Authors: David Drake
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I led my troop of foragers into the Crow's camp at midmorning, singing about Lillia from Massillia who could service a squadronâand their horses. We'd held up just out of sight to primp, braid our hair, and put on a bright sash or a gold torque. Most of my troopers were common warriors, but our incidental pickings let them dress like nobles.
Galo, my mother's sister's son, was calling the verses from the driver's bench of the cart full of loot we'd taken from the villa we'd sacked two nights before. The woman we'd taken at that place sat beside Galo, proud as a queen. She looked like a scarlet butterfly perched beside a cheerful toad.
Some foragers come in whooping and hollering, but that spooks the herd they're driving. My boys took care of business first, and anybody who didn't learn that right quick got the stuffing knocked out of him before I booted him from the troop.
“If you're good enough to ride with Taranis,” they said in the Crow's war band, “you're good enough to ride back from Hell!”
Well, my boys say that, anyway. The rest call us cocky bastards, but they know that we generally bring in as much food as any two of the other foraging troops. Galo has an instinct for finding things.
Food was going to be even more important to the war band if the Crow decided to make an example of Caere. The city had good walls, and we might have to sit here till Esus the Wise knew when.
The line warriors might, that is. We foragers would be miles out from the crowds and the stink.
It had been raining off and on for a month. The ground had been soft when the Crow had set up here before I left on this drive. Now it was a bog, and even the few latrines that the band had dug were flooded out.
I hate marching camps. I could give lots of reasons why I prefer to lead foragers rather than a wing of the cavalry, but that's the real one.
I checked to see where the Crow's winged standard stood, raised on a high pole. It was a larger duplicate of the bronze rig on his helmet.
“Take charge of the billeting, Galo,” I said as I dismounted. “I'll be back as soon as I report to the chief.”
“We'll save you a jar of the good stuff, Top!” Matisco said.
I tramped through the camp, exchanging greetings with the nobles I met and nodding to warriors who bowed to me. In the field with my boys there's no nonsense about “yes, lord,” and “as you wish, lord,” but here it has to be different. I left Galo in charge in camp when I was gone, like now, because he had the rank to protect the boys even though his leg was twisted and he couldn't walk right.
Mind, my troopers knew to hop it when I gave an order.
The Crow's tent was pitched on a little hill, but the swale I had to cross to reach it was downstream of one of the abattoirs. I'd walked through worse places, but it didn't make me like the camp any better than I had before.
The Crow was with three of his thousand-chiefs, but when a servant whispered to him he turned to clasp arms with me. “Taranis!” he said. “Good pickings this time?”
The javelin in my left hand was so much a part of me in the field that I'd forgotten I held it until now. Embarrassed, I turned it to point down along my thigh.
“Good enough, Chief,” I said. “Twenty oxen, a couple hundred sheep and goats. There were a few horses too, though nothing special that way.”
“Any slaves?” asked Segolestes. He'd always struck me as greedy, but he wasn't a bad sort. Dubnoreix was the only thousand-chief I didn't have any use for.
I shrugged. “Twenty or so to drive the carts and badger the herd in,” I said. “Any more would've been just useless mouths till we got far enough south to sell them to the Greeks.”
I looked back at the Crowâlooked
at the Crow; he's a hand's breadth taller than I am, and there's few enough I could say that aboutâand said, “We brought a woman too, Chief. She's a noble herself, but she says she was a prisoner.”
The Crow tugged his left moustache. He had the face of a bird, but to me he was more of a hawk than a crow: thin and sharp, with eyes that saw everything. “Is there ransom for her?”
“I doubt it,” I said, “but I didn't really talk to her. She speaks Gaulish and I can pick my way through Etruscan, but we had a scrap at the villa where we found her and, you know, that put me out of thinking beyond the next step.”
“Romans?” asked Orgetereix, putting his right hand on his sword pommel. “They claim they're chief of all this region, you know.”
“I leave politics to my betters,” I said, which made the Crow snort. I don't swank around, but he knows me too well to think I'd call Orgetereix “my better” if I meant it. “We didn't see any sign of Romans. This was a villa. I figured to take their stock and let the rest be, but they wanted to make a fight about it.”
It had gotten close to evening but Galo had kept pushing on, talking about “the beautiful woman.” We weren't out for women and anyway, Galo isn't much interested in them most of the time. He has a good nose for cattle, though, so I let him take us farther than I'd planned to go that day.
Galo can ride well enough, but he has to switch horses pretty often because of his weight. He's got the chest and shoulders of two men despite his stumpy legs. Even the good one isn't long enough for his big torso.
He'd reached the top of the gentle slope we were climbing when he raised his hand to halt us, then waved me forward. The rest of the troop held up, checking their weapons soundlessly.
I walked my horse up beside him to where I could see over the top of the rise. The villa was on a downslope even shallower than what we'd just climbed. There was a good-sized sheepfold to the left of the main building with huts for the servants beyond the fold. To the right was a barn with a shake roof; a servant with a long goad stood by the double door, but the last of a file of oxen was entering without needing encouragement.
I turned, pointed to Matisco, and raised five fingers, then swept my arm around to the left. He immediately led his squad through the brush on that side. That would put them behind the huts to round up the servants when they started to run.
Like I'd told Segolestes, I wasn't out to take slaves. I'd sooner have locals doing the dog work, though. My boys appreciated it, and it left them free to deal with anything that happened to come up.
We didn't know this territory, and I'd heard the rumors too: that the Romans were going to stop us from taking the contract from the king of Syracuse. They were welcome to try, was how I felt about the Romans; but that didn't mean I wanted to stumble into a hostile army with just my troop of twenty.
It didn't take long for Matisco to get into positionâwe all knew the drill. He whistled and I brought the rest of the troop up and over.
I headed for the barn with three men. Seven more under Heune took the sheepfold, and Galo had the rest to use as the business started to play out. There was a four-wheeled wagon under a shed beside the barn. It would be handy for hauling the big jars the locals use to store food and wine.
Servants started shouting and running. The fellow with the ox goad looked like he might want to try prodding me with it. Holding the reins against the shaft of the javelin in my left hand, I howled and swung my sword overhead in a circle. He dropped the pole and ducked into the barn, pulling the door shut behind him.
It couldn't be locked from inside, of course. I jumped off my horse and stuck the butt-spike of my javelin in the crack, then levered the door open fast. My sword point was aimed toward the face of anybody who decided to come out and try conclusions, but nobody did. I was about to shout for the servants to give up before we had to go in after them, that nobody would get hurtâ
And right then the landowner and what turned out to be six bodyguards rushed us from the main house.
Albos must've been nosing toward the house, which he shouldn't have done, so they were almost on him when they burst out the front door. He flung a javelin but it stuck in the shield of the fellow with the horsehair plume in the top of his helmet. Albos tried to run, but a guard speared him through the left thigh and he went down with blood soaking his trousers black in the sunset.
Another of the bunched guards brought back his spear to finish the job, but I hit the middle of them shouting, “The sky smites you down!” though they probably couldn't have understood the words even if they spoke Gaulish.
It might've been smarter to back away and see just what we were up against, but they'd have put paid to Albos if I'd done that. And anyhow, that's never been my way.
The leader was easy to spot from his plume and the fact that he was waving a sword while his guards just had spears. One of them thrust at me from the left, but I slanted his point away with my javelin shaft and swung down at the leader.
He hadn't managed to get either his shield or his short, hook-bladed sword up in time. I caught his helmet on the sweet spot of my blade, a handsbreadth back from the point. He went down like a sacrificed ox, and that was about all there was to the fight.
Javelins feathered the guards' shields. One man dropped and then Galo, still on his horse, swiped the left-end man with his massive iron prybar as he rode past. He hit the fellow's shield, dishing in the boss and cracking the wood so it folded over.
Those who still could run tried to now, throwing away their shields, but Matisco and his squad were coming around from behind. I started to pick up a dropped shieldâI don't like them but believe me, a shield is a better choice than a javelin when you're charging a line of spears.
No matter. I'd been lucky, and I didn't need a shield now after all. All the guards were down, and my boys were cutting their throats to make sure they stayed that way.