‘Here they come,’ Valens shouted to the defender salong the wall before turning back to those close by on the gate top. ‘I’m not sure whether you’re an idiot or just suicidally careless,’ he snapped at Rigonorix as the man handed the artillery piece back to its operators.
‘None of us are walking out of here tonight, Optio,’ the man replied with a chilling casualness, ‘so what was there to lose?’
‘A dozen men in the first fifty heartbeats, you lunatic.’ He turned back to the street below. Sure enough the surge of feeling had almost instantly translated itself into a surge of humanity, which moved their way.
‘They won’t be able to get over the walls,’ someone said nearby, confidently. ‘You saw the corner turrets, sir.’
‘That was just testing the water,’ Valens said with strained patience. ‘Now they’re really pissed off and we’re going to see something different.’ A brief flash of an irritated glance at Rigonorix again for good measure.
‘Ready pila,’ he shouted, looking at the motley collection of poor-quality weapons in the men’s hands. ‘Hermod? Scorpion crews? Mark the biggest and most dangerous looking bastards among them. The rest of you, you have two pila each. At 15 paces cast, and then use the second as a spear.’
The natives were hurtling up the street now, weapons flailing, accompanied by furious cries. Simultaneously, each gap between houses disgorged more of the attackers, those groups who had pulled back from the corner towers now reappearing. Valens couldn’t spare the time to look back over his shoulder, but could hear men arriving at the wall and mounting the steps. A crash from nearby announced the demolition of a second block to provide supplies for the redoubt.
Valens looked across the mass of howling natives, his eyes picking out the figures he thought to be the more important. His gaze fell upon one man who stopped as the tide flowed forward around him, pausing at a high point and becoming an island amid the stream, while he drew a short native bow of horn and sinew, nocking an arrow and drawing, his aim either Valens or someone close by. Before he could release, though, an arrow smashed into his face, throwing him back out of sight, his own shot released as he died and carving a furrow across the snow-packed ground. Hermod the hunter nocked another arrow casually.
Flinching, Valens’s attention shifted to a man with a sling who was swinging it in wide circles with a sound loud enough to hear even through the snow and the din. The whip, whip, whip stopped abruptly as a scorpion bolt passed through his chest, ripping out his life as it exited through his back.
A man with a helmet howled something, and Valens snapped round just in time to see him die with a scorpion shot to the head. He felt a wave of pride for his men as he realised the enemy had reached fifteen paces and, without a second command from him, his men launched their pila. Fifteen missiles arced out up, over the parapet, and fell. The defenders were few enough and the attackers numerous enough that the chances of two men choosing the same target were minimal.
A dozen figures along the line pitched back, shrieking, into the mass, only to vanish behind the snow cloud and the tide of howling anger flowing to crash against the fort walls. That was it. One arrow, four scorpion bolts and fifteen pila and the ranged weapons were done. The difference those astounding shots had made was no longer even noticeable.
Valens gripped his sword hilt. Here we go…
From the first moment, Valens knew he’d underestimated them. The virtual sea of dark figures that poured out of the white towards the walls were armed for a one-on-one fight and woefully unprepared to besiege the walls of a Roman fort, and he’d thought that would buy him time. He’d been wrong.
As the force crashed against the wall, howling, their spears stabbing up at the defenders but unable to get the angle and height to succeed, figures among them were bringing junk forward – things that had been hastily grabbed and looted from the vicus houses and had been hurried brought forth through the crowd and slammed down at the base of the walls. Barrels, sacks, bags of grain and chairs. Anything that might help build a makeshift ramp to the top of the walls.
Valens turned to draw attention to them, but even as he did, he saw the dangerous Hermod draw, release, nock, draw, release and nock all in the blink of an eye. As he turned to follow the arrows’ flights he watched two of those men carrying large goods fall back into the mass, howling. At the same time, the scorpions managed another shot, taking down more of those bringing forth detritus. It was good, but far from good enough. The numbers out there were sufficient that any load dropped by one of those bastards was just picked up by another.
‘Be choosy,’ he reminded his men along the wall. ‘A good pilum might make two or three stabs before it’s bollocksed, and these are not good pila. Select the enemy who get close enough to kill and not just wound. Make sure to pull the pila back straight to avoid bending the shaft on withdrawal or it’s no more use.’
Barely had he finished speaking before the trouble hit. The crowd of furious natives began to try and climb the walls, their ire stronger than their will to survive, while others dumped burden after burden, trying to create a ramp sufficient to reach the defenders.
‘What you did made things worse,’ growled Valens at the deserter close by. ‘Now there’s no stopping this.’
‘There was never any stopping this, General Disaster. But what we did stopped them planning and made them attack without conscious decisions.’
Valens grunted. Yes, they had been playing it carefully with test forays and archers until now, but bringing forward what was likely to be the end of the fort was hardly helpful. ‘You’d better be as fucking dangerous as they think you are,’ he snapped, angling his head towards Secundus. ‘If you don’t help us here, I’m personally going to kick you out of the gate and watch you get torn to pieces.’
‘What makes you think I won’t join them?’
Valens glared at the prisoner. ‘I think you’re in as much shit with them as we are. If they might have taken you in, you’d have vaulted the walls the moment I put a sword in your hand. No, you know they’ll tear you a second arse if you get down there, so you damn well suck it up and play your part.’ He turned to the two other men from Alauna. ‘You too. You work for me now, or you take the long walk out of the south gate into a cursed earth. Got it?’
Baleful glares were his only answer.
‘Good, as they’re about to start hitting us properly. Draw your sword and get to the parapet. We need to hold this wall.’
The tide of Carvetii life crashed against the wall of Mediobogdum. Valens heard once again the tell-tale whip, whip, whip and ducked as a flurry of sling stones came across the wall top, most of them clattering against the stonework or whipping too high through the air. One struck the helmet of the scorpion operator to the optio’s left, ringing from the bronze with a sound like a dull bell. The man staggered back, reeling, uninjured but probably deafened and dazed.
‘Get down,’ Valens bellowed, but the man could not hear him over the ringing noise in his head, and moments later a second slingshot smacked into him, this time denting the helmet’s bronze surface inwards. Valens watched him drop and prayed that the dent had merely added to his discomfort rather than cracking the bone beneath.
As the volley slowed and stopped, the optio leapt up to the battlements once more, sword in hand. The attackers had used the missile cover to hurry, bent-low up to the base of the wall, where already those pieces of debris were being used to create a ramp. By the time Valens reached the edge, the Carvetii were scrambling, clawing, desperately scrabbling at the walls, trying to climb the last few feet between where they were and the waiting defenders.
A dark shape, for that was more or less all they were in the thickening snow, thrust a spear up at him, and Valens only saw it coming at the last moment as he leaned out. Unable to do much with his sword, but with an empty hand due to his lack of a shield, the optio did the only thing he could and grabbed the spear just below the blade as it lanced up. Grimacing at the wielder, he wrenched it slightly to one side and then smashed it back down, striking its owner full in the face with the ash butt. He had no idea how the warrior suffered, for he fell away unnoticed in the snow, but already a second figure was coming at him. A black shape with wild hair had leapt from a hay bale and its left hand had managed to curl over the lip of the stonework. The sword in its other hand came up, arcing in at him.
It was a bad angle, and Valens knew he could avoid the danger, dipping to the side to evade the blow. In retaliation, he leapt to the wall edge and slammed the pommel of his sword down on the desperate grasping fingers, once, twice, thrice, pulverising bones and mashing muscle until, with a scream, the attacker let go and fell away. Valens looked over in time to stare into the agonised face of a girl, not more than fourteen summers, as she gurgled her pain and fell away, disappearing in the cloud of white and grey to become part of that moving carpet of natives.
The optio, irritated at the things he was being called upon to do, turned angrily to Rigonorix who, he noted, was reeling back from the parapet wielding a sword coated with gore and with a face like some kind of battlefield demon. The man turned a look on Valens that was part satisfaction, part fury. There was even blood on his teeth!
‘Who the fuck did you lot kill, their god? Even their daughters are here. I reckon every Carvetii who can hold a sword for fifty miles is here.’
The fugitive shrugged. ‘Told you before: not my doing. Look to them,’ he added, thumbing over his shoulder at Secundus. ‘I will say there were wedding feast decorations up in the hut.’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, you butchered a wedding?’
Faces appeared at the battlements, snarling and howling, blades lancing up, and along with every other man on the wall Valens struck again and again, hammering at any shape that appeared, doing more damage, he thought, by pushing them off the wall than with actual wounds. Men, and occasionally women, fell away with regular cries of dismay, plummeting back among their own. Valens’s sword dripped and ran as he pulled it back and hacked down, pulled it back and stabbed out, pulled it back and chopped once more.
For a moment, he stepped back from the edge, pushed by necessity. The snow had changed direction in the unpredictable winds of the pass and was now being driven straight in their faces. Wiping the flakes and the water from his eyes so that he could see more clearly, he was momentarily startled to find a pink tint to it as his hand came away. With his free hand he felt around his face, but could find no wounds he might have missed and concluded that the blood had to be someone else’s.
‘Sir?’ came a call from behind, and he turned. Two of the men working on the stores came staggering up the stairs, each carrying what was clearly a heavy bag.
‘What is it?’
‘Weird, sir. A bag of darts. Not standard issue, but there’s maybe a score of them.’
The other man nodded, his face a picture of confusion. ‘And a bag of lead sling shots. No slings, mind, sir. Not a sling in the whole bloody fort, but hundreds of shots for them.’
Valens rolled his eyes. Why the cohort had cleaned him out of the useful things and left him with random junk, he couldn’t comprehend. Lifting one of the heavy plumbata darts from the bag, he examined it. A wooden dart with fake wood feathers at the rear, apart from the lead weight near the tip it was much like a…
He grinned. ‘Take these to Lugracus the smith. They’re a little shorter than the proper stuff, but I reckon if we lose the weights those will make passable scorpion ammunition. Lugracus can get those weights off in a trice, I’d wager.’
The soldier grinned as the optio dropped the dart back into the bag, and turned, skittering back down the steps.
‘What about the sling shots, sir?’ said the other man.
‘Without slings they’re of little use. Maybe Lugracus can melt them down and reuse the lead.’
A voice from behind him cut in. ‘Give them here.’
He turned to see Rigonorix, a nightmare ghoulish figure coated in blood with a grimace of white teeth somewhere at its heart, striding towards him, dripping sword held out to the side. ‘Why?’
The fugitive grinned. ‘Just give them here.’ Without waiting for assent, the man tucked the bloodied, naked blade in his belt and grasped the bag from the second man.
‘What are you doing?’ Valens demanded.
Stepping back towards the wall top, Rigonorix tore several extra little gaps in the bag’s stitching so that the lead bullets began to fall from it, then gripped it tight and spun like a discobolus. At the third spin and, miraculously, facing the right way, he angled the bag upwards and let go. Valens stared. The bag hurtled up into the air, out across the wall, and there, at its apex, the structural integrity failing thanks to those tears, it split open raining lead shot down some thirty feet into the mass of natives.
The bellows of pain and confusion attested to its success. Even Valens was forced to grin this time as Rigonorix ripped his sword from his belt once more and went back to work.
The rhythm of the fight settled in once more, each man stepping to the edge, stabbing and slashing in an attempt to keep the tide of humanity at bay and then hunkering behind his shield against return blows, but to Valens’s trained eye, the tipping point was almost there. Every time he looked this way and that along the walls there were more and more shapes at the parapet trying to climb over the top and being pushed back down with increasing difficulty and fewer and fewer men to stop them. The latest check, as he managed a breather between hot-blooded slaughter, told him that five of his men were down. Even with the reinforcements that had joined them on the wall that was a quarter of their number.
Another man fell, a spear ripping into his armpit, and two of the men who were still fighting were clutching their arm or side in pain. Time was not on their side. The wall would fall at any moment. Hermod was putting shaft after shaft into the crowd, but the scorpions had fallen silent, out of ammunition, and were being collected and pulled back from the wall for use on a second line of defence.
They had to do something, or they would lose the walls in a score of heartbeats. Even as his head snapped back and forth desperately, trying to find a solution, he saw another one of his men clutch his face, screaming in a spray of dark liquid, and fall back away from the wall. As the man collapsed, Valens’s eyes fell upon the shape behind him. There was one along every wall section between towers and gates: a brazier for when the darkness fell. And even though the cohort had long been gone, Valens had played the martinet, making his men keep every brazier stocked with dry timber beneath a wool cover…
…and every brazier accompanied by a torch ensconced on the wall and a flask of pitch for ease of lighting in the winter weather. His gaze rose over the ramparts and he grinned nastily.
‘Bring me the pitch flask from every brazier point,’ he bellowed.
Without questioning the order, two of his men pulled back from the fight and grabbed the flasks from the wall, turning and running towards him. Valens paid them no attention. Instead, he reached down to the leather bag at his belt and rifled through it, pulling out his fire fungus. Wrapped in tight linen, the horseshoe fungus had been cut in half and ignited inside. Despite minimal oxygen, it had smouldered deep inside since the last watch of the previous night, and as he opened it to the air it flared orange-gold. With a cold smile he removed the leather thong that kept his helmet’s cheek pieces tied, and dipped it in the pitch flash three times, leaving it half in, half out and sealing it once more around the wick. By the time it was ready, the soldiers had brought him two more, and he used the strip of wool he kept tucked in his belt for wiping his blade to tie the three flasks together.
‘What are you planning?’ Rigonorix called from where he was busy butchering an assailant.
‘You’re not the only one who can improvise, you arsehole.’
With a drawn breath, he blew on the fungus and used the flare to ignite the pitch-soaked leather thong. The cord burned instantly with a strong blue flame and Valens timed it precisely in order to be able to flash the men from Alauna a vicious grin, then threw the triple-flask as hard as he could. He never saw it land thanks to the obfuscating snow, but on a mere count of three the roof of the nearest civilian building in the vicus exploded, a fireball visible even through the white cloud. The assault faltered in an instant as the attacking tribesmen turned to look in rising horror as the building behind them erupted into an inferno.
One of the prime requirements for a house here was to be winter-proofed. That meant that once you got beyond the roof and the walls, the interior was dry and seasoned. It would burn like a furnace, and this one did. That house on the corner started blow out its shutters and to belch flames from the windows before even some of the attackers knew it was on fire. There was nothing anyone could do to stop the inferno and in moments it had spread to the buildings on either side.
‘You’re going to be real popular with your civilians,’ Secundus grunted.
But Valens didn’t care. Already the pressure was easing on the walls and the attackers were pulling back to safety.
‘I bought us time,’ he responded with a grin.