FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 5
‘We have to find fodder for the horses,’ Shabolz pointed out the blindingly obvious. Sweat ran down his face in the midday heat and he took a sip from his waterskin. ‘We riders can get by on the little we have, but they need full bellies, especially if we have to run.’
Valerius swatted vainly at the cloud of flies that buzzed around his face and over his mount’s bobbing head. They’d rationedthe hay they’d gathered in the rush to flee Viminacium as long as they could. Now there as no avoiding it. After days of keeping torough cattle tracks far from the main road signs of habitation were few and far between, but Valerius had no doubt Shabolz would be able to find a farm or a charcoal burner’s camp relatively close by.‘When we reach the next farmstead you can go and barter for what we need,’ he held out a few silver pieces.
‘You don’t know these people, lord.’Shabolz laughed. ‘They’re wolves down here. Like as not they’d take the silver, steal the horse, cut my throat and feed me to their pigs. Waste not, want not, is their way. They trust no-one. It’s not so long ago that the Dacians burned and butchered their way through this valley. The farms will only just be recovering and the farmers will be keeping what they have, just in case.’
‘So it has to be a town?’
‘I doubt we can avoid it, lord.’
‘Then it must be Trimontium.’ Trimontium, the place of the three hills, was the next substantial settlementon their route, an important trading place.Valerius had hoped to avoid the centre of the city, but there was no helping it. Once they reached Trimontium hewould finally have to take the decision he’d been avoiding. ‘How far do you think?’
Shabolz shrugged. ‘We could be there before nightfall, but best we arrive when they’re still waking up. We can be in and out of the city before anyone realizes we were there.’
They camped for the night within sight of the torches on Trimontium’s walls. Farmers began queuing at the gates in the loom of the highest of the city’s three hills well before first light. As dawn broke Valerius and his companions slipped slipped in amongst the carts taking their produce to market.He’d hoped to find some trader withfodder to sell and save them entering, but he hoped in vain. Instead, Shabolz bartered for a squealing suckling pig on a rope that would help them blend in with the crowd.
Valerius led the waythrough the central arch of the gateway without incident and they found themselves ina street that was already crowded. Trimontium was a typically Roman city, laid out on an orderly grid system, with soaring three storey apartment buildings that blocked out the light and open-fronted shops at ground level. At this time of day the shopkeepers were laying out their wares on wooden tables. Bolts of cloth in a dozen different colours, jugs, bowls and pots, leather shoes and jerkins, amphorae of wine stacked against walls. Already the scent of simmering stews and freshly baked bread hung in the air, tantalising the nostrils and reminding Valerius that it wasn’t only the horses that needed resupply. Yet look a little closer and itwasn’t really Roman at all. The people who thronged the streets even at this early hour were dressed in tunics and dresses that would look more at home in the east. To a tutored eye, like Tabitha’s, the detail of the buildings was recognizably Hellenic, which wasn’t surprising, because not so long ago Trimontium had been Philippopolis. Theinhabitantsstill considered themselves Greek and conversed among themselves in a language that was more Greek than Latin.
They led their horses at a walk, with Shabolz and Valerius in the lead and Tabitha following with the children. The squealing suckling pig dug in its heels in on the cobbles and Lucius had to pick up the squirming animal and tuck it under his arm.
‘We need to find a stables,’ Valerius said.
‘Then we should look for an inn,’ Tabitha called. ‘And the best place to find an inn is close to the forum.’
The street they were on proved to be the Decumanus Maximus, one of the city’s two main thoroughfares, which meant it would lead directly to the forum. They pushed their way through the growing throng until they reached a broad open space surrounded by a colonnaded walkway on three sides and dominated by a complex of massive public buildings to the north.
Morestreetsled from the paved forum and on one of them Valerius spotted the sign for an inn, which fortunatelyproved to have an ostler’s yard attached. They tied the horses to a rail and allowed the animalsto drink from a trough while Shabolz strode off to negotiate with the owner for a dozen bags of hay. In the meantime, Tabitha went in search of food while Valerius watched the horses from a corner of the courtyard and the children played nearby, taking turns at chasing thebemusedpiglet.
His attention was so focussed on their antics it never occurred to him that they might be being watched.