The Fires of Vulcan - Cover

The Fires of Vulcan

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 2

Port Invictus, Iberian Coast

Velius, Legate of the 7th Legion and overall commander of the Britannian forces, gazed across the small but still-growing port from the nearly completed battlements. In a matter of weeks, his men had moved the heavens and earth to complete these fortifications before the Carthaginians could bring new forces to bear, and he was immensely proud of them.

A curtain of sturdy stone walls, extending well out into the surf, protected the small port and helped create a breakwater for their new port at the same time. There was still much to do, of course. Almost all of their efforts had been focused on the curtain walls, trenches, and other obstacles in front of the port or the port facilities themselves, and very little had been focused on anything inside the port area. Outside of a few wooden warehouses, to keep the goods that were shipped in dry, there were no other standing buildings in the small city, and row after row of tents still made up the bulk of it.

While Velius would prefer to have some kind of roof over his head, he had spent most of his adult life on campaign and in the field, so tent living was at least consistent. Giving one more look over the soldiers turned construction workers, Velius and his guards headed toward the very large tents at the center of the nascent city. Inside, his commanders were already gathered.

Gordianus, his second in command, and Auspex had already started the council meeting, going over the basic updates from their assembled cohort tribunes, checking on supplies, progress on assigned tasks and patrols, and the men’s morale. All this was important work, the necessary administration that kept the legion functioning. The prefect of each legion was the one who usually dealt with administrative matters, leaving the legate to work on the strategic ones, and Velius was not one to buck tradition when he didn’t have to, so he waited patiently as Gordianus finished this section of their weekly commanders’ council.

When his second finished his updates was when things varied from how they’d gone for the last several weeks.

Instead of congratulating his men on how well their commands were running, as he had the other times they’d met, Velius said, “Now that the port is mostly complete, it’s time for us to start looking forward toward our ultimate mission here in Iberia. Namely, cutting a path from here to the Middle Sea to establish a port to take on the Carthaginians in the Middle Sea. Right now, we have the Carthaginians on their heels. We know they are already starting to rebuild their forces to try to dislodge us from the continent. Instead of sitting behind these walls, waiting for the Carthaginians to attack, I propose we take the fight to them. Not directly, since they are currently far across the tip of Iberia in Italy, but at least not give them as easy a target for their forces to converge on. While they have limited forces in this area, we should begin our push forward, following the mountain range toward the Middle Sea. If we move along the north side of the mountains, we will have a fairly secure southern flank to protect ourselves should their Iberian force move to intercept us.”

“In winter, Legate?” Viridius, the tribune in command of the seventy-fifth cohort asked.

“I know it’s not usually done and supplies will be a problem, but if we move quickly we can be to the Middle Sea port before the Carthaginians can counter our move. We will have won the Consul’s objective in a single fell swoop.”

“My lord, I think to say supplies will be a problem is understating the difficulties we will face,” Gordianus said. “Besides the fact that the Carthaginians have cleared this area thoroughly, stripping every village that they didn’t destroy to starvation levels before winter, we were also ordered by the Consul not to take from any of the locals, as we’re trying to gain allies in this region instead of just replacing the Carthaginians. Even if we do pay for what we take, what use is our coin to farmers here when no one else in several days’ walk in any direction has food to sell them? We will have to maintain a very long supply train across snow and ice, and partially along the mountainous coast until we get north of the Pyrenees. Do we have the men to maintain a force to attack the Carthaginians, protect those supply lines, and keep this port open?”

“Yes, as I said, supplies will be a problem, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. Last year’s harvests were the largest our Empire has ever seen, thanks to the Consul’s improvements, and he has laid in a significant amount of supplies for both us and the northern force. What that means is that we can get all we’re going to need through shipments coming in here. Yes, we’ll have to split our legions to cover everything. I agree the bulk of our forces will have to guard our supply lines, which will be what I task your legion to do, Auspex,” Velius said. “I will split my legion in half, with five cohorts remaining here at Port Invictus with Gordianus while I take the other five cohorts with me to attack the Carthaginians. The odds aren’t as good as I would like, but I think the combination of the weakened Carthaginian forces and our new weapons will be enough to give us an advantage. Besides, the Consul promised to send us the newly reformed First Legion as soon as they’re done training all the new recruits, under our first Caledonian legate to boot.”

“In the spring, wouldn’t all that still be true, except we’d have the First Legion here and we’d have less trouble keeping our men fed and warm?” Auspex asked.

“Scouting would also be a lot easier,” Micon, his cavalry commander, added. “Most of our horsemen went with the northern army, and we have only a small force left, and as the weather worsens their visibility will drop to the point that it is likely we could miss seeing an approaching Carthaginian army. The rifles and cannons are powerful weapons, but they don’t work when the enemy is right on top of us, which they would be in that instant. Our force multipliers, as the Consul calls them, wouldn’t do us much good in those instances, and they would rip our men to shreds. The same is true of the men guarding our supply column, except the problem is made worse in that there are fewer of them. Your five cohorts will be tethered to a very thin line and will be all but blind until the weather starts to clear in the spring.”

“Which is why we have to move fast. According to our last scouting reports before the snows started, the Carthaginians have pulled all the way back to their cities to the south on the Middle Sea coast at the other end of the Pyrenees. We also had a pretty accurate view of the forces they had on the continent before we began our invasion, and they’re all accounted for. The only other forces they still have on the continent are way out in Greece dealing with an uprising there, which means a long march for them to meet us, or are up in eastern Germania, and they have the Consul to worry about. We also know they can’t just rush forces in from Africa, since the armies we faced were made up of every unit they could scrape together to get their counter-invasion of Britain underway before winter. They’re going to need time to pull men from the east, either here or in Africa, or to conscript more men. All of that means one thing. We have a window in which to act, but it’s limited. If we sit back until the spring, we’ll be fighting our way to the Middle Sea.”

“What was the Consul’s original plan?” Auspex asked.

“That we take and hold this position until spring, and then fight our way through, but he didn’t envision a victory of this size. Yes, we knew with our weapons we’d win and get this foothold, but he thought we’d only push their men back and that we’d have to worry about armies in front of us. If we act quickly, that won’t be a problem.”

Velius waited a heartbeat, gathering his thoughts and looking at his commanders. They weren’t afraid, he knew that. They were cautious, weighing the costs and rewards, which was what they should be doing. He knew a lot of commanders, especially those he’d had before Ky arrived, only wanted blind obedience to their orders and didn’t tolerate subordinates questioning them, but he’d never believed in that. He wanted his men questioning him, poking holes in his plans. Yes, when he made a decision he wanted his men to obey and follow it, but they all knew these planning sessions were for asking questions and considering options.

They might, with the exception of Gordianus, have less experience in the field than him, but he’d never been one that believed that made their thoughts and suggestions any less valuable. Even if they were wrong, they might make a point he hadn’t considered and improve his planning. It had worked for him so far, and he wasn’t abandoning it now.

He was, however, still convinced he was right.

“I know this is risky. We all know we are outnumbered by the Carthaginians, and this is the worst time to be campaigning. I know supplies are going to be a problem, and our scouting is nearly non-existent. What I also know is that we have a chance to make a strike right now and take something that might require a year to take otherwise. The Carthaginians have a depth of reinforcements we can never amass, and the more time we give them, the more we’ll be up against and the more men we will lose. If we move now, we’ll have a port on the Middle Sea before the end of the winter. With our ships, we’ll be able to hit the Carthaginians right as the spring campaign season starts and maybe end this entire war by summer. I think that’s a risk we not only can take but must take.”

“Do you think we can do this?” Auspex asked.

“I do. We have the best-trained soldiers, bar none, armed with weapons that cannot be matched. Trust your men and trust your commanders, and we’ll see this through.”

“Fine. Let’s do it,” Auspex said to the nods of the other commanders.


Lucilla stepped down from the carriage, pressing a hand into the small of her back. The road to Devnum was still less than a year old, but it had already become pitted from the sheer volume of traffic between the two cities, causing her carriage to bounce and jostle the entire trip.

Although manpower was forever an issue, she was going to have to talk to Hortensius and the imperial architects about smoothing and regrading the road again, something they would probably have to do monthly to keep it from getting to this state so quickly. Although she did want a smoother ride for herself, considering how often she was required to come out this far, she was mostly thinking about the shipments of gunpowder. Even in its caked form, the dust from it could be deadly, as they had found out the previous spring. She didn’t want to risk losing entire carriages of that valuable resource if there happened to be an unexpected spark, which could sometimes happen.

As with every trip to Factorium, it felt like the place had grown since her last visit. She felt certain that if Hortensius had his way all of Britannia would be one large factory, and that he was actively working to make that happen. The city was as loud as ever, with the sounds of hammers, yelling, and pounding punctuated by an occasional high whistle sound from his steam engines, which had begun to pop up in more factories now that Hortensius had seen the value in how much more efficient they could make his work.

After completing a few more twists to work out the knot in her back, she motioned her guard forward so they could gently move the workers who stopped to gawk at her out of her way. Despite her frequent trips, she still managed to get the workers stopping to stare or even crowding to see what she was doing on every visit. It had actually gotten worse since she was crowned Empress. If she had her way, she’d stop and talk to all of these people, the very lifeblood of the Empire, but that wasn’t allowed. Twice she’d been attacked by a Carthaginian plant or insurgent in a crowd of loyal citizens, once very nearly losing her life as a result. Only the small creatures Ky had placed inside her had kept her alive and healed her from the blade that had been plunged into her chest. So now, she was forced to maintain a bubble between herself and her people, which she bitterly disliked.

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