The Fires of Vulcan - Cover

The Fires of Vulcan

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 7

North of the Pyrenees Mountains

Optio Quintus Tullus Hortalus pulled his woolen cloak tighter, though it provided scant protection against the biting cold. The icy wind howled and rolled down the mountain and across the rolling foothills, whipping powdery snow into swirling eddies. His leathers creaked as he trudged through the knee-deep drifts, one weary step after another.

Around him, the fifty legionnaires under his command slogged along in silence, heads bowed against the storm, walking as close to the wagons as possible in an attempt to block the wind. He knew they were miserable. It had been two days since they had slept in a proper camp or enjoyed a hot meal, and it would be at least two more full days before they reached the Seventh Legion’s current camp. At least he hoped it was only two more days.

With the peaks of the Pyrenees to his right, he knew he was going in the right direction, but it was hard to tell distance in the thick drifts of snow, and it wouldn’t be that hard to walk through their camp and not realize they’d passed their countrymen. He’d sent out riders, but only two of the four had returned, and those reported that they had been able to see little with the snow falling as hard as it was, and that they’d barely found their way back to his small unit.

He knew his supplies were vital for the legion, but his faith in the leaders who’d ordered this insane expedition had started to fail. If he was having this kind of trouble, how badly could the main body of the Seventh be faring, and would anyone be in a state to fight if they ever actually reached the Middle Sea?

“Come on lads, pick up the pace!” Quintus called out, injecting false enthusiasm into his voice. “I know you bastards are too tough to let a little snow slow you down.”

There was a chuckle or two, that were almost lost in the wind, but they continued to slog forward hopelessly. Quintus clenched his jaw. He knew it was a long shot at this point, but his only other option was the heel of his boot, and their morale was already bad enough.

“I know you’re all weary,” he continued loudly. “But if we don’t push on, a whole legion will be going hungry. The entire southern advance is relying on us, and I’m not going to let the gods-be-damned Carthaginians win this thing because of some weather.”

That elicited a few mumbled responses, although some included choice words of exactly what the boys in the legion could feast on which seemed like ... poor nutrition. They did pick up the pace a little bit though.

“Just imagine,” Quintus went on, “a roaring fire in camp tonight when we arrive. Hot venison stew, freshly baked bread...”

At this, one of the legionnaires, Rufus, Quintus thought, lifted his head.

“With spiced wine?” he asked hoarsely.

“Spiced wine for all!” Quintus proclaimed, smiling beneath his frozen beard.

“I would kill for a slice of...” another legionnaire started to say when a javelin seemed to appear out of nowhere, striking the man square in the chest, taking him off his feet.

“Form square! Rifles ready!” Quintus yelled, reacting on instinct.

In spite of the cold and exhaustion, his men performed admirably, responding with speed and precision. Smoothly, they shifted into a box formation around the central wagons, two men deep on each line. Three more men fell as they formed up, javelins in their backs. A crack of gunfire rang out as the line solidified, the puff of smoke wisping into the blizzard’s fury.

“Hold your fire,” he called out, staring into the swirling snow. “Hold. First rank, fire!”

The first rank fired as one, a wall of lead smashing into the attackers, mostly men on foot, carrying swords and javelins. A swath of men fell, pitched backward as the lead, cone-shaped mini-balls struck them, and sometimes the man behind them fell as well. The enemy kept coming.

“Second rank, fire!” he yelled, even as the first rank reloaded.

A second wave of metal slashed into his forces, sweeping more men off their feet. Still, more enemy fighters continued to come into view. If he had enough men for a third rank, he could have held this rate of fire until the enemy broke and ran, but he didn’t. At two ranks, he only had enough for six men on a side and two at each corner, which was a very small square. Taking that down to four on a side, he wouldn’t have had the firepower on any side to push the enemy back.

The first rank finished reloading just as the Carthaginians got within sword range.

“Fire! Fire!” Quintus called out.

Their attackers fell, but the Carthaginian forces were on top of them.

“Prepare to receive charge!” Quintus commanded. “Hold formation!”

With a resounding crash, the skirmishers smashed into the square on all sides. Quintus fired his rifle once and then stabbed over the fighting men, catching an axe-wielding man in the chest, the sharp steel blade cutting through the weaker Carthaginian iron.

Some men in the second rank reloaded, but most were forced to lift their rifles to defend themselves as the Carthaginians pressed their attack. Here and there, a rifle fired, but for the most part, it was down to hand-to-hand combat, removing Britannia’s greatest advantage.

“Push them back!” Quintus roared, even as he grunted, stabbing another man.

His men were falling in twos and threes, beginning to be pressed backward under the force of the assault. The numbers were finally too much. The Carthaginians overwhelmed the disciplined ranks, breaking the square. More of his men fell as they were pushed back toward the wagon.

Losing his sword, the Optio pulled his gladius, the last line of defense. He stabbed and slashed with controlled fury, dispatching two more enemies before they could close on him. All around him, the legionnaires fought for their lives as the Carthaginian tide crashed over them in a frenzy of violence.

Rufus clubbed a shrieking man with the stock of his rifle before his throat was sliced open. Another legionnaire was tackled from behind, disappearing beneath three enemies who hacked and stabbed with abandon.

“To me, form on me!” Quintus bellowed, seeing the end rapidly approaching.

No more than fifteen legionnaires remained standing, the rest dead or crippled in the blood-churned snow. With their backs to the wagons, the tattered remnants of Quintus’s century formed a final desperate line. Men screamed as sword and spear points sought enemy flesh. A bearded axe man broke through, splitting a legionnaire’s shield in two before burying the sharpened axe head in the man’s face.

“For Britannia,” Quintus screamed, ramming his gladius through the axe man’s ribs before kicking the body back into the seething mass.

Though hemmed in on all sides by the Carthaginian horde, the legionnaires fought with exceptional bravery. Quintus felt a glimmer of pride in his men, even as he accepted that these were their final moments.

A hurled spear glanced off Quintus’s shoulder, staggering him. Before he could recover, a burly swordsman hacked viciously at his head. Quintus barely managed to deflect the blow with his shield, the impact jarring his arm. With a burst of desperation, Quintus lunged and impaled his assailant under the sternum. Savagely ripping the gladius free in a spray of gore, he prepared to meet the next foe.

The remaining legionnaires were now down to five men, all sporting grievous wounds. They formed a tight circle, making the Carthaginians pay dearly every time they got too close. It wasn’t enough. One legionnaire fell, then another.

‘Three now,’ Quintus thought, parrying a sword thrust from the left even as he kicked out at a spearman trying to flank them. The last two men fell, and Quintus stepped back again, bumping against the supply wagon. Still, he refused to yield, roaring in defiance as he fought on stubbornly. A hurled axe caught him in the thigh, but he barely staggered, fueled by rage and duty. With his free hand, he snatched up a fallen spear, wielding it alongside his gladius in a whirlwind of steel. Two more of the enemy fell beneath his blades before a blade smashed through his sword arm, nearly severing it.

Dropping his bloody sword, Quintus stabbed out with the acquired spear, weaker with each thrust as blood loss and fatigue slowed him. Finally, a spear caught him high in the chest. He coughed, feeling wetness choking him. With his final struggling breath, Quintus impaled one more foe before dropping to his knees and falling flat.

He could feel his life draining out into the snow. All around him, he could see the feet and legs of Carthaginians as they gathered up fallen rifles. His men had done so well. He wondered if anyone would find their bodies before the snow thawed. ‘What an odd thing to wonder,’ Quintus thought, and then the world faded away.


Lucilla sank down onto the plush couch in her private quarters, exhausted. Dealing with the Senate was beyond tiring. She’d never met any men more pleased with hearing the sound of their own voices than those men. It wasn’t just the Romans. The Caledonians and Ulaid senators were just as bad. Since they were from such different societies, she had to conclude it was just their being men that made them so narcissistic.

That wasn’t fair, she thought after a second. She knew of one man who wasn’t like that, and she could really stand to hear his voice.

“Ky, are you available to talk?” she spoke into the empty air around her.

A moment later, his deep, soothing tone came floating back to her, “For you, always.”

She smiled wearily to herself, saying, “How are things progressing with the tribes?”

“We’re making progress. After seeing how well the weapons worked in the first raid, they’ve really taken to it. Our biggest problem right now is getting them to slow the tempo down. They’re burning through our gunpowder supplies, and a few have gotten overaggressive, taking on forces too large to handle, even with their guns. Still, the Carthaginians are in disarray, and they’ve started pulling back to shorten their supply lines, so our plan is working as intended. How was the Senate? Are Roti and Bredei still being pains in everyone’s asses?”

“Gods, yes,” she groaned. “But that’s not the main thing I needed to talk to you about. I received a message from Hortensius and Sorantius about the balloon project. The wool fabric is proving too porous and heavy, and they wanted me to give them an alternative material they can use.”

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