(Opening Scenes only)
J. E. Bruce
Copyright 2011 by J. E. Bruce, all rights reserved. No portion of this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
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infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable
by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental.
This book is dedicated to the
centurions and soldiers
of Legio IX Hispana, 60CE
My name is Arrius Marcus Niger, and I am—or should I say I was Hastatus-Posterior, Centurion of the Fifth Century, First Cohort of the Ninth Legion Hispana, under the command of Quintus Petillius Cerialis.
I have seen and survived more than any decent Roman citizen and respected legionary should be required to endure. I have been to the end of the Earth and beyond and have, to my continued amazement, lived to tell the tale.
That I am still alive is, by no small measure, proof that the gods do listen—on rare occasion. Which gods, however, remain a mystery as I am left with the uncomfortable suspicion that my ultimate salvation was not the act of Mithras or even Opitulus, but rather some other equally powerful being or beings whose purpose in protecting me throughout my trials I, as a mere mortal, can only speculate.
By telling my story, my only hope is that you will heed the lessons of my experiences. You need not believe all—I know much of what I am about to retell is fantastic—and much goes against what we, as citizens of Rome, have come to accept as our role as civilizers of the world.
But understand this: there are places we should not venture; there are peoples we should not confront with our military might... and most of all, there are beings we dare not offend if we, and our Empire, is to survive.
To all who read this, I implore you—heed my warning.
I’m not sure how long I was unconscious. I wasn’t even sure how I’d come to be unconscious but I awoke to the terrible and all too familiar sounds of battle, a blinding headache and the sudden realization that I’d been knocked out and left for dead—which is never an enviable position, unless of course you really are dead. Then it doesn’t matter.
It’s especially true if you’re not sure who’s winning and who’s losing or what side of the shifting battle lines you had the fortune, or misfortune, of falling.
I’ve never considered myself a man favored by fortune—quite the contrary—I’ve earned everything I have and everything I am in the absolute hardest ways possible. I naturally presumed I was now lying helpless, but very much alive, behind the enemy line. So I began to curse—silently, mind you. There was nothing to be gained by alerting anyone that I was neither dead nor dying—well, to be honest I cannot vouch for the latter. I couldn’t move; my breath was coming in agonizingly painful, ragged gasps and my eyes refused to stay focused—none of which boded well for my overall health, or my longevity.
But I was mad—damned mad. From the moment I’d enlisted as a boy of not quite sixteen and with the blessings of my wealthy patroness, I’d entertained visions of a glorious death. I’d assumed I’d take my always-worthy final opponent with me into the underworld, my youthful imagination stoked by tales of battle-scarred veterans who were always the heroes in their grandiose yarns. And to that end I’d worked—clawed—my way up through the ranks, never once relying on my benefactress’s name to grease the wheels even though she’d urged me to do so, earning each step with blood—sometimes mine and in appallingly generous amounts, more often some other poor bastard’s who was even more generous than me.
This honorable and, dare I say, formidable reputation proceeded me and I quickly became admired among the common soldiery as well as the officer corps as a centurion who was not one easily tempted by bribes and whom allocated work—and punishment—fairly. And while I was known to be fearless in battle, I was also recognized as being far from foolish, a centurion who did not squander the lives of his troops. My chest harness was soon thickly festooned with phalerae—the silvered bosses testimony to all that I was well on my way to much bigger and much better things.
That being said, perhaps my rise was just too meteoric not to catch the mordant gazes of the Fates.
So, instead of reaping the ultimate reward of all my hard effort, to eventually reach the highest rank a centurion could attain, that of Primus-Pilus, I found myself lying flat on my back in the watery edge of a bog. I was cold—chilled to the bone and my head continued to pound in painful cadence with the bash and clang of sword and armor.
As absurd as it was, I suddenly wanted to yell, to tell everyone to stop, to shut the hell up, that the clamor was simply more than I could bear—and I would have—except I found I couldn’t speak. My tongue was firmly stuck to the roof of my mouth, wedged there, I’m sure, for safety’s sake and no amount of coaxing could get it to release its death grip.
This was getting worse by the second.
I closed my eyes—it was too much effort to keep them open—and listened to the screams and bellows of men, of the near deafening clang of arms, the ominous warble of arrows in flight and the terrified wicker of horses—and entertained the cheery thought that at any moment I might be trampled underfoot by the violent ebb and flow.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the racket began to dim—the line had shifted some distance away; the sharp, individual sounds that made up the nonstop background clamor became blended into a constant, muffled roar by the dense baffle of trees, bog and brush.
I again opened my eyes and was intensely relieved to see large patches of pale blue sky through the fluttering canopy of bright green leaves. I could feel the warmth of the sun on me—so at least my face, chest, belly and shins were warm. My entire back was still soaking in ice-cold water. It was a very odd sensation—toasty warm on one side, freezing cold on the other.
Then again, it could have been raining. Of course, if it had been raining I wouldn’t have found myself in this ugly predicament.
It had rained all night—buckets and buckets. Rain was the one thing this cursed land had in abundance. And if it wasn’t raining, it was foggy. And if it wasn’t foggy, it was sleeting. Sometimes it managed all three at the same damned time.
I’m not, by nature, a complainer. I’d learned long ago never to complain too loudly or too often about anything, lest my remarks be overheard by a superior officer who was just sadistic enough—or bored enough—to want to prove to me that things could be much, much worse. That said, I do so dislike being cold—even worse to be cold and wet. Perhaps it’s true what the soldiers told me so long ago; perhaps I am still a creature of my homeland, perhaps even after all these years.
I’ve seen posts ranging from the hot, desolate deserts of Parthia—so reminiscent of the arid land of my birth—to the thick, heavily scented pine forests of Germania and the bitterly cold, rugged heights of the Cisalpina. This Britannia is, hands down, by far the worst. It’s simply impossible to stay warm—or dry for that matter—just as the Greek explorer Pytheas had said. Perhaps that alone explained the equally foul nature of its inhabitants. Maybe they knew they’d been on the short end when it came to doling out territory and they’d never forgiven the slight.
Had it continued to rain, Cerialis’s plans to launch a major attack would have been put on hold. It was bad enough to fight in the fog, or on soggy ground: it’s utter madness to fight in the pouring rain. But the downpour tapered off towards daybreak. By mid-morning the sun had reluctantly come out, warming the cold, damp air just enough. A thick, waist-high mist quickly formed, cleverly obscuring the fact that the large meadow our scouts had reported days earlier as firm ground was in fact, at its very heart, bog—and now a rain-saturated bog.
The cavalry were the first to discover this. Of course, by then it was too late. The massed line of the enemy, who’d jeered and taunted us from the far side of the clearing, their true numbers hidden within the darkness of the surrounding forest, burst into laughter at the sight of our horses sinking to their bellies in the muck.
Our officers, realizing we’d been lured into a trap, drew the infantry back as the scouts desperately sought firmer ground, or a way around the bog, which meant we were forced to watch, helpless, as the panicked animals and their riders were hacked to pieces by a horde of screaming, half-naked savages—I can still hear the screams of the dying horses—a far more blood-chilling sound than anything a human throat could utter.
I cursed the sun above; I cursed the marshy ground below. But I saved my most eloquent curses for myself as I tried to roll over, to warm my cold-numb backside only to find that I couldn’t feel my legs—or my arms. Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I tried to move, the more apparent it became that I couldn’t feel anything below my chin and I wasn’t one hundred percent sure of that, either.
Under other circumstances, this would have been very worrisome. I knew I should be scared—I’d seen with my own eyes men who’d been struck in just such a way that they never walked again.
But I wasn’t scared. Not sure why—maybe I was just too damned cold and angry to be scared.
Then I heard an odd noise—a noise that sent a chill darting down my spine that had nothing to do with the frigid bog water I was lying in: a low, keening howl.
My wide eyes jerked towards the sound. The cheek-piece of my helmet cut off most of my side view but even so I soon spotted a blur of movement within the patchwork of shade and sun than made up the dense forest floor.
I blinked several times, hoping to clear my vision. It worked, but what I saw caused my heart to thump in brisk cadence to my labored breathing: the flash of movement solidified into a shaggy gray and black hound that slowly made its way through the carnage, the corpses—human and horse—alternately sniffing the ground, sniffing the bodies, lifting its elongated head and looking around, searching.
It was headed my way: slowly, but nevertheless unerringly.
War dogs are not uncommon—we employed them with great success in the snowy forests of Gaul and the rocky scarp of Bithynia where they were unquestionably fearsome in battle and relentless in running down enemies who’d somehow escaped our pila and swords. Unfortunately we Romans are not alone in appreciating the worth of dogs as terror weapons.
I suppose I should also confess here and now that I’ve harbored a private, but very justifiable fear of dogs since childhood and an even greater fear of being torn apart by a pack of them. So not unreasonably, I’d always given our war dogs—any war dogs in fact—along with their equally feral-eyed handlers, wide berth.
Now there was no choice and there was simply no point playing dead. The beast would see through my ruse, so I kept my frightened eyes on it as it came closer and closer, sniffing here and there.
Suddenly it stopped, lifted its head and fixed its gaze on me… and think me mad, but I swear it smiled.
My heart beat faster, faster.
Keeping its gaze locked with mine, it padded towards me, carefully, silently, picking its way with utmost care through the tangle of bodies, past enemy and Roman alike—all presumably dead as it paid them no mind.
It walked all the way around me, watching me, occasionally meeting my unblinking stare and all the while its nose was twitching. Seemingly satisfied, it sat down—several arm-lengths away—and stared at me with a disquieting intensity as it whined softly.
I was helpless, my injuries made it impossible for me to reach, much less wield my sword—even my dagger—and there was something very wrong with this dog—something within in its coppery eyes that made my already goose-pimpled skin crawl and I opened my mouth to scream.
The dog cocked its head to one side as if waiting for the ear-splitting shriek but when all I could muster was a soft gurgle, it looked… well, disappointed: almost but not quite sympathetic.
Then something drew the dog’s interest. It rose and damned if it didn’t begin wagging its feathery tail.
I reluctantly followed its intense gaze, flinching as it cut loose a single, sharp bark.
Instead of drawing a pack of its fellows, its call brought an unusually tall, heavy-set and dark-haired man out of a nearby copse of willow and into my limited view. He wore local garb and, spotting the dog, he approached, making his lumbering but determined way around the puddles of standing water that quivered, in the patchy sunlight, like pools of quicksilver.
As he stopped beside the dog, he pulled his sword from its sheath and I braced myself for the killing stroke. I would not show this barbarian fear—I refused to give him even that satisfaction and kept my gaze locked with his.
I’d been told once that as you approach the end of the Earth, seaward parts of the land spontaneously start to float, the ground spongy underfoot. Perhaps those tales were not so far off because whether I was truly at the geographical end of the Earth or not—and many claimed Britannia was at the end of the Earth, and beyond it, somewhere out to sea, the actual edge of the Earth—I was now facing the end of my Earth, my life, that this cursed bog was in fact the end of us all.
To my surprise, the man murmured something to the dog and the creature immediately bounded away.
The stranger then took a step closer and spoke directly to me.
I was surprised when I found I couldn’t comprehend his gibberish; I’d quickly become fluent in the speech of those who lived in and around our garrison of Lindum, not to mention the disparate tongues of the surrounding tribes as language was a skill I was frequently called upon to put to use, but this man spoke an utterly unfamiliar dialect.
The fool repeated himself—louder—as if by doing so I would miraculously understand him.
I replied with an unyielding scowl and, “Kill me and be done with it!” but it was delivered in a very weak, raspy whisper, which rather diminished my attempt at bravado.
In truth he could do anything he wanted—no amount of bluster on my part could stop it. In fact I was fully prepared for what he might do, the least painful of which was to lop off my head, and my suspicions were solidified when, after repeatedly prodding me with his foot and finally coming to the conclusion that I was utterly defenseless, unable to move, he knelt beside me, placed his sword nearby—but well out of my reach even if I could have moved my arm—and looked me over, slowly, from head to toe as he shook his shaggy head.
This close up he was even bigger than I’d first thought. He was, in a word, huge.
I stared up at him with my vision graying around the edges as he untied the cheek-piece lacings under my chin then cautiously pried off my helmet, not an easy task with the neck guard firmly buried in the bog, painfully pulling my hair in the process. He set it aside and, grasping my forehead in a massive, gnarled hand, he very carefully turned my head this way and that.
My first thought was that it was his intent to see how much force he’d need to break my neck, how much resistance I might put up, but I quickly realized he was actually examining my skull, presumably looking for injury.
And damned if he didn’t find it: he poked a spot just behind my right ear—it hurt, damned if it didn’t and I grimaced. He must’ve have gotten the message because he promptly stopped poking, and, muttering something, released his hold. He then removed my greaves and finished by unfastening my belt.
He then very carefully rolled me onto my stomach—and out of the freezing water—not as a kindness to me, I had no doubt—he probably didn’t want to kneel in the cold water. It would, after all, have an equally chilling effect on his intentions.
Face down in the damp, spongy earth, I heard more than felt him flip the water-swollen pteruges of my leather tunic up onto my lower back. He followed this by slicing his sword up the length of the woolen fabric that encased my left thigh. Then I heard the rest of the sodden fabric of my breeches go in a wet ripping sound.
I closed my eyes, knowing what was coming next. This was, after all, a common the fate of prisoners—the ultimate humiliation for the loser, as well as a way of releasing much of the pent up rage of the victor. It usually ended with a summary execution, sometimes during the climax of the act—if the prisoner was lucky.
If I was lucky. But, as I’ve already mentioned, luck was never a close friend of mine. Not even a passing acquaintance.
And I had seen with my own eyes what these people did to their war captives: hung from trees, drowned in bogs or burned alive, depending upon which of their terrible gods they wished to indulge.
I was startled out of that morose train of thought by a sudden pressure on my hip—his hand on my now bare backside—so, he was going to indulge himself, first.
Then I realized I’d felt his hand. Except for the seeping cold against my back I hadn’t been able to feel anything below my neck for some time—which, under my present circumstances, is the way I would have preferred it to stay, where nothing beyond my head hurt. And if given a choice, I would have been happy even to forgo that.
My skin was ice-cold. His hand was warm—it almost felt good. Almost. And he was again talking to me. I thought that was very odd indeed—was he hoping for some friendly banter while he gratified himself at my expense?
A knee pushed its way between my legs, gently wedging them apart.
I grit my teeth and squeezed my eyes shut, while finding some small irony that I was about to die in such a manner.
I felt more pressure, against my thigh, followed by dull, throbbing ache that ran down my leg all the way to my toes—yes, I could now feel my toes. Another unhappy discovery.
Realizing he’d stopped talking, I actually managed to turn my head, just so, to look at what he was doing—even though I had a very good idea—morbid curiosity?
I was bewildered to find him not unlacing his trousers, but instead packing a bone-deep and gaping wound on my thigh with moss he was pulling from a pouch tied to his belt. I hadn’t known I’d been wounded there. In fact, now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure where I was wounded—maybe just the leg, along with a blow to the head that had left me paralyzed. It would explain much.
He began talking again, softly.
I stared at him, annoyed that he hadn’t gotten the hint that I couldn’t understand him, and at the same time curious as to exactly what he was saying. Maybe he was talking to himself and not to me—I had no idea.
He snatched up my shredded, mud-soaked woolen breeches and, using his sword, cut them into several long strips, which he used to bind my leg.
Finished, he sat back on his haunches, met my gaze and smiled. He was ugly—even uglier than my tesserarius Aetius, and Aetius, as even he would admit, was damned ugly.
I scowled back. I was in no mood for pleasantries. Do what you’re going to do and be done with it!
Instead, he shifted position. Grabbing my hip and shoulder, he rolled me again, onto my back and onto even firmer, dryer ground.
He snatched up a fistful of grass and used it to very gently wipe the blood and clotted mud from my face and throat, as if offering amends for what had already been done to me.
He moved on to the sticky clumps of grass and muck attached to my chest harness and underlying ring-mail shirt and in the process uncovered the shattered stub of a spear shaft. The tip was buried deeply in my flesh of my left shoulder; the splintered shaft tangled in layers of ring-mail, leather and wool.
He stared at it; so did I. We looked at each other and his expression mirrored mine: amazement that I hadn’t died instantly. At the very least, I should have bled to death in short order.
Under other circumstances I might have attributed this miracle to incredible good fortune. But as it was, it wasn’t—it just meant that I would live just long enough to die in another, far more creative and, most likely, extremely painful way.
They do say the Fates are a fickle bunch and I’d always believed it. I didn’t need this kind of ironclad proof, thank you all the same.
I hoped he’d leave it be—but did he? Of course not. After some fumbling he began to carefully wiggle and tease the bits of shaft from the ring-mail loops. I won’t say it hurt—it just felt… well, very odd. Almost… ticklish.
It took a while, but he finally freed the stub of the shaft from the ruined mail yoke then without so much as a ‘by your leave’, he grabbed the stub and gave it a yank hard enough that my shoulder was briefly lifted out of the muck, followed by a sickening pop as the tip suddenly came loose—my body weight doing most of the work. As I fell back, I reflexively clamped my teeth shut, damming up the agonized scream behind them.
He tossed the spearhead aside and stuffed his massive forefinger into the now profusely bleeding hole.
Believe it or not, he was actually doing me a favor—searching for more fragments. If there was any chance of the wound healing, any splinters had to be removed. But knowing this and experiencing it first, um, hand, were two vastly different things.
Up until that moment I’d like to think I’d managed fairly well, all things considered. But now I struggled against an overwhelming urge to vomit. I gagged then gagged again as the world around me began to spin, and the edges, which had suddenly darkened, began to close in.
He flicked the same bloody finger against my cheek, presumably to bring me back, and when that failed, he struck my face, once, twice. The blows stung, made my already abused head snap this way and that, but try as I might I just couldn’t open my eyes.
He grabbed the yoke of my shirt, unintentionally grabbing the underlying and age-worn leather necklaces I always wore and again lifting my shoulders from the boggy ground, gave me a rough shake—more, I suspect, out of frustration than anything else.
I’d had a lot of close calls in my life, in my military career—a lot of very close calls. This time was different. This time I’d fully committed myself and there was simply no going back. Death had won the last battle—death always won and because I knew that, I’d always known that, now that it was actually happening, it was all rather, well… anticlimactic?
That being said, it’s strange what you think about when you know your life is about to be extinguished like a guttering lamp starved of fuel. I’ve been told that in that last moment, when the heart stills and the lungs rest, people recall their achievements or perhaps regrets, while others remember loved ones. I had much to be proud of and equally much to regret, but loved ones I had none. So what did I think about? My damned necklaces—it felt as if he’d snapped the age-brittle leather cords when he shook me. Silly, really, I chided myself, to be upset about such as shortly I wouldn’t care about anything.
He was talking again, but his now very angry voice was growing fainter, fainter, and finally faded out altogether and I found myself suddenly alone, surrounded by a soft-walled darkness. It wrapped itself around me and I was finally, blessedly warm.
So, this is death, I thought with calm detachment. Not all that bad, really—could be worse. Much worse.
I could be cold.
I snuggled down, making myself comfortable while I still could. I was, after all, going to be asleep for a very, very long time.
Perhaps it’s best if I start at the very beginning in hopes that the better you know me, the more likely you’ll believe me, at least in part. To that end, I will endeavor to be as accurate as possible, even if by doing so I expose to you the ugliness that has consumed most of my life.
I’m told I was born in Simitthu—although I have no proof of this—and of the most humble beginnings: the unwelcome but not altogether unexpected product of a legionary and local prostitute. Of my earliest years I have only the dimmest of memories, which is perhaps for the best. I do know that I was orphaned around age five—the result of a brawl between my mother and a customer who felt he hadn’t gotten his money’s worth.
Under most circumstances, this would have meant my death sentence as well. Instead the local auxiliary garrison adopted me—my mother had been very popular among the soldiery and many, upon hearing of her death, felt it was the least they could do. One, Marcellus, even made me a toy horse from scraps of cloth and told me when I was old enough, he’d teach me to ride a real horse, a simple task because as a Mauri, he assured me, I was a born horseman.
I never knew who my father was although my mother assured me he’d been a legionary; I strongly favored her, or so the soldiers said: blue-black hair and swarthy skin—although not as dark as my mother, who was almost as dark as the Nubian auxiliaries.
As a child I looked little like the soldiers my mother favored—for a woman of her trade she had always shown a remarkable weakness for the ones who were tall and light-skinned—and if they were also particularly well equipped, she was even known to offer a discount.
I always wondered if that hadn’t been her downfall—that perhaps word had gotten out and her last client had felt slighted in the worst way when she demanded payment in full…
Something cold and wet touched my cheek.
A moment later I felt it again and I very reluctantly opened my eyes. Felix?
Instead of finding my faithful optio’s face, or the worried face of one of my soldiers, looming over me, I saw wind-ruffled leafy branches.
That didn’t tell me much, so I turned my head and instantly came face to muzzle with a dog—not just any dog, but the same damned dog. With the same damned-too-intelligent-for-a-dog stare. It had been curled up beside me—I have no idea for how long—sharing its warmth with me.
I immediately looked away, having no desire to show any gratitude to this creature, only to find that the sun was no longer high overhead. It was noticeably lower in the sky and its orange light streamed through the thick stand of birch and willow, low to the ground, setting the tufted marsh grass alight.
Along with this realization came another even more startling and not altogether happy one: I’m not dead.
I heard movement, followed by a grumbled, sleepy voice and the dog deftly leapt over me as if I was no more than a rotted log and trotted over to where its master had been napping, his back propped against the trunk of a nearby tree.
I took the opportunity to look around me; I’d been moved. Not far, but enough that I was no longer lying in the middle of a battlefield. More trees and scrub than I remembered and the surrounding clumps of grass hadn’t been tramped down by hooves and feet and falling bodies.
Then I heard what sounded like a loud yawn and turned to find that the man had risen.
He stretched, gave himself a shake—like master like dog, I suppose—and trudged over to me, snatching up the neatly bound pile of my shed armor as he did so.
He gave me another slow, head to toe visual exam and motioned for me to get up. The nap had done him some small good because he now clearly grasped that I could not understand his tongue.
He motioned to me again, this time irritably, unsheathing his own sword and using it for emphasis.
It took me a moment to find my limbs: two were in good working order, two not, which was an immediate problem as the two that were able were on the same side. Nevertheless I tried to get up. I honestly did—if it had been his intention to do me immediate harm, he’d had plenty of opportunities. So I felt the least I could do was to cooperate, even if it meant I’d be walking to my own sacrificial execution. Anything was better than lying half naked on boggy ground—which was already starting to stiffen as the day grew short and the temperature dropped.
Finally, after I had made several feeble efforts just to sit up, each one failing worse than the last, he grabbed a fistful of my mailed yoke, leather tunic and woolen undertunic and jerked me to my feet.
My head swam, my vision blurred.
It had been quite some time since I’d been vertical—my body clearly preferred the horizontal, finding it far less problematic, so down I went—not all the way, mind you, just to my knees.
The violent jolt reawakened every stiff joint, every bodily insult, every strained muscle. I cried out and almost passed out, again. Only my captor’s firm grip on my mailed shirt kept me from falling face first back into the freezing mud.
He slipped his other hand under my uninjured arm, and again lifted me up. He was well over a foot and a half taller than me and quite burly and I suddenly wondered if he was an ogre. I’d heard about them. And he was certainly ugly, smelly and hairy enough to be one. But I’d always assumed an ogre would be even taller and much heavier.
Perhaps a stunted ogre?
Maybe the cold, wet climate has affected his growth?
And don’t ogres eat people?
I guess I’ll find out.
Runt or not, I was impressed with his size, not to mention his strength. I’m not a small man in any respect and right now I was dead weight, unable to stand much less walk on my own. But walk we did, despite my wounds, despite my protesting joints, despite my blurry vision and painfully pounding head, his arm around my waist, my good arm slung over his shoulder, the other bloodied and hanging uselessly at my side and the untidy bundle of my armor hanging off his back, clinking softly with each step.
If I’d entertained any thought of trying to overpower or disarm him, his cursed hound was there to remind me that escape was impossible. Even if I could run, it could outrun me; even if I could hide, it would find me.
And I swear, as it looked up at me, I sensed it was silently laughing at me, laughing at my idiocy for even entertaining such thoughts.
A part of me—the rational part—knew I was hallucinating. The dog’s human-like behaviors and expression were nothing more than a fabrication of my own befuddled mind, the result of cold, blood loss and shock.
Nevertheless I felt the need to stick my tongue out at it.
The dog replied with a startled blink as if it hadn’t expected me to react in such a vulgar way, and as ridiculous as it seems, that pleased me immensely.
It was hard going, hard enough for a fully able man, which I was not. The forest floor was dotted with large, shallow pools of ice-rimed water and what wasn’t unstable, spongy bog was slippery rock covered with a lacework of vines that acted like tripwires and brambles that hooked and tore at my bare skin.
Thankfully, the ground began to rise out of the forested bog, slowly at first, then more steeply, and the trees began to thin. It was very close to twilight now and the low-angled light it made it hard to find safe footing among the loose rock and stiff bracken.
Even my captor lost his footing several times, which meant I ended up face down on the ground and close to blacking out from the pain, with him kneeling beside me, breathing hard. And each time it was more effort to rise; each time it took him several tries to get me up, to get my rubbery legs working again.
The dog had no such bother. It zigzagged endlessly among the large boulders that protruded like old bones from the sodden earth as if it was playing an obstacle game, dashing here and there after enticing scents, bounding ahead of us and disappearing into the bracken, only to reappear and return at a full gallop, its tongue lolling out of the corner of its mouth.
I despised it—I’d say I hated it, but I’d grown up in a culture where hate was reserved for only a very few and considered the purest form of respect; so, you hated Hannibal, you hated King Orodes, you hated Arminius and you really hated Mithridates—all worthy opponents. This creature on the other hand merited only simple, straightforward abhorrence. And I abhorred it with every fiber of my being—and it knew it—it delighted in it. I could tell because as we approached the summit of the hill we’d been climbing, it took to darting up behind me, flicking it tongue against the back of my bare thigh then flitting off again. I had no choice but to endure its teasing—for now. But I made a promise to myself that if I ever had the chance, I’d strangle the beast with my bare hands.
I was laboring for each breath and leaning heavily against my captor as we finally crested the hill. I had hoped we would stop—take a breather, to sit for a just a little while, maybe even lie down—I was so, so tired, and cold. Chilled to the very marrow of my bones.
I looked up at my captor, hoping he would understand, perhaps even take pity on me and let me take a well-earned nap. But his deep-set eyes were fixed on something else.
A knot formed in my belly as I followed his gaze: far below, tucked within a stand of oak and an outcrop of bare rock was a camp. The shifting mix of fire-glow and shadow gave the eerie impression that trees and boulders were dancing to some ghastly tune only they could hear.
And here and there, silhouetted against the orange flicker were the unmistakable forms of people.
A shiver ran down my spine.
The dog kited off down the grassy slope of the hill, barking, towards the camp, leaving no doubt in my mind that this was our destination and I abandoned all hope of rescue—no Roman had come this far, at least none voluntarily. This was the infamous Shadow Kingdom, domain of barbarians who painted their naked bodies blue, whose black-clad, wild-haired womenfolk were skilled in witchcraft and every bit as cruel and bloodthirsty as their male counterparts. It was from these hills we’d heard the echoing screams of their captives, seen the massive bonfires that lit up the night sky.
It was the point of no return.
Of course I really hadn’t expected to be rescued—it had been evident, even before I was knocked senseless that our side was hugely outnumbered, that the enemy we were so damned eager to engage was just as damned eager to hand us an ignoble rout.
We were far better trained—we were Romans after all, the best-equipped, most disciplined soldiers in the world—but overwhelming numerical superiority, especially of this scope, will often tip the balance, and it had. The glorious battle we had prayed for, trained for, disintegrated in short order. If any of my troops had survived the day’s slaughter, they had their own pressing problems to deal with—chasing after their missing centurion was probably not even on their to-do list. But that ever so small glimmer of hope, of reprieve from the sure and grisly fate that awaited me, no matter how unlikely that hope was, was what had kept me going.
Now even that glimmer was gone, snuffed out by grim reality: the dog loped back up the hill, followed by a dozen or so armed men carrying torches.
I began to shake—to my shame—uncontrollably. Tears rolled down my cold-numb cheeks, down my throat and under my mail, under my leather tunic and soaking the collar of my blood-stiffened undertunic. I squeezed my eyes shut and struggled to get control over myself, but I couldn’t. I was too tired, too cold… and yes, I freely admit it, too damned scared.
I lost my tenuous command over my rubbery legs and slowly slid down the side of my captor and onto my knees.
He made no move to stop me, except to again prevent me from falling onto my face, or backwards, which would have meant a painful, if not fatal tumble down the rock-strewn slope we’d just climbed. His massive, gnarled hand grabbed the shoulder strap of my chest harness and held me there while I shivered and sobbed and my teeth chattered loudly in the cold.
Soon I was just too exhausted, just too bone-chilled to even manage that.
He gave me a gentle pat on the shoulder and murmured something to me—I have no idea what. By his tone, it sounded like he was trying to reassure me—I desperately wanted to believe he was trying to reassure me, but who knew?
So I just stared, utterly numb, as the men warily approached. I was totally undone—I knew it—worse, the men who now encircled me knew it.
One, a gaunt, black-haired man, exchanged words with my captor. I needed no translator to know I was the sole object of their discussion. Chary eyes flicked to me, back to him and again, back to me. I must have been a pitiful sight but what I saw in the torch-lit faces of that group was anything but pity.
The ogre pulled the pack of my armor from his shoulder and tossed it to the ground at the feet of the black-haired man.
Another man, with wild blond hair done up in a fancy topknot and a thick reddish beard knelt and after a moment’s struggle, withdrew my helmet from the hastily bound pile and held it up for the others to see. A collective gasp followed.
Again the group turned their gazes on me as if not quite believing that a centurion’s helmet, with its distinctive, transverse crest, and this pathetic, half-dead, bloodied and mud-caked creature actually came as a matched set.
Sensing he needed more evidence, the ogre stuffed his fingers down the neck slit of my tunic, grabbed the lead pendant that was my signaculum and held it up before my face for the others to see—not that any could read the identifying inscriptions on it, not that any tried. All recognized the small tablet for what it was: proof positive I was in fact a Roman soldier. These pendants were prized battle trophies among the savage races, just as barbarian torcs were among Romans. My chest harness bore two after all—and I had more, lots more secreted away back in my quarters in Lindum.
So, as they stared at it, I stared back at them and heaved for breath, each a hoarse, spasmodic gulp while I wondered who would claim the pendant as his—my bet was on the ogre.
Satisfied I was what my captor claimed, the group then turned their attention to my armor, specifically my helmet, which was passed around for closer inspection while a lengthy and heated back and forth ensued.
I reluctantly pulled my own watery gaze off the helmet and back to the argument and it slowly dawned on me that they weren’t quarrelling.
They were bargaining, negotiating—to purchase me.
My stomach clenched. In my present state I wasn’t fit to be a working slave, which left only one other logical option, and I briefly wondered if this ogre held a lucrative side job scavenging half-dead Romans for resale to the barbarians for ritual sacrifice, or if my situation was just fortunate happenstance—for the ogre.
Absurdly, as I saw a precious few coins exchange hands I felt strangely insulted. Surely I’m worth more than that!
The black-haired man uttered something, which, by its tone was clearly meant to be a command and motioned to me to rise as another hastily gathered up my armor.
The ogre saved me the futile effort; he scooped me into his arms as if I was a babe, heaping another humiliation onto my already wretched entrance.
I closed my eyes and prayed for the temporary refuge of unconsciousness, hoping that whatever they had planned, they would carry it out before I awoke. But I was denied even this brief escape by the repetitive bumping of my still pounding head against the ogre’s knotty shoulder as he trudged down the hill, so I allowed my entire body to go limp—not to fool them, but because I was just so tired.
Finally, sensing we were no longer descending, I reluctantly reopened my eyes to find that we were now in the midst of the camp. A handful of women and children stood in silence as we passed. Some flicked me looks of hatred; others, close enough, spat on me but were quickly forced into a hasty retreat by the dog’s low growls.
I was too weary to take offense at this ugly welcome, or to ponder further the dog’s sudden possessiveness, except to wonder if I was to be its supper once they’d sacrificed me—ironic, when you think about it—and closed my eyes again. My aching skull was no longer being battered to a pulp and I felt the welcome tug of unconsciousness, but just as I was about to succumb to it, my captor stooped down. I instinctively tensed, fearing I was going to be dropped, then he took another step and stopped in his tracks.
Before I realized what was happening, I was placed on my feet and then held there while I was very unceremoniously—and I might add very painfully—separated first from my elaborate chest harness, then my ring-mail shirt and finally my leather tunic, leaving only my damp and filthy woolen undertunic to protect me from the freezing cold.
I was then frog-marched a few steps, roughly jerked to a stop and with arms held outstretched to either side, forced to my knees. The unnecessarily brutal handling made my mind spin and my left shoulder and leg throb anew.
The hands that had held me then released me and my arms fell limply to my sides. I remained motionless, barely breathing, chin on chest, eyes closed. I was very close to passing out again—actually hoped I’d pass out to be honest.
I sensed people all around me, walking around me, presumably staring at me. And there were voices—angry voices.
I also felt a flush of warmth, but far from feeling welcome, it burned my frozen, exposed flesh.
With great difficulty I lifted my head and opened my eyes.
At first all was a blur. Slowly, my surroundings came into fuzzy-edged focus. I was surprised to find that a copper brazier full of freshly-lit timber stood no more than a few arm-lengths away. Instead of rock and tree, heavy, woven-wool walls now surrounded me. It took my addled mind a moment to realize that I was inside of a tent with my captor and the black-haired man standing on either side of me. Three other men stood nearby, their eyes glittering in the firelight, and one, the stocky blond with the topknot eagerly fingered the grip of his sheathed sword and grinned at me.
So, I’m to be executed. Here and now—good enough.
The black-haired man said something—perhaps ordering me to get back to my feet—and gave me a painful poke in my flank with the tip of his own sword.
I shook my head—a near universal gesture of refusal. That only made my dizziness and blurry vision that much worse and now I felt intensely nauseous as well. I had a terrible urge to vomit, which I succumbed after he gave me another poke sharp enough to draw blood, in the process stepping just close enough for me to empty the remains of my last meal—presumably my very last meal—on his booted feet.
He leapt back with surprise and swore loudly.
Under other circumstances, I would have laughed, but at that moment all I could do is manage a small, defiant smile between dry heaves.
So it wasn’t going to be the glorious death I’d long-fantasized about—at least my last act as a loyal Roman soldier was to royally piss off some gods-damned barbarian and ruin his fancy felt boots to boot.
He backed a little further away; keeping his eye on me, he knelt, grabbed one of the many fur pelts that were spread across the floor and angrily wiped his ruined footgear.
I wasn’t given a chance to savor the moment. A hand lightly gripped my injured shoulder.
Flinching reflexively, I swiveled my head, expecting the ogre—or a knife at my throat—and found a red-haired girl kneeling beside me.
I met her gaze with bleak exhaustion, unable to muster up even a shred of curiosity what role she played in my upcoming execution. Maybe she was a sorceress come to reside over a sacrifice.
She looked up at my captor and said something. He muttered a reply, then I heard him trudge off. Even more surprising, she ordered the armed men—my presumed executioners—to follow, which they did unhappily, but without argument.
A moment later the cold draft that had been chilling my already thoroughly chilled backside stopped as the tent flap was tugged down.
She dropped her gaze to me and I tensed as she slipped a leather cord over my head and down, around my neck. I assumed it was a choke-cord—a garrote—but to my surprise she showed me that the thong held a pearly gray stone carved into the form of a tightly coiled snake, with the thong looped through a small hole in the center. It instantly reminded me of the sign of Amun, the ram-headed god and the talismans his followers wore. But I was not in Egypt and this amulet, I had no doubt, represented a far blacker belief.
Satisfied, she dropped the amulet against my gore-covered undertunic then picked up the signaculum, peered closely at the inscriptions on one side and then the other. Meeting my gaze with a nod, she hooked the neck slit with one finger and returned it to its proper place.
No sooner had it settled against my bare skin than I felt another tug at my neck. An instant later, my beloved bead and star necklace appeared before my watery eyes, cupped in her hand—I hadn’t lost it after all and for some entirely stupid reason that gave me a shred of hope.
She fingered the small four-pointed star, the crude beads, smiled at me then as she had done with the signaculum, she carefully slipped the necklace back inside my undertunic.
“Don’t be afraid,” she murmured, touching my battered, blood and mud-smeared face with slim fingers, “you’re with friends.”
All I could muster was a slow, noncommittal blink. As far as I knew, friends didn’t rough friends up, strip them nearly naked and leave them to freeze to death. At least, if mine did, I’d seriously reconsider their friendship.
She looked past me, said: “Bring some water,” followed a moment later with an angry, “Go, I said!”
Whoever she’d been speaking to quickly exited the tent—I knew it because I felt a brief blast of cold air.
“Your wounds need tending.” With that she rose and started for the brazier.
I honestly don’t know what possessed me at that instant, because I did something really, I mean really stupid: I made a grab for her.
I missed of course and made an even bigger fool of myself by sprawling face first on hard-packed earth of the tent floor, almost tipping the fire pot over on top of me in the process—thaaawhump!
I heard a soft giggle and looked up to see her staring at me with an expression that was eerily reminiscent of the hound’s—mocking, and yet not altogether hostile.
“I was going to help you lay down, but I see you’ve taken care of that.”
I didn’t even have the strength to move, so I just lay there, sprawled face down on the stony ground as the heat from the brazier burned my cold-numb skin.
Hands grasped my hip and far more carefully, my injured shoulder and rolled me onto my back, just far enough from the heat that it wasn’t so painful—and in the process, I ended up on top of several thick pelts and was promptly covered with yet another fur.
“You need to warm up slowly—you’re badly chilled.”
I managed a sleepy murmur of agreement, but before I could fully savor the feel of the wonderfully soft pallet beneath me, the heavy fur on top of me and the smothering warmth of the fire-pot, an arm forced its way behind my neck and tipped my head forward.
A mug was pressed to my lips, followed by a terse command: “Drink!”
My eyelids fluttered and I found myself peering up at the unsmiling face of the black-haired man. Oh… crap—
I swear he deliberately banged the mug against my teeth, in the process spilling some of the ice-cold water down my neck.
I gasped and what ended up in my mouth went down the wrong pipe and I started coughing.
“Fool!” I heard the woman’s voice snap.
The supporting arm was hastily withdrawn and my head fell back against the pelts with a soft thud.
I was in no mood for this—not after the absolutely rotten day I’d had.
And oh, yes, I wasn’t damned thirsty, either.
If I wasn’t to be summarily executed, I wanted to sleep—couldn’t they see that? Just a brief nap, then they could impale me on a spike or hang me from an oak—was that really so much to ask?
Obviously it was, because an arm again eeled its way under my neck to raise my head and again the mug was brought to my lips. “Drink—come, just a sip.”
It was the woman’s voice. I managed to open my eyes to find her kneeling beside me. It was her arm under me.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood—come, drink.”
Something in her voice, in her encouraging smile made me not want to disappoint her—or cause her to withdraw her arm.
Fool! a part of my mind snarled. She only wants you hale and hearty so she can drown you in a bog!
I ignored the warning. I’ve always been utterly stupid around pretty women. Just like my mother had been around handsome men—a family failing.
I took a sip, promptly gagged then somehow managed to swallow it.
At her urging I took another sip. This one went down without any complaint but the whole ordeal was utterly exhausting.
“Let me sleep…” I whispered hoarsely.
And she did.
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