CHAPTER 38

The legions broke camp and formed the battle line two hours before dawn. As soon as it was light enough to see, the cornicens sounded their wailing notes and the huge squares of legionaries moved forward, shrugging off the stiffness and cramp of the morning as they marched. There was no idle chatter in the ranks with the army of Spartacus filling the plain and seeming to stretch to the horizon. Even the crash of their sandals was muffled in the turf, and each man loosened his shoulders as he came closer and closer to the moment when the silence would rupture into chaos.

All along the legion lines, the heavy onagers and catapults were heaved into position. At colossal range, stones, iron balls, and arrows the weight of three men could be sent smashing into the enemy. The men around them cheered as the heavy horse-hair springs were winched back into firing position.

Julius marched with Brutus and Ciro at his side and Renius one step behind him. Although it would be suicide for any of Cato’s recruits to try an attack, the three men around Julius were alert for the possibility. There was no place there for Cabera, who had remained behind in the camp with the rest of the followers, despite his complaints. Julius had been firm with him, but even if the old man had been willing to don armor and carry a gladius, he had never fought in formation before and would disrupt the routine of the Romans around him.

Deep in the eighth rank behind the armored hastati, the four of them were surrounded by the best of the Primigenia, men whom Renius had trained and hardened to be ready for such a day. None of Cato’s recruits were in striking range.

Though many ached to charge, they matched the pace of the forward line, teeth bared unconsciously as they left everything of the world behind them. Every violent urge they had to restrain in the cities was welcome in that line, and some of the men choked back laughter as they remembered the strange freedom of it.

The order to halt came and seconds later the air was split with the thunder of the war engines, great arms crashing into their rests as they sent their loads flying. The slaves could not avoid the hail of stone and iron and hundreds were smashed into rags of flesh. Slowly, the arms were winched back again and Pompey waited to give the signal, licking dry lips.

At the third volley, the order came again to advance. One more would be fired over their heads before the lines would join.

As the armies closed, the legionaries shrugged away the smooth skin of civilization, leaving only the discipline of the legion to hold their line against the rising desire to kill. Through the gaps in the ranks, they could catch glimpses of the enemy that waited for them, a dark wall of men who had come to test the strength of the last defenders of Rome. Some carried the gladius, but others wielded axes and scythes, or long swords stolen from the barracks of the legion at Mutina. Bloody smears on the soil marked the wide cuts of the onager stones, but they were quickly swallowed by the men behind them.

Julius found himself panting with excitement and fear, responding to those around him as they became linked and pulses began to pound, filling them with strength and reckless energy. Someone shouted in excitement, close.

“Steady, Primigenia!” Julius bellowed, feeling the urge to run forward himself. He saw Brutus too was filled with the strange joy where every moment before the first jolt of pain was longer than all he had lived before. It was a hundred years to cross the plain, and then sound pierced the calm as the front two ranks heaved their spears into the air with a grunting cough that merged into a roar of defiance. They began to run, even as the spears made the air black and the first of the slaves were cut down by them.

The enemy howled enough to fill the world and raced at the legionaries. The first meeting was a crash that numbed the sounds that came after. The heavy Roman shields were smashed upright into the charging line and the impact punched hundreds of slaves from their feet. Then the swords were plunging into bodies and blood spattered blindingly, until the whole of the first rank were covered in it, their arms and faces wet as the swords cut limbs and life from the men they faced.

With Brutus on Julius’s right, Julius could work around his friend’s shield, as Ciro stood in the protection of his own. Only the ingrained discipline held the ranks back from the front line, free to watch the carnage only feet from them. Stinging droplets of blood touched them as they saw the hastati storm forward through the slaves. Ciro smashed anything that stood against him with tireless strength. Julius and Brutus moved forward at the pace of the advance, sinking their swords into the bodies as they passed, making certain of the kills. By the time the rear ranks passed over the corpses, they would be little more than white bone and tattered flesh as every soldier blooded his sword on them.

The hastati were the spine of the army, men with ten years of solid experience. There was no fear in them, but after a while, Julius began to feel a slight change in the pace as the advance faltered. Even the hastati tired against such a host, and many in the ranks moved forward to fill gaps, stepping over the writhing bodies of men they knew and counted as friends. Renius walked with them, his shield strapped to his body with heavy buckles. He killed with single strokes, taking blows on the shield to allow him the counterstrike, over and over. It buckled and cracked under the repeated impacts, but held.

The cornicens blew a series of three notes over and over, and all along the vast line there was a shimmering as the maniples of Rome moved with a discipline unmatched in the world. The hastati brought their shields up to protect themselves and moved smoothly back through the ranks as the triarii moved forward. They were panting and tired but still filled with a savage pleasure, and they shouted encouragement to the twenty-year veterans who ran to make the new front line. These were the best in the line, and apart from Renius, Primigenia had only a handful, making up the numbers with Cato’s fresh troops. The slaves threw themselves at the legions and Primigenia bore the worst toll of dead, the new recruits dying faster than the experienced men around them. Renius held the Primigenia line steady as they fought to move forward.

The advance surged again through the bodies of the slain. The only way was over the dead as neither side wavered or stepped back from the bloody gash that was the front rank. The triarii were the best of the legionaries, men at their fullest strength. Their family and friends were the legions they served and they were soon splashed as redly as the hastati before them.

Julius stood waiting in the fifth rank, with Primigenia straining to attack. Arms and swords shook in anticipation as they stood close enough to the cutting to have more and more of the blood droplets spatter over them like rain, running down their shining armor.

Some armies broke on the hastati, others when the triarii were brought in to crush the will of the enemy. The bodies they walked over and speared so casually numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands along the line, but they had only begun to cut away the outer layers of the army of Spartacus, and soon every man knew they would have to take their place. Once they saw it was inevitable, the nerves settled even in the weakest as they waited to reach the first rank.

“Primigenia-second spears!” Julius ordered, repeating the shout to his left and right. The ranks behind him launched without pause over the heads of their own men and the shafts landed unseen on the mass of the enemy. All along the line the action was repeated, and only distant screams told of the lives the points had taken.

Julius craned onto his toes to see what was happening on the flanks. Against so many, the cavalry had to prevent encirclement. As the line of Spartacus’s army bowed before the Romans, a memory flashed into Julius’s head of a distant schoolroom and a lesson of Alexander’s wars. Huge as it was, the Roman army could be swallowed and destroyed unless the flanks remained strong.

Even as he started to look, he felt the change on his left. He saw the line buckle into Lepidus’s legion and the enemy pour into the breach. It was too far away to see detail and as Julius paced forward with Brutus, he lost sight of it and swore.

“Brutus, can you see Lepidus? They’re breaking through over there. Can you see if they’re holding?”

Brutus stretched up on his toes to see. “The line is broken,” he said in horror. “Gods, I think they’re turning!”

Julius almost stumbled into the man behind him as his pace shortened. He looked at the line four ranks ahead. The triarii were crushing the slaves there and didn’t look like tiring. His thoughts were desperate and fear rushed into him. If he moved Primigenia left to support as he had promised Pompey, he left the triarii vulnerable. If their line was thinned or cut down, the reinforcements they would expect would be missing and the slaves would have two breaches to pour into, cutting the Roman line into islands of men that would shrink and vanish as they were killed.

As he hesitated, he saw the left flank was compacting as the breach widened and some of Lepidus’s men turned away from the enemy, beginning to flee. It would spread like plague as those who ran fouled the ranks behind them and infected them with their cowardice. Julius made his choice.

“Primigenia! Saw left into the flank!” As before, he repeated the order twice and the front ranks heard him though they could not turn. They would know there was no one behind to bolster them and would fight all the harder in the time they were vulnerable.

Primigenia moved fast across the line of advance, a few stumbling into the soldiers who had not heard the order. It was a dangerous maneuver to try in the middle of a battle, but Julius knew he had to use his men to stiffen the legion of Lepidus before the whole left flank crumbled. He raced through the ranks with the others, leaping over corpses and continuing to shout orders to keep them in close and moving. At best he had seconds to prevent the rout.

Brutus arrived first, deliberately knocking a fleeing legionary over with his shield. Julius and Ciro took his sides and together they made the core, with Primigenia forming a wall of grim soldiers around them that the retreating Romans would have to cross to get away. Renius had vanished in the press, separated from them by hundreds of waiting soldiers.

“Level swords!” Julius roared, his face twisted into an animal mask of rage. “No soldier crosses this line alive! Show this Lepidus what we are!”

The spread of panicking men skidded to a halt as the ranks of Primigenia ranged before them, blocking the retreat. The light of panic went out of their eyes as they took in the swords held ready to cut them down. There was no question they would be used. The men of Primigenia understood as well as Julius that they would all die if Lepidus’s legion ran from the slave flank. They would be overwhelmed.

In moments, something of order had returned to the disorganized rabble Lepidus’s men had become. The centurions and optios used the flats of their swords and thick oak staffs to bully the soldiers back into formation. They were barely in time.

The slave army had sensed the weakness and they screamed orders, pushing hundreds into the gap to widen it. Julius was caught between moving forward through the ranks and having Primigenia seal the breach or holding his position in case Lepidus’s men broke again. He knew the recovery was still weak, with the terrified soldiers barely controlling the fear of death that had broken them once. It would be easier the second time.

“Julius?” Brutus asked him, waiting for the order.

Julius glanced at his friend and saw his eagerness. There wasn’t a choice after all. They had to take the front themselves and just pray Lepidus’s men didn’t leave them naked behind.

“Primigenia! Forward to the line!” he shouted, and the seven hundred men under his command jogged forward with him, holding their formation perfectly.

The last of Lepidus’s men turned to run from the slaves and Primigenia cut them down before they could take the panic back with them. They did it with a vicious efficiency that should have warned the slaves who struggled to seize the advantage they had created.

The shields of Primigenia smashed into the breach and the swords rose and fell as quickly as they could, with every man sacrificing care for speed. They crunched over the wounded, leaving them screaming and often alive, but Primigenia shoved forward at such a pace that they were in danger of leaving the whole front rank behind and being cut off. Renius matched them, bringing the line up with bellowed orders.

Julius fought in a frenzy. His arm ached and one long wound had scored his skin in a red line from wrist almost to shoulder. A blade had skidded off him before he killed the owner. A powerful-looking slave wearing Roman armor leapt at him, but was knocked from his feet as Renius reached the position, stabbing the slave in the side through a gap in the plates.

Julius killed the next man who faced him, but then three more stabbed at him. He was grateful for the thousands of hours of practice that made him move before he had begun to think. He stepped to the side of the outer man and shoved him into the others, giving up the kill for the need to entangle them. The man stumbled into the path of the second and Julius took his throat out from the side, then lunged over his falling body to sink his gladius into the heaving chest of the middle man. It wedged in the ribs and he almost cried out in frustration as his bloody grip slipped completely from the sword as he pulled on it, leaving him unarmed in an instant.

The third man facing him brought a legionary gladius around in a hard, chopping sweep and Julius had to throw himself flat to avoid the blade. He felt panic then as he expected to feel the metal enter him and send his blood mixing with the slippery mess under him. The man died with Ciro’s sword in his mouth and Julius scrabbled for his own blade, pulling a body off it and heaving until it came free with a crack of parting bone.

Brutus was a pace ahead and Julius saw him kill two more with a speed and ease Julius had never seen in anyone, never mind the boy he had known all his life. There seemed to be a peaceful space around Brutus and his face was calm, almost serene. Anything alive that came within the range of his sword died in one blow or two, and as if the slaves sensed the boundary, they gave him room and did not press the young soldier as closely as the rest.

“Brutus!” Julius called. “Gladiators in front!”

Racing toward Primigenia were men dressed in gladiator’s armor. They wore full helmets that covered their faces, leaving only eyeholes that gave them a look of inhuman ferocity. Their arrival seemed to lift the slaves around them, so that Primigenia staggered to a halt, planting their shields into the soft ground.

Julius wondered if any of them were the men he’d met the night before. It was impossible to be sure in the clash of metal and bodies. They were fast and trained and Julius saw Renius shoulder one down as the ranks closed and another swung at him. Julius brought his shield high with a jerk, feeling twin shocks as his return blow dented armor. His shield entangled the man’s sword arm as Julius hammered and hammered at the iron helmet until at last it split and he could move on, panting. His muscles ached and his breath seemed to scorch his throat.

Brutus waited in a pool of stillness that was untouched by the press of bodies all around him. The gladiator he faced feinted once and Brutus read it easily, swaying aside from the real blow. His own sword darted out in response and nicked the man’s neck. Blood poured out and, a pace away, Julius heard the soft sound of surprise the gladiator made as he put his hand up to it in astonishment. It was no more than a nick, but a major vein had been severed and his legs collapsed under him. He struggled to rise, panting and groaning like a wounded bullock, then the life went out of him.

Julius hacked his gladius into an exposed neck, and was then knocked over backward as yet another fell against his shield, tearing the straps against his arm. He let it fall and grabbed blindly to hold his attacker long enough with his left hand to sink the gladius into his flesh with the other, though he felt a sting along his back as the man tried to bring a point to bear. He could smell the garlic of the man’s last meal as he died.

The men of Primigenia were falling around him and he could see more of the gladiators rushing to take advantage of a breach that still wavered. He glanced behind him and saw with a gasp of relief that Lepidus’s legion had re-formed and stood ready to move forward.

“Primigenia! Maniple order. Re-form on the fifth!” he shouted and killed two more raging slaves as they tried to take advantage of the change, charging wildly at the line of Primigenia and dying as quickly. There were so many of them, and without moving fresher men to the front, Primigenia would have been overwhelmed.

Brutus fell back with him and Julius was oddly pleased to see him breathing heavily. For a time, his friend had seemed untouchable by the battle, and it was reassuring to know he could become as tired as the rest of them. Julius watched with approval as Lepidus’s men took up the attack and the advance pushed on. It was time to move back to the original position. The left flank was secure.

“Sir?” a voice said at Julius’s side. He turned his head sharply in reaction, too tense to see anything except threats. A centurion stood there, without a helmet. A spreading bruise along his cheek and bloody forearms showed he had been in the thick of the battle.

“What is it?” Julius replied.

“General Lepidus is dead, sir. There is no one to command the left.”

Julius closed his eyes for a second, willing away the tiredness that had seeped into his aching muscles with every pace away from the fighting. He glanced at Brutus, who smiled.

“Still lucky, Julius,” he said with a trace of bitterness.

Julius took his friend’s hand in a strong grip, a silent acknowledgment of what he had given up, then he turned to the waiting soldier.

“Very well, Centurion. I will assume command. Get the eagle over to me so the men know where to look for orders. Spread the word that if they break for me, I will crucify every last one of them when this is over.”

The centurion blinked as he looked into the young commander’s eyes. Then he saluted and ran to fetch the standard-bearer. Four ranks ahead of them, the battle raged on without a pause.

***

Pompey and Crassus watched the unfolding battle from the high vantage point of their mounts. The sun was rising in the sky and still the hills around swarmed with the slave army. Pompey had ordered the onagers and catapults to keep firing over the front lines until they had exhausted their missiles. They had fallen silent after the first three hours and the battle had only grown in ferocity since then.

The senators could observe in relative safety, more than a hundred feet back from the front ranks of the right flank. A century protected the position, allowing only the extraordinarii messengers through to the two commanders. After so long, the horses arrived at the command point with white sweat and spittle lathering their skin. A rider trotted up to the senators and saluted smartly despite his tiredness.

“The breach is closed, sir. Caesar commands the left. General Lepidus is dead,” he said through heavy breaths.

“Good,” Pompey replied shortly. “That saves me the task of killing the fool after the battle. Get over to Martius and tell him to bring a thousand to support Caesar there. Leave him in command. I’d say he’s earned it.”

The horseman saluted and galloped through the guards, his weariness showing in the loose way he sat his mount. Pompey signaled another of the extraordinarii to approach and stand ready for the next order. He scanned the battle, trying to judge the progress.

He knew the Romans should have routed the slaves. Thousands had fallen, but they seemed possessed and the legions were becoming exhausted. No matter how they rotated their front lines with the maniple orders, there was no lack of fresh enemies to sap their strength and will. He had left standing instructions with his archers to send shafts at anyone they could see in gladiatorial armor, but hitting individual targets was almost impossible.

Crassus looked over the right flank, where the cavalry of two legions was struggling to hold the ground they had gained in the first charge. Horses were screaming in pain and already men were spilling around them.

“Pompey, the right!” he snapped at his colleague.

Pompey took in the risk and sent the messenger away to bring in reinforcements. It was dangerous to take too many men from the center. If a breach came there, the army would be cut in half and that would be the finish. Pompey found a sense of desperation growing in him. There was no end to these slaves. For all the Roman skill and discipline, he could not see how to bring them victory. His men killed until they became exhausted and then were cut down in their turn, over and over.

Pompey signaled to the cornicens for another maniple order. He had lost count of the number of times he had sent the call and could imagine what his men were feeling as they were rotated back to the front before they had fully recovered from the last time. He had to keep the intervals short to spare them, but that meant less time to regain their strength.

Pompey and Crassus turned as a warning shout came from the right. The slaves had cut through the last of the cavalry and were surging forward, creating panic in the Roman lines as they threatened to envelop the flank or even hit them from behind. Pompey swore and summoned another rider.

“Right to retreat in battle order. Left to come forward. We have to turn the whole field before they get round us. The cornicens to sound ‘Right Wheel.’ Go.”

The man galloped away and the two generals abandoned dignity to kneel on their saddles for a better view of the developing action. Pompey’s hands were cramped and white on the reins as he knew the whole battle rested on the decision. If the retreat turned into a panic, the slave army would spill around and encircle the Romans. His mouth was dried by the cold air as he breathed in hissing gasps.

The orders took a long time to reach up and down the line. Shouts echoed nearby and the right began to give way in order, shifting the line to a red diagonal across the plain. Pompey clenched his fists as he saw the left push forward to compact the slaves.

The whole battle began to turn and Pompey was frantic with worry. It was the only way to save the overwhelmed right flank, but as the thousands wheeled, the slaves were free to peel off and head for Ariminum if their commanders saw the chance.

***

Spartacus stood on the saddle of his horse and swore softly as he saw the legions were holding. For a moment, he thought Antonidus was right and the wing would be overwhelmed, but somehow they had swung round, eight legions moving as one, to turn the battle toward the east. He whistled softly in admiration, even as he saw their dreams come to dust on the field. The legions were everything he’d known they could be, and for a moment, he remembered his own days as a soldier with them. It had been a grand brotherhood before it had soured for him. A drunken brawl and an officer dead and nothing had been right since. He’d run because he knew they’d put him up before the man’s friends and sentence him to death. There was no justice for a man like him, little more than a child when he’d been recruited in Thrace. Not a true Roman, to them, and little better than an animal. Those were different and bitter memories: capture and slavery, then the gladiatorial school, where they were treated like violent dogs to be chained and beaten into ferocity.

Morituri te salutamus. We who are about to die salute you,” he whispered to himself as he watched his people die. He looked at the sun and saw it had risen past noon, cold and pale on the end of winter. The days had barely begun to lengthen and it would only be a few more hours until dark.

He watched the battle for a long time, hoping to see the legions break, but they stood strong against the multitude and he despaired. Finally, he nodded to himself. When the Romans pulled back to their camps for the night, he would make for Ariminum. His men hadn’t eaten in four days and the Roman city was filled with food to make them strong again.

“We’re going to have to run, Crix,” he murmured.

His friend stood with Antonidus, holding the reins in his hand.

“They could still break before dark,” Crixus replied bitterly.

Antonidus growled and spat a wad of phlegm onto the ground in anger. He had promised them a victory and he felt his influence slipping away with the toll of their dead.

Spartacus shook his head. “No. If we haven’t beaten them by now, they’ll not run from us. They’ll move back into those forts of theirs and eat heartily before coming out to finish the work tomorrow. We won’t be here when they do.”

Why won’t they break, though?” Crixus demanded angrily to the air.

“Because if they break, Rome falls to us,” Antonidus snapped. “They know the stakes, but we can still win. Pull back the front lines and put in fresh men. Move to surround the left wing. Whether they run or not, we can wear them down to nothing.”

Spartacus looked with distaste at the Roman general his men had found. The man had nothing but bile in him and didn’t seem to grasp that the lives he urged them to throw away were friends and brothers. The gladiator closed his eyes for a moment. They had all cheered Antonidus when Crixus had first shown him to them, dressed in armor taken from a Roman corpse. He had been paraded like a favorite pet for the men, but his promises had been worthless and his clever tactics nothing more than confusion for slaves who had never held a sword before they took it up in the rebellion.

“Our men are weak with hunger,” Spartacus said. “I saw some who were green-mouthed from the boiled grasses they’d eaten. We can’t survive another day of fighting after this one.”

“We can try for the passes to Gaul,” Crixus began.

“How many do you think would reach the high passes alive?” Spartacus demanded. “The legions would hunt us down before we’d left the plains. No, that chance has gone. It has to be Ariminum. We’ll take what food we need and build our strength. Somehow, we’ll stay ahead of them.”

“If we could find ships, they might let us go,” Crixus said, looking up at his friend.

“It would take a fleet,” Spartacus said, considering. He longed to get away from the power of Rome, bitter with the knowledge that he should have led his men across the mountains. Let them have their little country. He would settle for being free.

Antonidus held his temper with difficulty. They had taken him from slavery to be killed by his own people. Neither man realized that Rome would never forgive a general who let them escape. It would be a shame that would last for centuries and every slave in the country would think of rising against their masters. He listened to their plans with growing anger. The only freedom they would see came from beating the legions on the plain, no matter how many lives it took.

Antonidus made a silent promise to slip away before the end came. He would not be paraded in Rome as a trophy. He could not bear the thought of a triumphant Cato condemning him with a wave of his fat hands.

***

“The men are exhausted,” Crassus snapped. “You must sound the disengage before they’re overwhelmed.”

“No. They will hold,” Pompey said, squinting against the descending sun. “Send the extraordinarii to ready the camps for the night. We’ll pull back when the light goes, but if I order it now, the slaves will think they have broken the only legions between here and Rome. Our men must hold.

Crassus twisted his hands together in an agony of indecision. The legions were under his command, and if Pompey waited too long to call them back, it could end everything they had ever worked for. If the legions fell, Rome would follow.

***

Julius heaved air into leaden lungs as he waited for the horns to sound the next attack. The blood on him had dried long ago and dropped away in dark crusts as he moved. Old blood. He looked wearily at his arms and held one hand up, narrowing his eyes at the shiver of exhaustion he saw there.

Another man panted at his side and Julius glanced at him. He had fought well in the last attack, spending his strength with the confidence of the immortal young. He looked up to see Julius watching him, and a shadow passed over his gray eyes. There were no words to be said. Julius wondered if Cato’s son would survive the battle. If he lived, Cato would never understand the changes in him.

Ciro hawked and spat behind him to clear the blood from his throat. His lips were split and swollen and his smile was red when he grinned painfully at his general.

They were all cut and battered. Julius winced with every movement. Something had torn in his lower back as he’d heaved a dead man off him. It sent sparks of pain up to his shoulders with every movement, and all he wanted to do was sleep. He looked over at Brutus, who’d been knocked unconscious by a berserk slave. Only a swift countercharge had reclaimed the ground and his body. Ciro had dragged him back through the ranks to recover, and as the sky began to darken he’d rejoined them, but he moved more slowly and his skill had almost deserted him. Julius wondered if his skull had been cracked by the blow, but could not send him back to the camps. They needed every man who could still stand.

They were all past exhaustion and pain, entering a sort of numbness that left the mind free to drift. Colors paled and their minds lost awareness of time, seeing it slow down and then rush to frightening speed, over and over.

With a jerk, Julius heard the cry of the cornicen’s horn nearest him. He staggered forward for another stint on the front line and shook off Ciro’s hand when it touched his arm.

“No more today, General,” Ciro said, bracing Julius with an arm to steady him. “The light has gone. That’s the call back to camp.”

Julius looked blankly at him for a moment, then nodded wearily. “Tell Brutus and Renius to form the lines and retreat in good order. Tell the men to keep an eye out for a sudden charge.” His words slurred with tiredness, but he raised his head and smiled at the man he’d found in another continent, another world.

“Better than the farm, Ciro?”

The big man looked around him at the bodies. It had been the hardest day of his life, but he knew the men around him better than he could explain. He had been alone on the farm.

“Yes, sir,” he said, and Julius seemed to understand.

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