The assignment: write a story that somehow incorporates the fall of Rome.
It could have been a couple of pages long. I certainly don’t think it was intended to be longer than three or maybe four. I gave my teacher seven single-spaced pages. Eight, if you include the (not required) cover page. I dunno why, but I took the prompt and ran with it. I toyed with the idea of developing it into a book or writing a sequel story, but it never happened. Feast your eyes upon the historical fiction of junior high school Maria!
Note: I fought off my urge to edit, so it’s basically untouched since 7-8 years ago. Do let me know what you think of it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I have several critiques for junior high Maria, but I’m going to hold off for now so I can hear what you think first.
Without bothering to remove his mud-smudged armor, Claudius stormed angrily into his tent and threw himself upon his cot. What had Aurelian been thinking? Aurelian, the leader and general of the rebel Roman army, had once again lost a battle against Rome due to his arrogance. How had it happened? Why had Aurelian let it happen? Claudius asked himself heatedly. But he knew perfectly well how and why they had been defeated.
In the battle that day, through the confusion, Claudius had seen two small groups in the Roman army split from the main force and begin moving to either side of the Rebel army. Knowing that they would soon be trapped, Claudius called out Aurelian.
Aurelian seemed not to hear him, so he cried out a warning once again. Still, Aurelian fought determinedly on. Claudius urged his steed closer to his leader, fighting his way through both Roman foot soldiers and cavalry. When he had come near Aurelian, he once again spoke words of council.
“Milord, they are beginning to surround us. We must give ground and regroup, or we will be defeated.”
“Do you think such a small number will be able to hold us, fool? Do not trouble me with idle talk,” Aurelian snapped.
“My lord, they—”
Aurelian had spoken. Claudius rode into the thick of the battle, knowing even as he fought fiercely that they would be defeated. He was right. After successfully surrounding them, the Romans slaughtered many of their men, and they were forced to fight their way through in retreat, losing many men before they broke through and retreated back to their camp.
Why? Because Aurelian was too arrogant to believe his right hand man had seen something he had not. Aurelian had not always been so arrogant and foolish, but what could he do? Claudius buried his head in his hands.
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice just outside the door.
“Captain Claudius? Excuse me, this is Julian. I have a message for you from the Commander.”
A message from Aurelian?
“Come in. What is it?” he asked.
“The Lord of the Vast Aureliani Rebellion, Commander of its Great Army, Supreme General, Rightful Heir and Successor of Sergius, and Mortal Enemy of Emperor Marcus Leonius, Lord Aurelian the Great, summons you to his tent,” intoned Julian.
Claudius answered with a smile, “You could have just said Aurelian wanted me.”
“Yes, of course, but I wouldn’t be showing the Commander the respect he deserves, and have my head chopped off, just for a message. So I might as well be on the safe side,” Julian said with a grin, putting the slightest stress on the word “deserves.”
Claudius wondered if perhaps he was not the only one who saw the change in Aurelian since his rise to leadership. He recalled the events leading up to it: the former rebel leader Sergius had known that Aurelian was a much cleverer strategist than himself, and named him his successor. After being given this honor, Aurelian tried harder to please his leader in battle. He occasionally tried too hard and made foolish mistakes, but because his mistakes never led to defeat, they were not of much concern to Sergius. After all, everyone makes mistakes. However, when Sergius was slain by an arrow to the heart in the midst of battle, Aurelian began to change; as leader of the vast rebel army, he held a position of great power. He became arrogant, which led him to no longer be concerned with small enemy movements, such as in today’s battle, and to take advice as an insult. Since then, he had become cruel and harsh.
As most of the soldiers were ignorant of this change, he assumed that no one besides himself knew about Aurelian’s change. But perhaps this boy knew—what was his name? Oh yes, Julian. He was bright and clever, but he was only fifteen…Still, Claudius thought, it was good to know there was someone else who shared his thoughts about Aurelian. He was brought out of his reverie by Julian’s voice.
“Sir?” he asked.
“Yes, forgive me, I was just thinking. Thank you for the message; you may leave now.”
Julian ducked out of the tent.
Claudius walked into Aurelian’s large and luxurious tent. He made a quick bow to Aurelian and stood awaiting orders.
“Captain Claudius, do you know why I have called you here?” Aurelian asked. Without waiting for an answer, he went on, “I wish to speak with you concerning your performance in today’s battle. Do you recall what you did?”
“Yes, Commander,” Claudius replied. “I pointed out the Romans’ attempt to surround us and advised you to retreat and attack again.”
“You presumed that I had not noticed an obvious movement of enemy troops, and promptly shouted this out across the battlefield. I knew they were moving in on our flanks, and furthermore, if I had wished to act upon this information, I would have done it without you bellowing orders to your own commander. Today’s battle was not lost because we were surrounded, but because our army is idle, lazy trash. In the future, remember who the leader of this army is, and you must be more respectful. After you leave, I want you to exercise and drill the troops into a somewhat respectable army. That is all.”
Claudius bowed again as he exited the tent. Bellowing orders to his commander? Idle, lazy trash? The rebel army was exhausted from the battle already, as they had fought their hardest just to escape destruction after Aurelian’s blunder. However, Aurelian had given Claudius direct orders to drill them, and so he must. He walked to the soldiers’ tents and ordered two soldiers to rouse the troops and line them up outside, and proceeded to carry out his commander’s orders, though he did not drill them past their abilities.
The next day was a day of rest for the rebels. Claudius walked through the campground, wondering if Aurelius would include him in his plans for the invasion of Rome after yesterday’s events. As if to answer his question, Julian the messenger ran toward him.
“Captain Claudius,” he began.
“Please, Julian, call me Claudius. You are not a soldier, and so you need not call me by my title. The name ‘Captain’ does not make me a better man than any other soldier.”
“Yessir, Claudius, sir. I suppose titles never make anyone better than another.”
Again, there was one of Julian’s shrewd insinuations about the Commander. Now Claudius was certain that Julian shared his opinion about Aurelian.
“But anyways,” continued Julian, “I have a message for you from the Great and Wonderful Overlord of the Rebels, Supreme Dictator, and Soon Conqueror of Rome, Aurelian the Magnificent: he bids you enter his tent and discuss war tactics with him and his other officers.”
Claudius suppressed a smile and nodded to Julian before making his way to Aurelian’s tent. As he entered, he saw Aurelian sitting on a cushioned stool and the other war leaders on the floor around a low makeshift table. He made a brief obeisance toward Aurelian and sat down at the table at his right.
“Now that everyone is present,” Aurelian began, “we will discuss our methods of invading Rome. We have vast forces, but Rome still outnumbers us. Open warfare alone will not bring us to victory.”
Raphael, a lower ranking officer, remarked, “We could dig tunnels under the walls of Rome and lead our forces to fight within.”
“No,” Claudius interjected. “Even if we take them by surprise, not enough soldiers will be able to enter Rome unseen to win a battle against their full military.”
“Well, Claudius, since you seem to know so much about the subject, tell us how we should invade Rome,” mocked Aurelian.
Why does he mock me in front of his officers? wondered Claudius. They might see it as a sign of weakness. Claudius stopped himself: unless it was a matter of right and wrong, he must be loyal to his Commander.
“We could appoint a man to enter Rome,” he improvised. “He must be sly and clever. He would fool the guards into thinking he is a friend; then, when the time his right, he would open a side gate for us. Part of our forces would create a diversion at Rome’s main gates. We would burn them or use a battering ram, and half our fighting force could circle around and enter through the side gate. When the battle is concentrated inside Rome, the rest could enter through the main gate or the side gates and help the others.”
Aurelian looked annoyed at Claudius’s answer; he had not meant to give Claudius a chance to show his cleverness.
“And where did you find such a complex plan as that? A storybook?” Aurelian attempted to regain some of his dignity. “So much could go wrong with your idea: the man might be found out; he might not be able to open the gate at the appointed time; they might see our troops entering the side gate and close them, killing all those who made it inside; we might not be able to enter through the side or front gate, leaving the inside force without reinforcements. And yet you scorn a man’s simple plan of digging into Rome? It might not work, but at least so many things do not have an opportunity to go wrong! Does anyone else have any ideas?”
The room was silent. After Aurelian’s criticism of Claudius’s plan, they would not have volunteered their ideas if they had any.
“Dismissed,” Aurelian said irritably.
The days went by uneventfully. Finally, on the fourth day, Aurelian summoned his troops. Before addressing them, he beckoned to Claudius.
“Yes, Milord?” said Claudius.
“I need a man to penetrate Rome and open the gates for the army. Do you know of such a man?” Aurelian inquired.
Claudius was amazed. Aurelian was using his plan? He replied, “I do not know any man who would be inconspicuous and clever enough to fool the Roman guards. However, I do know of a boy; his name is Julian. He is very clever and bright. I am sure he could open the gates and escape without harm, provided he was given enough time to gain the guards’ trust; perhaps a week?”
“Julian, the messenger boy? Yes, as a child he would not attract much attention. You will be in charge of him; we attack in two days.”
“But sir! Clever as he is, he is only a boy. If we attack so soon, without giving him time, he might be killed!”
“What does that matter?” answered Aurelian. “As long as he opens the gate, I do not care what befalls him.”
“My Lord Aurelian, I beg you…”
“Be silent. Go find the messenger and give him my orders while I speak to the troops.”
“Julian, you must escape,” Claudius said after he explained what happened. “Forgive me—I thought he would give you enough time to succeed. As it is, you must flee, or you will surely die at the hands of the Romans.”
“Flee from my duty?” Julian answered. “Run away at the time I could help the army the most?”
“Julian, Aurelian is—”
“I am not doing this for Aurelian; I am doing it for the rebels. Besides, I think I can get out alive,” he said with a smile.
Claudius saw that there was no deterring the boy. “Very well. I wish you the best of luck.”
“Thank you,” Julian said gratefully. “When did he say to leave?”
“Today, as soon as you are ready.”
Julian looked surprised; he paused a moment, seemed to gather his courage, and then his face cleared of all emotion save determination. Claudius was worried for his friend, but he could not force him to flee. “Do you know what you will do?” Claudius asked him.
“No, but I will think of a plan before I leave. After all, it is what Commander Aurelian the Great expects,” he said, smiling ruefully.
Julian formulated a plan and left for Rome, leaving Claudius behind.
Two days later, the rebel army was riding to battle against Rome, lead by Aurelian in shining, polished battle armor. Aurelian commanded Raphael to take charge of the group entering Rome by the side gates; he himself would command the diversionary force. He ordered a soldier named Philip to watch the side gate and notify him when it was opened. Claudius, clad in plain warrior’s armor, took his place beside Aurelian as they headed toward Rome.
They galloped across the fields, riding toward what would surely be the final battle, whether it ended victory or defeat. As they drew nearer, Raphael’s forces split from their group and rode as quietly as possible toward the side gate. Aurelian’s forces, however, made no attempt to be silent; hoping to distract the Romans from Raphael, they whooped battle cries and yelled as loud as they could as they headed straight for the main gate.
“Archers to the front!” cried Aurelian. “Take aim! Fire! Reload! Keep their heads down!”
Roman archers assembled along the walls, and cavalry poured out the gates. The battle began in earnest. The rebels continued their assault, awaiting the signal from Philip. After some time a faint cry came from the other side of the battlefield. It was Philip! Claudius heard it, and glanced at Aurelian. He was busy shouting orders to the troops. Claudius called to Aurelian, “My lord, the gates have been opened!”
Aurelian glanced up, preparing to ride toward the voice. When he saw who had called, however, his face darkened and he resumed fighting.
Claudius hacked his way through the Roman military, moving towards Aurelian, knowing that he would pay dearly for his interference.
“I beg your pardon, Commander. Philip has given his signal; our troops are already inside Rome. We must assist them,” Claudius said as he fought.
“I am the Commander. Philip will tell me when the gates are opened, not you. I must do nothing you tell me!” Aurelian gritted furiously.
“He was very far away. You were busy leading the troops; it is not surprising that you did not hear him.”
“I am the Commander. I am the Commander, do you hear me?! You are nothing, worthless trash compared to me. Philip has not signaled us yet.”
“He called scarcely a minute ago! Why will you not listen to me?” Claudius cried.
“HE HAS NOT!!! I AM AURELIAN, LEADER OF THE REBELS, AND I SAY THAT HE HAS NOT!” Aurelian bellowed.
“Very well,” whispered Claudius. There was no reasoning with him. Aurelian had snapped; he was a madman. Left with no alternative, Claudius rode away from his commander, crying out to the troops, “To the gate! To the gate! All troops around to the West side gate!”
The soldiers were surprised to hear Claudius’s voice instead of Aurelian’s, but they obeyed promptly. They galloped toward the gate with the Roman soldiers hot on their heels. Claudius galloped to the front of the army, leading them through the gate and joining Raphael’s force. The battle was fierce; Claudius lashed out right and left with his sword, cutting down the Romans like grass.
Upon the battlements, two small, keen eyes watched the battle. Julian, for it was he, admired Claudius’s immense courage. Suddenly, his eyes were drawn by a movement farther away; he saw a lone rider galloping in a frenziedly toward the battle. Aurelian? Why would he be far away from the battle? Julian strained his eyes to see more clearly. Aurelian halted his horse and unslung his bow from his back. Julian was puzzled. What was he doing? He realized in a flash what was about to happen. Scrambling down, he began running toward Aurelian, screaming. It was too late. Aurelian took aim and fired one shot, two, three; two of the arrows buried themselves in Claudius’s back. Claudius slid silently off his horse and crumpled to the ground.
Julian sobbed uncontrollably and fell to the ground. Through the haze of tears, he saw Aurelian join the battle as if nothing had happened.
After many long hours, the rebels conquered the Roman army. Not only had the enemy army been subdued, but Marcus Leonius had been slain in the battle. The rebels raised a ragged cheer. Aurelian congratulated them on their victory.
“Well done, my loyal soldiers! But where is Claudius, my brave Captain?”
One of the soldiers said, “He was slain by two arrows in the back, Commander.”
Aurelian mourned the death of so brave a man, grieving that Claudius had lost his life after displaying such courage. He asked that the day be spent not only celebrating the victory, but also in memory of Claudius.
Julian, his cheeks stained with dried tears, watched Aurelian’s trickery in disbelief. Despite Aurelian’s barefaced lies, Julian was comforted by one thought: Claudius had been a true commander, a noble and courageous general much worthier of the title “Commander” than Aurelian would ever be.
Julian vowed under his breath, “One day, Aurelian, I will slay you for your evil deeds. You will pay for the death of Claudius, the true commander of this army and my greatest friend.”