“Sir,” Gnaeus Clodius Afer said. “Exactly which bunch of these fucking wogs are we supposed to be fighting, anyway?”
Gaius Vibulenus squeezed his hand on the mail-clad shoulder of the man who commanded the Tenth Cohort. Clodius Afer wore a red transverse crest across his helmet; he carried a staff of hard twisted wood rather than the two javelins the enlisted men bore, and his short stabbing sword was slung on the right from a baldric rather than the left side of his military belt: a centurion’s gear. Gaius Vibulenus’s Attic helmet had a white plume, and he wore a back-and-breast armor of cast bronze hinged at the shoulders. The Hellenic-style outfit marked him as an officer, a military tribune.
At least, it had when the legion sailed out of Brundisium to join Crassus’s glorious conquest of Parthia. He’d been able to wear it because his family were wealthy landowners in Campania and politically well-connected; one more gentry sprig gaining a little military experience to help him with the cursus honorum to office, and hopefully a share of the plunder. Militarily he’d been a joke. The actual work of the unit was done by men like Clodius Afer. Since then, things had changed.
Hercules, but they’ve changed, Gaius Vibulenus thought, looking down the hillside where the Romans stood at ease and waited for the aliens who’d bought them from their Parthian captors to decide what they were going to do.
I’d like to know in more detail too. Usually they just march us out of the ship, we kick arse, and then we march back. He didn’t like it when things got more complicated than that. The last time they’d gotten really complex . . . that had been the siege. The siege had been very bad . . . .
To blank out the memory of ton-weights of stone grinding through his body Gaius Vibulenus looked over his shoulder, towards the group who would send the legion into action. The hulking presence of the Guild Commander was half a hundred paces away, surrounded by his monstrous toadlike guards mounted on their giant hyena-like mounts. The seven-foot spiked maces the guards bore glinted in the light of a sun paler than that the Roman had been born under, with a pinkish tinge to its yellow. The banded iron armor they wore creaked on its leather backing, and the scale-sewn blankets that protected their mounts rustled and clicked. The Commander—this Commander, there had been a dozen of as many different types—was himself as large as his hideous bodyguards, and dressed in the inevitable blue jumpsuit with the shimmer of a force-screen before his face. His hands dangled nearly to his back-acting knees, and when he was nervous claws like so many straight razors unfolded from the insides of his fingers. They were thin and translucent and looked sharp enough to cut the air.
Compared to him, the natives of this low-technology world were positively homelike, much more so than most the legion had fought in the service of the . . . creatures . . . who’d bought them. The group around the Commander were fairly typical. Almost homelike . . . if you ignored the fact that they had greenish feather fronds instead of hair, and huge eyes of a deep purple without whites, and thumbs on either side of their three-fingered hands. About half the delegation arguing with the Commander were females, their breasts left bare by the linen kilts that were their only garments—four breasts each.
One of the guard detail standing easy behind the tribute pursed his lips. “You know, some of them wog bitches, they’re not bad looking,” he murmured. “Wonder what they’re shaped like under those kilts?” A couple of the naked attendants with collars around their necks, probably slaves, were male and equipped the same way as someone from Campania.
“Silence in the ranks!” Afer barked. In a conversational voice: “Sir?”
“It’s a little more complex than usual, Centurion,” Vibulenus said. “The . . . Guild—” he’d always wondered if that Latin word was precisely what the creatures who’d brought them meant “—is supporting the rulers of a kingdom southeast of here. They’re in the process of conquering this area we’re in, and they’re facing a rebellion that they can’t put down.”
If the Guild used its lasers and flying boats, putting an end to the uprising would take about thirty minutes. For some reason Vibulenus had never even begun to understand, the Federation the trading guild served forbade the use of weapons more advanced than those of the locals of any given area. If the natives used hand-weapons of iron, the slave-mercenaries of the Guild had to do likewise. That was why they’d bought the Romans; the legion was very, very skilled with those tools, and had the discipline to slaughter many times their number of those who were less so.
“And we’re supposed to pull it out of the pot for them, right?” Afer said. “Well, that’s familiar enough.” His eyes lifted over the ranks of the Roman legionaries, appraising the local help they’d be working with. “That’ll be their lot, eh?”
Vibulenus nodded; the remark had been a conversational placeholder. The legion often had to work with local auxiliaries and it usually wasn’t any pleasure . . . but it was as necessary here as it had been back in the lands around the Middle Sea, since Rome produced little in the way of cavalry or light missile-infantry. For instance, under Crassus they’d depended on Celtic auxiliary cavalry from Gaul to keep the Parthians away while they marched through the desert of Ctesiphon.
“And that didn’t work all that well, the gods know,” he murmured.
Afer nodded, understanding him without need for further words. They both remembered it more vividly than most things since: the dust and the thirst, the glitter of the mail and lances of the Parthian cataphracts whose presence forced them into tight formation . . . and the horse-archers darting in, loosing their clouds of shafts. Shafts thrown by their horse-and-sinew composite bows with enough force to slam the point right through the leather and plywood of a shield, forcing you back a pace with the whipcrack impact and leaving the triangular head of the arrow on the inside of your shield. If you were lucky; right through your mail-coat if you weren’t, and your body lay with all its blood running out on the alkaline clay of Mesopotamia . . . .
Vibulenus shrugged off the memory and looked at the locals. Many of them drove chariots, not much different from the ones immortal Homer had described, except that the pair of beasts which drew them had feathers rather than fur, and blunt omnivore fangs instead of a horse’s grass-cropping equipment. They looked like big dogs or slim bears with the skins of pigeons, or at least that was as close as you could come to describing them in Latin. Each cart carried three of the beasts, a driver in a kilt, a spearman in a long coat of iron or bronze scales and carrying a big rectangular shield, and an archer. There were more feathery plumes on the helmets of all three. Their infantry . . .
Well, that’s what we’re here for, he thought. The infantry were a rabble, some of their spears only fire-hardened wood at the business end, none of them with much in the way of armor. The slingers and archers might be of some use.
“Gaius Vibulenus Caper,” the Commander called.
Vibulenus sighed and adjusted his helmet. “Time to get the word,” he said, and strode towards the toad-guards.
“Hasn’t it ever occurred to these dickheads to ride the bloody things?” someone snarled.
Apparently not, Vibulenus thought.
The enemy were a huge shambling clot pouring out of the distant woods and across the lowlands. Their crest was cavalry—a line of chariots, not much different from the ones the Romans’—the trading guild’s—allies used.
Gaudy, though, Vibulenus thought critically, looking at the enemy vehicles. Two of them collided as they swept in one-wheel-down circuits that were probably designed to show off the driver’s skill. And I’ve seen better coordination in a tavern brawl.
The allied war-carts sweeping in from the flanks to meet the enemy were fairly uniform, and they moved in squadrons of four and larger units to horn and flag signals. Those of the enemy were decorated with feathers and paint, plumes and gilded bronze and silver, whatever their owners fancied or could afford—and the skulls of enemies past nailed to their railings. The skulls looked less human than the faces of the locals did alive.
Arrows flickered out. Vibulenus’s eyebrows rose. A good two or three hundred yards, and they hit hard when they landed—that was almost as good as the Parthians. Chariots tumbled into splintered wreck, their passengers flying out like rag dolls with their limbs flapping until the bone-crunching impact. Others careened away driverless, or stopped as their beasts were injured—unlike horses, the local draft animals seemed inclined to fight when they were hurt, not run away. It was all as distant and safe as matched pairs in an arena in Capua; a few of the troops were even calling out hoc habet and making gestures with their thumbs.
“Looks like our wogs are thrashing their wogs, sir,” Afer said after a moment. “Leastways with the chariots.”
Vibulenus nodded. But that isn’t going to be what settles this fight, he thought. The enemy infantry was still spilling out of the woods, and while the allied chariots were getting the better of the melee they still weren’t free to range up and down shooting them to pieces. Not many missile infantry, he noted. Spearmen with seven-foot stabbing weapons and shields, and swordsmen with long leaf-shaped slashing weapons, the few slingers and archers were to the rear where they couldn’t do much good. The local wogs were bigger than the Guild’s allies, and their feathery head-tufts had a reddish or yellow tinge to the green. They painted their naked bodies in patterns as gaudy as the chariots of their lords; some of them wore strings of hands or disconcertingly humanlike genitalia around their necks, while others had torques of pure soft gold.
“Noisy buggers,” Afer added after a minute.
Vibulenus nodded again. They were chanting in high-pitched squealing voices as they came, hammering their weapons on their shields and prancing with a high-stepping gait like trained horses. That changed to a flat-out run as they came within range of the chariot battle; it was a little like watching heavy surf rolling on a beach. The Roman tribune’s brows went up as he watched. They might be savages, but they knew their business. Dozens of them swarmed around every allied war-cart, throwing clouds of short weighted darts, then dashing in to slash or stab at the chariot teams. Dozens of chariots went over in the first few minutes, or disappeared under mounds of hacking, heaving foemen. Then a trio of heads would go up on spearpoints, and the mob would move on to the next target with a loping movement like a pack of wolves. They ignored the auxiliary infantry as if they weren’t there, despite a trickle of casualties from arrows and slung stones.
“They probably think everyone will run away when the chariots pull out,” the tribune said in a neutral tone. “Probably has gone that way for them, until now.”
The allied chariots were disengaging, those still able to move—drivers lashing their beasts to reckless haste, high spoked wheels bouncing over irregularities at speeds that made even a heavy tuft of grass a menace to their stability. They had to get out, though, or go down like a beetle swarmed over by ants.
“Hercules. Must be twenty, twenty-five thousand of them,” someone muttered.
“Yeah, we’ll all have to throw both spears and then gut one each,” his file-mate replied. “Don’t any of ’em have armor, and this bunch aren’t nine feet tall, either, for a fucking change.”
The tribune’s eyes went right and left along the long mail-gray line of the legion. Sure as shit, the auxiliary infantry posted on either flank were running; not as fast as the chariots, but there was a lot less chance of them rallying, too. Vibulenus sighed and reached up to settle his white-plumed helmet more securely on his head.
“Limlairabu!” the enemy soldier screamed.
Or something like that. Gaius Vibulenus swung his round bronze-faced officer’s shield up and sideways with a mindless skill born of more years’ experience than he cared to remember. His opponent was wielding his axe one-handed, with a small iron-rimmed buckler in the other hand. The axe handle was some springy hornlike substance, rather than wood—or maybe that was the way wood grew here—and the edge of the axe whickered through the air as it blurred towards him. The edge was good steel, and so was the spike on the other side. Either could give him a brain-deep head wound beyond even the Medic’s ability to cure.
Crack. The axe took a gouge out of the rim of Vibulenus’s shield, leaving creamy-white splinters and torn bronze facing in its wake. He stepped in, stamped a hobnailed foot down on the native’s bare one, and stabbed underarm. The Spanish steel of his sword scarcely slowed as it went into the native’s taut belly-muscles, but a sudden spasm locked flesh around the metal as he tried to withdraw it. With a wheezing curse he put a foot on the spasming body and wrenched it out, straightening up to look around. Oblong Roman shields closed around him as the first two ranks trotted past, into the unraveling enemy formation. . . .
Well, no, he thought, straining to catch his breath. It never was a formation. More of a mob.
Tubas snarled. “Loose!” he heard, and the massed javelins of the rear two ranks whistled overhead. They didn’t have the densely packed shoulder-to-shoulder targets of the volley that had opened the battle, but there were still enough of the enemy crowded into the zone just behind the edge of combat that virtually every spear found a mark in a shield or in naked flesh. A frenzied mass scream went up; part of that was frustrated rage. Surviving warriors found they could neither pull the pilum points out of their shields nor use the javelins for a return throw if they did manage to wriggle them free, since the soft iron shanks of the weapons buckled on impact.
He was reminded of a wave breaking on a rock again, as he had been at the beginning of the battle, but this time it was the rock that advanced, crying out and stabbing. Vibulenus trotted forward, his head moving to keep the action in view as far as he could. So far it was pretty routine . . . routine for everyone except the luckless bastards the floating metal turtles were picking up. Particularly except for the ones the turtles weren’t picking up. No matter how badly injured you were—no matter how dead, with a spear through the guts or your groin slashed up—if the turtles took you, you’d wake up. Weak, and crimson over most of your body, but that would pass and you’d be good as new, except for the memories. If the turtle rejected you, you were as dead as the men who’d taken a Parthian arrow under Crassus.
Sometimes he thought they’d been the lucky ones.
“Routine,” he said. “But somehow I don’t think so.”
“Sir,” Gaius Vibulenus said with desperate earnestness. “We don’t have to storm the fortress.”
The Commander had put his headquarters on a grassy knoll overlooking the valley. From here there was a clear view across a checkerboard of croplands and pasture toward the steep-sided plateau at the center of the basin. It didn’t look like Campania here, but it looked a lot like say, Cisalpine Gaul; in a way that made it more disturbing than most of the howling wilderness the legion had been landed in. The trees that gave shade overhead weren’t quite like oaks; the grain turning tawny-colored down below wasn’t like wheat or barley—more like a set of kernels on a broomstick—and the grass had a subtle bluish tint beneath its green. Even the scents were subtly wrong, close enough to leaf mold and ordinary crushed grass that you started doubting if it really was different, or if your memories were fading. Vibulenus was aware that his perception of the environment wasn’t typical, though; there had been a lot of comments on how homelike the place was. If it hadn’t been for the example made of the last attempted deserters—the tribune suppressed a sudden white flash of rage at the memory of what the Guild lasers had done to those soldiers, those Romans, those friends—he’d have been apprehensive about men going over the hill. That object lesson had driven home two facts, though. You couldn’t hide from the Guild sensors that could peer through solid rock, and you couldn’t do anything about the lasers that could burn through solid rock.
The fort was disturbing in another way. Not that it was particularly sophisticated. He’d seen much better; that stone castle they’d besieged in the fifth campaign, for instance, the one built by the furry little wogs who looked like giant dormice. That had been like an artificial cliff. This was fifty or sixty feet of steep turf, and then a wall of huge squared logs; another log wall was built twenty feet within, tied in to the first with cross-timbers, and the intervening space filled with rubble and earth. The logs were big, forty feet to their sharpened tips, and they wouldn’t burn easily—wood here didn’t, for some reason, as if it had strands of glass inside it. That wasn’t the problem. There were towers every fifty or sixty feet, too, full of archers and slingers and javelineers. But that wasn’t the problem.
“Are you unable to take the fortress?” the Commander said, his voice the same neutral baritone that all the commanders had. That was more incongruous than the bestial snarling his mouth suggested would be more natural.
“Sir, no, we can take it,” Vibulenus said. The Commander is the problem. “A week to build catapults, then we put in a ramp and some siege towers and go over the palisade. But there are better than ten thousand of them in there, and it’ll turn into a ratfight—our discipline and armor are bigger advantages in the open field than in street-fighting. We’ll lose a hundred, maybe two hundred men . . . and you’ve told us that the Guild can’t replace our losses.”
The Commander pursed his lips. “That is correct,” he said.
Vibulenus’s stomach knotted. The Guild could make the Romans immortal—unaging, at least—and it could repair anything but a spearpoint through the braincase. But it couldn’t get more Romans. Never more Romans. Never Rome again. Never home again—
He cut off that train of thought with practiced ease. There were easier ways to die here than a spear or a sword; thinking about home too much was one of them. Even the Medic couldn’t bring you back from a really determined attempt at suicide.
Attacking the Commander, for instance.
“That is correct,” the Commander went on. “But it is essential that this rebellion be put down. If assets must be expended, then they must.”
“Sir,” Gaius Vibulenus went on, in a voice that must not shake with the anger that poured through him like boiling oil poured on a storming party. “There are ten thousand men in there. Each of them has to eat every day. You can see that they didn’t have the time to get their harvest in, but it’s nearly ripe—all their food-stocks must be low. If we invest the fortress, we can starve them out and solve the problem economically.”
The Commander made a noncommittal sound, then blinked and looked at the fields and nodded. Vibulenus felt a slight chill. The Commander looked like something out of a nightmare . . . but in a way that response made him seem even more alien. He obviously hadn’t thought of the harvest as something important.
“If you assets are encamped here, is there not a risk that the enemy will . . . I believe the term is sally? At night, for instance.”
Vibulenus’s head rose up. “Sir, we are Romans. I assure you that within a week, they’ll no more be able to sally successfully than they could fly to Rome by flapping their arms.”
“Now, stay there, ye bugger,” the legionary grunted.
The pit he’d been digging was the depth of a man’s arm, slanting forward at a forty-five degree angle. Inside it was a wooden stake only a little shorter, the upper point trimmed to a sharp point and fire-hardened. The soldier finished ramming the unhardened point into the soft earth at the base of the pit, flicked the stake to make sure that it was firmly seated, then moved on to the next pit, dragging his bundle of stakes with him.
The air smelled of freshly turned earth; from the rings of pits for the stakes, and from the square-section ditch ahead of them, twenty feet deep and neat as a knife-cut through cake. The ditch was an irregular oblong, intended to run all around the hill on which the enemy squatted; when the Romans began their siege works the ramparts had been black with watchers, but now only a normal number squatted or leaned on their spears atop the ramparts. Vibulenus cocked a critical eye at the massive excavation. The layout and initial digging had been done by the legion’s soldiers, but much of the donkey-work was being handed off to local peasants rounded up by the auxiliaries. The main problem hadn’t been resistance, but the simple blundering incompetence of backwoodsmen not accustomed to working in groups. Despite that the peasants were working hard—they’d been told that they could go back to their harvest when the circumvallation was complete. They even had a few tricks that the Romans hadn’t run into before.
Their spades and picks were familiar enough, but instead of carrying dirt away in baskets they used a little box with a wheel in front and two handles behind—really extremely clever. I wonder why we never thought of that? Vibulenus wondered mildly, then turned.
Behind the rows of lilies were more rows of stimulators, short sticks with a pointed iron barb at one end, hammered into the dirt with the barb pointing inward towards the enemy. Behind them was a ditch ten feet deep, full of trees with sharpened branches making a forest of points; behind that was another ditch, this one to be flooded when they’d linked it to the river that ran through the valley. Behind that was the wall proper, an earthen rampart, then an upright palisade. From the base of the palisade bristling sharpened stakes pointed downward, into the space where the faces of attackers would be if they tried to scale it. Square-section towers of wooden framework reared along the growing wall, each a long javelin-cast apart. Building the rampart and towers was skilled work; the locals were just dragging up the necessary timber, and the legion’s men were busy with adz and saw and hammer.
Vibulenus’s mouth quirked. Nobody in the whole Roman world worked as fast and well as legionaries. Back home, work like this would be done by slaves. Not as well, and much more slowly.
Many of the legionaries were working on the fortifications; twenty-five hundred men stood to arms, in case . . .
A centurion named Pompilius Niger trotted up. He’d been a ranker when the legion left Campania for the east; a ranker, and a neighbor and friend of Vibulenus since childhood, since his father’s farm adjoined the Vibulenii’s estate.
“Found any honey yet?” Gaius Vibulenus asked, smiling slightly.
Niger shook his head. “No, they don’t have any,” he said in frustration. “The wogs, they crush a sort of thick reed and boil the juice. It’s sweet, but it isn’t honey, you know?” The junior centurion had been trying to find materials to make proper mead since they’d left Parthia. He was a round-faced young man . . . young in appearance, at least; his eyes had little youth left in them, although objectively they hadn’t altered an iota since the Guild decided that their Roman assets were too valuable to be left to weaken with age.
“Anyways, sir,” he went on, his voice growing more formal—business, then. “I wanted to ask you something. There’s a noise over by the northern gates.”
“Noise?” Vibulenus asked.
“Yeah. Sort of a grinding sound. Not really like troops mustering . . . more like traffic. Getting louder, though. So I sent a runner to Rusticanus—” Julius Rusticanus, the legion’s senior centurion, the primus pilus, the “first spear” “—and I thought you’d like to know, anyway.”
Vibulenus nodded; he’d been at loose ends. It was unlikely that men as experienced as Niger would miss anything obvious. He and the centurion began to walk over to the area covering the northern gate of the enemy fortress; there was a road running up to it, and it even had pavement. Not the smooth blocks Romans could have laid. It was rounded rocks from the riverbed, laid close together and pounded down into a lumpy surface that he supposed was better than the bottomless mud this alluvial soil would produce otherwise . . . .
The tribune looked down at the rocks under his feet. The hobnails in his caligulae gritted and sparked on the flint-rich stones, and he remembered . . .
“It’s a breakout!” he snapped, picking up the pace to a trot. “Sound the alarm!”
“I had seen the reports, of course,” the Commander said, in his neutral too-perfect voice, the voice of a hired teacher of rhetoric or a professional of the law-courts. Nobodyspoke Latin like that every day. “But I admit that I am impressed.”
He was fucking terrified, Vibulenus thought, carefully keeping his features blank, not shaped in the derisive grin that his mind felt. He didn’t think that the Commander could read a Roman’s facial expressions, any more than the tribune could make sense of what went on behind the Commander’s faceshield. There was no sense in taking a chance, though.
“What was it that enabled you to anticipate the enemy’s actions?” the Commander went on.
The sally had started with the abruptness of an axe dropping—a hinged section of wall that acted as a drawbridge had come down, and a wave of screaming spearmen had come tearing out behind a cloud of arrows and slung stones. That had been a diversion, though it might well have been a lethal one for a sightseer in a blue jumpsuit, if Roman cohorts hadn’t already been falling in in front of him, and more grabbing up stacked shields and javelins along the wall, turning themselves from working parties into fighting men again with the smooth efficiency of a machine turning in a pivot.
From the way he’d reacted, the Commander had known it too. He’d screamed—the sound had come through as its natural guttural bellow, not being words—and crouched reflexively, the claws flashing out from his fingers like straight razors as his mouth gaped and showed rows of serrated teeth like a shark’s.
The “ship” the Guild provided for its Roman assets could swallow waste, litter, and spare weapons through its skin. Vibulenus wondered if the Commander’s blue jumpsuit could do the same with bodily wastes released in sudden panic. Not that the smell would stand out here; the windrow of bodies where the locals’ berserk onrush had met the serried ranks of the legion was two deep in places. None were Romans; their wounded were being carried back by the floating turtle or limping along with the help of friends as they walked to the Medic. There weren’t any who weren’t . . . repairable. If they hadn’t been warned, they’d still have won—Rusticanus had been taking precautions, on the theory that turning out for trouble never hurt—but the butcher’s bill would have been heavier. An edge of the chill pride he felt was in his voice as he replied to the Guild’s officer.
“Your Worship, it occurred to me that the wheels of the enemy chariots were iron-rimmed, and that the . . . the grinding sound reported would come from iron wheels moving over cobbles.”
The infantry attack had been delivered with dreadful speed and intensity—the wogs might as well have been bloody Gauls, as Clodius Afer had commented—but it was only cover for the chariots behind. Those had made straight for the remaining gaps in the walls of the circumvallation. Some had gone into the ditches and pits; some had run into lilies or “stimulators.” The Guild’s local auxiliaries had taken a fair toll of the rest. Plenty of them had made it out into open country, though, and from the watchers’ reports they were scattering in every direction. The auxiliaries tailing them were reporting that each group was making for its home tribal territory.
“Well,” the Commander said. “Be that as it may. Yes, apparently your . . . engineering . . .” the cool mechanical voice had a tint of well-bred amusement ” . . . has alarmed them to the point of demoralization. I think we may expect them to yield soon.”
“Your Worship . . .” Vibulenus said. “No, I’m afraid that’s not the purpose of this breakout.”
The Commander didn’t have eyebrows to arch, but somehow managed to convey the same silent doubt. The Roman tribune went on:
“Sir, I don’t think they could have persuaded that many of their infantry to fight that hard just to cover a bugout by their overlords. And they’re not just running, they’re heading for their tribal homelands.”
“Your Worship, what they’re doing . . . those ones in the chariots, they’re the leaders, the landowners, the patricians—the men who’ll be listened to. And what I think they’re going to do is gather every wog in three hundred miles in every direction, every wog who can walk, and head straight here. As a relief force, to catch us and smash us against the anvil of the fortress.”
He nodded to the great timber-and-earthwork fort looming above them. “While we fight the relief force, they’ll sally against us, or vice versa. That’s their objective.”
Beside him, First Spear Rusticanus nodded and went on: “Sir . . . Your Worship . . . them wogs is pretty densely packed around here. There’s going to be a lot of them coming at us.”
The Commander went halfway into his defensive crouch again. The mechanism that turned his voice into too-perfect Latin wouldn’t let squealing fright through into the tones. “Then you must storm the fortress at once! The Guild will not tolerate failure!”
Meaning your ass is in a sling if we lose, Vibulenus thought. Of course, the legion’s ass was in the same unpleasant situation, and in a far more literal sense. He looked up the steep turf of the earthwork, at the great logs of the fort, at the locals prancing and yelling on the bulwarks.
“Your Worship!” he barked, in a tone that contained all he could put into it of servile enthusiasm. “Under your leadership, we Romans will now show you that the Guild’s confidence in us is not misplaced!”
The Commander blinked, and let his rubbery pinkish lips cover the multiple-saw layers of his teeth. “You have a plan?”
“Sir, I do,” Vibulenus said. He poured strength into his voice, as he might into a wavering rank. There was none of the concern he’d have felt for men in that situation, but he had to do it nonetheless—the blue-suited figure before him could order his men, his men, into a suicidal frontal attack. If he thought that would secure his position with the Guild, he’d do it in a moment. “My plan is—”
He went into details. The Commander raised a hand. “Surely there isn’t time for all that?” he said.
Vibulenus exchanged a brief glance with the senior centurion, saw an imperceptible nod. “Your Worship, until now we’ve been assuming we had plenty of time. Now we’ll show you what Romans can do in a hurry.”
“Think they’ll come, sir?” Clodius Afer said quietly. The ground in front of the outward-facing line of fortifications looked as if giant moles had been gnawing and chewing their way through it. There hadn’t been time for neatness, and there wasn’t a man in the legion or its impressed labor force that didn’t have blisters even on hands calloused to the texture of rawhide. But the fortifications that fenced out the rebels’ relief force were now complete, as complete as those that faced inward towards the native citadel. Light came from the towers that studded the Romans’ walls, the light of something like pine burning in big metal baskets . . . and from three moons, two of them far too large. Vibulenus looked over his shoulder. The lights on the inner wall would show the bodies of the natives who’d tried to sally . . . and the skeletal forms of the civilians they’d driven out of their lines, to save their remaining food stores for the warriors. The Commander had ordered that any who approached the Roman works were to be killed.
Vibulenus grimaced slightly. He’d have forbidden taking any of them in, too; the Roman force and their auxiliaries had only about thirty days of supplies. But he’d have let them through and into the countryside, at least. None of them were fighting men. At least the stink of rotting meat wouldn’t be quite as bad then.
“I think they’re having trouble organizing their supply train,” he said in a neutral tone, by way of replying to the other’s question.
The enemy host sprawled out to the edge of sight was stunning, even in the dark. They’d built bonfires of their own, too. Painted figures in masks and bones capered and screamed around them, in religious rite or propitiation or sorcery or some unimaginable alternative. Other figures screamed and writhed in wicker cages on platforms built above the fires, sacrifices roasting slowly and then tumbling down as the supports under their containers burnt through. Between and behind the fires the enemy warriors seethed, like maggots spilled out of a putrid corpse. The firelight made the edges of their weapons a twinkling like stars on a broad lake, eddying and milling as far as sight could reach.
“Organize their supply train?” Clodius Afer asked. “Sir, them, they couldn’t organize an orgy in a whorehouse. Three gets you one they’re starving already, and it’s less than a week since they showed up.”
“So, yes, they’ll come,” Vibulenus said. “Soon, I think. Tonight. They can signal to the fortress, light reflected on mirrors.”
The eddying and swirling was beginning to take on a pattern, and drums were beating among the enemy. A minute later he decided that it was warriors pounding the butts of their spears or the backs of their axes against the rawhide inner surface of their shields. For a while it was discordant babble, and then more and more of them fell into a rhythm. Tens of thousands of impacts per second, not all together because the enemy force was simply too large, but it rippled across the Romans like thunder echoing in a mountain pass.
The noise was so stunning that Vibulenus missed the shouts and crashing noises coming from behind him for a moment. A runner came up, panting.
“Sir,” he gasped. “Senior Centurion Rusticanus reports the enemy in the fort is making sorties—all three gates. They’ve got hurdles to fill the ditches, portable bridges, and grappling irons and ladders.”
Vibulenus felt his mind go cold, into a distant place where everything moved like stones on a gaming-board. “My compliments to the First Spear, and carry on,” he said.
“Hercules,” Clodius Afer said. “Here they come.”
The numbers of the barbarians charging forward towards the outer face of the Roman works were stunning. Not exactly frightening—not the way standing helpless under the Parthian arrow-storm had been frightening—but . . . impressive.
The light of the fire-baskets extended out as far as the initial deep trench. As the enemy reached it and bunched at the further edge, the catapults and onagers along the line of the siege works opened up. The torsion springs of the smaller devices threw six-foot javelins, or ten-pound rocks. Darts pinned three and four together at a time; rocks shattered torsos into loose bags of blood and splintered bone and exploded skulls with the finality of a hobnailed sandal coming down on a cockroach. The heavier throwing machines were usually used to batter down stone walls; here they threw man-heavy rocks into a target impossible to miss, sending the great rocks bounding and skipping through channels of pulped flesh. The horde ignored it, dropping into the great ditch, handing down ladders, propping them against the inner wall and swarming upward.
A native trumpet shrilled, high and womanish. The towers along the Roman lines were crowded with the local auxiliaries, foot and chariot crews both. Arrows lifted in clouds, driven by the powerful horn-and-sinew bows, their three-bladed steel heads winking in the firelight. Lead bullets whistled out, hard to see in daylight and invisible now. Many of the auxiliaries were using staff slings, with the cord fastened to a yard-long hardwood handle. Lead shot from weapons like those could punch right through a heavy-infantry shield and kill the man behind it through his armor. There was plenty of ammunition.
“I think we underestimated our local allies, a bit,” Vibulenus said, looking up. Another sleet of arrows crossed one of the moons—even now the size and reddish cloud-streaked color of it made his spine crawl slightly.
Clodius Afer grunted, shrugging his thick shoulders under the mail-coat. “Easy enough when they’re sitting up in them towers, sir,” he said.
Vibulenus nodded. The centurion had a point, but it was a bit of a parochial one. Bowmen couldn’t slug it out like Roman legionary infantry, granted. But they could be extremely effective when used properly; Parthia, and campaigns since, ought to have taught them that.
“They needed something to keep those spearmen and axemen off them,” he said musingly, wiping the palm of his right hand down the leather strips that made a skirt under his tribune’s cast-bronze armor. “The way . . . the way those Parthians could ride away from us, shooting us up and we couldn’t catch them, you see?”
Afer grunted again; by the sound of it, he did see. “They’re killing a lot of the barbs,” the squat man said. “But it ain’t going to stop ’em.”
Vibulenus picked up his shield. It was lighter than the oval scutum of the legionaries, although it didn’t give the same degree of protection to the left leg—the leg you advanced in combat. It also had a loop through which he slid his forearm, and a handhold near the rim, rather than the single central handgrip of the line infantry’s shield. It was Greek in form, like the rest of his gear. Romans had beaten Greeks all the way from Epiros to Syria, talking less and hitting harder—but when Roman aristocrats went to war, they wore gear that wouldn’t have been out of place in Alexander’s army. There was an obscure irony to that, he thought.
“You’re right,” he went on aloud. “They’re not stopping for shit.”
They did pause on the nearer edge of the ditch, massing before they charged. Arrows and sling bullets were slapping into them in a ceaseless barrage; he could see laborers bringing more ammunition up the ladders that marked the rear faces of the towers, out of the corner of his eye. The screams seemed to be as much rage as pain out there, though.
Hmmm. They’re waiting for the ladders to be handed up out of the ditch . . . no, they brought enough to leave those. They’re handing fresh ones forward, and bundles of brushwood.
Even dumb barbs learned, eventually. That was one reason his father had approved of Caesar, Crassus’s political ally, and his conquest of the Gauls. You had to overrun them before they learned too much. Roman politics, more distant than those alien moons . . .
The enemy rushed forward again, the long rough-made ladders in the front ranks. Those dissolved in screaming panic as they ran full-tilt into the “stimulators,” covered with hay and invisible in the night anyway. Thousands piled up before that jam, throwing the front ranks full-length into the barbed iron. More hands took up the fallen ladders, walking forward cautiously, or simply over the writhing bodies of their predecessors. The archers and slingers and the ballistae the Romans had made switched their point of aim to the pileup behind the first ranks. Big figure-eight shields went up in an improvised roof, but most of the projectiles punched right through the light leather-and-wicker constructions.
“Still comin’,” Afer said expressionlessly, the thick fingers of his right hand absently kneading the hilt of his sword.
“Not as many,” Vibulenus said.
The legion’s Tenth Cohort was drawn up behind them, a reaction force ready to rush to any part of the fortifications where the enemy made a lodgment. As they would, as they would . . .
“Holding them up like that in a killing ground, it’s really softening them up for us,” Vibulenus said. “Wouldn’t care to meet all of them in an open field.”
Afer grunted again, too proud to say aloud what they both knew; that horde would have overrun a single legion in a single shrieking rush. It could be done—the Cimbri had done it to three consular armies, before Marius caught them and smashed them. You needed a really good commander and enough numbers to keep from being flanked. Then, yes you could kill naked barbs like this all day until your arm got tired from gutting them.
As we’re doing right now, Vibulenus thought coldly. The enemy were through the “stimulators” and into the lilies; those stakes were as long as a man’s thigh, and they could kill rather than just cripple, but there were fewer of them. Now to the flooded ditch . . .
“Ready!” he said to the signalers.
The bridges that the enemy were manhandling forward were fifteen feet broad and twenty long, platforms of thick plank nailed onto beams to make a floor. They looked like staggering centipedes as they lurched forward towards the flooded ditch, supported on the hands and shoulders of scores of men . . . or at least of creatures very much like men. Very much, when you’d had a really broad experience of the possible alternatives. Squads with shields surrounded them on all sides, taking most of the arrows directed at the assault squads carrying the bridges; more crowded forward to take their places as they fell.
“Ready,” Vibulenus said again, his eyes wide as memories passed somewhere deep in his mind, far below the level of the consciousness that moved and spoke.
On a distant . . . planet was the word the Guild employees used, but that made no sense; how could you walk on a “wandering star”? In a distant land, the legion had fought little furry wogs who had a number of valuable tricks. One of them was a compound of rock-oil, saltpeter, naphtha, pine-pitch, and quicklime. Not all the ingredients had been easy to find here, but something close enough could be cobbled together; vegetable oil would do nearly as well as the black stuff from the ground—
The bridges rose, paused as hands and poles thrust at them from behind—they looked as bristly as a wild hog’s skin, with the arrows that thumped into them—and then toppled forward to fall across the water-filled ditch. Even before the massive timber weights stopped flexing and jumping, the first rank of shield-bearing warriors was charging across them, screaming.
“Flame!” the Roman tribune shouted.
The onagers thumped. They had a single thick cable of twisted sinew across the front of their frames, and a vertical throwing-arm fastened in the middle of the cable. Winches hauled it back, a missile was put into the cup at the end of the arm, and the release was slipped. The throwing arm slashed forward until it hit a massive braced and padded bar, supported on timber triangles pegged and mortised into the ground frame of the weapon. This time the cups had been loaded with large clay jugs, wrapped in oil-soaked cloth. Torches were touched to the wrapping, and it took fire with an angry crackling roar.
The onagers released, their rear edges kicking up as the throwing arms halted—that gave them their military nickname, “wild donkey.” Like meteors, the jugs arched across the night. They wobbled, because the fluid inside them shifted as they flew. The onagers were inaccurate at the best of times, and they hadn’t been able to sight them carefully, because there was no telling where the enemy would try to cross the ditch.
They still landed close enough, at least the ones Vibulenus could see. Flame splashed across the massed crowds waiting their turn to storm across the bridge nearest his position. Warriors leapt shrieking into the flooded ditch, but that didn’t save them, because the quicklime only burned the fiercer in contact with water. It also burned on the water, floating with a redder, milder flame than he remembered from the distant land that had given him the idea. But it was fatal enough. The water was thick with heads, where enemy troops were swimming the ditch with the bundled sticks—fascines—they’d brought to fill the dry ditch beyond. Many of them ducked under the surface as they saw the waves of fire billowing towards them, but the only way for a naked man to keep his body down was to fill his lungs . . . .
“Eat this,” a legionary behind Gaius Vibulenus screamed as he cast his javelin, pivoting on his left foot and bringing his scutum around to balance the throw.
The Tenth Cohort were charging in line abreast down the ramparts, perpendicular to the parapet on their right hands. Ahead of them was the enemy bridgehead, ladders rearing over the sharpened stakes, feather-skulled figures howling and shaking their weapons at the oncoming Romans. The howls turned to screams as dozens of the heavy pilaslashed down out of the night.
“Roma!” Vibulenus shouted as he ducked under the thrust of a long spear.
His round shield hooked aside a tower-tall one shaped like a figure eight, and his sword of Spanish steel punched upward under a rib cage. There was a crisp popping feeling as things parted under the sharp point and edge. Behind him Clodius Afer punched a native in the face with the boss of his shield, slid nine inches of sword in under a raised arm. The scrimmage was over in seconds; Vibulenus’s sword was still making small stabbing motions in the air as he pivoted and looked for another opponent. The forward ranks of the Tenth Cohort spread out to cover the section of wall the enemy had swarmed; cutting the leather cords attached to the grappling hooks sunk in the rampart, pushing ladders over, throwing pila down into the crowded mass in the ditch below. They followed that with showers of one-pound stones still piled ready for use, and iron-shod stakes the auxiliaries’ smiths had run up.
“Determined bunch,” Vibulenus wheezed, letting his shield-arm drop. His bronze corselet squeezed at his ribs, and his mouth was dry and gummy. Somewhere he’d picked up a shallow slash over his left knee that he hadn’t noticed until now, and it hurt like Hades himself was retracing it with a red-hot knife.
“They’re running!” someone shouted.
Vibulenus pushed himself to the rampart. They were—and the fire from the towers was taking them in the back, now.
“Well, that’s that,” he said dully. Now we wait a day or two until the ones in the fort surrender, and then we get back on the ship, and in a few weeks we all go to sleep and wake up for another fucking campaign.
Clodius Afer held out a helmet full of water. “Here, sir,” he said, with a quirking smile.
“Thanks,” Vibulenus said. Hercules, how many campaigns ago was it that he gave me that drink, the first time, those eight-foot-tall bastards with the carts?
They weren’t quite in the same position as that poor bastard in the old story, the one condemned to roll a boulder up a slope for all eternity and have it slip right down again. He’d been alone. If you were going to be in hell, at least it helped to have some good friends along.
He took the helmet and drank, then upended it over his own head and almost groaned at the feeling of cold water trickling down under his armor into the sweat-sodden tunic and overheated flesh.
“Heads up,” Afer said tonelessly.
The Commander was coming, walking along with his giant iron-armored toad-guards. It was a little cramped here for their huge hyena-mounts; of course, this was also a bit closer to the sharp end than commanders usually came. Tired Romans snapped erect and into their ranks, stepping back for the bubble of space that commanders always required . . . and the spiked maces of their guards enforced.
The blue-suited figure walked forward, over and among the piled enemy dead. “Congratulations, Gaius Vibulenus Caper,” the too-perfect voice said. “Once again, you brave warriors have prevailed over great odds.”
The triangular face of the Commander swung forward to peer over the parapet. “Very great odds. In fact—”
Clodius Afer was as rigid beside the tribune as a statue cast from bronze. Vibulenus knew why, because his mind was as rigid with the need to control a sudden vision of two swords meeting together in the middle of the inhuman body, scissoring back to leave the torso split nearly in half, whatever the Commander used for guts spilling out on the enemy dead and the soaked dirt . . . . No. Better to go for the skull; two steps forward and he could put the edge right through the thing’s temple, right to the central ridge of the blade—
Which neither of them was going to do. Because the guards might well smash them down before their swords were well drawn; the toad-things were fast, not just inhumanly strong. Because unless they managed to get the brain or spine, the Commander would be revived just as mostly dead legionaries were. Because although trading their own lives for that of the Commander might be, would be perfectly acceptable, the legion would still be there, exposed to the Guild’s vengeance and without centurion and tribune.
But it was so tempting.
The dead were piled several layers deep against the inner face of the parapet—deeper in the angle than the natural slipperiness of blood-lubricated dead flesh would allow. Not all of that flesh was dead. Vibulenus had let himself relax from the knife-edge concentration of combat, let his muscles feel the trembling exhaustion and stiffen with fatigue poisons. His sword was still rasping from its sheath when the three natives lunged erect, daggers glittering in their hands as they threw themselves towards the Commander.
Clodius Afer’s shield slammed one sideways, and the centurion’s sword gutted the native while he fought for balance.
Cursing silently, Vibulenus threw himself forward, forcing speed out of abused muscles. He didn’t think the Guild would be much concerned with abstract rights and wrongs if the Commander was knifed in the presence of the assets who were supposed to absorb the hurt.
Something warm and salty struck him in the face. His vision blurred, but not so much that he couldn’t see the follow-through of the Commander’s ape-long arm and the track the four razor claws had cut through the native daggerman’s neck. The Commander was smiling—Vibulenus saw the expression and hoped it wasn’t really a smile—as he dug the claws of both hands under the last assassin’s ribs and dragged him forward. Then, with an almost casual motion, he bit off the top of the local’s skull.
“Incompatible proteins,” he said, after he spat the mouthful out and tossed aside the corpse. “Where was I? Ah, yes. The natives hostile to the interests of the Guild and galactic progress were probably aware that the Federation bans advanced weapons on planets such as this.” He beamed coldly at the Romans. Shreds of matter and feathery not-hair dangled between the multiple rows of teeth. “But as always, they underestimated the organizational skills of the finest trading Guild in the galaxy!”
The Commander turned and swept away, followed by his armored guards. Vibulenus smiled wryly as he sheathed his sword. “Good thing we can both resist temptation, isn’t it?” he said.
“Sir, yessir,” Clodius Afer said, cleaning his weapon and doing likewise. He turned his head to look out over the piled dead that carpeted the ground, to the edge of sight in the dull gray light of predawn.
“Looks like ‘e said. They underestimated the fuckin’ opposition, all right,” he said.
Gaius Vibulenus Caper, military tribune, member of the Equestrian Order and citizen of Rome, put his hand on his fellow-Roman’s shoulder. “They underestimated us, by the gods of my hearth,” he said.
They both looked after the Commander, to where the blue-suited figure had vanished behind the smaller turtles that brought water to the legionaries, and the greater one that picked up the repairable dead. Far and faint came wailing from the fortress on the hill, as the natives saw their hope receding with the fleeing barbarians.
“And someday—” Afer went on.
Vibulenus smiled, an expression no less sharkish than the Commander’s serrated rows of teeth. Someday, someone in a blue bodysuit is going to underestimate us.
Everyone made mistakes. But that was going to be the last mistake some Commander of the Guild’s Roman assets ever made.