The Sword of Jupiter - Cover

The Sword of Jupiter

Copyright© 2021 by Lumpy

Chapter 2

Lucilla whipped the rump of her horse hard urging the animal to run faster. The ten remaining men of her guard were close in around her, each riding equally full-out. A glance over her shoulder confirmed that their pursuers were still behind them, although she and her guard had managed to gain a little more distance on them.

Their lead was a temporary situation at best. Their horses could not maintain this grueling pace indefinitely. The enemy must have realized this as well, which is why they let their horses slow slightly, allowing Lucilla’s small group a small lead. They knew it was only a matter of time until their mounts collapsed from exhaustion.

So far, their reaction since the ambush had been purely instinctual for Caedicius, the leader of her Praetorian detachment, who had immediately ordered Ursinus and his small detachment to get Lucilla to Devnum. As the optio had pushed her on a horse Caedicius had turned his remaining soldiers into the teeth of the much larger force they had been ambushed by. That had been the last she’d seen of the gray-haired centurion who had been in charge of her security detachment for as long as she could remember.

“We are not going to make it to Devnum,” she yelled across at Ursinus, who had stuck right by her side since the mad ride had begun.

He glanced back and grimaced, “We’ll keep pushing until the horses die under us or we lose them.”

His voice was hard, with the sound of a man who knew he was doomed but determined to do his duty to the last.

“Optio,” a voice to the right of him yelled, loud enough for Lucilla to hear.

They both turned and looked, seeing a dust cloud rising ahead of them and to the east, veering towards them.

“Reinforcements?” she asked hopefully.

Ursinus thought for a moment and shook his head, “I don’t think so. We have no forces out here. If they had been sent out of Devnum, they would have been headed south, not west. If their commander is as good as the ambush indicates, he had additional soldiers set to stop us from making a break for it. I think those riders are part of our pursuers, not our reinforcements.”

Even yelling, she could hear the apology in his voice as he crushed her hopes of rescue. There had been no warning anything was amiss until the moment their attackers had burst out of the trees. The fact that Caedicius’s men, including Gallus Gratius Ursinus, had managed to fight through the soldiers who had surrounded them and managed to get her this far had been a miracle.

Ursinus made a hand motion, indicating that his small force should turn away from the incoming pursuers. The land to the west and northwest was marshy, heading into a large floodplain that had clearly been filled to the brim. She was not a soldier, but she was observant enough to realize that land would slow them down, probably fatally. Ursinus, however, seemed to have little choice. They would not be able to skirt the marsh and stay out of the hands of the force bearing down on them, and ten men, including him, could not possibly fight through the oncoming attack.

Their pursuers continued to push them into worse and worse choices, and Lucilla knew she was running out of time. She would soon be in the arms of the gods. She was determined to add some of her attackers to the legions of Hades before she went, however.

They didn’t even make it as far as she had thought they might. They’d been forced to slow, twisting down a dry patch of land that led into the marsh, and came up hard against an open bog that would only end up breaking the legs of the mounts had they tried to rush through it.

“Dismount,” Ursinus yelled, his men complying instantly. “I’m sorry, mistress, we will not be able to outrun them.”

She nodded. Even on foot, the marsh would have been a death sentence. They would have been easy pickings had they tried to go through the thick sludge.

“I understand, Optio, you’ve done your best.”

He looked almost relieved at her proclamation, turning to his men as they pulled shields and weapons off the horses and prepared to make their stand.

“Give me a sword,” she demanded before he made his way to his men.

He looked back at her for a moment, his face looking almost questioning before returning to his horse. The hesitation was brief as he pulled a spare gladius from one of the horses and handed it to her.

“We will try and hold a rank in front of you, but even with the marsh at our backs, we will be too heavily outnumbered. They will work around our edges.”

“I will be ready.”

They didn’t have to wait long as the narrow lane they had taken into the marshland filled with horseman slowing as they neared their prey. The symbols painted on some of their shields made it clear who their pursuers were. The horizontal crescent above a circular skull marking proved them to be Carthaginians.

“Here she is,” the lead man said as he pulled his soldiers to a stop, a few spans of open ground from Lucilla and her handful of remaining guards.

The man’s Latin was thick with the accent of the southern Mediterranean, sounding sluggish. His statement also indicated that their ambush of Lucilla and her guard wasn’t happenstance. They had been looking for her specifically. That meant someone who knew her itinerary had betrayed her. It saddened her to know that she would never be able to deal with the traitor. She hoped her father would realize this after her death and kill the man who’d gotten her sentenced her to death.

“You gave us a good chase,” he said to Ursinus, “so I will make you a deal. I’ll let you and your men go if you hand her over to us. We even promise to take her back to Londinium in one piece. Make this bloody, there is a good chance she won’t make it out of this swamp alive.”

Ursinus’s response suggested the soldier attempt some things that were anatomically impractical, eliciting a snarl from the mounted trooper.

“Fine,” he said, waving his men to fan out, half surrounding the legionnaires. “Take them.”

The troopers, who knew better than to try and ride into even a small shield wall, dismounted and charged on foot. The smaller shields of the riders smashed against the large Roman shields as their heavier, and longer, swords tried to find an opening in the armored wall.

For a moment, the two sides held, the Romans curved in tight around Ursinus and Lucilla. Then the first of them fell, screaming as a sword found a hole and punched through the legionnaire’s chest. His friends tried to pull in tight over their fallen comrade, gladii stabbing out, catching more than one Carthaginian unprepared. Their smaller shield didn’t offer nearly as much protection. Men stumbled back from the Roman formation, clutching wounds, or just fell dead.

But there was always another Carthaginian to take the fallen comrade’s place and all too soon another legionnaire fell. A Carthaginian broke through before the Romans could tighten up their formation to close the hole. He ignored the defending Romans and charged right at Lucilla and Ursinus, sword raised.

Ursinus began to move to repel him and stopped. Before he could bring his weapon up to catch the Carthaginians attack Lucilla took a lunge forward with amazing speed, her Gladius lashing out, catching the soldier in an unarmored spot under his arm, sending a gush of blood washing over her outstretched arm.

She stepped back, recovering into a defensive position even as the man’s body fell. Ursinus didn’t have time to marvel at his charge’s surprising ability, as another legionary fell, and then another. The tide had turned, and the Roman wall crumbled.

Two of the Legionaries had dropped their shields as their defenses fell apart, managing to get back to guard the sides of their commander and charge. A third had tried to join them but an ax ended his life before he could retreat fully.

The rest of the small group of legionaries died quickly and violently. Ursinus pulled Lucilla further back, the two surviving legionnaires following suit. Their backs were almost to the horses, which had started to panic. Their small brains locked in deciding whether they should run from the flashing metal and coppery smell of blood into the nearly impenetrable mud.

As seems to happen in many battles there was a small lull; the enemy not making the collective decision to charge forward yet, knowing they could take the four survivors but none wanting to be the first to attack a wounded but still deadly opponent.

Bodies littered the ground and Lucilla was heartened to see there were maybe twenty Carthaginian dead scattered around the seven fallen Roman bodies. Her men, and she thought of them like that even though she wasn’t part of their hierarchy, had done themselves and the Empire proud.

“Kill th...” the leader started to command and then suddenly stopped.

Everyone, Roman and Carthaginian alike, froze in place and looked into the sky through squinting eyes as a second sun appeared above them.

“Commander,” a voice sounded.

Ky was disoriented as he came awake. He had a moment of confusion as his brain caught up with reality. It came back in a torrent as he remembered the bridge, the ejection, and the explosion.

Ky opened his eyes and saw a small landmass below him quickly growing larger.

“Deploy canopy,” Ky said groggily.

“The canopy is already deployed, Commander.”

The suit was designed to extend its kinetic shielding in large wings that functioned almost like the fabric used during the classic days of aviation. The shielding would create wind resistance that slowed its wearer to a safe speed, although with notable variations from its less high-tech predecessor. Under the AI control, since it was able to make the constant calculations needed, the wings would change in pitch and shape as needed to alter the rate and direction of descent, like an invisible hang glider.

Looking over his shoulder, Ky could see the AI had indeed deployed the canopy while he was still unconscious. A small piece of Ky’s mind noted all the independent actions the computer personality had taken on its own since the bridge had begun failing and then pushed them aside. He had larger problems to deal with at the moment.

“Where are we?”

“All data indicates we are on Earth, above the European continent, specifically above Britain.”

“Everything’s missing!” Ky said.

That was true. From his height, he could see the outline of Europe and Britain except with every major man-made feature missing. The Berlin metropolis, which covered almost a third of Europe, was nowhere to be seen. Even in daylight, it was clearly visible from much higher than his current, although thankfully now much more slowly decreasing, altitude. Looking above him Ky noticed the huge space station that should have been floating in Earth orbit was also missing. Britain, which was essentially a single massive city, looked nearly devoid of all but the smallest settlements.

“Confirmed, Commander. No expected man-made points of reference can be detected. However, topographical and astronomical data conform to general known terrestrial parameters.”

“But where is everything? How can this be Earth?”

“Insufficient data available to answer the query beyond speculation, Commander.”

“Speculate then.”

“Touchdown in under one minute and seventeen seconds, Commander,” the AI replied instead of answering his question.

“Do we have a suitable spot to land?”

“Yes, Commander, there are multiple areas that would be acceptable. However, there seems to be native activity in most of the area within our landing profile.”

“Show me,” Ky commanded.

A section of Ky’s helmet changed from showing what was around him to an enhanced view of the area he would need to land in. The same thing could have happened over his eyes as well, even without the helmet, but Ky preferred to see visuals on the visor of the helmet over the ocular implants if possible and had long ago set the AIs defaults to operate to his preference.

A section of the land beneath him was marked with possible landing points available on his current glide path, even with changes to his canopy. Most of that area was overlaid in red, showing it as unsuitable for landing. A mental command focused in on that area Ky agreed the marshland would be dangerous to land on at the speeds he would touch down at.

Along the far eastern edge of his possible landing area was a small plain which would be perfect for landing, if it didn’t currently hold dozens of men on horseback. He could see archaic weapons either on the horses or in the rider’s hands indicating that they were not gathered there for some type of recreation.

There were smaller cleared areas that stretched into the marsh area, although most were small enough that it was questionable if he could accurately hit them even with the precision his AI could deliver. While it could make rapid changes the closer he got to the ground the more wind gusts and other unpredictable atmospheric changes would cause enough inaccuracies that successful landing became problematic.

There was one other area that stretched into the marshland that was large enough, but it too had people on it. Ky enhanced that area and looked at the people. Instead of milling about, like the horsemen further back along the plains area, there seemed to be two distinct groups. One group which extended all the way back to the larger collection of horsemen surrounded another, much smaller group. The smaller group was made up of a collection of unmounted horses and four people each holding weapons, although at the moment those weapons were held at their sides as they looked up towards where Ky was descending towards them.

It was evident the larger group was threatening the smaller group. Ky could make out a collection of bodies between the two combatants showing that they had already begun to clash before his sudden appearance.

Ky was aware he was not coming in stealthily. Besides the explosion of the ship, which would have been impossible for anyone to miss, his speed had been such that a significant amount of air friction was occurring all along his Kinetic shielding causing it to glow with heat along the length of its surface. At some points, pockets of gasses were reacting against his shielding, bursting into flame here and there as well. The overall effect would have been a somewhat humanoid figure who appeared to be wreathed in fire, with two long planes extending from the shoulders, which would also have seemed to be on fire.

If these people were as primitive as their equipment suggested it would be spectacular.

“Put me between those four individuals and the larger group.”

“Chance of being engaged in hostile action in that location exceeds base safety protocols.”

“Are there any places where we can land safely that don’t exceed safety protocols?”

“Negative, Commander.”

“Then just do it.”

The AI didn’t respond to Ky’s harsh tone, which was to be expected. It was programmed to give warnings for things like this, but his command would override those protocols.

The ground was coming up quickly now, rushing to meet him.

“Adjust shielding for impact,” Ky said.

The canopy disappeared instantly. They were close enough to the ground that it wouldn’t slow him much more at this point and that power could be better used to harden and distribute the impact. The kinetic shielding was good at this since that was the primary purpose it was designed for although it was also used for minimal protection from ballistic or low powered energy weapons as well.

While the almost sixty kilometers per hour at which Ky was traveling wasn’t fast when compared to any modern form of conveyance, it was fast enough that even with the kinetic shielding the impact was going to be spectacular.

Ky unconsciously held his breath as he traveled the last few meters and smashed into the ground, the kinetic shielding directing the energy from the impact away spraying dirt across both groups of primitively dressed people as a small crater was created around him. The displacement ensured Ky wasn’t injured but he was still forced to his knees as he smashed to the ground, air being forced from his lungs in a grunt.

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