The icy wind whipped across the pass like Hekate’s breath, ripping the air from the lungs with its chilly blast and carrying flakes of the day’s snowfall, which had not so much stopped for the night as paused to regroup. The grey peak of Mons Mortus hung over the fort like a pre-payday bar bill, glowering and bringing unhappiness to all who saw it. And seeing it was hard not to do, the way it loomed so against a sky so grey that, were it not for the snow, it would be hard to tell where rock stopped and heavens begun.
The middle-aged, po-faced shape of Optio Aelius Valens paused at the rampart’s southeast corner to pull his blade from its sheath, grunting with difficulty as it stuck momentarily. It was not that he needed it now, mind, but in weather of this temperature you had to keep easing the blade out every now and then, else when you did need it it would undoubtedly be stuck fast. The wind howled mercilessly across the wall top, making him shiver uncontrollably. It never ceased to amaze him that no matter how many winters you passed up here, you never got used to that wind.
‘Any activity?’ he hissed, then clamped his mouth shut, toothache already threatening.
Rubellius, his enormous muscular arms nearer blue than pink, turned a face mostly covered with frost-rimed beard to his officer, and clenched his teeth for a moment to stop them chattering before he spoke.
‘Not much. The blacksmith’s been out gathering fuel for his fire, but no one else. No movement. No one would be stupid enough to be out in this, unless it was for the senate and the people of Rome, I suppose, sir.’
Valens snorted. He’d never seen Rome, any more than anyone else in the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians. In fact, since he’d signed up at Salona he’d seen nothing but the empire’s very periphery. And it didn’t get much more peripheral than Mediobogdum.
The fort sat on a spur of land, overlooking a deep green valley that marched off down to the sea at the edge of the world, and under a peak that towered over a pass connecting the coast to the lead mining region between here and Galava. Twenty years ago, when the fort had been built it had been important, a full garrison post that had supported a growing civilian settlement. Five hundred soldiers, with half as many hangers-on clustered outside the walls. Then the new emperor, Antoninus, had moved the border of Britannia north, and any hint of importance had been torn from Mediobogdum, all the province’s military focus shifted to this new wall of the emperor’s.
The installation on the spur had become little more than a ghost fortress. Most of the cohort had been transferred back across the sea, just one century left for a year or two as a skeleton garrison, half the men up here under Valens, half down at Glannoventa down on the coast under the centurion. The remit: look after the pass. Nothing more.
Valens looked up at the snow-clogged nightmare crossing. As if any arsehole was going to try that in winter…
The optio sighed as he leaned on the wall top beside the big soldier, the futility of it all weighing down on him almost as heavily as the mountain above. ‘It’s ridiculous… garrisoning a fort like this, I mean. As if there are likely to be any lead convoys to protect these days. And half a dozen misfit civilians languishing in that shit-hole of a rundown vicus outside too, while everyone else has left.’ He turned to the soldier, lines of irritation carved deep in his veteran features. ‘And it’s especially pointless in weather like this. We’ve got so much barrack space going spare you could quarter the whole valley inside the walls and there are thirty four of us. I’ve half a mind to invite the civilians into the fort.’
Rubellius snorted. ‘Living up here you’ll be lucky to hold on to even half a mind for long.’
‘Less of that lip, soldier,’ Valens responded, though with no real conviction. The man was right, after all. It would be easy to go crazy wintering here in near isolation. ‘Tomorrow morning, I’m going to bring them inside.’
‘The centurion’ll tear you a second arsehole if you do, sir.’
‘The centurion’s ten miles away and thirty shits that he doesn’t give away from here, and he doesn’t give a rat’s arse what we do. If he cared, he’d have checked on us at least once since the snowfalls started.’
Slapping a hand on the big man’s shoulder, the optio turned away from the view over the silent vicus and the snow-clogged road up to the pass. Wandering back along the wall walk, he passed the east gate and made for the northern corner of the fort, where a turret stood on a rocky hump, the highest point around the entire circuit. As he walked, Valens cursed, his foot coming down badly on a patch of ice that sent him skittering in an ungainly manner until he thumped into the parapet, winding himself and bruising his arm.
A quick glance ahead as he righted himself revealed the figure of the soldier on guard up there – a short, narrow man who oozed slyness and dishonesty like a rat in an oiled snakeskin. Pollio. The optio wasn’t sure he was ready for a conversation with the rodent-like soldier right now and, shrugging off the pain in his arm from the wall, he turned instead to the stairs down to the fort interior. It was only as he placed his first foot on the top step and realised he was going to have to negotiate this carefully that he became aware of a distant voice. Glancing this way and that to identify its source, he spotted Pollio waving at him, calling him over.
It looked as though the optio was not to be spared the little man’s rabid wit after all. Stepping back onto the wall walk, Valens hurried along, climbing towards that turret at the north corner and gripping the parapet for stability on the icy surface. With some difficulty he reached the doorway and stepped inside the tower, making the most of the temporary shelter from the wind, then climbed the stairs to the turret top.
The rat-like soldier was almost vibrating with urgency as Valens stepped out into a fresh blast of bitter cold. The optio frowned. Few things got the man so excitable, except perhaps when the dice came up well and he managed to fleece his tent mates out of their silver. Valens hurried over.
‘What’s got into you? Hole in your crotch letting in draft in?’
‘You won’t piggin’ believe this, boss,’ the little man said, and thrust out a calloused finger to the north.
Valens followed the gesture, his gaze crossing the parapet, the steep hillside that fell away into the deep valley and then back up the stark, white-clad hillside beyond. It took him moments to see the small but distinct shapes of three figures half-walking, half-tumbling down the slope in the direction of the fort.
‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ Valens said, staring out into the bleakness.
Hurrying along the wall, Valens kept his gaze locked on the figures across the valley. Throwing a finger back up at the tower, he bellowed into the wind.
‘Pollio, sound the alarm.’
By the time he’d reached the northwest gate, the diminutive soldier back up on the tower was doing a passable impression of a musician by honking tunelessly into a horn with a result that sounded like a cow being slowly crushed to death. A bell, Valens thought irritably, we need a bell that he can’t ruin.
At the gate, the soldier on guard was no more welcome a sight than Pollio had been. Vibius Cestius was unsettling to say the least. He been a new recruit last year, one of a swathe that had somewhat bucked the age requirements. Probably fifteen summers old, and looking it, he had the style and mode of speech of a middle-aged world-weary orator, and hair as white as the snow in spite of his black eyebrows. He always seemed to be looking through Valens as if seeing something important behind him,but it was his eyes that really creeped the optio out. Like mismatched gems, glittering in dark caverns.
‘Cestius,’ he called, ‘get that gate open, just one door. We’ve got visitors.’
At the alarm, men were now falling out of barrack doorways, mostly complaining about the din, but all strapping on sword belts, tying helmet straps or shouldering shields. Valens stood atop the gate on the wall walk, and peered out into the white. Almost as if on cue, a flake of snow large enough that it ought to have its own name settled on his nose. Damn it, but the next deluge was coming any moment.
It was impossible to tell anything about the three figures he could see across the valley. It looked like either one man running from two more, or three men competing to get to the gate first, but whatever the case there was a distinct urgency to it. Valens watched them slide down a steep section and then begin to pound as swiftly as they could through the knee deep snow. They were still little more than black shapes against the white.
Friend or foe? A question as old as time, and one upon which safety and peril danced together. Should he let them it and then interrogate them, or hold them at the gate? There were only three of them, and the weather was worsening. Still, the centurion would keep the gate closed until he knew everything. That decided Valens more than anything. He was going to let them in.
Behind him, soldiers were falling into line across the road close to the gate, chain shirts still rumpled and out of shape, shields disordered, some with helmets and some just in felt hats, only half of them with scarves and maybe a third with cloaks. They were a fucking shambles and he loved them for it, because no matter what they looked like, they were mad and dangerous bastards to a man.
‘Three men incoming. They all come in through the gate, but no one gets any further without getting punctured, got me?’
‘They run for it, we stick ‘em. Got it boss,’ one of the lads grunted.
‘Looks like one native, two soldiers,’ Cestius murmured.
Valens peered out into the white. They still looked like three black stickmen to him. ‘How in Hades can you tell?’
‘Man out front is wearing furs and running. Other two gleam. Bronze helmets and chain shirts.’
‘You heard the freak,’ Valens shouted. ‘Brace yourself for a panicky native and two soldiers.’
Valens stood in the gate and watched the three approaching figures, aware of the shuffling of people behind him as the men of his half century prepared themselves for the unknown. He squinted out into the white as the moments passed, making out what he could of the three figures as they reached the bottom of the valley.
Though there was no real reason for it, what he really wanted was to be able to prove Cestius the weird bastard wrong, but as they approached, it became clearer and clearer that the lead figure was dressed more or less like a native hunter, while the men following on were dressed very much like the soldiers of the fort’s garrison.
‘Trouble comes in threes,’ Cestius murmured, glaring into the white.
‘What?’ Valens was becoming irritated with the young soldier now.
‘Trust me. Give them bread and cheese and send them on down to Glannoventa, sir.’
‘Let’s just see what they have to say, soldier.’
They waited. As the three figures staggered and scrambled up the steep slope towards them, snowflakes increasing in number with every heartbeat and all driven at gale force, horizontally, Valens watched them and made out more and more detail.
The lead character could easily be a native, but for one thing: as they came closer, Valens became increasingly convinced that the man was wearing a good old-fashioned soldier’s tunic. That made it all the more curious that he appeared to be either being chased or escorted by two men wearing auxiliary uniforms. The optio chewed his lip. In truth, it might be prudent just to send them on down to the centurion ten miles down the valley. Gah, but he wanted to know what was behind this too much, though.
The figures hurried up the slope and Valens, a moment of unaccustomed common sense creeping in, gestured for Cestius and another soldier to close in with pila levelled. No point in taking chances, after all.
The lead runner struggled up into the gateway, coming to a halt in front of the two pila points.
‘In the name of the army of the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius, I seek shelter here from the men chasing me.’
Valens narrowed his eyes at the man. The runner had a short, military haircut, gone wild like most soldiers of a Britannic winter, and a beard that could just as easily be Roman as Briton these days. Blood soaked several areas of his furs and tunic, though he exhibited no other sign of injury. The optio was trying to decide what to say as the two soldiers behind the man slid to a halt. Ignoring the danger of facing the pila of Valens’ men, one of the pair immediately threw himself at the first runner, sword out, tip touching jugular as the man grimaced. The other spread his hands, addressing Valens.
‘This man is a deserter from the Second Raetorum at Alauna Brigantium.’ Even as he spoke, his friend produced a noose of rope as if from nowhere and slipped it around the lead man’s arms, pulling it tight and dragging his wrists together, drawing a grunt of pain.
Valens frowned at the man. ‘You don’t seem to be resisting them. Is this true?’
The deserter shrugged. ‘Depends on your definitions I suppose.’
He snorted in distress as his captor kicked him in the back of the knee, dropping him to the ground, where he looked up at the optio. ‘Give me the nod and I’ll send these fuckers to Hades and be out of your hair.’
Valens sighed. Yup. He should have turned them away even before they spoke.
‘You,’ Valens said, pointing at the man kneeling in the snow and glowering at his captors, ‘stand up.’ He turned to the men of his unit. ‘Get him to the capsarius for a check over. Don’t loose his bonds, though.’
As his men hurried forward to take the deserter, the two men who had chased him in lurched forward, ready to grab him, but Valens stepped forward, growling like a feral dog. ‘You two, hands off. You touch him before I get to the bottom of this and you’ll be leaving here a few teeth short.’
The pair looked at one another, and the men at the rear stepped forward. ‘Mind your tongue, soldier, when you speak to a superior.’
The man snarled. ‘Optio Secundus, Third Century, Second Raetian Cohort.’
Valens gave the man his most infuriating grin. ‘Piss off, Secundus. Optio Aelius Valens, Third Century, Fourth Dalmatian Cohort.’
The man’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’ve no optio’s crest or staff.’
‘Neither have you, knobhead.’
‘How long in service?’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Valens smiled. ‘I’m not acknowledging any seniority from you for a sake of months in. This is my fort, not yours, so you follow my orders. Got it?’
Secundus glowered but, seeing the bristling anger among the men in the street and knowing he’d lost, gave a single nod.
‘Good,’ Valens snapped. ‘Now you and your donkey here follow me.’
As the two new arrivals stomped after him through the snow, Vibius Cestius closed the gate behind them. The lines of men separated for Valens to pass through, and then closed just enough to make it uncomfortable for the two new arrivals to squeeze past. Valens led them between the barrack blocks to the building used as a hospital by the unit’s medic. As they opened the door, a waft of warm stench rolled out over them. A combination of garlic, old socks and some kind of unguent that curled the nose hairs, Valens was used to it, though the look on the faces behind him was priceless.
Inside, Fulvius, the medic, was looking the blood-soaked fugitive over, lifting furs gingerly and examining the tunic and then the flesh beneath. ‘None of this is yours,’ he pronounced irritably in the end, stepping back.
‘Then whose is it?’ Valens asked, approaching.
‘A combination of a few locals and my men,’ snapped Secundus behind him.
‘Oh?’ Valens turned. ‘He killed soldiers?’
‘That’s why he’s out here. He killed our centurion and ran from Alauna. The bastard needed taking down so much that I was sent out with a contubernium into the blizzard to bring him in. We’ve been tracking him since yesterday morning.’
‘And the blood?’
‘We found him hiding in a native settlement.’
‘And?’ Valens was starting to get annoyed now.
‘And the bastard took down six of my men before he escaped again.’
‘Lies,’ the fugitive said. ‘The villagers killed four of them. I only killed two.’
Valens turned to the man, an eyebrow raised. ‘You don’t deny that? Or the centurion I take it?’
‘Centurion deserved it. Any right-thinker would have put a blade in him. The other two were regrettable, but if it’s me or them, then it’s them.’
Valens huffed and turned back to the two soldiers behind him. Go outside and ask for Lancarius. He can cook passably, and even make a rat edible. You need food and warmth. I’ll be along shortly. I need to talk to your prisoner.’
‘He’ll run,’ Secundus snapped. ‘He’s dangerous.’
‘I don’t doubt it, but there’s half a century in this fort.’
‘No you won’t. Go eat and warm up. That’s an order, Optio Secundus.
The man’s lip wrinkled, but with an expression of vile distaste, he turned and left. As the two men departed and the door closed, Valens fixed his gaze on the man and gestured to the medic beside him. ‘This is Fulvius. He’s a passable medic, but a damn fine butcher and he’s got things in his kit that make a gladius look like a spongia. You and I are going to have a chat, and you’re going to tell me the truth, or I let Fulvius play.’
‘I think you might want to leave chit-chat to later,’ the fugitive smiled nastily.
‘Because the tidal wave of shit coming your way will drown you all if you don’t run.’