Bennachie, AD 84

Sheena Blackhall

Our eagle sulks on its standard.
This morning will bring mist as thick as soup.
Ten thousand dead! Too sullen to surrender,
the few survivors melt into the trees,
into this grizzled swampland they call home.
Here even a frog's green arse soon freezes up.

Agricola, our commander, dines alone.
All night he wrote despatches in his tent
under the sharp stars, under the sky's mad eye.

My poor horse will be maggot-feed by noon,
crows flap around his belly on the moor
where Flavius is roasting plundered cattle.
It is like this, after a battle. Killing's my trade.
I am a legionnaire. I stab and murder
all in the name of Empire, at an order.
Last night I dreamt an adder left a rock,
throttled an eagle like a thin garrotte.
The purple mountain's red with tribal blood,
they made a stand, poured down the hill and lost.
The mountain bares slit flesh and twisted metal.
The natural amphitheatre of the heath
beheld the spectacle. Ah, how their women moan!
They watch us pick each loved one to the bone.
An ancient bird croaks on a wet black twig.

Marcus got him a torc that shone like gold,
cut from a corpse whose whiskers were beer-stained.
I robbed a boy who stared up to the clouds
of corn and plaid. Relieved him of his shield
then broke his fist to see what it might yield:
the palm held peaty earth, no precious jewels.
For this, he died. For this sour scoop of soil,
fought like a baited tiger.
We won, although their carnyx bellowed like a bull
led up to Mithras for the sacred slaughter.

Each night I dream of sun, of goats, of wine,
of mother Tiber, lush and serpentine.
Each morning I awake to stinging midge,
cold eats my bones. Death, watches from the ridge.