“He’s here, sir. Over here.”
The proud legionnaire pushed aside a low branch, opening an annex within the dense and unending forest. Marcus and a few others filed through. The men of the legion hadn’t seen unobstructed sky in weeks as they marched through the great forest on the southern edge of the Pel homeland. Marcus had begun to toy with the idea that they actually wandered in a labyrinth of arching limbs and repeating colonnades of tree trunks created by a malevolent and unidentified spirit.
Marcus was already farther than he’d ever been from his home in the city of Arna, and he longed for the comfort of deliberate construction and the belief, so easy to hold amidst pillars, domes, and statuary, that human effort could summon sense from the raw energy of creation.
The legate stepped in front of Marcus. Marcus took his own place as second in command, and the others fell in line behind him in habitual order of rank.
The barbarian was being held by two tense soldiers, and it wasn’t immediately apparent whether they were preventing him from fleeing or fighting to keep him upright.
His head hung low. His hair was long and tied behind his head, though some of it had come loose in whatever struggle had brought him here. He wore a wool tunic and skins on his legs. The legion’s scouts hadn’t managed to take a Pel prisoner before this.
“He says he knows a pass that will take us straight to Saxhall, so we can surprise them,” said the legionnaire who’d led them to this spot.
The legate Austanius nodded.
Marcus watched his superior’s face. Saxhall was their goal, though the men shouldn’t have known that. But of course they did. The army was one body—was one body when it worked well, that’s what all the theorists said—and what was known in one part would have to spread throughout the system, as the humors moved about the body. Still, Austanius couldn’t be happy with this breakdown in discipline. But at the same time, he’d have to desperately want to hear about this pass. Everyone knew Austanius would seek higher office once his current command was over. A victory now would all but ensure he’d succeed.
Austanius gave no hint of what he thought, so the legionnaire spoke more, “There were four of them. We killed the other three. No one got away. He said he could help us.”
“Did you ask him about Saxhall?” Austanius asked.
“No, he said he could tell us how to…” The legionnaire saw what Marcus saw, which was a flash of concern on the normally stoic face of Austanius. The barbarian knew or guessed too much. Was it a trap?
The men were silent for a time. The birds, unknowing, went on singing across the void.
“All right. It can’t hurt to hear him,” Austanius said.
“Speak,” the legionnaire said to the prisoner. He picked up the man’s head with fingers under his chin. “Tell us.”
“Only to the master,” the prisoner said. His eyes gleamed, intent and determined.
His body, however, flagged. He looked too weak to pose any danger. But that could be a ruse.
Marcus called out, “Strip him bare. Make sure he doesn’t have any kind of weapon.” He still found himself surprised that he was in a position to tell others what to do, as he’d only been in the legion for a matter of months. But the men, suckled on notions of rank, obeyed.
The soldiers pulled the man’s tunic over his head. He had on a loincloth and the leggings tied around his thighs and calves. They cut these away and dropped all the clothing in a small heap.
The naked barbarian was surprisingly thin and pale. Dark hair grew out from his navel, like a hungry moss. He looked almost too weak to stand, a contrast to the legends every Arnan citizen had heard of the Pels—a reminder, thought Marcus, of the difference between myth and reality. The man stepped forward.
“His hair,” Marcus called, seeing that a knife could easily be concealed in the thick mass hanging over the man’s shoulder.
One of the soldiers grabbed the man’s head, bent it, and felt through his hair.
Marcus nodded, and again the man stepped forward.
“I can tell you—” he started. Then he coughed and put his hands to his knees.
The man stayed bent, his body heaving with coughs. Marcus noticed that he had many dark red sores over his chest and around his ankles.
“What?” Austanius barked. He’d clearly lost his patience.
The prisoner, hunched in the middle of the space between all the soldiers, raised one hand and beckoned Austanius, then pointed at his own lips. “The way,” he said.
Another man might have looked around to see what others made of the situation. Another man might have withdrawn and asked for counsel. But Marcus had seen that Austanius would always make his own decisions. And it seemed that, in this case, his desire for a great victory, something to boast of back in Arna, was all he cared about.
He stepped to the prisoner and then leaned down to bring their heads near.
The prisoner’s arms shot up to wrap around Austanius’s neck. Austanius staggered back but couldn’t loose himself from the other’s grip. He fell to his knees and the two were wrapped even tighter.
Marcus was closest. He took a step forward and pulled his knife from his belt. He placed the blade carefully at the bottom of the prisoner’s ribcage, and pushed up, so as to avoid stabbing through the body to his commander.
Austanius twisted and bucked the man off, just as two other legionnaires pulled the Pel away and dropped him on the ground, where he writhed weakly amidst dead leaves.
Marcus felt hot blood on his hand. He had let go of the hilt of his blade sometime after stabbing the Pel. He looked for it, almost not wanting to see the man. This was the first time he’d used a weapon against a living person.
Austanius pushed himself up from his knees. Marcus looked at him and saw he was unhurt, though the prisoner’s blood stained his chest. Then Marcus looked around at the other soldiers. No one quite seemed to know what to do.
At last, he looked down at the prisoner, who, nearly dead, was smiling.
“Thank you,” the man whispered. “Thank you. My blood is death.”
Marcus stood in a row with his men. He drove his spade down against a thick root that seemed determined to prevent him from squaring his portion of the ditch.
“The men up there are reaching the corner stake,” Sullus whispered. “You’ll want someone experienced up there to get it right.”
Sullus was right behind Marcus in the line, as he had been since Marcus’s first day in the legion, just before they set out for the forest. Marcus had no experience of soldiering. He’d been made chief tribune because of his family’s place in court—and because his mother was determined that Marcus climb the Ladder of Honor and become a governor or prelate one day.
Marcus had written a treatise about strategy in land warfare based on the annals of King Anemon III, but that had been the work of a student and did nothing to help him ride a horse from sunup to sundown, get exhausted men to walk again after a meal break, set a watch schedule—or dig a ditch that could protect them against attack. Sullus was the one who did that from the first day—teaching him the hacking swordwork that could keep him alive in a scrum, showing him how to hold his spade so as not to get blisters, and warning him about how the men were likely to respond to orders.
“Alen, you go up and cut the corner,” Marcus directed. He looked back and Sullus nodded.
A lot of the young men in Marcus’s place would avoid as much of the hard work and danger taken on by the legion as they could manage. But Marcus wanted to know his job from the bottom up. Marcus went back to hacking at the stubborn root, which now at least showed a white nick from his repeated blows. They needed the fortification because Austanius had taken sick, and the legion was a sitting duck until he could move again. Besides, the men had nothing else to do while they waited, and work would keep them from mischief.
“Sir,” a voice called from above.
“Yes.” Marcus looked up but couldn’t see the man’s face, since the sun, fractured through interwoven branches and leaves, was directly behind him.
“I’ve come from the legate, sir. He sends his compliments and wishes to speak with you.”
“I’m coming,” Marcus said. He trotted down the line to the ladder, climbed out, and followed the messenger through the squarely placed tents of the camp to the large pavilion at its heart.
“The Tribune Marcus,” announced the legate’s secretary when Marcus stepped in.
A flicker of light in a brazier kept the air warm but couldn’t rival the daylight, and Marcus could only make out a heap of furs with a man lying atop them at the back of the tent.
“Kneel by his bed,” the secretary whispered. “He is weak.”
Marcus stepped forward, felt with toes and fingers for the furs, and then lowered himself. He could see Austanius’s dark hair and pale skin. He saw the wet glint of an open eye. He heard shallow, labored breathing.
“Marcus,” the legate said, his voice sounding like a raw pant as much as words.
“I need to tell you. My orders. In case I don’t survive.”
“You’ll be up soon, sir,” Marcus said. He suddenly was terrified at the thought of being left to lead this band of men engulfed in the vast forest, the vast forest populated by furious Pels looking to kill him. “Our preparations are almost done. We might as well be in a fortress now.”
“Hah! You’re making me a tomb.” Austanius panted for a time. The brazier flickered. The secretary shifted, clearly trying to hear what was happening. “Quintus will lead six legions over the Tep River and into the heartland of the barbarians. This will draw all the tribes. Together they will crush Quintus. Our mission is to ensure that the army of the Pels doesn’t join. That’s why we march toward Saxhall. If we threaten the city, they have to respond. But we don’t need to conquer anything. Just draw the Pel army into battle. As long as they’re fighting us, they can’t join.” Austanius reached over and tapped Marcus with a single finger. “Do you hear?”
“Do you understand?”
Austanius waved his arm, pointing past Marcus to the secretary. “Leave! Leave!”
Light from the outside flashed over Austanius as the secretary pushed through the tent flap, and Marcus saw a cluster of red sores on the pale skin of the old man’s chest. Austanius was as weak as the Pel that had attacked him a few days before.
Marcus remembered the Pel’s blood on his own hand.
“They don’t care if we all die,” Austanius rasped. “The king and the council. Only one thing matters. Draw off the Pel army.”
“I—” Marcus started. The brutality of Austanius’s logic had knocked him back. He thought of his life in the city, suddenly irrecoverable, and the comforts of his chambers, friends, and well-known streets. “They wouldn’t send us just to die.”
“That’s what it means to serve. You don’t matter. Only the kingdom.”
Austanius said no more. He might have slept. Marcus wanted to ask if his commander was bitter at ending a long career as nothing more than a diversionary tactic, but he let the old man have his rest and bid a silent goodbye before getting up.
“Other men are getting sick,” Sullus said.
Sullus tied the tunic behind Marcus’s back, then held up the clean breastplate. Marcus took its weight on his shoulders and waited while Sullus fastened it to him.
“How many?” Marcus asked.
“A few dozen.”
“Are the others panicking yet?”
“I can’t say,” Sullus answered. “But they could in an instant.”
“We’re lucky they have nowhere to run to,” Marcus said. “Necessity makes great patriots.” He put his helmet on. He hated wearing it, but the occasion called for full regalia. “Do you have any suggestions?”
Sullus shook his head. He probably felt as much fear as any of his compatriots, but he wouldn’t let it show. “I wish I did. We need something, though.”
Marcus walked out into the cool night. He could see torches gathered just outside the camp. A legionnaire who’d been stationed outside his tent walked alongside him carrying a torch of his own. Other orange, wavering lights progressed from the tent-barracks toward the clearing they’d created for Austanius’s pyre. Marcus had the impression they gathered as burning spirits, leaving their weak bodies behind for this moment. Austanius had been a great man. The legionnaires were not only saddened by his death; they’d lost the understanding of why they’d marched hundreds of miles from their homes into this confounding forest. He’d been inseparable from their sense of mission. They’d followed Austanius.
Marcus knew he needed to somehow take the reins from the old general.
He walked into the clearing, which was nearly as bright as day with hundreds of torches held by still and solemn men. He looked up at the pyre, twice as tall as him. Austanius was carefully entombed within its squared walls.
Marcus took up a torch that had been left for him and held it over his head. Everyone listened, at least for the moment. He’d had a long oration planned—something that followed all the rules he’d learned in his schooling, something that praised Austanius and placed his life in the context of his lineage—but he realized he needed something else. He needed movement.
“The gods have taken a great soul from us,” Marcus called out. “Austanius was a great man because he never ceased to serve his motherland. We all knew this. Even near death he imparted to me a final command. His command is to reach Saxhall within a fortnight. We have to break camp and march tonight.” Marcus paused long enough to listen. He heard nothing from the men. The faces he could see around him were still as stone. “This is all the time we have to mourn him, but he would know better than any that our duty calls us. He would tell us to go.” Marcus thrust his torch into the pyre and saw the fire spread to the kindling inside.
He stepped back. The fire grew. Soon it leapt above the height of the pyre and danced to free the old man’s spirit.
The fire blotted out everything with its orange brightness. For a moment, it burned with every grief. Every grief Marcus could imagine, including his own death, and every grief all the men at his back could see in it. He waited until the sadness in his chest throbbed and released, and he hoped others had felt the same thing.
His officers and senior infantrymen were standing in three rows to his right. He went to them and gave orders. The men responded, turned, and went to their own troops. Soon the army had turned its back on its dead commander and was engaged in its perennial ritual, breaking camp, storing and hauling supplies, and marching into the night.
The forest broke, and the legion moved under an open sky.
It was a far smaller band than had entered the forest. Nearly half the men had fallen with the plague, dead or at least unsavable, and been left behind. Another few hundred had deserted, sometimes sneaking away in the night, despite regular watches, sometimes running into thickets in the forest, knowing the army couldn’t afford the effort to chase.
They’d also been harried by Pels firing from invisible stations in the forest and disappearing before the legion could even begin a search. Marcus wouldn’t have spent the time anyway. His one hope was to drive the men with a mad determination toward a goal he claimed to know. This tactic had worked well enough that he still had probably 2,000 men with him, even if he didn’t actually know where he was leading them.
Marcus looked up at the rocky peaks of the mountains in front of him. The legion was on a long grassy incline toward a band of cliffs. He’d sent riders out to look for the way through. Once again his belly wrenched as if it were being twisted like a wrung rag. He held on to his saddle pommel and tried not to show his pain. All day he’d panted and perspired. His insides shook as if a wind blew through him. He’d built a fort of concentration to try to resist what was no doubt assailing his body. He believed will could overcome anything short of the will of the gods—and even that could be fought. He felt the strength of the gods bearing down on him, but he wanted the army somewhere safe before he succumbed.
The men marched in three wings behind him. The one thing in his favor was that he suspected the Pels now wanted to avoid any close engagement with the legion. The numbers were certainly in their favor, but enough of the deserters must have been caught already, and enough of those caught must have spoken of the plague they were running from that the Gauls likely believed it. Why risk themselves when they could just wait for the legion to expire on its own?
A scream made Marcus flinch within his armor. It was followed immediately by a chorus of imitators.
Marcus wheeled his horse, while men in the ranks shouted, “Fire! Fire!”
They were trained to form up in ranks and turn their shields toward the danger, and they were doing just that. The Pels were firing from the shadows at the edge of the forest. They didn’t want a pitched battle. They just wanted to keep picking at the exhausted legion.
“Keep marching!” Marcus called.
His voice sounded weak to him. The officers near him heard and started calling out to their men in turn, but the back of the army, now the ones facing the arrows coming out of the forest, had no idea what he’d said. Marcus saw one of the wing commanders order his men to advance on their attackers, no doubt thinking he’d scatter the archers and stop the attack.
But Marcus knew this was exactly what the Pels wanted—they’d fire, disappear, fire again.
He spurred his horse forward to put a stop to this.
And he immediately realized he’d made a mistake. He could barely keep from being thrown off as the horse jolted into a run. He held the rim of his saddle with both hands, laying his torso flat. He then transitioned to trying to pull at the reins with one hand, to guide the horse a little. He nearly fell, the weight of his armor yanking him downward. He fought to stay up. He tried to get enough control to use one hand on the reins again.
Finally, he got the horse to stop. He was where he wanted to be: in front of his own troops.
He shouted and pointed back up the hill. They may or may not have heard, but they understood. “Go! Go!” he screamed.
His seat suddenly surged and threw him off. His horse kicked and kicked and staggered a few steps before falling and thrashing pointlessly against the air. An arrow shaft stuck out of his neck.
Marcus sat in the grass, unsure if he was injured or if he could move. His men were running away from him, as he’d ordered. Something hit his helmet hard, twisting his head and making it vibrate with stinging fury.
Then a shadow came over him.
Sullus was there, holding a shield over both their heads. He’d no doubt followed Marcus all the way along his crazy ride.
“Can you stand?” Sullus said.
Marcus looked up slowly. He was having trouble getting a full breath. He could hardly feel his body under him. He felt sweat running down his cheeks and chin. He tried to say something, but he’d lost command of his own body.
Sullus looked down quickly, checking on Marcus amidst all the other things he had to beware of. Marcus saw a silent gasp of fear show in Sullus’s eyes, as if he saw down to Marcus’s heart and saw that Marcus was ill, being crushed under the hand of a cruel god.
Other men arrived with more mounts, stamping and yelling all around. Someone lifted Marcus and they were all out of range of the archers in a few minutes.
Marcus had ordered Sullus to tie him in his saddle. The veteran soldier had done a professional job, and Marcus could lean a little to one side or the other, but even when he contorted and retched over the side, as he had done often, he didn’t fall.
His body was agony. Each breath was a battle. He didn’t know if this was more like drowning or being crushed by heavy stones piled on his chest.
He could only occasionally glimpse the world over the rim of his agony. He knew that the legion moved in something approximating its usual ranks. So many were missing now that the formations couldn’t be completed. Still they were a large enough force to look at least a little threatening. They were marching toward the Pel homeland, and that kept the Pel army on their tail. Now the two armies were in sight of each other, as the legion kept moving up the great sloping plain toward the high peaks.
The Pels didn’t engage: why risk anything fighting the legion when the angel of disease was bloodying his sword in its ranks? But Marcus knew they were there, and that was the one light in his dim world—the assurance that at least he was succeeding at the task Austanius had left him.
A dense cloud cover had swept in over the last hour or two, and the wind blew hard enough to strike occasional tones off his helmet. The air felt cold and thick with moisture. It seemed certain a storm of some magnitude would break soon.
The question before Marcus was whether there was a way through the mountains. That would take them to the soft underbelly of the Pel heartland, where their settlements and cities were—not to mention the barbarians’ families. If Marcus couldn’t find a way through, they’d all die somewhere in this wilderness and leave the Pel army free to join the battle against Quintus’s legions. It would be a calamity for the entire nation.
Marcus cried out as one more spasm ripped through his body, and fell against the ropes holding him. He was tossed forward, back, to the side, with no strength left. He couldn’t go on. But he’d thought that for hours or days or maybe an eternity already.
He no longer hid his weakness, and the men, many as depleted as he was, still followed. In fact, his suffering was now their inspiration. He felt it in how they looked at him, how they strove to help him.
So his one duty was to keep going. He was a human symbol now, a tattered flag waving at the head of the legion.
His mind swam in varied waters, where currents from the past could stream by with a familiar coldness. He thought of the hush in the library of Arna and the civilized murmur of discourse in the Grove, where he’d met with teachers and fellow students. Those were the central attractions in his life and he could have spent decades swinging between them, acquiring ideas, testing their strength, and adapting them to his own ways. But the one idea he had most come to respect was the power of duty to structure lives, institutions, and societies. A study of history showed it was what made men great. It was what made a people great. His mother had accused him of failing in his duty. His brother was already in the wars, marching now with Quintus’s legions. And so Marcus passed from that life of ideas to this one of toil. But in his rattled state, the two versions of himself, the philosopher and the soldier, seemed like both one being and totally unfamiliar men.
One of his officers rode up beside him and grabbed his shoulder to turn him and get his attention. Marcus knew the man, but he seemed more like a representation of many than an individual.
“There’s a ravine ahead,” the man said. “Sir, we think there might be some shelter there.”
Marcus had thoughts in response, but they floated high above and couldn’t be pulled into words.
“We can hold its mouth with 50 men,” the officer said. “Can we make camp?”
Macus nodded. Or meant to nod or tried to nod. The officer understood and rode off.
Marcus fell against his stern ropes. He closed his eyes, then slowly let light in again, then closed them again to close off his world of suffering from the outside, then opened them again as if it might release some of his pain. His neck weakened. His head lolled against his shoulders and his chest. When he managed to lever his eyes open again, the world was indistinct. He felt the sky was looming over him in a strange way. It could have been his mother’s face. It could have been her looking down without sympathy. His eyes closed. He felt he was losing everything he loved.
They stopped moving. Someone cut the ropes, and Marcus fell, but landed in uplifted hands. His mind stopped admitting what happened around him. For a moment he opened his eyes to see a tent over him. Sullus was there, holding a rag he dipped in water and used to wipe Marcus’s forehead. Then Marcus closed his eyes and fell into an enfolding blackness inside himself.
First came a dim sense of light, which some inarticulate part of Marcus’s soul couldn’t believe was real. Then an ache came in somewhere on the horizon. It wavered, floating closer, taking on shape. It was his back and his arm. He lay on hard ground. The light seemed much closer and brighter, too, though he realized his eyes were still closed.
He felt cold and curled against it. He noticed his own breathing, which was harsh and effortful.
He wasn’t anything beyond these physical impressions, until a certain awareness of thought started marching up from his depths, as regular as the tramp of a legion on parade. At first it was far away and could be largely ignored. As the columns came closer, he knew they were strong enough to lift him and carry him with them. They were the forces of duty.
Marcus opened his eyes. Even this small movement required deliberation, as if he were attempting to move a heavy boulder and looking for the best leverage.
The unveiled light was overwhelming and impossible to parse into distinct shapes. He felt like he had the mind of a babe.
Still, he knew his duty, inherited from hundreds of generations of ancestors, fused into him by every lesson and word of his youth. He had men to lead. He had a mission from the king and council. He was a part of the eternal effort of civilization to hold back barbarism.
In time he could see that he was in his tent. There was no one else near him, but he could hear from outside noises that pierced the wail of the wind—men moving or clanging sword against armor. A voice. He heard a voice calling from a distance and an answer from just outside his tent.
Marcus sat up. His head spun, his arm bent, and he fell back.
As his mind regained itself, he wanted to know what the situation was outside. The fact that he was alive made him think his legion hadn’t fallen yet. That meant he still had a mission. He pushed himself up on one elbow, rested, and then rose a little higher. He fought his way to a position on hands and knees that he could maintain, but he couldn’t seem to rise any higher. He wondered if one of his men would walk in on him like this.
The legion’s standard, an eagle’s skull affixed atop a long staff, lay beside him. He rolled it close, then picked it up and used it to lever himself upright and then push up to his feet. He leaned on it to keep from falling right back down. He noticed that someone had put him in a white dressing gown, no doubt thinking of making him comfortable.
He wanted to lie back down. His body pulled at him to rest. But giving in felt to him like giving up on all meaningful hope.
Just outside his tent, Marcus called out, but his voice cracked, and his words stumbled. He glimpsed men standing and walking several paces away, but they were only blurred silhouettes in the pulverizing glare of the day.
He tried to speak again, but his raw throat ambushed the effort. He watched for a time as shades of men, penumbras or stains against the brightness, moved somewhere not too far away but seemed to have no idea he was there. He felt like the only living man left in a world of bodiless spirits—and he envied those who didn’t have to suffer the burden of flesh any longer. He leaned heavily on the standard. His eyes adjusted enough for him to see tents around him and the shape of the defile the legion had camped in. He saw rock walls on either hand. He saw a slope down and out through a gap between the walls.
The cold was starting to make his fingers burn. It slipped in under his gown and brushed up his legs and chest, and he shivered. He wanted to see more, to know if the Pel army was still down there.
He called again. This time what came out sounded like a word, “You!”
Someone heard, and soon a number of the shades of men were rushing toward him. “Sir!” several voices called back. Someone lifted Marcus’s arm and was supporting him. Someone else took the standard from him and wrapped an arm around his to add more support.
“How many are left… in the legion?” Marcus asked.
“Sir, you have to lie down,” someone said. “Get him in the tent.” “Blankets.”
“No,” Marcus cried and used his little strength to push against the men trying to turn him back into his tent. “How many men?”
“About three hundred,” said a voice that Marcus recognized as belonging to one of the older men of the legion. He couldn’t remember the man’s name.
“Has there been a battle?”
“No. Those bastards know we’re dying up here. They have us bottled up and they’re just waiting.”
“Is the whole Pel army still there?”
“No. The main force split off two days ago. It’s just a couple hundred here now, but they’re dug in and we are weak.”
Marcus took this in. It was bitter news. He considered his life already forfeit. The one thing that remained to him was his duty and the hope of being remembered as having done what was asked of him. That hope now seemed gone.
“Where is Sullus?”
“Dead, sir. He took ill just after you and he went fast.”
Marcus tried to pace but his body undercut the effort. He took a few steps, but then had to rest, leaning on the standard again. He took another step, his knee buckled, and he fell. He pushed himself up. And so it went. He couldn’t just lie there and die. But the situation seemed hopeless: bottled up by an army he couldn’t hope to overcome. He fought against despair like he fought the weakness in his body.
Weakness is our only strength. Illness our only weapon.
This thought kept sounding in his head, as if it were a dictum from one of the gods. He knew it was a promise of some kind, but the speaker disappeared before explaining.
The philosophers would shake their heads at the evident paradox. Strength was strength. Strength came from the will. Illness was an affliction of the body, and intelligence and will were always greater than the body. So, from the philosophy Marcus knew so well, the answer was to find the will. But he knew he had reached the end of what the light of philosophy could teach him, and yet he needed to step forward into the unlit gulf.
The one idea he held onto from his days in the cushioned schools of philosophy was duty. More than ever, he could feel that duty was the only difference between dying alone, a speck amidst infinite indifference, and dying in the embrace of one’s ancestors, family, compatriots, and state.
If he could turn the men again to their duty, every one of them would have that meaning in their last moment. That was the only good left for any of them.
Marcus fell to his knees again, this time gripping the standard to keep his hands from sliding down. So he half-hung, half-kneeled. He saw his own face in the breastplate someone had stripped off him and propped in the corner of the tent. At first the image was as unnerving as a ghost peering back at him. He was emaciated, pale, ghastly.
That’s when insight, resolution, knowledge, and desire, all buckled together in his head. He knew what to do. He could make illness a weapon.
Weakness is our only strength. Illness our only weapon.
Men took shifts carrying Marcus up the mountain. When two could walk side by side, they shared the burden, draping his arms over their shoulders. When the way narrowed, one man would take Marcus on his back until he weakened and then pass Marcus on to another.
Someone watching from above might have thought this was an easy means of transit for Marcus, but being pushed and grabbed and wrenched and bruised, while also pierced with the humiliation of being unable to walk himself, was a moderate sort of torture. But the men seemed eager to take their turns lifting him up the flank of the mountain, and they were making reasonable progress.
Marcus sometimes thought that he had become pure will and the legion his body, which struck him as funny. The conceit would make for quite a conversation among his old teachers and fellow students. But conversation did him no good now.
The men wore no armor. And they moved as quietly as possible under the cover of night. It was cold. They couldn’t stop here or the men would expire from unsheltered exhaustion. They had to keep going until they found their way off the mountain.
They had left a dozen comrades behind to tend the fires in their old camp and show their heads above the rock walls of the ravine, so that the Gauls would hopefully believe the whole army was still trapped there. Marcus had blessed and thanked each volunteer.
While Marcus bounced on the back of an anonymous soldier, one of the few young recruits who still had his full strength ran back down the line of march and announced, “They found the cliffs, sir.”
“Good,” Marcus said.
They climbed farther and eventually approached the edge of a sheer drop. Marcus’s mount placed him on the rocky ground, and Marcus hobbled forward using hands and feet. He lay flat at the verge of the cliff.
“Yes,” Marcus said. “This is it.” He gazed straight out and saw an unbroken net of stars, which meant they were at the edge of this spur of the Endra Mountains. The Pels no doubt relied on the cliffs to keep the legion from traveling this way. These cliffs would certainly stop any army carrying armor and supplies. But the legion now carried almost nothing but their swords.
The old legionnaire, Vertix, squatted beside Marcus. The man had become a de facto second-in-command with all the officer corps dead or debilitated.
“Can you find a way to secure the ropes?” Marcus asked.
“Think so,” Vertix replied.
Marcus, glancing back, realized that men had already accomplished this. One came forward with a huge coil of dimly luminous rope in his arms. They’d spent hours braiding these ropes out of dead men’s tunics. The legionnaire stepped forward and heaved the rope out and over the cliff. It uncoiled quickly, bouncing off the dark edge of the cliff. Soon it hung straight down, a barely visible line heading toward an obscure destination.
“Do you think it’s at the bottom?”
“Think so,” Vertix replied.
Another legionnaire tossed a second coil, and then a third sent his line of rope out over the edge. The ropes looked incredibly weak dangling against the huge mountainside, with the vast arc of stars overhead. But they were the legion’s hope.
“All right, let’s go,” Marcus called.
Someone grabbed him and hoisted him upright. Other hands tied a rough harness on him, first wrapping it around his middle and then looping it tight around each leg. They pulled it taut, knotted it, and then tested it by yanking him off his feet.
Marcus stepped to where his feet touched rock while the rest of his body floated in the night. He felt the rope harness holding him secure. He leaned out, and the men slowly lowered him while others scrambled down the free ropes.
Marcus heard the shout of “Fire!” He heard the pounding on the doors at the far side of the hold. He saw the orange glow on the far side of the building making night everywhere else purer.
The first panicked Pel woman ran out, holding a fur blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Others held or pushed children in front of them. They stopped a few paces outside the hold and craned back to look at the orange glow. There were a few men, mostly older, among them. None of those carried weapons.
Marcus and his men had positioned themselves behind cover, whether a tree, a thick clump of grasses, or a shallow ditch. He called a signal, and the men in their white tunics and leggings rushed forward, swords drawn, to form a circle around the Pels.
The men who’d set the fire and started the alarm ran up, some of them blocking the way back into the hold, while others filed into the hold to be sure no one else hid there.
Marcus walked forward, leaning heavily on the legion’s standard. He felt the tense equilibrium of the situation—the near-naked women, children, and men held in place by the sword blades they saw glinting in the mix of cool moonlight and red ember from the fire. A child cried and was hushed. Women whispered but not loudly enough for him to be certain that he heard the noise.
Marcus waited while two of his men lit torches and came to stand on either side of him. They were the two weakest and sickest men in the company. Neither one was likely to live more than a day or two more. They held the lit torches, but their bodies were hunched and curled in by the pain in their abdomens. Their faces glittered with perspiration. Their eyes glowed. Marcus knew that he himself looked half-dead.
He stood in front of the small crowd, the legion’s eagle skull hovering over his head, and let the impression work on them.
“Have mercy,” said one woman who stepped forward from the crowd. She was probably a grandmother, but her body was sinewy and strong. Her hair black and braided in two plaits.
“Your men are in the Pel army, fighting my people. Will they show mercy?” Marcus called back.
“We have no say in war,” the woman replied.
“Neither do I. We’re here to destroy this land and cut off the supplies for your men’s army. We bring with us an enemy worse than armies. We are the Plague Legion.”
The woman fell to her knees and moaned the word “Mercy.”
“I’m tired of this,” Marcus snapped with all the force he could find. “Kiss the hand of one of the men of the Plague Legion and run and you can live. Now! I have no more time.”
The old woman reached out and grabbed a child old enough to walk but not old enough to understand and pulled the child with her as she moved forward, kneeled, and kissed Vertix on the hand that held his sword. She motioned to the others, and they all followed her example and dashed into the dark, the sound of their running disappearing surprisingly quickly and leaving the newly named Plague Legion alone and pitifully victorious.
Marcus set a guard and then waved the other men into the hold. They found the proceeds of a recent harvest and the next day’s bread already baked. The men sat on benches and soft mattresses. Someone stoked the fire in the hearth and soon the men had more warmth than they’d known in weeks.
Marcus let them enjoy it just long enough to regain some strength. They had to reach more holds tonight, and they had to keep moving to stay ahead of the pursuit that was sure to come.
The one thing Marcus made a point of saying at every raid was, “We are the Plague Legion.”
He wanted that name to travel back to the Pel Army with the runners who were sure to be sent to beg for help fighting this scourge. He wanted the name to infect the minds of the Pel soldiers with images of their families and loved ones being wasted and wrecked by something more than an army. He wanted their fear to deepen to a fever of panic as they heard report after report of “the Plague Legion” ravaging the country.
He calculated it would take six days for the news to reach the Pel army. It would take two or three days more for the multiple reports to have their effect and cause the army to turn around. Then six more days until the Pel Army was back in its homeland looking to corner and destroy the Plague Legion.
So the Plague Legion had to survive for about ten more days.
They’d fought three small skirmishes so far, but they’d lost many more men to illness. They left the bodies behind to testify to the truth of their cognomen.
Weakness is our only strength. Illness our only weapon.
They raided at night. Before dawn, they tramped into the marshes that surrounded Saxhall, where they hid and rested during the day. There they tried to stay dry and warm in an environment that made that simple ambition impossible.
The professional soldiers around Marcus were far better at managing to sleep while half-immersed in muck and cold. He found himself often, like at this moment, the only one awake other than the perimeter guard, his thoughts frenzied calculations of what the legion had to do the next day to ensure they called the Pel army back.
“It’s empty.” The same report came from several voices.
Marcus and Vertix walked through the open black door of the hall. It was larger than most of the Pel settlements they’d seen. The men of the legion were still poking into the corners and opening barrels and sacks lined against one wall, but it was certain that none of the natives were present.
“They’ve taken most of their supplies with them.”
“Some grains here.”
“Pickled cabbage, or something like that.”
Vertix looked at Marcus, “Did they know we were coming tonight?”
“They couldn’t have,” Marcus replied. “That’s the good news. They fled before they ever saw us. They’re scared of our name.” Marcus laughed. The joy he felt was sudden and brutal. His laughter almost turned to weeping, and he couldn’t have explained why he felt so much so powerfully.
“Must be a town near here, a walled town. I don’t think people would go all the way to Saxhall.”
“Probably.” Marcus nodded.
“We haven’t seen many fighting men here. We could probably overrun them,” Vertix said. His thoughts were as disciplined as the troop he led. They pulled on armor, marched to the next objective, and looked for a straightforward, understandable battle.
“We already have them besieged,” Marcus said, the mortal laughter again coming over him. His heart opened with the closest thing to ecstasy he thought he could know. He raised his voice. “The Plague Legion is all around them! The Plague Legion is scaling their walls right now. They are waking ten times a night to look for us there.”
Nearly all the men were in the hall now, and they looked at him and listened rather than going on with their foraging. Seeing their faces, half lit by torchlight, smeared with dirt and corroded with unthought-of beards, he loved these men as if they were family. He loved them like he loved his own life. Everything that mattered was that these men had attained dignity and honor. Worn as they were, they were heroes. And the men of the legion who had fallen—Austanius and Sullus and so many more—were ennobled by this accomplishment, by this moment. It was all Marcus had hoped for in the long days and nights since his illness. “We are winning, men! The few of us here are now a vast, invisible army laying siege to every town and city in Pel, making the old men shake in their beds, making the women cry.” He clapped Vertix on the shoulder, then walked by several other men, shaking their hands and embracing them by grabbing the backs of their heads and pulling them close. “You are the stories the children are telling each other. You are what they fear. I know you’ve suffered for it, but each of you is now worth a thousand men. Arna’s never had such heroes!”
Again the mad laughter overcame him, as if crammed into his breast by the fist of a god. This time it felt almost like a cheer, and Marcus was not alone.
The sun was low behind them but still burning at full strength. Marcus lay flat on the top of a knoll, Vertix on one side, a scout named Tel on the other.
“That work crew has been out for a while, judging from what they’ve harvested already,” said Tel. “They’re staying in sight of the walls, though.”
Marcus could see men wading through the tall grasses with scythes, others collecting armfuls of cut wheat and piling them on wagons. It would be risky to try to get to them, being so close to the walls. They’d certainly run, but they’d probably abandon the wagons. Torching those would be one more victory for the Plague Legion, and all the more effective for being visible from the walls.
The legion had been forced to change tactics once they found every small settlement within reach abandoned at night to stay safe from the monster that struck after dark. So they risked marching out under the sun, targeting travelers, isolated work teams, grain depots, and the like. They’d also been forced to creep closer and closer to the city of Saxhall to keep finding new targets.
“If we follow that stream,” Marcus pointed out, “we’ll be out of sight until we’re almost on them. We’ll take their wagons, torch them, and pull back to the marshes. Any comments?”
“A reserve somewhere up here could keep an eye out and support the main force if it’s needed,” Vertix said.
“Very good,” Marcus said.
“Will you stay with the reserve, sir?”
“No. I lead the attack,” Marcus said. Vertix nodded, both disapproving and admiring.
The three men crept away from the top of the knoll. Vertix gave the detailed orders when they reached the huddle of men left in the legion. Marcus took the larger group and walked into the stream.
Water swirled around his ankles and occasionally up to his knees. The bed underneath was largely rounded stones that made each footfall a complicated act of balance. They progressed slowly, crouching to keep their heads below the level of the dirt bank.
Marcus couldn’t see what was happening with the field hands, but they couldn’t see him. He’d marked a willow tree that hung its branches well over the stream at a point where the water forked over a sandbar as the ideal place to lead the men out of the streambed. When they reached it, he paused and let the men rest for a few minutes, then waved an arm and climbed the bank, stepping on the roots of the tree.
They were closer to the field hands than he’d anticipated, since the men had been working toward the stream the whole time. Marcus ran as fast as he could, his men pounding and breathing around him. They all had swords in hand.
Marcus watched one worker in particular, a gray-haired man with a rough cloth wrapped around his loins and a bare chest. An alarm cry went up, and that man suddenly looked up, made eye contact, and then turned to run. The other workers ran, too.
Marcus and his troops reached the first wagon. Marcus could smell the fresh-cut grass, the hot sun making the smell almost as thick as steam. He was about to give the order to torch it, when one of the men called, “Sir, over there!”
Marcus looked back where they’d come from. The reserve forces led by Vertix were running down the hill toward them at a full sprint.
That meant some threat. But Marcus looked around and saw nothing between him and the walls of Saxhall. His plan was going perfectly as far as he knew. But, of course, a half hour before, the field hands had stood in the same spot thinking all was going according to their plan.
Vertix reached Marcus and, panting, called out, “The Pels… The whole army… Behind us…”
“We’ll break for the marshes,” Marcus called out for everyone to hear.
Then they heard a resounding whoop and the pounding, persistent thud of hooves on dirt. The Pel cavalry, at least 200 strong, arced into view, following the road to the gate of Saxhall. They were maybe half a mile away. It would take them barely a minute to ride down Marcus and his men.
The legion pulled together in a ragged square around Marcus. Reduced to three dozen men, the square was little more than a dot on the plain.
Marcus scanned the horizon in the direction the cavalry had come from. He saw a dark line of men appear on the knoll he and Vertix had recently lain on. He couldn’t discern much about the army, because the sun was behind them, but he could make out line after line cresting the knoll and advancing. Thousands of men. It was the main Pel army. The Plague Legion had finished its mission.
He wanted to shout, “You don’t know it, but we’ve won!” at the advancing troops. But at the same time he saw what a pitiful thing victory was. How small in the eyes of the gods! Who would ever know what they’d borne? They had together done the greatest thing they possibly could in the circumstances given them. Duty was an absolute, and so no man could live for it and live well. Duty meant suffering. Marcus mourned terribly for the price he and his men would pay.
The cavalry spotted the legion, perhaps directed by signals from the walls of the city, and it curved toward them, coming in behind them to cut off any escape.
The men around Marcus gripped their swords and stood pushing their shoulders together. He heard breaths and a few words, but they wanted to face what was coming with strength.
The cavalry extended in a half-circle around the legion.
They stopped fifty paces from Marcus and his men. The Pels had bows and aimed them at the legion. Soon, arrows flew, men gasped, and their lines trembled. Some fell, some screamed. Those who survived the first flight instinctively crowded closer to Marcus in their center, and he was pressed by bodies all around him. He didn’t know if they did this to protect him or in a last instinct to find guidance and hope from him.
“Stand!” Marcus called out to his men. “Stand!” He wanted to help them somehow, but he couldn’t lift his arms, and he struggled to keep up. Only his heart could fight and reach out to bear them up, but he soon hit his knees and then was crushed flat. He felt his men die and fall and roll over him. He was buried under his unmoving and silent men. He heard the arrows still screaming, puncturing metal and punching into flesh.