“I would really like to make Paris before the fall rains turn to snow,” Festuscato suggested. It was September first or so and they were stuck in the town of Saint Somebody or Other, one oxen shy of a compliment. Both of their spares had been used crossing the Alps and now one more collapsed. “What did you pack in your wagon, anyway?” he asked Mirowen.
“Things,” she said. “Girl things and some of your things as well. And not heavy things, so you can get that smirk off your face.”
“Okay. We probably need a couple more spares. This time, I suggest getting a gnome who knows the animals. Take two of the Four Horsemen and drive a hard bargain for three new oxen.”
Festuscato squinted. “I suppose I really should not call them that.”
“On the contrary. They enjoy the names and the reputation it gives them.” She scooted off to sit with the women. Mirowen, Sibelius, Drucilla, May in her big form, and Mascen’s wife Eselt, were all sitting together and giggling. Festuscato, Marcellus, Mascen, and Mister March were at the big table in the inn, sampling the local wine.
“Where is Julius?” Festuscato asked.
“Out checking on the men,” Marcellus said. “You know, I have worked for a number of different Centurions in my time, but you have turned Julius into just about the best of the lot. Most Centurions don’t care what their men are doing outside the battlefield, and even then, it is the sergeants who work the men.”
“Come now, you’re not that old,” Mister March said.
“Thirty-four, I think. That’s well old enough to have been around.”
“Child,” Mister March set his glass down.
Mascen let out a chuckle and spoke when the others looked at him. “Over forty,” he said. “And my wife, but hanging out with those women, she says they keep her young.”
“I don’t see why not. She is the youngest one in the group,” Festuscato remarked. Mascen looked curious. Mister March did not even blink. Marcellus nodded, vigorously, like he understood something but said nothing. The Priests Gaius, Felix and Lavius took that moment to join the group.
“Any good?” Gaius asked about the wine.
“Leaves a dry aftertaste,” Festuscato complained.
“Not bad,” Marcellus said, as the lady of the house brought another bottle and three more glasses.
“Mutton and potatoes,” Festuscato said. “And something that used to be green.”
“Now, don’t be hard on these people. They are poor, but good people and fine Christians, many of them,” Lavius said.
“You are right.” Festuscato sat up straight. “At least I bet Eselt is glad not to have to do all the cooking this week.”
“Yes and no,” Mascen responded. “She really enjoys cooking. Why do you think I married her?” Everyone smiled for him, except Marcellus who looked suddenly sober.
“I am married,” he admitted.
“No. Really? Congratulations.” People around the table said something while Marcellus downed his wine in three gulps.
“Why do you think I joined the army.” He stood. “Excuse me.” He went out to check on Julius and the men.
When they left the town of Saint Somebody or Other and headed for the town of Saint What’s-his-name, they were back up to full steam. The horses and oxen were rested. The new oxen were groomed and ready. They had fresh water in the barrels and full bags of grain for the animals and flour to bake their bread. They picked up a couple of sheep which Mascen, Mister March, Sibelius, and Drucilla drove with the wagons, and Pinewood presented the company with a knee length tunic that was all white with a golden dragon on the chest. They were not wool, but a thick linen that would be valuable once the weather changed further into the fall.
Festuscato knew he had to talk to Julius because Julius and Drucilla were getting to be such good friends. But he kept putting it off. Often, such romances were brief, and he hoped that might be the case here. He dwelled on it when Marcellus and his six came riding in hard from the flank.
“Huns,” Marcellus shouted, and the elf who had the horn blew it loud and long. The men on the point and the rear guard came racing up. They were on the edge of a forest where the trees grew on both sides of the road, but ended on Marcellus’ side not far from the road.
“Tiberius,” Julius yelled. “You and your men get the horses and passengers into the woods and defend them.”
“Get those sheep off the road,” Marcellus added, and six men did their best to get all of those horses into the quiet of the woods, while the rest of the troop found cover. There were about twenty soldiers charging, and Festuscato could not imagine how Marcellus knew they were Huns.
“Wait for the signal,” Festuscato shouted as Julius came up beside him.
“Here we go,” Julius breathed as Mirowen, Sibelius and Drucilla stepped up alongside the four horsemen, bows ready. Festuscato frowned.
Sixteen of the twenty attackers went down with the first volley. Two broke through the woods to the road, but they got surrounded by so many spears, they did not last long. The other two turned and ran, and Festuscato did not like the thought that they might fetch more. “Horses,” he shouted. “Bring your spears but hold your bows. Shields ready.” He found his horse and mounted. When most of the men were up he shouted again. “We want prisoners, not bodies. Pursuit!” They had practiced this. They were Festuscato’s own little RDF.
They did not ride that far behind the Huns, though maybe they had first class horses and the Huns had steppe ponies that were not as swift. The two men ran into a camp of Huns, yelling the alarm, but Festuscato and his company were right there, bows drawn and arrows ready to let loose. The Huns who stood around their tents and campfires got taken by surprise.
“A hunting party,” Marcellus named the group. He guessed about fifty.
“Hunting Romans?” Festuscato quipped and dismounted at what looked like the big tent. A man with dark hair and dark angry eyes came out of the tent with something to say. Festuscato looked around once at his Romans and saw twice his numbers. Pinewood hurried up to his side to translate, and Festuscato assumed all the extra men in helmets and dragon tunics were elves and fairies in their big size. Festuscato did not feel happy about that, but at the moment, he was not going to quibble.
“What is this?”
The short, broad shouldered man had some grey in his curly black hair and beard, and he growled at the word coward. He turned to one of the two who ran away and slapped him hard enough to knock him down. “It was not by my orders,” the man shouted. “I said watch them, not attack them. I suppose you will want compensation, Roman.”
“I don’t see why. We suffered no loss, just a temporary inconvenience.”
The man looked at the two who returned and then took a good look at the Romans who sat on obedient horses with bows ready to fire. “Eighteen men?” He looked to the sky. “You are the dragon? Who are you?”
“Festuscato Cassius Agitus, Vir Illustris of Rome, Comes and Imperial Governor of Britannia, and you?”
“Attila, King of the Huns.” Attila grinned for some reason. “And you have General Aetius waiting for you.”
“I am sure I will run into him, why?”
“Nothing,” Attila said, but he did not lose the grin. “But tell me, Roman. I heard you abandoned Britain years ago.”
“A special appeal from the Pope through the Emperor, Valentinian.”
Attila’s eyes widened and his mouth mocked. “The Holy man and the mother’s boy. I am surprised they have the time to consider such a far-away place. I hear the Vandals have invaded Africa.”
“Indeed, but I am sure you have bigger fish to catch than a poor Senator on the road to an impossible task.”
“Somehow, I have a feeling for you it may not be so impossible.”
“Give me your word that we may proceed unmolested.” Festuscato said, and Attila thought about it. He looked again at the men and their arrows. He twisted his hand to a man who was near. The man roared and drew his sword. He became a pincushion of arrows and collapsed before he got more than two steps. Festuscato did not flinch.
“Nineteen men dead,” Festuscato said, sadly.
“He was not a man. He was a fool.” Attila lied without blinking. He did not see which archers fired, and they all looked to have another arrow in the string.
“Fair enough. Nineteen fools and two lucky ones that ran away. Now give me your word.”
“Given.” Attila shouted to the camp. “Let the Roman and his dragons go in peace.”
Festuscato nodded. “Here,” he said. “A token for your losses.” He took a ruby ring from his right hand and held it out. “You might wish to return it to me the next time we meet.” He mounted his horse.
“We will meet again?”
“You can count on it,” Festuscato said, and he started out.
“Marcellus,” Julius called and joined Festuscato at a walking pace.
“Back to the wagons,” Marcellus yelled at the men and waved his arm.
“Father. You aren’t going to let them go,” Attila’s son had recovered from his slap down, and raised his voice.
“His fate is already decided,” Attila said. “Let them go.” He shouted to his camp again. “Let them go.” All the same, the little ones who joined the troop waited for all of the Romans to leave before they came last in line, just in case. They did not disappear until they were well away from the Hun camp.