Tales of Ancient Rome

By: S. J. A. Turney

Hold The Wall

It seemed like days since they had come the first time, drifting like ghosts from the mist, death incarnate, shrouded in white. Forgais, the commander of the limitanei troops who garrisoned the milecastle, leaned back and sighed, lifting the rim of his simple iron helm and wiped away the sweat and grime.

Glancing to his left he could see Saturninus and Artorio leaning against the stonework and breathing deeply, recovering from the last push. Finn and Carro at the wall’s curve to his right completed the remaining garrison.

Just in case, he turned and scanned the interior for the hundredth hopeful time. No. Just the five of them left now. The few bodies that remained in the yard of the milecastle below had already turned grey in the cold, with no blood to warm them, their skin tone matching the frosted gravel. Twisted grins and mangled limbs, lying where they had fallen from the wall. This morning there had been nine defenders, and before nightfall last eve: sixteen. The son-of-a-whore barbarians in this forbidding northern land never seemed to let up, even at night. It had been almost two days since he’d slept and he was starting to feel far too groggy to keep control of the situation.

Twenty men down to just five in less than two days. He bit down hard on his personal suspicion that the milecastles on either side, as well as the nearest fort, Aesica Castrum, were probably suffering similar attacks at this point. No good would come of snatching away the last ounces of hope the others still clung to. He blew on his hands to warm them. At least the wall was still in Roman hands, since none of the bloodthirsty bastards had come along the parapet yet; when they did, the game would be over.

There was no hope of sending for relief; they could only wait and fight to the last and hope that it came unsought. Aesica, two miles away to the west, was out of sight in the gloomy mist. Two short miles, but it might as well be a hundred. Hell, anywhere more than twenty yards from the wall was indistinct in the white fog, and had been since the enemy first came.

Briefly, he re-considered sending a runner to try and fetch help, but quickly he discounted the possibility. They had tried that twice before over the last couple of days. Somehow some of the enemy had managed to get south of the wall and both times a runner left that gate he had been peppered with arrows before the mist even enveloped him. How many there were and where they lurked would remain a mystery, at least until the fog lifted, though there could only be few as they hadn’t made a try for the gate. With only five defenders left, none could be spared to make a try for it.

What had led to this sudden siege would also likely remain a mystery. The men who were coming out of the mist in both darkness and light were snarling maniacs, spittle on their lips and murder in their eyes. But they weren’t the blue-painted, spike-haired cannibals that people said lived to the north and would come soon for blood. These were farmers, fishermen, smiths; ordinary people, just like those to the south of the great wall of the Emperor Aelius Hadrianus. Ordinary people like Forgais had been five short years ago, down to the south in Isurium. What had driven ordinary people to this?

A blood-curdling cry sounded somewhere in the mist and was picked up and whooped by numerous other voices.

“They’re coming again, lads.”

There was a chorus of tired and fatalistic nods from the other four and they wearily hoisted their huge, round shields onto sagging arms, propping swords where they could be easily retrieved, and hefting their heavy spears. The men crossed themselves and muttered prayers to God almighty that he either spare them or grant them a swift and noble death and accept them into his kingdom afterwards. All except Carro, of course, who still refused to acknowledge the truth of the church and had alone maintained the fires in the mithraeum a couple of miles away for years. Even Carro made prayers in his own way, though. Somehow, in the face of a screaming enemy, the months of argument over the truth of the one God seemed petty.

“Carro? Best get down below and make sure the gate’s still secure. Shore it up with anything you can find. See if there’s anything left of the bunks in the barracks.”

The shorter, dark-haired man nodded, hoisting his shield and weapons and making for the staircase down.