The cohort stood at attention on the parade ground under the baking sun, but this time no sweat stung Thasus’ eyes. The defeat had seen the legion’s supplies captured by the enemy, an enemy entirely disinterested with chasing down the few remaining soldiers. Barely a centuria’s worth had marched back to Colonia Vedina, three days without food, water or medicae. Some had died from their wounds, others from exhaustion or exposure, and now that they had arrived the governor had had them stand in formation to be examined.

“Thasus Deridius,” he said, eyes firmly fixed at a non-specific spot a short way behind the governor. He was a tall man, a scar running across his jaw, and at his side stood an adjutant, quill and parchment in hand. He scribbled down the name and they moved down the line.

When the final name was given, the governor walked back in front of the men. “You are all to remain within the compound. You will be temporarily billeted in barracks–” he paused, slightly inclining his head towards the adjutant. There was a murmur, and the governor continued, “barracks seven. The medicae will come to you shortly. You’re dismissed.”

Thasus felt his thighs shaking involuntarily as he slightly relaxed and turned, following the weary men. The barracks were hot, but just to be out of the sun was a gift from the gods. Many of the men just sunk to the floor where they were, sitting propped up and panting against walls or cots. Thasus forced himself to make it to a cot, where it took his last ounce of strength not to collapse onto it face first.

The medicae and his assistants arrived not long after and began examining the men. He told Thasus the same he’d told the rest: “When the water comes, sip only a small amount, taking a deep breath between sips.”

The water was brought in in large tubs, each carried by four of the local soldiers. They stayed to enforce the medicae’s orders. Many of the dehydrated soldiers tried to fight, drink their fill, but the soldiers were well rested and easily shoved them aside, restricting them to mouthfuls at a time. Thasus submerged his face and took in as much water as he could before he was shoved back.

He fell asleep on one of the cots, but was woken by the adjutant in the late afternoon. “The governor wants to see you,” he was told and led out of the barracks to the governor’s villa.

The room he was shown into was opulent. Couches surrounded a low table on which were bowls of fruit and jugs of water and wine. The adjutant showed him in, told him to sit, and as he left the room the governor walked in.

“You must be starved, Thasus Deridius. Please eat; your men are being fed as we speak.”

Gratefully, Thasus took a handful of fruit and ate, but decorum stopped him from gorging himself. The governor walked around the low table and sat on the couch opposite.

“The records we have, sparse as they are, tell me you’re the senior legionnaire in the group. Your officers, assuming the story your men have given me is true, are all dead.”

Thasus stopped chewing and slowly put down the fruit in his hand.

“I’m at somewhat of a loss at what to do with you,” the governor said, taking some dates and lounging on the couch. “I don’t have a way to verify your story, but it would be quite a thing for a small group of soldiers to overpower the rest of your legion and desert. Quite a thing also for a small group of soldiers to decide to walk three days through the desert without any food or water, if they were deserters.”

Thasus watched the governor, his shoulders tense.

“So, having no scouts available to me, I can choose to either believe your story, or believe that you’re either the greatest soldiers in the empire, or outright fools.”

Thasus remained silent.

“Not fools then,” the governor said with a smile. “Please, eat. I believe that the nineteenth legion was defeated as you say, and you and your men and the survivors.”

Thasus relaxed, and took up his piece of fruit. If the governor was looking to entrap him, he reasoned he’d rather be imprisoned on a full stomach anyway.

“But, that still leaves me at a loss. I’m both governor and the ranking army officer here. I have about a cohort’s worth of men under my command, a purely token defensive force. The barbarians that defeated the nineteenth would have no trouble defeating me, even with an additional centuria of veterans under my command.”

The governor leaned forward, pouring a glass of wine and passing it over the table. Thasus took it and drank a mouthful. He hadn’t had wine in what felt like a lifetime.

“That’s assuming the emperor agrees that I have the authority to do so. I have of course informed my superiors, but don’t delude yourself – there’s unlikely to be a response.”

Still Thasus said nothing, and the governor watched him thoughtfully.

“The alternative then, is to allow your men into the Colonia. But your mere presence here, even before I do that, increases the crime rate ten fold. Veteran legionnaires, exhausted after weeks of long marching, far from home… I shudder to think about it.”

Thasus opened his mouth to dispute the suggestion, but he knew it was true. “Why do you believe you won’t get a response from your superiors? The emperor may re-form the nineteenth legion.”

“Colonia Vedina is a largely insignificant border outpost on the southern border of the empire,” the governor mused. “My superiors sent me and my men here largely so that we wouldn’t be a nuisance. I had hoped that the nineteenth legion would be garrisoned here, which would improve our importance in the eyes of my superiors.”

The governor looked into the distance for a moment, before giving Thasus his attention once more.

“As to the emperor, he is an old man, maybe already dead, and his successor is a bureaucrat. I doubt he’ll have any interest in re-forming the nineteenth.”

Thasus thought this might have been a trap, but he also sensed the governor believed what he was saying. The man leaned forward and poured him another glass of wine.

“So, until I decide what I can do with you, I’m promoting you to centurion and placing the survivors of the nineteenth legion under your command. You report directly to me. I expect you to keep your men in line, but they are not in confinement here. I will hold you responsible for their conduct.”

Thasus swallowed his wine and stood. “I’m not a leader, sir,” he said.

“By my authority you are,” the governor replied. “Scapo Fimus, governor of Colonia Vedina and commander of her garrison, and the nineteenth legion.”

Thasus found himself standing to attention.

“Now,” said the governor. “Sit, and we’ll talk about my expectations.”


He sat against a palm tree, watching the reflection of the moon in the waves breaking on the beach. He could hear crabs snapping down near the waterline. His vision would come into focus, then the water would blur into light until he blinked and saw the moon again. He was doing his best not to think, trying to remember this particular moment; the feel of the hot, humid air on his skin, the sand between his toes. He took a deep breath of salt air and came out of his reverie, looking behind him to see a female figure slowly walking towards him.

He knew who she was before her features had resolved in the dim moonlight.

“Rangi,” she said, “did you really want to spend your last night alone?” He smiled, closed his eyes.

“Talk to me, Kahua. I want to hear your voice.” She laughed, and he felt his heart leap.

“Husband, you should be at home, with your family.” He felt her sit next to him, her bare legs hot against his.

“I’m protecting the family from the vicious sea crabs,” he said, vaguely gesturing towards the water. She laughed again. When she didn’t speak, he opened his eyes and looked at her. She noticed him move and smiled at him.

“What is it, husband?” He hesitated, looked away over the water. She waited quietly — she knew he was working up courage to ask the question he’d asked her in secret moments they’d shared apart from Tua and the children. Since he was young, he’d wanted nobody but her. Their courtship was long as was the tribe’s custom, and for two years as they grew into adults he’d thought she had felt the same way about him. But when the marriage ceremony day came, she’d called out Tua first, and Rangi second.

Tua was a good man, a good father to both his own and Rangi’s children. They’d had a rocky start to their relationship, but over the years Tua and Rangi had grown to be close friends. A mutual respect had developed as they settled into their roles; Tua the head of their house, Rangi its protector.

“Why him?” he asked, not looking at her. He expected the usual answer, but at the same time it felt as if his heart would burst from his chest, as if his skin was on fire, as if all the stars pivoted around this moment.

He looked at her, realised he was holding his breath. “I love you, Rangi,” she told him. Her eyes were locked on his, and he slowly exhaled. “You’re stronger than any man I’ve ever known. Wiser than most of the elders. I wanted you to head our house, but choosing you first would have held you back. You’re destined for greater things than there are in our world.”

He stared at her, felt the tension let out of the moment. She smiled like a mother smiles at her children; knowing them wholly and understanding they have to leave the nest someday.

Then her smile changed, became mischievous. “But I still wouldn’t let anyone else have you, so I chose you second. Tomorrow you’ll go with the pale ones, and you’ll protect not just our house but our people.” She placed her hand on his chest, leaned in close.

“But tonight, I have you all to myself.”

He woke on the beach with the sun on his face. The sky was spotted with clouds and a cool breeze was blowing in off the water. Kahua was gone, and he stood and stretched before dressing. Already he could hear the noise of morning in the village, an urgency and excitement. As he walked back through the trees, he could hear children yelling and running. One of his own — not Tua’s, but his by blood — found him and yelled out, “Rangi! Come, come, the airship is almost here!” He scooped up the girl onto his shoulders and ran as she directed him.

They emerged from the trees onto a beach on the other side of the island. The airship was just off the coast, already coming in low. As he watched, he saw ropes drop from the deck. Men from the village had already come to assist in mooring, and he took his daughter off his shoulders, watched her run to where Tua and Kahua smiled at him. As the ropes came in over the sand, he ran out and took one, heaving hard on it.

They pulled the ropes and tied them to the trees. A voice called from above and they made room, the airship dropping anchors too heavy to lift by hand alone. The pitch of the engines changed, and the ship settled head-on into the wind.

Rangi watched the marines, resplendent in their uniforms, descend the ropes to the beach and form rank at attention. They were followed by a number of officers, as nimble as the soldiers were, who formally greeted the elders on the beach and began the ceremonies.

Rangi and the other chosen men returned to their families and began their farewell ceremonies. By that evening he’d be aboard and over the water.


Sweat was pouring down Thasus’ face. He squinted, both against the sting in his eyes and the glare coming off the dry desert sand. The press of bodies in his regiment did nothing for the heat.

“Cohort! Advance!” came the call from the centurion. Thasus felt himself stiffen at the sound of the first word, and his feet were moving before the order had finished. The only sound of acknowledgement came from the sandaled feet and the creak of leather.

From his position in the second rank, Thasus caught glimpses of the enemy as the man in front’s helmet gently swayed with his step. Irregular infantry, lightly armoured in robes of flowing white. The sun glared off them, too. Beneath simple helmets dark faces peered across the distance between, flanked by dunes on either side.

They didn’t move, and didn’t flinch. Though he couldn’t see them for the press of bodies around him, he knew another cohort advanced on either side of his. Thasus had never seen an enemy regiment stand like this, passive and almost disinterested. Usually the barbarians hooted and hollered, or maneouvered to prepare for the coming charge. A niggle of worry tugged at Thasus’ resolve. A subtle shift in the manner of the cohort told him his brothers grew uneasy as well.

A buzzing sound came from behind the enemy. Thasus felt a warm wind in his face moments before the cohort flinched as one. Sand pelted at them as the buzzing increased. Their advance was momentarily checked.

As the gust died down, the centurion rallied. “Forward!” the order sounded, but this time Thasus didn’t hear the cohort either side. They advanced once more in step.

Again the buzzing sounded. The centurion ordered a halt and the cohort braced. Again the sand bit at their naked legs and against their closed eyes. Again the wind died down and the cohort advanced.

Close in within charging distance now, the buzzing sounded again. Once more the cohort braced, but this time the sand did not come. Over the top of the dune to their right, the cavalry charge swept down on them.

Before the centurion could react, the horsemen had slammed into the unprotected flank, torn through the centre and were back up the dune on the other side. As they came through and Thasus recovered, the man in front pushed back into him. On instinct, Thasus pushed him back into formation with his tower shield, but the man fell forward instead. The enemy had charged in complete silence.

Surprised, Thasus knew the man was already too close for his spear. The flash of his scimitar came arcing toward his spear arm, but Thasus’ instincts shifted the shield to meet the blow. Already he’d let the spear go, and his right arm was vertical, flat against the inside of the shield as the scimitar struck it.

Immediately, Thasus shoved forward and caught his adversary with the lip of the shield under his jaw. He lifted the shield slightly, forcing the man’s head back, and saw him grimace. He was confident this contest had already been won as he pulled his gladius from its sheath.

He pulled the large shield back towards him, getting it out from under the man’s jaw, then immediately slammed it into him again in an arc, planting it on the ground on his left side. The gladius immediately followed and took the man in his side, upwards into his torso.

The shield was what saved him. The cavalry came through again, and the moment that Thasus pulled the gladius back out of the falling corpse the horseman slammed into him.

He was knocked to the ground, his shield on top of him. Though he was dazed, he saw the horses charging through his cohort, and felt their hooves beat the ground through his back. His left arm hurt, but the pain was dulled by the adrenaline and the acute awareness that unless he got to his feet he’d be on his back permanently.

Pulling his arm from the shield, he scrambled to his feet. He realised he’d lost his gladius, but as he pulled his dagger he saw that he wouldn’t need it. His cohort had been decimated; only a couple of his brothers were standing, though a large number of wounded were moaning or screaming on the ground.

Thasus watched the enemy infantry retreat as the buzzing faded. A feeble wind gently cooled Thasus’ sweat-sheened arms and legs.


Bartle eyed the first snowfall of the year. It was early. He’d felt the icy wind bite at his bones these past few days; he’d eyed the mountain and seen nothing but cloud. Now the heavy cloud was driven before the wind, and snow fell on Bartle’s crops.

It was far too early.

The worst of it was that the harvest was only a week away at best. He’d been preparing for it, oiling his sickle and weaving the rope to hold the bales together. Now the entire crop would freeze in the night. Bartle sighed.

He had been depending on the harvest, just like every other year. His farm wasn’t small, but a large portion of his land was covered in forest. He’d once had plans to cut it back, and had made some headway in that endeavour, but the loss of his daughter three winters ago seemed to sap his will to the work. He sighed again.

Shanna had been hit harder. She would visit the grave every day, recounting its events to the cairn. Bartle felt a twinge of guilt; he’d not been to the graves close on a month. The day his wife had died stood stark in his memory. He doubted he would ever forget it.

She’d gone into the woods to pick wildflowers, hoping to decorate their kitchen for the coming harvest season. The crops had come in exceptionally well, and the harvest would provide enough for them to really push the tree line back. They were both excited, already looking forward to the next year’s harvest, which should be even larger. Bartle had already begun thinking about a barn, perhaps some chickens.

He’d been working in the field, inspecting the crop for rot and disease when it occurred to him it had been some time since Shanna had left. He’d found her propped against a tree, clutching the bouquet in bloody fingers, smiling wistfully. She’d been mauled, perhaps by a bear or a wolf; Bartle was too beside himself to be sure.

He was pulled out of his reverie by movement at the corner of his eye. Two dark shapes had detached themselves from the tree line and disappeared into the crop. Bartle knew they were wolves, driven from the mountain and the forest by the coming snow. Their prey would have easily frozen to death in the too-early winter, and they were looking for food.

Bartle turned on his porch and strode into the kitchen. The sickle was lying lazily on the kitchen table next to the whetstone and small flask of oil. He scooped it up and went back outside, then stood in the cleared area in front of the porch. His muscles taught, the sickle felt dangerous in his hand. His breathing was steady; he wasn’t afraid of death, but he did want it to be on his own terms.

He heard the first one to his side, the rustle of the crop and the thudding of its paws on the packed ground. He spun and brought the sickle up defensively, somewhat clumsily. The wolf leapt, snarling, but Bartle knew it would. He stepped to the left of its arc and brought the sickle upwards into its belly.

The impact nearly wrenched his shoulder out of its socket. As he stumbled, he heard the wolf give a short, sharp yelp, but it lay still where it fell, the sickle underneath it. Bartle heard a growl and rolled desperately. He felt hot, wet fur brush his arm as the claw bit into it, but the teeth never came.

The roll was uncontrolled, and in a moment Bartle found himself on his back. He flipped over, but as he was coming up the second wolf bit into his arm, hard. The wolf braced its feet and yanked hard, throwing its head to the side. Pain shot up his arm, but Bartle’s cry was anger, not anguish.

He pulled the wolf down under him with his arm still between its teeth, awkwardly planted his knee on its neck and pushed downwards with all his weight. Stubbornly, the wolf held on. Bartle realised he had nowhere to go now. The muscular neck was too tough for him to strangle the wolf and he had no weapon. The wolf also had no reason to let go, and unless it did soon it would break his bone.

Desperately, Bartle looked around. He realised that the fight had brought them within arm’s reach of the first wolf.

And his sickle.

He lifted his knee and rolled forward over the prone wolf before it could react. This left him on his back, and he realised the sickle was out of reach. Grabbing a handful of fur, with a bestial roar he pulled the dead wolf over him and on top of the other wolf. He couldn’t put a lot of force into it, but in the confusion he felt his arm come free.

The second wolf scrambled away, and Bartle took up his sickle in his good arm. He’d had enough.

The wolf backed away, snarling and growling as Bartle advanced on it. Realising it had lost the initiative, it turned and fled into the crop. Bartle heard it running, and saw it disappear into the trees.

As the adrenaline left his body, he realised the snow had now covered the ground. The pain in his arm was returning, and he knew it needed tending to. The wolf body on the ground was steaming.

He buried his sickle securely in its flank, then dragged it nearer the house. He could dry the meat, and the wolf’s hide would make good armour against the cold.