Roma Invicta

The Long March

Introduction

The year is 699. After several stunning victories over the Gallic tribes of Armorica, the Roman consul and general Gaius Julius Caesar has turned his eyes northward, to the land of the Britons, where he has embarked on a new military campaign. To secure his supply lines for the expedition, Caesar has forged an alliance with the Carnutes, a Gaulish tribe led by their chieftain Tasgetios, who rules from the stronghold of Cenabum. Control over Cenabum is strategically vital to Caesar as its bridge spans the Liger river, the only ford for many leagues, which opens the way for Roman legion supply trains to quickly travel north. As part of his bargain with Caesar, Tasgetios, a former enemy of Rome, has had his kingship restored. In exchange, Cenabum has become a Roman protectorate under the governorship of Gaius Fulvius Labrenus.

In recent months, however, rebellion and strife have plagued Cenabum and other settlements in the region. Roman settlers and legion garrisons have suffered attacks from hostile tribes of Gauls, savage elves, goblinkin, and wild beasts stirred up by druidic magic. Governor Labrenus has called upon Caesar for reinforcements to bolster his dwindling forces, and in response the general has dispatched a second-line cohort from Legio X Gemina to the beleaguered town.


From the recorded testament of Flavius Rutilius Pantera of Legio X Gemina:

"We had been on the march for nine days—the five hundred legionaries and auxiliaries sent by General Caesar to reinforce the town of Cenabum. Our journey had been uneventful for the most part, and First Spear Sulinus had passed word down to us that we would reach the town before nightfall. The skies were a blanket of gray that entire morning, the clouds dark and heavy with the promise of rain.

We left the relative safety of open country just past midday to enter the final stretch of forested land that lay between us and our destination. The first Romans to encounter those woods had called it Viridis Mors—the Green Death—a colorful name that aptly warned of the dangers lurking within. Ancient stands of beech, maple, and oak enfolded us as we made our crossing, going by what little sunlight was able to make its way past the thick canopy. I had been assigned to the rearguard and was marching with the supply retinue. Ahead, I could make out the rest of the column as it meandered down the dimly-lit forest trail like a shimmering river of steel.

It was no more than an hour later that I noted with apprehension the sudden absence of birdsong and the unnatural stillness that had overtaken our surroundings. The change in the air was palpable and noticed by others as well. Many of the men were soon raised to a heightened alertness, though no orders were yet forthcoming to halt or slow the march. It was a hundred paces or fewer from that point of realization that the ambush was sprung, heralded by the screech of an owl. Between breaths the air was calm then suddenly filled with the keening of sling stones and arrows sailing through the air, launched by unseen assailants in the trees.

Officers barked out commands to restore order and close the gaps in our ranks where several men had fallen. Like a well-oiled machine, the cohort formed up into two outward-facing lines, shields locked in a defensive phalanx. Duronius, my old trainer, used to say that a Roman soldier standing in formation, well-disciplined, and with the proper training and equipment, was worth ten heathen warriors. I prayed that this notion held true as hundreds of blue-painted savages suddenly appeared along the treeline on both sides of the trail, effectively surrounding us. They shouted unintelligible battle cries and bore down on us in unison, smashing into our shields like a storm wave crashing against the shore.

The fighting was brutal and felt like an age had gone by though in reality lasted mere minutes. Although we acquitted ourselves before the gods and our ancestors, our numbers were too few in the face of such an onslaught. Eventually all semblance of organization or unit cohesion was lost. Men soon found themselves separated, like so many scattered islands in a sea of barbarians. Toward the end I found myself shoulder to shoulder with Maelius, a legionary of my contubernium, and an auxilia dragonborn named Galerius. Aided by a priest of Mars, we fended of the hordes that came for us and claimed the lives of nearly two dozen foes.

Somewhere in the midst of the mayhem, Jupiter deigned to aid us with a passing rainstorm. The downpour was a mixed blessing, hindering sight but also turning the battleground into a slippery morass, making it difficult for the enemy to approach. The killing went on unabated until the deluge dwindled to a light shower, and in that moment we found ourselves standing in a mire of corpses. There were Roman and barbarian dead as far as the eye could see, half-submerged in murky red pools of rainwater and gore and in some places stacked like cordwood. Yet despite the many savage foes we had sent to greet Hades, more remained, though now we were but a handful.

Recognizing the futility of further fighting, centurion Marcus Ovidius, our last surviving senior officer, ordered the surrender. Our captors divested us of our gear, bound our wrists, and then coffled us together like slaves. In the cold of the rain, we stood and watched as they looted the dead and pillaged our supply wagons while their leaders held discussion. When all of value had been plundered, we were driven into the woods like cattle and marched to our uncertain fates."

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