For the last two days, Evie and Tatius were not on speaking terms. That is, they spoke whenever they needed to, in order to make the journey to Campania, but after several days of arguing about which road they should take, whether they should detour to Rome–Tatius wanted to, or who was actually in charge of this journey, they’d fallen into silence.
“I think I should lead the mule,” Tatius spoke up, his hand outstretched for the rope. He was a lean man with stringy muscles that looked more like tendons than anything else. His features could be called classically Roman, ideal even, if not for his long, ski-slope nose that looked like it might jump off his face.
Evie sidestepped to keep him from taking the rope. The mule whimpered. “I have him.”
“You don’t know how to walk him. You’re scaring him.”
“No, I’m not. He’s fine. I wouldn’t have lurched away if you weren’t grabby.”
“How do I know you won’t steal him? And our supplies?”
Evie narrowed her eyes at Tatius. “Because Publius Sepunius Columella entrusted me with this mule. He was going to give it to me even if you didn’t come along. So far, you’re just one more person to feed.”
“You don’t feel safer with me than alone?”
“Not really, no.”
Tatius harrumphed. “Maybe I should go home.”
“Then who would take the mule back?”
He opened his mouth and then clamped it shut again. No wisecrack answer this time. Evie smirked. They shuffled to the side of the road to make way for a wagon. It was pulled by four black horses and driven by two soldiers. About a dozen soldiers marched behind the wagon, spears on their shoulders, sandals kicking up dust.
“I think you should ask them.”
“They will settle it. Excuse me!” Evie started after the soldiers, but the mule wouldn’t have anything of it. Reluctantly, she tossed the rope to Tatius and ran after the marching men. “Excuse me.” Evie fell into step with them. “Can you tell us the fastest way to Campania?”
The soldiers didn’t slow or turn. “If you’ve got money,” one behind her said, “we’ll help.” A burst of laughter sounded around Evie.
She reached into the pouch at her hip. “Very well, I have–” Before she could count out what rested in her palm, a spear was at her throat. The men stopped marching. The wagon stopped rolling. The metal sliced the air fast enough to sing.
“We’ll take it all,” the man from before said. He had gray stubble, more than his fair share of scars, and too-tight armor. It dug into his shoulders.
“Who are you?” Evie asked, tipping the coins back into the purse. She didn’t see Tatius come over, but she heard one of the soldiers yell at him to stay back.
“We’re the men who are happy to relieve you of your coin. And take your mule.”
“Mule’s not for sale. You said you’d give us directions for money.” All Evie could think about right now was the self-defense class she took when she first moved to the city. If you’re ever robbed and they just want money, stay calm and give it to them. Money could be replaced, even if with some difficulty. Life and limb could not.
The stubbled-and-scarred man snatched the coin purse from Evie’s hands. “Follow this road. It’ll take you straight to Campania.” He tossed the purse in the air and caught it; the coins inside jingled like miniature bells.
“How do I know you’re not lying?” Evie asked.
“You’ll just have to trust us.”
“But you’re all dressed as soldiers. Clearly you’re not soldiers. That makes you untrustworthy.”
The man grinned. He was missing several teeth, their gaps creating dark caverns in his mouth. “Too bad for you, eh?”
“I tell you what. One of you comes with us to Campania and you can have everything in the saddlebags on our mule. You can’t have the mule.”
One of the men from the back yelled, “Can we have him?” Another man cuffed him upside the head for shouting out.
“He’s not a slave. I can’t give him away–believe me, if I could, I would have awhile ago. He’s annoying.”
The man who’d stolen her purse scratched at his chin. He seemed to be their leader, which struck her as odd because he was walking on the ground instead of driving the wagon. “What’s in the saddle bags?”
“Food, supplies. But that’s not all–we’re going to Campania for a special reason.” Evie dropped her voice into a grave tone, and pulled her sleeve up to reveal the markings on her wrist. “See that? I’m on a mission. A quest. For the gods.” Maybe. Maybe it’s all a load of hooey. Maybe I hit my head and I’m laying on the floor, or maybe Pete had me loaded into an ambulance.
The men gathered around to view her wrist. The leader looked at them, then at Evie again. “Half of you, continue forward.” He pointed out a half dozen men. “You men with me. We’ll escort them the rest of the way to Campania.”
Four of them walked ahead, and three behind, with Evie, Tatius, and the mule in the middle. “What were you thinking? Are you mad?” Tatius asked.
“Not at all. After I saw how poorly you protected me from them, I decided I needed to hire someone more capable to see to my safe transport. Besides…it seems like they know something about these symbols. Maybe they’re from Campania. Maybe they know the temple Publius Sepunius Columella talked about.”
“I don’t trust them, Evie.”
“Yes, well, you don’t have a choice. My quest. I give you leave to go back to the farm, but the mule,” she snatched the rope back, “stays with me.”
Tatius decided he wasn’t going to leave the mule. He grumbled about how certain he was that he’d never see it again if he returned to the farm now. He also told Evie that if these men killed her, and Publius found out, the fault would rest on his shoulders. Evie didn’t think much of that problem, since not only did Publius Sepunius seem like a decent human being, but it didn’t seem to her that Tatius’ shoulders could hold much of anything, let alone fault. This whole journey, nothing was his fault, including why it was so warm out.
That night, the nine of them and the mule made camp just off the road. Evie sought out the leader of the fake soldiers and sat next to him before a small fire. “You’ve seen these symbols before.”
“She that wears the bracelet bearing them is either blessed or cursed. If you’re blessed, then I want some of that blessing too. If you’re cursed…not helping you could anger the gods and then I might be cursed too. Besides…the priestesses of Campania owe me.”
“What do they owe you? And how do I know if I’m blessed or cursed?”
“That’s between them and me. And you’ll know from the priestesses. They’ll tell you when we get there.”
“What’s your name?”
“My men call me Marcus.”
Evie suppressed a laugh. It seemed so cliche to her, a Roman named Marcus. But then, she supposed the name did suit him, especially in a soldier’s uniform. “Warlike,” she said, “after Mars, the god of war.”
“Who do the priestesses in Campania worship?
“Saturnus and Lua.”
Evie had never heard of Lua, but she knew who Saturnus, or Saturn, was. The god of seed, of time. She decided that his priestesses would be able to get her back to her own time, when she could just imagine this sort of thing instead of living it. “Why’re you all dressed like soldiers?”
“Too many questions. Go and sleep.”
He turned, a burning stick pointed at her. “Go and sleep. I am not your friend. We are not your friends. We’re guiding you because it’s convenient and I don’t want to anger the gods.”
Evie’s eyes locked on the fire right in front of her face. Perspiration gathered on her upper lip. She licked it away, tasting salt. “Very well,” she held her hands up in surrender. “But remember that if you kill me, you might anger the gods.” She stood and left him by the fire, to seek out Tatius and the mule.
Tatius had already set up a sleep space for them and tied the mule to a tree nearby. He tied another rope from the mule’s to his wrist. “So I know if they try to steal,” he told Evie when she cocked her head to the side. “We should sleep in turns,” he added.
Evie agreed, even though she didn’t think Marcus and his men would attack them–not with the gods on her side. Potentially on my side. But she knew that Tatius would just wake her anyway if she said she didn’t want to take turns guarding. “I’ll take the first shift. I’m not sleepy.” Tatius nodded and he was asleep within minutes.