by Marcus Audens
The great river spread out before the man standing in the shadow of the great cliff which overhung the river road. The river surface had the appearance of a very large white table set with the immaculate white cloth of the best, closely woven, and bleached linen. It was, of course, the Rhenus Fluvius in it’s winter coat. A light snow storm that morning had laid a covering of white over all, softening the craggy features of the river ice, and the knarled leafless trees close by the water. However, in these lands the Rhenus was thought to be more than just a river, but rather a god of sorts, who when swelled by Spring floods destroyed everything it could reach close by its river bed.
In the depth of winter the sounds coming from the river sounded very like the groans of a dying man, and at other times like the shattering of huge amounts of glass or pottery. Titus Otho Atticus, a former legion legate, and now the Chief Engineer to Germania with the mission of building a permanent bridge across the Rhenus. Not a temporary bridge as the Divine Caesar had built and then destroyed to show the barbarians the strength and abilities of the Roman Army. This bridge, his bridge, must be a lasting bridge with stone pillar supports and a heavy timber roadway. It would have to be designed to withstand the wrath of the river ice in winter, and the spring floods in the spring.
The great river spread out before the man standing in the shadow of the great cliff which overhung the river road. The river surface had the appearance of a very large white table set with the immaculate white cloth of the best , closely woven, and bleached linen. It was, of course, the Rhenus Fluvius in it’s winter coat. A light snow storm that morning had laid a covering of white over all, softening the craggy features of the river ice, and the knarled leafless trees close by the water. However, in these lands the Rhenus was thought to be more than just a river, but rather a god of sorts, who when swelled by Spring floods destroyed everything it could reach close by its river bed.
In the depth of winter the sounds coming from the river sounded very like the groans of a dying man, and at other times like the shattering of huge amounts of glass or pottery. Titus Otho Atticus, a former legion legate, and now the Chief Engineer to Germania with the mission of building a permanent bridge across the Rhenus. Not a temporary bridge as the Divine Caesar had built and then destroyed to show the barbarians the strength and abilities of the Roman Army.
This bridge, his bridge, must be a lasting bridge with stone pillar supports and a heavy timber roadway. It would have to be designed to withstand the wrath of the river ice in winter, and the spring floods in the spring. Titus smiled wryly to himself as he drew his doubled cloak closer about his shoulders, in defense of the gusty wind blowing down the river canyon straight from the mountains in the distance. Even now, after his months here, he tended to think of this river as something other than what it was.
The tales of the river spirit whispered in the vicus over mugs of the local beer, just outside the fortress gate, the sounds coming from the river, and the raging floods which could well be imagined from previous years waste material of vessels, houses, barns, fencing, uprooted trees, and many other items of now twisted broken, and ruined which lay in the grasp of the heavy timber and brush along the river’s edge. He shook himself sharply as if to dislodge a bad idea. Titus came out here each day to look at this river, to try to get the feel of it, and to know it’s strengths and its weaknesses. But it seemed to be as a great an adversary now as it did when he had first viewed it many years ago.
Not long ago the ice-covered river would have been a natural bridge for the barbarian raiders to cross the river and attack the vicus and the Roman patrols, but that was pretty much in the past now, and while there were still a few raids from time to time from those few holdouts who had not yet learned to accept the Roman world coming to their own, most of the tribes had either been roundly defeated, or had come to the table to be a partner to Rome.
Rome’s laws and culture was beginning to tame the hill people and it was clear that many of the folk here were quite content to work at their farms and skills while enjoying the security of Rome and perhaps even becoming wealthy from the increasing number of opportunities and fruits of the Roman world. In the winter, it was difficult at best to pry warriors out of their warm houses and halls for a winter campaign. The Germans were not particularly fitted for winter warfare, any more than the Roman army was. Both could manage it, of course, but it was not done often and always with a much greater price in men and livestock than any leader was willing to lose.
Titus did not believe the stories that he had heard over the years about the powerful river spitit that supposedly controlled the entire length of the Rhenus and the valley through which it flowed, but standing here looking at the vastness of the broad river and hearing the sounds that he knew to be grinding ice, such a story would not be hard at all to believe. A dark band of trees faced Titus across the river, and it was, as he well knew, the place from which any enemy raid would issue. That was the reason that far up the opposite side of the valley there were outposts and lookouts who watched for any such gatherings and provided the vital advance warning of any attack. Then too, there were scouts in the field who lived in the forests only coming in from time to time to report. Many of these scouts masqueraded as peddlers, and road merchants of the outlying villages. He did not envy either in this kind of weather.
Titus moved purposefully across the road and climbed down the embankment to the river’s edge, after tying his horse loosely to a nearby bush. When he had reached the ice, he walked out upon the the river carefully, trodding through the light snow, watching for any soft spots, and moved to the center of the river. He then brushed away the snow from the ice and rapped the surface of the river with his staff. Only the dull click of solid ice came back. It must be a couple of feet thick, he thought, enough to support the heaviest transport wagon. Again the sound of grinding ice assailed his ears and he turned and hastily regained the road and untied his horse. The river’s sounds were very unnerving.
The cold was beginning to seep through his cloak, as he thrust his staff through the lower loops of his saddle, and then mounting the horse, he turned it’s head toward the fortress and the vicus. The animal sensed that they were headed for home to a warm barn and something to eat. The animal increased its pace but Titus held him in closely. It would not do at all for the horse to slip and fall on this icy road, and add one more story about the river’s influence on all who came to tame it.
As he rode toward the vicus he thought that since he had arrived here the luck of the Romans had not produced much for him. The young asst. engineer who had arrived before him had taken very ill. He had fallen in the river by accident while doing a preliminary survey, and he was now in the fortress hospital with a high fever, and the Chief Surgeon did not hold out out much hope for him. This concern already had the older heads wagging, as the tales of the River God’s revenge were woven around the young man’s accident. But whether he believed it or not, many would, both in the legions and in the friendly villages around the fortress from which at least some of the unskilled laborers must come. That was the real concern. The Praefectus Castrorum of the legion fortress had welcomed his arrival and had made arrangements for a roomy engineering office.
When his young assistant had fallen sick, the praefectus had obtained a young legionary immunes (military surveyor specialist) as a scribe for him. The young man seemed eager enough, but his ability to take the place of a trained engineer was most unlikely. Titus returned the salute of the guards as he rode through the Main Gate. They probably won-dered what he was doing at the river on a day as cold as this. Sometimes he wondered that himself. Within minutes he was rubbing his mount down with straw in a warm barn. He turned the animal over to a sleepy-looking groom with strict order to walk him and then feed and water him, and put a blanket over him for the night.
Then Titus brushed the straw from his uniform and taking up his cloak again, walked toward the vicus. There was a small tavern in the vicus that served a tasty lamb stew, and a good Falernian wine. It was also a gathering place where people talked freely after a glass or two of wine, or a flagon of the local beer. That talk was often valuable as the Chief Engineer needed to know as much as possible about this new country in which he was to invest his immediate future.
(to be continued...)
by Marcus Audens
The woman’s attitude had returned to being stand offish again and Marcus was growing very tired of this up and down change in her personality toward him. Perhaps some patience at this point would lead to a better understanding between them. Marcus looked at the woman’s straight back as she marched along leading the horse with it’s now covered burden. He would go along with this to see where it might lead, as he was also curious as to the story of this wounded man would have to tell, however he thought, it certainly will not be easy to accomplish, nor he thought darkly, not particularly wise in the Roman world. He settled himself in the saddle for the ride back to the vicus.
Drawing the sword knife from his belt he slipped it into the rolled cloak on the back of the saddle. No sense in being conspicuous about this whole idea, he thought. The trip back to the vicus was uneventful, and they encountered no traffic on the road. The afternoon was drawing into evening when the crested the last hill and looked down upon the shipyard and the vicus outside the main gate. Marcus was tempted to try once again to gain some information from the woman, since things could not continue as they were going. He swung from his saddle, holding his horses reigns he strode forward until he was beside the woman matching her pace.
"See here," he said, "I really cannot continue calling you woman or slave. I need to know your name." He nodded to the injured man on the horse. "If you intend to help him back to health he will need to know your name as well, and he will have to understand that we are his friends. This silence between us will be disruptive to him, as he will not understand it. He will, at best, be confused when he awakes, and will sense the tension between us. So, I ask that your appar-ent dislike of me, that we put aside our differences for now, and act as though we were at least comrades in this rather risky endeavor."
The woman looked at Marcus as she strode along and listened intently to what he had to say. When he had finished, she thought for a moment, and said quietly, "my name is Stella, and my home was in Berenice, in Egypt on the Red Sea. About a year ago, my family decided to move to Alexandria. My father had been offered a position there. We left Berenice with a camel train over land to the Nile, where we would have taken ship to Alexandria. However, the train was overtaken by a sand storm. in the confusion of the storm the camels that that my family was riding on ran away and were lost.
"To make a long story short when the storm was over my parents and sister had disappeared and the remainder of the train was nowhere to be found. I wandered for a day in the desert trying to find the tracks of the train, but finally succumbed to the heat and lack of water. I found myself in the hands of a desert band of outlaws. They took me to their desert village and made me their slave. Later, I was sold on the slave market in Cyrene, and brought here to Germania. That great oaf that you fought, bought me, and tried to have his way with me. That is how you found me."
Tears welled up in her eyes and she stopped in the middle of the road and began to sob. Marcus was not sure how to deal with this situation, so he gently took the horses reins from her hands, and leading both mounts he took her free hand in his own. Surprisingly she did not object. Marcus spoke quietly and earnestly, "I know that you have suffered much, and I know that you resent being owned by me or any other. However, what you may not know is that I resent having a slave almost as much as you resent being one. Considering our present situation, there is not a great deal that we can do about that at the moment. However, I will need a housekeeper for the immediate season until the fleet is fitted out. I will pay you a fair wage, and that wage can be banked against the purchase of your freedom. Your privacy is your own, and your body is your own. I promise that I will not violate either."
The woman looked up in surprise and her tear-stained face almost smiled. She hesitated for a long moment, and then lowered her eyes to the ground, she said very softly, "Perhaps I have been too hard, and perhaps I have wronged you in my disrespect. You are the first to speak to me like a human being since my capture. If you will keep your pledge then I will abide by your rules to the best of my ability. I shall do my best to do the job as your housekeeper, but I must warn you that I am not experienced at such."
For the first time Marcus laughed out loud and said still chuckling, "Well, now Mistress we are both in the same situation, I have never had a slave before!!!" Stella looked at him for a moment and then she too smiled, and said firmly, "I now thank you for your many kindnesses Commander, and I shall give you no more trouble." Marcus stood holding her hand for a moment, and he was suddenly struck again with the reali-zation that this woman was quite beautiful. The thought bothered him for some reason and he thrust it out of his mind.
"Very Well," he said gruffly, "We will continue on that basis, and when things get a little more uncomplicated you shall have your own room in my establishment, and you will have this position with me. You must however, agree not to try to run away until we can straighten this out, and deal with the Roman laws by which we are both bound."
He squeezed her hand gently for emphasis to his words. Stella looked once more at the ground and said again so softly that he could hardly hear her, "I agree, you have my pledge as long as your pledge holds true." Marcus thought he felt just the tiniest return of a squeeze from her hand before she withdrew it gently from his own. "We should continue now, I think," said Stella, as she turned away and again began walking toward the city. Marcus remounted and thought, "Things just got better, he hoped, now all he had to do was to find out what he had in this unknown man, and then maybe, just maybe, he could get back to his duties relating to the squadron. His staff had been handling the details of late, but that could not continue for much longer without his oversight." We...why was he now thinking in terms of "we", he wondered gloomily.
He tried to put that thought out of his head, but the picture of Stella’s tear-stained face kept coming back to him. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. This is ridiculous he thought, she is after all, just a slave. That assurance to himself however, didn’t seem to help very much. They arrived in the center of the Vicus at near dusk, and they drew no obvious attention. Most of the people here were used to seeing soldiers and civilians alike whose intake of wine or the Germanic beer inhibited their ability to walk. So, the town folk who were on the street, greeted the small cavalcade with a few knowing smiles, but the curiosity that they had feared did not apparently develop. Marcus took the lead now and moved directly through the vicus to the military fortress. There in the military offices and his apartments he would feel more secure.
The only person who took any particular notice of the little group as they move toward the fort entrance was a laborer sitting on the edge of a large stone just outside the west gate. He was slowly eating his evening meal, and beneath his lowered eyelids he missed nothing of what was going on around him. He took particular notice of the man on horseback whom he recognized as the Navarch of the squadron of patrol ships then being built in the nearby shipyard. He also noticed the covered form of a man on a second horse. As the group stopped at the gate, the laborer stood and walked slowly back into the vicus.
Marcus hailed the gate sentry and told him to alert the surgeon that he had an injured man that he was bringing in. One of the guards immediately ran off to alert the medical staff, while the other saluted and the trio passed into the fortress. Inside they directed their footsteps to the Hospital entrance, where there were two large orderlies waiting with a litter, together with a younger man that Marcus recognized as one of the junior surgeons. The young man immediately stepped forward and eyeing the still form on the horse said, "May I be of assistance to you Commander?" Stella immediately froze in her tracks at the sight of this new authority, and looked to Marcus with pleading eyes.
(to be continued...)
by Marcus Audens
Sunrise came slowly as time dragged for the men of the Legion who manned the outposts in the early morning watch. This morning was quite cool as opposed to the heavy damp heat of the previous night, when Hastus had lay sweating on his pallet. A gentle breeze was blowing from the sea which lay off to the South of the mountain where the legion was camped. His attention was riveted on the direction of the Pole Star in a constant search for any sign or indication of an aggressor’s movement through the valley below. Small columns of smoke rose lazily from the camp only to be whisked away with the freshening sea-breeze. The camp was waking and the early risers were addressing their morning porridge in preparation for relieving the night watch.
Hastus Plius Scipius, legionary of the third century, second cohort realized only too well that this was the hour of the morning watch which was the most dangerous. It was the hour of least preparation and of the most inattention, men being relieved of the night watch, and expectation of a breakfast meal, as well as the initial preparation for what the day might bring; a march into hostile country, or simply waiting here in this advantageous camp for the enemy to attack. Hastus well knew all this and yet the previous day had been a difficult one, putting up hidden camp defenses, in the brush just below the camp on the slopes. Sleep was upon him, and he had to keep walking in order to better focus his attention strictly on his duty.
The dark forest started halfway down the mountain and spilled across the valley and all the way up to the far ridge where the scouts were posted. A small stream splashed down the steep incline from a tiny pond and spring just under the summit of the hill’s crown to his left. This was the most welcome part of this encampment, fresh cool water; as the march to this location had been along a parched and dry coastline. Shimmering water as far as the eye could see and none of it fit to drink. Here too was level ground, well almost level, a kind of shelf before the incline began just below the camp. This was a good lookout as well where one could see for miles and the far ridge was well within the sight of a fire signal. He simply could not envision an en-emy attacking the legion here, but then who understood these barbarian minds.
The shield and helmet he bore weighed heavily upon his head and arm but he hardly needed the threat of an Optio’s staff to maintain his equipment both well cleaned and securely fas-tened. From his experience he knew that relief from the discomfort of his armor was often fatal to any who indulged in it’s temptation. He definitely did not care for the forest that lay so expansively across his front. There was no telling what dangers it hid within it’s dark and quiet bosom. For several days now they had ex-pected a strong opposition to their landing on this shore, but none had materialized.
Only burned villages and rotting slaughtered animals, putrid in the heat, greeted the legion as it toiled it’s way to it’s goal. A few night raids by small parties which were easily blunted, and some of the raiders killed but none were captured, which to Hastus was very unusual, No barbarian warrior of any prominence had appeared in these raids if the ragged robes and rusty iron weapons were any indication. Merely untrained and inexperienced villagers seeking some redress for being evacuated from their villages and seeing their world go up in smoke. Not that any of this was the legion’s doing. However the legion was marching to overturn a revolt of the tribal leaders, and the barbarians knew what to expect when the legion found them...
Suddenly a flare burst upon the shadow of the far ridge. The scout’s signal!! Enemy in sight, and in strength!!! His fears now disappeared in his confidence. The waiting was done, and that was the hardest part of the legionaries job.
Hastus shouted, "Optio of the guard!!!, Optio of the guard!!! Sound the alarm, Enemy in sight!! A flare on the far ridge to the North!!!"
A sudden stirring below him in the camp, and the duty Optio confirmed the report and sent the messengers, waiting for this moment, to alert the main body of the legion to prepare. Hastus settled his beltus, idly fingering the leather strap of his gladius, his fatigue now forgotten with the prospect of action. He waited patiently to be relieved, and then he would march out with the remainder of the morning watch to take their places in the battle line.
(to be continued...)