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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

The two centurions picked up spare shields that had been stacked near the javelins and made their way up on to the fighting platform. Behind the inner wall the fires in the fort still blazed despite Centurion Parmenion's attempts to bring them under control. Cato knew that they would be clearly silhouetted for the enemy slingers and archers, but at least the flames provided some illumination of the pile of rubble stretching up before the inner wall. The archers on the wall were already loosing arrows on to the approaching enemy as swiftly as possible. Slingshot whipped back at them from the darkness, and the steady barrage of fire arrows and incendiary missiles hurled by the onager continued arcing over the wall and flaring down on to the buildings behind.

The Judaeans came up the rubble slope as before, but this time they stopped just beyond the crest, beyond the range of the javelins, and began whirring slings over their heads.

'Slingshot!' Cato cried out in warning to his men. 'Keep those shields up!'

Then the air was filled with the whip-whup of shots, moments before they struck the face of the wall and the auxiliaries' shields in a cacophony of sharp raps. The Judaeans made no attempt to advance any further, but continued to keep up a heavy bombardment of those manning the wall, while others concentrated their shots on the archers on the walls to either side of the ruined gatehouse. It did not take long to clear the archers away as they were cut down by the lethal slingshot, or were forced back to take cover further along the wall. Once they had been dealt with the slingers turned their attention to the inner wall. Every so often a shot found its way past one of the shields and struck home with bone-shattering force.

Macro risked a quick glance over the rim of his shield. Satisfied that the enemy were still halted on the other side of the rubble, he ducked back down and drew a deep breath so that he could be heard above the din of the slingshot strikes.

'Second Illyrian! Take cover behind the wall!'

The men needed no encouragement to duck down out of sight of the slingers and they squatted behind the breastwork, lowering their shields to rest beside them. Macro turned and met Cato's eyes.

'Seems that they've learned their lesson well. No more frontal assaults until we've been softened up.'

Cato was taking a last glance at the enemy from beneath the shelter of his shield. A stone glanced off the central boss with a shattering ring. He felt the impact through his shield arm and winced as he dropped down. 'Softened up? More like tenderised.'

Macro laughed. 'Let 'em try. As long as this wall's between us there's not much they can do to cut down our numbers.'

'Maybe,' Cato replied quietly. 'But they must know that too.'

'Meaning?'

'Meaning that there must be a reason for them to want us to keep our heads down.'

Macro lowered his shield on to the fighting platform. 'They're up to something. I'll be back in a moment.'

He slid off the fighting platform and ran along behind it until he reached the ladder leading up to the main wall. There would be a nasty instant when he emerged in full view of the slingers in the breach, and, bracing himself, he launched himself up the rungs.There was a shout and two slingshots whipped close by, then Macro threw his body up on to the rampart and rolled out of sight. One of the men immediately scurried over and protected him with his shield. Catching his breath Macro nodded his gratitude and then went over to the wall. Making sure that he was sheltered behind one of the crenellations, he peered over the top.

Behind the screen of slingers in the breach there was the pile of bodies from the first assault and beyond that the silent mass of Judaean rebels waiting to attack. As Macro watched them by the wavering orange glow of the torches that ringed the onager, he noticed them pull aside as something passed through the crowd. As yet he could not make out what it was. Then one of the enemy, sharper-eyed than his comrades, spied the prefect's head and loosed a shot at the ramparts. It struck the masonry above Macro's head and chips of stone burst from the wall, several striking Macro in the face, one laying open the flesh at the corner of his left eye.

'Shit!' He recoiled backwards, clutching at his face. 'Shit. Bastard.'

His fingers came away coated in blood and Macro hurriedly undid his neckcloth and mopped the wound. His left eye still had vision, but it was badly blurred and the pain in the socket was searing.

'Sir?' The auxiliary who had protected him with his shield loomed in front of Macro. 'Shall I send for the surgeon?'

'No!' Macro winced. 'I've had worse. I'll be fine.'

The auxiliary looked at him doubtfully and then shuffled away. Macro tried to staunch the flow of blood before he tried again to see what the enemy was bringing forward. The front ranks split open and gave way to a score of men carrying an iron-tipped beam of wood. So that was it, Macro realised. A battering ram. He slithered back to the edge of the rampart and this time he decided not to risk the ladder but lowered himself over the side of the wall a bit further along, and dropped heavily to the ground below. He hurried back to Cato. His friend winced as he saw the wound on Macro's face.

'Sir, you'd better get that seen to.'

Macro shook his head. 'No time for that. We're for it now.They're bringing up a ram. It'll be here any moment.'

They took a quick glance over the breastwork and saw that the slingers were already moving aside as the men carrying the ram struggled up the rubble slope and heaved their burden over the crest and down into the fort. Behind them massed the Judaeans, clutching an assortment of shields and weapons, as well as several ladders, all washed in a pale yellow glow from the fires burning inside the fort. On either side the slingers continued to rain their missiles down on the breastwork. Once the men carrying the ram had cleared the rubble they made straight for the middle of the inner wall where Cato and Macro had taken their position.

'All right!' Macro shouted at the men on either side. 'When I give the command, on your feet. Save your javelins for the men carrying the ram.'

He held his hand out for a javelin, and turned back to Cato as his friend hefted the shaft of his own weapon. 'Ready?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Second Illyrian! Up and at 'em!' Macro rose behind his shield, Cato at his side, and then the rest of the men. Below them, the men at the ram glanced up, but did not hesitate as they lumbered on. Macro raised his arm, balanced the javelin and took aim with the iron head, before he hurled it with all his strength.The weapon flew towards the man at the head of the party carrying the ram, but he saw it and ducked to one side so that the javelin missed him and tore through the forearm of the man behind. Macro swore and reached back for another javelin. Even as he had missed, many of his men had not, and several of the attackers went down, pierced by the lethal iron heads of the weapons. As soon as they fell, replacements rushed up from the dense mass behind and took their place at the ropes that had been fastened round the timber shaft. The reappearance of the Romans above the breastwork provoked the slingers to renew their furious bombardment and there was a sharp cry from the auxiliary standing next to Cato as he was struck in the face with a dull crack. The auxiliary dropped his javelin and let his shield drop for a moment and was immediately hit in the shoulder, the impact driving him round as his knees buckled. Cato could not spare him any help as he hurled his second javelin and turned back to the men behind the wall for another without waiting to see if his throw had been true.

'Get that man to the medics!'

Hands grasped the injured auxiliary and hauled him off the fighting platform. An instant later another man had taken his place, javelin raised and ready to throw. On the other side of the wall, the ground was strewn with wounded and dead, but the survivors had reached the wall and, as someone shouted the time, they swung the ram back and then forward with all their might. Cato felt the platform quake beneath his feet and a section of the breastwork in front of him fell away.

'Get them!' he shouted to his men desperately. 'Get them!'

The auxiliaries responded to the order with a frenzy of hurled javelins that struck down so many men that the enemy could no longer hold the ram and it sank to the ground, until more Judaeans rushed forward, snatched up the rope holds and swung the ram back, and forwards into the wall. This time the impact nearly knocked Cato and Macro off their feet and another large chunk of the makeshift wall collapsed. Macro grabbed Cato's arm and pulled him down behind the breastwork.

'The wall's going to give way soon. Get down and get some men ready to hold the breach. You have to keep them out. Go!'

Cato jumped down from the fighting platform. Glancing back as he felt another blow from the ram he saw loose chunks of stone leap from the wall. He turned back to the reserve force, and became aware that a line of casualties was being treated by medical orderlies by the side of the nearest barracks block. He turned to the closest optio. 'What are the wounded doing here? Get them to the hospital.'

The optio shook his head.'Can't, sir.The fires have cut us off from the centre of the fort.They have to be treated here.'

Cato looked beyond the optio, down the street between the barracks blocks. At the end of the buildings flames and smoke barred his view. Just then a couple of men from Centurion Parmenion's fire-fighting party emerged from the smoke and bent over coughing. They carried smouldering mats in their hands and a moment later they went back to try to beat the flames out. Cato turned back to the optio.

'Find Centurion Parmenion. Tell him he has to clear a way through. I don't care how he does it, but it must be done, or we're going to be caught between the fire and the enemy.' Cato thrust the optio on his way and turned to the other auxiliaries standing to behind the wall.

'Reserve units! On me!'

The men hurried over and formed up in a solid column, shields to the front and javelins now grounded and angled forward, ready to serve as spears. In front of them the wall shook and showered chunks of rock on to the ground under another blow from the ram. On the fighting platform Macro was desperately ushering the men away from the collapsed breastwork so that they would not be caught in the falling masonry when the ram breached the wall.The next blow came, and another, and then after a slight delay the wall fell outwards in a rush of debris and a swirling cloud of dust. Cato clenched his hand tightly round the shaft of his javelin and raised it towards the gap in the inner wall that was wide enough for two men to get through at a time.

'Forward!' he shouted, and the reserve tramped towards the gap, keeping pace as their shields rose and the tips of their javelins were lowered towards the enemy.The first of the Judaeans burst through the red-tinted cloud of dust, his battle cry dying on his lips as he fell straight on to the points of two of the auxiliaries to the side of Cato. They ripped their weapons from the man's guts and closed on the gap in the wall, just as more men scrambled through it, screaming and waving their swords in the glow of the flames licking up into the night sky above the fort. For an instant there was a gap of a spear's length between the two sides and then the Judaeans were pressed up against the broad oval Roman shields, hammering away at them with the pommels of their swords, or slashing at any part of the defenders that came within reach of their blades. The first rank of auxiliaries could not wield their javelins in the crush and thrust them back to the men behind before drawing their swords and hacking and thrusting at the enemy before them. Those in the second and third ranks held their javelins overhead and stabbed at the faces in the front rank of the enemy horde trying to force its way through the breach.

Above the rasp and scrape of weapons and the grunts and shouts of the men packed around him, Cato heard Macro's voice shout a warning to the men still on the wall.

'Ladders! They're bringing ladders up! Draw swords!'

Cato's awareness of the fight raging on either side of the breach suddenly faded as he felt the point of a blade slice into his calf. He groaned with pain and rage through gritted teeth and glanced down. A small, lithe boy had dropped low and squeezed under his shield, even though he risked being trampled to death. He had a short curved dagger in his hand and drew it back to strike again at Cato's leg.Without a thought, Cato slammed the bottom rim of his shield into the back of the boy's neck. The child spasmed, dropped the knife and slumped to the ground. Before Cato's mind could even register that he had felled a child, a horribly scarred face appeared at the top of his shield, and a point of a levelled sword flickered forwards. Cato just had time to turn his head aside and the sword struck his cheek guard and was deflected over his shoulder. For an instant Cato was dazed by the blow, but by the time the white splashes had faded from his vision one of his men had sliced almost through the man's arm and he fell away with a scream. Cato shook his head to try to clear the dizziness and pushed forward again, ramming his shield into the tightly packed press of bodies trying to force their way into the fort. There was no longer any room for any general exchange of blows as the men from both sides were crushed against each other by the pressure of the rear ranks and the struggle became simply a question of strength. Cato leaned his shoulder into the back of his shield and braced his legs and shoved against the enemy.

On the fighting platform Macro looked down into the breach and was relieved to see that the Judaeans were being held back for now. The wavering crest of a centurion in the heart of the struggle showed that Cato still lived and was leading his men from the front. Then Macro snatched his eyes away from the breach and glanced back into the heart of the fort. Fires were raging all around the fight for the inner wall and even as Centurion Parmenion and his men were busy trying to extinguish the flames fresh incendiary arrows and clay pots of inflammables continued to cross the wall in high flaring arcs before plunging down and adding to the blaze. The men around Macro were in danger of being caught between the flames and the force assaulting the breach. There was only one thing to be done, Macro decided grimly. They must hold the inner wall at all costs, and then drive the enemy off so that they could turn their efforts towards fighting the fires, before the Judaeans could summon up the courage to make another attempt to break in.

On either side of the breach the enemy were trying to throw their assault ladders up against the breastwork. Each time the arms of the ladders slapped against the walls the auxiliaries frantically tried to thrust them back, before the first of the attackers could swarm up the rungs and fight his way over the wall. Directly in front of Macro, two roughly hewn shafts of wood appeared and he sprang towards the wall, shield raised and sword held ready. An instant later a turbaned head appeared, the metal spike of a conical helmet protruding from the cloth. Dark eyes glared at Macro, and the man hissed through clenched teeth as he climbed another rung and paused to take a swing at the Roman officer with the heavy sword in his spare hand. Macro swept his blade across to block the blow and then punched the heavy brass pommel into the man's face, knocking him cold, and he fell back on to the men at the base of the ladder, dropping his weapon at Macro's feet. At once Macro thrust the ladder away from the wall, then glanced to his left and saw an enemy atop another ladder battling it out with a legionary. He turned, stepped towards the ladder and slammed the point of his sword into the man's chest. The impact thudded down Macro's arm and the man died with an explosive grunt as the blow drove the air from his lungs. Macro wrenched the sword free and the body tumbled down the rungs.

There was no immediate threat and Macro looked round again and saw that the auxiliaries were still holding the enemy back. They had not been able to gain a foothold anywhere on the wall and Cato had them stalled in the breach of the inner wall. Now was the time to break their will. Macro's toe stubbed against a loose rock on the fighting platform and he glanced down at it in anger, then smiled. He sheathed his bloody sword and snatched the rock up. Taking quick aim he hurled it into the mob pressing up against Cato and his men. The rock struck a man on the side of the head and his eyes rolled up and he slumped back as he lost consciousness, blood coursing from the tear in his scalp. Macro snatched up another rock, from the wall this time, and hurled it into the crowd. He looked across the gap to a handful of auxiliaries staring forward, waiting to be attacked, while the ladder parties were trying to assault the wall a little further away.

'You men!' Macro bellowed across the gap and they turned to him at once, conditioned to the imperative tone of the parade ground. 'Use rocks, javelins, whatever you can get your hands on and hit them. Like this!'

Macro looked down, saw the enemy's sword, grabbed it and hurled it into the mob, grinning with satisfaction as the blade struck another attacker in the shoulder. The auxiliaries began to pluck loose chunks of masonry from the wall and rained them down on to the heads of the enemy packed helplessly below them. It was impossible to miss, and the Judaeans could only watch as the Romans picked them off in a killing frenzy. A few of them tried to hurl stones back but were thwarted by the men crowding around them. At last those in the less compact part of the crowd outside the breach began to give way.At once the pressure of the back ranks eased and Cato and his men began to creep forward, heaving their shoulders against the insides of their shields. As the pressure in front of them eased they increased their pace, bearing the attackers back into and through the breach. As the crest of Cato's helmet appeared on the far side of the inner wall and then more Romans appeared, a low moan of despair rose up from the enemy ranks. They began to back away, even as the more resolute of their comrades screamed at them to keep fighting. But once the contagion of fear and uncertainty spread there was no stopping it, and the enemy fell back from the inner wall, clambering awkwardly up the rubble slope and out of the fort.

As they retreated, Cato seized the chance to press home the advantage, and waved his troops on.

'They're running for it! Get after them! Cut 'em down!'

The men poured out of the breach behind him and quickly spread out across the body-strewn area in front of the wall as they chased after the enemy. Moments ago the Judaeans had been pressing home their attack and now they were fleeing for their lives. Cato was shocked by the sudden reversal in the tide of the battle, and then he regained control of himself and ran forward with his men, chasing the enemy back up the rubble slope. He reached the crest and paused at the sight of the enemy streaming away from the fort like rats in the loom of the flames from the fort and the torches of the enemy lines. He could not risk this brief moment of victory rushing to his men's heads, or they would be annihilated. Quickly he sheathed his sword and cupped a hand to his mouth.

'Second Illyrian!' he bellowed as loud as he could. 'Second Illyrian, on me! Back inside the fort! Now!'

The nearest men heard and turned to respond, reluctantly giving up the chance to slaughter more of the enemy. A few others carried on a few paces before their blood rage faded and they retreated towards the fort. But a handful, maddened with battle rage, charged on and were lost amid the dark shadows of the Judaean ranks. Cato waited for the last of his men to clamber down the rubble slope, then turned to follow them, ducking as a slingshot zipped close overhead. Macro was waiting for him in front of the breach, grinning.

'I tell you, Cato, you're losing it. A few more wild charges like that and I'm sending you into the arena. You'd scare any gladiator out of his skin.'

Cato felt himself blush, instantly angry that he had made himself look so foolhardy.

'Oh, come now.' Macro clapped him on the shoulder. 'You and the lads did well. They won't be coming back again in a hurry.'

'Maybe not in a hurry,' Cato conceded. 'But they will be back.'

'Of course they will.' Macro nodded over his shoulder at the flames rising up from the buildings a short distance behind the inner wall. 'Meanwhile we've got other problems to worry about…'

07 The Eagle In the Sand


CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN | The Eagle In the Sand | CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE



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