During the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, legate Tiberius arrives from Germania with orders to investigate and quash recent troubles with the natives – but more than just the Picts lurk in the trees.
The ferns towered over him, choking the light. The gloom was laden with threats: the flicked nettle, fractured twig, sweeping shadow.
Panting, his breath was thrown into the freezing air. His back was squashed to the trunk. His ankle throbbed due to a fall.
The sword was heavy in his hand as he stood up. All he could think of was the massacre of his unit, the mess of humanity left behind by the…what had they been?
A noise – scratching; nails on bark. They were big, too big, and they were taunting him. He wasn’t sure of their location; they seemed to be everywhere and nowhere.
Run, he thought, he needed to run.
Fear paused him temporarily, then his legs stumbled forward and he found himself lunging over the rugged ground, the sword lolling wildly in his hand. Crushes of stones, spits of mud and arthritic roots conspired to hinder him. Strange, bestial cries pounded through the trees, spurring him on, and causing him to turn accusingly at the blurred shapes of the trunks.
The cold stung his skin.
He dropped the sword when it cut his leg as it swung carelessly. It was a distraction, and he knew that it was useless, nothing but a comfort.
The crunching of his feet was amplified, muddied, and he registered that they were nearby, probably running close behind him, teasing fear to make him stop and turn, resign to them. He wouldn’t. He kept looking forward and mumbled a few words of prayer – but then he was falling, a weight on his back, and hit the ground heavily, pain seeping into his bones.
‘Do you think a wall’s going to stop us?’ a voice asked.
The fingers of the dusk-shadowed trees tried to catch the top of the coach as it whined along the gnarled road.
‘I want this road cleared,’ Tiberius said. He grimaced out of the window at the trespassing branches. The vestiges of the day peeked through the foliage.
‘I’ll send a runner to Carrawburgh,’ Sallustius replied.
All other noises were discarded by the tumultuous sound of feet and hooves stomping mud as the cohort marched north on the lonely island of Britannia. Tiberius winced as the coach cracked over a hole.
‘Home seems like a whole other world now,’ Tiberius said.
‘I’ve heard Vercovicium has the best baths north of Eboracum.’
‘Who enjoys baths in this climate?’ Tiberius’s pinched smile belied his aggravation.
The sound of a horn heralded the arrival of a scout.
Sallustius drew the thick curtain aside and squinted at the murky distance. The pockets of lamp light down the train only hindered his view. Eventually, a messenger appeared by the side of the coach, his horse churning the ground.
Sallustius opened the curtain. The horse’s breath plumed.
‘Commander Gnaeus sends his greetings my lord,’ the messanger said, ‘Vercovicium is ready to welcome you.’
‘How far out are we?’ Tiberius asked.
‘A few hours.’
‘Give Commander Gnaeus our thanks,’ Sallustius said and turned back to Tiberius, ‘at least we won’t have to spend another night sleeping like pigs.’
Night smothered the land by the time they reached the fort, which was visible from the road only by the torches and lamps suspended near the gate and from the watchtowers.
The moon was guarded by heavy clouds.
The trees stood like sentinels on the horizon.
The sound of horns reached the coach and Tiberius drew back the curtain to watch their passage into Vercovicium, the north’s final vestige of civilization. The coach passed the ditch and palisade, and there was a flash of flames against stone as they entered.
The smell of humanity: leather, smoke, shit and cooking meat engulfed them.
‘Let me out of this damned coach,’ Tiberius said and Sallustius told the driver to halt.
‘I’ll go ahead to your lodgings,’ Sallustius said.
Outside, Tiberius breathed in the damp, cold air and stretched his unhappy limbs. He dug a finger under his armour at his neck, which always itched, and cursed quietly at the rustiness of his knees.
‘Not even you can escape time,’ a man said, suddenly behind him.
Tiberius turned, scrutinised the man and then said: ‘It seems you can Albertus.’
‘Not for much longer if I stay here.’
The men embraced, their armour rattling briefly, and smiled.
‘How long have you been here?’ Tiberius asked and saw his friend’s face darken.
‘I wish they hadn’t sent you, though it’s good to see you. And a legate now, my lord, so I’m told.’
Tiberius smiled gently at his old friend’s comradery as soldiers marched past them deeper into the fort.
‘Don’t be too disingenuous, or I might have you killed.’
Albertus smiled and said: ‘Come on, let’s have a drink.’