I am Demalion of Macedon, conscripted into the legions at the age of eighteen. I have marched through freezing snow and summer hell, I have seen my friends die around me and have killed the enemies sent against me. I have stood against the cataphracts of Vologases, the heavy cataphracts sent by the King of Kings of Parthia to destroy us. I have seen victory and have tasted defeat and know that death is better than the loss of honour. And so today, in late summer in the twelfth year of the reign of the Emperor Nero, at the valley of Beth Horn, north of Jerusalem, I will stand with the four hundred men who have stayed with me to hold the standard that our fellows might flee in the night. I will fight under the eagle and I will die.
If I slept at all this night, it was standing up by the fires and I did not dream. I am awake now, and dawn is not yet on us. we gather round camp fire laid for three thousand, not two tent parties of eight to each fire, but one man, or two, or none at all, as we sensed the coming dawn and gathered closer together than we had in the night. Horgias was with me, and Tears, and Lupus, our legate; we three were left of the eight who had trained together on the snow-ridden mountains of Syria, we who had endured frostbite and floggings, who had marched through mud to our knees; Beth Horon feels like a pleasant place to die, flat and mellow and flanked by the high sides of the pass so that we can present our faces to the enemy and not fear for our flanks.
I don't think any man amongst us begrudged those who had fled. In that, if nothing else, it was like the battle at Lizard Pass, when we counted ourselves lucky to be allowed to face the cataphracts sent against us. The Parthian King had ordered out his heaviest cavalry with their long spear-axes and armoured horses and we had survived longer than anyone had imagined, and only been captured at the end because he wanted prisoners to use as bargaining counters to defeat the other legions. Here, now, was no chance of capture: we knew that, and were glad.
Through the night, Taurus, the centurion, had organized the men into groups of four to forage for firewood, noisily. The rest of us had built fires, lit them, stood around them, spoken quietly, lauged, cooked, shared a meal and then passed on to the next one and done the same again, all with our standards at the centre, not so close to any fire that they might be counted, but close enough that the Eagle caught the light of a dozen fires, was burnished by them, so that it hung over us, suspended in the black night, casting its own light back down on our hels and our armour as we moved and talked and moved again. Nobody slept, not truly.
I came upon our signaller, Heraclites, whom we call Tears, just before daybreak. He was sitting on an upturned shield with his knees hugged to his chin. He said nothing as I came near, only shifted a little by his fire, as if to make space in a crowd. He had been baking and now, he hands me a new-baked oatcake, hot and steaming, scorched a little at the edges as I like it, so that I can taste fire and corn and the melting sweetness at its heart, where the dough is still soft. He is dressed, as am I, in a mixture of new armour and hand-me-downs from the long-dead men of his line. I wear a shirt of mail, which is new to us; he has boiled leather with strips of iron riveted in horizontal scales across it. My helmet is of Gaulish design, with flaps at the cheek and a handspan at the back to protect my neck. His is older, with shorter cheek pieces and no neck guard and he says he can move more freely in it. I have my grandfather's war bow; I am the only one among us who can shoot it with any accuracy. I hold it now, and fire light ripples the white wood in colours of amber, copper, bronze. It is full bellied and beautiful, with horn tips and a silken cord. I love it as I love my horse and my sword: my friends in battle.
Presently, I put it away and we sit in silence, watching the flames until Horgias and Taurus come to stir the embers of a fire nearby and we join them and lay on more wood. When, shortly after, Macer joins us, and then Lupus, we are complete. Tears makes more oatcakes and shares them and I have one in my hand, drinking in the scent, when Macer lifts from his tunic a small fired pot, the size of a hen's egg, with honey bees marked in scored lines around the skies. 'I have this,' he says, and we all look at him, for the shyness with which he says it; Macer has never been a shy man.
'Honey? Tears laughs. "Have you carried it all the way from Antioch just for this?'
'Further than that.' Macer is grinning like a fool. 'I brought it from Moesia when I was ordered to leave the Seventh. I thought that if I ever had occasion to share it, I would know i had truly become a man of the Twelfth.' He stops smiling.' 'In Antioch, I thought I would die of old age and never have had the chance to open it. Many times, these last days, I have thought I might die with it still in my tunic, and that you would find it when you stripped my body.'
With all eyes on him, Macer drew his knife and cracked open the jar and the smell of honey drenched us, like the smell of waxed bowstrings, multiplied a thousandfold. As a priest at a sacrifice, Macer used his knife to lift a nugget of comb from the pot. He offered it first to Lupus, then second to me, then Horgias, Tears and Taurus. Last, he helped himself and spread it on his oatcake.
'There's just enough,' he said, 'Some god guided us to this; just this.' He raised his head. I have never seen his eyes so clear, so set in their purpose. Macer the Mournful had gone in the night, and a new man inhabited his skin. 'I would hold the standard,' he said, 'If you will permit me?'
'Every man wil hold the standard,' Lupus said, 'All four hundred of us. It's the only order; That we die before it is taken. And we had best make ready.' Lupus pushed himself to standing. 'I can see you all by more than firelight now. And if I can see you, the enemy will soon see how few of us there are. It won't take long after that. By noon, it should all be over.'
It will soon be over. I stand at the heart of the increasing crowd that gathers about the standards and there is a sense of quiet competence as we fasten buckles and dry for the third, fourth, fifth time, the grips on our blades. There is none of the fire, the zeal, the heroism-in-waiting that attended us at Lizard Pass when we faced Vologases' army; just a job to be done and peace at the end of it.
Day is coming more strongly with every heartbeat. The sky is heavy with the scent of rain and the a low thick cloud holds the valley walls, hovering just above our heads. We know that it has been sent by the gods to aid our subterfuge; for a long time after the true dawn, we are still no more than helmets flashing in the mist, sword and square-edged shields scraping into position and units of men muttering amongst themselves, giving thanks to Jupiter, to Mithras, to Helios.
Lupus walks quietly among the men. Coming to me, he hands me a fist full of arrows. Even at a fast glance, I count eight. In the grey light, their shafts are almost black, and the feathers sullied, but intact.
He says, 'They're from the bodies of the men you hit yesterday. I went back in the night and took them out. I thought you might have use of them.'
'I won't waste them.' There is a thickness to my voice that we both ignore.
'Good.' He looks about us, frowning. 'The mist is lifting.' He takes a sharp breath. 'This is it.'
We are already in position; buckles fast, swords out, shields to hand. As one man, in stillness, we watch the mist thin and rise until at least, we can see this place where we have chosen to die. Wide and flat and shallow, we have come without knowing it, to a bowl in the very foot of the Beth Horon pass. The path to freedom meanders up the mountainside to our left and the path in descends steeply on our right, but here, in the centre, is the perfect battleground, a plate of turfed earth, with little by way of boulders or rocky debris to hamper us. The heights are hemmed about by winter trees, blowing ragged in the coming breeze, shading the grey hillside with copper. the scent is of dying fires, and oiled leather and iron; the scent of an army in the morning, but without the fear; when the outcome is certain, there is no fear.
And so it is that the sun scraped through a finger's width of mist and Helios casts a single ray, spear-straight at our Eagle, washing it with living light, the breath of the gods.
Horgias takes hold of the haft and raises it up so that it flies above us, our guardian and our care, ours to protect until death.
We cheer, how could we not? And so reveal how very few we are.
There is a moment's raggedness, as the wind catches the last hurrahs and tears them to shreds. Then I catch sight of a glint of sun on iron somewhere on the hill, high to my left, and another along the valley, and another on the shoulder of the mountain to my right, and another, if I crane my head to look behind, along the path that leads away from us, and another and another and another as our enemies rise from the places in which they have been hidden, and reveal themselves to us: how many they are, how very many.
Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth by M.C. Scott is out now, published by Bantam.