PART III Chapter 6
"The repairs to the outer walls are insufficient," said Bernardius, wiping his brow with the cuff of his pallium and looking out over the anxious faces in front of him. "And we haven't men enough to do what's needed to keep us safe and bring in the harvest; even if we abandoned all repairs, we'd have to employ the women and monks in the fields. Our numbers are too much reduced to do both. With the outer walls breached, and so few men to defend us, it would make taking this monastery easy for the Huns; they could slaughter us all." He studied the gathering of men crammed together in the available space in the warehouse, hoping they grasped the increased peril they all faced. "I see no other course: we have to evacuate." This was met with shouts of agreement and dissension, the noise rising until Neves shoved himself to the front of the gathering and bellowed for quiet. When the level of sound had decreased, he said, "Then I agree: we must evacuate, and quickly."
"If the Huns see more of us leaving, won't they attack sooner, knowing they would have an undemanding raid, a quick battle that they could accomplish without much risk to them?" one of the remaining men from Tsapousso asked.
"They may decide on such an attack, in which case we will very likely be over-run. We have lost almost a hundred people from this place in the last few days, four of them my own men. That shows how dangerous it is to remain, so I am willing to provide what protection we can to those who leave," said Neves. "But if we arrange the evacuation to be unobvious, using hunters' trails, and taking only what is absolutely necessary, we might be able to buy a little time, enough time for most of us to get away. If we postpone the moment they - "
"We'd have to give the monastery the appearance of being still manned as fully as possible," said Imperus, one of Bernardius' soldiers. "The Hunnic scouts continue to patrol the ridges and crests around us, and they keep track of what happens in this place. If they notice the numbers here are lessening, they will attack sooner rather than later."
"They might wait until the monastery is empty, if they can get our harvest. Why put your troops in danger when it isn't necessary," said Luitpald. "Patras Anso, before he died, asserted the Huns wouldn't fight if they didn't have to."
"That might have been so before we killed some of them," Bernardius countered. "Now they have blood to avenge. They'll demand blood for blood."
Priam Corydon rose and made the sign of the cross. "I pray that your evacuation plan will succeed, but I will not allow the monks here to be used in any way that abuses their calling. All of us renounced the conflicts of this world when we came here. The monks can work the fields and tend livestock, but they will not use weapons against other men, not even Huns. For their sake, we will not remain after the rest of you have gone, for that would leave us open to attack and reprisal. I am charged with protecting the monks in this monastery, and I refuse to sacrifice them for you."
More cries and catcalls greeted this declaration. The heavy heat of this mid-August mid-day had penetrated the warehouse, draining sweat and strength from the men, sparking rancor, shortening tempers, and stirring resentment and frustration. A voice rose above the buzz of under-voices. "What'll you do with Monachos Anatolios then?" Mutters of support accompanied his next questions. "Do you plan to protect him? After what he did to this place?"
There was an abrupt silence; Neves looked over at Mangueinic and then at Priam Corydon. "Yes. What will you do?"
From his place next to the door, Sanctu-Germainios spoke up, and though his voice was not loud, it commanded the full attention of all the men in the warehouse. "Monachos Anatolios is dying. The burns on his hands and face are too deep to heal and he has lost all feeling where the fire entered his flesh too severely; six of his fingers and one of his thumbs are gone. The lesser burns bring him agony that can only be alleviated with soporific anodyne tinctures, which are strong enough to be dangerous if taken too often." He had been using a dilution of blue lotus on Monachos Anatolios, his supply of syrup of poppies being nearly gone. "He is almost blind. I may have to remove the remaining three fingers to keep them from taking rot and spreading it to the rest of his body. Nothing else can be done for him."
"You could end his suffering," suggested a Watchman.
The susurrus of conversation grew louder, becoming an indignant roar of accord.
Bernardius held up his hands and called for quiet; when the noise abated, he addressed Sanctu-Germainios. "How long does he have left?"
"Not long. He could die tonight, or tomorrow, or in the next three or four days at most; I do not think he will survive longer than that."
"He should be killed for what he did!" one of the men shouted.
"He's willing to kill us - he should die for that!" another cried.
Sanctu-Germainios kept his tone neutral, not wanting to add to the volatile atmosphere around the men. "That will happen soon enough; he is far enough gone that half the time he is delirious, but at other times, he says he has restored faith to this monastery, and returned the fate of its occupants to God, in accordance with his duty as a Christian. Jesus, he says, did not turn from his death on the cross, and none of his followers should disdain what God decrees for him."
"What man can know what God decrees?" a monk asked.
"He is confident his suffering will bring him greater glory in Heaven, so he is at peace with what he did. He is convinced that he acted for the benefit of all the Christians in the monastery." Sanctu-Germainios folded his arms.
"More delirium," said Mangueinic. He cleared his throat and spat. "I propose that we make plans to evacuate this place beginning in two days and completing our retreat by the end of ten days. We will leave in companies of no more than twenty, using three of the hunters' tracks, and depart shortly before dawn."
"Sixty people a day will not be enough to evacuate all the refugees. You will need larger parties if all the refugees are to get away in that time. And what of the monks?" The question came from Niklos Aulirios. "Priam Corydon says he will not remain here when the rest of us are gone."
Priam Corydon rubbed his beard. "I believe it would be best if my monks and I left when the monastery is nearly empty. We will put on the habits of pilgrims, which should buy us a modicum of safety."
"The Huns will be waiting," Neves warned him. "Pilgrims or not. And they may come before you leave."
"I've considered that, as well," said the Priam. "And I have a ... a ruse in mind that may work. If God will forgive us this little deception, we might yet live to sing His Glory."
"And what deception is that?" Mangueinic asked suspiciously.
"I propose we fly the fever flag at the gate," Priam Corydon responded, so readily that it was apparent he had been thinking about this for some little while. "There are six monks and eleven refugees who have fever, so it is not completely false; it will be enough to keep the Huns from attacking, even if our numbers seem fewer. If the Huns' scouts have doubts about fever, they will probably hesitate coming too close, misliking the possible risk." He looked a bit uncomfortable at this, but he kept his poise. "It could make our position less precarious."
Neves laughed heartily. "Priam, you are a man after my own heart. The Byzantine army lost a great commander when you took the cloth."
Mangueinic slapped his thigh. "A clever dissimulation, and simple enough that it may well work. I am for giving it a try." He addressed Sanctu-Germainios, raising his voice to be heard through the renewed conversation. "Dom, what do you think? Will such a device work?"
"I think Priam Corydon is right: flying the yellow flag would put the Huns - and other travelers - on guard; a large fighting force is vulnerable to sickness of all sorts." He recalled the Babylonian and Egyptian soldiers laid waste by disease from contaminated water, and the Seventh Legion of Roma, losing one man in five to pustulant fever. "The Huns would be cautious if they were convinced that they would be in danger of spreading illness from coming here."
"Then is it settled?" Mangueinic asked, and grinned as the men sounded the affirmative. "We will spend tomorrow making up the lists of who will depart and when, and make the arrangements for where they will go. All of the dormitory guards will help to choose how much they will be allowed to carry with - "
"Are there guides enough remaining here to lead so many parties of refugees along the trails? You can't intend to let the refugees go off on their own, can you?" Niklos interrupted. "The hunters' tracks are unmarked beyond the paths through the trees, and not all of them lead to safety."
"He's right," Bernardius said, punctuating his agreement with a loud clap of his hands. "We don't have enough men who know the trails well. We will have to have those who do teach others how to find the way to Aquincum, Drobetae, Viminacium, Sirmium, Singidunum, and any other fortified town still in Roman hands. Otherwise the refugees may fall prey to more than Huns - there are robbers and slavers in the forests who can be dangerous, too."
"And many other refugees," added Niklos. "Desperate men who have lost all will not hesitate to take from other desperate men."
"Let each of you ask for volunteers to be guides, and have them meet tomorrow with the guides we already have," Bernardius exclaimed. "We must implement the first of our withdrawals the day after tomorrow."
"Everyone to go on foot but the injured and women with infants," Mangueinic added. "All children under six should have one older brother, or one parent to accompany them. We must be sure there is someone to carry the youngsters who aren't strong enough for long treks." He tried to ignore the aroma of ducks broiling for prandium; this meeting was more important than the mid-day meal.
"No group to have more than three such in it: injured, infant, or child," Bernardius said. "Otherwise it won't be possible to care for them."
"Do you truly think this will work?" Imperus asked Bernardius. "I think we have a better chance to survive by evacuating than remaining here for the Huns to come. It is a risk to leave, but remaining is a certainty of our defeat. We've lost too many people to the Huns already." Bernardius cleared his throat. "This way, using the evacuation as best we can, some of us will probably survive. When the Huns return ..." He left the rest to his soldiers' imagination.
"What if the Huns discover our evacuation plan? Everyone says there is a Hunnic spy in our midst, don't they?"
"There may be," said Neves, "but if we let that consideration stop us, then we will surely be killed."
"Find the spy!" Imperus shouted.
"That would waste valuable time, and undermine our efforts to spare as many of the refugees here as can be managed." With an emphatic salute Bernardius declared, "Carpi horam." He licked his lips. "At least we'll all dine well today."
"And there's new beer," called out one of the refugees.
"We must keep our evacuation uppermost in what we do," Mangueinic reminded them.
"Everyone!" Neves shouted. "Let's get our food. We can meet again this evening, and work out the details of our strategy."
Priam Corydon coughed discreetly. "I'll order Monachos Bessamos to inform the monks and determine when we are to depart."
"There is now one question we must decide before we organize our retreat," said Bernardius. He waited until he had the full attention of all the men, then said, "We must decide who is to be left behind."
There was a long, uneasy silence. Then Mangueinic asked, "What would that entail?"
"Trying to make it appear that the monastery is still occupied, that the refugees haven't left," said Bernardius, not willing to meet anyone's eyes.
"And if the Huns come?" The speaker was one of the men from Ulpia Traiana; he folded his arms as he waited for the answer.
"Whoever is left behind needn't wait to be killed. Once he sees the Huns are coming, he should not have to wait for an arrow in - If he can escape, he should." Color mounted in Bernardius' face.
"Do you think it likely that he - or they - could escape?" This from the novice Ritt. "It seems to me that anyone remaining here for very long will die."
Mangueinic glared at the young man. "It is a chance that such a man or men must be willing to recognize."
"But who will stay?" Imperus challenged.
In the quiet of the warehouse, Sanctu-Germainios said, "I will."
"And I," said Niklos.
Bernardius stared at the two of them. "You? Both of you?" Sanctu-Germainios came away from the door, walking slowly toward the Tribune. "I was appointed regional guardian by the Emperor; it is fitting that I protect those travelers bound for Roman territory who come into the region, as I did in Apulum Inferior." He straightened up, his voice purposeful. "It is my sworn duty to see to the safety and welfare of those who leave here."
Bernardius frowned. "You are a foreigner, Dom."
"To you, yes, but not to this place. My people came from these mountains to the east of this place; that was many years ago, but the ties remain," Sanctu-Germainios said, aware that it was nearly two thousand five hundred years since he had lived in these mountains, and that his people were vanished from the earth, except for him. "This place is near enough my native earth that I wish to protect it. I know a few tricks that would make taking even an empty place, as this will be, more costly than the Huns anticipate."
"He's told me that before, in Apulum Inferior, that his people came from the eastern hook of these mountains," Mangueinic said with an emphatic nod. "He would want to defend them on his people's behalf."
"Then he is a courageous man," Neves said sincerely, then rounded on Niklos. "What about you?"
Niklos smiled, ready with his answer. "My bond-holder sent me to Sanctu-Germainios to serve him in whatever way he required for as long as he was in danger. If I'm to remain true to my mission, I'll have to stay with him. It is what Bondama Clemens would expect me to do."
The men in the warehouse faltered. "That's most honorable," said Bernardius at last. "I accept your offer, on behalf of those you brought here."
This time there was a general vociferous approval from all the men, including the few monks who stood with Priam Corydon.
"Good!" Bernardius shouted. "Then we will gather again to - night, before retiring, and discuss how we plan to proceed!"
"God bless, keep, and save you," Priam Corydon declared, making the sign of the cross.
The door was thrust open and the men hurried out of the warehouse, many of them conversing urgently as they dispersed to their posts and tasks throughout the monastery. Directly overhead, the sun glared down on them, a disk of molten metal turning the mountains to an anvil for a vast celestial smithy.
Niklos caught up with Sanctu-Germainios not far from the old chapel. "Do you really have some tricks to use against the Huns, or was that only to assuage the guilt of the men who're willing to let you stay here for them at the risk of your life?" He spoke in Greek, and not so loudly that he could be easily overheard. "What would you like me to do to assist you?"
"I do have a trick or two that you and I can use, if you truly want to remain here with me," said Sanctu-Germainios. "I cannot swear that you will take no hurt for doing this: the Huns still might kill us, but that is not as easily done with you and me than it is for the rest of them."
"I can't dispute that," said Niklos, not quite laughing. "And speaking of such things, what about your companion? Will you send her away?"
"Nicoris? I hope she will consent to go with the last of the refugees from Tsapousso tomorrow. I would like to be with her when she comes to my life, but in this case, I think she will have a better chance at changing without having to fight off the Huns while doing it." His tone was light enough, but there was a somberness in his dark eyes that banished all traces of levity.
"Then what will you tell her?" Niklos asked. "If she knows you're staying, she may want to remain here as well."
"I will tell her the truth," Sanctu-Germainios answered, and opened the door to the old chapel, noticing as he did the lingering odor of fatally burned flesh. He called aloud, "It's Sanctu-Germainios and Niklos."
"Not Niklos," he corrected. "I'm off to the stable, to be sure the horses are ready to travel: hooves trimmed, teeth floated, and manes and tails braided to keep out burrs and brambles. I'll ready packs of grain for them, too, and repair any worn tack." Stepping back, he turned and strode off down the gradual slope, no trace of worry in his demeanor as he went.
Sanctu-Germainios pulled the door closed; the light from the windows in the barrel-dome was sufficient to reveal the shadowy interior of the building for eyes less able to pierce the dark than his. A quick glance around the room revealed Nicoris standing off to the side of the room next to the pallet where Monachos Anatolios lay, a ceramic cup in her hands.
She spoke without looking at him. "Dom, he has been complaining of thirst. I've tried to give him water, with three drops of the blue lotus dilution in each cup. It's helped him to sleep, and eased his pain."
"How much have you given him so far? How many cups has he drunk." Sanctu-Germainios asked as he came to her side.
"This is his fourth cup since morning Mass," she said.
He nodded. "I wouldn't give him any more until sundown - not that I think he'll wake up before then. He may need the water, but he is weak, and the blue lotus, even much diluted, can prove fatal in cases like his."
"As you wish," she said cautiously.
"Is something the matter?" He studied her face, his expression unreadable.
She did not answer at once, but continued to stare down into the cup. "They say we'll all be killed by the Huns if we don't leave."
"They've been saying that since we got here," he reminded her. "Um. But they mean it now." She looked directly at him.
He took a moment to consider how to respond. "Given the number of people who have left here already, I would think it likely that this monastery will be abandoned by winter."
"Completely abandoned?" Her voice was small.
"Probably," he said, turning to her and taking the cup from her hands. "If you want to live, you should join one of the parties bound for Roman forts."
"I should? What about you? Are you sending me away?"
"No. But I hope you will go. I hope you will choose safety, and arrange to leave." He set the cup down next to the pitcher of water at the end of the pallet before he laid his hands on her shoulders. "The Huns will be back. There will be more of them than before, and there will be fewer defenders. For your - "
She pulled away from him, blurting out as she did, "But don't you see? I can't go! I'm a Hun! What do you think would happen if anyone found out? Do you think anyone here would let me travel in their company?" As soon as she realized what she had said, she recoiled, clapping her hand to her mouth, watching Sanctu-Germainios with fearful eyes. "I didn't... I don't..." No explanation came to her.
He regarded her tranquilly, his expression unchanged. "You have nothing to fear, Nicoris, not from me." He fell silent, waiting for what she would say next. "It is in your blood."
When she spoke again, she was incredulous, edgy, and disheartened. "You mean you know I'm - "
" - a Hun; yes, I know; I've known for some time. And I am aware that you want to keep that information secret." As her eyes widened, he went on, "I have tasted your blood, the very essence of you, and we have touched each other as deeply as anyone can touch." He saw her catch her lower lip in her teeth. "Ah, Nicoris. How could I not know you are a Hun, and recognize your desire to conceal that knowledge? It is as much a part of you as your quicksilver eyes."
Disgusted with herself for the distrust she felt, she asked him, "Have you told anyone? anyone at all?"
"Why would I do that?" His words were gentle and his dark eyes engaged all her attention; there was no hint of remonstration in any aspect of his behavior; kindness emanated from him like faint music. "You were unwilling to tell me; I know you fear what the people in this monastery might do to you, not without reason, so I have kept your confidence, as you have kept mine."
"Kept yours?" She was baffled.
"The refugees most certainly hate Huns, but they dread vampires." He took a single step toward her. "If you have not considered this, then I ask you to do so now. Each of us has a secret for the other to keep."
She turned away, her chagrin threatening to overwhelm her. "You're trying to bewilder me."
"I would not do that to you."
"Don't say that." She hunched her shoulders. "Not if you're going to send me away."
"I am not going to do that, but I do hope you will realize that you will have a better chance at living if you go than if you stay here." He sighed. "I would hate to see you throw your life away here."
"You're prepared to do that," she told him bluntly. "Why shouldn't I?"
"Because I intend not to die," he responded. "Niklos and I will remain here only until the Huns are on their way to this valley, and then we will leave."
"And they will pursue you," she said. "They will ride you down." Her eyes softened.
"I think not," said Sanctu-Germainios.
She swung around to face him. "You'll be chased by Huns. Huns! Don't you understand?"
"I have been chased by Egyptians and Babylonians and Hittites and Carthaginians and Greeks and Persians and Chinese and Arabs and Assyrians and many, many others, all sworn to deliver me the True Death, and I am still here," he said.
"But you can die: you told me so," she said.
"Everyone, everything dies eventually." His half-smile was quickly gone.
"You're most vexing, Dom," she said, coming toward him again.
"I do not mean to be," he assured her.
"That," she said, feeling disheartened, "is most vexing of all." Before she could stop herself, she went into his arms, resting her head on his shoulder, her face averted from his. "I don't want to lose you."
He stroked her hair. "You will not."
"How can you be so certain?" She wanted to believe him, but her experiences told her that it would be reckless to rely on him. "Once we are separated, we may never find each other again."
"The Blood Bond will remain as long as we ... live our lives. While we can breathe, you will always be a part of me, and I of you."
She shivered in the hot afternoon, clinging to him, wanting to quiet the turbulence within her. "So you do desire me?"
"Of course," he said softly.
"Then why don't you take what you want?" She tightened her hold on him. "Why do you have to wait for me to want you?"
"It is my nature," he said. "I thought you understood that?"
She turned toward him without releasing him, and kissed him near his mouth. "Then I want you. You can waken my desires: you know that. Do it. If you aren't afraid to." This was a direct challenge, one that she expected him to answer. "If you really accept me, show me."
His gaze was enigmatic as he lifted her into his arms and carried her to his bed, setting her down gently on the linen sheet atop his firm mattress. He sat beside her. "I want you to understand that I would accept you no matter what does or does not pass between us; I would continue to love you as you are, without your acquiescence to desire, but since you will have it so - " He leaned toward her, drawing her into a long, persuasive kiss, one that illuminated degrees of excitement she had never recognized in herself. When he finally ended the kiss, Nicoris was breathing more quickly and her face was flushed. Very slowly, Sanctu-Germainios unfastened her broad leather belt and set it aside, then lifted the hem of her palla.
This time when Nicoris shivered, it was in anticipation of pleasure. "Dom ..."
"Tell me what would please you," he whispered, working the hem upward.
"You know what pleases me," she breathed, taking his hand in hers and sliding it across her shoulders, then down to her breast; beneath the heavy linen her nipple swelled, and she shifted her posture so that he could remove her palla and unfasten the cotton femoralia, leaving her naked, languid in the sultry heat. "Let your hands tell me what I want."
"If that will bring you joy," he said, and lay down next to her as she stretched out. Compliant to her desire, his hands, light as murmurs, passed over her body, imparting sweet secrets to the nape of her neck, the curve of her shoulder, the rise of her breasts, then moved on, his caresses still featherlight, to awaken sensations in her belly, and the cleft between her legs. Softly, persuasively, he made poetry of her flesh, delineating nuances of excitement that she had not permitted herself to feel until now. What his hands could not accomplish, his lips did, exploring, savoring, delighting in her increasing arousal. His esurience made him keenly aware of how much more ardor had been ignited within her, and he did what he could to prolong her stimulation, to bring her to new heights, to give her all the rapture she was capable of achieving.
"I'll shatter," she said quietly.
"You will have fulfillment," he promised, moving down her body, sliding up from between her legs to engage her passion at her culmination, sharing the ecstatic pulsations that swept through and over her. His lips on her neck were as light as his fingers were, and as evocative.
As her transports faded she snuggled next to him, seeking for the first time to maintain the intimacy of their love-making. She was damp all over, and her eyes shone, their silvery color glowing like stars. As her exultation faded, the early afternoon warmth and the aftermath of her gratification made her drowsy; she felt herself drifting into sleep. "I'm not frightened anymore, Dom." She halfexpected him to say, I know; when he did not, she kissed his cheek. "I guess you know already - from my blood."
He made a sound between a sigh and a chuckle. "Yes," he said, moving a little so that she could rest more comfortably.
"Will you wake me at the end of the second quarter of the afternoon?"
"If that is what you want," he said, securing her in the curve of his arm as she closed her eyes.
Text of a dispatch from Clutherus son of Einhalt, of the Third Gothic Company of Emperor Theodosios, stationed at Oescus in the Province of Moesia Inferior, to Verus Flautens, Praetor-General of Drobetae in the former Province of Dacia, written in Gothic Greek on thin wood with black paint and delivered by courier six days after being written.
To the Praetor-General of Drobetae in the old Province of Dacia, the greetings from the Captain of the Third Gothic Company of the Emperor in Constantinople, Clutherus son of Einhalt twenty days before the Autumnal Equinox:
I regret that the terms of our contract with Emperor Theodosios does not allow our Company to abandon our post to defend any other Roman fortress without specific orders from Constantinople. I will see that your urgent request is passed on to our General in Constantinople, along with our prayers that it will be possible to send troops to you, for we have been told that the Huns have been active all through the summer and may continue to be so for some time to come.
You say the Emperor in the West has refused to help you with any of his Legions or hired companies, which is unfortunate; know that if it were my decision to make, I would gladly spare you fifty of my men to reinforce your soldiers.
Captain Clutherus son of Einhalt (his mark)
by the hand of Patras Tullius, scribe
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