When the door crashed open Cato's mind was racing. With Macro safely out of harm's way, he moved along the wall and dived into the huge pile of straw gathered in the corner, burrowing his way deep inside as the Germans advanced into the barn.
Then there were voices close by and, suddenly, a terrible screaming from somewhere just outside the barn. Cato immediately feared for his centurion, before common sense told him that no man could make a noise like that. One of the Germans laughed and then dissolved into a fit of coughing. The smoke in the barn was starting to catch in Cato's throat and he desperately strained to keep his chest still.
Something moved quickly through the straw and there was a dull clang as it struck the barn wall. The noise was repeated, closer this time and, with a feeling of cold dread, Cato realised that they were searching the straw with their spears. He forced himself to remain still, knowing full well that surrender was suicide. More spear-thrusts followed as the Germans hunted for their prey, painfully coughing in the thickening smoke of the burning barn. Someone shouted. Abruptly the search ceased as the Germans hurriedly withdrew from the blazing building.
Only when he was sure that he was alone did Cato cautiously pick his way out of the straw. The room was full of smoke, with only a small decrease in density at floor level. Staying low on his stomach, Cato crawled towards the front of the building where the straw he had lit shortly before was now reduced to glowing embers. Beyond the shattered doorframe the street was swarming with Germans. One voice shouted out a string of orders before they moved on towards the centre of the village. Cato waited until the last sound of the footsteps had gone before he rolled out into the street, coughing loudly and gulping down the fire-warmed night air. His lungs and his eyes stung painfully and it was only after he managed to clear the tears from his eyes that Cato could clearly see the street around him. Although the shouts of Germans could be heard above the crackle and roar of flames he was, for the moment, alone – except for the man he had knocked out earlier with the butt of the standard.
Approaching cautiously, Cato saw that the German was still out cold; a nasty black and blue lump had risen on his forehead. With Germans all around and Romans in short supply, Cato reasoned that a change in appearance would be a prudent move. He undid the clasp on the German's cloak and rolled the helpless man over to pull it free. As he draped it over his own cloak the malodorous mix of sweat, human and animal soiling and waterproofing grease was quite overwhelming, and Cato retched. He struggled for a moment to free the buckle holding his helmet on and then let the cumbersome weight of iron and bronze thud to the ground. There was nothing he could do about his army-cropped hair and, with a distasteful wrinkle of his nose he raised the cloak's hood over his head. With his sword sheathed under the cloak Cato snatched up the German's spear and shield. Looking down at himself he saw that the overall effect, while far from convincing, might at least allow him to look less like a Roman.
What now? The only direction that offered any possibility of safety was towards the village square and what was left of the cohort. But what of Macro and the standard? Cato hurriedly examined the now fiercely blazing barn for access to the rear, but the narrow passage down the side of the barn was filled with flames. The heat scalded his face and Cato recoiled from the passage entrance. Pulling the cloak tightly about his head and body, Cato took a deep breath and plunged headlong into the passage. The heat and light were tremendous and almost at once there was the smell of roasted waterproofing grease. Cato hunched further down and ran on, flames scorching his bare legs, then he was past the side of the barn, out of the fire. The entire cloak was smouldering and Cato hastily beat out the few patches that were alight.
The high wall at the rear of the barn was hard to scale, weighed down and tired as he was. Scrabbling breathlessly up the side, Cato just managed to raise his head above the uneven stonework. The yard behind the barn seemed empty apart from a large pile of winter feed.
'Sir!' Cato called out as loudly as he dared.
Something stirred in the winter feed at the sound of his voice and Cato felt his heart leap with relief. Then the air was cut by a scream of agony.
'Sir! Are you hurt?' Cato cried out anxiously, and then a vague shape twisted out of the winter feed and writhed in screaming fits of agony. A pig. Where was the centurion?
Cato released his grip and sank down beside the wall; young, scared and alone. Bitter tears of hatred at the way the fates had treated him pooled in his eyes for a moment. The roof of the barn suddenly crashed down into the hungry flames. Cato stumbled back as the instinct for self-preservation reasserted itself within him. Very well, he was alone, surrounded by the enemy and a raging fire, but he wasn't going to surrender his life to either without a struggle.
Quickly constructing a mental plan of the village with the relative positions of Romans, Germans and the fire, Cato decided on a direction and hurried away from the barn along the narrow passageway, eyes and ears alert for danger.
Pigs, Macro thought, might be induced to taste well in the hands of a good cook, but in their raw state they were barely tolerable at the best of times, and German pigs – never. As he crawled through the filth between their pens, where the urine and the more liquid variety of shit oozed into a badly dug drainage channel, he strove to keep his mind on saving the standard, which he kept as far from the filth as possible. A quite unbearable stench invaded his nose and overpowered his mind, so that he crawled on, swearing every imaginable oath at each pig he passed.
Macro crawled up to a large wicker gate. Through the crudely woven hazel he peered cautiously into the street beyond. A short distance to one side, the street gave out on to the market area, made up of roughly built stalls, now empty and bare in the depth of winter. The fire had not reached this part of the village and the locals who had escaped Vitellius's round up were carrying away the few precious possessions that time allowed, casting anxious glances beyond Macro to where flames licked high into the night. From what he had seen from the ventilation window, Macro estimated that a little distance beyond the market he would find the village square. The handful of villagers nearby were women, children and older Germans – none of whom seemed to pose too much of a threat. If he got by them as stealthily as possible he might be ignored. And then he would have a short march along the street to the rest of the cohort.
Painfully rising to his feet, Macro withdrew the peg that fastened the wicker gate. Sticking close to the side of the street, he kept the butt of the standard off the ground in a bid to remain as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. Progress was slow as he was beginning to lose any feeling in his wounded leg and, worse, loss of blood was making him feel faint-headed. Breathing deeply he forced himself on, into the market and down the side of the deserted stalls, unobserved or ignored by the villagers retrieving the last of their valuables and helping themselves to those of absent neighbours. It was not in their interest to attract attention any more than it was in Macro's and those who saw him simply eyed him warily as he passed.
Leaving the market, the sound of fighting grew louder and Macro paused for breath at a point where the street bent round sharply towards the village square. His vision was clouding badly and his head started to spin. Macro rubbed his eyes and bit back on the nausea and, gradually, clarity of vision and mind returned. A quick glance around the corner would tell him if the way ahead was clear. The centurion leaned his head out.
The German ran into him so quickly that Macro was only aware that he was suddenly flat on his back, gazing up at the orange sky, winded and gasping for air. To one side of him the German had fallen headlong, spear clattering on to the street. As Macro struggled to roll over and draw his dagger, the German reacted more quickly. In a trice he was on his feet, snatching up the spear and whirling round to plant the broad blade in his enemy's throat. Macro held his dagger out, knowing it was no more than a pathetic gesture of defiance.
'Thanks be to Jupiter!' the German said in perfect Latin.
The German lowered his spear and offered him a hand. Macro just stared at the man as if he were mad.
'Do come on, sir. We haven't got time,' Cato urged, drawing back the hood, then wrinkling his nose. 'What the hell is that smell?'
Macro slumped back against the wall, smiling with relief, and the moment's loss of determination set his head reeling again. But he didn't really care. Cato was here, bless the lad. Now if he could just rest a moment…
He was being roughly shaken and his eyes flickered open. Above him loomed Cato, hands tightly grasping Macro's harness.
'Up we go, sir!' Cato said, gritting his teeth with exertion as he hauled Macro to his feet. He supported him with one arm while using the spear to steady them both. Macro stubbornly held on to the standard, which trailed behind them, as Cato dragged him along the side of the market to the next street corner. A quick glance revealed more Germans milling about as their front ranks tried to force a way through to the village square.
'This is no good,' Cato said. 'They're in every street. We must try something else.'
'I have to rest.'
'No, sir! You can't.' Cato shook him until his eyes flickered open again. 'There! That's better. Now then.'
Cato kicked open a door and dragged Macro into a small hut. The centurion was only dimly aware of being led through an assortment of dingy rooms and yards before Cato deposited him beside an earth-faced wicker wall. The lad drew out his sword, slipped off the German's cloak and attacked the wall with all his strength.
'What the hell are you doing, boy?' Macro asked weakly.
'I think the square is on the other side of this house. If we can just get through the wall.'
'Then I can rest.'
'Then you can rest, sir.'
Cato grasped the sword handle with both hands and stabbed away at the wall, loosening great lumps of clay, until he had exposed a large section of the wattle. He wiped his brow once, and attacked the slender intertwined branches with desperate energy. Macro watched listlessly, no longer really caring about anything, slowly giving in to his desire to float off into a deep sleep.
The wattle proved a much tougher prospect than the lathe and Cato's heart pounded as he hacked at the wall with single-minded fury. At last he had cut away enough to start attacking the tightly packed earth and clay on the far side. In moments he had thrust through and a dim shaft of light filtered into the room. Cato worked with renewed frenzy and the gap quickly widened. When it was large enough to squeeze through he gently picked up the centurion and dragged him across to the hole.
'You first, boy,' Macro protested.
'No, sir, it'll be easier to get you through now than drag you out after.'
With Cato half supporting him, Macro thrust his head, arms and shoulders through the wall, dislodging a shower of earth which tumbled down over him. He spluttered for breath, shaking the earth from his head, and then someone swung a boot into his side.
'Bloody Germans are coming through the wall!' someone shouted.
'Easy lads! I'm Roman!'
'Oh! Sorry, mate!'
A rough hand reached down to Macro. Moments later, Cato was helping to prop him up and brushing the dust off his head and uniform. The legionary who had kicked him in the side gulped nervously as he caught sight of the centurion's medalled harness.
'Sir, I didn't know…'
'No harm done, son. Just take us to the tribune.'
'This way, sir.' The legionary supported Macro on his other side and, with the centurion's arms over the legionaries' shoulders, the trio made their way past the rearmost ranks of the soldiers holding the entrances to the village square. They found Vitellius standing outside the village chief's hut with the trumpeter and the cohort standard-bearer. From inside the hut came the sounds of muffled cries and screams.
'Stop here a moment, lads,' Macro ordered, before extracting his arm from Cato's shoulder and saluting Vitellius.
'Ah! So you're still with us, Macro! I was told the Germans had you, and the optio here, bang to rights.'
'Nasty wound. Better get it cleaned and dressed.' Vitellius jerked a thumb at the door to the hut. 'The orderlies are a bit busy right now, but you might attract their attention. And get them to wipe some of that shit off you while they're about it.'
'Where's my century, sir?'
'They're holding the main gate at the moment-' Vitellius moved aside as a fresh casualty was carried past into the hut. 'I had them run the villagers outside between assaults. Can't afford to have troops wasted on guard duty.'
'How are we doing?'
Vitellius frowned momentarily before answering. 'Not well. We're down to less than three hundred effectives. The Germans are trying to force an entry to the square down five streets. The fire has cut them off from all other accesses and we still hold the wall and gate on the other side of the village.'
'Can we hold out until Vespasian gets here?'
'Maybe.' Vitellius shrugged, looking up into the snowy sky. 'If the fire keeps channelling them into a limited number of streets. We're holding them back now, but they can afford to lose more men than us. Once they've got the edge in numbers they'll just push us back into the square. Then we make a final stand here, by the injured.'
'And what if the fire gets to us before the Germans?'
'We'll be forced back to the main gate, and then outside into the tender arms of the waiting German horde.'
To be burned to death or gutted by barbarians, thought Cato. Which would he choose when the time came?
'Get your wound seen to, Macro,' Vitellius ordered. He gestured to the trumpeter and the standard-bearer. 'Come!'
'What about me, sir?' Cato asked.
Vitellius glanced back at Macro. '"Me sir" can guard your standard, Centurion.'
'Yes, sir.' Macro smiled grimly, then held out the Sixth century's standard. 'Hold this, until they fix the wound. I'll take it once I get out.'
Once Macro had been helped inside, an orderly hurried over to inspect the wound. With a casual nod of the head, he decided that no triage mercy killing was required in this case. He flapped his hands at Cato, shooing him out of the hut. When Cato turned at the doorway to take a last look at his centurion, the orderly was cleaning the wound with a bloodstained rag.
Outside the hut, Cato tried to plant the standard with quick thrusts but the frozen ground defeated his every effort. He eventually gave up and rested it against his shoulder. Although he felt relief at being back with the cohort the fight was not going their way. The tightly compacted melees had turned into a heaving scrimmage whose outcome would ultimately depend on which side had the greater weight. Even so, the odd sword or javelin was finding its mark and the occasional casualty emerged from the rearmost legs of the press. Those who were too badly wounded to make their way out of the maul were simply trampled underfoot.
Slowly, but with painful inevitability, the Romans were forced back down the streets towards the square. Cato knew that the moment the Germans spilled out into the square they would swarm around the Romans, who would be annihilated in short order. Much of the night had already passed but there were still some hours until daybreak and then half a day before Vespasian could reach the village.
But even as the Germans pushed forward the fire began to overtake them, spreading rapidly through the combustible dwellings. Distant horns sounded and from the Germans there came a sudden howl of rage and frustration. The horns blew the retreat more insistently and the Germans reluctantly disengaged with a final desperate exchange of blows as they fled from the fire. And then the cohort was alone. But relief was shortlived. The violence of the Germans was swiftly replaced by the wrath of Vulcan as fire swept up to the village square, burning all along its fringes and out towards the village walls. The Romans recoiling before the blaze were lit up in a terrible red glow that cast their long shimmering shadows far behind them. The heat of the fire withered all before it and the men shrank back behind the shelter of their shields.
A legionary came running up, pointing towards the street that led from the square.
'Fall back! Everyone back to the main gate. Now!'
The cohort limped out of the square, a ragged column of exhausted men, some helping support wounded comrades, and others using shields as makeshift stretchers to carry out those too badly injured to walk. But all were silent and despairing. Too many officers had died and unit cohesion had completely broken down as they trudged wearily and painfully through the red-rimmed silhouettes of German huts. At the main gate, Vitellius threw up a defensive cordon with the wounded clustered behind the rear ranks. Then the remains of the cohort quietly waited for the end to come.
Cato had rejoined the Sixth century, after he had made his centurion as comfortable as possible, and from the gate tower he had a fine view of approaching doom. The wind urged the flames on and now they set about consuming the other half of the village. Beyond the wall Cato saw the clustered German villagers watching as their homes and livelihoods were incinerated. Without food and shelter not many of them would survive the winter and the red glow of the fire lit up the expressions of stricken despair etched on their faces. Cato felt a twinge of guilt as he saw the human consequences of war, even though he knew he would be dead soon, one way or another.
Beyond the villagers, the dark ranks of the German warriors stretched into the night as they waited for the fire to drive their enemy out into the open.
As the night grew old, Cato was surprised to see the men of the cohort succumb to a gentle fatalism. The surviving officers and men exchanged words quietly, without any sense of difference in rank. Imminent death was a great social leveller. It was a strange comfort to be with them now, here – just before the final wild charge into oblivion. A warm sense of serenity flushed through him and Cato found that he was smiling. For a moment his eyes met those of a hard-bitten veteran whose expressionless face suddenly returned the smile. No words passed between them; none were necessary.
As the first hint of dawn appeared on the skyline the fire was almost on them and Vitellius ordered the remaining men to form into a column behind the gate. The tribune paused for a moment to consider the fate of those too badly injured to walk unaided. Most had requested that swords be left with them, to allow them to go down fighting, or at least to deprive the Germans of the terrible amusements they reserved for prisoners. Vitellius wondered if it would be more merciful if he ordered them all to be put to death before the cohort left. As he stood pondering, a sentry on the gate tower called down to him.
It seemed that the Germans had allowed themselves to be overcome by impatience. It would end with a brief scrap on the walls then, and no final charge, Vitellius concluded with disappointment. Wearily climbing the steps inside the tower, he emerged on to the watch platform where Cato stood with the sentry. The optio looked confused and a moment later the tribune could see why.
The Germans were on the move all right, but instead of moving forwards towards the gate they were marching round the sides of the village, away from the track that led up the slope towards the forest.
'What the hell?' Vitellius frowned.
'Sir… What are they doing?'
'I've no idea.'
The Germans increased their pace and already the villagers were standing in pathetic isolation before the gate. Cato could not quite bring himself to believe what his eyes showed him. Then his ears caught a new sound, a sound that rose above the crackling flames licking at their backs. Sharp and clear on the dawn air came the strident sound of trumpets and on the crest of the hill above the village a line of horsemen rode into view; at their head, a party of officers in red cloaks and crested helmets.
Vespasian, it appeared, had not waited for dawn to break before marching to their rescue.