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The Hunt – Chapter 1

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(A RETURN TO LOCKDOWN STORIES BEGAN THIS WEEK, AND WE’RE BACK WITH TWO CHARACTERS FROM VENGEANCE, WITH NEW EPISODES EVERY WEEKDAY AND THIS COMPILATION EVERY WEEKEND. ENJOY.)

Valens shook the rain from his cloak as he stepped into the room behind Rigonorix, the warm glow of a golden fire welcoming after the torrential downpour that seemed to be the standard fare of the border regions.

The tavern held the usual collection of motley occupants they had seen in every dive north and east, ever since Derventio: a few off-duty auxiliaries, usually the worse for drink, a whore or two, each with a face like the back end of a cart ox, some fathead who was looking for men to fleece with dice, and half a dozen locals who hated everyone indiscriminately, but were far too sensible to do anything about it. A volley of unfriendly glares struck them as they stood in the doorway, a puddle growing around their feet.

‘Oh look, sell-swords,’ grunted a man in a chain shirt and a russet tunic by the door, his tone indicating a Hispanic origin.

‘Oh, look,’ Rigonorix replied calmly, ‘broken nose.’

Valens’s companion’s arm moved so fast that by the time he looked up, the warrior was walking on again unconcerned, leaving the soldier swearing and grunting, blood pouring down his face. As the soldier reeled, clutching his nose, and two others from his unit shot up from their table, chairs scraping back across the flagstones and cups of beer spilling across the rough-hewn boards, Valens sighed and held up his hands.

‘Despite appearances, we don’t want trouble. My friend here just doesn’t take criticism very well.’

The bloody-faced soldier lurched towards him, one hand going to the hilt of the long-sword at his side that marked him out as a cavalryman. Moving with a speed that surprised even him, Valens was suddenly in the man’s face, his boot pressing down on the bridge of the man’s foot agonisingly as his right hand shot out and grasped the man’s own, pressing down and keeping the blade in the sheath.

The soldier made angry, somewhat nasally-challenged noises, but Valens reached down with his left hand, fretting at the pouch on his belt, and with some difficulty produced a silver coin which he lifted slowly until it was before the man’s eyes, which went crossed trying to focus on it.

‘The very essence of negotiation, my Asturian friend. Take the coin in reparation for the nose and try not to say anything stupid until we leave and then I won’t have to explain to your superior officer why you were found lying in the mud with a boot wedged so far up your rectum you could lick it from the inside. Do we have an understanding?’

Perhaps it was something in Valens’s expression that made the man nod sourly and back down, though Valens didn’t think so. In lifting the left arm with the coin, his sleeve had fallen back, displaying the network of horrifying scars and puckered flesh marks that decorated his skin like a relief map of the Alpes. May the gods bless that miracle healer in Dervetio, he’d managed to save the arm, though there was clearly some permanent damage for Valens could only feel things as a sort of dull sensation, and he had to concentrate and push himself to do anything as complex as grip and lift a coin. Still, it was better than a charred stump. Visually, though, it left a great deal to be desired.

As Valens left the man with a last raised finger of warning against action, Rigonorix climbed onto a table at the centre of the bar.

‘Alright, you sour and ugly bunch, I want to know the whereabouts of one Aulus Pacunius, and the first person to give me anything useful gets enough coin to see him through the month.’

A dour and uncomfortable silence greeted Rigonorix’s announcement. The two men stood for a moment, one on the table, hands spread, circling slowly and encouraging the crowd, the other padding quietly through the room and keeping a wary eye on the occupants.

‘Pacunius the Corinthian?’ a hoarse voice called from near the fire. The two men looked over to the table there where a hooded figure sat, toying with an earthenware cup. Rigonorix dropped from the table and paced over to him as Valens, with a last look at the uppity soldier, moved to join him, well aware that Rigonorix could be unpredictable at the best of times.

‘You know him?’

‘Why do you want to meet Pacunius?’

‘Because there’s nobody north of Coria hiring for a job that pays more than a clipped as unless they’re recommended by the Corinthian. That’s why. You know him?’

The man at the table slowly pulled his hood back. He was pale and bearded, with a number of visible scars. A warrior, perhaps for Rome, perhaps against. He levelled a cold stare at the two men as Valens moved to stand next to his friend. ‘You come with… recommendations?’

‘Hatra at Luguvalium put us onto him.’

The man’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and there was a distinct drop in the temperature of the room. Valens found himself holding his breath and fought to keep a normal composure. A lot rode on this. Hatra had been in prison at Luguvalium when they’d dragged the Corinthian’s name from him. If that was already common knowledge then there could be a problem. Rigonorix slipped him a warning look. The Carvetian soldier had clearly noticed his uneasiness, which meant that perhaps the hooded man had too. Valens steadied himself.

Luguvalium, western end of the wall of Hadrian, was where they had picked up the job. The praepositus in command of supplies had been desperate enough to offer very good money, and Rigonorix had agreed before Valens had had a chance to consider the matter. It was seemingly simple: there was a bandit at work in the north, with considerable tribal backing, who had been picking off caravans, small military depots and the like, but had been increasing in boldness and aims recently. The two mercenaries stood to make a healthy remuneration if they could identify, and preferably stop, the bandit. Rigonorix had displayed something of his darker side in knowing immediately how to play the game. He’d taken the coin and agreed the deal, then pulled Valens into a doorway once they left the room. ‘All crime in the warzone is facilitated by maybe half a dozen slimy bastards, and there happens to be one in prison here in Luguvalium. A few well placed threats and offers and we could open a path straight to this bandit and make easy money.’

And so they had, though the money was looking increasingly less easy. Halfway along the old wall and halfway up the road to the new, they had reached Bremenium, a fort so remote that even the shitters were given spy holes so you could watch for native attacks while you crapped. Somewhere here, a former merchant-turned-‘facilitator’ had set up, and word was that if you wanted anything unofficial in the warzone, you asked Pacunius the Corinthian.

‘Sort out the troublesome fuck,’ muttered Rigonorix, sweeping up a mug and dropping it into Valens’s hand as the Carvetian stepped over to the hooded man. Valens turned to see the man who’d insulted them as they entered stomping towards them, hand on his sword again as blood continued to pour down his face. Valens sighed. Clearly this was destined to go sour.

Bracing, he flung the mug, striking the angry soldier directly on his broken nose and eliciting a shriek of pain as the man dropped to the floor clutching his face and howling.

‘Can we hurry this up, Rigonorix?’

The mood in the tavern was starting to look distinctly ugly. Far from having the desired effect of cowing the occupants, the two blows they had delivered the auxiliary at the door had instead spread a sense of anger and hatred among them, especially the other solders, who each had a hand on their weapon hilts now as they looked to one another, each waiting for another to make the first move. In response, his eyes continually on the soldiers, Valens backed over to Rigonorix, who was speaking in low tones to the hooded man.

‘If we don’t leave soon, we’re going to be facing three to one odds. And that’s before their friends hear the ruckus and come to investigate.’

Rigonorix snorted and turned to look over his shoulder. ‘When did you start having a problem facing crippling odds? Remember where we met?’

Valens simply grunted as the other two began to talk again. Twitching, he looked to the table of auxiliaries, who were resolved now and beginning to move, albeit slowly and warily, remembering the trouble their companion had suffered.

‘He was beaten because he insulted us,’ Valens said calmly. ‘All’s fair. Don’t start anything you’re not prepared to finish.’ And then, under his breath and over his shoulder: ‘are we done?’

Rigonorix was suddenly spinning round, grinning like a maniac. ‘I have everything I want, except the face of a Lingonian auxiliary on the sole of my foot.’

Valens shot the man a look loaded with incredulity. ‘What the shit are you doing?’

‘Come on, they were going to jump us the moment we got outside anyway. At least in here we fight in the warm. Come on, you Gallic pricks.’

With a roar, five men rose from the table and ran for them. Two were drawing swords, though the other three, incensed as they were, remained sensible enough to make fists with their hands and then come on unarmed. Anger was one thing. Being arrested by your unit for killing a civilian in a bar brawl was another. Indeed, one of the other two thought better of his chances as he ran, and returned his sword to his sheath.

Valens wished he’d brought his shield in with him rather than leaving it on the horse. His left arm was still not functioning at anywhere near full strength and mobility, but strapping a shield to it made it useful in a fight. He couldn’t kill any of these men. The local authorities would take a civilian murdering a soldier no better than the other way around. Resigned to fighting Rigonorix’s latest scuffle, he simply left his sword sheathed and pulled the whole thing, baldric included, over his head, brandishing it still in its leather scabbard. The enemy were limited by the space between tables and only two of them could approach at a time, which helped. As the lead pair came in Valens neatly twisted, letting the man’s intended punch fly through open air, and then smacked him around the back of the head with his sheathed sword hard enough to put him down. Before he turned to face the next figure, he just saw Rigonorix deal with the sword wielder, smacking the blade from his hand with a stool before smashing the same seat into his face.

‘Fun,’ laughed the Carvetian. Valens rolled his eyes. ‘I hate you, you know that?’

As Rigonorix set about the next man with his stool, Valens ducked a very professional right hook and smacked his sheathed sword across the second soldier’s shins, enough to bruise and cause damage, though not quite enough to break them. As his victim howled and fell, the fifth man stepped towards them, slowing, increasingly uncertain of his position in the absence of all his allies. Valens narrowed his eyes and turned to look at his companion. Rigonorix gave him a grin. ‘Last to drop him buys the beer for a month.’

‘Idiot.’

And yet as the soldier struggled to get out of the way of this pair of lunatics, Valens found that he was not entirely willing to let Rigonorix win, no matter how stupid the whole thing might be. As the Carvetian brought the stool up over his head ready for a downward strike, Valens weighed up his chances, shrugged, and smacked his friend on the back of the head with his sheathed sword. Rigonorix pitched forwards with a surprised squawk, stool clattering off to the side out of his grip, and as he floundered, the former optio leapt forwards. The Gallic auxiliary was backing away now. Valens grinned. They’d have ended the fight inside with the last man, but he had to stop the soldier getting outside to call for help. His roving eyes fell on the stool, which had bounced free, and he stooped to collect it. The soldier turned to run, and Valens was impressed at his turn of speed. The man made it halfway to the door before the stool smashed into the back of his head, sending him pitching over a table and into the corner of the room.

An obliging local kicked the door shut, more to keep the rain and cold out than to help, yet the effect was the same. Rigonorix stood carefully, rubbing his knees and hissing.

‘You tricky little bastard.’

‘You snooze, you lose. Next beers are on you, but for now we need to get out of here before this place is filled by Lingonii auxiliaries looking for a piece of us. Are you sure you got what we need?’

Rigonorix spun, looking back towards the fireplace. The hooded figure was gone. ‘Pretty sure.’

‘Come on, then.’

The two men barrelled out of the bar past the innkeeper, who was watching them with tense disapproval. The rear door led to a wide room with three exits, but a cold draft was coming from the middle one, along with the faint smell of horse manure, so they made their way through that. Outside, a stable square was slowly filling with unspeakable murk in the rain. A young slave with a face that spoke of half a decade of damp servitude was busy shovelling shit into a corner. Rigonorix and Valens ducked past him towards the open gate into the street, though the former optio found himself using his good hand to fish out another coin and flip it to the boy as they passed. Valens might be a grizzled old bastard with the sense of humour of a three day corpse, but his origins were sufficiently humble that he hated to see youth wasted so, and a single coin to the right figure was more meaningful than a king’s ransom to a rich bastard.

‘Where now?’

‘Edge of town. Big house near the circular tomb.’

The house was not hard to find, but then the Bremenium vicus was hardly a sprawling metropolis. In fact, it was little bigger than Mediobogdum, and that one had been an icy shit-hole clinging to the side of a mountain the middle of nowhere, while this was on the main route north. The entire region was a world of bogs, tufts of grass, bogs, scree slopes and bogs, the fort and its vicus crammed into one of the drier areas on raised ground. The buildings were of stone and timber, with tiles that looked to have been knocked off from a military supply, probably from Concangis or Vinovia. As the street they followed down the slope to the west from the inn gradually petered out to nothing, neither man could fail to be impressed with the large structure with the terraced gardens that rose above the river, pleasantly upstream of the baths.

It came as no surprise as they left the edge of the civil settlement and approached the palatial residence to see that the gate was guarded by two men. They bore a weird mix of Roman and Votadini in their look, in that their hair, beards and clothes were of native style, yet their armour and weapons had come from some Roman source. Looted or bartered from some dubious quartermaster, Valens wondered? The two men strolled through the constant drizzle up to the gate, where the guards moved to block their way, one of them taking the lead and holding up a hand.

‘Woyya wan?’

‘Charming,’ Valens smiled coldly through the rain. ‘We’re here to see the Corinthian.’

‘People come. People go,’ said the other in slightly better Latin and with a shrug.

‘Believe me,  Pacunius  is going to want to see us. We’ve come from Luguvalium, from Hatra.’

Rigonorix leaned in front of him. ‘Squinty in the village sent us.’

The two guards shared a look and then nodded and stepped back, opening the gate. A shambling hunchback waved at them from the path inside, then lurched back through the rain towards the main house, beckoning for them to follow. Valens cast a sidelong glance at his companion as they followed on and the gates were closed behind them.

‘Let me do the talking.’

‘I’m better at this sort of thing.’

‘No,’ Valens said patiently. ‘This is a delicate situation and doesn’t call for your particular brand of jumping in with both feet and a battle cry.’

Rigonorix said nothing, but his smile worried Valens. They passed two more half-Romanised guards at the door of the villa proper, where the hunchback passed them off to a tall and well-dressed local with a nose like a stork, down which he looked at them as though he’d just scraped them off the sole of his shoe. The man gave them a curt nod, beckoned, and then wandered off through what probably passed for an Atrium among the Votadini, and then through a small courtyard. A golden glow issued from a doorway into the failing afternoon light, and as they reached it, the stork-like servant stepped just inside and cleared his throat.

‘Two visitors, sir, who cited the factor at Luguvalium.’

Valens found himself wondering how the man knew that when nothing had been said since the taciturn idiots at the main gate, but then it was the job of a man like the Corinthian to be well-informed. At some unheard and unseen signal, the servant nodded and stepped aside, gesturing for them to enter. Valens took the lead, walking into a well-appointed office with maps of the region hanging on the wall, and a series of cabinets around the edge. At the desk sat a man, heavily-built and with the look of a Roman rather than a local, his tunic of a particularly fine cut. His beard was neatly trimmed and as he looked up there was a keen intelligence in his eyes. He was alone, but Valens couldn’t help but note a line of four weighted throwing knives on the desk near his hand, and a small bell near the other. Any attack would not last long, he suspected.

‘Pacunius the Corinthian, I presume,’ he said in a polite but neutral tone, and suddenly Rigonorix was at his shoulder, pushing past with a grin.

‘Numerius, you tricky shitbag. I should have known it was you,’ the Carvetian laughed.

Valens closed his eyes and counted to ten.

***

THAT’S IT FOR THIS WEEK, BUT IF YOU WANT TO CATCH UP ON THE ORIGINAL STORY FROM LAST YEAR’S LOCKDOWN, IT’S OUT NOW IN EBOOK AND PAPERBACK, AND ALL PROCEEDS FROM SALES GO TO THE BLOOD CANCER CHARITY MYELOMA UK. GET IT HERE AND HELP RAISE FUNDS. OVER £700 RAISED SO FAR, SO WELL DONE, FOLKS!

Written by SJAT

January 9, 2021 at 11:58 am

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