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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    3 / 5
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Captain of Rome: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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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.

The Roman line opened to allow Septimus and his men to withdraw and the centurion scanned the mass of men behind the line. Many had escaped the initial assault, but Septimus knew the reprieve would not last long. The Carthaginians would rally and although Septimus was now surrounded by hundreds of Roman soldiers rather than dozens, the odds were still overwhelmingly stacked against them.

A wave of sea spray swept over Septimus’s face as he rounded the final street to the docks, the air laden with smoke and the distinctive sounds of a naval battle. He took in the entire vista of the harbour with one sweep, his heart sinking at the sight. The docks were crammed with soldiers, their ranks still meshed together, but Septimus could now discern a semblance of order amongst the troops, the solid defensive line he had passed through bore witness to the discipline that had been reasserted upon the Ninth. At the centre of the throng Septimus spotted the banner of the legate, the rallying point for the legion’s commanders, and he made his way towards the confluence of officers. He spotted Marcus as he approached, the grizzled centurion barking orders to an optio who ran off with a brief salute.

‘Marcus!’ Septimus shouted, his call causing the older man to spin around.

‘Septimus you young pup, where have you been shirking?’ he asked, his face betraying his relief.

Septimus smiled and punched the centurion’s breastplate. ‘We were held up by a wall of Carthaginians!’ he replied.

Marcus nodded but his face turned grave. ‘We’re trapped, Septimus, completely cut off.’

Septimus nodded. He had realised as much. ‘What’s the plan?’ he asked.

‘Megellus wants to evacuate the hastati by sea and then he’s going to lead a break-out east towards Brolium with the remaining troops.’

Septimus nodded, his mind recalling the briefing of two days before. The coast to the east was defined by a small range of mountains, no place for cavalry. He turned his head, his eyes drawn to the naval battle out in the harbour. It was chaotic, a tangle of interlocked galleys, many of them ablaze. As Septimus’s gaze swept the inner harbour his heart lifted at the sight of the Aquila, the trireme running parallel to the shore, pulling away from a burning Carthaginian galley. Her aft-deck was crowded and Septimus could not pick out Atticus but he could clearly see Lucius, his familiar stature standing at the side rail to receive the message being relayed to every passing galley from the Legate of the Ninth.

Atticus’s gaze swept over the sea of red crowding the docks of Thermae. The Ninth was completely trapped by the unseen Punic forces but even Atticus, unschooled in legionary tactics, knew that the legion’s strength lay in open territory and not in the rat’s maze of a coastal town. Lucius approached him from the side-rail.

‘Message from the legate to the fleet,’ he began. ‘He requests that we evacuate the hastati by sea.’

Atticus nodded before scanning the entire harbour, his mind calculating the number of men to be evacuated versus the remaining Roman galleys still capable of answering the call.

‘Heave to!’ Atticus ordered Gaius, ‘Lucius, signal every galley in sight to clear their decks and begin the evacuation.’

‘No!’

Every head on the aft-deck spun around to the aft-rail. Varro was standing there alone, his face twisted into a murderous glare.

‘We will withdraw…before it’s too late!’ he said, stumbling slightly as he walked towards Atticus.

‘But, Tribune…’ one of the senators began, stepping into Varro’s path, the young man pushing the senator aside.

‘No! We are beaten. We cannot risk being attacked again, being…’ Varro’s voice trailed off, his expression revealing the fear in his heart, his eyes darting to the solid wall of Carthaginian galleys spread across the harbour.

Atticus turned his back on the tribune, knowing every passing minute was vital.

‘Come about three points to starboard. Prepare to dock!’ he shouted.

‘No!’ Varro roared, ‘I forbid it. We must escape while we can!’

‘Tribune,’ a senator said, his hand gripping Varro’s elbow, ‘we must help the Ninth.’

‘No,’ Varro repeated, shrugging the senator’s grip aside, pushing his way forward again until he stood behind Gaius and Atticus.

‘Steady, Gaius,’ Atticus said, ignoring Varro, ‘Ready to withdraw oars!’

The tribune reached out and grabbed Atticus’s arm, spinning him around until his face was inches from Atticus’s.

‘Damn you,’ Varro roared, his gaze filled with anger and frustration, ‘I order you to turn this galley around and get us out of here!’

Atticus stepped back, his fists bunched, anger coursing through his veins. Varro had rammed his galley into the gaping maw of battle without hesitation, his glory-laced dreams quickly shattered by reality in the quick of combat, the lives of many men already forfeit to his ignorance. Now he was willing to sacrifice the life of every Roman in Thermae just to save his own.

‘Did you hear me, Captain?’ Varro shouted, ‘I order…’

Varro’s words were cut short as Atticus struck him with an open hand across the cheek. The tribune staggered with the blow, his hand flying to his face as he tried to stand upright, the pain of his split upper lip stunning him. Atticus put out his hand to steady Varro but as he did Atticus spotted Vitulus advancing from behind the tribune, the legionary’s hand sweeping across to grab the hilt of his sword. Atticus made to react when he sensed then saw an extended sword to his right as Lucius stepped forward to defend his captain. Vitulus’s eyes swept from Atticus to Lucius and he halted his advance, his hand still holding the hilt of his sword but the blade remaining sheathed. He backed off a pace, turning his gaze once more to Atticus, his eyes conveying a thinly veiled warning.

‘Lucius,’ Atticus said, putting his hand out to lower Lucius’s blade, ‘Take the tribune below to the main cabin. See that he stays there for his own protection until we clear Thermae.’

Lucius nodded without a word and sheathed his sword before taking Varro by the arm, the stunned youth offering no resistance as he was led away.

Atticus sobered for a second, remembering that there were four senators on the aft-deck, each one witness to his insubordination and the crime of striking a commanding officer, a crime punishable by summary execution. His eyes caught those of the senator who had stepped across Varro’s path. The senator held Atticus’s gaze for a second before nodding imperceptibly, his decision made, and turned his back and looked out over the side rail. The other three senators watched his gesture intently and they each followed suit without hesitation, understanding and agreeing with his decision. Each had fought bravely when the Punici had boarded, moving into the battle line without hesitation. They were all former warriors who, as in countless times in their youth, shed their fear and stepped up to the fight. They had been ashamed of Varro’s behaviour, the overt fear that shamed his rank, and so now they turned their backs. They had witnessed nothing.

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