One family. One Legend. One chance to reverse the tides of fortune.
Vallum Aelium (Hadrian’s Wall) Milecastle 9
Legio vigesima Valeria Victrix (Twentieth Victorious Valerian Legion)
The colors of sunset splashed across the deepening sky as if an angry god had slashed the heavens with great, violent brush strokes. Diabolus alarum, a sky like this was called. Devil’s wings. If one looked hard enough at the shades of purple, pink, and orange, one might have seen demons gazing back at them, an audience to witness their impending destruction. Certainly, the sky had that feel this night as death loomed.
The Otadini tribe, the vast tribe of the north, had the contubernium surrounded, bottled up in their milecastle like trapped animals. The Otadini, the native tribe to the north of the great wall that bisected the island, had watched the Romans as they built their mighty wall and mighty milecastles, miniature military encampments, some with dozens of Roman soldiers. But this milecastle was a smaller one; there were only eight men and a commander, comprising the contubernium. The commander of this squad of men, a decanus named Euricus Lollius Pompeius, was the very young son of a great Roman senator and sincerely had no business commanding such a fine collection of infantry, one of the elite squadrons of legionaries from the Valeria Victrix.
This boy, this spoilt man-child, commanded eight seasoned warriors and had not the slightest hint of military acumen. He was a fool. As the milecastle had been constructed in the midst of hostile territory, the man-child had taken command based on his political connections. The Otadini, with their violent leaders and vast numbers of men, hadn’t waited a nominal length of time before surrounding the milecastle and laying siege. The structure had barely been completed a month before the harassment began in earnest.
Their small numbers had been no match against the Otadini. The very first night of bombardment, Euricus had suffered a terrible arrow wound to the neck. Quickly, the Otadini had successfully cut off their supply lines and the Valeria Victrix had not been able to send a message to the nearest Roman camp for assistance before all lines were severed. The nearest milecastle had tried to send help when they realized what had happened but had suffered heavy casualties in the process. Now, the men of Milecastle Nine were cut off from the rest of their cohorts by several thousand Otadini and hope had vanished as quickly as their food supplies and water had.
Now, five weeks after the initial bombardment, all remnants of survival were gone and their foolish commander, Euricus, languished in fevered misery. He had survived the initial attack but death was coming soon for him and he cried steadily, weeping for the comforts of his mother, as his men slowly starved to death around him. The spoilt son of a spoilt senator had led his troops straight into the snarling teeth of defeat. No glory, no great praise; for young Euricus, all he would know was failure.
Deep in the barracks of the milecastle, the surviving five legionaries were hunkered down. There was no use in fighting anymore because they had run out of arrows or anything else with which to launch an offensive. The animals that hadn’t been burned on the first night when the stables had been set ablaze had been used for food, and all of that food was gone. Now, the legionaries were sucking on leather or digging up earthworms in an attempt to sate their hunger. The rains had come a few nights ago and had provided them with some water, but that reserve was quickly diminishing.
On this night of nights, An older legionary sat at the far end of the barracks alongside a younger cohort. The older man had stepped in to take charge when their foolish commander had been injured. Quintus Aquinus Falco was that man, also charged with tending the commander since the legion’s surgeon had been killed in the course of the fighting. As Quintus leaned back against the cold stone wall, his gaze on the young commander lying upon his rope bed, twitching and weeping, he spoke to his nearest cohort.
“The moon will be full this night,” he said softly. “It will be very bright when it finally rises.”
Those were ominous words, echoing gently in the dark, dank confines of the barracks. The man he spoke to was a younger man, handsome, and an excellent fighter. He was rarely without his sword in hand, his gladius, and in fact had been busily working on the blade for several days; using a very sharp chisel, one he’d taken from the smithy shack, he had evidently been writing something into the blade of the sword. It had occupied nearly his every waking moment.
When the young cohort didn’t reply immediately, Quintus turned his attention away from the dying commander to see what he was doing. Still, he was chiseling away at his blade. Whatever he was doing, he was quite determined to finish it.
“Lucius?” Quintus asked. “Did you hear me? The moon will be full tonight.”
Lucius Maximus Aentillius glanced up at his older friend. “I heard you.”
Quintus watched the man as he continued to etch on the forged steel blade. “It will be as bright as the sun,” he said, a hint of defeat in his tone. “They will come tonight, you know. They will finish the job.”
Lucius didn’t look up from his task. “Why would you say that?”
“Because if it was me, I would wait for the full moon so that I could see clearly as I overrun the fort.”
Lucius’ etching slowed as thoughts of a full moon and thousands of Otadini filled his brain. “I was thinking the same thing,” he said quietly. “But I wanted to hear your confirmation. There is nothing we can do other than defend until the death. And I would suggest remaining here in the barracks. If we spread out and try to defend the entire fort, they will pick us off one by one.”
Quintus was shaking his head even as his friend was speaking. He looked up at the roof of the barracks, the wooden and peat cover over their heads. “This place is indefensible,” he said. “They will try to light the roof on fire and burn it down over our heads.”
“Then what would you suggest?”
Quintus didn’t say anything and Lucius finally looked up at him. When their eyes met, Lucius could see the makings of surrender in the dark-circled eyes.
“Would you rather die by a savage’s axe or by my sword?” Quintus asked softly. “I can assure your death will be quick and relatively painless. The Otadini will make sport of you while you are still alive.”
Lucius knew that. He struggled with that sobering thought, turning his attention back to his gladius. He ran his fingers over the blade, now with words etched into it.
“I had hoped to see my wife again,” he whispered. “You have heard me speak of Theodosia.”
Quintus nodded. “I have.”
Lucius smiled faintly as he thought of the radiant beauty of titian-colored hair and deep blue eyes.
“I was going to send for her, you know,” he said. “I had hoped to be transferred to Londinium and I was going to have her join me there. I’ve not seen her in well over a year. We were only married a short time before I was sent here.”
Quintus could see that the thought of his wife was greatly weighing upon Lucius. The man was usually so even tempered, difficult to rile, but thoughts of his lovely wife had him bordering on sorrow. It was in his movements now, and in everything about him.
“You will see her again,” Quintus said softly, with encouragement. “In the fields of Elysium. You will be waiting for her when she arrives, Lucius. There is no sorrow in that.”
Lucius gave him a weak smile. “What do I do in the meantime until she comes?” he wanted to know. “Shall we drink and gamble to pass the time? If Theo finds out, she will be very angry with me. She does not like gambling.”
Quintus laughed softly, as did Lucius. Women never liked anything that was fun. When Lucius turned back to his sword, using the chisel to clean up what he had already done, Quintus pointed at the sword.
“What have you been doing for weeks?” he asked. “You have worked on that sword constantly.”
Lucius blew on the few slivers of steel that he’d scraped up. Then, he held up the sword, trying to see his handiwork in the weak light of sunset.
“It is a message to my wife,” he said, running his hand along the inscription. “I will die, and this place will be destroyed, but this blade… it will last. It is my hope that those who come after us will find it and pass it along to my wife.”
Quintus held out his hand and Lucius passed the gladius to him. The older soldier carefully inspected the words, softly reading them back.
“My beloved Theodosia -
Crimson and embers, my love for thee,
For eternity will it bind us.
In Elysium will I wait, my heart of fragile stars,
With dreams only of you.”
When he was finished, his gaze lingered on the words as he murmured them over again, repeating them, savoring the beauty. Then, he glanced up at Lucius.
“You should have been a poet, my friend,” he said. “You have the soul of one.”
Lucius smiled faintly. “When my wife and I were courting, I constantly wrote her poems and love notes,” he said. “I always ended them ‘with dreams only of you’. When we were
married, those words were inscribed on a ring I gave to her. Therefore, when she is given this sword, she will know that my last thoughts were of her. It will bring her comfort.”
Quintus was touched by the sentiment. How wonderful to be young and so in love, but how terrible to see it all end this way. He handed the sword back to his friend, unwilling to say what he was thinking; a savage will find that sword and use it. It will never make it to your wife. Perhaps it was his cynical nature bringing those thoughts into his head. He did not want to take away Lucius’ only hope that his wife would someday receive that one last message, the final love poem in a short and sweet marriage that had been full of such things. Biting back his harsh words, he sighed faintly.
“I hope it indeed brings her comfort,” he said simply.
Lucius ran his hand over his sword, the smile fading from his lips. In fact, his expression seemed to slacken considerably, with shadows of sorrow again on his features. After a moment, he kissed the words on the sword softly, gently, as if delivering a kiss to the woman he would never see again.
In his own way, he was kissing her through his words. He knew she would feel his kiss when she read them. He wasn’t content with meeting her again in Elysium; he wanted to hold her one last time, to smell the flowers in her hair and to feel the texture of her skin. But the gods they had prayed to so fervently had denied them the hope they sought. After a moment’s reflection, on a life and love that would soon end, Lucius looked to Quintus.
“I must bury this sword,” he said. “It must be put someplace safe. I do not want the Otadini absconding with it.”
So he does know the reality of what will happen to such a weapon, Quintus thought. He was suddenly seized with the desire to help the man, however futile their efforts might be.
Even if they were to die, perhaps something of them… of Lucius… would continue to live. Perhaps their story would be told, someday, and the legend of the sword with Theodosia’s name on it would survive. If it survived, in a sense, then they survived. Deep down, Quintus very much wanted to survive.
“Then let us bury it in the corner of the barracks, under the foundation,” he said. “I do not know how it will be found again but if this fort is ever re-built, they will more than likely discover it.”
Lucius nodded, rising weakly. He hadn’t eaten in days and his strength was nearly gone. “It will be rebuilt after we are gone,” he said confidently. “If we could only put the sword between the stones, they would find it more easily. I fear that if we bury it in the earth, it will be forever lost.”
Quintus rose, too, unsteady and wrought with hunger. “Let us hurry, then,” he said. “Our time is growing short.”
Together, they went to the northeast corner of the barracks. It was such a small structure and the others, overcome with hunger and defeat, watched with only mild curiosity as Quintus and Lucius began pulling at stones in the wall, trying to see if there were any stones loose enough to move, something that would create a big enough gap to hide a full-sized gladius. They pulled, grunted, shoved, and even kicked, and eventually they were able to remove four rather large stones from the wall, stones that had been carefully fitted together with clay to hold them together.
But the clay was weak because of the moisture and cold, and it gave way easily. Tossing the stones onto the floor, Lucius eagerly ran his hands along the gap their removal had created. He put the sword in to see if it would fit; it did, but barely. Joy filled him.
“It will fit,” he said. “See? There is enough room.”
Quintus knelt down beside him, inspecting the dark crevice. “It will fit,” he agreed,” but when we replace the stones, they will stick out more than others. It will be a sure sign that something is here.”
Lucius shook his head. “Only a Roman would notice that stones are out of alignment,” he said. “The barbarians from the north build with wood and mud and rocks, sloppy abodes that are not fit to house my dog. They will not notice that a few stones are askew.”
It was then that Quintus notice silver moonbeams streaming in from the slender, highly-placed window at the top of the barrack’s wall. The sun had set completely and the moon was now rising. He looked at Lucius and could tell by the man’s expression that he was thinking the same thing. The moon is rising. The Otadini would soon be coming for them. Seized with urgency, Lucius shoved his sword into the gap and together, he and Quintus replaced the stones, shoving them in as far as they would go.
By the time they were fitted, they didn’t stick out as far as Quintus feared they would. It was surprisingly seamless with the rest of the wall. Lucius even took dirt from the floor of the barracks and shoved it into the cracks, trying to mimic the clay mortar. As he and Quintus worked furiously to seal up the stone, they could hear shouts and howls outside.
Their worked stopped and they stood up, slowly, listening carefully to the noise that was starting to penetrate the barracks. It was evident that something was happening and they were compelled to prepare, compelled to face what they must. Calmly, Quintus went to his bed and collected his gladius. Holding the weapon in his hand, the one that had belonged to his father, his manner was wrought with resignation.
“It is time,” he said quietly. “They come.”
Lucius nodded stoically. “I know.”
Quintus glanced at him. “I will do what needs to be done with our commander and with the men,” he said softly. “I will give no savage the satisfaction of killing a Roman.”
Lucius couldn’t disagree. “I shall be near my wife when the time comes,” he said. Then, he nodded at Quintus as if giving him permission to do what needed to be done. “Victoriam et honorem, my friend.”
Quintus smiled faintly at the pledge each legionary from the Valeria Victrix gave one another, either as a salutation or a farewell. It was their code. Victory and honor. The words sounded sweetly tragic at the moment.
“Victoriam et honorem,” he repeated softly. “I will see you soon.”
Lucius saluted him, as a fellow soldier, before returning to the wall where he had so recently buried his sword. He plopped wearily onto the ground next to the stones that had been moved, putting a hand on the cold, gray rocks as he leaned back against them. The sounds of the Otadini were closer now, calling to each other in their terrible language, becoming Death as they approached.
But Lucius shut out the sounds. He ignored Quintus as the man went about his business, inevitably hearing the weak protests of the other legionaries before their voices were swiftly cut short. Lucius knew it was only a matter of seconds now before he joined that deathly silence and he pushed his face into the stone, closing his eyes as he envisioned the woman he loved more than all the glories in all the world. He could see her, clearly, before him in her soft white garments as they draped elegantly off her slender shoulders. She was smiling at him. He smiled back.
“My beloved,” he murmured, his lips against the stone that held his sword close and dark. “Forgive me for not returning to you. Forgive me that I should not hold you again, as I had promised to do. The gods have chosen a different destiny for me. But know that I await you in Elysium, for no man has loved his wife more than I love you. With dreams only of you do I sleep now. With dreams only of….”
He was cut short as a blade carved into his chest, entering from the right armpit and plunging into his heart. As Quintus had promised, his death was quick and relatively painless, and Lucius soon found himself in fields of soft grass, surrounded by splendid mountains and blissful streams.
The last words upon his lips were the first that came to mind as he gazed at the golden sky above, more brilliant than the sun, but still feeling the longing for the woman he lived and breathed for. He would see her again, soon, he was sure. Not even death could separate them. There would come a time when their love would unite them for all eternity and he wait impatiently for that moment.
With dreams only of you….