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THE BIRTH OF ROME
Synopsis of Chapter 20: Battles on Land and Sea
A few weeks before the murder of Servius Tullius, a party of farm boys from Capua passed through the city on their way to Caere to fight in the war. An allied force of Etruscans and Carthaginians were determined to destroy the Greek colony of Alalia on Corsica. The young men from Capua spent the night at the home of Marcus Junius, and when they continued young Luc Junius left with them. The combined fleet fought two battles with the Greeks and won the day. In the second battle Luc fights like a demon and receives a great blow to the head. In the meantime, Roma recoils in shock over the murder of their king.
Excerpt from Chapter 20: Battles on Land and Sea
The ram of the first penteconter crashed into their right side but at an angle, deflecting off the sturdy hull, shearing off the oars and coming to rest side by side. The second penteconter had the advantage of a stable target and charged at the bow of Luc's ship at nine knots, bursting through the scantlings and holing the ship. The three ships spun around together in a weird rotating dance while the greater battle rushed pass them.
"Our turn, boys," Cutu Ancarui shouted, rising. No one needed to tell the soldiers to raise their shields and draw their swords.
"Do us proud, lads," Gisco Strytanus shouted in Greek to the farm boys from Capua.
The Greek oarsmen and armed hoplites from both penteconters swarmed aboard the trireme in two streams. They leaped from the bow of the ramming ship, and they jumped over the side-rail of the parallel ship, all swords and screams, hacking at the Punic sailors rising from their stations. The Capuans rushed to protect the Punic oarsmen from the onslaught. Some of the sailors tried to defend themselves with wickedly curved scimitars sheathed to the hull, but most had their hands full levering the ram point out of the hull and repairing the damage below the waterline.
Helmet on, grabbing his father's steel sword with both hands, Luc stood and waited for someone to attack him. He was thankful that he had popped a fruit ball into his mouth before pulling his helmet into position; he was afraid he might bite off his tongue without it. The Etruscan soldiers and Punic oarsmen who sat nearest to the Greek ships were the first to meet the onrushing warriors, but they were quickly overwhelmed. Fresh Greek warriors slipped around their brethren and charged down the center of the ship. A Phocaean in hoplite armor dashed past two Etruscan soldiers and Luc girded himself for the first blow, but the hoplite suddenly stumbled over the spare mast lashed to the deck and threw up his hands to rebalance. Luc saw a flash of armpit and instinctively plunged his sword into the opening, a lucky stab that pierced the enemy's heart. He thrust without thinking, then sensed a movement and pulled back his sword in time to ward off a strike aimed at his head. The weighty blow was deflected with a loud clang of metal, but it nearly knocked the sword out of his grip.
He couldn't see anything though the eye slits but a flicker of motion came from the left and he parried it with his sword, then a shadow hinted at a sweep from the right that he eluded by stepping back. He caught a glimpse of his attacker over the cheek guard as the Greek sailor advanced on him and he immediately assumed a defense posture with his sword pointed skyward, but he was too late: a savage swipe from the left caught him square on the side of his head and sent him sprawling. Pain exploded in his skull, blinding him. Luc dropped to one knee, fighting desperately to keep his balance, dazed and deadly aware of his peril. Another blow was coming, but he could not make his eyes focus and the world was spinning. He was lucky that the helmet caught most of the blow; a few inches lower and his head would have been removed entirely. He forced himself to stand; he sensed the presence of the enemy; he willed himself to concentrate and find his attacker, and then he saw the shadow on the deck. In seconds that passed as minutes, he saw the shadow arms rise up to strike the fatal blow, but it never came. A blur from the side came to his rescue; a second shadow stabbed at the first, and bodily pushed the attacker out of the way. He heard the ring of metal, the chunk of blade hacking into muscle and bone, and then a sudden, ominous silence. And then Vel Ursmna came into view, peering deep into his eyes with a look of great concern on his face, and Luc felt himself come back into this moment. He could see again, and suddenly the silence lifted.
"Luc, Luc, sit down," Vel commanded, helping to lower Luc to the deck. Then Vel turned and faced the next wave of screaming swordsmen.
Luc sucked in breath and shook his head to steady himself, his skull throbbing with terrible pain. Through the pain he fought to concentrate, regain his strength and pull himself to his feet. A moment of sickness washed through him as he stood up straight, but the threat of certain death pumped energy into his blood and endowed his muscles with desperate power. Another opponent came at him and chopped at his neck, but he reacted in time and stepped out of reach. The attacker prepared a second swing but Luc felt his awareness focus into crystal clarity, the entire world reduced to this one, silent moment. Luc suddenly attacked with a ferocity fed by untapped rage. His first thrust was easily parried, then he feigned a high right swing, reversed left and chopped up from below, taking the enemy in his groin. One more chop to the neck to finish his enemy, and then forward, seeking out the next combatant. With blood pouring down his face he looked like Battle incarnate, a demon with fury blazing in his eyes. With newfound strength he swung and chopped and elbowed a path through the attackers.
Luc had no idea how much time had passed. He could not say whether or not he screamed the whole time or remained silent. Suddenly he swung around and there were no more opponents to fight. It took him a moment to absorb the fact: the fight was over. Standing, he could see over the side and watched other ships engaged in mortal combat, their decks wriggling with arms, shields and helmets in constant motion. Some ships were still able to find enough room to swing around, accelerate and ram into the side of their enemy. The penteconters that were left fought for time. They sacrificed themselves to keep the enemy engaged while their comrades made good their escape. Luc could see beige dots moving away toward the north, the survivors of the Phocaean fleet. The golden light of the setting sun made the bloody stain in the sea turn orange. Luc could only stare at the color, his arms heavy and weak, his mind numb as well. He felt dull, yet vivid images filled his mind, memories of the afternoon's carnage that he rebelled against, yet could not ignore. Was this how it felt to be in a battle, he wondered? Where was the glory? When did the celebration begin?