A proclamation had been made in the forum that the late King’s assassins were to be executed.
It was all anyone talked about in the city. Men wondered how the executions would be carried out; women speculated as to whether the wives and children would be killed along with the men. Few, if any, expressed sympathy. The way the people of Rome saw it, the men and their families had acted treacherously and now had to pay the price.
The executions were to take place in the morning. As the appointed hour drew near, men shut up their shops, letting down the awnings and fixing them in place with wooden bars, while women set aside their spinning and their cleaning, and taking their children by the hand, made their way to the Field of Mars. The royal guards had made a square in the centre of the field and here waited Aetius and Macarius, their wives and their children. All were bound with ropes and the men’s faces were bruised dark purples and reds, their lips split, and blood matted their hair. The women and the children had not been touched. Their faces bore nothing but fear.
People found spaces for themselves, elbowing their closest neighbours aside to ensure they got a good view. They laughed and joked, not considering nor caring their good humour might heighten the prisoners’ fear.
Trumpets sounded to announce the arrival of the royal family. There was more shoving as a passage was made through the crowd, the royal guards forcing onlookers back to allow Servius and the women through. People murmured to one another as they looked on Servius. He looked grim, they commented, and poor Tanaquil there, losing her husband in such a way. But that was the way of the world, they shrugged, they lived in violent times. And there was Tarquinia, the women looking her up and down, their eyes devouring her silk dress and gold necklace and bracelets, working out how much they cost and how long it would take for them to save up to be able to afford such trinkets, knowing they never would.
Servius, Tanaquil and Tarquinia took the seats that had been set out for them. The crowd stopped their talking and waited. Servius gestured for the lictor to pronounce the prisoners’ crime and the judgement passed upon them. The shepherds’ wives began to cry, and one rushed towards Servius, begging him to spare her and her son. A guard took hold of her, drag- ging her back to the others and cuffing her around the mouth to keep her quiet. She fell to her knees, blood dripping from her lips.
The women and children were to die first, Tanaquil had insisted. The shepherds were to feel the most exquisite agony and see what their murderous actions had wrought. At a nod from Servius, two guards took hold of the women and the children, the other four guards pulled Aetius and Macarius aside.
The children were crying now, not knowing what was happening, only aware their mothers were frightened. They sobbed as they watched the guards approach and tried to back into their mothers even as the guards drove their swords into their stomachs. The women clutched at their dying children, holding their hands over the wounds as if they could stop the blood pouring out of their offspring.
One of the women realised there was nothing she could do to stop her children from dying. Her hands, slick with their blood, ceased their attempts to close up the rips in their abdomens. She let their bodies tumble from her lap to lie face down in the dirt. Pushing herself up onto her feet, the woman faced Tanaquil and Servius. There was a frightening intent in her movement and the guards held back, wary.
The woman opened her mouth wide, tilted her face to the sky and screamed. It was a terrible sound, high, keening, more animal than human. She raised her hands to her face, dragging them across her cheeks. When she pulled them away, her cheeks were streaked with the blood of her chil- dren. She opened her eyes and they stood out white against the red. She fixed them on Servius.
‘I curse you,’ she screamed into the sudden silence of the crowd. ‘King Servius Tullius, I curse you. May your reign be marred by discord at your hearth. May your loins bring forth monsters who will cause you pain and strife. May your end be full of blood and pain and come at the hands of your chil- dren. And may you suffer eternal torment in the Underworld. I call on Poena to avenge this murder of my innocent chil- dren. Poena, hear me.’
The woman raised her arms to the sky. The clouds above her head swelled and turned dark. The Field of Mars became shrouded in grey. The goddess of punishment had heard her servant.
Servius clutched the pommels of his chair. His wide- open eyes stared at the woman, then at the louring clouds. His breath started to come fast, his heart pounded in its cage. A dark shape was forming in the grey clouds, a strange, human-like form with wings. It hovered in the sky until the edges became solid. Then, a piercing scream rent the air and it folded its wings back to dive straight at Servius.
It was coming nearer and nearer, its scream louder and louder. Servius couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move. The shade struck, bursting into him, through him. For a horrible, shocking moment, he felt as if his body had exploded into a million pieces and then become whole again.
Servius could breathe again, he could move. He jerked around, looking for the shade. He couldn’t see it. Where was it? He peered up into the grey sky and saw something dark, distant. It was going away from him, towards the city.
‘Servius,’ Tanaquil cried and touched his hand.
Servius wrenched his eyes to her. She looked as scared as he felt. Beside her, Tarquinia was crying, burying her face in her hands. ‘Did you see it?’ he cried.
Tanaquil nodded, her lips pressed so tightly together they were no more than a thin line.
‘What does it mean?’
‘I don’t know.’ She shuddered, and the movement brought some sense back to her. She looked at the crowd. They had seen it too and there was shouting and screaming and crying. ‘Servius, we must—,’ she swallowed a few times, ‘we must calm the crowd.’
Servius took five deep breaths, feeling light-headed. Pull yourself together, he told himself, act like a king. His legs feeling as if they would collapse under him, Servius manoeu- vred himself to a standing position. Trembling, he held out his arms and shouted for silence. The crowd obeyed. What do I say? he wondered, and looked to Tanaquil for help.
‘Order the guards to kill the others,’ she said. Servius called out to the guards. ‘Continue.’
He saw the guards hesitate a moment, but then they obeyed. One of the guards stabbed the woman in her heart and she crumpled to the ground; the other woman died as swiftly. The guards were keen to make quick work of Aetius and Macarius too. Swords were thrust into their bellies and driven home. Both men fell to their knees as their guts pushed out. The guards raised their swords above their heads, bringing them down upon the exposed necks and severing their spines. The shepherds’ bodies slumped to the ground.
No one cheered. No one clapped. Servius couldn’t bear it any longer. He stumbled down the two steps from his chair and held out his hand to Tanaquil. He felt her fingers clasp him, felt them trembling. He heard Tanaquil call to Tarquinia and heard the rustle of her silk dress as she too got to her feet. Servius was glad when the guards lined up around them, cutting them off from view.
‘Move on,’ he told the guards.
There were those in Rome who hadn’t left the city to watch the executions, those who were perhaps too squeamish or simply uninterested. But some of those people looked up at the sky when it turned dark and wondered at the small black shape that appeared and flew over their heads. Wondering what the thing was, they watched as it headed towards the Capitoline Hill and there lost sight of it.
They could not have known but the shade found the Tarquin domus and passed through its walls. The domus was empty save for a few domestics working in the kitchen and the children in the nursery who had been deemed too young to attend the executions.
The shade sought out the nursery. The nurse left tending the three children was struck immobile by its presence in the small room. Rooted to the spot, she stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the shade settled first on Arruns in the cot, making him wail, then Lucilla on the bed playing with a doll. It made her fling herself face down on the mattress and cry into the blankets. And then it found Lucius, sitting on the floor playing with a set of wooden animals, carved for him by one of the servants. It folded around the small boy like a cloak and Lucius screamed. Then the shade peeled away from him and disappeared through the ceiling.
The noise from the children was overwhelming and it startled the nurse into movement. She went first to little Arruns, picking him up and cradling him to her chest. She moved to Lucilla, pressing her hand against the little girl’s back, begging her to stop crying. The little girl cried all the louder and kicked her legs. The nurse then bent to Lucius, pressing Arruns tighter to her to stop him falling. She begged Lucius to stop screaming, but his eyes were screwed tight and he just kept on. She couldn’t bear it any longer and slapped him hard. Lucius stopped screaming and stared at her, his little body racked by deep gulping breaths.
Terrified, the nurse bundled Lucius to her and called Lucilla over. Feeling alone on her bed, Lucilla obeyed, and the nurse pulled the little girl into the tight circle. That was how Tarquinia found her and the children when she, Tanaquil and Servius arrived home.
‘What does it mean?’ Servius demanded, wrenching off his toga and throwing it on the floor. ‘Tanaquil, what?’
Tanaquil raised the cup of wine to her lips, having to use both hands to keep it steady, and drank, holding the cup out for the servant to refill it. She drank the second cup down. ‘The shepherd’s wife cursed us,’ she said only when she felt the wine warming her blood.
‘I know. But you saw, you saw that thing, everyone saw it. It entered me. I felt it go into me and then—,’ Servius tried to describe how it had felt when the shade had invaded his body. Tanaquil stared at him as he talked. ‘And then it came here. It touched the children. Ye gods, Tanaquil, are we doomed?’
‘We shall counter the curse,’ she said. ‘We must go to the temple and make a sacrifice. There is an ox, I’ve seen it, a large one. We must sacrifice it to Jupiter and have the priests counter the curse.’
‘Will it work?’ Servius asked.
‘How do I know?’ Tanaquil snapped. ‘Poena heard that woman, so we must appease her too. The priests will know what to do. Send to them, tell them we will come when it is dark.’
‘Let’s go now,’ Servius pleaded.
‘No,’ she said. ‘We’ve exposed our fears enough for one day, don’t you think?’
‘You want to cover this up?’ he said, laughing hollowly.
She closed her eyes against his sarcasm. ‘Send to the priests,’ she repeated. ‘The counter-curse will work.’
‘And we will be safe?’ ‘We will be safe.’
‘You can promise that?’
She opened her eyes and stared at him. ‘I promise, my boy. Nothing will happen. The children will not know of this, they will not remember. The people will not talk of it, we will see to that, and it will be forgotten. Just a story, nothing more. Now, go to your wife and put her to bed. She will stay up all night with the children if you let her and that is not good for them. But send to the priests first.’
She watched Servius as he went to his office, calling for his secretary. It was a terrible thing that had happened, but she meant what she had said to Servius. Nothing would hurt her family.
Want to read more? Click below to buy the book.