The time passed with strained and strangulated slowness, each of them fretting and fidgeting in their own way. Elia sat with her burbling child by the trapdoor to the secure strongroom below, a stone cube of a room only six feet across and filled with sacks and age-old detritus since the unit moved out. Fulvius finished his ministrations and moved on to tending to even minor scratches in order to keep his mind focused on something useful. Pollio kept singing two verses of an ear-reddening refrain about a man from Buthrotum with an bulging scrotum, despite the fact that everyone silenced him every time he came to the worst part.
Rigonorix sat as though relaxing in the baths on a quiet afternoon, his only movement the rhythmic scrape of a whetstone up his blade. The old hunchbacked woman spent her time mostly staring at the dagger in her hands that was both an alien item to her and also her potential desperate salvation.
‘How long has it been?’ the wounded soldier asked from where he worried at his splint.
‘An hour now,’ Valens said. ‘Or thereabouts.’
‘And the door hasn’t given yet. Must be no dry wood out there,’ Fulvius noted. ‘They can’t keep the fire going. You never know, the rest of the century might still come in time.’
Valens just grunted, peering at the door. It was odd. There had to be plenty of burnable fuel still available in the charred remains of the vicus if people looked. When a town burned, not everything combustible was utterly destroyed, after all. And yet the smoke that had been drifting under the door had come in three or four flurries, but seemed to have stopped for the past quarter of an hour. He frowned. ‘Can you hear anything?’ he asked.
The room fell silent, the whetstone scraping to a stop. The roof creaked and groaned with the winds and the weight of snow outside, but other than that all was silence.
‘Nothing,’ Fulvius noted.
‘Have they gone?’ the old woman asked with a note of desperate hope in her tone.
Rigonorix looked to Valens, then over to her. ‘It looks suspiciously like it. But it may be that they can’t burn the door in these conditions, so they’re being quiet, trying to lure us out. If we open the door and they’re still there but just being quiet, we’re all fucked.’
Valens nodded. ‘It’s possible, but I think there’s a way. Pollio, climb up on Fulvius’s shoulders and grab the wall above the door. Climb up to the window and tell me what you see.’
‘Why me?’ demanded both men at the same time.
‘Because you, Pollio, move like a rat and weigh about the same, and you, Fulvius, are the tallest one here. And because I’m you’re commander and it’s an order. Get moving.’
Grumbling and struggling, Fulvius stood close to the door as Pollio climbed up onto his shoulders. The medic gripped the smaller man’s boots and hoisted him up, hissing with effort as he pushed his arms straight, Pollio standing on his hands. The small man was above the door now but still almost five feet short of the upper windowsill. The building was old, though, and had not been repaired and renovated since the last time it had been reoccupied. Cracks in the plaster and missing mortar between stones granted him plenty of handholds, and moments later the rodent-like soldier was pulling himself gingerly up into the window.
‘Well?’ called Valens.
‘Empty. The street outside is deserted. The snow’s thinning out again, quite light and the… wait.’ The little man shuffled in the window. ‘I can see figures. There’s five of them standing further down the street, between here and the south gate. That’s all. No sign of anyone else.’
Valens looked across at Rigonorix. ‘Suspicious. Why would they leave? Is it a trap? And if there’s five waiting for us, they must be confident. That means they’ll be strong. Warriors. Can we take them?’
‘Better to go to Elysium fighting in the street than starving in a hole,’ Rigonorix replied with a shrug.
Moments later, they were heaving the basilica door back open, having removed the bar and shifted the piles of junk securing it. The lower reaches of the door were carbon-scored, and a pile of sodden, snow-coated charcoal outside showed how difficult the enemy had been finding the job. Presumably they had used all their good material burning the granary, which now sat as nothing more than a blackened shell up the slope.
The courtyard was empty, and Valens looked back and nodded before stepping out. In response, Elia and the kid sat by the trapdoor, still ready to drop inside and secure themselves if the situation suddenly turned sour. The old woman waited nearby, more confident now of her ability to distance herself from the defenders if required.
The rest left the building, Fulvius giving support to the injured soldier, Pollio and Rigonorix flanking the optio. Gingerly they made their way through the great arch and its open door and into the street which, as the diminutive soldier had noted, was entirely empty. Sure enough, though, five figures stood in a line across the street ahead, halfway to the south gate. The soldiers stepped forward slowly towards them, and Valens sized them up as they moved. The five were warriors, in the prime of youth. Big men and well armed.
‘Fulvius? You alright?’
‘Aye, sir,’ the medic said, letting the wounded man slowly down to the charred and sodden kerb and then drawing his sword. Four against five. That was fair enough, Valens supposed. Better odds than had been offered over the past few hours, anyway. The four soldiers, swords out, advanced down the street.
Valens leaned closer to Rigonorix. ‘You speak their language. Tell them this doesn’t have to end in a fight.’ The fugitive did so, and sounded quite peaceable to Valens, but it seemed to have no effect on the men awaiting them. ‘You realise we might not make it out of this,’ Rigonorix muttered. ‘They’re unmarked and rested. We’re all exhausted and sporting a whole variety of wounds.’
‘I’ll go down fighting, though, like a soldier.’
The man nodded. ‘I suppose I still count as one until I’m caught and executed.’
‘There’s nothing like a bit of positivity eh?’
The four men closed and any hope of a peaceful resolution vanished as the five natives suddenly roared something and raised their swords angrily.
‘What was that?’
Rigonorix snorted. ‘Nothing. Just bullshit, unless your mother really was a whore.’
‘Yes, well let’s not delve into family histories right now,’ Valens said uncomfortably, which made Rigonorix howl with unexpected laughter.
‘Come on then, my son of a whore optio friend, let’s show them what Noric steel tastes like.’
The four men burst into a run, each bellowing their own war cry, calling on a plethora of gods. As Valens ran at them, he couldn’t help but notice the exquisite gold torc gleaming around the neck of the central figure. Oh good, he thought to himself, the groom’s come for a bit of cold revenge.
And with that the two small groups met with a crash. Valens’ sword came up to block the blow of the big man with the torc. The initial blow was so strong that he felt the reverberation all up his arm and into his shoulder. Swiftly, he dropped the blade low and tried to land a jab into the man’s inner thigh, but the warrior ducked easily back out of the way and Valens staggered, only just managing to turn the next swing. Beside him, Rigonorix was having better luck, though far from instant success, the two men struggling back and forth, evenly matched. Pollio, at the end of the line, was darting in and out and stabbing like a hornet, dancing quickly out of the way like the rodent he was. Fulvius, though, was in trouble. The medic had been landed with facing two men alone and had already taken two wounds, slumping to the side and trying to hold himself up long enough to fight them off.
Rigonorix was right. They were just too tired and badly injured to win this.
A glancing blow to Valens’ skull sent him reeling back, a second immediately striking his numb left arm and probably breaking the bone again, though that was the least of his worries. As he staggered, half-blind from the dancing lights in his vision and the throbbing of his head, the warrior was battering at him and only Rigonorix, who had taken on both his own man and now Valens’s, was stopping the native from killing him. A cry arose from Fulvius as the medic fell, clutching his side.
They were done for.
Valens pulled himself upright, fighting the fuzziness of his brain with the intent of living long enough to at least have one more go at the man, when suddenly the warrior with the golden torc spasmed. The man’s shoulders tightened, his head snapping back, and the sword fell from his jerking fingers.
The optio stared as his anticipated killer folded up and fell to the snowy ground. Behind him stood the weird figure of Vibius Cestius with his white hair, black brows and inscrutable mismatched gimlet eyes. As the warrior fell, Cestius’s pugio came free from the man’s back with a sucking sound. Barely waiting for the man to fall, Cestius slammed his sword into one of the two men who were even now leaning in to finish off the fallen medic.
Valens stared, recovering himself just in time to block the last man’s falling sword, turning it away from the shuddering shape of Fulvius and leaving Cestius, the weird, mad, wonderful bastard, to finish him off.
Turning, he could see now that Pollio and Rigonorix had managed to overcome the others and together were working for finish off the last warrior. The optio blinked repeatedly, his whole world a mass of confusion and questions. He staggered back and found a burned-out beam fallen from a destroyed barrack block, sinking down to it and shaking. Cestius was there with him a moment later as Rigonorix helped the medic back up and Pollio went around putting a knife into each fallen native to make sure, like Charon at the games, and coincidentally fleecing them of a few coins in the process.
‘Where the fuck did you come from?’ Valens managed eventually, his voice shaky.
‘Oh I’ve been about, here and there, sir,’ the strange soldier smiled, his grin worryingly dark and feral.
‘I saw you fall.’
‘And it was the only thing that stopped them shooting me again. But they were watching the pass and the valley. If I’d run for Glannoventa they’d have seen me and killed me. I hid for an hour and then picked my way carefully around to the east and over the parade ground, around the outside of the enemy.’
‘So where have you been for the past few hours?’ A thought occurred to Valens. ‘Did you see them leave? Where did they go? Why did they leave?’
Cestius gave him that wolfish smile again. ‘Well I couldn’t go for help, so I started wondering what might matter to them more than you lot. It took me an hour to reach their nearest village.’ He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the south and Valens’s eyes followed it. Columns of roiling black smoked poured up into the clouds over the next hill. ‘Funny,’ the soldier grinned, ‘but their villages are empty coz they’re all here. And they’re made of wood and straw. They burn really easily.’
Valens stared from the strange soldier up to the smoke on the horizon and then back, and began to laugh.
‘Don’t get too comfortable, sir,’ Cestius said. ‘When they’ve put that out, I suspect they’ll come back and they’ll only be even more angry. I think we might want to be gone by then.’
Valens’s already frayed nerves continued to tighten as they left the scene of the last fight, shuffling slowly and painfully along the road and through the south gate. The vicus was more of a ruin even than the fort, and the small group passed between the charred remains of the civilian settlement tensely, watching every side street and doorway, still half expecting some trap.
Fulvius and his former patient now walked together once more, holding each other up, the medic and the wounded soldier as badly injured as one another. Pollio had run back to fetch the women from where they lurked nervously in the basilica and now Elia and her son and the old woman walked along behind them, eyes darting nervously this way and that. Only Valens, Rigonorix and Pollio walked strong with heads high and swords out, though each of them was more gravely wounded than they would care to admit. Blood continued to run out from underneath Rigonorix’s mail shirt after their last scuffle, and Valens was quite certain now that he’d lose the arm, which effectively ended his military career without a proper pension. Only Pollio, the weaselly bastard, seemed to have got away without a proper wound. And their saviour, of course. As Valens glanced across at Vibius Cestius, he privately formed the opinion that when that strange one had matured fully into military service, it wouldn’t be long before all of them were having to salute him as a superior.
Out from the vicus, they passed the bath house and emerged onto the trade road over the pass. The passage of the remaining mass of natives was evident here, for even the continual drift of light snow could not hide the footprints of so many folk moving at speed up the southern hill towards that column of smoke.
‘Where now?’ Pollio asked. ‘Glannoventa?’
Valens turned to look down the valley where that sea-side fort lurked hidden some ten miles distant. He frowned, peering into the white. ‘Do you see what I see?’
Rigonorix followed his gaze and shaded his eyes. ‘That looks like about half a century of men to me. Looks like the cavalry are coming just a little too late.’
Valens wrinkled his lip. ‘I’m about to have a really uncomfortable conversation with the boss.’
‘Oh?’ Rigonorix was smiling oddly.
‘I’ve effectively lost him half a century of men, burned down a fort and vicus he was responsible for and started a small war with the local tribe. I’m tempted to point out that this is somewhat your fault. I might get away with being beaten to death then.’
‘The man responsible for that is dead back there, and you know it. You did everything you could. Why are you wanting to own up anyway?’
Valens frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Your centurion’s not going to want you now. The eagle’s turning its back on you. Your left arm’s dead, man. No medic will save it, bar the possibility of hacking it off and burning the stump. You’re done as a soldier, Valens.’
The optio gave him a weird look. ‘What else do you suggest? Maybe go into acting? Perhaps start a wine company? I’ve nothing but the armour I’m stood in, like you.’
Rigonorix grabbed him somewhat uncomfortably by the shoulder and steered him away from the tired group. ‘Funny thing is that I’m done here too, Valens. I’m not sticking around to suffer whatever punishment is dreamed up for me. I’m off.’ His voice lowered. ‘Come with me.’
‘What?’ Valens stared.
Rigonorix glanced over at the group waiting for them on the road and spoke quickly, urgently. ‘There’s a world out there that could pay well for two men good with a sword, Valens. I’ll bind your arm and get you to someone who can save it. We’re two days from Luguvalium and there’s a good local physician at Derventio halfway there.’
‘You’re mad,’ Valens muttered looking up dramatically into the snow. ‘Two days in this?’
‘I managed that across worse terrain and pursued by soldiers last night. We can do it.’
‘And when we get to Luguvalium?’ the optio snorted derisively.
‘That’s near the border zone. Lots of trouble up there. Endless call for mercenaries. I’ve met men who made a year’s pay for a soldier in just a month up on the border. All we need to do is set ourselves up.’
‘With what? Sell my dead arm?’ Valens huffed, though Rigonorix’s words had set him thinking. His immediate future looked bleak. He’d been set to move into a centurion’s role someday, and now he’d not even be a soldier. A man with one arm’s only end was begging in the gutter and telling stories about what it was like when he was in the army.
The fugitive quickly glanced over to make sure the others were not watching, then grinned and pulled his scarf aside to reveal the gleam of a near-priceless golden torc underneath. ‘I reckon we’re set for life.’
Valens stared. That torc was huge and ornate. Even a proper shark would buy it from them for enough to keep them for two years. ‘You’re mad. It’ll start all over again.’
‘No. I’ll sell it in Luguvalium to a Brigantian or a Selgovae, or maybe some rich Roman officer. And whatever happens here now, we’ll be long gone.’
‘I can’t leave the others to take the blame,’ Valens said too quickly, eyes darting to the folk waiting on the path even as images of himself as a one armed beggar slouching in the gutter assailed him.
Rigonorix grunted. ‘Wait here.’
As the man disappeared Valens, fretting, looked down the road. The rest of the century were closing, though they seemed as yet unaware of the figures up at the ruined vicus and were marching as though heading for business. Valens chilled at the thought of explaining everything to the miserable old bastard leading them. Moments later, the fugitive was back, drawing his attention. ‘Right, Fulvius is down there with his friend. He can spin any tale he likes, lay the blame on you or me and make himself the hero. I spoke to your weird-eyed man. Trust me and don’t worry about him. He’s not daft and he’ll come out of this smelling of roses.’
‘I can’t leave…’ Valens started, then his eyes fell on the shape of Elia as she emerged from behind Rigonorix, holding her child. Her expression was encouraging. He looked back to Rigonorix, who was almost urging him on with his eyes. It came as something of a surprise to him that he didn’t resist when the fugitive grabbed him and pulled him behind the ruins of the bath house. Elia and the boy followed into cover, and they stood there for moments. Valens was about to argue and leave when Rigonorix pulled him back. The centurion and his men were too close now, had seen Fulvius and the others. It would look extremely odd if they leapt out from behind a wall now.
‘I think you’re committed,’ Rigonorix grinned.
Fulvius watched the centurion storming towards him like a tidal wave of puce skin, bristling with irritation, and he paused. He’d assumed Rigonorix would run. Who in his position wouldn’t? He’d wondered more, when Valens vanished, what was happening. The man had no future in the army, of course, but still Fulvius had been sure the optio would hold onto command until the bitter end. Then he’d turned to see that Elia had gone too, and Vibius Cestius gave him a meaningful look.
‘Explain,’ demanded the centurion, coming to a halt on the road and pointing up at the ruins, his men coming to a halt behind him.
Fulvius stumbled mentally, looking for the words, and suddenly Vibius Cestius was ducking around him, his mismatched eyes gleaming with wicked intellect.
‘Centurion, allow me to tell you a story of fallen heroes, of brave medics and of the vengeance of the Carvetii. But,’ he added with a smile that would turn a marble statue to pliable putty, ‘let me tell you it on the run back to Glannoventa, because you’re going to want to man the walls there when I finish.’
* * *
Here ends, for now at least, the story of Valens and his men. You’ll find Fulvius making a brief appearance some time later in Alex Gough’s tale ‘Who All Die’ and you’ll find Vibius Cestius in several of my Praetorian novels, many years later.
This story was inspired by a combination of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and the movies ‘Zulu’ and ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ and I suspect you’ll have seen echoes of them throughout this tale, as well as hints of other classic stories too. This is a bit of a homage in many ways and something I’ve been meaning to write but never would had lockdown not presented this challenge.
Whether you go on to read my books or not, I wish you all well and this has been a blast. When lockdown ends and you can all move about freely, I heartily recommend visiting Mediobogdum fort, now known as Hardknott. No matter the season, when you visit, take a car that can manage steep slopes and take boots that can handle sphagnum moss and squelchy terrain. Hardknott remains one of the most impressive and enigmatic sites in all of Roman Britain. Alauna has fared less well, but a further visit could be made to the other site mentioned at Glannoventa (Ravenglass).
That’s all for me. I may return for another story in the future as clearly Valens and Rigonorix have a lot of scope left yet, but for now, I lay down my stilus and snap shut the wax tablet.