Albanus was already out of bed and fumbling with his bootlaces by the time the trumpet sounded first watch. Over at the stables, the yawning groom scowled at his permission slip, recognised the mark of Centurion Curtius, and grunted assent.
“I was told to ask for Midnight,” said Albanus.
The man grunted again. “You’d better not be in a hurry, then.”
The gate guards made no comment as Midnight shambled past them and out of the fort. Albanus wondered if perhaps, for the first time ever, he really did look like a man who knew how to control a horse.
Outside, the shops were still shuttered and the houses were silent, but already a small queue had formed outside the bakery.
He steered the horse onto the right-hand fork in the road and found himself almost immediately out in open countryside. He needed to pay attention now. He must stop running over the speech he had been intermittently worrying about all night. Yesterday evening, seeking directions for this trip, he had been assured that, “You can’t miss it,” but it was surprising what you could miss if you weren’t concentrating. He kicked the horse into a bone-jarring trot that made him grab at the front horns of the saddle, and was relieved to reach his next landmark: the milestone beside the wooden bridge.
After that came the oak tree with the broken branch where he must turn left, and then about a mile further on along the winding native track the claim that “You can’t miss it,” turned out to be true.
Not because he had spotted the widow’s family farm, or the baker’s widow herself, but because he had just bounced around yet another bend when two shaggy-haired native men stepped out of a gateway and seized either side of Midnight’s bridle.
“Who are you?” demanded the one on the left.
Albanus hoped that coming here alone and unarmed was not about to prove a catastrophic mistake. “Good morning!” he announced brightly. “My name is Albanus. I’m hoping you can help me find someone called Rosula. She used to live at the bakery outside the fort. I’ve brought some information for her.”
“Who are you?”
After a moment’s confusion, he realised his mistake. The native had memorized the correct Latin phrase, but he wasn’t equipped to cope with anything more than a one-word answer. Albanus put both reins in one hand and pointed toward his own chest. “Albanus.” He pointed at the man. “Who are you?”
The man gazed at him blankly. Albanus wanted to grab him and shake him. It was the sort of obstinate non-co-operation that came across as stupidity: the sort cited in barrack rooms as proof that it was pointless trying to reason with a Briton. Perhaps he should have brought a bribe. Trying to think what he had to offer, it dawned on him that they would want horse.
It was the horse itself who broke the impasse. Spotting a lush snack, Midnight lumbered towards the verge, dragging his captors with him. Albanus was jerked forward and off balance. He grabbed the saddle and tried to disguise his tumble as a dismount while the horse calmly lowered its head to eat.
“Rosula?” he tried again, wondering what they would do with him if Rosula wasn’t an option.
The man scowled, and indicated that Albanus should remove his cloak. Finally he seemed satisfied that this fool had not only come alone on a horse he couldn’t control, but had come with no weapons. He pointed toward the muddy gateway. “Rosula.”
Ahead of them, three round houses clustered around a cobbled yard. One had smoke drifting lazily up through the cone of thatch.. A hairy, long-limbed dog ran out from somewhere, barking furiously and sending a flock of brown hens flapping and scuttling for cover One of the men shouted in his native tongue and the dog fell silent, still eyeing him with suspicion. A couple of skinny children and a goat were also staring at him.The children’s tunics were the colour of dung.
The man shouted again and Albanus recognised his name being used. A woman appeared in the doorway of one of the houses, brushing something off her skirts. Albanus remembered the broad shoulders and the curly hair from the couple of times he had visited the bakery in daylight, but this was not the confident woman who had hefted huge baskets of bread and exchanged coarse banter with her customers. Rosula had lost weight. Her face was pale beneath the curls, and her eyes were shadowed.
The centurion had been right about one thing: the sight of her instantly banished any thought that she might have had a hand in her husband’s death.
She stepped forward to stand a few paces from where Albanus held the horse and said in Latin, “I told the centurion everything. He said I could come home. He said nobody would pester me any more.”
Albanus bowed and introduced himself. “I came to offer condolences,” he said, aware that he was hanging onto Midnight as much for reassurance as to stop the horse wandering across to munch on the weeds around the depleted haystack. “I would also like to make a confession and an apology. Would you allow me to do that?”
When she did not reply he carried on. “I believe that on the night your—the night you lost your husband, you noticed your lodger Virana had a visitor.”
“I have left all that behind now. I told the centurion everything.”
“It was me,” Albanus blurted out, abandoning his practised speech. “It was me. I’m most terribly sorry. It’s not something I’m proud of. Of course we had no idea about your husband. It was a—a difficult evening, what with the shipwreck, and the storm, and….” And what? What was he talking about? Getting a bit wet while you watched other people in trouble was hardly an excuse for cavorting while this woman’s husband was lying dead at the foot of a cliff.
“I thought you should know,” he said, “In case you were worried about who might have been in your house.”
“I am not worried.”
“I’ve been working with Centurion Curtius,” he went on, grasping at the frayed threads of his prepared speech. “We are both determined to get justice for your husband.”
When she did not speak he said, “I was hoping you might have remembered something else that might help. Anything at all.”
“The centurion said there would be no more questions.”
If the centurion had made such a promise then he was an idiot, but it would not help to say so. “Anyone who might feel they had a grudge against your husband, perhaps?”
“My husband was well liked. Everyone came to his funeral.”
According to Virana many of the mourners had been there out of nosiness, but Virana’s understanding of events was not always shared by everyone else. Or indeed by anyone else. “A business rival, perhaps?” he tried. “Anyone at all who might want to do your husband harm?”
The woman sniffed. “My husband never talked to me about business.”
“Did he owe money to anyone?
“I told you. We never talked about business.”
Albanus wanted to shout, “Virana is locked up! She worked hard for you for months and she put up with your ghastly husband and now they are sending someone to torture her!” Instead he said, “I see. Thank you. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“I told the centurion everything.”
“That girl brought men into my house.”
Albanus felt his body tense. The horse tossed its head and jerked free. He said, “Do you know of any other men who might have, ah—?”
“How would I know? Little tart. I was glad when she left.”
He regained his grip on the bridle, if not on his composure. “One last thing,” he said. “There are new tenants in the bakery, but the grain stores are very low and they don’t know where to get more. Who shall I tell them to ask?”
She shrugged. “My husband dealt with all that.”
“Is there a regular order?”
“I don’t know. My husband—”
“How often does the grain come?”
She glowered at him. “I have said everything to the centurion! Why are you bothering me with this? My husband—”
“Who delivers it?”
She stared at him. “I have children to look after,” she told him. “I have said everything I have to say. I don’t know anything else”
Behind him, a voice said, “You go now.”
He turned to see the men closing in on him from both sides.
They were both carrying unsheathed knives. Not the sort of domestic knives that had killed Simmias. Bigger. The sort they weren’t supposed to have in their possession because, according to the official line, the Army took care of all their defence needs.
“I’m just leaving,” he assured them, waving one hand toward the gate and muttering a plea of, “Move!” to Midnight and a silent prayer of thanks to the gods when the horse complied.
He squelched out through the gateway, still on foot. In a moment he was going to have to get back up on the horse, but he wasn’t going to attempt it while the natives were watching.