Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Land the Gods Forgot

Caius Valerus Saturninus looked down the mountain pass at the troops he had been assigned. It was only two centuries, about 160 men plus half a dozen horsemen, not counting himself and his two centurions. It didn’t need to be much more than this for this mission, however. He had been assigned by the Legatus himself, which was not surprising, as he had been picked by the Legatus to be a tribune in this legion. It was something that young Saturninus had been looking forward to, a life in the army. He would serve his three year term under the Legatus, and then return to the Senate, where he would help run the government, before returning to the army once again as a Legatus himself. For now, he was in his first year, and was still learning. Saturninus, however, had the good sense to know he was inexperienced, and thus relied heavily on his centurions. One of them was riding up to him now.

“Tribune,” he said, saluting, “I am here to report that our men are nearly in position. This pass through the mountains will be secure.”

“Excellent,” Saturninus said. “Tell me, Fabinus, are two centuries really enough to hold this pass?”

“Aye, milord,” the older man said. Saturninus studied Fabinus’ face, which was covered in small scars. The experienced solider had never lead him wrong so far. “The crux of this battle will take place in the foot hills below. We merely block this pass to prevent any enemy from using it as an escape route. Two centuries are perfect for such a task.”

Saturninus nodded. It was just as the Legatus had said. Still, something bothered him about the deal, and it wasn’t that he though the Legatus had just put him out of the way. Saturninus had been in battles already, and been cut and bloodied, and had even killed a few enemy soldiers himself. No, the Legatus must have believed that the enemy would really try to escape through this pass during the battle, and wanted to have it blocked off. Still, Saturninus could not shake the feeling that something was wrong.

He found out why a few seconds later when the ground started to tremble. It wasn’t just a shake or a tumble, he realized after a few seconds. This was an actual earthquake. The earth below his horse rolled like waves, causing his horse to panic and forcing him to take the reigns hard to keep it from running away. Rocks of various sizes were falling down the mountainsides into the pass, and he quickly realized that his men were right in the path of those rocks.

“Fabinus!” he cried over the rumbling noise, “Get the men out of there! Gather everyone in that flat area above the pass!”

The centurion was already racing off to execute the order before it was fully out of his mouth, and Saturninus was right behind him. The trembling got worse, and Saturninus almost fell from his horse a few times. Several of the other horsemen were dismounting, and he decided to follow suit, and discovered that it was easier to stand upon the moving ground that it was to ride on it. It took several minutes to move the men away form the rocks. Much of the movement was panicked, however, with men running in various directions just trying to escape death. Falling boulders crushed some, and the tribune flinched every time he saw it happen.

The quake went on for a good solid ten minutes, during which time everyone did their best to get to the flat top. It actually took longer to organize the troops and see what causalities were than the time the quake lasted. In the end, very few men were lost, and no horses. The pass, however, was completely cut off. It would take the two centuries days to dig out of this. But, there seemed little choice, as they were cut off on all sides. A few hours into the digging, something changed.

“Tribune,” the soldier was crying as he ran to the tent where Saturninus and Fabinus were discussing options. “Tribune!”

Saturninus opened the tent. He saw a young soldier, panting and sweating from the run. He motioned to his guards to let him in. The soldier came in and saluted.

“Report,” Saturninus said.

“Sir,” the solder stammered, still gasping for breath. “We moved some rubble aside just a few minutes ago, and discovered something that wasn’t there before the quake. A cave, sir. A giant cave.”

Saturninus turned to look at Fabinus, who only shrugged.

“Show me,” the tribune said, and the solder nodded and headed out of the tent. The traveled away from the camp and towards where the digging was happening. Most of the men had stopped their work and were standing around staring. Once they got in site of the cave, Saturninus understood.

The cave was truly gigantic, a gash in the side of the mountain. It went both up and down, a rough, wide path leading into it. It would be possible to take the whole company of soldiers and horses into the cave mouth ten wide, it was that large. Inside was also a wonder. It was mostly what one would expect to see from a cave, rocks, stalactites and moss. However, it was brightly lit, and it was clear that there was sunlight coming in from the other side, which implied that there was an other side. Another thing that was surprising was the appearance of plants. There were long, flat palm like bushes visible at the edge of the path that led into the cave before it turned around a natural bend.

Saturninus turned to look at Fabinus, who was still staring into the cave mouth. Eventually, the Centurion turned to look at his Tribune and shrugged once again.

“I have never seen or heard of anything like this before, mlord,” he said.”

“Neither have I,” Saturninus said. “But, I think it looks promising. Maybe a shortcut through the mountains.”

Fabinus nodded. “I suggest,” he said, “that we send a small scouting party through, and see what they find out.”

Saturninus smiled. “I agree.”

Fabinus turned about and started shouting orders at the troops. In short order, a group of four horsemen were presenting themselves before the tribune, awaiting orders.

“You’re mission is simple,” Saturninus said. “Go into the cave, explore and scout, and come back here to report what you see. Don’t spend more than four hours in there, we don’t want you caught in the cave when the sun sets.”

The four horsemen nodded, and then mounted up and rode into the cave. Saturninus had to forcibly move away from the cave entrance. It was almost enticing, and entering it would be easy. But, it might be dangerous, and that’s what the scouts were for. He turned and marched back to his tent, and listened as behind him Fabinus was shouting orders at his underlings to get the men back to digging.

A little over four hours later, the scouts returned. All four of them, Saturninus sighed in relief. Their report was astonishing.

“Sir,” the senior horseman said. “What we saw down there was a miracle of the gods. The plants you can see from the opening are just the beginning. The further in you go, it becomes more like a jungle. And the sky! There was a sky in there, complete with clouds, yet through it you can see the top of the cave. We never actually exited the cave, but there was a blue sky, and even a sun! It was small, but warm, very warm. There were signs of animals, too. Big ones, like the elephants of Africa, but we never actually saw them.”

Saturninus was stunned to hear this report. It was fantastical, something out of a Greek play or Homeric story. Yet, he knew this officer reporting before him. He was a trusted man, who never gave a bad report of his scouting activities. It was impossible to think that he was lying. But a sun and sky underground? It was equally as impossible.

“Thank you, Germanus,” he told the horseman. “Unless there is anything else to report, you are free to go. Feed your men and horses.”

Germanus saluted, turned and left. Saturninus let out a loud sigh and sat down in his chair. He looked about his tent. Right now, there wasn’t much in it, mostly because he didn’t bother to bring all of his stuff with him. He saw no point to it, what with there being a battle and his assignment to the mountain pass. The action would be over before he felt that they would need a tent. He almost laughed at such a though, for here he was now, using the tent as a command center as they planned on how to keep the troops alive.

Alive. That was the key. He looked up at the two other men in the tent, his two centurions. They had just been talking about food. There wasn’t enough in the rations that had been brought to last more than a day. And it was looking like longer than that would be needed to dig through the results of the quake. But this cave leads to a jungle. With animals. And that meant food. And still a possible quicker way through the mountain than digging.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “Given the food issue we were just discussing, I feel that it may be in the company’s best interest to go down into this cave and explore. If Germanus is correct, and there truly is a jungle in there, that alone could solve our food problem.”

The two centurions looked relieved. He nodded, confidant that he had made the best decision.

“Inform the troops. Have them pack and prepare for marching in the morning. We’ll enter the cave first thing.”

The two men saluted and left the tent. Saturninus rubbed his eyes. He was tired. This had been a very trying day, and he knew that it wasn’t over yet. The rest of the day, however, went by smoothly, and it didn’t seem like long before the tribune went to sleep. The next morning, he was up before most of his troops were, thanks to Fabinus making sure he was awake. The troops were organized and ready to march in quick order. This was something that they were well versed in.

At Fabinus’ recommendation, the troops marched into the cave at a normal pace, rather than a more cautious one that would be used in combat, so as to prevent the men from gawking or balking in fear once they were in the cave. It didn’t take long for them all to see that the scouts were telling the truth. The top of the cave seemed to stretch up, further than the top of the mountain, but that was obviously an illusion. One, no doubt, aided by the blue sky one could see. An actual blue sky. And in it, off in the direction that lead deeper into the cave, a small sun could be seen, suspended into the sky. It really was a miracle of the gods. Saturninus felt like he had just entered the god’s playground.

They marched for a few hours, cutting their way through the vegetation, as it got too thick for so many people to walk easily through. Saturninus had just rode up to the front of the line with Fabinus when he heard it. It was a thumping noise, rhythmic, like a large animal walking. But it didn’t sound like an elephant. Before he could contemplate it any further, the creature broke through the jungle and attacked them.

It was truly gigantic, at least twenty feet tall. Saturninus recognized it as a lizard like creature right away, but the size and length of it astounded him. Its mouth was filled with razor sharp teeth, and a large tail swung out behind it, keeping it balanced on its two large hind legs. It also had two tiny forearms that served no purpose Saturninus could think of. Not that he had time to think. The creature was moving fast, and straight at him and his troops.

His men, however, moved equally fast. Shields were up, positions were taken, and javelins were let loose. The creature obviously had thick skin, but several of the spears pierced it, causing it to cry out in pain and alter its course. Instead of charging straight through the men, it vered to its left. It still plowed through several soldiers, but it didn’t managed to grab any with those massive jaws.

As it rode by, one soldier raised up his heavy spear and jabbed out with it, scoring a direct hit on the creatures eye. When he pulled the weapon back, the creature was in so much pain it blindly thrashed about, sweeping it’s tail around and knocking down whole units of men. It turned and ran off before more damage could be done to it, thundering into the jungle as quickly as it came.

“What in the name of Pluto was that?” Saturninus said.

“I have no idea, milord,” Fabinus said. “Some kind of giant lizard.”

“Assess causalities,” Saturninus said. “We need to keep marching, and hope that there are not any more of those things around here.”

“Indeed,” the centurion said.

It didn’t take long to find out how the men were affected, the creature barley got into the front lines of the columns marching. There were no causalities, but there were a few serious injuries. Those men were pulled and sent to the back of the column, where they could be looked after. Some quick stretchers were built for the worst of the injuries, so they could be moved easier. After about twenty minutes, the army was on the march again.

As they marched, they spotted a large lake, and at Fabinus’ recommendation, they moved to set camp at a large clearing on one side of the lake. Once they got there, they spotted the foot prints that Germanus and his scouts had seen earlier. They did, indeed, appear elephant like, but much larger. And it also appeared that the creature that made these foot prints had claws on its feet. Whatever world they had marched into, the monsters that lived here were straight out of nightmare.

Saturninus insisted that the camp be moved further away from the central part of the clearing and off to one side, where their were fewer of those large footprints. Food was gathered from the surrounding jungle, most of which seemed pretty normal. Apples and other fruits from the trees were good, and a few exotic fruit no one had seen before were also gathered. Several small animals were also in the area, like squirrels and rabbits, and it didn’t take long before each company of men were cooking their own dinners.

Later that day, Saturninus noticed something. They had been marching for several hours, but the sun did not seem to move. He wondered if this strange world was daytime all the time. That would take some getting used to, and he hoped that the end of this massive cavern was found soon. Fabinus was pretty sure that there was still some good marching hours in the day, and the army had plenty of rest after that lunch, and so the troop was starting to pack up. Just then, several of the creatures that used this lake as a watering hole showed up.

They were every bit as large as the creature that attacked them earlier, and just as obviously lizards. But all similarly ended there. These creatures were massive, with large bellies and thick round legs. They also had long tails, similar to the one the toothsome creature earlier had. But the most striking thing about them was the long, graceful neck that ended in a tiny head.

The whole camp was stopped, staring at the beasts as they moved towards the waters edge. They ignored the Romans, much to Saturninus’ relief, and a few seconds later, he realized why. When they opened their mouths, he saw no sharp teeth at all. A few of them raised their long necks and ate a few leafs off the taller trees in the area.

“Leaf eaters,” Fabinus said. “They are not predators.”

Saturninus nodded. The remarkable creatures gave all the appearances of being gentle. The ignored the Romans completely. Apparently, men were not considered a danger. And rightly so. It looked as if a whole century would be needed to take such a beast down. Though, he thought, the meat on it could probably feed a whole village for a month.

As amazing as the creatures were, they needed to move on. He was about to turn to Fabinus and order the continuation of camp break down when one of the men further down the line started shouting something. He looked in the direction the man was pointing and saw what appeared to be a column of men marching their way. It didn’t look like a large number, no more than a century, but they were marching in formation. Fabinus started yelling orders for the men to get into battle stances, and Saturninus did not wish to counter this order.

As the other column got close, he saw that they were not men. They were more lizards, though much smaller, about the size of men. They were lithe, muscular creatures, built similarly to the first thunder lizard they had first encountered. They had two powerful hind legs, a balancing tail, and two thin but muscular arms. They had long thin necks that ended in an elongated head that reminded him of a crocodiles. They wore armor, as well, complete with helmets, some of which was plumed. They were armed with heavy tower shields and long spears. Some wore cloaks, and Saturninus figured they were the officers.

It appeared at first as if they were hunting the large leaf eaters, but when one of their soldiers spotted the Romans, they stopped their march and turned to face the new threat. Officers shouted commands, and they moved into new formations. They were unfamiliar to Saturninus, who had studied the tactics of the Germanic and Celt tribes. But it was clear that they were preparing for a battle. In short order, two of the capped officers broke ranks and strode into the clearing, half way between them and the Romans. Saturninus looked at Fabinus, who nodded, and the two mounted up and rode out to meet them.

The lead lizard man stopped and spoke something. The language sounded familier to Saturninus, but he couldn’t quite place it. The thing spoke again, and that was when he realized he know what it was they were speaking.

“Greek,” he said to Fabinus, “they’re speaking Greek.”

“Really?” Fabinus said. “Are you sure about that? I don’t speak Greek.”

“Yeah,” Saturninus said. “It’s an uncommon dialect, one I don’t recognize, and they pronounce things a little differently, probably due to the shape of their mouths, but that’s what their speaking.”

“Uh, Tribune?” Fabinus said, pointing towards the lizard men. “They seem to be upset that we’re speaking to each other and not them.”

“Oh, yes,” Saturninus said. He turned to speak to the lizard man captain. “I am Tribune Saturninus, of the Roman Legion.”

“I don’t give a sharptooth’s droppings who you are, human,” the thing said in his heavily accented Greek. “You are breaking the law by wearing that armor and carrying that weapon. Who is your owner? I demand, again, that you bring him to me at once!”

“What’s he saying, sir?” Fabinus asked.

“He thinks we’re slaves,” Saturninus said. He then spoke Greek again to the lizard man. “Sir, we are no one’s slaves. We are free citizens of Rome, and are soldiers in her army.”

“Rome?” the lizard man seemed confused. “I know not of this Rome. And humans are not free anything, anywhere, nevermind soldiers. If you refuse to present to us your master, I must assume you are renegades.”

“We have no owners,” Saturninus said.

“Very well, then,” the lizard man said, and turned to walk off.

“What now?” Fabinus asked.

“Now,” Saturninus said, “we prepare for battle.”

The lizard men didn’t wait long. As soon as their officers had reached their lines, the attack started. What surprised Saturninus was the tactics they used. Not only did they speak Greek, they fought like the Greeks of old did. Two armies on an open plain, clashing until one side had clearly won. The Romans, on the other hand, had been fighting barbarian armies for hundreds of years now, and Julies Caesar had turned fighting them into an art. Plus, the Romans outnumbered the lizard men nearly 3 to 1. There were causalities on both sides, to be sure, but the Romans had few while the lizard men lost nearly half their force before turning to run.

The two centuries regrouped and took stock of their situation. While they were doing so, the earth shook once again. It wasn’t as bad or as long as the last one, but all the animals in the area spooked, and the large leaf eaters, which had largely ignored the battle, stampeded away from the lake. When the quake was over, everyone was okay, but Fabinus ran up to the tribune, a grave look on his face.

“You look like you’re thinking what I am thinking,” Saturninus said.

“We must send scouts back to the cave entrance,” Fabinus said.

“Agreed,” Saturninus said.

It was decided that the camp would be kept for the time being, and the centurions had the men put up some defenses, cutting down nearby trees for simple fortifications. This work took several hours, but kept everyone occupied. During that time, there was no other signs of the lizard men, which surprised Saturninus, who expected them to return with reinforcements. Fabinus had an explanation.

“They think of men as slaves,” he said. “And we beat them, badly. They might not be willing to let their superiors know that they were defeated by a bunch of slaves.”

Saturninus nodded. “But, still, they will be back.”

“Oh, I agree,” Fabinus, “But my guess will be not until tomorrow. Our scouts will have plenty of time to return by then, and we can decide if we should move on or stay here.”

Saturninus nodded. This place was amazing, and it needed to be claimed by Rome. These strange lizard men would be conquered, to be sure, and the resources of this wonderful cave brought to bear for the glory of the empire. But all that assumed that the scouts would return with good news, and Saturninus had doubts that they would.

It was only a short time after that the scouts returned, their horses tired from the hard run. Their report was as grim as expected. The second quake had closed off the entrance to the cave. They were trapped in here, unless they could find a second exit. Fabinus suggested that they stay at the lake camp, but Saturninus did not want to wait around to be attacked by the lizard men again. With out the resources of Rome to back them up, the less that two hundred men under his command were it for the Empire. He did not want to loose them needlessly.

So, they tore down camp, leaving up the fortifications, and marched on. Unsure of which direction to move in, they decided upon the idea of going the opposite direction the lizard men fled in. As they traveled down the road, something extraordinary happened. Saturninus was riding along with the middle of the column when the notice came down that they were stopping. This intrigued him, as he did not give such an order. He road to the front to find Fabinus already there.

“What’s going on here?” the grizzled old vet was saying.

“Well, sir,” said a rather frightened looking soldier. “It’s a girl, sir.”

“A girl?” both Fabinus and Saturninus said at the same time.

The two ran forward, and sure enough, there was a girl there. She looked to be in her late teens, and scare out of her mind. Saturninus couldn’t blame her; she was surrounded by a large amount of heavily armed men. She was dressed in rather primitive looking clothing, cut from animal hides, but they also looked like they were meant to resemble a toga. He came up to her, and spoke to her in Greek.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “We are soldiers from Rome, a land from the surface, outside the cave. We have not come to harm you. My name is Tribune Saturninus. What’s your name?”

“I am Elpis,” she said. She never looked down and kept eye contact with Saturninus, which impressed him, given that she also looked terrified.

“Excelent, Elips,” he said. “Is your village near by? Can we take you there?”

He was hoping that her village would be large enough to support his army and give them a place to stay for a few days while they scouted for another exit. Or, better, they might know where another exit might be.

“It is near by,” she said. “You are not slaves of the Tarn’i? You carry weapons, and they have not killed you?”

“Tarn’i?” he asked, then he realized who she must mean. “The lizard men?” She nodded. “Yes, they have tried to kill us, but we fought them off. We are Roman soldiers, and we are not slaves.”

Her eyes went wide. She said something under her breath, and then looked back at him again.

“You must come with me,” she said. “You must. My father and the other elders will want to see you.”

And so the column changed direction once more. The village, as it turned out, was very close, less than an hours march. They arrived at a very simple village, but an ingenious one. It was hidden in the jungle, built on a large hill side in such a way that unless you were marching on it through the jungle itself, it would be nearly impossible to see. And it was a site to behold. There was farmland on the far side of the hill, but the farm animals were more of those strange lizards in this area. Saturninus learned from Elips that her peopled referred to them as Dinosaurs, or thunder lizards. It was an apt name.

The army paused outside the town, though they were clearly visible by the curious members of the town. Saturninus took a small troop, including some horsemen, into town with him. The locals seemed impressed with horses, having never seen them before. In short order, Saturninus and Fabinus were introduced to the town elders, a small group of five men who ruled the town. They all seemed impressed by the fact that they weren’t slaves.

“I am confused,” Saturninus said. “Are you not also free men?”

They looked at each other, before the eldest, and old man named Aesop said that they were renegades. Most of the people in the village had been slaves before, but they had escaped. There was a massive slave uprising several years ago, and enough slaves escaped into the jungle and survived that they built this town. Only the youngest, none older than five, were born free in the village. It is an unusual situation for them, but one they are willing to fight for. The lizard men, these Tarn’i, have been searching for this village for some time, because the younger men have been making raids on the slave camps to free more slaves.

Saturninus nodded. It took him some time to translate the oddly spoken version of Greek. It was like something from several hundred years in the past, but yet spoken like a living language. He then told them his story, and who the Roman soldiers were. Aesop and the rest of the elders were impressed. Warriors form the surface. Might as well have been from Olympus, for all that the surface meant anything to them.

Then the two set down to business. The Roman’s needed food and supplies. The villagers needed protection. It took some explaining that this was not slavery, but the village agreed to become a part of the empire, and in return, the soldiers would protect them. As before, the troops set about putting up fortifications.

It turned out to be a good thing. The Tarn’i had found them. It wasn’t the small force that had been before, but a full army, thousands strong. Saturninus’ heart sank when he saw them. This time the Romans were outnumbered. But, Fabinus came up to his side.

“Sir,” he said. “We can take them.”

“What?” Saturninus said.

“They may outnumber us,” Fabinus said, “but we can outfight them. If our ex-slaves here are any indication, these lizard men have never seen fortifications like this. We have a small but effective highly trained soldiers who have fought larger numbers of foes before. I say again, milord, we can take them.”

Saturninus nodded. He had little doubt that he and his men could save this little village and route the enemy army. And it was only fitting, he reasoned. It was likely the path through the jungle created by his men marching through it that lead the lizard men here. Aesop tried to tell Saturninus that this was not the case, that it was only a matter of time before they had been caught, but Saturninus didn’t care. He needed to protect these people, and that was all there was to it.

The enemy didn’t even bother with an officer this time. Saturninus wasn’t surprised. Why send an officer to deal with escaped slaves? He smiled a grim smile and Fabinus, who returned it. Let them come. Today, there would be a reckoning. Today, the Roman empire would come to this land forgotten by the Gods, and it would leave its mark. Today, Saturninus would move from an inexperienced officer to the ruler of a small village, and perhaps even his own empire.

Today was the beginning.

The End

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