Valens watched with a flood of silent relief as the tide of angry humanity ebbed and receded from the walls. Carefully skirting the inferno, the Carvetii vanished along narrow alleys and into the blanket of white. As the last stragglers disappeared, Valens continued to watch, his eyes straying across the vicus.
The conflagration was totally out of control already. The houses of the settlement were each tinder dry inside, and the moment the fire touched the dry wood they exploded into golden flame. Already half the settlement was roaring and collapsing, the rest clearly doomed, and the first house, where the flasks had landed, was already in an advanced state of destruction. The roof had collapsed inwards and even the weight of snow atop it could not douse the burning inside.
His attention was drawn by a ligneous sound and he turned to see Hermod sliding his arrows back into the quiver and hooking the bow over his shoulder.
‘That was some good shooting.’
The hunter flashed him a sour look. ‘I was roasting pheasant for tonight,’ he grumbled. ‘Might be a bit overdone by now.’ He gestured at a house with orange flames bursting from the window. Valens couldn’t decide whether it was a joke or not, and erred on the side of caution, turning away from the man.
‘Alright. Wounded, get to the capsarius. Six men stay on guard. I think we have some time now. They can’t realistically stay trapped between our walls and the burning buildings, so I don’t think they’ll come again until the fires are out, which might be an hour or so, given the snow… hopefully more. With luck it will give us some time to organise. Anyone not on duty here, get to the principia.’
Leaving them to it, he dropped down the steps as fast as he could, more confident now that they had been swept and coated with ash. As he alighted on the ground and hurried towards the headquarters, Valens bit into his cheek. He was doing his best, and so were the others, but it was all a charade. In the end they would fall, and there was no way around that. No help was coming, there was no way out, and they were hopelessly outnumbered. Every cunning little trick he could find would buy them time, but it was all still just putting off the inevitable.
Saddened but resolved, he diverted from the route, hurrying into a back street and along several blocks until he found the workshop, where black smoke belched out of the hole in the roof, chuffing away into the falling haze of white. Reaching the building, he ducked in through the open door. Lugracus the smith was busy melting down any extraneous metalwork, and a mould for arrow heads sat on the bench before him. Elia was sitting binding gleaming new leaf-shapes to long shafts, while her infant gurgled and rolled around happily in the rushes on the floor.
‘Elia, can I have a word?’
The whore finished her current arrow and then hurried over to the door. ‘Yes, officer?’
‘I don’t want to alarm you, but should the worst happen, the lads and I will each sell our lives dearly to the end. Most of the civilians will do the same or have little to fight for anyway, but you? I want you and your kid to get out of this.’
‘No. Listen to me. Keep helping. Keep being involved, but the moment I send someone to you with the signal, head into the principia. In the rear hall, you’ll find a trapdoor in front of the chapel of the standards. It leads down to the strongroom. There’s nothing in there now but a few mouldy sacks, since the cohort took everything, but I’m going to have our standard insignia buried in there to see them safe. I want you and your kid to take some old blankets and get down there the moment you get the signal. Pull the trapdoor down and hide. If you do it right, given there’s nothing in there of value, no one will bother you. Everyone else might fall, but you can survive. When it’s all over, wait until you know you’ve missed at least two meals and then come back out and run for somewhere safe.’
‘Valens, I can’t.’
‘You have to. If I don’t know you’re safe, then I can’t do my job. Promise me.’
She looked at him levelly for some time. Finally, she nodded slowly. ‘Alright, Valens, but you promise me that you’ll do everything you can to avoid reaching that point.’
He gave her a bleak smile. ‘I promise.’
As he hurried back along the street Valens was surprised and a little heartened to note the progress on the redoubt. His men had been hard at work, for the twin granaries had been combined into one heavy structure by jamming stones from the base of a barrack block into the gaps forming an effective wall, and the street joining them to the principia was now blocked off, a wall rising and already almost at shoulder height as men worked constantly. He had to step aside as a soldier emerged behind him pushing a barrow loaded with stones from the demolished barrack block near the south gate.
Nodding with satisfaction, he turned and made for the principia doorway. Seven men waited for him there. In his head he made a swift count. He’d lost two men trying to run from the north gate and he’d counted six fall on the south wall just now. That put the cohort down to twenty six men, himself included, plus the three from Alauna and six civilians, four of them in fighting shape. Thirty five souls left in Mediobogdum. Six were now on the south wall along with Hermod the hunter, Elia and the smith working on arrows and bolts and the old hunchback woman and two soldiers were working on the stores. Two men clearing the wall walks, two manning the northern corner towers on watch. There were now seven men working on the redoubt, and Fulvius would be in his makeshift hospital. Good. Everyone was accounted for.
Six men of the cohort stood at attention, and the sour looking old veteran Belliacus lounged on the tribunal from which the officers traditionally addressed their men.
‘Alright, lads. We’ve no time to relax. There are six men on the south wall right now, and seven working on the redoubt. That is a priority, as I think we all know that there will come a time when our numbers just aren’t enough to hold the full perimeter. The men on the walls will need a break soon, though, and I want to cycle the men on watch regularly. Working on building is a lot less strenuous than standing still but expecting to be hit with an arrow at any moment, and we all know that. So I’m going to have four blasts called every half hour. I want you lot to lend a hand on the redoubt. At the first call you move to the south wall and send the guards there to the redoubt. You’ll be relieved half an hour later by the men currently building the redoubt, and so on. Got that?’
A chorus of affirmatives greeted him.
‘Good. Belliacus, are you content taking commands from me?’
‘I’m happy taking advice from you, Valens.’
The optio gritted his teeth in irritation but the man was a civilian and Valens needed every sword he could get. ‘Then here’s my advice. You’ve more experience than any man here, myself included. You may have been cavalry, but you know forts and you know fighting. I’d like you to take charge of the wall circuit. Familiarise yourself with the entire fort wall and note the strong points and the weak points. There will be eight men there now, plus two clearing the snow. Move them around as you see fit and organise them. Acceptable?’
‘Good. Everyone has a job. Off we go.’
Leaving them to it, Valens hurried back to the store house next. Finding the man he’d left in charge standing outside scratching his head, he came to a halt and gestured to the soldier.
‘Just the exasperation, sir.’
The man produced a list and started to run his finger down it. ‘Dolabra for digging trenches: six heads but no shafts. Twenty seven pila shafts with no heads. Wouldn’t be quite so maddening if the two fit together, but they don’t. What could be hundreds of caltrops if they weren’t still in separate pieces, but right now they’re just hundreds of pointy metal worms. Nineteen left boots, twelve wax tablets with no wax in them, two bags of lime mortar, nine undyed tunics, enough nails to crucify the population of Londinium but no hammer, and a single shit-sponge.’
Valens gave the man a sly smile. ‘I like my men to have some imagination, Statius. What you have there is endless possibility. I’d bet a dolabra head gives you a bugger of a headache when it’s dropped from a wall. Sharpen the pila shafts with a knife… instant javelins. Screw the boots and the tablets, but throw them in the furnace when you get Lugracus to show you how to weld the caltrops together. The tunics are bandages waiting to be torn up. The nails will be useful in building the redoubt, and any excess you can stuff in a bag and throw at the bastards. I’m sure we can find a use for lime. It burns flesh, after all. And if all of that’s not enough, then you’ll find a use for the shit sponge in time, I’m sure.’
The soldier frowned.
‘Well?’ urged Valens.
‘Did you catch all of that?’
‘Then get going, Statius.’
The clanging of a bell attracted his attention. It was none of the normal calls, and yet had that tone of urgency that set his teeth on edge. If it was none of the normal calls then the enemy weren’t coming again yet, so what could it be? Heading in the direction of the bell, he realised with a sinking feeling that it came from the south gate. By the time he arrived, Rubellius was standing in the arch of the gateway with two other soldiers who should, by rights, have been standing on the walls. Facing them, swords drawn, were the two soldiers from Alauna.
‘What’s going on?’
‘These bastards want me to open the gate, Optio.’
‘Because the prisoner escaped,’ Secundus snapped, turning to face him. ‘The moment you were gone, he jumped from the walls and disappeared into the burning vicus, with a sword you put in his hand.’
Valens cursed silently. He’d hoped the man would be useful, but hadn’t foreseen this. ‘And you want to go after him? In this? With that lot out there?’
‘Duty, Valens. It means something in Alauna.’
‘Bollocks. He’s either gone, in hiding or dead. None of it matters to us. Those gates aren’t opening again. A veteran called Belliacus is coming to take charge of the wall. Are you working for him here or for me, building the redoubt.’
Secundus turned to look at the gate for a while, then back to Valens. ‘I’m staying here. When they next come and Rigonorix is with them, I’m going to tear the fucker to shreds.’
‘Then you answer to Belliacus. He’s ex-cavalry from the wall, and the most miserable bastard you’ll ever meet. You two should get on like a house on fire.’
With that he turned back into the fort.
All was at a strange equilibrium. Their future was clearly written in blood, and little Valens could do could change it, but what he could do, he’d done. Stomping through the drifting flakes, currently a little lighter as the next heavy cloud rolled their way, he made his way to the north gate, with the intention of circuiting the walls. A look down at the snowy valley where the two men had fallen in an attempt to run for help did nothing to improve his mood, and nor did that northern section of wall where he’d first seen Rigonorix and his escort slipping through the snow. Gods, but had that really only been an hour ago?
At the northeast turret, the highest point in the fort he found the weaselly figure of Pollio, now one of two men now manning a scorpion there. Pollio grinned. ‘Plenty of awards to be won tonight, sir?’
‘You mad little sod, the only prize I want at dawn is to still be breathing.’
‘But you’ll remember me when it’s time to hand out medals eh, sir?’
‘I tell you what, Pollio. If we get to dawn, you’re still alive and you’ve drawn blood from anyone who wasn’t beating you in a game of dice, I’ll pin an award to you myself. Probably while the Carvetii carve lumps off us, but at least you’ll get your phalera.’
All the rodent could do in response was grin at him, which further depressed his mood. A trip down past the east gate and to the south east corner tower. Still no sign of the enemy, and the vicus at the eastern side, climbing the slope towards the parade ground and the mountain above, was much more spacious and less occupied at this side. Even here, though, the fire was already spreading, taking even the most peripheral of civilian structures. Apart from the fort at its heart, the whole of Mediobogdum would be little more than ashes in an hour or so.
Candidus stood watch, a solid man, if unimaginative. Little of import would pass him by. Valens’s vision rose above the burning vicus and he thought he saw something. Frowning, he peered myopically into the murk. It was exceedingly hard to see anything at all between the falling snow and the roiling smoke rising from the buildings of the vicus, and he had to wait for one of those few blessed moments when the snow blustered one way and the smoke the other to see past them.
His blood chilled.
The Carvetii had withdrawn to the valley side and were standing there as a silent dark mass, watching the village burn around the fort, waiting for the flames to die down. They had no intention of abandoning their homicidal activity. They were just pausing to regroup and waiting until the approach was clear.
That meant something big. The next time they came was going to be the big one. The Carvetii would flood through the burned-out settlement and surge at the walls, not letting up the attack until they were in. This was truly the calm before the storm. His eyes strayed across the ranks of gathered tribesmen and he shuddered. Doom awaited them, now.
Where, he wondered momentarily, was Rigonorix. Somehow, although the man was related to the tribe, Valens still couldn’t see him siding with them against the cohort, yet running away seemed so out of character. Perhaps he had succeeded where the other two had failed. Perhaps he had run to the next fort for help.
Valens snarled. Or perhaps he had sprouted wings and flown back over the pass.
Stop pondering the unchangeable.
For long moments Valens watched that distant crowd through the blanket of white and the coils of black, until eventually he tore himself away. There was little to be gained from revisiting those he had so recently left, so he retraced his steps around the wall’s perimeter, heading east from the gate towards the pass. At the corner, he nodded to Candidus, who saluted in return and then went back to watching for fresh assaults.
Around the corner, he headed for the east gate and there paused once more to look out across the burning vicus, up towards the parade ground. For just a moment, he thought he spotted movement among the fiery buildings, and focused, peering into the white, red and black. There it was again. Someone was down there.
Who? The whole tribe had retreated across the valley. Oh there would be watchers out there, here and there, but surely not in the burning village? He turned and shouted to Candidus, but the wind had picked up once more, and the sentry couldn’t hear him. Turning, he found the same problem with Pollio. He bit his lip for a moment. How stupid and reckless was he feeling? The figure was only twenty feet from the gate, but he was moving away. If Valens was quick…
Leaping down the steps three at a time, heedless of the danger, he hurried into the gateway. Little work had been done to bolster it as yet, and in moments he was lifting the locking bar. He inched the gate inwards to just a foot or so and slipped through. The shape was just visible in the smoke and snow, and pulling his scarf up around the lower half of his face, Valens ran out, pulling his sword from its sheath and making straight for the figure.
He was halfway there when the man paused and turned. Valens could see little of the man’s features, but in the shadow of a cloak hood, he caught sight of a flash of teeth. A wicked smile.
He hit the snow just as the archers loosed, arrows thudding into the burning timbers nearby, and with desperate speed he turned on his belly in the snow, heaving himself up to his feet and running for dear life. He reached the gate just as more figures edged round the burning buildings, bows raised. As he slipped through and slammed the gate shut, he heard the arrows thud into the other side. In moments he had the bar back down and was heaving barrels and crates against it. His mind churned it over as he worked. Had they lured him out specifically? Or just anyone who appeared?
No. If they’d wanted to get through the gate they’d have drawn him further away and slipped men around behind him. They’d not intended to be seen. He’d noticed something secret and they’d reacted, tried to stop him reporting it.
Back up onto the walls, he ran first to Pollio and then to Candidus, telling both men to keep an eye around the east gate. Then to the south gate, where he found Belliacus directing men around the walls to positions, even as he scanned the horizon.
‘They gather to the south,’ the veteran said.
‘They do, but there’s something going on at the east gate too. You’d best send someone to keep control there.’
Belliacus nodded and narrowed his eyes. ‘You look bollocksed. When did you last sleep?’
‘I don’t know. Who’s the emperor now?’
‘Go get some rest, Valens. You’ve got an hour at most, but it’s better than nothing.’
‘I can’t sleep while everyone else watches.’
‘A commander needs to be alert. I’ll keep control here. I’ll send for you the moment anything happens.’
Valens frowned for a while. He might not sleep, but after hours out here and then floundering around in the snow outside the gate, he could certainly do with a change of tunic at least.