XX - The Long March North

XX - The Long March North

A Chapter by BL

‘With each step we take it gets ever colder’

On the earth there is fire, water and air, these are all the things there are; there is nothing more. And so if all the things are there then the future must be too, but you have to know how to look for it. Through drifting smoke, in the flames light, in the water’s distorted reflection and where the dust kicks off the ground is where it can be. The past is is buried in the earth, while the now hangs in the air. Wiznia knew how to look and could see the column of men, he could see their faces, their trudging boots and the weariness in their eyes. They were coming a long way for their prize, the prize of Briton, but would they ever make it? He looked harder, seeking the future, but marching boots turned into signs that meant nothing. The scorpion appeared again, but this time there were two. A bright orange scorpion and a larger black one.

[][][][]

They marched north from Lyon and it was a long march, long, straight and arduous. They marched in strict order of legion, unit and section number. This meant there were a good five thousand men ahead of Ascoli and Thamus’s section; little old section three. They marched at a steady pace, covering twenty miles a day and stopped when there were any obstacles, places of interest, issues with direction or confrontations. They passed through beech and oak copses and saw the farmers in the fields and farmyards, who paid them no mind, it was spring and there was a lot of activity in the countryside. The marching took five to six hours each day and they were usually finished by mid-afternoon giving them plenty of time to rest and set up camp. After the first day they were half way to Macon and camped in a field by the river Rhône. They had set up their tents in exactly the same way as in Lyon. The men spent their spare time playing dice, practicing their fighting skills and nursing the beginnings of their foot wounds.

‘I hate the north, I wish we’d got Spania,’ Ducius moaned. His head was down and he was paying no attention to anyone or anything around him. ‘That would’ve been a real doddle,’

‘You don’t know that. There’s the five finest going before us, we’ll just be spectators,’ Ascoli put in. He watched a flock of ducks swimming in the river, pecking the surface for weeds.

‘Yeah, but bloody cold ones,’ Ducius said throwing a hardened piece of earth at them and watching them scatter.

‘Better to be cold than dead.’

‘This country’s not much better. I’ve never seen so many overgrown trees. The land’s flat and boring and we’re too far from the sea. I need to feel the salt air and to be by the coast or it to be just over a hill. Do you know what I mean?’

‘Yes, mate. When we get to Briton there’ll be plenty of water,’ Ascoli replied sarcastically.

‘All frozen over I expect,’

‘If you say so, Ducius. Why are you so down?’ Ascoli laughed, but on seeing a figure disappear behind some bushes the other side of the river his face dropped and his heart beat fast; nineteen to the dozen. It was a scrawny, muddy-faced man, he had wild staring eyes that were angry.

‘Um, well let me see. My feet hurt, it’s freezing cold, we are going to the end of the world and likely to die and I’ve got to listen to a chorus of snoring every night,’ he said looking up and around. ‘And I know for a fact we’re being stalked for a kill,’

The next day at first light they marched for five hours to the small settlement of Macon. It was no more than an enclave of a few circular animal skin huts and two big houses with higher walls of wood and stone at its centre. In the afternoon they set up camp in the fields beyond it and rested in their tents knowing they would have to repeat the same task all over again tomorrow. The usual perimeter guard was put in place around them. The canteen was set up and at dusk a meal was served for all twenty thousand men. The cooks had prepared fish stew and vegetables as well as an after meal of bread, cheese and fruit. Water was taken from the well at Macron and all the fish was ‘obtained’ from its fish drying house. The men sat in random groups on a grassy bank eating their meals.

‘This fish reminds me of home,’ Thamus said. No one replied. ‘We would have fish three times a week,’ Ducius nodded as he chewed. ‘In Sicilia, that’s where I’m from,’

‘Long walk back,’ Ducius mumbled under his breath.

‘I wonder if I’ll ever get back there,’ Thamus said dreamily. He looked up at an escarpment of high rocks and saw a face. He blinked disregarding it, but then saw a torch light. ‘Look up there,’ he pointed. Several pairs of eyes followed his finger.

‘What?’ Ascoli said. ‘What are you looking at?’

‘I saw someone, I saw a face. We’re being watched. It could be an ambush,’

‘Twenty legions are quite difficult to miss, Boss,’ Ducius chipped in laughing. Thamus was silent. ‘You married, Boss?’

‘Yes, I’m married,’ Thamus said drearily still scanning the edge of the escarpment.

‘Any kids?’

‘Not yet. To be honest, I haven’t been home long enough,’ he said smiling knowingly at Ducius. ‘That’s why I need to get back there,’

‘Yeah, I get it,’ Ducius said. ‘To Sicilia?’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ Thamus said. He held up a locket and stared longingly at it.

‘Is that her?’

‘Yes,’

‘Can I see?’

‘Yes,’ Thamus said knowing what would happen. Ducius got up and leaned in closely to get a view. He looked at the head and shoulders of a beautiful young woman, etched in ivory on a dull black background. She smiled playfully, her eyes wide and sparkling. She had fine manicured eyebrows and long lashes that drew a viewer into her hypnotic gaze. She had a small straight nose, full lips and high cheek bones that gave a hint of a blush. She wore an open fronted toga revealing her full breasts and cleavage and had a smooth graceful neck. Her hair was jet black and shoulder length and neatly cut to give the indication of a married woman.

‘Wow, no wonder you want to get home. She’s a stunner,’ Ducius said.

‘She’s a stunner, Sir,’ Thamus corrected. ‘And put your tongue back in your mouth,’

‘Oh, ha, yes, OK, if you say so. Hey lads come and look at this,’ he shouted over to some of the unit. Ascoli and Pico sauntered over looking none the wiser. ‘Look at Thamus’s Mrs.,’ Thamus held up the locket for them to see, but as they huddled around him a spear whistled through the air. It stuck into the chest of a legionary who was eating his meal. He immediately slumped down, dropping his metal plate. A group of armed men rushed out of the bushes throwing spears, they gave a loud battle cry and waved swords and axes above their heads. When thirty or so had come out a group of armoured horses appeared. Then the arrows flew.

‘All unarmed men are to fall back,’ Thamus shouted putting the locket away. ‘GUARDS,’ he yelled. ‘GUARDS,’ They retreated back to the trestle tables of the canteen as the attackers fell upon them. The attacker in front of Thamus swung his sword from left to right, slashing and lunging at him. Thamus held up a small metal plate as a shield and it was swiftly cut in two. ‘We - are - under - attack,’ he cried.

Luckily there was a large burly man next to him, a legionary whose name was Leviathan, he was from legion three and stood his ground. He caught a spear thrown at him and used it to poke at the two attackers he faced. He lunged at the one on his left and used his dagger to stab at the man on his right. He laughed as he fought and like a dancer moved gracefully forward, keeping a firm balance enabling him to use his arms to maximum effect. Arrows buzzed around him and one hit him in the leg, he flinched, but carried on. Thamus wanted to fall back, but found himself, with no weapons by Leviathan’s side. Two more attackers came at them and around them they saw their comrades falling. The pain of the arrow angered Leviathan and he picked up a whole trestle table and used it to push four men back.

‘Help me brother,’ he growled at Thamus and so Thamus put his shoulder against the rectangular table and the attacking men fell back. Pico was on the ground, badly injured. As soon as they were attacked Ascoli had run off, but was now returning with his short sword and his helmet loosely fitted. He was closely followed by the armed guard, who systematically fanned out along the top of the bank, forming a makeshift shield wall. Those under attack started to fall behind it as they marched forward down the bank.

As Ascoli ran forward to join the battle he saw Pico and Ducius on the ground. Ducius was spread-eagled, his eyes were shut and there was a bloody bruise on his forehead. ‘Ducius, Ducius are you all right,’ he gasped, leaning down to him and shaking him. Ducius groaned faintly and so he moved on to Pico who looked worse. He grabbed Pico and managed to drag him back behind the shield wall as more men came to fill the gaps in it. Pico was white, drained of blood and not responding. Ascoli ran forward from behind the line into the melee and engaged in a sword fight with a retreating attacker.

‘Get behind the line,’ a guard shouted. Ascoli looked back to see the armoured horses smashing up the canteen and surrounding tents. He broke off from his fight and stood in the line of forty or so men. The army of Italia had now woken up and it seemed that every man was at the scene, they poured in semi-armed to defend and protect those attacked. The enemy, whoever they were, sounded the retreat and disappeared into the bushes and then the forest behind. They were good at retreating and that wasn’t an insult it was a practised part of their battle strategy. Hit and run, not honourable battle. The horseman who had sounded the retreat on a golden bulge wore a thick woven tunic of bright green and heavy trousers. He wore jewellery suggesting he was of a privileged background and although he carried a long spear and a broad sword neither looked like they had been used. Behind him another horseman carried an ornate flag of gold, blood red and silver. He wore the same style tunic of sky blue and had black trousers.

‘Give me that spear,’ Leviathan growled at a legionary in the shield wall. The legionary passed it to him and Leviathan quickly weighed it in his hand. He threw it in a smooth arc at the flag bearer and it hit his horse on its rear flank making it stagger and fall. Being quick-witted the flag bearer got off and ran along with the retreating ground troops. Tauntingly the flag bearer waved the flag at Leviathan and he started into a run, but then thought better of it and stood firm.

[][][][]

Pico was dead, twenty-eight legionaries had lost their lives Ducius and was unconscious. There were only three dead attackers, the men of Macon, two Leviathan had killed with his bare hands. Severus stormed out and surveyed the dead with furious eyes. His face was red and his brow deeply furrowed.

‘Men will remain armed at all times. Perimeter guard will be doubled and the night watch tripled. Have I made myself clear? This is a senseless waste,’ he bellowed. ‘We can not lose any more lives,’ he stormed off at a pace stopping to look at the smashed up canteen and tents. Severus was aware he had lost his temper and was out of control, he needed to remain calm in front of the men and to set that as an example. At the address he made the next morning he outlined their plans again, talking of Briton as an easy win and merely a formality. He said the native population would welcome them with open arms, seeing them as the face of civilisation and a better life. He reassured their safety and emphasised the need for caution and discipline. Leviathan was honoured with a medal and the the dead were sent back to Rome for a ceremony of death according to their religion. They would march for nine hours for the next five days to make the hundred and fifty miles to the fort at Auxerre.

Because the land was so flat the sky appeared to be massive. In any direction you could see for miles and as they reached a slight incline towards a low peak the whole arrangement of the marching army could be seen. A long thin line of men, two abreast that stretched for more than four miles flanked by horsemen at regular intervals. At the rear were the horses and carts that carried the tents, the canteen, the injured and some of more elderly advisors. Attached to the carts were cattle and horses. At the front in the vanguard crack troops and forward scouts scanned and checked the path ahead making sure there was nothing to stop them. They marched on with twenty-nine men from the reserves refilling the ranks so they were up to full strength again. The young reservist marching next to Ascoli looked and was very young, probably only just eighteen or younger if he had lied about his age to get in the army.

‘What’s your name, son,’ Ascoli said as they marched at the new increased speed.

‘Marc,’

‘Marc,’

‘Yes, Marc with a C,’

‘You’re filling some big shoes, Marc with a C, so you’d better not f**k things up,’

‘Yes. The guy who died?’

‘Yes, who do you think I mean?’

‘Well, yeah that’s who I thought you meant,’

‘He was my friend and a good guy, OK?’

‘Yeah, sure. How’d he die anyway?’

‘In the ambush, you thick twat, he was unarmed. He was cut down,’ Ascoli said as loudly as he could without being heard by Thamus.

‘Oh yeah. Why are we getting attacked in our own country, I mean empire. This is supposed to be friendly country isn’t it?’

‘Where are you from? Don’t you know anything,’ Ascoli snapped.

‘Um, I’m from Dalmatia actually,’

‘Well this lot in this neck of the woods some of them are friendly and some of them aren’t. The ones that jumped us definitely aren’t, they’re the bad guys and when we get to hot, sunny Briton it’ll be easy to remember which are which because they’re all bad. All of them and you will know which way to fight because those savage b******s will be all around us. Do you get it? So you can fight in any bloody direction you like. It’s all the fault of Thamus’s Mrs., she brought us bad luck, she put a spell on us,’

‘Right,’ Marc said chuckling to himself. Some of the others laughed a little.

‘Ascoli will you shut up and all of you keep your eyes peeled,’ Thamus shouted, he turned around from his position at the front and marched backwards looking over his ten men. There was a space where Ducius should have been, he was due back in a couple of days having now regained consciousness. Ducius was the one who would do the talking as they marched and make everyone laugh and get into trouble and end up doing latrine duty. Quite ironically making other people laugh seemed to make him low afterwards as though it drained him of his happiness.

‘When’s Ducius back, Tham?’ Ascoli asked knowing he might be reprimanded further, but he didn’t care as he was missing Pico. It had put everything in perspective.

‘A couple of days,’ Thamus shouted over his shoulder.

That night under a clear and starry sky they camped on a cold open plain and everyone was put on a state of high alert. Guards circled the tents and lookout posts were heavily manned. Numbers nine and ten of section three, unit nineteen, legion sixteen sat around a campfire with the others. Number ten was teaching number nine how to remember his number.

‘So your legion number is sixteen, that’s ‘XNII’ got it?’ Ascoli said. Marc looked blank.

‘I don’t know what X - N - I - I is,’ he said.

‘For the god’s sake you know what X is don’t you?’

‘Yes, yes, who doesn’t. I just can’t read or write,’

‘What is it then?’

‘Ten,’

‘And N is?’

‘Four,’

‘So what is ten add four?’

‘Uhh, well it’s...it’s fourt...I can’t add up either,’

‘How old are you?’ Ascoli asked as quietly and patiently as he could. Clenching and unclenching his fists.

‘Sixteen, but seventeen by winter,’

Ascoli looked up at the stars and looked around at the men. ‘You need to learn your unit number so you don’t get lost and they know who you are. If you don’t you’ll be on a charge,’

‘Yes,’ Marc said sheepishly. Ascoli drew the three symbols in the sand an X for ten, an N for four and a I for one. He pointed to each with a stick and made the young lad recite them until he was bored and annoyed. Then he made him add them together in different combinations. X and N, X and I, N and I. The young lad counted them up on his fingers. Ascoli drew XNII.

‘Sixteen,’ Marc said triumphantly. ‘My age,’ Thamus and John Smith, the number two shook their heads in amazement and disbelief.

‘You’d better get back home, lad,’ John said with some concern and some humour.

‘I’m not going home,’ Marc snapped.

‘In a way I am though,’ John replied. John was a British mercenary.

Ascoli wrote their full address in the sand and made Mark recite it over and over again. ‘Sixteen, nineteen, three,’

‘But do you understand the numbers? And what’s your number?

‘Nine,’

‘Write it then,’ Ascoli said handing him the stick. He started with an N, then drew another.

‘That’s eight,’ he said to himself.

‘So how many more do you need?’

‘One, I need one,’

‘Write it then,’ Ascoli ordered. ‘And then write our full address and number. ‘It starts with our legion, which is?’

‘Sixteen,’ Marc said. He got the stick and quickly scribed the whole thing ‘XNII/XNNI/III/XXI’ ‘there you are,’

‘That’s enough for now, Ascoli,’ Thamus said. ‘Let the boy get some rest. We have a lot of marching to get through,’ Thamus got up from the rock he was sat on and stared dreamily into the night. It was quiet, too quiet, he could feel a restlessness.

They marched as a clear dawn broke and as the track got wider turning into a road they marched three abreast. The terrain changed and the open flat plain became more woody and hilly. Either side of the road there were fences, behind which were cultivated soil. Every now and then they would see someone working the soil. One man stood up and watched them pass, he leant on the handle of his fork and waved at them, holding up the earthy potatoes he’d just dug out of the ground. A little while later they passed through the village of Beaune. It was a large rich looking place with many houses and a long market. They did not stop. Some villagers came out and threw flowers down beneath their feet as an offering of good luck. With Beaune in the distance behind them, they broke for water. The noon sun was high and relentless in the clear sky, there was nowhere to shelter so they stood where they were for a few meagre minutes.

‘Moo-ving out, their Unit leader, Amros shouted all too soon. They entered a wide sweeping valley and when they were at the bottom of it a large band of horsemen came over the ridge to their right. They did not attack, but instead ran alongside the marching lines getting closer, it seemed to look. The mounted guard drew in not knowing what to do as it happened so quickly.

‘Keep it steady, lads, nice’n steady,’ Thamus barked. The horseman were armed, but didn’t wield their weapons. After watching the men closely they drifted away in a cloud of dust and thunder. There were a hundred or so horses mainly white and dappled white & grey, some were chestnut brown and others pure black.

‘Youre an albatross Ducius,’ Vinci shouted in the ranks.

‘What?’ Ducius snapped. He was wearing a white bandage around his head which had some blood on it. His helmet bashed against his leg as he took vigorous strides forward.

‘Soon as you come back we see the enemy,’

‘They weren’t the enemy,’ Ducius said slowly, his voice in a song of flattened untuneful notes.

‘No they were a hunting party, it is there land after all,’ Thamus said authoratively.

‘Yeah they had a dead deer or something,’ Marc put in.

‘No, you’re both wrong,’ Ducius said with a laugh. ‘They were counting,’ A silence ensued as they took in what he meant.

‘Counting what?’ Marc asked.

‘Us,’ he said. They marched on in silence, making good time. They made camp in the mid-afternoon having got half way to the fort at Auxerre. In theory they were in their most vulnerable position. They were quiet in the evening too, no one saying very much as they were tired. Night fell and Thamus and Ascoli listened to the restlessness of the night. Owls hooted and bats flew low and around the tents, the world had come alive with a new version of itself. There was even a shooting star under the full moon. The night glow had stirred activity.

The next day (day five of the march to fort at Auxerre) the road took them through a long gorge. The rocks were high on each side and close to the road, which became a track meandered in looping curves. It was dark and shadowy in the gorge, there were trees overhanging and high shrubs covering most of it. Scouts had been sent ahead and had scoured the clifftops for any signs of the enemy, but had found nothing so they marched on through. Everyone knew it was the perfect place to be attacked and so they waited for the inevitable to happen and it did. Boulders rolled onto them, crushing men and breaking their lines, arrows rained down from nowhere killing indiscriminately and spears fell on them in huge numbers. They took shelter under boulders by the track and tried to march on, but found themselves in disarray. They waited for the attack to abate and inch by inch crept forward. Torches of burning oil exploded on the ground creating a hostile and impossible environment. Smoke filled the air, trees and shrubs burnt and men were strewn everywhere bleeding and broken. A voice shouted in the noise and confusion.

‘On my count we run out of here, we run forward and we keep going,’ It was Amros. Ascoli could see men already running forward from their hideaways. ‘One - Two - Three,’ All the remaining men of unit nineteen ran forward through the smoke and debris, leaving their dead and injured comrades behind. ‘Come on lads lets go,’

As they ran the gorge opened up into the wet sandy bottom of a shallow river bed. The sides of the gorge were forty feet apart giving them time to reassemble. Up ahead a pitched battle was taking place and legions one to five had formed a heavy shield wall which they were using to push the enemy back. Showers of arrows fell on them as unit nineteen assembled with shields above their heads. Amros stood with Thamus and the three other section leaders.

‘I want men to go up the cliffs to sort those archers out, any volunteers?’ he shouted. No one said anything. ‘I’ll say numbers then. Five and ten from each section, with me, up here now,’

Ascoli cursed himself for having such bad luck. Why him he wondered. He would never get back home now, he would never see his home country. He and Illie, the number five stood in front of the unit with five other men from the other sections. Arrows buzzed around them and on the attacking line ahead. The seven men all prepared themselves for the ascent in different ways. One man put his shield on his back and readied himself in his armour, another man took all his armour off, as it wasn’t arrow proof and slung his sword on his back, a third man stayed as he was and a fourth borrowed a bow and arrow from one of the archer unit. A fifth man removed his armour, helmet and sword, held a dagger in his teeth and started to climb without saying a word. Illie and Ascoli decided to go as they were and drop armour and weapons they didn’t need or couldn’t use as they went. They searched along the rocks for a gap, for a way up. Quietly and carefully they climbed from rock to rock, seeking out hidden pathways and surfaces that could act as steps. As they got closer to the archers Ascoli soon realised they were making too much noise in their full battle dress and so striped down to their undergarments. They carried on up, each bringing a dagger and sword and one shield between them. The agonising cries of another legionary ascending echoed around the rock face and then a body fell and crashed to the ground. They took more steps upwards and onwards, following the flights of arrows showering down on their men.

‘Aaaarrrrgggghhhh,’ a gurgling cry sounded from somewhere up above, then the sound of steel on steel. One of the others had got to their line and was fighting his way through them. They listened above, it had gone quiet now. The fighting had stopped. They hopped up higher until they found a ledge. At the end of the ledge was a large flat piece of stone that acted as a divide to the next section of ledge. Ascoli carefully looked over and on it was an archer. He had a large sheaf of arrows and was taking his time to choose his targets below.

‘I’ll go, you stay,’ Ascoli silently mouthed to Illie. He pointed at his own chest then the direction of the archer and then pointed at Illie and held up the flat of his hand to emphasise what he was saying.

‘Be quick and make it quick, there are others,’ Illie whispered. Ascoli nodded and got in position behind the flat stone ready to pounce. Below he saw the nineteenth cowering under their shields. Some had gone forward to join the fight. Ascoli listened and watched through a crack. The man was stocky and not young he had an over developed right arm which meant he was used to drawing a bow. He was at his most vulnerable when he was just about to fire. His concentration was high then, he was focusing on nothing else but his target. ‘Hurry, Asc,’ Illie’s voice sounded quietly.

‘Yes, shush,’ he said. The man had released an arrow, watched it fly and was getting another from the sheaf. Ascoli got high up on the stone ready to jump down the other side. He put the arrow on the notch, drew the drawstring back and took aim, his eyes looked down the shaft and he chose his target. Ascoli was on the top of the stone in full sight. The bow stretched back a little further as the archer homed in. Ascoli slid down the other side of the stone and landed fifteen feet from the archer and ran forward at him. The archer looked around, fired, his arrow flew wide of its target. Ascoli drew his dagger as he accelerated. The archer let his bow go and started to draw a short sword, but Ascoli was on him. He lunged at his chest, but an arm blocked his target. Blood oozed from the archer’s forearm and he reeled back, twisting away. He tried to draw his sword. Ascoli lunged, holding the archer this time and the dagger sunk in deep. He twisted it and pushed it further in, the archer tried to hold it out, but it was too late. Ascoli withdrew it and stabbed again. A large patch of dark blood formed around the wound. He pushed the archer onto the ground as he lost strength and reeled around in pain. Ascoli looked down at him pitifully as he prepared for the killer blow; it was the first time he’d ever killed a man. Illie hopped over the rock behind him as arrows flew at them from archers further along that were nestled on the top of the gorge.

‘Finish him,’ Illie said going into a crouch for protection. Ascoli held him down and drew his dagger across his throat as he’d been trained to do and the man gasped his last breath of air, spasmed and was gone. Ascoli watched him fade away, it seemed strange to see him drift into death. ‘Come on, there’s no time for that,’ They crept along the rocks in a sandy ledge that was sheer and exposed on one side. Looking down Ascoli saw the raging battle and the army of Italia slowly pushing forward, but it had suffered losses. Arrows flew at them so at least they were diverting them away from their troops. They came to a bend where the rocks veered away from the gorge and there around the corner were two more archers. They crouched down behind the shield as arrows thudded into its leather, wooden and metal rimmed body.

‘It’s now or never,’ Ascoli said to Illie. More arrows thwanged into the shield that began to look like a giant porcupine.

‘Leave it a bit longer,’ Illie said nervously. They shuffled forward so that they could run at the archers. He looked through the shield’s eye holes and saw the archers were readying to move off. ‘Let’s go, now,’ he cast down the shield and ran at full speed. Ascoli quickly followed and in seconds they were on them. The archers threw down their bows and drew their swords and a two on two sword fight began. After a few cross strokes it was apparent that they were evenly matched. Ascoli lunged at one man and swiftly he blocked and parried. Illie slashed his sword wildly from left to right, not as in their training, but his opponent calmly moved back absorbing and avoiding the blows. There was shouting from below, someone was calling them. There was not much room to manoeuvre in the area they fought in so one man stood forward with the other behind to one side. Illie and Ascoli used the shield to push forward, working as one, they pushed the two archers back so they were near the edge. They were only inches apart now, there was no room for long sword strokes. The two archers edged backwards and the forward one lunged with his sword around the edge of the shield, as he did Ascoli stepped past him, with his body across him and unexpectedly struck his sword at the archer behind. The archer behind stepped back, lost his footing and fell back. His arms waved in the air in circles, but he couldn’t hold his balance. In this instant the remaining archer held his sword double handed and smashed it down onto Illie’s head. Illie fell to onto Ascoli and they both fell to the ground. The archer ran and was gone. Illie’s skull was smashed, he lay blood soaked and lifeless, his sword still in his hand.

Ascoli got up and listened to the calling from below. ‘return to your unit, the battle is over,’ a voice said. It sounded like Thamus. Looking down he could see the men reforming into their lines. Up ahead along the cliff path in the distance he could see a few of the enemy retreating. Ascoli scrambled down the way he had come leaving Illie where he was. He took a long last look at him, savouring the memory of him and their friendship and then he fled. The track through the gorge below was deserted, there were bodies lying lifelessly around and abandoned weaponry and armour, but no signs of life. The small river that weaved its way through the sand ran red with blood in places and crows pecked at the flesh of men. Ascoli picked up a couple of spears and a damaged shield and warily he walked on until the rocks either side of the track became lower. He kept walking until he was out of the gorge, knowing that on his own he was vulnerable and likely to be picked off. He scanned around as he went, walking quietly and keeping his guard up.

As he quickly walked, skipping and running in short bursts he became ultra aware of his surroundings, every sound became alarming, every slight movement of the grass or trees a threat and every reflection of light a potential attack. After half a mile he caught sight of the rearguard of the marching column. He ran to catch up seeing the empty and open countryside between him and them and as he ran he saw eyes peering at him through the long grass, it made him sprint on until he was confronted by two mounted guards who were patrolling the rear of the column. They saw who he was and let him through. After jogging along on the outside of the lines he caught up with his section. ‘Thought you’d bought it,’ Ducius said as he slipped into line beside Marc. ‘Where’s Illie?’

He shook his head. ‘He didn’t make it,’ he said. The men’s heads went down and nothing more was said until they made camp later that afternoon. Around the fire he told them what had happened. He told them how they had killed two archers and put off many more. He told them how Illie had died fighting and if nothing else it had been a quick death. Later in the evening Amros came around with a large leather flagon of wine.

‘This is for you lot, you have taken heavy losses in this unit,’ he said. He gave the leather flagon to Thamus. ‘There’ll be a replacement sent in from the reserves as soon as they catch us up. Good night and get some rest.’

‘What news on the losses, Sir?’

‘Some three hundred and still counting and again the enemy, whoever they are have suffered very little. Severus is furious,’

‘At least he’s alive,’ someone mumbled in the shadows.

The next day they marched the thirty five miles to the town of Avallon. As they marched a white bird flew south along their lines. It flew low and fast, clipping the tops of trees, it carried a message from Severus to Cicero; an update on their current status. ‘Fly, little birdie, fly,’ Ducius grumbled under his breath. He and some of the others watched as it banked in a grand circle as it waited for its escort, a large golden hawk. The hawk screeched at it as it lumbered behind, flapping its wings in slow, rhythmic strokes. The little bird reacted, seeming to understand and quickly turned in mid-air speeding off directly south again.

‘A rosy picture will be painted to those at home,’ Ascoli said.

‘It’s good how they do that,’ John Smith said peering up under his helmet. His accent was thick, his words simple and chosen carefully. The men moved quickly, almost in a nervous rush as they marched, they were wary of attack although knew it was unlikely as they had been attacked twice already. ‘Fly as a pair,’

‘What’s Briton like?’ Toni asked. ‘I mean apart from the bad weather and barbaric religious sacrifices,’ Toni was considered to be old for a legionary at thirty-six. He had the beginnings of grey hair, was thick set and was looking forward to retirement when he was forty.

‘Ha, well, I left when I was sixteen. I worked with my father on a trading vessel that frequented northern Germania,’ John Smith said defensively.

‘What are the women like?’ Toni asked. They had come to a hill and were slowing up.

‘Fine, as I remember. They are fairer skinned than our women and some have lighter hair, brown and blonde,’

‘Did you have many?’ Lundos asked. Lundos was the number four, he was from Rome. He was a typical legionary, not tall, but stocky with pure black hair and dark brown eyes.

‘Don’t be sick I was only sixteen when I ran away from the boat. We’d had a rough voyage and had argued intensely. As soon as we docked into port, I skipped off,’

‘What were they like? Are they savage?’ Lundos persisted.

‘No. I only had one proper girlfriend. I skipped off the boat and when I came back to the port the boat was gone. I couldn’t get back,’ John Smith stressed. They marched through a deep ford that was up to their knees. The sound of the sloshing water drowned out their conversation. They passed through copses and trees with hanging vines that were dripping wet. There were leaves on the ground and birds twittered in the branches. ‘I got picked up by a press gang, before I knew it I was drunk in a bar and had signed my life away, I’d sworn a drunken oath anyway,’

‘Have you heard from her?’ Lundos asked.

‘How would I?’

‘Don’t know, but you might’ve done.’

‘Nah,’

‘You must’ve seen your dad again,’

‘Once. I went back to the port a year later, after my training. I wanted to show him that I could stand on my own two feet.’ John Smith said, continuing his story. They passed a farm that was close to the road. Some of the men were refilling their water flagons from a trough that cows were drinking from. ‘I wanted to be the big man and buy him a drink with my new wages. I was rich. He told me a little about what had been going on at home. My mother was well, my brother was growing, they were all eating well,’

‘And her? Whatever her name is,’ Lundos said, speaking at normal volume, not a loud whisper as was the usual custom so as to avoid punishment.

‘Voices down,’ Thamus said to John Smith and then shouted back.

‘She had a child, thought to be mine,’ John Smith said croakily. There was a ripple of shocked reactions and gasps among the men, including Thamus. ‘All of a sudden I didn’t have enough money. I gave my father two weeks wages and borrowed some more from a mate. He pledged to give it to her to help raise the child,’

‘You did the right thing,’ Lundos said.

‘Yep,’ Thamus added.

‘Might not’ve been yours like,’ Ducius said bleakly as they the road took them alongside a winding river that broke over rocks.

‘No, but I wanted to do the right thing by her,’

‘What a story,’ Ascoli said. ‘My feet are killing, I’ve got blisters. They marched for another two hours until open fields were reached. Beyond the fields was a small town. They had reached Avallon.

‘We camp here,’ Amros shouted. ‘Set up,’ A familiar pattern took place. They rested and drank water and wine and then collected their tents from the rearguard wagons. They put up their tents in order of Legion, Unit and Section, they were inspected and then they made a fire. They sat around the fire, ate snacks of salted cold meat, slept and got ready for their evening meal. Some bathed their feet in hot water, while others checked their weapons or collected firewood. As the men whiled away their allotted free time news from the forward scouts rippled around the tents. The fort at Auxerre had been attacked, levelled to the ground and all the men stationed there had been killed. The rebel forces were ahead of them, but more importantly they were in between them and Calais. Severus was mad with rage and it fuelled him to take immediate action, he called an emergency meeting with the Legion Commanders, while simultaneously messaging Rome by bird, asking for orders. All troops would stay put until a response was received from Rome, it might take a day or two. The men rejoiced at being able to rest their feet, games of dice and fighting competitions were organised. They waited.

The next morning the Legion Commanders briefed their unit leaders and they in turn briefed the men. It was to be a day of rest during which all men were to stay in a state of high alert and to be ready for battle. They were free to wander the town of Avallon, but were not to interfere with the locals. The local inhabitants were a part of the empire and until proven otherwise were innocent of any crimes against the army. Any man caught violating a citizen would be executed. Severus wanted to maintain a position of strength and discipline and didn’t want to get drawn in to bitter side battles that would detract them from their primary objective. There were several taverns in the town that became full to overflowing with legionaries keen to get drunk and spend their wages. As the day drew on a message flew in from Cicero in Rome.

~ ‘Continue - loss of 300 is minimal, reserves will refill the ranks - landing boats at Calais await - Civilians to be protected and survivors of Auxerre Fort to be assisted in re-building a new fort there.’

Emperor Cicero ~

At sunrise in a drunken state they marched to Auxerre. The fort that once stood on a low hill was nothing more than a black stain with a few upright blackened and smouldering sticks still standing. A sickly smell of burnt and rotting flesh filled the air as crows scavenged for what pickings they could find. A group of twelve men from the fort stood to attention as Severus questioned them.

‘It was just another day, nothing unusual. There were a few more unfamiliar faces around, but nothing that would spark suspicion,’ the Fort Commander said. His uniform was blackened, his legs, arms and face smeared with soot and blood. ‘We were on our guard that day as we were aware of your approach and had readied ourselves to receive you, but they came so fast. There was a lot of them and they were well organised.’

‘Go on, Commander,’ Severus said. The legionary stood next to the Fort Commander shivered uncontrollably.

‘Bowed horsemen struck at dusk and set the whole place alight with flaming arrows. When I came out of my quarters there was fire everywhere, we couldn’t get it out. We tried, but we couldn’t.’

‘I’m going to leave you a hundred men, that’s a couple of units and five of my best engineers so a new fort can be built. There’ll be a clearing party tonight so we can make this burnt land good again.’ Severus barked so everyone around could hear.

‘Thank you, Sir,’ the Fort Commander said brightly.

‘We will be here for two nights,’ Severus said, turning to his men who were standing around behind him. ‘That’ll give us a chance to re-organise our units. In section three Ascoli moved up from number ten to number seven, which was a big promotion in terms of status. Marc and Lenard, Illie’s replacement were put back to numbers eleven and twelve as they were the lowest status and Toni and Louie moved up to nine and ten by default.

The long march to Calais followed the stop at Auxerre and ten days later, having passed through Paris and Amiens and also having marched three hundred miles they stood on the northern coast of Gaul looking at the churning North sea. Lenard was another young lad of eighteen or so trying to make his way in the world, trying to earn a living, trying to support himself and his family and knowing little about what faced him. In the distance, on the horizon below the misty low clouds across the sea was a faint line of white rock. Briton.



© 2018 BL


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damn leigh,took me three days to read all this great story,reads like a journal that one was writing daily

Posted 2 Years Ago


BL

2 Years Ago

7500 words - well done
 wordman

2 Years Ago

you`re welcome,,,Merry Christmas

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Added on December 1, 2018
Last Updated on December 16, 2018
Tags: army, empire, dust, memory, adventure, mystery, power, romance, war, peace, kingdom, hope, fear, luck, battle, spy, fantasy, fiction


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BL
BL

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