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THE SINGING SWORD
A BROKEN SHUTTER banged somewhere. I could hear it clearly over the howling wind and the hissing roar of the driven rain. It was almost dark. I could barely make out the shapes of the two men flattened against the wall on either side of the door of the one-room stone hut across the narrow street from me. To my left, two more men flanked the door of the hut I was leaning against, and there were twelve more men similarly placed at the other six buildings that lined the narrow street. My reserve of thirty-four men was split into two groups, one at either end of the village.
At forty-eight, I was far too old for this kind of nonsense.
I stood with my shoulders pressed against the wall, my sodden tunic clammy cold against my back. I raised my hand in a useless attempt to clear streaming rain-water from my eyes, and my waterlogged cape was a dead weight dragging at my arm. I cursed quietly.
A dim yellow glow appeared as somebody lit a lamp in the hut across the way, and then a quavering, moaning scream rose above the wind. I gave the signalone blast on my hornand my men went in, bursting through the doors, their swords and daggers drawn. House-cleaning can be brutal, dirty work.
I looked down at the dead man at my feet. The rain had washed most of the blood away, but he still looked dreadful. I guessed an axe had killed him. His open eyes were glazed in the fading light.
One of my men reappeared, silhouetted against the light in the doorway opposite me, wiping his sword on a rag. He leaned out into the street, and though I heard nothing, I saw him tense and open his mouth in a shout. Then he was running up the narrow street. I cursed my age and my bad leg and thrust myself away from the wall, forcing myself into a lumbering run, only now aware of the fight going on in the street about thirty paces from me. The weight of my cloak was awful. I fumbled at the clasp and felt the burden fall away, and then I was in the middle of the fight.
I remember little of the tussle itself, but with me, that is a far from unusual state of affairs. Images are all that remain in my memory: a bare neck with a prominent Adam's apple, and then blood spouting as I jerk my sword point out of itno memory of the stab; the feeling of a living body under my feet and then my braced arm, up to the wrist in mud because my crippled leg has let me down again and I've fallen; the crotch of a man whose sheepskin-wrapped legs are criss-crossed with cloth bindings, and my blade again, taking away his manhood; and a face, wide-mouthed and staring-eyed,and hands with no strength clutching at my sword, trying to pull it out of their owner's breast. All this I recall in silence. There is no noise, no screamingno sound of any kind.
When it was over, I was badly winded, puffing for breath like an old man. I leaned over, hands on my knees, and hung my head, sobbing to clear my chest.
"Commander Varrus? Are you all right?"
I knew the voice; it belonged to young Kyril, one of my lieutenants. I nodded my head as clearly as I could in that position and he left me, moving on to check the others. Gradually I became aware of my hands, gripping my knees. Neither held a weapon. I had no sword, and no memory of dropping it. I blinked my eyes clear of rainwater and saw, by the darkness of blood on my right wrist and hand, that I was wounded. I straightened up, feeling no pain, and touched my right hand with my left. My hand responded, but strangely. My whole arm felt numb. I moved my left hand up along my arm, and I felt the cutjust above the elbow, and bleeding fast. My stomach lurched and I pukedmy normal reaction after a battle, and one that usually left me feeling better. But this time, as I straightened up from retching, it seemed to me I saw a light, somewhere ahead of me, spinning in the strangest fashion and coming towards me at a roaring speed. And that was all I saw.
They picked me up out of the mud in the roadway and carried me to one of the huts, and I was out of my mind for more than a week.
My wound, on its own, was not too serious, although there is no such thing as a dismissible battle wound. Some whoreson had swiped me with an axe that had no edge. The weight alone had dug what little edge the thing had into the flesh and had broken my upper arm in what the medics call a twig-fracture. At my age, it's a wonder the whole bone didn't shatter. At least, that's what I thought then. Now I know that I was only mellowing into my prime in those days. But I bled a lot, they told me later: a sullen, angry bleeding that worried them because it would not stop. And on top of that, I'd caught pneumonia from the soaking. For a while my men thought they were going to lose me.
I still remember the corpse that lay at my feet that night. If the axe that hit me had been as sharp as the one that hit him, I would not be telling this story today. Of course, much of the story would not have happened.
My name is Gaius Publius Varrus, and I am an ironsmith and a weapons-maker. I was born and raised in Colchester, in East Britain close to Londinium, the imperial administrative centre of the Province of Britain, and it was to Colchester I returned to reopen my grandfather's smithy after I was crippled in an ambush during the Invasion of 367 and invalided out of the legions.
During my years as a soldier, I had met Caius Britannicus, a wealthy nobleman, a patrician Roman of ancient lineage. He first came into my life as a young tribune who saved my skin, then later as a Commanding Officer whose life I saved, and he finally ended up as a Roman senator, a proconsulof Rome and my brother-in-law and dearest friend. My friendship with Britannicus, however, had made his enemies my enemies, particularly one family, the wealthy and powerful imperial bankers, the Senecas, who had feuded bloodily and bitterly with the Britannicus family for generations.
That adopted enmity brought me to violent, personal confrontation with Claudius, the youngest of the six Seneca brothers. We fought, and I scarred him for life. After that, I had to remove myself and my affairs permanentlyand hurriedlyout of the way of Claudius Seneca's wrath. I travelled west to the rich farmlands below the spa town of Aquae Sulis to live at Caius's villa.
On my arrival there, my whole life changed. I met and married Luceiia Britannicus, and she showed me where to find something I had been dreaming about for most of my life: a stone made of extraordinary metal, which I called the skystone. I smelted the stone and, from the metal it contained, sculpted a crude statue of Coventina, the Celtic goddess of water, to commemorate the struggle I had had to salvage the stone from the bottom of a lake. I called it my Lady of the Lake. My main intent was to preserve the metal in dignity, rather than leave it to rust as a plain, raw ingot until I should find a purpose for it. Someday, I knew, I would make a sword from that same metal, but I wasn't ready yet.
Someday, too, we would have need of that swordand hundreds like it, if Caius's ideas about the disintegration of the Empire ever came to pass. He believed the Empire was dying rapidly. He was convinced that someday soonin the foreseeable futurethe legions would be withdrawn from Britain to defend the Motherland against invasion. When that happened, we, the people of Britain, would be left alone and defenseless, with nothing to rely on but our own strengths.
I remember that when I first heard Caius voice this idea, it struck me as being too ludicrous for words. The single greatest truth in the world was that Rome was eternal! It could never fall. But as the years went by, the signs Caius had warned of, every one of them, began to come thick and fast, so that I finally came to believe that the Empire, like the fabric of most things ancient, was grown thin and rotten.
Armed thereafter with the zeal of all new converts, I threw myself wholeheartedly into Caius's plans to fortify and defend the beautiful villa properties on which he and his friends lived. I worked as hard as any man, and harder than most, to hasten the building of a stone-walled fort on top of the ancient Celtic hill fort behind the Villa Britannicus and to make weapons and armour for the young men, the trainee soldiers of our private little Colony.
We knew from the outset, of course, that everything we were doing was illegal. It was treasonous to build a private fortress and to train a private army, and discovery of what we were about could bring death and ruin on all of us, women and children included. In all things military, and in all aspects of life governing the provisioning of soldiers to protect and serve the rule of law and the established order, every able-bodied man and boy withinthe Empire owed his primary, dedicated allegiance to the Emperor alone. The Emperor's will and rights were paramount. No private citizen could withhold his services from the legions, nor could any man or any group, no matter how endowed with wealth or station, maintain a private, armed force within the Empire's bounds. We knew all that, and we ignored it, for we knew also that the Empire was dying, and we knew the Emperor was not one man but three, and sometimes four. Most of all, however, we knew our lives, our own survival as a people, depended on our preparations for the chaos that would come. And so we toiled to build our fortress, and we trained and armed our men.
It was the search for iron for new weapons that had led us out of the Colony, and into the confrontation in which I was wounded.
I opened my eyes eventually in a small, smelly hut and realized that for some time I had been hearing a skylark singing, although I had not been listening to it. I lay there on my back for a few heartbeats, feeling bleary-eyed and itchy; my whole body itched, including my face. I raised my hand to scratch my chin and passed out from the pain.
I could not have been unconscious for more than a few moments. The bird was still singing when I opened my eyes again, the room was unchanged. I still itched, and my arm was on fire. God, it hurt!
I tried to remember what had happened on that dismal wintry day.
We had been up and on the road in driving rain well before dawn. It had rained all night long and the dawn took a long time to arrive through the slate-grey skies. We had eaten a breakfast of dried meat, dried corn and dried peas on the move, hunched and miserable under the lashing downpour.
I was riding my grey stallion, Germanicus, named after an ancestral cousin of Caius Britannicus. I had chosen the name deliberately, pointing out to Caius that if he could ride my back mercilessly and whip me into carrying out his every whim, then I would do the like to his cousin. Six of my men were mounted, too; their job was to herd the horses we had collected on our journey. The remainder marched like the infantry they were, slogging through puddles with long-suffering sighs and muttered curses. We had six four-wheeled wagons in our train, three loaded with iron ingots from the Weald, two filled with salt boiled from the sea and compressed into blocks, and one commissary wagon.
We were far from home, and had been on the road for four weeks. We had left our Colony, close by the Mendip Hills, and headed east until we hit the road running north to Aquae Sulis. From that point on we had travelled all the way to our present location on the solid, paved roads built by Caesar's legions. Twelve miles south of Aquae Sulis, we had swung around to the south-east again and passed through Sorviodunum and Venta Belgarum, stopping outside both towns without entering. From Venta we swung directly south to Noviomagus, taking less than two days to make this last leg of our outward journey.
Our passage attracted much attention. This was the first time that we had come this way, and most of the people we met on the road took us for regular troops. One night long ago, by a fire at Stonehenge, Caius Britannicus had said that he might change the colour of our uniforms. He had said it in jest, but the Celts who were his audience did not know that. They believed him, and their king, Ullic, in particular, became serious about it and gave us his regal permission, no less, to use the red dye that was reserved for his use alone among his people. It had become a matter of diplomacy to humour him, and now the soldiers of our colony wore a royal red that troubled me by its resemblance to the crimson of the Imperial Household Troops. A few of the people we encountered on that trip knew better, of course, and that caused me great concern. But we experienced no trouble along the way. Who would start trouble with a hundred well-armed, disciplined men?
We had arranged to meet a merchant called Statius in Noviomagus. This fellow had made a name for himself by living up to his own boast that he could supply anything to anyone at any time in any place, if the price was right. We had contacted him through Bishop Alaric and agreed to pay him in gold for all the iron ingots he could supply by mid-Novemberone gold aurus for every hundred pounds of ingot iron he could supply, if he delivered it to Noviomagus. This was more than twenty times the going rate. In his eyes, it was the deal of a lifetime. From our viewpoint, we were stealing his iron. We had no use for gold in our Colony and iron was becoming harder and harder to find anywhere, since the Hibernians, too ignorant to know that there is no gold in iron ore pits, had shut down the Cambrian mines with their raiding. To the Hibernian Scots, it seemed logical that since gold was dug from the Cambrian mines in Dolaucothi, then every other hole in the ground of Cambria should have gold in it, too.
I was disappointed that Statius had only had five cartloads of iron with him. We loaded that onto three of my big wagons. On the way to the meeting I had dreamed of loading all five wagons and buying a few more of his to carry the rest of the haul. When we met, over a mug of ale in a tavern in Noviomagus, he told me that he had scraped the foundries of the entire eastern part of the country to accumulate the three thousand pounds of iron he had brought with him. When he saw the bag of gold I paid him from, however, his eyes almost fell out of his head and he suddenly became convinced that he could probably find as much again, and perhaps even more, given time.
"How much more time?" I asked him. He did some rapid calculation and we agreed to meet again in June. Feeding his greed, I told him my wagons could easily carry a thousand pounds each. For every hundred pounds, therefore, over five thousand pounds, I would pay double if he would throw in the carts and horses. We shook hands on the deal, and when we parted the following day, Statius was a happy merchant, firmly convinced that he had found the biggest fools in the Empire.
On the way home, we kept to the south coast road in order to avoid thetowns we had passed earlier. It almost doubled our journey, but I had sound reasons for the circuitous route, the main one being that I wished to attract no attention to the richness of the train we were escorting. On the way, we picked up our two wagonloads of salt and passed by Durnovaria in the dark hours before dawn, trying to make no noise and attract no attention. Just beyond that town, the road runs along the seashore for several miles. There are no other towns out that way except Isca in the far west, and the road was seldom travelled, even that long agoa truth attested to by the amount of grass and weeds growing between the cobblestones.
We travelled slowly. The wagons were fully loaded and we had managed to acquire a fair-sized herd of horses of all descriptions. Most of them we had bought along the way; gold is a powerful persuader. Others we had found, and many of these were wild.
At one point, where the road ran very close to the sea, the horses took it into their heads to stop and graze. In trying to get them moving again, one of my men panicked them and they scattered. With difficulty we rounded them up, and then one of them, a big black gelding, the finest horse in the bunch, decided to show us his heels and headed off at full gallop for the west. Three of us chased him. The going was dangerous because of the wetness of the grass, and we were a long way from the road, which had swung north, by the time we finally ran him down.
I tied a halter around his head and handed the rope to Bassus, the young soldier who had ended up with me. We were just turning back to the road when I heard a shout, seemingly cut off in mid-breath. We froze, both of us listening for more. There was only silence, broken by the sound of waves on the pebbled beach a hundred paces away and the whisper of the rain, which had lessened, in the leaves around us. We were in a grassy hollow, surrounded by hawthorn bushes. I turned to look at young Bassus.
"Where did that come from?"
He shook his head uncertainly. "It sounded as though it came from over there." He pointed towards the beach.
"Where's the young fellow who came with us?" I had just noticed that he was nowhere in sight. "What's his name? Anicius. What happened to him?"
Bassus shrugged. "He was behind me to my left last time I saw him."
I tried to tell myself that he had only fallen from his horse, but even to me it sounded like a lie. "Tie up the horses and follow me," I whispered, suddenly aware of a need for silence. "And don't make any noise!"
I climbed out of the hollow and began to head cautiously towards the beach. The ground was rough and stony beneath the turf, and I cursed my limp for forcing me to move more slowly and more awkwardly than I wanted to. My palms were sweating, which is my mind's way of letting me know that it does not feel good about something. I glanced backwards and saw young Bassus following me, coming fast. I signalled to him to slow down.
There was a flash of brown to my right. Anicius's horse. It had begun tograze. I headed towards it, moving very slowly now, and then I heard noises off to my left: a grunt, and the rattle of metal.
They were down in a hollow like the one we had been in when we heard the shout. Anicius's body lay sprawled on the grass, its head, still in its helmet, about five paces away; there was a surprised expression on its face. The whoreson crouched above him was working fast, stripping the corpse. There was bright-red blood all over the grass between the boy's head and his body.
I fumbled at my belt for my skystone dagger, thinking to throw it at the assassin's back, but there was a hissing sound close by my ear and then that unmistakable thunk! of an arrow hitting a human torso. Bright-yellow feathers gleamed between his shoulders and he arched his back, reaching behind him, almost gripping them before he fell face down across young Anicius, an agonized moan the only sound he made.
"Well done, lad," I said, and stepped down carefully to where the bodies lay, my feet slipping on the wet grass. As I stood above them, I heard Bassus retching behind me. Probably his first killing, I thought, and his first sight of violent death. I knew how he felt.
I bent down and hauled the killer away from Anicius, turning him over as I did so. He was big. A round shield and a bloody axe lay a short distance away. The shield was covered with scrollwork. Celtic. But not from Britain. At least, not from this part of Britain, for I knew my Celtic design. I went and picked it up, holding it in both hands. Bassus came down to join me.
"Who is he, Commander Varrus?"
"I don't know, but you can bet he's not alone. He's not from these parts, judging by his clothes and by his shield. I think he's a Scot."
"From Hibernia? How did he get all the way down here?"
"Same way they get everywhere, son. By boat."
"A galley?" Bassus looked around him as if expecting to see a boat tied up to a bush.
"Aye, and if I'm correct, it won't be far from here. Let's take a look. But watch your stepyou'll get no second chance and no mercy from the likes of these." I looked around and pointed ahead to my right. "You go that way, to the west of that headland. I'll take the left. And be careful!"
A short time laterI had lost track of timea yellow-feathered arrow smacked into the ground ahead of me and frightened me half to death. Bassus was about sixty paces from me, waving excitedly for me to join him. I retrieved his arrow and went to him.
"It's beached below the headland, Commander! I saw three men. One of them almost saw me."
"Are you sure he didn't?" I held out his arrow to him.
"No." A quick headshake. He took his arrow from my hand. "Thanks, Commander. I didn't want to shout."
"Quite. Well, let's take a look, then."
They had drawn their galley up onto the beach below the headland, in the lee of the cliff, where it would be safe both from observers and from theprevailing tides. I counted three guards on my first glance, pulling my head back quickly after getting a glimpse of them and placing them in my mind. My next look was more confident and I bellied as close as I could get to the edge of the cliff, chilled to the bone from the wet grass. There were six of them visible this time, three out of the line of sight of our first view. Six seemed like a reasonable number to guard the boat, which looked as though it would hold about thirty men, fully crewed. But there was one more dead in the hollow behind us, making seven. How many more? I did not have much time, I guessed, before somebody noticed that the dead one was missing.
I crawled backwards and jerked my head in the direction of our horses.
"Let's go, but keep your eyes open. There's room for another two dozen in that boat. God knows where they are, but we could run into any of them at any time."
My head was buzzing as we made our way back to the horses, which were still tethered to the bush where Bassus had left them. How many more men were there down on the beach? Where were the others? How many of my men would I need to be sure of winning a tussle without serious loss? Rats' teeth! One man lost already was too serious! We vaulted onto our horses and took off at the gallop, back to the road, leading Anicius's horse and the black gelding with us.
Our party had stopped to wait for us where the road swung north. Severus, my lieutenant, had obviously given them a break, for they were huddled in small groups, some of them squatting against the sides of the wagons, getting what little shelter they could from the wind and the rain.
It didn't take long, however, for them to realize that something had gone wrong, for they started scrambling to their feet while we were still a good hundred paces from them, and by the time we had reached them they were falling into their ranks, silent and watchful. I was giving orders before my horse stopped moving. Severus and fifty men were left to guard the wagons, alert now to the danger suddenly uncovered, and the other half of the detachment returned with me at the double towards the beach. Bassus stayed behind with the wagons and the horses.
I placed a dozen bowmen along the top of the cliff above the longboat and sent twenty-four men down to the beach to the west of the headland, warning them to go quietly, out of sight of the guards below, and to stay hidden until they heard my signal. The remaining fourteen I sent down on the blind side of the headland to block any escape from that direction. Then, when I judged the time was right, I blew one blast on my horn.
The surprise was complete. Three of the Scots, the three below the cliff, ran along the base of the cliff, out to the point of the headland. An arrow felled one of them before he had gone five paces, but the other two made it all the way to the point, where they were killed by the men I had sent there to cut them off. The three on the boat saw the odds against them, identified us as Romans and threw down their weapons. It was over that quickly.
By the time I had made my own way down to the beach, a slow andslippery progress thanks to my crippled leg and the wetness of the whole world, my men had herded the three prisoners onto the beach and tied them together. I ignored them and went straight to the boat, climbing up the rough ladder that some of my men had put in place against the side.
The boat was strong and sound, bone-dry inside, except for rain wetness. It was no Roman galley, though. In the first place, it was far too small; it was slimmer and lighter, built for speed. The booty the crew had already gathered lay in a heap in the middle, piled around the single mast. There were four casks among the pile. I ordered one of them broken open. It was full of oil. So were the others. We smashed them and fired the boat. It was tinder-dry and flamed like a torch, but oily clouds of black smoke rose high into the air. Watching it billow upwards, I realized too late that it might be seen from a long way away. If the rest of the crew were nearby, they would be coming soon, on the run.
"Right, lads," I called. "Back up to the top! Quick as you can! Tullus, you and your mate there stay here with me. Quickly now, the rest of you! Form two ranks up there and keep your eyes open. We may have company coming."
They were gone, already half-way up the cliff. They were well trained. Tullus and his friend stood waiting for orders, eyeing the three prisoners. I approached the Scots for the first time. They were an ill-looking trio, and they knew I held their lives in my hand. I wondered if earlier, non-Christian commanders had had to contend with conscience when dealing with prisoners, but I knew that was foolish.
If I let these men go, if there was any way I could let them go, they would terrorize the coastline for God alone knew how long. There was nothing else they could do. I had burned their boat. They had to stay. And if they stayed, and lived, they might rejoin their comrades. So, I had to keep them as prisoners, or kill them. Just like that. As a Christian, I would be doing murder by killing them. But if I spared them, I would be condoning murder, for they would kill others as surely as they breathed. They were the enemy. Invaders. Pirates. I glanced up at the cliff-top and the decurion in charge of the bowmen was looking straight into my eyes. I turned to Tullus and his friend.
"I've changed my mind. Rejoin the others."
"You heard me!"
They walked away, looking back over their shoulders at the three Hibernians. I watched them reach the path on the cliff side and start to climb. I turned back to the prisoners, looking each of them in the eyes. They read my intent in my face, all at the same time, and, tied together as they were, they began to attempt a shambling run along the beach. The sound of arrows hissing and thunking into flesh was very loud. None of them made a sound. They died in silence. Two were still kicking as I cut their throats.
As I climbed slowly back up to the top, I grappled with the problem of what to do about the others. There had to be at least two dozen more mensomewhere close by. If they saw the smoke from their burning boat and came running, the problem would solve itself. If they saw my train on the road, on the other hand, they would hide until we left, and then, God help any poor souls living within a few days' march of here. I tried to tell myself that was not my business. But it was. I had made it my business by burning their damned boat. They were trapped here now. They could no longer simply sail home. I cursed the anger that had made me burn the thing before thinking it through. When I had seen that oil spilling from the broken cask, the only thing that occurred to me was that here was the means to stop these animals from sailing on to murder some other poor boy like Anicius for his clothes.
I was panting when I reached the top of the cliff. The decurion in charge of the bowmen was there waiting for me, offering his arm for the last few feet, and I was grateful.
"Well, young fellow," I said after I had gasped my thanks. "We have a problem that's not going to solve itself."
"What's that, Commander Varrus?"
"The others, lad, the others."
"You mean our men on the road?"
I looked at him, amazed that he had not caught my meaning. "No, lad. Not our men. The other marauders. They can't be far away."
"No, Commander. Of course not."
That was slightly better, but the baffled look in his eyes betrayed him. I shook my head.
"Don't humour me, boy! I know, because I looked, and you do not know, because you could not. That fire the sentries had down on the beach had not been burning long. Hardly any ashes. Which means they must have landed there early this morning. They left seven men to guard the boat, and they took off inland. It's not noon yet. At least, I don't think it is. So, they haven't had time to get too far away. D'you follow me? Am I being logical?"
"Yes, Commander, I understand." He did, too; his eyes had lost that baffled look.
"Good. Walk with me to my horse and help me up. My leg's on fire."
As we walked to my horse I continued talking; I couldn't remember his name and I was racking my brain trying to think of it. Not knowing his own men's names is an unforgivable fault in a commander. Thank God I could call him "lad"!
"As I see it now," I continued, "I've got little option as to what to do: I've left them none at all. They can't sail away. So we have to find them and dispose of them, otherwise they'll terrorize this whole damn countryside. By the way, how did you know I'd need to kill those men on the beach?" I looked straight at him as I asked this.
He didn't hesitate. "You said it yourself, Commander. Options. You were committed as soon as you sent Tullus and his brother back up to the top. You were alone. You couldn't set them free, or even try to bring them up with you. That left three options. You were going to kill them yourself, oryou were going to leave them there alive, or you were going to call on my men. Any one of the three, you needed us to back you. So we did."
I looked at him again, conscious of a new respect for him. "Simple as that, eh?"
"Yes, Commander." He looked surprised.
I grunted, not wanting him to know that I hadn't really been aware of the danger I had placed myself in by dismissing Tullus and his "friend," who was his brother. I kicked myself mentally for not having noticed any family resemblance.
"Tullus's brother, how old is he?"
"Same age as Tullus, Commander. They're stepbrothers."
I grunted again, and then the decurion's name clicked into my mind.
"Your father, he's married again, too, isn't he?"
He blinked at me in surprise. "Yes, Commander. Last year."
"Aye. He's a good man and he was a fine soldier. Did you know he was my first centurion, when I joined the legions?"
"I know, Commander. He's told me." There was pride in his voice.
We had reached my horse, and he legged me up onto its back.
"Thanks, lad. Now!" I sat there and marshalled my thoughts. "All right, first things first." I turned to the infantry ranked behind me. "I need four of you men to make a litter for young Anicius's body there. One of your tents slung between two spears and one man on each end of each spear. You know how to do it." I swung back to the young decurion in charge of the bowmen. "I'll need your people to remain with them, to act as escort and ensure they get back safely. Don't dawdle, because the hostiles could be anywhere and you won't be really safe until you're back with the train. The rest of these men I'll need back at the road, as quickly as we can get there."
He saluted me and ran off, back to his bowmen. I turned my horse and signalled to the remaining infantry to move out at the double, back to the road. As I did so, the rain, which had almost stopped, returned in blowing, chilling sheets. I kicked Germanicus into a walk and watched my men jogging miserably through the bushes and long grass. God! I was getting old and careless! Here I was with a valuable train of wagons and horses, less than four days from home after four weeks away, and instead of leaving well enough alone, I had acted like a stupid, unthinking boy, burning a boat I had no need to burn and bringing upon myself and my men, some of whom must surely die because of it, the responsibility for finding and killing a mob of crazed Hibernian Scots.
Seeing the senselessness of berating myself after the fact, I asked myself instead what Caius Britannicus would have done under the same circumstances. Would he, could he, have acted differently, solving the problem more efficiently, yet none the less effectively, without endangering his men? The answer to that, I knew, was that Caius would have done just what I had done, except that, being Caius Cornelius Britannicus, he would have thought the entire exercise through, including the implications of his act, before committingeither himself or his men. That forethought, his anticipation of the outcome as opposed to my belated realization of it, would have been the only difference in our actions and I accepted the truth of that as being normal. The men of the Cornelian family, one of the Founding Families of Rome, had been bred to accept their aristocratic responsibilitieswith everything that those entailedfor more than a millennium, and Caius had been trained to appreciate and exercise command responsibility since his earliest childhood. That training ensured that he brought an analytical eye to bear on everything he did, weighing each decision carefully before acting upon it.
As Legate and general, strategist and tactician, I knew Britannicus would have perceived all I had perceived in this situation through different eyes, detached by his status from the personalized, individual pain of the foot-soldier. He would have considered the general welfare of his command ahead of the need to avenge one young boy.
That task completed, nevertheless, and his responsibilities accounted for and acknowledged, Britannicus the man, the soldier, friend and comrade-in-arms, would have acted as I had done, recognizing the need for Draconian measures, then making his decision swiftly and in full acceptance of whatever consequences might result. That comforting realization brought me back to myself and my circumstances.
Germanicus was ambling at a slow walk and I noticed that I was being left far behind the column, who were still doubling. I kicked him to a canter and had regained the head of the column by the time we reached the road, where Severus and his contingent stood guard around the wagons and the horses.
"Fall infour ranks!" When they were assembled at attention, I stood them easy and spoke to them.
"Is there anyone here familiar with this part of the country?"
"Aye, Commander!" One of the youngest soldiers raised his clenched fist.
"How well do you know it, lad?"
"I was born close by here, Commander."
"Where, exactly?" I wished the damned rain would stop.
"About six miles from here, Commander. My father worked on a villa in the hills, there." The young man, more accurately a boy, nodded to the low, rolling hills behind me.
"Is there a town nearby?"
"No, Commander. Just a village."
"How far from here?"
The boy frowned and shrugged his shoulders under his soaked cape. "Six, maybe seven miles, Commander."
"How many people?"
He shrugged again, clearly not knowing.
"Come on, lad! How many? Guess! Twenty? Thirty? More?"
"I don't know, Commander. I haven't been there in years. Perhaps thirty or forty."
"All farmers?" He nodded. "Fine," I said. "Thank you. Can you take us there?"
"Yes, Commander." His wide eyes reflected puzzlement.
I looked at the others. "All right, listen closely, all of you." I pointed back towards the beach. "We have just burned a galley on the beach back there. There were seven men guarding it. One of them killed Anicius, who was riding with us. He could not have known there were three of us. Young Bassus here killed him, and then we found the galley on the beach, burned it and killed the other six guards. Now!" I paused to let my next words reverberate clearly. "There was room on that boat for thirty men, give or take a few. Seven of them are dead already. That leaves twenty to twenty-five hostile Hibernian Scots roaming around here, somewhere. They could only have arrived this morning. Not enough ashes in their fire for them to have been here yesterday as well." I paused again to let them think about that, before continuing. "These are not friendly people. If they have gone inland, the chances are they'll find this village, if they didn't go directly there in the first place. In this weather, they'll probably stay there for shelter. D'you take my meaning?" They did. I kept talking.
"After they find the ashes of their boat, they are going to be very unhappy. And the Christ save anyone they meet after that. Even if they wanted to go home, they can't. They'll stay here, and they'll burn, they'll rape, and they'll kill, and when they've had their bellies filled with that, they'll stop for a while and march overland and then do it all again. They have to do that, they must. There is no other choice open to them."
My men all looked very sober now, the discomfort of the pouring rain forgotten. I carried on.
"If we can catch them at this village, we may be able to wipe them out before they know what's hit them. They won't be expecting soldiers. These people live on women, children, old men and the occasional farmer. They're nasty animals, and they're brave enough, but they're not used to disciplined opposition and they have no discipline themselves. With surprise, we can sweep them up like a pile of last year's leaves and bury them or burn them." I paused again before going on. "Of course, there is the chance that they may miss the village. Or they may have been here longer than I suspect, and the men on the beach just didn't light a fire. They may be hardier than I take them for. In either event, however, I can't take the chance that they won't come back here while we're on our way to the village, so we will leave half our force here to guard our goods. I want fifty volunteers to come with me to take them in the village."
A hundred men stepped forward. I smiled.
"That's what I thought might happen. Fine! Ranks one and three, men on the left stand fast. Every second man from the left comes with me. Ranks two and four, alternate from men on the left. Wait for it!" They swayed andheld still as I continued. "Severus, you will remain in charge of the defences here. We have a three-hour march ahead of us. By the time we conclude our business it will be dark. We'll head back here at first light. You will bury our young friend Anicius, and you will need a camp with a ditch and rampart. Site it carefully."
A groan went up from the men to be left behind. I grinned at them.
"That's enough! The exercise will take your minds off the weather and the fun the rest of us are having, slogging across country through this long, wet grass." I looked around them one last time. "Each man in the strike force to take two days' rations from the commissary wagon. We leave in half an hour. Fall out!"
We came in sight of the hamlet, for that's all it was, late in the afternoon. It was obvious, even from a distance, that I had been right. A few of the buildings burned sullenly in the heavy rain, and from our viewpoint in a copse half a mile away, we could see men moving around. The marauders were still there, sheltering from the foul weather.
I planned our moves carefully and we moved in just as darkness was falling.
And so, here I was, lying on a wood-framed cot and wondering how long I'd been in this place. At least the rain had stopped. I opened my mouth to shout, but nothing came out but a croak, and suddenly I was consumed with thirstparched like a dry leaf. I thought about trying to stand. I decided to count to ten and then make an attempt to roll onto my left side, holding my arm rigid, in the hope that I could then get my feet under me and sit up.
At ten, I discovered that I was strapped down and couldn't move in any direction. A shadow blocked the sunlight coming through the door, and Severus entered and stood looking down at me.
"Commander. You're awake! How are you feeling?"
"Awful. I itch. What are you doing here? I left you with the wagons."
He smiled down at me. "Well, at least your mind's still functioning, Commander. The wagons are safe. I brought them with me when I came."
"You brought them with you? When you came? I see. Well, then, if you did that, how long have we been here?"
"Nine days, Commander."
"Nine days! God in heaven, man, why?"
"Well, sir, we were afraid to move you."
"Then you should have left me here with a dozen men as escort and sent the others back to the Colony! Have you no damned initiative at all?"
"Yes, Commander. Sometimes."
"Well, then, what in God's name ... ach!" I realized the futility of what I was saying to him, and changed tack.
"How many did we lose in the fight?"
"Three killed and five wounded. Of those, one died, three are back on duty, and you're the fifth."
"How many Scots?"
"All of them. Twenty-three. We got most of them in the huts, in the first sweep, but there were nine of them who were together in the main hayloft. They were the ones who headed into the street and tried to rally the others. But they were too late. The others were already dead."
"So! No prisoners?"
"How many villagers still alive?"
"Most of the women. Some of the men. About twenty-eight, all together, counting women and children. Six men were away from home and came back later."
"How are they off for food?"
"They'll do, Commander. We got here before the hostiles had time to do much other than spread the women."
"And how many men do we have here now?"
"Ten, Commander, counting yourself."
"Ten?" I felt my face showing my shock. "But you said ... Where are all the others?"
"I sent them on ahead to the Colony, Commander. I didn't want to take the chance of moving you, as I said, so I kept a few good men back to help me look out for you until you were fit enough to be moved."
He let that lie there, and I felt the flush of colour staining my neck and cheeks. I cleared my throat and apologized.
"I'm a fool, Severus, and I'm getting to be an old fool. I should have known you'd do the right thing. Why do I itch so much?"
He was smiling. "Because you're filthy, Commander, and you need a shave."
"God, yes! And a steam and perfumed oils." I tried again to move. My arms were strapped tight to my chest. "Why are both my arms tied down?"
"To stop you from thrashing around. I'll have you released."
"Please do. And then get me onto a cart, and get me back to the Colony. But first, get me some water. Cold for drinking and hot for bathing!"
Two days later, we were home. Whatever it was that had weakened me had done so with absolute success. I was so helpless, so feeble, that I could not even sit propped up in the wagon. The rocking of its ordinary, plodding progress nauseated me, and my muscles, which seemed to have been transformed completely into jelly, permitted me no control over my own balance so that, even when tied into place with a rope, I flopped around like a landed fish, totally at the mercy of the bumps in the road. I was conscious of the folly of my determination to sit upright but I refused to accept it as such, and it was only with very ill grace that I finally accepted that I would have to remain supine for the entire journey back to the Villa Britannicus. From that position, flat on my back on a pile of furs in the wagon bed, I did nothingfor the remainder of the journey but watch the clouds that came and went across the sky above me. It was a very real blessing to learn, eventually, that we were finally only a matter of hours, and then moments, away from the villa.
We missed Britannicus and his doctors, who were on their way to find us. They arrived back the following day to find me well on the way to restored humanitycited and steamed and massaged and scraped and shiny and relaxing under the pampering of my dear wife, who had betrayed only momentary consternation at my condition, before setting out immediately to rectify the matter.
Even today, writing these words after three decades of marriage to Luceiia Britannicus, I have not yet learned to be unsurprised by the ease with which she can abandon all semblance of the civilized matron, being normally the sunniest and most placid of souls, and revert to the implacable savagery of the threatened matriarch. From soldier and smith, I have evolved over those years into scribe and thinker, and for all that time I would have said, "Beware my wrath!" to anyone who thought to menace me or mine in any way. Nowadays, however, I see the folly in that. The strongest and most minatory words I could have uttered would have been, "Beware my wife!"
On this occasion, seeing me borne supine into the villa grounds, she came sweeping from the house like a late autumn wind, the strength of her arrival whipping the air from mouths that might have uttered words, and leaving the would-be speakers gulping for breath as she belabored them and buffeted about their ears. Within moments, I had been lifted from the cart and was being carried deep into the house, to where a makeshift couch was already being prepared for me amid the bustle of scurrying bodies building high fires in imported braziers and spreading rolls of cloth along walls and doorways to block out draughts. In vain I sought to protest that I was already on the mend. I was ignored and then deposited where my wife wished me placed, close to the fires. While people stripped me of the filthy clothes I wore, others brought steaming water to a metal tub that had appeared close by my couch, and as they lowered me into the makeshift bath, I was aware of my wife's disapproving eyes and downturned mouth as she surveyed the condition I was in. But having learned, even in those "early" days, the uselessness of protest in such cases, I gave up and surrendered myself to the almost orgasmic pleasure of the hot, artificially perfumed waters that engulfed me.
Later still, when I was once again in bed, warm, clean and pleasantly aware of the sleep that must overwhelm me presently, my filthy bandages all soaked and peeled away to be replaced with new, crisp, tightly bound white promises of health, I found myself so glad to be safely home that I took no offence when Luceiia, looking down at me once more, her eyes now filled with reassured confidence and love, shook her head and murmured something about my being too old for such adventures. The time had come, she said, for other, younger men to adopt the risks I had always assumed to life andlimb. My place henceforth should be at home, here in the Colony, where my skills and abilities, and their value to the community, would not be hazarded. Youth, and its impulsive tendencies towards risk and danger, now lay behind me. In my haze-filled mind, I recalled that I had said much the same thing to myself, mere days before, in contemplating battle, and yet I felt I should protest her utterance of them. I knew I should, but I had not the strength and, at that precise time, I lacked the will. We were alone, finally, I knew, the others, servitors and friends and well-wishers, all gone. Luceiia lowered herself gently to the edge of my cot and kissed me, tenderly, her lips imprinting themselves on cheeks and nose, eyes and forehead, and her fingertips tracing the outlines of my face. Her gentleness transported me into oblivion.
Copyright @ 1996 by Jack Whyte