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BLANDIUS, NICO AND BASSUS - Excerpt




693 AUC (61 BC), summer
Stella Mountains, southern pass, lands of the Lancienses Transcudani, Hispania


…He finished his water skin and put it back in his bag, wondering about getting a refill, when both the cornua and tubae blew. At first, he thought they were called back to work, then he realized it was a call to arms. The centurions and optios started to shout. Blandius glanced at the mountain side above their camp and held his breath in shock. The Transcudani at the top of the pass had moved into action. They must have realized that we’re vulnerable before the fort is complete and waited for a break when even our Cretans were distracted.
That must be close to two thousand riders, already halfway down the distance to the Romans, with another roughly three thousand warriors chasing behind on foot. “Hurry!” he urged his squad on, swearing to himself while stuffing his remaining food back into his bag before donning his armor in record time, and helping others to get theirs donned faster.
All the readied soldiers ran as directed by the centurions who shouted “Ad Signa,” gathering everybody into battle lines in front of the respective centuria standards. The nearly one thousand legionaries formed into three ranks that covered the open stretch between the two main finished ramparts, a distance of about eight hundred feet, and a few men on each end covered the sides to discourage enemies from trying to climb the ramparts to outflank. The archers spread out evenly behind the three lines of legionaries for support, with a few of their number walking the Cretan’s horses over from the middle of the future camp to have them ready.

***

Nico stood in line holding his bow ready, when he heard shouting behind him. He turned to see the two engineers and some of their helpers run towards the line, lugging heavy leather sacks. One of them shouted at Andrippos. “First decurion, have your men move these sacks up to the front! They need to get to the first row of legionaries as soon as possible. We will bring up more.”
“You heard the man!” Move the sacks forward!” Andrippos shouted at them all, and Nico rushed to put away his bow, so he could carry a sack forward to hand to the third row of legionaries, which handed it to the second, until it arrived at the first line. He heard the legionaries shout excitedly after emptying the contents on the ground in front of them. Each sack contained twenty-some iron caltrops, a shape of two slightly bent and sharpened iron rods joined to create a structure that would always sit solidly on three of its tips while the fourth pointed straight up. He had seen these things in the armory but did not know how they were supposed to work. He saw the legionaries pick up the individual caltrops to throw them forward, creating twenty feet of danger zone for the oncoming riders which were now only a few hundred feet away.
He moved back in position, close to Klearistos and Andrippos, and waited for the next load of caltrops.
He heard Andrippos shouting loudly at his own decurion to carry through the din. “Klearistos, once the front line is fully engaged, move your own turma back and mount up. Ride to the opening at the western side of the rampart and wait. Just stay there to block any one of their cavalry deciding to flank us. Send word right away if you need help, understood?” he asked the man.
“Yes, Andrippos. We’ll block the gap, and I’ll send word if we need help,” Klearistos shouted back.
The second set of bags of caltrops arrived, and Nico helped move them forward. He walked back in position a few feet behind the soldiers and readied his bow again. Now there was nothing else to do. He waited another minute, and the cavalry came into bow range.
“Archers, release!” He heard Andrippos command. His call was picked up as a short note by their single Cretan liticines, their official lituus blower, relaying the command to the men too far away to hear the first decurion’s shout.
Nico had a hard time keeping his bow steady, and he feared he would lose his grip based on his sweaty palms. This was his first full-scale battle after all, and they were fighting against overwhelming odds, based on the numbers of the enemy coming at them. After he released his first arrow into the sky, he stood still for a moment, his eyes following its flight towards the oncoming riders. He realized that everybody around him kept shooting at a rapid pace, and with a jolt he moved to pull out the next arrow, aimed, and let go. The last hundred feet of the enemy’s distance shrunk so fast his third arrow’s trajectory was nearly flat, flying right above the legionaries’ heads.
Several of the enemy men went down, either hit directly and sliding off their horse, or both horse and rider going down if the horse was hit, taking out other riders around them in spectacular fashion. Let’s hope this proves too much for them and they turn around. Oh Fortuna, who am I kidding?  


***

The cornua and tubae blew the command to brace, and Blandius gripped his pilum so hard that his knuckles turned white. The entire first line of soldiers had already taken out one of their two pila from behind their shields in anticipation of the command and knelt. They would use their standard throwing weapon as a lance, digging the handle’s back end into the dirt, and bracing the shaft with both hands. The row behind him held their shields high, ready to cover his line after the first impact. He smelled his neighbor’s urine, the green recruit no longer able to control his bladder. This wasn’t Blandius’ first fight, and he knew from experience that waiting was the hardest part. Once the wait was over so was the time of conscious thought and worry. His gaze followed the riders’ approach, seeing many go down from arrows, creating chaos in the tightly packed Transcudani ranks. The first riders, now in a much looser formation, came up on the caltrops.
The warriors in front of him made it several feet into the caltrop zone before chaos ensued. The magnificent horses started to scream, their legs buckling from hitting caltrops in full gallop. Those horses went down hard, dislodging their riders explosively. Still, a smaller number of the riders made it through and came up on the first line. Blandius shivered from anticipation, looking up at the head of a proud brown stallion aiming straight at him. He got lucky since the horse slowed at the last moment, deciding to rear. Blandius knew to lift his pilum off the ground to push it at the horse’s exposed neck. The horse saw the weapon coming and turned in panic to avoid it, jumping right and colliding with another cavalry man.
Blandius had a short moment to look to the side. He saw many horses impaling themselves on the men’s Pila, falling forward and crushing legionaries in the process. Several of the second rank had pushed forward, attempting to fill the gaps and free trapped fellow legionaries. He turned forward, pulled his second pilum from behind his shield, and looked for more cavalry. The initial hard charge had been stopped by the caltrops and the spears. The riders now tried to ride close enough to the Roman line to make use of their long swords, but the legionaries closed the line and stood their ground.
Blandius heard the call for the entire first line to stand up. “Pila iacite! Throw your Pila!” the centurions shouted up and down the line. More horses and riders went down. “Two steps back!” This moved everybody clear of the horse bodies. Blandius drew his gladius before the next command to close shields.
With the entire first line standing at attention, holding their shields high against the cavalry, the riders had a hard time getting close enough to hurt the legionaries. The first rank started to go through the standard rotation, opening up a small space between the shields, stabbing out with their gladii into the horse’s sides or the rider’s legs. In a very short time, enough had come down, that another “Two steps back!” was needed to clear the line and get the shields closed again. Soon the scene repeated itself, followed by another call. “Two steps back!” Blandius moved backwards, from the ditches to the middle of the ramparts’ unfinished ends. Maybe there is some hope.
The encounter had gone much better than he had expected. He knew that Roman legions could face overwhelming odds and win, though, of course, he also knew that some legions had been annihilated even when winning seemed all but assured. Recent public losses included armies facing Germanic barbarians, or more recently, a rabble of slaves under the gladiator Spartacus.
His spirits lifted when the riders retreated, and a flood of fresh warriors on foot pushed in. It was a hot day and some of the enemy hadn’t bothered to don any kind of armor. Blandius grinned, hoping it would give his blood-spattered face a demonic expression. No armor against a line of legionaries was a serious mistake. They would know that once they went down dying.
He kept working in sync with his fellow legionaries. Lock shields, push shield forward, rotate the shield on his left arm to get enough opening to stab the tip of his gladius at any exposed skin. Over, and over again. From the corner of his left eye, he saw some of his colleagues go down, replaced by men from behind. The third rank pushed forward to fill the holes in the second. The cornua and all the tubae blew for rank change, and it took Blandius a split second longer to react and move than the smelly recruit to his right. A wounded Transcudani lay on his side a couple of feet in front of him, and the dying man reached out to swing his long cavalry sword. As Blandius rotated, the heavy sword tip cut through his right caliga, cutting right through his open military boot and deep into his foot. The man managed to pull the sword back, cutting deeper still in the process. Shouting and swearing, Blandius continued his turn to let his replacement deal with the wounded enemy. He rushed backwards through the third rank and looked down at his foot, seeing the freely pooling blood. The medicus assigned to their detachment ran over to have a quick look. He had heard the man was not a studied doctor but raised from the ranks of the medical helpers based on his excellent triage capabilities. I hope he knows what to do.
“Sorry, no time to deal with you right now. Your caliga is doing a fine job of holding things together. Just lay down and elevate your foot, that will keep you from dying before things calm down again.” The man moved on to look at the next legionary in need.
Blandius hobbled back to the legionaries’ packs and lowered himself to the ground. He got as comfortable as he could, always keeping a wary eye on the line in case the enemy broke through somewhere. 

***

NEW - As the first of the enemy horses where impaled on the legionaries’ pila, Nico heard their lituus blowing the call to mount. He saw the line of archers turn their heads momentarily towards the middle, until everybody saw the raised standard of the second turma. The first and third went back to shooting while Nico released the arrow he held and dashed with his squad towards the horses. The thirty men of his squad mounted and rode a couple of hundred feet back to the middle of the camp. Here they reigned in to study the enemy movements. When he realized how hard the Transcudani cavalry had gotten decimated, Nico allowed himself a glimmer of hope, but then the first men on foot reached the battle field and ran through the killing zone filled with dead horses and caltrops. They jumped over bodies of horses and men alike, and for the most part had no problem avoiding the iron spikes. The cavalry men, now relieved from having to bear constant pressure on the Romans, gathered on the far side of the caltrops. His mood went sour when the enemy group of about five hundred, the sole remnants of their original force of two thousand, moved into a trot. Their direction was downhill, intent on going around the camp’s western rampart. The faces of the men around him turned grim.
He heard Klearistos’ call. “Alketas, take word back to Andrippos that we’ll need all the help we can get,” his decurion shouted. “For the rest of you, we can’t keep them at bay with our bows, so one arrow only. After that it’s down to how well we can chop with our kopis. We need to keep them away from our legionaries’ backs as long as possible.” Nico’s eyes followed the flanking force which was now increasing speed.
“Follow me!” Klearistos shouted. He kicked his horse, and they rode to the opening between the southern and the western ramparts, spreading out with four or five feet of space between the horses. When they stopped, everybody nocked their arrows and held ready to release. Nico steadied his mount with his legs.
“Wait until they get closer!” The first of the Transcudani had now made it to the end of the rampart and were turning inward and back upwards toward the Cretans, now only twenty feet away. The enemy warriors spurred their horses on, fighting each other in their eagerness to be first to the archers.
“Release!” All arrows flew, several hitting the same few cavalry men that were closest. The first ten riders toppled, reining some of their horses to a stop in the process. The following riders now had to turn wide around the riderless animals. The Cretans dropped their bows and moved their small shields to their wrists before drawing their long and recurved swords. They moved forward with a throaty shout to meet the Transcudani. Nico ended up close to the riderless horses, with the first enemy coming at him from his right side, opposite to his small buckler-style shield. For a moment that seemed to stretch out forever, all he could do was parry the man’s frantic slashes at him. But then his adrenaline overcame his fear and nervousness. By the gods, I will not sell my life cheaply.
He twisted to his right in his saddle, now able to catch the incoming blade on his buckler, leaving his right arm free to slash downwards, his blade biting deep into the enemy’s upper leg close to the groin. When he pulled his kopis back, the leg’s artery started pulsing blood, spraying both him and the horse’s rider. Nico kicked his own mount left, trying to get some distance from the fatally wounded man drooping in his saddle, the additional pull on the reins making the enemy’s horse rear before it turned right, away from Nico. His focus snapped back to the next rider pushing into the opening. The woman wielded a solid iron spear, pointed right at his face. Nico had trained countless hours for situations like this and stopped thinking. He let the spear come very close until the Transcudani tried pushing it forward by stretching out her arms, expecting to end the Cretan. Instead of waiting for the point to hit him, Nico twisted forward and to the left, letting the spear’s tip glance off the right side of his chainmail. He caught the spear shaft with his left shield arm, pushing it down and away from his leg and his horse’s side. He twisted back, stretching out his right arm on the back swing. His kopis connected with the woman’s face, cutting clear across the nose and eliciting a loud scream. The woman’s following hesitation was enough to let Nico add a slash to her right thigh, cutting deeply. The woman let go of her bridle and dropped to the ground, to be trampled by the horses of her eager fellow warriors. Another rider moved in, ignoring Nico to attack the Cretan next to him instead. A glance over made him realize that their line had changed. The other two turmae had come to their support, and his new friend Elatos had pushed in without Nico realizing. Elatos was already engaged with a Transcudani to his left side and was wide open for the enemy newcomer. With a start, Nico pushed forward, trying to shove between them. Just when Elatos looked to his right, the Transcudani warrior stabbed him hard with her spear, the tip going through the chainmail into the sternum. Elatos was thrown backwards out of his saddle, ripping the spear out of the warrior’s hands. While the woman fumbled to draw her knife, Nico slashed hard into her exposed shoulder, cutting deeper on the back draw. She screamed and dropped her knife in her attempt to stem the flood of blood rushing out of the severed artery. With that Transcudani out of the picture, and now several riderless or downed horses between himself and the closest enemy, Nico had a moment to look around. He spotted Elatos, crawling away from the fight. He tried to wipe some of the blood from his face and realized how vast the sea of enemy riders in front of him was, all eager to get to him and his fellow Cretans. It seemed impossible to withstand this flood, and he felt paralyzed for a moment. I will die here in these mountains, far away from the civilized world. At least I will see Timon again soon.
Just maybe he could give the two cohorts and Elatos a few extra moments to live. He spurred his mount forward, rushing towards the next enemy.

***

…Bassus looked up when he heard a commotion up front. The men and mules ahead broke into a fast trot. He followed, and as he neared the tree cover at the foot of the tall mountains, he could hear the muted but unmistakable sounds of distant battle. He urged his mule out of the trees and pulled to the side. He forgot to breath when he saw the desperate action of the third and fourth cohorts in the distance. These men need help, and it can’t come soon enough. Help me, Jupiter.
Without thinking, he started stripping his mule’s load, and shouted at the other muleteers to do the same. He received a few blank looks, but most seemed to understand, feverishly emulating him. Muleteers usually played catch-up with marching legionaries in enemy territory, and they were encouraged to carry long knives, spears or even a cavalry sword for self-defense. The muleteers had plenty of opportunities to train with the legionaries, and every muleteer worth his salt knew how to ride. There was no doubt in his mind about what he needed to do to help his fellow men. With the bridle in his left hand, he jumped up onto his animal. Once seated on the strapping, usually used to secure the load, he pulled his long sword out of its sheath, and looked around. About a hundred and fifty of the mules were in various stages of unloading or mounting. Word must have traveled back into the woods, resulting in obvious haste. The last of the artillery men and legionaries trotted by, starting a long run uphill towards the struggle. Blandius counted the number of mule drivers already mounted and figured they were up to nearly a hundred. The muleteers were looking at him for guidance. You want me to lead you? Really? So be it, if that’s what it takes.
He wasted no time. “You all see that desperate struggle up there, right? The closer ones have got to be the Cretans, trying to cover the cohorts’ rear,” he shouted as loud as he could to be heard over the noise of the unloading. “They can’t hold out long enough, certainly not until our legionaries can get to them.” Nobody else spoke, but many kept looking between him and the raging battle up the mountainside. “So, let’s give them a hand, shall we?” he shouted, and with a roar, he kicked his mule into its ribs, launching it forward. He moved at a sharp trot, the others following.
After a quarter mile he passed the first of the jogging legionaries. The men had stripped off their extra gear and bundles, falling into a steady uphill jog. Bassus admired the men’s stamina. Still carrying over twenty pounds of armor and weapons, yet they ran at a steady speed up a steep incline. Few people outside the legions could match feats like this.
He looked up. The uneven struggle between the Cretans and the Transcudani had become desperate. From below, he could barely make out more than a handful of the light beige and red tunics peeking out from their armor stranded in a sea of local earthy browns and greens. “Sweet Perseus, you need to fly like the wind! Faster, faster!” he urged his animal on. Will we get to them quickly enough?

***

Blandius saw the enemy climb over the finished ramparts to move around the ends of the Roman defensive line. He knew the prefects and tribunes had seen the flanking maneuvers since the call for “agmen formate” was blown soon after, meant for the formation of an open square. He saw the men at both ends of the line step back behind the man next to them. They kept perfect form, exactly as drilled every week. The front line slowly shrunk, extending the sides farther and farther back. Even wounded and in pain, he was amazed to see how well the ceaseless and tireless drilling translated to battlefield action. This was the one advantage keeping the two cohorts alive, at least staving off certain disaster for now. Blandius pushed himself upwards, feeling faint. If I can’t reach the men around the cohort’s standards, I’ll be outside the square and as good as dead.
He shuffled over, sparing a glance at his feet. He could see fresh blood running down to the ground with each step. He was weak and barely coherent, and just as he thought he was going to make it he tripped. He fell to the ground, with no energy left to get back up and closed his eyes. This is it then.
Soon after, Blandius felt his torso lift off the ground, though he was unable to move until he dropped back to the ground. He felt the hand grab him again under his shoulder trying to lift him. This time, he came alive and tried to get up.
“Quickly, man, on the double. We need to hurry!” he heard a somebody urgently shout in his ear. Moving as fast as he could, he turned to look at who helped him. He was surprised to see Tribune Marcus Licinius Crassus.
They made it to the line just ahead of the first Transcudani and Crassus ducked under the first warrior’s swing, which nicked Blandius’ cheek instead. The closest legionary moved out of his side-stepping line to stab the attacking warrior’s side, allowing Crassus and the wounded Blandius to hurry past.
“We made it. Let’s go to the medicus and his helpers.” Crassus told him, keeping up his support until they were within a few feet of their target. Blandius stared at Crassus, attempting to commit his face with its big forehead and dark blue eyes to memory. Why is helping me? I am just a legionary, a nothing to the likes of him.
“Ah, good, the fellow with the cut foot,” the medicus said. “You there, let’s get his leg up, he clearly can’t afford to lose any more blood,” the man called to one of his helpers and got to work. Blandius looked past him at a few enemy warriors that had made it past the moving line and now harassed the legionaries rear. He couldn’t believe what he saw next—the cohort prefects, both tribunes, all their aids and servants, and even the horn blowers all drew their gladii and ran to engage the enemy, making short work of them. The legionaries could now move quickly without the added pressure, and the square closed. For now, that should be enough. Though he realized that the officer’s focus now changed to the valiant Cretans. He heard some prayers to Mars, god of war, for victory despite the circumstances. But he also heard many more praying to the spirits of their ancestors in preparation for the upcoming reunion. His lids turned too heavy to keep open. He closed them as the noise and prayers seemed to fade into the distance.

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