Authors: Eva Scott
Bleda stirred in his sleep letting out a large snort as he rolled over. Klara smothered a giggle.
He’d never come close to making her body respond the way Lucius did. Yet the fault was not his. He was, well, just Bleda; funny, kind, gentle Bleda. She smoothed his hair from his face and kissed his forehead softly so as not to wake him. Lucius was long gone and she was married to Bleda now. Whatever happened she would make the best of it. She loved Bleda just not in the way she’d always imagined she’d love her husband.
The space inside the tent seemed constricting, the air stale. Klara slid off the bed and tiptoed to the entrance, blowing out the candle as she passed. She wanted to lie beneath the stars, the real stars, and gather her thoughts. From this day forward she would assume the responsibilities of a married woman. Tonight might represent the last time she could do as she pleased. Bleda wouldn’t miss her. He wouldn’t even know she had gone.
Letting the tent flap fall behind her, Klara stepped out into the cool night. Overhead the stars arched and wheeled in their timeless journey across the heavens. They had no doubt borne witness to a thousand marriages like hers. Taking a deep breath she began to walk away from the tent. They were a long way from the main camp where the festivities went on without them. There was no one here to bother her. She pushed through the long grass, intent on getting far enough away where there was no evidence of anyone else on earth but her. She wouldn’t need to go far. The moon danced overhead, lighting her way, turning the grass into a solitary silver sea.
Klara stopped and looked about. She could see nothing and no one in any direction. This was the perfect spot. She lay down in the grass on her back so she could watch the stars. Did the great Sky God really hear the Shaman’s prayers? Would she be blessed with healthy children—boys—to follow in their father’s footsteps and make their mother proud? Smiling, she tried to imagine what her children to Bleda might look like. Little copies of their father no doubt.
Soon her rebellious mind turned to thoughts of Lucius and how their son might look. Perhaps he’d have her dark hair and his father’s strange blue eyes. For a second her imaginary son stood before her, laughing with complete abandon the way only children do. He seemed so real in that moment Klara woke with a start. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. How long had she been asleep?
A distant commotion had her scrambling to her feet. Men were yelling, their words unintelligible and then it hit her—the smell of smoke. Something was burning and out on the grass plain a fire threatened everyone. She picked up her skirts and ran back towards the wedding tent. As she approached she could see flames had taken hold of the felt tent, devouring it like some terrible beast. Smoke billowed up into the night sky obscuring the stars. Klara slowed to a stop. Something was wrong, horribly wrong.
Standing before the raging inferno stood Bleda, suddenly sober. He was yelling at men on horseback who circled him. They made no effort to help Bleda and seemed to be taunting him. Klara instinctively shrank down under the cover of the grass and tried to make sense of the scene before her. Still quite a long way off from the tent she struggled to recognise any of the riders. Their faces hidden, shadowed by hats pulled low. They wore Hunnish hats, conical in shape with a peak at the front. That much she could make out clearly.
What on earth could these men want? Could they have started the fire deliberately? It seemed too much of a coincidence to assume they’d been passing and noticed the tent ablaze. No, she’d blown the candle out before she’d left so an accidental fire was impossibility. This was not an ordinary fire born of accident. This fire was one of design.
She crouched down lower, her hand reaching instinctively to her side, but there was no knife there. Wearing her knife to her wedding had been forbidden by her mother otherwise Klara would have it with her now. What could she do? Her heart was beating so hard the men would be able to hear it any minute. How could she help Bleda? She peeked through the long grass again. Bleda was shouting now, his words carried away by the wind. One of the men laughed and lunged his horse at Bleda who put his hands up to shield himself. The man brought a sword down swiftly and she watched as Bleda crumpled to the ground.
Klara clamped her hands over her mouth to stifle the scream that welled in her throat. Tears flooded her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
She cried silently. There was nothing she could do as she lay sobbing for her fallen husband. The men continued to shout at each other until they let out a roar in unison and suddenly the flames leapt higher into the unforgiving night. She scrambled to her knees to discover Bleda’s body had disappeared from where it had fallen. Doubtless it had been thrown on the fire.
The riders circled the flaming tent several times whooping and calling to each other. She saw it. A distinctive coat, one she’d seen before, in fact only yesterday. The outlandish eagle embroidered on the back blazed in her memory. Only one man wore a coat like that—Lucius Aurelius.
what I saw.”
“Yes Klara, but can you be certain it was this Roman who murdered Bleda? It’s a very serious accusation.” Rugila spread his hands wide in supplication. He of all people knew just how headstrong his beautiful daughter could be. “We need to be sure before we take action.”
“You’re scared because Lucius Aurelius is Roman. If he were anyone else you’d have your men after him already.” Klara stood before the hurriedly assembled council, her hair in disarray and soot streaking her face. “Do you think the Romans care so much for this man they’d send one of their precious legions to defend him?”
The walk from the scene of Bleda’s murder had taken hours. Klara had no idea how long she had huddled beside the fire as it burnt itself out, grieving for Bleda. By the time dawn had inched over the horizon the wedding tent was cinders and her grief had been replaced by cold hard anger which now reverberated though her voice. “I’m telling you, it was Lucius Aurelius who murdered my husband and I want revenge. Now!” As she slammed her fist of her right hand against the palm of her left several of the council members shouted their support.
Rugila held up his hand for silence. “The facts of your story, dear daughter, don’t make sense. I have no doubt what you say happened is true yet I wonder why the Roman would want to murder Bleda. He has no cause.”
Klara glared balefully at her father.
Why won’t he do something? Why won’t he help me?
The morning was clear and fresh, untainted by the night’s events. Shafts of sunlight streaked across plain as a soft breeze bowed the grass in homage to the sun. Bleda had been cruelly cut down on their wedding night and yet everyone acted as if it was an ordinary day.
“Can you truly be sure it was him?” Rugila asked her again.
Klara sighed in frustration. “The man wears a distinctive coat in the style of a Hun. I’ve never seen another like it. A huge eagle is embroidered on the back. The man who killed my husband was wearing that coat.” She spoke in staccato bursts between clenched teeth, her patience all but at an end.
“It’s true; I have seen him in such a coat.” Irnik was a Chieftain of equal standing with her father. His voice carried weight and Klara’s shoulders slumped with relief as he spoke. Finally someone was taking her seriously.
Surrounded by his sons Irnik cut an imposing figure. “The coat is too distinctive to mistake, Rugila. Once seen it is never forgotten. I’m sure there are many here who can testify to seeing the Roman wearing it at one time or another.” Many heads nodded as a murmur swept through the crowd. Irnik let the silence fall behind his words, taking his time. “Perhaps we should consider tracking this man down and making him answer for his crime. If it were my daughter I would want justice…” A rumble of agreement rolled through the collective. “If it were my son I would want revenge.” The pitch raised to a roar as men leapt to their feet, fists raised. Not a single one of them would let the murder of a precious son go unavenged. It was not the way of the Hun.
Rugila observed Irnik through narrowed eyes. Irnik had been a rival of his since they were boys and Klara knew he harboured a natural suspicion towards him. Irnik’s words inflamed the men and Rugila could not afford to lose control in his own camp.
Rugila called for calm. “Is there any here who can speak for the Roman?”
“I can.” Bataar raised his hand tentatively. All eyes turned towards him as he pushed his way to the front. “I know Lucius Aurelius. He wouldn’t do something like this. He’s not that kind of man.” Bataar turned to Klara imploring her with his eyes. “There has to be some kind of mistake.”
Klara didn’t think much of Bataar standing before her a quivering, nervous wreck. She put her hands on her hips and eyed him coldly. “You don’t offer much of a defence,” she said. “How do you know what was in his heart? Didn’t he leave the feast night early?”
Bataar swallowed hard, hands before him twisting his felt cap. “It’s true,” he said reluctantly.
“And do you know why?” Klara raised one eyebrow.
Bataar shook his head. “He didn’t look very well when he left.”
“Indeed.” Klara turned to face her father. “Perhaps Lucius slunk off to make preparations for his raid?”
“Your daughter has a point,” said Irnik, cleaning his nails with the point of his knife.
Irnik’s gesture appeared menacing. Rugila shifted uneasily in his seat. Clearly the whole situation made him uneasy, yet Klara hoped he would see her story seemed plausible at least. He made one last attempt at reason. “It all comes back to motivation. I fail to see what the Roman had to gain. It makes no sense.”
“I can provide motivation enough,” said Klara. She told her father about her encounter with Lucius, careful to leave out the finer details. Even as she told her tale a queasy sense she was committing an injustice took hold of her. It was too late; she had spoken and could not take back her words. “The man who killed Bleda wore the eagle coat and the only man who owns such a coat is Lucius,” she said as much to convince herself as the council. A nagging kernel of doubt had nestled in her mind. Her memory of the Roman did not tally with his actions, yet who was she to know what a Roman was capable of?
“I saw what I saw,” she said stubbornly.
Rugila passed a hand over his face, weary already with the morning’s events. “Klara my love, revenge is the business of men. May I suggest you join your mother, grieve as you see fit, and when you’re ready I will find a suitable match for you?” He smiled paternally at her as many of the men around the council nodded in agreement.
“I am not interested in getting married again.” Klara stood with her hands balled at her sides, fury boiling over. “As for grieving I spent the night beside Bleda’s funeral pyre, time enough for grieving when I take my revenge.”
“Klara…” Rugila began before being cut off.
“Your father is right.” Irnik leant forward, his deep voice carrying authority as easily as some warriors carried their swords. “Let us take revenge for you and for Bleda’s parents. I’ll tell you what we will do,” he slapped his thigh and sat back, “I will bring you the Roman’s head as bride price and you will marry my son, Mundzuk.” Irnik put his arm around his son and drew him forward. “A more strapping lad you will not find and a good provider too. Worthy heir to your father’s title.”
“You get ahead of yourself, Irnik.” Ice dripped from Rugila’s words. Klara recognised the look on her father’s face. When he became cold and still, he was minutes from rage. He turned to her. “Klara, take yourself from this council. We will speak later.”
Rugila turned his face from her then and she knew better than to argue with him. Silently she left the council, shoulders back and eyes straight ahead. As she retreated a cacophony broke out behind her as men began to shout their opinions at each other.
“I am more than capable of tracking the Roman myself,” she muttered as she stormed towards her mother’s tent. “I’ll show them. They think I’m some little girl to be patted on the head and sent off with a promise of a new husband. I will find Lucius Aurelius and I will kill him.” Worse than watching her husband’s death was the fact she had been in the arms of his killer only the day before. Klara had compared Bleda to Lucius and found him wanting. How foolish she had been! If only she could take it all back and just accept the stupid camel with grace and stay put with her guests none of this would have happened.
“That’s my final price.” The shop keeper folded his arms across his ample belly, squared his shoulders and settled in. All along the walls of the tiny shop hung coats of every size and colour; some embroidered, some fur lined, others with hoods. The faint smell of wet wool tinged the air. Outside, people tramped about the muddy streets of the rag-tag outpost town.
“If I wasn’t desperate for a new coat I’d refuse to pay your price. You and I both know you’re robbing me blind.” Lucius shrugged into the garment, pulling it tightly across his chest. The coat sat well with plenty of room for his broad shoulders. He stretched his arms forward to test the fit. Everything about the shop keeper’s stance told him he’d struggle to get the price any lower. Sighing dramatically he said, “This is the last time I buy a coat from you. It would be cheaper to buy my own flock of sheep and spin the wool myself.” Lucius counted out the right coin and double checked the amount.
The shop keeper shrugged and held out his hand for the money. Lucius could almost hear his thoughts—he’d never seen this crazy Roman before and he had no doubt he’d never see him again either. He could care less where Lucius bought his future coats.
Lucius dropped the money unceremoniously into the man’s grubby hand and spun on his heel. He’d spent far too long finding something warm to wear. The entire journey to this godforsaken excuse for a town had been unpleasant with the chilly spring winds battering him from every direction. He’d lamented his stupidity in gambling away his favourite coat! The chances of ever finding a coat to replace it were non-existent. The eagle, a symbol of Rome, had been hand stitched on the back to his design. Now he’d have to make do with this motley thing until something better showed up. Still, he was warm for the first time in days.