Friday, November 05, 2010

Chapter 1: The Last Battlefield

My sole purpose in doing NaNoWriMo is to minimize my internal editor. Yes, I tried to pick a story concept that I'd enjoy writing and, given my personality, I cannot be totally uninvested in what I'm writing; but the majority of my effort is to write without overthinking. If something is big, I just call it "big" and move on without worrying, as I usually would, about being more precise. Is it "big" or is it "imposing," or "sizeable," or "immense," or "towering," or "capable of blocking the sun," etc.?

In that context, it is not sufficient for me to simply do it in private, hiding my lack of precision from the world. To fully commit to writing copiously but not elegantly, I must allow others to see the product of that effort. Therefore, here is the first completed chapter of my NaNo novel, just as it appeared from my fingertips, no editing, no rewrites, no fucking spell checker, even. Shudder!



The Lost Century

Chapter 1: The Last Battlefield

"Turtle! Turtle! Turtle!" Flavius croaked roughly, his voice hoarsened by a full day of yelling commands at battlefield pitch, trying to be heard over the fierce roaring of the enemy and the piteous cries and screams of the wounded and dying. The remaining Roman legionaries formed up, falling and stumbling together from exhaustion as much as moving purposefully into formation. They positioned their shields to form the "turtle" in preparation for deflecting the flight of arrows which was about to fall on them from the barbarian archers.

"You gotta be kidding me. This is it?" The distinctive rasp of Ibby's Iberian accent sounded even whinier than usual. And, maybe, for the first time ever, a bit fatalistic.

"Fuck me!" came the unmistakable urban-Roman gutter accent of Tits, perennial shirker when it came to noncombat duties but truly efficient and skilled when it came to the primary purpose of a legionary, combat and killing. "There's nobody left! Mars' buttfuckin' uncle! This isn't a turtle, it's a gods-cursed hatchling, a cocksuckin' egg, fer shit's sake! We're, like, one fuckin' squad."

"Be quiet and do your duty or I'll kill you before the barbarians have a chance to!" ordered the Optio.

"Steady, now. You're legionaries. Stand like legionaries. Fight like legionaries. If ya gotta, die like legionaries." the Third added.

Tits persisted. "Maybe I'd rather have Optio Rock just fuckin' kill me. At least I know he'd do it right, quick and clean. I dunno about these fuckin' barbarians. They look like fuckin' cannibals. I hate asshole cannibals. If I gotta get eaten, I don't wanna be eaten by these bastards. I want it to be some luscious Nubian hooker sucking my huge Roman cock while I suck down expensive wine and munch on pheasants' tongues at the Amalfi coast."

A couple of low-energy sniggers bounced around under the roof of their turtle. There may even have been a sotto voce "Fuckin-A!" but Optio Rock couldn't be sure. He was sure that someone muttered, "Huge my ass!" because Tits responded clearly, "Yeah, bitch, thass rite, you do got a huge shit-chute cuz I hear you're worse than that ass-bandit Caesar when it comes to takin' it in the rear. That's why nobody ever hears you when you fart, dickwad."

The Optio touched the tip of his sword to Tits' lower back, under the edge of his armor, and pressed firmly. "Shut up. Now. Stand firm and die like a citizen of Rome, like a legionary, you gutter bastard, or I will do you."

Tits heard the truth in the Optio's voice and clamped his teeth shut. He stood quietly, like everyone else who remained alive to form their desperately tiny turtle, dripping as much blood as they did sweat, the result of a day of hard fighting and numerous small to middling injuries. The pitiful remains of a full century of legionaries numbered only a dozen now, all panting, sweating, and bleeding, stinking of exhaustion and death.

Flavius heard all that was going on behind him but ignored it, knowing that his Optio and Third would control any internal problems. He was only concerned with the external situation. That morning they'd been a full century. A good century. Possibly, even, one of the best. Tough, disciplined men, experienced in the Roman army's strategies, tactics, and teamwork combined with individual fierceness. But they were far, far from home and long past the days of supply trains and reinforcements. They were foragers now, living off the land they happened to find themselves on, more a band of roaming ruffians than a branch of the dreaded Roman legions, relying only on themselves.

Flavius used the back of his sword hand to wipe his eyes and peered between the shields of their pathetically small turtle at the host arrayed before him. This was a harsh, arid land, populated by small, swarthy people who were the very embodiment of what Flavius thought of when he thought about non-Roman barbarians. They were dirty, dressed in skins and ragged furs with astonishingly primitive helmets and breastplates, and even those were few and far between. Most wore no armor or, at best, leather chest protectors; but there were a lot of them and Flavius had to admit, they were fierce and skillful fighters. Ordinarily, he'd have no qualms about facing two-to-one odds, even three-to-one against an unskilled enemy.

Unfortunately, this was not "ordinarily," this enemy was far from unskilled, and he'd started the day down by what seemed like nearly four-to-one. Now, at the end of what looked to be his last day on earth, he'd lost 90% of his men. While losing that many men, he'd eliminated perhaps twice that number of enemy forces, about half of their original contingent, but that still left him with odds which weren't worth computing, although he couldn't stop his brain from determining that he was operating in the neighborhood of twenty-to-one.

A flood of overwhelming emotions threatened to swell up and drown him but he pushed that into a storeroom in a rarely used area his mind and brought forward his combat mentality, cold, calculating, and unemotional. What was he facing? How could he best defend/attack/survive? Look for the options. Look for the advantages.

He'd done the best he could all day and the horrid terrrain had aided him in that. This country was all canyons and bluffs. Cliffs and caves. Rock and rubble. He'd positioned his century in a V-shaped canyon with their backs to apex of the V. The enemy had to come straight at him and had no high ground advantage within range. Without the terrain advantage, they would all have been dead before midday; but here they were, within an hour of sunset, and still standing. Down to 1/10 of their original strength, a reverse decimation, but still fighting.

A bit more than a javeline's throw away, the barbarians were lined up for their archery assault. About a third of the remaining enemy had bows and were getting together to release a salvo. Flavius heard a shrill barbarian voice and the archers all nocked an arrow and readied themselves.

"Steady!" Flavius cautioned his men.

A second barbarian phrase and the archers drew, followed quickly by a third and final phrase and they loosed their arrows as one.

"Incoming!" warned Flavius, almost unnecessarily because the simultaneous release and flight was loud enough to be heard over the wails and screams of the maimed and dying. The turtle tightened up as the men braced for impact. There was a collective intake of breath and slow exhalation, then the rain began striking their roof, demanding admittance.

When the last shafts finished falling, the Optio asked, "Anybody hit?" and got a full tally of negative replies plus a gratuitous "Fucking barbarians!" from Tits. Ibby added, "Optio, I am not happy with our situation."

The Optio would never admit it, but he felt better after weathering the archery assault because he'd feared it might be effective,and he allowed the bitching to persist without clamping down on it. Hell! They were all gonna die, anway; it was a soldier's gods-given right to bitch. He offered, "Here's our next move. Ibby will rush out alone and distract the barbarians while the rest of us hightail it up this bluff behind us and leg it our for parts East. Ready?"

This time he distinctly heard the "Fucking-A!" along with other chortles and amused mumbles.

"Not funny, Optio!" Ibby sputtered. The amusement got louder, with a distinct tinge of relief and a touch of acquiescence. They'd survived a lot of shit in their day and put up a helluva fight in this battle but it was inevitable that they'd die here. And soon. They accepted it ultimately. They were legionaries, by the gods, and they'd die like legionaries. It was either that or die like a coward. Not even a choice, really.

"Bring it on, you fuckers!' an indeterminate voice challenged the barbarian group from beneath the turtle. The remaining legionaries all joined in. "We are the legions of Rome, you shit-eating, sheep-fucking, ignorant cocksuckers!" "Come and die, assholes!" "I'm gonna make you watch while I rape your bitches to death but first I'm gonna cut off your nasty barbarian equipment! Then, after they thank me for giving them some good Roman cock, I'll fuckin' kill ya! SLOW!"

Flavius ignored the survival banter and challenges because he was busy peering out again to see what the barbarians were working on to end their survival. He expected to see the archers preparing another salvo and they were. What he didn't expect to see was the remaining barbarians working their way across the battlefield, recovering their lightly wounded and killing the hopeless, along with killing off all the wounded legionaries. Why start that now?

The second salvo got underway and Flavius warned "Steady!" followed soon thereafter by "Incoming!"

Again the turtle tightened up and endured the pounding from above. And again, they came through with no injuries. And Flavius once again peeked between shields to see the barbarians hurrying to finish policing the battlefield. What could it mean? He considered it as the third flight was launched against them.

"Steady!" preceeded "Incoming!" and the turtle once again kept the stone-tipped rain from rending legionary flesh. Flavius peered through the shield gap to see the barbarians getting very close to his turtle. Was the battlefield cleanup a ruse of some kind? Why not just charge? Ruse or no ruse, nothing would happen until they were in close-combat range. A line of perhaps twenty-five barbarians formed, facing Flavius' turtle as the enemy got closer. Behind that line, the rest of the enemy continued their efforts to separate the quick from the dead or to turn quick Romans into dead ones. There was nothing Flavius could do about that which wasn't suicidal; but he thought about it, considering that they were going to die no matter what. Ultimately, he held steady and let the barbarians finish their work. Time enough to die when the final attack was lauched against them.

For the first time that day, the battlefield was quiet. Certainly, not perfectly quiet. Inside the turtle, sounds were amplified as the Romans breathed and grunted and their armor creaked when they adjusted positions. Across the battlefield, the barbarian horde chattered and made all the noise usually associated with that large a group of men and horses. But compared to the fierce yells of battle and horrible screams of the injured which held sway for most of the day, the quite seemed profound.

The stench, of course, had not abated a whit. The iron tang of blood scent cloyed at the back of their throats, especially after a battle like this, where water was scarce. The vomit fumes of those who'd empited their stomachs, for whatever reason, floated on the still air. The ammoniac nasal pinch of urine and the sewer effluvium of open bowels either from intestinal wounds or from those who'd voided at death was the strongest smell, overwhelming all others; but the underlying tingly, fecund hint of ejaculate from those who'd spewed their seed at death's call added an uncomfortable reminder of the fullness of the losses one suffers at death. But the legionaries were all hardened men who'd served many years in harness to Rome. They'd experienced it all before.

As the barbarian gleaners finished their task and withdrew toward their lines, the archers prepared another salvo. Flavius now saw this effort in a new light. It was not meant as a serious attack but simply as covering fire to keep the legionaries in place while the death squads did their work.

He was almost casual as he ordered "Steady!' and "Incoming!" and the men picked up on his emotional state and treated the latest salvo as a kind of realistic but boring drill rather than the opening notes of the final movement of their death symphony.

When this shaft shower ended, Flavius again looked to see what the enemy was up to. Once again, the archers were preparing a salvo but the rest of their force seemed to be leaving. Flavius was stunned. Could it really be possible that they were withdrawing? Now? When they had the legionaries down to a handful of men, grossly outnumbered? It was ridiculous. It made no sense at all. But it was what he was looking at. They couldn't be planning to sneak around behind him because they would have done that hours ago, if it had been possible. They were simply leaving. Oops, but it's time to go heads-down for a minute.

"Steady!' and "Incoming!" and a tight turtle because they were by-the-gods Roman legionaries and when they did something, they did it right. The rain fell harmlessly all round them and bounced of their roof like air-borne Spring flower petals bouncing off the sturdy slate roof of an architecturally superior Roman villa. Even the usually laconic Optio was moved to comment, "Good work, men! We'll show 'em how legionaries do it!" And Flavius took yet another peek at his adversaries' antics.

There was no mistaking what was happening. The barbarian troops were retreating over a hillock and the archers were peeling off to follow. Flavius told his men what he was seeing but cautioned them to hold. Half the archers turned at maximum bow range and loosed another volley.

Steady. Incoming. Harmless clatter.

When Flavius looked again, he saw the last of the archers disappearing over the hillock after their fellows and the Romans were alone on the battlefield with the dead.

He told the men what he saw but ordered "Hold!" because he didn't understand what was happening and didn't trust the possibility that the barbarians had actually left the field of battle, leaving the remaining Romans alive. It didn't make any sense. However the enemy were clearly out of sight and well out of range and he knew his remaining legioaries were brutally exhausted so he ordered, "Down turtle. Form ranks."

The legionaries gratefully lowered their shields and shuffled into a semblance of rank, given that they were only ten percent of their original and usual force. Flavius looked them over and chose the two who looked least wounded. "Blue, Pinhead, take perimeter lookout duty. The rest of you sit and tend to your wounds. All of you drink whatever water you have."

Blue and Pinhead exchanged a look which would have been understood by any pair of grunts from Ig and Ug, cave warriors, to Melma4829 and Borth35, plasma fodder of the Glalctic Empire; but they trudged off up the V to take up their stations and watch over their brothers in arms, slurping what little water they had left and feeling the specific pains of their battle injuries and the deeper, general aches of bodies used beyond reasonable limits. The rest collapsed and began addressing their various wounds, either singly or with the aid of a fellow legionary for the more serious ones.

Flavius moved over to stand near his NCOs. "Optio Catullus," he inquired, "what do you make of it?"

The Optio, who was used to being addressed as simply "Optio" or "Optio Rock," was uncomfortable with the Centurion's use of his proper name. It was unusual and, therefore, disquieting. Nonetheless, he offered his best opinion. "Some barbarians are afraid of the dark. Won't fight in it. Want to be home and closed in during the night. Maybe these are like that."

"Third Naso?" Flavius sought the input of his thoughtful and pessimistic secondary NCO.

Gus, as he was more usually called, or, even more commonly, simply "Third," because of his rank, was also cautious because of Flavius' use of his proper name. He therefore responded in kind. "Centurion Maro, these bastards are tough and sneaky and I'm pretty sure they've been shadowing us for a couple of days. Somebody certainly has and they've explored and tested our perimeter at night. I know it. They could be just over that hill, resting up, and preparing to creep in later tonight and slaughter us in our sleep." He still couldn't accept that he was alive after the battle they'd fought. It was a silly notion that the barbarians would resort to a plan so complex when all they had to do was march up and slaughter the remaining Romans like temple sacrifices; but could it really be possible that the enemy had departed, leaving them alive. That didn't make sense. Maybe Rock was right. Maybe they were terrified of the dark and were simply hurrying home. Please, Mars, and Hades, if you're not too busy, let it be so!

Flavius nodded at his NCOs and squatted next to them, positioning himself where he could look over his remaining troops, while he thought about their situation. He swallowed some water from his waterskin and relished the stale, going-slighty-foul taste of it. He'd survived. Gods curse it all, he was alive, somehow, after being between the jaws of the death givers. The how of it was a mystery and what to do next was questionable but he was alive right now, with these men, and that was a lot better than standing empty handed on the bank of the River Styx, waiting for Charon and wondering how to deal with that situation.

"How long until dark?" Flavius spoke for his NCOs ears.

They both looked up, then looked at each other and nodded. Optio Rock responded, "Half an hour. Maybe three-quarters, if we're lucky."

Flavius nodded. "Get the men to finish up their bandaging and police what you can from the battlefield within the next half-hour. I'm going to scramble up this bluff and check out the caves above us. That's our best bet for surviving this night. I want everyone still alive to be up there with me and ready to establish a defensive perimeter by dark. Questions?"

"That's not enough time to do anything significant. Maybe gather some waterskins, rations, and a few weapons. Not much else." said the Optio, inquiringly.

"What about burial detail?" added the Third, specifically.

Flavius squared himself to them and said the hard thing. "Waterskins, food, and weapons. There's no time for anything else. It'll be dark in less than an hour. One way or the other, those of us who are still functioning have to be in position and ready in that timeframe. If we're still alive in the morning, we can make more sophisticated plans then. For now, we are in minimal survival mode, gentlemen. Understood?"

Neither man liked it but they both understood the harsh reality they faced. Long habit made their simultaneous response automatic, "Yes, Centurion!" They got to their feet and moved closer to the men to start them moving.

Flavius also rose on pain-drenched knees and aching thighs and eyeballed the bluff. In his current state, it was gonna be a ball-buster.


*Chapter 2 is here.

5 comments:

  1. Wow! Roman soldiers with modern lingo and a future-aware narrator... I'm hooked. Nice job on not editing! I noticed a few things, but will refrain, too.

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  2. Thanks, y'all. Or I guess I should say, "Vobis gratias!"

    I'm a writing fool!

    P.S. It really is insanely difficult for me to resisting going back over what I've written. I seduce myself with the promise that I can edit all I want after November.

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  3. Yes - December is for editing. Or maybe January, because it's a good idea to let it rest a bit between.

    You have me hooked, I'm already feeling invested in several characters, and I am someone, alas, who often gets bored with battle scenes and I wasn't.

    If that's what you get when you aren't editing, I might have to hate you just a little. <3

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  4. Thanks, Kelly.

    For me, editing might be a Spring event. (grin)

    ReplyDelete