Winter was the most beautiful and the most awful time to stand guard on Hadrian’s Wall. As I looked out across dawn-lit hillsides sparkling with frost, the forests in the distance and the smoke rising from barbarian villages, the pale stillness had a grandeur as stark as my mood. I could enjoy it for less than an hour before ice gnawed at the tips of my toes, two layers of socks not enough beneath open toed sandals. My armour carried the bitter cold through layers of wool to my chest.
I would be sorry to leave these sites behind, but not the sensations. I missed the warmth of home.
Unsteady footsteps and the bump of a shield hitting stone steps told me Tullius had been drinking before his shift. We all coped how we could, and the centurion turned a blind eye to more than he had before Albus’s death.
Everyone had loved Albus, with his smiles and his endless laughter.
“Morning, Caius.” Tullius leaned his shield against the battlement and blew plumes of frosted air. “I swear, my shit froze to me this morning.”
I grunted in return. I hadn’t the heart for Tullius’s banter.
“Of course, with the bath house frozen, no-one will smell the difference.” He elbowed me in the ribs, winced as he hit my armour, and winked. When I didn’t respond he frowned. “You alright? You look even more miserable than those bastards over the wall.”
“It’s nothing,” I said. Sharing my decision would only make it harder to follow through.
“Nothing my arse.” He unhooked a small amphora from his belt and held it out to me. “Come on, have a drink, tell Uncle Tullius all about it.”
“No drinking on duty.” I resisted the urge to grab the amphora and fling it over the wall, to break something for the sake of breaking something.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Tullius took a swig, put the amphora away and turned to me. “Come on, we’re stuck up here together. Are you really going to make me suffer through your foul mood all day?”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I said.
“Like piss there’s nothing,” Tullius said. “We’ve been through hell together. Battles, sieges, that grim little whorehouse in Londinium. We survived decimation together, had to kill our own comrades for the sake of discipline and mother Rome. After all that, are you really going to lie to my face?”
I wanted to close my eyes. This would be easier if I couldn’t see him. But whenever I closed my eyes I saw the decimation. One man in ten from our unit beaten to death by the rest because we had retreated in battle. Albus’s skull giving way beneath my blows.
“Fine,” I said. “You want to know what’s wrong? I killed Albus.”
“We all killed Albus.” Tullius’s voice went quiet. “And the rest of them.”
“My blow, Tullius. My blow caved in his face. Teeth flying. Eye bursting. Cheek smashed open. I saw it, and now I see it every night.”
“We had to.” He took a drink. “Orders.”
“And that makes it better?”
“We ran,” Tullius said. “We ran and left others exposed. We knew the price, and we paid it.”
He downed the contents of his amphora and flung it away. It shattered in the courtyard below, but there was no-one outdoors to see it.
“That doesn’t make it right,” I said. “And that won’t take away the nightmares.”
Tullius reached out to pat my shoulder. I shook him off.
“Then they send us out here.” Now that I’d started, the words wouldn’t stop pouring out of me. “I grew up in Palestine. This place is beautiful – the trees, the clouds, the rain. But the cold is killing me. I can’t think, I can’t sleep, and when I lie awake all I see is Albus.
“I’m going to desert.”
“Are you mad?” Tullius stared at me. “If they catch you they’ll kill you.”
I shrugged, a difficult manoeuvre beneath all my layers. “At least this will be over.”
“And what about the rest of us?” Tullius said. “What about me? You’re my best friend in this place, and this place is my whole life.”
“You’ll still have your friend wine,” I snapped. “She’s seen you through so far.”
Tullius froze, looking around to see if his raised voice had attracted attention. But nothing short of a full assault was bringing anyone out of the barracks in a British winter.
“They decimated us once for cowardice,” he whispered, looking at me with a feverish intensity. There were tears in the corners of his eyes. “They killed Albus. Fucking Albus. What do you think they’ll do to us if people start deserting? If they don’t catch you, who do you think they’ll punish instead?”
A chill gripped me. Icy tendrils pierced my heart more deeply than winter ever could.
“I didn’t think-” I started.
“No, you didn’t,” Tullius said. He sighed.
Then he flung his arms around me. I could feel the warmth of his cheek against mine and smell cheap red wine on his breath.
“Good luck,” he whispered. “I hope they never catch you.”
He took a step back. As I stared at him in shock he looked all around.
“Go now,” he said. “No-one’s coming out until our watch is done, and then I’ll tell them you’re in the latrine or something. If the centurion’s busy you might get a day’s head start.”
Freedom stretched out before me along the dirt road south.
An image flashed into my mind. A face giving way beneath a club. This time it was Tullius, not Albus.
“No.” I turned to face north across the wall. “I’d never make it.”
I looked out across frost-shrouded hills. There was no beauty there any more, just a numbing cold.
* * *
Decimation was a real disciplinary practice in the army of ancient Rome. If a unit was found guilty of cowardice in battle then they would draw lots. One man in ten was beaten to death. Their comrades had to do the killing.
I’ve been thinking about decimation more than usual recently. I’m reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Complete Roman Army, and then I saw a particularly harrowing and convincing portrayal of decimation in an episode of Spartacus. I was struck by just how psychologically harrowing the punishment must have been for some of the survivors, alongside the terrible brutality of the deaths. And so I explored that in the best way I know how – a story.
If you’d like to read a less harrowing and more exciting take on ancient Roman then try my historical fantasy novella Ocean Gods, Roman Blades. And if you’d like to receive short stories like this straight to your inbox every Friday then please sign up for my mailing list – you’ll even get a free e-book.