Authors: Griff Hosker
Book four in the Sword of Cartimandua series
By Griff Hosker
Published by Sword Books, 2012
Copyright © Griff Hosker 2012
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Centurion Marius Vestrus stroked his chin as he peered over the walls of the cohort fort; almost the last in a thin line of forts the wooden ramparts and takes were still almost new. His chin felt rough. He would have to punish Sallustus, his slave, for the shaving blade had not been as sharp as he had expected. Marius demanded the highest standards of his men and he displayed even higher standards himself. He was a veteran of almost twenty five years and he knew that the only thing which kept the Roman Empire intact was soldiers like himself having high standards and never accepting less. As the first rays of dawn peered over the wooded hilltops he ruminated, once again, about the news the messenger had brought the day before. The legions were being withdrawn. The northernmost outpost of the Empire, Inchtuthil, was being abandoned and the legion sent south to bolster the depleted forces there. Domitian had decided that there was nothing in this remote part of the Empire which necessitated a legion and he was taking legions from Britannia and Gaul to replace those lost in Dacia. Marius found himself in agreement with the Emperor for he had seen nothing worth dying for in this desolate corner of the Empire. The winters were cold and the summers filled with biting insects and irate warriors intent on emasculating every Roman they could lay their blue painted claws on.
The Batavian Centurion did not even glance round as the sentry attracted his attention. “Report then.”
“Over to the north Centurion there is some movement. “Turning to the sentry besides him he said,” Go round to the officer’s quarters. I want every man armed and on the walls but silently. Understand?”
“Yes Centurion.” The soldier did not question Marius’ orders. The veteran of twenty years in Britannia had earned him the respect of everyone in the elite first cohort.
“Now then where are they?”
“Over there. You can just see them emerging from the tree line.” Even as the sentry spoke Marius could see the twenty men break from the woods and head for the fort.
“They’re ours sir. Should I open the gate?”
Turning his head the sentry knew he had said the wrong thing. “And how do you know they are ours laddie?”
“They’re wearing Roman uniform sir.”
“Oh well that is alright then isn’t it? I mean it isn’t as though the heathen barbarians couldn’t have found it eh? Or” he added tapping the soldier on the side of his head, “stolen it from dead Romans?”
As his comrades grinned at the sentry’s discomfort he shook his head. “No sir.”
“Well then we will wait until they get closer.” By now the walls were silently filling with the rest of the cohort. Marius nodded. Five hundred Batavians armed and rested would see off whatever danger was approaching.
“Romans! Romans!” The voices drifted across the killing ground before the walls.
“Prepare pila!” Although his men wondered at the command they were trained well enough to obey instantly.
The twenty men were now less than a hundred paces from the walls and the garrison could see their wounds. Still Marius did not order the gates to be opened. “Halt and identify yourselves.”
The twenty men halted and while most looked nervously over their shoulders one voice spoke out. “Gaius Salvius Agrippa, Optio First cohort, Second Gallorum auxiliary.”
“Who is the First Spear?”
“Decimus Saenius Galba.” There was a pause. “He’s dead sir.”
Satisfied Marius shouted down. “Open the gate. Surgeon, see to these men.”
By the time Marius had descended from the palisade the Gauls were assembled on the Via Praetoria and the First Spear could see that many were wounded. The Optio stood to attention despite the bleeding head wound. “Right Optio while your wounds are being dressed fill me on what happened.”
“Sir we were woken by men dressed in Roman uniforms. They said they were Gauls from the northern outpost. The sentry let them in and suddenly there were thousands of Caledonii in the fort. We were the only survivors. First Spear led us out of the Porta Decumana. By the time we had cut our way through we were the only ones left.”
Marius nodded. He would have done the same as the Gaulish Centurion. “You did well Optio, Centurions and Optios to the Praetorium.”
The grim faced officers were under no illusions. The two forts north of them had been over run. The legion to the south had been removed. They were now the only Roman force north of the Tava. Marius scanned their faces. He had known all of them since they were recruits and he had promoted all of them. They were reliable but they have never been in such danger before. “Well lads it looks like we are in deep shit. If the blue arsed barbarians have destroyed the two forts north of us then they are a large force. We should retreat and head for the forts south of Inchtuthil but I don’t want to risk being caught in the open. Here is my plan. We will send riders south to warn the other forts and, hopefully, to summon a relief force. Meanwhile I want every drop of water and food inside the fort. I want the ditch deepened, the bridge over it removed and the tree line cut further back. I want hot food prepared and the men fed in relays. This could be a long day. Well go on, get on with it. Decius you stay with me.” His Optio nodded. “Find as much spare oil as you can. Bury two amphora of it half way along the main walls about thirty paces the other side of the ditch and then lay a trail between the two.”
Decius nodded. “You want to fry the bastards.”
Nodding he added,”When they have filled the ditch with their dead they will be able to attack the walls and they will bring up their reserves. If we can fire that area it will buy us time.”
Marius went to the stables where the mounted troopers were saddling their mounts. “Right. You ten are all that stand between us and disaster. Split into pairs and head for the forts south, south east and south west of us.” He pointed to each pair as he listed their directions. “Tell the senior officer there what has happened.” He looked at each man intently. “If a relief force doesn’t get here in the next three days then we will all be dead. Understand?”
A chorus of “Yes sir” told the first spear all he needed to know. These men would bring help or die trying. “Right don’t waste time here go.” As the gate slammed shut behind the ten troopers Marius wondered if he would see any of them again. Sliding his gladius out of its scabbard he was determined that his Batavians would fight to the last man and the blue painted savages would know they had been in a battle.
In the woods to the north of the fort, Ninian, one of the sons of Calgathus looked at the forces arrayed before him. The two forts had cost him men but, thanks to their subterfuge less than might have been expected from an assault on a Roman fort. He gestured for his elite warriors, his oath kin and the finest troops he had, to come forward. They were all garbed in auxiliary armour, bearing scuta and pila, looking, to all intents and purposes, like Romans. “Brothers once again we will attack the fort and you will lead the way. You must make the garrison believe that you are fleeing from an ambush. As soon as they open the gates you must secure them and we will destroy them.”
The warriors banged their scuta with their pila. They had all been chosen not only for their skill in war but the fact that they spoke Latin. Each individual was keen to win honour. Looking at each other they could see that they were the last twenty of Ninian’s oath kin for their comrades were now with the Allfather having sacrificed their lives to free their land of the yoke of Rome.
“Go my brothers. Go.”
Marius chewed on the dried horsemeat and gazed across the freshly cleared killing ground before the main gate. The trees had been cleared back another ten paces and the ditch was now as deep as a tall man. He nodded with satisfaction as he heard the stakes being driven into the bottom. When sharpened they would thin out the numbers of barbarians and make it more difficult to assault the wall’s. The amphorae had been buried and his Optio already stood with the rest of the first century on the walls. “Decius, make sure the men on the walls have bows as well as pila. I want these bastards thinning out before they get to the wall.” The aquifer stood expectantly waiting his commander’s order. He was Marius oldest friend and knew him better than any other living man. They both came from the same village in western Gaul and had joined on the same day. Gnaeus Rullus never moved more than five paces from the Centurion especially during a battle. He was the protector of the most important warrior in the cohort. “Right Gnaeus, signal the work party to return. We have ridden our luck as much as I dared.” Expecting the order it was initiated as soon as it was spoken and the auxiliaries began to return swiftly to the fort. As they passed beneath the Centurion he shouted down. “Feed the work parties. This will be a long day lads.” He took the time to scan the walls. The perimeter was totally manned. The reserve century lounged near the headquarters building, ready to plug any gap or to react to any incursion. Pila were stacked in neat piles along the walkway and arrows were being distributed. Marius had done all that he could and now he had to wait. The longer he waited the more he liked it for it meant that his messengers would have more time to bring help.
It was fortunate that Marius did not have second sight for he would have seen six bodies lying striped and mutilated where they had been ambushed by waiting scouts sent by Ninian to prevent just such an attempt. Two other messengers were also fleeing for their lives as the whole of the Caledonii and Pictii took advantage of the departure of the legions.
“Sir! Movement.” The sharp eyed sentry in the tower pointed towards the woods where the twenty disguised tribesmen ran towards the walls.
“So the sneaky bastards want to repeat their trick eh?” The men nearest to him looked up in anticipation. “No one fire until I give the command.” He pointed to the reserve century. “As soon as they we let them in I want you to kill them and then bar the gate. You men on the door; they will go for you as soon as the gate is opened so move away from the gate.”
The warriors ran towards the walls somewhat confused by the fact that there was no bridge across the ditch. Undeterred they descended into the ditch and climbed apprehensively out of it. In the woods Ninian had moved his troops as close to the edge as he could, trying to hide behind the bushes and thin trees. His young men would have to hold the gate for longer than he wished but they were the best he had. His men would have cover over three hundred paces before they reached the ditch. It would be a long hard run and the Romans would do their best to destroy them before they could close with the gate which Ninian was counting on being open..
“Help us we Romans. We ambushed.”
The poor Latin would have warned Marius even without the survivor’s account. He shouted down, “Open the gate.”
The young Caledonii were exultant. Their ploy had worked again. Even as the gates swung open they were drawing their daggers, swords and axes ready to kill all behind the gate. Their joy was short lived, for, as the gates opened they were faced by eighty soldiers armed with pila. The odds of four to one meant that they all died where they stood and the Batavians did not suffer a single casualty. Ninian saw none of this for his men were racing across the ground towards the gates. By the time they were half way to the ditch the gate was closed and the leading warriors sensed that this time they would not have it as easy as the first two assaults. The ones at the front heard a command from the fort and the next thing they knew was that a torrent of arrows rained down upon them so thick it was though a cloud had come from nowhere. But they were the Caledonii and they were not to be put off by a few dead men. They ploughed on, those in the rear leaping over the bodies of their dead comrades to close with the hated enemy. The arrows continued to thin out the attackers but still they advanced. The ditch filled with bodies and still they came on. Those at the front were close enough to hurl their spears and war hammers at the armoured men on the wall.
Ninian could see that his subterfuge had failed but he knew there were less than five hundred men inside those wooden walls. He signalled to the war bands to his left and right and thousands of warriors hurled themselves towards the other three walls. The Romans would be hard pressed to fight off all attacks from three sides. He looked over his shoulder. His own war band was eagerly pressed close together. When the walls had been weakened they would attack and then the fort would fall.