The Depths of Neptune - Cover

The Depths of Neptune

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 17

Insula Manavia

Velius wiped the ocean spray off his face and looked at Bomilcar, who stood slightly ahead of him, staring off the front of the galley, resisting the urge to frown. They’d gone back and forth for weeks, but in the end, Velius had to give in. Every trial run they did showed the same thing. They needed to be in the first wave. There were just too many variables and during the first few waves, their position was going to be precarious. He’d tried to convince Bomilcar to stay back with the later waves, but the general had insisted that he needed to be there too.

Velius had to give in to that too. Bomilcar had shown that he just thought differently than the rest of the Britannians, which meant the people defending the island would, too. It also meant Bomilcar was the most likely one to recognize their tactics as soon as they happened, which meant with him the Britannians would be able to react almost as soon as the Carthaginians made a move, instead of having to wait to see how things played out.

Velius knew his annoyance was childish and beneath him, but he couldn’t help it. Thankfully, he was about to have a good distraction from his internal battle.

The beach was coming up in a rush, although he felt it was slower now than it had been in training. The galleys were much slower than Valdar’s new ships, which he’d had a chance to ride on after the fleet picked up the legions and sailed back north for the attack. Velius was no sailor and weeks ago he hadn’t even considered there would be faster ships than the large galleys the Romans and Carthaginians used. After experiencing the new ships, however, it felt like they were crawling.

“Prepare to disembark,” Velius yelled back at the men, his command echoed by tribunes and optios.

A signalman put up flags that rose high up the mast, passing the word to the other galleys in the first wave. He didn’t really need to shout the orders. They’d gone over this again and again. Everyone knew their jobs and where they needed to be. He just felt, as the man nominally in charge of this landing, that he should do something.

He braced, holding onto the railing, knowing what was coming next as the bottom of the boat slammed into the wet sand of the beach, slowing the ship until they were just a few paces from dry sand.

“Over,” Velius yelled, vaulting over the side, the sound of dozens and then hundreds of feet slamming into the water resulting in the sand reverberating up and down the small section of beach.

He ran forward, grunting with the effort of moving his legs and armor through the water as the sand sucked at his boots. They were almost on dry sand, and Velius couldn’t see anything in the tree line in front of him.

The Consul, however, must have seen something, because the noise of men grunting and equipment clanking was suddenly dwarfed by a steady series of booms coming from behind him. Velius wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to that sound. It was like thunder, but coming from the ground instead of the sky. It was unnatural and chilling.

What followed next was even more fantastical. Clumps of sand and dirt sprayed high into the air as the cannon balls began to land, the dirt showering back almost as far as the boats. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, a few of the shells exploded in midair, the metal balls turning into balls of fire, just as they passed the tops of the trees.

Velius had yet to see those in action, but the Consul had warned him about them, and he’d in turn passed that warning down to his officers and men, once they were underway. Normally, that kind of information wasn’t something you’d pass to the average legionnaire, but this was so far outside of their experience he didn’t want any of them panicking.

Velius still looked left and right at the men around him, checking for signs that the sudden display might disrupt the men forming up in the assembly area. Several men slowed to gawk open-mouthed and one or two even stopped, at least until an officer prodded them forward with an open hand or the bottom of a boot.

“Move into line. Get your asses moving,” Velius yelled at the men closest to him, pushing and shoving them to get them moving again.

Looking back, he could see their training had paid off as the last stragglers were making it out of the water and onto the sand. They had bested the Consul’s original timetable for the boats to unload by a solid two minutes. That included men freezing when the cannon fire started. Unfortunately, that was the one part they couldn’t simulate. Short of burning through their limited supplies of gunpowder, there was no way to simulate the visage of the underworld that the men behind those trees must be experiencing at this moment.

“Signal the boats to pull out and the next wave to start their approach,” he said to the signalman who finally caught up to him.

He could see the oars from the galleys already pushing against the water, pushing against the tide, propelling the boats ever so slowly back toward the sea. The captains knew their business and probably would have done their job without his prodding, but a good commander didn’t assume anything.

“This is going too smoothly,” Velius said to Bomilcar, who finally joined him with the rest of the command team behind the thin line of legionnaires holding in front of them.

The general had stopped close to the shore, staring at the tree line through one of the improved field glasses they’d been issued only a few days ago. They were impressive, better than even the original ones the Consul had given him, that he’d found almost magical at the time, but Velius wasn’t sure what the general was looking at. Fire had broken out among the trees and the entire edge of the beach was covered in flames and smoke. It was impossible to see what the enemy was up to.

“It’s about to get a lot less smooth,” the general said, collapsing the spyglass and putting it in the protective pouch at his waist.

“Why?” Velius asked, looking back at the exploding tree line.

“They’re going to hit us from the left. Probably before the next boats make landfall. We’ve only got a few minutes before they break the tree line.”

Velius looked where Bomilcar was pointing, and frowned. He didn’t see anything that would indicate an imminent attack.

“I don’t see anything.”

“Look at the animals running out onto the sand and then down the tree line at the birds flying west, away from us. Something is moving through the trees away from the area under shelling and a little further back, but I think they’re just circling around to keep from being caught in the line of fire. Otherwise, they’d already be on us.”

“The animals are running from the shelling,” Velius said.

“They’re running from the shelling and something else. The animals on the right flank are running in all directions, except they aren’t coming onto the beach. They can see our people and hear the commotion we’re making, even with the shelling. Animals don’t generally run toward more predators. Something is moving in that direction, disturbing the wildlife, and it’s already started them turning toward us. We don’t have time to argue this. You can either believe me or not, but if you’re going to do something, it has to be done now.”

Velius stared at him hard for several seconds, the sounds of crashing cannonballs and the occasional explosion drowning it out as he focused on the Carthaginian. He was right. He could either ignore his warning or trust that the Consul was right and the man really was trying to help them.

“Velius,” Bomilcar said, prodding him.

“Damn it,” he cursed and then turned to one of the signalmen next to him. “Signal all cohorts except the Eighth. Stand to the left! Eight cohorts will hold forward, remaining will angle off to the left towards the surf. Prepare for imminent contact.”

Velius paused a moment, considering, before adding, “All additional landed units are to reinforce the eighth cohort under the direct command of Bomilcar.”

Turning to the general, Velius said. “Just in case this is a feint, you’ll get all the reinforcements. If you see us wavering and think there isn’t a second attack coming from the right or straight ahead, reinforce us using the men that land with the second wave as you see fit. Do not abandon the forward line.”

Bomilcar made hard eye contact and gave a slight nod, “I’ll take care of it. Once they’re on the beach, it’s unlikely they’ll try and flank us further. They’ll want to keep the phalanx compact.”

“I hope so,” Velius said and ran to join the men flowing out of line and to the left of eight cohorts, which was thinning and expanding to try and cover all of the empty space created by their companion’s departure.

“Runners,” Velius yelled, looking around for someone to help him pass orders.

Because of the lack of signalmen who’d landed and the need to continue communicating with the boats waiting for their turn to land, he’d had to leave the one he had with Bomilcar, who’d have to deal with getting all of the men ashore on his own.

“Who’s the highest officer on shore and not in the Eighth?” Velius asked the messenger who ran up.

“Sagarius.” “Tell Sagarius to stretch the line. Pull it to three deep and go out as far as he can until he runs out of beach or men. Have the command staff from the other cohorts spread evenly down the line. Don’t worry about unit makeup at the moment. Just get the line solid and then hold. He also needs to pull at least fifty men and send them back to me as a reserve.”

The messenger nodded and ran off to find the prefect, one of the few high-ranking officers who’d been in the first wave. Velius followed behind him, occasionally yelling a command here or there to the men forming up, although it was more to feel like he was doing something and so the men knew he was with them. They did themselves proud, every man moving with purpose, quickly getting into the extremely thin ranks.

It was a good thing too, because the line was still adjusting when the Carthaginians burst from the tree line well down to the left of their original position, exactly where Bomilcar said they would. It was a smart maneuver, trying to flank him, but they’d gone too far. Now that his line extended into the surf, they weren’t getting around him. They’d given themselves more sand to trudge through than they really needed to, although perhaps they just wanted to get further away from the explosions.

Velius was pretty sure the cannon fire was affecting them, as their formation was shaky and still came in far down his left. In a position like his, where his line cut sharply in one direction to avoid being flanked, the weakest point was the corner created where they connected with the line still facing forward. A smart commander would hit there, since the men right at the corner lost the benefit of the shield wall, and would be able to be attacked on multiple sides. Attacking halfway down the line extending back and to the left didn’t gain them anything, other than distance from the explosions.

Of course, they outnumbered his men and were compacted, where his line was only three men deep. It wouldn’t take much for them to create a hole and roll up his whole force.

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