A Long Night
Blood running down his face and hatred in his ice blue eyes, the raggedy tribesman glared. “Damn you, Roman.”
His voice hard, Optio Aulus Decus replied, “The Emperor punishes those who oppose him.”
The tribesman slumped down. “The rebels passed by here. We didn’t help them.”
“You didn’t stop them either,” replied Aulus pacing behind him. “And the sentence for that is death.”
He thrust the gladius into the man’s neck. The sword shuddered in his grip, then he pulled it free. Twitching, the tribesman collapsed to the muddy ground.
“That was the last,” said Milus, his deputy.
Staring at the bloody pile of bodies they’d created, Aulus replied, “Have the men stashed their loot?”
“What there was,” snorted Milus. “If they were here, the rebels took the good stuff. Too bad we weren’t allowed to take any as slaves.”
“This was about making an example,” replied Aulus. “’We should get moving. This hole belongs to Hades now.”
“What about the altar?” asked Milus, pointing to the carved wooden structure decorated in tribal trinkets.
Aulus shook his head. “No point messing with gods, even foreign ones.”
Milus slapped him on shoulder. “Come on. If their gods were any good they wouldn’t be dead.”
Aulus shrugged. “Your funeral.”
A grin on his face, Milus and several others kicked it over and grabbed what offerings there were.
Tapping one of the huts, Jorus asked, “Do we light it up, boss?”
“Nah, leave it as an example. Now form up.”
Bundles of loot swung over their shoulders, the men formed up before him. Aulus led them out; glad they couldn’t see his expression. Wiping out the rebel Germanic village had taken longer then expected. He’d contemplated staying there the night, but he’d seen enough blood that day, and spending the night beside a pile of rotting corpses was decidedly unappealing. Trekking along the glorified goat track the locals called a road, they hadn’t gotten halfway back to the main camp at Abros when the sky started to dim.
Aulus raised his hand. “All rights lads, we’ll camp here for the night. Get it started.”
Taking advantage of his position as Optio, he leaned against a tree and watched while they cleared a small area. It wasn’t long before the camp was set up and dinner was served. Lucius dumped it into his bowl. “Here you go, boss. Caught the rabbit meself.”
Sitting beside the fire, he dabbed at his stew.
Milus grinned. “You don’t seem your usual cheerful self.”
Milus shrugged. “Been a long day. Soldiering’s like that.”
He shook his head. “That wasn’t soldiering. That was butchery.”
“Same thing,” replied Milus with him mouth full. Swallowing he continued, “Anyway it’s over now.”
“Till the next time, or the next time, or the next. The blood never stops flowing.”
“As long as it ain’t our blood,” replied Milus. “Anyway another ten years and you’ll be out.”
Aulus dropped his spoon into the bowl. “Now I am depressed.”
“Depressed enough to take first watch?”
Aulus shrugged. “Sure. Can’t sleep anyway.”
“The lads will love you, boss.”
“Tell them to remember that next time I’m doling out fatigues.”
The camp soon quietened down as the men settled in for the night. The only sound was the creaking of the wood in the fire and rather loud snoring. Staring into the flames he wished he shared Milus’ easygoing attitude. Give him wine, coin and women, and nothing seemed to faze him.
Maybe he was getting old. In his youth he’d waded through rivers of blood with a smile on his face, but seeing his comrades die in a hundred pointless skirmishes and battles had dulled the satisfaction, like it had dulled his old gladius. Now he just felt a growing emptinesshe didn’t know how to fill.
There was a loud snap and it wasn’t from the fire. Aulus slowly got up, his knees cracking from the effort and drew his gladius. He shifted his eyes but couldn’t see anything in the forest beyond. He took a wary step closer edging deeper into the undergrowth. A figure loomed before him. It was the tribal chief. The man he had stabbed in the neck, his skin waxen and his eyes aglow. “Jupiter’s balls.”
He thrust his blade forward and the chief fell back, shrivelling up before him like a dried piece of fruit then collapsing into dust.
A chill run up his spine. “By Hades.”
A twig snapped behind him and he swung round. Two more supposedly dead villagers charged at him. He shoved his torch into the face of one and his blade into the other. It shrivelled before him, covering him in dust. Seeing more figures behind them he ran for the camp. “To arms! To arms!”
The men slowly rustled themselves awaken rubbing his eyes, Milus asked, “What’s wrong?”
“We’re under attack.”
That got everyone’s attention. Then the tribesmen were upon them. Fibius didn’t move fast enough, and he disappeared into the night screaming. There were shrieks from his men as the tribesmen shrivelled from their strikes.
“Jupiter’s balls!” yelled Jorus.
“Don’t think!” he yelled. “Just fight!”
Aulus grabbed his shield and pushed back the nearest tribesman knocking him down. He brought his hobnailed caliga down smashing their skull into pasty goo.
More figures emerged from the undergrowth slowly surrounding them. “What do we do?” asked Milus.
Aulus glanced at his remaining men. “Pull back.”
“To where?” asked Borus.
“The village. Prepare to march double time. Lucius you’re lead. Now move your arses!”
A clear order in their minds, the others scrambled down the road. A woman charged at him, her blonde hair hanging limply over her face. Aulus averted her grasp, then rammed his blade into her chest. He pulled it free with grunt and the woman fell back into dust. He took one last look at the glowing eyes and their owners creeping towards him then ran after his men. He nearly tripped over. Stumbling to his feet he said, “Bloody hell, Borus!”
“Sorry, boss, I tripped, and the others didn’t notice.”
Or didn’t care thought, Aulus.
He grabbed Borus by the scruff of his tunic and shoved him forward. “Get moving.”
Glancing back, he saw the tribesmen were already following and he wasn’t anxious to engage them again. If this had been the god’s way of answering his prayers for something different he wasn’t amused.
It was a long run and he was near exhaustion, when he reached the village gates. “Close...the...doors!”
The door slammed shut behind him and they hastily added the crossbar. Despite his fatigue he barked, “ Man the walls.”
They started scrambling up the earthen wall. Recovering his breath, he said, “Start searching for gaps in the fortifications.”
“What were those things?” asked Milus.
“I don’t bloody know! Just do it.”
“Something s coming!” yelled Jorus.
“Lucius, watch the gate. Everyone else, man the walls!”
His muscles aching, Aulus clambered to the wall, reaching it just as the figures started scrambling up the sides. His men slashed at the gaps in the battlements sending the tribesmen falling back into darkness.
“Help!” yelled Jorus.
Jerking around Aulus saw Jorus being enveloped by a group of tribesmen.
He brought his blade down lashing through the figures arm. The limb immediately began withering. Jorus fell back, fortunately for him there was a haystack at the bottom and he landed with a soft thump. Aulus reeled around and sent another tumbling back into the night.
Slowly the figured moved back tin the darkness. He kept watching for several more minutes but the figures didn’t return. He turned to Borus. “Keep an eye out. You see anything. Anything, yell.”
“We got it,” replied Borus.
Aulus climbed off the embankment and let out the long sigh he’d been holding in since all this began.
“We lost Celes, Dronex, Fibius and Nex.”
“So we’re down to ten men?” He kicked out a pile of smashed pots. “Bloody hell!”
Milus licked his lips nervously. “So what’s the plan?”
“We can hold them off till they give up or we kill them. The camp’s bound to send someone to look for us when we don’t report back.”
Milus glanced at the gate. “Lotta guys out there.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, I’d noticed.”
“So maybe we should send someone to raise the alarm.”
Milus looked down. “With these short stubby legs? How about Borus or Lucius?”
“Generous as you are with others lives, I doubt they’d get more then few hundred yards. And we can’t afford to lose more men.” He pointed to their surroundings. “We need to search the huts and make sure none of those thing are hiding in here.”
Milus involuntarily jerked around. “Crap. You think there are?”
“Buggered if I know, but I ain’t taking the chance.”
What had been a disturbingly ordinary village in daylight prove far more ominous in the night. There was a startled grunt as Jorus and Lucius bumped into each other. “Watch out, you moron.”
Lucius patted his chest armour. “Me? You nearly stabbed me with that thing.”
Jorus stepped forward. “Would’ve served you right.”
“Belt up,” snapped Aulus. “Start searching the huts. See if there’s anything useful left.”
They gave a weary nod.
Pausing beside a hut, Milus said, “Never seen them that bad even at Orlaf.”
The group was a bickering lot, like any group of soldiers, and fights were constant problem, but in combat that was usually put aside. “They were fighting men then, not...demons.”
Something slipped out the door shoving them aside. Aulus dropped his torch and dived for the figure. He thudded his fists into the runners face and got a squeal of pain for his efforts and the runner crumpled to the ground.
Milus came up behind him. “Is it one of them?’
Aulus carefully turned the runner over, his blade raised for a quick strike. It was a young woman. The light emphasising her red hair. Taking a close look her skin though pale and greasy wasn’t the stony waxy grey of their attackers. “No, she’s not one of them.”
Milus raised his blade. “Better safe then sorry.”
Watching her stir back to life, Aulus replied, “Hold on, she might have answers.”
Shaking her head, she glared back at them. “I thought all you Roman dogs would be dead.”
“It’s still early. What’s your name, girl?”
She remained sullenly silent, though given what they had done so recently here, he couldn’t blame her. “We’re in some trouble here, and I don’t have time for unknowns.” He glanced back at Milus. “So be useful or we’ll send you to join your ancestors.”
Imminent death above her, some of the fire left her eyes. “I am Kara.”
“Do you know what’s going on here?”
“Yeah, why we being chased by people we’ve already killed?” asked Milus.
“You brought this on yourselves.” She pointed to the smashed up altar. “You angered the Goddess. Now she wants your heads.”
Aulus glared back at the altar. “Jupiter’s balls! I told you to leave it alone. You don’t mess with gods.”
Milus started sweating even more. “I didn’t think we’d have an army of the dead on our tail.” He patted his chest. “Am I cursed? How do we stop this?”
A tiny smile on her face, Kare replied, “I imagine your deaths will suffice. They will keep coming until they kill you or you kill them.”
“They’re coming back!” yelled Borus, from the wall.
Aulus and Milus exchanged the smallest of looks. Quickly binding the girl’s arms, Aulus shoved her into the hay pile. “Don’t move.”
Heart beating loudly in his chest they sprinted for the wall. They reached the rampart just in time to see Jorus being pulled over the side. Aulus made a vain attempt to grab him, but grasped only air. Milus pulled him back before any of the tribesmen could seize him. Staggering back he almost toppled off the walkway but caught himself in time. Working with Milus they paced the wall, stabbing out at anything that threatened to breach their meagre defences.
There was a thud behind him and turning around he saw one particularly athletic old woman advance towards him. She avoided his first thrust, nearly biting him on the arm. He elbowed her in the face and as she reeled back, he went in for the killing blow. Watching her collapse before him, he realised it wasn’t even their appearance that unsettled him the most. It was the eerie silence with which they fought. Hearing movement he spun around and only just stopped himself from stabbing, Borus. “Careful you stupid bastard.”
A visibly shaken Borus replied, “Sorry.” He pointed to the forest. “They’re pulling back.”
Looking through the defences he saw Borus was right. “Let’s make sure they’re not coming back.”
The creatures faded back into the night. Lucius raised his gladius. “Yeah take that you bastards!”
Borus joined in. “You mess with the Wolves you get the sharp end!”
Aulus barked, “Enough! Just keep watching the wall.”
“Sorry, boss,” said Lucius. “Just a bit on edge.”
They paced the wall for several minutes until he decided he’d had enough. Meeting him at the bottom, Milus said, “This isn’t working. They’re going to overwhelm us.”
“I know,” he replied.
“So what do we do?”
Rolling to her feet the girl muttered, “Die.”
Aulus raised his hand. “Watch your tongue, girl.”
She glared back but remained silent.
Milus grabbed his shoulders. “What if we’re cursed? What if this is our fate? To fight them off for eternity? What do we do!”
Aulus cuffed him with the back of his hand. “Enough!”
The rest of the men started looking in their direction. “What are you idiots looking at? Get back to work!”
They turned their attention back to the wall.
He grasped Milus’s shoulder. “You need to keep it together.”
“Everyone who stole from the altar is dead. I’ve never been cursed before, so forgive me worrying.”
“You sure, cause a face like that indicates otherwise.”
The tiniest of smiles cracked on Milus’s face.
“So stop fretting like some over excited village girl and give me moment to think.”
Studying the village, he took off his helmet and ran his hand through his hair. Beside him Milus tapped his feet nervously. “Well?”
“Well, give me a moment!” he snapped.
Milus took a step back.
He pounded his fist into his hand. “I got it.”
“Got what?” asked Milus, a hint of hope in his eyes.
He grabbed Milus by the shoulders. “We let them in.”
“I think you were hit harder then I thought,” replied Milus, his hope quickly vanishing.
“Listen. We open the gates and lure them into the Great Hall. Then we bail out and set the thing on fire. We pick off any that get loose.”
Milus folded his arms. “Lotta ifs in that plan.”
He thumped him on the arm. “You wanted certainty you shouldn’t have joined the Legion.”
“How exactly do we lure these bastards in?” asked Milus, rubbing his bruise.
“Bait,” he replied.
“Hell with that,” said Milus.
“I’ll do it,” replied Aulus, given how squirrelly Milus was getting, he doubted he’d last long out there anyway. “Maybe my luck will hold out a bit longer.”
He looked at Kara. “I just need a little help.”
With a clear plan, it hadn’t taken long to set things up, but that didn’t make Aulus feel much better, as they wheeled the door open. “Good luck, boss,” said Borus.
Before he could reply it slammed shut behind him. The torch held heavy in his hand, in its light his breath misted before him. The cold seeped through his clothes, but he wasn’t shaking from the cold.
“You afraid, Roman? You should be,” said Kara.
Aulus held tight on Kara’s arm, her hands bound together with rope. Despite her bravado he could feel her trembling tightly. Although it was just as likely the trembling was from him. Been in worse situations than this, he reminded himself, though it was hard to picture them.
“Shut it,” he muttered. “I promised I’d let you go when this is over. So play nice.”
“Like you let them go?”
He grimaced. “I was just following orders. It wasn’t personal.”
“It was to them.”
“What’s the matter?” he asked, unwilling to admit she’d hit a nerve. “Not looking forward to the family reunion?”
“Those things aren’t my people. Merely their...shells.”
“You better hope they feel something or we’re both buggered.”
“My soul is prepared. Is yours?”
Aulus contemplated that for a moment. “Probably not. So let’s make sure I don’t have to find out.”
He tightened his grip. “Now give us a scream.”
She glared back at him.
“You scream or I make you.”
As if to spite him she let out an ear-piercing scream. She glared back. “Was that sufficient?”
His ears still ringing, he muttered, “Yeah, good job.”
Moving the torch over his head, he started easing back to the gate. “Come on you bastards.”
Shadows began forming before him and they were getting closer – far too close for comfort. Kara stumbled into him. It seemed she wasn’t eager for a family reunion just yet. Time to test his theory. He wheeled her around and they slowed their approach.
He tossed the torch at the incoming spectres and threw Kara over his shoulder. A long time ago he’d been Legion champion at sprinting but with Kara trussed over his shoulder he felt anything but fleet of foot.
The gate loomed before him but crossing the threshold he knew he was far from safe. His left leg suddenly gave way beneath him and he toppled to the ground with a thud, Kara rolling out before him. Glancing back he could see the spectres streaming through the gate. Heart racing he stumbled to his feet and pulled Kara up.
The Great Hall door beckoned to him with its salvation. Using her as a shield he eased back to the door, stabbing at any who got too close. The interior had been gutted to leave him a clear path to the far end. The spectres hovering just out of reach, he cried, “Come on you bastards! Plenty to go around!”
The spectres swept forward in a menacing advance their dead yellow eyes boring into him. When they were just steps away, Aulus shoved Kara through the tiny opening they ‘d cut into the wall then dived through after her. As he fell into the mud he yelled, “Light it up!”
The others emerged from their hiding places, tossing their torches onto the thatch, which burst into flame lighting up the night.
As the wood cracked from the heat, he could hear otherworldly howls emanate from inside.
“Bloody hell,” muttered Borus.
“Aye,” he replied.
“Congratulations,” said Kara. “You’ve killed my village once again.”
“They weren’t your people,” replied Aulus. “Just a god’s playthings.”
Milus grabbed her. “Is it over? Are we free?”
“That is up to the Goddess,” replied Kara.
Milus raised his hand. Aulus caught it. “Enough. I said we’d let her go and we will.”
He eyed the others as if daring them to disagree, but they sullenly nodded their agreement.
Aulus turned to her. “You want my advice. You’ll leave this place and give it a wide berth. I know we will.”
“Sounds like a good reason to stay,” she replied.
Taking along look at the smouldering remains of the hall, Aulus replied, “Maybe it is.”