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Entries should be sent to the address at right no later than December 31, 2006. The winner will be notified on or before March 15, 2007.
Attn: Tarpeian Rock Contest
PO Box 1333
Merchantville NJ 08109-0333, USA
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By Lauren de Vries
“Will this cursed city not fall?”
Camillus lifted a goblet of pale wine to his lips, stinging the cracked skin. Stale air filled the tent, surrounded him, pressed against him with numbing stillness. He spoke aloud again, though he was alone.
“The men are restless for the siege to end. Our supplies dwindle. Surely the people of Falerii experience a shortage as well—they cannot endure unaided forever. Yet the city does not fall!”
With a rapid swallow, Camillus emptied the last drops of his goblet, then thrust aside the tent’s heavy curtain. White explosions danced as his eyes adjusted to the fresh daylight. The dense array of his army surrounded him: knot upon knot of soldiers, gathered around the fires to sit idly, to wait, their helmets flung in scattered mounds.
Smoke snaked toward Camillus on the wafting breeze, and he began to follow its black trail across camp. Men sprang to their feet when he passed, lay down their dice and coins, took them up again at his nod. Like a blow, the full parody of the siege struck Camillus: here lounged the pride of the Roman Republic, the rising terror of Italy, frozen on a derelict field. Futility mocked him.
“Waiting and watching.” Camillus’s voice was grim as he tasted the abhorrent words, yet he knew no other course. Likelihood of overthrowing Etruria’s chief city was slim; Camillus had early resolved against assault, early steeled his men for a siege, yet day soon gave way to weary day. The Romans were restless with waiting. Falerii perched at their doorstep—yet refused to fall.
A few tenacious strides brought Camillus to the edge of his camp and the origin of the smoke, a blaze that crackled within sight of Falerii’s gates. The fire was circled by soldiers whose matted beards and dusty ankles mirrored those of the leader they stood to greet.
“Excellency.” A legionary separated himself from the group. “Any news of the enemy?” Camillus shook his head, though a reply was not necessary; his jaw tightened with the realization that the words his troops longed to hear were far from his lips. Victory had wind in her wings, and would not alight.
That thought was shaken from him, however, when the same soldier gave a shout, pointing across the plain to the Faliscan fortress.
“Harken, the gates of Falerii open!” All around, men surged to their feet, and strained against the sun’s intrusive glare. Camillus’s heart leapt with them, then hesitated as unheralded figures, bare of armor, emerged from the city. A murmur of oaths swept through the soldiers. The legionary who had alerted his companions spat into the dirt.
“Bah, it is only the cursed Faliscan schoolmaster who walks his pupils outside the gates. May Pluto take his spirit.” He spat once more.
Camillus watched with weighted breast as the distant figures, man and string of half-grown boys, marched under the shadow and shield of towering granite walls.
“Often in these past weeks have I heard of this schoolmaster and marveled at his dedication in such a time as this.” Camillus’s men turned at the sound of his voice. “I have marveled also, at nobles who allow their sons to walk so near an enemy.”
He fingered his beard thoughtfully, cogitative in the ensuing silence as all eyes turned back to the procession of Faliscans, whose white togas stood out against the walls of Falerii with sharp distinction.
“Excellency!” A soldier bounded forward, helmet in hand. “The schoolmaster seems to be leading his pupils this way!”
Frowning, Camillus stepped nearer. The Faliscans had left the protection of their fortress and begun across the plain that divided the two opponents.
Camillus beckoned a messenger. “Alert my officers of the approach of these Faliscans and direct them to this place. Go with speed!”
The soldier vanished among the maze of tents, cingulum jangling, feet pounding like a drum—a battle drum that summoned to the front. When the officers arrived, astride hastily saddled horses, a breathless company was assembled. The camp had woken.
Roman and Faliscan faced one another, Camillus flanked by his men, the schoolmaster by youths who seemed unsure of his purpose. A worn toga slumped from the schoolmaster’s shoulders, but he made no move to straighten it. Camillus, Republic emissary, pierced the enemy with unflinching eyes, his gaze as strong as sun on armor. Though the boys stood in solemn, wary cluster, they met his stare with dignity.
Camillus stepped past the fire and the schoolmaster shuffled to meet him. There was quiet all around; veins throbbed, breath flamed, expectation whirled.
“What is your object in coming here, Faliscan, and who are these boys you lead so boldly into my camp?” Murmurs rippled through Camillus’s troops.
“Honorable Roman.” The schoolmaster spoke in a low, thin voice, and threw a furtive glance at the youths behind him. “Honorable Roman, the purpose I represent is not one you would care to dismiss.”
High above the field, a hawk shrieked; it’s grey shadow skimmed the ground and razed upturned faces. There was momentary distraction, lips mouthing entreaties to Mars, fingers grasping rings to ward off ill fortune. Camillus prompted the schoolmaster, whose eyes quivered on the hawk.
With a swallow, the man recalled himself.
“My purpose is peace,” he said, bunching his tunic. “These boys I bring represent the noblest households of Falerii—sons of the highest officers in my city. I bring them here to give them up to you.”
At this, a startled clamor rose from the youths. They would have bolted, but for the Roman spears; helpless, they called down curses on their master and his treachery. The soldiers marveled as well, faces washed in surprise.
Camillus alone had not deviated at the sudden offer. He continued a steadfast gaze on the schoolmaster, who stretched out his hands.
“In doing this I give up the city, for their fathers will surrender to you in order to receive their children back.” The Faliscan wet his lips and shifted uncomfortably in Camillus’s silence. “Do you not desire peace? Accept this proposal and our peoples will be restored to their homes, to harmony.”
The sun lay like a coal on Camillus’s neck; his hand, resting on his sword, flicked with the impulse to move, but he resisted. In that moment his senses were tuned clearer than he could ever remember them being: he tasted the flakes of his cracked lips—felt the smooth ivory of his sword hilt—smelled the sweat and dust of an aging camp—heard the stomp of impatient sandals. Beneath all, Camillus was aware of his heart … beat, beat, beat, beat. The melée that heaved inside him matched that cadence … war, peace, war, peace.
His decision couched in a labyrinth of judgement, a coil of wheat and chaff. He felt the hope of every soldier present, the weakening state of his army, the prosperity that would accompany the conquest. If he refused the schoolmaster’s terms his army could not long sustain the siege. Yet Camillus knew no stronger breastplate than honor untainted.
“Villain,” he cried, disgust elevating his voice to thunder, “we Romans are not so base as you. We do not make war upon children, but upon men who do us wrong.”
Camillus whipped around to face the troops, his red woolen cloak flaring out behind him, a rippling standard.
“Today victory was offered us, through a cunning scheme that would have ended both siege and war. But we are Romans—not wolves at dusk. Deeds shall win this battle.”
A stentorian cheer went up from the soldiers, rallied despite their anxious, flagging spirits. Two legionaries gripped the schoolmaster, who shouted and writhed to free himself as his students looked on, their faces dazed. Camillus allowed the clamor to recede before delivering orders.
“Bind this Faliscan’s hands and fetch me a dozen stout rods.” The youths watched in a kind of stupor, while their traitorous master was bound and then released. He stood with cryptic eyes on Camillus, too recreant to attempt flight.
A solider drew near, carrying a bundle of rods. Camillus took them and approached the cluster of Faliscan boys. He held out a stick to each, their faces lighting as they realized his intention.
“Youths,” said Camillus, “scourge this villain back to Falerii.” His voice rose like a cornu. “Let the people whose peace he is so good to consider decide his fate.”
Grinning devilishly, the boys turned on their master with eager hands. He stumbled over a stone, caught himself, and was a league across the field. Though fleet, the master was soon skirted by his pupils and their rods; screams coursed back to camp until the last boy disappeared inside Falerii’s gates.
All eyes had followed the procession, mirth giving way to throbs of compunction, checked by swift self-reproach. At last, the soldiers curved back to their fires and bedrolls, quiet in the aftermath of a paragon that had stirred their hearts. Camillus watched them go, a grim smile playing on his lips. Unbroken days stretched before them once more.