Book Ii of A Centurion in the Land of the Fae
J. E. Bruce
Copyright © 2012 by J. E Bruce, all rights reserved.
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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.
“We’re soooo screwed,” Aetius groaned softly as he plopped himself down beside me.
And we were so screwed—so sincerely screwed.
What to the untrained eye appeared as nothing more than the dazzling starry sky reflected in the dark, still water of some tranquil mountain lake was in fact a vista that was anything but idyllic: the perfect mirror of heaven was in reality the pinpoint glow of thousands of campfires rivaling the thickly seeded stars above in their vast numbers.
So in fact we weren’t just so sincerely screwed, we were so super sincerely screwed.
“Lady Ainiaan did mention the Faoimhuir weren’t to be trusted,” I whispered, as if that was justification enough for the unhappy discovery that there were more campfires scattered across the valley below than I had soldiers, and I seriously doubted the Faoimhuirian troops were so well off each man had his own personal bonfire, much less each had multiple fires.
Wood was exceedingly scarce—in fact everything was scarce on this misbegotten wasteland of saltpans, high desert and even higher mountains. What little vegetation managed to grow was stunted and any that happened to grow around the periphery of the pans was poisonous to eat, laden with the same salts that turned any standing water into a soupy pink brine which blistered the skin of anyone foolish enough to touch it—gods only knew what happened if you tried to drink it—facts I somehow knew, facts we all somehow knew.
I had to assume this life and death tidbit had been instilled into our memories without us being aware of it—a collective ‘listen to me’—akin to Turan’s wordless command, and for that I was grudgingly thankful. Otherwise the foolhardy and impulsively curious among us—and sadly there were more than a handful—would’ve found out in short order and by the most expeditious of means. But this warn-off was no act of compassion—it was pure self-interest. The Tuatha needed every able body to fight their war. Losing men to poisoning only increased our chances of losing, period.
As far as I’d been able to determine there was no animal life hereabouts—not that I could blame the gods for refusing to squander any more lives on this sad experiment; plants, in my opinion, were waste enough. I hadn’t seen any bugs—no small relief as I had little liking for any creature with more than two legs, and I held those with more than four and who also had a tendency to earn a dishonest living in the absolute lowest regard possible.
Of course this meant that all my hard work in training my soldiers in proper foraging techniques was largely for naught—what provisions we’d brought were all we had—anything else was at best chancy, at worst deadly. Once the food and water ran out… well, no reason to belabor the point. Still, it would have been nice if someone had bothered to mention that this ‘Earth-like planet,’ upon which two human armies were to slug it out to determine the ultimate fate of humanity, was something akin to hell.
Latruncŭli. That was the name my troops had bestowed on this forgettable world. A grim joke among soldiers all too well aware that this game of strategy was for keeps; losers—assuming any on the losing side survived, were to be left here, abandoned by their masters while the victors were to be granted passage home. Call it an added incentive—not that we needed any. Having a limited amount of food and water was yet another enticement to not dally about.
In truth I no more trusted the Tuatha to hold up their end of the bargain—assuming we were victorious—than I’d expected the Faoimhuir to live up to their word, and we all knew how honest the Faoimhuir were: all the evidence you could possibly want was spread out below us, glittering in sinister frankness. Maybe the Tuatha would just leave any and all survivors for the Si’aafu—those massive scorpion-like creatures Lady Ainiaan had described to me in such skin-crawling detail, creatures who considered human flesh a delicacy—now that’s a cheery thought…
Perhaps, before I go any further, I should introduce myself: my name is Arrius Marcus Niger—Arri to my friends and ‘Oh fuck, not you again!’ to my enemies—until recently Hastatus-Posterior, Centurion of the Fifth Century, First Cohort of the Ninth Legion Hispana, under the command of Quintus Petillius Cerialis, and now Legate of the First Legion Spartoí—yes, those Spartoí.
And yes again, in case you were wondering, that is a huge leap in rank and not one I would have ever considered possible for someone of my truly humble origins. But don’t think for one instant this was an honor or a career advancement I would have sought out. I’d set my goal somewhat lower, that of Primus Pilus—not just any Primus Pilus, but the youngest Primus Pilus ever. So, yes, I’m ambitious, very ambitious—never once claimed otherwise. I’ve just learned the hard way never to bite off more than I can swallow in one gulp, and going from Hastatus-Posterior to Legate could, justifiably, fall into that category; it was akin to biting off the rear end of a mule and getting kicked in the teeth as an added bonus. And of course since the Tuatha were involved, it wasn’t like I’d been given a choice in the matter—all right, fine. I had been given a choice as to what rank I would now hold, or should I say my men had decided what rank I would now hold, and they’d collectively decided on legate—with the encouragement of the aforementioned Lady Ainiaan. The First Legion Spartoí couldn’t possibly go into battle without a commander, a legate, she argued. And my men believed her.
I’d gone into battle plenty of times without a legate telling me what to do. In fact I’d gone into battle plenty of times without the legate being anywhere near where the actual fighting was going on. But I digress…
I could have said no; I could have kept my centurion status—I’d been led into battle plenty of times by centurions, in fact every time, and once I was a centurion myself, I’d happily, and in a few cases, not so happily led others into battle. Say what you will about us centurions, we rarely shirk our duties when it comes to the actual slash and bash and blood everywhere fighting. But my troops had their hearts set on legate and I was loath to disappoint them—or Lady Ainiaan. So, legate it was.
Months back I’d been taken prisoner by the Tuatha—literally snatched from the jaws of death—for the specific purpose of leading an army against their sworn enemy, the Faoimhuir. I’d been told that the result of this battle, which would take place on what the Tuatha claimed was an Earth-like planet, would decide the fate of all of humanity—including barbarians. To that end we’d ‘arrived’ in this predicament—er, I mean on this planet—three days before, but exactly where we were, or, perhaps more importantly exactly how we got here, how long the trip had taken I cannot tell you.
My last trustworthy memory before finding myself here was of sitting astride my very restless warhorse, Wushah, with Felix beside me and aboard his glossy black mount, Tuzun. While I was now legate, Felix, ironically, held my long-coveted rank of Primus-Pilus, and we were watching as the centurions called their soldiers to order and the men responded by immediately drawing themselves up into neatly ordered columns of shiny armor and scarlet, standards at the fore of each century and glinting in the dawning sun—it was an all too familiar sight, and one I truthfully never thought I’d see again.
That was the morning of our departure, a bright and balmy mid-summer dawn and the climax of all the months of preparation. But instead of feeling my usual sense of eager anticipation, of excitement at the battle to come, I felt only gnawing dread. I’d said my farewells to Hanni and Boian the evening before; both asked—begged in fact to accompany us, Hanni as added muscle as he was an ogre after all, and Boian as a cook, but while both had proven themselves as worthy allies—and Boian was a damned fine cook—I’d told them no. This was not Hanni’s fight, and bringing along only one woman, even a woman of Boian’s well-known willingness… well, that was a recipe for disaster. Hanni, in response to my gentle refusal had sworn a blood-oath to protect Boian from any repercussions once we’d left.
I’d assumed Lady Ainiaan would come to see us off, but no; I kept my own disappointment to myself so my men, all of whom had grown quite fond of her, wouldn’t consider this a rebuff. Perhaps her father had refused to let her come, perhaps it was just too painful for her. Perhaps. But I’d grown fond of her too and had hoped to see her one last time, to thank her for all of her help, her willingness to share her knowledge with my soldiers and me.
In fact no one had come to see us off, Boian and Hanni because I told them not to, but the others? You’d have thought Rasaben would have been there, if nothing more than to make sure we actually took our leave. It was all rather anticlimactic, and as irrational as it was, I resented the fact that the Tuatha didn’t feel my men deserved a suitable send-off to battle. If my soldiers felt the same, they didn’t show it. Then again, they were former Kellesuf; maybe they were in fact as relieved to be done with the Tuatha as the Tuatha were relieved to be done with them.
I remember glancing to my left, past Felix to Taskim’s Keep and the massive wood and stone fortifications that blocked any view of Turan’s apartments and perhaps one last parting glimpse of her and my infant son—and them of me; of realizing with a deep ache that it was probably for the best—we’d already said our goodbyes.
It was time to go.
I remember turning Wushah’s massive head, of Felix and Tuzun instantly mirroring our actions, followed by a deep, undulating wail from the chorus of buccinas: the long-awaited signal to usher us on our way.
Taskim had told me to head towards the rising sun, a very curious order that at the time seemed perfectly reasonable in its utter simplicity and one that I, just as curiously, did not question.
I glanced at Felix and at his grinning nod, I clicked my tongue and Wushah started off, his massive, flax-feathered hooves treading lightly on the dew-damp and sparkling grass, the damned beast eager to get on with it. It took all of my strength to keep him in check; had I given him his head he would have raced ahead to meet the sun before it fully cleared the distant line of trees.
With a muffled clatter and rustle, the columns of infantry, supply wagons, engines and finally the cavalry, like some gigantic, multi-legged beast, fell into step behind us, the far end having to wait as movement slowly rippled down its immense and muscular length.
The next thing I knew, I found myself still astride Wushah, Felix close beside me and the two of us staring out at a barren, mountain-ringed desert awash in a deep ocher glow, our long, inky black shadows stretching out before us like so many skeletal fingers.
The air was chill; it prickled my exposed skin, and it had an odd smell to it. No longer the pungent fragrance of pine and the earthy scent of summer-warmed grass, this air strangely—ominously—held the same coppery taste as blood.
Wushah whickered nervously and tossed his head. Felix’s mount snorted and pawed the ground. Behind us other horses replied, sharing their unease as men’s whispered voices echoed the sentiment all the way down the column.
I gathered my loosely billowing cloak around me and twisted in the saddle to cast an over-the-shoulder glance past the ranks of my equally startled men and anxious horses and oxen, past the eeling dragon-headed banners and the veritable forest of cavalry lances held aloft, pennants fluttering in the breeze. What I saw confirmed that we were here, the place—the planet—chosen by the Faoimhuir as the field of battle: a suitable arena for combat with an angry red and bloated sun hanging just above the crags of the far distant, dagger-edged peaks that completely encircled us like the crumbling walls of a long-abandoned coliseum. And the red sun wasn’t alone: another, smaller and brilliant blue star was held in its grasp by long, dazzling white tendrils, like lovers—or, more likely, mortal enemies in a death grip.
My open-mouthed, wide-eyed stare compelled everyone else to turn—all fifteen hundred men in perfect unison, accompanied by a metallic rustle of armor and groan of leather—towards the sight; drovers rose from their benches, cavalrymen turned in their saddles, foot soldiers and their centurions glanced over their shoulders and like me, gaped at the bizarre and, I have to say, unnerving spectacle of a battle on such epic proportions—a celestial version of pancratium.
More anxious whispers rippled down the column as men clutched their weapons; others reached for protective talismans, some did both, as if either could protect us against the actions of such unearthly foes.
So, seemingly one minute we were there, and now we were here—but how we got from there to here was a complete mystery, an absolute blank.
While holes in my normally faultless and, dare I say it, gapless memory had become all too common since I’d fallen into the hands of the Tuatha, it was still damned annoying, and, yes, I admit it, deeply unsettling to stumble across another one, and one so obviously wide and deep, encompassing the collective memory of a legion.
And this time it went beyond memory lapses. I’d never thought to ask exactly where we were going, how long it would take to get here, how we would get here—I hadn’t even asked how long we would remain here, how long we had to wage this proxy war, although the provisions provided suggested no more than three months and only if we very carefully rationed ourselves—and now, as I thought about it, three months seemed an excessively long time to do what we came here to do.
It wasn’t because I didn’t care or was so confident of victory; it certainly wasn’t because I was so trusting that I accepted Taskim’s promise that the Tuatha would in fact come collect us once we’d secured victory.
Such questions just never occurred to me—until now, when if course it was too damned late to ask—ostensibly a huge, potentially fatal oversight on my part, but one I knew was a coerced oversight as the Tuatha had the ability to deny a man his common sense, his volition—I’d certainly experienced this first hand with Turan, and on more than one occasion.
Perhaps I had asked, had demanded to know, perhaps they’d even told me, only to later wipe that memory, wipe the reasonable desire to know these essential facts from my mind.
I had foolishly believed I held the upper hand once I’d gained control of the Kellesuf, the Tuatha’s army of slave soldiers. I’d even gone so far as to challenge Taskim, bait him and his fellow Sidhe Lords; I’d reveled in treating them with the same sneering contempt they’d shown me. I knew now that that had been a lie as well; they’d manipulated me into doing their bidding by playing on my obvious vanity, my arrogance while tampering with my usual prudence when it came to life and death decisions. That was the harsh truth. They knew me, knew my weaknesses, my personal failings far better than I knew myself and they’d exploited them—and me—masterfully.
On that bitter thought, I leaned forward and from our rocky aerie and scanned the valley far below.
What if it’s all a feint? What if a goodly number of those campfires are unattended—a bit of visual trickery intended to cripple morale among my men?
What if they don’t realize we’re here, maybe they think we’re still en route?
I’d been told once—by Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo himself—that it’s the uncertainties, the nagging ‘what ifs’ that will kill you as easily as any sword thrust, any arrow barrage. Prophetic words indeed.
My eyes desperately sought the telltale flicker of movement—tangible proof of my worst fears or my faintest hopes—but if enemy soldiers were moving around down there, they were smartly doing it in the dark. Most were probably sound asleep—resting up for the battle to come, toasty warm by their fires, the damned lazy bastards—while we’d spent a goodly part of the night scrambling up the side of this barren mountain with only the stars above to light the way, freezing our damned butts off, in order to get a measure of their strength.
As I gazed down at the glimmering encampment and my mind mulled over all the possibles—all the ‘what ifs’—I felt someone settle down next to me, opposite Aetius, shoulder and knee pressed to mine in the tight and precarious squeeze of our mountaintop perch.
I didn’t need to look to know it was Felix, this fair-haired, close to perfect reincarnation of my closest and now very dead friend. This man, this Felix, had, sometime in his previous life, been stabbed in the throat and as a result had this odd wheeze when he exerted himself or breathed in cold or especially thin air—exactly like what one would expect to find on the same said freezing mountaintop.
It was a former life of which he had no memory, a life he would never remember, taken away by force and, later, a new life with its own set of memories—my memories—forcibly imposed. But along with this new life came the keen awareness that he had, at one time, been someone else.
You’d think he’d hold a not unreasonable grudge about this awful, compulsory exchange, but he, like all of my soldiers, each and every one former Kellesuf—men whose minds had been washed clean and thus in the exact same situation as he—accepted this complete identity swap as if it was his due. Most had even gone so as far as to express everlasting gratitude at having an identity again even if was not truly theirs, and all, even those like Rufinius who openly voiced his resentment of his appalling treatment at the hands of the Tuatha did their utmost to live up to my expectations, to my memories of those who, through me, had unwittingly donated their souls to these men.
As Kellesuf, they’d never questioned their Tuatha masters; they’d been rendered incapable of speaking unless spoken to and did and died at the direction of the Tuatha. But men who will follow orders without question do not in fact make good soldiers; it was a critical blunder the Tuatha discovered almost too late and at the expense of countless Kellesuf lives.
There were, however, two highly personal attributes the Tuatha had not erased from these men: the first were physical scars, old wounds and in some cases tattoos or deliberate scarification, mute testament to a prior existence, to unremembered experiences and lost beliefs that marked the body yet left no record in the mind—like the ugly pucker-mark on Felix’s throat.
Desperate to fill in any remaining holes in their newfound personalities, the soldiers had made a game of creating elaborate, of course hugely heroic and, on some occasions, exquisitely gruesome explanations for the scars almost all of them bore—all in good fun, but always with an undercurrent of profound loss, a loss of such proportions I freely admit I cannot even imagine. In fact I’d rather not even try.
The second attribute was sadly transitory: their native accent. While Kellesuf, each man retained some hint of a regional intonation, perhaps because they so rarely spoke—only when spoken to and then rarely more than a ‘yes, sire’, ‘no, sire’—the Tuatha saw no need to wash this taint from their tongues. Some I could readily place as I happened to be nearby when a Tuatha deigned to speak with one, prompting an always softly worded, deferentially laconic reply: the occasional Sicambriian twang, the distinctive sing-song pitch of an Isaurian, or a clipped Dacian, others were a complete mystery, such as an oddly cadenced burr vaguely reminiscent of those damnedable Hermunduri and yes, the Marcomanni. But unlike the scars, these traces all too quickly vanished into a shared accent—my accent, a provincial ‘Mauri’ brogue with the underlying Massaesylian rolling ‘r’, an inflection my friends, officers and troops had always attributed to me spending my formative years in Egypt, which wasn’t far from the mark.
Felix, Rufinius and Aetius were the exceptions—each one had been hand-picked for the roles of my closest friends because of their close physical similarities to the originals and to cement the ruse, each had to sound like his predecessor as well as look and act like him; if I closed my eyes, I could almost believe I was hearing the first Felix, the first Rufinius and Aetius speaking. Almost.
All in all, these shadowy connections to former lives left a rather eerie result.
For me, when I walked among my soldiers, there was this odd, disjointed and more than just a little macabre mélange of familiarity and foreigner: of a facial expression, a nervous gesture, a verbal tic, a distinctive hitch to the gait that immediately brought to mind an acquaintance, a friend, even an rival but worn by an entirely new face and used by a vastly different body. It was as if they were ghosts who hid their true selves behind masks of the long dead, while I alone walked about barefaced, whole and truly alive—
Wheeze… wheeze… wheeze.
“We’re soooo screwed,” he whispered after a momentary silence to analyze the situation laid out before us.
So, so, so. It was unanimous.
The remainder of our ten-man reconnaissance squad was hunkered down behind us, well hidden among the boulders that made up this bare and freezing outcrop, which in turn provided an unparalleled view of the valley.
In order to reach this vantage point undetected we’d opted to wear only our leather tunics, woolen undertunics and breeches, a reasonable precaution against the occasional warning flash and constant glimmer of starlight on armor—and not just any armor, but Tuatha armor, which had its own damned eerie luminescence even in the dark. We’d also forgone socks and sandals during the actual climb, preferring the guaranteed silence and better purchase of bare feet on loose scree, even at the risk of stubbed toes, not to mention rock-bruised and cut soles. We’d even smeared soot on all exposed skin and those fair-haired among us, like Felix, had covered their heads in their neckerchiefs.
There were enemy pickets about—so, while they vastly outnumbered us, they wisely weren’t being cocky about it—we’d caught glimpses of two sentries lower down on the mountain, and overheard unsuspecting voices of others on our cautious climb, which necessitated a hasty, albeit soundless retreat and then a time-consuming search for another, safer path through the rockfall to where we could overlook almost the entire valley below.
Pity about the view.
Weary of staring disaster in the face, I lifted my gaze.
I will give Latruncŭli grudging praise for one thing: it had the most spectacular sky—the handiwork of a bored-stiff Coelus or his local equivalent, or so Nestor, one of our physicians, maintained. In daylight the bowl of the heavens was pale ocher shading down to dusty deep lavender and streaked with saffron and vermilion-colored clouds, while the bloated star, dubbed Romulus by my troops, blazed a dazzling orange-red and its corresponding, yet diminutive companion unsurprisingly named Remus, shone an equally dazzling azure.
However, just after sunrise and just before sunset the combined and low-angled suns’ light had a brief, but very odd effect of intensifying certain colors: at dawn anything tending to red or yellow, such as our crimson undertunics and cloaks or the gold on our insignias burned bright as if lit from within, while anything blue or green were muddied almost black. At dusk, it was the reverse: cool colors blazed like foxfire, while anything red was turned to a deep, dirty, purplish-brown. It was as if the planet was giving warning, a visual clue as to what was to come: scorching days and chill nights. However, during the long hours of day, when both suns filled the sky, colors returned to a truer shade.
At night points of light in every hue imaginable glimmered against a faintly glowing backdrop stained a faint ocher from the dust, and the entire western sky was filled with a massive, luminescent whirlpool—a celestial Charybdis—that looked, in the still night air, close enough to touch.
Eye-popping beauty aside, nighttime made for concealment little better than daytime. It was as if the world was perpetually bathed in the glimmer of a full-bellied desert moon and speaking of, Latruncŭli in fact had not one moon, but three: Bellator, Latro and Miles—more wry humor from men who, as former Kellesuf, had seen little to laugh about as each “moon” was barely more than a pebble, insignificant in the greater scheme of things, visible only in the halflight of dawn and dusk when most of the stars had faded or had yet to come out.
From what little Taskim had told me—what I’d been permitted to remember—was that Earth, home, was somewhere out there in that sparkling vastness—too far away for the human eye to see, a distance too great to far a human mind to grasp. And yes, I understood that Earth is a planet, a world, just as Latruncŭli is. I understood that Bellator, Latro and Miles were moons that circled Latruncŭli, and that in turn Latruncŭli circled Romulus and Remus in an endless cycle. I understood that there were huge, empty spaces between worlds, an immense dark sea in which planets like Earth and Latruncŭli and thousands of others sailed along like ships, some in flotillas, others singly, each carrying their precious cargo of life, while creatures such as the Si’aafu patrolled these deep waters like celestial sharks, gobbling up the weak, the unwary.
Turan and Lady Ainiaan had taught me these things, believing such an education would hold me in good stead, and because I understood and accepted them, so did my men. But the old beliefs, the old ways aren’t so easily shoved aside, much to Lady Ainiaan’s chagrin I might add, because in truth they made far more sense—I mean, who kept the planets and moons in line? Who commanded the suns to rise, and just importantly, to set each day? So maybe the suns weren’t burning chariots drawn by flaming horses. There was still the niggly question as to exactly how they moved across the sky, how they remained aloft on their daily travels. So, my men and I still believed that gods and goddesses controlled things like that—what other explanation could there be?—controlled our fate and appeasing them was every bit as critical to one’s continued wellbeing as breathing and eating.
At times this hybrid view left us collectively scratching our heads, but for the most part it worked for us by preserving our sense of who and what we were—our standing in the world, so to speak—and that there was in fact an explanation for everything, no matter how bizarre, it’s just that as mere mortals we weren’t in on the joke. The gods were well known pranksters, after all. And so were the Tuatha—a people who, if one believed Turan’s veiled remarks, were close kin to gods, if not gods themselves.
So, as I stared at the night sky, I found myself dearly wishing I at least knew where Earth was in that vast and shadowy cosmic sea, even if I could not see it. As it was I had no place to affix my gaze when my thoughts turned, as they often did since arriving here, to Turan and my infant son, Neshoue.
I had no idea how much time had passed since I’d bade them farewell. It seemed like just a few days ago, but something told me that time, with the aid of the Tuatha, was again playing its nasty tricks on me, leaving me in the dark, so to speak, while it continued on its lumbering, unerring path. It had taken well over a year to march from Egypt to the hinterlands of Parthia, granted, doing a lot of fighting along the way, but even couriers, if unimpeded, took months to travel the same distance.
If Earth was so far away, had Turan had time to recover? She’d looked so ill, so desperately frail when I left.
Was Neshoue walking yet? Was he fully grown? And if the latter, would he be a man I would be proud to call my son, or would he be another Rasaben, another Tistriya?
I forced my eyes back to the valley but too late to stop the inevitable answer from rushing to the fore: I’d likely never know. That was the bitter gist of it. I’d never know their fate, never know my son, just as they would likely never learn my personal fate. All they would know is if I’d succeeded, if my soldiers won the coming battle, or—
A hand lightly gripped my shoulder and I flinched then glanced towards its owner. Despite the icy glow of starlight I was barely able to make out Felix’s youthful, handsome face behind the soot.
He stared at me for a moment then whispered, “With the gods’ favor, you’ll see them again—you’ll get us home, Arri. I know you will.”
I dropped my watery gaze to my lap just as another hand alighted on my other shoulder: Aetius.
“Felix’s right.” The hand let go, replaced by an unusually restrained elbow to the ribs—anything more robust risked a fatal plunge. “You’ll get us home, Legate. Never doubt that. We certainly don’t.”
I wanted to say it wasn’t up to me as to whether we ever saw home again; I wasn’t even sure if it was up to our gods—I speak of good, solid Roman gods—perhaps none even realized we were here as I wouldn’t put it past the Tuatha to have simply ‘forgotten’ to pass that important tidbit of information along to the higher ups. I wanted to say I was having serious doubts as to whether we had any chance at winning this battle, decisively or not. But I didn’t—there was nothing to be gained by burdening these two with the true depth of my fears.
For a moment no one spoke, then from somewhere behind us I heard a softly grumbled, “Legate, are we going to sit up here all damned night? My damn butt’s turning to damned a block of ice.”
Duccius. Yes, I was again in the company of a man everyone referred to as ‘that mad Marcomanni’ because he was both, and in this case he was also right. We’d seen what we’d come here to see—as disconcerting and demoralizing as it was. Time to return to camp, report what we’d seen and catch a little sleep before the suns rose and the day heated up.
Latruncŭli had one small advantage over Earth: it had longer nights. Of course the downside of that was that it had likewise longer days—each almost half again as long as on Earth. Which meant we still had plenty of time to retrace our steps—carefully—back down the mountain, down and then back up a narrow gorge and onto a wide swath of saltpans, out onto the mountain-ringed high desert proper—the presumed site of the upcoming battle and where we’d found ourselves that first day—across a dry riverbed that looked like it hadn’t seen running water in a thousand years, then, finally, a quick scramble up to our camp atop a flat topped and steep-sided hillock not far from a range of high, extremely rugged mountains. While the hillock was more exposed than the mountain valley chosen by the enemy it was far more easily defended, with a completely unobstructed view of its surrounds—and heeding Lady Ainiaan’s warning it was solid rock.
No one was going to sneak up on us and catch us unawares—not even the damned Faoimhuir. Damned if they would.
We had the near range of crags at our back; far enough away that that strategic high-ground couldn’t be used against us yet close enough for a hasty retreat if needed, a bastion for survivors if our forces were indeed overwhelmed on the field, a place fit for ambush, where our archers could pick off the enemy one by one and bleed them to a draw, assuming the Faoimhuirian soldiers were too eager or too stupid to sit back and let this natron-mummified corpse of a planet do their dirty work for them.
To the fore of our hilltop camp was the riverbed, which wound its languid way almost completely around the hillock, but its innocuous appearance was deceptive. While there was little chance of a flash flood, it was still a dangerous ally and as serviceable as any proper Roman ditch, with the added benefit of no proper Roman ditch-digging: under its thin, sun-baked crust lay powdery sand so soft and deep if you weren’t careful where you trod you could easily sink up to your waist—as I can personally attest—and an army rushing an enemy stronghold is rarely that careful, especially when making a mad dash across open ground. It was the perfect killing field for any direct assault on the hillock as men crossing the riverbed would be completely exposed, and again within bow-range of our archers, not to mention tower-mounted scorpios.
A forty foot wide gap, hidden behind the hillock and the only place not defended by the encircling oxbow course of the ancient, soft-bellied river was now guarded, day and night, by a hidden battery of deadly ballistas; it was also going to be our route off the hillock, to avoid being ensnared ourselves by the extinct river, not to mention the only safe path for the engines that would otherwise founder on soft ground.
And if the enemy attempted a surprise attack on the hillock, this hidden pathway would also serve as the route our cavalry would take, their presence, or at least their true numbers concealed until they’d formed up then came out of hiding at a full, galloping charge at the enemy’s flank—a startling sight I hoped would shock and confound the enemy into a confused and panicky retreat… right into the sand pits of the riverbed and the sights of our now very gleeful archers.
But the first line of defense were the saltpans with their veneer of sharply pointed, poisonous salt crystals—natural caltrops—which rimed vast puddles of pinkish-red, skin-blistering brine that were scattered across the flats: sludgy, shallow ponds that had instantly reminded me of the low desert south of Alexandria and its scattering of equally noxious natron pools.
Early in my military career, and because of my ability to blend into the native Egyptian population, I was often dispatched to distant Roman encampments in Cyrenacia and upper Egypt, carrying messages of the utmost urgency and secrecy from Lucius Antonius Vallus, Commander of the Alexandria Garrison. In one such instance—this was several months before my ill-fated trip to Oxyrhynchus—I’d been sent to the settlement of Terenuthis and on my way back I was forced by slavers in search of merchandise to quit the heavily traveled waters of the Nile and take a long and dangerous detour through the low-lying desert and its shallow lakes of toxic brine.
I’d grown up in the desert after all, knew how to survive in such wastelands, whereas my pursuers were men of the river, of its dirty, squalid settlements huddled against its shores like so many mud swallows’ nests, and who wisely and quickly gave up their chase once they lost sight of the life-giving Nile. Clearly the going price of a young, lighter-than-Nubian skinned and physically attractive male—even in the high-end niche markets that catered exclusively to wealthy households—was just not worth the personal risk.
I’d learned, one could say first-hand the foul nature of the strangely beautiful and colorful liquid that made up the natron pools—the inflamed skin of my curious fingertips had taken days to stop throbbing—so I guess you could reasonably argue that I wasn’t quite so wise to the ways of the desert as I’d assumed, either. But I never repeated my mistake, in fact never thought I’d be in a position to repeat it. Yet here I was, confronted by a strikingly similar phenomenon—so incredibly far in distance and time from my first introduction and despite the unpleasant memory, the sight sent a jolting pang of homesickness through me.
I’d given orders to Rufinius, who over the previous months I’d come to discover was a damned good engineer, rivaling any military engineer I’d worked with, and Jotia, who excelled at organizing the troops in to efficient work gangs, that while we were gone those left behind—fourteen hundred and ninety men in all—were to fortify our position. One benefit of the night’s ghostly luminescence was that men could work just as easily and safely as if in the full light of day, perhaps more so as they wouldn’t have to contend with the strength-sapping heat, not to mention the daily afternoon dust storms.
As I mentioned earlier, there was little wood, but Latruncŭli had rock in abundance. It was my hope that by the time we returned, the soldiers should have a good start on a dry-stone circuit wall.
Marcus Polycleitus, Centurion of the Cavalry, was tasked with securing proper accommodations for the two hundred and two horses, four hundred and twenty one oxen, one hundred and fifty goats, a hundred odd chickens, nine dogs, four trained hunting hawks and yes, even three cats that had the ill fortune of accompanying us.
The horses’ comfort and care came first as the cavalry was, I hoped, our secret weapon. The oxen were, from the get-go, on a one-way trip, draft animals that would also serve as food just as the supply wagons, once unloaded, were designed to be cannibalized for their wood, rope and canvas. The goats would supply milk and cheese and yes, as provisions ran low, fresh meat. The chickens were to supply eggs and failing that, stock for the soup kettles. The dogs had been camp pets, taken in by the soldiers as strays, found half-starved in the forest wilds surrounding Taskim’s Keep during foraging trips and which had been smuggled along, hidden in the supply wagons.
While I have no love of dogs, had I known ahead of time of the soldiers’ plans, I wouldn’t have denied them these creatures even though they were extra mouths to feed. Dogs did have their uses and I knew Aetius and one of his men, Ocelus, had been training them to serve as trackers and watchdogs—tutored in the skill by Taskim’s very own master of hounds, or so they’d told me. I’d never seen, much less heard a dog while a ‘guest’ in his Keep, but…
And of course war dogs were excellent terror weapons, almost as unnerving as cavalry.
The hawks were gifts from Lady Ainiaan and she’d trained four of my men as their handlers. Had there been any birds—aside from the aforementioned chickens—or hare about I could see reason for their inclusion, but since I’d seen, shall we say, neither hide nor um, hare of either, their purpose was little more as a source of wagering entertainment for the men.
Now as to the cats—while I wasn’t avid fancier, I didn’t actually dislike cats as I did most four footed creatures. I’d grown up in Carthage and Alexandria after all, and while Romans preferred dogs as companions, the citizens of both cities kept cats. I’d quickly learned that the benefits to having a cat went beyond simple companionship. Like dogs they served a valuable domestic service: in the case of cats, they kept their owner’s homes and storage rooms free of vermin as well as snakes and scorpions. Carthaginian and Egyptian mothers often kept a cat in the nursery for just such a purpose and I strongly suspect many a babe owed its life to the ever-watchful family cat.
Lady Ilissia’s villa was overrun with at least a dozen cats at any given time, but these were fat, lazy beasts whose sole purpose, as far as I could tell, was as decoration and to that end spent their days stretched out in the sun on a balcony or tile floor, or idly gazing at the colorful fish that darted here and there among the papyrus and rushes in the courtyard’s large pool, perhaps bestirring themselves occasionally to dip their paws into the water in a blatantly spurious show of trying to catch a snack.
I’d always been secretly envious of their languorous attitude towards life—and their mild contempt towards us, their supposed keepers. As far as I was concerned, cats had discovered the meaning of true happiness… but cats being cats, they were not about to freely share their hard-won knowledge with those they considered inferior—they would, however, permit us to learn by observing them—if we had the patience, which, I freely admit, I didn’t.
And, as it so happened, Rufinius and another of my centurions, Baculus, prized the creatures. The two steadfastly maintained that they’d brought the cats along to protect our grain stores from pilferage by rodents—nonexistent rodents as it turned out. Only later did I learn the truth: at these cats, while still kittens, had, with Lady Ainiaan’s involvement, befriended Rufinius and Baculus while the two were confined to Mabog’s surgery, recuperating from close to fatal injuries bestowed upon them by a drunken Rasaben during one of his many ‘sparring’ contests. The cats had remained steadfast to the two men even after they’d been given my memories, willingly following them from the barracks to our camp despite it being the middle of winter, and so the two men remained steadfast to the three cats. So, one muscular gray stripped named Leonidas, a tiny black and white, Thisbe, and a very fat and fluffy orange, Xanthus, would now share Rufinius and Baculus’ fate. Like us, they faced a sad reward for their unflinching fidelity.
At my whispered, “We’ve seen enough,” Aetius lurched unsteadily to his feet, followed by Felix, who then offered me a hand up which I gratefully accepted. In the time I’d been seated, cross-legged on the rock ledge, my joints had stiffened up and my left leg had still not recovered from the rigorous climb.
I motioned for Duccius, this Duccius, who like his predecessor was wild-eyed and wild-mannered, but also as sure-footed as any mule I’d ever met, to take the lead, knowing if anyone could bring us safely down the mountain it would be this mad Marcomanni.
As Felix and then Aetius carefully made their way back into the surrounding rockfall to fall in line with the others, I chanced one last glimpse at the distant enemy camp.
Enemy… and yet not. Human. Like us, so far, far from home. And just like us pawns of greater beings, about to fight their war, about to kill and be killed for reasons not fully explained, possibly even beyond our human comprehension.
Perhaps all based on a lie.
The Tuatha unquestionably had the capacity to completely control our fate while manipulating us into believing our actions served our purposes when in fact they served theirs, often as not to our lasting detriment—one might argue that this is the pithiest definition of a god.
Had we ever had free choice, free rein over our destinies? Were gods in fact truly nothing more than deified slave owners in search of ever-increasingly bloody entertainment? Had I’d traded one set of gods for another? Was this nothing more than gladiatorial combat on a global scale?
I’ve never been a devout man, having learned the bitter lesson at a very tender age that the gods only listen to those who could pay in advance and in full for the privilege of an audience. Nevertheless I still found myself deeply disturbed by these less than pious thoughts—and even more disturbed that I hadn’t had them earlier.
I tore my eyes off the Faoimhuirian encampment and with a sigh and a shake of my head, started trudging after my fellows. We had an hours-long and perilous trek ahead of us and I should have kept my mind on where I was putting my bare feet; instead it kept churning with other worries, far less immediate but deeply personal and intensely nagging: I’d fathered a son by Turan—not an impossible act if one believed the words of priests. There were plenty of examples of such assignations, but in most cases the father was a god, the mother mortal, not the other way around—the only exception I could remember was, by ironic happenstance, Aeneas.
I’d certainly never once contemplated the possibility that one day I might contribute my humble seed to this rare population of semi-divine beings—which prompted another, equally unsettling question: would Neshoue share Turan’s abilities? Would he—assuming we did chance to meet—even look upon me as his father or would he show me, a mere mortal the sneering derision of the Lords of the Sidhe? Aeneas had honored his mortal father along with his goddess mother, so there was some hope of similar expectations, I suppose.
I heaved a sigh, shook myself loose of these troubling thoughts and turned my full attention on following the man ahead of me and a good thing too as footing suddenly became a precarious mix of sloping shale with a skittery overlay of sharp pebbles. Several men stumbled; one, Burrus, slipped but was saved a fatal fall to the rocks far below by Aetius’s timely grab.
Once back on his feet, Burrus shivered in fright at his close call while the rest of us glanced about, looking for an easier way down. None was to be had, so after a few moments to allow Burrus a chance to reclaim his nerves, we resumed the descent but now all of us were on edge—literally.
We managed the rest of the way without serious mishap and paused at the lip of gorge for a quick meal of the ubiquitous hardtack, eaten while standing and in total silence while our weary eyes nervously scoured our starlit surrounds for any sign of pursuit. No one dared sit, as tempting as it was, for fear he’d be unable to rise and have to be helped back to his feet by those who were less foolish but every bit as tired.
After a welcome pass-around of our last full waterskin to wash the cloying dust from our throats, we were off again, but at a more deliberate pace with the risk of detection lessened by distance and terrain, down another steep and even more tortuous incline, our bruised and bleeding feet protesting each step, our minds painfully aware that for every potentially ankle-twisting step down, there was going to be an equal, potentially ankle-twisting step up the opposite and even steeper side of the gorge.
The chasm was so deep and narrow only a thin and meandering ribbon of starry sky was visible at the very bottom. Looking up, I was struck by the unpleasant resemblance to some massive, be-speckled snake slithering silently overhead. Others saw the same and murmured uneasily amongst themselves; it was not a good omen, especially with us, literally, in the belly of the beast.
The climb out was a burning torment on lungs and limbs alike, each step gained by sheer force of will, and for every man who stumbled, there were two to steady him and help him on his way. By the time we topped the far lip of the gorge we were all breathing hard and shaky and many of our party were clearly suffering terribly from their injured feet—one, Aulus, had taken a bad fall and his chin bled profusely, soaking his tunic collar.
No one complained, no one made a sound but their wincing expressions were visible, as were their limping, stumbling steps as they leaned on each other for support, like drunkards staggering their way home before dawn and their irate wives caught them in their painful and incensed glare.
I had no idea how long we had before what little darkness we enjoyed fled the twin sunrise, and I had no desire to be caught out in the open once that happened—exposed not only to the fierce heat but the sharp eyes of the enemy, who, like us, had to have scouting parties afoot. They too might have horses—I hadn’t seen or heard any evidence of it, but that didn’t mean we alone held that advantage and we wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance to reach the natural moat of the riverbed, much less our own camp if pursued by mounted soldiers, or, gods forbid, chariots.
When we’d set out, shortly after dark, I’d looked upon that immense and radiant whirlpool, knowing I could use it as a reliable timekeeper, just as I’d used the familiar denizens of Earth’s night for the same purpose. This foreign sky held no recognizable and obliging guideposts; the whirlpool would have to suffice and to that end I’d spent many sleepless hours of the previous two nights staring up at it, both fascinated and yes, a little frightened by it as I’d experienced, while serving aboard the merchanter, Aequitas, what a whirlpool could do and this one was of a size to swallow entire worlds, of that I had no doubt—a true monster of the deep.
I marked in my mind one particular feature, a tiny but especially dazzling spot of celestial flotsam trapped half way down its outer-most eastern edge. When we’d started off the previous evening the bulk of the whirlpool, along with the brighter spot were almost directly above us, but now, as we slowly, wearily trudged our way back across the flats, the spot touched the peak of a distant mountain that lay almost directly ahead of us. Once it disappeared, the suns would rise in their perpetual pursuit.
I reluctantly called a halt, ordered everyone to finish what little food and water we still carried, hoping that would be enough to sustain us for the last, and due to our exhaustion, most dangerous leg of the trip. I also made sure that every man had donned his canvas-wrapped sandals—no need to muffle our passage now, nor was there any risk of slipping on smooth rock—to protect injured feet from the scattered saltpans’ vast evaporation rings that turned the flats into an obstacle course of tiny, poisonous and near invisible spikes.
Once the last of the hardtack was stuffed into mouths almost too tired to chew, and the last of the water was swallowed by throats almost too parched to notice, I motioned for Felix to take the lead while Aetius and I took up the rear—to conceal from the others the sudden, excruciating leg cramps that would catch me unawares—while Aetius kept tabs on our dog-tired men, quietly urging them on and keeping them together as they were wont to wander apart in their blind weariness.
I clenched my teeth and squeezed my eyes tightly shut as Cleander, chief of our four physicians, worked a foul-smelling and stinging salve into the painful cuts and stone-bruises on my feet and with what seemed like utterly unnecessary vigor.
“You should have listened to me, Legate,” he grumbled, for what was, I swear, at least the fifth time, each word punctuated by his fingers as they poked and squeezed and kneaded my abused flesh. To make matters worse, my feet had always been terribly ticklish. “I told you—we all told you that you’re just too damned valuable, to critical to the mission to go gallivanting about—”
“And I already told you I wasn’t gallivanting,” I interrupted softly but irritably, not wanting to wake Felix, who was fast asleep on his cot in our shared command tent, although in truth anything short of a bucket of ice-melt tossed across the shoulders wouldn’t have awakened him, and maybe not even that. He’d barely stirred when Cleander had attended to his injured feet. When Felix slept, he slept; of course I suspected the lozenge Cleander had insisted Felix swallow prior to his ministrations had helped. He’d demanded I swallow one, too, which I had, but only to get Felix to follow my example without too much bellyaching.
For some inexplicable reason the lozenge hadn’t helped me one damned bit; of course Felix wasn’t ticklish, either. “I was leading a reconnaissance squad—”
“Then leave the leading of reconnaissance squads to others—need I remind you of what happened to Marcus Claudius Marcellus?”
He didn’t—the ignoble end of the famous general was a cherished incident among legionaries who found themselves, for one reason or another, disgruntled with their commanders, just as it was considered a cautionary tale among officers. Marcus Claudius Marcellus foolishly insisted on accompanying his scouts while they looked about for a suitable place to teach the upstart Hannibal and his ragtag army a lesson they would not soon forget. Needless to say, Hannibal got the last laugh as Hannibal often did. But what Cleander didn’t mention was that Hannibal’s Numidian horsemen were involved, as they usually were; in fact Numidians, on horseback and on foot had been a thorn in Rome’s side, off and on, for a very, very long time, often as not while we were supposedly their allies. I’d always believed that if Rome had made the effort to differentiate Numidians, then perhaps we wouldn’t have felt the need to poke the empire at every opportunity. Fair’s fair after all. Just thought I’d mention that.
“Jotia for one,” Cleander continued, “who I must add was mightily put out you didn’t task him with the job, or Felix,” he jerked his chin towards the snoring lump in question, “both perfectly capable men—you’ve told me so yourself at least a dozen times and you’re no longer Centurion, remember?”
I stared down the length of my supine body to where he squatted beside my mistreated feet—squinted quite angrily in fact, for his immaculate aim at one of my soft spots—and I’m not referring to my ticklish soles. It only added—excuse me—salt to the wound that he was also right, and right on so many angles of the matter: I was no longer a centurion; I was critical to the mission; worse, I’d taken my second in command, Felix with me, not to mention Aetius, leaving Jotia and Rufinius in charge of those who remained behind—no offense to either man, but I’d been stupid, stupid, stupid!
I took a deep breath, braced myself for a smug response and admitted, “You’re right.” I didn’t say just how right he was. I felt that would just be gratuitous.
Instead of grinning, instead of saying, ‘Of course I am,’ he simply nodded, a surprising and graciously concise acceptance of my equally surprising, humble admission.
Unlike his namesake predecessor, who, while a halfway decent surgeon, wasted few if any words on his patients—‘stitch ‘em up and send ‘em back for more of the same’ seemed to be his motto—this Cleander was, by comparison, a veritable chatterbox—who sometimes said too much. He was also one of a handful of older Kellesuf, Cleander himself in his early forties, while the vast majority were in their twenties, with a few, a sad few like Carus, my aide-de-camp, in their late-teens.
Cleander was a balding man, every bit as tall as Felix, a man who’d never been handsome even in his youth, with hollow, pitted cheeks—evidence of some long ago malady—a sharp, angular face with deep-set brown eyes, gangly body and long, slender fingers—skilled fingers. He was a very capable surgeon; Taskim’s own physician Mabog had declared such, a perfect choice, he said. Cleander was the perfect choice, as was Iulius, Nestor and Tigidius—all had what the casual observer might ascribe to an inborn affinity for the medical arts, but Mabog and I both suspected from the start that these four had been physicians once—as had their namesakes—or they’d served in a similar capacity at some time during their previous lives, due to expedience or desperate need as combat surgeons were always in short supply, highly skilled ones were even more hard to come by.
Aetius had privately voiced his own theory about this Cleander’s past: he believed he’d been a knackerman in his prior life, rarely elevated to apprentice butcher if Aetius was feeling particularly charitable. But then Aetius, who seemed to attract injuries in the same proportions that he attracted trouble—just like his namesake—had been forced to suffer Cleander’s brusque manner and painfully thorough ministrations more than anyone else, which probably explained his less than complimentary opinion of the man.
It was much the same with those who had gravitated towards our cavalry unit, or had willingly, one might even say happily taken on the otherwise rather thankless task of field cooks, Florianus chief among them, a man who, I quickly learned, could make dirt soup taste… well, if not tasty than at least tolerable. In each and every case, it was apparent that while these men’s minds did not retain the hard-won expertise of their missing past, their hands had somehow held onto the ability, as if drawing on some whispered instruction only they could hear.
“I’d strongly urge you stay off your feet for a day or two—a week would be even better.”
I scowled at him.
He stared back, unfazed. “Just my advice, Legate, which I know you won’t heed any more than you heed anyone’s advice.”
As senior-most among the physicians, he was the only one of the four who dared speak to me like that. Even the chronically foul-tempered Nestor kept his less than complimentary opinions of me to himself. Then again, maybe it had nothing to do with rank, or, that like me Nestor was clearly from Numidia, possibly Cyrenacia, and so was loath to criticize a fellow Mauri—which, when I think about it, is pretty unlikely as we Mauri are infamous for stabbing each other in the back, figuratively and literally. Maybe with Cleander it was the decade plus age difference. Maybe it was just Cleander, who knew he was too damned valuable himself, too critical to the undertaking to be trifled with, even if the potential trifler was the legate.
That didn’t stop my scowl from puckering into a downright baleful glare.
“I’ve done what I can for now.” He checked my left leg, shook his head as he rose, wiping his hands on the same damp rag he’d used to scrub the dried blood and grit from my feet, then he pulled a small vial from a leather bag that hung from his belt. “Here. Give me your hand.”
I did as he asked and he shook out two small white tablets onto my palm. “For the leg spasms and the pain.”
I had thought about refusing—on principle, but my feet, despite, or in spite of the damned lozenge, still throbbed painfully and my left thigh kept cramping. My eyes darted to Felix, then back to Cleander, curious as to why Felix had somehow escaped both the pain and more of Cleander’s noxious potions.
As if sensing my thoughts Cleander said with a hint of conceit, “He’s Kellesuf,” as if that was explanation enough, and perhaps it was. While physical pain had been a novelty to them at first, and the discomfort of minor injuries had left them startled and deeply distraught—like small children—most had gone on to demonstrate a tolerance for pain and injury that would have left me grimacing and swearing profusely, if not completely incapacitated. This ability to endure such had its benefits—it also had its drawbacks, as you can well imagine.
“Go on,” he urged, drawing my attention back to the tablets in my palm by pushing my hand closer to my mouth. “They’ll even help you sleep.” At my hesitation, he added, “It’s just you and me, Legate, so don’t be brave—or stupid as I won’t be impressed or surprised. And there’s little your two eyes and two ears can add to the fifteen hundred sets of each that surround us.”
I was tempted to stick out my tongue; instead I looked around for something to wash them down. “Water?”
“No need—they’ll melt in your mouth.”
Squinting at him, I tossed them into my mouth and yes, they did in fact melt, and even more surprisingly, they did so almost immediately, leaving behind a rather unpleasant bitter taste, akin to the lozenges Turan had forced me to swallow shortly after my capture.
I made a face.
He was unmoved. “I’ll have Florianus bring you food and drink. Then you need to rest, better, take Felix’s example and sleep if you can. I’ll be back to check on you both in a few hours—”
“How are the others?” By my order, he and the others had seen to the immediate medical needs of the rest of the reconnaissance squad, first. I was to be last. Strangely, Cleander didn’t argue that point—I suspect he wanted me to suffer as long as possible, without appearing to leave me to suffer, the bastard.
“About the same as you. Gods’ favor to us, none worse, fortunately—”
A shadow passed in front of the tent flap, accompanied by the sharp glint of sunlight on armor briefly visible through the gap between flaps.
“You apparently have a visitor,” Cleander said as if genuinely surprised anyone might want to speak to their legate. “Do you feel up to some company?”
“Depends on who it is, I suppose—and what he wants.” I dearly hoped it wasn’t Titivillus, a man who took his role of centurion just a wee bit too seriously for my liking. Of course the original Titivillus had been, not surprisingly, the same and then some.
I was too tired to deal with even this watered-down version and his desperate need to discuss everything to do with camp life, from where and how deep to dig the latrines—I personally didn’t give a damn as long as my tent wasn’t downwind—to who needed a good talking to about the corrupting influence of fistfights on discipline, which invariably meant Aetius, because if fists were flying, there was a damned good chance two of those fists were firmly attached to Aetius.
The original Titivillus had also loathed the original Aetius, and for the exact same reason: Aetius’ penchant for fighting with anyone over anything at any time was bad for morale. And to that end that Titivillus had jabbered about why would I want to spend my leisure time in the company of such a scalawag?—it didn’t look good to consort with such obvious malefactors and as such it reflected badly on the centurion ranks as a whole. The simple fact that the first Aetius was an exceedingly brave and loyal soldier, albeit with one or two glaring flaws, not to mention he was a hell of a lot of fun to be around, with his grandiose yarns and very unique take on life seemed utterly lost on the original Titivillus. In fact I think the whole concept of ‘fun’ had been lost on Titivillus—his only joy came from listening to camp gossip and damning others.
While this Titivillus was far less inclined to act on rumor, he was, in a word, a prig. A damned good centurion when it came to keeping order, but still a damned prig. He always gave me a serious headache.
“Shall I make up a guest list?” Cleander replied snidely.
“Just show whoever the hell it is in then go torture someone else.”
He smiled, a slow drawing back of the lips to expose his clenched teeth. He unclenched them just long enough to reply, “Of course, Legate. Your wish is always my command.” He grabbed the flap and jerked it aside.
It wasn’t, thankfully, Titivillus. It was Marcus—Marcus Polycleitus, Centurion of the Cavalry specifically, as there were one hundred and thirty-eight Marcuses amongst us—and the dark look on this Marcus’ equally dark face did not bode well. Aper, his second in command, was, not surprisingly, at his side.
Aper, whose features and coloring suggested he’d probably come from Parthia, possibly Scythia, either one explanation enough for his affinity for horses, was Marcus’ constant shadow, a raw-boned, serious-faced and silent young man who, according to the rumors I’d heard, tolerated no abuse of his four-legged charges—even the oxen—clearly preferring their company over his two-footed comrades. He’d been Marcus’ choice as second, not mine and the cavalrymen loved him—presumably the horses too—just as they adored Marcus. From what Marcus told me, Aper possessed a keen military mind, so I had no reason to interfere. In fact I’d encouraged my officers to choose their immediate subordinates from among the ranks, promising them I wouldn’t second guess their decisions while warning them if their choices proved unwise, or hinted at partiality at the expense of proficiency I’d have no choice but to revise my choice of them.
I got my elbows under me—and Cleander, who was still standing in the doorway, shot me a warning look. Not that he really needed to: I had no intention of actually getting to my feet—feet, which, despite the damned lozenge and the magically melting tablets, still throbbed like hell. The last thing I wanted to do was put my weight on them, but Marcus looked too serious, too damned unhappy not to make a show of showing him and his frame of mind due and serious respect.
“Please, Legate, stay where you are,” he said, and I happily flopped back on my cot and tugged my rolled up cloak under my head.
He gestured with his chin to one of the two folding field chairs in the tent, next to the folding field table—both a luxury here as everyone else was relegated to sitting on their cots or on the ground—and I nodded. He picked it up then set it down next to my cot. Aper, for his part, took up a parade-rest stance behind his senior once Marcus had seated himself.
“What brings you to my bedside, Marcus? You look worried.”
“We are, Legate—about the horses.” His eyes darted to my feet, back to my face. “How are we to cross the saltpans if the need arises? Those crystals will render them lame before we travel more than a few paces and poison their blood in short order.”
“Do what we did: wrap their feet in cloth—leather would be even better.”
“But where are we to find enough leather for the job? Two hundred and two horses, sir, each with four feet.”
“I’m well aware of how many feet a horse has, Centurion,” I grumbled—as someone who’d been repeatedly stepped on by horses I’d gotten very good at counting. Besides, my head ached; my body ached. My throat was raw; my empty stomach was growing impatient for the promised meal and, damn Cleander, my feet still felt as if they were on fire.
I was, simply put, in a foul mood, but not without reason. While we’d been back in camp for several hours and it was well into morning, I’d yet to be granted the luxury of even an hour’s nap—unlike the rest of the exhausted squad, including Felix—Cleander and Jotia and now Marcus had seen to that, first with Jotia’s long and painfully detailed report of all that had transpired while we’d been gone, including the welcome news that the circuit wall should be finished by the end of the day.
Felix had tried—I’ll be extremely generous here and say he tried manfully—to stay awake and listen; instead he just stared at Jotia with watery, heavy-lidded eyes and droopy head nodding—not in agreement, just nodding. Since he hadn’t offered any input, except the occasional, loud and protracted yawn, and was clearly too muzzy-headed to offer up any useful ideas, neither Jotia or I realized he’d actually fallen asleep until he ever-so-slowly toppled sideways, shoulder landing softly on his cot, blond head following, one foot still on the floor, the other left dangling.
Jotia stopped his report long to enough to scoop up Felix’s legs and place them on the cot then draw his blanket over him. Felix mumbled his thanks as he oozed over onto his back. At least I think he mumbled his thanks. It might have been a snore.
We also hammered out the logistics of dispatching another reconnaissance squad as soon as night fell—one that would remain sequestered in our well-hidden mountain aerie, this time with enough provisions to last a week, to watch the enemy, keep an eye on their movements and send runners back with any news. Our first trip had been done in haste, each man carrying only enough supplies to last the night. We had no assurance, after all, that the telltale glow on the bellies of the clouds that hung on the distant peaks was evidence of the enemy’s location instead of some natural, nightly phenomena.
Aetius, we both agreed, was the man to lead the return visit; the choices as to who accompanied him I left up to Jotia and Aetius. I also ordered another squad to the near mountains, the ones to our backs—lead by Duccius—to watch for any developments from on high.
Then came Cleander on his last stop; he shooed Jotia from the tent, leaving me alone to suffer his tart remarks and his equally nasty salve.
I had, at least, had the chance to bathe, with Cleander’s help, and rid my skin of its irritating rime of camouflaging soot but that was not enough to brighten my otherwise black mood, and horses, even when I was in a good mood were not a favored topic. I abhorred the beasts—with the sole exception of my own mount, Wushah, who, I am equally loath to admit I’d become rather fond of despite him stepping on my feet on more than one occasion—unintentionally, I’m sure—and breaking several toes. But neither did I want the animals to suffer needlessly. Lame horses were worse than worthless. And the cavalry was, I hoped, my secret weapon, to be held in reserve and sprung on the enemy just when they thought they had victory in their grasp and had gotten damned cocky about it.
A massed cavalry charge—even better a surprise massed cavalry charge—in my considerable experience with this shock tactic, was always good for knocking the initial cockiness out of foot soldiers, although there is a well-kept secret about massed cavalry charges we legionaries were taught early on: horses aren’t stupid. While their riders might be hell bent on suicide, the horses under them rarely feel the same and so will refuse to actually run into a stalwart and rather prickly block of equally massed infantry with the hopes of breaking the line, trampling men under hoof and scattering the rest. More often than not, the horses will realize what’s about to happen and stop so abruptly they’ll successfully launch their now very startled riders right onto our awaiting pila. If you didn’t know better and if you were observing the goings on from some distance you might reasonably assume you were actually watching some sort of innocent gymnastics competition involving vaulting. Close-up you’d realize all of said gymnasts were now little more than skewered meat and their mounts looking innocent of any involvement.
But Marcus and Aper had other, even more unnerving surprises in reserve than simple charges—tactics I’d never seen before, much less heard of, and therefore had not been passed along via my memories—again, more proof of previous lives bleeding to the surface in unexpected ways. I wouldn’t have believed some of the maneuvers Aper described were even possible… until I witnessed them for myself while the two put their unit through its paces, practice after practice, in a large open area to the east of Taskim’s Keep, an area cleared of trees just so the cavalry could rehearse until these moves had become second nature to man and mount alike.
“You have my permission to take some of that extra canvas we brought, use that to make a tent, then take one of the regular tents and use its goatskin to make your horses their boots.” Canvas was the option I’d chosen for my command tent—the celebrated, or if you were an unpopular general involved in an unpopular campaign, the infamous praetorium from which equally unpopular orders issued forth. Canvas was more than adequate for shelter against the all-pervasive dust as well as the chill of night and yet in the heat of the day not as damned stuffy or smelly as the traditional goatskin.
“It might take more than one tent, Legate. It might take a number, with eight hundred and eight hooves to boot—and you know that extra canvas was brought for a specific purpose. I’d rather keep it for that.”
“Then have the centurions readjust the tent assignments and tell anyone who complains about doubling up to come see me—after I’ve had a few hours of sleep,” I added irritably. It was annoying to be this tired and in this much pain and still have to deal with a steady stream of people demanding my undivided attention, but the capper was to have to suffer all of this while also having to listen to Felix snore. Damn the man!
Marcus got the hint. “I’ll have my men triple up, Legate—they’ll not complain about it, even among themselves and that should be enough goatskin to do the trick.” With that he gathered himself up and with a curt nod to Aper, followed by a crisp salute to me, he strode out of the tent.
Aper replaced the chair beside the table, clearly using that as an excuse to linger.
I was reluctant to ask him why he was hesitating, fearful it might take a prolonged explanation when I was this close to finally being allowed to sleep. I eyed him with a warning look of ‘this better be short and sweet’, and: “You find fault with my plan?”
“You think your men will complain?”
He shook his head. “No—”
His dark eyes flicked to the tent flap, then back to me and in a low voice said: “I’ve heard rumors, sir, we’ve all heard ‘em—”
Ah, so Fama—Titivillus’ patron goddess—was about, stirring up trouble with her double-edged sword. Soldiers’ camps were always targets of her meddling, damn her.
“What rumors?” I replied, realizing too late I might’ve just opened Pandora’s box, this one overflowing with camp rumors. Where was Titivillus when I needed him?
Aper again glanced at the doorway, as if this time measuring its distance in case he needed to make a very hasty escape; indeed he might, if he kept me from the beckoning arms of sleep much longer. “That the enemy outnumber us ten to one?”
I stared up at his gaunt face. I’d seen him in practice, in mock combat and he was good, damned good, both on foot and on horseback, with sword and lance, but it was impossible to tell if he’d ever seen real combat, and even if he had, it was impossible to predict if any of that ghostly experience might resurface, triggering once honed reflexes when confronted with a real enemy with real intentions of doing real harm.
Simply put, he was scared.
Of course so was I—damned scared in fact—not that I could admit it to anyone but myself and I was reluctant to let even me in on the secret. Bad for morale you see. So instead I said, “Nothing so dire. At most four to one.”
He stared at me with his intense eyes, clearly unsure if I was joking… or deadly serious.
“Truth. The Faoimhuir lied.” Okay, I was lying too; it seemed the only decent thing to do under the circumstances. He’d find out the real truth soon enough—when it was far too late to panic.
He exhaled, shook his head. “We’re still screwed—if you don’t mind me saying so, sir.”
“I’ve fought against worse odds, much worse, and won handily. And besides, we have horses. They don’t.” I said that with a certainty I really didn’t feel as I wasn’t sure if they did or not, but this man needed reassurance he wasn’t facing his own imminent and violent death—or, knowing Aper, the imminent and violent deaths of his beloved horses. “I’m not even sure if they’ve ever seen horses, much less armored horses. Could come as a hell of a shock—especially,” I grinned a knowing grin, “armored horses materializing out of thin air.”
That prospect clearly cheered him—my tactic worked!
“You’d best go help Marcus make those boots. Battles don’t wait for our convenience, Centurion, and once the enemy realizes we’re here, I have no doubt they’ll come looking for us, hoping to use their superior numbers to overwhelm us. I want to be waiting for them, show them Roman discipline and tactics can overcome just about anything, least of all numerical superiority—and a full-on cavalry charge is pretty damned hard to ignore, even if your line is packed ten deep.”
He nodded, saluted smartly, then spun on his heel and hurried out of the tent.
I stared after him, hoping the enemy would advance on us ten deep. Not only did we have two hundred and two warhorses, and with luck the enemy hadn’t been let in on the secret that massed cavalry charges might disintegrate short of actually engaging when the horses decided they’d had enough of all the foolishness, we’d brought along ten onagers—siege engines to be sure, but since we didn’t know what we’d be facing, I felt it best to err on the side of prudence—fifteen ballistas, sixty scorpios, and my all-time personal favorite, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of caltrops. They were wicked little beasts, easily carried in enough numbers by individual soldiers to make for serious trouble and which, while designed primarily to cripple horses and war elephants, could be almost as effective against massed infantry charges as the men crowded up behind the first line wouldn’t see the nasty little buggars until it was too late to avoid impaling their feet.
Just in case there was any lingering doubt, I do not believe in half-measures.
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