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ROADS by Seabury Quinn
"The Road to Bethlehem"

The blond-haired stranger swung his cloak back from his shoulders. Beneath the cape he wore from neck to knee a tunic of fine woolen stuff dyed brilliant red and edged about the bottom with embroidery of gold. A corselet of tanned bullhide set with iron studs was buckled round his torso; his feet were shod with buskins of soft leather laced about his legs with rawhide thongs; from the girdle at his waist on one side hung a double-bladed axe, on the other a soft leather pouch that clinked with a metallic sound each time he moved. Between his shoulders swung a long two-handed sword with a wide well-tempered blade, pointed and double-edged. He was brawny and wide-shouldered, his hair was braided in two long fair plaits that fell on either side of his face beneath his iron skullcap. Like his hair his beard was golden as the ripening wheat, and hung well down upon his breastplate. Yet he was not old; the flaxen beard was still too young to have felt shears, his lightly sun-tanned skin was smooth and fair, his sea-blue eyes were clear and youthful. He glanced up at the star-flecked heaven, then drew the cloak about him.

“The Dragon marches low upon the skies,” he muttered, “ ’tis time I set forth on my journey if I would reach the homeland ere the winter tempests howl again.”

The road was thick with travelers, mostly peasants on their way to market, for the day began with sunrise, and bartering would start within an hour. Hucksters of every sort of article, fanciful as well as necessary, pressed along the way, tugging at halters, now entreating, now berating their pack animals to greater speed. A patrol of soldiers passed and their decurion raised his hand in greeting.

“Salve, Claudius! Art thou truly going back to that cold land of thine? By Pluto, I am sorry that thou leavest us; many is the silver penny I have won by betting on those fists of thine, or on thy skill at swordplay!”

The Northman smiled amusedly. Though he had been among the Romans since before his beard was sprouted, their rendering of his simple Nordic name of Claus to Claudius had never failed to rouse his laughter.

“Yea, Marcus, I am soothly gone this time. Five years and more I have served Herod’s whim, and in that time I’ve learnt the art of war as few can know it. With sword and axe and mace, or with bare hands or cestus have I fought until methinks I’ve had my fill of fighting. Now I go back to till my father’s acres, perchance to go a-viking if the spirit moveth me, but hereafter I fight for mine own gain or pleasure, not to the humor of another.”

“The gods go with thee, then, Barbarian,” the Roman bade. “ ’Twill be a long time ere we see thy match upon the sands of the arena.”

A rambling, single-streeted village fringed the highway, and at the trickling fountain where the women came to fill their jars the wayfarer stopped to scoop up a sup of tepid water in his hand. The sun was up six hours and the little square around the spring should have been alive with magpie-chattering women and their riotously noisy children; but the place was like a city of the dead.

Exerpt from "Roads" Copyright 1948, renewed 1976 by Seabury Quinn, Jr.