Katie remarked to Lockhart and Felix for the third time in three days that there did not seem to be very much traffic on the road. Last time they came through, during the time of Julius Caesar, the road actually got crowded.
“Often, the crowd included soldiers,” Lockhart added.
Felix glanced back at his son, his four men and two wagons full of linen and a good bit of silk brought up from Egypt. He agreed again and spoke again from his knowledge and experience. “Italy has suffered from drought and bad harvests for almost ten years now. Famine has reared its head in several places. There isn’t much business going on. As for soldiers, the nearest legion is south, facing Sicily, or north, facing the Huns. I am not sure either is fully manned, and it would take them a month to get here in any case. The one in the north is mostly comprised of Goths. The one in the south is full of barbarians as well. They might all fight for the Vandals. Most Romans don’t fight these days.”
Lockhart copied Felix and glanced back. Decker and Nanette followed the three out front. Lincoln and Alexis presently drove the wagon. Elder Stow sat in the wagon and worked on his equipment when Tony, who followed, did not interrupt him with conversation. He turned his head to look out front. Boston and Sukki were somewhere ahead, making sure the road was clear. He had a serious question and turned again to Katie and Felix.
“Who is defending Rome, the city?”
Felix opened his mouth but did not get to say anything as Boston and Sukki came racing back with news.
“Barbarians. Maybe thieves on the road, but I think barbarians. They have long swords and shields with funny pictures, and they don’t look very Roman. About fifty of them.”
The column stopped.
“They are getting off the road to hide in the trees, like a trap,” Sukki said.
“Ambush,” Boston told her, and Sukki nodded.
Lockhart looked at Katie, who looked at Felix, and Felix spoke. “We are close enough to the city, so this road is the primary way from here. We might cut down to the coastal road to Ostia, but that would put us into the hands of the Vandals, and the nearest cutoff is a couple of miles back. We want to get to Festuscato’s manor house. I am sure he has some clever way of keeping out the Vandals, but that is off this road.”
“Do you think they are attacking all merchants on this road, headed for Rome?” Lockhart asked.
“Not enough traffic to warrant that,” Katie answered. She thought about it while Decker and Nanette squeezed up from behind.
“I smell a wraith,” Decker said. “Or something like her.”
“Me, too,” Boston blurted out. Sukki scanned the treetops and sky, expecting the wraith to appear at any moment.
“I agree,” Katie finally said. “The Vandals want gold, and there isn’t much to be had on this road. The wraith wants us dead, for some reason, and would know we are coming. She would be the one to set a trap.”
“Ambush,” Boston and Sukki spoke together, and grinned at each other.
Lockhart nodded. “Nanette and Felix. Stay here and explain it to the others. Decker, Boston, and Sukki, come with us. We will scout ahead…”
“No!” Meg, the wraith, appeared in front of them, fifty yards down the road. She looked especially pale, hovering in the sunlight. “How can you know? How can you figure it out? I hate you. Die. You must die.”
Boston shot a fireball at the wraith, but the wraith vanished. As she did, they saw the fifty barbarians not more than a hundred yards off, running at them, screaming murder, holding their shields and swords. Boston’s fireball struck two of them, but the others did not appear to even notice.
Decker and Katie pulled their rifles, and a half-dozen in the front row went down. The rest just went around or leapt over their fallen men. Lockhart and Boston pulled their handguns, as did Tony who rode up front to see what was happening. Nanette did not have time to reach Decker’s handgun. Sukki froze, not sure what to do. The barbarians would surely reach them.
Elder Stow recognized the danger and stopped walking toward the front about half-way there. He held his screen device. He had it pre-set, to test it. He shut his eyes and turned it on. It sputtered and let out a spark.
“No, no, no,” he complained, and banged it against the palm of his hand. It turned on, and Elder Stow grabbed the edge of the silk wagon with his free hand to steady himself against the impact.
Three Vandals made it inside the screen. They stopped when they saw the rest of their men crash against the screen and fall back onto the road. Everyone stayed too busy shooting the barbarians to notice, but Nanette saw and yelled for Sukki. Sukki raised her hands, and the three got bathed in a bright light. They collapsed straight to the ground. and Sukki got down from her horse, tears threatening to break out of her eyes at any moment.
“Please don’t be dead,” she said. She met Nanette on the ground, and Alexis was not far, having walked up beside the wagons on the other side from Elder Stow. “Please don’t be dead,” Sukki whispered.
The gunfire stopped when the surviving Vandals, about fifteen, turned and ran off, screaming. Some thirty lay in the road, dead, or near enough.
Sukki felt relieved when the three proved to be knocked out, but other than terrible headaches, seemed undamaged. “I tried to just stun them,” Sukki said.
“And you did,” Alexis responded, while Sukki’s sisters, Nanette and Boston both hugged Sukki and told her how proud they were of her. Sukki was the youngest sister, after all.
The three got tied up and tossed into the back of one of Felix’s ox-drawn wagons. Then, Lincoln would not let Alexis try to heal any of the others. They spent an hour dragging the dead men off the road and forced the disarmed ones that were only wounded to sit with them. Then they moved on. Felix, and for the most part, all of the others felt certain if the wraith attacked them, she must be attacking Festuscato’s home at the same time. They hurried to get there.
“What do you mean you can’t find Clorismund?” Godamer shouted.
Hawdic ducked. “He must have taken his troop further down the road, or maybe he stopped at one of the other homes we passed.”
Godamer gave Hawdic a mean look but hit the man next to Hawdic in the chest, hard. That man made a face, took two steps back and rubbed his chest, but he knew better than to fight back. Godamer already turned and started yelling.
“Get your hundred,” he said to Hawdic. Godamer took a breath and calmed a little. “At the side of the house, there, you see a long, gentle slope of grass that ends in some trees at the bottom of the hill. There, in the direction of the Tenant houses that can just be seen out back. Take your hundred through the woods to the huts in the distance and circle around to come up on the back of the house. You can attack the rear of the house where they might not be prepared. Besides, now that they know we are here, we don’t want them running away with all their gold.”
Hawdic nodded but said nothing as he turned to get his men ready. Godamer had it all figured. Once Hawdic attacked the rear of the house and drew away the defenders, or some of them, anyway, he would charge his two-fifty… his two hundred… his one seventy. But anyway, it would be enough to break in and kill the defenders. He did not count more than thirty or forty archers behind the wall and in the house. Then he added a thought. “Curse Clorismund.”
Inside the house, Morgan got the defenders ready. She had ten members of the household staff, led by Sibelius, all elves good with a bow and arrows. Lord Atias had twenty more elves, all experts with the bow. Lord Roan only had fifteen fairies. Most of his and Lord Atias’ people were in Rome, keeping a watchful eye on the Vandals there. But Porculus showed up with thirty dwarfs, and while they preferred the axe, they could shoot well enough. Then, Clyde, the Celt arrived with another thirty men, tenant farmers who returned from the hills to defend their homes and the manor house.
“Lord Agitus has kept us fed in these hard times,” Clyde said. “He provides good homes, and we have good lives and a fair wage, besides. We don’t want to lose that. Vercinex has thirty more at the houses to defend our homes.” He tipped his hat to Morgan who leaned forward and kissed the old man’s cheek.
Porculus hooted for Morgan’s attention. “I left Hawgtic and his band at the houses with the other defenders. They are no good with a bow, but magic with the axe, in case the enemy is stupid enough to get close.” He leaned forward in expectation of a kiss, but Morgan just tussled his hair like one might acknowledge an obedient child. She smiled for him, which was almost like a kiss. The only thing that would have been better would be if she had a plate overflowing with food.
Porculus sighed, and Morgan thought. She had over a hundred defenders stuffed into her house, since the elves and fairies abandoned the wall. They remained outnumbered about three to one, but that had to be far more than the Vandals counted on. Every window and door would send arrows by the handful, if the Vandals were foolish enough to press the attack. And, if it got to where they had to withdraw, they had fifty more people to strengthen them when they reached the tenant houses. She felt they had more than a fair chance to save her home, until Sibelius came running up.
“Lady, Mistress. The vandals are moving through the woods that border the land of Velleius Fulvia, next door. About a hundred.”
“Lord Roan?” Morgan called.
“They are obviously getting around behind us, to cut off any escape, and to attack us from the rear. The Lady could escape now and be safe.”
Morgan shook her head. “No. My husband would not be happy with me if I gave up now and ran away. We fight.”
Porculus offered a suggestion. “We could tie her up and force her to leave.”
“You will not touch my Lady,” Sibelius shrieked, stepped in front of Morgan, and pulled her knife. Morgan’s sister, Macy, heard from the window and stepped over to support her sister. Ironwood, of course, supported his wife Macy, though Ironwood gave his fairy king a shrug and Lord Roan hid his grin.
“I’m not sure we could,” Lord Atias admitted to the dwarf.
Gaius, flanked by two clerics, came out of the back room. “I know it is not over. I should be in prayer, but my knees can only take so much,” he said. “What?” he asked
Porculus merely shrugged and went to his window to wait. “Could use something to eat while we are waiting,” he mumbled.
The others broke the tableau and went to their assigned places. Macy gave Ironwood a kiss. Sibelius curtsied for her mistress and returned to the side window to keep an eye on the Vandals in the woods.
“What did I miss?” Gaius asked. Morgan merely smiled for him, stepped over to give Porculus a kiss on the cheek and then returned to her place.
Gaius shrugged, took the two clerics to the pantry and watched them get to work. It occurred to him the defenders were probably hungry.