FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 13
The Dacians had burned the wooden bridge at Viminacium when they retreated over the Danuvius, so Fuscus ordered the creation of a floating bridge from a hundred and more supply barges and a plank road. Fortunately there had been little Spring rain and the river was slow and sluggish, but it still took two weeks to gather the boats and anchor them in place before the engineers could make the road.
Short-handed or not, one legion had to be left in reserve against a surprise Dacian attack or to exploit a Roman success. Against Valerius’s advice Fuscus decided to leave the Fourth Flavia at Viminacium on the grounds that, as the legion had been based at Singidunum in Moesia, their experiences had left them with too great a respect for the Dacian warriors. Valerius reasoned that a legion that knew the country and the enemy should be at the front where their experience would be of the most use. Fuscus would not be moved and it was the First and Second Adiutrix that crossed the bridge of boats and turned east onto the flat plain that led towards the mountains and Sarmizegetusa.
As always, auxiliaries made up the van of the marching column - a cohort each of Thracian spearmen and archers, lightly armed and ready to deploy into a skirmish line at the first contact with the enemy. On the far flank Valeriuscould see the dust that identified the legion’s cavalry contingent, who would be scouting the open country and the route ahead. Next came the camp prefect, responsible for march discipline, accompanied by the junior tribunes who weren’t much good for anything but carrying messages. Behind them, the signallers with their curved trumpets.
His heart beat a little faster as the eagle came into sight - the eagle of the First Adiutrix- the golden wings raised and beak open in a scream of defiance. The eagle was a legion’s pride and a legion’s soul, presented personally by the Emperor and every man was oath sworn to protect it. It was borne by the aquilifer, a veteran of twenty year’s service, sweating in the heat beneath his leopard skin, the face a snarling mask over his helmet. Eight men accompanied him, the eagle’s personal guard, the phalerae that proclaimed their valour on their breasts. There was no greater shame for a legion than to lose its eagle.
Behind the eagle marched the men who would protect it and die for it. In the lead came the elite First cohort, led by its standard bearer and composed of eight hundred men, in five double strength centuries of a hundred and sixty men each. These were the legion’s bravest and best troops, the men who could be relied on to break the enemy line, or hold their own under any pressure.
Every man wore a polished iron helmet with a neck protector, cheek guards and a reinforced brow. His torso was protected by lorica segmentata armour, a complex arrangement of case hardened iron bands that covered the chest, shoulders and back. He carried a pair of pila, weighted spears designed to punch through shields and light armour, and on his hip he wore a twenty-two inch gladius,the short sword that had almost literally carved out the Roman empire. On his back, he bore the brightly painted scutum, the big shield that he cursed on the march for its weight, but that would save his life in the battle line. It was prone to chafe the shoulders, back and legs, but it was the work of a moment to unsling it and face the enemy ready for battle. They were short, wiry men, with uncouth habits and a soldier’s tendency to complain, but, theFifth, those dozy bastards, notwithstanding, they knew that if they maintained their discipline they were invincible.
Behind them by the thousand came the mules of the supply train; no ox carts on this campaign because no roads existed where were going, only precipitous mountain passes and boulder-filled valley bottoms that would snap an axle as if it was a toothpick. The mules were followed by more auxiliaries. Frisians and Tungrians, Vangiones and Nervians from the swamps of Germania, Gauls from every part of that vast land, and lithe, tanned hillmen, blood brothers to Shabolz, from Pannonia and Moetia and Dalmatia.
Sixteen thousand men marched into Dacia with Cornelius Fuscus. It was a magnificent sight, but that magnificence and the confidence it inspired faded as they entered the mountains.
‘We’re too strung out,’ Valerius told Fuscus. The mountainvalleys were deep, with precipitous tree-lined slopes that it was near impossible to patrol effectively. Hidden gullies might conceal a hundred Dacian warriors. An entire army couldhide among the tops. The valley bottoms were narrow and constricted further by rivers and streams with no room for the cohorts to deploy. ‘We should find another way toSarmizegetusa.’
Fuscus wiped his brow, he was not built for campaigning in the heat. ‘No,’ he said, though Valerius could see he was equally concerned. ‘The Emperor seeks a quick victory and our spies say this is the fastest route to the Dacian king. It would take a week to prise us out of here and another three to march round the mountains.’
Valerius’s premonition of looming disaster increased with every mile they marched.