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For today’s blog post, here’s the entire Prologue of Steel Praetorian, which is on sale on December 1st, only six days away! You can grab your copy for pre-order now. If you haven’t ready Iron Tribune yet, it’s on sale this month only for $3.99! Grab your copy today so you can be ready for all the vicious action and desperate battles of Steel Praetorian. But now, enjoy the first chapter of Steel Praetorian (Those of you with Iron Tribune already have read half this chapter, now enjoy the rest!)
Loyalist Lines, Noricum, Along the Via Alpi
New Year’s Day, 1855
The hillside looked much better beforehand, Marciena decided as she watched the once-pristine slope being churned into mud. The Via Alpi formed a narrow line coming straight at her. To the right and left rose forest-covered mountains, blanketed in snow. The sun seemed low in the sky, shining into her eyes from the west. Behind her, the homes of Rosso, the closest village, seemed to huddle together. It was but the nearest village along the long, sloping valley that eventually reached Virunum. So much for a New Year’s Day feast. She thought glumly.
Governor Armenius Theophilus had chosen this spot to make his stand. Marciena, once more in her page disguise, stood next to Gravus Quintus. The veteran speculatores examined the legions moving against them.
“II Italia, I Italia, XXI Hispania, IV Sicilia. They outnumber us at least two to one in manpower, at least four to one in training and equipment.” He offered her the binoculars and guided her hands. “You see, to our left, the I Italia — see their standards? They’ll strike us from their right, our left. We’ve only got volunteers on that flank.” He guided her hands and steadied them as she looked due west.
“Sabinus has two of his steadiest legions there. That’s the XXI Hispania, his old legion, and the IV Silicia behind them, still coming up the road. They’ll cross this bridge to face the Noricum Civic Legion. Even with their governor leading them, I doubt they’ll last long.” His voice was sad, as though he already saw the defeat looming in their future.
“Finally, look here, to the northwest.” Marciena turned her binoculars farther to her right. “There, you see the II Italia? That’s Sabinus’s killer strike. They’ll cross the creek and push through our other recruits to try and pin us against the bridge.”
Marciena lowered the binoculars and handed them back to the speculatores. “If we’re going to lose, why are we fighting?”
Gravus looked down at her. “Because we have to. This is the last rise in the valley, giving us a good defensive position. The valley is narrower here, so we don’t have to defend as wide a front. Hopefully we can make them pay for every inch of ground, especially if we can catch them in the open.”
“They must know we’re here,” Marciena said. “They’ve formed lines and everything.”
“They know we’re here, but not exactly where; at least, not yet. If we didn’t fight them here, then Sabinus’s forces would sweep over the Alps, and probably take Noricum and Naristia in a few weeks. This way, we make them pay for it.”
Marciena frowned. “But everyone will die.”
“No, not everyone, although we will take casualties, I’m certain. Marciena, what you need to realize is that, in this war, there are things worth dying for. Your brother knew that when he signed up for the legions. Rome has always been stronger when we are united. These men know that as well; they volunteered for this.” He patted her shoulder.
Governor Theophilus approached, breathing harder at the higher altitude. “I think we’re as prepared as we can be, Speculatores Quintus,” he said.
“I agree, Governor. You have the plan all set?”
“Yes, and all unit commanders are aware of it. We’ll have to hold off Sabinus for as long as possible, but still leave ourselves enough time to retreat. I trust you’ll take command if for some reason I cannot give the order?”
Quintus gave a short bow. “If needed, I would be honored to do so, Your Lordship.”
“Then you wouldn’t mind keeping hold of these letters to my wife and sons?”
Quintus took them, his expression somber and understanding.
The governor turned to look back at his lines of green- and black-garbed legionnaires formed up across the Via Alpi. “May the gods grant us victory.” He rode back toward his men.
Quintus handed Marciena the letters. “I’m giving you this responsibility now. You’re more likely to escape, especially since you’re still a child. If I tell you to run, you run. Am I clear?” Marciena nodded. “Get back to Virunum, tell them what happened, and have all our people who are still there get out. I’ve sent most of them away, but there’s a chance that there are still a few remaining.”
The notes of cornicerns echoed up the valley. “Here they come,” Quintus said, mounting his horse. “I’ll be here with the artillery, but I’ll need to ride around. You stay here, am I clear?”
Marciena nodded again, pushing her hair back. Nothing can be scarier than getting kidnapped by Nortlanders, she reminded herself. Although this is coming close. She tucked the two envelopes carefully into the inner pocket of her jacket, tricky to do with her thick gloves, but still doable. Her breath steamed in the winter air. Around her, the handful of heavy ballistae and repeaters were loaded. The lines of blue and red legionnaires in the distance moved slowly toward them.
“Ballista! Prepare to fire!” the centurion in charge of their artillery shouted. The wooden and steel machines were aimed upward.
“Fire!” He jerked his arm downward. Canisters of gunpowder and Greek fire flew toward the enemy forces. They splashed into them, tossing men into the air like rag dolls. The fire and smoke stood in stark contrast to the snow and ice they marched over.
Maybe we have a chance at winning this battle, Marciena thought as the artillery decimated the attacking legions. Maybe they’ll go away. Deep down, she knew that wasn’t going to happen. The cold winter breeze stole the air from her lungs as she watched the opening clash of battle lines. Crisp lines of blue and silver legionnaires advanced up the slope, occasionally hidden by copse of snow-covered pine trees. The nearby artillery was firing constantly now, and the men on the downward slopes had begun to fire their repeaters as well. The bolts flew over the heads of their companions forming a shield wall on the eastern side of the creek. At least they’ll pay for this. Marciena thought as she watched the white snow turn to a muddled mix of pink and brown behind the advance.
With a cheer, Sabinus’ legions had finally closed the gap between them and the loyalists. They charged, pila flying through the air in both directions as the lines met with a sharp and loud clash. Maricena turned to look away, unable to watch the bloodshed now that it had moved closer to her. As she turned, more signs of fighting to the south caught her attention.
Just as Garvus had predicted, their left flank was being hammered by the veteran legionnaires of the I Italia. The motley collection of volunteers was already giving ground, and Marciena predicted that the flank would not last another half hour. Horns blew as the reserve cavalry on that flank charged in, desperate to hold back the overwhelming assault. They disappeared behind the trees, as the sound of fighting increased. All around her, the battle din grew, and Maricena began to feel very small.
Only now, with the actual battle happening did she truly feel afraid. A cold tear slipped from between her eyelashes, falling on her wind-burnt cheeks. She missed her brother, and wanted nothing more than to see him, for him to tell her it would be all right, and for his friends to come and crush the horrible people trying to kill her and her friends. She squeezed her eyes shut, placing her hands over her fur-covered ears to try and block out the noise.
Marciena was still standing that way when Garvus found her again. Her eyes snapped open to look at her guardian. His helmet was damaged and blood oozed from an injury under his eye.
‘Marciena! What are you still doing here? I sent a messenger ten minutes ago. You have to leave, now! The right flank is collapsing and the left is already in rout.” He shouted, his voice tinged with alarm. Mariena turned to look. Sure enough, she could see waves of volunteers from the left flank running up the hill towards her. A rearguard of braver souls and the cavalry was trying to hold back the enemy, but their resistance crumbled before her eyes. Garbus lifted her bodily onto his horse.
“What about the governor?” She asked. Their green-cloaked men were holding the river, but a sizeable dent had appeared in their lines, centered around a burning war-machine, and the rebels were fighting east over the frozen creek. The thin green line was breaking in several places as she watched.
“Governor Theophilus is dead, killed in the second charge. They brought up a mechaniphant from somewhere. Sabinus’ men broke the shieldwall and he led the charge to restore it.” He shook his head wistfully. “He never had a chance against a mechaniphant, what was he thinking?” He looked at her. “None of that matters now, Marciena.”
She shivered, knowing what was to come. “What must I do?”
“Ride for Virinum. Tell them what happened, and tell them to broadcast it to anyone who will listen. Then find Captain Kartinis. His airship should be there. Stay with him until I, the senatora, or your brother comes. You still have that hand-repeater your brother gave you?”
“Good, you may need to use it.” He handed her a round of bolts and a sheaf of letters. “Whatever you do, do not let these fall into the hands of the enemy. These are your key back to your brother and Emperor Constantine.” He squeezed her arm and turned the prancing horse about. Around him, the loyalist army dissolved, men fleeing in panic.
“Go!” He said, smacking the horse with his scabbard. Marciena clung on for dear life, riding along the Via Alpi as it climbed along the last hillside. Her last sight of the venerable spymaster was of his back as he turned to rally the beleaguered defenders.
“Rally to me, Romans, rally to me! For the true emperor!”
Marciena tucked her body low against the horse and fled.