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Gordon Doherty and his Writing
The legions are in tatters, and the Gothic hordes are gathering beyond the mountains . . .
The legions are in tatters, and the Gothic hordes are gathering beyond the mountains . . .
377 AD: Thracia’s legions are few and broken in the wake of the Battle of Ad Salices. But the scattered centuries and cohorts rally in an effort to blockade the Haemus Mountain passes and hold back the relentless attacks of Fritigern’s swelling Gothic armies. These passes must endure until Eastern Emperor Valens and Western Emperor Gratian can muster and bring their Praesental Armies in relief.
Numerius Vitellius Pavo and the men of the XI Claudia return to Constantinople from their brutal Persian sortie to hear widespread tales of Thracia’s plight and the precarious mountain blockades. Each of them knows what is at stake should those passes fall: the heartland of the Eastern Empire would face the wrath of the barbarians and loved ones would be at the mercy of their savage blades. When the Claudia are despatched to aid the effort at the mountains, Pavo can think only of two souls wandering in the jaws of the Gothic threat: his beloved Felicia and his lost half-brother, Dexion. So he and his comrades march at haste, headlong into the storm that awaits them . . .
The Shipka Pass
An eagle circled the azure sky, eyes scouring the slopes of the Haemus Mountains for prey, hunger gnawing at its belly. As if helping the eagle in its search, the warm summer wind strengthened and skirled around the craggy grey spurs of rock, buffeting the jagged silvery peaks and combing through the hardy foliage clinging to the slopes. Yet this yielded only spoors, puffs of dust or shuddering bushes where rodents had fled from sight, alert to the danger. Then the eagle spotted a hardy mountain goat, balanced precariously on the edge of a scarp to chew on the rough pasture there. But the goat was vigilant and already it was backing away towards an overhang under which its kids sheltered. There was no easy meal to be had here, so the eagle glided on to the south, its shadow tracing along the ridge path that rose towards the heart of the mountains. Here, at the highest point of the range, nothing moved. The zephyrs keened and the eagle felt its strength waning as it sought out something, anything . . .
Then, its eyes locked onto an odd shape sitting astride and blocking the ridge path: a stone redoubt, lined with a small clutch of ironclad men. The men carried something on top of a staff that entranced the eagle momentarily; an effigy, a reflection of itself, wings spread and beak open as if crying out. But it was . . . silvery, glistening and inanimate, with some brightly-coloured banner dangling below it, rapping in the warm wind. Spellbound, the eagle circled here until something else caught its eye: more movement, coming along the ridge path from the north towards this blockade. Another group of men – far more than on the redoubt – carrying glittering blades and spears. The eagle had seen such movements before and knew what was surely coming next. A primal sense of imminent danger surged to the fore. Pure instinct took over and it beat a hasty retreat, shrieking as it went. The hunger would have to remain untended for now, but the eagle resolved to return here later in the day . . . when there would surely be plenty of carrion to be had.
Sarrius started at the piercing cry, his hands clenching around his shield grip and spear. He muttered a curse at the departing eagle, then felt his embarrassment fade as he noticed that the rest of his century lining the fort’s northern wall had been shaken by the noise too. These mountains are impassable, he tried to assure himself. But, inevitably, his gaze returned to the north and along the ridge path, eyes darting nervously over the rim of his shield, impassable . . . except for this cursed, dusty ridge.
The Shipka Pass had been his home and that of the V Macedonica legion for months. All the minor broken paths north and south of the range converged onto this one precipitous ridge that ran north to south, presenting a narrow yet feasible route by which man and wagon might traverse the range. The drop on either side was perilously steep, and here, at its highest point, the path widened to a few hundred paces and commanded a fine view over the range for miles. For that reason, the battered, depleted legions of Thracia had set up this windswept fort: a sturdy stone-walled compound – eight feet high – blocking and guarding the path from all that might come from the north. The sides of the cramped structure were flush with the steep drop either side of the ridge and a timber palisade lined the top of the walls, part-shielding the legionaries stationed on its battlements.
Sarrius saw no movement out there, nothing apart from rippling pools of water on the track. And beyond a half mile, he could see little, the blue-ish haze and the mountains in the north obscuring the twisting ridge path. But this lack of movement gave him no comfort. From the corner of his eye, he could see a grey-black form lying far down in the valley: the broken body of a Goth, dead for over a fortnight, white bone jutting from the putrefying flesh. It’s only a matter of time until they come at us again.
He tried to calm himself, glancing up at the pleasant summer sky. Breathe, he told himself, filling his lungs.
‘We’ll smell them before we see them,’ a nervous voice said by his side.
Sarrius turned to see his comrade, Bato, wearing a tight grin like a mask. He chuckled dutifully by way of reply, as did a few others close by on the battlements.
His fear under control, he returned his gaze to the north and fished out a piece of salted mutton from the purse on his belt. Chewing on this would lift his spirits further, he reckoned. But his hand only got to within a few inches of his lips, when his eyes locked onto something: a shuddering bush, just where the path on the ridge melted into the haze and disappeared behind a rocky peak crowned with a cairn of silver boulders. The ice returned to his veins and his vision sharpened. There had been the briefest flash of something. Eyes? Steel? His heart thumped on his ribs and he dropped the salt mutton over the wall as he readied to give the cry of alarm . . . when a pair of squirrels darted from the bush, tangled in some play-fight, before racing on into another cluster of shrubs.
He glanced to Bato, then both men’s shoulders sagged with sighs of relief.
‘And that was my last strip of mutton,’ Sarrius chuckled.
Fritigern, Iudex of the Thervingi and the Gothic Alliance ducked back behind the silver cairn. He cast a sour glare at the pair of rodents that had nearly betrayed his position – play-fighting in the bush by the path just below. Fritigern was taller and broader than most, though age had rendered him a little hunched and turned his once long, fiery locks and beard mostly iron-grey. Still, the handful of warriors crouched with him looked to him expectantly. These five were his keenest scouts, each lithe and fleet of foot. While he wore the garb of a warrior-king – an iron helm, a fine baked leather vest and dark-blue robes and a cloak – these scouts were barefoot and bare-chested, wearing only trousers and armed solely with daggers. And how they had proved their worth by getting him this close to the damned fort unseen.
No Roman alarm call had been sounded, he realised. The legionaries had seen the rodents and nothing more. So he took off his helm and edged his head beyond the top of the cairn, looking to the fortified high-point of the pass once more. The fort’s northern wall mocked him with its presence. Like a great dam, it was still and obstinate, denying his hordes a route south. The serried rank of legionary steel looking on from the battlement jutted like fangs. Fin-topped intercisa helms, spears, mail vests and bright shields. A century, he thought, with maybe another three or four centuries in the neat, narrow lines of tents pitched in the limited space within the cramped fort. So few of them, he thought. So few, yet enough to stem the movements of my people. And but damn have I not tried to break through?
Indeed, the front of the wall was scarred with sword cuts, studded with hundreds of Gothic arrow shafts and stained with smoke and dark-brown dried blood. The armies of his alliance had crashed against this blockade several times, yet each time they had been repelled, his men fleeing back along the ridge path to their camp, north of the mountains.
He slunk back behind the cairn and sighed. It had been this way for months now, ever since the Battle at Ad Salices. The Romans had quickly realised the legions of Thracia could not defeat the Gothic Alliance nor drive it back across the River Danubius. So the legions had withdrawn to the south, leaving the Goths in the former Roman province known as Moesia – the northern tract of the Diocese of Thracia – and blockading the five precious passes of the mountains with stockades like this one to keep them there. Moesia might have been a welcome acquisition, Fritigern mused, were it not bereft of forage and fodder, plundered by his armies some months ago of what bounty it had to offer. And Gutthiuda, their old northern homeland across the River Danubius, had been lost to the marauding Hun hordes, so they could never return there. Now, there was no option but to break these cursed blockades, to burst through and descend into the heartlands of Roman Thracia in the south, where fresh pasture and plenty grain waited. He felt the ire and wrath of his youth rekindled, his muscles tensing with anticipation, his hands flexing, reaching for his shield and longsword.
Just then, a faint scrabbling of dust and pebbles sounded behind him. He swung round to see his sixth scout climb up from the near-sheer mountain-side and onto this rocky outcrop. The scout scuttled over to him, sure to stay out of view of the Roman fort. ‘They are changing the watch, Iudex,’ he said, stooping a little lower in genuflection.
Fritigern’s eyes widened to match the look of the scout. It was time. He heard the distant calls of the Roman centurions and the faint rumble of boots as the legionaries atop the wall filed off the battlements to be replaced by a fresh watch. This was the perfect time for an assault, he grinned, then edged his head to the side of the cairn and cast his eyes along the mountain ridge towards the fort. The long-grass and shrubs on the slopes either side of the path writhed in the wind, fleetingly exposing his vanguard of soldiers. A hundred men. They moved like insects, bellies pressed to the steep sides of the ridge, shields strapped to their backs, remaining unseen so far and moving only when they were sure the Romans would not spot them. In previous attacks, his soldiers had tried to charge along the ridge path and overwhelm the fort’s north wall head on. But each time they had been sighted a good half-mile away, and the Romans had ample time to prepare a defence against such a narrow-fronted assault. This time, they would be granted no such luxury. His lips played with a grin, tempered by the knowledge that many more of his kind would die in today’s efforts. And so it has always been, he thought, fending off his doubts.
He took up his spear, adorned with a strip of sapphire-blue silk emblazoned with a black hawk, then stood tall, chopping it to and fro like an axe. ‘Rise!’ he bellowed, the baritone cry echoing across the granite mountains like that of a war-god. At once, it brought the hundred tall, fair-haired hidden Goths scrambling up the ridge-sides and onto the path, just a handful of paces from the Roman fort’s northern wall. They came together, swung their shields round from their backs and, just as he had trained them to, they formed a mini shield-wall, breaking to allow Gothic archers to rise and loose short, sharp volleys at the wall’s unprepared defenders. Legionaries lurched and screamed as the arrows found throats and eyes, their bodies toppling from the stockade, gouts of blood staining the air as they crashed onto the ground before the Goths or tumbled down the sides of the ridge, limbs flailing. A handful of Goths broke away, drawing out grappling irons and lengths of rope from their belts. They swung these ropes like slings then hurled the irons at the timber-stake battlements, before wrenching them tight and scaling the wall.
Fritigern watched with keen eyes. The Romans’ usual iron-discipline was gone, he realised. Instead of issuing thick volleys of darts and javelins, they were panicked, with many dropping their shields and struggling to pull the grappling hooks free. These legionaries were quickly shot by the Gothic archers. Then the first of his climbers reached the walltop. These men were lost in the madness of battle, some leaping onto the battlements with great swings of their longswords, heedless of their own mortality. They cut through legionaries’ arms and torsos, spraying fresh blood on the timber palisade. But one by one, they were cut down, as he knew they would be, having served their noble purpose well. The final few climbers fought their last on the wall top and the packs of shielded Gothic archers suddenly found themselves under the full attention of the Roman archers and javelin-throwers. It seemed that the Gothic attack was about to be repelled.
Then, the ridge echoed with the wail of a Gothic war horn.
Fritigern clenched a fist in anticipation of victory, seeing the Roman defenders slow then freeze in their melee with his vanguard. Every one of them looked beyond, to what was coming up the ridge path from the north at great haste. Fritigern did likewise, turning to see his wing of galloping mail and leather-clad riders and the horde of equally well-armoured Gothic spearmen and archers running behind them. A jostling sea of blades, helms and blonde locks. A serpent of warriors, snaking as far as the eye could see along the lofty ridge path. Two thousand men, he enthused, surely enough to break this cursed blockade at last.
He slid down the scree from the cairn and onto the path. The foremost Gothic rider brought with him a riderless horse. Seeing his Iudex, he slowed to a canter. Fritigern held out a hand and grabbed the reins from the rider, hauled himself onto the saddle, then heeled the beast forward. ‘Ya!’ he cried, sweeping his longsword aloft. ‘Take the walls,’ he yelled as his forces swept ahead of him in a great din of war cries and on to press against the base of the fort wall. They carried with them three tall ladders, which they swung up to clatter into place against the battlements. Moments later, hundreds of Gothic warriors were racing up the rungs. Showers of arrows and spears thrown from the Gothic mass punched back the thinning band of legionaries atop the wall, and soon the defenders were but small pockets of men, fighting in vain to push back the ladders laden with warriors who were now only a few rungs away from the top.
‘Yes,’ Fritigern whispered, then filled his lungs to bellow: ‘Yes! Seize the battleme-’
His cry was cut short by the keening of a buccina. In moments, the walltop flooded with a fresh batch of silver-clad legionaries. Two more centuries . . . then a third. He saw that they brought with them long poles fitted with steel hooks at the end. These swathes of legionaries then hooked the poles to the ladder-tops, gradually but surely forcing the ladders back from the walls until they teetered, near-vertical. A heartbeat later, the pass filled with shrill screams as the most central of the ladders toppled backwards, tossing armour-laden Goths to the ground where many perished with the stark sound of cracking of skulls and vertebrae, and many more were injured, crushed under the weight of their falling comrades. The climbers on the ladders close to the corners of the fort met a grimmer end, these ladders swinging back not onto the ridge path but out over the edges of the ridge, ladders and men tumbling down the jagged slopes in a tumult of dust, blood, snapping timber and bone and screaming. In moments, the seemingly inexorable Gothic advance had stalled – the two thousand stranded at the foot of the walls with no means of scaling the sturdy stockade. A peculiar silence descended for but an instant, before the battlements rippled with silver as a myriad darts and javelins were raised and the stretching of hundreds of Roman bowstrings sounded.
‘Loose!’ the centurion up there yelled.
The smack of iron arrowheads and javelins on crumpling armour and soft flesh seemed never ending. Gothic warriors fell in their hundreds. Blood-spray was carried by the whistling wind, up the Shipka Pass until Fritigern could taste its coppery tang on his lips.
‘Fall back,’ he snarled, seeing the legionaries ready for another volley. ‘Fall back!’
The Gothic camp lay just north of the Haemus Mountains. It was a vast sprawl of tents and torches and home to more than a hundred thousand souls; the great tribes of the Thervingi and the Greuthingi along with many ragged bands who had previously associated with neither. All now stood together as the Gothic Alliance. Near the heart of the camp, a small circle of men sat around an open fire under a cloudy night sky and a waning moon. They were dressed in leather armour and wore furs on their shoulders. Fritigern sighed as he eyed this collection of reiks across the fire. This council of noblemen was his to command, yet they looked upon him like scornful fathers. Through the swirling air and dancing sparks, he saw expressions of fury and despair, narrowed eyes laced with cunning and thin lips on the edge of yet another recalcitrant outburst.
In an attempt to pre-empt this, he spoke first. ‘Today was a black day. Many of our kin died at the Roman fort on the ridge path. But we must show conviction in our alliance. At Ad Salices, we showed that we can stand against the imperial legions.’ He grasped out, snatching at the darting sparks from the fire. His mind spun back to the spring day when his Gothic Alliance had faced the Thracian legions, turning that pleasant meadow, edged by a willow grove and the Roman hamlet of Ad Salices, into a mire of blood. ‘We can still use that as leverage – force the emperor to parley and end the blockade of the five mountain passes. Such an endeavour might ensure that no more of our kin die in the treacherous passes, and that we finally gain lands to settle south of the mountains.’
Silence reigned until Reiks Alatheus chuckled, the firelight dancing in his eyes.
‘You hark back to Ad Salices as if it was some kind of victory?’ he said calmly. This one was tall and slender with long, white locks and black eyebrows. Skilled with the sword, lethal with the tongue. ‘Yes, it was almost a fine tactical victory for us . . . but it was a strategic triumph for the Romans, for their reinforcements came – we did not break them nor they us. They had the lands and resources of their vast empire to fall back on. We won nothing that day. Nothing but this Moesian wilderness they choose to corral us within.’ He cast a hand out and swept it around the night air.
‘Aye, they treat us like goats!’ Reiks Saphrax agreed. ‘There is little meat, grain or forage to be had in this strip of wasteland. It was impoverished even before we drove the Romans from it.’ The squat, bald, slit-eyed and flat-faced man threw a scrawny chicken bone stripped of every morsel of flesh into the flames as if to stress his point.
Alatheus’ nose wrinkled at Saphrax’s interruption. ‘My point is that we have no leverage, Iudex. The time for parley with the emperor has passed. The five passes must be taken by the sword. So far . . . we have failed to do so,’ he said, all those at the fire glancing to Fritigern as if attributing blame. ‘And rumour tells us that Emperor Valens is readying his armies from far and wide. If he brings all his forces to these lands, then we are without hope. Thus, we must look to whatever means might be available to change this state of affairs.’ he finished with a slight bow. A murmur of agreement rippled around the circle of men.
Fritigern’s eyes grew hooded. He could not refute the man’s habitually well-chosen words, yet he knew that to remain silent would further weaken his position amongst these nobles. He could best any of them in combat, he was sure – despite his ageing body – and no one of them led enough warriors to challenge his own loyal and numerous Thervingi ranks. But together, they could destroy me . . .
‘We need to act, Iudex,’ Saphrax urged him. Another rumble of accord. ‘We need food.’
This time, Fritigern opted not to react. Instead, he took up his wineskin and swigged from it. Alatheus and Saphrax, he was sure, hungered more for power than for food. These two leaders of the Greuthingi Goths had crossed the Danubius and entered imperial lands shortly after Fritigern and his Thervingi the previous year. The Thervingi and Greuthingi had quickly allied as one force, driven by their shared need to escape the wrath of the Huns north of the river, and to stave off the threat of starvation whilst marooned in Roman lands. Only adversity could serve as a crucible for such an alliance, for the largely Arian Christian Thervingi and the pagan Greuthingi had seldom missed an opportunity to quarrel and make war in years past. And so it was that the two Greuthingi Reiks had gracefully bowed to Fritigern’s command, and the many thousands of cavalrymen they brought with them had been a welcome addition to the growing Gothic ranks. Neither man had made a move to unseat him in that time, yet there was a foul air of impending perfidy whenever either spoke. The reek had always followed these two. Indeed, Alatheus and Saphrax had been mere regents before the Greuthingi had crossed the Danubius, serving the boy-reiks Vitheric; yet somehow in the great river crossing the healthy and spry lad – a strong swimmer – had drowned. Alatheus and Saphrax, of course, had been elected in his place. Would either now be so bold as to challenge his authority at the head of the Alliance? And for what prize – the chance to lead this wandering and desperate Gothic horde for themselves? No prize for any man, any man but a fool.
He looked up, sure to meet the eyes of each man around the fire. ‘In today’s assault on the Shipka Pass defences, I was repelled, but I learned much. The walls of that fort can be brok-’
Just then, a cry rang out from the northern edge of the camp, cutting him off. All necks stretched, heads turned and a murmur of confusion broke out. Fritigern peered through the forest of torches to the gloom out there. He saw many heads emerge from the sea of tents: families, children and barking dogs roused by the cry and wary of its meaning. He rose from the fire and strode to the north, embers swirling in his wake and leather-armoured bodyguards hurrying to flank him. Nearing the perimeter of the vast camp, he slowed, his eyes fixed on the blackness of night beyond. It was crawling with shapes. ‘The legions?’ he whispered to himself as the chill finger of fear traced his spine. ‘They have come round our flanks?’ Then a hand rested on his shoulder.
‘At ease, Iudex,’ Alatheus purred. ‘The Romans remain in the south guarding the five mountain passes, ignorant of all that goes on in these parts. What you see before you is an army of reinforcements.’
Fritigern swung to the tall, lean reiks. ‘What? I knew nothing of this.’ His eyes darted, trying to make sense of it all. ‘You have summoned Athanaric’s cursed Goths from the Carpates Mountains?’
Alatheus shook his head. ‘These men are not Goths, Iudex. We felt a different caste of warrior might ease the taking of the five passes.’
‘We?’ Fritigern glared at him, then repeated; ‘I knew nothing of this!’
‘We,’ Alatheus repeated, this time nodding to Saphrax, ‘felt it would be best not to trouble you with false hope in case our initiative did not bear fruit. We sent one of our best men north, across the river, to bring to you what you need.’
Fritigern switched his gaze between the two – each wearing looks of matching equanimity – then looked back to the crawling night. A rare shaft of moonlight illuminated the approaching horde: squat and stocky riders saddled on sturdy ponies, each rider bearing three slashes on their wan cheeks. ‘Huns?’ he stammered. ‘Huns!’ He could not contain his panic. ‘You fools, what have you done?’
The clouds parted to allow the moonlight to bathe the approaching horde. Many hundreds of them, scratching, cursing and spitting. These were the demon cavalry from his nightmares. The very riders that had the previous year driven his people from the fine pasture of Gutthiuda, across the river and into imperial lands, kindling this desperate standoff against Rome.
‘You think you can control the Huns?’ he hissed to Alatheus, struggling to hide his fear, recalling his old rival Athanaric’s past attempts to harness these rogue riders. ‘How many of them come?’
‘Enough,’ Alatheus smiled with irritating calm. ‘But not so many as to cause us a problem. And they bring us grain wagons too. With them come the Taifali,’ he continued, gesturing to the rear of the incoming horde. Tall, fair Germanic riders in leather and iron vests carrying lengthy lances and dark-blue shields adorned with two howling wolf heads. ‘Close cousins to the Gothic tribes.’
Fritigern ignored Alatheus, instead struggling to estimate the size of this horde of northern horsemen. A thousand Huns, maybe closer to two thousand, and the same number of Taifali, he reckoned. He sought to remain calm, to find logic in the situation: the Gothic Alliance could count over thirty thousand warriors, and that number was growing with every passing week – more than enough to keep these newcomers in check, surely. Perhaps these new riders would be of some use, he tried to convince himself. And, loathe as he was to admit it, he could not help but be impressed by the initiative, mustering a hardy wing of Germanic chargers and steppe riders and bringing them to his ranks in good order like this. This brought a question to his lips.
‘Who harnessed this horde?’
‘Our champion,’ Alatheus replied, stretching out a hand to one approaching rider near the front of the Hun horde: a mail-clad giant on a silver stallion, bull-shouldered, with raven-dark hair scooped into a knot atop his head and a trident beard.
Fritigern squinted in the darkness, then felt his stomach turn over as the moonlight flashed across this rider’s face: handsome yet spoiled by a fearsome expression and troubling, obsidian eyes. Reiks Farnobius, a troublesome leader of a few hundred of the Greuthingi Goths. The head-taker some called him. A savage on the battlefield and a mercenary off it – doubtless guided shrewdly by careful words from Alatheus’ silver tongue. And what else did he and Saphrax convince you to do, Farnobius? Fritigern thought, his eyes narrowing as he thought again of the drowned boy-reiks, Vitheric. Farnobius had once been Vitheric’s protector. Where were you that night the boy died, Farnobius?
Farnobius was the only one Fritigern doubted he could surpass in combat. Yet as the colossus approached, Fritigern sensed the eyes of all the other minor reiks fall upon him again. His skin writhed with a cold shiver as he imagined himself trapped in a pit of asps: small and troublesome on their own, deadly when united.
Farnobius halted his stallion before Fritigern, then bowed in response – tilting his head just a fraction as if adding a dash of disrespect. When he lifted his head again, he wore a grin. It was the grin of a shark, passing into a stony glower as the two beheld each other for what felt like an eternity. It was only some sharp, involuntary twitch of Farnobius’ head – as if some dark and troubling thought had snagged the man – that ended the moment.
With a low snarl, the giant reiks drew the battle axe from his back and swept it up to test the edge, cutting the air before him. The grin returned. ‘Iudex Fritigern, I bring you many more horsemen for your horde; warriors who will break the Roman blockade.’ He raised his voice so the gathering crowds could not fail to hear. A clamour of eager voices chattered and gasped at this proclamation.
‘When we next attack the mountain passes . . . they will fall,’ Farnobius roared. ‘The heart of Thracia and all its fine cities will soon be ours to plunder!’
A great, guttural cheer erupted and washed across the Moesian Plain, shaking the land.