9th of June, 529 A.D.
Via Flaminia, Ariminum, 3 Days North of Rome
The soldier tapped his boot against the road and glared at Cybele. "I said, get off your wagon. Are you deaf, man?"
Diana watched the other soldier walk towards the back of the cart, following him in her periphery until he disappeared. Her mouth dry, she swallowed, waiting for him to reappear. Cybele reached into her bag. Diana knew what she was after. Lunacy! Even she had to recognize that this desperate attack would not only be useless but would end their lives. Cybele turned toward the impatient soldier. Diana held her breath. The soldier's heavy boot steps behind her grew louder. She gripped her spear. They were about to die anyway. She'd stick this one in his eye while Cybele would surprise the other with a slash to his throat. Diana placed her hand on Cybele's knee. They nodded to each other. As she pressed the balls of her feet on the floorboard, ready to lunge, a man crouching on his horse sped past the roadblock.
"After him," yelled one of the soldiers.
The soldiers ran to their horses and mounted them.
Their horses' hooves pounded the pavers, hot in pursuit of the man who had flaunted their checkpoint. The three vanished into a plume of dust. The soldiers were gone, for the moment. Diana shivered. Fear gripped her chest. She struggled for breath. They had come within seconds of their arrest, and surely of their execution.
"Yi," Cybele yelled as she cracked the horses into a gallop. She steered the wagon off the road. They bounced in their seats as the wheels crashed over rocks and tree roots.
A branch slapped Diana's cheek. She whipped her hand to her face. The welt grew beneath her fingers, its heat piercing her face and radiating to her earlobe. Then the sting hit her. Tears poked at her eyes. Diana balled her hand into a fist, willing the pain away. But she wouldn't cry because after all the twisted and horrific events that had happened since she fled her home, this was nothing more than a tree branch.
Cybele rocked backwards, yanking the reins to her chest. The horses skidded to a stop. The cart lurched and then jerked to a halt. Pots and pans clanked. They looked at each other. Diana glanced at Cybele, who was bent over and breathless in Aurelius's dirty tunic. Despite a wash in the river, its cloth still bore the wrinkles of a dead, smelly man. Cybele reached her trembling hand to Diana's face in a gesture of fear and compassion. Traits Diana thought she'd never see in Cybele.
"Your cheek! It bleeds," Cybele blurted.
Diana pulled away from Cybele, stunned at her reflex, but then leaned into her touch.
She stroked the back of Cybele's hand. "It will heal. Let us sit and have the fish before it spoils."
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