Return

“Name?”

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.”

Sweat

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.