Camilla watched the wheels of the cart as they rattled over the stones, the oxen straining into a heavy load of stacked, ochre jars. Not much farther and they’d pass through the Servian wall, eight metres high and larger than anything Camilla had ever seen before.
Rome. She’d heard about the capital of the Roman Empire. But seeing it was something else. She tightened her grip on her older sister’s hand.
Livia squeezed back. ‘We made it,’ she whispered.
Camilla shivered. ‘But it’s almost dark.’ The dark terrified her. The dark harboured thieves, wolves and worse. Not that they had anything to steal. The two sisters were penniless. The plague had taken away everyone and everything they’d ever cared about, which was why Livia had insisted they make the dangerous journey in the first place. She lifted a hand to her throat, touched the amulet that hung there. A silver crescent moon. It was her only possession of value, a present from her mother; a lucky charm.
A sudden shout and Camilla leapt back. A covered wagon was clattering past, the horse so close that she felt its breath on her cheek. She glimpsed a flash of saffron yellow, a woman’s arm and the glint of gold.
The coin landed almost in the palm of her hand. Camilla caught it against the side of her leg and closed her fingers into a fist. Dozens more coins and a leather purse hit the cobbles and rolled in a dozen different directions.
The wagon came to a lumbering halt and a sandaled foot appeared. A young man in a rich, linen toga hopped down, his eyes glued to the money, brow creased in an angry frown.
Camilla held her body still, the coin cutting painfully into her palm. It was death to be caught stealing, a tight rope around her throat. Not that it was her fault. She hadn’t meant to catch it. And they did need the money …
A young girl emerged from the wagon and began scooping up coins, her coarse, dark tunic marking her as a slave.
Camilla felt the world close around her. Her face felt hot. Every nerve tingled. She knew she should drop the coin. Let it go. It wasn’t hers.
The concern in Livia’s voice turned her around. ‘We have to go.’ Livia hesitated. ‘Are you alright?’
Camilla didn’t feel alright.
Livia misunderstood her sister’s distress and pulled her close. ‘I know you’re scared, but we’ll be fine. I promise little sister. I’ll take care of you.’
Behind Livia, the young man was yelling at the slave girl and Camilla felt dizzy. Give it back. The voice sounded so real, so like her father that she gasped out loud. ‘Papa?’ she whispered.
Livia shook her by the arm. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘Nothing,’ she lied. She imagined opening her fingers and letting the coin drop. But someone might see. They’d think she’d been trying to steal it.
‘You’re trembling,’ said Livia. She looked afraid. ‘Camilla, please. Talk to me. What’s the matter?’
A small crowd was beginning to gather. There were eyes everywhere. Everyone staring. One of the Vigiles, Rome’s night watchmen, caught Camilla’s gaze. His eyes were black and a short sword hung by his side. Images filled her mind, frightening images of prison cells and worse.
The watchman frowned.
He knows, thought Camilla. Her pulse soared. Her father had always warned her. I know when you’ve done something wrong, Camilla. You can’t hide it. The truth is always in your eyes.
‘We have to go,’ she croaked desperately. ‘Now, Livia. Please.’
Livia looked down at Camilla then at the watchman, and her eyes were finally drawn to Camilla’s tightly closed fist and the faintest glimmer of gold.
‘Dear Mother,’ she whispered. ‘Oh, Camilla. No.’
When Camilla looked up, the watchman was loosening the sword from its sheath. He’d noticed the crowd, heard the young man shouting.
‘Please,’ pleaded Camilla, giving up any thought of handing back the coin. ‘We need to leave.’ Terror was turning her stomach to liquid. She wanted to run. She’d throw the coin in the river. I will. I promise, Father. I won’t keep it.
But Camilla had left it too late. Guards were appearing from all sides, attracted by the disturbance, swords and shields jabbing the crowds aside. Within minutes they had formed a tight ring around the wagon, trapping Livia, Camilla, and the wagon in the centre.
‘I want it found,’ bellowed the young man from the wagon. ‘All of it.’
‘Marcus!’ An elderly woman’s face poked through a curtain draped around the wagon. ‘For the sake of decency, Marcus, leave it be. As if we don’t have enough already.’
Marcus scowled. ‘Gold is valuable, Grandmother.’
One of the watchmen stopped beside Camilla, his sword centimetres from her back. ‘May I help?’ he said.
The elderly lady rolled her eyes. ‘Only if you can persuade my knuckle-brained nephew to get back into the wagon and take me home.’
Some of the guards hid smiles.
Marcus lifted his chin. ‘One of my Grandmother’s gold coins is missing. And I want it found.’
‘Oh for goodness sake,’ cried the old lady, her patience exhausted. ‘Marcus, if you don’t get back into the wagon, I shall disinherit you entirely.’
‘But the coin, Grandmother?’
The old lady tapped the driver to move on and Marcus had no choice but to quickly gather up his robes and clamber back in.
The crowds opened to let the wagon through. The watchman was the last to leave, glaring at the people as they dispersed, clearly disappointed that the excitement was over.
‘Move,’ growled Livia angrily. She pushed Camilla hard in the back. ‘Now.’
But Camilla couldn’t move. Her cheeks were burning with shame and a new fear. A fear of what would happen to her in the afterlife. Stealing wasn’t only an offence against the living, it was an offence against Rome’s God’s and Goddesses. For Camilla it was a real fear, one that twisted her stomach into a knot. When the wagon reached the corner of a main thoroughfare she panicked.
‘No!’ she shouted. ‘Wait!’ Camilla began to run, terrified she’d be too late. As she raced around the corner, grabbing at the side of the wagon, her foot caught on the edge of a stone and she fell flat on her face. Her fist hit the ground first and the gold coin bounced across the cobbles and spun to a stop.
The sharp point of a sword touched the back of her neck as the watchman bent down to snatch it up.
Camilla gasped. ‘I was trying to give it back.’
‘Liar!’ snarled the watchman. He hauled her upright and shook her hard. ‘You’re a lying little thief.’
‘Please,’ pleaded Camilla. ‘I was trying to give it back. I didn’t mean to catch it. I didn’t want to.’ She glimpsed movement. The old lady was slipping down from the wagon. The look on her face made Camilla’s stomach clench.
‘I was trying to give it back,’ she croaked. ‘I swear it. Please.’
The watchman tightened his grip.
‘Stop doing that,’ snapped the old lady. ‘Let the child go. Or has it become the job of the city watch to waste time chasing after children? Because if it has …’ She paused to read the name on the watchman’s shield. ‘… Fabius, I might just need to mention your name to my son.’
The watchman’s face underwent an odd transformation. Fury was replaced by an uncertain smile. ‘But madam,’ he protested, ‘this child is a thief.’
Marcus dropped down beside his grandmother.
‘Only if I say she is,’ snapped the old lady. She turned to Camilla. ‘Come here, child.’
Camilla took two wobbly steps forward.
The old lady glanced at the watchman. ‘Hand her the coin.’
The watchman thrust the coin at Camilla. It was beautiful; bright gold, its edges worn and wrinkled.
The old lady smiled. ‘Take it.’
Camilla shook her head.
‘Trust me,’ said the old lady.
Camilla took the coin, her hands shaking violently.
‘Now give it to me,’ commanded the old lady.
Every muscle in Camilla’s body was trembling as she dropped the gold coin into the old lady’s hand.
The old lady offered the watchman a haughty smile. ‘Satisfied?’
‘But she stole it!’ cried Marcus, his voice ending in a high-pitched squeak.
‘I did not,’ shouted Camilla. ‘I caught it. I didn’t mean to.’ She looked at the old lady. ‘I didn’t know what to do.’
‘So you decided to keep it?’ Marcus let go a sarcastic laugh. ‘How is that not stealing?’
The old lady glared until Marcus shut up. ‘And I saw you catch it.’ She smiled. ‘Why do you think I ordered my silly nephew back into the wagon? I wanted you to keep it.’
Camilla felt the world slide sideways. Her blood was too hot. She could see the old lady speaking but no sound reached her ears. Livia’s face was blurry. The world closed in and everything began to fade.
It was many minutes before she finally awoke. Livia was clutching her hand and the sky appeared to be moving. A cup was pressed to her lips and she tasted water.
‘How do you feel child?’
Camilla jerked upright.
The old lady placed a hand on her chest, lowering her gently back down into soft cushions. ‘Hush. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
To Camilla, the words didn’t make sense.
‘Your sister has been telling me all about your long journey,’ continued the old lady, ‘and it just so happens that I need a new cook.’ She glanced at Livia. ‘So if it’s alright with you, I’m taking you both back to my home.’
Livia squeezed Camilla’s hand.
The old lady smiled. ‘And I could always do with a strong-willed, honest young lady to help around the house.’
Camilla couldn’t quite believe it. She closed her fingers around the silver crescent at her throat. The amulet felt real, familiar. ‘You want to help us?’ she said.
‘How about we help each other?’
After so many months of uncertainty and fear, it all seemed too good to be true and Camilla hesitated.
‘It’s alright,’ soothed the old lady. ‘No need to decide now. Rest child. We’ll talk later.’
Camilla slipped the amulet beneath her tunic and lay back into the cushions. As they swayed gently through the streets, she glanced at the old lady. Her eyes were kind, she decided. And there was a gentle humour in her face, in the smile lines around her eyes. Very gradually, anxiety unfolded into a fragile hope and Camilla finally realised that everything was going to be alright.
Stop Thief! was first published (as Second Chances) in Touchdown, July 2018.