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The Eagle and the Wolves
By Simon Scarrow
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Simon Scarrow
All rights reserved.
'Halt!' the legate shouted, thrusting his arm up.
The mounted escort reined in behind him, and Vespasian strained his ears to catch the sound he had heard a moment before. No longer drowned out by the heavy clumping of hoofs on the rough native track came the faint braying of British war horns from the direction of Calleva, a few miles distant. The sprawling town was the capital of the Atrebatans, one of the few tribes allied to Rome, and for a moment the legate wondered if the enemy commander, Caratacus, had made a bold strike deep into the rear of the Roman forces. If Calleva was under attack ...
Kicking his boot heel into the flank of his horse, Vespasian bent low and urged his mount up the slope. The escort, a dozen of his scouts from the Second Legion, pounded along after him. It was their sacred duty to protect their commander.
The track inclined diagonally up the side of a long steep ridge, beyond which it sloped down towards Calleva. The town was being used as the forward supply depot of the Second Legion. Detached from the army, commanded by General Aulus Plautius, the Second had been ordered to defeat the Durotrigans, the last of the southern tribes still fighting for Caratacus. Only when the Durotrigans had been destroyed would the Roman supply lines be secure enough for the legions to advance further north and west. Without adequate supplies there would be no victory for General Plautius, and the Emperor's premature celebration of the conquest of Britain would be exposed for a hollow sham to the public in Rome. The fate of General Plautius and his legions – indeed the fate of the Emperor himself- depended on the overstretched and slender arteries that fed the legions, and which could be severed at a stroke.
Regular columns of heavy wagons trundled from the vast base camp on the estuary of the Tamesis – the river that snaked through the heart of Britain – where provisions and equipment from Gaul were landed. For the last ten days the Second Legion had been without supplies from Calleva. Vespasian had left his forces laying siege to one of the larger hillforts of the Durotrigans while he hurried back to Calleva to investigate the matter. The Second Legion was already on reduced rations, and small groups of the enemy lay in wait in the surrounding forests, ready to attack any foraging parties that dared to range too far from the main body of the legion. Unless Vespasian managed to secure food for his men soon the Second Legion would have to fall back on the depot at Calleva.
Vespasian could well imagine the anger with which General Plautius would greet news of such a setback. Aulus Plautius had been appointed by Emperor Claudius to command the Roman army whose task was to add Britain and its tribes to the Empire. Despite Plautius' victories over the barbarous tribes the previous summer, Caratacus had raised a new army and still defied Rome. He had learned much from last year's campaigning and refused to take the field against the Roman legions. Instead, he detached columns of men to attack the supply lines of the ponderous Roman war machine. With every mile General Plautius and his legions advanced, those vital supply lines became more vulnerable.
So the outcome of this year's campaign depended on whose strategy triumphed. If General Plautius succeeded in forcing the Britons to face him on the field of battle then the legions would win. If the Britons could avoid battle and starve the legions, they might weaken them enough to force the general into a perilous retreat all the way back to the coast.
As Vespasian and his escort galloped up to the crest of the ridge the blasts on the war horns became more strident. Now the soldiers could hear men shouting, the sharp clang of weapon striking weapon, and the dull thud of blows landing on shields. The long grass was silhouetted against the clear sky, and then Vespasian beheld the scene on the far side of the ridge. To the left lay Calleva, a huge sprawl of thatched roofs of mainly squalid little dwellings, ringed by an earth rampart and palisade. A thin haze of wood-smoke hung over the town. A dark gash of churned soil marked the track leading from the tall wooden tower of the gatehouse towards the Tamesis. On the track, half a mile from Calleva, only a handful of wagons remained of a supply convoy, protected by a thin screen of auxiliary troops. Around them swirled the enemy: small clusters of heavily armed warriors and lighter troops armed with slings, bows and throwing spears. They kept up a steady rain of missiles on the supply convoy and its escort. Blood flowed from the flanks of injured oxen, and the path of the convoy was dotted with bodies.
Vespasian and his men reined in as the legate briefly considered what to do. Even as he watched, a group of Durotrigans rushed the rear of the convoy and threw themselves on the auxiliaries. The commander of the convoy, clearly visible in his scarlet cloak as he stood atop the driver's bench of the first wagon, cupped his hands to bellow an order and the convoy slowly halted. The auxiliaries beat off the attackers easily enough, but their comrades at the front of the column provided a static target for the enemy and by the time the wagons were on the move again several more of the convoy's escorts lay sprawled on the ground.
'Where's the bloody garrison?' grumbled one of the scouts. 'They must have seen the convoy by now.'
Vespasian looked towards the neatly ordered lines of the fortified supply depot built on to the side of Calleva's ramparts. Tiny dark figures were scurrying between the barrack blocks, but there were no massing ranks visible. Vespasian made a mental note to give the garrison's commander a harsh bollocking the moment he reached the camp.
If he reached the camp, he reflected, for the skirmish was between his party and the gates of Calleva.
Unless the garrison made a sortie soon the convoy would be whittled down until the enemy could wipe it out in one final charge. Sensing that the decisive moment was near, the Durotrigans were edging closer to the wagons, screaming their war cries and striking their weapons against the edges of their shields to stoke up their battle frenzy.
Vespasian tore his cloak from his shoulders. Grasping the reins tightly in one hand, he drew his sword in the other and turned to his scouts.
The men looked at him in surprise. Their legate intended to charge the enemy, but that was tantamount to suicide.
'Form line, damn you!' Vespasian shouted, and this time his men responded at once, fanning out on either side of the legate, making ready their long spears. As soon as the line was ready Vespasian swept his sword down.
There was no parade-ground precision in the manoeuvre. The small party of horsemen just jabbed in their heels and urged their mounts to swoop down on the enemy pell-mell. Even as blood pounded in his ears Vespasian found himself questioning the sanity of this wild charge. It would have been easy enough to bear witness to the convoy's destruction and wait until the triumphant enemy marched away from its wreckage before making for Calleva. But that would have been cowardly, and, in any case, those supplies were desperately needed. So he gritted his teeth and clenched the sword in his right hand as he made for the wagons.
Down the slope, the sound of approaching horses caused faces to turn towards them and the barrage of missiles on the convoy slackened.
'There! Over there!' Vespasian bellowed, pointing towards a loose line of slingers and archers. 'Follow me!'
The scouts swung into line with their legate and charged obliquely across the incline towards the lightly armed Durotrigans. Ahead of the horsemen the Britons were already scattering, their roars of triumph dead on their lips. Vespasian saw that the commander of the convoy had made good use of the diversion and the wagons were once more rumbling towards the safety of Calleva's ramparts. But the leader of the Durotrigans was no fool either, and a quick glance revealed to Vespasian that the heavy infantry and chariots were already moving towards the convoy to strike before their prey reached the gates. A short distance to his front, woad-stained bodies weaved madly, desperately trying to avoid the Roman horsemen. Vespasian fixed his sight on a large slinger wearing a wolfskin around his shoulders, and lowered the point of his sword. At the last moment, the Briton sensed the horse bearing down on him, looked round sharply, eyes wide with terror. Vespasian aimed his blow a short distance down from the man's neck and braced his arm for the impact, but at the last moment the slinger threw himself flat and the blade missed.
'Shit!' Vespasian hissed through clenched teeth. These bloody infantry swords were no good on horseback, and he cursed himself for not carrying a long cavalry sword as his scouts did.
Then another enemy warrior was in front of him. He just had time to register the thin, frail physique and white spiked hair before he slashed his blade into the man's neck with a wet crunching sound. The man grunted and tumbled forward, and was gone as Vespasian galloped on towards the convoy. He snatched a glimpse round at his scouts, and saw that most had reined in and were busy thrusting their spears at any Briton they could find cringing on the ground. It was the perfect moment for any cavalryman: the killing frenzy that followed the breaking of the enemy line. But they were heedless of the danger of the chariots that were even now trundling across the slope towards the small party of Roman horsemen.
'Leave them!' Vespasian roared. 'Leave them! Make for the wagons! Go!'
The scouts' senses returned to them and they closed ranks, and galloped after Vespasian as he made for the rearmost wagon, no more than a hundred paces away. The auxiliaries in the rearguard raised a ragged cheer and waved them on with their javelins. The horsemen had almost reached their comrades when Vespasian heard a faint whirr, and the dark streak of an arrow shot by his head. Then he and his men were in amongst the wagons, halting their blown horses.
'Close up! Close up at the rear of the convoy!'
While his men eased their horses into formation behind the last wagon, Vespasian trotted forward to the convoy's commander, still standing astride the driver's bench of his vehicle. As soon as he saw the legate's ribbon fastened around Vespasian's breastplate the man saluted.
'Thank you, sir.'
'You are?' Vespasian snapped.
'Centurion Gius Aurelias, Fourteenth Gallic Auxiliary Cohort, sir.'
'Aurelias, keep your wagons moving. Don't stop for anything. Anything, you understand? I'll take charge of your men. You look after the wagons.'
Vespasian wheeled his horse round and trotted back towards his men, taking a deep breath before shouting out his orders.
'Fourteenth Gallic! Form line on me!'
Vespasian swept his sword out to the side and the survivors of the convoy escort hurried to take up position.
Beyond the cavalry scouts the Durotrigans had recovered from the shock of the charge, and now that they could see how pitifully few men had panicked them they burned with shame and thirsted for revenge. They advanced in a dense mass of mixed light and heavy infantry, and rumbling round to the side of the convoy came the chariots in an effort to head the wagons off before they could reach the gates and trap the Romans between them and their infantry, like a vice. Vespasian realised there was nothing he could do about the chariots. If they did manage to cut the convoy off from the gates then Aurelias would simply have to try to force his wagons through, trusting to the lumpen momentum of his oxen to push aside the lighter Durotrigan ponies and their chariots.
All that Vespasian could do now was hold off the enemy infantry as long as possible. If they should reach the wagons then all was lost. Vespasian took one last glance along his slender line of men, and the grimly determined expression on the faces of the tribesmen advancing on them, and knew at once that he and his troops stood no chance. He had to stop himself from laughing bitterly. To have survived all the bloody battles against Caratacus and his armies over the last year, only to die here in this squalid little skirmish – it was too ignominious. And there was still so much he wanted to achieve. He cursed the fates, and then the commander of the garrison at Calleva. If only the bastard had led his men out to support the convoy at once, they might have stood a chance.CHAPTER 2
'Not in here you don't!' Centurion Macro shouted. 'Officers only.'
'Sorry, sir,' replied the orderly at the nearest end of the stretcher. 'Chief surgeon's orders.'
Macro glowered for a moment and then eased himself back down on to his bed, careful to ensure that he kept the injured side of his head away from the bolster. It had been nearly two months since a druid had nearly scalped him with a sword blow, and while the wound itself had healed, it was still painful, and the blinding headaches were only just beginning to abate. The orderlies came into the small cell and carefully lowered the stretcher, grunting with the effort.
'What's his story?'
'Cavalryman, sir,' replied the orderly when he had straightened up. 'Their patrol was ambushed this morning. The survivors started coming in a short while ago.'
Macro had heard the garrison's assembly call earlier. He sat up again. 'Why weren't we told?'
The orderly shrugged. 'Why should you be? You're just patients here, sir. No reason for us to disturb you.'
'Hey, Cato!' Macro turned towards the other bed in the cell. 'Cato!You hear that? The man thinks that sorry little centurions like ourselves don't need to be told about latest developments ... Cato? ... CATO!'
Macro swore softly, looked quickly around, reached for his vine staff, leaning against the wall by the bed, and then gave the still form in the other bed a firm poke with the end of the staff. 'Come on, boy! Wake up!'
There was a groan from under the blanket, then the rough woollen folds were eased back and Cato's dark curls emerged from the warm fug beneath. Macro's companion had only recently been promoted to the rank of centurion. Before then he had served as Macro's optio. At eighteen Cato was one of the youngest centurions in the legions. He had won the attention of his superiors for his courage in battle and his resourceful handling of a sensitive rescue mission deep into enemy territory earlier that summer. That was when he and Macro had been severely wounded by their druid foes. The leader of the druids had hacked into Cato's ribs with a heavy ceremonial sickle, laying open his side. Cato had nearly died from the wound, but now, many weeks later, he was recovering well, and regarded the dull red scar tissue that curved round his chest with a measure of pride, even though it hurt like hell when he put any strain on the muscles down that side of his body.
Cato's eyes flickered open, he blinked and then turned to look at Centurion Macro. 'What's up?'
'We've got company.' Macro jabbed his thumb at the man on the stretcher.
'Seems that Caratacus' lads are making themselves busy once again.'
'They'll be after a supply column,' said Cato. 'Must have bumped into the patrol.'
'That's the third attack this month, I think.' Macro looked towards the orderly. 'Ain't that right?'
'Yes, sir. The third time. Hospital's getting filled up, and we're being worked to the bone.' The last few words were given heavy emphasis and both orderlies edged a step closer to the door. 'Mind if we get back to our duties, sir?'
'Not so fast. What's the full story on the convoy?'
'I don't know, sir. I just deal with the casualties. I heard someone say that what was left of the escort was still on the road, a short way off, trying to save the last few wagons. Stupid, if you ask me. Should have left them to the Britons and saved their own skins. Now, sir, do you mind ...?'
'What? Oh, yes. Go on, bugger off'
'Thank you, sir.' The orderly made a small smile and, shoving his partner ahead of him, he left the cell and closed the door behind him.
The instant the door was shut Macro swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his boots.
'Where are you going, sir?' Cato asked drowsily.
'To the gate, to see what's happening. Get up. You're coming too.'
Excerpted from The Eagle and the Wolves by Simon Scarrow. Copyright © 2003 Simon Scarrow. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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