FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 8
They headed north out of the city as soon as the horses were loaded with the supplies Tabitha and Shabolz had bought, crossing the bridge and taking the Via Claudia, the road through the mountains to the Danuvius. Normally, Valerius would have avoided the main road, but now, as he explained to Tabitha, his fear of Durio and his men reaching Oescus ahead of them meant the necessity for speed outweighed that for stealth.
‘We’ll only truly be safe when we are on the ship taking us to the Great Sea,' he said. 'Durio will be hunting us, but he can’t be sure we haven’t continued on the Via Militaris heading for Byzantium, or even turned south towards Greece.’
Shabolz dropped back to cover their rear. Whatever his final decision it was clear the Emperor’s assassin would send fast riders to check if they’d used the northern road. Sure enough, an hour into their journey, the Pannonian’s sharp whistle gave them warning to get off the road into hiding in a stand of trees while two riders galloped past.
‘What happens if they come back?’ Lucius asked.
‘Hopefully the same trick will work again,’ Shabolz said as he rode past to take the lead. ‘If it doesn’t we’ll think of something.’
Tabitha rode with Olivia close on one side and Lucius on the other. Her head still reeled from the shock of what had happened only a few hours earlier and she wanted them close. She’d had no idea what she was going to do when she reached the man with the knife. It made her nauseous to think what might have happened to Olivia if Shabolz hadn’t been so certain of his ability with the throwing dart.
‘Mama, do you ever wish we were back with the lady Augusta?’
Despite her troubled thoughts Tabitha managed a smile. The memories came tumbling back of the weeks and months they’d spent at the beating heart of the Empire in the company of a woman Valerius, by his own admission, had once loved, and her all-powerful husband who would have killed them all without the slightest qualm.
‘I miss the soft beds and rich food,’ she admitted. Domitian had travelled from Rome to Moesia at the head of the Empire’s entire apparatus of state, protected by his Praetorian Guard and a full legion. The never ending column had eaten and drunk its way up the length of Italia and crawled sedately across the broad plains of Pannonia and Dalmatia like a giant caterpillar, leaving a swathe of empty storehouses and dismayed landowners twenty miles wide behind it. Naturally, the Emperor’s palace household took pride of place at the head, preceded only by two cohorts of infantry and surrounded by a screen of cavalry close enough to act quickly but far enough away so the Imperial party didn’t have to eat their dust. Valerius and Tabitha were allocated a luxuriously appointed sprung wagon a few places behind that of Domitia Augusta, but Valerius preferred to travel with Shabolz and the men of his bodyguard who had accompanied him from Britannia. Tabitha spent most of her time with Lucius and Olivia, trying to keep them occupied, but she dined often with Domitia, sometimes alone, but mostly with the ladies of the court.
Domitia must have been close to forty, but with a dark, ageless beauty and a carriage and an authority that was a testament to her noble status. At first Tabitha had considered the Augusta haughty. She’d been prepared to dislike her, particularly given her past attachment to Valerius, but gradually she realized Domitian’s wife spent much of her time preoccupied and tense. She never knew when she might receive a summons from her husband, or what that summons might entail. Domitia in her turn made it plain she enjoyed Tabitha’s company and conversation, but preferred that they did not become close. Only once, when they were alone, did she unburden herself.
She summoned Tabitha when the dishes had been cleared after dinner and said very softly. ‘It is not in your interests to appear to be in my favour, nor in mine to be too friendly with you, but know this Tabitha, I have a fondness for you, and an obligation – only an obligation, I assure you – to your husband.’