-- I --
My name is Arrius Marcus Niger, and I am--or should I say I was Hastatus-Posterior, Centurion of the Fifth Century, First Cohort of the Ninth Legion Hispana, under the command of Quintus Petillius Cerialis.
I have seen and survived more than any decent Roman citizen and respected legionary should be required to endure. I have been to the end of the Earth and beyond and have, to my continued amazement, lived to tell the tale.
That I am still alive is, by no small measure, proof that the gods do listen--on rare occasion. Which gods, however, remain a mystery as I am left with the uncomfortable suspicion that my ultimate salvation was not the act of Mithras or even Opitulus, but rather some other equally powerful being or beings whose purpose in protecting me throughout my trials I, as a mere mortal, can only speculate.
By telling my story, my only hope is that you will heed the lessons of my experiences. You need not believe all--I know much of what I am about to retell is fantastic--and much goes against what we, as citizens of Rome, have come to accept as our role as civilizers of the world.
But understand this: there are places we should not venture; there are peoples we should not confront with our military might... and most of all, there are beings we dare not offend if we, and our Empire, is to survive.
To all who read this, I implore you--heed my warning.
I'm not sure how long I was unconscious. I wasn't even sure how I'd come to be unconscious but I awoke to the terrible and all too familiar sounds of battle, a blinding headache and the sudden realization that I'd been knocked out and left for dead--which is never an enviable position, unless of course you really are dead. Then it doesn't matter.
It's especially true if you're not sure who's winning and who's losing or what side of the shifting battle lines you had the fortune, or misfortune, of falling.
I've never considered myself a man favored by fortune--quite the contrary--I've earned everything I have and everything I am in the absolute hardest ways possible. I naturally presumed I was now lying helpless, but very much alive, behind the enemy line. So I began to curse--silently, mind you. There was nothing to be gained by alerting anyone that I was neither dead nor dying--well, to be honest I cannot vouch for the latter. I couldn't move; my breath was coming in agonizingly painful, ragged gasps and my eyes refused to stay focused--none of which boded well for my overall health, or my longevity.
But I was mad--damned mad. From the moment I'd enlisted as a boy of not quite sixteen and with the blessings of my wealthy patroness, I'd entertained visions of a glorious death. I'd assumed I'd take my always-worthy final opponent with me into the underworld, my youthful imagination stoked by tales of battle-scarred veterans who were always the heroes in their grandiose yarns. And to that end I'd worked--clawed--my way up through the ranks, never once relying on my benefactress's name to grease the wheels even though she'd urged me to do so, earning each step with blood--sometimes mine and in appallingly generous amounts, more often some other poor bastard's who was even more generous than me.
This honorable and, dare I say, formidable reputation proceeded me and I quickly became admired among the common soldiery as well as the officer corps as a centurion who was not one easily tempted by bribes and whom allocated work--and punishment--fairly. And while I was known to be fearless in battle, I was also recognized as being far from foolish, a centurion who did not squander the lives of his troops. My chest harness was soon thickly festooned with phalerae--the silvered bosses testimony to all that I was well on my way to much bigger and much better things.
That being said, perhaps my rise was just too meteoric not to catch the mordant gazes of the Fates.
So, instead of reaping the ultimate reward of all my hard effort, to eventually reach the highest rank a centurion could attain, that of Primus-Pilus, I found myself lying flat on my back in the watery edge of a bog. I was cold--chilled to the bone and my head continued to pound in painful cadence with the bash and clang of sword and armor.
As absurd as it was, I suddenly wanted to yell, to tell everyone to stop, to shut the hell up, that the clamor was simply more than I could bear--and I would have--except I found I couldn't speak. My tongue was firmly stuck to the roof of my mouth, wedged there, I'm sure, for safety's sake and no amount of coaxing could get it to release its death grip.
This was getting worse by the second.
I closed my eyes--it was too much effort to keep them open--and listened to the screams and bellows of men, of the near deafening clang of arms, the ominous warble of arrows in flight and the terrified wicker of horses--and entertained the cheery thought that at any moment I might be trampled underfoot by the violent ebb and flow.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the racket began to dim--the line had shifted some distance away; the sharp, individual sounds that made up the nonstop background clamor became blended into a constant, muffled roar by the dense baffle of trees, bog and brush.
I again opened my eyes and was intensely relieved to see large patches of pale blue sky through the fluttering canopy of bright green leaves. I could feel the warmth of the sun on me--so at least my face, chest, belly and shins were warm. My entire back was still soaking in ice-cold water. It was a very odd sensation--toasty warm on one side, freezing cold on the other.
Then again, it could have been raining. Of course, if it had been raining I wouldn't have found myself in this ugly predicament.
It had rained all night--buckets and buckets. Rain was the one thing this cursed land had in abundance. And if it wasn't raining, it was foggy. And if it wasn't foggy, it was sleeting. Sometimes it managed all three at the same damned time.
I'm not, by nature, a complainer. I'd learned long ago never to complain too loudly or too often about anything, lest my remarks be overheard by a superior officer who was just sadistic enough--or bored enough--to want to prove to me that things could be much, much worse. That said, I do so dislike being cold--even worse to be cold and wet. Perhaps it's true what the soldiers told me so long ago; perhaps I am still a creature of my homeland, perhaps even after all these years.
I've seen posts ranging from the hot, desolate deserts of Parthia--so reminiscent of the arid land of my birth--to the thick, heavily scented pine forests of Germania and the bitterly cold, rugged heights of the Cisalpina. This Britannia is, hands down, by far the worst. It's simply impossible to stay warm--or dry for that matter--just as the Greek explorer Pytheas had said. Perhaps that alone explained the equally foul nature of its inhabitants. Maybe they knew they'd been on the short end when it came to doling out territory and they'd never forgiven the slight.
Had it continued to rain, Cerialis's plans to launch a major attack would have been put on hold. It was bad enough to fight in the fog, or on soggy ground: it's utter madness to fight in the pouring rain. But the downpour tapered off towards daybreak. By mid-morning the sun had reluctantly come out, warming the cold, damp air just enough. A thick, waist-high mist quickly formed, cleverly obscuring the fact that the large meadow our scouts had reported days earlier as firm ground was in fact, at its very heart, bog--and now a rain-saturated bog.
The cavalry were the first to discover this. Of course, by then it was too late. The massed line of the enemy, who'd jeered and taunted us from the far side of the clearing, their true numbers hidden within the darkness of the surrounding forest, burst into laughter at the sight of our horses sinking to their bellies in the muck.
Our officers, realizing we'd been lured into a trap, drew the infantry back as the scouts desperately sought firmer ground, or a way around the bog, which meant we were forced to watch, helpless, as the panicked animals and their riders were hacked to pieces by a horde of screaming, half-naked savages--I can still hear the screams of the dying horses--a far more blood-chilling sound than anything a human throat could utter.
I cursed the sun above; I cursed the marshy ground below. But I saved my most eloquent curses for myself as I tried to roll over, to warm my cold-numb backside only to find that I couldn't feel my legs--or my arms. Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I tried to move, the more apparent it became that I couldn't feel anything below my chin and I wasn't one hundred percent sure of that, either.
Under other circumstances, this would have been very worrisome. I knew I should be scared--I'd seen with my own eyes men who'd been struck in just such a way that they never walked again.
But I wasn't scared. Not sure why--maybe I was just too damned cold and angry to be scared.
Then I heard an odd noise--a noise that sent a chill darting down my spine that had nothing to do with the frigid bog water I was lying in: a low, keening howl.
My wide eyes jerked towards the sound. The cheek-piece of my helmet cut off most of my side view but even so I soon spotted a blur of movement within the patchwork of shade and sun than made up the dense forest floor.
I blinked several times, hoping to clear my vision. It worked, but what I saw caused my heart to thump in brisk cadence to my labored breathing: the flash of movement solidified into a shaggy gray and black hound that slowly made its way through the carnage, the corpses--human and horse--alternately sniffing the ground, sniffing the bodies, lifting its elongated head and looking around, searching.
It was headed my way: slowly, but nevertheless unerringly.
War dogs are not uncommon--we employed them with great success in the snowy forests of Gaul and the rocky scarp of Bithynia where they were unquestionably fearsome in battle and relentless in running down enemies who'd somehow escaped our pila and swords. Unfortunately we Romans are not alone in appreciating the worth of dogs as terror weapons.
I suppose I should also confess here and now that I've harbored a private, but very justifiable fear of dogs since childhood and an even greater fear of being torn apart by a pack of them. So not unreasonably, I'd always given our war dogs--any war dogs in fact--along with their equally feral-eyed handlers, wide berth.
Now there was no choice and there was simply no point playing dead. The beast would see through my ruse, so I kept my frightened eyes on it as it came closer and closer, sniffing here and there.
Suddenly it stopped, lifted its head and fixed its gaze on me... and think me mad, but I swear it smiled.
My heart beat faster, faster.
Keeping its gaze locked with mine, it padded towards me, carefully, silently, picking its way with utmost care through the tangle of bodies, past enemy and Roman alike--all presumably dead as it paid them no mind.
It walked all the way around me, watching me, occasionally meeting my unblinking stare and all the while its nose was twitching. Seemingly satisfied, it sat down--several arm-lengths away--and stared at me with a disquieting intensity as it whined softly.
I was helpless, my injuries made it impossible for me to reach, much less wield my sword--even my dagger--and there was something very wrong with this dog--something within in its coppery eyes that made my already goose-pimpled skin crawl and I opened my mouth to scream.
The dog cocked its head to one side as if waiting for the ear-splitting shriek but when all I could muster was a soft gurgle, it looked... well, disappointed: almost but not quite sympathetic.
Then something drew the dog's interest. It rose and damned if it didn't begin wagging its feathery tail.
I reluctantly followed its intense gaze, flinching as it cut loose a single, sharp bark.
Instead of drawing a pack of its fellows, its call brought an unusually tall, heavy-set and dark-haired man out of a nearby copse of willow and into my limited view. He wore local garb and, spotting the dog, he approached, making his lumbering but determined way around the puddles of standing water that quivered, in the patchy sunlight, like pools of quicksilver.
As he stopped beside the dog, he pulled his sword from its sheath and I braced myself for the killing stroke. I would not show this barbarian fear--I refused to give him even that satisfaction and kept my gaze locked with his.
I'd been told once that as you approach the end of the Earth, seaward parts of the land spontaneously start to float, the ground spongy underfoot. Perhaps those tales were not so far off because whether I was truly at the geographical end of the Earth or not--and many claimed Britannia was at the end of the Earth, and beyond it, somewhere out to sea, the actual edge of the Earth--I was now facing the end of my Earth, my life, that this cursed bog was in fact the end of us all.
To my surprise, the man murmured something to the dog and the creature immediately bounded away.
The stranger then took a step closer and spoke directly to me.
I was surprised when I found I couldn't comprehend his gibberish; I'd quickly become fluent in the speech of those who lived in and around our garrison of Lindum, not to mention the disparate tongues of the surrounding tribes as language was a skill I was frequently called upon to put to use, but this man spoke an utterly unfamiliar dialect.
The fool repeated himself--louder--as if by doing so I would miraculously understand him.
I replied with an unyielding scowl and, "Kill me and be done with it!" but it was delivered in a very weak, raspy whisper, which rather diminished my attempt at bravado.
In truth he could do anything he wanted--no amount of bluster on my part could stop it. In fact I was fully prepared for what he might do, the least painful of which was to lop off my head, and my suspicions were solidified when, after repeatedly prodding me with his foot and finally coming to the conclusion that I was utterly defenseless, unable to move, he knelt beside me, placed his sword nearby--but well out of my reach even if I could have moved my arm--and looked me over, slowly, from head to toe as he shook his shaggy head.
This close up he was even bigger than I'd first thought. He was, in a word, huge.
I stared up at him with my vision graying around the edges as he untied the cheek-piece lacings under my chin then cautiously pried off my helmet, not an easy task with the neck guard firmly buried in the bog, painfully pulling my hair in the process. He set it aside and, grasping my forehead in a massive, gnarled hand, he very carefully turned my head this way and that.
My first thought was that it was his intent to see how much force he'd need to break my neck, how much resistance I might put up, but I quickly realized he was actually examining my skull, presumably looking for injury.
And damned if he didn't find it: he poked a spot just behind my right ear--it hurt, damned if it didn't and I grimaced. He must've have gotten the message because he promptly stopped poking, and, muttering something, released his hold. He then removed my greaves and finished by unfastening my belt.
He then very carefully rolled me onto my stomach--and out of the freezing water--not as a kindness to me, I had no doubt--he probably didn't want to kneel in the cold water. It would, after all, have an equally chilling effect on his intentions.
Face down in the damp, spongy earth, I heard more than felt him flip the water-swollen pteruges of my leather tunic up onto my lower back. He followed this by slicing his sword up the length of the woolen fabric that encased my left thigh. Then I heard the rest of the sodden fabric of my breeches go in a wet ripping sound.
I closed my eyes, knowing what was coming next. This was, after all, a common the fate of prisoners--the ultimate humiliation for the loser, as well as a way of releasing much of the pent up rage of the victor. It usually ended with a summary execution, sometimes during the climax of the act--if the prisoner was lucky.
If I was lucky. But, as I've already mentioned, luck was never a close friend of mine. Not even a passing acquaintance.
And I had seen with my own eyes what these people did to their war captives: hung from trees, drowned in bogs or burned alive, depending upon which of their terrible gods they wished to indulge.
I was startled out of that morose train of thought by a sudden pressure on my hip--his hand on my now bare backside--so, he was going to indulge himself, first.
Then I realized I'd felt his hand. Except for the seeping cold against my back I hadn't been able to feel anything below my neck for some time--which, under my present circumstances, is the way I would have preferred it to stay, where nothing beyond my head hurt. And if given a choice, I would have been happy even to forgo that.
My skin was ice-cold. His hand was warm--it almost felt good. Almost. And he was again talking to me. I thought that was very odd indeed--was he hoping for some friendly banter while he gratified himself at my expense?
A knee pushed its way between my legs, gently wedging them apart.
I grit my teeth and squeezed my eyes shut, while finding some small irony that I was about to die in such a manner.
I felt more pressure, against my thigh, followed by dull, throbbing ache that ran down my leg all the way to my toes--yes, I could now feel my toes. Another unhappy discovery.
Realizing he'd stopped talking, I actually managed to turn my head, just so, to look at what he was doing--even though I had a very good idea--morbid curiosity?
I was bewildered to find him not unlacing his trousers, but instead packing a bone-deep and gaping wound on my thigh with moss he was pulling from a pouch tied to his belt. I hadn't known I'd been wounded there. In fact, now that I thought about it, I wasn't sure where I was wounded--maybe just the leg, along with a blow to the head that had left me paralyzed. It would explain much.
He began talking again, softly.
I stared at him, annoyed that he hadn't gotten the hint that I couldn't understand him, and at the same time curious as to exactly what he was saying. Maybe he was talking to himself and not to me--I had no idea.
He snatched up my shredded, mud-soaked woolen breeches and, using his sword, cut them into several long strips, which he used to bind my leg.
Finished, he sat back on his haunches, met my gaze and smiled. He was ugly--even uglier than my tesserarius Aetius, and Aetius, as even he would admit, was damned ugly.
I scowled back. I was in no mood for pleasantries. Do what you're going to do and be done with it!
Instead, he shifted position. Grabbing my hip and shoulder, he rolled me again, onto my back and onto even firmer, dryer ground.
He snatched up a fistful of grass and used it to very gently wipe the blood and clotted mud from my face and throat, as if offering amends for what had already been done to me.
He moved on to the sticky clumps of grass and muck attached to my chest harness and underlying ring-mail shirt and in the process uncovered the shattered stub of a spear shaft. The tip was buried deeply in my flesh of my left shoulder; the splintered shaft tangled in layers of ring-mail, leather and wool.
He stared at it; so did I. We looked at each other and his expression mirrored mine: amazement that I hadn't died instantly. At the very least, I should have bled to death in short order.
Under other circumstances I might have attributed this miracle to incredible good fortune. But as it was, it wasn't--it just meant that I would live just long enough to die in another, far more creative and, most likely, extremely painful way.
They do say the Fates are a fickle bunch and I'd always believed it. I didn't need this kind of ironclad proof, thank you all the same.
I hoped he'd leave it be--but did he? Of course not. After some fumbling he began to carefully wiggle and tease the bits of shaft from the ring-mail loops. I won't say it hurt--it just felt... well, very odd. Almost... ticklish.
It took a while, but he finally freed the stub of the shaft from the ruined mail yoke then without so much as a 'by your leave', he grabbed the stub and gave it a yank hard enough that my shoulder was briefly lifted out of the muck, followed by a sickening pop as the tip suddenly came loose--my body weight doing most of the work. As I fell back, I reflexively clamped my teeth shut, damming up the agonized scream behind them.
He tossed the spearhead aside and stuffed his massive forefinger into the now profusely bleeding hole.
Believe it or not, he was actually doing me a favor--searching for more fragments. If there was any chance of the wound healing, any splinters had to be removed. But knowing this and experiencing it first, um, hand, were two vastly different things.
Up until that moment I'd like to think I'd managed fairly well, all things considered. But now I struggled against an overwhelming urge to vomit. I gagged then gagged again as the world around me began to spin, and the edges, which had suddenly darkened, began to close in.
He flicked the same bloody finger against my cheek, presumably to bring me back, and when that failed, he struck my face, once, twice. The blows stung, made my already abused head snap this way and that, but try as I might I just couldn't open my eyes.
He grabbed the yoke of my shirt, unintentionally grabbing the underlying and age-worn leather necklaces I always wore and again lifting my shoulders from the boggy ground, gave me a rough shake--more, I suspect, out of frustration than anything else.
I'd had a lot of close calls in my life, in my military career--a lot of very close calls. This time was different. This time I'd fully committed myself and there was simply no going back. Death had won the last battle--death always won and because I knew that, I'd always known that, now that it was actually happening, it was all rather, well... anticlimactic?
That being said, it's strange what you think about when you know your life is about to be extinguished like a guttering lamp starved of fuel. I've been told that in that last moment, when the heart stills and the lungs rest, people recall their achievements or perhaps regrets, while others remember loved ones. I had much to be proud of and equally much to regret, but loved ones I had none. So what did I think about? My damned necklaces--it felt as if he'd snapped the age-brittle leather cords when he shook me. Silly, really, I chided myself, to be upset about such as shortly I wouldn't care about anything.
He was talking again, but his now very angry voice was growing fainter, fainter, and finally faded out altogether and I found myself suddenly alone, surrounded by a soft-walled darkness. It wrapped itself around me and I was finally, blessedly warm.
So, this is death, I thought with calm detachment. Not all that bad, really--could be worse. Much worse.
I could be cold.
I snuggled down, making myself comfortable while I still could. I was, after all, going to be asleep for a very, very long time.