THE LONG AND STRAIGHT ROAD
Before he was marched off by the two Roman Soldiers who were bristling with antique weaponry (antique from the perspective on the author rather than his characters), Bern carefully placed a handful of apples onto the ground.
“I'll not need these then, Honky-tonk,” he said with a grin at one of the soldiers.
“You'll not need nuffin' where you're going,” growled the soldier, digging his spear into the Bern's ribs.
“Ouch!” objected Bern. “That's no way to treat someone who is a bristling with military secrets!” he added. Then: “I mean, Honky-tonk.”
The two ancestors of mine were trembling where they hid in the entwined undergrowth, and it wasn't until Bern and his guards were well out of sight that they emerged. The apples Bern had gleaned were still on the ground where he had put them, and they were more than welcomed by the two hungry escaped slaves.
“He was a good man, was Bern,” murmured Mirumtia when she had eaten one of the apples. “I've had better commons, but I needed something before I passed out altogether!”
“Same here,” agreed Owongus. “Pity about Bern, though.”
“It is,” nodded Mirumtia, starting on a second apple.
“We'd best get away quickly before we get taken, too.” said Owongus.
Mirumtia looked at him in horror. “You mean, we're going to leave him to his fate when it was because of us he was captured?” she asked.
“What else can we do?” asked Owongus. “We can't take on the whole blasted Roman Army! They're everywhere! And they're cruel. I don't want any rough Eastern soldier to hurt one hair of your head.”
“We can't leave him! At least we've got to find out where he's been taken.” insisted Mirumtia.
“That's too dangerous! And look: there's just the two of us and we're dressed in dirty slave stuff. The moment anyone sees us they'll know what we are, and you know what they do to escaped slaves, don't you?”
“No,” said Mirumtia.
“Well, Sceptus told me if they recapture slaves they either execute them or brand them and send them down the mines, and he said the mines are worse than execution! Best not to escape, was his lesson.”
“But we are escaped slaves, and it's up to us to do what's right, and what's right is at least seeing if there's anything we can do about Bern,” asserted the young woman, her eyes bright as you'd expect the eyes of an Iceni maiden to be.
Owongus sighed. He knew two things: that she was right and that, in an argument, he'd never beat her. There was something about her naïve honesty that was overpowering. He supposed that it was because the innocence of doing the right thing was more appealing and certainly more powerful than the guilt of being a coward.
“Let's go the same way, then: let's follow them,” he muttered.
“I knew you'd see it my way?” smiled Mirumtia, and she flashed him a smile that he interpreted, probably wrongly, as something more than a smile.
They knew which way the soldiers had taken Bern and so they set off in the same direction. It wasn't difficult seeing the way because the track was fairly broad and, given the nature of the undergrowth on both sides, they knew there would be clear signs if their prey veered from the route they were clearly taking. But they took great care, not making any unnecessary sounds and keeping their eyes peeled for clues as well as signs of danger.
Eventually it came to a proper road. Roads created by Roman military forces were both broad and straight, with verges hacked well back so that anyone wishing to attack a column of marching soldiers would experience great difficulty finding anywhere to hide in ambush. Yet despite their excellence there was a total lack of signs that might have read “Bern was taken this way”
Owongus looked both ways, both up and down the road, and he pointed.
“I think that's them,” he whispered.
“Why are you whispering?” asked Mirumtia, peering into the distance.
“I think you're right. It is them,” agreed Mirumtia. “But they're already quite a long way away and I bet you it will be dark quite soon.”
“If we follow them and they look back they'll see us as plainly as we can see them,” muttered Owongus.
“Which isn't very plain at this distance,” said Mirumtia. “Come on, let's move quite swiftly until we're a lot closer, then we can think of keeping more out of sight.”
Owongus didn't like it, but it made sense. So they walked along as swiftly as they could. The soldiers, on the other hand, were taking their time after the manner of lazy thugs who want to be told their day's work is over when they arrive back at their base. So in swift order the two fugitives found themselves getting close enough to the three in front to hear the coarse voices of the soldiers quite clearly.
“Secrets, eh?” one of them was taunting Bern. “You'd better 'ave pretty damn good secrets or my mate 'ere will enjoy finding out what you keep hidden inside that pretty little skirt o' yours.”
“It's a kilt, Honky-tonk” retorted Bern, quite clearly, and Owongus thought he said it loud enough to be heard should they have decided to follow.
The soldier stopped and slashed him roughly across the face. “Call me that again and you're dead, military secrets or no military secrets!” he roared.
“It was you who was talking about my nice little kilt,” retorted Bern, rubbing his cheek.
“Easy on,” said the other soldier to his companion.
“Who you tellin' to easy on?” demanded the first in a tone that could only be called threatening. He was obviously ready for a quarrel with just about anyone
The two soldiers were facing each other, and even though dusk was falling neither Mirumtia nor Owongus could see how he managed it, but Bern vanished from sight. One moment he was there with the soldiers and the next he was gone, and the soldiers were still bickering.
“Come on then, Honky-tonks,” grinned Bern, suddenly appearing beside them. “They were getting to be offensive, so I thought I'd rejoin my old chums. Come on, quickly: this way!”
© Peter Rogerson 20.08.12