An icy wind blew open the flap of Titus Labienus’s tent, chilling him to the bone. The armoured pleats of his skirt clinked as he paced back and forth. It was an hour since he had returned from chasing Gallic raiders. He could have been out of his armour by now, eating, drinking, and ignoring the snow blasting down from the Alps. But he had a decision to make and his mind would not rest until it was done.
The tent flap stirred again. Cnaeus, the commander of the cavalry, stepped inside and saluted. He too still wore the mud, blood, and armour of their expedition.
“Governor Labienus,” Cnaeus said, his expression stern. “A messenger has arrived from Gaul.”
At last, the tension holding Titus gave way. He sank into his wooden camping seat. If this news was what he expected, what Cnaeus’s face seemed to foretell, then there was no more putting off the decision.
“Go on,” he said with a sigh.
“It is war,” Cnaeus said. “Caesar is marching on Rome to crush Pompey. He reminds you of the great things you achieved together, and of his gift to you of this governorship. He asks that you join his army.”
Even over the sound of the wind, Titus could hear voices rising as the news spread through the camp. Some men would be thinking excitedly of the spoils to be taken in another war, others about the dark deed that was Roman fighting Roman.
“Whatever I do, I lose,” Titus said, the pain of the decision squeezing his head as if between two boulders. “I owe my position to Caesar. We have worked together so well for so many years. Yet my whole career comes from the start that Pompey granted me. Whatever I do, I am a traitor.”
“You must speak to the men soon,” Cnaeus said softly. “The longer the decision is put off-”
“I know, I know.” Titus waved a hand irritably. “You think this is easy for me?”
“You think it is easy for any of us?” Cnaeus snapped. A look of horror crossed his face as he realised the line he had crossed. “I am sorry, governor, allow me to-”
“You are right.” Titus rose and placed a hand on Cnaeus’s shoulder. “I must tell the troops my decision.”
“What decision is that?” Cnaeus asked.
“Caesar is a lawbreaker,” Titus said. “Pompey is defending the senate and constitution of Rome. We must uphold the law.”
Even riding a horse, the march down through Italy was an exhausting one. There could be no delays. They had to reach Pompey before Caesar reached them.
Weary as he was, Titus woke before dawn. His mind was too troubled for rest. Emerging from his tent, he looked around the camp. The neat rows of tents. The ditches and palisades the legionaries had assembled. Every night they made camp with the same discipline they always had. And yet…
Cnaeus walked up the main path through the camp. His expression was grim and there were dark circles beneath his eyes.
“Three more fights last night,” he said quietly. “Two men dead. We cannot contain the discontent much longer. These men would follow you into the underworld, but…”
“But many of them will not follow me against Caesar,” Titus said. “Against the hero who brought us fame and glory. Against the man who shared his spoils with the people of Rome.
“Have I done the right thing, Cnaeus? Or do I head obstinately down a path that hands Rome to weak and corrupt men?”
He looked around. He was not the only one who had not slept well. Men were emerging from their tents, armed and armoured. Groups eyed each other warily. Was this how he would fight the civil war, in his own camp?
A cry went up from the gate.
The vehicle trundled through a gap in the palisade, bouncing as its wheels crossed the uneven ground. Two legionaries sat on it – one driving, the other wrapped in a blanket and barely awake.
The driver pulled on the reins, bringing the wagon to a halt in front of Titus.
“Governor Labienus,” he said, saluting. “Gaius Julius Caesar sends greetings and gratitude for your service. He honours you and the hard choice you have made. He sends us to deliver your baggage, left behind in the hasty march to war.”
He pulled back the sheet on top of the wagon, revealing possessions Titus had thought lost to him forever. Who would have thought that a camp bed could bring such relief?
“Cnaeus, fetch these men horses,” he said, then addressed the driver. “Take my greetings and gratitude back to Caesar. I honour the choice he has made, but it cannot be my own. A good man can make a bad choice, and I believe Caesar does so. But any man in my camp is welcome to leave and join him, if he believes me wrong.”
His voice stayed steady even as tears ran down his face. Soon he would face his friend in battle. Only one of them would live. This was what made the choice so hard, any doubt so unbearable. But a choice had to be made.
A short time later, two riders left the camp. Barely any men followed them.
* * *
Unusually, I’ve used a real historical figure as my central character this week. Titus Labienus was one of Julius Caesar’s key lieutenants in Gaul but sided with Pompey in the civil war. Caesar really did send his baggage on after him when he defected.
If you enjoyed this then you can read more historical fiction from me in From a Foreign Shore, available now on Kindle.