Valens half expected to hear the emergency bleating of a horn or tolling of a bell at any moment as the men went about their assigned tasks. That the enemy were gathered in the vicus, out of sight and out of range, and yet held off any assault was making everyone edgy.
On cue a din of activity arose from the south gate as men dashed about in the deluge of white, making themselves visible and creating plenty of noise as they set up artillery and brought equipment out to prepare for what was to come. The sounds of men pulling down one of the timber barrack blocks only added to the cacophony, and the shrewd soldier who’d taken the lead there had made sure to demolish a block close to the south gate, which would both add to the distraction and open up space to work at the most likely site of assault.
Pulling his cloak’s hood down a little further to prevent the snow landing on his face, Valens followed his small team to the north gate. The two-man work crew had not come this far yet with their sweeping and ash laying, and the small group skittered up the steps and onto the wall walk, passing through the guard tower and onto the battlemented parapet above the gate.
Valens peered out into the snow. Gods, but it was getting hard to see anything. Still, he knew the terrain well enough to be able to overlay the white world with fairly accurate mental images. The approaches to the south and east gates were good, and the west gate had a reasonable access despite quickly falling away down into the valley. This side, though, where Rigonorix and his captors had come from, the gate more or less opened onto a vertiginous drop, with steep sections of slippery ground between craggy outcrops. It certainly did not look inviting even in the sun, let alone in this, when rocks would be hard to see until you were on them.
Cestius might be right that they had eyes on this gate, but only if the enemy was being really thorough. Only a lunatic would want to hide among those rocks in this weather. Besides, would they have had time to get round there without being seen from the walls? He reminded himself bitterly that they had been coming for half an hour now and he could hardly see his hand in front of his face, so there was every chance that they could have secured the crags. Still, there was nothing for it.
Peering down, he gestured to the men in the tower and they hurried out, carrying the two scorpions which they set up to either side above the gate, in the lee of the towers. In moments they had wound the torsion ropes tight and settled a foot-long, iron tipped bolt in the groove.
‘Don’t waste the shot. We’ve not got many.’ He turned to the figures of Cestius and Glaucus, each wrapped in a light grey wool cloak, the nearest they could find to camouflage. ‘Are you set? Think you can do this?’
Cestius shrugged. ‘We’ll find out any moment, sir.’
‘No time like the present. Mars and Minerva watch over you both. Get to Glannoventa as fast as you can, and send word to the other local forts too. We’ll do everything we can to hold on until you get back.’
The two runners stepped carefully up to the parapet. It was a drop of more than twenty feet onto sloping ground, but at least their falls would be cushioned by the thick blanket of snow.
Cestius and Glaucus exchanged a look, took a breath and clambered up onto the battlements.
Silently and with no fanfare, Glaucus and Cestius dropped from the wall, landing without a sound in the thick snow. Between the constant battering white flakes and the poor visibility anyway, it took some time for Valens to spot the two figures after their landing, and he seriously worried that the two men had broken their legs or necks on impact.
By the time he picked out the shapes of the two, they were already running. Valens felt his tension level rise once more as they half-plunged, half-staggered through the thick white blanket, down the slope from the gate, gradually nearing the steep almost-precipice.
His gaze leapt ahead. At the edge, perhaps forty paces from the wall, the jagged rocks and the steep descent began. The easiest way down was slightly to the right and past the most prominent rock, and both men were heading for it. Valens found he was holding his breath and released it slowly, forcing himself to breathe normally.
His eyes rose from there, trying to take in the other side of the valley and the dip in between. The flurries of snow were making it hard to see anything with clarity, playing tricks on his vision.
No. No tricks. His eyes focused on what he’d looked past twice, and this time he peered into the snow. Figures, moving below the line of the rocks. He cursed under his breath. They were moving, whether deliberately or by pure chance, on a course that would intercept the two runners if they continued down the easy path. Valens chewed his lip. Was there still a chance for them?
He bit down on his lip now, drawing blood. This was over. They stood no chance. Taking a deep breath, he hollered a warning from the wall top. There was no reaction. The two men simply continued towards the edge. Valens’s blood chilled. They couldn’t hear him over the deluge of snow. He cursed again, this time loudly, drawing the attention of the others.
‘They’re trapped,’ he snapped, pointing until the others on the wall saw the figures. Now everyone was shouting. The two figures slowed to a halt at the edge of the descent, and Valens thanked the gods that they’d heard. But then, instead of turning and running back to the gate, the men parted ways, Glaucus continuing into the main descent, Cestius heading for the dangerous and narrow ravine to the left. They hadn’t heard after all, and the pair could not have seen what was ahead due to the angle of the rocks.
The men on the walls continued to shout fruitlessly for a moment as they watched, but there was nothing they could do. Valens considered sending someone after them, but they would never get to them in time. He watched, impotent and tense. Glaucus was the first to begin the descent. Between two large rocks, he more or less fell and rolled down the steep snowy incline. The watchers clenched their teeth in frustration as they watched the black shapes converge on the tumbling shape. Glaucus rolled and bounced and fell, then staggered upright, directly into the arms of the waiting natives. It was mercifully hard to make out the details as the figures moved, arms raising, blades descending. They watched Glaucus take perhaps a score of blows before the figures moved off, leaving one dark shape, motionless in the white.
Wishing Glaucus well on his journey to Elysium, Valens turned left. Cestius had reached the narrow chute and threw himself recklessly into it. He disappeared from view then, and Valens cursed yet again. The man might well have died in the descent, from the way he dealt with it.
When he saw Cestius again, the relief was all-consuming. The young weirdo suddenly exploded from the sheet of white, already at a strange, loping run. The relief in Valens evaporated as his gaze strayed to the right. The men who’d butchered Glaucus had somehow become aware of Cestius. They stood no chance of catching him now in the snow, but even as the remaining soldier ran for help, one of the natives paused and drew a bow, nocking an arrow.
Valens knew little about archery, but experience had taught him much about likely ranges. Cestius was almost out of range, but probably not quite. He clenched his teeth until they hurt, vowing an altar to Mars if the native would just miss.
Mars apparently couldn’t hear him through the snow either.
The bow snapped tight. The arrow flew. Cestius plunged forward into the snow and lay there, still.
Valens sagged. The scorpion crews to either side coughed uncomfortably. ‘Sorry, sir. There was nothing we could do.’
The optio nodded. ‘Too far down the slope. Too much of an angle. I know.’
It seemed, though, that the gods had not stopped shitting on his day yet, for just as they all settled to silence, a bell began to clang urgently from the far side of the fort. Valens looked at the men with him. ‘Get those two scorpions up to the corner towers and keep watch. I doubt any serious attack will come from this side of the fort, but if it does, you’ll have perfect enfilade sighting between you and the best range and arc possible. Don’t leave your posts unless I send word, and only loose a bolt if you know it’ll kill. We’re very low on ammunition.’
With the worried nods of the soldiers as they gathered their weapons up and made to transport them to the towers, Valens turned and took the icy steps three at a time to the road at the bottom. Hurrying through the fort, he was at the same time impressed with the speed with which everyone had thrown themselves into their tasks, and dismayed over how long everything was clearly going to take. Men were already beginning to heave pieces of broken timber into position to block roads and create the redoubt, but it would be quite a while before it was ready.
The ring of metal on metal echoed from one of the workshops, and small puffs of smoke bursting through the outlet in the roof suggested that someone was busily trying to get the furnace going. It was all very efficient. It would also be nowhere near enough.
Hurrying past the principia, where activity continued as men went about their assignments, he made it to the south gate. Already, fifteen men were spreading out along the south wall, four scorpions in evidence, and two men were lugging stooks of poor quality pila up the steps. Pushing past them, he pelted up the stairs and found Rubellius above the gate. Nearby, someone was clanging the warning bell with demented speed. The optio stepped across to the parapet and looked out.
No need to ask anyone the reason for the alarm.
At the bend in the street down the hill, a mass of dark figures stood motionless, filling the street like an army of cockroaches, the snow settling on them. It was weird. They neither moved, nor made a sound, yet somehow that made them all the more threatening.
‘Get the scorpions set up, but only loose when they come at us, and make sure you damn well hit. Every man needs to have at least two pila to hand. I hope last summer’s training session by the lake had an effect. You need to kill with every throw.’
He spotted a new figure climbing the steps. The huntsman from the vicus was unslinging his bow and testing the string, a quiver of his own arrows at his side.
‘Hermod, how far can you shoot one of those?’
‘You mean can I hit that lot? Yes, I can loose high and land an arrow among them indiscriminately. If you want an individual, they have to be about two buildings closer. You want him in the eye, five buildings.’
‘Perfect,’ Valens grunted. ‘The moment they move, I want you to single out the front man and put him down.’ He looked across at the nearest two scorpion crews. ‘When they move, ignore the front man, but take the next two.’ Then, finally, he addressed the wall in general. ‘Once that’s done, you all know your ranges. Open season for the lot of you – arrows, bolts, slings and pila. Everything you can throw at them, you get ready to do it.’
Almost on cue, a weird, low moan drifted up the street from the crowd.
Valens felt a chill run through him at that deep rumble of so many voices, half supressed by the snowfall. It felt like… it felt like that moment when a large hunting cat pauses, tensing, ready to leap. The chill made a return journey up his spine. The optio watched the motionless gathering in the street. Why were they just standing there and making that noise? It seemed so weird. He almost jumped as something touched his shoulder.
‘Shitting shit, don’t do that,’ he snapped, turning to the artillerist who was waiting with his crew, about to ask some sort of sighting or range question.
‘Sorry sir. I shouted, but you must not have heard.’
Valens blinked. The moan. Ah, shit, of course. He turned, looking this way and that. ‘Everyone with a pilum, a bow or a scorpion, take your eyes off the main street. Watch the edges of town.’
‘Sir?’ called someone along the wall.
‘This is a distraction. They’re covering the sounds of other advances.’
If anyone doubted his assessment they didn’t have long to wait for confirmation, as the low moaning from those in the street became a mere undercurrent, loud angry howling coming from both left and right along the wall.
‘Here they come,’ Valens bellowed.
Damn it, but he’d not had half enough time to organise. The two scorpions on the southern corner towers were in position, thankfully, and the two here were prepared. The fifteen men along the wall began to move away from the gate, heading for the noise, and Valens realised with a start the danger that posed. Was that the enemy’s plan? Twin flank attacks drawing his men away from the centre. When that lot ran up the street, the defenders would be too far spaced to be of any help.
Somehow that felt right. That was what was going to happen. He turned and looked back along the street. Rigonorix and his erstwhile captors were striding through the falling snow towards the gate looking oddly paly, which was clearly not the case. Valens gestured to them.
‘Secundus, shout any man you can see and get him to the south gate.’
It took two repeats before the optio from Alauna heard enough to nod. While he began shouting along side streets, his mate urged Rigonorix along towards the gate at sword point. Even now, in the face of disaster, the Alauna men were not giving up on their prisoner.
The noise of the attacks drew his attention back and he leaned forward to look both right and left along the wall. Crowds of natives were hurtling from the houses towards the fort’s southern corners, brandishing a wide variety of weapons. In a heartbeat the artillerists loosed their first shots. Valens chewed his lip. Each of the three artillery pieces on this wall had four bolts available, and that constituted almost half the available ammunition. The right-hand tower ballista took the lead runner, plucking him from his feet and hurling him back into the other runners. By the time Valens’s head snapped back the other way the first shot was done and he had no idea whether it had hit.
This was no planned siege. The enemy had not brought ladders or anything with them. They reached the fort wall and those with spears tried desperately to reach a target. Valens breathed. They couldn’t reach the top of the walls. Until they worked out how to do so, he had time. Until then, they only had to worry about arrows and slingshots.
Behind him, he heard footsteps. Rigonorix appeared on the wall top.
‘Might be best for you to throw yourself on your sword now, Optio,’ he said.
Valens snorted. ‘Would you?’
‘Fuck no, I’ll take a dozen of them to pave to the way to Elysium.’
‘Me too,’ the optio said, turning back to the street.
Valens watched the fort corners, his head snapping this way and that in the snow, taking it all in. The scorpions were loosing at a steady rate, which meant they would be out of ammunition in two more shots. The attackers were rabidly leaping at the walls, slashing with swords and stabbing with sears as though they stood a chance.
‘Looks like we can hold them, sir,’ someone nearby shouted with a grin.
Before Valens could correct him, the whole dynamic suddenly changed. A low bovine sound ripped across the hillside and the tide of attacking humanity pulled back from the wall, disengaging their futile assault. They were natives, angry and with a sword, not an army, and their initial foray had been directionless. But someone out there was something else. The man behind the beheading and the distracting noise was a tactician and clearly this new move was him imposing his control over wild tribesmen, or at least that was Valens’s theory.
‘They’re pulling back. Surely that can’t be it?’
Valens shook his head. ‘Far from it.’ He turned to Rigonorix. ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you? What are they doing?’
‘Simplistic thinking you got from them,’ the man said, thumbing over his shoulder at the two men from Alauna. ‘I’m not one of them any more than you are an Illyrian. I have distant links to them is all. But if you want to know what they’re doing, I can think of one damn good reason to move your own troops out of the way, can’t you?’
Valens frowned until Rigonorix made a drawing back a string motion and murmured ‘Twang’.
‘Shit.’ He turned and bellowed along the walls. ‘Shields up!’
All along the walls, men ducked behind the battlements and pulled up their shields just as the throng out there took advantage of the lack of friendly targets. Valens couldn’t see the source, but even over the snow he heard the hiss of the missiles. They came like black rain from behind the houses, arcing out at the walls.
They were not trained archers like the Hamians up at the wall, but they were so numerous that the cloud of missiles was horrifying, and he would be willing to bet that they were not suffering the lack of ammunition the cohort was. His timely warning – thank you, Rigonorix – had definitely saved men. Of all those on the wall, only one man was killed, his shield failing to rise into place in time, the missile taking him in the throat and hurling him back from the wall. Another man to the left yelped as an arrow thudded into his shoulder, finding a weak spot in the chain and splitting rings. That man snarled, snapping the arrow off and stepping forward again, just as the second cloud of black shafts sailed through the air.
Valens reached out to the nearest man. ‘As long as they’re doing this, they’re not running at the walls. Pass the word. Everyone is to stay down and use their shields. Let’s buy some time for those making weapons and constructing the redoubt.’
Rigonorix nudged him, and Optio Secundus stepped forward, preparing to deal with it. Valens gestured for the man to stand back, and looked the fugitive in the eye.
‘Let me use the scorpion.’
‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ Secundus grunted. ‘This man shouldn’t be armed with anything ore dangerous than a spongia.’
It was more that Secundus had argued against it than Rigonorix was right that decided Valens. He nodded at the deserter. ‘Go on.’
Rigonorix hurried to one of the two scorpions at the gate, which had been loaded and sat waiting. The man at the machine was clearly, from his expression, unhappy relinquishing control to anyone, let alone the deserter. The fugitive stepped behind the machine, looking along the line of the groove like an expert, tracked a little left, raised it just a touch, paused to frown at the wind, and adjusted once more.
‘Shit or bust eh, Valens?’
The optio frowned as Rigonorix grinned and pulled the trigger. He turned, watching the bolt fly.
It was a magnificent shot. In fact, Valens would have thought it an impossible shot, had he not watched it. The stupid thing was that he couldn’t have spotted any kind of leader among that crowd in the street. They all looked just like shadowy natives. It was only as Rigonorix’s bolt hit him square in the face and hurled him back among his people that Valens noticed the arm rings and the torc the man woreHis nerves suddenly twanged. The mad bastard had taken out one of their leaders. Militarily, it was a victory. For anyone who still held a hope of negotiation it was a disaster.
The low moaning noise from the crowd stopped. Moments later the arrows stopped too. All there was was silence. Then someone in the mob in the street shouted something out and the whole crowd surged with a cry of anger.
‘Oh bollocks,’ Valens muttered. ‘Forget bust. Just the shit, this time.’