FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 12
The dull, metallic clang tore Valerius from his revery and his left hand swooped to his sword hilt as he whirled to face the threat. A sailor emptying his slop bucket over the side stared open-mouthed at the scarred warrior in the fighter’s crouch.
‘You didn’t strike me as the nervous type,’ the ship’s master called from his position beside the steering oar. ‘Falco, I’d be a little quieter around our passengers if I was you.’
Valerius ignored the jibe and walked across the deck to where Tabitha and the children sat on straw bales playing a version of the soldier’s game on a board etched into the deck. Shabolz was in the bows lying on a folded sail with his eyes closed and a look of serene contentment on his face. Tabitha looked up as he approached. ‘Are you all right, Valerius?’
‘He just surprised me when he battered that bucket against the side.’ Valerius shrugged off the moment of horror that had overwhelmed him. They were on the sixth day of their journey downriver. Valerius would have expected the children to be fractious by now, but there was a mesmerising quality to the rush of the water beneath the ship’s hull that seemed to calm them as they swept past cliffs and forests, forts and settlements in the sunshine. He guessed they were somewhere close to Durosturum, one of the main fortresses on the frontier. Where possible the steersman had kept close to the southern bank for fear of a sudden hail of Dacian spears if they strayed too close to the northern.
It was the sound. That sound that would live in his memory until the day he died. The metal bucket against the solid timber of the ship’s hull had precisely the same quality as a Dacian falx meeting the iron of a legionary’s helmet. Multiply it a thousand times and then ten times more, and add the shrieks of the wounded, the maimed and the dying, and you had the insane clamour of a battle between outnumbered Roman legionaries and barbarians wielding the most feared weapon the world had yet seen.
Valerius had witnessed the soldiers of Rome fighting and winning against enormous odds from the heather-clad hills of Caledonia to the deserts of Armenia. They won because a legion fought as a single disciplined organism and because they were the best armed and armoured soldiers in the world. Each man’s head was protected by a helmet of metal or brass, his torso by armour made from polished iron plate or linked mail, and he stood behind a stout wooden shield pushed tight against his neighbours until the gladius, his deadly short sword darted in between. A battle against barbarians wasn’t really a battle at all, just butchery.
The Dacians were different, because the Dacians had the falx.
Three feet of curved iron at the end of a two foot shaft, the heavy weapon was shaped like a reaping hook, with an inside edge like a razor, and a needle point. The Dacians wielded them two handed and with enormous strength, giving no thought for their safety as long as they killed their enemy. The point would puncture or, at worst crush, a helmet of the finest quality. Those made of inferior metal could be split in two, along with the head inside. The heavy blade would shear through a shield of oak and kill or wound the man holding it. Valerius, a veteran of more battles than he could count, had seldom seen Roman soldiers suffer wounds like this. Skulls punctured or smashed, faces cut in half, arms and legs sliced off, torsos split open despite the armour that protected them. Even the tightest formation could not hold them back. A Dacian attack was like ten thousand men hewing their way through a forest of flesh.
King Decebalus was no fool. When Domitian arrived in Pannonia with his legions to avenge Sabinus, the Dacians simply melted away before him and slipped back across the river. Valerius, now part of the entourage of Cornelius Fuscus, had watched as the Emperor struck out like a blind man, sending cohorts and sometimes full legions out at the first whisper of the enemy, however unlikely. Domitian’s commanders silently cursed his ineptitude and Fuscus urged caution, but the Emperor ignored them. After a month he became bored with playing hide and seek in the Illyrian mountains and retired to his tented pavilions to concentrate on entertaining his concubines and complaining about his wife.
Valerius helped the new governor to prepare for the advance into the fractured wilds of Dacia. This wouldn’t be the first time he’d crossed the Danuvius. He’d been fortunate to escape with his life twenty years earlier when he’d been lured into an ambush across the river. His knowledge of the first twenty miles int Dacia and the tribesmen who inhabited those lands gave Fuscus an insight into the dangers he faced. With Domitian’s demands for an advance becoming ever more shrill, he concluded that he needed more legions if he was to destroy Decebalus’s capital at Sarmizegetusa, some six days march into the Dacian heartland.
Domitian refused the reinforcements.