‘What are you talking about?’ Valens said quietly, catching a concerned look in the medic’s eye as he leaned as close as he dare to the deserter.
‘Will you release me?’
‘Not until I know a great deal more than I do right now and I’m convinced you’re not a dangerous lunatic.’
‘Oh I’m dangerous enough, but I’m the least of your worries. Will you give me a sword?’
‘Then we have nothing to talk about. I suggest you ask the good optio anything else.’
Valens glared at the prisoner. The man was an accused deserter and murderer, captured and in a fortress manned by half a century of veterans. Why did he sound so damned sure of himself? The optio inched a little closer, trying not to look as though he was ready to leap backwards at a moment’s notice.
‘This block has no windows. It was a workshop until Fulvius took it over, and is now pretty much empty. I’m going to have you locked in here until I get all this cleared up. There will be men on guard outside, covering every angle, so don’t try anything stupid. Consider yourself under arrest.’
The man gave him an appraising look that he really didn’t like, and leaned back on the single cot against the shed wall. ‘I’m going nowhere. I’ll see you when you’re ready to put a sword in my hand.’
‘Or release you, right?’
‘It’ll be too late for that by then.’
Valens stared at the man and tried not to visibly shiver at the danger in those words.
‘Rigonorix,’ the man said.
‘You never asked my name. Julius Rigonorix. Log it in the fort records, so that when the time comes for my tombstone you have it right.’
This time Valens couldn’t hide the shiver. He turned to the medic. ‘Fulvius, is there anything wrong with him?’
‘Physically, he’s fine. A little creaky from cold and exposure I’d say, and with a few knocks and bruises, but nothing life threatening. Mentally is another thing entirely.’
Valens didn’t like the grin the fugitive flashed the medic. ‘If there’s nothing you can do for him, Fulvius, get back out there and go check on the two malingerers. Something tells me we might need them back on duty very soon.’
Fulvius nodded and rose, backing away from the prisoner and making for the exit. Valens followed him, stopping in the door. He opened his mouth to threaten the man again, but he wasn’t sure he was prepared for whatever answer came out of this mysterious killer, and changed his mind. Stepping outside, he closed the door, slipped the padlock through the latch and snapped it shut, locking it and slipping the key into the purse on his belt.
Two soldiers stood outside, looking apprehensive.
‘Watch that building,’ Valens said, pointing at the hut. ‘He doesn’t come out, and you don’t go in. Unless he explodes or evaporates, no one goes in. I’m going to send two more friends for you. I want that hut watched from every angle.’
‘Yes sir. And what next, sir?’
‘I’m going to talk to our two friends from Alauna.’
Stomping across the slushy, muddy street towards the mess block did little to improve Valens’s mood. His left boot leaked by the big toe and he’d spent the entire day avoiding banked snow, pools of slush and the sphagnum moss that formed half the slope between the fort and the parade ground, and now, as the day slowly slid towards dusk, it had begun to fill with damp, soaking one of his five remaining precious woollen socks.
By the time he arrived at the block, he was beyond irritated and moving into ‘smacking the shit out of someone’ territory. Reaching for the door, he slammed it back to see the two soldiers from Alauna sitting at a table, eating bowls of hot broth with their boots steaming next to them and their sodden cloaks draped over a bench.
‘Right,’ he demanded as he slammed the door shut behind him, stomped over to the table and slapped both palms down on it, making both their bowls jump, spilling the contents. ‘Tell me who the fuck Julius Rigonorix is, why he thinks we’re in trouble, and exactly what happened on this hunt of yours.’
‘Have you never had to track a criminal,’ Secundus grunted, then took another mouthful of gruel.
‘Thieves, perverts, maybe the odd lunatic, but nothing like that fucker you brought. And he seems to think we’re in danger. I run this fort and if we’re in danger, I want to know why, now start talking, or I let Rigonorix starve to death in the hut and you two get kicked out into the storm alone.’
Secundus spun, letting his spoon fall, though his friend continued to tuck in like a starving man. ‘Alright, Rigonorix refused orders. When the centurion ordered him disciplined, he took the vitis stick from the man’s hand and hit him around the head so hard he smashed the man’s skull. The centurion lasted two hours before he died. He bit his own tongue off before the end. You’ve never seen so much blood.’
‘Alright, yes, the man might be a bastard, but I want to know the details.’
‘The prefect sent us after him. We followed him up into the hills. Stupidly, this snow is not so deep on our side of the Carvetii lands. It was only when we got into the real hills and over this way we saw real weather trouble. A blizzard started and his tracks were easy to follow. We traced him to a local village.’
‘So far so old news. Tell me what happened in the village? Or why he disobeyed orders in the first place. Or why he thinks we’re in danger.’
‘He’s a criminal,’ Secundus said. ‘It’s in his nature to be a disobedient arsehole. He lies. He probably wants you to let him free. He’s dangerous.’
‘I’m sure he is, but I also believe him. What happened in the village?’
Secundus sat back and straightened, pushing his bowl away. ‘The first thing to remember about Julius Rigonorix is that he’s a native.’
‘Name’s a bit of a giveaway. Rigonorix’s mother is Carvetii.’
Valens leaned closer, eyes narrowing. ‘That doesn’t make a man a criminal. Tell me about the village.’
‘There was still eight of us then,’ Optio Secundus grunted, pausing to take a slurp of the broth. ‘You got beer?’
‘You’re lucky we’ve got broth. Get on with it.’
‘There was a young lad with us – a German, who was a good hunter. He managed to follow Rigonorix through all sorts of places, and he led us to a village.’
‘A shite hole,’ corrected his friend between mouthfuls of food.
‘Yes, a shite hole. Half a dozen mud huts and a pen of scraggy looking sheep. At least that’s what we thought. It was starting to snow when we arrived, and we found the biggest hut, assuming it to be the head man. We demanded he tell us where Rigonorix was. He claimed not to know, but our German confirmed the quarry had not left the village. Albanus, who was a dangerous bastard in his own right, took the head man’s daughter and threatened her. Lo and behold, it turned out Rigonorix was hiding out with a family.’
‘This is all sounding organised so far.’
‘That’s where it stopped. We barged open the door to that family’s hut and my first man died getting into the doorway. Arrow in the throat. By the time Albanus pushed him out of the way, they were ready for us. Rigonorix was with them, fighting alongside ‘em. Don’t know whether they owed him something, but they fought to the death for him. I was the last man in.’
‘Don’t take the piss. You’re an optio, so you know we lead from the back. I was the last one in. By the time I got in, only Rigonorix, Dentio here, and the German were still standing. My two had Rigonorix restrained, and everyone else was dead. Well, that was only one hut. If every hut in that shite hole was as well stocked with rebels, then we stood less chance than a vestal in a barrack block. We legged it. Grabbed Rigonorix and ran out into the storm.’
Valens frowned. ‘And the German?’
‘Died of his wounds two hours later.’ We got lost in the storm. We’d been meaning to head east again and go home, but somehow we wound up crossing the mountains in the worst weather. I’ve never been so glad as I was to see your fort.’
‘That might change,’ Valens said darkly. ‘So Rigonorix was related to these villagers?’
‘Might have been. If you’ve spoken to him you’ll have learned what a talker he is. All I know is he’s part of their tribe.’
‘And because of him, you killed a bunch of Carvetii in a village.’
Valens huffed. ‘If even a couple of dozen angry villagers could be arsed to follow you across mountains in a storm for revenge, then they’re going to have trouble getting to you here.’ He leaned back. ‘But things still don’t add up. The way the fugitive talks you’d think a cohort of renegade praetorians was coming for us, not a few angry villagers with pitch forks. What aren’t you telling me?’
Secundus turned back to his broth, slurped again, and then breathed deeply. ‘Nothing. Listen, you have the facts. Rigonorix is hardly denying the accusation. He told you himself that he did it. We are loyal, serving soldiers with a fugitive criminal in tow. Give us adequate supplies and some helpful directions and we’ll be out of your hair in the morning. Then if half an angry village turns up you can tell them we left for Alauna. Everyone’s happy.’
Valens chewed the inside of his cheek. ‘I’m not happy. There’s things I don’t know about here. You might not be lying, but you haven’t told me the whole truth. I’ll have one of the lads assign you a barrack block and bring you some dry blankets. Stay there for the night. If I find you wandering around in my fort I’ll assume you’re causing trouble and I’ll have you arrested and thrown in with Rigonorix.’
‘Your call, Optio.’
Valens left the building, walking out into a flurry of snow that announced the onset of the next storm. He’d learned a lot in a short time from Secundus, yet for some reason he felt more uncertain about things than ever. Despite it all, though, he was convinced that Rigonorix’s doom-laden words were no bluff.
In a few heartbeats Valens was climbing the snowy, slippery steps back up to the wall top and then skittering along the parapet. He could see the four men on watch from here: big Rubellius at the corner overlooking the pass, weaselly little Pollio at the highest tower overlooking the road up to the parade ground, Porcius at the west end of the civil settlement outside and Ampelius with a view down the wide valley towards the sea. Well, on a good day, anyway. Right now all four had a visual range of about half a mile and as the cloud lowered and the snow thickened, that would quickly drop to virtually nothing.
Reaching Rubellius first, he leaned on the battlements beside the big man and peered off up at the pass. That was not the direction from which the troublesome party had come, but if they were from Alauna Brigantium, that was the direction in which their fort lay, many miles away over the hills. They had got lost since leaving the village, and that meant they could have come from anywhere. Over the pass was one of the more likely directions for the village. He’d have liked to have known more about the village, but there were so many unrecorded settlements in this region, Rigonorix was unlikely to be talkative, and Secundus apparently knew nothing more about the place.
‘Keep alert,’ he told Rubellius.
‘For what, boss?’
‘I don’t really know yet. Trouble’s heading our way, and it could come as a handful of angry farmers or a fired-up warband.’
‘In half an hour I won’t be able to see as far as the pass,’ the big man noted.
‘I know. Just do your best. And the moment you see anything bigger than a blackbird, sound the alarm, no matter who it is.’
Rubellius nodded and Valens hurried on round the walls, watching out over the white countryside as he went. Across the valley whence the three men had come, as likely a source for trouble as any. Pollio acknowledged the order, as did the other two as the optio passed around the fort’s wall, checking for trouble. Having spoken to the lookouts, he hurried back to the gate where Vibius Cestius lurked in the shadows.
‘Seal this gate,’ Valens said, pointing at the bar that stood beside the wooden doors. ‘Then get to the east and west gate and have them sealed. I want the only way in or out to be the south gate above the vicus. Meet me there when you’re done.’
Cestius nodded and wandered over to the bar, lifting it with a grunt and sliding it into place. Valens left him to it as he hurried across the fort to the remaining gate. Was he being too cautious? Was any of this necessary? He only had the word of an admitted murderer that trouble was coming, after all, and Secundus seemed less inclined to worry. Putting the fort on alert would cause tension. But if there was something to the warning of Rigonorix, then it would be best to be prepared.
Reaching the gate, he pointed down the slope across the vicus. At the lowest point, past all the crumbling timber shacks, sat the small stone bath house that served the fort.
‘Is there anyone in the baths?’
The man at the gate, as yet unaware of any threat shrugged. ‘Two men, I think, sir. Though they’ve been gone a while. They might have stopped in the tavern.’
Valens chewed his lip. Ordering off-duty men back to the fort when they were bathing or boozing was not a path to popularity, but it was still prudent.
‘Keep this gate open but be wary.’
‘What for, sir?’
‘I don’t know. Just keep your eyes and ears open.’
And with that he stepped through the gate and walked out into the snow.
The street of the vicus led down from the gate at a fairly steep gradient, curving round to the left and heading for the main road, such as it was, over the pass. The bath house sat at the far end of the civil settlement, and though its shape was hidden behind various buildings, Valens could see the steam rising from a roof aperture and knew it to be the bathing establishment at work.
The settlement, like the fort, was little more than a largely empty shell in which a tiny population rattled around. There had been a hundred civilians or more out here at the place’s height. Now, at last count, there were twelve, and most of them only stayed because they were old, or crippled, or misfits with nowhere else to go.
There were no figures in the street, no torches or lamps in the doorways, with the exception of the Boot and Bullock tavern and even that looked empty as the optio passed, a single lamp guttering deep in its heart like the gleam in the gimlet eye of a madman.
The bath house was small, even for a private military affair, just a single range with the hot room at one end, the warm room in the middle and the cold room at the other. A small circular laconium steam room led off to one side and unlike the larger establishments at the important forts, the changing room here was a wooden porch tacked on to the cold end with no slaves to hand.
Passing the last few empty and silent houses of the vicus, Valens made his way around to the end of the bath house. Two military tunics hung on hooks under the porch and two pairs of boots and two cloaks kept them company. Despite the door leading into the cold end of the bath house, with the weather being what it was at the moment, the inside still felt comparatively tropical. Having stepped under the wooden porch and out of the ever-increasing snowfall, the optio removed his helmet and shook out his hair, scratching his beard. Sticking his head in through the door, he shouted.
‘Soldiers of the Fourth Dalmatian, this is Optio Valens. A situation has arisen. I need you both out, dry and dressed and ready to return to the fort immediately.’
A muffled comment issued from the far end of the baths. Valens couldn’t quite hear it, but it sounded sarcastic and was accompanied by a snigger from a second man.
‘Get your stinking, hairy arses out here by the time I count to ten or you’re doing Pollio’s laundry for a month,’ he bellowed, and was gratified by the sound of sudden furious activity and a splashing noise. He stepped back out of the porch and turned his face skyward, letting the flakes of white settle on his eyelids, soothing them. Everything seemed so peaceful for a moment.
Then he heard it. A bell, ringing up at the fort. And not just ringing; it was ongoing, panicked. How long had it been ringing? Had it started before he’d even got here? That was not the quiet, rhythmic clang that told him Rubellius had spotted a horse and cart coming over the pass. That was the desperate clatter of a man knowing the shit was flowing his way and he was wedged in the sewer.
‘Now!’ Valens bellowed into the doorway, jamming his helmet back on.