Eboracvm, Carved in Stone

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Eboracum, Carved in Stone

The final book in the Eboracum trilogy


Excerpts




Chapter XII


The animal’s neck and the fore part of its chest had trapped Modan firmly against the dirt, less than halfway between the road and the safety of the forest. At first he’d been stunned, only half conscious, lying still under the dead weight of the horse as he fought to gather his wits. A good deal of hard, steady heaving had followed, his body rocking to and fro as he tried to wriggle from under the stupid beast, which had taken a spear in its windpipe before veering away from the wall of Roman shields.

Gasping for breath, Modan slowly raised his head and gauged the odds of reaching the forest without being seen. He glanced back at the Roman column, perhaps fifty paces distant; there seemed to be nothing but bodies scattered between—most closer to the column itself. He grunted his satisfaction at seeing a good sprinkling of Romans among them, but it was of little comfort. Nearly all of them were still on their feet and they were busy, either shoving their sorry-looking captives together, or . . .

He watched in horror as one of them heaved a groaning tribesman to his feet—Modan recognized Kylta, one of his own people—only to see him sag as one leg gave way. The Roman simply slashed his blade across Kylta’s throat, and dropped him. Modan swore as he realized what was happening. They’re taking slaves, but killing off the wounded!

Growling his anger, Modan leaned up on one elbow, then fell back in disgust. He had no more chance of reaching the forest unseen than a bear fleeing a chicken coop. So what would it be: slavery, or death? There was no way he’d take either! Yet when his muddled brain thought it through, if there had to be a choice, for the moment it was slavery. Just so long as..

Modan’s heart lurched. They were killing of the wounded! Where did that leave him? He quickly ran furtive hands down his body, feeling neither pain nor the sticky warmth of blood; then one hand struck the board bound to his leg.

The board! If they see the board . . .

Modan slid the knife from his belt and eased his arm downward, slicing the ties that bound the crude splint. He carefully slid the board aside and again glanced back and forth between the Romans and the forest. No, he had no more chance of gaining the shelter of the trees than a lamb outrunning that same lumbering bear. Perhaps there was another way.

Modan’s eyes fell on the dead horse, and the dark trickle of blood oozing from around the spear shaft lodged in its neck. He cupped his hand below the wound until the palm was full then, with a grimace of disgust, he dribbled the sticky fluid over his neck and face. Hoping the gore might pass for a slashed throat, he settled back against the grass, closed both eyelids to slits, and tried to ease his breathing so his chest wouldn’t show movement.

An age seemed to pass, his chest still and his mind racing, as he lay motionless on the dirt. The late sun beat down on his forehead and a dark, buzzing swarm of flies fell on the blood congealing on his face and neck. The creeping, prickling host picked like nettles on his skin, and an insane need to claw at his lips and scratch at his neck tortured his mind. And then, just when he thought he could stand it no longer, a slow plodding of hooves drew near and halted just beyond the top of his head. Modan could see nothing and he froze, fighting the urge to turn and look.

“Now take this one,” a voice said, speaking in his own tongue. “It lays with its throat cut, its face bashed in, and clearly as dead as a virgin’s passion."

“But—”

“I know, I know, don’t say it: that’s what the fool would have us believe. Now, if he had just stayed still and kept himself buried under the horse he might have got away with it. But when a man thrashes around like a lovesick eel and paints his face red like a tart, well, that’s no way to hide, is it? You’ve got to wonder at them sometimes, don’t you?”

There was a long silence. Modan continued to hold his breath. Maybe, just maybe, the voice was speaking of someone else. He knew that to be a hopeless fancy, but just maybe . . .

A second voice spoke in a broken accent. “Tell you what, a denarius as to who can place a spear closest to his crotch.”

“Florian, if he’s healthy, you could ruin a perfectly good slave,” the first voice said as if chiding, then paused for a moment. “Tell you what, make it fifty.”

“Done.”

Modan lay with a body of stone, his belly and groin churning ice. It had to be him they were talking about, yet what if it wasn’t? Then came the familiar thud of a spear striking the dirt somewhere just below his belly, and his entire body jerk in alarm.

“Your turn, Florian.”

“No, wait!” Modan screeched and rolled over, looking first downward. The spear, he saw, had landed nowhere near his crotch. Its long shaft rose from the ground beyond his feet. He looked up at whoever had chosen to mock him: two Roman officers sitting their horses, both staring down in amusement.




Chapter XXII


They arrived at the fort two days later and, much to Kelpy’s aggravation, this proved to be two days after Marcus and Jessa had departed for Eboracum. The sharp side of her tongue lost none of its edge telling her da what his dithering had cost them.

The Roman commander, a man called Florian, seemed to find her annoyance amusing. “The Sabinius woman mentioned you might ride in here one day,” he informed Cethen, and laughed. “She said it might take a year or two for you to make up your mind.”

Typical bull-necked, short-haired, condescending Roman, Cethen thought; when dealing with the local “savages,” the Romans had the tact of a mud hog. All the same, he found himself making excuses. “Jess might think that, but sometimes it’s hard to get away.”

“You know, it’s funny,” Florian continued, frowning as he stared pointedly at Cethen as if suddenly weighing judgement. “When you do finally arrive, it’s not that long after a band of barbarian horsemen ride into the village,” he waved one hand vaguely toward one of the walls, “and try to murder the poor girl.”

“Jessa?” Kelpy exclaimed in surprise.

“Who would want to kill the wee lass?” Cethen muttered and slumped back in his seat, baffled. Nobody could possibly want to kill the girl. Absolutely no one! Yet, impossible as it may be, was he being accused of attempting her murder?

He glanced at the table where the old leather dispatch tube lay open alongside a curled scroll covered with a scattering of curly, squiggly lines. A second scroll, one sent by Tuis to the fort’s commander, lay alongside. What did each one say? The scrolls had got them into the fort. They had also brought him to the attention of the commander, for he and Kelpy had been quickly ushered to the man’s lodge and fed while awaiting his arrival. The leather pouch had worked wonders so far, certainly, but now this? Cethen felt trapped, but he was stunned by the Roman’s next words.

“Your son,” Florian supplied, his gaze unwavering.

“My son?” For a moment, Cethen was confused. “What about him?”

“Your son. He tried to murder her.”

Cethen had four sons, but there was no need to ask which one. “Modan?”

“Along with some tattooed creature called Treno; though it was your son who was bent on doing the murder. That’s why she’s no longer here—Jessa, that is. Senator Sabinius insisted she leave.” Florian’s expression grew wistful. “Which is a pity, really. She was doing a fair amount of good.”

“Modan! I don’t believe it.” Cethen turned to Kelpy, looking for support, but she simply lowered her eyes. Eb sat staring at the ceiling.

“Of course, I don’t think this has any effect on what the present governor asked me to do if you ever did come here,” Florian continued, rubbing his hands together as if any lingering doubt had been resolved. “It shouldn’t take long to put things together.”

“This new governor,” Cethen asked warily, for he had to know; he had to be certain, “how is he related to the old governor? The one from ten, maybe fifteen years ago; the man who made that old piece of writing.”

“He’s the man’s son. I understand it was by adoption.”

“And they also call him Tuis?”

“Yes.” Florian smiled. “The senator and Jessa call him that.”

Cethen cursed softly, for the first time truly accepting the possibility as fact. Elena must have agreed to it! And yet nobody, not even his own brother, had bothered to tell him.

“Is there a problem?” Florian asked.

Cethen couldn’t bring himself to answer so Kelpy stepped in, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “This is the first time Da’s really heard of this. Or at least, had it confirmed by someone who truly knows. You see, Tuis is Cethen’s natural son by the woman who is the wife of the governor who signed that first parchment, years ago.” She gestured at the scroll on the table.

Florian sat blank-faced, mentally sorting through the muddle of words. Then, as he grasped them, he leered knowingly. “I see.”




Chapter XXXIV


Of course, had the plan failed, he would have resorted to Modan’s usual method of attack: a crude, head-on charge with hope, guts, and scaling ladders, and the outcome ever in doubt. Should that have proven necessary, his men would still be outside the walls, throwing themselves against the tall timbers.

“So we cross the Rubicon,” Horus commented, breaking the silence. He flinched as the headquarters’ roof collapsed with a rending crash, sending a tower of sparks soaring skyward.

“Huh?” Lagan turned and stared blankly at the Greek. “What are you talking about?”

Horus shook his head. “Let’s just say there’s no going back. Which means that you can’t stay still either, can you? You can only keep going.”

“We discussed this.”

The Greek smirked and waved a hand toward the blazing buildings. “I know, and you said you first wanted to see how complete the success was at Trimontium. You should have asked me how it would be. I would have told you.”

“Yeah, well now it’s over and we hold the fort, though obviously not for long if it’s burnig to the ground.” Lagan snorted at Horus’s boast, his eyes still fixed on the flames. The man seemed to think that battles were planned and won with as precise a tally as figuring his numbers; those same numbers being at their most precise, he mused, when the man demanded his silver. And that was another thing. Lagan still hadn’t figured out where the Greek was hoarding it.

“I know, and you didn’t say what’s next.” Horus shrugged as if indifferent to the answer, but he pushed for it anyway. “Lagan, we gathered thirty-five hundred men here today. More than triple that number are waiting to see what happens, and now they’ll know. But if we want to hold them steady to the cause, we need to give them something to do.” The Greek grinned slyly. “Something to attack; something to loot.”

Lagan hated being pushed, and Horus was pushing. Not only that, he was quoting numbers again, and he was getting tired of the man’s numbers. They never ended: you need fifty of this; it costs five hundred of that; you can’t twitch a toe until you have four thousand of these! A chieftain had the need of figures, true, but when the time came to fight, you assessed the enemy’s strength with your scouts, and when you saw you had the measure of him once over, you trounced him. Though if it’s the Romans, you’d best have the measure of him twice over, and surprise doesn’t hurt, either, Lagan admitted. And even when you have all that, the most ignorant hill man learned from Galgar and Boudicca that you never face them in open battle!

Lagan supposed that the Greek deserved some sort of a reply, though, and he was about to give it when Modan’s loud voice whooped from the direction of the fort’s gates. Lagan groaned, wondering what the fool wanted. The man had gone to oversee the sorting of the Roman prisoners; surely he wasn’t finished already? Yet he supposed the lad did have hands-on experience at that sort of thing, for he’d been a prisoner himself. Lagan chuckled aloud at his logic, and tore his eyes from the raging flames.

“Got a count yet?” Horus asked as Modan reined in his horse.

Modan slid from his saddle and grabbed the bridle close by the bit, where it could be held firm. The horse was nervous close to the crackling fire, and shy of the heat. He settled the animal, then glanced at the Greek and tossed out, “Two thousand five hundred and ten, not counting the virgins.”

“There can’t be. It’s way more than—” realizing he was being mocked, Horus tried making the best of it “—than they have in the next four forts combined.”

“You should have asked me; I’d have told you.” Lagan grinned as he tossed the Greek’s words back at him. “I could have at least given an accurate count on the virgins.”

“Yeah.” Modan laughed more than necessary, and seemed bound to state the obvious. “There ain’t no more left.”

Lagan was also curious about the number of prisoners but knew there had been no time to make a tally, which in turn made him wonder why Modan had returned. “Problem sorting them out?”

“Naw. Gobha said that about one in five is hurt too bad to bother with. I dunno how many’ll be left.” Modan did look thoughtful, however, as if something was bothering him.

“So what’s the problem?”

“I was thinking…” Modan began.

Oh shit! Lagan groaned, and forced a smile. “About what?”




Chapter XL


Eupo was wondering whether to make a fight of it, Modan decided, and he quickly glanced about the clearing; but each of them had left the small meadow in the care of the same number of men. Neither side had the odds—plus a horde of vengeful Romans were hot on their heels. And those of his own men not helping round up the horses were now glaring at him, as if he was a— Modan thrust his jaw forward, unwilling to admit his wrong. “I want the woman. She’s kin.”

“She’s not kin,” Eupo growled and glanced toward Elena, though he seemed more interested in the dwindling pile of plunder beside her. “The woman just happened to be your da’s first wife a hundred years ago, who couldn’t possibly have birthed a witless clod like you.”

“That still makes her mine,” Modan growled, too impatient to figure through the insult.

“To do what with?” The steady thud of hooves stopped Eupo and he turned to look.

The man who had gone to stand watch rode into the clearing, holding his horse to a fast canter. He reined in alongside Eupo. “We have to go. Roman cavalry are all over the place, and foot soldiers are coming out of the fort. They’ll be on this side of the river before long.” The man added something, gabbling on in a broad dialect, and Eupo nodded.

He glanced up at Modan, and said, “Fine, then. We’ve got what we want. It’s not worth the bother of arguing. She’s yours.” Eupo stared hard into Modan’s eyes, then shook his head as if in despair. “But if I was you, I’d leave her right where she is and fly like the faerie. Rome’s blood is already boiling, as it is.”

“What else did he say?” Modan hardly heard Eupo, his eyes on the guard.

Someone brought Eupo a horse and at first he said nothing as he swung up into the saddle. Once there, he looked across at Modan. “He was urging me to take what we can carry, and leave,” he replied calmly. “No woman is worth fighting over.”

Eupo turned his horse down a trail that led off through the trees, a trail that would place him closer to the oncoming Roman army, no matter where it led. Even so, Modan supposed that a man’s chances were better in that direction than in returning through the gap to the river. Stay in the cover of the trees then head south, maybe. The hills there would be safe enough, at least for a while...

He watched as the last of the Caledonii disappeared, then moved his horse closer to the plunder and stared down on what remained. Eupo had taken just a part of his, though probably the most valuable. He supposed he would have to do the same. Treno seemed of like mind, for he was ordering everyone to stop what they were doing and mount up. It seemed such a waste. Was there time to hide any of it?

“Agricola spent two years fighting the Caledonii. I often helped the Romans with their questioning.”

Modan glanced at the woman, and his lip curled. “Yeah. So you helped him fight your own people!”

Elena ignored the thrust. “What the man told Eupo had nothing to do with fighting over women.” She shrugged, raising a hand to cup one ear. “Can you hear that?”

Modan paused and raised his hand, though there was really no need. The pounding of hooves sounded from the direction of the fort, drowning the dull, screaming roar of battle that drifted through the trees. They were close, very close; in fact they were—

Modan glanced frantically about the clearing and saw Treno bolting, lashing his horse down the trail taken by Eupo. He turned angrily to Elena as she again spoke, though he barely heard her words in his panic.

“What he told Eupo was: we’ve got to leave now! Roman cavalry is heading straight this way.”

“Shit!”

Modan spun in the saddle as a dull thunder shook the ground, and the crash of breaking branches echoed from the undergrowth. His fool horse was facing the wrong way! He jerked wildly on the reins, the animal shaking its head against the stabbing pain that once more lanced through its jaw. The stupid beast turned sharply, fighting the bit, and Modan lifted his legs, ready to kick down, hard.