It lifted its long snout, black nostrils quivering in the cold morning air. Chalk white hair, stained red from the meal just devoured, bristled beneath amber eyes. A single ear twitched. The other was a ragged scruff of raw scar tissue. In its tenth year, while the old wolf’s sight was dimmed and its hearing muted, it still had the ability to scent danger on the slightest breeze. The scent that reached it now was not of its world and its lips curled back to reveal yellowed fangs. With hackles rising, it dropped to its belly amidst the scatter of plumage from the fowl it had scavenged. The smell grew thicker; acrid and stale. It tucked its tail between its legs and turned, springing into a shallow ravine and up the other side where it paused for a heartbeat, its hunter’s eyes on the beasts that approached. With a low whine, it slunk into the thickets.
The man shifted and blinked, brown eyes wary and calloused hand tightening on the war spear resting across his thighs. He watched his mount’s ears as much as he paid attention to the thick growth that covered the slope on his right.
With his left hand, he swept back a length of dark hair that had fallen across his forehead, sliding it beneath the fur cap he wore. For a moment his fingers lingered at the lumpen scar above his ear.
His mount’s right ear flicked and following it like a pointed finger, the rider spotted a flash of russet half way up the hillside, there and gone. He smiled, lips parting over white teeth, the tautened skin around his eyes relaxing. His aspect changed from wary to amused.
“A wolf. Did you see it?”
Caros turned his wide shoulders to look at his companions.
Neugen lifted his eyebrows and grinned. “Saw you clutching that spear tight enough to throttle it.” A fellow Bastetani, Neugen had ridden with Caros since before the fall of Sagunt and the coming of the Romans.
The Boii Gaul, Maleric, withdrew a finger from his ear and inspected his nail with curiosity before looking up.
“You call these things wolves, but where I come from, they would be eaten whole by real wolves.” His speech was thick with his accent and deep voice.
The fourth rider had not taken his eyes from the hillside.
“I saw it. It looked like a jackal.” He turned his unlined face to the others.
Neugen pressed down on his thigh as he spoke, lips tightening with the pain that flared in the partially healed wound above his knee.
The youngest of the riders, Rappo, a Masulian from the lands of Numidia in Africa, grinned broadly.
“We say jackal. It prefers to steal scraps from the lion and hyena.” As always, his words bubbled from him like water from a spring.
Maleric rubbed his nose thoughtfully.
“Someday I should visit your home and see these beasts you talk of.”
Rappo lifted his throwing spear and turned his eyes to Caros.
“We should hunt this wolf-jackal.”
Caros kicked his heels and his mount increased its pace.
“There will be time for hunting once we get to Tagilit.”
They were all weary; men and horses. The journey south coming hard on the back of a bloody defeat in a battle against Rome’s legionaries. Bruised and bleeding, they had been riding for twenty days and while the bruises had mended, Neugen was still recovering from the deep wound to his leg inflicted by a Roman sword.
“We will be there before sunset, thank Runeovex.” Neugen made no mention of his wound, bearing the pain stoically. “Looking forward to sleeping under a roof till long after sunrise.”
Caros pushed them to rise at dawn every day and kept them riding fast enough to cover many stades before sunset. The hard riding and poor provisions helped them sleep deeply through the cold nights. It was not through fear that the Romans would descend on them, but rather a fear of what might be happening in the south. In the lands of the Bastetani.
Before the disastrous battle between Hanno’s army and the Romans led by Publius Scipio, Caros had learned from Neugen that the Bastetani were being systematically robbed of their land by the Turdetani. They had somehow gained favor with Hasdrubal and his Carthaginian officials in Qart Hadasht. Hasdrubal had promised this would be resolved, but Caros mistrusted the brother of Hannibal.
“I plan on upending a cask of ale and letting it run down my throat until it is dry and my belly full.” Maleric tipped his bearded chin up and mimed drinking, a look of childish bliss on his face.
Caros grinned. “It will be good to eat a proper meal in warm clothes and a fire blazing in the hearth.”
They were making for Baria, a settlement that overlooked a bay on the Inland Sea. Trading vessels from Carthage, Sicily and Greece docked at the little harbor and brought a modicum of wealth to its inhabitants. Less often, galleys from far away Syria and Egypt also visited, bringing exotic cargoes and merchants seeking the iron and silver mined inland.
Before his family had been killed in a raid, Caros had been groomed by his father to follow in his footsteps and become a merchant, buying and selling produce and ore. His father’s occasional business partner lived in Baria and Caros looked forward to visiting the man. Not without some trepidation though, for it was the man’s niece who had stolen Caros’ heart only to be abducted and sold into slavery.
Caros blinked away the bitter memories and studied the road ahead. The sun was gentle and the wind a pleasant breeze. Rappo was quietly murmuring some song of his people while Neugen’s eyelids drooped. Maleric, the fearsome Gaul that had fought beside Caros since Hannibal’s crossing of the Rhone, had his sword resting across his thighs, gently stropping it with a leather strap.
“I smell fire.” Caros turned his head as he spoke, sniffing the breeze.
“Wet wood.” Maleric inhaled. “No food cooking.” He raised a bushy eyebrow and fingered his sword.
Rappo’s murmuring ceased and Neugen’s eyes opened, alert.
“It is early in the day. Perhaps a shepherd?” He too sniffed.
Caros sighted a wisp of blue smoke rising from a copse of trees a stade or more from the road before it dissolved in the breeze. He was more curious than concerned and was content to pass whoever it was that had lit the fire.
Rappo guided his pony off the track and onto a hillock, eyeing the distant copse. The others rode on without comment. They were twenty paces along when he whistled.
Caros glanced back. “What do you see?”
“There is a pyre beside the trees.”
This was the cold season and death was a common visitor, stealing away children born in the summer past and the elders birthed in summers out of memory.
“Poor place to build it.” Maleric sheathed his blade.
Caros flashed a look at Neugen who was frowning.
“Why build one out here?” He waved a hand around. “There is nothing.”
His people were sent to the ancestors on the flames of funeral pyres with whole communities gathering to pay their last respects by gifting the dead with all manner of objects from clothing to food. For this reason, pyres were laid on hillsides near settlements.
“The smoke has gone.” Neugen looked back at Rappo. “Are you sure it is a pyre?”
Rappo trotted his mount down the trail, his face troubled.
“It is, but the flames will not take.” He made a warding gesture. “The people… perhaps you should see them, Caros.”
Caros pulled his mount up, a quizzical look on his face. The young Masulian was excitable, but he had a solid streak of sense and would not alarm them for no good reason.
Rappo shook his head, causing the copper coins woven into his thick hair to jingle lightly.
“Just villagers. Women and children.”
Caros lifted the helmet that hung from his belt and fitted it over his fur cap. The others tucked away loose folds of cloth, freed blades in scabbards and lifted shields from where they hung at their left knee to prop them on their hips. They were sure of nothing since the Romans had come, least of all their safety.
The odor that wafted through and over the trees became thicker the closer they rode. The sweet scent of burned kindling and grass was largely countered by the sickly cloy of shit and rank stench of corruption.
The four men were well acquainted with foul smells and pulled their cloaks across the lower half of their faces. This more to stop swarms of blue and green flies from filling their nostrils.
A low keening grew as they neared the trees. The sound merged at times with the humming of the insects’ wings and then rose with the breeze like the sigh of a dying man.
Caros tightened his grip on his mount’s reins, feeling a tremor run through the beast. A frown deepened between his eyes as he spied the first of the mourners.
There were no orderly circles of well-wishers. No silver-haired priestess or priest. No elders or champions. Those present, stood in groups, swaying unsteadily. Their clothing was filthy and most stood with toes splayed in the thin mud that covered the bowl of land they had chosen to build the pyre in.
A knot of filthy rags and fur let out a plaintive sob as Caros passed, making his mount clatter sideways in alarm. Calming his mount, Caros regarded the bundle of stinking rags sourly.
“There are more for the pyre.” Neugen pulled up nearby and Caros looked to where a pyramid of five wrapped and bound bodies was set beside a tree. Flies marched in ranks across the bodies and maggots fell from rents and tears in the bindings.
Rappo lifted his knuckles to his mouth, eyes streaming with the effort of holding back the gush of vomit that threatened. Caros gestured with his chin back to the road, but the young Masulian turned his face away stubbornly.
“It is little wonder they cannot light the pyre. They have no oil nor any single thing that is not moldy with damp.” Neugen muttered. “What has happened to them?”
“I have seen this before.” The deep voice of the Gaul was especially brooding there under the dappled shade of trees whose leaves were falling like tears. “They have no homes, but they did once. They had kin and clan, but those have been washed away by blood.” He grunted and gestured to a mother trying to suckle the corpse of her child. “Now they will become shades without even a song to shield them from the beasts beyond death.”
Neugen spat vehemently, anger ploughing his face into creases.
“These are Bastetani. We look after our own!”
Unmoved by Neugen’s anger, Maleric went on.
“See there,” He watched for a heartbeat as a man, pale and thin, clung to the half-clad body of a woman from whose rear bubbled a stream of bloody shit. “We should leave now. There are dark shades here. They are tearing her guts apart from the inside and she is not the only one.”
The reek of foul waste emanated from the scores of people laying listlessly beneath the trees.
Caros grimaced as the breeze blew the stink his way. He became aware of people staring at him and his companions. Some beckoned and called for food, too weakened to rise. Those that could, hobbled towards them, many bent double and clutching their bellies. Maleric edged his mount away, his face both grim and mournful, as though he had experienced such scenes before. Rappo too, backed his mount away, keeping close to the big Gaul.
Caros had no wish to suffer the same fate as these people, but he was loath to leave them without offering any aid.
“Go back to the road,” He looked towards the people around the pyre. “I will join you once I have heard what brought them to this.”
Maleric clicked his tongue at once and rode back the way they had come. Rappo looked around wide-eyed and took off after the Gaul. Neugen unslung his shield and let it hang at his knee.
“Doubt there will be a need for that.”
Caros did the same. The people here were no threat, barely able to stand let alone wield a weapon.
Two men, young perhaps in the spring, but now hollow cheeked and waxen, stepped away from the pyre. The others shuffled up behind them as Caros and Neugen approached and dismounted.
“Greetings! I am called Caros and my companion is Neugen.” He held his mount’s reins tight and patted its neck soothingly. It was unsettled perhaps by the smoldering pyre or the stink from those standing before it.
“Greetings.” One of the men rasped. “You bring news?” His voice held a spark of hope that was missing from his dull eyes.
“None that affects you. My companions and I are travelling to Baria and we noticed the pyre.”
“Wet wood and no oil.” The man grimaced and clutched his belly.
“Where are your homes? Your clan?” Caros snapped the last words, angry suddenly to see this suffering among his people.
The second of the men, shorter and once stout, snorted.
“Our homes are taken and these are what remain of our clan and two more.” His eyes still held fire despite the sickly yellow hue in his face. “Ride south or west and you will see more like us.” He swayed and sweat oozed from his brow. “If you are wise, you will go back north for here the Turdetani have stolen our land and our lives.
Caros gritted his teeth. The Turdetani had long been enemies of the Bastetani, yet never before had they been able to drive his people from their homes and land.
“To where do you journey?” Neugen spoke softly.
“We have nowhere to go.” The second man gestured to the pyre. “We struggle even to travel to our ancestors.” His hand shook as did his voice. “My son and wife both await a spark to send them on.” His chin dropped to his chest, and he wrenched his hair with both hands, a mournful cry of despair issuing from his throat.
Caros was forced back a step by the sheer anguish in the cry and Neugen eyes shone with unshed tears.
“We have no oil, but we will make it so that you can light the pyre if you wish.” Caros offered.
Marc shook his head slowly, staring into the cup of ale he held. Caros sipped his ale, enjoying the rich flavor and satisfying warmth that spread through his chest while he regarded the aging merchant. Marc’s mane of black hair had thinned in the last season so that blotched skin showed now between ropy strands. Likewise, his prodigious girth had melted away leaving weathered skin hanging in folds at his neck and from his upper arms.
“Their tale is not unfamiliar.” Marc lifted his chin and blinked wearily. “The opposite in truth. No man or woman escapes the taxes. For each mouthful of bread we take, the tax collectors take three.” He ground the bottom of his cup forcefully into the pitted wood of the table. “More every day.”
Setting his cup down, Caros placed a hand over Marc’s.
“What of business? Is trade improved?”
“It did. After Sagunt fell there were traders in port every other day. I could name my price and they wanted everything I offered.” His once penetrating gaze had turned milky-white since Caros had last seen him. His dry lips drew back in a wry smile. “Problem was, I had to pay twice as much to get anything. The Barcas were buying it all; iron, olive oil and grain.”
“Now we know why, yes?” Neugen’s usual humor had been missing since they had encountered the sick and homeless. It had not returned despite the meal and ale they now enjoyed in Baria.
“Aye, to feed ten thousand dead men.” Marc’s words were bitter.
“Many more than ten thousand, but yes, to equip the army Hannibal led over the Rhone.” Caros grimaced at the memory of that battle.
“Even after Hannibal marched, his commissaries continued to buy everything they could.” Marc threw an obscene gesture at an imagined foe. “Your father taught me the value of trust and I used that to get the miners to sell to me first. The fishermen, the shepherds. I put silver in their pockets before the wool was off the sheep or the fish in the net.”
Caros shuddered at the risk Marc had taken and Maleric belched and whistled. Marc’s smile was bright with the memory but quickly withered.
“Then they sent the tax collectors. I tried bribing the bastards too.”
Neugen laughed bitterly.
“They did not take bribes? Next you will tell me they were honest!”
“Honest? No, they were Turdetani after all!” Marc quipped and shrugged. “They were making more than I could offer.”
“Now they have the cow and the bucket.” Neugen growled through clenched teeth.
“How bad is it, old friend?” Marc’s nostrils flared and his lips press tight at Caros’ question. Here was a proud, brave man reduced to a trembling shadow by the Carthaginians’ insatiable hunger for silver. “They have left you enough to continue to trade, surely?”
“There has not been sight or scent of buyers since the Roman fleet arrived.” Marc’s hand shook as he raised it to wipe spittle from his lips. “I have silver to keep a roof over our head and a warm pot over the fire come night.” His chest deflated and shoulder’s slumped. “More than the poor bastards you met today.” He nodded at Caros. “I kept aside your funds. Every stater. What will you do now, Caros? You have made a name as a champion. Will you fight on against the Romans or return to your home?”
Caros twisted his cup between his hands, conscious of his companions’ eyes on him. The plight of the Bastetani forced from their homes to starve had lit an ember in his heart. The emaciated bodies, feverish eyes and the inability of those still living to even torch the pyre was far removed from the horror of battle. He had fought at the Tagus where thousands had died, their bodies lost to the muddy waters. He had battled the defenders of Sagunt who had spat at him as they died. He had seen the destruction of Hanno’s army by the Romans and the carpet of dead. In battle, men and women chose to wield spear and shield. To stand shoulder to shoulder with their kin and fight. The villagers losing their homes and lives were not warriors. The Bastetani faced a new threat and he was well placed to reduce their suffering. He drained the dregs of ale, savoring the thick stew of fermented grains.
“Hasdrubal pledged to accord the same rights to the Bastetani as the Turdetani. It is time to see that he does.”
Maleric grinned. “Will you need a thirsty warrior with a long blade?”
“Perhaps. If I do, where I wonder, would I find one?” Caros scratched his chin and looked around with wide eyes.