Clash of Eagles

By: Alan Smale
Gaius Publius Marcellinus galloped his horse along the marching line of his Sixth Cohort, racing toward the site where two of his men had been slain by skulking Iroqua warriors.

Trumpets blared, steel armor clanked, and leather creaked, but the footfalls of his legionaries made little sound in the torn-up soil. The corps of engineers that went ahead of the 33rd Legion carved a road through the Hesperian forest barely wide enough for ten men to march abreast. The skies were heavy with cloud, and this late in the afternoon there was no singing and little talking in the ranks. In front of Marcellinus stretched a column of men three miles long. Behind him, the Seventh and Eighth Cohorts would extend back at least another two miles, guarding the two hundred supply wagons that groaned in the Legion’s wake.

First Centurion Pollius Scapax awaited Marcellinus on the path, pointing into the trees. Marcellinus slid off his horse and peered into the undergrowth. “In there?”

“Two men dead,” Scapax said tersely. “Half a dozen grieving. Thirty or so standing guard.”

“Tullius?” The Tribune of the Sixth.

Scapax shrugged. “Not here yet.”

Marcellinus barely hesitated. His adjutants were far forward with the First Cohort, but if he couldn’t trust Pollius Scapax, he couldn’t trust anyone. He strode off the path, between the oaks, and into a small gap in the trees hardly wide enough to be honored with the name of a clearing.

One of the dead legionaries rested against an oak, an Iroqua arrow in his shoulder and a short spear buried deep in his gut. The other had been clubbed to the ground, arms broken and legs splayed, his throat slashed open. Both men had been scalped, their foreheads and hair hacked away roughly, leaving shocking bloody gashes in their place.

Torn bushes and trampled grass gave evidence of a short, sharp struggle. The soldiers’ weapons and armor were gone, presumably stolen by their murderers.

The dead men were both fresh-faced and callow; neither could have been more than eighteen years old.

At least it was obvious how they had died. Other legionaries had been found with ferocious wounds ripped into their flesh or—maybe even more terrifying—barely a mark on them at all.

Six men knelt in grief by the corpses, bare-headed, presumably the tent mates of the dead. “Helmets on, soldiers,” said Marcellinus. “Let’s not lose anyone else here.”

They gaped up at him, incredulous. One man thrust his helmet back onto his head with bad grace. The rest ignored the command, their faces a mixture of pain and insolence. Marcellinus chose not to notice. The days of unquestioning obedience were far behind them now.

Three contubernia—twenty-four men in all—faced outward to secure the clearing, heavy spears at the ready. Their eyes scoured the thickets. The men looked nervous, and with good reason. The dead legionaries’ wounds were fresh, and the alarm had been sounded recently. Whoever had done this could still be hiding in the brush nearby.

Not twenty feet behind them the behemoth of the 33rd Legion still marched grimly through the eternal forest.

Marcellinus looked again at the mourning soldiers. He was intruding on their pain, and nothing he could say or do would ease it. “Just a few moments longer,” he said to Scapax. “Then everyone goes back to the column.” The men on guard looked relieved.

Scapax cleared his throat. “Burial detail, sir?”

Marcellinus looked again into the underbrush that surrounded them. Pale light filtered through the trees. The last thing he wanted was to have his men exposed any longer than they had to be. But the Seventh Cohort, with the baggage train, must be only minutes away.

“Their choice,” he said. “They can wait by the column, put the bodies onto one of the wagons, and bury them tonight, or say their goodbyes now and be done.”

The centurion saluted. As Marcellinus turned to leave the glade, the trumpets sounded again, one far to the west followed by another just a few hundred feet away, a complicated sequence of notes.

It was a message from Corbulo, his First Tribune. Marcellinus was needed at the head of his Legion. Another obstacle, and clearly something their engineers could not tackle easily.

Marcellinus’s shoulders and back ached from riding. Worse was the low throb of tiredness behind his eyes. Pulling himself wearily back into the saddle, he drummed his heels against his horse’s flanks.

As he rode forward, the Legion was already slowing to a halt.

Pollius Scapax’s voice boomed out across the sloping hillside. “First Cohort, stand to! Eyes up, spears out!”

The men of the First fell into battle formation, three ranks in close order. Tired soldiers set the hafts of their heavy pila in the ground and held them angled outward. Archers stood with bows strung and quivers of arrows at their feet, blinking owlishly at the shallow valley. The evening breeze ruffled the crests on their steel helmets.

No enemy was in sight, but men had died today, and this was hostile territory. The First was mustered to repel any potential attacks while the slaves and the soldiers of the other cohorts made camp.

The castra was a roving town that re-created itself daily in its own image. They rebuilt it identically every afternoon, occupied it for one night only, then abandoned it the next morning: civilization on the march through Nova Hesperia.

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