'And just for a change it's snowing,' grumbled Cato as he looked up into the first flurry descending from the night sky. A cold wind was blowing in from the sea and brought a swirling mass of white flakes down on the men of the Fourth Cohort as they lay hidden in and around the ruined settlement. The clear weather of the last few days had left the ground dry and the snow began to settle at once, speckling the dark cloaks and shields of the legionaries as they shivered in silence.
'Won't last long, Optio,' Figulus whispered. 'Look there!' He indicated a clear patch of sky to one side of the dark looming clouds. Stars, and the dim crescent of a half-moon, glimmered faintly in an almost black sky.
It seemed a long time since night had fallen, and the tense anticipation of the men sharpened their senses as they waited for the raiders to fall into the trap. The Sixth Century was concealed in the ruins around the centre of the settlement. Peering over the waist-high stonework of a hut, Cato could not see any of the other men of the century but their presence was palpable. As was the presence of the dead piled up in the well close by. The image of the dead boy came unbidden into Cato's mind and his bitter appetite to exact a terrible revenge on the Druids and their followers was given a new edge.
'Where the hell are those bloody British bastards?' he muttered, then immediately clenched his jaw, furious with himself for displaying his impatience in front of his men. With the exception of Figulus, they had sat in silence, according to their orders. Most of them were seasoned veterans who had been posted to the Second Legion the previous autumn to bring the unit up to strength. Vespasian's unit had suffered grievous losses in the early battles of the campaign and had been fortunate enough to have first pick of the replacements from the reserves shipped in from Gaul.
'Want me to go and look, sir?' Figulus asked.
'No!' snapped Cato. 'Sit still, damn you. Not another sound.'
'Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.'
As the recruit shuffled off a short distance, Cato shook his head in despair. Left to his own devices that idiot would wreck the hurriedly laid plans of Centurion Hortensius. In the short time before the enemy column came within sight of the settlement, two centuries had been deployed in the settlement itself, the other four hidden in the defensive ditch, ready to close the circle that would snare the raiders. The cavalry scouts were concealed along the fringes of a nearby wood and had been detailed to emerge as soon as the signal to attack was given. They would then watch for and chase down any of the Britons that managed to escape from the settlement. Not that Cato intended to give them much chance of that.
The charred remains of the settlement were already disappearing under a thin mantle of snow. As Cato watched for the enemy, the loom of the fallen snow reminded him of the finest white silk, and suddenly he was thinking of Lavinia – young, fresh and filled with an infectious enthusiasm for life. Too soon the image faded and was replaced by her startled expression in death. Cato forced the vision from his mind and tried to focus on something else. Anything else. He was surprised, then, to find himself thinking about Boudica – her face fixed with one arched eyebrow in the gently mocking expression he had become peculiarly fond of. Cato smiled.
'Sir!' Figulus hissed, half rising to his feet. The other men of the section glared at him.
'What?' Cato looked round. 'Thought I told you to still your tongue.'
'Something's happening!' Figulus jabbed his finger towards the opposite side of the settlement.
'Shut your mouth!' Cato growled through clenched teeth, raising a fist to emphasise the order. 'Get down!'
Figulus squatted back under cover. Then, as cautiously as he could, Cato looked out on the open space before the well. His eyes strained for any sign of movement. The low moan of the wind frustrated his hearing, and so it was that in spite of the darkness he saw the enemy before he heard them. The dark outline of one of the ruins opposite shifted its shape, then a shadow slowly emerged from between two stone walls. A horseman. On the threshold of the open space he reined in, and sat quite still on his mount, as if sniffing the air for signs of danger. At length the horse whinnied and raised a hoof, scraping a dark gash through the snow. Then, with a clearly audible click of the tongue, the Briton urged his beast forward, towards the well. The dark shape moved slowly through the speckled swirl and Cato got a clear sense that the man's eyes were scouring the silent ruins. He hunched down behind the wall as far as he could go and still see over the blackened stonework. As the horseman reached the well, he reined in again, then edged alongside the rim for a better view down the well shaft. Cato's hand tightened on the handle of his sword, and for a moment the temptation to draw the weapon was almost unbearable. Then he forced himself to release his grip. The men around him were tense enough to jump into action at the slightest hint that he was preparing to rush into the attack. They must wait for the trumpet. Hortensius was watching from the top of a burial mound outside the settlement and would only give the signal to spring the trap when all the raiders had passed inside the ruins of the main gate. The orders were clear: no man must move an inch until the signal was given. Cato turned towards his men, silently waving them down. From the way they were crouched and holding their shields and javelins ready, he could see that they were ready to move.
By the well, the horseman casually leaned to the side, hawked up some phlegm and spat down the shaft. The cold ache for revenge inside Cato was momentarily fanned into a terrible burning rage that set the blood pounding through his veins. He fought back against the impulse, clenching his fists so tightly that he could feel the fingernails biting painfully into his palms. The Durotrigan seemed satisfied that no danger threatened him or his companions and casually turned his horse and trotted out of the settlement's centre back towards the main gate. Cato faced his men.
'The signal will be coming soon,' he told them, his voice low. 'Once that scout gives the all-clear, the Druids and their mates will march in through the gate. They're going to retrieve their loot and probably intend to spend the night here. They'll be tired and longing to get some rest. That'll make 'em careless.' Cato drew his sword and pointed it towards his men. 'Remember, lads…'
Some of the veterans could not help chuckling at being referred to as a lad by the young optio, but they were respectful of rank and quickly stilled their amusement. Cato drew a sharp breath to hide his annoyance.
'Remember, we go in hard. We've been ordered to take prisoners, but don't take any unnecessary risks to get them. You know how much the centurion hates having to write bereavement messages for the families back home. He's not likely to forgive you in a hurry if you get yourself killed.'
Cato's words produced the desired effect and the awful tension of waiting to fight was eased as the men chuckled again.
'Now then. On your feet, shields up and javelins ready'
The dark shapes of the men rose and amid the sweep of large snowflakes their ears strained to hear the trumpet signal above the low moan of the wind. But before the signal came, the first of the Britons appeared from the direction of the main gate. Men on foot, leading their horses and talking in contented tones now that their day's march had come to its end. They slowly emerged from the greater darkness of the burned buildings and gathered in the open space before the well. As Cato watched nervously, the raiders grew in number until over twenty of them were milling around, and still more were trudging out of the night. The champing and pawing of the horses mingled with the cheerful tones of the Britons and seemed unbearably loud after the long period of enforced silence. Cato feared his men might not hear the trumpet signal above the noise. Despite their stillness, he was acutely aware of their growing anxiety. If the signal did not come soon, the scattered men of the Sixth Century might be outnumbered by those they were set on ambushing.
There was a sudden harsh shout from the centre of the milling mass of raiders. A mounted man forced his way through and issued a string of orders. The Britons fell silent and at once the loose rabble turned into soldiers ready to act on the word of command. A handful of men assigned as horse holders began to take their charges in hand while the others formed up in front of the mounted man. To Cato's intense frustration, the best moment to launch an attack was slipping away. Unless Hortensius gave the signal immediately, the enemy might yet be sufficiently organised to offer effective resistance.
Even as he cursed the delay, Cato became aware of a man walking directly towards him. The optio silently lowered himself, staring anxiously at the outline of the stonework above his head as the Briton approached, stopped and fumbled with his cloak. There was a pause before a dull splashing sound caught the optio's ears. The Briton let out a long sigh of satisfaction as he relieved himself against the stone wall. Someone called out to him, and Cato heard the man laugh as he turned to answer, clumsily knocking the loose stones at the top of the ruined wall. A large rock tipped inward and toppled down towards Cato's head. Instinctively he ducked and the rock glanced off the side of his helmet with a dull metallic clang. The raider's head appeared above the wall, looking for the source of the unexpected sound. Cato held his breath, hoping that he and his men would not be seen. The Durotrigan warrior sucked his breath and yelled a warning to his comrades that split the darkness and carried above the other sounds with startling clarity.
'Get up!' Cato bellowed. 'Get 'em!'
Springing to his feet, he thrust his short sword at the dark shape of the Briton's face and felt the shock of impact travel down his arm as the raider's shrill scream rang in his ears.
'Use your javelins!' Macro's voice called out from nearby. 'Javelins first!'
The dark shapes of legionaries rose up from the ruin surrounding the Durotrigan raiders.
'Release javelins!' Macro bellowed. With grunted effort the men around Cato threw their spear arms forward at the low angle of point-blank range, and the long deadly shafts flew into the dense mass of the enemy. The thud and clatter of impact instantly gave way to the cries of wounded men and the high-pitched whinny of terrified horses struck by the vicious iron points of the javelins.
Cato and his men scrambled over the wall, short swords drawn and ready to thrust.
'Keep close to me!' Cato shouted, anxious to keep his men distinct from the Britons. Hortensius had drilled into his subordinates that their men must be kept under tight control during the ambush. The Roman army had a healthy aversion to fighting night actions, but this opportunity to trap and kill the enemy was too providential for even a by-the-book centurion like Hortensius to resist.
'Close up!' Macro shouted a short distance off, and the order was repeated by all the section leaders as little knots of legionaries closed in on the Britons. Behind their large rectangular shields the eyes of the Romans darted about, searching for the nearest exposed enemy body to thrust their short swords into. Cato blinked as a gust blew several large flakes into his face, momentarily obscuring his sight. A large shadow reared up in front of him. Fingers closed over the top his shield rim, inches from his face, and wrenched it to one side. Instinctively Cato thrust his arm forward, throwing his full weight behind it. The Briton's grip held firm and the bottom of the shield pivoted up so that it caught him a crunching blow between the legs. He groaned, eased his grip and began to double up. Cato smashed the pommel of his sword onto the back of the man's head to help him on his way. He stepped over the prone form, glancing round to make sure that his section was still with him. Behind their dark rectangular shields, the legionaries thrust forward on each side, fighting shoulder to shoulder as they cut down the struggling mass of Britons. There was no organised resistance to the ambush, the Britons simply fought to free themselves of their dead and wounded, and of the tangle of equipment and bent javelin shafts that encumbered them. Those who had broken free of this chaos desperately tried to smash a way through the closing ring of shields and deadly flickering blades of the Roman short swords. But very few escaped, and with a cold, ruthless efficiency the legionaries pressed forward, killing all before them.
Then, above the shouts and cries of men and the clatter and clash of weapons, a strident brass note carried across the settlement as, belatedly, Hortensius gave the signal for attack. To make best use of what was left of the element of surprise, Hortensius threw his men onto the dark column of British warriors entering the settlement. The loud roar of the cohort's battle cry swelled up on all sides and the Durotrigan raiding party stopped in its tracks, momentarily too stunned to react. The remaining centuries rose from the settlement's defence ditches and swarmed over the gleam of freshly fallen snow towards their enemy. The Druid leaders tried to rally their men and form them up to face the threat, but in no time the legionaries were in amongst them, quickly cutting the tribesmen to pieces.
With renewed fervour the Sixth Century dealt with the few remaining Britons still alive amid the carnage around the settlement's well. Cato's blade was wedged in the ribcage of one of the raiders and with a frustrated growl he stamped a boot down on the man's stomach and wrenched the sword free. Looking up, he just had time to jump back as the rearing head of a horse surged towards him, nostrils flaring and eyes wide with terror at the screams and clash of weapons that filled the night. Above the head of the horse loomed the silhouette of the warrior who had tried in vain to form his men up and fight the Romans. He brandished a long sword in one hand, raised high and clear of his frightened horse. He fixed his gaze on Cato and swung his blade with all his might. Cato went down on his knees and threw his shield up in the path of the sword. The blow landed with a shattering crash just above the shield boss and would have cut clean through had it not caught on the reinforced metal rim of the side nearest the horse. Instead, the blade stuck, and when the warrior tried to draw it back, he wrenched the shield back with it. Snarling in wild frustration, the man lashed out at Cato with his boot, connecting with the side of the optio's helmet. Cato was dazed for only a moment, then he stabbed his sword into the leggings above the boot. The Briton howled in anger and rage, and urged his horse to trample the Roman. Unused to horses in his civilian life, and with an infantryman's respect for the dangers posed by cavalry, Cato flinched away from the lethal hooves. But the press of legionaries behind him left no room for retreat. With all his might Cato wrenched his shield away from the Briton, and with a splintering crack, sword and shield parted. The Briton kicked his heels in and savagely jerked back on his reins, causing his beast to rear up, hooves thrashing dangerously. Cato rolled under the horse's belly, protecting his body with the badly damaged shield, and thrust his short sword up into the animal's vitals.
The horse struggled wildly to free itself of the blade, rearing back so far that it rolled over onto its back and crushed its rider. Before the Briton could try to free himself of the mortally wounded beast, a legionary sprang forward and finished him off with a quick stab to the throat.
'Figulus! See to the horse as well!' ordered Cato as he crept back from the flailing hooves of the stricken animal. The young legionary worked his way round to the head and opened an artery with a quick slash of his sword. Cato was back on his feet, glancing round to find a new enemy, but there were none. Most of the Britons were dead. A few of the wounded cried out, but they would be ignored until there was time to end their suffering with a merciful thrust. The rest had fled, running pell-mell through the remains of the settlement in a bid to escape the wicked blades of their attackers.
The legionaries were surprised at the speed with which they had overwhelmed the enemy, and for a moment they remained tense and crouched, ready to fight.
'Sixth Century! Form up!'
Cato saw the squat form of his centurion march off to one side of the pile of bodies by the well.
'Come on, lads! Form up! We're not on a fucking exercise! Move!'
The well-disciplined men responded instantly, hurrying over to their centurion, forming a small column on the snowy ground. Macro saw no gaps in the ranks and nodded with satisfaction. The enemy had had too little time to injure more than a handful of the men in Macro's century. He nodded a greeting at Cato as he took his place in front of the men.
'All right, Optio?'
Cato nodded, breathing heavily.
'Back towards the gate then, lads!' Macro shouted. He clapped Figulus on the shoulder. 'And don't spare the horses!'