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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 , , ,

Vengeance – Chapter One

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Good morning from Casa Turney on this fine isolated locked-down day. As you may (or may not) know, during this troubled time, a bunch of authors (see the above banner and Twitter #AuthorsWithoutBorders) have been writing brand new serialised stories daily on our Facebook pages. Well, we’ve reached the end of week one, and many of us are now pulling together an omnibus of the week’s storytelling. Here, then, is my own Roman tale, week 1. If you want to continue reading, the next section will be up here on Monday and they will continue again until Friday, when I shall post week 2 here on the blog.

So without further ado…

Vengeance

The icy wind whipped across the pass like Hekate’s breath, ripping the air from the lungs with its chilly blast and carrying flakes of the day’s snowfall, which had not so much stopped for the night as paused to regroup. The grey peak of Mons Mortus hung over the fort like a pre-payday bar bill, glowering and bringing unhappiness to all who saw it. And seeing it was hard not to do, the way it loomed so against a sky so grey that, were it not for the snow, it would be hard to tell where rock stopped and heavens begun.

The middle-aged, po-faced shape of Optio Aelius Valens paused at the rampart’s southeast corner to pull his blade from its sheath, grunting with difficulty as it stuck momentarily. It was not that he needed it now, mind, but in weather of this temperature you had to keep easing the blade out every now and then, else when you did need it it would undoubtedly be stuck fast. The wind howled mercilessly across the wall top, making him shiver uncontrollably. It never ceased to amaze him that no matter how many winters you passed up here, you never got used to that wind.

‘Any activity?’ he hissed, then clamped his mouth shut, toothache already threatening.

Rubellius, his enormous muscular arms nearer blue than pink, turned a face mostly covered with frost-rimed beard to his officer, and clenched his teeth for a moment to stop them chattering before he spoke.

‘Not much. The blacksmith’s been out gathering fuel for his fire, but no one else. No movement. No one would be stupid enough to be out in this, unless it was for the senate and the people of Rome, I suppose, sir.’

Valens snorted. He’d never seen Rome, any more than anyone else in the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians. In fact, since he’d signed up at Salona he’d seen nothing but the empire’s very periphery. And it didn’t get much more peripheral than Mediobogdum.

The fort sat on a spur of land, overlooking a deep green valley that marched off down to the sea at the edge of the world, and under a peak that towered over a pass connecting the coast to the lead mining region between here and Galava. Twenty years ago, when the fort had been built it had been important, a full garrison post that had supported a growing civilian settlement. Five hundred soldiers, with half as many hangers-on clustered outside the walls. Then the new emperor, Antoninus, had moved the border of Britannia north, and any hint of importance had been torn from Mediobogdum, all the province’s military focus shifted to this new wall of the emperor’s.

The installation on the spur had become little more than a ghost fortress. Most of the cohort had been transferred back across the sea, just one century left for a year or two as a skeleton garrison, half the men up here under Valens, half down at Glannoventa down on the coast under the centurion. The remit: look after the pass. Nothing more.

Valens looked up at the snow-clogged nightmare crossing. As if any arsehole was going to try that in winter…

The optio sighed as he leaned on the wall top beside the big soldier, the futility of it all weighing down on him almost as heavily as the mountain above. ‘It’s ridiculous… garrisoning a fort like this, I mean. As if there are likely to be any lead convoys to protect these days. And half a dozen misfit civilians languishing in that shit-hole of a rundown vicus outside too, while everyone else has left.’ He turned to the soldier, lines of irritation carved deep in his veteran features. ‘And it’s especially pointless in weather like this. We’ve got so much barrack space going spare you could quarter the whole valley inside the walls and there are thirty four of us. I’ve half a mind to invite the civilians into the fort.’

Rubellius snorted. ‘Living up here you’ll be lucky to hold on to even half a mind for long.’

‘Less of that lip, soldier,’ Valens responded, though with no real conviction. The man was right, after all. It would be easy to go crazy wintering here in near isolation. ‘Tomorrow morning, I’m going to bring them inside.’

‘The centurion’ll tear you a second arsehole if you do, sir.’

‘The centurion’s ten miles away and thirty shits that he doesn’t give away from here, and he doesn’t give a rat’s arse what we do. If he cared, he’d have checked on us at least  once since the snowfalls started.’

Slapping a hand on the big man’s shoulder, the optio turned away from the view over the silent vicus and the snow-clogged road up to the pass. Wandering back along the wall walk, he passed the east gate and made for the northern corner of the fort, where a turret stood on a rocky hump, the highest point around the entire circuit. As he walked, Valens cursed, his foot coming down badly on a patch of ice that sent him skittering in an ungainly manner until he thumped into the parapet, winding himself and bruising his arm.

A quick glance ahead as he righted himself revealed the figure of the soldier on guard up there – a short, narrow man who oozed slyness and dishonesty like a rat in an oiled snakeskin. Pollio. The optio wasn’t sure he was ready for a conversation with the rodent-like soldier right now and, shrugging off the pain in his arm from the wall, he turned instead to the stairs down to the fort interior. It was only as he placed his first foot on the top step and realised he was going to have to negotiate this carefully that he became aware of a distant voice. Glancing this way and that to identify its source, he spotted Pollio waving at him, calling him over.

It looked as though the optio was not to be spared the little man’s rabid wit after all. Stepping back onto the wall walk, Valens hurried along, climbing towards that turret at the north corner and gripping the parapet for stability on the icy surface. With some difficulty he reached the doorway and stepped inside the tower, making the most of the temporary shelter from the wind, then climbed the stairs to the turret top.

The rat-like soldier was almost vibrating with urgency as Valens stepped out into a fresh blast of bitter cold. The optio frowned. Few things got the man so excitable, except perhaps when the dice came up well and he managed to fleece his tent mates out of their silver. Valens hurried over.

‘What’s got into you? Hole in your crotch letting in draft in?’

‘You won’t piggin’ believe this, boss,’ the little man said, and thrust out a calloused finger to the north.

Valens followed the gesture, his gaze crossing the parapet, the steep hillside that fell away into the deep valley and then back up the stark, white-clad hillside beyond. It took him moments to see the small but distinct shapes of three figures half-walking, half-tumbling down the slope in the direction of the fort.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ Valens said, staring out into the bleakness.

Hurrying along the wall, Valens kept his gaze locked on the figures across the valley. Throwing a finger back up at the tower, he bellowed into the wind.

‘Pollio, sound the alarm.’

By the time he’d reached the northwest gate, the diminutive soldier back up on the tower was doing a passable impression of a musician by honking tunelessly into a horn with a result that sounded like a cow being slowly crushed to death. A bell, Valens thought irritably, we need a bell that he can’t ruin.

At the gate, the soldier on guard was no more welcome a sight than Pollio had been. Vibius Cestius was unsettling to say the least. He been a new recruit last year, one of a swathe that had somewhat bucked the age requirements. Probably fifteen summers old, and looking it, he had the style and mode of speech of a middle-aged world-weary orator, and hair as white as the snow in spite of his black eyebrows. He always seemed to be looking through Valens as if seeing something important behind him,but it was his eyes that really creeped the optio out. Like mismatched gems, glittering in dark caverns.

‘Cestius,’ he called, ‘get that gate open, just one door. We’ve got visitors.’

At the alarm, men were now falling out of barrack doorways, mostly complaining about the din, but all strapping on sword belts, tying helmet straps or shouldering shields. Valens stood atop the gate on the wall walk, and peered out into the white. Almost as if on cue, a flake of snow large enough that it ought to have its own name settled on his nose. Damn it, but the next deluge was coming any moment.

It was impossible to tell anything about the three figures he could see across the valley. It looked like either one man running from two more, or three men competing to get to the gate first, but whatever the case there was a distinct urgency to it. Valens watched them slide down a steep section and then begin to pound as swiftly as they could through the knee deep snow. They were still little more than black shapes against the white.

Friend or foe? A question as old as time, and one upon which safety and peril danced together. Should he let them it and then interrogate them, or hold them at the gate? There were only three of them, and the weather was worsening. Still, the centurion would keep the gate closed until he knew everything. That decided Valens more than anything. He was going to let them in.

Behind him, soldiers were falling into line across the road close to the gate, chain shirts still rumpled and out of shape, shields disordered, some with helmets and some just in felt hats, only half of them with scarves and maybe a third with cloaks. They were a fucking shambles and he loved them for it, because no matter what they looked like, they were mad and dangerous bastards to a man.

‘Three men incoming. They all come in through the gate, but no one gets any further without getting punctured, got me?’

‘They run for it, we stick ‘em. Got it boss,’ one of the lads grunted.

‘Looks like one native, two soldiers,’ Cestius murmured.

Valens peered out into the white. They still looked like three black stickmen to him. ‘How in Hades can you tell?’

‘Man out front is wearing furs and running. Other two gleam. Bronze helmets and chain shirts.’

‘You heard the freak,’ Valens shouted. ‘Brace yourself for a panicky native and two soldiers.’

Valens stood in the gate and watched the three approaching figures, aware of the shuffling of people behind him as the men of his half century prepared themselves for the unknown. He squinted out into the white as the moments passed, making out what he could of the three figures as they reached the bottom of the valley.

Though there was no real reason for it, what he really wanted was to be able to prove Cestius the weird bastard wrong, but as they approached, it became clearer and clearer that the lead figure was dressed more or less like a native hunter, while the men following on were dressed very much like the soldiers of the fort’s garrison.

‘Trouble comes in threes,’ Cestius murmured, glaring into the white.

‘What?’ Valens was becoming irritated with the young soldier now.

‘Trust me. Give them bread and cheese and send them on down to Glannoventa, sir.’

‘Let’s just see what they have to say, soldier.’

They waited. As the three figures staggered and scrambled up the steep slope towards them, snowflakes increasing in number with every heartbeat and all driven at gale force, horizontally, Valens watched them and made out more and more detail.

The lead character could easily be a native, but for one thing: as they came closer, Valens became increasingly convinced that the man was wearing a good old-fashioned soldier’s tunic. That made it all the more curious that he appeared to be either being chased or escorted by two men wearing auxiliary uniforms. The optio chewed his lip. In truth, it might be prudent just to send them on down to the centurion ten miles down the valley. Gah, but he wanted to know what was behind this too much, though.

The figures hurried up the slope and Valens, a moment of unaccustomed common sense creeping in, gestured for Cestius and another soldier to close in with pila levelled. No point in taking chances, after all.

The lead runner struggled up into the gateway, coming to a halt in front of the two pila points.

‘In the name of the army of the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius, I seek shelter here from the men chasing me.’

Valens narrowed his eyes at the man. The runner had a short, military haircut, gone wild like most soldiers of a Britannic winter, and a beard that could just as easily be Roman as Briton these days. Blood soaked several areas of his furs and tunic, though he exhibited no other sign of injury. The optio was trying to decide what to say as the two soldiers behind the man slid to a halt. Ignoring the danger of facing the pila of Valens’ men, one of the pair immediately threw himself at the first runner, sword out, tip touching jugular as the man grimaced. The other spread his hands, addressing Valens.

‘This man is a deserter from the Second Raetorum at Alauna Brigantium.’ Even as he spoke, his friend produced a noose of rope as if from nowhere and slipped it around the lead man’s arms, pulling it tight and dragging his wrists together, drawing a grunt of pain.

Valens frowned at the man. ‘You don’t seem to be resisting them. Is this true?’

The deserter shrugged. ‘Depends on your definitions I suppose.’

He snorted in distress as his captor kicked him in the back of the knee, dropping him to the ground, where he looked up at the optio. ‘Give me the nod and I’ll send these fuckers to Hades and be out of your hair.’

Valens sighed. Yup. He should have turned them away even before they spoke.

‘You,’ Valens said, pointing at the man kneeling in the snow and glowering at his captors, ‘stand up.’ He turned to the men of his unit. ‘Get him to the capsarius for a check over. Don’t loose his bonds, though.’

As his men hurried forward to take the deserter, the two men who had chased him in lurched forward, ready to grab him, but Valens stepped forward, growling like a feral dog. ‘You two, hands off. You touch him before I get to the bottom of this and you’ll be leaving here a few teeth short.’

The pair looked at one another, and the men at the rear stepped forward. ‘Mind your tongue, soldier, when you speak to a superior.’

‘My arse.’

The man snarled. ‘Optio Secundus, Third Century, Second Raetian Cohort.’

Valens gave the man his most infuriating grin. ‘Piss off, Secundus. Optio Aelius Valens, Third Century, Fourth Dalmatian Cohort.’

The man’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’ve no optio’s crest or staff.’

‘Neither have you, knobhead.’

‘How long in service?’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Valens smiled. ‘I’m not acknowledging any seniority from you for a sake of months in. This is my fort, not yours, so you follow my orders. Got it?’

Secundus glowered but, seeing the bristling anger among the men in the street and knowing he’d lost, gave a single nod.

‘Good,’ Valens snapped. ‘Now you and your donkey here follow me.’

As the two new arrivals stomped after him through the snow, Vibius Cestius closed the gate behind them. The lines of men separated for Valens to pass through, and then closed just enough to make it uncomfortable for the two new arrivals to squeeze past. Valens led them between the barrack blocks to the building used as a hospital by the unit’s medic. As they opened the door, a waft of warm stench rolled out over them. A combination of garlic, old socks and some kind of unguent that curled the nose hairs, Valens was used to it, though the look on the faces behind him was priceless.

Inside, Fulvius, the medic, was looking the blood-soaked fugitive over, lifting furs gingerly and examining the tunic and then the flesh beneath. ‘None of this is yours,’ he pronounced irritably in the end, stepping back.

‘No.’

‘Then whose is it?’ Valens asked, approaching.

‘A combination of a few locals and my men,’ snapped Secundus behind him.

‘Oh?’ Valens turned. ‘He killed soldiers?’

‘That’s why he’s out here. He killed our centurion and ran from Alauna. The bastard needed taking down so much that I was sent out with a contubernium into the blizzard to bring him in. We’ve been tracking him since yesterday morning.’

‘And the blood?’

‘We found him hiding in a native settlement.’

‘And?’ Valens was starting to get annoyed now.

‘And the bastard took down six of my men before he escaped again.’

‘Lies,’ the fugitive said. ‘The villagers killed four of them. I only killed two.’

Valens turned to the man, an eyebrow raised. ‘You don’t deny that? Or the centurion I take it?’

‘Centurion deserved it. Any right-thinker would have put a blade in him. The other two were regrettable, but if it’s me or them, then it’s them.’

Valens huffed and turned back to the two soldiers behind him. Go outside and ask for Lancarius. He can cook passably, and even make a rat edible. You need food and warmth. I’ll be along shortly. I need to talk to your prisoner.’

‘He’ll run,’ Secundus snapped. ‘He’s dangerous.’

‘I don’t doubt it, but there’s half a century in this fort.’

‘I’ll stay.’

‘No you won’t. Go eat and warm up. That’s an order, Optio Secundus.

The man’s lip wrinkled, but with an expression of vile distaste, he turned and left. As the two men departed and the door closed, Valens fixed his gaze on the man and gestured to the medic beside him. ‘This is Fulvius. He’s a passable medic, but a damn fine butcher and he’s got things in his kit that make a gladius look like a spongia. You and I are going to have a chat, and you’re going to tell me the truth, or I let Fulvius play.’

‘I think you might want to leave chit-chat to later,’ the fugitive smiled nastily.

‘Oh? Why?’

‘Because the tidal wave of shit coming your way will drown you all if you don’t run.’

Written by SJAT

March 27, 2020 at 8:55 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