FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 15
‘Cornelius,’ Valerius pointed to the mound. ‘There is still something to be salvaged from this. If we can kill King Decebalus this defeat will be forgotten and your name will be remembered alongside Paulinus, the saviour of Britannia, and Corbulo, scourge of the Parthians.’
“But how?’ Fuscus demanded. ‘He is beyond our reach.’
‘Centurion?’ Valerius called to the commander of Fuscus’s bodyguard, two hundred strong and every man a veteran. ‘Order your men to form century wedge around us.’
It had come to him with the name Paulinus. Suetonius Paulinus had defeated the Iceni rebel Boudicca using just this tactic. Valerius had watched the Roman wedges carve deep into the centre of the rebel army and destroy their cohesion. That day it had been the catalyst for victory. Today the salvation of Fuscus’s honour must suffice.The centurion ordered his men into sections of twenty, every man with his gladius drawn and his shield at the ready, forming compact units five wide and four deep. One unit created the tip of the arrow-shaped wedge, with two more behind. Valerius and Fuscus added themselves to the centre of the third row, and four more sections formed up behind them, the reserves who would flow forward as the formations in front were depleted.
‘Ready,’ the centurion called.
‘For Rome,’ Valerius shouted, and his cry was echoed by every man in the formation. ‘Our mark is the mound directly ahead. An extra ration of wine for the man who bring me King Decebalus’s head.’ They laughed at that. Dead men walking and they knew it, but they still laughed. ‘Wedge will advance at the trot.’
Four hundred paces. That was all it would take. And the first hundred were within their own lines. Then they would have to fight their way through a thousand Dacian warriors, hack down the king’s bodyguard and take their swords to him.
‘Make way. Make way, damn you.’ The centurion had placed himself in the centre of the point section of the arrowhead and he roared at the bewildered soldiers who stood in his way waiting for the Dacian falxes to reach them. Legionaries in the first rank of the wedge used their shields to hammer their comrades aside. Ahead of them the survivors of the first cohort continued to fight off attacks on their front and flanks. The valley had been narrow before, but the battlefield was narrower still and men packed close together naturally slowed the wedge’s advance. ‘Make way you bastards or your own comrades will cut you down.’
The normal purpose of the wedge was to punch a hole through the enemy’s line. The soldiers of the first section would pierce the Dacian defences at whatever cost, the second and third sections would burst through and expand the breach so that all ten sections could then attack the enemy in the flank and rear. This was different. Valerius had designed his attack with the sole purpose of getting a single Roman soldier within sword’s length of the Dacian king.
A sudden lurch and a crash of shields from only a few paces to the front told Valerius that they’d reached the Dacian line, and a scream of mortal agony confirmed it. He was almost deafened by what sounded like axes hewing wood, but that he knew was the falx chopping into the shields of the men ahead. A new voice took up the task of encouraging the wedge forward. Dacian warriors roared and grunted with the effort of wielding their heavy half-moons of iron. The sharper clang of metal upon metal now and the shrieks of dying men almost constant. Valerius could almost sense the wedge fading away around him. At his side Fuscus, exhausted, and muttering a string of obscenities, fell to his knees and was swallowed up by the sections behind. The pace quickened and in that moment his heart thundered. They were through. He could see daylight on either side where there had been living, breathing soldier, and still the survivors of the wedge were fighting and dying for every yard. A big Dacian warrior appeared in front of him where there should have been a Roman back. The man raised his falx to strike, but Valerius managed to get his shield under the blow and ram it into the snarling face. As the Dacian fell away, Valerius looked up to see the mound less than a dozen paces ahead, Decebalus, the Dacian king at the centre of his courtiers. He threw the shield aside and sprinted towards the salvation of Rome’s honour, the sword firm in his left hand. Six paces. A shouted order. His feet skidded from under him and he fell with the blades outstretched, the tip a finger's length from Decebalus’s feet. A shadow fell over him and something hammered into his helmet with enormous force.