The Forum was much quieter than usual. The crowds that on any other day would have argued and jostled and hawked had fled the City, either to Veii or to the Capitoline Hill, or were barricaded in their homes, awaiting the invaders. The only sign left of what this place had been were the wheel-marks and hoof-marks that they had left in the previous days.
The only occupants of the forum now, beneath the glaring white sun-disk, filtered through a rippling, yellow, smoky sky, were a crowd of stern-faced and weathered old men, clad in the fine robes of their ancient offices.
One of the old men awoke from a sleep of a thousand rasping snores, with a dark, wet patch beginning to appear in the splendid white of his toga.
“Have the Greeks been yet?” He asked, hesitantly, looking around at his companions.
“It’s the Gauls, you old fool! It’s the ruddy Gauls we’re waiting for!” One of the men shouted from somewhere behind him.
“Oh, yes, the Gauls. I used to have a slave who was Greek.”
“Be quiet, man!” The same voice shouted again.
“I think he was called Protagoras or Pythagoras or something like that. I bought him the year Furius Medullinus was Consul.”
“What part of that do you not understand?”
“I seem to remember he was magnificent in bed.”
“What did you say?” Came another creaky voice.
“Nobody said anything to you! For Jupiter’s sake, stop spouting off all your ridiculous poppycock and balderdash! We’re supposed to be offering ourselves up for our people and our city. Show some respect.”
At that point, Gaius Flavius, formerly Priest of Mars, let out a deep and anguished moan as his bulbous and blotchy arms forced his body out of his ivory chair. His feet, red and pink and brown and gout-swollen and oozing out among the straps of his sandals, shuffled forward, one and then the next and then the first again, as the old priest winced behind a ragged, grey beard.
Somewhere in the City, there was a groan of wooden beams at last defeated, and a crash as a roof gave way to ravenous flames.
“I couldn’t do anything like that now. The last time I got it up must have been, what, 19 years ago?”
“Did you know that my father fought against Coriolanus?”
“Even then I couldn’t keep up. He was so young and energetic. He was like one of those Greek statues, you know?”
By this point, Gaius Flavius, panting like a dog with exhaustion, had made it to an empty enough patch of dirt behind everyone’s backs. He hitched up the folds of his toga and unleashed a golden torrent of steaming piss, that twisted among stones and bumps and hollows in the ground, too small to be detected by human eyes, and diverged into a shifting and meandering delta, watering every little crack in the sun-baked soil, before each tributary converged once more into a mighty river, rolling down the a wheel-rut.
He gradually made his way back to his chair, sagging under his own weight like an overladen camel.
“Is this how they felt in Veii?” said a senator on the front row.
A few of the men around him looked at him, confused or curious.
A scream, somewhere deep in the blazing city of Romulus and Remus, was abruptly cut short.
“The way their city was destroyed. The way we slaughtered and plundered and burned.”
Nobody said anything for a while after that. Even the ones who were awake.
There were faint shouts, in a strange, Barbarian tongue, rising above the snapping and blustering fires.
Aulus Cornelius Cossus, with lips shrink-wrapped over empty gums, and eyes ringed by time-worn hollows of darkness, grumbled something. The senator who had spoken continued.
“Do you think this is us getting what we were due? You know? I’m just, you know, thinking, as it were.”
Aulus spoke up this time.
“My grandson risked his life for Rome at Veii. He fought…”
The wind blew a cascade of smoke across the Forum. Aulus coughed, violently.
More smoke. More coughing.
“My grandson fought bravely and…”
Aulus, his gaunt and wrinkled face becoming more impassioned with every time he was cut off by the smoke from his beloved city, seemed resolved to finish his sentence at all costs.
“He won a great victory for his people.”
“And the Gauls are winning a great victory for theirs right now.” The senator retorted.
“Do you want to say that again?” Aulus taunted him. “Nobody talks like that about my family, and about Rome, and get away with it. Nobody.”
Aulus stood up, slow and shaking, placing his fragile, bony weight on an ivory walking stick. He began to shuffle precariously in the direction of the senator who had dared to speak ill of his grandson’s daring exploits.
Another roof crumpled and collapsed with a deep growl.
About a third of the way across to where his adversary was seated, his fragile feet gave way, and his veiny legs began to buckle.
The Priest of Quirinus was quick to his feet, followed more slowly by the two ex-consuls either side of him, and, stifling laughter, he caught the flailing old Equestrian. Lucius, with some reluctance, allowed himself to be helped back into his chair.
The 82-year-old, who the citizens of Rome had elected as Consul on two separate occasions, readjusted his toga and muttered something incomprehensible and toothless.
“Did you know, my father fought against Coriolanus?”
And a lone figure stumbled into the Forum from the tangled streets. She was almost dragging herself forward, coughing up soot from burned and smoke-poisoned lungs. Her patched and threadbare tunic at one point disintegrated into blackened threads, embedded in charred flesh. Her hair, black and tangled on one side, was gone from the other, and where it had been half her face had been eaten by the flames, and was now just bare flesh, stretched across a cavernous skull, glistening pink and then the deepest charcoal-black.
She fell to the ground. She was not moving any more. Her rasping breaths slowed, and became inaudible.
A few of the patricians cautiously got to their feet and began to edge forward, as if each was waiting for the others to move first.
“When are the Greeks getting here?”
the priest of Quirinus, who had caught Aulus Cornelius Cossus when he had fallen, was first to return to his seat. The others who had stood up followed, constantly glancing to one another for reassurance that this was the proper thing to do. The Patricians were still and silent.
And through the streets around the Forum, there were Barbarian cheers, and sword-hilts rapped on the rims of resonant shields.