At dawn she
was wide awake, desperately tired but unable to sleep. Her
right arm was pinned under her, numb, heavy as lead. Dully
she sat up and leaned against the slats of her prison,
listening as the air came alive with birdsong. She had
spent the wakeful hours of the night mulling her scheme to
divide the devil’s house. The plan came back to her in
brigands had begun to stir, yawning and scratching around
the revived campfire, digging in the char, drawing water,
gnawing at the last evening’s goatflesh, oiling their
limbs and their knives. The chief was still shut up in his
tent. Adriana worked out various sleepy interpretations of
the fact, and discarded them all.
breathed deeply to clear her head, and tried to set her
thoughts in order. She was reasonably certain that her
interests could be shown to coincide with Stephanus’s.
The general contours of his mind were plain to her
already, and the rhythms of extortion were familiar from
the imperial court. She had never dealt with brigands
before, but she was confident of the general direction
that the chief’s inquisition would take. He would try to
tease out of her a true reckoning of her estate, and he
would browbeat her into surrendering as much of it as
loathsome Otho had disappeared during the night. When the
sun was up he came to fetch Adriana. He lifted the door of
the cage, unsmiling, unspeaking. With a hairy hand he
motioned her out into the sunlight, signaling to her to
leave Wolf asleep, and bolted the door again. She followed
The path to
the chief’s tent led near the edge of the abyss. The
rising sun, piercing through the morning mists, revealed a
spectacular array of distant gorges, scrub forest, sheer
cliffs, valleys that looked prosperous at a distance,
moist and dawn-green. Her mind strayed to the question of
escape as Otho led her along a hundred-foot drop into a
creek that she could hear but not see.
her eyes to the jagged mountains on her right, like teeth
sunk into the flesh of the sky, and felt Otho’s eyes on
her cheek. She met his glance. It was almost sympathetic.
read my thoughts?" she asked coolly.
guests all have the same thoughts," Otho said with a
all come to realize how futile such thoughts are?"
"The drop into the river is straight down, as you
see. The mountains on two sides of us go straight up. The
dogs are on the fourth side. If I had to make the choice,
I’d fall into the ravine."
reviewed her understanding of the chief’s mind. It was
useful to recall that he enjoyed a kind of imperial status
among his people, who were bound to him with solemn rites
and blood-sealed oaths. Stephanus was apparently one of
the more powerful brigand-emperors. His men farmed a large
territory, according to Otho, having killed off their
competitors between Rhegium and the plain of Sybaris. They
lived by a combination of industries: raiding the towns,
levying modest tariffs on the farmers in the valleys,
smuggling, paid insurrection, and looting occasional
caravans on the highway to the sea.
On a carpet
in front of his tent Stephanus sat cross-legged with a
young female attendant at one elbow and the Stone Ox at
the other. The chief had decorated himself with a lavish
hand, with ribbons in his grey hair, a finely embroidered
tunic, sheepskin leggings, and a load of rings, medals,
brooches, and gems that gave him the appearance of a
jewelry display. An odd sense of humor seemed to dominate
his personality. In spite of the garishness of his dress,
there was nothing coarse or thick about him. In other
clothes he might have been the real bishop of Consentia,
or a middle-aged decurion with properties in Rhegium and
an expensive son at the University of Athens.
the chief said, with a sitting bow of his own and an
inviting sweep of the hand. "It’s pleasant to think
that Your Distinction slept well?"
husband and I are grateful for Your Generosity’s
hospitality," Adriana answered, taking her place on a
corner of the chief’s carpet.
mood was good. He had gone hunting before breakfast. His
falcon sat on a perch in the shade of his tent, gravely
accepting plucked sparrows and sheeps’ eyes offered by
its keepers. Otho served wine in goblets of green glass,
sat cross-legged on his own corner of the carpet, and
cracked walnuts for Adriana with his huge fingers.
some wine, madam," the chief said with a complacent
smile, and dabbled his fingers in a silver dish of water.
"We’re not wholly uncivilized here. Consider the
drink Otho has just poured for you. It would be welcome at
the emperor’s table: yellow as gold, transparent as
topaz. It beams at you with the smile of a child. Do try
it. It’ll light up your life. You’ll find yourself
reciting scraps of Virgil and discovering traces of beauty
in Otho’s horrible face."
the wine, which had both power and grace, and smelled a
little of the goatskin. Otho offered her collops of lamb.
She took one, suddenly hungry, and found it deliciously
cooked. She drank again, raised the goblet and said,
"Long live the emperor, whoever he may be," and
winked at Stephanus.
the emperor. It’s sad that we must rebel against our
ruler," the chief said, sipping slowly. "But
what can one do? The world has always been imperfect, and
has recently grown worse. The world’s evil, in fact, was
our reason for coming here. We said to ourselves,
‘There’s a place in the mountains that looks down on
both seas. We’ll make our home there, and when our fine
landlords come out on the road in their fine carriages,
with their pouches full of money, which we dug out of the
earth for them in our youth, risking our skins in the
woods and sucking poison in the marshes—then we’ll
take it back, because it’s our own."
listened respectfully, her features locked in a smile.
Stephanus’s verbal mannerisms seemed to mutate with his
changes of costume. As a bishop he spoke cultivated Latin;
as a robber-king, he had a Bruttian accent, and his
phrases had the archaic flavor of mountain speech.
robbing is our trade, one might say," the chief went
on. "But you’re in good hands, Adriana. If it’s
true that we are wolves, at least we howl as our elders
taught us. We stay in these woods and rob for love of God
and our neighbors, not like the scum of cities who’d
steal an old woman’s chickens."
followed the wine. The chief shelled them with his own
fingers and laid them before Adriana, apologizing that
there were not more than ten. Otho, scowling with black
brows, set a vase of honey on the earth beside her, with a
little silver spoon.
some honey with your wine, Adriana," the chief said
with a kindly smile. "The bees of the South offer you
hoping to dissolve my discretion," Adriana said,
"like Cleopatra’s pearls in vinegar?"
thinking of your comfort," Stephanus replied.
told," Adriana said, "that you send people’s
ears to Rome in a basket if your demands are not
not Persians," the chief answered gently.
"Moreover, our request will be modest. There’ll be
no good reason for you to refuse it. We do nothing
unnecessarily barbarous. It all depends, of course, on the
style of resistance. If I truly dislike someone, I turn
him over to Otho here, who will break his bones in his
skin, like clubbing a cat to death in a sack. Otho’s
very strong. These things are easy for him to do, as easy
as cracking his joints. But it happens only rarely."
ape began to crack the joints of his fingers, a sound like
the snapping of tree trunks.
chuckled and winked. "One who talks about his own
habits says too much good or too much evil. It’s not
healthy. Instead, let’s speak of Your Felicity. It’s
clear that you have a large fortune."
is that clear?"
your speech is that of a woman of distinction."
a poor woman of great distinction," Adriana said.
smiled like an indulgent father.
been telling you the truth," she persisted. "If
you believe it’s the truth, good. If you don’t
believe, it’s still the truth. Certainly I’ve had
estates at my disposal in my time, but now all my
possessions are in the hands of the pope, whose
representative I am."
chief’s eyes twinkled. "By all means. The pope of
Rome often sends his personal representatives through
these mountains on foot. Certainly you own jewels?"
went to Carthage with Geiseric."
looked at the sky.
to me," Adriana persisted. "I overheard the
report of your scout yesterday, while we climbed up here.
It was thorough. Thirty horsemen in the emperor’s
uniform came winding down the Via Popilia, with their
pennants fluttering and their weapons glistening in the
afternoon sun. They entered the north gate of Consentia
and immediately began to turn over the town, thinking
they’d trapped three fugitives there. A copper-banded
chest came with them, much heavier than it looked. That
chest is the only part of my ‘fortune,’ as you call
it, that can possibly concern you, because everything else
I once owned is beyond my grasp."
expression had changed to one of skeptical curiosity.
chest is my own," Adriana said. "It fell into
the hands of Sextus Taurinus at Capua. I know the man.
He’ll have the money near himself. It’s a small chest
of cedar, engraved on the side with my former husband’s
world has many small chests of cedar," the chief
said, but his eye had sharpened.
not large," Adriana resumed. "It covers about
half the area of your lap. It’s bound with copper
outside and lined with brass. It has bronze locks and
handles, and ornaments in the shape of lions’
very ordinary box," Stephanus commented.
Adriana held up a cautionary finger, "the contents
are extraordinary. They’re mostly solidi bearing the
image of Petronius Maximus, the rarest of gold coins. They
were buried in my garden at Rome two months before
Geiseric sacked the city. Your informants will confirm all
that I say."
man hasn’t seen the inside of the box."
you’ll do me the honor of taking my word about the
contents. It’s the closest thing I have to a
‘fortune.’ I suppose it was miserliness, or something
like it, that prompted me to take so much money on the
road. Perhaps in the depths of my mind I didn’t really
expect to return to Rome."
Adriana," the chief said quietly, "it seems to
me that a letter to Rome, with an identifying object, not
to say organ. . . ."
". . .
would be useless," Adriana concluded. "The pope
will give nothing. I know his character, and he knows
chief’s face expressed his double mind. She could see
the dilemma turning like a spitted animal in his brain. If
he waited for a ransom from Rome, the treasure box in
Consentia would be gone. If he risked his men’s lives in
pursuit of a phantom treasure, he would be an eternal
object of ridicule.
must go to Consentia and take from the emperor’s men
what’s rightfully yours," Adriana said gently.
"And you must allow my husband and me to fight beside
you to prove our honor, and also to help find the box.
I’ll prove my word to you by shedding my blood if
will be murmurs," the chief complained, shaking his
head gravely. "Murmurs against the imprudence of a
leader who exposes his men to death for a few solidi
instead of peacably fleecing rich travelers."
did one last see a rich traveler south of Salernum?"
point is well taken," Stephanus admitted after a
hardly needs to be said that my husband is martially
skilled," Adriana went on, "and I myself am
skilled as well. For the time being, we’ll be brigands.
Our partnership will be better for you than our piecemeal
must fight for what is my own?" the chief
might think of it as an athletic contest," Adriana
suggested, emboldened by the wine.
seemed to work in the chief’s mind. He tilted his head
the emperor’s soldiers!" he said. "What do
they matter? They come in swarms; they waddle around; they
fly away again. But my men haven’t lapped the blood of
the law for many months, so they’re restless, like cats
that only have mice to hunt. They’ll take pleasure in
bleeding the emperor’s plumed birds, eh?"
prepared herself for a sudden, negative conclusion to his
bloodthirsty reverie. Clearly, Stephanus enjoyed springing
unpleasant surprises almost as much as bloodletting. But
there was no shadow on his crisp features, and his
enthusiasm seemed to be gaining momentum.
at Adriana and flung out his hands. "Am I getting
soft in my old age? Why do I say yes? Certainly you may
come with us. Otho will return your cutlery."
darkened a little. "You’ll prove your word by this
trial of arms, Adriana, you and the Goth. Your courage and
coolness have pleased us. But never let yourself think you
can play fast and loose with us. Either you’re loyal, or
you’re in the next world, after certain unpleasant
experiences. Do I speak clearly?"
give you my word."
Stephanus said, "our ‘word’ is only words, and
words are only wind. But I’m a generous man, and I
assume you’ll allow us to leave when the money’s
yours? That’s the usual course of business, I
Stephanus said, as if surprised that the question had
needed to be raised.
are the odds we face?" he asked, turning to Otho.
are thirty soldiers mounted, and ten on foot with
dogs," the lieutenant said. "There are a hundred
of us, men and women."
forty soldiers, there are always ten who try to run
away," the chief said speculatively, "and
another ten who are useless, like dogs without teeth.
That’s been my experience. We’ll therefore risk only
twenty of ourselves, including the wife of the Jackal,
worth two men, eh? More would be too many. Since I’m in
a good mood and have decided to loosen Adriana’s hands
and the German’s, there will be two more—no, three;
the German is worth two, like the Jackal’s wife. He’s
quick, too, as tall men seldom are."
eyes reddened with the joy of anticipated bloodshed.
"I have an old score with Sextus Taurinus. I’ll
lift his head." He glowed, with a lateral motion of
the hand across his windpipe. "I’ll present it to
the chief of vultures, to carry as a tidbit to his
children on the highest peak of the Sila. Oh, how I wish
Taurinus had many heads, so I could take them all, and
give him many deaths at once!"
excitedly and turned to Adriana. "It’s the best
game of all, isn’t it, madam?—until it’s over, when
the hand shakes, and water trickles down the legs. I’ve
seen many enemies frightened in battle. Ah! The cheeks get
hollow; the sweat runs from the forehead into the eyes;
the eyes pop wide open with black rings around them; the
face turns grey and green. A man will totter and collapse
in fear, too, like an unstrung puppet. I’ll see it again
tomorrow, gods and saints willing."
again to Otho. "We’ll take the road at night, like
foxes, and see what the emperor’s peacocks have in their
nest, eh? It’ll be a fine night for a walk; there’s a
half-moon, better than a full moon for those who use the
nodded, looking at the sky. It was blue from east to west,
promising a clear night to come.
nothing remained of the day but a faint greenish light on
the western horizon, Adriana and Wolf were guided to their
cage. They had been given the liberty of the camp for part
of the day, and had eaten the simple evening meal of the
brigands, boiled kid with onions, and a dessert of
sheep’s cream laced with wild honey.
slept easily at last. When Otho shook her awake long
before dawn, twenty brigands were standing in the glare of
the renewed cookfire, rubbing sleep from their eyes,
taking care not to step on those who were still prone. She
splashed cold water on her face from a bucket offered by
her guard and swiftly knotted her hair at the back of her
head. Otho solemnly presented her with her own stiletto
and stabbing-knife. She strapped both around her waist and
left the cage, ready to join the march into the valley.
Wolf followed, fumbling with his axe-belt, nude except for
a loin-wrap and boots.
warriors, male and female, had bound up their hair with
strips of red rag for easy identification. Most wore only
a pair of long knives apiece; spears and bows were
unsuited to their tactics. Impatiently they waited for the
chief’s signal, scraping their knives, picking their
noses, gnawing mutton-bones, tossing pebbles into the
gorge below the campsite. Adriana paced in circles; Wolf
crouched by the fire, lovingly sharpening Scatter-brain on
a piece of oiled slate. He lifted the death-instrument
admiringly in his fingers, holding it so as to catch the
light. The orange glow illuminated a jewel in the handle.
good to fight shirtless," he said grimly, standing to
make a circular pass of the axe under the nose of a
appeared with a dramatic parting of tent-flaps. Besides
the obligatory red headband, he wore four short
throwing-knives in a pearl-studded belt, and fashionable
Byzantine red boots. His face was radiant, almost saintly.
my children," he said, beaming round the firelit
circle, "we’ll see the rich color of an imperial
knelt and drew a map in the dust with his forefinger. The
chosen twenty gathered around him.
go down in single file to here," he said, "where
the Creek of Despair comes out of the High Sila. We’ll
cross the stream here, at the shallows. It’s two miles,
more or less, to the roadside inn north of Consentia. A
row of cypress stands here, and to the left, some pines.
Here, the forest ends in a clump of beech by the low-lying
meadow next to the inn, where oxen graze and Taurinus’s
camp is laid. Here," he stabbed with his forefinger,
"and here, the sons of the gods will put knives into
the sons of bitches who stand watch over the camp. Silvius,
with his fine tenor voice, will counterfeit the cry of a
screech-owl to give us the ready-signal."
with the anticipation of a soul-cleansing slaughter, he
turned to Adriana and Wolf.
time, little crickets," he beamed. "Are your
by the help of God," Wolf answered.
file the troop left the camp, followed by the sleepy eyes
of those left behind, and passed into the shadows of the
mountainside woods. The brilliance of the half-moon
exhausted itself in the treetops. In the gloom of the
under-forest, Adriana could see nothing distinctly as she
moved, except the tall figure of Stephanus. The rest of
the company were a confusion of shadows, including the
small shadow of the chief’s pet terrier, trotting beside
his master with a kind of excitable dignity.
the brigands moved down the mountainside like a procession
of mummies, following Otho, who knew the track like the
veins in the back of his hand. Adriana slid on the shaly
descent, waking echoes that clattered like a cavalry
division. The chief came up next to her and took her
firmly by the elbow.
be easier in a moment; you’ll surprise yourself,"
imitated the footfalls of the brigand ahead of her, trying
not to dislodge gravel or stones. The man appeared to
swing from bush to bush. Soon she was pleased to discover
that she had developed goat’s feet and cat’s eyes. Her
sandals barely whispered on the path. The whole party made
no more noise than the steady rustle of a breeze in ripe
base of the mountain range, the track widened, letting in
starlight. A treeless valley took shape below the
precipice on Adriana’s right. At a break in the woods
she could see a strip of meadow dominated by the balconies
of an inn. Six tents were pitched on it. Thirty horses
slept where they were tethered.
At the foot
of the mountain, the chief’s terrier stopped short,
quivering. He pricked up his ears and sniffed uneasily. A
barely audible growl escaped him. Stephanus halted with
his right hand in the air; the brigand troop froze behind
him. Two of the black-bearded sons of Salia the Murderer,
lithe as eels, detached themselves from the group and
disappeared into the woods. Almost immediately they
reappeared, wiping their long blades on their tunics and
grinning whitely in the moonlight.
the worms that get pecked by Salia’s young birds,"
the chief breathed.
sentries?" Adriana whispered.
held up two fingers and nodded. "One more pair and
the camp is ours."
the air and glanced at the sky, estimating the hour,
anticipating the glow that would soon transform the east.
The brigands pressed boldly to the edge of the open
flatland and arrayed themselves along the fringe of the
forest, running in a crouch, taking advantage of every
shadowed hollow in the rough landscape. A hound in the
camp woke and bayed. The chief cursed under his breath.
The brigands waited. In the camp, beside the glowing
remains of three watchfires, paired sentries sat on heaps
of skins, talking in low tones and passing wineskins from
hand to hand.
mouth was dry with suspense; the movement of her tongue
seemed like the scraping of a brush in a bucket. Stephanus
parted the branches in front of his face, stared at the
nearest pair of sentries for a moment, and then made a
vigorous hand-motion. The cry of a screech-owl went up. A
horse snorted. The chief cursed again under his breath,
but the noise had distracted from the barely audible
footfalls of Carus, eldest son of Salia the Murderer, as
he passed into the shadow of a clump of bushes by the
screech-owl’s cry went up again. Alert, his head cocked,
one of the sentries rose and slouched toward the bushes
from which the cry had come. He disappeared into the
shadows, and did not reappear.
goes?" the remaining sentry’s voice inquired
sleepily as the lean form of Carus started up a few yards
away. "Is that you, Manius?"
have a surprise for you," Carus said, moving in.
"It is this."
whirled as the brigand made a swift pass with each bare
arm. The soldier collapsed into the grass with Carus’s
short blade in his throat and a red loop of intestine
dangling out of a rip in his belted tunic. A dog howled; a
horse stamped at its tether. The little army of outlaws
surged into the camp like a wave breaking silently over a
beach. A startled voice roared in the dark. Instantly the
camp was awake, clattering into the alleys between the
tents, struggling with belts and weapons, a crush of
half-armed men stinking of old sweat and recent wine.
was a confused and terrible moment, the crisp chock
of an axe on a skull, the pig-squeal of men torn in the
vitals, the deeper roar of hate, the odor of blood that
Adriana remembered from a slaughter of sheep in Africa.
Drawn into the swirl of bodies, she lost all fear and
stabbed, clubbed, cursed with the rest. Her height saved
her often; the work of death went on over her head. She
fell twice, stumbling over fallen men, dragged herself to
the edge of the arena, struggled to her feet, and flung
herself back into the chaos.
camp’s edge, brigands cut the tethers of the
guardsmen’s horses. With torches and panther-screams
they drove the terrified beasts into the night. The chief
with his terrible grin seemed everywhere at once, his
knife-arm raised to kill, his mouth open in a war-cry that
cut through the din like a brass horn. Through the
confusion of striking and thrusting Adriana saw him lead a
charge against soldiers protecting the innyard gate. With
a sharp report the gate collapsed on top of a servant who
had braced himself against it, and the combatants trampled
him under the splintered oak as they poured into the
enclosed space. Like an armed ghost, the innkeeper
appeared with a club. Otho wrenched it from his hands and
brought it down. The innkeeper’s head cracked like a
walnut; his body pitched backward into the innyard
fountain like a bundle of rags.
soldiers fought for their lives, their backs against the
inn-walls. Above the press of struggling bodies, the
silhouette of a great axe circled in the air and sliced
down on a human form. Adriana heard the berserker
war-cry that had shaken city walls from Adrianople to
Brigantium. In a stupendous arc the axe recoiled upward
and descended again, braining a luckless mercenary in a
shower of blood and soft particles. She had a momentary
glimpse of Wolf’s face. It had taken on the character of
his totem: the lips were drawn tight in a mirthless grin,
the cheeks seemed to have collapsed, the eyes stared with
the intensity of a meat-eating beast’s at the moment of
a kill. He leaped to clear the tall, armored shape of an
attacking mercenary and whirled the great axe sideways
through the back of the man’s neck, severing the spine.
The soldier’s head flopped forward on his chest,
attached by little more than the skin of his throat. His
body slid vertically to the ground, like a tower falling
inward on itself.
roared with pleasure as smoke bellied out of the innyard
door. Moments later, tongues of flame crept through the
ground-floor windows and climbed the inn-wall in cheerful
yellow bursts, consuming the dry creepers that jungled on
the surface. Jets of flame shot out below the eaves. The
balcony above the innyard caught fire. A woman appeared on
it, pale and dishevelled, staring back at the inferno
inside. A ball of smoke burst from the door of the
inn-kitchen; a screaming slave, her hair in flames, flew
out and tumbled in a heap on the stones.
soldier, wiry as a snake, came at Adriana from halfway
across the innyard. Her height saved her again; she
ducked, and punctured his stomach with her knife as he
jumped at her. The man screamed and stiffened in agony,
hurled himself against her, felt for her wrists, felt for
her throat. Her foreleg was between his thighs, and she
raised it with all her force. His hands went reflexively
to his battered testicles. She drove her blade upward. It
passed into his chest below the sternum. He fell on her
like a tree in a storm, snapping her head back against the
giddy, she felt a blind warmth drawn over her buzzing head
like a hood. A mist seemed to descend on her. The open
eyes of her dead attacker were like black moons. The
burning inn rose majestically to an absurd height, and she
faded into the mist until nothing was visible at all.
lying against the wall. The dead mercenary lay at her
side, staring at her with eternal incomprehension. Her
hands and tunic were bloody. A semicircle of pain throbbed
from her right eyebrow to the base of her skull. She
considered the possibility that her head was cracked, but
her vision was clear.
squinted at the ruined inn, still burning. The balcony had
collapsed into the yard. The roof was gone; through the
windows one could see blue sky. In a hopeless gesture
before they died, the innkeeper’s slaves had thrown
household goods into the yard: couches and chairs, dishes,
tapestries, strewn at unceremonious angles among the dead.
A few corpses smoked and hissed in the wreckage, giving
off a memorable odor of flesh cooking under wool.
In a clear,
bloodless voice Stephanus was giving orders: any of the
Taurinus’s men who had crept away were to be pursued and
destroyed. Taurinus’s wounded were to be killed, the
corpses counted, the heads cut off and bagged for eventual
display in the forum at Consentia as a reminder to the
townsfolk where power resided in the toe of Italy.
giddy, Adriana got to her feet in a fog of
semiconsciousness and began to look for Wolf. All her life
she had imagined the field of battle from her
grandfather’s descriptions. Now she saw the crude
reality in the orange dawn: the dead in undignified
postures, the unseeing eyes staring, the clawlike hands
grasping at a vanished reality, the faces twisted into
unnatural expressions, as if frozen at the height of an
approached the chief and touched him on the shoulder.
the uncompromising light of dawn," Stephanus said in
a gently bantering tone. "It makes the worst of a
battlefield and a woman’s face."
you seen my husband?"
pointed and made a little bow.
She ran to
the spot, where the brigands were assembling their
wounded, dumping them on the ground like logs. Some of the
brigands had battered heads. One had exposed entrails,
like blood-flecked sausage. Some twitched; others were
still. Wolf lay with his eyes closed, moving a little in
half-conscious pain while the warlike wife of the Jackal
sponged his cuts with a linen rag.
man!" the brigand-woman exclaimed. "He leaped
and struggled like a crazy ape, denting heads like eggs,
and making men fall down at the roar of his voice."
my husband, I’ll look after him," Adriana said, and
the wife of the Jackal nodded and went away.
pounded like a hammer. She knelt down by Wolf and lifted
his head into her lap. He was either unconscious or in a
doze, exhausted after his berserk excesses. With
the linen rag she bathed his right shoulder, crimson where
a sword had glanced off it. He opened his eyes and smiled
only my shoulder, I need to sleep," he mumbled, and
closed his eyes again.
his face and body until the skin showed clear. He was
substantially uninjured: small cuts and bruises, the
shallow sword-cut on the shoulder, a deeper gash on the
sword-arm. There were bruises on his waist and legs. A
sweep of his own axe had cut through the leather of his
left boot, grazing the flesh.
the leg-wound, called for strong wine, tore a wide strip
of cloth from the rear of his tunic and soaked it in the
liquid. She bound the linen against the torn flesh. Wolf
down," she said.
grazed you pretty well around the arms."
leg is sore," he said, making the discovery.
be sore in about five other places."
the wineskin to his lips. He drank deeply. She took a pull
on the skin herself. The drink brought color to their
the best thing for wounds," she said. "It can be
applied both inside and out."
is blood on you," he said, squinting at it.
blood isn’t mine."
the inn, the long rays of the sun, pouring over the
treetops, froze the headless dead in relief. Blood manured
the meadow at the low points. In a corner of the
nightmare, the innkeeper’s wife, with her robe pulled up
over her head, crouched above her husband’s corpse. Her
curses rode heavily on the morning breeze: May your
souls wither like dried toads, O pigs and devils of
assassins. May the Fiend of the Pit bind you lip to lip
with Judas Iscariot when they burn you in the Seventh
Hell. May you be sucked forever by the foul lips of the
Eternal Worm. . . .
ready to walk," Wolf said, getting up and reeling
slightly toward Adriana.
She put her
head under his left arm, and her right arm around his
waist. They joined the homeward procession of brigands,
variously disabled. The inn-wife’s curses pursued them
up the mountain. The corpse-strewn encampment was
otherwise silent and desolate: the carcass of a horse, a
bale of grass, an empty tent, its entrance-flap shifting
idly in the breeze. The dreadful moment would be forgotten
by all but a few. The bones of the slain legionaries would
be stripped; gorged vultures would sleep above them in the
noonday sun. In time only whited bones and shreds of
uniform would be left where Taurinus’s men had died.
soldier I killed was only a big boy, like you," she
said, turning to Wolf, and her voice broke. She bit her
it worth it?" she began again. "When I was
little I watched a tall man die in my grandfather’s
arms, a drunken Celt who’d run wild, and the other serfs
had hacked him up. He was two heads taller than anyone
else who worked in our fields. I wondered whether a large
man feels more pain in the hour of his death than a small
man does. I still don’t know."
with noiseless little sobs. Waves of distress rolled up in
her from somewhere below the heart and broke behind her
dry eyes. Wolf gathered her to his chest and poured wine
between her lips, murmuring softly to her in German and
stroking her matted hair.
brigand-camp was ecstatic at the heroes’ return; revelry
began at once and lasted all day. Adriana went to her cage
without prompting and fell asleep immediately on her
filthy pallet. Wolf collapsed beside her with a groan. Her
sleep was troubled, as if she had taken an unsatisfactory
narcotic. She moved from one tortured dream to another in
a thick green haze, cutting a soldier’s bicep in half
with a blood-rusted blade, burying a dagger under a
breastbone like an icicle in a snowdrift, drowning in
blood that gushed from a young German’s mouth.
once to urinate in a little basin and ask for water. Wolf
slept, wincing now and then from his wounds. The campsite
was littered with mutton bones and empty wineskins; the
wounded and the revelers howled together. The chief was in
his tent, raving. At the camp’s edge a dozen young
brigands, hardly more than children, strutted and fought
in helmets taken from the dead guardsmen. Otho, guarding
the cage, reported sorrowfully that at least one tipsy
brigand had fallen to his death in the ravine.
away, Otho," she said, and fell asleep again, and
dreamed of the smell of hot blood, the strange grieving
cry of a wounded horse, a mortal struggle in the dark,
hand to throat, sword to belly, and a lazy creek of blood
meandering among the pebbles of an innyard and gurgling
out the storm-drain.
earliest hint of a new dawn Adriana woke, oddly refreshed,
while the camp lay exhausted. Otho dozed in a nest of
chestnut-litter with his ugly head resting against the
cage-slats. Her thoughts presented themselves in cool, dry
array, like roots in a cellar; she was free of
inconvenient emotion, absorbed in a single concern, the
need to hold Stephanus to his word.
chief is expecting me," she said, poking Otho awake,
when the sun was over the treetops and there were signs of
life outside Stephanus’s pavilion. She followed the
monster through the waking camp. The valleys to the north
glowed orange and purple; early sunlight sparkled on a
distant hill. The morning gave her peace; she permitted
herself to hope that she and Wolf might have a future.
sat in front of his tent, still wearing his red headband,
none the worse for drunkenness, flanked by his usual
attendants and a few confidants. He was talkative and
clear-eyed after a brief rest, a picture of indestructible
health and self-regard. In front of him, lying open, was a
small copper-bound chest of cedar, not quite full of gold
solidi, glinting in the early sun.
Adriana," the chief said with a sitting bow,
motioning her to an open space on his carpet.
you find the reward equal to your expectations?" she
inquired, politely raising a hand to decline an offer of
word is literally gold, madam," Stephanus smiled,
evidently in an expansive mood. "Frankly, Adriana,
I’m pleased, very well pleased, not only on account of
your generous gift brought to us by Taurinus’s men, but
because we fought well. I, in particular, fought well.
Yesterday made me younger. I’m satisfied that I still
have blood in these old veins. Generations of
children"—he made a wide gesture toward the
mountains—"will sing how at seventy years of age I
rushed against Taurinus’s armored men with nothing but a
dagger in my hand, killed half a dozen of them, and then
climbed through the mountains to enjoy a glass of wine in
my tent. Your husband is well, I trust? He fought like a
well." She had watched Stephanus’s face during his
monologue, trying to read her future in it.
enemy Taurinus," the chief grinned ferociously,
"outlived his men, thanks to me, but only briefly.
The man was a moral cripple. He tried to cheat me out of
He took a
long sip of wine, warming to his story.
took the swine by the throat with these hands, and I
stared into his shifty eyes. ‘The chest of gold, pig,’
I said in my best preaching voice, which is always
frightening to evildoers. ‘My lord, there’s no
chest,’ he said very earnestly, but his eyes betrayed
him. ‘We don’t need another mouth to feed, do we?’ I
said to Otho here, and he drew his red knife. Taurinus
moaned when he heard the sheath sucking wet steel.
‘It’s in the woods, my lord,’ he said, ‘for
God’s sake don’t cut the throat of an unbaptized
man.’ ‘You’ll live until you’ve been baptized,’
I said. I instructed my men to baptize him."
shrugged and smiled. "I gave my word, and I kept it.
He was better off to die quickly after baptism. I could
have brought him back here to amuse our people, who’ve
suffered much at the hands of the military. Our women
would have killed him slowly, and sent his head to his
mother in a basket of apples."
his men are dead?" Adriana asked.
but two, Adriana, two little yellow men who fought like
spirits from hell and vanished," he snapped his
fingers, "at dawn."
Her stomach contracted.
given your word to me, also," she said, and glanced
at each of the chief’s attendants and Otho in turn. All
but two of them had heard the promise. Their faces were
word?" the chief repeated, with a look of perfect
depends on the word of honorable people," Adriana
said in a cool, tutorial voice. "I know you to be a
man of honor, as these people do. Of course you won’t
fail to keep your promise to release my husband and
shivered, reluctant to breathe, as if breathing could lock
the doors that were about to open on her captivity. A part
of her hoped; the rest had resigned itself to being
starved, dismembered, and buried like a rotten sheep.
make marvelous robbers, both of you," he said.
"I’ve never seen anything like your husband when he
fights, with the German war-light in his pale eyes, and
that axe whirling around his head like a silver
have confidence in your word," Adriana said simply,
praying that the unwilling witness of Stephanus’s
lieutenants would carry her through. She felt stripped,
helpless, ready for anything but a slow death. The
attendants watched her with expressionless eyes. One
scratched his crotch with a long thumb. Another fingered
the silver beetle at his neck.
women!" the chief grunted at last, and spat over his
shoulder. "They’re like monkeys with parrots’
heads. Go, then, if you’re so eager to escape our
briefly into his goblet, as if considering whether to
change his mind.
would have been within my rights to send a lock of your
hair to the pope," he said at last, "but greed
has never disfigured my character."
scratched a map in the dust before him.
suggest that you disappear for a while," he said.
"Go south on the highway until you reach the fork in
the river, which you’ll recognize when you see it.
Follow the stream to your left, until the farms give way
to the forest. The high valleys are never visited by the
law—or by us, either, because there’s no money up
there. You won’t be found by your enemies. ‘They will
seek, but they shall not find.’"
guffawed, pleased with his scriptural wit.
was waking now; there were sleepy movements around the
dead fire. A smell of unwashed animals and humans drifted
over the campsite.
chief’s eyes were lit; the project to hide Adriana
seemed to be capturing his fancy. He issued orders for
fresh tunics and sandals. Adriana stepped into his tent,
discarded her dirty rags, and changed into the crisp,
rough clothing that Otho brought for her. She rejoined the
chief’s circle. The men eyed her hungrily; there was a
light clatter of applause, which surprised her and made
her cheeks burn.
brigands brought Wolf, clutching him by the upper arms,
like trainers managing a bear. He rubbed sleep from his
baffled eyes. His guards had dressed him in sandals and a
serf’s tunic, clean but too small, that strained against
the steely outlines of his body. They had given him his
own knife and axe, and a little German shield of ash with
a triple covering of ox-hide.
to the chief’s circle. Adriana made a little speech of
thanks. The brigands applauded in earnest. Their faces
showed a change of attitude, if not of character. Adriana
began to believe that she might be free.
must see that the Lady Adriana enters Carthage in
style," the chief said, dropping two siliquae from
his own purse into a bowl, and passing it among his
attendants. The men responded as liberally as their
gambling losses would allow. The Tooth Puller put two
silver pieces in the bowl; the Nutcracker, a surly wretch
who had talked loudly of cutting off ears, contributed
four. There were enough small coins to support the two
travelers for a week. A sorrowful-looking woman brought a
sack carrying last night’s mutton-bones, a goats’-milk
cheese, bread, and a skin of wine.
then," Stephanus said, rising.
to her feet and inhaled deeply. The morning sky was
flecked with little snowy clouds; the air was full of
pine-resin. The landscape west of the campsite looked
almost pastoral in the crisp sunlight.
followed Stephanus to the border of the camp, leading Wolf
by the hand. Brigand-faces followed her; eyes watched from
under billows of greasy hair: dark eyes, red eyes,
curious, resentful, generous, malicious eyes. A girl
whistled and snapped her fingers at Adriana. Another
squeezed one of her breasts, pointing it at Wolf, and
laughed with broken teeth.
Hercules, she didn’t squeak like a mouse," the
Stone Ox said to Salia the Murderer. "No, she
scratched like a cat."
At the edge
of the camp the chief towered over his assembled people
like an angel of the Apocalypse. He saluted Adriana and
Wolf with an open palm.
she said, and bowed, her heart in her throat. "We are
bowed. "Your Courage has been an exemplary
chief’s speech was that of the bishop again, but his
smile was opaque. Was he changing his mind?
again, and Wolf bowed. She walked. A brigand knelt to kiss
her hand. She patted his greasy curls. She picked up a
grubby child as she walked, kissed it, and set it down to
a round of applause and laughter. The last brigand dropped
away, the last child, the last capering dog.
back, she quickened her pace. The skin crept between her
shoulder-blades. She half-expected a rough hand to be laid
on her neck, or a rock to strike her from behind. She
squeezed Wolf’s hand and walked close to him, consoling
herself with the rhythms of his indestructible body and
the subdued clank of war-machinery at his waist.
She led him
westward, climbing down Stephanus’s mountain and along
the flank of another. From the direction of Consentia she
heard the faint bleating of sheep and the bark of
farm-dogs. The brigand camp receded into the past, like
Rome itself. Adriana’s mind turned to the pope’s ring,
hidden in a patch of scrub whose configuration she had
rehearsed a hundred times.
raced ahead of her, darting through the woods and stirring
the fragments of every decayed stump. She remembered two
pines like sentinels on either side of a
charcoal-burners’ track that struggled up the heights
from Consentia. Would she miss the trees, coming from an
through raw scrub now, with only the suggestion of a path
to guide her. She stopped at a place that seemed familiar,
sweating in spite of the coolness of the day. She had a
clear sense of the westward slope of the land, but the
topography was meaningless. Trees stood round her like the
pillars of a ruined temple. Broad alleys stretched in
every direction. There seemed to be no way or many ways to
anywhere, one as good as another.
followed the track a hundred feet further, and saw the
paired pines as clearly as if she had approached them from
the west. She quickened her pace, pulling Wolf off the
path and pushing southward through dry, waist-high
brambles that snatched at her tunic: thirty paces over
stony ground to a chestnut with the bark stripped off its
base; seventeen paces southwest to a lichen-covered
boulder; ten paces due south to the pine stump, half
concealed by a laurel-bush.
her remaining connection with the world from which she had
come. Her heart galloped out of control. The morning sun,
striking through high foliage, seemed to carry a chill.
She was on her knees before the stump, clawing, scattering
chunks of rot. Some part of the little cache of treasure
remained. She teased it out with two forefingers. The
money was gone. The Pope’s ring dropped between her
knees. A scrap of papyrus fell after it.
unrolled the tiny scroll and read aloud. The message was
in a clear, childish hand. Wolf peered over her shoulder.
the Hunter to the Lady Marcella Adriana, greeting: I
take the liberty of paying myself the agreed sum from
Your Felicity’s store. I pay myself an additional sum
for your safe delivery from the household of Stephanus,
who promised your life to me. I praise the gods that
there is just enough in the stump to cover my fee. I
leave you the ring of the Christian pope, so you may
know that worshipers of the old gods are not without
generosity. I wish you the best blessings of Fortuna and
the Twelve Major Gods. Farewell.
Lucius," she said, not without sadness.
The air was
luminous; a faint south wind murmured in the pine tops.
Somewhere in the solitude, a thrush began to sing.