Authors: John James
‘Nonsense,’ said Occa. ‘No story ever started by stealthily slipping through gates unguarded in day undiminished.’
‘Have you no piety?’ asked Donar. ‘No sense of achievement? A feat at the first gives the Gods greater glory.’
The Germans speak like that when they want to be formal. I could talk their language fairly well by now, and I thought I might try my hand at ceremony one day. At that moment I was content with saying, ’Watch out for your necks on the other side.’ And I went up to my room. I had a couple of hours’ sleep, and then I began to dress for my visit to Julia. I was still thinking about Donar sneaking out of the town in the dark, probably leaving behind a handful of bad debts and a couple of sweethearts in the family way.
I had some dinner in my room, and then I set out for Julia’s. I crossed our courtyard, and the gate keeper opened up for me. I stepped out into the dark street and stood for a moment with the open gate at my back. I looked about. In a sheltered alcove a little way along there were two men standing. They were not in the least concerned with keeping out of the moonlight, but only with keeping out of the wind. They were easy to recognise, even at that distance. As I looked at the two watchers, someone seized my arm from behind and pulled me back into the courtyard.
‘Have you no sense?’ asked Aristarchos. ‘Haven’t you seen them?’
‘Seen them?’ I tried to be reasonable. ‘They’ve been on my trail all day. I paid for their dinner, but they didn’t eat it.’
‘Two of my lads did. They told me about it. Do you know who they are?’
‘Yes. Two clerks from Headquarters Century.’
‘So? Who’s afraid of that weedy pair? I didn’t even bring a sword out with me. I don’t think either of them has handled a weapon since they did recruit drill.’
‘No,’ said Aristarchos very slowly, as if he were speaking to a foreigner, or to a child. ‘No, not that kind of man. You don’t use that kind of man to kill. I don’t, anyway, and that’s my job, and it’s Scapellus’s job too, and he’s been at it a lot longer than I have. No, that kind of man you use for following and watching, because they do it so well. You use others for killing. I know I would, so Scapellus will.’
‘Do you think that illiterate squarehead can get the better of Greeks like us?’ Scapellus was half German, they said, and the best part of his education he’d got in the barrackroom. Aristarchos was sounding a bit scornful, so there was no harm in buttering him up a bit, even if he was only a Thracian with a thick accent.
‘I don’t know what they’re watching for, and anyway, Scapellus hasn’t any civil jurisdiction … has he …? I’ve got a week before he comes back, and I never knew a quartermaster who couldn’t be bribed.’
‘Let us look at this in detail,’ said Aristarchos smoothly, very much one Greek to another. ‘First of all, they’re watching for you to call on Julia. You’ve been seen before, you know. All Scapellus wants to do is catch you on the premises. Secondly, you haven’t got a week. Scapellus didn’t go to Carnuntum, he only went as far as the tenth milecastle on the river, and he’s coming back by dawn. I did the ration documents for the escort, so that’s how I know. And thirdly, it isn’t only that pair watching. When Scapellus comes back tomorrow, he’s going to find you trussed up and waiting for him.’
‘Now, now,’ I said, ‘that’s going a bit far. Julia wouldn’t let me down like that. Nor the house slaves either, they’re under the thumb.’
‘House slaves don’t come into it. They’re under lock and key. So is Julia, and she’s got that Syrian, Publiolus’s wife, to chaperone her. You didn’t know you’d been seen there too, did you? And then there’s Manlius’s wife, in our regiment, to chaperone them, and that’s how I know. So look, Photinus, don’t go up the street tonight, because a couple of those boys will hustle you in through that door whether you like it or not. And if you don’t go up the street tonight, walk carefully the next few days. If Scapellus
comes home and finds the trap sprung and empty, he might come calling.’
‘So what do I do now?’
‘Sit tight and stay indoors for a bit. Now it’s clouding over, I’m going to run for it. If they let Scapellus think I tipped you off I’m for it.’
He slid through the gate into the dark. I knew that when he had been farther down the river, he had had a reputation as a horse thief. Now he moved like it.
I closed the gate and thought hard. If Julia was crying her heart out with the Syrian, there was no knowing what they were plotting between them. I might not have Scapellus round at once, but I’d probably have Publiolus at the door first thing in the morning. How long was I to stay indoors? A week? A month? Even if I did stay inside, there was nothing to stop Scapellus and his bullies from pushing the door in. And once husbands began to think over Julia’s troubles – nothing could hide Scapellus coming back five days early – there was no knowing who might be coming round.
So what was I to do? I could hardly leave Vindabonum; I was, however you looked at it, under arrest. Anywhere else I could just have got out of town, just like I did at Ostia, when the husband came back, and after that unfortunate affair with the pimp in Alexandria, and as for Tyre, I never thought I’d find a Levantine who’d play with my dice. But in each of those places I had a ship to get back to and comrades who were at least as deep in it as I was. But there was no travelling about the Empire for me, with a pack of vengeful husbands all eager to put me under arrest. I was trapped, with the river at my back. Then it struck me. A river is a road, water is a way. I slipped through the internal gate into Otho’s courtyard and went into his office. Otho and Donar looked at me curiously. Occa was greasing his boots.
‘Don’t go for an hour or so,’ I told them. ‘I’m coming with you.’
I went straight back to my own room and called Ursa.
‘Quick,’ I told her, in German. ‘Get me some German clothes. Shirt, trews, short cloak, sandals. Quick.’
Out of the cupboard I heaved a leather bag with a shoulder strap, made for a pack mule once but better this way. In it I put my best sky-blue silk tunic and a spare pair of sandals. I had a few pieces of silver handy, but after what I’d heard I didn’t think it worth taking gold. I looked round and found one or two pieces of silver plate, old-fashioned embossed stuff. Then I took a leather water bottle with a strap, one I used to use out hunting.
If I were going north to meet the Amber Kings, I thought, I needed a king’s clothes. I had a helmet, no, not a helmet, a cap of boiled leather, all covered and patterned with gold leaf, and this I put in, and a cuirass to match, for show not for war, soft leather and gold wire. These had come from the east somewhere, long ago, and had caught my fancy. I took a sword, the first I learnt to use, a Kopis, pointed, curved, one edge razor-sharp, the other finger-thick, blunt, the bone breaker, a fine hilt, but a plain scabbard. The general effect was of something meant for real use, but I knew well the metal wasn’t of the best.
I was writing a letter to my father when Ursa came back with the clothes. She had a complete German suit, red woollen shirt, and red and yellow checked trousers. It was unworn, and a perfect fit; she must have started making it for me weeks before. Trousers are funny things to wear. You can always feel them on your legs. It takes you a long time to get used to riding a horse in them, the cloth spoils the contact with the beast’s side.
She didn’t bring me a German cloak. They are short. She
brought me my own long grey horseman’s cloak, down to my heels.
‘This is good for blanket, sleep in it,’ she told me. I finished the letter to my father. I stood up to go. Ursa threw her arms around my neck.
‘Rejoice,’ she said; she said it in Greek, it was one of the few words she knew, then in German:
‘Rejoice. Joy goes with you. Joy awaits you. Joy sends you on. Rejoice.’
I went down into our courtyard on the soft German sandals. Hobnails are no use out there beyond the Frontier, there are no paved roads. I went through the postern into Otho’s courtyard, right under the town wall. The others were there, and a crowd of slaves, all talking at once.
‘When do we start?’ I asked Occa.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Somebody’s gone to get the ladder.’
This shows what a state the river frontier was like then, you could build houses right up against city walls, inside anyway. One of Otho’s slaves brought a ladder and set it against the wall. There was a sentry on top, walking about.
‘What about him?’ I asked.
‘He won’t see anything,’ said Otho. I wondered how much that had cost. It wasn’t only paying the sentry, the firm had probably had to pay the Guard Commander as well, and almost certainly somebody in the Legion Headquarters had a hand in the purse.
‘How many has he been paid not to see?’ I asked. I didn’t want Scapellus over the river after us first thing.
‘Any number,’ said Otho. ‘Up you go.’
I hate ladders on land. It’s one thing climbing on a ship, but quite another when you only have the hard ground to fall on. I followed Donar up the ladder clinging on as tight as I could. Occa kept on pushing me. We got on to the top. The sentry turned his back on us. Otho shouted up,
‘Have you got the rope?’
Donar threw one end of a rope down, and half a dozen of Otho’s slaves tailed on to the end of it. Then one by one we slid down the other side of the wall. We made enough noise to wake
Morpheus, especially as each of us was carrying two fourteen-pound bags of silver coin.
We walked down a path to the river side.
‘How do we cross it?’ I asked. ‘The ferry stopped hours ago.’
‘You’ve been at sea,’ Occa told me. ‘You’re going to row.’
If I had, I’d not rowed, I’d sailed like a gentleman. Out to Tyre in furs and honey, Tyre to Alexandria in cedarwood, Alexandria to Ostia in wheat, and a trooping run home. One year at sea, it showed me the world. I didn’t want to sink to rowing.
It wasn’t as bad as that. There was a small, illegal boat hidden in the reeds just where any legionary would have looked for it – more expense, I thought, and all for sentiment’s sake. I was able to let her go down with the current and land up on the other side of a bend, where a man had been showing a lantern at intervals. I suppose it was another of Otho’s contacts. He had three horses for us. those small scrubby things, and a great luxury, saddles, which were just coming in in those days. Most people out in the north just rode on blankets thrown over the horses’ backs. We mounted and off we went. I was in the middle. The others seemed to know where we were going.
We rode for days. Some people talk as if the lands outside the Empire are quite different. In fact, it’s just the same at first. For a couple of days we went along stretches of agger, roads laid by the army in Domitian’s campaign ten years before, unused since and now breaking up under weather and time, not wear. All the country was like that. The people were the same as on our side of the river, the clothes were the same, the language, the houses, the food. But it was all a bit shabbier and second-rate. The houses weren’t as clean as the German houses around the walls of Vindabonum, and that means they were foul.
After the first few days we didn’t pass many houses. When I came back that way I began to realise how skilfully Occa had planned his march to take us out of people’s sight and earshot. Usually we rose at dawn and rode off at once. We would stop at noon and rest the horses and eat, and after an hour or two set off again till sunset. We had dried meat and twice-baked bread with us. Once or twice Occa went off with his bow and got a deer, though it was really out of the season, and we called at farms and
bartered the meat and hide for carrots and cabbages that had been stored through the winter.
We followed the Marcomen’s river, a little east of north through the empty hills. One day, a little before sunset, we came out of the wood, the scrubby patchy stuff you get near a river, into an open space. In the middle there was an oak, a very old oak, dead, blasted and scarred by lightning. Occa stopped and held up his hand.
‘The God has been here,’ he said.
‘That was a long time ago,’ I told him.
‘Yes, seven years ago, in July,’ he replied. I had not realised that his knowledge of the way was so exact or so recent. He went on, ‘There is something new. Can a dead tree put forth a new shoot, or the dry rock a living branch? It is new that the oak should send out ash, or the dull rock smite as a smith. From here it looks like a splinter, hanging vertical from the trunk, but it is new. Do as I do.’
As I watched Occa took out his water bottle and poured a few drops out on the ground, as a libation. This was mere politeness, a greeting to the sky-god. As we rode forward behind him we saw that the ground was scattered with horse skulls and bits of faded cloth held down by stones. Beneath the tree was the skeleton of a horse, whole, only a few months dead.
Donar stopped me a dozen yards from the tree. Occa kicked his heels into his horse and rode forward, hard, and as he passed the tree he grasped the spear shaft and pulled it. He let it go just in time to avoid sliding off the horse’s back. The spear did not move.
Then Donar rode forward. From where I sat I could see the muscles of his arm and back strain as he pulled, but again the spear did not move. I thought of riding sedately past, uncertain of whether they would appreciate my meddling with their German rites, but Donar shouted to me to come on and have a pull.
I clapped my heels into the horse’s ribs and went full tilt at the tree. I grabbed at the shaft, calling on Apollo to let me grasp it, even if I never moved it. My hands felt the smooth shaft, jerked it, slipped a little. I had the spear.
The two Germans shouted, a paean, a warcry, a great ululation. Without looking back we rode away, miles away up the
river, none of us speaking till we reached what looked like a good camping place for the night. I sat on my saddle, while the others hobbled the horses and turned them to graze, and I looked at the spear. It was the usual long iron head on a six foot ash shaft. It had not been in the weather very long, perhaps six months at the most, and there was only a very thin coating of rust. I’m not sure it hadn’t been greased before it was left. I got some ash and some sand and I began to clean the metal.