The Groaner in the Glen, by Eric Ian Steele

groanerintheglenArt by Mike Dominic: -http://paladinfreelance.blogspot.com/ – click to enlarge

From a fragment found inside a manuscript entitled “Of the Romans in Brittania” by Marcus Appius translated by Father Ernesto Fabrizio and discovered buried in an unmarked grave in Proveglia, Italy, 1979 AD.

My name is Gaius Atticus Germanicus, and if any other brave citizen of Rome reads these words, know that it was not for want of heart that our battle standard was stolen, our troops routed, and the campaign lost. Not for lack of skill or courage were we overcome by the savage hordes. Rather, blame that ancient curse from a dead queen’s lips that brought us to our knees. For this entire country fairly reeks with foul magic, filled as it is with noxious mists, sheer drops and rocky peaks. The trees are filled with whispering, and painted men bring swift death with silent spears.

I held the rank of First Spear, leading the other centurions of the glorious Hispania, the legion most famed in battle throughout the Empire. The legion had arisen, Phoenix-like, from defeat at the hands of the barbarian queen Boudica and her Iceni over forty years ago. At that ill-fated place, the barbarians crushed our ill-equipped troops before burning Verulamium and Londinium to the ground. But we put paid to that revolt. Boudica took poison and died uttering curses against Rome, and the legion had become the most feared fighting machine in the world.

I was proud to serve with the men under my command. They were a battle-hardened crew, having fought in Spain and Germany. Veterans the lot of them, our only weaknesses were the Junior Tribunes – young, wealthy men from Rome who knew nothing about warfare. Most had never seen so much as a skirmish. They had traded Rome’s privileged marble halls for what they thought was an easy commission, nurse-maiding a bunch of savages in a far flung corner of the Empire. Then they would return home, assume the purple robes of a senator, and tell stories about how they had braved the dread tribes of the North.

It was true that since the suppression of the Iceni we had enjoyed peace here in Brittania. However, trouble was always bubbling. The woods outside our camp were alive with strange comings and goings. The white-robed druids still had power over their people. The last conflict had ended with the defeat of the Brigantes, their bodies dumped in a huge mound of corpses called Mons Graupius in the foothills of Caledonia. Now the Eighth Legion rested secure in a huge fortress there named Eboracum.

Marcus Cassius Agricola was Second Spear; the centurion next in seniority to myself. He was loyal and experienced, but given to being too prudent. We joked sometimes that his cognomen was particular apt – meaning farmer – and that he should have stayed home to till the fields.

Antonius Quintus Affricus – who had earned his name in the deserts of Egypt and had lived to tell stories of elephants and gigantic obelisks built by a race of long-dead emperors – was my third in command. He was stout of heart, but too brave for his own good. Sometimes I was amazed he had lasted so long amid all the terrors he described. I wondered if he was not prone to exaggeration. I had never seen an elephantus or crocodilus, but I doubted whether anything could be larger than a full-grown ox.

The rest of the senior officers were solid commanders. There were six of us in total, each in charge of a cohort containing six centuries, each commanded by a junior officer. Our time in Colchester was pleasant enough. The peasants who lived within the encampment were for the most part obedient. There was rarely any trouble, except for a few wandering bands of Brigantes who delighted in burning barns then running off into the night.

Sometimes the locals would tell with bulging eyes tales of monsters, giants and serpents in the northern mountains of Caledonia, but we scoffed at them. The Roman Empire had spread to all four corners of the world, and had witnessed nothing it could not conquer. Yes, some inhabitants were fierce. But in time, they would know Roman civilization. We were very good at civilizing people.

We had been ordered by Marcus Appius Bradua – the governor of the Isles himself – to march north and relieve the garrison at Eboracum. There were rumours of another uprising, and he wanted our strength and superior numbers to ward off any contemplation of revolt.

I still remember the long trek north. The legion marched along the Agricolan Way until it finally petered out among desolate moors. Grey clouds hung like shrouds over the unforgiving, empty land. Over the days, hills gave way to ever more rugged terrain. Going was slow. Great mountains rose to our left. The country grew colder and wilder, the wind passing right through a man’s armour to penetrate the ribcage beneath. When the rain came, it sheeted into the side of us. Even the horses protested. This was a place where a man could lose his mind. I longed for the pleasant summer scents of my own home on the outskirts of Rome, for any respite from the ceaseless pounding of metal shields and the shuffling of sandaled feet.

But always there was the guiding presence of Primus Quintillus, our camp prefect. His rasping voice sliced through gale and sleet, barking orders, keeping soldiers in line. With him in charge of the wagon train, no man dared mutter any words of discontent.

quote - groaner in the glenFinally, the harsh county levelled out into fields full of yellow flowers. The breeze grew stronger. Someone shouted that he could see the ocean. It was cold, grey and lifeless. Even the beaches were fit for nothing – blanketed in sharp rocks. It was the most inhospitable region. Even Antonius, usually up for anything, mumbled that he would rather be burning under the sun in Egypt than freezing in these desolate highlands.

I wrote many times to my wife, Cassia, back in Rome. I never got a chance to send my wax tablets, however, so I do not know if she ever received them. Hopefully she will one day read this – the last record of what befell us. My darling, my life, you must know that my last thoughts were of you.

Finally we reached Eboracum, a ramshackle hut of a fortress. The legionaries we relieved were weary and lice-ridden. They were glad to go. We stayed. For four months the night-time raids grew ever more frequent and bolder. I sent word to the governor by messenger. His response was swift: send a force out into the wilderness and crush them.

Back home, the Empire was in turmoil. Trajan was embroiled in a costly campaign in Parthia. The Emperor had himself left Rome to oversee the war effort. Things were not going well. That meant that Rome could not spare reinforcements, especially so far across the Empire. We were alone in our remote fortress. If we became mired in difficulties, there would be no one to help us. We had to quell any unrest before it had a chance to grow.

“What will you do, Gaius?” Marcus asked me one night in my quarters over a bottle of wine. Antonius was seated alongside him.

“What else can we do?” I replied. “We must go into the highlands and defeat them.”

“I don’t like it,” Marcus said. “We’re too exposed, with all those trees and glens. It’s perfect for an ambush.”

“I’d like to see the army that could ambush an entire Roman legion!” Antonius growled. “I say we take the whole damn lot of them – the cavalry too – and conquer this territory once and for all.”

“It’s a risk,” I conceded to Marcus. “But as Antonius says, we have five thousand seasoned men with shields and heavy spears. Surely we can put paid to a few hundred savages.”

“It’s not the barbarians that worry me,” Marcus darkened. “It’s those Druids of theirs. They’re in league with some kind of devil.”

Antonius scoffed.

“I tell you,” Marcus roared. The wine had gone to his head. “I’ve heard the locals speak of them. They stand over the battlefield, slicing themselves with swords, offering themselves as human sacrifices to their heathen gods. Then there are the other stories…”

“What other stories?” I asked, amused. Here was Marcus, an educated Roman, believing in old-wives’ tales. Romans had been everywhere. We had built the world. Our bridges and our roads spanned its circumference. There was nothing to fear from barbarians.

“There are tales, Gaius – laugh at me if you will – but there are tales of things in the woods. Things that eat men whole. They call them Anthropophagi – Grey Men. They can blend in with the trees without being seen. It is they who we hear muttering in the breeze, whispering to each other. The locals say the painted men are in league with them – that they both worship the same awful gods. Gods that would make all the Lemurs in Hades pale by comparison.”

I admit, talk of such beings unnerved me.

“These gods,” Antonius slurred, becoming drunk. “What are they called?”

“One is a terrible female, with snakes instead of hair,” Marcus said, ashen-faced. “Another is a gigantic, horned creature with the wings of a bat and a face filled with tentacles – so horrible it would kill a man to look upon it. The last of this trinity is a strange, ghostly creature that no man can see or feel.”

“Convenient,” Antonius laughed.

“Marcus, this is the stuff of nonsense. Do you really believe in any of it?” I asked.

He shuddered. “I saw a statue of one once, down in Londinium. All I know is, we had better be careful when we go up into those mountains.”

Next morning, we set off north into Caledonia. The sky hung overhead in a leaden pall, filled with the promise of more sleeting rain. Against the clouds, our golden eagle shone in stark contrast to the colourless heavens.

The drum-beaters struck up a march, and the long column headed out through the wooden gates of the fort at a steady pace. Only a skeleton crew was left behind. A full four thousand soldiers left Eboracum that day, along with one hundred horsemen and a supply train of mules – hardy animals that could withstand the rocky slopes of Vesuvius itself. I reassured myself that they should be more than a match for this godforsaken isle.

The next three days were gruelling. We crossed miles of open marshland. Bitter winds tore at us. Several of the horses died from exposure. Snow-capped mountains hung in the distance beyond a veil of fog. Every so often we would hear a distant screech of an eagle, or some other bird.

By the fourth day we had reached the wooded hills. The pines lay thick, festooned with ancient moss. They hemmed us in on all sides. The sun did not show itself through the clouds to be our guide.

Our scouts told us the Picts had villages hidden in the glens – those narrow canyons between the mountains. Yet we saw and heard nothing, save for the constant whispering in the undergrowth that appeared to be bodiless. Once a soldier cried out that he saw a pair of red eyes. But we dismissed this as wild imagining.

On the fifth day, one of the men developed a fever. By the end of the sixth day, twenty men had succumbed, and more were feeling weak. Among them was Marcus. We had filled our water bottles from streams that ran down the slopes of the mountainside. Now we feared to touch them. Sometime later we found a rotted sheep’s carcass at the head of a stream. The Picts had poisoned us. I slung my water bottle aside and cursed the hills.

That night, they attacked. They came from nowhere. It was impossible to count their numbers in the firelight. They came and went, darting in and out, dressed in wolf skins. At the last minute, they would cast off their cloaks, reveal their pale, tattooed skin, and slice a soldier’s throat. They wore the night as their armour, and we could do nothing but rally our troops into a tight circle. We heard but never saw horses. Once in a while a burning brand would be hurled out of the dark to separate the men, and the Picts would attack again.

The battle ended with a ghostly howl that even the Picts seemed to fear. The sound echoed around the hills. Within seconds, our attackers had fled.

We lost a hundred men that night, as well as the mules and a dozen horses. We were now forced to carry our own provisions.

The next night, the same thing happened. They came wielding great axes, chanting oaths in their strange, harsh language. This time, the attack was more sustained. We slew some of them. By morning light, the body count revealed no more than a few dozen, while we had lost another hundred men.

The fever had taken its toll on us by now. Nearly two hundred, the same number that had been slain, were down with fever. That meant four hundred men were occupied with ferrying the wounded and the sick. The rest had to carry their possessions on their backs.

“It doesn’t bode well, Gaius,” Antonius said. He had just ridden back from speaking to Marcus, who lay on a litter. “More men are sickening all the time.”

Just then the horses froze under us. The front century halted without a command. Antonius shared a concerned look with me.

A groan came straight out of the fog. It boomed down the mountainside, rising from a low growl into a high shriek that chilled the blood in my veins.

“What is it, Gaius?” Antonius asked. His face was white.

“Just the wind groaning through the glens.” I raised my voice so that others would hear. We had enough problems without adding superstition to the mix. “The steep hills funnel the breeze. It must be what frightened the Picts.”

We pressed on.

Before us, the forest path dwindled into a great bank of mist. Nothing beyond was visible. The trees rose out of the fogbank like ragged claws, beckoning us to our own doom. Trees hemmed us in on all sides of the steep-banked glen. That strange whispering sound rose in volume around us. I realized we were in the middle of a long, thin canyon. If there was an ambush now, we would have no chance to leave.

Then we saw them, my sweet Cassia, coming out of the fog. Great tall things that were not men, with arms the size of tree trunks and no heads on their shoulders. The men screamed as the things descended. They wielded dreadful axes that hacked men to bloody chunks with one blow, propelling the pieces up into the air.

I saw one of the beasts with sickening clarity. Its head was in its chest. Its features were distorted, horrible. Its mouth wide and cavernous where its organs should have been. Its teeth were as sharp as a bear’s. It grabbed a soldier, stuffed his leg into its mouth, biting down so hard that it tore the limb off. The unfortunate man fell to the ground to bleed to death.

“Shields!” I yelled. Antonius relayed the command to the other centurions.

The soldiers, Jove bless them, did as they were instructed, and formed a tortoise. The tactic had saved us in the past against the barbarian hordes. But against these monstrous creatures, our weapons and armour might well have been made of parchment.

Again and again the lines broke, reformed, were split apart again. Men disappeared into those hungry maws with terrifying frequency.

“Gaius!” Antonius shouted above the din. “We are lost!

I nodded and gave the signal for the bugler to sound the retreat. Our troops were decimated, the mossy floor of the glen strewn with the partial remains of their bodies. The grey things did not follow us as we fled. We could hear the sounds of bones crunching behind us.

The day’s carnage had split the legion. The first cohort was completely wiped out. The second had suffered terrible losses. The remaining cohorts had also been attacked from the sides when the grey creatures had erupted out of the foliage. We retreated to higher ground, out of the damned fog, and took a head count. We were missing a thousand men. More of the sick had also died during the battle. That meant that we had lost nearly two thousand.

Almost half the legion, in one battle.

“What will you do, Atticus Germanicus?” Primus asked me. The other centurions were gathered for the briefing. Behind them, the red bled into the dismal clouds.

“We cannot go forward,” I said. “That much is clear. To do so would be suicide.”

“Yet the legatus said we were to march north,” Antonius said. I did not mind his interruption. The penalty for dishonour was death.

“They say Trajan is dying in Parthia,” Primus replied. “Surely that will keep Rome too busy to worry about us here.”

I nodded. “The legatus would understand,” I said. “We will go back tomorrow to Eboracum. There are things here that cannot be fought by sword or shield. I would rather keep the fort than lose the entire legion.”

So that was it. The decision was made. I heard no disagreement from the junior tribunes. The young officers had just had their first taste of bloodshed and found it bitter.

That night, we saw fires on the opposite hillside. Long groans echoed though the valleys. I shuddered at the sounds and thought about my comrades lying down there. I vowed to reclaim their bodies before we left.

“What do you make of it?” Antonius asked. I hadn’t heard him approach. I closed my cloak against the gale. Thin music, the like of which I had never heard before, sounded from the hills.

“Why don’t we go and see for ourselves?” I asked.

Antonius blanched.

“Surely you’re not afraid?” I said.

The veteran scowled. “What is to be gained from it?”

“Perhaps we can slay their chieftain,” I said. “Bring the scouts and a handful of men. No more. I want to get a good look at these painted men.”

“What of the beasts?” he said.

“Ask this: why they have not attacked us since? I think they are mindless creatures. When we entered the glen, we intruded upon their territory. If we skirt around the ridge, we can get up there without staying too long in the glen. Perhaps we can still win this day.”

With a proud smile, Antonius nodded. He hurried off to rouse the men. I was dishonoured by losing so many men. But here was a chance to go back with my head held high.

We picked a group of eight men: myself, Antonius, Cassius Marcus Aegyptum (a centurion of the rear spears) and five others, including the Brigantes scouts. Our mood was a sombre one; I learned that Marcus Agricola had died during the night. I took two junior tribunes at the insistence of Primus. I suspect he was anxious to get rid of them. They were constantly getting under his feet as he tried to keep some semblance of order among our dispirited camp.

We threaded our way through the silent glens. Once or twice I heard a night bird cluck, but nothing more.

We were halfway across the glen when one of the junior tribunes yelled in horror. We clasped our hands over his mouth. Then we too saw the abomination before us, revealed by a sickly moon. Our dead hung impaled on the branches of thorn bushes: hundreds of them, their faces, limbs, and stomachs missing. Some had been gnawed upon.

We tore our eyes from the odious sight then propelled ourselves up the steep slope of the glen, toward the flickering pyres.

The bushes provided cover as we picked slowly toward the clearing atop an outthrust knoll. A circle of standing stones rose out of the mist. Dim figures swirled around the obelisks, dressed in animal skins with antlers perched on their heads. They held up knives, slit their own arms. Their blood ran black in the firelight.

“Druithyn,” the scout mouthed. He was shaking with fear. “This is a bad place. Please, we go now.”

I shook off his dirty paw. The figures were dancing, their chanting rising to a fever pitch. All at once, dim shapes rose out of the fog between the standing stones – it was the grey men, their obscene, headless bulks towering over the priests.

The scouts scampered down the mountainside. “Let them go,” I told Antonius. “You cannot blame a savage for being a savage.”

The priests waved their swords around the grey figures, uttering some command. One by one, the grey monsters tramped out of the stone circle into the fog.

“Come,” I said. “Time to put paid to these heathens once and for all.”

We crossed the short distance between ourselves and the Druids. They spun to face us, hissing, with black stumps for teeth. They were shaven-haired beneath their animal skins, their flesh scarred from hundreds of ancient cuts. Around their necks hung freshly-skinned human skulls on chains.

With a cry of hatred, we struck them down and overturned their wretched altars. Each obelisk was carved with unholy images of the monstrous deities Marcus had mentioned – great creatures with hundreds of antlers upon their heads. They were depicted giving birth to malformed offspring – the giants we had encountered, no less. I watched with satisfaction as the heavy stone blocks tumbled down the mountainside into the mists. I prayed that those gods would be less powerful now their shrines had been destroyed.

Our task ended, we trudged back toward camp. Then a long groan cut through the stillness before us, followed by terrible screams.

We raced back across the glen – and almost stumbled into one of the grey men. The blasphemous beast peered at us with piggish, dull eyes where its chest should have been, baring yellowed fangs.

Antonius thrust at the creature, along with the junior tribunes. It lifted one of them up and tossed him into the woods as though he weighed no more than a flea. The other tribune screeched as it caught his arm and tore it out of its socket. Antonius wounded the beast, drawing thick gouts of green blood. But his sword was stuck. He was trying to free it when the beast’s maw closed around his skull.

All reason left me then. I fled, as a beast must flee when it senses death is near, dropping my sword. I scrambled up the slope. Through the chill mist, I heard more screams as the grey men descended upon what was left of my army. I could see no one. I was lost in the fog.

For three days now I have been wandering. No more the proud legionary. My armour has been cast off – it was too heavy. My throat is parched. But I fear to drink from the polluted streams. Mist lies everywhere. Occasionally, I hear a groan. I believe it is nearer now than it was before. Of my comrades I have seen nothing. My honour is lost, my pride taken. Even my sword lies lost in some stinking bog. This country has robbed me of my soul.

I do not know how long I can wander. I am lost. There is no sun to guide me. My Cassia, my darling, I love…

The fragment ends here. How the manuscript came to be in the grave in Italy is unknown. There are no explanatory notes accompanying the text, nor do any records exist of Gaius Atticus Germanicus, or of any other person mentioned, except for Marcus Appius Bradua, who was the Roman Governor of Britain in the second century AD. The IX Legio: Hispanica did exist, and was stationed in Eboracum (now York).

What became of the Ninth Legion is unclear. It simply vanished from the records. A fresh legion, the Seventh, was brought in to replace it. However, one piece of visible evidence does remain. The Emperor Hadrian succeeded Trajan in AD 117. One of his first edicts upon visiting Britain was to erect an enormous defensive line on the border of Caledonia (now Scotland), studded with watch towers and bolstered with fortresses. The remains of that cyclopean structure can still be seen today, as the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall.

steeleEric Ian Steele is the screenwriter of the sci-fi feature film “Clone Hunter”. He lives in Manchester, England – a very Lovecraftian setting. His first novel, the sci-fi/horror story “Project Nine” is due to be published later this year. He has also adapted a cult YA novel for the screen, and is currently writing about more monsters for a UK children’s TV show . His blog about screenwriting and other musings can be found here: http://ericiansteele.wordpress.com/

If you enjoyed this story, let Eric know know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Mike Dominic.

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2 responses to “The Groaner in the Glen, by Eric Ian Steele

  1. Well written, and researched, don’t find Picts in stories very often; I think you described them quite realistically. The mood of the piece remained constant and intrigued me to the very end. I could believe this story as a could have been.

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