"Strike in the nails, soldiers, and let our guest see the reality
of our good Roman justice!"
The speaker wrapped his purple cloak closer about his powerful
frame and settled back into his official chair, much as he might have
settled back in his seat at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the clash of
gladiatorial swords. Realization of power colored his every move.
Whetted pride was necessary to Roman satisfaction, and Titus Sulla was
justly proud; for he was military governor of Eboracum and answerable
only to the emperor of Rome. He was a strongly built man of medium
height, with the hawk-like features of the pure-bred Roman. Now a
mocking smile curved his full lips, increasing the arrogance of his
haughty aspect. Distinctly military in appearance, he wore the golden-
scaled corselet and chased breastplate of his rank, with the short
stabbing sword at his belt, and he held on his knee the silvered
helmet with its plumed crest. Behind him stood a clump of impassive
soldiers with shield and spear--blond titans from the Rhineland.
Before him was taking place the scene which apparently gave him so
much real gratification--a scene common enough wherever stretched the
far-flung boundaries of Rome. A rude cross lay flat upon the barren
earth and on it was bound a man--half-naked, wild of aspect with his
corded limbs, glaring eyes and shock of tangled hair. His executioners
were Roman soldiers, and with heavy hammers they prepared to pin the
victim's hands and feet to the wood with iron spikes.
Only a small group of men watched this ghastly scene, in the dread
place of execution beyond the city walls: the governor and his
watchful guards; a few young Roman officers; the man to whom Sulla had
referred as "guest" and who stood like a bronze image, unspeaking.
Beside the gleaming splendor of the Roman, the quiet garb of this man
seemed drab, almost somber.
He was dark, but he did not resemble the Latins around him. There
was about him none of the warm, almost Oriental sensuality of the
Mediterranean which colored their features. The blond barbarians
behind Sulla's chair were less unlike the man in facial outline than
were the Romans. Not his were the full curving red lips, nor the rich
waving locks suggestive of the Greek. Nor was his dark complexion the
rich olive of the south; rather it was the bleak darkness of the
north. The whole aspect of the man vaguely suggested the shadowed
mists, the gloom, the cold and the icy winds of the naked northern
lands. Even his black eyes were savagely cold, like black fires
burning through fathoms of ice.
His height was only medium but there was something about him which
transcended mere physical bulk--a certain fierce innate vitality,
comparable only to that of a wolf or a panther. In every line of his
supple, compact body, as well as in his coarse straight hair and thin
lips, this was evident--in the hawk-like set of the head on the corded
neck, in the broad square shoulders, in the deep chest, the lean
loins, the narrow feet. Built with the savage economy of a panther, he
was an image of dynamic potentialities, pent in with iron self-
At his feet crouched one like him in complexion--but there the
resemblance ended. This other was a stunted giant, with gnarly limbs,
thick body, a low sloping brow and an expression of dull ferocity, now
clearly mixed with fear. If the man on the cross resembled, in a
tribal way, the man Titus Sulla called guest, he far more resembled
the stunted crouching giant.
"Well, Partha Mac Othna," said the governor with studied
effrontery, "when you return to your tribe, you will have a tale to
tell of the justice of Rome, who rules the south."
"I will have a tale," answered the other in a voice which betrayed
no emotion, just as his dark face, schooled to immobility, showed no
evidence of the maelstrom in his soul.
"Justice to all under the rule of Rome," said Sulla. "Pax Romana!
Reward for virtue, punishment for wrong!" He laughed inwardly at his
own black hypocrisy, then continued: "You see, emissary of Pictland,
how swiftly Rome punishes the transgressor."
"I see," answered the Pict in a voice which strongly-curbed anger
made deep with menace, "that the subject of a foreign king is dealt
with as though he were a Roman slave."
"He has been tried and condemned in an unbiased court," retorted
"Aye! And the accuser was a Roman, the witnesses Roman, the judge
Roman! He committed murder? In a moment of fury he struck down a Roman
merchant who cheated, tricked and robbed him, and to injury added
insult--aye, and a blow! Is his king but a dog, that Rome crucifies
his subjects at will, condemned by Roman courts? Is his king too weak
or foolish to do justice, were he informed and formal charges brought
against the offender?"
"Well," said Sulla cynically, "you may inform Bran Mak Morn
yourself. Rome, my friend, makes no account of her actions to
barbarian kings. When savages come among us, let them act with
discretion or suffer the consequences."
The Pict shut his iron jaws with a snap that told Sulla further
badgering would elicit no reply. The Roman made a gesture to the
executioners. One of them seized a spike and placing it against the
thick wrist of the victim, smote heavily. The iron point sank deep
through the flesh, crunching against the bones. The lips of the man on
the cross writhed, though no moan escaped him. As a trapped wolf
fights against his cage, the bound victim instinctively wrenched and
struggled. The veins swelled in his temples, sweat beaded his low
forehead, the muscles in arms and legs writhed and knotted. The
hammers fell in inexorable strokes, driving the cruel points deeper
and deeper, through wrists and ankles; blood flowed in a black river
over the hands that held the spikes, staining the wood of the cross,
and the splintering of bones was distinctly heard. Yet the sufferer
made no outcry, though his blackened lips writhed back until the gums
were visible, and his shaggy head jerked involuntarily from side to
The man called Partha Mac Othna stood like an iron image, eyes
burning from an inscrutable face, his whole body hard as iron from the
tension of his control. At his feet crouched his misshapen servant,
hiding his face from the grim sight, his arms locked about his
master's knees. Those arms gripped like steel and under his breath the
fellow mumbled ceaselessly as if in invocation.
The last stroke fell; the cords were cut from arm and leg, so that
the man would hang supported by the nails alone. He had ceased his
struggling that only twisted the spikes in his agonizing wounds. His
bright black eyes, unglazed, had not left the face of the man called
Partha Mac Othna; in them lingered a desperate shadow of hope. Now the
soldiers lifted the cross and set the end of it in the hole prepared,
stamped the dirt about it to hold it erect. The Pict hung in midair,
suspended by the nails in his flesh, but still no sound escaped his
lips. His eyes still hung on the somber face of the emissary, but the
shadow of hope was fading.
"He'll live for days!" said Sulla cheerfully. "These Picts are
harder than cats to kill! I'll keep a guard of ten soldiers watching
night and day to see that no one takes him down before he dies. Ho,
there, Valerius, in honor of our esteemed neighbor, King Bran Mak
Morn, give him a cup of wine!"
With a laugh the young officer came forward, holding a brimming
wine cup, and rising on his toes, lifted it to the parched lips of the
sufferer. In the black eyes flared a red wave of unquenchable hatred;
writhing his head aside to avoid even touching the cup, he spat full
into the young Roman's eyes. With a curse Valerius dashed the cup to
the ground, and before any could halt him, wrenched out his sword and
sheathed it in the man's body.
Sulla rose with an imperious exclamation of anger; the man called
Partha Mac Othna had started violently, but he bit his lip and said
nothing. Valerius seemed somewhat surprized at him as he sullenly
cleansed his sword. The act had been instinctive, following the insult
to Roman pride, the one thing unbearable.
"Give up your sword, young sir!" exclaimed Sulla. "Centurion
Publius, place him under arrest. A few days in a cell with stale bread
and water will teach you to curb your patrician pride in matters
dealing with the will of the empire. What, you young fool, do you not
realize that you could not have made the dog a more kindly gift? Who
would not rather desire a quick death on the sword than the slow agony
on the cross? Take him away. And you, centurion, see that guards
remain at the cross so that the body is not cut down until the ravens
pick bare the bones. Partha Mac Othna, I go to a banquet at the house
of Demetrius--will you not accompany me?"
The emissary shook his head, his eyes fixed on the limp form which
sagged on the black-stained cross. He made no reply. Sulla smiled
sardonically, then rose and strode away, followed by his secretary who
bore the gilded chair ceremoniously, and by the stolid soldiers, with
whom walked Valerius, head sunken.
The man called Partha Mac Othna flung a wide fold of his cloak
about his shoulder, halted a moment to gaze at the grim cross with its
burden, darkly etched against the crimson sky, where the clouds of
night were gathering. Then he stalked away, followed by his silent
servant.July 26, 2016, 10:18 a.m. 0 Report Embed 0
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