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The Karens of the Golden Chersonese-- Text. With four others, Romulus and Tarquinius found themselves at the front of their two small files. They did not protest at this. As the new recruits, it was to be expected. Romulus was taller than most, and could see over men's heads and past the upright horsehair crests on their bronze-bowl helmets.
Here and there a century standard jutted up into the air, and over on the right flank was the silver eagle, the emotive talisman of the legion. His heart raced at the sight of it, the greatest symbol of Rome, and one that he had grown to love dearly. More than anything, the eagle had helped Romulus to remember that he was a Roman. Imperious, proud and aloof, it cared nothing for men's status, recognizing only their bravery and valor in battle.
Beyond it, though, was a sea of snarling faces and glinting weapons, sweeping toward them in great rolling waves. There were curious stares, especially from those who could see the left side of his face. A prolonged torture session by Vahram, the primus pilus of the Forgotten Legion, had left a shiny red cicatrice on the haruspex' cheek in the shape of a knife blade.
Thanks to Tarquinius, Romulus was familiar with the story of Ptolemy XII, the father of the current rulers of Egypt, who had been deposed more than a decade before. Desperate, Ptolemy had turned to Rome, offering incredible sums in gold to restore him to the throne. Eventually, Gabinius, the proconsul of Syria, seized the opportunity. That had been at the same time that Romulus, Brennus, his Gaulish friend, and Tarquinius were traveling in Crassus' army. Nubian skirmishers and Judaean mercenaries mostly, and Cretan slingers and archers.
All tough bastards. Romulus and Tarquinius exchanged a look. It was imperative their status, particularly that of Romulus, remained secret. Slaves were not allowed to fight in the regular army. To join the legions, which Romulus' press-ganging had effectively done for him, carried the death penalty. Romulus held back his instinctive retort. Spartacus' followers, slaves all, had bettered the legions on numerous occasions.
He himself was the match of any three ordinary legionaries. With a new homeland to defend, the enemy slaves could prove tough to defeat. This was not the time, nor the place, to mention such matters, though. When was? Romulus wondered with a tinge of bitterness.
With ready weapons, they waited as the clash became more desperate. Showers of enemy javelins and stones flew into their lines, cutting down men here and there. Lacking shields, Romulus and Tarquinius could only duck down and pray as death whistled overhead.
It was most disconcerting. As the casualties grew heavier, spare equipment became available. A stocky soldier in the rank ahead went down with a spear through the neck. Quickly Romulus pulled off the twitching man's helmet, feeling little remorse. The needs of the living were greater than those of the dead.
Even the sweat-soaked felt liner that he jammed on his head first felt like some kind of protection. Tarquinius took the corpse's scutum, and it wasn't long before Romulus had his own one too, from another victim. The optio grunted in approval. The two ragged wanderers did not just possess good weapons, they also knew their way around military equipment.
Not since the Forgotten Legion's last battle four years before had they both been fully equipped. He scowled. It was still hard not to feel guilty about Brennus, who had died so that he and Tarquinius might escape. Pushing against the rows in front, they shuffled toward the enemy. Dozens of gladii, the Roman short stabbing swords, were raised in preparation.
Shields were lifted until the only part of men's faces that could be seen was their flickering eyes under their helmet rims. They moved shoulder to shoulder, each protected by his comrades. Tarquinius was to Romulus' right and the talkative legionary was on his left. Both were responsible for his safety as he was for theirs. It was one of the beauties of the shield wall. Although Romulus was furious with Tarquinius, he did not think that the haruspex would fail in this duty.
He had not appreciated how thin their ranks had become. Suddenly the soldier in front slumped to his knees, and a screaming enemy warrior jumped into the gap, taking Romulus by surprise. He was wearing a blunt-peaked Phrygian helmet and a rough-spun tunic, with no armor.
An oval spined shield and a rhomphaia, a strange sword with a long, curved blade, were his only weapons. This was a Thracian peltast, Romulus thought, shocked twice over. Without thinking, he jumped forward, smashing his scutum boss at the other's face. The move failed as the Thracian met the attack with his own shield.
They traded blows for a few moments, each trying to gain an advantage. There was none to be had and Romulus fast developed a healthy respect for his enemy's angled sword. Thanks to its shape, it could hook over the top of his scutum and around the sides to cause serious injury. In the space of a dozen heartbeats, he nearly lost an eye and then barely avoided a nasty injury to his left biceps.
In return, Romulus had sliced a shallow cut across the Thracian's sword arm. He grimaced with satisfaction. While the gash did not disable, it reduced the other's ability to fight. Blood oozed from the wound, running down onto the peltast's sword hilt. The man spat a curse as they cut and thrust at one another repeatedly, neither able to get past his opponent's shield. Soon Romulus saw that the Thracian could not lift his weapon without wincing.
It was a little window of opportunity, and one he was not about to let slip. Shoving his left leg and his scutum forward, Romulus swung his gladius over in a powerful, arcing blow that threatened to decapitate. The peltast had to meet it, or lose the right side of his face.
Sending up a clash of sparks, the two iron blades met. Romulus' swept the other's down, toward the ground. A groan escaped the Thracian's lips and Romulus knew he had him. It was time to finish it, while his enemy's pain was all-consuming. Using his forward momentum, Romulus lunged forward, putting all his body weight behind the shield. His power was too much for the peltast, who lost his footing and tumbled backward, losing his shield in the fall. In an instant Romulus was crouched over him, his right arm drawn back and ready.
They exchanged the briefest of looks, similar to that which an executioner gives his intended victim; there is no response other than the widening of pupils. A quick downward thrust of Romulus' gladius and the Thracian was dead. Jerking upright, Romulus lifted his scutum just in time.
His enemy had already been replaced by an unshaven, long-haired man in Roman military dress. Another one of Gabinius' men. His Latin proved Romulus' theory. This was met with a sneer, and Romulus took his chance. He stabbed forward, thrusting his sword over the top of his distracted foe's mail shirt and deep into his neck. With a scream, the man dropped from sight, allowing Romulus to see the enemy lines briefly. He wished he hadn't. There were Egyptian soldiers as far as the eye could see and they were all moving determinedly forward.
Thanks to their heavy casualties, they were now part of the front rank. With Tarquinius and the others, they prepared to meet the next onslaught, a combined wave of legionaries and lightly armed Nubians. Their new enemies were clad only in loincloths; many wore a single long feather in their hair.
The black-skinned warriors carried large oval hide shields and broad-bladed spears. Some, the more wealthy among them, wore decorated headbands and gold arm rings. These individuals also wore short swords tucked into their fabric belts and carried longbows.
A quiver poked over each man's left shoulder. Knowing the limited range of the Roman javelin, they stopped fifty paces away and calmly fitted arrows to their strings. Their comrades waited patiently. Romulus was relieved to see that the Nubians weren't using compound weapons, as the Parthians did.
The shafts from those could penetrate a scutum with ease. It wasn't much consolation. Gaul, Britannia, Gaul again. Romulus looked at Tarquinius grimly. These men were hardbitten veterans, but they were badly outnumbered. All he got was an apologetic shrug. He ground his teeth. They were only here because Tarquinius had ignored his advice, insistent on checking out the dock and the library.
Still, he had seen Fabiola. If he died in this skirmish, it would be in the knowledge that his sister was alive and well. The first volley of Nubian arrows shot up into the air, hissing down in a graceful, deadly shower. An instant later, the stream of enemy missiles struck their raised scuta with familiar thumping sounds. To Romulus' relief, almost none had the power to drive through, so few men were hit. His pulse increased, though, as he noticed some of the stone and iron arrowheads were smeared with a thick, dark paste.
The last time he had seen that was when fighting the Scythians in Margiana. Even a tiny scratch from one of their barbed tips caused a man to die in screaming agony. Romulus felt even more glad of the scutum in his fist. Another volley followed before the Nubians began trotting toward Caesar's lines. Unencumbered by heavy equipment such as the rogue legionaries were carrying, they quickly picked up pace.
Screaming ferocious battle cries, the enemy warriors soon reached a sprint. They were followed by Gabinius' former soldiers, who would deliver the hammer blow. Romulus gritted his teeth and wished that Brennus were still with them. The enemy formation was at least ten ranks deep, while Caesar's lines now were barely half that. Right on cue, the trumpets blew a short series of blasts.
From the rear came the shouted order, "Retreat to the ships! At once their lines began edging sideways, toward the western harbor. It was only a short distance, but they could not let down their guard at all. Seeing this attempt to escape, the Nubians yelled with anger and sprang forward again. Stay in formation and drive them back.
Then move on. Romulus eyed the triremes, which numbered about twenty. There would be room on board for all--but where would they go? As ever, Tarquinius butted in with the answer. His confidence restored, Romulus grinned. Yet the ships were still out of reach and, a heartbeat later, the Nubians struck the Roman formation with such force that the front ranks were driven back several steps.
Screams filled the night air and soldiers cursed the bad luck sent them by the gods. Romulus saw a legionary to his left take a spear through one calf and go down thrashing. Horrendously, another had a blade pierce both cheeks to emerge on the other side of his face. Blood jetted from the wounds as the weapon was withdrawn. Dropping his scutum and sword, the soldier raised both hands to his ruined face and let out a thin, piercing cry.
Romulus lost sight of both injured men as a mass of Nubians slammed up against his section. Angry red mouths shouted insults in a foreign tongue. Hide shields smacked off scuta and broad spear blades flickered back and forth, searching for Roman flesh. Romulus' nostrils were filled with the black warriors' musty body odor. Quickly he killed the first man within reach, sliding his gladius under the man's sternum in one easy move.
His next opponent was no harder to dispatch; he practically ran on to Romulus' sword. The Nubian was dead before he'd even realized it. On Romulus' right, Tarquinius was also dispatching warriors with ease, but to his left, the talkative legionary was struggling. Beset by two hulking Nubians, he soon took a spear through his right shoulder, which crippled him.
He had no chance as one of his enemies pulled down his shield while the other stabbed him through the throat. It was the last thing the first Nubian did. Romulus lopped off his right hand, the one holding the spear, and with the backstroke opened the warrior's flesh from his groin to his shoulder. A legionary from the rank behind moved forward to fill the gap and together they killed the second warrior. We need cavalry, thought Romulus as he fought on. Or some catapults.
A different tactic to help their cause, which was growing desperate. Small numbers of legionaries had reached the triremes and were swarming aboard, but the majority remained trapped in a fight that they could not win. Panic flared in men's hearts and instinctively they moved backward.
Centurions roared at them to stand fast, and the standard-bearers shook their poles, trying to restore confidence, but it was no good. More ground was given away. Scenting blood, the enemy redoubled their efforts. Take heart, comrades. Caesar is here! A lithe figure in gilded breastplate and red general's cloak was pushing through to join them. His horsehair-crested helmet was especially well wrought, with silver and gold filigree worked into the cheek pieces.
Caesar was carrying a gladius with an ornate ivory hilt and an ordinary scutum. Romulus took in a narrow face with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and piercing, dark eyes. Caesar's features reminded him of someone, but he had no time to dwell on the thought.
He took heart from Caesar's calm manner, however. Like the centurions, he was prepared to put his life on the line, and where a leader like Caesar stood, soldiers would not run. The news rippled through the ranks. At once the atmosphere changed, the panic dissipating like early morning mist.
Disobeying orders, the reinvigorated legionaries surged forward again, catching the enemy unawares. Soon the lost ground had been regained, and there was a brief respite. With the ground between the lines littered with bloody bodies, writhing casualties and discarded weapons, both sides stood watching each other warily.
Clouds of breath steamed the air and sweat ran freely from the felt liners under bronze helmets. The legionaries roared with approval. Their victory against the valiant tribe had been one of the hardest fought in the entire Gaulish campaign. But we still beat them! Romulus saw real pride appear in men's faces; he felt their resolve stiffen.
Caesar was one of them. A soldier. Romulus felt his own respect growing. This was a remarkable leader. Caesar let his men cheer for a moment, and then began urging them toward the triremes once more. They nearly made it. Intimidated by the Romans' counterattack and Caesar's bold words, the Egyptian troops held back for twenty heartbeats.
Soon the edge of the dock was only a stone's throw away. Guided by sailors, hundreds more legionaries had embarked, and a good number of the low-slung ships had pushed out into the harbor. The three banks of oars on each dug down, pulling them into deeper water. Finally, furious that their foes were escaping, the enemy officers acted. Exhorting their men to finish what had been started, they charged forward, followed quickly by a roiling mass of soldiers that threatened only one thing.
It was all too slow, thought Romulus with a thrill of dread. Maneuvers like this could not be done properly with an enemy host closing in from thirty paces away. Tarquinius' gaze lifted to the starlit sky, searching for a sign. Where was the wind coming from? Was it about to change? He needed to know, but he was afforded no time. An instant later, the Egyptians reached them. Attacking a force on the point of retreat was one of the best ways to win a battle, and they sensed it instinctively.
Spears reached out, delivering the bloody kiss of death to legionaries who were turning to run. Gladii wielded by Gabinius' former soldiers stabbed through weakened links of mail, or into vulnerable armpits; they hammered the shields from their hands. Bronze helmets were smashed into bent pieces of metal and men's skulls cracked open.
Humming overhead came sheets of arrows and showers of stones. Seeing the lethal pieces of rock, Romulus felt his heart sink. With enemy slingers in range, their casualties would soar. Fear now distorted most legionaries' faces. Others threw terrified glances at the heavens and prayed aloud. Caesar's rallying shouts were in vain.
There simply weren't enough of them to hold the Egyptians back. The fight became a frantic effort not to fold completely. Still Romulus hacked and slashed, holding his own. With an agility belying his years, Tarquinius was doing the same. The soldier who had joined Romulus on his left side was a skilled fighter too.
Together they made a fearsome trio--yet it made little difference to the greater situation. As the Roman lines moved backward, men died in growing numbers, which weakened the shield wall. At last it disintegrated, and screaming Nubians battered their way in. With their distinctive red cloaks and gilded breastplates, the centurions were targeted first, and their deaths further lowered morale. Despite Caesar's best efforts, the battle would soon become a rout. Sensing this, the general retreated toward the dock.
Instantly fear mushroomed throughout his cohorts. Men were knocked over and trampled as their comrades ran for the perceived safety of the triremes. Others were knocked off the quay and into the dark water, where their heavy armor carried them under in the blink of an eye. Romulus took a look over his shoulder. Only a few ships could be boarded at a time, and with the panicked legionaries unprepared to wait, the nearest ones were in real danger of being overloaded. Romulus shivered, recalling a previous time that they had escaped by water.
Left behind on the bank of the River Hydaspes, Brennus had died alone. The shame of deserting his comrade had never quite gone away. Romulus forced himself to be practical. That was then, this is now, he thought. As one, they shouldered their way past the confused and terrified soldiers surrounding them. In the confusion that now dominated, it was easy enough to break out of the battered Roman formation and make for the water's edge.
They had to take extreme care. Slick with blood, the large stone slabs were festooned with body parts and discarded equipment. Leaving the burning warehouses farther behind, the trio were soon moving through semidarkness. Thankfully, the area was empty.
The fighting was confined to the area around the triremes and the Egyptian commanders had not thought to send men west along the dock to prevent an escape. Their oversight did not matter, thought Romulus, staring back at the slaughter. Wild panic had now replaced Caesar's men's earlier courage. Disregarding their officers' orders, they fought and scrambled to escape.
He pointed at a trireme in the second rank from the quay. Raising a hand to his eyes, the legionary swore. Romulus squinted into the light, finally seeing the general amid the throng. Despite the shouts of the trierarch--the captain--and his sailors, more and more soldiers were climbing aboard. Let's survive ourselves first," replied Romulus tersely, stripping down to his ragged military tunic.
At once he buckled his belt back on, thus retaining his sheathed gladius and his pugio, the dagger that served both as a weapon and a utensil. The legionary looked from one to the other. Then, muttering dire imprecations, he copied them. I'm Faventius Petronius," he said, sticking out his right arm.
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