The sky flamed yellow with the setting sun, the heat on the barren earth throwing up a glistening haze over the field of the dead. I took another swig of the acrid liquid in my wineskin, warm from the heat of the day, and turned to watch the procession behind me. Decorated carts filled with the bodies of our fallen moved off on their final journey, accompanied by the cry of brass trumpets and men’s voices raised in anguish: their task over, it was time for my unit to begin ours. With our army marching across the rocky hills to the Endacian’s tribal capital and our dead on their way to a hero’s pyre, we were to ensure the Endacians would never forget their place.
Yet it is a job that is never pleasant: even with the weight of tradition on your shoulders and the pride of the Empire in your spear, it is no easy thing to remove another man’s face. Hours ago he was your enemy, his sole purpose in life was to take your own, and now in death he is a non-entity not deserving of the passage to the underworld – for with no face there is no soul. But as you look down upon his corpse, the stench of decay seeping into your pores, you can’t help but to think that somewhere a wife or a mother is waiting, and there but for the grace of the Gods . . . It’s nothing another mouthful of fermented plum juice won’t fix.
Working in teams we made our way across the battlefield, aching and filthy from a day without rest. With my mind hazy from the heat within my armour and the drink in my belly, I worked with the rhythm of the drum ringing across the field – turning the bodies, removing the strange helmets and ramming my spear right where the nose meets the eyes, timing the blow with the booming of the drum. Behind me, two men pushed the barrows whilst a third loaded the bodies in my wake: once full, the barrow was ran back to the main pile where another unit stripped and mounted the bodies on pikes, their smashed faces a clear reminder of the sheer power of the Empire. All of us work in silence, the deed as heavy as the heat radiating from the earth below.
I moved steadily forward, well ahead of my men and my eyes glazed over, no longer seeing the individual faces or their crude weapons or strange leather armour engraved with the angular designs of the desert tribes. I was numb, my movements broken only to take another swig from the wineskin. My hits had become sloppy but still I pressed on, everything a blur as I lifted my spear with the beat of the drum . . .
The body below me suddenly came to life, moving so fast he had his spear to my throat before I had chance to react. The shock and the coldness of blade cleared my head like a flame clears the dark, sending my heart pounding in my ears. “You step back, I kill you. You call out, I kill you. You move, I kill you!” he hissed through a heavy Endacian accent, his dark eyes wild as he remained lying and injured in the dust; for all the blood seeping from the wound beneath his tunic his grip remained strong and unwavering.
“In the name of the Empire, drop your weapon!” I yelled, but the spear pressed harder.
“No yell, understand me?” he rasped, “No yell, no move!” Panting, fighting the rising panic, I looked around as far as my eyes would allow and saw my men drop their barrows and run towards us. “You tell them, no closer! Tell them!”
“Stay back!” I gestured with my free hand, keeping my own spear poised: the clank of armour stopped but the blade at my throat pressed harder again.
“I watch you. Watch what you do to my people . . .”
“Drop your weapon!” I repeated, hoping to the Gods I sounded authoritative. “You won’t achieve anything! Drop your weapon!”
“No! I die soon, but I take you with me, pig! For my brothers, for my children, for my nation, you die!”
“You kill me and my men will take you as a prisoner, do you understand? You could die an honourable death on the battlefield like a man, or you can go to prison where we will do such things to you you’re going to wish you were dead. It’s your choice,” I said, and he knew I wasn’t bluffing.
“Is no honour when you defile like this,” he spat. “You soldier, you do not know honour. Filthy dog!”
I felt the slight movement in his arm and I knew he was preparing to strike. I braced myself and as he cursed me in the fluid, flowing words of his tongue he made his move, trying to catch me off guard; a cloud of dust rose up around us as I ducked and knocked his arm back. My men ran forward as I dropped down onto his chest, pinning the squirming Endacian as he spat fire and acid in his own language.
“Right, pick him up and take him over to the pile,” I told my men, “tell them this one’s going on the pike – alive.”
I wrote this one during the heatwave last year. Yeah, the heat kind of makes things interesting . . . anyway, my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel was set in Ancient Rome so I tried to get into the mood through shorts throughout the year so there might be a few more I’ll add along this sort of vein.