Poisoned Oak — The Sacred Grove :
Bassa was not unlike many of his neighbors in Glevum, a town in the Roman province of Britannia; men who were originally brought to this land by conquest, and who were now settling down to a new life as farmers. The town of Glevum had once been a Roman fort, but over time it had also become a “colonia” of retired legionnaires like Bassa. He was born to a poor farmer and his wife in Thrace. At the age of 17 he joined the Roman army and Romanized his name to Titus Flavius Bassus. He survived the mandatory 25 years of auxiliary service in the Legio II Augusta, and was proud of his service and of the fact that his legion had participated in the Roman conquest of Britain 26 years prior. He was also proud that the new Roman emperor Vespasian had been the legion’s commander at the time of conquest, and had led the campaign against the Durotriges and Dumnonii tribes.
Upon his discharge Bassa had been granted Roman citizenship and enough land to set up a farm and support a family. For the last several years he had been building up a flock of sheep while also growing wheat. He sold wool and mutton as well as wheat in the market in Glevum and was beginning to feel that it was time to find a wife among the local Britons and start a family. During this time the Roman fort had been gradually expanding its footprint beyond its original stone walls with the erection of a wooden palisade. Life was good and getting better.
That was before he noticed that his flock of sheep seemed to be getting smaller.
At first he hoped he was imagining it. He had never learned his numbers so he couldn’t be sure if he was actually losing sheep. He wasn’t stupid, he just couldn’t count, so he hit upon the idea of putting a pebble in a clay jar to represent each of his sheep. In this way, it only took him a couple of days to figure out that he was in fact losing sheep. He couldn’t afford this loss of his flock and determined to find out who was stealing his sheep and put a stop to it.
He spoke to his neighbor—also a former legionnaire—to see if he was facing similar issues, and wasn’t surprised that he was also losing sheep. Bassa was relieved on some level, for it meant that his neighbor wasn’t the thief. The two of them decided they would combine their flocks at evening and together watch over them during the night, taking shifts sleeping. Nothing happened for the first two nights.
Then came the third night.
Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus’s day had started and finished badly. He was the Praefectus Castrorum of the Roman fort at Glevum, meaning he was its commander, so trouble usually landed at his feet. Throughout the day he had nursed a terrible hangover from the night before and was counting the minutes until he could get back into bed. That should have happened hours ago, but now sleep was further delayed by the sudden appearance at the fort of the local Archdruid, Belenos. Cnaeus normally tried to keep his dealings with the druid priests to a minimum. He didn’t completely trust them, believing that they were behind the persistent efforts to sow dissent and rebellion among the native tribes. So when Belenos had shown up demanding to speak with him his initial thought was to simply have him sent away. Instead, he grabbed a cup of watered wine and strode into his office. Belenos and one of Cnaues’s senior commanders awaited him.
Nodding his head in greeting, Belenos got right to the purpose of his visit. “Praefect, have any of your men gone missing recently?” he asked. Belenos was dressed in typical druid priest fashion. He had an unbelted white outer cloak over a course grey woolen robe. His white hair and beard were long, but neatly combed. His left hand rested on a long staff, crowned with a silver cap. On his feet he wore yellow sandals. Once again, Cnaeus was struck by how well the druid spoke Latin.
“We usually lose 1-2 legionnaires a month to desertion. What business is that of yours?” Cnaeus replied. Dressed typically for a Roman officer, he wore a tunic that was made of wool and dyed red. Across his chest was a belt called a baldric from which his sword hung. He wore a linen scarf around his neck which would prevent chafing when he put on his armor. And on his feet were sandal-like footwear made of leather. Lastly, he wore a cloak that was fastened at his shoulder. This was the clearest sign of his senior rank.
The office in which they met was in the older, stone built area of the fort. It was on the second floor and had a view overlooking the parade ground where some of his men could be seen practicing hand-to-hand combat. Lit by torches on this dark winter’s night, it was still an impressive sight whose meaning would not be lost on the old druid priest. A large wooden table served as a desk behind which sat a bench seat topped with a cushion. Cnaeus dropped heavily onto the seat. Belenos remained standing.
“And has that changed recently?” Belenos asked.
Cnaeus nodded at the Centurion who then answered, “Over the last week we have lost 8 men”.
“But that’s not all, is it?” Belenos replied giving Cnaeus a pointed look.
Cnaeus paused a beat before answering the question. Taking a deep breath he said, “The patrols sent out to bring back the deserters found parts of a couple of the men. It looked as if they had been gnawed on by an animal…” He let the words hang in the air, waiting to see how Belenos would react. Only he didn’t react at all. For reasons he couldn’t quite put a finger on, that greatly unnerved Cnaeus. He asked the Centurion to leave the room, and beckoned Belenos to sit.
They sat there facing each other, each in his own thoughts for several minutes. Finally Cnaeus spoke up. “You’re about to tell me this has something to do with the fact that we cut down your ‘sacred grove’ of oaks to build our palisade, aren’t you?” He thought about the large pile of oak logs, cut down the prior week, and now stacked outside the gates of the fort. The local Britons and the Druid priests had protested vehemently against the action. A couple of the locals had to be put to the sword before the work could be completed.
“You think your wooden palisade protects you? You were better protected when the oak wood used to build it was still part of living trees in what you refer to as our sacred grove.” Belenos replied. “Now they are out, and the price in blood will be steep.”
Cnaeus thought again about the condition of the missing men when they were found. “Explain yourself, priest. What’s done is done, and there’s no putting the trees back in the ground!”
Belenos looked thoughtful for a moment. It appeared to Cnaeus that he was torn as to whether or not to speak more about the situation. Finally it looked as if he had come to some kind of decision, and he began to speak.
“It has long been told that many years before the time of the Romans this land was periodically set upon by savage beasts. They would show up without warning and rampage through the countryside for weeks. Entire villages—men, women and children—were devoured by the monsters. It was like a plague of locusts stripping a field of grain. And they were just like locusts except these monsters stripped the flesh from the bodies of their victims as they devoured them. The people started to refer to them as night stalkers, as that’s when they would attack. After a few weeks the creatures would suddenly die, but not without each leaving behind an egg-like object buried in a shallow hole.
It isn’t known when the druid priests first realized that their appearance was actually predictable and that the creatures crawled out of the ground every 25 years. Not so different from the cicadas that come every 17 years, other than the fact that these are man-sized and bloodthirsty. The druid priests back then tried digging up and destroying the eggs before they could hatch, but they were hard as a rock. Burning them did no good; neither did throwing them into a lake. They still hatched after 25 years.
The only solution was to be there when the night stalkers emerged and to try to kill them. But 25 years was a long time to remember exactly where each egg was buried. The priests realized that many of them wouldn’t even be alive 25 years later. So they came up the idea to plant an oak tree over each buried egg. This way, those in the future would know exactly where the next generation of night stalkers would be surfacing. And they would have the chance to kill them as they emerged before they could do any damage. Since the eggs tended to cluster in certain locations, so did the oak trees the priests planted. And this is what led to the creation of what you Romans now refer to as our sacred groves of oaks.
But 25 years later the priests made an extraordinary discovery. Wherever an oak tree had been planted over an egg, nothing came out of the ground. 25 years stretched to 26 years and still no night stalker. At first the priests hoped that simply planting an oak tree had somehow killed the things in the eggs before they could hatch. But then a lightning bolt struck and knocked down one of the marker oak trees. Within nights a stalker rose up from the ground and rampaged through the area. It was only then that the priests realized the oak trees were merely imprisoning the creatures. It was now clear they weren’t killing them.” ________________________________________
Bassa awoke with a start. It had been his turn to sleep, and he judged from the position of the moon that he’d been asleep for longer than he should have been. He listened to the night wind softly ruffling the leaves, and sniffed the air. The fire next to him had gone out, and there was no sign of his neighbor. With as much stealth as he could muster, he climbed to his feet. In his hand he held his gladius, a short, stabbing sword that was the primary weapon of Roman foot soldiers. He could tell the sheep were nervous, but then again sheep were always acting nervous.
He scanned the flock for his neighbor, or some sign of him. A voice inside his head was telling him not to call out, not to make any unnecessary sound. He slowly made his way through the flock of sheep, nudging one out of the way with his knee when it didn’t move quickly enough. It was the smell that first alerted him to its presence. Bassa had been on a battlefield too many times to count, and the smell of dead and decaying bodies, while hideous, was something to which he had grown accustomed. Spilt intestines, blood, burnt flesh contributed to a stench that clung to your skin long after you left the field of battle. This smell was more overpowering and more terrible than anything in his experience. It was all he could do not to throw up on the spot.
Bassa looked in the direction from which the smell seemed to be wafting, and that’s when he saw it. He had seen many terrible things in battle, but this was beyond his comprehension. It was man-sized with a wide black body, beady red eyes, and two sets of membranous, transparent wings, the front wings being longer than the rear ones. The creature also had sharp claws on all four of its legs, a blunt head with protruding eyes, and an insect-like mouth full of razor sharp teeth. It was the stuff of nightmares, though Bassa quickly concluded he would probably never sleep again. Most horrifying of all was that its mouth was buried into the stomach of his still moving and moaning neighbor—it was literally eating him alive.
Without thinking, Bassa roared in rage and charged at the beast, his gladius held high over his head
Belenos took a deep breath, before concluding his story. “An oak will reach a good height in 25 years, and we have come to believe it is the root structure and essence of a living oak tree that keeps the creatures imprisoned. The roots grow around the egg as the trees grow. Over time fewer night stalkers emerged in the 25 year cycles. Each time the eggs were marked by trees.
Eventually they stopped showing up entirely. We had trapped them all. Until now. The particular grove you cut last week was at least 150 years old. And it had exactly 21 oaks.”
As Cnaeus chewed on what he had just heard there was a knock on the door and the Centurion entered the office again. “Praefect, excuse me, but you need to come immediately.” he said in a shaky voice. Bidding Belenos to come, Cnaeus left to room and followed the Centurion down a flight of steps and onto the parade ground. There, in the middle of the darkened grounds stood what appeared to be a local Roman farmer. But what immediately drew Cnaeus’s attention was what he was holding up in his right hand. Even in the low light he could see it was the bleeding and battered head of the most horrible looking creature he had ever seen. He quickly realized what he was looking at. “This bastard ate my neighbor and my sheep, but it was no match for a Roman and his sword!” Bassa roared.
Cnaeus turned to Belenos and simply said “Now there are 20…”
Before Belanos could respond, there came from outside the stone walls a chorus of cries of terror and howls of pain accompanied by the sound of terrified horses and cattle….