The Sword of Jupiter
Chapter 4

Copyright© 2021 by Lumpy

Carthaginian Army

Zaracas rode wearily, surrounded by officers and courtiers, near the head of the army. He was trying to keep from sliding out of his saddle. Normally, he traveled by litter, which was much more comfortable and appropriate for someone of his station. Maharbaal had been exceedingly clear that he wanted to crush the Romans before winter started in earnest and ended the campaigning season, preferably with enough time left to clean up the remaining Roman settlements.

So, he’d forgone his normal luxuries and was riding with the van of his army, pushing his men with long days of marching. His plan for the campaign had been arranged so they would only need to contend with taking two cities, Glevum and Devnum itself. Once he crushed the small Roman force still guarding their capital, at least according to their spies, he could set up defenses to prepare for the forces the Romans had sent north, and still meet the Governor’s timetable.

The first part of the campaign had gone well. Better, actually, as one of their spies tipped them off that the Emperor’s daughter would be near or in the city when they attacked. These things couldn’t be timed exactly, of course, but he’d lucked out and she’d arrived only after he’d taken the city and prepared his ambush. His men caught the Princess’s escort completely unaware. The attack had not been a total success, since she had escaped, but that was always a possibility, and he’d prepared for it. He’d had Arvad and a hundred cavalry mounted and waiting. As soon as she and a handful of guards turned and ran, while the rest of her escort provided a rear guard, he’d sent the mounted force in pursuit. Arvad was a good man, and that many men to capture, or at least kill, the girl and her handful of guards, should have been a simple task.

He was already picturing his victory as he rode near the head of his army. In less than ten days he would be at grips with the Romans and add their destruction to his tally of victories. With the way the Roman forces were currently deployed, there was simply no way they could stop him.

Of course, Maharbaal would manage to take most the credit for finally destroying their enemy and pacifying the island; that was only natural. This was, of course, common. The Exalted One knew of the practice. He - or rather, his ministers, since so few were allowed into the presence of The Exalted One - usually made a point to reward the commanders who actually achieved the victory. As the tip of the spear, Zaracas was confident his name would travel back to the holy court. Titles, riches and maybe even a governorship of his own, perhaps in one of the Germanic lands, awaited him. All he had to do was win one more decisive battle.

He was imagining the victory parade in Carthage, him at the head of Maharabaal’s columns, when a scout rode up at a gallop.

“General,” the man said, slapping a salute.

“Speak,” Zaracas commanded.

“We have ... we have encountered the remnants of Arvad’s men.”

The words drew Zaracas up short.

“What do you mean, remnants?” he said, glaring at the man.

The scout’s eyes shifted nervously. Messengers who carried bad news often ended up on the sword point of an irate recipient. An old Carthaginian saying went ‘The bearer of ill tidings reports first to his commander, and then to the grave.’

Wiping sweat from his forehead, the man said, “Ten men from his detachment were stopped by our forward sentries. They were in full flight, telling stories of a god or a wizard, or something, falling from the sky and then throwing balls of fire.”

“Balls of fire? That’s ridiculous!” Zaracas said, looking first confused and then furious. “Bring these deserters to me. I will hear them explain their cowardice.”

Again the scout’s eyes shifted.

“There’s more, my Lord. We’ve found the site of a battle. There were several dead Romans but,” he paused, gulping visibly, “my men counted at least sixty of our dead. The bodies ... many have holes melted, clean through them. We found one of Arvad’s officers; or rather, the bottom half of him, at least. He was ... I don’t know how to describe it. His body looked as if he had been cut in half, and then the bottom half fused as if with a hot poker in a wound, except across the entire stump that remained of his body. He was still astride his horse, which was burned black. We have yet to find the top half of the man.”

“How?” Zaracas said, some of the fire gone from his voice as he tried to picture the scene and failed to understand how something like that could happen.

“We don’t know, my Lord. The fleeing men that we could get to talk said Arvad gathered the few men that didn’t run from the ... destruction ... and continued chasing after the girl and her guards. These men confirmed the girl was there, protected by a few surviving Roman soldiers, and the wizard.”

The man added the last part quietly, the words barely audible. Zaracas’s nostrils flared as he turned to one of his commanders.

“Send out more scouts. Find Arvad. NOW!” he bellowed and pointed at the scout. “Lead them to Arvad.”

The man saluted, turned, and spurred his horse after the staff officer, praising the gods that he’d somehow survived giving his report.

Zaracas frowned, fighting to regain his composure. He was as religious as the next man and followed the worship of Hexitas as expected, but he was also a pragmatist. If pressed, he would agree that the gods and their sorcerers could, if they wished, wander the earth handing out justice. That was something everyone accepted as a possibility. Zaracas had not encountered anything like that in his long years of service, and he had difficulty believing in what he couldn’t see.

As he rode on, the pain in his haunches was forgotten, lost in concern on how he would report this turn of events to the Governor. While he wasn’t worried about the girl getting word back to Devnum of the army’s march. She and her small group could outrun his army if they managed to elude Arvad. At this point, however, he would be upon the city before any reinforcements could arrive. He was more worried about how her escape would play in Londinium.

Maharbaal certainly had spies riddled throughout his army, meaning news of the ambush and the girl’s initial escape was almost certainly already on the way to the Governor. Zaracas would have to send a message back tonight after the army stopped. The only thing the governor tolerated less than failure, was trying to hide the failure.

Hopefully, Arvad would catch up to the girl and her ‘wizard,’ and solve the problem, eliminating the need to deliver a report of failure in person. Even generals had to fear delivering bad news to a Governor.

Forest Clearing, Ambush Site

They didn’t end up leaving in a hurry. As Ky had predicted, they found Siculus by the road, dead. His throat had been cut. Delaying here for any length of time was a risk, but they agreed to bury the dead soldier before they headed out. While his people no longer buried the dead in the ground, opting for cremation instead of interment, Ky didn’t object. He understood that superstitions were important to people; and, as a soldier himself, albeit a lot different than the Romans, Ky could appreciate Ursinus’s desire to do right by his man.

The ghastly chore was shortened once Ky understood what they intended and took over digging. With his enhanced muscles, even the rock-hard ground gave way quickly to his assault. In under an hour they were on the road, with several additional mounts in tow. The horses taken from the dead men would allow each of Ky and the three remaining Romans to change horses as their mounts got tired and extend their range without stopping for a break.

Not being acquainted with horses, Ky hadn’t understood that at first. A quick query to the AI told him that, unburdened, a horse could rest even on the move, recovering some from the fatigue that would eventually hobble the animal if it was forced to carry full-grown adults and supplies for long distances. Apparently, the real problem for the animals was not the amount of walking they did, but the load they were burdened with. Ky filed that information away since, if he was truly stuck here, he would almost certainly be forced to ride the beasts again.

Ky was also surprised when Ursinus announced they were taking a break shortly after leaving the forest behind them. The soldier indicated the small band should veer off the straight northerly course they’d traveled on the previous day and instead said they should climb a rise about a kilometer east of the tree line.

Ky was at first unsure of why Ursinus, who’d been quiet since the ambush, had called for a halt on the top of a hill that left them exposed. He watched as Ursinus turned his horse towards the south and raised his hand over his eyes to block the early morning sun.

Ky followed suit, altering his eyes for telescopic vision, slowly adjusting the magnification as he scanned the horizon, trying to see what Ursinus could have been looking for. His search took some time, needing to bring vision up to fifty times magnification to find what he was looking for, but then he saw it. A long line of men on foot, lightly armored, which seemed normal for the time, carrying shields and spears, was marching roughly in their direction.

“Do you see that?” Ursinus said, staring off into the distance. “Dust clouds like that need a lot of people to happen.”

The AI automatically worked up the calculations, with distances appearing in the corner of his vision, changing as he changed his focus.

“Yes. There is a large army moving north,” Ky provided as Ursinus squinted at the haze of dust on the horizon.

“You can see that, then?” the soldier asked, turning to look at Ky in surprise.

“Yes. I am able to see very far if needed.”

That was an understatement. Combat in space happened at kilometer ranges, and he was able to increase his vision by almost five hundred times if needed. He wouldn’t need all that power to see things on the ground, the horizon only stretching about a hundred and thirty kilometers or so. Barring obstructions, he should be able to see fine details on anything he needed to as long as he had a direct line of sight.

“Can you tell how far away they are?” Ursinus asked, still sounding unsure if Ky could possibly be telling the truth.

“About thirty-two kilometers.”

“Thirty-two what?”

Ky realized the last word had not translated, the standardized distances his people used were not used by people of this time.

“What measurements do they use?” he asked the AI internally.

“Romans measured distance by passus, with one thousand passus being equivalent to one point four eight kilometers. A note should be made that the translation is not exact, as standardization of measurement was not common at the time. While information on this version of Roman is unavailable, the similarities with historical records suggest a continuity of measurements between the two realities.”

“Just under twenty-two thousand passus.”

“Can you tell how fast they are marching, or how many there are? What about unit makeup? How much cavalry is there? Do they have siege weapons?”

“I can’t make out much beyond the front ranks at this angle, we aren’t high enough. One moment.”

Ky reached down and, at a mental command, a pocket opening along one thigh appeared. Reaching in Ky pulled out a small disk about the diameter of his palm and half as thick. A readout in one corner of his vision showed a string of data as the device came to life, a blueish glow showing along its edge.

After a moment, the device leapt from his hand and hurtled into the sky. The corner of Ky’s vision switched to a remote feed from the small drone, showing the ground and forest the small disc crossed over as it gained altitude, hurtling towards the army.

“What was that?” Lucilla said, again looking at Ky with an expression he wasn’t comfortable with.

“This is a small tool that allows me to see things from a ... bird’s-eye view,” Ky answered, trying to come up with an explanation that would make sense to her.

“You can see down on them?” Ursinus said.

“Yes.”

Ky didn’t add that the drone could do more significantly more than just give him an aerial view. Things like sensor suites and multi-band imaging wouldn’t translate, no matter how Ky tried to explain them. He had to switch out of the visible spectrum already to see through the dust kicked up by the soldier’s boots, obscuring so much of the army.

“I’d say there are maybe twenty thousand soldiers, almost entirely on foot. There are no more than a few hundred men on horses. The men are mostly armed with spears, and lightly armored.”

“You can see what that thing shows you as it flies?” Lucilla asked, her voice tinged with awe.

“Yes,” Ky said, deciding there was no way to explain line of sight signal transfer would never translate, before switching back to finish answering Ursinus’s question. “I don’t see anything I’d call a siege engine, although there are large, much less organized groups following behind the soldiers. They look to be pulling wagons of various sizes.”

“That’d be their baggage train. How fast are they moving?”

“It’s hard to get an exact speed on something that spread out. Parts keep starting and stopping to catch up with the group in front of them, or to let the group behind catch up. I’d say, from where they are now, they wouldn’t reach us for a day and a half or so at their current pace, assuming they only stop for a few hours for rest.”

That last part was supplied by the AI, which had performed calculations based on the data from the drone.

“With us on horseback we should be able to triple that distance, if we push it, by the time we get home. I think it’s safe to say they are headed to Devnum since it’s the only major target in this direction. Their army will be, at best, four days out once we reach home.”

Ursinus’s face pulled tight after he said that, and he saw a severe frown form on Sellic’s face as well.

“That’s bad?” Ky asked, seeing their expression.

“Yes. Most of our legions are up north, dealing with an incursion by the painted barbarians. There are only two legions left to guard Devnum. Officially, that’s ten thousand men, but recruitment has been ... bad for some time, and both legions are under-strength. I think we could field, at best, seventy-five hundred men, and that’s almost all infantry.”

Ky joined them in the frown. While he wasn’t up on the tactics of ancient armies, the likely result of such a wide disparity in forces was readily apparent. His hand extended as he thought about it, almost subconsciously, and retrieved the drone which flew directly into his grasp.

“We need to hurry,” Lucilla said, casting one amazed last look at the drone as Ky slipped the small, black disk back into the otherwise invisible pocket on his thigh. “They will need as much warning we can give them.”

Ursinus agreed and led them northward off the hill at a steady pace, faster than any of the men in the following army could manage, but slow enough to keep from wearing out the horses.

Carthaginian Army

Zaracas stood over the body, just outside the small clearing, the rage evident on his face.

He’d been a soldier since the day he hit puberty, learning at the elbow of his father, who was himself a General. He’d served as a junior officer in the final Persian campaigns, taking part in the battle of Zabol where they crushed the Arsacid dynasty for good. He’d fought back the German horde that tried to push into Gaul and Thracia, personally killing the giant, ax-wielding Gervald. He’d led one wing of the landings on this damned island, to once and for all end the Romans.

In all that time he’d only seen men decapitated on the battlefield twice. Both times the mutilation had happened near the end of the battle, and in both instances, the event had been a gory affair with the men responsible hacking away to claim their prize a half-dozen times.

Arvad’s head, which they found a handful of paces away, had been removed with almost surgical precision. Headsmen rarely cut through the entire neck with a single blow, and yet clearly that’s what had been done here. What’s more, the sword still gripped in the dead man’s hand suggested that he hadn’t stood plaintively like one of the executioner’s victims.

 
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