Authors: John James
After a few dozen of these blows, the shields were pretty tattered. Bear-man looked at his shield in disgust, and flung it behind him. It seemed this had to be done when you were due to receive a blow, not when you were about to deal one, and your opponent then had to throw his shield away too. Bird-man wasn’t very pleased, obviously, but he struck, and though Bear-man swayed back, the tip of the sword caught him on the ear. The blood ran down his neck, slowly. A number of the audience were down on their hands and knees at the edge of the cloak. Everything was quiet, and the torch flames made everything dance in silence. Then Bear-man had a slash, Bird-man parried with the flat of his blade, but the other with a flick of his wrist changed the direction of his cut in mid-air, and chopped sideways along the Bird-man’s arm. The blood spouted down his fingers on to the cloak, and the kneelers shouted and Haro shouted and we all shouted and the two swordsmen embraced and rubbed each other’s wounds with the trinkets from their swords. It seemed that drawing first blood didn’t mean you’d won; but the man who first dropped blood on the cloak lost.
There were a number of fights after that, and a fair amount of betting. I did well on one fight between a big local man, and a small stranger who was left-handed; I reasoned that the right-hander would be put off, while the left-hander probably fought right-handed men every week. He did too, and won in about three or four cuts.
Then there were a pair of elderly men, rather fat, who were so inept that we just threw mutton bones at them and laughed them off the cloak. They were followed by a grudge fight, in earnest, between the local expert, who elected to fight without a shield and take the firststroke, and a novice who was to keep his shield – there was much bad blood in this one. However, while the expert was circling for his second blow, and that, I am sure, would have been the end of the novice, he put his foot on a mutton bone and down he went. He turned the ankle, and couldn’t get up, and there he lay while some argued over the bets, and a gaggle of local doctors talked over whether the poultice would be better mixed with pig’s blood or with bull’s urine. None of them bothered to look at the patient, so I did. It didn’t take a moment to
feel what was wrong with that joint, not to anyone with my training. The clever thing was to do something about it. I tipped the wink to Donar, who stood ready to hold the shoulders.
The problem was finding the leg under about seven layers of wrappings, without alarming the patient. How would you do it? Just a bit of skill, and you’d never believe the things I took out of those wrappings. Mutton bones, chicken legs, a drinking horn, all with a flow of more or less obscene patter that got the sufferer and everyone else into fits of laughter. When I had the boot off, even some of the Quadi remarked on the smell, but I merely slipped in ‘
’ as a signal, and Donar pulled and I twisted and the expert howled and the bone came right.
Then I wrapped the ankle in bandages soaked in cold beer for want of water, and I forbade the expert to walk on it for a week, and for good measure I made up a charm which I have had said over bad sprains of my own since then by Germans who didn’t know me, and which went:
Blood to blood,
Bone to bone,
Strength to the sinew,
Skin strong as stone,
Oak strong as ash,
Elm at the end,
Earth over all.
Everybody within earshot wagged their heads and said what a powerful and efficacious charm that must be, and that you hadn’t to worry about who was going to do the magic as long as you had a Greek about, but ask them to do hard work … not likely. Then while Donar was busy helping the patient to a bench, which had to be cleared of novices sitting boasting and rubbing charcoal into their cuts to make them show up better, I slipped out. Me for bed, I thought, if only I can remember which is my hut.
Her warm arm slipped under mine, her warm body pressed to me. Out of the dark she asked:
‘Spear-bearer from the South, Greek going north, Joy-knower, Joy-bringer?’
‘And if I am?’
There had been no women at the feast. The serving women were not fit to meet the likes of us; nor were the likes of us, strangers, foreigners, of no known clan or lineage, fit to meet Haro’s wife or daughters. But this was no serving maid, these hands did not spend the mornings on the quern, grinding out the flour for the day. She smelt sweet, and her voice was gentle not shrill, as she said softly, ‘Come, come.’
At that age, that was a call I would never resist. She led me towards a tangle of huts, barns, stables, all mixed together. The tangled clouds raced past the rising moon. The wind caught my hair and hers and mixed them. She pointed up and said:
‘You hear the dogs of Wude?’
And indeed the wind sounded faintly, if you wished to think so, like a pack of hunting dogs belling. We came to one hut among many, and she pushed open the unbarred door. The floor was spread with sweet fresh rushes, and the walls hung with embroidered cloths. All round the room were bronze lamps, imported, and probably bought from the family, I thought. They lit her fair skin, her fine face, her long golden hair against my black, as she sank back on the great bed, and spread with furs, furs, a king’s ransom in furs, and spread over with silk, an Empress’s dowry in fine silk.
I asked her name.
‘Gerda,’ she told me. The wind howled in the roof.
‘Listen,’ she cried. ‘He rides! The wild hunt rides.’
It was daylight, hardly daylight, the first light. Donar was shaking me, saying:
‘Never know where to look for you when you’ve had a few. Lucky you didn’t go for the women, then you would take some finding, bit by bit. Do you know what they do up here?’ his voice went maundering on. I looked up at the sky. I lay on a mouldering pile of roof straw in a ruined hut. The door sagged from one leather hinge. Painted plaster peeled damp from the walls. Spring flowers, buds still unopened for the day, sprouted from the turf floor. The wind still howled through the rafters. Where was the huntsman now?
We left as soon as it was fairly light. For more days we rode across the uplands, and then through more mountains. Away to the west there rose one great peak that the Germans called the Old Father, the mountain where the world had begun. We left it behind and came down into a country of forests and marshes, and wide rivers.
Then one day about noon we were making along a forest path when there came out of the scrub two horsemen, poor men, in rags, riding on blankets, one red and blue check, the other no particular colour except dirty. They stopped by the side of the path, and watched us as we went by. They were poor. They had no swords, but they carried the long spears of the country, and on their shields the eye of love, or of piety, might make out the shape of a cat. They watched us pass, and we looked them over as we went by, but none of us spoke. Two spears would not fight with three, that was common sense.
That night, and the following night, we set sentries, that is to say we took it in turns to sit by the fire and watch for the Cat King’s men, watch the horses grazing hobbled. We had grown soft and lazy, each night we would build us a hut of branches to sleep in, our spears leaning against the door outside at the sentry’s back. The second night, Occa was on watch, when he shouted to us to come.
‘The horses’ he was yelling, ‘the horses’ – and as we got into the open air we saw that someone had unhobbled them and was driving them away. We all three ran down the slope toward the horses. Then I thought we were fools all to go together, and I turned and sure enough there was someone around the hut. I shouted and ran back, and he went off into the wood like a streak.
All he took was my spear. The other two, being spearmen from boyhood, had grabbed theirs to go after the horses, but I had quite forgotten mine, and gone down drawing my sword.
‘Easy come, easy go,’ I said. Donar was more worried at the impiety.
‘It will bring the thief no luck,’ he told us, ‘to take something hallowed by the God.’
‘More to the point,’ said Occa, ‘there can only be the two of them now, or they’d have attacked. But they must be expecting more, and they’ve gone for the others while we can’t move.’
For we each of us had, in our bags and in the silver sacks, more than a man will willingly carry for more than a few hundred paces, and there was no going to the north on foot. We argued a bit, and the upshot was that we agreed that Occa should go back on foot to find Marcomen of his own clan, and come in a day or two to rescue us. We two would look after the silver.
Occa rubbed wood ash into the pig fat on his face and arms till he was black as night. He left his cloak and wore only his tunic and trousers. He looked for a while at his sword. It was a fine piece of work, made somewhere in the Lebanon, beaten with the cedar charcoal that makes the iron so hard. The hilt was of beech wood carved into the shape of a coiled serpent, and for a pommel he had a great ball of crystal. The scabbard was of soft leather, embossed with the figures of Leda and the Swan, and all tooled with gold leaf, and sewn with gold wire. It was a lovely thing, and it took him long to decide to leave it on his bag, and go off with his spear and his shield and his long hunting knife. He moved away into the forest, silently.
I sat and talked with Donar.
‘Why did you come south?’ I asked him. It was no use asking him where he had come south from, or what was his nation, he turned all that aside, though there were some who said he talked like a kingless Vandal.
‘I came to learn more about sword making,’ he said. ‘I wanted to know if there was any magic about the swords of the Legions that carried them through Gaul and on to the edge of Germany.’
‘And was there?’
‘None at all. Rather poor iron, most of it. We make better. Even the way you fight one by one, push and jab, push and jab, all the time, is more comical than anything else. But in a battle, it’s the centurion who fights, and the cohort is his weapon.’
We lay and watched for the dawn.
‘Talking of centurions,’ I said, ‘I wonder what Aristarchos is doing now.’
‘Getting out of Julia’s bed, I shouldn’t wonder. You know, he
never expected you to get out of the way so smartly when he told you to.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He hired these two men to watch you and then told you some cock-and-bull story about Scapellus coming back. He thought if you didn’t turn up, he could get straight into bed with Julia, and if you stayed indoors for a couple of days she’d never look at you again. So he told you Scapellus was coming back … Funny thing, though …’
‘Old Occa had it from a friend in the Legion headquarters, he wouldn’t tell Aristarchos, you know how these legionaries like to spite the cavalry. Scapellus
coming back at dawn, after all. I wonder if Aristarchos got up in time. I think it’s dawn now. What about breakfast? I think we’ve got plenty of bacon.’
That day we took it in turns to sit on the kit-bags outside the hut, while turn and turn about we dug a hole in the hut floor, four feet deep, with our knives and our bleeding fingers. There we buried the silver-bags. We stacked our firewood in the hut too. We already had our plan, though we didn’t think there would be any need for it for days, if at all. But the other Cat men must have come up sooner than they were expected, because that evening, while Donar was going down to the stream to get some water, they rushed me.
I looked up from where I was sitting, and there they were, a dozen of them, coming at me from the edge of the woods. I knew what to do. I picked a brand from our fire and threw it into the hut, and I shouted:
‘Run, Donar, run, hide!’ as loudly as I could.
Then one of them came at me with a spear, and I got my sword out, it always would stick and need a tug when I tried it, but that evening it came clean out like a flash. The man with the spear must have met swordsmen before, and when I parried he slipped through my parry, and though he didn’t spit me the spear went through my tunic and tore my side. While I was trying not to scream and struggling to get back into the on guard position, someone else must have knocked me on the head. Down I went.
When I knew about things again I just lay still with my eyes
shut. After a bit I could open my eyes without moving. That wasn’t caution. After you’ve been knocked out you don’t want to do anything but lie still for a long time. And you feel so sick. There was a lot of noise. They were arguing over where the silver had gone. They couldn’t look in the hut till the fire died down, and anyway, simple men that they were, they couldn’t believe that we’d burn the hut with silver inside. I could see a pair of puttees and very worn shoes near my face. This man was talking.
‘We’ve only got one of them. If we wait around here too long we’ll have Occa and half his clan here after us—’
‘We’ve got his sword,’ said somebody.
‘Aye, good sword that.’
‘The King will want that.’
The first man managed to make himself heard again.
‘We’ll wake this one up and make him tell us where the silver is.’
‘Wake him? Make him? How do you do that?’
‘How do you think? A bit of fun, that’ll be.’
‘A bit of fun, and them two listening out there?’
‘It’ll bring them back.’
‘Them, and who else with them? We’re not risking that.’
There seemed to be, to say the least, a division of authority in this band.
Someone new put in, the intellectual of the group obviously, with a compromise.
‘Take him somewhere else and have your fun there. Don’t do it where we can hear it.’
They brought a horse up, and somebody picked me up bodily, grey cloak and all, and slung me across the crupper in front of the rider.
‘D’you want his spear?’
‘Of course. I stuck him with it, didn’t I?’
‘They say Donar put his name on it. Stands to reason, don’t it, if your name’s on it, it’ll get you.’
‘I’ll have his bag, too. The brown one, that’s what he was carrying.’
The horse laboured under the load. My wound had begun to clot, but heaving me on to the animal’s back had opened it again.
The horse smelt the blood and jibbed, and the jerking about made the wound hurt more, and my head throbbed. As the pain tightened, I went out again.