XVI

It was just before sunrise. Wulfstan sat on the box by the driver. The long whip of the Sarmatian cracked loud above the backs of the oxen, and they put their weight against their harness. With a groan, the wagon shifted, paused, then gathered way.

Behind, in the covered body of the wagon, Calgacus cursed. All the others — Ballista, Maximus and Tarchon — had already ridden off into the near-darkness to take their posts. The old Caledonian had not liked being told by the gudja yesterday that he must continue to rest. The enforced inactivity was making him even more than usually vile-tempered.

Wulfstan would have liked to ride. Yet after the depredations of the Alani, and the two Heruli messengers each taking four spare horses, only fifteen mounts were left, and these were assigned now only to men of fighting age. Wulfstan had survived the charge with Ballista, but he knew he was not yet a warrior. He had not killed an Alani. He had not killed anyone in the fighting. He had not even struck anybody. But he had survived. Wulfstan could not wait to be a warrior. Another two winters and he would be the age Ballista was when he first stood in the shieldwall of their people, first killed a man. Maximus had been even younger, just a winter older than Wulfstan.

It was not too bad sitting up front. The driver had a smattering of the language of Germania — his people had been subject to the Urugundi for some years. Already Wulfstan had quite a few words of Sarmatian. They could converse. Now and then, they did so, but mainly the Sarmatian was silent. Wulfstan did not mind. The young Angle had a gorytus on one hip, a man’s sword on the other. He had to think himself into the man’s role he must play when the Alani caught them. And he had a lot of other things to think about.

Presently, the sun came up.

Time and again at the day’s dawning

I must mourn all my afflictions alone

The raking light gilded the tops of the grass, but threw deep shadow into every hollow and made forbidding black boundaries of any watercourses. The intense clarity of the light made every shrub of wormwood, every lonely tree stand stark.

Now it was light, they quickened their pace. All around whips cracked, pots rattled, axles screeched, and right behind Wulfstan the old Caledonian swore, voluble and exceedingly foul.

Wulfstan thought of the stark cross yesterday. He had enjoyed seeing the centurion nailed there. It was especially good he had still been alive, good he had suffered for a long time. Hordeonius had been a cruel man, with the soul of a tyrant. You only had to look at the weeping, broken slave the centurion had left behind to know the latter’s endless tirades against the servile had been more than just words. Wulfstan admired the matter-of-fact way Andonnoballus had despatched the centurion. Allfather, there was much to admire about these Heruli.

There were many other men — evil, bad men — Wulfstan would love to see despatched. From the brutal slave dealer in Ephesus to the merchant of Byzantium, to the sea captain from Olbia, to the traders along the Borysthenes and Vistula rivers all the way back to the Suebian Sea and the Langobardi raiders. Not the quick arrow or the clean steel for any of them. The things they had done called for much worse; called for the cross — a slow, agonizing death in their own piss and shit — or the stake thrusting up their arses and into their bowels. It would not be quick. It would take Wulfstan months, maybe years, to carry his vengeance the length of the Amber Road.

The wagon hit a rut, pitched violently. Wulfstan shot out a hand to hold on. The Sarmatian grinned sardonically. From behind, Calgacus let loose a torrent of repetitive obscenity.

Wulfstan’s mood lightened a little. Old Calgacus had been good to him. So too, although less overtly, Maximus and Ballista. The latter would have made a fine treasure-giver to the warriors of the Angles had the norns spun differently. And there was Tarchon. The Suanian had done him no harm. Indeed he made Wulfstan laugh: the absurd, touchy pomposity, and the bizarre formality as Tarchon mangled languages — that of Germania, Greek and Latin, and his own native tongue. The familia was not home — it would never be — but it was the first place since the Langobardi came where Wulfstan had felt almost safe.

He laughed at himself. To feel almost safe as they raced across this endless alien wilderness, pursued by a horde of nomads and haunted by a malignant killer, had to be a reflection on the terror he had felt before, rather than any sensible estimate of his relative safety.

And even in the familia not all was good. The little ferret-faced Roman officer Castricius with his endless stuff about daemons good and bad was unnerving. But he was not the real problem. It was that odious secretary Hippothous. Back in Byzantium, Wulfstan had sent him away in no uncertain terms when the accensus had made disgusting suggestions. Here on the Steppe, the graeculus had approached him again, if in a more subtle way. After rebuffing that attempt, Wulfstan kept finding Hippothous staring at him. It was probably just something to do with his ridiculous obsession with trying to read people’s faces, but it was disconcerting. There was much about the shaven-headed Greek with the pale eyes that was disconcerting. Wulfstan would shed no tears if a stray arrow, Alani or otherwise, found Hippothous. As Wulfstan had learnt from the ambush, battle was chaos; almost anything could happen undetected.

Wulfstan ran a hand over the nomad bowcase on his hip. The gorytus was covered in decorations. Prominent among them was the personal emblem of Aluith. The tamga took the form of something like the Greek letter Chi or the Latin X with a curling line across the top. After Aluith had fallen, Andonnoballus had given the gorytus to Wulfstan. The young Herul leader had said it was fitting, as Aluith had taught Wulfstan to shoot from the saddle.

Aluith had been the closest thing to a friend Wulfstan had made since Bauto the young Frisian he had met in slavery. Bauto had looked after him; looked after him in the worst of times. Bauto had been lost overboard in a storm in the Euxine the year before. Wulfstan mourned both Aluith and Bauto.

So this world dwindles day by day,

And passes away; for a man will not be wise

Before he has weathered his share of winters

In the world.

Still, Aluith, with some help from the other Herul Ochus, had finally taught Wulfstan to master the nomad release. The Angle was nearly as proficient as Datius and Aordus, the two ex-slaves now become Heruli who still rode with the caravan. How Wulfstan had envied them and the other two slaves; the ones gone north as messengers. Straight after the ambush, the three remaining Rosomoni had presented them with the shields which marked their freedom: just reward for their courage. As free Heruli warriors, the four inscribed tamgas of their own choosing on the small, round bucklers. What a contrast from Narcissus, promised his freedom by Hippothous but murdered before he was awarded it. Would it have been granted had he lived? And what a contrast from himself, riding in the charge which turned the day yet promised nothing, and given nothing.

Wulfstan himself would have given much — even an eye, as the Allfather had — to be Datius or Aordus. If Ballista eventually manumitted him, in the imperium he would remain reviled as a freedman. His subjection, the unthinkable things done to him, would be commented on and sniggered about. It would forever be a stain that could not be washed away. No Greek or Roman ex-slave could become a magistrate or serve in the legions. None of them could become a free warrior proudly bearing his own tamga on his horse and arms, like Datius or Aordus.

The smug self-satisfaction of the inhabitants of the imperium infuriated Wulfstan. The way they liked to equate the whole inhabited world with the part they tyrannized. The way they divided the world into their humanitas and all other peoples’ barbaritas. The way they understood all other peoples through writings hundreds of years old about totally different peoples who happened to inhabit vaguely the same part of the world. This lazy, retarded thinking would betray them one day. Wulfstan snorted. For all their literary ethnographic posturing, men like Hippothous and Castricius, or the dead eunuch Mastabates, would never understand the Heruli. Wulfstan doubted they would ever hear the names of Datius and Aordus, let alone understand what motivated them.

Aluith had said Wulfstan would make a good Herul warrior. Should he approach Calgacus? Ask the old Caledonian to intercede with Ballista for his freedom? If he were manumitted now, out here on the Steppe, he could ask Andonnoballus for permission to join the horde of Naulobates. He would happily submit to re-enslavement, if that was what it took. He would rather be a slave of the Heruli than of the Romans. Among the former, valour could win true freedom and a future untainted by the past. Among them, he could rise to the right hand of a king.

Such a course, however, entailed letting go his revenge. It meant men like Potamis, the trader at the rapids of the Borysthenes, and the others like him would go unpunished. And that could not be. Revenge was an honourable motive; none more so. Wulfstan would have his revenge. Afterwards, he might think of joining the Heruli.

Y ip-yip-yip. Wulfstan now recognized the different tones of the Heruli calls. This one was the alarm.

Yip-yip-yip. It was coming from the rear of the twin column. From his place in the lead wagon of the right-hand line, Wulfstan could not see anything. He leant way out to the side, hanging by one hand, the grass racing beneath him. Still, the following wagons and the dust obscured his view.

Pharas the Rosomoni cantered up. He gave concise orders to the driver in Sarmatian. The whip flicked out above the oxen. They broke into a shambling flat-out run, their great dewlaps swinging. Pharas spurred ahead, towards where Andonnoballus rode at point.

‘What is it?’ Calgacus’s misshapen old head appeared through the hangings.

‘Alarm from the rear.’

The Caledonian treated him to a withering look.

Wulfstan turned to the driver. He had to yell to make himself heard. ‘What trouble?’ Wulfstan dredged out the words in Sarmatian.

The driver was standing now, the better to ply his bullwhip. He jerked his head backwards. ‘Much dust… many riders… Alani.’

Riding well out to the front, Maximus was worrying about women and about the feelings of the Heruli towards him. Wearing his mailcoat — everyone was wearing their battle gear now — he was sweating heavily in the hot sun.

Maximus had not had a woman since the night before they left the town of Tanais. Three days up the river, three days waiting for the ox-carts and horses, and this was the twenty-first day out on the Steppe. Twenty-seven days without ploughing a field. That was nearly a month. He should have been ready to jump on anything; one of those female daemons with the nice tits — to Hades with the snake lower half, he could avoid going downstairs and concentrate on stopping her talking — or maybe even that hideous old Gothic witch. But, worryingly, he was not that desperate. He was almost used to the abstinence. Was this how the decline into impotence started? You just got used to not having it. He remembered Ballista and Demetrius talking about some old Greek writer who, when he could not get it up any more, described it as like being freed from a cruel tyrant. Maximus did not want that sort of freedom.

There were some yip-yip-yip sounds a long way to the rear.

Maximus was concerned if things would improve when they reached the camp of Naulobates. He had discovered that not all nomad tribes had the same attitudes to sex; far from it, indeed. One of them — he forgot which — would kill you if you fucked their women. But their wives might give you a view of the cave. Their explanation was that it was better other men could see it but it was unattainable than it was covered but easily reached. The men of another tribe — some eastern subjects of the Heruli — did not mind you sleeping with their wives, if they did not actually witness it. The Alani turned out to have many wives, but would disembowel you if you so much as looked at them. Now, the Heruli, or at least the Rosomoni among them — and they were quite open about this — had adopted the custom of one of the tribes they had subdued. Like the Agathyrsi, they now shared their women in common. They said it abolished jealousy; made them a true band of brothers.

The yip-yip-yipping had not stopped.

With true Steppe hospitality, the Rosomoni had no objection to honoured guests enjoying their women. Ochus, laughing and looking hard at Maximus, had said everything was good, provided the women did not find you too ugly. Which Maximus considered rich coming from a man with a head the shape of an upturned amphora. Anyway, he had already discovered from Andonnoballus that visitors were usually offered slave girls, whose opinions on male beauty were of no concern to anyone.

It was not female rejection that was troubling Maximus. If you propositioned almost every woman you met — and he had made it his life rule to do almost exactly that — you got used to a high rate of refusal. Although, of course, it only needed a low percentage to agree to get you a grind or two a day. No, what was bothering Maximus was practice. If you had not spoken a language for a long time, it was difficult to just pick it up again. Maximus could not remember going this long without sex. Would that prove as difficult as, say, speaking Greek after several months of not?

The yipping was closer, louder, more insistent. Maximus looked back towards the caravan. The wagons were moving much faster, probably as fast as the oxen could pull them. Dust was billowing up. In front and to one side of the two lines of wagons, a group of horsemen were talking. One or two more were galloping up.

Something was wrong. There was a threat Maximus could not see.

Before turning to ride back, Maximus automatically gazed all around. The plain rolled gently here, but not enough to hide more than one of those big mouse-like animals which had their burrows everywhere. The Steppe was empty, except for a group of three low kurgans a couple of hundred paces off to the left, and, about a mile and a half or more ahead to the north-east, a straggly line of dark trees. The latter had to mark an otherwise hidden stream of some sort. Beyond the trees, a line of lilac clouds rose on the horizon like a range of distant mountains in an otherwise perfectly blue and empty sky. As he wheeled his horse, Maximus saw movement among the trees. It ceased before he could focus.

Maximus reined his horse around again. He pretended to gaze off to the south-east, while watching the trees intently out of the corner of his eyes. Only the foliage moved in the north wind. It had not been that before. The movement had been lower, gone further than one tree. It had been too big for one of those mouse-things. It could easily have been a wild horse, deer or ass. Nothing moved except the leaves and branches. His horse dropped its head to graze. He pulled it up again. Still, nothing moved. He galloped back to the others.

When Maximus reached the other riders, he saw the problem straight away. No longer masked by the dust of their own wagons, another tall column of dust showed three or four miles behind. It was solitary, and went up straight until the wind took it off to the south. An experienced eye could read it like the gudja could read runes. It was raised by a compact body of cavalry moving fast. That much dust meant a large body of cavalry; most likely a hundred — or more, maybe a lot more.

‘The barrows offer some protection, but there will be no water there.’ Andonnoballus was countering the proposal of another Herul. Maximus fell in with the cavalcade. The mounted conference was conducted at a fast trot to keep ahead of the wagon train.

‘The atheling is right,’ Ochus said. ‘It may be several days before Naulobates’ men reach us. We may have to hold out until then.’

‘We must reach the watercourse ahead,’ Andonnoballus said with finality. ‘Use it as one side of the laager, and have the wagons coming off it in a semicircle.’

The others made noises of agreement.

‘I do not want to be upsetting anyone,’ Maximus said, ‘but there may be a problem. Something moving in the trees. We could be riding into an ambush.’

The jingle and creak of harness, the stamp of hooves were loud as they rode, digesting this unwelcome news.

Ballista was the first to speak. ‘I will take the four Roman auxiliaries who have horses, and those of my familia who are mounted. We will go ahead. It may be nothing. If there is a trap we will spring it. We may be able to fight through to the riverbank. If not, you form the wagon-laager in the open, and we will fall back to you.’

Andonnoballus and the Heruli agreed with no debate. The nomads spun their mounts and raced back to their stations around the caravan. Ballista explained the plan in Latin to Castricius, and asked him to call up the auxiliaries. The little Roman rode off, shouting and beckoning the troopers from the Cilician cavalry unit.

Maximus nudged his mount up on the left of Ballista. Hippothous had already taken the post to his right. It seemed strange not to see Calgacus there. Tarchon was close behind.

As they trotted forward, waiting, Maximus untied the helmet from one of the horns of his saddle. Once it was settled on his head, he took the small buckler from the pack behind him and strapped it very tight to his left forearm. He liked this new shield; it gave some protection, while leaving his left hand free for the reins or a bow. Next to him, Ballista ran through his pre-battle routine. Left hand to dagger on right hip, draw it a couple of inches, snap it back. Right hand to sword on left hip, same motions, then touch the healing stone tied to the scabbard.

‘Helmet and shield,’ Maximus reminded Ballista. The latter nodded acknowledgement and began to get his accoutrements into place. Ballista’s fingers fumbled with his chin strap. Maximus grinned.

Ballista was always nervous before combat; always had been. Once, lacing his boots, he had thrown up through sheer nerves. Maximus found it hard to understand. He felt the familiar feeling in his chest, hollow and tight at the same time, and the slight tremble in his arms, but that was nothing but excitement.

The others caught up. Castricius reined in next to Hippothous, two auxiliaries outside him. Ballista waved Tarchon alongside Maximus, the remaining two auxiliaries flanking the left of the Suanian.

A final glance along the line, and Ballista led them out across the front of the wagon train. He set a fast canter towards the river.

Ballista appeared the epitome of calm competence. Under his bird-of-prey-crested helm, his face looked fierce, ready to fight. Maximus knew Ballista would be fine when the fighting started. He also knew that, now, Ballista would be a tangle of apprehension.

The hooves rattled across the dry plain, stamping down the grey wormwood and the brown knotgrass. So far nothing moved in the line of the trees, not above half a mile off.

Maximus and Ballista craned their heads around to see the wagon train and beyond the dust raised by their pursuers. The latter was closer, but still a couple of miles away. The Alani riders were in sight; so far, a dark, undifferentiated mass at the foot of the cloud.

‘If nothing delays them, the wagons will reach the watercourse just before the Alani catch them,’ Ballista said. The words were perfectly audible. He was used to making himself heard on the field of battle.

‘If there is nothing hiding in that stream to hold them up,’ Maximus said.

‘If there is nothing there.’

A brace of partridges whirred out from a patch of longer grass. One of the Cilician troopers had to whip his mount back straight. Still no movement from the trees.

Maximus slid the bone ring on to his right thumb. He pulled back the felt cover of his gorytus, took out the recurve bow, notched an arrow to the right of the bow nomad-style. They all had their bows to hand. The soldiers were from a unit of mounted archers. Maximus wondered if they used the nomad thumb draw, wondered how good they would prove against nomads.

They were about two hundred paces from the covert, just beginning to relax, when they saw the riders. Pointed caps, drawn bows, embroidered tunics and trousers, boots, long swords at their sides, coming out of the trees. The Alani were there with the complete suddenness of an apparition.

They whooped, all ragged and uncoordinated. There were less than twenty of them. None were armoured, no banners flew above them. There were no obvious leaders.

They must be what is left of the original ambush party, Maximus thought. The rest must have driven the Heruli horses off south or gone away as messengers. Now the remainder will try to delay us long enough for their more numerous kinsmen to catch us.

‘Get in close, hand to hand, break them, make them run,’ Ballista roared. ‘We must not let them get at the wagons.’

The Alani were cantering forward. The first arrows flew from their line. The Romans replied. A shaft came at Maximus, deceptively slow, then terrifyingly fast. It sliced past a hand’s breadth or two away: a black line, hard to see. Maximus drew, aimed and released. The Alan was unhurt. He had missed. Bugger. He nocked another. The distance was fast diminishing. Arrows thrummed through the air. To the right, Hippothous pulled up; his horse lame. One of the Alani was swept backwards off his mount as if by an invisible hand. An arrow thumped into Maximus’s gorytus. Gods below, far too fucking close. Tarchon had gone. Maximus drew hard, the bone, wood and sinew of the composite bow groaning. In front, an Alani horse went tumbling, the bright fletching of an arrow in its windpipe. That’s the idea, Maximus thought. This time he aimed low, released. He missed again.

No more time. Maximus shoved the bow back into the gorytus. He slipped his hand through the loop of his sword, felt the sweat-worn leather of the hilt. It was snug in his hand. Two Alani were closing on him. He dropped the reins. Using his knees, he guided the horse towards the nomad on his left.

The three came together in a moment; many things happening at once. A strange clarity descended on Maximus, the battle calm that gave him time and made him such a killer. He blocked a downward cut from the left with his buckler. A splinter of wood cut his cheek, nearly took his eye. His left knee struck something hard. A surge of pain. The other man grunting in pain too. A sword cut from the right. Maximus caught it on his blade, rolled his wrist left to right — forced the other’s steel forward — rolled his wrist back, thrust overhand with much of his weight behind it. The point punctured the tunic, and deep enough into the flesh under it. The Alan howled, dropping his own weapon. Blood darkened the nomad embroidery on his flank. He was of no more account.

Left hand gripping a saddle horn, Maximus pulled himself back. Using his momentum, he swung overhead at the back of the man to his left. The Alan twisted, got his own blade in the way. They were still knee to knee, no room for manoeuvre. Their swords were locked together; their horses circling. The nomad had a long Sassanid blade with no hilt. Maximus beat aside a hand clawing at his throat. He forced his sword to scrape down. Edge to edge, the steel rang. His fingers moments from being cut, the Alan jerked away. Maximus dived inside his guard. The sword sliced across the front of his tunic. It was not a clean blow, but enough to double him up in pain. Maximus finished him with a downward chop to the back of the neck.

A respite — no Alani very near. Maximus searched for Ballista. The Angle was but a few horse lengths away. He was trading blows with a nomad. Maximus went to help. Before he arrived, the Alan crashed from his mount. Castricius drew up with two of the auxiliaries. Tarchon was scrambling on to a nomad pony. Hippothous was further off. He was on foot, despatching a wounded man. He was laughing. A third soldier appeared. The final one had vanished. There were only a couple of loose ponies and some dead Alani near by. The living nomads, no more than ten of them left, had ridden through the Roman line and continued on.

‘They are running,’ a soldier said.

‘They are making for the wagons,’ Ballista said. ‘Close on me. We must stop them.’

In a loose line, the seven riders set off after them. Ballista took his party straight to a flat-out gallop. Yet it was obvious they would not catch the Alani before they reached the caravan.

The wagons were still careering towards the watercourse, and thus towards the ten Alani. The five Heruli were now fanning out in front of the double line of wagons.

Ballista’s men thundered on in their futile pursuit.

Arrows ripped through the air between the Heruli and the ten Alan. The strong sunshine glinted on the vicious heads, flared the bright colours of the feathers. An Alani pony shied off to one side. Its rider slowly slid from the saddle. A Herul fell sideways. His horse trotting around in a circle to nuzzle him. He was trying to rise. Another Alan clutched his thigh, and yanked his mount off to the south.

All the remaining Alani were racing off to the south. But as they sped across the face of the caravan, they loosed repeatedly at the leading caravan of the southern column. The oxen were hit. They were pulling up.

‘Calgacus and Wulfstan are in there,’ Maximus shouted.

The following wagons drove past it on either side. The stricken wagon was lost to sight.

‘We must get to them,’ Ballista called.

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