Their stolen horses were exhausted. Even Titus mare began stumbling along. When they rode over the last hill, it didn’t matter how much they spurred them on, the animals fell into an exhausted trot. The bay Haganicus and Lucius rode was barely able to lift his legs as it walked up the last steep climb.
Close behind, the Roman cavalry were hot on their heels.
Finally, when they rode around a high hedgerow cresting the hill, the view into the valley opened up. Haganicus didn’t have to curb his horse. It stopped by itself.
Horrified, his breath caught in his throat. Down in the valley, the men of the encircled cohort fought for their lives. A devastating number of tribal warriors were pressing down on them, stabbing and slashing the hated legionaries. Despite the distance the battle noise of screaming men, clashing weapons and thudding of shields clearly carried over to the boys.
To his surprise, the cohort had already made it across the river and regrouped on this side of the bank. It was clear the legionaries had fought bitterly for every step they gained. Haganicus's guts churned as his gaze swept over the desolate scene of destruction, strewn across the landscape beyond the river. On both sides of the path, the mangled turf was littered with lost equipment. In between lay the dead and dying of both armies. Wounded men dragged themselves around, aimlessly. A cart had rolled over into a ditch. In front of it lay the dead mules, still in their harnesses. Two little boys crawled about it, looting its cargo.
The spectacle of horror was worsened by figures moving between the fallen on the ground, repeatedly stabbing and hitting them.
A wounded soldier had pushed himself back onto his feet and in panic stumbled towards the river. The man desperately tried to catch up with the cohort on the other side. He did not get far though. A warrior ran after him, lifting his sword - or was it a hatchet or a truncheon, Haganicus couldn’t quite tell - over his head. In a few steps he caught up with the fleeing soldier and brutally struck him down. The fallen man raised his arm pleadingly, but the other struck him again, and again. It deeply unsettled Haganicus how the assailant kept hacking furiously at the fallen, long after the man had ceased moving.
Lucius' hand grabbed his arm and clawed painfully into his flesh. He straightened up and pulled the little boy closer to him.
Behind them, the Roman cavalry announced its arrival with thunderous hooves and the clanking of weapons and armour.
"Go on," he said, pushing their poor steed forward.
"Hahr ...! Hahr ..! ", Lucius shouted at the top of his lungs and dug his heels in the gelding's ribs. Haganicus, too, kicked their horse in its flanks to make him fast again. The bay snorted tiredly, but started moving.
Then the entire Roman cavalry crested the ridge in a tumultuous and disorderly line.
Titus rode in front of them, swinging the rusty sword he had captured.
Oh man ... My father will kill me, Haganicus thought wearily. No worse, as Lucius’ father stood higher in rank than his own father and Titus father even higher. Senator Vespasian would kill him first, then Lucius' father, then his own father got to dismember what was left of him.
Lucius let his battle cry sound again: "Titus ... Titus ... Titus ...!", as if he was cheering on his favourite chariot team at the circus.
Lucius, you are crazy!
Down at the river the fighters noticed the arrival of the cavalry. The rearmost ranks of the Haeduer turned around and alerted each other to the oncoming danger of the Roman riders, while their comrades in front were still embroiled in bitter skirmishes with the legionaires.
The legionaries, crowded together, fighting shoulder by shoulder, shouted to each other that rescue was coming. The surviving officers rallied their men for a last attack and ordered the formation to widen, so the men could swing their swords freely. Filled with renewed hope and fresh courage, the soldiers mobilized their last strength and threw themselves once more against the enemy.
More and more tribal warriors began to break their ranks and turn towards the cavalry. The pressure on their comrades, who still stood against the roman line mounted. The legionaries fought back with defiant fury. The Haeduer wavered. Should they prepare their ranks to fight the approaching cavalry? If they did, their line would get caught right between the cavalry and the heavy infantry of the cohort. Although they still held the numerical superiority against the Romans, they were about to get pounded between hammer and anvil.
Hesitatingly, the first of their men started pulling back.
In the meantime, the distance between the three boys and the equestrian detachment was shrinking fast.
Two riders on fast horses flew past them and quickly caught up with Titus.
Another cavalryman shoved his horse against their exhausted gelding and grabbed its reins close to the bridle. "Hagen!", the man shouted at him, followed by an angry barrage in Germanic.
Haganicus recognized the Bataver, one of the decurions of the mounted auxiliaries. His name was Rufus, or Rubius, or something like that. He needed a moment to remember.
"Hagen, stay by my side!" Rufus shouted in Germanic.
They looked at each other. Then Haganicus nodded. He suddenly became shamefully aware of how vulnerable he was. And how incredibly stupid. He, Lucius and Titus had plunged into a battle, without protective armour or weapons. At least Titus had a sword to defend himself. He on the other hand, only had this cursed standard.
Every muscle in his arm ached, from hand to shoulder, from the effort to keep the standard upright on a galloping horse. It was less the weight than the awkward posture and constant movement.
Rufus dragged their bay horse on the reins and tried his best to keep them out of the crowd of running tribesmen and lead them into the safety of the cohort.
The standard bearer of the cavalry suddenly appeared on their other side. "Hey, boy, where did you get this standard?" He demanded. He eyed the eagle with a frown and was about to reach for the pole.
"Hands off!", Lucius screamed angrily. "This is a legion Eagle of Gaius Julius Ceasar!"
"Oh, Lucius ..." Haganicus sighed, but broke off in mid-sentence.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a tall warrior standing with a wide stance, feet solidly planted into the ground. He circled a heavy spear with curved blade over his head in a wide arch. With impressive ease he kept the attacking riders at bay. He laughed wildly into the roman’s faces.
Just as he was about to turn and hurry after his comrades, his attention was drawn to the Eagle Haganicus held up. His eyes sparkled with fury at the sight of the hated symbol of the Roman invaders. Surprisingly agile, for such a tall man, he dashed forward, bridging the distance between them at a furious pace. Before any of the approaching riders could react, he raised his spear, spinning it over his head. The flashing blade lashed out in a deadly arc.
Haganicus saw the blow coming at him. He wanted to scream a warning, but everything went so fast. Caught in fear, his breath froze, suffocating his cry. Instinctively, his body prepared for the blow. He pulled Lucius tight into his arms and clenched himself over the little boy to protect him.
The standard bearer shouted a warning: "Watch out!".
Rufus looked around, startled, but too late ...
Haganicus turned in the saddle sideways as far as he could to avoid the blade. Yet, he felt a soft swipe that ran up his leg from his knee, then hitting his hip with a sharp blow. His whole body flinched.
He must have closed his eyes in fear, but when he opened them, a horse careered past them in full gallop. The rider thundered forward, heavily colliding with the tribesman and shoving him off balance. He hammered down his sword, striking the warrior from above with raging anger.
Haganicus suddenly felt his body relax. The tension all drained out of him and relief spread through every fibre and nerve of his body. The blow had been fierce, but not nearly as bad as he had feared. The leg, which he had raised, slid limply down the horse's flank.
With a quick glance over his shoulder, he saw the warrior, face down in the churned mud, bleeding to death from a gaping shoulder wound.
"Move out of the way! Make room! "Rufus shouted to the legionaries, who opened their line quickly to let them pass. Rufus dragged them into the middle of the formation, where it was safest for them.
He heard Lucius voice. Strangely, it sounded as if it came from a long distance. "Haganicus ...?" Lucius said with a shaky voice.
He looked down at the dark curls of Lucius head. The boy stared in horror at Haganicus's leg. Strangely lethargic, almost reluctantly, he followed his gaze. He had to force himself to look at his own leg. First, he saw only a thin trickle of blood, red on his skin, seeping from a harmless scratch near his knee. Then, about a hand's breadth below his hip, his ragged tunic suddenly revealed a flesh wound that was so deep its edges gaped, revealing the raw flesh of the twitching muscle beneath.
More and more blood started to flow. The wound filled with blood.
A stocky officer with a grey beard marched over to them and roared out a string of orders.
Haganicus began to tremble. At first in short waves, then more and more violently, until his whole body shook uncontrollably.
"The standard," he mumbled. He felt it slipping from his fingers.
A legionary who happened to rush past them saw the falling standard and automatically reached out for it. He pulled it closer. The man certainly never expected to find a wrathful eight-year-old clinging to the other end of it with both hands. Lucius slid off the saddle and barrelled into the legionnaire’s chest, knocking the breath out of the man and causing them both to tumble to the ground.
Haganicus swayed in his saddle. "Lucius ..." he murmured with fading voice. Searing pain shot through his leg and he writhed in agony.
The legionnaire stood up, grabbed the standard, tucked the kicking Lucius under his other arm, and marched resolutely into the middle of the cohort.
"Get off the horse!" the burly officer, who suddenly appeared at his side, yelled at Haganicus. He was a First Centurion. He slung his muscular arm around Haganicus’ waist and pulled him out of the saddle in one fluid motion. Haganicus screamed in pain.
"Get down, boy. Or do you want to be hit by a slingshot? "
"Uncle Makmak!" Lucius roared from somewhere.
Haganicus was almost passing out as the First Centurion gently lowered him to the ground.
Slowly it became dark around him from the edges of his vision.
"He’s losing too much blood ..."
"He needs care immediately ...!"
All he perceived were incoherent sensory impressions: shouted phrases and confused images.
Again the First Centurion’s weathered face appeared over him. The man pressed his lips into a thin hard line as he leaned over the boy for a moment. His blood-spattered face was marked by many scars, distinguishing him as veteran, who had fought a lifetime in the roman army.
"Uncle Makmak," Lucius shouted again.
"Get Lucius over there! Take this one to the medic ... "
"Quick, over here ...!"
He clenched his teeth as hard as he could to suppress the clatter. He trembled on all limbs as he fought against searing pain and unconsciousness.
"Tell Tribun Cato that we have his son and he's fine ..."
"This boy here, sir?"
"No, he is the son of the old Centurion Hortensius ..."
The pain threatened to rob his senses.
"What did you say, boy?" Someone asked softly.
His tongue barely seemed to obey him. "Lucius is a ... damn daredevil," he groaned, as it got dark around him.
"That's something his father won’t be too pleased to hear," growled the voice of the First Centurion.