A Legion of Ghosts - Act III September 26, 2018 20:26
“You saw Gallus die, did you?” Lucullus could put on airs no longer. Ever the petulant child, his impatience was obvious. Boredom was winning out against righteous anger.
“I did not, and no man who now lives did, but I found his body and I burned it. The particulars of his death were obvious but inconsequential. He died fighting, what matters it if by spear, arrow, or...?” Silanus stopped himself.
Repelling their attackers with ease, the Romans readily pushed the initial wave of mercenaries back through a shallow gully and beyond, toward the hilltop whence they came. Despite the ground they were gaining, Silanus noted that not all of the casualties beneath their boots were foreigners. Anxiety swelled in him as he turned to his ward and co-commander in the hopes of salvaging the moment. The lips of Codius, the damned cockerel, began to split in a grin as he leaned forward on his mount. There was little time to dwell on the danger they were in, Codius rode out into the faltering mercenaries. His blood was up. The boy’s horse was as detached as his rider, trampling men with abandon. Silanus followed as closely as he could, his gladius found an opportunistic pikemen hoping to end his young charge’s rampage. Inspired by Codius’s vainglory, the infantry charged with abandon. It was a rout. The enemy was lost, but so was any semblance of cohesion among the Roman line.
Codius rode down men who were fleeing and unarmed. He was riding fast, raging to bring down as many foes as possible before reaching the ridge in triumph. The neat block of infantry devolved into a makeshift wedge in the wake of Codius’s charge. Silanus called out to no one in particular, ordering them, pleading with them to turn toward the enemy’s center. Silanus attempted to pick his way through the press and close the gap with Codius, keeping an eye on his tall black plumage. It was no good; he disappeared over the step baptized in blood, surrounded by his new compatriots.
Romans cresting the hill halted. Silanus too froze when he saw what awaited them in the valley. Had he eaten breakfast he would have lost it. Several thousand Deccan heavy infantry absorbed their fleeing allies. Among their front there were no less than 15 war elephants. Arrows arced black above them, countless as summer flies. The instinct for self-preservation rapidly returned to those infantrymen with a vantage on the situation, a misshapen testudo rose like gooseflesh across the Roman infantry as they hastily tried to reform. Shrieks of outrage and pain replaced the roar of the charge as the rear ranks jostled to fill the gaps left by the fallen.
Codius’s horse fell into the surrounding troops, crushing three under its body as the young noble landed hard atop the cover of shields and limply slid down into the forward ranks of the formation. Silanus reached the tangle of man and horse just as the rest of their legion gathered itself to weather the rain of arrows.
The towering storm of missiles became softer and less coherent, more a farmer’s dream of a constant shower now and just enough to keep the Romans pinned under the cover of their shields. Thunder filled the air from below and ahead, now, as the great pachyderms of their foes shook the earth with their gait and trumpeted like legions unto themselves. Silanus had never read, or even dreamed of an ambush so perfectly fulfilled. The glory Gallus craved would be left for some other to raise, after today.
Silanus was relieved to see Codius still breathing. His bloodbath was at an end; he wouldn’t be slaying an elephant any larger than a kitten with his sword hand as it was, pinned to his thigh by a particularly sinister looking shaft. Silanus ordered the surrounding cohort to join him and escape to the shelter of the greater Roman line. The nearest legionnaires bound their shields to his own mare’s haunches and slung a shocked and limp Codius across her hind quarters.
He needed to get these men back to the relative safety of their fort. The unrelenting tattoo of arrows and the sucking mud would make it an exhausting and brutal trek. He looked towards the enemy as his newly formed retinue began to fall back. The remaining legionnaires were still focused on maintaining their testudo. Suddenly the patter of shaft and shield drew to a halt, followed by an ominous trumpet call. A series of loud cracks split the air as the first pair of elephants split their formation like a dry oak. The densely packed heavy infantry had no pike, no pila, no counter to the beasts.
Silanus abandoned the pretense of holding ground. His focus was survival, his, hopefully Codius’s, and as many of the men as he could manage. Bellowing to nay who could hear and obey, he ordered a full retreat. Before his drafted mount could even get up to speed, bodies began fill the air around him, flung by the great tusks that followed. The mare began to rear and strain, attempting to bolt but slowed by her infirmed load. Sickening thuds filled the chaos with a fresh tang of blood as Romans and elephants raced each other up the hill; easily mistaken for allies save for the number of soldiers being trampled. Silanus scanned the rest of the Roman line as he reached the crest of the nearest ridge, hoping for a rallying point and refuge, but finding only a refrain of what his men had experienced, rising to a crescendo. Time slowed as his mind worked and he watched the battle unfold ahead of itself, as if from a great distance. He wondered for a moment if he had not simply perished under the weight of grey flesh pursuing them already. His thoughts turned to Gallus, and time crashed back into him as he spotted his mount crossing perilously close to a reaping tusk at the front of a grey wall of carnage.
The left side of the line was routed, the center was in a fighting retreat, Gallus was nowhere to be found, their right flank would soon crumble without the support of the center. Silanus again ordered a retreat, though this time it was more of a whisper and a wish for those troops remaining on the other end of the field. Even if they could fell the elephants they’d still have to deal with the outnumbering infantry marching just behind them. The safety of the ringfort was their only chance at survival.
In desperation Silenus beseeched Jupiter for relief. Scorpion bolts began to fall, one found its mark above a charging eye the size of a goblet, directing the elephant’s final forward momentum into a furrow in the soft earth. The creature’s journey ended as it slid to a halt in the grass, its mahout and several Romans entombed in the mud of it’s passing bulk.
The border legion’s remnants crested the hill they began their morning on. There stood their Auxiliaries, wearing armor often ancient in design and well patinated, wielding long spears. They stood in loose formation, no obstacle to the retreating Romans who passed through them like shades. The Greeks were late, but a welcome sight nonetheless. Silenus nodded to their probably commander, an older warrior who stood atop a halted chariot. The incredulous looks the retreating Romans offered served only to erect the Greek’s posture.