Rome, 31 A.D.
Tuccia pulled her veil firmly around her head. She didn’t want to attract any more attention than necessary. She prayed for the respect of the citizens as she descended the steep steps of the Atrium Vestiae.
At the edge of the square she strained to see through the crowd of onlookers. Their attention was focused on the column of condemned, meaning for the moment she stayed unnoticed. The parade of tragic souls moved slowly past, harassed and beaten by the ruthless Praetorian Guards. One by one Tuccia studied the manacled prisoners, hoping beyond hope her information was wrong.
She gasped when she saw that it was not. In the middle of the thirty men, she recognised Gallius, her childhood friend. It was obvious he had been treated as poorly as the others, his blonde curls and body caked in blood. The crowd remained eerily silent. None wanted to incur the displeasure of the guards. Established by Augustus, they once symbolised the strength and mercy of the emperor. But under the rule of Tiberius, they had become much feared. Led by the cruel Sejanus, the guards had become manipulators of the city, the state, and therefore the empire itself. A network of spies and informants fuelled their zealous drive. Few were safe from their growing dark reach. On their authority alone, without trial or even discussion, nearly anyone could be marched away to their death. While Tiberius led a life of debauchery in Capri, he grew steadily more ignorant of their activities.
The prisoners were minutes away from the end of their lives. Sweet Gallius, the only pure hearted man she had ever met, was going to die. For nothing. The time had come for Tuccia to act. She wormed her way through the crowd.
A gap presented itself when two guards focused their attention on a stumbling man. Within earshot, Tuccia called her friends name.
Gallius reacted to her familiar voice, but did not look at her. Brave, noble Gallius. Despite her position, despite his fate, he would not risk endangering her. He only had to look upon her to be free.
He would not.
She had no choice. Rushing forward, she threw her arms around him.
“No Tuccia!” he pleaded.
A blow from the hilt of a sword knocked her to the ground. As she fell her cloak parted enough for the guard to see the red and white bands of the goddess. Shamefaced, he ushered her to her feet. The line of condemned men halted as other guards came to the scene.
Regaining her composure, she addressed the forlorn soldier who had struck her.
“I have touched this man. He is pardoned.”
He, and the other guards who had gathered, bowed their heads in respect. This law was beyond all statutes and arguments. Her order predated the Praetorian Guard by seven centuries.
Gallius held his place, his shock visible. The nearest guard produced a ring of keys, stepping forward to free the man.
“Wait!” came a booming command from the rear of the column.
Tuccia felt a cool shiver as she recognised the voice.
The voice of Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Personally responsible for twelve thousand elite soldiers. The man whose power exceeded even the emperor himself. Why was he here today?
His troops parted like obedient children as he strode toward her. His deep bronze shield, breastplate and helmet contrasted with his cold pale complexion. In his hand, a silver lance with an intricately decorated grip. He fixed her in his proud amber gaze.
She stank of the goddess.
“Who are you, bitch?” he demanded.
“My lord,” began the guard who had knocked her down.
Like a striking snake, Sejanus spun the deadly lance in an arc. As he did, the tapering end flared into a narrow blade. Tuccia saw this clearly although it moved at such incredible speed. With a whoosh it was back at the side of Sejanus. The soldier’s severed head slid noiselessly down the angle of the cut. Like an overripe tomato it splotched to the ground.
“I was talking to her” he continued, casually kicking the severed head into the throng.
Tuccia stepped next to Gallius. She loosened her veil to reveal more of her face.
“I am a Virgin of Vestia” she announced boldly but not loudly. “And by my touch I free this man of all false charges against him.”
Sejanus looked over her with obvious contempt.
“The only falsehood before me is that of your chastity” he sneered.
Her mouth fell open in disbelief.
“The pontifex maximus will confirm it” she stammered.
He spat on the ground at her feet. He strode to her, tearing away her veil to reveal her shorn hair. Then her cloak, uncovering the palla pinned over her left shoulder. Roughly he tore away this shawl of dignity, leaving her bare breasted in the centre of all. The red and white ribbons of Vestia fluttered around her. She made no effort to cover herself.
“I see the Virgin!” shouted one of the prisoners. Like wild fire, the cry spread amongst the condemned. They all knew that even the sight of a maiden from the temple, while en route to execution, meant their freedom. Their voices grew in number and volume along the line.
“Silence!” bellowed Sejanus. “I see only a whore. For who but a fornicator would throw themselves upon this pig.”
He turned with malice to the shocked Tuccia.
“I offer you the chance to prove yourself. A challenge. For is it not true that your goddess empowers you?” Her knees trembled, threatening to give way, but she held her ground and his terrible gaze.
“My goddess walks with me always” she said bravely.
“Good” He took a metal pot from the kit of one of his men. “Then this will be simple for you. You will take this to the Tiber. Fill it with water and return it to me. If it is still full when you get here, I will release every prisoner. If it is not, you will take loaf and wine to Campus Scelerus. Do you agree?”
“I agree” replied a defiant Tucci quickly. The prefect of the city had given her an easy task, apparently upon realising the impropriety of his actions. She was proud to have stood firm against this arrogant bully. The threat of Campus Scelerus, the evil field, was empty. She would not be joining the skeletons in the underground chamber of death. The food and drink were traditionally provided so that the victim was not killed, which was sacrilege, but rather died “by their own choice.”
He stood, holding it aloft so all could see. He turned slowly, scanning the sea of faces for the real target of his actions. She was here somewhere. He smelled her.
“The Virgin of Vestia has agreed to the challenge. Her word is binding. If she fails in this task, she is deemed unsuitable to maintain the flame. She will end her days in Scelerus.”
Sejanus dropped to his haunches. He pulled a jewelled dagger from his belt. Aggressively, he punctured the inverted pot with numerous holes, turning it into a sieve.
He threw it to her. She was too stunned to catch it and it clattered noisily to the ground.
“I will wait on the steps of your temple” he laughed. He walked away, resheathing his knife.
“Wait!” she called to him. Sejanus spun on his heels.
“You have changed the conditions of the trial. I demand the same right.”
His chest heaved in anger and his hand instinctively went to his sword. Still she would not cower beneath his cruel eyes, as so many had before. He cursed the obvious influence of the goddess.
Tuccia had pulled her garments around her and held the battered pot in one hand.
“I will bring you your water, but surely the Tiber is too far away. On such a warm day, you must be very thirsty. The fountain of our temple is just over there. You can watch me, to ensure there is no trickery. For surely water is water my lord. And this business can be ended much sooner.”
His fingers played eagerly upon the hilt of his lance. How easy it would be. But the hundreds gathered round would not tolerate the murder of a Vestal Virgin under any condition. His gold eyes flittered amongst them. Where are you?
He bowed with exaggerated grace to accept her condition. He still held the upper hand.
Tuccia turned to the people. This time she held the pot aloft. She raised her proud voice to the masses.
“The Prefect of Rome has given his word. It is as binding as my own.”
Sejanus bristled at her mockery.
The crowd parted to form a corridor from the steps to the fountain. She walked purposefully over and knelt before it.
She was no fool. The task was impossible. Her training had given her courage and conviction. But not the ability to perform miracles.
Trembling, Tuccia dipped the bowl beneath the surface, reluctant to raise it.
Her genuine devotion to Vestia had brought out her brave demand to draw water from the temple fountain. She had known nothing else since the age of eight.
Now, twenty years on, she would have her faith tested at the risk of forfeiting her life. She prayed it would be enough.
Her goddess answered.
On the temple steps, Sejanus tensed as he felt the influence of his sister.
Tuccia felt another pair of hands cup her own, giving her strength.
She raised the pot, trickles of water dripping off the outside. She watched the surface, for surely it must drop.
It did not. None escaped from the holes Sejanus had made.
She carefully got to her feet and carried it back to him.
He did not look in the least surprised.
Tuccia gently dropped to one knee and offered him the pot.
He smashed it away with the back of his hand.
He stepped past her, calling his troops to follow.
The prisoners were left, dazed in the middle of the square. Families and friends rushed to their loved ones, weeping with joy.
Some remained around the figure of Tuccia. She had fallen onto the steps and lay without movement. They longed to help her but none could touch one such as her. Several called to the temple for help. Finally two other maidens of Vestia came down to aid their fallen sister.
Within days, Sejanus’ reign of terror had ended. Statues of him were torn down. Any mention of him removed from public records. His broken body was left, ironically on steps. The Germoin Stairs. He had been strangled. A crowd descended upon the body, tearing it to pieces.
In their rage, few noticed the fierce amber of his eyes gone. In their place, the kind blue ones he was born with.
As though his spirit had flown, leaving only the shell of his battered corpse.
from the novel “Last Goddess”