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City of the Blind

posted May 4, 2017, 3:22 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jun 6, 2017, 2:42 AM ]



What follows is a piece of flash fiction, set between Legionary: Gods & Emperors and Legionary: Empire of Shades. Chalcedon, perched on the eastern shores of the Bosphorus strait, was once branded 'the City of the Blind' by a 6th century BC Persian general named Megabyzus, when he contrasted the settlement with the far superior and sparsely-occupied site on the opposite shores. By Late Antiquity, Chalcedon languished in the shadows of the city that had risen on that far shore through the intervening centuries: the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople.

Yet something that happened in Chalcedon in that twilight era which suggests that ancient lessons had gone unheeded...

Chalcedon, “City of the Blind”
December 8th 378AD

Colias the Goth woke to the clarion call of a Roman buccina. For that lightning-flash moment, he was a tribal warrior again: he gasped and leapt from his bed, one hand going for his longsword, the other for his spear – once his fathers and his grandfather’s before that. Then he relaxed with a gentle laugh, feeling his feet settle on the cold flagged floor, seeing the legionary spatha by his bed and the imperial helm and mail shirt resting on a frame. He looked around the interior of the Roman barrack house that was now his home, his laughter fading into a gentle sigh.
    ‘Sleep,’ Pudulf, his fellow Goth croaked, sitting up in his bed, opposite. He grinned and tapped his temple. ‘It plays havoc with the mind, eh?’
    Colias stretched, sweeping his mass of thick, golden hair backs and looping it in a knot on his crown then massaging each of his bare, broad shoulders in turn, feeling the chill air bite at his skin. ‘Aye. Three nights ago, I dreamt I was a boy,’ he said as he threw on an imperial tunic and drew on his calf-length leather boots. ‘I was running through the thick forests, across the empty grasslands and over the green hills of the northlands. I saw my parents again in that dream – we ate deer by the fire.’ He looked through the open shutters into the muster ground of the garrison compound, bathed in the dawn light of a low winter sun. Now he held up and shook two fingers. ‘Two nights ago, I dreamt of when I first enlisted with the Romans, before the war. I was standing watch on the walls of Adrianople,’ his eyes tapered and his nostrils widened a fraction. ‘I could almost smell the fresh bread from the city bakehouses, the charred fish from the market taverns. I saw the faces of dead men, Pudulf... alive, with hope in their eyes...’        ‘And last night?’ Pudulf said, cocking an eyebrow.
    Colias’ face fell. ‘I dreamt of the day the Romans heard news of Fritigern’s horde, of how Thracia had been invaded, of how the Goths would be the end of them. I dreamt of the day they turned upon our garrison century, the day we fought back like wolves, the day we fled the city to join the horde, leaving hope behind… I dreamt of the pillage that followed… of the… of the things we did,’ his head flopped forward. ‘I dreamt of war.’
    Pudulf's eyes slid down to examine the flagstones. 'Me too,' he said quietly.
    The dawn buccina call sounded again. The others amongst Colias’ century were awakening in the many other sleeping blocks of the long barrack hut.
    ‘But then you chose wisely, sir,’ Pudulf continued. ‘You made your peace once more with the empire. You brought us here,’ he gestured around the room.
    Colias glanced sideways at him. ‘Choice?’ he mused. He thought of last summer, of the gnarled, one-eyed Roman tactician who had trapped his warband in a sweltering gully then convinced him that life in the empire could still be right for him and his warband. Bastianus. That had been in June. Bastianus had been slain in August, rumour had it – cut down in a storm of steel on the hot plains north of Adrianople, cut down with scores of legions… slain along with Valens, Emperor of the East, on the bloodiest day the land of Thracia had yet seen. For a moment, Colias felt a touch of guilt. He had not been there to stand with his blood, the Goths of Fritigern. Nor had he been given the chance to stand by his convictions and line up with the legions on that fateful day. Instead, he and his warband had been shipped here, to Chalcedon, the white-walled town on the Asian banks of the Hellespont – an arrow-shot across the water from Constantinople. Almost close enough to hear the war, yet safe from its lethal edge. Bastianus had spared him the battle… perhaps even saved his life?
    ‘We can only seek out that hope we once knew, to make things right once again, Pudulf,’ Colias said, standing and throwing a cloak around his shoulders. ‘Today and every day ahead, we will serve the empire. We will show them that our people and theirs can work together.’
    The pair stepped outside into the bright chill, the frosted ground crunching under their soles. As Pudulf unfurled the century’s banner, Colias drew a wooden cup of water from a drinking font and drained it in one draught. Gazing absently into the font water, something glinted in his memory like a jewel in the sand: the two young soldiers with General Bastianus that day. He saw their faces now, clearly: one dark and hawk-faced, the other blonde and impudent. Pavo and Sura, he recalled. He remembered the looks on their faces as they stood up on the edge of that hot gully, looking down on his warband, their faces etched with vigour, willing the trapped Goths to submit, but ready to act if they did not. Good soldiers, he mused… good men. As the buccina cry tapered off, the image in the water's surface faded and was replaced by the reflection of two black crows circling then settling on the barrack compound’s ice-veined walls, cawing. If the pair named Pavo and Sura had been at the Battle of Adrianople, then they had surely perished along with so many others, he realised. 
    He drew his cloak a little tighter and looked up to the barrack compound's walls, seeing the dawn-streaked red tiles of the small city's wards. A gentle chatter of the town’s populace rose outside the barrack walls: the lowing of beasts, the playful repartee of pedlars, the cry of seabirds and the gentle sound of waves on the nearby shore. It would be a quiet day of street patrols and mending the rotting pier at the city harbour, he realised as the buccina sounded a third and final time. He turned to see his men spill out of the barrack block dutifully, dressed in Roman trousers and tunics, encased in helms, spears and shields. An attendant brought him his swordbelt and helm.
    ‘Garrison, in line,’ he barked. The men obeyed, coming into a block of eighty as always. ‘Today, Pudulf will take two contubernia to the docks, and I wi-’
    A groan of stressed timber cut him off. He and every other head turned to the compound gates – the leftmost of which was swinging open. Two riders entered, red-cloaked and mail-shirted Roman equites, swaying on their roans as they ranged towards the assembled garrison. Their eyes found Colias.
    ‘Magister Militum Julius summons you,’ they leftmost one said, devoid of emotion.
    ‘Julius? He is here?’ Colias said, one eyebrow dipping. Julius was one of the few Roman officers accounted for in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople – the rest dead, hiding or scattered. More, he was the most senior authority remaining in all Asia Minor. It was his duty, and Colias’… and that of every other military and civil authority, to hold these lands steady until Thracia could be recovered. ‘I did not realise he was coming.’
    ‘He brings early annona,’ the rightmost rider said, managing a one-sided smile.
    Colias’ Gothic legionaries broke out in a series of excited whispers. Legionary purses were filled three times a year, but it was only December and the next annona was not due until January. He decided not to contend the issue. ‘Draw open the gates in full,’ he called to his century, then looked back to the riders, ‘then the Magister Militum can bring the annona wagons inside. I will have the men prepare a hot breakfast for him and for you.’
    The leftmost rider raised a hand that stayed the Goths. ‘The Magister Militum will receive you outside the city.’
    Colias’ head tilted to one side, confused. ‘Very well,’ he said after a time. He snapped his fingers at two men working on a stove. ‘Bring the wheat porridge outside.’
    A short while later, they left the small barracks in a line, as if marching to battle were it not for their leaving behind of their spears and shields. They chatted and joked as they clattered through Chalcedon’s flagged market square, spirits high. But Colias, leading them along behind the two riders, walked alone. Chalcedon’s populace gave them a wide berth: many wide eyes and fearful looks. Trust would have to be earned, hard earned, he realised. They passed through a wide gap in the white marble ‘walls’ of the city – really just a low, token outline of the fortifications that had once existed here, with no battlements or towers. Emperors and generals had quarried the great blocks and carried them over the water to build ever more magnificent structures in Constantinople, leaving this uneven perimeter, akin to worn-down teeth. Outside, the paved coast road and the golden hinterland were speckled with frost, and a chill, clean westerly wind blew as if from Constantinople – glinting like a pearl in the pastel haze across the water. Great white gouges gaped in the nearby bluffs where more marble had been sourced, and smaller mining pits glimmered in myriad colours: waxy and lustrous cerulean and amber, night-black and blood-red where the famous and precious chalcedony had been mined.
    Colias halted when the two horsemen did. They parted. A hundred paces away stood Julius, clad in a cloak as black as his armour and plumed helm, his face in shade. With him were no wagons, just soldiers. A century of scale-clad legionaries and two of imperial sagittarii archers draped in mail. The wind licked at Colias and his men. Silence reigned.
    'Colias? What is this?' Pudulf whispered through dry lips.
    ‘Magister Militum?’ Colias called across the void, echoing Pudulf's confusion.
    Julius’ head rose a fraction, the shadow peeling away from his eyes enough for Colias to see the baleful fire in them. The Magister Militum flicked a finger. Suddenly, the two riders bolted in opposite directions, leaving Colias and his Gothic century alone on the flat ground before Chalcedon. 
   ‘Sir?’ Colias said, his voice edged with a beseeching tone now.
    The Magister Militum did not respond, other than to raise his hands either side of him, like a conjurer summoning spirits, his teeth set in a rictus. The two archer centuries spread out like wings to part-envelop  Colias and his men, then nocked and drew their bows.
    Pudulf and the others wailed in fear and confusion. All Colias could hear was the crows cawing… and the archers’ bows groaning.
    As Julius’ hand chopped down and two hundred arrows sailed through the air, Colias closed his eyes and returned to the dreams of his youth.
Hope you enjoyed the story. You can buy the full follow-on novel, Legionary: Empire of Shades, here