Cato was screaming at the top of his voice as he hurtled towards the two Germans closing on his centurion. At the last moment, he lowered the tip of the standard and swept it from side to side. The foremost German standing above Macro, poised for the kill, looked up at the shrill shouts and half turned to face the new danger. Macro didn't hesitate a second and smashed his fist up into the man's crotch. He doubled over and fell to his knees retching, and Cato tumbled over the top, rolling to one side. The remaining German looked quite startled and suddenly burst out laughing. Cato angrily rose to his feet and brandished the standard in his enemy's face.
'Don't you fucking laugh at me!'
For a moment the pair stared into each other's eyes, the German's expression quite cold and calculating now. Suddenly he feinted to Cato's right and, as Cato swung the standard round, the German ducked back and aimed a sword thrust at Cato's armpit. The army standard, like all army standards, was designed for show and not grace and the heavy headpiece swung so far round that the bottom of the shaft came arcing right into the face of the lunging German and stopped him dead. With a stunned groan he slumped on to the ground. Cato, who had been facing the other way, came round – gritting his teeth at the prospect of a fatal wound – and stared in shock at the man collapsing to the ground.
'Leave him!' Macro called out. 'Come here, boy! Get this spear out of me!'
'Just do it!'
Cato took a firm grasp with his spare hand and Macro turned his leg for a better angle. 'Now!'
Cato pulled with all his might and the leaf-shaped spear tip came free of the leg with a gush of blood and torn tissue. Macro howled in agony just once and then, clamping his mouth shut, he painfully raised himself as Cato lifted him by the arm. The wound was bleeding badly, but happily the blood flowed rather than spurted – no fatal wound then. But the pain was the worst he had felt, quite mind-numbing, and it took a great force of will for Macro to swing his arm round the youth's shoulder as Cato helped him back towards the gap between the buildings where the rest of the century waited. Behind them, above the roar of the flames, Cato could hear pounding footsteps and he glanced back to see the Germans rushing forwards, screaming for Roman blood. He renewed his efforts, almost dragging the centurion along with him. Then they stumbled and Macro went down on his knees, crying out as it jarred his wounded leg. The faces ahead filled with despair – they could see that the two would never make it before the Germans were on them.
'Go!' Macro grunted. 'That's an order!'
'Can't hear you, sir.'
'Save the standard.'
At that moment Castor sadly shook his head and gave the order for the building to be pulled down. The legionaries hesitated until the veteran screamed the order out again and then the ropes tightened and the wall crashed down into the street bringing the blazing thatch with it.
'Oh shit!' Cato stopped, then quickly looked back. The Germans were almost on them. To his right was a stone wall with a stout wooden door. Quickly he lifted the latch, kicked the door inwards and bundled the centurion and the standard inside. He ducked through the opening and slammed the door shut, hurriedly throwing the locking bar into its cradle. A crunching thump echoed in the confined space as the first Germans arrived outside and pounded the door. It was dark inside, but light from the flames illuminated the edges of the shutters and gaps in the eaves. The one window in the room faced on to the street, but luckily it had been closed and bolted, and now it too shuddered under the impact of blows from outside.
'See if there's another way out of here,' Macro said as he examined his wound by touch. Blood was still flowing freely and he dare not spill any more than was necessary if he was to keep his wits about him. He undid his sword belt and removed the scabbard before fastening it above the wound as tightly as possible. The bleeding had slowed to an ooze when Cato returned a moment later.
'Seems to be some kind of barn, some hay at the back and a ventilation opening, but that's it.'
The pounding at the door was more rhythmic now and, as they both looked at the shuttered window, a long splint of wood flew back into the room where a dark point pierced the shutter. It wriggled, disappeared and moments later more splinters flew and jagged orange shafts of light pierced the gloom.
'We can't stay here.'
'No,' Cato responded. 'Look there!'
A yellow glow had appeared in the raftered thatch over their heads, and then another flaring violently into tiny flickering flames that quickly increased in intensity.
And all the time the shutters were being hacked to pieces.
'We'll have to use the ventilation window,' Cato decided. 'There's a ladder, but with your leg it might be difficult.'
'We haven't got any choice.'
'No. But we have to delay them as long as we can. Can you guard the window, sir?'
'Please, sir, there's no time to explain.'
'Very well.' Macro nodded. 'Help me up and give me your sword.'
Taking the weight off his injured leg, Macro leaned against the wall to one side of the window while Cato disappeared to the back of the barn. Abruptly a large chunk of the shutter finally gave way and tumbled to the floor. Immediately a spear thrust inwards and then hands grabbed the edge of the window frame as a German prepared to pull himself through. Macro slashed down at the nearest hand and the severed fingers jumped up into the air as the man drew back, screaming.
'Come on, you bastards!' Macro shouted. 'Who's game for some more?'
The attack on the door suddenly increased in frenzy and, solid though it was, the wood began to give way. Defending a window was one thing, but the door would be impossible.
'Cato! Whatever you're going to do, better do it right now!'
'Coming, sir!' Cato grunted, and then staggered towards the front of the barn carrying a twisted mass of straw on the end of a pitchfork. He dumped it between the door and the window and hurriedly spread it out. Then, reaching up to the roof, he used the pitchfork to pull down some of the burning thatch, raising his arm to protect his face from the tumbling sparks that came in its wake. Thick tendrils of smoke curled up. Then the flames took hold and, just as the door gave way, the front of the barn crackled with fire, shrouded in thick choking clouds.
'This way!' Cato called out and coughed violently as he inhaled the foul-tasting smoke.
Propping Macro up as best he could with the hand that was unencumbered by the standard, Cato half supported, half dragged the centurion over to the rear of the barn where a ladder led up into the darkness.
'You go up first, sir. Take the standard with you, but give me the sword. Shout once you're through.'
Macro did not argue with the lad's orders and turned to make his way up the ladder, cursing his wound and the awkward standard in equal measure. The smoke from the fire was thickening downwards from the apex of the barn, catching in his lungs and stinging his eyes as he climbed the short, but agonising, distance to the ventilation window. He punched it open and quickly hung his head out, gasping for breath. From this raised position, Macro saw that this side of the village was being consumed by brilliant raging flames, rapidly spreading as the fire was fanned by a light breeze. The Germans were picking their way through the twisting alleys, trying to avoid the fire, heading for the open village square where the remains of the cohort were preparing to fight for their lives.
Immediately below was a small closed yard, where two pigs were dashing about in a fine panic. A mound of winter feed lay directly beneath and Macro hefted the standard up and through the window before letting it drop. From inside the barn there was a sudden crash as the door finally gave way and then a rush of feet and harsh shouts.
'Go, sir!' the boy called. 'Go now!'
The Germans, coughing, were coming towards the rear of the barn, determined to hunt their Roman quarry down, and Macro hurriedly wriggled through the window. Working his way round, he lowered himself down the outside wall until he was hanging full stretch, and then released his grip. The landing was made softer than he had expected as one of the pigs had decided that the hay would make a good shelter from the chaos of the outside world. The last thing that a pig could reasonably expect was a heavily armoured infantryman crashing down from above. Nevertheless, the air was rent with a terrified squeal and a deeper human oath as both struggled to free themselves from the tangle. Macro kicked the beast to one side and sat on the hay, breathing heavily, but otherwise unhurt. The pig had not been so fortunate, its back was broken and the two forelegs worked pathetically to drag the beast over the soiled yard away from danger. And all the while it squealed and screamed so that Macro feared it must attract attention. Inside the barn, he could hear the Germans shouting angrily as they slashed about in their search for Romans to slaughter. Then came a shout and, immediately after, the scraping of the ladder on the inside of the wall. Macro quickly pulled the standard close to him, swept armfuls of hay across his body and lay still. Through the strands across his face Macro stared anxiously up the wall as a dark head appeared against the orange sky. For a horribly long moment the German's head gazed down, then there was a harsh exchange of words and the head withdrew. Macro kept quite still, listening intently as the voices in the barn faded away, under the screams of the injured pig. When he judged he was safe, he sat up and shook off the stinking hay. One side of the yard seemed to give out on to a street and, from over the wall, he could hear Germans pounding by. The other side was comparatively quiet and, nursing his leg, Macro eased himself up and peered over. Immediately beyond the wall was a large area filled with wicker pig-pens – he could hear the animals grunting inside.
Macro eased back down and, waiting until the street fell momentarily quiet, he called out for Cato beneath the window.
No reply came. He called again, but still nothing.
Damn the boy. He should have followed up the ladder the moment the door gave way. But, with a twinge of guilt, Macro realised that the Germans would have been instantly led to the sound. Cato, he realised, must have know this and sacrificed himself to save Macro and the standard.
The pig's squealing had reached a new, nerve-wracking, pitch of terror and Macro kicked it hard in the side of the head.
'Keep the fucking noise down!' He swung the boot in again. 'Want me to get caught?'
But the pig just renewed its cries with increasing panic. Inevitably, some passing Germans paused in the street to investigate the noise. Macro did not hesitate. The standard went flying over the far wall and he frantically pulled himself over the top and slid down the side into a pile of dung scraped together from the nearest pens. Grabbing the standard and keeping as low to the ground as possible, he crawled between the pens towards the centre of the village, trying not to imagine what he might find even if he did make it back to the cohort.