The most creditable aspect of Naulobates’ handling of the battle on the Tanais, Ballista thought, had been the running away. As a professional soldier, you could not fault it.

Ballista’s diversion at the height of the fighting had worked reasonably well. Saurmag and the horsemen under his command — exiled Suani as well as Alani — had broken off to chase him. Their pursuit had been curtailed when it reached Andonnoballus’s riders on the riverbank. The gap temporarily created in their encirclement had allowed Aruth, Pharas, Datius and some two thousand of the Eutes to dash to the safety of the Heruli battle line. The men under Ballista had returned for the loss of only ten Heruli and one Roman auxiliary. Of course, the rest of the Eutes who had not escaped, along with the warriors from the tribes along the Rha river and the bandits — some three thousand men all told — had been massacred. The Alani ambushers had been very diligent in hunting down those who had avoided the trap.

The main battle had continued for several hours. The Alani reserve had moved up to face Andonnoballus’s men. All along the line, the bodies of cavalry wheeled, arrows flew, men and animals suffered and died in the choking dust. But it never came to hand-to-hand fighting. In mid-afternoon, it petered out, as stocks of arrows ran low, ponies tired, despite the use of remounts, and hot, thirsty men lost enthusiasm. The Alani had broken off first. But no one in the Heruli horde was in any doubt of the way the day had gone. The Heruli could fight again, but they knew they had lost.

That night, Naulobates had ordered sentries posted, the campfires lit and the evening meal prepared and eaten. Afterwards, in strictest silence, the whole army had saddled up and melted away. All the wounded who could sit a horse had gone with them, supported by their kinsmen. Mindful of the prohibitions surrounding the latter, those too badly wounded to ride had been killed with quiet efficiency by their friends. Most had met it well. To the Heruli, the idea was not alien.

The screen of scouts had followed the main body just before dawn. Later that morning, the Alani would have taken possession of a camp consisting of warm ashes, broken equipment, and the dead.

The march south to the Tanais had taken four days. The hectic retreat was completed in just two, with the loss of only a couple of hundred dead ponies, some of the wounded and a handful of stragglers. While they had been away, the main camp and herds had been driven about thirty miles further north, to near a small tree-lined stream running through the Steppe.

It was now four days since they had ridden exhausted mounts up to the main camp. Naulobates had told them they could rest easy; the Alani would not reach them for another two days. Ballista very much hoped this information had reached Naulobates from intrepid Heruli spies or scouts, and not from Brachus and the world of daemons. In case it derived from a fallible supernatural source, he and the familia now habitually went in full war gear, and never far from their horses.

After the midday meal, Ballista went alone to the tent of Andonnoballus. Two Heruli stood guard at the entrance. Although it was one of the bigger structures, it was crowded with armed men. Andonnoballus was supported by the other two survivors of the Heruli who had met the embassy, Pharas and Datius, the two commanders of the bands of a hundred who had followed Ballista at the Tanais, Sarus and Amius, and the great generals Uligagus and Artemidorus. On Ballista’s side of the circle were Maximus, Calgacus, Tarchon, Hippothous and Castricius. They were all seated cross-legged on cushions, swords close at hand. Some had been talking quietly, with something of a conspiratorial air, but fell silent when Ballista entered.

Without a word, Andonnoballus got up and unsheathed the akinakes from his hip. The colours in the steel shone in the light from the open doorway. A fly buzzed in the stifling quiet.

Andonnoballus pointed the sword at Ballista. ‘Are you of the same mind as me?’

‘Yes.’ Ballista held out his right arm.

With his left hand, Andonnoballus gripped Ballista’s wrist. With his right he drew the edge of the akinakes across Ballista’s hand. The bright blood pooled in Ballista’s palm.

Someone passed Ballista a drinking horn. He tipped his hand, to let the blood run into it. His palm hurt. The fly buzzed in imbecilic patterns. The blood dripped. After a time, someone gave him a strip of linen. He gave the vessel to Pharas, and bound his wound. He was glad the material was clean. He did not let his face betray any pain.

Andonnoballus held out his right arm, and the procedure was repeated. When it was done, Pharas poured wine to mingle in the drinking horn with the blood of the two men.

Ballista and Andonnoballus put an arm around the other’s shoulder, and each gripped the drinking horn with their free hand. They moved close, almost cheek to cheek. Ballista looked sideways into Andonnoballus’s grey eyes, at the moment so like those of his father. Together they lifted the vessel and drank.

‘By the sword and the cup, we are brothers,’ Andonnoballus said. ‘Henceforth, one mind in two bodies; what touches the one, touches the other.’

‘Brothers,’ Ballista said.

The men in the tent, Heruli and Roman, raised their cups and cheered. They drank their undiluted wine.

Ballista smiled. It would have been a mortal insult to reject the offer. A Herul could have only three blood-brothers. Ballista was unsure why Andonnoballus had done him this great honour. Perhaps it was politics; a move designed to bind him more closely to the Heruli in the fighting to come. It could be that Naulobates had instructed him to do it. Or perhaps Andonnoballus had read too much into the actions on the Tanais. It was hard enough to dissect one’s own motivation, let alone that of another from a different culture. Ballista himself was unsure why he had volunteered to lead the diversion. Still, the thing was an honour, and Ballista liked Andonnoballus well enough. At least, he could not prove worse than Morcar, his Angle half-brother.

‘Now you are my brother, you will come to the assembly as a Herul,’ Andonnoballus said.

Again no choice, Ballista thought. But he was altogether less happy with this aspect.

In every Heruli camp an open space was left clear of tents for the assembly. The third drum of the summoning was beating as Ballista arrived with Andonnoballus and the other Heruli. The crowd was dense, but parted a little for the son of the First-Brother and the great generals. Standing near the front, hemmed in by the elongated heads, dyed-red hair and swirling red tattoos — all so very alien — Ballista wished Maximus and Calgacus had been able to come with him. He felt alone, and the horror of confined spaces was tight in his breathing.

Naulobates climbed on to the open wagon.

Loud, almost truculent cries greeted him. ‘What do you want?’ ‘Why have you summoned the assembly?’

Naulobates raised his spear to quell the uproar somewhat. ‘I want your counsel.’

‘Ask what you want.’ ‘Spit it out.’ The tribesmen were more than boisterous. There was a hard, impatient edge to them. Many were drunk. Defeat had not improved their amenability.

‘Where is Aruth?’ Naulobates said.

Aruth stepped into the small open space before the wagon. He moved unwillingly, but he had no choice. If he had not, clearly the crowd, heated by alcohol and self-righteous indignation, would have turned on him. As it was, many of the tribesmen bayed and yipped at the sight of him.

Ballista had never really looked at Aruth before. He was a short, stocky man in middle age, with the elongated skull of the Rosomoni. He bore himself well. Only the rhythmic clenching of his right fist, emphasized by the red snake inked on the back of his hand, betrayed any nerves. He looked up, square into the face of the First-Brother.

‘Am I the elected war leader of the Heruli?’ Naulobates asked.

The crowd bellowed in the affirmative to the rhetorical question.

‘At the Tanais, did I command that any man who left the ranks would be killed?’

Again the crowd roared its assent.

‘Aruth led his men out of the line against orders,’ Naulobates said.

A babble of shouts rose. ‘Bastard, string him up!’ ‘To Hell with him, bend down the trees!’ ‘Kill the dog!’

Not all were for summary execution. ‘Let him speak!’ ‘He is a great warrior, a Herul; just sit him in a tree for the day!’ ‘No, he must be heard first!’ ‘Let him speak, it is his right!’

Naulobates raised his spear. A measure of quiet returned. ‘It is his right as one of the Rosomoni, as a Herul.’

Aruth gave a searching look at the front ranks, then fixed his gaze back on Naulobates. ‘I did not order the advance. The bandits rode out from the line. The farmers from the Rha followed, then the Eutes. I could not hold them.’

His voice was drowned by shouts. The majority were hostile. ‘Cowards blame others!’ ‘Take responsibility like a man!’ ‘Kill the bastard!’ ‘Throw him in the thorns!’

A few persevered for clemency. ‘It was not his fault!’ ‘Spare him!’

Here and there, scuffles broke out, as the tribesmen debated with their fists. The outnumbered adherents of Aruth were soon pummelled into submission to the general will. ‘Kill him!’ ‘Kill the dog!’ ‘Bend down the trees!’ ‘Tear him apart!’

Naulobates had the drum beaten. ‘I hear your counsel. I will pass sentence.’

The First-brother looked at the sky and brooded dramatically. Ballista wondered if Naulobates was communing with the world of daemons, or, at least, if that was the desired impression. The silence stretched. Aruth’s fist clenched and unclenched, the red snake flexing its coils.

Ballista, pressed unhappily against Andonnoballus, Pharas and Uligagus, found himself hoping Aruth would be spared.

‘Aruth,’ said Naulobates, ‘did not disobey the order. But he could not control his riders. Men died unnecessarily under his command. He shall be punished as an unintentional killer.’

‘The box, hang him in the box!’ the open, red mouths of the crowd chanted.

Crushed in the press, Ballista felt light-headed, slightly sick.

Naulobates waved his spear. ‘He shall be hung in the box from the high branches. He shall have three loaves and one jug of water. For nine nights and days he will hang. It is decided.’

The multitude echoed the sentence. ‘It is decided.’

Two men shouldered through the throng. They were battered and bloodied. One spoke for both. ‘We are Aruth’s brothers by the sword and the cup. What touches our brother touches us. We will share his fate.’

Naulobates nodded. ‘You are true Heruli.’ The assembly murmured its approbation.

The three men stood, shoulder to shoulder, as timber was brought out, and the hammering commenced.

Andonnoballus turned to Ballista. ‘For nine nights and days Woden hung in the tree. Sometimes the Allfather succours those who suffer the same.’

Ballista did not answer. His thoughts were roaming far away. The Heruli prided themselves on their freedom. Certainly in their assembly they seemed able to say what they liked. But was it any better than in the imperium? In the consilium of the emperor, fist fights were not encouraged and opinions tended to be expressed more decorously, but those summoned were meant to speak their mind openly. Yet both the First-Brother and emperor could ignore the counsel they received; ultimately, they made the decision.

A long time ago — when he was young — Ballista had thought freedom unproblematic. You either had it, or you did not. Either you were a slave, or you were free. Either you were a free man in Germania, or you lived in servitude in the imperium. His own enforced travels had undermined his childish certainty. Different peoples had different ideas about freedom. Freedom itself over time could change its meaning in one culture. He thought of the histories he had been reading on this mission. For the senators in the Res Publica written about by Sallust, libertas had meant the unfettered freedom to compete with each other openly for election to high office and the rewards they would then reap from exploiting their position. In the principate, as set out by Tacitus, libertas had narrowed down merely to freedom of speech under a monarch in everything but name, and freedom from unjust condemnation and the confiscation of estates. Yet, for both historians, most men had used libertas as nothing but a fine-sounding catchphrase devoid of real substance.

Ballista wondered how the vaunted freedom of his own people under the rule of his father would strike him now, if he were ever to return to the far north and the lands of the Angles. Perhaps the philosophers were right: the only true freedom was inside a man.

The hammering had stopped. The man condemned by the assembly, and the two condemned by custom and their own courage, did not have to be manhandled into the rough, slatted boxes. The water and the loaves were given to them and the cages nailed shut.

With much hauling and grunting, the cages were hoisted into the branches of a huge, spreading oak. The mood of the throng had turned to profound admiration. But the three men were left suspended between heaven and earth, their only possible salvation in the hands of a distant, capricious god.

Publius Egnatius Amantius to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Censorinus, Praetorian Prefect, Vir Ementissimus.

Dominus, I doubt you will ever receive this despatch, or the others I have written. It is said the Alani will be upon us tomorrow. The Heruli lost the last battle, and there is no reason to think they will do better in this, which shapes to be the final one. It is most certainly a judgement of the gods on their disgusting customs.

Faithful to your orders, and in the vain hope that some deity will deliver it into your hands, I am prompted to write this last time to give one final piece of information I have gleaned. From a conversation I overheard between the Legatus extra ordinem Scythica and his Caledonian freedman Marcus Clodius Calgacus I learnt that Odenathus of Palmyra has sent ambassadors to Naulobates and the Heruli. I know neither the timing nor the purpose of this embassy, but it must give cause for concern as to the loyalty of the Syrian our sacred Augustus Gallienus has appointed Corrector totius Orientis.

It has been an honour to serve you, Dominus. I have no real hopes of returning safe to the imperium. Even if by some vagary of war the Heruli prevail tomorrow, it is an inordinate distance back to humanitas. And although the exigencies of war have driven it from all other minds, I have not forgotten the fate of my friend Publius Egnatius Mastabates and the others.

A Herul camp on the Steppe, some time in late summer.