The mist was thick as the Roman sentries made their patrols in the pre-dawn hours. Throughout the night they had tensely awaited an assault by the Germans, but none had come. Maybe with the legions being so close to the settlement the barbarians had withdrawn to safety.
Flickering light could be seen coming from the settlement, but the centurions had ordered their men not to build fires. No sense in giving any roving Germans easy targets. So the men gripped their pila and strained to see anything in the dark mist.
Dawn could not come soon enough.
Ulaf led his men through the trees towards the track. Each man carried several of the Roman pila that had been plundered from the dead or the supply carts they had captured. Each man also was fitted in leather armor and most carried gladii on their belt, again thanks to plunder.
They crept closer, their pace slowing. Ulaf raised a fist and they all halted, crouching. One of Ulaf’s band, Fitzer, crouched near to his chief. Fitzer was a huge man with a scar on his back that ran from his shoulder blades to his waist. This scar was from an encounter with a great bear that had decided that this man was a presence that would not be tolerated near her cub. Caught in the open with only a wooden spear, Fitzer had slain the beast, but not before suffering the wound that left the scar. The cub had been adopted by Fitzer and was surely now back home patrolling their homestead waiting on its master.
The plan was for them to wait on a blast from a horn. One long, two short. This would signal them to attack. Ulaf slapped Fitzer on the shoulder and the giant grinned back at him. The man loved to fight.
Ulaf crept through the brush until he could peer at the Roman force. In the darkness he could only see the even darker outline of the wagons and the men who guarded them. It was probably too dark to attack, just yet. As this thought crossed his mind he heard the horn blow the signal. One long, two short. A pause, then again one long, two short. So much for it being too dark.
Ulaf stood and roared for his men to attack. They burst through the brush and closed to within fifty paces of the Roman camp. When they reached that distance they hurled their Roman spears into the camp. Ulaf watched as one of his throws took a Roman in the throat, pinning him to the ground. He tossed his final pila and drew his sword. A Roman stumbled around a wagon and right into Ulaf’s reach. He cut down with the gladius and the man fell like a slaughtered steer.
Something whizzed by Ulaf’s ear and he ducked behind a wagon. Flames lept up inside the camp and he heard the clash of arms. Cautiously, he peered around the edge of the wagon, saw no one, and crept into the camp. There were bodies lying around, mostly unmoving. A fire was beginning to blaze deeper into the Roman camp and he heard the roar of men in battle. He started to race to the sound, but then heard something that checked his steps. A jingling sound came and he ducked back behind the wagon just as a group of around forty horsemen trotted into the space that he had just been in. They wore the red cloaks of the Romans and carried long spears.
The riders halted briefly and he watched them as they seemed to discuss what to do. Their leader was a grizzled man with a scarred face. He pointed to where the sounds of battle were emanating from and the men spurred in that direction. Once the riders were out of sight, Ulaf ran towards the woods. It was time to retreat.
Arminius watched as his men tore into the Roman lines. It appeared that the Romans truly were surprised by the attack, but how long would the surprise last? The Romans were nothing if not tactically flexible. He watched as the surge of his men seemed to wash up on a section of the Roman camp, only to recede and then surge again. It looked like the Romans had formed a line of battle and were holding off his men. As he watched, he saw dozens of Germans fall before the threshing blades of the Roman legionnaires.
A figure caught his eye. It was a man racing from the camp and heading towards Arminius’ position. He squinted through the haze and smoke and recognized Ulaf. The northern warrior met his eyes and began to shout as he drew closer.
“Withdraw the men. I saw horsemen.”
Arminius’ eyes widened and he yelled to one of his aides, “Sound the withdrawal.”
The long drawn out notes that signaled withdrawal sounded out as Arminius turned his horse and led his men back through the woods.
Earlier, Arminius had spoken to the war leaders and laid out his plan. They would attack with ferocity in the pre-dawn hours and try to overrun the Romans there and then. If the initial attack stalled, they were to retreat to their line of defense just outside the settlement walls. It was those defenses that the German forces headed for now.