There were no more attacks that day. Oclatinius, watching from the guard tower, fancied that the Parthians had moved their camp further away from the town walls. He thought he could hear raised voices. Disagreements, arguments, even some fights breaking out within the Parthian ranks.
He kept a careful, solitary watch, and was relieved that they stayed their distance, while at the same time feeling a growing sense of frustration. Hiding in this foreign town, trapped like rats in a cage, made him want to break free, go running at the enemy with his sword over his head.
But young as he was, his rational side had a firmer upper hand over his irrational, animal instincts. He watched the sunset and the Parthian camp fires appear in the darkness until he was relieved. As had become his habit, his first stop after seeing to his bodily needs was to go to see Bricius.
His friend looked in a bad way. His head was drooped on his chest, and his face was one big scab, that had broken apart in multiple places, liquid oozing from the crevasses, pale yellow in some places, creamy and thick in others. Oclatinius touched a gentle hand to his shoulder, and Bricius jerked awake. He squinted up at Oclatinius, and the creasing of his eyes forced more liquid out.
Bricius covered Oclatinius’ hand with his own, and Oclatinius forced himself not to flinch at the crusty, sticky touch.
“Do you still have the fascinus?” Bricius’ voice was a hoarse whisper.
Oclatinius patted his chest where it dangled from the leather strap around his neck. He had taken his own childhood charm off when he had become a man, anxious to leave behind boyhood. What a fool he thought himself now. Those days growing up on his father’s farm, that he had been so anxious to escape from, now seemed like a sojourn in the Elysian fields.
“I think this may be the day,” said Oclatinius.
Bricius nodded, only a slight head movement.
“You know what I think, don’t you?” asked Bricius.
“Yes,” said Oclatinius. “We’re doomed.”
The remains of the century stood at the ready behind the gates. Oclatinius couldn’t help glancing down at them, though he was supposed to be watching the advancing Parthians. Half of the legionaries could barely stand. They leant on their spears or on one another for support.
He caught Quintillius’ eye, the centurion standing behind the ranks, surrounded by a small reserve of the fittest troops who had somehow avoided injury or illness. Quintillius held his gaze for a short while, but Oclatinius couldn’t read his expression. That was a skill he would have to work on, he thought.
He saw Bricius in the front line and waved the winged penis at him. Bricius mouthed the word, “Doomed.” Then he swayed, and the soldier next to him grasped his arm to support him.
Oclatinius turned his attention back to the advancing Parthians. They looked a mighty sight, all mounted except for the handful carrying the battering ram, and a few carrying rickety ladders. Their mastery over the horses amazed Oclatinius every time he saw them, keeping them under perfect control, steering them as if by thought alone, given how imperceptible the movement of the riders’ heels and hands were.
His heart beat faster as they neared. He signalled to Quintillius their distance, as best as he could estimate it. They appeared to be in no hurry, confident in their superiority over the fragile Romans. When they were within bowshot, the men with the ram broke into a run, and the horses trotted alongside them.
Oclatinius shouted down to the centurion.
“Here they come!”
Quintillius yelled a command.
“Open the gates!”
Four legionaries hastened to obey, heaving the bar out of the iron catches holding it in place, and as soon as it was free two others hauling on the gates themselves. They creaked open, the gap widening slowly at first, then faster as the two legionaries who had removed the bar helped. The Parthians, unable to counteract the momentum of the ram quickly enough, burst through the empty gap in the gates. They stumbled, off-balance, braced for the resistance of the gates and encountering only air. Unexpectedly faced by the legionaries, some dropped the ram and turned tail, causing those who tried to keep a grip to trip and fall.
Legionaries placed either side of the gates in readiness, fit and well soldiers, stepped in with swords drawn. The Parthians had no chance to defend themselves. Gladii thrust, men screamed, blood gouted, and in moments the Parthians within the gates were finished, dead, dying or fled.
It was a good tactic, they had captured the ram, given the Parthians a bloody nose, and the sensible thing would be to close the gates once more.
Quintillius looked up at Oclatinius, as if seeking reassurance. Oclatinius nodded. This had been his idea after all. And maybe it would be the death of all of them. What was it Fulvius had quoted that physician as saying? “All who drink this recover, except those who don’t, who all die.” Something like that anyway. That was how he felt right now. This remedy would work, and they would be saved. Unless it didn’t. And then they would all die.
“Advance!” called out Quintillius.
The sickly front rank of the century lifted their shields, the efforts of even this showing on their pustular faces. Then, one foot plodding after another, to the amazement of the Parthians, they advanced.
Oclatinius watched with pride, hope and fear as the legionaries pressed forward, swords drawn, shields in front of them. But the shields did not cover their faces, Oclatinius was pleased to see. He had been very explicit about that instruction to Quintillius, and he was relieved the order had been obeyed, alien as it seemed to keep any vital part exposed to the enemy.
The Parthians unleashed a volley of arrows, and two of the front rank fell. Oclatinius was dismayed to see the lanky figure of Mergus fall with an arrow in his face. But shuffling soldiers filled the gaps and they continued forwards. Instead of hitting and running as was their usual tactic, the Parthians, seeing an opportunity to outflank them, and to end this fight once and for all, rode forwards. Oclatinius shot arrow after arrow into the horsemen, catching a horse in its flank which bucked and threw its rider, hitting another rider in the arm, making him drop his sword. But the numbers of attackers were too big for him and the other archer on the opposite tower to make a significant difference.
The Parthians were almost upon the advancing legionaries, when they became close enough to see the Roman faces. Oclatinius could feel the shock ripple through the enemy ranks, even from his lofty viewpoint. Some continued the charge. Some drew up short. Some immediately whipped their horses round in a tight half circle and fled. The legionaries, all infected with the most visible form of the pox, suppurating, oozing, scabbed and pustular jeered at the Parthians.
“Come on then you barbarians fuckers.”
“Aren’t we pretty enough for you, fellators?”
Some Parthians pressed the attack, and even those few looked enough to overwhelm the weak legionaries at the front. But at a command from Quintillius, the sickly soldiers opened up gaps in the rank, and the second rank, all healthy, fit men, stepped forward. The Parthians were committed, but found their horses riding onto spears braced in the ground, found themselves dragged off their horses and once on the ground kicked, beaten and hacked to death.
The attack was finished, almost as soon as it had started.
That evening, there were no fires visible as far as Oclatinius could see from his guard tower. As far as they could tell, immediately after the battle, the Parthians had packed up camp and melted away into the desert. Quintillius would not let them reduce their vigilance, but Oclatinius knew the siege was over.
When his watch was over, he went to report to the centurion. He found him outside his tent, in discussion with Fulvius and Cominius.
“So how come we three haven’t caught this pestilence?”
Fulvius shrugged. “I have no idea. I don’t know where it came from, how it spreads, or how it does the damage it does. I have noticed one thing though. Can I ask where you two grew up?”
“In Campania,” said Cominius.
“In a small village in Cisapline Gaul.”
Fulvius caught sight of Oclatinius lurking nearby.
“And you, Oclatinius?”
“On my father’s farm.”
“I think that people who grew up in the countryside have some resistance to the disease. Maybe there is something in the country air that provides protection. But it’s just a theory.”
Oclatinius rubbed his hands over the pock marks on his face. That illness, mild as it had been, had seemed similar in some respects to this much more serious sickness. Was it that that had protected him? He dismissed it from his mind. He was alive, and well, and that was all that mattered.
“How many are left, Fulvius?” asked Quintillius.
“A third dead from sickness or in battle. A third ill, some of whom will die. A third are well. At least for now.”
“Oclatinius, what did you see?”
“No sign of them, sir.”
Quintillius nodded. “It was a good idea of yours, lad. And you knew it would work, just from your observations of the reactions of the townsfolk and the soldiers to the disease? You knew they had seen it before and would fear it?”
Quintillius clapped him on the shoulder.
“I see great things for you, boy. You are destined to be more than just a legionary, I feel. Now go and get some rest. We will spend tomorrow in the town, then we will march again. And hopefully reach Palmyra before the pox or the Parthians take us all.”
“If Oclatinius is right, the Parthians should keep their distance now, knowing we have the illness among us.”
“Let’s hope. Dismissed, legionary.”
Oclatinius wandered through the town, drained physically and emotionally. That the centurion had trusted him still amazed him. But what other choice had he had? If it hadn’t worked, they were doomed anyway.
With that word ringing around his head, he went to check on his friend. Bricius looked spent, but he smiled when he saw Oclatinius. He had a half eaten piece of bread in his hand, and Oclatinius thought he looked a little better in himself. Bricius confirmed this when he was asked.
“I don’t know if it’s the excitement of combat or the disease is waning, but I do feel a bit better. Though when I have finished eating, I’m going to sleep for a week.”
“We made it through, Bricius. For all your warnings. We have made it through disease and war.”
“For now,” said the pessimistic Gaul.
Oclatinius reached under his armour and drew out the winged penis on its leather strap.
“Here,” he said, putting it over Bricius’ head. “You can show this to your mother when you see her next. Tell her you kept it safe. And in turn, how it kept you safe.”
He looked around at the dead, dying and diseased all around them, and wondered what would happen when the infected reached big cities like Palmyra and Antioch. But that was not his problem.
He put his arm around Bricius’ shoulder, and exhaustion finally claiming him, closed his eyes.