Flavius and Vegetius rode for two days.
They found nothing.
‘So, why me?’ Vegetius said.
‘Why you, what?’ Flavius said.
‘Why pick me for this special assignment?’
‘Because,’ Flavius said, ‘as you can see, this mission is a mission without end. One that will no doubt result in failure. And coming back with nothing will be the same as losing the standard ourselves. We’ll be made an example of. You will, no doubt, be executed as was your original fate, and I will be demoted. I was planning on retiring anyway, though I would have preferred it with my centurion rank.’
‘So dead men for a suicide mission, eh?’
‘You’re pretty clever, Flavius. I must say. But if I’m a dead man, and you plan on retiring. Why not just run home now? Why continue this fruitless search for these petty political games?’
‘Well,’ Flavius said, ‘whatever honor and loyalty I have left for Caesar is being used here. I am considering it my parting gift as a soldier to his commander, soon-to-be-former commander. As far as why you are still here, I don’t know.’
‘So you would let me go?’
‘I would not, but I would understand you trying.’
‘Well, I think you misunderstand me, Flavius.’ Vegetius said. ‘I have honor too.’
‘You just might.’
‘Besides,’ Vegetius continued, ‘I’m going to find that standard and become a hero.’
‘Ah, there it is.’ Flavius said. ‘You have a hero’s aspiration.’
‘Is that such a bad thing?’
‘Oh, Vegetius, I could begin to tell...’ Flavius started.
‘Shh…’ Vegetius cut in.
‘Shhhh…’ Vegetius cut him off again. ‘There’s a band up ahead. Half a dozen men. Maybe more. They look like Reds.’
The two men dismounted and tied off their horses. It was nearly nightfall and the men around the campfire were well into their drinking.
‘What’s the plan?’ Vegetius asked as they approached and looked around for any discernible clues as to who these men were and if they were the Reds who stole the standard.
‘We need to find out who they are…’ Flavius started to say.
‘Right.’ Vegetius said. ‘Grab your pila.’
Vegetius threw off his armor and approached the campfire with no more than a tunic, a belt, sandals, and a gladius.
‘Vegetius…’ Flavius tried to quietly yell, ‘What in the names of the gods are you...?’
Vegetius was gone and walking towards the circle of men.
Flavius scrambled back to the horses to grab the pila and quickly ran back.
‘How goes it, boys?’ Vegetius said to the unsuspecting men in the circle.
They all jumped up in surprise, fumbling to put their hands on the hilts of their swords.
‘Easy now.’ Vegetius said. ‘I come in peace and to look for a drink.’
The men looked around at each other waiting for someone to make the first move.
‘Not much on latin, eh?’ Vegetius continued taking a seat near the fire. ‘No worries. I got a friend from Gaul, he doesn’t talk much either. Verci, I call him.’
The men started to relax but still with an air of uneasiness.
‘How’s about some wine, then?’
The man closest to Vegetius looked around for any sign of disapproval before he handed Vegetius a bag of wine.
‘Prosit.’ Vegetiius said lifting the wine bag before taking a swig.
‘You boys are pretty dark for Gauls.’ Vegetius continued. ‘Spanish?’
They continued looking around. Sitting now, but still uneasy.
‘I tell you.’ Vegetius continued. ‘Some of the best cunny I’ve ever had was in Spain. But my god, don’t stick around for the next day, eh? Those witches are likely to rip out your juggler when the sun comes up. Am I right?’
He had their attention, but not their laughs. One guy, in particular, was giving Vegetius a more threatening stare rather than the curious and cautious stare as the other men of the circle.
‘You look Roman.’ Vegetius said to the man with the threatening stare. ‘Whereabouts are you from?’
‘I’m a merchant.’ The man said. ‘Headed to Rome to sell my wares from Hispania Citerior.’
‘Quite some muscle you got with you.’ Vegetius said. ‘Must be something quite valuable you got going to Rome.’
‘Not really,’ the merchant responded, ‘just sheep wool and a bit of lead. Heavy lifting, you know?’
‘Indeed it is.’ Vegetius said. ‘Hispania. Isn’t that Pompey-favored lands?’
‘It is indeed.’ The merchant said. ‘And aren’t those soldier’s sandals? In Caesar’s lands?’
‘It would seem they are.’
The quiet Reds sitting around the campfire started to pick up on the tension and were a little more awake and aware than they had been before.
‘Are you a deserter, then?’ The merchant asked Vegetius.
‘No.’ Vegetius said. ‘I’m a dead man.’
A pilum goes flying past Vegetius’s head and into the chest of the man sitting across from him.
The Spaniards stand up to draw their swords.
Another pilum flies past, sending another Spaniard flying backwards as he is drawing out his sword.
Vegetius draws and quickly guts the man sitting right next to him, then immediately withdraws, spins, and slashes at the man on his other side.
Flavius jumps over the campfire to intercede the man coming at Vegetius, who is now swatting away attacks.
After the third deflection and overreach by his opponent, Vegetius pulls his hidden pugio to stab the man under his swinging arm and just under the ribcage.
The merchant goes running towards his ox and cart.
The guards are down and Flavius pulls a pilum from the chest of a dead man.
Vegetius turns to look at Flavius as he starts circling around the cart to look for the merchant.
‘Got him.’ Vegetius said.
The merchant was scrambling out of the cart with a large object wrapped in silk in his arms.
Flavius underhands the pilum to Vegetius who catches it, switches it to his right hand, then slowly aims and lances it through the back of the running merchant.
Vegetius walks out of sight behind the cart to investigate, while Flavius kills whatever men were still alive and gasping for breath in the camp. He looks down at the wine bag and starts to pick it up when he hears Vegetius coming towards him.
‘Flavius!’ Vegetius said with a bit too much excitement.
Flavius looked up to see Vegetius grinning, ear to ear, with the pride of a boy who had just ridden a horse for the first time.
‘What is it, Vegetius?’
‘Look.’ He said, still smiling. He removed the silk in a dramatic fashion and lifted the object high over his head.
It was Crassus’s aigle.
‘I’m a hero of Rome!’ Vegetius yelled.