Valens staggered back into the principia courtyard, staring at Secundus. Damn it all, but now that he’d pulled back from the fight and had a think, he could see that the other optio was right. There was no way he’d have held the doorway. Trying not to feel bitter, he straightened and looked about. Pollio was standing beside one of the scorpions that was already being reloaded. The man had not fled in cowardice, after all, but simply abandoned a hopeless situation.
They were holed up in the redoubt. The main door would hold for a long time, for it was a secure and stout oak portal. The weak points now were the peripheral buildings: the granaries where the smith worked, commanded by the unpredictable lunatic Rigonorix, and the commander’s house where Fulvius treated the injured and Belliacus commanded. Both of those peripheral areas would be the next to fall. The headquarters building was formed of a courtyard surrounded by offices, with the basilica hall on the one side. With the door sealed, and likely to hold longer than anywhere else, those side entrances, each hacked through an office wall to the next section of the redoubt, would be the next pressure points.
‘Alright,’ he announced. ‘The main door is sealed. Out next problem will be when one side or the other falls. We need to get the survivors back through the hole in the wall straight away and seal the office door on whichever side goes first. That will not hold long, but it’s all we have, so we hold it. Once both peripheral areas are falling and the office doors get sealed, we’ll push all non-combatants into the basilica. Then, when the outlying areas finally fall and we come under attack here, we’ll beat a fighting retreat to the basilica. That hall has no windows or doors apart from the one into the courtyard. One way in, and one way out, and a solid roof. We fall back to our last fortress.
‘And then?’ Secundus asked.
‘And then we do our three hundred Spartans. The basilica is our Thermopylae; our last stand. We have three scorpions here. I want one set up in the basilica pointing out here and one at each of the office doors facing the areas that are about to fall.’
‘How long can you hold?’
Valens looked at the old, hunch-backed woman who had spoken in a shaky voice. ‘In all honesty, I have no idea. But time buys possibility. The longer we hold here, the longer we have before we pull back to the basilica and therefore the longer we can hold there. We buy what time we can, and we pray to every god and goddess who might be able to hear us for deliverance.’
Before the old woman could reply there was a cry of pain and Valens’s head snapped right. A soldier with only one and a half legs was struggling out of the office doorway that led towards the commander’s-house end of the redoubt. As he stumped and hopped inside, behind him came a man with a bandaged head, covered with blood.
‘What is it?’ he asked, breathless.
‘Belliacus told us to pull back.’
A moment later Fulvius, the medic, appeared in the doorway, helping two limping men. Valens threw him a questioning look.
‘The house is about to fall. Belliacus had us fall back.’
‘Shit,’ said the optio, with feeling. ‘Get that scorpion moved now.’
The scorpions were manhandled into their new positions, and Valens found himself with Pollio behind the one facing the hole through which the wounded were limping. ‘Let me at it, boss,’ the small soldier grunted.
‘Not a chance, Pollio. I’ve seen your aim in the latrine. If you can’t hit a foot-wide hole with your own knob, I’m taking control of this. You can ratchet the bloody thing back.’
Two men hurried over to help the last wounded soldier through, but the man waved them both away. They were about to leave when Valens gestured at them. ‘Stay there and grab that beam. The moment Belliacus comes through that door, slam the bastard shut, bar it – there’s mallets and nails next to you to seal the beam – and then heave those heavy sacks against it. That door has to hold as long as… well, more or less as long as we live. Got it?’
The two men nodded, going pale.
Valens looked beyond that last man. He could see through the open door into the room beyond. Years back it had been the office of the pay clerk, before the man had left for foreign climes with most of the unit. Now the room was dark and empty, but that mattered not, for it wasn’t the room the optio was interested in. As part of the redoubt’s construction, a hole had been knocked through the wall beyond, allowing access to the commander’s house. That hole now showed as a white circle, gleaming with snow. The sound of brutal fighting echoed through the room, and shapes moved out there. Even as Valens spotted a legionary fighting for his life the man fell, three natives jumping on his corpse with glee and stabbing repeatedly.
The hole in the wall was suddenly obscured by new figures as two men retreated into it. One was a soldier of the unit, the other was identifiable as Belliacus largely from the long cavalry sword he swung this way and that like a man half his age, swiping off limbs as he scythed the blade. As the two men reached the door, a spear came seemingly from nowhere, felling the soldier. Belliacus leapt back through the hole into the dark room.
‘Shut the door, Valens,’ the cavalryman bellowed.
‘Get back here.’
‘No time. Shut it now or it’ll fall,’ the grizzled veteran barked.
Even as he spoke, three men leapt through the gap behind the man into the room. Pollio looked up at Valens. ‘Sir?’
‘No one left to die. Are we ready?’
‘Think so,’ Pollio replied, nudging the bolt in its groove. As he snatched his fingers away, the optio tilted the weapon and sighted into the dark room. With an indrawn breath, and hoping he was as good as he thought he was, Valens pulled the trigger. The missile flew and mercifully snatched one of the attackers away, though Belliacus was still fighting two men.
‘Reload,’ snapped the optio, and Pollio fumbled another bolt and began to wind the machine.
‘Close. The fucking. Door,’ shouted Belliacus. Three more men burst through the hole into the room, and more were following. Belliacus bellowed in pain as a sword slammed into his side, but he succeeded in hammering a deep dent into his attacker’s head with his spatha in response regardless.
‘No,’ Valens shouted. ‘Come back.’
‘No time,’ Belliacus replied, then yelped in pain and turned slowly. One arrow jutted from his chest and another from his neck, clearly visible as black shapes against the white snow.
‘Senatus… populusque… Romanus,’ Belliacus snarled, and swung, taking the head from one of his attackers just as two more men piled into him, driving him down to the floor. The optio stared. Belliacus had been retired and living in the vicus when Valens had arrived as a young soldier. The old bastard had been a fixture.
‘Close and bar the door,’ he ordered the two men, straightening.
The door slammed shut, obscuring the last sight of Belliacus being driven to the ground by half a dozen howling Carvetii. Valens closed his eyes for a moment and cast up a brief prayer for the old man. Even as he watched, the soldiers barred the door and took an end of the beam each, along with the hammers, and began to nail it in place.
He looked around. Secundus and his friend from Alauna were in the doorway of the basilica, setting up one of the scorpions there as the medic, Fulvius, and his walking wounded shuffled inside. Valens waved at them.
‘Anyone who can still grip a sword and swing it get back here.’
‘These men are injured, sir,’ Fulvius said defiantly. ‘No one here is shirking.’
‘Unless they can’t stand up or are missing both arms, they’re still soldiers and still needed.’
With a disgruntled nod, Fulvius turned four of the five men with him and pointed them back to Valens. The optio took a deep breath. Along with the two from Alauna, the two at the door and four wounded men, the defence of the courtyard consisted of him and Pollio. Not good odds. The sounds of furious fighting still echoed through the other doorway towards the granaries, though if Valens was honest, he thought the noises were getting a little close and a little desperate sounding.
Their situation was looking less tenable by the heartbeat. The door so recently sealed was already being pounded on at the far side, even as the two men securing it piled benches and sacks and old wheels against it. It wouldn’t last long. Similarly, though it was a tough door, the main entrance from the street was now a focus for pressure, and the thumping against it was more than angry hands, suggesting the locals had found a charred beam in the wreckage that had cooled sufficiently to use as a battering ram. Once again, then, that door had a very finite lifespan. What would they do if one of those doors gave now? They’d have to pull back to the basilica as planned, but that would leave Elia and the others trapped in the granary. Time was running out.
A different kind of noise insisted itself on the scene now and Valens cocked his head, frowning, wondering what it was. His gaze slid upwards in dreadful realisation. The enemy were climbing the outside walls of the principia. Once up, they could slide over the roof and drop down into this courtyard. Damn it, but they needed to pull back from the granaries now and prepare their last stand. Decision made, he turned and swept his arm around. ‘Drop what you’re doing and get ready. They’re coming over the roof. We fight until we’re all together and then pull back to the basilica. Swords out.’
As the nine men with him prepared to fight, Valens hurried to the remaining open door to warn those who would be trapped. As he dipped into the dark office, the hole in the outer wall suddenly blocked as Elia clambered through it towards him, carrying her boy.
‘Get into the principia,’ Valens told her, urgently but not unkindly. She gave him a weak, worried smile and ducked past. Behind her, Rigonorix suddenly appeared, climbing through. ‘The others?’ Valens asked.
‘Gone,’ the fugitive said, darkly. ‘Run.’
Behind the man, through the hole in the wall, the optio could see a few natives chasing him, but something else caught his eye. The granary’s new temporary doorway had been sealed and men with burning torches surrounded the building. Already smoke was drifting from the rafters. He tried not to think on what was going to happen to anyone trapped in there, and it couldn’t be empty with the amount of effort the enemy were expending. The bleak look on Rigonorix’s face confirmed the unpleasant truth of it.
‘Get back into the courtyard.’
Valens piled back into the courtyard, swearing, as Rigonorix dived after him. Those figures the optio had seen in pursuit were already close behind and howling their triumph at seemingly having beaten them and gained access. As Rigonorix hit the courtyard running, the optio turned, struggling back to his feet, and slammed against the door, throwing his shoulder to it. A heartbeat later something started to thump on the far side, shaking it, accompanied by angry calls.
The door bulged and shook and Valens held his back to it, praying that the enemy were armed with spears and swords that would spend an hour battering at it and not an axe that could hack straight through the timbers and into anyone standing against them in a single blow. As he struggled, eyes wide, the fugitive was there suddenly, throwing his own back against it and holding it fast against the banging, side by side with Valens.
‘Funny old world, isn’t it, Optio?’
The two soldiers with the hammers and nails were suddenly next to them, lifting a beam and securing it into place. Once the men had it under control, Valens stepped away, breathing heavily. Looking up at Rigonorix, his face bore a dark expression. ‘Your optio from Alauna is ready to take control, and I’ve half a mind to let him. We are too few. The enemy are coming over the roof. There’s no help coming in time, and you know what’s going to happen when we retreat to the basilica?’
Rigonorix nodded. ‘They have the choice of trying to dismantle the roof to get to us or just roasting us alive inside.’
Valens grunted an agreement. ‘No way for a soldier to go.’
Rigonorix fumbled at his belt and somehow, miraculously, produced a small flask. Uncorking it, he took a swig and passed it over to Valens. ‘Burning’s never been my favourite way to go, but my old ma, who was Carvetii by the way, used to say something to me that stuck in the mind.’
‘What was that?’ Valens said, taking the flask and sniffing it dubiously.
‘There’s always hope while you walk and talk.’
‘She must have been a fucking riot at parties.’
Rigonorix grinned and Valens took a sip of the flask. Wincing, he gritted his teeth against the horrifying taste. ‘One sip of that,’ he breathed, ‘and death loses its sting.’
‘It’s something they make up in Caledonian lands. They call it the water of life. It grows on you.’
‘So does mould.’
‘The fact is that as long as someone lives, we’re not done. Now come on. Let’s make them sorry they ever crossed that pass.’
‘You are a mad bastard, aren’t you?’ Valens said, but his face split into a weird grin, nonetheless. ‘Alright. Let’s set up our Thermopylae.’
Valens moved into position ten paces in front of the door to the basilica and gestured to the others. ‘Alright, this is going to be short and nasty. This is our last chance to thin them out before we pull back and seal up. Everyone gets to kill as many as they can. Don’t be fancy or careful, just kill a lot. Fulvius, leave the wounded for now. You’re my eyes. Stand in the doorway with the scorpion. You’ve seen enough fights to recognise when it turns. The moment it starts to break, give the call.’
Fulvius looked less than happy, but he nodded nonetheless.
‘The rest of you, anyone in fighting shape, draw your sword and form on me as a wedge surrounding the door. As soon as Fulvius gives the shout we contract, pulling in and back through the door, rear-most men first.’
He looked at the soldiers awaiting orders. ‘I want Rigonorix on my left and Secundus on my right. Then Pollio left and the other Alauna man, Dentio, right. Then…’ His eyes fell on Rubellius with relief. ‘I thought you’d fallen out there. Rubellius left and Laurentius right. Then the fighting wounded back to the walls. Fulvius? As well as watching, you need to warn us if anyone drops from the roof behind us, or better still, spear the bastard. Are we all clear?’
The men nodded wearily. Eleven soldiers to hold the door, with Fulvius and one other soldier there, Elia, a badly wounded man and the old hunchbacked woman inside. A pitiful showing, considering, but gods be blessed they’d done all any man could. Silence fell, aided by the blanket of white still drifting down into the courtyard. All they could hear now was the cacophony of thuds and crashes at each of the three doors holding the enemy back and the scrape and clatter of the natives scrambling up onto the roof.
‘Here they come,’ he said, as a dark figure appeared over the roofline opposite, silhouetted against the white. Behind him others now came, shapes swarming over the roof. Valens found himself swallowing nervously. He’d not quite realised how many there must still be.
‘Get ready to step left, sir,’ Fulvius said behind him. Valens frowned for a moment, then realised that the medic, as well as being the man on watch, was manning the scorpion in the doorway. He gestured his understanding.
He watched, then, as the first three Carvetii slid down the tiles towards the drop into the courtyard. Others were coming across the roofs to the left and right of the courtyard now, too. At least they wouldn’t be likely to come behind as the basilica was a good ten feet higher than the other three sides. The enemies on the roof reached the edge and paused, looking down, preparing. Despite everything, no one seemed keen to be the first man into the courtyard.
Finally, steeling himself, one of the men opposite leapt from the roof. He didn’t land well, and sprawled for a moment in the two-inch-thick blanket of snow, his sword falling from momentarily numb fingers. Still he gave a grimace of persistence, retrieved his sword, and rose from the ground. As he started to unfold, Fulvius murmured ‘now.’
Valens took a tiny step left and in half a breath a scorpion bolt thrummed past his arm, taking the native in the chest, hurling him back and pinning him to the door that was still shaking from the blows of the ram on the far side.
Valens stepped back into position as the other natives started to drop from the roof.
‘Say your prayers, lads.’