Between the brush cover and the dangling tunics was ten feet of open space. Easy work. Except the theft needed to be quick and silent, with List-luck on our side. If we caught the attention of the three Roman's too early, it would be a tight race to the horses before half-washed soldiers in wet loincloths overtook us.
I signalled Keld to return to the mares and stand ready. We had picketed the horses a few steps into the trees. There would not be time to pull the spikes from the ground and mount before a pursue caught up to us.
Keld shook his head, flared his nostrils at me. "You go get them," he mouthed.
I did not move.
He knew I would not. He chewed the inside of his cheek, taking his time, deciding whether to let me have my way. Was a good joke worth giving in? Keld would think it was. I let him stew, knowing time would soften his resolve. Finally, he turned away and tread lightly back the way we had come, leaving me to grab the treasure.
Admittedly, the odds of me reaching the tree limb, claiming the garments and retreating unseen were better while the soldiers exchanged grumbles and laughs. They were not talking now. Only the gurgle of the stream and the rustle of a breeze through fledgling leaves would cover my movements. Mitath--Keeper of Measure--whispered in my ear that this might not be the best idea. She was usually right, but her words fell softly, and I was not in the mood to listen. The ground was hard-packed, dry, free of noise-makers. And the vision of damp Roman's forced to ride bare through their garrison, stripped of their dignity in front of their superiors and their slaves, overpowered my patience to "measure" my actions. Besides, Mitath, beautiful as she was rumored to be, was upright and boring, my least favorite of the high god's children.
One of the Romans jumped to the center to the stream. He had spied a school of fish perhaps and made two clumsy attempts to pluck one from the stream. I used the commotion to positioned myself as near to the clothing as I could get. They were back to joking now, taunting the fisher-soldier.
Now or never.
I closed the distance to the branch, had the material bunched between my hands, when I cleverly thought to lift the bundle instead of sliding it, to avoid it snagging and rustling the end leaves.
This was a miscalculation. The branch leaves drew my focus but were not the danger.
I should have listened to Mitath.
Had the bundle contained only wool and linen, I would have return to the bush undetected, and Keld and I would have been riding away before the soldiers knew of the theft.
But as soon as I moved the tunics something dropped from under the pile of clothing, something heavy attached to a thick gold chain. The thud of it on the hard dirt, along with the clink of metal, betrayed my movements, and the soldiers whipped their heads around. They shouted at me, trudging out of the water.
I was not interested in the gold, only the tunics. I left the shiny yellow where it had fallen and ran with my armload of material, shouting, "There coming!" I could see Keld ahead atop his mare, holding Lok, my mare, by a saddle horn.
To look back would slow me down. I kept my head down and my pace up, but I could hear them. The soldiers shouted at me: mixed in were the Roman words for stop, arrest, beating, hanging. The smart move was to throw the clothes, give them pause and something else to chase. But in truth, I didn't want to. I wanted them to chase me, so I could beat them, so I could see a Roman out in the open, exposed, having lost something.
I ran for Keld, grabbed hold of his arm across Lok's back and used the leverage to hoist myself up, stinking tunics up my nose, scraping my chest against the saddle leather before swinging one leg over, facing backwards long enough to see the Romans free of the trees, red-faced and coming at us.
"Go!" I kicked my heals before I could get myself upright. Lok sensed the danger and shot through the low grass, no obstacles to keep her from a full sprint. We were two hundred feet away from the trees before I dared glance back again. There they were, those three Romans, stomping and cursing, loincloths sagging, getting smaller and smaller as Keld and I put more distance between us and retribution. In the moment, I would have said any punishment was worth that sight. Of course, that was a stupid, little-boy notion. I was floating on my own pride and lacked experience. Punishment to a child is a lashing, a shamed-faced apology, extra work in the fields. I did not know about adult consequences. I would soon find out.
Keld and I did not stop laughing until we crossed the last of the streams and entered Wahtwa lands. No man would get within a mile of the high priestess--the Angel of Death--without the head of the Wahtwa knowing. The Wahtwa would have scouts posted. If the Romans followed us, Keld and I would not have to face them alone.
We dismounted at the stream and allowed the horses to drink. We filled our water-bladders, and I unrolled the stolen bundle so Keld could see our prize. We had gotten the best of the soldiers, barely, and we buried a portion of bread with three smooth stones in the soft earth near the stream as an offering of thanks to List for our good fortune.
Unreleased energy pounding at my temples and pumped through my limbs as I told Keld of the fallen gold. He waved the tunic before him, pretending he was a Roman soldier chasing me. I grabbed the tunic from him and pretended to wrestle the imaginary soldier, punching red, wrangling the cloth...
...until it bit me.