The Fires of Vulcan - Cover

The Fires of Vulcan

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 18

Gaul, North of the Pyrenees

Velius gazed out the flap of the command tent, watching as the last crimson rays of dusk disappeared below the horizon. Around him, his commanders shuffled into the large tent, still wearing their armor from that day’s ride.

“It’s been four days since the last Carthaginian patrol was spotted near our forts,” he said, facing the men once they were all seated. “Almost a week since the last skirmish or raid on our supply lines.”

“You think they’re up to something?” Sepurcius, the commander of the legions’ artillery, asked.

“I do. They weren’t this quiet over the winter, let alone at any other time since we landed on the continent. The question is, what? If they’ve pulled their forces back, they’ve done it for a reason. Their probing attacks on the forts haven’t worked, and their losses when they tried were heavy, but we know their current commander is a lot smarter than the generals we’ve faced in the past. He’s not going to just keep throwing men into a strategy that isn’t working. If he’s pulled his men back, then it’s because he’s decided on a new course of action. But what? Do we even have any idea where the Carthaginian army is at the moment? Or any of their detachment?”

“No,” Micon, the commander of the legions’ cavalry, said. “We’ve had patrols ranging pretty far, and we’ve sent messages up and down the line of forts via the semaphore. We haven’t even run into any scouts, let alone their army itself.”

“And none of the forts have seen anything?”

“Not since our last message yesterday,” Gordianus said. “We have sent another request, but the forts that have responded so far have repeated the same message. No sign of the enemy.”

“Fine, I want to send riders to...” he began before a commotion at the entrance to the tent interrupted him, drawing the eyes of all of the commanders.

A messenger was whispering to one of the guards, gesturing energetically towards the legion commanders.

“Let him in,” Velius said, waving the guard aside. “What’s so important?”

The messenger rushed into the tent, his face flushed.

“Sir. An urgent message from Port Invictus,” he said, handing over a piece of paper showing the rapid scrawl of one of the semaphore messengers.

“Damn,” Velius said, waving off the messenger. “We’ve found the Carthaginians. Their army marched out of the hills and has surrounded the port. Based on the message, it sounds like it’s the entire army.”

He paused, letting the information sink in. The commanders exchanged uneasy glances.

“But how?” Gordianus asked. “We should have seen them.”

“Not if they went south of the range and around. Slower going, but our scouts aren’t ranging over the mountains. They just had to leave a small harassing force in front of us until their army passed, and then pull that in behind them.”

He paused and looked back to the message.

“It gets worse. They’ve worked out a way to at least partially counter our cannon. Aelius reports that they’ve dug long trenches to keep their men partially protected from our rifle fire, and they’ve got some kind of log pile that can absorb or deflect our cannonballs. He reports they’re inching their way closer to the walls every day. We have weeks, at best, before they are under the guns and up against the walls.”

“We can make it by then,” Gordianus said. “We bring the legion down from the north, over the mountain, and hit their forces from behind. Trenches and log piles won’t protect them when they’re trapped between us and the fort.”

Velius grimaced, “They’ve thought of that too. Aelius reports Carthaginian forces extending far into the mountains, with ambushes prepared to intercept any reinforcements we send. Our only choice is to attack them in force from the rear, but with the numbers they’re reporting, it’s going to take time to push them back.”

“Do you think it’s a trap? Maybe they held forces in reserve to hit us from behind?” Gordianus asked.

“Maybe, although the forces close to the mountains suggest it isn’t. Still, the last thing we want is our legion getting bottled up between two Carthaginian armies. Worse, we’re going to be even more outnumbered than the last time. We’ve split our forces up among the line of forts, giving us just over one full legion between this force and the two cohorts in Port Invictus itself, while they have an even larger force. You’re going to have to move carefully, since you’ll also lose any mobility you have.”

“Me?” Gordianus asked, surprised.

“Yes. Even if there is just the one army, with their defenses and preparation it’s going to take time to squeeze them out, and they’ll be pressing into Port Invictus the entire time. I’m going to take one century and go a roundabout route to come into the port by ship, to assist Aelius in the defense. With so few men, I can move more quickly than the full legion. Do not let yourself get pinned down if there is another force out there. Keep scouts out and use the terrain to your advantage. From the mountainside, you should be able to fire down into their trenches, at least the ones closest to the mountains. If our riflemen can’t engage the men in the trenches with room to fire, don’t take them in too close. If the worst should happen, it’s imperative that we keep the legion mobile. Fall back to the forts for protection.”

“Even if we scatter them or are able to rake their trenches, we aren’t going to be able to cut them off. We don’t have enough men to completely surround them with enough strength to hold them in place, even if we were on flat, even terrain. In the mountains like this, it’s even worse.”

“Don’t try to hold them in place. If they pull out of the siege of Port Invictus, retreat and see if you can get them to follow you. If something happens to Port Invictus, your supply lines will have to stretch north to the Consul’s forces and the ports he’s using. If they are able to use their new tactics to negate Port Invictus’s walls and they’re successful, you might have to abandon the line of forts altogether. If that’s the case, it’s best to head north and link your forces up with the northern army.”

“If they go against the forts we built here, they won’t have the mountains to protect them and we’ll be able to attack from all sides. Port Invictus’s location makes it easier to besiege than any of those. I don’t foresee that happening. I also don’t think that just because they get close, they’ll be able to scale our walls. Logs might deflect shots at a distance, but point-blank canister will devastate them if they ever come out of their trenches, and it can stay supplied by sea for a long time, so the siege won’t starve them out. They might have new techniques, but they’ve picked the one target a siege can’t stop.”

“I tend to agree with you,” Velius said. “But they’ve become very clever of late, and it won’t help us to start underestimating them. Hope for the best and plan for the worst, as the Consul always says. I want you to keep your men agile and prepared to retreat north should things go to hell. First to the forts, and then to the northern army if need be. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Legate.”

“Good. I’ll be leaving tonight with one of Viridius’s centuries. I expect you to have the men on the march in the morning. And set up a semaphore station on the mountainside when you get in position. It will allow us to communicate across the siege.”

“Understood, Legate,” Gordianus said again.

“Good. Then get to work. I want you in position in two weeks’ time.”

Port of Kalb, Southern Tip of Hispania The waters of the Middle Sea shimmered with reflected midday sunlight, a slight breeze pushing in from the west, but not enough to upset the gentle waves. The perfect day for the residents of the port was marred by the harsh sound of thunder, not from the cloudless sky above, but from the four Britannian ships outside the harbor.

Billowing cannon smoke drifted across the waves as the cannons spoke again, deafening thunder echoing through the harbor as round shot smashed through warehouses and homes along the waterfront. Flames and rubble marked where the ships’ rounds had found their marks.

From his vantage point, Valdar could see several Carthaginian ships burning at anchor after being caught helpless at the onset of the attack. Others listed heavily in the water, settling into the muddy harbor bottom with only their masts and rigging still visible above the surface. The docks, once lined with tall ships bound for trade, now stood shattered and abandoned.

Amidst the smoke and wreckage, Valdar saw a cluster of lateen-rigged galleys making a break for the harbor mouth, oars rising and falling swiftly.

“Signal the Seadreki to intercept that squadron attempting to escape!” Valdar called out to his signal officer.

Flags snapped in the wind as coded instructions were relayed to one of the patrolling frigates. Moments later, the Seadreki sheered off her station-keeping patrol and moved to cut across the path of the fleeing Carthaginian ships. As soon as she had closed within range, her sides erupted with cannon fire, splintering oars and punching holes through the thin hulls of the galleys. The ships not sunk outright were soon dead in the water, useless to the defenders.

Valdar allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction. Though brutal, the attack had been successful so far in bottling up the remainder of the enemy fleet and asserting Britannian dominance over this strategic passage. Kalb was one of the Pillars of Hercules, the narrow gap between Hispania and Africa that connected the Middle Sea to the open ocean. With his remaining eight ships blockading the narrow gap, it would be nearly impossible for Carthaginian reinforcements to cross from the Atlantic into the inland sea. At least not without braving the gauntlet of Britannian warships blockading the route.

Their blockade of the strait might be a solution to stop the ships that might harass his supply route back home, but it didn’t solve his immediate problem. He needed to be able to get his fleet into the Middle Sea and begin clearing it of Carthaginian shipping. That shouldn’t have been a problem, with their supply ships rigged with the new sail design, allowing them to outrun and dodge any galley. At least, it wasn’t a problem before he’d found out that the Carthaginians had managed to, at least partially, copy the sail plan for their own galleys. Still a little slower, they were fast enough that it was possible he might have his supplies choked off, causing his fleet to become easy prey as their powder and food ran dry.

With only twelve warships, he couldn’t leave half his fleet sitting in the strait to protect their shipping and achieve his goal, but a possible solution sat in front of him. A small, fortified port, able to act as a staging point for supplies, with one or two of his ships, could hold the entire strait and limit the number of supply convoys he needed to sail all the way back to Britannia.

It was something he’d considered ever since clearing the Carthaginian fleet from the strait and entering the Middle Sea. His main problem was, he could damage the port, but he couldn’t take it with the small number of sailors and marines he had onboard.

Another volley of cannon fire erupted from the Britannian ships, the smoke momentarily obscuring his view. As it cleared, he saw more of the waterfront in flames, wooden buildings shattered by round shot.

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