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.
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
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
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."
enjoyed seeing your cousin dance," Wolf said slyly.
reminds me of a pigeon with three legs," Adriana
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.
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
She laughed softly and shrugged. Lucius turned to her with
a questioning expression.
guess the reason for your inflated chest, little
one?" Adriana asked, raising her eyebrows.
ears satisfied her that the disappointed Romana had come
to console herself in the stables. There was a suggestive
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
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.
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.
help me get this mail off," Wolf said, struggling.
"I am cooked and dented from head to foot."
he said, scratching his upper body all over. "I am
itching worse than a hundred lepers."
the mail shirt on the ground.
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
sounds of the landscape she heard a muffled, distant cry.
Lucius said quietly. "They’ve come down to the
lowlands. May the gods protect the sheep."
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."
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.
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
examined the travelers for some time with her good eye.
do you want?"
the name of God, shelter," Adriana answered.
Charity will not receive you," the woman announced,
exhaling an odor of garlic and sour wine.
Charity does not have a choice," Adriana said,
presenting the pope’s signet.
took the ring without a word and slammed the door in
has the ring," Wolf grumbled. "Shall I tear down
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.
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."
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
the priest commanded, not raising his eyes from the scroll
in which he had buried his face. "It’s all I
apparently mellowing, he stirred his wine with his finger
and inspected Adriana with an impartial eye.
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?"
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
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
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
housekeeper bobbed her head, made a terrible face, and
must find satisfaction for my keen curiosity," Lucius
said in a voice of mystery, and crawled out the window.
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.
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.
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
shone in the moonlight as he warmed to the recital of his
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
been drinking my cousin’s wine," Adriana said
severely, sniffing Lucius’s breath.
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
drew out of his tunic a leather sack of dried beef.
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."
Huns," Adriana said, with a shudder.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Adriana asked, peering.
It’s not dead yet, but the soldiers may have left it. We
shouldn’t rest long."
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.
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. . . ."
quiet," Wolf said with authority. "There are
only wolves around us, howling their war chant.
animal cry sliced through the distances.
God, it sounds like a hound," Adriana said.
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
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
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
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
out a napkin containing the dry remains of the priest’s
evening meal, and shared out some pitiful crusts to Lucius
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."
ate their portions in silence, masticating every crumb.
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
nodded doubtfully, knowing the hazard.
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
arms were hanging powerless by his sides; his feet were
dragging against the roadstones.
you asleep?" she asked foolishly.
kept awake by the clinking of this," he answered,
patting his short-sword.
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.
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
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
won’t come closer if we keep the fires high," he
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
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."
off and woke again with a lurch.
something about these woods," Adriana shivered,
"that makes me wish I knew more Scripture."
you eaten enough?" Wolf asked.
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."
Wolf said tenderly. "We will hunt figs
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
God," she said, and reached out to Wolf, shaking his
fumbling at his sword-belt.
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.
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.
fell asleep. It is Fate. All life must go down into the
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
there," he said, pointing to a stand of pines,
"we’ll leave the highway and lose half a
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.
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.
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.
the boy cleared the needles from a patch of dry earth and
traced with his forefinger a crude map of the hills north
he said, pointing, "and there. We’re at the first
‘X’. At the bridge, the second ‘X’, we’ll lose
the enemy forever."
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.
water in the river at the bridge.
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
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.
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.
of growing importance, it seems," Adriana shrugged.
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.
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.
be to Jesus," Wolf whispered, squeezing Lucius’s
shoulders on impulse.
not safe yet," Lucius said, "but we have
to his knees and made another sketch in the dirt.
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."
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.
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."
the handle of Scatter-brain.
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."
you’ll have a chance to express yourself after
all," she said, listening. The sound of hoofs on
stone took shape, unmistakably.
horses," Lucius said, slanting his head.
crouched low behind the thicket. Wolf had his bow in hand;
the sinews of his wrist shifted under the skin.
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.
barbarians have no armor," Wolf whispered, "and
the fat one’s armor will do him no good."
pulled Scatter-brain from his belt; he thumbed the blade
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
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.
beside Adriana, quivered like a terrier. Wolf was frozen
solid, watching the road, ready to strike, the terrifying berserk
look in his blue eyes.
out, Marcella Adriana," Balbus called, squinting into
the scrub. "You won’t be harmed. You have our
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."
Adriana’s restraining hand and scrambled up into the
the officer cried out in satisfaction, and the Germans
raised their short javelins. Balbus smiled down cruelly at
Lucius and shifted in his saddle.
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?"
crust, lord, please," Lucius whined, exhibiting an
instant hunchback. "I had a gout of pork-fat and four
beans yesterday, nothing at all today."
the perfect beggar-child, well-rehearsed as to sorrowful
faces and tones," Balbus smirked knowingly, not to be
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.
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.
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
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.
the boots off the corpses and passed them to Adriana and
them," he said. "They’ll deceive the
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.
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
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.
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.
there be a church in this awful place?" Adriana
the other end of the city," Lucius nodded,
"where the enemy came in."
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
question is how to get from here to there," she said
gloomily, watching the forum traffic.
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.
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.
going to see the bishop stabbed," Adriana worried,
and drew breath to shout a warning.
Lucius hissed, putting a hand on her arm and a finger to
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.
of God, that’s a bishop worth knowing," Adriana
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.
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.
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."
explained herself in a rush of indiscreet words propelled
by her sense of relief.
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.
not sanctuary—?" Adriana shrugged.
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."
take the liberty of expressing Bishop Leo’s thanks as
well as my own," Adriana said.
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.
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?"
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
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
take a shortcut," Stephanus said.
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.
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.
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.
Your Charity’s pardon, I must relieve myself," she
said, gesturing into the woods.
won’t get lost?" the bishop inquired, with a little
smile of pastoral concern.
nodded, modestly turning his eyes to the north.
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.
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.
murmur of foliage Adriana heard a horse stamp. Bishop
Stephanus stopped in his tracks, whistled shrilly between
two fingers, and shouted "Jove lives!"
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.
bravado, we must think our way out of this," Adriana
whispered, drawing close to Wolf.
not surprised. I smelled them before I saw them,"
Wolf whispered, with a fatalistic shrug.
it is you, Bishop Stephanus," the foremost ruffian
said. "Did Your Reverence do well today?"
well as could be expected. I’ve brought a big German boy
of no account and a Roman thrush with golden
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
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
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.
plain that robes do not make a bishop," Adriana said
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."
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.
you see, we’re all ordinary people," Stephanus
bring you the pope’s choicest blessings," Adriana
said, bowing to the men in general.
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
represents the Christian pope," they said to one
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.
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.
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."
see, Adriana thought, with the calm that attended her
in desperate circumstances.
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."
cat that does not meow or scratch," the brigands
marveled, fingering their black beards.
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.
find it profitable not to injure him, I think," she
said, pointing to Wolf.
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."
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."
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.
is my servant Lucius?" Adriana asked, noticing his
smiled consolingly. "Do you think of him as your
me. I believe I asked where he is."
knows? Does the wind announce its plans?"
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
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.
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.
voice crackled over the heads of the human swirl, a pulpit
voice that silenced the chatter.
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
your coin-sack?" a woman screamed in Adriana’s ear.
She took it
shouted a warning as the woman snatched the leather pouch:
"Same shares for all!"
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
necessary offense, Adriana," the chief answered
amiably, "since we’re not yet friends."
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."
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.
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
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.
you thinking of a way out of here?" she asked.
praying for one," he answered.
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.
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.
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."
brigands rubbed shoulders, pinched each other on the ear,
nudged each other in the ribs, anticipating entertainment.
tell stories," one grinned. "Shall we tell the
story of the Roasted Man, or of the Four Who Were
boys, after all, Adriana concluded. They’re
little boys, doing their best to frighten a girl.
stories are all lies," she said, "stuffed cats
to frighten the mice you catch."
volcano!" someone shouted. "She belches up hot
her a knife," someone else suggested, "let her
stand up to us. Maybe she can carve her way out of the
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.
a decent knife," she said.
whistled angrily. "Body of Hercules! My best hunting
dagger, like a razor, and she pares her hoofs with
went round the circle, but with a note of grudging
tired of your conversation," Adriana said coldly,
handing back the knife. "Where’s your leader?"
leading," the brigands answered, with guffaws.
the chief was standing above them, as if he had created
himself out of nothing.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
with his success at frightening her, he tried again.
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
chief, at least, seems semi-civilized," Adriana said.
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
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.
starved," Adriana said.
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.
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.
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,
Your control is admirable."
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.
wish we were back in the house of your cousin," he
The use of that bedroom would be worth the pain of
Gallia’s dinner conversation."
her head on his chest; he laid a warm hand against her
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."
sighed, like an old soldier remembering distant glories.
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
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."
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
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
now," she said to Wolf, stretching out beside him.
"Adriana will protect you."
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."
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.
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
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.