Valens staggered back out into the ever increasing snowfall, and tried to glance up to the fort. It was impossible to see the walls from here, but the clanging of the bell was frantic and had been picked up by a second source. Whatever it was – and the optio had a pretty shrewd, dark idea what it was – it was enough to put the shits up professional veterans.
Two soldiers spilled out of the doorway, skin still gleaming and wet, towels around their shoulders, one of them gripping a handful of dice in one hand and coins in the other. The two men paused only to throw on their tunics, fasten their belts, slip their feet unto untied boots and hurl cloaks across their shoulders. As they did all this in the blink of an eye, they both badgered the optio for information. What was happening? Why the rush?
Valens stood out in the snow, holding up a finger at them while he looked this way and that.
He fancied he could hear a distant roar. He remembered when the whole unit was based here and he’d been part of the prefect’s hunting party. They’d thought they cornered a bear in the woods down the valley. It had not taken long to realise that the target of their hunt was every bit as dangerous as any four men tracking it. The roar the bear had let out as it came crashing out of the undergrowth and killed three of the hunting party was more or less what Valens was hearing now. He couldn’t explain it. But he didn’t like it.
‘Shut up, idiots,’ he said, cutting through the two men’s questions.
The soldiers stopped, unarmed and partially dressed, ready for action – of a sort.
Shit was coming, Valens knew. They were trapped in the sewer and the shit was coming. Get to high ground. ‘Publius,’ he jabbed a finger at one of them, ‘how many civilians are there in the vicus?’
‘Oh about fifteen, sir.’
‘Not about… exactly.’ Publius was a man who more or less lived in the vicus with the civilians when off duty.
The man with the handful of dice and the handful of coins shrugged, frowning as he concentrated. ‘Er, fourteen, sir. At last count.’
‘You know them all?’
‘I think so, sir.’
‘I’m going to take the houses on the main street. We need to get all the civilians in the fort. Trouble is coming. You two get round the periphery and pull in all the others. I want to see you at the gate in a five hundred count, with the entire civilian population right behind you.’
The two men frowned in incomprehension. ‘Sir?’
‘We’ve got guests at the fort, and we’re about to get a few more. I can’t be sure, but I think they’ll be a gross or more of angry natives.
The two men stared at him.
‘Go,’ he snapped, and they ran. Valens watched them go for just a moment, then began to work his way up the street back towards the fort, hammering on doors and shouting ‘Danger, open up,’ in both Latin and a rough approximation of the local language. He’d hit five silent, unresponsive doors before he found a house with which he was familiar. Inside he heard playful giggling. Ah yes, Elia. The whore.
Without waiting for a further sound from within, Valens ripped the door open and stepped inside. The low, smoky room was decorated with hangings made from the old military cloaks and scarves of former customers, the bare stone and timber walls in between painted with rough images of what might be asked of the proprietress, uncomfortable and even impractical though some of them looked.
The girl’s child sat giggling on the floor, playing with a lumpy, misshapen wool figure of a sheep. Elia appeared in the doorway to the next room, pulling aside the curtain. The optio drew an uncomfortable breath at the sight, for the girl was half naked, her chest full and very… distracting. She threw him a weary look. ‘I’m sure even you have seen them before, commander.’
Pulling her tunic and shawl from the wall, she pulled the plain grey garment on. ‘What’s this all about?’
‘There may be hostiles closing on the fort. The alarm has gone up.’
She gave him an arch look. ‘Hostile to who, Roman?’
‘I’m Dalmatian, for reference, and hostile to anyone who gets in the way.’
‘You’d be surprised who I can talk around.’
Valens gestured to the playing infant. ‘You willing to bet your son on that?’
‘Fair point. What now, officer Valens?’
‘Get everyone into the safety of the fort. Do you know what houses on this street are occupied? It’ll save me a lot of hammering on doors.’
‘Lugracus the smith, Belliacus the… Belliacus, and Ionas, the owner of the tavern.’
Valens nodded. ‘Come with me.’
Bursting back out into the street, he was dismayed at how much the snowfall had thickened so quickly. Things were becoming less tenable by the moment. Despite the urgency of the situation, he spent a moment helping Elia wrap her child up and then draped her shawl over them both and she gave him an encouraging smile. He liked the whore. He’d never visited her, though he was probably the only soldier who hadn’t, but still he liked her; possibly because he liked her. His mother had followed that same damned profession, had been the lowest of the low, spat on by even slaves, and though he liked Elia, even respected her professionalism and stoic dry sense of humour, he couldn’t bring himself to make use of her services.
But he would make sure she, and every miserable bastard in this place, was safe.
By the time they reached Lugracus’s house, the old smith was already outside, hobbling along on his ancient crutch, his lame leg stumping along in the snow, tool bag of his prized possessions over his sloping shoulders. The old man gave them a nod. ‘The bell?’
‘The bell,’ confirmed Valens. ‘Get to the fort. Trouble’s on the way. I’ll meet you at the gate.’
The old lame smith stumbled on up the road and Valens stopped at the tavern and leaned in to the open door. He could just see the innkeeper standing behind the bar.
‘Trouble coming,’ he shouted across the room, ‘I’m opening the fort gates. We have plenty of room. Come on.’
Ionas frowned at him. ‘Not now.’
‘Now is all you have, man.’
The barman threw him an angry glance. ‘I’m tapping a cask. Won’t take long, but if I stop on the middle’… hissing wet noises now… ‘then I waste a lot of beer.’
‘There’s no time, Jonas. Get to the fort.’
‘I’ll be along presently, once I’ve locked up.’
Valens sighed. ‘Be quick.’
He dipped back out, gesturing for Elia to follow on, and turned the corner, climbing the hill, towards the fort gate. As the heavy double arch came into sight, he stopped at the last house on his journey.
Belliacus. Valens was an amiable person. He got on with almost everyone, but he didn’t get on with Belliacus. In fairness, no one got on with Belliacus.
Reaching up, Valens hammered on the door. ‘Open up, Belliacus. Trouble.’
The door creaked inwards and the optio peered into the darkened interior of the house. It took him a moment to see the shadowy figure lurking in the gloom. ‘Come on,’ he said.
‘How many and who are they?’ came the reply from the gloom.
‘I’m close to the fort alarm bell, officer smart-arse, and I might be old but I ain’t deaf. How many and who?’
‘I don’t know and I don’t know. Come on.’
‘So you’re rounding up all the civilians and you don’t even know why? Not standard practice.’
‘Belliacus, I’d just as soon leave you to fend for yourself, but it’s my duty to try and protect everyone, even the cantankerous old shit heads. Now come on.’
The man who stepped forward into the cold white light in the doorway was of advanced years, perhaps sixty to sixty-five summers. His hair was iron grey and cut short in a manner fashionable two emperors ago, his face was unusually clean shaven, and his form lean and hard for all its leathery skin and age-lines. Belliacus was wearing a chain shirt of an antiquated design and had a spatha long sword belted at his side. Valens frowned at him. ‘Where did you get those?’
‘Gift from your mother after I slipped her one,’ snapped the old man. ‘Just take these and lead on.’
Valens jerked backwards as a heavy sack was thrust into his hands, and then Belliacus pulled a second sack out of the dark house and slammed the door shut before lifting and shouldering the bag. The optio held the sack back out for the old man to take, but Belliacus ignored him and began to walk up the slope towards the fort gate. The optio sighed. For a moment he seriously considered simply dumping the sack in the road and following on. Cursing his mother, who’d drilled into him a respect for the elderly, he shouldered the sack and walked on.
Outside the gate, three people waited. There was no sign of the two soldiers he’d sent out, but the blacksmith had been joined by two other figures. The hump-backed old woman with one eye that barely opened and a face like a smashed crab he’d seen around on occasion. Hermod the hunter was a more welcome sight, especially since he had his bow in hand and a quiver of a dozen arrows at his hip.
‘Get into the fort,’ Valens called to them.
The gathering made for the gate and the soldier on guard stepped out, thrusting a finger at Belliacus and wagging it angrily. ‘You can’t bring that in here,’ he shouted, clearly gesturing at the sword.
‘Fuck off, infant,’ snapped the old man, brushing past him but otherwise paying him no heed. Valens rolled his eyes as he hurried up to the guard. ‘They can all bring in what weapons they have. I’m going to assemble everyone in the principia courtyard. Anyone else who turns up, send them there. Either on my signal or if Rubellius blows a lung out through his horn, get those gates shut as fast as you can and bar them.’
The soldier saluted and Valens jogged ahead past the small knot of folk. Dropping the old man’s bag unceremoniously into the snow by his feet and drawing a sour look, he spotted Vibius Cestius hurrying his way across the fort. ‘Are the other gates shut?’
‘Shut and barred and all with a solid guard, sir.’
‘Good. Take this lot to the principia and pass the word that I want anyone not on guard to join you. I’ll be along presently.’
Cestius nodded. ‘Yes sir.’
Valens straightened and rolled his shoulders, looking over towards the corner of the fort, where he could just make out the turret standing above the barrack block roofs. Now to find out what it was Rubellius had seen.
As Valens climbed the steps beside the south gate, he lost his footing again for a moment on the slippery stone and had to grasp the wall to prevent a rather undignified fall. A thought occurred to him, and he called back down to the gate guard, who was peering through the cloud of white, waiting for new arrivals. The man looked up.
‘Get two men onto the steps and the walls with a broom and a bag of old fire ashes. I want this whole circuit clear of snow and secured against ice.
The man below saluted and hurried over to a barrack block to find two others. Valens swallowed loudly, hoping that no one came near the gate while the man wasn’t there to close it. In the old days, when the whole cohort was in residence, each stretch of wall between gates and towers was given to one contubernium of men, and there would be at least four men watching every gate. That was when there were five hundred men. With thirty four, watches became a little more stretched. The entire garrison now numbered half that which used to patrol the walls.
Taking a deep breath, the optio hurried on towards the southeast tower, where Rubellius stood atop the parapets, frantically blowing his warning. As the soldier spotted Valens through the cloud of snow, he stopped blowing for a moment to gesture to his commander and point off to the southeast. Well at least that cleared something up: whatever it was he’d seen was coming over the pass, then.
Reaching the tower, Valens pushed his way in through the door and stamped up the stone staircase, bursting out into the freezing cold once more with heaving, icy breaths. Gods, but the snow was getting too thick to see far now.
‘I’ll try,’ Rubellius replied, beckoning Valens over to the corner of the tower’s battlements. There, he thrust a finger out towards the pass. The optio looked into the white upon white and grunted.
‘I can’t see a thing.’
‘Keep watching boss, wait for the gusts.’
Fifteen heartbeats passed with the optio becoming steadily more frustrated, but then he saw something. As a chill wind whipped across the pass from the north, temporarily changing the angle of the snowfall, the clouds between here and the pass thinned out. It was not much. A dark smudge against the speckled background of the pass, and at any other time he would have written off the sight as a trick of the eye, but now that he concentrated on it, he could see that it was moving.
‘Jove’s shit, but there must be a lot of them.’
Rubellius nodded. ‘Why do you think I’ve blown so hard I think I ruptured something, sir?’
‘Too much to hope that they’re friendlies.’
Another nod. ‘You realise I’ve been blowing the signal for a while, sir.’
‘Yes.’ Valens turned a confused frown on Rubellius, who seemed to be willing him to think of something. And then he did, and a chill of realisation ran through him right down to his toes. ‘You mean they’ve been coming down like that since you started? That’s not all of them?’
‘That’s the back end, sir.’
‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckitty fuck.’
‘Eloquently put, sir.’
‘We should have followed Rigonorix’s advice and legged it.’
‘Bit late for that, sir.’
Valens nodded. They’d never make it down the valley now without bumping into that lot. He breathed the icy air heavily.
‘I think…’ he began, but stopped, his sentence cut through by a blood-curdling scream from somewhere down the slope across the vicus.
Heart suddenly in his throat, Valens threw out a hand to the soldier. ‘Keep ringing the bell and blowing your horn until the last moment.’ With that, he disappeared into the stairwell and dropped down the steps three steps at a time, safe in the knowledge that the inside ones were not icy. Bursting from the tower doorway, he ran along the south wall to the gate.
Even as he pounded along the stone, he heard a second and then a third scream from somewhere in the vicus. Reaching the top of the gate, he looked out. The street outside the gate was empty, as was the road down the hill as far as he could see, to the curve beside the inn. Hurrying back to the inner side of the gate, he leaned over. With relief he could see once again that soldier who’d been in charge of the gate. Even as he saw the guard, he spotted two men hurrying from a barrack block with a broom and a bag. He looked back down at the soldier below.
‘Shut and bar the gate.’
‘Sir? I don’t think everyone’s in.’
‘Tough shit for them. No one’s coming now. Bar the gate.’
As the soldier got to work, Valens moved back to the battlements and looked out. The snow was now getting thick enough that he could barely see that curve in the road.
‘Come on, you bastards, show yourselves,’ he snarled to himself, peering out into the white. Admittedly, he was not entirely sure he wanted to see them, but somehow knowing they were there and still not being able to see them was worse. It was like looking at fog and wondering from where the bear was going to come at you.
The two soldiers were now working on the stairway up to the gate, one sweeping the drifted snow off into the open fort, the other spreading a thin layer of ash with his shovel on the cleared steps. Valens spent a few moments watching them at their hypnotic work, and followed them to the top of the steps as they disappeared behind the gatehouse, working their way along the wall. Losing sight of them, the optio turned back to the vicus below and started at the sight now awaiting him.
Figures were moving up the street, a mass of dark shapes in the white cloud. He could not make out a great deal of detail, but there were plenty of them, and the silence of their approach was every bit as aggressive as a war cry.
They stopped close to the corner, and for some time nothing happened. Valens felt the hairs rise on the nape of his neck in the eerie silence. The mass of people were clearly shrewd and well-informed. By his estimation, they had stopped about fifteen paces outside effective bow range.
Movement, now. Valens watched, intent and with a dreadful sense of foreboding, as three figures moved out ahead of the rest. The front man was wearing a chain shirt and a bronze helmet, and it took only moments for Valens to realise he was Roman. A man he had seen so very recently, hurrying out of the bath house down the slope.
Damn it, but the man was clearly a goner.
He watched, lip twitching, eyes straining into the snow, as the soldier was made to kneel in the street, his helmet torn off and discarded. One of the two men slapped him a couple of times, and stamped on his leg, and then stepped back as the second figure raised a blade that gleamed in the cold light. The axe fell and made it most of the way through the Roman’s neck. The optio knew his man to be dead already from the way his head lolled around as the executioner pulled the axe back out and took his second strike. This time it went right through and the head rolled free, the body slumping to the side and falling away.
Valens snarled again. He watched long enough to see the crowd produce a stake and anchor it in one of the many holes in the street, before the executioner jammed the soldier’s head on the top. The crowd melted away like a receding tide, taking the decapitated body with them, and leaving just the spiked head. In moments, Valens was bounding down the now slip-free stairs. He threw a finger out at the gate guard. ‘Throw tables, barrels, and anything you can find against that gate and then get up top and keep watch.’
The man saluted. ‘I could do with a hand,sir. You heading for the headquarters building sir?’
Valens nodded. ‘Yes, and I’ll send you support as soon as I’ve spoken to our visiting deserter.’
With that he ripped his sword from his belt and ran into heart of the fort.