How long was it since she watched the city burn? Three days, three weeks, three months she couldn't think straight the effort of putting one foot in front of the other took all her concentration. Tired and hungry she risked a glance at her fellow travellers wondering why they stayed with her. Ioanna the dusky skinned Persian woman, her midnight hair in a single braid that hung down her back. Once her slave and now her travelling companion. Her head held high proud of her heritage. The bow she had taken from a dead soldier slung across her shoulder. Rossa the Rus taller than a woman should be. Blonde haired twin plaits hanging down the sides of her head, blue eyed another former slave. Her hands clutching the axe she had ripped out of the hand of a man that attacked her. Arete Kraspolia the only other true Byzantine and Tobromeros an elderly and faithful family retainer holding the mule with what could be called their meagre possessions. She wondered where things had all gone wrong. Halting her travelling companions halted with her.
"My lady you should rest, you've been travelling for hours without a break?" Rossa told her.
"And you should be on your way home dear Rossa. You are free, you all are. Stephanos freed you."
"I stay my lady, if not for the kindness you showed us all those years. I would have died had you not taken us with you."
"I will stay my lady," Ioanna replied. "As much for my own safety as for yours. My kinsmen would not welcome me nor would anyone else."
"I'm really sorry I truly am."
"Thank you my lady."
"Is the great Apokomes, Lucretia Gaius Stephanina tired?" Arete remarked sarcasm heavy in her voice. "Call for your servants, may be a slave will wash your feet and feed you sweet meats from a golden platter."
Rossa hefted her axe. "Perhaps I should lighten your burden starting with your head." She told Arete menacingly stepping towards her.
"Rossa! No!" Lucretia commanded stepping in front of Rossa. "We've enough enemies as it is."
"Sorry my lady."
Tobromeros silently handed her a goatskin of water. She drank passing it to Rossa. It made a circuit of the travellers before Tobromeros re-stoppered the skin and placed back on the mule.
They rested by the side of the road, Lucretia thought about her husband worried where he was and if he was trying to find them. The last she had seen of him was leading his Kataphraktoi against the Venetians and their treacherous allies. Resplendent in his armour, lance down clearing a path so she could escape the city. He was the last, two sons she had lost to the war with the Turks. Her daughter Eugenia murdered as the city was looted. She had gone out looking for her with her husband. She still shivered remembering the sight that greeted her eyes. A crude Venetian sailor was rutting the dead body of her daughter. Her servants scattered about her all dead. She derived no pleasure when Stephanos took the man's head off with a single sweep of his blade. Gathering her daughter's body, she wept headless of the dirt on her finery, sitting there cradling her daughter in her arms. Plucking the rough cloth she now wore more suitable for a merchant's wife than an Apokomes whose husband was the Merarches of the Kataphraktoi. Her hands quested for the leather thong around her neck. Tied to it, were her rings, and broaches. Once her pride and now the only means to buy food.
The sound of horses rapidly approaching broke her out of her depression. Hurriedly they scrambled into the bushes lining the edge of the road, the dull colours of the cloth blending into the dry brush. She hid with the others, her heart beating like a drum. She felt movement beside her Rossa and Ioanna flanking her with ease. Rossa her axe gripped hard, skin whitening on her knuckles. Ioanna had an arrow notched to her bow, her only two others stuck in the dirt at her feet. If it hadn't been for Ioanna's bow they would starved long ago. The column came up the road at a pace, Lucretia stiffened. Allies of the Venetians, cavalry banners flying as if they owned the country. Her hand went to the little dagger at her side ready to draw it at a moment's notice. She would rather die than be taken alive. Her daughter's fate strong in her mind, those that committed sacrilege, violating churches and carrying away all that they could wouldn't be adverse to rape and murder. They watched the horsemen pass not daring to move. She was close enough to hear their coarse tongue and the jingle of their armour each one looking like hard-faced professionals. They were supposed to help them in the war against the Turks. The city had welcomed them but it was all a lie. They fired the city and were turned out, only to sneak back in months later and finish what they started. She wished Stephanos were here holding her in his strong arms telling her everything will be all right and always to trust in God. She trusted him he had never proved her wrong.
They waited until the soldiers had long gone before venturing out on to the road. Picking up from where they left off they headed away from the direction the soldiers had gone, heading towards the mountains and an uncertain safety. They were all tired and hungry but they moved on careful to stay off the main roads many still choked with refugees.
Lucretia walked carrying a bundle the others followed behind silently except Arete.
"Where are we going?" She complained.
Lucretia stopped and turned to her. "Be silent! Your voice will bring disaster on all of us. More than likely they can hear you in Constantinople!"
Arete shot her a glare for pure hatred. She opened her mouth to speak. Rossa moved fast snatching a hand full of dried grass and forcing it into her mouth. She spluttered shaking in rage. Her eyes on Rossa and her axe. Lucretia placed herself between the two women.
"No Rossa please?" Then turning to Arete. "Go if you want to? Take your share of the food and leave."
"I will to stay I'm a woman alone how long do you think I'll last?"
Lucretia hadn't the heart to do that to her. Her own daughter's death still strong in her mind. "Stay but be silent, I swear to God that mouth of yours will be the death of us all." She was tired, the steam bank ahead seemed a good place to rest and Rossa could catch some fish, showing her talents before. Lucretia was certain they would have starved long ago if it hadn't been for the two former slaves.
She dangled her feet in the ice cold water feeling the pain leach out. Ioanna prepared the evening meal with the help of Tobromeros, the old man moving quickly for someone his age. Of all of them, Lucretia pitied him the most. She hadn't wanted to take him but he insisted on going. Never flinching, never complaining always ready to do whatever task that was assigned to him. She lifted her feet out of the water the aches eased.
Rossa knelt beside her a cloth in her hands. "With you permission my lady. I'll dry you feet."
"That's not necessary Rossa you're not a slave any more."
"As you wish my lady." Rossa replied taking Lucretia's foot and wiping it dry.
She allowed Rossa this small victory. It grew colder during the night Lucretia found herself sandwiched between the two ex-slaves their combined body heat warming her. This made her uncomfortable, feeling guilty that although her husband had freed the two women, they still acted like her slaves. She thought them more as companions, travellers on the same road. A feeling she didn't share with Arete the sooner the woman was gone the better off they would be.
The further into the mountains they went, the more Lucretia considered Rossa and Ioanna her friends. Friends all looking out for one another, Ioanna taught her to cook and Rossa how to weald the axe she was so fond of. They travelled the countryside, the few coins they had paying for food at inflated prices. She managed to exchange one of her precious broaches for a scant handful of coins from a passing merchant. She worried about Stephanos hoping he was still alive and asking for information from any source. All she had were rumours and little else. Some said the emperor was dead, others he was alive and had fled begging sanctuary from the Turks. One rumour that did concern her was the Venetians were looking for a noble woman the description given matching to closely to hers.
"Do you think they are looking for you?" Ioanna asked her.
"I'm not sure." She replied trying not to sound concerned.
"I don't like the size of the reward they are offering?" Rossa said, "Any peasant will sell you out for half of that!"
Lucretia glanced at Arete when she said that. She saw the speculation in her eyes, suddenly her blood ran cold.
"I think we should change your name?" Tobromeros spoke up. They all stared at him the old man normally silent a shadow in the background had spoken out of turn.
"I agree too many in Constantinople know my name."
"I'm sorry if it causes you pain, what about Eugenia? It's a name we all know." Ioanna asked her.
She nodded feeling the sadness that accompanied it. "Yes that would be good."
They travelled onwards careful to avoid the increasing number of Venetian patrols. Every time they stopped, she could feel Arete eyes upon her. She felt unease at the woman's silence. Tired and hungry they stumbled into a nearly deserted village the only occupants' two priests in brown cassocks sweeping the steps of a chapel with a tiny cupola and white washed walls. One of the priests was elderly, his companion much younger no older than a novice. They approached the two men with caution.
"Yes? Can I help you travellers? I'm Brother Makarios, and this is Brother Gerasimos we tend the chapel here in the village."
"We looking for a place to stay." Lucretia told them.
"You're welcome to have one of the houses in the village." The elder priest Brother Makarios replied pointing to a well appointed house at the centre of the village."
"Won't the owner object?" She asked him.
"No, there's only us here now."
"Why is the village deserted?"
"Fear drove them away."
"Fear?" She asked.
"We don't know." Makarios replied a little too quickly.
Rossa was suspicious. "Come Eugenia we can find another village." Her hand reaching out to take hold of Lucretia's arm.
"Yes come away Eugenia." Ioanna said taking Lucretia's other arm.
"You won't get far in the dark." Brother Gerasimos stuttered.
"The priest's right I could do with a roof over my head." Arete interrupted. "I'm sick of sleeping in a ditch, You go on I'm staying here for the night."
Lucretia was almost tempted to take her up on her offer, glad to be rid of the woman at last. She glanced at her companions. They were exhausted they needed their rest. One night here wouldn't hurt.
"We'll take up your kind offer." She thought. "Have any soldiers come through the village?"
Makarios looked at Rossa. "Some like this one." He pointed to her. "Fierce warriors."
"Rus." Rossa whispered to Lucretia. "Mercenaries more than likely."
She agreed with Rossa. "How long ago was that?" She asked the priests.
"A week ago, the villagers left the day after."
Lucretia was certain it was partly the truth. A nod from Ioanna confirmed her thoughts. Soldiers may have been through the village at the time. She had her doubts about the village, it looked like it was abandoned before that time. The house was the largest in the village with three rooms and separate kitchen. Ioanna killed two chickens she found scratching around in the dirt. Lucretia helped her pluck them, a dirty job she wasn't used to doing. Both Ioanna and Rossa offered her the largest share when they were cooked.
"No we share this equally." She told them taking her dagger and dividing the chickens into five roughly equal portions.
The roasted birds tasted better to her than the finest imperial banquet, washing it down with some soured wine when she had finished. Shamelessly she licked the last of the juices off her fingers. Of the chickens not a scrap of meat remained. She watched Ioanna take the innards and the bones putting them in a pot stirring them together.
"Soup for the morning." She told Lucretia when she asked. "I'll have to stir it most of the night."
"You really don't have to do this?"
"Yes my lady I do."
"Please call me Lucretia."
Ioanna smiled. "Lucretia as you ask."
Ioanna smiled again. "Find a bed and rest, Tobromeros will keep me company."
"Not just yet my friend. I haven't prayed for a while I need to cleanse my soul and pray for Stephanos' safety."
"Be careful take Rossa with you."
"The chapel is over there not too far away. Rossa said she was going to heat some water to wash with. I want to be away from this place as early as possible." She picked up a little lantern from the table lighting it with a taper from the kitchen fire.
Ioanna glanced towards the other rooms. "While that one is asleep. I will glad to see the back of her she's trouble. One nod to Rossa and she'll slit her throat and she'll trouble no one."
"No please don't."
"As you wish." Ioanna turned back to her cooking.
There was no one in the chapel, Lucretia knelt down in front of the altar and prayed. She prayed for Stephanos, she prayed for them. It felt good she was at peace. Getting up she wondered where the priests were. The only other exit lead out the back to the priests' quarters the door was closed. She could hear no sounds from within. Glancing one last time at the altar she picked up the little lantern and left the chapel. Slowly she started back to the house. Suddenly she stopped stiffening, she could hear movement in the dark from beyond the circle of light the lantern provided. She spun on the spot seeking to pin point the source of the sound certain she was being followed. Putting her hand to her dagger, she searched around for them. Vainly she sought out the person but all she could hear was the sound of the wind. Slowly she retreated to the safety of the house feeling nervous. Rossa regarded her with curious eyes.
"Trouble?" She asked.
"Someone was following me back from the chapel. Arete here?"
"Been here all night snoring away after her meal."
"It might have been one of the priests?" Lucretia said not sounding certain.
"Possible, the sooner we are way from this God forsaken place the better." She looked down at Lucretia. "I've got some hot water, please wash and get some rest."
"I'll keep watch." Rossa replied picking up her axe and turning to watch the door.
Lucretia laid her body on the straw stuffed mattress. The bed felt wonderful after sleeping on the hard dirt for so long. Sleep was not long in coming.
The smell of food woke from the most restful sleep she had for a long time.
"Something for the road," Ioanna told her ladling out a bowl of soup for her. She looked tired.
"You will be alright?" Lucretia asked her.
"I'm fine." She glanced towards the other room frowning. "I was hoping we could leave without her. Sometime during the night, she called Tobromeros to her bed. Frankly, I find it disgusting an old man falling prey to her lusts. She should keep her legs closed, that's not how to behave."
"As soon as we've all eaten we can be on the road."
Rossa hurried in glancing towards the other room and the sounds of movement within. She was carrying a couple of bundles.
"I've found several arrows, but the bow was warped only good for fire wood, and this." She scrabbled at one of the bundles pulling from it a short bladed scabbarded sword. She handed to Lucretia with a flourish, "For you my lady. A light blade for delicate hands."
Lucretia laughed lightly holding out her hands. "No longer. My hands are as rough as a fishwife's."
Ioanna perused the arrows and sighed. "They'll have to do. As long as my targets the size of a bull and at arms length."
They gathered their possessions and packed them onto the back of the mule, a quick search of the other huts brought them some more food. A sack of flour and a corked jar of wine were added to their inventory. Lucretia felt guilty ransacking the village for her own ends.
"Why can't we stay?" Arete moaned.
"We must go on." Lucretia told her patiently, then mindful of her late night antics adding. "You stay if you want. We must go on."
"No I'll come." Arete replied a guilty glower towards Tobromeros as if she was blaming him for what she did.
"Stay or come we're leaving." Lucretia said walking towards the door.
Arete hurried behind her. At the door Lucretia hesitated and turned back. Glancing around she placed one of her broaches on the rough table of the house they had used. In her way of thinking payment for the use of the house and the food they had taken. She didn't want to be labelled a thief by the previous occupants. Rossa accompanied her to the chapel, her eyes on everything but Lucretia. It reminded her of one of her bodyguards. They had fled when the city fell abandoning their mistress for their own miserable lives. Of the two priests, there was no sign. The chapel was small, a quick search revealed if the two men had been here they left in a hurry. It worried her as she tried to think back to when she had last seen them. She hadn't seen them after her first conversation when they arrived in the village yesterday.
Rossa spoke echoing Lucretia's thoughts, "I reckon they recognised you and are after the reward."
"The sooner we go the better." Lucretia couldn't leave it at that. She found a piece of parchment; quickly she wrote detailing the location of the broach and why she had left it to pay for what they had taken. Then she lied saying they were heading north. Finishing her note she placed it on the altar, a quick prayer then they were one the road again heading north until they reached a stream, then doubling back to their original route by wading through the icy waters.
Lucretia was glad to be way from the village. It seemed to be cursed. They travelled the roads avoiding other travellers mindful of the reward on her head. Arete complained constantly. They rested in grove of trees behind a ruined building; someplace long abandoned, when sounds from the road alerted them. She peered through brush in a place she could observe the road from safety. The sounds behind her told her that both Ioanna and Rossa had taken flanking positions. She shifted herself the sword at her hip was pressing hard into her side. It felt comforting even if she didn't know how to use it. She could see the clouds of dust thrown up by the approaching riders, as the men hove into view her heart gladdened. These were Byzantine, their banners showing allegiance to the emperor. She was on her feet and moving before her friends could stop her, hailing the riders. The cavalry slowed to a halt riders arranging themselves some staring at the countryside alert for an ambush. Lucretia had to risk it she needed news of her husband. The commander urged his horse forward coming level with Lucretia his eyes seeming to take in her attire and the sword at her hip.
"Are you loyal to the Emperor?" She asked the man.
"Loyal to the Emperor?" He asked puzzled. "Who are you to ask?"
"Apokomes Lucretia Gaius Stephanina."
The man shook his head. "I don't know who you are? We're a little isolated out here since Constantinople fell."
"My husband is Stephanos Gaius, Merarches of the Kataphraktoi. I seek news of his fate."
"My apologies Apokomes." The man bowed. "The last dispatch we had put him across the Bosporus, with the new emperor Theodore Lascaris."
"Take me to him!"
"Sorry Apokomes we have our orders. We head north."
"Must find your own way there I can't help you." With that, he ordered his men onwards leaving Lucretia to stare in their direction through a cloud of dust.
She heard the rustle of vegetation behind her. Ioanna stepped beside her an arrow notched in to her bow staring in the direction of the dust cloud a concerned expression on her face. Rossa flanked her other side.
"What were you thinking?" Rossa demanded. "That was incredibly dangerous considering most Byzants will sell their own mothers for a few coins."
"Thanks Rossa." Lucretia replied laconically.
Rossa blushed red. "Apologies my lady I didn't mean that of you?"
Lucretia laughed she felt in a good mood. She now had a place to go and news that not only was her husband alive but still fighting for what he believed in.
"What did you say to the soldier?" Ioanna asked her eyes still fixed on the horizon.
"I asked him for news of Stephanos."
"He's in Bynithia fighting for the new emperor."
"Good!" Rossa remarked. "At least we've got a direction to go in."
"We'll have to head for the coast and hire a boat. I promise that as soon as we reach Stephanos, I'll make sure he sends you home with an escort one that befits your status?"
"Slaves?" Rossa asked
"No my friends of equal rank."
The two women shifted looking at each other in stunned amazement. "Until Bynithia." They said together.
"That's settled." Lucretia said with a smile. "I think we'll rest here the night and travel on in the morning. The sooner I'm back with Stephanos the sooner you two can go home."
A sudden noise in the darkness woke Lucretia in the night. She was supposed to be on guard duty but she had fallen asleep, silently she cursed her inattention. The sound of a pebble cracking against another brought her to full alertness. Swiftly she stood her hand clutching the hilt of the sword at her hip. She stared into the night trying to see if anyone was there. She could dimly make out four shapes huddled around the embers of the dying fire. The mule was tethered to a gnarled olive tree. As her eyes got used to the dark, she made out what seemed to be the shape of a man standing just at the edge of what she could see. Hand on her sword she drew it, the blade making a scraping sound against the scabbard. The noise alerted her friends, Rossa and Ioanna were up in a minute and both staring in the direction Lucretia was facing. She saw a flash of eyes and then it was gone. Lucretia shivered visibly, the sudden appearance of the intruder had not disturbed Arete. She still snored fitfully in her blankets. Lucretia was in a mind to give the woman a kick. Suddenly there was a yelp of pain. Rossa had done what she had only put to thought.
"What in the name of God was that for!" Arete shouted rubbing her backside.
"Shut up you fool you nearly had your throat slit. If it wasn't for Eugenia you'd be dead."
Lucretia noticed Rossa was using her assumed name in case there was someone in the darkness listening to them. They settled back down not one to them able to sleep all feeling tense.
Dawn found them on the road again heading away from the campsite and towards the coast. Ioanna ghosting ahead an arrow notched in her bow. They walked for hours following a narrow cliff side trail Ioanna had found in her scouting. It took them away from the road and the possibility of running into anymore patrols. The trail was narrow, they moved down the crumbling path taking it one step at a time careful progress, Ioanna insisted in going first Lucretia followed and then Rossa and Arete. Tobromeros brought up the rear, the mule becoming fractious. The mule heehawed then began bucking. Tobromeros clung to the reins trying to calm it down. Then it happened. The mule slipped over the edge Tobromeros his hands still tangled in the reins followed. He tumbled down the cliff a despairing scream escaping from his lips. The sound echoed by Lucretia, as she stood rooted to the spot unable doing anything just staring in disbelief. It took them an hour to reach the floor of a cliff then double back to the spot where Tobromeros lay. He was dead, as was the mule. The fall had broken his neck his battered body lay in odd position spread-eagled across the mule, his hand still clutching the reins. Lucretia wept for Tobromeros holding on to Rossa for support, Ioanna's hands circling her waist, all three mourning for the old man. It was sometime before they could move, with heavy hearts they dug a grave laying the old man's body to rest. Lucretia said a prayer over the grave. She sat on a rock staring into the distance regretting to ever assenting to let the old man follow her. Ioanna broke out of her despondency.
"My lady we must go."
She looked up at Ioanna. Rossa was removing their things from the dead mule. Throwing away the broken and redistributing the rest into four bundles.
"We must go on." Lucretia said picking up her share it seemed lighter then the others. She hadn't the heart to tell Rossa off for this error.
They followed Lucretia down the trail heading for the coast. She shut her ears to Arete's constant complaints fixing her mind on Stephanos face and the feeling of warmth his closeness gave her.
They continued their journey towards the coast with heavy hearts. Lucretia tried to remember if Tobromeros had any family but couldn't. She knew all her personal slaves and servants but beyond that they were just nameless faces. She was determined to make amends. They made camp, the atmosphere was subdued without Tobromeros. As Lucretia lay on the hard dirt next to the fire, she wondered how she could have done things differently. She closed her eyes letting a tear tickle from the corner of her eye. A light touch to her shoulder had them open.
"Please my lady it wasn't your fault." Ioanna told her. "Rest we've got far to go."
Lucretia lay down feeling Ioanna snuggle up to her. The warmth of Ioanna's body easing some of the guilt she was feeling. She woke suddenly sensing she was being watched she sat up suddenly alert. She was sure the watcher was back, of Arete there was no sign.
"Rossa?" She called softly. "Rossa?" louder.
Ioanna was awake in an instant reaching for her bow. "Rossa?" she said adding her voice to Lucretia's. "Arete?"
There was no reply from either woman. Lucretia picked up a brand from the fire and blew it alight. She spied a crumpled shape in the flickering light.
The shape groaned.
The two hurried over to the shape. Rossa was lying on the floor a cut across the back of her head. They helped her to the fire. Lucretia bathing the wound with water while Ioanna scouted around for Arete.
"Can't find her." Ioanna said squatting down beside the fire staring into the flames.
"Bitch!" Rossa uttered holding the edge of the cloth Lucretia was using to bandage her head. "I caught her rifling around in the food bags. The bitch hit me with a rock when my back was turned."
Ioanna went over the bundles and searched through them. "The food's all gone!" She reported bleakly. "You want me to go after her." She clutched her bow tightly.
"No let her go we're well rid of her we still have water." She smiled at Ioanna. "That bow of yours will keep us in food."
They journeyed on staving off their pangs of hunger with roots the scavenged from the sides of the trail. They stopped by the side of the road eking out the last of the food between them. The road dipped into a ravine steep cliffs rose above them. There was a cry in the distance. Hesitantly they stood up realising there was nowhere to hide the sides of the ravine too steep to climb. Ioanna and Rossa placed themselves in front of Lucretia.
"Run my lady!" Rossa told her pushing down the trail.
"We'll hold them off." Ioanna added notching her arrow to her bow. "Go!"
Lucretia refused. "Your fate is mine." She drew her sword.
The three women stood ready. The distance closed between them and the pursuers. With a chill, she recognised them as scouts for the Venetians. Ioanna drew her bow; fletching to her ear and released, the arrow flew wide. She swore and drew another arrow this one to going wide. The scouts slowed, then rushed them as Ioanna's second arrow followed the path of the first, going wide. Ioanna's third arrow found its mark hitting the man from his horse. Already in the charge, they couldn't stop the narrow trail making it impossible to turn. As the two remaining scouts thundered past Rossa lashed out catching one with her axe. Blood sprayed from his open wound. The third man made a grab for Lucretia yelling hoarsely in some unintelligible language. She jabbed with her sword. Her blade scraping against his armour but causing no damage. The man struck out with his boot catching Lucretia on her shoulder making her spin and drop her sword. The man reached down to grab her as she reeled back dazed. He was too slow, an axe came up to hit him in the chest as an arrow punched into his back. With a harsh cry the man toppled from his horse dead.
The battle was over in the blink of an eye. Ioanna and Rossa rushed to her side.
"Are you alright my lady?" Rossa asked concerned.
Lucretia shook herself. "Get the horses."
Ioanna leapt onto the back of a horse and galloped after the others. Rossa gathered the weapons from the dead, stripping them of anything useful.
"Coin, my lady." She said handing a jingling purse to Lucretia.
They waited for Ioanna to return pulling the bodies into the bushes and sweeping dust into the blood on the trail.
Ioanna returned breathless leading the other two horses. "I got them!" She gasped, putting her hand into one of the saddlebags pulling out a loaf of bread. "And food."
Mounted they continued their journey at a faster pace.
They travelled faster on horseback but it was harder to avoid the patrols. Pushing the horses hard, they were forced to rest them often.
"Ioanna?" Lucretia asked at one of the rest stops. "Did you know if Tobromeros had any family?" The old man's death still troubled her.
"None that we were ever told about. All he wanted was to buy a small farm and grow olives."
"Don't worry we honour his memory every night in our prayers." Rossa replied wiping down her horse with a handful of grass.
"Thanks." Lucretia replied sharing out the loaf of bread the scouts' coins had purchased for them.
They ate in silence each seeming to be lost in their own private worlds. Lucretia glanced across at her two friends they looked as tired as she felt but they had to go on. She had to admit getting a boat across the straits was a risk with all those Venetian pirates about. She needed to be with Stephanos, he was the only family she had left. The stop was all too brief and then they were on the roads again.
They rode passing villages and towns avoiding both. They stopped again briefly for a meal using the last of their coins for a half of bread and some cured beef.
Ioanna glanced back down the trail they had traversed and swore. "Riders!" She said bleakly. "Many riders."
Lucretia stared in the direction Ioanna was indicating seeing the clouds of dust. "Heading this way?" She asked.
"I'm certain." She replied stuffing her meal into her saddlebag and mounting her horse.
Rossa helped Lucretia mount and did the same. As soon as they settled, they set off at gallop. Ioanna taking the rear to keep and eye on the advancing riders. They galloped fast, riding to keep as much distance between them and the dust clouds. They rode at full speed pushing the horses hard, Lucretia held on as best she could. Whatever they were doing had no effect they couldn't shake their pursuers. There was a plaintive whiney and Rossa's horse was down. The woman rolling off her horse. The other two reined in Ioanna leaping from her horse to help her friend out. Lucretia was off her horse whacking it hard on the rear.
"Are you hurt?" She asked Rossa as Ioanna helped her up.
"Yeah fine, just a little winded."
"We must go!" Ioanna said her eyes down the trail staring at the dust cloud.
"It will be easier for us to hide on foot?" Lucretia said taking Rossa's saddlebags from her horse.
They hurried away from the trail hoping they would follow the trail and not them on foot. Glancing back as they crested a ridge Lucretia realised she was wrong. A squadron had detached itself from the main army and was following their tracks, only slowed by the dense brush. It would only be a matter of time before they were reached.
"A river!" Rossa gasped pointing to a silvery ribbon ahead of them. "Cross that and we'll be safe!"
Leaving all thought of evasion behind they headed straight for the river.
As they reached the banks of the river, it dawned on all of them their mistake. The river was wider than they had first thought and deeper. They halted staring at the swift flowing waters.
"We can swim this!" Rossa said enthusiastically. "Once across we'll be safe."
"I can't swim." Lucretia said hopelessly knowing she had run out of options.
"I can't either." Ioanna moaned sitting down in the grass her eyes on the furthest bank.
"There must be a place to cross?" Lucretia asked.
"More than likely but they'll be held by the Venetians."
Lucretia turned to see the soldiers crossing the ridge. Out by the banks of the river they were quite exposed. The men on horses could easily run them down if they tried to run. Drowning in the river was not the end Lucretia had in mind.
"I could carry you two across?" Rossa asked hopefully.
"No Rossa you can't." Lucretia smiled grimly drawing her sword it seemed a pitiful weapon in her hand. She was determined not to sell her life cheaply. "I will stay and fight. You must go I will delay them. It will give you a chance to escape."
"No Lucretia Gaius Stephanina, we stay."
"Thank you my dear friends but this isn't your fight. It's my homeland I fight for."
"Is it not ours as well?" Ioanna asked. "We will slow them down and you go!"
"No, I cannot leave you. I promised to see you safe home and if I die trying I will have kept my promise."
The two former slaves glanced at each other, then took up flanking positions, and waited.
The horsemen halted in a semi-circle outside bow range and dismounted taking their kite shape shields from their horses.
"Damn!" Rossa muttered. "They're forming a shield wall." She hefted her axe and shouted in some unintelligible tongue.
The horsemen halted. A man pushed through the ranks standing just beyond bowshot. "Put down your weapons!" He yelled speaking Latin.
Lucretia was taken aback understanding every word he uttered. "No! You will not find us easy meat. I'm Byzantine, I will show how we die. Nor will I surrender so some Venetian pig can rape my lifeless corpse like they did to my daughter!" She replied speaking in Latin.
The leader shook his head. He ordered his men forward slowly. They beat their shields in an effort to frighten the three women. Lucretia could see bowmen amongst the horsemen. Ioanna loosed an arrow. It clattered against a shield uselessly. Her sword extended Lucretia prepared for the end determined to take some of them with her. From the back of the soldiers came a commotion as a new group of riders crested the ridge riding hard to meet them.
At a command from the leader the advancing soldiers halted. They seemed to be awaiting the new riders. As they neared, Lucretia could see these new warriors had a fierce appearance. Their hair and beards the same golden textures as Rossa's. The leader was older, grey haired but as just as fierce.
"Rus." Rossa whispered then yelled something that Lucretia couldn't understand at the old man.
He stared back at her and yelled something in the same tongue back. She returned the call speaking rapidly in a tongue Lucretia assumed was Rus.
"He's asking her questions about her birth and her parents?" Ioanna whispered to her.
"You understand?" Lucretia asked her.
"A bit not that much."
Lucretia continued to listen with Ioanna's halting commentary sounding more puzzled by the minute. "I don't understand?" Ioanna said, "He's asking to approach?"
Rossa yelled something at the man. Seeming to forget that Ioanna and Lucretia existed so concentrated on her conversation.
"Rossa's saying something about trust?" Ioanna translated.
The man unbuckled his sword belt handing to the axe-wielding warrior at his side. Then with both arms spread wide to show he was unarmed. He approached slowly his eyes locked on Rossa not taking any notice of the two women with her. The man was old; his grey hair and beard braided as Rossa's hair was. His armour was plain and serviceable the only adornment was some scrollwork on his helm. Rossa stiffened gripping her axe hard ready for any betrayal. The man spoke.
"He's asking to see her right arm?" Ioanna translated.
Hesitantly she held out her arm. The man bent down staring at it for a while. He looked up then spoke his voice soft as if he was remembering something.
"Birna?" Ioanna said suddenly. "Rossa's, Rus name is Birna?"
Lucretia saw a tear tickle down Rossa's face, realising she had found the way home. "Rossa?" She asked.
Rossa started staring at the others as if for the first time. "This is my Uncle Boris from Novgorod, he wants to return me to the home I was stolen from when I was ten by Slav slavers." She hesitated wiping away a tear with the back of her hand; "My family has been looking for me since that day."
"Go with him, return home I have no desire for you to share my fate take Ioanna with you."
"No!" The two women protested.
Lucretia took a decision her heart heavy. "Go you worthless mangy bitches! The only reason I had you around was to wash my feet and prepare my food. You were useless as slaves and even more useless now!" She lied, her tongue biting down hard on every word.
Colour drained from the faces of the two women. They gazed in disbelief at how the woman they thought as a friend had turned on them.
"Go get out of my sight you worthless creatures!"
"Please?" Rossa begged, even the old man was staring at her.
"Go!" Lucretia reiterated pointing to the skyline with her sword well aware the look, the old man was giving her. "Promises?" she said in Latin guessing he would understand.
The light dawned in the man's eyes he understood. "Thank you." He told her answering in the same language. "I cannot help you but I can save them."
Lucretia understood what he was saying.
He spoke to Rossa in Rus.
She turned to Ioanna speaking to her in a low voice. Her eyes on Lucretia as if not believing her ears. The man spoke, then both women followed never looking back Rossa taking it hard her head held high. Ioanna had an inkling of what Lucretia was doing, it could be seen clearly in the consternation on her face but she still followed Rossa. The leader of the soldiers moved to intercept them. Lucretia watched the argument between the two men. Suddenly Rossa's uncle pulled a leather bag from his waistband and threw it at the leader's feet. She watched the two groups part leaving Rossa and Ioanna to go free surrounded by their Rus escort. Torn between her needs and her promises she allowed a tear tickle down her face. Continuing to watch as her friends crossed the ridgeline and disappeared from view. She was alone an army opposed her. The blade in her hands no defence against what she faced. They seemed to be waiting for her.
"Throw down you weapon!" The leader ordered. "Can't you see your position is hopeless."
"No!" Lucretia yelled back waving her sword at the soldiers.
At a command, the soldiers slung their shields. She wondered why they hadn't pierced her with arrows. They had enough archers to do it. She stared at the advancing soldiers rapidly coming to a decision
"For God and the Empire!" She yelled and charged running full tilt at the astonished soldiers. Jabbing and slashing as Rossa had taught her she attacked her body rapidly tiring. The soldiers closed around her crushing her. Her sword was ripped from her hands then a sharp blow to the back of her head and she blacked out.
She came to bruised and battered trussed to a pole facing the floor. All she could see was the ground swaying beneath her gaze it made her feel sick. She was tied to a sapling, feeling the rough bark with her hands. They were carrying her like some hunter's prize. She tried to shout but her mouth had been gagged. It was humiliating, the pain of her bruises not eased by her rough treatment. Suddenly the pole was uprighted and she found herself facing the leader and his men. She was in the middle of an armed camp, gaily-coloured tents where everywhere. It would have reminded her of a carnival if the situation hadn't been so deadly. She was cut from the binding, falling to the floor in a heap. She didn't have time to recover as she was dragged to her feet a smith fastening shackles to her hands and feet. The irons secured two men picked her up and carried her to one of the tents, then unceremoniously dropped her to the floor. Lucretia surveyed her surroundings taking in the furs on the floor and the pallet with its coverings of Egyptian linen. The leader of her captors entered frowning at her bedraggled state.
"Wash!" He told her in Latin.
""How!" Lucretia replied showing him her shackles.
He turned and was gone leaving Lucretia kneeling on the furs.
Three women entered, from their clothing and bored expressions, she guessed these were camp followers. Prostitutes living off the leavings of the nobles and selling their bodies for coin. With out a word the three women stripped her clothing from her and washed her. Lucretia struggled earning herself more bruises as the women forced her to wash and dress in the simple linens they had with them before pulling a comb through her hair a difficult task with the chains on her wrists and ankles. She was hauled to her feet and brought outside. An escort waited for her, armed and mail coated men. Their surcoats all were showing the same insignia. Surrounded she was forced to go where she was led. The rough ground, making it difficult for her bare feet. The pavilion she was taken to was the largest in the camp. Inside a man about the same age as she was sat on a simple seat overlooking a table. On the table was a map showing the empire. Lead figures marked out the position of the armies. Lucretia assumed these were the Venetians and her Byzantines. He glanced up at her then down at the map picking up a piece examining it and putting it down. He gestured to a black robed priest Lucretia hadn't noticed before. The priest stood beside the man and stared at her hatred in his eyes.
"I'm told you speak Latin word perfect?" The man asked her in Latin.
"What you do you want of me?" She replied speaking Latin.
"See Brother Gilbert she does speak it well."
The priest scowled at her. Lucretia ignored him focusing her attention on the man.
"You certainly lead us a merry dance haven't you?" The man asked.
"I just want to know what you want?" Lucretia asked again.
"I don't know who you think I am. I can't help you."
"Oh yes you can Lucretia Gaius Stephanina."
Lucretia went white she swayed on her feet.
"Oh where are my manners. A seat for the noble lady." He said snapping his fingers.
Seated Lucretia felt cold as if winter had stolen into her heart. "What do you want with Stephanos?"
"That husband of yours is a thorn in my side. He's organising an army for Theodore Lascaris the usurper."
"And my part in all this?"
"A hostage to ensure that your husband withdraws his support of the usurper."
"Then kill me now!" Lucretia readied herself for death.
"No that would only cause more problems. You've already caused me a headache. I've lost a number of my Rus mercenaries due to you I had hoped they would counter the Varangian Guard but your actions put paid to that."
She was glad that a least Rossa and Ioanna were safe and away from this madness.
"If you give me your parole I'll get them to take off the chains."
"And if I refuse?" She asked.
"They will remain."
"So what happens if Stephanos refuses your demands?"
"Brother Gilbert here wants to burn you as heretic?"
"Like his kind burned our churches and defiled our altars."
The man winced. "I've got the papal legate breathing down my neck because of that!"
"Write to him, tell him your situation. He's already sent agents to find out where you are."
Lucretia felt happy that Stephanos was still thinking of her. Her joy was short lived. A man stepped through the tent flaps she instantly recognised the short balding fat man.
"Traitor!" She screamed, leaping towards the newcomer spitting, aiming a kick at the man, difficult in chains. Two guards dragged her back. "It was you that opened the gates and let these bastards in!" She spat, forgetting the man seated at the table.
The newcomer wiped the spittle from his face then raised a hand to strike her.
"That, will be all Laskaris Doukas, the lady is a guest until I say otherwise."
"As you command my lord."
The seated man turned to the guards holding Lucretia. "Take the lady back to the tent until she calms down."
The guards bowed to the man dragging her behind them. They were not gentle nor were they rude marching her to the tent and leaving her alone on the fur rugs. Lucretia considered her options. Stephanos would never accede to the demands of this foreign lord not for her, his duty came first.
Days passed without her writing to Stephanos or agreeing to the man's orders. She came to learn her captor's name some Frankish lord called Baldwin or something like that. She was well treated if chained. They removed the shackles on her wrists but not around her ankles. The iron bracelets chafed her legs she searched the tent for a solution finding that wrapping silk around them helped. Her waking hours where consumed by making plans to kill the Traitor. He deserved to die. Had it not been for him Eugenia would be alive and poor old Tobromeros would have not fallen off a cliff. Thinking about Tobromeros put her in mind of Rossa and Ioanna, she prayed they would find happiness and peace. The peace she would never feel until Stephanos wrapped his arms around her like she loved him doing. Finally a week after her capture she submitted to Baldwin's demands and wrote Stephanos a letter. The day after the shackles on her ankles was removed.
She slept fitfully that night. She woke in the dark aware she wasn't alone in her tent. Looking around from her pallet, she could vaguely make out the shape of a man standing by the entrance to the tent her blood went cold. So, they sent an assassin to kill me silently in the night. Lucretia sat up preparing herself for the fatal blow it never came.
"Well what are you waiting for?" She asked. Then when the figure had not moved. "Who are you?" She demanded.
Without a word, the figure moved she saw the tent flaps open and the man leave. She was sure that it was the same watcher who had followed her from the village. It seemed an age ago when she was with Rossa and Ioanna. She missed their companionship. Daylight came and she was summoned to Baldwin's tent. The man looked up at her as walked in.
"My lady, please sit." He said indicating a folding chair, always polite when he spoke to her.
"Lord Baldwin?" Lucretia replied just as politely.
The man frowned. "I'm sorry but you've got to go on a journey."
"Constantinople. They want you there for some reason."
"Have business elsewhere."
"Will I have to travel in chains?"
"That will up to you my lady. I have your word you won't escape or run away?"
"Have I not said so already?" Lucretia replied icily.
"You gave your word it was to me and no one else."
"Yes there are those I would refuse, no matter what it did to me."
"Pride can be a failing in some?" Baldwin told her wryly.
"But not me from the tone of your voice?"
"That is true but I need your word now."
"You have it."
Baldwin sighed. "Have it your way?"
"I will give it to a few not many. When do I travel and with whom?"
"In the morning I'll pick the escort myself. You will head north and then east."
"Why?" Lucretia asked puzzled.
"As far from the sea as possible. The Byzantine navy still functions to a certain extent and you husband is just the type to order a rescue mission."
Lucretia was returned to her tent with much to worry about and little time to prepare. This wasn't personal just the usual Byzantine politics.
Packing for the journey did not take long. The Franks had given her the few things she had. All her clothes were of western cut. A rustle at the tent flaps alerted her to someone outside waiting. She looked out, staring straight into the face of the last person she would have thought of seeing.
"Arete Kraspolia?" She said coldly, remembering her striking Rossa down and stealing all their food. "What do you want?"
"Only to serve Apokomes." Arete said her head bowed low.
"After you betrayed us?"
"Please great lady!" Arete pleaded. "I don't want them to hurt me again!" She pulled up the sleeves of her dress showing the black and blue bruises that mottled her arms.
"Who did this the Franks? The Venetians?"
"No lady. Laskaris Doukas."
"Please forgive me my lady the money was just too good to give up. Then he came and delighted in hurting me. There was no reward only pain."
"Well you walked away with your life at least. His last wife was found dead in an inch of water. The three slaves that served her were strangled soon after I suspect to stop them talking. I think all he wanted was her dowry they had only been married a day."
Arete shivered. "Please good lady! Make me you personal maid, even your slave. Anything will be better than his attentions."
Lucretia hadn't the heart to do that to her no matter how she was betrayed.
The sun was hardly above the horizon when they left camp under guard. A man held her reins and the guard surrounded her. At Baldwin's, command more for her own safety than as a prisoner. The only thing that marred this was the insistence of the priest Gilbert travelling with them. She could see his hatred for her in his eyes. Every time they stopped her made her life a misery. Arete remained silent her fears kept her close to Lucretia. She dreaded the nightly stops she was as sure as she lay down to sleep the watcher would be back. Surrounded by all these guards she knew he was out there watching her waiting as to what was it was she was unsure. Five days after they had left the camp more soldiers arrived, Venetians this time. The leader of the Venetians and the Frankish commander argued for a while and then he walked across to her a pensive expression on his face. The priest trailed behind to translate.
"Sorry but I've got to turn you over to these pirates." He told her.
This wasn't what the priest translated. Lucretia had learned enough Frankish to know the truth. The commander was apologising but it came out of the priest mouth as an insult and that she was to burn as a heretic. His Latin was as bad as his insults clearly a man trying to live above his station.
She gave her word to Baldwin not to escape or run away, with the leaving of the Frankish warriors so did her promise. She began to plan her escape, Arete was willing to help. She could see her fate in the eyes of the Venetians. These men bound her arms tying her to the saddle. She was certain she would never make it to Constantinople. They left her bound when they rested not removing her bounds not bothering if she ate or drank, Arete scavenged food for her exchanging her virtue for anything they gave her. Lucretia woke with a jerk darkness surrounded her the bindings biting into her wrist making them bleed. As her eyes roamed the camp, she saw a familiar shape at the edge of the darkness the watcher was back. She wished he would go away or free her seeing him standing there was so frustrating. Slowly she drifted back to sleep only to be woken by the angry Venetian commander. The priest at his shoulder translating his every word.
"Where are my men?" the Commander said. "Five of them disappeared into the night!"
"I don't know?" Lucretia replied in Latin.
"She lies!" The priest told the Venetian, when the man had questioned her about the missing men.
Lucretia turned to the Venetian and spoke to him in his own tongue. She was satisfied to see the shock and surprise on both their faces. The commander questioned her further waving away the frustrated priest. After awhile he seemed satisfied with her answers. Then cut her bounds freeing her hands a blessed relief after all she had endured.
They travelled roads several familiar to Lucretia, at the time she had been heading in the opposite direction. Then one late afternoon she arrived in an all too familiar village. It was here that things had started to go wrong for her. As they rode into the village, she could see two figures hanging from an olive tree. The closer they were easier it was to identify the corpses. She recognised the two bodies the very priests they had met when she last stayed in the village. A second unpleasant surprise awaited her outside the little chapel.
"Doukas?" She said coldly. "You responsible for this outrage?"
"They were heretics, refusing to see the true church!"
"That's a laugh, you converting. You kill your own people yet the great enemy remains. The Turks hold the Holy Land and here you are lining your own purse."
"You were a sinking thief before and still a stinking thief now. I can at least trace my family line to the creation of Constantinople. And yours, from what I've heard were Hun horse thieves."
Doukas' face clouded over. "Take her she burns now!"
The commander put himself in front of her his hand on his sword. "She remains my prisoner and stays that way. The Doge wants her alive until Constantinople!"
Doukas scowled seeing the soldiers with the commander. "Till later!"
Lucretia and Arete where escorted to the chapel and guards posted on the only exit.
"My lady what will become of us?" Arete wailed.
"I guess my fate, as to you I can't really say." From her position, she could see Doukas in deep conversation with the priest. Doukas was a fickle as the wind changing his opinion to whatever was the flavour of the time. Behind them, she could see his men dragging large logs to the centre of the village. It was deliberate Doukas knew she could see it from the entrance of the chapel. He was the type of man that delighted in tormenting his victims it was a relief that at least the commander had removed her bounds. She bathed her swollen and raw wrists in the water of the little font at the side of the altar. While Arete watched the door Lucretia rummaged in the priests' rooms for something to wear her clothes stank. She could have done with a bath but a change of clothes would do for now. A shriek in the chapel brought her out of the room at a run. Just in time to see, Arete dragged away by the Venetians. The guards blocked her way. She yelled and screamed at them but they were immovable. All she could do was listen to Arete shrieks in the distance. She sat on a bench and wept. It reminded her of Eugenia's fate and her thoughts turned to Stephanos. She prayed for them all. It was late when she rested for the night in the priests' room, before she went to sleep she dragged a cabinet in front of the door and lay down to sleep. Her fate could be measured in days.
A sound of the cabinet being moved woke her with a start. A chill filled her soul they were coming for her at last. She sat on the bed waiting, the flicking light of the little oil lamp her only company. She composed herself ready for what she was sure was to come. The cabinet moved a little further a pale hand gripped the edge of the cabinet and moved it easily. The face that peered at her from the opening wasn't anyone she was familiar with. He had a presence that tickled at the back of her mind. He looked middle aged and had the kind of face that reminded her of all those pagan statues Stephanos collected. His hair the colour of the sun on a field of ripened wheat and curly.
"Who are you?" She asked speaking Venetian. He didn't answer so she tried Latin.
"I had a name once." He replied his Latin so archaic that at first Lucretia didn't understand him. "I no longer remember it."
"What do you want?" She asked puzzled by his behaviour.
"What is it you desire?"
"Escape or failing that a quick death. I have no desire to burn for nothing. It's nothing but politics."
"I could help you escape!" The pale skinned man told her. His eyes seemed to bore into her skull.
"And the price?"
"A simple kiss, an embrace nothing more."
Lucretia thought it odd. "This will help me escape and then?"
"What you do afterwards will be your own concern."
Lucretia considered her options her thoughts gloomy; she had no choice but to accede to the stranger's request. "Right I'll do it!" she felt his arms around her, his cold mouth to hers and then against the nape of her neck the touch so sensual. Then a sharp pain in her neck. Then the feeling of her life ebbing away and darkness.
She woke, awareness flowed through her, she was lying on the floor her body naked, the stranger had gone. Lucretia got up knowing things she had never understood before. She knew instantly what she had become the stranger's gift had seen to that. Just as she knew that she could never walk the day. She was a fully-fledged vampire. A drinker of blood, one of the cursed. His gift to her an awareness that others would have to learn. She comprehended it all the curse of the Traveller. He was one of the first ones. She had no time to ponder on this, the beat of many hearts called to her. The guards at the chapel entrance weren't prepared for her nor was their blood enough she needed more. She stalked through the camp taking all that was before her. Mortal strength and speed were no match for a hungry vampire. She visited vengeance on everyone there, taking her time over Doukas and the priest. She surveyed her carnage bodies lay everywhere. Some had tried to fight and some had tried to flee, she had them all. Still one heart beat on, naked and smeared with blood she glided over to a pile of discarded blankets piled by the entrance to one of the huts. Her hand darted in pulling out at filthy and bruised woman.
"Mistress?" Arete stuttered beholding the terrifying sight in front of her.
"Arete?" Lucretia replied coldly, no care had she for this woman.
"Please Mistress kill me! I no longer wish to live." She clutched at her belly and wept.
Like the sun coming up Lucretia understood everything. "What is it three, four months?"
"Four!" Arete quavered. "Now it's gone I have nothing."
"And Tobromeros you used him. He would have thought the child his?"
Arete nodded unable to control her shaking.
"So whose is it?"
"My lover's, he died when we escaped the city. We where supposed to make a new life away from my husband. He was killed." Arete stopped and stared at Lucretia. "It still lives?"
"Yes, I hope God loves you, I certainly don't!"
"What will you do?"
"If I was you leave now while you still have time. I think you best make yourself scarce. I wouldn't mention this to anyone, otherwise I will find you and kill you."
Lucretia watched the grateful woman scramble away into the darkness running as if the hounds of hell were on her tail. With Arete's disappearance Lucretia washed and dressed. She was certain now of her gaols Stephanos waited for her. She would go to him; together they would restore Byzantium to its glory. For the first time since her ordeal started, she smiled. The vampire that was once Lucretia Gaius Stephanina walked into the night determined now to win back all that had been lost.