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Chapter 13

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She left Firmus’s fortress with an odd mixture of relief and apprehension, blowing a kiss to the suffering Baudio as he labored semi-nude at the gate. When the portcullis scraped shut behind her, she felt as if she had broken out of Rome a second time.

Fully armed and armored, Wolf went down the hill in high spirits, whirling his new axe in great sunlit arcs, harvesting field-flowers and taking the tops off small trees. The morning was dry and not quite cool, weather for clear thinking. Lucius tormented His Grace’s hindquarters with a willow switch as the donkey clattered downhill. The boy’s chest swelled with more than his usual self-regard. Adriana thought she knew the reason behind the swagger. It was unlikely that Romana had spent the night grieving.

Firmus’s villa disappeared behind a stand of mastic; the wilderness asserted itself suddenly, a cross between a swamp and a desert. Wolf set a brisk pace, moving a little stiffly in his chain-mail.

"Aren’t you glad to be out of there?" Adriana asked. "One would’ve had more rollicking good fun in an evening of prayers for the dead."

"I enjoyed seeing your cousin dance," Wolf said slyly.

"She reminds me of a pigeon with three legs," Adriana said.

The delicious absurdity of her circumstances amused her. She smiled to herself as she walked. She had known Wolf for hardly more than a week, and she was sure that he had always been a part of her. The entire court of Rome might materialize on the highway and denounce her as an infatuated fool, but not by the smallest detail could they alter the reality that she and Wolf were one.

In all other respects her life, like the world itself, was dissolving into chaos at the margins. The margins seemed to lie on both sides of a thread stretched between the pope on one end and King Geiseric on the other. Were there any solid certainties left? She numbered them as she walked. Quintus was still a fact of her life, though by now a client of sorts, rather than a lover. With Wolf’s help she would get him out of Carthage, not for devotion, but for the sake of her word to Leo. Meanwhile, the palace, the farm, and the servants were safe in the pope’s custody.

What else? She laughed softly and shrugged. Lucius turned to her with a questioning expression.

"Do I guess the reason for your inflated chest, little one?" Adriana asked, raising her eyebrows.

His red ears satisfied her that the disappointed Romana had come to console herself in the stables. There was a suggestive silence.

"Oh, I was superb!" Lucius crowed at last, slapping His Grace’s hindquarters and making the donkey jump. "The gods who gave me a love-member worthy of themselves. . . ."

". . . gave you strength to satisfy my insatiable cousin," Adriana completed the sentence. "I must say the girl and you are entirely worthy of each other, and Gallia will have to get used to being a grandmother sooner or later."

The sun was oppressive by late morning. The hills seemed yellower than further north, the inhabitants more savage. Mule-drivers glowered at Wolf as they passed, bandit-figures with knives stuck in their waistbands. Occasional shepherds watched from the hillsides, wild sons of Ishmael in goatskin leggings and dirty tunics.

At noon, Lucius bought four pigeons from a farm wife and strangled them. By a roadside spring His Grace was disburdened of cheese, biscuit, and the wine of Tarentum. He brayed sleepily at the hot sun, lay down on his side, and fell asleep, his legs straight out from his body.

"Please help me get this mail off," Wolf said, struggling. "I am cooked and dented from head to foot."

Adriana helped him.

"Woden!" he said, scratching his upper body all over. "I am itching worse than a hundred lepers."

He threw the mail shirt on the ground.

"Better this way," he said, stretching in the bright sun. "It is best to fight shirtless, or naked altogether, if there are no women present and the King does not forbid it."

The birds roasted quickly. Lucius brought water from the spring, and pulled the pigeons off their crude spit. They were done to a tempting shade of golden brown.

"God bless the pigeons," Adriana said, stripping the meager flesh off the bones and smacking her lips. "May their souls live forever in a heaven of barley and rooftops."

"It’s time to leave the highway," Lucius announced when the party rose to go. "The enemy’ll be on both sides of it down below, like thumb and forefinger, ready to pinch us like lice."

"Better to go lightly armed, as you suggest," Adriana said to Wolf, gesturing at Firmus’s discarded chain-mail. "Leave this if you like. It’ll fall into the hands of some deserving shepherd. What do we have left? A long and a short knife apiece, my stiletto, your axe, your bow and arrow. It’s enough."

The side-road, hardly more than a mule-track, descended quickly to the marshy plain of the Sybarites, where the pale spirit of Fever lingered in the stinking mists. Travelers had to seek the high points at night, stay out of the shade, and move quickly through the bottoms. The land had been saturated with blood since the passing of Alaric. It was said that if one dug a spadeful of earth anywhere along the highway and sniffed it, it had the smell of dead men’s bones.

Among the sounds of the landscape she heard a muffled, distant cry.

"Wolves?" she asked.

"Yes," Lucius said quietly. "They’ve come down to the lowlands. May the gods protect the sheep."

He cocked his head as if listening to a familiar tune. "Worse than wolves, too," he said, "wolf-hounds, yellow demons, the offspring of wolves and stray dogs. They run with the shy wolves and urge them on to evil deeds."

"At least they’re not hounds," Adriana said, thinking of her pursuers.

In the hot valley of the river Sybaris they reached Interamnium before dark, pursued through its ruined gate by the famished howls of wolves and wolf-dogs. The little town cowered behind a half-collapsed wall. The church was the only substantial building in the place. Pale light flickered behind the shutters of the priest’s house next door. Adriana knocked; the party waited in the silent twilight. Clearly there was someone at home, not in a hurry to come to the wicket.

The door opened suddenly. A woman of great size, with one eye and one gold earring, blocked the dim light of the vestibule. A livid scar ran from brow to jaw across her blind left eye; the men of the South branded their women with the knife.

She examined the travelers for some time with her good eye.

"What do you want?"

"In the name of God, shelter," Adriana answered.

"His Charity will not receive you," the woman announced, exhaling an odor of garlic and sour wine.

"His Charity does not have a choice," Adriana said, presenting the pope’s signet.

The woman took the ring without a word and slammed the door in Adriana’s face.

"She has the ring," Wolf grumbled. "Shall I tear down the door?"

"Wait," Adriana cautioned, considering whether to create mayhem. Insects seemed to be discovering her. A neighbor’s dog gave tongue. In time the priest of Interamnium opened the door himself. He was a large man with cold eyes, who seemed to enjoy even less holy peace than his freedwoman.

"I’m Father Hilarius," he said, with a barely civil bow. "The pope’s carrier-pigeons have instructed us to expect you—without much enthusiasm, I must say, because our quarters are cramped."

He beckoned the travelers into the house, an ancient structure with a brick floor and a ceiling of timber. As they entered one door of the gloomy kitchen, a pig wandered out the other. They sat on hard chairs to eat, at a carpenter’s table. The one-eyed housekeeper brought brown bread, a jug of dark wine, hard cheese, and small heaps of raisins on cabbage leaves.

"Eat," the priest commanded, not raising his eyes from the scroll in which he had buried his face. "It’s all I have."

In time, apparently mellowing, he stirred his wine with his finger and inspected Adriana with an impartial eye.

"It’s my duty as a Christian," he said, "to warn you against the swamps, the forests, the wolves, the bandits, the fever. Do you have questions?"

He drummed the table.

"None, Your Charity," Adriana answered. "My people and I will be grateful for any sort of bath and any sort of bed, in any sort of room. We’re sorry for the inconvenience."

Father Hilarius nodded and slapped the table to summon his housekeeper. Grumbling, she led the travelers to the priest’s tiny baths, and afterwards to an evil-smelling staircase.

"Be careful not to break your necks," the one-eyed creature said hopefully. Adriana, Wolf, and Lucius followed her up the stairwell, into which the house seemed to be collapsing by small degrees. The priest’s guest-room had two exceedingly narrow beds on a dirty floor, and no other furniture. The walls were thickly cobwebbed. There was an ample window, overlooking a dungheap.

The housekeeper bobbed her head, made a terrible face, and disappeared.

"I must find satisfaction for my keen curiosity," Lucius said in a voice of mystery, and crawled out the window.

Wolf stretched out on the floor, scorning his own bed. Inspecting her own bed, Adriana decided to sleep in her tunic. She dozed at last. A confused throng paraded under her eyelids: nightmare figures out of Lucius’s pagan imagination; Wolf and Faustinus dancing a death-dance nude under the moon; the ugly face of Sister Blanda; the swaying boughs of a roadside thicket that turned to winged brigands with vultures’ claws. She tossed on the hay-stuffed pallet. The frogs outside sounded like the distant voice of Flavia in an evil mood.

Something touched her hand, waking her. She shot up like a tripped lever and grabbed a dark figure by the throat before she recognized Lucius in the moonlight.

"Your Excellency is not a nice person to wake," he said reproachfully, rubbing his neck. "I hauled myself through the window because I didn’t want to wake His Grace the Christian bishop or Her Immensity the woman." 

His eyes shone in the moonlight as he warmed to the recital of his adventures.

"Adriana, I’ve found the enemy’s camp, not three miles from here. I saw it from the hills this afternoon. Like a spirit I floated through the night, which is so black that one could cut it into cubes and build a wall, and I crept up to the camp like a snake. The soldiers were all yawning and rubbing their eyes while their chief lectured them."

"You’ve been drinking my cousin’s wine," Adriana said severely, sniffing Lucius’s breath.

"Yes, but it was to give me courage, though I have a great deal by nature. Oh, I was magnificent—crawling, wriggling, gliding into their camp as only a snake can, besides myself. They’re about two miles east of here, not far from the river. They’re restringing their bows, straightening their arrows, sharpening their lances. There must be forty of them, almost all young, and not very bright, I think, because I stole this from under their noses."

Proudly he drew out of his tunic a leather sack of dried beef.

"We must leave now on two feet," he said with abrupt seriousness, "or the reverend priest and his house-slut will have us carried out with our feet in front of us. I don’t trust them. Thanks to me, we’ve slipped past the enemy’s scouts. I heard the chief bragging how easy it’ll be to ambush us on the highway at dawn. He was striding round the fire, proud as a rooster with two tails, and the soldiers looked as if they didn’t dare to grumble at losing their sleep, except there were two yellow men built like wildcats who looked as if they never need sleep at all."

"The Huns," Adriana said, with a shudder.

She nudged Wolf awake. By moonlight they armed themselves, positioning their knives for easy access. Wolf had slept wearing his axe. Adriana threw her sandals and staff out the window, gathered her tunic closely about her body, and slipped out onto a narrow tile roof. Down in the kitchen, the priest’s dog howled.

She crept to the edge of the roof and dropped into the dungheap. It was mercifully dry. Wolf was close behind. They followed Lucius across the silent stableyard. The boy threw the iron bolt on the stable door. His Grace slept just inside, in a shaft of moonlight. Lucius kicked him gently; the donkey woke without a sound, Lucius’s hand on his muzzle.

The town was profoundly asleep. A hot breeze whispered among the rooftops. A startled lizard sped from gutter to gutter, looking like a miniature crocodile in the moonlight. The noise of His Grace’s feet on the cobbles woke the dogs of the town, who barked as if they meant to break their chains, but no glimmer of light appeared behind the shuttered windows.

In bright moonlight the travelers slipped through the ruined south gate of Interamnium and faced the open road. The barking dwindled behind them. Once only, Adriana yielded to temptation and looked back along the shadowed rows of tombs, fearing the glint of steel, listening for the tock of horses’ hoofs.

She moved cautiously, aware of the hazards of unfamiliar ground at night. The heat had been so great during the day that the darkness seemed to increase it, rather than dispel it. She quickened her pace where the road passed through marshy ground. She had seen people die of the African fever, and she feared it.

The road began to rise out of the lowlands. Lucius led the party in single file up a forested slope, striding through the blackness with an unerring instinct for the lay of the road. Adriana followed his footsteps by ear, squinting into the night. At the crest of the hill, the fugitives emerged once again into the moonlight and rested briefly.

"Look there," Lucius said, pointing back down the slope, past the silvered walls of Interamnium, to a faint glow on the edge of a patch of woods.

"Fire?" Adriana asked, peering.

"Yes. It’s not dead yet, but the soldiers may have left it. We shouldn’t rest long."

In the anxiety and weariness of the trek no one spoke. Sleeplessness told on Adriana’s senses; she heard footfalls, and saw eyes where moonlight glowed on rocks and the bark of trees.

"It’s a bad stretch of road," Lucius said, "full of Evil Powers. I see their red eyes glaring at us out of the weeds, and I smell their smell. I know of men who, at sundown. . . ."

"Be quiet," Wolf said with authority. "There are only wolves around us, howling their war chant. Listen."

A curious animal cry sliced through the distances.

"Good God, it sounds like a hound," Adriana said.

"No. It’s a wolf, or a wolf-dog, or a wolf-man," Lucius said. "They’re thick here this summer, and not shy, as some would have you think. They’re said to be eating barnyard beasts."

"Good God."

The sun rose hot and damp through the unclean mists that circled the horizon. The countryside had been scorched; the acacia hedges were tipped with orange. In the swampy bottoms, water-lilies rose naked out of sun-baked mud. By mid-morning the sun burned dead-white through a high, hazy veil of cloud. The day was a foretaste of August; Nature had suffered heatstroke. In the malignant air, no leaf stirred and no bird sang. Even the grasshoppers were silent.

At noon, not a breath of air stirred Adriana’s sweat-soaked hair. Her eyes were dazzled and swollen. She turned to her wineskin for a drop to moisten her lips and found the contents hot.

"We must find shade and cool water or we’ll all have sunstroke," she said grimly.

In half an hour Lucius discovered water, sniffing like a hound until he found a runlet, then tracing it to its source. A spring bubbled out of rock into a basin shaded by ferns. The drink was so cold that it made the back of Adriana’s skull ache.

She took out a napkin containing the dry remains of the priest’s evening meal, and shared out some pitiful crusts to Lucius and Wolf.

"It’s the best we can do without a fire," she shrugged, "if we’re to have anything left for supper. There’ll be a market of some sort before Consentia. We can pick berries and dig roots until we get there."

The party ate their portions in silence, masticating every crumb.

"Tonight," she said, choking down a piece of bread, "we can find a cave and build a fire of sticks, and hang the pot. There’ll be other fires, surely, in the neighborhood."

The boys nodded doubtfully, knowing the hazard.

By late afternoon Adriana was struggling with sleep. Her eyelids began to close of their own accord; her thoughts wandered between the real and the unreal. In the parched landscape she thought she could see armed men on the move, spreading fan-wise through the scrub, snaking across a bald ridge, lining the bluffs above a dry river, ready to release a shower of airborne death. The trees beside the road took on life; the rocks changed shape and tried to pursue her. She began counting her steps to keep awake. She dozed and woke again with a snap of her head before she had reached thirty.

Wolf’s arms were hanging powerless by his sides; his feet were dragging against the roadstones.

"Are you asleep?" she asked foolishly.

"I am kept awake by the clinking of this," he answered, patting his short-sword.

At day’s end, Lucius found a spring bubbling from a cliff, and called a halt for the night. In the shadowing aisles of the thin forest-cover, Adriana saw moving lights. There were low howls, a strain passing from tongue to tongue, with a sound of embarrassment about it, as if the creatures regretted the noise they were making but were unable to control themselves.

"There are dog-wolves among them. Do you hear the bark?" Lucius said, shaking his head gloomily. "They have no fear of humankind. We must put His Grace in a ring of fire."

Lucius and Wolf collected standing deadwood and built a circle of small fires around the donkey, who seemed to understand his danger. He lay down in the exact center of the circle, keeping close to the ground in order to escape the heat. In the windless dusk the smoke rose vertically, giving him clean air to breathe. The fires brightened as night closed in; the gleaming eyes of a wolf appeared in the darkness beyond the circle. Lucius pointed out shadows stirring in the scrub.

"They won’t come closer if we keep the fires high," he said.

Darkness shut the travelers into the circle of flame. Tense and exhausted, they listened to the howling of wolves, sometimes far away, sometimes too near for comfort, and watched the smoke explore the dark recesses of the treetops. Adriana passed out leftover raisins and cheese. It seemed unwise to cook anything; the smell would attract more animals.

"They may not be dangerous to men," Wolf said, "but I am not willing to spent the night on the ground, and one of us must stay awake."

He nodded off and woke again with a lurch.

"There’s something about these woods," Adriana shivered, "that makes me wish I knew more Scripture."

"Have you eaten enough?" Wolf asked.

"I was thinking of figs," she said wistfully. "Small green figs, large green figs, reddish figs, purple figs, black figs, especially the ripest kind that shed tears of sweet juice as if a cat had scratched them."

"Sleep," Wolf said tenderly. "We will hunt figs tomorrow."

A low ledge of rock in the cliffside offered asylum. The fires were burning boldly. Adriana climbed, easing herself into a space between two boulders where she could sleep without fear of falling. Wolf followed her example, and slept immediately with a pile of brush for a pillow. Lucius, wedged between two protective spurs of rock, took the first watch for the donkey’s sake. He talked to himself to keep awake, nodding as he stared at the fires.

In the outer darkness, spots of light still moved through the scrub. The weight of sleep dragged Adriana’s head down. She dreamed of wolves the size of mice, nibbling a corpse the size of an elephant, with an inappropriate sound of cracking bones.

She started awake once, her heart pounding. Down below her, the donkey seemed undisturbed in the circle of waning fires. A night-bird cried out in the forest, again and again, alarmed by the creatures whose eyes flashed just beyond the furthest glow of the fire. An owl hooted. Lucius sat watching.

Adriana pulled her cloak up around her ears. Immediately she was swimming naked in the moonlit sea below a cypress-bordered villa, where Wolf lived with his innumerable children. An outcry, like a series of hiccups and a shrieks, disturbed her again and again, but sleep held her until the dawn-breeze stirred in her tangled hair.

She woke with a start. Her flesh felt nailed to the rock. The sunrise was cool; the moon hovered faint and white, high in the sky. The stars had disappeared. She eased herself out of her crippled position, wincing at the protest of her arms and back. Wolf breathed heavily a few feet away, rolled up in his blanket.

Suddenly wide awake, she listened intently in the stillness of the morning. Close at hand she heard an owl’s call. A second cry, too prolonged to be an owl’s, set her upright, listening. In the faint orange light that crept over the treetops she looked toward the campfires and caught her breath.

"My God," she said, and reached out to Wolf, shaking his shoulder.

He woke, fumbling at his sword-belt.

"What is it?"

The fires were dead. There were strips of hide at the center of the circle, a head from which much of the flesh was gone, a standing rib-cage, and four well-gnawed legs.

"Woden!" Wolf said, staring. "There is hardly enough left for a dog to lick."

A cry, now distinctly human, rose again from a clump of undergrowth not far from the oak. Adriana eased herself to the ground and followed her ears into the scrub. Strangled sounds came from behind a mossy boulder. She found Lucius weeping. His lips quivered as he raised his red eyes to her and spoke.

"I fell asleep. It is Fate. All life must go down into the earth."

She put her hands on his shoulders, her fingers tingling with the force of her compassion, but Lucius’s anguish was past any comfort she could offer.

*

On the crest of a lonely hill Adriana looked southward at the bleak outline of the Sila, the high mountains of the toe of Italy, dominating the horizon like the ruins of a colossal amphitheater. The forested heights seemed to promise safe haven. She squinted into the distance, hoping she could spot the red roofs of Consentia, as if seeing the goal could shorten the dusty miles that separated her from it.

Her imagination had been tricking her all morning. At every turn in the road she saw an arsenal of spears projecting from the bushes on either side. Like the fool of her favorite proverb, she looked over her shoulder again and again, listening for the beat of hoofs and the quick notes of hounds running hard.

Lucius had dealt with his bereavement by throwing himself into the journey, swinging his shoulders energetically. His small body seemed to push the landscape aside. Wolf and Adriana abandoned themselves to his lead. If flight became necessary, the boy could be trusted to find a hiding place where ordinary judgment might fail. He had a fox’s instinct for the lay of land and a hare’s for doubling on his trail; the land spoke to him as it did to the beasts, or the beasts to each other.

At midday Adriana heard the beat of many hoofs; by the slant of Wolf’s head she knew it was no illusion. The three made a rush for the roadside scrub. A train of starved mules slouched by, like specters from a cattle-forum in Hades, led by a single serf-boy.

The fugitives smiled grimly to each other and took to the road again. In a quarter of an hour Lucius raised one finger and cocked his head. Something on the wind disturbed him.

"Up there," he said, pointing to a stand of pines, "we’ll leave the highway and lose half a mile."

On the heights they left the road. Lucius moved quickly in the lead, darting through the sparse woods on a track used occasionally by charcoal burners and herdsmen. At the highest point of the ridge, he called a halt and shinned up the straight trunk of a pine as effortlessly as a squirrel. Adriana and Wolf paced back and forth over the underlying carpet of needles, waiting. The boy slid back down the tree in a shower of bark.

"They’re an hour behind us," he said excitedly, and described the long procession of black dots he had seen: many mounted soldiers, many runners with dogs, winding out of the northern hills and down the fragile brown ribbon of the Via Popilia.

"Shall we try to outrun them?" Adriana asked. She had struggled with imaginary terrors for days; now, suddenly, she was cool in the face of the reality.

"No."

"What, then?"

Crouching, the boy cleared the needles from a patch of dry earth and traced with his forefinger a crude map of the hills north of Consentia.

"There," he said, pointing, "and there. We’re at the first ‘X’. At the bridge, the second ‘X’, we’ll lose the enemy forever."

They crept through thickets and over fields of stone, snagging their tunics on briars, panting hard, slipping on gravel, bruising their toes against boulders. The deep silence of the woods magnified random sounds: a squirrel, cursing the travelers from a high bough, made more noise than a dog.

There was water in the river at the bridge.

"I praise the gods, old and new," Lucius said. "The sensible place to cross is upstream, because the shallows can be taken on foot. Therefore, we’ll cross downstream. There’s a mule-path along the river behind that stretch of willows," he pointed, "which is certain to be dry and smelly, so they’ll have trouble tracking us even if the dogs can pick up the scent on the far side of the water. On the path, we’ll walk eastward until we stop dripping, then we’ll run west. Oh, the enemy’s confusion will be absolute! Walk in the water after me."

Wolf and Adriana followed him down the river-bank on the east side of the bridge, through the stream up to their waists, up the far bank behind the willows, and back across the highway, well south of the river. Silently they picked their way westward through the woods. At a high point between two grey hills, they stopped and reconnoitered. Poised on all fours, peering out of the bushes, Lucius was like a wildcat, a living incarnation of two senses, sight and hearing. Just behind him, Wolf and Adriana crouched in dry grass and fixed their eyes on the place where they had begun, the intersection of the highway with the river.

In less than a quarter-hour, forty imperial soldiers clattered down the road to the bridge, following a pack of hounds. There were thirty cavalry, well armed with swords and spears, their standard flapping lazily in the hot breeze, their armor glinting in the white noonday.

"I’m of growing importance, it seems," Adriana shrugged.

The dogs, losing the scent, milled about in confusion. At four hundred yards’ distance, Adriana could identify Sextus Taurinus, head-to-head with his lieutenant while the cavalry behind them dismounted and waited impatiently.

The men remounted and split into three parties. Eight men collected half the dogs and splashed eastward down the riverbed. Another eight, with the rest of the hounds, went westward. The remainder of the troop spurred their horses across the bridge, up the highway and out of sight.

"Glory be to Jesus," Wolf whispered, squeezing Lucius’s shoulders on impulse.

"We’re not safe yet," Lucius said, "but we have time."

He dropped to his knees and made another sketch in the dirt.

"Those who go east will scout fruitlessly along the river. Those who go west, if they recover the scent, will lose themselves in the hills. Those who go straight up the highway will enter Consentia by the north gate. Therefore, we’ll go up the highway behind the main body of men and cross the Basentus at a shallows I know, and enter the town from the south."

Wolf led the way down from the heights, hacking a path through thickets with his sword. Thorns caught at Adriana’s tunic; great heather-bushes swept her face. At the highway, Lucius picked up a rhythm of hoofs and fell to his knees behind a shallow berm, thinly screened from the road by a stand of brush. He motioned the others down; Adriana knelt with Wolf beside her. All the wrath of the northern gods seemed concentrated in his eyes.

"I am tired of running, madam," he said, in a voice that threatened to break out of control. "It is not in my blood to run. If I were to curse all day I could not do justice to my feelings."

He gripped the handle of Scatter-brain.

"If they are going to come, let them come. I am not helpless. They will attack me in one direction and leave me in seven directions, as the Scripture says."

"Perhaps you’ll have a chance to express yourself after all," she said, listening. The sound of hoofs on stone took shape, unmistakably.

"Three horses," Lucius said, slanting his head.

Adriana crouched low behind the thicket. Wolf had his bow in hand; the sinews of his wrist shifted under the skin.

Three riders came into view on wiry little horses, a baby-fat officer and two Germans. The plump officer whistled as he rode; the notes scattered like butterflies through the dry woodland. The Germans scanned the roadside methodically, like bargain-hunters at a market, laughing in their coarse way and wagging their greasy tresses. They had eagle-feathers attached to their helmets and wolfskins draped around their naked shoulders.

"The barbarians have no armor," Wolf whispered, "and the fat one’s armor will do him no good."

He had pulled Scatter-brain from his belt; he thumbed the blade excitedly.

Adriana laid a restraining finger on his wrist. She recognized the officer as Manilius Balbus, a toady of Faustinus’s with no ability or character, who had once been done a favor by Quintus. His rank was indicated by his superior mount, a handsome bay, and by the gold and silver ornaments on his equipment.

Thirty feet short of the bushes that hid the fugitives, Balbus and his young Germans reined up. Balbus rode awkwardly; he seemed overborne by his plate-mail and domed shield. He sniffed the air and listened.

Lucius, beside Adriana, quivered like a terrier. Wolf was frozen solid, watching the road, ready to strike, the terrifying berserk look in his blue eyes.

"Come out, Marcella Adriana," Balbus called, squinting into the scrub. "You won’t be harmed. You have our word."

"They know we’re here. If we wait, they’ll bring the others," Lucius whispered. "Better to confront them now. The gods will tell me what to say."

He eluded Adriana’s restraining hand and scrambled up into the road.

"Ah!" the officer cried out in satisfaction, and the Germans raised their short javelins. Balbus smiled down cruelly at Lucius and shifted in his saddle.

"You’re really too small and ugly to be the fancy-boy of a great lady," he beamed. "Where’s your mistress, who sends you as a decoy?"

"A crust, lord, please," Lucius whined, exhibiting an instant hunchback. "I had a gout of pork-fat and four beans yesterday, nothing at all today."

"Ah, the perfect beggar-child, well-rehearsed as to sorrowful faces and tones," Balbus smirked knowingly, not to be fooled.

Wolf’s bow was poised; the arrow-tip glinted in the hazy sun as he brought his right arm back toward his ear. One of the Germans gasped and turned in his saddle, clutching at the shaft that protruded from his chest near the right nipple.

In the instant it took Balbus to whirl toward the sound, Wolf was on the highway, pulling the other German off his horse. The startled barbarian grappled reflexively, neglecting the weapons that hung at his waist. Scatter-brain rose in an arc and fell; blood welled out of the soldier’s neck, and the axe fell a second time, straight down. Recovering himself, the first German struck at Wolf with his sword. The axe caught him in the sword-hand, taking off the fingers at the knuckle. He dropped to the road with Wolf’s throwing-knife in his heart.

The berserk instinct washed over Adriana; she drew her knife and flung herself out of the bushes toward Balbus. Lucius reached the fat officer ahead of her and stabbed him in the leg. With a shriek he doubled over, clutching at his calf, and rolled off his horse into the road. Adriana was on top of him, cursing; her knife entered his throat. The rough blade grazed the windpipe and passed out the back of Balbus’s neck.

She joined Wolf and Lucius in picking through the human wreckage. No one spoke. Balbus was red and twisted, like a gored dog under a stag’s antlers. One of the Germans lay doubled up in a red puddle. The other smiled at the sky; his nose and lips had been flayed away from his skull, exposing the teeth in an absurdly facetious grin. The Germans’ horses had run into the woods. Balbus’s horse, the largest, stood stupidly in the highway, its bridle tangled in its dead master’s fingers.

Lucius took the boots off the corpses and passed them to Adriana and Wolf.

"Wear them," he said. "They’ll deceive the dogs."

They put on the boots. Adriana found Balbus’s coin-sack and removed the coins. Wolf caught up three fingers from the road, showed them around with barbarous glee, and threw them down by the corpses.

"The vultures will have these people now, and the devil also," he said with satisfaction, thrusting Scatter-brain into his belt and leaving a smear of gore on his belly.

*

The fugitives took turns riding Balbus’s horse and running alongside, until the animal showed signs of exhaustion; then they let it loose in the scrub. Their chosen path veered westward up the valley of the Basentus, stained with the black blood of Alaric, to a place where they could ford the river without being seen. They crossed, wearing their dead-men’s boots, at a concealed shallows where the yellow mud sent up unspeakable odors, and clouds of gnats hovered over the rushes. A nagging breeze blew from the south. Eastward, the brown wall of Consentia towered above the stinking riverbed.

Lucius led the way back toward the city, stumbling up a dry creek, edging putrid swamps, creeping across brown meadows, wary of what might be seen from a distance. In the early afternoon Wolf and Adriana passed through the south gate in the shadow of a wine-cart, while Lucius distracted the solitary, drunken guard. Consentia had life, of a sort: fierce, dark, hairy, greasy. Ill-humored faces glowered from every shop-front. Pedestrians collided unapologetically in the streets: charcoal burners with black hands and faces, grey hags selling poisonous wine from filthy skins, child-whores simpering, ancient lunatics arguing with themselves, half-naked shepherds as unruly and treacherous as Cain.

"Can there be a church in this awful place?" Adriana asked.

"At the other end of the city," Lucius nodded, "where the enemy came in."

They walked, threading the traffic. People turned to stare at Wolf, bare-chested and blood-streaked, a head above the rest of the crowd. At the center of town, the three clustered in the groin of a tenement near the entrance to the forum. Adriana reckoned the dangerous distance to the grey façade of the cathedral, visible due north, near the gate where Taurinus’s men must have entered the city. In all likelihood, the thoroughfare would be creeping with them.

"The question is how to get from here to there," she said gloomily, watching the forum traffic.

"I praise the gods both old and new, that’s Bishop Stephanus," Lucius exclaimed. He pointed at a tall, grey-haired person in a dark-green mantle, moving gravely out of the forum, unattended.

Watching, Adriana caught her breath. Two young men in ragged cloaks were following the holy man at a few yards’ distance. Their elbows were crooked, their hands poised at their waists, ready to pull their rusty knives.

"We’re going to see the bishop stabbed," Adriana worried, and drew breath to shout a warning.

"Watch!" Lucius hissed, putting a hand on her arm and a finger to his lips.

Carrying himself with quiet confidence, Bishop Stephanus disappeared into a dark passage between two tenements. The assassins followed. There was a shriek. One of the young men, clutching his stomach, rushed out of the alley and vanished into a crowd of peasants, leaving a red trail. In a moment the bishop followed, unruffled and spotless, wiping his own knife on a piece of ragged cloak.

"Mother of God, that’s a bishop worth knowing," Adriana said.

The churchman was coming toward them. He stopped in his tracks with a calm smile when Lucius darted forward, knelt before him, and kissed the ring on his right forefinger. The boy’s lips moved in urgent conversation. Bishop Stephanus, nodding, caught Adriana’s eye. He smiled graciously and beckoned with his free hand. Going forward, Wolf and Adriana bowed, introduced themselves, and stood silent in the commanding presence of the holy man.

The bishop was a magnificent presence, more magnificent than the pope, the sort of person who could manage to look unpretentious under a load of jewels, or elegant in a sack. His carriage was noble; his handsome old face was lit with kindly humor as he raised his right hand to make the sign of the cross over a passing shepherd.

"As to the question in your eyes, madam," the bishop said, turning to Adriana with a flash of strong teeth, "the young thief who did not come out has gone to his father the devil. There’s no civil authority in Consentia worthy of the name. Sometimes, unhappily, one must use the sword even if one doesn’t live by it. This boy tells me you seek the protection of the Church."

Adriana explained herself in a rush of indiscreet words propelled by her sense of relief.

"My cathedral is not the best refuge, in my opinion," Stephanus said, looking around and snapping his fingers. Two young attendants, rather resembling the assassins whom the bishop had ruined, materialized out of the crowd. They had the desperate eyes of the South.

"If not sanctuary—?" Adriana shrugged.

"My home is in the hills just east of town," the bishop said. "If we can get you there without drawing your pursuers, you’re welcome to stay until they move south under the impression that they’re following you."

"I take the liberty of expressing Bishop Leo’s thanks as well as my own," Adriana said.

Bishop Stephanus looked up and down the thoroughfare, made a sign to his attendants, and set out eastward in a swirl of dust, flies, forlorn children, and hollow-eyed women who stared at the newcomers like desperate cats.

"Why," Adriana asked the churchman, stretching her legs to keep up with him, "does there seem to be so little of public trust in this place?"

"Sacred innocence!" the bishop said compassionately, turning his splendid face to her. "We have the same evils here as anywhere else, only much worse. Children go hungry all their brief lives. The peasants’ crops are always pitiful. Girls get pregnant at age twelve and are grandmothers before thirty. A hundred dogs war over every bone, when there’s a bone. Routinely our citizens are tied to their beds and burned or ripped up by their lovers, or get their whistles slit by their own kin. It’s no accident that you see fear in the public eye."

The travelers followed the bishop eastward through the joyless activity of Consentia. The east wall of the city rose like a cliff out of a desert of ruins and rubbish; the bishop led his guests through the gate. He shaded his eyes with one hand and pointed to a villa, prosperous-looking at a distance, among tall cypresses on the top of a hill, approached by an overgrown road through silver-leaved olive orchards.

"We’ll take a shortcut," Stephanus said.

His guests left the road after him, climbing a bank of shale. From occasional rocky heights they had backward glimpses of Consentia. Panting, they struggled up paths that seemed to exist largely in Stephanus’s imagination. On the heights at last, they walked in the cool, carpeted shade of pines. Adriana judged they were moving eastward, by hints of the sun that angled down through the high canopy of branches.

Lucius had left the party, perhaps in his excitement to get to Stephanus’s house. Abruptly the bishop’s two attendants were joined by two more. The bishop and the newcomers greeted each other with a curious hand-sign, resembling a salute to the gods of the underworld.

Stephanus led the party on a charcoal-burners’ track, rising so steeply into the mountains that the mules slipped from time to time, generating little avalanches of stones. Adriana’s mind was a jumble of conversational fragments half-remembered: the bishop of Nuceria’s remarks about a chief of brigands whose men were devout worshipers of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva in private, though they affected Christianity in public; that their chief, the "duke of the Sila," decorated himself with saints’ relics and pagan charms, and a vial of poison; that he had lines from Homer engraved on his swords; that he was a serious student of torture, the inventor of a new kind of rack; that he had created a dozen roles for himself, beggar, monk, soldier, magistrate, priest. . . .

*

She saw a large rotted stump, like a rectangular brown boulder, half a hundred feet from the path.

"I beg Your Charity’s pardon, I must relieve myself," she said, gesturing into the woods.

"You won’t get lost?" the bishop inquired, with a little smile of pastoral concern.

"I will not."

Stephanus nodded, modestly turning his eyes to the north.

She pushed her way through brambles that tore at her tunic, and hurried to the stump, half concealed by a laurel bush. Crouching behind it so that only her head was visible to the brigands, she pulled her leather wallet out of her underclothing, deftly extracted the pope’s ring and all but a few of her remaining coins, and tucked them into a hole in the rotted wood. She held her head steady, chin ahead, as if she were urinating.

Bishop Stephanus seemed none the wiser when she rejoined him with a smile of thanks, having memorized the landscape carefully. Higher in the mountains the track showed more clearly; there was little grass and no bramble under the trees, nothing but the leaves of many autumns, spongy under the feet.

Through the murmur of foliage Adriana heard a horse stamp. Bishop Stephanus stopped in his tracks, whistled shrilly between two fingers, and shouted "Jove lives!"

Immediately the words were repeated by a chorus of male voices: Jove lives! A dozen men, bristling with knives and daggers, appeared from behind a dozen bushes as if grown on the spot. They closed on Adriana and Wolf in a circle.

"No bravado, we must think our way out of this," Adriana whispered, drawing close to Wolf.

"I am not surprised. I smelled them before I saw them," Wolf whispered, with a fatalistic shrug.

"Ah, it is you, Bishop Stephanus," the foremost ruffian said. "Did Your Reverence do well today?"

"As well as could be expected. I’ve brought a big German boy of no account and a Roman thrush with golden feathers."

The ruffians wore goatskin hats, gritty cloaks, and leggings of leather, all diffusing the odor of a hundred bathless nights and days. They were loaded with charms against disease, vampires, the roving undead, arrows, impotence, and the unpredictable gods of the underworld. They squinted at Adriana. A warm argument began. It was clear that she was the subject. References to the "golden thrush" protruded through the tangle of their talk. They wagged their knives at her and took turns looking her up and down, as if they were estimating the value of silverware.

Unmistakeably they were brigands, but they did not seem equal to their bravado. They reminded Adriana of little boys playing spear-the-Hun in a suburban orchard. She convinced herself that she saw ransom in their eyes, rather than torture or murder. Their appearance, however, was disconcerting: a lanky man with a smashed nose and eyes like puddles of lead; another whose face was frozen in a soulless grin, like the face of an evil dog; a man with a loose left eye that showed a tendency to slide down his cheek; a man whose lower jaw had been hacked away and replaced by a network of rags that kept his spittle from dripping on his chest.

Bishop Stephanus took off his green mantle. He seemed to have had a sense of humor in assembling the costume underneath: a silver-threaded belt with a silk rose tucked into it, goatskin breeches, a chain around his neck dangling a heavy cross and an array of amulets, a knife sheathed between his shoulder-blades at the juncture between two crossed leather straps, four short daggers at his waist, and a whistle on a string.

"It’s plain that robes do not make a bishop," Adriana said pleasantly.

"Nevertheless, permit me to introduce myself and my flock," the brigand-chief smiled agreeably. "I’m Flavius Stephanus, sometimes called the duke of the Sila, though I don’t favor the title myself."

The brigands bowed as their names were announced: the Boar-Killer, with a dried pig’s-foot hung around his neck; the Nutcracker, whose sport was to crack walnuts at ten paces with a throwing-axe; the Finch, who sang in a fine tenor while dismembering his captives; the Rabbit Eater; the Tooth Puller; the Stone Ox.

"As you see, we’re all ordinary people," Stephanus said.

"I bring you the pope’s choicest blessings," Adriana said, bowing to the men in general.

The brigands looked at each other in surprise. Plainly they had expected to be diverted by expressions of terror and shrill appeals for mercy. Adriana kept a stone-faced silence.

"She represents the Christian pope," they said to one another.

"Do you know what we’ll do?" one of the more talkative brigands said, stepping up to her and taking a small blade from his boot. He had a dank odor about him like the smell of a wild animal’s den.

Adriana faced him, motionless. Her attitude might have been mistaken for patience. The brigand passed the knife over her right temple, shaved off a single hair, and held it up for her inspection.

"Tomorrow," he said, "we’ll send the Christian pope a hair. The next day, a finger; the next week, a toe; later in the month, an ear. Little by little you’ll find yourself at home again in Rome."

We shall see, Adriana thought, with the calm that attended her in desperate circumstances.

"Take the finger immediately," she said in an even voice. "You have a surgeon’s sensitivity and strength in your blade-hand. Do me the favor at once."

"Eh, a cat that does not meow or scratch," the brigands marveled, fingering their black beards.

She glanced at Stephanus’s face. He would protect her from rape or torture, she thought: not for civilized or sentimental reasons, but because the gross mistreatment of a woman would subtract from his prestige among his men.

"You’ll find it profitable not to injure him, I think," she said, pointing to Wolf.

"Yes, yes," the brigand chief smiled, eyeing her shrewdly. "You seem to have trained him well. He’ll bring a good price on the market at Rhegium."

"Follow with the mules, Otho," the chief said, turning to the dark, hideous brigand who seemed to function as his lieutenant. "I’ll go ahead with the German boy and the Roman lady who’s made of gold."

She climbed. The mountain breeze had a dry chill in it; the skin seemed to be drawing taut over the muscles in Wolf’s back and shoulders. The high peaks of the Sila crowded in on all sides now, like grey teeth in a monstrous jaw, with patches of snow in cavities hidden from the sun. The cloudless blue sky seemed to press down on the mountains. The red roofs of Consentia belonged to another age, another world.

"Where is my servant Lucius?" Adriana asked, noticing his absence.

The chief smiled consolingly. "Do you think of him as your servant, madam?"

"Pardon me. I believe I asked where he is."

"Who knows? Does the wind announce its plans?"

The realization of her betrayal was like blow to the skull. Where and when had Lucius decided her probable value? At what point had he decided to break faith with her? Her despair made her legs heavy; she moved her feet by force of will. A small brigand she had not seen earlier was trotting uphill beside the chief, pouring urgent information into his ear. Traces of the report floated back to her: thirty horsemen, an innyard north of town, three fugitives, a copper-banded box mounted on its own mule.

At a turn in the road, the chief smiled gently and pointed up the path to a cluster of tents on a flat shoulder of the mountainside. On two sides the campsite dropped off into a chasm, from which the sound of running water rose. Little boys, dirty as a charcoal-burner’s brats, shouted and dashed toward the newcomers as they entered the camp, followed by women, young men, old men, dogs, straggling crones, and babies.

Faces and voices pressed in on Adriana. Hands were all over her; mouths breathed into her face and took away her breath. The brigand-women presented the same textures of gaudiness and dirt as the men: hair cropped short, fingers covered with rings, waists girdled with leather straps holding rusty knives. Their necks were hung with a tangle of charms against the evil eye: a coral horn, an ivory hunchback, a golden bell, an Egyptian scarab-beetle in a silver setting. The children of the camp were small versions of the adults, loaded with amulets to prevent their being withered by the glances of water-sprites and the Beings of the forest.

Stephanus’s voice crackled over the heads of the human swirl, a pulpit voice that silenced the chatter.

"My sons and daughters," the erstwhile bishop said, with a beatific gesture, "two golden flies have entered our web. Soon we’ll see if they’re fat ones." He turned to Adriana. "It’s time to distribute your largesse, madam."

"Where’s your coin-sack?" a woman screamed in Adriana’s ear.

She took it out.

The chief shouted a warning as the woman snatched the leather pouch: "Same shares for all!"

The crowd stood on tiptoe to see the contents. The brigands in front poked their faces into the purse; those in back rested their chins on the heads of those in front. Those hopelessly to the rear waved their arms in the air.

Stephanus raised his voice again, smiling at Adriana over the clustered heads. "Our people are eager to know what you and the German look like under those handsome tunics."

Obedient, with fire in his eyes, Wolf unbuckled his belt and let his weapons clatter to the ground. He kicked his sandals toward the fire and shucked off his tunic. The camp-women stared appreciatively; the men whistled and applauded. Only Adriana knew, by his strong gaze and the working of his jaw-muscles, the effort of restraint that the indignity was costing him.

She pulled Cousin Gallia’s silk tunic over her head, rolled it into a ball, and threw it spitefully on the ground. Four women pounced on it with a unison bellow and shredded the fabric trying for a top-dog hold, elbowing each other in the stomach. Stephanus and an assistant stepped into the fray and separated the women, clinging to each other like crabs in a basket. Meanwhile, the men cast lots for Wolf’s clothing with cold eyes.

"Your people maintain a high standard of courtesy," Adriana said angrily to the chief, as two of his attendants bound the prisoners’ ankles together with light cord, left ankle to right ankle, a length that would permit walking but not running. "I must say, though, that to tie us up this way is an offense against good manners."

"But a necessary offense, Adriana," the chief answered amiably, "since we’re not yet friends."

He clapped his hands.

"It’s time for us to show you to your apartment, where a blanket will be provided for Your Modesties’ nakedness. The nights are chilly on these heights. I trust that the vanity of attempted escape will have impressed itself upon you and your companion? The cliff and the mountain are on all sides. There are the guards, and the dogs. There is the cold. Please come with me."

Stephanus parted the clustered brigands with a violent gesture. Between two rows of coarse faces he led Wolf and Adriana to a rectangular structure near the edge of camp. It combined the least attractive properties of a bird-cage and a sty; it was perhaps large enough for a family of parrots. The chief lifted the door and motioned to his prisoners; Adriana and Wolf dropped to their knees and crawled in. The structure rested on cold stone. The bars were of rough-hewn oak, apparently cut to maximize injury to the tenants’ flesh. There was a single blanket for both prisoners, crusty as a serf’s underwear.

"It’s simple but comfortable," Stephanus beamed, leaning down to peer at his naked captives between the slats. "Your supper will be served at the generally accepted hour. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. Believe, me, you could have fallen into hands much worse than ours."

He disappeared.

What next? Adriana asked herself, not greatly caring about the answer. She was like a small animal that had gone limp in its captor’s hands, knowing that struggle was hopeless. She pulled a corner of the gritty blanked over her genitals, and draped another corner over Wolf’s. He lay beside her with his big fingers locked over his chest. His face was expressionless.

"Are you thinking of a way out of here?" she asked.

"I am praying for one," he answered.

Half the males in the camp were soon crouching in a circle around the cage, digging at their crotches, watching Adriana with cocked heads, like dogs examining a beetle. Silently they chewed their chestnuts and stared at her breasts. Their only motion was that of their jaws; their only sounds were of smacking and swallowing. They impressed her as being not particularly desperate, not even particularly evil. They were otherwise ordinary men, she decided, whose moral growth had been arrested in the eleventh year of boyhood.

A bold brigand put his arm into the cage and drew a rough hand across Adriana’s cheek. She endured the gesture stone-faced, knowing better than to resist.

"Ah, but her skin’s soft, brothers, it’s soft," the creature announced, showing two rows of pitted teeth. "She’s a fine lady who strips herself naked and washes her whole body in hot water, like a pig whose bristles must come off."

The brigands rubbed shoulders, pinched each other on the ear, nudged each other in the ribs, anticipating entertainment.

"Let’s tell stories," one grinned. "Shall we tell the story of the Roasted Man, or of the Four Who Were Strangled?"

They’re boys, after all, Adriana concluded. They’re little boys, doing their best to frighten a girl.

"Your stories are all lies," she said, "stuffed cats to frighten the mice you catch."

"A volcano!" someone shouted. "She belches up hot stones!"

"Give her a knife," someone else suggested, "let her stand up to us. Maybe she can carve her way out of the cage."

A gaunt, grey ruffian extended the handle of his knife to her. "Be careful, Your Delicacy, it’s sharp."

She took up the weapon by the blade and began to trim her jagged nails with the point.

"It’s a decent knife," she said.

The owner whistled angrily. "Body of Hercules! My best hunting dagger, like a razor, and she pares her hoofs with it!"

Laughter went round the circle, but with a note of grudging respect.

"I’m tired of your conversation," Adriana said coldly, handing back the knife. "Where’s your leader?"

"He’s leading," the brigands answered, with guffaws.

Suddenly the chief was standing above them, as if he had created himself out of nothing.

"Go away, Granius," he said good-humoredly, and cracked a short whip, laying a red streak across the boldest brigand’s cheek. The men dispersed like disappointed schoolchildren, grumbling and dragging their feet.

"I’ll assign Otho to sleep near your apartment," Stephanus said in a soothing tone, bending to address Adriana. "Otho’s the soul of honor and reliability."

Otho came. He resembled a long-limbed ape with bad teeth. He crouched by the cage, breathing garlic and stale wine. His superstitions were hung around his neck: claws of eagles, horns of stag-beetles, rude faces carved in black stone, crested serpents swallowing their tails. He examined Adriana coldly, then spat on the ground and spoke in a deep voice that seemed to come from below his stomach.

"You’ll like us better when you know us," he said, with a terrible grin. "You see that comrade of mine?" He pointed to a brigand in a nearby cluster. "The one without a nose. His old lady did that with her teeth. A very smart man, Nummius is. He trained for the priesthood. ‘Priest’ is one of his best disguises. He sent the bishop of Tarentum home to God with a butcher’s cleaver. That’s how his troubles began."

Otho laughed sharply and craned his neck in order to look at Adriana’s eyes. She tried to turn away, but could not. She was fascinated by the man’s disgusting face, like a toy made to frighten children. The black-browed monster cracked nuts between his forefinger and thumb and popped them into his huge mouth, smacked his lips, dilated his nostrils, rolled his eyes, ground the nuts to shreds. His Adam’s apple leaped as the masticated nuts slid down his gullet.

Dissatisfied with his success at frightening her, he tried again.

"Those two there—deserters from the dux’s cavalry. The big one strangled an officer in his sleep. The little one chopped up his centurion with a camp-axe when the cavalry were on maneuver in these hills. That one there is the son of a rich woman. He poisoned his mother to get at her estate. The estate went to his half-brother, and he came here."

"The chief, at least, seems semi-civilized," Adriana said.

Otho raised his huge hands, as if he were shocked at the thought. "Oh, he’s a terrible man, Adriana, the kind who burns little children in their beds. It’s said that he was fathered by the devil in person. May the gods or saints protect you from him. Even the dux and his agents are afraid of him. They grow blind when they look his way."

She met Otho’s eyes and smiled. His face drooped with disappointment. He turned from her and popped chestnuts into his mouth at an accelerated rate. Her calm felt less like an involuntary paralysis; she considered what she would say to the chief when the inevitable interview came.

At dusk, at the camp’s supper fire, the bishop of Tarentum’s noseless murderer was cutting a goat into steaks.

"I’m starved," Adriana said.

"It isn’t time for you to be starved," Otho growled, but at his whispered instruction another man brought a bottle of sweet wine, a little hard bread, and a sausage stuffed with pepper, which burned Adriana’s mouth. In time a girl came from the fire and knelt beside the cage. She blew a kiss to Wolf, called him little robber, and slid a wooden platter between the bars of the cage: two steaming lumps of goat’s flesh, with a hunch of bread and a flask of wine.

The brigands had gathered round the fire, like an enormous serf-family. The women were curiously silent. The men were droning at each other in their Greek-inflected patois, or singing through their noses to the accompaniment of a flute out of tune.

"They are like my father the king, who can out-howl most dogs on a moonlit night," Wolf said unhappily. He turned to her, and his eyes in the torchlight were those of a frustrated warrior. "I have been good, have I not, Adriana?"

"Perfect. Your control is admirable."

He was slouched against the bars of the cage, wrapped in one end of the blanket that threatened to disintegrate around his shoulders. She stretched out next to him and put her hands on his cheeks, consoling herself with the dry warmth of his skin under the soft bristle.

"I wish we were back in the house of your cousin," he said.

"Yes. The use of that bedroom would be worth the pain of Gallia’s dinner conversation."

She rested her head on his chest; he laid a warm hand against her cheek.

"I am thinking," he said, "of what my father the king did to a nest of brigands in Africa. They had their stronghold in a deserted town west of Capsa. The king himself led the march against them. We broke through the south gate with a catapult. My father set up his own court on the spot and tried the brigands himself, because he has studied the law, both German and Roman, and makes up the parts that he has not studied."

Wolf sighed, like an old soldier remembering distant glories.

"The king exiled the brigands into the desert, after taking their tongues so they could not preach treason, and their thumbs and forefingers so they could not steal from the Berbers. He did this after requiring them to repair the city gate. He made them stud the arch with the heads of their leaders. The skulls are still there in the mortar, I think."

He blinked at the ceiling. "So here I am, the son of Geiseric, looking at the ceiling of a bird-cage which I have entered without a struggle."

She watched the brigands, wondering whether sleep or the spirit of mayhem would overtake them first. Full of goat’s meat, they devoted themselves to wine, threw dice, quarreled and scuffled. In time they were all wrangling loudly, including the women. Adriana thought how pleasant it might be if they slaughtered one another, but the fury dwindled into grumbling. They settled the dispute by drawing lots. In the course of the drawing, they forgot what the object was.

As if by a signal, the brigands began to take their women by the hand and lead them from the circle. The remaining men, presumably those who had no women, fell silent. One head after another nodded and sloped forward. Soon the last brigand snored, sprawled with his feet toward the dying fire.

"Sleep, now," she said to Wolf, stretching out beside him. "Adriana will protect you."

She massaged his chest and kissed him on the neck. "God hasn’t forgotten us, surely," she murmured. "Perhaps tomorrow we’ll see how Satan’s house is divided against itself and cannot stand."

She was certain, at least, that their commercial value would save them for a night or two. Wolf slept. She was content with the small project of helping him sleep. Something maternal joined the lover in her tired hands as she cradled his peaceful breathing. The moment of closeness eased her captivity, like a warm mist interrupting a thunderstorm.

In a wooden sleep herself, she shifted her body, knocked her head against an oak slat, and woke in a panic. A chilly breeze stirred in the cage. A cry of owls sounded in the moon-silvered woods above and below the camp. It seemed to Adriana that her prison was suspended in eternity, somewhere between hell and heaven.

The brigands were motionless, arrayed around the glowing corpse of the fire, feet toward the coals, like the spokes of a wheel. She heard their snores as they slept, above the whisper of the breeze. A single, soft light burned outside the chief’s tent. Along the edge of the plateau, armed sentries crouched in hooded cloaks, staring into starlit space.

She dreamed of endless captivity: struggling barefoot on mountains above the snow-line, breakfasting on the windpipe of a sheep, dining on stale bones that the dogs had spurned, wearing the same verminous clothing for months. Wolf groaned in his sleep, waking her. She nodded off and dreamed again: of exhaustion, starvation, rheumatism, disease, and the repeated assurance that if a ransom were not forthcoming, her thumbs would be sent to the pope, or a pair of earrings with her ears attached.


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