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Mark of the Thief

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  To Mrs. Flores, 1st Grade, who gave me a love of words
























































  In Rome, nothing mattered more than the gods, and nothing mattered less than its slaves. Only a fool of a slave would ever challenge the gods' power.

  I was beginning to look like that fool.

  I was a slave in the mines south of Rome and, generally speaking, did my job well. I worked hard and kept my head down and even took orders without complaint -- unless it was a stupid order, one that risked my life. Then I was just as happy to ignore it.

  "You will do as I say, Nic!" Sal's anger echoed inside this small underground chamber. "I've tolerated your disobedience far too long."

  "Tolerated?" I snorted. If near starvation, beatings, and dangerous assignments were tolerance, then yes, Sal had been excessively generous to me.

  As part of the grand joke that had become my life, the gods had given me a master with the wit of a withered carrot and compassion of a wasp. He also smelled like toe fungus, though that's less relevant. More significant is that of the hundreds of slaves who worked in the mines, Sal hated me the most. This was no great surprise, since Sal had always stood out to me as someone well worth hating back. With his whip and the ever-present chains on my wrists, he held absolute control over my life -- or lack of it. So generally speaking, I did as I was told.

  But I would not obey his ridiculous order to explore our latest discovery, a cave believed to contain Julius Caesar's lost treasure. The deep shaft that accessed the cave had killed the first miner to enter, and the second man, a friend of mine named Fidelius, was in the corner muttering incoherently and gnawing on his fist like a dog at his bone. Maybe the air was bad, maybe the cave was haunted, or maybe the gods just didn't want us mining there. I didn't know. I didn't care. I wasn't going inside.

  Or maybe I was getting what I deserved. Earlier that morning, I had deliberately dropped sand into Sal's drink. He was still coughing up the grains he swallowed. I felt no guilt for what I'd done. Sal was getting what he deserved too.

  My only regret was the worry I too often caused my sister, Livia, who also worked here at the mines. She was only a year younger than me, but when our mother was sold away from us, Livia became my responsibility. She wasn't allowed in the mine itself, but since our discovery yesterday, rumors had spread all over camp. She knew this was my work area, and would wonder now whether I was coming back. Actually, I had the same question.

  "No, Sal. This is a waste of lives." It wasn't my best argument. Sal cared nothing for anyone's life but his own. Perhaps if I had told him this was a waste of money, I'd have gotten his attention.

  "There's gold in that cave," Sal said. "The first man we sent down told us he could see it."

  "Before he screamed for help and then died!" I said.

  Sal pointed to Fidelius. "That one came back!"

  Fidelius looked up, his eyes still as wide and bloodshot as when we'd first pulled him out. His hollow gaze turned to me. "Caesar's ghost walks that cave. It's forbidden earth."

  Sal grabbed a fistful of my tunic and yanked me toward him. "Rome already knows about this discovery. General Radulf is on his way now to investigate that cave. If gold is down there, then I want my piece of it first."

  "If you want it, you go down there!" He could beat me for refusing him, and he probably would, but that was better than obeying.

  Across from me, Fidelius shuddered and mumbled the words, "Caesar. He'll curse you."

  This was hardly a new thought. Every miner who worked the South Mountain already figured he was cursed. This mountain was close to Lake Nemi, home to a temple for the goddess Diana, where strange things were said to happen. Whenever a miner disappeared here, we all wondered if it was Diana, demanding another sacrifice.

  "Enough disobedience!" Sal shoved me into the arms of his guard. "Toss his body down and get me another slave."

  I heard the slice of a knife being drawn from its sheath, but I had no intention of dying at the hand of this swine. So I spread the chains around my wrists as wide as they'd go, then drove my elbows into the guard's gut and bolted for the tunnel exit. Sal and the guard collided to chase me, but I had worked this tunnel for five years and knew it better than anyone.

  I brushed past a couple of miners as I ran, then, behind me, heard Sal yell for them to get out of the way. I slowed enough for the guard to see me take a sharp left down a dark corridor, then ducked into an even darker crevice, pressing tightly against the wall. The guard ran right past me, with Sal on his heels.

  I wasn't free yet, not even close. I still had to make my way through the rest of the tunnel, and then find Livia in the camp. I always knew we'd eventually escape this place; today seemed as good a day for freedom as any other.

  Just as I was ready to dart out from the crevice, the shadows of two men entered the main tunnel, their voices low. They ducked into the smaller tunnel, only inches from me. The men were Roman soldiers -- that was obvious from their red cloaks and the leather boots -- and likely the more decorated one was General Radulf. He had come earlier than expected.

  Inside the crevice, I grinned. This was exactly what I needed. Radulf would distract Sal, giving me the chance to get away.

  A man with a deep voice spoke first. "You'll wait here at the entrance. I don't want anyone in these tunnels until I'm finished."

  "Yes, General Radulf. Are you sure about this? Emperor Tacitus will have your head if he finds out."

  Radulf's laugh felt as dark as this tunnel. "The emperor fears me more than I do him. Besides, he won't know about any of this until I'm ready, and by then, it'll be too late for anyone to stop me. I will crush this empire in my fist."

  "Assuming this cave has what you've been looking for," his companion added.

  Radulf's boots stepped even closer to where I hid, and though he lowered his voice, I heard every traitorous word. "I can feel the magic here, just as Rome must feel its last gasps of breath. The discovery of Caesar's cave is going to change my life."

  Magic? Nothing I'd felt in my years here could be described that way. Even still, though I closed my eyes and tried to disappear into the cracks of this crevice, somehow I knew my life was about to change too.

  Someone must've notified Sal that Radulf had arrived, forcing him to give up the search for me. He met Radulf in the tunnel, breathless and full of apologies that he
had not received the general properly.

  When he bowed to the general, his sweaty head lowered directly in front of my face. Had he turned just an inch, he'd have spotted me. "General Radulf, you honor us with your presence."

  "Clear this entire tunnel," Radulf said. "Then lead me to the cave."

  "I have a man ready to explore the cave, as you asked." Sal motioned with his hand and a guard brought the man in. A quick peek out told me his chains were similar to mine, though his legs were also manacled. Sal must've expected him to resist.

  But he didn't. The man fell to his knees and began howling like a lost child. "I beg you, Dominus. Don't send me into that cave. I don't want to die."

  "I'll send a thousand slaves to their deaths if that's what it takes," Radulf snarled. "Get to your feet."

  "I -- I'm too big for the opening," the man said. "And too heavy on ropes. You want someone --"

  Sal swatted his head. "How dare you refuse the general?"

  The man fell to all fours, and when he turned to answer Sal, his eyes locked directly on mine. I shook my head, silently begging him not to reveal me, but his expression only darkened as a grin widened on his face. "Dominus, you want someone like him."

  Sal followed his gaze and instantly grabbed my chains and yanked me from the crevice. "There you are, rodent. I'll deal with you later."

  "Let me see this one," Radulf said.

  My heart leapt into my throat. He must have known that I had overheard his conversation. So I kept my head down while he studied me, hoping if I made myself look weak enough, the general would lose interest. As one of the youngest workers here, I wasn't anywhere near the biggest or the strongest worker of the mines, and for that matter, I wasn't the stupidest either. At this point, the only chance I had was if he decided that I wasn't a threat to him.

  None of it worked. The general pinched my face between his fingers and forced me to look up. He was tall, with dark hair that was graying over his ears, olive skin, and a square face that looked carved out of stone. His silver armor covered a broad, muscular chest, and I had no doubt he managed the sword at his side with perfect ease.

  In contrast, my dark hair was ragged, as were the remaining shreds of my thin tunic. I was filthy and covered in the same bruises, scrapes, and cuts as any other slave miner. And I felt how low my status was compared to a man of Radulf's greatness. But at least I hadn't spent the last few minutes talking about treason against the Roman Empire.

  Radulf turned my head from side to side. "You look familiar," he said. "Have we met?"

  I nearly choked out a nervous laugh. Where would a mining slave possibly meet a Roman general? He and I had nothing in common. Nor was there anything I wanted to have in common with him, aside from one thing only: He was free, and I wore chains.

  "Cooperate with me," he said, "and I might forget that you were eavesdropping."

  I started to point out that for a treasonous man, he whispered rather loud, but before I could speak, Sal shook his head. "You wouldn't want him, Dominus. He displeases the gods."

  No, I was their plaything, their entertainment in an eternity of boredom. This new twist was proof of that. Obviously, their idea of saving me from the punishment of escaping was to force me into that cursed cave. Because now it would be one or the other, and either way, Sal would win. That was intolerable.

  Sal smiled. "On second thought, I can see why you would choose him." I immediately understood why he had changed his mind and glared back at him. There weren't many gears in Sal's brain, so it wasn't hard to watch them working. He had planned to dump me in the cave anyway.

  "What's the boy's name?" Radulf asked.

  "We call him Nic."

  "Nicolas Calva," I answered. It was a freeborn name that I'd given myself five years ago. Calva had been my mother's family name. If I accepted my life with only a first name, like every other man here, that would be the same as accepting that I would never be anything but a slave in the mines. And I refused to die here, as if I were nothing.

  Radulf said, "Well, Nicolas Calva, you will go into that cave for me. You will have to be brave, and obey my every order."

  "You'll find no slave here braver than Nic, or more obedient." Sal nearly choked on the last part of his words. I wished he had.

  "Then why was he trying to escape just now?"

  Sal glanced at me, speechless. "You misunderstood," I said. "I went into that crevice looking for other runaway slaves. Luckily, I didn't find any."

  "I can make him obey." Radulf smiled back at me. "You remind me of myself, when I was a boy in Gaul."

  "I'm surprised you can remember back that long ago."

  He crouched to my level. "I remember it well. There was always an uprising somewhere. Always an opportunity for Rome to crush us, again and again. You know what I'm talking about. I can see that in your eyes."

  He was right. Rome had also destroyed my family in Gaul, before we'd fled deeper into the empire. None of my mother's attempts to hide us from the slavers had worked, though. We were sold into the mines five years ago.

  Radulf's smile faded. "Who is your family, Nic?"

  Sal answered for me. "He was born in Gaul of a Roman mother named Hortensia, and an unknown father."

  Radulf's eyes flickered for a moment, but he continued to stare. "Unknown? Not even a name?"

  Though it meant little to me, I did know my father's name, Halden. From my mother's description, he had died when struck by lightning. It was a senseless, useless death, one without honor. For that reason, I never said his name, not even to my sister. There was no chance of me telling this man now.

  "Where is his mother?" Radulf asked.

  "A few weeks after they all arrived here, I sold her to a family near Rome." Sal flicked his eyes at me and I glared back. It was on top of the long list of reasons why I hated him. "But the boy's sister is still here. Livia."

  The way he said her name curled my hands into fists. Sal had never made it a secret that he was waiting for my sister to come of age so that he could make her an offer of marriage. The thought of it twisted my stomach.

  Since it was too much to hope for favors from the gods, I decided that if I could not save myself, at least I would do something for Livia. Faking all possible innocence, I looked up at Radulf. "Sir, please allow Sal to come with us. If you want me to succeed in that cave, we must have his help."

  Sal's face paled, then reddened as he tried to control his anger. He sputtered out an objection but it was already too late.

  "Very well." Radulf nodded at Sal to lead us on. I wished I could've taken more joy in Sal's distress, but in truth, I felt anything but happiness then.

  A roll of thunder sounded outside as we walked deeper into the tunnel, and I shuddered. It was a sign, reminding me that, like the rest of the world, the gods cared nothing for mining slaves. I felt the eyes of the other men staring as Sal dismissed everyone but me and Radulf from the mines. Their expressions were sympathetic, even concerned for my plight. But they were more relieved that it was me, and not any one of them, walking to his death.

  The entrance to the secret cave was buried deep below the earth's surface. I knew because I was part of the small group that had discovered it. When we had broken the rock apart, it had revealed a long vertical shaft that had blown bitter cold wind out at us. That should've been our first warning. Now one miner lay dead somewhere at the bottom, and they'd had to carry Fidelius out of here, still chewing on his fist. Not that Radulf cared. In fact, considering that he knew what I'd overheard, he probably hoped I'd join their fates.

  "Remove this boy's chains," Radulf ordered Sal. "He cannot do what is required of him while wearing chains."

  But Sal shook his head. "You see how far he ran while wearing chains. Imagine if he didn't have them."

  "It's never been chains that kept me here," I said. It was Livia's reluctance to leave. The idea of escaping frightened her just as much as it beckoned me. But she was younger, and didn't remember freedom like I did.
  "Unchain him," Radulf said.

  Sal reached for his keys and did as he was told. He was then ordered to tie a long rope around my waist. It would be his job to lower me to the bottom of the cave. If there was a bottom.

  Looking down into the cave's black entrance, I was sure Fidelius had been right. This was forbidden earth. My chances of returning weren't good, and where would that leave Livia? Without me, there was no one to take care of her. Except for Sal, which was worse than having nobody at all.

  After Sal tied the rope, Radulf dismissed him so that we could talk in private. He checked the knot, but offered no sympathy for the likelihood that I would die, nor did I expect any. He only said, "If it truly is Caesar's lost treasure down there, then you will look for only one thing, a bulla made entirely of gold. Do you know what a bulla is?"

  I rolled my eyes. Every freeborn boy in Rome wore the pendant around his neck. Not having one identified me as worthless to the empire. So yes, of course I knew what it was.

  "Good. The one I want will have a griffin carved on one side and Caesar's initials on the other. Do you know your letters?"

  "All the important ones." He smiled at my comment, though I hoped he wouldn't make too much of it. My mother had taught me to recognize Latin letters, but got no further before she was sold away. I had no idea what to do with them beyond that.

  "That bulla is all I want," Radulf said. "The rest belongs to the empire."

  I squinted back at him, recalling the conversation I had just overheard. If Radulf wanted a way to crush the Roman Empire, a bulla would do him no good. Bullas were given to wealthy young boys as charms against bad luck. Personally, I doubted they worked. Since they had been born wealthy, I figured those boys already had all the luck they needed in life. Regardless, once a boy became a man, he put away the bulla along with his other childish things. Caesar would have done the same.

  Radulf grabbed my arm and leaned in closer. "I know what you overheard from me, and you would be wise to forget it. If you defy me, it will not go well for you."

  I believed him. He'd been in my life for less than an hour and my hopes had already taken a significant turn for the worse. "All I care about is getting back to the surface," I said. "The rest is your concern, not mine."

  His expression warmed to that. With his grip on me tighter than ever, he said, "Once you find the bulla, do not put it on; do not hold it too close. Just carry it back to me. If you do as I ask, then I will take you away from this place, even bring you back to Rome with me. Your sister too."