Thursday, November 18, 2010

From Maggots They Come...

This is my first attempt at a short story. It is a bit derivative of Robery E. Howards work, but I was really just seeing if I could write. Comments and critisism is always welcome. Here we go...

The sounds of horses and battle echoed like muted thunder as Barius’ head as he struggled to retain consciousness. He pushed himself to a kneeling position, the forest trail turned ambush coming into focus as his mind began to clear. His helmet lay nearby, dented from the German sling stone that nearly knocked him unconscious. His javelin and shield lay in the road, muddy from the rain that had fallen throughout the day. Instinct took over as he realized that there were no shouts from the centurions to form ranks. No calls for the Legion to defend itself. Barius began to pull himself to a nearby ditch, clawing at the earth to find cover, praying to the Gods that the barbarians, now whooping in celebration in their savage tongue, would not peer in his direction. The auxillia rolled into the ditch and, with the cover of brush, took time to assess his environment.
Barius was of German stock himself. He was from the Condrusi tribe, of the people called Belgae by the Romans. The lands of his people were North of Italy, lying between Gaul and the Rhine river boundary of Germania. His father, a chieftain, sent him to Rome as a child, first as hostage and then as an auxiliary to the Legions. Standing taller and sturdier than most legionaries, his barbarian physique made him an ideal soldier. Now he hoped, between said physique and his military discipline, to survive the day. Now lying in the ditch, he took stock of what kit he had left. His muddied mail shirt still covered his red tunic, cinched at his waist by a broad leather belt. His gladius sword and pugio dagger hung in their scabbards from said belt and their weight provided some comfort to him. He had lost his kit bag during his crawling for cover, but at this point it would be more of a hindrance than anything.
After taking a few moments to regroup, the soldier began to make his way down the ditch line, alternating between crawling and a crouched walk as necessary. He was always taught that his gods demanded glory in battle; gods with name such as Woden, Tiw, and Donar, but he didn’t see any glory dying in a muddy ambush. When the screams of death and battle sounded far and as faint as whispers; he allowed himself a moment’s respite. Finding a stream, swollen by the rains, Barius stopped by the bank to rest. He splashed water onto his face and cupped some in his hands to drink and slake his thirst. He could barely make out the features of his reflection in the flowing water, his close cropped, dark blonde hair and his blue-grey eyes. He absent-mindedly fingered the scar running down his left cheek. It ran from his cheek-bone to just above his lips; punishment doled out in training for an infraction. Despite, or perhaps because of, the harsh discipline, he was a quick learner and embraced the warrior’s life. He also checked the head wound he received from the sling stone. An ugly, purple knot was already forming between his left temple and the corresponding eye. It was tender to the touch and he winced every time he probed it with his finger, but it wasn’t bleeding and he felt it would heal with time. He also came to the realization that some may consider what he did could be considered desertion or cowardice, capital offences in the Roman army. This was something he would have to think on.
Barius had set out as a member of the auxiliary infantry cohort attached to the Nineteenth Legion of the Roman Army. That Legion, along with the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Legions had set out under the command of Publius Quintictilius Varus to quell a revolt in Roman holdings across the Danube. Varus had sent scouts ahead, personally led by his close advisor Arminius, a German himself. The troops spread out and not expecting danger, were more concerned with the rain and mud than treachery. When the barbarians launched their assault with javelins and slings, the soldiers were ill prepared to form a proper shield wall and panic set in. The Legions trained to fight in open fields, fighting face to face with their foes, not defending against an ambush on a muddy forest road. It quickly became a battle between individual combatants, a conflict more suited to the barbarian philosophy of war. Barius could not be certain who, if anyone, else had survived, but he thought on it no more as exhaustion, and sleep, overtook him.
The Belgian wrenched himself from sleep, eyes scanning the near impenetrable darkness of the forest at night. The rain had seemed to stop, though he couldn’t be entirely sure. The drops, continuing to fall from the canopy overhead, sounded as potential assailants crunching through the underbrush. His instincts, keen from the day’s events and rested, kept his body taught as his senses probed the surrounding darkness. Feeling some measure of safety, Barius returned to the stream, washing his face and taking another hearty drink. He decided to attempt a stealthy return to the site of the ambush, knowing its outcome would determine his course of action.
He recalled that a stream ran near the road just South of where the battle occurred and deduced this creek was one and the same. He would just follow it and try and find a point to observe the road. Slowly he trekked through the dark, feeling his way so as not to walk into a tree or step off into the creek. The thought of accidentally knocking himself out did bring some levity to his thoughts and he chuckled softly to himself. The oppressive darkness and dripping run-off played havoc with his senses and his mood quickly became somber again. Time was elusive in this shadowy realm and after a seeming eternity, he spied a moonlit clearing. Creeping forward, he scanned the road from the safety of the wood line.
Scanning the road, Barius figured that he was about a league south of the battlefield. The moon and sky, the latter still cloudy, told him that he had a couple of hours until midnight and that the rain may yet return. Hearing nothing besides the pitter-patter of dripping water on leaves, he cautiously stepped onto the road and took a better view in each direction. Seeing nothing unusual, he knelt down and examined the road itself. It was too dark and the mud too churned for accurate tracking, but he did find a few tracks heading south; a mix of Roman sandal prints and barbarian boots. Was it a mass rout or ordered retreat? He could not be certain, but the Roman column was long and surely some survived. He stood in the road for several minutes before making his decision; he would go to the site of the battle to see for himself the aftermath.
The warrior stayed on the road, but hugged the tree line as much as he was able. He would be too clumsy in the darkness of the woods to be stealthy, but he wanted to be close enough to the forest to try and avoid enemy patrols. As he neared his destination, he began to slow, senses raw to the nighttime world. He first noted the sweetly foul smell of death roiling towards him and he gagged. Pulling the neck of his tunic over his nose and mouth, he continued to advance. As he walked around the final bend before, he saw the extent of the carnage. Bodies and body parts lay everywhere, many mangled beyond recognition. Most had been stripped of armor and weapons, as well as heads and scalps in many cases. The carcasses of horses and the remains of the baggage train were strewn about, broken and looted. In some places, the blood and offal had been trampled into the churned mud to form a gory morass. All swords had been taken and what few shields and javelins he found were either splintered or waterlogged beyond use. A shield would have been too heavy and bulky to maneuver in the dark forest anyway. He did find a kit bag underneath a broken wagon and set about rummaging through its contents. There were a few strips of jerky, a hunk of cheese the size of his fist, and some hard tack biscuits. There was also a half full wineskin, its contents sour and vinegary, but still a welcome respite from his predicament. He moved back south, around the curve in the road, where the stench lessened to sit next to a tree and rest. He resolved to continue south to try and find the rest of the army. He concluded there were far from enough corpses and he felt they had withdrawn to the South, probably to find a defensible area to reorganize. He retrieved a biscuit from the kit bag and dribbled a little wine on it, to soften it for consumption. He then took a deep drink of the wine itself, grimacing at the taste while loving the burn flowing down his parched throat. This little indulgence occupied his thoughts so that he nearly missed the cracking twigs behind him.
“Carolus, is that you?” the German behind him asked in the Teutonic tongue. Barius estimated, without looking, the questioner to be about ten feet to his rear. In the dark and without his helmet, he would be indistinguishable from the German and Barius spoke German, as well as Latin, but he was afraid his accent would give him away. He turned slightly, looking at the speaker while slowly reaching for his gladius. He noted there were three barbarians behind him and, though they were armed, they seemed to be at ease. The speaker held a spatha-type sword, slightly longer than his own gladius, leisurely reclined on his shoulder while the other two had bearded hand axes tucked into their belts. Barius had a hard time guessing their age in the shadows, but could tell they were bearded and that meant they were likely veteran warriors. He also noted their helmets; conical with nasal and cheek guards, but could not see if they wore armor.
“No, friend, my name is Barius.” He said. Unlike in Rome, he felt his German name may be an asset here and he needed to find out about his force. He continued; “May I ask yours?”
“I am Aenor and this is Rolf and Eorl.” He said, indicating the men on either side of him. “We were walking the trail, looking to see if any of these Roman dogs tried to go to ground. What of you?”
“I too sought the scum in the forest, but found nothing. They are slippery, the Romans.” He motioned the way he had came with his right hand. His left hand began slowly drawing his sword in a reverse grip.
Aenor spoke again, voice glowing in pride “They are, friend, though we found a few trying to slither away as the snakes they are. We slew them as such and now we prepare to go south”.
“South?” queried Barius
“Yes. You’ve not heard? Arminius has pursued the bastards several leagues south of here. I hear the invaders have set up a temporary fort, but it can’t stand to our numbers.” Eorl declared. “We go to join our kinsmen in glory”.
Arminius! Barius’ stomach went queasy. He had been personal council to Varus. The traitorous bastard had led the legions into a slaughter.
“Forgive me, friend Barius, but I can’t help but notice a peculiar tone to your speech. It’s as if you know our tongue, but you’re jaws are rusty from lack of use.” Rolf said, beginning to step forward, wrapping his hand around his axe.
Barius sprang up, finishing his sword draw with his right hand. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could have kept up his charade and now just wanted to end this quickly and as quietly as possible. His sudden attack caught Rolf off guard, his thrust plunging into the man’s guts and digging up under the rib cage. Rolf went down with a grunt, unsuccessfully trying to hold his stomach together. The one known as Eorl lunged forward, hand axe slashing down in a murderous arc. Barius deftly parried the blow to his outside while taking a half-step forward. This allowed Eorl’s momentum to carry him forward while Barius came up behind and quickly slit his throat. Aenor also sent an overhead slash with his blade, hoping to catch Barius off-kilter, but the auxillia was prepared and swung upwards, catching Aenor’s wrist and removing his hand, sword flying into the shadows. Barius quickly reversed his swing and in one fluid movement decapitated his foe. The fight was over in a matter of moments and Barius quickly decided to move on before anymore Germans came to investigate. He sheathed his sword and grabbed the kit bag as well as tucking one of the hand axes into his belt. He realized the axes versatile nature could be put to good use in the forest. His hopes for a quiet get away were dashed, however, as another German, possibly from the same patrol, stepped out of the wood line, adjusting his pants. “Damn it all!” Barius muttered to himself as the newcomer’s smile dimmed in understanding of what had just transpired. Before he could be stopped, the man began running down the road, alternating screams of “Legionnaire!” and “Help! To arms, to arms!” Shouts of affirmation began to ring through the forest to the West of his position, so Barius, grabbing the kit bag, plunged back into the forest from whence he came.
The woods were still pitch black as he thundered through the primeval growth. He was more concerned with putting distance between himself and the road than stealth as he crashed forward, unseen branches and brambles cutting at his flesh like talons. The ground suddenly gave way underneath him and cold water engulfed him. He thrashed about several seconds, the terror of drowning nearly throwing into convulsions. When he finally calmed himself, he stood up; realizing the water barely covered his ankles. He took a moment to laugh at the absurdity of it, wiping the mud and water from his face. He had survived both the ambush, as well as the recent fight, and then nearly drowned in less than a foot of water. The moment of levity over, he listened to the world around him. He could hear the enemy calling to one-another behind him, but they sounded as though they didn’t want to enter too deeply into the woods. He wondered why, as they obviously traveled through the other side of the forest. Perhaps it was superstition that kept his pursuers at bay. The thought that these woods could frighten hardened warriors gave him that same feeling of dread, but he pushed the thought from his mind. If Woden wanted his soul, he could bring his Wild Hunt into the woods after him, he thought to himself. He had to move on.
This turned out to be, after a bit self-orienting, the same stream he followed earlier. He decided this time to follow it north. He knew that there would be an army between him and any survivors from the legions and also that the enemy would expect him to go that way. Going north would take him deeper into the Teutoborg Forest, the enemy’s homeland, but he figured he would cut back once he lost anyone who tried to track him. He picked up his bag and began to trek along the creek again, sweat beginning to sting the scratches he’d received during his plight.
Barius noted, through what little sky he could see, that it was nearing midnight. It had been sometime since he had heard anything from any potential pursuers. He was thinking of finding a place to sleep for awhile, knowing exhaustion could put him at a disadvantage in battle, when he saw the light to the Northeast of where he stood. He stealthily made his way closer; the orange, flickering glow caused shadows to dance around him. The forest gave way to a clearing in the woods, dominated by a single story, stone structure, facing him... He was too far to make out any details other than an open door way, flanked by pillars, and a sense of age coming from the building. The lights emanated from a series of six torches on four foot high posts, forming a path a central, six foot high post about thirty feet from the building. As he moved closer, Barius noted what appeared to be bodies, twelve Roman bodies, lying in two lines of six, shoulder to shoulder, in this dirt walkway. Curiously, the Romans were still armed and armored, their swords and shields lay across their breasts as though in salute. He also noted, chained to the column opposite of what he now deduced as a temple of sorts, a woman. He slowly entered the clearing from behind the captive woman, fearing a possible ambush. Muscles tense, he scanned the area, noting a foot trail heading south that he had not noticed earlier. Stealing up behind the post, he noted the woman was breathing.
“Ssshhh”. He whispered. Her breathing caught for a moment.
“Who are you?” The response was in German; low and guarded.
“I’m Barius. A friend to those men laid about and the ones on the road. Who are you and why are you a prisoner here?”
“I’m known as Berhta.” She replied. “I’m to join your allies in sacrifice to the Dewar. The grey-beards say it’ll keep the old gods happy and our people successful.” She had remained composed to this point, but began trembling as she spoke. Barius was certain her mind was conjuring visions and tormenting her mercilessly. The warrior had seen it himself in disciplined soldiers who pissed themselves before battle, crying to their mothers and gods. He could only imagine what this girl felt, as he moved around to better see her, as she could barely be considered a woman. She was maybe nineteen summers, if that, and was thin, though not sickly so. Flowers adorned her red hair; long and wild, and a black, silk shift covered her body. Her green eyes mesmerized him for a moment and he had to pull away from the sight of her breathing from between her lips.
“You mentioned the Dewar, dwarves,” his mind focused again “as in the old tales?” He remembered the legends; the first gods had slain Ymir, the father of all giants and trolls, and formed the world from his corpse. It was said that the dwarves were born from the maggots infesting his body and that they still inhabited the earth. “Sure as not someone told you false, girl. I’ve traveled much of Europa and have yet to see any such thing”. Barius declared, producing his dagger. “I do, however, require a guide.” He began to cut her bonds, noting a bit of defiance had crept into eyes. “Why do you cut me so with your eyes?” He asked as he finished cutting her bonds.
“How long have you been away from your true people?” Her words were heavy with contempt.” There are still things here that hearken to the old times, things the Southern men have forgotten in their arrogance.” His retort, and urge to slap her, was cut short by a low moan from behind him. Wheeling around, Barius realized the sound came from one of the soldiers lying on the ground. Barius hurried over to the man who was trying to stand, though he was obviously in a great deal of pain. Pushing the soldier’s scutum to the side, Barius saw the bloody stomach wound through ragged tunic and torn mail shirt. “What is your name, friend?” Barius asked in Latin, producing the wineskin he had found. The man took a deep draught, wincing at the sour taste as Barius had, and spoke. “I’m known as Titus Aelius, of the Seventeenth Legion, from Arretium. Who are you? Are you a German or a Gaul perhaps?” “ I was just telling the girl that I am Barius and I’m of the Belgae.” Barius responded, motioning back towards Berhta. As he did so, he realized she had picked up a gladius from one of the bodies. Pointing the weapon and Barius, her face was a mix of fear and determination. “What do you mean to do with that?” Barius asked, slowly standing upright, hands up and away from his own weapons. Unlike the women of the civilized Mediterranean lands, barbarians taught their women to fight and kill. Seeing the uncertainty in her eyes, he continued; “Your people left you here to die. Whether from some fae spirit, wood land beast, or men; I know not, but we can help one-another in this. Can I count on you?”
She lowered the blade slowly “Yes, but we should leave this place soon.” she said “The moon is high and they’ll be here soon.” Barius no longer wanted to debate with her. His nature was to take action and he felt exposed in the clearing. The girl’s ominous tone and the eerie building were not helping his cause. “I’ll have to help Titus walk, so you’ll move ahead of us to guide us. We’ll take a torch with us, but we must be cautious with so that we’re not seen by your kinsmen.” He instructed her. She quickly began to untie a torch from its post as Barius moved Titus to a sitting position and readied him for standing. Barius tried to do this quickly, but the Roman’s pain was palpable and Titus’ body resisted. Over the grunts of anguish, Barius detected a strange sound. He cradled Titus in the sitting position and realized, from her rigid stance, that Berhta had heard it also. Looking to the ground about ten feet away, he realized the earth appeared to be slowly erupting upward, a soft, round form pushing up through the soil. Hearing Berhta begin to whimper behind him, the auxillia looked around, realizing that they were being surrounded by the things. The one closest to him pulled free of the soil; warrior and horror studied the other. The thing stood about four feet tall and was covered with a rubbery grey-green skin. Two large, lid-less, black eyes dominated it bulbous head and it was generally hairless, though there were a few thick, black hairs growing from its head and body. It had no nose that Barius could see and its mouth was an odd triangular aperture. What appeared initially as a hood and mantle was actually thick, leathery skin covering its shoulders and short neck; its arms were spindly and covered with a chitin-like armor. The thing was naked and had no sexual organs that Barius could see, nor could he see its feet under the folds of its blubbery hide.
“Merciful Jupiter, what is that thing?’ Titus whispered, fear temporarily overcoming his pain. The thing regarded the speaker with curiosity for a moment and then, with a sudden hiss, spit a thick, grey-green substance on Titus’ face. The legionnaire’s scream ripped through the forest as his face began to melt away, flesh and muscle giving way to blood and bone. As Titus’ shriek petered out to a gurgling death rattle, Barius dropped him and pulled his sword and thrust it into the creature’s right eye. It gave a hiss as its thick, black blood flowed down its face. It fell back amid a chorus of hisses from the other creatures.
“Run!” Barius screamed as he lashed out, removing the top of another creature head with a back hand swing of his blade. The girl was doing well enough on her own account with the sword in one hand and the torch in the other, but joined him in running toward the temple. The things spat towards the pair as they ran the gauntlet, but to no avail. The creatures were slow and used to prey trussed up or dead sacrifices; not quarry racing for their lives. The two runners stopped in the doorway of the temple and looked back at their foes. The things moved slowly but inexorably towards the couple, their line tightening toward the pair’s sanctuary.
Barius looked around the room quickly, looking for something, anything to help them out of their peril. The walls were covered with engravings in a hollow relief; worm-like designs flowing towards representations of skulls and corpses. Unlit torches stood in sconces along the walls and a few bones and scraps of cloth lay upon the floor. Most noticeably, an open portal was on the floor, stairs leading down into the darkness.
“Down there” Barius motioned to the stairwell “We’ll go there. If there’s a way out, we’ll find it, or perhaps a defensible position”. The girl hesitated for a moment, but noted the worm-beasts steadily closing in around the entrance and joined the soldier at the stairs. The pair descended as quickly as feasible given the flickering torchlight . The sinuous wall carvings seemed to pulse and twist in the firelight, adding to the sudden feelings of claustrophobia. The Belgian nearly slammed into Berhta’s back as the woman suddenly halted; staring at the base of the stairs. Bones, bleached white, lay in a layer on the floor below.
The pair moved forward gingerly, moving bones aside with their feet to the best of their abilities, his sandals offering only slightly more protection from the macabre hedgerow than her bare feet. They managed to move through the bone garden to discover that the manmade hall ended a short distance from the stairs, giving way to a smaller, earthen tunnel. Barius did not care for the sudden fear which gripped his heart and would’ve turned back had he not heard the hissing of the things at the top of the stairs. He moved into the tunnel, though both he and the girl had to do so at a crouch. The tunnel was nearly perfectly round and did not seem to have any support for the walls and roof. This did not help Barius with his queasiness, as he noted the tree roots over head and the muddy texture of said roof. It had been raining off and on for the last couple of days and the ground above was thoroughly saturated, making the potential for a cave-in that much greater.
They pushed forward, hunched over, the top of the tunnel leaving them muddy and cold. They came upon a four way intersection in the tunnels. “ Shine your torch here, to the right” Barius whispered. Berhta did so and spoke. “It seems to move upward”. “ Aye, perhaps it goes to the surface?” questioned Barius “We’ll try it and see.” The Belgian took the lead with the German close behind . This tunnel seemed even more narrow than before and leveled out after climbing upward at a gentle angle. The darkness at the edge of the torchlight erupted in hissing ahead of the pair. “Go back!” shouted Barius, but they couldn’t turn in the tunnel’s tight confines. A faint hissing sound had begun behind them, as well. In the torchlight, the legionnaire could make out the glimmer of the creature’s eyes as they shambled forward. It would be next to impossible to use the swords in such tight confines, even thrusting would be difficult with their elbows pinned so closely together.
Barius looked about in desperation. He had no desire to die in this tunnel, having his flesh and muscle melting away into a hellish death bore no appeal for him. Glancing up, he struck upon an idea. Reaching up, he grasped two of the largest roots he could find and he began to heave. He hoped, as the hissing before him grew louder, that the ground was a saturated as it seemed. There was little leverage to be had in the confines of the tunnel, but still he pulled, his iron thews as the earth slowly began to give way. He could barely hear the girl screaming behind him, though she was mere feet behind him, the pounding of his heart sounding like thunder in his ears. Still he pulled until the tree came crashing straight down, nearly crushing him if not for his quickly scrambling out of the way. As he had so desperately hoped, fresh air came wafting down through an opening beside the tree.
“Quickly, up through the hole Berhta!” He went down to one knee and cupped his hands to boost her through the opening. She dropped the torch on the floor of the tunnel and set her foot into his hands. The tree not only provided a means of egress for the two, but also blocked the tunnel from the closest of the creatures. None the less, he pushed her quickly up through the hole, knowing that more of the horrors were coming up behind them. Once he felt Berhta pull herself up through the opening, he quickly began to follow behind her. Placing his sword back in his scabbard, he pulled himself up, the mud and rain slick tree bark making for a treacherous climb. Fighting inch by inch, Barius pulled himself to the surface, his lungs and arms both burned in agonizing exhaustion. A drizzling rain had begun to fall and provided a welcome chill to his aching muscles. He crawled to where Berhta lay next to an oak tree. “Come, let’s put some distance between us and this accursed place”.
They stumbled through the darkened forest until sheer exhaustion forced them to drop, crashing to the ground in each others arms. There they slept, deeply, until dawn broke and the rain ceased. Barius stood, though it required an all out effort to do so. The strain placed on his muscles the night before had taken it’s toll on him. Berhta looked at him. “What are your plans?” she asked. “I’m not sure” he said, kneeling back down beside her “The legions may welcome me back, or they may execute me for desertion. Of course, any number of other empires and kingdoms may pay me for my sword arm.” He looked into her eyes. “What are your plans?” “I’m not sure” she answered” but, I know my plans for now” She then pulled Barius close and began to kiss him.

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