They hunched down and waited for the impact with gritted teeth. The first rock overshot the gatehouse and smashed through the roof of the barracks block beyond with a shattering crash. Fragments of tiles exploded from the impact and pattered down on to the street around the building. The second missile struck the ground a short distance before the fort sending a shower of stones and grit against the wall, and raising a small cloud of dust above the spot where it had landed. Cato and Macro felt the impact and Macro looked at his friend with a nervous grin.
'That's quite some piece of kit they have there. Good range, and it can throw a decent weight. That's going to be a nuisance.'
Cato stood up and stared towards the onagers. Already the crews were working at preparing them for the next blow. He heard a thin series of clanks as the throwing arm was ratcheted back. Macro had hurried to the other side of the gatehouse and was staring down at the barracks block that had taken the first strike. There was a gaping hole in the roof and a haze of dust hanging over the building.
'Hey, you!' Macro yelled down to one of the soldiers in the street.The man looked round and up and stood to attention.
'Check inside that building. Make sure everyone's all right. Get any casualties seen to by the medical orderlies. Move!'
As soon as he had given the order, Macro re-joined Cato. The first of the onagers was almost ready to load and in the growing light they could see two men struggling to lift a rock into the cup at the end of the throwing arm. An order was shouted and an instant later the beam of wood shot up again, cracked against the cross bar and another missile arced towards the fort. As before, it seemed to be coming straight for them and Cato glanced at Macro. Macro was tracking the rapid progress of the rock, so Cato forced himself to remain composed and resist the impulse to dive to one side.The rock struck the base of the gatehouse and Cato felt the shock of the impact right through his body. A chunk of masonry fell off the rampart close by and dust and grit tumbled down from the dry thatch roof overhead.
Macro looked at him. 'You all right?'
'Better check the damage.'
They leaned over the rampart and gazed down. The rock was still in one piece where it had bounced back from the wall and there was a small crater on the face of the masonry, near the arch, and a skein of small cracks radiating from it.
Macro winced. 'I really hope that was a lucky shot.'
The second onager swung into action and another stone flew through the air towards the fort. Again it fell short and bounced off the stony ground before harmlessly hitting the base of the wall beside the gatehouse. As dawn broke over the desert the bombardment continued in a steady rhythm of the clanking ratchet, the crack of the throwing arm striking the cross beam and the crash of the impact. But nearly half the shots fell short, or went wide and hit the walls, or overshot the defences and smashed into the buildings beyond. Every hit on the gatehouse dislodged more masonry and the fine cracks gradually widened. One lucky shot landed right on the bottom of the gate itself, making the hinges rattle. Macro gave the order for most of the men to shelter behind the wall, leaving those manning the corner towers to keep an eye on the enemy. After a little while Macro and Cato climbed down from the gatehouse and sat down in the watchroom beside the timbers of the gate.
'Have you ever been on the receiving end before?' Cato asked.
'No. Can't say I'm enjoying the experience.' Macro smiled faintly.'Have to hand it to Bannus and his Parthian friends – they've managed to spring a very nasty surprise on us. And I let those bloody onagers slip by, right under my nose.'
'Don't be hard on yourself, sir. No one could have seen that one coming.'
'Maybe, but that's not going to be much of a consolation if they manage to batter the gatehouse down and swarm all over us.'
'Couldn't we try to destroy the onagers?'
'How do you propose we do that?'
'Send out our cavalry, charge over there before they can react and try to fire the onagers, or at least cut the torsion mechanism.'
Macro shook his head. 'It wouldn't work.There's only one route for horses through the ground we've prepared with caltrops and pits, and that's to the east. We'd have to take that until we were clear of the traps before we could turn towards the onagers.They'd have enough time to get plenty of men between us and their precious siege weapons. It'd just be a waste of men.'
'What if we tried it tonight on foot?'
'Much the same problem. There is a narrow passage through the obstacles to the west, and another to the north. If we lost touch with the paths we'd be caught between the enemy and our own defences. It's almost impossible to find your way in the dark.'
However badly Cato wanted to destroy the onagers he knew that his friend was right. It would be a dangerous operation, by day or night. He ran a hand through his hair. 'If we can't stop these onagers then I suppose we'd better get the counter-measures in place.'
Macro nodded. 'Let's go.'
They strode away from the wall and Macro took a javelin from one of the auxiliaries. He stood to one side of the gatehouse, adjusted his position, and then began to mark out a line in the sand and gravel with the point of the javelin. He continued until he had described an arc round the rear of the gatehouse, and then he returned the javelin to the auxiliary.
'That should do, Cato. I want a breastwork along that line. Build it up as high as you can. Rig a few sheltered platforms on either side. If the enemy comes through the breach then we'll meet them with arrows and javelins from three sides. Got all that?'
'Then let's get to it.'
Cato assembled a work party and gave orders for the destruction of the barracks blocks closest to the gatehouse.That would provide a ready supply of materials for the second line of defence as well as clearing a space behind the breastwork to mass a force of defenders to meet any attack through the breach. The auxiliaries used iron hooks and lengths of rope to pull down the rafters and then the walls of each block. Other men took up picks and began to dig post holes for the roof beams. Timbers were nailed across the beams before the largest pieces of rubble were used to build up the foundations of the makeshift wall. The work continued through the morning and into the afternoon, under the glare of the sun, and all the time the onagers continued their assault on the gatehouse. Some rocks still overshot the wall and smashed into a building with a loud crash that made the defenders start and duck for cover, until the officers bawled at them to continue working. They were fortunate enough to escape any serious casualties until noon when one of the rocks pitched down into the middle of a work party, pulverising one man into a barely recognisable tangle of bloody limbs and wounding most of his comrades as splinters of stone exploded from where the rock hit the ground. Cato immediately shouted a string of orders to have the body taken away and the injured removed to the hospital, and sent the other men back to constructing the inner wall.
Then, in the late afternoon, as yet another shot smashed into the gatehouse, there was an ominous rumble of masonry as a crack opened up diagonally from the rampart almost down to the ground.The men paused for a moment to look and then returned to their labours with renewed determination. Cato quietly made his way over to Macro.
'Won't be long now, sir.'
'Maybe,' Macro responded.'But it's still holding up for the moment. I just hope it lasts until nightfall. I doubt they'll make any direct assaults until they can clearly see what they're doing. Meanwhile, we'll just have to make the best job we can of the inner wall.'
A few shots later, the corner of the gatehouse collapsed on to the ground outside the fort and once the sound of crumbling masonry had died away the defenders could hear the triumphant cries of the enemy. Cato glanced up at the gatehouse and saw the wide gap in the top of the wall next to the collapsed section, as if some great Titan had torn a chunk of the defences away with his teeth. And still the bombardment continued without let-up. Indeed, once the corner had given way, Cato steadily counted between impacts, and calculated that the enemy had increased the frequency of the rocks they were lobbing at the fort. Each blow on the loosened stonework caused more of the structure to collapse on to the existing rubble with a rumble of heavy masonry and the slither and rattle of smaller stones.As the sun sank towards the horizon behind the enemy camp the ruin of the gatehouse became a jagged silhouette, until at last the arch above the gate fell in and all that remained was a tangled heap of rubble and shattered beams of wood.
As dusk fell across the surrounding desert Macro and Cato climbed into one of the corner towers to survey the situation. Some of the enemy, emboldened by the destruction of the gatehouse, had ventured close enough to the fort to attract the attention of the archers stationed at intervals along the wall and every so often an arrow whirred out from the fort towards the nearest men, causing them to scatter and dive for cover. Macro was cheered by the sight of one man, slower to react than his companions, who happened to look up just as the heavy barbed tip of a shaft smashed into his face and burst out the back of his skull.
'Fine shot!' Macro bellowed along the wall and one of the archers quickly turned to bow his head in acknowledgement before quickly notching another arrow and looking for his next target.
As the last of the light began to fade the enemy pounded what was left of the gatehouse and then ceased the bombardment. They would resume in the morning and after a few more hours the breach would be practicable for Bannus and his army to assault. Fires appeared in the enemy encampment and the sounds of singing and laughter could be clearly heard by the defenders as they continued to build up the inner wall. Macro and Cato inspected the work of their men by torchlight. The new wall rose to a height of nearly eight feet and was thick enough to withstand the pressure of a wave of men pressing up against it. On the inside stood a narrow fighting platform from which the defenders could strike down on the enemy as they clambered over the rubble strewn across the ground in front of the wall.
Macro patted the rough surface. 'It'll do.'
'It will have to,' Cato replied softly. 'When they finish off what's left of the gatehouse, that's all there is to keep them out.'
By the wavering glow of the torch he held in his hand Macro turned to stare at his friend. 'You're right, of course. They will finish the job in the morning.'
'Unless something is done about those onagers tonight.'
'I told you,' Macro responded wearily. 'It's too dangerous.'
'We're in danger either way,' said Cato. 'At least if we try something we might be able to set them back a day or so and buy ourselves some time. It has to be worth trying, sir.'
Macro wasn't convinced. 'I told you, whoever goes out there under cover of darkness is bound to lose their way through the defences.'
Cato was looking at Macro's torch and Macro noticed the excited glint in his friend's eyes that always accompanied the sudden rush of thought when Cato came up with one of his hare-brained schemes. He felt his heart sink.
'Let me lead a raid, sir.'
'Are you so tired of living already, Cato?'
'No, I'm just not terribly keen on sitting here, waiting to be killed. Besides, I think there's a way of safely passing through our defence lines…'
'Are you sure about this?' Macro said softly as he looked at Cato.The young centurion had blackened his face and the rest of the flesh that was not covered by the dark brown tunic that he wore. His sword belt was buckled round his waist and a haversack hung from his shoulder containing a tinderbox and several small pots of oil. Behind him stood a party of twenty men, similarly equipped for the night's work.
'I'll be fine, sir. Just make sure those lamps are kept alight.' Cato nodded up to the rampart where the wan glow of an oil lamp flickered in the darkness. Back at headquarters a second lamp had been lit and placed in the highest window in line with the lamp on the wall and the narrow path through the screen of traps and obstacles that stretched out beyond the north wall of the fort.
Macro clasped his friend's arm. 'Do what you have to do and come straight back. Don't get carried away. I know what you're like.'
Cato grinned. 'Trust me, sir. I don't want to be out there any longer than I have to.'
Macro gave Cato's arm a brief squeeze. 'Good luck then.'
He stepped back and nodded to the sentry. As quietly as he could, the sentry slid back the bolts of the sally port and eased the door open.There was a faint grating squeal from the hinges and Macro sucked in his breath at the sound that seemed so loud in the stillness behind the wall. The sentry paused for a moment and then opened the door more slowly, until there was a sufficient gap for Cato and his men to file through.
'Come on,' Cato whispered, and with a last reassuring glance towards the dark shape of Macro he crept out of the fort. The sky was moonless and dim grey strands of cloud covered most of the stars so the landscape was wrapped in darkness – perfect cover for Cato and his party. Of course, the same lack of illumination was the main danger facing the Romans. It would be easy enough to stumble into an enemy sentry or a patrol in such conditions. That was why Cato was determined to proceed as cautiously as possible. As the last man exited the fort the sally port was gently closed behind them. Cato waited a moment for any sign or sound that their presence had been detected, and then he beckoned to the man behind him and began to creep along the foot of the wall. In the distance they could hear the sounds of the men at the main gate, hurriedly trying to repair some of the damage done to the gatehouse during the day. The night's labour would be undone in the first few hours if the bombardment continued in the morning, but it would gain the garrison a little more time. Cato headed towards the narrow path that led from the north face of the fort.
As they reached the point where the lamp glowed faintly on the wall Cato halted, and let his men catch up. Already he was shivering, partly from the penetrating cold of the air and partly from the state of nervous excitation as he led his men on this dangerous raid into the enemy camp. He took a deep breath to try to calm his anxiety, and then headed down into the ditch that surrounded the fort, and climbed up the far side. Picking the black mass of a distant rocky outcrop as a landmark he began to feel his way towards it on hands and knees. His left hand recoiled from contact with the sharp point of a caltrop and he felt ahead and soon found another to give him some sense of that side of the passage.They had crept over a hundred paces from the wall, by Cato's reckoning, before he glanced back and saw the lamp at headquarters as well, almost perfectly aligned with the other one on the wall. He adjusted his position until the two lamps were in line, and then continued forward slowly.
It took a long time to reach the limit of the defences that Macro had prepared and Cato felt a hand on his shoulder as the man behind grasped him suddenly. Cato turned and saw his arm pointing away to the right. Less than a hundred yards away Cato could just make out the silhouettes of two Judaeans against the marginally lighter night sky.There was a snatch of conversation and laughter and the two figures moved slowly away, continuing their patrol around the fort's perimeter. The small party of Romans continued forward until they were well clear of the defences and then Cato turned parallel to the fort's wall and led them towards the red gloom of the fires in the enemy camp.
All his senses strained to detect any presence around him, any sign of danger.The cold had crept into his body and now his chest felt tight and he could do nothing to contain his shivering as they approached the enemy, crouching down as they moved slowly through the darkness. At length he saw the perpendicular frames of the onagers some distance away, picked out by the glow from a nearby fire. He halted his men and indicated to them to form up round him in a loose circle.
'Sycorax?' he whispered.
Cato turned towards the dark figure kneeling a short distance away. 'The carts and their animals are over that way.' He indicated the mass of a rise in the ground a quarter of a mile from the onagers.'Get rid of the sentries and start a blaze. Make it as large as you can and once you have their attention make as much noise as you can.Then get back to the fort.'
'Don't worry, sir. We know what to do.'
'Good luck then. Off you go.'
Cato watched as Sycorax and his men shuffled off and were swallowed up by the night.Then he waved his men on and they crept closer to the onagers. As they slowly got nearer, the sounds of the enemy camp grew louder and Cato feared that the noise would mask the position of the men guarding the onagers, even as it might help to conceal the approach of Cato and his party. As soon as he saw the first man standing by the onagers, Cato halted his men.
Lowering himself on to his stomach Cato slithered forward, head raised slightly as he scanned the ground ahead. He worked his way to one side of the onagers and saw that there were at least ten men beside the siege engines, an even match for Cato and his auxiliaries should the guards not be tempted to abandon their post when Sycorax started his diversion. Cato crawled back to his men and they lay in the dark and waited.
It was not long before there was a shout in the distance and a moment later the flicker of flames as a heavy cart was consumed by wild tongues of orange and yellow. In the glow cast round the cart Cato could see horses and mules straining at their tethers as they desperately tried to escape the heat. The shrill braying and whinnying rose to a terrified pitch. He turned back to the onagers. The guards had all moved to one side to watch the fire. Beyond them a horn blasted out in the enemy camp and suddenly the dark floor of the desert teemed with figures flowing towards the blaze. One of the guards shouted, and ran a few paces towards the flames, then paused and gestured angrily for the others to follow. One shook his head and shouted back, stabbing his finger to the ground at his feet, refusing to move. But a handful of others rushed to join the first man and they ran off into the night.
Cato turned to his men. 'Follow me. No man strikes until I say.'
Rising to a crouch, Cato ran towards the onager furthest from the remaining guards and with a soft padding of footsteps his men followed. When they reached the onager Cato took off his haversack and opened it.
'As soon as I've got this one alight take down those guards. Draw your swords.'
The was a quiet chorus of rasps as the men slowly took their swords from their scabbards and held them ready. While two of them started dousing the onager's frame and torsion ropes with oil, others found some spare rope and combustibles to place under the frame. Cato prepared some carbonised linen in his tinderbox together with some shreds of dried bark.Then he struck his flints. After the first few frustrating attempts a small shower of sparks caught on the linen and he blew softly over them until, with a tiny pop, a small lick of flame appeared. Carefully he drew some of the bark over to feed the flame and then when there was a healthy crackle he lowered it to the kindling materials. There was a maddening delay before the flames spread from the tinderbox, but at last the flames were licking up from the base of the onager and spread rapidly as the oil caught fire and bathed the surrounding area in a lurid glow.
There was a shout of alarm from the remaining guards as they turned towards the blaze.
'Get 'em!' Cato shouted to his men and they rose up and charged the guards. Cato snatched up a burning length of wood from the fire licking up round the onager and raced after the rest of the incendiary group making for the other siege engine. There was no need to use the tinderbox this time and Cato thrust the burning piece of wood into the kindling his men had swiftly packed under the torsion ropes. The fire caught quickly and Cato watched it long enough to make sure that it was well ablaze before he drew his sword and looked round.
The guards had been quickly cut down by his men, but in the light cast by the flames Cato could see more of the enemy streaming out of the darkness towards the burning onagers. It was vital that he held them off long enough for the eager flames to consume as much of the siege weapons as possible.
'On me!' he called out. 'On me, Second Illyrian!'
As his men came running up Cato formed them into a loose cordon in front of the burning onagers and they stood ready, swords out and slightly crouched as they prepared to take on the enemy rushing into the rippling glow of the flames. With the fire at their backs the Romans were dense black silhouettes casting long dark shadows before them and the first of the Judaeans wavered at the sight.Then, with a snarled shout of anger and contempt, a Parthian thrust his way through them and charged directly at the Roman line. The auxiliary facing him braced for the impact, then at the last moment suddenly kicked sand and gravel into the Parthian's face. Instinctively the Parthian hesitated and raised his arm to protect his eyes.The instinct killed him, as the Roman pounced forward and thrust his sword into the man's guts, then ripped the blade free with a ferocious roar. The Parthian slumped to his knees, glancing down in shock at the blood and intestines bulging from the terrible wound.
Behind him the enemy stopped dead in their tracks, not willing to take on the Romans, and Cato saw his chance. He drew a deep breath and roared, 'Charge!'
He ran straight forward, his men following him an instant later, adding their cries to his. Just before he reached the enemy Cato's mind was blazing with crazy rage and he sensed a current of energy, like fire, coursing through his veins. As he swung his sword in a quick cut at the nearest man, small, dark-featured and terrified, Cato heard himself cry out in meaningless rage.The man threw an arm up, fingers snatching towards the hilt of Cato's sword as it swept towards him. The edge of the blade crushed the man's hand and swept on and down, shattering his collar bone as it cut deep into his shoulder. He cried out in fear and pain, and Cato wrenched his blade free and thrust the man aside as he looked for his next foe. On either side his small force had ploughed into the enemy and were cutting and hacking at them in wild abandon, screaming and shouting all the time as they were caught in the bright red glow of the flames and the leaping shadows of other men.
Cato fixed his glare on a broad man with a long dark beard. He carried a heavy curved sword in both hands, and as soon as he saw that the Roman had singled him out he swung it over his head and rushed towards Cato. The side of the blade gleamed a fiery orange as it caught the light of the flames, then it was a blur as it arced down towards Cato's head. He knew he could not parry the blow. It would mean certain death to even attempt it. Instead he sprang to one side, colliding with another man, and both fell, sprawling on the ground. The curved sword thudded into the ground at Cato's side, striking sparks off the edge of a small rock. Cato lashed out with his boot, feeling the nailed sole strike the man's wrist hard.With a cry of pain the Judaean loosened his grip and the heavy sword dropped to the ground. But before Cato could strike a killing blow, the man he had collided with threw himself on top of Cato, desperate fingers tearing at his throat and face. Cato's sword hand was pinned to his side; he clenched his left hand into a fist and smashed it against the side of the man's head. The blow made him gasp, but he clung on to Cato with gritted teeth and his thumbs clamped down on Cato's windpipe with agonising pressure.
'No!' Cato growled. 'No you fucking don't!'
He brought his knee up hard between the man's legs and felt the kneecap thud into his genitals. The man gasped and rolled his eyes and for an instant his hands loosened their grip.With a convulsive heave of his whole body Cato thrust him off, and then stabbed his sword into the man's side as soon as his right arm was free. The blade slid out of the wound with a wet sucking noise and Cato scrambled back on to his feet. On either side his men had cut down several more of the enemy, but already many more were appearing in the glow of the flames. Far too many to take on, and with the confidence of numbers the enemy surged towards the Romans. Cato realised that he and his men had done all that they could. To remain here for another instant was to invite death.
'Fall back!' he cried out. 'Go!'
He turned and raced away from the enemy, between the burning onagers, and back towards the safety of the darkness. His men hurried after him, breathing heavily from their exertions and excitement. The enemy came on, rushing after the Romans in a wave. Some realised what their true priority was and leaped towards the blazing onagers, heedless of the scorching heat as they desperately struggled to pull away the blazing wood piled round the thick timbers of the frames. A few scooped up sand and tried to smother the flames, while others pulled off their cloaks and tried to beat the flames out. But more, many more, were filled with a desire for revenge on those Romans who had dared to venture from the fort to attack their camp.They charged past the burning onagers and rushed after Cato and his men, pursuing them into the darkness beyond the orange loom of the flames.
'On me!' Cato called out. He wanted his men close, to make sure that they passed through the defences together. To his right was the dark bulk of the fort, with torches flaring in each of the corner towers. And there, halfway along the wall, the spark of light from the oil lamp, and behind, at an angle, the dimmer flame of the lamp in the window of the headquarters building.
'Keep going,' Cato muttered to the dim shadows beside and behind him. Further off he heard the shouts of the men pursuing them. 'Stay with me.'
They ran on, instinctively edging towards the fort as the two small lights closed on one another. Then the inevitable happened. Just as Cato reached the point where the flames overlapped there was a cry of pain just behind him. He spun round and saw a dark shape rolling on the ground, groaning through gritted teeth.
'It's Petronius, sir. He's stepped on a caltrop.'
Cato dropped to the man's side and felt his way down the calf, over the boot, until his fingers brushed the iron prongs.There was no time to spare, and Cato grasped the spikes and wrenched the caltrop from the man's boot. Petronius cried out in surprise and pain and at once there was a shout from the men chasing them as they made for the sound.
'Shit,' Cato muttered. 'Get him up. We're in line with the passage. Head for the wall, and keep those lights in line.'
Cato counted seven men passing him and waited a moment for the rest, but then he heard the enemy shouting close by and he turned to follow his men.Their pursuers were closer than he thought and several figures appeared from the gloom, and shouted to the others the moment they caught sight of Cato making off from them, as fast as he dared, through the fort's outer defences. With their prey in view the enemy ran heedlessly towards Cato, straight across the defences at an angle to the passage the Romans were doing their best to follow. Cato continued for a few more steps before he turned and crouched low, ready to defend himself. There was a shrill cry as the nearest man tumbled over, and clutched at his foot. Then another man went down, and a third stumbled into one of the shallow pits. Only one of them made it as far as Cato and launched himself at the Roman, thrusting a long-bladed sword at the centre of the centurion's body. Cato just had time to sweep his sword over and counter the blow, then the man slashed horizontally, forcing him to drop on one knee and duck his head. As the blade swished overhead Cato slashed out with his own sword at knee height and felt it cut into the joint with a wet, jarring thud that severed tendons and smashed bones so that the enemy fell sprawling on his back, crying out. Cato left him, and shuffled to his side until the lights were aligned. Then he set off again.
Behind him the Judaeans had realised the danger and stopped short of the outer defences. Cato smiled to himself. His plan had worked as he had hoped. All that remained was to gain the wall and move along it to the sally port and then the night's raid was over. Something thudded into the sand beside him. Then again, just behind his boot so that he felt the spray of grit against his calf. Frustrated by the defences, the enemy were throwing stones after the Romans.
Cato hunched his head down and quickened his pace to a slow trot, fearing that at any moment he would feel the stab of iron bursting through the soles of his boots, leaving him crippled and helpless. Suddenly he was upon his own men, and he drew up sharply, almost stumbling over them.
'What the fuck are you doing? Get moving.'
'Can't, sir.' It was one of the men who was helping Petronius. 'Glabarus was hit by a stone. Knocked him cold.'
Cato felt an instant of panic as he stared down at the three men, one lying still on the ground, Petronius slumped to one knee and the third man still holding him under the shoulder and trying to keep him up. Glancing back Cato saw that the Judaeans were moving along the limit of the defences behind them. Any moment they would reach the opening of the passage and it was possible that one of them would be observant enough to work out the significance of the aligned lamps. A moment later his fears were confirmed as the nearest of the men edged cautiously in amongst the narrow path between the traps. Cato swallowed nervously and realised his mouth felt as dry as the sand stretching out around them. He made the only decision that he could and bent down to Petronius' free side and raised the man up.
'Let's get going.'
'What about Glabarus, sir?'
'We have to leave him.'
'Shut up and move.'
'But he's my mate.'
Cato fought down the rage that threatened to erupt and spoke as calmly as he could. 'We can't carry both of them. We have to leave him. Or we all die. Now let's go.'
He started forward and as the other man felt the tug of Petronius' weight he was forced to move forward, and only had time to spare his friend a brief last glance. Cato kept glancing up at the lights to make sure they stayed on course and did not dare to look back over his shoulder as the enemy came on behind them. They reached the ditch and half scrambled, half slithered down the slope, across the bottom and up the far slope, under the burden of the injured man. Then they were moving along the narrow strip of flat earth at the base of the wall, making for the sally port. Cato could just make out the shapes of the rest of his party ahead of him and willed himself on.The safety of the fort's walls was mere moments away.
There was a flare overhead and the crackle of burning sticks, and a ball of flame arced down from the wall and bounced into the ditch, lighting up the area around it. Looking back Cato could see the first of the Judaeans to clear the outer defences scrambling down into the ditch, caught in the light of the burning faggot. He heard Macro's voice bellow out.
'Archers! Shoot 'em down!'
Feathered shafts whipped through the air and thudded into the men pursuing Cato and the others, sending several sprawling, and causing the others to halt and stare up at the new danger. More arrows found their target and stopped them dead in their tracks. Cato looked away, back towards the sally port, and hurried on. The thick wooden door was already open and they thrust Petronius inside and then squeezed through after him and slumped to the ground gasping for breath.
'Shut the port,' Cato ordered.
The optio of the section tasked with guarding the sally port glanced out through the wall. 'Where's the rest of your men, sir?'
'They should be here. Sycorax and the others.'
'There's been no sign of them, sir.'
'Shut the gate,' Cato repeated. 'If they're not back yet, then they never will be.'
The optio hesitated for a moment before he nodded and heaved the door back into position and drew the locking bars across and into their receivers. Cato forced himself on to his feet, drew some deep breaths and indicated Petronius. 'Get him to the hospital immediately.'
As the optio carried out the order Cato made his way up on to the rampart and squeezed past the archers until he found Macro. The prefect smiled a greeting.
'Cato! You made it. The rest of the men?'
'I lost six from my party, and there's been no sign of Sycorax.'
'I know,' Macro replied flatly. 'But we'll keep looking out for him and his men. Meanwhile, see there.' He pointed out across the wall at the onagers. One was roaring with flames, the crackle clearly audible from where they stood. The other was still alight, but even as they watched the enemy was successfully smothering the flames. Shortly afterwards they had put that fire out.
'Never mind,' Macro said with a note of satisfaction. 'It'll be out of action for a while and the other one's destroyed. That's improved our chances no end. Good job, Cato.'
Cato tried to feel some satisfaction at his achievement, but he felt hollow and empty and bone weary. If Sycorax and his men had been lost, then the raid had been costly indeed, whatever it may have achieved. He felt guilty to have been the cause of the men's death and for an instant he stared out over the wall, past the burning faggot and the bodies spread around it, out over the desert, trying to penetrate the darkness to the place where he had been forced to leave Glabarus, as if half expecting to see the man stagger out of the darkness. But Glabarus must be dead. And Sycorax and the others too. It would be better if they were dead, Cato realised. The enemy would show little mercy to any Roman soldiers they took alive.
He spread out his arms slightly and lowered his head as he leaned on the wall. Macro looked at him.
'You're done in, lad. Best go and get some rest.'
'I'll wait a while, sir. In case Sycorax makes it back.'
'I'll look out for him,' Macro said gently. 'You get some rest, Centurion. That's an order.'
Cato looked up and met his friend's eyes. He thought about protesting, then knew that Macro was right. There was nothing to be gained by tiring them both out.
'Very well, sir. Thank you.'
Cato took one last look at the burning onager and hoped that he had bought his comrades enough time to justify the sacrifice of Glabarus, Sycorax and the others. He'd know soon enough, when the next day dawned.
07 The Eagle In the Sand