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Chapter Seventeen

As soon as the exhausted men of the Fourth Cohort came in sight of the camp of the Second Legion a spontaneous cheer burst from their lips. The Durotriges, and their Druid leaders, might yet be frustrated in their efforts to wipe out the cohort. A scant hour's march away lay the security of the ramparts and an end to the nightmare of endurance that Centurion Hortensius had driven them through. But if the Romans' spirits were raised by the sight of the camp, then so was the determination of the enemy to obliterate the men of the cohort before any of their comrades came to their aid. With a savage howl the Durotriges fell upon the tightly packed ranks of the Roman formation.

Cato's shield and sword had long since become intolerable burdens and the muscles in his arms burned with the agony of bearing their weight. Even though he had shared the cheer of the other men at sight of the camp, the distance that lay between filled him with despair. The same despair that a drowning man feels when he views a distant shore in a rough sea. The thought was no sooner with him than a great roar of rage swelled up on either side and to the rear of the square as the Durotriges charged. The rippling thud of shields and metallic ring of weapons sounded with greater intensity than ever. The Roman formation faltered, and then halted under the impact of the charge and took a moment to firm up their shield wall once again.

As soon as Hortensius was satisfied his cohort was holding its own, he gave the order for the advance to continue. The hollow square crept forward once again, fending off the frenzied warriors clinging to their heels. Roman casualties had grown so numerous that there was little room left in the wagons packed into the small space at the centre of the square. With gaunt expressions the injured watched their comrades make the best of the uneven fight. Each jolt of a wagon brought fresh groans and cries from those inside, but there was not time to stop and tend to their wounds. Under these desperate circumstances Hortensius could spare few men to take care of the casualties and only the worst wounds had been roughly bandaged.

The Sixth Century, at the front of the square, had a clear view of the legion's camp. Cato was tantalised by the sight but the snail's pace of the cohort only served to convince him that they would never make it. The Durotriges would whittle down the exhausted legionaries long before they could reach the safety of the ramparts.

'What the hell are they doing down there?' Macro's eyes blazed with bitter frustration at the sight of the peaceful stillness of the camp. 'Fucking sentries must be blind. Just wait until I get my hands on them…'

To one side, the Durotriges' heavy infantry, rallied after the night's ferocious fighting, were hurrying past the square. Cato could only look on in despair, for the Britons' plan was clear. When a hundred paces lay between themselves and the cohort, the enemy column moved obliquely across the face of the Roman square and quickly deployed into a battle line, with a small group of slingmen on each wing. And there they stood their ground, shouting their defiance at the cohort as the shield wall approached.

The legionaries had bested the Durotriges all night but they were now beyond the limits of their endurance. They had had scarcely an hour of sleep in nearly three days of hard marching. Bleary, aching eyes peered out of filthy faces matted with several days' growth of beard. The younger Romans of Cato's age had little facial hair, but their gauntness of expression made even them look years older. The rear and sides of the square no longer formed a steady line and began to concede ground under the relentless pressure from their less weary foes, who now at last scented victory. Soon the square was no longer a square, but a misshapen block of men struggling for their very survival. Centurion Hortensius's voice, harsh and cracked, again rose above the din of battle.

'They're coming, lads! The legion's coming for us.'

At the front of the square Cato looked over the ranks of the Britons – scarcely forty paces off now – and saw the cohorts trickling out of the camp's southern gate, polished helmets glinting in the early morning sun. But they were miles off, and might not make it in time to save the men of the Fourth.

'Keep moving!' shouted Hortensius. 'Keep moving!'

Every step forward closed the distance between the two Roman columns. Cato clenched his teeth and raised his sword towards the writhing mass of the Durotriges' heavy infantry.

'Watch it!' Macro yelled. 'Slingshot!'

The Romans only just managed to shelter behind their shields in time as the first volley flew in diagonally from the flanks of the enemy line. With a roar the Durotriges charged home behind the volley. The sharp rattle and crack of the slingshot on the front of the square showed that the slingers had made sure of their aim. But one shot flew over Cato's head and struck one of the mules harnessed to a wagon in the centre of the formation. It pulverised the eye and the bone surrounding the socket and with a shriek of agony the mule plunged about in its traces, terrifying the other three beasts harnessed to the same wagon. In an instant the wagon swerved into its neighbour and with a protesting groan from the straining axle, it slowly tilted to one side and overturned. The injured were thrown out, scattered beneath the thrashing hooves of the panicked mules. One man, crushed by the side of the wagon, let out a terrible groan before choking on the blood that gushed from his mouth. He fell back lifeless. The shrill braying of the injured mule split the air and made Cato shudder. The wounded on the ground desperately tried to crawl out from under the terrified mules but many were trampled before they could get free. Then another wagon went over and fresh cries of terror and pain rent the air.

'Cohort! Halt!' Hortensius shouted. 'Get those fucking mules sorted out!'

He dived towards the injured animal who had started the chaos and plunged his sword deep into the mule's throat before tearing the blade free. The blood gushed out. For a moment the mule stood stupidly hanging its head, looking at the crimson pool splashing about its hooves. Then its knees went and it collapsed into the blood, mud and snow.

'Kill 'em all!' Hortensius yelled, and thrust the nearest soldiers towards the terrified animals.

It was all over in a moment and the surviving injured were hauled back into the scant shelter of the undamaged wagons. The cohort could not move any more, not without abandoning its wounded to the bloody savagery of the Durotriges. For a moment Cato wondered if Hortensius was cold-blooded enough to save what was left of his cohort and try to break out towards the relief column. But he remained true to the credo of the centurionate.

'Close ranks! Close ranks around the wagons!'

The legionaries engaged to the rear and sides slowly backstepped, thrusting out with their swords as the Durotriges stabbed and slashed against the shield wall, driving it back until the Romans compacted into a small knot round the surviving wagons. Those legionaries who stumbled and fell as they gave ground were crushed underfoot and then hacked to death by the Britons. Cato stuck close to Macro, tucked in behind his shield and striking out at the sea of enemy faces and limbs in front of him.

'Careful, lad!' Macro called out. 'We're right by the mules!'

Cato's foot splashed into the animals' blood and he felt the rasp of mule hide against the back of his calf. On either side of him, men of the Sixth Century were backing up against the bodies of the mules, too hard pressed by the Durotriges to clamber round or over them. With a roar of defiance Macro stabbed the tip of his sword into an enemy's face. As the man fell, he seized the chance to scramble over the flank of the mule.

'Come on, Cato!'

For a moment the optio stood facing two Britons, young men like himself, but thicker set with hair limed into crazy white spikes. One carried a broad-leafed war spear, while the other had armed himself with a short sword he had snatched up from a Roman body. Both of them made a feint, hoping to distract the optio enough for a fatal thrust, but he kept his shield moving, presenting it first one way, then the other, his eyes darting from spear to sword and back again. He dared not try to get over the dead mule while the two warriors waited for his guard to slip. Suddenly the spear tip flickered forward. Cato instinctively swung his shield to counter the threat, sending the tip glancing down. Seizing his chance, the other Briton leaped forward and thrust at Cato's stomach. A rough hand grasped Cato by a harness strap and bodily yanked him over the mule's body. The sword missed him and Cato sprawled on the ground, winded and gasping.

'They nearly had you there!' Macro laughed and jerked Cato back to his feet. Struggling to draw breath and clutching at his chest, Cato could not help wondering at the way his centurion seemed to exult at the prospect of imminent death. A strange thing, this madness – this euphoria – of battle, Cato reflected. Shame he would not live long enough to consider the phenomenon more fully.

The men of the Fourth Cohort instinctively closed ranks in an uneven ellipse around their wounded comrades. The enemy swarmed round them, hacking and chopping at the Roman shields in a rising frenzy as they sought to destroy the cohort before it could be reached by the relief column quick-marching towards them, but still far off. In the savage intimacy at the heart of the struggle Cato's mind was wonderfully cleared of any thoughts but the need to take the life of his enemy and preserve his own. His shield and his sword felt like natural extensions to his body. Warding off blows with one then striking with the other, Cato moved with the deadly efficiency of a well-trained machine. At the same time, tiny sensory details, frozen images of the fight burned themselves into his memory: the acrid stink of mule sweat and the sweeter odour of blood; the churned-up ground about his muddy boots; the blood-spattered faces of friend and foe, feral and snarling; and the aching cold of the winter morning shuddering through his exhausted body.

The Durotriges whittled away the men of the cohort one by one. The wounded were drawn back into the centre while the dead were thrown out of the formation to stop their bodies being a hazard underfoot to their surviving comrades. And still the cohort lived on; the enemy dead piled up in front of their shields so that the Durotriges had to clamber over them to get at the legionaries. They presented perfect targets for the short swords as they balanced precariously on the uneven, yielding mass of dead and dying flesh, from which the terrified cries of the still living rang out above the thud of shields and sharp ring of metal on metal.

The intensity of the moment robbed Cato of any sense of the passage of time. He stood shoulder to shoulder with his centurion on one side, and young Figulus on the other. But Figulus was no longer Figulus the soft-featured lad perpetually fascinated by a world that was so very different from the squalid slum he had been born into in Lutetia. Figulus had been slashed above one eye; the torn flesh was hanging from his brow and half his face was dripping with blood. The gentle lips were drawn back in a savage snarl as he hissed and spat with the effort of battle. The months of training might never have taken place; as agony and rage took hold of him, he slashed and hacked with his short sword in a manner it had never been designed to be used. Even so, the Durotriges shrank back from him, awed by his terrible wrath. He drew back his blade for another lunge, and his elbow smashed into Cato's nose. For an instant the optio's head burst with white light before the pain rushed in.

'Steady there!' Cato shouted into his ear.

But Figulus was totally lost to any appeal to reason. He frowned and shook his head once, then threw himself back into the fray with a guttural snarl. A Briton wielding a long-shafted battleaxe came at Cato. He threw his shield up and dropped down to his knees, gritting his teeth in expectation of the impact. The blow splintered the wood and swept on down into the chest of a body lying at Cato's feet. The warrior's momentum carried him forward, straight onto the point of Cato's sword which passed through his collarbone and into his heart. He dropped to one side, taking Cato's blade with him. Cato snatched up the nearest weapon, a long Celtic sword with an ornately decorated handle. The unfamiliar weapon felt awkward and clumsy in his hand as he tried to wield it as if it were a Roman short sword.

'Come on, you bastards!' Macro growled and presented the point of his sword to the nearest enemy. 'Come on, I said! Who's next? Come on, what're you waiting for, you fucking pansies!'

Cato laughed, and quickly stopped as he heard the hysterical edge to the laugh. He shook his head to try and clear a sudden dizziness, and made ready to fight on.

But there was no need. The ranks of the Durotriges were visibly thinning before his eyes. They were no longer shouting their war cries, no longer brandishing their weapons. They simply melted away, falling back from the ring of Roman shields, until a gap of thirty or so paces had opened up between the two sides, littered with bodies and abandoned and broken weapons. Here and there injured men moaned and writhed pathetically. The legionaries fell silent, waiting for the Britons' next move.

'What's happening?' Cato asked quietly in the sudden hush. 'What are they up to now?'

'Haven't got a bloody clue,' replied Macro.

There was a sudden rush of feet, and slingers and bowmen took up position in the enemy line. Then a moment's pause before an order was shouted from behind the ranks of the Durotriges.

'Now we're for it,' muttered Macro, and then quickly turned to the rest of the cohort to shout a warning. 'Cover yourselves!'

The legionaries crouched down and sheltered under their splintered shields. The wounded could only press themselves down into the bottom of the carts and pray to the gods to be spared the coming fusillade. Risking a peek through a gap between his shield and that of Figulus, Cato saw the bowmen draw back their bowstrings, accompanied by the rising note of whirring slings. A second order was shouted and the Durotriges' volley was unleashed at point-blank range. Arrows and slingshot hurtled towards the huddled ranks of the cohort, together with spears and swords picked up from the battlefield – even stones, such was the burning desire of the Durotriges to destroy the Romans.

Under his wrecked shield Cato crouched as low as he could, wincing at the terrific din made by the barrage of missiles cracking and thudding against shields and bodies. He looked round and met Macro's gaze under the shadow of his own shield.

'It never rains but it pours!' Macro smiled grimly.

'Story of my life in the army so far, sir,' Cato replied, attempting a grin to match his centurion's apparent fearlessness.

'Don't worry, lad, I think it's passing.'

But the fire suddenly renewed in intensity and Cato cringed into himself as he waited for the inevitable – the searing agony of a slingshot or arrow wound. Every moment he remained unscathed seemed nothing short of a miracle to him. Then, all at once, the barrage stopped. The air became strangely still. The enemy's war horns sounded and Cato was aware of movement, but did not dare glance out in case yet more missiles came their way.

'Get ready, lads!' Hortensius croaked painfully from nearby. 'There'll be one last attempt to rush us. Any moment now. When I say, get back on your feet and prepare to receive the charge!'

There was no charge, just a jingling of equipment and clatter of spear butts as the Durotriges drew back from the ring of Roman shields and marched off in the opposite direction to the Second Legion's camp. The enemy gradually picked up speed until they were quick-marching away. A thin screen of skirmishers formed up at the rear of the column and hurried along in its wake, casting frequent nervous looks behind them.

Macro cautiously rose to his feet and started after the retreating enemy. 'Well, I'll be…' Quickly he sheathed his sword and cupped a hand to his mouth. 'Oi! Where are you wankers off to?'

Cato started in alarm. 'Sir! What do you think you're doing?'

Macro's cries were taken up by the other legionaries and a chorus of jeers and catcalls pursued the Durotriges as they marched over the crest of the shallow ridge and into the vale beyond. The Roman taunts continued for a moment longer before turning to shouts of joy and triumph. Cato turned round and saw the front of the relief column rising up the track towards them. He felt sick as a wave of delirious happiness washed over him. Sinking down to the ground, he lowered his sword and shield and let his head rest heavily in his hands. Cato closed his eyes and breathed deeply a few times before, with great effort, he opened them again and looked up. A figure detached itself from the head of the column and jogged up the track towards them. As the man approached, Cato recognised the craggy features of the camp prefect. When Sextus drew near to the survivors of the cohort, he slowed down and shook his head at the dreadful scene before him.

Scores of bodies were strewn across the ground and lay in mounds around the cohort. Hundreds of arrow shafts spiked the ground and protruded from bodies and shields, nearly all of which were battered and splintered beyond repair. From behind the shields rose the filthy, bloodied forms of exhausted legionaries. Centurion Hortensius pushed his way through his men and strode towards the camp prefect, arm raised in greeting.

'Good morning, sir!' Despite his best efforts, the strain showed through in his voice. 'You took your fucking time.'

Sextus shook his hand, ignoring the blood congealing in a wound on the centurion's palm. The camp prefect stood, hands on hips, and nodded towards the survivors of the Fourth Cohort. 'And what kind of a bloody shambles do you call this? I ought to put the lot of you on fatigues for a month!'

Beside Cato, Figulus watched the centurion and the camp prefect exchange their greetings. He was silent for a moment before he spat on the ground. 'Bloody officers! Don't you just fucking hate 'em?'

Chapter Sixteen | When the Eagle Hunts | Chapter Eighteen