The Fires of Vulcan - Cover

The Fires of Vulcan

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 24

Southern Germania

Ky halted his army, scanning the valley below through the drone flying high above the heavily wooded area. Using the naked eye, looking down the slope, the scene was serene and peaceful, with the early morning fog, not yet burned off by the morning sun, still covering the canopy.

The drone’s thermal sensors told a different story. Nearly ten thousand men hid beneath those trees, the remnants of the northern Carthaginian army, on the run after their loss on the Rhine. His scouts had been hunting them for weeks. From local villagers and signs left by their passing, they knew the men were in the area, but even this large of a group could disappear into the thick forests of Southern Germania.

The legates had urged him to ignore these men, who were clearly disorganized, and focus on reaching the Middle Sea to snap the trap he and Bomilcar had arranged for the much larger and still very dangerous Carthaginian army that had killed Velius. Ky had overruled them. If it had been a few hundred men, then he would have bypassed them, but this many, even disorganized, could be a danger if allowed to remain at their rear. He didn’t want this many soldiers available to reinforce the Carthaginians or, worse, assault him from the rear when they finally did close the trap. Besides, his supply lines to northern Germania were long and vulnerable, and these men were as likely to turn brigand as they were to rejoin the war. Either way, it made them a threat.

The enemy, for their part, seemed completely unaware that just over the western ridge of the valley there were ten thousand Britannian legionaries waiting to charge into their camp. As Ky watched, the Carthaginians began stirring, some preparing morning meals, with the rest just meandering around, all of them more or less rudderless. The way they acted it seemed unlikely any higher-level officers had survived the battle, or at least made it with the men this far. This was more of an armed mob than the remnants of an army.

“The scouts’ accounts were accurate. There are about ten thousand of them down there. They have no idea we’re here,” Ky said to the two legates next to him. “From what I can see, they about match our strength, and the tree cover down there is thick enough to really shorten our range with our rifles, so surprise is the key. Once we get over the ridge, I want mounted units up front. They’re to ride through, causing as much havoc as they can, without getting bogged down. They are to disengage and loop around to cover our flanks and be prepared to mop up after us. They should keep the Carthaginians from getting organized until the legionaries can engage. I’ll go in with the second legion, hitting them straight on. Vibius, I want you to break the fourth legion in half and swing around, hitting them from the north and south. Bayonets and swords for this, gentlemen. They’re already demoralized, and the sudden attack should keep them from massing an organized resistance, but all the same, don’t let your men run wild. Hold your lines. Clear?”

“Clear,” both legates said.

This was one of the things they’d practiced over the winter, once Ky saw how much thicker the tree cover was during this time as compared to his own. It would be easy for units to become intermixed and lose all unit cohesion, which could turn even something as much in their favor as this situation was against them.

“On my signal, send in your cavalry and follow up with your men at the double step. We’ve got to get there fast. Let’s get it done.”

Again, the men saluted as one and headed to their commands to begin handing out orders. Ky wasn’t concerned. They might be the two newest legates in the legions, but they were both good men and knew their jobs.

Ky waited while the cavalry and legions moved into position. Although it was impossible to keep this many men silent, the soldiers understood how close the enemy was and did an excellent job keeping the noise to a minimum. Orders were relayed instead of shouted, and the normal joking and conversation that usually happened on the march was gone. They were all focused, mentally preparing for the fight that was about to happen.

Once everyone was ready, he signaled the trumpeter, who blew the charge. The Carthaginians began looking around, first drawn by the sound of the trumpet, but truly alarmed by what sounded like rumbling thunder, even though the sky was cloudless and blue. Men slowly reached for weapons, but without officers to guide them, didn’t react beyond that until the Britannian cavalry burst from the tree line, tearing through the Carthaginian camp at full gallop. Although Ky could barely see them through the trees around him, he could hear the screams and shouts echoing up from below as the cavalry slashed its way through the surprised enemy.

Through the drone’s camera, Ky watched as the cavalry wreaked havoc on the camp. Men scrambled in every direction, many still half asleep and struggling to grab weapons and armor. Horses bolted in terror; supplies were trampled underfoot as the cavalry careened wildly through the camp.

Before their ride was finished and they looped back to take their places on the flanks, his infantry legions erupted from the tree line as well, smashing into men still trying to grapple with the carnage they were witnessing. The legionaries slammed into the disorganized Carthaginian mob, the clashing swords and the screams of the wounded carrying across the valley. Caught completely off-guard, the Carthaginians had no time to mount any real defense or strategy. It was pure bloody chaos down there.

“Push through them!” Ky shouted, urging his men on. “Do not let them break your lines!”

He wanted to keep the initiative and not allow the Carthaginians any time to get organized. The legionaries pressed the attack relentlessly, herding the panicked enemy like sheep. Bodies began piling up on the valley floor as the Romans slashed and hacked their way through the camp.

They weren’t, however, unopposed. Despite the element of surprise, the Carthaginians were beginning to rally themselves, pushing back against the relentless Roman attack. There were simply too many of them for Ky’s forces to wipe them out quickly, especially since his men couldn’t use rifle and cannon fire in the thick forest. Although the occasional rifle sounded, they were mostly limited to sword and bayonet, which allowed the Carthaginians time to regroup.

The chaos of close-quarter combat in the wooded terrain made communication difficult. He relayed orders, but the men did not always respond as directly as usual, unable to see the message flags or hear the trumpet calls.

Small pockets of resistance were coalescing into larger groups as a man here or there barked orders or cajoled his fellow soldiers, rallying them from the near flight they’d been in. This was what Ky had been concerned about. The terrain slowed them too much, and there were enough of the enemy that it wasn’t possible to send the entire force into flight as soon as they made contact. The element of surprise was spent. Now it was a pitched battle. The only thing still going his way was that what once was two relatively equal forces had become weighted heavily in the Britannian favor as hundreds upon hundreds of Carthaginians had died in the first minutes of the attack.

Ky weighed his options, watching intently as the battle lines solidified. The Carthaginians were rallying faster than anticipated, digging in and pushing back despite horrific losses. He needed these men taken off the board, unavailable to the enemy when he assaulted their port, but he couldn’t afford to take a large number of casualties. With only two legions, he’d need every man he could get when the final battle came.

“Signal the cavalry to rally on the left flank,” Ky said, turning his horse toward that direction.

It took almost ten minutes to get the cavalry in place. Ten minutes of men screaming and dying. He watched through the drone as his men fought and legionaries died, fighting the urge to scream at his mounted troops to move faster. The terrain was hard on the horses, and he knew it would take precious time to get into position. Vibius and Marcus were doing their best, and they were still pushing the Carthaginians back. The outcome of the battle wasn’t in doubt; the enemy had lost too many men in that initial confrontation and were already demoralized. The only question that remained was how many men Ky would lose, and he wanted to keep that number as low as possible.

Finally, the cavalry was in position.

“For Britannia,” Ky shouted, sword held high, as he spurred his horse forward, leading the rallying cavalry headlong toward the Carthaginian lines.

Trumpets sounded and hooves thundered over the forest floor, kicking up mud and debris as the cavalry built momentum for a decisive strike. Ky and the cavalry plunged through the dense trees, branches whipping against armor and tearing at exposed skin. Still, they pressed on relentlessly through the difficult terrain. Ky leaned forward in his saddle, eyes fixed on the point where the Carthaginian flank lay exposed amidst the chaotic melee.

Breaking through the tree line, the cavalry slammed into the Carthaginian flank with earth-shaking force, ripping through their ranks. Horses trampled men, screams mixing with the thunder of their hooves. Swords flashed in ruthless arcs, cutting down anyone within reach. Men were flung aside by the mass of horseflesh plowing through their defenses. The Carthaginian lines, already struggling under the pressure from the legionaries and the surprise of the early morning assault, disintegrated under the new threat.

Seeing the charge’s success, the Roman infantry howled with bloodlust and surged forward with renewed vigor. Any semblance of Carthaginian resistance evaporated as total panic took over. Surrounded on all sides, men threw down their weapons and turned to run.

The ambush had turned completely in the Romans’ favor, devolving into utter carnage and butchery. The Carthaginians were lambs to the slaughter.

“Chase them down,” he ordered the mounted men around him. “We’re not taking prisoners today.”

The men obeyed, turning their horses and riding off to chase down the men fleeing in all directions. He disliked such wholesale butchery, seeing it as a waste of life, especially since many of these men had probably been conscripted into service from other conquered regions and didn’t have any more love for the Carthaginians than he had. But with limited time and resources, he had no choice. The remaining Carthaginians had to be eliminated as an effective fighting force, and he couldn’t spare the men to escort a large number of prisoners west. War was often savage by necessity.

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