso's villa. He waited for an hour for Don Romano to ride at his side. When Romano did not show, he sent out runners to find the man. He was nowhere to be found. He turned to his Optico, "Someone has taken Don Romano, take your best men and find out who took him, and make sure the old man is safe."

He turned to a Centurion, "Keep the camp here, and have the cohorts move out and surround the villa. I do not even want a slave to escape; they can help us decide what to do and who to do it to."

The centurion nodded and rode off. Moretti turned to Abalone, "You ride with me and stay close by. I don't need the other Don's upset because you got yourself killed."

Abalone smiled, "With you no one could harm me."

Moretti sighed, "Youth, how foolish can they be." Then the two took positions in the front of the column as the legion moved out.

A rider came galloping up to Don Moretti, "Sir, we found the boy Ettore. He was bound and gagged. As soon as they clean him up they will bring him here."

"What did he say?" Moretti asked.

"He said men came in the night. They covered him and beat him, then they blindfolded him tied him and gagged him. He says he didn't hear or see Don Romano at all. We found Romano's slaves dead. Their throats were slit."

Moretti looked up into the blue sky, "Sabine's enter the camp of one of the largest armies of Rome, kill, and then take a Senator right from under my nose. How am I going to explain that?"

The group of men around him sat quiet, knowing better than to talk when Emilio came riding up. His eyes were black, his skin discolored, you could see the hemp rope marks on his neck. He spoke, "We have to find him!"

"Emilio, we will find him and the people responsible will die, that I guarantee." Moretti promised.

"They may kill him!" Emilio shouted.

As they rode Moretti frowned, "Si, but I doubt it. I think they will use him as barter, for what I am not sure. Don't worry Emilio; I have a whole cohort looking for him. He will be found."

"Yes but will he be alive?" Emilio asked with a worried look.

Moretti sighed, "I will do my best."

Abalone looked at Emilio, "Have you ever seen anyone die? If Don Romano is hurt many will die."

Emilio gritted his teeth, "I have seen battles, and I have seen the fiercest warrior I know ride into hundreds of the enemy killing many and ride out again. I have seen him slaughter twenty armed men for disobeying an order. I have never seen anyone tortured, but if something happens to Don Romano, I will be there to watch it all."

Moretti smiled, "All of us have our weaknesses." He turned to his Centurions, "Let that be a lesson to all of us. Even the smallest warrior is capable of killing, and mercy. Sometimes it is hard to deal with which one should come first."

Abalone swallowed hard, "Killing is not the only way to win a war my father taught me."

Moretti almost laughed, "That is true young one, but even in the world of treaties, someone dies sooner or later."

In the valley below them they could see the villa. Moretti looked at the centurions, "Quietly surround the villa. On the sound of the trumpet, move in, in the standard formation. Keep everyone alive that you can. Do it as we planned this morning."

Moretti, his bodyguards, slaves, freemen and citizens and runners made a small camp, with no fire, to wait for the troops to get in position. Abalone was excited and could not contain himself. Emilio seemed worried, maybe about Don Romano, or the fight that would take place soon. He turned to Don Moretti, "Do not take what I am about to say wrong. You are one of the finest warriors I know, you are a hero countless times, you are a leader in the senate and the battlefield, but I do wish Lothario were here to fight with us."

Moretti smiled, "I take no offense to that Emilio, and it is good to have your friends nearby in time of crises. Here though, there will be no battles, we are just taking prisoners. They are not ready for a legion to swoop down on them. Nothing could prepare them for that. Then we will move on and route all the other Sabine warriors and seek vengeance for the atrocities committed."

In the distance Don Moretti heard something he should not have been hearing. He stood and ran to oversee the villa. His troops were in combat with hundreds of Sabine troops, "By the gods, we walked into a trap."

Behind him he heard men and he turned quickly and raised his sword. A voice yelled out, "Put down your weapons and bend a knee and your lives will be spared."

Moretti watched in disbelief as the men drew nearer, "No Roman will bend a knee to the likes of you."

The commander of the Sabine troops nodded, "Don't harm the children, and kill everyone else."

The fight was bloody, but the handful of men Moretti had at his side could not take on the hundred Sabine warriors. When the massacre was over a tear stained Emilio stood his ground and defiantly announced, "When Don Nico hears of this, none of you will be left alive."

The Sabine commander smiled, "We already have your Don Nico. Barely alive I must say, and they fought brilliantly, but he and what is left of his men now belong to the Free State."

Emilio shot back, "Even so, you will not be prepared for what Don Fedele will do to you."

The Sabine warrior laughed, "Yes, we are prepared for him. While he is off chasing ghosts, we will have regrouped and be ready for his wrath." He turned to his men, "Leave the dead, chain the prisoners."

Emilio looked into the valley. The Sabine warriors had already over run the Roman Legion. He wondered how something like that was even possible. They threw Emilio and Abalone on the ground with the rest of the non-combatants and chained them together.

** *

Don Fedele and his troops closed in on the di Gotti villa. There was no one alive. Runners from the centurions in his command came back with news that not even a slave, a dog, sheep or cattle were to be seen, and almost all the harvest was gone.

Fedele sent runners to act as spies to the next villas. While he waited for them, he and his men put the rotting corpses of the di Gotti family into their mausoleum. The runner came back with the same news, the family was killed, but no one was else was to be found.

Don Nico looked at the di Gotti garden, once a beautiful sanctuary, now overgrown with weeds. It had been a long time since it was cared for. Fedele acted swiftly. He sent a Centurion and their men to the two nearest villas. He sent five riders to the south to find Don Nico to tell him something was out of place. He sent one horseman to find Lothario and have him return to the di Gotti villa. He drew maps for the men, and sent them off.

Then Fedele walked through the garden thinking of what could have transpired. He was angered by the torture the di Gotti family endured, yet he had seen similar atrocities ordered by the old king when taking property from a wealthy man. Torture was not new to any commanding officer in the Roman legion.

His problem was the lack of anything left at the villa, the farm, and the lack of people to take care of the house itself. If di Francesco wanted these properties, why were they empty?

As Ettore and others talked, Lothario looked at the surrounding farms as they traveled to Ettore's villa. He had noticed a lack of workers in the fields and that the fields were overgrown with weeds. Yes, he had seen that happen before. Slaves didn't always do their work properly, but then again you didn't see such things near a traveling path. The owners would notice it.

The first three villas they came to were completely empty and overgrown with weeds. A sinking feeling came over Lothario, but he put on a good show for Ettore's sake. As they traveled further the properties began to look normal again.

Ettore and the others did not seem to notice anything around them, but Lothario was completely aware of anything that moved. When they neared Ettore's villa, in the middle of the road stood a horse. Lothario stopped the column. There was a boy about eleven on his knees looking for something on the ground. He had a vase next to him.

The boy looked up and saw the soldiers. Whatever he had in his hands he dropped and stood. He came to attention and saluted by making a fist and hitting his chest, "I am Dante Cashen, youngest son of Tribune General Cashen of the southern legion. You are welcome here."

It was the first person they had seen in the three days ride. Ettore looked at Lothario, "That is my little brother Dante. He likes to play soldier."

"I don't think they realize your father passed on or what is going on around him." Lothario stated.

Ettore dismounted and stood in front of the column, "Dante Cashen?"

"Si sir?"

"Is your mother well?" Ettore asked as he hid behind his helmet.

"Si sir, she is well."

"How does your villa stand?"

The boy looked at the soldier, "What do you mean?"

"Is your villa safe, no harm has come to it or your property?"

The boy looked uneasy, "Si the villa is fine."

"Where are your father and brother."

The boy dropped his eyes to the ground, "My father died in battle just recently. We do not know what has happened to my brother."

Ettore turned and looked at Lothario. He turned back to the boy and took off the helment, "Dante, it is I, your brother."

The boy looked up, tears already in his eyes from thinking about his father and saw Ettore. His tear stained eyes gleamed and he ran and hugged Ettore tight, "Si come home now, mamma is so worried. Why are you in a uniform?"

Ettore smiled and sort of bragged, "I am Optico to Tribune Lothario."

Dante looked at Lothario, turned to Ettore and raised an eyebrow, "Father has died, and I am not in the mood for your teasing."

"I am not teasing you, but what are you doing out here on the road?"

Dante smiled, "I was getting worms down here where the soil is moist. I wanted to go fishing tomorrow."

"Let's get you on your horse and ride to the villa, there are hundreds of hungry men behind us." Ettore said picking the boy up and setting him on his horse. Dante frowned, "I can mount it myself, I am not a baby anymore."

Lothario laughed. Ettore sighed, "Si you have eaten many grapes you are getting fat."

The boy looked at his base stomach, "You are still a tease."

Dante rode ahead to his home while the troops took their time to get there. Lothario grinned, "Your villa is safe, and your family is safe, you will have a good welcome home event."

Ettore smiled, "Si, and you will be the guest of honor."

"I doubt it. This is all about you today." Lothario smiled.

Ettore drew a map for the centurions. They had no place to take all the troops for camping, so he separated them by cohort to different places where there was room for them. It would be a little strange for the men, but it was not like Ettore had the rolling hills of a vast property like Don Nico or Don Di Gotti owned.

The homecoming was a glorious affair, even though they placed the body of Don Cashen in the mausoleum which of course was a sad event for the family. Ettore and Lothario spent the next two days telling of the adventure they had been a part of. Dante was thrilled, Ettore's mother was aghast at some of the events.

Their week of relaxing came to a close in two days. A rider from Don Fedele came to the villa. He and Lothario spoke outside the villa. Lothario listened closely to what the messenger told him. He turned to Roman, "Mount up and tell the centurions to come here. I will break the news to Ettore."

Although Ettore was not happy about leaving home so soon, his family understood as the troops began moving around. Ettore immediately sent riders to the nearest villas to see what condition they were in. Twelve riders, twelve villas, they would not be back until the next morning. Lothario sent the wagons to the di Gotti villa right away, leaving just enough food and drink for the men to make a forced march back to the main road.

Once Lothario and Ettore were alone, Ettore asked, "What is really going on?"

"Fedele is not sure, but I have already seen something isn't right. I saw things on the way here that didn't make sense. If Fedele is right, a large army has taken all the animals, crops, and household staffs of all the villas, and who knows what they have done to the villagers. We will take a shortcut to di Gotti's villa; we will pass through at least two villages on the way there."

"I understand that it would be the shortest route, but why through the villages?" Ettore asked.

"If I am right, the Sabine's have taken over the villages and have men posted to keep control. We can at least free those villages on the way to di Gotti's. After that it will be up to Don Fedele to tell us what to do."

The next morning the riders started returning, none of them had great news, but three other villas were unharmed, mostly those like Ettore's with a sandier soil. The land was near the ocean, and the sand was blown in over the years. When the last rider arrived, Lothario had the troops move out

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