A story set in Roman occupied England around AD 82. Eboracum was the Roman name for York and Derventio is now called Malton, eight miles from where I live. The Picts and Caledonians were the Northern tribes of what is now Scotland.
Tribune Marcus Severus
A chill wind whipped across the ramparts where Marcus Severus was standing, as usual he had slept fitfully, haunted by the same recurring dream, and had woken early. He pulled his cloak close around him and walked slowly along the top of the fortified wall. It was still dark, the moon appearing and disappearing behind sullen clouds. Marcus hated this place, the cold, damp and miserable winter months, and the hostile barbarians that lived in this foreign country. Though Eboracum was well defended, its palisades and ramparts keeping out the marauders and the wild creatures that inhabited the forest of Galtres, he longed for the sunnier climes of his own native land, but now there was nothing to go back home for.
Marcus was used to hardship and the misery of living and tramping through cold and hostile terrain. He was a hardened soldier, used to battle in foreign parts, and he intended to be a soldier for as long as the gods allowed. He had made a rapid rise through the ranks due to his courage in battle and his obvious leadership qualities.
Then while fulfilling duties in Rome he had met his Julia. She was young and beautiful, the daughter of a Roman Senator and sister of his friend and brother soldier, Octavius Macrinus. She was different from the other young ladies of her circle, graceful, demure and gentle, she had touched his heart as no other could and he had taken her as his wife. For seven years they had been married, though they had spent very little of that time together, his duties calling him away too often. She had borne him a son, Julius, and a daughter, Octavia. In his recurring dreams he relived their last farewell. Julia had clung to him, burying her face in his neck, trembling and weeping uncontrollably, he had held her tightly against him, breathing in the sweet smell of her warm soft skin. Their parting was always difficult, but this time was different, as though she had known that they would not meet again in this world.
He had been sent to the island of Britain, where the natives were still barbarians, wearing blue paint on their bodies when they went into battle. He had fought in battles led by Julius Agricola before, subduing the rebellious tribes of this miserable island. Julius Agricola had been made the Governor of Britain and he had moved north to carry his battles to the Caledonians.
Marcus grimaced, the Caledonians led by Calgacus, were a formidable enemy, they struck fear and terror into the hearts of even the bravest soldier, even those of the Ninth Legion, their long iron swords becoming a formidable extension of their arms in battle. It was difficult for a Roman soldier with his short sword, to contemplate such an adversary. Calgacus, with the tribes united behind him, had succeeded in holding the Roman Legions at bay. During the year following the eruption of Vesuvius, a defensive border had been built in the north to keep the Caledonians out. The year following they had succeeded in pushing the border 100 miles further into the Caledonians territory, and had also built a line of forts from the west to the east.
Marcus’s thoughts turned once again to his beloved Julia, he had always faced the possibility of losing his life in battle but he had never expected to lose Julia and his children. Then, some months after arriving here, he had been given the news that Vesuvius had erupted; hot ash and lava had buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The villa and farm on the slopes above Herculaneum, where his parents and Julia and the children lived had all been covered too and none had survived. Marcus had been beside himself with grief and had thrown himself into battle many times since, hoping for death and release from his misery, but the gods had not granted him the peace he craved. With a reckless abandon he had thrown himself into battles and skirmishes, but never came out of it with more than just a scratch.
In a few more hours, the Ninth Legion would be moving out and heading north to the borders. Julius Agicola was determined to stop Calgacus and his Caledonians once and for all. Marcus knew the coming battle would be a hard one. Calgacus would be leading an army of Picts, comprising of Caledonians and fighters of many other tribes, who were united in their hatred of the Roman invaders. They were fierce fighters and their numbers could be counted in the thousands.
A hand clapped on his shoulder roused him from his melancholy thoughts.
"Brooding again, Marcus?" Octavius stood regarding his friend with a serious expression. "Julia would not have wished you to grieve so long, nursing this death wish. You carry it about like an old cloak."
"Yes, I have wished for death, and asked the gods to grant it but they do not hear me." Marcus sighed.
"Then you are meant to live, and Julia would wish it." "Today we march north and spend the night at Derventio, then we have a long march to the borders where the Caledonians will be waiting for us, your men need you to lead them to victory." "They know what is troubling you and it makes them uneasy, you must put this death wish away and think of the men under your command." "Now, my friend, come and eat before we march."
A wolf howled somewhere in the forest as Marcus turned and followed Octavius.
The following day, the Legion set off from the Derventio fort, heading north. Marcus made a determined effort to show a positive face to his men. They depended on him to lead and make informed decisions, he knew they would follow him anywhere, anytime, he had their complete trust.
The march was rugged, across many miles of wild country. But Marcus had to admit to himself, it was quite beautiful, even if it was cold and damp at times. Sometimes they passed through small habitations where the natives were not too friendly, but they did not try to fight them, although occasionally small boys would throw stones or rotten vegetables at the marching soldiers and run away.
The ambush, when it came, was disastrous, hordes of yelling Caledonians came streaming out of nowhere, every boulder became a painted, screaming barbarian. The fighting was fierce and the screams and cries of wounded and dying soldiers and barbarians alike filled the air.
His horse fell from under him, victim of a barbarian spear, and Marcus found himself surrounded by barbarians. The soldier in him surfaced, he whirled about, hacking and stabbing with his sword, running in under the arms and swords of his enemy to deal a death blow. The ground was slippery with blood and covered with fallen bodies.
A searing pain racked his body, a sword thrust from a Caledonian sword had found its mark. Marcus gasped and fell to one knee, raising his sword above his head as he turned to face the barbarian warrior. A wild, red bearded giant glared down at him, arm poised to bring the fearsome sword down on his neck. Julia’s face appeared before his eyes and he heard her voice, "Fight Marcus, fight, it is not your time yet." Then she was gone. Marcus fended off the sword blow with his own sword, rolled to one side and sent his sword upward into the giants’ gut. The barbarian warrior fell to his knees, blood gushing from his wound and trickling from his mouth. As he knelt eye to eye with him, Marcus stared into the green eyes of his enemy, he felt a strange empathy for this man he had killed. The warrior fell on his face in death.
Octavius was bent over him, "Marcus, the gods are with you yet, your wound is bad but it will heal. I found you slumped over a red-haired giant and your men helped me to carry you away. The retreat has begun, we have lost many men and we are going back home, if Eboracum can be called home!"
"Yes" thought Marcus, "Home, yes home, Eboracum is my home now, for as long as I am a soldier, maybe for as long as I live." He felt at peace now, Julia was still with him, watching over him. In time, the right time, he would join her. Till then he had work to do here.
Jackie S Brooks
(c) May 2004
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|Reviewed by Mr. Ed
|A most captivating historical tale, Jackie. Enjoyed this very much; and your reference to the eruption of Vesuvius brought back tons of memories of my trips to Pompeii.
Well Done, Storyteller!