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Over the Danube

By R.A. Emberg

IN THE king's skaale in the city of Ocum, a Gothic islet in the Roman province of Dacia, weighty matters were being discussed. A dozen Romans had requested an audience with Filimer, the young king of the Goths. They were now before the high seat.

Their spokesman, a gray bearded man, dressed in a white toga hemmed with patrician purple, was speaking.

"We have known for some time that you Goths contemplate moving on Nicopolis. It was to discuss this that we came hither."

"You seem to be alruna," the king replied. "Tell us of the garrison, many?"

"Two Spanish legions." The Roman returned readily.

Filimer stared thoughtfully at the old man. "Your reward?" he asked. "How much?"

"Only this. That we be allowed to worship the Trinity: the one God, the Holy Ghost and the son, Christus, without hindrance; that we be free to preach the gospel to Roman, Goth and Greek, that all who believe shall have everlasting—"

"Hush—hush," Filimer clapped a hand to his forehead, "My head aches with these gods of yours. One in three —three in one—I make head nor tail of them. I asked: what do you want as a reward ?"

"Nothing, King, except that we be allowed to worship as we please—and to preach the holy gospel."

"Nicomedus, you are a Roman?" The king's voice was hard.

"Aye, King. Ever my line has been Roman. My fathers stood with Caius Gracchus; ever have we stood with the common people against those who would oppress and enslave."

Yet you would turn traitor to Caesar? You invite us to take over Nicopolis? Were you a Goth and acted thus, we would flay you alive."

The Christian's eyes blazed at the mention of the Emperor. "Listen, oth, he cried, "what is this Caesar if not a blood-thirsty tyrant? Aye, Septimus Severus has drenched the empire with blood. What is the Roman Empire? Nothing but a vast slave market. What is the ruling class at Rome? Is it not the wealthy few, content to feast, watch the gladiatorial games and build monuments to itself? Rome stagnates. It has eaten the heart out of its people. For Rome, the handwriting is on the wall. It has been tried in the balance and found wanting. You Goths, even if you are pagan, are fresh and clean. You have the free clear air of the snowy lands from which you came. God willing, under you, the Empire shall become righteous, unless," he shook bis head, "you too, succumb to the corruption of palaces and possessions. My diocese has discussed the matter thoroughly. We invite, and will aid you to take the city of Nicopolis, on the condition that you give us the right to worship our God and preach his gospel." Nicomedus folded his arms and stood waiting.

FILIMER spoke in his own tongue to the Gothic haulds clustering about the high seat. They understood little Latin.

"I make nothing of his religion," he said, "but it seems to be a kindly one. There are three gods: a Jahve, a white Christus, and a Holy Ghost. By some strange alruna device, they are combined into one, then back to three and so on. The Romans will not allow the worship of these gods and they put their followers to death in man hewings in the arena. Nicomedus invites us to take over the city of Nicopolis."

"Since when has a Goth waited an invitation from any man to take anything he may with the strength of his good right arm and hard Swedish steel?" roared a red-whiskered warrior, brandishing a huge axe. "It is for us to make the conditions, Filimer, not these Roman slaves."

"Like father, like son, Wulfson," the king smiled. "Wulf, the Balt, your sire, would rather fight than eat. Aye, we shall name the terms, but why turn away allies? Now we can overcome the walls of Nicopolis."

"I thought the Romans cared not what gods a man worshipped," another hauld said.

"That was my understanding too," Filimer agreed. To Nicomedus, "'tis said by one of my men that the Romans permit the worship of all gods. Why, then, do they persecute the Christians?"

"Because we will not sacrifice to tire Emperor," the old man replied. "Because, Goth, we are enemies of the Empire and its abominable system. In the old days, religion was free. Not so, now."

The king hesitated. "How do we know you are sincere?" he asked. "This may be a scheme to lure us beyond the Danube. What guarantee have you that you will keep your word?"

Nicomedus extended an arm above his head. "We Christians do not break faith, but I offer as hostage, my daughter Marcia. If we break faith, do your will with her. God knows, you could do no worse than Caesar's governor at Nicopolis!"

THERE was great activity in Ocum. Clang of hammer on anvil resounded in the street of iron workers as smiths fashioned ship gear, swords, axes, helms and arrowheads.

Down by the quays on the river, a tributary of the Danube, a forest of masts loomed against the sky as shipwrights prepared the fleet.

On the drill grounds, the shieldwall and swinfylke evolutions went on apace. Ten thousand Goths, many of them born in the land of Ovim, practiced under the eagle eyes and rough fists of the Baltic veterans.

With bovine placidity the Ovim looked on. Let the Goths prepare for war if they were foolish enough to prefer it to the comforts of peace. For their own sakes, the Ovim hoped all would end well; the Goths were kind masters.

Side by side, in the land wrenched from the Roman Eagles, the customs of both Goth and Ovim flourished. So did the people. The Goths were masters. However, they exercised their mastery in a restrained and equitable manner, remarkable, considering the fact that blood and brawn, bone and sinew, they were little other than plain barbarians.

The Ovim could have their book learning. For the Goth, the school of sword and axe. Such was the will of Odin, and thus had the Goths ruled in the city of Ocum forty odd years.

Continuous intercourse with the Scandinavian Peninsula was maintained by way of the Dniester, the Dnieper and the Vistula. To Scandinavia went Roman gold, Roman goods, spices and other things. Pepper, very palatable to the Scandinavian palate, was a regular and expensive trade article. In return, came Swedish steel, and ever and ever new waves of barbarians. On their path southward they tore loose Slavic, Esthonian, Hunnish and other racial fragments which coalesced with them. Though at the end of forty years the Goths in Ocum were beginning to lose the pure Gothic blood by this infusion of alien strains, nevertheless the primitive culture and worship of the Aesir gods remained in the same state as it had been in Sweden at the beginning of the migration.

FILIMER supervised preparations for the descent upon Nicopolis. m daybreak until dusk he was in armories, along the quays, aboard ships and on the drill grounds.

Nicomedus and his men had returned Nicopolis, leaving Marcia at Ocum. In the king's skaale with Alania, Filimer's mother, Marcia became as one of the family. The spinning wheel, the loom and the buttery were no strangers to this Roman girl. Latin, the tongue of Alania, hushed these many years, again sounded in the women's bower, and laughter, which Marcia had almost forgotten in Nicopolis, come to her lips— and into her heart.

Messages from Nicomedus told of political turmoil in Nicopolis, the state of the town's defenses and the plans of the Christians to aid the Goths.

The days wore along to mid-summer when preparations were almost complete.

A new galley, the Sea Otter, was being launched, and Filimer, Alania and Marcia stood watching the ceremony.

A Hunnish thrall, hands bound, was led to the prow to a V shaped block over which his back would be broken prior to tying him to the stem.

"A sacrifice," Filimer explained to Marcia. "He is a well-grown Hun and should be very acceptable to the AllFather."

Marcia's face went white. "Filimer," she begged, "don't let them do it. In Nicopolis, men are tom apart in the arena for sport, but I didn't think the free Goths were so cruel."

The king looked at her wonderingly. "It's not sport, Marcia," he explained. It has been the Gothic custom since the first Ynglings came to Gpsala. The ship would be unlucky if we withheld from the gods their just dues."

The girl's face was taut-determined. Filimer, she said, "if you allow this, I will send word to my father that the Goths are as cruel as Caesar, that nothing can be gained by changing masters."

Filimer was troubled. The men waited his signal. To launch a ship, build a skaale, construct a bridge, without a sacrifice was unthinkable. Time had been when galleys were taunched on living human rollers.

Quickly, he decided. For once there would be no blood-spilling. "Take him away," he ordered. "Let the ship be launched."

The artisan in charge of the work sprang forward. "Such is not the custom," he began.

"Let the ship be launched. king's eyes were hard.

Wonderingly, sullenly, the shipwrights resumed their work.

"To the bower, Mother," Filimer whispered, "and take this girl with you. She has done enough damage for one day."

"That was nobly done, Filimer," Marcia said softly. "And I thank you."

He waved shortly. "To the bower lest these men know it was you who forbade the sacrifice."

That evening came a dozen haulds to inquire why the sacrifice had been omitted.

Filimer calmly surveyed the dissenters. Had we not omitted it," he explained, "we should never nave put foot inside Nicopolis. It's blood Odin wants. Well, I promise him rivers of it, enough to satisfy him ten times over ere we take Nicopolis. Now leave me— I have tasks to perform."

After the haulds, partly mollified, had gone, Filimer breathed a sigh of relief. "Maiden," he murmured, "you know not how nearly you brewed me a pretty kettle of trouble."

THE fleet was dropping down river; one hundred ships and ten thousand men. In Nicopolis was at least an equal number of legionaries and thrice that number in light armed troops. And the walls of Nicopolis were thick and high.

On the wharves in Ocum, a great gathering of people waved farewell to the fleet. Alania and Marcia watched the last ship out of sight.

"Thus have I watched his father," Alania sighed. "Men must always to war. May there come a day when women will no longer tremble to the sound of trumpets."

"Aye," said Marcia. "When the religion of the Christus is known throughout the world, will the day come."

"I know not of religions, Marcia," replied the older woman dubiously. "To me they are all cruel, be they the Aesir or that of the Romans. Of this Christus I have heard. He seems not to delight in blood as do the other gods. Blood and war! I have always known them. My father was of the legions. Gaul and Britain were my playgrounds, the camp of the legion my nursery. Oh, for an everlasting peace."

By the steerboard of the Otter stood Filimer. Beside him was the last messenger from Nicomedus, who had arrived half starved and gaunt, just before the fleet sailed.

"Lupinicus smells a rat," the messenger told the Goth. "The walls are being strengthened and he has asked Phillipolis for reinforcements."

"The plan remains the same?" Filimer asked.

"Yes. Maximus, the governor of Phillipolis, is jealous of Lupinicus. He will not send reinforcements unless ordered to by Caesar. Then it may be too late. And the legion at Phillipolis is German. Perhaps it can not be relied upon. Right now the whole empire is seething with revolts and ambitions. The African blames it on the Christians. We had it on good authority that a general persecution will be ordered shortly. In Nicopolis Lupinicus may not proceed against us until he thinks the danger of the Goths' coming is over; on the other hand, he may order a general persecution as soon as the Emperor's orders are received. If so, the plan will be worthless."

Filimer's face was grave. "Inside the city or on the plains," he said, "we can take care of all the legions between here and Rome. Ten to one or twenty to one, it matters not. But walls! That'sa different matter. We Goths have never learned to fight stone walls."

TEN miles west of Nicopolis. on the southern shore of the Danube, the Goths disembarked. It was night and sullen black clouds hid the sky. Silently, they went into concealment in the willow thickets bordering the river.

Ten ships and a thousand men with Filimer in command continued down river. When the battlements of the town were sighted, they tied up at the river bank and, disdaining any attempt at concealment, went ashore and marched directly to the main road which, via a pass in the Balkan mountains, connected Nicopolis with Phillipolis.

Marching into the road, the Goths turned northward to the city grates, taking up a position directly under the walls. It was just daybreak when they arrived. As yet, the gates had not been opened. Terrified peasants on their way to market scurried toward the city. Trumpets on the walls and in the watch towers blared. The arrival of the Goths had been noted.

A sallyport in the main gate opened and a body of horsemen emerged. They reconnoitered the Gothic camp. The Goths, careless of the scrutiny, went ahead with breakfast preparations. When within hailing distance, the Romans halted. A man clad tn the golden cuirass of a tribune advanced and called in Latin:

"Who are you that make free with the common?"

Filimer replied in the same tongue. "We are Goths from Ocum come to visit the great berg of Caesar."

"You sent no envoys," the tribune returned suspiciously. "In these days strangers are not welcome. Then too, Goth, you are forbidden the south shore of the Danube. What will Caesar say when he learns you have violated the agreement?"

"Not an agreement, Roman. An order from Caesar to keep to the north side of the river. One we have never recognized. We would see the city. We have goods to trade. Swedish steel from the land of the snows, walrus hides, walrus ivory, and we would buy garments, spices, pepper and other things."

The tribune was unimpressed.

"I will speak to the governor," he said. "Meanwhile, my Gothic friends, do not approach the gates or you will taste Spanish steel as hard and keen as your Swedish. My legionaries keep watch!" He wheeled and rode away.

"Friendly, eh?" Filimer said to the scald Roar, who stood near.

"Aye, Filimer," said the scald, "I'll put that in a song, something like this." He began chanting: "The Romans came and looked upon the wolves of the Goths, but they came not too close for they feared the sharp fangs, and they remembered too well how the iron legions fared, when folkhewing they tried, on the banks of the Danube."

THE palace of Lupinicus, the Roman governor of Nicopolis was a place of confusion. Attendants and soldiers ran hither and yon. The governor had attended a banquet the previous night and, getting home in the early hours of morning, he had scarcely retired when he was confronted with the astounding news that a band of Goths from Ocum had camped without the city gates.

He was in vile temper. "Why tell me, Crassus?" he bellowed to the tribune who had brought the news. "Why didn't you drive them into the river?"

"Because, Excellency," the tribune was curt as he dared be, "there is peace between the Romans and the Goths. Furthermore, the business-like way in which they made their camp indicated that they were prepared for a trial at arms. True, there are but a thousand, but Excellency, if you had been with me at Ocum some forty odd years ago, you too would hesitate to turn out the legions. If your Excellency has not heard or if he has and forgotten, then may his humble servant inform him that three thousand Goths utterly destroyed two legions outside the walls of Ocum. I was a centurion then, but I shall never forget that red day. The Goth waded in his own blood to his knees, but the Roman crumpled beneath the shock."

"May the gods damn the coward Maximus," swore the governor. "A month gone and no word of the legion he promised me. What do you think, Crassus? Are the Goths up, or is this band what it pretends to be?"

"I don't know, Excellency." The tribune was frank. "You know what the rumors are. The spies we sent to Ocum have not yet returned. The merchants have reported activity of a sort that may mean war, but no matter what the Goths can do in the field, they can't scale walls. We have ample provisions. My advice is to keep the gates closed and sit tight."

"And let a handful of barbarians ruin our commerce?" stormed the governor. "Let a thousand skin-clad men keep us cooped up as though we were rats? For a military man, Crassus, you show too much caution."

"As you will, Excellency." Crassus shrugged his shoulders. "Give the word and I'll take the legions out, but if we use force, the whole horde from Ocum will be upon us when word gets abroad."

The governor paced the floor. "By Jupiter" he raged, "I'd like to crucify a few hundred on the city walls. I'd make an example—"

"And your hide, ripped from you alive, would grace their temple in Ocum within a month," the tribune grimly replied.

THE governor shuddered. "I'll follow your advice, Crassus. What else should we do?"

"Get a messenger off to Maximus at once. Tell him the safety of Nicopolis is the safety of Phillipolis. If we fall, Phillipolis falls too. Tell him about the flaying alive. That should have some influence. The Goths could make a tent of his flabby pelt."

"And so far as my personal sentiments are concerned, they'd be welcome to it," added the governor.

"And for mine, they could have yours too," the tribune muttered to himself. Aloud, "I'll send scouts up the river to investigate the willows. I want to be sure that this batch outside the wall is not just a lure."

"A good idea, Crassus, and while you're here," picking up a scroll of parchment, "here are the latest orders with regard to the Christians. They're to be rooted out. An end is to be made of the sect."

The lines in the tribune's face deepened. "By Jupiter, that's bad!" he whistled. "Are the orders precise?"

"Here they are," the governor gave him the scroll, "with the Emperor's own seal."

The tribune shrugged his shoulders. Plainly, the job was not to his liking. "Any suggestions?" he asked.

The governor eyed him. "So long as the Goths are here, we'd better wait," he said. "Afterward, we'll begin. That long bearded Nicomedus is the hub. It he can be made to talk the matter should be simple. And Crassus, that daughter of his, Marcia—I'm extremely anxious that nothing befall her. Bring her to the palace—to me. You understand?"

The old tribune, his face burned and lined with years of service, inured to bloodshed and violence, could hardly repress his disgust.

"Yes, Excellency," he replied shortly. "I'll bring her to you if I find her."

FOR five days the Goths under Fillmer remained in camp. The gates of the city stayed closed. Peasants bringing their produce to market were dispossessed of their burdens and sent homeward.

Daily, bodies of Roman horse reconnoitered the Gothic camp, but no further conversations were held.

On the morning of the fifth day, Filimer stood looking at the city walls as the sun threw its first rays above the horizon. To Roar, the scald, he said: "If the sun shines bright this is the day."

Bright and warm the sun continued to rise. When halfway to the zenith, a Gothic trumpet sounded. The waiting men fell into formation, then, to the clash of axe and sword on shields, they marched toward the gates. A hundred paces from the portal they halted and Filimer stepped forward to address the tribune who stood with the governor on the battlements.

"Five days we have waited, Roman," he cried. "Open the gates or we will force them."

The tribune laughed. "You must be crazy, Goth. Either that or the conquests of your race have filled you with contempt for all others. I have twenty men to your one. I can wipe your band off the earth!"

"It's war, then?" Filimer hurled the challenge.

"Yes. If you wish it."

Striding forward, the Gothic king cast the long javelin held in one hand. Soaring true, it struck the heavy wooden beam of the gate. It penetrated deep and hung quivering.

"The dogs!" On the wall, the governor lost his temper. "Let the legions at them, Crassus," he barked. "And take alive that tall fellow. I shall crucify him.

"Yes Excellency," the tribune replied. I go now to place myself at the head of my soldiers."

A MAN dressed in the breat-plate and greaves of a legionary, standing near the Governor and Crassus followed in the steps of the tribune. Mounting a horse tethered near the watch-tower, he rode furiously toward the temple of Jupiter At the temple built upon an eminence, he dismounted and strode rapidly up the spiral staircase to the roof. A man in a white toga lounged on the center of the flat marble top near a strange piece of apparatus composed of shining squares of burnished metal or silvered glass.

"The signals, Paul," cried the seeming legionary; "the legions prepare for battle."

The white toga'd man sprang to the contrivance. He turned it on a pivot and slanted the silvered squares to an angle which would catch the sun's rays. Again and again he went through the operation. Then far away, from a low horizon, came an answering flash.

"They have seen it," cried the legionary. "I go to muster the brothers. Farewell, Paul."

"Farewell, Ansgar, may the Lord protect you." The man bent to his task.

THE Goths in swinfylke, shields linked, faced the Romans before the gates. Like statues they waited for the onset. Here and there a warrior cried to the Aesir or chanted a song of Asgard, but for the most part, the northmen were silent.

The Romans were in three divisions of heavy foot, with cavalry on the flanks. Unlike the Goths, the Roman shieldwall was open, five feet being allowed each soldier for free play with sword and buckler.

A trumpet sounded in the Roman ranks, the divisions moved forward and out flew a cloud of skirmishers. Running toward the Goths, they hurled a cloud of light javelins. The missiles glanced harmlessly off the close linked shields. The skirmishers retired through the intervals in the heavy foot. Ten Paces from the motionless Goths, the entire Roman line paused, then with a shout and a long, stern trumpet blast which bade the legionaries close, the Romans rushed forward, sending their heavy pila through the air, then on to the Gothic shieldwall with sword and buckler.

The shieldwall stood. Long swords licked out. Legionaries went down. With their short blades they were unable to reach the northerners. Here and there a Roman crawling on hands and knees slashed at the legs of the Goths. Warriors assigned to the task watched for such attempts to break the shieldwall. Piercing cries sounded as assailants were dragged inside and butchered.

The Roman horse thundered against the shieldwall, but the long blue blades reached mount and rider. The horse retired, shattered, to reform.

Up and down the front of the war wedge, hacked the legionaries. Officers begged their men to break through and set the example by throwing themselves on the Gothic points. But regardless of the numbers hurled against the swinfylke, the Gothic formation remained intact.

HOURS passed. Like combers beating upon a reef, the Romans reformed, rolled forward, only to be dashed back again and again. Dead and wounded were heaped high before that invulnerable shieldwall.

Then a cry of alarm from the Roman ranks. A cry of fear. The city gates were closing. Foot by foot, ponderously and slowly, they swung into place. The Roman soldiery, still outnumbering the Goths ten to one, were anxious and amazed.

Crassus sent an aide to see what had happened. A white cloaked figure on the wall sent an arrow feathering toward him. He spurred back to Crassus.

"The Christians have risen!" he cried. "It is they who have closed the gates."

"Not so frightened, Orestes," reassured Crassus. "We can still crush the Goths—after that, deal with the Christions."

"The Goths don't crush so easily," returned the aide apprehensively.

"So I informed the governor," Crassus said dryly. "By Jupiter, I wish he were here. I'd like to see him spitted on one of those long blue blades."

Orestes made no reply. On the roadway was a cloud of dust. Dry mouthed, he pointed to it.

"The legion from Phillipolis—or Goths? I wonder," breathed the tribune.

Through the dust clouds came a column of men. Those bearskin cuirasses, those round steel caps, those long heavy swords and brutal axes were not Roman. On they came at the double. A pause -— the swinfylke, the hoarhead, formed, a new fresh shieldwall came into being. Nine thousand Goths swept toward the remnants of the one thousand ; another pause—and the combined forces hurled themselves at the panic stricken legions.

The Romans did not wait for the onset. Away went sword and shield. Away went breastplate and greaves. Away went anything likely to impede flight. The Roman horse melted away. Toward the Danube streamed the fugitives, pursued by the Goths, whose swords and axes bit deeply from behind.

Crassus looked for his aides. They too had fled. "The glory that was Rome's," he whispered. Unsheathing his sword and spurring his mount, he plunged into the Gothic shieldwall. It opened to receive him.

ROAR, the scald, sat upon a pile of slain, singing the praises of Filimer and the glories of Asgard. Suddenly he became silent.

The city gates had opened. From the portal came a procession of men, women and children. They moved slowly toward the victorious Goths. Carried at the head of the procession was a replica of the instrument upon which the Roman put to death common criminals: a wooden crucifix.

Filimer and a few haulds went to meet the Christians. The Goth folk looked curiously on.