The last breaths of morning mist whispered over Northern Britannia. In its wake, the wall of Emperor Antoninus Pius traced a ridge of green and grey across the land. Autumnal sunlight examined every fissure in the tumbling ruin. Dead centre of the wall, an oak yawned from the crumbled foundations, its golden canopy bathing the grass around the gnarled trunk in a semi-shade. The mist in the defensive ditch below swirled as a shape emerged from its depths.
Cawing pierced the air as an alarmed crow took flight from its nest, sending a shower of brown leaves groundward. A stooped figure hobbled from the greyness. He glanced up, his hewn grey locks sliding back to reveal a face scored with a quarry of crags and scars. Dressed only in plaid breeches, his knotted arms were entwined with tattoos from wrist to shoulder, a bronze torc clung to his neck and his chest writhed with a myriad jangling animal tooth necklaces. His gnarled staff quivered and his wheezing grew laboured as he inched up the banking towards a hollow at the base of the oak. Resting a hand on the trunk, the sinews of his arm trembled as he turned, slumping back into a hollow, his lungs rattling in protest.
Relaxing into a gentle pant, his shoulders sagged and his head drooped. A long walk for an old man, he thought. The heroics of Urcal had faded with his youth and vigour; just another old Pict wandering this mongrel country, he mused. He raised his head to catch the breeze, so cold his nostrils stung, yet he drank it in and traced his gaze slowly across the landscape. The hazel of his eyes swallowed up his pupils and his face fell expressionless.
So different, he thought. The wall territory had riddled his youth, yet he barely recognised the landscape. Nature had consumed what had once been a defiant bulwark of man. Pockets of forestation punctuated the gentle green curves, brown bracken and purple heather. Stumps of timber poked from the ground at regular intervals like rotten teeth where watchtowers had once stood, The colonies of soldiers who had patrolled the wall like ants were probably long-dead now, if not by the sword then time itself would surely have claimed them.
How many seasons had passed? Yet Urcal saw it all still, clear as the morning sunshine, as if it was right in front of him, today. Life had been good once, before the darkness of that night so long ago. The breeze changed direction, bringing the scent of change; a blend of sweet life inevitably losing the battle against the crisp autumnal chill.
The growth in his side flared in a searing agony and he gripped it, remembering why he had come back to the wall.
‘So fragile,’ he whispered as his eyes glazed.
A bitter smoke permeated the air around the smelting works as a rhythmic clang of iron upon iron rang out in the summer haze. Interlaced was the chop, chop, chop of woodcutters who fed a train of mule carts with raw timber. So much going on in every direction; the Roman military machine together with his Pictish tribesmen sweating through every moment of daylight on the new wall. So close to completion and the safety that would bring.
A column of Roman legionaries snaked into the compound, and Urcal could not tear his gaze from them: shining vests of segmented armour over wine-red tunics and half-hidden behind those vividly decorated shields. He craned his neck and stretched his legs as he tried to keep stride with them – still barely waist high to the shortest one. The trailing soldier cast a stony glance down at him. Urcal puffed his chest out and tried his best to copy the cold expression – but was jolted out of his stride as the centurion barked in the jagged Latin tongue. The column set off at a jog towards the temporary barracks and Urcal slowed to watch them in awe, his mind turning over as he tried to recall what the Latin words meant. Then he felt the tugging on his tunic tail accompanied by a frail voice.
‘Urcal, your supper is ready. It’s roast mutton.’
He smiled; fiery little Isla was a year younger than him yet she behaved more like his mother than his sister at times. Mutton was a tasty offering though. His mouth watered as he weighed up his options.
‘Say it in Latin and I might,’ he chirped, brushing at her hand but still eyeing the column of soldiers. Each child had been given a Roman name in today’s class, and Urcal puffed his chest out as he remembered with a glint in his eye, ‘And call me Vosenios!’
‘That was just a game, Urcal, now come home! Mother’s been busy all day cooking; father is exhausted. He’ll beat you if you’re late to eat again!’
‘It’s more than a game, Isla. Vibius has seen how tribes like ours become Roman!’ He sighed, ruffling his sister’s curls. ‘See you later. I promise I’ll be in before dark.’ He turned from her and scrambled up the ridge to the youth oak sprouting near the peak, ignoring his sister’s frustrated groan as he did so.
He flipped round onto a branch where he could see it all: The length of the wall stretching off to the western horizon, flanked by two different worlds: fortified order on the clear south side and the dark peaty scar of the ditch on the wild and overgrown north side. Legionaries strolled the battlements, gazing into the wild woods. Urcal dreamt of being up there with them, the first line of defence against the northern unknown. The tribes roamed amongst the trunks and branches, painted blue; sons of the war god Nudons, his father would say of them, good only for killing one another. They chose their path and we chose ours, he would insist. A shiver of fear and excitement at once wriggled up his spine as he wondered how many of them watched from the trees in silence like wolves as this last section of the wall was put in place.
All efforts were now being poured into this central meeting point, where the two main detachments of the army had been working to from east and west. The fort to the north had taken shape earlier in the season, just as harvest had been reaped, providing a stationary vanguard to protect the final stages of construction. Completing the square enclosure and barracks saw the Roman legate issue double rations to not only the soldiers, but also to the tribes, relieving them of taxes for the next moon to boot. It was that night of feasting when he watched his mother and father sit around the fire with the tribe and the soldiers to eat, drink and banter. One people that night, he nodded in satisfaction.
If only he could walk the wall. His eyes grew misty as he dreamt of the day he could join the Roman soldiers – Vosenios the legionary!
Urcal’s face creased into a smile. A thick lock of grey whipped round and across his glassed eyes as the wind picked up. He sighed as the memories swirled; the short spell when life was sweet. Then a cracking of twigs jolted him back to reality; traffic on the southern road.
He craned round to look down the ridge, where the vegetation had not quite consumed the flagstones of the road running adjacent. The tip of a man’s head was all he could make out, so he ignored his creaking joints to twist around and sit up on his knees. A cart had slowed to a standstill.
‘Here, mother, we can eat here and play, too!’ A young, fair haired boy called out, leaping from the back of the cart. There his mother kneeled, gathering up a collection of satchels and an amphora with one hand, while a tiny baby wriggled on the other, clutching at her mother’s long strands of blonde.
‘Slow down Minucius,’ their father chuckled. Swarthy and pointed, no doubt this man was Roman, Urcal mused. He wore a faded red tunic and the tell-tale sword belt of a man of the legions. Then he noted the gleaming helmet sat atop a pile of armour on the cart; this was no low rank soldier, no, the plume said it all. Urcal watched, wide-eyed, as the family unpacked a spread of what looked like cheese, bread and oil onto a brown woollen blanket by the roadside.
‘Minucius, don’t go up there!’ the father barked as his boy scrambled up the turf of the wall base, only a few hundred paces from Urcal in his snug.
‘But father,’ he tried to protest, pointing to the peak. ‘You said the emperor is coming to make the wall part of the empire again!’
Urcal felt a bolt of adrenalin shoot through his veins – what had the boy said?
‘Don’t question your father,’ his mother chided, pouring watered wine into a set of pewter chalices. ‘We’re only stopping for a little while and it’s not safe to wander around, especially over there.’
‘But why?’ The boy moaned, trudging back down the slope, his head hung in disappointment.
Urcal’s face lengthened; why? His heart leadened as he sensed the innocence of the young Roman. His eyes fell to his staff, finely carved and polished along its length, but mottled and gouged at the handle where once an eagle’s head had been. Surely the boy was wrong, surely, he prayed. He bowed his head, his thoughts swam. A bell pealed rhythmically through the mist of memory.
‘Tell us a story!’ Urcal yelled over the hubbub and the dying peal of the bell.
Vibius was silent, his arms folded and his lips sealed under his white beard as his class ran riot around him: the tribe’s children rolled in the grass, a sea of fighting and laughter in the summer haze. Urcal gripped the edge of his timber bench, brow furrowed, feet tapping, frowning at his friends and at Vibius’ stubborn refusal to speak. Only a precious short while each day was allowed for the teachings of the old Roman, and they were being wasted, wasted!
Vibius raised an eyebrow wistfully as the chaos around him only grew more raucous. The summer sun was at its zenith and the old man’s shining pate already glowed red. At last he succumbed and Urcal stifled a cheer as the old man finally moved, strolling behind the tree stump to set up his teaching materials. He crouched, rummaging in his large canvas satchel. Then the tutor’s face lit up as he slid out a shield, a full legionary shield sparkling in red painted images of the eagle. Gasping, Urcal glanced around at his friends, all completely oblivious in their horseplay. Vibius grinned as he pulled a Roman sword from the satchel, took it by the hilt and smashed it against the iron boss in the centre of the shield front rapidly. Immediately, the children snapped to attention and just as quickly silence fell like a stone.
‘The gladius,’ Vibius spoke gently, lofting the sword above his head, squinting at the glare of the sun’s rays shimmering from its surface. ‘The weapon of the legions.’
‘With this, the legionaries ….. attack!’ he hissed, lunging forward suddenly. A fit of screams and then giggles swelled and died as the children parted like water from the sword thrust. He paced backwards, sweeping his wispy white locks back behind his ears eyeing the engrossed faces. ‘But without… this,’ he pulled the shield snugly around his body, ‘the great wars would not have been won…..and the empire would not be.’ Only the gladius in his right hand and his darting eyes showed from behind the bulk of the shield.
To a child, his class now gazed open-mouthed in intrigue. Not a breath pierced the air – only the distant clinking of the faraway smelting works was to be heard. At this, Vibius lowered the shield and sword to the ground.
‘And now that I have your attention,’ he grinned, ‘let us proceed with today’s class.’
The tutor rummaged again in his satchel.
‘Who would like to practice with Roman weapons?’ He held up a set of miniature, lighter shields and wooden swords. Like a field of corn, every hand in the class shot up and the silence exploded with the cries of thirty children.
‘Very well, two at a time,’ he sighed, ushering the beanpole Talorc and relatively squat Uval forward. The mismatched children danced around each other, immediately clashing their wooden swords, the shields hanging loosely by their sides. Vibius shook his head and muttered.
‘Who can tell me how big the Roman Empire is?’ he asked, circling the play-fight while addressing his class.
‘It stretches as far as the eye can see!’ a voice called.
‘That’s big, but think bigger. Much bigger!’ Vibius enthused, stooping and spreading his arms wide like an eagle.
‘All the way to Rome!’ Another voice cried.
‘Indeed it does, but it does not end there,’ Vibius nodded and then raised an eyebrow, looking for more.
‘All the way to Rome,’ Urcal ventured, his mouth shrivelling like parchment as he spoke, ‘and then as far away again.’ He shrunk and his skin burned as all eyes of his classmates fell upon him in a silence only disturbed by the tap tapping of the wooden swordplay. He stared intently at his feet.
‘Good, Urcal. And very close.’ Vibius picked up his staff and flicked it in between the clashing of the swords, stopping the fight dead. ‘Gather round, children,’ he beckoned, crouching to the dusty ground.
Urcal panted in relief as the attention lifted from him, then rushed forward into the bustle to get a better view.
Vibius tapped the ground with his staff – a finely carved piece of wood with a beautiful eagles head handle – making a dot in the dust. ‘This,’ he pointed, ‘is everything.’ The children’s faces fell blank. ‘Everything you see here, around you, above you. From the valley to the south and the hills which meet the sky, to the white-tipped mountains to the north.’ The children glanced to one another, bemused. Vibius strode five paces away. ‘And here,’ he beckoned, stabbing another dot in the dust, ‘is Rome!’
Urcal’s eyes remained fixed on the tip of the staff as Vibius’ map took shape. The tutor shuffled carefully around Rome, tracing out the shoreline of Italy, then hobbled off to outline lands Urcal could only guess of.
‘And, the Middle Sea,’ he grunted, drawing waves in the central section. ‘So, how did my ancestors get from Rome, all the way over here,’ he cried dramatically, taking exaggerated steps to the first dot, ‘to this green land?’
Urcal’s eyes darted across the possible routes from Rome to the tribe. It seemed like too far for anyone to travel, surely – like chasing the horizon. And then there was a huge stretch of water between them, too!
‘The Legions swept from the heartland of Rome hundreds of years ago, pushing the boundaries of Rome outwards in all directions. First the Etruscans, then the Samnites, then the Greeks of southern Italy came under her sway. Soon though, the jewel of Carthage, the wilds of Gaul and the parched lands of the Egyptians followed,’ the childrens heads followed Vibius’ cane as he dotted the map with each location.
‘And long ago, more generations than you can count on your hands…’Vibius raised an eyebrow and nodded in satisfaction to see the children mouthing the numbers of each of their fingers, ‘we came here. Beautiful Caledonia!’
‘What happened to the armies of these people, did they not fight?’ Urcal ventured, knowing the answer.
‘Indeed, young Urcal,’ Vibius nodded, his face growing longer, ‘Rome has shed much blood in the name of empire, too much blood. Indeed blood was shed between Rome and your people…at first.’ The children settled down, sensing the mood dampen. ‘The ideals of Roman life together with a tolerance for the ways of others could have been enough to grow Rome. Though maybe not as swiftly or to be as vast as some would have liked. Unfortunately, empire does not sit well with patience and virtue.’
‘But look around you, children,’ Vibius swept an arm over the works going on up and down the wall. ‘A fine initiative that has come together only because our peoples have managed to put their differences to one side and work together for the greater good. We have order, law, trading and a common wealth.’
‘And what about us?’ Urcal croaked, his throat dried again to dust. The children gave a flurry of muffled gasps. ‘The Verturiones working on the wall, did our elders fight?’
‘Now, now, children,’ Vibius pushed his palms down rhythmically, ‘Urcal asks the natural question that I am sure many of you had in mind. The people of the Verturiones are diverse in their way of life, as are the people of the empire. Your elders chose a path of peace with Rome, one which flourishes more vibrant with every heartbeat.’
Urcal felt his brow knitting again. He knew of the squabbles which plagued the meetings of the elders: the tribe had broken from the main body of the Verturiones and submitted to peace given an alternative only of bloodshed and inevitable slavery, but their northern kin remained in great number and in defiant opposition to Rome.
‘Sadly, we remain at an unstable juncture in our relationship,’ Vibius sighed, gazing into Urcal’s eyes. ‘The brothers of your tribe, they chose to….’ he stopped, his eyes shot to the watchtower. The war bugles sang and the Roman troops scrambled to the defensive ramparts.
The keening of the bugles faded and Urcal was dragged back to reality with a wave of fiery agony; the growth in his side now burned intolerably. He clasped his hand over the searing pain, feeling the solid mass and grimacing at the bitter tang of blood in his mouth from its latest eruption. He made to lift his satchel instinctively and then withdrew and then swallowed in agony as he remembered – he had been called a fool for refusing the soothing paste of the shaman, but every man’s time must come, he thought. Three bouts of this already since he woke this morning. Wincing as he waited for the pain to ebb, Urcal heard something over the ringing in his ears. Not the war bugles, this was a noise even more terrifying.
It was faint at first. Urcal stood up in spite of his pain, craning to scan the northern horizon. The land writhed; dark shapes poured over the hills in their hundreds. The Picts were raiding, and speeding towards the wall like wolves.
The wind whistled in his ears as he watched. As the breeze changed direction, the feint keening of the war horn sounded again. His eyes stared straight through their number. Countless seasons had come and gone since he last ran with the warbands, a time when the bitterness flowed like an acid in his veins and his sins were paraded as heroism – a revenge that proved insatiable for so long.
A vanguard of Picts broke ahead of the warband. Only four of them, he counted, but they would be here on the wall in a few hundred paces. Echoes of the child’s laughter carried on unabated from behind him: a family eating a meal in the sunshine, oblivious to the cutthroats closing in upon them rapidly – sheltered from the sound of the war horn, ironically by the wall ridge, the great protective shield of Rome.
Three of the vanguard slowed as they reached the ditch and made to leap into it and scale the wall ridge. The fourth barked an order and they wheeled round to gather behind him, hissing their dissent. The fourth man ignored them, slowing to a stalking pace, gesturing over the ridge in silence. He was the leader, no doubt, given his shock of limed hair and proliferation of tattoos. A young man, Urcal thought, he would have much still to prove to his kinsmen – the more blood he could spill, the better his prospects. Urcal eyed the blue etchings covering his own arms, nothing to prove now, and then returned a harder gaze on the raiders.
His eyes bobbed, tracking their movement, but his mind saw the family – innocent and unaware of the long buried blood and flesh they sat upon, blood of his kin, blood of the Romans. He grimaced as another lance of fiery agony ripped through his midriff and he sank back into the hollow of the tree, his teeth chattering violently through the steely wash in his mouth. Not long to go now. His eyes glassed over as the Picts stalked up to the rubble of the wall, squatting behind the tumbled remains of a watchtower. Their leader raised his head to scan the grounds on the southern side of the wall, just as a squeal of children’s laughter leapt from the family. Urcal closed his eyes and shook his head as his mind swam again. Another screaming. In the dead of night.
The ground rumbled and a chorus of screams ripped past the hut in the darkness. Urcal sat bolt upright in his straw bed, rubbed his eyes and gaped at the dimness of his home. Another chorus of muffled cries stumbled past the doorway; this was no nightmare.
‘Mother, Father?’ He called. Nothing. His eyes darted over the three empty beds around him, blankets folded neatly. His heart hammered and panic twisted his thoughts: he had fallen asleep alone, hoping his parents would be pleased with him when they returned from the wall works. How long ago had that been? Surely Isla would be inside now, regardless?
His lungs ached as he snatched at his breath and his skin burned as panic sunk its claws deep inside him. Have to find someone, anyone, he realised. Scrabbling for the doorway across the packed earth floor, he shattered the neat stack of his mother’s best pewter pots against the hearth. The deadliest of sins any other time, he hopped over the destruction without a second thought to pull at the thick layers of hide curtain over the doorway. The gentle chill of the summer night’s air bathed him. No sign of the usual torchlight, but a strong reek of woodsmoke carried in the breeze. Coming from the wall, he thought. He stood up to face the wind, eyeing the ghostly band of orange hanging in the air over the wall zone. Then he heard it. Quietly at first, so quiet he was not sure, but then again: Screaming, crying, pleading.
The wind died like a stone dropping, and Urcal strained his eyes in the instant of silence – longing to see his family strolling back to their home safely. Then a noise, animal-like, from the blackness behind him sent ice dancing across his soul. Ducking back into his doorway he saw it: the figure of a man being bundled forward across the open hearth of the village centre, stumbling through the ashes, his hands bound. It was Drostan the farmer.
Two Roman legionaries appeared behind him, grappled at his arms and heaved him from his knees, his muffled pleas unheeded. In their torchlight, Drostan’s swollen face sparkled with sweat, his eyes closed over and blackened. Urcal bit into his forearm to stifle a cry.
‘Trista!’ Drostan croaked, spluttering dust from his throat. ‘Trista!’ He cried this time. Urcal felt ice in his veins.
‘Shut up, you animal,’ one Roman soldier hissed, cracking his sword hilt across Drostan’s jaw. His body crumpled, his head dangled limply and his legs trailed as the troopers heaved him forward and up the path.
Urcal shrank back at the menace twisting the soldiers’ faces, scrabbling inside. His heart skipped and his stomach heaved as they thudded over to his hut. Right outside, their footsteps halted. His lungs froze mid breath.
‘This one’s out cold, he’ll be no trouble now. Get another! ‘ One voice called. Urcal recognised the lilting accent – that of the Syrian recruits who had arrived at the wall at the last full moon. ‘Saves another trip back down here. We need all the swords we can get up front.’
Urcal felt around the dirt floor of the hut, his fist clasped around a long shard of pewter. Fragile but rapier-like at the shattered end, he clasped the smooth end tightly.
‘This isn’t right,’ the voice of the other trooper muttered.
‘I didn’t ask you whether it was right; just do it and keep your mouth shut!’ The Syrian snapped. Urcal felt his way backwards in the darkness of his home, his legs buckling in fear as he backed into the dirt wall. Nowhere to run. A hand grappled at the hide curtain and whipped it back. A silhouetted giant filled the doorway even as he crouched to enter. At once the hut flooded with the brilliant light of the crackling torch, shadows dancing across the rocky features of the legionary. Urcal slid around the wall, stumbling over pewter and gashing his legs. Pure instinct took control as he raised his makeshift weapon towards the blurry figure of the Roman. The light hung in the inky black pupils of the legionary, dilated in shock.
‘I…..’ the soldier stammered.
Urcal felt tears burn his cheeks. ‘What’s happening? Where are my parents?’ he sobbed, his chest shuddering.
The soldier gazed at him, frozen in the doorway, his hands bloody.
Urcal felt his fear boil into rage, his teeth ground together and a wolf-like growl rose from within him. Like a murky nightmare, he leapt for the Roman, his pewter shard extended to strike, and the Roman’s face flashed with alarm.
In an instant, Urcal felt the wind knocked from him as he crashed to the floor. He winced at a sharp pain in his wrist as the legionary grasped his hand. The shard fell to the dirt.
‘In the name of Mars, lad! Do you want to get yourself killed?’ The soldier frowned as his words tailed off.
Urcal cocked his head to the doorway and the hearth outside, Drostan’s blood still staining the ashes. ‘Do I have a choice?’
The legionary dropped his eyes to the ground in shame and then began raking his face with his club-like fingers. ‘This is madness,’ he murmured.
Urcal eyed the doorway, but as he steadied himself for a break, the legionary snapped back to alertness, his face reddened with irritation.
‘Come on,’ he barked, wrenching Urcal up by the neck of his tunic to drag him out into the night.
Through the tears, Urcal again saw the glow hovering above the wall zone – bigger now, eating into the night sky. As he was bundled along, the screaming grew louder. And then he heard a gruff howling and the beating of sword upon shield. The unmistakable war cry.
‘Picts?’ he yelped. ‘There are Picts attacking the wall?’
‘It’s your kind, lad. Verturiones. Wiped out the fort to the north they have, killed every one of my brothers. And don’t play innocent – your lot have clearly been in league with them,’ he growled, shoving Urcal forward again.
‘Why, why would we? You’ve got it wrong, you have to believe that,’ Urcal gasped, spinning around to face the giant. ‘Ask my father, ask the elders!’
The soldier grunted, shaking his head as his shoulders sagged.
Urcal stopped ‘Where are they?’
‘They’re at the wall. It’s too late for them.’ The soldier spoke, softer this time, and he slowed.
‘Too late…..?’ Urcal whimpered, his mind racing.
The soldier looked around carefully, his eyes searched the blackness, and then he frowned, crouching. Urcal saw only conflict in his eyes as they gazed at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
‘This is all wrong,’ the legionary spoke at last. ‘Go east,’ he pointed into the darkness. ‘Listen to me, lad,’ he growled, shaking Urcal by the shoulders. ‘Go as fast as you can run, and don’t stop. The wall garrison is thin about a half day from here,’ he stopped, raising an eyebrow as he scanned Urcal’s tiny form. ‘Make that a full day.’
‘My mother, my father,’ Urcal whimpered, shooting a glance towards the glow of the wall.
‘Don’t go there or you will die,’ the soldier cut in, his voice flat. With that, he turned and strode into the blackness.
Urcal’s stomach swam. An insidious chill bit at him as he contemplated the chaos up ahead and then the dark void to the east. Only the dull roar of battle existed for him. Safety to the east could wait.
Urcal’s knees cracked in protest as he stood, the wind lifting his grey locks. His heart thumped, awakened like an animal crawling from hibernation. He reached down to his scabbard – unused for many seasons now – as he watched as the Pictish scouts drop over the wall without a sound. His fingers flexed on the sword hilt, but his legs remained rooted to the spot.
He closed his eyes, tried to shut out the reality. Then the silence exploded with a chorus of war cries, met by a terrible screaming. Iron clashed upon iron, and a woman’s voice pierced the air. “Run, Minucius, run!’
The fleshy tumor flared and agony ripped through his veins. In his mind he felt the panic of that dark night and the light, rapid patter of his footsteps.
Urcal’s legs leadened and his sprint had slowed to stumble. Each burning breath now came with the tang of battle smoke as all around him, soldiers rallied to the ramparts, while tribesmen scrambled in confusion. Some appeared to be helping douse fires on the watchtower, only to be seized and dragged to the ramparts by the legionaries; others who understood the full horror of the situation swiped at the soldiers with clubs and tools.
Urcal approached the southern ridge of the wall, when a pounding rhythm of hooves burst from the blackness behind him. He threw himself into the brush, clear of the trail just as the Roman cavalry detachment raced past and straight into a rabble of resisting Verturiones. The screams tore at him; his ears ached at the hacking which followed. His mind numbed as faces of his kin dropped to the earth, lifeless and soaked in blood. He ran to the oak and scrambled up to the branch, cloaked by a thatch of leaves, panting as the anarchic scene assaulted his senses all at once. He gagged and a torrent of bitter bile flowed onto the trunk in front of him.
To the north, the land was ablaze with torchlight, woad and iron – a sea of Picts swelled against the wall. Waves of them raced at its foundations, throwing up timber ladders and raining slingshot on the legionaries packing the battlements. The thin band of Roman legionaries and the wall itself wavered like a thin dam of twigs in a raging river, battered endlessly by the onrushing torrent. His gut shrivelled when he saw the train of villagers being herded to the battlements. There they were lined up as a terrible rain of slingshot and spears hammered down on them. Screaming and gurgling, they fell, but the hail slowed grudgingly as the Picts realised they were killing their own kind. Then the Romans would simply usher up another batch of villagers like cattle. He turned his eyes away, his stomach shrivelling to bring up what was not there.
He blinked over the scene to the south of the wall: all along the paved military way, the skirmishing of the Romans and their allies spilled chaotically back and forth, leaving a dark wash in its wake.
Then a shrill and familiar voice rang out above the others.
‘By the gods, stop!’ called the solitary figure of old Vibius as he pushed and blocked his way between the Pictish villagers and the maddened legionaries surrounding them, swords drawn. Urcal gulped as he watched the tutor: white robes spattered crimson, arms and staff raised like a shield across the villagers.
‘Have you lost your minds?’
‘Orders, you old fool.’ The centurion barked. ‘They’ve aided their kind to come at us from the north. Use your eyes, there are thousands of them! We use them as a shield until reinforcements arrive from the south or we die, it’s as simple as that. Now move aside or you will not be spared.’
Vibius’ face stiffened as he thrust out his white beard.
‘Have it your way,’ the centurion spoke, ‘Take them!’
As one, the thick circle of villagers crushed together, and a wail poured from them. Urcal sobbed, his fists clenched like rocks, fear had left him now.
‘No!’ he heard himself sob over and over again. Then the sob became a roar.
Only then, as he slid down the tree and on down the ridge towards them, did he see the faces of his mother and Isla, gripping each other in the centre of the rabble, their eyes shut tight in acceptance of their fate.
‘Kill any we can’t take to the wall, don’t leave anyone at our backs!’ The centurion barked, butting his men into the fray. Vibius was pushed to the ground and trampled over as the legionaries coiled around their prey like a hungry snake.
‘You must not!’ Vibius croaked as Urcal leapt over him, charging straight at the back of the legionary pack.
Urcal winced at the look of horror in the old man’s eyes, but fury carried him on. Balling his fists, he crouched to spring on the back of the centurion – but a sharp pain across his shins and the thwack of wood on bone brought him crashing into the dirt next to Vibius. The old man rose to his feet unsteadily, tucking his cane in underneath him.
‘Don’t throw your life away. Run,’ he pleaded, scooping Urcal under the arms back to his feet and then pushing him back from the fray.
‘Mother,’ Urcal wailed as he wheeled round Vibius, blind to the danger. His legs froze and his eyes locked on the bloody heap in the dirt. ‘Mother?’ The still and bloodied figure cradled the lifeless form of his sister. All around, the legionaires dragged those left alive to the wall and screaming shook the air. The centurion turned, his eyes resting on Urcal, malice wiping a smile across his face.
‘Urcal,’ Vibius called gently, placing a hand on his shoulder. ‘Honour your people by staying alive.’
‘Father?’ Urcal trembled.
‘Your father lives on in you,’ Vibius croaked. Urcal gazed up into the old man’s eyes, welling and glassy. ‘There is no time, you must go now,’ the tutor spoke, his gaze hardened. Urcal felt his limbs hang limp and his soul crumble. He looked up slowly to the approaching centurion.
Vibius winced, pushing Urcal away. ‘Take my staff to defend yourself. Strike anyone who tries to stop you….go!’
‘Nice catch, old man,’ the centurion sneered, reaching down to grapple Urcal. ‘We’ve got a job for you, lad.’
Urcal saw straight through the hulk of a man to the bloodied heap on the ground. Only the throbbing of blood filled his ears. He whipped the solid staff from Vibius’ hands and like a striking cobra, smashed the eagle head handle into the centurion’s neck.
Blinking, the centurion touched where the finely carved point of the beak had torn through him, then raised his fingertips to examine the arterial lifeblood soaking them and his entire forearm. Confusion rippled his features, clearly greying even in the flicker of torchlight. He sunk to his knees. Urcal kept his face devoid of fear as he ripped the staff free, sending a jet of blood upwards from the haemorrhaging wound. The centurion collapsed.
Face stained red, Urcal stepped backwards. Vibius’ gaped at his pupil, his eyes saucer-like.
‘Your people should leave our land,’ Urcal trembled, stepping back out of the light, ‘For your own sakes.’
The earth jostled in front of Urcal as he pitched his ailing body across the gnarled turf. He could not remember when he began running; he only knew that he would not stop now, not for anything. He slid his sword out with a whoosh, and his blood boiled as bitter memory and the tumour tore at him from within. With a single vault he cleared the stumpy foundations of the wall, his limbs innervated with a youth-like elasticity, one last burst. Thudding onto the other side, he crouched, scanning the scene below like a preying hawk.
The Roman danced an impossible defence around his wife and daughter; both huddled together in a pile of robes and fiery hair. Three Picts jabbed and hacked at his weakening parries, and his limbs ran red with blood. Isolated on the other side of the cart, the son had taken up a staff and swished its weight around him clumsily as the fourth Pict danced around the blows, taunting, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
The screaming gouged at Urcal’s mind as he flicked his sword from hand to hand, breathing in short gasps. Yes, the Romans had paid dearly over the years for their treatment of the Verturiones, he thought. Families just like this he had slain in a rage; families just like his own but for their culture. The salty tang of tears stung his lips and his vision blurred. Enough blood, he asked himself? And whose blood here would cleanse his soul?
Catching his sword firmly in one hand, he glanced at the celtic curves of the ornate handle and then at the barely recognisable eagle’s beak on the tip of his staff. Urcal hoisted both high and raced downhill. The war cry exploded from his chest, the roar silencing the agony from his tumour, and his mind cleared for the first time in so, so long. The Picts stumbled backwards, toppling over – mouths agape. The Roman threw up his arms to shield his family, eyes wide in terror. The Picts thrust up their sword flats in panic.
Urcal unleashed his rage.
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