A Legion of Ghosts August 01, 2018 10:27

Act I

“Are the stories true?” The thick, sweet taste of political righteousness was clearly on his tongue, and even the consummate politician Lucullus’ eyes betrayed this to the room. His rival and co-consul would be disgraced in the official record of the senate, and on the final day of their term.


“I cannot speculate about what stories you may have heard. I can only speak to what I saw, consul.” Silanus paused, reflecting on how he was momentarily the de facto commander of the Republic’s eastern legions. Ghosts now, most of them, they owed him allegiance only through attrition. “The Persians marched from the east, a host so large it’s dust shrouded the rising sun. Gallus thought it best to meet the invading army in the field rather than enduring a siege. Our men were eager to bring glory to the Republic, but events conspired --”


“Speak plainly, son. Was it truly the eagerness of your men?” Lucullus interrupted. Tuning his rhetoric with an incredulous tone, he did not wait for a response. “Conscript fathers, we all know how my fellow consul had amassed a fortune in the east, but was sadly never afforded an opportunity for valor and glory befitting his name. Such a noble, old name, as he never tired of reminding us. While valor and glory are mighty motivators for the strongest of men, and pillars of our society and the legions which protect it, they must be earned where they are needed, and not simply where old men look for them.  How many citizens died so the consulship of Gallus could be about more than his well-known graft? The senate must know the full details of this ill-fated expedition if we are to face this mighty Persian threat alongside a Greece nearly in revolt!”


A murmur came over the body, quickly hushed by an aged censor.


“I do not believe the Persians will be threatening anyone soon.” The gravity of the occasion was building upon Silanus. A Sisyphus near the top of his hill, he had hoped not to share too much, though it seemed every pebble of loyalty he spent to shield the name of his mentor became a new boulder that slipped from his grasp, crashing headlong into the legacy of Gallus. The final casualty of the battle he was here to report would likely be his good friend’s political career. His shoulders stiffened as he began a more detailed accounting.


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The men in Gallus’s personal retainer were hoping to spend a few more nights in Thessaloniki before their return journey to Rome. Some had unfinished business; one had a bastard child to see to. Silanus and the old man were the only ones at all interested in the fact that they were standing at the Republic’s edge.


Silanus had been with Gallus longest, though he was younger than all save the consul’s petulant nephew. Codius had no discipline in his manner, no sense of when to speak or when remain silent. The boy’s tactlessness amused his uncle as it chafed the others, and Gallus often used the boy as a foil, a pry-bar to move negotiations along by getting him to blurt out what things that no canny man would disclose. During the feast celebrating the start of their campaign Silanus had made a promise to his beloved commander, he would shield the fool from harm.


So far it had been an easy promise to keep, outside of a pair of tavern brawls that turned nasty due to Codius’s loose jaw. All but one of their legions was recalled within a month of departure, owing to the fact that the Greeks easily repelled the barbarians they had been sent to dispatch, often in small enough bands that they were dispersed before the regular infantry were formed and ready for a response. Was there ever any real threat? Likely this whole endeavor was simply another machination by Lucullus to keep Gallus from the city and prevent the populace from recalling his great generosity. Politics always cost those with the least to spare.


A mere three weeks remained in his consulship when Fortune answered Gallus’s many prayers. Amid preparations for the legion’s return to Rome, Informants from far afield reported a Persian army marching west. The scouts of the 4th legion soon corroborated the approach of the first force that had even been worth mention during their tenure.


Only the equites had accompanied Gallus and his advisors as they rode to inspect and prepare the ground on which they expected to meet their foe. It was three days’ march east of the city, but starting and ending their march under the faint light of Venus and leaving the infantry ranks and baggage to catch up had allowed the eager cavalry wing to cover the ground in but one.  


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Three days had passed; still, there was no sign of their infantry. Spring storms had darkened the skies. Jupiter drove down sheets of rain with such fury that it was impossible to see the timber walls of the fort from the command building. Ally and quarry alike were all but invisible from mere paces, more so as they all hunched beneath their cloaks. Warm, grey mud sluiced away the fieldworks that had so recently been refreshed. Fortune’s smile was feeling more like a predator’s grin by the day.


Their outpost sat on a small hill overlooking the eastern road. Temporary structures made permanent had been expanded upon over the years. In the aftermath of past sieges a new exterior wall would be constructed around the old. Mementos from previous occupants littered mossy, rotten timbers that formed the centermost rings. The decay at the heart of the fort seemed to have infected its small garrison as well.


A skeletal legion manned the camp. Its men looked too long on their own, too long away from Rome. Loudly and often Codius mistook them for Greek shepherds. Perhaps he would stop making that joke when the native auxiliaries arrived -- perhaps. They had been assured over 1700 auxiliaries would join their host. Lentulus, the fort’s legate has insisted they were decent skirmishers. His ranks were thin as his hair, while the man himself was the opposite. He had the look of a well-fed but seldom groomed bull. The commander sucked his teeth when he spoke and yawned as if it was the only way he could get enough breath. It was rumored he kept a saltwater pond stocked with fish just outside the fort, but the meals served to Gallus and his commanders did not reflect this.


Nevertheless, Gallus was in high spirits, the like Silanus had not since they had marched from Rome. He was 62 years old, playing with grapes and joking with his retainers. Rejuvenated by the prospect of proper battle and the glory it might bring he prodded Lentulus, asking him to name his centurions for the third time. Again, how many archers did they have? And where were their Velites? This went on into the night. Silanus carried his drunken mentor back to the command tent with the help of his despicable heir. Leaving the tent he looked back, his consul was making an offering of a smile to Somnus.


Silanus was relieved at the sound he awoke to, or rather the lack of sound. The torrent had ceased. In its absence there was a silence that was nearly as oppressive. Laying in bed, gathering his wits and wiping the sand from his eyes he wondered aloud if there was anything to eat. The men outside his tent started to jog, then run, the bugles sounded. An attendant tripped through the threshold. Pausing for a moment to gasp for air, his eyes searching the room, he found the ornate leather breastplate and began to dress Silanus for his first battle in years.


Calmly calling for their equites to prepare their mounts, Gallus’s demeanor had changed. His face was stone. Silanus saluted him as the met at the foot of the central watchtower. Despite the storm, Dawn crept behind their foe on the horizon, her rosy fingers twining through their cookfires, so many there were. Yet there was a smaller host marching closer to the fort. Perhaps some 1500 light infantry and 300 horse. They might easily destroy this isolated band and return to the fort before the larger Persian force could join the battle and overwhelm the outnumbered Romans. Gallus gave the order; the morning meal would come only on the heels of a hard and bloody ride.