Altan stood on the hilltop, wrapped in his cloak against the chill night wind. It was summer but up here, the wind blew cold, especially at night. It was midnight, nearly time for his relief, Bora, to come up. As the Chief of the Watch, he could have taken the day watch but he liked the night. It was peaceful and quiet, just him and the stars. He checked the signal fire pile, everything was in readiness. The brazier held coals, ready for him to thrust the torch into, and it helped to keep the watcher warm. All was ready for Bora.
As he stood, watching to the north where the next signal fire was, Altan could hear Bora coming up the hill. The Visigoths were on the move, he’d heard from the runners carrying messages to the Roman fort at Demre to the south. He hoped they’d decide to attack to the east going to the Black Sea but he knew that was a futile thought. Demre was a port town at the east end of the Mediterranean, near the straights leading to the Black Sea. It was a ripe target, one they wouldn’t pass up.
Bora was close. Altan could hear his breathing and dislodged rocks rolling down the hill. He stared to the north, there! The signal fire was lit; he could see the sparks flying into the night sky.
“Bora!” Altan called out to his friend. “Hurry, the signal fire has been lit!”
Bora came crashing up the remainder of the hill, panting up behind his leader. “Where?”
Alton shook his head, barely visible in the half moon light. “It was lit, Bora. It was!”
They knew the danger. “Are you sure?” Bora strained to see into the darkness.
Altan sighed. “I’m sure.”
“It’s not there, Altan.” Bora’s heavy breathing from his run up the hill was quieting but the worry was in his voice.
“It was there, Bora. I saw it lit. Then, just before you crested the hill, it was gone.”
Bora wrapped his cloak tighter. “An accident. They lit the pyre by accident.”
Altan scratched at his beard. “Perhaps. The Roman runner said the Visigoths were on the move. What if they are at the mountain? What if the watchers lit the fire but the Visigoths put it out before it caught well.”
“What if it was an accident, Altan? The Romans won’t be happy to be pulled out of the garrison and run up here if it was a false signal.”
He turned to Bora, “What if the signal was over run? The Visigoths could be headed here now. They move fast, they could be here by tomorrow evening. Our families would be killed, and no signal would warn Demre. The town could be overrun.”
Bora kicked the wood at the edge of the pyre. “True.” He looked up into Altan’s face, “You must decide. Quickly.”
Altan chewed on a ragged thumbnail. “A signal fire is worthless if it isn’t used in time. Light the fire. If I’m wrong, I’ll deal with the Romans when they get here. If I’m right, Demre will have a chance.”
Bora thrust the torch into the brazier. It sprang to flame and he touched it to the pyre. They stepped back as it roared to life.
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