And all hell breaks out.
Setting up the novel at the very beginning with action and anticipation . . . that's what I like to do. From out of chaos comes a deep mystery and even MORE chaos. For me, it's the perfect definition for a great story.
So here's the set up for this newest clipping of the novel I'm sharing with you today. Decimus, being the third in command of the legion, is the one man in charge of training the entire legion to function properly. A freshly organized legion of half raw recruits and half hardened veterans. Late at night, deep in enemy territory, Decimus decides to inspect the legion's outer perimeter. And that's when all Hell breaks loose.
Tell me what you think . . .
The Fires of Hades
Whatever it was which made him pause and turn his head to look he would never be able to say. But he did. And it possible saved his life. He came to a halt on a slight rise of dirt, surrounded by his escorts, his mind intent on keeping his men ever alert. The night was absolutely dark and oddly silent to the ear. Not even a breath of cool mountain air stirred in the thick blackness. In the darkness, just below the hill, the ground opened up into a wide space of a flat valley floor. Meandering down the middle of the valley was a road which ran from Narona on the coastline deep into the Dalmatian interior. On both sides of the valley were high, forest covered mountains. Rugged forested mountains pockmarked with the burning pinpricks of hundreds of campfires of the enemy.
Clearly visible. A constellation of man-made fireflies easily visible in the cloying darkness of the moonless night. Dalmatian rebels who, each one, had in their chests a burning hatred for anything Roman.
To his right the outer defenses of the legion’s camp, rows upon rows of wooden stakes driven into the soft dirt of the small hill. Beyond the stakes, a deep ditch with sloping sides encased the camp. Work completed by every last member of the legion in a matter of a few hours. Like all Roman camps, this one was an almost perfect square precisely mapped out and plotted by the legion’s attached engineers’ hours before the first of the legion’s cohorts came marching up the road. All legionnaire camps were the same. It didn’t matter if you soldiered in Mauritania in far off Africa, or slogged away in a unit a thousand leagues away in the cold and ice of distant Celtic Britain. A Roman army camp was the same. A legion would march for three-quarters of the daylight hours in a precisely ordered marching formation, a concisely ordered marching order all legions of the army adhered to since the days of the legendary Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal and ultimately destroyed Carthage almost four hundred years earlier.
But, usually four hours before sunset, the legion would come out of its marching formation and build a fortified camp atop some piece of elevated terrain which gave the legion an unhindered 360 degree of visibility of its immediate environs. It was the Roman way. It was inviolate Roman tradition. It was one of the many little pieces of the puzzle which made Roman Army invincible.
Each marching soldier not only carried his weapons with him, but a wooden stake, or a shovel, or a pick, as well. Each man pitched in to build the camp. It took about four hours to complete. But by time it was done, every soldier in the camp knew exactly where his cohort resided and where his tent would be found. And it was Decimus’ job to make sure the legion preformed to exact standards without exception.
But on this night he paused atop a small mound of freshly discarded dirt and turned to his left to look up the hill toward the legate’s tent. The darkness in the direction toward the legate’s was not quite as dense thanks to the burning torches and campfires which littered the camp’s interior. It was not a high hill the legion resided on. Its slopes relatively gentle to traverse. Decimus noticed the legate’s large tent on the summit of the hill, surrounded by soldiers from the general’s personal praetorian guards. Rising above the general’s tent was the masthead which, atop it, displayed the legion’s cherished eagle, along with the many pennants of the legion itself and its eight cohorts underneath. In the semi-darkness of the camp’s burning campfires he saw the main flap of the general’s tent open and a group of men exit the tent’s interior in mass. In the twilight it looked like five army officers surrounding a large figure wearing a dark cape which covered his entire frame. Light reflected off the polished armor of the Romans as they gathered around the dark figure for a moment or two before disappearing behind the legate’s large tent.
Decimus frowned. From this distance, and with so little light illuminating the night it was hard to see the faces of the Roman officers. But he was sure he had never seen any of the men before. As to the heavy looking man in his black hooded cloak, his face never revealed itself. But he moved like a soldier. A hand lifted up to pull the hood of his cape around his face as he turned to walk away. An act of deception, the Prefect thought to himself. An act of intrigue. But there was a confidence, almost an arrogance, in the way he straightened himself up and moved out of view surrounded by the five Roman officers.
An unexpected chill ran down the Prefect’s spine. Half turning, his brown eyes fell onto the balding, white haired little man who was his servant, a sour faced old man who had served for years with him in one legion or another, and leaned closer to the older man to speak quietly into the man’s ear.
“Find out who those men were and when they arrived in camp.”
The small man with the balding head and darkly tanned face nodded in silence and turned to leave. He moved through the small entourage of armor clad legionnaires who surrounded the Prefect, and then started up the incline of the hill toward the legate’s tent.
He took no more than ten steps before the explosion ripped through the night. A roaring crescendo which shook the ground violently underneath his sandaled feet and lit up the night with the hellish light of a nightmare. A blast of hot, foul smelling air threw Decimus, and everyone else standing at their posts, through the air as if he was nothing more than a child’s rag doll. The roar of the explosion droned on and on even, as large chunks of soil and rock began raining out of the semi-lit skies. Massive chunks of soil and rock hitting the ground with a thudding jolt, guaranteeing death and severe pain if some hapless legionnaire stood or laid splayed out on the ground underneath the raining fury.
The hot, multi-colored flames shooting up from the top of the hill roared and exploded like the hissing fury of a metal smith’s forge. A forge only conceivable by the gods themselves. Decimus, stunned and in pain, lifted himself up from the ground and staggered to one side as he faced the billowing inferno above him and stared at it in awe. As he watched he sat the flames weakening, the roar of its fury lessening perceptibly, and then, with the blinking of an eye, suddenly ceasing altogether. One moment Hades’s fires burned and screamed in its fury. The next gone altogether, the night’s darkness suddenly enveloping one and all, the sudden silence slapping everyone across the cheek with a startling clarity almost as overwhelming as the explosion itself.
Reality flooded into Decimus’ mind as he turned and began bellowing out names with the hammer-like staccato force of only someone with twenty-four years of soldiering could possibly do.
“Menelaus! Romulus! Cassus! Brutus! All centurions . . . to me! To me! The rest of you bastards . . . off your asses, NOW! Up! Up! Get on your feet, or by the sweet graces of all that is holy, I’ll personally peel the hides off each and everyone one of you with a cat o’nine tales in the morning!”
Decimus roared. He strode from one point to the next on the outer perimeter cajoling, barking, kicking men up and off their ground and throwing them physically back to their assigned positions. He organized small gathering of legionnaires to fight and subdue the innumerable small fires which had sprung up with the camp. As he roared and terrified one and all, burly men dressed in the armor of centurions staggered or ran to join him. In the eyes of each Decimus saw disbelief and terror filling their souls. But he knew. Knew this was no time for either emotion.
A catastrophe of Olympian proportions had struck the IXth Brundisi. But an even larger, more deadly, catastrophe was about to happen when dawn soon arrived if the legion was not prepared for it.
“Gnaeus!” the Prefect yelled over the shouting of his centurions taking over at last and rousing the men out of their stunned silence, “survey the camp. Assess the damages and loss of men and report back to me as soon as possible.”
Decimus turned and stared up at where once the top of the hill had been. Where the legate’s massive tent, the holy shrines of the legion’s namesakes, where the several tents of the officer’s would be found, all gone. Not just destroyed. But . . . gone! Nothing remained. Not a shred of cloth, or a piece of armor, or even a body part of one of the dead remained. Now only a gaping hole twenty meters deep and ten meters in diameter, with an eye-watering aroma of bad eggs drifting up and out of the cavity and blowing gently away with the wind.
It did not take a genius to realize the harsh truth. All of the legion’s officers, except for him, and most of what had been the 1st cohort, the legion’s most experienced troops, no longer existed. The anger of an unknown god came down from Olympus and had destroyed one and all. And in the process, possibly assuring the complete and total destruction of everyone who, at the moment, still lived on this cursed hill. Dawn was but only two hours away, and with the first light of a new day, the hills above their position infested with Rome’s enemies would look down upon the middle of the valley and see what had been wrought in the middle of the night.
The enemy would come howling and screaming at them with blood lust in their eyes and the smell of victory upon them. Thousands of them. All sensing a great victory at hand if they but struck with overwhelming force before the sun lifted much higher than dawn’s light in the morning sky. If the IXth was not prepared, if not their position was compressed and strengthened somehow, if the men were not ready to fight, all would be lost. By noon every living soul on this hill would be dead. Consigned to the eight levels of Hades for the rest of eternity. A situation Decimus was grimly aware of, but determined to contest the issue to his last breath.
The thin, hardened old veteran of a dozen battles, turned to face the many faces of his junior officers staring up at him and hungrily waiting for orders, and began talking in a commanding, but calm, voice.
“I want the second cohort, Brutus, to take up position on the northern flank of the hill. Pull back from your original position and deploy half way up the hillside and dig in. Cassus, take the forth cohort, and deploy directly behind the first. Draco, your sixth cohort will take the eastern slope. The seventh will deploy directly behind you. The west slope . . .”
A calm voice. An assured, experienced commander. And a plan. A plan delivered concisely, with little fanfare, and direct. Decimus’ gray eyes did not waver as he looked into the faces of each of his centurions. Orders were given. From an old soldier who had seen it all. The Prefect in his quiet calm simply radiated self-confidence out to his men like some mystical lantern held up in the dead of night to light the way. No one knew if the Prefect’s plan would work. In some respects, most of the centurions didn’t care. There was a plan. There were orders given and expected to be carried out to the letter. Someone was in charge. Someone they knew and respected.
What more could a soldier ask for or expect?
Only the gods knew what would happen once dawn filled the sky with light.
Only the gods knew what would happen once dawn filled the sky with light.
What remained of the night was filled with the movements of legionnaires repositioning themselves on the hill first, followed by the sounds of men digging into the soil, and hammers thumping loudly onto stout wooden stakes as they tore down the wooden stakes set earlier in the day and repositioned in their new defensive stance.
Decimus, with the silent Gnaeus beside him, kept moving around the hill directing men here and there. Even pitching in when a set of extra hands were needed to drive stakes into the ground or to throw up additional barricades of dirt in front of their positions. No one complained. No one slacked off. Not with the Prefect beside them in the dirt and grime working as hard as they were.
And when the first gray shades of predawn began to lessen the darkness around them, everyone knew. They were ready. Ready for whatever might come.