The Lost Century
Chapter 2. Past as Prologue
[If you want to start at Chapter 1, it's here along with my explanation of what I'm doing and why.]
The sun was below the horizon and the distant hills were painted in a chiaroscuro of light and shadow under the beautiful, sweeping colors of the twilight sky. Flavius and his men were settling into their position for the night. He'd found a cavern which had a small opening, easily defended by only a couple of men, especially since it sat about forty feet above ground on a steep, crumbling bluff, but the interior opened up into a room sizeable enough for several times the number of men he had left. As an added benefit, there was a pool or spring near the back of the chamber and the fresh water was extremely welcome to the exhausted and dehydrated legionaries.
The waterskins, provisions, and weapons they'd gathered from the battlefield were separated into three piles in the middle rear of the chamber they occupied. The legionaries were clustered near the pool, drinking their fill and wiping themselves free of the accumulated grime from today's battle and the marching they'd done to this point since the last time they'd had access to a good supply of water. The men had spread their cloaks, plus extras from their foraging on the battlefield, around the perimeter of the chamber in anticipation of the night temperatures. They'd learned that things chilled down quickly in this region once the sun disappeared.
Flavius and his two NCOs sat at the mouth of the cavern wrapped in their cloaks, drinking methodically from their waterskins, and chewing quietly on some of their recovered provisions. Between sips and bites, Optio Rock and Third Gus worked on bandaging the Centurion's wounds.
"This forearm slash is pretty deep but it looks clean," offered Rock.
Gus responded, "Yeah, that's the worst one. The rest ain't too bad, except that there are a lot of 'em."
Flavius took a gentle swallow of water and chewed gingerly on his ration. He'd been hit in the mouth at some point and his teeth hurt. They hurt more when he chewed. "What about you two? The parts of you not covered by armor look like corpses that have been flayed by incompetent anatomy students."
"We'll patch each other up as soon as we're done with you, Centurion," replied Rock, "Don't you worry. We're good."
Flavius did begin to feel better as he filled his stomach and his NCOs finished ministering to him. As they began tending each other's injuries, Flavius decided it was time to talk about their situation, "Do you think the men can hear us?"
Without looking up from wrapping a gash on Rock's leg, Gus said, "They're pretending they can't, sir." Rock nodded in agreement.
"Doesn't really matter," said Flavius, "I'll be sharing our plans with them as soon as I decide what those plans will be. We'll pretend we don't know they can hear us and we'll all ease into this night feeling smugly superior."
"For now, let's assume that Rock was right about the barbarians being afraid of the dark. That takes care of us for tonight but the morning will be a different story, unless they've started some religious holiday where they aren't supposed to kill anyone for a week or so. And we aren't that lucky."
"Hades!, sir," Gus blurted, "We're on Fortuna's shit list. All of our luck is bad luck."
Rock countered, "Quit yer bitchin'! We're still alive after that battle we fought today. If one of the Centurion's poetical-type Equestrian-class friends had seen that shit, we'd be immortalized in an epic poem, by the gods! It could end with me getting my dick sucked by Fortuna herself and I'd be the most famous legionary of all time."
Rock glanced guiltily at Flavius, "Except, of course, for you, sir!"
Flavius smiled despite himself. "Optio Titus Petronius Catullus, if we get out of this alive and our story makes it back to Rome, I will happily take a background position in the narrative and let you be the protagonist who becomes the most famous legionary of all time. Who knows? Maybe Fortuna will even take some time out from her godly duties to give you a divine blowjob. Or, you can at least hire a street girl to do the job and call her Fortuna while she's going about her business."
"But first we have to survive. In the very short term, for tonight I propose two-man watches. Of the men we have, who's too injured to stand a watch?"
Rock thought a minute and glanced at the men in the rear of the chamber. The light had faded to a dusty purple but he could see enough and he remember enough about what he'd seen as they climbed to this cavern to respond, "Pyramid's bad, sir. River, too. They might not make it through the night. The rest are more or less ok." Gus nodded in agreement.
Flavius ordered, "Make up a sentry roster for tonight, then, not including River and Pyramid. Two-man teams. That will take us to tomorrow morning. We don't have anything to make lamps or even torches so the men will have to rely on unaided eyesight and hearing. Remind them to listen carefully while they're on watch."
Rock nodded and Gus asked, "And tomorrow morning, Centurion, what about tomorrow morning?"
"Why, tomorrow morning the sun will rise, the birds will sing, we'll all awake well-rested, clean and refreshed, and Fortuna will smile a wide, sultry smile and come give us all excellent, goddess-level blowjobs!" Flavius declaimed and winked at Rock, whose jaw dropped as he sat stunned into immobility.
"Well, either that or the barbarians will return and kill us all." He turned to wink at Gus, who frowned deeply, more confused than he'd ever been in his time with this officer. "This is a good defensive position. I plan to charge these barbarians a great deal for our lives and I intend to make my way to Hades carried on the backs of all those enemies I've killed in the past and will kill tomorrow."
Flavius took a last look at the barely-discernable silhouette of the hills in the distance. "Set the sentry roster and turn in. I want you two to be as rested as possible for tomorrow's slaughter." Flavius finished speaking, gathered his gear, and turned toward the side wall of the cavern to wrap up in several cloaks for a night's sleep. He did not see his NCOs behind him stand to attention and salute as they chorused, "Yes, Centurion."
Before he settled down, Flavius raised his voice to the men, some of whom were beginning to drift away from the pool in search of a spot to lie down and sleep, "Legionaries, you earned your pay today. It was an heroic effort and I'm proud to be the Centurion of such a group of legionaries. Tomorrow, we'll send a cohort of these dirty barbarians to pave our way to the Elysian Fields. Sleep well tonight. Die well tomorrow."
With that final task done, Flavius removed most of his armor and piled it next to his sleeping site for easy access if he needed it during the night. Then, he lay down on two of the cloaks recovered after the battle, rolled another as a pillow for his head, and pulled two more over him for warmth. His exhaustion turned a slab of rock and two ragged cloaks into as comfortable a bed as he'd ever had while serving in the legions. His general muscle aches and the pain from specific injuries was perhaps offset by the lethargy brought on by the blood loss from those wounds. Or maybe he was simply as tired as Hades.
Flavius succumbed to Hypnos and Morpheus like a boulder falling to the Earth from a great height.
Two valleys to the North, the Khan had led his troops over a stream which would never be considered a river by any stretch of the imagination and through some scrub growth which couldn't possibly be mistaken for anything even resembling woods but they had safely returned to the collection of yurts housing any and all grandfathers who had managed to stay alive long enough to achieve that status in such a harsh and violent environment. He had been seething with frustration the entire return trip because of the outcome of the day's battle. He had expected to complete the slaughter of the invaders before midday, then use the afternoon to loot the enemy corpses of valuables, especially their armor. He desperately wanted a set of that damned armor. By the Five Elements, it was incredibly strong, almost magical. But they fought using techniques he'd never seen before, surprising and confusing him. A mere hundred men, without horses, had fought his four hundred to a standstill, killing half his warriors and dragging the battle out so close to sunset that he'd finally had to break off before his men mutinied and forced him to do so. That would have been even worse than having to leave the damned invaders alive.
Well, not many of them were still alive, he consoled himself. There was only a handful left when he turned his troops for the safety of home. He half hoped that the dreaded night stalkers, pale haunts of the dark, drinkers of blood and devourers of human flesh, would finish them off. He simultaneously half hoped that the night haunts would be satisfied with the nearly three hundred fresh bodies left on the battlefield and that they would leave the invaders for him to deal with when the sun returned to the world and the night demons returned to their hidden places to sleep while avoiding the sunlight they feared because of the injury it caused them.
The Khan took a final glance around his village in the purple dusk, then retired to his yurt, exhausted from the day's efforts but ready to extinguish some of his frustration in the newest addition to his harem. She was young and strong; he'd let her do most of the work. It's good to be Khan!
The Khan's three senior leaders sat in a nearby hut, expressing their own frustrations, but lacking a suitable outlet to extinguish them. They wanted, no, needed more than a romp with a woman to soothe their spirits after the battle with the alien troops.
The youngest and simplest complained, "Two hundred men, lost to one hundred unmounted beetle men, hiding inside those metal skins, afraid to fight like men. It's not right."
The most manipulative replied, "Just what do you mean? Are you saying the Khan is losing his ability to lead?" His intent was, of course, to put that idea into the minds of the others while conceptually attaching its origin to the youngest.
The youngest was quick to reply, "I didn't say that!" But the bait was in the water and the fish were hungry.
The strong one knew what the manipulative one was up to but he no stomach for games. More honestly, he didn't have the patience for them. "Who'll be Khan, then, huh? You?" he asked, looking at his manipulative cousin.
"I'd be willing to take on that responsibility, with your help, of course," came the smooth reply.
The youngest started to feel like he might have more in common with the worm on the hook than his fellow fish. "I'd be willing to help, elder cousin."
The strong one was not as smooth as his manipulative cousin but he was experienced and could sense the hook inside the worm. "A triumvirate? You making policy decisions, me making combat decisions, and our youngest cousin here contributing to all discussions?"
The smooth one believed he could take the next step to sole rulership of the tribe once things settled down after the death of the current Khan. "Yes," he agreed.
"Agreed," the youngest hurried to include himself, knowing that when he got a bit older and stronger he could wrest sole power from his aging cousins.
"Agreed," echoed the strong one, thinking that accidents often happened in battle and neither of his cousins was an especially good fighter. He could return from some future battle lamenting the freak, accidental loss of his fellows in the Triumvirate. "At the bottom of the night, the three of us will enter his yurt and send him to the Ancestors."
The youngest visibly twitched in his discomfort and the manipulative one's mouth turned down in a moue but neither one demurred or complained. The night stalkers rarely came into the village and the embryonic Triumvirate would only be outside between yurts for a moment but that exposure bothered the manipulative one the most. The youngest wasn't self-aware enough to fear the night demons as much as he should and he'd killed men in battle but felt some trepidation about stabbing his uncle while he slept in his own yurt. At the ultimate decision point, however, the desire for power trumped everything else for all three.
They settled down to wait for the middle of the dark. The youngest was consumed by thoughts of wealth and access to the best women. The manipulative one was already scheming the next steps in his path to sole rulership. The strongest, although not as politically complex as his scheming cousin, thought more deeply about realities and repercussions outside of his tribe than the manipulator did. He chuckled mirthlessly, realizing that the settling of internal affairs and relationships after tonight's dark deed would take days to resolve, which would keep everyone in the village and leave the metal-armored invaders unmolested for all that time. If they were at all efficient, and they'd certainly shown their capabilities during the day's battle, they had plenty of time to escape the tribe's vengeance.
The strongest was overwhelmed by the irony of it and began to laugh lustily. The other two cousins shared a concerned look and wondered if their strong cousin knew something they didn't.
While the three cousins schemed, the Khan spent a delightful span of time with his newest concubine and fell happily asleep with his head on her luscious young breast. He had successfully pushed away his negative thoughts about the events of the day. Tomorrow, things would be different.
In the mouth of the cavern, legionaries Miller and Squid stood wrapped in their cloaks, their breath steaming into the night, staring out into the darkness which was lightened only somewhat by a waxing moon rising above the hills. Happily, the cold had settled the effluvium from the battle's aftermath and the air they breathed was fresh and clean-smelling with only the slightest undertones of dusty rock, drying blood, and decaying flesh. They hoped they were just marking time until their relief took over and allowed them to return to their bedrolls. The thought of a night attack unmanned them. Dying under Apollo's aegis was one thing. Being snuffed out in the dark seemed unholy.
Miller wished he could make a sacrifice to Mars, or Apollo, or both. He was a vegetarian but he knew and accepted that the gods were carnivores, unparalleled apex predators, and they had to be appeased regularly; but animals were scarce in this wasteland and there had been no opportunities recently and certainly none in the here and now. He knew this was his last night on Earth, so he chose to pray quietly to the goddess he'd never acknowledge to his fierce bretheren but whom he held most closely in his secret heart. "Oh, Ceres, please be with me tomorrow!"
Squid wished, not for the first time since becoming a legionary, that he'd stayed on as his father's apprentice, fishing the Tyrrhenian Sea from their home near Gaeta, instead of joining the Roman Republic's military machine. Adventure! Good pay! Great retirement package! Travel to wondrous foreign lands! Meet the fascinating citizens of civilizations outside the Republic! …and kill them, he added bitterly. "Great Neptune!" he thought, "I know I'm far from your domain but you are the god of my first and best hopes in life. If you could stretch your arm out just a little to find me here in this land which feels like the front yard of Hades, I'd appreciate it. And please watch over my father. I've come to realize he's a much better man than I ever imagined. Here at my death, I admit he's a better man than me. Be kind to him as he fishes your seas. Thanks."
Inside the chamber, the rest of the legionaries slept, occasionally stirring from a bad dream or a twinge from a fresh wound. All slept in a state of deep exhaustion, some closer to a final, prolonged, permanent sleep than to an ordinary sleep from which they would awaken in the morning.
The NCOs, who had bedded down near the mouth of the cavern, trusted their men to know when to change the watch and they were certain these men would not fall asleep on duty. No legionary did that more than once and all of these men had years of service behind them. Nonetheless, both NCOs slept soundly but lightly because that was part of their job description and they were excellent at their job and had been doing it for a long time.
Flavius slept apart, as befitting an officer, although he found it rather silly, given their current strength and situation. The fierce fighting of the day and the fact that he survived it took his dreams to echoes of past glories when his century was one of six making up a full cohort of which there were ten in the legion. His dreams melded comfortable victories of the past with the day's desperate battle. He single-handedly led his century to victory against the Parthians and was promoted, but his new cohort, which should have been composed of six centuries, was made up of only a single squad of eight men. General Crassus, richest man in the Republic and famous for his spendthrift celebrations, threw him a victory and promotion party but the wine tasted like a poorly-cured waterskin, the food felt like dirt on his tongue, and the women were all distinctly undesirable and clearly diseased. Despite his obvious distaste for them, one of the women continued to pursue him. She kept backing him up, while speaking rapidly to him, although he was unable to make out anything she said. She became more insistent and pushed closer, her diseased flesh plainly apparent, even beneath a heavy application of Egyptian-style makeup.
She reached to touch him and he shuddered.
Flavius startled awake, roused by strong fingers digging into his shoulder and a calloused hand over his mouth. Optio Rock's voice spoke quietly at his ear.