The Element: A Short Story (Part I)
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.