Chapter 23: War, What Is It Good For?

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Chapter 23: War, What Is It Good For?

A carnyx and a wolf.

Where to now? turned out to be a tricky question. The subsiding whirlwind revealed to a shaken Izzy that he was on the edge of a forest with not a sign of an electricity pole in sight. At least I won't get electrocuted, he thought. It was morning, the air was clear, and he couldn't see any people. It seemed to be late spring.

'Late spring' was not a good indicator of date.

Izzy put on his jacket – at least it was partial camouflage against the trees behind him. He sat down and surveyed the plain in front of him. The terrain sloped down to a level on which grassland stretched for a long way, maybe a mile in all directions. In the far distance, he could see some middling mountains.

How far back am I? Am I going to see giant beavers again? What about bears? How will I find a date marker? Oh, well: I could just take a nap…

That's when he heard the noise. A rumble. Something with feet. Or hooves? Could it be horses? It certainly had a regularity to it, like something thumping the ground in rhythm. Whatever it was, it was getting closer.

Izzy decided that height was his friend. Spotting a good-sized oak, he did some quick climbing, hiding in the foliage where he could peek out. He was just in time: the source of the noise came in sight.

Soldiers marching. Izzy laughed inwardly. They do sound like a lot of horses. But whose army was this? Hm, skirts. They were wearing skirts. And armour plating, of course. And funny helmets. Carrying spears and swords. The guy in front had a long pole with a metal medallion on it. The plate above the medallion read 'SPQR'.

Oh, crap. Romans.

This wasn't helpful at all. Izzy would have to land in a time where there was an empire that lasted hundreds of years. Gack. They weren't nice people, as far as he remembered. Roman history wasn't his specialty, but he did remember they'd destroyed Jerusalem. This was obviously not Jerusalem, or anywhere near it: not nearly dusty enough.

It wasn't as if he could go up to the soldiers and ask them. His Latin extended to e pluribus unum, post hoc ergo propter hoc, and the name of the tree he was in. Speaking of soldiers, there were an awful lot of them…hundreds. All stamping the ground and not saying a word.

Don't they know any Jody calls? he thought. Or a song about the girl I left behind on the Upper Danube? Grim lot.

Izzy hoped the parade would pass him by. Then he could get out and explore for better temporal clues than 'I have this cool banner so I own everything my sandals stomp on.' But the army didn't move on. Oh, no. Instead, they did some truly parade-worthy manoeuvres and headed out onto the grassland to form big squares.

Looks like the half-time show at a college football game, thought Izzy, who had been dragged to one by some friends at university. (He fell asleep.)

The soldiers looked like they were waiting for something. Is there going to be a speech? In the movies, there's always a big speech. But the commander – he guessed it was the commander because he had a big thing like a push-broom on top of his helmet – just barked a few words.

I'll bet they make up the big speeches later, for the history books, thought Izzy. The soldiers waited some more. And even though there were maybe a couple of thousand men out there, you could have heard a pin drop.

Then Izzy heard a sound that made his hair stand on end. It came out of the woods, and it was just plain eerie. Like a brass section with a bellyache was his first thought. From the volume, there must have been half a dozen of the weird instruments.

And then he saw them, emerging from the forest. Long brass tubes on poles. At the top, a boar's head. They looked fierce with their erect ears and giant snouts. From the open mouth, a vibrating tongue added to the music made by the instrumentalists.

Izzy glanced at the Romans. The soldiers stirred uneasily. They don't like this music, either. But their sergeants (Izzy guessed) shushed them, and they stood waiting for the enemy to approach from the tree cover. Which it did, yelling and screaming and brandishing swords, shields, weapons on poles. Izzy was no good at naming ancient weapons, since the first and last weapon he'd ever held was a machine gun in a B-17. But whatever these things were, they were made of iron and they looked nasty.

That's why they call it the Iron Age. Iron tools, iron weapons. Oh, heck, that's no help. The Iron Age was really long, wasn't it? The approaching warriors, he guessed he should call them, had long hair and beards. Their clothes surprised Izzy: a lot of plaids and checks on their trousers and shirts.

At first, the running army increased the resemblance to a half-time show. Unfortunately, once the first 'barbarian' had reached the first Roman, the resemblance ceased. These guys were out for blood. The fighting was hand-to-hand. Izzy saw some horrible injuries inflicted out there. He couldn't really figure out what they were trying to accomplish – he'd never been good at team sports – but then he saw where one of the squares developed a hole in it, and he got the idea.

At that point, the big boar tubas roared again. From the woods came a rather nasty surprise, from the Roman point of view. Chariots. Each one pulled by a galloping horse. Each one containing a couple of really angry-looking barbarians. They were yelling something in a language Izzy couldn't begin to follow. That's another clue gone.

The chariots made further inroads on the squares. Now the Romans blew their trumpets – probably a signal to reform the squares, or something. The yelling and the killing went on for quite a while. Izzy felt sick. He almost fell out of the tree. All he could do was hang on and watch in horror.

The barbarian cavalry seemed to have tipped the balance in their favour: soon, the squares started to break up, Romans tripping over their fallen comrades. Shouting commanders tried to regroup, but the barbarians pursued them. At least, from Izzy's perspective, the action was moving further away from his hiding place. But that left him looking down at the wounded and dying: hearing their groans and being unable to help.

Finally, the Romans had had enough. They broke and ran – toward another wood on the other side of the grassland. The barbarians whooped and shouted and ran after them, the chariots at the head, the horn players at the tail. Izzy strained to see them from his perch. Eventually, the sound died away, leaving Izzy to contemplate the suffering in the field.

From the forests came women and older men, carrying blankets and waterskins and bags of supplies. They went from one fallen fighter to another, offering water and medicines, bandaging wounds, carrying away those who couldn't walk or hobble on their own.

That is, they did this for their own people. Izzy gasped when he saw the first woman approach a groaning Roman and finish him off with her knife. After that, he just looked away.

It seemed a long time before the last Roman lay dead on the field, and the last barbarian had been carted away. It had been, too: the sun was sinking low. Izzy didn't see any more of the warring armies: they must have headed off in another direction. Izzy assumed the barbarians had won this round. And he still had no idea where or when he was, other than Europe, probably.

He started to climb down the tree and stretch his legs, but stopped when he heard a wolf howl. Oh god, he thought. Scavengers. And sure enough, crows were lighting, vultures circling, and wolves approaching. The clean-up crew. Izzy sighed and settled into the crotch of the tree to let nature take its course. He didn't feel up to arguing with a wolf pack right now.

He was nibbling at a NASA snack and feeling very sorry for himself (and sorrier for the soldiers and warriors) when the wind started picking up. It had got a lot darker suddenly, too.

Oh, no, rain. I hear thunder.

Soon the rain began pelting down. The thunder got louder and louder. Izzy was comparatively dry in the forest canopy, but he was aware that he was also higher off the ground than he probably should be.

When he saw the first lightning flash, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Wait, he thought. He frantically reset his watch: wild guess, Romans and barbarians, say 2000 years? Rapid calculations ran through his head as he wound the stem.

The ferret almost caught him by surprise, even though he was looking for him. He saw Felix (or was it Felicia?) running madly among the treetops, illuminated by a brilliant flash of lightning that was more than too close for comfort. In fact, it hit the oak tree he was in.

Izzy felt a return of the unpleasant sensation of being electrocuted, thought oh, no, not again, and then felt his hair being singed as the tree caught fire. Fortunately, that was all he knew of Century Whenever, because the whirlwind took him away from there.

His last thought in the Romano-Germanic period was I'll bet that oak tree becomes a sacred relic.

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