Cornelius had weathered through several years’ worth of discomfort throughout his career. But he could never get used to the barbaric cold of a British winter.
Back in Rome where he had been born and raised, winter was a mild and rainy affair that took little time to yield to the dusty warmth of spring and summer. In the African province where he was first stationed, and where he first laid eyes on his dear Fabiana, winter was even briefer and almost balmy. Yet here in Britain north of the Imperial border, winter was long, dark, and cruel, drowning the land with the wet white powder known as snow and stinging Cornelius’s face with icy air. His cheeks, once tawny brown like the typical purebred Roman, had turned red as a rash from this frigid assault.
He imagined that Fabiana, his poor sweet Fabiana, would have suffered even worse from this foreign new climate.
Cornelius trudged as one of eighty legionaries on patrol through the forest of skeletal trees. Their leather boots crunched and bored down into snow that almost reached up to their knees, and the clouds of breath they exhaled added to the thick white mist which floated around them. Overhead the sun, to the extent that it could be discerned at all, had begun to drift down from its noontime zenith towards the trees in the west.
“Why, in the name of Sol Invictus, is it afternoon already?” Marcus, who marched beside Cornelius, squinted and blinked his eyes. “I could have sworn it was sunrise only a few hours ago.”
“Welcome to Britain at wintertime, soldier,” Centurion Lucius muttered from the troop’s front line. “Though if it’s any consolation, I like it even less than you do.”
Lucius turned his head back to give Cornelius a smile of warm reassurance. As Fabiana’s father, the centurion shared with her the same deep, dark brown skin tone common to Africans. The snowflakes clinging to his tightly curled beard made it seem even more peppered with the gray of middle age.
Cornelius wrinkled his nose from the rancid stink of rotten flesh. He tilted his head up, and an even fiercer chill struck him from within as the blood drained from his face.
Hanging on the branches over patches of reddish snow were the skinned, headless corpses of men. Only the red-tasseled helmets that were mounted onto the severed heads identified the bodies as those of Roman scouts. Carrion birds fluttered off them with morsels of meat in their beaks.
“By Pluto … so that’s what happened to those scouts!” Lucius said. He whispered a prayer for the dead to rejoin their ancestors in the afterlife. “It has to be a warning. We should turn back.”
Marcus shook his head. “We can’t let those savages get away with it. They took Roman lives, so Rome shall take theirs!”
“I give the orders around here, Marcus Cassius!” The centurion’s voice boomed with an echo. “This is not our land, but theirs. If we stay away from their territory, no more of this will happen.”
Cornelius nodded. “He’s right. I’ve had enough of being out here in this weather anyway.”
“Listen, Cornelius,” Marcus said. His face was contorted with rage. “My father was a scout like those men. He met the same fate they did, before I was even ten, right here in these woods. How many more little Roman boys must lose their fathers to such barbarous fates, all because we choose to turn back!”
There was a clanging thud, and a man yelled from the far end of the patrol. The legionary fell headlong into the snow with a British war ax having punctured his helmet.
Whooping like demons from the underworld, they appeared as shadows in the mist that rushed in until they had the Romans fenced in. Their green eyes glinted with bloodlust even brighter than the axes and swords they brandished. The blue war-paint that streaked their white faces enhanced the savage aspect of their appearance, as did the thick red manes that waved like flames on their heads.
“Set up the shield wall!” the centurion shouted.
Cornelius pushed his red shield out in front of him, joining with those of the other legionaries to form a protective wall around them. They stood their ground as the Britons hammered and slashed away at their crimson defense like a volley of thunderbolts attacking a fortress. The muscles of his shield-arm strained and ached in his struggle to hold. Were he to buckle or recoil even in the slightest under all the pressure, the wall would break apart and he and his comrades would be butchered like hogs. And neither he nor Fabiana would ever see each other again.
An ax chopped into his shield several times. It splintered. Not even his iron legionary’s will could be a match for the brute strength of the hulking Briton before him.
Shaken and overwhelmed by the force that had destroyed his shield, Cornelius staggered back until he toppled over into the snow. His barbarian opponent, towering over him like a giant, started another downward cut towards his neck. Cornelius whipped out his short legionary’s sword to parry it, but the impact shattered his blade and sent pain up his arm. Only by rolling aside could he evade the Briton’s next swing and leap back to his boots, defeating the brute at last with a kick in the face.
It was a clamorous chaos that raged around him. With their wall of shields dissolved, the troop of legionaries had lost their cohesion within a storm of clashing blades. spurting blood, and cries of pain and death. The Britons roared with bestial glee as they hacked Cornelius’s comrades into shreds. Even Centurion Lucius had stumbled down as one of the blue-painted savages bent over him, readying himself for the killing blow.
Cornelius could not let Fabiana’s father go that way. He fished out the javelin strapped to his back and hurled it into the Briton’s skull, pinning him down like a speared fish. He hurried over to where the centurion lay, but did not reach him before something blunt struck his skull and blurred the world around him into blackness.
The first thing Cornelius could feel again, other than the dull pain in his skull, was warmth rather than cold. He hoped, by the mercy of all the gods, that he had been rescued and returned to civilization, maybe even to the cozy comfort of his villa. There Fabiana would have awaited him, eager to embrace him with her slender dark arms, her bosom pressed against his chest and her luscious lips against his. Maybe she was even sitting on his bed beside him, stroking her husband’s hair and forehead in anticipation for his return to consciousness.
Once the rough texture of rope started to scratch his wrists, with a coarse wooden post pressing hard against his back, he realized it was not to be.
After Cornelius opened his eyes, his vision cleared to reveal a squat wattle-and-daub wall close before him that supported a conical ceiling of wood and thatch. A little fire next to him provided the sole lighting and heat inside the hut, filling it with the odor of the smoke that stung his eyes. Cornelius looked down his chest to see that all his armor had been stripped off, with only his red tunic left untouched.
At first he took the muffled, rhythmic thumping he heard to be the pulse of his own heart. Doubtless that was part of it, but then the drums started cracking like thunder alongside the hooting of warriors and the piercing wail of bagpipes. Wafting in from behind was the aroma of roasting pork, or maybe wild boar.
At least Cornelius hoped it was boar. One could never know what barbarians like these ate until it was too late.
There was the scuffling of feet over the clay floor as a young British woman entered the hut and gazed down at Cornelius. She prodded his chest and upper arms with a stick while licking her grinning lips. As far as these barbarians went, the freckle-faced girl wasn’t unattractive, but the gleam of her eyes somehow seemed hungrier than lustful. It made Cornelius’s gut churn with nausea.
The woman untied the rope around his wrists and gestured him to follow her out of the hut. For a moment he wondered whether she intended to rescue him from her tribesmen, but the cackle she gave afterward dispelled that fleeting hope in an instant.
Without weapons or armor, Cornelius had no hope of fighting his way out of captivity. If nothing else, he had to know what terrible fate lay in store for him instead. So he let the girl drag him out by the wrist.
Burning hot as the fires of the underworld, the light of torches danced to the primal music over the village of huts. Beating their shields with weapons, the audience of British warriors hollered and growled unintelligible taunts at Cornelius as he passed them. He did not even want to know what they were saying. Up ahead, in the middle of the village’s central plaza, a giant bonfire blazed like the mouth of an erupting volcano. Cornelius had heard stories of barbarians like the Britons burning people as human sacrifices, but he never would have expected to be a victim of that ritual himself.
“Cornelius Octavius! They got you too?”
It was Centurion Lucius who had spoken. He and Marcus also had villagers dragging them towards the central bonfire, right behind Cornelius. And they too had been stripped of their armor.
“But why did they keep us alive?” Cornelius asked. “What happened to the rest?”
The music stopped with a final slam of the drums. Other than the crackling of the huge fire, the entire village had silenced.
“You ask what happened to your mates?” a voice boomed in Latin, but with a thick British accent. “Why, most of them are in our bowels already!”
The crowd of Britons burst into laughter. One of them held up a half-eaten hunk of meat with a human hand attached. Cornelius turned his head away from the sight in disgust, forcing himself to hold his own last meal in.
From the ranks of the British warriors strutted their most enormous compatriot, a titan of a man with muscles bulging under the sleeves of his tunic and trousers. With his bearskin cape, horned helmet, and thick red beard, he looked like he could have been the local chieftain, or at least their most distinguished fighter. The human skulls that hung from his necklace clacked against one another as he approached the Roman captives.
“Call me Drustan,” the massive Briton said. “Drustan the Dreadful.”
“You speak awfully good Latin, for a British tribesman,” Marcus said.
“Good for a Briton, eh? As if I have never dealt with you bloody Romans before! Why, I even lost my dear wife and daughter to your kind…” The malicious smile that had spread across Drustan’s face disappeared, to be replaced with a glower of pure anger. “All because of your endless appetite for slaves.”
For once, it was not fear or disgust that ate away at Cornelius’s insides. It was guilt, and maybe even sorrow for the barbarian chief. Never would he have guessed that Britons too had families which they loved as fiercely as Romans did.
“I do know what you’re talking about,” Lucius said. “But we can end all of this. Release us so we can return home, and we will do our best to end the cycle of violence between our peoples.”
Drustan paused to stroke his beard. “I wish, by all the gods, that I could believe you. But I know from history that you bloody Romans can never be trusted. You can’t even trust one another! In the end all you care about is stealing as much land, and as many people, as you possibly can. Why, you would not even be in Britain had your forefathers not stolen so much of it from ours!”
“Well, excuse us for spreading civilization to your frozen corner of the world, cannibal!” Marcus spat. “So tell us, now that you’re digesting the rest of our patrol, what are you planning to do with we three?”
The evil grin returned to Drustan’s face. “I hear you Romans like to force your slaves to fight for your entertainment. Well, you’re our slaves now. How about, for the entertainment of my own people, the three of you fight me to the death…with your bare hands!”
The chieftain slid out from behind him an enormous, battle-nicked ax that could have beheaded an ox with one stroke. The tribesmen chanted his name while stamping their feet in feral ecstasy. Cornelius knew he and his companions would have to act quick if they were to survive this situation, but terror had frozen all his limbs stiff under the savage’s black shadow.
Drustan drew his oversized ax above the horns of his helmet, letting the blade shine with blinding brightness from the firelight, and swung it down. Cornelius dodged it with a sideward jump. The ax stabbed deep into the earth, shaking and cracking it as if a meteor had struck it instead. Spying a sheathed dagger hanging from the Briton’s belt, Cornelius lunged and thrust an arm towards it. The instant his fingertips touched the hilt, Drustan rammed the butt of the ax’s handle into his face, knocking him onto his back.
Cornelius’s head wobbled in an excruciating daze. Through the blur of his sight, he could make out the monstrous eater of men twisting his torso back for another attack. He shut his eyes in anticipation for the descent into the underworld that awaited him within seconds. All Cornelius could do was pray that the ax’s cold iron cut through his neck with only the quickest pain.
The bite of the blade did not come. A pair of wiry dark arms had wrapped themselves like a python around Drustan’s neck. As Lucius worked to weigh down the cannibal chief from behind, Marcus grabbed onto the ax and tugged to pull it out of its owner’s grip. Emboldened by his friends coming to his rescue, Cornelius sprang and kicked the Briton in the shin. The colossus lurched over, moaning like a defeated bear, and crashed down onto the plaza floor. The skulls on his necklace banged into each other and cracked into pieces.
Marcus wrenched the ax free of Drustan’s hand. “A bit heavy, but it’ll make a fitting trophy.”
Cornelius rushed over to the fallen Drustan and stole his dagger away. “But then how do we get out?”
“Simple, but not easy,” Lucius said. He took out a burning log from below the bonfire and pointed to a crude wooden gate on the far side of the village. “We fight our way out.”
The Britons had the three captives surrounded on all sides. Thrashing their weapons about and shrieking their battle cries, they charged in.
Cornelius charged at them back. No longer would he fight as the disciplined Roman, forcing himself to stand his ground on the defensive. Now his instincts told him not to flee, but to strike back at these man-eating savages who had inflicted so much death and misery upon his patrol. This time, instead of suppressing those instincts, he would obey them.
He plunged into the horde shouting a war cry of his own. He elbowed, he punched, he kicked, he slashed out eyes and ears and noses and anything else his dagger could touch. The cuts and grazes through his tunic and skin only sparked his fury even further, as did the hot blood that splashed onto his face. Cornelius had transformed into an insatiable demigod of war, almost the likeness of mighty Mars himself.
A death cry rang out from behind him. Marcus had fallen within the melee, impaled by a British spear in the breast. Behind him towered the sneering figure of Drustan the Dreadful himself. He reclaimed his bloodied ax in one yank and burst towards Cornelius with a bull’s roar.
Cornelius hurled the dagger into the British chieftain’s thigh. Drustan tripped forward with a wince and a yell, but then ripped the weapon out and chucked it back into Cornelius’s shoulder. As Cornelius collapsed, the remaining Britons closed in over him like sharks darting in for the kill. They would dice him into shreds to devour.
Lucius swatted them aside with his fiery club. He pulled the dagger out of Cornelius. “One more little thing and we should be done.”
He tossed the burning log onto Drustan. The war-chief bloomed into flames as furious as the bonfire behind him, charring and eating away at his flesh and clothes. As the Britons watched their leader’s death with horror that stunned them, Lucius hauled Cornelius onto his shoulder and fled for the gate. A couple of chops through the crossbar, and they fled into the cold and darkness of the night.
Cornelius never expected he would be glad to feel the chill of winter after the infernal heat he had experienced in that village. It even seemed to dull the pain of his wounds rather than worsen them as he would have thought. Or maybe that was simply the relief he felt.
“That barbarian said he lost a wife and daughter to slavery,” Cornelius mumbled. “You think they might still be somewhere in the Empire?”
“If so, it would be a tragedy for them.” Lucius sighed as he carried Cornelius through the moonlit forest. “Indeed, it is a tragic story no matter how you look at it. But I did what I had to do for my men, for my son-in-law. Unless the Britons catch us before we make it back, at least my Fabiana won’t be mourning for her man.”
Cornelius smiled. As much as he pitied Drustan’s family, and as much as he would miss his friend Marcus Cassius, nothing pleased him more than the thought of returning to his beloved’s arms from the barbaric cold of a British winter.