John Stack: Captain of Rome

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John Stack Captain of Rome
  • Название:
    Captain of Rome
  • Автор:
  • Жанр:
    Исторические приключения / на английском языке
  • Язык:
    Английский
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Captain of Rome: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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‘Form line!’ he roared, the soldiers spreading out across the twenty foot wide street to form a shield wall.

Septimus took his place immediately behind the first line, his gaze sweeping over the men around him, their insignia from a dozen different maniples marking them as strangers but their uniform making them one. The wall of sound to their front increased in intensity and Septimus focused his attention on the corner to their front.

‘Steady, boys!’ Septimus growled, ‘Steady!’

The men in front of Septimus visibly bunched their shoulders into the back of their shields, bracing themselves against the rush of enemy that was bearing down on them.

‘Here they come!’

Septimus watched with a determined expression as the first of the Punici raced around the corner towards them. Their pace checked for a heartbeat at the sight of the shield wall but their expressions of pure aggression never varied and they ran headlong without pause.

‘Steady the line!’ Septimus shouted.

The legionaries roared a primeval battle cry in response, acknowledging the order. Steady the line. Not one step back until the enemy was held.

The Carthaginians crashed against the front line as one, their momentum absorbed and then repelled by men tempered in the forge of the Roman legions. The legionaries heaved forward against the press of the enemy, creating gaps between their shields through which they fed their gladius swords, the iron blade seeking a death stroke against an enemy’s groin or stomach. The Punici battered the wood and canvas shields, hammering the iron edging, their brute strength fuelled by their hatred of the Roman aggressor. A legionary fell, then another, their place rapidly filled as Septimus fed replacements into the breach.

‘Fighting retreat!’ Septimus shouted. The line was strong and holding but the weight of the enemy against it was increasing with every passing second. The battle around Septimus filled his senses, the sound of iron on iron, wood and flesh, the incoherent overwhelming war cries mixed with cries of pain and death, the smell of blood and voided bowels as dead men fell beneath the butcher’s blade.

‘Hold!’ Atticus growled to his men on the foredeck, ‘Steady, boys!’

The crew of the Aquila were fanned out on each side of the corvus, with archers deployed on the forerail, the men forming a funnel through which the legionaries could retreat in order. Atticus was given a second to look around him and he spotted Varro standing near the back of the line. He stood amongst his own personal guard, commanded by a veteran of the legions named Vitulus. In front of these many of the older senators, former military commanders in their own right, had drawn their swords, their time spent in the legions commanding their actions even now in their later years.

With one fluid movement Atticus drew his sword, the iron blade singing against the scabbard, his arm instantly accepting the familiar weight of the weapon. The rear ranks of Drusus’s men had reached the corvus and they were edging back along it. Within a minute the front rank, Drusus amongst them, were coming across the boarding ramp, his line continuously pushed by the press of Carthaginian warriors to his fore, the enemy war cries increasing in ferocity as they sought to board the Roman galley.

As the last of the legionaries crossed, the crew of the Aquila instantly engaged. Atticus took a step to his front as a Punic warrior pushed towards him, a battle axe in his hand. The Carthaginian swung the axe high and Atticus collapsed his body into a defensive stance, coming to his full height-again chest to chest with the enemy fighter, instantly stabbing upward and behind with his sword, the blade biting deeply into the exposed kidneys of his enemy, the man collapsing with a cry of pain. Atticus fought on without check, his instincts screaming at him to rush the enemy before they could form a coherent bridgehead on the foredeck of the Aquila, his heart damning any man who would dare to set foot on his galley.

Varro roared in dread-filled defiance, his voice lost amongst the roar of battle. The six legionaries of his guard stood directly in front of him, their shields interlocked in a bid to stave off the Carthaginian horde that had swept over the corvus seconds before. Vitulus stood to Varro’s fore, methodically driving his sword through the gap between his shield and the man’s to his right. Varro stood riveted to his spot, his own sword still sheathed, furious that he had been drawn into the front line of the battle, forced to advance by the senators who had answered the captain’s call for all hands forward without hesitation, leaving Varro with little choice but to follow or risk accusations of cowardice. Now his mind was flooded with anxiety, praying he would survive, while struggling to understand the sudden reversal of his fate. An hour before he had watched with mounting elation as his fleet had swept unopposed into the harbour of Thermae. Fortuna’s wheel had turned and the easy victory he had foreseen was transforming into bloody butchery before his eyes.

Atticus felt the pressure of the Carthaginian attack ease to his front as he heard the disciplined commands of the legionaries to his rear, their line re-forming, their sudden reverse causing even the most fearsome Carthaginian boarders to waver. Within a frenzied minute the Romans checked and then began to repel the invaders, making the enemy pay for every inch of the Aquila’s deck they had taken.

‘Fire their deck!’ Atticus shouted to his archers and they shot fire arrows across the narrow divide bridged by the corvus to the rigging and deck of the Carthaginian galley. The fire wouldn’t take enough of a hold to consume the galley but it would certainly disable her as the crew fought to bring it under control.

‘Raise the corvus! Full reverse!’ Atticus roared, as the remnants of the now retreating Carthaginians struggled to make their way back across the boarding ramp, many of them falling into the churning waters, the ramp beneath them tilting violently. The two hundred oars of the Aquila dug deeply into the calm waters and with incredible skill Gaius backed the Aquila away from the Carthaginian galley to their front.

‘Enemy galley on ramming course!’

Atticus spun around at the sound of the frantic cry from the masthead and dread filled his stomach as he saw one of the Carthaginian galleys bearing down on them at ramming speed. Only a few of the enemy ships had advanced from their line across the outer harbour, an insufficient number to overpower the rapidly disengaging Roman ships. Again Atticus was left confused by the enemy’s tactics.

‘Gaius!’ he shouted. ‘Evasive manoeuvres…now!’

The helmsman threw his weight behind the tiller and the deck of the Aquila keeled violently as Gaius fought to bring the exposed stern of the galley around and out of range of the vicious ram of the Carthaginian galley.

‘Captain!’

Atticus looked around to find Drusus striding towards him across the main deck, his shield hanging loosely by his side, the boss dented and blood-stained, his face streaked with the filth of battle.

‘The clarion call,’ he said, his expression uncharacteristically concerned, ‘from Thermae.’

‘What of it?’ Atticus asked, recalling the trumpet sound he had heard just after he saw the fire arrow in flight over the town.

‘It was a call for full retreat, Captain.’

Atticus paused for a second as the full meaning of Drusus’s concern hit home. Full retreat. For five thousand men of the Ninth. Where could they retreat to?

Septimus glanced over his shoulder as he rounded yet another corner and he smiled coldly at the sight behind him. A solid line of Roman hastati, their javelins held at the ready. He turned to the line again and sensed then saw pila javelins fly over his head into the rear ranks of the enemy attack. The Carthaginians hesitated at the unexpected onslaught, checking their ferocity as they spotted the massed ranks of the reformed and reorganised Ninth at the end of the street. For a heartbeat indecision swept through them before a second volley of javelins was released from the Roman ranks, each iron-tipped spear finding a target in the narrow confines of the street. The rear ranks of the Carthaginians fled to take refuge in the preceding street, the front line hesitating for a second more before the momentum of the retreat behind them caused them to turn and run.

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