As soon as the flames on the surviving onager had been extinguished the Parthian engineers started making repairs, and the sounds of their labours could be heard through the rest of the night. At first light Macro and Cato climbed the corner tower to survey the results of the previous night's raid. The first onager was little more than a black, charred skeleton. A short distance away the other onager almost looked undamaged as the enemy swarmed round it. Fresh torsion cords had been fitted and they were busy tightening them with long levers, several men to each, straining every muscle to wring the very last measure of power from the weapon's throwing arm.
'Won't be long before that's back in action,' Cato muttered. 'They've been busy.'
'You don't know the half of it,' Macro replied, and gestured towards the ground in front of the fort. 'Shortly after you returned, they began removing the traps. We tried throwing torches out for the archers to see their targets, but the enemy had screens, and just ducked behind them the moment the first arrows began to fly.They only stopped at daybreak.'
Cato looked down and saw that a large swath of the defences had been cleared, the pits filled in and the caltrops removed. Bannus and his men could now approach almost as far as the ditch on the side of the fort where the ruined gatehouse stood. When the time came for the enemy to make their attack, little would stand in the way between them and the men of the cohort. Cato glanced at the gatehouse. Some attempt had been made to prepare a breastwork out of the rubble. It continued the line of the wall and Macro had posted enough men behind it to convince the enemy that the Romans would not easily surrender the gatehouse. A shallow bluff, Cato realised. The moment the repaired onager was ready to recommence the bombardment, it would batter down the breastwork and send the Romans scurrying for the shelter of the inner wall.
'No sign of Sycorax and the others?'
'Not yet,' Macro replied quietly. 'I don't expect we'll be seeing them again.'
Cato shook his head wearily. 'All those men lost, and we only managed to destroy one weapon.'
'One destroyed. One damaged.That's a good result by any measure, Cato. You've halved the weight of their bombardment and set them back a while until the repairs are complete. You and the others did as much as could reasonably be expected. So don't go and put yourself down, and don't rubbish the effort of those men who didn't make it back last night,' Macro said frostily. 'In the circumstances we had to try something, or just sit here and wait for them to come to us. We did the right thing.'
'Maybe, but if it just postpones the inevitable, then that's small comfort. I wonder if the men who…' Cato's voice faded as his gaze was drawn to a group of men working close to the burned onager. They had been busy cutting away the salvageable timber and constructing something on the ground next to the remains of the siege weapon. Now several small parties of the enemy were distributing lengths of jointed wood, fashioned in some kind of crosspiece. He pointed them out to Macro.
'What are they up to?'
The older officer strained his eyes for a moment and shook his head. 'Beats me. Framework for a ram housing, maybe.'
As they watched there was a brief commotion in the enemy camp and then a crowd of men marched towards the siege engines. As they got closer Cato could see that they were jostling a small party of captives with dark tunics and smeared skin. He felt a sinking feeling in his guts as he recognised one of the prisoners.
'I think that's Sycorax…'
Even as he watched them approach the hastily arranged constructions lying on the ground Cato could guess what was coming next, and he felt his stomach clench and feared he was going to be sick. The prisoners were split up, one man being dragged to each crosspiece. The tunics were torn from their bodies and then they were held down against the wood while heavy iron nails were driven through their wrists and ankles. The sound of the hammer blows rang out over the open ground, accompanied by terrified screams of agony from the Roman prisoners.
Neither Macro nor Cato spoke as they watched the first of the makeshift crosses raised into position, and lowered heavily into the post hole that had been dug for the base. There was an audible thud and the forceful impact caused one of the prisoner's wrists to tear loose so that his mangled arm dropped and he gave a piercing shriek. The enemy were not fazed by the incident. One of them calmly set a siege ladder up against the rear of the cross, climbed up, reached over the beam to grasp the torn arm and nailed it back into place. Fortunately the torment of the prisoner was such that he passed out after the first few blows, to the relief of his comrades watching in horror from the walls of the fort. The respite was short-lived, however, as one by one the other prisoners were raised up until a line of crosses extended some distance in front of the surviving onager.
Cato felt a bitter acid taste in his mouth as he swallowed. 'That's what'll be in store for any of us they take alive, I imagine.'
'Yes,' Macro replied softly. 'Bannus is trying to get the wind up our boys.'
'Then I think he's succeeded.' Cato glanced along the wall and saw one of the auxiliaries bent over, vomiting on to the catwalk.
'Of course,' Macro continued flatly, 'there's a nice ironic touch there for his own side. After all the rebels we've crucified over recent years, now we're on the receiving end. Listen to 'em! They just love it.'
As the last cross rose up the enemy cheered loudly, and then their tone quickly changed to cruel laughter and derisive taunts and jeering as their victims writhed in agony and blood ran down beneath their arms and stained their bare chests bright red.
'They've had their fun,' Macro growled. 'Now it's our turn. Archers!' He turned to the men on the wall. In amongst them were sections of men armed with compound bows.'Archers! Shoot on that crowd! Shoot, damn you!'
His obvious rage spurred the men into action. After hastily stringing their bows, the fastest of them notched their arrows, drew back the strings and angled the shafts high before releasing them. The first, ragged volley fell into the crowd, taking down a handful of the enemy before they could scatter and run for cover. More were struck down as the arrows fell with increased intensity. Then a shaft struck one of the Romans on the crosses, burying itself in his throat, so that he jerked, struggled a moment and then hung limp and quite still.
'They're hitting our men!' Cato said in a horrified tone. 'Stop them!'
'No.' Macro shook his head. 'That's what I'd hoped for.'
Cato turned and stared. 'What?'
Macro ignored him and turned to shout to the archers. 'That's it, boys! Keep it up! Stick it to 'em!'
The archers kept shooting as fast as they could, and had no time to follow the passage of their arrows, and so were unaware that they were hitting their comrades at first. Macro waited until the enemy had dispersed and the prisoners had been silenced before he gave the order for the archers to cease shooting. Only then were they fully aware of the result of their handiwork, and they gazed towards the enemy lines in numbed silence, until Macro's bellowed order echoed across the fort.
'First century will remain on watch! All other centuries to breakfast!'
When the men moved away from the wall slowly Macro thumped his fist down on the parapet. 'Officers! Get your men moving! They're not paid by the bloody hour!'
He glared at the officers as they hurried to carry out his command and soon only a thin screen of auxiliaries remained, spread along the wall. Then Macro nodded with satisfaction. 'I don't want our men exposed to that display any more than necessary. I want their minds on the fight, not on what might happen after it.'
'If they know what Bannus has in store for them, then they'll fight to the death.'
'Maybe,' Macro replied. 'But they'll not fight as well, if I give 'em the chance to dwell on the fate of those poor buggers.'
Cato could see the sense of that. Macro had demonstrated a fine understanding of how soldiers' minds worked, and even if the men at Fort Bushir were doomed Macro would see to it that their minds were concentrated on killing as many of their enemies as possible before they were cut down in turn. His friend was professional to the very last, Cato realised. And, at some point in the next few days, there was every chance that that last moment would indeed come. Cato looked back towards the bodies hanging from the crosses.
'Was it really necessary to kill them?'
Macro sniffed. 'What would you have done? Left them there to die a slow, agonising death? It was an act of mercy, Cato.'
Cato frowned as an unpleasant thought entered his mind. He turned to his friend. 'What if I had been captured along with Sycorax and the others last night? Would you have given the order for the archers to shoot me?'
A bemused look flitted across Macro's face.'Of course I would, Cato.Without an instant's hesitation, and believe me, if you had been nailed up alongside those men, you'd have thanked me.'
'I'm not sure about that.'
'In any case, I wouldn't have given you the choice.' Macro smiled grimly, before he continued in an earnest tone, 'And if it had been me out there, I'd have expected you to do the same.The thing is, I'm not sure you'd have the balls to go through with it… Well?'
Cato looked at him for a moment and then shook his head. 'I don't know. I just don't know if I could do that.'
Macro pursed his lips sadly. 'You're a good man. A good soldier, and a good officer most of the time. If we get out of his, then one day you'll have a command of your own, and I won't be there. That's when you'll have to make the really tough decisions, Cato. You can count on it. The question is, are you ready for that?' He looked hard at his young friend for an instant and then punched him lightly on the shoulder. 'Think it over. Meanwhile, I want you to make sure that the gatehouse is as ready as it can be before Bannus gets that onager back into action.'
'I don't think there's any point to that, sir. He'll batter our repairs down quickly enough.'
'The point is that it keeps our men busy, and stops them thinking too much.That includes you. It also shows Bannus and his friends that the Second Illyrian's not going to give up, roll over and wait for our enemies to stick the boot in.We're better than that. Understand what I'm saying?'
'Of course,' Cato replied testily. 'I'm not a fool.'
'Far from it. But even the most brilliant minds can still learn something from those of us with experience, eh?' Macro smiled. 'Now see to it that you do a decent job of that breastwork.'
'Yes sir.' Cato nodded. 'I'll do my best.'
'Of course you will. I'd expect nothing less. Don't just stand there, Centurion. Get moving!'
All morning the men toiled at raising the breastwork over the remains of the gatehouse, and strengthening the inner wall. Mindful of Macro's words, Cato drove them hard and permitted them few rest breaks as they thickened the makeshift defences and added to the height of the inner wall. If the enemy managed to force their way through this last obstacle then the Second Illyrian Cohort would be wiped out. As the men toiled within the fort, the enemy continued to clear away more of the traps laid outside, their workers screened by a thin line of archers ready to take a shot at any target that revealed itself up on the wall. Behind them the engineers sweated under the bright sun to make the surviving onager serviceable once again. Shortly after noon the enemy at last drew away from the siege engine as the throwing arm was carefully ratcheted back, engineers checking the weapon for any further sign of damage as it prepared to bombard the fort again. At length they were satisfied that it was safe to proceed. A curt order was shouted, the locking lever snapped back and the throwing arm swept up and hit the cross beam with a loud thwack as the missile was released, soaring up into the air and then arcing down towards the gatehouse. At once Cato and the work party dropped their tools and scrambled down behind the wall into cover.
The Parthian siege engineers were first rate, or at least very lucky, thought Cato, as the first shot smashed into the breastwork and knocked a gaping hole in the top of the rebuilt defences. The bombardment continued with an endless cycle of clanks, a crack and the crash and rumble of masonry. After the first missile had landed, Cato pulled his men back behind the inner wall and climbed a corner tower to watch proceedings as the hot afternoon wore on. The gradual destruction of the remains of the gatehouse was carried out in a methodical and complete manner, beginning with the wall and then simply pounding the rest into a pile of loose rubble that would make a practical breach for Bannus and his army to assault. As the light began to fade and the desert sand shimmered hot and bright red in the wash of the setting sun, the onager at last fell still and the men inside the fort no longer had to press themselves into the shelter of a wall and cringe as the rocks crashed down.When he was sure that the bombardment had ceased, Cato sent for Macro. The prefect joined him behind the destroyed gatehouse and took a few tentative steps on the rubble.
'They'll be able to climb over this easily enough.'
'When do you think they'll come?' asked Cato.
'Hard to say.' Macro looked up at the sky, already darkening to a velvet blue pierced by the first of the evening's stars. 'I reckon they'll wait until first light when they'll be able to see how the attack is progressing.' Macro shrugged. 'At least that's what I would do in their boots.'
Then they heard the sounds of drums being beaten and the harsh blare of a trumpet.
'What's that?' Cato asked. 'What are they up to now?'
'How should I know?' Macro grumbled. 'Come on, let's have a look.'
He beckoned to Cato to follow him and started to climb over the piles of stone, slabs of rock and splintered wooden beams. As they reached the top of the mound of rubble Cato stared towards the enemy camp. A large number of men were forming up opposite the gatehouse, comfortably outside arrow range.The sun, low in the sky, bathed them in an orange hue that glinted off their weapons like molten bronze.
'Nice!' Macro nodded towards the wash of colour along the distant skyline. 'Although I think the view is wasted on our friends out there.They've got other things on their minds.' He turned to Cato with an apologetic expression. 'Seems I was wrong. They're not prepared to wait until tomorrow morning. They're going to attack the fort at once.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand