The day was just dawning and clutters of mist hanged at the edge of the forest, slowly sliding to the swamp on the banks of an unnamed river. Prefect Marcus Tiberius Fallus stood mounted on the top of a small hill and looked at the landscape below with explicit disgust. It’s been already two weeks since his troops set up their camp in this gods-forsaken hole, deep in the lands of Vandals. Jupiter the almighty! He could hardly say what was worse: the stink of the marshes, the swarms of mosquitoes, or the barbarians, whom the woods teemed with. Yet for some reason the Consul decided that these hills, river and forest constitute a significant strategic importance for strengthening Rome’s presence in the foremost northern reaches of the Empire. He ordered Marcus Tiberius to consolidate his positions here until the re-enforcements arrive. This would definitely be a much easier task should their camp be on the top of the mountain, where the hills are covered by that damn forest. The top is, in turn, almost free of trees – so the whole mountain resembled to the Prefect the bald head of his old strategy teacher. When the future Prefect wasn’t good enough at mastering the art of war, the veteran turned cleric at Mars temple countless times painfully stroke with his short wooden stick Marcus Tiberius’ head, back and some more sensitive parts of his body.
Those memories caused sudden headache. The Prefect produced a silent sigh and looked left to the plain on the riverbank where his legionaries already started gathering for the morning drill. A total of 723 soldiers: almost two full cohorts, eight centurions, 25 equites, five ballistas and one dysfunctional catapult. Not enough. To be able to clean the forest from the savage Vandals, he needs at least twice that much. Hail to the Gods, a messenger that arrived yesterday from Legate Citio said that his cohorts are already on the marsh and will arrive in five to seven days.
Marcus Tiberius shivered turned his horse left and began a slow descend from the hill. Down in the valley, centurions shouted short commands trying to outvoice the piping of frogs. Red flags with golden eagles waving in accurate rows – a sharp contrast with the surrounding wilderness. “Gloria Romanorum” whispered the Prefect – and it – made him feel a little bit better.
Olloric the Toothless sat leaning on the trunk of a large elm and looked down at the Roman camp. Foliage and terrain covered him well from an unwelcome eye. Geometrically perfect ranks of soldiers in glimmering armour marched, stroking an imaginary enemy with long piles and forming different figures out of their large rectangular shields on the plain at the river bank. Olloric, who got his nickname after an unsuccessful attempt to mount a horse from the rear, looked right and left at his chief commanders, Bump and Snivel, who also observed the Roman camp. Snivel’s face showed a genuine adoration. Feeling Oloric’s gaze, he turned to him smilingly and said:
After that he gaily blew his nose into the grass.
Bump, in contrast, revealed no specific emotion. His face was distorted with so many scars from countless battles that he seemed to have lost the ability of expression. Yet in Bump’s eyes, Olloric saw an excited anticipation.
Snivel and Bump were well masked with the underwood, just like roughly five hundred of fellow tribal men who lurked in the woods behind them. The location of each could only be revealed by the small vapour cloudlets they exhaled. Olloric spat and asked, addressing no one particularly:
The answer was a sigh of excitement, produced by hundreds of muted voices. This may as well have been a capful of wind that swept over the woods rustling the leaves.
Olloric shrugged slightly, raised in his full height and slowly walked out of the forest. Then he raised his axe and started running down the hill, gradually gaining speed. Hundreds of other bearded men with swords, axes and spears rained down after him. A war cry of Vandals resounded over the valley and echoed from the mountains.
That was a surprisingly easy victory. The barbarians were so stupid that they could not figure out something better than a basic frontal attack. Of course it wasn’t too hard for the legionnaires to quickly form a standard three-line battle position with a wall of shields covering them almost completely – and then simply pierce the savages with their piles and gladii.
Marcus Tiberius was proud. Despite the episodic clashes with small groups of barbarians on their way here, this was the first real battle for him after being promoted to the prefect rank. And he was victorious! It did cost him a significant effort to overcome the temptation to chase the quickly retreating barbarians into the woods. But all the tactical training he had at the Mars temple school argued against such a move; there may be an ambush.
This day had to be marked accordingly. The soldiers did their job perfectly well, even though when the killed enemies were counted, it turned out there were surprisingly few bodies. Marcus Tiberius called for the Signifer and ordered to pay one silver dinarius to each legionnaire from his own treasury. He also asked the priests to make a homage to Mars and Junona for their gift of courage and wisdom. And it will be him, Prefect Marcus Tiberius Fallus, who will set the fire over the altar!
Olloric the Toothless was sitting near the fire together with the chiefs of five allied Vandal tribes. Those were: Ignoric the Red, Boarhead, Porric the Left-Handed, Athoric Longbeard and Troubaric the One-Eyed. Snivel, Bump and other warlords stood behind their backs forming a second circle. Several dozens of warriors who wanted to hear what is being said over the fire were scattered between the trees around. It was already dark, and a torch-lit Roman camp on the other side of the river was clearly visible through the trees resembling a large fire square. The wind fetched discrete sounds of music and laughter.
The circle of fire around which the chiefs were sitting was much smaller and hardly visible through the trees.
- So shields are big you say? asked Athoric Longbeard, addressing more himself than Olloric, who has just finished his short description of today’s battle.
- And strong.
Silence lasted for a good three minutes, until Ignoric the Red said:
This time barbarians attacked from two sides simultaneously. And they were mounted!
Yet Marcus Tiberius Fallus wasn’t the one who could be caught by surprise. The painful lessons of the old bald man at the Mars temple did not go in vain.
- Axiliares equites! – he shouted and the 23-strong cavalry squad rushed towards the enemy.
The vandals probably did not encounter a significant threat, as their number was several times bigger. But they did not expect the surprise prepared for them. Instead of meeting the enemy head-to-head, Roman equites suddenly turned their horses to the side and bypassed the galloping Vandals from the flank. Then they took the gilded bows and fired a rain of arrows to the enemy, putting them to flight.
The other group of Vandal calvary has been running towards Fallus’ infantry. With heavy sticks covered by iron plates in their hands, they obviously aimed to use the horses’ strength and momentum to kick the legionnaires off their feet. The Prefect only smiled.
- Agmen formate!
- Agmen formate! Agmen formate! Agmen formate… repeated the centurions.
The legionnaires formed several equal squares, then the first row kneeled on one knee and put the shields above them as a roof. In the centre of each square were bowmen who immediately opened fire at the approaching enemy.
- Repelle equites!
- Repelle equites! Repelle equites! Repelle equites…
The squares momentarily bristled up with hundreds of spears. The attacking horsemen were already too close to escape the danger: their first rows at full speed while the rest had to turn and retreat, pursued by arrows.
- Horses didn’t work, said Ignoric in a deep muse, looking into the fire. One of the chiefs was missing: Troubaric the One-Eyed did not see the spear coming from the side of his blind eye.
Everyone was sitting silent for a good quarter of hour. Then somebody from the outer circle came forth. It was Snivel. In the flickering tongues of flame they saw he was smiling.
- Arrows! said Snivel pointing at his own neck with a dirty nail. And then he blew his nose into the fire.
The re-enforcements arrived even earlier than the messenger said. On that day the fog was so thick that you could hardly see anything beyond 10 feet. When an excited scout entered his tent telling that the red flags with golden eagles of Rome have just been seen over the horizon on the south, Marcus Tiberius immediately jumped on his legs and asked to be prepared his horse. He wanted to meet the Legate himself and personally tell about his recent success while riding shoulder-to-shoulder to the camp.
- How many troops? he asked while two slaves were tightening the straps of his gilded breastplate and polishing it with small pieces of cloth.
- We counted at least five cohorts and two hundred horses, my Prefect.
“Jupiter’s ass! Half Legion,” Marcus Tiberius whistled in his mind. The Consul must indeed have far-going plans regarding this muddy piece of Vandal land. Yet he must by no means reveal his admiration. Here is the first phrase he will tell the Legate after the formal greeting: “You have arrived much earlier than we expected. I was going to sort out the Vandals problem myself within the next few days.”
Legate Citio was a soldier to the marrow of his bones. A well-known hero of Rome, he got his nobility in the Battle of Naissus, when he alone wounded and captured Gothic konung Thororic. Emperor Claudius Germanicus himself promoted Citio to the title of Legate.
Yet those days were long gone. When Marcus Tiberius rode forth through the fog to greet the approaching army, what he saw when the first rank materialised from the blurred silhouettes surprised and relieved him at the same time. Next to the aquilifer carrying the gold eagle was an old man, tormented with gout and osteochondrosis. The gilded chest armour could not hide the severe obesity. A worn-out ring with Emperor’s portrait was the only reminder of the old glory.
- Ave Legatus! saluted Marcus Tiberius.
- Ave! Citio’s voice was tired, but surprisingly strong and clear.
- You have arrived…
- Yes, I have, as you can see, Citio cut the Prefect’s polished phrase sharply, as if someone has broken a beautiful marble statue with a rough axe.
- Consul is disappointed with your progress – and so am I. The woods should have been cleared from the barbarians long ago.
- Now guide me to your camp. My soldiers need rest. We will start our advancement in three days.
They were still a few stadia from Fallus’ camp when arrows flew in through the fog. It seemed that they are coming from nowhere, like a sudden rainstorm or hail sent by the gods as a punishment. Before the Prefect understood what happened, a few dozens of Cipio’s soldiers were laying dead on the grass. Then a volley of javelins followed. The aquilifer, who was riding next to Marcus Tiberius suddenly produced a death-rattle and started to heel over from his horse, dragging the golden eagle along with him. A thick javelin sticked out of his neck two fingers above the clavicle.
Yet a hand in gold vambrace on the elbow caught the eagle and did not let it fall to the mud.
- Testudinem formate! Legate Cipio commanded and raised the eagle above his head.
- Testudinem formate! Testudinem formate! Testudinem formate!.. echoed the centurions.
Legionnaires quickly reshuffled in equal tight squares, each consisting of 80 soldiers or one centuria. Then they dropped on one knee and covered themselves with the shields from above and from the sides. This was nothing else but the the famous Roman Tortoise.
Next volley of arrows drummed on the shields, but this time they inflicted very little damage. Only few could pierce through the metal-clad shields or hit into the gaps between them. Another wave of javelins came – again with little effect. Then arrows. And then the attack has stopped.
Few minutes passed in silence so deep that the Prefect could hear again the muted piping of frogs at a distant river. Then the Legatus who was next to him in the middle of the Tortoise jointly formed by their guards, raised and shouted:
As if this word was to break some spell of a sorcerer, the tortoises raised and turned back into many squads of tall soldiers in leather armour. Following the usual order the first thing every one of them did was to look around for the dead or wounded comrades. But besides some lost shields and stains of blood here and there the wet grass was empty.
Olloric the Toothless, Ignoric the Red, Boarhead, Porric the Left-handed, Athoric Longbeard, Snivel, Bump and a dozen of fellow Vandals were sitting around the fire in the woods. The distant Roman camp by the river has grown several times and now it looked like an enormous blanket embroidered with a pattern of many golden squares. The smoke from numerous fireplaces raised to the skies like a forest of giant trees.
On the knees of Oloric the Tootless was laying a large metal object. Orange fire patches were dancing on its polished surface. It was Galea – a Roman helmet. For some time, Olloric feasted his eyes upon the helmet smiling widely through his toothless mouth. Then he rase his sight, looking at the others sitting around the fire. Everyone was smiling too.
The morning of Roman decisive attack was bright. The sun slowly ascended through the cloudless sky, promising a real heat after the noon.
Joint forces of Prefect Marcus Tiberius Fallus and Legate Tullius Gothicus Citio, almost a full legion, stretched for a mile between the river and the border of the forest. It was the classic quincunx checkered three-line formation that have yielded Rome so many glorious victories. Hastati with long spears and velites with bronze-headed javelins in the first rank, then the principes – with larger shields and in heavy armour. Finally – the triarii: most experienced veterans, ready to step forward to the battle when the first two ranks get tired. Equites – the light cavalry bowmen – on the flanks, ready to surround the enemy or force it to retreat by a swift attack. Behind – two dozens of ballistas and onagers, that will rain the burning missiles upon the heads of barbarians. And above all this splendour – the majestic flags of Rome: red with gold eagles in the laurel wreath under the “SPQR” motto and white banners of their legion with red bolts striking in the very heart of enemy.
Prefect Fallus struggled to tame the trembling of his hands caused by the extreme excitement that overfilled him as he rode next to Legate Citio conducting the final inspection of the troops. “This will be the day of a great victory, which will forever last in the chronicles of the Empire, in the songs of great poets, in the heart of every Roman citizen, in the eyes of Gods. And the name of Prefect Marcus Tiberius Fallus will…”. His thoughts were interrupted by the horns of cornicerni who sounded the readiness for action.
Citio, Fallus, their guards, and the new aquilifer with golden eagle of the legion stopped their horses approximately in the centre of the formation. Citio took his short gladius out of the scabbard, looked at the Prefect askew and smiled. This made Marcus Tiberius feel uncomfortable. He suddenly realised that he is still trembling. Citio raised his sword prepared to command the attack. And then they saw the Vandals.
The bearded men stepped out of the trees alongside the entire length of the forest. Some of them were armed with swords longer than Roman gladii, others – with maces or axes. Many had their hair tied in knots, while others wore small metal helmets, sometimes with a pair of bird wings attached to them. Most had no or very little armour, only few wore chain mail. One of those looked familiar to the Prefect. It was that barbarian chief that led the first audacious attack on his camp. It was Olloric the Toothless.
Olloric also recognised Marcus Tiberius. There were at least two stadia between them, but the Prefect could swear that the bearded warlord is looking right into his eyes. Then Olloric nodded to him slightly – and the Vandals started to sing.
It was an old Germanic song, one of those that wander from one tribe to another, becoming cluttered with numerous versions and rehashes. It was one of those songs that survivors sing after the battle to commemorate the fallen and celebrate the victory. The harsh language was unrecognisable to the Roman ears, but rhythm and melody suggested the battle, the mourning and the triumph. It was a song about endless green woods and silver snows of the North, about ancient Gods and glorious ancestors, about the courage of warriors and the love of women, about spilled blood and lavish feasts. Sang with thousands of voices, it seemed that the woods themselves are singing this song. It echoed from the surrounding mountains and filled the valley with sound of enormous might.
What happened next became the Prefect’s strongest and most terrible memory for the rest of his life. New voices joined the chorus, heard not from the forest or mountains, but from within the Roman formations. Here and there legionnaires clad in leather armour and red cloaks started to sing the song of Vandals. More and more joined – until hundreds were singing together with the bearded warriors up the hill. Their fellow soldiers and commanders looked at their singing neighbours in a great confusion.
The Prefect turned his eye towards Citio. The old Legate sat on his horse without a single motion. He resembled a marble equestrian statue of some ancient Caesar. Only his eyes filled with blood and his left hand that squeezed the reins with enormous strength prompted that the Legate is a living creature. Suddenly, the statue turned to life. Cipio pulled the reins sharply, turned his horse and produced the most terrible war cry the Prefect had ever heard. It was full of anger and despair at the same time. The next moment Lagates sword had fallen on the head of the closest singing legionnaire.
The battle lasted for less than an hour. In fact it was more a massacre than a battle. After all ended, the red Roman cloaks were split in three different groups. The first were laying motionlessly on the grass. The second, unarmed, with their hands tied behind, pled on their way, stumbling and urged on by the barbarians. The third, biggest, went together with the victorious Vandals back to the woods – as if they were now one.
Olloric the Toothless was just starting his meal when captive Marcus Tiberius Fallus, former Roman Prefect was brought before his eyes. The Prefect looked bad. He spent last five days and nights in the pit, together with other high-rank prisoners that survived the battle. He also starved – not because the Vandals did not feed their captives, but because he refused to eat. As a result, Marcus Tiberius could barely stand on his feet so two sturdy bearded Vandals that convoyed him (one of those being no one else but Snivel) had to literally carry him under the arms.
- Free his hands, Olloric ordered when Snivel sat Marcus on the log near the fire. Then he put a coarse pottery bowl full of meat pottage in front of the former Prefect and pointed on it with his knife.
The Prefect looked at the steaming bowl in front of him and turned his head away, trying to tame his breath not to feel the stupefying smell. Pride of a Roman nobleman was stronger than the hunger. He will rather starve himself to death than accept a smallest bite from these savages.
Olloric sighed and looked at Snivel, who shrugged his shoulders and sniffed.
- Call Pimple, said Olloric to the other guard.
Pimple’s mother was a prostitute who travelled with Roman merchants. She taught him some basic Latin and now Pimple occasionally worked as an interpreter.
- Tell him to eat, asked Olloric pointing at Marcus Tiberius when Pimple, who hasn’t yet recovered from yesterday’s booze, hobbled to the fireplace.
- You must eat. Good? Pimple translated to Marcus Tiberius.
But the former Prefect did not even look on the food. Instead he asked himself again and again the same question that kept him restless from the day of that miserable defeat: “How? How did they do this?”.
- What is he muttering there? Olloric gulped some pottage and looked at his captive with interest.
- The Roman says “How they did this?” Pimple translated.
- Who did what?
- Olloric ask “who did what?” said Pimple to Marcus Tiberius in his fractured Latin.
This question suddenly threw Fallus out of stupor. He looked fiercely at Pimple, then stared at Olloric and shouted at him panting:
- How did you win? You, dirty, illiterate, savage barbarians. How, for the sake of Jupiter, could you possibly defeat a Roman legion?
After Pimple translated this answer, Olloric and Snivel bursted out laughing. They could not stop for quite a long time. Olloric was the first one to pull himself together. Still sobbing and wiping the tears with a dirty palm, he started explaining:
- Well, at first it looked tricky. We tried this and that, as you know, but you guys are really tough with those huge shields of yours. Than that old man came with even more men and we thought “That’s it. They will put the lid on us”. But then we managed to steal some of his soldiers. Of course we had to calm them down first, he giggled, and saw that they were different than yours. Your soldiers are all Romans, just like you: short, big-nosed, dark hair. His soldiers were taller, with brighter hair and bulbous noses, just like ours!
After saying this Olloric started to laugh again. Snivel and Pimple followed. Fallus sat straight and looked at Olloric with eyes wide open. He started to understand.
This time it took Olloric twice that long before he was able to continue.
- The rest is easy. The following night myself, Snivel, Bump and Ignoric put the Roman dress and helmets on and visited your camp. There we had a lot of nice talks and learned that almost all new Romans are not Romans, but guys more or less related to us. The only thing we needed was some signal; and then Snivel came up with that old song.
With this words, he looked up at the bearded giant. Snivel sniffed and winked to Marcus Tiberius.
The former prefect remained speechless for a long time after Olloric finished his brief speech. His thoughts were confused, but behind them the ruthless truth became more and more visible.
- But I still… do not understand. Where did you learn those tactics? he whispered.
After Pimple translated former prefect’s word to him, it was Olloric turn to get confused.
- What is “tactics?” he asked.
Pimple shrugged: he did not know the meaning of this term either. Olloric seemed lost in thought for a few moments, but then tossed his head and said, pointing at Marcus Tullius:
- Tell him to eat. It’s not as good after it cools off.