An hour had passed since Valens had returned. An hour of planning, of assigning and continually reassigning people to tasks, of answering endless questions, of confirming things and of checking stores and sending them out, distributing them to defensive positions.
‘Are we ready?’
The optio turned to see Secundus, his expression bitter and bleak, covered in dust from the building works. ‘As we’ll ever be.’
‘Look, I know you don’t like me, but we’ve both come up from being fighting men, both chosen by a centurion because we have what it takes. You have seniority and this is your fort. Belliacus is a good choice, and I know why you chose Rigonorix. He’s a fucking disaster waiting to happen and you can’t trust him, but he’s likeable and dangerous. We thought that for a while. But I’m an optio too and I’m your second in command. I need to know everything for when you get a sword up your sphincter and I have to take over.’
Valens paused, then nodded and pulled the man aside into the chapel of the standards. ‘Alright. We haven’t a chance, as I expect you know. My job is to hold as long as I can and make sure the standards don’t fall to the enemy. Our standards will be buried out of their reach under the floor in the granary. It’s being done even now.’
‘Why not put them in the strong room?’
‘Because they’ll be found there. And because Elia and her boy will be hiding down there. I want the place to look empty and uninteresting, so no one feels moved to search it.’
‘You want the whore to survive. The boy’s yours?’
‘No. It’s nothing like that. But she’s the most innocent soul here. She survives.’
Secundus nodded. ‘I see that. Alright. So they come. What happens?’
‘We draw as much attention as possible to the main door and the half-moon redoubt, to try and save the flanks as long as possible. Both Belliacus and Rigonorix should know how long to hold and when to pull back. Each will have a good share of men and two scorpions. Each piece of artillery now has twelve shots thanks to the work of the smith, Lugracus. That’s more than they’ll have time to use, I’m sure. The last two scorpions will be set up in the headquarters facing the doorways out. That’s our last stand. Once the granaries and the commander’s house are overwhelmed, they pull back here. This building is our last chance. We fight to the end here. Spartans at Thermopylae, yes? “Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words”.’
‘I haven’t a pissing clue what you’re talking about, but I get the drift. We stand and fight as long as we can, kill as many as we can and try to save the girl and the standards. Alright, you take control of the door and I’ll take the inside and the final defences.’
Both men paused at the sound of approaching footsteps. Rubellius came to a halt. ‘It’s started.’ He held up Hermod’s arrow.
‘Here we go,’ breathed Valens. ‘Prepare yourself.As soon as anywhere becomes indefensible, we’ll be pulling back. You need to have the second line of defence ready.
Secundus nodded gruffly and returned to the basilica of the headquarters building. Valens ducked back into the apsidal defence outside the main door. His heart began to pulse as he realised that the entire defence of this approach consisted of himself and three men. It was all well and good trying to draw attention and keep as many of the enemy as possible from assaulting the peripheral buildings, but right now, alongside three men and with the clear memory of the horde outside, it was starting to look really stupid. His eyes slid to his three stalwart companions and lit on Pollio.
He could have blockaded the door and waited. Perhaps he still should? He shook his head resolutely. They could hold this door. They had the grain bag redoubt and then, when they had to withdraw, a narrow, easily defensible doorway. And then, when the doorway fell, the door to the principia was the thickest and strongest to be found anywhere inside the fort. And as long as this looked viable, the enemy should concentrate on it, taking the pressure off the less defensible areas of the granary and the commander’s house.
A roar arose from somewhere to the east, up the slope.
Valens looked to the other three. ‘Make a lot of noise. Bring them here.
The soldiers began to slam their pilum hafts against the bronze edging of their shields, beginning a rhythmic thumping, providing a beat against which they bellowed out an ancient paean to Mars and Minerva, a soldier’s hopeful song of praise. Valens looked along the street pensively, then back at his men. Each had pilum in hand, and the men who’d designed this small redoubt had thoughtfully provided a floor two grain sacks thick, which gave everyone a two foot advantage in height against those outside. Each man had also drawn his sword and jammed it into a gap in the redoubt for swift retrieval when the pilum inevitably bent, broke or was lost.
Then they came.
A flow of tribesmen and women, whooping and brandishing a variety of weapons, cornered at the granary and began to hurtle down the street towards them. A second cry came from the south where, directly along the other street, Valens could see them crossing the wall at the gate and dropping into the fort to run at them from a second direction. He couldn’t see the other two gates, but doubtless the same was happening everywhere.
Three hundred or so, he remembered from a previous estimate. All they had to do was kill ten each…
The crowd surged towards the small half-moon of sacks with a cry of triumph, falling easily for the clearly most ready access. Valens felt vindication of his plan as he saw along the street tribesmen beginning to climb the walls at the granary, only to be waved on to the doorway by their companions.
‘Stab, don’t throw,’ he reminded his men somewhat unnecessarily. ‘We need every weapon.’
And then they were under attack once more.
It was hard to see the effects the scattered caltrops were having as the crowd surged down the street, especially with the increasing snowfall, but as they came closer to the redoubt entrance, it became clearer. Every four or five paces one of the natives would stop dead, howling and dropping their weapon to clutch at their ruined foot, only to be driven to the ground by the surging mob behind and trampled in their lust for battle. It had to be thinning the numbers, Valens figured, though it was hard to tell.
‘Ready,’ he said, preparing himself, lifting a pilum of shabby construction ready to strike.
The enemy hit the grain-bag wall like a tidal wave, hard enough that the whole construction shuddered and leaned slightly inwards despite its immense weight. The four defenders remained a pace back from the wall, placing them in less danger from spears thrust up from outside, but allowing them still the advantage of stabbing back with their own.
It irritated the optio no end that the first spear to come up and over, seeking his life in the hands of a humble Carvetii peasant, was much better quality than his own military-manufactured one. He ducked out of the way of the gleaming point and stabbed back through the falling blanket of white. The pilum point slammed into the man’s face, ruining it in an instant, and the native, bellowing in agony, fell back. Instinct and more than a decade’s experience in putting down tribal risings took over. As he fell away, Valens grabbed the man’s spear below the head and plucked it from his hands.
The pilum was already bent near the point as he pulled it back, though still usable. They would only be good for two or three strikes, and it was worth having something a bit more robust. Dropping the purloined spear behind him, he stepped forward toward the wall and lunged with the pilum. It was impossible to miss, the enemy like a living carpet, and as he pulled the pilum back, something caused resistance and a sucking sound when it came free. He stabbed again and this time when he pulled it back, the metal shaft was bent beyond hope. Grunting, he cast it down into the enemy and stepped back to pick up that spear.
As he rose, he saw the first of his men fall, blood jetting from a lucky wound to his neck. As the man collapsed, Valens was pleased to see the other two close up to narrow the gaps. Leaping back into the fray he stabbed down with the native spear. Its length and weight was unfamiliar, but he adjusted his grip and perceptions swiftly and was impressed at its reach. When he pulled it back the leaf-shaped blade had already been bloodied.
The mechanics of battle took over, stabbing and pulling back, stabbing and pulling back, ducking this way and that at thrusts over the top. Secundus had made himself worthwhile and a man had arrived from inside the principia to bolster the numbers, though barely had he started to fight than another man fell, dropping them to three once more.
‘Ah shit,’ said Pollio next to him.
Valens frowned. ‘What?’
He did. Oddly a strange, slithering roar had begun, starting as an undercurrent but becoming gradually louder until he buried the lesser sounds of battle. Valens fretted for a moment, wondering what was happening.
Then the wall of grain sacks shifted very slightly, the top leaning half a foot outwards. Realisation dawned on him with a sense of dread.
‘They’re slitting the lower grain sacks. The wall’s going to collapse!’
The redoubt was going to last for three dozen heartbeats at most. Valens cursed under his breath. It should have lasted so much longer but he’d not counted on native ingenuity. With every blink of the eye, the apse of sacks was leaning further and further out.
‘Back to the doorway,’ he yelled. Stabbing at one last poor bastard with his stolen spear, he began to back away. Pollio beside him did much the same. The soldier to Valens’s right, however, tried to pull back, but someone had grabbed hold of his spear and suddenly the man was yanked forward against the wall, knocking the breath from him. Before the optio could do anything to help him, a dozen hands grabbed the man and pulled him, screaming, over the wall. Valens caught the fear in his eye for a moment, and flinched at it.
As the remaining three men pulled back towards the doorway behind them, the man to the left made a fatal error. The Carvetii were clambering up and over the redoubt wall now, and he took two steps towards them, mid-retreat, to plant his pilum in a man’s gut. Before he could return to their line he was mobbed by howling men and women dropping down into the redoubt.
There was no time. Attempting to do anything but run risked allowing them access to the principia. Bellowing Latin defiance, Valens and the diminutive Pollio backed away at a speed that matched the quick march, into the doorway. There, some helpful soul pushed another spear into Pollio’s hands. A third man – and gods knew there were precious few now – joined them, spear point gleaming as it pointed forward. The three men formed a line in the door. Valens glanced left for just a moment to see that the hunchbacked old woman had positioned herself behind the door, ready to heave it closed at a call. That it could come to this. Survival hinging on the muscle tone of a misshapen septuagenarian…
It was a good killing zone, Valens decided. The enemy could only come at them in small numbers. ‘Remember the Macedonian drill,’ he said to his companions. As the front-runners closed on them and howled, jabbing out with their own spears, Valens prepared to put into action a manoeuvre they’d called the Macedonian Drill after the famous length advantage of the spears of that nation.
The three of them watched the advancing Carvetii carefully, and waited until they took a shuffling extra step to bring them into line with the doorway. In that moment, as the spears were less important than the manoeuvre, all three soldiers stepped quickly forward and rammed out with their spears and pila, using the step to give them the advantage of reach. All three weapons sank into the enemy and the Romans pulled the spears back out and took two quick steps back as they fell.
More of them came, but it was clear that the Carvetii were slow to learn the lesson of planning before reaching their objective. At the door their eyes left their Roman enemy long enough to pull into the doorway, and the three soldiers stepped forward and stabbed again, stepping back and letting the bodies fall.
On it went with the Macedonian drill, waiting for the moment the natives stumbled in their advance in order to negotiate the narrow doorway, stepping forward and spearing the bastards and then stepping back out of reach of the next ones. Better still, with each iteration the bodies were starting to pile up, presenting more of an impediment for the next group, making it easier to prepare for their advance.
By the sixth lunge, Valens was starting to think they might just survive this. Three men had taken down eighteen since withdrawing to the door and without a single wound. If they could achieve that sort of success across the redoubt then they might just pull through.
Hubris is a dangerous thing. Just as the optio was congratulating himself for what seemed like the possibility of success, things suddenly came undone. Stumbling up over the pile of bodies, one of the next wave of attackers tripped and fell forward. By evil chance, his spear slammed into the thigh of the soldier to the left of Valens. The man cried out and fell back through the doorway. As he knocked Valens, the optio’s spear also went astray and his lunge missed the next man, whose counterstrike would have sent the optio across the final river had he not leaned desperately out of the way.
The disaster had ended their lucky streak, for now Carvetii warriors were managing to get into the doorway without presenting themselves to the Roman spears. Valens prepared himself to fight a desperate last struggle, and cursed as Pollio vanished backwards, legging it in the face of death. The reason for the rodent-like soldier’s disappearance became clear a moment later as arrows thudded into the door frame around him, one thrumming past his head, making Valens look up sharply. Just beyond the next wave of attackers three natives with bows were nocking and loosing with horrible speed. An arrow dinged off Valens’s helmet and the untenable nature of his defence became horribly apparent.
‘Are you going to get out of the fucking way, Valens?’ called a voice from behind.
The optio’s head whipped round, to find himself face to face with three scorpions, each loaded and pointed at the door.
In half a heartbeat the spear he held was gone as he threw himself to the ground. With a tripartite thud the three engines released their foot-long bolts and the doorway cleared of bodies, figures thrown back with screams, taking the men behind along with them. Before Valens could do anything Secundus, who had been the man behind the three weapons, threw his arm out to the bent old crone.
‘Get that door shut, woman.’
‘No,’ bellowed Valens, struggling to his feet. Their tactic had been working. If they could only get people into the door before the enemy recovered…
‘Shut up, Valens. Get the door shut, crone.’
The old woman was dithering, uncertain as to whether she should be closing the door or not. Her decision was made for her as Pollio hit the door next to her and heaved it shut. By the time he was halfway there, the woman was helping. Valens continued to argue, though Secundus urged them to force it closed faster.
The door closed with a click.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ snarled Valens, launching to his feet angrily.
‘Saving your pretty Dalmatian arse. You’d never have blocked it in time and the arrows would have done for you. Now it’s closed and that avenue of attack is sealed off for a while. Time to set up your Thermopylae, Valens, and what I wouldn’t give for three hundred Spartans right now.’