(Please read the Summary above first, as it contains important backstory info.)
Titus leaned far over the withers of the chestnut mare to peer through the thicket. "Once we get out of the woods and have the last cover behind us, there will be no stopping. Then we race full speed to the garrison. Understood?"
The older boy looked around to the two younger ones, Haganicus and Lucius.
Haganicus shifted uneasily in the saddle. Five miles or more, through open enemy land!
His instinct warned him against leaving the forest too soon. Even though they made slower progress in the woods, they had a clear advantage over their pursuers. But Titus disagreed. He was impatient. Down there was the road. He was sure, with the stolen horses they would shake off their pursuers even in the open terrain and reach the Roman camp faster. Titus was in charge here. Because he was the oldest. And ... well, his dad was a senator.
In front of Haganicus sat little Lucius. With his left arm he steadied the smaller boy, while also holding the reins in the same hand.
He remembered why the cavalry trainer at the garrison had allowed him only on two previous occasions to ride with shield and spear. In his opinion Haganicus wasn’t a sure enough rider yet. It required a lot of skill and sure horsemanship. The bulky shield was worn on the left arm, while the same hand also held the reins. Thus the right remained free to wield sword or spear. When a rider fell off a horse, without freeing his arm from the shield, it often resulted in serious arm and shoulder injuries. Many riders got crippled that way, Haganicus knew all too well.
But these first experiences now benefited him, as he tried to protect Lucius in the saddle, while holding the reins and ... with his other hand, holding up this accursed Eagle standard.
Haganicus had wanted to leave the standard in the woods. Where they had found it. Or burry it somewhere else. He would have easily found the spot again. Now the damned thing only hindered them in their flight.
But no, Titus had thrown a tantrum and little Lucius too had made a drama of it: "The Eagle - the honour of the Legion, the honour of Rome ...!". They recalled the shame of the Eagles lost under Marcus Licinius Crassus and Publius Quinctilius Varus. As if they themselves were legion commanders and this their Eagle. The two of them were good at making unctuous speeches, about honour, soldierly virtues and the like. Typical of these descendants of knightly and senatorial families, Haganicus thought bitterly, with the particular mistrust most soldiers held for noble officers. Having grown up all his life with the Legion and among the common soldiers, he just couldn’t abide the arrogant idealism of the Roman upper classes.
Of all the legion’s standards, the Eagle was held in the highest veneration. Its loss was considered an extremely shameful and grave occurrence.
Haganicus had grumbled: "The divine Gaius Julius Caesar also lost several Eagles to Germanic tribes. So what? Did not harm him and his honour".
Unlike the other two, he had not been raised in Rome. Nevertheless his foster father had made sure that he learned to read, write and calculate. As the son of a centurion, destined for a military career, his dad didn't make him read such vain nonsense as Virgil, but made sure that he studied the writings of generals and strategists like Thucydides, Polybios and especially Gaius Julius Caesar until he knew them inside out. He made him read whole passages, repeat them out loud and examined him later in the evenings. Therefore Haganicus was a little bid proud to make this comment. To make it clear to his two friends that he was no uneducated barbarian.
Lucius had suddenly stood there with his mouth open, staring at the Eagle. "Maybe we found one of Caesar Eagles?" The little boy was awestruck.
"What? No! He was never here in this area", Haganicus had replied, baffled. Then he looked uncertainly at the Eagle. The thing looked pretty old and battered, as if it had been through a lot and then buried in the ground for a very long time.
Titus glared at the Eagle. "Who knows," he said curtly. "Anyway, we will not leave the Eagle here."
And who would have to carry that stupid thing now? He, Haganicus.
Titus behaved as if he already was a legate, just as his father once was, and Lucius behaved as if he was a tribune, like his father. The two of them let him feel that he was below them. In their eyes Haganicus was only the son of a centurion.
Actually, I am the son of two Primipilaris, two First Centurions! He thought bitterly. And that IS something special. My father and my foster father did not get their rank because of birth rights, but had to work hard and earn it.
He refrained from making such a remark though, because a guilty conscience gnawed at him. After all, it was the First Centurions of every legion - just as his father and foster father once had been - who led the legions’ Eagle in their cohort and protected it with their very life and limb.
That's exactly what Titus would point out to him.
In spite of the shame, should he not leave the standard behind, before risking that he or Lucius fell off the saddle? Was it really more important to protect a silly piece of eagle-shaped metal at the end of a wooden staff, than to save Lucius, the son of a tribune, and Titus, who was the son of a Roman senator? Could it really be worth their lifes?
He prayed earnestly that he would be spared from making any such decision today. If they returned this lost Eagle standard to the legion, they would be treated as heroes. On the other hand, if they gave it up to the enemy... that would be a huge disgrace. Wouldn’t it? And who would get the blame for it, but himself? There was little doubt about that. The shame would stick to him forever, certainly not to Titus or Lucius. Might he even be barred forever from joining the Legion? What would his father think of him then?
Fortunately, the gelding on which he and Lucius rode, carried a military saddle with suitable attachments, to lash the standard up. The dark bay was a big, clumsy horse, but he had to carry two boys and the standard. Whereas the bony chestnut mare only had to carry Titus, who was an excellent rider.
"Understood?" Repeated Titus harshly.
"Yes, sir," replied Haganicus downcast. "Without stopping, full speed, all the way to the garrison. Understood."
Lucius nodded in despair.
Haganicus leaned over him. "Stick your thighs under the saddle horns and hold on tight, Lucius. We can do it", whispered Haganicus encouragingly to the eight-year old.
Lucius nodded again.
"Right then, at my command," ordered Titus, intently raising the captured sword over his head.
The horses felt the tension too, raising their heads, ears twitching nervously
Titus paused slightly, took a deep breath, then yelled "CHARGE ...!" As if commanding a whole army, yanking his sword arm down and pointing the tip of the blade to the road they were bound to.
Together they broke out of the cover and raced down the slope.
- to be continued...next Friday -