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Young Eagles

Chapter Text

(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 -

 

Chapter Text

"CHARGE ...!", Titus roared, as if commanding a whole army and pointed the outstretched sword to the road, which they had to reach.
Haganicus slammed his heels into his gelding's flanks. In front of him Titus’ startled mare leaped forward and disappeared swiftly through the bushes. The heavy gelding he and Lucius rode snorted and ponderously went after them.
At the very last moment Haganicus remember to tilt the eagle standard a little backwards, before it was torn from his hand in the bushes. For a moment all he saw were green leaves slapping into his face and rustling around his ears. He ducked his head and bend over Lucius, who was swaying in the saddle. Then they were through it.
They burst out of the cover and raced down the slope.
Titus was already a few paces ahead of them, while Haganicus fought to keep Lucius and himself up in the saddle. Thank the gods, his bay horse decided to chase right after the mare, because for the moment the desperate Haganicus wasn’t much of a help to his steed.
It took the two boys a few moments before they managed to move in harmony with their galloping horse. When they left the uneven ground of the ploughed field behind and darted along a narrow trail, it became easier. Haganicus breathed a sigh of relief. He finally had the standard halfway under control.
Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, he noticed a movement behind them.
He looked around. His blood turned to ice in his veins!
A flock of riders erupted from the forest, chasing after them. Damn, he never knew these dirty dogs got so close onto their heels. "Behind us...!" he yelled at the top of his voice to Titus. Haganicus cursed Titus and his impatience. Now their ride to the garrison would turn into a wild life-and-death race, right from the start.
Panicked Chickens fled with loud gaggles under the whirling hooves of their horses as they thundered around two huts, almost riding down an old woman, who hung her laundry. They paid no attention to the horrified looks of the inhabitants.
"Titus!" He roared.
Titus looked back. "Faster!" He bellowed and merciless urged his mare on.
The theft of the horses must have been discovered much earlier than they had hoped. Someone must have drawn the right conclusions and quickly sent men after them.
In the forest we could have kept them off our backs for longer, Haganicus was certain.
"What is it?" Lucius shouted anxiously.
"Horsemen of the Haeduers! Behind us!"
Haganicus, Lucius, and the standard swayed wildly in the saddle, making it difficult for their gelding to keep a steady gallop, no matter how much he spurred him on. The dark bay snorted furiously.
As he looked over his shoulder again, Haganicus felt a shiver running down his spine. Their pursuers were closing in on them far too quickly. With horror he realized, with their two weary horses they would never make it to the garrison before these Haeduer caught up with them. Titus was well ahead, as they dashed through a gap in a low drystone wall.
Haganicus eyed the standard in his hand.
"Don’t let go of the Eagle!" Lucius shrieked, stretching out his hand.
"Damn Lucius, put your hands back on the saddle!" He yelled outraged.
Before you and I fall into the hands of these dirty Haeduer, I'll definitely let go of this shit standard, Haganicus swore angrily to himself. I rather want to save our lives! But ... what would his father say, when he heard his son let the most sacred symbol of the Legion fall into their enemies hands? That his son had brought shame over them? Haganicus could already see the look of disappointment on his fathers hard face and he winced.
"More riders are coming!" Titus loud voice startled him out of his thoughts.
Sword in hand, Titus gestured to the point where the road emerged from a wooded hollow.
"Are they ours?" It looked like an orderly Roman cavalry division, but at this distance Haganicus couldn’t be quite sure.
"Please let them be ours. Please let them be ours," Lucius implored.
Haganicus’ heart almost stopped.
Then Titus roared triumphantly: "They’re our men!"
Haganicus looked around again. Their pursuers were gaining fast on them. They were closer now, than the cavalry on the road below.
He turned his eyes back to the romans. This wasn’t just a vanguard or a small patrol which rode out of the hollow. More and more men came in sight. At least one, if not two squadrons. Or were there even more?
Haganicus rejoiced when the first riders spotted them. But then the head of the approaching train faltered at their sight.
Why did the cavalry hesitate, rather than rush to their aid?
Then he suddenly realized, at that distance the men probably couldn’t quite identify who came storming towards them.
"Damn, they don’t recognize us in our dirty rags," he cursed breathlessly.
Before they were confused as enemy attackers and greeted with a barrage of spears and arrows, he yelled out at the cavalry the first thing that came to his mind: "Titus Vespasianus! Titus Vespasianus!....". The name of the Senator's son should be familiar to the soldiers, or at least their officers, especially to those of them who had served under his father.
Lucius looked around at him in surprise. Haganicus drove his gelding on mercilessly, to catch up with Titus, whose lean mare finally slowed down.
"Hold up the standard!" Lucius shouted at him.
"Titus Vespasianus! ..." Haganicus shouted, raising the standard towards the cavalry.
"Roma Victor! ... Titus Vespasianus!", Lucius bellowed at the top of his lungs.
They were finally close enough that Haganicus could see the stunned expression on the commanding prefects’ face. The man suddenly realized, these were the three missing boys, the sons of senior Roman officers, whom everyone was looking for. Here the boys were heading straight towards them and about to be overrun by Haeduer warriors, right before his very eyes.
The prefect suddenly opened his mouth and barked out orders to his men.
Immediately, he and the first rows of his men spurred their horses on and charged towards them.
Haganicus cried out in relief.
Then, with a quick glance over his shoulder, he got certainty: "They give up!"
The half-dozen tribal warriors chasing after them realized, they had lost this race. They pulled their horses around and rode back to the forest as fast as they could.
"They bugger off!"
Lucius cheered.
"We've done it!", Haganicus was about to cheer, just as he pulled alongside Titus, but the words caught in his mouth.
All of a sudden Titus drove his mare on again, but not towards the safety of the cavalry. He was chasing off in the almost opposite direction. With a few bold paces, his chestnut reached the road, jumped over the small ditch and raced down the lane.
"Follow me!", Titus shouted to them.
"What the Hades ...?" Haganicus stammered, looking after Titus in astonishment. His bay horse decided to keep following Titus’ mare and jumped onto the road, albeit with a far less elegant leap.
"Stop…! Stop ...!" roared the prefect behind them. There was a sudden commotion in the cavalry, because some riders were still advancing, while others were either turning or curbing their horses. They could’t decide whether to follow Titus or chase the enemy horsemen and got in each other's way. For a moment there was chaos.
"Stop…! Stop them! Catch the boys!" the prefect bellowed behind them.
Once again, it was bright little Lucius who was the faster thinker. "Titus is leading them to the cohort!" he shouted.
"What the Hades ...?" Haganicus stammered.
"Hahr ...! Hahr ...! ", screamed Lucius and slammed his heels into the gelding’s ribs. The horse snorted indignantly, but lumbered after the vanishing Titus with renewed vigour.
"Titus Vespasianus! Titus ...! Titus ....! Titus ...! "Lucius shrieked wild with enthusiasm, cheering him on with a shrill voice.
Titus glanced back, grinned wildly and nodded.
"What the Hades ...?" Haganicus stammered, wondering if both his friend had lost their minds.
Then he realized what Titus was trying to do. Instead of going back to the garrison to sound the alarm and send reinforcements to the ambushed cohort at the river crossing, Titus knew, as soon as he saw the strong cavalry detachment, he had to lead that cavalry as fast as possible towards the cohort. When he turned his horse, Titus was certain, the cavalry would follow them. Since they had been recognized as the missing officers' sons, the commander of the cavalry would do pretty much everything in his power to prevent them from falling into the enemies hands as hostages or coming to harm any other way.
Especially since one of the boys was the son of a powerful Roman senator. The prefect knew all too well the fate which would befall him and his men should Titus come to harm: a transfer to the darkest, most barbaric and remote province in the Empire. At best. Otherwise .... lion food in the arena.
"Don't let them catch up with us before we reach the cohort, Haganicus!" Lucius shouted, as the Roman cavalrymen went racing after them.
Haganicus drove his heavy steed on.
Their race was not over yet! Today they’d ride into battle ...

- To be continued...next Friday  -

Chapter Text

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.
Voices screamed.
"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.

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