PART III Chapter 4
By the time Drinus made it down from his outpost at the narrow pass leading to Sanctu-Eustachios the Hermit, the three arrows in his shoulder and back had him reeling in the saddle from pain and loss of blood. He all but fell off his horse as he came through the gate, leaving a trail of blood to mark his progress; three monks and half a dozen mercenaries rushed forward to help him. Dazed as he was, he was able to say, "Huns. With scouts. I got two. Of them. But two more. Got away."
Oios, now recovered from his wounds of the previous attack, took the time to help Drinus to the ground and position him to lie on his side. "Someone! Fetch Sanctu-Germainios! Tell him to bring his medicaments! Perigrinos! Get Mangueinic! Monachos Benignos, summon Priam Corydon!" He bent over his comrade and said as calmly as he could, "Don't worry. The Dom will take care of you." The early afternoon was hot, the sky was clear, and most of the refugees were busy in the orchard, bringing in the first of the ripe fruit; women with baskets collected the peaches and plums and pears so that they could take them, remove their seeds, and set them out, halved, to dry. This violent intrusion brought many of them running from their tasks, while Rotlandus Bernardius' men rushed to their positions to man the inner walls, weapons in hand.
The flurry of activity rapidly became a maelstrom, monks rushing to discover what had happened, refugees attempting to find out when the Huns would arrive, soldiers hurrying to their stations on the walkways on the stockades, youngsters running for the fenced fields to drive the livestock into the barn, stable, and pens. Someone had begun to sound the alarm, the brazen echoes sounding over the valley in counterpoint to the murmured distraint of those gathered around the fallen look-out.
"Are we ready? to fight them?" one of the novices asked as he knelt beside Drinus. "How many are coming?"
Before Drinus could answer, Oios pulled the novice back. "Leave him alone! Get the Dom!"
The youth stumbled to his feet, then started running toward the old chapel, calling for Dom Sanctu-Germainios, his voice made strident by his fear.
"We have to tell the Priam," the nearest monk said in a manner that rebuked all those gathered around Drinus for not thinking of this first.
"I'll go," said Monachos Erigolos, who had once been a fowler and was now almost blind. He used his stick to find his way, moving as fast as he dared.
"Tell him it's urgent!" Oios shouted after him.
There were fragments of questions buzzing around Drinus, although no one was willing to raise his voice to ask Drinus anything more; the man had turned a pasty color, and his scars stood out, starkly white in his chalky face. Blood was slowly spreading around him, not so fast, Oios hoped, that it meant Drinus would surely die, but steadily. "Drinus!" He knelt down once more. "Drinus, listen! Help is coming!"
Drinus' eyelids fluttered and he gave Oios a muzzy stare. "What. Do you. Want?"
Oios bent down so that Drinus would hear him. "I want you to live, Drinus. Hang on!" He emphasized his words by taking the nearer of Drinus' hands. "Don't slip away on me. Stay here."
"What did he see?" one of the refugees shouted.
"Huns," Oios answered curtly, then once again gave his full attention to Drinus. "Hold on. Drinus. Drinus. Listen to me! Help is coming!" He felt the lethargy that was coming over Drinus in his fingers; he looked up, searching for a volunteer. "Someone fetch a blanket. He's getting cold." He waved his arm to emphasize the need for haste.
"I'll go," called out a woman's voice.
"Huns," Drinus muttered, struggling for breath. "Large. Numbers. Two. Three. Hundred."
"Where?" Oios demanded. "How far?"
"Half. A day. Or more. Not all. Pass." He looked into Oios' eyes. "More. Scouts. Need. To. To." Then there was a sound in his throat, he spasmed once, and his body went slack.
"Need to what?" Oios asked, aware that the question had come too late. He made the salute of Mithras and rocked back on his heels, letting Drinus' head drop from his hand. Those gathered around him made the sign of the cross, then the sign of the fish, and a few of them wept for the mercenary.
A short time later, Sanctu-Germainios pushed through the crowd, and stopped beside Oios. "I see I am too late."
"Unfortunately," said Oios, rising. "He must have lost more blood than I thought he had."
"He has lost a great deal of blood," said Sanctu-Germainios, who could sense his depletion, but added, "Look at the color of his face and you can tell."
"I should have brought him to you at once," said Oios, ashamed of himself.
"It would not have made any difference," Sanctu-Germainios said as he put his case of medicaments down and dropped onto one knee beside the body. "He did not have enough left in him to rally."
"Are you sure of that?" Oios asked.
"As sure as anyone could be." He moved Drinus' corpse enough to examine the arrows that stuck out from his shoulder and back. "They penetrated deeply, so they were probably loosed at close range. Perhaps they closed in on his position and all fired at once."
"Do you think he ... he saw what he said he saw? that the Huns are coming at last?" Oios caught sight of Neves approaching from one side of the compound, and Priam Corydon coming from the opposite direction.
"I think he must have," said Sanctu-Germainios.
"Because he died?" Oios asked.
"Because the arrows in him are Hunnic. Because there is dust rising on the road to the east, a great deal of dust," said Sanctu-Germainios . "A large number of travelers are coming this way. We need only determine who they are." He had first observed the dust not long after sunrise, perhaps five or six leagues away, and had mentioned it to Priam Corydon when the Priam came from his private sunrise prayers.
"Do you know they're Huns?" Priam Corydon had inquired.
"No; I only know they are raising a long plume of dust," Sanctu-Germainios had told him.
"Then they could be more refugees," Priam Corydon had said.
"It is possible," Sanctu-Germainios had conceded, thinking it would be prudent to make ready for a real attack. "It is more likely that the Huns are moving this way." He could feel fear clutch those around him.
"I noticed the dust," Oios said, cutting into Sanctu-Germainios' reflection. "Tribune Bernardius said it was probably from refugees who had abandoned their town to the Huns. Huns, he thought, would be moving faster, and would raise less dust, their fighting forces traveling at speed. He is of the opinion that dust means wagons, not horsemen. He said that Priam Corydon would have to decide if they are going to be allowed in, the refugees. If they take the turn-off toward us, that is."
The two men said nothing for several heartbeats, then Sanctu-Germainios asked, "What does Antoninu Neves say?"
The mercenary leader coughed delicately. "I think we had best prepare for the worst. I'll post my men on the slope above the pass, not only to keep watch, but to roll the rocks down to block it if we must." Priam Corydon stared at him, his expression aghast. "What do you mean, roll the rocks down?"
"I mean my men have set up barriers for falls of stones. All they need do is release the braces, and heavy rocks will descend on anyone foolish enough to try to come through the pass." Neves smiled, satisfied. "Bernardius' men helped us with building the barriers and gathering the rocks."
"But that would block us in," exclaimed one of the refugees. "Only on the main road. There are still three other tracks that lead away from here, and, if it comes to that, we can evacuate using those paths," Neves declared.
"Hunters' tracks," scoffed another of the refugees.
"Which the Huns could use," Oios cautioned.
Before Neves could counter this remark, Priam Corydon said, "There isn't room enough in the mortuary just now to lay him out." He pointed to Drinus. "I will assign some monks to preparing a place for him, and readying his shroud." Stepping back, he addressed Neves, his whole demeanor condemning. "They say one of your men made the sign of Mithras over him."
Neves shrugged, unimpressed by the Priam's disapproval. "You know the aphorism: Mithras in war, Jesus in peace."
"Some of the monks will not want to let him lie in consecrated ground if he is a follower of Mithras." Priam Corydon was already striding back toward the monastery, Neves pursuing him.
"However you decide, neither my men nor I will protest it," Neves assured him. "If you want him buried beyond the outer walls, we'll attend to it."
More of the crowd around Drinus moved away, leaving Oios and Drinus at the center of a widening circle; Oios took a step toward Sanctu-Germainios. "What are we to do with him? We can't leave him here."
"Bernardius may have a place for him," Sanctu-Germainios suggested. "He may be willing to let you leave him where he puts his own dead to await burial."
"I should find out," Oios answered, but stayed where he was, reluctant to leave his fallen comrade. He squatted once more and began to break off the shafts of the arrows so that Drinus could lie nearly flat, then rose, wiping his hands on the hem of his heavy cotton pallium. "There. That's better."
The crowd was thinning now that Drinus was dead. As the refugees began to drift back to their interrupted labors, the woman who had gone to get a blanket came through the diminishing crush, a rough woolen blanket over her arm. "Here," she said, holding it out and casting a careful eye on Drinus as she made the sign of the fish. "It should be long enough to cover all of him."
"We don't need - " Oios began.
Sanctu-Germainios took it from her. "Thank you, Brynhald." He unfolded the blanket and placed it over the corpse. "I will see this is returned to you."
"No. No, don't bother," she said promptly. "Keep it for others who may also ..." She made a gesture to finish her thoughts as she started away.
"Where shall we take him for now?" Oios asked, looking directly at Sanctu-Germainios.
"Priam Corydon will tell us where he is to lie when he and Neves have agreed," Sanctu-Germainios said. "If you would rather not appeal to Tribune Bernardius, you might wish to move him out of the sun, at least; we can carry him to the old chapel."
Oios nodded, and bent to lift Drinus' shoulders. "Take his feet, Dom. It isn't fitting for him to lie in the dust."
Sanctu-Germainios did as he was asked, lifting the fallen man carefully so that he would not appear to be as strong as he was. He felt the remaining people part behind him as he backed toward the old chapel, moving deliberately slowly for Oios' sake; it would have been no difficulty for Sanctu-Germainios to carry Drinus' body himself, but that would cause unwanted scrutiny for him, so he continued to back up cautiously. Once in the old chapel, the two men laid the body out on a pallet, and adjusted the blanket over him.
"I wish it weren't so hot. Where bodies are concerned, the heat benefits no one."
"Truly," said Sanctu-Germainios.
"It is unfortunate that Patras Anso is taken with fever just now: we may have need of him." Oios looked down at Drinus' shrouded corpse. "I best go inform Neves of what we have done." He stared at Sanctu-Germainios. "Thank you, Dom. This was a kindness."
"Hardly a kindness: a practical necessity," said Sanctu-Germainios with a spark in his dark eyes. "If the monastery must be defended, then it is just as well to keep as many bodies out of sight as possible."
Oios blinked. "I suppose that's true," he said, making for the main door. "Do you think the Huns know about the rock-falls?"
"They may; it depends on how much their spy knows, and what the spy has been able to tell them." He spoke without inflection as if to lessen the significance of what he said.
"Then I suppose we should assume they do," said Oios unhappily, shoving open one side of the main door.
"Let me know what the Priam decides," Sanctu-Germainios called after Oios as he stepped back into the sunlight.
It was sometime later that Nicoris returned from the women's dormitory, her manner flustered and her face pale. "They say the Huns are coming again," she stated by way of greeting him. "This waiting is almost as bad as another attack."
"They also say that there are rock-falls ready to be released upon them," said Sanctu-Germainios, interrupting the laying out of his medicaments and supplies. "As soon as the sentries see them coming near, they'll signal the soldiers and mercenaries to don their armor and man their posts." Privately he doubted this strategy would be useful, for once the rocks were set to falling, the pass would confine the residents of the monastery as surely as an iron prison door would do; the hunters' tracks were steep and difficult to traverse, and their destinations uncertain.
"Must it come to that?" She made the sign of the fish.
"I hope not, but it may. I think Neves will have posted his sentries back to the peaks by now, to prepare for battle, and to make a count of their numbers." He saw her agitation. "Are you frightened?"
"Of course I'm frightened: aren't you?" She flung the words at him as if they were weapons.
"I am worried," he said.
"Just worried," she said with an attempt at sarcasm.
"If the Huns are truly coming, I will have more than enough opportunity to be frightened later; I have no reason to anticipate their arrival with fear - not yet." He turned toward her, and saw her shaking. "What is it, Nicoris?" When she looked away, he said, "Another secret, or the same one?"
She swung back toward him. "I can't tell you."
He said nothing, remaining still.
"Especially not now," she added. Making an effort, she steeled herself. "Tell me what you want me to do to get ready for the attack; you will want to have all prepared in case the Huns do come."
Sanctu-Germainios wished she would accept comfort from him, that she would be willing to allow him to ease the dread that transfixed her, but he realized that it would be folly to add to her dejection with what she would perceive as trespass. "I want you to prepare a dozen pallets for the wounded," he said, resigned to her obduracy. "Then bring in five buckets of water, and set the cauldron to boil with bitter herbs so my surgical tools will be - "
"I know what to do; more Roman medical nonsense," she exclaimed brusquely. "Need I do anything more?"
"Not just at present," he said. "If you would feel safer, I have a leather tunica with brass scales on it that you can wear during any attack. It is in my second clothes' chest, at the bottom."
"Don't you want to wear it?"
"It does not fit me. Nor would it fit most grown men." It had belonged to the son of the leader of the caravan who had guided him and Rugierus back from Herat to Sinope, twenty years before; his father had presented it to Sanctu-Germainios for saving the youngster's life.
"Then why do you have it if you can't use it?"
"It was payment for services provided." And, he added to himself, he had not, until now, found anyone sufficiently slight to wear it.
"All right," she said. "When the order to arm comes, I'll put it on." Her face was unreadable and her demeanor gave nothing away. "I can help you bring the wounded to be treated if I have it on."
"Good," he said.
"What kind of armor are you going to wear?"
It took him a short while to frame his answer; he busied himself measuring out portions of syrup of poppies into small cups, rationing out the little he had left; much as he would have rather not, he decided to hold his Egyptian remedy in reserve. "I have a lorica, and a helmet. They're both old-fashioned, but they guard my spine." He had received them from Gaius Julius Caesar himself, during his time in Gaul.
"Good," she approved with more emotion than either of them expected.
He removed a very old jar from a recess within his red-lacquer chest. "If we run out of syrup of poppies, we will have to use this." He held up the jar; the lid was marked with hieroglyphics. "It is very powerful, more than syrup of poppies, and therefore harder to gauge its dosage. It brings on euphoria, but it can easily be deadly."
"What is it?" she asked, coming toward him to look at the alabaster jar he held.
"It is made from the blue lotus and another water-plant. If you rub this on a burn or torn skin, the pain will stop at once, but you must be careful with the amount, not only for the person with the injury, but for yourself, as well. I would prefer you not handle it except in a dire emergency, and then if you do use it, to wash your hands at once when you have medicated the injury. Do not keep the water you use for your hands."
Nicoris studied the jar, permitting herself to stand next to him. "How much before it is deadly?"
"An amount of the substance in this jar that is half the size of a walnut will kill a large man." He saw her blanch. "I will make a dilution of it, to lessen its dangers."
"I won't touch it unless you order me to," she said, her pale eyes shining.
"That may be best," he said, resisting the impulse to touch her. "I'll fetch the armor for you, shall I?"
"If you would." She faltered. "And set out your own."
"As you wish," he said, and went to his clothes' chest first, troubled by the way they were speaking to each other, as if they were little more than strangers. What was it about their intimacy that terrified her so that she was more willing to face Huns in battle than to seek out his embraces? The fervor she had shown in the past had not faded, but her dread of what - exposure? censure? condemnation? - had overcome her desire, and now left her filled with panic. "I hope," he said as he resumed his task, "that you may decide to trust me."
"I wish I could," she said, and deliberately turned away from him.
"And I," he said, but made no push to compel her to explain beyond what she had said already.
They worked until the last quarter of the afternoon in almost complete silence. Nicoris set up the pallets and prepared doses of standard medicaments, taking care not to draw Sanctu-Germainios in for discussion of any kind. When she was finished with the basic tasks, she said, "I am going to get my supper."
"Very good. The sun will drop behind the peaks in a little while, and we must be ready for the Huns to arrive with the darkness.
Are you so sure of that? That they will come with the night?" she challenged, but did not bother to wait for an answer. She pulled a trabea around her, for although the night was warm, there was a cool breeze coming down from the high peaks, and it made the evening seem chillier than it was.
"For settings of this sort, yes, I am," he said, his tone and manner level. "Shadows and dusk will make it difficult to judge their numbers, and their positions."
"Surely the rocks will stop them," she said.
"Perhaps." He watched her leave, once again hoping she would not hold herself apart from him, and from all the rest of the people inside the walls of Sanctu-Eustachios the Hermit. With this distressing rumination for company, he set about preparing the dilution of the Egyptian remedy, taking care not to breathe while he stirred the ointment into a mixture of springwater and berry wine.
Nicoris returned as the monks began their Angelus service, saying as she came into the old chapel, "The sentries say that riders have taken the turn-off leading here."
"How long ago did they say that?" Sanctu-Germainios asked, wondering why the alarm had not been sounded.
"Not long. I was finishing my meal when one of them came into the refectory. As I came here, I saw Niklos go to tend to the horses; he looked troubled." She moved nervously but without the signs of consternation that had marked her behavior earlier. "The Watchmen and Bernardius' soldiers are being called to their stations, as Neves' mercenaries will shortly be. They expect the fighting to begin before nightfall. Where is that scale armor you said you had?"
"I will get it for you," he said, leaving his array of medicaments and instruments where he had set them out. He put some of his garments aside and removed the tunica, holding it out to Nicoris. "Here. Would you like me to help you don it? There are buckles at the shoulders."
She gave an abrupt shrug. "You'll want to buckle on your lorica." She glanced toward Drinus' covered body. "No one's come for him, I see."
"They're preoccupied with the living," said Sanctu-Germainios, watching Nicoris wrestle herself into the softly jingling tunica.
While she struggled with the buckles, he removed the segmented lorica from his first clothes' chest and reached for the short, padded tunica that was worn under the lorica to prevent its metal bands from chaffing. "In a little while, I will seek out Mangueinic and inform him of where he should have the wounded brought."
"Don't you think he knows?" Her incredulity was caustic. "He's no - "
She was interrupted by the brazen clamor from the alarm, followed by sudden shouts and the sound of many people running; the chanting from the monks' church stopped abruptly.
"I will not be long," Sanctu-Germainios said, striding toward the side-door. He emerged from the old chapel into a sea of activity: men hurried toward their places on and between the walls, the older children secured the livestock, women gathered the youngsters and herded them into the dormitories, monks worked the buckets over the three wells, filling buckets and small barrels with water, novices laid four large fires and bound pitch-soaked rags to staves for torches, and the few old refugees began soaking hides to put on the roofs in case of fire. Working his way through the commotion, until he reached the gate-tower, he found the leader of the Watchmen securing torches in their sconces, and checking the supplies of arrows and spears.
"What do you want?" he asked, beset with too many tasks and not enough time.
"We are ready for any injured. Use the novices to carry them to us." Sanctu-Germainios paused. "Are there sentries on the hunters' tracks as well as the road through the pass?"
"That's Bernardius' job," Mangueinic snapped. "Neves' men have the peaks and the main road, Bernardius the lesser routes. For the next ten days, those leaving here will have to consult Tribune Bernardius, not Neves." He motioned to one of his Watchmen, saying, "Take two torches and affix them to the outer wall at the battlements." The Watchman nodded and grabbed two of the torches.
"Men coming through the pass!" the gate-sentry bawled out, his cry passed along the ramparts to alert all those making ready for battle.
A loud crash of falling stones announced the release of the rock-falls, with shouts and screams almost lost in the noise.
"That'll give them something to think about," said Mangueinic in great satisfaction. "Wruntha! What do you see?"
From his position on the roof of the gate-tower, Wruntha shouted, "There are horsemen coming! Some got through the pass. Not too many! Probably thirty or so, no more!!"
"Thirty!" Mangueinic crowed, all but dancing on his single leg. "They'll need time to clear away the rubble and renew their attack, if they come that way for their next assault. In the meantime, we'll post archers to the peaks above them. Reduce their numbers before they reach the pass." He laughed. "You see, Dom? Even so small a place as Sanctu-Eustachios the Hermit can keep the Huns at bay with a little planning."
"I hope you are right," said Sanctu-Germainios.
"We'll keep the torches lit through the night, and by dawn, we'll be able to keep the upper hand."
Then the alarm clanged again, and shouts from the other end of the compound erupted. "Huns! On the hunters' tracks!"
Everyone in the gate-tower went quiet as the full importance of the cries was borne in upon them.
"A diversion!" Mangueinic spat as if it were a curse. "The pass was a diversion! They're coming in from the hunters' trails!" He looked around and began shouting orders to shift his men to the other end of the inner wall, to carry torches, to join with Bernardius' soldiers in manning the far end of the wall to augment what Neves' mercenaries were just now massing to face.
Sanctu-Germainios descended the steep flight of stairs all but unnoticed, and ran with uncanny speed for the old chapel, thinking as he went that the Huns' spy was earning his reward this night.
Text of a report from the spy at Sanctu-Eustachios the Hermit, calling himself Romulius, to the commander of the Huns in the immediate region, written in Latin and Greek with fixed ink on vellum, carried by Hredus three days after the battle and delivered two days later.
To the courageous leader of the Huns in the western region of the former Roman Province of Dacia, Ave, on this, the second day of August in the Year of the City 1192.
As your soldiers have told you by now, I have fulfilled my end of our bargain in keeping the resistance from the defenders of this place to a minimum. As I pledged, I have stopped many of the refugees from leaving, and I have taken several opportunities to lessen the number of Watchmen standing duty. When you last assailed the monastery the soldiers on duty were short of weapons, which I arranged. That your men were eventually driven off was no fault of mine: your soldiers were able to seize ten goats and six foals, with a force of just over one hundred twenty men; by attacking from two directions your men were able to create confusion, and I was able to slow the response from the soldiers manning the walls without appearing to be doing anything detrimental to the residents here.
Your losses were minimal, under the circumstances - again, in good part through my apparent inept attempts at defensive deployment of those under my command - only thirty-one men and seventeen horses. We, on the other hand, lost ninety-four men, have another one hundred forty-four with injuries, and our supply of weapons is seriously depleted.
The man who carries this is applying to join your ranks, as I will do when my task here is completed. He is able to read and write in several tongues, and although his skills are not advanced, I am certain he may be most useful, discreet, and reliable. He will read this to you if you cannot. His name is Hredus, and he is a freedman from Drobetae where he served the current Praetor-General, Verus Flautens, before being sent here to observe and report on the state of this place. His knowledge will be most useful to you.
If you will wait a month and attack again in stronger force, I am certain you will conquer this monastery and be able to lay claim to its crops, livestock, supplies, and wealth. You may be sure I will do my part to bring that triumph about, as a further demonstration of my loyalty and gratitude to you and your King, Attila. You need not worry that I will renew my allegiance to the Roman Empire, either in the East or the West, for I did my utmost to serve it for most of my life, and was rewarded with steadily rising taxes, diminishing support, onerous responsibilities, and a general abandonment of my town and my people, hardly honorable recompense for my service. Your assurance of advancement and respect is worthy of my pledge of service as well as my help in any manner that will suit your cause.
Should circumstances here change in any way that bears on your ambitions, I will find another messenger to carry word to you; there are men among the refugees who would be eager to join with you, but are afraid to let such sentiments be known. I will not prove lacking in attention to your efforts so long as you will be guided by me and not press for an advantage until the monastery is more truly weakened. Already refugees are planning to leave in groups of ten to sixty; three or four such departures and you will not need to risk more than a hundred men, if that, to secure this place with a minimal chance of losses either of men or horses.
May your gods smile upon your endeavors and upon your people,
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