When his vision returned, Crispus was sprawled on the ground, surrounded by his men. The signum lay beside him. Two soldiers helped him to his feet as someone asked if he felt unwell.
“Here, sir. The signum. You dropped it,” a soldier said.
Crispus shook his head, backing away. He turned to his second, the one ready to carry on if he fell.
“You carry it. The gods have given me a vision. There is something else I must do.”
Ignoring their questions, Crispus pushed through the ranks to find Valens. The battle had yet to start, but the barbarians hollered nearby, taunting the Romans. He could see the centurion hadn’t issued the command to attack, and Crispus wasted no time finding Valens.
“Why are you here?” Valens asked.
“We must flee!” Crispus whispered urgently.
“Where’s the signum? Who leads the charge?”
“Forget that! Did you hear me? We have to run!”
“What? Why? What are you saying?”
A few velites shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond to Valens arguing with an officer. Crispus hoped he had kept his voice low enough to prevent eavesdropping. If not, he knew it would only be a matter of time before someone tried to detain him.
“Venus, your patroness, Valens, has warned me not to fight.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Do you love me?”
“Crispus. Now’s not the time.”
“Now is always the time because it’s impossible to know when you’ll be out of time.”
“Are you testing me? You think I’m too scared to fight?”
Shaking his head, Crispus moved closer.
“I should have said this sooner, but pride prevented me. I love you, Valens.”
Valens smiled cautiously, happy to hear Crispus’s words but unsure of what to make of his lover’s behavior.
“I love you.”
“We have to go.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“I refuse to lose you again.”
“Yes. Now, let’s go.”
“Ok, but I think it best to take you to the healers first.”
Crispus surprised Valens with a passionate kiss.
“No healers. Follow my lead. No one should challenge my rank with the centurion occupied. I’ll explain everything when we’re alone.”
“But, the battle?”
Realizing Valens didn’t believe anything he had said, Crispus started to panic.
Venus, how can I convince him?
Crispus laughed, recognizing the irony in his question. But the revelation gave him an idea. He knelt down and bowed his head.
“What are you doing?” Valens asked.
“Come on, I really think you should see the healers.”
Crispus didn’t move, silently waiting. His response came quickly in the form of a dove bearing a sprig of myrtle in its beak. Valens gasped, seeing the bird alight on Crispus’s shoulder.
“Do you believe me, now?” Crispus asked.
“Yes…but why Venus favors you eludes me.”
“I needed to learn a lesson.”
“Desertion is a serious offense, Crispus.”
“Of that, I am well aware.”
“It’s not honorable.”
“What? Sacrificing yourself to save others? Keeping your promise?”
“No one will believe you.”
“Is honor dependent on fame and praise?”
“No. Such things can cheapen it. Replacing honor with hubris.”
“It’s now or never, Valens.”
“They could execute us.”
“Then we’ll die together.”
“Lead on. I’ll follow.”
Crispus pulled himself straight and barked a few orders causing Valens’s squad to snap to attention.
“I’ve had enough of your insolence, soldier!” Crispus shouted, pointing at Valens. “You think you’re special?”
“Ah…no, sir,” Valens said, genuinely caught off guard.
“Disgrace! You should be in chains for your cowardice! That’s it! You’re coming with me!”
Crispus ripped the wolf pelt off Valens’s head.
“Drop your shield, soldier.”
Valens didn’t need to act because Crispus’s demeanor truthfully spooked him. Valens’s squad watched in shock as he tossed his weapons to the ground before Crispus roughly seized him to escort him away.
“What are you looking at? Can’t you see a battle’s brewing?”
“Yes, sir!” the squad said in unison.
“Eyes forward, soldiers! You’re about to get a first crack at the enemy! Miss that signal, and you’ll have more to deal with than me!”
When the centurion finally signaled the velites to advance, Crispus and Valens ran the other way.
The Romans routed the barbarians, securing the bridge without Crispus, and his absence didn’t go unnoticed.
After receiving troubling reports, the centurion ordered a manhunt.
It didn’t take long to uncover discarded garments and gear bearing the signifer’s insignia and a ridiculous account of men transformed into doves.