Listener, are you familiar with the sayings of soldiers? They say “A soldier can only be defeated in battle or in bed”. Are they right – who can tell? But no matter where defeat comes, there is a sadder, more terrible saying that encompasses it: Vae victis – Woe to the vanquished!
I have seen these things and I swear to these things, sir, by Mars, by Jupiter the Best and Greatest, and by Mithras, in whose service I hold the rank of Lion – I mention this only in case there are brothers present who can vouch for my honesty, sir. My name is Marcianus Gallo, I am a Roman citizen, an Optio – chosen man – attached to the fourth Flag Unit, second Century of Gaulish Auxiliaries, stationed at Bertha, where the Almond joins the Tay. I beg leave to report, and to state my case.
It happened at the last winter solstice, sir. My unit had lost the lottery and drawn duty manning the watchtowers along the road to the south west, where it runs along an old ridgeway used by the natives for gods know how long. It is straight, like one of our roads, and had been cleared of trees for fifty paces each side, and the tree trunks used for the watchtower stockades.
My boys – my unit, sir – grumbled a bit about missing the celebrations in the native settlement around the camp, but they’re good lads… well, sir, they were good lads, I mean. We all get on well with the natives. It’s easier when the soldiery and the natives pray to the same gods – to Belenos and to Cernunnos and the like – and when the languages are close enough to get by, with a bit of camp Greek and Latin thrown in. At solstice, the natives light great bonfires, sir, and they sing, and dance, and drink, and everyone has a good time. If you ask them why, or what god they are honouring, they’ll shrug, and say it is to keep bad things away – bad thoughts, nightmares, things like that – but they won’t say anything more than that. No, they’ll grab you by the hand and pull you away to dance with them.
Anyway, it was our luck – our fate – to miss out on that, and we marched out of Bertha on the eve of solstice, up over the place they call the Badger’s Den, and on to the ridge road. The boys we were relieving were all smiles, and hurried off back down the road. I split us up into threes, sent most of them on to the other watchtowers with instructions who was to man which one, and I stayed in the first with two of the auxiliaries under my command, sir. Their names? They had Gaulish names, sir, but their Roman names were Rufus – he had red hair, sir – and Aper, the wild boar. Good lads both, sir. I sent them for more wood for the beacon and for our own camp fire, and stood a watch on the step of the palisade.
The last of the returning guard we had relieved marched back along the road – a little more smartly when they saw an Optio was watching them, sir – just as dusk began to fall. I watched the beacons light up further down the road. You can see a long way down the road because of the trees having been felled.
It was a clear night, sir, and while there was still a smear of dirty orange on the horizon, where the sun had gone down, the stars came out like some god had thrown a great handful of road grit into the sky, and the moon shone like a lantern. It was freezing cold, and we wrapped ourselves in our cloaks and stayed close to the fire. Whoever was on watch stood as close to the beacon as he could. We ate a little of our rations – nothing to drink, sir, because no one wants to go to the latrine when it’s that cold! You cant really sleep either, not when it’s that cold, but Rufus and I were propping each other up, back-to-back, and Aper was up on the step, stamping his big feet and blowing on his hands, maybe cursing under his breath, wishing his watch was over and that it was Rufus’ turn. Yes sir, I know, most unsoldierly, but you have to realise that sometimes discipline has to be light when it is cold and there are few of you, and if it kept him awake and alert, I wasn’t going to pull him up. Begging your pardon, sir.
I was getting drowsy, sir, and Rufus was elbowing me to keep me awake – as per my instructions – when I suddenly realised that Aper had gone silent, and wasn’t stamping his feet any more. I thought he had fallen asleep propped against the stockade, when I heard him speak.
“You’d better take a look at this, Boss,” he said… I know sir, but like I said, it’s informal up there on a winter night.
I got up, stretched my aching legs, thought myself a fool for getting stiff and drowsy, and joined him on the step. I looked out to the south west, where he was looking. I couldn’t see anything.
“What am I supposed to be looking at?” I said.
“The dark,” he said, and pointed.
I looked, and then I could see what he meant. It was like an obscuration by fog, sir, but it was like no fog I had ever seen. With fog on a moonlit night, in this part of the Empire, you get a sheen first, as the moonlight reflects back off it. This bank of fog was black as Tartarus. Blacker. It was as though someone had built a wall, or thrown a dark curtain up between us and the stars in a section of the sky.
“I’ve never seen weather like that,” said Rufus, who had joined us on the step, to see what we were looking at.
“I don’t like it,” said Aper. “Is it getting closer?”
We stared and stared at it for several minutes. At one moment, yes, it seemed as though it was moving, at another it seemed stationary. We couldn’t tell, and we couldn’t agree, whether it was a long way off and towering into the sky, or much nearer to us and closer to the ground; but we were staring into the dark at something dark, and our eyes were playing all kinds of tricks on us.
Then Rufus said, “How many beacons should we be able to see from here?”
“Five,” I said. “Why?”
“Count them, Boss,” he said.
I did. There were four beacon fires visible down the straight ridgeway, burning brightly and fiercely against the blackness. Number five should have been in sight, but it wasn’t there. We strained to see it, hoping it was something simple – maybe the lads manning that watchtower had let it go out, and would re-light it in a moment. We waited, and waited, while nothing happened. Then number four suddenly winked out.
We looked at each other, then back towards the south west.
“It’s closer,” said Aper. “I’ll swear I can see fewer stars.”
“If something is happening, like an attack from one of those marauding tribes from the North,” I said. “Then there’ll be a runner back from one of the towers soon. It’s standard drill.”
“Even the wild Picts from the mountains have no magic to make the stars go out,” said Aper.
We waited and watched. No runner came. I wondered whether to send one of them along the road to see what had happened, but they were both peering at the sky, as though they were watching for more stars going out. I didn’t fancy my chances of being obeyed if I gave that order. Rufus and Aper were standing as still as statues. They must have been cold – I was like a block of ice myself – but they gave no sign. They just watched, with their faces turned half upwards, a look on them which was one part attentiveness one part fear, like two hounds sniffing the air for the wolf-scent.
Then the beacon on watchtower number three seemed to flicker. We held our breath, and watched as it faded to an ember, and died. None of us spoke, none of us really knew what to say. I felt that if I broke the silence at that moment, it would not matter what words I said. I could offer no explanation, no encouragement, not even a supplication to the gods. I could not even have brought myself to say what each of us saw and knew, but dared not admit we saw and knew – that the darkness now appeared to fill at least one third of the whole sky, and had crept nearer along the road, and was moving, moving towards us.
The beacon of the second nearest watchtower went out when none of us were looking. One moment it was there, and none of us seemed to have looked away; but then it simply wasn’t there. Rufus gasped, and the sound choked off, gurgling and dying in his throat.
“Lads,” I said, as calmly as I could. “There is an explanation for this. The cloud comes low along this ridge, and heavy rain comes with it. In a few minutes we’ll all be under the canopy in here, watching it drip, watching it put out the beacon.”
“Where there’s rain there’s wind,” said Rufus. “Do you hear any wind.”
“The wind’ll pick up,” I said.
We strained to hear wind, to smell rain on the native pine trees. There was no sound, and the air which we breathed in was freezing cold, and numbed our sense of smell. Then the beacon at the next watchtower disappeared.
“What was that? Did you hear that?” said Aper.
“What? What?” said Rufus, catching at the sleeve of Aper’s tunic and shaking it.
“Quiet – listen!” I hissed.
We thought we caught the sound of a scream.
Maybe all three of us should have run at that moment. We didn’t. We just got down from the stockade step, sat beside our camp fire, and did nothing. We sat there and waited, instead of standing and waiting. None of us dared say the things we were thinking – that the nearest watchtower was only one thousand paces away, and that was how close the darkness was now, closer maybe. I didn’t dare give them any words of encouragement, I didn’t say we’d sit it out, let the darkness pass, and go to find out what had happened at first light. I sat there, struck dumb, between my two soldiers, also struck dumb, feeling as though we were hunched together on a small island of fire-and-beacon light in a great, dark ocean…
Then suddenly Aper sat bolt upright. His sharp ears had caught another sound, and his right hand went to the hilt of his sword. I looked at Rufus, wondering if my face looked as white as his, we began to hear scratchings and low voices outside, and then a scrape, as the gate to the stockade began to inch open.
We scrambled to our feet, pulling out our swords and pointing them towards the gate. We stood shoulder to shoulder, and I shouted – maybe more loudly than I should, and with a bit of an edge to my voice – “Halt! In Caesar’s name, who goes there?”
The gate swung slowly open, and there were two figures standing there, barely lit in the light from our beacon. For a moment it seemed they could have been shades, sent from the Underworld – it was the night for it – as the flickering flames made grotesque shadows on their faces. It was as though their features swam before our eyes for a moment or two, before resolving into something more recognisable – the faces of two young native, a girl and a boy of maybe twenty years of age. They looked cold and frightened, at least the girl did; the boy was huddled under her cloak, leaning against her, his eyes not showing any emotion, barely showing any sign of life at all. For a while we forgot everything else, put our swords away and pulled them inside. Aper put the bar on the gate, while Rufus and I got the two youngsters to sit by our fire and take some of our rations. The girl ate like she was starving, but the boy just mumbled a bit at his food. Rufus is the best of us at the native language, and got names out of them. The girl was Guenhumara, or something that sounded like that. The boy’s name was unpronounceable, but Rufus said it meant Son of the Bear, and he was her brother. Aper laughed, threw an arm round the lad, and declared him his brother too.
“Bear and Boar, that’s what we’ll be, young warrior, eh?” he said, and yes, he got a flicker from the youngster’s eyes and the ghost of a smile.
For a good while, their presence cheered us. We talked. Well, mostly Aper, Rufus, and I talked. We couldn’t get much out of the girl, and nothing out of the boy. She would answer questions with a word or two, and it seemed they had been hurrying up from the next valley, trying to get to Bertha, where their family were, for the celebrations. But they’d got lost somewhere, and found themselves on this ridgeway, in the dark. When Guenhumara ran out of things to say, she was content to show us the metalwork of the brooch, or the carvings on her bead necklace, and to encourage us to talk about our soldiering equipment and weapons. And as we talked, and shared our rations, it felt as though everything was going to be all right. The beacon stayed bright, the camp fire was warm, and even the boy was nodding and smiling a little.
Then there was a lull. I looked up at the sky, to see if I could see any stars, but all I could see was the moon, dimly shining high above us. Then a shadow seemed to spread over it, and its face was hidden. We became silent, and in our silence we heard a sputtering and hissing, and we watched in horror as the beacon fire was extinguished, as though an unseen hand was slowly pouring water onto it. The brightness of our own camp fire dulled to red, and threatened to go the same way as the beacon. Suddenly the girl grabbed the neck of my tunic with both hands, and shook me, crying out in bad Latin.
“Orate ad deorum! Canete! Canete!” she shouted. “Pray to the gods! Sing! Sing!”
She knelt before the fire, started clapping her hands, and singing an absurd little song in her own language. Rufus and Aper picked it up, and I went “La-la-la” with the tune. The boy rocked back and forward in time to his sister’s clapping. The fire flared up, and for a minute or so burned brightly again, and we grinned at each other – forced grins to go along with our singing – willing the fire to stay bright and keep us safe. But the brightness was only short-lived, and soon began to redden and fade. Our singing became desperate. I could hear panic in the girl’s voice, and it felt to me as though a metal band was tightening around the stockade. I knew that the darkness was closing in on us again. Guenhumara’s singing turned to a moaning.
Suddenly the bar on the gate shattered, and it was flung wide open! The last thing I saw as the fire died, was the boy jump to his feet, dash to the opening, and immediately fall backwards like a felled tree. Something… rolled towards the fire… Guenhumara screamed… and everything was black.
I can remember very little else, sir. The darkness pressed on me like a great weight, a living thing, and I thrust and slashed at it with my sword… I’m sure… I think.
They tell me I reached Bertha, alone, babbling like a man demented, just before dawn. They tell me I had gashes on my legs, which I suppose I must have got scrambling up and over the stockade in my panic, and scratches all over my face and hands, from tree branches ripping at me. I had one great gash on my neck, which no one can explain, sir. Look, you can see the scar from it. I told the Centurion and everyone what I remembered, and in the morning he marched me, under escort, up to the ridgeway to investigate. There was no sign of anyone in any of the watchtowers – the men were all recorded as deserters – except in the one from which I had escaped. There they found the bodies of two auxiliary soldiers and two young natives.
The heads were missing from all four bodies, sir.
I told everyone I hadn’t done it, sir, but there was blood on my sword, and they didn’t believe me. I know you don’t either, sir. I knew from the start you wouldn’t. But it is all true, I swear, by Mars, and by Jupiter, and by Mithras the soldiers’ god. Sir, I am not a coward, no matter what they say. Send me now to a battle, order me to charge alone into the thick of the enemy and die a soldier’s death, and I will do it. Even, if I must, sir, I can face the shameful death of being stoned by my comrades. I am not afraid, sir. Death will blank out the memory of that awful darkness that pressed in on me, that night at the watchtower. It was a darkness of terrible power. It robbed me of my name, of all my memories, all knowledge of sunshine, the power of speech, of thought itself, and replaced them all, sir, with fear… total, utter fear. I felt in my head, rather than heard in my ear, terrible words repeated and repeated….
Woe to the vanquished… woe… woe… to the… vanquished… sorry sir… can’t stop the tears, sir…
Listener, it is nothing to you that many lifetimes ago, a forgotten soldier was executed for cowardice and murder. Much of the old, straight road he matched along is now under your hard, grey asphalt, and the fierce headlights of you car push back the thickest darkness. But there is a point where your road turns left, and if, on a clear night in midwinter, you are tempted to stop by the wooden gate, and take to footpath which runs straight along the Gask Ridge, just to see the bright stars without the ghastly glare of your town lights, make sure it is not the one night of the year when it is the custom to sing and make merry in your towns and villages. If you do not, it is not stars you will see, but utter darkness, and you will hear those words “Woe to the vanquished… woe.. woe to the vanquished.”. For I am She Who Walks The Ridge, on the longest night of the year. The solstice… is Mine!
©Marie Marshall 2008-2020
Yes, I know the story is more appropriate to midwinter, but I couldn’t resist telling it to you.
The image is a detail from an illustration by the late Ron Embleton.