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Topic Subject: Sepia Joust VII- The Way It Never Was
posted 01 September 2013 13:28 EDT (US)   
The lyrists and cornicens let the last notes of their instruments fade into the growing darkness as the crowds moved forward toward where the great bonfires were being lit. A rasp of steel upon flint, then a spark, some gentle wind, then the crackle of flame erupting in the tinder.

The crowd eased back away from the flames growing brighter as the sky grew darker. Night was coming, and with it the time for the bards to step forward to regale those gathered with talented tales of historical fiction.

All knew the Old One had a tale ready. Last year he did as well, and listened to the voices of others who claimed to have done the same. Yet when it came time to place quill into sepia and then onto vellum, only he dared. Will this year be a repeat of last? There were many who spoke boldly before the summer heat.

The current Champion strides forward to stand between flame and readers. He holds up a closed scroll, which all knew would be posted in seven days, and announces to those reading, "The Seventh Sepia Joust is hereby open! This scroll will close in a fortnight or so, unless time is begged and granted. Thereafter the Voting Scroll shall open, where we may let our voices be heard concerning who shall don the title Champion of the Joust."

Please remember that this scroll is solely for the posting of entrants. Comments and praise may be noted upon the Contest Discussion thread.

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 09 September 2013 02:18 EDT (US)     1 / 2  
Tears of the Gods

The day was sultry, like a kohl-eyed Egyptian dancer losing her seven veils one by bloody one. Hot, and humid too. The sweat poured forth from the men waiting and watching from the heights above- where by rights it ought to be cooler- but the sweat failed to evaporate as was its wont. This perspiration became a tacky glue upon exposed skin, which made both men and beast uncomfortable and easily irritated. It was a horrid day, with no reprieve from the unseasonable heat, leaving the Marcomanni and their Quadii allies stifling and fidgeting in misery, serving only as food for the countless mosquitoes infesting the highland woods.

It was still better than being in valley below, where those who marched in metal shirts were mercilessly baked by the unrelenting sun above.

“Here, Fenrir,” said the barrel-chested blonde man with the thick braids, as he handed over an old Roman helmet filled with water to the squatting chieftain. Though he now towered above his chieftain, he knew that he would be in the aging chieftain’s shadow should Fenrir choose to stand. The king was still a giant, still powerful after twenty years as king. “This is the last of it, until Haragast comes back from the mountains with more.”

“How long?” asked the Marcomanni king. Unlike the men about him who sloppily gulped the precious liquid down in one draught, Fenrir sipped the tepid liquid so as not to spill a single precious drop. The summer was hot already- far hotter in these hills that in previous years. Down in the valleys, any in armor would be boiling in their warshirts- like those who even now marched in a long column eight-men wide.

“Tomorrow,” the man replied. “By midday if all goes well, by sun-up if he hurries.”

Fenrir studied the column. Even though it was miles away, the valley was mostly bare, enabling him to calculate the progress of those marching through it by watching the advance of the sunlight glinting off of their armor. At least a legion was coming. A Roman legion, manned by men more used to this heat that his own people, who even here in the relatively cooler heights were melting like butter carelessly left in the sunshine atop a stone oven.

“We have them,” he said to himself, though loud enough to be overheard.

“Or they us,” his companion said with a somber laugh. “We must stop them here. The next valley along their route is ours. Our homes, our families.”

“They will probably camp in that meadow just before the valley narrows,” Fenrir said, ignoring the other’s words. He knew damned well what was at stake here. Romans did not march into what they called Germania Magna for pleasure. They marched to conquer.

”They are a good ways into the valley, almost near the pass leading out. A battle near there, in the morning, would suit our warhost well,” his companion continued, adding eagerly, “and there we kill them.”

Fenrir shook his head. “No,” he said bluntly, pointing instead to where the steep hills converged. ”There. This valley is wide and long enough for them to maneuver and crush us. The same if they reach our valley. But in the passage between the two? That defile is the best place within miles to stop those Romans. They will begin moving with the sun- we must be there to stop them. And tell Haragast to hurry.”

“Shall I send word to Balomar?”

The Marcomanni chieftain grinned cruelly. “Yes. He is to close the door and hold it at all costs. Tell the Quadii King the Romans will be heading his way by nightfall- earlier if the battle goes well. The walls of that passage between the valleys are steep- the Romans must flee the way they came in. Balomar is to prevent that from happening.”

******* ******* ******* ******* ******* ******* *******

“It is too quiet, dominus,” Decimus Clodius Albinus said to his emperor. The pale African-born legate was reluctant to have the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus travel with his XII Fulminata. Though he loved his emperor as much as any legate or legionary did, he feared the disgrace of a defeat before his emperor’s eyes- and the XII Fulminata- the Thunderbolt Legion- did not have the best reputation in the army. It had been savaged in Judea, and again against the Dacians. And now it was spearheading the Emperor’s campaign against the Marcomanni and Quadii. “A chance to excel,” Aurelius had replied with a wink, but Albinus felt none of the humor behind the remark.

“It is the heat, my dear Decimus,” the emperor replied calmly. “Much like beasts, the barbarians of these hills cannot tolerate heat. They have not been hardened by Sol Invictus as have we; he strengthens us while sapping them of energy. It is only right that they hibernate during the heat of the day, and become active in the mornings and evenings, when the air cools enough to remove their heat-induced sloth.”

Clodius knew well how men unused to heat reacted to it- he had once greeted Sarmatian mercenaries to his native Africa as a junior tribune- and those men had several weeks of seafaring to become accustomed to the heat. Yet this heat was sudden. The barbarians would indeed be withering. This heat was also unnatural, and the lack of enemy contact even more so.

“You do not believe me, do you?” asked Aurelius with a knowing grin. “Too much philosophy, too little fact. I see it upon you, legate of mine. Yet the evidence lies all around us. We have marched through this barren valley all day- and not a single animal has stirred at our passage. Likewise, the people. This valley should be teeming with Germani- it is fertile, green, and lush with flora. Yet not a one.”

“No stream or river,” Clodius pointed out. “No water means no farming.”

“True, it is rather dry upon the surface. But this greenery along the valley walls, and the lushness of this grass? There is water here- under the surface. We ought to camp early tonight, to give the men time to dig a well or two.”

Clodius nodded. “As my lord commands.”

But he still did not like this valley. Despite his lord’s words, it was still too damn quiet.

******* ******* ******* ******* ******* ******* *******

Marcus Aurelius had been correct, as usual. Though Clodius was still concerned about the silence permeating the valley, his immediate problems had been solved. There was indeed water under the surface. Not much, and certainly not enough to have the men wash the sticky layers of salted perspiration from their bodies, but enough that the evening stew could be boiled while the men dug their encampment, and enough left over to wash down the dreadful stew afterwards.

The men ate their bread and drank one last canteen before filling in the wells and tearing down the camp. The scouts had reported in during the night- there were two bands of Germani prowling about to the north, and the next valley over held a rather large village. It may well be the mythical city of the legendary Maroboduus, who once ruled these mountain valleys as king and emperor in days long past. Maroboduus was reportedly very wealthy- and his successors were known as misers. A warm and good feeling spread over the legionaries as they formed up for the march- by nightfall a battle, spiced with pale newly-captured Marcomanni women with whom to share the night, and a decent payload of plunder on top of that. Life was good.

The scouts led off the march. The passage between the valleys was narrow and wooded- good ambush terrain. The walls of the defile were steep, cliffs in some places. And it was long and snaky, with but a track of beaten dirt snaking its way along the passage floor. Thus if the Germans were going to try one of their famous ambuscades, they would not find the XII Thunderbolts as easy a victim as the Legions of Varus had been. The scouts would ensure that.

Further, the legion marched eight men abreast. They filled the dirt road from side to side, and from that formation could easily deploy into battle formation. Behind the first four cohorts rode the legate and his guest, followed another two cohorts before the baggage train. The remaining four cohorts brought up the rear.

Aurelius noticed with a grin of the deployment Clodius chose for the day. “You put equal parts to the van and rear, with a reserve by us.”

“These are Germans, lord,” Clodius replied with a shrug. “They can sprout from the very ground beneath us, much less travel through the heights above to wreck our rear should we let it be too weak.”

“Indeed,” the emperor said blandly, as if he did not know this, though both men knew he knew it well. “I approve of your decision, legatus. Now, onward to this legendary city I hear the men passing rumors about. Maybe we can end this campaign by nightfall, and return to our beloved city with the peace restored and the borders quiet.”

The two rode on in silence, as the men began chanting old marching songs around them. After a few hours, even the chanting died away as men found the stifling heat sapping even their own rugged and hardy strength. An hour after that, horns and the unmistakable sound of metal upon metal broke the silence.

“Action front!” shouted the centurions, repeated again by those behind. A messenger made his way back with details.

“Germans blocking the pass,” the runner wheezed. “Centurion said several thousand. He asks your decision, legatus.”

Clodius Albinus turned to Aurelius. “They are not more than we, lord, and we cannot stay in this blasted defile all day. They block us; we remove them.”

Marcus Aurelius looked to the sounds ahead. He was quiet, which Clodius knew meant the machine of his mind was churning. He spat out the result of the many calculations it made in a single gesture and word. Aurelius nodded to his legate. “Concur.”

“You heard the man, legionary,” Clodius said with a grin. “Tell tribunus Rutilius he is to take the first four cohorts and remove those Germani. I will have tribunus Furius bring him reinforcements soonest.”

The legionary sped away, back toward the sounds of battle ahead. Other runners were dispatched with orders to gather the baggage here, leave two cohorts guarding it, and everyone else to the battle. The defile was narrow and steep- there was no opportunity for finesse. This was going to be a brute-force battle, one which ought to suit the veteran legionaries and their short but agile gladii better than it did the giant Marcomanni with their huge swords and larger axes.

Clodius moved forward. Marcus Aurelius moved with him until Clodius Albinus stopped abruptly. “Dominus, you must remain here.”

“Rubbish,” replied the emperor flatly. “This is a good opportunity to watch your legion in action. Fear not for my safety, Decimus. I have a half a cohort of praetorians to secure that.”

“I do not doubt your safety, Imperator,” Clodius replied with a calm deeper than he felt. What was the man thinking? If the Germans knew the Roman Emperor was within this defile, they would descend upon them in teeming thousands with murder in their black hearts! “I am thinking of the cohorts I leave behind. My tribunes are all up front, except the one on his way there. I need someone with authority and experience to manage the actions of those here. You are the only one qualified.”

Aurelius nodded. “Ah, a military necessity then. As you wish, legate.”

Clodius darted forward again, wondering if the Imperator really believed that happy horseshit he just served up or not. Aurelius, in his own head, watched the legate depart towards the battle with a solemn expression gracing his noble face. Good hunting, young Decimus. I am sorry my presence makes you nervous, but we both know a nervous commander will make mistakes we cannot afford.

“Tribune! Report!” Clodius barked upon reaching the battle.

Publius Rutilius turned to his commander. “The cavalry came back with this mob on their heels, legate. I sent the Second and Third Cohorts forward to blunt their rush and the Fourth and Fifth to back them up. As you can see, this gorge is too narrow to deploy three cohorts on line.”

“Where is the cavalry now?”

Publius pointed towards the left. “A canyon over there looked promising. I had prefect Uleus check it out. Maybe we can come around. Or Uleus can give us warning if the Germans try to come at us through there.”

“Good man,” Clodius Albinus said. From him, that was high praise. The tribune had covered everything. Now it was up to the men.

It was slow going. Clodius had been in many battles, but not a blood-match like this one. It was brute force, scutum against shield, gladius against axe or sword. No maneuver, no tricks. Just push forward, stab down your foe, step on his body, and repeat the process. Ever forward.

The Marcomanni surged against the legion. But like an ocean wave against a rocky shore, they met an impassive obstacle and broke apart. Men died in droves, and not all the fallen were barbarian. A good many legionaries were also falling in the pounding slugfest.

The front lines were tiring fast in the heat. The centurions had their cornicens blow the horns, retiring the front lines back through the second to rest and sending the next line forward. Rutilius and Clodius counted the ranks as they changed. Across the lines, the Marcomanni could be seen falling back as well.

“You would think those bears would turn to porridge in this heat,” Rutilius said grimly as he counted his losses. “But they fight on, taking way too many of ours with them when they go.”

“Keep up the pressure for another hour,” Clodius ordered. “That should do them in. I sent for Furius. I will have him bring up two fresh cohorts for you.”

Rutilius acknowledged the order, while the legate exhorted the surviving first ranks for their courage and skill before moving back to report to the Imperator.

He found Aurelius alone but for his praetorians with the baggage train.

“You were very wise to keep me here, Decimus,” the emperor declared. “Several thousand Quadii- big men with thick braids and thicker axes- came up behind us. I detailed that reserve you were so wise to keep to go deal with them.”

“Cacat,” whispered Clodius Albinus. “I need those men in the front. This heat, lord, it drains the men, meaning less time on the line and more time recovering strength. We are killing the Marcomanni in scores- but there are plenty more coming to feed our swords.”

“Given that, what do you suggest?”

Another training lesson. He gives me a lesson in the middle of a battle? “I suggest we no longer push forward, but let the Germani come to us. We conserve our strength as best we can,” the legate replied.

“Have you ever tried to open an amphora by pushing the stopper in so far that it pops through?” asked Aurelius.

Clodius shook his head. More philosophy. Not the time, Imperator! “You cannot, not without breaking either the amphora or the stopper.”

“Precisely,” Aurelius conceded. “It is conical in form, that stopper. You can only remove it by pulling. Then it is released, and expands.”

Clodius nodded. “These Marcomanni are blocking our amphora. We should fall back, to draw them after us to that wider spot, and there kill them.”

“If they are so hard-packed and tight where they are, then that seems a good solution,” Aurelius agreed.

“The Quadii to our rear leave us little room,” Clodius noted.

“A risk,” Aurelius agreed, “But the four cohorts there act as a stopper against the Quadii trying to enter our amphora.”

“Understood,” Clodius admitted. The next moment he was off to the front.

He arrived to find the battle paused- both sides were heaving and sweating heavily after their exertions. Rutilius came with a report.

“They dropped back about fifteen minutes ago,” the tribunus reported. “I think they were trying to lure us into following. Evidently the defile widens past that point- which would dilute our strength. I had our boys hold fast here.”

Clodius cursed, then grinned wolfishly. “I think this Germanus is quite bright for a barbarian. He tried to do to you precisely what our emperor wished done to him. We are stuck but good, tribunus. Take the Sixth and Seventh cohorts and hold this line. I want the Second and Third to follow me. We are going to build a modified camp further back, then you will bring your men back to it. Give me two hours, then start to move.”

Clodius dropped the two cohorts with the emperor, then went to check on his southern cohorts. Like those in the north, the men were separated from the enemy by a hundred paces- and breathing heavily. He gave the tribunus there the same orders- send two cohorts back to help build a camp, and in two hours bring the rest back. Then he went to Aurelius to inform the emperor of the legion’s status. He was not pleased at what he found. . A single tree had been brought down across the trail.
The men were lounging around- the wounded in the shade of the few trees along the cliff walls, the others creating makeshift pavilions.

“Imperator, why have you stopped the men from building fortifications?” He need not enquire as to why nothing was built- he knew Aurelius had ordered the men to cease. There was no other valid reason his veteran centurions would desist from improving their position in the face of the enemy. An Imperial order would silence them, but little else.

Aurelius pointed to one of the men lolling about in the shade. His tunic was off, revealing a heaving chest, and skin the color of boiled crabs. “He was sweating.”

Clodius Albinus wanted to throw up his hands in frustration, but held back the gesture. “So one sweating man forces an entire legion of sweating men to spend the night in the open, with the enemy not only in range of a quick attack, but within sight?”

“Walk with me, legatus,” Aurelius said calmly. Once they had what passes for privacy in the defile, Aurelius stopped and faced his legate. He poked the hard dirt with the tip of his sandal as he explained, “The earth here is less than a thumb’s length deep. It is deeper by the walls, for some reason, but tangled there with many roots. Constructing an earthen wall was thereby impossible, so I ordered a wooden wall. But then I saw that man. The man was sweating. Heavily. Normally this is not a problem- we let him bathe, and bring him fresh water.”

What little color there was in the face of Clodius Albinus drained away as realization hit him.

“We have no water.”

Aurelius nodded solemnly.

His throat constricted at the confirmation; his mouth suddenly went dry. In an instant he knew he and his legion- and the emperor of Rome as well- were doomed. The unwanted reaction emphasized their dilemma.

“There must be something we can do,” Clodius said in denial of what his brain already knew. “We can dig a well, like yesterday.”

Aurelius shook his head. “Have you ever read Plinius? Fascinating fellow, and very astute. He wrote a wonderful treatise over natural science. Notice the trees over there, how their leaves droop. And the grass is more brown than green. They are dying in this heat, for lack of moisture. The ground here holds no water, thus it is fruitless to dig- even if we could somehow break through the rock a thumb’s length under this dry dirt.”

“Furius reported that the Quadii behind us are less in number than the Marcomanni before us. We could try to break through tonight- and get back to the valley where we can dig new wells- and have more room to maneuver as well.”

Aurelius shrugged. “The latest report from the southern cohorts were that the Quadii have been reinforced. I would advise against a night attack- the Germans would be better in the dark.”

Clodius nodded. The strength of the legion was in its formations, which would become disorganized and lose cohesion in the dark. Though he had yet to read Plinius, he had read the writings of Cornelius Tacitus. Some Germans were adept nightfighters, and with the bad luck of being caught in a waterless defile, that luck would be compounded by having the Quadii reinforcements being of those nightfighting Germans.

“We are stuck, legate. We cannot move either left nor right, forwards or backwards.”

“There must be something we can do,” Clodius said bitterly. Inactivity was the thing most military men hated more than anything else.

“There is,” Aurelius said. He smiled, “We wait for our sister legion the IV Flavia Firma to realize we are trapped and come find us. They will fall upon the Quadii from the rear, removing that threat, then we simply exit. I figure it will take a day for them to discover our predicament, and another to be able to relieve us. So we turtle up and wait two days. It is the only choice, really.”

Clodius felt the weight of the world crush in on him. His logical mind knew the emperor was correct, though his body wanted to fight this unfair fate.

“It shall be so,” he promised. “Unless the gods have truly forsaken us.”

******* ******* ******* ******* ******* ******* *******

If the problem was bad, the following day was terrible. The night before was tropical, with all that entails- mosquitoes, sticky humidity, and oppressive heat. No cooling breezes, no waning temperatures. Then came a miserable morning. The rising sun simply added to the misery, while the lack of wind under that radiant globe was pure torture for those caught in the rays.

Marcus Aurelius trailed his legate on the rounds through the legion’s cohorts. The legate was receiving reports, issuing orders, and trying to keep the men’s spirits up. The emperor tagged along to add an air of authority to his legate, and to get a first-hand evaluation of the state of this legion.

The tour of the front line was depressing. The legionaries stood proud and ready for their Imperator, though would return upon his passage to makeshift sunshades where they could gain some relief from the sun while maintaining readiness. Across a gap the Germani harassed and taunted their trapped foes. Evidently the locals knew of the dry condition of the defile, and were now using that to their advantage. More than one German spilled a helmet full of the precious liquid into the dirt, while others played by throwing it at each other.

Aurelius was silently proud of his men who watched stolidly and did not react to the Germanic taunts. Thirst does strange things to men. When the tongue is a leather strap scraping the bone-dry sandpaper that was once the smooth inside of one’s mouth, it churns the mind to deviltry. Men react to this in different ways. Some simply stood in the ranks guarding their fellows and dropped dead from heat stroke in a clatter of metal upon metal. Others went mad and had to be put down by their fellows. Others lay still under makeshift shades, conserving their fluid and strength for when the Germans inevitably attacked.

Aurelius fervently prayed inside his Stoic exterior that the Germans would not attack this day, nor in the night. His men would not stand a chance. But most of all, he prayed that the IV Flavia Firma would hurry up and relieve them before there was no more legion to rescue.

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The hidden fears of Marcus Aurelius were well-founded. Even as he toured the cohorts of his trapped legion, those above were trying to bring a swift end to him and his men.

The nobles of the Marcomanni were gathered around a large copper bowl where the priest was preparing the omens. Aldwyth the priest had counted the crows of Wotan and seen distant and blurred flashes of Mjolnir during the cloudless night. To him, the omens were clear. The gods wanted the invaders crushed in battle, and were angry with the delay of their blood offerings. He made this known to the nobles as he had earlier made it known to the king. But Fenrir was resolute in his choice. So Aldwyth took his readings to the nobles, hoping for a better reception. He was not disappointed as a young nobleman cursed and stood, then made his way over to where the king sat alone, studying the trapped men below.

“They lie wimpering like kicked dogs!” Haragast shouted to his king as he approached, while pointing to the Romans. “Why do we not finish them as the gods demand?”

“I told you,” Fenrir said firmly. He did not budge from his squat. “They are now at our mercy. The Sun will kill them without loss to us. If we attack, and somehow the bastards find the strength to fight, we will lose many men. Maybe even as many as yesterday, when only your arrival prevented our warriors from breaking. We cannot afford to rely on luck, not when the gods have delivered these Romans into our hands. We need only hold them in place- the Sun will do the rest.”

“So Aldwyth is correct. You are a coward,” Haragast retorted. “You dare not let our men kill the foe, because you are scared those red-skinned corpses down there may defeat us.”

Fenrir rose abruptly at the insult. “I fear nothing, not even you,” he said hotly. “The gods have given us this unique chance to utterly destroy the Romans without loss. Even a hard-counsel like yourself knows that after this bunch, more will come. Then more. With what shall we face these armored hordes? Our warriors- who do not grow on trees, you ape! Every man we lose here, killing men already dead, is one less to fight the next pack. It is not cowardice that keeps us in our place- it is prudence. We have water; they do not. We have them trapped. Thus they will attack to break free, in which case we kill more of them staying where we are, or Thirst and Sun will combine to kill them, in which case we should stay where we are.”

Haragast puffed out his chest. The priest’s suspicions had been confirmed. Fenrir was losing his edge. He was past his prime. He was no longer a wolf worthy of this pack of warriors. Haragast reached for his sword, and drew it out slowly, watching the king for his reaction.

Fenrir watched the blade exit its scabbard, and sighed. Haragast was his cousin and young, but impetuous. And from the drawing of the sword, stupid as well- too stupid to be allowed to lead the tribe. He was kin, and the gods frowned upon killing kin, but the man gave him no choice. Survival of his tribe gave him no choice. He drew his own sword and closed the distance quickly.

Haragast wasted no time. He batted aside his cousin’s sword and carried through with a stab to the chest. But Fenrir spun away and brought up his blade to parry away the thrust, then stepped back. Haragast assumed this was yet another sign of cowardice and advanced, swinging a massive slash at the king’s head.

Fenrir ducked, and kicked the young man’s legs out from under him. He really is too stupid not to take the reprieve I granted him.. He stepped back again to allow the man to regain his feet. Now was the decisive moment- will Haragast realize he could be killed at any moment and desist, or will he continue his stupid attack?

Haragast lunged to his feet and launched a furious assault. Fenrir was pressed to parry aside the storm of slashes and stabs, but Haragast was so intent on using brawn over brains that he telegraphed every move. Fenrir weathered the storm easily, until one of the myriad attacks actually drew a thin line across the top of his arm. Blood welled in the tiny scratch, which caused many of those watching to cheer.

That cheering for his cousin kicked him over the edge. This was not a battle of decision, but a fight for leadership. And of survival of the tribe, for Haragast would lead the Marcomanni to ruin, while he himself could lead them to victory.

Haragast sensed victory, and closed in for the kill. He launched a massive overhead slash- using both hands- and was promptly knocked on his ass by a left-handed jab from his long-armed king. Haragst fell back sharply, collapsing onto his buttocks, but quickly rolled away and scampered to his feet. Blood oozed from his smashed lips. He caught one falling drop on his free hand and lifted it to his tongue. The salty taste invigorated him.

Haragast launched a series of blinding slashes, all of which were powerful and would have been deadly had they smashed through the king’s defenses. But Fenrir knew all the moves- he had taught him all the lad knew. He batted aside the lethal attacks, all the while refusing to attack with his own blade, and hoping his younger cousin would realize why.

Haragast was beyond all thought. He was caught up in his frustration, with little room over for ought but his own plan of battle. His slashes- repetitive and becoming boring- were a big part of that. After a final slash toward Fenrir’s long lower legs, he brought his sword up swiftly for an unexpected lunge to the chest.

Fenrir parried the poorly-hidden lunge aside down and to his left, while spinning his own body back and away to the right. Was the lad so addle-pated that he did not expect him to use the deadly lunge he himself had taught him? I taught him all he knows. Does he truly believe I taught him all I know? Haragast had proven himself impetuous, foolish, and now stupid, despite his gifts of strength, endurance, and speed. Those are of no use if the mind is not sharp. Haragast would be a joke as a king. It was time to end this farce. Fenrir spun back to his original position and use his powerful left fist to plunge forward over the departing blade to land once again on that noble, outthrust chin.

Haragast reeled from the crushing blow. His sword fell from his senseless fingers and he followed suit a second later, slowly collapsing to lay face-down before his king.

Fenrir followed up the fall of his foe by stepping on the man’s sword-arm- pinning it to the ground, then grabbing his cousin by his wild and long unruly hair and placing his sword across the man’s throat.

The cheering abruptly ceased as the Marcomanni realized that their king was still the king. Haragast came to and felt the keen edge against his throat. He also noticed it was not moving. His cousin was hesitating yet again. He drew his knife from its scabbard at his belt and promptly died as Fenrir’s blade sliced through his throat and both great veins to lodge in his spine.

The king ripped his sword loose as his cousin flopped about, his life blood exiting weaker and weaker until there was no more. The physical threat to his leadership was gone- now he had to deal with the political. Fenrir rose and pointed his bloody sword to the assembled nobles.

“You have caused me to kill my own cousin,” he said. “Short-sighted fools! He would lead you to battle this very day, where many of you would join those we lost yesterday! Our tribe, if we are to survive, cannot endure many such days. You would condemn our women and children to slavery or death in search of glory or Valhalla. Idiots! We have the enemy trapped! We can wait until they die, or accept their surrender when they realize their predicament. Either way, we can win, and without crippling our warhost.”

Murmurs of discord greeted his words. He knew the source. He thought he had addressed that, but his nobles were as dense as his dead cousin. Or they were so deafened by the bellicose words of the priest that they heard nothing else.

Well, he knew how to fix that.

Fenrir closed on the mob with sword in hand. Several of the nobles backed away unwittingly, while others stood firm in righteous defiance. But of the pack, only Aldwyth the priest stepped forward, pointing a wizened finger at the king and cursing him as a coward and a killer of his kin, too weak to rule the noble Men of the March.

Fenrir cut him down without a thought, then faced his nobles.

“There will be other invasions,” he repeated. “We will need our strength for those. It is stupid to waste it on men already dead or defeated. You will have another chance at catching a Valkyie soon. The Romans will not stop at a single defeat.”

“The Dacians repelled the Romans once,” one nobleman said bitterly. He was gray of hair with a wrinkled prune for a face. “It was years before the Eagles came against them again- a generation. I do not have that much time.”

“There is another legion prowling about,” said another. “Who says these men will die or submit before this other legion appears?”

This was greeted with many howls of approval. The enemy was here and going nowhere now. But tomorrow? The next day? The man had a point.

Fenrir conceded the point. “We let them suffer one more night. Tomorrow, when the sun is past its highest point, and only then, we shall fall upon what is left. I will inform the Quadii, so that they can attack at the same time. You are partially correct, Odvald- with another legion on the loose, we cannot allow this trapped one to exist much longer.”

Odvar stepped forward and kneeled. “My king is also correct- we cannot afford unnecessary losses. What you said to Haragast is true- our warriors do not grow on trees. It takes upwards of sixteen summers to replace a warrior- time we might not have. We shall wait until the sun has passed overhead tomorrow, then follow you into combat against the invaders.”

Fenrir nodded. “Agreed.”

The tribe will survive, and the men will have their cursed slaughter. Everyone will be satisfied, except for the Romans and the dead.

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If yesterday was terrible, today was by far worse. The departure of the sun the day before did not bring with it the cooling of night. It left only darkness in its wake, If anything, to the men trapped in the tiny pass, the temperature seemed to rise with each hour that passed.

Each made their final peace. Death was coming, be it through thirst, heat, or steel. Not a few chose the latter- suddenly sprinting from the ranks to throw themselves on German spears. A few brought down Germans with them, but most died uselessly, too weak to properly carry the shield, too feeble to swing a sword.

A small group of soldiers caught the eye of the Emperor, who like the day before was trailing his legate on his inspections rounds. These men huddled and muttered around a small wooden cross, then raised their hands to the sky and bowed deeply before renewing the process. Intrigued, he wandered closer.

“Pardon, legionaries,” he said after a few minutes. “May I ask the purpose of this ritual?”

One of the legionaries, a decanus, stood. “”We are praying, Imperator. Our god is a god of miracles, and that is precisely what this legion needs right now.”

“I pray that your god listens,” Aurelius said with a smile. “We could use any help the gods offer.”

The men smiled wanly and nodded, thanking the emperor for his tacit approval. Aurelius, for his part, abandoned Clodius and headed straight for his own tent, where an Egyptian priest in his entourage awaited a later discussion upon the metaphysical. Aurelius grinned- he usually enjoyed those philosophical discussions, which was why he allowed the educated Egyptian to accompany him. Now the unwashed heathen could serve his true purpose.

“Kahotep, our discourse today is cancelled,” Aurelius announced to the disappointment of his guest. “Today I saw a remarkable thing. While men went mad or dropped from the heat, a small group of soldiers sat together and prayed. The gods, as we know, do not listen to mortal men. But they might listen to their priests. So get your gear on, priest, and start praying for relief.”

Kahotep lunged from his seat. His concern was tangible. “Is our situation that dire, my dear friend?”

Aurelius nodded. “Worse. If the IV Flavia Firma does not get here by tomorrow night, there will be none here alive for them to relieve. I have forgotten the gods in trying to find a mortal way out of this trap we are in, and for that I will willfully pay what price they demand for that oversight. But this legion, Kahotep, this legion cannot be made to pay my bloodprice.”

The Egyptian nodded. “I shall pray to all my gods, and to your Roman ones as well.”

“We need all the help we can get.”

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Fenrir spent the morning instructing his nobles of his plan for the battle. He expected a roll-over. Even from this distance, he could see the black sockets of death where the enemy once had brown eyes gleaming in anticipation of victory. Now they were sunken pools of impending death. This changed his plan somewhat. The warhost would not pepper the Romans from afar with javelins and arrows. The sad state of the Romans would be dealt with by hand-held steel in the finest tradition of the tribes. There was no room or need for finesse, and the enemy was brought so low with thirst and weakness that slaughtering them would be a mercy- and a mercy granted with few losses among his own. So he had the nobles form their men into wedges and practice moving forward while maintaining formation.

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“The monkeys are up to something,” croaked a Roman lookout posted in a tree. “Looks like battle drills.”

His centurion grunted, and sent a runner off to the legate. It will not be long now. One way or another, this misery would end soon. He smacked a mosquito that had landed on his arm. The tiny beast dropped lifeless, without leaving the little bloodspot the centurion expected.

Even the damned bugs are parched, he thought grimly.

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Clodius arrived at the front a few minutes later. He was not in a good mood. The surgeons reported most of the remaining wounded had died during the night. More than two hundred good men dead, who would have lived had there just been water with which to wash their wounds and drink to replace lost blood. He took each loss as a personal failure.

And Uleus had reported back concerning that hidden valley- it was a spur of this defile, leading a ways before hitting a dead end. No water. Its only value was defensive- the legion could move into it and thereby have only one front to defend. But the flip side was also obvious- the Germans would need less men to keep them bottled up, allowing them free access to travel between their valleys in peace until the men died. Clodius was in a spiteful mood- if his men were to die, better to do it here where they were in the Germans’ way than to thoughtfully clear the pass for his enemy. From the sounds of it, it would not matter in a few hours.

The Germans blocking his legion were doing so out of pilum range. He cursed that he had no Syrians with him- a few barrages of arrows would bring the Germans to ire and precipitate an attack- as well as culling them for the infantry. But alas, if wishes were raindrops his men would be drowning.

The antics of the Germans were also infuriating. Several of them continued to stand before their warhost, lapping water greedily from makeshift buckets, and carelessly spilling the life-giving liquid onto the parched earth below. They were flaunting and taunting. Clodius cursed Fate again and once more regretted giving the half-cohort of Syrians to Macrinus and his IV Flavia Firma. He had seen enough.

“Tribunes,” he said, addressing Rutilius and Furius, the two to whom he delegated command of the van, “They will be coming soon. Stand fast. No fancy maneuvers- the men do not have the strength for it. Stand firm, shields high, stab low. We are dead men, but we can still bite. I want as many of those bastards as possible lining our way to the Styx.”

The tribunes nodded.

So intent were the Romans on their taunting foes, and the Germans on the men they were about to kill, that none noticed the blackening of the skies to the west.

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Fenrir stepped before his men with his spear in hand and helm on his head. He faced the warriors of his tribe, proud to be their king, and to lead them once more into battle- on his terms. They would form their wedges, charge the desiccated foe, and bowl them over. The enemy was weak with thirst and dehydration- now was the time to end them.

A loud crash echoed through the valley, startling him. The skies turned black as a thick carpet of clouds swept in from the west to cover the sun. Instantly he knew what this meant. Within minutes torrents of pure, cool water would erupt from the heavens, re-invigorating the invaders. Already the first wet, heavy drops pelted the narrow defile to coat all with a sheen of moisture. The clouds held more- much more. An inundation would follow.

Time became crucial. Fenrir knew those Romans behind the front ranks would formulate some kind of device to harness the water- Romans were clever like that. They would be here for weeks then, more than enough time for other Eagles to come to their aid. Silently he blessed Odvald for his insistence on battle today- had he ignored the old man, his beautiful trap would have instead caught the Marcomanni between angry Roman legions.

Fenrir raised his spear into the rain.. The Marcomanni saw the signal and obeyed. The warhost shifted and writhed to form wedges from the solid block. Satisfied with the result, the giant king began to lower the spear to point it at the enemy to unleash his warriors.

He never got the chance. All he had time to do was notice a strange prickling of his skin and the hairs raising against the wetness on his arms and neck. Then a second explosive boom shattered the silence and Fenrir stood connected for one eternal second with the heavens above as lightning reached down to caress his spear and follow the long metal head down to through the wet shaft to his hand, and from his outstretched arm to his steel-covered head. He was dead where he stood, kept upright only by the sudden and intense contraction of every muscle in his body.

The Marcomanni stood stunned as the energy fled their king. Fenrir crumbled slowly as his muscles relaxed. Their giant king, the best of them all, their champion, had been struck down by the gods. Eyes raised timidly toward their foes, now barely seen through the deluge descending upon them. It was as if the skies broke open to reveal the darkness beyond.

The Romans witnessed the fall of the giant warrior leading the Marcomanni, then saw little else as waves after wave of pure delicious water fell upon them from the heavens. Men doffed their helmets to catch the precious liquid, while others opened their mouths and drank directly from the sky. They were drenched, those desiccated hulks, and with it, they were quenched. Water flowed in small rivers down the steep sides of the defile, shed from the earth and rocks above who had their fill. Men lapped up the streams like dogs, while others carried helmets filled with water to where the wounded lay dying.

The rain, the cooling rain, the life-giving rain fell in sheets and waves for about ten minutes, to a symphony of thunder accompanied by a display of constantly flickering lightning dancing across the blackened sky. The Marcomanni, already brutally demoralized by the fall of their king, had their eyes drawn to the sight of the Romans in their euphoria. Romans, returning to life, who carried upon their shields a golden ball exuding bolts of lightning in a radiant pattern eerily similar to the bolt that just struck down their great king. The Thunderbolts adorned the Roman warriors- each and every one. How had they not noticed this before?

The men of the XII Fulminata- the Thunderbolt Legion- sensed the sudden terror invading the Germans blocking them.. They cared not, really, why the Germans were suddenly so terrified. They certainly did not think of their shields, or the Bolts of Jupiter emblazoned upon them. They simply enjoyed the sight of their tormentors suffering from some malaise that did not affect themselves.

Nor did Clodius care why the Germans were so suddenly shocked and rocked back into their barbarian boots. He knew only what he must do to save his legion, and he must do it now. It was time to seize on this moment with both hands. With a shout- but without foolishly raising his sword into the lightning-filled sky- he cried, “Let loose the legion!”

The men of the XII Fulminata lunged forward like a pack of jaguars making a kill. No formation was needed, nor could it help. This was a different sort of brutal slugfest than the earlier battle- this was refreshed brawlers against mewing babies. The legionaries tore into their erstwhile torturers and taunters with relish and élan, stabbing men down, bashing them down with those lightning-emblazoned shields, and stepping upon bleeding, dying men to send yet more crashing to the cool, wet mud below, all the while rejoicing like pure savages in battle and carnage.

The gods had abandoned the Marcomanni. Thor himself struck down their king, and now men who proudly displayed Mjolnir’s bolts sought righteous vengeance. The death of Haragast had been one cause- they had forced the king to kill his kinsman- a horrible sin. They had cheered him on. They had abandoned their priest when he confronted the king, a second affront. They had let him die without raising a sword or speaking a word. They had abandoned the gods in their arrogance and fear of their king, and they now paid for it. Lightning flashed again, illuminating the feared enemy jubilantly killing their comrades while bearing the lightning mark of the gods upon their shields. It was too much.

The Marcomanni broke.

The legion chased, rabid in their victory, merciless to their former tormenters, invigorated by this precious gift of life-giving rain from their gods. They were unstoppable, their prey powerless to do anything but flee. They chased the fleeing Marcomanni all through the defile, through cold water ankle-deep where before they was but parched dust, and slew. And when they burst out of the defile and into the Valley of Marobaduus, they continued to slay. And slay. And slay some more.

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The Quadii, at the other end of the defile, heard jubilant victory cries in Latin and Germanic shrieks and howls as the Marcomanni died. Already shaken by the power of the storm above and the incessant lightning playing across the sky, they needed little effort on the Roman part to flee the killing ground. A simple charge by the rear cohort was enough to send them packing back to the valley beyond- where they ran headlong into the onrushing IV Flavia Firma who dealt with them quickly and effortlessly.

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“A great victory, Imperator,” Clodius Albinus reported the next morning. It took him and his tribunes that long to rein in their frenzied slayers and reform into disciplined cohorts. The coffles were filled with pale-skinned women- slightly used, but otherwise fine- and with children destined for the markets of Rome. There were few warriors among the captives- the legionaries were in no mood for mercy after the last two days in Hell.

“Tears of the Gods,” Aurelius replied. “Our Egyptian priest called their attention to us, and when they saw our sorry state, they cried. Their tears saved us, Decimus.”

For once, Decimus Clodius Albinus had no logical or scientific reply to the unexpectedly devout religious statement. The gods did exist, and their tears had saved his legion. If he had been irreverent before, he was no longer. Still, a bit of his naturlaistic cynicism came out.

“The Miracle of the Rains is a better name,” he said in a flat, deadpan manner that left no doubt as to his convictions, "coming from a Stoic and a secular naturalist, of course."

Aurelius nodded, his brown eyes gleaming with life and humor.

“So shall it be entered in my Meditations. A good choice of words, Decimus. Appropriate, secular, and natural, yet acknowledges the gods with due respect. The Miracle of the Rains it shall be.”


|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 09 September 2013 13:20 EDT (US)     2 / 2  
Brother vs. Brother

They were at it again. I heard the war protesters’ cheers, shouts, and songs, the clear voices of their speakers, and the low rumble of the crowd as it prepared itself. This time it sounded like they were headed for the Pentagon. I had heard all of their rhetoric: their goals ranging from levitating the Pentagon to “shake the evil out of it,” to just reeking havoc and creating mayhem. It was my job, as commander of the civil defense forces, to see that neither happened. And even though the former was a bunch of nonsense, the later was bound to happen when a crowd headed for my men who had orders to hold their ground. In earlier protests, they had won a great deal of public support for their cause, which was rooted around the idea that the top commanders and generals should pull American troops out of Vietnam, and end the war. Judging from those demonstrations, things were likely to get a little hairy. Furthermore, now the “new” and “old” generations, the student youth and their parents, who had been on opposite sides until now, were together, and I expected thousands. Tens of thousands. I was not disappointed.


I saw them marching down the street, a wave slowly moving towards me. A sense of dread filled me as I watched them, but I shook it off. I called out to the men already arrayed and ordered the paratroops and National Guard waiting in the nearby military base to be on standby. I formed up my troops in a line in front of the Pentagon, and around the grounds. The crowd kept on chanting, and screaming, all the while marching inexorably forward like some cloud of doom and destruction, ready to envelop my men. The protesters encountered my troops, standing there like a line of sand bags, trying to hold back a flood. The crowd ground to a halt, perhaps ten feet from our line, and a few protesters moved forward. It seemed as if they were trying to engage my men in conversation. I held my breath, but my men followed their orders, and did not respond. Suddenly, a group of protesters moved out of the crowd and came forward. I tensed, ready for a battle, but instead of confronting my troops, they placed flowers in the barrels of some of the soldiers’ rifles. The absurdity- and oddly- the depth of the gesture left me silent.

They began to move forward again, and, a great beast lumbering ahead, began pushing my troops back toward the grounds. I wondered if these people, who so desired peace, wanted a riot that could leave hundreds dead when tensions snapped. I radioed my captains around the grounds to hold steady, and not to rush up to support a unit that was falling back. This was one of the possibilities that scared me the most: that a unit would move to assist, while the protesters entered the grounds of the Pentagon through the gap they left behind. I then radioed my captains on the line; they must not let the demonstrators enter the grounds; they must not let them get onto the grounds; the demonstrators must not breach the building- that was my job.

Even so, moments later, as the line reached the edge of the grounds, a small unit of the radical Students for a Democratic Society charged forward, and a struggle ensued. My soldiers were outnumbered, and not wanting to severely hurt the demonstrators for fear of sparking a riot, they soon were beaten back, and the line was breached. My worst fears were quickly realized; they had broken in. I watched in horror as protesters streamed onto the Pentagon grounds.
Despite that, I found that I was now more determined than ever to defend the building itself. I ordered some units to defend the key areas outside the building, mainly around the entrances. I then pulled seven companies inside, to keep out intruders. Reports started to flow in. The back and side entrances were under little pressure, while the main entrance had become the congregating point for the group of several thousand that actually entered the grounds. The Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the defense of the main entrance reported that the demonstrators were holding a “teach-in” in an effort to convert his soldiers; so far, none had changed sides. As if. I trusted in my men to remain loyal.

Suddenly, I received an alarming report: protesters were in the building, near my position. I dispatched a company to expel them, but soon learned that reinforcements were needed. I gathered up two more companies and led them to the scene of the combat. As the reinforcements arrived, I beheld a brutal battle taking place; the soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets against protesters with clubs and knives. Where they’d found those, I’ll never know. Leading the charge, I blocked a club with my rifle, and smashed the stock into the man’s face. He went down, allowing me to parry the thrust of a knife wielder, and slash him with my bayonet. As the much-needed reinforcements rushed past me into combat, I was able to take a moment to assess the tactical situation- a general should assess the situation, not go charging headlong into it. Several dozen from each side lay on the floor, and with over a hundred protesters inside the Pentagon halls and more coming, I knew I had to win quickly. I gathered all of my troops and ordered a bayonet charge. With a shouted challenge, my men formed up and began advancing across the room, bayonets lowered. Unwilling to face the wall of knives, the protesters were quickly forced out, with few casualties on either side, and my men barricaded the entrance.

I strode up to the stairs to the Secretary of Defense’s office, and as I walked, I snorted softly to myself- to think, a bayonet charge, in this day and age. I looked out a window to see thousands camping outside, a great fire kindled out of draft cards, perhaps in a foolish show of defiance, or maybe just for warmth. The light played across the faces of those near it, and I realized that those people could have been anyone. But what made them different is the uniform they chose not to don. I knocked on the Secretary’s door, and was admitted. As I entered, I saw him looking out the window, impassive, wire-rimmed spectacles catching some of the light.

“Mr. McNamara, we have secured the building, and are preparing to call in more troops to push them off the grounds in the morning,” I reported.

“Very well, carry on,” he approved.

I radioed the National Guard and paratroopers to begin to filter onto the grounds. Tomorrow, we’d force the trespassers out.


The next day dawned bright and cold; it seemed too a fine day to drive anyone anywhere. Yet I formed up my troops, all seventy-three hundred now here, their breath puffing out in long white plumes.

I gave the order. My line, now several men deep, moved relentlessly forward. Some of the protesters tried to resist, but moved back before the leveled bayonets of the soldiers. Before long, we had cleared the Pentagon grounds. It wasn't hard, considering the fact that many of the protesters had already begun to leave of their own accord, but neither is shooting fish in a barrel- it’s no more honorable either. Some of the radical members of the crowd tried to start a riot, but were quickly silenced.
As we began to push them back up the street, the demonstrators tried to stop us, and again some of the protesters began to fight back. I was getting incredibly tired of those guys- of the whole exercise- so I ordered a military police unit to start making arrests of all who tried to oppose us, and for troops to beat off any retaliatory strikes. By the time we were able to disperse the protesters, six hundred eighty-one had been arrested, and around fourteen hundred beaten.

And yet, I felt troubled by all of the days’ events, saddened by the realization that this was the first time that America had used her soldiers to threaten her citizens who had gathered in- mostly- peaceful protest. I prayed it would be the last, and yet I feared it would not be until we ended the war, one way or another.

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
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