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Adventures of the Ninth Legion of Rome
Book 1: The Sacrifice
By Hurley D. Mahan
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Hurley D. Mahan
All rights reserved.
Veni, Vidi, Vici, Marcus Artorius Agricola, the commander of the Ninth Legion thought with a strange sense of bemusement as he sat slouched forward in his chair inside his tent sliding his dirty fingers under his helmet forcing the helmet off his head and landing with a simple thud on the ground. "I came, I saw, I conquered." He started to rub his temples with those fingers. Right! Veni, Vidi, Vici! Julius Ceasar's immortal words after one particularly successful battle. This day had been anything but successful. A rout by the Picts was more like it.
And now here they were in the Caledonian Forest, trying to regroup in order to fight their way back south, south to calmer, more controlled lands.
Veni, Vidi, Vici—the words haunted him—poked at his heart and soul. He was commander of the Spanish Ninth Legion. No Legion had earned greater honors than the Ninth, "The Triumphant Legion." The men were tough and battle hardened—victors of campaigns in Gaul, Africa, Sicily, Macedonia, Hispania and even Germania. And now they were in Britannia. The agonized moans of dying men just outside his tent stopped his thoughts for several seconds. There was no order outside his tent. The Roman way of strict tent placement with the hospital tent strategically placed away from the uninjured men to minimize the risk that the soldiers could be undone, unnerved or unhinged by the sounds of dying friends and dying fellow soldiers had been hopelessly abandoned from necessity.
This had been the third day of fighting, each day more disastrous than the day before it until the retreat this day into the edge of the forest. Marcus questioned whether the retreat was the proper course to undertake. It was not in the nature of Roman Legions and especially the Ninth to retreat. But his officers had begged for him to give the order, having realized that over a thousand, more than twenty percent, of the Ninth's infantry alone had been killed in the last three days, not including half of the three hundred cavalry. The baggage train had been captured, all except the commander's personal supplies secured by the quick thinking of his loyal head slave Petra. As the Ninth pulled back into the forest at the end of the day, they tried to build the campaign fortifications standard for Roman Legions, but with no open ground, with the tall pine trees everywhere, there was no way to do so effectively. They had been able to secure the highest hill in the area for their encampment. "At least Julius Ceasar would have approved of that," Marcus wryly muttered to himself.
Petra, along with another of his slaves, Allred, a recent acquisition since coming to Britannia, came quietly but quickly into the tent and began unlashing the Commander's boots, the lacing starting just below the knee cap and extending to the ankles. Marcus thought back to the discussion held between him and the Roman Governor, Sentorius, and the Governor's lackeys, just four days before. The Governor was sure that now was time to attack the uncivilized Pictland tribes north of York. The Caledonian Tribes were considered the prize to take, the taking of which would bring the Ninth and its commander their greatest glory. Sentorius had been quite sure that the Caledonian Tribes would not be expecting so bold a move as a late season attack, being already November and with no one campaigning past September due to the cold and seemingly daily rains. Yet they had started out in November. The Caledonians had already harvested their fields and were settling in for winter. The Governor's men spoke of spies saying the Caledonians were dispirited and their long-time main leader was rumored to have gone on to his fathers. There were reports of disaffection among the tribes and an inability to come together. Now was the time to attack they had said.
Marcus had bought into the plan. After all, he had thought, it was his own grandfather, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who had laid waste to the biggest and most ferocious tribe of the Picts in a much earlier time in the Battle of Mons Graupius. His grandfather had waited until the harvest of grain had been stored and the Ninth along with other Legions and auxiliaries had attacked the Picts who were forced to fight to protect the winter food supply or risk starvation. It had been a route for his grandfather, bringing him and the Empire great glory. Marcus' father had told him the tales of his grandfather for as much of Marcus' twenty seven years as he could remember. His grandfather had been called back to Rome shortly after the Battle so his grandfather had not had the ability to follow up with the overwhelming victory. It was said that over ten thousand Picts had been dispatched to the underworld and less than a thousand Romans had met their ends in the battle. Upon his return to Rome his grandfather had undergone great public adulation, the guest of honor at many dinners. Even the emperor, Emperor Domitian, had given him an audience and presented him with a medal in recognition of his service to the Roman Empire. The medal Marcus now carried with him, a constant reminder of his expected service to be performed for the Roman Empire. He pulled the medal out of his satchel and stared at it for a few seconds recalling his father's words describing how alike Marcus and his grandfather were. His father had said they had the same dark brown hair worn short, the same thin, almost gaunt face with an aquiline nose, both were taller than normal a typical Roman, at six feet tall and both were thin and lanky. He put his grandfather's medal back into his satchel rubbing briefly between thumb and index finger three times for luck, as was his habit.
Marcus shook his head trying to erase the images of his grandfather's great accolades and triumphs—today was a day unlike any other the Ninth had witnessed in its one hundred eighty two yearlong history. The new emperor would not be pleased. Until a few months ago the Emperor had been Trajan. Trajan had courted war and conquest to expand the Roman Empire. His death had led to the Empire now being ruled by Hadrian, an as yet untested Emperor. There were many stories of Barbarians and even Romans being tortured and killed by wild animals in the Roman Coliseum if they displeased an emperor. It was mostly slaves and Romans of the lower classes, not the nobility so far. But one never knows how far an emperor may go.
His slave Petra having removed the boots and his breast plate then addressed his master asking if he could bring him his nightly meal. It brought Marcus back to his senses. He looked at his grey haired slave and simply nodded his head to Petra. While Petra hunted fervently for some bit of food to prepare for the Commander, a feat given their current circumstances, Marcus began again to focus on the present perilous situation and consider the following day. Marcus had reviewed several reports on the condition of the cohorts in the Legion and came to the realization that he had lost too many Centurions to be able to properly command them all, even though each was reduced in size by casualties.
Marcus moved to the writing stand where he began writing out a new command structure, merging cohorts and better using their leaders when suddenly bright light shone from outside his tent, right through the south tent wall illuminating the inside. The commander charged outside sword in hand, barefooted, but at least grasping his helmet and slamming it down onto his head. He quickly scanned the scene as Legionnaires scrambled to react, some attacking the fires started by flaming arrows shot from the Pict lines, some angrily heading to the front south line of the camp where the arrows were originating intending to charge further into out and into the Pict line. Marcus called a halt to the risky charge his voice carrying far enough that even with the clamor and din it could be heard by enough to be repeated to others, his orders being followed obediently but not without grumbles. He called for the battle lines to be formed up for a proper advance at the Pict line before returning to his tent where faithful Petra was already waiting with boots in hand to place them on his master's feet. Once done he followed up by placing the commander's metal breast plate on his chest and back and attaching the two sides, the family crest, including a two headed dragon, sparkled in the flickers of flames.
While forming the line for the advance Marcus became convinced that there was a dramatically increasing volume of smoke all about the camp. As he was about to give the order to advance several Legionnaires came hurrying toward him with warnings that the forest was on fire both on the east and the west. A slight glow to the east and west skies gave confirmation to the reports. The Commander was only briefly stunned before making the decision and ordering a further retreat deeper into the forest. He knew it had to be done quickly in order to get out of the trap which the Picts had set for them. They clearly wanted him to bring his men to the front and fight a pitched battle, unorganized, against overwhelming odds and with no battle plan. I am not going to fall for that trap, he mused to himself. Retreat and live to fight another day—live to fight on our own terms, not on the enemy's. It was classic thinking—or so he thought. He gave the order to retreat. "Leave all the baggage and go orderly but as fast as you can," he told his subordinates. Efficiently and effectively they started the retreat. Their Commander never heard it, but many of the Legionnaires openly complained whispering to each other such things as, this retreating is getting tiresome—it isn't the way of the Ninth to back down—even an occasional—maybe we need a new commander.
Marcus didn't need to be told in order to feel the dissatisfaction of his men. He knew innately. He questioned himself. Clearly the Governor had been wrong. The forces arrayed against them were united, strong and organized. He had been wrong to blindly go into battle based upon administrator's guarantees. Their lives were not on the line. His men's lives were. And he suddenly felt the responsibility for those lives. It was his mistake that they were there. He hadn't said no. He now had to take control. He had to take back control. It was not an easy task. It was a heavy burden. He felt it first when he had to give the order for the badly wounded men who could not walk on their own to be killed. It was merciful. The Ninth's only chance was to escape the flames. The severely wounded men would impede their speed and make everyone a casualty. To leave the men to the Picts would be to allow the Picts to torture and maim and ultimately kill them, slowly and painfully. Marcus knew that to be the reality. His men knew it too. There was no grumbling as they carried out the orders to end the lives of their fellow soldiers—only the hardened stares of men forced to do a duty that had no alternative.
There was little noise as the killing of his own men occurred. He forced himself to watch. No longer would he insulate himself from the Legionnaires. What they went through, he would go through. If his men would have to kill their own, so he would, too. He took his sword in hand and walked slowly, almost reverently to the first invalid legionnaire he came to. He blanched as he approached the young legionnaire. This was the son of a neighbor from home. His family was well respected and from the lower ranks of the nobility. Their families had adjoining properties and the two had sometimes hunted together as the younger man came of age to do so. They were acquaintances, but not really friends as perhaps six years separated the two. The young Legionnaire locked eyes with his Commander and where the Commander expected to see pleading or fear or even panic Marcus saw the resolute implacable stare of a true legionnaire, knowing his end was now, but meeting his end as was befitting a soldier of Rome. Marcus kept his eyes fixed upon the young legionnaire and as he swung his sword toward the neck of his legionnaire, he called his name, etching the name as well as the loss into his soul, pledging that never again shall he put himself in the position of having to perform so disastrous an act. Never again. And then he went on to the next man.
It was finally done. It had seemed like hours but had only been minutes. Those who had stayed behind to finish the task, a task more painful than taking the cut of a sword, silently moved in unison away from the front line and deeper into the woods. The screams of fury and chants of satisfaction of the advancing enemy Picts were in their ears as they swiftly went further north. They were the last to leave the camp of the Ninth but soon met up with and joined the first to leave. Still they went north. With each stride they took, the soldiers of the Ninth knew that it would be that much more difficult to return to the controlled south of Britannia, to home and wives, children and property. But Marcus had no wife and no children at all and no family in Britannia. Other than his grandfather's medal, what few worldly possessions he had brought to Brittania from his family villa near Rome he left with his tent and other baggage train as he tried to escape the Pict snare. Marcus sensed that the Picts would be stopping to ransack and strip the camp, and revel in the accomplishment of putting the Romans on the run.
It was a loss of precious time that was to the advantage of the Ninth. They went north to escape the fire closing in from both sides. The acrid smell of smoke from burning pine trees and what little brush there was plus the burning accumulation of dead foliage and pine needles on the forest floor made breathing unusually difficult. The nostrils burned and the eyes watered, but still they forced themselves on. Marcus had regained the front of the Legion finding Petra and Allred with the front of the column of the Legion and he noticed a relieved smile cross Petra' face upon being sighted by him. Marcus nodded to his slaves. He wondered briefly what had happened to his other slaves, but he quickly put that out of his mind as he pushed, pulled and prodded the men to exert all of their effort in making haste.
As the fire neared the horses of the cavalry they could not be controlled and most bolted, the riders already walking in front of their horses, leading them, cajoling them on, having already placed wetted cloth ripped from their tunics around the head of their mount to cover and protect their eyes. The horses could not be protected from the smoke, however. The spitting and crackling of the fire, nearly a roar at times crept nearer, the sound growing on both left and right with each hour. The light from the two fires created an eerie luminescence that was not daylight, but not darkness either. Even though the smoke blocked out the partial moon and all of the stars, the light reflected off the smoke and was refracted by it. That alone made the traveling more tolerable. The forest was so dense with trees, trees taller than any Roman had ever seen, that the canopy so high above had blocked the sun from the ground below preventing much undergrowth and making travel easier than one might have imagined. The Legionnaires felt that the gods were with them and as daybreak came the wind picked up from the west fanning the flames on the Legion's left but pushing back the flames on the right. The Legionnaires took renewed hope as they realized that the ground could not burn twice. So as the left side of the fire advanced, the right side burned down, slowed its approach and went mostly out. The column veered right and sped up a little more as they sensed a way out of what had been the twin flames.
The training had paid off. Years of discipline, years of training, years of experience had helped the Ninth move far and fast. But it had not been without cost. Lost in the exodus were another two hundred Legionnaires and uncounted slaves. The Commander hoped that perhaps some or even all might arrive later, only having been separated from the main force and not casualties to the Picts. Unimaginable was the possibility that the encroaching fire might have taken their lives. They kept walking north. As full daylight came and the imminent risk of attack seemed to be over Marcus had called a halt to the retreat and ordered the Centurions to a meeting where he expected reports on manpower and supplies and an assessment of the situation.
Excerpted from Adventures of the Ninth Legion of Rome by Hurley D. Mahan. Copyright © 2013 Hurley D. Mahan. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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