Lydia felt very happy, hard as this journey had been. They made it out of Merv and beyond the Parthian Empire with most of their goods intact. They assumed the disguise of a Syrian merchant caravan, and certainly, the thirty Syrian and Armenian merchants they had with them, the ones who presumably knew the road, helped. A company of one hundred legionnaires with thirty cavalry men in a support troop would not have gotten far across Parthian lands without the disguise, even if they were mostly Greeks.
Of course, they started with the full quota of a hundred and forty legionnaires, counting the ten who brought the two scorpios. Presently, they had a hundred and thirty Romans, a few of whom were wounded and assigned to the scorpios, and only twenty-seven merchants remained, but the road was not easy, and full of bandits. Five wagons with a dozen mules and a dozen merchant camels filled the complement. The mules and horses had the roughest go of it, but twenty miles per day was not too difficult. That was a distance that legionnaires in full gear trained to travel in five hours across all sorts of terrain.
“David. David-Marcus,” Lydia stuck her head out of the tent and called. When she heard no answer, she turned to her maid, Varina. “Do you know where my husband has gotten to? I need to know if he wants these rugs back in the wagon or tied to one of the camels. I assume he doesn’t plan to carry them on his poor horse.”
Varina looked up at the top of the tent, like she might be thinking about it. “I believe your centurion is with the Tribune Valerion and Master Shehan discussing the route ahead. Shehan, the merchant, says we are in Kushan territory now, and fourteen days from the next big city, Bactra.”
Lydia sighed. “Fourteen days and stop for a week. Then fourteen more days and stop for a week. I have been away from my children for a hundred and forty days already. Maybe Valerion was right. Maybe I never should have come.”
“I am sure David’s mother and family are taking wonderful care of your children. You need not worry,” Varina said. “Besides, after Bactra we will only have a month to get to Kashgar, and Master Shehan says that is more than half-way there.”
“Grr,” Lydia said, and pulled her small wooden cross from beneath her dress. It hung from a golden chain around her neck, and she never took it off. She held it, dearly, and stepped out of the tent where she could see the rising sun. She knelt and prayed for her children. Then she prayed for David-Marcus, and for his family. Then she started to pray for the members of this expedition and thought the Emperor Claudius asked too much. Well, with Artabanus, the Parthian dead, and his two sons preoccupied with fighting for control of the Parthian Empire, there might not have been a better time to sneak through to the land of silk.
Varina watched Lydia pray, and got a small tear in her eye, thinking it was time for her to go away, forever. She caught sight of the mounted men, Scythians on the horizon, but they were an hour away. She decided not to interrupt her friend. Unfortunately, Bogtan the dwarf had no such qualms. Bogtan, Crumbles, and a whole group of what Lydia called “Imp-heads” followed them up from the Zagros mountains. They swore it was their duty to see the caravan safely to its destination, though they had been no help so far.
“Psst,” Bogtan hissed for Lydia’s attention.
“Yeah, Psst,” Crumbles said.
Lydia frowned before she looked up. “What?” Her word sounded sharper than she meant. So much for prayer time.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Bogtan said.
“Yeah, sorry,” Crumbles echoed.
“You got horsemen, about two hundred coming down out of the hills, headed right toward you.”
“Kushan bandits?” Lydia asked. Bogtan shrugged. Varina, who had stepped out to stand beside her mistress, suggested otherwise.
“Scythians, from the north country, about an hour away.”
Lydia got up from her knees and spoke to the point. “Varina, please finish the packing and get the squad to take down the tent and pack it in the wagon. Rugs in the wagon, too, I guess. Thank you Bogtan. Thank you, too, Crumbles. I will have to get the rest of the camp up and packed and tell Valerion he has company. We shall see what the Scythians want.” She did not doubt what Varina said. She walked straight to Valerion’s tent.
Tribune Valerion did little to beef up the defenses in the camp. They did not have the trees, but between what palisade they could build and the trench they dug, it would be enough to stop a cavalry charge. David-Marcus gave the orders to be prepared to form up outside the palisade. They would use the camp as their fallback position, if needed. The men at least dressed to look like soldiers. The fourteen velites with their darts and twelve Armenians out front all had bows and arrows as well, as may be needed, and the scorpios were set to catch the enemy in a crossfire. They could not do more. They waited the hour.
The Scythians stopped out of bowshot, like a well-disciplined troop. They watched. Valerion signaled the trumpeter who blew the call. The legionnaires marched out of the camp and formed the characteristic three lines. The soldiers said nothing, and the silence spread across the way. Suddenly, Tobias, the optimo, shouted out, “Repellere equites.” Without a word, the formation shifted to an open square to repel horsemen.
Valerion did not wait long. With the Centurion David-Marcus, Aritides, who was the cavalry Decurio, and Shehan the merchant chief to translate, he rode to the center of the field and waited. Five men rode out from the Scythian lines to talk. Valerion introduced himself, his officers, and the chief merchant, and ended by saying, “We have no quarrel with the Scythian people and would rather move on with our journey without the needless spilling of blood.”
One of the Scythians rubbed his scraggly beard and said, “Roman.” Shehan translated. “You fight good. I have seen Romans fight. You are not so many, but you have horses hidden behind the rocks. Not many, but enough to sting.”
“We are headed to Bactra and Kashgar. We would rather go in peace.”
“You have big bows on the rocks,” the man said, and pointed at the two scorpios set up on rock outcroppings where they could fire over the heads of the legionnaires. “You would never hit a man on a swift horse with those.”
“No,” Valerion admitted. “But they can kill horses pretty good.”
The man paused, like he had not considered that. “But I see women.” He pointed again. Lydia and Varina had crawled up on one of the outcroppings beside a scorpio where they could see, and Bogtan could hear and report what was being said. “And I see little men. What are those men?”
David laughed as Valerion shook his head. “They are our friends,” David-Marcus said. “More than you can count.”
The man turned to his men and had a quick conversation in his native tongue. Shahan probably did not know the tongue, but if he did, he opted not to translate what the man said. When the man turned back to Valerion, he looked shaken, but determined.
“All Romans are rich with gold and silver,” he said. “Maybe for some gold, we go on our way.”
“Crumbles?” David looked down, so everyone looked and saw the dwarf standing in the grass as he answered in Latin, which Shehan did not know and could not translate.
“The lady says no coins or amber or drugs. She says nothing that will entice them to want to come back and take the rest of it. A couple of rugs and glass beads will be a fine token of friendship and enough so the chief does not lose face.”
Valerion frowned at David-Marcus. “Your wife is annoying,” he said, also in Latin. “But smart as a whip.” He spoke in Greek so Shahan could translate. “So, go and fetch a gift for our friend, here.”
“Crumbles,” David said, and reached down to haul the dwarf up behind him. “Hold on.” They rode back into the camp where other dwarfs had already piled some of the trade goods. David-Marcus got three cavalry men to carry the gifts, and they returned to the impatient Scythians. Crumbles immediately explained the gifts and their inestimable value, as he called it. And he spoke in the Scythian tongue so Shahan could not to translate, and the Romans would not have to hear his lies.
“Alas, these poor and humble soldiers do not have the gold and silver you seek. You know how badly soldiers are paid.” Crumbles was a convincing liar. “But this special rug has some gold threads woven into the fabric. See how it shines in the sunlight. And this glass jar is from Rome itself—you can see right through it.” It was from Syria, but why quibble? “It contains many glass beads so highly prized by the Han. I bet your wife, er, lover would be very grateful for a necklace made of the beads. Oh, and that is asbestos cloth. It is not fireproof, but fire resistant, so, you know, any fire you might start, you could wear that and have some protection. A very rare and special commodity.”
“Hey, Crumbles,” Crumbles’ group of dwarfs seemed to appear right out of the grass. “That rug was supposed to be for the Han emperor.”
“Oh, well, I am sure our new friends here will enjoy it more.”
The Scythian chief stared at the dwarfs but managed to signal his men to gather up the things. They all turned without another word and the whole two hundred rode off down the road toward Merv. Crumbles and his dwarfs disappeared, and Valerion turned to David-Marcus.
“What did he tell them?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“You speak Scythian?” Aritides asked.
David-Marcus shook his head. “But I seem to understand dwarf pretty well.”
David-Marcus nodded, and grinned.
Up on the rock, as the soldiers helped Lydia and Varina get down, Lydia asked a pointed question directly at Varina. “Did you convince the Scythians to go away? You know, you are not supposed to interfere in that way.”
Varina shook her head. “I didn’t have to,” she said. She did not say she would not do that. Even Bogtan caught it.
“Slick,” he said. “Slick as a skinny elf in a grease pit.”
Valerion stopped by the women to complain. “My men are getting fat and lazy.”
A few of the soldiers heard and laughed, though they tried to not be seen laughing. But honestly. Marching twenty miles a day over the past five months with hardly a half-dozen weeks of rest was not making them fat.