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Frontier, With Barbarians - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Frontier, With Barbarians

[The more things change... (Short fic)]

‘Well, that was appalling.’

‘Oh, come, Piggy: it’s not precisely the best of vintages, but think how far it’s travelled. I’d not drink the water, here; and as for the native brews....’

‘All right, Jolly, all right. A wearing life, this, by Jove.’

‘Don’t moan, old man. Worse than Old Fives, you are.’

‘I am not – and where is he, anyway?’

‘Behind you, Piggy. Hullo.’

They turned about, startled, and hastily stood.

‘Sir! You look a bit ruffled.’

‘We’ll all look a bit ruffled within the hour.’ The Old Man was grim: and Fives was not known for jollity at the best of times.

‘What –’

‘The tribes are up, is what’s up, before you ask. Turn out: we’ve an hour at best.’

‘Jove! Is this certain –’

Fives looked grim. ‘Did Old Baldy take this province in his day? As certain as that. Come on, you two.’

They clattered out behind him, joined by other officers stumbling in the twilight and the cold. Their men were already being shoved to their posts, and standing to.

‘All right, you scum and brigands!’ Fives had his own way of addressing the soldiery, and it seemed to work. ‘The little buggers are coming to die at your hands. Let’s oblige them. We are not going to be cut up like those poor bastards of the Ninth, up away. You’ll wait for my orders: then one volley, and duck down behind the fortifications, we didn’t build the things for sake of the architecture. I want a picked force of the Fifth before the wall: the little savages’ll keep coming, what are left of ’em after the volley from the breastwork, and it’ll be cold steel we give them.

‘You’re not doing this for the Empire. You’re not doing this for a step in rank – and dead men’s shoes to step into. You’re not doing this for a bonus or a decoration.

‘This isn’t some Greek epic.

‘You’re doing this because you signed on for it; because it’s your business. And because – you’re not doing it for love of me, I assure you: you’re doing it because you’ve a good deal more to fear from me than from the wee barbarian buggers.

‘So do it right, and well, and handsomely.’

The shout which greeted this raillery should have warmed the heart of any commander possessed of one. Fives remained unmoved.

They could see the glint of weapons on the hills, and the occasional silhouette of the disorganised barbarian files as they crossed the rough ground and were skylined on one or another ridge. Not a man dared pick one of those silhouettes off, even once the enemy were within range, without an order from Old Fives.

The enemy – ragged, fanatical, intoxicated by wild slogans and religious exaltation – were within range now, and coming closer; closer.... There was just light for men to mark them when Old Fives at last unleashed the withering volley. Before the few men in the barbarian ranks who could do, could respond in kind, Old Fives waved his men down behind the parapet.

The remaining barbarians made an attempt to dress their ranks in some sort of order – certainly nothing to compare with the parade-ground square-bashing of their opponents’ drill.

‘I wonder,’ whispered Piggy to Jolly: ‘are they yet head-hunters sometimes? When my grandfather was stationed out here....’

Jolly cut him off before Old Fives could do worse. The barbarian line was coming forwards now, with a wild ululation. Cold steel and unprotected flesh were to meet cold steel and body armour.

‘What you want to hope,’ said Fives, quietly, behind Jolly and Piggy, ‘is that your lads either live … or die outright. We’ll want to sortie if any of them are being taken away wounded: you know what the barbarians’ women do to the wounded, and captives. If there is a sortie, you two young gentlemen are to have the unenviable honour of leading the damned thing.’

The barbarians crashed into the regulars before the wall: and died in the expectation of a happy afterlife. As the survivors recoiled, Old Fives signalled, and the men on the parapets popped up and poured into them at close range, until they charged again if only to stop the volley by getting in amidst the stolid regulars.

Within a quarter hour, it was all over: until the next time, which might be at dawn or might be in half a year. Jolly was white with fury – he’d lost two of his lads – and Piggy slightly wounded by a stray barbarian shot from afar, and was now in the hands of the medico whose brief moments of sobriety fortunately coincided with crises.

Old Fives turned to the duty of making his report, addressed to the Governor-General, but likely enough to be read at the highest Imperial level.

a minor engagement between our garrison and a barbarian force. I append the losses in a separate document: these were minor. I must single out for special praise two officers whose conduct merits notice: Gauis Lartius Flavus, and Publius Porcius Laeca, who was slightly wounded in the action, but whose entire recovery is looked for.

It is likely, based upon recent intelligence, that the tribes which joined to launch the late attack are now engaged in mutual recriminations for its failure, and I anticipate some period of respite, although its length cannot, naturally, be predicted. One never knows with these little Britons, whose barbarism is extreme even by barbarian standards, and whose behaviour, here at the end of the Earth amidst the wastelands, is less predictable even than that of other savage tribes.

He paused in his dictation. ‘Right, wrap it up in the usual manner and I’ll sign it manu propria. I’ll be inspecting the sentries – find me when it’s done.’

And Quintus Veturius Philo, commanding at the sharp edge, went out into the cold of the night after his duty.

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3 comments or Leave a comment
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 16th, 2014 02:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

I'm glad you liked it.
matilda36 From: matilda36 Date: October 5th, 2014 03:49 pm (UTC) (Link)

I forgot how much I missed your writing

I loved this. You start thinking about current affairs in the Middle East, then slowly go back and you end up in times when my people still had some pride.

Very, very smart and masterfully engineered, with an homage to the master Kipling
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 16th, 2014 02:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

You're vy kind.

As ever. Thank you vy much indeed.
3 comments or Leave a comment