The Element: A Short Story (Part II)
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 leaped onto his feet, grabbed his gladius and with a 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 barbotine jar which he hurled at the third.
A second roar resounded, as Octavian leaped 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 defense 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. As they collided, 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 unraveling 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.”