About two years (three years!?) ago I started typing up a short story called “the Border.” With the completion of Laurel Emperor, I figured it was a good time to finish up the short story so that I could include it in a future anthology of Romanpunk and Alternate History tales. As I’m working on expanding it now, I figured it would be best to go back and do some brief improvements, before resubmitting it for your enjoyment. So here’s the series so far – Parts 1-7. Be on the look outs for parts 8 – 10 in the next few weeks.
By Daniel Ottalini
Praefecti Ampio Perula shook his head. Water droplets fell from his dark hair, plastered to his face by the incessant drizzle. He turned to look at the column of men behind him, straggling along in the early spring rain. The clip-clop of hooves from his own unit of equites merged with the rhythmic pounding of feet on the flagstones. We’re lucky they still maintain this route, I’d hate to march along the country roads in this weather.
Behind his equites, two units of limitanei marched in column formation, winding their way along the frontier road. Between the spearmen, a unit of auxilia archers walked, bowstrings carefully wrapped against the damp. The few wagons of their baggage train were spread among the infantry, their creaking wheels adding to the noise of an army on the move. Finally, another detachment of equites brought up the rear. Eighteen hundred men, scrimped and scrounged from every fort and town around these parts.
Tribune Taulos Odiscus cantered up. His breath was steam in the crisp air.
“You’re certain about this, Praefecti?”
“Yes, tribune. If the scout’s report is accurate, then the raiders must have crossed somewhere north of here.”
“If is a loaded word.”
“I trust my scouts. Especially Gainus. The man’s never let me down before.”
“There’s always a first time.”
Perula glanced at his compatriot. The tribune was nominally in charge of the Eastern Empire detachment, although Perula was in overall command of the division. And as arrogant and annoying as Odiscus was, Perula needed him. Odiscus spat to one side, then broke the silence. His latin was no different from Perula’s own, but still seemed different.
“Regardless, sir, if your man is as good as you think he is, then it seems like the Quadi must have forded the river somewhere ahead.” Perula nodded his assent, while Odiscus continued. “It is good to get the men out of winter quarters. Too much feasting during the winter, you know.” Perula nodded, lost in thought. Finally sensing the mood, Odiscus relented.
“I’ll be with my men, should you need me.”
“Very good, Tribune.”
He kicked himself, annoyed at his aloof attitude. We need to keep the easterners happy. There’s no way we could tackle the Quadi otherwise. Both units of limitanei were from the eastern province of Moesia. Dragged from their warm winter quarters in Singidunum, the men had grumbled incessantly all the way to Bassinae, where they had been met by the hastily assembled cavalry alae under Perula.
If only the Dux was not practically comatose from wine in Sirmium, we could have handled this ourselves. He had not wanted to ask the easterners for help, but without the Dux’s official seal and presence, the reserves and heavier comitatenses could not be mustered, and it was left to the Praefecti and this handful of soldiers to stop the looting barbarians from the Quadi lands across the Danube.
Screw the Dux. Screw the Emperor. It’s not like he’ll be around next year.
He frowned. Perula couldn’t even count how many emperors there’d been in the last couple of years. At least they tend to stay further west. Pannonia is just too far east for the rebels to bother coming here.
And I get to stay near my dearest Flavia.
The forty year old sighed, daydreaming of his wife’s smile. The thought warmed him, warding off the chill.
A scout galloped up, his horse blowing hard.
“There’s a Quadi raiding party hitting the village in the next valley. If you hurry, we can catch them before they escape!” The praefecti turned to his officers.
“All units forward at the double.”
Now we’ll have a chance to even the odds.
Tribune Taulos Obiscus crawled up the ridge crest, moving as stealthily as he could. He had doffed his helmet a while back, the leaves and branches scraping at his close cropped hair. He felt slightly naked without the steel helm, truth be told, although secrecy was a better armor for this mission. A pair of lanceri, light legionnaires from his own command, waited for him.
Upon reaching the crest, Obiscus was afforded an excellent view of the valley. It was roughly horseshoe shaped, two ridges rising out of the ground to the east and west of the valley respectfully, eventually merging into one at the southern end. The village was situated about halfway down the valley, surrounded by farms and occasional copses of trees. By all accounts, it had been moderately prosperous.
Had been, now it looks like graveyard.
The raiders were scattered all about the village. Obviously settling down for some serious looting.
“Probably just finished off the villagers a short time ago, sir.” One of the lanceri said, predicting the thoughts of his commanding officer.
Better here than in our territory. Odiscus thought darkly as he stared at the carnage.
The ruins of a watchtower burned fitfully in the rain, dark bundles lying around it speaking to a frantic, hopeless decision by the few defenders. Closer to the village, a handful of bodies lay about. The Quadi had rounded up the livestock, and the women and children as well. All would serve the needs of the tribe.
Not if we have anything to say about it.
He looked to his left, imagining his men taking positions along the ridge. They waited for the signal, the trumpeting of horns as Praefecti Perula and his cavalry would seal off the entrance to the valley, then advance south. When the barbarians formed up to meet his horsemen, Odiscus would launch his assault, swinging east then north, trapping them against the horse riders. Perula’s archers would block the east ridge, cutting down the barbarians where they stood. If those archers can hold, then we have a chance. We must make their chieftain believe they are surrounded.
“How many enemy do you see, soldier?” The grizzled man stared for a moment.
“Several hundred, Tribune, sir. Maybe a handful more.”
So this was not the main force. About a third our number, or about a fourth of the raiding party. If we can destroy them without too many casualties, it would definitely even the odds.
Odiscus felt his annoyance at Perula for getting him deployed this early in the springtime slip away. Westerners or not, this was still Roman territory, and Odiscus would be damned by god before he willingly allowed Roman territory to be taken without a fight. Of course, if the westerners could get their act together, then maybe they wouldn’t need our help. Then again, they’d have to pick an emperor who lasts more than one winter first.
“Stay here, and let me know if they change anything. When the horn sounds, rejoin your unit.”
Odiscus crept backwards, careful not to rise to his full height before he was several feet back down the ridge. The forest around him was still lightly sprinkled with snow, but some of the trees were showing their spring growth. He walked towards his own command, waiting just a handful of paces downhill. His officers gathered to hear his instructions.
“Move our units to just below the crest. No noise, no shouting. When we hear the trumpets, advance, but make no noise. When the westerners have drawn their attention, we’ll march downhill and sweep them up. Keep the men tight, and watch out for flankers. Give me three files from each of your units, they’ll form our reserve. Any questions?”
There were none.
“May God watch over you. And may he lead us to rightfully slay the heathens in his name. En nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” Several of the officers made the sign of the cross, while others made no sound, not following the true word of God. It is no matter, so long as they slay the raiders, and follow my orders.
His officers dispersed, and the limitanei advanced, then crouched down to wait.
They didn’t have to wait long.
The blow of the trumpet resounded throughout the valley.
Here’s to hoping the easterners hold up their end of the bargain. Perula thought as he raised his spear high into the air. to his left and right, hundreds of horsemen followed, awaiting his orders. Responding the the horn, the Quadi milled about, caught between fleeing, charging, and forming a shieldwall.
Good. Let’s hope we can add to that confusion.
He spurred his horse forward. 600 equites followed. The drizzle had stopped now, but the soggy farmland was turning to mud under the horse hooves.
His buccinator raised the trumpet to his lips. He blew out the long, mournful notes again.
Saddles creaked as his men shifted. Perula searched the hills to the southwest, looking for signs of movement among the trees.
Finally! The mailed forms of men broke from the treeline, quickly forming lines. The praefecti let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. He turned to examine his men. He could feel their relief at seeing their allies arrive.
“Sir! Tribune Lumari’s pedes are firing upon the Quadi.” His banner-bearer, draconarius Hariso Martius, was normally taciturn, rarely losing his calm regardless of the situation. But the desperation of the plan must have gotten to him. “Now we’ve got them right where we want them, right, sir?”
Perula eyed the situation. His equites had neatly bottled the Quadi in the valley. The steep and rugged hillsides limited their movements. His archers would massacre the barbarians if they tried to move east. The lightly armored raiders would be easy pickings as they climbed the hillside. To the west, the more heavily armored limitanei should be able to hold them off long enough for the equites to take them in the rear.
Of course, all that depends on what the Quadi do.
The now-constant rain of arrows upon the barbarians had finally convinced them to move. They surged forward, moving towards the two units of equites blocking the valley.
“Looks like they’ll come to us this time.” Logical move. Outrace our infantry support and flee the arrows. Although putting your backs to the arrow storm will make them vulnerable.
“We’ll take them head on.” He ordered. “For Rome!”
“For Rome!” His men shouted, banging their spears against their shields. Perula spurred his mount forward slightly, bringing his men forward. Flat fields lay before him, occasionally interspersed by a barn or grain storehouse, and crisscrossed by stone walls. We must wait, we cannot afford for our charge to be broken up by buildings.
“Sir, Odiscus’ men have reached the valley floor. They’re moving in pursuit towards us.” Martius said quietly. “I lost them once they got behind the village.” Perula nodded. As soon as the Quadi cross that last wall, I’ll start the charge.
It was an agonizingly slow wait, as the barbarians swept forward, climbing over walls and through fields like a wave rolling up a beach. Perula narrowed his eyes as the first figures clambered over the last fieldstone barrier.
“At the ready!” The was a slight rustle as his men hastened to adjust armor or weaponry, then silence. Only the ragged puffs of warm air from man and mount gave proof they still lived. Perula took a breath, mouthed a silent prayer, and gave the signal. Pendants on long spears dipped, they had not had time to bring out their contus, the longer, two-handed version of the lance. We will make do. We can still kill.
“Forward! For Rome and the Emperor!”
Odiscus cursed as the barbarians ran towards the approaching cavalry. The cavalry moved slowly forward, edging in towards the Quadi.
That damn fool is going to get his cavalry wiped out in one charge. Typical cavalry tactics.
“All right, boys! Speed it up! Looks like we’ll have to save the cavalry.” Odiscus motioned forward, his trumpeter sounding Advance, double time. The limitanei trotted forwards, picking up speed gradually. They knew better than to exhaust themselves before battle. The downslope of the hillside sped them along. His men swung north, the right flank moving through the village proper. Odiscus slowed his motion, taking in his surroundings. His units were reforming along a narrow road.
“Subtribune Corsis, take your unit and move east. At the far side of that barn, turn north and attack. I’ll do the same from here.” His subordinate nodded, leading his five hundred limitanei down the lane. The tribune turned back to his own unit. “Men, it appears we’ll have to save the westerners. Are you with me?”
His men slammed their spears on their shields in response. That will do. Odiscus nodded, then turned his attention ahead. The Quadi were ranging over the stone walls and branch livestock enclosures. They were disordered from the rear as the cavalry pulled their attention upvalley.
His men moved forward at a steady walk now, shields set with spears held underarm. From his vantage point, Odiscus could see motion along the eastern flank of the valley. Lumari’s archers were scrambling along the crest, repositioning. Probably out of range since the Quadi moved to engage Perula.
But that was not something to worry about now. A small warband sat astride their advance, their backs to the advancing Romans. Odiscus pulled his sword and charged, his men running behind him. As they closed, one of the barbarians turned, his eyes widening in surprise below thick, bushy eyebrows. He shouted a warning to his allies as the Romans closed in. Odiscus slammed his shield forward, bowing over his foe and landing on his wriggling body. He stabbed downwards, hiding behind his shield as his men pushed forward, dispatching the Quadi fighters. The clash of blades rang loudly in his ears. Shields were shattered and blood fountained into the air.
Quickly, it was over. A little over a score of barbarians eliminated. One of his men called to him.
“What is it?”
“Sir, looks like they were stopped around him.” The soldier pointed to a dying barbarian nobleman, notable for his intricate helmet and tunic of chainmail. The armor was new, the links barely weathered by rain and sweat. It hadn’t done the man any good. Two arrows had pierced him, one through the thigh, and another through his lower arm. The wound on his thigh was dark with arterial blood. The nobleman’s eyes were glazed over, although he fought to stay conscious, blinking rapidly. His lips were moving. Odiscus knelt and leaned over to hear.
Nodding with understanding, Odiscus carefully pulled the man’s sword from his scabbard, admiring the handiwork on the formerly Roman blade. He placed the man’s fingers around the grip, and moved his arms to his chest, blade pointing down. The nobleman looked at him in gratitude, before his eyes finally closed. Odiscus spared a moment for a whispered prayer, bowing his head. To be struck down without a chance at vengeance. That is a fate I do not wish, oh Lord. He stood.
“Get the men moving. We’ve still got the Westerners to save.” His men reformed and advanced again.
Odiscus lead them, sparing not another thought on the dead Quadi. There would be more dead to mourn, perhaps his own, soon enough.
Praefecti Perula’s spear felt thrice as heavy as it should. His men were barely a hundred paces from the Quadi. The barbarians were forming a shield wall, anticipating the straightforward impact of the horsemen. It formed like an impenetrable barricade, deadly to a head-on charge.
Raising his spear, Perula gave the order. His buccinator blew out a quick series of notes.
Target Left! The straightforward charge turned, striking the shield wall at an angle. The equites slammed through the small gaps in the shield wall, where different tribes of the Quadi had neglected to protect their neighbors. Some of his horses balked, rearing up before the wall. His men fought their mounts, urging them forward. Perula stabbed downwards, killing one, two, three barbarians. Blood flew from every strike. His men formed a wedge behind him, slicing through the lines. He lost his grip on the spear, and it tumbled away, falling behind him. Before he could draw his sword, he was through the shield wall, and his horse galloped onwards, now behind the lines of the Quadi.
“Reform! Form up on me!”
His men followed, as he galloped east now, gathering his men as he went. At least five hundred, very good! He had seen the easterners coming up to the south, and he knew that he must draw the Quadi’s attention away from them, so he could hit them in the back. Of course, if we had been able to pull the legios out of winter quarters rather than just my cavalry, we could have crushed this raiding party without their help.
“Sir!” Martius interrupted his thoughts. “The archers are advancing.” Sure enough, clumps of archers were making their way along the hillside.
“Send a rider to them. They are to hold their fire until we’ve drawn the Quadi’s attention north again.”
A messenger galloped off. Now for the hard part of keeping the Quadi’s attention.
They had traveled a few hundred paces east, and were still facing the shield wall line. The barbarians were still reforming, trying to follow the cavalry’s movements. Another rider tossed him a fresh spear, plucked from the ground. He nodded his thanks. Turning to the job at hand, he surveyed his men.
“Sound Prepare to Charge.” The musical notes floated into the air, his men forming up around him. Perula tightened his grip on his spear. The hardwood felt good in his hand. “For Rome! For the Emperor!” Whomever he is now.
“For Rome!” His men echoed, spurring their mounts forward.
The thundering of hooves tore into the earth, churning the once-green fields into brown muck. The grey skies clustered low, bringing more drizzle to the valley.
Damn the weather. Curse the barbarians. Fuck that pathetic excuse for a Dux.
He raised his hand, and his buccinator sounded the order for Wedge Formation. Armor clinking, the horsemen moved into a thick triangle, the point focused on Perula and his draconis bearer. The wave of armored men and beasts bore down on a tiny point of the Quadi shieldwall. Perula spurred his mount again, focusing on a slight gap, where an injured Quadi, head bleeding, stood without support on one side.
Perula lowered his body, aimed his spear, and struck. The wedge pushed through the line, losing more men to the hedgehog like quality of the shield wall. A spear scrinnnggged off the metal boss of his shield, wrenching his shoulder back. He stabbed down with his own weapon, once, twice. The steel tip came back covered in blood. Quadi screamed as they were trod beneath the heavy warhorses. The Romans screamed back their own defiance and anger, driving the Quadi before them.
Perula speared another man in the back, when his horse gave its own scream, toppling him to the ground. Kicking his feet clear of the stirrups, he flew off the horse, barrelling into two barbarians. He felt something give inside his armor with a jarring crack. Pain flooded him as he landed. Fortunately, the barbarians were equally surprised, as the pain made his brain focus.
Shaking his head, he punched one with his shield, feeling the satisfying crack as the man’s nose broke and blood streamed down his face. His spear was nowhere to be found, and Perula drew his spatha, the long cavalry sword sweeping out and into the second man’s leg, then his gut as the barbarian struggled to stand in the treacherous field.
His men moved around him, forcing the Quadi lines apart. His sub-commanders were rallying his men. But they would soon leave him behind.
He had to get clear. He began to run.
Screaming his rage and frustration, Odiscus battered his sword down onto the Quadi shieldwall. Once, twice, and the shield cracked, falling apart in his opponent’s hand. Speartips flashed past him, the murderous metal wet with blood and rain. Odiscus slammed his sword down one final time, burying it in his enemy’s shoulder. The man cried out, spinning away from him. Bastard! He thought as his sword tumbled away from him, still embedded in the barbarian’s shoulder.
He drew his pugio. Around him, his men swarmed forward, hacking and slashing, stabbing and beating their way through the Quadi lines. Where in God’s Heaven is Perula and the cavalry? He thought angrily as he ducked the swing of a barbarian axe. His draconis barreled into him, knocking him to the ground. Cursing, Odiscus tried to push the man off him, failing in his exhaustion. A spear jutted from his back. Blinking the rain from his eyes for a moment, Odiscus coldy realized how lucky he actually was. Squirming backwards, he inched away from his savior. Boots stamped around him, sinking into the bloody mud. He stumbled to his feet, yanking the spear out of his man’s back. Around him, his men were surging forward, pressing against the Quadi. The sound of thunder reached his ears.
No! It was the cavalry. Finally! The westerner’s horsemen slammed into the rear of the struggling Quadi. Odiscus felt the pressure on his infantry relieved almost instantly.
“Follow me! Form on me!” He cried as he threw his spear at screaming enemy. The man tumbled backwards. Weaponless again, Odiscus scooped the draco and a sword off the ground, waving the mud-covered flag to rally his men. The banner flapped in the wind, finally stretching out. With a cheer, they redoubled their efforts. Draco in one hand, another liberated sword in the other, Odiscus yelled encouragement to his men.
“Sir! Sir!” One of his men ran up, bleeding and helmetless. “We’ve found the westerner leader, what-his-name… the praefecti! He’s been seriously injured, my lord.” Odiscus cursed.
“To the east, Tribune Corsis’ is with him now.” Odiscus pushed the draco into the messenger’s hand.
“Show me. Now!” They immediately moved east, navigating behind his own lines. ducking combats where possible. One more than a few occasions they had to deal with a particularly stubborn Quadi. The barbarians were desperate now, hemmed in by the cavalry and pushed back by the infantry. Ahead, Odiscus spotted Corsis’ banner.
“The praefecti should be around here, sir.” They scrambled over the muddy farmland, to where Corsis waited. Next to him, his men knelt by the injured Perula, tending to the wounded man. As Odiscus reached him, the echoing call of trumpets blaring retreat floated out over the battlefield.
“That isn’t our call, sir.”
“I know, soldier. That’s a western call.”
Damn Perula. Damn those cowardly westerners.
Corsis gave half wave of acknowledgement as Odiscus arrived.
“Permission to return to my men, sir?” He asked, obviously annoyed at having to hold back while his men moved ahead.
“At once, Subtribune. Push the Quadi as far as you can, but do not let our men break formation. Order our trumpets to play advance.”
“Yes, sir.” Corsis took off at once, his bodyguards following right behind. Where are my guards? Odiscus thought for a moment, before realizing they were all dead. The medicus was bandaging Perula’s arm into a sling.
“Get me a horse.” Perula’s voice was dry, and he coughed. Blood speckled the medicus’ sleeve.
“You’re injured, my lord, you cannot retur–”
“Let him up.” Odiscus ordered, offering his right arm to the man. Perula grasped it with his uninjured left arm. The easterner hauled his ally to his feet. The medicus threw up his arms in annoyance and moved forward to tend to other, less ornery, men.
“Get me a horse, I can rally my men. And strangle that bastard who sounded retreat.”
“We’ll get you a horse. You’re not leaving me to die in the west alone.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Tribune.”
Odiscus turned to his new draconis.
“Find the man a horse. I’ll hold the standard.”
“Sir!” The man ran towards the village. Perula coughed again, covering his mouth with his bandaged arm. It came back spotted in blood.
“Your man better hurry. I might not be around by the time he comes back.”
“Never fear, Praefecti. You’ll rally your men, even I have to do it with your corpse.”
Perula clung to his horse, blood oozing down his injured arm. He could feel it mixing with the dampness of the rain. This is turning into a real disaster, he thought, as he urged his mount onwards. He had to reach his men and rally them before they left the easterners in the lurch. The pain in his chest throbbed every time the horse’s hooves hit the ground. He ignored the pain, knowing that it was only temporary.
The horse galloped faster now, racing east as he attempted to get around the ends of the line. Finally, a last knot of lancerii holding the flank waved to him as he turned and moved northwards. If his sub-commanders were still alive, he’d flay them for fleeing at such a critical moment. We must show our allies that we are reliable. Or we’ll never be able to request support from them again!
Fields and barns flew by. He had to stop several times to get his bearings and blink rainwater from his eyes. He had lost his helmet somewhere back, and now he was simply a disheveled looking cavalryman. His scale armor seemed heavier now, his eyelids drooping frequently. He forced himself awake again, forced himself forward.
In the distance, he could hear the trumpet call of his cavalry squadrons. Sounds like they’ve rallied, by God’s good grace he thought, a small amount of shock worming its way into his brain. Roman cavalry was notorious for its poor morale and the ease with which it broke and ran during combat.
“Damn horsemen.” He said, his voice dry. Thought I had trained you all better.
He rode over a small hill and found himself surrounded by a knot of about three score equites. They cried out in surprise at the sight of their leader. Men quickly dismounted to help him off his horse.
“We must go back. Now.” He ordered, straining to make his voice heard. “Locate the rest of the men. Immediately!” The sudden arrival of their praefecti had infused some confidence back into his men. The file leader came up, leaning on his spear.
“We saw you go down, sir. It looked like the infantry were breaking.”
“The infantry are not breaking. They’re dying back there for us, semissalis.” The man hung his head slightly, looking ashamed. “We have no time for that, soldier. Gather who you can. We must return. We cannot leave the Easterners to the fate we pulled them into.” A medico appeared from the ranks and began to tend to Perula while his messengers gathered his men. He quickly produced needle and thread, and began stitching the wound on his arm together.
“This will hurt, sir.” He warned. Perula gritted his teeth.
“Better hurt than dead, Olionios” The man’s mouth gave a twitch that might have been considered a grin eight hours ago, but now was just resignation. “How long to bring in the men?” He asked the junior officer, the semissalis. The man climbed onto his horse and craned his head around.
“It looks like Verdain has found some of our men to the east. Maybe a score or so. I can’t see Gaius from here. Can we counter-attack with only eighty men, sir? The Quadi will outnumber us the instant we strike.”
Perula winced for a moment as the needle bit deep. Fresh blood oozed down his arm, the medico dabbing at his arm with a grimy rag. “We have no choice. The infantry will be massacred without support from us. We will break them on the charge.” He gritted his teeth, voice coming out in a grunt. “Besides, we were outnumbered in the first place.” The junior officer nodded sharply, before saluting.
“I apologize for not rallying the men sooner, Praefecti Perula. I will submit myself to whatever punishment you deem fit. I have failed Rome.”
“You have failed no one yet. You kept these men together, and now we will use them to strike back.” At that moment the foretold arrival of the additional score of equites rode in.
“My lord!” Several cried out, at seeing the doctor work on him. He waved them away. “Prepare yourselves for battle. We will not leave the easterners to die alone.” The doctor stepped back, wiping his grimy hands on a blood-stained apron.
“You’re as ready as you can be now, sir.” The man said. “Be careful not to tear those stitches.”
He turned to the junior officer. “Do you have any spare equipment? I seemed to have lost my spear and shield earlier.” The semissalis motioned to another equites, who disappeared for a moment, returning with a helmet, a shield, and a spear.
“Tornax was with us, until he took a bad fall from his horse. He met a tree on the way down.” His voice carried no emotion. It was simply a part of being an equites, a cavalryman.
“Unlucky.” Perula took a moment to strap the helmet onto his head. He climbed up onto his horse. Turning his horse south, towards the sound of battle, Perula raised his spear. “Are you ready to make amends, men of Rome?” He shouted to his men. They cheered, banging their spears against their shields. Horses whinnied and pawed at the ground.
Perhaps we have a chance.
Thoughts? Comments? Critiques?