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Redemption

posted Jun 25, 2012, 2:01 PM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jan 27, 2015, 3:35 AM ]

The spoon pulled a golden spiral of honey through the yoghurt, the gentle hum of iron on pewter soothing his mind. He took a spoonful and tipped it between his teeth, letting the sweet, cool mixture roll over his tongue and trickle down his throat.

            'Still too sweet,' he mumbled wearily, lifting the pot of yoghurt to dilute his breakfast further. His chapped and calloused fingers smoothed at the pitted dry timbers of the table as he watched the pure white spill into the bowl. He pulled his palm over the grey stubble and smooth baldness on his crown and his jaw clenched in acceptance: something had to give before the sun reached its zenith today. But as another gust lifted through the corn fields and rapped on the rafters of his hut, the house of cards balanced in his mind scattered again, reason and want melting into a soup once more. He hadn’t moved more than a few paces around the place in days, yet his mind felt so tired. He eyed the dawn light through a crack in the shutter - its orangey tendrils examined the very texture of the land. Soon it would find him and a choice would have to be made. He spooned his yoghurt into his mouth and his eyes looked to a faraway place.

            Time passed, slowly and smoothly, like the honey in his bowl. Then the goats began to bleat - well aware it was time for feeding. A fine lineage they came from - bred from the cashmeres bought in the market square of Trier nearly thirty years ago. An era in his life had died when he walked out of the city that same day. Thirty years of solitude on the plains had suited him just fine. Companionship was not his friend - that had been driven from him. Now the four corners of this shack were his and his alone – yet the same thoughts riddled his every waking moment of solitude; he eyed the trunk in the corner next to his cot. From its lid, a triangle of filthy grey linen hung like a dead hand. He had never dared to tuck it away – that would mean confronting the contents and everything they represented. He blinked at the hollow scrape of his spoon on the bottom of his empty bowl, and then sat motionless, like a man stunned by realisation.

            'Time to move on,' he whispered, flatly, his voice sounding alien to him.

            As he set his spoon to rest, he heard the crunching of hobnailed boots on gravel. Standing, he eyed the tiny shack fondly, and fought back the welling in his heart at the crying of the goats. If the gods willed it, he mused, he would return and they would be fed. Then a shaft of buttery sunlight pierced the gloom through the shutters, just as the crunching boots halted. Knuckles rapped the door and thundered at his heart. He stood to open it. A long forgotten coldness fortified his skin and the old iron grimace settled on his rocky features as he turned the handle and pulled the door back.

 

            'General Decius, Centenarii Pullo at your command, sir!'

            Decius squinted in the morning sunlight. The man in front of him shimmered like a Solidus in seawater. His breastplate and greaves newly tempered - devoid of scratches.

            'Pullo, I see.' The horsehair plume whipped across the centenarii's brow as he shuffled in discomfort. 'How long have you served, officer?'

            'Eight months in Pannonia… and the last three months in Gaul, sir. The Second Adiutrix legion know me well,' he nodded firmly.

            'They're still operational?'

            Pullo frowned. ‘Certainly. Reports to the palace at Trier from Milan assure that they still hold the countryside forts. But as you know, sir, it's difficult times we face.'

            Decius looked over the centenarii's shoulder and shrivelled his eyes at the honeyed disc of the sun. A handful of silhouetted legionaries stood twenty or so paces back down the gravel path, tending to Pullo’s steed. These legions were not the armies he had once led. Bands of militia clinging to a lost greatness; hiding in ruined forts as if they still mattered, while swarming hordes of finely armoured and ordered barbarians - barbarians indeed! - washed around them a river around crumbling rocks.

            'Sir?' Pullo asked.

            'I'm ready,' Decius sighed. 'Well, almost. Give me a few moments to pull together my equipment.'

He let the door creak back to block out the sunlight. Darkness swept across the inside of his shack and stopped at the trunk. ‘I’m ready?’ he sighed to himself. He lifted the emerald amulet from his neck chain and offered it a tender kiss. ‘Felicia, I can only beg for your forgiveness, even now,’ he whispered. Then he prised open the trunk. A cloud of grey must wafted up and into his throat and nostrils. There, below the threadbare tunic lay the body of his old self. The tarnished armour of the mighty General Decius.

He gazed at the crystalline teardrop that tumbled from his eye, vanishing into the dusty filth of the tunic to leave a dark spot. He felt the old sorrow well in his heart and rise through his throat. ‘No!’ he barked, digging a fist into the timber wall strut. The shack trembled and blood trickled from his knuckles along his fingers from the wound as he lifted his swordbelt.

***

Dust whipped around the air, giving it a peaty tang and tainting the midday air with a watery brown haze. All around, the Catalaunian plains turned silver as an iron herd chattered over the hills and onto the flat. Every available fighting man in the west poured into one place – Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, Alans, Saxons; all once enemies – now allied in the name of survival. At the front, to the left of centre, two officers stood to survey the locust-like shadow of the Hun army dominating the horizon across the plain.

‘How many?’ Decius asked, his face stony.

‘They number more than us, sir. I can’t get a more accurate count than that. General Aetius has sent out riders to gather militia. We need to swell our numbers or…..’

‘Or they’ll slaughter us,’ Decius finished for Pullo. The centenarii’s mouth hung open momentarily. His eyes darted back to the first rank, who strained to hear their general’s words. ‘Spare me the second-hand rhetoric, centenarii, let’s face the bitter truth: if we have enough men and half a brain controlling them, we will take victory. Line up what we have, then let me know when we are set.’

‘Sir,’ Pullo replied sharply, a sourness creeping across his face, before he wheeled around to bark orders to the cohorts.

Decius closed his eyes and rested his palm on the hilt of his spatha. The pain seared his heart as he gripped the handle – it felt so familiar after all this time. But now, he fought without the passion for empire that had blinded him all those years ago. The fool he once was had chosen poorly between imperial dignity and love. Withdraw or the slaughter will begin, the Vandal chief had sworn. To withdraw would be to ruin him, all he had worked for and every ideal of the Rome he believed in. Her body had plummeted from the walls like a stone. The crumpled rag-doll form at the foot of the bastion had stilled him, had sent torrents of ice through his blood. Numbness had driven him through the taking of the town, hot Vandal blood covered every inch of his skin and armour by nightfall, yet the chill in his heart grew colder. Three days of silence followed, not a word spoken to anyone in the barracks. Then the general had thought to offer him a medal for his sacrifice. Thirty years to the day.

‘What will be waiting on me?’ he whispered as his plume whipped in his eyes, touching the emerald amulet around his neck once more, eyeing the wall of dust that began to rise from the Hun ranks. The stench of the Hun cavalry poured over the Roman ranks like an invisible first wave of attack. Then they swarmed like the pincers of a scorpion, their dark number eclipsing the shimmering Roman alliance. The sun had climbed free of the horizon and he let himself stare into its intensity. ‘I can never be as blind as that day,’ he croaked.

A whisper of discontent from the ranks grew into a definite rumble, broken only by the thudding of Pullo’s return. ‘Sir, we’re at full strength. General Aetius wants us to hit them first.’ The centernarii paused. ‘Sir, are you ready?’

‘Never been more so, Pullo. Never been more ready.’

He tucked the amulet away, raised his sword and released a battle cry that ripped through his lungs.