David Weber: Ranks of Bronze

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David Weber Ranks of Bronze
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    Ranks of Bronze
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David Weber


Ranks of Bronze

PROLOGUE

On a farm in the Sabine hills of a planet call Earth, a poet takes a stylus from the fingers of a nude slave girl and writes, very quickly, And Crassus wretched soldier takes a barbarian wife from his captors and grows old waging war for them.

The poet looked at the line with a pleased expression. "It needs polish, of course," he muttered. Then, more directly to the slave, he says, "You know, Leuconoe, there's more than inspiration to poetry, a thousand times more; but this came to me out of the air.

Horace gestures with his stylus toward the glittering night sky. The girl smiles back at him.

BOOK ONE


THE FIRST CAMPAIGN

Caius Vibulenus wore a white horsehair crest to mark him as a tribune. Fear turned the dew dribbling from that insignia into drops of acid on the back of his neck. Dawn was beginning to raise a bitterflavored mist from the valley before them, and the occasional serpentine trees seemed to writhe as they bathed in the thick air.

The enemy was deploying from its camp in the shelter of great basalt pyramids that the sun revealed as a natural rock formation, not the godlike city which the young tribune had thought he saw against the night sky.

"Mother Vesta," Vibulenus whispered as his fingers tightened on the bone hilt of the sword sheathed at his left side, "let me live to see my hearth again. Father Hercules, give me strength to endure this time of testing."

A signal began to boom from the enemy camp. It sounded like thunder, a crash which built into a rumble and did not slacken though the whole valley began to echo with it.

"Mother Vesta," the tribune repeated, "let me live to see my hearth."

"… ten feet tall," a legionary was muttering to his fellow as the Tenth Cohort lurched towards its position on the left flank. "And they eat their enemies raw."

"No talking in ranks!" snarled a non-commissioned officer-Gnaeus Clodius Afer, the file-closer who ranked second of the eighty-odd men in the cohort's Third Century. In barracks, Clodius would have carried a swagger stick, but here in the field he bore two javelins and a shield like any other line soldier. He rang the butt of the lighter javelin on the bronze helmet of the man who had spoken.

The legionary yelped and stumbled. Dim light and the helmet's broad cheek pieces concealed the man's face, but the tribune recognized the voice as that of Publius Pompilius Rufus-one of the few legionaries he actually knew. Rufus and his first cousin, Publius Pompilius Niger, came from farms adjoining that of Vibulenus' own family, and the three boys had attended school together in Suessula.

"Here, fellow," Vibulenus said in a squeak that was meant to be a growl of warning to the non-com. He put his arm around Rufus' shoulders and glared back at Clodius. "No need for brutality."

"Sir, that's all right," the legionary whispered hastily, jumping sideways and hunching as if the tribune's arm were afire. Rufus collided with the trooper to whom he had been speaking-his cousin Niger, of course-in a clash of equipment much louder than that of the non-com's blow a moment before.

"No need for little pricks too young to shave, neither," Clodius muttered, enough under his breath that Vibulenus could pretend the words were lost in the artificial thunder from across the valley.

Vibulenus stepped back, rubbing the lip of his Greek-style helmet, more of an ornate bronze cap than functional protection like those of the line soldiers. With his hand raised that way, his forearm concealed the face which he was sure glowed with his embarrassment.

Anyway, it wasn't true. He had shaved, and that first beard had been dedicated in a golden casket in the temple of Juno of Suessula which his father had refurbished for the occasion.

And would that the gods had struck him down in that moment. Then his family could mourn the ashes of Gaius Vibulenus Caper, and he himself would be spared all this.

Whatever this was.

How could General Crassus have bungled so badly at the end of a brilliant career?

Because of the noise around him, and even more because of the turgid echoes of his thoughts, Vibulenus did not hear the sound of the horse approaching until a legionary's curse was answered with, "Watch yourself, dog!" in the nasal bray of the rider, Rectinus Falco- another of the legion's six tribunes.

Falco was the last person Gaius Vibulenus wanted to see right now, but even that had its advantages: Vibulenus' shoulders straightened, his face became a mask of cool disinterest; instead of roiling with fear and embarrassment, his mind focused on the fact that he did not have a horse and that bastard Falco did because of the way he had made up to the Commander.

"Our commander sends me to check on the progress of the left wing," Falco said. His accent implied that he was born and bred in a townhouse in the wealthiest section of Rome. In fact, he was country gentry from Campania, just like Vibulenus himself; and the Vibuleni could have bought Falco's family three times over.

Not that questions of birth affected where the two tribunes stood, right now and for the foreseeable future.

"Not the level of progress one might have expected," the horseman went on, raising himself a trifle in the saddle by pressing his hands against the double front pommels.

"Tell the Commander that he needn't concern himself with this flank," Vibulenus replied in a tone of vibrant haughtiness that surprised him and would have surprised his declamation instructor in Capua even more. He had never shown signs of oratorical power. This was a hell of a place for it to turn out that he had talents in that direction after all. "Though I would have expected more cavalry to support us."

In all truth, this was a Hell of a place.

"Vibulenus, you'll go further if you learn to tend to your own affairs," Falco snapped angrily. He raised his torso higher with his hands and clamped his knees near the top of the saddle to peer at the cohort from a slightly better perspective. No doubt about it, the man was a natural horseman. "Which," he went on in his nasal sneer, "you seem to be doing a very bad job of, as ragged as these lines look."

"Then if you'll get yourself and your animal out of the deployment area," Vibulenus responded with ringing clarity, "we'll proceed with our business."

Falco might have continued the wrangle-which was not about war but rather status, and therefore of much greater importance to him. One of the line soldiers- was it Clodius Afer again, watching the ranks quick-step past-muttered, "Wonder how he'll ride with a spear up his bum?"

The horseman dropped back into a full seat with an alacrity that proved he considered the threat from the ranks more than rhetorical. The sun had risen high enough to clearly limn the anger on Falco's face as he tugged at the bridle and spurred his mount's right flank to twist it into a tight pivot. He continued to kick the horse as he rode back toward the command group at a twitchy canter.

Vibulenus drew a deep breath, obscurely thankful to Falco. Nothing like anger to drive out… weaker emotions. And he'd been worse places, they all had- trapped without water and without shade, facing Parthian arrows that could punch through shield and breastplate alike if a man's luck were out. Abandoned by their allies, abandoned by Rome, and utterly abandoned by hope.

Though it was doubtful that any of the three elements were closer to them now than they had been that terrible day in Mesopotamia.

The tribune had a better view of the enemy across the valley than he did of his own men; but the enemy was not his job, not yet, and he determinedly concentrated on the deployment of the legion's left flank.

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