“A Powerful Force”
Until now, Crispus had ignored the peculiar mists obscuring the river and fields beyond. Suddenly hearing his name again surprised him, drawing his attention to the bridge.
“Someone does still live,” Crispus said.
“Do you know who it is?” the god asked.
“How could I? I don’t recall these mists. Are they your creation?”
Crispus cupped his hands about his mouth and shouted.
“Ah, you do know who it is.”
“No, you’ve made me your puppet, and I’m tired of this game. Reveal the meaning of this word I utter; if not, just kill me. I don’t care anymore.”
Crispus paused to listen as the shouting grew louder.
“How do I know this isn’t another of your tricks?” Crispus asked.
“The man speaks your name, does he not? Surely, he knows you.” the god said.
“I’m the signifer, third in command. Every soldier in my century knows my name! My task is to lead the way. This man’s confused, seeking the signum for guidance. Your chains prevent that!”
“Then you recognize the voice?”
“A hundred men serve beneath me. How could I possibly know who it is?”
“I’ve heard mortals form strong bonds fighting together.”
“I’d know the centurion’s voice and recognize some veterans, but the others…probably not. Besides, all men sound the same on the battlefield.”
“Surely there must be someone precious to you?”
The response felt wrong to Crispus.
“Wait. Maybe…I can’t remember.”
This realization troubled Crispus more.
“I know who calls you,” the god said.
“Then why are you asking me for his name?”
“You fascinate me, mortal. Answer this question truthfully, and I’ll release you.”
“I am no coward, no panderer of lies. Honor demands the truth. Ask me what you will.”
“Name what your heart holds most dear.”
Crispus wished he knew the god’s name; it might be easier to find the correct answer.
“You promise to free me?”
“You have my word.”
Crispus suspected nothing kept a god from breaking an oath, but he felt compelled to play along.
“Then I shall tell you.”
“But, before you answer, be sure to leave no door unopened within your heart, for I see a truth you hide from even yourself.”
“I know myself,” Crispus grumbled.
“Rome. I live and breathe to safeguard her.”
The god shook his head.
“Honor then. A good death won with bravery.”
“I am my own man! Even the gods don’t see all! I speak the truth.”
“You do not.”
Crispus howled, yanking the chain, desperate to be free.
“My men! I’ve lost countless soldiers, many dear to me! I’ve since hardened my heart, hoping never to feel such a loss again.”
The god shook his head and began to fade away.
“Prepare yourself, Crispus, to behold the greatest power in the world.”
“Don’t leave me!”
A sudden commotion pulled Crispus’s attention back to the bridge. The lost soldier remained shrouded in the mist, but Crispus could hear the man’s desperate plight. He didn’t know what danger the man faced but felt certain a fierce passion compelled the soldier to confront his terror, enabling him to hold his ground. Crispus’s heart skipped, realizing the stranger fought to rescue him. Shame and anger gripped him as he wracked his brain, desperate to identify the man. A bizarre thought came suddenly to him.
That word! Could it be this soldier’s name? What was it? Valens? Yes, Valens!
“Valens! Follow my voice. Your signifer calls!”
Crispus waited, watching the bridge intently until he saw a host of shadowy figures materialize in the mist.
“Valens! Bravery brought you this far! Mars surely favors you! Your foes are but shadows! Strike, and they will flee before you!”
With a shout, the soldier burst free from the mists, and Crispus hollered, fists in the air in triumph.
“Here! Here! To me!” Crispus cried.
The man ran toward Crispus, slowed, then stopped, clearly confused. Crispus remembered seeing the soldier in the past but nothing else.
“Friend! Here! I’m here! A mighty chain binds me! Here!”
As the soldier silently approached, Crispus felt confident he knew the man, but the memory remained out of reach.
“I don’t understand. I feel nothing. Everything is blank. I was sure if I could only cross the bridge…find…someone I love? I’ve forgotten everything.”
The soldier’s legs crumpled beneath him as he fell to the ground.
“What’s your name?” Crispus asked.
“I don’t remember anymore.”
“Is it Valens?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know me?”
The man looked up, and Crispus’s heart leaped as their eyes met.
“No. Maybe? No, I don’t think so. Crossing the bridge was supposed to fix things.”
“I think I remember you. We were friends…close friends.”
“What’s your name?”
The soldier repeated the name slowly, testing its familiarity before shaking his head.
“Are you Valens?”
The man absent-mindedly toyed with a medallion dangling from a chain about his neck as he pondered Crispus’s question.
“I don’t know.”
Crispus knelt, holding his palm out.
“Can I see that?”
“I’ve seen this before. Who is it?”
Something clicked in his mind, and Crispus began to remember.
You are Valens. You’re the answer to the god’s question.”
“A question? From which god?”
“Valens, it’s me, Crispus. Try to remember. You and me…we…you love me…and… I love you. It’s you I hold most dear. I’m sorry I couldn’t admit that. I had lost someone. I promised myself never again. Oh, it doesn’t matter. You just need to remember. Try to remember.”
A wind picked up, chasing the mists away, and Crispus sensed the presence of another behind him. He turned expecting to see Eros, but instead, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen approached.
Crispus bowed his head in reverence.
“Your chain is broken. You are free.” Venus said.
“My lady, forgive me. In my quest to honor Mars, I have insulted you.”
“Love is exceedingly powerful. Observe how Valens throws everything away to keep it. Even the gods fail to resist. Your scorn of love has put you in great peril, mortal. But your lover’s faith has saved you. Go before I have a change of heart.
“What of Valens?”
“A worthy devotee, Valens has proven to be. Immortality shall be his reward abiding with me.”
“No?” Venus laughed.
“Please. Restore him. I beg you. I love him.”
“Do not sully the word, love! You know nothing of love, warrior. You may be free of my chain, but your heart remains bound to another, and Mars does not take kindly to meddling.”
“Surely, you of all the gods know how to change his mind? Please. I will do anything. A mortal life devoid of love is meaningless. I see that now.”
“But, what of honor and glory? Would you malign your own name to be with Valens?”
“Your test has changed me. I swear an oath to put love first. I’ll endure any hardship, any humiliation if I can spend my days with Valens.”
“Renounce war with its violence and death. Vow never to strike another mortal ever again.”
“You will be called a coward.”
“I do not care. Return Valens to me. Please.”
Venus smiled as her laughter filled the air. Crispus’s vision clouded, and he felt himself falling.