By Douglas Seacat
Aulus marched alongside his comrades-in-arms in the column, falling into a rhythm and ignoring the world beyond where his next footstep should land. It was a familiar ritual, as was the press of the armor and gear weighing him down. Still, despite his years of experience, he found it harder than usual to fall into that pattern. A recent rain had left the road soggy and wet, making every step difficult. It impaired the column’s speed, and that might mean camping in some fetid hollow rather than reaching the fortress before nightfall. They had stayed longer than planned, and now the optio was pushing them hard to get back.
Fog hung in the air, its dampness pervading their armor and clothing. Low grumbling and cursing sounded periodically as the sucking mud gripped a calceus sandal and a soldier stumbled. The sour, grim mood was typical of the troops’ return to barracks after the relative liberty of several days in town.
Not that Bonna was impressive, at least by Roman standards, but compared to Fort Fifteen, it was a real town with all the accompanying distractions and pleasures. It had been a welcome reprieve from the heightened tension of patrols and the corresponding tedium of standing watch at the fort.
The column he marched with was a reasonably strong force, being a full century of seasoned legionaries and a similar number of auxilia, including archers, scouts, and a small band of light cavalry attached to their expedition. Sufficient at least not to be concerned with the sorts of lighter harassment raids the local barbarians might be tempted to throw at them. Many of the soldiers with them had been recruited from the local region, Aulus among them. They had been dispatched to Bonna to secure additional provisions, supplies now badly needed after some of the fort’s stores had succumbed to rot.
Shouts from ahead signified the order to halt, not for the first time. Feeling responsibility as the decanus of his contubernium of eight legionaries, Aulus stepped forward to learn what the problem was, intending to relay any instructions to his troops. He overheard Optio Orosius explain that scouts had found the bridge washed out ahead and that they’d need to veer off the road to a spot where the stream narrowed and they could ford it. There was some discussion between the ranking scout and the optio’s watch commander, the tesserarius, of how to accomplish this and whether the rear wagons with the all-important supplies could manage it.
These sorts of adjustments would take time, and Aulus could not help but groan in exasperation as he turned back.
His noise caught the attention of one of the auxilia he knew better than most, a man named Farald. The fair-haired Chatti mercenary had burn scars along his neck and an axe and shield slung across his back.
“Are we stuck here for a while, Aulus? What are they saying?”
Farald spoke the local tongue instead of Latin, but Aulus knew it well. He had often been required to translate for the barbarian. Aulus had made some friends among them, though at the cost of making his mixed parentage more widely known. Most born citizens among his century could not help but look down on those such as him: on those “born of wolf mothers,” as they called it. His father had also been a legionary, but his mother had been one of the Cherusci.
“Bridge is down, and the rain has made crossing difficult,” said Aulus. “We may have to march around.”
Farald expelled some air through his teeth, vexed. “That bridge seemed sound enough when we crossed the other way. With all these hands, seems better to fix it than to march into the trees.”
Aulus shrugged. “Not my call. Best be ready for a hike.”
Placing a hand on his shoulder, Farald spoke lower. “While we’re stuck here, can I ask you something else?”
“Certainly.” Aulus felt a pang of concern. It wouldn’t do to be seen spending too much time with auxilia while on the march. They walked off to the side for some small degree of privacy while the rest of the soldiers shuffled in place, awaiting the order to continue on. Several legionaries gave the pair a sidelong glance but said nothing.
“There have been some rumors,” Farald said quietly. “Several of my troops are worried. It’s creating mistrust. To rely on each other in battle, there must be trust, yes?”
Aulus did not especially care for the tone, but he had found Farald an amiable sort, so he was willing to listen. “Rumors? What sort?”
The Germanian didn’t answer right away, instead asking, “You came from here, did you not?”
“I was born closer to Noviomagus but grew up not too far away. We moved often, to stay closer to my father.”
“A soldier,” Farald said, and Aulus nodded. “But you consider yourself Roman?”
“I am Roman,” Aulus said stiffly.
“But you’ve never been to Rome.” The axeman was smiling, not unkindly, but there was a sharp gleam to his eyes. He was testing Aulus, though the legionary knew not why or for what and was beginning to lose patience.
“I am not alone in that,” Aulus said. “What has this to do with rumors?”
Farald held up a hand as though pleading for patience. “Do you ever see your family? Visit those who raised you?”
“Rarely,” Aulus said brusquely. He paused, then relented a fraction. “I have been to see my sister. Her husband’s Cherusci. They settled a couple days’ march from the fort.”
Farald nodded. “Things have been strange of late. My troops, some of them have stayed in touch with kin, when they’ve been able.” His smile faded, and his eyes became intense again. “One, Meinolf, tried to go back, to bring his family some of the coin he’d earned. His village was gone. Burned to the ground. No one left, and no bodies to bury either. He’s not alone in having such a tale.”
“This region is still in turmoil,” said Aulus. “My condolences to Meinolf. It was likely some rival tribe.”
“They had no rivals strong enough.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Our villages are at peace with Rome. That was the agreement when we came to fight. Some say maybe the Romans have been advancing again, as some campaign we are not a part of. Maybe they wish us not to know, given how many of us are from here. Have you heard anything like this?”
“Absolutely not.” Aulus shook his head firmly. “That is not happening. We would know. There could be no legion moving into this area in secret. They would need provisions from our fort. Or to go to Bonna, like we did. If anything, we don’t have enough troops here to protect all the villages.”
Farald stared at him a moment, but then his expression relaxed. “That’s what I thought as well. Seemed unlikely. But we’ve seen smoke above the trees where it shouldn’t be. Something is amiss.”
“I’ll ask Optio Orosius the next chance I get,” Aulus said. “But whatever local trouble is brewing, we’re not the ones stirring the pot. Believe me. Tell your people as much.”
“Very well, Aulus. Thank you for hearing me out on this.”
Aulus nodded, unsure if he had actually convinced the man. Then voices rose above the general din, calling them back to order. They were apparently to be on the move again.
When they had rejoined the column and Aulus was turning to step back to his place, Farald said behind him, “Which gods do you pray to? Ours, or theirs?”
Aulus pretended not to hear the question. The axeman’s laughter followed him, as if he had given an amusing reply. Perhaps the lack of one was answer enough.
* * *
Within the dark forest were fetid places light rarely touched, down below the thick trees and thorny underbrush. In small caves burrowed out from the damp soil and scraped clear of debris, fires had been lit to dry walls that had been caked with clay and filth. A variety of patterns adorned these surfaces—looping swirls and jagged lines of blood and ash. Amid them were crude drawings of bestial forms surrounded by rings of figures bowing to them, making offerings to them.
During the evening rites, these fires were allowed to burn, their smoke filling the open space, choking the air before rising through cracks in the crude ceiling to vent into the sky above. Some chosen few of the cult faithful regularly braved the smoke-filled spaces, coughing and retching, their eyes red and stinging, but opening to strange visions others could not see.
At times, some among the cult would go hunting, later returning to the burrows with offerings of the freshly slain: some animals, others not. They severed the slain limb from limb, reserving the meatiest flesh for the priests. Sometimes the priests were generous and offered scraps to the famished captives they had trained to serve them. No one ever asked the nature of the meat, though some likely knew its origins.
In one of the larger caves, the fires had recently been put to a more deliberate and advanced use. The enslaved captives had built a furnace of stone and had stoked its fires to greater intensity, pouring sand and natron into a funnel to be melted into glass. Among them was a Roman who knew how to blow and shape the glass into globes. Some of the faithful worked at mortars, chanting while their eyes rolled back in their heads. They crushed fragments of charred bones, crystals, and petrified wood into fine powder.
The priests oversaw this project, invoking their own prayers in tongues unknown to most of them, with strange and sibilant syllables. Within their cowled hoods, wriggling wormlike shapes sometimes appeared where a mouth should have been. Most who labored there had learned to avoid looking directly at the priests; they kept their gaze on the ground or on their own hands and the work they had been tasked with.
Each priest carried a cloth pouch that held their sacred fungal spores, which they had carefully tended and preserved for their rites. They poured measured doses into the fine powder at periodic intervals. Then, touching the mixture reverently with their fingertips, they spoke their incomprehensible blessings, after which the powders changed.
The glass globes each had a small opening at the top. The captives used improvised funnels of dried leaves to fill the globes with the blessed powder mixture, now deep purple in color. Once filled, each globe glowed dimly from within. Those who labored at their fabrication sometimes became entranced by the sight, compelled to hold a full globe before an emaciated face, staring into the violet interior with worshipful awe. Each laborer kept their mouth wrapped in water-soaked cloth to fortify themself against the smoky air and prevent accidental inhalation of the powder. Still, there were accidents when a cloth snagged or dropped and one of these captives took a tainted breath. They would fall to the ground and spasm before the priests dragged them off, never to be seen in the caves again.
The captives stacked the globes carefully and neatly as they completed them. Then, after wrapping each globe in cloth, they grouped them into coarse bags and tied each bag with twine before moving them to storage.
One day the furnaces were allowed to burn out. The priests gathered the faithful, taking them from the caves to a nearby clearing, there to be graced by the presence of their greater master. A towering bonfire was lit, and drumbeats sounded. The chanting of hoarse voices rose into the air together with the black smoke.
Amid the celebrations, a tall, broad figure stepped from the blackness between the trees. He was clad in mail and helmet, a long spear in hand, its shaft inscribed with runes. An axe slung at his waist and a shield on his back, he appeared every bit the embodiment of a powerful warrior of the northern tribes. The bonfire’s light revealed that the hand holding the spear’s shaft was missing two of its fingers. Glossy, scalelike growths covered the skin of the warrior’s arm. There was something spectral about his silhouette, as though he had brought the darkness with him, wearing it like a cloak. But he was powerfully built and his expression was fierce as he surveyed the gathered faithful. They looked back at him in turn, awed and terrified.
His face was scarred, his nose withered and shrunken, his hair wispy and gray. He only had a single eye, the other covered by a black patch. An unnatural blue radiance gleamed along the patch’s edges, hinting that something more dreadful than an empty socket lay beneath.
The priests stopped their chanting and hissed at the others to be silent as well. Then they bowed before him, prompting their lessers to hasten to follow suit. “Great Herjan,” the nearest said. “You honor us. How may we serve?”
He leaned on the shaft of his spear and glowered at them with his single baleful eye, as if weighing the truth of their devotion. “The time has come,” he said, his voice powerful and sonorous, rising easily above the crackling wood of the fire. “The Romans will receive the gifts we bring.”
* * *
They had marched farther along the path beside the rushing stream than Aulus had expected before their leaders decided to attempt a crossing. The recent rains had made the once quiet and peaceful flow of water into something more menacing and perilous. The column had been forced to thin and stretch as they navigated the path, clearly not intended for so many soldiers marching together. The wagons struggled on the uncertain ground, while the oxen pulling them groaned and their eyes rolled, their drivers shouting and urging them on. Auxilia and legionaries alike were enlisted to help push them through the water and free them from the clinging mud.
It was slow going, but eventually they got them across. Aulus, relieved not to be tasked with wrestling the last wagon, was able to take a short reprieve, panting and leaning against a tree as they hauled it across. Most of the column had reached the other side and were reforming into a semblance of order, though stretched out along the path ahead. The optio was consulting with the scouts about the most expedient way to reach their road.
That was when chaos erupted from the trees.
A shout of alarm sounded deeper in the forest, toward the front of the column. “Ambush!” came the cry as soldiers sprang into action, drawing weapons and shields and forming up as best they could.
Aulus unshouldered his shield, took his pilum in hand, and moved to try to rejoin his troops closer to the middle of the column. He cursed under his breath as he hurried, aware of how dense the trees were, how bad the visibility. A light rain had begun again, and the ground was swallowed by wisps of fog. It was late in the day, and the canopy did not allow much light.
The shouting was louder ahead of him, and he could see shadowy forms moving amid the trees. He frowned in disapproval of the way the troops appeared to be reacting. Where was their hard-drilled discipline? He found it difficult to imagine any motley force of local barbarians could be a real threat. Admittedly, an ambush was disconcerting, and the enemy had chosen its timing well, given the state of the column after the river crossing.
“Raise shields!” The commanding voice of Optio Orosius reached him, its tenor reassuring despite the circumstances. “One line to the front, another to the rear! They’re on both sides! Brace for arrow fire. Ready archers!”
Aulus saw familiar faces and felt relief as he rejoined his place in the line. His soldiers were showing their quality, having already lined up properly to defend each other, weapons at the ready, staring into the trees. The enemy had yet to reveal itself, though it sounded like battle was engaged ahead. Strange sounds reached his ears: an almost musical tinkling, along with oddly desperate and choked yells that he hoped came from the enemy.
He lined up next to Appius and Paulus, two of the men of his contubernium, but leaned forward to peer past them in an attempt to catch sight of the nearest fighting. He thought he saw Farald, the Germanian axeman, not far in that direction, his weapon at the ready, his expression fierce. He saw no foes, only that movement in the trees beyond what he could clearly perceive.
The situation was strange, for many reasons, not the least being that he could hear no sound of arrows. Aulus had his shield raised and ready just the same. Looking down to where Farald and the auxilia waited, he was startled by an eruption of purple mist among them.
He heard that same tinkling noise, and objects began to pelt them from the woods. As he watched, one of the auxilia raised a round shield to intercept a small projectile hurled in his direction. The strange spherical object exploded on impact with that same distinct sound, and glowing purple powder sprayed forth in a broad plume. More glass spheres were incoming, and Aulus raised his own shield higher to protect his head.
Though startling, the globes did not seem an especially effective weapon, conveying relatively little force to those they struck. They seemed less deadly than the anticipated arrows.
Then he heard a choking noise from the closest legionaries. Several threw down their shields, falling to their knees. Looking farther ahead to the Germanians, Aulus saw Farald gasping and holding his hands to his throat, his shoulders and hair misted with purple powder.
The man grimaced with extreme pain, and dark-red splotches bloomed on his face, as though he were holding his breath under some exceptional exertion. Then he gave a strange cry, and his head seemed to split open from within amid a spray of bloody gore. Something long and scaled erupted from his neck, a broad and reptilian appendage that ruptured down the middle to reveal jagged teeth.
Overwhelmed with horror and confusion, Aulus’s mind refused to accept what he saw. The man’s head appeared to have been devoured from something inside his torso, and none of it made any sense. He quailed before it, though his instincts kept his shield raised and his hand on his pilum, still ready to fight the foe. He expected to see Farald fall to the ground, slain by whatever bizarre occurrence had overtaken him, but instead his body kept moving, his axe still in hand. He swung a chopping blow straight into the chest of the man next to him. Someone who had been, just moments before, a brother-in-arms.
Aulus longed to strike at someone. To see the foe. Why did they not emerge from the trees to fight?
Instead, there were only more globes shattering with that sound of thin breaking glass, the air becoming thick with purple wisps. One of these impacted his own shield, and he could not evade the purple dust as it flowed over the shield’s lip, coating his face, stinging his eyes.
He could not help but draw a startled breath, and motes of burning fire erupted along the inside of his mouth. He coughed and wheezed, his eyelids shut against the sudden onset of pain, his eyes watering. Something was happening inside him even as he desperately sucked in air. There was a sensation of wriggling tendrils within his throat, his nostrils, seeking inward. Pressure began to build in his skull, together with a desperate thrumming in his heart.
Blinking against the pain, he stumbled away, making for the trees, away from his troops. A part of his mind told him it was too late for them. For all of them. Through watery, half-closed eyes, he saw the torso of Appius stumble, weapon in hand, swinging wildly about, his head already vanished and replaced with a long, ropey, and tooth-lined tendril. His hands had become clawlike and strange.
No clean death, this. Aulus wished he had been closer to the front, perhaps to receive a proper violent end among the first affected. He did not wish to become like Appius. How would they recover his body? How would they lay him to rest?
The pressure and pounding in his skull escalated. He had very little time. His last act was a shouted prayer, beseeching the gods to take mercy on him. Amid his desperation, it was not Mars whose name he spoke. He prayed to Odin, and to Thor.
He did not think they heard him.