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Here is the start of a little story I’ve begun writing. I got the idea as I read the beginning of Heart of Darkness, when Marlowe describes the fear that the Romans must have felt as they came upon Britain the first time. I thought it would be a great start for an adventure story, and here’s the start of that start. Hope you like it.
When they’d set out from Rome, all those months ago, he had never expected this. All around them, the sea roared like vengeful spirits, the unyielding cries of the sacred dead, who had gone down here before. But who had gone before? No one; screeched the wind. It howled and whipped the rigging, threatened to tear the sails from the mast and leave them hopelessly stranded, beneath a sky the color of ash, and a sea the color of lead. They were the first. And perhaps the last, if they found nothing that the tax collectors or generals deemed worthy. But maybe, just maybe… He had cast his die on this expedition. While in Gaul, he’d received word that the drought had reached his olive orchards near Syracuse. The estate was in shambles, and the debt collectors knocked at the gates like snarling wolves circling a wounded stag. They could smell blood. His blood. And they were coming for him. So when he had heard of the crazed expedition to the north, chasing shades and ghosts into the mist shrouded, myth darkened Isles. he hadn’t hesitated. The Empire was offering plots of land to any legionnaire who would fight for one year with the expedition to the world’s end.
Even if the next year brought a bumper crop of olives, it wouldn’t matter. He had taken a loan to buy rights to all of the olive presses in the district the previous year, and because of the drought, he had been left with a huge debt, in addition to the losses from his own crop. No, there was nothing to go back to. If he were to go back, he might be able to hold out for a few months, borrowing more from friends and family, but the hole he had dug himself was already too deep to climb out of. So when the aid-de-camp came into the officers’ mess tent in Gaul, Flavius Maximus had no qualms in scratching his name down onto the rough parchment that promised his life to the Empire for another year. Strange, he thought, how a man jumps willingly from the kettle and into the fire. He’d narrowly escaped death during the Gaul campaigns, after taking an arrow to the side. Its malicious barb had buried itself deep in his flesh, and the doctors had come close to declaring it a lost cause. The pain as they removed it had been exquisite. When he looked down at the soft linen he lied on, he had been surprised that the human body even contained so much blood. The pure white had been stained a shade of red so dark it bordered on black, and the loss of so much quickly carried him into a state of semi consciousness.
In his dreams, he walked a snow covered landscape. As far as he could see in any direction, stood nothing. Pure, white, nothing. A dream of annihilation. He wandered. His boots went crump, crump, crump, in the snow. He could feel each step compact it beneath him, leaving his footprints behind. He turned around out of a nameless curiosity, and saw that his steps only extended behind him for a few feet. The winter winds, howled, and erased any record of his existence before his very eyes. In a few hours, it would erase him entirely, and bury him beneath the eternal ice. Still he trudged, drawn to some nameless warmth in the distance that seemed to make his breast hum with resonance. He trudged and trudged, mechanically, until his vision was completely filled with white, and even his own feet were erased from his vision. He woke up.
He drifted in and out of consciousness for over a week, as he overcame the blood loss and a subsequent fever. The wound healed, but his mind was still pierced by the recurring dreams of nothingness. He thought of the dream now, as he peered into the gloom. It seemed that only the colors had been swapped, blue and gray, the color of new steel, had replaced the smothering antiseptic white of the dream. It still threatened to swallow him whole. To erase him for all time. The mist hung low all around their galley, as at rolled and rocked with the violent surf. These boats had been built for the tranquil, nymph ruled waters of the Mediterranean. They should have been sailing the aquamarine waters between paradise islands, laden with wool from Egypt, nuts from Syria, and headed toward the great markets in Rome. Instead they followed legends, and chased chimeras. Whispers of a land beyond Gaul had reached them since the campaigns had begun. Murmurings of a place beyond beyond. Alba. A land infested with barbarians, and ruled by spirits. The light of the Empire was strong, but had yet to reach this mythical place. And as he stared into the mist, that looked as solid as a curtain of steel, he wondered, almost sacrilegiously, if even the light of civilization could penetrate into this gloom that seemed somehow, alive.
He was cold. In fact, he could tell that they all were. His friend, the cavalry commander, Justinus, gripped the railing and shivered beneath his oiled cloak, as water beaded, and dripped back off it into the sea from whence it came. Flavius walked over and clapped him on the back, and felt the otherwise unflappable soldier flinch, just a fraction of an inch.
“Feeling, alright my friend? I must tell you, you don’t look the part of the legendary man who pacified all of Gaul.”
“Ah Flavius! Were it so. I could only wish to take all the credit, and be on my way back to sunny Rome to receive my laurels. There can be no rest for the men who would do the Emperor’s will it seems.”
He heaved a sigh and replied:
“Men do what they can with what they’ve been given, Justinus. We make our world, but we do not make it just as we see fit I’m afraid. I’m sure that most of the men would never have crossed the Alps had it been up to them and them alone. The forces outside our selves drive us to break with our everyday, our comfortable lives. Look around us. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we as men, are quite small.”
“Flavius, it is quite like you to wax philosophical in the face of misery,” laughed Justinus. “I only wish I could have your resignation to such turns of fate as this.”
“It’s not resignation so much as, well… I’m not quite sure, a certain willingness to do my duty. Not just to the Empire. But to reach something. To see absolute end of the world.
“I only hope that the rest of the men can feel such things my friend. It’s disturbing to me that we just don’t know what we’ll find there. No one does. What do we have to go on, a few stories of tin traders coming down to the northern shores of Gaul? What do we hope to find there? More barbarians? More slaughter? It seems strange to keep going, after we’ve already gone so far.”
“Asking the unanswerable again, eh Justinus? A dog digs, a horse gallops, the Empire expands. Order is the natural order of things. We draw maps, we divide into provinces, we collect taxes. This is the fate of the world, to be divided up, and conquered, classified and catalogued.”
“Perhaps,” breathed Justinus. “but even the Empire seems small out here. Just as you said we ourselves seem small before.”
And indeed, they did seem small. The whole ship did. The bright red sail with legion number, XVI emblazoned on it stood alone against the gloom, like a small fire burning on a foggy heath. The shadows and grayness threatened to enclose it, to extinguish it forever, like a foggy thumb and forefinger, clamping down on a candlewick. Off in the distance, to their left, and right, they could see other red sails, feebly held aloft against the tide of darkness and ignonimity. They stood out there, other candles holding on tenuously, like paper lanterns set afloat in in a fast moving stream. All anyone could wonder was, how long would they last, and how many would make it? They had set out in the morning yesterday, the last feeble stretches of sunshine left behind on the rocky coasts of Gaul. Men stumbled with their heavy loads down to the ships, the rocks and pebbles betraying their footsteps, as if to warn them that to go would be a dangerous leap into the jaws of the unknown. Safer to stay, boots safely on dry land, even in the province of Gaul, that still, on occasion, refused to remain subdued. Man was not meant for the sea, the rocks seemed to say. Maybe the small ponds, the Mediterranean, or the Caspian, but nothing like this. These waters were truly otherworldly, and hostile, overtly hostile to their intentions, it seemed.
There had been no one to see them off, like in the stories of old. No fair maidens to hang necklaces of flowers on their shoulders, or to give them tokens to remember them by. Of course the Consuls and bureaucrats had pontificated about the usual glory of the Empire, bringing light into dark places, and spreading the glories of civilizations to the barbarians beyond the seas. They left, workmanlike, as if they were carpenters, or masons off to build one more house, or temple. In a way they were, the workmen of the Empire. The unthanked, unthought of grunts, who fit the individual stones of the wild provinces into the massive stonework that made up the impregnable fortress that was the Empire. Somehow it had rung hollow for Flavius this time. Having already seen all the “civilizing,” done by the Legions in Gaul, he was more than a little skeptical about what sort of civilization they would be bringing to the savages of this new land, if indeed, they or it even existed. That was a main part of the anxiety, not knowing. He had always been a great planner. He kept detailed records of every harvest in his orchards, laid out each expenditure, and never borrowed for frivolous things, like excess wine or women. But somehow, he hadn’t seen the drought coming, couldn’t have seen it coming, no matter how many records he kept, or pored over in the local state archives. And here he was again, on the threshold of another journey that was impossible to plan for, to foresee, and yet hoping that it would somehow help him make up for the last time fate had gotten the better of him. Doubling down on a lame horse, he supposed.
He stared over the galley, his eyes boring into the abyss. What might be down there, lurking, waiting in the bowels of the earth? Man would never know, he supposed, one of those impenetrable mysteries, like the night sky, or women. He imagined the ruins of ancient cities, buried deep beneath the waves, on the floor of the bottomless sea. He wondered if such a fate could ever come to the Empire. Of course it couldn’t though, he reminded himself. The Empire stretched throughout all of the known world, and as he well knew, it was growing, thanks to him and the rest of the Legions.
Suddenly, off the starboard bow, a jet of white brine shot up high into the charcoal sky. Flavius’ stood transfixed for a moment, his mouth agape. It seemed as if his imaginings had somehow called this sea monster up from the depths. Somehow, they had intruded on the sacred world of the abyss, and it seemed as if this guardian of the deep was here to protect a realm in which the Legions had no business. They all stood silent for a time, struck dumb by myth treading into reality. The barrier between the two realms seemed to be collapsing, the further they sailed into the unknown.
Finally, someone forward of Flavius shouted
“Starboard bow, we have… kraken!”
“Archers! Up on deck!