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Chapter Seventeen

The winter wore on towards spring and the snow melted; for several weeks frequent heavy showers of rain turned all unmetalled roadways into muddy quagmires. The only traffic in and out of the fortress was the constant stream of imperial staff messengers rushing to the far-flung Second Legion with the latest instructions for the impending relocation. Having delivered the despatches they returned burdened with requests for permission to buy draught animals, fodder and slaves to cover the spring campaign.

Anticipating the assent of the staff corps in Rome, the Legion had hired a cadre of muleteers to buy up the necessary livestock from the towns and villages in a wide sweep south of the Rhine. The men were hand-picked and could be trusted to select only the fittest animals for the long journey ahead. They could also be trusted to haggle for the lowest possible price and, as long as the cost remained reasonable, those in authority generally overlooked the unofficial 'commission' that found its way into the purses of the muleteers. So it was that the mules, and other draught animals, arrived to swell the ranks grazing in the pastures hastily constructed outside the fortress.

Inside, most of the space between the walls and the barracks was filled with the Legion's transport vehicles. Each century was allocated a wagon for engineering tools, administrative baggage – namely, the centurion's tent and all the personal items he desired to make the campaign comfortable – and the pointed entrenchment stakes. Then there was the medical convoy for the carriage of sick and non-walking wounded, the artillery company with their carriage-mounted catapults and bolt-throwers, large grain wagons for the portable food reserve of barley, the vast headquarters baggage train and, finally, the staff officers' convoy of personal effects. Even as things stood the Legion was travelling light. No time could be spared for foraging and so a number of grain dumps had already been established along the route.

Within the fortress the imminence of events was palpable, even to those soldiers who lived a day at a time, and desperate legionaries were trying to offload their nonportable goods to the merchants who gathered like vultures to take advantage of such occasions. Word of the Legion's relocation had spread far and wide and, over the following weeks, the settlement around the fortress swelled to accommodate the Empire's peripatetic merchants, in search of the bargains that every such buyer's market attracted. Disconsolate legionaries trudged from dealer to dealer with all manner of goods, sentimental, ornamental or simply superfluous, and haggled bitterly for the few coins that escaped the tight purses of the merchants, who made small fortunes every time a major military formation was relocated.

One crisp, clear spring afternoon Cato came wandering through the hastily erected market, on the lookout for some basic reading matter for Macro.

'Nothing fancy, mind,' Macro had warned him. 'None of your poncy literature. Just something simple you can teach me with.'

'But we'll need to go through some literature eventually, sir.'

'Eventually, but for now let's keep it simple, understand?'

'Sir.'

'Now, there's a month's pay there, so make sure you get me value for money.'

'Of course I will, sir.'

'And you keep this quiet. If anyone asks, just tell them I want something to read in the wagon. Catching up on my military histories, whatever. But just you remember – not one mention of reading lessons.'

'Yes, sir.'

And so it was that Cato pushed his way through a buzzing throng of soldiers and merchants on a cold and windy afternoon. Clutching his military cloak tightly about him Cato made his way down the lines of merchant wagons piled high with a bewildering array of goods; fine Samian ware, lyres and other musical instruments, a variety of chairs, chests, tables and portable libraries.

In one wagon sat a slender slave girl in a thin well-worn tunic, shivering miserably, a For Sale sign leaning against her legs. She must have been sixteen or seventeen, with jet black hair tied back. Perched on the driver's board, she rested her pointed chin on her knees, hugging them tightly and trembling from the cold. She glanced up and Cato was stopped dead in his tracks by a pair of startling green eyes. For a moment he simply stared, then, aware that he was making a fool of himself, he tore his eyes away and scurried off down the line of wagons.

He soon found what he was searching for. The tail of one wagon was piled high with scrolls and, as Cato rummaged through them, a shrewd old Phoenician dragged himself away from his small brazier to greet his customer. In view of the soldier's age and inexperience, the trader tried to interest Cato in a nicely illustrated set of pornographic manuals which, while not anatomically accurate, were at least conceptually diverting. Eventually Cato managed to persuade the Phoenician that his interests were strictly limited to historical studies and they parted company with Cato carrying an armful of books, as the trader added yet more coins to his swelling purse.

Books were not uppermost in Cato's mind as he made his way back down the line of wagons. He found himself drawn back to the girl sitting on the driver's board, driven by the simple desire to set his eyes on her once more. That was all. What else could possibly come of it? And yet he felt his heart quicken as he approached the place he had seen her earlier.

The wagon was still there, piled high with goods, but there was no sign of the girl. Cato pretended to browse through the wares of the next trader, making sidelong glances at the nearby tents set behind the wagons. Casually reversing direction, he sifted through some chipped Samian ware with his spare hand.

'Looking for anything in particular, noble sir?'

Cato looked up quickly. A swarthy merchant in an unseasonally bright cloak stood at his side.

'Oh no! Nothing. Just looking.'

'I see.' The merchant continued to watch him closely, a hint of a smile on his dark lips. 'Just looking, then?'

'Yes. You, uh, you had a girl here earlier.'

The merchant nodded slowly.

'Is she yours? I mean is she family?'

'No, sir. A slave. Bought her from a tribune this morning.'

'Oh, really?'

'Yes. And I just sold her a few moments ago.'

'Sold her!' Cato's heart jumped.

'To a lady, there, sir.' The merchant pointed through the throng to where a tall, slender figure was about to enter the fortress gate. At her side, following her new mistress like a dog, was the girl he had seen earlier. Without another word to the merchant Cato set off in pursuit, not sure of any reason for his behaviour other than a powerful desire to see the girl again. And so he hurried through the crowd, eyes locked on the pair of women ahead as he quickly closed the distance. At the gate, the woman turned to look back and Cato instantly recognised her as the legate's wife. Before he could react, Flavia's eyes met his and she instantly waved a greeting.

'Why! It's young Cato!'

Trying hard not to blush, Cato hurried over, managing to avoid looking at the slave girl as he made his greeting.

'Good morning, my lady.'

'Been buying books I see, rather a lot of books.'

'Not for me, my lady. For my centurion.'

'Ah yes,' Flavia smiled. 'It must be quite pleasant having an officer who shares one's tastes in poetry so completely. Did you find anything for yourself?'

'No, my lady.' Cato let his eyes shift to the slave girl and flushed with embarrassment when he saw her smiling back at him. 'Can't afford any books, my lady.'

'Really? That's too bad. But look here, Cato. I have to leave some of my books behind since there's so little room to spare in the wagons. They might not be to your taste, but you're welcome to have the first pick.'

'Thank you, my lady. That's most kind.'

'Call round to the legate's house later on and we'll see. Do you two know each other?'

Cato had found himself responding to the slave girl's smile while the legate's wife had been speaking and now he snapped his eyes back.

'Oh no, my lady! Never!'

'You could have fooled me!' Flavia laughed. 'You look like a pair of lovestruck puppies. Honestly, you youngsters only ever have one thing on your minds. You're worse than rabbits.'

'No, my lady!' Cato's blush deepened to a most unbecoming crimson. 'I assure you I had no intention-'

'Peace, Cato! Peace!' Flavia raised her hands. 'I didn't mean to offend you. I'm sorry. There, I've embarrassed you. I apologise. Do you forgive me?'

'Yes, my lady.'

'Oh dear! I really have upset you. I just hope I can make amends when you call round later on. Can't leave you walking around the base with that look on your face, it'd damage morale.'

'I'm all right, my lady.'

'Of course you are. Well, I'll see you later on then.'

'Yes, my lady.'

'Come, Lavinia!'

Lavinia. Cato savoured the name a moment and, as he watched Flavia lead her new purchase away, the slave girl glanced back and winked at him.


Chapter Sixteen | Under The Eagle | Chapter Eighteen







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