Festuscato shoved Morgan into the small room beside the entranceway, before he got grabbed. Festuscato prayed, and when one of the Huns burst the door to that room, he found the room empty and yelled. Two more Huns followed and banged around on the walls and floor, but the room proved solid and the woman had gone.
“Where did she go?” The chief Hun yelled and slapped Festuscato, hard.
“In that room,” Festuscato responded through his bloody lip. “I don’t know, unless the goblins took her.”
The chief Hun hit him again, but the two who held his arms lightened their grip and another stared at the floor, like he expected something to rise up any minute. No matter. Festuscato would not escape. They tied his hands and feet, dragged him outside, and threw him over a horse, Margueritte style, he thought to himself. They rode through the night and arrived at a Hun camp just before sunrise.
Festuscato felt dizzy and half-conscious when they threw him into a tent and posted several guards. The tent looked like some sort of command tent, with a table and stools, and a cot behind a curtain. Festuscato hit the ground near the spot where a fire had burned, recently, but he felt too dizzy to look around much. He slept for a while, now that he was not being jostled about. When he awoke in the early afternoon, his stomach remained queasy, but his head felt better. He just started thinking a bit of food might help his stomach settle down, when his visitor arrived. Dengizic, Attila’s middle son. Festuscato made the effort to sit up—not an easy thing with his hands and feet still tied.
Dengizic entered the tent with two others, no doubt his captains, and he slapped Festuscato, hard. Festuscato’s lip began to bleed as the slap shoved him back to the ground. He groused because he had to make the effort to sit up again.
“Dengizic,” Festuscato said as he spat blood. “I heard your father was in Italy. Did you come for the warm weather?”
Dengizic raised his hand to slap Festuscato a second time but changed his mind. “At last, the dragon is bound,” he said in a triumphant voice.
“What? You came this far south just for me?”
Dengizic shook his head. “We got the word that Valentinian abandoned Ravena and made a dash for Rome. I was sent to intercept him, but somehow, he slipped past us. I heard he was dressed as a woman.” Dengizic and his captains thought of that as terribly funny.
“So, you got me instead,” Festuscato concluded.
“Father will not be unhappy.”
“But what do you expect to gain by invading Italy?” Festuscato asked, seriously. “The empire in the west is all but gone. The gold is all spent, and Rome is ready to crumble with nothing to be gained by it.”
“We will be the end of you Romans. We have utterly destroyed Aquileia and your legion on the Adriatic. Attila is marching on Padua, and men are scouting as far away as Milan. Now that the weather has turned, Aetius is seeking to come back from Gaul, but he has no army to reckon with. The Franks and Visigoths have abandoned him.”
“So, Italy is wide open, waiting for you to take whatever plunder there is. I hope you won’t be too disappointed. Besides, Italy has had some bad harvests these last couple of years. You may find it hard to keep your great army fed as well as paid.”
“We will take the food of the people,” Dengizic said calmly, quite certain that he had the upper hand. “What do we care if you Romans die by the sword or by starvation?”
“People die of many things,” Festuscato responded. “How is your father holding up by the way? His circulation must be getting pretty bad. Has he shown any signs of bleeding?”
Dengizic paused in his own thoughts and stared at Festuscato. Clearly, he had seen some things. “What do you know?” he asked.
Festuscato looked at the others in the tent as he spoke. “Maybe this needs to be private, for your ears only.” Dengizic also looked at his captains before he ordered them to leave. He took a stool and sat facing Festuscato while he waited to hear what Festuscato had to say.
“I imagine he has a couple of years, at most. The consensus is he has circulatory problems, may be developing blood clots, and may have a stroke or heart attack in the next year or so. Doctor Mishka thinks he may have a brain tumor, but it is impossible to be certain without examining him with equipment that hasn’t been invented yet.”
Dengizic struggled to understand. “I know what a heart attack is. Are you saying my father will have a heart attack?”
“Or a stroke or seizure of some kind. A stroke is where one whole side of the body dies.”
Dengizic’s eyes got wide. “I have seen such a thing.”
“Of course, if it is a brain tumor, he could die at any point. Look for bleeding from the nose, or worse, from the ears. Look for erratic, that is, strange behavior. Look for him to behave like a completely different person. He might go along seeming normal for days or weeks, and then have an episode where he starts to act strange, and then after a time he seems normal again.”
“This will kill him?” Dengizic asked. He looked at the ground, thinking hard.
“A year. Maybe two.” Festuscato paused before he asked a question. “Tell me about Ellak. He is your older brother, right?”
“Ellak is not so smart. You see, father did not send him on this errand.”
“So, when your father dies, you are going to let Ellak take over and rule?”
Dengizic’s eyes got big. “What are you suggesting?”
“I am not suggesting anything. I am telling you that you have a year or two to get your house in order and build support if you don’t want not-so-smart to take over. I am telling you to watch out for Emak, your younger brother. I hear he is a clever one. I would not be surprised if he started reaching out to supporters years ago. I don’t think it will take him long to build an army.”
Dengizic stood. He looked like a man for whom the universe just made sense and he did not know what to do about it. Festuscato had a different thought, about something he could do.
“Rhiannon,” he called. Then the goddess Amphitrite spoke into his mind from her time in the deep past, and Festuscato amended his statement. “In Amphitrite’s name, I give you permission to come into the jurisdiction of Olympus and Saturn.”
Rhiannon appeared, meek and unsure, looking around as if she expected Zeus or someone to show up any minute and start yelling. When she caught sight of Festuscato all tied up and on the ground, she covered her mouth to hold back her laugh. She paid no attention to Dengizic, who took a step back and opened his mouth.
“Mother, you look like that pig, Megla.”
“If you don’t mind,” Festuscato said and held out his hands. “And your mother Danna says she does not want to get involved.”
Rhiannon raised one hand and the ropes that bound Festuscato fell away. He got up stiffly and rubbed his back as he did. “But what are the Huns doing here?” she asked. “I saw your battle, by the way. You just sat on your hill and didn’t even draw your sword. Tsk, tsk.” She shook a finger at him and scolded him.
Festuscato rolled his eyes. Most Celtic goddesses were a bit bloodthirsty. He got to the point. “How is my dragon?”
“My dragon,” Rhiannon said, possessively. “You gave him to me.” He nodded but looked for his answer. “Well,” she said softy before her face lit up. “He is really growing. He has learned to cut a deer in half so the whole thing doesn’t get stuck half-way down. He is really very clever, you know.”
“Smarter than your average bear,” Festuscato nodded. “I was wondering if you would mind bringing him here for a bit. These Huns captured the dragon and I want them to think twice before trying it again. Besides, I need something to cover my escape.”
Rhiannon curled her lip. “I have really been good and steered Clugh away from people.”
“The Huns have horses,” Festuscato suggested.
Rhiannon’s lip stayed curled. “Horse gives him the burpies. He ate a whole horse once and stayed up all night burping flames in his nest.”
“He doesn’t have to eat any. Just crisp a few and cause some panic so I can get away.”
“All right,” Rhiannon agreed, and her smile returned. She stepped out of the tent with a word to Dengizic. “Close your mouth.”
“Close your mouth,” Festuscato agreed as he followed Rhiannon outside. He found a horse there ready to ride. Whether it was Rhiannon’s doing or not seemed unclear. Festuscato gave the cheek of the goddess a quick peck, said, “Thank you,” and mounted. As he rode off, the dragon flew over his head and started burning tents, men and horses. Rhiannon rose happily in the air and helped Clugh practice his aim.