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Chapter Thirty-nine

From the crest of a hill at the southern edge of the forest, Macro stood at the base of a vast oak tree and stared up through its leafy branches. The track from the marsh had brought them to this point and Macro could wait no longer to find out how things stood with the Second Legion.

'Well?'

'I can't quite make it out, sir,' Pyrax called down to him.

'Just tell me what you can see.'

'I can see the baggage train right enough, but there's men all over it – can't tell who's who though.'

Macro balled his hand into a fist and struck the rough bark in frustration. 'This is no good,' he muttered and then, grabbing a low branch, he began scaling the broad trunk. He reached Pyrax, sitting astride a limb growing perpendicularly from the trunk.

'Next time I need information,' Macro gasped, 'I'll bloody well do the job myself, and not get somebody who's half blind.'

Beside Pyrax, Macro had his first view of the distant battle and saw with horror that the thin scarlet lines of the Legion were engulfed by a multicoloured wave of enemy troops. Only the rearguard retained any appearance of order. Vitellius and Cato had failed then and Vespasian had unwittingly led his men into an ambush. From the look of things, the ambush was about to become a massacre.

'What shall we do, sir?'

'Do? What can we do?'

'Should we try and find one of the other legions, sir? Or maybe head back to the fortress on the coast.'

'Well, we're hardly going to reinforce that lot,' Macro said bitterly and jabbed his thumb towards the forest. 'But we'll wait. Something might happen.'

'Like what, sir?'

'Haven't got a fucking clue. So we wait.'

They sat in silence, watching their comrades, men they had known for most of their lives, as they were gradually pushed back from the baggage train. It was a struggle for survival, the bloody intensity of which they could only helplessly imagine. It was almost more than Macro could bear and he tried to stop tears forming in his eyes as he witnessed the death of the Second Legion.

'Sir?'

'What?'

'Over there. Look.' Pyrax pointed to the west of the forest, eyes straining to make out the detail in the extreme distance. Following the direction of his finger Macro saw the dark mass which had escaped his attention earlier, when he had been battling to fight back his tears. But now as he looked, the dead hand of fate closed its fingers on any last hopes he may have entertained for the Second Legion. A second column of Britons was flowing down the forest track to seal the Legion's fate.

– =OO=OOO=OO-=

The hard-pressed men of the Second Legion had been forced to steadily yield ground to the Britons and now their backs were almost up against the treeline from which the archers had emerged. The last reserves of Cato's strength had almost run their course; the weight of the shield on his arm seemed to have increased tenfold and now he could barely raise it off the ground. His sword thrusts had been reduced to feeble jabs at the faces of the enemy and he could barely parry the blows that were aimed at him. But still he fought on, determined to resist to the last. And that time, he knew, was fast approaching. Bestia had fallen, cut down when three of the enemy had jumped him together and he now lay on the bloodied grass, face laid open to the bone. The fact that the legate was fighting alongside his men was eloquent proof that he too believed that the Second Legion was about to be wiped out. Separated from vanguard and rearguard by the cleverly worked ambush, the cohorts of the main column fought on alone. The ground before them was covered with the fallen and the moans of the injured mingled with the overall cacophony of war cries, shouts of rage and the incoherent roars of men who had surrendered to the blood-lust of battle. There were no cries from Roman wounded, any who fell to the ground at the mercy of the Britons were quickly despatched with the bitter anger that is reserved for all invaders. All around the grass was splashed with slippery crimson gore that presented yet another peril to the men engaged in the deadly struggle waged all along the forest track.

To Cato's left, the Second's legate fought with a savage abandon that filled those around him with surprise, so used were they to the quiet-mannered disciplinarian. But with death so imminent, Vespasian saw little point in preserving any sense of decorum. What the men needed now was not the cold reserve of aristocratic command, it was an example of fighting spirit to sustain them to the end. So he threw himself at all comers, hacking and slashing at the enemy with wanton disregard for his own safety. Yet he still lived, apparently charmed against the blows of the enemy, while men about him were struck down.

In spite of the fact that the Romans showed no signs of breaking, and only seemed to fight harder the more they were pressed back, the Britons scented victory. After the initial surprise of the ambush, the Legion had exacted a terrible toll on them such that only the complete destruction of every Roman would suffice. Vespasian saw a chariot careering along behind the Britons. It carried a richly dressed man of some stature who was wildly exhorting his men, driving them onwards as he pointed his war spear again and again at the Roman lines. For a moment, the legate considered leading a small group against the Britons' commander, in the hope that the elimination of Togodumnus would knock the fight out of them. But every Roman was already committed to the battle and could not be extricated to form such a force. Vespasian despaired as he watched the chariot pass by unharmed and then, his rage further inflamed, he slammed his shield into the body of a Briton engaged with the legionary next to him and thrust a sword into the man's side. No doubt Togodumnus would be considered a great hero by his own people when the day was out, and the thought spurred Vespasian on to fight with even greater ferocity.

When the Roman line finally gave under the relentless pressure, the Legion broke into small groups fighting independently of each other, no longer a part of any coherent military formation, simply fighting to live a little longer yet – and make the enemy pay for the privilege.

Cato found himself in a knot of fifty or so men holding off several times that number of Britons. As he dragged himself round to face the latest attacker he was suddenly confronted by a huge man, naked but painted in strange Celtic patterns from head to toe. With a roar, the man swung a great two-handed sword at Cato's head. Summoning up all his energy, Cato jerked his shield up just in time. With a terrible jarring crash the sword splintered the shield and instantly numbed Cato's shield arm from his fingertips through to his shoulder. His grip failed him and the shield slipped from his useless fingers leaving Cato at the mercy of the towering British warrior, who laughed into the face of his helpless victim. He brutally shoved Cato backwards and the optio sprawled on the ground, the force of the impact winding him as his sword fell beyond his reach. Raising the great sword up for the final blow, the Briton bellowed his war cry. But before he could strike Cato saw a figure come between them -Vespasian. With a snarl the legate thrust himself forward, coming in under the Briton's sword and warding it off with his shield. Then he thrust out, and up, at the Briton's throat, but the warrior reacted with a lithe sidestep that bespoke a mastery of close combat. Pulling back, each man sized the other up, ready to spring to the attack in an instant.

For a moment a stillness surrounded the pair as Britons and Romans alike watched for the outcome of the fight between the giant Briton and the legate. The decisive moment of the battle had been reached. But even as they paused, they became aware of a new sound – the blare of distant instruments. Both men heard the noise though their eyes remained firmly fixed on each other. Lying on the ground, Cato wondered at first if his tired ears had deceived him, but he saw that his comrades shared his reaction. Could it be possible?

The sound was repeated almost at once and Vespasian felt his heart lift – there was no mistaking the trumpet call for the charge. Help was at hand, but from whom? The thought was over in an instant as the British warrior stepped back a pace, instinctively following the rest of his comrades, who broke contact with their enemy as the first terrible doubts began to sow themselves. Seizing the opportunity of the moment, Vespasian thrust his sword-point deep into the Briton's throat and quickly ripped it free. Dropping his sword, the British warrior grabbed at his wound in an attempt to stem the flow of blood. Vespasian ignored him and craned his neck in the direction of the trumpets, now definitely closer at hand. Then, over the heads of the Britons, far down the track, a line of horsemen appeared, cloaked in red, at their head the unmistakable silhouette of a Roman standard. And from the other direction came the roar of the Second Legion's rearguard as they renewed their attack from the other end of the forest track.

A palpable shiver of anxiety rippled through the Britons as the cavalry began to roll up their flank. A handful of men began to retreat towards the southern treeline. As others followed their lead, the chariot bearing Togodumnus raced up the line and the Britons' leader shouted harshly at his men to hold, but the infectious sense of fear was already turning to panic and his men swept by him. Seeing that a hard core of Britons were holding their ground, Vespasian raised his sword high above his head. No eloquent speech was needed, and none came.

'Get them! Get them!'

The Roman line surged forward in pursuit of the men who, a moment ago, had been utterly assured of victory. Now they ran like' rabbits, bolting for the safety of the forest on the far side of the track, all sense of arrogant self-belief gone in an instant. Cato, still lying on the ground, could only marvel at the suddenness of the change in circumstances.

Vespasian kept his eye on Togodumnus and, collecting a handful of men about him, he launched himself through the bloody pursuit, straight at the chariot. But the Britons' leader was no fool and knew when he had lost control of a battle. He barked an order at the driver and, with a crack of a whip, the chariot turned round and raced back down the forest track, away from the rapidly approaching cavalry. Vespasian could only watch in despair as the chariot accelerated away from him, the driver recklessly mowing down everything in his path to ensure that Togodumnus reached safety.

The legate called his men to a halt at the side of the baggage train and climbed on to the driver's seat of the nearest wagon to try and get an overview of the battle. Everywhere he looked, the Britons were on the run and, from the west, the Roman cavalry he had spied moments earlier, mercilessly swept along the forest track slaughtering all the enemy before them. As they approached, a tall figure on a white horse tore itself away from the pursuit and made his way over to Vespasian.

'Vitellius?' Vespasian muttered to himself doubtfully. But a moment later the likeness was clear enough and Vespasian shook his head in surprise. Vitellius reined in by the wagon and saluted.

'What the hell are you doing here, tribune?'

'It's a long story, sir.'

'I bet it is. And once this little lot's over I want a full report.'

– =OO=OOO=OO-=

High on the hill overlooking the forest, Macro almost fell out of the tree with excitement. He bobbed up and down on the bough, smacking his fist into his other hand as he saw the lead elements of the Fourteenth – it could only be the Fourteenth, he surmised – plough into the enemy surrounding the Second's vanguard, just as the Second's rearguard rushed at the other flank of the fleeing Britons. As soon as the enemy broke, the cavalry was released for the merciless pursuit that followed, the troopers sweeping all before them as panic flooded through the enemy who turned and streamed from the battlefield.

'Brilliant! Bloody brilliant, I tell you!' He slapped Pyrax on the shoulder.

'Easy, sir!' Pyrax shouted as he desperately grabbed the bough-Macro just smiled at him and then continued his rejoicing. 'Bastards are all over the place! Look at 'em running from the forest. They must have gone through the trees like shit through a goose!'

'Some of them are running this way, sir,' Pyrax observed quietly.

'Of course they are. They're going to try and reach the marsh while they can. Oh…' Macro looked down through the branches to the track below that meandered over to the forest in one direction and the distant marsh in the other. 'I see what you mean.'

'We'd better not be here when they come by. I don't imagine they'd be too chuffed to encounter any more Romans.'

'Point taken.' Macro nodded to the men lying in the grass at the foot of the oak tree. 'You'd better go down and get them up here. And lose the horses, they're no good to us now.'

'Right, sir.' Pyrax quickly clambered down and left Macro to watch the final phase of the fight unfolding panoramically before him.

The pursuing cavalry and rearguard troops were emerging from the forest to run down the rearmost Britons as they attempted to stumble for safety. Some dropped their weapons and threw themselves at the mercy of their pursuers, but few were spared. Those taken alive were swiftly rounded up and herded together under the watchful eyes of a handful of sturdy men appointed for the task. Pyrax had been right, many of the figures fleeing from the Romans were heading up the track leading back to the marsh they had used to outflank the Second Legion and they would be passing under the tree in a few moments. Macro looked down and saw that his squad was scrambling up into the oak tree, the uninjured hauling up their less fortunate comrades until all were hidden in the leafy boughs.

Satisfied that they were safe from the Britons, Macro once more watched the pursuit. His eye caught a movement from the edge of the forest nearest the remains of the Second's marching camp and saw a chariot tear round the edge of the trees and head directly up the hill towards the track. As the charioteer thrashed his horses, Macro saw that the man standing behind him, clutching at the wicker handholds, was a superbly built individual in richly decorated robes, sporting a gleaming bronze helmet. Clearly he was a warrior of some significance. A pair of Roman cavalrymen took advantage of the slope and charged after the chariot. Nimbly knocking aside the cavalryman's spear-thrust, the Briton smashed the heavily weighted butt of his spear into the man's face and he tumbled from his horse. The second cavalryman was equally reckless and he paid for it with his life as the British chieftain ran him clean through then ripped his spear free.

As the chariot lumbered up the slope, Macro could see that its present course would take it under the oak tree.

'We'll have him! That bastard there!' He pointed out the chariot and ordered those of his patrol who were still armed and uninjured to follow him down to the ground. Breathing heavily, with swords drawn, they crouched low and waited. A handful of British infantry ran by but took to their heels with a fresh burst of energy as soon as they saw the grim-faced huddle of legionaries with glinting short swords. Then the pounding of hooves and rattle of wheels heralded the approach of the chariot and Macro tensed, ready to pounce. The harsh shouts of the charioteer rose above the din and Macro risked a peek round the tree trunk to make sure of his timing.

'Ready, lads? Go for the charioteer and the horses first. Then we'll deal with the big one.'

He waited until the chariot was almost level with the oak tree.

'Now! At 'em, lads!'

Macro rushed out, directly into the path of the horses, and made a grab for the traces. The men on the chariot were taken completely by surprise and had no time to steer round the Romans. Macro pulled down hard and the horses stumbled to a halt. Pyrax took down the charioteer with a quick thrust before the man could even drop the reins. He fell off the chariot and his head was crushed under a wheel as his nervous horses sidestepped. The chieftain recovered his wits and leaped down, spear in hand, and made for the broad trunk of the oak tree. He turned, presented his spear and dared the Romans to fight him with a harsh laugh. Macro looked at him admiringly; the fellow was certainly game for a fight, whatever the odds.

'Spread out!' he ordered his men. 'And watch that bloody spear!'

As the half circle of legionaries cautiously approached, the Briton kept the tip of his war spear on the move, thrusting it at one man after another as they crept too close. With a howl of pain, one of Macro's tired men was stabbed in the guts and tumbled to the ground, bleeding profusely.

'All right then!' Macro called out, keeping his eyes firmly on the Briton. 'We'll rush him. Ready? Now!'

Six men threw themselves at the Briton and, with a wild stab, he caught one man in the leg before the others crashed into him, knocking him flat. But, hopelessly outnumbered as he was, the Briton hurled two men to one side, grabbed a Roman sword and rolled on to his feet, crouching low, with the unaccustomed blade held ready to slash at his enemies.

'Leave him to me!' Macro waved the others back. 'Bastard wants a fight, then he can have one with me.'

Readying his short sword, Macro bent his knees and slowly circled the Briton, sizing him up. And all the time the chieftain stared back, coldly assessing the stocky Roman.

'Fancy yourself, don't you?' Macro said quietly. 'Big bastard you may be, but you haven't got a bloody clue how to use that sword. Designed for thrusting… it's not a bloody cleaver.'

He feinted forwards and, as he had anticipated, the Briton swung the sword up above his head, rushing at Macro with a savage howl of rage. Macro simply dropped to his knee, straightened his arm and let the Briton's momentum do the rest. With a grunt the man doubled over the sword and flung his arms forward, his hands searching for Macro's neck. He got a grip and pressed down on the windpipe. Gasping, Macro tumbled on to the ground with the Briton on top of him, huge hands grasping ever more tightly on Macro's throat. Their faces were less than a foot apart and Macro saw the man's eyes brighten in triumph as he gritted his teeth and tightened his grip. The sword was still in Macro's grip and he worked it furiously inside his opponent trying for a vital organ. His head felt as if it would explode under the pressure of the man's grip until, at last, the fire in the Briton's eyes faded and after a last spasm, the man's grip loosened. Macro wrenched the hands from his throat and desperately gulped down air. He heaved the body to one side and struggled on to his feet before fixing his men with an angry glare.

'Why the fuck didn't you help me?'

'You told us not to,' Pyrax protested.

Macro rubbed his neck, wincing at its tenderness. 'Well, next time use your bloody initiative. If some sod's about to croak your centurion you get stuck in and stop him, whatever you've been told to do. Get it?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Right then, might as well put the chariot to good use. Load the wounded on, and sling him over one of the horses. Then, my lads, it's back to the safely of the Second Legion and the drinks are on me, if anyone's still awake tonight.'


Chapter Thirty-eight | Under The Eagle | Chapter Forty







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