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Chapter 14

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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 disorderly fragments.

The 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.

She 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 possible.

The 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 him obediently.

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.

She raised 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.

"You’ve read my thoughts?" she asked coolly.

"Our guests all have the same thoughts," Otho said with a hideous smile.

"And all come to realize how futile such thoughts are?"

He nodded. "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."

Adriana 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.

Adriana bowed.

"Ah," 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?"

"My husband and I are grateful for Your Generosity’s hospitality," Adriana answered, taking her place on a corner of the chief’s carpet.

Stephanus’s 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.

"Take 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."

She tasted 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.

"Ah, 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."

Adriana 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.

"Yes, 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."

Eggs 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.

"Take some honey with your wine, Adriana," the chief said with a kindly smile. "The bees of the South offer you breakfast."

"You’re hoping to dissolve my discretion," Adriana said, "like Cleopatra’s pearls in vinegar?"

"I’m thinking of your comfort," Stephanus replied.

"I’m told," Adriana said, "that you send people’s ears to Rome in a basket if your demands are not met."

"We’re 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."

The gloomy ape began to crack the joints of his fingers, a sound like the snapping of tree trunks.

Stephanus 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."

"Why is that clear?"

"Because your speech is that of a woman of distinction."

"I’m a poor woman of great distinction," Adriana said.

The chief smiled like an indulgent father.

"I’ve 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."

The 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?"

"They went to Carthage with Geiseric."

The chief looked at the sky.

"Listen 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."

Stephanus’s expression had changed to one of skeptical curiosity.

"The 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 initials, Q-V-J."

"The world has many small chests of cedar," the chief said, but his eye had sharpened.

"It’s 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’ heads."

"A very ordinary box," Stephanus commented.

"Nevertheless," 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."

"My man hasn’t seen the inside of the box."

"Then 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."

"Nevertheless, 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 mine."

The 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.

"You 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 necessary."

"There 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."

"When did one last see a rich traveler south of Salernum?" Adriana asked.

"Your point is well taken," Stephanus admitted after a pause.

"It 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 death."

"But I must fight for what is my own?" the chief said.

"You might think of it as an athletic contest," Adriana suggested, emboldened by the wine.

The notion seemed to work in the chief’s mind. He tilted his head and smiled.

"Ah, 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?"

She 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.

He grinned 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."

His face 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?"

"I give you my word."

"Alas," Stephanus said, "our ‘word’ is only words, and words are only wind. But I’m a generous man, and I believe you."

"I assume you’ll allow us to leave when the money’s yours? That’s the usual course of business, I believe."

"Certainly," Stephanus said, as if surprised that the question had needed to be raised.

"What are the odds we face?" he asked, turning to Otho.

"There are thirty soldiers mounted, and ten on foot with dogs," the lieutenant said. "There are a hundred of us, men and women."

"Of 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."

Stephanus’s 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!"

He chuckled 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."

He turned 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 knife."

Otho nodded, looking at the sky. It was blue from east to west, promising a clear night to come.

*

When 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.

Adriana 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.

The 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.

"It is good to fight shirtless," he said grimly, standing to make a circular pass of the axe under the nose of a watching brigand.

The chief 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.

"Tonight, my children," he said, beaming round the firelit circle, "we’ll see the rich color of an imperial guardsman’s brains."

Stephanus knelt and drew a map in the dust with his forefinger. The chosen twenty gathered around him.

"We’ll 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."

Bright-eyed with the anticipation of a soul-cleansing slaughter, he turned to Adriana and Wolf.

"It’s time, little crickets," he beamed. "Are your blades sharp?"

"Yes, by the help of God," Wolf answered.

In single 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.

In silence 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.

"It’ll be easier in a moment; you’ll surprise yourself," he whispered.

She 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 wheat.

Toward the 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.

"Pity the worms that get pecked by Salia’s young birds," the chief breathed.

"Taurinus’s sentries?" Adriana whispered.

Stephanus held up two fingers and nodded. "One more pair and the camp is ours."

He sniffed 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.

Adriana’s 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 nearest watch-post.

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.

"Who goes?" the remaining sentry’s voice inquired sleepily as the lean form of Carus started up a few yards away. "Is that you, Manius?"

"I have a surprise for you," Carus said, moving in. "It is this."

The sentry 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.

*

The battle 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.

At the 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.

Taurinus’s 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.

Stephanus 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.

A tall 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 innyard wall.

Reeling and 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.

*

She woke 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.

She 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.

Stiff and 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 angry conversation.

She approached the chief and touched him on the shoulder.

"Ah, the uncompromising light of dawn," Stephanus said in a gently bantering tone. "It makes the worst of a battlefield and a woman’s face."

"Have you seen my husband?"

The chief 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.

"Glorious 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."

"He’s my husband, I’ll look after him," Adriana said, and the wife of the Jackal nodded and went away.

Her heart 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 at Adriana.

"It is only my shoulder, I need to sleep," he mumbled, and closed his eyes again.

She sponged 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.

She washed 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 sat up.

"Lie down," she said.

"I am not injured."

"They grazed you pretty well around the arms."

"My leg is sore," he said, making the discovery.

"You’ll be sore in about five other places."

She held the wineskin to his lips. He drank deeply. She took a pull on the skin herself. The drink brought color to their cheeks.

"It’s the best thing for wounds," she said. "It can be applied both inside and out."

"There is blood on you," he said, squinting at it.

"The blood isn’t mine."

He smiled.

Back toward 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. . . .

"I am 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.

"The soldier I killed was only a big boy, like you," she said, turning to Wolf, and her voice broke. She bit her trembling lip.

"Was 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."

She shook 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.

*

The 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.

She woke 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.

"Go 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.

*

At the 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.

"The 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.

Stephanus 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.

"Welcome, Adriana," the chief said with a sitting bow, motioning her to an open space on his carpet.

"Do you find the reward equal to your expectations?" she inquired, politely raising a hand to decline an offer of wine.

"Your 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 devil."

"Very well." She had watched Stephanus’s face during his monologue, trying to read her future in it.

"My 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 my gold."

He took a long sip of wine, warming to his story.

"I 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."

The chief 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."

"All his men are dead?" Adriana asked.

"All but two, Adriana, two little yellow men who fought like spirits from hell and vanished," he snapped his fingers, "at dawn."

The Huns. Her stomach contracted.

The moment was opportune.

"You’ve 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 blank.

"My word?" the chief repeated, with a look of perfect incomprehension.

"Civilization 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 me."

She 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.

The chief sighed.

"You’d 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 bird."

"I 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.

"Phy, 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 hospitality."

He gloomed briefly into his goblet, as if considering whether to change his mind.

"I 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."

Stephanus scratched a map in the dust before him.

"I 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.’"

He guffawed, pleased with his scriptural wit.

The camp was waking now; there were sleepy movements around the dead fire. A smell of unwashed animals and humans drifted over the campsite.

The 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.

Two 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.

Wolf bowed 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.

"We 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.

"Come, then," Stephanus said, rising.

Adriana got 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.

She 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.

"By 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.

"Vale," she said, and bowed, her heart in her throat. "We are grateful."

Stephanus bowed. "Your Courage has been an exemplary guest." 

The chief’s speech was that of the bishop again, but his smile was opaque. Was he changing his mind?

She bowed 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.

Not looking 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.

Her mind 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 unfamiliar direction?

She moved 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.

She 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.

The ring: 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.

She unrolled the tiny scroll and read aloud. The message was in a clear, childish hand. Wolf peered over her shoulder.

Lucius 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.

"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.


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