Monday, March 10, 2008

Excerpt: Antonine novel, chapter 1

(gasps as she comes up for air)

S'cuse my non-presence, but it's been a busy time for me. I've got two essays coming up (to do over the Easter holidays :( ) and that involves a lot of reading. Also had a Latin test on Tuesday (the horror!) and I've got a sore back which came out of nowhere. Joy. But now I've managed to disentangle myself from that darned thing called real life, and I'm putting up - well, the title says it all, really. :) It's a full chapter, and thus a lot longer than I would have chosen for an excerpt, but it goes together as a whole, I think. This is that little snippet I quoted in that meme I did a few weeks ago, this time in context. I'm not very confident about my ability to write a decent battle scene, so I'd love any concrit anyone has to make.

First, some historical notes I think I should make:

- The date of withdrawal from the Antonine Wall remains controversial, and it's possible that some forts were occupied as outposts after the Wall had fallen into disuse as a frontier. After a lot of reading, I've decided to set the novel in AD 162 - 163.

- Marcus Cocceius Firmus (no, that's not a Roman porn name!) was a real person, and we know about him from the dedications he made at the fort of Auchendavy (see here). He was also the subject of a very interesting article by Eric Birley, who suggested, amongst other things, that Firmus was from the province of Lower Moesia on the Black Sea, and had been a member of the Emperor's Horse Guard before going on to become a legionary centurion. A soldier called Lucianus is attested on a tombstone at Auchendavy; Scaurus and Bassus are fictional names.

- For the most part, we don't have names for the Antonine forts like we do for the ones on Hadrian's Wall, so I've pinched names from Ptolemy's map and the Ravenna Cosmography (bah) of the seventh century. I've equated Ptolemy's Alauna/Alavna with the fort at Ardoch, which seems to have been occupied as an outpost during the Antonine period (c. AD 142 - 163). Pexa is a name from the Cosmography, and I've stolen it for the fort at Camelon - the "transit fort" of this chapter.

Anyway, enjoy (or don't)! And I'll be off to catch up on what I've missed the last week or so!

Edit: Contains violence, blood, etc. I know some people like to be warned about these things.


Chapter 1

AD 162

Marcus Cocceius Firmus was not a man who jumped at shadows. Of his forty years, twenty-one had been spent in military service, the last nine as a centurion of the Second Legion, manning the Wall of Antoninus, the frontier which was not only the most northerly in the Empire, but also the bitterest. Where the rain struck like a slaver’s flagellum and the winds howled down from the grim highlands like the shades of the uncounted Romans who had perished amongst those northern mountains. Where the natives could change their allegiances in a heartbeat and give a spear in the night where they had given grain the day before. In the four years Firmus had been stationed on the Wall, he had had plenty of time to get used to that. He had the medals, and the scars, to prove it. He trusted in his gods and in his sword, and countered the volatility of the frontier with his own strict discipline. If there was one thing he disapproved of, it was cowardice - in his men and, especially, in himself.

But this stretch of the northern highway made even the most hardened of frontiersmen baulk. It was a solitary ruin of a road, built by long-dead legionaries in those days when the Flavian emperors had deemed the wilds of Caledonia a worthy prize, its paving now uneven and its surface only sparsely metalled. Now it provided the only tenuous link between the Wall and the lonely outpost forts in the north, threading through hilly wildernesses and narrow valleys like the one Firmus and his century were now passing through.

Firmus’ hands tightened on the reins of his horse as the road approached the mouth of the glen, where the hills drew in sharply and the woods that cloaked their slopes crawled close to the roadside. Beyond that, the road twisted out of sight as it entered the pass. Not long now, he assured himself. Not even three miles until they reached the old monument that commemorated the building of the Wall, and then, finally, the Wall itself.

Good. It was a day’s march from the fort at Alauna and evening was already falling. The setting sun was a swathe of flame to the west, stretching the shadows. And then there was the hush which usually fell with the dusk in these lonely places, that silence against which the noise of the century on the march - the heavy stamp of iron-nailed boots, the clop of hooves, the rasp of armour plates and metalled belts - seemed uncomfortably loud. Over it, Firmus could not hear those subtle noises in the undergrowth that might betray a hidden foe. It was in these steep-sided glens that one had to be doubly on their guard, where a lone Roman patrol might be taken unawares, where the painted northmen had the advantage.

Marching next to the horse, Firmus’ optio, Lucius Villius Scaurus, cast a glance around and said in a low voice that only Firmus could hear, “Evil place, sir. I’ll be glad once we’ve cleared the hills.”

Silently, Firmus agreed. It did not matter how close they were to the Wall; they had never truly reached safety until the last man had passed into the transit fort and the gates had closed behind him.

Never taking his eyes from the road in front, he replied, “Nor I, Scaurus. Now, before the pass closes in, I want you to pull back and bring up the rear - at least until we reach the monument.”

“Sir.” Out the corner of his eye, he saw Scaurus salute, then take a step to the side to allow the rest of the century past.

Firmus scanned the road ahead, convinced that he had taken the correct precaution. The closer they drew to the wooded slope at the end of the valley, the heavier the stillness became. His horse was unusually restive, muscles tensed beneath him.

No, he realised, it was not just the dusk. It was not his soldier’s caution. The quiet was too dense. Too watchful. Too patient.

His hairs at his nape prickled in warning.

The first he knew of the attack was the spear - the high whine, the lash of air as it sliced past, barely a handspan in front of his face. His horse reared, screaming, and he pulled sharply on the reins, digging his legs into its flanks to avoid being thrown off. Still clinging with his left hand, he reached across with his right and wrested his sword from its scabbard. A war horn shrilled from the cover of the woods, in the same instant that a cry of “Picti!” went up from behind. Firmus turned his head, just in time to see a pack of blue-skinned wildmen burst, howling, from the trees.

The century descended into a commotion of shouts and curses as packs were thrown to one side, swords drawn and shields ripped from leather coverings as the men hastened to draw themselves into organisation. Spears whistled, followed by thuds and clatters and cries of pain. Another one missed Firmus by a hair’s breadth: he felt the wind rip through his helmet crest in its wake. Cursing, he swung himself from the saddle, snatching his shield from where it hung against the horse’s flank, and tossed the horse’s reins to the standard-bearer behind him.

“Here, Bassus, take these and get behind the line!” Without waiting for a response, he turned and shouted, “Shields together, men! Close the ranks - give them no opportunity to break through. Optio! Get those men into position!”

“Yes, sir!”

As the legionaries to the fore formed a tight wall of shields, staunch against the surge of Caledonians flooding down the slope, Firmus raced to take his place on the right flank, pushing stray soldiers into position where necessary, his heart pumping with the panic he couldn’t afford to show. Damn it all! Where had the wildmen all come from? There had to be at least sixty of them.

He had barely taken his place when there was a shout, and another volley of spears arced raggedly towards the Roman line.

“Raise shields!” he ordered.

The shields went up in a flash of scarlet and gold, a mere heartbeat before the missiles struck home. Firmus felt the thud of a barbed iron point into his own; with a quick movement, he brought it down, wrenched the weapon from the wood and launched it back into the screaming mob. At the same time, the swiftest of the Caledonians thundered into the Roman line. The air resounded with the clash of swords and shouts of men. Over the rim of his shield, Firmus saw the first tattoed warrior throw himself at him: a wall of woad-dyed muscle swinging a huge sword. The blade came down; Firmus reared back and felt the blow glance against his shield. In retaliation, he struck out with his left arm and rammed the boss of his shield into his assailant’s gut. With a scream, the man crumpled, and Firmus stabbed down, into his throat. Gurgling, the warrior slid out of sight, but through the spray of blood Firmus caught sight of another one coming at him, snarling at him in that gods-forsaken tongue.

The legionary beside him suddenly lurched forward with a cry, a spear rammed between two cuirass plates. His killer dived forward to meet the Roman pushing forward to meet him, sword slashing dangerously in the narrow space given. Firmus was forced to angle his shield away from his body to defend himself, and the warrior bearing down on him needed no more encouragement. With a shout of triumph, he raised his sword in both hands and cut downwards in a vicious arc. Unable to cover himself with his shield in time, Firmus could only brace himself and bring up his sword to parry. The blades met with a ringing clash. The blow came with such strength that Firmus felt the shock of it travel up his arm. A sweat broke out on his forehead, and, grimacing, he willed his muscles to hold.

The barbarian gave a bellow of frustration and swung his weapon again. Firmus had only a single breathless moment in which to stab out, forcing his opponent to leap back, out of the way of his sword point. But he had to time to be relieved: the warrior quickly gathered himself and leaped forward, face flushed and twisted with battle-rage, sword-arm raised to deliver another blow. There was no time even to contemplate the force of that blow; Firmus’ eyes caught the twitching of the muscles in the barbarian’s wrist in the heartbeat before the blade came down. Summoning his own strength, he stabbed out. He felt his sword go in, between the ribs, shattering bone. The Caledonian stopped short, face transforming from rage to disbelief. Firmus kicked the sagging body back, freeing his sword and loosing a spatter of blood. He was rewarded with a moment of disruption as the warriors behind sought to avoid their dying comrade.

But the respite was short-lived. Even as the warriors collected themselves and turned their attention back to the Romans, they were suddenly shoved aside by another striding through their midst with the gait of a man wading through a river, bellowing in a strident voice. His grey eyes suddenly caught sight of Firmus - of his centurion’s crest and medalled harness - and the battle-fury in his face gave way to something almost gleeful. Firmus, too, had time to note the gold torque around this one’s neck, the jewelled brooch pinning his cloak, the fine mail shirt, and the sleek sword in his hand.

“Ah! Centurio!” The man pronounced the Latin word as if it didn’t fit in his mouth, then, spewing something in the Caledonian tongue, came at him in a whirl of gleaming blade and flashing gold. Firmus, legs braced apart, the balls of his feet staunch on the ground, met his sword, and they collided in a screech of metal on metal. Firmus saw his assailant snarl at him over the crossed swords and his own lip curled in response. There was a moment where the blades simply strained against each other, unable to gain an advantage; then Firmus suddenly yielded, letting his sword drop before punching out with his shield. As his opponent reared back to avoid it, he thrust out, but the Caledonian shoved his silver-studded buckler in the sword’s path. Firmus spat out an oath, but was given no opportunity to follow up his strike as the barbarian’s sword struck at him again, with greater fury than ever, barely leaving him time to parry. Jupiter Greatest, but this one had the strength of a bull!

Their swords clashed again - and again - the Caledonian’s blows growing ever more furious as he tried, and failed, to force him to give way. Firmus was holding his ground - but only just; his breath was coming sharply now and sweat stung his eyes. With every clash, he could his sword-arm protesting.

No! He must hold fast. Where he had previously been aware of the ebb and flow of the fighting around him, the iron-smell of the blood, the curses and screams in each language, he brought his consciousness down to a single needle-point of concentration. On the warrior before him, and nothing else.

Jupiter... Mars... Apollo... he sent up a silent prayer with every blow... Hercules... Diana...

A spear came out of nowhere, burning a line of pain into his arm. He cried out; at the same time, the warrior with the torque suddenly changed the angle of his sword stroke, levelling it at his legs. He had no time to retaliate, could only stumble out the way of its path. But the momentum carried him further than he intended, separating him from his men. Separating him from the shield wall. In a moment, the space where he had been swarmed with barbarian warriors.

His attacker, grinning now, pressed forward to claim his victory.

“Centurion!” Out the corner of his eye, Firmus saw a flash of black and white crest as Scaurus fought his way towards him. “They’ve breached our front shields in two places; the ranks are in danger of disintegrating!”

Firmus deflected another blow from his Caledonian friend. “Then I will be there as soon as I can.” Another parry. “Return to your position” - and another - “and tell them I said to hold until then.”


In that instant, all of Firmus’ fear for his men, the reminder that they were depending on him, made him forget about his own anxiety. Time to end this ridiculous fight with this gaudy peacock.

Fired with a new determination, he feinted to the left. The Caledonian brought his shield down to ward off the sword, but Firmus saw his moment, seized it, and struck the shield away with the edge of his own. Before his opponent could grasp what had happened, he threw all his strengh into one thrust, and the point of his sword plunged into the fellow’s gut. The warrior let loose an unearthly scream, and Firmus stabbed again, this time in the groin. Blood soaked his arms as he pulled his weapon free and got out of the way of that huge body as it fell, face-down against the broken paving stones.

The warriors who had paused to watch their leader battling the Roman centurion were now thrown into a panic. In the confusion, Firmus dispatched one of them cleanly, and that decided them. They began to fall back, shouting to each other as they retreated. Within moments, he heard the cry taken up throughout the barbarian ranks, harsh voices suddenly full of fear. More warriors were now beginning to break away from the main body, and the ones that remained were terrified, unsettled enough now for the Romans to retaliate properly. And it was up to Firmus to give them the order.

His throat was dry, but he shouted so the men would hear. “Augusta!

Augusta!” The answering shouts were scattered at first, but more voices quickly took it up. The battle cry of the Second Legion. The signal for attack.

Cutting his way through to his men, Firmus shouted, “We’ve got them on the retreat, lads! Shields together, don’t give them any quarter!”

With a shout, the century pressed forward, boots trampling blood-soaked turf. Like Firmus, the men had found their strength again, and the barbarians who didn’t retreat were simply trampled beneath their advance. The Caledonian horn blared again from the trees, the raw-throated voice almost frantic as it sounded the retreat. The fragile order amongst the enemy finally broke and, hollering, they began to tear away, back up the slope towards the fringe of trees. The few die-hard fellows who remained quickly met their deaths at the end of the Romans’ swords.

When it became clear that there was nothing more to be done short of pursuing the survivors into the woods - not an option he wanted to take - Firmus raised his sword-arm. “Hold!” As the century came to a breathless halt, he stood silently, listening as the crashing in the undergrowth died away and the strains of the war horn gradually shivered into silence until the sounds that remained were the ragged breathing of the men, the moans and curses of the wounded and dying around them.

Suddenly aware of how exhausted he was, of the pain in his every muscle, Firmus let his breath out in one long, loud sigh, watching the trees for any flickers of movement.

“They gone now, centurion?” asked the young legionary next to him.

Firmus turned to him, and felt a smile break through the ebbing battle-tension. He clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I think so, Lucianus. I think so.”

There was no time for celebration. The century would be badly shaken from the ambush, and though the enemy had retreated, there was nothing to stop some of the braver or more foolhardy of the survivors rallying together and giving it another shot. And all around them lay strewn the bodies of Romans and Caledonians alike. They would have to decide how to deal with the dead and injured and make their way as quickly as possible to the Wall.

“Right, all of you, listen here,” he said loudly. “It was well fought, lads, and you’ve done me proud. But we need to get away from here as fast as we can possibly make it. That means no time for gloating.” He nodded to Scaurus. “So to begin with, optio, I want a tally of our casualties.”

“Yes, sir.”

“As for the rest of you, I want you all to set to and help the wounded. If there are any Caledonians still alive, kill them.”

“What about our dead, sir?”

Firmus paused, chewing on the corner of his bottom lip as he considered the question.

“We’ll have to leave them,” he said eventually. “When we get to the transit fort, I can report this and we can request a recovery tomorrow. But right now, I want to concentrate on getting the living away from here. Now, let’s get going.”

He joined his men in scouring the battleground. The more bodies he turned over to check for signs of life, the more disconcerted he became at the number of Romans amongst them. Raids were a fact of life on the northern frontier, it was true, but they rarely resulted in these casualties. Usually they were small bands of cattle-thieves, or one of those wandering groups of young warriors who had simply become too confident. This one was different. The numbers had been greater, the ambush too well staged. Something wasn’t right here.

He retraced his steps to the body of that gaudy young warrior he had killed. Now that he had time to examine his opponent’s trappings properly, it was obvious that he had been someone of some status. Although trampled now, his cloak was edged with fine embroidery, and the bronze hilt of the sword had been set with amber.

No, something definitely wasn’t right.

Squatting down, he unhooked the torque from the corpse’s neck and turned it over in his hands, frowning as he examined the exquisite coils, the symbols incised into the terminals. Not something one usually found around the neck of any cattle-raider.

His thoughts were broken as he heard footsteps, and turned to see Scaurus approaching. He was holding his helmet in the crook of his arm and dragging one hand through his sweaty hair.

“Well?” he prompted.

“Seventeen dead, centurion,” Scaurus said grimly. “Twenty-six are injured, and four of them are unlikely to last the night.”

“We’ll get them to Pexa and see what the medics can do for them there.” Firmus’ voice belied his disquiet. Love of Diana! That left less than half the century in good condition.

There was a leather flask of water strapped over his shoulder. He unbuckled the strap and took a long swig from it before proferring to Scaurus. Over the optio’s shoulder he watched as the men busied themselves with supporting injured comrades, making makeshift bandages out of torn garments lifted from the corpses, and passing out the shoulder packs in preparation to move out. He would examine the injured himself and make sure they were all properly assisted before giving the order to march.

“What of Bassus and the standard?” he asked.

“Oh - safe.”

“Well, that’s something, then.” He tapped the torque thoughtfully against his palm.

“I thought you said we had no time for gloating, centurion,” quipped Scaurus.

He smiled wryly. “Just a curiosity.” He attached it to his harness. “I intend to show it to the commander at Pexa.”

Scaurus gave a low whistle as he examined it. “Classy piece, isn’t it?”


“You don’t think this was a random attack, then?”

Firmus shook his head. “There were too many of them, too well placed.” He glanced towards the hills. “It was almost as if they were lying in wait for us.”

“They’re getting bolder,” Scaurus agreed.

“I’ll need to report this to the legate in Isca,” Firmus said. “The governor must be informed. He had hoped that last year’s unrest would have died down by now. If anything, it’s increased.”

“We’ll need to warn the outposts, sir,” said Scaurus. “If the Venicones are -”

“These weren’t Venicones.”

“No?” Scaurus frowned. “How can you know that, sir?”

“Look at the tattoos.” In his time of the Wall, Firmus had come to realise that one could identify a Caledonian’s tribe by his tattoos. Each tribe had its own totems and symbols, and the telling symbol for the Venicones was the hound. Every Veniconean warrior Firmus had ever encountered had the image of a hound tattoed where it could easily be seen. And looking at the corpses around them, there wasn’t a single one in sight. In fact, Firmus didn’t recognise any of the symbols decorating these warriors. They weren’t Venicones, or Damnonii who had strayed too far east. The realisation sent a new chill through him.

He looked back, towards the north. Dusk was falling now, bruising the sky with purple, and the northern end of the glen had already disappeared into shadow. It was colder now, too, and Firmus shivered. He looked back at Scaurus, and saw his own discomfort mirrored in his optio’s face.

An ambush that appeared to have been planned; warriors sporting unfamiliar tattoos...

What in the name of the gods was going on?


Harry said...

Fab stuff! Lots of echoes of Tolkein in the opening paragraphs, such vivid landscape & setting. Then you channel Ridley Scott in a pretty rousing and visceral battle sequence!

I like the small details: Firmus assuming position at the far right, 43 casualties representing more than half of the century.

My biggie question: legionaries manning the Wall? For Hadrian's Wall the legionaries built it, and then it was manned by auxiliaries through its history. I thought the evidence seemed to be the same for the Antonine Wall?

The only other question, you've got Firmus pulling out the Caledonian spear and hurling it back. I thought that spears then tended to bend upon impact, rendering them useless as return weapons? (Still, it's a pretty cool visual.)

And I have to say, Cocceius Firmus and Vindolanda's Titus Annius would have been the -perfect- duo in a Monty Python sketch. :)

Crystal said...

Damn girl, where's Jack and his great reviews when I need him??? All I can say is WOW! You know that I LOVE paranormal but the chapter I just read will have me changing my mind about books without the paranormal flavor to it. You know I love everything you write. I'm not just saying that either. You are a very talented writer and I hope you the best with everything you write;o) Good job sweet, can't wait for the next one!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Harry - Thank you very much! It's not every day you get compared to Tolkien and Ridley Scott at once. I suspect a slight exaggeration. ;P I'm glad you enjoyed it, though.

To answer your questions, for the most part, the Antonine Wall was mostly manned by auxiliaries cohorts, but there also seems to have been a legionary presence. At Auchendavy, the only soldiers recorded are legionaries of the Second Augusta, suggesting they formed at least part of the garrison, and there are other forts, like Westerwood and Croy Hill, which seem to have been occupied at some point by detachments of the Sixth Victrix.

As for the spear, I know Roman javelins were deliberately designed to break upon impact, but I'm not sure about the spearheads of the Iron Age. I'll look into it, and change if absolutely necessary. I liked the visual, too. ;)

P.S. Monty Python centurions! Yes! :D

Crystal - Thanks very much!

I'm thinking I might start inflicting an excerpt on you all every fortnight, so look for another one then. :)

Gabriele C. said...

That looks like I got competition when it comes to writing exciting battle scenes with Romans. *grin*

Seriously, it's good. You have a nice way of describing the landscape, too. I'm looking to read more - and find out who in the name of Epona those warriors are. :)

Crystal said...

WOOHOO!!!! I'll be here sweet! Have a good evening;o)

Harry said...

Erf, Tolkien. "i" before "e". My hero, and I go butcher his name.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Gabriele - Thank you. Battle scenes are the ones I tend to fret over most. Battle scenes, and sexual scenes. Freud only knows what that says about my psyche!

I think your laurels are safe, though! :)

Crystal - Hee. Now I just need to choose another good scene. Hopefully not a whole chapter this time. ;)

Harry - Lol. I very graciously overlooked that. ;)

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

This is so good - full of atmosphere, foreboding and tension. Is it the very beginning of the novel? even if not, it had me hooked.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Sarah - Thank you! It's good to know I've managed to establish some atmosphere, and that I've got someone hooked! :)

(Yes, this is the very beginning.)