Updated: Jan 20
June, 367 AD.
Summer in the far north always was a bit of a non-event. Something southerners talked of, something people of the north could never quite comprehend. That day was a reminder why.
It was a grey day. Low banking cloud swept across a desolate landscape, a hint of rain hung in the air, threatening to unleash the gods’ wrath on them at any moment.
A grey day, not that tribune Sixtus Victorinus seemed to care. He was a man built for grey days. For howling rain storms and the crack of thunder, for oversized coats of fur and wide brimmed hats to keep the rain from your face.
He wore such a hat today. As dark as the rain clouds, as miserable as the scowl he wore on his bearded face.
‘What do you see, Halfhand?’ he called to one of his men, who had dismounted and was on all fours, studying the pattern of footprints on the grass, as at home as a smithy at the forge.
‘Footprints going south,’ Halfhand said in that rasping voice of his, as if he had swallowed the smithy’s flames and was choking on the coals.
‘Too many to count. Thousands, for sure.’
‘Yesterday? Maybe the night before.’ Halfhand moved forwards on his knees, prodding a pile of excrement before leaning down and giving it a sniff. All about the glamour, this one.
The wind kicked up a stir, rolling off the distant hills to the east, rippling through the long grass.
‘How could we have missed them?’ Victorinus mused, nudging his horse around so he faced the north.
Ask anyone in the south, even the south of this desolated island, and they’ll tell you there’s nothing north of the Wall. Nothing of note, anyway. And they’d be right about that, in a sense, Victorinus supposed. But there was a lot of land. A lot of space, a lot of hills and mountains. Enough for thousands of men on foot to pass without them noticing.
There’d be hell to pay when they got back south of the Wall. His commander did not take kindly to failures, didn’t take kindly to Victorinus on the best of days.
‘And where they going? And why?’ Drost added, eyebrows furrowed together in a frown.
Victorinus looked at the young man from the corner of his eye, mounted as he was, just to his right. Drost was a recent addition to their little band, the only one of them with ties to the tribes north of the Wall. ‘Was about to ask you the same thing.’
Drost looked at his commander, his young face a picture of innocence. ‘How would I know? I’ve been with you for the last year.’
‘Must have friends though, right? Family?’ Cassius asked, dismounting and walking towards Halfhand, who was once more on his feet.
‘You miserable old bastards are all the friends I’ve got,’ Drost said with a scoff. ‘As for family, can’t say I’ve got any of them either,’ his frown returned as he spoke. ‘And anyway, it was you, Cassius, that led us on that winding route through the hills. We might have caught a sniff of the bastards if we’d just stuck to the tracks we know.’
Victorinus knew the young Caledonian was hiding something. He’d turned up at Fanum Cocidi the summer before, speaking perfect Latin, practically begging to be enlisted into the miles areani. There had been something off with that. Couple of things, if Victorinus was being honest.
Firstly, no one begged to be let into the areani. Plenty of good men have begged to be let out, but none let in. The pay was less than even that of a border legionary, the length of service the same. The survival rate was also a good deal lower, since instead of spending your twenty-five years’ service tucked up in some cushty fortress surrounded by your comrades and high, stone walls, you operated in small groups, out beyond the frontier, hunting enemy soldiers.
Lastly, it was the job of the miles areani to keep tabs of the tribes north of the Wall, the very people Drost had come from. They were the ones sent into tribal territory to negotiate with the chief’s, they were the ones who risked being invited into a round house with a smile and the promise of wine and food, only to never leave again. It was the way a lot of Victorinus’s old comrades had met their end. Had nearly happened to him a few times, had the scars to prove it, didn’t he? Luckily for him, he was pretty good with the sword he wore strapped to his waist, not bad with a spear either.
But, Victorinus had been desperate for men. He was always desperate for men. So, he had taken Drost, and so far, the lad had given him no bother. The suspicion, though, never went away. He was, however, right about one thing: it had been Cassius that suggested they take the longer route through the hills. He had no time to wonder why, just now.
‘How long back to the Wall?’ Victorinus called to Halfhand.
Halfhand was a natural scout, had been a natural soldier until he’d lost half his left hand fighting in the last civil war some thirty years ago. He’d been in the Sixth Victrix, fighting his way south through Gaul and into Italy, waging war for the usurper Constantine as he fought his brother for the throne. Both men had been sons of the Constantine, the man whose rise to power had begun right here, on Britannia’s northern soil. Halfhand had got his shield arm caught in the crush outside Aquileia, the fingers cleaved off by a probing sword. The army’s loss had been Victorinus’s gain. Nearly in his sixtieth year now, Halfhand was still the best man in the unit.
‘Half a day’s ride, we won’t make it before sundown.’
Victorinus nodded, tipping back his hat to view the foreboding cloud. ‘We keep going, no stopping until we’re back amongst friends. Won’t let a bit of rain dampen our shine, will we lads?’ he said, smiling at the mutters his men returned.
There were six of them in total. Victorinus their leader. Men often joked that in the history of the empire there had never been a tribune who commanded a unit so small. Victorinus didn’t mind. He’d had grand plans once, a burning ambition to rise through the ranks, to lead men in war and earn himself fame and fortune. Life, though, had chipped away at those dreams, dug at the foundations and watched as they crumbled to dust.
He was not old, not by any standard. In his middle thirties, he should have been at the height of his strength and power. Though already he was beginning to run to fat, a once toned body now sitting too snug under his mail. Mirrors were his biggest foe these days. Trouble with mirrors is they show you the truth, not what you want to see. Victorinus much rather preferred the company of whores to mirrors. Whores at least, will tell you anything you pay them to.
He knew his once gleaming eyes were now a dull, lifeless brown. His chin sunken, nestled in a beard that melted into a fattening neck. His nose and cheeks had a red sheen from the copious amounts of wine he poisoned his body with daily. He had collapsed in a barn once, lost in a drunken slumber. His men had been so worried for him they had called a local doctor, who told Victorinus in no uncertain terms when he eventually rose to consciousness that if he did not change his ways, he would be dead by forty. Part of Victorinus had been disappointed the quack had thought he’d live that long.
‘Shall I scout ahead, sir?’ Pastor asked, reining in his mount alongside Victorinus.
The tribune smiled at the boy, amused by his endless enthusiasm. ‘Sure. Though what is the golden rule?’
‘Always stay in sight of the column.’
‘Always,’ Victorinus agreed with a nod. ‘Especially today.’
With a salute Pastor was off, kicking his mount into action. Pastor Benedictus had been with them a matter of weeks. An orphan from Eboracum, Victorinus had found him cleaning the floors in a local whorehouse, and after a flagon or two of wine had asked him if he was up for a bit of adventure. He was a bright kid, pale skinned and wide eyed, a short body still coated in the puppy fat youth should have melted away. He was keen and intelligent, eager to learn the ways of the areani and desperate for a chance to use the sword Victorinus had gifted him for real.
The fool of youth, Victorinus thought. The young dream of battle, of the glory and fame. They see it as a ticket up the ladder, a way to propel themselves to stations their parents could only dream of. Only a man who has actually fought knows war’s hidden truths. The stink of blood and shit, the terror of the clash of shields, the screams of agony, the squawk of the crows as they feast on the dead as the sun sets in the west. There is no glory in war. Just those who survive and those who don’t.
The rain came. A soft chink on their armour and helms at first, then a torrent so vicious even the fish must have swum a little deeper. ‘Can’t see the lad,’ Halfhand raised his voice to be heard over the rain.
Victorinus cursed, squinting into the distance. How long had he been gone? A matter of minutes, surely? ‘He’ll be ok,’ he said, though it lacked conviction.
Cassius was riding ahead of the column, reaching up from his mount, his eyes fixed on the distance. Victorinus afforded himself a wry smile, things must be bad if that lazy youth was suddenly on the alert. With a start he reared his horse and rode back, hoofbeats dull on the squelching mud. ‘That smoke on the horizon?’ Cassius pointed south. Through the murk a column of smoke could be seen, a dark spiral in an already dark landscape.
‘Halt,’ Victorinus called, tipping back his sopping hat to see better. The smoke pitch black, no hazard of nature. It was made by men. A warning. ‘Good spot,’ he said to Cassius. ‘How far away is that?’ this to Halfhand.
‘A mile? Bit more? North of the Wall.’
The tribune nodded in agreement. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as a cold rush of fear swept through him. It was a warning, a warning for them. ‘Can anyone see Pastor?’
Silence greeted his question, just the hammering of the rain and crush of the easterly wind. ‘Skirmish line, move forwards at a walk.’
They spread out. Five men, fastening helmets and baring swords. Victorinus had the centre, Halfhand to his left, Cassius to his right. Drost had the far right and Severus the left. They moved forwards, dull yellow cloaks billowing around them. Victorinus had swapped his hat for a helm, his lank dark hair a tight fit under his drenched leather head protector, though it stopped the helm rubbing against his scalp.
The smoke got closer, Victorinus felt the unease in his stomach like a sinking stone, weighing him down. He had grown accustomed to strange goings on north of the Wall. The Caledonians were a barbarian people, capable of unspeakable horrors, but not usually a people to do the unexpected. Thousands of footprints imbedded in the wet grass pointing south was not what Victorinus had expected to find when he had roused from his slumber that morning. Something was afoot in the wild lands, something strange and unnatural.
And now a vast column of smoke had appeared on the horizon. What would his commander say?
Come on Pastor, where are you? He liked the youngster, liked all his men, truth be told, even Drost. He would not forgive himself if he lost one of them on his watch. Victorinus was many things, unreliable, hard to like, an outcast in every sense. But his men all knew he would not see them come to harm. He was respected, even if he would never be loved.
They climbed a steep ridge, the column of smoke growing closer. Victorinus held his breath, the stench of pitch and smoke attacking his throat and nostrils, he felt the first hint of water in the corner of his eyes. It would become unbearable the closer they got. The wind seemed to whisper to him, a calling or warning Victorinus could not tell. He felt as if he was riding towards something unnatural, something gods made. He wondered if he should turn his men around. Cassius was once more ahead of the line on the right, urging his horse up the hill, an urgent look on his soft skinned face.
They were just about to crest the top of the rise when a figure on horseback appeared, flying at full gallop towards them. Victorinus just had time to make out the white of the beast’s eyes, the rider a black silhouette, a sword held high over his head.
‘Break!’ Victorinus called, and at once his men obeyed, splitting left and right. Victorinus, though, stopped his mount and stayed rooted to the spot. He wanted to move, to turn and flee from this cursed hilltop, but something held him in place.
The rider drew nearer, over the howling of the wind he heard a manic scream, saw spots of blood fly from the raised blade. And then he sagged in relief as he recognised the wide-eyed boy that rode past him, screaming incoherently as he did. ‘Pastor!’ he called as the boy rode down the hill, no sign of having heard. ‘Pastor!’
The others had heard though, and they raced off down the slope after the youth. Halfhand reached him first, grabbing the reins of Pastor’s horse and bringing them both to a stop. Victorinus hadn’t moved, still rooted to the spot, unwilling to crest the ridge and see what Pastor had been fleeing from. Once more the wind seemed to whisper in his ear, again, he felt the presence of the gods in the wilderness around him. What trick was this? What heathen lord had penetrated his mind?
Pastor was being led back up the hill, flanked by the four men of the areani. ‘You’re going to want to hear this, boss,’ Casius said as they approached. The rain pounded them, the clang of it striking six helmets almost deafening. Victorinus thought he caught a smirk twitching the corners of Cassius’ mouth, and was about to curse the foolish youth, then stopped himself and sighed instead. ‘Am I, though?’ he muttered under his breath, reluctantly turning to face Pastor.
The boy’s face had a blue tinge, the sickly edge a man has after a night spent drinking too much wine. His wide eyes quivered in fear, jagged red lines ran along the edges, tears cut rivets in the black pitch marks that lined his face. There were the same black marks over his cloak and mail, fresh mud on his boots. His horse, though, a grey gelding, seemed to have no such marks, as if the beast had been kept well clear of the smoke.
‘What happened, Pastor?’
‘F-fire,’ Pastor stuttered out.
‘No shit,’ Severus scoffed, earning a cuff round the head from Halfhand and a burning glare from Victorinus.
‘Pastor?’ Victorinus said in a soft voice, moving his mount so he was side by side with the boy. The wind swept through them once more, breathing wordless whispers into Victorinus’ ear. ‘Pastor?’ Victorinus said again, brushing the rain from his eyes.
‘Men. Fire. I… I killed them,’ Pastor said in a distant voice, his eyes lost in the horror he had just witnessed.
‘Severus, stay with Pastor and give him some wine, try and rouse him from this. The rest of you, with me.’
They rode at the trot now, cresting the ridge and seeing the landscape open up before them. A wide flat plain, void of trees or bushes or streams. Unremarkable in every sense of the word. Except for the huge fire that roared in its centre.
Approaching, scarfs or scraps of cloth hastily wrapped over noses and mouths, they begun to appreciate the sheer scale of the fire, in height and width.
‘Seems to be in some sort of shape,’ Halfhand called over the wind and rain, his voice muffled by the cloth over his face.
He was right, Victorinus realised as he stopped his mount fifty feet from the flames. A straight run of flames stretched from east to west before them, what appeared another straight line ran from the east towards the south.
‘Looks like a V?’ Victorinus moved. Was this some message to him? A warning from one of the tribes? And how did they get it lit in this rain?
He looked down at the ground, even his untrained eye could make out the footprints imbedded in the grass. They were going south.
‘They passed this way,’ Halfhand said, as if reading the tribune’s mind. ‘Yesterday, morning I’d say, though the rain makes it harder to tell.’ He had dismounted, and was once again on all fours. ‘No wagons though, no wheel marks that I can make out. That fire was made with pitch, and you’d have needed wagons to drag enough fuel up here to get it going like that, especially in this weather,’ he squinted as he looked up into the dark clouds.
‘Wasn’t lit yesterday though, was it,’ Drost added, dismounting himself. ‘Wasn’t a column of smoke in the sky this morning, and we haven’t travelled that far today.’
Victorinus said nothing, but he agreed. The fire was fresh, still growing, the flames still roaring, defying the rain. This had been lit today. He looked up at the rain sodden sky, seeing the lighter patch of cloud to the west, revealing where the sun hid. It would be dark soon.
‘Bodies!’ Cassius called, some way ahead of them, still mounted. Victorinus followed him, drawing up his mount before two lifeless bodies, heaped one atop the other. ‘Halfhand,’ he called. ‘See what you can tell me about these two.’
Halfhand duly obliged, rolling the first over to get a better look. The first thing that struck Victorinus was that the men were not from among the tribes. The Caledonians paint their faces, tattoo their body’s and dress a certain way. This man had no tattoos, he was dressed in Roman cloth and boots to match. His hair was a dusty brown, his eyes wide with terror, and there was a gaping hole in his chest.
The second was still face down in the dirt, everyone jumped when Halfhand rolled him over and he coughed and spluttered.
Victorinus was off his horse in a heartbeat, kneeling down in the rain as the wounded man gasped for breath. He had an almighty gash through his stomach. He hadn’t been stabbed, but swiped at with a longsword, his guts half poking out through his tunic. Victorinus studied the wound with a veteran’s eye. He saw the entry point, on the man’s right hip, the exit on the left hip where the wound grew shallower. He was wounded before the other man was killed, must have been, as the dead man had been almost on top of him.
‘What happened here?’ he said, leaning in close, smelling the blood and rot on the dying man’s breath.
‘He… killed… us,’ the man whispered through heaving breaths.
‘We… weren’t… supposed… to die,’ the man said again in a whisper.
‘Who are you?’ Victorinus asked, urgent now, seeing the life slip from the man’s eyes.
‘Valentia,’ the man whispered with his dying breath, the word dragging out until at last his lungs emptied. His head flopped back to the mud, mouth still open, eyes fixed on the sky.
‘What’s Valentia?’ Drost asked, Victorinus hadn’t realised he had been standing at his shoulder.
‘I’ve no idea,’ he said, rising to his feet. ‘But I’ve a horrible feeling this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of it.’
‘Three hours to the Wall,’ Halfhand said, looking at the sky.
‘And an army of Caledonians ahead of us. Something is afoot. Come, let us be away.’
Victorinus cast one last look at the bodies, and then the raging fire. The two dead men were covered in soot and their hands were black, he was in no doubt that they had lit the fire. But why? What, or who, was Valentia? And how had young Pastor managed to kill them both on his own?
They waited for Severus and Pastor to catch them. The youngster was still in a state of shock, unable to explain what had happened. Cassius had his arm around his friend, and whispered urgently into his ear. Let him recover at his own pace, Victorinus thought. Let his friend comfort him. After all, he’s just a kid.
They carried on south in the pouring rain. Each man lost in his own private thoughts.