After about two weeks of hard riding, with little sleep or sustenance, I delivered my message directly into the hands of the praefectus and, greatly belying his age, Spurius moved into motion with the speed and shouted orders of a much younger man, the entire camp emptying at a word handed down from his mouth and into those of the waiting centurions, experienced and stern-faced.
These were the very first moments of a rather minor engagement which would come, over time, to be known as the Battle of the Little Big Hill, named for our cohorts defensive arrangements at the point of conflict, as you shall read later.
We force-marched our way towards Marobudum, sparing not the men nor the horses, the centurions vine-rod being used more than once upon pale fleshy backs.
Once again we were guided by men who knew the area, those wild-looking Germanii with their large beards and who appeared to hate the Boii with an intensity I had rarely ever seen in a man. I discovered later that the Boii, since they could not head east into Dacian territory, had turned their attentions west and seized land, people and resources from the German tribes nearest to them and seemed to have no plan of stopping their expansion. This is why it was left to us, to the Res Publica, to help our weaker neighbour in the north.
An Angle horseman came riding towards us from along the flank of our column, his long hair whipping in the wind and his hard face set in a grimace. He informed our commander that a force of Boii, larger than the two smaller ones I had described, was converging on our course and surely intended to wipe us out before we could reach the lands of the Marcomannii. Taking this into account, Spurius noticed a hillock through the trees, a crest, the lightly forested area spread out before it, two gentle slopes on either side and a much steeper gully leading straight upwards toward it. He decided, in his infinite wisdom, that that was where we would make our stand.
Fortuna may well have been on our side this time, the enemy over an hour away, giving us time to shift into position and turn to face the direction from which they would be coming. The formation was a simple one, two lines of three centuries, one behind the other, facing towards the natural depression in the ground, pilum at the ready and the four cavalry turmae split between two on each flank at the top of each slope. Spurius, his head bare and his shock of white hair blending in with the snow beginning to fall about us, sat between the front and rear centuries, hard faced and still as the statue of Zeus that still commonly impeded on my dreams.
It was dark overhead, the clouds a grey melancholy, looming over as if about to disperse a thunderstorm at any moment but instead gifting us with the bone-freezing endowment of snow instead. Ahead and below us was an avenue of trees, things unforeseeable within their depths, but not so thick that one could not traverse a mount or indeed the small, shaggy, ponies of our allies through. Unnecessary to say, but it was from these very depths that the attacking Boii, outnumbering us by at least three-hundreds, came forth and were spewed into the light like so many nuggets of digested grass from a cows arse. Excuse my vulgarity, even now the memory of it makes my blood boil.
When the enemy did emerge into the 'light', meaning into the sight of our men and commander, they came like a great wave. It appeared that they were infantry all, not a horseman amongst them, but that they were slightly different from one another by way of social station. Foremost were, of course, the light skirmishers who were no doubt young men trying to prove their prowess by going ahead of the main force, then came a mingling assemblage of warriors of all shapes and sizes, some lightly armed with nought but spear and short-sword and some with robust shield a longsword of the finest smiths that the Boii possessed.
Strange to say, but there is certainly no doubt that some of these adversaries looked nobler than others in more than just their clothing or armour. The way they held themselves as they marched into battle, the way their moustaches drooped about their mouths, and even the way they died seemed altogether more heroic than their lighter and in all probability subordinate counterparts.
“Steady lads,” Spurius bellowed over the top of the Boii and their infernal chanting, giving a quick nod to the centurions that they should now do their jobs and do them they did, “ready pilum...” they yelled, and our throwing arms came up quicker than a lightning bolt out of Jupiter's arse, “...pre-pare...pilum!”
The Boii came on now, worked up as they had been the first time I had met them, the melted snow giving their pale skins an oddly marble look to them, eyes glaring up at us from beneath stiffened hair as the lightest of them, instead of throwing their javelins as any normal skirmishers would have done, decided to get to grips with us from inches away.
“Pilum!” My arm came back and the centre of the pilum shaft waited next to my ear, “loose!”, The sound of nearly five-hundred triangle-headed javelins was like music to my ears, followed shortly afterwards by the breaking sounds of splintered shields and the more unique sound of iron-tipped projectiles thumping into and through soft human bone and sinew.
At least three more volleys we launched at them, piles of inert cadavers landing one atop the other or in any manner of strange positions. I saw one man, no older than myself but, I guessed, younger taken full off of his feet as a pilum punctured his ribcage in a jetting spurt of blood. Another, larger, man took five in the torso before he finally crumpled into the mud, his eyes staring accusingly at us all the while. No sooner were they dead than the snow covered their bodies, a meal well preserved in ice for the carrion birds which were sure to gather when the battle was done.
Still echoing from both flanks when they rode, the order for our allies to charge was given and the Germanii rode forward without the least bit hesitation. I will mention now that, though I may not always have found them entirely agreeable, the Germanii, sat atop their shaggy-coated nags, were warriors through-and-through and never lost my respect. These six ala, or wings, of more-or-less mounted infantrymen on our flanks kicked their mounts into action and lurched forward to attack the flanks of the now neatly squashed enemy army, each Boii warrior trying to get up our side of the gully and at us before his comrade got the honour and glory.
“First rank, ad-vance!”
My gladius slid with a rasp from its sheath, a twist of my wrist drawing it out to rest gently, almost lazily, by the right side of my clipeus. My eyes became fixated ahead of me as we went forward one foot after another, left-right, left-right, our hobnailed boots giving us at least some grip on the otherwise slippery ground underfoot, the snarling and growling faces of the Boii drawing closer and closer though, on the higher ground, we had the advantage. As we marched forth I could make out, through the falling snow, my head freezing with no cap beneath my helmet, the Germanic cavalry stabbing, hacking and slashing at the flanks of our enemy, drawing them closer together and into a tighter formation which would become pressed up against the grinder that was our cohort.
“Lay into them boys, lay into them!”
Now, only an arms length away from our enemy, the automated motion of stab and thrust began anew and, after years of basic training, came as easily to me as the heavy breaths entering and leaving my throat.
“Rhadacense!”, I moved forward and opened an adversaries arm from bicep to forearm, “Rhadacense!” I kept yelling over and over again as I attacked, caught up in a primeval blood-lust which I was certain my ancestors has gifted to me. At that moment I contemplated once more that I may be wearing Roman armour, wielding Roman weapons and taking Roman orders in latin but I was, and never would be, a Roman.
“Rhada-”, my gladius was suddenly slammed from my hand by the wooden shaft of a spear, flying from my hand and into the mass of bodies pushing against the shields of my comrades and I, my hand suddenly numbed and my fist unable to clench the hilt of my sika side-arm fully until some minutes later. Until then I fended off attacks with swings and impacts from my shield, the wooden equipment having shards taken out of it and the iron boss becoming dented in a number of places.
“Thiacus....” I held my sika ready to strike another blow when my name, my true name, was nearly whispered to my left, my head whipping that way because we were forbidden to use one another's 'native' names in the cohort and whoever had said mine would surely be punished if anyone found out, “...I believe they have...killed me.”
To my everlasting horror it was Breucus, grinning at me with a mouth filling with blood, his eyes slightly open as if he could only just understand what was happening to him. It took every fibre of my being to keep myself rooted to the spot where I stood, in line, swapping places with the man behind myself so that I could catch my breath and not be killed as I did so. All the time the Pannonian continued to watch me, sinking ever-so-slowly to his knees, the gladius dropping from nerveless fingers and his bodyweight held up only by his shield.
His mouth moved and, though they were meant to comfort, his words stung me more than a hive of bees.
“I guess I never will see my family again, heh,” crimson dribble ran down his chin as he let out a half-cough half-chuckle, “but it has been my greatest honour to serve alongside you....raise your children well, Dacian, love your wife and treat all men with respect. Bury me here...bury me here.”
Only after his spirit left his body, his entire weight finally falling backwards to leave his corpse staring at the sky, did his hand fall away to reveal the puckered wound of a daggers strike. Like a venomous serpent it had struck swiftly out and ended the life of my comrade-in-arms and my brother.
From that moment on, out of emotional distress, I can tell you very little of what happened for our cohort to win the battle. I know that the second rank charged shortly afterwards, that the Germanii reformed a number of times and saw off the Boii skirmishers who were disengaged from our infantry, before the entire line of Boii routed much like their fellows I had fought earlier that winter. They were, of course, pursued, and a trail of bodies were left in the snow where they feel.
Only when they had been defeated did the snow cease and the sky clear, truly a portent of the gods favours.
It was said that we had suffered no more than four-hundred casualties but that over a thousand Boii had perished and another two-hundred or so became our prisoners.
A victory, a distinguished victory, it was and the first of what I was sure would be many for our cohort but I could not enjoy it. My mind had descended into a black depression and all I could think about was meeting again with my friend in the halls of Heros the Horseman and his magical spear.
As an aside to this event, during our time campaigning legions had been mobilised all over the Res Publica for battle against the Boii, Spurius having sent a galloper directly to the princeps with everything that was going on in the territory of these Celtic outcasts who were driven from northern Italia nearly over a century before.
Not only that but, in Asia Minor, Pergamon had ceased to exist as a kingdom and Bithynia joined it shortly afterwards. A large number of the legions that had taken part in its defeat and conquest were given parcels of land in former Pergamite lands, veteran coloniae seemingly springing up out of the ground.
And, yes, I buried Breucus as he wanted to be...amongst the bodies of his slain enemies along with his armour, weapons and honour intact. His like would never walk the earth again and, by the gods, it was a great loss both for the cohort, the Res Publica and for me.