The first attack came late in the day. The Parthians were clearly in no hurry. They had the Roman century penned in like sheep, and there were no reinforcements for many days ride in any direction. But after letting them sweat, quite literally, on alert all day in the sweltering heat, they came, just as as the sun was descending towards the horizon.
It started with a hail of arrows directed at the sentry towers of the main gate, and the towers in the corner of that front wall. It had little direct effect, but it made the guards keep their heads down. They were too few in number to return a suppressing fire of their own, so all they could do was crouch behind the flimsy defences, flinching as the missiles whistled overhead or smashed into the walls, splintering wood and sending splinters flying.
And while the legionaries took cover, another volley of arrows sailed in. But these weren’t aimed at living bodies. They were aimed at the gates, and the arrows were flaming.
Oclatinius shouted down from his guard tower to Quintillius. The centurion was summoning all the men who were on a rest shift, getting them ready to repel an attack if the gates were rammed, while leaving a reserve in case the Parthians tried to scale the walls with ladders at other points.
“Fire arrows!” shouted Oclatinius. “The gates are starting to catch.”
Quintillius cursed, but he had been round long enough that he wasn’t caught by surprise. He quickly had the reserve forming a chain to pass pre-filled buckets up to the guard towers. Oclatinius received the first one, trying not to spill any, though his hands were shaking with nerves and exertion. He peeked over the top of the wall, ducked down as he saw a bowman line up and let loose at his head, then quickly tossed the contents of the bucket down the front of the gate.
There was a satisfying hiss, and one fire arrow which had only just lodged in the gate was extinguished. But a dozen more were blazing, and Oclatinius tossed his empty bucket to the soldiers below and reached down for another. The soldiers on the guard tower on the other side of the gate were doing the same, frantically grabbing full buckets and pouring them onto the growing flames, while trying to avoid the deadly hail of missiles from the Parthian archers.
One legionary was too slow, too unobservant, or just too unlucky. As he leaned over with his bucket to throw water at a more distant flame, an arrow struck him in the side of the neck. The bucket fell to the ground outside the gate, and the soldier reached up to grasp the arrow shaft. Oclatinius watched in horror as he tried to pull it free, though he surely knew that the wound was mortal. The arrow barely moved before the legionary tumbled over the parapet, falling on top of the bucket which splintered under the impact of the dying man’s body.
Oclatinius watched for a moment paralysed. The legionary still moved, still tried to breathe. He reached an imploring hand up towards Oclatinius, whose heart broke at the pathetic sight. He started to stretch his own hand out.
The singing of an arrow’s path through the air made him duck. The arrow went high. He was fortunate – there wouldn’t have been enough time from him hearing the threat to it impacting upon him to get out of its path. He hunkered down behind the partial safety of the defences, breathing heavily.
“Oclatinius,” roared Quintillius. “Get up, and get those fires out!”
Oclatinius moved with a great effort, fighting against every instinct screaming at him to keep his head down. Expecting at any moment for an arrow to skewer him like the soldier on the opposite tower, he threw bucket after bucket over the flames. There were several near misses that made his bowels loosen, but eventually the fires were extinguished, the gates were still intact, and somehow Oclatinius had avoided perforation.
He sank back onto the floor of the guard tower, breathing deeply in an attempt to slow his racing pulse.
“Oclatinius!” yelled Quintillius. “Is it done?”
“All done, sir,” he shouted back. “All the flames are out.”
“Good work. Get down here, take a short break. You!” He randomly pointed to one of his reserves. “Get up there and take his place.”
Oclatinius climbed down the guard ladder on trembling legs, clammy hands gripping the rungs of the ladder overly tightly. At the bottom, he glanced at the gates. From the inside they seemed largely undamaged, but some patches had turned brown where the flames had nearly burned all the way through. One or two of the stakes that made up the gate had splintered from multiple impacts. But they were still able to do their job. They had beaten off the first attack.
Oclatinius took out his flask and drained it, then headed over to the well in the centre of the town, near the temporary hospital to refill it. Most of the townsfolk were cowering in their houses, praying to whichever gods they worshipped in these parts to be spared. But some peered out of the corners of windows as he passed, showing expressions of fear, resentment and anger.
Some of the braver children actually emerged onto the streets, until he had a following of half a dozen urchins of varying ages and sizes, and both genders. He stopped and turned on them abruptly, and they shrank back. But he had not the heart in him to be fierce with them, and when he saw that several of them were drawn and skinny, he tossed them some hard bread from his rations. They grabbed it hungrily, the eldest taking charge and sharing it out fairly.
Then a tan-skinned, crease-faced woman ran from one of the huts and grabbed one of the children by the hand. She yanked the little girl away, batting the food out of her hand so it fell into the dirt. The girl cried as she was hauled off to her hut, but the mother hurried inside, and with one disgusted look at Oclatinius, slammed the door shut.
Oclatinius looked at the oldest child. “What was that about?” He knew the child wouldn’t understand, but he did his best to look perplexed.
The child pointed to his own face, and stabbed it repeatedly with his index finger. What was he doing? Then Oclatinius realised. He was signifying the rash, this pox that had appeared recently among the soldiers. So the townsfolk were scared of that? He rubbed his own pock-marked face thoughtfully, and continued on to the well.
The few townsfolk who had ventured out for water scattered at his approach. Was it the natural fear of a soldier? Before this last encounter, he would have assumed as much. But now, he wondered, was there another reason? Were the locals familiar with this disease, this poxy affliction, and were avoiding the soldiers like the… plague?
The noise from beyond the town defences was muted, and he could hear no urgent shouts, yells or screams from his comrades on guard, so after refilling his water flask, Oclatinius wandered wearily over to the hospital area to check in on Bricius.
“You look dreadful,” he said, when he saw his friend propped up on one elbow, face pale and sweating profusely.
“How many women have you talked into bed with that sweet tongue of yours?” muttered Bricius.
Oclatinius laughed. If his friend’s dour sense of humour was returning, that was surely a good sign. Then his attention was caught by two glum looking legionaries carrying a stretcher. Fulvius yelled to them, beckoned them over, then directed them to one of the sickly patients lying in an orderly row. The legionaries picked the soldier up by his hands and feet and dumped him heavily on the stretcher. Oclatinius winced at how roughly they treated him, until he saw the head loll to one side and stare at him, sightless eyes looking out from a pustulent, blistered, fly-covered face.
He was dead. All the soldiers, maybe half a dozen in that row, were dead. Oclatinius suddenly felt as cold as when he had jumped into the Euphrates, despite the fierce sun.
Fulvius caught him looking but he had no words. He just shook his head, and continued with his work, squatting down by a man with nose haemorrhaging and blood-stained saliva drooling from the corner of his mouth. He offered him water, but the clearly dying man didn’t even respond.
Shouts rang out from the direction of the main gate. Oclatinius looked towards the noise and saw arrows flying again, some flaming. He cursed, patted Bricius gently on the shoulder, and ran back towards the affray. And as he charged towards the battle, he wondered what would kill them all first. The Parthians, or the sickness.