Valens braced himself as the Carvetii ran at him, wishing he had a shield. Instead, he swung the optio’s staff in his left hand. The man at the head of the growing crowd dropping from the roof and running at them held forth a spear, point reaching for the optio, but as he approached, Valens swept his staff around, smacking the spear shaft aside. Stepping forward with all his weight on his left leg, the one with the bronze greave, he stabbed out viciously, ripping the life from the unarmoured native.
There was no time to appreciate the success, though. In a heartbeat they were past him, rushing at the men at each shoulder even as someone leapt over the falling body of the spear man, swinging a rusty sickle. Valens caught him a vicious blow with the bronze tip of his staff, cracking the man’s skull even as he swept his sword up and cut deep into the weapon arm of another man.
The fight descended then into simple butchery. Valens lashed out again and again, stabbing and hacking, battering and parrying with the staff. Time became meaningless, measured only by failures and pain and the quantity of lifeblood on his blade. The moment his staff was cut by an enemy sword and left him holding little more than a baton with a bronze head. The moment something smacked unseen into the side of his helmet and blood ran down into his eyes, accompanied by a crippling head pain until he could wrench off the helmet with the deep dent in the skull and cast it away. The wounds. A burning line of fire across his thigh, source unseen. The numbing of his left shoulder as something heavy smacked into it. The relief as a sword point jabbed agony into his chest, but did not kill him because the chain shirt robbed the blow of sufficient force to impale.
A cry of pain drew his attention suddenly, across the din, and he glanced aside to see Secundus suddenly bend double over a spear, the shaft sticking out of his belly as the point did its damage inside. The optio from Alauna gurgled something and blood gouted from his lips as he staggered back. But he did not fall, for natives were on him, grabbing at him, tearing, rending. Valens fought at them as well as a man to his left, but they were more intent on a prize than on fighting the officer.
Finally the dying optio was allowed to fall as the enemy pulled away from him, their leader pumping a hand into the air, gripping a gold torc they had torn from the officer’s neck. The cry was one of triumph, and realisation dawned on Valens. That torc was no Roman decoration of bronze-coated iron, but solid gold. It had to have been stolen from the wedding party the idiots had massacred when they started all of this. A torc of that value, which would be three years pay for Secundus, or more, could only belong to a chieftain. No wonder the bastards were persistent.
For a moment, Valens wondered if that might be it, if having retrieved what could only be a chieftain’s wedding gift, the natives might finally be satisfied. He glanced to the other side to see Rigonorix spitting out blood, flesh and hair. The man was clearly utilising every weapon at his disposal. Rigonorix looked past him and nodded his understanding. The two men paused, as there was a lull for perhaps a heartbeat. The world held its breath.
The Carvetian with the torc bellowed something into the air, and Valens didn’t need to look at Rigonorix to know that it was no order to fall back. The optio couldn’t translate it, but the tone was clear.
‘Kill them all. No survivors.’
The tide of angry Carvetii came again now, surging forward. Valens looked up and past the men racing at him and realised that while the figures surging over the rooftop were still visible, they were fewer and slower coming now. His sharp eyes picked out the two side doors that had easily been pushed open and the rear that was even now giving with a crack. The pressure on them was already not what it was when they’d started this. For the first time, he felt a glimmer of hope. The enemy were finite. They were almost all committed, and few remained outside to join the fray.
A gurgling noise drew his attention to the left and he felt his spirits sink to see, just beyond Rigonorix, the huge bulk of Rubellius stagger back with an arrow jutting from his throat. Even as the optio watched, the big man was suddenly swamped by natives.
Valens instantly quashed that hope that had momentarily coursed through him. The enemy were thinning out and starting to fail, but the defenders of Mediobogdum were almost gone. At best all they could hope for now was a pointless, bitter mutual destruction. More likely the day would still end badly for Rome. The enemy were shrinking, but there were still sufficient to finish the garrison and walk away. It was utter madness. Vengeance had meant so much to these people that they had lost their fellow tribesmen by the hundred just in the name of righteousness.
And Valens could not longer see any greyness to the situation. Whether Rigonorix was right or wrong – probably still wrong – he was not the root of this disaster. That was Secundus and his tent party. They had butchered, stolen and insulted from some of the most powerful families in tribal Britannia, and they had been in the wrong, committing vicious and unforgivable crimes under the banner of Rome and in the name of justice. Valens wanted to spit. Wanted to decry the men from Alauna, because the Carvetii were being brutal, unforgiving, suicidally homicidal, but above all they were right. They had been wronged and they were revenging themselves. In any other circumstances, he would cheer them on. But right now it was a them or us situation, and no matter what happened to him or the lads, Elia and her boy at least were going to survive.
Then the enemy were on him again, hacking and stabbing, slashing and battering, swords and spears, makeshift weapons and farm implements all seeking his end. Over it all, an arrow took a painful chunk of his chin away. He felt another blow to the left knee that almost felled him, and he had to ignore the pain in his knee and be careful how he moved to stay upright. An unseen blow numbed his left shoulder entirely and what was left of his staff fell away from lifeless fingers. Another man was coming at him and he pushed the man away with his shoulder and hacked at him with the blade, only to find himself forced to parry another blow from a surprisingly pretty young woman.
As he somewhat regretfully stabbed at her and she fell away, he heard the death knell of the unit behind him: Fulvius’s voice ordering them all to fall back into the basilica hall. The battle had become untenable.
‘Fall back,’ Valens called in response to the medic’s signal, though a quick look over each shoulder made it clear that there were precious few to hear and fall back with him. Sweeping his sword low in an effort to keep the enemy at bay as he backed away, he connected with one of the Carvetii’s thighs. Stepping back, he lifted his legs high, careful not to trip on the body of Secundus.
The enemy rushed them now, realising they were on the retreat, and as Valens stepped back pace by pace towards the door he found himself fighting all the harder. At the last, as he could sense how close to the door he was, a howl arose beside him and one of the walking wounded collapsed with blood jetting from his neck. Valens felt the edge of panic, knowing he was alone now, that the others were all dead or safe in the basilica, while he was the last man, the rear-guard. Enemies pressed him from all sides, and every time he stabbed out, he felt blows crash against his chain shirt. His head ached and his body burned all over from myriad cuts. Something struck him in his left arm and even through the chaos he found time to feel a panicky despair over the fact that what was clearly a hefty sword wound only registered as a faint ache, which suggested his arm was a goner.
Swords, axes, sickles and staves came at him in a flurry and even as he stepped back he realised his fatal mistake, for in avoiding Secundus’ corpse, he’d strayed to the right and suddenly his back thumped into the wall. Panic flooded him as he swung his sword this way and that to try and keep the enemy at bay long enough to work out where the door was and to get to it in time.
He yelped in shock as something grasped his left shoulder and heaved. His head snapped round to see Rigonorix grinning at him.
‘Time to go, Optio Horatius.’
And with that he was hauled backwards and to his left into the doorway. As they reached the gap, Valens still trying to recover his wits, two natives leapt at them trying to prevent their escape. Rigonorix delivered a powerful blow to one with the pommel of his sword and while the other ducked out of the way of a spray of blood, Fulvius’ voice called out from behind ‘Duck!’
Valens had no time even to digest the command as Rigonorix grabbed his neck and pushed him down, bending him double. Valens struggled in shock, but as his head bobbed in the fugitive’s strong grip a scorpion bolt whipped over his head close enough to part his hair and plucked the remaining attacker up and back, throwing him from the doorway.
As he staggered back and fell, pulling himself slowly and painfully up to his feet, he saw Rigonorix slam the door and ram home the bolt.
‘That’s it,’ the fugitive announced. ‘We’re safe. Trapped and doomed, but safe.’
Valens rose slowly, looking around. All faces were turned to him, expectantly. There were so few of them. Of the thirty four men who’d garrisoned Mediobogdum mere hours ago, only he, the rat-faced Pollio, Fulvius the medic and two men who could only stand with a crutch remained. Of the three from Alauna only Rigonorix watched him in the gloom. Of all those from the vicus, only the hunchbacked old woman and Elia and her son sat nervous in the dim corners. Six men, two women and a child. Not the strongest of forces.
‘What happens now?’ the old woman asked quietly.
Valens plastered a look of false confidence across his face. ‘I remain hopeful that our runners…’
‘Tell us straight, Optio,’ Elia murmured. ‘No one here is gullible.’
Valens sighed. ‘Barring a miracle, we’re trapped. Eventually the enemy will probably get in. They’ll not get through the door – that could hold for hours – but they’ll get up on the roof and start shifting the tiles until they can get inside. It’s possible that they won’t think of that, I admit, in which case they’ll try and burn us out as they did with the granary. Whatever happens, it’s not going to be pretty.’
‘Not good,’ Elia answered.
‘You’ve got my instructions,’ he reminded her, and then flashed a glance at the old woman, guilt gnawing at him. ‘Elia is to hide herself and her child in the strongroom underneath this place. The enemy might just miss them, so they could live through this. I’m sorry, woman, but with you there as well there’s no hope they might miss you all. The strongroom’s not that big. It has to be just her and the child. I’m not being cruel, but the kid has to come first.’
The woman gave him a dark glare, saying nothing, but Valens registered the look and decided there might be a problem brewing there. For now he shifted to the men around him. ‘You all made the same oath as me. We know what waits for us if we surrender or we’re captured, so I expect every man to make good account of himself before the end.’ His gaze settled upon Pollio. ‘All of you. If I see anyone trying to sneak out or pretending to be Carvetii I’ll kill them myself.’
As the men all nodded, even the wounded, Valens crossed to the old woman. ‘I have not the words to apologise for including you in our fate. I can only spare the room for the child and his mother, not even the wounded.’ Wincing, he passed over his pugio dagger and leaned close, dropping his voice to a whisper. ‘I’d prefer that you use it on the enemy, and I’d heartily advise you to save it for yourself in the end too, but I’ll make you this one offer: stay close to me, look panicked and beaten, and when we’re at the very end, stick it in me and claim to be a hostage. I’m assuming you speak their tongue and you might just get away with it. It’s all I can give you.’
The old woman said nothing, glowered, took the knife and for just a moment he actually wondered if she’d stick it in him right now. She didn’t. Gripping it tight, she stepped back into the shadowy corners.
‘Now we wait,’ he said.
The time that followed was almost certainly the worst in Valens’s life. He’d barely finished offering his words of wisdom to the rest of the trapped occupants before the barrage began. Men outside in the courtyard hammered at the door repeatedly, the whole thing crashing and banging as the Carvetii sought a way into the basilica. Behind that a distant periodic roar told them that the bulk of the force was still out there.
Almost half an hour passed with the door suffering a repeated hammering until finally the enemy seemed to give up, deciding that the door was not going to give in a hurry. In the weird momentary silence that followed, Fulvius worked on the leg of a wounded man and Rigonorix and Pollio produced a pair of dice and began to gamble.
Then, with an initial crash, the natives began to work on the upper approaches. One of the small, very high windows shattered inwards and native shouts echoed in. Moments later a figure struggled through the window. Valens watched with interest. Elia looked at him sharply. ‘Are you not going to do anything?’
Valens shrugged. ‘That window is twenty feet up.’ A moment later the figure toppled through the window with a cry of triumph which swiftly turned into a howl of horror as he plunged to the floor and hit it with half a dozen crunches. Pollio rose from his game of dice and crossed to the body, stabbing his sword into it to finish the broken native off.
Now others were scrabbling at tiles on the ceiling. Valens looked up. ‘Everyone into the chapel.’
‘Why?’ grunted the wounded man waiting for attention, though he was answered rather fatally a moment later as one of the men coming through the roof cast down the tile he’d just removed. The heavy terracotta square hit the injured soldier in the head, smashing it and driving him from his senses. He fell to one side and blood started to drip from his nose and mouth.
‘That,’ snapped Valens, and the occupants of the basilica hall swiftly rushed into the smaller sub-room of the building. Valens stood in the door with Pollio and Rigonorix as the natives continued to scale the outer walls with some difficulty to a height of twenty of thirty feet and try the windows or roof. Invariably their attempts to enter resulted in horrible falls and broken bones, and the three soldiers dispatched them with ease. A further quarter hour elapsed with this new routine before the natives stopped trying to come over the top. Valens waited for what inevitably came next, and a short while later he smelled it. Smoke, drifting in beneath the door.
‘Will the door burn?’ Fulvius asked as he worked.
‘Eventually,’ Valens answered, ‘but a lot depends on their fuel and the weather.’ He turned up his face as the snowflakes drifted down through the ruined roof and settled on his face. ‘I think it’ll take at least an hour, unless they can find pig fat or some such. Eventually they’ll come through.’ The smoke drifting in at floor level was increasing by the moment. ‘Three quarters of an hour,’ he corrected himself. ‘Possibly less.’