Aquila:Rhine River Patrol - A Second Esape
|This article is from the Nova Roma publication "Aquila".|
|Rhine River Patrol - A Second Esape|
|Rhine River Patrol Story Index.|
It was the loud voices that woke him, and he immediately stifled the intended movement to sit up and see who it was.. As the voices drew nearer Gaius froze in his narrow bed. His heart was pounding with anxiety and it seemed as if those anywhere near must surely hear it. His arm was throbbing as though some one was pounding on it with a mallet.
"Well," said a loud voice, "do you have him or not?!?"
Gaius could just see, through the screen of leaves, a small man in dirty rags crouched on one of the boulders at the bottom of the mountain. The big grey rock on which he sat was slightly rounded on top, half in the water, and stood out from the others because of it's almost perfectly square shape except for a large chip off one corner. The little man couched on the top of this boulder looking towards the forest opening where the stream left the pond. He had a leather thong around his neck, the other end of which led beyond Gaius' sight to the gravelly voice. The little man pointed along the edge of the pool to the break in the woods and looked behind him. It was the little tracker, that the Praefectus of overseers owned, "Cat" was his name, and he was very, very good, at his tracking skills. Gaius' hopes for freedom plummeted.
"Then move it along, animal," snarled the invisible voice and the Cat leaped forward onto the rocky shoreline and was immediately followed by a large beefy man and behind him were four archers, fully armed with long knives, hatchets and strung bows with arrows nocked. They weren't taking any chances, Gaius thought. What they don't know is that they could take me easily with a grandma, and a piece of rope, he thought with irony. Slowly Cat moved across the rocks and around the edge of the pool. Was the false trail he had left good enough to fool the tracker, Gaius didn't know, but there was nothing that he could do now except lie very still, and hope that he had not forgotten anything when he laid his trail.. He was on his own now, and it was his skill and cunning, against the five men and the tracker. Slowly Cat approached the opening in the forest and stopped. His fingers sought out the surface of the rock, on which he sat. It was the rock that Gaius had backtracked on. Had he left a smear of mud, or perhaps a blood spot? He could only sit and wait.
Abruptly the big man jerked the leather lanyard, and Cat's head twisted on his neck.
"Don't keep me waiting you little slime puddle or I'll have you roasted alive. Where is he? Where did he go?!?" The big man's ugly face was bent low over Cat and he snarled his words in the cruelest possible way. Cat clawed at the lanyard around his neck, and pointed into the woods. The big man prodded the little tracker with his staff. "Then move yer filthy rear-end along. Find him! Find Him!!!" Slowly the six figures moved into the woods and out of his sight. Gaius knew that it would not be long before they returned, and this would be his only chance to get out of the tree, and into a better hiding place. His eye caught on the hollow reed strapped to the tree-limb with the knife, Of course, he thought, and he hurriedly arose favoring his arm. It may be broken as well he thought as he unstrapped the knife and reed. He hastily ate the remainder of his food, so the water and mud would not spoil it, and then looped the pouch strap over his head, tucked his knife into his tunic, then holding the reed with his teeth and favoring his injured arm, he slipped down the lower limbs and into the water using his good arm to support himself so he would not fall. His injured arm did not escape a further jerking about, and he paused for a moment to let the waves of pain clear from his mind before continuing. The water was neck deep and he carefully felt for a purchase on the rocky bottom with his feet. He would move toward the heavy reeds along the side of the pool away from the rockslide. That way at least he could watch as the hunting party returned, just as he was sure they would. Slowly and carefully he moved across the pool and finally he reached the thick and tall reed bed. The water was now hardly up to his knees as he moved carefully into the reeds, following a winding narrow drainage channel, taking care to draw the long reed stems closed behind him to mask his entry point. Finally he lay down in the small muddy channel, the water just covering him and readied his reed. He could just barely see through the reeds to the opposite side of the pond. When the hunting party returned, and if they searched the reed bed then he would lay down and breath through the reed while they were in the vicinity, His only problem, he thought, would be how to keep himself from floating to the surface. He tried lying down and breathing through the reed, and was surprised to find that he did not float . In fact, he sank into the mud. He supposed that he had lost so much body weight that perhaps that accounted for his not floating. However, he would worry about that later. Now he had simply to survive, until the hunters returned, and then he hoped they would leave the area. But the water was cold and while the cold helped the throbbing pain in his arm, he felt himself begin to shiver with the chill of the cold water. Night was coming on again, and maybe just maybe----
A sharp cracking sound, a scream of pain and a rasping laugh cut through his thoughts. This was immediately followed by a crashing sound where the search party had previously disappeared.
"Damn your filthy hide, you little puddle of slime," raged the big man holding the leather thong. He wielded the staff again and again it slammed into Cat's back with a sharp crack, and again the little man screamed his pain. The hunting party emerged from the woods, and Cat led the party in reverse of the way they had come. The big man was obviously angry at losing the trail. Just as they passed the base of the tree where Gaius had been sleeping, one of the archer's called out, "Wait a minute, let me check something out." The archer climbed up over the bent tree trunk, while the others waited at the entrance to the road. The archer moved to where Gaius had lain, and he called out excitedly, "He has been here! Here is where he laid down. There's blood here as well!!" The big man turned the lanyard over to one of the archers and quickly climbed up to where the first archer stood on the tree,
"Damn," swore the big man looking out over the pond,
Gaius immediately lowered his head.
"That slippery bastard as doubled back on us". he swore. "I'll beat you till you bleed for this. you little bugger," growled the big man at the shivering tracker, as the big man and archer climbed clumsily down from the tree. "Back to the road , he shouted, " he's still headed down-hill we'll catch him at the lake!!! He retrieved the leather thong and poked at Cat with his staff. "Move it, filth," he said with a distinct grin on his face. The group disappeared and moments later Gaius heard them running along the road down hill to -- where?? The lake?? What was at the lake?? As he thought, he remembered the logs and the animal tracks on the road. The lake he thought, was a place to store logs before they are sawn into timbers. That means a village of woodcutters and sawyers may be nearby and that means food and warmth. He struggled up from his muddy bed and hastily made it to shore.
His arm was hurting again now and he carefully covered the wound again with the clinging mud. He clumsily shortened his pouch strap into a primitive sling and rested his injured arm on it's support. Obviously, the way to go now would be to follow the stream below the pond, since the hunting party had given up in that area. He waded across the pond to the outlet and entered the dark woods. The light was going fast and again it would be full dark soon. The hunting party would probably camp the night in this area, as it would be futile to hunt at night and even that big oaf in charge could see that. He felt sorry for Cat, but there was little that he could do at the moment. He moved slowly through the dim woods being sure of his footing, If he fell now he wasn't sure that he would be able to get up again. The dizziness was getting worse.
About an hour later Gaius arrived at the lake and just as he had thought, there was a fire on the shore and five figures crowded around it. Cat would be staked out somewhere secure in the brush as a watchdog. Gaius yearned for the fire, His tunic was still damp from the swim in the upper pond, and a cool night wind was blowing down the mountain side. He was cold, and hurting, and he was hungry again. If the hunting party didn't find him soon they would be forced to confess their failure, and the Auxila would be called upon to hunt for him. They would leave no stone unturned to recapture a slave, particularly one who had killed -- how many -- three men?? He wasn't sure, but he was sure that all of them were no great loss!! He had to get out of this area, but he was already very dizzy and was forced to lean against a tree simply to stand. He needed another place to rest, and maybe this time to die, His arm was now pounding with agony, and it was swelled to almost twice normal size.
He slowly moved through the woods to the lower end of the lake, and finally met the road going on down the mountain. It was a hard packed dirt road with deep wagon ruts. There were probably saw-pits at the other end of the lake. This must be one of the places where the naval base shipyard on the Rhinus got their lumber. Other slaves from his mountain group had been sent here to work, and this must be the place where they had been brought to. As he cautiously moved out of the woods and onto the road the fire disappeared behind the brush and trees, and he felt much better. He was ahead of the hunters again. He walked down the road leaning heavily on a stick he had picked up along the way, and he made sure to step as lightly as possible and stay in the wide ruts in order to hide his footsteps as much as possible. He soon realized that he was walking through a small cluster of shacks and sitting beside the road were wagons!!!! Some were loaded with lumber and two were loaded with hay. They looked to be loaded for market. Here was his way out!!! But first, he would have to prepare another "trail." He cautiously approached one of the shacks bordering the road, and he walked carefully up to the door. He could hear the murmurings of talk inside and smell the smell of old grease and woodsmoke. It smelled wonderful!!!. But now he had to concentrate and the dizziness made that difficult. He carefully moved away from the door of the shack, back towards the hay wagon stepping on stones and allowing his makeshift staff to only touch rocks in the roadway. In this way he approached the smaller of the hay wagons, and laboriously climbed into the front of the wagon and from there out onto the top of the hay load. Feverishly he began to burrow into the hay hoping to bury himself in the load. His arm began it's throbbing again as he worked to insert himself with as little disturbance of the hayload as possible. Another hour passed and finally an exhausted Gaius was satisfied that he was hidden and was beginning to enjoy some small benefit and comfort of the warmth in the insulating hay as well as it's soft embrace. His trembling from the cold slowly eased and his exhausted body began to lose it's battle with sleep. He hoped that when and if the tracker tracked him to the shack, the leader of the hunting party would assume that those within were hiding him. Gaius was sure that the hunting party would waste their time searching the shack and surrounding area. At least he hoped they would. By that time, with ny luck this wagon and the others would be out of the vicinity and well on their way. On their way to where? Gaius really didn't care, just as long as it was away from here, and with that final thought he passed into a dreamless slumber.