The sun of northern Gaul was pale, nothing like the hot, lusty torch that flamed over Italy. In the dim stillness beneath the trees, its light came wan, green, and shifting, almost as if undersea. The Romans pushing their way down the narrow forest track took their mood from their surroundings. They moved quietly; no trumpets or bawdy marching songs announced their coming. The daunting woods ignored them.
Peering into the forest, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus wished he had more men. Caesar and the main Roman army were a hundred miles to the southwest, moving against the Veneti on the Atlantic coast. Scaurus’ three cohorts—“a reconaissance in force,” his superior had called them—were more than enough to attract the attention of the Gauls, but might be unable to deal with it, once attracted.
“Only too right,” Gaius Philippus answered when the tribune said that aloud. The senior centurion, hair going gray and face tanned and lined by a lifetime on campaign, had long ago lost optimism with the other illusions of his youth. Though Scaurus’ birth gave him higher rank, he had the sense to rely on his vastly experienced aide.
Gaius Philippus cast a critical eye on the Roman column. “Close it up, there!” he rasped, startlingly loud in the quiet. His gnarled vine-staff badge of office thwacked against his greave to punctuate the order. He quirked an eyebrow at Scaurus. “You’ve nothing to worry about anyway, sir. One look and the Gauls will think you’re one of theirs on a masquerade.”
The military tribune gave a wry nod. His family sprang from Mediolanum in northern Italy. He was tall and blond as any Celt and used to the twitting his countrymen dished out. Seeing he’d failed to hit a nerve, Gaius Philippus took another tack. “It’s not just your looks, you know—that damned sword gives you away, too.”
That hit home. Marcus was proud of his blade, a three-foot Gallic longsword he had taken from a slain Druid a year ago. It was fine steel and better suited to his height and reach than the stubby Roman gladii. “You know full well I had an armorer give it a decent point,” he said. “When I use a sword, I’m not such a fool as to slash with it.”
“A good thing, too. It’s the point, not the edge, that brings a man down. Hello, what’s this about?” Gaius Philippus added as four of the small army’s scouts dashed into the woods, weapons in hand. They came out a few moments later, three of them forcibly escorting a short, scrawny Gaul while the fourth carried the spear he had borne.
As they dragged their captive up to Scaurus, their leader, an underofficer named Junius Blaesus, said, “I’d thought someone was keeping an eye on us this past half hour and more, sir. This fellow finally showed himself.”
Scaurus looked the Celt over. Apart from the bloody nose and puffed eye the Romans had given him, he could have been any of a thousand Gallic farmers: baggy woolen trousers, checked tunic—torn now—long, fair hair, indifferently shaven face. “Do you speak Latin?” the military tribune asked him.
The only answer he got was a one-eyed glare and a head-shake. He shrugged. “Liscus!” he called, and the unit’s interpreter trotted up. He was from the Aedui, a clan of south central Gaul long friendly to Rome, and wore a legionary’s crested helm over bright curls cut short in the Roman fashion. The prisoner gave him an even blacker stare than the one he had bestowed on Scaurus. “Ask him what he was doing shadowing us.”
“I will that, sir,” Liscus said, and put the question into the musical Celtic speech. The captive hesitated, then answered in single short sentence. “Hunting boar, he says he was,” Liscus reported.
“By himself? No one would be such a fool,” Marcus said.
“And this is no boarspear, either,” Gaius Philippus said, grabbing it from a scout. “Where’s the crosspiece below the head? Without one, a boar will run right up your shaft and rip your guts out.”
Marcus turned to Liscus. “The truth this time, tell him. We’ll have it from him, one way or another. The choice is his: he can give it or we can wring it from him.” Marcus doubted he could torture a man in cold blood, but there was no reason to let the Celt know that.
But Liscus was only starting to speak when the prisoner, with a lithe twist and a kick, jerked free of the men holding him. His hand flashed to a leaf-shaped dagger cunningly slung below his left shoulder. Before the startled Romans could stop him, he thrust the point between his ribs and into his heart. As he toppled, he said, “To the crows with you,” in perfect Latin.
Knowing it would do no good, Scaurus shouted for a physician; the Celt was dead before the man arrived. The doctor, a sharp-tongued Greek named Gorgidas, glanced at the protruding knife hilt and snapped, “You ask too much of me, you know. I’ll close his eyes for him if you like.”
“Never mind. Even while I called, I knew there was nothing you could do.” The tribune turned to Junius Blaesus. “You and your men did well to find the spy and bring him in—not so well in not searching him carefully and keeping a lax hold on him. The Gauls must have something in the wind, though we’ve lost the chance to find out what. Double your patrols and keep them well out in front—the more warning of trouble we have, the better.” Blaesus saluted and hurried off, thankful to get away with no harsher reprimand.
“Full battle readiness, sir?” Gaius Philippus asked.
“Yes.” Marcus cocked an eye at the westering sun. “I hope we can find a clearing before dusk for an encampment. I’d feel safer behind earthworks.”
“And I. I’d feel safer still with a couple of legions at my back.” The centurion went off to make the needful changes in the Romans’ marching order, bringing his spear-throwers forward and tightening up the distance between each maniple and its neighbor. An excited hum ran through the ranks. Here a man hastily sharpened his sword, there another cut short a leather sandal strap that might trip him in action, still another took a last swig of sour wine.
Shouts came from up ahead, out of sight beyond a bend in the path. A minute or so later a scout jogged back to the main body of troops. “We spied another skulker in the bushes, sir. I’m afraid this one got away.”
Marcus whistled tunelessly between his teeth. He dismissed the scout with a word of thanks, then looked to Gaius Philippus, sure the centurion felt the same certainty of trouble he did himself. Gaius Philippus nodded at his unspoken thought. “Aye, we’re for it, right enough.”
But when another of the advance guards came back to report the path opening out into a sizable clearing, the military tribune began to breathe more easily. Even the small force he led—not quite a third of a legion—could quickly build field fortifications strong enough to hold off many times its number of barbarians.
The clearing was large, several hundred yards of meadow set in the midst of the deep wood. The evening mist was already beginning to gather above the grass. A stream trickled through the center of the clearing; half a dozen startled teal leaped into the air as the Romans began emerging. “Very good indeed,” Scaurus said. “Perfect, in fact.”
“Not quite, I’m afraid,” Gaius Philippus said. He pointed to the far edge of the clearing, where the Celtic army was coming out.
Marcus wasted a moment cursing; another hour and his men would have been safe. No help for it now. “Trumpets and cornets together!” he ordered the buccinators.
As the call to action rang out, Gaius Philippus’ voice rang with it. The senior centurion was in his element, readying his troops. “Deploy as you debouch!” he shouted. “Three lines—you know the drill! Skirmishers up ahead, then you front-rankers with your pila, then the heavy infantry, then reserves! Come on, move—yes, you there, you worthless whoreson!” His vine-stave thudded down on the slow legionary’s corseleted back. Junior centurions and underofficers echoed and amplified his commands, yelling and prodding their men into place.
The deployment took only minutes. Beyond posting an extra squad of slingers and some protecting spearmen on the slightly higher ground to his right, Scaurus kept a symmetrical front as he waited to see how many enemies he faced.
“Is there no end to them?” Gaius Philippus muttered by his side. File after file of Gauls moved into the clearing, slowly going into line of battle. Well-armored and powerfully armed nobles shouted and waved as they tried to position their bands of retainers but, as always among the Celts, discipline was tenuous. Most of the men the nobles led had gear far poorer than theirs: a spear or slashing sword, perhaps a large oblong shield of wood painted in bright spirals. Except for the nobles, few wore more armor than a leather jerkin, or at most a helmet. Of the cuirasses to be seen, most were Roman work, the spoil of earlier battles.
“What do you make of them? About three thousand?” Marcus asked when the Celtic flood at last stopped flowing.
“Aye, about two for our one. It could be worse. Of course,” Gaius Philippus went on, “it could be a damned sight better, too.”
On the far side of the clearing the Gauls’ commander, splendid in armor of black and gold and a cape of crimson-dyed skins, harangued his men, whipping them up into a fighting frenzy. He was too far away for the Romans to make out his words, but the fierce yells of hi...