A Legion of Ghosts II August 01, 2018 10:27

Act II

“The senate is aware that the requested infantry host did not arrive. What discerning judgment Gallus used in assaulting a great incursion with the support of a mere border legion and a few centuries of his own horse -- the man was a fool, either by his nature or lured by vainglory into a dire misreading of the situation.  The curia finds no fault in your actions thus far, but clearly you had no chance of defeating the Persians on your own. Enough stalling! The shadows grow long as your tale drags on. We need intelligence so that we can form a deliberate response, unlike poor Gallus. What of the Persian host? While you honor yourself and inflate Gallus’s name, Aegyptus roils like a hive knocked from a bough with a bear on its scent!”

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Lentulus paced in front of his men like a great ape rampant, baring his teeth and beating his chest. He called his veterans out by name, recalling their past glories. He named his centurions and sergeants, thanked them for doing their jobs, and reminded them that today the stakes of their wages would be another day above the ground. They had a casual fierceness about them, and where their edges were rough, Silanus began to notice a different outline. These men were long hardened, and their faults locked together like a clever puzzle when they were put to the purpose of war. Each rough edge faced outward, leaving nothing but smooth economy in their movements, and a jagged line facing the enemy that was utterly without fear. Silanus took heart in the troops he had feared would lack spine, and though the legate barked on he began to focus on the task at hand and recalling his own past experiences in battle. It was good to be able to focus.


Cavalry and command trotted through the muck before the gate with the resident legion behind them, Lentulus showing remarkable stamina with his continued orating as they formed to march. His bellowfilled more of the air as the ranks filed through the gate, until screaming with abandon, his face purpled and long strings of saliva sailed from his feral grin as the damp wooden gate closed behind them and the speech reached its riotous climax. The words were nearly incoherent now, but their meaning was clear. The infantry formations picked up momentum as they cleared the morass in the gateyard and entered the fresh mud of the open fields. Gallus split the cavalry to cover their flanks, sending men from his retainer to join both parties and ensure they followed doctrine. Their borrowed border legion was fierce, though Lentulus’s command was nothing like textbook. Gallus, Codius, and Silanus remained mounted behind the infantry with a small guard, ready to rally if part of their line faltered.


Gallus ordered the halt on a downhill slope of the naturally terraced hillside, hoping to keep them in range of the fort’s fixed scorpions. Eighty yards ahead of them was another depression in the land. When the sound of hoofbeats drew nearer he readied himself to meet the commander of this forward army. There would be no parley. Hundreds of Deccan mercenaries crested the hill, marching and riding at full speed. A central column of cavalry looked to break their line; the equites moved to intercept.


The Roman horsemen outnumbered their enemy. Still, they followed doctrine and drew the Deccan riders away from the field into a thick gorse with the wet earth still steaming. Gallus gave the hint of a smile to Silanus. Now the legion could fight the way they liked, man to man. As the skirmishers drew near a legionnaire cried out. The border legion’s heavy infantry began to slap their gladii and shields together, chanting. Silanus frowned at the legion of oddities; These men had clearly spent time on the northern borders as well. Lentulus had taken a position in the second rank, screaming with his tongue extended to his chin. He was shaking the shoulders of the men nearby. As the Deccans began to coalesce into respectably massed charge, Silanus gave the command to loose pila following a nod from the bemused Gallus.


Their position allowed all ranks to throw at once. There was no need to take aim; their adversaries were densely packed and sprinting over soggy ground. It was hard to judge the volley’s effectiveness by sight, with a blinding sun low behind the invading skirmishers, but Silanus was comforted to hear their battle cry turn sour in their throats as they suffered under the close volley. The rear ranks loosed their second volly of pila as the front prepared to earn their pay on the edge of a gladius.


More shields than men fell prey to the pila; but this again served the doctrine of letting the infantry do their work. The first mercenaries to make contact with the Romans had been stripped of their best protection and fell quickly as a result. Spears and curved swords now rebounded from the structure of the legionary formation line as the mightiest wave of a storm rebounds from a cliffside. The battle was progressing as most others Silanus had participated in. His concerns about the efficacy of these men faded as he watched them work like a mill in an October stream.


The growing morning humidity was starting an itch on the back of his neck, which he ignored as he wondered at the fact they hadn’t clearly seen a Persian detachment yet. Surprising they would spend their mercenaries without even including a turba of scouts to make sure the accounting was accurate. No matter, the left side of the enemy line appeared to be weakening; Codius asked for leave to join their soldiers and urge the breakthrough. Gallus granted it without looking at his nephew, instead he turned to Silanus and ordered him to keep the boy alive and to turn their line towards the center, encircling their foe. The last time Silanus saw Gallus he was limned in the golden glow of dawn, the din of battle urging his chest to fill and his chin to lift.  A shame, in retrospect; an artist could have made something of that.