It was close to the seventh hour, almost time to pack it up and head south, when our last party arrived, this time down the road from the north west. Alaw, whom we had posted up that road as a scout, alerted us.
“Pen,” he reported to Athauhnu, “A merchant and his party are approaching the city.”
“How many,” Athauhnu asked?
Alaw shrugged and calculated, “The merchant… his woman… two body guards… a slave… four pack mules.”
“How far out,” Athauhnu asked again?
Again, Alaw shrugged, “Maybe five hundred passus… he’s in no hurry.”
“Let’s intercept,” I suggested.
Athauhnu grunted his agreement, then hissed, “Guithiru! Mount five!”
Then he turned to Alaw, “Is Rhodri keeping an eye on him?”
“Tis, chief,” Alaw nodded.
We walked our horses down off the reverse slope of the ridge and hit the road out of site of the city gate. There we mounted and followed Alaw to the northwest. We spotted the merchant’s party less than four hundred passus up the road. He halted when he saw us. His two guards attempted to look as menacing as they could in the face of nine well-armed riders.
We halted about ten passus away. Almost immediately Rhodri joined us from behind the merchant’s party and now they faced ten. I held up an empty right hand to show him I was not holding a weapon and asked in Latin, “Are you bound for the fortress of the Aedui.”
The man hesitated for a few heartbeats, then answered in a halting Latin, “Romani vos? You Romans?”
I answered, “We are from Caesar’s army. Are you not a Roman?”
“Non Romanus. Graecus.” he answered, “Not Roman. Greek.”
“Να μιλούν την ελληνική γλώσσα,” I said, “I can speak Greek.”
The man stared again, then smiled, “Like a Roman school boy trying to recite Homer for his tutor,” he said in Gah’el.
“Then Gah’el it is,” I agreed. “Where are you bound.”
“This is the road to Bibracte, is it not,” he shrugged?
“Tis,” I agreed, “Where are you coming from.”
The man shrugged, “I am coming down from the lands of the Senones, but I have been as far north as the Ocean, among the Veneti.”
I could tell Athauhnu and the men were uneasy about being out in the open while we talked, so I said, “We would like to hear your tales of the Senones and the Veneti. Perhaps we can talk out of the sun over in those trees.”
Now it was the merchant’s turn to be nervous about being waylaid by a band of brigands pretending to be Roman soldiers… or actual Roman cavalry looking to augment their wages… so I spoke again, “I am Gaius Marius Insubrecus, Decurio in Gaius Iulius Caesar’s Praetoria. And, this is Athauhnu mab Hergest, Pencefhul of the Soucanai, in the service of Caesar and the Roman people.”
The man’s eyes widened a bit at that. “Romans this far north and Soucani this far west! These are indeed interesting times.” Then, he looked up at the sun. “You are correct, young man, this sun is hot. A short rest under the shade of some trees would be welcomed.”
We moved over to a grove of trees to the north of the road. Alaw and Rhodri moved farther north to screen the road. Athauhnu dispatched Guithiru and two men to the south. The rest of our troop spread out securing the area.
As we dismounted, the merchant announced, “I am called Gennadios Emporos, Gennadios the Trader. The woman is called Evra. She claims to be from an island beyond Britannia, where the dead live. She was taken in a raid by the Veneti, years ago when she was a girl. Now she is my woman.”
“Not that long ago, Merchant,” she spat!”
Athauhnu’s eyes widened at that. “A woman from the island of the dead! Then that place exists.”
Gennadios shrugged, “She claims she never saw the dead feasting in golden halls. According to her, it’s a place of pigs, cattle and salmon in the rivers the size of tiuunai, tunnyfish. No! No walking dead. Just drunks, pigs and fat farmers. Eh, Meli Mou?”
The woman gave a dismissive grunt as she adjusted the pack straps on one of the mules.
“Ah! Where are my manners,” Gennadios said, “Wine! Evra! The skin of retsina! Three cups!”
Then he turned to us, “I doubt you’ve ever tried retsina. We use pine resin to preserve the wine. It travels well!”
Gennadios’ woman from the Isle of the Dead handed us cups, then poured the wine. It was golden yellow as it flowed from the wine skin. I could smell the pine resin. When all the cups were poured, we acknowledged our host and drank. I was surprised. It was light… delicious.
Gennadios smacked his lips, then said, “I had heard that Caesar had moved north of the Rhonus, but I hadn’t expected to see his men this side of Bibracte.”
“Really,” I said, “Where did you hear that?”
“From the Roman delegation to the Senones…” he began.
“Romans… among the Senones… who…” I began.
Gennadios held up his hand. “Yes, A Roman delegation arrived in the Senones dun, Agedincum… when was it… about a month ago… they had a broad-striper leading them… a noble or a senator… a real nob, he was… the rest looked military… bodyguards I would think, led by a narrow-striper… they had an audience with the uucharix, the tribal king, Caswalu… but they spent most of their time with his dunorix, Dramaelo… no love lost between those two, I can tell you… Dramaelo is older, but Caswalu seems to have favor with you Romans…”
“Do you know what these Romans wanted,” I interrupted.
“Wanted… oh, yes… they told the king that Caesar did not have the Roman Senate’s authorization to cross the Rhonus… that the Aedui were still friends of the Roman state…”
“They specifically mentioned the Aedui,” I interrupted again?
“They didn’t have to,” Gennadios tutted, “They had an escort of Aedui riders from the fianna of the Aeduan dunorix.”
“Deluuhnu,” I asked?
“The same,” Gennadios confirmed. “Why are you surprised? Didn’t you know that Dramaelo is married to Deluuhnu’s sister?”
“His sister,” I said!
“Oh yes,” Gennadios continued! “In fact, many of Dramaelo’s troops are Aedui… makes his king right nervous.”
“Did the Romans encourage the Senones to attack Caesar’s army,” I asked?
“Attack them,” Gennadios answered? “No… not in so many words… but the impression they gave was, if the Senones joined with the Aedui in defending Aedui territory against Caesar’s unauthorized incursion, the Senate would understand.”
Evra, who was sitting with the two bodyguards over by the mules, called over to Gennadios, “Labhair tú i bhfad ró, fear d’aois. Roinnt lá beidh go bhfaigheann mharaigh tú.”
I didn’t understand what she said, but some words sounded familiar, almost recognizable.”
Gennadios chuckled. “She’s telling me to keep my mouth shut,” he told us. “The women of the Gaelige… that’s what they call themselves on the Isle of the Dead… Gaelige… sometimes the people of Eriu… that’s their goddess of love… Aphrodite… you’d never know it from Evra… their women are like the women of the Gah’el… but ten times worse… they just do what they want… say what they want… when I get back to Masilia, I’d keep Evra locked up, but she wouldn’t stand for it… she’d tear my place apart and me along with it.” He chuckled again.
“Gaelige,” I said absently, “Almost sounds like Gah’el… but back to the Romans…”
“Yes, the Romans” Gennadios said, filling his cup and offering more wine to Athauhnu and me, which we gratefully accepted, “Quite generous they were too, especially to the dunorix. All nice new silver, too.”
Gennadios reached into his marsupium. He pulled out a silver coin and handed it to me. It was unworn, shiny, a newly minted quadriga, a denarius coin. I flipped it over and saw the image of one of this year’s consuls, my erstwhile patron, Aulus Gabinius.
Gennadios was talking, “…it worked out well for me… usually there’s not much hard currency among the tribes… I sometimes have to resort to barter… swatches of eastern cloth and pottery for chickens… that sort of thing… useless when I get home… a man needs silver to live in Masilia…”
I handed the coin back. “You didn’t happen to hear the name of the purple-striper did you,” I asked.
“Hear it,” Gennadios said, “I did better than that… I sold a skin of wine to his tribune… the man had a ghastly scar across his face… still red and puckered in places… said he got it in a skirmish with the Belgae last season… I hadn’t heard anything about Romans fighting the Belgae… he told me the man’s name was something like Pompius… that’s it… Gaius or Gnaeus Pompius… when Simathemeni… that’s my name for the scarred Roman… “Scar Face”… when this Simathemeni got a bit drunk, he referred to his companion as Minus… that means “The Lesser” doesn’t it? I never understood you Roman’s sense of humor.”
I certainly thought I recognized the name. Pompius… Pompeius… that was the name of Caesar’s colleague, one of the triumviri… but Pompeius Minus? Was he one of Pompeius’ freedmen. No… a freedman wouldn’t dare wear a broad, purple stripe regardless of who his patronus was. Did Pompeius Magnus have a son? If so, wouldn’t he be called Pompeius Iunior… or was Scarface making a sarcastic joke, like Gennadios thought.
Before I could ask, Guithiru came into the grove. He addressed Athauhnu, “Chief! A messenger came up from the Roman tribune. We’re to withdraw and meet him south of Bibracte.”
I sensed something important was up. Was it the battle in the south? Had Caesar been defeated. Were we cut off?
I stood up. “We thank you for your hospitality, Gennadios. We must depart.” I thought to tell him not to inform the Aedui of our presence, but telling a merchant not to share gossip and information made as much sense as asking a stream not to flow.
I reached into my marsupium and found a small silver mercurius, a sestertius coin, and handed it over to the merchant. “For the wine and the conversation, phile mou,” I told him.
Gennadios made the coin disappear into his own purse. “Vobiscum fortuna sit, mi amice” he said in Latin, “May Fortune be with you, my friend!”
“Et tecum,” I responded, unconsciously rubbing my lorica where my medallion rested, “With you also.”
I looked over to where Evra was sitting. The woman from the Isle of the Dead was glaring at me with the soulless black eyes of Hecate.
Unconsciously, I made the cornucellus, the little horn, with the fingers of my right hand to ward off the evil eye.