"Who?" I asked, "Who is coming?"
The old man would not respond with any further detail. He simply kept babbling on about some nameless group identified only with the vague "they". Frustrated with the one-eyed bastard, I turned and gazed out over the flat ground stretching between the hill and the road where the woman stood. She gazed back at our position. She made no move but stood, watching. For a long period, she simply gazed at the hilltop where the army was garrisoned behind the fortifications that we had thus far erected.
Her face was hidden by the distance and the deepening shadows of the evening, but I could see that she wore voluminous robes. A hood was pulled over her head, hiding what appeared to be dark hair and hiding her features further. Her gown was a plain, black homespun fabric bearing no marking or decoration. She carried nothing but a long, gnarled staff, though unlike the old man, I did not think that she needed it to move from one place to another.
I suddenly got the feeling that her arrival and the old man's babbling about some unknown, unnamed "they" were related. Turning, I meant to press the old man further about the identity he cunningly avoided as well as the identity of the woman on the road in front of the fortified hilltop.
The old man was not there.
"Where did he go?" I asked the two men who were supposed to guard him.
Neither of the men could answer; both of them looked about as if they could simply summon him into being with their gaze. However, no sign that the old man had been sitting by the fire moments earlier could be found. The only markings indicating that he had been there was a word scratched in the hard-packed earth near the fire's side: "Striga"
I swore lightly under my breath.
"Find him," I ordered the men. I turned to one of my commanders, Lupercus, the man who had slit the Dacian scout's throat.
"Ready the men. I do not like the feel of the air. Something is amiss." I cast my eyes to where the riderless horses were being brought through the front fortifications to a paddock that had been built inside the perimeter of the palisade, though neither palisade nor paddock had been yet completed. "An ill omen, the return of those horses without their riders."
Lupercus, ever faithful, nodded curtly without a word, but turned and began organizing men to defend the hilltop. Fires were blazing to life around the inside of the walls and torches were being lit atop them. The gloom of the approaching storm and the lowering of the hidden sun were enough to cast a late day shadow across the land. I returned to the point where I could hold my vigil on the woman.
She remained on the road, watching the fortification, her eyes hidden within the gloom of her hood and the deepening shadows of the afternoon. Behind me, I could hear the men preparing for battle. My commanders were trooping up and down the lines, barking orders, arranging the men in a manner most defensible.
Without warning, the woman raised her arms, slowly, until they were held above her head. The staff that she carried was held aloft, the head of the staff above her own head. Hushed conversations could be heard behind me as the men discussed what it was that the woman was doing. I motioned them to silence with a brief wave of my hand, but it was to little avail. The men still spoke in whispers back and forth, trying to discern what it was that the woman was doing.
The wind suddenly changed directions and carried with it brief snippets of a high, lilting voice chanting in a lyrical fashion. Any words--any pieces of words--were lost in the gusts and the distance, and I did not recognize anything that the woman was chanting. My heart pounded within my chest and I found it difficult to swallow; it was almost as if my body involuntarily tensed, preparing itself for battle.
Suddenly, she swung the staff down, the butt of the stick striking the ground and sending gouts of blue lightning in all directions. The flash was brief, but intense. After the suddenly flurry of activity, she remained motionless, her gaze still fixed on the fortified hilltop.
"We've been cursed," Lupercus offered, the words barely audible.
"Superstition," I said, halfheartedly, yet with an edge of annoyance. "The men don't need to be any further on edge. Hold your tongue until--"
From the south, there suddenly came the long, moaning sound of an immense warhorn sounding from behind the black canopy of the trees. All heads turned as one to face the forest, and half the men raised their shields as if preparing for an incoming salvo of arrows. Many of the men began waving their fingers in the air, trying to ward off hexes and curses. The woman remained on the road, always watching.
"See what you've done," I said to Lupercus. I was prepared to upbraid him further when someone shouted. It was a warning, almost wordless, and yet it was enough to draw everyone's attention toward the forest's edge.
"The forest is coming toward us!" someone else screamed. I watched as a line of dark shapes moved forward from the tree line. Rank upon rank moved, slowly but surely, away from the sheltering edges of the woods and toward the woman who stood before us. She was alone no more.
The shadows resolved themselves into shapes that were vaguely human. From the distance, it was difficult to discern their features, but they had the look of fighting men. At least, it appeared that they wore some sort of battle dress. Hundreds and hundreds of these things moved from the forest's edge, transforming themselves from amorphous shadows into the shades of dead men, spirits of ancient battles.
"Striga," I said softly, looking upon the woman who had come to stand before the hill and to summon forth this host from beyond the grave.
"Prepare for battle!" I roared, reaching to find my own weapons and shield. "To arms, men. The enemy is upon us!"
"What of the old man?" someone questioned, and I realized that I had completely forgotten about the guest-turned-prisoner who had given the warning that this woman was a harbinger of something far worse than what we had faced in the forest a few days earlier.
"Forget him!" I shouted, "The real enemy is before us! To arms! Prepare the lines! To arms!"
The orders were echoed up and down the lines. As I strapped a helmet on my head, I returned my gaze to the road before the hillside. There, hundreds of dark creatures had amassed around the woman; more continued streaming from the forest. Even if it was possible to tell where one beast ended and another began, I could not have begun to count how many of the dark forms stood before us. My heart pounded within my chest.
The woman raised her staff once more--a shining beacon of humanity amidst the shadowy horde of death surrounding her--and allowed it to crack loudly upon the road's surface. If more pyrotechnics flew from the end of the staff, I could not see them. With an otherworldly howling, the host began to move forward, their progress toward the hillside as slow and inexorable as their movement from the forest's edge.
"Prepare yourselves!" I shouted, hoping to lend the men at least a bit of courage that I, myself, suddenly was lacking. "Remember men! You are Rome's finest warriors! Nothing can stand in our way." I wish that I could have believed my own words.
Without any other warning, the host suddenly broke and began flying toward the hilltop fortifications. The creatures loped easily up the side of the hill. I drew my blade, holding it aloft to signal the men to charge, but it was almost too late. The shadowy host hit us, and wherever they went, death was quick to follow.
As they poured onto the top of the hill and around what meager fortifications we had been able to erect in the weeks we had been here, I was able to get a good look at the enemy. They were hideous. I wish I could summon words that could describe them, but they fail me, even now. What I once thought were the spirits of dead men I swiftly learned were twisted, grotesque abominations that may have, at one point, been somewhat human in shape. That, however, was where the similarities ended.
They had huge, misshapen, foul faces from which sprouted horns and knobs and antlers and any other variance of protuberance. Some had huge tusks, like boars; others simply had dagger-like teeth. Their bodies were as misshapen as their faces, but they moved at such a speed that it was difficult to tell if they all had similar bodies or not. They seemed to flow from one place to another, as if they were crafted of something that wasn't quite solid, but not yet liquid either.
Of all their features, however, it was their eyes that were the most haunting, the most frightening. Big and orb-like, they seemed to glow with an internal, ghastly light. As they would attack, they would blink, slowly and surely, and the eyes would disappear for a moment so that something of pure shadow, something crafted of pure hatred and evil, as upon you and then it was gone. Their eyes would open again, glowing afresh, and they would move on to their next target.
Worst of all, however, was how ineffective our weapons were against the putrid beasts. Our spears and javelins simply passed through them. The shields did nothing to hold them at bay. Not even the armor donned by the infantry was of any service. Within seconds, hundreds of men were dead upon the ground, they bodies rent open in innumerable, ghastly fashion. Most of them died with their features frozen in the shapes of permanent, silent screams.
As one creature came toward me, I did what I could and swung my sword at it, cleaving a large gap across its chest. Another fell victim to my blade as I fended off a sweep of a mighty arm ending in a handful of dagger-like claws. I held the sword before me, and the creatures actually shied away from it.
"Iron!" I screamed. The cold, blue blade before me was the only thing that the creatures feared. "Iron!" I yelled to the men behind me. "Use your blades! They fear iron!"
It was, I must say, too little, too late. By the time my warning was passed along the lines, we were overwhelmed. Half of the army was dead or dying. The lines were broken and men were breaking into small bands trying to fend off the enemy, or to fall to their knees and pray for a leniency that the creatures did not know.
"Licinus!" a voice called to me. It was Lupercus. In his wake, Agorix and Hilarius and another man, Herculius, trailed. "Licinus, the day is lost! We must flee or else be slaughtered like sheep!"
I simply nodded, looking upon the rout as it unfolded before me. "We must sound a retreat!"
"There is no time!" It was Agorix who spoke this time. "When the men see you fleeing, they will know not to stand and fight any longer."
Again, I nodded. While I held my blade, the creatures seemed to melt away, holding back to avoid the deadly touch of the cold, blue steel.
"Let us be gone!" I offered, though it shamed me.
I turned and looked to the one place that I dreaded going more than anywhere else.
"The trees will slow them. We can gather there, hide until her summoned demons have gone, and regroup." I looked to the other four men, hoping that they had a better solution.
Lupercus nodded. "Lead the way," he said, "and I will follow."
I nodded in return, and without a further word, I bolted. I wished that I had readied a horse, but there was no time now. I could hear the screams of the steeds in their paddock being slaughtered as quickly and efficiently as had my men. I dared not look back as I ran.
I could hear the unearthly howls of the creatures as they realized that we fled and the screams that they offered as they gave chase. Still, I did not dare look back. The sounds of their pursuit was enough to spur me forward, though fear tried to force me to turn from the forest's edge.
Above all, however, I heard a soft, lilting, lyrical laughter chasing us to the forest's edge and beyond.