'Back to your units.' Hortensius gave the order quietly. 'Tell them to prepare to advance. As soon as I give the signal.'
The officers trotted over to their centuries. Cato glanced over at the Druids waiting for Hortensius's response to their offer. They'd get their answer soon enough, he reflected, and found himself desperately hoping the cohort would manage to kill them before they could wheel their mounts and escape.
The men of the Sixth Century had forgotten their exhaustion and listened intently as Macro and his optio passed down the line, quietly readying the men for the order to advance. Even in the dying light Cato could see the determined glint in the eyes of the legionaries as they checked their helmet ties and made sure of their grip on their shields and javelins. This would be a straight fight, unlike the mad rush of the trap they had sprung in the ruined settlement. Neither side would have the advantage of surprise. Nor would tactical skill play a part. Only training, equipment and raw courage would determine the outcome. The Fourth Cohort would cut its way through the Britons, or be cut to pieces in the attempt.
The Sixth Century formed the left-hand side of the front face of the box formation. To its right was the First Cohort, and three other cohorts formed the sides and rear of the box. The last cohort acted as reserve, with half its strength guarding the prisoners. Macro and Cato moved to the centre of the front rank of their century and waited for Hortensius to give the order. On the track ahead of them the Druids were now aware that something was amiss. They craned their necks to peer over the wall of shields for any sign of their comrades. The leader kicked his heels and urged his mount closer to the legionaries. He raised one hand to cup his mouth.
'Romans! Give us your response! Now, or die!'
'Fourth Cohort!' Hortensius roared. 'Advance!'
The cohort stepped forward, booted feet crunching over the frozen snow as they closed on the silent mass of the Durotriges waiting for them. As the wall of shields moved forward, the Druids wheeled their mounts and galloped back to the safety of their followers. Behind the metal trim of his shield, Cato's eyes scanned the dark figures barring the cohort's route, and then looked longingly beyond them to where the track led towards the safety of the Second Legion's camp. His right hand tightened its grip round the handle of his sword and the blade rose to the horizontal poise.
As the distance closed between the two sides, the Druids barked out orders to the Durotrigan warriors. With a crack of reins and cries of instruction and encouragement to their horses, the charioteers on the flanks began to move further out, ready to charge down on any gaps that opened in the Roman formation. Axles squeaked and the heavy wheels rumbled as the chariots moved off under the anxious gaze of the legionaries. Cato tried to reassure himself that they had little to fear from these outdated weapons. As long as the Roman lines held firm, the chariots could be regarded as little more than an unpleasant distraction.
As long as the formation held firm.
'Hold the line steady!' Macro shouted, as some of the more nervous men in the century began to outpace their comrades. Chastened, the men adjusted their stride and lines evened out to present an unbroken wall of shields to the enemy. The Durotriges were no more than a hundred paces away now and Cato could pick out the individual features of the men he would kill or be killed by in the next few moments. Most of the enemy's heavy infantry wore chain mail over their brightly coloured tunics and leggings. Shaggy beards and pigtails hung down beneath polished helmets and each man carried a war spear or long sword. Although they had been organised into a discreet unit, it was clear from the unevenness of their line of shields that they had been poorly trained in formation drill.
Cato was aware of a strange whirring sound rising above the crunch of snow and chink of equipment, and glanced to the light infantry on each side of the enemy centre.
'Slingers!' someone shouted out from the Roman ranks.
Centurion Hortensius reacted at once. 'First two ranks! Shields high and low!'
Cato adjusted his grip and crouched slightly so that the bottom rim of his shield protected his shins. The legionary immediately behind raised his shield above Cato. The action was repeated all along the first two ranks so that the front of the Roman formation was sheltered from the coming volley. A moment later and the whirring abruptly rose in pitch and was accompanied by a whipping sound. A deafening rattle filled the air as the deadly volley of shot struck the Roman shields. Cato flinched as a corner of his shield was hit by a lead shot. But the Roman line did not falter and remorselessly advanced as the slingshot continued to crash off the shields with a sound like a thousand hammer blows. Yet several cries told of shots that had found their targets. Those men who fell out of line were quickly replaced by the legionaries in the next rank and their writhing forms left to be scooped up by a handful of men acting as casualty bearers and dumped in one of the cohort's wagons, rumbling along inside the square.
Thirty yards out from the heaving mass of the enemy line, Hortensius ordered the cohort to halt.
'Front ranks! Ready javelins!' Those who still had a javelin to throw after the fight in the settlement swept their right arms back, planting their feet apart in readiness for the next order. 'Javelins, release!'
In the dying light it appeared as if a fine black veil rose up from the Roman ranks and arced down onto the milling mass of the Durotriges. A shattering clatter and crash was quickly followed by screams as the heavy iron heads of the Roman javelins punched through shields, armour and flesh.
'Draw swords!' bellowed Hortensius above the din. A metallic rasp sounded from all sides of the box formation as the legionaries drew their short stabbing swords and presented the tip to the enemy. Almost at once the harsh blare of war horns sounded from behind the Durotriges and with a great roar of battle rage they swept forward.
'Charge!' Hortensius cried out, and with shields held firmly to the front and swords held level at the waist, the Roman front lines threw themselves at the enemy. Cato's heart pounded against his ribs and time appeared to slow – enough for him to imagine being killed or terribly wounded by one of the men whose savage faces were mere feet away. An icy sensation flowed through his guts before he filled his lungs and gave vent to a wild cry of his own, determined to destroy everything in his path.
The two lines hurtled against each other with a rolling clatter of spear, sword and shield that sounded like a huge wave crashing on a stony shore. Cato felt his shield jar as it thumped into flesh. A man gasped as the air was driven out of his lungs and then again in agony as the legionary next to Cato drove his sword into the Briton's armpit. The man dropped and Cato kicked him to one side as he in turn thrust towards the unprotected chest of a Briton wielding his axe above Macro's skull. The Briton saw the blow coming and threw himself back from the point of Cato's sword so that it merely tore open his shoulder instead of dealing a mortal blow. He did not cry out as blood poured down his chest. Nor did he cry out when Macro rammed his sword in so ferociously that it went straight through and burst bloodily from the small of the man's back. A startled expression flashed onto his ruined face, then he fell amongst the other dead and injured littering the churned-up snow, now stained with blood.
'Press forwards, lads!' Cato shouted. 'Keep it close, and stick it to 'em!'
Beside him Macro smiled approvingly. The optio was finally acting like a soldier in battle. No longer coy about shouting out encouragement to men far older and more experienced than him, and cool-headed enough to know how the cohort must fight in order to survive.
The heavily armed Britons hurled themselves on the Roman shield wall with a fanatical savagery that horrified Cato. On either side of the box formation, the more lightly armed natives closed in on the flanks, screaming their battle cries and urged on by the Druids. The priests of the Dark Moon stood a little behind the fighting line, pouring curses on the invaders and calling upon the tribesmen to sweep this small knot of Romans from the British soil they defiled with their eagle standards. But religious fervour and blind courage provided no protection for their unarmoured breasts. They fell in large numbers before the lethal thrusts of swords designed to make short work of such foolish heroics.
At length the British heavy infantry became aware of the grievous losses that were piling up at the front of the armoured square, and still the Roman line remained unbroken and unwavering. The Durotriges began to shrink back from the terrible blades that stabbed out at them from between shields that all but hid their enemy from view.
'We've got 'em!' Macro bellowed. 'Forward! Keep forcing them back!'
The Durotriges, brave as they were, had never before encountered such a ruthless and efficient foe. It was like fighting a great iron machine, designed and built for war alone. It rolled forward without pity, impressing upon all who stood in its path that there could be only one outcome for those who dared to defy it.
A cry of anguish and fear grew in the throats of the Durotriges and flowed through their milling ranks as they realised the Romans were prevailing. Men were no longer willing to throw themselves uselessly at this moving square of impenetrable shields that was cleaving its way through ranks of swords and spears. As the Durotriges at the front recoiled, the men in the rear began to step back, at first just to keep their balance, and then their feet picked up speed, as if of their own will – carrying them away from the enemy. More men followed and scores, then hundreds of Britons peeled away from the dense mass of their comrades and fled down the track.
'Don't fucking stop!' Hortensius roared from the front rank of the First Century. 'Keep advancing. If we stop we're dead! Forward!'
A less experienced army would have drawn up right there, flushed with excitement at having bested their enemy, trembling with the thrill of having survived and awed by the carnage they had wrought. But the men of the legions continued their advance behind a solid shield wall, swords poised and ready to strike. Most had grown into manhood under the iron will of a military discipline that had stripped away the soft malleable material of humanity and fashioned them into deadly fighters, wholly subordinate to the will and word of command. After only the briefest pause to dress their lines, the men of the Fourth Cohort steadily advanced down the track leading through the vale.
The sun had settled beyond the horizon and the snow took on a bluish tinge as dusk closed in. On either side, the slopes were loosely covered by the broken ranks of the Durotriges, watching in silence as the square trudged past. Here and there their leaders, and the Druids, were busy reforming their men by force of will and cruelly wielded blows from the flat of their blades. War horns brayed out their rallying cries and the warriors gradually began to recover their wits.
'No slacking!' Macro ordered. 'Keep up the pace!' The first enemy units to re-form began to march after the cohort. The square formation was designed for protection, not speed, and the lightly armed units easily outpaced the Romans. As night fell, the men of the Fourth Cohort were uncomfortably aware of the dark mass of men flowing past them along the slopes in a bid to head off the legionaries once again. And this time, Cato reflected, the Durotriges would have prepared a more effective line of attack.
Night marches are difficult in the best of circumstances. The ground is largely invisible and lays plenty of traps for the unwary foot: a concealed rabbit hole or entrance to a sett can easily twist an ankle or break a bone. The unevenness of the ground quickly threatens to break up a formation and its officers have to move up and down the ranks tirelessly to ensure that a steady pace is maintained and that no gaps appear in the unit. Beyond these immediate difficulties lies the larger problem of route finding. With no sun to guide the men and, in overcast conditions, no stars, there is little more than faith to act upon in setting the line of march. For the men of the Fourth Cohort the problems of night marching were particularly acute. Snow had buried the track they had marched south on some days earlier and Hortensius could only follow the course of the vale, warily assessing each dip and rise in case the cohort was blundering off course. On either side, the sounds of the unseen Britons wore down the exhausted nerves of the men as they dragged their feet forwards.
Cato was more tired than he had ever been in his life. Every sinew in his body cried out for rest. His eyelids were almost too heavy to keep open and the cold was no longer the numbing distraction it had been earlier in the day. Now it fuelled the desire to slip into a deep, warm sleep. Insiduously, his mind entertained the idea and slowly drained the resolve that strove against the demand of every aching muscle for rest. He withdrew his attention from the world around him, away from watching the ranks of legionaries and the danger of the enemy lurking invisibly beyond. The monotonous pace of the advance aided the process and at length he succumbed to the desire to shut his eyes, just for a moment, just to take away the awful stinging sensation for a moment. He blinked them open to make sure of his bearings, and then they closed again, almost of their own will. Slowly his chin dipped towards his chest…
'On your fucking feet!'
Cato's eyes snapped open, his body filled with the chilling tremor that comes with being forcibly wrenched from sleep. Someone held his arm in a tight, painful grip.
'You were falling asleep,' Macro whispered, not wanting his men to overhear. He dragged Cato forward. 'Nearly fell on top of me. Happens again and I'll cut your balls off. Now, stay awake.'
Cato shook his head, reached down for a handful of snow and wiped it across his face, welcoming the restorative effect of its icy sting. He fell into place alongside his centurion, feeling ashamed of his physical weakness. Even though he was at the end of his endurance he must not show it, not in front of the men. Never again, he promised himself. Cato forced himself to keep his attention focused on the men as the cohort continued to trudge forward. More regularly than before he moved up and down the dark lines of his men, snapping out orders to those who showed any sign of lagging.
Several hours into the night, Cato became aware that the vale was narrowing. The dark slopes on either side, only fractionally darker than the sky above, began to rise more steeply.
'What's that ahead?' Macro suddenly asked. 'There. Your eyes are better than mine. What do you reckon?'
Across the snow stretching out in front of the cohort an indistinct line extended across the vale. There was some movement there, and as Cato strained his eyes to try and make out more detail, a low whirring sound filled the freezing night air.
Cato's warning came moments before the slingshot came whipping out of the darkness and struck the cohort with a splintering clatter. The aim was understandably poor and much of the volley passed over the legionaries or struck the ground short of the target. Even so, a number of cries and a scream sounded above the din.
'Cohort, halt!' shouted Centurion Hortensius. The cohort drew up, each man shrinking into the shelter of his shield as the whirring started again. The next volley was as ragged as the first and the only casualties this time came from the huddle of prisoners under guard in the centre of the formation.
The order was followed by a rasping clattering chorus from the dark lines of the legionaries. Then the cohort was still again.
The formation rippled forward a moment before settling into a more measured stride. From the front rank of the Sixth Century, Cato could now make out more detail of what lay ahead. The Durotriges had constructed a rough barrier of felled trees and branches that stretched across the narrow floor of the vale and a little way up the slope on each side. Behind this light cover swarmed a dark horde of men. The slingers were no longer shooting in volleys and the whirring of slings and sharp crack of shot were almost constant. Cato flinched from the sound and ducked his head below the rim of his shield as the cohort advanced on the barrier. There were more cries from the ranks of legionaries as the range decreased and the enemy slingers were able to aim more accurately. The gap between the cohort and the felled trees steadily closed until at last the men of the front rank came up against the tangle of branches. On the other side, the enemy had stopped using their slings and now brandished spears and swords, screaming their war cries into the Romans' faces.
'Halt! Clear the barricades away! Pass the word!' Macro shouted, aware that his order would barely carry above the noise.
The legionaries quickly sheathed their swords and began pulling at the branches, desperately tugging and shaking the tangle loose. As the men set about the Durotriges' makeshift defences, a wild roar of voices from behind the century carried across the vale. Cato glanced back and saw a dark mass swarming across the snow towards the two centuries at the rear of the square formation. Hortensius bellowed out the order for those centuries to turn and face the threat.
'Nice trap!' Macro grunted as he heaved a thick limb free of the barricade and fed it back to the men behind him. 'Get rid of this stuff as quick as you can!'
As the Durotriges crashed into the rear of the formation, the legionaries at the front tore at the barrier, driven to desperation by the knowledge that unless the cohort could continue to advance, it would be trapped and annihilated. Slowly, the barrier was wrenched apart and small gaps opened that a man could squeeze through. Macro quickly passed the word that no one was to take the enemy on single-handed. They must wait for his order. Some of the Durotriges, however, were not so prudent and dashed forward to get at the Romans the moment an opening appeared. They paid dearly for this impetuousness and were cut down the moment they reached the Romans. But in death they at least delayed the legionaries in their work. At last there were a number of openings large enough for several men to get through and Macro shouted an order to draw swords and form up at the gaps.
'Cato! Get down to the left flank and take charge. Once I give the order, get through and form the men back into line as soon as you can on the far side. Got that?'
'Away with you!'
The optio eased his way back through the ranks of the century and then ran down to the left-hand corner of the formation.
'Make way there! Make way!' Cato shouted, pushing his way to the front. He saw an opening in the barricade, slightly to one side. 'Close up on me! 'When the centurion gives the order, we go through together!'
The legionaries bunched up on either side of their optio and joined shields so that the enemy would have little chance to strike at them as they forced their way through. Then they waited, swords poised, ears straining for Macro's order above the war cries and screams of the Durotriges.
'Sixth Century!' The centurion sounded very distant to Cato. 'Advance!'
'Now!' Cato shouted. 'Stay with me!'
Pushing his shield out a little way to absorb any impact, Cato led off, making sure that the others kept close and retained the integrity of the shield wall. Although the larger branches had been cleared away, the ground beneath was littered with twisted remnants of wood and every step had to be taken carefully. As soon as the Durotriges became aware of the Roman thrust, their shouting reached a new pitch of rage and they hurled themselves onto the legionaries. Cato felt someone slam into his shield and quickly thrust his sword, sensing a glancing contact with his foe before he whipped his blade back ready to deliver the next blow. On both flanks, and behind, the men of the century pressed through, thrusting deeper into the dark mass of Britons on the far side of the barricade.
The Druids had obviously counted on the volleys of slingshot and the barricade to stop the Roman advance and had manned it with their light infantry while the remains of the heavy infantry assaulted the rear of the Roman square. The well-armoured legionaries easily cut a series of wedges into the enemy's ranks and as more legionaries pushed through the barricade, they spread out on either side. The lightly armed Durotriges were totally outclassed. Even their reckless courage could do little to effect the outcome. Before long the leading centuries of the Roman square had formed a continuous line on the far side of the ruined barricade.
Once before, the Britons had faced the relentless killing machine of Rome, and once again they broke before it, streaming away into the night. As he watched them flee, Cato lowered his sword and found that he was shaking. Whether from fear or exhaustion he no longer knew. Strangely, his sword hand was so tightly clenched round the handle that it was almost unbearably painful. Yet it took all the force of will he could summon to make his hand slacken its grip. Then awareness of his surroundings became more rational and he saw the line of bodies stretched out along the barricade, many still writhing and crying out from their injuries.
'First and Sixth Centuries!' Hortensius was shouting. 'Keep going! Advance a hundred paces and halt!'
The Roman line moved forward, and slowly the flank centuries and supply wagons slipped through the gaps and resumed their place in the square formation, shepherding their surviving prisoners along with them. Only the rear two centuries remained on the far side of the barricade, steadily giving way under the onslaught of the Durotriges' best warriors. While his century was halted, Macro ordered Cato to make a quick tally of their strength.
'Fourteen lost, best as I can say, sir.'
'All right.' Macro nodded with satisfaction. He had feared the butcher's bill would be higher than that. 'Go and report that to Centurion Hortensius.'
Hortensius was not difficult to locate; a stream of orders and shouts of encouragement were ringing out across the sound of battle, even though the voice now carried the rasp of extreme exhaustion. Hortensius received the strength report and did a quick mental calculation.
'That makes our losses over fifty, and there's the rear cohorts to go yet. How long until dawn, do you think?'
Cato forced himself to concentrate. 'I'd guess four, maybe five hours.'
'Too long. We'll need every man on the formation. Can't spare any more for guard duties…' The senior centurion realised he had no alternative. 'We're going to have to lose the prisoners,' he said with unmistakable bitterness.
'Get back to Macro. Tell him to round up some men and kill the prisoners. Make sure the bodies are left with those we've just killed on the far side of the barricade. No sense in giving the enemy any greater cause for grievance. What are you waiting for? Go!'
Cato saluted and ran back towards his century. A wave of nausea swept up from the pit of his stomach as he passed the kneeling forms of the prisoners. He cursed himself for being a weak sentimental fool. Hadn't these same men killed all their prisoners? And not just killed, but tortured, raped and mutilated them. The face of the flaxen-haired boy staring lifelessly from the bodies heaped in the well swam back before his eyes and bitter tears of confused rage and a sense of injustice welled up. Much as he had wished death on every member of the Durotrigan nation, now that it came to killing these prisoners, some strange reserve of morality made it seem wrong.
Macro, too, hesitated on hearing the order.
'Kill the prisoners?'
'Yes, sir. Right now.'
'I see.' Macro looked into the young optio's shadowed expression and made a quick decision. 'I'll see to it then. You stay here. Keep the men formed up and ready, just in case that lot get it into their thick British heads to try it on again.'
Cato fixed his eyes on the churned-up snow stretching out ahead of the cohort. Even when pitiful cries and screams rose up from a short distance behind him, he refused to turn and acknowledge the sound.
'Keep your eyes to the front!' he shouted at the men closest to him, who had turned to seek out the source of the awful noise.
At length it died down and the last cries were drowned out by the sound of the fight from the rear of the formation. Cato waited for fresh orders, numb with the cold and exhaustion, his spirit weighed down by the bloody deed Centurion Hortensius had ordered done. No matter how hard he tried to justify the execution of the prisoners in terms of the cohort's survival, or the well-deserved retribution for the massacre of the Atrebate inhabitants of Noviomagus, it felt wrong to kill their captives in cold blood.
Macro slowly threaded his way back through his men to take up position in the front rank of his century. He stood beside Cato, grim-faced and silent. Cato glanced at his superior, a man he had come to know well over the last year and a half. He had quickly learned to respect Macro for his qualities as a soldier, and more importantly his integrity as a human being. While he would hesitate to call the centurion a friend to his face, a certain intimacy had grown between them. Not quite father and son, more that of a much older, worldly-wise brother and his younger sibling. Macro, he knew, regarded him with a degree of pride and smiled on his achievements.
For Cato's part, Macro embodied all those qualities he aspired to. The centurion lived at ease with himself. He was a soldier through and through and had no other ambition in life. Not for him the tortuous self-analysis that Cato inflicted on himself. The intellectual pursuits he had been encouraged to indulge in when he was raised as a member of the imperial household were no preparation for life in the legions. No preparation at all. The lofty idealism Virgil lavished on his vision of Rome's destiny to civilise the world had no relevance to the naked terror of this night's fight, or the bloody horror of military necessity that had caused the prisoners to be killed.
'It happens, lad,' Macro muttered. 'It happens. We do what we must if we are to win. We do what we must to see the light of the next day. But that doesn't make it any easier.'
Cato stared at his centurion for a moment, before nodding bleakly.
'Cohort!' Hortensius bellowed from the rear of the formation. 'Advance!'
The rearmost centuries had passed through the barricade and re-formed on the far side, all the while fighting off the increasingly desperate assault of the Durotriges' heavy infantry. But once it was clear that the attempt to trap and destroy the cohort had failed, the fight went out of the Durotriges in that strange indefinable way that kindred sentiment spreads through a crowd. Warily, they disengaged from the Romans and simply stood in silence as the cohort tramped away from them. The defiant ranks of legionaries remained unbroken, and had left a trail of native bodies in their wake. But the night was far from over. Long hours remained before dawn stretched its first faint fingers over the horizon. Long enough to settle the score with the Romans.
The cohort moved on through the darkness, the square formation tightly compacted about its supply wagons bearing their load of casualties. The moans and cries of the wounded chorused with every jolt and grated on the nerves of their comrades still fit enough to march. They were straining to hear any sound of the enemy's approach and cursed the wounded and the squeak and rumble of the wagon wheels. The Durotriges were still out there, and they dogged the cohort. Slingshot whirred in from the darkness, mostly rattling off the shields but now and then finding a target and reducing the cohort's strength by one more each time. The ranks closed up and the formation steadily shrunk as the night wore on. Nor was slingshot the only danger. The chariots the cohort had last seen at dusk now rumbled along the slopes, and every so often charged in on the cohort with blood-chilling war cries. Then at the last moment they veered away, having hurled their spears into the Roman ranks. Some of these, too, found their mark and inflicted even more terrible injuries than the slingshot.
Throughout it all Centurion Hortensius shouted out his orders, and threatened terrible punishments to those he knew were best motivated by fear, while offering encouragement to the rest. When the Durotriges yelled abuse from the darkness, Hortensius returned it in kind at top parade-ground volume.
Finally the sky began to lighten over to the east, slowly gathering pale luminescence, until there was no mistaking the approach of dawn. To Cato it seemed that the morning was being drawn across the horizon almost by the willpower of the legionaries alone as each man gazed longingly towards the growing light. Slowly the dark geography around them resolved itself into faint shades of grey and the legionaries could at last see the enemy once again, faint figures stretching out on either flank, shadowing the cohort as it struggled on, exhausted and battered but still intact and ready to summon up enough strength to resist one last onslaught.
Ahead the ground gently rose up to a low crest and as the front ranks of the century reached the ridge, Cato looked up and saw, no more than three miles away, the neatly defined outline of the ramparts of the Second Legion's fortified encampment. Over the thin dark line of the palisade hung a dirty brown haze of woodsmoke and Cato realised how hungry he felt.
'Not long now, lads!' Macro called out. 'We'll be back in time for breakfast!'
But even as the centurion spoke, Cato saw that the Durotriges were massing for another attack. One last attempt to obliterate the enemy who had managed to evade destruction all night. One last effort to exact a bloody revenge for their comrades whose bodies lay scattered along the line of march of the Fourth Cohort.