The following morning, we broke the camp and marched away from the site of the battle. The scouts had reported a wider, more open hilltop that we might use to build a camp and from which we could scout and easily defend the country for miles around. I immediately wanted to claim the place in the name of Rome and the wise and just Emperor Traianus.
The hill that the scouts found was outside of the forest. Wide and with a flat top, it overlooked a broad valley. The brown ribbon of a road ran through the valley's floor, and the vantage from the top of the hill allowed one to view the entirety of the road from where it emerged from the forest's dark edge until it curved out of sight several leagues to the north and west. In the distance, the dark, implacable faces of the mountains overlooked the entire valley like stoic, ancient gods watching the course of history pass before them.
We immediately established a camp upon the crown of the hill. As soon as camp had been established, we began to build fortifications upon the top of the hill. In addition to drawing out the attackers from the Dacian cities, we were to help establish supply lines for the assault on the capital and feeder cities by the larger force that the Emperor Traianus would be dispatching across the Danubius soon.
The men, well-trained and disciplined, immediately began breaking into companies. Some of the men dug ditches, both for defense and for foundations for a palisade that would help secure the camp and the top of the hill. Others moved down the road and into the forest where they began felling trees. Others were preparing the lumber that had been harvested and still others were firing it and moving it into position. By evening, the beginning of a crude fortification had been erected.
In the morning, I dispatched scouts to explore the wider valley. I sent a handful of messengers back to where we had crossed the Danubius to give word of our victory and to send the news that we would be securing the valley and preparing the course for the supply lines for the army. I requested another small force be dispatched to help secure the route we had already crossed so that the Dacians could not move in behind us and sever our ties with the civilized world.
I also dispatched small infantry units to ensure the security of the valley. We had not killed all of the Dacians that had attacked us two days earlier, and if they regrouped they could perhaps muster an attack against our position before we were completely fortified.
Occasionally, merchants would be seen on the roads. We would stop them, searching their wagons to ensure that they were not harboring soldiers. If they were compliant, if they did not argue or try to hinder us, we would let them go. Most of them were poor farmers moving some shriveled vegetables or fruits to some unknown market in a nearby village that we had not come across in our explorations.
However, if they argued with us...it was the final thing they ever did.
More rare than the merchants were the riders that would sometimes try to gallop past our position. Those who were not cut down with arrows were ridden down. If they fought, they were killed, but those who were subdued were brought back to the camp as prisoners. As we were not a large force, the prisoners would be questioned and then put to death, far away from the camp so that their shades would not cling to the area and haunt us.
From time to time, the infantry units or the scouts would come across small bands of soldiers that they would battle. Any surviving enemy units were captured and brought back to the camp where they were questioned and dispatched in the same way as the riders.
Every day our soldiers would range further afield from our position, scouting and mapping the area. Every day they would return with more reports of soldiers being seen further away from our encampment, but there were no details of major army units in the area. We had taken and secured the area; it was as good as Roman.
Nearly two weeks after we had claimed the hilltop and had captured the valley and secured it, a most curious thing occurred. The morning was clear and bright. I was standing atop the hill, surveying the land around and the work that had been completed on the fortifications. Everything seemed to be progressing easily and well: two wide ditches had been dug around the base of the hill to slow attacking enemies, the walls were slowly but surely being built, and the hillside itself was being staked. The archers were restocking their supply of arrows that had been spent during the battle within the woods.
That is when I spied a single figure upon the road emerging from the woods and slowly, yet surely, moving toward us. I sent three men on horseback and, within seconds, they had surrounded the figure. It seemed that they spoke briefly before turning and returning to the hill. The figure walked, albeit slowly, amongst the soldiers. They picked their way up the hillside, and I could see that the figure was a man.
As he approached, I saw that he was old. Perhaps old does not describe him. He looked as ancient as the hills that surrounded us. Snowy white hair hung around his shoulders, emerging from beneath the brim of a wide, black hat. Above his mouth was an equally wispy, equally white moustache. He walked with a slight stoop and an even slighter limp, balancing himself on a long, gnarled staff. When he smiled--which was often, as he wore a simple sort of grin on his face at all times--he revealed that he had few teeth, and those that he did have were broken and discolored. A terrible odor poured from his mouth as he neared, and it was all I could not to rear back and away from him.
More disconcerting, however, were his eyes. One of them--his right one--was milky and useless, cataracted over with an opaque covering so that iris looked little different from the rest of his eye. His left one, however, was clear and piercingly blue, the color of the sky on a cold winter's day. There was a deep, almost unsettling sentience about it that did not quit align itself with the vapid grin writ upon the man's face nor on the stooped, halting manner in which he walked and carried himself. I did not trust him for a moment, and yet, I could not bring myself to order the man's execution.
He babbled in the incomprehensible manner of barbarians, with speech that was rough and grating on the ears. I disliked it immediately upon hearing it and asked him--time and again--if he spoke a more civilized language, like Greek or Latin or, if nothing else, something that resembled the sputterings of the Germanic tribes I had faced while serving with the wise and just Traianus.
The old man offered a wide smile and then began speaking in something that resembled a crude, provincial form of Latin. He told to us that he was a journeyman, wandering from town to town in the region. He was able to describe the area around the camp in generalities rather than specifics. Though it was not valuable information from a military standpoint, it was still information that could be useful. For that reason, along with the fact that I pitied this half-blind, stooped creature well into its dotage, I allowed him to live and accepted him as, officially, a guest within the camp. In truth, I assigned two guards to him at all times, ready to slit his throat if he showed even a hint of malice or subordination.
In the evenings, before I returned to my quarters to sleep, I would sit at the fire with some of the commanders of my army. They would report on what they had found in their forays into the countryside that day--any enemy soldiers seen, any skirmishes fought, any people moving along any of the roads in the area. When my men were done, the old man--I never learned his name--would babble on, talking of local legends and stories. He would reveal more of the countryside in his simple, vulgar manner, and I often found his stories, if not captivating, at least mildly interesting. The entertainment value alone was worth what we paid him in food and shelter.
Despite the fact that I tried to speak a more true, more noble version of our native language, the old man would still click his tongue in the roof of his mouth and rock back and forth, his good eye closed, when reports of fighting came in through the patrols. I would watch the old man and he would fix me first with his senile smile followed by the piercing iciness of his blue eye. While his smile grew wider as I watched him, the joy never crept into his stare. I began to think that the man knew more than he was showing. Still, I did not have the heart to kill such a pitiful creature.
Three days after the old man was captured, I dispatched a group of scouts to the south. They were instructed to ride through the forest we had just marched through weeks earlier. None of the messengers I had dispatched back to Roman lands had returned, and I wanted to know what had happened to them and if we could be expecting reinforcements.
The day had started out well enough. The morning temperatures were cool but not cold, the skies were clear and blue. The sun shone brilliantly down upon the valley. To the west, the dark mountains continued to sit, dark and brooding, upon the horizon. On our right, the southern forest was dark and foreboding, a massive green-black sea stretching out to some indeterminate ending. The horsemen rode into the tree line; I watched as they disappeared into the forest and went back to attending to our daily tasks.
After the sun came to its zenith, low clouds scudded in from the south. They were flat and whitish gray and promised a change in the weather. I felt my mouth curl into a sneer as I watched them moving in. Most likely, it would rain during the night. Almost as if the thought summoned it, a chill began to descend in the air.
The old man sat by the fire and chuckled.
As the clouds formed into a more solid bank and overtook most of the sky, six horses suddenly appeared at the edge of the forest and walked, riderless, toward the encampment. Recognizing the beasts, I sent men to gather them. I stood and watched as they corralled the listless creatures and brought them back toward the camp. There was not a sign of the riders who had departed on the backs of those steeds.
The old man continued to chuckle, mostly to himself, as he sat by the fire. The vapid grin on his face suddenly looked less simple and more demonic.
I had turned to question why the old man was laughing when someone raised a cry of warning in the camp. I turned to see a woman on the road, alone. She emerged from the edge of the forest, which now looked dark and menacing--more menacing than earlier when the sun's light was fully upon it.
The old man laughed now. Instead of a dull, drumming chuckle, he laughed with a throaty cackle. The smile on his face, combined with his cold, glaring left eye seemed far more menacing.
"What?" I asked, ready to strike this vile creature down. "What is it that makes you laugh so, old man?"
"Veniunt," he said, his mouth open wide as he did so. "Veniunt, young soldier. They are coming."