Every few days they stopped to hunt or fish. Most of the company had been made up of men from the Italian countryside, not from Rome itself. Many of them were raised hunters and fishermen, where winters could be lean, even in sunny Italy. A few of them were very good, like Tiberius who first picked up a bow and arrows at age seven, though he admitted he never saw anyone as good on the hunt or as good with a bow as Festuscato.
Early on morning, the sun just having cracked the horizon, Festuscato, Tiberius and Julius found themselves in the woods, on the trail of a deer. Festuscato complained that he did not have a haunted woods, like Greta. He wanted a haunted woods, but he did not explain himself at that time. They came to an upland meadow full of spring flowers and Festuscato hushed his companions. He saw the deer. It turned out to be a small herd, contentedly munching away. The others did not see them until a couple of them moved. Festuscato pointed to the two easy targets and got ready to take down a third. It took a lot of food to feed fifty-seven people.
“Now,” Festuscato spoke softly. His deer fell. Tiberius crippled his and finished with a second arrow. Julius shot a bit off. The deer would die in time, but it could run. Fortunately, Festuscato anticipated this and had a second arrow ready. The herd ran off, of course, but they had three good kills, and what they did not eat that day or the next, they could smoke and chew on all week. “Good thing Mirowen has people out gathering greens, berries and tubers. I would hate to have everyone down with scurvy, though I don’t mind Atkins so much. Tiberius.”
“On my way,” Tiberius said. He would go back to camp and bring men and horses to carry the meat, while Julius and Festuscato defended it. He did not get very far. A dozen rough looking men, Goths more than likely, moved up to surround them. They were on horseback, and the obvious leader, a tall blond, triggered Festuscato’s mouth.
“Riders of Rohan. We have been tracking a party of orcs. They have two hobbits with them, little people. They would look like children in your eyes. Have you seen them?” The blond and several others got down from their horses. About half of the Goths remained mounted.
“Orcs?” the blond asked with a playful look. He felt confident that he had the upper hand.
“What you would call goblins. They will have gone to ground come daylight, but they can’t be far.”
“Goblins?” The man certainly knew the word, and he scoffed.
“Of course. This is the haunted forest, or about as good a one as you can get around here.” Festuscato complained again. A couple of Goths laughed, but the blond shot them a hard look. He got tired of this foolishness. “Just a minute,” Festuscato interrupted the idea of getting down to business. “Pinewood,” he called. Pinewood fluttered in, which made the Goths all take a big step back. The fairy changed to his big size and went to one knee.
“Please inform Mirowen that we may be a bit late for lunch, and remind Marcellus that he has passengers to defend.”
“Yes, Lord. I believe Dumdiddle and a number of locals are watching from the woods. I am sorry, though. The goblins did go to ground with the sunup.”
“Quite all right. I’ll catch up with them at a later time.”
“Very good, Lord.” Pinewood immediately got small again and flew off with some speed.
“Now, I believe you were about to tell me something.”
The blond Goth gave Festuscato a much closer look. This did not appear to be your typical rich Roman, lost in the woods. He spoke, but it came out loud and not without some fear in his voice. “This is our hunting ground.”
“Excuse me,” Festuscato interrupted again. He shouted. “Don’t kill them. I’ll let you know if I need you to hurt them.” Festuscato noticed the eyes of Julius stayed steady as if the appearance of Pinewood in his fairy form simply confirmed what he guessed; or maybe Mirowen, or worse, Drucilla told him. Tiberius had his eyes as wide open as any Goth, but he held his tongue. “I am Senator Festuscato Cassius Agitus. My centurion is Julius and my archer here is Tiberius. Do you have a name?”
“Heinrich,” The man said, while his eyes carefully scanned the trees.
“Good to meet you.” Festuscato reached out and shook the man’s hand before Heinrich knew what was happening. “Now, I apologize. We had no idea this was a claimed hunting preserve. You are welcome to our kill, though one to share with my men would be very nice.” He gave his warmest, friendliest smile.
Heinrich saw nothing in the trees. He pulled his sword and the men on foot with him pulled theirs as well. “What I want is your gold.”
Festuscato never lost his smile and he patted himself down. He had taken to living in the armor of the Kairos because he said it made dressing in the morning so easy, and the fairy weave he wore beneath the leather could be cleaned and freshened with a thought. “Sorry. No gold with me. But I’ll tell you what I can do. Why don’t I hire you. We are heading over the alps and could use a good guide. Do you know the mountains? It would be good if we avoided any highway robbers or brigands or that sort of thing, and I pay well.”
“Lord Agitus?” Julius did not like that idea, but Festuscato hushed him.
“Maybe you and your lieutenant. I have a big enough troop as it is to try and keep fed. But, as I said, your men are welcome to these deer. Oh, but I don’t know if you can trust your men to keep things while you are away. Still, it is a fair offer, I can pay in gold if you like and no one will follow after you to try and take your head, if you know what I mean.”
Heinrich clearly thought about it. He stepped back to confer with his men, one in particular who Festuscato would remember by the scar down the man’s cheek. When he turned, he smiled, but it looked a bit fake. “Gotlieb and I will show you the way over the mountains,” he said. “Two,” he shouted to his men and they took two of the deer, mounted and rode off, Scarface last of all. Heinrich and Gotlieb grabbed their horses while Julius helped Tiberius get the last deer up on his shoulders. “Gotlieb was born and raised on the other side of the mountains and I know this side and the passes very well.” Heinrich started exactly in the direction of the camp and said, “So where is this camp of yours?”
“Not far,” Festuscato said, as Pinewood met them at the edge of the meadow in his big form, to walk with them.
“Dumdiddle is happy things worked out, but he says he has a very disappointed ogre that didn’t get to pound anyone.” Pinewood spoke freely, but he spoke in Greek assuming that the Goths did not speak Greek. Julius did. Festuscato nodded, but did not respond. Pinewood spoke again after a moment. “The Lord under the Mountains says he will watch the camp in the night.”
“Very good.” Festuscato thought about it. “But Julius, tell Marcellus he needs to set up a regular watch through the night. At least four men per shift, three shifts in the twelve hours. They need to guard the perimeter and keep at least one other in sight at all times. Maybe five men, middle shift, in the dark of the night. They need to keep their eyes open for Goths that may be following. This night watch needs to become routine, from now on, Goths or no Goths.” Festuscato reverted to Old German so Heinrich was sure to understand. “Oh, and Pinewood. Please tell the Lord under the Mountains that his people are not to eat any Romans or any passengers as well. What he does with outsiders is up to him to decide.”
“Very good, my Lord.”
Festuscato and Julius had no illusions and imagined that Scarface and the rest of Heinrich’s men would follow them, but they never came close enough to the camp to be a bother. In part, that may have been because Festuscato and Julius halted the group everyplace they found level ground. There, they spent a few days going through their lessons before moving on. No telling how the company might perform in battle, but at least they were proficient enough at their tasks to be impressive to any observers. “The chief object is to not have to fight,” Festuscato said, and Julius agreed. Father Gaius added an Amen, just to be clear.