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Vengeance – Chapter Thirteen

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The time passed with strained and strangulated slowness, each of them fretting and fidgeting in their own way. Elia sat with her burbling child by the trapdoor to the secure strongroom below, a stone cube of a room only six feet across and filled with sacks and age-old detritus since the unit moved out. Fulvius finished his ministrations and moved on to tending to even minor scratches in order to keep his mind focused on something useful. Pollio kept singing two verses of an ear-reddening refrain about a man from Buthrotum with an bulging scrotum, despite the fact that everyone silenced him every time he came to the worst part.

Rigonorix sat as though relaxing in the baths on a quiet afternoon, his only movement the rhythmic scrape of a whetstone up his blade. The old hunchbacked woman spent her time mostly staring at the dagger in her hands that was both an alien item to her and also her potential desperate salvation.

‘How long has it been?’ the wounded soldier asked from where he worried at his splint.

‘An hour now,’ Valens said. ‘Or thereabouts.’

‘And the door hasn’t given yet. Must be no dry wood out there,’ Fulvius noted. ‘They can’t keep the fire going. You never know, the rest of the century might still come in time.’

Valens just grunted, peering at the door. It was odd. There had to be plenty of burnable fuel still available in the charred remains of the vicus if people looked. When a town burned, not everything combustible was utterly destroyed, after all. And yet the smoke that had been drifting under the door had come in three or four flurries, but seemed to have stopped for the past quarter of an hour. He frowned. ‘Can you hear anything?’ he asked.

The room fell silent, the whetstone scraping to a stop. The roof creaked and groaned with the winds and the weight of snow outside, but other than that all was silence.

‘Nothing,’ Fulvius noted.

‘Have they gone?’ the old woman asked with a note of desperate hope in her tone.

Rigonorix looked to Valens, then over to her. ‘It looks suspiciously like it. But it may be that they can’t burn the door in these conditions, so they’re being quiet, trying to lure us out. If we open the door and they’re still there but just being quiet, we’re all fucked.’

Valens nodded. ‘It’s possible, but I think there’s a way. Pollio, climb up on Fulvius’s shoulders and grab the wall above the door. Climb up to the window and tell me what you see.’

‘Why me?’ demanded both men at the same time.

‘Because you, Pollio, move like a rat and weigh about the same, and you, Fulvius, are the tallest one here. And because I’m you’re commander and it’s an order. Get moving.’

Grumbling and struggling, Fulvius stood close to the door as Pollio climbed up onto his shoulders. The medic gripped the smaller man’s boots and hoisted him up, hissing with effort as he pushed his arms straight, Pollio standing on his hands. The small man was above the door now but still almost five feet short of the upper windowsill. The building was old, though, and had not been repaired and renovated since the last time it had been reoccupied. Cracks in the plaster and missing mortar between stones granted him plenty of handholds, and moments later the rodent-like soldier was pulling himself gingerly up into the window.

‘Well?’ called Valens.

‘Empty. The street outside is deserted. The snow’s thinning out again, quite light and the… wait.’ The little man shuffled in the window. ‘I can see figures. There’s five of them standing further down the street, between here and the south gate. That’s all. No sign of anyone else.’

Valens looked across at Rigonorix. ‘Suspicious. Why would they leave? Is it a trap? And if there’s five waiting for us, they must be confident. That means they’ll be strong. Warriors. Can we take them?’

‘Better to go to Elysium fighting in the street than starving in a hole,’ Rigonorix replied with a shrug.

Moments later, they were heaving the basilica door back open, having removed the bar and shifted the piles of junk securing it. The lower reaches of the door were carbon-scored, and a pile of sodden, snow-coated charcoal outside showed how difficult the enemy had been finding the job. Presumably they had used all their good material burning the granary, which now sat as nothing more than a blackened shell up the slope.

The courtyard was empty, and Valens looked back and nodded before stepping out. In response, Elia and the kid sat by the trapdoor, still ready to drop inside and secure themselves if the situation suddenly turned sour. The old woman waited nearby, more confident now of her ability to distance herself from the defenders if required.

The rest left the building, Fulvius giving support to the injured soldier, Pollio and Rigonorix flanking the optio. Gingerly they made their way through the great arch and its open door and into the street which, as the diminutive soldier had noted, was entirely empty. Sure enough, though, five figures stood in a line across the street ahead, halfway to the south gate. The soldiers stepped forward slowly towards them, and Valens sized them up as they moved. The five were warriors, in the prime of youth. Big men and well armed.

‘Fulvius? You alright?’

‘Aye, sir,’ the medic said, letting the wounded man slowly down to the charred and sodden kerb and then drawing his sword. Four against five. That was fair enough, Valens supposed. Better odds than had been offered over the past few hours, anyway. The four soldiers, swords out, advanced down the street.

Valens leaned closer to Rigonorix. ‘You speak their language. Tell them this doesn’t have to end in a fight.’ The fugitive did so, and sounded quite peaceable to Valens, but it seemed to have no effect on the men awaiting them. ‘You realise we might not make it out of this,’ Rigonorix muttered. ‘They’re unmarked and rested. We’re all exhausted and sporting a whole variety of wounds.’

‘I’ll go down fighting, though, like a soldier.’

The man nodded. ‘I suppose I still count as one until I’m caught and executed.’

‘There’s nothing like a bit of positivity eh?’

The four men closed and any hope of a peaceful resolution vanished as the five natives suddenly roared something and raised their swords angrily.

‘What was that?’

Rigonorix snorted. ‘Nothing. Just bullshit, unless your mother really was a whore.’

‘Yes, well let’s not delve into family histories right now,’ Valens said uncomfortably, which made Rigonorix howl with unexpected laughter.

‘Come on then, my son of a whore optio friend, let’s show them what Noric steel tastes like.’

The four men burst into a run, each bellowing their own war cry, calling on a plethora of gods. As Valens ran at them, he couldn’t help but notice the exquisite gold torc gleaming around the neck of the central figure. Oh good, he thought to himself, the groom’s come for a bit of cold revenge.

And with that the two small groups met with a crash. Valens’ sword came up to block the blow of the big man with the torc. The initial blow was so strong that he felt the reverberation all up his arm and into his shoulder.  Swiftly, he dropped the blade low and tried to land a jab into the man’s inner thigh, but the warrior ducked easily back out of the way and Valens staggered, only just managing to turn the next swing. Beside him, Rigonorix was having better luck, though far from instant success, the two men struggling back and forth, evenly matched. Pollio, at the end of the line, was darting in and out and stabbing like a hornet, dancing quickly out of the way like the rodent he was. Fulvius, though, was in trouble. The medic had been landed with facing two men alone and had already taken two wounds, slumping to the side and trying to hold himself up long enough to fight them off.

Rigonorix was right. They were just too tired and badly injured to win this.

A glancing blow to Valens’ skull sent him reeling back, a second immediately striking his numb left arm and probably breaking the bone again, though that was the least of his worries. As he staggered, half-blind from the dancing lights in his vision and the throbbing of his head, the warrior was battering at him and only Rigonorix, who had taken on both his own man and now Valens’s, was stopping the native from killing him. A cry arose from Fulvius as the medic fell, clutching his side.

They were done for.

Valens pulled himself upright, fighting the fuzziness of his brain with the intent of living long enough to at least have one more go at the man, when suddenly the warrior with the golden torc spasmed. The man’s shoulders tightened, his head snapping back, and the sword fell from his jerking fingers.

The optio stared as his anticipated killer folded up and fell to the snowy ground. Behind him stood the weird figure of Vibius Cestius with his white hair, black brows and inscrutable mismatched gimlet eyes. As the warrior fell, Cestius’s pugio came free from the man’s back with a sucking sound. Barely waiting for the man to fall, Cestius slammed his sword into one of the two men who were even now leaning in to finish off the fallen medic.

Valens stared, recovering himself just in time to block the last man’s falling sword, turning it away from the shuddering shape of Fulvius and leaving Cestius, the weird, mad, wonderful bastard, to finish him off.

Turning, he could see now that Pollio and Rigonorix had managed to overcome the others and together were working for finish off the last warrior. The optio blinked repeatedly, his whole world a mass of confusion and questions. He staggered back and found a burned-out beam fallen from a destroyed barrack block, sinking down to it and shaking. Cestius was there with him a moment later as Rigonorix helped the medic back up and Pollio went around putting a knife into each fallen native to make sure, like Charon at the games, and coincidentally fleecing them of a few coins in the process.

‘Where the fuck did you come from?’ Valens managed eventually, his voice shaky.

‘Oh I’ve been about, here and there, sir,’ the strange soldier smiled, his grin worryingly dark and feral.

‘I saw you fall.’

‘And it was the only thing that stopped them shooting me again. But they were watching the pass and the valley. If I’d run for Glannoventa they’d have seen me and killed me. I hid for an hour and then picked my way carefully around to the east and over the parade ground, around the outside of the enemy.’

‘So where have you been for the past few hours?’ A thought occurred to Valens. ‘Did you see them leave? Where did they go? Why did they leave?’

Cestius gave him that wolfish smile again. ‘Well I couldn’t go for help, so I started wondering what might matter to them more than you lot. It took me an hour to reach their nearest village.’ He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the south and Valens’s eyes followed it. Columns of roiling black smoked poured up into the clouds over the next hill. ‘Funny,’ the soldier grinned, ‘but their villages are empty coz they’re all here. And they’re made of wood and straw. They burn really easily.’

Valens stared from the strange soldier up to the smoke on the horizon and then back, and began to laugh.

‘Don’t get too comfortable, sir,’ Cestius said. ‘When they’ve put that out, I suspect they’ll come back and they’ll only be even more angry. I think we might want to be gone by then.’

Valens’s already frayed nerves continued to tighten as they left the scene of the last fight, shuffling slowly and painfully along the road and through the south gate. The vicus was more of a ruin even than the fort, and the small group passed between the charred remains of the civilian settlement tensely, watching every side street and doorway, still half expecting some trap.

Nothing.

Fulvius and his former patient now walked together once more, holding each other up, the medic and the wounded soldier as badly injured as one another. Pollio had run back to fetch the women from where they lurked nervously in the basilica and now Elia and her son and the old woman walked along behind them, eyes darting nervously this way and that. Only Valens, Rigonorix and Pollio walked strong with heads high and swords out, though each of them was more gravely wounded than they would care to admit. Blood continued to run out from underneath Rigonorix’s mail shirt after their last scuffle, and Valens was quite certain now that he’d lose the arm, which effectively ended his military career without a proper pension. Only Pollio, the weaselly bastard, seemed to have got away without a proper wound. And their saviour, of course. As Valens glanced across at Vibius Cestius, he privately formed the opinion that when that strange one had matured fully into military service, it wouldn’t be long before all of them were having to salute him as a superior.

Out from the vicus, they passed the bath house and emerged onto the trade road over the pass. The passage of the remaining mass of natives was evident here, for even the continual drift of light snow could not hide the footprints of so many folk moving at speed up the southern hill towards that column of smoke.

‘Where now?’ Pollio asked. ‘Glannoventa?’

Valens turned to look down the valley where that sea-side fort lurked hidden some ten miles distant. He frowned, peering into the white. ‘Do you see what I see?’

Rigonorix followed his gaze and shaded his eyes. ‘That looks like about half a century of men to me. Looks like the cavalry are coming just a little too late.’

Valens wrinkled his lip. ‘I’m about to have a really uncomfortable conversation with the boss.’

‘Oh?’ Rigonorix was smiling oddly.

‘I’ve effectively lost him half a century of men, burned down a fort and vicus he was responsible for and started a small war with the local tribe. I’m tempted to point out that this is somewhat your fault. I might get away with being beaten to death then.’

‘The man responsible for that is dead back there, and you know it. You did everything you could. Why are you wanting to own up anyway?’

Valens frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Your centurion’s not going to want you now. The eagle’s turning its back on you. Your left arm’s dead, man. No medic will save it, bar the possibility of hacking it off and burning the stump. You’re done as a soldier, Valens.’

The optio gave him a weird look. ‘What else do you suggest? Maybe go into acting? Perhaps start a wine company? I’ve nothing but the armour I’m stood in, like you.’

Rigonorix grabbed him somewhat uncomfortably by the shoulder and steered him away from the tired group. ‘Funny thing is that I’m done here too, Valens. I’m not sticking around to suffer whatever punishment is dreamed up for me. I’m off.’ His voice lowered. ‘Come with me.’

‘What?’ Valens stared.

Rigonorix glanced over at the group waiting for them on the road and spoke quickly, urgently. ‘There’s a world out there that could pay well for two men good with a sword, Valens. I’ll bind your arm and get you to someone who can save it. We’re two days from Luguvalium and there’s a good local physician at Derventio halfway there.’

‘You’re mad,’ Valens muttered looking up dramatically into the snow. ‘Two days in this?’

‘I managed that across worse terrain and pursued by soldiers last night. We can do it.’

‘And when we get to Luguvalium?’ the optio snorted derisively.

‘That’s near the border zone. Lots of trouble up there. Endless call for mercenaries. I’ve met men who made a year’s pay for a soldier in just a month up on the border. All we need to do is set ourselves up.’

‘With what? Sell my dead arm?’ Valens huffed, though Rigonorix’s words had set him thinking. His immediate future looked bleak. He’d been set to move into a centurion’s role someday, and now he’d not even be a soldier. A man with one arm’s only end was begging in the gutter and telling stories about what it was like when he was in the army.

The fugitive quickly glanced over to make sure the others were not watching, then grinned and pulled his scarf aside to reveal the gleam of a near-priceless golden torc underneath. ‘I reckon we’re set for life.’

Valens stared. That torc was huge and ornate. Even a proper shark would buy it from them for enough to keep them for two years. ‘You’re mad. It’ll start all over again.’

‘No. I’ll sell it in Luguvalium to a Brigantian or a Selgovae, or maybe some rich Roman officer. And whatever happens here now, we’ll be long gone.’

‘I can’t leave the others to take the blame,’ Valens said too quickly, eyes darting to the folk waiting on the path even as images of himself as a one armed beggar slouching in the gutter assailed him.

Rigonorix grunted. ‘Wait here.’

As the man disappeared Valens, fretting, looked down the road. The rest of the century were closing, though they seemed as yet unaware of the figures up at the ruined vicus and were marching as though heading for business. Valens chilled at the thought of explaining everything to the miserable old bastard leading them. Moments later, the fugitive was back, drawing his attention. ‘Right, Fulvius is down there with his friend. He can spin any tale he likes, lay the blame on you or me and make himself the hero. I spoke to your weird-eyed man. Trust me and don’t worry about him. He’s not daft and he’ll come out of this smelling of roses.’

‘I can’t leave…’ Valens started, then his eyes fell on the shape of Elia as she emerged from behind Rigonorix, holding her child. Her expression was encouraging. He looked back to Rigonorix, who was almost urging him on with his eyes. It came as something of a surprise to him that he didn’t resist when the fugitive grabbed him and pulled him behind the ruins of the bath house. Elia and the boy followed into cover, and they stood there for moments. Valens was about to argue and leave when Rigonorix pulled him back. The centurion and his men were too close now, had seen Fulvius and the others. It would look extremely odd if they leapt out from behind a wall now.

‘I think you’re committed,’ Rigonorix grinned.

Fulvius watched the centurion storming towards him like a tidal wave of puce skin, bristling with irritation, and he paused. He’d assumed Rigonorix would run. Who in his position wouldn’t? He’d wondered more, when Valens vanished, what was happening. The man had no future in the army, of course, but still Fulvius had been sure the optio would hold onto command until the bitter end. Then he’d turned to see that Elia had gone too, and Vibius Cestius gave him a meaningful look.

‘Explain,’ demanded the centurion, coming to a halt on the road and pointing up at the ruins, his men coming to a halt behind him.

Fulvius stumbled mentally, looking for the words, and suddenly Vibius Cestius was ducking around him, his mismatched eyes gleaming with wicked intellect.

‘Centurion, allow me to tell you a story of fallen heroes, of brave medics and of the vengeance of the Carvetii. But,’ he added with a smile that would turn a marble statue to pliable putty, ‘let me tell you it on the run back to Glannoventa, because you’re going to want to man the walls there when I finish.’

* * *

Here ends, for now at least, the story of Valens and his men. You’ll find Fulvius making a brief appearance some time later in Alex Gough’s tale ‘Who All Die’ and you’ll find Vibius Cestius in several of my Praetorian novels, many years later.

This story was inspired by a combination of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and the movies ‘Zulu’ and ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ and I suspect you’ll have seen echoes of them throughout this tale, as well as hints of other classic stories too. This is a bit of a homage in many ways and something I’ve been meaning to write but never would had lockdown not presented this challenge.

Whether you go on to read my books or not, I wish you all well and this has been a blast. When lockdown ends and you can all move about freely, I heartily recommend visiting Mediobogdum fort, now known as Hardknott. No matter the season, when you visit, take a car that can manage steep slopes and take boots that can handle sphagnum moss and squelchy terrain. Hardknott remains one of the most impressive and enigmatic sites in all of Roman Britain. Alauna has fared less well, but a further visit could be made to the other site mentioned at Glannoventa (Ravenglass).

That’s all for me. I may return for another story in the future as clearly Valens and Rigonorix have a lot of scope left yet, but for now, I lay down my stilus and snap shut the wax tablet.

Vale all.

Simon.

Written by SJAT

June 20, 2020 at 9:20 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Twelve

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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.’

Written by SJAT

June 12, 2020 at 9:16 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Eleven

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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.’

Written by SJAT

June 5, 2020 at 10:00 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Ten

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An hour had passed since Valens had returned. An hour of planning, of assigning and continually reassigning people to tasks, of answering endless questions, of confirming things and of checking stores and sending them out, distributing them to defensive positions.

‘Are we ready?’

The optio turned to see Secundus, his expression bitter and bleak, covered in dust from the building works. ‘As we’ll ever be.’

‘Look, I know you don’t like me, but we’ve both come up from being fighting men, both chosen by a centurion because we have what it takes. You have seniority and this is your fort. Belliacus is a good choice, and I know why you chose Rigonorix. He’s a fucking disaster waiting to happen and you can’t trust him, but he’s likeable and dangerous. We thought that for a while. But I’m an optio too and I’m your second in command. I need to know everything for when you get a sword up your sphincter and I have to take over.’

Valens paused, then nodded and pulled the man aside into the chapel of the standards. ‘Alright. We haven’t a chance, as I expect you know. My job is to hold as long as I can and make sure the standards don’t fall to the enemy. Our standards will be buried out of their reach under the floor in the granary. It’s being done even now.’

‘Why not put them in the strong room?’

‘Because they’ll be found there. And because Elia and her boy will be hiding down there. I want the place to look empty and uninteresting, so no one feels moved to search it.’

‘You want the whore to survive. The boy’s yours?’

‘No. It’s nothing like that. But she’s the most innocent soul here. She survives.’

Secundus nodded. ‘I see that. Alright. So they come. What happens?’

‘We draw as much attention as possible to the main door and the half-moon redoubt, to try and save the flanks as long as possible. Both Belliacus and Rigonorix should know how long to hold and when to pull back. Each will have a good share of men and two scorpions. Each piece of artillery now has twelve shots thanks to the work of the smith, Lugracus. That’s more than they’ll have time to use, I’m sure. The last two scorpions will be set up in the headquarters facing the doorways out. That’s our last stand. Once the granaries and the commander’s house are overwhelmed, they pull back here. This building is our last chance. We fight to the end here. Spartans at Thermopylae, yes? “Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words”.’

‘I haven’t a pissing clue what you’re talking about, but I get the drift. We stand and fight as long as we can, kill as many as we can and try to save the girl and the standards. Alright, you take control of the door and I’ll take the inside and the final defences.’

‘Agreed.’

Both men paused at the sound of approaching footsteps. Rubellius came to a halt. ‘It’s started.’ He held up Hermod’s arrow.

‘Here we go,’ breathed Valens. ‘Prepare yourself. As soon as anywhere becomes indefensible, we’ll be pulling back. You need to have the second line of defence ready.

Secundus nodded gruffly and returned to the basilica of the headquarters building. Valens ducked back into the apsidal defence outside the main door. His heart began to pulse as he realised that the entire defence of this approach consisted of himself and three men. It was all well and good trying to draw attention and keep as many of the enemy as possible from assaulting the peripheral buildings, but right now, alongside three men and with the clear memory of the horde outside, it was starting to look really stupid. His eyes slid to his three stalwart companions and lit on Pollio.

Really stupid.

He could have blockaded the door and waited. Perhaps he still should? He shook his head resolutely. They could hold this door. They had the grain bag redoubt and then, when they had to withdraw, a narrow, easily defensible doorway. And then, when the doorway fell, the door to the principia was the thickest and strongest to be found anywhere inside the fort. And as long as this looked viable, the enemy should concentrate on it, taking the pressure off the less defensible areas of the granary and the commander’s house.

A roar arose from somewhere to the east, up the slope.

Valens looked to the other three. ‘Make a lot of noise. Bring them here.

The soldiers began to slam their pilum hafts against the bronze edging of their shields, beginning a rhythmic thumping, providing a beat against which they bellowed out an ancient paean to Mars and Minerva, a soldier’s hopeful song of praise. Valens looked along the street pensively, then back at his men. Each had pilum in hand, and the men who’d designed this small redoubt had thoughtfully provided a floor two grain sacks thick, which gave everyone a two foot advantage in height against those outside. Each man had also drawn his sword and jammed it into a gap in the redoubt for swift retrieval when the pilum inevitably bent, broke or was lost.

Then they came.

A flow of tribesmen and women, whooping and brandishing a variety of weapons, cornered at the granary and began to hurtle down the street towards them. A second cry came from the south where, directly along the other street, Valens could see them crossing the wall at the gate and dropping into the fort to run at them from a second direction. He couldn’t see the other two gates, but doubtless the same was happening everywhere.

Three hundred or so, he remembered from a previous estimate. All they had to do was kill ten each…

The crowd surged towards the small half-moon of sacks with a cry of triumph, falling easily for the clearly most ready access. Valens felt vindication of his plan as he saw along the street tribesmen beginning to climb the walls at the granary, only to be waved on to the doorway by their companions.

‘Stab, don’t throw,’ he reminded his men somewhat unnecessarily. ‘We need every weapon.’

And then they were under attack once more.

It was hard to see the effects the scattered caltrops were having as the crowd surged down the street, especially with the increasing snowfall, but as they came closer to the redoubt entrance, it became clearer. Every four or five paces one of the natives would stop dead, howling and dropping their weapon to clutch at their ruined foot, only to be driven to the ground by the surging mob behind and trampled in their lust for battle. It had to be thinning the numbers, Valens figured, though it was hard to tell.

‘Ready,’ he said, preparing himself, lifting a pilum of shabby construction ready to strike.

The enemy hit the grain-bag wall like a tidal wave, hard enough that the whole construction shuddered and leaned slightly inwards despite its immense weight. The four defenders remained a pace back from the wall, placing them in less danger from spears thrust up from outside, but allowing them still the advantage of stabbing back with their own.

It irritated the optio no end that the first spear to come up and over, seeking his life in the hands of a humble Carvetii peasant, was much better quality than his own military-manufactured one. He ducked out of the way of the gleaming point and stabbed back through the falling blanket of white. The pilum point slammed into the man’s face, ruining it in an instant, and the native, bellowing in agony, fell back. Instinct and more than a decade’s experience in putting down tribal risings took over. As he fell away, Valens grabbed the man’s spear below the head and plucked it from his hands.

The pilum was already bent near the point as he pulled it back, though still usable. They would only be good for two or three strikes, and it was worth having something a bit more robust. Dropping the purloined spear behind him, he stepped forward toward the wall and lunged with the pilum. It was impossible to miss, the enemy like a living carpet, and as he pulled the pilum back, something caused resistance and a sucking sound when it came free. He stabbed again and this time when he pulled it back, the metal shaft was bent beyond hope. Grunting, he cast it down into the enemy and stepped back to pick up that spear.

As he rose, he saw the first of his men fall, blood jetting from a lucky wound to his neck. As the man collapsed, Valens was pleased to see the other two close up to narrow the gaps. Leaping back into the fray he stabbed down with the native spear. Its length and weight was unfamiliar, but he adjusted his grip and perceptions swiftly and was impressed at its reach. When he pulled it back the leaf-shaped blade had already been bloodied.

The mechanics of battle took over, stabbing and pulling back, stabbing and pulling back, ducking this way and that at thrusts over the top. Secundus had made himself worthwhile and a man had arrived from inside the principia to bolster the numbers, though barely had he started to fight than another man fell, dropping them to three once more.

‘Ah shit,’ said Pollio next to him.

Valens frowned. ‘What?’

‘Listen, sir.’

He did. Oddly a strange, slithering roar had begun, starting as an undercurrent but becoming gradually louder until he buried the lesser sounds of battle. Valens fretted for a moment, wondering what was happening.

Then the wall of grain sacks shifted very slightly, the top leaning half a foot outwards. Realisation dawned on him with a sense of dread.

‘They’re slitting the lower grain sacks. The wall’s going to collapse!’

The redoubt was going to last for three dozen heartbeats at most. Valens cursed under his breath. It should have lasted so much longer but he’d not counted on native ingenuity. With every blink of the eye, the apse of sacks was leaning further and further out.

‘Back to the doorway,’ he yelled. Stabbing at one last poor bastard with his stolen spear, he began to back away. Pollio beside him did much the same. The soldier to Valens’s right, however, tried to pull back, but someone had grabbed hold of his spear and suddenly the man was yanked forward against the wall, knocking the breath from him. Before the optio could do anything to help him, a dozen hands grabbed the man and pulled him, screaming, over the wall. Valens caught the fear in his eye for a moment, and flinched at it.

As the remaining three men pulled back towards the doorway behind them, the man to the left made a fatal error. The Carvetii were clambering up and over the redoubt wall now, and he took two steps towards them, mid-retreat, to plant his pilum in a man’s gut. Before he could return to their line he was mobbed by howling men and women dropping down into the redoubt.

There was no time. Attempting to do anything but run risked allowing them access to the principia. Bellowing Latin defiance, Valens and the diminutive Pollio backed away at a speed that matched the quick march, into the doorway. There, some helpful soul pushed another spear into Pollio’s hands. A third man – and gods knew there were precious few now – joined them, spear point gleaming as it pointed forward. The three men formed a line in the door. Valens glanced left for just a moment to see that the hunchbacked old woman had positioned herself behind the door, ready to heave it closed at a call. That it could come to this. Survival hinging on the muscle tone of a misshapen septuagenarian…

It was a good killing zone, Valens decided. The enemy could only come at them in small numbers. ‘Remember the Macedonian drill,’ he said to his companions. As the front-runners closed on them and howled, jabbing out with their own spears, Valens prepared to put into action a manoeuvre they’d called the Macedonian Drill after the famous length advantage of the spears of that nation.

The three of them watched the advancing Carvetii carefully, and waited until they took a shuffling extra step to bring them into line with the doorway. In that moment, as the spears were less important than the manoeuvre, all three soldiers stepped quickly forward and rammed out with their spears and pila, using the step to give them the advantage of reach. All three weapons sank into the enemy and the Romans pulled the spears back out and took two quick steps back as they fell.

More of them came, but it was clear that the Carvetii were slow to learn the lesson of planning before reaching their objective. At the door their eyes left their Roman enemy long enough to pull into the doorway, and the three soldiers stepped forward and stabbed again, stepping back and letting the bodies fall.

On it went with the Macedonian drill, waiting for the moment the natives stumbled in their advance in order to negotiate the narrow doorway, stepping forward and spearing the bastards and then stepping back out of reach of the next ones. Better still, with each iteration the bodies were starting to pile up, presenting more of an impediment for the next group, making it easier to prepare for their advance.

By the sixth lunge, Valens was starting to think they might just survive this. Three men had taken down eighteen since withdrawing to the door and without a single wound. If they could achieve that sort of success across the redoubt then they might just pull through.

Hubris is a dangerous thing. Just as the optio was congratulating himself for what seemed like the possibility of success, things suddenly came undone. Stumbling up over the pile of bodies, one of the next wave of attackers tripped and fell forward. By evil chance, his spear slammed into the thigh of the soldier to the left of Valens. The man cried out and fell back through the doorway. As he knocked Valens, the optio’s spear also went astray and his lunge missed the next man, whose counterstrike would have sent the optio across the final river had he not leaned desperately out of the way.

The disaster had ended their lucky streak, for now Carvetii warriors were managing to get into the doorway without presenting themselves to the Roman spears. Valens prepared himself to fight a desperate last struggle, and cursed as Pollio vanished backwards, legging it in the face of death. The reason for the rodent-like soldier’s disappearance became clear a moment later as arrows thudded into the door frame around him, one thrumming past his head, making Valens look up sharply. Just beyond the next wave of attackers three natives with bows were nocking and loosing with horrible speed. An arrow dinged off Valens’s helmet and the untenable nature of his defence became horribly apparent.

‘Are you going to get out of the fucking way, Valens?’ called a voice from behind.

The optio’s head whipped round, to find himself face to face with three scorpions, each loaded and pointed at the door.

‘Fuck!’

In half a heartbeat the spear he held was gone as he threw himself to the ground. With a tripartite thud the three engines released their foot-long bolts and the doorway cleared of bodies, figures thrown back with screams, taking the men behind along with them. Before Valens could do anything Secundus, who had been the man behind the three weapons, threw his arm out to the bent old crone.

‘Get that door shut, woman.’

‘No,’ bellowed Valens, struggling to his feet. Their tactic had been working. If they could only get people into the door before the enemy recovered…

‘Shut up, Valens. Get the door shut, crone.’

The old woman was dithering, uncertain as to whether she should be closing the door or not. Her decision was made for her as Pollio hit the door next to her and heaved it shut. By the time he was halfway there, the woman was helping. Valens continued to argue, though Secundus urged them to force it closed faster.

The door closed with a click.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ snarled Valens, launching to his feet angrily.

‘Saving your pretty Dalmatian arse. You’d never have blocked it in time and the arrows would have done for you. Now it’s closed and that avenue of attack is sealed off for a while. Time to set up your Thermopylae, Valens, and what I wouldn’t give for three hundred Spartans right now.’

Written by SJAT

May 29, 2020 at 8:48 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Nine

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Valens grabbed a second brand and, without waiting for the others to get to work, urged Rigonorix out of the door. Outside, he pointed left. ‘Quick as you can, just the easy burns and then get back to the redoubt. I’m not keen on our chances, but I think they might be lower without you.’

As the fugitive ran off, Valens turned in the other direction. Rigonorix had the smaller side of the fort with only six short blocks, and would easily be able to identify those that would burn quick. Valens’s side, to the south of the redoubt, also consisted of six blocks, but these were each twice as long. Running around to the furthest one, the optio ran down the street between them, looking into each doorway briefly as he passed to determine at a glance whether it was in use or an empty and abandoned block. Those he found that were being used he dipped inside, found cheap drapes at the window or straw-stuffed sleeping pallets or suchlike and swiftly thrust his burning torch into them until they burst into flame, hurrying out as smoke began to fill the room.

By the time he reached the main cut-through street, he could see the last of the men from the south wall hurrying along it, pulling back to the redoubt. Damn it, but he’d thought he had more time. The next block was the partially demolished one that had gone to helping construct the redoubt and he hurried past, heading for the next door, nodding as he passed at Belliacus, who formed the rearguard of the retreat.

The aging cavalry veteran, realising what Valens was about and with a swift backward look at the walls that would be surged over at any moment, reached for a rake that stood in the wreckage and dashed across to the optio’s latest victim, from whose windows smoke already belched. Hooking the rake into closed shutters, he lifted it to a shaky-looking lintel and heaved. Valens was impressed at the surprising strength in such an old man as the wall creaked and holes opened in it, smoke billowing out from the cracks. The optio was still watching as he moved to the next door, and so he saw the reward for Belliacus’s efforts. The end of the block collapsed with a crash, the old man dancing quickly out of the way, dropping the rake and resuming his retreat. The burning building slid out into the street, blocking it to any enemies that might cross the wall and follow. Good man.

Valens torched the last door in the street, then dashed around the end of the block and into the next street, running back up it and repeating the process. By the time he was back at the centre of the fort, outside the headquarters building and the door that allowed access to the redoubt, the forge had been abandoned and torched, and this entire side of the fort was ablaze, smoke billowing and filling the streets, a terrible obstacle for any potential assault.

Rigonorix rounded the end of the building and ran up to join him, covered in soot and blood.

‘That should buy you and hour or two, with luck.’

Moments later Valens, with Rigonorix in tow, emerged into the courtyard of the headquarters building. Not everyone was gathered here, for men were still hurrying to build up the defences of this now-critical redoubt, but most were present. Valens pushed down his fears and despair. What everyone needed now was hope.

‘Congratulations on an impressive defence, given our numbers. We’ve already shown them that Rome is not easy to simply roll across. You will undoubtedly be wanting to know what the plan is.’ He took a deep breath. Plan? Ha! ‘Simply, we hold out as long as we can. Sounds poor, I know, but there are a limited number of them and though they outnumber us, we are making them pay heavily for every advance they make. Every enemy has a breaking point. All we have to do is get them to the point where it’s cost too much and their goal no longer seems worth it and they’ll go away. We hold this redoubt and kill as many as we can.’

He looked around. ‘We have between one and two hours at best guess until the timber buildings of the fort burn down, and even then the stone footings will be too hot to touch for a while. We need to use that time. All soldiers and civilians should take the chance to have an hour’s uninterrupted sleep. There are six beds in the commander’s house, and various shelves, tables and benches. We’ve plenty of blankets. I’m going to split everyone into groups and I want half of each group resting at any given time.’

He took a deep breath. ‘Five groups. One is civvies, working on supplies and moving ammunition around. That’s Lugracus the smith’s group, and he’s in charge. Lugracus, you know what you need to do, I’m sure. Optio Secundus? You’re from Alauna, and Alauna has been rebuilt in recent years, so you know your fortification, I reckon. You lead the group finishing off the defences of the redoubt.’

He looked across at the man, whose lip wrinkled in irritation at being dictated to, but the logic of it broke him, and he nodded his understanding. Valens looked this way and that.

‘The commander’s house will be our barracks and hospital. It has no external windows or doors, but I want one group manning the redoubt walls between this building and that and controlling the roof of the place. That’s Belliacus’s section and Fulvius’s medic station will be your responsibility.’ The veteran nodded his consent.

‘And at the far side, the granaries will be our stores and production centre. The smith and his people will be working in there.’ He prepared himself for the inevitable trouble. ‘Rigonorix is in charge of defending it, the roof and the walls.’ He looked across as Secundus shot to his feet angrily. ‘No, Optio. This is my command and your prisoner, no matter what he’s done, is the right man for the job.’ Even as Secundus argued, Valens spoke louder over the top of him. ‘I will take the centre. The wings are most vulnerable, so I want to leave this one main door open for now and to create a half-moon redoubt out of grain bags outside it to draw their attention. Let’s make them fight on our terms. All we need is to keep them here.’ He geared up for the lie. ‘We only saw one runner from the north gate die. Cestius may have lived. I wouldn’t put it past the weird, wily bastard. I think he got away. That means he’s running for help from Glannoventa. So even if we can’t make the natives give up, we only have to hold until reinforcements come.’

There was a subdued murmur of hope at this, and Valens waved a hand. ‘I’ll be dividing you into the teams in a moment.’ He then crossed to a corner and faced away from everyone so that he could allow the despair to show, then took a breath and turned, only to find Rigonorix beside him.

‘You know that’s bullshit, right?’

‘What?’

‘It’s been less than three hours since the start. Even if your man is godlike in his speed, he still won’t even have reached Glannoventa yet and there’s not a dog in Hades’ chance he’ll get back with reinforcements in time. When they get here, we’ll only exist from the neck up, all on pointy sticks.’

Valens nodded. ‘Do me a favour, and don’t tell anyone else that.’

Rigonorix gave Valens a tight nod of agreement and then waited as the optio moved around the room, identifying civilians and soldiers and assigning them a role. The last was Hermod, all others present assigned a place. Valens gestured for the huntsman to follow him and stepped out through the temporary doorway that had been hacked through an office wall to allow for swift access from the principia to the newly-walled area between there and the granaries. There, they hurried over to the south wall that had been built across the road with rubble and timbers. A fighting platform behind it was formed from benches, tables and crates.

‘Think you can get up onto the principia roof from there?’

Hermod looked to the platform, the wall, the roof, and scratched his head. ‘I figure so. Why?’

‘We need someone on watch to warn us when they start to move into the fort. It strikes me that that man would be useful if his viewpoint was also a good place to loose arrows from. Think you can do it? Keep watch and then pick off some of the bastards as they come?’

Hermod sucked cold air in through insufficient teeth, and clambered up to the fighting platform, from there onto the wall, and then onto the low-pitched tile roof of the principia. There, he scrambled up the tiles until he reached the apex. ‘This is no good,’ he called down, then scrambled back down and dropped into the space behind the wall again.

‘Why?’

‘Not clear enough. Between this roof being roughly the same height as the burning buildings and the smoke everywhere they’ll be almost here before I can see them. I’ll be better off in the northeast corner tower.’

Valens stared at him. ‘That is also suicidally insane. The moment they get through the walls you’ll be trapped.’

‘And so will you, just in a different place.’

‘Hermod, we can’t protect you there.’

The hunter gave him a hard look. ‘Tell me my chances if I stay here.’

The optio choked on his reply for a moment. ‘I’d be lying if I said they were good.’

‘Precisely. From that tower I should be able to see the whole fort, and given that they know you’ve pulled back to the redoubt they won’t be looking for anyone in the towers. With the smoke and the chaos, I can probably drop a dozen men without them working out where the arrows are coming from. As soon as I see anyone cross the threshold into the fort, I’ll drop an arrow into the principia courtyard. That’ll be your warning.’

‘You’re sure you can do it?’

Hermod gave him a withering look. ‘It’s eighty paces. I could put it through your foot at that range if I wanted.’

‘And what will you do when they’re swarming us at the redoubt?’

‘Drop down the outside and slip away into the snow. No one knows the hillsides and valleys around here like me, Valens.’

The optio looked at him steadily for a while and then finally nodded. ‘Far be it from me to condemn a civilian if he stands a chance of surviving this. Just try and remember to drop us a warning shot before you run. Oh, and try not to put it through my foot, however tempting that might be.’

Leaving the huntsman to his work, confident that the man could deliver adequate warning and would do his duty by them before melting into the landscape, Valens ducked back into the main room. The man who’d been working on the stores listing was hefting a sack and looking urgently at Rubellius, who was shrugging irritably. Spotting Valens, they both hurried over.

‘What is it?’

‘Lugracus gave me a sack of caltrops. I don’t know what to do with them.’

‘Melt them down and make something useful,’ grunted the bulky legionary beside him.

‘No,’ the optio said. ‘I told him to finish them. They’ll be useful.’

‘Not as useful as a real weapon, sir,’ Rubellius murmured.

Valens fixed him with a hard look. ‘Have you ever tried running and climbing a wall with an inch of iron through your foot? You’ve got caltrop duty. I want you two to get up onto the rooftops and scatter those all around the redoubt in the streets.’ The two men saluted, and Valens pointed at the smaller man. ‘Were all six scorpions brought in?’

The man frowned. ‘I’ve only seen four sir.’

The optio cursed. ‘The ones on the northern corner towers are still there. Damn it. Get the four we have set up at each of the four new redoubt walls. I’m going to get the other two. Can’t leave them there in case the enemy can work them. Do me a favour and wait til we’re back to scatter your caltrops on the route to the corner towers.’

Turning, he spotted Pollio, lurking in a corner, shirking as always. Grabbing him by the shoulder,  Valens propelled him out of the main door. ‘Run to the tall tower – the northeast – and grab the scorpion. You’ll find Hermod there, but just leave him to it. Heave the bloody thing over your shoulder and bring it back here.’

Pollio’s brow creased. ‘That’s a two man job, sir. They weigh a ton.’

‘Well I’ve noticed how often you’re mysteriously on sick when it’s time for heavy pack training marches, so you’re overdue, and if I can carry one you can carry the other. I’m getting the one from the northwest.’

Pollio gave him a sour look and saluted, facing both a direct order and unbeatable logic.

‘Be quick,’ Valens urged him.

‘Fucking right, boss.’

The two men ducked out of the door, hurdled the burgeoning apsidal sandbag defence outside and split up. Leaving Pollio to it, Valens ran west through the choking black clouds in the street. At the far end, he dipped around the end of the commander’s house and ran for the wall steps. Slipping here and there on one of the as-yet unswept sections, he tottered along the wall to the tower. Belliacus had issued the order to pull back to the redoubt upon hearing Valens’s signal, but he’d not known about the two scorpions on the northern side, and without support and lacking ammunition anyway, the soldiers manning them had left them.

He found the torsion weapon standing on the turret top and lifted it, groaning at the weight. Pollio had a point. For a moment, he considered just cutting the cables to render it useless, but decided against that. He might yet need six. Heaving it up with difficulty, he turned to leave, and paused.

Outside the fort, the enemy stood silent in a ring, all around, waiting for the fire to die down. They were in no rush. Valens swallowed his nerves and looked up as something brushed his nose. The snow was starting again. Wonderful. The thrum of a released arrow dragged his attention back and he ducked and staggered for the stairs with the heavy weapon.

The last thing Valens had expected was to be under attack during what he’d assumed to be a lull. With the enemy holding back beyond the walls and waiting to attack when the fort was clear, he’d felt he could rely upon being safe inside the fort to prepare. Clearly that was not the case. As he dropped into the stairwell and staggered down the steps under the tortuous weight of the scorpio, arrows and sling stones clattered and clacked off the battlements. Out of their sight for now he breathed deeply, lugging the heavy artillery piece down the steps. Normally they were moved on carts during campaigns and even when moved into firing position it was the job of two men. Valens struggled with it and felt guilty that he’d lumbered Pollio with the other. The man was, according the manual at least, too reedy, light and short for a proper soldier. Carrying one of these would be a bloody nightmare for him. Should have sent Rubellius and left Pollio scattering caltrops really, but the little bastard had wound him up.

The uneven terrain on which the fort was built, combined with the peculiar mindset of the legion that had built it, had resulted in towers that had no doorways at ground level, all merely opening onto the walls. It was unusual, and had probably saved the legion a bunch of time and planning, but right now it left Valens in the shit.

He could not go down to the lowest level of the tower, as it was just storage and had no external door. He was forced to drop down just one level and emerge onto the wall top and, though he immediately ducked as low as he could, given the hefty burden he lugged along a fresh barrage of missiles launched up from the crowd outside, clacking against the parapet as he dashed along it. One in particular severed the feather that jutted from his helmet above the ear, a badge of rank, in passing. By the time he reached the nearest wall stair, he was wild-eyed and praying to every god he’d ever heard of, including the local ones this lot worshipped.

He almost threw himself down the stairs, and narrowly avoided ending up in a heap at the bottom with the weapon on top of him. Struggling to pick it up in rapidly numbing fingers, he raced back to the redoubt formed of the central three buildings. The snow was becoming thicker again by the heartbeat now, and he tried not to think on what that meant. He failed. The increasing snow would put the fires out all too soon, cutting down their desperately needed period of safety. As soon as the blizzard doused the fires, the Carvetii would come again.

He cursed as he rounded the western end of the commander’s house and his foot sent a thrill of white hot pain up to his brain. He stopped and looked down in shock. Caltrops lay scattered around the street. Snarling angrily, and grateful that he’d only grazed his instep rather than impaling his foot, he promised himself that he’d jam that appendage a good distance up Rubellius’s arse when he got inside.

Written by SJAT

May 22, 2020 at 7:05 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Eight

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Valens woke with a start, his hand going straight to the hilt of the sword that lay beside him. As reality crashed in on his groggy world, despite everything he felt a selfish and idiotic draw to stay in his cot, as warm and comfortable as it was possible to be in this place. He cursed himself as the insistent ringing of the alarm bell cut through the fuzz and pulled him into true wakefulness.

He’d not intended to fall asleep. He’d meant to change his sodden tunic and have a few moments of peace to marshal his thoughts and then return to the outside world, and the next thing he knew he was waking up. Leaping from the bed, he slid his sword into the scabbard and fastened it round his waist. At least he’d changed his clothes for dry ones before he fell asleep, and now he found his second best boots and dress cloak, both of which were fresh and dry, and pulled them on, finally grasping his staff of office before emerging from his room at the end of the barrack block.

The snow had stopped. In a moment of gods’ blessing, the clouds had raised just a little and the blizzard had let up. He wondered how long he’d slept as he peered at the deep crunchy snowfall outside his door. There was no sign of the footprints his earlier arrival, certainly. He set off at speed and was rounding the end of the block just as the soldier sent to fetch him appeared.

‘Belliacus?’ the optio asked.

‘Yes sir. They’re coming again.’

Hurrying on in the bitter cold, but grateful that for now only his boots would get soaked, the optio reached the steps and hurried up onto the south wall, where he could see the veteran standing beside Rubellius, who was still clanging the bell. Behind Valens, two men shambled along the street carrying a box towards the gate and struggling under the weight. Valens ignored them for now, as he reached the parapet and peered out across the vicus.

Little remained of the conflagration. The buildings were now largely charred timber bones, with dying embers burning in their hearts, and so they caused little trouble for the natives who were, as the soldier had said, coming again. Now that the buildings were not in the way and the snow had let up, he had a much clearer view of the enemy. They were fewer than the thousands he had felt were there last time, but still they numbered around three hundred at a rough estimate, which made the odds ten to one. Not good.

‘Are we ready?’ he asked Belliacus.

‘As we can be. You’d best take control now.’

Valens nodded and looked at the mass who were moving through the burned-out village. ‘Ready pila, darts, arrows or whatever you have. Rocks if you have to. The moment they’re in a range you’re confident of, loose at will. When they touch the wall, prepare to fight for your life.’

As the men around him prepared with the little time they had, Valens’s gaze fell upon a new development and his heart thumped. The enemy had not been idle as they waited for the buildings to burn. From the outlying structures before the conflagration hit they had scavenged two ladders, or at least enough material to construct two ladders, both of which were now being carried forward.

‘Look to those ladders. The moment they touch the wall I want them pushed back off. Use anything you can. If you can find a broom or a furca that’s perfect, but don’t let them get an easy route up to the walls.’

He huffed, looking at the shells of buildings again. How long had he been asleep? Damn it.

Barely had he a moment to contemplate what to do about the fresh unfolding disaster at the south wall when across the din of chaos Valens heard a new bell clattering. Looking about this way and that, unable immediately to identify the source of the new alarm, he finally settled on the west gate. What in the name of all the gods could be happening at the west gate? The south and east led on to the vicus, which admittedly now rose only as charred bones, but at least meant there was ready access. The north gate led out more or less onto a precipice, and the west opened only onto a short space before the spur gave way to another steep slope and the valley below. There was no way anyone could marshal a major force there, so what could possibly be happening? Especially when the main enemy force was clearly gathering outside the south wall.

‘Belliacus, can you handle this?’

The veteran gave him a sour look. ‘No. Can you?’

‘Do it anyway,’ the optio snapped and turned, running along the walls. He passed men with pila and bows and an enemy surging at the ramparts. As he passed his men, missiles were released with twangs and thuds, and he hoped Belliacus was up to it when it was clearly Valens’s job to command the walls. Passing the corner turret, he peered off across the narrow plateau. There was no sign of an enemy force gathering there. What could possibly be important enough to clang the alarm?

Hurrying across to the gate, he passed through the tower and out onto the gate top, where the man on watch was busy hammering at the bell while his eyes stayed on the parapet. Valens waved his hands. ‘What is it?’

The sentry caught sight of his commander and let go of the clapper, though he held tight to the cord and pointed at the wall. ‘There, sir.’

The optio hurried over to the wall and looked out. There was nothing but white snow. Then he heard a grating sound and looked down. A shape was moving up the wall, climbing the stonework like a spider. He blinked as he realised the figure was wearing Roman kit rather than native wool and hide.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

Rigonorix looked up and gave him a weird, lopsided grin. ‘Wishing there was someone there who might give a man a hand up over the wall.’

Reaching down, Valens grabbed the fugitive’s hand and grasped it, turning to the soldier behind him. ‘Give me a hand.’

The man ran over and between them they hauled the criminal up and onto the wall walk. As Rigonorix landed and crouched, huffing onto freezing hands, he looked up into Valens’s face. The optio peered at the man from Alauna and took an involuntary step back as he realised what the man was wearing. A necklace hung around him, formed of a leather thong fed through numerous human ears.

‘You killed…’ he counted softly, ‘fourteen people while you were out?’

‘Twenty eight,’ corrected Rigonorix, fondling his new necklace. ‘They’re all left ears. I though you were more observant than that.’

Valens simply stared, wide-eyed.

‘Anyway,’ the man barked, rising to his feet, ‘I hurried back to warn you. The shit is about to hit.’

‘Oh, I know,’ the optio grunted. ‘I’ve seen them.’

‘That lot? No. They’re the diversion.’

Valens stared at him.

Diversion?

‘A diversion for what?’ Valens demanded. ‘What are they really up to?’

‘The east gate,’ Rigonorix replied. ‘It’s going to fall any time now. You need to fall everyone back to the redoubt straight away, or we’re all lost.’

‘Why? What are they doing? Maybe we can stop them.’

‘Do you trust me?’

Valens stared at the man. ‘Shit, no.’

‘Well you need to start now.’

There was something about the man’s eyes, tone and manner that made it extremely difficult to write his concern off, and Valens found himself turning to the soldier who’d helped him with Rigonorix. ‘Head round to the south gate. Find Belliacus. Tell him the east gate is in danger and that he needs to be ready for one of two signals for me.’

‘Sir.’ The man ran off, and the optio turned to the mad fugitive.

‘I don’t trust you as far as I could spit a rat, but I’m inclined to give you this one. Show me and I’ll give the order.’

Rigonorix looked for a moment as though he might argue, then nodded. ‘Best hurry, then.’

As they leapt down the stairs and began to run along the main road to the opposite gate, past the rapidly rising walls of the central redoubt, Valens spoke between heaved breaths. ‘So tell me.’

‘I don’t know the details, but they’re so sure of success, they’re already planning how hard to dance on your corpse. They sent a group to the east. I don’t know how many, but the word translates as anything from hunting party through warband to army. They’re certain of victory, and my experience with these people tells me that if they’re that certain, we should expect to lose the walls.’

‘I get that impression too. I found some of them poking around in houses outside the east gate.’

‘You went outside?’ Rigonorix threw him a sly grin. ‘You rebel.’

‘Shut up.’

They ran on, and in moments reached the stairs, scrambling up them to the gate top. As they climbed, Valens waved at Pollio in the highest turret nearby. ‘Be ready with that scorpion, and to either give the call to arms here or the call to fall back to the redoubt, okay?’

Pollio saluted as the two men reached the parapet. Falling still, they looked out into the clear air. ‘I can’t see anything.’

‘That gives us time to pull back,’ urged Rigonorix.

‘Maybe.’

They fell silent and watched, ears pricked for any change. It was perhaps fifty heartbeats later when Valens heard it. A low rumble, distant and deep. ‘What the fuck is that?’

‘That is the sound of a nightmare on the way. Sound the retreat.’

‘No. Not until I know what it is.’

‘And if it’s too late then?’

‘Then I get to see you take more ears.’

The rumbling became a sudden din, and the two men turned to look up the hill. From the gate, the road ran straight up the slope, between burned out buildings to the plateau below Mons Mortus where the parade ground lay. As their gazes rose to the top of that slope, a score of tribesmen appeared around a corner, wheeling a huge farm cart with large wheels. As they reached the top of the straight slope, they angled it with, as far as Valens was concerned, impressive accuracy.

‘It’s aimed at the gate.’

‘Quite. Sound the retreat.’

‘It’s just a cart.’

And at that moment, someone lit something and the cart exploded into an inferno of gold.

‘It’s just… a burning cart.’

‘Sound the retreat, Valens.’

‘We can stop them. They can’t just roll it. It’ll never hit the gate.’

‘Valens, sound the fucking alarm.’

Valens turned to Pollio and cupped his hands around his mouth. ‘Sound the muster. Everyone who can be spared to the south gate.’

Rigonorix grasped his shoulder. ‘Don’t be stupid, Optio. Sound the retreat.’

Valens turned an angry face on him. ‘No. It’s my job to hold this fort, and as long as the walls are there, we defend them.’ He looked up at the slope. He’d driven carts before, and they did not do well without a horse or a driver. The chances of that thing staying on course were miniscule.

His certainty began to falter only a moment later. The natives, heedless of the danger, were still hanging on to the cart, riding the burning runaway vehicle. They were adjusting, moving the axle, angling it with every bump it went over. Despite three humps that should have changed its course, it was still aimed straight for the gate.

Valens’s blood chilled. ‘Ah, shit.’

He heard the thump of feet and turned to see Rubellius thundering towards him around the wall. ‘Sir,’ the soldier bellowed, ‘they’ve pulled back from the wall. They’re shifting to the east.’

Bastard, bastard, bastard.

A quick glance at Rigonorix, and the fugitive was giving him a very forceful, meaningful look.

With a snarl, he turned back to Pollio, who was already tootling out the summons on his horn, and waved his hands. ‘Change of plan, rat-face. Sound the withdrawal to the redoubt.’

Pollio, face creased into a frown, nodded, and changed the tune in a moment. Rubellius dithered, uncertain as to whether to run back or run on, and in the end joined his optio and the fugitive at the gate. They turned to look at the approaching cart, which burned in a golden inferno. He’d still hoped it would be off course by the time it neared the walls, but it was clear that the natives had planned their assault well. The cart thundered towards the gate. Would it hold? It was good, solid hard timber, barred and bolstered with whatever could be found at the time.

But the cart was loaded, heavy, aflame, and coming at a horrible pace which increased with every pace down the slope to the gate. No, the gate was doomed. Valens cursed himself for not listening to Rigonorix so far, but it was duty. He had to hold as long as he could.

Damn it.

Fifteen paces from the gate the natives guiding the cart, faces seared from the heat, and clothes smouldering, threw themselves from the vehicle. Valens, unwilling as yet to retreat to somewhere he could not see, watched with wide eyes. The tribe swarmed from the street sides between the burned buildings up the slope, and the cart made its last few paces then hit the gate with an almighty crash that actually shook the wall.

A roar of triumph arose from the natives.

Valens, Rigonorix, Pollio and Rubellius all exchanged looks.

‘To the redoubt,’ Valens shouted, and the men turned away from the scene outside and began to pound down the steps.

Barely had Valens reached the bottom of the steps when the runaway inferno hit the gate. At first there was a roaring noise that rose with every heartbeat, then an ear-splitting crash. Valens turned to look back into the archway. The impact had torn the right gate from its top hinge, and it hung at a weird angle, the left intact but useless on its own. Through the gaps and the broken timbers, Valens could see a blaze of gold. The gate would now begin to burn, but that wouldn’t last for long. In moments the enemy would be pulling the cart back somehow, as best they could despite the heat, and trying to get through.

Very briefly it occurred to Valens that if the gate held long enough, with the enemy unable to get past the burning wreckage, he could organise a superb killing zone. Then he chided himself for wishful thinking. He had nowhere near enough time and, though there was no reason to have done so, given their situation, he would have done well to follow Rigonorix’s advice and pull back earlier.

Already the enemy were beginning to move the cart. They were struggling due to the flames, but gradually they would drag it back and clear the wreckage from the gate, and then they would have ready access. Valens cursed silently. The walls could never be held now, even with a full cohort.

The four men ran from the gate. The withdrawal call was going up now from the south rampart. The solid east wall of the granary, blank and with no windows or doors, faced the burning gate, the nearest façade of the new redoubt. As they ran, heading for the door of the headquarters building which now formed the main gate of the redoubt, Valens glanced across at one of the uniform block buildings to his left. Golden light shone from it, and hammering sounds emerged from the door.

‘You three, come with me.’

As they burst through the door Lugracus the smith was still at work, forging points for arrows. Elia was busy using tongs to dip burning missile tips into water with a plume of steam and her infant giggled on the floor. ‘That’s the call to pull back,’ he told them. ‘Time to get to the redoubt. Elia, take your kid and get him to safety. Lugracus, come on. Bring your tools. You never know, we might find a way to use them.’ As the smith began to gather his things, and Elia scooped up her infant, Valens gestured to the three men with him. ‘Rubellius and Pollio, help carry anything of use. Take it all to the redoubt. Rigonorix and I will be along in a moment.’

As they went to work, the fugitive gave him a questioning look. ‘Mind telling me what we’re going to do?’

Valens grabbed a piece of dry timber from the pile near the furnace and thrust it deep into the flames, pausing until it burst into life. He then held it out to the fugitive. ‘Barracks burn just as much as civilian buildings. I reckon we’ve got time to torch the barrack blocks and still get to safety.’

Rigonorix grinned as he grasped the burning brand.

Written by SJAT

May 15, 2020 at 7:53 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter seven

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Valens watched with a flood of silent relief as the tide of angry humanity ebbed and receded from the walls. Carefully skirting the inferno, the Carvetii vanished along narrow alleys and into the blanket of white. As the last stragglers disappeared, Valens continued to watch, his eyes straying across the vicus.

The conflagration was totally out of control already. The houses of the settlement were each tinder dry inside, and the moment the fire touched the dry wood they exploded into golden flame. Already half the settlement was roaring and collapsing, the rest clearly doomed, and the first house, where the flasks had landed, was already in an advanced state of destruction. The roof had collapsed inwards and even the weight of snow atop it could not douse the burning inside.

His attention was drawn by a ligneous sound and he turned to see Hermod sliding his arrows back into the quiver and hooking the bow over his shoulder.

‘That was some good shooting.’

The hunter flashed him a sour look. ‘I was roasting pheasant for tonight,’ he grumbled. ‘Might be a bit overdone by now.’ He gestured at a house with orange flames bursting from the window. Valens couldn’t decide whether it was a joke or not, and erred on the side of caution, turning away from the man.

‘Alright. Wounded, get to the capsarius. Six men stay on guard. I think we have some time now. They can’t realistically stay trapped between our walls and the burning buildings, so I don’t think they’ll come again until the fires are out, which might be an hour or so, given the snow… hopefully more. With luck it will give us some time to organise. Anyone not on duty here, get to the principia.’

Leaving them to it, he dropped down the steps as fast as he could, more confident now that they had been swept and coated with ash. As he alighted on the ground and hurried towards the headquarters, Valens bit into his cheek. He was doing his best, and so were the others, but it was all a charade. In the end they would fall, and there was no way around that. No help was coming, there was no way out, and they were hopelessly outnumbered. Every cunning little trick he could find would buy them time, but it was all still just putting off the inevitable.

Saddened but resolved, he diverted from the route, hurrying into a back street and along several blocks until he found the workshop, where black smoke belched out of the hole in the roof, chuffing away into the falling haze of white. Reaching the building, he ducked in through the open door. Lugracus the smith was busy melting down any extraneous metalwork, and a mould for arrow heads sat on the bench before him. Elia was sitting binding gleaming new leaf-shapes to long shafts, while her infant gurgled and rolled around happily in the rushes on the floor.

‘Elia, can I have a word?’

The whore finished her current arrow and then hurried over to the door. ‘Yes, officer?’

‘I don’t want to alarm you, but should the worst happen, the lads and I will each sell our lives dearly to the end. Most of the civilians will do the same or have little to fight for anyway, but you? I want you and your kid to get out of this.’

‘Valens…’

‘No. Listen to me. Keep helping. Keep being involved, but the moment I send someone to you with the signal, head into the principia. In the rear hall, you’ll find a trapdoor in front of the chapel of the standards. It leads down to the strongroom. There’s nothing in there now but a few mouldy sacks, since the cohort took everything, but I’m going to have our standard insignia buried in there to see them safe. I want you and your kid to take some old blankets and get down there the moment you get the signal. Pull the trapdoor down and hide. If you do it right, given there’s nothing in there of value, no one will bother you. Everyone else might fall, but you can survive. When it’s all over, wait until you know you’ve missed at least two meals and then come back out and run for somewhere safe.’

‘Valens, I can’t.’

‘You have to. If I don’t know you’re safe, then I can’t do my job. Promise me.’

She looked at him levelly for some time. Finally, she nodded slowly. ‘Alright, Valens, but you promise me that you’ll do everything you can to avoid reaching that point.’

He gave her a bleak smile. ‘I promise.’

As he hurried back along the street Valens was surprised and a little heartened to note the progress on the redoubt. His men had been hard at work, for the twin granaries had been combined into one heavy structure by jamming stones from the base of a barrack block into the gaps forming an effective wall, and the street joining them to the principia was now blocked off, a wall rising and already almost at shoulder height as men worked constantly. He had to step aside as a soldier emerged behind him pushing a barrow loaded with stones from the demolished barrack block near the south gate.

Nodding with satisfaction, he turned and made for the principia doorway. Seven men waited for him there. In his head he made a swift count. He’d lost two men trying to run from the north gate and he’d counted six fall on the south wall just now. That put the cohort down to twenty six men, himself included, plus the three from Alauna and six civilians, four of them in fighting shape. Thirty five souls left in Mediobogdum. Six were now on the south wall along with Hermod the hunter, Elia and the smith working on arrows and bolts and the old hunchback woman and two soldiers were working on the stores. Two men clearing the wall walks, two manning the northern corner towers on watch. There were now seven men working on the redoubt, and Fulvius would be in his makeshift hospital. Good. Everyone was accounted for.

Six men of the cohort stood at attention, and the sour looking old veteran Belliacus lounged on the tribunal from which the officers traditionally addressed their men.

‘Alright, lads. We’ve no time to relax. There are six men on the south wall right now, and seven working on the redoubt. That is a priority, as I think we all know that there will come a time when our numbers just aren’t enough to hold the full perimeter. The men on the walls will need a break soon, though, and I want to cycle the men on watch regularly. Working on building is a lot less strenuous than standing still but expecting to be hit with an arrow at any moment, and we all know that. So I’m going to have four blasts called every half hour. I want you lot to lend a hand on the redoubt. At the first call you move to the south wall and send the guards there to the redoubt. You’ll be relieved half an hour later by the men currently building the redoubt, and so on. Got that?’

A chorus of affirmatives greeted him.

‘Good. Belliacus, are you content taking commands from me?’

‘I’m happy taking advice from you, Valens.’

The optio gritted his teeth in irritation but the man was a civilian and Valens needed every sword he could get. ‘Then here’s my advice. You’ve more experience than any man here, myself included. You may have been cavalry, but you know forts and you know fighting. I’d like you to take charge of the wall circuit. Familiarise yourself with the entire fort wall and note the strong points and the weak points. There will be eight men there now, plus two clearing the snow. Move them around as you see fit and organise them. Acceptable?’

‘Sensible.’

‘Good. Everyone has a job. Off we go.’

Leaving them to it, Valens hurried back to the store house next. Finding the man he’d left in charge standing outside scratching his head, he came to a halt and gestured to the soldier.

‘Problem?’

‘Just the exasperation, sir.’

‘Tell me.’

The man produced a list and started to run his finger down it. ‘Dolabra for digging trenches: six heads but no shafts. Twenty seven pila shafts with no heads. Wouldn’t be quite so maddening if the two fit together, but they don’t. What could be hundreds of caltrops if they weren’t still in separate pieces, but right now they’re just hundreds of pointy metal worms. Nineteen left boots, twelve wax tablets with no wax in them, two bags of lime mortar, nine undyed tunics, enough nails to crucify the population of Londinium but no hammer, and a single shit-sponge.’

Valens gave the man a sly smile. ‘I like my men to have some imagination, Statius. What you have there is endless possibility. I’d bet a dolabra head gives you a bugger of a headache when it’s dropped from a wall. Sharpen the pila shafts with a knife… instant javelins. Screw the boots and the tablets, but throw them in the furnace when you get Lugracus to show you how to weld the caltrops together. The tunics are bandages waiting to be torn up. The nails will be useful in building the redoubt, and any excess you can stuff in a bag and throw at the bastards. I’m sure we can find a use for lime. It burns flesh, after all. And if all of that’s not enough, then you’ll find a use for the shit sponge in time, I’m sure.’

The soldier frowned.

‘Well?’ urged Valens.

‘Sir?’

‘Did you catch all of that?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Then get going, Statius.’

The clanging of a bell attracted his attention. It was none of the normal calls, and yet had that tone of urgency that set his teeth on edge. If it was none of the normal calls then the enemy weren’t coming again yet, so what could it be? Heading in the direction of the bell, he realised with a sinking feeling that it came from the south gate. By the time he arrived, Rubellius was standing in the arch of the gateway with two other soldiers who should, by rights, have been standing on the walls. Facing them, swords drawn, were the two soldiers from Alauna.

‘What’s going on?’

‘These bastards want me to open the gate, Optio.’

‘Why?’

‘Because the prisoner escaped,’ Secundus snapped, turning to face him. ‘The moment you were gone, he jumped from the walls and disappeared into the burning vicus, with a sword you put in his hand.’

Valens cursed silently. He’d hoped the man would be useful, but hadn’t foreseen this. ‘And you want to go after him? In this? With that lot out there?’

‘Duty, Valens. It means something in Alauna.’

‘Bollocks. He’s either gone, in hiding or dead. None of it matters to us. Those gates aren’t opening again. A veteran called Belliacus is coming to take charge of the wall. Are you working for him here or for me, building the redoubt.’

Secundus turned to look at the gate for a while, then back to Valens. ‘I’m staying here. When they next come and Rigonorix is with them, I’m going to tear the fucker to shreds.’

‘Then you answer to Belliacus. He’s ex-cavalry from the wall, and the most miserable bastard you’ll ever meet. You two should get on like a house on fire.’

With that he turned back into the fort.

All was at a strange equilibrium. Their future was clearly written in blood, and little Valens could do could change it, but what he could do, he’d done. Stomping through the drifting flakes, currently a little lighter as the next heavy cloud rolled their way, he made his way to the north gate, with the intention of circuiting the walls. A look down at the snowy valley where the two men had fallen in an attempt to run for help did nothing to improve his mood, and nor did that northern section of wall where he’d first seen Rigonorix and his escort slipping through the snow. Gods, but had that really only been an hour ago?

At the northeast turret, the highest point in the fort he found the weaselly figure of Pollio, now one of two men now manning a scorpion there. Pollio grinned. ‘Plenty of awards to be won tonight, sir?’

‘You mad little sod, the only prize I want at dawn is to still be breathing.’

‘But you’ll remember me when it’s time to hand out medals eh, sir?’

‘I tell you what, Pollio. If we get to dawn, you’re still alive and you’ve drawn blood from anyone who wasn’t beating you in a game of dice, I’ll pin an award to you myself. Probably while the Carvetii carve lumps off us, but at least you’ll get your phalera.’

All the rodent could do in response was grin at him, which further depressed his mood. A trip down past the east gate and to the south east corner tower. Still no sign of the enemy, and the vicus at the eastern side, climbing the slope towards the parade ground and the mountain above, was much more spacious and less occupied at this side. Even here, though, the fire was already spreading, taking even the most peripheral of civilian structures. Apart from the fort at its heart, the whole of Mediobogdum would be little more than ashes in an hour or so.

Candidus stood watch, a solid man, if unimaginative. Little of import would pass him by. Valens’s vision rose above the burning vicus and he thought he saw something. Frowning, he peered myopically into the murk. It was exceedingly hard to see anything at all between the falling snow and the roiling smoke rising from the buildings of the vicus, and he had to wait for one of those few blessed moments when the snow blustered one way and the smoke the other to see past them.

His blood chilled.

The Carvetii had withdrawn to the valley side and were standing there as a silent dark mass, watching the village burn around the fort, waiting for the flames to die down. They had no intention of abandoning their homicidal activity. They were just pausing to regroup and waiting until the approach was clear.

That meant something big. The next time they came was going to be the big one. The Carvetii would flood through the burned-out settlement and surge at the walls, not letting up the attack until they were in. This was truly the calm before the storm. His eyes strayed across the ranks of gathered tribesmen and he shuddered. Doom awaited them, now.

Where, he wondered momentarily, was Rigonorix. Somehow, although the man was related to the tribe, Valens still couldn’t see him siding with them against the cohort, yet running away seemed so out of character. Perhaps he had succeeded where the other two had failed. Perhaps he had run to the next fort for help.

Valens snarled. Or perhaps he had sprouted wings and flown back over the pass.

Stop pondering the unchangeable.

For long moments Valens watched that distant crowd through the blanket of white and the coils of black, until eventually he tore himself away. There was little to be gained from revisiting those he had so recently left, so he retraced his steps around the wall’s perimeter, heading east from the gate towards the pass. At the corner, he nodded to Candidus, who saluted in return and then went back to watching for fresh assaults.

Around the corner, he headed for the east gate and there paused once more to look out across the burning vicus, up towards the parade ground. For just a moment, he thought he spotted movement among the fiery buildings, and focused, peering into the white, red and black. There it was again. Someone was down there.

Who? The whole tribe had retreated across the valley. Oh there would be watchers out there, here and there, but surely not in the burning village? He turned and shouted to Candidus, but the wind had picked up once more, and the sentry couldn’t hear him. Turning, he found the same problem with Pollio. He bit his lip for a moment. How stupid and reckless was he feeling? The figure was only twenty feet from the gate, but he was moving away. If Valens was quick…

Leaping down the steps three at a time, heedless of the danger, he hurried into the gateway. Little work had been done to bolster it as yet, and in moments he was lifting the locking bar. He inched the gate inwards to just a foot or so and slipped through. The shape was just visible in the smoke and snow, and pulling his scarf up around the lower half of his face, Valens ran out, pulling his sword from its sheath and making straight for the figure.

He was halfway there when the man paused and turned. Valens could see little of the man’s features, but in the shadow of a cloak hood, he caught sight of a flash of teeth. A wicked smile.

Ah, shit.

He hit the snow just as the archers loosed, arrows thudding into the burning timbers nearby, and with desperate speed he turned on his belly in the snow, heaving himself up to his feet and running for dear life. He reached the gate just as more figures edged round the burning buildings, bows raised. As he slipped through and slammed the gate shut, he heard the arrows thud into the other side. In moments he had the bar back down and was heaving barrels and crates against it. His mind churned it over as he worked. Had they lured him out specifically? Or just anyone who appeared?

No. If they’d wanted to get through the gate they’d have drawn him further away and slipped men around behind him. They’d not intended to be seen. He’d noticed something secret and they’d reacted, tried to stop him reporting it.

Back up onto the walls, he ran first to Pollio and then to Candidus, telling both men to keep an eye around the east gate. Then to the south gate, where he found Belliacus directing men around the walls to positions, even as he scanned the horizon.

‘They gather to the south,’ the veteran said.

‘They do, but there’s something going on at the east gate too. You’d best send someone to keep control there.’

Belliacus nodded and narrowed his eyes. ‘You look bollocksed. When did you last sleep?’

‘I don’t know. Who’s the emperor now?’

‘Go get some rest, Valens. You’ve got an hour at most, but it’s better than nothing.’

‘I can’t sleep while everyone else watches.’

‘A commander needs to be alert. I’ll keep control here. I’ll send for you the moment anything happens.’

Valens frowned for a while. He might not sleep, but after hours out here and then floundering around in the snow outside the gate, he could certainly do with a change of tunic at least.

Written by SJAT

May 8, 2020 at 7:59 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Six

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‘Here they come,’ Valens shouted to the defender salong the wall before turning back to those close by on the gate top. ‘I’m not sure whether you’re an idiot or just suicidally careless,’ he snapped at Rigonorix as the man handed the artillery piece back to its operators.

‘None of us are walking out of here tonight, Optio,’ the man replied with a chilling casualness, ‘so what was there to lose?’

‘A dozen men in the first fifty heartbeats, you lunatic.’ He turned back to the street below. Sure enough the surge of feeling had almost instantly translated itself into a surge of humanity, which moved their way.

‘They won’t be able to get over the walls,’ someone said nearby, confidently. ‘You saw the corner turrets, sir.’

‘That was just testing the water,’ Valens said with strained patience. ‘Now they’re really pissed off and we’re going to see something different.’ A brief flash of an irritated glance at Rigonorix again for good measure.

‘Ready pila,’ he shouted, looking at the motley collection of poor-quality weapons in the men’s hands. ‘Hermod? Scorpion crews? Mark the biggest and most dangerous looking bastards among them. The rest of you, you have two pila each. At 15 paces cast, and then use the second as a spear.’

The natives were hurtling up the street now, weapons flailing, accompanied by furious cries. Simultaneously, each gap between houses disgorged more of the attackers, those groups who had pulled back from the corner towers now reappearing. Valens couldn’t spare the time to look back over his shoulder, but could hear men arriving at the wall and mounting the steps. A crash from nearby announced the demolition of a second block to provide supplies for the redoubt.

Valens looked across the mass of howling natives, his eyes picking out the figures he thought to be the more important. His gaze fell upon one man who stopped as the tide flowed forward around him, pausing at a high point and becoming an island amid the stream, while he drew a short native bow of horn and sinew, nocking an arrow and drawing, his aim either Valens or someone close by. Before he could release, though, an arrow smashed into his face, throwing him back out of sight, his own shot released as he died and carving a furrow across the snow-packed ground. Hermod the hunter nocked another arrow casually.

Flinching, Valens’s attention shifted to a man with a sling who was swinging it in wide circles with a sound loud enough to hear even through the snow and the din. The whip, whip, whip stopped abruptly as a scorpion bolt passed through his chest, ripping out his life as it exited through his back.

A man with a helmet howled something, and Valens snapped round just in time to see him die with a scorpion shot to the head. He felt a wave of pride for his men as he realised the enemy had reached fifteen paces and, without a second command from him, his men launched their pila. Fifteen missiles arced out up, over the parapet, and fell. The defenders were few enough and the attackers numerous enough that the chances of two men choosing the same target were minimal.

A dozen figures along the line pitched back, shrieking, into the mass, only to vanish behind the snow cloud and the tide of howling anger flowing to crash against the fort walls. That was it. One arrow, four scorpion bolts and fifteen pila and the ranged weapons were done. The difference those astounding shots had made was no longer even noticeable.

Valens gripped his sword hilt. Here we go…

From the first moment, Valens knew he’d underestimated them. The virtual sea of dark figures that poured out of the white towards the walls were armed for a one-on-one fight and woefully unprepared to besiege the walls of a Roman fort, and he’d thought that would buy him time. He’d been wrong.

As the force crashed against the wall, howling, their spears stabbing up at the defenders but unable to get the angle and height to succeed, figures among them were bringing junk forward – things that had been hastily grabbed and looted from the vicus houses and had been hurried brought forth through the crowd and slammed down at the base of the walls. Barrels, sacks, bags of grain and chairs. Anything that might help build a makeshift ramp to the top of the walls.

Valens turned to draw attention to them, but even as he did, he saw the dangerous Hermod draw, release, nock, draw, release and nock all in the blink of an eye. As he turned to follow the arrows’ flights he watched two of those men carrying large goods fall back into the mass, howling. At the same time, the scorpions managed another shot, taking down more of those bringing forth detritus. It was good, but far from good enough. The numbers out there were sufficient that any load dropped by one of those bastards was just picked up by another.

‘Be choosy,’ he reminded his men along the wall. ‘A good pilum might make two or three stabs before it’s bollocksed, and these are not good pila. Select the enemy who get close enough to kill and not just wound. Make sure to pull the pila back straight to avoid bending the shaft on withdrawal or it’s no more use.’

Barely had he finished speaking before the trouble hit. The crowd of furious natives began to try and climb the walls, their ire stronger than their will to survive, while others dumped burden after burden, trying to create a ramp sufficient to reach the defenders.

‘What you did made things worse,’ growled Valens at the deserter close by. ‘Now there’s no stopping this.’

‘There was never any stopping this, General Disaster. But what we did stopped them planning and made them attack without conscious decisions.’

Valens grunted. Yes, they had been playing it carefully with test forays and archers until now, but bringing forward what was likely to be the end of the fort was hardly helpful. ‘You’d better be as fucking dangerous as they think you are,’ he snapped, angling his head towards Secundus. ‘If you don’t help us here, I’m personally going to kick you out of the gate and watch you get torn to pieces.’

‘What makes you think I won’t join them?’

Valens glared at the prisoner. ‘I think you’re in as much shit with them as we are. If they might have taken you in, you’d have vaulted the walls the moment I put a sword in your hand. No, you know they’ll tear you a second arse if you get down there, so you damn well suck it up and play your part.’ He turned to the two other men from Alauna. ‘You too. You work for me now, or you take the long walk out of the south gate into a cursed earth. Got it?’

Baleful glares were his only answer.

‘Good, as they’re about to start hitting us properly. Draw your sword and get to the parapet. We need to hold this wall.’

The tide of Carvetii life crashed against the wall of Mediobogdum. Valens heard once again the tell-tale whip, whip, whip and ducked as a flurry of sling stones came across the wall top, most of them clattering against the stonework or whipping too high through the air. One struck the helmet of the scorpion operator to the optio’s left, ringing from the bronze with a sound like a dull bell. The man staggered back, reeling, uninjured but probably deafened and dazed.

‘Get down,’ Valens bellowed, but the man could not hear him over the ringing noise in his head, and moments later a second slingshot smacked into him, this time denting the helmet’s bronze surface inwards. Valens watched him drop and prayed that the dent had merely added to his discomfort rather than cracking the bone beneath.

As the volley slowed and stopped, the optio leapt up to the battlements once more, sword in hand. The attackers had used the missile cover to hurry, bent-low up to the base of the wall, where already those pieces of debris were being used to create a ramp. By the time Valens reached the edge, the Carvetii were scrambling, clawing, desperately scrabbling at the walls, trying to climb the last few feet between where they were and the waiting defenders.

A dark shape, for that was more or less all they were in the thickening snow, thrust a spear up at him, and Valens only saw it coming at the last moment as he leaned out. Unable to do much with his sword, but with an empty hand due to his lack of a shield, the optio did the only thing he could and grabbed the spear just below the blade as it lanced up. Grimacing at the wielder, he wrenched it slightly to one side and then smashed it back down, striking its owner full in the face with the ash butt. He had no idea how the warrior suffered, for he fell away unnoticed in the snow, but already a second figure was coming at him. A black shape with wild hair had leapt from a hay bale and its left hand had managed to curl over the lip of the stonework. The sword in its other hand came up, arcing in at him.

It was a bad angle, and Valens knew he could avoid the danger, dipping to the side to evade the blow. In retaliation, he leapt to the wall edge and slammed the pommel of his sword down on the desperate grasping fingers, once, twice, thrice, pulverising bones and mashing muscle until, with a scream, the attacker let go and fell away. Valens looked over in time to stare into the agonised face of a girl, not more than fourteen summers, as she gurgled her pain and fell away, disappearing in the cloud of white and grey to become part of that moving carpet of natives.

The optio, irritated at the things he was being called upon to do, turned angrily to Rigonorix who, he noted, was reeling back from the parapet wielding a sword coated with gore and with a face like some kind of battlefield demon. The man turned a look on Valens that was part satisfaction, part fury. There was even blood on his teeth!

‘Who the fuck did you lot kill, their god? Even their daughters are here. I reckon every Carvetii who can hold a sword for fifty miles is here.’

The fugitive shrugged. ‘Told you before: not my doing. Look to them,’ he added, thumbing over his shoulder at Secundus. ‘I will say there were wedding feast decorations up in the hut.’

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, you butchered a wedding?’

Faces appeared at the battlements, snarling and howling, blades lancing up, and along with every other man on the wall Valens struck again and again, hammering at any shape that appeared, doing more damage, he thought, by pushing them off the wall than with actual wounds. Men, and occasionally women, fell away with regular cries of dismay, plummeting back among their own. Valens’s sword dripped and ran as he pulled it back and hacked down, pulled it back and stabbed out, pulled it back and chopped once more.

For a moment, he stepped back from the edge, pushed by necessity. The snow had changed direction in the unpredictable winds of the pass and was now being driven straight in their faces. Wiping the flakes and the water from his eyes so that he could see more clearly, he was momentarily startled to find a pink tint to it as his hand came away. With his free hand he felt around his face, but could find no wounds he might have missed and concluded that the blood had to be someone else’s.

‘Sir?’ came a call from behind, and he turned. Two of the men working on the stores came staggering up the stairs, each carrying what was clearly a heavy bag.

‘What is it?’

‘Weird, sir. A bag of darts. Not standard issue, but there’s maybe a score of them.’

The other man nodded, his face a picture of confusion. ‘And a bag of lead sling shots. No slings, mind, sir. Not a sling in the whole bloody fort, but hundreds of shots for them.’

Valens rolled his eyes. Why the cohort had cleaned him out of the useful things and left him with random junk, he couldn’t comprehend. Lifting one of the heavy plumbata darts from the bag, he examined it. A wooden dart with fake wood feathers at the rear, apart from the lead weight near the tip it was much like a…

He grinned. ‘Take these to Lugracus the smith. They’re a little shorter than the proper stuff, but I reckon if we lose the weights those will make passable scorpion ammunition. Lugracus can get those weights off in a trice, I’d wager.’

The soldier grinned as the optio dropped the dart back into the bag, and turned, skittering back down the steps.

‘What about the sling shots, sir?’ said the other man.

‘Without slings they’re of little use. Maybe Lugracus can melt them down and reuse the lead.’

A voice from behind him cut in. ‘Give them here.’

He turned to see Rigonorix, a nightmare ghoulish figure coated in blood with a grimace of white teeth somewhere at its heart, striding towards him, dripping sword held out to the side. ‘Why?’

The fugitive grinned. ‘Just give them here.’ Without waiting for assent, the man tucked the bloodied, naked blade in his belt and grasped the bag from the second man.

‘What are you doing?’ Valens demanded.

‘Improvising.’

Stepping back towards the wall top, Rigonorix tore several extra little gaps in the bag’s stitching so that the lead bullets began to fall from it, then gripped it tight and spun like a discobolus. At the third spin and, miraculously, facing the right way, he angled the bag upwards and let go. Valens stared. The bag hurtled up into the air, out across the wall, and there, at its apex, the structural integrity failing thanks to those tears, it split open raining lead shot down some thirty feet into the mass of natives.

The bellows of pain and confusion attested to its success. Even Valens was forced to grin this time as Rigonorix ripped his sword from his belt once more and went back to work.

The rhythm of the fight settled in once more, each man stepping to the edge, stabbing and slashing in an attempt to keep the tide of humanity at bay and then hunkering behind his shield against return blows, but to Valens’s trained eye, the tipping point was almost there.  Every time he looked this way and that along the walls there were more and more shapes at the parapet trying to climb over the top and being pushed back down with increasing difficulty and fewer and fewer men to stop them. The latest check, as he managed a breather between hot-blooded slaughter, told him that five of his men were down. Even with the reinforcements that had joined them on the wall that was a quarter of their number.

Another man fell, a spear ripping into his armpit, and two of the men who were still fighting were clutching their arm or side in pain. Time was not on their side. The wall would fall at any moment. Hermod was putting shaft after shaft into the crowd, but the scorpions had fallen silent, out of ammunition, and were being collected and pulled back from the wall for use on a second line of defence.

They had to do something, or they would lose the walls in a score of heartbeats. Even as his head snapped back and forth desperately, trying to find a solution, he saw another one of his men clutch his face, screaming in a spray of dark liquid, and fall back away from the wall. As the man collapsed, Valens’s eyes fell upon the shape behind him. There was one along every wall section between towers and gates: a brazier for when the darkness fell. And even though the cohort had long been gone, Valens had played the martinet, making his men keep every brazier stocked with dry timber beneath a wool cover…

…and every brazier accompanied by a torch ensconced on the wall and a flask of pitch for ease of lighting in the winter weather. His gaze rose over the ramparts and he grinned nastily.

‘Bring me the pitch flask from every brazier point,’ he bellowed.

Without questioning the order, two of his men pulled back from the fight and grabbed the flasks from the wall, turning and running towards him. Valens paid them no attention. Instead, he reached down to the leather bag at his belt and rifled through it, pulling out his fire fungus. Wrapped in tight linen, the horseshoe fungus had been cut in half and ignited inside. Despite minimal oxygen, it had smouldered deep inside since the last watch of the previous night, and as he opened it to the air it flared orange-gold. With a cold smile he removed the leather thong that kept his helmet’s cheek pieces tied, and dipped it in the pitch flash three times, leaving it half in, half out and sealing it once more around the wick. By the time it was ready, the soldiers had brought him two more, and he used the strip of wool he kept tucked in his belt for wiping his blade to tie the three flasks together.

‘What are you planning?’ Rigonorix called from where he was busy butchering an assailant.

‘You’re not the only one who can improvise, you arsehole.’

With a drawn breath, he blew on the fungus and used the flare to ignite the pitch-soaked leather thong. The cord burned instantly with a strong blue flame and Valens timed it precisely in order to be able to flash the men from Alauna a vicious grin, then threw the triple-flask as hard as he could. He never saw it land thanks to the obfuscating snow, but on a mere count of three the roof of the nearest civilian building in the vicus exploded, a fireball visible even through the white cloud. The assault faltered in an instant as the attacking tribesmen turned to look in rising horror as the building behind them erupted into an inferno.

One of the prime requirements for a house here was to be winter-proofed. That meant that once you got beyond the roof and the walls, the interior was dry and seasoned. It would burn like a furnace, and this one did. That house on the corner started blow out its shutters and to belch flames from the windows before even some of the attackers knew it was on fire. There was nothing anyone could do to stop the inferno and in moments it had spread to the buildings on either side.

‘You’re going to be real popular with your civilians,’ Secundus grunted.

But Valens didn’t care. Already the pressure was easing on the walls and the attackers were pulling back to safety.

‘I bought us time,’ he responded with a grin.

Written by SJAT

May 1, 2020 at 9:14 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Five

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Valens half expected to hear the emergency bleating of a horn or tolling of a bell at any moment as the men went about their assigned tasks. That the enemy were gathered in the vicus, out of sight and out of range, and yet held off any assault was making everyone edgy.

On cue a din of activity arose from the south gate as men dashed about in the deluge of white, making themselves visible and creating plenty of noise as they set up artillery and brought equipment out to prepare for what was to come. The sounds of men pulling down one of the timber barrack blocks only added to the cacophony, and the shrewd soldier who’d taken the lead there had made sure to demolish a block close to the south gate, which would both add to the distraction and open up space to work at the most likely site of assault.

Pulling his cloak’s hood down a little further to prevent the snow landing on his face, Valens followed his small team to the north gate. The two-man work crew had not come this far yet with their sweeping and ash laying, and the small group skittered up the steps and onto the wall walk, passing through the guard tower and onto the battlemented parapet above the gate.

Valens peered out into the snow. Gods, but it was getting hard to see anything. Still, he knew the terrain well enough to be able to overlay the white world with fairly accurate mental images. The approaches to the south and east gates were good, and the west gate had a reasonable access despite quickly falling away down into the valley. This side, though, where Rigonorix and his captors had come from, the gate more or less opened onto a vertiginous drop, with steep sections of slippery ground between craggy outcrops. It certainly did not look inviting even in the sun, let alone in this, when rocks would be hard to see until you were on them.

Cestius might be right that they had eyes on this gate, but only if the enemy was being really thorough. Only a lunatic would want to hide among those rocks in this weather. Besides, would they have had time to get round there without being seen from the walls? He reminded himself bitterly that they had been coming for half an hour now and he could hardly see his hand in front of his face, so there was every chance that they could have secured the crags. Still, there was nothing for it.

Peering down, he gestured to the men in the tower and they hurried out, carrying the two scorpions which they set up to either side above the gate, in the lee of the towers. In moments they had wound the torsion ropes tight and settled a foot-long, iron tipped bolt in the groove.

‘Don’t waste the shot. We’ve not got many.’ He turned to the figures of Cestius and Glaucus, each wrapped in a light grey wool cloak, the nearest they could find to camouflage. ‘Are you set? Think you can do this?’

Cestius shrugged. ‘We’ll find out any moment, sir.’

‘No time like the present. Mars and Minerva watch over you both. Get to Glannoventa as fast as you can, and send word to the other local forts too. We’ll do everything we can to hold on until you get back.’

The two runners stepped carefully up to the parapet. It was a drop of more than twenty feet onto sloping ground, but at least their falls would be cushioned by the thick blanket of snow.

Cestius and Glaucus exchanged a look, took a breath and clambered up onto the battlements.

Silently and with no fanfare, Glaucus and Cestius dropped from the wall, landing without a sound in the thick snow. Between the constant battering white flakes and the poor visibility anyway, it took some time for Valens to spot the two figures after their landing, and he seriously worried that the two men had broken their legs or necks on impact.

By the time he picked out the shapes of the two, they were already running. Valens felt his tension level rise once more as they half-plunged, half-staggered through the thick white blanket, down the slope from the gate, gradually nearing the steep almost-precipice.

His gaze leapt ahead. At the edge, perhaps forty paces from the wall, the jagged rocks and the steep descent began. The easiest way down was slightly to the right and past the most prominent rock, and both men were heading for it. Valens found he was holding his breath and released it slowly, forcing himself to breathe normally.

His eyes rose from there, trying to take in the other side of the valley and the dip in between. The flurries of snow were making it hard to see anything with clarity, playing tricks on his vision.

No. No tricks. His eyes focused on what he’d looked past twice, and this time he peered into the snow. Figures, moving below the line of the rocks. He cursed under his breath. They were moving, whether deliberately or by pure chance, on a course that would intercept the two runners if they continued down the easy path. Valens chewed his lip. Was there still a chance for them?

He bit down on his lip now, drawing blood. This was over. They stood no chance. Taking a deep breath, he hollered a warning from the wall top. There was no reaction. The two men simply continued towards the edge. Valens’s blood chilled. They couldn’t hear him over the deluge of snow. He cursed again, this time loudly, drawing the attention of the others.

‘They’re trapped,’ he snapped, pointing until the others on the wall saw the figures. Now everyone was shouting. The two figures slowed to a halt at the edge of the descent, and Valens thanked the gods that they’d heard. But then, instead of turning and running back to the gate, the men parted ways, Glaucus continuing into the main descent, Cestius heading for the dangerous and narrow ravine to the left. They hadn’t heard after all, and the pair could not have seen what was ahead due to the angle of the rocks.

The men on the walls continued to shout fruitlessly for a moment as they watched, but there was nothing they could do. Valens considered sending someone after them, but they would never get to them in time. He watched, impotent and tense. Glaucus was the first to begin the descent. Between two large rocks, he more or less fell and rolled down the steep snowy incline. The watchers clenched their teeth in frustration as they watched the black shapes converge on the tumbling shape. Glaucus rolled and bounced and fell, then staggered upright, directly into the arms of the waiting natives. It was mercifully hard to make out the details as the figures moved, arms raising, blades descending. They watched Glaucus take perhaps a score of blows before the figures moved off, leaving one dark shape, motionless in the white.

Wishing Glaucus well on his journey to Elysium, Valens turned left. Cestius had reached the narrow chute and threw himself recklessly into it. He disappeared from view then, and Valens cursed yet again. The man might well have died in the descent, from the way he dealt with it.

When he saw Cestius again, the relief was all-consuming. The young weirdo suddenly exploded from the sheet of white, already at a strange, loping run. The relief in Valens evaporated as his gaze strayed to the right. The men who’d butchered Glaucus had somehow become aware of Cestius. They stood no chance of catching him now in the snow, but even as the remaining soldier ran for help, one of the natives paused and drew a bow, nocking an arrow.

Valens knew little about archery, but experience had taught him much about likely ranges. Cestius was almost out of range, but probably not quite. He clenched his teeth until they hurt, vowing an altar to Mars if the native would just miss.

Mars apparently couldn’t hear him through the snow either.

The bow snapped tight. The arrow flew. Cestius plunged forward into the snow and lay there, still.

‘Shit.’

Valens sagged. The scorpion crews to either side coughed uncomfortably. ‘Sorry, sir. There was nothing we could do.’

The optio nodded. ‘Too far down the slope. Too much of an angle. I know.’

It seemed, though, that the gods had not stopped shitting on his day yet, for just as they all settled to silence, a bell began to clang urgently from the far side of the fort. Valens looked at the men with him. ‘Get those two scorpions up to the corner towers and keep watch. I doubt any serious attack will come from this side of the fort, but if it does, you’ll have perfect enfilade sighting between you and the best range and arc possible. Don’t leave your posts unless I send word, and only loose a bolt if you know it’ll kill. We’re very low on ammunition.’

With the worried nods of the soldiers as they gathered their weapons up and made to transport them to the towers, Valens turned and took the icy steps three at a time to the road at the bottom. Hurrying through the fort, he was at the same time impressed with the speed with which everyone had thrown themselves into their tasks, and dismayed over how long everything was clearly going to take. Men were already beginning to heave pieces of broken timber into position to block roads and create the redoubt, but it would be quite a while before it was ready.

The ring of metal on metal echoed from one of the workshops, and small puffs of smoke bursting through the outlet in the roof suggested that someone was busily trying to get the furnace going. It was all very efficient. It would also be nowhere near enough.

Hurrying past the principia, where activity continued as men went about their assignments, he made it to the south gate. Already, fifteen men were spreading out along the south wall, four scorpions in evidence, and two men were lugging stooks of poor quality pila up the steps. Pushing past them, he pelted up the stairs and found Rubellius above the gate. Nearby, someone was clanging the warning bell with demented speed. The optio stepped across to the parapet and looked out.

No need to ask anyone the reason for the alarm.

At the bend in the street down the hill, a mass of dark figures stood motionless, filling the street like an army of cockroaches, the snow settling on them. It was weird. They neither moved, nor made a sound, yet somehow that made them all the more threatening.

‘Get the scorpions set up, but only loose when they come at us, and make sure you damn well hit. Every man needs to have at least two pila to hand. I hope last summer’s training session by the lake had an effect. You need to kill with every throw.’

He spotted a new figure climbing the steps. The huntsman from the vicus was unslinging his bow and testing the string, a quiver of his own arrows at his side.

‘Hermod, how far can you shoot one of those?’

‘You mean can I hit that lot? Yes, I can loose high and land an arrow among them indiscriminately. If you want an individual, they have to be about two buildings closer. You want him in the eye, five buildings.’

‘Perfect,’ Valens grunted. ‘The moment they move, I want you to single out the front man and put him down.’ He looked across at the nearest two scorpion crews. ‘When they move, ignore the front man, but take the next two.’ Then, finally, he addressed the wall in general. ‘Once that’s done, you all know your ranges. Open season for the lot of you – arrows, bolts, slings and pila. Everything you can throw at them, you get ready to do it.’

Almost on cue, a weird, low moan drifted up the street from the crowd.

Valens felt a chill run through him at that deep rumble of so many voices, half supressed by the snowfall. It felt like… it felt like that moment when a large hunting cat pauses, tensing, ready to leap. The chill made a return journey up his spine. The optio watched the motionless gathering in the street. Why were they just standing there and making that noise? It seemed so weird. He almost jumped as something touched his shoulder.

‘Shitting shit, don’t do that,’ he snapped, turning to the artillerist who was waiting with his crew, about to ask some sort of sighting or range question.

‘Sorry sir. I shouted, but you must not have heard.’

Valens blinked. The moan. Ah, shit, of course. He turned, looking this way and that. ‘Everyone with a pilum, a bow or a scorpion, take your eyes off the main street. Watch the edges of town.’

‘Sir?’ called someone along the wall.

‘This is a distraction. They’re covering the sounds of other advances.’

If anyone doubted his assessment they didn’t have long to wait for confirmation, as the low moaning from those in the street became a mere undercurrent, loud angry howling coming from both left and right along the wall.

‘Here they come,’ Valens bellowed.

Damn it, but he’d not had half enough time to organise. The two scorpions on the southern corner towers were in position, thankfully, and the two here were prepared. The fifteen men along the wall began to move away from the gate, heading for the noise, and Valens realised with a start the danger that posed. Was that the enemy’s plan? Twin flank attacks drawing his men away from the centre. When that lot ran up the street, the defenders would be too far spaced to be of any help.

Somehow that felt right. That was what was going to happen. He turned and looked back along the street. Rigonorix and his erstwhile captors were striding through the falling snow towards the gate looking oddly paly, which was clearly not the case. Valens gestured to them.

‘Secundus, shout any man you can see and get him to the south gate.’

It took two repeats before the optio from Alauna heard enough to nod. While he began shouting along side streets, his mate urged Rigonorix along towards the gate at sword point. Even now, in the face of disaster, the Alauna men were not giving up on their prisoner.

The noise of the attacks drew his attention back and he leaned forward to look both right and left along the wall. Crowds of natives were hurtling from the houses towards the fort’s southern corners, brandishing a wide variety of weapons. In a heartbeat the artillerists loosed their first shots. Valens chewed his lip. Each of the three artillery pieces on this wall had four bolts available, and that constituted almost half the available ammunition. The right-hand tower ballista took the lead runner, plucking him from his feet and hurling him back into the other runners. By the time Valens’s head snapped back the other way the first shot was done and he had no idea whether it had hit.

This was no planned siege. The enemy had not brought ladders or anything with them. They reached the fort wall and those with spears tried desperately to reach a target. Valens breathed. They couldn’t reach the top of the walls. Until they worked out how to do so, he had time. Until then, they only had to worry about arrows and slingshots.

Behind him, he heard footsteps. Rigonorix appeared on the wall top.

‘Might be best for you to throw yourself on your sword now, Optio,’ he said.

Valens snorted. ‘Would you?’

‘Fuck no, I’ll take a dozen of them to pave to the way to Elysium.’

‘Me too,’ the optio said, turning back to the street.

Valens watched the fort corners, his head snapping this way and that in the snow, taking it all in. The scorpions were loosing at a steady rate, which meant they would be out of ammunition in two more shots. The attackers were rabidly leaping at the walls, slashing with swords and stabbing with sears as though they stood a chance.

‘Looks like we can hold them, sir,’ someone nearby shouted with a grin.

Before Valens could correct him, the whole dynamic suddenly changed. A low bovine sound ripped across the hillside and the tide of attacking humanity pulled back from the wall, disengaging their futile assault. They were natives, angry and with a sword, not an army, and their initial foray had been directionless. But someone out there was something else. The man behind the beheading and the distracting noise was a tactician and clearly this new move was him imposing his control over wild tribesmen, or at least that was Valens’s theory.

‘They’re pulling back. Surely that can’t be it?’

Valens shook his head. ‘Far from it.’ He turned to Rigonorix. ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you? What are they doing?’

‘Simplistic thinking you got from them,’ the man said, thumbing over his shoulder at the two men from Alauna. ‘I’m not one of them any more than you are an Illyrian. I have distant links to them is all. But if you want to know what they’re doing, I can think of one damn good reason to move your own troops out of the way, can’t you?’

Valens frowned until Rigonorix made a drawing back a string motion and murmured ‘Twang’.

‘Shit.’ He turned and bellowed along the walls. ‘Shields up!’

All along the walls, men ducked behind the battlements and pulled up their shields just as the throng out there took advantage of the lack of friendly targets. Valens couldn’t see the source, but even over the snow he heard the hiss of the missiles. They came like black rain from behind the houses, arcing out at the walls.

They were not trained archers like the Hamians up at the wall, but they were so numerous that the cloud of missiles was horrifying, and he would be willing to bet that they were not suffering the lack of ammunition the cohort was. His timely warning – thank you, Rigonorix – had definitely saved men. Of all those on the wall, only one man was killed, his shield failing to rise into place in time, the missile taking him in the throat and hurling him back from the wall. Another man to the left yelped as an arrow thudded into his shoulder, finding a weak spot in the chain and splitting rings. That man snarled, snapping the arrow off and stepping forward again, just as the second cloud of black shafts sailed through the air.

Valens reached out to the nearest man. ‘As long as they’re doing this, they’re not running at the walls. Pass the word. Everyone is to stay down and use their shields. Let’s buy some time for those making weapons and constructing the redoubt.’

Rigonorix nudged him, and Optio Secundus stepped forward, preparing to deal with it. Valens gestured for the man to stand back, and looked the fugitive in the eye.

‘What?’

‘Let me use the scorpion.’

‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ Secundus grunted. ‘This man shouldn’t be armed with anything ore dangerous than a spongia.’

It was more that Secundus had argued against it than Rigonorix was right that decided Valens. He nodded at the deserter. ‘Go on.’

Rigonorix hurried to one of the two scorpions at the gate, which had been loaded and sat waiting. The man at the machine was clearly, from his expression, unhappy relinquishing control to anyone, let alone the deserter. The fugitive stepped behind the machine, looking along the line of the groove like an expert, tracked a little left, raised it just a touch, paused to frown at the wind, and adjusted once more.

‘Shit or bust eh, Valens?’

The optio frowned as Rigonorix grinned and pulled the trigger. He turned, watching the bolt fly.

It was a magnificent shot. In fact, Valens would have thought it an impossible shot, had he not watched it. The stupid thing was that he couldn’t have spotted any kind of leader among that crowd in the street. They all looked just like shadowy natives. It was only as Rigonorix’s bolt hit him square in the face and hurled him back among his people that Valens noticed the arm rings and the torc the man woreHis nerves suddenly twanged. The mad bastard had taken out one of their leaders. Militarily, it was a victory. For anyone who still held a hope of negotiation it was a disaster.

The low moaning noise from the crowd stopped. Moments later the arrows stopped too. All there was was silence. Then someone in the mob in the street shouted something out and the whole crowd surged with a cry of anger.

‘Oh bollocks,’ Valens muttered. ‘Forget bust. Just the shit, this time.’

Written by SJAT

April 24, 2020 at 6:31 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Four

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If you’re up to date with my free serialized story to keep your isolation spirits up, here’s week four in its entirety:

𝐕𝐄𝐍𝐆𝐄𝐀𝐍𝐂𝐄

Julius Rigonorix should have flinched back from the light as the door opened. Normal people would have done that in the dingy room. The fact that the fugitive simply sat there and looked quietly up, pupils shrinking to dots, said a lot about the man, none of which Valens liked.

The optio reached out his hand and turned, shouting to the men guarding the hut outside. ‘Give me your sword.’

‘Sir?’

‘Give me your sword and run off to draw a new one from the armoury.’

‘But… but it’s my sword.’

‘If we live you can have it back.’

‘My dad had this sword.’

‘If you don’t hand it over, you can say hello to him again, pretty fucking soon.’

The soldier unsheathed the blade and passed it over. He did not look happy, but Valens nodded at him. ‘While you draw another sword, I want you to check the armoury inventory. Make sure it’s in order.’

‘Sir.’ The soldier ran off, looking glum.

Valens turned to the prisoner, sword in his hand. Stepping inside, he approached the man. ‘I always considered myself a good judge of character. I think you’re a dangerous bastard, but I think you’re on the level. On the bright side, if I’m wrong, I doubt I’ll care for very long.’

He held out the sword. ‘Take it.’

‘You sure you want to do this, Optio?’

‘There’s half a thousand howling lunatics outside the gate. They’ve already beheaded one of my men. Unless they can be talked down, we’re going to need every sword hand. Would you like to tell me now, is there some way I can stop this?’

Rigonorix took the sword and handled it in a worryingly expert manner, pointing it at Valens as he checked the straightness of the blade. ‘I did not know the people Secundus’s men killed. I had never met them before. But the one who gave me sanctuary was not local. He was visiting. He was a Carvetii noble, I suspect the brother or son of a chief, and was killed by the men chasing me. This is simple revenge. Maybe… just maybe… if you feed them the two men who brought me in, you might buy them off.’

Valens huffed. ‘You know I can’t hand over two soldiers to be executed, no matter what they’ve done. Could it be you’re playing me? Trying to get me to hand over your captors? Jove, but you’re a slippery one.’

‘You’ve spoken to Secundus. You think he’s the good guy?’

‘I think he’s a piece of shit,’ Valens retorted.

‘Aren’t we all. You want me on the walls?’

Valens nodded. ‘I think we want everyone on the walls. I need to brief the whole fort at the principia shortly. First, though, I want to see what we can do with your friends from Alauna. Come with me.’

With the armed fugitive in tow, Valens left the room and hurried towards the hut where he knew the two other new arrivals to be finishing their meal. Pushing open the door, he found the pair playing dice.

‘What the fuck?’ Secundus barked, rising and starting to draw his blade at the sight of Rigonorix armed.

‘My orders. We’re about to be under siege. I want you two with us at the south gate, now.’

The two men glared at him for a moment, then exchanged a look. Both nodded and rose to leave. The optio from Alauna, Valens noted, finished drawing his sword first instead of returning it to its sheath.

It was odd, Valens noted, the way his small entourage moved. Secundus and his friend to one side, Rigonorix at the other, the guards from outside the medical hut keeping them apart. In fairness, Valens had enough to worry about without dealing with the enmity between these three men, each of whom had signed the documents, taken the oath and accepted the emperor’s sestertius.

By the time he reached the south gate, there were three men atop it, peering out into the white. Arseholes. Valens climbed the steps and emerged onto the parapet beside them. Without speaking to them, he looked out down the vicus street and his breath caught in his throat. What had been one head on a stick was now five.

‘What in the name of…?’

‘They’ve been bringing them out at regular intervals,’ the guard murmured. ‘A quick chop, skewered on a stick and then off to find the next one. Grattius was last. We’re due another at any moment.’

Valens looked out. Of the five, three were civilians he’d seen round the place from time to time, the others were the two soldiers he’d dragged from the bath house. ‘Ah, shit.’ He turned and gestured to Secundus and his companion. ‘You lot started this somewhere else and brought it to my door. Get to that parapet, and if there is any chance we can stop this, we will.’ He turned to Rigonorix. ‘Somehow, I think it might be best if you stay out of sight until we’ve tried everything else.’ Then to the two men alongside the gate guard, who were gorping at the heads while holding broom and bag and shovel. ‘You two seem to have stopped work. Get moving and get that wall walk cleared. We’re going to need to use it safely soon.’

The two men ran off. The optio peered out into the snow. He could almost sense an unspoken argument going on behind him, but ignored it, watching for movement. Sure enough, after a short and tense wait, a group of dark shapes moved out into the street, dragging a screaming shape. This one fought them long enough and hard enough that they clonked him on the head before pushing him down to the ground and hacking off his skull. As they brought the head forward, two others carrying another freshly cut pole, Valens cleared his throat.

‘Three quarters of you lot can understand enough Latin to get by.’

The figures in the street stopped. Valens gestured to the two soldiers from Alauna. ‘These men may have inadvertently done something stupid. They are extremely contrite, for all that they look like clueless dickheads.’ He felt a small thrill of glee at the glares the two men gave him. ‘Tell me how we can solve this.’

There was no reply, but the shapes disappeared into a side street and reappeared in greater numbers. Valens could not be certain, but he thought one of the newcomers was the man who’d seemed to lead at their last encounter. The walked forward through the falling snow and picked up the helmet that had been ripped from the decapitated legionary’s head. Bringing it out ten paces in front of the line of staked heads, he placed the helmet on the floor, stepped back, and produced a massive sledgehammer. Lifting it, he brought it down in a crushing blow on the empty helmet. As Valens watched, the figure found the original head, twisted and pulled it from its spike, and squeezed the disembodied skull into the mangled helmet. He passed it to a big man close by, who stepped forward and began to spin like a discus thrower.

It was an impressive shot. The head-in-a-crushed-helmet glanced off the battlements close to Valens and disappeared into the fort. The optio really wished he had a scorpion set up, as he’d have put a bolt through the man in an instant. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

He turned to look at the others, and Secundus shrugged. ‘Doesn’t look like they’re open to debate.’

Valens threw out a finger at the gate guard. ‘I know you’ve the no horn or bell or anything, but you watch out there. Anything happens you’re not expecting, you jump up and down, wave and shout til’ your chest hurts. Got it?’

The man nodded and the optio gestured to the others. ‘Get to the principia. Everyone should be there by now.’

‘Don’t you want me to talk to them then?’ Orgetorix asked with a dry smirk.

‘Would it do any good?’

‘Not a bit.’

‘Then join the garrison in the principia and try not to kill anyone until you’re told to.’

The two men from Alauna glared at him. ‘Arming this bastard is trouble.’

‘He is trouble. So are you. All of this is trouble, and thanks to you, all of this is my trouble.’

‘And where are you going?’ Secundus grunted.

‘To check something.’

Leaving them to it, and with one last look at the street with its grisly display, Valens hurried down to the fort interior and hurried through it until he reached the armoury. The hut door stood open, and the optio dipped inside. The soldier from the other gate was busy walking along a wall, counting loudly.

‘Have you done?’

The man turned and frowned. ‘Not by a long way, sir, but I’ve found some surprises.’

‘Oh yes? Do tell.’

‘When the cohort moved out, they left the entire compliment of scorpions behind, sir. Six of the damned things, though they all need a bit of work. Big problem is: there’s only two score bolts for them. What kind of mind packs the ammunition for travel and forgets the weapons? Idiots. We’ve also got six hunter’s bows, but again not more than a couple of dozen arrows. A damn big stack of pila that were left behind, but only the crap ones. They took all the best. Enough armour to kit out maybe six people beyond our own. Bag of tribuli, couple of dozen weighted darts and for some unknown reason seven cavalry face masks for sports events.’

‘And that’s not all of it?’

‘Jove, no. Half a building to search yet. No one’s bothered keeping too much track of this since everyone left.’

Valens nodded. ‘We’re going to need all of this and more. Start moving it out into the street and keep it in groups ready, but finish running through the list of what there is first. I’ll send you a couple of helpers.’

Leaving the man, he stepped out into the street again. How could they have landed in so much shit so quickly? He was on his way to the principia to brief everyone when a thought struck him. Three streets across, he found one of the blocks that had been out of use for some time. If he was lucky, his men were as lazy as he imagined. Reaching the disused hut, he opened the door. The smell nearly knocked him down, and he grinned even as he gagged, slamming the door shut once more and stepping away from the block.

The southwest latrine had been blocked since not long after the cohort were pulled out, but the block was the most popular of the two, because sewer demons made sport with the one in the northwest. Rather than risk having their genitals attacked or having to walk outside the fort, the bulk of the men had started using the blocked latrine and then simply bucketing away the backed up horror and storing it in a nearby disused block. Valens had ordered the hut cleared and the whole process stopped a dozen times, but clearly it hadn’t happened.

Well no poor bastard Carvetian warrior was prepared for that missile.

Leaving the hut he hurried off to the headquarters building to brief his men.

There were eight people on duty, Valens thought as he strode into the principia. There was one on each corner tower, one at the south gate, two clearing the wall walk, and one working through the stores. Yet as he stepped into the courtyard, he was surprised at how full it seemed. He’d been in here with a full cohort mustered and it had felt normal. Five hundred souls. Now there were maybe thirty five in the space and it still looked cluttered.

He strode past them all and climbed the tribunal. With a quick nod to the statue of the emperor, he readied himself. Of course, the emperor was not the right one. A place like this was so remote that a replacement statue would only be forthcoming as an afterthought, as no one would give the job to a local. Local sculptors would make him look like a lumpy goblin.

‘I doubt anyone is unaware of our situation,’ he said, as he came to a halt on the platform. ‘But in case you’ve had your head down the one working latrine, there’s a whole army of natives out there who’ve decapitated the rest of the civilians and two of my men. They won’t talk or listen to reason, and the threat they pose is quite real. They’re here and they’re coming for us.’

There was a murmur among the men and Valens let it go this time, waiting for it to ebb.

‘We can’t leave,’ he said flatly. ‘There’s no way to get to Glannoventa or over the pass. The moment we try to leave we run into them. So we rely on our walls. We have to hold them out until they give up and go away. We have the advantage. It’s snowy and freezing. They cannot stay out there forever. We are trained to hold a place like this and, though there aren’t so many of us, we can do it. The slope from the west wall is steep and that to the north is even steeper, so attacks from either side are pretty unlikely. We need to concentrate on the south and east. I want every man available on those walls.’

He straightened. ‘My best two lookouts are Rubellius and Pollio. They will each take one of the north and west walls. Everyone else gets divided up between south and east. Can the civilians step forward?’

He paused while the motley collection of locals moved away from the soldiers, making themselves known. Valens looked along their lines. ‘Lugracus,’ he said, pointing at the smith, ‘can you fletch ballista bolts and arrows?’

The old man nodded. ‘Passably. Not my best skill, but I know how to do it.’

‘Take Elia and her kid and show her how to do it. We have plenty of raw materials.’

One of the soldiers stepped forward. ‘Sir, you can’t ask a girl to make arrows?’

‘So she just sits here admiring herself until they enemy get in because we’re out of ammunition?’ He glanced over at her. ‘What do you think, Elia?’

‘Making arrows will be a pleasure,’ she said firmly.

Lugracus reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Come on, girl.’

‘Belliacus,’ Valens said, gesturing to the miserable looking old man, ‘I want you at the south gate. If I remember rightly, you have proper experience on the field of battle?’ At a nod from the old man, he thumbed over his shoulder. ‘I want you at the south gate. Something tells me that’s the first point of trouble and that you’ll be most useful there.’

He looked across the crowd. ‘Hermod, they tell me you could take out a hare at two hundred paces?’

‘No one could do that.’

‘Still, get up on the southeast tower with the best field of view. I’ll make sure you have all the arrows you need.’ He looked at the other civilians. ‘The rest of you follow Glabrio to the armoury and help get everything useful moved outside and prepared. Glabrio, that’s your task. Furthermore, any one of my lot who has any artillery experience, we have plenty of scorpios. I want you split into two man teams and head down to the armoury to collect your weapon. They’re nicely portable, so I want them spread out along the east and south walls for now.’

He sighed. ‘Everyone I’ve mentioned, move out and go about your tasks.’

He waited for the civilians and a handful of soldiers to leave, and when he was left with only his own men, he sighed. ‘Bravado and optimism aside, we all know we’re fucked and that the walls won’t hold, right?’

The men of the cohort looked up at their optio, false hope dropping away. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Valens said to them, ‘I have no intention of surrendering, and there are ways we can do this, but the civilians think fort walls are unassailable and that we can do anything. We can’t.’

‘Not enough men,’ shouted one of the soldiers.

‘Precisely. Even the worst mathematician can divide our walls by our garrison and shit himself at the number he comes up with. Even if we only have to hold the south and east walls, it’s still just a matter of time.’

‘So what’s the plan sir?’

Plan? Valens bit off his retort that there was no real chance for a plan. After all, he sort of had one. ‘Here’s what we do. We man the walls with every man we can spare, and we have the non-combatants manufacturing ammunition. But while all that goes on, I want six men working on a redoubt. I’ll be giving you authority to take whatever you need. Tear down barracks and latrines if you must. Across the middle of the fort are three buildings: the granary, the principia and the commander’s house. Four walls blocking the streets will turn three buildings into one fortress. There are no windows in the granaries, and all the ones in the CO’s house and the principia face inwards. They’re a natural fortress. Six men with an hour or two should be able to make those three buildings into a solid redoubt. The defensive line is then contracted. The fort walls are five hundred paces around. This new redoubt will be just two hundred. That means we are more than twice as likely to survive, based on the mathematics.’

The soldiers nodded. This sort of logic appealed to them.

‘Is there no way to get help or get out of here, then, sir?’ A soldier called.

‘I don’t think so,’ Valens admitted. ‘The enemy are right outside the fort.

Vibius Cestius, his odd, mismatched eyes gleaming, stepped forward. ‘That might not be true, sir. I’ve been thinking about this.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Yes. The enemy are not stupid. The main force will be watching the south and east walls, and they will have odd men watching the bad approaches to the north and west too, but not many. Send runners out to the valley below on the north and west sides and they stand a chance. A strong man might make it to Glannoventa and the rest of the century in four hours. Allow an hour for faffing, and in nine hours they could be back here, doubling our manpower.’

Valens frowned. ‘I lose two men, though.’

‘But you win a future sir.’ Cestius threw out a finger in the direction of the armoury. ‘Fit scorpions to north and west. Two or three each. But make the south and east really enticing. Lots of activity to draw their attention. When the men run, any watcher will have to put up their head. Hit it with a ballista bolt.’

Valens frowned. It was possible. ‘Better to have the hope of relief than not eh? Alright, Cestius, you’ve sold your plan. You and Glaucus won the Lupercalia race last year, so you and Glaucus are our runners.’

‘Sir, you need me here.’

‘Not as much as I need forty angry armed men. Go get things ready. You’re bound for Glannoventa.’

Written by SJAT

April 17, 2020 at 7:37 am

Posted in Roman Military

Tagged with , , ,