“Hubris Undoes the Mighty”
Valens waited in the wings for the signal to dash headlong into danger. Last night’s bravado had faded, allowing his fears to mount. Expecting a more significant barbarian force, he thanked the gods, seeing his side outnumbered the other for his first battle.
“Remember, lads. Speed’s the velites best defense. Dash in and out, nipping at the fringe. Don’t stop. Throw. Keep running.” A veteran said.
His youth and inexperience had landed Valens in the velites unit. He wore no armor, only a wolf-pelt cloak for a uniform, and carried a small shield and several javelins. Tasked with harrying the enemy like a pack of wolves, Valens’s squad aimed to dispossess as many front-line barbarians of their shields as possible.
Searching the ranks, Valens spotted Rome’s golden eagle glinting in the sunlight atop the signum. Crispus, garbed in gold and scarlet with a lion pelt on his head, bore the Roman banner as a weapon. He knew the officer relied on Mars for success in battle, but Valens felt better praying to Venus to protect the one he loved.
“There’s our cue to advance! The battle begins! Fly, brothers! Fly like Mercury himself, and I’ll meet you on the other side!” the veteran shouted.
Valens sprang into action, sprinting across the meadows toward the waiting barbarians. Numerous clumps of thorny brush dotted the fields, forcing the velites to weave between the razor-like briars. The effort slowed Valens’s pace, making him feel vulnerable.
Nearing the uneven enemy lines, Valens targeted a foe and, using his momentum, threw his first javelin. His eyes lingered, watching the weapon arc through the air until striking his target’s shield. A triumphant whoop leaped from his mouth until he felt sharp thorns goring his legs. Valens halted, frantically kicking and pulling, scolding himself for forgetting the briars. The tangle fell to the ground revealing its dry, exposed roots. Surprised, Valens looked back to see a large hole where the briars had been.
Briars, back home, take two men to rip out. Merely running through these pulled the whole thing up. He thought.
Reconsidering the landscape, the unnatural pattern appeared obvious now. Realizing the enemy had transplanted the briar, Valens saw his foe in a new light. The Romans had foolishly assumed the barbarians were an unsophisticated lot incapable of devising such defenses.
An arrow pierced the ground at his feet, wrenching Valens out of his reverie.
Fool! How long have I been standing here?
Vowing to learn from his mistakes, he leaped back into action, seeking targets for his remaining javelins. Valens focused on aiming and sidestepping briars; thus, he had no idea if he had disabled more barbarian shields. Throwing his last weapon with satisfaction, he hurried back to the relative safety behind the Roman legion.
His part finished, Valens accepted a proffered spear from one of the older soldiers and readied himself to provide cover for a fighting retreat if the prime soldiers failed.
“Will it be difficult to secure the bridge?” Valens asked.
“Shouldn’t be. We’ve superior numbers.” an older soldier said.
“My run wasn’t a complete failure. At least one javelin flew true.” Valens said.
“One hit could alter a soldier’s fate for the better.”
“Always the hardest. But, you’ve proved yourself now, lad.”
Valens watched a comrade limp back, shieldless, using his wolf pelt to staunch a spreading splotch of blood. He realized more than half of the velites had yet to return. Valens burned with shame for complaining about his scratched legs. Remembering Rome had the advantage here, he wondered how many wolves typically survived a run with worse odds.
Why did I make it? I should be dead.
Valens thrust the thought from his mind, returning his focus to the battle. The barbarians had managed to break through a section of the shield wall manned by less experienced soldiers. Valens watched Crispus rush forward, with the signum high, alerting everyone more support was needed. Soldiers shifted, forming a spearhead of veterans to push the barbarians back onto the bridge.
“The enemy retreats! Is it already over?” Valens asked.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if …”
A gurgle cut the old man’s reply short.
Valens turned to find the veteran soldier wide-eyed, clutching at an arrow in his throat. Stunned, he watched the man collapse, dead before hitting the ground. Valens struggled to grasp what had happened.
We’re out of range.
Valens stood frozen, listening to a chorus of sickening sounds as others dropped about him. He became aware of a growing rumble from behind. Valens turned to investigate, but someone slammed into him, knocking him to the ground and causing him to thwack his head on a rock. Dazed, gasping for air, he struggled to get up.
What’s that noise?
A warm, stickiness oozed down Valen’s face stinging his eyes. Swiping his brow only brought pain and blurred his vision. Squinting to focus, he saw blood on his hand and panicked.
Gods! I’m wounded! Venus, help me!
Valens felt the ground begin to vibrate. Peering back, he beheld a horde of barbarians fast approaching from behind the Roman lines.
Where in gods did they come from?
Valens discovered the answer to that question as a brute of a man materialized before his eyes. Another trapdoor to his left flung open, showering Valens with dirt and debris.
The ground! They were hiding beneath us!
Everything made sense now. The briars were too readily unearthed because they hadn’t grown there. The thorny plants had probably just been moved to conceal hundreds of pits. The real barbarian army had lain in the ground waiting for an opportune time to ambush the Romans from behind.
Valens tried to call for Crispus, but his voice failed him as he passed out.
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