Poisoned Oak — Romans vs. Monsters :
How ironic, Cnaeus thought to himself as the glowing horizon signaled the start of the new day. The trees his men had cut down to expand the protective walls of the Roman fort he commanded had led to the release of a horde of bloodthirsty monsters. And those monsters had come in force that very night and spread death and destruction to the village that lay outside the walls of his fort. He was standing in one of the fort’s four watchtowers and was looking down on the smoldering ruins of what the day before had been a thriving market town. As the day grew lighter he could more clearly see the numerous dead—men, women and children. They had died alongside their livestock. All had been torn to pieces, and the whole scene resembled an abattoir more than the village it had been the day before.
Cnaeus then turned his attention to the fort. Like most Roman forts of the day in Britannia, it could hold up to 800 men, but the current garrison only numbered around one hundred men. The rest were off campaigning against the tribes to the west. One hundred against twenty of those creatures. Based on what he’d seen that night, he didn’t have nearly enough men to hold them off. The creatures had no need to take on the fort while there was an entire village to ravage, but it was gone and the only living humans were now within the walls of the fort.
The fort was of the typical design of its day. It was rectangular and surrounded by a wide ditch. A rampart was built with the earth from the ditch together with heavy stones. On top of that the Romans had erected a defensive barrier of timber posts. That was why they had cut down the oaks in the first place. There were four stone gateways affording access to the fort on each side. The watchtower Cnaeus was standing in reach a height of 30 feet, as did the other three. One at each corner. Roman architecture and design dictated that two main streets crossed the fort.
Most of the buildings within it were wooden structures including the barracks, stables, granaries and the hospital. His own headquarters was made of stone and employed that great Roman invention—concrete. Even so, if the monsters—Night Stalkers Belenos had called them—got over the walls, his headquarters would provide scant protection. And he had no doubt they would be back when night fell.
The night just ended had been complete chaos; a mix of terror, blood, shouts, and fire. The Roman farmer who had been holding the head of one of the monsters had been quick to react when things went to hell outside the gates of the fort. Pointing to the legionaries who had been sparring in the courtyard he called on them to follow him. Approximately twenty men had done so, closely followed by Belenos. They had rushed out the main gate, and that was the last Cnaeus had seen of them. He himself had ordered a centurion to make sure the other three gates were closed, while he tried to manage the orderly entry into the fort of the panicked villagers at the main gate. That any had made it through the gate before he ordered it shut was likely due to the farmer and his little band of legionaries who had rushed to battle the monsters.
When he thought he could wait no longer, he had ordered the final gate shut and bolted leaving anyone outside the walls of the fort to his or her fate. He had then rushed to the gate tower to see what was happening outside the walls. It was a vision out of a wine-induced nightmare. Terrible man-sized creatures with wide black bodies, beady red eyes, membranous, transparent wings, and insect-like mouths full of razor sharp teeth were marauding through the village slashing and biting and ripping as they went. Villagers unlucky enough to get caught outside the walls didn’t stand a chance, and were torn apart and eaten alive screaming their final breaths. Their cows, horses and pigs were no better off, and the sounds of the dying filled his ears while fire started to consume the hovels of the townsfolk.
Cnaeus had looked for the small troop of his men who had run into the melee but he could not see them through the smoke and carnage. He thought of their brave, but futile actions, and grimly thought that he now had even fewer men to hold the fort come nightfall. He found himself hoping that Belenos had escaped. And that surprised him.
Bassa couldn’t move his legs in the first few moments after he gained consciousness. That didn’t stop him from throwing up as the stench of blood, shit and charred flesh filled his nostrils. He was lying on his stomach and used his hand to wipe his eyes. Looking at his hand he realized he had wiped blood from his eyes. He wasn’t sure if it was his or not. His vision restored, he lifted his head and looked down at his legs to see why he couldn’t move them. With relief he saw it was only a dead, half-eaten horse that had pinned his legs. Otherwise his legs were fine. With a little bit of effort he was able to shove it off and get awkwardly to his feet.
As he stood up he slowly got his bearings. He was on the edge of the village, the fort being less than a couple of hundred yards behind him. He was surrounded by body parts—animal and human alike—that were in various states of trauma. Like the half eaten horse that had fallen on his legs. The sun was just coming up over the horizon, giving Bassa enough light to survey the utter devastation which had been delivered upon the village and its inhabitants the night before. Not a single building was untouched, and not a living thing moved.
He couldn’t see any of the men who had followed him out of the fort the night before and tried to remember exactly what had happened. It hadn’t taken him long to realize how lucky he’d been in his first encounter with one of the monsters. He’d taken that one by surprise as it was eating his neighbor. This time they were ready and he and his fellow solders quickly found themselves fighting for their lives. Several of the creatures had herded them away from the fort, and taken down two of his men in the process.
Bassa rallied the remaining men and formed them into a defensive circle. Had they thought to bring shields they might have been able to hold on, but they only had their swords. And then Bassa learned what the monsters’ wings were for. While they weren’t strong enough for sustained flight, the wings could get them off the ground for brief spurts, and that was enough for two of them to get behind the men and into the middle of the defensive circle. After that it was a blur of swinging swords, snapping jaws, ripping flesh and cries of pain coming at him from every direction at once.
The last thing he remembered before waking up pinned by the half-eaten horse was the squishing sound his sword made as he shoved it into the gaping maw of one of the attacking monsters. Looking to his right he saw the now dead creature with his sword buried in its mouth up to the hilt. Next to it was another dead monster which had hacked to death. There was no sign that any of his fellow Romans had survived. Just a collection of shredded body parts, bits of uniforms, broken weapons and blood. Saddened to think that he was the only survivor of the fight, he headed back to the front gate of the fort.
Cnaeus had Bassa brought to him immediately upon learning that the farmer had somehow survived the massacre outside of the fort. Bassa made sure he washed the blood and pieces of flesh off himself before reporting to Cnaeus. He was welcomed to Cnaeus’ office with a mug of watered wine which he drank gratefully.
“So twenty of my best men and you were only able to kill two of the monsters? I admire your bravery, but that level of casualties is not sustainable for the fight to come. I only have eighty men I have left. If you killed two there are still eighteen of those things ready to return this evening.” Cnaeus said.
“Had we shields and enough men to form the testudo we might have killed more of them, but they are fierce creatures and they move like lightning!” was Bassa’s response. The testudo—or turtle—was a Roman battlefield formation. “They’ll get over the walls easily enough after dark.”
“Then here is what we need to do…” And Cnaeus proceeded to explain his plan to Bassa.
It was a good plan. It should have worked. As ferocious as the monsters were, they hadn’t shown much signs of intelligence. They were simple but murderously efficient killing machines. Based on Bassa’s experience from the previous night, trying to hold them off at the walls would likely prove futile. They’d simply fly over, and the men on the walls would suddenly find themselves being attacked from behind. Truth be told, Cnaeus didn’t have enough men to defend the entire perimeter even if he had wanted to.
So instead Cnaeus had his men bring all the remaining livestock to the center of the fort where the two axis roads met. There he had the pigs, sheep and cattle tied to stakes driven into the earth. In all there were about twenty-five animals, and Cnaeus hoped they would make a tempting target for the Night Stalkers. Around the staked animals his men dug a ditch three feet wide and three feet deep. Into the ditch they poured all of the pitch they could get their hands on. Normally used to pave and caulk, it was tremendously flammable.
Once this work was completed, Cnaeus divided his troops into 10 contuberniums, which was the smallest organized unit of soldiers in the Roman Army and was composed of eight legionaries. He directed them spread out in the barracks and other buildings surrounding the animals. The surviving townspeople would need to hide themselves and hope for the best. No one was getting out alive if the plan went awry. The key was to get the Night Stalkers to attack the livestock, after which the Romans would light the pitch creating a wall of fire around them. While Cnaeus assumed they could simply fly over the wall of fire to escape, he hoped that in their initial confusion they would make good targets for the attacking Romans throwing spears and shooting arrows at them from the other side of the firewall.
And it might have worked if the Night Stalkers had done what Cnaeus expected them to do.
Night had fallen several hours earlier. Bassa first realized that things weren’t going as planned when the man crouching next to him gave a startled cry and flew backwards. Bassa turned in time to see a Night Stalker bite off the soldier’s head with a snap of its jaws. The other men around him reacted quickly, but not quickly enough. Two more men were dead or dying before Bassa and the remaining four soldiers got out of the barracks they had been waiting in.
Outside it was chaos. Rather than go for the staked animals the Night Stalkers had attacked the Roman soldiers where they lay in ambush. The men who survived the initial attack were now fighting for their lives against savage attacks from all sides. Bassa saw Cnaeus desperately fending off one of the Night Stalkers, using his shield to keep the monster at bay while desperately trying to slash it with his sword. He sprinted over, jumped on the creature’s back and sank his sword into its head. The monster shook its back like a wet dog and sent Bassa flying. He landed hard on his back and briefly feared he might black out. Shaking his head he got to his feet and saw the Night Stalker he’d stabbed staggering away from Cnaeus.
“Follow me!” shouted Cnaeus as he ran towards the center circle where the animals were staked, and as yet unmolested by the Night Stalkers. Those men who were still able, including Bassa, ran after him, leaping over the ditch they had dug and filled with flammable pitch. Cnaeus had grabbed a torch from somewhere and, as the last survivor leapt over the ditch, he lit the pitch. It caught fire quickly, and within seconds the men were surrounded by a wall of fire six feet high. In the distance Bassa could see some of the townspeople running out the gates of the fort. Within the ring of fire the Romans now numbered only twenty-three men. The rest were dead or dying. Bassa saw three dead Night Stalkers, but that still left too many of them.
“This fire won’t hold them back very long!” Bassa shouted to Cnaeus. Cnaeus nodded grimly and clutched his sword tightly. He was turning to rally his remaining men when suddenly he heard shouts coming from outside the ring of fire. Cnaeus couldn’t believe his eyes! There were at least two hundred men rushing through the gates into the fort carrying axes and spears and various other weapons. And leading them was Belenos! He had rallied the local Britons to the battle! The Night Stalkers’ attention was still focused on the Romans inside the ring of fire making them easy targets for once. They were soon overwhelmed by the twenty men who attacked each one from behind and were hacked to pieces in a storm of axes and spears. Within minutes the one-sided battle was over, with hardly a casualty among the attackers. By now the fire was dying down and Cnaeus was able to cross back over to the other side. He walked over to where Belenos stood.
“We don’t like you Romans, but like those bastards even less.” Belenos said to him.
“Let’s go find their eggs and plant some oak trees.” was Cnaeus’ reply.