Valens woke with a start, his hand going straight to the hilt of the sword that lay beside him. As reality crashed in on his groggy world, despite everything he felt a selfish and idiotic draw to stay in his cot, as warm and comfortable as it was possible to be in this place. He cursed himself as the insistent ringing of the alarm bell cut through the fuzz and pulled him into true wakefulness.
He’d not intended to fall asleep. He’d meant to change his sodden tunic and have a few moments of peace to marshal his thoughts and then return to the outside world, and the next thing he knew he was waking up. Leaping from the bed, he slid his sword into the scabbard and fastened it round his waist. At least he’d changed his clothes for dry ones before he fell asleep, and now he found his second best boots and dress cloak, both of which were fresh and dry, and pulled them on, finally grasping his staff of office before emerging from his room at the end of the barrack block.
The snow had stopped. In a moment of gods’ blessing, the clouds had raised just a little and the blizzard had let up. He wondered how long he’d slept as he peered at the deep crunchy snowfall outside his door. There was no sign of the footprints his earlier arrival, certainly. He set off at speed and was rounding the end of the block just as the soldier sent to fetch him appeared.
‘Belliacus?’ the optio asked.
‘Yes sir. They’re coming again.’
Hurrying on in the bitter cold, but grateful that for now only his boots would get soaked, the optio reached the steps and hurried up onto the south wall, where he could see the veteran standing beside Rubellius, who was still clanging the bell. Behind Valens, two men shambled along the street carrying a box towards the gate and struggling under the weight. Valens ignored them for now, as he reached the parapet and peered out across the vicus.
Little remained of the conflagration. The buildings were now largely charred timber bones, with dying embers burning in their hearts, and so they caused little trouble for the natives who were, as the soldier had said, coming again. Now that the buildings were not in the way and the snow had let up, he had a much clearer view of the enemy. They were fewer than the thousands he had felt were there last time, but still they numbered around three hundred at a rough estimate, which made the odds ten to one. Not good.
‘Are we ready?’ he asked Belliacus.
‘As we can be. You’d best take control now.’
Valens nodded and looked at the mass who were moving through the burned-out village. ‘Ready pila, darts, arrows or whatever you have. Rocks if you have to. The moment they’re in a range you’re confident of, loose at will. When they touch the wall, prepare to fight for your life.’
As the men around him prepared with the little time they had, Valens’s gaze fell upon a new development and his heart thumped. The enemy had not been idle as they waited for the buildings to burn. From the outlying structures before the conflagration hit they had scavenged two ladders, or at least enough material to construct two ladders, both of which were now being carried forward.
‘Look to those ladders. The moment they touch the wall I want them pushed back off. Use anything you can. If you can find a broom or a furca that’s perfect, but don’t let them get an easy route up to the walls.’
He huffed, looking at the shells of buildings again. How long had he been asleep? Damn it.
Barely had he a moment to contemplate what to do about the fresh unfolding disaster at the south wall when across the din of chaos Valens heard a new bell clattering. Looking about this way and that, unable immediately to identify the source of the new alarm, he finally settled on the west gate. What in the name of all the gods could be happening at the west gate? The south and east led on to the vicus, which admittedly now rose only as charred bones, but at least meant there was ready access. The north gate led out more or less onto a precipice, and the west opened only onto a short space before the spur gave way to another steep slope and the valley below. There was no way anyone could marshal a major force there, so what could possibly be happening? Especially when the main enemy force was clearly gathering outside the south wall.
‘Belliacus, can you handle this?’
The veteran gave him a sour look. ‘No. Can you?’
‘Do it anyway,’ the optio snapped and turned, running along the walls. He passed men with pila and bows and an enemy surging at the ramparts. As he passed his men, missiles were released with twangs and thuds, and he hoped Belliacus was up to it when it was clearly Valens’s job to command the walls. Passing the corner turret, he peered off across the narrow plateau. There was no sign of an enemy force gathering there. What could possibly be important enough to clang the alarm?
Hurrying across to the gate, he passed through the tower and out onto the gate top, where the man on watch was busy hammering at the bell while his eyes stayed on the parapet. Valens waved his hands. ‘What is it?’
The sentry caught sight of his commander and let go of the clapper, though he held tight to the cord and pointed at the wall. ‘There, sir.’
The optio hurried over to the wall and looked out. There was nothing but white snow. Then he heard a grating sound and looked down. A shape was moving up the wall, climbing the stonework like a spider. He blinked as he realised the figure was wearing Roman kit rather than native wool and hide.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
Rigonorix looked up and gave him a weird, lopsided grin. ‘Wishing there was someone there who might give a man a hand up over the wall.’
Reaching down, Valens grabbed the fugitive’s hand and grasped it, turning to the soldier behind him. ‘Give me a hand.’
The man ran over and between them they hauled the criminal up and onto the wall walk. As Rigonorix landed and crouched, huffing onto freezing hands, he looked up into Valens’s face. The optio peered at the man from Alauna and took an involuntary step back as he realised what the man was wearing. A necklace hung around him, formed of a leather thong fed through numerous human ears.
‘You killed…’ he counted softly, ‘fourteen people while you were out?’
‘Twenty eight,’ corrected Rigonorix, fondling his new necklace. ‘They’re all left ears. I though you were more observant than that.’
Valens simply stared, wide-eyed.
‘Anyway,’ the man barked, rising to his feet, ‘I hurried back to warn you. The shit is about to hit.’
‘Oh, I know,’ the optio grunted. ‘I’ve seen them.’
‘That lot? No. They’re the diversion.’
Valens stared at him.
‘A diversion for what?’ Valens demanded. ‘What are they really up to?’
‘The east gate,’ Rigonorix replied. ‘It’s going to fall any time now. You need to fall everyone back to the redoubt straight away, or we’re all lost.’
‘Why? What are they doing? Maybe we can stop them.’
‘Do you trust me?’
Valens stared at the man. ‘Shit, no.’
‘Well you need to start now.’
There was something about the man’s eyes, tone and manner that made it extremely difficult to write his concern off, and Valens found himself turning to the soldier who’d helped him with Rigonorix. ‘Head round to the south gate. Find Belliacus. Tell him the east gate is in danger and that he needs to be ready for one of two signals for me.’
‘Sir.’ The man ran off, and the optio turned to the mad fugitive.
‘I don’t trust you as far as I could spit a rat, but I’m inclined to give you this one. Show me and I’ll give the order.’
Rigonorix looked for a moment as though he might argue, then nodded. ‘Best hurry, then.’
As they leapt down the stairs and began to run along the main road to the opposite gate, past the rapidly rising walls of the central redoubt, Valens spoke between heaved breaths. ‘So tell me.’
‘I don’t know the details, but they’re so sure of success, they’re already planning how hard to dance on your corpse. They sent a group to the east. I don’t know how many, but the word translates as anything from hunting party through warband to army. They’re certain of victory, and my experience with these people tells me that if they’re that certain, we should expect to lose the walls.’
‘I get that impression too. I found some of them poking around in houses outside the east gate.’
‘You went outside?’ Rigonorix threw him a sly grin. ‘You rebel.’
They ran on, and in moments reached the stairs, scrambling up them to the gate top. As they climbed, Valens waved at Pollio in the highest turret nearby. ‘Be ready with that scorpion, and to either give the call to arms here or the call to fall back to the redoubt, okay?’
Pollio saluted as the two men reached the parapet. Falling still, they looked out into the clear air. ‘I can’t see anything.’
‘That gives us time to pull back,’ urged Rigonorix.
They fell silent and watched, ears pricked for any change. It was perhaps fifty heartbeats later when Valens heard it. A low rumble, distant and deep. ‘What the fuck is that?’
‘That is the sound of a nightmare on the way. Sound the retreat.’
‘No. Not until I know what it is.’
‘And if it’s too late then?’
‘Then I get to see you take more ears.’
The rumbling became a sudden din, and the two men turned to look up the hill. From the gate, the road ran straight up the slope, between burned out buildings to the plateau below Mons Mortus where the parade ground lay. As their gazes rose to the top of that slope, a score of tribesmen appeared around a corner, wheeling a huge farm cart with large wheels. As they reached the top of the straight slope, they angled it with, as far as Valens was concerned, impressive accuracy.
‘It’s aimed at the gate.’
‘Quite. Sound the retreat.’
‘It’s just a cart.’
And at that moment, someone lit something and the cart exploded into an inferno of gold.
‘It’s just… a burning cart.’
‘Sound the retreat, Valens.’
‘We can stop them. They can’t just roll it. It’ll never hit the gate.’
‘Valens, sound the fucking alarm.’
Valens turned to Pollio and cupped his hands around his mouth. ‘Sound the muster. Everyone who can be spared to the south gate.’
Rigonorix grasped his shoulder. ‘Don’t be stupid, Optio. Sound the retreat.’
Valens turned an angry face on him. ‘No. It’s my job to hold this fort, and as long as the walls are there, we defend them.’ He looked up at the slope. He’d driven carts before, and they did not do well without a horse or a driver. The chances of that thing staying on course were miniscule.
His certainty began to falter only a moment later. The natives, heedless of the danger, were still hanging on to the cart, riding the burning runaway vehicle. They were adjusting, moving the axle, angling it with every bump it went over. Despite three humps that should have changed its course, it was still aimed straight for the gate.
Valens’s blood chilled. ‘Ah, shit.’
He heard the thump of feet and turned to see Rubellius thundering towards him around the wall. ‘Sir,’ the soldier bellowed, ‘they’ve pulled back from the wall. They’re shifting to the east.’
Bastard, bastard, bastard.
A quick glance at Rigonorix, and the fugitive was giving him a very forceful, meaningful look.
With a snarl, he turned back to Pollio, who was already tootling out the summons on his horn, and waved his hands. ‘Change of plan, rat-face. Sound the withdrawal to the redoubt.’
Pollio, face creased into a frown, nodded, and changed the tune in a moment. Rubellius dithered, uncertain as to whether to run back or run on, and in the end joined his optio and the fugitive at the gate. They turned to look at the approaching cart, which burned in a golden inferno. He’d still hoped it would be off course by the time it neared the walls, but it was clear that the natives had planned their assault well. The cart thundered towards the gate. Would it hold? It was good, solid hard timber, barred and bolstered with whatever could be found at the time.
But the cart was loaded, heavy, aflame, and coming at a horrible pace which increased with every pace down the slope to the gate. No, the gate was doomed. Valens cursed himself for not listening to Rigonorix so far, but it was duty. He had to hold as long as he could.
Fifteen paces from the gate the natives guiding the cart, faces seared from the heat, and clothes smouldering, threw themselves from the vehicle. Valens, unwilling as yet to retreat to somewhere he could not see, watched with wide eyes. The tribe swarmed from the street sides between the burned buildings up the slope, and the cart made its last few paces then hit the gate with an almighty crash that actually shook the wall.
A roar of triumph arose from the natives.
Valens, Rigonorix, Pollio and Rubellius all exchanged looks.
‘To the redoubt,’ Valens shouted, and the men turned away from the scene outside and began to pound down the steps.
Barely had Valens reached the bottom of the steps when the runaway inferno hit the gate. At first there was a roaring noise that rose with every heartbeat, then an ear-splitting crash. Valens turned to look back into the archway. The impact had torn the right gate from its top hinge, and it hung at a weird angle, the left intact but useless on its own. Through the gaps and the broken timbers, Valens could see a blaze of gold. The gate would now begin to burn, but that wouldn’t last for long. In moments the enemy would be pulling the cart back somehow, as best they could despite the heat, and trying to get through.
Very briefly it occurred to Valens that if the gate held long enough, with the enemy unable to get past the burning wreckage, he could organise a superb killing zone. Then he chided himself for wishful thinking. He had nowhere near enough time and, though there was no reason to have done so, given their situation, he would have done well to follow Rigonorix’s advice and pull back earlier.
Already the enemy were beginning to move the cart. They were struggling due to the flames, but gradually they would drag it back and clear the wreckage from the gate, and then they would have ready access. Valens cursed silently. The walls could never be held now, even with a full cohort.
The four men ran from the gate. The withdrawal call was going up now from the south rampart. The solid east wall of the granary, blank and with no windows or doors, faced the burning gate, the nearest façade of the new redoubt. As they ran, heading for the door of the headquarters building which now formed the main gate of the redoubt, Valens glanced across at one of the uniform block buildings to his left. Golden light shone from it, and hammering sounds emerged from the door.
‘You three, come with me.’
As they burst through the door Lugracus the smith was still at work, forging points for arrows. Elia was busy using tongs to dip burning missile tips into water with a plume of steam and her infant giggled on the floor. ‘That’s the call to pull back,’ he told them. ‘Time to get to the redoubt. Elia, take your kid and get him to safety. Lugracus, come on. Bring your tools. You never know, we might find a way to use them.’ As the smith began to gather his things, and Elia scooped up her infant, Valens gestured to the three men with him. ‘Rubellius and Pollio, help carry anything of use. Take it all to the redoubt. Rigonorix and I will be along in a moment.’
As they went to work, the fugitive gave him a questioning look. ‘Mind telling me what we’re going to do?’
Valens grabbed a piece of dry timber from the pile near the furnace and thrust it deep into the flames, pausing until it burst into life. He then held it out to the fugitive. ‘Barracks burn just as much as civilian buildings. I reckon we’ve got time to torch the barrack blocks and still get to safety.’
Rigonorix grinned as he grasped the burning brand.