M4 Festuscato: Visigoth Hospitality, part 1 of 3

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?”

“Pestilence.”

“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.”

“I’m glad I could help you out,” Festuscato said, and smiled as he extracted himself from the bear hug.  “What now?”

“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.

M4 Festuscato: Gaul in the Balance, part 2 of 3

Chlodebaud and Etheldrood came from one direction, their armor covered in blood, and they laughed and slapped each other on the back like the best of friends.  Merovech and Childeric came from the other direction looking more somber, Adalbert trailing behind.  They were not nearly as bloody, though no one would doubt they had been in battle.  Gregor, who surprisingly stayed with Festuscato in the tent, sipped his drink and spoke softly.

“I think I finally understand what you say.  Sometimes men have to fight, but peace is always better.”

“We pray for peace,” Bran said, and they went back inside the tent.

Merovech arrived first.  Childeric had a sword in his fifteen-year-old hand, and he looked down at the sword while Merovech spoke.

“You must thank Strongarm for me when you see him.  He and his dragon men got Childeric and myself out of a pretty jam.”

“I will say something,” Festuscato said, and thought that Strongarm and his people were supposed to guide the Franks to the right position, but they were not supposed to participate in the battle.

“Sun will be up soon,” Adalbert said as he entered the tent.

All that while, something itched at the back of Festuscato’s head.  It would be impossible to say whether Festuscato, Aetius or Attila thought of it first.  Perhaps they thought of it all at the same time.  A small ridge angled across the open field Attila had selected to bring battle to his enemies.  It rose slowly from north to south to somewhere near the north-middle of the field and petered out quickly in the south after the high point.  No telling what happened with Aetius or Attila, though rumor has it, Attila whipped himself several times for his stupidity.  Festuscato merely shouted.

“The heights!”

From there, they could observe the whole of the battle and bring men down on the enemy, or at least force the enemy to fight uphill.  “Marcellus, get the men moving, now!  Get them moving ten minutes ago.  Dibs, mount up!”  He turned his head back into the tent and spoke calmly.  “Merovech, get together with Aegidius to set the troops on this end of the field.  You need to hold the north flank of the battle, though after last night I doubt the Gepids and their Germans are in any position to be trying anything.”  He smiled for Childeric and shouted again.  “Bran, Gregor, you coming?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Gregor said.  Bran just came.

###

Festuscato heard the thunder of his hundred and thirty men all decked out in their dragon tunics.  They saw few enemies in the dawn, even when they cut the corner of the field and probably strayed through enemy territory.  No Huns made a move to stop the dragon men, but then maybe they did not need to.  The Huns were closer, and Attila sent two thousand men under his son, Dengizic to take the ridge top.  Aetius had the auxiliary cavalry troop he brought up from Italy also riding as hard as they could from the other side, but they were furthest away.

Dengizic and his men arrived at the base of the ridge and looked up, not far to the top.  But there they stalled.  Two men stood on the height, and when the light stopped buzzing around, it became a third man, if they were indeed men.  The short one that stood in chain mail to the ground and the dragon tunic had a face that was all beard.  He also cradled a wicked looking ax in his arms.  The tall one, also in a dragon tunic, had a bow already strung and ready.  The third one, who might have been an ordinary man in a dragon tunic if it had not been a flashing light moments earlier, had a sword and shield, and showed the dragon also on the shield.  Behind them, at the very top of the ridge, waved the banner of the dragon, and too many Huns were not going up there.

Dengizic had been there when the messenger came and brought his father the ring of the dragon.  He had been there when they first encountered the dragon north of the alps, all those years ago.  He ran in that first encounter and thought now that he had been wise.  He heard all about how the dragon threw Megla and his entire Hun army out of Britain and declared Britain off limits, and even if the story got exaggerated over the years, the story did not sit well in the Hun psyche.  Then the dragon sent a message and another ring to Attila before they reached Orleans.  He never saw his father rage so much, and he had seen some great moments. In fact, if he did not know better, he might have imagined his father was afraid.

“Lord,” the Hun captain sought his attention.  “Lord, too many of the men are refusing to go up there.  If the dragon has taken the high point, they say the high point is lost to us.”

Dengizic said nothing.  He growled and turned his horse away from the ridge and his two thousand men followed.

Festuscato brought his men to the ridge line and rode them along the top.  Aegidius had his legions already digging into the ridge, small as it was on the north side.  Festuscato thought when they reached their destination, he would send back a man to put the Roman cavalry on short notice.  He imagined several scenarios when he might need several thousand horses to back him up.  Then he thought, of course Aegidius did not think to secure the top of the ridge.  Lord knows, he probably did not want to spread his men too thin. 

Once at the top, they found Luckless lounging with Strongarm and Birch around a fire, sipping some thick dwarf grog.  He told the men to be prepared for Huns to try to take the position, but Luckless said, “Too late.  About two thousand or so already made the attempt, but they turned around when they saw our dragon banner.  How do you like it?  Strongarm’s wife made it.”

Festuscato looked and nodded.

“For the record,” Birch spoke up.  “It was Luckless who thought to take the high point.  He says hanging out with you has made him think of things he never thought about before.  Hogtick has his thousand dug in behind us here.  They are mostly going underground.   Strongarm has as many elves in the woods that start just on the other side, on the down slope.  My men are…around.”

“So Merovech says thanks,” Festuscato turned to Strongarm.  “Remind me later to yell at you since you were not supposed to take part in the battle.”  He pulled up a seat by the fire as Strongarm opened a keg of elf amber ale that Gregor and Dibs loved.  Gregor said he tried the dwarf grog more than once, but it made him burp too much.  Marcellus and Bran preferred Birch’s fairy wine.  Festuscato stuck with water for a while.

The men, taking their cue from the command staff, tied off their horses, set up a bunch of tents against the overcast and started any number of their own fires.  That became the condition General Aetius found them in when he and his four hundred arrived.  Festuscato stood and made sure the Roman troops had a clear lane, where the four hundred could pass through and reach the north side of the ridge, because there really was not enough room at the top for so many men and horses, even if the dwarfs stayed underground and the elves stayed on the back side, and the fairies did not take up much room.

“You are passing them through?” Aetius asked.  Flavius Aetius, the commander in chief of all the Roman armies in the Western Empire, had become like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  He answered only to the Emperor Valentinian, as did Festuscato.

“I figure now that you know the height is secure, you are going to want to see how Aegidius is deploying his legions, and maybe pay a diplomatic visit to the Franks and Saxons.  We had a battle last night.”

“Oh?”  This came as news, and after he waved his men to pass through the camp two by two, he sat down to hear all about it.  Strongarm did most of the telling, being there, though Festuscato noticed Birch filed in some gaps.  Aetius, meanwhile, caught sight of Strongarm’s pointed ears and finally turned to Festuscato with a comment.

“You were telling the truth about your governess, weren’t you?”

“A house elf, as God is my witness.  Now Queen of the Geats and happily married.”

“Geats?”

“A much longer story which I will be glad to share some time if you ever come to visit.”

“Visit?”

Festuscato nodded and looked at his water.  “After we kick Attila’s butt, I plan to go home.  I haven’t had a good orange in forever.”

Aetius stood.  Men were waiting with his horse.  “I am glad you have confidence in our chances.”

“I do, but come to think of it, be careful with the Franks.  Merovech and his brothers might not be happy with you considering you, or your men, killed Clodio, their father.”

Aetius stopped.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”  And he left.

R5 Festuscato: Wild and Dangerous, part 3 of 3

After a while, Mirowen spoke to Festuscato, softly.

“Diogenes or no Diogenes, you are still too young.  Let Atias and Roan deal with Castinus.”

“I am young,” Festuscato admitted.  “Let them handle it,” he decided, but when he thought of his mother and father, he wanted to take it back.  He wanted to change his mind, but he didn’t.

MIrowen, whom Mister March and the others sometimes called Princess, took over the running of the household in Festuscato’s name.  She brought in some of her own people to fill the gaps left by those who died in the assault.  Of course, she made sure they maintained glamours at all times to appear as human as possible, and while the remaining British servants found them odd, they got along well enough.

Festuscato turned nine the following year and in October received the letter intended for his father.  He got commanded to attend a special meeting of the Senate where Valentinian III and his mother Galla Placidia would be present and introduced to the Vir Illustris as Emperor and Regent.

“But it will be nothing but long winded speeches and boring stuff,” Festuscato complained.  Mirowen made him dress all the same and stay clean all morning.  They rode to the Senate building, guarded by four men dressed as house guards.  Festuscato did not ask what kind of men they were.  To be honest, he did not want to know.

When they arrived at the Curia, the long-winded speeches had already begun.  The great bronze doors opened, and as they walked in, Festuscato hoped he could find a comfortable place at the back where he could take a snooze.  No such luck. The man on the floor paused while a man at the back announced him.

“Bring him here,” a woman at the front insisted, and Festuscato got ushered to where he stood in plain sight of everyone present.  “I heard about your father,” the woman said.  “I was not aware he had a son, but I am pleased you are here. And you have brought a companion, I see.”

“My governess,” Festuscato said, as Mirowen touched him and he offered a slight bow. Mirowen curtsied and spoke.

“I am Mirowen, daughter of Macreedy, King of the Long March hard on Wales and the Isle of Man in Britannia, and I am pleased to present Festuscato Cassius Agitus, son of Lucius Agitus, a fervent supporter of yourself and your son.  After Lord Lucius was so cruelly murdered, under the direction of Lord Festuscato, we did our best to continue to support you with whatever small contribution we could make.”  She stood demurely, eyes down, but Festuscato saw Galla Placidia raise her eyebrows.  The contributions had not been so small.

“We are grateful for your support, young Agitus, and you may count yourself in our favor. Come and sit yourself beside my son so we may have the two young men together.  And let your governess sit beside you, there.”  The woman pointed.  It was down one step, but an unparalleled honor.  Festuscato felt obligated to say something and hoped he did not say too much.

“You are gracious to your humble servant,” Festuscato offered another slight bow. “I am honored also to be in the company of so many illustrious men.  I will endeavor to keep my eyes and ears open for the impartation of wisdom, though at my age it will not be easy, isn’t that right?”  He looked straight at Valentinian who nodded vigorously before he looked at his mother.  Galla Placidia frowned on top of her smile as Festuscato and Mirowen took their seats, and Mirowen pinched Festuscato.  He knew better than to yelp, but the Regent saw and nodded, satisfied.

“Gentlemen. We will dispense with further acclamations and words of support for the moment out of deference to the young.  I will gladly receive your written words on behalf of my son, but presently we have business to which we must attend.” A man came to the Regent’s side and handed her some papers.  The next hour got taken up extolling the virtues and military prowess of one Flavius Aetius.  The man came in, flanked by two of the strangest looking men Festuscato had ever seen. They were Huns, but Festuscato did not know that at the time.

Aetius got honored and commissioned to be Magister Militum per Gallius; essentially, commander in chief of the Roman army in Gaul.  Festuscato had no idea who the governor of the province might be.  He never got mentioned.  But such were the times that only the military mattered, and specifically one who could defend the border.  Aetius would have to work well with plenty of German Fedoratti, some of whom did not like each other, and the border pressure would not stop.  Just fifteen years earlier Rome had been burned by the Visigoths, and that was not something anyone wanted to see repeated.

Festuscato tried really hard to keep his eyes open so Mirowen would stop pinching him. Valentinian noticed, and he stayed awake primarily by watching Festuscato droop his head and get pinched. Valentinian winced, but grinned every time it happened.  Finally Aetius with papers in hand, brought forth another man, one dressed in the robes of the church.

“Bishop Guithelm, Archbishop of Londinium, newly appointed.”  Aetius introduced the man, and they waited while the man came forward.

“Regent,” the cleric bowed his head and turned.  “Emperor,” he bowed again, and it all came with too much formality for Festuscato, who stuck his elbows on his knees to prop his chin up with his hands. “Lord Agitus.”  The man shouted and hurried over to hug the boy. Festuscato felt surprised for a second before he recognized the man.  He knew the man as the cleric from the house whose life he presumably saved. The Bishop told the whole story right there in front of everyone, and Festuscato turned as red from embarrassment as Mirowen’s ears turned when she got angry.

Aetius came to collect the Bishop, but took a long look at Festuscato.  “Come and see me when you are older,” he whispered.  “I can always use a good man.”

“Well, young Agitus,” Galla Placidia also looked again at Festuscato, but it seemed hard to read the expression on her face.  “And how old, in fact are you?”

“Nine,” Festuscato said, honestly enough.

“I’m seven,” Valentinian blurted out, but amended that with a look from his mother. “Nearly seven.”

“Quite the accomplished young man,” Galla Placidia’s words sounded a bit cold. “Perhaps we can call upon your wisdom to decide what to do about our other business.”  She waved a hand and a man got brought forward in what Festuscato could only call a fifth century straight jacket.  The guards who dragged him to the front let him drop to his knees and he cried out, unintelligible sounds of torment and tears.

“Help me,” the man shouted.  “They come in the night.  They come in the day.  Always accusing, invisible monsters, horrors, terrors, on the edge of my eyes, accusing, always accusing.  Murderer!” He screamed and spouted more unintelligible sounds before he quieted in his tears.

“Castinus.” Galla Placidia still had her eyes on Festuscato.  “He ordered the murder of your parents among others.  What do you say we should do with him?”

Festuscato felt horrified to look at the man whose mind had been utterly broken by madness. Surely, the furies themselves could not have done a more thorough job.  Festuscato looked once at Mirowen, but she would not look at him.  The Huns with Aetius appeared to be grinning beneath their hands.  Aetius looked curious at what the young man might say.  The Bishop appeared willing to wait.  Valentinian had his mouth open, staring.

“Put him out of his misery,” Festuscato fairly shouted, and looked at the Regent, tears in his own eyes.  “When a horse breaks a leg, you do not force it to suffer.  Why should we show less compassion on a man whose mind is clearly broken beyond repair?”  The Bishop nodded, satisfied with the verdict.  Aetius looked again, like this might have been an angle he had not considered. The Huns stopped grinning and nodded. Galla Placidia said nothing.  She waved her hand and the prisoner got escorted out of the Curia.

“General Aetius.” The Regent sought to change the subject. “You will provide safe escort for the Bishop.”

Aetius, the politician, responded.  “I so pledge to bring him safely to the channel in the far north.  However, after that, he will be on his own.  We have no presence in the free province of Britannia, nor can anyone guarantee his safety.”

“That will be more than gracious,” the Bishop said.  “And no one is on his own when Christ walks beside him.”

“Of course,” Aetius let out a small smile and gave a slight bow.

After that, it took a couple more hours of blither and blather, while Festuscato went back to fighting sleep.

When it was all over, Festuscato got invited to supper with Galla Placidia and Valentinian. It felt like more formalities, but the Regent appeared to want to talk with Mirowen, and that let Festuscato breathe. He tried to be good, but Valentinian seemed taken with him so he could not exactly escape.  He did not have anything against the boy, but Valentinian was not so bright, or maybe he lived so sheltered a life it became impossible to tell if he was bright or not.  Then, there was three years of difference, which probably would not mean much when they were thirty or thirty-three, but it felt like a big gap at six and nine.

Mirowen and their four guards found a place in town for the night.  Festuscato practically went to sleep before he hit the bed.  In the morning, they moved quietly out of town, Festuscato and Mirowen side by side and the four that Festuscato started calling the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse right behind.

“What on earth did you talk about with that woman?” Festuscato asked.

“About children, mostly.  She seemed impressed that you were learning your letters and both Greek and Brythonic.”

“I’m learning Greek?”

“As soon as we get home.”

“Buggers,” Festuscato adjusted his thinking.  He decided having an elf for a governess had no advantages.  “Did she say anything nice about me?”

“She said you seemed too wild and rebellious for her son.  A bad influence, and maybe dangerous besides.”

“Well.  I’m glad she liked me.”  Festuscato closed his mouth.

************************

Next Monday:  Festuscato, The Cad in Ravena    Until then, Happy Reading

*