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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

While the enemy massed their forces outside, Macro hurriedly gave orders for the defence of the fort. The cornicen sounded the alarm and the men came running from their barracks blocks, equipment in hand, and went to their stations on the parade square in the lengthening shadows of the headquarters building. In addition to the duty century still on the walls, there were nine other centuries of infantry and four cavalry squadrons who would fight dismounted. There was no time for the customary pre-battle speech to whip up the unit's fighting spirit. Instead, Macro quickly commanded that the cavalrymen stand firm as a reserve. One century was sent to each of the other walls while the six remaining centuries were sent to the wall facing the enemy.

Macro turned to Cato. 'I want you in charge of the inner wall. I'm going to need to stand back from this fight and take overall command. So I want my best officer in the most critical position.'

'Thank you, sir. I swear I won't let you down.'

'If you do, then neither of us is going to live to regret it.' Macro forced himself to laugh. 'So don't let those bastards get past you.'

'I won't,' Cato replied. 'We'll hold them back until Symeon and his friends arrive.'

'Oh, he'll be here,' Macro said confidently. 'If I'm any judge of character, he's the kind of man who'd never miss a fight. So let's make sure we leave him a few of those Parthians to take care of.'

Cato smiled. 'I'll see what I can arrange.'

Macro stuck his hand out. 'Good luck, lad. We're going to need it tonight.'

Cato grasped his friend's hand firmly. 'Good luck to you too, sir.'

Macro nodded and there was awkward stillness between the two of them and Macro wondered if they would still be alive to greet each other in the morning. Cato seemed to guess what he was thinking and said quietly, 'We've faced tougher enemies in our time, sir.'

'Ah, but that was in the Second Legion.' Macro glanced round at the men filing off the parade ground to take up their positions.'These auxiliaries aren't even close to being a match for legionaries. But they look competent,' he conceded grudgingly. 'We'll know their quality soon enough. Now, off you go.'

As Cato caught up with his men and led the main force to its position on the wall facing the enemy, he thought once more of Symeon and hoped that Macro's assessment of the man was right. But even if it was, would the men that Symeon knew at Petra be prepared to honour their pledge to the Romans? Cato was not sure. He had too little knowledge of the peoples of the eastern frontier to judge their character. All he, and every other man in the cohort, could do was hope. They would be saved by Symeon and the Nabataeans or die.The Roman forces in Syria would not come to their aid. That was almost certain. Longinus was counting on Bannus to destroy Bushir, and with it the men who knew of his disloyalty to the Emperor. Cato smiled to himself. It would be good to live through this just to see the appalled expression on the Governor's face.

When he reached the inner wall, Cato placed two centuries on the fighting platform behind the breastwork. Those who were armed with bows were sent on to the walls on either side of the ruined gatehouse, and on to the roofs of the buildings behind the inner wall. Every arrow and javelin that could be spared by the other centuries in the fort was piled up in front of the remaining four centuries, which had been placed under the command of Centurion Parmenion to act as an immediate reserve.The first wave of Judaean rebels to enter the breach was going to be met by a hail of missiles from three sides. Cato could well imagine the devastating effect and hoped that it would be enough to break their spirit. If they could only be persuaded to give up the siege and return to their villages, now, before enough blood was spilt to give Rome and Judaea an insatiable taste for it. If Bushir fell, then the whole province was doomed to years of fire, sword and death on a terrible scale.Therefore, hard as it seemed, Cato must make sure that he and his men slaughtered the first wave of attackers with as much savage, ruthless brutality as they could manage.

As the last of the men quietly took up their positions the sun began to set, burnishing their faces and armour in a warm red glow. It was a small mercy that the rapidly fading glare of the sun made it impossible to see the enemy bearing down on them, but the Romans could clearly hear the cheers and triumphant cries as the rebels moved towards the breach. As they closed on the fort there came a rhythmic rapping of spears and blades against the rims of shields and the air was filled with the harsh din that swelled and magnified the sense of threat that lay beyond the mound of rubble where the gatehouse once stood.

Cato pulled himself up on to the fighting platform and shuffled past his men until he stood at the centre of the inner wall. He shifted his shield round to the front and drew his sword as the sound of the enemy's approach rose to a deafening pitch. On the main wall, the first of the archers began to loose their arrows at the target still hidden from those manning the inner line of defence. Slingshot whipped back at them, almost at once finding the first Roman casualty of the night's assault; a lead shot smashed the hand of one of the archers. Cato watched as the man dropped his bow, clutching his hand to his chest as he straightened up behind the rampart. At once a second missile struck him in the face and he pitched backwards off the wall.

Glancing at the men on either side of him Cato was reassured to see that most of them stood ready, staring steadily at the rubble in front of them. Some looked as nervous as Cato felt and he knew he must say something to encourage them.

'Steady, lads! They're just lambs to the slaughter. So don't disappoint them!'

Cato was relieved to see that remark raise some smiles and even a little laughter. But the shallow mirth was short-lived as the exchange of missiles suddenly grew more fierce and three more Romans toppled from the main walls. Then Cato saw the tips of the first spears appear over the crest of the rubble and blocks of stone, pitch black against the red horizon. He tightened his grip on his sword and turned to shout an order to the men standing ready behind the inner wall.

'Make sure you feed those javelins to the front as quick as you can!'

He turned back just as the first of the enemy appeared over the crest, kicking up a cloud of dust as they scrambled into the breach. Arrows shot down on them from either side and several fell out of sight, but more took their place and charged up the uneven and shifting slope into the fort with a shrill war cry. A black wave of silhouettes surged forward, over the crest, and then stumbled down into the gloomy killing zone in front of the inner wall.

'Prepare javelins!' Cato called out. The men on the wall raised their javelins and swung their arms back. Cato waited a moment, allowing more men to struggle over the rubble to give his men a densely packed target. Then he raised his sword.

'Ready!… Loose javelins!'

With a collective grunt of effort the auxiliaries threw their arms forward, releasing the iron-tipped shafts into the raging mob pressing into the small area in front of the inner wall. Scores of the Judaean rebels were struck down, pierced through by the Roman javelins. The cries of triumph that had been on their lips a moment earlier died with them and there was a brief hush inside the fort as the attackers stalled for a moment in shock at the effect of the first volley. On the Roman side, the auxiliaries were already taking up the replacement javelins handed to them from behind and readying them for the next volley.

Cato filled his lungs and shouted out,'Release at will!'

A steady shower of javelins rained down on the enemy packed in front of the inner wall and more and more bodies littered the ground as the shafts of javelins spiked up like thickets of reeds. And still the Judaeans came on, emerging from the thick dust as they scrambled into the fort, and added to the tightly packed target making it impossible for the Romans to miss. Cato felt sick as he watched the slaughter. Already the ground was almost covered with dead and injured, drenched in blood, and he had to fight the impulse to order his men to stop. The dreadful killing must continue if they were to shatter the enemy's will to fight on.

For what seemed an age the Judaeans kept coming, and those caught in the trap began to cry out in panic, and shout in frustration and rage as they could neither press forward to engage the Romans nor move back, away from the terrible rain of javelins. The constant pressure from behind, from those as yet unaware of the massacre taking place inside the fort, continued to press on those at the front, forcing them to their deaths.

Then, at last, somehow, word spread back beyond the breach and the order was given to call off the attack. Still showered with javelins and shot at with arrows the Judaeans began to retreat, pressing back as they scrambled over rubble and the bodies of their comrades until they had gone, retreating into the fading purple light of dusk. Cato sheathed his sword and gazed upon a nightmare scene of tangled bodies, javelin shafts at every angle and dark blood splashed over it all.Yet there was still life amid the tide of human destruction. Here and there bodies writhed in agony or shifted feebly as the injured moaned and cried for help, or a merciful end. Cato turned away and jumped down from the fighting platform, striding round the base of the inner wall until he reached the ladder that led up to the main wall and climbed the rungs. From the height of the wall he could see across the ground towards the enemy camp. The Judaeans were streaming away from the fort, encouraged on their way by the arrows still flying after them from the walls. A few of the enemy, more resolute than their companions, were standing their ground and whirring slings overhead as they loosed slingshot back at the Romans.

Cato leaned over the breach and stared at the bodies piled before the inner wall. There had to be more than a hundred of them, and maybe twenty or thirty more shot down outside the gatehouse.The losses of this first assault had been terrible and Bannus would have a hard time trying to persuade his men back into the breach, Cato reflected. He raised his head and glanced towards the enemy camp, wondering what Bannus would be thinking as he beheld the failure of the first attempt to overrun the fort.

'Sir!' One of the archers beside him anxiously gestured to Cato to get down. 'Once those bloody slingers see the crest on your helmet you'll draw their fire like bees to honey.'

As if on cue, the air was filled with the zip of slingshot and Cato ducked down. He nodded to the archer gratefully. 'Thanks for the warning.'

'Warning?' The man's eyebrows rose in surprise. 'Wasn't warning you, sir. Just didn't want them all aiming my way.'

'Oh.' Cato laughed. 'Thanks anyway.'

The archer shrugged and then notched another arrow and looked cautiously over the rampart for a suitable target. Suddenly he bobbed up, loosed his arrow, and ducked down. An instant later a lead shot cracked into the other side of the rampart.With the walls still bathed in the fading light, and the desert before them swallowed up by shadows Cato realised that the advantage would be with the slingers until the last rays of the sun had died away.

He turned to the archers. 'Keep it up until they're out of range. Pick your targets! I don't want anyone to waste arrows. We're going to need them.'

They exchanged a quick salute and then Cato climbed back down into the fort to rejoin the men on the inner wall. So many of the enemy had died right up against the base of the wall that they were already providing the basis of a ramp and Cato decided to deal with that straight away. He looked for Centurion Parmenion in the gloom and beckoned him over.

'We need to get those bodies away from the inner wall.Take two of the reserve centuries and get the enemy dead out of the fort. Put them in view of the attackers. Make a pile of the bodies, something they can see. Once that's done pick up the serviceable javelins out there and bring them back inside the wall. Got that?'

'Yes sir,' Parmenion replied. 'After what they did to Sycorax we'll show them that two can play games with morale.'

Cato clapped him on the shoulder. 'That's the idea. Get our men to work.'

While Parmenion bellowed his orders Cato returned to the main wall to keep watch on the enemy. The Judaeans had fallen back some distance and their leaders were doing their best to rally them for another attempt. Already, some fires were being lit in the Judaean camp and torches were held high, illuminating men at work rolling bundles of sticks towards the fort. At the same time, soldiers with the conical helmets of Parthians were straining to wheel the surviving onager closer to the target. Cato glanced down and saw that Parmenion and his men had lowered ladders over the inner wall and were already busy lifting the bodies under their shoulders and dragging them up the mound of rubble, down the far side and on to a growing pile just in front of the breach. Some of the enemy were still living, and the auxiliaries despatched them with quick thrusts to the heart, or cut their throats, before dragging them away.

As darkness closed in over the desert, and the first stars twinkled coldly in the ink-black sky, the enemy came on again.There was a warning shout and a moment later the men who had been tasked with clearing the bodies away began to scramble back over the inner wall, pulling the ladders up behind them.

This time there was no arrogant roar of triumph, no rousing rattle of sword and spear against shield rim, just a silent approach of a dark mass of men, stealing towards the fort. They stopped just outside arrow range and waited as the onager was brought forward.A flickering torch filtered through the mass and then a fire flared up in a brazier, close by the onager, revealing the mass of men huddled round the huge weapon.

It did not take long to see what they were waiting for. A faggot was placed in the cup of the onager and quickly set on fire before the throwing arm was released with a metallic clank and an instant later the thud of the restraining bar. The faggot blazed up into the night sky, trailing flickering tongues of flame, sailing towards the fort until it struck the top of the rampart in a brilliant shower of sparks and bounced over the wall and crashed down into the street beside a stable block. A moment later the first fire arrow followed, then more, until a regular bombardment of fire arrows fell on the fort, interspersed with large flammable bundles of kindling wood, doused with oil, bursting on to the buildings inside the walls. The lack of rain had made the timbers of the fort dry and combustible and soon several fires had broken out beyond the breach.

Cato looked back from the inner wall as flames engulfed the end of one of the nearby barrack blocks. He climbed down and strode over to Centurion Parmenion at the head of the troops held in reserve. Most of the soldiers were crouching nervously, waiting for the next incendiary missile to come over the wall, as Cato approached.

'We have to deal with those fires before they get out of control. Take two centuries from the reserve, form them into fire parties and set them to it.'

'Yes sir.'

As Parmenion sent his men off to fight the fires, Macro came up to check on Cato's situation. He nodded towards the flames with a grim expression. 'Reminds me of that fight we had with the Germans in that village close to the Rhine.'

'I remember it well, sir.That was the first time I faced an enemy. I was an optio then.'

'So you were.' Macro reflected. 'That was over three years ago. Seems longer. Much longer. Although it was you who set fire to the defences last time.'

'And here we are, about to be burned out of our shelter once again.'

'We'll have to see about that.' Macro nodded towards the inner wall. 'How has it been? I saw the start of their attack from one of the towers.'

Cato recalled the earlier slaughter with a strained expression. 'They got caught in front of the wall, as we'd hoped.'

'Gave them a good hiding, then?'

'Yes.'

'And our side? Many casualties?'

'Only a few.'

'Good,' Macro said with satisfaction. 'I'm sure they'll be back. Not quite so cocky next time, so you'll have a fight on your hands.'

'I imagine so. Have they tried any attacks on other walls?'

They were interrupted as a highly angled fire arrow clattered off the ground close by and shattered in a spray of brilliant sparks. Both officers instinctively flinched away, and then continued their conversation. Macro jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

'There was a feint towards the east wall. Nothing serious, just an attempt to draw off men from this position.'

'Here they come!' a voice cried from the main wall.

Cato swung round, cupping a hand to his mouth. 'To arms! Get on the wall! Fire parties, carry on!'

The auxiliaries on the fighting platform raised their shields, and held their javelins ready as they stared out at the dark mass of the gatehouse ruins.

'I'll join you,' Macro muttered to Cato. 'This is where the fight will be decided.'

'We could certainly use you here, sir.'

Macro clapped him on the shoulder, and then bellowed to the auxiliaries around him. 'Right! Let's make 'em regret that they ever decided to mix it with the Second Illyrian!'

07 The Eagle In the Sand


CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX | The Eagle In the Sand | CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT



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