Festuscato and General Aetius rode out from the camp so they could have a private conversation. Aetius became concerned about Festuscato’s plans. Festuscato felt curious about a couple of things, and after assuring Aetius that he had every intention of going home and eating oranges, and he had no political ambitions whatsoever, he got to ask his questions.
“So why did you let Attila go?”
“The Franks are not strong enough, divided the way they are. The Visigoths are too strong. I still need the Huns to counter Visigoth power. It is as simple as that.”
Festuscato nodded but added a thought. “Let us hope it does not backfire on us. The reports I got said Attila was not in his right mind for a while there. There is no one in his court who will stand up to him, and he may lead his Huns into doing something stupid.”
“Like lick his wounds and try again? I have considered this, but I will be staying in Gaul for a time, now that things seem to be settled with Geiseric and his African Vandals. There are others I can cultivate, even if the Visigoths choose not to fight a second time.”
“And Iberia and the Adriatic get little attention.”
“Sadly, yes. You and I know the empire in the west is on its last legs. It is like an old man in need of a cane and a dog.”
“Yes, I spent the last ten years roaming through the wilderness confirming that very thing. But the Curia will not listen. They will not make the necessary changes to make Rome strong again. And the people will not change. They all want everything for free and will wail when they discover that in the end, nothing is free. Everything must be paid for by someone, and when the provinces vanish there will be no one left to pay for anything. It is like the people are living in a dream, but some day they will have to wake, rudely awake.”
Aetius nodded and thought for a moment before he spoke. “I thought you were a great optimist.” He sounded surprised.
“Damn reality keeps intruding. Why do you think I want to go home and ignore all this? Maybe I can find a nice girl and settle down.”
Aetius laughed. “Just as well I didn’t take your head all those years ago. You were right about the emperor’s sister, Honoria.”
Festuscato nodded. “I may be a cad, but she is a tramp.”
“I can think of some other less eloquent words for such a woman,” Aetius said.
Festuscato just kept nodding. “Meanwhile, tell me about Geiseric and the Vandals. Do you trust him to be content with ruling Africa?”
Aetius had to think for a bit. “Yes,” he said at last, before he added, “for now.”
“Because I heard Attila invaded the west on Geiseric’s urging. Honoria just became a convenient excuse.”
Aetius said nothing. They arrived back at the camp, and Festuscato noticed the new arrivals. Felix showed up with his wife, Emma, and their two children. He said with his inn gone, and Emma’s family pretty much gone, they decided to go to Italy and look up Felix’s family. They came with Father Gaius and had two ox-drawn wagons filled to overflowing.
“We followed your army from Cambrai but did our best to stay away from the fighting,” Felix said. “Waterborn and Tulip were a great help to us.”
“Thank you,” Festuscato said to Waterborn and Tulip who were standing there in their big size, holding hands, looking like the perfect pair of newlyweds. Tulip nudged Waterborn and whispered.
“I told you he wouldn’t mind.”
“Looks like your four horsemen are ready to go,” Aetius placed a hand on Festuscato’s shoulder and pointed. “How do you tell them apart?” They were mounted, waiting, and ignoring the Roman cavalry that waited to escort Aetius back to his command tent. Indeed, it looked like the Romans were keeping their distance.
“Mostly I can’t,” Festuscato admitted. “But they drew little pictures on their helmets for me.”
“I see. The skeleton is death, I would guess. What is the insect?”
“Lord Agitus,” Dibs interrupted as he rode up with Marcellus. “We have ten men, that’s all. The hundred returned to Amorica with King Budic, and most of the others decided to stay with the Franks. Merovech made a good offer.”
“More than enough,” Festuscato said. “Excuse me.” He stepped over to Bran for a private moment. Bran said nothing, but he listened.
“You are being reassigned, now that Constantine has passed away. I fear for Constans, and his two sons, Ambrose and Uther. Remember, Budic is their cousin. I don’t trust Vortigen or that Pict, what’s his name, Cadal? or the so-called Jute king. I worry they may have been waiting for Constantine to die before they set their plans in motion.”
“Cadal,” Bran agreed. “I will not argue. I will watch, but perhaps like you, I will find a nice Christian girl and settle down.”
“Fine. Have a whole bunch of Puritans,” Festuscato said, as he shook the man’s hand and turned to Gregor, the one-eyed Saxon. Gregor grabbed him and gave him a big hug.
“I knew it the minute I saw you,” Gregor said. “I knew it from the way you humiliated Megla. I knew you were the one to teach Attila and his Huns a lesson they will not forget. You know, Attila took my eye, but I escaped to Britain. I thought to raise the Saxons there and bring them home in an army, but they had settled into their new homes and were not budging. Then I saw you, and I knew.”
“Now, I will go home and keep my son honest. I will make peace with the Franks. As you say, it won’t last forever, but maybe we can have peace for one lifetime. Peace for my old age would be a good thing.”
Festuscato nodded and turned to Luckless. Lolly stood a half-step back, her eyes downcast. She felt uncomfortable around so many humans, but Luckless seemed immune, having bounced around with humans for the last ten or so years. No doubt Lolly thought he was very brave.
“Lord,” Luckless spoke up first. “I raised a bit for your trip home.” He lifted a heavy bag of gold and coins. “Prying it out of the fingers of a bunch of dwarfs was an experience. I think I would have rather invaded a dragon’s lair.”
“Thank you,” Festuscato accepted the bag and quickly handed it to Felix who could hardy lift it. “But where will you go?”
“Deep into the mines once again. I have my tools, the gifts of my father and my uncle Weland, and now I have a home, and maybe one day I will have a son of my own to pass down the family jewels.”
“With all that, we may have to change your name to Lucky. Lolly, take good care of him and keep him fed.”
“Just what I plan to do,” Lolly squeaked.
Festuscato smiled before he hugged Tulip and shook Waterborn’s hand. Aetius marveled as the fairies got little and flew off toward the Frisian shore. It looked like they never stopped holding hands. Then it became time to go.
“Marcellus and Dibs,” Festuscato shouted for their attention. “Your men will have to take turns guiding the wagons. The four horsemen will take the point. We need three on each flank and three in the rear guard. That leaves three for the wagons with Felix to make four. Let’s move out.”
“With these slow-moving wagons, you won’t reach the Alps until September,” Aetius pointed out. “You can cross them in the fall, but it isn’t recommended.”
“Remember the Bishop of Tours,” Gaius spoke up.
“We won’t be crossing the alps,” Festuscato responded. “We have to pick up a passenger in Tours. We will go to Tolouse, try to satisfy Thorismund with a reason why you let Attila live, then head for Narbonne and take a ship for Rome. I’ve done some sailing, you know. It’s not so bad.”
Aetius nodded and left. Festuscato also left, and rode beside Gaius most of the way, confessing all sorts of things.