Geiseric had all his captains with him, including Godamer, when the gate called the Porta Appia opened. He would talk to this Pope who followed orthodox nonsense. Clearly, the Arian way made sense of his world. God the Father, they called Odin in the old days. God the son, whether Jesus or Thor, served under his father, not being equal to the King of the Gods. Still, Geiseric would listen to what the old man said. He took Carthage by trickery. He might take Rome in the same way. The only one to watch was this dragon.
Geiseric heard in great detail about the dragon from Attila and about Attila’s destruction at the hands of the dragon. He heard in the old days, how the servants of the dragon drove Castinus to utter madness. They said Attila himself was mad and seeing things when he died, and his empire fell apart among his squabbling sons. Geiseric was not one to be afraid of any man, but maybe he would listen to what this dragon had to offer, and maybe he would be willing to make a deal.
The Pope walked out of the gate, followed by a long string of clerics and monks. Geiseric ignored them. Twelve men rode out, like an honor guard for the Pope. Six, he knew, were guards, such as manned the walls of Rome. With such formidable walls, Geiseric knew it would cost him greatly, and possibly months to break into the city. Perhaps another way could be found. He shifted his sight, because the other six riders wore the dragon tunic. He looked for the red hair. He knew that one was the dragon, himself.
“What have you to say, old man,” Geiseric turned to the Pope and shot straight to the point.
“Know you that this great and ancient city has become the city of God, and those who walk her streets do so in reverence and peace. And I, unworthy servant that I am, follow in the footsteps of Peter as he followed the Lord of Heaven and Earth. I am honored to speak for the people, the city, and in the name of God. Here, then, is the word. That you do not abuse the people, either by rape or slaughter, and that you do not burn the homes of the City of God. Agree to this, and you may take what you wish of gold and silver, brass and bronze. We care not for earthly treasures, for the power in the earth that once made Rome ruler of the whole world has been overthrown by a greater, and almighty power. So, take what you will, but tread lightly. What is done in darkness will be shown in the light. God Almighty will watch, and he will neither slumber nor sleep. This you know.”
Geiseric rubbed his chin and got thoughtful, but at last, his curiosity got the best of him. “What says the dragon?”
“It is a fair offer,” Festuscato began. “You see the walls. You see the guard, men enough to make your entrance into the city long and costly. You have no siege engines. They will take more time to build. But Italy in these last few years has suffered from poor crops. There is not much food out in the countryside. You will have a hard time feeding all your men all that time. And you know, hungry men do not fight well. No, I say it is a fair offer. If you will pledge not to harm the people or burn the city, the Pope will open the gates to you and give you one week to collect all the gold and silver you can carry.”
‘One month,” Geiseric bargained.
“Ten days,” Festuscato countered.
“Two weeks,” Geiseric countered again, and after a moment’s thought, Festuscato held out his hand to shake.
“Deal,” he said, and Geiseric grinned, having gotten the last word in the bargain. Festuscato figured he would not realize until later that he got tricked into agreeing to something he had not intended. Festuscato also figured he needed to distract the man lest Geiseric figure it out right then and there. “A word in private,” he said, and escorted the King of the Vandals away from all the others.
“The King of the Jutes once called Rome a fat cow, ready to be slaughtered,” Festuscato spoke, softly. Geiseric liked that image. “The truth is, the cow has become very lean, her meat stringy and full of gristle, and her milk all but dry. Her strength and money are spent. Give us tomorrow, and one more day after that to tell the people not to resist, but to give you all they have. We will open the gates on the third day, and you may have your two weeks. Listen, I understand some Romans will be stupid and stubborn. There will be some bloodshed, but you must keep it to a minimum. Do you know what I mean when I say how stupid and stubborn some men can be? Any of your own people like that?”
Geiseric thought. He nodded slowly, then he looked at a couple of his captains and rolled his eyes.
“I say, keep the bloodshed to a minimum, because that is what the lady requires.”
“Eh? What lady?”
“For your ears only,” Festuscato said, and stepped closer, and spoke secretly, which garnered Geiseric’s full attention. “The usurper Petronius Maximus and his son are dead, killed by the Romans themselves. But I managed to spirit away Licinia Eudoxia and her two daughters, one being Eudocia who I believe my good friend Valentinian betrothed to your son. Is that not so?”
Geiseric did not answer, but Festuscato saw the Vandal’s jaw fall. The so-called rescue of the Empress and her daughter, his son’s betrothed, was one pretext he used to justify his attack on Rome.
“The lady and her daughter have agreed to go with you and fulfill the pledge of peace between Rome and Carthage, but only if you limit the blood spilled, and do not burn the people’s homes. The women are presently under my protection, so if you commit atrocities in the city, they will not go. As the Pope has said, God will be watching you. I have no doubt God will see everything, but so you know, I will be watching too.”
Geiseric rankled at the thought that this dragon could keep anything from him. He reacted. “How will you watch to know what so many men do?” he asked.
“Ironwood,” Festuscato called in the right way and the fairy appeared. After a moment to get his bearings, Ironwood became full sized, looking like a true warrior, and went to one knee.
“Informal. Geiseric is a friend. You may sit on my shoulder if you don’t mind.”
“It is an honor,” Ironwood said, and he got small again and fluttered up to take a seat on Festuscato’s shoulder with a minimum of hair pulling to get comfortable.
Festuscato let out a small “Ouch.” It was mostly an act.
Geiseric pulled in his breath before he laughed. “All right, dragon. We will keep the blood to a minimum, but you understand, I do not have little things to watch all my men.”
“Understood,” Festuscato said, and decided to save the last for another time. When Geiseric prepared to sail, he would tell him never to come back to Rome. To do so would be his death and there would be nowhere on this earth he could run to hide.
“So, these?” Geiseric pointed at the others that wore the dragon tunic. His curiosity continued, or perhaps he sought something to distract himself from being backed into a corner of a bargain he did not want to make.
“My centurion, Dibs. A friend from childhood,” Festuscato said, pleasantly, and with equal pleasantry, he added, “These others are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death. Perhaps you read about them.” Ironwood snickered, softly. Geiseric’s eyes got big, and he thought it best to turn to the Pope.
“I accept your terms. You may have tomorrow and the next day to prepare the people. Then you will open the gate and we will help ourselves to your earthly treasures. We will endeavor not to harm the people or the homes, but we will also look for newly dug holes in the yard. My men know all the tricks to evade the tax collectors. Two weeks, and then we will leave.”
“The bargain is made,” Festuscato said.
The Pope nodded, turned to walk back to the city, and whispered, “Pray everyone keeps it.”
Festuscato walked beside him. Dibs walked the horses. “No,” Festuscato said. “I believe you put the fear of God in him.”
The Pope looked up. “And you put the fear of other things into him.”
“Not really. But it is hot out here at high noon. I was afraid he would dither all day. I just showed him the advantages of the bargain. He was not hard to convince.”
“Prosper of Aquitaine said he should have recorded your conversation with the King, but he could not hear it well.”
“No, no.” Festuscato turned to the man who walked only two steps behind. “We are just the military escort. That should be assumed and probably does not even need to be mentioned.”
“And the fairy?”
“Definitely not mentioned,” Festuscato said. “Ironwood, go home to your wife.”
“Lord,” Ironwood said before he vanished, as Festuscato sent him to his wife.
“But listen. This is important.” Festuscato framed his thoughts. Sometimes, keeping history on track and moving it in the right direction required a gentle touch.
“I am listening,” the Pope said.
“You understand the empire in the west is dead, overrun with barbarians, maybe having a few last gasps. All that remains is the church, and many of the bishops listen to you. You need to make something like an underground empire to keep civilization alive.”
“The church is not made for war and conquest.”
“No. But you are made to read and write, to educate the people, to uphold a strong moral foundation in the world. Love your neighbor, not to mention love your enemy will be a hard sell with the barbarians. But the future is in your hands.”
“So I have often thought, and prayed about.”
“You are the only light to keep the whole world from falling into the pit of darkness.”
They waited a moment while the gate opened, and they walked in. Then the Pope spoke again. “Let us get through these next two weeks of darkness, first.
“Two days and two weeks,” Festuscato responded. “Quite right.” He veered off to return to the inn and let the Pope go his way.
Outside, Godamer spoke quietly as he and Hawdic rejoined their men. “We will wait the days. When the gates open and the king and the army go into the city, we will slip off down the road to the rich villas that will be minimally guarded, if they are guarded at all.”
“Can’t we go sooner?” Hawdic asked, looking anxious. “The king will not miss our company,”
“Patience,” Godamer said. “We don’t want others to see and maybe figure out our plan.”
Meg, the Wraith clenched her fists. “Fools,” she said to herself. “They will barely have time to get there, destroy the loved ones of the Kairos, and turn to set the trap for the travelers.” She had to wait. She understood. She went into the city and thought while she waited, she could at least give some Romans nightmares.
Rome opens the gates, but down the road, perhaps things will not go the way the Wraith would like. Until Monday, Happy Reading