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."
“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.”
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.