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Rome 24th day of August, AD 410
The sound was terror made real. It was heard through the ears, and felt through the bones. It was the sound that her ancestors had heard thousands of years before as they huddled in the dubious safety of a shallow cave with only the protection of the fire between them and the things that prowled in the dark. The things that growled.
Julia stopped struggling against the rough hands that held her. The three of them, assailants and victim, turned as one, eyes squinting against the smoke that billowed from the burning shop. A pillar fell and smashed across the roadway, sparks showering. In the distance, from the direction of the Forum, screams could be heard. Here, now, after that low threatening rumble, there was only the sound of fire eating wood.
Julia sagged in the grip of the two men. In her terror had she imagined it? But the men had heard it too. It had cut through her frantic cries, through their threats and curses and coarse laughter. In a world gone mad, when barbarians sacked the greatest city on earth and respectable tradesmen tried to rape the daughter of a senator, it was no stretch of credulity to believe a wolf was stalking the streets.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see the crumpled body of the slave girl her mother had sent with her on this insane errand. The men had thrown her against the wall with brutal indifference as she clung to Julia's arm. She had not moved since. I do not even know her name
'Nothing there,'the taller of the men grunted. 'Imagination.'
'She heard it too, didn't you, rich bitch?' It was the one whose face she had clawed, futilely.
'Yes. Yesa wolf. It will bedangerous. You should run.' Even a wolf was better than these two. Fearful to run from the besieging Goths, fearful to fight, they had snatched at the chance to take what they had only been able to covet from afar. So often she, and ladies like her, had been carried past them in the street in litters, had browsed amongst the trinkets on their stalls and never noticed them. Now one of these pampered, elegant creatures had fallen into their hands. Amidst chaos they could take their pleasure and dull the terror of what was happening to their world.
But this sheltered virgin had fought back, ripping at their hands and faces, kicking at their shins, biting where she could. And the other girl, the little slave, was likely dead, and no fun at all.
The man with the bleeding tracks of four exquisitely manicured nails down his right cheek sneered back at her. 'Just some dog, chained behind the portico. No help for you there, sweetheart.' His fingers grasped the neck of her tunic and yanked downwards, his sweaty hand sliding over the bared flesh.
'Hades.' The taller man's voice shook, even as the second, long growl froze his friend's hand on her breast.
The smoke swirled and the animal padded out less than a dozen feet in front of them. It stopped, head lowered, watching them.
The slanting green eyes set close over the long grey muzzle studied them with an aloof indifference that was more chilling than overt aggression. The curled lip revealed one long white fang. There was a low whistle and the animal walked off to the side and round the back of them. The men scrabbled to turn, dragging Julia, squinting into the drifting smoke as they tried to keep the animal in sight.
'Gone.' The tall man wiped a hand over his damp brow. 'Let's get out of here before that fire gets worse, find somewhere more comfortable to enjoy ourselves.' His falsely confident voice trailed off as they faced the burning building again and the smoke billowed, parting in rags around another figure.
A man. Tall, broad, bare-armed, golden. Light glinted off chain mail and helmet, wrist bands and belt buckle as he stood there watching them, as the wolf had done, with utter composure. There was no expression on the bearded face and there was no weapon in his hand, but a long sword hung from the wide belt that cinched his waist and for all his stillness he exuded the promise of force poised to strike.
Julia swallowed, trying to force her spinning head to think. Trousers, long blond hair, bearded. A barbarian. A Visigoth, one of the enemy. But her immediate enemies were beside her, her own kind. Was she in more danger now, or less?
Hands tightened on her arms, half lifting her off her feet as the tradesmen began to edge backwards. She made a decision, forced herself to hang limp, making her weight a burden they must drag.
'Drop.' The big man spoke as though to a dog with a game bird and achieved the same unthinking obedience. Julia landed hard on her heels and staggered, turned and hit the bleeding man in the ear with her clenched fist, the sheer relief of being free of their hands lending her anger force.
The man slapped back wildly at her, knocking her against his friend. Then, as she scrabbled for balance, he grunted abruptly and keeled over to the ground. She stared down at him sprawled at her feet, the hilt of a dagger sticking out of his throat, a thin trickle of blood curling down to his collarbone. Dead. She had not seen the barbarian move. The other man took to his heels, then stopped, cowering, as the wolf padded out of cover in front of him.
The barbarian ignored him, his eyes locking with Julia's. There was no reassurance there, only the same chilling aura of power she had seen in the wolf's eyes. He gestured towards the tumbled figure of the slave. 'They did that?'
Julia nodded dumbly, falling to her knees beside the girl. The barbarian took a long stride past her, she heard the scrape as he drew his sword, then a scream, cut off on a choking sob. A thud. Silence. She kept her head averted, searching with her fingers for a pulse in the girl's neck. Nothing.
'Is she dead?' Julia half turned, saw him stoop to wipe the long blade clean on the fallen tradesman's tunic and, shuddering, looked away.
'I think she must be. I can find no pulse. They threw her against the wall when they first caught us. She was so frightened.' She didn't want to come with me, poor little thing. She wouldn't say boo to a goose and Mother sent her out with me into this nightmare and I did nothing to protest. She won't be frightened any more now
The Goth hunkered down beside her and she was aware of the size of him, the smell of sweat and blood, metal and leather. Alien, utterly male. He reached out a broad hand and touched the girl's neck, then, with a gentleness that surprised Julia, closed the staring brown eyes.
'What is her name?'
'I do not know what she was called.' Julia gazed at the small body helplessly. There was a hot burning in her chest, her eyes prickled. I must not cry, I must not show weakness in front of a barbarian, an inferior. 'She was one of my mother's slaves. She sent her with me '
sent us both on this insane errand. And I did not insist on an escort of male slaves. I just did as I was told while she stayed behind high walls, directing the family treasures to be buried beneath the paving slabs in the peristyle. Mother always knows what her priorities are.
'I was trying to reach my father and another senator at the Basilica.' What did Mother expect they could do about it? Stand on the threshold looking pompous in their togas and tell thousands of men like this one, this hunting wolf, to go away and stop being a nuisance?
Two hours ago she had obeyed without questionthe men would know best what to do. Her father, Julius Livius Rufus, a man in his Emperor's confidence for many years; her betrothed, Antonius Justus Celsus, the coming man in the Senate, a man who never put a foot wrong politically, who judged each opportunity with coolness and then acted correctly. Only they had been gone for over twelve hours and had sent no word. What should the women do? There were too many options. To stay or to flee? To hide or to rely on high walls and heavy doors?
The barbarian cut across her thoughts. 'But she was one of your family.' He turned, with a litheness that seemed unimpeded by his crouched position, and stared at Julia as though he had trouble understanding what she was saying. His beard was a golden brown, cut close in contrast to the paler hair that escaped from under the metal helmet and flowed over his shoulders. His eyes, intent on hers, were green, the clear green of snow-melt river water over pebbles.
'She was one of the household,' Julia corrected. His Latin was good, but obviously not good enough to understand the niceties. She found to her shame that she was trembling and stiffened her limbs. To show fear, to lose her dignitywhat she had left of itwas unacceptable. 'A slave.'
'Your responsibility, then.' The green eyes chilled. He stood up, dismissing her with the turn of his shoulder, scooped the girl's body up as though she were a child and walked into the burning building.
'Stop! It is on fire!'It was a foolish statement of the obvious and he ignored her. Julia scrambled to her feet, aghast.Another beam crashed down inside the shop, which was burning fiercely now. She ran forward and saw him, in a nimbus of flame, lay the girl down on what must have been a stone counter. He smoothed down her tunic, crossed her hands over her breast and touched her head. Julia thought his lips moved. Then he swung round and strode out of the building just as the roof collapsed with a roar of uprushing flame and sparks.
'Better than leaving her in the dust for the dogs,' he said curtly, pulling Julia further up the alleyway and around a corner. It was blissfully cool there, in the shade, away from the flames and out of sight of the two sprawled bodies.
'The fire will spread,' she said, wishing she could uncurl her fingers from around his forearm and finding she could not.
'But not this way, the wind is against it.'His head was up, his nostrils flared as though scenting the breeze. A hunter, aware.
She made herself release her grip and looked up. 'Look out!' A large lump of smouldering wood, as big as her fist, had lodged on his shoulder and was sliding down onto the bare skin of his upper arm. She reached out and knocked it aside, feeling the sharp sting of the burn on her palm, the tight muscle, the warmth of his arm.
'Thank you.' He caught her hand and turned it palm up, studying it. 'That will stop stinging in a minute. What is your name?'
'Julia Livia Rufa.'He did not appear ready to release her hand; tugging was undignified and might display fear. 'I am the daughter of the Senator Julius Livius Rufus.What is your name?'
'Wulfric, son of Athanagild, son of Thorismund.' He said it without emphasis, yet she was left with the clear impression that his name was known amongst his people, that he was used to command and to recognition. He thought for a moment, then said, 'You would say King of the Wolves, perhaps.' For the first time, searching for a translation, his Latin seemed less assured, the alien rhythms of his own language surfacing.
Wolf King? What else, she thought, sensing her own desire to laugh hysterically, and biting it back with hard-won discipline. 'Thank you,Wulfric, son ofAthan Athanagild.'Julia managed to get over the cumbersome syllables. 'I would be grateful if you could escort me to the Basilica where I hope to find my father. Naturally, we will not be ungrateful for your assistance.'
The wolf padded back down the alley from wherever it had been exploring and sat down beside its master, tongue lolling in the heat. Two pairs of green eyes regarded her; she could have sworn there was amusement in both.
'So, you would be grateful for my escort, would you, Julia?'
'Julia Livia,' she corrected. He was a barbarian, she could not expect him to understand how to address the daughter of a patrician Roman family correctly.
Now Wulfric was openly amused. His beard was clipped close enough for her to see the lines of his mouth, which just now were curling unmistakeably. 'How grateful, Julia?'
'I am sure they will reward you suitably with gold,'she said stiffly. 'My family, that is, and also my betrothed, the Senator Antonius Justus Celsus.'
'But I can take all the gold I want,' he said softly. 'I can take anything I desire from this city. Why do you think we are here, if not for the wealth within these walls?'
'For your king, Alaric, to speak with the Emperor Honorius. I know there has been some misunderstanding over a promise of land 'Half-heard discussions between the men over dinner, debates she had only partly understood or ignored. The Visigoths had entered Rome before, demanded a vast bribe in gold, then they had gone away, leaving political turmoil. But that was all settled now. Honorius was back in control in Ravenna
'No misunderstanding. Treachery. We fight for your emperor for many years, we hold back the Hun hordes from the east from your lands, even as they overrun ours, and he promises us land, grain, security. And gives us lies. Now we have come to take what is owing. Two years ago we entered Rome, but it seems you Romans do not learn from the past.'
He stood there, as solid as the stone pillar behind him, as alien as the wolf that walked by his side, and she could believe that he would take anything he wanted. And there were thousands like him pouring into her city while frightened, over-civilised men in togas or silk tried to talk away the danger. Two years ago it had seemed they had placated Alaric. They had been wrong.
'Honorius is not here; he is in Ravenna.' Behind impregnable walls, equipped for the longest siege, while here the food was already running out. The invaders would find gold and silver, but they would find precious little to eat.
'We know. The time for talking is past. Come.' He turned on his heel and began to walk down the alleyway. Julia stood watching his back. Broad shoulders carrying a chain-mail shirt as easily as though it was linen, bare arms, tanned to a golden colour so different from her own olive skin, long legs in cloth trousers tucked into leather boots like a legionary's. The broad belt cinched around his waist was legionary kit too, but the tall figure was anything but reassuringly familiar. Everywhere about him was the living glow of gold and the sullen blood red of garnets. His sword hilt, the scabbard, the buckle on his belt, the gold bands that strapped his biceps and wrists, all gleamed.
He was bigger than any man she had ever been close to as big as the emperor's German guardand he moved with the predatory grace of a gladiator in the arena.
Behind her the burning shop collapsed across the alley with a crash. There was nowhere to go but to follow him. 'You will take me to the Basilica?' She had to run to catch him up.
'We may go there.' Wulfric stopped at the end of the passageway and surveyed the cross-street. A man peered out from a doorway, saw him and slammed the door to. Julia heard the thud of a falling bar. A woman, a child in her arms, ran past, shied away with a shrill scream and hurried on. At both ends, where the street opened out onto wider thoroughfares, there was a chaos of carts and mules and people shouting and shoving.
'What do you mean? We may go there?' She put her hand on his forearm and shook it when he did not immediately reply. Wulfric looked down at her, one corner of his mouth lifting, and she saw that the green eyes had lost their chill. Julia lifted her hand off his arm with elaborate care and stepped back, her heart thudding in response to the heat in that look. 'No. No you wouldn't '
'Wouldn't ' He searched for a word. 'Wouldn't ravish you? I do not approve of ravishing women, as you saw just now. You need not fear that. Now, come.'
Relief made her snap at him. 'Come where? I want to go to the Basilica.'
'But what you want is no longer important. Come with me. I told you we had come to take what is owing. And we need it to be portable. Grain, horses, gold, silver and slaveswe take all of those.'
'But you want me as a hostage?'Incomprehension turned to cold fear. She had leapt from the skillet into the fire.
'No.' She had amused him again. It was perversely insulting. 'We already have the best hostage after the emperor. We have his sister. We do not need any more; hostages are hard work. They need looking after.'
'You have Galla Placidia?'A gracious lady, one who lived closer to the people than her brother. She had stayed in Rome, not fled to the thick walls and high towers of Ravenna at the first hint of danger.
'Yes. Now come.'
Wulfric turned on his heel and studied her with the air of a tutor confronted by a dense pupil. 'With me. You are now mine. I need a household slave. You will do very nicely.'
'A slave? Me? You are jesting.' There was no hint of teasing in the calm regard. 'A ' He meant it. 'No!' Julia took to her heels. Ahead the turmoil of the street, once so terrifying, now seemed to offer sanctuary. The breath tearing in her throat, she yanked up her skirts and ran. Only a few more yards, a few more steps.