Long before dawn, the ground before the main gate to the hill fort was filled with the sounds of movement: the rhythmic thumping of heavy piles to compact the soil and level the ground to form artillery platforms; the endless trundling of wagon wheels as artillery carts were brought forward to unload bolt-throwers and catapults. Men strained and grunted to heave the heavy timber mechanisms into their sockets. Ammunition was unloaded and stacked by the weapons, and then their crews began a systematic check of the torsion cords and ratchet winches, and carefully lubricated the release mechanisms
The Durotriges had lined the walls of the gate defences, straining to see what was going on in the darkness below them. They tried loosing fire arrows in high shimmering arcs towards the Roman lines in the hope of glimpsing the nature of the Roman preparations. But the poor range of their bows meant that none of the arrows even cleared the outer rampart, and they were left in ignorance of the enemy's plans for them. Roman skirmishers had pushed forward under cover of darkness and fought vicious little actions with Durotrigan patrols on the approaches to the main gate, and finally the natives had tired of trying to break through and pulled everyone back inside the palisade to await the dawn.
At the first hint of the sky lightening Vespasian gave the order for the First Cohort to move up to their start line and make ready to advance. Small teams of engineers, carrying ladders and a battering ram, accompanied them. One century had been issued with composite bows to provide close fire support when the cohort was ready to force the main gate. All of them stood ready, dim ranks of silent men, heavily armoured, weapons sharpened and hearts filled with all the usual tensions and misgivings about such a dangerous assault. Fighting a setpiece battle was nothing compared to this, and even the rawest recruit among them knew it.
From the moment the bolt-throwers ceased firing on the palisade, the First Cohort would fall under a rain of arrows, slingshot and boulders. Due to the twists and turns in the approach ramps, one or other of their flanks would be exposed to enemy fire before they even reached the main entrance. Then they would have to endure more of the same while they attempted to breach the gate. Only then would they be able to close with the enemy. It was only natural that the men who had endured so much punishment would want to exact bloody retribution once the Durotriges were within swords' length. Vespasian had therefore personally briefed each officer in the cohort to look out for Cato and his party and that every effort must be made to take prisoners. He told them he needed live slaves if he was ever going to be able to afford to renovate his house on the Quirinal Hill, back in Rome. They had laughed at that, as he'd known they would, and Vespasian hoped it would be enough to prevent Cato and his men being slaughtered out of hand when the legionaries eventually burst onto the plateau.
'All ready, sir,' Tribune Plinius reported.
'Very well.' Vespasian saluted and looked over his shoulder.
The horizon away to the east was becoming noticeably lighter. He turned back and regarded the looming immenseness of the hill fort. The wicker man towered above the palisade, the auburn twists of cane and branch slowly becoming visible as dawn strengthened and banished the monochrome shades of the night. The crews on the artillery platform stood still, watching the legate, waiting for the order to open fire. Vespasian had managed to muster over a hundred serviceable bolt-throwers, and each one now sat ready for winding back the torsion arms. The iron-headed bolts were already set in each channel, their dark-flanged heads pointing up at the defences surrounding the main gate. The first rays of the sun caught the shining bronze helmets of the Durotriges lining the palisade, watched by the legionaries in the cool gloom below. Gradually the glow flowed down the slopes of the ramparts.
Vespasian nodded to Plinius.
'Artillery!' Plinius roared through cupped hands. 'Make ready!'
The dawn air was filled with the sound of clanking levers and straining men as the torsion arms were wound back and the bolt ropes locked down against the projectiles. As the last crew finished, the sound died away and a peculiar stillness fell over the scene.
'Open fire!' Plinius shouted.
The crew captains pushed the release levers forward and Vespasian's ears resounded to the sharp crack as the torsion arms sprang back. A thin veil of dark lines streaked up towards the palisade. As was always the case, a number fell short and buried themselves in the slopes. Others overshot and disappeared way beyond the palisade – where they could still be a hazard. The crews would mark the fall of their shots and adjust the elevation accordingly. The vast majority, however, struck home in the first volley. Vespasian had seen the impact of such firepower a few times before, but even he marvelled at the destruction it caused. Whole timbers in the palisade were shattered by the heavy iron-headed bolts, splintered fragments whirling into the air, and the palisade soon had the appearance of a mouth filled with bad teeth.
The second volley was more ragged than the first as the more efficient crews fired earlier, and soon the disparity in loading times led to an almost continuous crashing from the released torsion arms. The palisade was brutally beaten down, and most Durotrigan warriors foolhardy enough to mount the rampart behind and shout their defiance paid the price. Vespasian idly watched as one big man waved a spear, until a bolt caught him high in the chest and simply whipped him bodily out of sight. Another was struck in the face, the blow completely shearing off the man's head. His torso remained upright for a moment, then collapsed.
Less than an hour later the defences about the main gate were in utter ruin, the stakes that had made up the palisade reduced to stumps, streaked with crimson. Vespasian motioned to his senior tribune. 'Send the cohort in, Plinius.'
The tribune turned to the trumpeter and ordered him to sound the advance. The man put his lips to the mouthpiece and blew a sharp series of rising notes. As the first call echoed back from the ramparts, the centurions of the First Cohort gave the order to advance, and in two broad columns they began marching towards the approach ramps. The sun was low in the sky, and the backs of the men's helmets threw back a thousand reflections into the eyes of their comrades watching the fight from the legion's fortified camp. A substantial reserve of men stood ready to reinforce the First Cohort should it be roughly handled by the Durotriges. More men had been sent out during the night to position themselves round the fort and stand off, ready to intercept any enemy attempting to flee the far side of the fortress should the gate fall. Nothing had been left to chance.
The First Cohort, accompanied by their engineer detachment, mounted the first approach ramp and immediately had to turn parallel to the hill fort as they climbed at an angle towards the first dogleg. Already, some of the braver souls among the defenders were popping up along the ruin of their palisade and loosing arrows or slingshot into the massed mailed ranks of the legionaries, and Roman casualties began to fall out of line. Most were wounded and tried to cover themselves with their big shields while they waited to be carried to the casualty stations. Some were killed outright and lay still, sprawled on the track leading up the ramp.
Over the heads of the First Cohort the barrage of iron bolts continued to sweep the defences clear, but soon the crews would begin to imperil their own men. Vespasian held off giving the order to cease fire, willing to risk a shot falling short rather than permit the enemy to swarm over the remains of their defences and pour down a far more damaging rain of missiles on the heads of the legionaries.
The cohort reached the first dogleg and turned the corner, doubling back on itself as it climbed towards the main gate. The bolts were whirring less than fifty feet above their heads now, and the staff officers around Vespasian were getting edgy.
'Just a little longer,' the legate muttered.
There was a splintering noise from the artillery platform, and Vespasian swung round. The arm on one of the bolt-throwers had snapped under the strain. A loud chorus of groans came from the staff officers. Up on the second rampart the bolt from the broken machine had fallen short and skewered a file of legionaries, hurling them into an untidy bundle at the side of the track. The succeeding ranks of legionaries faltered for a moment, until an angry centurion laid into them with his vine cane, and the advance continued.
'Cease fire! 'Vespasian shouted over to the artillery crews. 'CEASEFIRE!'
The last few bolts cleared the heads of the First Cohort, thankfully, and then there was an eerie quiet, before the defenders realised the danger was gone. With a roar of their battle cry they ran out from cover and swarmed onto what remained of their defences above and around the main gate. At once a hail of arrows, stones and rocks pelted down on the men of the First Cohort. The commander of the cohort, the most senior and experienced centurion in the legion, gave the order to form the testudo, and in a moment a wall of shields surrounded the cohort and covered its top. Immediately the pace of the advance slowed, but the men were now protected from the missiles pelting them from above, and they rattled harmlessly off the broad curves of their shields. The clatter of the impacts was clearly audible down where Vespasian and his staff stood.
The First Cohort rounded the corner of the final dogleg and began to pass between a bastion and the main gate. This was the most dangerous moment of the assault. The men were under fire from two sides and could not begin to deploy the ram against the gate until the bastion was taken. The senior centurion knew his job, and in calm, measured tones gave the order for the First Century of the cohort to break away from the testudo. The men turned abruptly and scrambled up the steep slope to the bastion. The Durotriges who had survived the barrage of bolts threw themselves on their attackers, making the most of their height advantage. Several legionaries fell to their weapons, tumbling and slipping back down the slope. But there were too few of the enemy to hold off the Romans for long, and the vicious thrusting swords of the legionaries made short work of them.
As soon as the bastion had been cleared, men armed with compound bows scampered up and began pouring fire onto the defenders on the main gate, ducking down to string the next arrow behind the shields of the century who had won the bastion. The Durotriges redirected their missile fire onto the new threat, taking the pressure off the testudo standing at the base of the gate. Now the engineers moved up with the battering ram, and under cover of the testudo began a slow rhythmic assault on the stout wooden beams of the main gate.
The dull thud of the ram reached Vespasian's ears and his mind turned to Cato and his small party on the other side of the hill fort. They, too, would hear the ram, and start making their move.
Below the drainage gully on the other side of the hill fort, the pile of sewage and refuse suddenly came to life. Had there been a sentry on the palisade above, he might have had difficulty believing his eyes when a small party of what appeared to be Celtic warriors emerged from the foul-smelling heap and silently swarmed up either side of the gully, making for the wooden opening set into the palisade. While the engineers had been busy levelling the ground, a small party of legionaries, the best men of the former Sixth Century of the Fourth Cohort, had quietly made their way round the hill fort, under the command of their optio and the tall Iceni warrior they had been introduced to earlier that night. Naked, and daubed in the blue woad designs of the Celts, they were equipped with cavalry long swords, which might just pass for native weapons at a quick glance. Prasutagus had led them over the ramparts and through the staked trenches to the reeking mound of spoil. There, with silent expressions of disgust, they had hidden themselves amid the shit and slops, and waited, motionless, for the coming of dawn and the battering ram attack on the main gate.
At the first distant thump of the ram, Cato pushed aside the rotting deer carcass he had been hiding beneath and clambered on all fours up towards the wooden structure. With natural agility, Prasutagus scaled the far side of the gully, reminding Cato of an ape he had once seen at the games in Rome. Around them were the rest of the men Cato had selected, tough and mostly of Gaulish extraction, so that they stood a better chance of passing for Britons.
By the time they reached the top of the gully, the thudding from the ram had become a regular beat, sounding the death knell of the hill fort and its defenders. Cato pointed at the space under the opening and, as before, Prasutagus shifted his powerful frame into position. Cato clambered up, and cautiously looked over the rim into the hill fort's interior, by daylight this time. The plateau immediately to his front was deserted. Off to the right, beyond the giant figure of the wicker man, a dark mass of bodies was packed around the main gate, waiting to hurl themselves upon the First Cohort the moment the ram burst through the thick timbers of the gate. Among them were some black cloaks of the Druids and Cato smiled with satisfaction; the odds against him and his small party had lessened.
He pulled himself over the rim, and reached down for the hand of the next man. One by one they clambered through the opening and crawled to the side of the nearest animal pen. At last only Prasutagus remained, and Cato braced himself firmly against the timber frame of the platform before he reached his hands down to Prasutagus. The iceni warrior grabbed Cato's forearms and heaved himself up, transferring his grip to the rim of the opening as soon as he could.
'Are all the Iceni as heavy as you?' Cato gasped.
'No. My father – bigger than me.'
'Bloody glad you're on our side then.'
They scrambled over to the other men, and then Cato led them along the pens towards the Druid enclosure. At the last pen he signalled for his men to be still, and then slowly poked his head round the wattle panel, cursing softly at the sight of two Druids still guarding the gateway into the enclosure. They were squatting down and chewing on hunks of bread, apparently unconcerned by the desperate fight at the gate. Cato pulled his head back and motioned his men to stay down. They must keep out of sight until the main gate fell, and pray that the Druids had not already executed their hostages.
'This isn't going very well,' Vespasian grumbled, watching the distant battle in front of the gate. Most of the men on the bastion were down, and die British fire was concentrated on the legionaries massed by the gate. Already the ground was littered with red shields and the grey mail armour of the Romans.
'We could call them back, sir,' suggested Plinius. 'Lay down another barrage and try again.'
'No,' Vespasian replied curtly. Plinius looked at him, waiting for an explanation, but the legate remained silent. Any relaxing of the pressure on the front gate would put Cato and his men at risk. For all the legate knew, they might already be dead, but he had to assume their part of the plan was going ahead. Only Cato could save the hostages now. He must be given a chance. That meant the First Cohort had to remain in the killing ground outside the hill fort's gate. There was another reason for keeping them there. If he ordered them back down the rampart, they would lose more men on the way. Then, while the bolt throwers renewed their barrage, the survivors of the first assault would have to wait, knowing they had to face the perils of the attack all over again. Vespasian could well imagine what that might do to their fighting spirit. What they needed up there right now was encouragement, something to strengthen their resolve.
'Get my horse, and get another for the eagle-bearer.'
'You're not going up there, sir?' Plinius was shocked.
'Get the horses.'
While the mounts were fetched, Vespasian tightened the ties under his helmet. He looked at the eagle-bearer and was reassured by the man's easy composure, one of the key qualities looked for in men picked for the honour of carrying the eagle into battle. The horses were rushed to them by running slaves and the reins handed over. Vespasian and the eagle-bearer swung themselves up.
'Sir!' Plinius called out. 'If anything happens to you, what are your orders?'
'Why, to take the hill fort of course!'
With a swift kick of his heels Vespasian urged his horse towards the foot of the ramp, pounding across the open ground with the eagle-bearer just behind him, reins in one hand, the shaft of the standard clenched in the other. Up the ramp they galloped, swerving round at the first dogleg and on to the second ramp. Here lay the first Roman casualties, pierced by arrows or crushed by stones, their blood pooling on the track amid the feathered shafts that seemed to have sprung up from the soil. The wounded, seeing the horsemen approach, painfully hauled themselves to the side of the track, some of them managing to raise a cheer for the legate as he thundered past.
They turned the second dogleg, and quickly reined in as they came up against the rearmost century of the First Cohort.
'On foot!' Vespasian shouted over his shoulder to the eagle-bearer, and swung himself from the back of his horse. At once they were spotted by the defenders above them, and an instant later Vespasian's horse screeched as an arrow whacked into its flank. It reared up, front legs flailing, before scrabbling round to tear back down the ramp. More arrows and slingshot thudded home around the legate. He looked round and snatched a shield from the ground where it had fallen beside its dead owner. The eagle-bearer found another. Both of them pushed forward into the tightly packed ranks ahead.
'Make way! Make way there!' Vespasian called.
The legionaries parted at the sound of his voice, some with looks of blank astonishment.
'What the fuck is he doing up here?' an awestruck youngster wondered.
'Didn't think you were getting the enemy all to yourself, did you, son?' Vespasian shouted as he passed by. 'Come on, lads, one last push, then we '11 put paid to those bastards!'
A ragged cheer rippled out from the men as Vespasian and the eagle-bearer made their way up towards the gate, arrows and slingshot rattling off their shields. When he reached the flat ground before the fortified timber gate, Vespasian tried to hide his despair at the scene before him. Most of the engineers were dead, heaped round their ladders and to the side of the battering ram. The ram was now manned by legionaries who had had to lay down their shields to take up their position on the thick iron capped shaft of oak. Even as he watched, another man fell, shot through the gap between his helmet and his mail vest. The senior centurion thrust a replacement forward, but the legionary hesitated, looking anxiously at the savage faces screaming at him above the gate.
Vespasian ran forward. 'Out of my way, son!'
He dropped his shield and grabbed the rope handle, joining the rhythmic swing of the other men on the ram. As it smashed into the gate, with a shattering crash, Vespasian could see that the big timbers were starting to give way.
'Come on, men!' he shouted to the others along the ram. 'We're not being paid by the bloody hour!'
As soon as the Durotriges saw the legate they let out a great roar of defiance and turned their weapons on the enemy commander, and the man bearing the dreaded symbol of the eagle. The men of the First Cohort responded with a deafening cheer and renewed effort, hurling up their remaining javelins into the marred ranks of the Durotriges. Others snatched at the slingshots lying on the ground to hurl them at the defenders.
Another man fell beside the ram. This time the senior centurion threw his shield down and took the vacant position. Once again the ram slammed forward. With a crack, the central beam on the gate broke in two, and the surrounding timbers were wrenched out of alignment. Through the gaps the Romans could see the snarling faces of Durotriges and Druids massed on the other side. Through a narrow gap Vespasian spotted the locking bar.
'There!' He raised a hand to point. 'Shift the head to there!'
The line of the ram was quickly adjusted, and they swung again, forcing the gap to open wider. The locking bar shuddered in its brackets.
'Harder!' Vespasian shouted above the din. 'Harder!'
Each blow splintered more of the timbers until with a last wild swing the locking bar shattered. Immediately the gates gave way.
'Get the ram back!'
They backed up several feet and laid it down. Someone handed Vespasian a shield. He slipped his left arm into the straps and drew his sword, holding it horizontally at hip height. He breathed deeply, ready to lead his men through the gateway.
'Stay close to me, lad:
'First Cohort!' the legate bellowed at the top of his voice. 'Advance!'
With a deep roar from hundreds of throats, the scarlet shields charged the gates and crashed into the screaming ranks of the tribesmen beyond. Packed in with the front rank of the First Cohort Vespasian kept his shield up and thrust into the dense mass of humanity before him, sinking his blade into flesh, then twisting and wrenching it back, before striking again. All around him men screamed, shouted their warcries, grunting with the effort of each thrust and slash, crying out in agony as they were wounded. The dead and injured fell to the ground, those still living struggled to protect themselves beneath their shields and avoid being trampled to death.
At first, the dense mass of Romans and Durotriges was locked solid, neither giving an inch of ground. But as men fell, the tribesmen began to give ground, thrust back before the shield wall of the Romans. The ground beneath Vespasian's boots was slick with churned mud and warm blood. His greatest fear at that moment was that he might lose his footing and slip.
The First Cohort ground forward, hacking a path through the Durotriges. The defenders, urged on by the Druids in their ranks, fought with desperate courage. Tightly packed as they were, their long swords and war spears were almost impossible to wield effectively. Some dropped their main weapons and used their daggers instead, trying to wrench the Roman shields aside and stab at the men sheltering behind. But few of the Durotriges were armoured and their exposed flesh was easy prey for the lethal swords of the legionaries.
Slowly, the Durotriges crumbled, falling back at the rear of the press in ones and twos, the men throwing terrified glances at the relentless approach of the golden eagle. A line of Druids stood behind the defenders and scornfully attempted to drive the less courageous of their allies back into the battle. But in a short time too many tribesmen were fleeing the terrible Roman killing machine and the Druids were helpless to stop them. The mighty defences the Durotriges had placed so much faith in had failed them, as had the promises of the Druids that Cruach would protect them this day, and smite the Romans. All was lost, and the Druids knew it too.
Standing behind the line of Druids, a tall dark figure with an antlered headpiece shouted an order. The Druids turned at the sound, and saw their leader pointing back towards the enclosure on the far side of the hill fort. They closed ranks and began to run towards their last line of defence.
'That's it!' Cato called quietly to his men. 'They're breaking. Now's our time!'
He rose to his feet, beckoning to his men to follow him. Tribespeople were running across the plateau, away from the main gate and the legionaries. Many were women and children, fleeing the disaster about to befall their menfolk. They hoped to escape the hill fort by scaling the ramparts and disappearing into the surrounding countryside. The first of them had reached the pens not far from Cato when he decided to make his move.
With Prasutagus at his side and his woad-painted men grouped loosely behind him, Cato ran towards the enclosure entrance. The two guards had risen to their feet to watch the action at the main gate and spared the approaching tribesmen only a contemptuous glance. As Cato closed the distance, one of the guards jeered at him. Cato raised his cavalry sword.
'Get 'em!' he screamed to his men, and ran at the Druid. The surprise was total and before the shocked Druid could respond, Cato had smashed his spear to one side and swept his blade into the side of the man's head. Flesh split open, bone cracked and the Druid crumpled to the ground.
Prasutagus dealt with the other guard and then kicked open the gate. It was a thin affair, designed only to discourage access rather than resist a determined assault. The gate crashed inward and the handful of Druids still inside the enclosure turned at the noise, startled by the sudden invasion of their sacred soil by these painted men, their erstwhile allies. The momentary confusion had the effect Cato had hoped, and all his men were through the narrow gateway before the Druids began to respond. Snatching up spears, they made to defend themselves against the wild sword-wielding furies rushing down on them. Cato ignored the clash and clatter of weapons. He sprinted towards the cage. Ahead of him a Druid came out of a hut, spear in hand. He took one look at the melee and turned towards the cage, hefting his spear.
There was no mistaking his intent and Cato drove himself forward, running as fast as he could, teeth gritted with the effort. But the Druid was nearer, and Cato realised he was not going to make it. As the Druid reached the cage and drew back his spear to thrust, a shriek rose from inside.
'Hey!' Cato shouted, still twenty paces away.
The Druid glanced over his shoulder, and Cato threw his sword with all his might. As the blade spun through the air, the Druid whirled round and deflected it with the end of his spear. Cato ran on towards the cage. The Druid lowered the point, aiming it at Cato's stomach. At the last instant, almost on the point of the wickedly barbed tip of the spear, Cato threw himself down and rolled into the Druid's legs. Both men crashed against the wooden bars of the cage. The impact was worse for Cato than the Druid, and before he could catch his breath the man had jumped on his chest and clamped his hands round the optio's throat. The pain was immediate and intense. Cato snatched at the man's hands, straining to pull them away, but the Druid was big and powerfully built. He grinned through yellowed teeth as he squeezed the life out of his enemy. Black shadows smeared the edges of Cato's vision, and he lashed out with his knees, striking uselessly on the man's back.
A pair of slender hands reached out between the cage bars and clawed at the Druid's face, fingers working for the man's eyes. Instinctively, he threw his hands up to save his sight, howling in agony, and Cato drove his fist up into the man's chin, snapping his head back. Cato struck him again, then heaved him aside. While the Druid lay stunned on the ground, Cato scrambled up, retrieved his sword and thrust it into the Druid's throat.
He turned to the cage. 'Lady Pomponia!'
Holding the bars, her face squeezed against her hands; the general's wife looked at the painted figure uncertainly.
'I'm here to rescue you. Get to the back of the cage.'
'I know you! The one from the wagon!'
'Yes. Now get back!'
She turned and crawled to the rear of the cage, placing herself protectively in front of her son. Cato lifted his sword and began to hack at the ropes binding the barred door to the rest of the structure. Wood splintered and severed strands flew up from each blow, and then one side of the door came free. Cato lowered his sword and wrenched the bars aside.
'Out! Come on, let's go!'
She crawled out, dragging her son by one hand. His other hand was heavily bandaged. Aelius's eyes were wide with terror, and a faint keening noise came from his throat. Lady Pomponia had difficulty standing; after days of crouching in the confines of the cage, her legs were stiff and sore. Cato looked round the enclosure; it was littered with bodies. Most wore the black robes of the Druids, but half a dozen of his own men lay among them. The rest were gathering round Prasutagus, many bleeding from wounds.
'This way,' Cato said to Lady Pomponia, half dragging her towards his men. 'It's safe. They're with me.'
'I never thought I'd see you again,' she said in quiet wonder.
'I gave you my word.'
She smiled faintly. 'So you did.'
They joined the other men, and turned back towards the gateway.
'Now we just have to make our way over to the First Cohort,' said Cato, heart beating wildly in his chest, partly from his efforts, partly from the sheer excitement and pride of having succeeded. 'Come on!'
He took a step towards the gateway, and then stopped. Stepping through it was a tall figure, robed in black and carrying a shining sickle in one hand. The Chief Druid took in the scene in an instant and stepped to one side, shouting an order. The rest of his men came piling into the enclosure, eyes glinting and spears lowered towards Cato and his small band. Without waiting for an order Prasutagus roared his war cry and charged the Druids, followed at once by Cato and his men. Lady Pomponia turned her son's face into her tunic and crouched down with him, unable to watch the fight.
This time the contest between the Romans and Druids was more evenly matched. The Druids had not been surprised, and their fighting blood was already up after their experiences at the main gate. There was a loose melee, swords striking on spear shafts or clattering to one side in a desperate parry. Unable to stab effectively with their spears in the confined struggle, the Druids used them like quarter-staffs, swiping at the Romans and blocking their sword slashes. Cato found himself fighting a tall, thin Druid, with a dark beard. The man was no fool, and neatly parried Cato's first few thrusts, then feinted to the left before ramming home the tip of his spear. Cato jumped to one side, too late to avoid having his thigh slashed. As the man recovered his spear, Cato swept the shaft to one side with his free hand and flashed forward, burying the end of his blade in the man's guts. He jerked the blade free and turned, looking for the Chief Druid. He was standing by the gate, watching the fight with cold eyes.
He saw Cato coming and crouched low, sickle held up and to the side, ready to sweep forward and behead or dismember his attacker. Cato thrust his sword forward, keeping an eye on the glinting sickle. The Chief Druid lurched back against the gatepost with a jarring thud. Cato thrust again, and this time the sickle swung at him, slashing towards his neck. Cato threw himself forward, inside the reach of the weapon, and smashed the pommel of his sword into the Chief Druid's face as hard as he could. The man's head crashed back against the gatepost and he dropped, out cold, the sickle falling to the ground at his side.
As soon as they were aware that their leader was down, the other Druids dropped their weapons and surrendered. Some were not quick enough, and died before the legionaries were aware of their surrender.
'It's over!' Cato shouted to his men. 'They're finished!'
The men calmed their battle rage and stood over the Druids, painted chests rising and falling as they struggled to recover their breath. Cato waved Prasutagus over to him, and together they stood in the gateway, swords up, discouraging any of the fleeing Durotriges from trying to enter the enclosure in their desperate flight from the Romans. Over at the main gate, too, the fight was over, and the red shields of the legionaries were fanning out across the plateau, cutting down any who still dared to resist. Above the ruin of the gate stood the standard-bearer, the golden eagle glittering in the sunlight.
A small formation of legionaries was quick-marching across the plateau towards the enclosure and Cato saw the red crest of the legate rising above the other helmets. He turned to Prasutagus. 'See to the lady and her son. I'm going to report.'
The Iceni warrior nodded and sheathed his sword, trying not to look too intimidating as he walked over towards the general's wife. Cato kept his sword in hand as he stepped out of the gateway and raised his other hand in greeting to the legate, now clearly visible and smiling happily. A warm glow of contentment washed through Cato. He had kept his word, and the wicker man rising above the hill fort would not claim its victims after all. He noticed that his body was trembling, whether from nerves or exhaustion he could not tell.
Behind him Lady Pomponia screamed.
'Cato!' Prasutagus shouted.
But before Cato could react, something slammed into his back. The breath was driven from his body in an explosive gasp and he dropped to his knees. He felt something like a fist deep inside his chest. He jerked as the object was wrenched free. A hand grabbed his hair, pulling his head back, and Cato saw the blue sky and then the triumphant sneer on the face of the Chief Druid as he raised his bloodied sickle high in the air. That was his blood, Cato realised, and he closed his eyes and waited for death to come.
He dimly heard Prasutagus scream with rage, then the Chief Druid's grip convulsed, tearing at Cato's hair. A warm rain dripped down on him. Warm rain? The Chief Druid relaxed his grip. Cato opened his eyes just as the Chief Druid's body collapsed by his side. A short distance away rolled the Druid's head, still in its antlered headpiece. Then Cato fell forward on his face. He was conscious of the hardness of the ground against his cheek and someone grasping his shoulder. Then Prasutagus dimly shouting. "Roman! Roman, don't die!'
And the world went black.