Darkness fell with little progress in the siege. That was the nature of sieges, supposed Oclatinius. Long periods of time with nothing much happening. Weren’t the Greeks outside Troy for ten years?
But this town with its flimsy defences was no Troy, nor was the sickly century a Trojan army. And much as Quintillius seemed to be a competent commander, there was no Hector in their ranks. So he didn’t think it would take ten years to reduce their defences. He thought they would be lucky to hold out ten days.
Still the last attack had been beaten back with just a couple of soldiers wounded, one of whom would be out of action for the foreseeable future after an arrow went through his shoulder, the other who had a graze to his thick skull still able to fight once he had shaken off the concussion. The gates still held, despite some more scorch marks appearing, and the Parthians had retreated to their camp for the night. From his guard tower, Oclatinius watched their distant campfires, like stars strewn across the dark, barren landscape, and wished for a bath, a bed, and a city free from disease and soldiers trying to kill him.
He was glad when his watch ended and he was relieved by a solitary legionary. He had kept lookout alone in his tower. Numbers were so depleted by battle and illness that they could no longer double up, unless they kept watch all night, which would mean no rest before the expected renewed attack in the morning. He saluted the young soldier, then noticed with a shudder that the lad had a few pustules on his face. In that light he couldn’t tell if it was acne or the pox, and he decided that saying something would achieve nothing, and might even cause the soldier to run, terrified, to Fulvius, meaning Oclatinius would have to remain on watch. So he said nothing, and descended the ladder to find his tent and a few short hours of sleep.
His sleep was patchy and he woke frequently from dreams involving facially disfigured comrades, or hailstorms of arrows descending on his vitals. He decided he could no longer sleep at some hour before dawn, so he left his tent to use the latrine, then went to the fountain to drink and splash some cool water on his face. Seeing it was not yet time for him to report for guard duty, and all was quiet, he wandered over to the hospital area.
Fulvius was hard at work, looking like he hadn’t slept for days. He looked up at Oclatinius, nodded acknowledgement, and continued, feeding, offering drink, cleansing faces and limbs that were covered in suppurating sores. Oclatinius looked around at the massed ranks of the unfit, dominated now by the sickly, with those injured in battle a minority – presumably they had mainly recovered or died by now. There were so many. If only they were fit to fight, they had a chance of holding the Parthians off. Even outnumbered, a century of Roman legionaries in a defensive position was a tough nut to crack.
They had plenty of food in their supplies, supplemented by robbing the townsfolk. They had an endless supply of water. Ammunition for bows and slings was sufficient for some time. It was men they lacked. He sighed, and looked around for Bricius. Anxiety rose in his chest when he couldn’t immediately locate his friend. Then he saw the long-haired Gaul, sitting up with his back to a cart, chewing unenthusiastically on a piece of hard bread.
Oclatinius went over and sat beside him, resting the back of his head against the cart wheel.
“Feeling better?” he said.
Bricius turned to him. The pustules on his face had formed sheets, in some places oozing , in others scabbed over. Oclatinius winced.
“Does it hurt?”
“Only when I laugh,” said Bricius.
“Well that never happens.”
“And when I talk. And breathe.”
Oclatinius fell silent for a moment.
“Is there anything I can do?”
Bricius reached around his neck and untied a leather string, then fished out a pendant that had been against his chest beneath his clothing. It was a bronze penis, anatomically correct with helmet and balls, except for the two aquiline wings spreading out from the shaft.
“Please give this to my mother. She lives in Colonia Nemausus.”
He handed it to Oclatinius, who took it solemnly.
“This is a Roman good luck charm.”
Bricius nodded. “My mother was half Roman. That was her father’s. She gave it to me as a child and I have worn it ever since.”
“You should keep it. You will see her again yourself.”
“Look at me, Oclatinius. Between the pox and the Parthians, what are my chances? I wouldn’t feel so bad if I could go out fighting, with a sword in my hand, rather than rotting away here.”
Oclatinius looked at him with sadness. “You want to die in battle?”
“I’m a Gaul, Oclatinius. Vercingetorix, Gergovia, all that. It’s still in my blood.”
Oclatinius touched his friend gently on his shoulder. The sky was turning red in the east. He got up stiffly. “My watch starts again soon. I’ll come back when I can.”
The Parthians attacked soon after dawn. This time they showed more intent. Maybe they were too impatient for a long siege, maybe they had some idea of the Romans’ weakness. Oclatinius suspected that some of the townsfolk had sneaked over the palisade at night to escape the Romans, or the pox, or both. At least some of those would have gone to the Parthians, voluntarily or otherwise, and provided intelligence on the state of the defenders. And they were in a real state.
The Parthians had fashioned themselves a makeshift battering ram, which was impressive given the scarcity of wood in the region. From the look of it, it had previously been a support from some building, maybe the meeting hall of a local village. It wasn’t as hefty as a properly constructed Roman siege weapon, but it didn’t have to be to break down the flimsy town gates.
Dismounted Parthians rushed in, half a dozen carrying the ram, another half a dozen bearing shields to fend off the arrows that Quintillius frantically ordered let loose. The number of missiles was pathetically small, and all hit shields or went wide. The gates shuddered and there was a cracking sound as the ram impacted for the first time. The Parthians retreated twenty yards, then rushed in again.
Oclatinius attempted to line up his shots with his bow, but the quick moving, shielded targets were difficult, and he missed time and again. He leaned out from the tower, looking for an opening. Suddenly he saw a gap, and let loose. The arrow flew true, hitting an exposed Parthian leg, just as the ram impacted the gates again. The jolt through the woodwork unbalanced Oclatinius, already leaning out too far. He tilted, feet coming off the floor of the tower, balanced momentarily on his abdomen with the distant ground and the Parthian soldiers wobbling beneath him.
For a terrifying moment, he thought it was all over. If the fall didn’t kill him, the Parthians below would make short work of him. He flailed, but felt himself tilting inexorably forward and over.
Firm hands grabbed his feet, and yanked him back on the safe side of the parapet. Oclatinius sank to the floor, rubbing his stomach, sore from the stakes pressing against the mail, breathing heavily. Centurion Flaccus was looking down at him with his customary stern face. But that face was covered with sheets of coalescing, weeping, scabby pustules.
“Still being an idiot, Oclatinius,” he said. He reached a swollen hand, oozing hand down to help Oclatinius to his feet. Oclatinius hesitated to take it, repelled for a moment.
In that moment of hesitation, an arrow flew over the parapet and struck Flaccus squarely in the chest, penetrating his curaiss and lodging deep inside him. His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but no words emerged, only dark blood. He took one step forward, then toppled over the parapet to land with a sickening thud below.
Oclatinius jumped to his feet, looked over, knowing there was no hope, but needing to see for himself the fate of his first ever commanding officer. Flaccus lay on his back, staring at the sky, a dark patch staining his front. A Parthian hurried over to him, sword drawn, ready to finish him off if there were any signs of life. He stared down into the dead face, took a hasty step backwards and called over another. He pointed at Flaccus, then pointed at his own face. The other Parthian grabbed his arm and pulled him away, muttering loudly. They ran over to the officer who seemed to be commanding the ramming party, shouting and pointing over to Flaccus.
The men holding the ram were readying themselves for another charge, but the officer yelled a command and they stopped in their tracks. At another command, they dropped the ram, and ran back towards their own lines.
Oclatinius watched the scene play out in fascination, the bow at his feet forgotten. This was important. He gave Flaccus a last, regretful glance, then hurried down the ladder to find Quintillius.