Eboracum, No Turning Back (Book IV)

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Eboracum, No Turning Back (Book IV)

 



Excerpts

From Chapter VIII:

She had no idea of the time, for the hut was dark and her sleep had been restless. The first intimation was a vague coldness about her legs, and the appearance of a black shadow that did not belong. Then her mind shrieked into consciousness as hands parted her knees, and a shadow fell on top of her body, smothering her with its overpowering weight. She wriggled and arched her back, but a hand clouted her face as the other hand grasped at her hair, holding her head firm against the dirt floor. Twisting and turning, she tried to break free, her mind in a crazed, snarling, frightened panic, then another blow fell across her face, a hard slap of knuckles that helped restore her reason.
      She’d expected this, dammit; she’d figured as much! Selia reached awkwardly upward, her hand frantically groping for the rock hidden beside the rolled-up shawl she’d used for a pillow. At the same time Morlen’s wild poking succeeded, and she screamed as he rammed himself inside her. A large, heavy hand closed over her mouth, shutting off her cries, and, inanely, she remembered how filthy his hand had been. Her grasping finally found the rock and she found the sense to take a firm grip before swinging it as hard as she could against his temple.
      Morlen stiffened, his body jerking with several short but heavy spasms, then grew rigid as if gripped by the mortification that followed death. Selia’s first thought was that she’d killed the man, then she swore aloud. The bastard had climaxed! She struck again, harder this time, her hand driven by disgust. But Morlen’s body had already begun to sag from the first blow, and he slowly rolled to one side as if dead.
      She scrambled quickly to her knees, her mind a sickening mixture of disgust, filth, and blinding anger. For the moment she simply stared down at the dark shape sprawled by the embers and gasped for breath, vainly trying to halt the shaking that seemed bent on taking over her entire body. She belched aloud and realized her belly was doing its damnedest to vomit. She shook her head violently to stave it off, drawing deep breaths through a mouth suddenly rancid with the taste of sour fish. Then, with a raw determination born of need, she straightened her back, sagged to her knees, and reached for the man’s pulse. Its slow, steady beat offered neither relief nor regret. Morlen was unconscious, and she just hoped he’d stay that way.
      What she did next remained mostly a blur, but through the jumbled haze she realized that flight was the one and only option, time was her enemy, and she had an overpowering need to clean herself. She lit several candles from the embers of the fire, filled a wash bowl, straddled it, and soaked and cleaned herself with a dripping wet cloth, at the same time wanting nothing more than to immerse herself in a deep, hot, soapy tub of clean water and remain there forever. But choice was not her ally.
      Cursing under her breath, Selia climbed to her feet, dried herself on the hem of her skirt, and began gathering what she could from around the hut. Morlen’s knife; food-mainly barley and rolled oats; flints; candles; her bowl...the iron pan would have to remain, the only practical item of worth the Pict had brought with him; extra socks; soap; and a few odds and ends from the cupboard. For good measure, she added the gutted hare, then hastily pushed the whole lot into Morlen’s empty sack. She hefted it to figure the weight, decided it wasn’t that heavy, and threw the iron pan in anyway. There’d be at least something of value to gain from the man. Once finished, she stood by the fire’s embers and scowled down at the unconscious figure. If Morlen was discovered before waking, it would be obvious what had happened. His britches were around his ankles, and his limp penis drooped against his thigh, still leaking the last of his seed. Selia grunted her satisfaction at what they would find: the man would be judged a fool, and ridiculed. Yet while that gave a modicum of satisfaction, it was of no help, and there was certainly no staying around to find out.
      As she turned to go, it occurred to Selia that there might be something of value hidden in his clothing. She again knelt down and ran her hand around his shirt and his jerkin, but found nothing. Then, as much as she was loath, she felt her way around the britches bundled around his ankles. A leather pouch hung from his belt, and she tossed it in the sack with the other items without a second look.
      She stood up, finally ready to leave, but Morlen’s unconscious body stirred, and a low groan rolled from the back of his throat. The fool would be awake before she cleared the scattered ruins of the fort! For half a dozen heartbeats she considered slitting the man’s throat and having done with it. But if she was subsequently caught...Selia shook her head at the possibility of being retaken. If Morlen stirred and raised the alarm, then that would almost guarantee her capture. And then, well...and then the hell with it! If she was caught, she’d rather kill herself, first!
      She reached for Morlen’s sack, meaning to retrieve the knife, but at the last moment decided she couldn’t cut his useless, gormless throat, not like that. It was just...well, it was just too much. Yet how much time did she need to get clear? The darkness beyond the door could still be well short of midnight, or it could be only two hours before the sun rose. Either way, she could take no chances. Selia hefted the rock, groaned her despair, and bashed it hard against the side of Morlen’s head. The blow felt far more solid than the last two, and when he didn’t so much as grunt, she suspected it just may have killed him. If not, and she hoped it was “if not,” he certainly wasn’t going to stir this side of dawn, whatever time it may come.
      She moved over to the bed and pulled another two warm woollen vests down over her head for their extra warmth, then wrapped her cloak around her shoulders. She bent down to retrieve the sack, and as she did so, her eyes fell on the brooch still sitting untouched on the stone block.
      It was nothing unusual, an ornately worked circle of silver left open at one end, where the heads of two hounds faced each other across a gap less than the width of her little finger. The fool had actually brought a gift with him, and Selia slowly shook her head, her eyes turning to the body lying silently on the floor. Was it dead or alive? She wasn’t up to finding out. Instead, both anger and despair swept through her mind. Anger because the oaf figured she was his for a woman’s trinket; despair because he had actually bothered to bring a gift with him. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but she was far too close to one or the other, and there was no time for either.
       Selia heaved the sack over one shoulder, left the brooch where it was, and carefully slipped out through the door. It was almost as dark outside as it was inside, but for the moment there was a quarter moon casting enough light to tell one shadow from another, and she paused, pondering which way to go. They would surely think she’d choose south, and follow the coast from there...

 

 

From Chapter XII:

“Tie the bow to the stupid railing, Crom!” Dag dangled over the side of the fishing boat, his back brushing the water and one arm wrapped around the ship’s first oar, which was slowly sliding from its slot.
      “What about-” Crom began, but Dag was determined.
      “Just tie the goddamned boat to the ship, or we’ll lose the fool thing.” And me too, Dag realized, and swore at his own carelessness as the clash of fighting drifted over the ship’s railing. He should be a part of it.
      As Crom turned to secure the bow, Dag looked about for Irb and the second fishing boat, but it was nowhere to be seen. Had the man buggered off? Irb never did want the fishing boats in the first place, had he? Damn the man! The attack was already beginning to feel like a lost cause, and Dag felt the onset of panic. As he glanced wildly about the empty ocean, he wondered if Irb had figured on simply running with the wind, leaving him behind with the rest of the men to die fighting the Romans. If so, Irb would not find himself with any great lead, and it wouldn’t take the Romans long...
      The small boat again thumped hard against ship’s hull, and he saw Crom let go of whatever flotsam he was pulling on-is that someone’s arm?-and finally secured the bow to the vessel’s railing. Then the Pict blithely made his way up the side of the ship, leaving him dangling out over the water! Dag opened his mouth to order the man back to offer some sort of help, but the oar suddenly rushed from its slot as if pushed, and he found himself dumped into the bone chilling sea.
      With eyes half blind and a mouth full of salt water, Dag heaved himself back into the fishing boat. Somewhere above he could hear his small band of Picts yelling and screaming their courage as they fought the poorly armed men who had been on deck. One way or another, though, outnumbered as they were, that wouldn’t last...not without Irb. He made his way unsteadily to the bow, stopping only to retrieve his sword from the swishing bilge. Even as he clambered over the rail, his eyes assessed the layout of the Roman ship.
      The centre of the hull was only partly decked in, leaving a long, rectangular access to the lower level, protected on each side by a railing. Below deck, a few oarsmen were still casting madly about for their weapons in the chaos, but most were now aft, crowding the steps. Pushing and shoving, they were slowly forcing their way upward in a grim effort to gain the deck. A deck that Dag’s men had secured, but were gamely fighting to hold. For the moment they had the advantage of height, and were bent on keeping the Romans below. But they were greatly outnumbered, and it was clear to Dag that his men were unlikely to succeed.
      Irb! Where had the miserable stoat got himself to? Irb was Unen’s man after all, wasn’t he? Dag swore and wondered if they were all just the same. Pushing that thought aside, he quickly glanced for’ard. His eyes fell on a similar set of steps and he stared, completely stunned. They led directly up to the bow, yet the ship’s crew had not seen fit to use them! Not so far! They had likely seen the threat at the stern and made straight for the fighting, which was the point of most danger. It was a natural first reaction, Dag supposed, and as he looked along the deck, he saw why. The captain, and he supposed all those standing on deck-and there had to be at least a dozen-were either dead or dying. Nobody had been there to give the order to climb the for’ard steps to the deck, circle back, and...
      Dag again cursed Irb, and made his way to the bow on the run. There was only one thing to do, and that was to rush down the steps as fast as he could, then crash into the rear of the Roman crew. There could be only one outcome, but if they were all going to die anyway...
      As he turned to take the steps down, a loud voice gruffly called out from somewhere off to his left.
      “Give a man a hand, dammit.”
      Dag spun around, sword ready, and saw Irb’s scarred face peering over the railing. A moment later he seemed to shoot up in the air, as somebody in the boat below boosted him over the side. A second, then a third face appeared, with the same result. As the others followed one by one, Dag leaned over the side to make sure someone tied the boat to the railing in case it was needed. And they had, which was more than he had done!.
      “Where?” Irb demanded, but he already seemed to answer the question. He raised his axe and pointed down the steps, calling out to those behind him, “C’mon, take them in the back!”
      A tactic that was a bit late, Dag realized, as he saw three or four crewmen break off and make their way forward, as if finally remembering the bow access. To give them credit, while they hesitated on seeing the surly, truculent, crabby, indispensable spectre of Irb and a dozen Pict warriors charging down to the lower deck, they kept on coming.
      Dag whirled about, now more confident than ever, and started running toward the stern. He almost tripped over the body of the veteran officer as it rolled over on its back. The Roman’s mouth opened on a painful groan, and Dag shook his head. Officers, heads of granite! He stepped sideways, intent on passing him by. The man was plainly unable to stand on his own feet, and Dag wasn’t prepared to kill him simply because he was alive. Then, as he glanced downward, Dag saw Irb’s men wade into the rear of the Roman oarsmen trying to make their way up to the stern deck. He bit his lip. Those crewmen had once been on his side, and it wasn’t long ago! They spoke the same language; some may even have been born in the same place.
      Dag bent down and hauled the dazed Roman officer to the ship’s rail. Grabbing him under the arms, he pulled the man to his feet, and turned him until they faced each other. “Can you hear me?” he demanded.
      The Roman’s eyes stared dully into his own, blinked, and seemed to focus. “You...you bastard!”
      Dag briefly raised a hand, palm out, to give the Roman pause enough to listen. Then he pointed down at the fishing boat bobbing alongside. “The boats. They’re your only chance. Will you take them?”
      “I’ll not abandon my men.” The older man’s words were slow and slurred, but firm. His eyes shifted aft, widening as they focused on the bloody deck and the scattered bodies. “Shit!”
      “I don’t mean you alone, idiot. Stop your men from fighting. Do that, and you and what’s left of the crew can go. There are two boats. I’m trying to help,” Dag shouted, and on the chance it might make a difference, added, “for Christ’s sake!”
      Instead of answering, the Roman seemed to grow confused. “Who are you?”
      Dag groaned. The question was one he might have asked himself. He lifted the Roman’s arm, placed it around his shoulder, and started off along the deck, the man’s feet dragging across the planking. “I’m a soldier like you, trying to get my family back,” he muttered, his eyes on the stern where the Picts had clearly gained control, and were not being soft about it. “I’m also trying to stop this.”
      “I-” the Roman began, but Dag cut the man short.
      “Agh, come on. Just stand up and look down at your men!”
      Dag began shouting when he was yards away, in both languages, and he was still shouting when he finally reached the stern deck. “Stop. Back off. Irb, we’re not murderers! Give the poor devils a chance to surrender. Ease up. Move back. Move.”
      Dag edged over to the inner railing, screeching the words as he peered down onto the lower deck. The sight made him wonder if it was too late. Bodies seemed to be everywhere, lying on the deck, sprawled on the benches, folded over the flight of steps. Most were not moving, but others were, many badly hurt, and some of the wounds were brutal. He could have wept for both sides. The majority were the ship’s crew, and a quick glance about the stern deck told him that at the very least, half of them were down; but that still meant that near half were still standing, gamely trying to defend themselves. “I said back off. Give them a chance.”
      “What the fuck is going on?” Irb demanded, glaring his bafflement. “What are you saying?”
      “I’m trying to stop this while we’ve still got enough men left to sail this ship back home,” Dag snapped back, offering a reason to halt the slaughter that neither Irb nor any of the others could challenge.
      “But we have them beat. They-”
      “I don’t give a shit. I don’t want to lose another man, dammit. I need every last one of them.” Dag roared. “So stop! Halt! Back the fuck off.”
      Surprisingly enough, and it took a few moments, but everyone did.

 

From Chapter XXIII:

      “She must be punished,” Bishop Iudocus said emphatically, when the question was finally asked. “I don’t care what happened, you can’t go around killing priests.”
      For once, the bishop had not cared a quadran for food or for breaking his fast, but once inside the commander’s residence and faced with a table full of boiled eggs, fried pork, toasted bread topped with baked cheese, and an assortment of fresh fruit, he decided that more than his soul needed nourishment. He joined the two men at the table and dug into the food, which while excellent, did nothing to reduce his state of agitation.
      “So you want us to kill her, then? Stone her, I suppose, “ Cadeyrn asked, his voice calm and matter-of-fact, though Iudocus found the choice rather barbaric. It never occurred to him that the man’s words might be sardonic.
      “Well...” He hesitated, suddenly unsure. Death seemed harsh, considering the age of the girl, but if one woman murdered a priest with impunity, so could another. The trouble was, when it came to retribution there was such an unforgiving gap between an execution and any lesser penalty. A lesser penalty would probably be preferable, certainly, it was just that he couldn’t think of one that might serve in its stead. Nonetheless, it did nag at his conscience. “Is there no other punishment for the girl?” He hesitated, then conceded the truth of it. “James may have been forcing himself on her, you see, but I’m sure he wasn’t trying to murder her. And while the bible says an eye for an eye, it also says to turn the other cheek. Perhaps we can exercise the wisdom of Solomon, and find something in the middle?”
      “Yes, well if she must be punished...” Marcus Servius appeared to ponder the options, then shook his head. “As far as I know, the only punishment for killing someone is death, unless the killing was necessary in order to protect oneself. You can’t have it both ways. You did say he was not trying to kill her.”
      “Well, I suppose. We think he was only trying to rape her,” Iudocus explained, wincing as the words fell from his mouth, cold and clear. What would people say if that ever came out? James, a priest, rape? To be more precise, the damnable priest was trying to rape one of their own orphans! Though she really wasn’t an orphan anymore, was she? But never mind what people might think, what would Bishop Paulus say? Surely there was some other course. “Can’t we just lock her up for awhile? Maybe send her to the quarries for a few years, or something? Maybe even enslave the girl?” It occurred to Iudocus that the latter option might even produce some funds, though once again he pushed that notion aside as far too unchristian.
      “It seems there’s little choice in the matter, and your very own bible seems to agree: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Servius said. “That would mean execution.”
      “True. And besides, the bit about someone belting you in the face and turning the other cheek doesn’t work here, does it?” Cadeyrn suggested, then he chuckled. “I mean, if someone murders you, you can’t just stand up and say murder me again, can you?”
      “That’s just an allegory. It means to forgive someone, rather than hitting him back,” Iudocus explained, then stopped, wondering if the pair were mocking him. When he looked harder, however, both men seemed to be seriously mulling over the problem. Or were they? 
      “That does seem rather silly, you have to admit,” Servius opined. “Someone thumps you in the cheek, so you tell him to hit the other one?”
      “I suppose it depends on which end the cheek lies,” Cadeyrn Aurelius said dryly, and this time had the manners not to titter. He then asked a question Iudocus would rather have avoided. “What about the priest? The one you said found him? Aengus.”
      “What about him?” he said defensively.
      “What does he think should be done?”
      “That doesn’t matter. I’m the one charge.”
      “You did say it was Aengus, didn’t you?” Servius seemed unconcerned about who was in charge. “He strikes me as being a steady sort of man. Why wouldn’t it matter what he thinks?”
      When Iudocus failed to answer, Cadeyrn said, “The man’s more than steady, he’s solid. He can also be a prickly old sod at times, but he is fair. When he rode with us to Petuaria, he struck me as being quite sensible, all things considered. Has a fair knowledge of medicine; he’s good with the men; and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty...or his feet, for that matter. I’d like to talk to him. You said the body was found in a storage room. Can you describe what was there?”
      Iudocus took a deep breath and exhaled, purposely showing his exasperation. Why can’t they just decide what to do with the girl, and let everyone get on with their lives...the girl included? “It was a mess. Shelves tipped over, blood splattered about, bits of broken jars and pottery, and James lying there on his back, blood seeping from the top part of his belly and down by his...his...” Iudocus clutched his forehead, unable to look the two in the eye. “Aagh! And down by his cock! He’d been stabbed twice. First we thought it was a knife-”
      “His cock?” Servius and Aurelius chorused.
      “Yes, he was just lying there on the ground, and-”
      “So you could actually see his cock? And a wound at the top of his belly? Was the man naked?” Each man glanced knowingly at the other.
      Iudocus took a deep breath, exhaled his exasperation, and shook his head. “His robe was hiked up almost to his chest. He was still breathing, so I rushed over to the fort hospital, but when I got back he was dead. I spent the rest of the night praying for his soul. Then when the-”
      “Yes, yes, you said that when you arrived.” Cadeyrn drummed his fingers on the table. “So where is the girl? You presumably have her confined?”
      “Er, no...” Iudocus realized he should have mentioned that right away. “When Aengus found James, she’d already fled.”
      Cadeyrn looked puzzled. “So you have a mess in your home, and the girl’s not there. So how do you know it was her? And how do you know it was a rape? Your priest could have come across a thief, breaking into the manse. In fact, it’s far more likely to have been a robbery than... What’s the matter?”
      Iudocus bent forward, cradling his head in one hand as he mumbled why it was almost certainly a rape, or at least an attempt at rape. “Aengus found her under drawers alongside the wrecked shelving.”
      “Really?” Servius nodded meaningfully, as if perhaps this problem had a more sensible solution; in fact, he looked almost pleased. “Doesn’t that mean it might have been seduction, then, and not rape? The murder was another matter entirely?”
      “No, no.” Iudocus was beginning to despair. Why couldn’t these people just stick to the basic facts? “I don’t think so, anyway. The under drawers appeared to have been ripped, as if torn off the girl. The tie-cord was also snapped in two, for it was still knotted. Er, in a bow. There were some bloodstains too, though of course you couldn’t tell whose. Or from what. After all, the girl is of an age where....” Iudocus suddenly fell quiet, his face colouring.
      “They were definitely hers, though? The drawers?”
      “Oh, yes. Julia identified them. She was livid.”
      “Why?” Servius asked. “Were they hers?”
      Iudocus cursed the obtuseness of soldiers, then noticed both men seemed to be stifling a laugh. “Dammit, Marcus, this is serious. A priest has been murdered.” Then, sighing, he answered the question, even as the praefectus apologized. “She was livid at what James seems to have been doing. In fact,” and this time he shook his head in disbelief, “she’s a priest’s wife, for the love of God, yet she said if it had been her, she’d have cut his cock right off, and stuffed...” Iudocus made a sign of the cross and shook his head, unwilling to complete the woman’s words.
      “Yes, well, we’ll look into it,” Servius murmured as he reached across the table for a second soft-boiled egg. “We’ll have to find the girl first, of course.”
      “And I’d like to speak with Aengus,” Cadeyrn added.

 

From Chapter XVI:

“That’s Sidonius,” Dag whispered, not quite sure he could believe his eyes. But he’d seen the general several times in the field, and also at Eboracum. It was the man himself, maybe not riding proud, but at least calm and confident. “He’s the most important man in the Roman north.”
      “Would killing him be worth the glory of dying?”
      “No man is worth the glory of dying, Unen.” Dag grunted the words in distain. “Even if you saved your tribe by killing the man, you’d be as dead as a dried up beaver, and never know the difference. Life over, done, gone. Nothing.”
      “Dag, there’s no more noble way to die. They’d talk about it for years.”
      “Do you think you’ll still be able to hear them?”
      “Maybe, maybe not. But people would talk of my name forever. Hundreds of years, maybe. So would my sons and their sons, for generations to come.”
      “And you think you’ll be enjoying the glory of all that? Sitting up in the sky somewhere, looking down, basking in the praise?”
      “Hmm.” Unen rolled quietly onto his side, and stared at Dag as if disappointed. “No, not for sure, but everyone else would know. Wouldn’t that mean something to you?”
      “Of course not. I’d be dead.”
      “Yeah, maybe, but...” Unen frowned, thinking it through. “But right before you killed the man, you’d know you’d done a great deed, and your name would live on forever.”
      “Not at all. If it was me, I’d be too busy trying to kill the bugger to even think on that part of it. And right after, I’d be as dead as a plank, and doing just as much thinking. So the same rules apply, whether I actually did kill him or not. If fact, in this instance it would be not, because at the moment the illustrious general is surrounded by soldiers, and I’d die before I took ten steps. It would be the same difference in the end.”
      Unen seemed to ponder his words, then he shook his head. “You know, your Christians preach that you go to Heaven when you die. You could well be looking down and see the glory of it. Enjoying the triumph, just as if you-”
      “Actually, Unen, I wouldn’t be looking down. The Christians, who aren’t mine by the way, claim I’d be looking up as I feed the fires of Hell, because I killed someone in the first place. In fact, I doubt I’d even have the time to look up. I’d be too busy stoking the flames.”
      “You can’t believe that!”
      “No. Not really. Do you?”
      Unen would not be distracted. “So you’re not willing to die to save your tribe and your kin?”
      “Didn’t say that.”
      “Yes, you did. You said no man’s worth dying for.”
      “That’s right.”
      “Then...” Unen frowned, then turned back on his stomach, his eyes peering through the gorse as the Roman column, five ranks across, marched steadfastly along the far side of the stream. They were not that much over a hundred paces away. “I see. You didn’t say you wouldn’t die doing it, you just said killing a man wasn’t worth dying for.”
      “Unen, I’ve spent half my life trying to avoid dying, always pursuing someone else’s cause, and usually while trying to kill some other poor idiot who was trying to do the same thing to me. So no, it isn’t worth it.”
      “I suppose...”
      “Are you always like this?”
      “Huh?”
      “Never mind.”
      Then, a few moments later, “Dag, why are you putting those twigs on the ground?”
      “Because I’m trying to count how many fucking Romans are passing by, while listening to this babbling Pict who keeps talking nonsense.”
      “Ah.” Unen frowned, and glanced down at the row of twigs neatly lined up on the dirt below Dag’s chin. “How does...?”
      “Watch me, dammit, and see if you can figure out how. I’ll tell you later if you’re right.”
      As he went back to his counting, Dag smiled at yet another irony, clearly wrought by the Gods. It was nearly a year and a half since he’d been abducted by this Pict lying alongside him, and now here he was, watching what was clearly a victorious Roman army pass by almost within a stone’s throw. Apart of him was pleased at the victory won by his old unit, yes; but the greater part of his mind was filled by the relief in knowing the Romans were returning to their base, whilst Galam’s army was more than likely safe on its plodding way home. And not once had it occurred to him to risk the chance of simply standing and joining the Romans, even as he watched his own cohort march by, and saw at least a score of familiar faces.
      Neither did it make a great difference that the Romans had clearly paid for their victory. Sidonius’s men had obviously taken a battering before they won the field, and it showed. It was there in the manner of the tired, heads down, slow plodding rate of march; it could also be seen in the number of wounded, many walking, and those who couldn’t, now consigned to the lumbering carts, and even the pack mules. But most evident of all were the prisoners, now made slaves, hundreds of them, all prime, and of course, unhurt. How many had been culled on the battlefield probably nobody knew, but the bodies would be there, ready to find, and already starting to rot. He wondered if Talorcan had been...
      Talorcan!
      They couldn’t just leave once the Romans had marched by, even though there was no doubt about the outcome of the battle. They needed to determine what had befallen Talorcan’s army. Did it still exist? For that matter, did Talorcan himself still exist? Dag already knew the Dumnoni had been defeated, and he also knew where. The scouts had already seen to that. But what remained?
      The day before, the first of the two men Dag had sent ahead had reported back with what they had seen. There was a small Pict village; a low, gently sloped valley, the bottom of it mostly cleared; Roman funeral pyres, smoking but no longer aflame; crops flattened by battle; barbarian bodies thicker than flies; and a Roman army digging in for the night. The second scout had reported back this morning, an hour after sunrise. The Romans were moving out, and this time they were marching east. Back the way they came.
      Dag had figured they may as well stay close by where they were, until the Romans passed by. They were already in Dumnoni territory, for the the small stream that ran alongside the road now bubbled its way west toward the coast. From what the scouts had told him, Dag figured the battlefield was only a half dozen miles away. Unen wanted to go back to Galam and tell him what they had discovered, but Dag balked, figuring it was only half of what might be gleaned. He also figured that Unen just might be nervous spending a few hours hiding behind a fallen tree with a Roman turncoat, while an entire Roman army marched by. Dag supposed that placed in the same position, he’d feel the same.
      They had chosen the place to watch as soon as the scout reported the Romans were on the move. The road here passed close by the steam, though by now it had the appearance of a small river. On the far bank the forest followed the water’s edge, but the flow from a shallow brook had created a long, boggy meadow where it joined the main watercourse. At the far end was a twisted cluster of willows and deadfall, where Dag found a fallen tree that offered a view of the road.
      Fresh gorse bushes were cut and placed against the far side of the fallen trunk, forming a screen. Dag dispatched the men who remained deeper into the forest with Talore, then he and Unen crawled under the gorse bushes, and waited. And when Sidonius’s army had finally completed its slow march past, and the Roman rearguard had followed in turn, Unen impatiently turned to Dag and asked how many there were.
      Dag grinned. “Sixty-nine twigs’ worth.”
      “So how many does that make, arsehole,” Unen shot back, his tone and manner good natured, likely because the Romans had passed by, and Dag was still there.
      “Three thousand, four hundred and fifty,” Dag replied, which was a good way from the five thousand estimated by the Dumnonii scouts. Of course, the number of dead could be high, which could make a fair difference, but Dag doubted it had been that considerable, even allowing for a surprise attack on the flank. Proper scouting and competent Roman field drill should have neutralized any such danger. As he gave Unen the count, Dag idly wondered what formations Sidonius had used, and how they’d been deployed.
      “Is that all?”
      “Isn’t that enough?”
      “Well, I...
      “How many do you want?”
      “I just thought...”
      “I didn’t count the ones in the carts, so I’d guess that would add another hundred and a half, maybe two hundred, to the total. Add the dead, and I suppose it would make about four thousand.”
      “How did you figure that?”
      “They had around two dozen supply carts carrying wounded, with about seven, eight or more riding in each cart. As to the dead, that’s just a...”
      “Not the carts. I meant how did you figure the three thousand whatever it was. How did you work that out from the small sticks?”
      “Easy. I counted fifty men, then set a twig on the ground, and started over again. At the end, there were sixty-nine twigs That’s fifty men, sixty-nine times.”
      “Aaah!” Unen’s face showed his understanding, then it fell into a frown as he puzzled through the figures. “So you took fifty, and added it sixty-nine times?” He glanced at Dag with a new-found respect. “You did all that in your head?”
      “Not really,” Dag murmured as he edged away from the fallen tree and wriggled out from under the gorse. “I multiplied sixty-nine by a hundred, then divided by two.”
      “You what?” Unen’s voice was incredulous.
      “I’ll explain later. We’ve got other things to do, such as figuring out what’s next.”