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A Message for Avaricum
A Short Story
Set much earlier, but in the same timeline as The Last Son of Rome.
From this opening note alone I knew that Frank means business and fully aims to live up to his name of the. He’s creating timelines, whole fictional universe to explore and dwell in.
This is what ‘genre’ is all about, this is what unites fantasy, thrillers, science fiction and all the rest- that the authors build fantastical yet believable worlds, filled with characters you want to hang out with and root for (or conversely hate and boo) and places you want to visit it.
And that’s exactly what we have to offer you today, a little slice of Frank’s growing body of work. A piece that is self-contained but also hints at what is to come. Exciting stuff.
Set much earlier, but in the same timeline as The Last Son of Rome.
The word raptor is derived from the Latin word raptare (or rapto) which means to seize violently and drag away.
By train, it was 900 miles from Rome to Avaricum, and in between, lay the dark frontier of Europa. Lands filled with savage and barbaric tribes. Populated by men, that a mere hundred years earlier had fought open battles with hatchet and sword, now lived by the gun.
Kraen was such a savage.
He watched from atop a grassy hill as the ingenium pulled car after empty car towards Gaul. They were empty now, but once there, they would be loaded with raw goods for transport back to Rome. Today, however, it carried the payroll for the 1,000 Roman soldiers stationed at Avaricum's fort.
Kraen’s long black hair reached the middle of his back; his beard trimmed to fist length. Down the side of his face ran a long scar from temple to chin. Two hand cannons or tormentums, as the Romans called them, were strapped to his hips. A third and a fourth were strapped beneath his armpits. Each one good for a single shot. Some men carried upwards of six to minimize reloading in the heat of battle. But four was enough for Kraen. He preferred his fights go to the sword.
His horse snorted, the black stallion beneath him blowing clouds in the morning's frosty air.
"Easy boy," Kraen said.
The train chugged across the plain below. A pillar of steam trailing behind it. It reminded him of a ship, if its ocean, were a vast plain of long yellow grass waving in the breeze.
Behind Kraen, eight more barbars sat atop muscular steeds. They were the most wanted men in the Roman Empire. A rag-tag band of marauders made up of outlaw Ostrogoths and Vandals. All displaced by the empire. They were his friends and comrades, but to Rome they were known only as “Kraen’s Raptors.”
Haduswinth whipped his horse up the hill, pulling it to a stop just before the gang. Its dapple-gray hide covered in lather. The war horse pawed the ground, even as its rider shifted forward in the saddle.
"Is it ready?" Kraen asked.
"The oak is down," Haduswinth said. “That fuck’n thing will go off the tracks before it gets through.”
“Still no sign of a guard?”
“None, but its gotta have them. They always have ‘em.”
Kraen smiled and shouted, "then let's ride!" and he wheeled the big black around, setting him to a run.
The train screeched to a grinding halt, locking up its brakes and throwing sparks. A massive oak tree lay across the tracks. Its trunk so large a full-grown man could not reach around it.
Kraen rode up to the ingenium and steadied his pistol on the train’s captain. He flicked the gun, motioning for the man to get down. The captain was a burly man with a pot belly and a crooked nose. He gulped his fear, but made no move to get down, likely fearing Rome more than the marauder before him.
"You should save yourself," Kraen said.
The captain swallowed a second time. "I...I... I can't do that," the fat man stammered.
"Get down from—” Kraen was cut off by the sharp crack of a roman tormentum.
Kraen twisted in his saddle and fired at the guard that now charged him, dropping him instantly.
Then a second, having come up behind the first, fired off another round, but he too missed, for Kraen was already moving.
Kraen spurred the big black around, charging the cloud of smoke that now obscured the second guard, and rode straight through the soldier knocking him to the ground. The big black stomped and pawed at the downed Roman, as if he were a wolf that had been stalking the stallion’s own herd, and the war horse didn’t stop until he had felt the satisfying crunch of skull beneath his hoof.
The rest of the band descended then, from behind the hill, riding straight for the small contingent of Roman guards as they offboarded the train.
There was a brief exchange of fire, punctuated by excited war whoops and hollers, followed next, by a hasty retreat that left thick white clouds of smoke behind them.
The first charge left three of the Roman guard dead, and before the remainder could strike back, the raptors had already ridden out of range.
This was the tactic Kraen had taught them. Strike, then retreat. Regroup and hit harder. In this way, they kept the Romans off balance and the momentum of battle on their side.
Evorwic started the second charge.
The remaining guards, all six of them, caught outside the cover of the train formed a tight circle, back-to-back, and readied themselves. They stood in a thick haze, squinting against the sulfuric smoke that hung in the air, only catching brief glimpses of the riders beyond. But even still, they knew they were coming, for they could hear the band’s blood curdling cries and the steady pounding of hooves. And then the band was again upon them. Each rider swinging sideways in the saddle, foot looped over their horse's back and firing beneath its neck, using their mount’s body to shield their own.
And like that the fight ended. Leaving only a single legionnaire alive.
The man dropped to his knees in defeat, covered in the blood of his friends.
Kraen approached him, and under normal circumstances would gloat, but already Evorwic was loading the dead body of their friend Timil onto the back of his horse.
"Fuck you," the legionnaire said, spitting at him.
Kraen put his pistol to the man’s head and fired.
Stepping over the soldier’s body, Kraen asked Oemer, "Did you bring the nails?”
"They're right here," Oemer responded, pulling a canvas sack from his heavy fur coat.
"Where's the gold?" Kraen asked loud enough for any of them to answer.
"We found it!" Haduswinth shouted from atop the train, even as he and Manel the Iberian struggled beneath a large chest.
“Good.” Kraen turned back to Oemer. "Well, get them up there. Let's show Rome what we think of her rules."
“Oh, I think she knows,” Oemer responded wryly.
“Always good to remind her,” Kraen said.
As the others worked, Kraen and Evorwic lashed ropes around the sturdy oak and towed it free from the tracks. The fat captain watched them.
When they were done, and the tracks were cleared, Kraen rode back up to the captain.
"You leave those bodies up. All the way to Avaricum. If I hear you take them down. I'll find you, and you’ll ride the next train like them."
The captain shuddered, and Kraen watched as the captain soiled himself, the dark bloom of piss staining the front of his pants.
"Go! Get out of here," Kraen shouted at the man.
The fat man scrambled back into the engine.
Kraen watched as the train departed. In response to the robberies, Rome had made laying even so much as a hand on the trains a capital offense, punishable by crucifixion. The iron behemoth departed, snaking its way into the distance.
He hated the trains. He hated everything about them. The noise they made. The long trails of steam. The ugly, malignant tracks that scarred the landscape. But most of all the subjugation of his wild places. If Rome was allowed to continue, the whole continent would be covered in roads and tracks, and where then, would free men hunt and roam?
It was a dark early morning when the train pulled into Avaricum. The sun had not yet risen, and the fort's torches flickered weakly against the dense fog that moved up from the marshy river behind it.
Felix heard the rumble of the ingenium in the distance. It was late. It should have arrived early last night, and when it didn't, it had caused not a small amount of grumbling among the soldiers waiting anxiously for their salaries.
Felix was captain of the fort and as such gave the signal to open the gate.
The South gate grumbled open. As the train entered there came gasps from the soldiers below. But it was only when the car had come to a complete stop beneath the flickering torchlight that Felix observed what they had seen.
On the side of each train car was the body of a Roman soldier—arms spread, legs together—nailed in mock crucifixion.
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