At length Aletrium came in view, a little town in a strong position on the mountain side, its walls and citadel built in old time, long unused for defence, but resisting ages with their cyclopean force. On arriving, they found a scene of disorder, misery and fear. This morning the place had been attacked by a brigand horde, which had ravaged at will: the church was robbed of its sacred vessels, the beasts of burden were driven away, and, worst of all, wives and daughters of the defenceless townsmen had suffered outrage. Marcian, with that air of authority which he well knew how to assume, commanded the attendance of the leading citizens and spoke with them in private. Finding them eager for the arrival of the Goths, to whom they looked rather than to the distant Greeks for protection against ruinous disorder (already they had despatched messengers to Totila entreating his aid), he made known to them that he was travelling to meet the Gothic outposts, and promised to hasten the king’s advance. At present, there seemed to be no more danger, the marauders having gone on into the Apennines; so Marcian obtained lodging for Veranilda and for himself in the priest’s house. Only when he was alone did he reflect upon the narrowness of his escape from those fierce plunderers, and horror shook him. There remained but half a day’s journey to his villa. He was so impatient to arrive there, and to dismiss the horsemen, that though utterly wearied, he lay awake through many hours of darkness, hearing the footsteps of men who patrolled the streets, and listening with anxious ear for any sound of warning.
He rose in the twilight, and again held conference with those of the townsmen who were stoutest in the Gothic cause. To them he announced that he should travel this day as far as Arpinum (whither he was conducting a lady who desired to enter a convent hard by that city), and thence should proceed in search of Totila, for whom, he assured his hearers, he carried letters of summons from the leading churchmen at Rome. This news greatly cheered the unhappy Aletrians, who had been troubled by the thought that the Goths were heretics. If Roman ecclesiastics closed their eyes to this obstacle, the inhabitants of a little mountain town evidently need nurse no scruples in welcoming the conqueror. With acclamations and good wishes, the crowd saw Marcian and his train set forth along the road over the hills; before the sun had shed its first beam into the westward valley, they had lost sight of Aletrium.
Not a word of the perils escaped had been allowed to reach Veranilda’s ear; exhausted by her journeying and her emotions, she had slept soundly through the whole night, and this morning, when Marcian told her how near was their destination, she laughed light-heartedly as a child. But not yet had he looked upon her countenance. At Aletrium he might have done so had he willed, but he withheld himself as if from a dread temptation.