The Second Legion had advanced well into the forest and the vanguard and colour party moved steadily down the track towards General Plautius and the three other legions. The artillery and baggage followed as the two flanking divisions formed a line of march fifty yards either side of the heaving mass of wagons, carts and draught animals. Even as they moved out, it was clear to Vespasian that the order of march was going to run into immediate difficulties. Ahead on the track, trees closed in on either side so the path was constricted to a width of less than thirty paces. Vespasian had foreseen the problem and instructed the senior centurion of each division to thin the flank divisions down to permit as swift as possible a passage through the wooded area. It might well leave the Legion temporarily vulnerable but it was that or face a long march around the forest and Plautius's instructions had required his legates to bring the legions up to the front by the speediest possible route. As the vanguard moved into the forest, the flank cohorts were ordered to form a column of twos to avoid any entanglement with the baggage train.
The manoeuvre was carried out without problem and Vespasian took pleasure in seeing his troops perform with the effortless ease of an elite unit as they funnelled into the forest. Although Plautius's engineers had done a good job of clearing the foliage from the track, they had not had time to clear it the regulation distance of an arrow shot. Once the men had emerged from the trees the double files would be halted, formed back columns of regular width and moved forward to wait for the rest of the Legion to catch up. Routine as the task was, and the legionaries had carried out many such drills on training marches, the fact that they were in hostile territory lent a tense edginess to the officers as they hurried their men through the forest, eager to return their units to a more secure formation.
Although it was midsummer, when the forest should be bursting with wildlife, a gloomy silence hung in the trees and the dark shadows beneath their boughs. Vespasian was keenly aware of it as he rode forward along the column to check that the units were maintaining cohesion.
By the time he had travelled the length of the column Vespasian was content that all was going tolerably well. He allowed himself to relax, with the confidence that the rest of the day's march should be a formality. Even the legionaries had brightened up and some greeted him as he rode past. The sky was a deep blue that reminded him of the Mediterranean; brilliant white clouds towered above the horizon and the sun blazed down on a myriad of flowers alongside the track. Beyond the lines of men, the green woods shimmered in the sunlight and a faint breeze stirred the topmost branches into a soothing rustle. It was a good day to be alive and the thrill of it all flowed through his veins, so Vespasian was delighted when a stag suddenly plunged out of the trees ahead and froze as it encountered the thousands of men marching towards it along the forest track.
'Look!' Vespasian pointed, the severe facade of a legate momentarily slipping to reveal a boyish excitement.
His staff, who had suffered his foul temper for most of the morning, were keen to make the most of his sudden change of mood and eagerly followed his direction. The stag raised its antlers high and sniffed the air to its front and rear, undecided which way to run. Vespasian was struck by the grace of the animal and its lofty air of natural superiority.
'Bound to be some good meat on that one!' one of the officers said. 'Sir, may I?'
Vespasian nodded. It would be a shame to break the spell of the moment, but after all one couldn't eat spells, and the prospect of a venison supper was too alluring to pass up.
The officer spurred his horse on and yanked the reins round to head for the stag, the line of legionaries hurriedly parting to let him by. Pausing only to snatch a javelin from one of the men, the officer charged off in pursuit of the stag. The animal stood its ground for a moment before it sprang into the air and bounded into the trees. Shouting out his hunting call, the officer raced after the beast and disappeared into the shadows, and Vespasian smiled as he heard the crackle of small branches as the officer crashed through the undergrowth to get at his quarry.
Then the excited cries of the young man were suddenly cut short and, with one last crack of breaking branches, the forest fell silent. The staff officers exchanged looks of alarm. Vespasian craned his neck and stared into the darkness of the forest.
'Shall I go after him, sir?' someone volunteered. 'Sir?'
But Vespasian was no longer listening. His eyes were fixed on the space beneath the broad boughs of the trees. Shadows were moving there, moving all along the treeline. As the cold certainty of realisation clutched at his heart, he knew that he and his men were in the gravest danger. And, in damning proof of the foolishness of the Legion's dispositions, the enemy emerged from the forest into the bright light of day with a silence that was more shocking still. Before Vespasian could respond, a horn sounded and the Britons unleashed a volley of arrows that arced up into the clear sky and swept down on to the Romans. The legionaries dropped their marching yokes and desperately snatched at the shields slung across their backs. Some were too slow and slumped to their knees as they were struck down by the rain of arrows which rattled down on shields and carts and pierced their unprotected skins.
Then the danger was over for a brief instant as the Britons notched arrows ready for their next volley. Vespasian turned in his saddle to see that, miraculously, his staff remained uninjured. Already, the centurions and other line officers were bellowing at their men to form up and face the enemy. Their endless training paid off as the legionaries hurriedly turned from column to line and presented their broad rectangular shields to the enemy, even as a second, ragged, volley fell on to the Legion. Those who had been hit in the first shower, men and animals, were now mercilessly exposed and many were struck again, some killed outright. The area between the cohorts and the baggage train was littered with the still bodies of the dead, and the writhing, screaming forms of injured men and beasts. But the men who had formed up and now sheltered behind their shields were comparatively safe. Vespasian hurriedly issued orders for the north-facing cohorts to prepare to advance and staff officers spurred their horses to each end of the division. Looking across the baggage train to the other cohorts Vespasian was relieved to see that their officers had already formed them up and were clearing gaps in the baggage to allow their men to pass through to the other side. With the legionaries in position, they would be able to make short work of the lightly armed archers. Now that the initial shock had run its course, Vespasian found himself looking forward to the coming fight and inevitable victory.
That was when the Britons unleashed their real attack.
At the very moment the southern cohorts were forcing a way through the baggage train, a deep note blasted from a horn behind them in the forest, and the sound was taken up by other horns up and down the length of the track. And with an ear-splitting roar, the Britons erupted from the forest and hurtled towards the disorganised cohorts, who had frozen at the sound of the horns and now gaped in terror at sight of their impending doom. Some centurions with presence of mind shouted out a string of orders and bodily turned their men to face the charge, but the coherent battle line so typical of the Roman army had simply disintegrated. Vespasian watched in horror as the screaming wave of Britons engulfed his men in a shattering crash. The impact immediately drove the legionaries back on to the baggage train and scores were cut down as they tried to escape through the gaps between the vehicles. Those who turned to face the enemy fought in isolation and, with the Britons still pouring from the forest, the legate could see that the unequal numbers would lead to a massacre of his men unless a battle line could be established within the next few moments.
'Out of the bloody way!' Cato shrieked as he desperately yanked at the reins and the exhausted horse swerved round a legionary who had stepped into his path. Ahead he could see Vespasian amongst his staff. The group had stopped and were looking into the forest on the right-hand side of the track. Suddenly Cato was aware of movement all along the treeline as the Britons emerged from the shadows.
An icy dread washed over him as he realised his warning had arrived too late.
A war horn blasted out and the air was filled with a whirring sound. Before Cato could react, his horse let out a piercing shriek and threw him to one side as it tumbled. Cato scrambled away from the animal and, looking back, saw that it had been struck in the neck by two arrows and now thrashed about in agony. Other victims littered the ground as more arrows thudded down pitilessly. Some men had already abandoned their yokes and were running back down the column towards the camp.
But Cato had no intention of fleeing. He crouched down and glanced around. He felt vulnerable out of armour and hurried over to a dead legionary, quickly stripping the body of shield, helmet and sword. Thus protected, Cato plunged into the nearest mass of men still struggling to organise a resistance against the enemy. It was a desperately unequal fight since the legionaries were not formed up and were engaged in hand-to-hand combat against superior numbers. Only those men who managed to form shield to shield in little knots stood a chance against the sweeping, hacking strokes of the Britons' long swords. Two utterly different fighting styles were in play and as long as the Britons could maintain a loose melee the shorter swords of the legionaries were badly outranged.
Cato rushed into battle, screaming a savage war cry he was not even conscious of. Exhausted to the point of delirium, bitter at his treatment and driven by a keen awareness that this was a fight for survival, he sought the nearest enemy. A tall man of his own height and stature stood in his path, long sword raised and face painted to resemble a many-fanged mouth. Lowering his point and raising his shield Cato deflected the blow and thrust his sword deep into the man's guts. The Briton went down with a piercing cry as Cato wrenched the blade free and knocked him flat with the shield boss. He quickly glanced round, looking for the next target alert to the danger. Three paces ahead of him a Briton stood over a prone legionary whose sword arm had almost been hacked through. The Briton raised his sword to despatch his enemy but before the sword reached the zenith of its arc Cato caught him high in the back between his shoulder blades. With a puzzled expression the man toppled to one side of his intended victim.
'Here!' Cato grabbed the legionary's good hand and, covering them both with his shield dragged the man a short distance to where a group of Romans had formed a tight line with their backs to a pair of wagons. At the centre of the line stood Bestia, bellowing out encouragement to the others in his best parade-ground voice. Cato flung the man he had rescued down with the other injured and turned to take his place among the legionaries.
'Cato!' Bestia shouted, snatching a sidelong glance. 'Time for you to show me what you're really made of.'
Cato nodded grimly as he faced the enemy, thrusting out at any Britons who came close enough, and deflecting the blows of the wicked long swords that carried enough momentum to cut through a man's head in one blow. Indeed, as he fought shoulder to shoulder with his comrades, Cato saw a Roman lean down to finish off a wounded enemy, oblivious in his moment of triumph to the Briton standing to one side, sword raised high in the air. It flashed down, straight through the legionary's neck, before the tip buried itself in the bloody grass beside the track. The legionary's helmeted head shot forward and, with a rattling thud landed several feet away as arterial crimson exploded into the air from the stump of the man's neck.
It was a detail lost in an instant as Cato stabbed at the Britons surrounding the little group. Now that the initial momentum of the charge had subsided, the two sides were locked in thousands of individual struggles whose minutest details would be etched forever in the minds of those who survived. Centurion Bestia laying about with all the ferocious efficiency of a veteran – an anguished expression on an enemy's face – the exotic pattern of the Britons' body paint – the stiffened spiky hair and strangely patterned tattoos. All these impressions burned into the mind's eye even as they passed in a flash. For Cato, an inner calmness seemed to consume him as his mind divorced itself from his body and he fought by instinct. For the first time he felt he really belonged to the Second Legion. If the rearguard arrived in time he might even live to enjoy the feeling.
The battle was going badly and Vespasian saw that the southern line of cohorts – if it could, in truth, be described as a line – would completely disintegrate at any moment unless it could be strengthened. Two cohorts who faced the archers had been ordered forward to clear the treeline and deny them any further opportunity to pepper the Romans. The two remaining cohorts of the main force, some eight hundred men, were all that was left to him now and he hurriedly formed them into a double line facing the baggage train. Then, as their comrades fell back through the tangle of wagons and draught animals, gaps were made in the lines to permit them passage to the rear, where staff officers were hurriedly reforming the survivors of the southernmost cohorts into a reserve.
As things stood, Vespasian knew that the battle could only have one outcome. Sheer weight of numbers, and the loss of a third of his command, meant that the Britons would eventually overwhelm even the stoutest defence. For a moment he considered ordering his men to break formation and flee into the forest to the north but, scattered and lost, they would be easy pickings for the inevitable pursuit. The destruction of the Legion would take place more quickly if they stood their ground, but they would take more of the enemy with them. Then, at least, his posthumous reputation would be salvaged and the name Vespasian would not be linked to that of Varus, who had led three legions to a similar fate many years ago in the dark depths of the German forests.
The reserve line held steady as their comrades were forced back through the baggage train, slowly yielding ground before the enemy onslaught. Once the retreating Romans were safely within javelin range, Vespasian nodded to the trumpeter who blared out the prearranged signal. The men of the two cohorts readied their javelins.
'Release!' Vespasian roared out and the centurions instantly echoed the command. Eight hundred arms hurled their javelins in a high-angled arc over the heads of their comrades, beyond the baggage train, where they fell on the lightly armoured bodies of the Britons massing on the far side. From the volume of cries and screams, the Romans knew that they had hit the enemy hard and the men exchanged grins of satisfaction as they readied their final javelins. The second volley caused a fresh crescendo of screams and cries to rend the air. The legionaries drew their swords, waiting for the Britons to resume their attack on the thin Roman lines. The Legion had shot its bolt and now prepared to renew the vicious hand-to-hand fighting that would decide the matter.
Dismounting from his horse, Vespasian undid the clasp at his shoulder and let his legate's cloak slide to the ground in an untidy heap. An orderly held out a shield and Vespasian slipped his left hand through the strap, took a firm hold of the iron handle and drew his ivory-handled short sword. He drew himself up to his full height and pushed his way forward until he stood in the middle of the front rank of men facing the enemy. If this was the day ordained for his death, then he would go down as his breeding and respect for Roman tradition dictated he should: with his face to the enemy and a sword in his hand.