The tribune's horse came thundering back down the track. Slewing to a halt at the rearmost century, Vitellius thrust an arm out, pointing down the slope to the village.
'Macro! Get your men back there at the double!'
'Sir?' Macro was momentarily startled by the order. His eyes followed the direction the tribune was pointing, and passed rapidly over the village to where Germans were swarming across the flat farmland towards them.
'Just do it, Centurion!' Vitellius shouted. 'At the double.'
'And when you get to the village, go right through it and secure the far gate.'
'Stop for nothing! Understand?'
As Macro turned to the Sixth century to bellow out the command, Vitellius savagely jerked the reins round and kicked his heels into the side of his horse, before racing back down the column which had smartly about-faced and was quick-marching back towards the village. Macro grabbed Cato's arm.
'Stick close. Whatever happens.'
'Right, lads, at the trot. Follow me!'
Macro led the century down the track, a small column of panting legionaries gasping out plumes of steamy breath as they looked to the far side of the village and gauged the distance of the German horde sweeping towards them. Even Cato could see that the enemy were sure to reach the far gate ahead of them. What then? A brutal fight in the filthy narrow streets and certain death. And death would be preferable to capture if only a fraction of what Posidonius had written about the Germans was true. Harness straps and scabbards chinked loudly and Cato, who had not yet perfected the technique of running in full battle-dress, struggled to keep hold of shield and javelin while preventing the sword scabbard from being caught between his thighs. Worse, Cato's one-size-fits-all helmet began to tip down over his eyes as he ran, requiring a regular backwards flip of the head.
Glancing back over his shoulder, Macro could see that the other centuries were now coming over the crest and breaking into a run down the slope. He nodded approvingly. The tribune had the good sense not to let them run all the way back to the village and face the Germans while fighting for breath. Macro glanced ahead at the village gate. A small group of Germans, bearing a motley assortment of antique weapons and the more harmful type of agricultural tools, waited uncertainly – quite surprised to see the legionaries hurrying back down the slope towards them. Macro was a few score paces away and saw the frightened expressions on the faces of those who had not yet run away. He filled his lungs with air and drew his sword.
Cato leapt to one side in astonishment.
'Keep running, you fool! That was to scare them, not you!'
Sure enough the remaining Germans, rather than face the roaring centurion, turned and ran back into the depths of the village, not even stopping to close the gates. Barely a glance was spared for the Roman body lying untidily by the gate as the legionaries burst in right behind the villagers, screaming with rage and enjoying the effect. Only Cato kept silent, grimly glancing at the roughly constructed huts hemming them in, and quite overwhelmed by the appalling stench of the place.
'Close up!' Macro bellowed over his shoulder. 'And keep shouting!'
The century turned a corner and ran straight into the first steadfast opposition – a dozen hairy men with shields and hunting spears straddling the roadway. Foolishly they had positioned themselves too close to the corner and were run down almost before Cato was aware of their presence. Those that were brushed into a side alley fell out of sight and survived. The others were trampled over and finished off by swift javelin thrusts as the century swept over them. Cato saw only one German go down, his face smashed by the edge of Macro's shield. The man screamed shrilly but the cry was instantly lost in the crushing press that carried Cato forward into the heart of the German village. All sense of fear was lost in the need to concentrate on retaining his footing while remaining as close to Macro as possible. At his side, Cato was aware that the standard bearer was shouting 'On! On!' at the top of his voice, lips drawn back in a grin. By the Gods, Cato thought fleetingly, these men were actually enjoying themselves. Fools! Did they want to get themselves killed?
Suddenly, they were running into the square in front of the chief's hall that Cato had seen from the hillside, villagers scattering before the howling legionaries.
'Leave them!' Macro ordered. 'Keep on! Stay with me!'
He led the century from the village square by the widest route, sure that it led to the village gateway facing the oncoming horde beyond. The way ahead was clear and the only sign of the locals were doors that shut hastily at their approach. Through a gap in the buildings, Cato saw that they were now close to the other gate, rising just above the intervening thatched roofs. Then he was aware of a new sound, the howling of a multitude that rose even above the screams of the legionaries. As they became aware of the noise the legionaries fell silent and the pace slowed momentarily.
'Don't slack, you lazy bastards!' Macro shouted. 'Come on!'
The legionaries sprinted forward in a last effort to secure the gate ahead of the approaching Germans. Cato followed the standard bearer and Macro in a final desperate dash up a slight rise between the stinking German huts and then slammed into the centurion's back as the latter slewed to a halt. Cato's shield slipped from his grasp.
'Shit!' Macro exploded.
'Sorry, sir! I didn't…'
'Form line!' Macro shouted, ignoring him. 'Javelins at the ready!'
Retrieving his shield, Cato straightened up and froze. Fifty paces in front stood the gate-house, doors wide open, and swarming through them with a blood-curdling roar, now that they had caught sight of the enemy, were the Germans. They were quite the most hideous creatures that Cato had ever seen; large of body with wild hair, faces disfigured by blood-lust, and their foul animal stench was overwhelming.
'Get to one side, son.' Macro swept Cato to the end of the first line of legionaries where the standard bearer had grounded the standard and drawn his sword. 'First two ranks! Release javelins!'
A dozen javelins were hurled forwards at a high angle and arced towards the Germans, disappearing moments later into the crowd raging down the roadway six abreast. As if a rope had tripped them, the front ranks toppled forward, some impaled on the Roman javelins, others stumbling over the wounded and being pushed to the ground by the pressure from behind.
'Next two ranks, release javelins!' Macro's voice repeated, loud, calm and clear. The second volley turned the front of the German charge into a confused mass of dead and wounded, with the uninjured frantically struggling to get free of the tangle. Macro weighed up the situation in an instant and waved his sword over his head. 'Come on lads! Let's have them! Charge!'
Then he was off, running straight at the Germans, shield raised to cover his torso and short sword pointed straight at the throat of the nearest enemy. With a shout, the century surged after him and once again Cato found himself being swept helplessly along in this flood of madness. Unlike the front ranks of legionaries, Cato still carried his javelin and, rather than carry the awkward weapon into the heaving melee he decided to hurl it as far forward as possible before drawing his short-sword. But the javelin throwing he had practised on the parade ground bore no resemblance to throwing a javelin in battle conditions. As he drew his right arm back he almost impaled the legionary immediately behind.
'Oi! Watch it, you stupid cunt!' the man shouted angrily, thrusting the butt to one side as he barged past Cato. 'You'll do someone a fucking injury!'
Cato flushed with embarrassment and then quickly hurled the offending weapon forwards at an unfortunately low trajectory, which caused the javelin to glance off Macro's helmet and fly off horizontally over the heaving mass of Germans before dropping out of sight. Cato swallowed nervously as the centurion shot a look of rage back over his shoulder, swore at the top of his voice and then turned to take his anger out on the nearest available German. Cato quickly drew his sword and threw himself forward, trying his hardest not to appear responsible for the errant missile.
The rearmost legionaries were busy shouting encouragement to those further forward, pausing only to finish off any Germans betraying signs of life amongst the tangled bodies stamped into the filthy ground. Cato was shocked to see one or two Roman bodies in among them – men he didn't know. As the legionaries steadily pushed the Germans back towards the gate more Roman bodies appeared, some still staring in surprise at their dreadful wounds. Blood flowed from the wounded, dripping down on to the street where iron-shod boots churned it into the mud. As more Romans fell, the fighting line grew nearer and Cato steeled himself for the moment when he would have to step into the space left by a Roman casualty.
Pressed back against the gate, a handful of Germans desperately tried to broaden the fighting line to take advantage of their numbers, scaling the low walls of the surrounding huts. A shout from Macro brought down a volley of javelins from those legionaries in the rear ranks and the Germans fell back into the mob.
Cato saw the standard waving at the head of the century as the legionaries forced their way step by step towards the gate. Then Macro led a renewed surge that brought the Romans between the huge gate-posts.
'Stand here!' Macro ordered and, with a last thrust of his sword into the enraged German mob, he disengaged and forced his way back through the ranks of the legionaries holding the gateway. Inside he faced the remaining troops. 'You lot. Up on the wall. We need to clear a space in front of the gate. Use your javelins, stones – whatever you can get your hands on.'
As the legionaries scaled the earth ramps to either side of the gate Macro saw Cato and caught his arm. 'Optio! I want you and six men ready with that locking bar. When I give the word, you get it into the gate braces as quick as you can. Understand?'
'Yes, sir.' Cato answered, staring at a crimson gash on the centurion's sword arm.
'Good. Then see to it.'
Then he was gone, thrusting his way back through the lines defending the gateway, shouting encouragement to his men. Cato quickly stirred and saw that the nearest men were watching him, waiting.
'Right!' He tried to sound firm. 'You heard him. Sheath swords and down shields.'
Astonishingly – to Cato at least – they reacted to the order and, unencumbered by the large heavy shields, they reached down and took a firm hold of the rough-hewn locking bar. Cato leaned his shield against the wall of a hut, then he bent and grasped the front of the bar.
Cato slowly straightened, gasping with effort as he strained to raise the bar on to his shoulder where it rested uncomfortably. 'Right then,' he said through gritted teeth. 'Over to the gate, easy now!'
They struggled forward, stepping carefully over the prostrate forms of Romans and Germans, and then stood waiting to one side of the gate where the fight seemed to be going the Germans' way. The thin ranks of legionaries were slowly being forced to give ground. With his height Cato could see the Germans beyond, snarling with rage, throwing themselves forward on the Romans.
Macro shouted. 'More fire from the wall there! Use everything you've got!'
The soldiers above desperately rained down the last of their javelins, together with rocks and stones torn from the nearest huts, on to the heads of the helpless Germans. Instinctively those at the front drew back from the gate, away from the slaughter.
'Back!' Macro turned and shoved the nearest legionaries back through the gate. The remaining Romans hurriedly withdrew, presenting their shields to the enemy. The last men through grabbed the edges of the gate and frantically swung the heavy timbers towards the Germans. Outside there was a howl as the enemy realised what was happening and they rushed forward again, regardless of the stones being hurled down from the walls above. At their head raced a tall warrior, blind rage and hatred etched on to his broad features. As the gates swung out to meet him he lunged for the nearest Roman with his spear.
'No, you fucking don't!' Macro swung his sword down on the head of the spear, knocking it to the ground. Unable to check himself, the German tumbled into the rapidly closing gap and Macro head-butted him, flattening his nose with a sickening crunch. As the German howled, Macro kicked him free of the gate. 'Piss off, you bugger!'
The gates closed with a grinding thud and – before the order could be given – Cato and his men quickly heaved the bar up, over and into the holding brackets where it dropped solidly into place. An instant later the gates suddenly swung in against the bar, which groaned against the strain. Macro watched for a moment to make sure that they were secure and then, posting a guard at the base of the gates, he ordered the remains of the century up on to the wall.
The village wall was a miserable affair, erected mainly to ward off marauding war-bands from the wilderness beyond the Rhine. The dirt from the ditch surrounding the village had been heaped up to form an interior rampart, faced with turf to hold the soil in place. A narrow walkway, surfaced with a corduroy of logs, ran along the top of the wall beside a chest-high palisade of sharpened stakes, chest-high to a normal man but neck-high to the stocky Macro, who rose on his toes to best view the scene in front of the gate.
A seething mass of Germans stretched out in front of and to the sides of the village, like two arms encircling the Romans trapped within. Immediately below Macro, the Germans were being driven from the gate by a fresh fusillade of stones and a respectful gap, littered with dead and wounded, formed in front of the thick timbers. Further back Macro could see that faggots were already being bundled together from a stock of firewood the villagers had left beyond their walls where it would not be a fire risk. Once those faggots were ready, it would only be a matter of time before the ditch was filled and an approach to the wall was completed. At least the century had bought some time for the rest of the cohort. Macro turned to look for any sign of the other centuries. Dull cries and the faint clash of weapons sounded from elsewhere in the village and, from his slightly elevated position, Macro could see other legionaries stretched out around the wall. The village was secure then. Good. Time to make a report.
Looking down at the carpet of bodies strewn over the street leading up to the gate Macro estimated that almost a fifth of his men were dead, or badly wounded. He glanced up and caught the eye of young Cato, who instantly flashed his gaze over the wall with an expression of rapt attention.
'Cato! Keep your fucking head down, unless you want some German to use it for target practice!'
'Come here. Job for you.'
Hunched down below the palisade, Macro removed his helmet and wiped his brow with his uninjured arm. As he prepared to give the details of the report to Cato, he ran a finger along a dent across the top of his helmet.
'Wouldn't know anything about that I suppose?'
Cato blushed silently.
'I guessed not. But if anyone tries to spit me like that again I'll have the bastard's hide. Now then I want you to find the tribune. Find him as quick as you can and you tell him we're holding this gate. Tell him I've got about seventy effectives left and then ask him for orders. Understand?'
'Get going then!' Macro slapped him on the helmet.
The centurion watched Cato run down the ramp to the street and quickly pick his way over the dead and wounded. As he replaced his helmet, Macro made a mental note to have a word with Bestia if they ever got out of this mess. That boy definitely needed some more javelin practice. He sighed and cautiously peered over the palisade to see how the Germans were progressing with the faggots.
Cato's boots pounded down the street as he ran back the way the century had come only a little while earlier. Alone, he felt vulnerable and he glanced nervously from side to side as he hurried between the squalid ranks of German huts and buildings. But he saw no-one until he had almost reached the square at the heart of the village. There he ran into a Roman picket guarding the approach. The two legionaries hefted their javelins anxiously at his approach, looking beyond him, but were relieved when Cato drew up, breathing heavily.
'Where's the tribune?'
'What's happening, Optio?'
'Nothing… need to find the tribune… message for him.'
One of the legionaries gestured over his shoulder. 'Back there, by the chief's hut. What gives at the other gate?'
'It's being held,' Cato called over his shoulder as he ran past.
When he emerged from the narrow street into the square Cato halted in surprise. Hundreds of Germans of all ages were milling around in the centre. Then he saw that they were being herded together by scores of legionaries who pushed with their shields and prodded with javelins to steer their charges into a compact group for easy guarding. Some were still being driven in from the surrounding streets as Cato pushed his way through to the chief's hut where Vitellius was giving orders to a centurion.
'… and if they put up any struggle, or try anything on, kill them all.'
'Kill them?' The centurion looked uncertainly at the villagers, many of whom were wailing loudly. 'Kill them all?'
'That's what I said,' Vitellius snapped, and then sneered. 'Or haven't you got the stomach for it?'
'No, sir!' The centurion seemed surprised. 'Just think it'd be a bit time-consuming to kill them all, sir.'
'Then you'll just have to do it quickly.'
'Sir!' Cato interrupted. 'Message for you, sir! From Macro.'
'What the hell is this, soldier?' Vitellius shouted. 'How dare you come up and yell at me as if I was some market-stall trader! Now, you make your report properly!'
'Excuse me, sir.' The centurion coughed. 'But may I carry on?'
'What? Oh yes. You've got your orders. Get moving.' Vitellius nodded curtly at Cato. 'Now you.'
'Sir. Centurion Macro begs to report that he is holding the other gate and-'
'About twenty, sir. He has seventy effectives left, sir. The centurion begs to request if you have any orders for him, sir.'
'Orders?' Vitellius repeated vaguely. 'Right then. You tell him he must hold the gate. We've secured the walls and the interior of the village. Now we've got to hold out until help arrives.' Vitellius looked up at the slowly greying sky. 'We're expected back before dark. The legate will set out as soon as he realises we're in some kind of trouble. If we're lucky, that'll be tomorrow morning. Still, we're better off here than in that forest.'
'Yes, sir,' Cato agreed wholeheartedly.
'You tell Macro what the situation is, and that he is to hold the gate at all costs until relieved. Do you understand me, optio?'