“The women of Aquis were spared only by the arrival of the news, the day after the fall of their town, that King Clodio had died at his capital. As the king had indeed died without a male child, and I had achieved a pair of stunning victories over disparate enemies, I saw that the moment was mine to seize. I ordered my men back into marching and riding formations immediately, and left a small foot contingent to guard the city’s walls before departing for Turnacum with the balance of my army. The chief of the capital-bound foot soldiers I left with orders for a forced march, and I rode hard ahead with my horsemen to seize the next day.
“Fortunately for all the Franks, the Salians in Turnacum saw my point of view, and the city’s gates were thrown open for my person and my horsemen. Straight to the royal villa I rode, my back as straight as my horse’s path and my visage as haughty as I thought a king’s should be. And it was straight to bed that I took Clovis’s daughter and only child as soon as the wedding and reception had been held that night.
“My power secured by both might and marriage the next morning, I proceeded to expand upon that base at the expense of my neighboring rulers. I judged the Ripuarians too tough and clever to lose more than a border town, and turned my sight southward once more. Across the swollen Samara that spring another army marched under my command, the symbolic long hair of the Frankish chieftain hanging past my ears and my confidence unshaken. We laid siege to the town of Samarobriva lying just over the river, the inhabitants surrendered the following January after their food stores ran out, and thus we established an annual pattern for my conquests of Roman territory.
“Rotomagus, Durocortorum, and Catolacus followed in the following years, but not before I had sent for a son from the Venetian lagoon to cement my power even further. The boy had been borne by one of my ever-present slave girls ten years before my departure for Rome, and had been seen as promising by the Roman cleric who had set out on a secret scouting mission to the lagoon in exchange for a new church in Rotomagus. Childeric (as I named my child once he arrived in Turnacum, wanting to give him a Frankish-sounding name) was whisked away from his mother in the dead of the night and escorted to safety across the breadth of Western Europe, before I began my first siege of an Imperial town.
“And thus it was that I was well on my way to establishing a dynasty atop the ashes of the declining Empire during the fifth year of my reign, when a storm blew in from the East and threatened to scatter both old and new to the vast expanse of history. That storm had one name: Attila.”
“What prompted Attila’s invasion of Gaul was no doubt a desire to expand his Hunnic Empire all the way to the shores of the Atlanticus, but what excused his invasion (at least in his mind) was a letter from Honoria, the sister of the Western Emperor Valentinian the Third.
“Perhaps no person has ever been named more ironically than Justa Grata Honoria, a woman who had been betrothed to a senator by her brother and who had responded by writing to the Empire’s most dire enemy with a request for rescue from an unhappy marriage. Regardless of the woman’s intent, Attila naturally chose to interpret her plea for help as a marriage proposal, and demanded half of the Western Empire as a dowry. The Emperor, who exiled his sister rather than kill her, refused to negotiate, and a massive army of the Huns and their allies crossed the Rhenus into Gaul the following spring.
“I had no illusions as to the fate of all that remained of the Western Empire, if this barbarian who had already ravaged good portions of the Eastern Empire were allowed to repeat himself. Attila acted not at all like a suitor pining for the Emperor’s sister in Italy, but instead made straight for the Visigothic kingdom in Aquitania, most likely in league with the Vandal King, who was safe from the Huns in his Mediterranean realm and who stood to benefit from the misfortunes of his Gothic enemies. Many saints would be credited with saving their cities through prayer, but Paris and others were only rescued by their inconvenient walls and Attila’s desire to crush the Visigoths before they could be reinforced by Aetius and his army of auxiliaries (yes, my friend, the Roman Army had ceased to exist as such). The Episcopus of Durocortorum, whom I had spared two years before when I conquered his city, was murdered before his altar, and this latest barbarian horde rode uncomfortably close to the heart of my realm.
“But, I freely admit, my friend, I hesitated to act, as an attack by my Franks upon the Huns’ flank would have brought full invasion upon that realm of mine. Not until I received news in my royal villa at Turnacum that the Huns had broken their siege of Aureliani in the face of a combined Visigothic and Roman advance to their rear did I give the order for my own advance. We and our new Ripuarian allies first met the invaders as the sun was setting over the Matrona River in that fiery orb’s longest journey of the year, these particular invaders being in the form of an advance guard of horsemen who had forded the river ahead of the rest of their army, the lot of them in retreat back to Hunnish lands. Those who did not flee back over the Matrona we slaughtered, save for the handful of prisoners I kept alive for the length of an interrogation session.
“In this manner I learned from the enemy that my Roman, Visigothic, and Alan allies were less than a day’s march behind the Huns and their own allies. As no further attempt to cross the river had been made, I discerned that Attila, trapped on a horse-friendly plain before that body of water, had decided to make a stand where he stood. In the middle hours of the following morning, after this had become obvious, I persuaded my Ripuarian counterpart to ride with me and both of our cavalry contingents further upstream, to ford the river at an unguarded spot while our infantry remained behind to guard their own side of the original ford.
“Thus we combined Franks didn’t join the main battle on the side of our allies until that evening. But our arrival could not have been more perfect, for the Huns were struggling to seize the heart of the ridge over which the fighting had commenced. I led our horsemen along the base of this ridge overlooking the Catalaunian Fields, and I was told later that our rapid appearance turned firmly the hearts of the Alans, who had been uncertain allies of the Empire up to that moment. The enemy was thrown back and into the disorder which they had attempted to sow amongst the other side, and that disorder grew into a full-fledged rout as the darkness of night gathered. Myself and the Franks rode as far as we could and cut down as many of the enemy as we could before the night was total, before I had my immediate command make camp where we stopped, knowing that the enemy would not counterattack until morning, if ever.
“It was on that following day that strange events took place, stranger even than the defeat of a barbarian horde by Roman irregulars and their allies. Myself and my fellow chieftain of Franks gathered our forces in the center of the battlefield and rode back past piles of dead bodies to the river, where Attila and his remaining Huns were trapped, encircled within their wagons.
“Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, had just been found beneath a pile of fellow dead, and I witnessed him being carried away to the accompaniment of heroic songs. I then watched from afar with my own son at my side as Aetius, the de facto ruler of the Empire, conferred with Theodoric’s son Thorismund. I did not know at the time what was said, but there was argument followed by consolation, followed by a departure of the Visigoths from the field. I was still in shock at this turn of events when Aetius summoned the Ripuarian king, who also departed for home with his forces after speaking with the Roman leader.
“It was after the Magister Militum came for me, approaching myself and my retinue helping to stand guard over the circle of motionless enemy wagons, that I came to understand. Aetius suggested to me that my strange Ripuarian bedfellows had departed to attack my kingdom while I stood on the battlefield, and that I should hurry home with the greatest speed.
“Hurry home myself and my men we did, knowing that the Roman general had sowed the most dangerous of seeds, those of mutual suspicion. The Romans and Alans were left behind to witness the final flight of the Huns, and no doubt to strip the field of its spoils, but Gaul and those within Gaul were safe.”
“The next six, and final, years of my reign were peaceful ones. In light of the recent invasion, I came to see the Imperial vestiges of territory along my southern border as more useful intact than conquered, and focused my energies more on building a kingdom than expanding one. I expanded that villa at Turnacum, built a library in it for all the works of Classical Antiquity which clerics throughout Gaul were collecting for me, and, in the hope that some late civilization would rub off on my son and his future lieutenants, I had bards sing and read aloud those works after every nightly feast.
“Only I, the carver of a kingdom and the Champion of the Catalaunian Fields, could get away with such behavior in front of barbarians, but even I could not bring back the glory which had been Rome. My own son, who had spent the better part of his youth in Italy, showed no independent interest, and the young men he would one day lead took his lead on this matter, cleaning their teeth with their knives, openly yawning at the Latin and Greek they cared not to understand in the least, and making off with hapless serving wenches at the first opportunity.
“I witnessed all of this from the throne I had raised above the mosaic Atlas and his world, and I saw that my new time to leave was coming. The novelty of being a king of the Franks was beginning to wear off, and, furthermore, a new threat had emerged across the Britannicus, a threat of my own creation.
“For Arvandus, the son of Elafius, was now rumored to be immortal.”
“I had heard, from across the Britannicus, of the rise of this new king based out of Londinium, this man who had led his men into the thick of many an encounter against the Saxons surrounding his realm, and who had emerged from each and every battle entirely unscathed.
“I saw the threat from Arvandus as more than the theoretical one of being rivaled by a fellow immortal, for many on both sides of the Britannicus attributed his immortality to the actions of a priest named Cartaphilus who had disappeared in Gaul shortly after Arvandus’s miraculous cure. I therefore saw that I would have to act quickly, and ‘quickly’ could not come quickly enough.
“I had long been in the habit of swimming in local rivers for exercise, and I made the point of taking a dip in the lower stretch of the Samara one fine summer morning, my retinue, guards, and mistresses remaining on the riverbank. Once far from shore, deep into the cold water I kicked, and I fell upon the medibots for the oxygen needed to swim several miles downstream without re-surfacing.
“I had arranged for a pack of clothing and supplies to be left behind a prominent tree at a bend in the river, and this drop allowed me to continue overnight on foot to the Samara estuary, where I approached a village the following morning in search of fishermen willing to take me across the Brittanicus for the right price. Found those fishermen were, and I was on British soil once more before the expiration of that second day, having paid handsomely to be dumped into the Tamesis estuary north of invader-infested Cantiacia so that I could swim onto a friendly beach with my oilcloth sack in tow.
“Londinium was much the same as I remembered it from twelve years previous, except better and worse. The sense and evidence of crisis that had pervaded within the city walls which I now passed through at first light had been replaced by decay, both in the body and in the spirit of the city. Many more Britons, the more energetic and perhaps the smarter ones, had fled to Brittany and even to Hispania’s northwest corner. Those who remained in Londin were more accepting of the shifting sands of history, patching their crumbling walls and conducting what commerce they could to support themselves in their hovels.
“But even Londin’s hovels would soon be under threat, for, despite his personal invincibility, King Arvandus had been forced to abandon Cantiacia to the Jutes and closer lands to the Saxons two years previous, and only the inherited walls and the king’s personal courage in pitched battles with the invaders had prevented the fall of the city. I at once offered my services to the city’s leaders as a veteran of foreign wars, and the chieftain who first looked at me askance asked no more questions after I harangued him in Latin.
“And so I came to rise through the ranks of the Britons even more quickly than I had risen through the ranks of the Franks. Thanks to the growth of a beard and the unwavering look in my eye, Arvandus, now a full man approaching thirty, did not question my latest identity, and my first command assignment was the task of escorting refugees to the south coast for flight to Brittany.
“Yes, my friend, to this day I find the very idea distasteful, the idea of not only allowing, but aiding, the departure of what makes a nation a nation, its most valuable resource: its people. I dared not question Arvandus or any of his chieftains while still in Londin, but instead asked my nominal commander, as he and I watched our charges clamber aboard a fleet of beached fishing vessels, why the king would permit such an exodus.
“That chieftain with the scraggly hair and beard smiled that cynical smile which I have seen all too often in my centuries. ‘Why, this is the separation of the chaff from the wheat,’ he replied. ‘These are the less hardy, the ones whose sons will crack under the weight of battle.’ I was about to ask if the hardy British warrior would not crack himself without the lesser man at his side, but then my comrade continued with the revelation, ‘Besides, those whom these cowards leave behind are entitled to the spoils.’
“And with that, my comrade in arms pricked his horse onto the beach before us to partake in the ‘spoils.’ Crying that there was ‘Not enough room,’ the soldiers who had so dutifully escorted their charges all the way from Londin, guarding them against Saxon marauders, now turned upon those same charges, ripping amphorae, furs, bolts of cloth, and even an occasional daughter from their hands while at the same time forcing them onto the boats at the points of their spathae.
“I merely looked on, filled with disgust and despair.”
“British matters continued on like this through the following spring, at which point I lost my patience. With the arrival of better weather over the Britannicus, the pace of flights picked up once more, and I found myself shuttling back and forth between Londin and the Saxon Shore to aid in the dissolution of Britannia. It was halfway through the third such journey, on the way to Portus Adurni (departure points further east had become too uncertain), as I witnessed an overloaded wagon being pushed and dragged out of an enormous pothole, that I snapped.
“‘Citizens of Britannia!’ I shrieked in Latin into the easterly wind, my cloak flapping away to reveal my meter-long spatha. Those refugees who, a few generations before, would have been loyal citizens of the Empire, looked up at me instantly, as if they had been waiting for my moment.
“‘Citizens!’ I shrieked once more. ‘Do you not know what you are doing to Britannia? Why, you are tearing your homeland apart! Do you not think that those invaders will follow you across the sea, just as they crossed the sea from further east? Where will they stop? Why, they will stop nowhere.’ I rode my horse down the road at a slow trot, turning all eyes back in the direction of Londin. ‘They will not stop until they are stood up to. They will not stop until the citizens of Britannia stand up to their cowardly banditry, they will not stop until all the good and decent people of this great island nation stand fast in the name of freedom.’ Sensing that my question would now be rhetorical, I drew my sword, held it high, and screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘Citizens of Britannia, are you with me?’
“The answer was a surprisingly hearty roar of affirmation, and I acted quickly to capitalize on the moment. I pointed my sword back in the direction from which the long convoy had come, and shouted (rather than screamed or shrieked), ‘Back to Londin! Back to organize resistance to the invaders!’”