He is the master of fear. Months of training in the depths of the forest have taught him many important things; a warrior must be proficient in weaponry, but he must also understand how to harness his enemy’s terror. The element of surprise is crucial. And now the time has come to put his skill into action. Hidden deep within the darkness of the shadowy forest, the young German warrior smears dark paint across his cheekbones.
War is in his blood . . . it wraps him in a brutal caress, trailing him like a dark malevolent shadow. Since childhood he has been a force to be reckoned with. Few dare to spar with this quick and brutal young man dressed only in trousers and a weapons belt, waving a spear as if he came into the world clutching its wooden handle.
The Romans must be destroyed. They have already stolen so much from the Cherusci, from the beautiful shadowy land of Germania. They do not appreciate what they commandeer. To them Germania is ugly and wild, the place of demons and unchartered territory. He simmers with rage as he remembers the injustice. He thinks of the first time he witnessed a crucifixion.
He had been walking through the Teutoburger Wald, his primordial home; the air smelled of autumn, and it seemed the whole forest belonged to him. Wild tribal pride had surged through his veins like a heady tonic. And then he had seen her. A young woman, perhaps his cousin Alruna’s age, dead and sightless. Sigaz — his name means ‘victory’ — thinks of the stories. Germans willingly trading in Roman markets . . . learning the Latin tongue . . . giving up their wild ways to become ‘civilized.’ How he hates them! Germania must fight back.
He stares through the trees. Though the forest at night is a terrifying place, he is quite at ease. He likes having the upper hand. He enjoys being in charge, and he relishes the thought of being feared. Fear and respect are emotions he rarely feels but constantly demands from others. Sigaz knows that when the morrow comes, he may find himself among the wounded. But it is the principle that drives him. Germania must remain German.
Martial spirit dwells in the blessed rivers and mighty forests of his homeland. The thought of Romans conquering his warrior culture brings a heartsick anguish he cannot even begin to fathom. It is a fact that intertribal combat is frequent. Many of his physical ‘trophies’ were gifts from a rival tribe. Yet now, the most important thing is banding together to defeat an even greater menace.
Sigaz walks by moonlight. Arrogant, swift, and wild like the Cherusci, he is also well-prepared with provisions like the Chatti. At times it is fortuitous to be part of both worlds. Tomorrow the Cherusci must reign triumphant. Everything is at stake; the tribal way of life, Germanic culture, sacred tradition. And even Germania herself. He knows he would die before he would ever submit. Sigaz brings a deep breath into his powerful chest. Those who guide me, he prays, give me a great victory for the Cherusci. In his heart there is no doubt of triumph.
There never is.
He crouches in the undergrowth, silently watching column after column of red-bedecked Roman soldiers marching along the narrow forest path. He is accustomed to the sudden rain showers that September often brings . . . born and bred in the German forests, he finds his heavy blue tartan cloak sufficient. He sees that travel is difficult for the mighty Roman legions, however.
Demoralized, exhausted, and unaware, they have no clue that German warriors wait in the forest. His hand itches to pull out his spear. He can wield it in his sleep; he has complete confidence in his own abilities. His beloved shield rests by his side in its harsh black-and-red glory. Emblazoned with a herut or stag, the animal for which the Cherusci are named, it was meticulously carved to his own specifications soon after he reached adulthood.
It is a German maiden that captures his attention and piques his disgust. Alruna. So the rumors are true. She has attached herself to one of the Roman devils. Bile rises in his throat; his eyes gleam with hatred and untamed war-lust, and he feels overwhelmed with emotion. He has promised himself — and his sisters have agreed to it — that if one of them should ever feel so inclined, she will be taken away and beaten senseless. Warriors understand only one thing: war and victory. Adultery and lewdness are mercilessly punished.
The Cherusci chief Arminius leads unsuspecting Romans deeper into the forest. Sigaz laughs disgustedly at their naivety. Body taut and lean, he waits, muscles pulled tight like a bow. Eyes focus on the column. He feels immortal. Then he throws off his cloak; no need for any hindrance. What proud warrior cannot tolerate the rain? The cold shower soaks his skin and plasters the distinctive Suebian hair knot to the side of his head. Adopted from the Semnones, neighbors of the Cherusci, this style required Sigaz to pull his thick curly hair into an intricate braid knot that now lies majestically against his forehead.
The Romans are completely trusting. He is not sure if this has ever happened before — the so-called mightiest army in the world falling neatly into a German ambush. It is amazingly fortuitous. Patriotic blood sings in his heart; he gives a coy, wicked grin and continues to watch. Wait for it. Wait. Wait. Wait. His heart pounds a rhythm. He will remember these moments for the rest of eternity. Everything hinges on the success of the attack. He knows that if Rome is victorious, retribution will be swift and deadly. Then comes the signal. Screaming his war-cry, Sigaz springs his wiry body up. Broad shoulders explode into action. He takes out the spear and dagger and begins to swing, little caring whom he hits. Each casualty is a small victory in itself.
He will forever remember — and relish — the look of surprise in their eyes. Demoralized and disorganized Romans have a definite disadvantage; they run on discipline and technique, and when correct formation is impossible to achieve, they founder. Germans thrive in such a chaotic environment. Sigaz continues to scream ecstatically. The wildness of Germania fills his veins. He feels tears of fervor but quickly pushes them away. For you I will fight. For you I will conquer!
A flash of long hair tells him Alruna is near. She moves among the soldiers, searching for someone. ‘Traitor!’ he shrieks out. He often forgets she is deaf. Perhaps it is best, for he rails off invectives unfit for any ear. Here, in Germania’s struggle, in the fight for independence, she remains behind Roman lines. May the gods do with her what they will. She is no Cherusci.
When the second ambush is set into place, Sigaz is full of self-confidence. His decision to fight again has personal meaning; his own father, a Cherusci warrior well-respected as a hardened fighter, has deserted the cause. Sigaz must prove his own worth and make a greater name for himself than his father has ever garnered. Roman legions move sluggishly along the Kalkriese Pass.
It is a place Sigaz knows well; he often played here as a child. On one side of the narrow dirt path is a dense, shadowy, mysterious forest, on the other side, swampland. Germans both fear and revere the bogs. Now Kalkriese once again holds his destiny. Still the Romans come. Disheartened by news of the earlier ambush, they grasp for their scant remaining morale. Sigaz surges forth prematurely but is soon joined by enthusiastic warriors. A wounded Roman lifts his sword and with superior strength shoves it in Sigaz’s face. The young Cherusci dances away, well-practiced and drunk with triumph. Dark and malevolent curses flow from his mouth as he punishes any he finds. This is for destroying Germania, ancient beloved land of shadows, he thinks. We will be free! We will rule ourselves!
By this time he gasps for breath. The heat of battle is intense, even though the Romans put up little resistance. Soon it is all over. The Romans, trapped, struggle against their omnipresent foe until there are none left to struggle. A third ambush comes with wicked ferocity. The last men are funneled near Kalkriese and swiftly defeated. It is almost sickening to watch them making a weak attempt at self-defense. Hate the Romans as he may, Sigaz might have respected these legionaries as warriors if they had shown strength and dignity. So they say cold precision beats love of freedom. He stands tall, shaking the stiffness from his battle-hardened body. What fools they are.
Sigaz proudly awaits battle honors. He cannot hope for anything too illustrious, but his name remembered for eternity would be a welcome prize. It is in the dark forests that he hears a commotion. A dark shiver of bloodlust echoes in the young warrior’s heart. With a sideways grin and a noise of approval, he understands that captured Roman soldiers will be prepared as an offering to the gods. He instantly recognizes the handsome officer tied to an alder. Tall, clean-cut, with nearly-black hair and straight Roman features, he is a centurion of Legio XIX.
The man is badly wounded; his chest and shoulder are encased in dried blood. A fine plumed helmet lies at his feet. Sigaz can see pride and desperation smoldering in dark eyes. The young centurion knows that the ignominy of Germanic sacrifice is even more shameful than falling during an ambush. Sigaz is angered by the calm precision that still colors this conquered soldier’s gaze. This is a man who must be straightforward and steadfast in battle, the type it is hard to frighten. A priestess comes forth intoning dark and ancient words of vengeance. She takes the Roman’s arm, snapping it straight so violently that he bites his lip to keep from crying out. Her dagger collects a line of blood.
The centurion fights the black that rings his vision. Sigaz can see he is trying with all his might to remain courageous. The German ventures closer — a warm wad hits his cheek, and he realizes the Roman has spat in his face. Sigaz draws his spear. He is blind with rage and full of righteous indignation. It is he who should be indulging in the final degradations heaped upon arrogant would-be conquerors. The Cherusci warrior turns back to see that the Roman’s body has gone limp. For a few seconds the centurion is allowed the anonymity of unconsciousness, then he is jerked back into the present day by a sudden clash of drumbeats. The dark forests reverberate with barbaric fervor and fury. The Roman still carries himself well, yet there is an added element Sigaz can sense like the predator he is:
Romans rarely show it. It was refreshing to see their terrified countenances during the ambushes, yet now, tied to hulking trees and laid upon simply-hewn wooden boards, they have no self-protection. Weapons have been gathered and discarded; they will be buried with Germanic warriors who fell, as a symbol of their spoils. Sigaz knows a Roman naked as the day he was born and void of weapons is still a formidable adversary. Romans have trained every inch of their bodies to fight. The German relishes a challenge. Still drunk on victory and nursing the dark highs the day has given him, he longs to take this soldier down himself.
Whispered murmurs alert Sigaz to the fact that his presence is unwanted. He knows he is hated. He knows that, no matter how many battles he commandeers or how many victories he celebrates, he will always be an outsider. But now he has an element even the bravest young warriors lack. Blind fervor and complete self-confidence. And he always has the element of fear.
‘Go back to the land of the Chatti, half-breed. Succor your mother’s blood inside your cowardly veins,’ Ariovistus laughs.
Red rage flashes in Sigaz’s eyes. It has always been a bone of contention among his father’s volk that he was born of a slave girl, a Chatti woman no less.
‘I am a Cherusci.’
‘Prove it. Pierce yourself with your dagger. Show your loyalty.’
Sigaz’s eyes blaze. His uncle stops him just as the blade touches his bare chest. The young man stalks off, pulse pounding wildly as his body internalizes the feel of the cold, unforgiving dagger. He has won a great skirmish. He has earned a share in the wild spirit of victory, yet now, when he should finally feel tribal solidarity, he feels isolated and alone. He ponders Roman soldiers. The army is their life. Their fellow soldiers are the only friends most will ever have; there is a great spirit of camaraderie.
For a brief moment this appeals. Since birth Sigaz has tasted the bitterness of being an outcast. He loves the Cherusci and carries his affiliation proudly in his heart and soul. He is willing to belong, but they are never willing to grant membership. It is only by necessity that he is accepted. Never by choice. He looks back at the Roman centurion — the soldier is still fighting the blackness that threatens to overtake his body and usher his soul to the shadows beyond. Do Romans have their Valhalla? Do winged maidens gather up fallen soldiers and take them to a great feasting hall with wine and battle eternal? He could not even venture a guess.
It is late, and Sigaz is weary. Casting one last glance at the young Roman captive and a grief-numbed Alruna, he makes his way through the forests like a wandering ghost. The Cherusci can no longer see him, nor can they hear his steady footsteps. Occasional screams borne of Roman sacrifices ring through the darkened forest. He is deaf to the sound. Then a surge of pride fills his spirit. Why must he be identified as part of a group? Is he not clever enough to strike out on his own?
The thought is wild and unprecedented. Every German identifies himself by his tribal affiliations – he could survive as a Cherusci, perhaps as a Chatti, but the thought of living outside traditional boundaries makes him dizzy with forbidden excitement. The dream immediately dies. In Germania, a man is part of something larger than himself. Even if the Cherusci would understand (and likely encourage) the idea of his autonomy, enemy tribes would not. A renegade who refuses to conform to his volk is a social deviant worthy of death.
Sigaz sighs heavily. Wishing for his cloak, he makes his way to the stream. His body registers the autumn chill. He runs a battle-hardened hand over the nearest root, feeling the roughness. A sudden memory shoots from the recesses of his mind. His father’s touch was very much the same . . . harsh, raw, and unforgiving. Another sigh. Sigaz will not strike out on his own. But neither will he be beaten. He is immensely proud of his part in the rebellion and he will allow that sense of victory to bolster him as long as need be. He needs no one to praise him on a job well done. He knows he is the best. Nothing else matters.
The sun is rising. Golden streaks inundate the skies with the promise of a new day, a day borne of German freedom. Sigaz awakens even before the soft voice rings through the German wilderness. Imbued with savage senses, he is well aware that he is no longer alone. A bloodied and ghost-pale Alruna picks her way through the trees. On her face is the look of a lost child, numb, grieving, and full of innocence. She clutches through the darkness.
Sigaz loses all coherence when she begins to beseech the holy ones for her Marcus. He takes her arm, ignoring the flash of terror in her eyes. How dare the little traitor pray for a Roman in his presence? He shouts, well aware that though she cannot hear his words, she is cognizant of his mood. Alruna has always been bubbly and child-like. She has never learned to harness her emotions. She wears her heart on her sleeve.
Panting with impotent rage and wondering why he thought he could get satisfaction out of berating a deaf girl, Sigaz sits back heavily. He starts off through the forest; a sudden whim prompts him to look for the tree where the proud young centurion suffered the final and ultimate shame.
It is strangely empty.