Meg, the wraith, smelled the Vandals. She smelled a feast in the making. She watched them tear down the aqueducts and zeroed in on one troop that she might use for her purposes. The leader of the company, some three hundred and fifty men, was Godamer. She thought it a good name. His lieutenant was Hawdic, a fool easily manipulated.
“All the real money is in the villas on the road, the Appian Way,” Godamer said, as the last of the aqueduct towers came down.
“How do you know that?” Hawdic asked.
“I heard,” Godamer said. “Besides, it makes sense that the money would be where the rich people live.”
“I guess. Shouldn’t we tell the king about your idea?”
Godamer formed an evil grin on his face. “What Gaiseric doesn’t know can’t hurt us. Besides, look at the walls of Rome. I have no intention of getting myself killed trying to break in there. While King Gaiseric wastes the time and men, we will be enriching ourselves beyond our wildest dreams.”
“I don’t know. I’ve had some pretty wild dreams.”
“I like the sound of that,” Hawdic matched Godamer’s evil grin, and called the men to gather up.
Meg sighed. Maybe that was too easy. Still, the Kairos was too dangerous to attack directly, but she could cause him pain and torment by killing the ones he loved. Then, it should be an easy thing to set a trap for the travelers as they come up the road. So much death, destruction, fear, pain, and misery. She could hardly wait.
Festuscato and his troop rode through the Vandal line without incident, until the end, right before the gate. Maybe they had no orders to keep people out of the city; only to keep people in. They might not have known what to do. More likely, however, they heard about the dragon and the part he played in destroying the Huns. He and this Pope turned Attila back from the very gates of Rome and within a year, Attila died. No one dared interfere with the dragon, until he reached the gate.
One Vandal got his bow and tried to shoot the dragon in the back. The arrow snapped in two and bounced off the armor of the Kairos that Festuscato wore. It would not even leave a bruise. The same could not be said for the Vandal. Faster than most of the others could see, the Four Horsemen grabbed their bows and put four arrows in the offending Vandal, two in the heart, one in the throat, and one in the eye. The man died standing up, and then fell over. The Four Horsemen had their bows put away as fast as they got them out.
“Senator Festuscato Cassius Agitus,” Festuscato announced himself. “I have an appointment with the Pope. Open up.”
The gate guards opened the gate a crack, let Festuscato and his troop into the city, and slammed the gate shut again as fast as they could. They did not need to do that. Any Vandals close enough to cause trouble in the gate still stood gawking at the dead man.
Once inside the city, Festuscato went to his favorite inn. The innkeeper found a room for him. Festuscato did not ask too many questions, like who the innkeeper had to dislodge. The city looked overcrowded with people. Much of the countryside emptied, though with such short notice, most people headed for the hills. Festuscato sent his own mostly Gaelic and British tenant farmers to the hills. He wanted to send Morgan with them, but she refused to give up the house.
“We are half-a-day’s ride from the city,” she said. “There is no reason to suppose the Vandals will come this far, or even notice us.”
Stupid and stubborn, Festuscato thought, though he knew better than to say it out loud. He got Atias and Roan to help set a defense for the house, and he came to town. He sent Ironwood, the fairy to set up the meeting with Geiseric, King of the Vandals. Ironwood was technically Festuscato’s brother-in-law, since he married Morgan’s half-sister, Macy. Macy was a half-elf, half human who stayed tongue-tied in Festuscato’s presence. It was complicated. But Macy and her young son should be at the manor house by nightfall… He hoped the Vandals stayed around Rome and ignored the houses further down the road.
Festuscato sent the fathers and friars back to the Pope with the word that he should be ready to go in the morning. It was not uncommon for the besieged city to send representatives to the invading army under a flag of truce. They would talk and see if there was some way to resolve things without bloodshed. That seemed unlikely.
Geiseric had been cleverer than Attila. He moved into Carthage, captured the Roman fleet there, and waited for the Huns to tear down the last gasps of Roman power in the west. Add to that, several years of bad harvests, and Rome, with Italy are on their knees. So, when Rome is as weak as a kitten, Geiseric strikes.
Festuscato went to the common room for a quiet supper. Two of the Four Horsemen were present. Two would be in the downstairs common room all night while he slept upstairs. Dibs and his short company would house in the barn while the horses stayed fenced in the yard. Festuscato, last Senator of Rome as he sometimes referred to himself, could eat alone, and think. This would be a tough nut to crack.
He got a bunch of pig-headed, warring tribes in Britannia to form a kind of confederation under the Pendragon to hold the island and beat back the invading Huns, Germans, Picts, Irish, Danes… It would work for a while. Later, he recalled General Aetius from Rome, the head of what remained of the Roman army in the West, and he cobbled together enough Fedoratti troops—even got Saxons and Franks to work side by side, so together they could drive back the invasion of Gaul by Attila and his Huns. This, though, would be tough. Rome did not have anything left but stout walls and not enough guards to hold back a serious assault.
“Trouble,” one of the Four Horsemen spoke up. Festuscato guessed it was Pestilence. Even he could not tell them apart, sometimes. He stood and went to the door, still chewing on the boiled beef that had too much gristle. He caught the glint of gold in the moonlight, shining from the back of a wagon that got dragged behind a group of people. He saw Dibs and several men with the other two of the Four Horsemen, watching from the edge of the building. He heard a woman scream as she got knocked to the ground, and a young girl screamed with her.
The little caravan got near the gate. The inn was not far from the gate. But they did not move fast enough. A great, angry mob with torches would catch them. Festuscato wondered if the mob had any pitchforks, as he signaled Dibs. Festuscato, Dibs with his men, and the Four Horsemen, got the woman and her two daughters out of the midst of the men in the street, only injuring two of the men in the process. They brought the women to the inn and set up a defensive perimeter around the building to protect them. They did not have the strength to stop the oncoming mob from catching the men and their gold. They watched the slaughter from the steps to the inn.
It did not last long, but long enough for the mother to get her daughters inside and come back out to see. By then, Dibs had his whole troop up and armed. The mob seemed angry, and as full of mindless murder as it may have been, it was not stupid. After the deed was done, the mob melted back into the streets, and took the gold with them.
Festuscato swallowed his gristle and turned to see who he saved. It was the Empress of Rome, Valentinian’s widow, Licinia Eudoxia. The two inside had to be her daughters, Eudocia and Placidia. He did not feel surprised.
“Sorry about the loss of your husband,” he said. “I actually liked Valentinian.”
The Empress nodded and found a soft little tear in her eye. She pointed at the dead men in the street and spoke. “The usurper, Petronius Maximus. He was never a husband. And his son, Palladius, who forced himself on my daughter, Eudocia.” The Empress found some anger in her tears.
“My Petronius is a dragon,” Festuscato said to the air. Dibs shrugged and took his men back to the barn.
“You were right,” the Empress said, dredging up a memory from a long time ago. “I had a girl.”
“Two girls,” Festuscato said, and smiled. Licinia Eudoxia began to cry in earnest. He wrapped her up in his arms and escorted her into the inn. All Four Horsemen followed, and Festuscato simply assured her and her daughters that they were there to make sure nothing untoward happened in the night. The innkeeper made rooms for his guests. The innkeeper’s wife fainted at who she had in her inn. Festuscato turned to the younger daughter who he guessed was about twelve. “Have you eaten?” The girl shook her head. “The beef is not bad if you can chew past the gristle.” The girl smiled, and that made everyone at the table smile while Festuscato thought.
Geiseric, King of the Vandals in Africa, and Emperor Valentinian made a deal for peace. Geiseric’s son, Huneric was supposed to marry Valentinian’s daughter, Eudocia when Eudocia got a little older. That deal got interrupted when Petronius Maximus had Valentinian killed and usurped the throne. He forced a marriage between himself and Licinia, and between his son and Eudocia. Geiseric used that as an excuse to say the peace deal was broken. Thus, he invaded Rome.
Festuscato frowned, privately, at what he was thinking. He had lived as a woman often enough to despise the use of women for political unions. But, at the same time, maybe Rome had something to offer Geiseric after all, to mitigate the rampant death and destruction that usually came when an invading army overran a city.