Authors: Eva Scott
Muddy puddles dotted the pathways between ramshackle houses and shops. Life on the edges of the Great Steppe was brutal, hard and unforgiving. It showed in the faces of the people he passed on his way to the tavern. Lucius narrowed his eyes as his destination came in sight. On reflection,
was a strong word for the run-down, draughty building.
Shouldering his way inside Lucius was met with the sound of raucous laughter, the smell of mutton boiling and unwashed bodies. The air was thick with pipe smoke giving the place an almost mysterious atmosphere, conveniently hiding the layer of grime which coated everything. The tavern was the only place in town where he could get a meal, a room and a safe place for his horse. With any luck the food would be edible too. Casting a cursory glance at the clientele made Lucius smile, it was places like these that gave Rome a good name.
Despite the fire blazing in the hearth a chill hung over the tavern. Lucius kept his new coat one while he ordered a cup of barley beer from the inn-keep. Granted it wasn’t good beer but it did the trick. He took a swig and turned his thoughts to his next move. Clearly some time would have to pass before he could trade safely on the Great Steppe again. No matter, other profitable avenues of trade remained open to him. Business was good without resorting to trading in slaves and Lucius had agents in major towns from here to the fringes of the Empire.
His thoughts turned unbidden to Klara. During the ride, or rather his escape, daydreams of Klara had woven themselves between moments of relief and disappointment; relief he’d managed to get away in one piece and disappointment Klara was forever beyond his reach. Who knew how long it would be before he met another like her? If ever. Ordering another barley beer he contemplated the wisdom of eating a bowl of mutton stew. While it smelled tolerable, the nature of its contents was open to speculation.
A loud voice hailed him from across the room and before he could turn to see who it was a large hand slapped him forcefully across the back.
“Lucius Aurelius, you old dog. Fancy meeting you in this flea pit. Thought you’d be in Rome by now.” A grizzled bear of a man grabbed Lucius in a fierce hug before releasing him abruptly. “Get me a beer, inn-keep!” Hetal, the Circassian trader, was an uncle to Lucius’ mother. Rough around the edges the man was nevertheless a fine business man and despite appearances very wealthy.
The inn-keeper brought Hetal his beer and the big man took a hearty mouthful, some running down into his beard. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, turning once more to Lucius.
“Seriously, what are you doing here?”
“On my way home to Rome. Time to see Mother before she forgets she’s got a son.”
Hetal laughed. “How is that mother of yours? Always a fine looking woman. Shame the slavers got her but it turned out alright in the end. She has your father to thank for that.”
Lucius held his tongue. It was no secret Hetal had been mixed up in the sale of Lucius’ mother. Sadly many Circassians sold each other and family members to slavers. Being a very good looking race of people, the profit was unusually high. Selling one’s minor relatives or local villagers was such a common practice within Circassian society as to be unworthy of mention.
“What are you doing here?” Lucius tactfully changed the subject.
“The usual,” Hetal said cryptically. Lucius took this to mean slaving. It often did. “But enough about me! It’s you I’m concerned for.”
“Me? Why on earth would you be concerned for me, Hetal?”
“I’ve heard there’s been a bit of trouble on the steppe and you’re in the middle of it my boy.”
Lucius contemplated his beer for a moment. Klara must have told her father about their encounter. “It was nothing, a mere kiss. Don’t know why anyone would get upset over it.”
“A mere kiss?” Hetal shook with laughter. “What did you kiss the man with? Your sword? Come now Lucius, to hear tell you cut the man in half then burnt him with his tent. Hardly a
The blood drained from Lucius’ head to his feet in a sickening instant. Roaring filled his ears. “What did you say?” he managed at last, his tongue seeming to grow to twice its normal size.
“The murder of Bleda. Everyone is talking about it. Apparently Irnik the Hun has declared he will deliver your head to Rugila as part of the daughter’s bride price. I believe he intends her to marry his good-for-nothing son. Be a clever move for Irnik. Put him in charge of Rugila’s tribe once the old man dies. We might find Rugila dies sooner than we’d think.” Hetal winked at Lucius and roared for another beer.
Klara is free!
That first overwhelming thought preoccupied him to the point it was several seconds before he realised the import of what Hetal had said. He grabbed the older man by his sleeve.
“Bleda is dead?”
Hetal nodded slowly. “That’s what I said.”
“Who killed him? Why?”
Hetal swallowed a mouthful of beer and belched. “You did by all accounts. I expect you’re the only one who knows why.”
“You don’t believe that?” Lucius’ hands dropped to his side and his shoulders slumped in shock.
“Of course not, dear boy.” Hetal clapped him on the back. “Not your style. If you wanted Bleda dead you would have had the good sense to hire an assassin surely.”
“I didn’t know Bleda. Why would anyone think I’d want to kill the man?”
Hetal leaned back on the bar and considered Lucius for a long moment. The man’s blue eyes twinkled, the mischief lurking in their depths made Lucius even more uncomfortable than Hetal’s alarming news.
“I believe there is a little matter of a tryst you shared with Rugila’s daughter.” Hetal smiled wickedly. “Now
I believe happened and I want all the details.”
“Klara? They know about me and Klara? But it was just a kiss.” Lucius croaked.
“Sometimes all it takes is one kiss. Let me buy you another beer and you can tell me about it.”
Hetal turned away again and Lucius’ hand went straight to the beads cradled in his pocket. He may have gambled away his coat but he’d made sure to hang onto Klara’s beads. It was all he had of her. They slipped through his fingers like Greek worry beads. Could it be true? Could the Hun believe he’d murdered Bleda over Klara? Surely she would know the truth and speak for him?
Hetal thumped a cup of beer down in front of Lucius, the contents sloshing over the side. “Cheer up,” he said. “It could be worse.”
“How?” Lucius frowned.
“Irnik and his sons could have just ridden into town.” Hetal roared with laughter as the blood drained from Lucius’ face. “I’m joking, son. They have no idea where you are—if they did they
be here. If I were you I’d ride for Rome as fast as your nag will carry you.”
Lucius drained his beer in one gulp. He’d never heard better advice in his life.
Klara stumbled as she led her horse towards yet another grim tavern. Days had passed since she’d left her father’s camp. One dreary hamlet after the other, one revolting inn after another seedy guest house. How people could live this way was beyond her, especially when the Great Steppe beckoned with fresh air and freedom. Everyone she asked denied having seen Lucius, yet she sensed she was getting closer. If Klara had to ride all the way to Rome to find him she would, if she knew the way…
Once her horse was stabled and her meagre belongings stowed in the room she’d rented for the night, Klara made her way to the tavern. It was the most likely place to gather information about Lucius even though being enclosed in the cramped, smelly place made her want to scream. At least there was food to be had, even if it often wasn’t very good.
As she stepped through the door the crowded room fell silent for a heart beat before the racket started up again. The noise swallowed her and spat her out next to an empty table at the end of the room. Klara sat, her back to the wall with her hand resting lightly on her knife handle. She didn’t want any surprises. A woman approached and asked if she wanted something to drink. They had no kumis so Klara settled for barley beer which seemed to be the drink of choice in this seedy den. It tasted foul but she drank it anyway.
Settling back, Klara surveyed the room for the candidate most likely to know Lucius Aurelius. With so many unwashed, bearded rascals to choose from it was hard to pick. Finally her gaze alighted on a burly old man whose eyes reminded her of Lucius. Abandoning the revolting beer she made her way cautiously to where the man sat alone. He was intent on a dish of stew and didn’t notice her approach. Klara stood before him, awkward in her uncertainty of what to do next.
She cleared her throat. The man shovelled another spoonful of stew in his mouth and did not look up. She tried again, a little louder this time, and still the man ignored her. Sliding her knife from its sheath Klara slammed the point down into the table where it quivered menacingly. The spoon stopped half way to the old man’s mouth. He looked up under busy eyebrows and regarded her for a long moment before the spoon continued its journey. Chewing slowly he simply sat and looked at her.
Klara put her hands on her hips. Now she had the man’s attention starting a conversation about Lucius seemed even harder than she thought it would be. The man lowered his gaze, scooping up another spoonful of stew, and she found herself dismissed.
“Hey!” she slammed both her hand down on the table. “I want to talk to you.”
“So talk.” The fact he didn’t bother to look up infuriated Klara.
The man has no manners—and they call Hun barbarians
“I’m looking for a man.”
He looked up then. “Really?” Pushing the bowl away he leaned back in his chair, letting his eyes roam over the curves of her body. “I’d be happy to oblige.”
Klara swept the empty bowl off the table with the back of her hand. It clattered on the floor and rolled under the table. Her chest heaved with suppressed anger.
“Might I suggest you would do better with men if you tempered your aggression? So unattractive in a woman.”
Klara wrenched the knife out of the table and held it towards the man. “Do you know a man named Lucius Aurelius?” she hissed.
The old man’s bushy eyebrows shot up and disappeared into his hairline. “Lucius? How on earth do you know Lucius?” He narrowed his blue eyes and leaned forward, his hand shot out grabbing her wrist. “Who are you?”
She tried to reclaim her hand but the man was too strong. Cleverly he’d grabbed her hand holding the knife so there was very little point struggling. She raised her chin and said, “I am Klara…”
“The Hun,” the man finished softly. He let her go and settled back. “I’ve heard about you. Sit down. You’re in luck.”
Civilisation at last!
And not a moment too soon. Lucius rode through the gates of the town of Aquicum breathing easier confident Irnik would never dare attack him right under the nose of a Roman legion. Complain as he might about the constraints of Roman society, he was relieved to be back within its embrace. Now he could afford the time to relax, take a day or two to recover from hard riding. Stretching his lower back as he sat in the saddle, Lucius began to look for accommodation.
As he rode through the frontier town a renewed admiration for Roman public buildings, so elegant in their contrast to the last outpost of civilisation he’d just come from, dawned on him. This town was designed to resemble Rome although it fell far short. Yet, despite its obvious deficiencies, it possessed a proper bath house and a tavern worthy of the name. The thought of a hot bath and a good night’s sleep caused Lucius to smile for the first time since leaving Hetal. The old rogue had scared him with tales of vengeful Hun so he’d lost no time striking for the nearest town on the fringe of the Empire.
Lucius found a room in a decent tavern where he could safely stable his tired horse. After sourcing food for them both, and with belly well and truly full, the next stop was the bath house to deal with his filthy state. Sauntering down Aquicum’s main street towards the bath house he pondered the pros and cons of finding an agent to trade on his behalf. Clearly this part of the world was now unsafe for business. A few discreet enquiries might turn up a suitable man. While he’d rather take care of business himself Lucius knew there was always going to come a time when circumstances would reduce his involvement. He had always thought old age would be the cause, not a vendetta for a crime he never committed.
A sigh of relief and pleasure escaped his lips as he lowered his aching body into the hot water, giving over to sweet sensation as his muscles relaxed. Stretching his head back until it rested on the side of the bath he closed his eyes. Lucius decided he’d stop by the tavern on the way to his room, have a drink or two then retire for the night. Tomorrow he’d take stock of the situation. Decision made he drifted in a swirl of steam while the dirt loosened from the pores of his skin.
Klara sat astride her horse before the gates of Aquicum blinking in wonderment at the first stone buildings she had ever seen. They were magnificent and terrifying all at once. To enter those gates, to cross the threshold, meant leaving everything she had ever known behind. For the first time in her life she was truly nervous. Looking down at her travel-stained clothes she compared them to the women going about their business beyond the gate. They looked clean and elegant, hair piled on top of their heads. They were not dressed in dirty leggings and an old tunic with their unwashed hair escaping its braid. Even her plains pony with its stocky little legs and oversized head looked small and shabby next to Roman equines.
“Well horse, we can’t sit out here all day. We are of the plains. I am the daughter of Hun chieftain and you are my faithful steed. They will have to make of us what they will,” she said, more to boost her own confidence than that of her horse. Sitting straighter in her saddle Klara spurred her mount forward and through the arched gate of Aquicum. No one paid the slightest bit of attention to them. Here on the Dalmatian frontier many people gathered to trade and live under the protection of the Roman Empire. A Hun woman and her horse did not warrant a second glance. Feeling more confident by the minute Klara looked for a tavern. Lucius was bound to make for a tavern. In most of the towns she’d tracked him through there had been only one but here she guessed there would be a few.