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Vengeance – Chapter Four

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If you’re up to date with my free serialized story to keep your isolation spirits up, here’s week four in its entirety:

𝐕𝐄𝐍𝐆𝐄𝐀𝐍𝐂𝐄

Julius Rigonorix should have flinched back from the light as the door opened. Normal people would have done that in the dingy room. The fact that the fugitive simply sat there and looked quietly up, pupils shrinking to dots, said a lot about the man, none of which Valens liked.

The optio reached out his hand and turned, shouting to the men guarding the hut outside. ‘Give me your sword.’

‘Sir?’

‘Give me your sword and run off to draw a new one from the armoury.’

‘But… but it’s my sword.’

‘If we live you can have it back.’

‘My dad had this sword.’

‘If you don’t hand it over, you can say hello to him again, pretty fucking soon.’

The soldier unsheathed the blade and passed it over. He did not look happy, but Valens nodded at him. ‘While you draw another sword, I want you to check the armoury inventory. Make sure it’s in order.’

‘Sir.’ The soldier ran off, looking glum.

Valens turned to the prisoner, sword in his hand. Stepping inside, he approached the man. ‘I always considered myself a good judge of character. I think you’re a dangerous bastard, but I think you’re on the level. On the bright side, if I’m wrong, I doubt I’ll care for very long.’

He held out the sword. ‘Take it.’

‘You sure you want to do this, Optio?’

‘There’s half a thousand howling lunatics outside the gate. They’ve already beheaded one of my men. Unless they can be talked down, we’re going to need every sword hand. Would you like to tell me now, is there some way I can stop this?’

Rigonorix took the sword and handled it in a worryingly expert manner, pointing it at Valens as he checked the straightness of the blade. ‘I did not know the people Secundus’s men killed. I had never met them before. But the one who gave me sanctuary was not local. He was visiting. He was a Carvetii noble, I suspect the brother or son of a chief, and was killed by the men chasing me. This is simple revenge. Maybe… just maybe… if you feed them the two men who brought me in, you might buy them off.’

Valens huffed. ‘You know I can’t hand over two soldiers to be executed, no matter what they’ve done. Could it be you’re playing me? Trying to get me to hand over your captors? Jove, but you’re a slippery one.’

‘You’ve spoken to Secundus. You think he’s the good guy?’

‘I think he’s a piece of shit,’ Valens retorted.

‘Aren’t we all. You want me on the walls?’

Valens nodded. ‘I think we want everyone on the walls. I need to brief the whole fort at the principia shortly. First, though, I want to see what we can do with your friends from Alauna. Come with me.’

With the armed fugitive in tow, Valens left the room and hurried towards the hut where he knew the two other new arrivals to be finishing their meal. Pushing open the door, he found the pair playing dice.

‘What the fuck?’ Secundus barked, rising and starting to draw his blade at the sight of Rigonorix armed.

‘My orders. We’re about to be under siege. I want you two with us at the south gate, now.’

The two men glared at him for a moment, then exchanged a look. Both nodded and rose to leave. The optio from Alauna, Valens noted, finished drawing his sword first instead of returning it to its sheath.

It was odd, Valens noted, the way his small entourage moved. Secundus and his friend to one side, Rigonorix at the other, the guards from outside the medical hut keeping them apart. In fairness, Valens had enough to worry about without dealing with the enmity between these three men, each of whom had signed the documents, taken the oath and accepted the emperor’s sestertius.

By the time he reached the south gate, there were three men atop it, peering out into the white. Arseholes. Valens climbed the steps and emerged onto the parapet beside them. Without speaking to them, he looked out down the vicus street and his breath caught in his throat. What had been one head on a stick was now five.

‘What in the name of…?’

‘They’ve been bringing them out at regular intervals,’ the guard murmured. ‘A quick chop, skewered on a stick and then off to find the next one. Grattius was last. We’re due another at any moment.’

Valens looked out. Of the five, three were civilians he’d seen round the place from time to time, the others were the two soldiers he’d dragged from the bath house. ‘Ah, shit.’ He turned and gestured to Secundus and his companion. ‘You lot started this somewhere else and brought it to my door. Get to that parapet, and if there is any chance we can stop this, we will.’ He turned to Rigonorix. ‘Somehow, I think it might be best if you stay out of sight until we’ve tried everything else.’ Then to the two men alongside the gate guard, who were gorping at the heads while holding broom and bag and shovel. ‘You two seem to have stopped work. Get moving and get that wall walk cleared. We’re going to need to use it safely soon.’

The two men ran off. The optio peered out into the snow. He could almost sense an unspoken argument going on behind him, but ignored it, watching for movement. Sure enough, after a short and tense wait, a group of dark shapes moved out into the street, dragging a screaming shape. This one fought them long enough and hard enough that they clonked him on the head before pushing him down to the ground and hacking off his skull. As they brought the head forward, two others carrying another freshly cut pole, Valens cleared his throat.

‘Three quarters of you lot can understand enough Latin to get by.’

The figures in the street stopped. Valens gestured to the two soldiers from Alauna. ‘These men may have inadvertently done something stupid. They are extremely contrite, for all that they look like clueless dickheads.’ He felt a small thrill of glee at the glares the two men gave him. ‘Tell me how we can solve this.’

There was no reply, but the shapes disappeared into a side street and reappeared in greater numbers. Valens could not be certain, but he thought one of the newcomers was the man who’d seemed to lead at their last encounter. The walked forward through the falling snow and picked up the helmet that had been ripped from the decapitated legionary’s head. Bringing it out ten paces in front of the line of staked heads, he placed the helmet on the floor, stepped back, and produced a massive sledgehammer. Lifting it, he brought it down in a crushing blow on the empty helmet. As Valens watched, the figure found the original head, twisted and pulled it from its spike, and squeezed the disembodied skull into the mangled helmet. He passed it to a big man close by, who stepped forward and began to spin like a discus thrower.

It was an impressive shot. The head-in-a-crushed-helmet glanced off the battlements close to Valens and disappeared into the fort. The optio really wished he had a scorpion set up, as he’d have put a bolt through the man in an instant. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

He turned to look at the others, and Secundus shrugged. ‘Doesn’t look like they’re open to debate.’

Valens threw out a finger at the gate guard. ‘I know you’ve the no horn or bell or anything, but you watch out there. Anything happens you’re not expecting, you jump up and down, wave and shout til’ your chest hurts. Got it?’

The man nodded and the optio gestured to the others. ‘Get to the principia. Everyone should be there by now.’

‘Don’t you want me to talk to them then?’ Orgetorix asked with a dry smirk.

‘Would it do any good?’

‘Not a bit.’

‘Then join the garrison in the principia and try not to kill anyone until you’re told to.’

The two men from Alauna glared at him. ‘Arming this bastard is trouble.’

‘He is trouble. So are you. All of this is trouble, and thanks to you, all of this is my trouble.’

‘And where are you going?’ Secundus grunted.

‘To check something.’

Leaving them to it, and with one last look at the street with its grisly display, Valens hurried down to the fort interior and hurried through it until he reached the armoury. The hut door stood open, and the optio dipped inside. The soldier from the other gate was busy walking along a wall, counting loudly.

‘Have you done?’

The man turned and frowned. ‘Not by a long way, sir, but I’ve found some surprises.’

‘Oh yes? Do tell.’

‘When the cohort moved out, they left the entire compliment of scorpions behind, sir. Six of the damned things, though they all need a bit of work. Big problem is: there’s only two score bolts for them. What kind of mind packs the ammunition for travel and forgets the weapons? Idiots. We’ve also got six hunter’s bows, but again not more than a couple of dozen arrows. A damn big stack of pila that were left behind, but only the crap ones. They took all the best. Enough armour to kit out maybe six people beyond our own. Bag of tribuli, couple of dozen weighted darts and for some unknown reason seven cavalry face masks for sports events.’

‘And that’s not all of it?’

‘Jove, no. Half a building to search yet. No one’s bothered keeping too much track of this since everyone left.’

Valens nodded. ‘We’re going to need all of this and more. Start moving it out into the street and keep it in groups ready, but finish running through the list of what there is first. I’ll send you a couple of helpers.’

Leaving the man, he stepped out into the street again. How could they have landed in so much shit so quickly? He was on his way to the principia to brief everyone when a thought struck him. Three streets across, he found one of the blocks that had been out of use for some time. If he was lucky, his men were as lazy as he imagined. Reaching the disused hut, he opened the door. The smell nearly knocked him down, and he grinned even as he gagged, slamming the door shut once more and stepping away from the block.

The southwest latrine had been blocked since not long after the cohort were pulled out, but the block was the most popular of the two, because sewer demons made sport with the one in the northwest. Rather than risk having their genitals attacked or having to walk outside the fort, the bulk of the men had started using the blocked latrine and then simply bucketing away the backed up horror and storing it in a nearby disused block. Valens had ordered the hut cleared and the whole process stopped a dozen times, but clearly it hadn’t happened.

Well no poor bastard Carvetian warrior was prepared for that missile.

Leaving the hut he hurried off to the headquarters building to brief his men.

There were eight people on duty, Valens thought as he strode into the principia. There was one on each corner tower, one at the south gate, two clearing the wall walk, and one working through the stores. Yet as he stepped into the courtyard, he was surprised at how full it seemed. He’d been in here with a full cohort mustered and it had felt normal. Five hundred souls. Now there were maybe thirty five in the space and it still looked cluttered.

He strode past them all and climbed the tribunal. With a quick nod to the statue of the emperor, he readied himself. Of course, the emperor was not the right one. A place like this was so remote that a replacement statue would only be forthcoming as an afterthought, as no one would give the job to a local. Local sculptors would make him look like a lumpy goblin.

‘I doubt anyone is unaware of our situation,’ he said, as he came to a halt on the platform. ‘But in case you’ve had your head down the one working latrine, there’s a whole army of natives out there who’ve decapitated the rest of the civilians and two of my men. They won’t talk or listen to reason, and the threat they pose is quite real. They’re here and they’re coming for us.’

There was a murmur among the men and Valens let it go this time, waiting for it to ebb.

‘We can’t leave,’ he said flatly. ‘There’s no way to get to Glannoventa or over the pass. The moment we try to leave we run into them. So we rely on our walls. We have to hold them out until they give up and go away. We have the advantage. It’s snowy and freezing. They cannot stay out there forever. We are trained to hold a place like this and, though there aren’t so many of us, we can do it. The slope from the west wall is steep and that to the north is even steeper, so attacks from either side are pretty unlikely. We need to concentrate on the south and east. I want every man available on those walls.’

He straightened. ‘My best two lookouts are Rubellius and Pollio. They will each take one of the north and west walls. Everyone else gets divided up between south and east. Can the civilians step forward?’

He paused while the motley collection of locals moved away from the soldiers, making themselves known. Valens looked along their lines. ‘Lugracus,’ he said, pointing at the smith, ‘can you fletch ballista bolts and arrows?’

The old man nodded. ‘Passably. Not my best skill, but I know how to do it.’

‘Take Elia and her kid and show her how to do it. We have plenty of raw materials.’

One of the soldiers stepped forward. ‘Sir, you can’t ask a girl to make arrows?’

‘So she just sits here admiring herself until they enemy get in because we’re out of ammunition?’ He glanced over at her. ‘What do you think, Elia?’

‘Making arrows will be a pleasure,’ she said firmly.

Lugracus reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Come on, girl.’

‘Belliacus,’ Valens said, gesturing to the miserable looking old man, ‘I want you at the south gate. If I remember rightly, you have proper experience on the field of battle?’ At a nod from the old man, he thumbed over his shoulder. ‘I want you at the south gate. Something tells me that’s the first point of trouble and that you’ll be most useful there.’

He looked across the crowd. ‘Hermod, they tell me you could take out a hare at two hundred paces?’

‘No one could do that.’

‘Still, get up on the southeast tower with the best field of view. I’ll make sure you have all the arrows you need.’ He looked at the other civilians. ‘The rest of you follow Glabrio to the armoury and help get everything useful moved outside and prepared. Glabrio, that’s your task. Furthermore, any one of my lot who has any artillery experience, we have plenty of scorpios. I want you split into two man teams and head down to the armoury to collect your weapon. They’re nicely portable, so I want them spread out along the east and south walls for now.’

He sighed. ‘Everyone I’ve mentioned, move out and go about your tasks.’

He waited for the civilians and a handful of soldiers to leave, and when he was left with only his own men, he sighed. ‘Bravado and optimism aside, we all know we’re fucked and that the walls won’t hold, right?’

The men of the cohort looked up at their optio, false hope dropping away. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Valens said to them, ‘I have no intention of surrendering, and there are ways we can do this, but the civilians think fort walls are unassailable and that we can do anything. We can’t.’

‘Not enough men,’ shouted one of the soldiers.

‘Precisely. Even the worst mathematician can divide our walls by our garrison and shit himself at the number he comes up with. Even if we only have to hold the south and east walls, it’s still just a matter of time.’

‘So what’s the plan sir?’

Plan? Valens bit off his retort that there was no real chance for a plan. After all, he sort of had one. ‘Here’s what we do. We man the walls with every man we can spare, and we have the non-combatants manufacturing ammunition. But while all that goes on, I want six men working on a redoubt. I’ll be giving you authority to take whatever you need. Tear down barracks and latrines if you must. Across the middle of the fort are three buildings: the granary, the principia and the commander’s house. Four walls blocking the streets will turn three buildings into one fortress. There are no windows in the granaries, and all the ones in the CO’s house and the principia face inwards. They’re a natural fortress. Six men with an hour or two should be able to make those three buildings into a solid redoubt. The defensive line is then contracted. The fort walls are five hundred paces around. This new redoubt will be just two hundred. That means we are more than twice as likely to survive, based on the mathematics.’

The soldiers nodded. This sort of logic appealed to them.

‘Is there no way to get help or get out of here, then, sir?’ A soldier called.

‘I don’t think so,’ Valens admitted. ‘The enemy are right outside the fort.

Vibius Cestius, his odd, mismatched eyes gleaming, stepped forward. ‘That might not be true, sir. I’ve been thinking about this.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Yes. The enemy are not stupid. The main force will be watching the south and east walls, and they will have odd men watching the bad approaches to the north and west too, but not many. Send runners out to the valley below on the north and west sides and they stand a chance. A strong man might make it to Glannoventa and the rest of the century in four hours. Allow an hour for faffing, and in nine hours they could be back here, doubling our manpower.’

Valens frowned. ‘I lose two men, though.’

‘But you win a future sir.’ Cestius threw out a finger in the direction of the armoury. ‘Fit scorpions to north and west. Two or three each. But make the south and east really enticing. Lots of activity to draw their attention. When the men run, any watcher will have to put up their head. Hit it with a ballista bolt.’

Valens frowned. It was possible. ‘Better to have the hope of relief than not eh? Alright, Cestius, you’ve sold your plan. You and Glaucus won the Lupercalia race last year, so you and Glaucus are our runners.’

‘Sir, you need me here.’

‘Not as much as I need forty angry armed men. Go get things ready. You’re bound for Glannoventa.’

Written by SJAT

April 17, 2020 at 7:37 am

Posted in Roman Military

Tagged with , , ,

Destiny – A Roman short story for Halloween

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My name is Marcus Annius Blaesus and I am a man with a destiny, for all the good that might do me. Before this night that has changed, poisoned, destroyed my life, I have been acclaimed a good man, a strong man, even a hero. I am a legionary of the Twentieth Valeria Victrix, based at the great red fortress of Deva in the province of Britannia. It is the year of the consuls Gavius and Aquilinus, under the glorious reign of the great emperor Decius, who has vanquished the Arab named Phillipus and taken the throne, may he live for a thousand years. But this is not his story, nor indeed mine, in truth, It is a story about one of my room mates by the name of Caius Pincius Baritus.

It began three weeks ago…

For the love of blessed Minerva, was it that recent?

The bastard emperor Phillipus was dead. The news came through the trade routes and the grapevine of the ordinary folk hours before the official report was proclaimed in the fortress to a parade ground full of tired, worn legionaries. And we heard that Decius, the renowned and beloved commander of the Danubius, had donned the purple cloak. It suited us all. Phillipus had been a watery, odd Syrian with no real ability or strength, while Decius was of good senatorial stock, from a Pannonian city and with a pedigree in the legions.

But the news didn’t go down so well with everyone. You see, being a soldier of Rome these days is a little like betting on the horses, or the gladiators of the Deva ludus. You put your money on a claimant to the throne and if he stays in power long enough for you to claim your retirement benefits, you’ve won the game. If your stake is attached to one of the more numerous would-be emperors that barely have time for buttock to meet throne before sword meets neck, then your career can be in tatters at a remarkable speed. And so can your neck, for that matter.

A number of the Twentieth’s officers – even the senior officers… especially the senior officers – had put their money on Phillipus. Several of our tribunes, our legatus, our camp prefect – even the damned medicus and the chief barber – owed their position and the hope of a future career to the poor, rapidly-decomposing Phillipus.

Yes. If I’m going to tell you this, I’ve probably vacillated enough, and I should start in earnest here.

It was early November and Deva was slowly drowning in a sea of soggy brown leaves, the trees denuded and reaching up like skeletal hands to the lead-grey skies above. The winds in Britannia in November are more insistent than Catullus and more piercing than a Thracian chorus. They cut you down to the bone, and leave a wet, chilly corpse in your place. I think you know what I’m getting at. Think northern Etruria in January and make it wetter, browner and colder, and you’ll be about right. It ruins the mood of every serving soldier. And there is little more depressing than standing on a soggy, leaf-strewn parade ground listening to a senior officer bang on about loyalty and duty and what it means to be Roman, unless it’s doing so while your best mate is busy rubbing his neck incessantly and you have to cover for him.

Baritus was constantly ravaging his neck that morning, as though a thousand insects had bitten him around the throat. I stood, half-listening to the legatus, mostly trying to keep an eye on the centurion and the optio to make sure Baritus wasn’t made an example of. And every time an officer looked our way, I had to grind my hobnailed boot down into my mate’s foot enough to stop him rubbing until their gaze moved on elsewhere. It didn’t do to be considered inattentive when the commander spoke. That sort of thing ends with you mucking out the latrines.

Indeed, just as my patience was wearing to its thinnest, Baritus stopped entirely. I risked a sidelong glance. His neck was pale – as usual – but where he had rubbed it a wide ring of ruptured red flesh gave him a self-made collar above his scarf line. I tried to ignore him. He’d gone quiet and still. Instead I paid attention to the tribunal stand, where the legatus was busy addressing his men.

He was busy now droning about the values of an emperor and the qualities of a leader, as though any of us thought further than the next payday, the next drink, the next whore. I almost missed it, so wrapped up was I in my own weather troubles and my friend’s current weirdness. I snapped back to staring at the legatus and ran my memory over the words I was sure I’d heard from the man, but there was really no need. If an officer has to say something he likes the sound of, he’ll find a way to work it into a speech five or six times anyway. And there it was again. Our allegiance should be given to a legitimate emperor – an emperor of the people, who knew what the provinces needed…

I felt the familiar sinking feeling. Decius was our legitimate emperor now, and we’d already had that speech a few days ago, when the news came. Them the legatus had been virtually fawning at Decius’ name, and already he was intimating a need for revolution. How quickly had the commander changed his tune, eh? I heard Pulcher’s name and that sinking feeling went subterranean. Marcus Martiannius Pulcher was the governor of Britannia Superior – a man with senatorial and military form, popular with the chinless officer class. We’d all seen or heard enough of governors being proclaimed emperor – Decius, after all, was one of them – but while Decius was approved by the senate, I was now aware that my own commander was pledging the legion’s support to the governor of Britannia instead. A usurpation. Treason en-masse. Stupid. Far from lacking in guts to suggest such a dangerous thing, but stupid. Most of the men knew that Decius would be attentive to legion pay and honours until he was secure, and little matters more to a soldier than pay and honours. Certainly not the value of a man who understands the provinces. Of course, some of the men would cleave to the legatus in the belief that he would do what was best for them. Those who didn’t know how the upper class worked, anyway…

I struggled to hold my peace in the face of such treason being proclaimed in the name of my own legion, but I didn’t have to for long, anyway. A centurion from the third cohort bellowed his loyalty to Rome and to its legitimate emperor, Decius, defying his commander. He barely had time to finish his sentence before a mob of legionaries jumped him from behind and dragged him to the ground. Even as the officers shouted themselves hoarse, trying to assert control, the parade ground erupted. Legionary against legionary, those who thought they might gain from supporting the commander shoved and punched against those who thought they would best achieve their goals by maintaining their allegiance to Decius.

For all my recognised scepticism and cynicism, I had been thrown by the development, and I was standing, almost dumbfounded, when some soldier I barely knew in the next line punched me in the jaw, spinning me round. I struggled to right myself and defend myself, but he was already off, fighting someone else. Instead, I found myself face to face with my friend Baritus, who jabbed at my shoulder and pointed off towards the fortress gate.

‘Come on.’

I guess I was still befuddled. I certainly had no desire to stand in the midst of this growing chaos. It resembled the largest bar brawl in the city’s history, five thousand legionaries pushing, shoving, punching and ducking, their officers mostly bellowing in an attempt to instil some sort of order (although in fairness, a number of officers were busy laying into one another too.) Well, they say you should never discuss politics, and certainly not in a volatile crowd of trained warriors. As Baritus and I ducked and dodged through the chaos, making for the fortress, where a skeleton garrison remained atop the walls, watching developments with interest, the brawl turned nasty. Someone, somewhere drew his pugio dagger and plunged it into the belly of a comrade. There was a tiny, odd pause, as though the world shuddered, while the enormity of the act hit those involved, and then suddenly more weapons were drawn. Men bellowed their battle cries of ‘Decius imperator! Decius the god!’ or ‘Pulcher! Pulcher for Britannia!’

Idiots.

But then we’d had years of peace in Britannia and at least half the legion had never seen action more brutal than digging ditches or arresting wayward locals. Those of us who remembered real battle and real killing were in much less of a rush to experience it again over something that it was not even our place to decide. Men started to die.

Baritus and I were the first men from the parade ground to reach the gate, which stood open, waiting for the return of the cohorts. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed that many of the veterans were also running for the relative safety of the fortress. Sadly, not far behind them, the legatus was running for his safe headquarters, a small group of officers and men clustered around him for protection.

Baritus burst through the gate with me at his heel.

‘What now?’ I said rather breathlessly. We would not have long. The chaos outside would soon move inside the fortress and would not end until one side or the other became ascendant.

‘We’ve got just moments,’ Baritus muttered and there was something odd in his voice that sent a shiver up my spine. I had once heard a haruspex pronouncing disaster at a public event, and this carried those same expectant, dreadful leaden tones.

‘What do you mean?’

My friend turned and grasped my shoulders and the look on his face was even more fear-inspiring than his voice. His eyes had taken on a hollow, glassy look. He squeezed my shoulders, in the manner of a father sending his son on a long journey. It was perhaps the eeriest thing I’d ever experienced… thus far, at least. He swallowed and sighed. ‘My time’s up. And I can’t do anything about it. But you… you need to go. Once this settles, get away from here. As far as you can and as fast as you can. Don’t stop until… just don’t ever stop. Do you understand?’

‘No.’ And I didn’t. Baritus gave the most humourless smile I ever saw and said ‘pick a building.’

‘What?’

‘Pick a building. For us to go hide in and wait this out.’

I shrugged. ‘Have you been at the medical supplies?’

‘How about that one?’ he asked, gesturing to a long, low, flat structure.

‘The smithy?’ What in Hades was the man saying.

But already men were beginning to flood into the fortress behind us. Fights were breaking out under the gate, in the street, on the walls. The idiocy was spreading and following us. The legatus, cowering and fleeing like a fox caught in the hen house, was running for the headquarters, surrounded by armed men. I stared at the smithy. ‘Why there?’ Although I was already running for the door.

‘Because it’s my best chance.’ Again, he rubbed at his ruined neck, and I frowned as we reached the door. Pushing it open, we scurried inside and ran the length of the building towards the storage area at one end, where the nails, rivets and plates of iron were kept. I couldn’t quite fathom why we were there, but Baritus was so forceful, so purposeful, so adamant…

‘We could hide in our room. This will be over in less than an hour one way or another and no one’s going to start searching barracks.’

Baritus shook his head. ‘This is my best chance, I think. Though even then, I know in my heart that there’s no chance. Watch and learn, Blaesus, and when it’s over go out to my place in the canabae and sort through my things. Most of my stuff is there, not in the barracks. Take it and run.’

‘You’re raving, Baritus,’ I rolled my eyes. ‘To desert the legion? And bring that dishonour and punishment down on my head? You’re out of your mind. And anyway, won’t your favourite little woman be there? She will want your stuff.’

‘Annilia has gone back to Gaul,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I sent her last week.’

I frowned. The canabae was the settlement that housed the civilians outside the fortress, and Baritus and his girl had had a house there for five years. He’d been expecting to live there with her as husband and wife when he was given his pension in a few years’ time. But now… all this talk of his time being up, and Annilia having been sent away? Another shudder ran the length of my spine.

‘Listen,’ I managed, getting a hold of myself and trying to talk over the noise of the fighting and arguments in the streets outside, ‘I don’t know what all this morbidity and weirdness is about, but I’m not having it. We’ll sit it out and then everything will return to normal. A few officers will be told to fall on their swords, but most of us will just settle back into daily routine. And then you’ll stop panicking and you’ll send for Annilia again.’

‘When you go there,’ he said, apparently ignoring me, ‘make sure to check the back room. I have the most important things in there.’

There was a bang as the door was thrown open at the far end of the smithy and two men tumbled in, punching and roaring. For some reason, as Baritus ducked down behind a table, I found myself joining him.

‘Time’s up, Blaesus,’ he smiled. ‘See you on the other side.’

As I frowned in complete incomprehension, my friend withdrew a coin from his purse, pushing it under his tongue to pay the ferryman, and sat back in an oddly relaxed pose.

I shook my head in disbelief.

‘Listen…’

If it hadn’t happened before my very eyes, I would not believe it. You won’t believe it, so insane does it sound. As I watched in disbelief Baritus lower his gaze to the floor, sitting peering down between his knees, I could hear the two struggling men a few tables down the room, battering at one another and slamming back into cupboards as they fought. And then one of them fell away and the other took the advantage of freedom to pull back his arm and throw. I have no idea what it was he threw, only what it did. For one thing it missed its intended target as that other soldier ducked to the side. But the truly terrifying and unbelievable thing was that the thrown object smashed into the wall above us and there was a tremendous metallic shudder as the shelves of stored gear shook and rattled. And then, like the hand of the Furies, a single item fell.

A cleaver.

I watched in disgusted horror as the blade slammed into the exposed neck of my friend, shattering his backbone as it dug deep into the flesh. Baritus’ legs spasmed and shook as blood fountained up from his neck, the cleaver, its job done, falling away to the floor with a metallic clatter.

I was dumbstruck. The blade had neatly struck the line of red welts where my friend had been scratching his neck all day. I barely even registered that I was covered in his blood. My hearing seemed to have gone dull and all I could hear was my own racing heartbeat. My eyes bulged, seemingly unable to leave the grisly sight beside me, my eyelids apparently unwilling to close. In the end I tore my gaze away from him like a man pulling a boot from deep sucking mud, and rose, shuddering, freezing, white as a sheet. The two combatants in the room had met in a final clash and one was now busy beating the other senseless with a wooden mallet. As I staggered past him on the way to the door, shock filling me to the seams, the survivor snarled ‘who are you for?’

‘What?’

‘Who are you for?’ he repeated vehemently.

‘Me,’ I relied quietly and staggered off through the door.

Already things were changing outside. One of the more respected centurions had managed to pull together a couple of centuries of men and form them into a proper unit, and was even now moving through the fortress, drawing officers to his side and bellowing at the men to stand down. I hardly noticed. I had other things on my mind.

Through the chaos I stumbled, heading for the south gate. The canabae. Baritus’ house.

I was faintly aware of what was going on around me. You’ll know, of course, what happened in the end that day. Despite the seeming chaos, nine men in ten held true to the new emperor Decius and only the legatus and two tribunes paid the price for attempted insurrection. That centurion with great presence of mind rallied the whole legion and placed the legatus under arrest, offering him the chance to take his own life before he was dragged off in chains. The man hadn’t even the guts to do the right thing then. I hear that Decius has him in the carcer already, trying to decide what punishment fits best. And of course the Twentieth has received the honorific Deciana for our honourable defence of the true emperor in the face of treason. It’s all great and good, and makes some of what happened that day worthwhile, anyway. But not for me. And certainly not for Baritus.

I staggered out through the civil settlement until I got to his little love nest near the bridge. It was not a great villa or anything. Just four rooms, but it was his and it was dry and neat. Not locked, though.

I entered the front room and noted the fact that everything of Baritus’ was already packaged and labelled. His valuables were on the table in piles, his treasured graves made by an Italian armourer on the pile of unworn spare tunics. It was eerier even than the man’s freak death in some ways. I had no intention of climbing the stairs to the couple’s bedroom, and wandered through to the rear door, taking in the neat piles of his kit around me.

I opened the door to the rear room and stepped in.

And my life changed.

This was where he kept the most important things.

The room was well lit by a large window. Illuminated enough for me to realise that the room was bare. Completely devoid of possessions or furnishings. The door to the small cucina – the kitchen – stood closed. But despite the lack of anything I could possibly have catalogued or disposed of, I knew instantly what he had meant by his most important things.

Someone had painted the walls. Someone with little talent, in truth, and I had the suspicion it had been my friend himself. I know that to be the case, now, though then it was a mere notion. A series of painted panels ran along two of the walls. I found myself turning to the first, fascinated. The crude depiction of Baritus and myself at the gladiator fight last month was poorly painted, but executed well enough that I could recognise us. Us and the old hag that had tried to press us for money to feed her brood of feral children that were busy trying to rob innocent passers-by. I remembered that day. We had both done quite well at the book-makers.

The second panel showed another scene I remembered. Last payday at the fortress. There were the crowds of angry soldiers bellowing for their pay, since the money was late. One of the unfortunate side effects of an unexpected change of emperors is that sometimes things like pay for provincial legions gets put to the back of the queue.

Other panels followed. I recognised many of them for what they were even if I hadn’t been there. Images of my friend, painted by himself.

And then, as I changed wall, there was an image of his head and shoulders, like a marble bust, though with a red ring around his neck. I shuddered and fearfully flickered my glance to the next panel. There was an image of the emperor Phillipus stuck with half a dozen military daggers. It came as little surprise to me to see that in the background of that image, legionaries struggled and fought one another. There were three panels left. I could hardly bear to move on, and yet some morbid fascination drove me.

There it was.

The next panel.

Baritus crouched with his head hanging forward and a hole in his neck, blood everywhere. Me next to him, with a baffled expression. My heart groaned at the sight. Had Baritus been living with this premonition for weeks? No wonder he’d been rubbing his neck this morning. How had he…

My heart jumped for a second.

There were two more panels…

I stepped a pace to my right, my eyes squeezed shut. I could feel my heart racing, my blood thundering through my veins, chilly as ice water. Somehow I had the feeling the Fates were watching, and that they were far from friendly.

I opened my eyes. There I was. Crudely painted, like the rest, but it was definitely me. And I was sitting at a table in a bar, talking, just as I am now. Innocuous, eh?’

The last picture drained all the blood from my face and the heat from my body. There I was half naked with a red line of welts and scabs running from my left armpit to my right hip.

Go on. Tell me I’m being stupid. I would. I did. I’ve been there, remember?

Want to see the marks? The itching started before dawn and try as I might, I just couldn’t stop myself. All the way from armpit to hip. And you know what? Baritus’ advice was useless. Here I am, a deserter – a wanted man with a death sentence hanging over me, for all that might bother me now. And I’ve run all the way to Gaul to escape what’s coming, but it makes no difference. It follows you. I know that now. And I know that by dawn tomorrow I’ll be clasping hands with Baritus across the endless river. I even have my coin ready, you know?

What? You don’t believe any of this? No, of course you don’t. Nor would I had it not happened to me, but mark my words that everything I told you tonight is true.

No, I don’t expect you to do anything, and I don’t want any money. Don’t you see? I’m not here for charity or aid? I’m here because this is where I have to be… where I’ll die. And I’m here to give you this. Go on… unfold it. I really recommend you do.

You see, while I was on the run, I started painting. It turns out I’m much better at it than Baritus was, and I’m sure you can see the resemblance, can’t you?

Can’t you?

 

THE END

Written by SJAT

October 29, 2015 at 9:30 am

Rome and Egypt

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Something a little different for you this week. Two short novellas from two excellent writers, both of whom are contributors to the imminent ‘A Year of Ravens’ to which I have added my own humble tale. And both of these works are available on kindle for free, by the way!

First up we have The Three Fates by Kate Quinn

kq Kate is an author of both ancient and Renaissance novels, though to me (and to many) she is best known for her tales of Rome’s more powerful women during the height of the empire. I recently read and reviewed ‘Lady of the Eternal City’, her latest, and you can check out my review here. I was perusing potential things to add to my kindle when I came across The Three Fates (and the second novella I will be reviewing). Instant download. The Three Fates, I will say from the off, is definitely not a standalone work. As Kate mentions in her notes, this is, in fact, the original beginning of that aforementioned novel, which was later cut and then made it into the world as a free novella by way of introduction. But then, it’s free, so it doesn’t matter to the reader if it is more of a prologue than a tale in itself.

The Three Fates is more of an introduction to the characters (or a reintroduction if you have read Empress of the Seven Hills). It doesn’t have a nicely-defined end, but it does provide a very good introduction to the protagonists and antagonists of ‘Lady’. As a taster it does the job impeccably. It introduces you in a short read to Kate’s writing, which is heady and absorbing and brings the perils and glories of the Hadrianic court into glorious light. Download it for free, read it and see whether you want to go on. I would recommend doing so, having read ‘Lady’, but with this novella you can make up your own mind with no pressure.

Secondly, I also found The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray

sdI find it harder to comment on this one as an introduction since I’ve not yet read Stephanie’s ‘Lily of the Nile’ to which this connects. The difference between this and Kate’s is that this novella can stand alone as a read. Taking the story from Alexandria to the mountains of Thrace, this story hooked me for the oddest of reasons. Not because of the writing, which is certainly high quality, atmospheric and gripping, and not because of the characters, though they are well fleshed out and believable. And not because of the point of view, since it is written in first-person present tense, which is not my favourite POV to read from.

No. This hooked me because it is a fantastic, strange and wonderful mix, belonging to an era of great change and cultural mixing, when the pharaohs were as much Macedonian as they were Egyptian. The world is an odd mix of Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian, and even more barbarous peoples such as the Thracians. And Stephanie seems to have submersed herself in the cultures of all of them and got into the heads of her characters who feel truly alive in a fascinating world. In fact, it was so absorbing that Lily of the Nile is now on my list, largely because having read the novella I need to read on…

So there you go. Two free novellas to help you while away an hour or two. I highly recommend them both.

Happy Thursday, all.

Written by SJAT

October 15, 2015 at 9:25 am