Julius Rigonorix should have flinched back from the light as the door opened. Normal people would have done that in the dingy room. The fact that the fugitive simply sat there and looked quietly up, pupils shrinking to dots, said a lot about the man, none of which Valens liked.
The optio reached out his hand and turned, shouting to the men guarding the hut outside. ‘Give me your sword.’
‘Give me your sword and run off to draw a new one from the armoury.’
‘But… but it’s my sword.’
‘If we live you can have it back.’
‘My dad had this sword.’
‘If you don’t hand it over, you can say hello to him again, pretty fucking soon.’
The soldier unsheathed the blade and passed it over. He did not look happy, but Valens nodded at him. ‘While you draw another sword, I want you to check the armoury inventory. Make sure it’s in order.’
‘Sir.’ The soldier ran off, looking glum.
Valens turned to the prisoner, sword in his hand. Stepping inside, he approached the man. ‘I always considered myself a good judge of character. I think you’re a dangerous bastard, but I think you’re on the level. On the bright side, if I’m wrong, I doubt I’ll care for very long.’
He held out the sword. ‘Take it.’
‘You sure you want to do this, Optio?’
‘There’s half a thousand howling lunatics outside the gate. They’ve already beheaded one of my men. Unless they can be talked down, we’re going to need every sword hand. Would you like to tell me now, is there some way I can stop this?’
Rigonorix took the sword and handled it in a worryingly expert manner, pointing it at Valens as he checked the straightness of the blade. ‘I did not know the people Secundus’s men killed. I had never met them before. But the one who gave me sanctuary was not local. He was visiting. He was a Carvetii noble, I suspect the brother or son of a chief, and was killed by the men chasing me. This is simple revenge. Maybe… just maybe… if you feed them the two men who brought me in, you might buy them off.’
Valens huffed. ‘You know I can’t hand over two soldiers to be executed, no matter what they’ve done. Could it be you’re playing me? Trying to get me to hand over your captors? Jove, but you’re a slippery one.’
‘You’ve spoken to Secundus. You think he’s the good guy?’
‘I think he’s a piece of shit,’ Valens retorted.
‘Aren’t we all. You want me on the walls?’
Valens nodded. ‘I think we want everyone on the walls. I need to brief the whole fort at the principia shortly. First, though, I want to see what we can do with your friends from Alauna. Come with me.’
With the armed fugitive in tow, Valens left the room and hurried towards the hut where he knew the two other new arrivals to be finishing their meal. Pushing open the door, he found the pair playing dice.
‘What the fuck?’ Secundus barked, rising and starting to draw his blade at the sight of Rigonorix armed.
‘My orders. We’re about to be under siege. I want you two with us at the south gate, now.’
The two men glared at him for a moment, then exchanged a look. Both nodded and rose to leave. The optio from Alauna, Valens noted, finished drawing his sword first instead of returning it to its sheath.
It was odd, Valens noted, the way his small entourage moved. Secundus and his friend to one side, Rigonorix at the other, the guards from outside the medical hut keeping them apart. In fairness, Valens had enough to worry about without dealing with the enmity between these three men, each of whom had signed the documents, taken the oath and accepted the emperor’s sestertius.
By the time he reached the south gate, there were three men atop it, peering out into the white. Arseholes. Valens climbed the steps and emerged onto the parapet beside them. Without speaking to them, he looked out down the vicus street and his breath caught in his throat. What had been one head on a stick was now five.
‘What in the name of…?’
‘They’ve been bringing them out at regular intervals,’ the guard murmured. ‘A quick chop, skewered on a stick and then off to find the next one. Grattius was last. We’re due another at any moment.’
Valens looked out. Of the five, three were civilians he’d seen round the place from time to time, the others were the two soldiers he’d dragged from the bath house. ‘Ah, shit.’ He turned and gestured to Secundus and his companion. ‘You lot started this somewhere else and brought it to my door. Get to that parapet, and if there is any chance we can stop this, we will.’ He turned to Rigonorix. ‘Somehow, I think it might be best if you stay out of sight until we’ve tried everything else.’ Then to the two men alongside the gate guard, who were gorping at the heads while holding broom and bag and shovel. ‘You two seem to have stopped work. Get moving and get that wall walk cleared. We’re going to need to use it safely soon.’
The two men ran off. The optio peered out into the snow. He could almost sense an unspoken argument going on behind him, but ignored it, watching for movement. Sure enough, after a short and tense wait, a group of dark shapes moved out into the street, dragging a screaming shape. This one fought them long enough and hard enough that they clonked him on the head before pushing him down to the ground and hacking off his skull. As they brought the head forward, two others carrying another freshly cut pole, Valens cleared his throat.
‘Three quarters of you lot can understand enough Latin to get by.’
The figures in the street stopped. Valens gestured to the two soldiers from Alauna. ‘These men may have inadvertently done something stupid. They are extremely contrite, for all that they look like clueless dickheads.’ He felt a small thrill of glee at the glares the two men gave him. ‘Tell me how we can solve this.’
There was no reply, but the shapes disappeared into a side street and reappeared in greater numbers. Valens could not be certain, but he thought one of the newcomers was the man who’d seemed to lead at their last encounter. The walked forward through the falling snow and picked up the helmet that had been ripped from the decapitated legionary’s head. Bringing it out ten paces in front of the line of staked heads, he placed the helmet on the floor, stepped back, and produced a massive sledgehammer. Lifting it, he brought it down in a crushing blow on the empty helmet. As Valens watched, the figure found the original head, twisted and pulled it from its spike, and squeezed the disembodied skull into the mangled helmet. He passed it to a big man close by, who stepped forward and began to spin like a discus thrower.
It was an impressive shot. The head-in-a-crushed-helmet glanced off the battlements close to Valens and disappeared into the fort. The optio really wished he had a scorpion set up, as he’d have put a bolt through the man in an instant. Unfortunately, he didn’t.
He turned to look at the others, and Secundus shrugged. ‘Doesn’t look like they’re open to debate.’
Valens threw out a finger at the gate guard. ‘I know you’ve the no horn or bell or anything, but you watch out there. Anything happens you’re not expecting, you jump up and down, wave and shout til’ your chest hurts. Got it?’
The man nodded and the optio gestured to the others. ‘Get to the principia. Everyone should be there by now.’
‘Don’t you want me to talk to them then?’ Orgetorix asked with a dry smirk.
‘Would it do any good?’
‘Not a bit.’
‘Then join the garrison in the principia and try not to kill anyone until you’re told to.’
The two men from Alauna glared at him. ‘Arming this bastard is trouble.’
‘He is trouble. So are you. All of this is trouble, and thanks to you, all of this is my trouble.’
‘And where are you going?’ Secundus grunted.
‘To check something.’
Leaving them to it, and with one last look at the street with its grisly display, Valens hurried down to the fort interior and hurried through it until he reached the armoury. The hut door stood open, and the optio dipped inside. The soldier from the other gate was busy walking along a wall, counting loudly.
‘Have you done?’
The man turned and frowned. ‘Not by a long way, sir, but I’ve found some surprises.’
‘Oh yes? Do tell.’
‘When the cohort moved out, they left the entire compliment of scorpions behind, sir. Six of the damned things, though they all need a bit of work. Big problem is: there’s only two score bolts for them. What kind of mind packs the ammunition for travel and forgets the weapons? Idiots. We’ve also got six hunter’s bows, but again not more than a couple of dozen arrows. A damn big stack of pila that were left behind, but only the crap ones. They took all the best. Enough armour to kit out maybe six people beyond our own. Bag of tribuli, couple of dozen weighted darts and for some unknown reason seven cavalry face masks for sports events.’
‘And that’s not all of it?’
‘Jove, no. Half a building to search yet. No one’s bothered keeping too much track of this since everyone left.’
Valens nodded. ‘We’re going to need all of this and more. Start moving it out into the street and keep it in groups ready, but finish running through the list of what there is first. I’ll send you a couple of helpers.’
Leaving the man, he stepped out into the street again. How could they have landed in so much shit so quickly? He was on his way to the principia to brief everyone when a thought struck him. Three streets across, he found one of the blocks that had been out of use for some time. If he was lucky, his men were as lazy as he imagined. Reaching the disused hut, he opened the door. The smell nearly knocked him down, and he grinned even as he gagged, slamming the door shut once more and stepping away from the block.
The southwest latrine had been blocked since not long after the cohort were pulled out, but the block was the most popular of the two, because sewer demons made sport with the one in the northwest. Rather than risk having their genitals attacked or having to walk outside the fort, the bulk of the men had started using the blocked latrine and then simply bucketing away the backed up horror and storing it in a nearby disused block. Valens had ordered the hut cleared and the whole process stopped a dozen times, but clearly it hadn’t happened.
Well no poor bastard Carvetian warrior was prepared for that missile.
Leaving the hut he hurried off to the headquarters building to brief his men.
There were eight people on duty, Valens thought as he strode into the principia. There was one on each corner tower, one at the south gate, two clearing the wall walk, and one working through the stores. Yet as he stepped into the courtyard, he was surprised at how full it seemed. He’d been in here with a full cohort mustered and it had felt normal. Five hundred souls. Now there were maybe thirty five in the space and it still looked cluttered.
He strode past them all and climbed the tribunal. With a quick nod to the statue of the emperor, he readied himself. Of course, the emperor was not the right one. A place like this was so remote that a replacement statue would only be forthcoming as an afterthought, as no one would give the job to a local. Local sculptors would make him look like a lumpy goblin.
‘I doubt anyone is unaware of our situation,’ he said, as he came to a halt on the platform. ‘But in case you’ve had your head down the one working latrine, there’s a whole army of natives out there who’ve decapitated the rest of the civilians and two of my men. They won’t talk or listen to reason, and the threat they pose is quite real. They’re here and they’re coming for us.’
There was a murmur among the men and Valens let it go this time, waiting for it to ebb.
‘We can’t leave,’ he said flatly. ‘There’s no way to get to Glannoventa or over the pass. The moment we try to leave we run into them. So we rely on our walls. We have to hold them out until they give up and go away. We have the advantage. It’s snowy and freezing. They cannot stay out there forever. We are trained to hold a place like this and, though there aren’t so many of us, we can do it. The slope from the west wall is steep and that to the north is even steeper, so attacks from either side are pretty unlikely. We need to concentrate on the south and east. I want every man available on those walls.’
He straightened. ‘My best two lookouts are Rubellius and Pollio. They will each take one of the north and west walls. Everyone else gets divided up between south and east. Can the civilians step forward?’
He paused while the motley collection of locals moved away from the soldiers, making themselves known. Valens looked along their lines. ‘Lugracus,’ he said, pointing at the smith, ‘can you fletch ballista bolts and arrows?’
The old man nodded. ‘Passably. Not my best skill, but I know how to do it.’
‘Take Elia and her kid and show her how to do it. We have plenty of raw materials.’
One of the soldiers stepped forward. ‘Sir, you can’t ask a girl to make arrows?’
‘So she just sits here admiring herself until they enemy get in because we’re out of ammunition?’ He glanced over at her. ‘What do you think, Elia?’
‘Making arrows will be a pleasure,’ she said firmly.
Lugracus reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Come on, girl.’
‘Belliacus,’ Valens said, gesturing to the miserable looking old man, ‘I want you at the south gate. If I remember rightly, you have proper experience on the field of battle?’ At a nod from the old man, he thumbed over his shoulder. ‘I want you at the south gate. Something tells me that’s the first point of trouble and that you’ll be most useful there.’
He looked across the crowd. ‘Hermod, they tell me you could take out a hare at two hundred paces?’
‘No one could do that.’
‘Still, get up on the southeast tower with the best field of view. I’ll make sure you have all the arrows you need.’ He looked at the other civilians. ‘The rest of you follow Glabrio to the armoury and help get everything useful moved outside and prepared. Glabrio, that’s your task. Furthermore, any one of my lot who has any artillery experience, we have plenty of scorpios. I want you split into two man teams and head down to the armoury to collect your weapon. They’re nicely portable, so I want them spread out along the east and south walls for now.’
He sighed. ‘Everyone I’ve mentioned, move out and go about your tasks.’
He waited for the civilians and a handful of soldiers to leave, and when he was left with only his own men, he sighed. ‘Bravado and optimism aside, we all know we’re fucked and that the walls won’t hold, right?’
The men of the cohort looked up at their optio, false hope dropping away. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Valens said to them, ‘I have no intention of surrendering, and there are ways we can do this, but the civilians think fort walls are unassailable and that we can do anything. We can’t.’
‘Not enough men,’ shouted one of the soldiers.
‘Precisely. Even the worst mathematician can divide our walls by our garrison and shit himself at the number he comes up with. Even if we only have to hold the south and east walls, it’s still just a matter of time.’
‘So what’s the plan sir?’
Plan? Valens bit off his retort that there was no real chance for a plan. After all, he sort of had one. ‘Here’s what we do. We man the walls with every man we can spare, and we have the non-combatants manufacturing ammunition. But while all that goes on, I want six men working on a redoubt. I’ll be giving you authority to take whatever you need. Tear down barracks and latrines if you must. Across the middle of the fort are three buildings: the granary, the principia and the commander’s house. Four walls blocking the streets will turn three buildings into one fortress. There are no windows in the granaries, and all the ones in the CO’s house and the principia face inwards. They’re a natural fortress. Six men with an hour or two should be able to make those three buildings into a solid redoubt. The defensive line is then contracted. The fort walls are five hundred paces around. This new redoubt will be just two hundred. That means we are more than twice as likely to survive, based on the mathematics.’
The soldiers nodded. This sort of logic appealed to them.
‘Is there no way to get help or get out of here, then, sir?’ A soldier called.
‘I don’t think so,’ Valens admitted. ‘The enemy are right outside the fort.
Vibius Cestius, his odd, mismatched eyes gleaming, stepped forward. ‘That might not be true, sir. I’ve been thinking about this.’
‘Yes. The enemy are not stupid. The main force will be watching the south and east walls, and they will have odd men watching the bad approaches to the north and west too, but not many. Send runners out to the valley below on the north and west sides and they stand a chance. A strong man might make it to Glannoventa and the rest of the century in four hours. Allow an hour for faffing, and in nine hours they could be back here, doubling our manpower.’
Valens frowned. ‘I lose two men, though.’
‘But you win a future sir.’ Cestius threw out a finger in the direction of the armoury. ‘Fit scorpions to north and west. Two or three each. But make the south and east really enticing. Lots of activity to draw their attention. When the men run, any watcher will have to put up their head. Hit it with a ballista bolt.’
Valens frowned. It was possible. ‘Better to have the hope of relief than not eh? Alright, Cestius, you’ve sold your plan. You and Glaucus won the Lupercalia race last year, so you and Glaucus are our runners.’
‘Sir, you need me here.’
‘Not as much as I need forty angry armed men. Go get things ready. You’re bound for Glannoventa.’