As the snow billowed softly about them, the legionaries moved down the track towards the remains of the gate, from where the wind-muted sounds of battle drifted back to them. Cato noticed that the wind had slackened a little. Silvery patches were opening up in the clouds above to admit the light of the stars and the dim crescent moon. In the baleful glow reflecting off the blanket of snow, the fleeing shapes of the Britons could be seen amongst the ruins. For a moment Cato felt a welling up of rage and frustration at the sight. They might yet escape before the legionaries' thirst for revenge was slaked. Then Cato smiled grimly. Maybe he was the only one who desired to make the enemy pay for what he had seen in the well. Maybe the veterans marching down the track with him just saw the enemy in professional terms. A foe to be overcome and destroyed; no more, no less.
As they approached the ruined gateway, they could see a great dark mass of Durotrigan raiders surging around the ruins with little sense of order. Individual figures were scrambling along the remains of the earthen rampart, seeking a means of escape through the shattered wooden palisade and the iron cordon of the legionary skirmish line waiting beyond. A few of the raiders might escape, but only a few, Cato thought to himself with cold satisfaction.
'Halt!' Macro ordered. 'There they are, lads, ripe for killing. Keep close and make sure you look before you thrust. There's enough of 'em to go round without you having to kill any of our lads! Form line!'
While the front rank of the column stood still, the following files took position on each side until the century formed a line two men deep, across the ruins. As Cato waited for his centurion to give the order to advance, he noticed a small knot of Durotrigans break away from their comrades and slip into the shadows of some ruined huts.
'What is it?'
Cato thrust his sword arm out, pointing towards the huts with his blade. 'Over there. Some of them are making a break for it.'
'I see 'em. We can't have that,' Macro decided. 'You take half the men and see to them.'
'Cato, no heroics.' Macro had noted the dark mood that had possessed his optio since the lad had witnessed the grim horror inside the well and wanted it known that he would not tolerate any foolishness. 'Just hunt them down and then bring the men straight back.'
'I'll advance first. Once I'm clear, you can carry on.'
'Squads to my left… advance!'
With Macro setting the pace, the first five sections stepped forward, shields facing the enemy, short swords at the ready. The dark mass of the Britons shrank back from the approaching shield wall, and their cries of despair and panic reached a new pitch of terror as the silent line of Romans closed on them. A few of the more stout-hearted among the Durotriges broke free of the mob and stood, weapons raised, prepared to go down fighting, true to their warrior code. But they were too few to make any difference and were quickly overwhelmed and cut down. Moments later came the dull crash of shields and the ringing of swords as Macro and his men carved their way into the heaving mob.
Cato turned away and drew a deep breath of the cold air. 'The rest of you, follow me!'
He led the men around the fringe of the fighting by the gate, into the winding lane down which the small group of Durotriges had disappeared. Here the huts of the settlement were not so badly gutted by fire. Chest-high walls of stone and the skeletal remains of timber frames rose up all around them as they pursued the enemy at the trot. Their leather harnesses creaked and their scabbards and loin guards chinked as the snow softly crunched under their boots. Ahead of him the path was disturbed by the passage of the Durotriges only moments before, and they had left a clear trail for the Romans to follow. It quickly became obvious to Cato why the small party had made off in this direction as he recalled the storage pits that had been uncovered earlier. They were after whatever loot they could carry with them.
The narrow lane turned a sharp corner and a faint low hiss warned Cato to duck under his shield just in time. The double-headed axe glanced off the rim of his shield and straight into the face of the legionary immediately behind him. With a sickening crunch the heavy blade took the top of the man's helmet and head clean off. He didn't even cry out as he fell back, splashing bloodied brains over his nearest comrades. A huge Durotrigan warrior rose above Cato. The man let out a savage cry as he saw the damage his weapon had wreaked. The blade continued its arc and buried itself deep in a wooden beam. The Durotrigan warrior snarled, then yanked the axe free with an explosive gasp at the effort. The action left him exposed for a brief moment and Cato thrust his short sword into the man's midriff and felt the solid impact of a good strike. But instead of falling back mortally wounded, the huge Briton just seemed to be further enraged by the blow. He bellowed out a war cry and moved out from the shadow of the wall he had been using for concealment to stand astride the lane where he had room to wield his broadaxe freely. He swung it in a double-handed loop and dared the Romans to approach him.
For a moment Cato did shrink back, and his men with him, as the blade hissed through the air. The optio regarded it with horror, well imagining the bone-shattering impact it would have on any man foolish enough to venture within its sweeping arc. Every instant he delayed Cato knew that the Briton's companions would be making good their escape. But he was seized in the grip of an icy dread that sent shivers rippling up his backbone and turned his guts to water. He was shocked to find himself shaking. Every fibre of his being told him to turn and run and leave his men to deal with this terrifying giant of a man. And with that thought came a wave of bitter self-contempt and revulsion.
Cato tensed, watching the sweep of the axe, waiting for it to pass him by. As it swooped past his shield, he gritted his teeth and threw himself on the Briton, thrusting his sword into the man's body once again. The man grunted at the impact then raised his knee and kicked out at Cato. His boot slammed into Cato's thigh and almost toppled him. Cato struck again, this time thrusting his shield into the man's face while he twisted the blade inside his opponent, trying for a vital organ. Blood, hot and sticky, poured over his sword grip and hand, yet the Durotrigan warrior still kept coming, bellowing with pain and defiance. He dropped the axe and grabbed at Cato's face and throat with his huge powerful hands. The optio gasped in agony as his windpipe was crushed in the Briton's grip. With one arm trapped by his shield strap, Cato let go of his sword and snatched at the hand clenched round his throat. Other men were alongside him now, smashing their shields into the giant and thrusting their swords in from all sides. He took it all, growling from deep in his chest, a sound of pure animal rage, and still he kept his grip on his foe, throttling him. Cato, close to blacking out, thought he must surely die, but suddenly the grip slackened. Dizzily he heard the wet thud of sword strikes as the legionaries brutally finished off the Briton.
With a deep rasping sigh, the man slumped to his knees, his hands fell away from Cato's throat and dropped to his side. One of the legionaries warily kicked him in the chest and he fell back on the disturbed snow, quite dead.
'You all right, Optio?'
Cato was leaning against the stonework, gasping for air as blood pounded through his neck. He shook his head to try and clear the dizziness.
'I'll live,' he croaked painfully. 'Have to keep after the others… Let's go.'
Someone handed him the ivory-handled sword bequeathed to him by Centurion Bestia, and Cato continued up the lane. The terror of another ambush weighed heavily against the desire to rush forward and yet he forced himself to run, determined not to let his men realise how much he felt like a scared little boy lost in the midst of a terrifying nightmare. Every shadow on either side of the lane ahead became the darkest depths of hell from which unspeakable horrors threatened to emerge.
Then the lane turned a corner, and there ahead lay the storage pits. The covers had been pulled back, and beyond the pits a handful of the enemy were still in view, weighed down by booty and struggling to catch up with their comrades who had placed good sense above greed.
'Get 'em!' rasped Cato.
The legionaries ran forward in open order. This fight would be man to man – the shield wall would not be necessary. Shouting the legion's battle cry, 'Up the Augusta!' they fell on the Britons as if they were hunting rats in a granary. Immediately ahead of Cato a Roman caught up with a Durotrigan warrior who was dragging a huge bundle through the snow. The Briton sensed the danger behind him and turned, raising an arm in terror as the short sword rose up above him. Cato found himself cursing the legionary's lapse of training – the short sword was designed for stabbing, not cutting, and the man really should know better than to let his bloodlust overwhelm his training. Bad as a fucking one-day-wonder recruit. The expletive jumped unbidden into his mind, and shocked him for an instant, until he realised with a wry smile, just how far he had become immersed in the military world.
The Briton screamed as the short sword hacked through his forearm and shattered the bone so that the limb flopped like a freshly caught fish.
As Cato ran past the legionary, he shouted, 'Use your weapon properly!'
The legionary nodded guiltily then turned back to finish off his shrieking victim with the point of his sword.
Cato passed more bodies sprawled in the snow, their booty scattered around them – dark bundles of cloth from which spilled silver goblets and plates, pieces of personal jewellery and, bizarrely, a pair of carved wooden dolls. A Durotrigan warrior no doubt looking for a gift to carry home to his children, Cato guessed. He was startled by the thought that the men who had wrought such terrible destruction on this settlement and were capable of massacring even its youngest infants might have children of their own. He looked up from the dolls and saw dim shapes slipping through the remains of the palisade, pursued by Romans panting hoarsely from the chase and excitement of battle.
Cato clambered up the steep turf slope to the roughly hewn wooden stakes of the palisade. On the far side, spread out across the ditch and the white landscape beyond, were the dark shapes of those who had managed to escape the slaughter of their comrades back in the settlement. A number of his men joined him, anxious to get after the enemy.
'Hold still!' Cato managed to cry out hoarsely, despite the pain in his throat. Some of the men continued forward, and Cato had to shout again, straining to make his order louder. 'Hold!'
'Sir!' someone protested. 'They're getting away!'
'I can bloody well see that for myself!' Cato cursed angrily. 'There's nothing we can do. We'd never catch them now. Have to hope the cavalry scouts see 'em.'
Discipline and good sense halted the men. Chests heaving from their exertions, and steamy breath whipping around their heads, they watched the enemy flee into the darkness. Cato was shaking, partly from the cold wind that blew even more keenly up on the ramparts, and partly from the release of nervous tension.
Had so little time passed since they had rushed the enemy in the centre of the settlement? Forcing himself to concentrate, he realised that the whole affair could only have lasted little more than quarter of an hour. No sounds of fighting carried on the wind, so the skirmish at the gate must be over as well. All finished with as quickly as that. He recalled the first ever battle he had fought in. A village in Germania, not so very different to this one. But that desperate fight had lasted an afternoon and through the night until the first rays of dawn. Short though this fight might have been, the same burning exultation at having survived fired his veins and made him feel somehow older and wiser.
His throat ached abominably, and it was an agony to swallow or move his head too far in any direction. That huge Durotrigan warrior had almost done for him.