Back | Next

Lambs to the Slaughter

A trumpet called, giving the go-ahead to a detachment leaving by one of the other gates of the Harbor. Half of Froggie's bored troopers looked up; a few even hopped to their feet.

The century's band of local females roused, clucking like a hen-coop at dinner time and grasping the poles of the handcarts holding the troopers' noncombat gear. Slats, the six-limbed administrator who Froggie was escorting out to some barb village the gods knew where, clambered into his palanquin and ordered his bearers to lift him.

"Everybody sit down and wait for orders!" Froggie said in a voice that boomed through the chatter. "Which will come from me, Sedulus, so you can get your ass back into line. When I want you to lead the advance, I'll tell you."

That'd be some time after Hermes came down and announced Sedulus was the son of Jupiter, Froggie guessed.

Three days after Froggie was born, his father had lifted him before the door of their hut in the Alban Hills and announced that the infant, Marcus Vibius Taena, was his legitimate son and heir. He'd been nicknamed Ranunculus, Froggie, the day the training centurion heard him bellow cadence the first time. Froggie's what he'd been since then; that or Top, after he'd been promoted to command the Third Century of the Fourth Cohort in one of the legions Crassus had taken east to conquer Parthia.

Froggie'd continued in that rank when the Parthians sold their Roman prisoners to a man in a blue suit, who wasn't a man as it turned out. A very long time ago, that was.

The girls subsided, cackling merrily. Queenie, the chief girl, called something to the others that Froggie didn't catch. They laughed even harder.

The barbarians in this place were pinkish and had knees that bent the wrong way. They grew little ruffs of down at their waists and throat, and the males had topknots of real feathers that they spent hours primping.

Froggie's men didn't have much to do with the male barbs, except to slaughter enough of them the day after the legion landed that the bottom lands flooded from the dam of bodies in the river. As for the girls—they weren't built like real women, but the troopers had gotten used to field expedients; and anyway, the girls were close enough.

"Don't worry, boys," Froggie added mildly. "We'll get there as soon as we need to."

And maybe a little sooner than that. Froggie didn't understand this operation, and experience had left him with a bad feeling about things he didn't understand.

Commanding the Third of the Fourth didn't give Froggie much in the way of bragging rights in the legion, but he'd never cared about that. Superior officers knew that Froggie's century could be depended on to get the job done; the human officers did, at least. If any of the blue-suits, the Commanders, bothered to think about it, they knew as well.

Froggie's men could be sure that their centurion wasn't going to volunteer them for anything, not even guard duty on a whore house, because there was always going to be a catch in it. And if the century wound up in the shit anyway, Froggie'd get them out of it if there was any way in Hell to do that. He'd always managed before.

The howl of the Commander's air chariot rose, then drummed toward the gate. Froggie stood, using his vinewood swagger stick as a cane.

"Now you can get your thumbs out, troopers!" he said in a roar they could hear inside the huge metal ship that the legion had arrived on. Froggie was short and squat—shorter than any but a handful of the fifty-seven troopers in his century—but his voice would have been loud in a man twice his size.

The troopers fell in with the skill of long practice; their grunts and curses were part of the operation. Men butted their javelins and lifted themselves like codgers leaning on a staff, or else they held their heavy shields out at arm's length to balance the weight of their armored bodies as their knees straightened.

They wore their cuirasses. They'd march carrying their shields on their left shoulders, though they'd sling their helmets rather than wear them. Marching all day in a helmet gave the most experienced veteran a throbbing headache and cut off about half the sounds around him besides.

Froggie remembered the day the legion had marched in battle order, under a desert sun and a constant rain of Parthian arrows. They all remembered that. All the survivors.

Besides his sword and dagger, each trooper carried a pair of javelins meant for throwing. Their points were steel, but the slim neck of each shaft was soft iron that bent when it hit and kept the other fellow from pulling it out and maybe throwing it back at you. After you hurled your javelins it was work for the sword, and Froggie's troopers were better at that than anybody who'd faced them so far.

Slats stood on his two legs with his four arms crossed behind his back. He'd travelled in the same ship as the legion for the past good while. Slats wasn't a Commander any more than Froggie was, but he seemed to have a bit of rank with his own people. Like all the civilians who had to deal with the barbs, Slats wore a lavaliere that turned the gabble from his own triangular mouth into words the person he was talking to could understand.

"The bug's been around a while, right?" murmured Glabrio, a file-closer who could've had more rank if he'd been willing to take it. Though Slats looked a lot like a big grasshopper, he had bones inside his limbs the same as a man did.

"Yeah, Slats was in charge of billeting three campaigns ago," Froggie said. "He's all right. He'd jump if a fly buzzed him, but seems to know his business."

Glabrio laughed without bitterness. "That's more'n you could say about some Commanders we've had, right?" he said.

"Starting with Crassus," Froggie agreed.

Froggie'd stopped trying to get his mind around the whole of the past; time went on too far now. Little bits of memory still stuck up like rocks in a cold green sea. One of those memories was Crassus, red-faced with the effort of squeezing into his gilded cuirass, telling the Parthian envoys that he'd explain the cause of the war at the same time as he dictated terms in the Parthian capital.

The Commander's flying chariot came over a range of buildings. The guards in the gate tower here, a squad from the Ninth Cohort, leaned over the battlements to watch. One of them made a joke and the others laughed. Glad they weren't going, Froggie guessed.

The Harbor, the Commanders city across the river from what had been the barb capital, had started as a Roman palisade thrown up half a mile out from the huge metal ship from which the legion had landed. The open area had immediately begun to fill with housing for civilians: those from the metal ship and also for barbs quick to take allegiance with the new masters whom Roman swords had imposed.

Glabrio must've been thinking the same thing Froggie was, because he eyed the barbs thronging the streets and said, "If anybody'd asked me, I'd have waited till I was damned sure the fighting was over before I let any of the birds this side of my walls. The men, I mean. They strut around like so many banty roosters."

"Next time I'm having dinner with the Commander," Froggie said sourly, "I'll mention it to him."

The flying chariot settled majestically onto the space left open for it beside the gate. Froggie felt the hair on the back of his arms rise as it always did when the machines landed or took off nearby. This was a big example of the breed. It carried the Commander and his driver; two of the Commander's huge, mace-wielding toad bodyguards; Pollio, the legion's trumpeter; and five of the male barbs who'd joined the Commander's entourage almost from the moment he'd strode into the palace still splashed with the orange blood of the barb king.

The top barb aide was named Three-Spire. Froggie had seen him before and would've been just as happy never to see him again.

The troopers clashed to attention. Froggie crossed his right arm over his cuirass in salute, sharply enough to make the hoops clatter.

"Sir!" he boomed. "Third Century of the Fourth Cohort, all present or accounted for!"

The Commander stood up, though he didn't bother to get out of his chariot. The barbs sharing the vehicle with him—all this Commander's aides were barbs, the first time Froggie remembered that happening—continued to talk among themselves.

"Very good, warrior," the Commander said. He wore a thin, tight suit that might have almost have been blue skin, but his face was pale behind the enclosing bubble of a helmet. His garb was protection of some sort, but he wouldn't need the huge bodyguards if he didn't fear weapons. "Don't let sloth degrade your unit while you're on this assignment. No doubt my Guild will have fighting for you in the future."

Even without using the chariot for a reviewing stand, the Commander would be taller than any trooper in the legion. Back in the days before Crassus, though, Froggie had seen Gauls who were even taller, as well as heavier-bodied than the blue-suited race.

The Commander turned to Slats and spoke again; this time the words that came from the lavaliere around the Commander's neck sounded like the squeak of twisted sinews: they were in Slats' language, not Latin or any other human tongue. The administrator spread his six limbs wide and waggled submissively, miming a bug flipped on its back.

Fixing Froggie with a pop-eyed glare that was probably meant to be stern—language could be translated; expressions couldn't—the Commander resumed, "Obey the orders of the administrator I've provided you with as though his orders were mine. You have your duty."

Three-Spire said something to the Commander. The barb wore one of the little translator plates and must have spoken in the Commanders own language, instead of speaking barb and letting the Commander's device translate it.

The Commander flicked his left arm to the side in his equivalent of a nod. "I'll be checking up on you," he added to Froggie. "Remember that!"

"Yes, sir!" Froggie boomed, his face impassive. "The Third of the Fourth never shirks its duty!"

Three-Spire looked at the girls with dawning comprehension; his topknot bristled with anger, bringing its three peaks into greater prominence. "You! Warrior!" he said. "Where's the leader of these females?"

"Hey, Queenie!" Froggie said—in Latin. He could've called the chief girl in a passable equivalent of her own language, but he didn't think it was the time or place to show off. The troopers didn't have lavalieres to translate for them, but they'd had a lot of experience getting ideas across to barbs. Especially female barbs.

Queenie obediently stepped forward, but Froggie could see that she was worried. Well, so was he.

"No, not a female!" Three-Spire said. The lavaliere wouldn't translate a snarl, but it wasn't hard to figure there should've been one. "I mean the male who's leading this contingent!"

The Commander looked from Queenie to his aide, apparently puzzled. He didn't slap Three-Spire down the way Froggie expected. Hercules! Froggie remembered one Commander who'd had his guards smash a centurion to a pulp for saying the ground of the chosen campsite was too soft to support tent poles. The legion had slept on its tents that night, because spread like tarpaulins the thick leather walls supported the troopers enough that they didn't sink into the muck in the constant rain.

"We take care of that ourself, citizen," Froggie said, more polite than he wanted to be. Something funny was going on here, and Froggie'd learned his first day in the army that you usually win if you bet "unusual" meant "bad."

"That's not permitted!" Three-Spire said. "Sawtooth here will accompany you."

He spoke to the barb beside him, then opened a bin that was part of the chariot and handed the fellow a lavaliere from it. Sawtooth walked toward the girls clustered around the carts. He didn't look any too pleased about the assignment.

"What's this barb mean 'not permitted'?" Glabrio said in a ragged whisper. "If he don't watch his tongue, he's going to lose it!"

"Take your own advice," Froggie said out of the side of his mouth. Loudly, facing the Commander, he said, "Yes, sir!" and saluted again. "Century, form marching order and await the command!"

The Commander blinked inner eyelids that worked sideways the way a snake's do. He spoke to Pollio, who obediently stood and raised his trumpet.

"You're going to take this from a barb?" Glabrio demanded.

Pollio blew the long attention call, then the three quick toots for Advance. He looked past the tube of his instrument at his fellow troopers, his eyes troubled.

"March!" Froggie called. The century was too small a unit to have a proper standard to tilt forward, so Froggie swept his swagger stick toward the open gateway instead. To Glabrio, in a voice that could scarcely be heard over the crash of boots and equipment, he added, "For a while, sure. Look what Crassus bought by getting hasty, trooper."

Before his Third Squad was out of the gate, Froggie heard the chariot lift with a frying-bacon sizzle. A moment later he saw it fly over the palisade, heading for the next gate south where the Fifth of the Fourth waited to escort another administrator out into the sticks. Pollio looked down at the troops; none of the others aboard the vehicle bothered to.

Froggie stepped out of line, letting Lucky Castus of the first squad lead. Sunlight winked on the battle monument which the legion had set up outside the main gate of the Harbor: a pillar of rough-cut stonework, with captured armor set in niches around it and a barb war chariot filled with royal standards on top.

The barbs used brass rather than bronze for their helmets and the facings of their wicker shields. Polished brass shone like an array of gold, but verdigris had turned this equipment to poisonous green in the three months since the battle.

A lot of things had gone bad in the past three months. Froggie'd be glad to get out of this place. If it could be done alive.

The girls came through the gate, pushing the carts. Froggie'd heard Sawtooth shouting, "March! March! March!" for as long as the Commander's chariot was visible, but the barb was silent now.

Queenie saw Froggie watching. She twitched the point of her shoulder in Sawtooth's direction. Froggie smiled and moved his open hand in a short arc as though he were smoothing dirt.

That was a barb gesture. For men with damage to the spine or brain that even the Commanders' machines couldn't repair, the legion continued the Roman practice of cremating corpses. The barbs here buried their dead in the ground.

Slats came through the gate after the last cart, swinging in his palanquin. His four girls handled the weight all right, but they didn't seem to have much sparkle. Well, that'd change when they started eating army rations along with the century's girls.

As soon as Slats saw Froggie, he desperately beckoned the Roman to him. Froggie didn't care for anybody calling him like a dog, but there wasn't much option this time. As clumsy as Slats was, he'd probably break his neck if he tried to climb out of the palanquin hastily. Froggie sauntered over and walked beside the vehicle. That wasn't hard; the carts were setting the pace.

"Centurion Vibius," the administrator said, "I'm pleased to see you. I have studied your record. There is no unit whose escort on this expedition I would prefer to yours."

Froggie thought about that for a moment. You'd rarely go wrong to assume whatever your officers told you was a lie . . . but Slats wasn't exactly an officer. Also, Froggie'd gotten the impression back when Slats was billeting officer that his race of bugs couldn't tell lies any better than they could fly.

"If we're going to be stuck in the middle of nowhere for however long," the centurion said, "then you may as well learn to call me Froggie. And I'm not sorry we're with you, Slats, if we've got to be out here at all."

Pollio's trumpet called again, ordering Postumius and his boys into the back of beyond. Three centuries from each cohort, half the strength of the legion, had been sent off these past two days on individual escort missions.

"Exactly!" said Slats. He spoke through his mouth—not every race serving the Commanders did—but he had three jaw plates, not two, and he looked more like a lamprey talking than he did anything Froggie wanted to watch. "If we have to be here. What do you think of the expedition, Centurion Froggie?"

Froggie thought it was the worst idea he'd heard since Crassus marched into Parthia with no guides and no clue, but he wasn't going to say that to anydamnbody. Aloud he said, "I would've thought that maybe waiting till this place was officially pacified so you guys could move in your burning weapons and so forth . . . that that might be a good idea."

The First Squad with Glabrio in front was entering the forest. It niggled Froggie that he wasn't up with them, though he knew how sharp Glabrio's eyes were. The file-closer had served as the unofficial unit scout ever since Froggie got to know him.

"Exactly!" Slats repeated. "It is extremely dangerous to treat the planet as pacified when it is not pacified. What if the Anroklaatschi—"

The barbs; Froggie never bothered to learn what barbs called themself. Most times you couldn't pronounce it anyway.

"—attack the Harbor in force as they attacked when we landed? They could sweep right over the few troops remaining, could they not?"

Froggie thought about the question. The barbs came riding to battle on chariots. One fellow with only a kinked sword drove while two warriors with long spears and full armor stood in the back. The driver held the "horses" behind the lines while his betters stomped forward in no better order than a flock of sheep wearing brass.

The barbs had gotten a real surprise when—instead of spending half the afternoon shouting challenges—the legion had advanced on the double, launched javelins, and then waded in for the real butcher's work with swords. That surprise couldn't be repeated, but so long as whoever was in command of the understrength legion kept his head . . .

"Some folks' swordarms are going to be real tired by the time it's over," Froggie said judiciously, "but I guess they'd come through all right."

The smooth-barked trees in this place were tall, some of them up to two hundred feet. The branches came off in rows slanting up the trunks to end in sprays of tassels like willow whips instead of proper leaves.

Froggie hadn't seen real trees since he'd marched into Mesopotamia. He'd seen a date palm there and wondered what he was doing in a place so strange. He'd been right to worry.

Slats and the Commander called this place a planet, just like the Commanders did every place they took the legion to. The only thing "planet" meant to Froggie was the stars that he used to watch move slowly across the sky while he tended sheep before he enlisted. Hercules! but he wished he was back in the Sabine Hills now.

"Well, all right, the Harbor may hold," Slats said peevishly, "but what about you and I, Centurion Froggie? What chance do we have if the Anroklaatschi attack?"

"Well, Slats . . ." Froggie said. "That depends on a lot of things. I'd just as soon it didn't happen, but me and the boys'll see what can be done if it does."

Froggie and the palanquin reached the shade of the forest. This wasn't a proper road but it was a lot more than an animal track. Two and generally three men could march abreast, though their outside knees and elbows brushed low growth which looked like starbursts from a peglike stem.

Tassels closed all but slivers of the sky overhead, and the trunks cut off sight of the Harbor. Froggie knew the Commander had ways to see through trees or even solid rock, but he still relaxed a little to have the feeling of privacy.

"I'm wondering . . ." Slats said. He spoke softly and seemed to be afraid to meet Froggie's eyes. "I'm wondering if perhaps the Commander is sending us and the others out to give him warning if the Anroklaatschi are planning an attack? They would hit us first, and of course I would call a warning to the Harbor."

He waggled a little rod that Froggie had taken for a writing stylus.

Froggie sighed. "Well, I tell you, Slats," he said. "A long time ago I gave up expecting what officers did to make a lot of sense. But I gotta say, as a plan that'd really be a bad one. He's weakening his base too much."

"Nothing about this planet makes sense!" Slats burst out. "None of the products are of real value to the Guild. Oh, in the long term, certainly—but nothing worth the loss of warrior slaves as valuable as you are, Roman. And to lose my life as well over this wretched planet! Oh, what a tragedy!"

"I can see you'd feel that way about it," Froggie said. "Well, you worry about your business, Slats, and me and the boys'll worry about ours."

He stepped aside and let the column tramp on by him. He'd see how Verruca, his number two, was making out at the end of the line; then he'd go up with Glabrio again where he belonged.

It didn't make Froggie feel good that the administrator was just as worried about this business as he was, but sometimes it's nice to know that you can trust your instincts even when they're telling you you're stepping into a pool of hog manure.

After all, you had to trust something.

Froggie looked at the sun, a hands-breadth past zenith. He thought the days here were about the same length as those in Italy—that wasn't true a lot of places the legion had been—but home was too long ago for him to be sure.

A few big trees sprang from the protection of a limestone outcrop, but only saplings grew in the rest of the broad floodplain. At the moment the river was well within its channel.

"Queenie!" Froggie said. The chief girl, older than the others by a ways, didn't actually push one of the carts. She trotted over to him. "River there—much water come down? Quick quick happen?"

Half his words were Latin, most of the rest were in Queenie's chirps or as close as Froggie could come to the sounds. Trooper pidgin had bits and pieces of other tongues, too, some of them going back to the Pahlevi the legions had picked up marching into Parthia.

Queenie glanced at the river, using Froggie's gestures as much as his words to figure out what he was asking. Some troopers had a knack for jawing with barbs. Froggie didn't, but he could make out. It wasn't like they were going to be talking philosophy, after all.

"No way, boss-man!" Queenie said. "Sky get cold first, then get warm, then hoosh! sweep all shit downstream. Long time, boss-man."

Then, hopefully, "We camp here?"

"We camp here," Froggie agreed. The century had already halted and the men were watching him; it wasn't like they were recruits who couldn't figure out what was going to happen next.

"Fall out!" Froggie said. "First and Third Squads provide security, Second digs posts every twelve feet—" for a marching camp there was no need to set every timber of the palisade in the ground, the way you'd do for a more permanent structure "—and the rest of you start cutting timber. I want this complete before sunset, and I don't mean last light."

Verruca and Blasus already had the T-staff and measuring cord out. Any of the troopers could survey a simple camp by now, and with the right tools Blasus could've set an aqueduct.

He'd never have occasion to do that, of course. The Guild didn't use the legion for that kind of work. Well, Blasus was a good man to have at your side with a sword, too.

Troopers unlimbered axes, saws and shovels from the leading cart. The first job was to remove trees from the campsite, but they'd need to clear a wider area to complete the palisade. There wasn't a high likelihood that the barbs would try anything, but—

"Hey, Froggie!" Galerius called. "You know it's a waste of time to fort up in the middle of a nowhere like this. Ain't the blisters on our feet enough for today that we got to blister our hands, too?"

"Yeah, Froggie," Laena said. "Give it a rest for tonight, why don't you? We all know you're boss—you don't got to prove it."

There was a chorus of agreement, though Froggie was glad to notice the grumblers continued to pick up their tools. "You're damned right I don't have to prove it!" Froggie said. "And if you don't start working your shovel instead of your tongue, Laena, you're going to have four shifts of night watch on top of the post-holing!"

"By Hercules!" Laena said as he strode toward the line the surveyors were laying out. "One of these days I'll get some rank myself so I can stand and watch other guys sweat!"

It was the same thing every halt, whether they were operating as the whole legion or in detachments like now: the centurions ordered the troopers to fortify the camp and the troopers complained. Every damned time!

And the troopers went ahead and fortified the camp anyway, with palisades, turf walls, drystone, or even fascines of spiky brush. Whatever there was that'd make a wall, that's what the legion used.

The troopers didn't obey because they were afraid of Froggie. Oh, he was tough enough—but Froggie'd seen Laena strangle a barb half again his own size in a place where the grass grew to the height of a small tree.

They obeyed, Laena and the rest, because they knew Froggie was right: that one of these nights they'd bed down in a spot just as empty as this one, and the walls Froggie had forced them to build would be the difference between seeing the dawn and having barbs cut all their throats. But they'd still complain and fight the orders, just like Froggie had before he got promoted.

The girls were starting cookfires and getting ration packs out of the third cart. The barbs here used wooden pistons to light wads of dry moss, quicker and at least as easy as striking sparks off steel with a flint. Queenie'd called something to Slats' porters, who obediently put him down.

The barb aide, Sawtooth, trotted over to Froggie. "You, warrior!" he said, his words coming out of the translator on his chest. "Why are we stopping?"

Glabrio put a hand on his swordhilt. Froggie waved him to calm down and walked over where Slats was cautiously stepping out of his vehicle. Sawtooth continued to jabber, but Froggie ignored him.

"Slats, this is a good place to set up," Froggie said. "When we get out of this bottom the trees'll be too big for us to build a stockade with the manpower we got. Besides, I don't want to work the girls too hard. This is a damned poor road for carts."

"Do not be concerned for the females," Sawtooth said. His barb chattering was an overtone to the accentless Latin coming out of the lavaliere. "We must push on till dark. Then we will reach Kascanschi by tomorrow!"

"Another thing, Slats," Froggie said without turning to look at the aide. "I wish you'd tell that barb who got wished on us that all he has to do to live a long, happy life is to keep his mouth shut and let me forget he's around. If he can't do that, then there's going to be a problem and he ain't going to like the way it gets solved."

"What?" said Sawtooth. "What do you mean? Three-Spire gave me complete authority over the females!"

"But Centurion Froggie . . . ?" Slats said. The translated words were without inflection, but the way the bug flicked his middle arms to the side indicated puzzlement. "Sawtooth has a translator. He has heard your words directly."

"No fooling?" said Froggie. He turned and tapped the barb's nose with his left index finger. Sawtooth yipped and jumped backward. "Well, I hope he was listening. I hate trouble."

"All right," Froggie ordered. "One man from each squad stands wall guard, and the rest of you are dismissed for dinner. Squad leaders, set up a roster for the night watches."

The stockade wasn't fancy—you could stick your arm between posts in a lot of places—but it'd slow down a barb attack in the unlikely event that there was one. Froggie eyed it with approval. His boys hadn't forgotten how to work during the past three months in the Harbor.

The tents were up. Normally there'd have been six big ones holding a squad apiece, plus a pair of little bell tents with Slats in one and the other for Froggie and Verruca together. Slats still was separate, but Froggie'd traded the other little one for three more squad tents. He and Verruca would bunk down with the men—that was a better idea anyway, when you were out in the back of beyond with only a century—and the girls didn't have to make their own shelters.

One tent was for the unattached girls; the rest bunked with the soldiers they'd paired off with. If you wanted privacy you shouldn't have joined the army, but the extra tents provided a little elbow room when otherwise things would've been pretty crowded.

Froggie wondered where Sawtooth thought he was going to sleep. The question didn't concern him; he just wondered.

Because he wasn't especially hungry, Froggie paused for a moment on the low fighting step that let the troopers look over the top of the six-foot palisade. Glabrio walked over to him.

"The tree tassels are going yellow," Glabrio said. "They were dirty blue when we landed, do you remember?"

Froggie shrugged. "You think it's turning Fall?" he said. "I sure haven't noticed it getting colder."

The sky still looked bright, but the cookfires illuminated circles of ground. The green wood gave off clouds of smoke that looked oily but didn't smell too bad. Girls dipped stew into troopers' messkits, then sat beside them on split-log benches to share the food.

There was a lot of laughter. Froggie didn't like this operation one bit, but even he had to admit that it felt good to get away from the Harbor and the eyes of hundreds of bureaucrats.

Slats watched them from across the encampment, his upper and middle arms twitching to separate rhythms. Froggie nodded toward the administrator. To Glabrio he murmured, "The poor bastard's probably lonely. This can't be a picnic for him either."

There was a high, clucking scream. Sawtooth burst into the circle around the First Squad's cookfire and began to shriek at Queenie. Froggie sighed and strode over to the commotion. He'd been as clear as he could be, but some people—and some barbs—just wouldn't listen.

"What's the problem?" Froggie demanded, not shouting but making sure that Sawtooth and Queenie both would hear him over their gabble. He couldn't make out a word of it, they were talking so quick and angry.

"These sluts were proposing to eat meat!" the barb aide shouted, through the lavaliere now because he was speaking to Froggie. "They have no right to meat!"

"Is everything all right, Centurion Froggie?" Slats demanded nervously. He barely poked his head around the edge of one of the tents where he was hiding from the threat of violence.

"All's fine, Slats," Froggie called. Because Froggie was on top of things, the troopers kept a bit back. They were all steaming, though, and more than one man had his hand on his swordhilt.

"Look, buddy," Froggie said to the barb aide. "I decide who eats what here. The girls do better work with a little sausage in their mush, and—"

"They are not breeders!" Sawtooth shouted. He struck the mess tin out of Queenie's hand, spraying the savory brown stew across the ground in an arc. "I will not permit them to eat meat!"

"Top?" said Glabrio. He was standing right behind the barb.

"Yeah," said Froggie, "but you have to clean it up."

"What do you—" Sawtooth said. Glabrio grabbed his topknot with his left hand and pulled the barb's head back.

Most troopers used their daggers for the odds and ends of life in the field: trimming leather for bootsoles, picking a stone out of a draft animal's hoof, that sort of thing. Glabrio often carried only the dagger when he went scouting and didn't want the weight and clatter of full equipment. He kept a working edge on one side of the blade, but the other was honed to where he could slice sunbeams with it.

It was the sharp edge that he dragged across Sawtooth's throat, cutting through to the spine. The barb's blood was coppery in the firelight.

Glabrio twisted and flung Sawtooth on the ground behind him to finish thrashing. Bending, he wiped the daggerblade on the barb's kilt. Over his shoulder he asked, "Is the river all right, Froggie?"

"Dis, no! the river's not all right!" Froggie said. "I want him buried deep enough nobody's going to find him till we've shipped out of this place. I want the ground smooth so you don't see there's a grave there, too!"

Glabrio stood and sheathed his dagger with a clack of the guard against the lip of the tin scabbard. "Sounds good to me, Froggie," he said.

Froggie grimaced. "Caepio and Messus," he said to the pair of men nearest, both of them members of the First Squad. "Get your shovels out and give him a hand."

Queenie stepped over to Froggie and held his hands as she touched cheeks, the right one and then the left. That was what the barbs did instead of kiss; they didn't really have lips, just a layer of skin over their mouth bones.

"You great boss-man!" she said. "We proud we be in your flock!"

Froggie patted her. "Hey, Marcellus!" he said to the guard from the Fourth Squad who was watching the excitement. "All of you who've got the duty—you think the barbs are going to pop up out of the campfires? Turn your heads around or you'll find 'em decorating somebody's lodgepole!"

Glabrio chose a patch of ground without many roots and started breaking it with his mattock; the rest of the squad was getting its tools out, not just the two troopers who'd been told off for the job. That was more people than you needed to dig a hole, but they were making a point that Froggie could appreciate.

Slats had vanished. Very slowly, he raised his triangular face around the edge of the tent again. Froggie smiled, raised his hands to show that they were empty, and walked over so he could talk to the administrator without shouting. Slats trembled, but he didn't run screaming toward the back gate the way Froggie half expected him to do.

"I was . . ." Slats said. "I . . ."

The bug turned his head around so that he was looking over his left shoulder, then repeated the gesture in the other direction. As if that had been his way of clearing his throat, he resumed, "Centurion Froggie, was that action necessary?"

"Yeah," Froggie said, "it was. Or anyway, it was going to be necessary before long. I figured it was better to take care of it out here where there wasn't anybody to watch. Right?"

"Hey, Top?" Glabrio called. "What about this?"

He held up Sawtooth's lavaliere, dangling on the tip of his finger. It winked in the firelight, except where tacky blood covered the metal.

"Hercules, bury it with him!" Froggie said. "If the barb deserted, he wasn't going to give us his gadget first, was he?"

He turned to the administrator again. "How about it, Slats?" he said. He didn't touch his swordhilt or do anything that might be taken as threatening; the poor bug was set to shake himself apart already. "Do you agree?"

"Centurion Froggie," Slats said finally, "I trust you to keep us all safe if it is possible to be safe. But the next time, the next time . . ."

He did his spin-your-head-around-twice trick again.

"The next time, Centurion Froggie, please warn me so that I know not to be watching!"

* * *

Tatius and Laena were talking in low voices at the corner where their guard posts met. They heard the crunch of Froggie's boots and moved apart, each down his own stretch of palisade. Froggie didn't mind the guards chatting on duty if it didn't get out of hand.

Which it wouldn't, so long as Froggie made a pass around the posts once or twice each night. He didn't even have to speak.

A couple—or maybe it was a pair of the girls—sat in the shelter of the carts and shared a mug of something. Guild rations were pretty good, but the troopers had learned to supplement them from whatever was available locally. The wine here was first-rate, though the barbs made it from a root that looked like a beet.

The fires had burned down. Slats' tent was leather like all the rest, but the cold light that the Guild bureaucrats used leaked out the seams and underneath the tent walls. It didn't look like the administrator was going to make trouble over the business this evening. Froggie knew there'd been a risk in killing Sawtooth, but Hercules! he just couldn't feel in his heart that one barb more or less made a difference.

"Hey, boss-man!" Queenie called in a fluting whisper from the tower protecting the front gate. "Come up, we talk-talk."

Froggie looked at the night sky. He missed having a moon. In all the places the legion had been, there'd only been half a dozen where the moon was as big and bright as it ought to be. There was no moon at all here.

"Yeah, sure," Froggie said. He wriggled the pole that served as a ladder, making sure it was solid, then climbed. They'd trimmed a young tree, leaving stubs of branches on alternating sides for steps. The sap of the trees here dried hard and as smooth as glass.

Calling a platform with a waist-high parapet "the gate tower" was bragging a bit, but this was a damned impressive marching camp for a single century to lay out. The Third of the Fourth would survive this business if anybody could.

Of course, they might be in for nothing but a short march and a few days of boredom. Froggie'd been a soldier too long to complain about being bored. There was lots worse that happened.

"This bad shit, boss-man," Queenie said as she offered Froggie a skin of wine. "We watch out or we get chopped, right?"

"You can break your neck stepping off the curb, Queenie," Froggie said. Hercules, did everybody think they were all marching off a cliff? He squirted a stream of wine into his mouth like he was milking a ewe.

The girls and the troopers had gotten together pretty quick after the legion stood down from the battle; within a few hours, mostly. A lot of them were widows and orphans, but not by any means all. Females turned to strength as sure as the sun rises in the east; and when the legion was in town, strength spoke Latin.

Queenie spat over the parapet. She said, "Three-Spire a—" Froggie didn't catch the word, but she mimed squishing something against the platform. "A little bug, you know? He nasty bug serving king, he same-same nasty bug now. You chop him like you chop Sawtooth, boss-man?"

Froggie shrugged and passed the wine back. "No chance, Queenie," he said, "King boss-man, the blue guy, him love Three-Spire. Me just little boss-man."

Queenie patted him. "You find way, boss-man. You find way."

Far off in the night an animal gave a long, rising shriek. It wasn't a cry of pain because nothing that hurt so much could live to finish the call.

"New girls virgin," Queenie said unexpectedly. "Feed 'em up meat, they be ready in one day, two day. Want me save them for you, boss-man?"

"What?" said Froggie. Frowning, he took the offered wine and drank deeply. "Oh, Slats' porters, you mean. So it's the meat that warms 'em up, huh?"

He hadn't known that, but he'd seen that the girls on army rations had a lot more life in them than those eating mush in labor teams bossed by male barbs. Sometimes he wondered—he always wondered, every place they went where there were girls—what happened when the legion pulled out for the next campaign. Froggie'd met a cute little Armenian girl in Samosata while Crassus was getting ready to march east. . . . 

Froggie sighed. "Naw, me no care, Queenie," he said.

Queenie finished the wine and clucked contentedly. She turned and fixed Froggie with eyes larger than a humans and perfectly round. "You no want me, boss-man?" she said. "Queenie too old?"

Froggie thought about it, then reached for the girl. "Naw, Queenie first rate," he said.

After all, with what they were getting into, he didn't know how many more chances he'd be getting.

* * *

"What do you think of Kascanschi, Centurion Froggie?" Slats asked. He'd climbed out of his palanquin as soon as they came into sight of the walls.

"I've seen worse towns," Froggie replied. "It'll do, I guess."

The village was a whole lot bigger than Froggie'd figured. If the barbs lived as tight together as they did in the old capital, there must be nigh onto three thousand of them here. They weren't all warriors, and a lot of what warriors there'd been had probably joined their king for the battle. Most of those had been feeding the eels for the past three months.

It was still a damned big place for one century to garrison.

The troops remained in marching order, but everybody wore his helmet with the crest mounted. Froggie's crest was transverse and twice as wide as those of the common troopers. Originally they'd been made of bleached horsehair. These most recent replacements weren't from a horse's tail—Froggie hadn't seen a real horse since Parthia—but they did the job.

The village gates were hung from towers made of irregularly shaped stones mortared together. A mound with a timber stockade on top surrounded the rest of the village. The posts were thicker than those of the troopers' marching camps, but the wall wasn't in good repair.

"It looks very strong, Centurion Froggie," Slats said. "Does it not?"

Froggie snorted. "Give us two hours to build a siege shed and we'll bore through that sorry excuse for a wall in another ten minutes," he said.

That was bragging; it'd take a bit longer. Though if wet rot had eaten the posts as bad as it just might have done . . .

After the battle in the bow of the river, the barb king had escaped inside the thick stone walls of his capital. It had taken the legion just two days to undermine them, replace the pilings with props of dry timber, and then set the timbers ablaze. The barbs ran around like a stirred-up anthill when smoke started coming out of the ground, but even then they didn't seem to realize that the walls were going to collapse into a fiery pit along with everybody who was on the battlements at the time.

The Fourth Cohort was the lead unit through the breach. The barbs were too stunned by the disaster to put up much of a fight, but the troopers still had to kill like a plague to show what'd happen anytime the barbs didn't do just what the Guild said. The muscles of Froggie's right shoulder still twinged at the thought of how he'd lifted his sword again and again and again.

The gates of Kascanschi were open. From inside, barbs clacked the flat blocks of wood they used instead of trumpets. A procession of males came out: the six village elders, like enough, and a section of forty soldiers. Froggie felt his muscles tighten, but he hoped nothing showed on his face.

Slats stepped forward and started jawing the village chief, using his lavaliere. Glabrio edged toward Froggie and slid his shield out of the way so he could whisper. He saw it too. Dis, they all did, they were all veterans.

And so were the soldiers who'd just come through the gates.

They weren't big. One by one they were shorter than the warriors the legion had slaughtered three months before. These troops didn't move one by one, though: they moved like a team, like disciplined soldiers, and that was all the difference between being sheep and being the butcher.

"They're a funny color pink," Glabrio said. "And look, they got axes instead of spears."

The knives Froggie had seen previously in this place were of brittle iron that he wouldn't have used for a plow coulter back in Latium. These short-hafted axes had blades of real steel, and the iron-strapped wooden bucklers were a lot solider than the brass-faced wicker that the royal army had died with.

Slats returned to Froggie. "The chief bids us welcome," he said. Because of the translator, it was hard to tell if Slats was as worried about the situation as he ought to be. "They've prepared housing for us in the village temple, the big building just inside the gate."

Froggie looked around instead of immediately answering Slats or giving the troops an order. For most of the past mile they'd been marching between fields of broad-leafed root vegetables, each growing in a little mound of compost. The area for nearly a bowshot outside the walls wasn't planted. At one time it must have been cleared for defensive purposes, but for at least a decade it'd grown up in brush.

"Glabrio," Froggie said, "you come with me. The rest of you wait for orders."

Slapping his swagger stick into his left palm, he strode through the gate with Glabrio at his side. Queenie trotted along two paces behind, which was fine. Slats rotated his head in desperation, then scuttled after Froggie like a nervous cockroach.

Four of the barb axemen came too, which was no more than Froggie expected. Close up, the pink of their skins had a lot more blue and less red than the village elders did. They looked tough and no mistake.

"That's the temple, huh?" Froggie said, eyeing the structure. It was impressive, all right: sixty feet at least to the top of the main spire. Ten or a dozen lesser peaks sprang from other parts of the wooden roof. The walls were built up from staves, not heavy timbers, and every finger's breadth of the pieces had been carved with the images of plants and animals before they were pegged together.

"According to my briefing cube . . ." Slats said, facing Froggie very deliberately so that he could pretend that the four funny-looking barbs weren't standing close holding their axes. ". . . the chiefs are also priests just as the king is the high priest. This would be the chief's residence as well as the temple."

The temple's lines were all up and down, but it covered a fair stretch of ground besides. There'd be room for the century to fit inside even if the height wasn't divided into several floors.

"It looks impressive, doesn't it?" Slats said nervously.

"It looks like a bloody firetrap!" said Glabrio, who'd come from Sicily a long time ago. "I'd sooner bunk in Etna than there!"

"Right," said Froggie. "Slats, we're not going to billet inside the walls, but it won't be any problem—"

"Company coming!" Verruca called from the other side of the gate. "The bluebird's returning to our happy meadows."

"Seems the Commander's paying us a visit, Slats," Froggie said. "What do you suppose he's got in mind?"

"If he were ordering us home," Slats said in obvious disquiet, "he would call me instead of coming out here. It must be a tour of inspection."

Froggie walked out and caught the wink of sunset on metal as the Commander's chariot came over the eastern horizon. When the sun's angle was just right, the light twisted as though Froggie were seeing the vehicle through the clear water of a pond.

Usually when barbs saw a flying chariot for the first time, they threw themselves face-down and prayed—the ones who didn't run off screaming. The village elders looked scared, no mistake, but the axemen stood rock solid. In fact when the chief turned like he planned to run, the guard with gold wristlets—the others wore black—caught him and faced him around with a firm grip. It made you wonder who was really in charge of things.

The flying chariot hissed to the ground alongside where Slats had spoken to the village chief. The vehicle was the same one that had seen the century out of the Harbor, but the only ones aboard were the driver, the Commander and his two bodyguards, and Three-Spire.

"Is he sick?" Glabrio whispered. The Commander had a glassy expression and didn't move when the chariot landed.

My guess'd be drunk, Froggie thought, but he didn't let those words or any touch his lips.

While the Commander remained in his comatose half-sprawl, Three-Spire stood in the chariot and spoke to the village chief. The elders bent their heads back in a gesture of submission.

Their posture reminded Froggie of Sawtooth's last moments, so he was smiling when Three-Spire turned and spoke to Slats. The administrator replied and, to Froggie, said, "Three-Spire says we are to enter our assigned quarters at once and dismiss the porters. Sawtooth will lead them back to the Harbor, Three-Spire says. He speaks with the authority of the Commander, who is indisposed. Three-Spire says."

"I guess you'll want to assure the Commander that you'll inform your escort and other interested parties," Froggie said. This wasn't the perfect time to explain where Sawtooth was at, but Froggie wouldn't have gotten as old as he was if he counted on perfection. "We'll find a way to deal with the girls ourselves in the absence of Sawtooth."

"What?" said Three-Spire, his translator croaking in Latin. He hopped out of the chariot and stepped so close to Froggie that the centurion had to look up if he wanted to see anything above the barb's neckline. "Where is Sawtooth? He should be—"

Changing tack in the middle of the question, Three-Spire cawed a demand at Queenie. Before she could speak—not that Froggie was worried about Queenie forgetting the story they'd worked out together—Froggie said, "Sawtooth went off last night with one of the girls, citizen. The others tell me he'd been feeding her meat from army rations."

That set the barb back like Froggie'd caught him at throat level with a shield-rim—an image which'd been going through Froggie's mind, sure enough. "Sawtooth did that?" Three-Spire said.

This time Queenie answered, speaking slowly enough that Froggie caught the word for disgrace. She even squatted down and raised her hips, the way the girls here did to honor a man.

Three-Spire's translator shot a question at Slats. The administrator answered just as smooth and polite as he would've the Commander. Speaking of Blue-Suit, he'd stuck a finger in his mouth and was rolling it around like a pestle in a handmill.

The aide bobbed his head, indicating a complete lack of understanding. To Froggie he said, "Well, the females must return on their own, then. They won't need food—it's a short journey since they no longer have burdens."

"Ah . . ." said Froggie. It griped his soul to have to treat this barb like he was real people, but whatever was going on was deeper waters than Froggie was ready to swim in yet. "I guess the girls can stay with us. We'll need cooks and, and washing done, so—"

Three-Spire's crest twitched, sticking straight up and then spreading out like a drop of water splashing on bone-dry ground. Instead of talking to Froggie, he turned and flung another load of gabble at Slats through the lavaliere. Slats twice tried to reply, but the barb snarled him down before he got out more than a few clicking words. When Three-Spire finally finished, he glared at Froggie.

Slats spread his limbs in acceptance. Very carefully he said to Froggie, "Three-Spire, speaking in the Commander's name, says that the females cannot remain within Kascanschi because they are not of this tribe. He says that would cause offense—"

The administrator flicked his middle limbs out minusculely.

"—although my briefing cube failed to note this cultural peculiarity. Furthermore, Three-Spire rejects my suggestion that we could camp outside the walls as we did on the way here. That would be a rejection of the villagers' hospitality that again would give offense, Three-Spire says. Speaking for the Commander."

In Latin Three-Spire said, "The Commander wishes to inform you that if you do not carry out his orders at once, his terrible weapons will burn all you warriors to ash for mutiny. To ash!"

"I see," Froggie said. He looked over his troopers. Verruca had lined them up five squads abreast with the carts behind them and the Sixth Squad acting as a rear guard and reserve. "Century, mount up! We'll be billeted in that big-ass building right inside the gates until we hear different. By squads, march!"

In truth Froggie didn't see very much, but at least he knew for sure where he stood. He'd met plenty of Three-Spire's type, politicians who always landed on their feet. By now all of that sort had been weeded out of the legion. No matter how well you sucked up to the high command, in a battle there was a lot of stuff happening. Sometimes javelins flew from a funny direction.

Glabrio joined his fellows as they clashed off on their left feet. He gave Froggie a hard glance from beneath the brim of his helmet.

The Commander had slumped down onto the chariot's floor. The bodyguards remained stolidly motionless but the driver was peering over his seat-back at the Commander, her scaly hide turning mauve in concern.

The Guild had long ago made sure the legion knew about those weapons that could find a man wherever he hid and burn him alive through solid rock. It was interesting that a barb aide knew about them, though. Froggie wasn't about to bet that those weapons wouldn't be used on him and his boys, even though the Commander didn't look in much shape to give orders.

"Slats," Froggie said aloud, "please inform our Commander that I hear him talking."

Some things translate, others—with luck—don't. Nodding to Three-Spire, Froggie turned and strode into the village behind his last squad.

The temple or whatever was built even stranger on the inside, but it was comfortable enough if you avoided thinking of it as the setup for the world's biggest funeral pyre. You could look up to the open sky from the central court. At the back of the ground floor was a sanctum set off by heavy doors; inside was a black stone on a plinth. At six levels above the ground were rooms for sleeping and storage, reached by stairs that snaked up both sides of the walls.

Froggie was overseeing the squad that stowed the century's gear when one of the pair of guards at the entrance called, "Hey Top? The bug wants to come in."

"Well, let him in, Calamus," Froggie said with a touch of irritation in his tone. He strode toward the door, his feet drumming thump/squeal on floor timbers. "He's our commanding officer, remember."

"Right, Froggie," a trooper called from halfway up the open staircase. "And I'm Venus rising from the seafoam!"

Froggie really hadn't meant Slats when he said not to let any but their own people into the billets even if that meant putting twelve inches of steel through a few of them. He'd damned well meant it about the barbs, though. He guessed he ought to be glad Slats wasn't the sort who'd try to push through a door when a guard stopped him.

Slats entered, his middle limbs quivering. "Centurion Froggie," he said, "the village chief says—"

He turned, apparently expecting to see the barb following him. Instead, the guards had locked their shields across the entrance. The chief jumped back like he'd stepped on a hot griddle, but the four axemen who tagged along might have been inclined to try something.

Calamus and Baldy both had their swords drawn; door-guard was no job for javelins. The barb soldiers backed away, looking angry but not afraid.

"Slats, tell the barbs that this building is now Guild territory," Froggie said. "Tell them that any attempt to enter it while we're billeted here is an attack on the Guild, to which we'll respond with all necessary force."

"Well, really, Centurion Froggie," the administrator said. "I don't think—"

"Tell them!" Froggie said.

Slats spread his limbs, then clicked to the barbs through his translator. The chief twisted his throat back. His bodyguards' faces didn't change a bit, but Froggie figured those boys had understood the deal before they were told.

Slats turned to Froggie. He went into his submissive posture again and said, "The chief informs me that your men are constructing a camp outside the walls. The Commander—we must accept that it was the Commander speaking—was explicit that you warriors and I live within Kascanschi. Please, Centurion Froggie!"

"Sirmius?" Froggie called to the squad leader. Poor Slats was scared enough to turn into a pile of the little green pellets he shit. "Finish up here. I'm going to take our leader on a tour of the make-work I've got the other squads doing."

He put his arm around the administrator and walked him into the evening. There were a lot of women and children in the town; they'd come out a few at a time and headed for the fields when they saw the century was settling into a routine that didn't include rape and slaughter. Now they were returning.

There weren't many males, though, except for the forty axemen who'd escorted the chief and elders. Those were keeping pretty much out of the way since they and the century had sized each other up. The four shepherding the chief in the wake of Froggie and Slats were the only ones in sight now.

"You see, sir," Froggie said to the administrator as they walked through the gate, "I've got to keep the men busy. You'll recall the Commander gave me specific orders about that when he sent us out. I've got the boys building a fort in this waste ground, just for the exercise. They've got a good start, wouldn't you say?"

"You're not going to live there?" Slats said in desperate hope. His triangular head moved back and forth in quick jerks, the way a human might have done with his eyes alone. "I thought . . ."

Froggie had left Verruca to deal with the fort because he was more worried about the way the temple had been constructed. The wall was well begun already. The ground cover here didn't bind the soil the way grass did, so the squads were trading off on the task of weaving brush into rough baskets to hold dirt.

This sort of construction would keep out prying eyes better than a stockade. Besides, when the troopers had time in a day or two to wet and tamp the soil, the result'd be as good as a turf wall.

The men had stripped off their helmets and body armor, but they still wore their sword belts. Four fully-equipped troopers guarded the gear of the others in the center of the rising fort. No point in taking chances.

"But the female barbarians?" Slats said. "They have remained, against the Commander's clear orders."

"Huh!" Froggie said. "I guess you're right. Who'd have thought it?"

Most of the girls were helping with the work, but a pair were coming back from the stream with buckets of water for the evening meal. They waved gaily to Froggie. Queenie came out from behind the barrier that protected the fort's gateway and walked over.

"But they must leave," Slats said in frightened animation. "You must order them to leave!"

"Oh, I did," Froggie said. He'd said the words to Queenie, true enough. He'd sooner not tell a lie if he could avoid it, and a long career in the army had taught him lots of ways to avoid it. "Maybe you should try yourself, Slats."

The administrator rotated his head toward the approaching girl. Froggie patted Slats on the back and said, "Go ahead. Maybe you'll have better luck."

And maybe pigs would fly. The troopers had seen stranger things since they'd been bought by the Guild.

Slats' translator blurted a demand that was so full of apologies you'd have thought he was talking to the Commander. Slats really didn't like saying things the listener might not want to hear.

"Go fuck tree, bug-man," Queenie said in cheerful pidgin. "We stay."

"I guess they can camp out in the fort," Froggie said. "Since it's built, after all."

"But—" said Slats. "They're supposed to go—"

The village chief spoke to Queenie. She'd known to be politic when Three-Spire was here with the Commander, but the local hick got out less than ten words when Queenie lit into him.

Queenie didn't kick the barb in the balls, but she did everything short of that. He bobbed and fluttered his arms up and down. Other girls called raucous support, and half a dozen of the nearest troopers rested their hands on their swordhilts as they smiled and watched.

Slats turned to Froggie. "She says—" he began.

Queenie whirled toward the centurion and administrator. "We no need him shitpot village!" she cried. "We stay out here, take care boss-man and great warriors like always!"

The village chief skittered back when Queenie let him go, but the captain of his guards caught him by the arm and pushed him forward again. Froggie stepped between the chief and Queenie.

"Slats," he said without looking around, "to make sure that none of the girls leave their quarters at night, I'm going to station an outpost here during the four watches."

"An outpost?" Slats said. Froggie could hear the administrator's limbs rubbing against the slick, copper-colored robe he wore.

"Just two men," Froggie said reassuringly. "Tell the chief that if he's got problems with Guild personnel and their slaves using waste ground outside his village, he'd better keep them to himself."

The administrator's lavaliere began chirping away in rapid barb. Froggie looked the head of the axemen in the eye and said, "And by the way, Slats. I don't guess the girls'll have any trouble with the local barbs . . . but you might let the chief know that we were the first troops through the breach when the capital fell. If there is any trouble, we won't stop killing while there's one barb alive here. And we'll burn the houses down over their bodies."

Slats looked at the centurion and opened his mouth as if to comment. Then he spread his limbs and resumed his directions to the village chief, speaking with great earnestness.

Froggie woke before the man coming down the ladder had reached the top level of the temple's own staircase. There were two sentries on the temple roof as well as the pair at the entrance. Froggie was with the squad sleeping in the nave of the temple, while for official purposes the other men were distributed in the rooms on higher levels.

When he'd gotten his boots laced, Froggie started up the stairs to meet the messenger. He hadn't put on his cuirass, but he carried it on his left forearm. The information coming down from the roof wasn't an immediate crisis—there was a gong for that—but something might blow up while Froggie was talking to the messenger. He didn't want to be in the dark and a level away from his armor if that happened.

"Top?" Glabrio whispered. Froggie figured it'd be him. "There's a couple guys went out through the wicket in the gate tower. They started west toward the hills, but from up in the tower we couldn't see 'em once they got into the brush."

"A couple of the bodyguards, did it look?" Froggie said.

Glabrio nodded. "Hard to see much by starlight, but they had axes," he said. "Besides, who else would it be?"

Slats came through the curtained doorway of the room beside them. "Centurion Froggie?" he said. "There is trouble?"

"Naw," said Froggie. He'd forgotten that the room was occupied. "Not just yet, anyhow. Glabrio tells me a couple barb soldiers went out of the village tonight. Tomorrow night him and me'll be in the fort with the girls, so if it happens again we'll follow them."

Glabrio grinned. "Hoped you might say that," he murmured.

"Do you think that's . . . ?" Slats began, but his voice trailed off. He twisted his head fiercely.

"Centurion Froggie," he said, facing away from the two Romans. The words still whispered from the translator on his chest. "I do not understand what is happening and I'm very concerned."

"Well, sir," Froggie said judiciously, "that's true of the rest of us too. We ought to know more soon, though; and anyhow, we're working on ways to handle whatever might come up."

Slats faced around. "I am glad to hear that," he said, though he didn't sound glad about much of anything. "I have heard at the Harbor that the aide Three-Spire visits the Commander often in private. And I have heard—I have never seen this!—that sometimes after those private meetings, the Commander dances to music only he can hear."

"The barb's fixing up our blue-suited leader with drugs, you mean," Froggie said bluntly. Glabrio was holding as still as a hare in covert. Froggie trusted Glabrio with anything there was to know, but he doubted the administrator would feel that way except he was so upset.

"I don't know that!" Slats said, flailing his middle limbs like they were wings. "And even if it were true, why would Three-Spire want to split the legion up into tiny groups? How would he gain if we were all killed?"

"I wouldn't guess Three-Spire was in charge of whatever's going on," Froggie said. "But we'll know more soon. Why don't you go back to bed, Slats?"

"To sleep?" Slats said. His mouth gave a clack that the lavaliere couldn't translate. "How could I do that? But I will try."

He paused and cocked his head. "Centurion Froggie?" he said. "I hear the sound of tools."

"No," Froggie said. "You don't hear tools. Remember that, Slats. It's important."

"Ah," said the administrator. "I will remember that, Centurion Froggie. And perhaps I will sleep after all."

Froggie could stay awake constantly for half an eight-day market cycle if he had to, but pieces started coming off his concentration early on. He'd napped because there was no reason not to. Now he got up, cinched his swordbelt tighter—he hadn't actually unbuckled it or taken his boots off—and sauntered out of the temple. The guards murmured politely.

Slats was checking the village's warehouses, great thatch-roofed rounds of basketry. Brush filled the space between the double walls, so air could circulate among the vegetables on shelves inside but rain couldn't get in even when the wind was driving it.

Froggie knew Slats was in the warehouse because a squad of troopers waited at the doorway, taking it easy. There wasn't room within for both of the squads Slats insisted on having around him at all times. He was a nervous little bug, he was; not that he didn't have reason to be.

The troopers started to rise when they saw their centurion. Froggie waved them back. They'd been putting in long hours, and there'd be more work for them tonight. It wasn't safe to keep on with the real job during daylight; there were too many barbs up and moving around the streets near the temple.

Laena came out of the fort scratching himself. He'd probably been sleeping, which was fine under the circumstances; the men had orders just not to lay about where the barbs could see them, since somebody might wonder what they were doing at night to be so tired.

Laena saw Froggie and came trotting over. He leaned his face close to the centurion's ear and said, "Hey, Top? You know my girl Glycera?"

"I believe I've seen her," Froggie said carefully. Every place that relative anatomy permitted it, Laena paired off with a local girl and called her Glycera. For most of his existence, Laena seemed to have no desire except to argue about orders. You didn't want to touch—or even look hard at—any of his current Glyceras, though.

"Our girls talk with the ones from the town while they're all down at the creek doing wash, you know?" Laena said. "You know them guards the chiefs got around him? They're not from here!"

"Right," said Froggie mildly. He'd have thought Laena was smart enough that he wouldn't have to be told that the axemen weren't local.

Laena looked miffed at the centurion's lack of surprise. He was one of the real linguists of the legion: give Laena three days anydamnplace and he'd be chattering to "Glycera" like they'd grown up in the same hamlet. Like a lot of other specialists, though, he tended to think that his way of learning things was the only one there was. Froggie never got beyond basic pidgin, but he knew how to keep his eyes open.

"Well, it's more'n that," Laena said. "The local girls say that under those kilts they wear, them guys are more different from the barbs here than we are. What do you think of that?"

Froggie mulled the question. Queenie was coming toward him, her neck ruff in an angry flare.

"I'll tell you the truth, Laena," he said. "I don't know what I think. Did the girls say anything about a metal ship landing like, you know, when we came?"

"Nope," said Laena. "They just come out of the hills. The Commander's pet barb Three-Spire come along with them and told the elders the new guys were in charge now. They looked tough enough that the local guys didn't argue matters. The warriors left here were the ones who'd run fast enough when they met us, after all."

"Boss-man!" Queenie said. She didn't even bother to look at Laena. Froggie was boss-man and she was the leader of Froggie's women, so nothing a mere trooper had to say was important when she needed to talk. "Fucking barb warriors here—they mean bastards! You chop them quick-quick, yes?"

Queenie's notion of how to solve a problem usually involved somebody getting chopped. That was probably why she got along so well with troopers.

And if the bodyguards had been bothering the girls . . . Froggie's hand touched the ivory hilt of his sword, smoother than silk by now from all the use it'd gotten. He'd warned them, hadn't he?

"What's the problem, Queenie?" he asked, his tone quiet but a little thicker than usual.

"Them take girls from village," Queenie said. "They no feed meat, boss-man!"

Froggie frowned at Laena. An argument about how much some other soldier paid his whore didn't strike either of them as a killing business.

"No meat, girl not right inside!" Queenie said. "Girl hurt, girl scream! Bastards laugh, they like girl to hurt! All them bastards!"

"Ah," said Froggie as he understood. Not that he hadn't known soldiers who liked their girls to scream; pretty good soldiers, some of them, and it wasn't something he figured he'd need to interfere with if they'd been his men.

But these weren't his men. And it wasn't one or two of them, it was the whole troop. And truth to tell, when Froggie'd had a guy like that in his squad, the fellow'd got all the dirty jobs there were till he transferred to another cohort.

"I hear you, Queenie," he said. "We no chop-chop yet. Right now, you slip other girls meat, yes? Me tell boys this all right."

He slapped his armored breast with the flat of his hand.

Queenie clucked happily. "Me fix!" she said. "Later you chop-chop, all right?"

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised," Froggie said. "Not one little bit."

The trail was as dark as the inside of a grave. A piece of quartz clicked under Froggie's hobnails. The barefoot Glabrio turned and glared, but Froggie met the trooper's gaze with cold unconcern. He knew it was important to follow as quietly as possible, but he also knew the pair of axemen ahead were talking in normal voices and occasionally clearing branches from the trail with a swipe of their weapons. He gestured Glabrio on with a flick of his finger.

Some of the trees here had thorns. Glabrio might be able to avoid stepping on one as he trotted down the shadowy track, but Froggie wasn't that confident. He wouldn't make near the racket with his heavy bootsoles as he might if a thorn drove into the ball of his foot and jolted loose a curse.

Glabrio grimaced and went on. Froggie kept Glabrio in sight. He could've followed the barbs by ear alone if he'd had to, as nonchalant as they were, but Glabrio was the real expert.

Froggie wasn't as good a tracker as Glabrio. He wasn't the best swordsman in the century, he didn't have the best range with a javelin, and there were three or four of the troopers who could take him apart in a barehanded fight.

But Froggie could do every job in the unit nearly as well as his best man; and there was nobody the Third of the Fourth trusted more to bring them alive out of the sort of ratfuck they were surely in the middle of now.

They'd come nearly a mile from the village. The barbs had left at midnight, same as the night before; as soon as they reached the woods, they'd started acting like there was nothing to worry about except maybe tearing their clothes on a prickly branch. As a veteran, Froggie was pleased to see how badly the enemy was underestimating him; but he was human enough to feel insulted, too.

Glabrio started around a tree with six trunks braided together like a horsehair rope. He stopped and flashed his hand toward Froggie, palm out and fingers spread. Froggie stopped dead, then hunched forward to a curtain of tasseled vegetation on the other side of the trail. He extended his left arm carefully to make an opening so he could watch the pair of barbs.

The axemen stood at the base of a thirty-foot basalt thumb poking through the weathered shale. Only a few sprays of vegetation blotched the hard rock, but trees growing nearby shaded all but the very peak of the intrusion. The barb leader took something from a pouch on his harness and pointed it at the basalt.

There was a clicking sound like a treefrog winding up for its mating call. A circle of rock dissolved.

Glabrio had the point of his dagger clear of the sheath before his mind got control of his instincts. The barbs could've heard his blurted curse if they been paying attention to anything but what was in front of them.

Froggie didn't move. He hadn't expected this, exactly, but he'd expected something.

The rock opened into a tunnel ten feet in diameter; the walls were of glowing blue ice. A Commander waited behind a waist-high screen of the same translucent blue, guarded by a pair of armored apes wearing metal gloves with knives welded onto the knuckles. Those were good weapons for the tunnel's close quarters.

Three-Spire stood at the Commander's side. The bastard sure did get around.

The barbs from the village walked into the tunnel. There was another click, click, click-clickclick, and the opening fused to solid rock again.

Glabrio turned to his centurion, his face white. The dagger trembled in his hand. He wasn't worried by flying chariots or the way the metal ships climbed through the air, but this was new.

It was new to Froggie too, but he was a centurion. He couldn't let anything show on his face, or his boys might go off in a panic that got some of them killed.

He motioned to Glabrio and backed out of sight of the outcrop before turning to start down the trail again. He heard the muted tunk of the dagger going home in its sheath; then Glabrio whispered, "Aren't we gonna follow 'em when they leave, Top?"

"Hercules, we know where they're going back to, don't we?" Froggie said. "And if they didn't, that'd be two fewer to take care of when the time comes. Not that I'd mind the extra work in this case."

The blue glow hadn't been real bright, but it was enough to leave Froggie just better than stone blind on the starlit trail. He'd like to have hurried, though he didn't suppose it mattered. However long the barbs stayed inside the tunnel, they weren't going to see well enough to run up the Romans' back when they got out.

"The thing I don't figure . . ." Glabrio said—and if there was only one thing, he was doing better than Froggie—". . . is what the Commander's doing there? Does he have some kinda plan?"

"Your people were farmers, weren't they, Glabrio?" Froggie said. As his sight came back, he was stepping up the pace. His left foot flicked a spark off into the night.

"Huh?" Glabrio said. "Yeah, wheat and a garden, the usual. So what?"

"We were shepherds," Froggie said. "Now, if you're not used to them, all sheep look alike—but they don't all act the same way. You learn to tell them apart by the way they stand, by the way one's left ear curls back—that sort of thing."

"Yeah?" said Glabrio.

"So the guy in a blue suit we just saw was standing straight, not hip-shot, and when he called the barbs inside he tapped his left fingertips into the other palm," Froggie said. "He was a Commander, son, but he wasn't the guy who's supposed to be in command of us."

The sun had just come over the horizon, and the birds that roosted in treetops at night were lifting into the sky. They flew on sheets of skin rippling along either side of their snake-slim bodies, more like flounders swimming through the air than the birds Froggie'd grown up with.

These would fly to the sea three days march to westward. They'd gorge on the jellyfish swarming in sheltered waters between the mainland and the chain of offshore islands, then fly back. The birds were free to go anywhere they pleased—and it pleased them to go the same place every day.

Glabrio was sleeping but Froggie stood at the fort's west gate, facing Kascanschi. He thought about the birds and all the similar birds he'd seen in scores of places, and he tried to imagine his life if he'd never been sold to the Guild. Maybe for him there wouldn't have been any difference between being a freeborn Roman citizen and a Guild slave . . . but he knew he hated his Commanders as he'd never hated a Roman general, not even that idiot Crassus who put him here.

The city gates creaked open. Local women shoved the sagging panels outward, supervised by one of the squad of axemen who'd spent the night in the gatehouse.

The guard noticed Froggie. He balanced his long-hafted axe on the fingers of one hand, then did a complicated series of sweeps that involved him stepping forward and back through the spinning weapon. His eyes remained locked with the centurion's.

One of the girls chirruped in fear as steel flicked toward and past her. Given the blade's weight and edge, the axe would've taken her arm off if she'd lurched in the wrong direction as she stepped back from the gate. Froggie was willing to bet that the axeman wouldn't have let that prevent him from finishing with the flourish that brought his weapon to rest precisely as it had been at the start.

The village women were lined up to go to the fields now that the gate was open, but today Slats and his guards were ahead of them. The administrator chirped an order through his lavaliere. His four bearers left the group of girls at the fort and lifted him in his palanquin. Slats sat bolt upright with both sets of arms crossed behind his back, wearing what Froggie was coming to recognize as a sour expression on his pointed face.

Froggie nodded. He didn't especially want to talk to Slats, but he wasn't surprised when the palanquin came to a stop beside him.

"No more warehouse inventory to take, Slats?" Froggie asked. "Can we head home now?"

"Of course not, Centurion Froggie," Slats said severely. "I am to remain here in charge of the district even after the planet is classed as pacified and you warriors are dispatched to another location."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Froggie said. He'd miss the bug now that he'd gotten to know him on this detached duty; but what Froggie really regretted was that he and the boys wouldn't be leaving here until the place was officially pacified.

Froggie suspected pacification was a long way off. He just hoped the Third of the Fourth wouldn't be massacred to prove he was right.

"I am going into the fields to watch the work," Slats said. "The crops being harvested are less by one half than they should be."

The palanquin lurched as the bearers set it down without orders. They'd apparently decided that if their cargo was going to stay in one place and talk, they didn't need to hold his weight on their shoulders. Froggie braced Slats with a hand to keep him from tumbling out on his face.

"They're eating meat, remember?" Froggie said. "It makes them perkier."

The women from the town were trudging out to the fields, moving in pairs and small groups the way it always happens, even in a flock of sheep. Queenie, striding with the assured direction of a thrown javelin, entered a clot of a dozen local girls and brought them to a halt. She didn't look around as she talked, but her listeners turned and stared straight at Froggie. It was like walking by a fishmonger's stall, all eyes and gaping mouths. He hoped the barb axemen weren't watching.

"Anyway," he continued to Slats, "two days isn't much time to decide what's a normal amount of work."

"Do I tell you how to use your sword, warrior?" Slats said, his tone the first hint Froggie'd gotten that the bug was capable of an emotion other than fear. "Do not tell me how to assess labor against output; this is what I do. I tell you the crops entering Kascanschi these past two days are only half what they should be, based on the surplus earmarked for transport to the royal capital immediately before the battle."

"That's 'cause half the women have been put to slicing the tops of kiro trees out in the forest, buddy," Laena said. Slats chirped and jumped against the back of his palanquin in surprise at being addressed by a man he'd thought of as furniture.

Froggie was surprised too. Laena was part of the administrator's guard section today, but while Slats talked he'd been taking it easy with "Glycera" same as the other troopers and girls were. The last thing you'd expect from Laena was for him to volunteer a comment about farm output.

"Yeah," Laena continued. He didn't notice or didn't care that he'd scared Slats into an early molt. "My girl Glycera says that since this new lot come in, they've put half the workers to cutting the tops, that's where they fruit, of the kiro trees. The sap bleeds out and hardens, and the seeds don't ripen the way they ought to."

"Dis!" Froggie said. "What's good does that do?"

"Not a bit, the girls say," said Laena. "The guys with axes tell them they'll carry the heads away in a couple weeks, but none of the girls can see why. It just makes a black gunk."

Slats patted his middle arms together. "I will examine the kiro trees," he said, his eyes focused on a point in space. "Perhaps they provide a valuable product which the survey informing my briefing cube failed to note. But if they do not—"

The administrator clasped his hands, upper left with middle right and vice versa, in a gesture of emphasis.

"—then I will put a stop to this diversion of effort. I am the Guild administrator for this district!"

"Our friends with the axes might have something to say about that," Froggie said quietly.

"Then you and your warriors will remove them, Centurion Froggie!" Slats said. "It is your duty!"

"Yeah," said Froggie. "Though in this case, it'd probably be a pleasure as well."

The native women had been drifting back from the fields for some while before Froggie saw Slats and his troopers returning. The administrator took his job seriously, which Froggie generally would've been glad of.

The fort was small—as it had to be for a single century to defend it—but it was a clean, professional piece of work. There were gates in all four walls and fighting towers kitty-corner on the northwest and southeast angles. The walls were eight feet high, and the earth-filled hurdles were actually more difficult to bore through than stone because gravity would fill the holes between pick-strokes.

"We don't have a proper ditch around it, Top," said Glabrio, beside Froggie and leaning against the baffle protecting the north gate.

"It'd get in the way," Froggie said. "Besides, with maybe three thousand barbs in the town, how long d'ye think a ditch would slow them down? Dis, they could take the thatching off a few houses and fill any ditch sixty men could dig."

Glabrio frowned, but he didn't argue the point. He was tense because he knew things were about to happen and he couldn't tell for sure how it was going to turn out.

Froggie sighed. He couldn't tell either.

The bearers carried Slats to where Froggie was waiting. Slats grabbed the sides of the palanquin and chirped an order so that he could seem to be telling the girls what to do this time. They set him down.

As the administrator got out, one of the girls stroked his shoulder the way you'd polish a nice piece of pottery. He hopped away sideways; all the bearers giggled.

"Come on inside here, Slats," Froggie said. "I'll show you the way we've been carrying out the Commander's orders to keep busy."

Slats looked at his palanquin. He could walk fine, so it was just a status thing that he wanted to be carried.

"Come on, Slats," Froggie repeated gently. "There's not room enough to turn that travelling couch between the gate baffle and the main wall anyway."

He reached out his hand, but Slats was already scuttling down the open-topped passage. The gate looked crude, but the leaf pivoted on a bearing of hollowed stone. Everywhere workmanship would affect function, the job had been accomplished to the highest standards.

"I am very angry, Centurion Froggie," Slats said. "What Warrior Laena said was true: half of the labor force is wasting its efforts on mutilating kiro trees. This sabotage of Kascanschi's output is as pointless as it is deliberate."

"Step over here by the wall, Slats," Froggie said. Somebody—meaning somebody with an axe—on the city gates could see down into some of the fort's interior; that was the disadvantage of having had to build so near to the city. Froggie could've taken the administrator into the timber-roofed barracks, but the light was better if they stood close to the wall nearest the town.

Froggie brought an oval tube the length of a man's middle finger out of his wallet. There were indentations at several places on the surface, perhaps intended for finger pressure.

"What?" said Slats in amazement. He snatched the gadget. Froggie had to tug him back or he'd have stepped into plain view with it. "Where did you find this?"

"The head of the guys with axes had it," Froggie explained. "The feathers're dyed, by the way. His girlfriend slipped it to Queenie. Only girlfriend isn't exactly the right word, because I guess she'd rather he was dead and a long time dying."

"This is the key to a dimensional portal!" Slats said. "There's nothing on this planet that would justify the cost of constructing a portal! Even ordinary stardrive is a marginal proposition for the products available here."

"If it turns solid rock into a hole with blue ice around it," Froggie said, "then somebody disagrees with you about it being worthwhile to put one here."

He reached for the key. The administrator kept hold of it and said, "This is incredible! I must take this—"

"Nowhere," Froggie said, closing his fist around the little tube despite Slats' attempt to retain it. "The girl has got to get it back before her master finds it's missing. Whatever else happened, she'd be chopped for sure. You coming back late pushed the time more than I'd have chosen to do."

"This is more important than one—" Slats said.

Froggie tapped the bug's mouth, not the lavaliere, with his index finger. "No," he said, "it isn't. I've got nothing against killing barbs, but I'm not going to have somebody else kill 'em because I didn't do what I promised. Understood?"

"Understood, Centurion Froggie," Slats said in a tiny voice. "I must go to my room, now. This is very important."

"Yeah," said Froggie, "I thought it might be."

Queenie waited nearby, tense and silent. When Froggie nodded to her, she snatched the key and slipped it beneath her kilt before scurrying out of the fort. Froggie smiled faintly.

"Do you have any idea what this is all about, Slats?" he asked as he followed the administrator out of the fort. Slats didn't bother with status and the palanquin in his haste to get back to his room in the temple.

"I do not!" he said. "It is inconceivable, Centurion Froggie!"

Froggie sighed again. "I kinda thought that too," he said.

During previous nights a fire on the central slate hearth illuminated the temple's interior adequately. Tonight the space was full of troopers: sharpening weapons, polishing armor, and talking in hushed voices about the future. Because so many bodies blocked the light, Froggie'd had a fatigue detail string the nut-oil lanterns they'd found in a storage room on the sixth level. The shades were rinds of something like a beet, pierced with fanciful shapes.

The lamplight was creamy, but it waked sword-edges into sparkles like fangs winking in the night.

Slats came down the stairs, eyeing the assembled troopers warily. Froggie broke off his conversation with Verruca about the guard roster and went to meet the administrator.

"Are you expecting trouble, Centurion Froggie?" Slats whispered, twitching one of his middle limbs to indicate the soldiers. The courtyard would've held at least five hundred worshippers, but men in armor filled the space in a way that civilians could not have done.

"Not anything special, Slats," Froggie said. "The men're getting a break tonight except for the guards. A lot of them thought it'd be a good time to put their equipment in order."

Slats moved his head in tiny jerks, looking across the array of bronze and iron. "You had them busy on other duties before?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Froggie. "I did."

"I have been talking to the Commander," Slats said. He held up the little wand that he'd said could summon help. "Trying to talk with him, that is."

"You have?" Froggie said. "Dis, if whoever's behind Three-Spire gets wind of what we've found here, they'll come for us sure. And I sure don't believe the Commander's going to keep anything private. We're going to have to head back to Harbor at first light!"

"We can't do that," the administrator said. "Our orders are to remain here until recalled. In any case, I doubt that the Commander will even remember that we talked. He seemed disconnected. By the end of the conversation he was almost comatose."

Froggie shook his head. "Slats," he said, "I'm a big believer in following orders, at least when people are going to know if you don't, but Three-Spire's bound to have listened to everything you said to the Blue Boy. As soon as he gets a messenger out here, the guys with the axes are going to send the whole village at us. We can't fight that many barbs, even if most of 'em are women."

"If they have a dimensional portal," Slats said, "surely they would have holographic communicators—"

He waggled his wand in the air again.

"—as well. But even so I cannot permit you to—"

The sentries on the roof parapet began to whang their gong violently. An instant after the first bronze note echoed down the temple's interior, a barb outside screamed like she was being disemboweled—which was likely enough to be the truth.

"By squads and wait for orders!" Froggie bellowed. He strode to the door with the certainty of an ox pacing through stubble, sliding men off his shoulder to either side even though many of them were bigger than he was.

The few troopers not already wearing their cuirasses began locking them on with the help of friends. Swords clashed into sheathes; the air filled with the jangling of hinged cheekpieces as men donned their helmets.

Froggie'd ordered the door kept closed but not barred. Two men stood in full armor just inside, ready to support the sentries in the street. Froggie waved them back and jerked the door open.

Laesio and Five Metellus hunched in the door alcove behind their upraised shields. Beyond them, mobs streamed down the three approaching streets, waving torches and shouting. The front ranks were local warriors with spears and wicker shields. Froggie caught glimpses of the foreign axemen, but they were staying back a little—safe from Roman javelins and able to prod the locals forward if they hesitated.

"Inside!" Froggie shouted, clapping the armored shoulders of his two guards. Even if he'd been able to deploy the whole century in the plaza, they wouldn't have a chance against five or six hundred warriors with a couple thousand women to throw stones down from the roofs of the surrounding buildings.

Turning his head he added in the loudest voice he could manage, "Head for the fort by squads! Move 'em out, Verruca!"

The guards backed into the building, guided by their centurion's touch. Stones banged off the wall of the building. Froggie felt the doorpanel shake as he held it closed while the back-up team slid the bar into place.

When the Romans arrived, the temple door had a catch that was barely strong enough to keep the panel from blowing open in a storm. A timber as thick a man's thigh had replaced it immediately. The barbs could batter a hole in the walls quicker than they'd get through that bar.

They weren't planning to do either thing, of course. The mob's torches weren't just for light.

"Centurion Froggie!" Slats cried as Froggie turned around. His mouth chirped close to the centurion's ear but the Latin words came disconcertingly from the chest-level lavaliere. "What is happening? Are we in danger?"

"Keep your mouth shut and do exactly what I tell you!" Froggie said. "Then at least you've got a better chance than a lot of them barbs outside do."

The administrator jerked his head back and wrapped all four arms around his thin chest. He stood upright, quivering like a poplar tree in a storm.

Verruca had the evacuation in hand. First and Second Squads had already disappeared through the doors to the sanctum in back. Third Squad was providing the guards at this hour, so Fourth had fallen in behind Second.

There wasn't any pushing or open panic, but the troopers were tense. They were veterans, but nobody likes the thought of being burned alive.

"We've got plenty of time, boys," Froggie called cheerfully. "It'll be a good ten minutes before you'll even smell smoke in here—and I'm the last one out, remember!"

"Smoke?" Slats said, forgetting to stay silent. "Is there a fire, Centurion Froggie?"

"Sure, they're going to burn this place down," Froggie said, rubbing the side of his neck with his swagger stick. His nonchalance was a pose, but calming other people in a crisis had the effect of settling the tribe of field mice dancing in Froggie's own stomach. "Don't worry about it, Slats. You and me ain't staying much longer."

"But there's no other way . . ." the administrator began, then quivered to a halt.

Laena had been one of the roof sentries. He joined Froggie as his partner fell in with the rest of his squad, at the end of the line that shuffled toward the sanctum.

"Top?" he said. "We saw one of the girls—not one of ours I don't think—run down the street toward here. There was the whole damned town right after her, it looked like. The guys in front threw spears and scragged her. You think she was trying to warn us?"

"Could be, Laena," Froggie said. "The men probably figure this is getting even for the way we handed them their heads when we landed; but to the women these foreigners took, we probably look better'n the swans from Venus' chariot."

The Romans hadn't needed the warning, and the girl had been a damned fool to try and give it so openly, but it still gave Froggie a cold itch to think about. He twitched his swagger stick toward the line of troopers.

"Fall in, Laena," he said. "We'll pay them back pretty quick."

He could smell smoke already and it hadn't been any ten minutes. The temple was old, and when the little staves dried out they left gaps that sucked the smoke through.

The gaps sucked in the fire as well. The interior was already brighter than daylight with flames thin as snake tongues slipping in and out of the panelling. Froggie heard thumps as barbs flung bales of brushwood against the outer walls, but that was a waste of effort. Torches had already ignited the bare wood without need for additional fuel.

"Please, Froggie," Slats whimpered. "What are we to do?"

"First get out of here," Froggie said. "Then kick some ass."

He put his arm around the bug's thin shoulders and pointed the swagger stick in that hand toward the end of Third Squad, disappearing into the sanctum. The flames were beginning to heat the temple's cavernous interior. Had any of the barbs objected to burning the place down this way? Not that an objection would've lasted longer than the time it took one of the foreigners to swing an axe. . . . 

The stone spindle the barbs prayed to—or whatever they did; it wasn't like there'd been any ceremonies since the Third of the Fourth arrived—had been shoved into a corner, wooden base and all. The troopers had taken up the rest of the floor and gone ten feet straight down before heading east with a tunnel so level that water wouldn't flow along it.

Verruca'd wanted to slope the entrance so they wouldn't have to turn part of the flooring into stairs, but Froggie insisted on a full five feet of dirt between every part of the tunnel roof and the street around the temple. Going up and down the stairs took a little more time, but the troopers had plenty of time—unless the barbs discovered the tunnel.

"Down ahead of me, Slats," Froggie said. He stood, taking a last look over the temple's interior; his left arm held his shield slightly out from his body instead of letting the neck strap support all its weight.

The barbs were probably staying well back, expecting the century to cut a hole through a sidewall and make a desperate sally. That'd be suicide, of course, when a dozen warriors would be waiting for each trooper who stumbled through the flames. Better to die on a spearpoint than be cooked alive, though.

Better still to send the other bastard to Dis with his skull split or trying to stuff guts back through the rip in his belly.

Froggie turned. Slats still stood at the top of the stairs. "Move!" Froggie said, barely a heartbeat from slamming the administrator forward with his shield.

Slats hopped twice, to the landing midway and then the floor of the tunnel. The motion reminded Froggie of a crane flying, graceless but seemingly without weight.

Froggie followed, thumping on stair treads already scarred by many hobnails. They'd stored the excavated dirt in the sanctum at first; then, when the inside squad met the tunnel being driven from the fort, they'd used the spoil to fill baskets and add to the strength of the fort's walls. On this side the floors of upper-level rooms had provided the pit props; on the other, green timber like that of the fort's barracks and gates kept the tunnel from collapsing.

It was a neat job with plenty of room for a fully-equipped legionary to pass along it. He'd have to hunch over, but that was just as true for most of the huts and tenements the troopers had lived in before they'd been recruited.

"This tunnel goes to your new fort?" Slats asked. His head turned but his translator was still on his chest, and the echo of boots muffled his words. "You will protect me there until help comes?"

Froggie snorted. "You're a fool if you expect help from any farther away than my sword-edge, Slats," he said. "But yeah, we'll protect you."

The far end did slope till it came out in the barracks. Two grim-faced men from First Squad were waiting at the top of the ramp.

"I'm the last," Froggie said. The troopers grunted and swung the heavy trapdoor down over the opening, then slid a crossbar through the staples to hold it closed. There was next to no chance that the barbs would break into the burning temple, follow the Romans down the tunnel, and come up in the middle of the fort while everybody was looking the other way . . . but there was no chance at all if the tunnel was closed and barred.

Froggie stepped out of the barracks. The sky was orange from the flames that shot from the top of the temple, reflecting on the base of the clouds. The fire roared louder than a storm. It was like standing at the seashore as the surf comes in, a dull sound but one so loud that you have to shout to be heard over it.

Like he'd been ordered to, Verruca had the troopers crouching on the fighting step so that they couldn't be seen from outside the fort. Maybe the barbs were too sure of themselves to notice a line of helmeted heads where there were supposed to be only women, but Froggie wasn't the sort to take chances.

The girls stood in a close group beside the barracks. Froggie'd figured they'd be in a funk, either cackling in terror or frozen like open-mouthed statues while they waited to be chopped.

He should've known better. Queenie trotted over to him, holding a Roman dagger and looking as grim as a Fury. Every one of the girls had a weapon: a spear, a narrow-bladed barb hatchet, or at least a club.

"We chop now, boss-man!" Queenie said. "Yes?"

"Yes," Froggie said. "We chop."

Verruca, his normally ruddy face further brightened by the pillar of fire, came around the back of the barracks and saw Froggie. "I just put Third Squad with First at the west gate, Top," he said, shouting over the flames. "We don't need a reserve in the camp, not with the girls here."

The city gates opened, their creaking audible despite the fire's deep thrum. A trooper reached for the bar that held the camp's north gate closed.

"Wait for it, Sedulus!" Froggie said. The trooper jerked his hands away as though the timber had burned him.

The barb mob spilled out of the city. Froggie couldn't see them from where he crouched, but the varied shouts of "Kill!" and "Burn!" spilled around the fort like surf on a rock. Torches and a few spears flew over the walls. The green timber of the barracks wasn't going to catch fire easily, not that it mattered if it did.

"Ready the gates!" Froggie said. The men chosen for the duty at the north, west and south gates lifted the crossbars out of their staples; other members of their squads braced the panels against the unskilled efforts of barbs pushing from the other side.

A few crested heads appeared over the wall, enterprising barbs who'd been lifted on the shoulders of their fellows. They didn't have either siege equipment or discipline. It was like watching sheep trying to invade the butcher's stall. . . . 

Froggie tossed his swagger stick over his shoulder and drew his sword. "Get 'em, troopers!" he bellowed.

The troopers bracing the gates stepped back and let the panels fly inward. The barbs pushing against them lurched into a flurry of sword-strokes that lopped them to pieces.

The rest of the mob didn't know what was happening. Two troopers at each gate strode forward with their shields raised, hacking barbs who were packed too tight to protect themselves or use their weapons. Outside the fort the leading pair spread slightly so that a third man could step between them. Another pace and two more troopers joined the wall of shields and slaughter. And two more . . .

The squads advanced only a little slower than if they'd been sauntering down the market square of a village when they were civilians. Every time a heavy, broad-bladed sword slashed, a barb died—though he might not be able to fall for a moment because of the crush of his fellows against him. Troopers stumbled and cursed as bodies writhed beneath their hobnails.

Froggie stepped forward. Mamurra, leader of the Third Squad, was about to take his boys out now that First was clear of the gateway. Froggie tapped him aside and stepped through in his place, placing himself beside Glabrio on the right end of the line.

The flames were a hammer. The fort's walls had blocked more of the heat than Froggie'd realized as he waited till he was sure his job as centurion was over and he could be a soldier again. The temple was a roiling, red-orange tower trying to pierce the clouds.

An axeman short-gripped his weapon and thrust at Froggie's face. Froggie lifted the edge of his shield and cut low with his sword. He missed the knee joint but the blade sank so deep in the barb's thighbone that it cracked when Froggie twisted his blade free.

The barb howled and fell sideways with his axe sticking for a moment in the cross-laminated wood. Froggie thrust beneath the lower edge. He couldn't see the barb's belly and chest but he could guess close enough for the work.

The barb slumped out of sight with blood spewing from his mouth. Another axeman had figured out what was happening quicker than the local warriors. He turned to cut his way out the back of the mob with his shield slung behind him. Froggie stabbed upward from just beneath the barb's rib cage. That did the job, but Froggie had a bitch of a job tugging his blade free from a stroke so deep.

The axemen would've been nasty opponents on an open battlefield. One blow from their weapons would split a Roman shield, and a second would take off whichever body part it landed on, armor be damned. But the axe helves were too long to use in a mob like this, and the axemen's cuirasses of flexible cloth wouldn't even slow down the point of a Roman sword.

The barbs hadn't been expecting a battle; they'd come out to butcher the Roman girls so there wouldn't be any witnesses. What they'd found was butchery, all right. Froggie swung his sword and his shield edge, killing with every blow and striding forward.

The screams were loud, but for the first several minutes the roaring flames muffled the sound enough that those in the rear ranks thought their leaders were calling in triumph, not terror. When they finally understood and tried to flee, the real slaughter began.

The squads from the fort's north and south gates had circled the mob, compressing it sideways while the troopers from the west gate pushed the barbs toward the city. In panic the barbs tried to run back inside their own walls.

There must've been five hundred of them, easy, maybe even a thousand; all the men and a lot of boys and women, some of them carrying a kid in one hand and a rock to throw in the other. Mobs are like that; they've got no more brains than water pouring out a hole.

The barbs in this mob didn't have brains enough to know they couldn't all fit through the city gate at one time—and if they had known, they still didn't have the discipline to feed through in at least as much order as they'd come out for the attack. They piled up in the gateway and died, crushed and suffocated and puling with fear as blind as the brutal anger that had filled them only minutes before.

The temple fell with a rending crash, sweeping a wave of fire over the plaza and the buildings beyond. Sparks curled over the wall and fell on the battle indiscriminately. Helmet brims and shoulder pieces protected the troopers from the worst of it, but the flaming shower still made men step back and lift their shields overhead.

It wasn't as though there was much work remaining for them, after all. The barbs' own panic had seen to that.

"Save me a couple prisoners!" Froggie shouted. "I need a couple of the bastards with axes for prisoners!"

Dis! he could barely croak. He hadn't been this dry or this tired since . . .

Dis. Since three months back when the legion entered the barb capital over the smoking ruins of its wall. Same as the time before that, and the one before that, back to the day Cataline thought to become consul by the sword when he couldn't muster the votes. One of the people proving to Cataline that he didn't have enough swords either was a new recruit whose buddies called him Froggie.

Queenie offered a skin of wine. Froggie tried to sheathe his sword, but the blade was bloody and he didn't have a hand free to wipe it. Queenie put the wooden teat between his lips and squeezed, perfectly judging when to let up.

Froggie swizzled the unmixed wine, cleansing his mouth of dust and the stench of barb blood. He spewed out the first mouthful, then let Queenie take his sword so that he could drink at his own greedy choice.

Queenie ripped the kilt off a warrior's corpse and rubbed at the tacky blood on the blade. "You chop bastards good, boss-man," she said. "You chop them real good!"

Half the town of Kascanschi was in flames or in ashes; most of the rest would burn before daylight.

"Thank Hercules and the luck of a soldier that the wind was from the east," Froggie muttered. "If it'd changed, the temple would've toppled right on top of us here."

He glanced at the huge mound of bodies and added, "It wouldn't make much difference to the barbs, would it?"

"Who gives a fuck about barbs?" Glabrio said. He reached out to scratch his left forearm, covered with tarry ointment the girls had daubed on it.

Glycera grabbed his hand and chittered, stopping him from disarranging her bandage. Glabrio clucked apologetically and put his right hand back on his knee. He'd forget in a moment and try to scratch his burn again.

Slats came from where he'd been interrogating the prisoners. His head pecked back and forth, more like the play of raindrops on a pond than an animal looking about him.

Froggie wondered whether the bug's sense of smell was the same as a man's. If it was, then no wonder he looked about ready to collapse. You never really got used to the smell of a battlefield. Especially not one where there'd been fire.

"They talked?" Froggie said. He supposed he should've been overseeing the questioning, but he'd decided to sit on a low pile of bodies instead and get his breath back for a while.

"Yes," the administrator said. "I cannot believe it, Centurion Froggie. The warriors with axes were mercenaries from another planet. A rival Guild was interloping on our claim. We've been granted development rights here, but they'd put in a survey team before the Federation Council made the assignment. They had found a product so valuable that they were violating Guild rules to reverse the assignment!"

"Do tell," Froggie said. He started to laugh at Slats' earnestness, but a fit of coughing broke him up instead.

"They were engineering a massacre of our pacification team!" Slats continued. "It would appear that the natives had been responsible. Their Guild would have bought the development rights from ours at a low price, and no one would be the wiser . . . but I would be dead!"

"It happens to everybody sooner or later," Froggie said; though "later" could be a long time if you were a Guild slave, and maybe longer than . . .

He looked to where the foreigners had been interrogated. They'd captured six of them alive, which was doing pretty well under these circumstances. Two of them had been hoisted with their wrists and ankles tied together so they hung belly down over a slow fire. The first pair had talked. If they hadn't, well, there were four more.

Naw, life was better. Even as a Guild slave.

"The product is a drug," Slats said. He kept his head rigid and avoided Froggie's eyes. "Three-Spire is in the pay of the rival Guild. The Commander is addicted to the drug which Three-Spire supplies to him."

Glabrio's face changed from dreamy somnolence to full, focused awareness of the world around him. A battle like the one just past could put a fellow, even a veteran, into a numb place that he might not come out of for days.

"Are we the only ones left?" he demanded. "Have they chopped the rest of the legion?"

Slats looked shocked. "I do not know," he said. "Centurion Froggie took my communicator—"

"To keep you from putting us deeper in the hole than you'd done when you called in the last time," Froggie snapped. He was coming back up from the gray depths too. "Don't worry, I'll give it back when I'm good and ready to."

Slats mimed submission. "I do not know," he repeated to Glabrio, "but I do not think the others have been attacked. Our rivals planned to wait for another ten days, when they would have been ready to capture the Harbor as well as eliminate the detachments. We were made an exception because of what we had discovered."

He made a kak-kak-kak sound which the lavaliere didn't translate; maybe it was a cough of embarrassment. "That is, what Centurion Froggie had discovered."

Froggie got up slowly and took stock. Barbs were starting to come out of the town, using other gates or just climbing over the walls. Most all of them were women. They picked over bodies, looking up fearfully whenever a trooper moved but continuing to search anyway.

"How many times have we seen that, Glabrio?" Froggie asked, nodding to the women. Glabrio shrugged but didn't answer.

The notch in the upper rim of Froggie's shield meant he'd need a replacement as soon as he got back to the Harbor, but it'd serve for now. He'd sharpen his sword when he got a moment but the edge wasn't notched the way you'd expect from as much work as the blade had done tonight. The barbs didn't wear proper armor, and not a one of them had tried to block Froggie's stroke with a blade of his own.

Six troopers would be out of action till they got back to the Guild's mechanical surgeons, but nobody was dead or in real danger. Froggie looked at the piles and long windrows of barb corpses. That's the way battles ended, in cheap victories till the day one went the other way and the legion didn't have enough survivors to form a burial party.

"The Anroklaatschi were not really responsible," Slats said. He'd turned to see where Froggie was looking. "It is a pity that so many of them died."

"Slats," Froggie said. His tone drew the eyes of everybody within twenty paces, despite the continuing snarl of the flames. "I don't really give a fuck what somebody's reasons are when he tries to burn me alive. I wouldn't give a fuck if we'd chopped every fucking barb there was!"

Queenie rubbed her cheek against his. Froggie hugged her and let her go. The girls weren't barbs, not now. They belonged to the Third of the Fourth.

"I understand, Centurion Froggie," Slats said quietly; and perhaps he did.

Froggie walked over to the prisoners. One of them was their leader, still wearing the gold wristlets. He glared at Froggie but didn't speak.

"Top?" said Laena, offering the lavaliere the barb had been wearing openly during the battle. Froggie took it, weighing it absently in his palm.

"I am very angry at this violation of Council regulations," Slats said. "If rules are ignored, how can the structure stand?"

He'd followed Froggie the way a puppy would. Queenie was close by also, her dagger thrust through a fold of her sash. It'd been bloody after the battle, same as Froggie's sword was. Nobody was going to confuse Queenie with a puppy.

"Don't get mad about that, Slats," Froggie said, dropping the lavaliere around his neck. The barb leader was one of the pair who'd been questioned. The down singed off his belly stank even with so many competing smells. "It's just business, you know."

Troopers had cut off the leader's harness so that the leather cross-belts wouldn't get in the way of questioning. The scraps lay on the ground with the pouch still attached. Froggie pulled the ties back and took out the key which the leader's girlfriend had returned.

Wonder where that barb woman was now? Maybe she'd been the one who tried to warn the Romans when the mob moved on them.

"What do you want us to do with the prisoners, Froggie?" Laena asked.

Froggie gave the field a quick, cold appraisal. "Leave the locals be," he said. "Slats is right—they weren't the problem. The foreigners here—"

He toed the leader in the ribs. The fellow twisted, trying to bite Froggie's ankle. Froggie gave him a bootheel in the face in an absent gesture.

"Take 'em into the town and toss them into a building that's still burning good," Froggie went on, pointing with his thumb.

"Do we untie them first, Top?" Laena asked.

"Dis, why would you want to do that?" said Froggie. He glanced over the battlefield until he saw Lucky Castus, the leader of First Squad.

"Hey Lucky!" he called. Froggie's throat was back in service; like its owner, it recovered quick if it got a bit of rest and some wine. "Get your boys together and we'll go visiting. Verruca, you're in charge here till we get back. Set up some kinda chain of command for what's left of the locals, all right?"

"Where are you going, Centurion Froggie?" Slats asked. All four arms were wrapped around his chest again.

"I'm going to go finish this business, Slats," Froggie said. "Want to come along?"

The administrator's body didn't move. His head swivelled, then swiveled back. "You are going to the dimensional portal," he said. "That is so?"

"That is so," Froggie said. Castus had his boys lined up. Caepio was using a broken javelin as a crutch. He'd have to stay, but they'd still be nine swords counting Froggie. That was plenty for the job.

"Yes, Centurion Froggie," Slats said. "I will come along. And we will finish the business!"

Glabrio led and Froggie was at the end of the line, since they were the two who knew the way. Froggie guessed the squad sounded like a drove of cattle—hobnails, shields clanking against cuirasses, and every couple of strides a man tripping on a root and swearing like a, well, a trooper. Slats said the folks inside the portal couldn't see or hear till it opened; that had better be true.

The administrator walked right in front of Froggie, making just as good time as the troopers. The bug's legs were plenty strong enough for his thin frame, and he seemed to see better than a man in this shadowed forest.

"We're getting close, now," Froggie said, as much to remind himself as to encourage Slats. Froggie'd come back mentally after the battle, but his body was still weaker than it'd been this morning. "It'll be right over the next rise."

Slats swivelled to look over his shoulders. He kept on walking and didn't stumble. Did he have eyes someplace besides the ones on the front of his face?

"I am still surprised that our rivals found it worth the expense of a dimensional portal," Slats said. "Though of course that is the only way they could carry out their regulation-breaking activities. The product must be of remarkable value."

"The Commander seems to think so," Froggie said. "If 'thinks' is the right word for the state he's in."

"Yes," Slats said. His words came eerily to Froggie's ears through the administrator's translator and directly to Froggie's mind, he guessed because of the lavaliere he'd taken from the barb. "The mercenary leader said the dose Three-Spire gives the Commander is a dangerously heavy one. It saps the user of all will, but our rivals were concerned that only slightly more would be fatal. The Commander's death would require a replacement and cause them problems."

Froggie caressed the hilt of his well-used sword. "They'll learn about problems," he said quietly.

Word came down the line over the shoulder of each trooper in turn. Froggie already knew what it was. "We've arrived, Slats," he said.

Lucky lined the squad up to face the spike of rock. Everybody had his sword drawn. Froggie took the key out of his pouch and handed it to the administrator.

"Open it when I tell you, Slats," he said. "Not before."

Now that the troopers' clattering equipment didn't mask it, the night was bright with animal sounds: chirps, peeps, and a thoom, thoom, that could almost have been a bullfrog sounding from a bog in the Sabine Hills. Froggie missed being able to wander around in the countryside at night the way he had as a kid . . . but Hercules! that was asking to get chopped in a place the legion had just conquered. Since the Guild bought him, Froggie was only going to see places just before or just after the legion had smashed the local king or chief or priestess.

"All right, boys," Froggie said. His breathing was under control and his body ready now. His sword was the only one still sheathed. "When Glabrio and me was here before it was just a guy in a blue suit—he's not our Commander, don't worry—"

"Who was worried?" Glabrio muttered.

". . . along with two bodyguards and that barb Three-Spire from the Harbor," Froggie continued. "These bodyguards look like monkeys, but they're big and they've got spiked gloves."

A trooper spit on the ground and grinned.

"There was two axemen besides from the town," Froggie added with a gesture back the direction they'd come, "but they won't be there this time."

"There may be messengers from the other locations, however," Slats said. "This same portal can serve many local sites. I would expect our rivals to keep in touch with all thirty locations to which detachments from your legion were sent."

Froggie shrugged. "Regardless," he said. "There's not room inside for more than maybe a dozen people, and they won't be expecting us. Glabrio and I lead in, then the rest of the squad by pairs till the job's done. Lucky, you watch our rear. There's the off chance that a few of the barbs got loose back at the town. They could be waiting for us to get focused on what's inside the cave before they weigh in."

"Pollux, Froggie!" Lucky said. "I ought to be in front with you. It's my squad!"

"Lucky," Froggie said, "if I thought you had anything to prove, you wouldn't be here. Now, carry out my orders or it won't be your squad."

Lucky nodded. "Sorry, Top," he said through tight lips.

Froggie drew his sword and walked close enough to the rock that he could touch it with the outstretched blade. He hefted his shield, making sure that the heavy oblong was balanced to swing or smash. A shield was a better weapon than a sword, often enough.

"All right, Slats," he said calmly. "Do it!"

Solid basalt dissolved into a cave. The vanishing rock gave Froggie an instant of vertigo: his mind told him he'd plunged over a cliff. He strode forward.

The Commander looked up angrily and said, "You're off your sched—"

His face blanked. He shrieked and dived behind his bodyguards.

Three-Spire was talking to the barbs behind the Commander. Two were axemen like the batch who'd been running things at Kascanschi, but the third was a real local with strings of quartz and coral beads woven through his topknot. He was taking a cake of tarry-looking stuff from the sack he held.

A guard drove a spiked fist at Froggie. Froggie raised his shield a hand's-breadth and twisted his body out of the line of impact.

It was like being punched by a battering ram. Froggie heard two boards of the outer lamination split; the shield's lower edge rocked up, using Froggie's grip as a fulcrum and absorbing the force of the blow. Froggie thrust at the ape's knee, feeling the thin armor over the joint separate an instant before gristle and spongy bone did.

The ape bellowed. He swung with his other fist but he was already toppling toward his crippled leg. The spike that brushed Froggie's helmet gouged through the bronze and even nicked the leather harness within.

Bald Lucius, a pace behind Froggie, stabbed for the ape's head. His blade sparkled into the upright of the helmet's T opening, grinding on teeth and then the creature's spine. Baldy put his right boot on the helmet and tugged his sword free with both hands.

Glabrio was down but twisting as he grappled with the other guard. Two troopers stood over the pair, chopping at joints in the ape's backplate. Three more troopers had sprinted past that part of the melee to get at the mercenaries beyond. Velio blocked an axe with his shield as his two companions hacked at the barb from either side.

At Froggie's feet, the Commander tried to squirm around a console of translucent blue ice. Froggie grabbed him by the throat and pulled him upright.

"You cannot—" the Commander shrilled. Froggie punched his sword home, all the way to the hilt. He felt ribs grate, then a snap! and a shock that numbed his arm. He'd driven his point into the ice beyond.

The Commander's eyes rolled up. The blood that spewed from his mouth was as red as a man's.

Froggie couldn't grip his sword. Ice was boiling away from where the steel pierced it; the Commander's staring body toppled backward, no longer supported by the blade.

All the barbs were down. A trooper was helping Glabrio get out from under the bodyguard. The hilt of his dagger stuck from beneath the ape's chin like a hazelwood beard.

Everybody was all right, everybody who counted. Slats hopped over the litter of bodies with the bag the local—his head now sitting on the stump of his neck with a startled expression—had brought to show.

"Get out!" Slats screamed. "The wormhole generator has been damaged!"

Something had been damaged, sure enough. The ice into which Froggie'd pinned the Commander had burned completely away, and the hissing scar was spreading across the floor. Froggie grabbed a trooper's shoulder and jerked him toward the mouth of the cave.

"Go!" he said. He reached for another man, but they were all moving in the right direction, stumbling and cursing. Glabrio bent to pick up his shield but thought again and lunged through the opening instead.

There was a smell like the air gets sometimes just before a thunderbolt. Froggie stamped out of the cave with only Slats behind him. "Venus Mother of Men!" he said as the forest enfolded him, blissfully cooler than the place he'd just left.

Three-Spire, unhurt and unnoticed, sprang from the sizzling, sparking portal. "I will help you—" he cried.

Slats put his four hands on the ground and kicked with both feet. The barb aide toppled backward, into the cave again. His scream stopped while he was still in the air.

The walls of the cave vanished. It was like looking into the green depths of the sea. Three-Spire fell, his body shrinking but remaining visible even when it was smaller than a gnat glimpsed through an emerald lens.

Froggie blinked. The basalt spike was before him again. His right arm ached, and the night was alive with noises of the forest.

Nobody spoke for a moment. Lucky was bandaging Messus' left forearm; it was a bad cut, definitely a job for the medics from the Harbor.

Froggie rubbed his right wrist against his thigh, trying to work the feeling back into it. His shield was scrap, but he guessed he'd carry it to Kascanschi.

"We're done here," he said. "Let's get back to the damned town and Slats can call for help. It's safe to do that now."

"Top?" said Lucky. He glanced toward where the cave had been, then straightened his head very quickly. "Is there going to be trouble? Because of, you know, what happened?"

"No," said Slats forcefully. When they left the Harbor just a few days ago, Froggie wouldn't have believed the bug had the balls to do what he'd done—any of the things he'd done—tonight. "The event will never be reported. Our rivals have lost their considerable investment when we destroyed the dimensional portal; they will fear severe sanctions in addition if the truth comes out. We will gain credit for discovering a product of unexpected value on this planet."

"Lets go," said Froggie, slinging what was left of his shield behind him. "I'll lead."

"We'll gain, you say," Glabrio muttered. "The Commander gains, you mean. Third of the Fourth don't get jack shit."

"You're alive, aren't you, Glabrio?" Froggie said as he stepped off on his left foot. "You'd bitch if they crucified you with golden nails!"

The squad swung into motion behind him. Over the noise of boots and equipment Slats said, "The first thing the Commander will gain is this satchel of prepared drug which I rescued before the portal collapsed. I will present it to him myself. I estimate there are three thousand euphoric doses in it. And one fatal dose, I suspect."

Froggie chuckled. He was looking forward to seeing Queenie. After a night like this, you needed to remind yourself you were alive.

Not that it'd been a bad night. Froggie thought again about the way his sword had slid through a blue suit and the ribs beneath it.

He chuckled again. In some ways this had been the best night of Froggie's life.

End note to Lambs to the Slaughter

In 1976 I wrote "Ranks of Bronze," a short story which postulated that the Roman soldiers captured when the Parthians defeated Crassus in 54 bc had been sold as mercenaries to alien merchants, who then used them to fight colonial wars for trade rights. Jim Baen, who bought the story for Galaxy, liked it so much that he asked me to expand it into a novel when he started his own publishing company, Baen Books. I was pleased to do so. So far, so good.

Even before the novel version of Ranks of Bronze appeared, Jim got on me to write a sequel. This I resolutely refused to do, since I had written a Novel of Education: the viewpoint character grows in the course of the novel into a mature adult with a final resolution of his situation. Jim didn't see that as a problem for a sequel, but I stuck to my guns.

Finally—remember the fable about the water wearing down the rock?—I did agree to edit an anthology set in the Ranks universe. I would do one novella, and four other writers would do their own takes on the milieu. The volume came out as Foreign Legions.

"Lambs to the Slaughter" was my entry for the volume. None of the characters had appeared in the original volume, and the planetary setting was also new. (To my amusement, two of the other writers—Eric Flint and Steve Stirling—used preexisting characters from Ranks just as Jim had wanted me to do. I still think I was right.)

The situation of the novella is based on what happened to the Roman Army of Upper Germany in 9 ad, when the Emperor Augustus put a political crony named Quinctilius Varus in command of what Varus thought was a conquered province. A lot of good men died as a result of that miscalculation, which depresses me (I'm a Nam vet). But this is fiction. . . . 


Back | Next