It was official: Evie preferred sleeping in villages or even temples. Sleeping outside on the ground wasn’t just uncomfortable, but without an app to tell her the forecast or wondering whether they’d be attacked in the middle of the night, Evie had trouble falling asleep in the wildnerness. After the ordeal in the cave, it was nice to find a barn with a pile of hay. Hay was scratchy and soft at the same time.
Marcus woke her with the sun and said they should get moving because they didn’t exactly have permission to sleep in the barn.
“Relax,” she told him, stretching and yawning, “let’s enjoy the village for a little while. We have the map. Finding Hercules will be simple now.” Had she just said those words? Evie still wasn’t sure if she’d had some kind of psychotic break.
Marcus wasn’t having it. There were no lazy mornings on a quest, it seemed. Reluctantly, Evie left the barn and they walked through the village, seeking an opportunity to either buy or take breakfast. Evie stopped in the middle of the main road and Marcus didn’t realize it until a few steps later.
“What? Why’d you stop?” he asked.
Evie let her mouth hang open and pointed to a small hut across the street.
“By Jupiter…” Marcus whispered.
Tatius wasn’t facing them, but he wasn’t turned away either. He held the door open while someone talked to him from inside. Evie couldn’t hear the other person but she saw Tatius nod and walk around the building toward the back. Evie crossed the road.
“Leave him, Evie,” Marcus said.
She ignored him. He continued to protest that Tatius would only slow them down. Rounding the building, she saw Tatius poking at a haystack.
“What’re you doing here?” Evie didn’t mean to sound accusing, but she saw his shoulders tense.
Tatius turned from the hay. “Evie. I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”
She repeated her question. Tatius told her the mule was stolen from him, and so he never returned to Publius Sepunius Columella’s farm, afraid the old man would fire him anyway—or worse.
“But he was so kind to me.”
“He wanted you to leave without causing him any trouble with the guards.”
“Who stole the mule?”
Tatius shrugged. “I didn’t stop the bandits to introduce myself.”
A smile twitched on Evie’s face and then she broke into laughter. She laughed until her stomach and sides ached. Tatius didn’t laugh, but the fact that he’d made a sarcastic comment was so out of place, so unexpected, that she couldn’t help but laugh. Her laughter drew Marcus, who glowered at Tatius.
“He’s not joining us,” Marcus announced.
Evie’s laughter ebbed and she caught her breath. “Who said anything about joining you?”
Tatius leaned on his pitchfork. “Join you where?”
“Oh, get this,” Evie said. “A priestess sent us to find Hercules. Apparently he alone can stop Mount Vesuvius from blowing its lid and killing everyone in Pompeii. We’re supposed to find a third—” Evie paused and recited the first line of the prophesy. “Rings of Saturn and companions three…” She turned toward Marcus. “Tatius is the third!”
“What? No,” Marcus said.
“I can’t leave,” Tatius protested.
Evie grabbed Tatius’s hand and dragged him away from the haystack. “You have to come with us. We’re supposed to find a third companion and Hercules and stop the volcano in just ten days. If it’s not you, then who are we supposed to find?”
“Anyone else,” Tatius said. “I let you lead me away from my last home. It’s not happening again.”
“I don’t think he has what it takes,” Marcus piped up.
“Tatius, if you come with us, don’t you think the gods will reward you?”
“Erm…having a home and work and food in my belly is reward enough.”
“We need you,” Evie said.
“No we don’t,” Marcus added. Evie glared at him and mouthed the words be quiet.
“This is my quest. I need you, Tatius, like I need Marcus. Like we need the map and Hercules and these,” she held up her wrist. Evie looked around and then dragged Tatius to the village bathhouse. Marcus followed. Except she didn’t lead them into the public part, but to the small structure behind it, where a fire burned to heat the water. Evie stuck her hand and wrist in.
“No!” Tatius yanked her away from the fire.
Evie held up her wrist to show the glowing runes wrapped around it. “The gods need you, Tatius. Look. This isn’t some…some dream or vision, or some crazy, imaginary thing.” Well, maybe it is, she thought. “We need you.”
It took some more convincing, the promise of coin upon completion of the quest as well as her word as the mortal chosen by the gods that his life would be markedly improved in exchange for his participation. Tatius told his new employer that he was leaving. The man wasn’t as kind about it as Publius Sepunius in that he didn’t give them money but rather chased them out of the village with a knife. When they were several hundred yards’ out, Marcus said he would have fought back, except it was funny to be chased so by a man who’d obviously never killed anyone.
Once out of the village, Marcus went to gather or hunt for some food since they were chased out before they could get any. Evie sat down with Tatius and the map. “Do you know where this is?” she asked, holding it out to him. There weren’t any place names labeled—just a zigzagging line through mountains and valleys.
Tatius examined the map. “I have a good guess,” he said. Turning the map in his hands a few times, he looked around them in a circle. “I think we have to go to Positano.”
“How long will that take?”
Tatius rolled a shoulder. “Three days?”
Evie nodded. “Giving us just over a week to get Hercules back to Mount Vesuvius. I think it’s doable. When Marcus comes back, we’ll start walking.” Evie put the map away and ran her fingers over the runes, no longer glowing, on her wrist. “Why’d you really stay near Campania, Tatius?”
“I told you already. Mule was stolen and I didn’t want to return without it.”
“I think Publius Sepunius would have accepted an apology. You’re not a fighter.”
“He would not have. I have seen his anger before.”
“What’d he do?”
According to Tatius, it was three years ago. One of the Publius Sepunius’s slaves was sent out to get the goats. Two of them escaped and could not be recovered. Publius Sepunius had two of the slave’s fingers removed. Both pinkies. The story made Evie gasp and cover her mouth with both hands.
“That’s horrid. And you saw this?”
“But…you are a freeman. Surely, he wouldn’t do that to you…”
“I don’t know. Probably not but that wouldn’t stop him hurting one of his slaves.”
Evie hesitated. “I’m just…I’m surprised. He was so kind to me and he didn’t have to be.”
“Publius Sepunius fears and honors the gods, as we all do. Showing you kindness was his way of preserving himself and his home.”
Evie wrapped her arms around her legs. “Oh.” She rested her chin on her knees and said, “Well, then I guess it’s good you didn’t go back there.”
Tatius nodded. “What did the priestess tell you about this prophesy?”
“All I know besides the fact that the three of us have to find Hercules is that he’s trapped somewhere.”
“He must have angered Jupiter. Or Juno. Juno hates Hercules.”
“I bet she does.”
Evie and Tatius fell into companiable silence until Marcus returned. He couldn’t find any meat but he’d gotten his hands on some bread, milk, and olives. Evie thought he must have skirted around the village to sneak in and steal from people. She secretly hoped he took the food from the villager who chased Tatius and them out with a knife, but she didn’t ask. While they ate, they told Marcus where they had to go and he agreed it would be best not to linger too long. If she hadn’t been convinced before that he stole the food, she would be now.
With the whole afternoon ahead of them to walk toward Positano, Evie hoped they could put some distance behind them. The sooner they found Hercules, and released him from wherever he was trapped, the sooner they could go to Mount Vesuvius. The sooner she could go home.