The day after Neuvius attempted to escape – and was killed in the process, the Germanic northmen guards came for Vestus. The light was already watery and grey, shining down the mine shaft when Nicomedes heard their crunching, heavy footsteps and their loud, raucous laughter.
“Must be getting roomy down there!” He heard one shout down in their guttural accent, to be followed by a few pebbles thrown over the side. Nicodemus had a long history of training in the martial arts, and he tried to count differences in tone, voice, and step. He figured that there had to be at least three different guards up there, maybe more.
Vestus looked at Nicodemus, his eyes wide in the dark. “They don’t usually do this,” he whispered.
“They must have some plan…” Nicodemus growled, as the feet trudged, and the laughter and taunts continued. No rotten bread or moldy bits of meat were thrown down the hole this time. Only, and much to both of their surprise: a rope.
“A rope?” Nicodemus hissed. “What is going on?”
Vestus looked at it suspiciously. “Don’t trust them. Don’t ever trust them.” He said, backing away from the shaft of light, and heading deeper into the darkness.
Were they toying with us? The Captain-Collector thought. Of course they are. What benefit to them could there be to bring us up to the light?
But also; he wondered… What better option did they have?
The two incarcerated prisoners didn’t have to wait long to find out, however, as they were answered by a new, deeper and gruff voice. The Captain couldn’t be certain after all of this time, but he thought that it might even be the voice of the Boar – of Wulfric himself.
“Send up the old man.” He growled down. “Send him up, or we cap the Hole off for good – and you’’ claw each other’s eyes out when you get hungry enough!”
This was followed by a chorus of renewed laughter and chuckling.
Vestus looked at Nicodemus, shaking his head, and the Captain could see the panic and fear in his shaded face. “No!” The old man hissed. “You cannot trust them! You can never trust them!” The man started to shake, edging himself further against the back of the wall.
Nicodemus reached out a hand, finding the older man’s bony, emaciated fingers clutching the slick rock in fear. “I am with you, brother,” he said. “You do not have to go if you don’t want to.”
“Send up the old man!” The voice that could be the Chieftain of the Germanic tribes roared again, and it was followed by a hollow clang, as of a sword or a spear on a shield.
“Not if you don’t want to.” Nicodemus said. It cut his heart to lose the only other person that he had seen in weeks; months perhaps? It also strained him to see how afraid the older man was. Had he been down here so long, that the very thoughts of emerging into the light, and of meeting his attackers face-to-face were simply too much? Was the old man destined to die down here, in the dark? Nicodemus felt uncomfortable – that was no fate for a man, and especially no citizen of glorious Rome. But also, what could he do? He couldn’t force the older to climb the rope.
“I will go in his stead!” The Captain-Collector called upwards. “I, the Legionary will go!”
“NO!” The shout was loud, echoing, and final. “Tie the old man to the rope, and send him up. Don’t you want to feel the fresh air on your face again, old man? Feel the warmth of the sun on those sunken cheeks? Do not fear, old man, you will not die up here!” Followed by a sick sniggering.
Vestus was quiet, looking between the Captain and the rope behind him in confusion. “They will kill me.” He hissed.
Nicodemus said nothing. He, too, was sure that was what they were going to do. But, what fate would I choose? He considered, knowing too, that the old man must surely also be thinking the same thing. To lie down here, limbs growing weaker and weaker, mind slowly turning to mush until there was little left of the man that had come before?
Or the chance to face what came next? Nicodemus knew what he would choose. With a heavy sigh, he revealed his only asset that he had saved in the whole miserable time that he was down here. It was a tiny skinning knife, little more than a fish hook on a small knob of bone handle, once as sharp as a cat’s claw, and designed for gutting fish and skinning rabbits, or as a hook. He had held it hidden in the bottom of his shoe for such a long time that he had wondered how on earth it would ever be useful.
I will at least be able to decide my own fate. He had thought, thinking darkly that he could take his own life before he let them take his, if it came to it.
But – it never did come to it. When the thoughts of being trapped forever had swirled all around him, or the thoughts of even becoming a cripple like Vestus here, he still couldn’t go through the final, dreadful act. Still, despite everything that was stacked up against him, the Captain had one shining light in the darkness.
Lamphria. He could never leave her, not willingly, not again. Just thinking about her name was enough to fill him with dread determination, and strength. He would do anything to get back to her.
“Here.” Nicodemus pressed the tiny skinning hook into the palm of the older man’s hand. “You will have a chance, at least.”
They both knew that the old man had no chance whatsoever, but still, he took it. “But when I am gone… What will you do?” Vestus the older coughed, as the arguing and sniggering from above them grew louder.
“I will find a way. Do not worry about me, Vestus. Just think of your future.” The Captain murmured.
“And the glory of Rome?” Vestus shared a crooked smile. Once, the Captain would have agreed and said that rather than what he had. He would have advised the older to act in honor and strength, and nothing else. But now, after his recent revelation about his one-time friend and traitor Vibius Vars, the Captain thought that he would never swear by the Republic ever again.
They have abandoned me, so I will abandon them! I thought with a sudden intensity. “No,” the Captain murmured. “For your own glory, not Rome’s!”
Vestus nodded once, as, above them the voice that could be Wulfric once again shouted down. “Well, have you made up your mind down there, my little rats in their hole?” Some more ugly, chuckling laughter.
“Go.” Nicodemus nodded, and Vestus agreed, crawling to the shaft of light and looping the end of the rope around one foot, and holding onto it as tightly as possible.
“Ho-ho! So we have a brave one after all!” The voice shouted, and suddenly the rope went taut, and the old man Vestus was jerked upwards. Nicodemus saw his wasted muscles bunch and cord with the effort of merely holding onto the rope, and his eyes stream and blink as they saw ever clearer light. He ascended upwards, and the last that Nicodemus saw was the grit of his teeth-
“Here! This is a pale thing, isn’t it?” Nicodemus heard when Vestus had been hauled to the top edge.
“That’s not a man! That’s a worm!” Another of the guards shouted, followed by laughter.
The Captain-Collector could feel his heard hammering in his chest as he pressed himself as close to the shaft that led upwards as possible, straining to hear.
The sound of scraping, a thud as Vestus was pushed – none too firmly, on the ground. A snarl from the old man, more sound of feet moving.
“Look – he cannot even see? What sport is this?” One of their guards was calling. “We should have brought up the younger one!”
“No!” The voice that could be Wulfric said. “I already told you, I’ve been paid good money to keep him down there until he rots away! This is the one for the festival. Let’s put him through his paces!”
“Festival?” Nicodemus heard Vestus croak. “What festival? What do you mean to do, you animals?”
More laughter. “Oh, nothing much old man. Calm down.” A scrape and a thump, as Nicodemus figured that the old man above must have been pushed to the ground. An angered cry. “You do as we say and you’ll get the best food you’ve had, and we’ll send you back down. Alive.”
“I won’t do anything for you, beast!” Vestus snarled.
“Oh, you will old man – you will…”
“Ugh!” A pained shout from Vestus.
Another thump, this time followed by a moan. They are giving him a beating. The Captain realized. He was sure that Vestus couldn’t withstand much of a beating in his state – it would probably break every bone in his stick thin body!
“There. That bull’s head. Tonight will be a big Mid-Winter’s festival, and we need someone to play the Bull.” The chieftain’s voice laughed. “You wear the head on yours, you dance around the fire, you get chased by us wolves. Now dance! Show us your steps!”
“Up yours, pagan.” The Captain heard Vestus say, followed by a sharp intake of breath.
“Ack!” A torrent of cursing in the Germanic tongue, too thick for Nicodemus to translate or understand. He hoped that Vestus had struck quick enough to slice the throat of at least one of them…
“He’s got a blade!” An astonished cry.
“Boar!” Another, worried shout, followed by a roar.
Thud. Thump. Scrape.
“Argh!” This time the cry was reedier, and undoubtedly Vestus, as Nicodemus winced. The pack of ‘wolves’ tribesmen had descended upon the older man, and the sound of their blows rang and echoed back towards the Collector-Captain.
Thud-Thud-Thud. Scrape. Thump-Thud.
Had he managed to kill the Boar? Nicodemus’s eyes went wide, his hands and fists tensing as he pressed them to the sides of the walls, wondering how fast he could climb up and out. Could he do it in time to save his new friend? Was he even strong enough to do so?
“Hold him.” The voice that the Captain had hoped was dead growled. The man could hear the pain wincing through his growl. He wasn’t dead. The old man Vestus hadn’t managed to kill him.
More sounds of scraping, then a sickening thud, stronger than the others. And the thump of a body falling to the floor. “Get him down below.” The voice that could be Wulfric sneered. “No food for either of them, and pick someone else to play the Boar. One of the slaves. Someone we don’t mind losing.” He said, followed by more muttered cursing that grew fainter and fainter, in time to the sound of retreating steps.
“Well, you messed up now, didn’t you, old worm?” One of the other guards whispered when their chief was gone. “You were going to get sacrificed tonight, you know that? Given to Wodin. Kept in his Mead Hall for eternity. You had your chance, you stupid old fool – and you’ve blown it, and ruined our festival!”
The man was furious, and Nicodemus wondered, briefly, at the strange religion that somehow meant that being chosen to be ritually sacrificed was ever a good thing. We all have our codes of honor, it seems. He thought before the blows fell.
Thud-Thud-Thud. Thump-Thud-Thud. The guards left up there gave him another beating, but the Captain could hear no sound o cry coming from Vestus. Had they killed him? Had they beaten him to death?
“Tie him. Get him down below.” The guard who was obviously the most senior left in charge said, and the Collector listened to the sound of scraping and scuffling, before the light to the Hole was blocked by the descending body of Vestus.
Oh Vestus, you poor sod. The Collector thought, again and again as he was dumped, none too gently, on the grit, rock, and sand below. He was covered in ugly bruises, a split lip, his face a mess, and his hands looked cracked and broken. The guards tugged angrily at the rope still looped around the prisoner’s foot, until the Captain untied it quickly, worried that they would smash his brains out if they lifted him and dropped him once more.
“Here.” The Captain hauled the body of the man back into the dark of the cave, out of the light and away from further harm. He was as light as a feather, but he lived, still – if only in the thin bubble of bloody spittle that breathed and popped on the edge of his lip.
“You did yourself proud, my friend. You brought glory to yourself, and you did not break.” Nicodemus murmured. The labored breathing hitched a little deeper, as the man either slept or fell into a pained unconsciousness.
Strength and Honour, the Captain thought, amazed by what the old man had gone through, and wondering just what he would have done in the same situation.
Over the course of what must be a day, Nicodemus watched the older man slip ever further and further into unconsciousness. First of all, in the earlier hours, he would groan or cough, but as the day wore on, the Captain watched even his breathing grow shallower and shallower, and his body grow cold. His feet and arms in particular, became as cold as blocks of ice.
He’s dying. The old man will die down here. The Captain saw, and wondered whether he had done the right thing at all.
Around midday, the Collector-Captain tried to rouse him, to get him to drink some of the gritty mineral water that seeped through the walls at one end of the Hole, but the water only dribbled out of his mouth, as if he were unable to swallow. Nicodemus knew that he wouldn’t last long. He lay beside the older man, attempting to at least keep him warm in any way that he could – but it was like giving heat to a stone; it had no effect.
Past what must be the middle of the afternoon, the Tax Collector’s quiet vigil was broken by the sound of approaching horses and raised voices. Others entering the yard. For a wild moment he hoped against hope that it might be one of the Roman Legions travelling through the region, sure to spot that something was amiss here, or indeed had come with the express orders to rescue him.
But no, the sound of raised Germanic laughter and harsh words brought with it the certainty that these must be guests of the Chief Wulfric above, here for the festival of Midwinter. Even though he didn’t want to, the Roman listened and translated the overheard snatches of conversation as best as he could.
The Boar had to apologize for the ceremony, that they did not have the right person that they had wanted for the ritual celebration tonight. Instead, they had to use just a slave, not Roman legionnaire, or a Roman citizen. There was an argument, calls of indignation, a scuffle, and then a brief, final thud as the argument was settled. Not long after that, the conversation above gradually grew louder and more cheerful, as the two tribes recovered from whatever difference that had been, and sought to enjoy the night. There was the sound of popping casks, glugging wines and ale. And, torturously – even the smell of roasting meat from above.
Nico’s mind was racing. Tonight they were to have a celebration. Tonight the ale and the alcohol would be flowing freely, or as freely as it ever did in occupied territory. Could he succeed tonight where Neuvius had failed? Could he sneak out, under cover of darkness, whilst his guards might be dancing and drinking and pretending to be wolves in some pagan mummer’s play?
Lamphria. Again, the name hanging like a guiding star in his heart. He knew that he would try it. He had to try it. He would have to.
As the night started to fall however, something else happened that made Nicodemus rethink his entire strategy. Vestus, the old prisoner died.
It took a little while for Nicodemus to feel the shiver of a deep, unnatural cold from the body of the older man. He wondered how long it had been since he had moved, or had seen him breathe. Tentatively, and with some distaste, the Tax Collector set his ears to the man’s chest to see if he could hear the fluttering wingbeat of a heartbeat.
Outside, the light from the Hole was becoming grey and indistinct, and the sounds of the celebration were starting to rise. The smell of freshly-roasting meat was joined by the crackle of ever larger, and bigger bonfires. The stamp of heavy feet on the floor, as people started to dance.
It is now. Now or never. The Captain breathed deep, remembering the smell of Lamphria’s hair as he initiated stage one of his plan.
“He’s dead! You’ve killed him! He’s bloody dead!” The Roman shouted for the second time. Beginning to despair that anyone would hear him over the occasional beat of the drums, and he stamp of feet. It was early evening, and the celebration of the mid-winter festival was starting to get louder. Many more voices were rising in laughter or shouts above. The Captain estimated that there must easily be over fifty people up there – even a hundred or so?
“Shut up!” Someone shouted over the edge, and Nicodemus smiled. His plan was working.
“He’s dead! I’m down here with a dead man!” The Captain shouted again, and again.
“Guards! Shut him up!” Some of the Germanic tribesmen shouted out, but the Tac Collector carried on.
“He’s dead on Mid-Winter! His spirit will never find rest! He’ll haunt all of us!” Nicodemus shouted, adding a tone to hysteria to his urgent cries.
At first, the Germanic tribesmen above tried to ignore him, but the Roman was stubborn, and he carried on shouting and shouting, as loud as he dared, even past the point where his throat became hoarse. Eventually, with mutterings and a curse, the Tax Collector got what he wanted.
“Someone shut him up will you?” Said the not-so-sober voice of the Boar, the tribal chieftain Wulfric. More laughter and sneers from his guests by the fires, but the Tax Collector couldn’t help but overhear the guards who came to fish him out of the hole, as they muttered to themselves.
“Not natural, having them die right in the middle of the Mid-Winter!” One whispered. “You might have balls of iron, but I’ll not be haunted for the rest of my days!” The thud and scrape of partially intoxicated feet as they drew up to the edge of the Hole. Nicodemus grinned savagely, his plan had worked – even though he had wanted Vestus to be alive to enact it with him.
“You! Shut up!” The guards shouted over the edge of the Hole above. “It’s Mid-Winter! It’s a Holy Night!” The second, drunker guard hiccupped. “We’ll get you food, just please shut up!”
“I’ll not stay here with a dead man! His spirit will rise before midnight, just you wait!” Nicodemus said shrilly, as if the hands of the rising specter were already reaching for his throat…
Some more muttered curses from above, and then the heavy thud of the grave blanket, and a cord of rope.
“There!” The guard hissed down. “But make it quick! Wrap him up and tie him to the rope, and we’ll take him off, okay – just shut up!”
Nicodemus worked quickly, knowing that every second counted. He tied one end of the rope to his own ankle and a folded corner of blanket, and then, with clumsy and frozen fingers, unrolled the blanket around his own body, using his broach to clasp it, tight, around his head.
He was surrounded by the warm, musty and vaguely sheep-like darkness of the blanket. He waggled one bare, cold foot, pulling on the rope that was looped to his ankle, breathed in, and held his breath. With a curse and a muttered exclamation, he felt the rope suddenly pull tight, and a pain seared through his feet as if they were about to be ripped off from the rest of his legs. He hissed, before breathing shallowly, glad that he had affixed the blanket at the top, so that it would ‘hold’ his arms as he was dragged upwards.
“Sweet Eda!” One of the Gaulish guards swore. “This one is heavy – I thought bodies were supposed to get lighter after they died!?”
“Idiot! That’s because his soul is still in his body, it hasn’t left yet!” The other guard drunkenly scolded, as they heaved and hauled the very much still living body of Nicodemus up into the night.
For the Captain-Collector, everything was a whirl of pain, noise, and smells. A found smell was filling his nostrils, and he wondered just how many bodies this rotten old blanket had hauled up from the Hole, and in what varying stages of composition. It was almost strong enough to make him gaga, had he not a warrior’s stomach, and seen the sorts of sights, and experienced the sorts of sounds and smells that only come with a battlefield.
Still, he was thankful that he had kept his eyes closed, but even so, he could feel them streaming with the vileness of the atmosphere. It was also a very painful, if gratefully short ride upwards into the light. The guards cared even less about their dead passengers it seemed, than their living ones, and were it not for the thick blanket Nicodemus was certain that he would have died merely from the bashes and bruises that he sustained on the way up!
He soon saw also, that he needn’t have worried about holding his breath – as the guards that seized his ankles were steaming drunk, and their movements were so rough and abrupt that they did not even spend any time in examining the body or paying much more attention to it than were it a bag of apples. The two guards held him between themselves, staggered a little under his weight as they un-looped the rope from his bare ankle, and carried him away from the light, and away from the Hole.
How long had I been down there? Weeks? Months? It was now Mid-Winter, and the Tax Collector tried to remember when he had been given his commission from the poisoned mission from the Senate. Was it pre-Winter? Late Autumn? It had been months, certainly, months that he had spent travelling northwards with his men, and, after their attack, defeat, and capture, months that he had been imprisoned in the Hole.
Mid-Winter. I won’t be home until summer, or next Winter if I cannot find aid! He thought to himself. Almost a year away from home. A whole year!
The thought almost made his heart break. What must Lamphria be thinking of him? What must she be doing? She must know that he is in trouble, when no letters had been sent by him back home. Or does she think that he doesn’t care, or that the winter-passes are too deep for any messenger or courier to get through?
It was almost enough to make Nicodemus burst out of the blanket there and then, attack the guards and run southward as fast as he could – but he knew that he would not even last the night if he did that. He had to be clever, he had to wait until he saw just what happened to the bodies, and where they might be taken.
The sound of celebration was still close, and grew louder as the guards manhandled their luggage through the settlement of Sileni. For a worrying, terrified moment as the Tax Collector even grew warm for the first time in what felt like years, he thought that perhaps they were going to burn him, throw him on one of the pyres that sat around the settlement, and surrounded by drinking Gaulish tribes.
But no, the guards had only walked near one of the fires, and Nicodemus realized that they would never do such a thing – the stench of burning flesh and hair would simply be too much at a festival.
Instead, the warmth and the sounds faded as the grumbling Gaulish guards trudged towards the wooden walls of Sileni, greeting the wall guard there.
“Another one. The old bugger from the Hole.” The guard said in his thick, guttural accent.
“The one who was to play the Bull? Show me! Let me put his head on a spike over the wall!” The door guard seized an edge of the blanket, tensing and about to rip it off from the very much still alive Tax Collector.
“No!” Said the drunker, much more suspicious carrier of the Roman. “I know he’s ruined our fun – but tonight is Mid-Winter’s night! You want to anger the spirits tonight, of all nights?”
“What do I care for angering a Roman spirit?” The wall guard laughed harshly, and Nicodemus tensed his muscles. He had no weapons, and he was in a weakened state – but he had his fists and his feet, his elbows, knees, and teeth. He would bite their skin from their bodies if he had to, in order to get back tot Rome, and his Lamphria.
“You unbelieving bastard, Horris,” the more superstitious carrier burped back. “You may not fear the Roman spirit, but on Wodin’s Night I fear ALL spirits. I’ll not be haunted for the sake of you, now get your hands off!”
A shove, and they were trudging through the dark once more, with the guards muttering obscenities under their breath. Nicodemus was still too tense of breath, and wondered how much further they had to go.
As it happened – not too much further, as the steps of the guards trudged onwards into the dark, meeting resistance in the form of weeds and young saplings, and the crackle of frost and icy puddles underfoot. The sounds of the distant celebration were still clearly audible, but they were also not distinct any more, just a weary burr of noise, and the occasional snap of a branch collapsing into the big bonfires. The two bearers hauling Nicodemus were panting and puffing heavily as they came towards the sound of low, hissing roar. The Roman ‘corpse’ wondered what on earth it could be, knowing that he was about to find out at any moment.
Ah. He realized. This was exactly the moment that he had not prepared for. He had, in his original plan, going to pretend to be dead and get Vestus to call out his death and bandage him up. Then, in his imaginings he would be carried to some far off bit of field, probably dumped in a ditch, and then be left to spring to his feet, and run of into the wilderness.
But things in the imagination never quite turn out the same as they do in the real world, he knew.
The grave-blanket. He thought, as the guards stopped, lowing him none too ceremoniously to the floor. They re-use the blanket, and that means they must unwrap or cut it from the body…
A second later, he felt a tug on the broach holding the blanket tight around his head. Nicodemus tensed. He wondered if he had any strength or feeling enough in his legs even to stand up-
The blanket was pulled away, and Nico sprang. Lamphria! His heart and mind soared, as he kicked out, and threw a weakened fist against the nearest guard.
“Wodin!” The guard gasped, coughing and seizing his chest as if he was about to have a heart attack. But Nico did not stop, he lashed out at the next, hitting the much bigger guard against the bearded face with the back of a fist – but his arms had grown thin, and all the damage they did was a stinging blow to the larger men – who looked to be more hurt with fear than by the Captain-Collector’s weakened blows.
Nico seized the long blade from the belt of one, terrified and shocked guard who was lurching backwards, away from the flailing and pale roman ‘corpse’ as if he were facing the hordes of the Underworld itself. They think I am a spirit! Risen again and seeking revenge! Nico thought with an insane snarl of joy. He felt filled with the clean, fresh air of the night, and the stolen short sword in his hand felt right, not heavy at all.
But even he knew a half-starved, half-naked man was no match for stocky, well-fed and well-seasoned guards – albeit slightly drunk as they were. He sprang away from them as they cursed and made the sign of the evil eye, holding onto the barbarian blade as he attempted to sprint through the undergrowth.
Maybe I am a vengeful spirit! A collector of souls who have wronged me! He thought, as he vaulted over a fallen tree trunk, and saw where the guards have been disposing of their bodies.
He tried to dig in his heels, to reach one of the nearby trees to stab the blade into, but it was already too great, and his momentum was too great. The lip of the gorge was before him, and the roar of the cold river below was loud. His bare feet skidded on the mushy ground, and Nicodemus the Captain of Legionaries, a Tax Collector for the Senate of Rome, and vengeful spirit plunged over the edge, tumbling head over heels as he hit the freezing cold river below with a mighty splash…