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THE BIRTH OF ROME
Prologue - Brutus Remembers
"Praetor, the enemy is withdrawing."
Brutus rushed up the stairs to the top of the Porta Flumentana to see this with his own eyes. Yes, it was true. From the top of the gate Brutus could easily see across the River Tiber, above the cavalry screen that rode back and forth along the bank swirling up clouds of dust. He saw the last formation of infantry marching up the road until it curved away from view around the foot of the Janiculum Hill. The Etruscan army was heading north, back to their homes.
It was over. For now. Lucius Junius Brutus breathed a great sigh of relief. The Republic would live to see tomorrow, and that was what mattered most. They had all risked their lives and fortunes to give birth to this precious idea, but no one had given more than Brutus.
Would they be back? Possibly. It was the second time the tyrant king had hired an army and tried to reclaim the throne of Roma, and as long as he remained alive he would try again, provided he could enlist the support of an Etruscan city to back him. This time Brutus was determined to punish them for their ambition and greed. The independent Etruscan city-states must be discouraged from giving aid to Lucius Tarquin Superbus. They must be shown that Roma will never again accept the rule of a king. Even the very word "king" had become detestable.
It was more than the atrocities practiced on the city by the sinister ruler, though these had grown intolerable. It was the sweet taste of liberty that steeled the resolve of every Roman citizen. Never before had a people dared to govern themselves. Never before had a government recognized that a man was born with certain inalienable rights. This germinating seed had to be given a chance to grow and thrive. For the sake of their children, and to serve as an example for posterity, the republic must survive.
"Send word to Praetor Valerius. He is to follow with the legion immediately. Inform him that I am leaving now with the cavalry to harass their retreat. This will not be a repeat of Lars Porsenna. Tell him I intend to maul the Etruscans savagely, blood them, make them sorry they ever listened to that hateful tyrant. I want the rest of the Etruscan League to know that they help Superbus at their peril. Now go."
He turned to the trumpeter who was always at his side.
"Call 'to horse' and make that a general signal, all units."
"All units, to horse. Yes, Praetor."
Lucius Junius Brutus ran to the temporary picket line that had been strung in the Forum Boarium for the duration of the emergency. He pulled his horse to a mounting block and leaped on the mare. All the horses were saddled and harnessed for immediate use. Troopers came running from every direction; some were on the walls, but most were resting, waiting for this moment.
"Open the gate!"
The mighty Porta Flumentana opened and Brutus led the cavalry out of the city to the ancient ford, immediately downstream from Tiber Island. The island served as a breakwater for the crossing. He waited on the far side until the entire cavalry had crossed, then the tight mass of several thousand horsemen charged after the enemy.
The rear guard went down under a swift wall of spears and hooves. The teamsters attending the oxen ran for their lives, leaving the engines of war to be burned later by the Roman Legion. The Etruscan commanders were near the head of their column and hadn't noticed the pursuit until now. Their cavalry turned and rushed back towards the rear of the column, desperate to save their foot soldiers.
The leader of the cavalry was the son of the exiled king, Arruns Tarquin. He spied Brutus in the lead and spurred his horse to charge directly at him. Brutus saw Tarquin pull away from the enemy cavalry and aimed his own mount at the enemy commander. Single combat between the commanders was a point of honor and no one interfered in the coming contest.
In full view of the horsemen on both sides, the commanders raced towards one another, each set on vengeance. Brutus was determined to avenge the atrocities performed by the tyrant king and his viper sons; Arruns Tarquin was intent to take out his wrath on the man who had insulted and outlawed his father, an act of treason to his mind. Both were avowed to kill the other, and thought of nothing else, not even their own safety.
Their horses rushed towards one another, passing on the left to present no obstacle to the spear balanced in the right hand. With perfect timing, Brutus and Tarquin struck with such fury that each spear went straight through the breastplate and lodged in the body of the man in the same moment. Both men flew off their horses and landed with a heavy thud, the spear of his enemy deep in his chest. Arruns Tarquin was dead before he hit the ground, his small and gnarled heart punctured through.
Lucius Junius Brutus knew he was dying. He watched the clouds pass overhead and was overwhelmed by their beauty. Peace had come to him at last; his lemur would have no reason stalk the earth. He had given his all to his beloved Roma, and now he was through. He felt no pain, just a wet warmth where his life blood drained into the soil. He mourned for his sons, but not for himself.
How curious, he thought dreamily, the threads of destiny will not be snapped, not even by death. His grandfather had been dear friends with the grandfather of the tyrant and even today, into the fourth generation, the threads rubbed against one another and frayed, sometimes painfully, but refused to break. What was destiny? Had the family threads been entwined even before they met? He tried to remember the story, told to every generation, how their grandfathers had met, how they had built a city together, and how their sons passed this common destiny down to their sons, and onwards.
Brutus lay back and watched the clouds, his mind going back a hundred years and more, to that fateful day when his grandfather met the grandfather of the tyrant king. But he didn't call himself Lucius Tarquinius Priscus back then. What was his name? What did he call himself in those days? Did they have any idea their meeting would lead to a day like today? How do the stories begin? Oh, yes.
Once upon a time...