The Fires of Vulcan - Cover

The Fires of Vulcan

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 13

Gaul, North of the Pyrenees

Velius stood on the edge of the bustling encampment, taking in the organized chaos of the construction site. All around him, the legionaries and auxiliaries were hard at work, digging with pickaxes and shovels, excavating trenches, and digging out foundations for the walls and towers of the half-finished fort. In the distance, beyond the tree line, came the sound of axes and falling trees as men worked to clear sightlines for the soon-to-be extension of their line of protective stations between Port Invictus and the Middle Sea.

Wagons loaded down with quarried stone and sand trundled past, destined for the mortar pits where the binding agent for the mighty walls was being mixed. By now, working on the third fort in the chain, they were making progress in developing a system to quickly build a fort, man it, and move on to the next, with his small force carrying all the tools and tradesmen necessary to make everything on-site as quickly as possible.

In spite of the swift progress, Velius was anxious. Partly, that concern was the same one he had every time he started building fortifications in enemy territory. Relying on mounted scouts, his information about the whereabouts of the various Carthaginian detachments was sketchy at best. They’d all but blundered into two groups of enemy scouts. Although the Carthaginians had quickly turned and run, the fact that they hadn’t even known the enemy was that close bothered Velius.

So did the fact that they were running into scouts at all. Before, it had mostly been raiding parties, groups of a hundred or so men, nipping at his heels. These, however, had been actual scouts, detached from some larger force and not part of a small band of raiders. It meant the Carthaginians knew where he was, and the presence of a larger force needing its own scouts indicated an attack was likely imminent, which was why he was so eager to get this fort completed. Once the tree lines were cleared and the men were behind solid walls with cannon mounted in the casemates, they’d be difficult for all but the largest Carthaginian force to dislodge.

The location was good; a small hilltop with steady slopes up three sides and a sharp drop-off on the fourth that would help foil any attacker, slow any assault on the fort, and allow its defenders to fire down into the men climbing up it, increasing the chances of hitting someone during an attack.

Right now, though, it was barely a frame of a fort, with only the beginnings of a wall in place, surrounded by obscuring forest. They were vulnerable. He’d done his best to set his legionnaires up to have some defensive works to allow his men to fight if it came to it and give the workers a perimeter to run to safety. The biggest problem was he had to be prepared for an attack from any direction and he had to be ready on very short notice, because if things held to form, he wouldn’t have a lot of time to react. Even with that, he’d still given up his biggest advantage ... range. Until the tree line was cleared farther back, they wouldn’t be able to properly engage until the enemy was practically on top of them, which was going to make any fight harder.

The Consul had foreseen some of this in their training. Maybe not this exact scenario, but they’d worked on tactics for dealing with a massed enemy when they were within arrow range or closer. What made Velius so anxious was how many casualties they’d incurred during one of those simulated battles.

Turning, Velius looked to Crito, the chief engineer for the forts, as the man directed the workers, and fought the urge to go ask the man for yet another update. He’d already asked too many times that day, and the answer had always been the same. Velius knew he’d mostly be asking to try and assuage his own nerves, and that it’d be a futile gesture.

As if he’d willed it into existence, Velius’s worst fears came true as his scouts and logging crews came barreling out of the forest, shouting alarms that a Carthaginian force was hot on their heels. To prove the point, a moment later, the first lines of Carthaginians marched out of the trees, weapons and armor glinting in the sunlight. He’d hoped they would have heard the army barreling down on them, but the sound had been broken up by the trees and covered by the sounds of construction all around him.

“Form ranks and fix bayonets! Prepare to fire! Front rank, lock shields,” Velius commanded.

Legionaries scrambled into formation, rank upon rank arrayed in long neat lines, rifles ready at the shoulder behind the hastily arrayed defensive works which would slow, but definitely not stop, the horde of spear-armed men pouring out of the trees. Arrows whistled overhead as the Carthaginian archers let fly, the trajectory much flatter than he’d experienced before, almost coming up the slope instead of dropping down onto his men. This would be the first test of his forces in hand-to-hand combat armed with rifles instead of shields and gladii. Thankfully, the Consul had foreseen some of this and kept at least one row of shieldmen for the front of every unit. He’d hinted that, eventually, they’d transition to just lines of riflemen, which would have changed the calculus of the clash significantly.

“Artillery, fire at will!” Velius shouted.

The cannon along the line unleashed a thundering barrage in response, cannonballs tearing bloody gaps in the Carthaginian lines. It wasn’t going to be enough. There were fewer than seventy yards between the tree line and his men. By the time they reloaded, the Carthaginians would be on top of them.

His men, however, performed admirably, breaking ranks slightly to allow the logging crews to flow through their mass and then reforming almost as quickly. It looked as though the entire mass of Carthaginians were only coming from one side, which would play in their favor, although he couldn’t assume this was the only group of Carthaginians in the trees.

“Order the seventy-fifth cohort to send half their centuries around to support us.”

He had to leave the units on his left and right intact, since there looked to be enough Carthaginians to flow around either side, but he could afford to peel some off the rear units which, hopefully, looked like they might go unengaged through the coming fight. His men formed a tight circle around the fort construction, which meant he wasn’t going to be outflanked, at least not if he kept the line from breaking.

The Carthaginians had learned their lessons against cannon, and didn’t flee as chunks of their force melted away. Instead, soldiers flowed in to fill the gaps created by the round shot tearing through them and continued to press forward.

“First rank, fire!” he shouted, followed by a clattering of muskets and thick smoke.

Unless the Carthaginians broke, he was only going to get one cycle of this use of the muskets, Velius thought as he yelled, “Second rank, fire.”

More Carthaginians fell, but their line continued moving forward. With the added two centuries, Velius had seven hundred or so riflemen on this side of the circle, with the rest spread around the sides and rear. If he had to guess from the rows of men coming out of the trees, he was facing five or maybe even ten thousand Carthaginians. Even if every bullet hit true, and each hit a different man, he’d need fifteen or twenty volleys. Instead, he was going to get maybe three, which meant they were about to find out how these new bayonets fared against the long phalanx spears.

“Third rank, fire!” He shouted. “First row, brace for contact. Third row, reload and fire at will.”

They’d trained for this. The first row dropped their rifles and held their shields tight, pulling gladii to fight in the old way. The second row changed the grip on their rifles, set to use them to deflect spears and stab over the shoulders of their comrades, while the third row reloaded, preparing to fire as they were able. They would also fill in for the second row as men fell. It had played out well in practice, but that had been with blunted poles and wooden rifles.

Through the lingering cannon and rifle smoke, Velius finally noticed why the Carthaginian arrows seemed to be coming in at an unexpected angle. Many of the archers in the rear weren’t using traditional bows and arrows but were holding something that looked suspiciously like the arcuballista that the Consul had introduced before the Britannians had switched to rifles. It explained why the arrows were tearing through his men’s armor, causing more casualties than they normally experienced in ranged attacks.

Highlighting the point was the interrupted cry of one of his aides as a bolt from one of the weapons slammed into his chest, knocking the man over backward. A part of Velius’s mind wondered if they were some of the weapons the Empire had been selling off as a source of revenue or if they’d simply copied the design. Not that it mattered. At this range, they were almost as effective as his rifles and just as fast to fire.

The source of this story is Finestories

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.