Keld and I did not need to know the path we traveled to understand what direction we must go. We knew how the water flowed. That was enough.
Our fathers had built our Amal clan longhouses near a river. Oescus River, the Romans called it. The Romans had named their military fortress and city after it. The Oescus flowed south to north, feeding into the imposing Danau — Danubius to the Romans — a couple miles to the north.
Streams branched from the Oescus and trickled east over our laeti lands. Every child above age six in our clan knew the streams, and Keld and I could mark our distance from our Amal homestead by the strength and position of the small currents. Thus we were never lost.
Sometimes the water pooled where the land dipped slightly. Around the pools, the terrain softened, trees grew thick, and beasts and critters flourished. So as Keld and I rounded the edge of a particularly lush grouping of green and saw squirrels and hares scrambling from the brush, we knew two things. First, we had reached the lowest point of our half-day journey to the Angel, so we were nearly to the edge of Wahtwa lands. And second, something had disturbed the balance within the trees.
I slowed Lok--my mare--to a stop.
“What are you doing?” Keld asked. I heard the warning in his voice but chose to ignore it.
“A winter-old sack of grain is no gift for the priestess,” I said, scanning the tree line.
“Stay the course, Karig. We need to do what we were told this time.” But Keld turned his eyes to follow my gaze just as a doe darted into the open. "Well," he reconsidered, "it would be impolite to ignore such a sign from the gods." Keld loved the hunt.
I edged Lok closer to the tree line.
Twigs snapped from somewhere inside the brush, and the doe scampered off.
“Whatever is causing the ruckus, it is not small," I said.
“Maybe too big. It could be a boar. Remember Radlig...”
...our unfortunate uncle, his leg torn open on the hunt. We had lit the fires for Radlig's journey to the Warrior's Table before we had roasted the pig that had sent our uncle on his way. I hesitated. “If it is too much for us, we will continue on with our stale grain.”
“This is a bad idea,” Keld said, but not like he meant it.
I smiled and took off toward the trees. Keld called me a name before he followed.
At the trees line I dismounted and walked low and softly through the first layers of light brush. Only a few steps in, I froze, waited for Keld and pointed thirty paces ahead where a lowland stream had pooled. There, on the water’s edge, was the source of the commotion.
Not a boar.
Men. Three of them. Stripped to their loincloths, scrubbing at their limbs in the shadowed stream.
If they were Flatland Greuthungi or even Tervingi, Keld and I would have retreated from the woods and been on our way.
But these men were Romans.
They had hung their red legion tunics and un-dyed leggings from trees branches to keep the clothes clean and dry. Stupid, arrogant arses that they were, they had not tried to cover the red, but left the material to swing like flags marking territory that was not theirs to mark.
Keld and I hated the Romans, though we had never spoken directly to one. Our fathers fought along side the legionnaires—made camp with them—yet were never on equal standing. The pay for an auxiliary man was half of a Roman's. Food, weapons and living quarters went to the garrison of Oescus and the regular legion first. Our fathers got the scraps.
And this was not how it should be. On the Steppe, where Keld and I were born, the Greuthungi were strong and fierce and ready to bleed for what was required. A man fought and hunted, helped to feed the clan, had honor. Not like here. Within Roman territory we were not called citizens, and if there was an agreement between Roman and Goth, a Goth could only trust that it would be honored.
And I did not trust.
These Romans on laeti land were breaking an agreement. This was an insult…and a threat.
What would happen if clan children came across these trespassers? The area was well-tread and free of kindling which meant the nearby clans--Goths, who would be women and children when the men were away—hunted and foraged here.
I looked at Keld, whose lips were drawn tight. I wanted to throw stones at the bare Roman backsides, heckle these men. But we were alone, without clansmen behind us. Even I knew it was too dangerous to make ourselves known. And what good would a few stones do, anyway? None.
It is a terrible thing to feel angry and helpless all at once.
There were only three bathers, and they had taken no precaution for their security. Their backs were to us, all three were nearly naked, barefooted and wet, with their clothes twenty paces from their reach. The Roman soldiers, who bragged of their superiority and called Goths backwards, had left their hindquarters and their honor exposed.
I laughed silently and whispered thanks to the gods for our good fortune.
Keld placed a hand on my shoulder to stop whatever I was about to do. He threw me a quizzical look, heavy warning still nestled in his brow. I tilted my chin up to the swinging tunics.
His grim face lightened. He swallowed a laugh and caution left him. I knew it would.
This opportunity could only be a gift from List -- the Trickster. And List was Keld’s favorite of the many gods.
Together, we moved through the trees toward our new prey.