Me nama Alaric.
Nomen est mihi Alaricus Alemannicus.
I am Alaric son of Rothild the Foulmouthed, warrior of the tribe of the Alemanni, and soldier of Caesar. I have seen 19 winters, the last six under the tutelage of the monks in Isca Dumnonia where I accepted the Christian faith, the last true Roman outpost in Britannia. I am nicknamed Alemannicus by my cohort, by virtue of my un-British dark blue eyes and bark-brown tousled hair: too long to be Roman, too short to be anything else. I'm often teased by the men for my lack of a beard. I've seen a Saxon warrior grab hold of a friend's luxuriously kept chin-blanket in order to more effectively relieve him of it...not to mention the rest of his head. So I avoid facial hair, for practical reasons, one could say. I am a long way from the hidden glens and cold streams of my home, but this last posting is oddly familiar: there are still the same gently rolling green hills, and the same fey-haunted, brooding forests that glow a malevolent blue at twilight. Even the people aren't too foreign: stoic Franks, fiery Celts, even a few swarthy Sarmatians and Persians from the steppes and deserts, and of course...Saxons.
The earth under my feet is foreign... inscrutable. That bodes ill. Alemanni never fight on bad earth if we can help it. The hill I stand upon is high enough, but the mists blind my sight, and I swear I hear the fey spirits of this island cackling with malice. It takes me far too long to calm my nerves, far too long to reassure myself of the gods'-forgive me-God's protection of His children. The iron scales of my armor hang heavy on my shoulders, pulling me deeper into the mud. My sword pulls my hip down awkwardly, and the weight of my shield causes my wrist to burn with effort. But I dare not let it rest. The moment I do will be the moment an arrow flies out from the brooding forest below me, lodging in my throat or some other bothersome place. I am simply delaying the inevitable. In a matter of hours, the Saxons will come, and Roman Britannia will die on this mound of dirt.
The irony of the whole situation fails to elude me. The last Roman of any consequence had left for Gaul years ago, and since my posting, only silence comes from Italy. And yet here we are: an army of Germans and Sarmatians, led by Britons, clad in Roman armor, bearing Roman swords, and fighting other Germans to defend a Roman province that Rome desperately wants to forget. All of us are in Britannia for some reason or other, whether by God's Will, Caesar's, or our own. The monks say we are here to spread the message of Christ, pierced for our transgressions. Caesar declares (or rather, declared) that we are the protectors of the Imperium Romana on this savage, benighted rock. We, of course, have come here to watch Britannia die, and die with her, it seems. For Britannia is dying, surely, but not of the same affliction that plagues the rest of the Empire. No, Britannia is being murdered.
There is no hope here. Christ and his Saints left this isle years ago, just as Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Mars Invictus have before them. This island belongs to Woden now, and Donaar's hammer Mjiolnir rings out though the gray sky, as if to emphasize their impending victory. I just notice that it had ceased raining about ten minutes before. A miracle in this place if there ever was one. Mjiolnir sounds again, and the rain returns. I hate this place. Nothing about it edifies. The rain beats down, the mists beat down, and even the food somehow seems blander across the channel. I hear our centurion Merovech the Frank's rumbling baritone over the thunder and rain, "Look alive! Stand tall! The cavalry and the legates approach!" Looking alive will be an uphill battle, and gods-God knows how we'll actually manage staying alive. Our aching bones snap to attention, standing as best as we can against the pounding gale. The lords of Britannia are here, ready to share in our "glorious sacrifice." Lucky bastards get to ride their horses to a fight; it's always nice to have a speedy alternative if the battle turns sour. I see them coming up the hill, horses' heads bowed, trudging up the muddy incline. The riders look tired, exhausted like us, but there is something else in their eyes. A grim sort of pride shines from under their helms, and I realize that these men won't flee. When our line breaks and fails, as it must, and the Saxons swarm the hill, these riders will charge again and again until the last man falls, defiant to the end. Of course, the only people who'd appreciate the drama will be the enemy as they gleefully loot our corpses and pickle our heads for trophies. The cavalrymen take their place at the very tip of the hill, behind us of course, and the blare of trumpets ring through the pregnant air. He is here.
I see the fluttering dragon banner riding high in the storm, the symbol of the vaunted Empire that we defend, that has left us to die. Next to it, I see the cross and labarum-the symbols of the Roman faith...and mine, I remind myself. If one falls today, the other will also, so it is fitting they make an appearance together. Soon after, the chanting of monks fills my ears and the air is thick with incense, somehow reminding me of places I have never seen before: dates, desert lilies, water in the desert, milk and honey. Normally I can't stand the scent of it during Mass, and my mind and nose rebel against its heady, all-covering cloud. Today, though, it clears my vision, and sharpens my senses. It's as if I've never seen more clearly before. The fog lifts, and my armor lightens. My sword stops dragging me into the mire, and the raindrops don't feel like Donaar's Hammer on my head anymore- just water, though a lot of it. My head turns, and I see him, finally: the Dux Britannica, governor of the province, legate of the legions, Prince of Britain.
He's resplendent, as if he's never been touched before in his life. His armor is gleaming silver, framed with the sea-blue cloak that glows from the backdrop of gray, green and brown. His helmet catches what rays of sunlight there are, and sparkles like the martyr's crown in the Holy Scripture. On the saddle of his champing charger rests his shield-bright blue with the Red Dragon of Dumnonia flying free. His sword-dear God- his sword! I see the scabbard, gilt and crusted with jewels, beyond the craft of anything here, or anywhere else in the Empire. The scabbard alone is the ransom of this whole island, and I'd-
"Soldier?" A voice jolts me from my dreams of scabbards and jewels and wealth and not dying. He's in front of me staring, as are the soldiers next to me, the monks casting their censers, and the whole army.
"O-Oh, yeah-I mean yes. No! I mean, Ave Dominus!" I jump up straight, my hand yanking my shield up alongside. My wrist flares up and I gasp in pain as I drop my shield, lading it squarely on my left foot, and I grimace, willing myself through the pain and humiliation. Merovech groans and curses, and Ariovistus and Ricgard, soldiers to my left and right, snicker. The Prince smiles, his dark, un-British blue eyes glittering. He's no older than I am...
"Calm down. Here...," he chuckles, dismounts, and lifts his helm, revealing a tousled bed of bark-brown hair. Too long to be Roman, too short to be anything else... He is as much a stranger here as I am... and yet he leads us... He picks up my shield, and holds it upright, leaning on it a bit. He speaks again, "Your name, soldier?"
"I-I am Alaric, Dominus."
"Alaric... You are Alemanni?" he tilts his head.
"Yes, Dominus." He certainly looked Alemanni too, but only because he bears no resemblance to any of the other people here.
"Ah. My friend Amalric is a chieftain of your people. My name is Arthur." Strange name...neither Roman nor Briton. He holds out his hand, his left. His right is still clasping the hilt of that extraordinary sword. I take it, and I gasp. His grip is strong, as strong as mine, but that's not the strange part. The aching in my wrist disappears. Entirely. What manner of man could do this, could simply heal by the strength he exudes?
"Your shield protects the man to your left and right. Keep your arm and faith strong. We're counting on you." He shares another smile, so much like mine, and hands me my shield. He remounts, and moves down the line, speaking with each soldier, like he's been doing while I gawked at him.
I stare at him dizzily, not quite understanding what had happened. I hear Merovech troop over, and swat the back of my head, my helmet ringing. He growls,
"It's so wonderful that you've found the love of your life, Graeculus. Maybe you two can share one last kiss before the Saxons come." Ariovistus and Ricgard burst out laughing, as do the rest of the cohort, singing taunts of "fair Graeculus and noble Arthur."
Oh, sing we now of the prettiest tale,
The fairest song of our young lives,
The Ballad of dashing prince Arthur,
And fair fine Graeculus, his wife!
I am not the most...robust or brawny of men, which accounts for my other, more... earthy nickname: Graeculus, or pretty young Greek. My mouth tightens into a thin line.
"I hate that nickname so much, and I hate you all for coming up with it. I swear I will-" a deep cadence rumbles from the depths of the forest.
All talk ceases, and a chill runs through the rain. The Saxons have arrived. We hear them far earlier then we see them: the drums reverberating through the black pines, the rustling of a thousand shirts of mail, the rhythmic thundering of hundreds of swords clattering on shields, pounding into our brains with the inevitability of our fate. Ricgard suppresses a gasp. Ariovistus groans. The Saxons come into view. The line of shields stretch from one end of my vision to the other, slowly rising from the fog. Good God and the Saints! This isn't a horde, so much as a flood of angry, howling, tattooed blondes streaming out from the haze like all the combined might of Heathendom. From the hazy trees approaches another forest: a forest of spears and helms, swords and mail. Valhalla unleashes her ravenous sons, intent of crushing the last of Christendom in Britannia: a few men on a pile of dirt. I hear a long stream of curses flow through our line, and my voice adds to the chorus. There is no escape now; the ram is at the gate. The rain still falls, harder now, nearly drowning us. The fog thickens, choking out our spirits.
The monks stride out before the army, waving their censers and chanting their Psalters, the ethereal vibrato of their song countering the roar of the pagans below us. The priest approaches, his back defiantly to the gathering swarm, bearing the Sacred Host. He shouts above the savage din, his voice laced with a defiant faith, scorning the storm of heathendom swirling below him,
"We come here on the field of battle to do the Work of God. We pray, 'Blessed be the Lord our God, which teacheth our hands to war, and our fingers to fight! Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for Thou art with us!' Bless our hands and hearts, O Lord! Protect us as we protect our wives and children! Protect Britain! Amen! Amen! And Amen!"
He raises the bread high, breaks it, and pronounces the blessing. The monks come, handing us the fragments and the chalice holding the ruby-red wine. A last meal for all of us; I'd hoped for something more substantial. The incense still hangs heavy in the air, the rain still pours, and I place the wafer on my tongue and take a swallow of wine.
When I was younger, before my conversion, I remember a sacrifice to Tyz, the left-handed God of War- the first my father permitted me to see. We came to the sacred grove, the gnarled trees forming a ring over a mottled black-green altar stone, splotched here and there with dried blood. The smell of burning herbs created an oppressive scent, lengthening the shadows and lent a fell, terrible miasma. A withered crone brought a pure white horse before the altar, and without hesitation slashed it across the neck while the brawniest warriors held the screaming, struggling creature. The warriors started chanting litanies to Tyz, lost amid the terrible shrieks of the dying horse, whose blood spilled in great gouts over the ancient stone.
Tyz of the Left Hand, Beloved of Valhalla!
Hear us, and Grant us Steel in our arms!
May the blood of our foes flow over this Altar!
Leave not a breath in our Enemy!
Their Hearts, Blood, Skin, Bones, and Brains we offer to you and your bloody Sword!
I don't remember quite what happened next, but I remember the horrifying visions from the herb-smoke, the red spray of blood, the smell of death, and above all the piercing cry of the unwilling sacrifice.
Today is much like that day in the grove. The incense flows around my head and through my nostrils, my ears are full of chanting, and I hear the screams of a thousand bloodthirsty warriors behind the plainsongs...
Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus...(Holy Holy Holy)
Christus Domini, Salvator Mundi...(Christ the Lord, Savior of the World)
Trinitate in Unitati, Unitate in Trinitati...(Trinity in Unity, Unity in Trinity)
Adjuva nos, Deus Pater... (Help us, God the Father)
Adjuva nos, Deus Filius... (Help us, God the Son)
Adjuva nos, Deus Spiritus... (Help us, God the Spirit)
Amen, Amen, et Amen...
Only this time, everything has changed. The aroma clears my senses, chasing away the fear and shadows instead of stoking them. The chants of the monks, the rise and lilt of their melody flows with the tide of our souls, strengthening and comforting. And the clamor below is muffled, bereft of any sharpness or strength. The sacrifice remembered by the bread and wine is a sacrifice suffered in silence- willingly given, not slashed from the throat of some protesting animal.
The wafer slips down my throat, and the burn of the wine follows. Immediately something comes over me. Where once I merely tasted bread and wine, now I taste everything else: pain, fear, sorrow, anguish, hope, courage, joy, peace, bliss. The savor sweetens and penetrates me to my heart. The weight of my armor disappears, the oppression over my heart lifts, and I stand tall again. Our fate is not so bleak. We can fight. We can win. The rain still comes down, but now as a cooling, refreshing shower, not the deluge of despair. Hope floods through my limbs, as if fueled by a furnace indwelling in my breast. I have barely any time question this unknown energy when a cheer erupts from the barbarians.
The Saxons, head-taking, plundering, savage heathens they are, are not without some scrap of civilization. They bring out their champion to challenge our own. He is a monster: Seven, eight feet tall? Muscles rope across every conceivable portion of his body, probably from lifting cows or splitting trees with his bare hands. His forearms strain with woad-blue veins and ritual scars. His wild flaxen hair splays out and around his snarling, howling mouth, no doubt spewing out curses and intimate details regarding possible uses for our skulls or something just as charming. His spear is a behemoth fashioned from a ship's mast, looks like. Ah, and he's naked. He is full-buck naked, with his limbs and other parts brazenly swinging about. Let it never be said that these Saxons lacked balls.
We turn around, wondering who could possibly square with this raging tattooed Goliath. Prince Arthur sits back on his charger, motioning to another horseman. Arthur's choice is not that impressive, with his middling height and scrawny frame: our David, as the monks would say. We hear the name "Lancelus," and the rider nods, and nocks his bow. He aims at the charging wilder's chest, and the tip lowers... down the chest... down the stomach... past the navel...past the pelvis..and the twine sings. A second later, and the deep bass of the berserker scales about a thousand octaves to a soprano high enough to make a castrati wince. Perfect shot. A laugh and a cheer ripples from our side: a good omen, and one we badly need. Sure, it's dishonorable but we're fighting for survival here; gentlemanly combat is at a discount.
The Saxon does not take kindly to such an "emasculation" of their manhood, and the horde rears up. With one voice, the inexorable tide surges forward. Warriors pour across the meadow between the hill and the forest, undulating over mound and cairn like a raging sea, building up to a tidal wave that will engulf our position and sweep everything away in the torrent. More and more stream out of the forest to join the surge. The front line breaks upon the foot of the hill with all the force of a raging maelstrom-the very ground shudders under our feet. Line after line of armored Saxon slams into the hill, with only one direction: up. The waters rise, inevitably.
There is a minute of strange peace, with the horde charging up the hill, mere hundreds of feet before contact. We turn to each other, brothers in our fate, if not in circumstance. We settle our accounts, making our farewells. Ricgard nudges me, still facing the oncoming foe. He says gruffly, "I should tell you...I stole your ration bowl. I meant to give it back, but I lost it at Londinium." It took me five months' wages to replace it. Normally, I'd have been furious, but now...placidity.
"That's fine. Not like it matters anymore." In the big scheme of things, ten denarii isn't all that much, when you're staring the hordes of Satan down as they surge towards you in a rolling wave of hatred and fury. Ariovistus joins in.
"While we're on the subject, I stole your razor a couple weeks ago."
"What? I needed that!" To this day, I still haven't found it. The big Goth punches me painfully in my shield arm.
"Hah! For what, your beard?" Laughter from the other soldiers, who join in.
"Thanks for lending me 20 sesterces. Sorry, I meant to pay you today, but you know..."
"That milkmaid in the village yesterday? I lied; she was waving at Lucius, not you!"
"Sorry Alaric... those weren't raisins in the cake. The rats got in..."
"Alemannicus, Brother Denis wants to let you know: he borrowed your rain-cloak today. He couldn't find you so he told me to say that!" God above, even the monks? I hear Merovech's voice last of all.
"I forgot to tell you, Graeculus: yesterday was the discharge date. You're fighting for free today." His voice seems apologetic, but all I hear is my teeth grinding to the roots.
"So you're saying...that I have no reason to be here today? You're all bastards, miserable thieving underhanded bastards! I wish to see you all again in Paradise; if only to wring your necks for eternity!" My anger pours into my voice, letting out a roar that sets the whole cohort to surprised laughter. I hear Merovech one last time, words spiked with the laughter of the damned.
"As if you had anything better to do!"
A final second lingers before contact. They're in range. There is no panic; there is no fear. All we feel is what we've trained for and done the past two years. My right hand leaves my sword in its sheath, and reaches back for the javelin stuck in the ground behind. I yank it out. Lifting it over my head, I take aim. There, a nice fat one struggling, boot stuck in the mud. My arm draws back, back, and snaps forward with a might heave. The dart sails, and lands solidly in the Saxon's belly. A yelp, a splash of blood from his mouth, and the lardbelly goes down. Hand drifts back to the sword, ready to draw. Too late for another javelin toss. I brace for impact.
As soon as the first body thuds against my shield, everything comes into focus: They've been charging uphill, boots slogging through soupy runoff from the rain, after marching all day just to get here. They're tired, mud-soaked, and overconfident. Wonderful. I hold up my shield easily now- the same warmth from the Host surging through my arm. It's a surreal thought: behind about two inches of wood stands a man wanting nothing more than to slit my throat and watch as I die in his clutches. I feel the pressure relent, as he stops to rest. Perfect. I hurl my left fist forward, shield and all, and feel the crack as the wood slams into my foe's teeth. With one motion I shift my shield aside, and stab fiercely into the lump of flesh with my sword. A muffled yell, then silence. I draw back, and wait for the next.
I feel weightless, my sword and shield seem made from air. The smell of the incense flows strongly around my brain, fueling the burning in my breast stoked by the wafer and wine. With every slash, every strike, my mind jumps to image after image: burning villages, desecrated churches, ravished maidens, murdered priests. Saxon after Saxon breaks upon my shield, only to meet swift death from my sword or another. Still they come on, over the bodies of their fallen, and still we are pushed back-wait. No, not back... we are advancing. One step. Bash the shield. Swing the sword. Another step. Another. Slowly, painfully, catching our feet in the soup of mud, blood, and entrails, we descend. Ricgard falls back, dropping his shield and clutching his arm. Another slips in to replace him-I don't recognize his face from the corner of my eyes. Ariovistus falls, pierced through the helmet with a spear. More slashing, more bashing, and we reach the bottom of the hill. The heathens stay resilient, more and more streaming from the forest to join the fray. They rally, and we brace for a charge that nearly rattles the burning energy from my body. They press further and further, hoping to break the shields keeping them from piercing the line. They fail. Pressure lifts.
As one body, in one hoarse, screaming yell, we charge shield-first into them, knocking the first line over. Callously we stomp over their prone forms, leaving them to the soldiers behind us. Our line breaks, but so have theirs. I catch an axe in the rim of my shield. I twist, and find my opening. My sword slides easily into the space between a Saxon's shoulder and his neck. Twist, and yank out. One. A spear runs through my partner, and my arm swings up. The arm holding the spear soon follows, leaving its body to fly. Two. All the while, my body burns, my sight stark and clear despite the oncoming rain. A trumpet sounds, distantly behind, as if blaring from the sky to signal Heaven's Wrath. Seconds later, an mass of horses blast past me, carving deep into the sea of pagans. They slice through with all the delicate finesse of a spear running through a bale of hay. The dragon banner flies high and unconquered. Prince Arthur leads them, sword whirling about. Even in this storm, in all the confusion, his sword-his magnificent sword, glows whiter than anything on this isle, flaming with some unearthly halo of magnificence.
Into the wake left behind the cavalry, we pour in. To our last breath, we follow that flying dragon. They fall back to the forest's edge now, rallying what last bit of confidence remains. Our onslaught continues without rest, arms burning with energy and exhaustion, throats hoarse and raw. We press their line, and it snaps like a dry twig. Every arm we sever, every life we take, feeds courage into our hearts, now roaring furnaces of martial glory. We are the tide now, threatening to engulf this pitiful remnant. Roma resurrectum. Rome risen again. I am Alaric, of the Alemanni. I am a soldier of Caesar; I am the swift sword of the Empire tempered in the blood of the godless. I am God's Avenger, forged to rain divine wrath upon the heathen for their sins against His Church!
I have just taken a spear in my side.
No flowery words, no litanies of battle fill my thoughts, just pain; a cold sick pain erupts from where the spear has driven though the scale of my armor. I nearly black out from the force of the thrust alone. I turn, agonizing, over to whoever struck me: all I see is a Saxon youth, skewered himself by a spear, trampled over by a cavalryman. My head swims, but I remain on my feet. The incense still coruscates through my senses and the fire in my breast still burns, but softer now. My right hand feels like lead; I hoist it up, and onto the spear. I grasp it: burning ice in my side. I grip it harder, and with a single whooshing breath, I pull, ready to scream. The scream never comes. It slips out with little effort, its head covered in shimmering blood nonetheless. Perhaps the armor blunted the tip...yes, that's what must have happened. A river of warmth flows down my side, my hip, down my leg. I can't fight. I can barely walk, I'm so tired... I gingerly sit on a pile of Saxon and Roman dead, sword stuck into the ground, leaning on my splintered shield to let off weight from my wound. Normally I'd have vomited from the smell and the sight of hacked limbs and torn flesh... But I don't care anymore.. I've seen enough to count it all as trifles. I am alone now, the battle some distance away. I feel the light intensifying, the rain getting colder and colder. I turn to where the battle rages some yards away, towards Arthur and the cavalry as they charge the Saxon center. Immediately something crosses over my field of vision, no doubt brought upon by the miasma of ten thousand corpses and my own loss of blood.
The dragon banner ignites, fiery as a brazen serpent. Wreathed in a gauzy haze, I see One, like a Man clothed in white, face and feet shining like burnished bronze put through a furnace, vaulting into the darkness atop a white horse. I see His Sword, terrible and double-edged, flaming with a halo of magnificence, falling again and again upon the scattering shadows beneath. He approaches the great one-eyed Old Shadow, waving his Spear. The Man rides forth, drawing the Sword from His mouth, and cleaves the Old One-Eye's helm with a powerful thunder of many waters. Donaar's Hammer falls silent, cowed forever by the terrifying, final sound. The rain ceases, and a warm melting glows hits my neck and trickles down my back. A sword on the ground catches the light, and through the blood-spattered steel, I see a blue sky limitless as heaven, pricked by a shining Sun. I sleep my first slumber under a new Heavens and a new Earth.
Soli Deo Gloria