The Element: A Short Story
Beyond the outline of a montane landscape, the sun, like an orange fireball, slowly retreated from a sky awash with shades of yellow, purple and red. A family of storks flying in close formation ascended further and further, making an impressive display of silhouetted bodies and wings, against the picturesque background.
Dutifully shifting his gaze away from the captivating scene, a tall sentry atop the North Gate tower adjusted his brace and turned his attention to the dying activities below him in the Castra Stativa. The scene was commonplace. Movements of soldiers, voices of commanding officers, neighing of horses, clunking of artillery, hammering of tent pegs, tinkling of metal, shuffling of countless feet and hooves. Clouds of smoke arose from crackling fires as spearmen, archers, swordsmen, and bearers gathered their weapons, slaves ran final errands while guards made finishing rounds to ensure everything was in place before retiring for the night.
The sentry’s gaze lifted from the lights already burning along the Via Praetoria and slowly swept across the workshops, barracks, stables, civilian settlements and came to rest upon the camp headquarters at the center.
A New Transition
Within the confines of those headquarters, flickering flames from lamps and torches cast their glow onto a room furnished with decor and ornaments of ivory, bronze, wood and marble, having been obtained either as spoils of campaigns or gifts and items of tribute from foreign lands. Indigenous sculptures along with wooden chests, backless seats, footrests and other pieces of furniture occupied spaces somewhat meticulously selected for them. At the center, a company of robust military leaders sat clustered around a wide table covered with a spread out map of the entire region which, like a pictorial chronicle of war, told its own story. Conspicuous drawings outlined the progress battles had taken over the months and specific territories that had been subdued by Roman forces.
It was late January. The campaign against the Hermmeti had been long, but successful. Its capital had fallen to the Roman military machine and the generals had wasted no time in ensuring its citadels and forts were razed to the ground. Their combined troops had crushed the renegade forces and overpowered the insurrectionists. Even isolated rebel factions in surrounding areas had surrendered to the invading forces of Rome and the fires of their collective resistance had been stomped out. As would be expected in the wake of such decisive conquest, congratulatory messages were streaming in from centers of power in other colonies and protectorates scattered all over the known world.
They knew they had the attention of the Senate.
However, unlike the generals and legions under his command, the mirth of triumph did not ease Atellius from a distracted frame of mind. Between administrative duties in his garrison and routine appointments, he found himself constantly reflective. Despite the hard-earned victory and well-deserved accolades, the prospects of launching further into provinces yet to be conquered or advancing his military plans had been stalled by the political turbulence that was now brewing in Rome. Though the imperial center flourished in glamour, pomp, wealth and reveled in her might, her army was still engaged in an inevitable struggle to define and operate in a changing identity while achieving set objectives within the grand scheme of things. Challenged by a widening cesspool of greedy politics, the army seemed to be slowly losing its collective influence in internal affairs.
The situation, worsened by the lack of a unified voice, had gone on long enough. The commander was not the only one who felt convinced that the ascension of a ruler with a military background had become imperative. Others occupying seats of government already shared the same opinion. He wasted no time in ordering his own delegation to Rome in support of those who stood for a new phase of military justice. Originally, he had felt inclined to go in person, but after some reflection, thought the better of it. It was no secret here among deployed forces that things were not as stable or predictable as they used to be back at home. Hence, his counselors were quick to object to any thought of his departure, citing the adverse consequences it would visit upon the morale and unity of the troops within the colony.
Not that the warning was anything foreign to him. History abounded with archives of how badly things could turn out on the field, even for a thoroughly planned and executed campaign. An absentee commander during a transitory period could potentially cast a wave of disillusionment over troops and their generals, weakening their resolve long before any clear move was made. Worse still, colonized subjects could interpret this as their opportunity to regroup and renew insurrections. Beyond question, military errors were at this stage unaffordable. The memory of the campaign’s heavy toll on lives and equipment over the past several months was still fresh on many minds and the thought of a repeat, counteractive battle was least to be desired. Thus, as things got increasingly volatile in Rome, the commander reluctantly remained in the fortress with his generals and troops, primarily occupied with maintaining their stronghold upon the freshly conquered territory. With mixed feelings, he awaited an official response from the imperial city.
The imperial city. The center of the world whose trends without question, had taken on an entirely new course since the overthrow of the last Flavian emperor. This change was not just in matters political; for the ousted ruler was none other than the son of Agrippinah the younger, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Otherwise known as Nero.
Just beyond the perimeter, no one noticed the archers concealed behind a curtain of leaves and branches, or the tar containers that had been carefully maneuvered into position using a simple system of pulleys. From here, a considerable section of the camp was in full view, including the civilian settlements. The archers were under specific orders as they set their sights on the stalls, an easy target from where they had hidden themselves. They were now quiet, awaiting their signal.
Discourse on Strategy
“With all due respect Commander, we cannot risk the lives of our legions without weighing all the facts. It will not go well with the support we are expecting in form of supplies and reinforcements,” a dark-haired, assertive general remarked from across the table.
“Moreover, recent developments may have brought policy to a new level altogether,” seconded another. “It is too early to speculate on whether the outcome of imperial proceedings will be for or against our favor. I too agree with Flavus.”
“That’s commendable. I don't.”
The former speaker’s brow corrugated as he turned to face the bald, stone-faced general seated third to his right.
“Well, think, Corvinus. Galba’s ascent to power has also opened up a new political margin which is exploitable. One doesn’t have to be a political expert to realize that conniving persons have been itching for this opportunity and are doing so even as we speak. No one knows for sure how long it will take before the present situation boils down to a form of governance that is more stable. Till then, any hasty move on our part can only prove counterproductive.”
“In short, Verres, you doubt the viability of the imperial state.” Corvinus observed.
“That entirely depends on how you define the word.”
“Look, let’s not dispute over this,” proposed another general. “Truth be told, we must be willing to give room for change and we need to be prepared for whatever forms that change may arrive in. This however, does not mean we wallow in procrastination. Octavian?”
“Flavus is right,” Octavian responded without hesitation. “I’d add we must brace ourselves for anything, including limited support from Rome. We dare not proceed with the same assumptions some of our predecessors made in the past which led to incalculable losses. Why should history have to repeat itself?”
The tough-looking, bearded character seated next to Verres clenched a fist on the table as he cleared his throat and added his voice to the debate. “We need to be decisive on matters of urgency. It is not becoming for leaders of any army to act impulsively, with neither regard for reason nor strategic sense.”
“And have I ever pointed out, most excellent Scaeva, how by the Roman pantheon I am glad you are not the one in command of these legions?”
“You have Ocella, and as always, I am immensely flattered by your sentiments. But as you well know by now, our task remains incomplete until Bythenia too has been turned into a protectorate. For this, we require more than mere a show of force. We need an airtight agenda, a finely orchestrated mode of operations. This may require more time than you are willing to allow.”
“Listen, all of you,” Verres proffered. “Whether his critics like it or not, the emperor is consolidating power. True, we have not received word concerning the senate's views over funding the next campaign yet and indeed, there is already much to be done here. Even so, our troops cannot be kept in this type of ambiguity for long; not with all these areas teeming with barbaric hordes waiting for the slightest opportunity to tip the balance. In times such as these, our forces look to us for a sense of direction. We do need to make a decisive move.”
The attack came swiftly.
As they manned their assigned posts at the stables, the guards did not perceive the danger encroaching upon them until it was too late. Powerful arms from seemingly nowhere muffled, disarmed and quickly dragged them backwards into the sheds, despite their valiant efforts to break free and raise the alarm.
Within moments, foreign figures emerged and quickly took over their positions. The perturbed neighing of horses however, did not go unnoticed by the sentries of the North and West Gate towers. Still, from the angle of their broad vantage point, nothing out of the ordinary seemed to develop and they eventually went on to preoccupy themselves with other affairs.
A few reservists carrying out their final errands among the tents along the Via Principalis edged closer and some torches were raised toward the direction of the scuffle. However, the reassuring sight of armed persons keeping watch at assigned positions there, placed all observing parties at ease and they carried on with their duties without a second thought.
A Secret Mission
Protus, the intelligent, heavy-set phlegmatic leader of the infantry was lending voice to his views. “We do need to know whether approval has been granted for funding, resources and reinforcement. Our recent conquest is unquestionable, but we have also suffered the loss of many brave and promising soldiers. Their numbers will need to be replaced before we rethink a new campaign. Even the battle-weary would be reinvigorated by the arrival of fresh troops, supplies and ammunition. My suggestion, noble and excellent Commander, is that we first send out exploratores who will report back to us concerning the situation across the border.”
Marking a spot on the broad map that stretched out before them, he continued, “Here, at the western coast, is where they make their secret entrance. This way, they will be able to cover much of the terrain without being discovered. Then they advance northeastward, splitting up near these ragged hills in order to begin their mission. At the end of the exercise, they regroup on the same spot and make their way back to our garrison where-“
“Objection,” Ocella interjected. All eyes turned to him. “You are quite beside yourself, Protus. Even if your so-called spies manage to get that far, the enemy would make pieces of them before they got to the main river. Have you forgotten the west is inhabited by the infamously ruthless water tribe?”
“No airtight military proposal is void of the element of risk,” Octavian countered. “As we have discussed before, we do need to pursue the most viable yet cost-effective line of action here. Again, it’s all about tact. Our strength lies not with direct means of confrontation as with the reliability of the intelligence we possess at this time. By ensuring its accuracy from the beginning, we have a quicker fighting chance of securing yet another victorious campaign. That said, specialized field training has gone into preparing our exploratores and we of all people ought to have more faith in their skills and experience than in what any enemy may be planning at this point.”
“Octavian is right. When environments change, it is in order that military tactics change with them.” Laevinus seconded. “The said tribe is not omnipresent and their villages can be circumvented from this point…”
As the discussion progressed before him, Atellius found himself again drifting in his own thoughts. News of the events of this recent campaign must have already spread further than even they were aware of. A combative move now, before neighboring communities had the chance to mobilize themselves into rival camps, especially in Bythenia, made all the sense in the world.
On the other hand, the commander understood only too well how hazardous and costly unpreparedness could be. He was still a sentry several years ago, when word came into their camp concerning the appalling defeat of the Roman legionaries at the battle of Malta. At the time, he and others were convinced that this defeat had resulted from insufficient knowledge of the territory the army was getting into as well as an underestimation of what they were up against. Needless to say, it mirrored the routing of Julius Caesar’s own legions in Asia Minor decades before.
Even in the face of his latest dramatic victory over the Hermmeti, he knew that weaknesses in their strategy as well as carelessness had cost them a much quicker victory. They had won by conquering the enemy’s capital, but they had also suffered losses in the battles leading to it. Had they invested more time in preparation than in dispatching combat teams, the territory would have been theirs much sooner. As it stood now, precaution was no longer a commodity they could trifle with. This was also the reason for what he was about to do.
The intruders, now having obviated all suspicions toward themselves, quietly stripped off the armory of the guards they had just disarmed. Moments later, three dozen other figures from the stables emerged to join them, their collective black vestments blending in with the dark shadows cast by the torches. Together, they made their way undetected along the Via Principalis, their trained movements hardly attracting any attention from the weary soldiers reposing in their makeshift tents.
There was silence in the room.
Atellius’ penetrating gaze went round, from one face to the next before clearing his throat.
“I have been weighing the options before us, as have all of you. Each opinion that has been raised has merit and the differences naturally arise from the fact that we are viewing the matter before us from different angles. I agree, that while emissaries are bringing word of the arrival of the empire throughout the various districts and provinces, we need to put together a plan to organize spying teams that would cross over into bordering Bythenia. Protus is right. This needs to be done as soon as possible.”
He looked over at Laevinus. “Find among our Auxilia in the fortresses, the most loyal and pair them with reliable members of our own legion in preparation for the mission.”
“The matter of reinforcement, additional supplies, manpower and funds for construction has already been forwarded to Rome and is being considered even as we speak. Whatever other information they may seek from us will be conveyed by the delegation I dispatched last week.”
Turning to the controversial general, he pointed out, “We will exercise patience, Ocella, as it behooves us, until the arrival of feedback from Rome. It would be in our best interests to fortify the colony as much as we can for now. This applies to you as well, Corvinus.”
As the two nodded, the commander’s attention shifted.
The general did not need to wait for the question to know what was required of him.
“Sir, my men are already working in different parts of the territory, ensuring the Roman law is enforced. I have received word that the process on the North and West has been effective and the response affirmative.”
“Excellent. I will require updates on a daily basis.”
“The wounded survivors of the infantry are being given priority as per your orders.”
“Have all been accounted for?”
“All except for those who perished in the swamp, sir.”
The commander gestured his consent and then turned to Octavian.
“We have no time to waste on messy insurrections. No details concerning ground movements should escape our attention. Reports on the patrols are to come to me directly. Order your men to spread out and cover the villages to the east of the lake, the wooded plains and the communities beyond the ravine.”
“Verres? Can I count on you to ensure the company in question will be well supplied for the two fortnights?”
“Good. See to it.”
Atellius paused, his sharp eyes once more penetrating the countenances of his audience. Presently, he leaned forward and clasped his hands together.
“I expect to be kept posted on developments from every assigned duty station. We have spent sufficient time relishing the victory of the first campaign and I am pleased with the progress and the efforts each of you has made in this transition. However, we cannot afford to be distracted. Another season is about to begin. We all have much to do. Stay focused and expect detailed instructions as we move along.”
“For now,” his gaze lifted to the darkness beyond the room, “my instruction is for you to get into your tents. We have a long day ahead of us.”
Ocella, apparently still dissatisfied with the course things were taking blurted out, “My lord, with all due respect-”
Scaeva waved him quiet. The commander was already rising to his feet.
“This meeting is adjourned.”
All it took was a chance glance outside through the lattice of the meeting room for Octavian’s conditioned senses to stir him up. To everyone’s surprise, he instinctively leapt onto his feet, grabbed his gladius and with cry of warning clambered onto the table, sending both his chair and a table lamp crashing onto the ground.
The sound of shattering wood and breaking splinters subdued his voice, as the door suddenly gave way and several armed figures burst into the room. In response, driven more perhaps by instinct than reason, the situation registered and all present sprang into a flurry of action!
Protus and Flavus, both unsheathing their weapons simultaneously, engaged the first two intruders in close combat while Laevinus’ hands quickly went to work, seizing a sella stool and a barbontine jar which he hurled at the third. A second roar resounded, as Octavian leapt from the table, sword in hand, his agile frame descending heavily upon the fourth. Porcelain shattered on the ground as Verres scrambled for a tribune’s javelin and whatever means of defence available to him while Scaeva teamed up with Corvinus and Ocella in one daring confrontation to subdue the rest.
Laevinus’ stool missed but the jar did not. As it shattered on the ground upon impact, the third intruder went sprawling backwards onto Octavian and his antagonist. In the collision, Octavian lost his grip and his weapon went spiraling out of reach. His opponent regained balance and took the advantage and the general soon found himself locked in a powerful sleeper hold. Clasping his hands together, the latter turned sideways, raised his arms and plunged his left elbow backwards. The stranglehold involuntarily loosened and Octavian rolled over to retrieve his gladius.
Corvinus fell, locked in single combat with his opponent, and as they used the ground for leverage they were at a draw. This was not the case however, with Protus and Flavus, whose sword wielding skills were quickly gaining over their rivals, driving them backwards toward the door. Scaeva dodged two blows to the head before knocking his opponent over with a centurion’s helmet, while Ocella plunged himself into his rival’s midsection, sending them both crashing into a rack of provisions. The wide arc from Octavian’s blade missed an opponent by inches and ripped instead through a patch of scrolls stashed on a shelf, sending parchment and splinters flying. In an outmaneuvering struggle, Laevinus managed to thrust another intruder backward with such force the latter sprawled over a chest and fell heavily onto an injured opponent scampering for safety from a charging Scaeva.
Just outside, pandemonium was spreading like wildfire. Soldiers awoke to the sight of stables engulfed in flames. Unbridled horses were galloping amok everywhere in desperate panic, knocking down tents and everything else in their path. The noise, commotion and smoke made it difficult to ascertain exactly who or what was responsible, but the prevailing state of affairs pointed to a nocturnal invasion by mercenaries.
Officers in charge arrived to find quartermasters had already opened up sheds and began distributing tools and weapons as fast as they could. Almost spontaneously, a human chain was set up, stretching from the stables to the water trenches and those at the front were soon engaged in battling the ferocious flames. The cavalry fought to bring rampaging horses under control while keeping damage to life and property at the lowest possible level.
Beyond the forum, a military tribune barked orders just as another pair of tents came crashing to the ground under raw equine force. Soldiers found themselves compelled to use poles, carts, ropes and whatever else was available to stall and secure the terrified mares.
One centurion tripped and fell in the attempt to rescue a comrade trapped beneath a collapsed tent. He regained his posture only to find himself directly on the path of stampeding horses. Simultaneously, there was a sudden movement atop a cart to his left and in a flash, the weight of a body fell against him, effectively rolling him out of harm’s way. He felt the swift rush of air, as powerful muscles and galloping hooves missed him by inches. His rescuer, an equestrian officer, aided him to his feet.
The sentry at the North Gate tower looked down upon the unravelling scene below.
He raised a trumpet to his lips and blew.
A loud crashing sound was followed by the splintering of wood as the wooden frame holding the lattice suddenly came undone. There was a brief pause in the commotion as everyone turned to see armed soldiers dropping into the room through the open space with apelike agility.
Reinforcement. To no small relief, the tide of engagement was now in the generals’ favour.
Registering this new turn of events, the intruders resorted to an abrupt change of tactic.
For one brief moment, Protus turned from a retreating opponent to be met by an unexpected scene. One of the strangers had the edge of his sword against the commander’s chest.
Presently, the man raised his voice above the bedlam.
“All of you. Drop your weapons. Now!”
Months later, legions of Roman divisions were camped at the base of a hill, making final preparations for their marching orders as camp prefects, deputies and generals took care of administration.
At a crest on the other side of that hill, two commanders stood together, quietly surveying the landscape of Bythenia spread out before them.
The shorter, burly one with his arms crossed, presently lifted his eyes and gazed thoughtfully at the horizon, then turned to face his colleague.
“These intruders were not mercenaries at all, were they?”
The other lifted a flask to his lips, drank thirstily and wiped his mouth before resealing it.
“No Vociferus. They were speculatories.” He responded, referring to the covert agents of the Roman world, trained in spying and infiltration.
“I have it that they were under orders from yourself, to invade your own garrison?”
Atellius nodded. “There was a lesson here and my task was to ensure everyone involved learnt it in the best way possible.”
“Through an operation, instigated right from the start? You do realize the impact of this, I mean, you effectively routed your own camp.”
Vociferus countenanced a mixture of incredulity and amusement as he received the flask handed to him by his colleague, and began quenching his own thirst. When done, he spread out his arms. “Tell me about it.”
“First, the speculatories joined us under the guise of bricklayers and carpenters. I and a few others kept their true identities hidden till the night I summoned a meeting with my generals. They then set to work, using the fires, the bolting horses and other diversions in the garrison as part of their ploy. Their strategy succeeded in disordering the camp, though their main objective was to penetrate the headquarters undetected. When they finally did, my generals managed to hold their own, but not for long.
“That night, I observed firsthand how those under my command would react potentially, given a completely unexpected set of circumstances. Though unknown to them at the time, this was all part of their training. Needless to say, I had to eventually step in and take charge of matters myself before everything spiraled out of control.
“It is one thing to be successful on a campaign field. It is quite another to be truly aware of your own internal condition. I could tell we were all well versed with matters political, past and future. Yet when it came to the immediate present and our internal security, my generals seemed to have let their guard down.”
His tone became reflective and his gaze slowly shifted away from his colleague to the distant mountains beyond.
“Such ignorance simply snatches the advantage right from under your nose. I could not risk allowing past successes or speculations about the future to make us complacent, blinding us from the fact that things present could turn suddenly and without warning. Aside from numbers, skills and weaponry, there are sure means by which an army’s internal strength and level of preparedness can be tested. It so happens that one of these commander, is the element of surprise.”